military history

In terms of [French] soldiers, the habit of being tattooed appears to have been well established by the time of the Revolution. […] Another veteran of the [First French] Empire, with twelve campaigns and fifteen wounds to his name, was given a medical examination and was found to have VIVE LE ROI (‘Long live the king’) tattooed on his right forearm. For political expediency, the veteran quickly had this tattoo amended to read VIVE LE RÔTI (‘Long live roast meat’).

 - Napoleon’s Infantry Handbook, Terry Crowdy

Armistice and Remembrance.

Today is the 11th of November and this year it marks the 98th anniversary of Armistice Day. The day that the fighting stopped on the Western Front. At 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month the guns stopped firing and the message was passed down the chain of command to the soldiers in the line. The fighting was finished.
For most the news came as a welcome surprise. The German army was still resisting fiercely and though the Allies had the initiative and ability to defeat the Germans the enemy had not collapsed and remained in French territory.

Members of the 16th Battalion, on parade in the town of Picquigny on Armistice Day.

Amongst Australians the news was greeted not with cheers or celebration, but with muted relief. The fact that it was not a surrender by Germany and that a final peace deal was still a year away, was not lost on the fighting men who made up the Allied armies. They keenly felt the brittle nature of the agreement and for the Australian divisions on their way back into the line on the 10th of November rumours of an Armistice meant little. The Australian 5th Division was on its way back into the line on the morning of 11 November, its biographer Captain Alexander Ellis wrote that “news of the Armistice was received with singular quietness in the Division.” (Ellis, The Story of the Fifth Australian Division)

“Neither there [in reserve areas] nor at the front was there any general demonstration-the sound of guns ceased; the gates of the future silently opened. Wonder, hope, grief, too deep and uncertain for speech, revolved for days in almost every man’s mind while, in the British zone at least, army life went on as usual pending the next decisions.” (Bean, Australian Official History of the War of 1914-18, Vol VI)

Around the world commemorations remember today as the day the War ended. There will be commemorative ceremonies and services held at hundreds of monuments and memorials across the globe.In Britain, New Zealand, Canada, Australia and many other countries of the old British Empire, there is a minutes silence held at 11am followed by a playing of the Last Post and a reading of a poem, often the Ode of Remembrance.

One service in particular that I think is an important one is the one held at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.  
The Shrine is a memorial and now museum as well, that was purpose built as a place for Victorians to come and grieve in the wake of the War. Almost 20,000 Victorians during the War and none of their remains were brought home to Australia and no graves for their families to mourn at. Instead the state government commissioned a memorial be built in their honour and as a place for grieving families to come and express their sorrow  and for future generations to remember their service and sacrifices.
The centrepiece of the Shrine is the Stone of Remembrance, laid in middle of the sanctuary of the Shrine and Ray of Light. The Ray of Light ceremony is central to the experience of the Shrine of Remembrance. A ray of natural sunlight passes through an aperture in the ceiling of the Sanctuary and falls onto the Stone of Remembrance over the word Love at exactly 11am on the 11th November each year while a lone bugler plays the Last Post.

I volunteered at the Shrine for a couple of years and I’ve lost count of the amount of groups I’ve taken around and explained the Stone and Ray of Light to. Every day they put on a recreation of the Ray of Light ceremony and every time, regardless of who is watching, be they schoolkids or veterans, the atmosphere is reverential.

So if you can, take a minute at 11am and remember.

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Today marks the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor which officially catapulted the United States into the Second World War.

This illustration from 1943 depicts Doris “Dorie” Miller (1919-1943), an African-American sailor from Waco, Texas during that fateful morning in 1941 as he defends the fleet at Pearl Harbor from the USS West Virginia. Despite not being trained on the .50 caliber Browning, Miller impressively managed to shoot down an estimated 3 to 4 Japanese planes until he ran out of ammunition. At that point, Miller began to help moving injured sailors out of harm’s way before abandoning the ship.

For his efforts on that day, Miller was awarded the US Navy Cross and was lauded as one of the first American heroes in Second World War (as the pin shows).

Miller would unfortunately be killed in action onboard the USS Liscome Bay during the battle of Makin Island 1943.

(US National Archives, USAmericana)

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February 2nd 1943: Battle of Stalingrad ends

On this day in 19423 during the Second World War, German troops surrendered to the Soviet Red Army in Stalingrad, thus ending five months of fighting. The battle began in August 1942 during the Nazi invasion of Russia - codenamed Operation Barbarossa - and Adolf Hitler ordered an attack on the major city of Stalingrad. Stalingrad became a major playing field of the war, as Soviet leader Stalin was determined to save the city which bore his name. Under the leadership of General Paulus, German bombing destroyed much of the city and troops captured areas through hand-to-hand urban warfare. In November, Marshal Zhukov assembled six Russian armies to surround Stalingrad and trap the Germans in the city, barring provisions and troops from reaching them. Many German soldiers died of starvation and frostbite following the onset of the harsh Russian winter, with temperatures down to -30°C, but Hitler insisted they fight until the last man. After five months, the Russian Red Army claimed victory when the remaining German troops surrendered in February 1943. 91,000 Germans were taken prisoner, including twenty-two generals; this was all that remained of the 330,000 strong German force who arrived at Stalingrad. The Battle of Stalingrad is among the bloodiest battles of the Second World War, causing nearly two million casualties. The disaster depleted the German army’s supply of men and equipment, allowing the Allies to gain the advantage, which enabled them to invade Germany and win the war.

“The God of war has gone over to the other side”
- Adolf Hitler upon hearing of the German surrender at Stalingrad

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December 8th 1941: Battle of Hong Kong begins

On this day in 1941, during the Second World War, the Battle of Hong Kong began. The attack on the then British colony of Hong Kong began just hours after the Japanese attacked the American base of Pearl Harbor, marking the beginning of Japan’s quest for domination in Asia. The British government was sceptical of their chances of defending the outpost, but in September 1941 drafted Canadian troops to Hong Kong. The Battle of Hong Kong lasted 17 days, seeing heavy bombardment and fierce fighting, including a massacre at an Allied hostpital. The 12,000 Allied troops - comprising Canadians, Britons, Indians, and locals - were vastly outnumbered by the 50,000 Japanese. Ultimately, over 2,000 Allied troops died trying to defend Hong Kong, and the British governor surrendered on December 25th. The Japanese occupied Hong Kong until August 1945; after the war, the Japanese governor was executed for war crimes. The battle of Hong Kong remains an important moment in Canadian and Commonwealth history, for, despite overwhelming odds and little military training, the Allied forces refused to surrender, and many subsequently endured brutal conditions as prisoners of war.

75 years ago today

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Italian Decorated Parade Armour of King Philip III of Spain from 1585 on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London

From top to bottom, the Burgonet, breastplate and gauntlets comes from a a series presented to the Spanish royal family in the 1580′s. Tailor-made parade armour was iron clothing: the pointed ‘peascod’ breastplate imitated fashionable doublets. Draped with fine silk sashes and with helmets sprouting plumes of ostrich feathers. Such armour was for effect and display rather than protection in battle. Inspired by ancient Roman armour it transformed Renaissance nobles into classical heroes.