Toxophilia:  Benjamin Franklin and the Longbow [1776 CE]

In 1776 Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to General Charles Lee recommending the use of pikes and bows and arrows by the American revolutionary troops. Franklin noted that bows and arrows “were good weapons, not wisely laid aside.”  The Native American forces of King Phillip’s War [1675 CE – 1678 CE], who treasured their firearms, might have differed.  Franklin’s proposal for the bow and arrow to be resurrected was unworkable but not intrinsically foolish.  He could well have been thinking of the English longbow rather than the North American natives’ archery equipment.

The English longbow might not have been the most sophisticated personal projectile weapon of the medieval era – that distinction probably belongs to the asymmetric compound recurve bows of the horse riding archers of steppe peoples such as the Huns and Mongols, or perhaps the Chinese repeating crossbow – but it was clearly a superior weapon to the muskets used by soldiers of the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

A skilled archer could shoot four arrows from a longbow in the time it took to reload and fire a musket.  Its accuracy and penetrating power at range were superior to those of a musket.  Manufacture, though requiring considerable knowledge and skill, was not as capital intensive or technically complex as the production of firearms, gunpowder, and ammunition.  English archers stopped armored cavalry charges.  They might have considered the massed ranks of cloth uniformed soldiers of the American Revolution or Napoleonic battlefields soft targets.  Yet even in England in the early 16th century the longbow was falling out of use, and laws mandating archery practice were insufficient to revive its popularity.

Unlike Japan, where the bow was a key weapon of the aristocratic professional military class of Samurai, in feudal England the longbow was a weapon of the yeoman, English freeholders below the rank of gentry.  This is one reason England was capable of consistently punching above its weight in the Hundred Years War [1337 CE – 1453 CE] and other conflicts of the time:  it could effectively mobilize a higher percentage of its population than any other non-Nomadic state, and field cheaply equipped footmen with weaponry capable of stopping costly armored knights on horseback.

The Wars of the Roses [1455 CE – 1487 CE] significantly reduced the numbers of English archers by exposing them to, among other things, the fearsome arrow clouds of other English archers.  As it took at least 10 to 12 years to develop a full set of longbow skills, replacements were not readily available.  Musket drills could produce passable proficiency in about as many weeks, and even early firearms could penetrate plate armor.  Outbreaks of peace and stricter enforcement of poaching laws severely diminished the yeoman’s interest in practicing archery:  there was neither loot nor venison to be had.

So Franklin’s proposal of the bow and arrow was not absurd because of any deficiency in the weaponry.  It was doomed by a lack of skills, and insufficient resources and time for training.

Further Reading: 

  • Roger Ascham, tutor to Princess Elizabeth, dedicated Toxophilus to Henry VIII in 1545. It is still an indispensable introduction to English archery, however ineffective Tudor efforts to resurrect the longbow as a weapon of war were.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle’s The White Company provides a lively portrait of the longbowman at war in a narrative very loosely based on historical incidents.
  • Robert Hardy’s Longbow: A Social and Military History is a helpful summary introduction to the massive literature on the subject, as is his later collaboration with Matthew Strickland, The Great Warbow.
  • Jill Lepore discusses the preference of Native Americans of New England for the flintlock over the bow and arrow and the typical English colonists’ matchlocks in The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity.

Those Wacky Pilgrims: An Excerpt from Bradford’s Plimoth Plantation 1642 CE

For Mature Audiences Only  — A  traditional New England favorite of skeptics and cynics for the Thanksgiving holiday, not suitable for delicate readers or children, with curious notions for how to stuff a turkey:

And after ye time of ye writīg of these things befell a very sadd accidente of the like foule nature in this govermente, this very year [1642], which I shall now relate. Ther was a youth whose name was Thomas Granger; he was servant to an honest man of Duxbery, being aboute 16. or 17. years of age. (His father & mother lived at the same time at Sityate.) He was this year detected of buggery (and indicted for ye same) with a mare, a cowe, tow goats, five sheep, 2. calves, and a turkey. Horrible it is to mention, but ye truth of ye historie requires it. He was first discovered by one yt accidentally saw his lewd practise towards the mare. (I forbear perticulers.) Being upon it examined and com̅itted, in ye end he not only confest ye fact with that beast at that time, but sundrie times before, and at severall times with all ye rest of ye forenamed in his indictmente; and this his free-confession was not only in private to ye magistrats, (though at first he strived to deney it,) but to sundrie, both ministers & others, and afterwards, upon his indictmente, to ye whole court & jury; and confirmed it at his execution. And wheras some of ye sheep could not so well be knowne by his description of them, others with them were brought before him, and he declared which were they, and which were not. And accordingly he was cast by ye jury, and condemned, and after executed about ye 8. of Septr, 1642. A very sade spectakle it was; for first the mare, and then ye cowe, and ye rest of ye lesser catle, were kild before his face, according to ye law, Levit: 20. 15. and then he him selfe was executed. The catle were all cast into a great & large pitte that was digged of purposs for them, and no use made of any part of them.

