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Battle of Tours

In the year 732, the Muslim forces of the Umayyad Caliphate swept north from the conquered Iberian Peninsula, threatening the remnants of Christian Europe with their message of personal surrender to Allah, no alcohol, and sophisticated cavalry tactics.  The Frankish realm, led by Charles Martel, possessed the strongest remaining Christian army.  At the Battle of Tours, Martel defeated the superior Arab army, stopped Islam’s advance, and earned the terrific nickname, “The Hammer.”

Leeet's get reaaaady for a clash of civilizaaations!

Leeet's get reaaaady for a clash of civilizaaations!

In the first half of the 8th century, Islam was the world’s hot new Abrahamic religion.  Spreading out from the Middle East, Muslim armies advanced across northern Africa, then up the Iberian Peninsula, setting their sights on Europe north of the Pyrenees Mountains.  Duke Odo of Aquatine (25-12, 16 KOs) dealt the Arabs a notable defeat in 721 at the Battle of Tolouse.  An Umayyad army commanded by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi (45-7-3, 34 KOs) won the rematch by a knockout in 732.

Charles Martel (72-1, 56 KOs), Gaul Super Middleweight Champion and holder of the prestigious Frankish position of “Mayor of the Palace of the Merovingian Kings,” expected an eventual confrontation with the invading Arabs.  The de facto ruler of the kingdom since the late 710’s, Charles spent years building the Franks into Europe’s most formidable military force.  Besides being a superior leader and military mind, Charles was innovative in his army management.  He trained his troops year-round with campaigning, early-morning runs, and didactic campfire stories about Grendel’s Mother.  This was unusual for contemporary medieval armies, which were typically manned by farmers under the command of semi-professional knights and noblemen moonlighting from their land-management and peasant-raping day jobs.  By contrast, Charles had at his command a disciplined, motivated, battle-hardened infantry army.

Is it true? Is Charles Martel building an army?

Is it true? Is Charles Martel building an army?

Part of Charles’s military brilliance was his ability to pick the time and place of his battles.  When Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi and his army crossed the Pyrenees in the fall of 732, intent on sacking southern Gaul, they were surprised to discover a large army blocking their path to Tours.  Charles arrayed his infantry on the high ground of a forested hillside.  His troops were well-provisioned with warm clothes in anticipation of the oncoming winter.  They were formed in the anti-cavalry square phalanx formation, as the strength of the Arab army lay in its cavalry (and a strong left jab).

Hold the phalanx! Hold!  Hoooold....!

Hold the phalanx! Hold! Hoooold....!

By contrast, the Umayyad army did not know what sort of force opposed them.  They were unaware of Charles’s skill or that of his men, and the trees obscured the army’s size (which was considerably smaller than the Arab force).  Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi was not expecting to encounter a disciplined army after meeting so little resistance in his sweep up from Africa.  The two sides skirmished for a week, hoping to goad the other side into attacking.  Charles was content to wait in the forest, for the Arabs, not wanting to look dorky, had left their warm turbans and mittens at home, and had outrun their supply train.  Finally, Al Ghafiqi, confident in his cavalry and undeterred by Christian infantry in warm sweaters, attacked the waiting Franks.

Accounts of the battle are sketchy (the replay is not available on ESPN Classic), but it seems that the combined Arab and Berber horsemen repeatedly charged the Frankish formations, to no avail.  At some point they achieved a minor breakthrough and charged Charles himself, but his liege men defended their Mayor of the Palace and saved the formation.  Sources vary on whether the battle lasted one day or two.  At some point, a rumor spread that a Frankish raiding party was approaching the Arab encampment from the rear.  Fearful of losing the bounty collected on their march north, the Umayyad army retreated in the night.  Charles scouted the Arab encampment, suspecting a ruse, but found only abandoned tents, blood oranges, and crushed cans of O’Douls.  The Arabs had retreated back across the Pyrenees.

As you can see, badass regal names skip a generation

As you can see, badass regal names skip a generation

 The victory gave Charles the prestige to further consolidate his power in the Frankish kingdom.  When the figurehead Frankish king Theuderic IV died, nobody bothered to find a new one, and Charles assumed full rule.  The Pope offered him the title of Consul, but Charles declined as it didn’t have the heft or sparkle of his two titles, “Mayor of the Palace” and “Duke of the Franks” (it also would have meant less prize money).  Charles’s son Pepin the Short (lacking his father’s knack for names) continued the Frankish expansion of power, and his grandson Charlemagne was pretty much the shit.

