Reigning Arrows: The Welsh Longbow

It is raining as the French and English turn to face each other on the field of Agincourt, Poitier, Patay and Crecy, yet as each droplet hits its mark, the victim drops, fatally wounded to the ground. This is the carnage caused by beautifully carved welsh creation, the longbow.

Believed to have originated from the depths of the mountainsides within the area of Gwynedd in 663 AD due to here being the first ever record of it being used against the King of Northumbria’s son Offrid. A battle between the Welsh and the Mercians in the 7th century began the importance and relevancy of the longbow to various countries military history and certainly won battles what historians could call landmarks in English history now. This date marks the appearance of the bow around five centuries before the wooden wonder’s grand entrance into English history as being the saviour of several battles during civil wars, and the more commonly known Hundred Years War. Archery skills being used in battle is nothing new with records pre-dating the Welsh longbow by a good thousand years. It is thought to be a branch off from the use of spears dating from before the Neolithic era as a bow is capable of launching its weapon a much greater distance. The bow and arrow’s history is long and bloody as being the culprit of several thousand deaths since its creation and provokes fear from its deadly accuracy if placed within the right archer’s hands.

The strength of the longbow comes from its height as the average length is around 6ft tall (this being taller than the average man for the Medieval era), achieving a wider draw of the arrow after notching before the release at a possible speed of 70mph. Made from elm/yew/oak or birch wood because of the durability there is a slight curve to accommodate the hardy but flexible bend when preparing the arrow for release. The string was typically made from either silk or hemp. The trade of yew wood during the height of the longbows popularity during the Middle Ages meant a dwindling of this particular tree resorting to lesser trees to enable production. The average time for a bow of this calibre to be created can be put to around 20 hours from amateur historians attempting to make replicas, yet a skilled Medieval craftsman would carve this in a matter of hours possibly out of necessity due to demand. It is necessary for a long life-span that the bow is created from a single piece of wood. Glue was available long before the time of the longbows but this would have prevented the bows use in humid or particularly damp environments such as England and Wales.

The most well-known use of the longbow as stated was during the ill-named Hundred Years War during which the English massacred the French army and a vast amount of the nobility. During the battles of Crecy, Poitier and Agincourt the longbow became notorious and famed by the English army headed by the Angevin kings before being used against them in Patay in 1429. Before this war the only other date recorded on the longbow is the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 between English and Scotland. As it had been invented by the Welsh they were being conscripted into the English army in their hundreds to fill the archery ranks who were usually stationed near the front of the battle formation. English archers are not as well identified even though English men were then on trained in archery tactics using the longbow. Unlike some levels within the military except the mercenary class archery was never discriminative. Because of the long standing victories caused by the longbow it was necessary to have a wide range of people capable of handling the weapon with ease therefore all society levels from peasantry to Imperial were encouraged to be proficient in this activity.

From beyond the 16th century the longbow only lasted through midway of the 17th century, while they were being phased out by the increasing number of firearms replacing medieval military weaponry. The last recorded use of the longbow itself was at the Battle of Bridgnorth in 1642 within the English Civil War. There is on the other hand a small record stating the longbow being in use as late as World War Two as it was part of the weaponry of choice for the Commandos, whether it was used in action is unclear. Its legacy lives on not just through recorded means but also through folktale and literature as being a hard wearing and accurate weapon particularly at long range. The most infamous of people famed for using this is Robin Hood and all Kings of England are trained in longbow archery. The longbow is also the base of ‘Song of the Arrow’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in his poem The White Company. Also the longbow is the elite militia choice for the British in the PC game Age of Empires II, and when used in huge numbers a fortress can be impenetrable from personal experience. There have been hoards of longbows and arrows found on the Mary Rose warship built by Henry VIII that sank in 1545, which describes the vitality the longbow had both in sport and war as this ship was preparing for sail during Henry’s last war with France.

Naturally the longbow was not only reserved to the uses of the English, Welsh and French there are documents stating Spanish longbow archers and Italian regiments which were still deployed beyond the 17th century. It is possible to buy and make longbows and is a regular sighting in mock battles by historical re-enactors however real ones are advised to be used with caution as even the draw of the arrow can injure someone if done incorrectly. If anyone is interested in finding out more just search longbows in amazon for a range of books from the academic material to light reading varieties.

A lesson from Mrs.Tuchman

If there is a History books canon, this book must be in it. If there is a WWI books canon, it surely is in the top ranks of it. It was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in the Essay category given the restrictive specifications that Mr. Pulitzer himself gave to the History category (awarded only to American- in the US meaning- related themes: it seems that USA share in WWI was not big enough or that, after all the bloodshed, after Sargent York and “Over there”, the conflict was still considered mainly an European event in the time of the publication) it sold as if written by Ken Follet and gave her author, Barbara W. Tuchman, a well deserved prestige as both Historian and writer. The book is called The guns of August.

Front book cover, Spanish edition.

Front book cover, Spanish edition.

And, yes, its time span is short. A month or so. A little more in fact. But it was just between that precious time when war could had been avoided, and that horrible time when everyone realised that this war in particular was not going to be as they thought it would.. Sometimes a very little time is needed to create conditions for tragedy.

Two things stand out of this book: first, the close approach Tuchman gives to the main figures such as prominent generals and politicians. Or Emperors. We can learn about Moltke’s inexhaustible doubts, about the Santa Claus-like looks and bearing of “Papa” Joffre (the soubriquet is very appealing here), about some weasel politicians and some haughty generals. We can breath with them, feel their humanity and fallibility, been awed by their heroism or annoyed by their stubbornness and, sometimes, sheer stupidity. We can see they are like us. They could have been us. And that is a very important thing to have in mind, specially when reviewing past events with the usual criticism and detachment that time freely gives. This is fundamental to the understanding of why war was somewhat unavoidable.

The other outstanding point is the depiction of events as a chain of not so unavoidable acts. While telling us that war was probably unavoidable, Tuchman explains how could it have been avoided. Or better: war itself was possibly unavoidable, but the way war was fought, the ongoing carnage, the ever-growing conflict that we all know, that could have been avoided.

There were clear misapprehensions on either side of the fence. There were unwise moves. There was a flagrant unsteadiness in the Triple Entente armies alike (Tuchman makes a point of stressing the folly of going to war in the flamboyant uniforms of the French Army, or the inadequacy of Russian troops and matériel, not talking about the size of British forces). Why assuming that Britain was not going to honour its promise to defend Belgium? Why attacking was the one and only view among French high ranks and military books? Why, if promise was to be honoured, were the British top brass so reluctant to engage? There is a feeling, pervading the whole work, that war was, in the end, the result of human failure not in the sense of Mankind, but of human being. Individuals, and their actions, appear as responsible for the waging and sustaining of war more than political conditions or economic circumstances.

So, as individuals are depicted here with great accuracy and vividness, their actions are shown in a somewhat new perspective, and the start of the conflict appears in a way that helps to explain the long, exhausting years still to come. Somme and Passchendaele are prefigured in the Battle of the Nations: all the not useful killing, the primacy of the new weapons, the absurd tactics, the lack of insight about how much war had evolved from the technical point of view and how much that would influence the outcome of combats. WWI could have not been as it actually was, providing some specific individuals would have behave in a different way. Or at least that is a shadow I can see all along the reading. Maybe it is just me. But then there is this last paragraph when she writes : once concluded this (the Marne battle), there was no going back. Nations fell in a trap, an elaborated trap set during the first thirty days of battles which were not decisive, a trap from there was not- and never had been- a possible escape.

From a literary point of view, the book is really delightful, the prose is smart and runs smoothly for more than five hundred pages (in the Spanish edition), without getting tiresome and, in quite a fair amount of sections, becoming a thriller. The attention to detail is overwhelming and, as expressed by Robert K. Massie in his 1994 preface, her biggest merit is to coat the August 1914 events with such an extent of suspense as experienced by the actual participants.