Upon ye examenation of this person, and also of a former that had made some sodomiticall attempts upon another, it being demanded of them how they came first to yeknowledge and practice of such wickednes, the one confessed he had long used it in old England; and this youth last spoaken of said he was taught it by an other that had heard of such things from some in England when he was ther, and they kept catle togeather. By which it appears how one wicked person may infecte many; and what care all ought to have what servants they bring into their families.

Thanksgiving as Wartime Propaganda: 1863 CE

Most national holidays carry both cultural and political burdens.  The observance of Thanksgiving in the United States is unusual, however, in the degree to which its political message is tacit.  Far more is in play than the celebration of abundance and football games.  In its current form Thanksgiving, like Memorial Day, originated in the American Civil War of 1861 CE – 1865 CE.

Many Americans would trace Thanksgiving’s roots back to 1621 when the Pilgrim colony of Plymouth marked its fall harvest with a feast.  A good crop would certainly merit commemoration: after the first winter, there were only 42 survivors of the 102 Mayflower passengers who disembarked in 1620.  Many years would pass before the plantation became demographically and economically secure.

The 1621 harvest feast in Plymouth is documented, though not as thoroughly as might be wished.  It was attended by about 90 Native Americans and 53 Pilgrims.  It could reasonably be seen as a Native American social event to which their poor English neighbors were invited.  It was far from unique in its theological implications.  The Pilgrims declared many days of thanksgiving, dedicated to prayer to express their gratitude for the blessings they had received, including military victories and rains ending droughts. Puritan clergy in New England continued to proclaim days of thanksgiving unconnected to the 1621 feast throughout the 17th century.

Such days of thanksgiving were not unique to the Plymouth colony.  In European colonies in North America in the 17th century, days of thanksgiving were also proclaimed in Virginia, Florida, and Texas.  The Jamestown colony in Virginia, founded 13 years earlier than Plymouth [1607 and 1620 respectively], experienced death rates exceeding those in New England:  for example, in Jamestown in May 1610, only 60 survivors remained of the 240 people who lived there the previous November.  The death rates in Jamestown remained high for many years.

George Washington proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving, designating November 26, 1789 “as a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favours of Almighty God.”  This was not the Pilgrim-story holiday known as Thanksgiving today.    Nor did Washington’s act lead to a regular national holiday.  States in New England observed days of thanksgiving in the 18th and early 19th centuries, with the date varying from place to place.  The Pilgrim holiday tradition was unobserved if at all popularly known in the American South.

National observance of Thanksgiving with reference to the Pilgrims of Plymouth dates back only to October 3, 1863, when Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens” to occur on the last Thursday in November.

On September 8, 1863 Sarah Hale had sent Lincoln a letter proposing Thanksgiving be made a national holiday.  Hale, who is credited with writing the nursery poem Mary Had a Little Lamb, had been lobbying for a national observance of Thanksgiving since 1846, writing letters to four presidents preceding Lincoln:  Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan.  She also made efforts to preserve Washington’s Mount Vernon estate as a historical site important to both the South and the North, and was instrumental in raising funds for the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument.

The fall of 1863 seems like a curious time for Lincoln to be creating a holiday, considering the Battle of Chickamauga [September 19 -20] and the difficulties of the Union’s Army of the Cumberland, which was besieged in Chattanooga.  At the time there were only two Federal holidays: Washington’s Birthday and the 4th of July [Independence Day].  It might appear as though the president had more important things to do.

