Category Archives: Military

August 15th – Detroit is surrendered to General Isaac Brock during the War of 1812

American General William Hull (in blue) surrenders his sword and Detroit to British General Isaac Brock (in red) on August 16th, 1812. Tecumseh looks on, in the background.

American General William Hull (in blue) surrenders his sword and Detroit to British General Isaac Brock (in red) on August 16th, 1812. Tecumseh looks on, in the background to the left.

I apologize for the rather lengthy hiatus between now and my last post. The summer I have been busy with finishing up my thesis and starting medical school, so I have not been able to blog as much as I hoped. I have a bit of a break before things start back up, and hope to get back to posting the occasional post! Enjoy!

On this day in 1812, Detroit was surrendered to British general Isaac Brock during the War of 1812. At that time, Detroit was a strategically important fortress town on the American/Canadian border. Following the American declaration of war on Britain (and by extension, her colony of British North America), skirmishes were fought between American militia and British regulars (which included their Upper Canadian and Native American allies) along the border. General William Hull, the commander of American forces in the Michigan Territory, began plans for an invasion into Upper Canada (the land that now constitutes much of Southern Ontario). The American invasion of Upper Canada from Michigan began on July 12th, 1812. Hull and his forces quickly returned back to Michigan across the Detroit River soon after however, upon learning of the British capture of Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island (north of Detroit). Faced with Native American forces (around 600 strong), led by Tecumseh, threatening his position from the rear, Hull and his forces (roughly 2500 in number) fortified their position, awaiting the upcoming attack on Detroit.

On the British side, things were not looking well. The British only had roughly 300 professional soldiers in the Detroit-Amherstburg (near present-day Windsor, Ontario) area, far outnumbered by the Americans. 400 Canadian militia are recruited by Brock to fight, however few have substantive combat experience. In order to give the appearance of a larger, stronger fighting force to the Americans, Brock dresses the Canadian militia in the redcoats of the British Army. This wardrobe adjustment had a dramatic effect on the upcoming battle.

On August 16th, 1812, British soldiers along with their Canadian allies dressed in red marched on Detroit. The British/Canadian forces still remained severely outnumbered by the Americans, however, with Tecumseh’s Native forces also joining the attack, the British side appeared formidable. In one of the grandest bluffs in military history, General Brock sent a message to General Hull, stating:
“The force at my disposal authorizes me to require of you the immediate surrender of Fort Detroit. It is far from my intention to join in a war of extermination, but you must be aware, that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops, will be beyond control the moment the contest commences.”

Hull, afraid of the result a Native attack would have on Detroit and its inhabitants, and the British artillery bombardment upon the fort, surrendered Detroit without a fight. General Brock and Tecumseh won the Battle of Detroit without firing a shot, leaving the British with virtual control of the Michigan Territory, and Upper Canada’s western flank protected.

The stunning victory at Detroit galvanized Canadian support for the war, who initially were tepid in their enthusiasm for fighting against the Americans. Native American people were also inspired by the American defeat at Detroit, causing many Native Americans to take up arms against American outposts throughout the Northwest (today’s Midwest). Tecumseh continued to lead a confederacy of Native American tribes during the war, however was killed at the Battle of the Thames in October 1813. General Isaac Brock was not able to celebrate for long, as he had to rush back towards the Niagara peninsula to defend Upper Canada from attack originating from New York state. On October 13th, 1812, General Brock died at the Battle of Queenston Heights. William Hull was court-martialed and sentenced to death for the disaster at Detroit, however the sentence was lightened to resignation from the army on order of President Madison, in recognition of Hull’s efforts during the American Revolution. Following his resignation, Hull settled in Newton, Massachusetts spending the rest of his life writing his memoirs in an attempt to exonerate himself of the failure at Detroit.

The following video is a short clip on YouTube summarizing the events of the battle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZwM4SZX_TKM.

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May 3rd – “In Flanders Fields”, by John McCrae, is written

A memorial located outside John McCrae House in Guelph, Ontario. The memorial features John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields", with two Canadian-style remembrance poppies laid on top.

A memorial located outside John McCrae House in Guelph, Ontario. The memorial features John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” poem, with two Canadian-style remembrance poppies laid on top. Lest we forget.