Drink: The Hammer

[ingredients:]

  • 2 measures Cognac, preferably Martell
  • 1 measure Coitreu/Grand Mariner
  • 1 measure blood orange juice
  • meat tenderizing mallet
  • ice

[preparation:]

  1. Skillfully crush ice using mallet.
  2. Combine ingredients and pour over ice.
  3. Garnish with mallet.

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The Somme

“Somme.  The whole history of the world cannot contain a more ghastly word.” ~Friedrich Steinbrecher, German officer, 1916

Those were the days...

Those were the days...

Much of military history works like this: our clan of god-chosen, handsome hunter-gatherers fights your clan of butt-ugly, savage barbarians with maces.  There is clobbering on both sides, and gnashing of teeth.  Then, my clan invents the Longer Mace.  Now we can clobber you before you can clobber us.  Our casualties drop, yours rise.  Victory!

Cut to World War I.  The “longer maces” of the time are defensive.  Barbed wire, trenches, and machine guns have made every general’s favorite infantry charge ineffectual.  And not just ineffectual, but frequently horrific.  One of the many tragedies of World War I was the piss-poor adaptation of offensive infantry tactics to these new realities.  But you can’t have a war if nobody is attacking (or so thought much of Western Europe), so generals employed 19th century infantry charges against 20th century defensive fortifications.  The Somme was a particularly egregious example.

Machine guns? Gizmos! Harrumph!

Machine guns? Gizmos! Harrumph!

The Battle of the Somme took place from July to November, 1916, along a 12-mile front near the River Somme in Northern France.  Field Marshall Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, planned the Somme offensive to relieve pressure against the French forces at Verdun, and to break the German lines in Northern France.  The British and French’s numerical superiority at times reached seven-to-one.  Matching that advantage with intelligence, innovative thinking, and flawless execution, a breakthrough may have been possible.  Unfortunately, Haig possessed none of those characteristics.

The infamous first week of the battle was particularly illustrative.  Traditional infantry tactics involved the shelling of the enemy position, followed closely by an infantry charge.  So, the battle began with a week-long British bombardment using 1.5 million shells.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of this fire was ineffectual, either missing the German lines or doing insufficient damage to the fortified German bunkers.  Then, on the scheduled day for the first assault, communication problems led to a ten-minute pause between the end of the shelling and the charge.  This gave the Germans time to emerge from their bunkers and man the machine guns.  The infantry went “over the top,” sometimes at a walking march, into the strafing fire of the German machine guns.

A regiment of these would have helped

A regiment of these would have helped

Of the 110,000 men who attacked that first day, 60,000 were killed or wounded.  It was the highest single day of casualties in the long history of the British Army.  Despite some French success at various points along the line, the fighting continued for months without decisive results.  Haig’s suspicion that horses were not particularly susceptible to gunfire(!) proved to be untrue.  Fighting petered out in November with the onset of winter.  All told, the British and French captured a little less than six miles of ground at the farthest point from the original lines, at a cost of 620,000 men to Germany’s 450,000 casualties.  Both sides were decimated by the monumental casualties.  The battle came to represent a profound moment of disillusionment for Britain, as many of the men lost were the nation’s most patriotic, enthusiastic, and educated volunteer soldiers.  To the British infantry who survived the battle, it gained the moniker, “The Great Fuck Up.”

Some of the literature dealing with WWI and its effect upon those who fought.

Some of the literature dealing with WWI and its effect upon those who fought.

In retrospect, there are several bitter pills to swallow.  Numerous opportunities on both sides were squandered because of poor communication.  September saw the debut of the tank, the weapon that would eventually end trench warfare and provide the “longer mace” that the offense so desperately needed.  At the time, however, tanks were lumbering behemoths doing more good for British morale than for Britain’s strategic goals.  Thirty of the forty-nine tanks broke down before seeing combat.  And finally, a 27-year old Adolf Hitler was one of the German soldiers to survive the battle.

Drink: Tank of the Somme (The Great Fuckup)

[ingredients:]

  • 40 oz bottle Olde English malt liquor
  • 8 oz Pimms

[preparation:]

  1. Waste 1/5th of the population of the Olde English bottle onto the ground.
  2. Fill remainder of bottle with upper-class Pimms.
  3. Shake to mix and tank slowly.
  4. Bitterly realize the toll drinking takes upon the world.