But Lincoln had a keen sense regarding political symbols.  Prior to the Civil War the United States had two competing founding stories: that of cavaliers in Virginia, leading to a stratified agricultural society based on slave labor and ruled by local aristocrats; and that of religious refugees in New England, developing towards a commercial and industrial society dedicated to representative “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”  Nationwide observance of Thanksgiving based on the Pilgrims’ 1621 harvest festival could provide a unifying myth of the founding of the United States.

Needless to say, the South was not originally enthusiastic about the new holiday.  Thanksgiving made extremely slow progress in the former Confederate states until well after Reconstruction was ended by the dubiously elected Rutherford B. Hayes [president 1877 -1881].

As the 20th century progressed, Thanksgiving’s political and social implications were largely ignored in favor of robust celebration of American abundance, overeating, and sports contests.  By the late 1970s, history had become so obscured that white society in the South was well on its way towards becoming largely Republican to protest the civil rights efforts of Lyndon Johnson and the Democratic Party. Many African-Americans in the South had previously abandoned the party of Lincoln for the Democrats after Republicans bungled the response to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which also gave impetus to the migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities.   Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt attracted most of the remainder to the Democratic Party with the New Deal [1933 – 1938].

But Thanksgiving, commemorated with scant appreciation of many of its most serious historical and political connotations, succeeded in becoming a truly national holiday.  Being American means, among other things, that you can sometimes choose your ancestors.

Further Reading:

  • William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation is indispensable for an understanding of Pilgrim history in North America.
  • Benjamin Woolley’s portrait of the founding of Jamestown in Savage Kingdom is incisive and unsparing.
  • Peter Gomes and James Baker deal with the history of the holiday in Thanksgiving.

  • John M. Barry’s Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America deals with the event that discredited Republicans in the eyes of many southern African Americans, and prompted their large scale migration to northern cities.

Where Germany Won World War I:  Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck 1914 CE – 1918 CE

The Allied victory in World War I was, like that of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 CE, a “near… run thing.”

One example of this is the way in which Germany bled Italy dry in the Battles of the Isonzo 1915 -1917.  Italy’s claim to a place at the victors’ table in Versailles was not taken seriously outside of a clique of strutting non-entities in the Italian government.

Another example can be seen in the way the German army, unlike their allies in the Imperial Austro-Hungarian forces, consistently beat the Russians on the Eastern front. An exception is the initial phase of the Brusilov Offensive in 1916, but this returned to the normal pattern when envious Russian generals crippled Brusilov’s efforts by withholding support for the drive. Russia was in the end decisively beaten. Germany began to found a Black Sea Province in the Ukraine in 1918. This effort ceased only with Germany’s defeat on the Western Front and the spread of the Russian Civil War [1917 – 1922].

But in Africa Germany was victorious, achieving its key military goals against great odds and the opposition of its own colonial government.  This success was largely due to the genius of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck [1870 – 1964].

His career was varied.  In 1900 – 1901 Lettow-Vorbeck participated in the Allied suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China. He complained that it was not an appropriate use of German troops.

In 1904 he went to what is now Namibia to fight against the Herero insurrection.  Badly wounded, he was sent to South Africa to recover before the German campaign degenerated into a program of genocide.  The actions of colonial governor Heinrich Ernst Göring, father of Hitler’s Luftwaffe commander Herman Göring, were crucial to this first genocide of the 20th century.

The outbreak of World War I found Lettow-Vorbeck a Lieutenant Colonel appointed to command approximately 2,600 Germans and 2,500 native Askari troops in Tanganyika. Knowing Africa would be a sideshow to the main conflict, he decided his greatest contribution would be to tie up Allied forces in Africa so they could not be sent to bolster English and French strength in the trenches of the Western front.  This put him into immediate conflict with the German colonial governor, Heinrich Schnee, who wanted to negotiate neutrality for German East Africa.

Disregarding orders from Schnee and Berlin, Lettow-Vorbeck plunged into what is arguably the most successful single guerrilla campaign in history.  He was chased by Allied forces with more than 150,000 troops accompanied by over 1,000,000 military porters.  Lettow-Vorbeck never commanded more than roughly 3,000 Germans and 11,000 Askaris, the latter of whom he armed, trained, and deployed on a basis of equality with the white soldiers, thereby evoking condemnation and abuse from a number of Allied commanders. Those who met Lettow-Vorbeck in person, however, held him in high regard, including the South African Jan Smuts and the noted author Karen Blixen [Isak Dinesen].

