Saturday, January 21, 2017

My Brush With the Klan

The morons are still out there, but today, they are like a lot of other vermin—you have to go looking for them to find them.  They shun the light in most places—hiding under rocks and/or secretly meeting in darkened basements.  For most of my life, we never heard of the Klan except at elections, or about large gatherings of inbred morons in some swamp-water town in Louisiana.  The Klu Klux Klan was a relic from the past that was slowly dying out like aging war veterans from a previous century.   

It was a different war, far removed from the Old South, that briefly gave renewed life to the old Klan.  When the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, we left a country devastated by war.  As the communists moved in from North Vietnam, fear of reprisals forced millions of our former allies to seek asylum in neighboring countries.  In small rickety boats of every description, Vietnamese refugees attempted to cross difficult seas to reach Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand or Indonesia.  No one will ever know exactly how many of these “boat people” died in the attempt, but it has been estimated that more than half of those who attempted the difficult crossings were lost to storms, exposure, or to the predatory pirates who plagued the South China Sea.

Starting in 1979, Western countries resettled approximately 700,000 of these refugees and a little over 400,000 came to the United States.  I can’t speak about the experiences in other states, but in Texas, the arrival of thousands of Vietnamese was startling, since the state did not have much experience with Asian communities.  Along the Gulf Coast, many of the refugees found work in the shrimping industry.  While this sounds relatively innocent, these new Asian Americans touched off a resurgence in the Klu Klux Klan.

The Texas shrimping industry had already been hit with problems for years.  Too many boats had overfished the coast resulting inevitably in declining catches.  Fuel prices throughout the seventies had climbed, while imported shrimp had brought wholesale prices down.  Then, the Vietnamese shrimpers arrived bringing new problems.

One old Cajun fisherman came to the hotel I ran on Galveston Island and spent some time telling me about long fights over tangled nets.  Supposedly, the Texas shrimpers were used to dragging their long nets parallel to the coast—which meant mostly east to west.  The newly arrived Vietnamese shrimpers were used to doing the same thing—but in Viet Nam the coasts ran north to south

There were language problems and cultural differences, too.  The Texas shrimpers claimed that the Vietnamese moved whole families onto their boats, lowering their labor costs.  Each side claimed the government gave preferential license treatment to the other group.  And the Vietnamese did this, while the Texans did that….and the KKK suddenly came roaring back to life. 

It didn’t take long before there was violence in the form of shootings and more than a few boats that were burned to the waterline.

Meanwhile, I was running the old Jack Tar Hotel on Galveston Island.  While the shrimping industry didn’t really concern me, it was a relatively small island.  It was kind of hard not to be affected by the problems down on the docks. 

The hotel employed a lot of African Americans, but when I took over the hotel, all of them were maids, housemen, and janitors.  When I hired a retired African American woman to work as a desk clerk, I got phone calls from people who were concerned that I might be trying to stir up Civil Rights trouble.  Frankly, I hadn’t hired the woman because she was black, I had hired her because she was a retired police officer and one of the meanest women I had ever met.  She was exactly the kind of person I needed on a beach front hotel on the island.  All of this was before the hotel’s owner suddenly had a wacky idea:  Why not open a Chinese Restaurant in the hotel?

The old Jack Tar Hotel was huge, and had several bars and two restaurants—one of which had been closed for years.  The owner, who had nothing to do with actually running the hotel (that was my job) suddenly decided we needed a Chinese restaurant on the property, so I opened one.

At the time, I knew nothing about Chinese food—absolutely nothing.  I learned an amazing amount in a relatively short period of time.  For example, I learned that Texas (at least the Texas of forty years ago) was not a great place to buy the restaurant equipment necessary to run a Chinese Restaurant.  One of the things I had to buy was a Wok Range—a special gas range to hold several woks at one time.  I imported most of the kitchen equipment I needed from San Francisco, I hired several cooks from Houston, I hired Chinese waitresses, I printed menus, and "suddenly" we had a Chinese Restaurant.

At first, at least, the food was horrible.  I tried my best to learn, we made frequent changes, and thankfully, most of our customers knew less about Chinese food than I did.  After a few months, the food had improved, the restaurant was profitable, and the owner was happy. 

Some of the not-so-good ol’ boys in town were less happy.  After the restaurant had been open for about two months, I got a call from the front desk that two men wanted to talk to me and were waiting in the lobby.  When I arrived, I found two men dressed in what you might call “Texas Casual”.  All three of us were wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots, and short-sleeved white shirts. 

It’s been too many years, so I can’t remember exactly what titles these two idiots claimed to have, but the two men told me they were high bugger bears with the local chapter of the Klu Klux Klan, and wanted to discuss the hiring practices of the hotel with me.  There were entirely too many Asians working in the hotel.  The only Asians working at the hotel worked in the Chinese restaurant, but evidently that was too many.

Their visit, they explained was an unofficial visit.  If I wanted, however, they could arrange for a larger, more official meeting. 

I probably stood there like an idiot for a while.  You just don’t expect dinosaurs from another era to walk up and self identify.  They weren’t wearing their mothers' bed sheets and they actually looked fairly normal (well, "Texas" normal), but there was no doubt that they were actually members of the Grand Order of Morons.  One of them even handed me his business card that proudly announced he was a Hungarian Horntail or something.  (This probably meant he carried the matches at the monthly book burnings.)

At this point, I’d like to remind you that I said I had a brush with the KKK.  It was not a long drawn out war—it only lasted for a few minutes.  I have no idea what the protocol is when you are confronted with evil.  I can only tell you what I did.

