On This Day in History

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March 31st 1492: Spanish expulsion

On this day in 1492, the joint Catholic monarchs of Spain - Ferdinand and Isabella - issued the Alhambra Decree. This decree ordered the expulsion of all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity, from the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Aragon by July 31st. This measure was pushed for by the monarchs’ adviser Tomas de Torquemada, who spearheaded the Spanish Inquisition aimed at rooting out heresy. Ferdinand and Isabella agreed to the expulsion after successfully completing the reconquista - the unification of Spain under Christian rule - with the conquest of Granada. The majority of the nearly 200,000 Spanish Jews chose to leave the country rather than renounce their religion and culture. Many of these Sephardic Jews moved to Turkey, Africa, and elsewhere in Europe, though they often encountered violence as they tried to leave the country. Those who fled to neighboring Portugal were expelled from that country only four years later when King Manuel married the daughter of the Spanish monarchs. The Jews who remained became conversos, suffering harassment and mistrust; indeed, some such converts did continue practicing Judaism in secret. The policy of religious conformity continued in 1502, when Spanish Muslims were also ordered to convert to Christianity. The importance of the expulsion is often overshadowed by the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas, on a voyage funded by the Spanish monarchs, also in 1492. The Alhambra Decree was formally revoked by the Second Vatican Council in 1968, as part of a general attempt by the Spanish government to make amends for the painful legacy of the expulsion.

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On This Day in History March 30, 1981: United States President Ronald Reagan was shot and seriously injured outside the Washington Hilton Hotel after giving a speech to the Building and Construction Trades Department of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. The would be assassin was John W. Hinckley Jr who fired six shots before being subdued by the Secret Service. Also wounded were White House news secretary James Brady who suffered severe head injuries, Tim McCarthy of the Secret Service and Washington D.C. police officer Thomas Delahanty.

Who was John W. Hinkley Jr. and why did he shoot President Reagan? According to the post 1981: President Reagan is shot from the BBC On This Day 1950-2005 website:

John Hinckley, 25, the son of an affluent oil industry executive, was charged with trying to assassinate the president fuelled by an obsession with actress Jodie Foster and a desire to impress her.

President Reagan would recover fully. Brady would survive his injuries but would be paralyzed on his left side and confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. 

Brady would become an ardent supporter of gun control regulation. On November 30, 1993, the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Brady would pass away on August 4, 2014. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1982 and has been confined to a mental hospital since. 

For Further Reading:

Happy 166th birthday to us! On this day in 1849, the Interior Department was established to take charge of the nation’s internal affairs. Today, Interior is responsible for conserving America’s natural resources and public lands, like Yosemite National Park (California) pictured here. Photo of the Yosemite Valley on a spring day by Lesli Cohan (www.sharetheexperience.org). 

ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY

1 March 1522: Henry VIII and various courtiers perform in the Chateau Vert pageant.

A new chapter had opened in the interminable saga of the Italian Wars, and England, despite protestations at the Field of Cloth of Gold, had decided to back Charles V rather than Francis I. Negotiations for a joint attack on France, a visit by the emperor to England and his betrothal to the Princess Mary were nearing completion, and the English court, to honour the ambassadors of the new ally, laid on specifically magnificent pre-Lent festivities. 

The theme of the opening tournament on 1 March was the cruelty of unrequited love, and this was continued when festivities reached a climax on the evening of Shrove Tuesday with a characteristically Burgundian pageant, the assault on ‘the Chateau Vert’. There were eight court ladies involved, each cast as one of the qualities of the perfect mistress of chivalric tradition - Beauty, Honour, Perseverance, Kindness, Constancy, Bounty, Mercy and Pity - with Anne [Boleyn] playing Perseverance and her sister, Mary, Kindness (roles of historic appropriateness). The king’s sister Mary led as Beauty, with the countess of Devonshire as Honour - two women who would be among Anne’s most implacable opponents - while of the other characters, Constancy was played by Jane Parker, soon to become Anne’s sister-in-law. They wore white satin, each with her character or ‘reason’ picked out twenty-four times in yellow satin, and the headdresses were cauls of Venetian gold set off by Milan bonnets. Opposite them were the eight male virtues of the ideal courtier - ‘Amoress[ness]’, Nobleness, Youth, Attendance, Loyalty, Pleasure, Gentleness and Liberty - with the King playing the lead.

- E. W. Ives, Anne Boleyn

February 4th, 1703 | The Forty-Seven Ronin Commit Seppuku

If there’s one thing I can say about Japan: they take their obligations bloody seriously. With the emphasis on “bloody.” Someone looked at you funny? Let me behead them for you. Someone upset you over a particularly vicious retweet? That’s a katana to the larynx, for sure. Wait, you don’t want to be bros anymore? Well, damn, just let me shove 24” of the world’s sharpest steel into my abdomen as by way of an apology to you.

And back in the 18th Century they were coming off hundreds of years of fine-tuning this mentality, to the point where if their boss was insulted, even indirectly, a whole horde of sword-wielding assassins would step forward to take revenge.

And in this instance, that’s forty-seven “sword-wielding assassins.”