On this day in 1915, John McCrae, a Canadian doctor serving in the battlefields of Belgium during the First World War, wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields”. One of the most popular and often-quoted poems from the First World War, “In Flanders Fields” invocation of the poppies growing over the graves of fallen soldiers has been adopted by Commonwealth countries through the “remembrance poppy” as a symbol of those soldiers who have died in conflict. Almost one hundred years after the poem was first written, “In Flanders Fields” is taught in classrooms throughout the Commonwealth, and in particular, Canada, John McCrae’s native land.

Born in Guelph, Ontario in 1872, John McCrae wrote poetry throughout his lifetime, alongside his medical work. Once the First World War began in the summer of 1914, McCrae quickly enlisted to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force. Despite McCrae’s medical training and expertise, he opted to join a fighting unit instead of the medical corps, and served as both a gunner and a medical officer. McCrae fought at the Second Battle of Ypres, where the Germans first used poison gas on the battlefield. For seventeen days, the Canadians were able to hold their position against the German assault, however conditions were nightmarish and casualties high. Amongst those that were killed in the battle was Alexis Helmer, a former student and close friend of McCrae’s. After performing the burial service of his friend, the next day, May 3rd 1915, McCrae sat down on the back of an ambulance, and noting how quickly the poppies grew over the graves of his fallen comrades, wrote the following poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

It would be months before McCrae’s poem became published. On December 8th 1915, McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” was published in Punch magazine. It became an instant hit. McCrae’s poem soon became republished around the globe, and translated in several languages, and utilized to bolster support for the war effort in Europe. The words of “In Flanders Fields” were used to sell war bonds and promote soldier recruitment drives throughout the Allied countries.

Later in the war, McCrae was transferred out of his fighting unit (much to his chagrin) to a military hospital, and rose to the rank of colonel by 1918. On January 13th 1918, McCrae caught a case of pneumonia, and in light of the years of stress that war had placed on his body, fell ill with cerebral meningitis later on. On January 28th 1918, John McCrae passed away at a military hospital in Wimereux, France, where he was buried with full military honours.

The most well-known legacy of “In Flanders Fields” are the remembrance poppies worn throughout the Commonwealth during the weeks leading up to Remembrance/Armistice Day. First introduced by the American Legion in 1920, the Remembrance Poppy was then shortly adopted by the Royal British Legion with support from Field Marshall Douglas Haig. From there, the Remembrance Poppy was introduced throughout the Empire. Today, Legions associations are actively involved with the production and sale of poppies during the weeks leading up to Remembrance Day, with funds going to support veterans and their families.

Here is a link to a Heritage Minute clip that was released by the Canadian government to commemorate John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”: https://www.historicacanada.ca/content/heritage-minutes/john-mccrae.

 

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January 22nd – The British are defeated at the Battle of Isandlwana

The Battle of Isandlwana, as depicted by Charles Edwin Fripp.

The Battle of Isandlwana, as depicted by Charles Edwin Fripp.

On this day in 1879, the British Army was defeated by the Zulus at the Battle of Isandlwana. The loss at Isandlwana marked the worst military defeat sustained by the British Armed Forces against a technologically inferior indigenous force, with the Zulu forces outnumbering the British almost 10 to 1.

In an effort to consolidate its rule over southern Africa, the British committed to war against the Zulu Kingdom on January 11, 1879. Taking place during the “Scramble for Africa”, where various European powers sought control over unclaimed lands of Africa, Victorian Britain believed that the war against the Zulus would be easy work and a matter of putting down token tribal resistance. The British commander-in-chief in South Africa, Lord Chelmsford, had much experience in dealing with wars on the African continent, and it was believed he would be able to satisfactorily win victory for the British yet again. This was not to be the case, however.

On January 20th, a column of the British force made camp on Isandlwana Hill, and using other columns, Chelmsford sought to scout out the locations of the Zulu army. Chelmsford was unable to locate the Zulu force, which had snuck around Chelmsford on its way to attack the British at Isandlwana, until it was too late. Though the Zulu were only armed with spears and shields (though it should be noted they did have muskets, however were ill-equipped and trained to operate these weapons) and the British with their top-of-the-line Martini-Henry breech-loading rifles and artillery, on January 22nd, 1879, the British were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of Zulu soldiers at Isandlwana and defeated.