“Ya’ll wait right here,” I said.  “I’m going to my office and get my shotgun.  When I get back I’m going to kill you.”

When I got back, they were gone and I never saw them again.  Thinking back on it, I should have turned that desk clerk loose on them.

Note.  The real work of destroying the KKK along the Gulf Coast of Texas was done by Judge Gabrielle MacDonald in 1981-82.  The first African American federal judge in Texas, she ruled the Klan’s actions agains the Asian shrimpers was in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.  

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Railways Old and Older

It is a great history story, and as is true with most good stories, is more apocryphal than perhaps we want to investigate.  Since facts should never be allowed to interfere with a good story, here it is, warts and all.

There is an old truism that you should never invent something twice, and railways are a good example of this.  The vast majority of the railways in the United States, Western Europe, and South America use the same railway gauge, Standard Gauge.  (If you get there first, you get to set the standard.)  The gauge refers to the distance between the two rails, and for Standard Gauge, this is 4’ 8 1/2” wide.  This is not nearly as arbitrary as you might think.

Note.  For some reason, it is damn near impossible for me to type the word ‘gauge’.  My brain insists on typing ‘guage’.  I don’t mean once, but every damn time.  Somewhere in the far recesses of my brain, back where I keep such manly knowledge as how to tighten bolts without reciting idiotic rhymes and I store cool facts about tanks, there is a little voice saying “U Before A except after G…”  This kind of advanced brain rot is obviously the fault of the Russians.

Almost two millennia ago, the Romans used a lot of bronze.  While it was nominally the Iron Age, bronze was still tough, easy to work, and far easier to produce.  Bronze is made up of copper and tin—both of which are individually too soft to be useful for making tools.  Rome had lots of copper, but tin was relatively rare, forcing Rome to send her armies far afield to look for sources of tin.  This quest eventually led the Romans to British Cornwall in the third century AD.

Rome ran those mines for several centuries—long enough that the Roman carts wore grooves in the rock floors of the tin mines.  The methodical Romans had already established a standard wheel base for carts and wagons.  In Roman towns, the streets had a set width, with stepping stones at intersections.  The spaces between the stepping stones were carefully maintained so that carts, with a standardized wheel base, could pass between the stones.  The carts used were four wheeled, pulled by two horses walking abreast. 

By the 18th century, the Romans were long gone from Cornwall.  (See last week’s blog for an alternative ending.)  The deep grooves in the mine floor left by Roman wagons remained, and the miners had learned to build ore carts that used the grooves as tracks.  By the first decade of the 19th century, some of those carts were pulled by steam engines.  More efficient tracks were needed, so the grooves in the floors were replaced, first by wooden rails, and then by iron and steel rails.  And of course they were still using the wheel base first established by the Romans: 4’ 8 1/2”, or standard gauge.  Over half the railroad racks on the planet use this same standard.

This means that half the railroads in the world, their bridges, their tunnels, and all the rolling stock that travels on them, were designed based on the width of two Roman horses’ asses.   I could stretch this story out by telling you how the Space Shuttle was designed around the maximum size of the solid rocket boosters whose size, in turn, was dictated by a railroad tunnel outside the Morton Thiokol plant in Colorado—all of which were determined by those same two horses’ asses…but this story is already stretched a little thin.

There are, of course, other gauges in use.  The wider the gauge, the more distance it takes for a train to make tight turns, so in the mountains, narrower gauges are used.  One of these, called Three Foot Gauge, is widely used at mines located in high mountains and all amusement parks.  Disney probably owns more narrow gauge track and rolling stock than any mining operation on the planet.  There is even an obscure railway gauge halfway between Standard and Narrow Gauge that is called Bastard Gauge.  (That sounds like something you use to measure Congressmen.)

Russia uses a wider gauge, Broad Gauge, supposedly on the orders of Joseph Stalin.  The Russian leader thought that if his country used the same railroad gauge as Germany, it would make it easy for Hitler to invade.  When Germany invaded, they simply moved one of the rails a few inches as they advanced.  When the Germans retreated towards the end of the war, they were far more efficient.  They used a specially designed car equipped with a road wrecking plow, a Schwellenpflug, to destroy the railway as they made their way west.

Once he had won the war, Hitler planned on linking the major European capitals together with a new railroad gauge he called Breitspurbahn, which would have been an impressive 9’ 10 1/8” wide.  And it would have taken half of Siberia to turn this monster around.  No track was ever laid.  Nor has anyone ever explained how, once you got a giant ten foot wide train moving, how you could ever hope to stop it.

By this point, you have probably forgotten that I started this by saying some of the above was stretching the truth just a little.  None of it is completely wrong, but the connection to the Romans is a little tenuous.

Actually, however, there is an even older railway.  One that absolutely existed and was used for centuries long before the first steam engine, even before the creation of Imperial Rome.  This is the ancient Greek railway, the Diolkos of Corinth.  This is without a doubt, man’s first railway, the first profitable railway, and the longest used railway.  While the oldest railway in England is barely two hundred years old, the Diolkos was used for at least 700 years.  You’ve probably never heard of it.

For the ancient Greek mariner, there were substantial profits to be made by hauling goods from the Ionian Sea to the Adriatic.  Rich seaports were already developing ports stocked with trading goods.  One of the largest hazards was sailing completely around the Peloponnese peninsula.  Not only did this make the trip substantially longer, but the area was noted for heavy gales and contrary winds.  At one point, however, the isthmus is only four miles wide, and if this could be crossed, a trip from Athens to Corinth could be shortened by more than 70%.