But, I get ahead of myself, let’s take a step backwards for a moment and remind ourselves as to what is going on.

In 1701, two daimyo bros - Asano Takumi-no-Kami Naganori and Lord Kamei – were serving their sankin kōtai service to the Shogun, and if you’ve not heard of this before, it’s basically a requirement for daimyos to spend time back in their turf and periodic spells in the territories of the Shogun, thus requiring that they maintain two lavish residences and mitigating their capabilities for waging war. A clever little trick, if you ask me.

So Asano and Kamei are chilling out in Edo, just minding their own business, doin’ bro-stuff like lifting, hair grooming, shooting arrows at peasants, and drinking tea, when they receive word that envoys of the Emperor are arriving and it will be their responsibility to make sure that a fitting reception is arranged. And by “fitting” you have to break out of Western thinking, because these guys care about the brush strokes of ink on rice-paper, and whether a tea pot handle is pointing in the right direction or not … the type of shit that – if you get it wrong – everyone laughs at you until you’re throwing yourself onto sword blades and all. And kids today think they have it rough, pfft!

This is a big deal; Asano and Kamei have an opportunity to gain great honor, but there is also great risk if they get it wrong, so herein steps Kira Kozuke-no-Suke Yoshinaka, a powerful Edo official, but also the resident expert in court etiquette and how to lay-down the party of the year.

Kira offers to help the two Daimyos in the ancient ritual of “not fucking up,” but he has a couple of anticipations on what should be forthcoming in exchange. For starters, if he’s going to basically pave the way for these guys to be all kinds of awesome, then he felt that he should get recompense in exchange. You might call it gifts, perhaps you’d be inclined to call it a bribe, but in either instance he was pretty clear in his expectations here: pay up if you want me to waste my time training you two bumbling idiots.

Which might sound harsh, but by all accounts he came across as a bit of a dick, and Asano and Kamei did not take well to it.

Now Asano was a chill guy. Kira was being a bit of a douche, but he was pretty powerful and getting all kinds of uppity with the boundaries of the shogun’s residence would be a bit of a faux pas, so he stoically kept his gob shut, while simultaneously not paying over one dime.

Kamei, on the other hand, was damn well insulted, to the point where he’s going to murder something. Something called “Kira.” And this would be bad; this would be all kinds of bad, and realizing that their necks were on the line, too, Kamei’s counselors jumped in, said “sorry guv’nor, don’t mind him; bad day at the races, you see!” and promptly dropped a large bribe into Kira’s lap.

Kira was pleased.

Well, Kira was appeased by Kamei, who he then started to treat as a human-being, but Asano-the-chill? Nah, Asano continued to be the butt-end of Kira’s ridicule and jokes. And this – eventually – had the cool guy just losing his shit.

With protocols, etiquette, and the fact that he was standing in the Emperors house be damned, Asano kicked off when Kira called him a “country boor with no manners.” He lounged at Kira with dagger drawn, and slashed the bureaucratic fat fuck across the face, before being arm-barred to the ground by guards.

Kira himself would now sport a new, sexy scar, and have a story to tell over warmed glasses of sake in the evening, but Asano … Asano had made a naughty. Asano had drawn a weapon within the grounds of the Emperor, and whether it was a mere dagger or not, shit like that could not be forgiven.

Asano would be punished and all of his lands and estates ripped from him and his family. And when we say “punished,” we obviously mean “here’s a sword, dear fellow, do be a good chap and fall on it for us while we chop off your head. Many thanks.”

Asano, being the sporting type, obliged.

And that was that.

<queue ending credits>

*record skips*

*music screeches to a halt*

Apparently we’re not done with this story, because forty-seven of Asano’s men were royally pissed the fuck off that their boss had been forced to kill himself over some fat, pompous, jerk-off of an asshole. Now legally their boss was in the wrong, and legally there was no recourse to be had here, but after all forty-seven of them got together to have a bit of a natter about it, they concluded that being ronin sucked donkey-balls and they were going to give Kira a bloody good kicking.

But you can’t just form a “Turn Kira to Sushi!” club without authorities - or even Kira himself - getting a tad suspicious, so timing and planning were going to be important, especially as Kira was eyeing the ex-Asano family members with a wary eye and was just waiting for some shady shit to happen. The forty-seven ronin would have to get Akira to drop his guard before they could act.

So they all dispersed and went off the become monks and tradesmen, whistling off into the distance. Nothing to see here, mister, no funny business going on, I swear.

Their leader - Ōishi – went one step further. Heck, Ōishi went several steps further. Ōishi knew that Kira had spies watching over them, so he set forth a dedicated year-and-a-half ruse to convince Kira that he was a terrible samurai with no sense of honor, and certainly no desire to avenge his former lord.

He took up residence in Kyoto and started frequenting brothels and taverns. When drunk in the street one day, he didn’t avenge a disgusted passerby when he ridiculed, kicked and spat on Ōishi, and back then even touching a samurai was going to have your head and your body part ways real fast, so by not defending his honor while laying drunk in the street … well, he must have plain given up on the samurai ways.

And this is exactly what was reported to Kira.