Never defeated in the field, Lettow-Vorbeck was ordered to surrender by the German government after the war in Europe ended.  He had been promoted to Major General, with significant victories despite Allied numerical advantages at Tanga, Jassin, Mahiwa, Ngomano, and Namakura, not to mention many successful guerrilla raids. By the end of the campaign, Lettow-Vorbeck’s troops had captured more weaponry, food, and medical supplies than they could transport.  He came   under criticism for taking food supplies from villagers unconcerned with European squabbles.   French and British led forces regularly did the same, even in peacetime.

He returned to a hero’s welcome in Germany.   Lettow-Vorbeck participated in the suppression of communist and anarchist revolts that took place in Germany during the months that followed the end of World War I, but he carefully avoided association with the more disreputable right-wing elements of the Freikorps movements. In 1919 he put down a Spartacist revolt in Hamburg without resorting to force.

Lettow-Vorbeck pointedly declined honors from Hitler, resulting in search of his home office and constant surveillance. When the nephew of one of his officers was asked if Lettow-Vorbeck had told Hitler to “go fuck himself,” the nephew responded “That’s right, except that I don’t think he put it that politely.”

Lettow-Vorbeck’s two sons died fighting for Germany in World War II.

In 1964 the government of West Germany decided to give back pay to Lettow-Vorbeck’s surviving Askaris.  Approximately 350 old men showed up to make their claim.  Few had the document Lettow-Vorbeck had given them in 1918 to prove their service.  Several had discolored rags and tatters from their uniforms.

The German banker who had brought the money solved the problem.  As a claimant was ushered alone into a room with a review committee, a broomstick was shoved into his hands, and he was ordered in German to perform the manual of arms.  No claimant failed the test.

Further Reading:

  • The most approachable comprehensive introductions to the history of World War I’s eastern front in English are Norman Stone’s The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917 and David Stone’s The Russian Army in the Great War: The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917. Italy’s disasters in the First World War are well presented in Mark Thompson’s The White War: Life and Death on the Italian Front 1915 – 1919.
  • Edward Paice’s World War I: The African Front puts Lettow-Vorbeck’s achievements in East Africa into a broader perspective.
  • Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s My Reminiscences of East Africa is richly rewarding.
  • Robert Waite’s Vanguard of Nazism: The Free Corps Movement in Postwar Germany 1918 – 1923 is probably the best place to start on this subject in English.
  • The Young Indiana Jones series portrayed its fictional hero meeting an almost equally fictional Lettow-Vorbeck in Chasing the Phantom: Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck [Season 2, Episode 9, December 2007].

Historians Repeat Each Other:  Marx and Engels 1851 CE – 1852 CE

Why would anyone want to read about some seemingly obscure points of history?

One solid reason is that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” [George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Vol. I, Reason in Common Sense, 1905 CE].

Or as Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte [1852], “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

That maxim is suspiciously stylish for Marx, who usually relied on Engels to improve his readability.

About the time Marx began to write The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Engels sent a letter to him that reads in part: “…. it really seems as though old Hegel, in the guise of the World Spirit, were directing history from the grave and, with the greatest conscientiousness, causing everything to be re-enacted twice over, once as grand tragedy and the second time as rotten farce” [December 3, 1851].

What began with Engels as an aphorism consistent with Hegel quickly became with Marx a spurious attribution to Hegel. The nuanced implications and subjunctive constructs of Engels have given way to the vigorous indicative simplicity of Marx.

Hegel seems to have written no such thing, though he is guilty of enough other shortcomings that absolving him in this instance does not materially affect his reputation one way or another. And compared to the uncountable reams of incoherent student essays prompted by Engels’ Dialektik der Natur [1883], his witticism regarding the repetitive nature of history is merely a peccadillo.

Though broad patterns of social behavior may appear to repeat themselves as old solutions are brought to bear on new instances of unresolved problems, history is quintessentially a contingent process.  It is as inconsistent, complex, debased, noble and ridiculous as the human beings who make it.  Attempts to hammer the messy facts into the rigid shapes of an ideology may be good politics, but such efforts do not guaranty the production of first rate history.

