It can be hard to imagine that during an age of artillery, tanks, machine guns and aircraft that fortresses were still being used. In fact the fortresses of the 20th century were deadly, Verdun, a line of fortifications that cost hundreds of thousands of lives to take, or Przemyśl, a fortress town being attacked by the Russians who used to old method of starving the defenders. So this blog post will focus on these two examples, to give a flavour of the impact of fortresses and their importance in WW1. The majority of the post does focus on Przemyśl, I hope you enjoy the read!
So let’s start with Przemyśl, owned by the Austria-Hungarian Empire, however when sieged it was in enemy territory. When the Russians won the battle of Galacia in 1914, the Austrians were pushed back, with only Przemyśl standing, defiant in the face of the Russian foe. There were around thirty miles of trenches, which surrounded the fortress town, including the famous barbed wire, which would entangle a man and kill him. The garrison of this fortress was an incredible 127,000. May I hasten to remind you that Winchester’s population is less than 40,000, so that’s three times the city where I study! The foe, however, were the Russians, who strangely did not outnumber the defenders (this is quite unexpected, it is often thought the attacker needs to outnumber a defender 3:1, which probably explains the Russian generals decision to starve out, rather than to directly attack).
The town was to be sieged twice, the first time, the Russians launching an assault and loosing around 40,000 men, that is an incredible number, however the attack was repulsed and a relief force sent by the Germans managed to puncture through and escort the civilians out, leaving the Austrian army, mixed of different nationalities, left to defend to the town.
The Second siege would start in October 31, 1914, with the German army being pushed pack after the defeat at the battle of the Vistula River. The Second siege was to be one of starvation and waiting for the defenders. The relief efforts made by the Germans and Austrians were all to fail. With heavy artillery, the defenses of the fortress were destroyed and the trenches overran, the Austrian army destroyed anything that would have been useful to the Russians and once an attempted breakout had been stopped, they surrendered on March 22 1915. They had little choice.
There was once instance of when, a force of 30,000 Hungarian troops, starving, perhaps emboldened by hunger, marched out from the forts which they were garrison in a desperate attempt to raid the Russian food base at Mosciska, 20 miles away. Their route led them past the strongest of all the Russian artillery positions. The 30,000 men were annihilated by a bombardment of shells, machine-gun fire and rifle bullets. It is hard to imagine that out of 30,000 troops, only 4,000 would return, with the rest killed or captured, it was a suicidal mission, nonetheless, people were desperate.
So let us move on to the fortresses at Verdun. The area immediately around Verdun contained twenty major forts and forty smaller ones that had historically protected the eastern border of France. They were upgraded in the early part of the 20th century. The assault was part of the German strategy to bleed France White. It was believed that the French would not surrender at Verdun, they could not allow these forts to fall. It was a matter of national prestige and dignity, losing them would have led to great humiliation. The Germans believed that the French would fight to the last man at Verdun, which in turn would mean that the French would lose so many men that the battle would change the course of the war.
In the attempt to control Verdun and its fortresses, over a quarter of a million men lost their lives. It proved to be unbreakable, the French held. The figures at the start of the battle were one million German troops against 200,000 defenders. Again this would seem normal, as the attacker has to outnumber the defender if assaulting directly. However by the end, Of the 330 infantry regiments of the French army, 259 eventually fought at Verdun. Did you know the Battle of the Somme was an attempt to relieve pressure on the French at Verdun. That was its main purpose.
In the end Verdun was to be a bloodbath, with neither side making many gains, and the body count just rising. The German army did manage to take a few forts, however, as soon as the Somme commenced, it was impractical for the Germans to continue, they couldn’t afford to just through men at forts.
Therefore fortresses were important in WW1 . They were of course modernized, with the original 19th century fortresses inadequate for the task, with technology, deep tunnels and trenches being added. They could withstand a certain amount of artillery fire and in some cases appeared impregnable. The only way to defeat them appeared to be either starve them out or just hope they run out of men before you do. Like most of WWI, it was attrition that won you the battle.
