The Spanish Armada

The fiasco that was the Spanish Armada featured many things which seemed impressive. A massive flotilla of warships, Sir Francis Drake, fireships, a “Reverse Normandy” invasion plan, an intra-varsity Christian crusade. Unfortunately for Spain, only some of these things lived up to their hype, and most of them weren’t Spanish. In 1588 the English defeated the “invincible” Spanish Armada, striking a blow against the Spanish empire from which it never fully recovered.

The Armada had two nicknames: "Invincible Navy" and "Great and Most Merry Navy". Both terrible names, for different reasons.

If God allowed the Pope to be a betting man, he would have bet on the Spanish in the 16th century. Prevented from betting by workplace regulations, Pope Sixtus V (‘The Big Six-Five’) simply endorsed them. The Spanish were a rich and powerful Catholic empire not fond of the uppity English Protestants across the Channel. The Pope endorsed Spanish King Philip II’s plan to invade England, viewing it as a crusade and promising “Crusade money” should the invasion succeed. Philip lined up the Marquis of Santa Cruz as admiral, the Duke of Parma as general, and Pedro “Ten-Minute Paella” of Sevilla as fleet cook. Certainly an impressive lineup.

"Whoo boy, Your Highness, is this going to piss off the Catholics." "Quiet, you."

The English, under flaming Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, were not exactly innocent victims of Spanish  aggression. In the 1570s, Elizabeth gave Sir Francis Drake and other roguish sailors licenses to “wreck Spanish shoppe.” Drake and the other privateers raided Spanish port cities, attacked Spanish ships carrying New World silver and African slaves, all the while shamelessly hitting on Spanish women. The proceeds of these raids funded Protestant uprisings in Europe. The last straw was Elizabeth’s execution of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots in 1587.

Spanish King Philip hatched a plan: assemble 130 ships under the Marquis’s command, secure the English channel, then rendezvous with the Duke of Parma’s army in the Netherlands. The armada would ferry the troops across the Channel to England in a classic “Reverse Normandy” invasion, and the Protestants, not being in His Sight, would be conquered. Impressive, no?

Ah, the best-laid plans of Popes and Kings. Philip argued with the Marquis over the size of the armada. The Marquis wanted 510 ships, Philip gave him 130, so the Marquis unexpectedly died. Meanwhile, Drake preemptively attacked the Spanish and Portuguese coast, destroying supplies for the Armada and gaining intelligence (including +3 to initiative rolls). Yet finally, commanded by the less-able Duke of Medina-Sidonia (a 2nd-tier Dukedom relegated from the Premier League), the Armada set sail for the Channel.

Marquis: "130 ships? 130 SHIPS! Why you little-gggaaakkk!" *whump*

Drake and the English ships gained strategic position within the Channel while harrying the larger Spanish fleet. The evening of July 28th, 1588 found the Spanish fleet anchored tightly together off the coast of Northern France. At midnight the English, perhaps playing to their enemies’ religious proclivities, sent eight fireships downwind toward the Spanish fleet. Fireships (as if we all didn’t already know) are empty hulls filled with tar, brimstone and gunpowder, lit spectacularly on fire and cast toward the enemy. Impressive certainly, but the Spanish thought they were “hellburners,” demonic floating bombs their Catholic grandmothers warned them about as children. The Spanish ships cut their anchors and scattered. No ships were lost, but the Spanish formation was disrupted and the English moved in for battle.

In the ensuing Battle of Gravelines, the English sank five Spanish ships and damaged many more. The Spanish sailors were trained to fire their cannons once, then close range and prepare to board yee scurvy perros! The English ships were more maneuverable, in better position in the water, had a longer range of cannon, and could fire repeatedly. The English drove the Spanish north, away from the Spaniards’ planned meeting point with Parma’s army, and pursued them until it was clear they would not return south.

The mighty Spanish Armada, running low on food and water (thanks to Drake’s earlier supply attacks), was forced to return to Spain via the hazardous trip north around the British Isles. Many ships had been damaged in the battle, and were missing anchors they had cut to escape the fireships. Cold weather and storms in the north Atlantic (that ol’ Protestant Wind) drove dozens of ships against the rocky shore. The Spanish tossed the cavalry horses overboard, causing cook Pedro of Sevilla to rend his clothes and expletive in their mothers’ milk. Only 67 ships returned to Spain.

Drake knew how to hold the fireship until just before it burned his hand.

The loss of the “Invincible Armada” was a momentous occasion for Europe. The English navy’s superior maneuverability and gunnery skills proved superior to the Spanish fire-and-board naval tactics, leading to a permanent change in naval strategy. Protestant forces were energized by the victory and the English were downright giddy. Finally, it marked the beginning of the decline in the Spanish Empire, opening the door for English and French ascendancy.

The moral of the story? Never call your armada invincible.

Drink: Protestant Wind

[ingredients:]

  • Sangria
  • 151 Rum
  • ice
  • straw

[preparation:]

  1. Assemble a pint of sangria with ample “rocks.”
  2. Cast a flaming shot of 151 upon the sangria!
  3. Drink the sangria with a straw until it is finished amidst the rocks.
  4. Finish the rum.
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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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