Quotulatiousness

March 19, 2017

Byzantium, Persia and the rise of Islam

Filed under: History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At The Declination, Dystopic explains why he’s fascinated by the untold stories of the sudden influx of Muslim armies from the Arabian peninsula that shattered the Persian Empire and nearly toppled the Byzantines in the 7th century:

In the course of perusing my backlinks, I discovered a little-known blog call the House of David. This one is fascinating because the author delves deeply into a topic which has bothered me for most my life: just how was it that Islam conquered Sassanian Persia and most of Byzantium more or less simultaneously? Normally this question is answered in the West, at least, by primarily Greek sources. Those are useful, yes, but only paint part of the picture. The proprietor of House of David seeks to answer the question from Persian and Arabic sources, also.

The strangeness of this event cannot be overstated. As successors to the Romans (or as Romans themselves, depending on how you account them), the Byzantines were masters of siege craft. Certainly the Theodosian walls impress well enough. Being consummate engineers of fortifications, Roman forts and walled cities dotted the empire, and for the most part, the Romans were excellent at defending them. The Byzantines continued the tradition of effective defense throughout most of their history, as they were under near-constant assault from all sides.

[…]

In some cases, of course, there was treachery from some of the Byzantines themselves, most notably in Egypt. But in other cases, such as the Exarchate of Africa, local Byzantine resistance was absolutely fierce. The wars in North Africa absolutely devastated the place. It never recovered after this. So complete was this devastation and desolation that Carthage, which bounced back even after the Romans razed it, never recovered from it. Even conquest by the Vandals had not been so terrible.

And still, after the Byzantines themselves lost much of North Africa, the native Christian Berbers continued to resist for some time under a supposed witch-queen named Kahina. And Byzantine resistance remained for a time around Cueta even after Carthage was destroyed, where the possibly-apocryphal Count Julian was said to have finally thrown in with the Muslims in order to avenge himself upon the Visigoths.

Yet the Arab steamroller moved on.

The final triumph of Byzantine siege craft could be seen in the twin Arab sieges of Constantinople, both beaten back effectively by the Byzantines. So why did they lose so completely everywhere else?

February 14, 2017

Fortress Ottawa, a post-War of 1812 alternative use for Parliament Hill

Filed under: Cancon, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Colby Cosh linked to this Ottawa Citizen article by Andrew King:

Mapped out with defensive moats, trenches and cannon placements, Bytown’s sprawling stone fortification on the hill was a typical 19th century “star fort,” similar to Fort George in Halifax, also known as Citadel Hill, and the Citadelle de Québec in Quebec City. The “star fort” layout style evolved during the era of gunpowder and cannons and was perfected by Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban, a French engineer who studied 16th century forts designed by the Knights of Malta. A star fort built by the order with trenches and angled walls withstood a month-long siege by the Ottoman Empire. This layout remained the standard in fort design until the 20th century.

Ottawa’s planned fortress would have also integrated a water-filled moat trench to the south, where Laurier Street is now, to impede an attack. On the northern side, the natural limestone cliffs along the Ottawa River would have served as a defensive measure. Access and resupply points were at the canal near the Sappers Bridge, and a zigzagging trench with six-metre-high stone walls would have run parallel to Queen Street. Parliament Hill, with its gently sloping banks to the south, was called a “glacis” positioned in front of the main trench so that the walls were almost totally hidden from horizontal artillery attack, preventing point-blank enemy fire.

Conceptual image by Andrew King of the “alternate reality” where Fortress Ottawa came to be.

After the rebellions were quashed and the threat of an attack from the United States fizzled out by the mid-1850s, Canada abandoned plans to fortify Bytown.

In 1856, the Rideau Canal system was relinquished to civilian control, and three years later Bytown was selected as the capital of the Province of Canada. The grand plans for Ottawa’s massive stone fortress were shelved and the area that would have been Citadel Hill became the scene of a different kind of battle, that of politics.