Except there was another series of events going on at the same time that wasn’t coming to Kira’s attention. Ōishi also divorced his loyal wife of twenty years and moved her and his children away, and he did this to protect her when shit went down.

Likewise, over in the Kira residence, the other forty-six samurai of slowly and yet surely infiltrating the residence as workers and merchants, becoming familiar with the layout and the patterns of all within. And finally, they started to smuggle in weapons, which – if you remember – is within Edo, so this very act alone would be punishable by death.

It was now a full two years after Asano had committed Seppuku and Kira was all kinds of off-guard; hired goons had been laid off, security protocols had gotten lax, and he’d taken to surfing web porn sites with no malware protection.

On Tuesday, January 30th, 1703, during a driving wind and heavy falls of snow – total Kill Bill shit going on here – the forty-seven samurai attacked Kira Yoshinaka’s mansion in Edo. They split into two, snagged the stashed bows and swords, and attacked from the front and back entrances simultaneously. And – seriously – you really don’t want forty-seven katana wielding samurai chopping through your house like a mobile blender; it’s really not going to be a pleasant experience.

But they weren’t going to be utter dicks about this, and as the drums sounded to start the unholy tsunami of righteous bladed retribution, they all agreed to sparing the women, children, and he helpless.

But you know what’s even more badass than bursting through a compound gate and hacking your way to your master’s killer? Standing on a rooftop and telling all non-combatants that you’re there to take his head, and if they don’t get in your way, no harm will befall them.

Yup, the forty-seven samurai burst in and fucking announced their presence and the reason for being there, and – Kira being a bit of a tool – found neighbors and retainers kinda leaving him to just pretty much protect himself.

With arrows raining from the roof tops and Ōishi  kicking in the back wall of Kira’s house in a total Chuck Norris move, Kira shat himself and did what any self-respecting high ranking official would do: he hid in a closet.

Those loyal to Kira tried to defend him, but forty-seven ronin with two years of vendetta to settle cut, sliced, and skewered through them without losing a man. Which – right there – is fucking balls-out studly.

With a pile of bodies and writhing wounded all about, there was no sign of Kira. But with the roof tops guarded, exiting the property prevented, and Kira’s bed still warm, Ōishi  knew that he couldn’t be that far.

Which is when he got a call from two of the ronin who had found a man in an out-building in a secret courtyard. The man refused to say who he was, but he had two retainers with him (now dead), and had come at the ronin with a dagger (now shoved up his arse), and – oh yeah – he had the fucking scar across his face that Asano had given him two years prior.

You don’t exactly have to be Sherlock Holmes to put 2 and 2 together here.

Ōishi dropped to his knees – the dude is a ronin in front of a high ranking official afterall – and respectfully invited Kira to die as a true samurai: by killing himself. Ōishi even volunteered to be the one to chop off Kira’s head (what an honor!) and proffered the same dagger that Asano had killed himself with. LOLZ.

Kira kinda … how can I put this? … turtled up. He crouched, trembled, and did the exact opposite of what an iron-balled samurai should do.

Ōishi – probably a little disappointed – had Kira pinned down and killed him by chopping off his head with Asano’s dagger. Which probably had Kira wondering why he hadn’t taken Option A.

The ronin then snagged the head, sent one of them off to act as a messenger, washed the head in a well, and headed off to Asano’s tomb, where the head and dagger were ritualistically laid. And then they surrendered to the authorities.

The outcry from the populace in their defense was strong, but while they had followed the tenents of the bushido code, they had done so in defiance of the shogunate. Death had to be the sentence, but rather than be killed as common criminals, they were given the honorable option to commit seppuku, and on February 4th, 1703, all forty-six did just that. The youngest was but 16 years old (by the way: 16, wielding a katana, and chopping your way through to your master’s killer? Bad-fucking-assery.)

The 47th ronin – the messenger - Terasaka Kichiemon – who had traveled to Akō to report that the revenge had been completed, later surrendered, but was pardoned. He lived until the age of 87, dying around 1747, and was then buried with his comrades. 

And the forty-seven ronin? They were eventually interred in the grounds of Sengaku-ji, in front of the tomb of their master, Asano.

And one such tomb visitor was the very man who had ridiculed, mocked, and spat on Ōishi as he lay drunk in the street all those years ago. He begged for forgiveness for his actions and for doubting that Ōishi was a true samurai.

And he then committed suicide himself. Which is certainly one way of saying “sorry.”

And – as a real tear-jerker – he, too, was buried next to the forty-seven ronin.

