Notable Historical Trials III – The Gordon Riots

In 1780, England’s Parliament passed a law to remove some of the restrictions against Roman Catholics.  The one the government was most interested was to remove the restrictions to serving in the army. As the country was then involved in the American Revolution and wars against France and Spain, they needed all the recruits they could get.

Lord George Gordon was the leader of a Protestant Political Group and called on Protestants to protest to Parliament.  Things got out of hand, and the riots lasted for days and devolved from politics to anti-Catholic pogroms and general looting and destruction.  The troops put it down after some days at the cost of several hundred shot.

Gordon was put on trial for treason for inciting the mob. There were suspicions that the riots were part of some plot by the countries England was at war with, which proved unfounded.

In the end, Gordon was acquitted of treason. He remained controversial, eventually being convicted of libel against Queen Marie Antoinette.  He fled to the continent to avoid prison, but oddly enough later returned and converted to Judaism.  Eventually he was detected and died in prison.

The Children of Hurin – J. R. R. Tolkien

I’ve decided to pick up some more of the works of Tolkien. I liked the Lord of the Rings when I first read it in High School, and even liked the Silmarillion as it touched the ‘history lover’ in me perhaps more than most people.  The era when the subsequent posthumous books were coming out were times when I had less money than now and I never picked them up.  With the appearance of a number of these books in a discount bookstore nearby I started to pick up a few, and the ‘completist’ urges are starting to get stronger.

The Children of Hurin is a tale from the First Age, when the elves were less majestic remnants in hiding and more fiery characters.  A number of them broke out of the elvish ‘Heaven’ to recover some jewels stolen by Morgoth, a god.  For a time they contended as equals, but eventually Morgoth’s powers grew and theirs faded.  This story is shortly after a climactic battle that broke much of the power of the elves.  Hurin’s father was captured and is being held prisoner by Morgoth, and he curses his family and allows him to watch as it plays out.

Turin grows up in a land occupied after the defeat, and soon is sent for safety a kingdom of the elves, where he makes friends and enemies.  His mishandling of his enemies and mistrust of his friends leads to a self-imposed exile.  Since he is a hero, he performs great deeds, but since he is cursed, even the great deeds leave wreckage behind.  Eventually the wreck extends to his own family and himself as well.

It is not a very happy tale. It has a Götterdämmerung feel to it, even more so than the Lord of the Rings does, because the story ends before the events leading to Morgoth’s ultimate defeat.

The War Between the Generals – David Irving

Over the last year or so I have read a few books on the Campaign in France – Carlo D’Este’s excellent books on Normandy and his biography of Eisenhower.  I thought that this would be an expansion of his work which does give a picture of the high command on the Allied side.  Apparently I should have looked up the author first.  Oh well, three dollars is hardly a big expense.

Some of the questions I had about the book were just answered when I looked Irving.  After getting the book I did remember his involvement in the Hitler Diary hoax, although little else about it.  Apparently Irving has wobbled from ‘revisionist’ over the edge in recent years.  This explains a few odd things from the book.

One item I remember was a paragraph claiming that the SS ‘Malmedy Massacre’ was really a fair fight and the SS afterward lined the dead up neatly afterwards.  So it only looked like they had machine-gunned prisoners.  Of course, the SS list of atrocities with prisoners does not begin or end with Malmedy.  In possibly related matter, I noticed several references to US troops shooting or not taking prisoners tossed into the text.  Since the subject of the book is the tussling between generals, not the behavior of our troops, I did not appreciate it.

There are a number of other ‘aside’ claims like this in the book.  US troops raping and robbing the French (for some reason no Commonwealth troops are mentioned) – and oddly the troops are usually identified as black.  When you have several million young men running around, some will be bad apples. Was it more than expected?  I have no idea, and neither will you if you read this book, since it is treated like a smear and not investigated in any way.

There are a running subtext of titillating hints of the Generals scoring with women.  True or false, since the Generals all seemed to agree on screwing them, it is hardly a subject for this particular book.

Well, let’s get to the particulars – the book is basically built around the disagreements between the US and UK over war policy.  Since the book only covers the Overlord operation, most of the wrangling over grand strategy has already happened.  What is left were the ‘strategy’ of Normandy and Cobra and the ‘broad front’ versus ‘narrow front’ wrangle in the fall near the borders.