Upon returning to Isandlwana after the battle, Chelmsford was devastated. The defeat at Isandlwana damaged the psyche of the British military and nation, with vows to avenge the loss in Zululand. More resources and attention were consequently placed by the British into the Anglo-Zulu War, resulting in British victory later on in July.

The following are some British links that may be of interest for further reading:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1193666/Remains-British-soldier-died-battle-Zulu-war-identified-130-years–tunic-button.html – Remains of British soldier who died in first battle of Zulu war identified after 130 years.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/victorians/zulu_01.shtml – A nice write-up of the events of the Anglo-Zulu War and the controversy behind Lord Chelmsford.

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December 25th – Hong Kong surrendered to the Japanese

The Hong Kong Memorial Wall located in Ottawa, Ontario, to honour the Canadian troops that fought to defend Hong Kong during the Second World War. On one side are the names of soldiers from the Royal Rifles of Canada, and on the other side, the soldiers of the Winnipeg Grenadiers.

The Hong Kong Memorial Wall located in Ottawa, Ontario, to honour the Canadian troops that fought to defend Hong Kong during the Second World War. On one side are the names of soldiers from the Royal Rifles of Canada, and on the other side, the soldiers of the Winnipeg Grenadiers.

On this day in 1941, the British crown colony of Hong Kong fell to Japanese forces. After seventeen and a half intense days of fighting by Canadian, British, and Indian troops and exhausting their ammunition, food and water, the Governor of Hong Kong surrounded the colony to the Japanese on Christmas Day.

Believing that Hong Kong would be unable to hold upon a Japanese attack, Winston Churchill and the British government had pulled out most of the British forces from the colony. A token British force was left in Hong Kong, and to reinforce the Allied garrison, the Canadian government was called upon to supply men. In the Autumn of 1941, two Canadian battalions (almost 2000 men in total) were sent over to Hong Kong from Vancouver, the Winnipeg Grenadiers and the Royal Rifles of Canada. Both units had little training or combat experience, yet within a short span of time, would soon find they were thrown into the heat of battle.

The Japanese invasion of Hong Kong began on the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941. Japanese troops swept down from the Chinese mainland and into Hong Kong territory. Japanese forces moved quickly through the New Territories and Kowloon (the portions of Hong Kong on the Chinese mainland), forcing Allied troops to retreat to across the bay and onto Hong Kong Island. Allied troops were simply outnumbered (14000 troops to 52000 troops) and outgunned, and on Christmas Day, 1941, the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Aitchison Young, surrendered the crown colony to the Japanese at the Peninsula Hong Kong hotel. This day has since been known in Hong Kong as “Black Christmas”.

Hong Kong would remain occupied by the Japanese until August 30th, 1945, where the populace endured horrendous treatment by their Japanese rulers. Canadian, British, and other Commonwealth POWs were sent to northern Japan and kept in Hong Kong, where they were worked literally to death in labour camps and submitted to cruel treatment by the Japanese captors. The Allied dead from Hong Kong, including Canadian troops, are mainly interred at the Sai Wan Military Cemetery and Stanley Military Cemetery. Of the 1975 Canadians who sailed from Vancouver in the autumn of 1941, more than 550 would never make it back home.

Though the Canadian involvement on the Second World War in Europe (e.g. the Battle of the Atlantic, Dieppe, Italy, D-Day, the Netherlands), few know of Canada’s involvement in Hong Kong. In fact, the first Canadian ground soldier killed during the Second World War was at Hong Kong. The first Victoria Cross (the highest military decoration to Commonwealth troops) given to a Canadian during the Second World War was awarded to John Robert Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers. Upon seeing a Japanese grenade roll into the bunker where Osborn and his fellow men were, Osborn jumped on the grenade, covering it with his helmet, sacrificing himself and saving the lives of 10 other Canadian soldiers in the bunker. Military service animals were not exempt either from receiving medals. Gander, a Newfie, was posthumously awarded the Dickin Medal, the “animals’ Victoria Cross” in 2000. Gander, assigned with the Royal Rifles of Canada, received the Dickin Medal for taking a Japanese grenade thrown at his soldiers and running with it towards the enemy, dying in the explosion but saving the lives of his fellow Canadian.