Constructed in approximately 600 B.C., the Diolkos (Greek for Portage Machine) was a stone track leading across the isthmus.  A boat would pull up on one side of the isthmus, be pulled onto a wheeled cart, then pulled across the isthmus.  The cart had large wooden wheels that sat firmly into evenly spaced grooves on the roadway and could handle loads up to approximately 40 tons.  Once on the other side of the isthmus, the cart would roll back to the waters edge and the ship could be relaunched. 

It was an impressive undertaking.  The railway was a little over 4 miles long and had a grade that averaged about 3% with a maximum of about 6%, which is comparable to that of the American highway system.  Men with ropes would haul the ship up the hill, then slowly allow the ship to roll down the opposite bank while men with buckets of wet sand tried to slow the descent by throwing the sand into the tracks.  For an average-sized commercial boat, the entire trip was just a few hours.

The Diolkos was used for commerce, but figured prominently in multiple wars—including  a rather famous one in which Octavian (who later changed his name to Augustus) surprised Mark Antony in 31 B.C.  by moving a fleet ahead of the fleeing general, forcing him to set sail for Egypt and Cleopatra. 

Eventually, of course, people couldn’t leave well enough alone.  The old saying, "The Enemy of Good is Better", is applicable here.  After centuries of operation, the Roman emperor Nero decided that if a railway was good, a canal would be better.  The construction was started, the docks on both sides of the isthmus were destroyed, and then both Nero and the canal project died.  Over 1700 years later, the canal was completed in 1893 and is still in use.  Sadly, much of the old railway was destroyed in building the canal. 

By now, you must be asking…what was the gauge of the Diolkos?  About 63 inches, or roughly Standard Gauge.  

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Herman the German Saves English

While this blog has already talked about a lot of Roman victories, today’s focus is on one hideous encounter in the forests of Germany that is occasionally marked as a decisive turning point in the history of Europe.  This was the Clades Variana, the Varan Disaster, The Battle of Teutoburg Forest, or as I prefer to call it, Herman the German Saves the English Language.

A couple of millennia ago, as soon as both Mark Antony and Cleopatra had committed suicide, Caesar Augustus found himself in the position of having twice the army that he needed.  He eliminated some legions, and made the remaining ones much smaller.  The remaining streamlined legions were sent to guard the border regions.    Since he had used the army to seize control, he knew the dangers of having too large a military force too close to home. 

The Augustan reforms created a powerful professional standing army of volunteers that was perhaps 350,000 men strong.  For the most part, this force was dispersed around the empire’s periphery, guarding the frontiers. 

The Augustan army was kept busy in campaigning.  The Alps, Spain, the East, the northern Balkans, and Germany were all foci of military activity under Augustus.  Wars of conquest in these regions kept the soldiers busy and far, far away from Rome, and also earned Augustus the glory of military victories that had actually been won by his generals, who were far from Rome and couldn't contest his taking the credit for their wins.  If these same generals lost—well, it couldn’t possibly be the fault of Augustus, since he was far away in Rome, after all.

To the Roman mind, the Germans were the quintessential barbarians, who represented everything that civilization was not: they practiced virtually no agriculture, they were intensely—almost anarchically—warlike, and they were wholly lacking in any form of discipline.  In addition, they dressed in animal skins, they did not have cities or orderly government, and their villages were small and insignificant.  They were fiercely independent and they spent a lot of time drunk, arguing, and fighting each other.  They were true savages. 

Today, we know the Roman view of the Germans was wrong:  Of course they had agriculture and they had small villages based on families, with populations varying between 40 and 200 souls. While they did not have a central form of government, the leaders of different villages could cooperate to achieve common goals.  (Like, for example, killing Romans.)

The Germans, by virtue of their fierce independence and warrior ethos, represented a serious threat to the security of the Roman territory in Western Europe, and they already had a long history of carrying out raids into present day France.  Decentralized political life made a lasting diplomatic settlement with all of them almost impossible, and so, Augustus was determined to conquer them.  (If you can’t talk to them, kill them.)

History no longer records exactly what Augustus wanted to do after he had invaded Germany, but the thinking is that he either wanted a natural frontier along the Danube River, or (being a Roman) perhaps, he just wanted to keep moving his back fence until somebody stopped him.  Personally, I think the latter reason is more likely.  Romans were fierce believers in The Toddler’s Laws of Ownership:

1.   What’s mine is mine.
2.   If I see it, it’s mine.
3.   If it’s yours and I like it, it’s mine.
4.   If you want it, it’s mine.

So, the Roman Army invaded the dense forests of Germany and successfully subdued the Germanic people—for a while.  In A.D. 6, Augustus appointed Publius Quinctilius Varus, as his representative in Germany.  Varus was perfectly qualified, since he had married the grandniece of Augustus.  (Marrying the right person has always been an excellent method of proving one’s military genius.)

Actually, Varus wasn’t all bad: he had lots of experience, and on examination, his record shows that he was probably competent, but not very imaginative.  He was also absolutely heartless in his treatment of the Germans, who, according to one source, he treated as “people only in limbs and voice.”

It was not long before Custer—I mean Varus—began to waste time holding hearings and establishing laws, and, to quote a contemporary, “came to see himself as a city praetor administering justice in the forum and not a general in command of an army in the heart of Germany.”  Varus did make one serious mistake: he placed too much trust in a German tribal leader named Arminius.

