Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Boston Massacre, 5 March 1770

Battle of the Week 2011-09

It wasn't a battle in the traditional sense. In the context of civil disobedience, it was barely even a riot. But the Boston Massacre is part of our heritage, a broad stepping-stone in the path to the American Revolution. To this day, we teach our kids to hate Redcoats with a special intensity, an intensity we rarely focus even against Nazis. In our national mythology, a red coat and cross-belts is the symbol of oppressors and murderers, for all Great Britain is our oldest and closest ally.

But whatever it was or was not, it was certainly an important event in our history. In many respects, we can think of it as the Abu Ghraib of the day: to Great Britain, it was an unfortunate incident perpetrated by a few of the wrong soldiers in the wrong place at the wrong time, but to the American colonists it was a hideous crime that could never be washed away. Without a doubt it was for some Americans their moment of clarity, the moment they realized the only way to equality before the British crown was through independence.

As important as it is to us, though, we spend little time on it in our history classrooms. A typical treatment goes something like this: among the many injustices visited on the colonies by the British, on March 5th, 1770, a squad of Redcoats fired into a crowd in Boston, killing five colonists. One of them was Crispus Attucks, a black man many call the first casualty of the American Revolution. Some teachers may discuss a few of the events surrounding the massacre, how the colonists threw snowballs and chunks of ice and brandished sticks and may have been trying to incite the soldiers to fire the whole time. In some classrooms, it was an act of brutal oppression; in others, it was cooked up to give the people of Boston, and the colonies at large, yet another grievance to propel them toward war and independence.

You'd think, for all the controversy the massacre inspires to this day, we'd spend more effort trying to understand it--not only what happened, but why. That's an historian's job, as I see it: we are not just chroniclers, stating and restating what happened. We must go beyond what happened to answer why it happened and what came of it, what it meant. Occasionally we feel the need to go even further, to capture the essence of the event, to try to help people understand what it was like to live it. Because the study of history is the study not only of events but of the people who lived them.

So what was it like to live the Boston Massacre? I'm sure I can hardly do it justice in a blog post, but here goes:

Your name is Hugh White. You are a private in His Majesty's army--specifically, the 29th Regiment of Foot. You are thirty years old and have spent eleven of those years in the army. It is the only life you have known as an adult.

Most of the time, life in the army is not hard: you go where you are told, when you are told, and do what you are told. Your superiors require nothing of you in the way of imagination, little even of thought. All you have to do is keep your weapon and equipment clean and obey orders.

Of course, some orders are easier to obey than others, and discipline in His Majesty's army is famously harsh. It is much easier to be flogged or branded for doing something wrong, or failing to do something, than to be recognized and rewarded for doing something well. So you have developed the habit of keeping your head down and doing exactly what you're told, to the best of your ability, as quickly as you can. You don't try to come up with a better way. You don't try to make it easier. You think about it as little as possible, because thinking only gets you in trouble.

On the night of the 5th of March, you're not thinking much about anything except how miserable you are. It's cold; snow still lies in the streets from the most recent storm of the winter, and icicles hang from the corners of houses and buildings around you. Some of the less-trafficked patches of the street are slick with ice. And you have the misfortune of standing watch outside the Customs House this evening. You walk your route up and down in front of the building, stamping your feet, grateful at least for the chance to move. Guard duty is boring and repetitive at the best of times; on a night like tonight it promises to be boring, repetitive, and cold.

But tonight, a different feeling hangs in the air. Two days ago, a few of your mates somehow got into a scrap at a nearby tavern. Not their fault, surely--they were only looking for work to supplement their meager army pay when the belligerent colonists jumped them. But from the looks you're getting from the passersby, these Bostonians don't see it that way. From the looks you're getting, these Bostonians blame you for the fight. You can't leave your post, but you find yourself checking your whistle each time you turn, making sure it's still there, making sure you'll be able to call for help if things turn ugly.

And it looks like they'll turn ugly soon. A handful of men is gathering nearby, pretending to talk but eyeing you all the while. Two of them carry sticks in their hands. You take some comfort in your musket, worth a lot more than a stick if it comes to a fight--but if they all rush you at once, it won't help you much.

