Saturday, July 12, 2014

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Fight

There is a new movie out that posits the question: "What would the world be like if the United States of America had never existed?"

As you can imagine, that generated a little discussion among some people here at Enema U.  A few people are of the earnest opinion that America would have been a much nicer, more civilized, and all-around cultured society had we remained under the enlightened rule of the English.  Other people were sober.

Engaging in this kind of speculative history is a mental curse that, if not stamped out immediately, will lead to madness.  If we had not fought the British, would the colonies have stopped growing at the Appalachian Mountains?  If Napoleon had not sold Louisiana, would today’s Texans speak French?  If my Aunt Sally had been born with wheels, would she have been a tea cart?

I have tried to ignore this “counterfactual speculation.”  (This is what academics call it when they sit around bullshitting each other.  Other than the name, the only real difference is that when you do it, you’re probably thinking:  “I wonder if I can get Chuck to give me another beer.”  When an academic is doing it, he’s thinking:  “I wonder if I can get the NEA to give me a grant on this?”  This is why you can NOT leave serious history to amateurs—they just don’t think big enough.)

What I can NOT stop thinking about, is the nonsense about the "enlightened" and "beneficial" society that would have come about if the colonies had just  remained under the leadership of gentle, non-violent, and all around peaceful England.  England???

Peaceful Ol’ England is mean enough to hunt bears with a hickory switch.  Now, don’t get me wrong--I really like England.  (Except for the food!  I think the national dish is pork tartare.) I probably like England because she is NOT peaceful. 

Hell, compared to England, the United States is Mother Teresa.  England has invaded--at one time or another--over 90% of the Earth.  At last count, of the 200 odd countries that make up our planet, England has invaded all but 22 of them....So far.  And most of those 22 were spared because they were landlocked (and it was considered too difficult to put wheels on the British Navy!).

As an example, I give you the British invasion of Argentina.  (No, I am not talking about the Falklands War.  It is not an invasion when you take back your own island.  And even if it were, that would have been the third British military invasion.)

In 1806, Commodore Sir Home Popham was given command of a fleet and sent to attack Cape Town and drive the Dutch out of South Africa.  Taking 1600 soldiers 6,000 miles from home is a difficult task, but Sir Popham was eager to distinguish himself.  Unfortunately, by the time his British force arrived in South Africa, the Dutch had already been driven out, and the area was firmly under British control. 

Poor Sir Popham!  He had an army that was all dressed up and had nowhere to fight.  So...he invaded Buenos Aires.  Wrong country.  Hell, wrong continent! The invasion was not authorized, and was a gross over-stepping of his orders (a hanging offense in those days).  Fortunately, for Popham, he was successful.  The Spanish army ran away as the British troops came ashore. 

When word of this unexpected victory reached London, the people rejoiced.  With Britain simultaneously at war with France, Spain, and the Netherlands, the war news lately had been rather grim.  Napoleon was in control of most of Europe and a lot of people weren’t really sure where Argentina was (or just why England needed it), but they had won something!

Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived.  While the Spanish had run, the people of Buenos Aires had not.  Under their own leader, they organized an impromptu militia, counter-attacked, and captured a large portion of the British forces.  Sir Home Popham was forced to retreat to Montevideo, in present-day Uruguay.  He was recalled, and while a court martial condemned him, the merchants of London presented him with a sword for opening up a new market.  

While England had not planned on a war in Argentina, now that its military honor (I guess since it's the English, it should be ‘honour’) had been insulted….Well, a second invasion had to take place.  This time, the English would do it right.  In 1807, they sent 10,000 troops.  Unfortunately, they also sent Lieutenant General John Whitelocke. (That's pronounced, "Leftenant General", since he was English, of course.)

When Whitelocke arrived, he seemed to believe that he was fighting just a few pro-Spanish fanatics.  However, what he was actually fighting was a city full of fiercely independent Argentines who, after they were successful with this second invasion, went on to establish the first independent nation in Latin America.  (The consensus in Argentina was: The Spanish ran from the British, and we beat the Brits…Why exactly do we need Spain?)

Whitelocke could have won.  Unfortunately, in the face of a superior enemy, he decided to split his forces.  There is an iron-clad military rule about this: "If you are a general and feel the need to split your forces, you are supposed to pull out your wallet and check your driver’s license.  Unless it says your name is Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Robert E. Lee, don’t do it."  (In England, this is known as the Montgomery Rule.  There is a Montgomery Martini that is fifteen parts gin to one part vermouth.  Supposedly, Monty would never attack without those odds.)

Whitelocke attacked in two wide columns separated so far apart that neither column could support the other.  The people of Buenos Aires, armed with the guns from the first British invasion, fought from behind barricades made from large leather bags filled with sand.  After a day of fighting, Whitelocke had lost a third of his men--killed, wounded, or captured.  Forced to seek terms, the general agreed to withdraw.  At his subsequent court-martial, he was declared, “totally unfit and unworthy to serve His Majesty in any military role whatever.” 

Today, in Buenos Aires, the British embassy is located on the Calle Reconquista.  Just around the corner at the Santo Domingo church, you can see the captured British Battle Flags.  England will get them back about the same time Argentina gets the Falklands.

And what of Sir Home Popham who started all this?  He continued to serve in the military and had a distinguished career in the Napoleonic Wars.  His failure in Argentina was the sole blemish on his record, and that was primarily due to poor communications with England. Ironically, his greatest triumph was also in communications: He developed the semaphore system that is still the basis of the flag system used by navies around the world.

Shortly after he created the flag system, it was most famously used for the signal, "England expects that every man will do his duty" that was sent just before the Battle of Trafalgar, the battle that ruined the navies of both France and Spain.

No--I don’t think the United States has anything to teach England about aggression.


  1. Are you sure you are a university professor, Mark? Such heresy is just shocking, that's all I can say. Everyone knows Europe is the epitome of everything civilized in the world (if by "civilized" you mean eager to start a war of conquest, exploit somebody or generally disturb the peace). In the past 2.24 centuries, the only organized nations we've conquered, we've given back to their rightful owners (the people) and the ones we didn't don't want to go back. Hawaii isn't interested in seceding from the Union and Puerto Rico can't decide whether it wants to be a state or a dependent with all the perks and none of the responsibility. If Obama was smart he'd pick 7 islands we take care of and make them states so that the Republicans would have to stop twitting him about claiming to have "visited all 57 states". Of course, the Virgin Islands would have to be the only state with "The" in front of its name. We already have a Virginia and West Virginia and three virgins on the role call might be problematic for the feminists.. There would also be the problem of all those extra borders to defend. If the Prez offered all those entitlements he's giving to the guys coming over the southern border, some of those island states might actually tip over like Democrat Hank Johnson fears.

    You know how long it took me to find out Johnson was a Democrat. There was plenty of mainstream media reporting that he feared that putting 8000 Marines on Guam would make the island "tip over", but the big guys were strangely silent as to his party affiliation. Can't imagine why. Bet that one didn't get a lot of guffaws at University Faculty parties either. Enjoyed the post. I kind of figured the Brits hold the most countries invaded title, but I'd never heard of anybody counting all them invasions up.

    1. I do know about my Native American Ancestors, but I did qualify my remarks by saying "organized". Most of the tribes were pretty much wandering prairie gangs and they treated each other about as badly as the colonials treated them. In fact, the Native Americans actually lost the most ground when they teamed up with the Europeans against us which sort of proves your point about the Brits and French.