I have had an extremely busy summer. One of the most rewarding things I did this summer was participate as a volunteer in the Southampton Maritime Festival. I learnt about it through the University website and I attended a training session, where I learnt exactly how it had been organised to celebrate the long and fascinating maritime history of Southampton
As its name suggests, the festival commemorates the maritime history of Southampton, with particular reference to its role in the First and Second World War. Naturally, most of the attractions were nautically themed including period-based entertainments, music from local talents, as well as popular band Kingsland Road, and a number of presentations were hosted, discussing the contemporary challenges mariners currently face.
There was also a number of rides that I suspected had been loaned from a nearby theme park, and even some period buses. There was also a second-hand bookstall, where I purchased an entertaining historical fiction novel on the Napoleonic Wars. Overall, the festival felt like a cross between an early twentieth century fun fair, and a nautical themed theme park, and I hope one day to return as a visitor.
The boats themselves included the Tenacious, the Caronia and the HMS Medusa. All of these represented the nautical ages of history, the Tenacious is a recreated wooden sailing ship, the Caronia was one of the ships used in the Dunkirk evacuations, and the Medusa was used during the D-Day landings.
As a volunteer, we were encouraged to dress up in costumes from around the World War periods, and I did exactly that. Since only the Royal Navy permitted beards, and since I had no desire to shave off the work of many months, for the sake of historical accuracy I accordingly purchased a sailor suit that can be seen in the picture below.
My duties as a volunteer included directing cars to parking spaces, telling guests that arrived at the station where to find the bus that would take them there and selling guides to the event. The event itself was all things considered a success. The highlight was unquestionably the dramatic flyover of two World War II planes, a Hurricane and a Spitfire.
As an event, the Southampton Maritime Festival is one of the most interesting I have ever attended. The experience itself I valued, and I hope that it continues to interest its visitors in the maritime history of Southampton.
In the past, it seems to have been more common for demonology to be associated with women. This can be seen in the later Medieval period where women were seen as more prone to witchcraft than men. This is based on traditional beliefs of what was perceived as basic female nature, much of it being seen in Christianity. Trials of witchcraft promoted discussions of gender and influenced the visual arts, and in Renaissance graphic art, particularly in northern Europe, female sorcery was a popular theme.
However, Renaissance portraits of women generally intended to convey beauty and the social role of women instead. Portraits of men generally emphasized their social, political, or professional role, and these portraits were often stereotypically masculine. The function of portraits of male leaders was focussed on politics and their ideal portraits often served as some sort of ambassador of their status during their absence. This shows that men were defined by attributes of profession and social status. But female portraiture in Italian Renaissance art was not meant to be a direct representation of the individual. The purposes of most female portraiture include commemorative works, donor portraits, and images of ideal beauty. When used as a commemorative portrait, lineage and wealth were seen as the most important. Women were often painted in honour of marriage, shown by the age and costume of many subjects of portraits. Other than at the time of marriage, women were rarely seen on display as publicity was necessary to legitimize marriage during the period, and men wished to display wealth and prestige.
Many depictions of women were also seen in religious paintings as donors. In Northern Italian courts, donors were portrayed in finery to publicly advertise their wealth. In other courts of Italy, this practice was frowned upon, and female donors were pictured in dark attire with heads covered in white cloth. The costume of a woman in portrait marked their parental and marital identity, and because costume and jewellery conveyed such a large amount of information, artists often focused on the wardrobe as much as the woman, who was considered to be a piece of property herself anyway.
As said before, the women pictured in the portraits of the Italian Renaissance were not often portrayed as specific individuals but as generally ideal women who shared similar facial features with the subject of the portrait. Examples of desired physical traits include a high, round forehead, plucked eyebrows, blond hair, fair skin, rosy cheeks, red lips, white teeth and dark eyes. This is shown in many portraits where they may memorialize different individual women, the images appear to differ only slightly, with many showing equal proportion and perfect symmetry in addition to the other features mentioned. In addition to physical beauty, women were expected to uphold the high moral standards of the time. The virtuous qualities most patrons and artists aimed to portray include humility, piety, charity, obedience, and chastity. The Italian phrase virtutem forma decorat, or ‘beauty adorns virtue,’ shows the common belief in Italian Renaissance society that ideal moral characteristics must be present for women to possess physical beauty, and therefore it was considered that outward appearance was a reflection of inner beauty.
