Tuesday, August 30, 2011

November 20, 1759 – Battle of Quiberon Bay Ravages Royal Navy

The Anglo-French portion of the Six Years' War had dragged on through mixed results. Early on, the French had the upper hand with a string of victories in North America, but the leadership of Secretary of State William Pitt, Senior, resulted in a masterful use of British resources to turn the tide of the war. Then came the Annus Pestis (Cursed Year) of 1759. The French settlers and their Indian allies ignited a guerilla war in the Ohio Country that frustrated British hopes of taking Quebec. In India, Madras fell to French forces, though the battle would prove Pyrrhic for the victors. On the European Continent, French troops formed a siege of Minden, taking large swaths of German land west of the Weser River. At sea, the British gained great hope after the attack on Le Havre with a two-day bombardment that destroyed many of the barges the French were assembling for an amphibious invasion of Britain and again a small victory came at the Battle of Lagos, where British ships destroyed two ships-of-the-line from the French fleet and scattered the rest. However, the Battle of Quiberon Bay would give France another chance to challenge Britain for control of the high seas.

The battle began after a storm had driven most of the British blockade keeping the remaining troop transports at bay in France. French Marshal de Conflans hurried to merge his fleet with other squadrons collected from the West Indies and remainders from battles in the Mediterranean. He was spotted by British squadron commander Robert Buff and decided to give pursuit, but Buff split his smaller fleet into two groups heading north and south. In what was is seen as the most fortuitous move of the war, Conflans decided to keep his fleet together while in pursuit of the southerly British ships, resulting in organization that would be key to victory in the hard-won battle. The bulk of the English fleet appeared under Edward Hawke from the west, and the two converged in a titanic battle. A shift in the wind nearly disorganized Conflans, but the French managed to keep their composure and defeat the English inside the bay. Hawke died in the battle and only a handful of ships-of-the-line managed to escape, enabling the French to capture some ten more and wreck others.

It would be the final straw of the Annus Pestis. The French hurried to rebuild their fleet and launch their invasion of Britain as soon as weather permitted. Meanwhile, England became frantic.
Though William Pitt campaigned for a strong militia defense, drawing in the French force and then cutting off their supplies with a renewed navy to capture the army while it starved, the rest of Parliament would be swayed by the fearful public opinion. That Christmas, the English sued for peace, and the Treaty of Paris in 1760 took England out of the war. France made great colonial demands, retaking the lost Guadeloupe in the West Indies, expanding French territory in North America, and carving out rights to a French South India from the Carnatic and Mysore regions to the Indian Ocean France continued on in Europe, pressing troops into Hanover and forcing Prussia into a stalemate with Russia and Sweden. In the east, the war would end in 1761 with Prussia's growth being checked amid the other Baltic Powers.

The next twenty-five years would be a renewed Golden Age for France, raking in great wealth from its new colonies. Britain, meanwhile, came upon problematic times as it struggled to recover, establishing a taxation system that sent its American colonies into rebellion, which was much aided by the French. The resulting United States of America would soon have the first of many border wars with the French in Ohio, Louisiana, and along the St. Lawrence River, gradually pushing the French and their Indian allies west and northward.

The American experiment in self-rule spawned a wave of Enlightenment revolutions through Europe, and France would be among the first to lose its autocracy with the revival of the Estates-General and the establishment of the National Assembly to placate and aid those suffering from poor harvests. The renewed France would again injure Britain by aiding the Irish Rebellion of 1798, which would make famous Colonel Arthur Wesley as a great hero of Ireland as he managed to forge a self-rule for Ireland while maintaining some connection with England.

With a weakened Britain, other European powers took up their chances to increase their colonial strengths with Portugal in southern Africa, the Dutch in the South Pacific with New Holland, and the French in South Asia, West Africa, the Great Lakes, and in numerous islands wherever their navy could reach.


In reality, the Battle of Quiberon Bay was be the last great British victory in 1759, which came to be known as the Annus Mirabilis (Year of Miracles). They had driven the French nearly out of Canada, captured Guadeloupe, held Madras in India, and aided their German allies in victories on the Continent. Perhaps most significant were the victories at sea, particularly Quiberon Bay, where Britain would establish itself as unquestioned master of the seas for the next 150 years.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

November 17, 1603 – Sir Walter Raleigh Acquitted

Upon the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, many Catholics saw the time of transition when Scottish James I took the English throne as the chance to overthrow the Protestant government. England had officially separated from Rome in 1534 under Henry VIII, who repeatedly fought to keep his position as head of the Church of England. The wars continued, primarily with Spain, through the reign of his daughter Elizabeth, though she would take a fairly neutral stance on Catholicism compared to Henry. The Virgin Queen had no issue, and the crown passed to her relative James VI of Scotland, who was not uniformly welcomed to the throne.

In the midst of the uneasiness, many Catholics thought that a single push would overthrow the Protestant rule of the country, and conspiracies were born. Most famous would be the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 with its close-call to the destruction of Parliament, but there would also be Bye Plot (in which Catholic priests hoped to kidnap James I to force the repeal of anti-Catholic laws) and the Main Plot both in 1603. Funded by Spain and led by men such as Henry Brooke, his brother Sir George (who would be executed after trial in the Bye Plot), and military man Thomas Grey, the plot involved raising up an army to storm London and place James’s cousin Arabella on the throne. Henry Brooke, the Lord Cobham, was in contact with the court of Spain and would collect money for the plot by travelling circuitously from London to Brussels to Spain and then back to London via Jersey, where Sir Walter Raleigh was governor. As the conspiracy came to trial, Raleigh would be dragged into it.

Raleigh was familiar with scandal. He had secretly married one of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, Elizabeth Throckmorton, without permission in 1591, and the couple was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Shortly thereafter, however, Raleigh was released as he was one of the leading Englishmen with knowledge of the New World and worked to divide the spoils of the captured Spanish Madre de Dios. His fortunes would bounce back, just as they had after his failed experiment with Roanoke Colony. In 1593, he was made a burgess and later elected to Parliament (sitting for three counties in 1603). The next year, he came upon the story of “El Dorado”, a golden city at the headwaters of the Caroní River, a tributary of the Orinoco, and traveled to explore the northern coast of South America. Upon his return, Raleigh wrote The Discovery of Guiana and made exciting, if exaggerated, claims about his voyage. He returned to favor with exploits in battles with Spain and was named Governor of Jersey, from which he would be recalled in 1603 under suspicion of conspiracy and treason.

Cobham had given a sworn confession involving Raleigh, attempting to name names as his brother George Brooke had done turning Cobham in during the Bye trials. Raleigh denounced the evidence as “hearsay”, which was outright inadmissible in common law, though it could be heard in this civil law case of treason. General Attorney Edward Coke, who was new to his position and gaining great fame as he prosecuted numerous treasonous conspirators, refused to allow Cobham to testify in person as Cobham was described by contemporaries to say “one thing at one time, and another thing in another, and could be relied upon in nothing." Coke used personal attacks such as "notorious traitor", "vile viper" and "damnable atheist" in lieu of actual evidence, and finally Raleigh was able to point out that Coke was acting simply out of desperation in his duty to prosecute by order of the king. James I recognized this, and the charges were dismissed.

Raleigh returned to his positions and completing his improvements of the Jersey defenses before pressing on with his aspirations of discovering El Dorado. He gathered investors and equipment for not just an expedition, but a colony at the delta of the Orinoco to supply further expeditions up river. Raleigh’s bravado worked to his advantage in keeping the Spanish farther west and establishing an effective new Jamestown. The colony would later be governed by his son Wat after Raleigh disappeared into the jungle on one of his many expeditions and never returned. Orinoco proved a key military position between coastal Spanish Venezuela and the Dutch colonies forming to the east, many of which would be conquered in the later Anglo-Dutch wars.

Orinoco proved a fairly profitable, if non-noteworthy, plantation colony for the British Empire in the next several centuries. By the early 1900s, its vast oil fields became a valuable commodity, and since then Orinoco has been one of the richest corners of the Commonwealth, looked upon with envy by other former colonies and routinely doing well in sporting matches from its state-of-the-art national stadium, El Dorado.


In reality, Raleigh was found guilty of treason, though King James would suspend his execution and hold him in the Tower of London until 1616, when he would be released to lead an expedition in search of El Dorado. During the exploration of Venezuela, an attack on a Spanish outpost would go wrong, his son Wat being shot and the attack being labeled an illegal act of war. To appease the Spanish, Raleigh’s sentence of beheading was reinstated in 1618. It was said that “justice of England has never been so degraded and injured as by the condemnation of the honourable Sir Walter Raleigh."

Saturday, August 27, 2011

November 16, 636 – Sassanid Victory at al-Qādisiyyah halts Muslim Advance

Beginning in the 600s, the Middle East was a theater of war for three of history’s greatest empires. Two of them, the Byzantine and the Sassanid Empires, had battled for centuries and were descendants of empires that had stood even longer ago, Rome and Parthia, respectively. A new empire began to form, however, during the life of the Prophet Muhammad. As more and more converts joined his faith, the power of Islam grew out of the western part of Arabia and expanded quickly. When the Byzantines and Sassanids noticed this, they set aside their own differences and began an alliance for mutual protection.