More Katana-Tsunamis:

http://alyssafaden.tumblr.com/archive

Sources:

http://www.samurai-archives.com/ronin.html

http://mercury.lcs.mit.edu/~jnc/prints/47ronin.html

http://www.baxleystamps.com/litho/ogawa/ronin.shtml

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March 7th 1965: Bloody Sunday in Selma

On this day in 1965, a civil rights march took place from Selma to Birmingham, Alabama; it became known as ‘Bloody Sunday’. At this stage, the Civil Rights Movement had been in motion for over a decade and already achieved legislative success with the Civil Rights Act. However the focus of the movement now became making the promise of equal franchise guaranteed in the Fifteenth Amendment a reality. While African-Americans exercised the right to vote in the years after the amendment’s passage in 1870, discriminatory measures like literacy tests, poll taxes, and grandfather clauses were soon implemented across the country to deprive them of the vote. Thus in 1965 civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. made voter registration the core of their efforts, centering the campaign on the particularly discriminatory Selma, AL. On March 7th - ‘Bloody Sunday’ - as the six hundred unarmed marchers were crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were descended upon by state troopers who viciously beat the protestors. The violence encountered by these peaceful marchers, which was captured on television and broadcast around the world, led to national outcry and caused President Johnson to publicly call for the passage of his administration’s proposed voting rights bill. After securing the support of federal troops, another march was held on March 21st, and with the protection of soldiers the marchers managed to arrive in Montgomery after three days. The marchers were met in Montgomery - the epicentre of the movement and the site of the 1954 bus boycott - by 50,000 supporters, who were addressed by King. Their efforts were rewarded when, in August of that year, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act that ensured all Americans could vote. This was one of the crowning achievements of the Civil Rights Movement, and the Selma to Montgomery march is commemorated as one of the most important moments of the struggle.

"We are on the move and no wave of racism can stop us. The burning of our churches will not deter us. The bombing of our homes will not dissuade us. We are on the move now…not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom
- King’s ‘Address at the Conclusion of the Selma to Montgomery March’ - 25th March, 1965

50 years ago today

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Nicknamed a Land of Giants, Kings Canyon National Park's landscape testifies to nature's size, beauty and diversity — huge mountains, rugged foothills, deep canyons, vast caverns and the world's largest trees. Kings Canyon was created 75 years ago today, encompassing 454,000 acres of pristine Sierra Nevada wilderness in California. Nearly half the park is above timberline and two dozen peaks extend above 13,000 feet. The Pacific Crest and John Muir trails pass through cathedrals of glaciated valleys and domes, including Evolution Valley and Sixty Lakes Basin. Pictured here is the park's stunning Bullfrog Lake by David Palefsky (www.sharetheexperience.org).

Celebrate Kings Canyon’s birthday today with free entrance to the park and it’s sister park Sequoia National Park!

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ON THIS DAY IN HISTORY

18 January 1486: Henry VII marries Elizabeth of York.

A pact was agreed. Henry earl of Richmond would return from Brittany to claim the throne, and he would take as his queen Elizabeth of York, the oldest of Edward IV and Elizabeth’s daughters. The families of Beaufort and Woodville - or, if the point was stretched somewhat, the houses of Lancaster and York - would be united; so too would be England. Heralds and historians were good at these genealogical slights of hand. On their brilliantly illuminated parchment rolls, coats-of-arms, badges and portraits were erased and cut out; others appeared in their place. A dynasty that had been eradicated could blossom miraculously like a rose in winter, its lineal descent fully formed, its succession inevitable. Now, with the merging of the red rose and the white, Henry was presented as the successor to Edward IV, the king who had all but obliterated his family and had only narrowly failed to do the same to him. While the logic was flawed, the symbolism was irresistible.

- Thomas Penn, The Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England

March 13th, 1954 | the Battle of Dien Bien Phu

“Dien Bien Phu” is a classic in all the best, juiciest ways.Not only did it demonstrate a high level of over-confidence on behalf of a French general in Vietnam, but the huge pile of complete “fuck-uppidness” resulted in the Americans later getting involved, and we all know how that turned out. I’m not saying that Dien Bien Phu caused the Vietnam war, but it sure as shit did not help, so in many ways, this little turd-blossom helped pave the way for over 200,000 dead and wounded Americans, and fifty years of world shaping history after it.

But why the hell were the French here anyway, and why did they care enough about Vietnam to be willing to go to war over it?

Our story starts back in the 17th Century and … *drumroll* … religion.

Back then there was a Jesuit missionary called Alexandre de Rhodes, and de Rhodes decided – because of the whole missionary gig, I imagine – that the fledgling Vietnam – all the way on the other side of the world – needed a little TLC in the form of Jesus.

Now this was kind of informal, but as trade grew over the next century, so did interest in spreading the Lord’s good name to the heathen hellspawn. So by the time we hit 1787 - a time when the Vietnamese are having all sorts of dynasty disagreements - France has the country littered with priests waving pamphlets around. Which was really fortunate for a 15 year-old prince trying to escape armies hellbent on removing his head: Prince Nguyễn Ánh ran into the arms of a welcoming Catholic priest: Pigneau de Béhaine.

Now I’m not saying that Pigneau had ulterior motives, but buddying up with a prince, restoring him to power, and perhaps converting him to Christianity along the way, sure seems like a compelling reason to help out. The two became the broest of bros, and Pigneau took the young prince under his wing. So much so, that when warfare escalated all over the region, Pigneau helped Nguyễn secure grenades, Portuguese ships, and all manner of foreign aid.

But the war for the duo really didn’t go well, and they were chased from island to island, country to country, until in the end Nguyễn asked Pigneau to golden words: “Do you think France would help restore me to power?”