I met Daniel some years ago, as my parents were living in Toledo (Spain). He happened to frequent their workplace, and moreover, it would seem we were involved in the same Spanish medieval history magazine! What are the chances? Yet, it happened, and by chance I got to meet a formidable Spanish scholar, who is madly in love with the Visigoths! Daniel’s enthusiasm for the Visigoth culture is fueled with passion, and the fantastic atmosphere from where he lives: Toledo, the ancient Spanish capital. So I dared asked him if he would be so kind of sharing his research and true love with us and- although I had to do some translation- here it is. I hope you enjoy it!!!
Tell us about your Research
I was already interested in the Visigoth Hispanic past by the time I stated university and, in fact, as soon as I finished my degree, I started working towards my PhD in this period of history. So, I began my work for the DEA diploma (diploma of advanced studies) regarding the Visigoth and neo-Visigoth movement in Toledo from the 16th to the 17th Centuries, so I could investigate the actual image there was of the culture of Visigoth Toledo a thousand years after its apogee. This involved working with a lot of historiographical material and the earliest type of local histories produced in Toledo regarding every aspect that had anything to do with its culture, religion, identity and ideology. At the same time I started working in some of my first articles and sharing my knowledge about my specialty.
Once my DEA was approved, I jumped into my thesis, however this is currently work in progress-actually more in stand-by than anything else, as I was given the chance to publish my first book! This one was more focused on the actual Visigoths from a military and political point of view. And once I thought I was done with the book and could get back to the thesis, turns out that the editorial decided they wanted a second book, and then a third book…And so on and so forth until today, where I am in means of producing said third volume. All of this work is on the political/military subject- I do feel pretty confident about it and I do actually enjoy working on this area and sharing it with other people this distant but otherwise deeply fascinating time period. I am of the opinion that the dissemination of history is extremely important and necessary nowadays, so i have decided to follow this path, to provide exceptional and quality research for the public as well as good historiographical work.
So Why the Visigoths?
That’s an excellent question Lillian, and even though some may consider it rude to answer a question with yet another question, I say to you: and why not?! Certainly, this is something a lot of people ask me and have asked in the past when we have been in open discussions, interviews or forums, and my answer is always the same. I am quite fond of epic history (yes, epic), and I quickly found myself all tangled up with everything linked with the Visigoths. So I decided this was going to be my path- Plus, living in Toledo, it seemed natural to pursue this route. After all, it was during the Visigoth period that the pillars of the nation were settled, and I believe in these turbulent times we live in, it is important to know where we come from; return to the roots, to our identity and historic ancestry.
Now, tells us about your book success!
Well, I am obviously very, very happy with the success of my first two books. The first book was only published in 2013 under the title “La invasión bizantina de Hispania 533-625. El Reino Visigodo frente a la expasión imperial” (Ed. Almena) – trans. as The Byzantine invasion of Hispania 533-625. The Visigoth Kingdom against the imperial expansion- and then in 2014 I published “El esplendor del Reino Visigodo de Toledo” (Ed. Covarrubias) – trans. as The Splendour of the Visigoth Kingdom of Toledo. I am always thrilled when I get word that someone has read any of them, as I am aware they talk about subjects not entirely familiar to most. However, my exciting and entertaining way of approaching the time frame is helping to remove this barrier. In addition, the great reception of these two volumes has contributed to further dissemination as I have taken part in radio programs, press publications, all sorts, even activities such as tourism routes in Toledo and surroundings. Now, I am working hard on the third book, which I hope will be just as good as the other two, and I hope the audience enjoys just as much or even more. More importantly, I hope the readers will get my enthusiasm and will get imbued with a deep desire for historic knowledge.
What can you tell us about the current state of this field and its historiography in Spain, as well as in Europe?? I am ware, like you said, that it is not a particularly popular subject.
