Category Archives: War

1625: English invasion thwarted by a booze up

Edward Cecil’s failed Cadiz expedition… well it seemed a good idea at the time.

In 1625, two English military commanders – George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham and Sir Edward Cecil – sought royal approval for a war against Spain. A successful campaign, they told Charles I, would weaken the Spanish Empire and revive the glory of 1588, when the English repelled the Armada. Villiers and Cecil also hoped to line their pockets by plundering Spanish ships returning from the Americas laden with cash and cargo. Their plan was backed by Charles I but not parliament, which was unwilling and probably unable to provide financial support.

In the summer of 1625, Cecil moved to Devon to assemble his invasion force but was plagued by a shortage of funds and other difficulties. He secured almost 120 English and Dutch ships but many were poorly maintained. Cecil’s land force consisted of 15,000 men, most of whom were pressed into service in and around Plymouth. Cecil’s expedition was also poorly stocked: he was able to obtain provisions for scarcely a fortnight abroad.

The fleet sailed on October 5th 1625 but returned the following day after striking bad weather. It sailed again two days later but suffered damage in heavy weather off the Spanish coast. The English encountered several Spanish ships filled with cargo but dithering, allowed them to escape.

The expedition landed near Cadiz on October 24th but Cecil, having noticed the city’s fortifications, abandoned his plans to attack it. Instead, Cecil marched his men in the opposite direction. With night approaching he allowed his invasion to stop at village in the wine-producing region of Andalusia. Unfortunately for Cecil, this village housed a large quantity of the local product. His ‘army’ quickly fell apart, thanks to:

“…the misgovernment of the soldiers who, by the avarice or negligence of their commanders, were permitted to fill themselves so much with the wine they found in the cellars and other places they plundered, that they became more like beasts than men… if the Spaniards had had good intelligence they might have all been cut off.”

Cecil’s men were so hopelessly drunk that their officers abandoned plans for capturing major cities – or indeed smaller ones. The soldiers were herded back onto the ships. For a time they sailed aimlessly along the Spanish coast, looking for treasure ships to plunder. But poor hygiene and lack of supplies soon took their toll on the men, who began to die, “many each hour”.

In mid-November, the expedition was abandoned and the ships, scattered at sea, began to limp back to England. Cecil was the last to return: his own ship was blown off course and became lost, landing on the south coast of Ireland in mid December. His return ended one of the worst executed military campaigns in English history.

Source: Sir Richard Baker, A Chronicle of the Kings of England &c., 1684. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1942: LBJ wins Silver Star for “coolness”

In 1942, future United States president Lyndon Johnson was awarded a Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest military decoration – for showing “coolness” during a plane ride.

Johnson was elected to the House of Representatives in 1937, weeks before his 29th birthday. When Pearl Harbour was bombed in December 1941 Johnson rushed to enlist in the Naval Reserve, probably thinking that military service would enhance his political prospects.

In mid 1942, Johnson, by then sporting the rank of lieutenant commander, travelled to the Pacific theatre as an observer. There he became friendly with Douglas MacArthur, who allowed Johnson to ‘sit in’ on an aerial bombing raid against Japanese targets. On June 9th Johnson arrived at an airstrip in Port Moresby, New Guinea and boarded a B26 Marauder dubbed the Wabash Cannonball.

Needing to “take a leak”, Johnson left the aircraft for a few minutes. On his return he found the seats occupied by other officers, forcing LBJ onto another B26, the Heckling Hare. As it turns out Johnson’s full bladder saved his life: the Wabash Cannonball was shot down over water near Lae, killing all on board.

Johnson’s plane also came under attack from numerous Japanese Zeros and was forced to abandon its bombing mission. While the pilot, Lieutenant Walter Greer, struggled to evade the Zeros, and the air crew manned the guns, Johnson watched the whole show from his window seat. The attack lasted less than 13 minutes before the Heckling Hare slipped its pursuers and headed back to Moresby on one engine.

Despite playing no active part in the mission Johnson was awarded the Silver Star – apparently for showing “coolness”:

“While on a mission of obtaining information in the Southwest Pacific area, Lieutenant Commander Johnson, in order to obtain personal knowledge of combat conditions, volunteered as an observer on a hazardous aerial combat mission over hostile positions in New Guinea. As our planes neared the target area they were intercepted by eight hostile fighters… The plane in which Lieutenant Commander Johnson was an observer developed mechanical trouble and was forced to turn back alone, presenting a favourable target to the enemy fighters, [and] he evidenced marked coolness in spite of the hazards involved.”

The Heckling Hare’s other crew members – including Lieutenant Greer, whose brilliant flying had saved Johnson’s life – were awarded no medal of any kind. Greer was not even aware of Johnson’s Silver Star until reading of it in the press. The men who died on the first B26, the Wabash Cannonball, received only the lower rated Purple Heart.