January 31, 2017

QotD: Parts of the “Wild West” we won’t see on TV or in the movies

Filed under: Books, History, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In the Nineties, a change began to take place. Reviewers and interviewers started describing Flashman (and me) as politically incorrect, which we are, though by no means in the same way.

This is fine by me. Flashman is my bread and butter, and if he wasn’t an elitist, racist, sexist swine, I’d be selling bootlaces at street corners instead of being a successful popular writer.

But what I notice with amusement is that many commentators now draw attention to Flashy’s (and my) political incorrectness in order to make a point of distancing themselves from it.

It’s not that they dislike the books. But where once the non-PC thing could pass unremarked, they now feel they must warn readers that some may find Flashman offensive, and that his views are certainly not those of the interviewer or reviewer, God forbid.

I find the disclaimers alarming. They are almost a knee-jerk reaction and often rather a nervous one, as if the writer were saying: “Look, I’m not a racist or sexist. I hold the right views and I’m in line with modern enlightened thought, honestly.”

They won’t risk saying anything to which the PC lobby could take exception. And it is this that alarms me – the fear evident in so many sincere and honest folk of being thought out of step.

I first came across this in the United States, where the cancer has gone much deeper. As a screenwriter [at which Fraser was almost as successful as he was with the 12 Flashman novels; his best-known work was scripting the Three Musketeers films] I once put forward a script for a film called The Lone Ranger, in which I used a piece of Western history which had never been shown on screen and was as spectacular as it was shocking – and true.

The whisky traders of the American plains used to build little stockades, from which they passed out their ghastly rot-gut liquor through a small hatch to the Indians, who paid by shoving furs back though the hatch.

The result was that frenzied, drunken Indians who had run out of furs were besieging the stockade, while the traders sat snug inside and did not emerge until the Indians had either gone away or passed out.

Political correctness stormed onto the scene, red in tooth and claw. The word came down from on high that the scene would offend “Native Americans”.

Their ancestors may have got pie-eyed on moonshine but they didn’t want to know it, and it must not be shown on screen. Damn history. Let’s pretend it didn’t happen because we don’t like the look of it.

I think little of people who will deny their history because it doesn’t present the picture they would like.

My forebears from the Highlands of Scotland were a fairly primitive, treacherous, blood-thirsty bunch and, as Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote, would have been none the worse for washing. Fine, let them be so depicted, if any film maker feels like it; better that than insulting, inaccurate drivel like Braveheart.

The philosophy of political correctness is now firmly entrenched over here, too, and at its core is a refusal to look the truth squarely in the face, unpalatable as it may be.

George MacDonald Fraser, “The last testament of Flashman’s creator: How Britain has destroyed itself”, Daily Mail, 2008-01-05.

November 8, 2016

Operational analysis: The Battle of the Pelennor Fields

Filed under: Books, Military — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

The Angry Staff Officer analyzes the Battle of the Pelennor Fields (called by some the Battle of Minas Tirith) in terms of the six warfighting functions:

… Which leads me to my problem statement for this impromptu mission analysis that I am forcing you into: how did the forces of Gondor wage unified land operations versus the forces of Sauron at the Battle of Minas Tirith? More specifically, how can a primarily infantry force defend against a numerically superior enemy that possesses significant air assets, fires superiority, and freedom of movement and maneuver?

Couched in these terms, the problem statement resembles the complex situation faced by our brigade combat teams in a potential peer-to-peer engagement.

The situation – for those who do not remember it – is as follows: the forces of Gondor have been driven back from their forward defensive strongpoints along the Anduin River in the population center of Osgiliath. The withdrawal had been conducted in an orderly manner until the rear guard covering the retreat came under air attack by the Nazgul, which used their air superiority to drive the defenders into a panic. Most significantly, this air sortie wounded the primary land component commander, Faramir, depriving the forces of Gondor of their most effective warfighter.