Arminius was a prince of a powerful German tribe, who had served in the Roman army as an auxiliary commander.  The Romans had long brought local leaders to their side like this in the expectation that by securing their loyalties they could indirectly control their dependent populations.  This was the Roman equivalent of the US Cavalry's hiring Indian Scouts after the American Civil War.

Arminius, in his mid-20s, was convinced that Rome had to be stopped and began planning an ambush.  At the same time he wormed himself into Varus’ good graces.  He knew the language and how to relate to men of status, like Varus.  We are told that the two men dined together frequently.  Arminius apparently added personal charm to his native intelligence.  He used that intelligence to orchestrate the single worst defeat inflicted by native troops on a professional and disciplined army in the annals of warfare. 

Iron Age German warfare was normally small-scale and low-intensity, and was conducted by small bands of a few dozen warriors under strong leaders.  Roman commanders in Germany had found it very difficult to bring the tribesmen to a pitched battle (the preferred Roman technique of settling matters decisively).  Instead, they found that the small and simple Germanic communities dissolved before their advance, while the Germans launched ambushes and surprise attacks against their armies who were  on the march.  (Damn, do you think the Apache are actually the lost tribe of Germany?) 

If they had to, the Germans could indeed gather a large force together for a short time.  Armed with longswords, heavy wooden shields, javelins, axes, and short stabbing spears, their attacks were terrifying.  But the highly disciplined Roman Army knew how to fight, and if allowed to fight their preferred method, could handle the German forces.

Now that is the key, right there.  The Romans expected to be able to fight the same old tried and true method they had used to conquer the world, and Arminius was going to change the rules.  (For a second there, I stopped thinking about Custer and started thinking about General Giap and Viet Nam...But, only for a second.)

In September, A.D. 9, Varus, at the head of three legions, six cohorts of auxiliaries, and six squadrons of cavalry—about 20.000 men in all—was heading back to his winter quarters along the Rhine and the Lippe Rivers.  Arminius, meanwhile, had raised a native army of substantial size.  (Historians say things like that when we don’t have a clue.  The army was big.  Huge.  Maybe as big as Varus’ army.  Maybe not.  But, HUGE.)

News was brought to Varus that a German tribe was in rebellion.  Believing the natives were scattered, Varus took his army on a several days' march (but without taking the necessary precautions, such as scouting out the locals).  Arminius and most of the other Germans suddenly decided they had pressing engagements back home and quietly left the Roman army, as it began marching through the dark forest.  Then, suddenly, flying monkeys swooped—no, wrong story!  (But, at this point you do have to wonder if Varus had ever watched television.)

The forest was so dense that the Romans had to cut down trees to make a path wide enough for their wagons, which were already struggling because of a fierce rain storm.  Suddenly, thousands of warriors begin attacking on all sides from the cover of trees.  The Romans, who were tied down with women, children, carts and horses, couldn’t spread out in their usual battle formations.  And the Roman infantry, fighting with swords, found no one close enough to fight as the Germans hurled spears from behind trees.  Advancing across muddy ground was almost impossible, and the rain made the wet strings on the Roman bows useless.

The forest was too dense for the Romans to fight back, so they tried to form a defensive camp even though there was a pouring rain and the spears were still falling.  The soldiers burned their wagons, lightening their loads as much as possible in order to travel faster, but there was no escape and the Germans continued the attack the following day.

The second day was a replay of the first.  It was impossible for the Romans to counterattack an enemy they could not see, an enemy that continued to rain missiles down on the ambushed Romans.

By the third day of these terrifying assaults, Roman discipline broke as frightened units descended into chaos, bumping into each other in the darkened woods.  As news of the running battle spread among the Germanic tribes, more and more warriors showed up to do battle.

Some Roman officers died in battle, some died as they attempted to flee the battle, and a few committed suicide as the remaining troops were mercilessly slaughtered.  Three whole legions,  XVII, XVIII and XIX, the heart of the Roman force in Germany, were annihilated, and two of their eagles captured.  The third eagle, by the way, was hidden in a bog by its faithful standard-bearer.  The Roman captives were brutally tortured to death, sacrificed to woodland gods, or kept as slaves.  Varus’ body was found, mutilated, and with his head cut off; it was sent to a rebel king in Bohemia, who then thoughtfully forwarded it to Augustus, who had it buried in the Varan family tomb. 

Rome promptly left Germany, and pulled its forces back across the Rhine.  At Rome itself, there was panic, as ghosts of barbarian incursions past haunted the Roman imagination.  The numbers and the names of the three legions lost by Varus were permanently retired. 

An unkempt Augustus is reported to have walked the palace corridors at night, tearing his clothes and crying out in anguish: “Quinctilius Varus—give me back my legions!”

The Rhine River became the northern border of the Roman Empire and stayed that way for the next four centuries.  The Romans never again attempted to subdue the Germans permanently.  That ambition perished in the rain, mud, and blood of the Teutoburg Forest in September of A.D. 9, along with the 20,000 soldiers.

Archaeologists have pinpointed one of the sites of this running battle near present day Kalkriese.  Thousands of artifacts have been found, ranging from weapons, to pieces of armor, and ceremonial face masks.  My own favorite find at Kalkriese however, is an intact skeleton of a mule with a cowbell that had been stuffed with grass to silence it.  Apparently, the Romans at some point in that three day battle that stretched for miles were trying to quietly move through the forest.   They obviously didn’t make it.  Whoever was leading that mule was just one of the 20,000 casualties the Romans lost in the battle.

