Lost Battalion Publishing Dispatch #26

A Curated Weekly Review of Interesting Historical Occurrences

This Week in History

A Football game between the trench lines, the Curse of the Bambino, and Mouse Holes in Italy

The Lost Battalion Dispatch #26 for the Week of December 25, 2022
Scots and Germans Engage in a Friendly Football Match
during the Christmas Truce of 1914
Along some sectors of the Western Front, a Christmas Truce was spontaneously and unofficially celebrated on December 25, 1914. German officer Walter Stennes recounts his concerns when the situation began to develop on Christmas Eve:

“On Christmas Eve at noon, fire ceased completely – on both fronts. Of course, it was unusual that the opposite side also ceased fire. Then my officer controlling the sentries came in and said ‘Do you expect a surprise attack? Because it’s very unusual the situation.’ I said, ‘No I don’t think so. But anyhow everyone is awake, no one is sleeping, and the sentries are still on duty. So, I think it’s alright.”

British private Marmaduke Walkinton described how the events began to develop:

“We were in the front line; we were about 300 yards from the Germans. And we had, I think on Christmas Eve, we’d been singing carols and this that and the other, and the Germans had been doing the same. And we’d been shouting to each other, sometimes rude remarks more often just joking remarks. Anyway, eventually, a German said, ‘Tomorrow you no shoot, we no shoot.’ And the morning came and we didn’t shoot and they didn’t shoot. So then we began to pop our heads over the side and jump down quickly in case they shot but they didn’t shoot. And then we saw a German standing up, waving his arms and we didn’t shoot and so on, and so it gradually grew.”

British soldier George Jameson recalled what happened in his sector on Christmas morning:

“Keith and Philip Ridley, two of my section, came dashing into the billet during the morning and said, ‘What do you know, the Jerries are out on the top; they’re walking about, they’re dishing out drinks and cigarettes – there’s no fighting going on!’ Well we’d noticed the place was very quiet. I said I don’t believe it. I said well I can’t go I’m duty bloke for the morning but hop off and see what you can find. So Keith and Philip and Lesley Wood went off and they arrived back around about lunchtime, Keith with one of the Landwehr hats on – the grey thing with the red band round the button – Philip had a water bottle. They’d had drinks, they’d had smokes and they’d been walking about. He said, ‘You just wouldn’t believe it!’

According to Britain Archibald Stanley, “I tell you what happened on Christmas Day 1914, and people don’t believe it. We had this unofficial truce. We met in no man’s land on Christmas Day 1914. We shook hands – they were Saxons – and I heard one fellow talking English. I said to him, ‘You speak English?’ You know what he said? ‘Cor blimey mate,’ he said, ‘I was in a London hotel when the war broke out!’ I thought that topped it. He’d got the London accent…”

Several football matches were organized. The most well documented occurred between 134th Royal Saxon Regiment and the 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. The Saxons won 3-2.

In some sectors, the truce when on for several days. In others, desultory fighting continued. When the High Command of both sides became aware of it, they ordered it stopped. George Ashurst described how these orders were received and how unpopular they were:

“We got orders come down the trench, ‘Get back in your trenches every man,’ by word of mouth down each trench; ‘Everybody back in your trenches,’ shouting. The generals behind must’ve seen it and got a bit suspicious so what they did, they gave orders for a battery of guns behind us to fire, and a machine gun to open out and officers to fire their revolvers at the Jerries.  ‘Course that started the war again. Ooh we were cursing them to hell, cursing the generals and that, you want to get up here in this stuff never mind your giving orders, in your big chateaux and driving about in your big cars. We hated the sight of the bloody generals.”

At least one officer organized a more civilized cessation to the truce. Captain JC Dunn of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers fired three shots into the air at 8:30 AM on Boxing Day (December 26) and put up a flag with “Merry Christmas” written on it. His counterpart in the German trenches climbed the parapet and displayed a sheet with “Thank You” scribbled on it. They both bowed to each other and saluted before the German fired two shots in the air, indicating that the war was on again.

News of the truce was subject to a press embargo until the New York Times, in neutral America published an article. British papers followed suit, but German papers took little notice, and French press censorship caused the news to spread only by word of mouth from accounts told by wounded men in hospitals.