More than 30,000 orcs and men of the forces of Sauron then enveloped the battle positions around Minas Tirith and began a siege of the 4,000 or so defenders of the city, which was primarily an infantry force with little in the way of cavalry or artillery. Significantly, the defenders possessed virtually no anti-air defenses, allowing the Nazgul freedom of movement around the battlefield – a dangerous proposition as the Nazgul also wielded considerable psychological damage (not unlike the sound of Stuka dive bombers in World War II). The greatest asset for Gondor was the wizard Gandalf – a force multiplier by any definition of the term – who was serving as the principle mission command adviser to Denethor. The objective for Gondor was to maintain their battle positions and hold out until reinforcements could arrive. However, lines of communication were cut during the siege and Gondor could not be sure that cavalry reinforcements from neighboring Rohan could arrive in time to save the city. This uncertainty weighed heavily on the forces of Gondor.

As a good staff officer, I turn to Army Doctrinal Publication 3-0, Unified Land Operations to understand the problem through the six warfighting functions. And given that J.R.R. Tolkien himself was a British signal officer during World War I, it would be appropriate to start out with mission command.

I imagine the author was grinning when he got to this section:

Luckily for Gondor, Gandalf then assumed command of all land forces, despite his position as a primary staff advisor to Denethor.

Yeah, that’s right, a staff officer took over operations.

Gandalf immediately provided vision and direction to the city’s defenders at a critical moment, as the forces of Sauron were conducting a breaching operation on the gates of Minas Tirith utilizing a battering ram named Grond. Arriving at the enemy point of breach, Gandalf rallied the forces in the engagement area, organized the defense, and directly opposed the primary enemy air and land component commander, the Witch-king of Angmar. The Witch-king was Sauron’s chief captain and commander of the Nazgul. Under his supervision, Sauron’s forces breached the main perimeter to the city and the Witch-king moved through the point of penetration into the far side of the breach, where he was confronted by Gandalf. The two land component commanders were prevented from close combat by the arrival of the primary maneuver element: the forces of Rohan.

H/T to John Donovan for the link.

April 26, 2016

Body Armor – Fortress Design – Belgian Armoured Car Division I OUT OF THE TRENCHES

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 25 Apr 2016

It’s Chair of Wisdom time again and this week we talk about the experiments with body armor of World War 1, fortress design and the Belgian Armoured Car Division.

April 3, 2016

The Trench Cycle – What Happened to Captured Weapons? I OUT OF THE TRENCHES

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 2 Apr 2016

In this week’s episode of Out Of The Trenches Indy answers your questions about the trench rotation system, listening posts and captured weapons.

October 20, 2015

QotD: A Roman army encampment

Filed under: History, Military, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The camp of a Roman legion presented the appearance of a fortified city. As soon as the space was marked out, the pioneers carefully levelled the ground, and removed every impediment that might interrupt its perfect regularity. Its form was an exact quadrangle; and we may calculate, that a square of about seven hundred yards was sufficient for the encampment of twenty thousand Romans; though a similar number of our own troops would expose to the enemy a front of more than treble that extent. In the midst of the camp, the praetorium, or general’s quarters, rose above the others; the cavalry, the infantry, and the auxiliaries occupied their respective stations; the streets were broad and perfectly straight, and a vacant space of two hundred feet was left on all sides between the tents and the rampart. The rampart itself was usually twelve feet high, armed with a line of strong and intricate palisades, and defended by a ditch of twelve feet in depth as well as in breadth. This important labor was performed by the hands of the legionaries themselves; to whom the use of the spade and the pickaxe was no less familiar than that of the sword or pilum. Active valor may often be the present of nature; but such patient diligence can be the fruit only of habit and discipline.