As for Johnson, he showed some initial embarrassment about his Silver Star, telling a Washington reporter he didn’t deserve the medal and drafting a letter declining to accept it. Nevertheless, accept it and wear it he did. When Johnson returned to the campaign trail in Texas his Silver Star, perhaps the least deserved military decoration in American history, became one of the most worn and referenced.

Johnson continued to wear the Silver Star citation in the Senate, as vice president and during his tenure in the White House.

Source: Silver Star citation, General Orders No. 12, Southwest Pacific Area, June 18th 1942. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1941: The Nazis ban Jewish fonts

Bormann’s memo under a Jewish font – ordering a ban on Jewish fonts

Most printing in early modern and 19th century Germany used two font families: Antiqua and Fraktur. Both were ornate, old style typefaces that replicated calligraphic handwriting. Antiqua was employed mainly for printing Latin texts, while Fraktur was used more in German language documents.

During the rising German nationalism of the 1800s, many came to see Fraktur as a ‘German’ typeface and pressured the government and private printers to use it more. Otto von Bismarck refused to read books in ‘un-German fonts’ and Kaiser Wilhelm II also disliked them.

When the Nazis emerged in the early 1920s they also opted for Fraktur and its derivatives. The cover of Hitler’s Mein Kampf used a hand-drawn Fraktur font; official Nazi documents and letterheads also employed it. This continued until January 1941 when there was a remarkable shift in Nazi attitudes to typography. In an edict signed by Martin Bormann, the Nazis called for a ban on the future use of Judenlettern (Jewish fonts) like Fraktur:

“…I announce the following, by order of the Führer:

It is false to regard the so-called Gothic typeface as a German typeface. In reality, the so-called Gothic typeface consists of Schwabacher-Jewish letters. Just as they later came to own the newspapers, the Jews living in Germany also owned the printing presses… and thus came about the common use in Germany of Schwabacher-Jewish letters.

Today the Führer… decided that Antiqua type is to be regarded as the standard typeface. Over time, all printed matter should be converted to this standard typeface. This will occur as soon as possible in regard to school textbooks, only the standard script will be taught in village and primary schools. The use of Schwabacher-Jewish letters by authorities will in future cease. Certificates of appointment for officials, street signs and the like will in future only be produced in standard lettering…

Signed, M. Bormann.”

Ironically, Bormann’s memo went out under Nazi Party letterhead – which was itself printed in a Fraktur font. The reason for the Nazi turnaround on typefaces has never been definitively explained. One theory is that Hitler had a personal dislike of more ornate Gothic fonts; his increased reading workload in 1939-40 may have tripped his fuse and prompted the ban on Fraktur

Source: NSDAP memo on Judenlettern, signed by Martin Bormann, January 3rd 1941. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1946: German admiral feigns madness, goes ‘bzzz, bzzz’

Karl Doenitz was a German admiral during World War II and, for a brief time after Hitler’s suicide, the president of Germany.

Doenitz served as a junior lieutenant in World War I, remaining in the navy during the interwar period and rising through the ranks. At the outbreak of World War II Doenitz was promoted to rear admiral and put in charge of Germany’s U-boat fleet. Though not formally a Nazi Party member, Doenitz was nevertheless pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic and fanatically loyal to Hitler. He became president on April 30th 1945 and oversaw Germany’s surrender to the Allies, before being arrested three weeks later.

According to an apocryphal story Doenitz, who suffered from poor bladder control, was wearing several pairs of underpants when arrested. He was held by the British for several weeks then charged with war crimes and moved to Nuremberg. While awaiting trial Doenitz admitted to a US Army psychiatrist, Lt Col. Douglas Kelley, that he had feigned insanity while in British custody:

“Two companions and I decided it might aid our efforts to escape if we were adjudged insane. We walked about, our heads hunched down, going ‘Bzzz, bzzz’ and insisting that we were U-boats. But the British doctors were too much smart for us.”

Doenitz was convicted of military war crimes but acquitted of the more serious crimes against humanity. Sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, he was held at Spandau until 1956. After his release Doenitz retired to northern Germany where he penned two memoirs, remaining unapologetic for his role in the war. He died in 1980, aged 89.

Source: Douglas M. Kelley, Twenty-two Cells in Nuremberg: A Psychiatrist examines the Nazi criminals, 1947. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1162: Plucking figs from mule genitals saves lives in Milan

Frederick I – not a man to be trifled with

Frederick I (1122-90) was a skilled military commander, cunning political strategist and charismatic leader. Known as “Barbarossa” because of his red beard, Frederick ruled as Duke of Swabia (1147), king of the German territories (1152) and Holy Roman Emperor (1155).