The German resistance was successful, though not personally for Arminius.  Six years later, the Romans captured his pregnant wife and took her back to Italy.  Both she and her son spent the rest of their lives as Roman slaves.  Arminius was recognized as a hero by the Germanic tribes for a while, then they began to fear he was trying to become a king, so they killed him just a dozen years after his great victory.

If Arminius’ life was short and not particularly happy, his afterlife has been glorious.  Renamed “Herman” by Martin Luther—a bogus Germanicizing of the word Arminius—he has been a hero of the German people from the time of the Renaissance.  On a hilltop near the present-day town of Detmold stands a colossal copper statue of him, replete with winged helmet and raised sword, surveying the native forests he so ably defended.  Completed in 1875 this, the Hermandenkmal, Herman monument, remains today the single most popular domestic tourist attraction in Germany. 

Great historical weight has been placed on the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.  In the view of some, it was one of the most important battles in European history.  Had the Romans conquered the Germans, goes this line of thinking, the free spirit of the tribes would have been broken, the Germans incorporated into the sphere of the Romance world, Christianized, and given Roman law and government.  The unconquered German tribes would not have destroyed the Roman Empire in the West in the 5th century, and that Empire might have continued longer; who knows, perhaps even down to the present.  If so, there would have been no Anglo-Saxon England, no English language, no Frankish France, and no medieval world.  All of history would be altered.  

Perhaps the worst possible outcome, this blog would have been written in French.  With a Texas accent.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Battle of Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt was one of the three big battles of the Hundred Years’ War.  Of course, this conflict lasted a hundred and sixteen years—which isn’t surprising if you remember that the Seven Years’ War lasted nine years.  (Things are frequently labeled incorrectly—camel’s hair brushes are made from squirrel fur, Panama hats are made in Ecuador, catgut comes from horses, and The Canary Islands are named after dogs.  I once asked why a type of small boat was called a Boston Whaler.  The answer, of course, was because they weren’t made in Boston and had never been used for whaling.)

In all three major battles of the war—however long it lasted—the English defeated the French.  (The French seldom win battles.)  England still managed, however, to lose the war.  (The French seldom lose at negotiation!—Personally, I think the United States should shut down the State Department and turn it over to the French.  We could offer them cost plus ten percent.)

As in the battles of Crécy and Poitiers, the tactics and weapons of the English demonstrated that they were more than a match for numbers and stupidity.  (That would be large numbers of stupid French.)

The Leaders

Henry V entered into the family business early, being knighted at the age of 12.  During a time when war usually consisted of lengthy sieges and rare battles, Henry V was an experienced warrior. 

So when his father died in 1413, Henry was already an combat veteran and he was the consummate warrior king.  Henry knew firsthand the rigors of war—the marches, the food, the hardships.  Indeed, 'this' is what eventually killed him a few years after Agincourt:  After laying a siege for seven months (that included the winter), he died of dysentery—a very common disease and a common cause of death among soldiers.

There is little doubt that Henry was ruthless:  He killed his prisoners at Caen, and during the siege of Rouen, he refused food to the women and children expelled from the city and caught between the two lines.  Technically, this was within his rights under the laws of war, but even at the time, it was considered ruthless.

By comparison, the French leadership was a joke.  The King, Charles VI, was insane, even for an inbred monarch.  Periodically, he became convinced that he was made of glass.  The French laissez-faire attitude notwithstanding, they considered this to be something of a negative in a battlefield commander.   And there was the king’s son, the Dauphin, who was next in line….well he was 19, frail, let us just say he was "unmilitary".  As a leader, he couldn't have gotten horny sailors to follow him into a whorehouse.  Going down the chain of command, the next link in the chain would be the Duke of Burgundy or the Duke of Orleans.  Surely, one of these two could have led the Frog army to victory, "Non?"

Well, no.  The Duke of Burgundy had murdered the father of the Duke of Orleans.  Burgundy would be, himself, murdered in revenge just four years, later.  Cooperation between the two men was unlikely and neither could lead by himself without the other's pulling out his troops in protest. (Besides, the Duke of Burgundy was seriously thinking about joining the English.)

It was up to military officers from the royal household to lead the French:  the constable, the marshal, and the Master of the Crossbows.  However, these were not very imposing leaders and they had a hard time maintaining discipline.

The armies

Armies of the 15th century were still based on the man-at-arms.  In other words, a man in a full suit of armor, trained to fight on foot or on horseback.  If he was of high enough social standing and had gone through the appropriate formal ceremony, he might be a knight.  More numerous than knights were the esquires—men of high enough station, but who had not yet been knighted.  Or the man-at-arms might have been simply a soldier.

Knights and esquires were cavalrymen and keeping a man on a horse equipped and ready for battle was expensive.  Far more numerous in the armies were the simple soldiers who were usually armed only with spears.

There were also archers, crossbowmen, and gunners.  By then, the English had come to rely heavily on its archers:  more than 80% of the army was armed with a longbow.  The French had archers, too, but they were still using crossbows.  The crossbow was a great weapon when used in a siege, but the rate of fire was horribly slow, making it far less effective in open battles.

An English archer with a longbow fired eight to fourteen arrows a minute, with a maximum effective range of about 400 yards (although at 400 yards, the arrow wouldn't have killed anyone).  An arrow could kill an armored knight at up to 50 yards and an ordinary soldier at up to 200 yards.  A competent English archer could knock and loose arrows so rapidly, that he might have several arrows in the air at the same time.

