Thursday, 30 December 2010

Rearming the Reich

In his rise to power inside Germany, Hitler had used luck, skill, propaganda and violence - or the very real threat of it - to achieve his ends. It soon became clear that he was to use very much the same tactics in achieving his aims now that he was the Führer of the German people. For the luck and skill he would rely on his own talents and for the propaganda he could rely on the dark genius of Josef Goebbels. For the violence he turned to the armed forces of Germany, the Reichswehr, and at once realised that this instrument of war was quite simply not up to the job.

The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I was dictated to Germany by the victorious Allies. The numerous provisions, were prompted by the unshakeable belief that it had been Germany and her aristocratic, military elite which had started the war. If war were to be avoided in future, the authors of the treaty believed, Germany had to be stripped of any offensive power. Under the terms of Versailles, the German armed forces were to number no more than 100,000 men, none of whom could be conscripts, and were allowed neither tanks nor aircraft. The famously efficient Army General Staff was disbanded.

The new Reichswehr were composed of the Reichsheer, or army, and the Reichsmarine, or navy. The majority of the manpower was in the Reichsheer, which consisted of 2 Group Commands, 7 Infantry Divisions and 3 Cavalry Divisions. The Reichsmarine was so reduced in size that it was little more than a fisheries protection and coastguard service. The aim of Versailles was, simply, to stop Germany from having sufficient armed forces to be tempted into starting a war. The effect was to drive the German governments and military establishment towards finding new and imaginative ways of creating effective military power.

The rearmament of Germany after the catastrophic defeat of the Great War began before Hitler became Führer, but it was to gather pace and urgency once the Nazis were in power. Crucially, it was Hitler’s ambition for an aggressive foreign policy that not only gave the rearmament a timescale, but also pointed the direction which it took. This ambition and the restrictive military terms of the treaty were to have a direct bearing on the form of the new German war machine which Hitler was to create.

Less well-known clauses in the Versailles treaty committed the victorious Allies to reducing their own armed forces. These reductions were not on anything like the drastic scale imposed on Germany, but would have been significant if they had ever been carried out. However the idealistic euphoria for peace and the perceived benefits of the influence of the League of Nations which dominated thinking in 1919 soon wilted in the face of belligerent communism radiating from Soviet Russia and the practical needs of Britain and France to police their empires and colonies. In the event, the planned disarmament of the victorious nations never took place. This, of course, gave Hitler the ready-made excuse he needed for rearming Germany.

This is an extract from the book HITLER - MILITARY COMMANDER

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Pirate ships

Pirate Ships

Intro Text

Pirates used fast, heavily-armed ships. They needed to be able to catch up with merchant ships, then defeat them if they fought back. Some pirates preferred to have small ships so they could hide in narrow inlets and creeks. Others chose larger ships with more guns. The ship needed enough space to carry food for the crew, ammunition for the guns and to store all the loot they stole.

This is a larger pirate ship carrying over 30 guns. There were cabins for the crew and storerooms for the food, drink and ammunition. The upper decks were kept clear so that the guns could be used at short notice.

You Must Be Joking
In the warm Caribbean ocean, seaweed and shellfish grew quickly on the bottom of ships. This slowed the ships down. Three times each year, pirates would drag their ships ashore to scrape off all the weed and shells. This was known as "careening".

Can You Believe It?
Pirates built their own ships.
NO. Most pirates stole ships If a pirate captured a ship which was better than his own, he would sell his old ship and keep the new one. Some pirates chose to buy or hire their ship from a pirate stronghold such as Port Royal or Tortuga.

Only the most successful pirates could attract a crew large enough to sail a big ship. Most pirates had small crews, so they used smaller ships. The hulls were often painted green so they would blend in to the green land when the pirates were hiding in creeks and inlets.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Al Capone the Gangster

No gangster in the world is better known than Al Capone (1899-1947). Although his criminal career ended more than 70 years ago, his image as a brutal, ruthless yet intelligent and stunningly successful gangster has never diminished. His grip over the Chicago underworld never slackened, his rule being enforced by clever diplomacy, bribery and lethal violence. Helped by movies and books, Al Capone’s career has acted as an inspiration to generations of criminals and a stark warning to the forces of law and order. For many he is the ultimate gangster.

Capone was born in New York in 1899 to parents who had immigrated from Italy a few years before. As a teenager Capone engaged in petty theft, but he entered organised crime when he got a job as a bartender at the Harvard Inn, a rundown bar owned by gangster Frankie Yale. Capone’s talents quickly led to his rise in Yale’s gang and by the age of 20 he is thought to have carried out at least 2 murders for Yale.