Whenever the trumpet gave the signal of departure, the camp was almost instantly broke up, and the troops fell into their ranks without delay or confusion. Besides their arms, which the legionaries scarcely considered as an encumbrance, they were laden with their kitchen furniture, the instruments of fortification, and the provision of many days. Under this weight, which would oppress the delicacy of a modern soldier, they were trained by a regular step to advance, in about six hours, near twenty miles. On the appearance of an enemy, they threw aside their baggage, and by easy and rapid evolutions converted the column of march into an order of battle. The slingers and archers skirmished in the front; the auxiliaries formed the first line, and were seconded or sustained by the strength of the legions; the cavalry covered the flanks, and the military engines were placed in the rear.

Edward Gibbon, “Chapter I: The Extent Of The Empire In The Age Of The Antonines — Part III”, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1782.

April 29, 2015

How do you get teens to understand the First World War? Digging trenches is a good start

Filed under: Cancon, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Leslie Waghorn talks about the history teacher who literally brought trench warfare to life for her and her classmates:

Mr. Barker-James had planned everything to be as accurate as possible. The students would dig the trenches over a series of months. We would sleep outside and we would only be allowed to take clothing and comforts with us that would have been allowed by our “side” at the time. We would eat what they ate, we would sleep on their schedules.

For two months, after school and during our spare periods, we went to Mr. Barker-James’ farm and hand dug trenches. I remember my hands being blistered and by mid-October being miserable with the choice to either wear gloves and not have a good enough grip on the shovel to break through the frost, or do it bare-handed. One day I remember throwing a 17-year-old’s hissy fit, which Mr. Barker-James stopped by reminding me that a mere 80 years before, boys my age had to do this in France, all day, without the luxury of gloves and wool hats, and snacks.

Point to Mr. Barker-James.

When the weekend of the trench warfare scenario came, I remember there were a handful of seniors on the Allied and Axis (my assignment) sides and we were over-run by sophomores who were ready for a weekend of camping. We were offered our first breakfast of a slice of bread, water and a cheese slice. Many decided not to eat it and instead marched the 8 kilometers to his farm on an empty stomach. By the time we arrived, the mood had gone from excitement to exhaustion.

We set up camp, laid out wooden weapons, and started our first patrols. At lunch we were offered what soldiers from our side would have eaten: Hard tack and bully beef. I remember cutting the roof of my mouth on the hard tack and dry heaving as I tried to swallow the fatty bully beef. I couldn’t get it down. I was very hungry, but I knew that was the point.

The first battle we recreated was the Somme. I remember being relieved because it was supposed to be easy for our side, the Germans. The Canadians would walk down the hill, in the trench at the base we would mow them down. At first our side was having fun, enjoying as the refs called their friends out as dead. The ‘dead’ students would then revive and move up to the top of the hill and come down again in the next wave, only to be killed by us again.

I remember a girl stopping at one point and saying, “this sucks.” I asked her why, this was the easy part for us. “We’re just killing them and killing them and killing them. It doesn’t stop. We have to do this for 45 more minutes. Just killing people. It’s depressing.” “That’s the point.” I said. I saw the same light go off in her eyes as it did when Mr. Barker-James had pointed out that my sore hands were nothing to complain about. By giving us the opportunity to be outside of the classroom, and gain a first-hand reflective experience of the actual impact of war (however minor), Mr. Barker-James acted as an educational mediator – not a teacher, and yet, higher ranked than any teacher could be. His lessons instilled critical thinking, reflection, curiosity, and a drive for us to understand, which is considered some of the best sort of teaching around.

H/T to BoingBoing for the link.

November 26, 2014

Hard and Muddy Times I THE TRENCH WARFARE

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 07:49

Published on 24 Nov 2014

The prevalent conduct of war of the Twenties is unmistakably the trench warfare. The trenches with its knee deep mud are war theatre as well as home to the soldiers. But how does it look like inside a trench? How is it constructed?

Indy took a look and explains why the trenches are thought to be the base for a longstanding war and how life was inside a trench.