You will end up agonizing about the extents of hesitation in the British Government, claiming for action. You will loath and despise some characters because of their decisions or their lack of decisiveness, both costing thousands of lives, and you will love some others, gallant, brilliant leaders overwhelmed by the tide of stubbornness, nationalism and militarism. As in a novel, you will suffer with the sad fate of the murdered, even when described with the utmost sensitivity and discretion, running away from sensationalism, and smile with the witty comments that, splashed here and there, with some aristocratic detachment (but the kind of enlightened, ironic, elegant detachment one expects to find in the Academic, which she was not) or maybe just with a quite skeptical approach bring light on the personalities of the individuals involved. All the while, she would not let herself leaving a point of view which is not fueled by moral judgement but by the need of bringing light to events.

In the end, if you are looking to understand WWI, this is your book. More than four gruesome, grueling years of a world deprived of reason condensed in a month or so. Or in little more than five hundred pages. We could have spared ourselves the grief if dear Mrs. Tuchman would have been there, writing with all her insight and wits about what everyone seemed to have expected would be a brief, almost festive war. Unfortunately, she was still too young. In fact, she was traveling with her family to Constantinople and was a regrettably unconscious witness of the chase of the Goeben, one of those hidden details that lately she will wonderfully unveil in her book. A pity.

At least she was there, fifty years later, to expose in her writing the madness and futility of war, although her admitted aim was to express her view that 1914 was the expiring date of 19th Century and the beginning of a new, terrible era. Target accomplished, Madam.

The war that was not 100 years

Most people today are aware that the Hundred Year’s War between England and France in the fourteenth and fifteenth century actually lasted 116 years. This was it not the only example of a war that lasted this long in Europe, so my first question when receiving the challenge for this month: the Hundred Year’s War, was which one. Because the Norwegian Civil Was or War of succession in the Twelfth and thirteenth century did also last more than 100 years, but enough about my madness, let’s have a look at this 116 year long war between England and France. This post will therefore look at the reasons for the war, and attempt to see if it was all worth it.

The Hundred Year’s War has its roots in the complex family and power relationships that existed between the European Ruling classes In the middle ages. The English king at the start of the war, help lands both in England(as king) but also I France where he was a magnate, but being the king in one kingdom and a duke in another is a tricky task to negotiate. Especially when it is your cousin that is the king of France. When Edward III in 1337 refused to pay homage to his cousin the French King Phillip VI, the conflict broke out, Phillip responded with confiscating the English lands in Aquitaine, after all one cannot be an efficient ruler if you have a magnate that have large territories in your kingdom refuses to recognise you as king. Edward’s response was reasonable, especially as both him and Phillip were both descendent from the previous king of France, and both had an ‘equal’ claim to the crown. Edward proclaimed himself king of France and launched an attempt to retake the lost territories in France. [Imagine seeing this argument on Facebook, and the following war as well, it would not look pretty, but so fun and enlightening to read.]

The vital importance of the French lands for the English economy was one of the key reasons why this conflict grew so big to start with. The Duchy of Aquitaine produced more revenue for Edward each year than the English taxes, it is therefore understandable that the Edward would go to such lengths to protect his income.
During the years of the war, it developed from a personal and economical conflict to a war about the French crown. The English and French would continue to fight over the lands, and produce many fabled battles such as Crecy, Agincourt and the siege of Orleans. At the end of the war, England was only left with Calais, and all other territories were lost to the French.

So was it all worth it? If we compare the original intentions and motivations with the amount of men, land and money lost during this war then the answer is no. However, the Hundred Year’s War have become a symbol of European history, and had a huge impact on the national identity of both countries through Agincourt and Joan of Arc. So in the sense that the war was meant to develop the nations of France and England, then I would have to say that the results of the war provided the following generations with material that could be fashioned into moments of National pride. But we still need to remember, that just like any other war: the conflict is never worth the loss of human lives, nor the waste of money.

Over there lies the long way to Victory. Songs for soldiering.

I can easily recall one happy childhood memory related to the school and, more particularly, to my English lessons. I went to the Jesuits school in my hometown, and there the Principal acted also as teacher of English. He was a well-humuored man, keen on cycling and other sports, and very enthusiastic about the English language, its teaching and its importance for the future (being a Spaniard, the knowledge of other languages has usually been regarded even with some suspicion). To encourage the young learners, Padre Fermín will open every lesson with a song. The ritual began when he opened the door, and we started to sing, standing. By the time he reached his seat the brief music was almost finished and so, in due order, we sat ourselves. The favourite song, the one we use to sing as if marching to find our future, was “It’s a long way to Tipperary” or better said, its chorus (I’m afraid our English was even worse at that time and that was all our little minds were able to learn by heart). Little we knew that particular song had been sung while marching to meet their future by many a young man, not so young as we were then, but young enough. And the future of many of them was a grave with no name in a foreign land. We may had not felt as happy if we had possessed that knowledge.

The fact is that WWI was consider a just and necessary war by lots of otherwise peaceful citizens. Volunteering was rife at the outbreak of war, and young men of almost every nation involved in the conflict join the rank and file with enthusiasm and, I daresay, in many cases with joy. Come to that, war was the epitome of manhood, courage, heroism, sacrifice, patriotism…(Most of us think otherwise these days, but now is now, and then was then). And with the joy of joining their fellow countrymen and engage the enemies in combat (and obviously defeat them; no one joins a fight to lose it) came the songs. After all singing is an obvious expression of joy (also of sorrow, but we are still at the outbreak of war, sorrow will come later, with pain and grief, and different songs) and those happy fellows who were to evict the “Hun” from Belgium, or to recover the lost Fatherland or whatever their sacred mission it was, had the need to express their feelings about King, Country, themselves and the enemy.

“It’s a long way to Tipperary” was one of the favourites within the BEF, as was “Keep the homes fires burning”. For the Germans it was “Die Wacht am Rhein” and for the French “Sambre et Meuse”. The Americans were still far away, but they will have their own song in “Over there”. But there are some subtle differences between what each ones were singing, reflections on the different approaches to war in each country.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsynSgeo_Uo

For instance, both the French and German songs are military marches, while the English were popular tunes, more related with home than with the front. And the American was an engaging tune suitable for attracting recruits to a not really well-known conflict. “Over there” was also made for the occasion, and “It’s a long way…” was quite new at the time, been written in 1912. But the continental songs were older, both dating from the 19th. And both are far more warlike than their companions here.

Both the French and German songs are set against a long story of confrontation and territorial claims from either side of the river Rhine. “Die wacht”calls (roars like thunderbolt says the song) for someone “to defend the German Rhine”. But the Fatherland may rest at ease, because every German wants to be in The Watch and so no enemy will enter the shore “Solang ein Tropfen Blut noch glüht”; as long as a drop of blood (German, of course) still glows. Come the time of WWI a new stanza was added, the seventh, which goes as this:

So führe uns, du bist bewährt;

So lead us, you are approved 

In Gottvertrau’n greif’ zu dem Schwert!

With trust in God, grab the sword!

Hoch Wilhelm! Nieder mit der Brut!

Hail Wilhelm! Down with all that brood!

Und tilg’ die Schmach mit Feindesblut!

Erase the shame with foes’ blood!

Apparently this stanza was frequently used as propaganda in postcards and the likes during the war. Charming. Note the reference to Kaiser Wilhelm and the usual need of washing past offenses with the enemies’ blood. The enemies quite clear being the French. Not coincidentally the song was allegedly written in the wake of French Prime Minister Thiers claiming that the French border should be anchored in the Rhine river. Fittingly, the musical arrangement gained momentum and popularity in successive Sängerfest (choral competitions closely associated with German culture) thus competing as a kind of substitute national anthem with the nowadays official Deutschlandlied.

Following suit, “Sambre et Meuse” was composed shortly after the Franco-Prussian war and the crushing defeat suffered by the French army. The real name is, in fact, “The Regiment of Sambre et Meuse” and is begins with the verse “Tous ces fiers enfants de la Gaule”: All these proud children of Gaul…another call to all the nation to unite against the common enemy. In the chorus we can find another statement not to be taken lightly:

           Cherchant la route glorieuse                      Seeking the path of glory

Qui l’a conduit à l’immortalité                   That led them to immortality

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvKVbvxKfdY

One could say that those paths of glory usually led to death not immortality. But again, there is the call to arms, the urge to rally against the enemy, the soldiers refusing to retreat, surrounded, fighting til the last man, against all odds. And when the last man is taken prisoner, but better to be a captive he kills himself. Le Héros se donna la mort.