Strict order from the General Staff prevented both sides from repeating such exchanges of good cheer in the midst of the war on future holidays.

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Babe Ruth by Mort Künstler
On December 26, 1919, the New York Yankees paid the first installment of $25,000 against the $100,000 purchase for the contract held by the Boston Red Sox for Babe Ruth. The move shocked the country. In 1919, Ruth had hit a home run in every American League ballpark. When he wasn’t pitching, he played 111 games in the outfield. He led the league with 29 home runs, 103 runs scored, and 114 RBI. He was a national sensation even though his team finished in sixth place. Nevertheless, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee wanted “a winning team, rather than a one-man team that finishes in sixth place.” He also described Ruth’s home runs as “more spectacular than useful.”

Ruth went on to hit 54 home runs for the Yankees in 1920. In 1927 he set a record of 60 home runs that would stand for 34 years. He led the Yankees, who had never even won the American League championship, on to win seven pennants and four World Series titles.

Meanwhile, without the “Sultan of Swat” in the lineup, the Red Socks who had won five of the first sixteen World Series didn’t even win an American League pennant again until 1946. The so-called “Curse of the Bambino” continued to haunt them until they finally won another World Series title in 2004, 86 years after the fateful trade.

Joseph Stalin ordered the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” on December 27, 1929. Kulaks were self-sufficient peasants who owned eight or more acres of land. and had become profit-minded, conservative farmers due to the agriculture reforms of Czarist Prime Minister Pytor Stolypin. Beginning in 1906, Stolypin hoped granting land holdings to the peasant would make them more productive, like similar farmers in western Europe. It was, according to him, “a wager on the strong and sober.”

Later Soviet assessments portray the reforms as an unmitigated failure, but a less biased analysis indicated that by 1914 agricultural production had risen by as much as 20%. The truth will likely never be known since the outbreak of World War I and the subsequent Bolshevik revolution obscure whatever effects the program might have had.

What is clear is that a prosperous and self-sufficient middle class was anathema to the aims of Stalin’s collectivist ideology. On January 30th he assigned all kulaks to one of three categories:

· Those to be shot or imprisoned at the discretion of local secret police

· Those to have their property confiscated and be deported to Siberia

· Those to be evicted from their homes and assigned to forced labor in collective districts

The immediate result of these measures was the Soviet famine of 1930-1933 which is estimated to have killed five to nine million people. Some scholars have called this a genocide against ethnic Ukrainians and Kazakhs who made up the bulk of the kulaks.

Kulaks Begin Driven from their Homes in Southern Ukraine
A Canadian Soldier Demonstates a Mouse Hole after the Battle of Ortona
The Battle of Ortona concluded on December 28, 1943. after eight days of brutal house-to-house fighting between troops of the 1st Canadian Infantry Divison and two battalions of Fallschirmjäger from the German 1st Parachute Divison.

The battle for the town began on December 20th when Canadians from the division’s 2nd Brigade supported by the Seaforth Highlanders entered the outskirts while their 3rd Brigade attempted to outflank the position and cut off the town from communication and supply. On the 21st the Loyal Edmonton Regiment and the Highlanders entered the town itself supported by a regiment of tanks from 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade. They were met by cleverly concealed machine guns, anti-tank emplacements, and numerous booby traps.

To counter these obstacles the Canadians made use of a tactic called “mouse-holing.” They used PIATs and Teller anti-tank mines to create large holes in the walls of buildings. Many of the homes in Oronta shared adjacent walls allowing the soldiers to blast through and clear the adjacent rooms with grenades and machine guns before entering. It was bloody work and resulted in heavy casualties on both sides, but it enabled the Canadians to progress through the town from building to building without subjecting themselves to kill zones the Germans had prepared in the streets. In some cases, engineers were brought in to collapse entire buildings on concentrations of enemy troops.

Including the battle at the Moro River during the approach to Oronta, the Canadians suffered at least 1,375 men killed and 964 wounded. 867 elite Fallschirmjäger were killed, wounded, or captured. Over one thousand civilians in the town also died.