In the late 1150s, Frederick marched his army to northern Italy to suppress recalcitrant cities in Lombardy. During this campaign Frederick left his wife, Beatrice, in Milan. The Milanese treated her poorly, however, seizing Beatrice, placing her backwards on a mule and forcing her to ride out of the city.

Frederick was outraged by this gross insult but did not have to wait long for his revenge. In March 1162 his forces laid siege to Milan, which quickly capitulated. According to chroniclers like Giambattista Gelli, repeated here by Nathaniel Wanley, Frederick got his own back for the mule incident – and them some:

“The Emperor, justly incensed, urged the besieged [citizens] to yield, which they at last did… he received them with mercy upon this condition: that every person who desired to live should, with their teeth, take a fig out of the genitals of a [she] mule.”

According to two accounts, this bizarre ritual was carried out in Milan’s largest square. A few Milanese refused to participate in it and were duly beheaded – but most submitted. Frederick remained true to his word, sparing their lives, however for decades the incident was used to humiliate and insult the Milanese. The fig sign – an insulting medieval hand gesture – may well emanate from this event.

Source: Nathaniel Wanley, The Wonders of the Little World, or a General History of Man, 1678. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1871: Parisian does not recommend the taste of elephant

A replica of a menu that appeared during the 1870-71 siege of Paris

In September 1870, the Prussian army, led by future German emperor Wilhelm I, laid siege to Paris. The city was well defended so the Prussians decided to force a surrender by blockading and starving it.

The city remained defiant but by early November, the meat larders of Paris were almost empty. With no beef, pork or mutton available, Parisians began to consume what they quaintly referred to as “variety meats”.

The first to appear in butcher shops and on menus was horse meat, as the city’s pet horses, working horses and racehorses were butchered and sold off. Dogs, cats and rats were also gathered for human consumption. The flesh from an “ordinary dog” sold for four or five francs a pound but a “trained dog” could fetch almost twice that amount. A dressed or smoked rat sold for two or three francs while a whole cat could fetch as much as 12 francs.

A correspondent named Vizetelly spoke favourably of cat meat, which:

“..when broiled and seasoned with pistachio nuts, olives, gherkins and pimentos… proved a very dainty dish.”

The supply of cats, dogs and rats also dwindled, prompting culinary attentions to turn to the local zoo. During November and December, the menagerie in Paris’ Jardin des Plantes fielded hefty offers from wealthy locals, eventually selling off more than half its animals. The deers and ungulates were the first to go, followed by the zoo’s camels, kangaroos, wolves and zebra. All were slaughtered, butchered and sold for high prices as ‘exotic meats’.

A few animals survived, including the zoo’s big cats, the hippopotamus and the primates, as recorded by Labouchere:

“All the animals in the Zoological Gardens have been killed except the monkeys. These are kept alive from a vague Darwinian notion that they are our relatives, or at least the relatives of some of the members of the government.”

Two less fortunate animals were the zoo’s male elephants, Castor and Pollux. Both animals were purchased for 27,000 francs by a Parisian grocer and dispatched with 33-millimetre bullets, before being carved up and sold at exorbitant prices. Only wealthier Parisians could afford a slice of pachyderm, but according to Labouchere, elephant meat was nothing to write home about:

“Yesterday I had a slice of Pollux for dinner. Pollux and his brother Castor are two elephants that have been killed. It was tough, coarse, and oily. I do not recommend that English families eat elephant, as long as they can get beef or mutton.”

In early January 1871, the Prussians started bombarding Paris with heavy artillery. After sustaining three weeks of artillery fire, the French surrendered on January 28th. The victorious Prussians then lifted their siege and sent wagonloads of food into the starving city.

Source: Henry Vizetelly, Paris in Peril, 1882; Henri Labouchere, Diary of a Besieged Resident in Paris, 1871. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1871: Union general’s war service causes severe rectum issues

Major-General George Stoneman… ouch.

George Stoneman was a Union general during the United States Civil War and later, a governor of California. Stoneman was born in the far western corner of New York state, the eldest of ten children. As a teenager he was shipped off to study at West Point, where he shared a room with the better known Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. Stoneman graduated in 1846 and spent the next 15 years as a cavalry officer in California and the Midwest.

When the Civil War erupted in 1861 Stoneman was quickly promoted to flag rank and given commands of both cavalry and infantry divisions. He was captured by Confederates in 1864 and for a few months was their highest ranking prisoner-of-war. Stoneman was released in mid-1864 as part of a prisoner exchange, returning to active service and commanding a division that swept through the South in the final months of the war.