Now the men with sticks are advancing toward you, their friends close behind. Others are stopping to watch what happens. They step in front of you, stopping you from walking your route, and begin shouting in your face. They call you names like Lobsterback and ask what you're doing there, why you feel the need to protect the Customs House from your own countrymen. They're not attacking, just threatening, but their shouts are getting louder by the minute, and the crowd is getting bigger.

Finally, one of them says something about your sister, and your blood begins to boil. You haven't been trained to think; violence is the tool you have been given, and you know how to use it well. Anger and fear get the best of you; you raise the butt of your musket and strike the offender in the side of his head. He staggers back, the others following, one of them catching his arm and supporting him to keep him from falling. It gives you the breathing space you need. You raise your whistle to your lips and blow as hard as you can.

The sound makes everybody pause for a moment, but a long time before help arrives the Boston men are back at you. This time more of them join in, and you begin to well and truly fear for your life. It seems an hour before help comes--the crowd presses you back against the Customs House, and you step up onto the steps leading to an entrance and threaten to shoot the next man who steps toward you. Your heart sinks as you say the words. You know you can only get one of them, perhaps another with your bayonet. All that will save you is their desire not to be the man who gets shot.

Finally help arrives: the captain of the watch trots up with six grenadiers. They form a line with their backs to you, their faces to the crowd, their muskets ready but pointed toward the sky. The captain steps in front of the line, motioning you to take your place on the left. As you step down, he raises his hands and tries to talk the crowd down, telling them to return to their homes and families.

The effect of his words is very nearly the opposite of what he planned. The crowd becomes even louder, and men begin waving their sticks in the air and shouting. Some of them are brandishing bricks and stones. A snowball flies through the air, then a broken icicle. Somewhere in front of you, someone shouts "Fire! Go ahead and fire!" You look at the captain, surprised at the order, but he's still standing in front of the line. You know he would never give the order to fire if he still stood in the path of the bullets. You hold your ground.

Now the crowd seems to surge forward on its own. A chunk of muddy ice hits one of your mates in the forehead, and he staggers back, slips on a patch of ice, and falls backward. The butt of his musket hits the ground and it discharges into the crowd. "Fire, damn you!" you hear someone yell, and see the captain scrambling out of the way. Two more shots ring out to your right, and the crowd begins to push backward. You level your musket, close your eyes, and pull the trigger. You hear three more shots to your right, and now the crowd is pushing away quickly, cries of anger giving way to screams of rage and fear and pain. A few stay behind, but now their attention is on the six men lying on the ground. Three of those men writhe in pain; the other three lie as still as only dead men can.

The mob begins to re-form on the other side of the fallen men, but the fight has gone out of them; now they stand silently, glaring hatred at you and your mates. And off they go, slowly, gradually, peeling away in twos and threes. You reload your musket and watch them go.

You breathe a quiet sigh of relief, hoping it doesn't show on your face. You might get to see your sister again after all. But the relief wars with apprehension in your heart; you sense something has changed among the colonists. You wonder what will happen now. What has this angry Boston crowd done? What have you done?

You can learn more about the Boston Massacre at the link below:

Now go get your nerd on!

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Battle of Verdun, 21 February-18 December 1916

Battle of the Week 2011-08

A battle occurs in nearly every war that comes to represent the character of the fighting in that war. When Americans think of World War II, we think of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, of the Battle of the Bulge, and of Iwo Jima. When we think of the Civil War, we think of the Battle of Gettysburg. Vietnam's battle is usually the Tet Offensive. Bunker Hill and Yorktown epitomize the American Revolution.

For the First World War, the battles are Verdun and the related British offensive at the Somme.

We get an incomplete picture of the fighting in World War I here in the U.S. The truth is the war, considered among everything that has happened since, is an event of minor significance for us. The war was far away, yet another European war we wanted no part of. We only participated as a nation for some eighteen months, and never had to deal with the aftermath of industrial-age trench warfare on our own soil. The war is of value to us chiefly as an object of morbid fascination, an event we contemplate with the same breathless disregard we direct toward a particularly gruesome event when it occurs a long way off:

Did you hear about those poor people in New Jabib? How terrible! By the way, I love your new shoes.