November 18, 2014

Excavating the trenches of Flanders, 100 years on

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

In the Telegraph, Tim Rowley reports from Ypres:

In Flanders fields, dozens of men are digging trenches. From dawn to sunset, they force their shovels through the soil, even when the temperature plunges below freezing. When it rains, their clothes cling to their bodies. They were told it would be over by Christmas; now, they are not so sure.

This is Belgium, 2014, and the men are archaeologists, not soldiers – but in one regard their experiences are not so far removed from those of their forebears a century ago. The foes of the Great War have long been reconciled, but the weather is as harsh as ever.

“The cold is not the problem, it’s the rain,” says Simon Verdegem, one of the 30 archaeologists excavating land touched by only a plough for decades. “By the end of the day, our shoes are full of mud and we can’t walk straight because we slip all the time. And, this time, nobody’s firing at us.”

Verdegem’s great uncle fought on these fields 100 years ago. Now the 31-year-old is learning a little of the conditions he had to endure. “The first thing I do when I get home is take a shower and hang my clothes up by the fire. But they didn’t have the chance. They had to stay in a water-filled trench. I know how we feel after a day out here in the rain – we’re just miserable – and I can’t imagine it.”

All these years later, Belgium’s war wounds have still to heal. In the years following the Armistice 96 years ago today, vast mounds of earth were shovelled into the trenches. In the great cemeteries of Belgium, the row upon row of Portland stone stood as testament to the sacrifice of the men; the authorities were less keen to remember the inglorious squalor to which each side subjected the other.

If only that were so easy. For decades now, Flanders farmers have turned up a deadly harvest of unexploded bombs, shells and grenades. They all know the bomb squad’s phone number, and some have reinforced their tractors against explosion.

Yet archaeologists rarely get the chance to mine this rich seam of history. Under European Union regulations, they can only excavate these fields when there is an external threat to the artefacts buried beneath, such as a housing development.

Which is why Verdegem is so excited by this latest dig, the largest-ever excavation of First World War battlefields. Next year, Fluxys, a Belgian energy company, will lay a new £120 million gas pipeline across the country, snaking through 18 miles of land that formed the frontline for four years, as both sides inched from Ypres to Passchendaele then back to Ypres – each time, shuffling just far enough to bury their dead.

November 1, 2012

Recreational trench-building

Filed under: Britain, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 14:06

I’ve dug trenches, in my long-past militia days, but I’ve never really thought about doing it as a hobby:

Surrounded by barbed wire, sandbags and mud, this 60ft trench is barely distinguishable from those occupied by British soldiers fighting in the First World War almost a century ago.

The enormous dugout has been painstakingly recreated by an ex-history teacher in his back garden in Surrey, and the dedicated 55-year-old even spent 24 hours living in its confines with a team of volunteers as part of his efforts to experience life as a WWI soldier.

Andrew Robertshaw and 30 helpers spent a month shifting around 200 tonnes of earth to build the enormous three-room trench, which he hopes will teach people more about the horrific living conditions endured by British troops during the Great War.

The only thing that struck me about this and other photos in the article is that the re-enactors look too clean. Digging a trench, then spending more than a short stretch of time therein leaves dirt everywhere:

June 30, 2010

Here’s an example of a home that’s really a castle

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 12:03

Chateau de Guedelon is a real 13th century castle, or at least, it will be when they finish building it:

The ­Chateau de Guedelon was started in 1998, after local landowner Michel Guyot wondered whether it would be possible to build a castle from scratch, using only contemporary tools and materials.

Today, the walls are rising gradually from the red Burgundy clay. The great hall is almost finished, with only part of the roof remaining, while the main tower edges past the 15m (50ft) mark.

Builders use sandstone quarried from the very ground from which the castle is emerging.

[. . .]

The Guedelon site was chosen because it contained all the necessary materials: plentiful oak from the forests, as well as clay and water. Stone from the quarry had actually been used in the building of real-life medieval chateaux.

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