By 1415, the date of our battle, there was a bewildering array of gunpowder weapons available, too.  There were handheld weapons and massive bombards, and the French had the advantage over the English in both the quality and the quantity of such guns.  No one has yet figured out why, despite being in possession of such weapons, France did not bring any of them to the battle!  This is technically worse than bringing a knife to a gunfight.


The Hundred Years War was the high point for European Armor.  No longer just chain mail, now the well-dressed knight was covered from head to toe in polished steel.  The metal was tough enough to protect the soldier from arrows unless they were fired at point blank range, or the arrow managed to hit one of the few places where the armor left the knight exposed, like the eye slits of his helm.

Under the plate steel was a padded jerkin, worn both to protect the knight from a severe case of industrial strength metal diaper rash and to absorb impact.  Wearing armor could easily tire a knight, but far more worrisome was the danger of dying of heat exhaustion.  The “white armor” or polished armor was developed more to reflect off a little of the sun’s heat than for aesthetic reasons.

Contrary to what we see in the movies, a knight didn’t need a crane to get into the saddle.  The suit weighed 60-80 pounds, was articulated, and was distributed around the body.  The infantryman in our modern army frequently has to lug a heavier load.  And while a man wearing armor could get onto a horse by himself, he needed help donning that armor.

Actually, the heaviest piece of the armor was the helmet, so it was frequently not worn into battle.  Especially the dog-faced bascinet pictured at right.  (Someone said that the definition of a cultured person was one who could listen to the William Tell Overture without even briefly thinking of the Lone Ranger.  Can you look at this picture without thinking of Darth Vader?)

Normally, the queen of the battlefield was the great sword, a massive three foot sword.  This battle was different:  The key weapon was the English longbow.  Starting in the 13th century, the monarchs of England encouraged the people to practice and develop their skills at archery.  By the time of Agincourt, an English longbow archer had practiced his entire life on a bow with a 150 to 200 pound pull weight.  Archaeologists can identify the skeletons of such archers by the pronounced bone spurs on the left wrists, shoulders, and fingers.  French kings never encouraged their subjects to adopt the longbow, for fear of common rabble using the weapon against the crown.  There is a reason the Magna Carta originated in England, not France.

Henry invaded France in August, 1415.  Needing a port to resupply his men, he laid siege to Harfleur with an army of about 12,000.  With his gunpowder weapons, he was able to destroy the city’s walls, but it took five weeks before he was able to enter the city.  Dysentery had killed 2000 of his men, and another 2000 were so sick they had to be sent home. 

This invasion had already failed, but Henry needed to save a little face, so he decided to leave a garrison force in Harfleur and march the remainder of his surviving army (about 900 men and 5000 archers), north a hundred miles to Calais.  Effectively, he was saying, “All right, I’ll leave, but not until I am good and ready.”

Henry sent a letter to the Dauphin offering to settle the affair by personal combat.  Since this was the equivalent of Chuck Norris challenging Pee-wee Herman to a fistfight, the French refused.

Henry ran into trouble almost immediately, as the French burned bridges, defended crossings, and destroyed all the food stocks that the English might be able to use along their route.  Each burned bridge forced the English to divert further from the shore, exhausting the meager food supply they had brought with them.  Meanwhile, even the slow French were beginning to put together an army and move towards the English. 

Finally, on October 23, the French had blocked the road to Calais and the much larger French army set up camp, posted guards and made merry.  A few miles away, the English were huddled around the few houses of a hamlet, trying to find protection from the rain, and many sought out priests to make confession and receive the last sacrament.

The battle should have occurred the next day, but the French stalled, knowing that time was on their side.  Every day, more French forces arrived while the English, sick and starving, grew weaker.  Finally, on October 25, Henry rallied his men and forced battle by moving his “band of brothers” towards the French.

The Battle

Despite the accounts of no fewer than four eyewitnesses, historians will argue forever about the relative sizes of the two armies.  It is my blog, so I’m going to be a traditionalist.  The English had 812 men-at-arms and 3073 archers.  The French outnumbered the British six-to-one, so it was a fair fight.  The French had 22,400 men-at-arms and 2000 archers with crossbows.

Henry V, leading a really small force of sick and hungry men, announced he would peaceably return to England without killing any more French knights if the French king would give him his daughter in marriage.  Henry was ruthless, but he had big balls.

The French lay down, laughed, drank more wine and ate cheese.  They knew that Henry must drive them off the field and take his men to Calais, and if he failed to do so, the English army would starve. 

Henry had to make the first move.  Riding a small gray horse without spurs—a sure sign that he intended to fight on foot—he reminded his men that the French boasted they would cut three fingers from the right hand of every archer they captured.  (Did Henry’s speech sound anything like the one Shakespeare wrote?  Of course it did.  William would never exaggerate!)

The battlefield was fairly narrow, with the muddy ground flanked on both sides by trees.  The French aligned their cavalry in multiple ranks behind their archers and waited.

Now to win, Henry needed to find a way to goad the French into attacking.  The English army advanced until it was 200 yards from the French, then stopped and the archers pounded their protective wooden stakes into the muddy ground.  The French were enraged when the English archers fired their first volleys.

The French cavalry drove forward, forcing the French crossbowmen into the woods!  And the French cavalry could not flank the English archers because of the woods, so they were forced to attack directly towards the English line.  As they advanced, the arrows fell, and the muddy ground tired horses.  Even if they managed to cross the field, they were stopped by the sharpened stakes the archers had hammered into the ground in front of them for protection.