Hmmm, that is a tricky question. In case you didn’t know, the Visigoth period has suffered, and I think still suffers, from an acute stigma within Spanish culture. I think this is mainly due to the educational system in Spain, and how polarised history is within this system. Effectively, the Goth and Visigoth period of Spanish history is barely mentioned in school texts books, nor even in high-school or college, were the knowledge should be in more depth. And this is very sad, considering that many of the aspects that built our society, sparked from the Visigoth period. On the other hand, we do count with some of the best experts in the subject, such as Garcia Moreno, or Orlandis whose works are simply spectacular. However, in Europe the period of Migration after the fall of the Roman Empire is in good shape. There is a lot of work invested in the Germanic tribes. I think as we are finally moving away from the concept of the Dark Ages, we are eventually obtaining good results regarding this area- although with and after a lot of work and effort, that goes without mention. It is true however, that little by little this discipline is become more widely available in Spain, not only from an academic point of view, but for the everyday consumer too. But there is a lot of work to do, especially in what regards the education of our own youngsters, and within my area of influence- the dissemination press. There is still a long road ahead of the Visigoth Hispania, to put it back in the books and on the spotlight it so well deserves. Therefore, I’ll take this opportunity to invite everyone to have a look and get into our long but interesting Visigoth king list!
Thanks a lot for this opportunity and for your attention.
A Visigoth Hug!
We would like to thank Daniel for a fantastic interview and the best of luck with his next book!!!
So I was sitting down with my friend a few weeks ago and we were watching the film 300 Spartans, I was pointing out why the film was so good, and why I hate the excuse of a film that is 300. The thought occurred to me to share with you, the reader about the actual battle, and though I focus on the Early Modern to the Modern period in history, I can hopefully show you that I do like the Classics too! By the way, this blog contains spoilers of both the original 300 Spartans and the newer 300 films. So if you don’t want to know about these films, then do not read on!
So let’s go through some basic facts, was there just 300 Spartans at Thermopylae? No, in fact there would have been several thousand Greeks, with the Spartans at the head of the force, the original film shows this well, noticing the Thespians at the battle, and the greatly important part that they played. Because let’s face it, the Spartans were good fighters, but no general would be stupid enough to turn away fresh troops, the Thespians offered around 700 , eager troops ready to fight, they would have been respected, especially at a battle where death was likely. The several thousand Greek troops would have held the pass (there was no stupidly steep cliff like we see in the modern film!) until a local resident, most likely a sheep herder (not a hunchback, seriously I don’t get why change these things) showed the Persians a way round the pass of Thermopylae, this betrayal meant that the 300 Spartans, the 700 Thespians, and 400 others would act as the regard whilst the rest of the army escaped to the main army being assembled just before Corinth.
So now we have learnt that the Spartans weren’t alone, and that the Thespians fought just as bravely along with the other Greeks, we can start to see why some films do need to be historically accurate, otherwise, as has happened here, people and nations will be forgotten to history, there deaths ignored for the basis of entertainment.
The Spartans would have to wear armour, not like in the film, where they seem to wear as little as possible, that would be incredibly stupid, and would probably mean they would have been cut to ribbons rather quickly. The Spartans were great fighters, but they weren’t dumb, they knew they needed armour and thus they wore decent armour. Also the Spartans and the Greeks would have fought in battle formations, and would not go off on their own fighting, their tactics was to be a unit, forming phalanxes, with their spears meaning it was hard to get in close quarters with them. The moves they use in the new 300 film are just stupid and over the top, if that had happened, then the Spartans and their fellow Greeks would have lost the battle of the first day.
It is also most likely that the Spartans would have brought javelin men with them, or at least they would have been present in the army of the Greeks, these would have been an added bonus to the Greek defensive. Yet they are not in the film, which doesn’t surprise me I guess.
The Greeks would have used a large variety of tactics to benefit them in the battle. On the first day, The Greeks fought in front of the Phocian wall (made of stone and not human bodies, I mean please the thought of that is just sickening, why would the Spartans do that?), at the narrowest part of the pass, in a strategic attempt to use as few soldiers at one time as possible. This allowed them to use the full strength of the phalanx. This meant that the Greeks would have formed a wall of overlapping shields (most likely circular shaped) and spears protruding out from the sides of the shields. A highly effective wall wouldn’t you say? The Spartans and their fellow Greeks also fought against the elite troops of Xerxes (who wasn’t a 10ft giant or whatever the film portrays him to be), they would not do any better than our beloved Spartans, whom apparently used a tactic of feigning retreat, and then turning and killing the enemy troops when they ran after the Spartans. This meant that the immortals were out of formation and disjoined, making it easier to cut them down.