With all these appeals to death, sacrifice and bloodshed,on both sides the outcome of the war could well have been forecasted since that was the mood of the combatants, at least at the first stages. Later on, soldiers resorted to other songs, not so referring to slaughter and bravery, but to longing, fear and loathing.

“Tipperary”, in the other hand, was a popular tune adopted by units of an army away from home, with a sense of duty and of a certain faith “in the justice of our cause”, but filled with men that, given the opportunity after the first bouts of enthusiasm, would surely have preferred to be back at home, sipping their tea. It is humorous and light. No blood, no guns. Just a couple of commoners trying to outsmart the other, and a town far away where there is someone dear. Probably the exact feeling of almost every Tommy. And there were reports of this song sung by units as they arrive to France, even before they got engaged in combat. Maybe they were having second thoughts about their mission.

           It’s a long way to Tipperary,

It’s a long way to go,

It’s a long way to Tipperary
To the sweetest girl I know!
Goodbye, Piccadilly,
Farewell, Leicester Square!
It’s a long long way to Tipperary,
But my heart’s right there.
Many of them will lose heart and soul in Mons, Somme, Passchendaele. And now they rest a long way from home, among their comrades, maybe singing Tipperary in the silent language of ghosts. They are still longing for home and their Molly-Os.
Still three years will pass until the US army get into the field. But they will bring their own song with them. One of those fresh, defiant, over-confident songs that so well described American spirit. They have no particular dislike for anyone but, when push comes to shove…well
Send the word, send the word over there
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
Just in case you are not getting the innuendo, old boy. Over there was written and composed by music hall star George M. Cohan in April 1917 and was used to increase recruiting and sell the US public the view of a short expedition to put an end to the war that Wilson’s administration was favoring. A sort of friendly yet powerful “vini, vidi, vinci”. So the song was for internal consumption, and so there is just the slightest reference to “the Hun”: “Johnny, show the “Hun”you’re a son-of-a-gun”. Again, it sounds more like a little brag than a real threat to a bitter enemy. That was probably the approach most American citizens have to war in Europe: something went wrong absurdly, but the Yanks were coming to put and end to it and everybody would be friends again. It seems that Europeans were quite confused after almost three years of horror to get the point in Yankee counseling; they went over there and their lives were soon severed by machine guns and high explosive. Just like everyone else.
I can recall another happy memory. Me aged 12 or so watching the TV at night. Black and white film. James Cagney, for once, dancing and singing instead of killing people and calling his Ma’. A catchy song called “Over there”. I spent months humming that particular song. Again not knowing as with “Tipperary” the tragedy after the music. Now it seems so unfair that I should have such happy memories associated with songs that also represent the fury and madness of war. That I have so enjoyed what for others could have been a moment of grief. That my happy memories could be somewhat intertwined with other people sad reminiscences. There is just one thing to comfort me: at least I happen to know the lighter, and happier ones. But soldiers in 1914, or 1917 had to get to know all the hatred and bloodshed that was sung in the long marches to the front. I wonder if a tune came to their minds amidst the ghastly sounds of the fight. And which one was it.

Wuthering Heights review- Understanding the origins of Heathcliff

Wuthering Heights. A classic gothic novel that many would remember studying at secondary school (I included). What’s more I revisited the novel this summer after coming across it whilst clearing out of halls! Within minutes I found myself flicking through a few pages to completing chapter after chapter on the long journey home. What struck me after reading this novel other than the love triangle and gothic imagery was the heritage of the central character, Heathcliff and how the other characters of the novel help shape the many possibilities of where he originated from. It is a topic that I believe fits very well for a WU History review and that sparks much lively debate.

Firstly it is important to establish the evidence from the novel and what certain characters have guessed about Heathcliff’s past. This is conveyed through the narrator of the story Nelly and suggested by Heathcliff’s guardian Mr Earnshaw. Nelly mentions about the ‘gibberish’ that Heathcliff spoke on arrival at Wuthering Heights, her speech suggested Heathcliff possibly came from as far afield as India and Mr Earnshaw himself stated that he ‘found’ Heathcliff wandering the streets of Liverpool. 

Looking back at what the narrator, Nelly mentions, the ‘gibberish’ is sound evidence to provide an explanation about the possibility of Heathcliff being a Roma gypsy. A valid reason for this claim could be to do with how he attempted to communicate upon he’s arrival to Wuthering Heights. He’s speech was described as ‘gibberish’ and somewhat ‘foreign’. The Romani language itself deviates from the English language. The English language is from the Germanic groups of languages that include; German and Norwegian, whilst the Romani language comes from the Indo-Aryan language groups that include Hindi and Gujarati. This provides readers with some evidence about Heathcliff’s supposed Roma upbringing because it indicates why Nelly and the Earnshaws could not understand what he was saying.

Throughout the novel there is more evidence to suggest that Heathcliff was descended from Roma gypsies and this reason allows readers to make a connection to the later piece of evidence. It is clear that because of his foreign language the characters at Wuthering Heights shunned him, including Cathy initially. Gypsies faced much persecution throughout history and this occurred during the late Eighteenth century when the novel was set. In Western Europe the Romani people faced much persecution. For instance in 1749 Roma gypsies were rounded up in Spain and forced to remain in labour camps. Further persecution of the Romani community occurred in the English speaking world too, where they were often distrusted and despised, including in England. This makes a valid argument, as in the novel many of the characters loathed him. In particular Heathcliff’s foster brother Hindley often abused him and referred to him as a ‘dirty, rotten gypsy’ frequently. This provides an adequate explanation as to why certain characters did not take too kindly to Heathcliff as many people in England at the time were distrusting of gypsies, indicating that Heathcliff himself was one as only a few characters accepted him into their society.

However, there are some flaws to this more common assertion, regarding Heathcliff as a Roma gypsy. Firstly the ‘gibberish’ that Nelly described did not directly state that Heathcliff was of Roma origin. It can be argued that readers should treat Nelly’s comment as a potentially flippant remark as Heathcliff could have spoken any unrecognisable language, not merely Romani. What’s more Nelly later in the novel provides further flippant comments about Heathcliff’s origins and suggests he could have been an ‘Indian prince’. It is comments similar to that which appeared to make Nelly’s account of Heathcliff unfeasible to readers. Nevertheless there was some truth in how he could have come from India, yet it was not probable to suggest he was a Roma gypsy who travelled to England from India. This is because recent genetic evidence suggests the Roma peoples of India travelled to Europe across the Middle East years before the Eighteenth century. However, Heathcliff could have travelled to England as a Lascar Indian. There is a valid argument for this point of view as Mrs Linton makes a reference that Heathcliff might have been a ‘Lascar stowaway’. This point of view seems likely as Lascars were seamen that came from India and were employed on British ships from the sixteenth century. The time frame of Wuthering Heights fits in nicely with this explanation as many Lascars entered Britain in the Eighteenth century and many remained in the county, circa 10, 000. Also, the significance of Mr Earnshaw finding Heathcliff on the streets of Liverpool indicated that there was a high probability that he was a Lascar Indian as Lascars sailed to ports and Liverpool was and still is a port city.

Having said that in spite of using this evidence to suggest Heathcliff was a Lascar Indian, some readers could interpret the evidence differently and I myself because of the city of Liverpool. Liverpool was a place synonymous with the slave trade and the slave trade was not abolished in Britain and its empire at the time when the novel was set, allowing some readers to make the connection that Heathcliff could have been a freed or an escaped slave that arrived in Liverpool. This is a probable alternative to other explanations in regards to Heathcliff’s origins. Likewise, Mrs Linton exclaims that Heathcliff could have been an ‘American castaway’. From Mrs Linton’s account it is likely he could have been an African American or perhaps mixed race as it would indicate again reasons as to why many characters ill-treated him and perhaps more so then the other explanations to his origin.