Irving takes most of his text from the diaries of some participants, and from the memoirs of others. This leads to strange situations when the memoirisst revise history to make themselves look better.  Irving swallows Monty’s later assertion that the intent all along was to hold on the left and attract reserves to the UK front, thus making the US breakout easier.  This is nonsense – the Allies really did not expect a fast breakout and wanted the clear areas around Caen for local airbases.  Monty’s failure to achieve this due partly to bad luck and partly to clumsy tactics did have the effect mentioned, but it was not the intent.

This leads Irving to the odd conclusion that Ike had no idea what his own strategy was, as he quotes numerous instances of him pushing Monty to advance.  Ike might not have been the greatest general ever, but he knew his own plans better than that.

Carlo D’Este does a good job demolishing this straw man in “Decision in Normandy”.

The second ‘war’ in the book suffers from a similar error. Irving uncritically accepts Montgomery’s assertions against Eisenhower’s and the other US Generals.  Of course, he already thinks Ike is an idiot from the first error, so there’s no reason to actually look at the reasons for the view that Monty’s ‘narrow front’ offensive would not work.

The first is political.  Even in September, the halting of the US forces to supply Monty to take Antwerp did not go over well. Since the US forces were much larger than the UK at this time, letting them go for the glory was problematic.

The second was practical.  The UK forces were not able to do the job alone due to the dwindling manpower.  The ground was unsuited for major combat operations, as Monty found out in Market Garden when he failed to get to the Rhine.  A drive to Berlin off this same road seems out of the question.  Also the forces then assembling for the Bulge battle would have been able to confront the spearheads – a definite disadvantage to a narrow thrust is that the enemy only has one force to counter instead of many.

With Monty’s failure to open up Antwerp, the supply lines were impossible for any such operation regardless.   The additional distance would break the overstrained supply system.  After all. the other armies still need most of the supplies they would if advancing — they still have to eat.

The final obstacle was the absurdity of Montgomery in particular leading a crazed rush for Berlin or anywhere else.  No matter where you come down on him – over-cautious or careful – it has to be impossible to see him leading a hell-for-leather rush anywhere.

Irving ignores all of this – those that oppose Monty are stupid or selfish.  So even here, he fails, because even if Monty was right, the historian should prove that he was, not just assert it.

All in all, a pretty bad book. I won’t be hanging onto this one, which says a lot.

Reading Update – January


Notable Historical Trials III
Starting into a chapter on the Gordon Riots.
Children of Hurin
Tolkien’s story of men during the wars of against Morgoth in the First Age.  About half done.
A critical year in the antebellum era as seen through participants. Just starting.
Guns of Cedar Creek
The 1864 Battle of Cedar Creek.  Just starting out 
The Secret War for the Union
Military Intelligence in the Civil War.  Pretty interesting so far. One nugget is that Pinkerton, so maligned for giving McClellan bad information, actually gave him better information than was known. Mac just inflated or ignored the information and gave his own absurd estimates to the government for his own purposes.  Gives Pope high marks for the start of his campaign, though he fell apart later on during the battle of Second Bull Run of course.

Notable Historical Trials III – Elizabeth Hervey

This trial is a bit of a come-down from the others in the book.  The trial was one for bigamy, and was apparently all the rage in 1776 in London, overtaking a little thing like a Revolution in the Colonies.

Elizabeth was born a Chudleigh, and through an aunt was exposed to men of quality. A Lord Hamilton was very interested, but the aunt prefered Mr Hervey. By various arts she managed to suppress Hamilton and exalt Hervey until Elizabeth secretly married him.  This match soon tired her, so she ignored it, fairly successfully except for the embarrassing moments when Mr. Hervey showed up.  She went to the extent of arranging to tear out the page in the registry of the marriage. Then Hervey became the Earl of Bristol, and she thought better of it and arranged to sneak the page back in.

Years passed with her moving in the high society, and she met the Duke of Kingston and wanted to marry him, as he was more amiable, richer, and sickly to boot.  Hervey, although no longer mooning after her, wasn’t keen on helping her out but she managed to get a court suit showing that her marriage to him ‘could not be proved’ and she married the Duke.  On his death soon after, she became very wealthy.

But trouble started to follow – one from a playwright who featured her story in a play as a form of blackmail.  The other was a former domestic who was now poor and was a witness to the first marriage.  Her story was very interesting to the other heirs of the Duke, and a bigamy suit was launched.  She was all but found guilty, but invoked the ‘privilege of the peerage’ to have a trial in the House of Lords and avoided prison.  She fled to France for the rest of her life.

