Paston Letters

Paston Letters (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Margaret Paston died.  She married into the Paston family, an example of mid-level Norfolk gentry during the Wars of the Roses.  She is chiefly remembered for the detailed correspondence she left behind her.  Totalling around one hundred letters, it provides a superb insight into daily life during the Wars of the Roses.  Most 0f the letters are to her husband Sir William Paston, who was often absent from home on court business.  However, while the Paston Letters are a superb resource, they should not be taken as providing a typical picture of gentry life during this period.  The Pastons were quite closely involved in local and national politics and in that they were by no means typical of the time.  The Paston Letters can usefully be contrasted with the Stonor Papers in this respect.

On this day in 1484

Israeli troops preparing for combat in the Sin...

Israeli troops preparing for combat in the Sinai peninsula during the Suez Crisis. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Israeli paratroops began their invasion of the Sinai  – the initial moves in what would later become known as the Suez CrisisEgyptian nationalisation of the Suez Canal that summer had made Egyptian leader Gamal Nasser public enemy number one in the eyes of Britain and France.  Their secret deal with Israel agreed at Sevres near Paris provided for an initial Israeli invasion of the Sinai, followed by joint Anglo-French landings to capture the Canal Zone.

On this day in 1956

Ouch – and I thought British politics could be bitchily unpleasant. I guess what grips my shit most about Coulter’s comment is the clearly implied link between metal and physical disablement and being as she says ‘a loser’. Well Ann, I reckon that if ‘retard’ isn’t an offensive term then neither is ‘self-righteous neo-con bitch’.

Can’t have it both ways…

CNN Political Ticker

(CNN) — Conservative commentator Ann Coulter stood by her decision to call President Barack Obama the “r word” in a tweet, and questioned whether the word is indeed offensive.

“Maybe [Vice President Joe] Biden should be upset with me calling the president a retard but not an actually disabled person,” she said Friday in an interview on CNN’s “Piers Morgan Tonight.”

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Napoleons retreat from Moscow

Napoleons retreat from Moscow (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Napoleon‘s Grande Armee began its retreat from Moscow.  The invasion of Russia that June had failed to provide the decisive victory Napoleon sought.  Russian scorched earth tactics and the costly and indecisive Battle of Borodino wekened the French seriously – and that was before they reached Moscow.  Napoleon and his troops captured a deserted Moscow on 15 September – and woke on the following morning to find it in flames.  One month later, with no Russian surrender and General Winter on the horizon Napoleon reluctantly ordered a general retreat.

We’ll probably never know exactly what French losses were.  What is certain is that of the 500,000 men who crossed the River Niemen in June, fewer than 100,000 came home.

On this day in 1812

From left to right (front): Chamberlain, Dalad...

From left to right (front): Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, and Ciano pictured before signing the Munich Agreement. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

the Czech government found itself compelled to accept the dictates of the Munich Agreement.  The policy of ‘Appeasement’ – giving Hitler what he wanted in the hope that it would avoid another war – had reached its most notorious extreme.  The ‘treaty’ signed between Nazi Germany, Britain, France and Italy provided for the immediate annexation of the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland to Germany under the pretext that this was the will of the ethic German Sudeten population.  The Czech government was presented with this as a fait accompli and warned that it must either accept or face war – Czech representatatives were barred from the negotiations and simply told to ‘sign here or else…’

Given that most of the Czech border defences were in the Sudetenland I can well understand their relectance to sign.  With hinsight though it seems that the Czech army was better prepared to face an invasion that at first thought and German military ‘punch’ was not as strong as originally assumed. Nazi re-armament was not scheduled to be complete until 1941.  In short, Hitler’s Germany was not ready for a war. That said, President Benes of Czechoslovakia knew they couldn’t hold for long without potential allies and those evaporated like morning mist with the signing of the Munich Agreement.  It is interesting to speculate what might have happened if Britain and France had refused to agree with Hitler.  War in 1938 might well have gone very differently indeed – an idea Harry Turtledove explores well in his counterfactual series ‘Hitler’s War’.

On this day in 1938

the British National Anthem was sung for the first time at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London.   This got me thinking about how definitions of nationalism and how national anthems express it.  In this case, national identity and religion are clearly linked (as you’d expect with any nation with a clear church/state link).  However, there is another, unknown element at work here.  This first recitation was to pray for the safety of King George II and his church and laws from the Jacobite rebellion that had just broken out.  Many of these rebels had a totally different take on nationalism, resenting as they did the ‘forced’ union of England and Scotland in 1707:

‘We are bought and sold for Eglish gold

Such a parcel of rogues in a nation…’    as Robert Burns put it.

Yet, when you dig deeper (as historian Christopher Whatley has done), you see that things aren’t that simple.  In fact, suggests Whatley, most Scots parliamentarians went very cheerfully into the Union and required no buying off, either literally or metaphorically.  Most of them had a well-developed notion of Britishness and needed no bribes…

On this day in 1745

British 1st Parachute Battalion at Arnhem 17 S...

British 1st Parachute Battalion at Arnhem 17 September 1944 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

the Battle of Arnhem officially ended.  Immortalised in the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’ and the subject of numerous war diaries and personal memoires, this was the plan for a daring thrust into the industrial heartland of Germany via three captured bridges.  The last of these was the Rhine bridge at Arnhem.  On paper, Operation Market Garden as it was known looked great.  Drop three Allied airborne divisions (US 82nd Airborne, 101st Airborne and British 1st Airborne plus the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade) – each division captures a particular bridge and its surrounds.  This secures a route straight into the Rhur for three British divisions and the war is over by Christmas 1944.  No-one at the time seemed to remember that they’d said something similar about another Christmas thirty years ealier…

They also forgot that old Von Moltke maxim about no plan surviving contact with the enemy.  So many things went pear-shaped from the start of the fighting that I can’t even begin to list them all here.  Martin Middlebrook’s ‘Arnhem 1944’ (2009) is one of the best studies of what went wrong and is well worth a read.  For me, the worst failings were found in the senior British commanders – notably Lieutenant-General Browning.  Warned by his Int people that the Germans had moved tanks into the vicinity of Arnhem he refused to believe it.

Even when his chief intel man, Major Brian Urquhart showed him aerial photos of the said tanks he (Browning) refused to let the facts interfere with his preconceptions.  ‘Oh’, he is said to have remarked ‘they can’t be servicable tanks’.  When Urquhart persisted, Browning had him diagnosed with stress and sent on medical leave.  Unbelievable…  In fact, Browning’s view of how the universe in and around Arnhem was organised was allowed to dominate planning until first hand evidence proved that:

1.  The plan depended on everything going right first time

2. The German ‘reservists’ around Arnhem were anxious to show that they were in fact the 9th  (Hohenstaufen)  and 10th (Frundsberg) SS Panzer divisions with Tiger tanks in depressingly good working order.

Out of the 10,000 men of the British 1st Airborne Division who went into action on 17 September only about 2,000 remained alive, uncaptured and unwounded at sunset on the 26th.

On this day in 1944