The Battle of Ortona is still studied today for lessons in urban fighting. Some have labeled the battle “Little Stalingrad”

HMS Warrior in Portsmouth in 2019
On December 29, 1860, HMS Warrior was launched. She was the first iron-hulled, armor-plated warship. Mounting 28 68-pounder guns, 10 110-pounder Armstrong breach-loaders, and 4 40-pounder rifled Armstrong breach-loaders, she and her sister ship Black Prince were, for a brief period, the most powerful warships in the world, essentially invulnerable to any other vessel capable of high-sea navigation. Perhaps for this reason, she never fired her guns in anger.

Warrior revolutionized naval warfare, prompting the Admiralty to cease production of all wooden ships-of-the-line and order 11 more of Warrior’s ilk. Her reign as Queen of the Ocean lasted only 10 years before technological innovations made her obsolete. Her historic nature saved her from the scrap yard, however, and she was restored beginning in 1979. She now has a berth as a museum ship at the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.

USS George Washington the first ballistic missile submarine, was commissioned on December 30, 1959. Originally laid down as an attack submarine, a 130-foot ballistic missile section was inserted during construction.

In June of 1960, she sailed from Groton, CT to Cape Canaveral, FL where two Polaris missiles were loaded on board. She successfully conducted the first submerged launch of a Polaris missile on July 20, 1960.

George Washington patrolled the seas for 21 years with a complement of 16 Polaris missiles. In 1981, her missiles were removed in compliance with the SALT II treaty. After that, she served as an attack sub until 1983.

Sail of USS George Washington (SSBN-598) with Polaris Missile in Background
On December 31, 535 AD, Belisarius, whom some have called the last Roman general, made a triumphant entry into the famed city of Syracuse. Dispatched by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Justinian to reclaim Italy, Belisarius began his campaign by taking the island of Sicily. The Goths put up a brief resistance at Palermo where Belisarius used archers stationed on the masts of his ships to subdue the garrison.

His campaign in Italy was briefly interrupted when he was forced to return to Africa, which he had conquered for Justinian the previous year, to put down a rebellion. His mere presence was enough to cause the rebels to flee from their siege of Carthage and he quickly pursued and destroyed them.

Returning to Sicily and then crossing to Italy he advanced rapidly. Many of the Gothic troops deserted to him because they were displeased with their king Theodahad. At Naples, however, he was stymied by a determined defense until an unguarded aqueduct allowed him to infiltrate the city. He showed mercy to the defeated Goths. This enticed many others to join his cause. When he arrived at Rome, the garrison fled due to the pro-Byzantine sentiment Belisarius had inculcated.

After he failed to defend Rome, Theodahad was deposed and replaced by Vitiges, a much more capable man who raised a large Gothic army. Belisarius defended Rome from a siege by Vitiges from March 537 to March 538. He inflicted heavy casualties on the Goths by employing surprise sorties. Realizing he was losing the siege, Vitiges made a desperate attempt to assault the walls. To increase his chances of success he bribed a Roman traitor to give the guards drugged wine. The plot was discovered, and Belisarius had the traitor tortured and mutilated. Shortly after this, another Byzantine force entered Italy and captured Rimini, threatening Vitiges’s capital of Ravenna and forcing him to abandon the siege.

During the siege, Belisarius was ordered by Emperess Theodora to depose Pope Silverius, who had been installed by the Goths and was suspected of disloyalty. He replaced him with Pope Vigilius. When Belisarius departed Rome in 538 to continue his conquest of Italy, the garrison he left behind effectively became the first Papal army.

Mort Künstler at the Easel in 1994
A Great American Artist

Mort Künstler is renowned as “the premier historical artist in America.” From portraits of prehistoric American life to the odyssey of the space shuttle, he has painted America’s story. Check out his work here: Mort Künstler America’s Artist

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This weekly newsletter is brought to you by Cher Ami, the homing pigeon whose heroic flight helped bring relief from a barrage of friendly fire to the First Battalion, 308th Infantry of 77th New York Infantry Division and alerted high command that over 500 American troops were holding out against all odds while surrounded in the Argonne Forest during World War One.

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