In 1919, Yale sent Capone to Chicago to help his friend Giovanni “Johnny” Torrio, who ran much of the windy city’s vice business. When Prohibition arrived, Torrio promoted the cunning Capone to run his illegal alcohol business. By 1923, Capone was heading his own mini empire of criminality in Cicero. He gained total control over Cicero’s underworld and got a henchman elected as the town’s mayor.

Meanwhile, Torrio was engaged in a war with the North Side Gang. In 1925 Torrio was badly injured in a gun battle and retired to Italy, naming Capone as his successor. Capone moved quickly to establish control over Torrio’s gang. He then established a firm grip on the city’s government through bribery and blackmail. Politicians and senior police officers were in his control, and Capone’s empire of vice, gambling and alcohol operated virtually unhindered by the law. Capone quickly became the richest man in the city, indulging his tastes for fine clothes, fine living and loose women to the full.

But if Capone and his gang were beyond the law, they were not beyond the reach of other gangsters. The North Side Gang – led by Bugs Moran – was continually trying to encroach on Capone’s territory and activities. There were frequent outbreaks of violence and in 1928 Bugs Moran tried to have Capone murdered. The attempt failed only because Capone’s bodyguard threw his boss to the ground.

Capone plotted revenge, and gave the job of carrying it out to his chief executioner Jack “Machine Gun” McGurn. McGurn hired gunmen from New York, Detroit and Tennessee. Then he began studying the North Side Gang’s movements and activities. He discovered that on 14 February 1929 the entire gang leadership was due to be at a garage at 2122 North Clark Street to receive a large consignment of illegal drink.

McGurn had his hired guns dress as policemen and drive a stolen police car. They arrived just a few minutes after the illegal drink and burst into the garage as if making arrests. The gangsters lined up as instructed. The fake policemen then opened up with machineguns and shotguns with such savagery that several of the victims were almost cut in two. Moran himself had been late arriving and, seeing the police car, had not entered the garage. The Valentine Day’s Massacre, as the mass killing became known, destroyed the North Side Gang.

Indirectly, the massacre also destroyed Capone. The killings were so brutal and so open that they prompted a backlash by the honest citizens of Chicago, and caused the federal government to take an interest. At first the forces of law and order were unable to link any crimes directly to Capone, who always acted through middlemen and used cash rather than traceable bank accounts.

Then the famous Elliot Ness of the US Treasury came across a book that detailed payments made to Capone. In 1931 Capone was convicted on five charges of tax evasion. The judge, knowing full well of Capone’s other crimes, imposed the harshest sentence possible: 11 years in a federal prison and one year in the county jail, as well as an earlier six-months contempt of court sentence plus fines and court costs totalling $80,000.

While Capone was in prison, his grip on his criminal empire slackened. By 1938 the onset of tertiary syphilis had begun and Capone entered a steep decline in his health. He was released in 1939, but with his health broken he retired from crime. He died on 24 January 1947.

Monday, 20 December 2010

RAF Advanced Landing Grounds in Sussex

As preparations for D-Day advanced, it became clear that the existing Fighter airfields of Tangmere, Ford and Westhampnett in Sussex would be unable to cope with the large number of aircraft expected to operate from the county. The need for additional airfields had been recognised after the Dieppe Raid. On that occasion Fighter Command had gained and held air supremacy over the town and the sea offshore, but only by putting up vast numbers of fighters on a strict rota system. To be confident of achieving air supremacy over the much larger area over the Normandy beaches and English Channel woul would require far more aircraft, even given the depleted state of the Luftwaffe by the summer of 1944. It was to provide bases for these aircraft that the Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG) were constructed.

The ALGs were never intended to be permanent airfields. The runways were constructed of heavy-duty metal mesh laid down over the turf, while accommodation consisted of requistioned nearby houses and tents. There were to be four hangars at each ALG, but again these were of temporary constructions, known as blister hangars. Care was taken over selecting the sites, the ideal being a flat area of poor-grade farmland close to woodland where stores could be hidden from probing Luftwaffe eyes. There were not enough such sites to be found in Sussex, so some good quality farmland had to be sacrificed much to the annoyance of the local farmers.

Among the unsung heroes of Fighter Command were the runway repair crews of the ALGs. The metal spikes holding the runway mesh in position were constantly working loose, so the men had to rush out to hammer them back in at short notice. More than once they were at work even as aircraft came into land, the men scattering for a few seconds, then returning to work.

In December 1942 workmen started to clear the site just outside Bognor Regis, flattening out bumps and demolishing farm buildings in line with the runways. January 1943 saw work begin at Chailey, and in February at Selsey, Apuldram and Coolham. Cowdray Park had been a private airfield used by Lord Cowdray and his friends before the war, so this needed only to have metal mesh laid down for it to become an ALG. It was July 1943 before work began at Deanland. A grass air strip at Funtingdon had been cleared early in the war as an emergency landing strip for damaged aircraft and it was upgraded to be an ALG in September 1943. Two months later the old army base at Hammerwood began conversion to be an ALG. A final ALG was planned to be built at Pulborough, but it was never constructed.