The French cavalry, blocked, recoiled and streamed backward….into the next rank of advancing French knights.  Forced forward again, they hit the English line, push those back a little….but by now the French forces were too close together—they could not use their weapons effectively, and the arrows were still falling…

The French were exhausted from charging through the mud and climbing over the bodies of dead French.  And as they advanced, they had to keep their heads down to prevent arrows from coming in their visors.  This meant they were advancing blind in the attack.

Meanwhile, behind them, the main force of 14,000 men had begun to move forward, but they, too, were compressed by the narrow space, even while the arrows continued to hiss through the air.  Some terrified knights dispersed and fled.  Some French knights rode forward to their deaths because of honor, or simply not to abandon the many who already lay dead in the field.

By now the French dead lay piled several feet high and the nimble English archers move into the field using whatever weapons at hand to finish off the French men-at-arms.  For many, this meant they used the hammers they normally used to drive in the stakes.

The English troops became ecstatic, not only because they were surviving and winning, but they had a fortune in wounded French knights who could be ransomed for a fortune.

It had only been thirty minutes, and it seemed the English had won, but the battle was not over.  Frankly the English were now tired by the job of slaughter, and they were still outnumbered.  Henry suddenly received news that his supply train in the rear was being attacked by a French force that had arrived too late to take part in the battle.  There were also a number of captured French knights behind his lines who could begin fighting again if rescued.  Henry ordered all but the most valuable prisoners to be executed—which was against the "code".

At first the English soldiers hesitated, not because of mercy, but for fear of losing a fortune, but then they began executing the French.  Since the slaughter of prisoners was a job beneath the dignity of an English knight, the executions were done by the archers.  It was very hard to kill a fully armored man, so many of the prisoners had their throats cut or were stabbed through the eye slit of their helmets.

The supply train really was attacked, but not by French troops.  More likely this was done by nearby townsmen.  Besides the loss of some valuables, the English lost all of their pages, who were young children.  This, like so much else that happened in this battle, was against the laws of war.

Casualty numbers vary greatly, but this shouldn’t surprise anyone.  I don’t know of a battle where they don’t vary, even today.  The English had 450 casualties, with   around 112 dead.  The French losses were staggeringly high:  10,000 or more dead with another 1500 men taken prisoner. 

Though the French eventually won the war, the battle was a high point for several reasons.  It was the high point for the English longbow archers.  Though it would take another two hundred years, gunpowder weapons would eventually rule the battlefield.  French honor and knighthood died that day, as exhausted French knights lay on their backs in a muddy field, while English peasants cracked their shells with hammers. 

Note.  If you would like to know more about this remarkable battle, there are two excellent sources.  John Keegan's The Face of Battle: A Study of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme is everything a scholarly work could hope to be.  More entertaining, however, is Bernard Cornwell's Agincourt.  A historical novel, it is nevertheless extensively footnoted and accurate in detail.  If you have not yet read a book by Cornwell, postpone all other forms of entertainment until you have.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Writing This Blog is Still Weird

Seven years ago, shortly after I started writing this blog, I penned a short piece entitled, “Writing A Blog is Weird.”  At the time, this blog was four months old and I was astounded at the amount of hate mail I was receiving. 

This week, the blog passed a milestone:  it has had over a million views—a number that grows at about 100K a month.  The volume of hate mail has kept pace, and while about half the hate mail arrives in a language I can neither read nor identify, the rest I carefully read, grade, and return. 

Over time, a few of the blogs have been reprinted—most of them with my permission—while a whole raft of them have been reprinted without my permission on webpages scattered all over the world.  One has even been included in a textbook.  When I started, I never thought about the longevity of a blog post—a blog is immortal!  By this, I mean that no matter how nonsensical the post was, it is still in circulation out there.  I regularly get mail about something I wrote years ago. 

I have discovered that the absolutely essential piece of hardware for bloggers is a notebook.  Personally, I’m obsessed with Moleskin notebooks.  I am constantly writing in them for fear of losing an idea, having learned all too painfully that my memory is only good enough to remember that I forgot something… Perversely, if I actually write something down, I’ll remember it forever.

So, I have a whole pile of little black notebooks filled with cramped, horrible handwriting recording total garbage—notebooks that I have almost never gone back and looked at...Until today.  I actually sat for a couple of hours reading through years of long-forgotten notes.  I thought that I would share a few of these truly Random Thoughts.  (Actually, I wanted to write about the Battle of Agincourt, but The Doc said that no one wants to read about war at Christmas.  Okay, but next week, New Years or not, this blog’s gonna kill some Frogs.)

About half the entries in my notebook were about ideas for future blogs, most of which were eventually written.  The other half are weird little nuggets of brain barf, which are all too frequently about the idiocy of working in higher education.  There were some really bad jokes.  I have no idea where this stuff comes from.  Some of it I probably read, some came from drinking scotch with my friend Jack Wright, and some came from my own fevered brain as I sat in interminable meetings.  Look for yourself:

    In 1884, Thomas Stevens rode a Penny Farthing bicycle (the ones with a big wheel in front and a tiny wheel in back) around the world, and wrote a book about his trip.  In 2008, someone did it again on the same type of bike, 124 years later.    Proof Englishmen Mad?

    Most of New Mexico is just an ordinary small town along a very, very long street.

    It is simply amazing to think that by the time William Shakespeare was my age, he had managed to be dead for eleven years.

    NEW RULE!  Never again buy a cornbread mix that says it can be prepared in a microwave.

    The State Department should only employ people who live with cats.  You cannot possibly understand protocol until you have been owned by a cat.