To conclude in spite Emily Bronte neglecting Heathcliff’s exact origins of he’s past, she had only given readers hints about the possibilities of where he had come from. After reading the novel I came to the conclusion that he was likely to have either been a Romani gypsy, a Lascar or an African American and wanted to explore the three possibilities. Although after careful reading the most likely of the three, (a Romani gypsy) was Heathcliff’s likely upbringing as unlike much of evidence suggesting he was black or a Lascar it only seemed to be from a snapshot in time within the novel. The evidence suggesting Heathcliff was a Roma gypsy was consistent as there was frequent references to him being a gypsy, a term in Eighteenth century England for Romani peoples. I hope this review was an enjoyable read and that it will inspire you to come to your own conclusions based on what Emily Bronte had written and for you all- to delve through a classic of English Literature again and again…     

Black Representation in Marvel and DC Comics

Representation in the media has long been debated whether it be racial, female, LGBT, disabled or cultural. In this post I will look at black representation in comic books, more specifically at superhero characters and comics produced by the two major America companies Marvel and DC. Both companies were founded under different names in 1939 and 1934 respectively, and as can be seen below, both companies took until the 1960s and 1970s to introduce black superhero characters. In some respects this is not a surprise as these two decades are now historically intertwined with Black history in the West and especially America where these two companies are based. It is impossible to cover every black character in these comics in this blog as that would easily fill a book, so I have chosen a few of the most famous and influential characters to focus on. I have also looked at the issue of black representation in Marvel and DC’s comic book adaptations for television and film which has increasingly become the way that the majority of the population is exposed to such characters. Three comic book adaptions now sit in the top ten worldwide grossing films of all time. But then why have these movies often been almost exclusively white?

Black Panther first appeared in 1966 in issue #52 of The Fantastic Four, making him the first black superhero in mainstream comics. The character was created as T’Challa, the chief of Wakanda, a fictional African nation which was a technically advanced nation which can be seen as an ‘anti-colonialist critique’ and a ‘stark contrast to the historical and symbolic constructions of Africans as simple tribal people and Africa as primitive’. The character got his own run with Jungle Action #5 in 1973 which ran until 1976. The uniqueness of this title compared to black characters that followed is interesting; unlike other black characters T’Challa was not restricted in terms of storyline or setting of just American ghettos to symbolise racial inequality but was placed in more fantastical settings like some of his white counterparts. As Adilifu Nama summarises: ‘in spite of the cringe-inducing title, Jungle Action was progressive in the way it avoided many of the ghettocentric clichés of the ‘black experience’.’ After Jungle Action, Black Panther was re-launched with a self-titled series and even after that title’s cancellation, the character has continued to have his own comic in every decade since his conception. He has also played a major role in a number of other series including the Avengers, Fantastic Four, X-Men and Daredevil. In 2006 Black Panther married his fellow Black superhero Storm although this was later annulled.

First appearing in Captain America #117 in 1969, Sam Wilson known as the Falcon became the first African American superhero in mainstream comics. The significance of this was not lost on the writers. Wilson and other black characters were concerned about him being a sidekick to Captain America, a white man. Wilson’s black love interest, Leila criticised the character for being ‘a racial sellout’. Nama explains: ‘By having Sam and other black characters question the power dynamics of his relationship with his white superhero friend, the comic avoided creating a static black superhero… His concern and constant attention to the issue gave their personal relationship a social resonance with broader racial tensions, and symbolized a social debate about if aggressive or incremental steps were move effective in achieving racial equality.’ The writers understood the impact that having such a character would have, and the issues that would come from it. While with the creation of Black Panther there had been some element of removal from the social issues in America of the time, this was not possible with Falcon. Perhaps this is why, between 1971-78, the character was billed alongside Captain America in the comics as Captain America and the Falcon, elevating a black character to the title of a leading comic was significant and could be seen to symbolise a greater hope for integration. There was a brief 14 issue run of a new version of Captain America and the Falcon in 2004-2005 but this was cancelled. He had his own four part miniseries in 1983 and has been a member of the Defenders and the Avengers over the years. Falcon played a significant role in the Avengers volume 3 and has continued to play a supporting role in the Captain America comics. It was announced that Wilson would take over the mantle of Captain America after the original, Steve Rogers, lost his abilities. The comic will premiere in November.

First appearing in 1972, Luke Cage sometime known as Power Man premiered in his own comic Luke Cage, Hero for Hire becoming the first black superhero to have his own comic. The title ran for 6 years until falling sales made Marvel decide to team up the character with another superhero, Iron Fist, whose sales were also falling to save both characters from cancellation. This new series ran until 1986. Cage’s origin story is one of the most politically aware origin stories; he is sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit and in prison suffers racism at the hands of the prison guards. In an attempt to improve his chances at parole he volunteers for a cell regeneration experiment but the experiment is sabotaged by a sadistic prison guard with a grudge which leads to him gaining his superhuman strength and durability. The concept of Cage being unjustly imprisoned coincides with widening attention on the incarceration of black people. Such an origin story relates the ‘issues of unjust black incarceration, black political disenfranchisement, and institutional racism in America’. Cage’s decision to use his powers for profit is also interesting, as an escaped convict he had no opportunity to pursue legal work and unlike many of his superhero counterparts he was not independently wealthy to be able pursue such a career unlike white superheroes Tony Stark or Charles Xavier, who both had family wealth to fall back on.

DC’s first black superhero was John Stewart who first appeared in 1971 in Green Lantern volume 2 #87. Stewart was chosen to become a back-up for the then current Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, by those who had given the powers of the Green Lantern, the Guardians. When Jordan quit being the Green Lantern, Stewart replaced him headlining the comics between 1984-86, until Stewart himself, quit. Subsequently he played a major role in the 1988 comic Cosmic Odyssey. Then in 1992 he was the lead in Green Lantern: Mosaic but despite critical and commercial success DC cancelled the title because they felt it did not fit in with their editorial vision meaning the character became restricted to a supporting role until 2006 with Green Lantern Corps. Stewart found widespread popularity when he was portrayed in the Cartoon Network animated series, Justice League. The development of the character has changed over the years. In his first appearance ‘Hal views Stewart as too angry… the critique of Stewart easily played to the racial archetype of the “angry black man”’. In comparison Stewart is ‘a mainstream superhero’ who ‘articulates an integrationist, albeit culturally pluralistic, ethos’.

The first black female character in Marvel or DC to play a major or supporting role was Storm, also known as Ororo Munroe, in 1975. She first appeared in Giant-Sized X-Men #1 and has gone on to appear in the majority of the X-Men comics since her introduction. The character has led the X-Men on various occasions and is one of the most powerful mutants in the Marvel universe. Such development over the years is intriguing due to the fact that Storm ‘symbolizes many of the struggles that black women… face and resist’ and yet ‘Storm was a triumphant third-world version of a black female superhero’. She can be seen as an inspiration for black women to try to overcome the barriers that not only a racist but also a sexist society place upon them, and dispel the idea that black women are somehow less worthy or inferior. Storm had her own miniseries in 1996 which ran for 4 issues and finally received her own ongoing solo series in July 2014.

In 2000, Marvel released a new ‘universe’ of comics, known as the Ultimate Marvel which reimagined a number of Marvel characters in a new way. Spider Man was one of these. In 2011, Miles Morales took up the mantle of the recently killed Peter Parker in the role of Spider Man. The character of Morales was Black-Hispanic, and while some were disappointed at the killing of Parker (although Parker was alive and remained Spider Man in the main run of the comics), others claimed that it was publicity stunt and political correctness. Others, including an article in the New York Times and Spider Man’s creator Stan Lee, lauded the change citing it as a positive for non-white children to see a character that looked like them. Despite claims of a publicity stunt, Morales still continues to appear in the comics, and his own run ran for just over two years.