Byzantium had begun its significance when the Roman emperor Constantine moved his capital there to promote stability in 330. Doing so strengthened the wealthy eastern frontier, but it also ultimately broke the Roman Empire apart with the West falling to the German hordes in 476. The Byzantines still stood, but toward the beginning of 600, the Sassanid Empire stormed Syria, Egypt, and Anatolia in vengeance of the Byzantine general assassinating and usurping the emperor Maurice, who had married a Sassanid princess. The next emperor, Heraclius, defeated the Sassanids at Nineveh in 627 and received back the captured territory and loot, including the True Cross.

The Sassanid Empire faced its own turmoil. Khosrau II was assassinated by his son Kavadh II in 629, who died in a matter of months, leading to a string of usurpations. Seven-year-old Ardashir III reigned before being killed by General Farrokhan, who died in battle and was succeeded by Purandokht, daughter of Khosrau II. She would rule for a short time, repairing much of the damage done by the past years’ intrigue before being replaced by her sister Azarmidokht, who would in turn be replaced by the nobleman Hormizd VI. Finally, Purandokht’s son and Khosrau’s grandson Yazdgerd III came of age and stabilized the Sassanid throne, supported by his general Rostam Farrokhzād.

Meanwhile, Muslim power continued to grow. Upon the death of the Prophet in 632, a council met and determined that Abu Bakr would be caliph. He set upon a series of wars uniting the Arabs of Arabia and then moving northward to add those in Syria and Palestine. With a new force the Middle East to counteract the tentative balance between Byzantium and Persia, wars quickly began with the caliphate invasion of Iraq, and the Muslim power was affirmed with the defeat of an army Sassanids, Byzantines, and Christian Arabs in 633. Sassanids finally stopped the Muslim advance in 634, and Sassanids and Byzantines made a formal alliance in 635. Knowing of the alliance, the Muslim forces decided to deal with their enemies one at a time, wiping out the Byzantine army at Yarmouk near the Sea of Galilee in August of 636 at the cost of abandoning Iraq to a massive Sassanid force of some 200,000 in camp. The Muslims camped at Qādisiyyah with 30,000 and waited as peace talks dragged on.

That November, the talks gave way to actual battle. The two sides had attempted to bend the other’s will with the Muslims sending an emissary to convert Yazdgerd III while the Persians sent a Muslim ambassador home as a servant carrying a basket of dirt on his head (though the Muslim response was, “Congratulations! The enemy has voluntarily surrendered its territory to us”). Caliph Umar ordered the talks to end, which caused Sassanid General Rostam to prepare for battle despite his reservations. Although the Sassanid army was much larger, the vast majority of the force was conscripted spear infantry that Procopius of Caesarea described as "a crowd of pitiable peasants who come into battle for no other purpose than to dig through walls and to despoil the slain and in general to serve the [real] soldiers.”

In the night, Rostam decided to use the infantry, what might have been his weakness, as a diversion. He dammed up the canal and moved over his entire army to face the Muslim force the next morning. Following secret orders, the infantry led the attack as a whole after the opening onslaught of the arrows, but were swiftly beaten back by the better trained Muslims. They feigned retreat, and the Muslims pursued. When they reached the canal, however, the infantry turned about and were ordered to hold position while the archers pounded the Muslims, who then began their own retreat. In the chaos (the battle would be known to Islam as Yaum-ul-Armah, "The Day of Disorder"), Rostam released his war elephants, backed by his heavy cavalry, which swept the Muslim cavalry from the field. The organized retreat turned to a rout with the unnerving elephants stomping, and the Muslim army was destroyed.

Yazdgerd III would manage to seal the victory with a treaty that would end his alliance with the now extremely weakened Byzantine Empire. The Zagros Mountains were strongly defended against further Muslim invasion, though the rich lands of Mesopotamia would routinely change hands between them, like Anatolia, which would be stripped from the Byzantines, who became a relic city-state with a naval empire. The Muslim caliphates, meanwhile, would turn westward, conquering across North Africa and into Europe, where Christians would begin counterattacks such as the Crusades with Persian allies.

While the political boundaries settled for the time, the wildly different religions of the Arab and Persian peoples would keep up a constant sense of distrust. Although conquered by the Mongols and later European colonialists, Persia would remain the center of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s largest religions.


In reality, the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah lasted four days. Fighting was bloody but inconclusive until the fourth day, when Rostam’s war elephants were driven from the battle for good. Rostam was killed in the battle, and his army disintegrated without a leader, giving a great victory to the Muslims, who would soon conquer Persia and add it to the Rashidun Caliphate. After centuries of religious persecution, only a handful of Zoroastrians remain, and Iran is the seat of Shia Islam.

November 15, 1957 – Khrushchev Offers to Share Technology

In a move that many who knew him considered shockingly uncharacteristic (and believed to have been caused by advisers warning against words antagonizing opponents as had caused massive uprising in Hungary), Russian First Secretary of the Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev said during an interview with an American reporter that he would be willing to share missile technology with the United States, who clearly did not have the same ICBM capabilities as the Soviets. "If she had, she would have launched her own Sputnik," Khrushchev noted, recalling the Russian success of being the first people to put an artificial satellite into orbit some six weeks before on October 4. Later in the interview, given as part of the commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the October Revolution, he discussed East-West relations and noted that neither side wanted war, but that the Soviets would win if one began.

The interview came just days after the Soviets had hurriedly launched Sputnik 2, which brought the first living creature into orbit, a dog named Laika. She proved that living creatures could survive weightlessness and opened the door for human scientific exploration of space. It also came after the humbling Gaither Report was leaked to the press. Assembled by the Security Resources Panel of the President's Science Advisory Committee, the report showed that the United States was far behind the Soviets on missile technology. After a decade of not working toward that end, the US had as its only defense the system of bomb shelters that were hardly effective if a large-scale war erupted.

The American populace continued to reel from the shocking news of Soviet superiority. Only a decade ago, the USA had been unquestionably the most powerful nation in the world with the A-bomb born out of the Manhattan Project. At the end of the war in 1945, Operation Paperclip sent OSS agents throughout Germany picking up Nazi scientists such as Werner von Braun and capturing what technology they could. Many of these scientists came to work for the Americans (some even illegally imprisoned at places such as P.O. Box 1142), and an inter-continental ballistic missile project was begun in 1946 by Consolidated-Vultee with its MX-774. The program was shut down a couple of years later as conservative feelings overtook post-war America, and it would not be until after the shocking launch of Sputnik that the Americans would reawaken.

Embarrassed and shocked by the Russians, Project Vanguard was quickly put into place by the Eisenhower administration to lift the Explorer Program, picking up proposals from the US Navy and Army that had been shelved due to lack of interest and funding. With the disastrous launch attempt of the Vanguard TV3 on December 6, 1957, where the three-stage rocket rose four feet before losing thrust, collapsing, and exploding, American public turned back to Khrushchev's offer. Many took it as if he were an older brother offering help with homework, while others thought he was twisting the diplomatic knife with a pandering, impossible offer. The world was in the midst of the International Geophysical Year sharing science on geomagnetism, oceanography, etc, and leaders internationally began to criticize the Americans for not taking up Khrushchev's offer to take up an American satellite on a Russian rocket. Much of the hooplah was settled with the launch of Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958, and then rocketry settled to a calmer scientific route with military espionage riding closely, secretly behind.

International relations improved somewhat between the USA and USSR, later resulting in the Nuclear Limitation Treaty in 1962 avoiding a massive stockpile of weapons beyond the point of Mutually Assured Destruction. Despite Khrushchev's constant assurances that communism would bury capitalism and colonialism, the Soviet Union would eventually fall in 1992, but not until after the success of the Buran shuttle system, launched in 1988 on the anniversary of Khrushchev's speech that began a time of peaceful coexistence in orbital space above the simmering Cold War. With an international space station being pieced together by Russian rockets with American engineered segments, long term space habitation is gradually being explored. Scientists hope to eventually put a man on the moon, where probes and flyby satellites have already taken a great deal of data, but cost and lack of public incentive have kept humans home.