    Watching this year’s election is like watching a rat give birth.  In your kitchen.

    Almost hourly, this university reminds me why aliens fly right by us on their way to Roswell.

    Why does the new Performing Arts Building look like a Post-Modern gay prison?  It is impossible to drive by this monstrosity without finding a new feature to hate.  The people responsible for this monstrosity aren’t smart enough to be the towel boy in a Turkish Bathhouse.

    In 1326, Richard the Raker of London drowned in a pool of human shit.  The records do not record which university he worked for.

    You have no choice but to believe in free will.

    Two cannibals are eating a clown.  One turns to the other and says, “Does this taste funny?”

    Compromise is the art of drinking slightly less poison that the person on the other side of the table.

    Worried about bad government, the framers of the New Mexico constitution included a clause that specifically denied the right to vote to “idiots.”  Unfortunately, they did not exclude them from running for office.

    Writing in a notebook is not an old man mumbling to himself.  It is a mature professor in search of an expert opinions.

    Why does the university hold anger management classes?  Wouldn’t it be cheaper to simply employ fewer stupid people?  True, we would have to shut down at least one of the Sociology Departments.  But, there would still be several left. 

    “It is always the best policy to speak the truth—unless, of course, you are an exceptionally good liar.”  -Jerome K. Jerome.  Though his autobiography doesn’t mention it, Jerome must have worked at a university at one point in his life.

    Definition:  Vade Mecum.  A book or guide that you take with you.  Does this notebook qualify?

    In 2017, if Obama moved to Nigeria, he could run for President.  If elected, he would be their first white president.

    The Doc and I are eating breakfast at The Shed.  We are both having Eggs Benedict.  Hers are ham and Hollandaise sauce.  Mine are baked oysters and a green chile sauce.  Obviously, she loses.

    Once again, it is time for the annual History Department Choir Retreat.  This is when all the nutcases gather and allow the voices in their heads to sing in harmony.  Off key.

    What does it mean when I sat at my office desk for five minutes trying to remember the History Department Head’s name?  It didn’t really worry me, as I could have looked it up, but it just didn’t seem terribly important.  Does this say something about him or me? 

    Why do so many politicians claim to love America when they obviously hate Americans?

    First rule of university survival:  Beware the jack-booted pacifist with a cause. 

    Met the dean’s boyfriend at a gas station.  He was driving her car.  He asked me what I did for a living.  I told him I plucked chickens for Colonel Sanders.

    Emergency Room doctors, confronted with alcoholics exhibiting diminished mental acuity, have a simple test for Wernicke-Korsakoff Encephalopathy:  Holding their hands about six inches apart, they ask, “Do you see the red string?”  Since there is no actual red string present, the healthy patient will answer negatively.  Those who answer affirmatively are said to be doing what doctors call Karsakoff Syndrome Confabulation.  Everyone else would call this “making shit up.”    There is, of course, an educational equivalent.  All it takes is for one academic to say, “Can you see the strategic benefits of the Boyer Model?”  All the diseased minds in the room will nod their heads in agreement.

    At a banquet, The Doc asked why the members were called Elks.  I told her that Cecil B. DeMille once said actresses were called ‘starlets’ because ‘piglets’ was already taken.  She’s giving me that look again.

    Tucson is a town only suited to raising insects.  Nasty insects that need stomping.  Somewhere nearby, on the slope of a higher mountain is a community called ‘Hell.’

    It is a strange commentary on mankind when we store oil in salt domes to keep it safe while we print books on paper and store them in wooden libraries.

    Oh shit.  The dean wants the department to set new goals.  Since no one could remember last year's, we looked them up.  “Visibility, Service Learning, and Grant Writing.”  If any of that happened last year, I missed it.  Hoping we would set more realistic goals, I suggested: “Lie, Cheat, and Steal.”  We would have no problem making those goals.

    One of the problems with academia is that it is entirely too easy for idiots to hide among the eccentric.  

    There is a band called 1023 Megabytes.  So far, it hasn’t gotten any gigs.

    The bar is crowded with the afterwork crowd when the phone rings.  Five different guys yell, “If that’s my wife…”  No one notices Dr. Pavlov running out the door, muttering, “I forgot to feed the dog!”

    It was the existence of cats that prompted the creation of purgatory.

    Germanic anesthetic:  A rubber hammer.

    The old rancher took his wife to see old Doc Clarke.  Now the whole community knew that the Doc was an ornery cuss, not exactly known for his bedside manner.  No one doubted he was a good sawbones, but it was generally agreed that he was the kind of man who eats off the same plate as a sidewinder.

Well, the old rancher helped his wife down from the buckboard and opened the gate for her as she made her way into the doctor’s front parlor that doubled as the physician’s clinic.  Meanwhile, the old rancher hung around the hitching post out front and gossiped with a few old friends he only got a chance to see when he made one of his infrequent trips into town.

Suddenly, he heard his wife scream—and two seconds later, the screen door slammed open as his wife came running out.  She leaped down the steps and was the better part of a country mile down the road before the old rancher caught up with her and coaxed her back into the buckboard.  It took a solid hour to calm the woman down enough for the old rancher to return to the clinic and confront the doctor.

“What in tarnation did you do that for?” the old rancher thundered.  “My wife is 68 years old and has 8 grandchildren and 1 great-grandchild!”

“So?” asked the doctor.

“Damn it,” exclaimed the rancher.  “You told her she was pregnant!”

The doctor pulled his cigar out of this mouth and looked the old rancher square in the eyes.

“Does she still have the hiccups?”