Another character changed in Ultimate Marvel was Nick Fury who had traditionally been portrayed as a white man in the main run of the comics. This Nick Fury’s appearance was based on that of actor Samuel L. Jackson. After the first comic in 2002 featuring Fury, Jackson contacted Marvel about appearing as Fury in any movies featuring the character. He made his first appearance as Fury in a post credits scene of Iron Man in 2008. While this version of Fury has yet to headline his own series, he has played a major part in many of the storylines in the Ultimate universe as the General of S.H.I.E.L.D and as the leader of a reimaging of the Avengers known as the Ultimates.

Of course the majority of the population’s exposure to comic books is via movies and television. The earliest representation was Eartha Kitt as Catwoman in 1967 in the third season of the Batman TV series. The role had earlier been played by a white actress who was unable to reappear. This was not just unique for black representation in comic book adaptions but also for black representation on TV, with Kitt being one of the first black women on mainstream TV. Beginning in 2001, Smallville ran for 10 seasons focusing on the life of Clark Kent before he became Superman. The only black regular character, Pete Ross played by Sam Jones III, left the show at the end of the show’s third season. Two members of the Justice League, Cyborg (Victor Stone) and Martian Manhunter (John Jones) were played by black actors along with Amanda Waller, a prominent character in a number of DC properties. Waller is also portrayed in the show Arrow, focusing on the character Oliver Queen as he becomes the Green Arrow, which is due to start its third season this autumn, in a recurring capacity. The show also introduced John Diggle, a character created purely for the show played by David Ramsey. Since his introduction, the character has been added to the comics. Like Ross in Smallville, Diggle plays the confidant role to the lead, although so far the character has fared better as Diggle has been given several storylines that are separate from the white lead. A spin off from Arrow, The Flash, which premieres this Autumn, has two of the characters Iris West and her father Detective Joe West cast with black actors, Candice Patton and Jesse L. Martin whereas their comic book counterparts were white. Another two DC television shows to premiere this year with characters not from their respective comic books, Gotham and Constantine have Jada Pinkett Smith and Harold Perrineau. On the Marvel front, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has no black characters in its regular cast but has 3 in its recurring cast. J. August Richards plays the superhero Deathlok along with Ruth Negga and B.J. Britt playing characters unique to the show (although in the case of Negga, her character could easily turn out to be a comic book character). Our first black lead should come with the Netflix series around Luke Cage, although the part has yet to be cast, and its future could possibly rely on the success of the Daredevil series that will precede it.

While not technically a superhero film, the Blade franchise was (and still is) the only comic book franchise led by a black actor. Starting in 1998, Blade a dhampir played by Wesley Snipes was the protagonist. The films were a financial success following with Blade II in 2002 and Blade Trinity in 2004. Two factors delayed Blade 4. First was a dispute between Snipes and the studio that his role was marginalised in favour of two white supporting characters and accusations of racism from the writer/producer/director David S. Goyer and crew. Snipes also claimed that in previous films that an effort had been made to employ a multi-racial crew but on Blade Trinity only white crew were intentionally hired. Then Snipes’ subsequent imprisonment for tax evasion meant the film was put into limbo and the rights to the character have now reverted to Marvel Studios (the rights to the character Blade and numerous others had been sold to other studios in the 1990s when Marvel Studios were facing financial issues), which further puts the film in limbo, although Snipes has said he would return to the character. Blade laid the foundations for many of the comic book movies that would start in the early 2000s, it was commercially successful and after the failure of Batman and Robin proved a comic book movie could become a franchise. The fact that Blade was led by a black actor should not be forgotten, despite many comic book movies ignoring their black characters. Without a black character, studios may have not taken a chance on the likes of X-Men and Spider-Man.

Catwoman is the only other comic book movie that has a black lead, with Halle Berry playing the titular character in 2004. However, unlike Blade, the film was a box office bomb and was critically panned. The film, along with Elektra (another bomb), is often used as an excuse for not producing a female led superhero or comic book film. The fact that a comic book movie hasn’t had a black lead (or a lead who wasn’t Caucasian) since Catwoman would suggest that Catwoman may be used as an excuse for that too. In reality, the writing of the film has been considered poor by reviewers especially considering that the film was only a Catwoman film in name, as the character’s alter ego Selina Kyle is not the lead (or present in the film) nor does it share the Batman universe that the character inhibits.

Since 2000 there have been over 40 movies based on comic books. Before 2000, with the exception of the Superman and Batman franchises, the majority of comic book adaptations were television series or movies released on TV or straight to video. With the exception of the two above, these have generally had white leads, with black characters often playing supporting or minor roles. As can be seen in the list below, I could only find 39 named characters that were played by black actors (the list might not be 100% accurate as I have not watched every film nor did IMDB have an image of every actor). As can be seen the vast majority of these films only had one named black character. Other racial groups fare generally worse, with East Asians the only group coming anywhere near the amount of black characters in these films, which shows a complete and utter lack of diversity. This has been noted by some of the actors who have played these roles. Djimon Hounsou who played Korath in Guardians of the Galaxy explained he took the role because: “I have a four-year old son who loves superheroes from Spider-Man to Iron Man to Batman. He’s got all the costumes. One day he looks at me and says ‘Dad, I want to be light-skinned so I could be Spider-Man. Spider-Man has light skin.’  That was sort of a shock. This is why I am excited to be a part of the Marvel Universe, so I could be hopefully provide that [sic] diversity in the role of the superhero.” Hounsou’s comments reflect the feeling that for the sake of children’s identity, and despite some people’s belief, diverse casting is important.

Even the more diverse franchises such as X-Men have been criticised. Halle Berry, who plays Storm in four of the films, had to petition to have a larger role in the X-Men: The Last Stand despite playing one of the most significant X-Men characters. X-Men: First Class was also fiercely criticised after killing Darwin halfway through the movie and having Angel, the only other black character switch sides (!SPOILER for Days of Future Past! – Angel was also then killed off-screen much to the fury of some fans).

The Avengers films have also been criticised, with no non-white leads for its first nine movies. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Zoe Saldana, a black actress was cast as the female lead (and the one named black female character in all 10 films) but her character was an alien and Saldana was covered in green paint. The films have been criticised for their lack of women, especially with no female fronted film; this is even more pointedly obvious when Saldana is the only non-white woman to appear in the 10 films produced.

Black characters in the Avengers films have been significant supporting roles, most prominently Nick Fury, James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, also known as War Machine, and Sam Wilson as mentioned above, the Falcon. These characters have been incredibly important to the plot and supported the white leads; they are all characters that could headline their own films. With the focus so far on the big four of the Marvel universe (at least out of the properties that Marvel Entertainment own the rights too), it is not surprising that there has been a lack of black characters in the films. At least in the case of Rhodes and Wilson, who both play significant roles in the comics, they weren’t ignored completely. However Marvel is rapidly running out of excuses for its poor show on diversity, not just racially.

The most popular way to increase diversity in such films has been to cast non-white actors as traditionally white characters, similar to several of the TV shows above. This is mostly due to the age of many of the popular comic book characters, with so many premiering before even the most minimal attempts were made at diversity often these comics have all-white casts of characters. Although even more recent comics are not necessarily much better in this respect. For example Michael Duncan Clarke played Kingpin in Daredevil and Jamie Foxx played Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which allowed both actors to play major roles. While black superheroes sometimes struggle to be known by the public, black supervillains are even less well known. However this does not sometimes go without controversy. When Idris Elba was cast as Hemidall in Thor, known as “the whitest of the gods” and portrayed as white in both comics and mythology, there were a number of people who criticised the casting. In response, Elba pointed out the most glaringly obvious truth: “Hang about, Thor’s mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the colour of my skin is wrong?”

Black representation in comics has been slow and fairly limited, especially in main roles. This has also been similarly reflected in the film and television adaptations. While there have been attempts to increase diversity these have failed to make much change. While Miles Morales has had decent sales, he has been unable to compare to Peter Parker. Part of this problem is falling comic book sales, the most successful are generally the more established books such as Batman. It is difficult for less established characters or new characters to break through. Perhaps the best attempt to do this is to introduce more black representation into film and television adaptations and make more of an attempt to encourage such viewers to buy comics. As we attempt to move into a more integrated society the lack of black representation is problematic (as is racial representation in general) and perhaps in future at the centre of the origin stories, racism won’t be a major or core factor.