In reality, Khruschev challenged America with, "Let's have a peaceful rocket contest just like a rifle-shooting match, and they'll see for themselves." The words would help begin the Space Race in which the Americans would work to catch up with and surpass the Soviets, culminating with the American Moon landing on July 20, 1969. Due to cost and recent catastrophic N1 rocket failures, Khrushchev determined that the Soviets would not make further plans to attempt a manned moon landing, and even the Russian shuttle program, which emulated the Americans from a decade before, would never launch more than an unmanned test mission.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

November 13, 1861 – Lincoln Dismisses McClellan after Insult

After not even two weeks of being General-in-Chief of the Union Armies, General George B. McClellan was dismissed from his position after repeated faux pas. President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and presidential secretary John Hay came by McClellan's house for a strategy meeting. The general was out, so the men waited. An hour later, McClellan returned but did not acknowledge them, and, after another half hour, his servant finally told the president that McClellan had gone on to bed. Lincoln was initially very calm, as he would typically be despite the trials of his presidency, and at first determined "better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity." When word slipped that McClellan had privately referred to Lincoln as a "baboon" and "gorilla" and Seward as an "incompetent little puppy," Lincoln's uncustomary temper rose, and he fired his general-in-chief, demoting McClellan simply to commander of the Army of the Potomac.

Lincoln, however, put himself into dire straits. His military was hardly ready, but the populace was unsure whether a war to keep the Union united would be worth it, and he needed victories to keep the people in ready. General Winfield Scott, who had served with the US Army since before the War of 1812, had retired October 31 due to "health reasons" of being seventy-five years old. Other commanders might have been available, but Lincoln needed someone he was certain would be brash and wield the available army to the fullness of its effect. He recalled meeting Colonel William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the most effective commanders at the Battle of Bull Run that June. Lincoln had been so impressed that he promoted Sherman to brigadier general of volunteers.

Sherman, however, was unnerved by the war. The defeat by Confederates had caused him to question the abilities of Union soldiers as well as his own competency as a commander, despite his bravery even after taking grazing bullet wounds to his shoulder and knee. He had been assigned to Robert Anderson in the Department of the Cumberland and that October had replaced Anderson due to ill health. Sherman had been promised by Lincoln not to be given such authority so suddenly, and it began to wear on him. He was increasingly paranoid of Confederate resources and sent constant requests for more supplies from Washington. After a review by Secretary of War Simon Cameron, the press turned against him, noting his pessimism and what would be later described by psychology as a "nervous breakdown." He was relieved of command and sent to St. Louis, where he would receive his summons to Washington by Lincoln as a new general-in-chief to concoct the strategy for defeating the South.

Sherman arrived in Washington and immediately pleaded with Lincoln (directly as well as through his brother, Senator John Sherman) that he was unfit for command. Lincoln recalled his reservations about McClellan's ability to be both general-in-chief while still operating as an army commander, to which McClellan assured him, "I can do it." The president was tired of generals who questioned his decisions as commander-in-chief, and Lincoln wrote Sherman a direct order to take command. Sherman committed suicide December 23, 1861, under the pressure.

It would be a severe strike against Lincoln's administration and public opinion about the war. Further, Lincoln was once again stuck without a commander. Frémont had proven overly aggressive in Missouri that November, turning Lincoln to the third most senior general in the Army, Henry Halleck, who had just replaced Frémont in Missouri. Halleck soon arrived in Washington and proved an able administrator, though Lincoln would be frustrated over his lack of action in the next years, referring to Halleck as "little more than a first rate clerk." The Union struggled to make any progress in the East, but the Western theater with its eager General Ulysses S. Grant returned numerous victories. Winfield Scott's "Anaconda Plan" eventually began to choke out the South, who suffered Pyrrhic losses in its invasion of Pennsylvania under Lee, and Grant was made the new general-in-chief in 1864 with Halleck being "kicked upstairs" to Chief of Staff.

Grant put forward Lincoln's plan of total war to break down Southern infrastructure and keep potential reinforcements pinned. The taking of Atlanta by General George Henry Thomas on October 2, 1864, came just in time to guarantee Lincoln's second election, and Thomas would lead the careful and slow demolition of Southern communication, transport, and industry. However, shortly after the end of the war with Lee's surrender in June of 1865, the superficial damage would be easily repaired. Lincoln's assassination came as a harsh blow to the South, but Thomas's gentlemanly use of Army resources to enable Southern rebuilding did much to aid feelings in Reconstruction after the notions of him being a "traitor" to his native Virginia faded.

Andrew Johnson battled through the rest of Lincoln's term, and in 1868 Grant would win the presidency. While dealing mainly with the issues of the South, he would also be notably genial toward Native Americans. His use of treaties restricting buffalo hunts came too late to preserve the food supply entirely, but he would continue his overall attitude toward Natives as "harmless" and "peaceful" until "put upon by the whites" and prevent as many armed altercations as he could.


In reality, Lincoln allowed McClellan to continue as general-in-chief until the failure of the Peninsular Campaign. Sherman would be given leave not long after the Cincinnati Commercial referred to him as "insane" on December 11, 1861. He soon return recuperated, taking up service under Grant, whom he would aid in victories such as that at Chattanooga. When Grant became general-in-chief, he gave Sherman command to take Atlanta and approved the later March to the Sea, which saw scorched earth tactics of utterly laying waste to the South from Atlanta to Savannah. After the war, Sherman would be put in charge of the Military Division of the Missouri, where he would write to Grant that "hostile savages like Sitting Bull and his band of outlaw Sioux ... must feel the superior power of the Government" and "we must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children."

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

November 9, 1916 – JRR Tolkien Hallucinates in the Trenches

In the midst of trench fever, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, signals officer with the Lancashire Fusiliers, began hallucinations that would forever change him. He was meant to have been invalided the day before, but he chose to stay behind to let another, sicker soldier take his place. Still in the miserable conditions of the trenches, Tolkien relapsed the next day into a high fever, crippling muscle soreness in his legs, and stabbing pain in his eyes. Others went to fetch a medic while he remained propped in the dark of a supply tent, near an unused machine gun. He had listened to the thunderous blasts of machine gun fire often in training in Staffordshire and later in combat during the Somme offensive.

This time, however, the noise was only in his mind, which translated the mechanical pattering into a language. He thought he could just about translate the words, a series of taps as if a living telegraph key, reassuring him that the gun would fight on just as a fellow soldier would. When medics arrived to take him away from the front, he told them, “The gun. It shall fight on.”

Tolkien returned to England and to his wife, Edith, whom he had married three years before after five years of waiting due to his guardian's refusal they see one another before Tolkien was 21. He would spend the rest of the war alternately in hospitals or on light guard duty since he was too ill with recurrent fever to participate other than stints in camps on the home front, but honor kept him in the service until the end of the war. While recovering, Tolkien would begin writing fanciful stories, mixing the worlds of myth he had always studied with his new ideas of animated machines. He devoured science romances of Jules Verne and the like, but the use of machines as tools carried too little personification. Instead, Tolkien created machines that were as human as men, with personalities and special skills, just as the dwarves or elf creatures in Northern European myth. One of his first stories, "Fall of Gondolin" told of a city made of machines, each working its duty to create a glorious world, and its betrayal and destruction by the armies of an industrial behemoth monster called Morgoth ("Black Foe of the World" in Klindirin, a clicking language he invented for his machines).

Tolkien was not the only fiction-writer fascinated with intelligent machines. Just after the turn of the century, Frank L. Baum wrote about Tik-tok, a living clockwork being. The idea was taken further in 1921 by the Czech playwright Karel Capek in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), first coining the term “robot” for a humanlike automaton built to do work. Films would soon have their own robots with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927 giving a robot indistinguishable from the human Maria. In all of these, the machines were written to emulate humans, but Tolkien’s stories went further, creating a world complete with history, language, and culture with different races of machines, not metal emulations of humanity. His studies of myth, particularly Beowulf, turned him to a sense of social tribalism and competition over resources. In 1936, Tolkien published The Robbit about a portly, quiet machine chosen by a magical Tinkerer to join a quest to liberate a coal mine from Smaug, an ancient predatory machine. This and the following Bearing trilogy would inspire the next generation of science fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

While he would continue to write during his free time, Tolkien's professional life kept him busy. He worked for the Oxford English Dictionary, became the youngest professor at the University of Leeds, and finally settled at Oxford first at Pembroke College and then Merton, becoming chair of English Language and Literature. Tolkien often ate with fellow writers in a club nicknamed “The Inklings”, including C.S. Lewis, the unquestioned Father of Modern Fantasy with his Wardrobe tales. In World War II, Tolkien served his country again as a code-breaker (though was notoriously vocal about his anti-war sentiments) and worked alongside men such as Alan Turing, who would be inspired by Tolkien’s ideas on machine communication. While Tolkien never officially worked on computer development projects, he and Turing kept close correspondence, even through Turing’s indecency debacle in the early ‘50s. Shortly before Tolkien’s death in 1973, Turing’s Beren system came online, creating the first vocal command interface and allowing man and machine to talk just as Tolkien dreamed. Mankind would far surpass Arthur C. Clarke’s description of a “HAL 9000” by its fictional birth date in 1997 for his 2001: A Space Odyssey.