A-ha! Now we’re getting to the bottom of it.

France, to be fair, was reluctant to get involved, but when he started to regale them with stories of how they’d be able to control the seas of China and the archipelago from Vietnam, eyebrows were raised with muted interest.

The duo met with King Louis XVI, Minister of the Navy de Castries and Minister of Foreign Affairs Montmorin in May 5, 1787, the young prince sporting a very stylish hairdo (true story). He absolutely wowed the court, played with the Kings son – as they were of similar age – and an agreement was struck: the Treaty of Versailles between France and Cochin China, gave Nguyễn four frigates and 1650 fully equipped badass French soldiers in exchange for harbor access. Which - BOOM! - is going to have those bitches back home all kinds of jelly!

Nguyễn put out his arms, shouted “that’s what I’M talking about,” grabbed his crotch, did a weird thing with his tongue, and strutted out of court.

Of course, France was not far away from a complete upheaval in the form of La revolution! So enthusiasm for actually following through on this deal was … how shall I put this … somewhat low. Long story short, they kinda completely back pedaled.

In the end, the entire expedition had to be paid for by funds raised by Pigneau, and while he certainly helped consolidate southern Vietnam and modernize its army, navy and fortifications, the total official French military presence in Vietnam was just 14 officers and 80 men.

Pigneau went on to die (spoiler alert: we all do. Except for me, I’m going for the whole frozen head thing), but he restored the young prince, and the Nguyễn dynasty was born again. The elephant in the room? France got him there, and France popped out missionaries like a very busy Parisian whore working the docks one night.

This immediately caused some problems for the Nguyễn Dynasty, because this whole “Christianity thing” really wasn’t what their entire culture was about. They started to try to drive them out, and this had France’s knickers in a bunch. So much so, France authorized an admiral to protect the missionaries, and that particular admiral saw it as authorization to do a land grab.

France attacked the port of Tourane (present day Da Nang) with fourteen gunships and 3,300 men. They occupied the city, shouted “yeah, mother fuckers!” and then went on to snag Saigon as well, ultimately bending the Vietnamese government into ever increasing uncomfortable positions, until they finally shouted “okay, enough, leave us alone!” and were forced to cede the provinces of Biên Hòa, Gia Định and Định Tường.

Now keep this in mind, because 100 years later you kinda start to understand why shit would kick off.

France said “sorry,” and vowed to not take any more territory. Which proved to be a big fat lie, because four years later they kicked it off again and went on another land-grab, all under the guise of “protecting missionaries.”

Before the end of the 19th Century, France was punching everyone in the face in that part of the world – including China – and in 1887 they formed French Indochina: Annam, Tonkin, and Cochinchina were all merged to form the modern Vietnam, and – getting a bit bored – they added the Kingdom of Cambodia and Laos later on. As far as France was concerned, all of this shit was now theirs:

Which kinda brings me to this:

And if you are looking at this thinking “wow, that just looks like Western assholes dividing up land that doesn’t belong to them,” you would be correct.

Naturally, the Vietnamese were a tad irked (and who could blame them?) Nationalist sentiments spread all over the country and uprisings were common, but as we head into the 20th Century and through WWI, France concedes not one jot. France is trying to be a Great Britain.

In 1930, a major uprising by Vietnamese soldiers in the French colonial army’s Yên Bái garrison heralded in the largest disturbance yet, but it failed to spark the fire of a broader rebellion and France knocked it back into place with some ease.

Then WWII kicked off, and things got … messy.

Back home, France was fucking mauling the crap out of the Germans. They’re all “yeah kraut, we’ve got your measure!” and are laying down some good old fashioned Renault R35 smackdown. They’re impregnable, they’re invincible, they’re … oh … apparently the Maginot Line didn’t do shit.

France fell. France had a German fist rammed very much up its backside.

Thus new Vichy France regime was born, and over in Vietnam - ‘cos they don’t have their home country now, lolz - they decided that Japan wasn’t so bad, and they gave them access to French Indochina, and thus better access to China.

But we’re talking “Japan” here … what the fuck do you think happened? Japan kinda liked the whole area, and ultimately they took it all. But they weren’t complete dicks; they let the Vichy French hang around to run things, it’s just that they had to run things according to how Japan told them to.

As far as Vietnamese nationalists were concerned, this was a double-puppet government and was all kinds of fucked up, so it’s no surprise that the previous 100 years of subjugation and ever-increasing nationalist pride finally swelled up into the formation of the Viet Minh.

These guys wanted one thing: France needed to get the fuck out.

Wait, two things: when the Japanese took over, they wanted them the fuck out, as well.

To get help in this endeavor, they looked to America, China, and Russia, and these guys were all falling over themselves to do secret service, political shit. Training, equipment, pirated computer games, you name it, it flooded into Viet Minh hands.

By 1944, the Viet Minh membership was 500,000 strong and was a significant movement, so when WWII ended and Japan had to hand control of the area back, they gave public buildings and Vichy French weaponry to … the Viet Minh.

And then to ensure that they knew how to use it all, 600 Japanese soldiers stuck around to help train the Viet Minh in the use of all of that lovely weaponry. Now you have half a million nationalists, with guns, and enough knowledge to point them in the right direction.