Film Year Character Actor Size of Role Existing Comic Book Character/For Film
Superman III 1983 Gus Gorman Richard Pryor Major For Film
Batman 1989 Billy Dee Williams Harvey Dent Existing but Caucasian in comics, subsequently replaced by Caucasian actor in sequel
Batman Forever 1995 Margaret Kimberly Scott Minor For Film
X-Men 2000 Storm Halle Berry Major Existing
Spider-Man 2002 Robbie Robertson Bill Nunn Supporting Existing
Daredevil 2003 Kingpin Michael Duncan Clarke Major Existing, but Caucasian in comics
X2: X-Men United 2003 Storm Halle Berry Major See Above
Spider-Man 2 2004 Robbie Robertson Bill Nunn Supporting See Above
Catwoman 2004 Catwoman Halle Berry Lead Existing, however is not the character’s alter ego
Elektra 2005 Stone Bob Sapp Supporting Existing but Caucasian in comics
Constantine 2005 Midnite Djimon Hounsou Supporting Existing
Dr. Leslie Archer April Grace Minor New
Batman Begins 2005 Lucius Fox Morgan Freeman Supporting Existing
Colin McFarlane Police Commissioner Loeb Supporting Existing but Caucasian in comics
Fantastic Four 2005 Alicia Masters Kerry Washington Supporting Existing but Caucasian in comics
X-Men: The Last Stand 2006 Storm Halle Berry Major See Above
Spider-Man 3 2007 Robbie Robertson Bill Nunn Supporting See Above
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer 2007 Alicia Masters Kerry Washington Supporting See Above
General Hager Andre Braugher Supporting New
Iron Man 2008 Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes Terrence Howard Supporting Existing
The Incredible Hulk 2008 General Joe Greller Peter Mensah Minor New
The Dark Knight 2008 Lucius Fox Morgan Freeman Supporting See Above
Police Commissioner Loeb Colin McFarlane Supporting See Above
Gambol Michael Jai White Minor New
The Spirit 2008 Octopus Samuel L. Jackson Major Existing
Punisher: War Zone 2008 Paul Budiansky Colin Salmon Supporting Existing
Watchmen 2009 Office Kirkpatrick Colin Lawrence Minor New
X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2009 John Wraith Will.i.am Supporting Existing
Iron Man 2 2010 Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes Don Cheadle Supporting See Above
Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson Supporting Existing
Thor 2011 Hemidall Idris Elba Supporting Existing, but Caucasian in Comics
Agent Garrett Dale Godboldo Minor New
X-Men First Class 2011 Angel Salvadore Zoe Kravitz Supporting Existing
Darwin Edi Gathegi Supporting Existing
Green Lantern 2011 Amanda Waller Angela Basset Supporting Existing
Captain America: The First Avenger 2011 Gabe Jones Derek Luke Supporting Existing
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 2012 Moreau Idris Elba Supporting New
The Avengers 2012 Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson Supporting Existing
The Amazing Spider-Man 2012 Miss Ritter Barbara Eve Harris Minor New
The Dark Knight Rises 2012 Lucius Fox Morgan Freeman Supporting See Above
Crispus Allen Rob Brown Minor Existing
Iron Man 3 2013 Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes Don Cheadle Supporting Existing
Man of Steel 2013 Perry White Laurence Fishburne Supporting Existing, but Caucasian in comics
Thor: The Dark World 2013 Hemidall Idris Elba Supporting See Above
Captain America: The Winter Solider 2014 Sam Wilson (Falcon) Anthony Mackie Supporting Existing
Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson Supporting Existing
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 2014 Electro Jamie Foxx Major Existing but Caucasian in the comics
X-Men Days of Future Past 2014 Storm Halle Berry Supporting See Above
Bishop Omar Sy Supporting Existing
Guardians of the Galaxy 2014 Gamora Zoe Saldana Major Existing, both in comics and film character has green skintone
Korath Djimon Hounsou Supporting Existing but skintone is blue in comics

 

Bibliography

Nama, A., Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (Texas, 2011)

Idris Elba defends Thor Film Role: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/apr/27/idris-elba-thor-race-debate

Comic Con 2013: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Cast Talk Rocket Raccoon and Playing Badasses: http://screencrave.com/2013-07-21/san-diego-comiccon-2013-guardians-galaxy-cast-surprise-appearance-talk-antiheroes-coming-providing-diversity-alligators/

Battle of Mons and the Great Retreat August 1914

One hundred years ago, on this day, the British forces defended against the German army at Mons. I will be discussing the army sizes, the plans, the heroic actions taken by two machine gunners of the British army, asking the question who won Mons?, as well as discussing the Great Retreat and the aftermath. I hope that what you read will be of great help and above all, will be interesting. So without further delay, let me introduce you to the first battle the British faced in WW1.

The Battle of Mons was the first major conflict that the British Expeditionary force faced in 1914 (The British army had encountered the German army in small skirmishes a few days before). Common knowledge of WWI, recognises that it was a war fought in trenches, in mud and fixed positions. However in early 1914 and late 1918, warfare was mobile, armies moved to outflank each other, hold bridges and fought in towns. Armies used bicycles to quickly manoeuvre around each other or cavalry to destroy a flank. Trench Warfare as we know it did not appear until after the counter attack of the British and French armies after the Great Retreat. Therefore when knowing that the British force was only 4 battalions strong, roughly equating to 70,000 men, very similar to what the modern British army is today, and that the German army was one four times the size of that alone at Mons, shows what the British had to face. The whole point of the BEF was to secure the French left flank. The French army was similar to the size of the German army, and therefore the small British force should have able to tip the balance of battle.

As you may know, Germany was initiating its Schlieffen Plan, where the push through Belgium would be a decisive blow to the French. All that stood in the way of the plan succeeding was the BEF, a small, but very well trained professional army, led by Sir John French. The first contact between the German army and British army is said to be on the 21 August 1914, when a reconnaissance team ran into a German unit near Obourg. Sadly or luckily Private John Parr became the first British soldier to be killed in action; at least he wouldn’t have to go through the horrors that were to face the British army in the months and years to come. The push at Mons was to ensure the French army would be encircled and Paris reached. This could have ensured a surrender of French forces. However Mons is a canal and the battle was fought with great resistance from the British defenders.

The Battle started at 0900 Hours on the 23rd August 1914, with German artillery hitting British lines, this was then followed by an infantry assault. The main place for the attack was at Nimy Bridge. There were four German battalions attacking, compared to the British’s one. This one regiment (Royal Fusiliers) managed to hold, meaning that the German army attacked on a wider scale, hitting most of the defensive line. The German army marched towards the British in column parade ground formation. This was an idiotic move, and one that seems to show that people do not learn from history (The Russians did something similar at Sebastopol in the Crimean war), the German army moved towards the British, being mowed down by machine gun fire and extraordinary British skill with a rifle. It is said that at Mons, the British fired from fifteen to twenty rounds a minute, cutting the enemy down. The Prussian Guard, the elite of the German army were searching for the machine gun emplacements, when there weren’t any.

It was at the Mons, where the first two Victoria Crosses were awarded. Both were Machine gunners, and kept firing at their positions under exceptional circumstances. Lieutenant Maurice Dease and Private Sidney Godley. Dease fired his weapon when the rest of the machinegun crew had been killed or injured, and although hit four times, he held off the German attack at the Nimy bridge. Godley stayed behind, covering the retreat of his fellow men of the fusiliers, and fired his gun until it had run out of ammo, eventually surrendering to the Germans, after he had destroyed his gun.