On the Second day, the Greeks held again, this made Xerxes ponder if he should go home. He in fact was close to issuing the order to his men to withdraw, but with the sheep herder offering his allegiance, Xerxes sent the immortals around the back of the Greek troops.
On the third day, the Phocians who were guarding the pass, encountered the Persians, they fled to a nearby hill to make a final stand, however they were soon to be bypassed, and the Persians went straight to encircle the Greek army, nonetheless, the Phocians managed to get a runner to the Spartan King Leonidas. With this encirclement happening, Leonidas ordered most of the Greek army to flee , whilst he stood with his bodyguard and the other Greeks, around 1000 in total to act as a rearguard. This action allowed the others to flee safely. This time, the Greeks were not going to defend, instead they attacked, unlike the film 300, Leonidas is one of the first to die, which led his bodyguard to surround his body and claim it back from the Persians. The Spartans and Greeks then tried to flee, especially the Spartans as their job was to protect the Kings body, this was their sole job. They were however surrounded, and were killed by arrows, rather quickly one can imagine, they would not surrender, as it was not the Spartan away (the first time Spartans troops surrendered wouldn’t be for a considerable time after, which brought complete shame to the state). They died with their King. As the prophecy stated that a King of Sparta would have to die, or Sparta would be engulfed in flame, his sacrifice, along with the other Greeks certainly delayed Xerxes, and killed a lot of his men (some sources say 20,000).
To conclude, the Persians didn’t have weird monstrous creatures, and neither was Xerxes a giant. It was a battle between men, with a huge number of casualties. It’s amazing that we can twist history so much for entertainment, whilst forgetting thousands of men died at the battle, which, in a way tarnishes their memory in the modern day portrayal. History has become docile to the fact that these men lived and breathed like us, we threat statistics of deaths in war as just numbers, something that we can compare, rather than actually appreciate the amount of individuals who have lost their lives. The film 300, to me glorifies violence, as do many films in today’s society, something which we need to be careful of, didn’t we do the same before World War One? I am a firm believer in films and historical accuracy, sure history can be stretched and such, but when you change it as much as 300 or other films, I do wonder what is the point of historians, we might as well make up anything and say yeah that is what happened. This post is dedicated to all of those who died in the battle of Thermopylae, both Persian and Greek who died for their King, and for freedom of their state. They say that films show more about the time they were made, than what they actual portray, I do wonder what the future will think about us when they see things such as 300.
Welcome to another 18th century bibliography on probably the most important or at least one of the most famous people of his time. He was known to at least Eighty per cent of the population in the American colonies, he attracted crowds of 30,000, with his highest being 100,000 people in one place. So who was his famous man, a King? An actor? Perhaps a famous playwright? Or maybe an artist? No, this was a preacher, surprisingly. Hopefully this post will go into his life, which started 300 years ago last year!
Whitefield did not come necessary from a rich family, his dad died when he was young, and he had to take a large responsibility in running the inn with his mother. He therefore had to enter Oxford as a servitor, the lowest rank of students at Oxford. This allowed him to study at the University in return for free tuition. The job meant that he was to be assigned to a number of upper class, richer and posher students whom probably didn’t treat him very nice. His duties included helping them bathe, taking out their garbage, carrying their books and even assisting with required written assignments. I kind of wish we had that now, would make university life so much easier would it not! I jest, but still, it couldn’t have been a pleasant experience of Whitefield.
Now George Whitefield was a man of the church, specifically the Church of England, however, he was and is more closely linked to the Methodist movement, being part of the Holy Club back at Oxford University and became great friends with the Wesley brothers (remember I wrote a post last year about one of them?). He was descried as an enthusiast, which now seems very weird, surely you would want to be an enthusiast to be preaching! But back then, it wasn’t seen as the right thing to do, so most churches shut their doors to him. He was therefore, one of the founders of open air preaching, going out to the villages, towns, and peaching, mainly on the subject of spiritual rebirth to people of all classes, whether rich or poor, it mattered not.