TV Review – ‘The Dark Ages’

This History Channel documentary is very similar in flavor to “Rome – Rise and Fall of an Empire” that I enjoyed enough to buy a copy, and I added this DVD to the package.  The history is presented by the narrator over live action vignettes interspersed with historians giving commentary to give context.

Since the Dark Ages span a longer period than the individual shows in “Rome”, coverage is restricted to a few isolated places and times over the span from 410 AD to 1080 AD or so, about the time of the Crusades. It was at this point that Europe again started to regain the ability to contact and trade and interact with the entire area that Rome once ruled.

The periods discussed are Alaric and the sack of Rome in 410, Clovis and the consolidation of France, Justinian and Theodora and the attempt to retake Italy in 530, Bede and St Benedict preserving knowledge, Charles Martel driving back the Muslims at Tours, Charlemagne, the Vikings and Alfred the Great, and then the problem with Knights up to the Crusades.   In many of the cases you can see a start at recovery that gets beaten back: Justinian’s conquests might have led to a new Empire in the Mediterranean, but plague so weakened the state that they could only make it a battleground for twenty years.  Charlemagne made a start as well, but the helplessness against the Vikings set them back again.  Once the Vikings were beaten back, the Knights needed to do so became problems of their own.

These days scholars want to try to downplay the “Dark” in these ages, but it was a bad time for Europe as a whole.  It isn’t all the fault of the people of the time, of course, but ignoring the loss of trade, technology, and peace and order of the centuries before is not the way to go.

It is a very informative and interesting show, if a bit ‘Dark’. If you find it too chipper, though, the disk also includes a bonus show on the Black Death.  Again, it is an instance of Europe doing very well right up until something intervenes to really mess things up.  And having a third to two-thirds of the population die pretty much qualifies.

There’s also a shorter ‘Making Of Dark Ages’ show that is pretty good viewing.

Second Manassas – Scott C. Patchan

Subtitled “Longstreet’s Attack and the Struggle for Chinn Ridge” this book gives a wonderful blow-by-blow recounting of Longstreet’s Corps assault on John Pope’s Army of Virginia at Second Manassas.

The map shows the situation about two-thirds of the way through. First Hood launched himself too quickly from the Groveton area towards Chinn Ridge, which lies in the lower center of the map, from the Chinn house northeastward to the Stone House crossroad. Only two small brigades were posted south of the road then – Warren’s, which was crushed by Hood at about the place Stephens brigade is on the map, and McLean’s, which repulsed Hood on Chinn Ridge and held it long enough for reinforcements to arrive.  The mostly unfordable Bull Run is off-map to the right, and the Warrenton Turnpike has a bridge across it.  If that intersection north of Chinn Ridge was held, or even contested with artillery, the retreat from the battle would have been virtually impossible for Pope’s Army.

But McLean, followed by Tower’s brigade held long enough for more help to arrive at Chinn and for a second line to be placed on Henry Hill ridge behind it, and for the forces north of the road to fall back unmolested.

This is an interesting action for be because my great-great-Grandfather was a member of Dilger’s battery, which is seen on this map on Dogan Ridge, where Law’s brigade has a big red arrow pointing at it.  The guns helped defend Chinn Ridge by attacking the forces in flank. and held Dogan Ridge to allow the north wing to retire.

The book gives a lot of very interesting detail on this confusing action, and also helps to deflect some, but not all of the criticism of Jackson’s lethargy in attacking north of the road.  That big red arrow is misleading – they mostly followed the retiring Federals meekly.  Patchan does explain that Jackson was ordered to protect the far wing of Longstreet’s troops – Wilcox’s men. But Hood jumped off so fast that Wilcox lost track of him and more or less stayed in place, possibly fooling Jackson.  Regardless, some more energy in Jackson’s admittedly tired troops could have held forces in place to be cut off by Longstreet, or at least to not oppose him.

As the map shows, as evening fell the troops on Chinn were overwhelmed, and then Longstreet’s men forced the Henry Hill line to retire as darkness fell.  Even with its faults, this was one of the most spectacular and successful mass assaults in the entire war.  And it gave Lee his most clear battlefield victory of the war.

For a full recounting of the campaign, John Hennessy’s Return to Bull Run is still the standard treatment, until you get to this point in the battle.  You don’t have to take my word on that – Hennessy says it himself in the foreword.