It’s no wonder then that they proclaimed the independence of Việt Nam and a new name of Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Notice the “Democratic.” That makes it legit.

The catch? No one actually gave a fuck, and they didn’t really control anything; it was a bunch of dudes with some guns. So they were forced to the negotiation table with China and France, where the three of them came to an agreement: France would give up certain rights in China, the Việt Minh agreed to let the French return – as long as they had independence within the union – and the Chinese agreed to get the fuck out, because no one was quite sure how they got there in the first place.

And immediately, France and the Việt Minh set upon each other like rabid fucking dogs, because as far as the Việt Minh were concerned “if Japan can beat you, so can we!”

Now, you have to imagine this as a school playground really, because with China and Russia helping the Việt Minh, the rest of the world was chanting on for France to “get stuck in” and “kick their faces in.” France was kinda getting egged on.

France threw itself into the fray, all fists flying, but they had no freaking plan. They literally fought day-to-day, battle-to-battle, so while there were some early gains, ultimately the war started to go against them. By 1953, the whole shebang was all turning to shit and six successive French generals could not turn things around.

The French had to start getting creative.

They drafted in Henri Navarre, and Navarre and a fucking plan. Not a plan, but the motherfucking plan.

It was called: the Hedgehog.

Stick with it folks, it gets better.

Simply put, the “hedgehog” was a drop of men deep behind the front, right on the enemy’s supply lines. They set up a firebase, buckle down, and effectively screw up the enemy’s ability to resupply and reinforce, while meanwhile provoking a full-frontal assault. The enemy – used to guerrilla warfare in the jungles – ends up throwing themselves on your barbed wired defenses. Navarre was going to coax the Việt Minh into fighting a battle where the French superior equipment and air power could make a difference. It was fucking genius.

It also wasn’t just made-up shit, this had worked only years before in 1952 at the Battle of Na San, during which the Việt Minh threw 3,000 guys into the path of machinegun bullets, before they realized that it was silly and they ran away.

Navarre wanted that type of big-balled, skull-busting action right here, and he pointed to an area on the map to make it happen: Dien Bien Phu. A valley completely surrounded by steep, jungle covered mountains and connected to the outside world only by winding trails. All he had to do was plop his behemoth sized manhood into that valley, and the peasantry would run away in fear.

Now I’m going to pause here for a moment, because I want the gravity of what happened next to sink in.

When Navarre announced his plan and circled the spot on a map, every single major subordinate officer protested; they knew that it was a disastrous plan.

Why was it a stupid, stupid idea?

Well, there are a few reasons.

For starters, Na San - the successful hedgehog some years prior - had been on a hill. You know … the whole “defensive” thing; Na San had that in spades.

Dien Bien Phu? It’s this:

That’s right, it’s a fucking river valley. In fact the Việt Minh general – Vo Nguyen Giap - compared Dien Bien Phu to a “rice bowl”, with his troops on the outside rim. And – frankly – you don’t have to be a military historian to know that if the enemy has the high ground, and surrounds you, then he probably has an advantage.

Secondly, the French hedgehog relied on the ability to be able to resupply the defendant, so there has to be an airstrip in the middle of the base. Both Na San and  Dien Bien Phu had that covered, but Na San’s was HALF THE DISTANCE to the French airbase at Hanoi; Dien Bien Phu was located ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY MILES AWAY, thus meaning that resupplying Dien Bien Phu would take some serious logistical capabilities. And, frankly, the French just didn’t have the infrastructure to make that happen.

Plus – and here’s the kicker – Vo had learned his mistakes at Na San, and he had zero intention of making them again. This time he intended to lace the surrounding hills with these guys:

And that’s the type of metal-hurling punch to the nut-sack that takes any amount of planes out of the air before they can ever reach the airstrip. No planes? No resupply. Sucks to be you.

And – of course – there’s the whole “I can shoot your airstrip from up on these hills with my artillery” thing, which, in some kind of amazing brain fart, Navarre didn’t think of. Navarre clearly thought that the Việt Minh were armed with sticks, or something.

Which introduces the last major blunder: Navarre was completely under estimating his enemy. He assumed that they had little by way of supplies, equipment, ammunition, and artillery, but the simple truth is that they had gobs of everything.

The previous 10 years of warfare with the French – plus Chinese provided training camps – had started to hone the Việt Minh into a pretty mean fighting force. Then add Russian supplied AK’s, rifles, AA-guns, and artillery, and you have a pretty mean assed force that also happens to be armed to the fucking teeth.

The Việt Minh were not going to be the pushover Navarre was expecting.

This is what his officers were pointing out to him, but all Navarre could see was that the region provided 40% of the rice that the Việt Minh ate, and that was good enough for him.

On the morning of November 20th, 1953, 9,000 French hardnuts and a bulldozer were dropped into Dien Bien Phu. They buffed up the airstrip, flew a few more guys in, plopped down some buildings, parachuted in some more hard cases, and added a little barbed wire. Things were pretty much “easy street,” and it was clear that Navarre had been correct: the Việt Minh were a bunch of ass bandits.