In reality, Tolkien was invalided to England on November 8, 1916. He wrote extensively in the style of ancient myth, giving new life to the High Fantasy genre that supplied depth and poetry to literature that was often considered nothing but pulp adventure.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

November 8, 1942 – Operation Sledgehammer Begins

In the beginning of the darkest hours of the Second World War, the ill-fated 1942 invasion of the European mainland began on a sunny, mild day. The week prior to the landing had been one of changeable weather, and Allied Command had been nervous about weather upsetting the Channel waters. On the 5th, an inch of rain fell in London, which made ground commanders nervous about the ability to move tanks and trucks while pilots hoped air fields and visibility would be clear. On the 7th, as if Mother Nature were welcoming the invasion, temperatures climbed into the 50s (12+ C) and dried the soaking land. In the early hours of the 8th, Supreme Commander Allied (Expeditionary) Force Dwight Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for the invasion.

The operation had very nearly not happened. As late as the Second Claridge Conference in July of 1942, Prime Minister Churchill was firmly against the idea of an assault on the heavily defended northern shore of France. He recommended instead that the Allies attack through North Africa, striking at the “weak underbelly of Europe” to take on Hitler’s weaker allies in Vichy France and Italy rather than the Third Reich itself. His main argument against a massive assault was that Britain simply did not have the resources necessary in supplies, transports, and aircraft.

Against him was US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor had thrust America into the war, but many felt that resources should be spent seeking revenge on Japan in the Pacific theater rather than Roosevelt’s call to destroy Hitler, the instigator of the war. With Americans fully invested in Europe, FDR would further hush naysayers who said we were fighting the wrong enemy. In March of 1942, FDR wrote Churchill that he was “becoming more and more interested in the establishment of a new front this summer on the European continent, certainly for air and raids... And even though losses will doubtless be great, such losses will be compensated by at least equal German losses and by compelling the Germans to divert large forces of all kinds from the Russian front.”

The Russians were thusly extremely interested in a second front in Europe. If Hitler were caught in a pincer movement, or even distracted by air raids such as FDR suggested, the bloody Eastern Front would take great relief. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov visited the UK and insisted on aid as soon as possible. He was rebuffed in London, but his visit to Washington proved much more supportive. Eventually, however, diplomatic squabbling settled on the side of the US and Soviets, and Churchill begrudgingly readied his country for another great fight after surviving the Battle of Britain in 1940 and terrible Blitz in ‘41. He was at least able to postpone the invasion until the late autumn, using the disastrous Dieppe Raid on August 19 as an example of the vicious resistance the Allies would face.

Allied Command determined that the only possible method of success would be air superiority. For months, air resources were readied on fields in England and even as far away as Scotland while convoys such as SL 125 worked to divert German attention toward the false notion of an African attack. The attack began with bombers with diving torpedoes attempting to clear a path in the mines for landing craft while naval bombardment provided cover and pounded the soon-to-be-captured port of Cherbourg. The landing would be difficult and the resulting fight even worse with urban warfare racking up numerous Allied losses. Thanks to “brute American will”, however, the beachhead would be established.

Any plans for a push that winter, however, were cut short when Erwin Rommel was brought back from North Africa, where he had begun a drive to take Egypt, but was cut short by British General Montgomery’s counterattack. Rommel took up the Panzer divisions that had waited in Europe for just this moment and attacked the Allied port, narrowly kept at bay with massive casualties by American General George Patton. Through the bitterly cold winter of ’42-’43, the Allies and Axis would throw more and more resources into the fray, creating a warzone not seen in France since the bloodbaths of World War I.

The next spring, Operation Roundup pumped more divisions and the Allies finally made a few miles of progress into France. News of never-ending battles beleaguered the war-weary nations with Americans growing firmer on the idea that they had yet again stumbled into Europe’s mess. In Britain, which was continually under German air assault in hopes of breaking up Allied supply lines, Churchill was blamed as speeches recalled his responsibility for Gallipoli. A vote of no confidence was carried, and Churchill fell from office despite his historical innocence. Likewise, FDR would be narrowly defeated in 1944 despite the European theater coming to a close. Hitler himself became increasingly frantic, causing many of his ministers and commanders to distance themselves. Mussolini as well as Admiral Francois Darlan of Vichy attempted to work with the Allies, and both would find themselves murdered by the end of the war.

Modern commentators often mention that the real winners of the Anglo-American and German Second Battle of France were the Soviets. Much relieved from German pressure and even victorious at the Battle of Stalingrad with the capture of the German 6th Army, Stalin surged in a counterattack across Eastern Europe and brought the ultimate defeat to Germany by taking Berlin in late 1944. Capturing numerous German scientists and technologies, it would be only a matter of a few years before Moscow began producing its own supersonic V-2 rockets.


In reality, Operation Sledgehammer was shelved as infeasible. Initially planned for early fall of 1942, the plan would have brought only nine potential Allied divisions against some thirty German, realistically ending with the Allies being driven back into the sea. Instead, Churchill’s ideal of Operation Torch sent Allied troops through North Africa and then into France and Italy and finally Germany.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

November 7, 1730 – Crown Prince in Prussia Dies during Imprisonment

In a punishment that was fitting of the iron-willed Prussian king but proved to be too much, Crown Prince Frederick died from what was officially declared “fever.” Historians as well as contemporary scholars disagreed what “fever” meant, whether a brain hemorrhage from stress or legitimate illness. Another theory stands that the prince might well have killed himself. Some even suggest a conspiracy to assassinate a would-be foppish king before he could ruin his throne.

The matter at hand was something of a youthful dreamer’s ideal of escape from an authoritarian father. Frederick was born January 24, 1712, and was eagerly welcomed as a surviving heir second in line to his grandfather, Frederick I, the first King in Prussia. One of many states within the aged Holy Roman Empire and a fiefdom of the Kingdom of Poland, Prussia sat at the southern shore along the Baltic Sea with several scattered territories separated from one another by Poland and various other German dukedoms and principalities. Although devastated in the Thirty Years War with invasions by the Swedes and riotous counterattacking armies marching up from the south, Prussia had gained greater strength over the latter seventeenth century. They were liberated from Poland as a buffer for Sweden in 1657, and further gains were made as native coal became an increasingly valuable resource as well as the issuance of the Edict of Potsdam in 1685 that welcomed Protestants, especially encouraging Huguenots expelled from France, to transplant to Prussia, bringing valuable wealth and skills with them. In terms of joining the War of Spanish Succession against France, the Duke of Prussia was allowed by treaty to upgrade himself to king, and the new title “King in Prussia” was born despite Prussia not being a true kingdom as it was still an electorate under the Holy Roman Emperor.

Thus, in 1701, Frederick I would crown himself king. Bubonic plague would ravage the country a few years later, but the capital at Berlin would be spared and from then on would stand as a centralized point of authority. Frederick William I came to the throne shortly after his son Frederick’s birth and, only months later, his father Frederick’s death. He continued efforts to improve Prussia and was soon nicknamed the “Soldier King.” Establishing effective bureaucracy and creating a modern, professional, standing army, Frederick would prove an able leader and oversee the defeat of Sweden as a world power through the Great Northern War. He added territory to the small kingdom and forcibly included aristocracy into the army, giving seriousness to warfare that was often considered a “gentleman’s sport.” Frederick William was notably spartan, thrifty and calculating, and not participating much in art, except in military display, where he sent proclamations throughout Europe seeking the tallest men for a unit known as the “Potsdam Giants.”

Prince Frederick, however, thrived in the arts. His father gave him no aristocratic tutors, demanding his children would be taught as “simple folk” with pragmatism and religion. Frederick sought the company of his sister Wilhelmina and comfort of his gentle mother rather than facing the austere temper of his father. Frederick William (himself terrified of not being among the Elect) attempted to block Frederick from Calvinism. Frederick firmly held onto the tenet of the Elect while being otherwise irreligious, causing many to think he was spiting his father.

The greatest spite, however, was Frederick’s plan to escape his father’s weight and flee to Britain in 1730, where he would be welcome in his uncle George I’s court to pursue philosophy and music as he pleased. He and his friend Lieutenant Hans Hermann von Katte planned to slip away along with a contingent of other junior officers. Word leaked of the escape, and Katte and Frederick were captured. His father determined to deal with them as would fit a soldier. Katte was found guilty of desertion by trial and given life imprisonment, but Frederick William announced that both would be executed under treason law. Katte was beheaded on November 6, and Frederick was forced to watch until he ultimately fainted and began to suffer hallucinations. The next morning, he was discovered dead in his cell.

His father became distraught. Frederick William had wanted to toughen his son and planned to pardon him in a few days. The last ten years of the king’s reign would be spent quietly reviewing the military and ensuring that Prussia would be able to defend itself during the reign of the new heir, Frederick’s younger brother Augustus. Augustus became king in 1740, and he worked to keep Prussia free from the potentially disastrous entanglements of the War of Austrian Succession. His son Frederick William II succeeded him in 1758, and the king proved soft: unwilling to put forth great efforts and rather delight himself with simple pleasures, such as good food. After a half-hearted alliance against the French Republic during Frederick William II’s term, Frederick William III attempted to clean up Prussia’s wasteful decadence, but it came as too little too late when the armies of Napoleon swept across Europe.