It was here where, the Angel of the Mons appeared to the troops, or so the legend says. These angels were said to have helped the British army retreat. A host of phantoms with bows and arrows who were led by a heroic figure on a gleaming white horse encouraged the British fighting men, and drove the German army back, allowing more men to retreat. Now I am not going to say if this really happened or not, I wasn’t there, but this could have been a result of British propaganda, showing the populace that God was on their side. That God was helping them bring down the evil imperialistic German foe, who funnily enough also thought God was on their side. Nonetheless, maybe Angels of the Mons really did appear and brought the British army out from the claws of defeat. Whatever you make of the Angels on the Mons, it shows the importance of religion to the men serving and to those back at home. When you read the poems of the soldiers, you notice this faith, either anger at God or praise. The Angel of the Mons certainly improved morale, and has become a famous myth of WW1.

The reason the British army retreated wasn’t because they were overrun, but because the French had fallen back and left the British army isolated. The British flanks were left dangerously unsecure and therefore holding the line would have been pointless. This meant the British commanding officer, John French, had no option that to initiate a fighting retreat back to Parris. In this time a 5th Battalion had reached France to help with the BEF.

The Great Retreat lasted two whole weeks, the army had to march their way back to the Marne with the German army right on their heels. It meant that the army had to do a fighting retreat, falling back, fighting, and then falling back again. The British army suffered 8,000 casualties at the Battle of Le Cateau on 26 August.

Who won Mons? Well both sides did, the British did their job, protect the French fifth armies flank. They had inflicted more casualties on the Germans and the battle increased morale, giving a vast superior enemy a bloody nose. However the German army got so close to Paris, they pushed the French and British armies back, and they caused heavy casualties on the British army. Nonetheless, the ground won by the German army was soon recaptured by the British and colonial forces, with the push at Marne proving to be fruitful. Therefore it could be easily said that no one had one Mons, it was just another action in the war that cost thousands of lives. Haig always said it was a war of attrition, if by the end of it there were more British alive than Germans then they had won. Land did not matter as much; it was just a matter of wearing the other side down.

The BEF had suffered heavy casualties, the modern professional army was heavily down on numbers, even with the arrival of the final 6th Battalion at Marne. The army would from this point rely more and more on a volunteer army. The Marne was a successful counter attack, but if it was not for the British resistance at Mons, the German army could have defeated France quickly. 70-80000 men went to France with the BEF, by the end of the war, most of those soldiers did not come back. Only a few survived the entire war, and only a few saw the battle of the Mons. It is hard to find a first-hand account of the battle because of this. It is easy to find statistics and battle strategies, but it is hard to find what the men felt. It is also the reason why it is hard to explain the Angel at the Mons. As we remember the war, the sacrifice of the men must not be forgotten. They weren’t stupid or idiotic to want to fight this war; it’s what the government’s propaganda had been throwing at them for their entire lives; the glory of war, the glory of fighting. Let us not criticise them for that. Let’s learn from our History and not repeat the same mistakes, let us not be numb to violence or death, but avoid it like the plague. The men at the Mons thought it would all be over by Christmas, the war lasted another 4 years. The Mons was just the start.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask! Thanks for reading.

Local History: Seventeenth Century Winchester

Winchester in the Seventeenth Century was a turbulent city in which to live; subjected to multiple plagues and the damaging effects of the Civil War. In 1603, Elizabeth I died at the age of sixty-nine and James VI succeeded her, uniting the crowns of both England and Scotland. In the same year plague broke out in Winchester and would twice more before the end of the century. The final bout of plague hit between 1665 and 1666.

In 1642 the Civil War between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists began and before the end of the year its destructive force had reached Winchester. During the duration of the war the city changed hands several times. At first Winchester remained loyal to King Charles but then the Parliamentarians marched on the city and took it with relative ease. Despite the town councillors paying the invading soldiers £1000 not to plunder and loot the city they attacked with force. On the 14th of December they ripped down the gates of Winchester Cathedral and proceeded to sack and desecrate the building. The bones of the Anglo-Saxon kings were tipped from their mortuary chests by the Parliamentarians and used as missiles to smash the stained glass windows of the Cathedral. Afterwards these bones were placed without order into whatever boxes remained. A project is currently taking place within the Lady Chapel of the Cathedral which attempts to reunite these bones so that the correct skeletons can be reconstructed and hopefully identified. As well as taking the bones and breaking the windows the Parliamentarians carved into the stone work in some areas of the Cathedral. Recently a statue of King Charles I was removed for restoration work and a bullet from the Civil War was found inside which had not been discovered previously.

After these attacks the Parliamentarians moved on leaving Winchester undefended. By November of the following year the city was once again occupied, this time by the Royalists. Here they remained until March 1644 when they marched out to face the enemy in the Battle of Cheriton Down – approximately eight miles from Winchester. A precautionary garrison was left by the Royalists to man the castle. The battle was a resounding victory for the Parliamentarians, who promptly marched on the city, took it swiftly but then once more moved on without attempting to capture the castle. Finally, in September 1645, Oliver Cromwell himself came with the army occupied the city and within a few days captured the castle. Six years later the castle, except for the great hall, was destroyed by the Parliamentarians to ensure that it could never become a Royalist stronghold again.

Despite the Civil War and outbreaks of plague not every year of the Seventeenth Century spelled disaster for the people, buildings and communities of Winchester. After the Restoration Charles II took a particular interest in the city and began to construct a new palace there. This royal palace was never completed. The reestablishment of the monarchy led to the repair of Winchester Cathedral, the broken pieces of the west window were replaced as a mosaic. The second Bishops castle was also built to replace the original Wolvesey castle which had fallen into disrepair. The Seventeenth Century well and truly left its mark on Winchester. Street names, schools and buildings all demonstrate a link to Seventeenth Century Winchester that cannot be forgotten. Battery Hill and Oliver’s Battery are street names reminding the average passer-by of the turbulent past of the city. At the beginning of the century, in 1607, Peter Symonds founded the Christ’s Hospital in the street later named after him. The city now has a college named after him which provides sixth form education for up to 2,900 pupils. This once more demonstrates that the Seventeenth Century remains within the public eye.

World War 1- The Importance of Joffre and Von Moltke

 

As the country all turned their lights out on the 5th August, we all stood and remembered 100 years since the beginning of World War 1, the War which was famously quoted as ‘ending all wars’. As part of WUHstry’s remembrance, we are posting on the big events of the war and all the innocent lives that were lost.

http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/external/worldwar1somme-tl.jpg

My post is about the importance of Marshal Joseph Joffre, one of France’s most senior officers in World War One, as well as Helmuth von Moltke the younger, who was the German Army Chief of Staff. Both were important in the early stages of the War.

Marshall Joseph Joffre

http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/firstworldwar/fr-joffre-port.jpg

Joffre was a senior officer in the French army when World War 1 broke out, his role was Chief of the General Staff. As a senior figure in the army, Joffre had gained a reputation for being an offensive strategist who had replaced all the defensive minded strategists in the French Army.

Regiment of the French Bayonets

http://rhapsodyinbooks.files.wordpress.com/2010/08/800px-cpe_french_bayonet_01.jpg 

The reason Joffre was held in such regard at the time for his actions in the Battle of Marne, which took place on the 6th-10th of September 1914. The Germans at the time were carrying out the Schlieffen Plan which aimed to circle the French army after marching through central Belgium to get the Lille, and if the plans work it would capture Paris.

A French offensive which prompted German counter-attacks, which then forced the French back onto a fortified barrier, leading to their defence being strengthened. With this move happening, it meant that  they could redistribute their forces to reinforce their left flank, which proved vital in the Battle of the Marne. The North Wing of the German forces was weakened further due to the movement of 11 divisions to fight in Belgium and East Prussia. The German 1st Army which was led under General Von Kluck swung north of Paris rather than the South West that was predicted. This required them to pass into the valley of the River Marne, leading them straight across the Paris defences exposing them to a flank attack and possible counter-envelopment.

This led to Joffre on the 3rd September to order a halt to the French retreat and then reinforced the French left flank to begin a general offensive. This lead to Kluck to halt the advance prematurely in order to support the German flank. This act led to the keeping the French in the war, saving Paris and pushing back the Germans 42 miles.