Except: no.

Vo Giap was fucking firing on all cylinders, because from this point forward he played this thing like a fucking game of chess.

He realized that if the French were pressed at Lai Chau, that they’d abandon that province and would retreat to this ever increasing fortification of Dien Bien Phu. He also recognized all of his mistakes from a couple of years prior (and he was probably thinking “you’re setting up base in a river valley? Really? Okay …”)

Vo started meticulously stockpiling ammunition in the surrounding hills, placed heavy artillery and anti-aircraft guns in blast proof dug outs, and – quite literally – had food and supplies carried in by foot or cycle. For months on end the Việt Minh carried in individual artillery shells one at a time, burying them away into the area all around the French base.

Wooden artillery pieces were built as decoys and the real guns were set up so that they could be moved between salvos, thus preventing the French from being able to deliver effective counter-battery fire (remember this bit, it’s significant later).

Vo had just put a noose around the French army’s neck and all he had to do now was pull on the rope.

In December, the French started to transform the fortress with seven satellite positions, with the fortified headquarters in the center, and to all intents and purposes it was looking like a bad assed base, but the commander assigned to it was one Colonel Christian de Castries, and Castries was a cavalryman and he knew SHIT about base defense and the trench warfare-like brawl this was about to turn into.

Vo now had his 316th Việt Minh Division move on Lai Chau, and – exactly as he predicted – the French withdrew to Dien Bien Phu. And he was waiting for them: en route the French were attacked and fucking a-n-n-i-h-i-l-a-t-e-d. I’m talking 2,100 left Lai Chau on December 9th, 185 staggered into Dien Bien Phu 13 days later. They were heard to be muttering “oh, my arse …”

And now Vo pulled on that rope.

On base there were 16,000 French troops, numerous aircraft, ten Chaffee light tanks, artillery, elite paratroops, Foreign Legionnaires, Algerian and Moroccan tirailleurs, and locally recruited Indochinese infantry. If they weren’t sitting in the middle of a valley, surrounded by instant death, then they’d probably look pretty imposing.

The Việt Minh had 50,000 dudes sitting in those hills, including the 351st Heavy Division, which was made up entirely of heavy artillery. Their artillery and anti-aircraft outnumbered the French by FOUR TO ONE.

The rain season came, as Vo knew it would, and the French air support means shit. The valley floor turned to mud, and those lovely little tanks sank up to their chassis, becoming nothing but immobile pillboxes.

And NOW the Việt Minh  moved in and surrounded the base.

The assault started on March 13th, 1954. Outpost “Beatrice” got the first kick to the tender parts on the end  of a righteous artillery bombardment that left the French command station as a large crater, and the commanding officer a fine red mist.

Then came the infantry assault, and while the French managed to kill more of the attackers than their own, resistance ultimately collapsed just after midnight and the outpost fell under Việt Minh control.

This pattern would be repeated over the forthcoming weeks: shell the living crap out of the French positions, then assault the crap out of it at the end of a bayonet.

During the shelling, it became evident that the Việt Minh were pointing their artillery pieces directly at what they intended to destroy (vs. the usual indirect fire). This was only possible, because they could dig in and could point-fire from a veritable ant’s nest in the hills. It played havoc with the French trying to counter-battery fire, so much so that two days into this assault the French artillery commander, Colonel Charles Piroth, took himself into a nearby building and took himself out with a fucking hand grenade.

Seriously … a hand grenade? That’s some serious shit. And this, boys and girls, is some grade-A demoralization at work.

Just one day in - ONE - and the key feature of this whole tactic fell like a drunk on pay day: the air field was locked the fuck down. But what do you expect when it is surrounded by artillery and AA-guns on all sides? French supplies would now have to come in via parachute … as the day wore on, resupply drops had to come in at higher and higher altitudes … and men? Yeah … men would come … Foreign Legionnaires and volunteers wanting to help out the stricken garrison … and all of them would have to parachute down into a hail of fucking lead. The landing strip became a deathzone.

On the 14th, “Gabrielle” was assaulted. It was preceded with hours of shelling, then two regiments of very upset Việt Minh, and finally – the following morning – a shell also took out the command station here and the French were forced to abandon it.

With “Beatrice” and now “Gabrielle” gone, nothing stopped the Việt Minh from being able to completely close down the airport and to bring pinpoint artillery fire to anywhere that they liked. Parachuting reinforcements quite literally came down right into the thick of it.

On the 17th, “Anne-Marie’s” defenders all fucked off into the night. That base had been defended by members of a Vietnamese ethnic minority loyal to the French. What the French didn’t know, was that Vo Giap had been feeding them leaflets for weeks prior, telling them that this wasn’t their fight. With shit going wrong all around them, they tended to agree and buggered off.

Over the next couple of weeks – and this is some serious shit to be in folks – the Việt Minh further tightened the noose around the French center, cutting off “Isabelle” and 1,800 troops. Meanwhile, the French commander – in all seriousness – had a fucking breakdown; he isolated himself in his bunker and stopped giving out orders. Which, um, I’m sure didn’t help the situation going on out there.