Whilst doing some research on this, I came across Whitefield describing his own first open air sermon. In his Journal, he wrote: ‘I hastened to Kingswood. There were about 10,000 people to hear me. The trees and hedges were full. All was hush when I began; the sun shone bright and God enabled me to preach for an hour with great power, and so loudly that all, I was told, could hear me. The fire is kindled in this country and I know all the devils in hell shall not be able to quench it’. Some interesting words from Whitefield, but also for his first meeting, 10,000 people came to hear him that is an incredible number! He had confidence and this is shown by his writing. It must also be noted that it was at this sermon that miners, who had just left the mines, listened and ‘the tears flowed making white gutters down their coal-black faces.’
He travelled, to Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Gibraltar, and America more than once. In fact in one of his departing sermons, he drew a crowd of 25,000 people in Boston, which was bigger than Boston’s population at the time. It’s an incredible amount; imagine what would have happened if people could have travelled with today’s technology, it would have been a staggering number.
I found one interesting event, (many happened in Whitefield’s ministry, but I can’t go into them all can I!), When looking online, one of His most dramatic visits to Scotland was his second, in the small town of Cambuslang. His evening service in the town attracted thousands as was usual, but the staggering thing is that it continued until 2:00 in the morning. Whitefield said that “There were scenes of uncontrollable distress, like a field of battle. All night in the fields, might be heard the voice of prayer and praise.” He certainly caused quite a stir in rural and urban life in Britain, the key thing that I want to point out is that this is happening in the era of revolution and trouble in Europe, whilst in Britain, nothing of the sought happens, except for religious revival under the Methodist movement. I find the social impacts of Methodism to be huge, it’s a game changer, in fact it is in my mind, one of the most important events to happen in the 18th century.
Some revisionist historians such as Stout claim that Whitefield was more like a TV evangelist as we see today, playing on emotions and such to get a reaction. I reject this approach entirely, granted Whitefield had some acting talent, but he was more passionate in his message and desire for people to understand it than anything else. He engaged his audience, he spoke clearly and with expression, when you read his sermons and his diary, you do not see a man wanting to entice people for fun, or money, in fact Whitefield was quite poor, with most of his money going to an orphanage in the American colonies.
Whitefield also made the slave community a part of his revivals, though he was far from an abolitionist. His aim as he saw it was their souls, rarely did Whitefield ever get involved in political affairs, and this is an example of this. He did however, search for audiences of slaves and wrote on their behalf. He got a huge response from them, so much so that some modern historians class it as the real start of African-American Christianity.
Whitefield and John Wesley did have some disagreements, especially when it came to the theory of Calvinism. Whitefield was a firm believer in Calvin’s theory, whilst Wesley was Arminianism. This basically meant that they differed strongly in pre-destination and election. To explain this further, Wesley believed in that God allows His desire to save all to be rejected and resisted by an individual’s will (Arminianism), whilst Whitefield believed that God’s grace is irresistible and limited to only some (Calvinism). This difference though did not hinder their great respect and friendship with each other. They had agreed to differ! It must be noted that Whitefield asked John Wesley to preach at his funeral, they were friends and not enemies.
So I find his end of his life fascinating, he died in 1770, only 55 years old, however, he was preaching in the colonies as though he was a young man, he claimed that “I would rather wear out than rust out.” He seemed ignorant or didn’t really care about the signs that he was in poor health, it was clear to all that he had difficulty” in breathing. His last sermon took place in the fields, atop a large barrel. He was no doubt preaching to a mass of people eagerly hanging on every word. “He was speaking of the inefficiency of works to merit salvation,” one listener recounted for the press, “and suddenly cried out in a tone of thunder, ‘Works! works! A man gets to heaven by works! I would as soon think of climbing to the moon on a rope of sand.'” Interesting imagery, though in the sermon, it appeared as though he knew his death was coming as he talked about heaven nearing, he was quite correct, the following morning he died. He would be lost to history until the 20th century, the celebrity, the preacher, the actor and a dedicated man whose desire to preach, most likely killed him, not that Whitefield cared much.