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Charge of the Light Brigade


I smell the makings of a kick-ass poem

I'm going to immortalize the shit out of this

You don’t need to be a Victorian poet to appreciate that a 19th century battle involving feuding commander-in-laws, tragic battlefield misunderstandings, the “Valley of Death,” at least three types of knitwear, and heroic French cavalry is going to be a total disaster. These were the ingredients of the Battle of Balaklava.

The Crimean War began in 1853, with the British, French and Ottomans fighting the Russians for control of the fading Ottoman Empire. Modern historians consider it the first modern war, due to the involvement of telegraphs, repeating rifles, and high-explosive artillery. How hilarious, then, that perhaps its most famous military action involved horses, sabers, and verbal misunderstandings.

Attack the Russian nuns? Where are the nuns?!?!

Attack the Russian nuns? Where are the nuns?!?!

On October 25, 1854, English and French troops were attempting to capture the Black Sea Russian port of Sevastapol. Their 4,500 soldiers faced 25,000 Russians across a U-shaped valley. While these odds may seem extreme, the Russians never approach a battle without waaaay too many soldiers. And, recall, that it was the first modern war. So everybody was excited and unsure of what, exactly, would be required of them in this bold new day.

Attack soon! Wheel about! Go that way! Why aren't you following orders?

Take the whosiewhatsits to the placeahmahut! Post haste!

Let’s cut to the charge. The British commander, Lord Raglan, kept giving his cavalry, commanded by Lord Lucan, confusing orders. The fourth, and worst of the bunch, was carried to Lucan by a snotty Captain named Nolan.

“Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Horse artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate.”

Besides sounding like a Mad-Libs battle command, it seemed to Lucan to have nothing to do with the battle whatsoever. The only guns he could see were the Russian artillery at the other end of the valley, more than a mile away (and what the hell are ‘horse artillery’?). Lucan asked for clarification. Nolan vaguely swept his hand across the valley and said contemptuously, “There my lord, there are your guns.”

The secret for these babies is honey and horse manure.

I couldn't have won this award without the help of...Cardigan's sister! Ba-zing!

Second place.

Second place.

Lucan took this order to Earl Cardigan, his direct subordinate and commander of the Light Cavalry. Lucan also happened to be Cardigan’s brother-in-law and, if that were not sufficiently galling, had just won the regiment’s coveted “Most Luxurious Muttonchops Award.” A reluctant Cardigan led his 600-odd men on a one-mile charge across the entire battlefield, being fired upon from three sides by Russians who probably felt like they were hunting buffalo in “Oregon Trail.” Tragically, the charge may have succeeded if Lucan had followed with the heavy cavalry (or at least the featherweight or welterweight cavalry). Instead, Cardigan’s Light Cavalry roughed up the Russians until the Russians realized they vastly outnumbered the British, at which point they sent the Light Cavalry back across the same one-mile gauntlet of artillery and rifles.*

Somehow, this guy survived, hat intact.

Somehow this guy survived, hat intact.

The Light Cavalry were probably saved from total annihilation by a flanking movement from the French Chausser’s d’Afrique, who sufficiently engaged one side of the Russian guns to cover the British charge and retreat. The whole action took 20 minutes. Of the approximately 660 British who participated in the Charge of the Light Brigade, 110 were killed, 161 wounded or captured, and 375 horses killed. Nolan was among the dead. Cardigan survived and argued bitterly with Lucan about who was at fault for the suicidal order.

Cardigan got the last muttonchop-quivering laugh when he had the button-front sweater named for him. Indeed, knitwear was thrown about after the battle like purple hearts. The town of Balaklava got its name attached to ski masks, Raglan ended up with a namesake sweater, and trendy trousers were named after British officer Duke Skinnyjeans. Lord Tennyson honored them all with his famous poem Charge of the Light Brigade, and his lesser-known essay, Totally Sweet Cavalry Charges, Poetry, and You.

Thanks, Battle of Balaklava!

Thanks, Battle of Balaklava!

*This strategy for chasing a superior enemy force was later made famous by Han Solo’s charge in the Battle of the White Subhallway in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

Drink: The Valley of Death

[ingredients]:

  • chilled Russian vodka
  • currant liqueur
  • French champagne
  • one copy of Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade

[preparation]:

  1. In a narrow champagne flute, pour one ounce of chilled Russian vodka.
  2. Mishearing something, recklessly pour one ounce of currant liqueur into the flute.
  3. Top off the glass with French champagne, stirring gently to mix until the concoction becomes poetic.
  4. Read Tennyson’s poem aloud, taking a sip every time you come across the word ‘death.’

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