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December 24th – Christmas Truce on the Western Front begins

A football (soccer) game played between British (from Chester) and German soldiers (from Saxony), 1914. Supposedly the  final score was 3-2 for Germany.

A football (soccer) game played between British (from Chester) and German soldiers (from Saxony), Christmas 1914. Supposedly the final score was 3-2 for Germany.

On this day in 1914, the guns fell silent in certain sections of the Western Front, on the eve of Christmas. German and Allied soldiers put down their weapons and met in no-man’s land to collect the dead, exchange gifts and mingle with their fellow brothers-in-arms.

No official truce existed between the Germans and the Allies during the holiday season, however spontaneous truces broke out throughout the Western Front. One should note that a truce was not observed everywhere, as some sections of the front continued to fight through Christmas. The first reported truce occurred near the Belgian town of Ypres, where German troops lit up Christmas trees with candles and started singing Christmas carols (no doubt O Tannenbaum and Stille Nacht were in the repertoire). Hearing the Germans singing from across no-man’s land, British troops began singing themselves. Soon enough, both German and British soldiers emerged from their trenches and met in no-man’s land, exchanging gifts such as food, cigarettes and liquor. The lull in the fighting also gave the chance for both sides to collect the dead and hold burial services, sometimes jointly between the Germans and Allies. This unofficial ceasefire occurred throughout the Western Front and lasted through Christmas night, and in some cases, till New Year’s Day. Truces of this nature were also seen between the French and the Germans, and between the Austrians and Russians.

Future Christmas truces rarely happened after 1914. Military leaders were largely aghast at the demonstration of fraternization and camaraderie exhibited between the two sides during the 1914 Christmas truce, and officially discouraged future holiday truces. Consequently, artillery bombardments were ordered throughout Christmas Eve to ensure a ceasefire did not occur. Troop units were also rotated through the front to avoid units from becoming too acquainted with the enemy. Nevertheless, in 1914 the First World War failed to get in the way of troops on both sides from putting down their weapons, even if only for a day, to express their Christmas spirit.

One of the more famous stories from the Christmas truce of 1914 were the impromptu football (soccer) matches that broke out. A well-known account of a football match is that between the Cheshire Regiment and a Saxon Regiment, after a British soldier pulled out a leather ball from the trenches and began kicking it around. Germans joined along with the British soldiers, and using helmets as goal posts, a game started (final score was apparently 3-2 for the Germans). In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War next year, football organizations from both nations have began organizing to re-enact these football matches at the battlefields of France and Belgium next year.

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December 7th – Japanese forces attack Pearl Harbor

The U.S.S. Arizona exploding from bombs dropped by Japanese aerial forces

The U.S.S. Arizona exploding from bombs dropped by Japanese aerial forces

On this day in 1941, naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan attacked the American Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. December 7th, 1941 was, according to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a ‘date which will live in infamy’. The preemptive surprise attack at Pearl Harbor was undertaken by the Japanese forces with the hopes of neutralizing the American capacity to repel Japanese conquests in Southeast Asia. With 350 planes taking off from 6 aircraft carriers, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor sunk or damaged 4 battleships, 3 cruisers, 3 destroyers with approximately 2400 Americans killed and approximately 1300 injured. The attack on Pearl Harbor was simultaneous with Japanese attacks on the American held Philippines and British held Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya.

Most people know the story behind the attack on Pearl Harbor (as popularized through the feature films Pearl Harbor and Tora, Tora, Tora!), so I will not elaborate any further. What many people do not know however is that the aerial attack on Pearl Harbor was not the first action on that day. Five Japanese submarines accompanied the Japanese task force being sent to attack Pearl Harbor. Upon coming within 20 kilometres of Pearl Harbor, the submarines launched midget submarines (smaller submarines meant to be piloted by a handful of sailors) to attack around 1:00 am. On 3:42 am, a Japanese midget submarine was sighted by the minesweeper Condor, and its location radioed in to the destroyer Ward. Shortly afterwards the Ward sank the Japanese midget submarine, marking the first shots fired by American forces in the Second World War. The sinking of this midget submarine occurred almost 4 hours before the first airplanes attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. While the aerial bombardment on Pearl Harbor is often cited as the start of American involvement and entry into the Second World War, it is interesting to note that the Americans had engaged in combat with the Japanese earlier on that day.

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