After Napoleon, Europe attempted to rebuild, and Austria managed to cut off Russia’s attempt at land-grabbing by surrendering claims to Pomerania, land for which Frederick William III’s ancestors had fought bitterly. The German Confederation fell under the sway of Vienna, and Austria would be the dominant power of Central Europe over the next century. Troubled times would come in 1848 with waves of revolution, but Emperor Franz Joseph I was adept in granting improved autonomy to the German kingdoms of Bavaria, Hanover, and Prussia. After the Great War at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Austro-Hungarian Empire would be broken up, and the three German states would gain independence with Hanover competing with Prussia for political influence in Mecklenburg, but failing. It wouldn’t be until 1945 when the Bavarian Fuhrer Adolf Hitler would manage to fulfill his dream of a united German-speaking people from the Rhine to the Danube and Baltic.


In reality, Frederick survived two days of hallucinations and was pardoned on November 18 by his father. He was a changed man by the experience and never spoke of Katte again. Frederick married Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick-Bevern but did not love her, and the two had no children. Instead, Frederick threw himself into work improving his kingdom (he would upgrade his title to “King of Prussia” just before his death) and making Prussia into one of the most powerful military forces in Europe in the mid-1700s, defeating opponents such as Austria and Poland.

Friday, August 19, 2011

October 31, 1517 – Martin Luther Nails Ninety-Five Theses to Wittenburg Town Hall

After a study of social structure, lawyer and university professor Martin Luther sent his famous letter to Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, as well as publishing a copy on the door of the town hall with ninety-five questions critiquing the current political and economic system in the Holy Roman Empire called "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Rule." The points would become the most famous document of the time, being republished along with many other of Luther’s works calling for social reform based upon early humanist ideals. With a sudden concrete philosophical base, peasants who had been kept under feudal thumb for centuries would successfully rise up to establish representation as Europe’s dominant political system.

Martin Luther was born November 10, 1483, in Eisleben in the midst of the Holy Roman Empire. His father, Hans Ludher, was of comfortable wealth in the working middle class, serving in the copper industry as owner of mines and smelters as well as a citizen representative in the town council. As eldest son, Martin was expected by his hardworking parents to become a lawyer and make a great name for himself in Germany. Martin was well educated as a youngster and sent to the University of Erfurt (which he later described as “a beerhouse and whorehouse”) where he would gain a master’s degree in 1505 and enroll in law school. He found the law to be vague and his schooling to be nothing more than rote learning. Tutors inspired him to critique even so-called “great thinkers”, but Luther found difficulty accepting cold reason when a loving God was key to the meaning of man.

On July 2, 1505, Luther rode through a thunderstorm on his way home from university and became terrified when lightning began to strike. He called out, "Help! Saint Anna, I will become a monk!” Luther survived the storm and told his father about his vow. Hans became livid and attempted to persuade his son not to waste his years of education by leaving law and going into a monastery. Luther was unconvinced until his father reminded him of the Fifth Commandment, “Honor your father and mother.” Luther would have ample time to become a monk upon retirement after fulfilling his father’s request of serving in the law. The moment would convince Luther of the effectiveness of reason in earthly matters, such as his own life, while unquestionable truths, such as carrying out his vow, were still in the realm of God and Heaven.

For the next decade, Luther threw himself into his work, completing his juris doctorate and establishing a successful practice in nearby Wittenberg. Still in his thirties, Luther began to teach at the university and worked to perfect the tangled mess that was the legal code at the dawn of sixteenth century Germany. After much struggle, he determined that the law being a “top-down” system was ineffectual when a much better “bottom-up” system would establish code of conduct as well as rights for all men. Although accused of anarchy and purporting regicide, Luther never encouraged and even decried violence against ruling royalty. In many of his writings, he supported the idea of rulers being placed in position by God, yet he said that if their position was abused, they should be removed legally, just as the servant with one talent had been unfaithful in Jesus’ Parable of the Talents.

Upon publication of his thoughts in 1517, Luther would become an international name. Frederick the Wise would become a benefactor of Luther, whereas many lords called for his immediate execution for treason. It is said that Frederick, though holding his claim and estates, understood the changing of the times. The Bundschuh Movement had caused uprisings along the Rhine valley among the peasants calling for better treatment (the “bundschuh” being a tied peasant’s shoe, which they used for their symbol). Each of these uprisings had been violently put down with mass executions of anyone resembling an instigator with even crusades launched against the followers of Huss, but more and more would crop up as years passed. Frederick encouraged his fellow nobles to read Luther’s writings and attempt to work with the peasants instead of stemming an ever-increasing tide.

In 1521, Luther was taken to be questioned by Charles V, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and King of the Romans, Italians, and Spanish, as well as Duke of Burgundy and Lord of the Netherlands; he was the most powerful man in Europe outside of the Pope. At the conclusion of the diet, Charles declared Luther an outlaw and banned his books, but Luther was secretly taken to safety by Frederick to Wartburg Castle and eventually returned quietly to Wittenberg. Meanwhile, the “Knights’ Revolt” would erupt with lesser nobility attempting to seize addition freedoms and rights, but would quickly be put down.

Three years later, peasants following Luther’s ideals sent a petition to Charles called the Twelve Articles of the Black Forest addressing grievances, such as the demands of the Countess of Lupfen for serfs to collect snail shells for her thread spools during harvest-time. More radical leaders such as Zwilling and the Anabaptist movement were largely passed over since Luther had inspired a sense of separation of church and state in many of his arguments. The petition was ignored by Charles, and the peasants revolted with initial nonviolence, simply refusing to carry out the orders of those who had abused their post and electing new officials. Luther applauded the moderate revolution and noted the failures of the “poor barons” of the Knights’ Revolt.

Finding increasing cohesion across Germany, the peasants’ army grew into the hundreds of thousands, and their elected officials served effectively, especially those lesser nobles who volunteered after losing their claims in the failed Knights’ Revolt. Scholars would later describe this joining of forces by the lower and middle class as instrumental in toppling the Holy Roman Empire and spreading their ideals to Italy, England, and Eastern Europe. The resulting confederacies would follow much of the Swiss style, creating the Reformed Era of Europe. For the next several centuries, the absolute monarchies of nations such as France, Sweden, and Russia would war against the Confederations, despite their inherent religious ties through Christendom. Technology and industry made leaps and bounds in central Europe, especially after advancements in capitalism and banking, and well judged political systems would ensure the sharing of resources and the rights of workers as early as the late eighteenth century as outlined by English philosopher John Locke.

Luther himself would enter a monastery on his sixtieth birthday, serving there until his death two years later.


In reality, Martin Luther was unconvinced by his father to avoid becoming a monk and entered a closed Augustinian friary only a few weeks later. He would be disenfranchised, writing "I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailor and hangman of my poor soul,” and soon set out to reform the practice of selling indulgences when only God may forgive. The resulting Reformation would split Europe along battle lines of Catholics and Protestants for centuries.

Monday, August 15, 2011

October 30, 1340 – Moroccans Rout Would-be Crusaders in Spain

For some seven hundred years, the Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula, descended from the old Visigoths who had wrested it from the dying Roman Empire, had attempted to reconquer territory from the Muslims. Originating in the Middle East, the Muslim Caliphate had swept across North Africa, taking up lands as the Byzantine Empire declined. Under the Umayyad Emirates, the Muslims had moved across the Strait of Gibraltar and onto mainland Europe, taking over all but the most northern reaches of Hispania. An expedition even marched far into what would become France, though they would be turned about by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732.

From that peak, the Muslim influence on Europe would begin to decline as the Christians counterattacked. The northern march had been stopped on the peninsula in 722 at the Battle of Covadonga, and the next 510 years would be spent pushing against Muslim strength. Feudal Christian kingdoms began with the aid of other nations, such as the Frankish liberation of Barcelona making way for the Catalonia, which would later be absorbed by Aragon. Eventually the realms of Portugal, Leon, Aragon, Navarre, and Castille would stand in a loose confederation with the Emirate of Granada as the last bastion of the Muslim Al-Andalus that had once dominated the peninsula. Infighting among the Christians slowed the last piece of conquest, and finally Castille turned Granada into a tributary state in 1238.

For the next century, Granada hung onto its lands on the southeastern edge of Spain and made tribute payments with gold that had been brought across the Sahara by merchants on camelback. The Nasrid people there worked in an uneasy alliance with Castile, fighting alongside in Spain and against the Muslim Kingdom of Fez and its ally Aragon in the early 1300s. Gradually, however, the peace began to crack. In 1325, King Alfonso XI of Castile declared war on Granada and set out to conquer while giving an invitation to other Christian kings to join his crusade. While his call went largely unanswered in the first campaign, the second was answered by Portugal and a contingent of Scottish knights bearing Robert the Bruce’s heart in 1330. They attacked and took Teba, a key castle Granada, which prompted King Yusuf I to call for aid from the Marinid sultan of Morocco, Abu al-Hasan 'Ali.