Further Reading:

  • Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station: A Study in the Writing and Acting of History [1940] offers a detailed and interesting study of the European revolutionary tradition from France in 1789 to Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917. His reading of Marx and Engels is intelligent and well-informed.  It seems a pity that he essentially ignored the English Revolution [1640 – 1660] and its consequences.  His brief summary of the suicides of Marx’s daughters is as instructive as it is uncomfortable to read.
  • For the English Revolution, see Austin Woolrych’s Britain in Revolution 1625 – 1660 and Christopher Hill’s many volumes on the subject, including The Century of Revolution: 1603 – 1714  and The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution.

The Perils of Writing Popular History: Chongqing and the Yangtze in World War II, 1937 – 1945

Rana Mitter’s book China’s War with Japan, 1937 – 1945: The Struggle for Survival [2013, also published as Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937 – 1945 (2014)] was widely greeted as a welcome addition to the literature dealing with what is arguably the most neglected theater of the Second World War. Mitter, who is director of the University China Centre of Oxford, attempts to restore to their rightful importance in the historical record the activities of the Nationalist Guomindang [Kuomintang] Government under Jiang Jie-shi [Chiang Kai-Shek] in resisting Japanese attacks.

Mitter’s revisionist theses have their parallels in publications in Mainland China and his book is becoming, faute de mieux, a standard in English speaking countries for conflicts in China during World War II.

It is not my intention to dispute here his interpretations of the important events he describes. His work details, among other things, the colossal losses suffered in campaigns directed by the Nationalist government, occasionally noting that some at least were due to the practice of putting the troops of warlords who might develop into rivals into exposed forward positions, and abandoning them to Japanese attacks without resupply, much less reinforcements. The best Nationalist troops were often held back to preserve them for later use against the Chinese Communists.

When the Guomindang leaders and troops retreated up the Yangtze River after a series of defeats by the Japanese in eastern China, their days of power were numbered, as they were effectively cut off from the support of Western governments. The Nationalists did not enjoy widespread popularity among the peasants who constituted the vast majority of the Chinese population at that time.

The Guomindang forces in turn demonstrated a cavalier indifference to the well-being of Chinese civilians. One notable example among many is the Guomindang breaching of the Yellow River dikes near Kaifeng and Zhengzhou in 1938 in an attempt to slow down Japanese offensives. According to official postwar Guomindang analysis, more than 800,000 Chinese civilians were killed by the flooding and its immediate aftermath. Millions more were made refugees. Other estimates run about 500,000 dead with millions of refugees. The Japanese military advance was not significantly hindered.

A casual comment in Mitter’s book regarding an airfield in wartime Chongqing caught my attention:

The English-language magazine China at War, managed by the shrewd head of Nationalist propaganda, Hollington K. Tong, told tales for a neutral American public of brave Chinese fighter pilots seeking to land on Chongqing’s precarious Shanhuba airfield, a sandbar exposed only at high tide. [China’s War with Japan, 1937 – 1945, Chapter 10, A sort of wartime normal, pp. 172-173, Penguin Books.]

That Chongqing is a hilly city, with less flat land for airfields than might be desired, is not in doubt. There were however 7 airfields serving the city in World War II.

The Shanhuba airfield was intended for civilian flights, and considered unsuitable for landing during the rainy season, which generally occurs June through September. During the rainy season, planes that would otherwise use Shanhuba typically landed at the Baishiyi Air Force Base.

Shanhuba island is more substantive than a sandbar. But I am at a loss when it comes to understanding how a high tide could expose even a sandbar. Usually high tides cover low lying land. What Mitter reports that Tong wrote certainly merits explanation if not correction.

But I was even more astonished at the implication that the Yangtze River is estuarial some 900 miles [1700 km] upstream from the sea. I traveled the navigable length of the river twice before the Three Gorges Dam was fully implemented [1983 and 1987], and I failed to notice any tidal bores racing upriver to reach Chongqing.

I expected better of a distinguished Oxford scholar and his editors. When they cannot get the details right, it is difficult to trust them on important points.

Mitter did not respond to a request for comments.

Further Reading:

• Rana Mitter’s China’s War with Japan, 1937 – 1945: The Struggle for Survival is a useful corrective in restoring the importance of the Nationalist government’s role in resisting Japan’s attacks, but it does not provide a balanced view of China’s anti-Japanese efforts.

• Lyman P. Van Slyke’s Yangtze: Nature, History, and the River provides a concise high level introduction to the geography and history of the region.