When the Civil War ended in May 1865 Stoneman had spent most of it in the saddle, participating in some long and arduous campaigns. The effect this had on his backside was later revealed in a post-war legal tussle. Retired and pensioned at the rank of colonel, rather than his brevet rank of major-general, Stoneman petitioned the Army for a better pension, citing agonising medical problems he had incurred in the service of the Union:

“The disability he now labours under was occasioned by a continuous series of contused wounds from jolting in the saddle during his raids in Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia… At the commencement of his campaigns he was suffering severely from piles, and under this hard service occurred an extreme falling of the rectum, amounting to an extreme protrusion of the bowel, which yet with great difficulty [was] returned and kept in place… Death itself is preferable to the injuries he sustained.”

Stoneman continued this fight until the early 1880s but alas, it was unsuccessful. In 1881, the US Attorney General ruled that Stoneman’s injuries were “not wounds received in battle” but were the result of “the disease from which he was suffering”. Much aggrieved, Stoneman went into politics, serving one term as the governor of California. He later returned to his native New York, where he died shortly after his 72nd birthday.

Source: Medical panel letter to the Secretary of War, November 2nd 1871. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1899: Navy officer slammed for kissing 163 women

Richmond Hobson, ‘hero of the Merrimac‘ and sex symbol of the 1890s

Richmond P. Hobson (1870-1937) was an American naval officer. Born and raised in rural Alabama, Hobson enrolled at the US Naval Academy, Annapolis at age 14. In 1889, he graduated top of his class, though Hobson’s rigid discipline and dislike of both alcohol or tobacco made him unpopular with classmates.

When war broke out between the US and Spain in 1898, Hobson was sent to Cuba. In May 1898, he was ordered to seize control of a coal ship, the Merrimac, and scuttle it in the harbour mouth at Santiago, an attempt to trap Spanish ships inside the harbour. Hobson did manage to sink the Merrimac, though not accurately enough to block the harbour mouth. He and his men were captured and detained by the Spanish.

Though Hobson’s mission failed, the jingoistic American press presented it much differently. Hobson was hailed as the “hero of the Merrimac” whose courage and daring had thwarted the Spanish. Newspapers carried stories of his bravery and portraits of the dashing young officer, who became a celebrity and a sex symbol, even as he remained a prisoner-of-war.

Hobson was released later in 1898 and repatriated to the United States. He made a series of public appearances, most of which were flooded with eager young ladies. But these public audiences produced “shocking spectacles” that led to Hobson’s fall from grace with the press:

“The scene in the Chicago Auditorium, when Lieutenant Hobson was kissed by 163 morbid women, was loathsome. It is deplorable. It is sad that a man of his excellent courage and fine intelligence should so far forget the dignity of the American navy as to lend himself to a public exhibition of female hysteria… We shall never tire of boasting of his nerve and his unflinching devotion to duty; but no one is likely ever to hear us boasting about his modesty or his good taste.”

Reports were also scathing about the young women who rushed to kiss the “hero of the Merrimac“:

“We have no doubt they are heartily ashamed of themselves. They ought to be, at any rate.”

Hobson remained in the Navy, reaching the rank of captain, before resigning in 1903. The following year he was elected to the House of Representatives, serving there until 1916. In 1933 he received the Medal of Honour and a special pension for his exploits aboard the Merrimac.

Source: Pullman Herald, January 21st 1899. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1920: German man spanks American wife to avenge war defeat

In October 1920, a German-born New York man named Paul Schoenhoff appeared before a magistrate charged with “disorderly conduct”. The charge stemmed from Schoenhoff’s regular habit of giving an “old-fashioned spanking” to his wife, Matilda.

This practice could not have been easy, claimed one press report, as Matilda Schoenhoff weighed 200 pounds while the defendant was considerably smaller. Schoenhoff also forced his wife to live in the basement and made her pay rent of six dollars a month.

Asked under oath why her husband spanked her, Matilda Schoenhoff said it was an act of retribution for Germany’s defeat in World War I:

“When asked his reason for spanking her, she said he would reply that he was a German and she an American and he would get revenge by beating her.”

Schoenhoff was found guilty, placed on probation and warned not to mistreat his wife in the future.

Source: The New York Tribune, October 24th 1920. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1915: Austrians invent electric underwear for trench warfare

In late 1915, newspapers in Europe and the United States reported that freezing German and Austrian soldiers on the Western Front could soon benefit from a thrilling new invention: electric underwear.

Developed by Max Beck at the University of Innsbruck and Professor Herman von Schroter of Vienna, the underwear were made of non-conductive fabric interwoven with thin wires, in a similar fashion to modern electric blankets. Each pair contained a safety fuse to prevent overloading and electrocution. They cost approximately eight pounds Sterling or $US20 to manufacture. According to American reports:

“For each series of trenches it is necessary to install an electric plant, from which conducting wires are carried. When a soldier feels cold, all he has to do is connect up his underwear with the current wires… As now perfected it will be possible for soldiers to warm themselves with this electrical clothing [up to] 1,500 feet away.”

Source: The Sunday Times (London), November 21st 1915; Keowee Courier, December 29th 1915. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.