So it's really no surprise we don't know much about The Great War, and less about Verdun and the Somme. Our impression of infantry combat in the war is colored chiefly by movies like All Quiet on the Western Front--sometimes we attack them, sometimes they attack us, but the trenches stay in pretty much the same place. And there's gas. It's a convenient way to simplify things, but we forget the movie was really about the soldiers and not really about the combat.

On the other hand, there is every reason to forget the horrors of World War I trench warfare. The hardware available to the armies of the day--accurate long-range repeating rifles and machine guns, barbed wire and land mines--heavily favored the defense, so a prudent army had every incentive to stay in its trenches and let the enemy dash himself to bloody shreds against its defenses.

Except that battles are not decided by the defense. Even the best defender must eventually get out of his trench and attack his enemy if he hopes to gain ground and win the battle. And in World War I, that meant he had to brave the very same sort of defenses he had just used to protect his own position. Small wonder the battles of the First World War showed so little gain for such a ghastly cost.

Of course, armies tried other ways to gain the upper hand in the offense. Giant long-range howitzers bombarded the enemy trenches for hours, sometimes days, before an assault. Mustard gas and chlorine gas and phosgene killed some, horribly wounded others, and kept the rest busy donning their gas masks in the crucial seconds and minutes before an assault could reach the trench line. 1916 saw the advent of tanks on the battlefield, and airplanes progressed from flimsy spotters to the war-chariots of the twentieth century. But for all the new developments, the commander of soldiers in the Great War knew he could count on an immense butcher's bill for every yard of gain.

No battle epitomizes such warfare like Verdun. The battle was the brainchild of the German Chief of Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, who recognized in late 1915 that the war had become one of attrition rather than maneuver--that victory might come to the nation who concentrated on killing as many enemy soldiers as possible rather than on taking ground. With that in mind, he recommended to the German king, the Kaiser, that the Germans attack the French fortress at Verdun. The French, he reasoned, held the fortress as an important national symbol and would defend it far more doggedly than any other target he might choose. He could, he decided, "bleed France white" at Verdun. He launched the offensive on February 21st with a 21-hour artillery bombardment meant to kill most of the defenders before the ground attack was even launched.

Bombardment might be too mild a word for what the French defenders endured those first three days at Verdun. Deluge or flood or storm might be a better descriptor. 100,000 high-explosive shells rocked Verdun every hour, leaving overlapping craters that remain there to this day. Surely not even a mouse could survive such a ferocious onslaught.

But survive they did, and when the shelling stopped they came out from their shelters--dazed, disoriented, ears ringing--but ready enough to fight. The Germans who attacked on the 24th of February found not a broken, half-strength garrison, but the same stubborn fighters they had faced for the last two years without a decision.

The French, for their part, played right into von Falkenhayn's hands. Not only did they come out of their bunkers and hold back the German attack--they began pouring reinforcements into Verdun as fast as the railroads could carry them. French general Robert Neville famously declared, "They shall not pass." French resolve to hold the fortress was clear: they would rather be bled white than surrender Verdun.

So the battle raged on. One by one the smaller forts outside Verdun fell to the Germans, but still the French held on. One French commander was replaced by another, then another. The British launched a massive offensive of their own at the Somme in July to relieve the pressure on Verdun. Von Falkenhayn was replaced as German chief of staff in August by Paul von Hindenburg, who had thought the offensive an act of folly from the start. Then, in October, the French began retaking the outlying forts one by one.

By the 18th of December, the lines had been restored to more or less what they had been before the battle began. Ten months of bitter fighting had produced exactly no result.

Except that almost a million young men had been killed, wounded, or captured. Total numbers were about even: 550,000 French casualties to 434,000 German. Half the total were killed. Von Falkenhayn had managed to bleed both armies--if not white, certainly to an unhealthy pallor.

A more efficient way to squander young men's courage has never yet been devised. That's the real character of combat in the First World War.