Abu Hasan sent a small force in 1333, conquering Gibraltar and securing a foothold for his larger army to land. In late summer of 1340, Abu Hasan’s fleet wiped out the Castilian ships, outnumbered three-to-one, and then he move moved his vast new army onto the Spanish mainland. King Alfonso hurried to put together an army to face him and, most importantly, rebuild his fleet. In October, Alfonso’s new fast-built fleet of 27 ships joined 15 hired from Genoa and secured the Strait for Castile. Cut off from his supply-lines, Abu Hasan moved onto a siege of the castle at Tarifa. In mid-October, Alfonso marched with his army and joined up with his father-in-law, the King of Portugal, to create a force some 20,000 strong. Abu Hasan moved back from his siege and onto a defensive hill with the Granadan army of Yusuf on a hill nearby.

Upon the night of his arrival, Alfonso sent a force of 1,000 cavalry and 4,000 infantry to reinforce Tarifa. They met with Abu Hasan’s light cavalry on patrol, who pinned them with skirmishes until finally driving them back to Alfonso’s main army. The cavalry officer reported proudly to Abu Hasan that no Christian had managed to enter the city. This would become instrumental in keeping the Tarifa garrison unable to aid the Castilian forces as they faced the sultan while the Portuguese and Leonese attacked Yusuf the next morning across the Rio Salado.

Initially, the battle seemed to go to Castilians, whose right flank took a bridge and center crossed to smash through the Moroccan’s line and be caught fighting with the militia as it raided the Muslim camp. In the chaos, Abu Hasan ordered an all-out attack, which came at the same time Alfonso found himself isolated from the main army. Though he tried to escape, both Alfonso and the Archbishop of Toledo would be cut down. The Castilian rearguard arrived too late; the drop in morale gave Abu Hasan the chance to push and break the Christian army. Yusuf’s forces were overrun, but Abu Hasan managed to turn about his army and defeat the remaining Christians while driving the attackers from their attempt to take his camp before resuming a successful siege against Tarifa.

The tide of power would change to give Muslims a stronger grip on southern Spain as the war with Castile ended in a stern treaty. Granada became a Moroccan vassal, and Abu Hasan would work to increase his navy to firmly establish control of the Strait of Gibraltar, having learned his lesson about maintaining supply lines. The coming of the Black Death suspended ideas of further warfare, and afterward the Ottomans would absorb the Moroccan wealth under Suleiman the Magnificent with aid from the Franco-Ottoman alliance that promised France conquest of the small kingdoms in northern Spain.

While the Mediterranean saw more concrete Islamic dominance, an Italian with an Anglicanized name of Christopher Columbus approached the English court of Henry VII to back an expedition westward, and his resulting discoveries would be the focus of much of the later Henry VIII’s rule, establishing an English Empire across the New World.


In reality, the Castilian contingent reached Tarifa and reinforced the garrison despite the cavalry commander’s claim. In the next day’s battle, the garrison was able to attack the Moroccan camp also, then joining up with the Castilian forces to surround Abu Hasan’s army. The Muslim army broke and was pursued relentlessly with many slain and the riches of the camp seized. It would be the last Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. The completion of the Reconquista in 1491 after the marriage of Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Aragon would unite Spain, which would dispatch the expedition by Cristóbal Colón in 1492.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

October 29, 1929 – Banker’s Committee Stops Panic of ‘29

The wild financial speculation of the Roaring Twenties came to a sudden halt in October when the stock market began to slide. Worries spread through the economic community about the passing of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. Tariffs had always been a point of contention among Americans, even spurring South Carolina to threaten secession over the Tariff Act of 1828. Producers such as farmers and manufacturers called for protective tariffs while merchants and consumers demanded low prices. The American economy soared while post-war Europe rebuilt in the ‘20s, and the Tariff Act of 1922 skimmed valuable revenue from the nation’s income that would otherwise have been needed as taxes. The country barely noticed, and the economy surged forward as new technological luxuries became available as well as new disposable income.

Meanwhile, however, the nation faced an increasingly difficult drought while food prices continued to drop during Europe’s recovery. Farmers were stretched thinner and thinner, prompting calls for protective agricultural tariffs and cheaper manufactured goods. In his 1928 presidential campaign, Herbert Hoover promised just that, and as the legislature met in 1929, talks on a new tariff began. Led by Senator Reed Smoot (R-Utah) and Representative Willis C. Hawley (R-Oregon), the bill quickly became more than Hoover and the farmers had bargained for as rates would increase to a level exceeding 1828 for industrial products as well as agricultural. The revenue would be a great boon, but it unnerved economists, who wondered if it could kill the economic growth already slowing by a dipping real estate market.

The weakened nerves shifted from economists to investors, who took the heated debate in the Senate as a clue that times may become rough and decided to get out of the stock market while they could. Prices had skyrocketed over the course of the ‘20s as the middle class blossomed and minor investors came into being. Another hallmark of the ‘20s, credit, enabled people to buy stock on margin, borrowing money they could invest at what they hoped would be a higher percentage. The idea of a “money-making machine” spread, and August of 1929 showed more than $8.5 billion in loans, more than all of the money in circulation in the United States. The market peaked on September 3 at 381.17 and then began a downward correction. At the rebound in late October, panicked selling began. On October 24, what became known as “Black Thursday”, the market fell more than ten percent. On Friday, it did the same, and the initial outlook for the next week was dire.

Amid the early selling in October, financiers noted that a crash was coming and met on October 24 while the market plummeted. The heads of firms and banks such as Chase, Morgan, and the National City Bank of New York collaborated and finally placed vice-president of the New York Stock Exchange Richard Whitney in charge of stopping the disaster. Forty-one-year-old Whitney was a successful financier with an American family dating back to 1630 and numerous connections in the banking world who had purchased a seat on the NYSE Board of Governors only two years after starting his own firm. Whitney’s initial strategy was to replicate the cure for the Panic of 1907: purchasing large amounts of valuable stock above market price, starting with the “blue chip” favorite U.S. Steel, the world’s first billion-dollar corporation.

On his way to make the purchase, however, Whitney bumped into a junior who was analyzing the banking futures based on the increase of failing mortgages from failing farms and a weakening real estate market. He suggested that the problems of the new market were caused from the bottom-up, and a top-down solution would only put off the inevitable. Instead of his ostentatious show of purchasing to show the public money was still to be had, Whitney decided to use the massive banking resources behind him to support the falling. He made key purchases late on the 24th, and then his staff worked through the night determining what stocks were needlessly inflated, what were solid, and what could be salvaged (perhaps even at a profit). Stocks continued to tumble that Friday, but by Monday thanks to word-of-mouth and glowing press from newspapers and the new radio broadcasts, Tuesday ended with a slight upturn in the market of .02%. Numerically unimportant, the recovery of public support was the key success.

With the initial battle won, Whitney spearheaded a plan to salvage the rest of the crisis as real estate continued to fall and banks (which were quickly running out of funds as they seized more and more of the market) would soon have piles of worthless mortgaged homes and farms. Banks organized themselves around the Federal Reserve, founded in 1913 after a series of smaller panics and determined rules that would keep banks afloat. Further money came from lucrative deals with the wealthiest men in the country such as John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, and the Mellons of Pittsburgh. Businesses managed to continue work despite down-turning sales through loans, though the unemployment rate did increase from 3 to 5% over the winter.

The final matter was the question of international trade. As the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act continued in the Senate, economists predicted retaliatory tariffs from other countries to kill American exports, but Washington turned a deaf ear. Whitney decided to protect his investments in propping up the economy by investing with campaign contributions. Democrats took the majority as the Republicans fell to Whitney’s use of the press to blame the woes of the economy on Congressional “airheads.” Representative Hawley himself lost his seat in the House, which he had held since 1907, to Democrat William Delzell. President Hoover, a millionaire businessman before entering politics, noted the shift, but remained quiet and dutifully vetoed the new tariff.

By 1931, it became steadily obvious that America had shifted to an oligarchy. The banks propped up the market and were propped up themselves by a handful of millionaires. If Rockefeller wanted, he could single-handedly pull his money and collapse the whole of the American nation. Whitney took greater power as Chairman of the Federal Reserve, whose new role controlled indirectly everything of economic and political worth. As the Thirties dragged on, the havoc of the Dust Bowl made food prices increase while simultaneously weakening the farming class, and Whitney gained further power by ousting Secretary of Agriculture Arthur Hyde and installing his own man as a condition for Hoover’s reelection in ’32.

Chairman Whitney would “rule” the United States, wielding public relations power and charisma to give Americans a strong sense of national emergency and patriotism during times like the Japanese War in ’35 (which secured new markets in East Asia) and the European Expedition in ’39. He employed the Red Scare to keep down ideas of insurrection and used the FBI as a secret police, but his ultimate power would be that, at any point, he could tamper with interest rates or stock and property value, and the country would spiral into rampant unemployment and depression, dragging the rest of the world with it.