Although this was a great victory for Joffre and the French, however he is better known for becoming associated with trench warfare on the Western Front and not being able to come up with a strategy to end it. Not only this but he lost his credibility amongst the French public further by failing to breakthrough at the battle of the Somme. This push was touted as the final one but was a failure, and was made worse by endurance the French soldiers had to take in the Trenches through battles like the Verdun.

Therefore you could easily argue that Joffre was important to the French War effort, due to the fact that he kept the French in the war, and helped saved countless lives. Although the trenches meant that countless lives were lost, more could have been lost if Joffre had not been able to counter the German attack.

French soldiers in one of the many Trenches

http://www.awm.gov.au/exhibitions/captured/images/french/aul096.jpg

Helmuth von Moltke:

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Helmuth von Moltke was nephew of the renowned Prussian General Moltke the Elder, who was famous for important victories against Austria in 1866 and the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. This meant that straight away, if the younger von Moltke was to pursue any military interests, he would have pretty big shoes to fill.

Von Moltke the Elder

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8d/Helmuth_Karl_Bernhard_von_Moltke.jpg

In 1906 Von Moltke the younger took the position of Army Chief of Staff, taking over from Alfred von Schlieffen, who as mentioned earlier had an integral plan which would become a big part of the German war effort. This plan was to quickly defeat the French in the West through a rapid, overwhelming flank attack through Belgium and the Netherlands whilst keeping a small army at bay for Russian attacks.

Basic Image of the Schlieffen Plan

http://spartacus-educational.com/FWWschP1.jpg

Moltke retained the plan of his predecessor but modified it to take account of the French military build up in the South prior to the war beginning. However Moltke’s adaptations did not work as well as he would have hoped, due to the fact he did not implement them effectively. Although Moltke managed to persuade Kaiser Wilhelm II that the plan would be unstoppable once the ball started rolling, Moltke’s own indecisiveness cost him and Germany massively during the invasion of France.

Kaiser Wilhelm III

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Unlike Joffre, Moltke was easily distracted and was awfully indecisive. Fear of a Russian attack in the east as well as an opportunity to capture an unplanned victory against the French in Lorraine just make him indecisive and he couldn’t make up his mind over what action to take. His indecisiveness cost him in the Battle of the Marne, where his orders were unclear, resulting in field officers ordering a retreat, stalemate and then trench warfare. After all the actions or lack of them, Wilhelm replaced Moltke on the 14th September 1914, 4 days after the end of the Battle of the Marne with Erich Falkenhayn, and Moltke later died in 1916.

There is an obvious difference between both Joffre and Von Moltke. Joffre was a confident commander in that he knew he always wanted an offensive plan, and he illustrated this through getting rid of his defensive tacticians to stick to his offensive plans. However Von Moltke was indecisive and had big shoes to fill due to having such a famous uncle, as well as being in the shadow of his predecessor, it made it hard for him to be his own man. However what both have in common is they ended up shaping the events of the first World War and the trench warfare, through having stalemate and having both sides move around so much to conquer the other. The Schlieffen plan if anything just allowed for the Germans to be attacked from both sides rather than have just one area flattened at a time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Tannenberg, 1914

Continuing with the WWI themed posts, this is another focussed on one of the earlier battles of the Eastern front. The Battle of Tannenberg was an engagement between the Russian and the German Empires in the first days of the war. It was fought by the Russian Second Army against the German Eighth Army between 26 August and 30 August 1914. Perhaps the most spectacular and complete German victory of the First World War, the encirclement and destruction of the Russian Second Army in late August 1914 and the suicide of its commanding general, Alexander Samsonov virtually ended Russia’s invasion of East Prussia before it had really started. A series of follow-up battles destroyed the majority of the First Army as well, and kept the Russians off-balance until the spring of 1915.

The Allied battle plan prior to the war had been based on France and the United Kingdom halting the German armies in the West while the huge Russian armies could be organized and brought to the Eastern front. In perhaps as little as a month, the Russians could field around ten complete armies, more men than the Germans could muster on both fronts put together. At Tannenberg the actual ratio of Russian to German troops was 29 to 16. However, there were some issues that worked against this plan, such as the Russians’ lack of a good quality railroad network and Russian trains being operated on a different rail gauge to Germany, meaning that their armies could only be transported by rail as far as the German border. Additionally, the presence of the armies of Austria-Hungary to the south limited Russia’s involvement in the beginning of the war.

The Germans however, only considered the Russians to be a secondary threat. The entire Schlieffen Plan was based on the idea of defeating France as quickly as possible, and then transporting their armies by train to the eastern front. This allowed the Germans to garrison Prussia fairly lightly with a single army, the Eighth, while the German Ninth Army was stationed in central Germany to reinforce either front. There was little allowance for anything other than a delaying action while the outcome in the west was decided. This gave the Russians a great opportunity to attack if they were quick enough.

Russia’s incursion into German territory was two-pronged. Two armies planned to combine in assaulting General Prittwitz’s German Eighth Army, Rennenkampf in a frontal attack while Samsonov engulfed Prittwitz from the rear. General Rennenkampf advanced to north-east with the First Army while General Samsonov had begun to take his Second Army into the south-western corner of East Prussia to move westward around the Masurian Lakes and then swing north over a hilly area to cut off the Germans, who would by this point be forced into defending the area around Königsberg. If executed correctly, the Germans would be surrounded

Such was the Russians’ initial plan.  But Rennenkampf brought about a modification following a scrappy victory against The German Eighth Army at the Battle of Gumbinnen, after which he paused to reconsolidate his forces. Samsonov meanwhile, due to severe supply and communication problems, was entirely unaware that Rennenkampf had chosen to pause and lick his wounds at Gumbinnen, instead assuming that his forces were continuing their movement south-west.

Meanwhile, a trap was being set by the German leadership. They planned to deploy cavalry as a distraction to Rennenkampf’s forces, meaning that he could not continue forward or support Samsonov. German troops were simultaneously being transported by rail to the far southwest to meet the left wing of Samsonov’s Second Army.  Others were to await orders to move south by foot so as to confront Samsonov’s opposite right wing.  And a fourth corps was ordered to remain at Vistula to meet Samsonov as his army moved north. Samsonov was entirely unaware of the German plan or of its execution.  Assured that his Second Army was en route to pursue and destroy the supposedly retreating German Army

Just prior to the German attack, the Germans intercepted Russian communications that revealed the distance between the two Russian armies, and detailed The First Army’s imminent marching plans, which were not towards Samsonov’s Second Army. Another message told the Germans that Samsonov had assumed that there would be a general German withdrawal to Tannenberg and beyond. Consequently, his message provided detailed plans for his intended route of pursuit of the German forces. These messages reassured the Germans that their plan would work, and they would not need to fear intervention from the Russian First Army during their assault upon Samsonov’s forces.

Over the next few days, the resulting confrontation had Samsonov’s Army completely surrounded by German forces. There was no support from the Russian First Army, as Rennenkampf held a deep personal vendetta with Samsonov. Finally, Samsonov became aware of the peril he faced.  Critically short of supplies and with his communications system in tatters, his forces were dispersed, and many were defeated. He ordered a general withdrawal on the evening of 28 August. However, It was too late for the Russians. As they scattered, many throwing down their weapons and running, directly into the encircling German forces. Support from the Russian border in the form of counter-attacks were weak and insufficient.

95,000 Russians troops were captured in the battle, while an estimated 30,000 were killed or wounded, and of his original 150,000, only around 10,000 of Samsonov’s men escaped.  The Germans suffered fewer than 20,000 casualties and captured over 500 guns. Samsonov ended up lost in the surrounding forests with his aides, and shot himself, unable to face reporting the scale of the disaster to the Tsar.  His body was later found by German search parties and was given a military burial.

The scale of the Russian defeat shocked Russia’s allies, who wondered whether it signalled the defeat of the Russian army entirely.  This was not the case, as was demonstrated by the lesser German victories shortly after.  And as always, the sheer mass of the Russian army ensured its survival.  Even so, no Russian army set foot on German territory again until the end of the Second World War, in 1945.

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