From the end of March and into April, “Elaine” and “Dominque” came under heavy pressure from massed Việt Minh forces. “Dominque 1 & 2” fell on March 30th, making “Dominque 3” the last outpost between the Việt Minh and the general headquarters. But the French were fighting hard and they were not giving up. Their own artillery at this point lay the pieces down at zero level and started blasting huge fucking holes in the Việt Minh ranks, finally forcing them back.

Fierce push and shove, attack and counter-attack, roiled for the next several nights, until Vo decided that his guys were suffering too heavily, and he switched up tactics. On April 5th, the Việt Minh started digging in trench warfare style, and moved to sapping tactics to overrun the French defenses east of the river.

April 10th, “Elaine 1” became the center of attention again, as the French retook it, were shoved out, and retook it again. Morale among the Việt Minh started to waiver; heavy casualties were being sustained, medical supplies were for shit (and who likes watching a friend suffer?), orders were disregarded, officers started to threaten execution of the troops … and the attack was beginning to waiver.

Vo called in fresh reinforcements from Laos and managed to keep things from completely falling apart. Entrenchments started to encircle French positions, and the battle dragged on; French counter attacks started to now wear them down, and outpost by outpost, they were running out of water, ammunition, and the ability to maintain their ground.

On May 1st, a massive Việt Minh attack overran “Elaine 1,” “Dominque 3,” and “Huguette 5.” This assault lasted a solid 5 days, with Katyusha rockets all up in it, and the final “fuck you” being a detonated mine shaft under “Elaine 2.” Blood, explosions, noise, havoc, mayhem … it was everywhere.

On May 7th there was an all-out attack with 25,000 Việt Minh infantry; TWENTY FIVE THOUSAND. Facing them? Just 3,000 Frenchmen.

The French commander radioed into French headquarters:

De Castries: “The Viets are everywhere. The situation is very grave. The combat is confused and goes on all about. I feel the end is approaching, but we will fight to the finish.”
Cogny: “Of course you will fight to the end. It is out of the question to run up the white flag after your heroic resistance.”

By the end of that day, the French positions were completely overrun. No … worse than that … they were taken apart, destroyed, mauled, and fucked the hell over.

“The enemy has overrun us. We are blowing up everything. Vive la France!”

~ French radio operator

The following day, the Việt Minh counted 11,721 prisoners and almost 5,000 dead or missing. The Việt Minh had to pay a heavy price for this victory, with 4,000 dead and 9,000 wounded of their own, but this had been against 10% of the total French forces in Vietnam, and the sheer volume of prisoners they took was their highest ever.

Of the prisoners taken, only 3,290 were ever repatriated, which leads to an interesting story about Georges Boudarel, a Frenchmen accused of torturing his own countrymen while serving as Gaoler in a prison camp. But perhaps we’ll do that another time.

The Geneva Conference opened - quite literally - the day after the Việt Minh victory. The French had planned on being all boss at the meeting, but as headlines ran around heralding in their defeat, it was Ho Chi Minh who entered,  strutting his stuff, looking sharp, and with a whole bag of “I have you by the balls” in hand.

The resulting agreement temporarily split Vietnam into two, until general elections could be held in a couple of year’s time. The Việt Minh got the north, and the “State of Vietnam” got the south. But the French withdrew, leaving the south - under emperor Bao Dai - with the backing of the United States, which was doubtlessly due to the fact that the north had China and Russia in its corner. And around this point, the south started accusing the north of all sorts of bad shit … and that temporary split started to guide history in a whole different direction.

Other Artillery Barrages through History:

http://alyssafaden.tumblr.com/archive

Sources:

How to Lose a Battle: Foolish Plans and Great Military Blunders, Bill Fawcett

http://ftr.wot-news.com/2014/06/29/chaffees-at-dien-bien-phu-part-i/

http://histomil.com/viewtopic.php?p=20125

https://pathannay.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/dien-bien-phu/

http://vietnamnews.vn/learning-english/252280/battle-of-dien-bien-phu-remembered.html

http://www.thethoughtspot.net/lessonsinhistory/2014/6/17/three-reasons-dien-bien-phu-was-a-terrible-idea

4

June 6th 1944: D-Day

On this day in 1944, the D-Day landings began on the beaches of Normandy as part of the Allied ‘Operation Overlord’. The largest amphibious military operation in history, the operation involved thousands of Allied troops landing in France. For those landing on the beaches of Normandy, they faced heavy fire, mines and other obstacles on the beach, but managed to push inland. In charge of the operation was future US President General Dwight Eisenhower and leading the ground forces was British General Bernard Montgomery. The landings proved a decisive Allied victory, as they secured a foothold in France which had been defeated by Nazi Germany in 1940. D-Day was a key moment in the Second World War and helped turn the tide of the war in favour of the Allies. 70 years on, we remember not just the strategic victory that was D-Day but also the ultimate sacrifice paid by thousands of soldiers on both sides of the fighting.

“You are about to embark upon the great crusade, toward which we have striven these many months.”
- Eisenhower’s message to the Allied Expeditionary Force

70 years ago today