In reality, the bottom of the market fell out on Black Tuesday, the worst day in the Stock Market Crash with sixteen million shares traded, a record that would hold until 1968. Whitney’s plan of using “blue chip” stocks was too little much too late. Though he was considered a Wall Street guru for much of his life, it would be proven in 1938 that his company was insolvent and he was an embezzler. Whitney would plead guilty and was sentenced to Sing Sing, where he served as a model prisoner and afterward became a successful small businessman. Despite a petition signed by 1028 economists, President Hoover did not veto the Smooth-Hawley Tariff after it was approved in the Senate in March of 1930.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

October 28, 312 – Maxtenius Victorious at Milvian Bridge

The Roman Empire had reached a turning point after centuries of military dictatorship powered by the wheels of bureaucracy. Since the domination of Octavian over Julius Caesar’s assassins, the Senate had been largely a stamp for the emperor to pass his decrees. Many men pursued this utmost position, and civil wars erupted often when capable generals overtook weak emperors. The empire itself became unwieldy, and Diocletian divided Rome into western and eastern parts with co-rulers in each. By the early fourth century, further divisions and murky agreements had created a Tetrarchy where four men controlled the empire as Caesars and Augusti.

In 306, Augustus Constantius Chlorus died, and his son Constantine was proclaimed by his soldiers on the frontier of Britannia that he would be the new emperor. Currently controlling Rome, however, was Maxentius, who had taken the title of Augustus by force after defeating Severus, the legal appointee by the eastern Augustus, Galerius. Licinius, another would-be emperor, had been proclaimed emperor by a conference of the leading political figures of Rome. By 312, Constantine was already moving on Rome to defeat the usurper Maxentius and making plans for alliance with Licinius.

Constantine organized the execution of Maxentius’s father, Maximinian, and marched with an army of some 40,000, racing over northern Italy and defeating armies more than twice his size, even killing Maxentius’s highest general, Ruricius Pompeianus, at Verona. Maxentius had already held Rome successfully through two sieges, but he decided to deal with the upstart from the north himself, setting up an army on the far side of the Milvian Bridge over the Tiber River. On the evening of the 27th, Constantine’s forces prepared for battle the next day, and a vision came upon them. Looking into the setting sun, they saw a cross made of light and words in Greek reading, “In this sign, conquer.” A dream that night explained that the sign was from a sect of worshippers of the Hebrew god, practically the only one without a temple in Rome where Maxentius had already made substantial sacrifices toward victory in the battle.

As the morning dawned, Constantine prepared his men to mark the sign on their shields, but he was unnerved by the use of Greek letters chi and rho spelling the first sounds of “Christ” when the chi could have easily been his own “Constantine.” Hubris came over him, and he edited the sign for his soldiers from the “P” into an “O” for the omicron that would spell his own second letter. The move would prove disastrous, as the rounded shape formed a handy target at the top of the Roman shields where they would be knocked into the faces of their bearers, distracting them while missiles or blows from swords followed. Despite losing the opening cavalry skirmish, Maxentius’s army won the day and pressed Constantine’s army into breaking. Constantine himself was killed while trying to rally his retreating soldiers.

Maxentius returned victoriously to Rome. Constantine’s onetime ally, Licinius, had overseen affairs in the east along with Maximinius Daia but now sought to support Maxentius. Encouraged by Maxentius’s victory, Maximinius attempted to overthrow Licinius with an invasion of Byzantium, but Licinius defeated him at Tzirallum and pursued him to utter defeat and suicide at Tarsus. The remainder of Licinius’ reign was spent holding off Sassanid attack, while Maxentius went about legitimizing himself and working to stitch the eastern empire back to dependency on Rome as he lent Licinius great masses of wealth to aid in defense.

A century later, the Roman Empire would fall as German barbarians stormed across the Alps and repeatedly sacked and finally conquered the Eternal City in 476. Without a particular seat of strength in the east, the rest of the empire shattered into bases of power in Egypt, the Bosporus, and Syria. The end of Roman authority finally meant an end to centuries-long persecution of the Christian sects, whose monotheism was grown out of Jewish doctrine. With a plethora of Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, and now German gods in veneration, monotheism would serve as a minority in Europe. Norse gods would come to dominate during the Viking Age, but the cohesion of Allah in the Arabic Islam would eventually sweep across Europe, Africa, and well into Asia, carried even further by converted Mongol conquerors a millennium later.


In reality, Constantine was victorious at Milvian Bridge when his soldiers bearing the cross-symbol broke the defenses of Maxtenius. The bridge collapsed under the retreating army, and Maxtenius himself was among the drowned. Constantine took Rome and later conquered Licinius on grounds of harboring traitors, reuniting the Roman Empire and strengthening it with his new capital at Constantinople. Meanwhile, he would end the persecution of the Christians, himself convert, and codify Christianity into what would soon become the new state religion for Rome.

Monday, August 8, 2011

October 27, 1936 – Mrs. Simpson Found Dead

When a maid came to rouse her mistress, American socialite Wallis Warfield Simpson was discovered lying dead on her bedroom floor, having been shot twice. As no one could recall hearing gunshots, the matter became an international mystery and one of the greatest unsolved crimes of the twentieth century. Papers were found in her desk that would have confirmed the process of divorce from her second husband, Ernest Aldrich Simpson. Mr. Simpson was detained for questioning, but no more than circumstantial evidence arose, and he was eventually released with no further serious suspects.

The murder was a climactic end to one of the most scandalous affairs of the modern age born out of two people already famous for scandal. Wallis, a divorcee of US Naval officer Win Spencer, had numerous affairs as part of a rocky relationship due to Mr. Spencer’s travel with the Navy and his alcoholism. They divorced in December of 1927, and Wallis remarried less than a year later to shipbroker Ernest Aldrich Simpson, also his second marriage. After staying with her mother until her death, Wallis moved to London, where the Simpsons lived beyond their means amid the upper crust.

At a dinner on January 10, 1931, Mrs. Simpson met the other party to the affair, Edward Windsor, Prince of Wales. They were introduced by Edward’s mistress of the time, Thelma, Lady Furness. He lived as a passionate womanizer and was privately criticized for having the maturity of an adolescent by his secretary, Alan Lascelles. Edward and Wallis met often at house parties. She was even presented at court, which caused further scandal. In January of 1934, Lady Furness went on a trip to New York City, during which time Wallis and Edward’s affair eclipsed all others. Servants caught them in bed together, but Edward was quick to deny this to his father, King George V.

Scandal continued to climb as Edward and Wallis were seemingly everywhere together. He gave her tremendous gifts of jewels and took her on trips through Europe as well as shorter holidays on his yacht. Government officials began to worry about Edward’s overwhelming affection for the American divorcee almost to the point of enslaving himself to her. After visiting an antique store, the shopkeep noted that Wallis had Edward “completely under her thumb.” Upon the death of George V in January of 1936, Edward became King of the UK and Emperor of India, yet he seemed dominated by someone outside of the bounds of government.

After months of continuing the affair with officials scrambling to keep it out of the news, Mrs. Simpson began proceedings to divorce her husband so she might marry the king. Aldrich Simpson had been working to keep his shipping firm afloat during the Great Depression and seemed nearly forgotten by his wife, who was so close to the King as not to feel the financial difficulties of their lifestyle. For these stressful reasons, when Wallis was found dead, Aldrich was the prime suspect. However, after intense questioning from many levels of police, it was believed that he was still genial with his wife, would have gone through with the divorce, and moved on with his life. Aldrich, a naturalized British citizen, left for New York and never returned. He would marry again twice.

Another suspect was the ousted Thelma, Viscountess Furness, who had divorced her husband the viscount in 1933. After being cast off by Prince Edward, she had a brief fling with Prince Aly Khan, Imam of Ismaili Shi’a Islam. She carried resentment toward Wallis, but there was no proof as to grounds for murder upon hearing that her stolen prince might be married.

Darker conspiracy theories suggest actions from MI5 or royal agents hoping to keep the crown clear from further scandal and tampering foreign hands.

The truth remains unknown, and Edward continued his reign heartbroken. He rarely appeared in public, and, when he did, he was described as in deep mourning or “sporting a faraway look in his eyes.” The king let matters of politics fall mainly upon his Prime Ministers Baldwin, Chamberlain, and Churchill, assisting only when necessary. He quietly applauded Chamberlain’s ambitions for “peace in our time” and determined that Britain should not worry about matters on the Continent, expanding his melancholy to his foreign policy.

When World War II broke out, Edward gave dour speeches and encouraged Churchill to “give Hitler what he wants” so that England might be “left alone.” With the king’s weakness felt, the morale of Britain tumbled, finally prompting a discouraged nation to sue for peace after a narrow victory in the Battle of Britain and the dark days of the Blitz. As Britain came out of the war and America saw less need to join, Hitler took up his allies to march on Moscow, battling Stalin until 1949 in a war that crippled his own rule. Britain, meanwhile, began decolonization as the empire fell to revolutions calling for independence. By the time Edward’s niece Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne, only a few countries still remained in what would become the Commonwealth.


In reality, Mrs. Wallis Simpson went through with her divorce of Aldrich Simpson. The two remained amiable toward one another with gifts and commentary on memoirs. Edward abdicated in favor of marrying Wallis, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor settled in the Bahamas quietly as World War II engulfed the world.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

October 26, 1947 – Kashmir Remains Independent

As Britain prepared to grant India its independence during the scaling down of an empire upon which the sun could not set, the question of the mountain kingdom of Kashmir seemed easily solved as the population was 77% Muslim and it stood at some of the headwaters of the Indus River; it would simply go along with the newly created Dominion of Pakistan. However, when its King Hari Singh was slow to act after the British left, Pakistan funded the Azad (“Free”) Kashmir army to press the king into acceptance through guerrilla terrorism.

Kashmir had not long been its own nation. It originally stood as the Kashmir Valley, a geographic feature of the Himalayas that carved a rich valley nearly surrounded by the world’s tallest mountain range. Long populated by Hindus and Buddhists, the Muslim influence came gradually and harmoniously. After centuries of increasing corruption, the reigning Hindu Lohara were overthrown in 1339 by the Muslim Shams-ud-Din Shah Mir, who began a long dynasty of Islamic rule in a period where Islam became the dominant religion. Kashmir would eventually lose its self-determination as it come under control of the Mughal Empire in the 1580s and was passed on to the Afghani Durrani and Sikh empires over the next centuries.

Gulab Singh, a grandnephew and courtier of the Sikh’s first Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was awarded Kashmir as a subsidiary kingdom after his excellent services in northern campaigns that helped secure the region. He went on to conquer nearby Jammu and worked with the increasing British presence in the region. In 1846, the First Anglo-Sikh War would knock down much of the Sikh’s power in favor of the growing British Empire, and Gulab would prove himself an able negotiator after British victory at the Battle of Sobraon. Gulab’s son and successor Ranbir sided with the British in the Indian Rebellion of 1857, which prompted another award as the British officially named him ruler of the Princely State of Kashmir and Jammu. For the next century, Kashmir was a relatively quiet subordinate kingdom with its own maharajas.

After World War II and the success of India’s independence movement, the partition of Pakistan and India led to humanity’s largest mass migration as Muslims and Hindus tried to sort themselves out amid the new borders. When King Hari Singh did not move to join Pakistan after the British officials left their posts, the Pakistan government attempted to force the land into submission with scare tactics and raids. Hari Singh turned to Louis Mountbatten, the man who had been the last Viceroy of India and oversaw its transition as Governor-General of the Union of India; Mountbatten replied that aid could only be given if Kashmir were part of his jurisdiction in India. After great thought, Hari Singh refused to the offer and addressed his people with a speech relayed by radio of the decision to remain free and the importance of standing up to Pakistani aggression. Pakistan became embarrassed by the international outcry, and the resulting UN resolution gave foreign aid while a plebiscite was held. The votes to remain independent narrowly won out, and many commentators agreed that if Pakistan had not moved so harshly, that the people would have eagerly joined.

In 1950, across the Himalayas, China would march into Tibet nearly unopposed. Taking note from the lack of international action, Pakistan would make its own march into Kashmir. King Hari Singh simply fled, and the people were largely complacent. India led a cry for Kashmiri independence, prompting an Indian army marching into Kashmir to restore the king, which resulted in an outpouring of aid from China, who feared an Indian supremacy in the region. While China sent only a few soldiers, their influence in Kashmir increased greatly and soon funded, ironically enough, the violent separatists, many of them minority Hindu and Sikh.

The disappearance of the Mo-e-Muqaddas (the Hair of the Prophet) relic from the Hazratbal shrine on December 26, 1963, prompted swift crackdown on minorities and violations of human rights such as illegal arrest, searches, and seizure of property. Although the relic was found again only days later, the policies remained, prompting another invasion from India in 1965 in an effort to liberate the oppressed Hindus in Jammu as well as to capture high ground for tactical advantage. The war reached a standoff, and Kashmir remained bloody and tense until the USSR’s occupation of Afghanistan sparked another conflict in the Third Kashmir War. Using American arms and reinforcements, Pakistan held its advantage.

Since the 1980s, Kashmir has remained one of the most notoriously troubled regions in the world. The development of nuclear weapons in both India and Pakistan has caused a sense of nervous peace, though skirmishes crop up, such as gunfire in 1999 and raiding following the 2005 earthquake.


In reality, King Hari Singh agreed to Mountbatten’s condition that Kashmir become part of India. An Indian army fought off the Pakistani forces, and a UN resolution sponsored a ceasefire, though no plebiscite would be made. Politically contested with regions claimed by India, Pakistan, and China, Kashmir is a major stumbling block for international discussion, but free from violence for the most part.

Friday, August 5, 2011

October 25, 1400 – Chaucer Freed from Prison and Composes “Croun Retorned” (“Crown Returned”)

Middle English writer Geoffrey Chaucer is known as the first to show the potential for literature in his native tongue, but he was also very active in his political life. Born in a family of comfortable wealth with land in Ipswich and dozens of shops in London, Chaucer gained his first foothold into politics as page to Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster. For the rest of his professional life, he would work as a diplomat, civil servant, and member of influential courts.

After being captured and ransomed as a young man during the Caroline War, he traveled extensively, especially in Italy, where he would be introduced to poetry in the Italian vernacular. While English poetry was predominately in French and Latin at the time, Chaucer brought back the idea of a poetry of the people. He created works such as “The Book of the Duchess” and most famously his Canterbury Tales (completed in 1408 with its 116 stories). Edward III granted Chaucer “a gallon of wine daily for the rest of his life” on St. George's Day, 1374, believed to be royal endorsement of his artistic advancements.

While writing, Chaucer continued his political career. His children by his wife Phillipa Roet, lady-in-waiting to the queen, did well in society, such as his son Thomas serving as chief butler to kings throughout Europe and Speaker of the House of Commons and daughter Alice marrying the Duke of Suffolk. Chaucer himself climbed upward through the hierarchy of public service, gaining positions as envoy, Comptroller for Customs in London, and clerk of king's works. Toward the end of Chaucer's career, childless Richard II once again came to troubles maintaining his hold on the throne. While campaigning in Ireland, Richard was overthrown by Henry of Bolingbroke, who easily marched his army through England in 1399 while Richard's knights were away. Richard eventually surrendered at Flint Castle to be spared his life for imprisonment in the Tower of London.

Amid the turmoil, Chaucer lost his pay. With creditors in constant pursuit, Chaucer was eager to get renewed grants from the new king, Henry IV, who was distantly his step-nephew by his wife's sister's third marriage. Chaucer wrote his poem “The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse” in hopes of making his plight known in a clever manner. In its final stanza, he set about a challenge to Henry in what notes suggest was more daring from the original draft.

“Are ye our newe Brutes Albyoun
Who stand fore from line and battle
Our verray king? This song to yow I sende,
Be ye that mowen alle oure harmes amende
Have minde upon my questiun.”

Henry responded to the poem with a heavy hand, firing Chaucer from his positions and having him arrested on grounds of debt-evasion. While he contained the potential political stink, the action was enough to convince the young Edward of Norwich to permit his fellow earls Salisbury, Huntingdon, and Kent to go forth with their Epiphany Rising and capture Henry at a tournament in Windsor. In the chaos, Henry's supporters deserted the man who proved not to be heir to Brutus. Richard II was returned to the throne while Henry was executed and his son Henry relegated to positions in Cornwall and Ireland. Upon his return to command, Richard praised Chaucer for questioning the usurper and paid the poet's debts as well as promising a handsome pension, provided he continued to write for the good of England, first producing a long poem praising Richard.

Until his death in 1411, Chaucer produced numerous works highly regarded in English literature. Richard worked to hold onto his throne, struggling against an increasingly independent Northumberland and the Liberation in Wales circa 1415. He finally managed somewhat stable peace with France, despite encouragement from Henry and others that victory could be pressed through Calais.

Richard was succeeded by the next in line for the throne in 1424 by Edmund Mortimer, who became Edmund III and led the merging of the Lancaster and Plantagenet houses through his grandmothers. England continued on a path of stability over the rest of the Middle Ages, producing great works of art and literature but proving politically unambitious.

In reality, Chaucer wrote flatteringly to Henry IV,

“O conquerour of Brutes Albyoun
Which that by line and free eleccioun
Been verray king, this song to yow I sende,
And ye that mowen alle oure harmes amende
Have minde upon my supplicacioun.”

Henry promised to return grants to Chaucer, though records are unclear whether they were actually paid. Chaucer is believed to have died October 25, 1400, though even this date was written on a tomb erected a century after his death. Some historians, such as Python Terry Jones, speculate that his sudden death and lack of will or surviving papers could have been a political murder to clear the remains of Richard II's influence. Whatever the truth, Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey, and ever since English writers have sought to be buried with him in what has become Poet's Corner.

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