Even while the ALGs were being constructed, squadrons were being moved into Sussex, or new ones formed. Both the ADGB and 2nd TAF ha bases in the county and the pace of activity quickened appreciably. The main targets for 2nd TAF were German military bases in northern France and the Low Countries, plus transportation links, railway locomotives and rolling stock and factories producing military equipment. Although the primary need was to prepare for the landings in Normandy, it was necessary to launch raids as if preparing for an invasion taking place around Calais so as to mislead the Germans.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

The Tragedy of Ron Ramsden, RAF pilot

“Something which happened just before the war I shall never forget.

“I had a cousin aged about nineteen at that time. He had quite a few friends his own age and in those days it was considered the duty of older members of the family to take younger members out and about with them to give the parents a break. So when my cousin and his friends went - say playing tennis - my sister and I would be called for and taken with them to be ball boys and mind the jackets and wallets and so on while the tennis was played. At the end of the afternoon we were usually bought an ice cream for our efforts.

“Then one of the young men, Ron Ramsden his name was, somehow came into a little sum of money – left to him by an auntie or some such thing. He spent the money on buying himself a sports car. This was an unbelievable luxury in our working class circles. I remember hearing my mother and my cousin’s mother and aunties all gossipping together and saying how Ron should not have wasted the money on such a frivolous thing, but should have put it in the bank for his future because he would never get the chance to acquire such a nest egg again. It was quite a little scandal over the teacups.

“I remember one sunny day walking with my cousin towards his home where the family was going to meet for tea. We passed the home of Ron who was outside in the road cleaning this sports car where it was standing at the curb. It was the only car parked in the entire road. He was so happy and proud, chatting to my cousin and my cousin was looking admiringly at the smart car. Ron was blond and I can still see his yellow hair shining in the sun and blowing in the breeze. And I remember thinking he seemed so handsome and jolly and not at all wasteful and foolish as the aunties were saying.

“Three years later we were deep into the war. My cousin was in the army in Burma and the Battle of Britain was raging. My mother came home from visiting the aunties.

“‘Ron Ramsden is dead,’ she said. ‘Killed flying with the RAF.’

“By this time I was a young teenager and I remember thinking ‘Well I am glad he did buy that car. At least he had a little happiness before he died.’”

So my Mother told me of her childhood and about one friend who was snatched from her, fighting bravely in the skies over England. Ever since she told me of that dashing young man I have wanted to learn more about him and men like him. In researching this book I finally had the chance.

This is an extract from Heroes of RAF Fighter Command in Kent by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Battlefield Walks in Northumberland - The Video

A walking guide book to the great battlefields of Northumberland.




Father Christmas Comes to Newbury

The History Man went to Newbury to speak to the Probus Club Christmas Lunch on the subject of "The Biography of Father Christmas". He even dressed the part.

To book Rupert Matthews, The History Man, to speak to your event contact him VIA HIS WEBSITE
Among the talks on offer are:
King ArthurMedieval Women RAF Bomber Command at War
Beware the Yeti!
In Defence of Freedom 
The Arrowstorm
Hitler’s Forgotten Secret Weapon

Authors & Writers

The Great Global Warming Myth

Your Local Ghosts
The Real St George

Details of all talks are available on the website

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

RAF Bomber Command, reforms in the early months of Bomber Harris in command

After the Augsberg Raid, Arthur Harris decided to devote his squadrons to the “area bombing” attacks that had already proved themselves to be reasonably effective and less costly than other tactics. His orders were to degrade the capacity of German industry to produce weapons and supplies to keep the vast armed forces of the Wehrmacht in the field. That meant bombing industrial cities, and Harris took on the task with skill and dedication.

Several reforms begun under Pearse and Portal, reached fruition during the early months of Harris’s command. The most noticeable of these came in the form of the big four-engined bombers. These aircraft, the Stirling, Halifax and Lancaster, could carry heavier bombs in greater numbers over longer distances with more reliability than could the two engined aircraft they replaced.

Almost as significant were the improvements to navigation. Primarily this was “Gee”, which enabled a navigator to fix his aircraft’s position with reasonable accuracy if less than 350 miles from England by means of triangulating radio beams. New navigation aids, that would enter service as “Oboe” and “H2S” were under development, though they would not enter service until the end of 1942.

Less obvious were changes in tactics and organisation. One change that Harris opposed was to put only one pilot in each aircraft. This enabled twice as many aircraft to take off as when two pilots were in each aircraft. Harris insisted that another crew member had to be trained well enough to pilot the aircraft home in an emergency and that an automatic pilot, codenamed “George”, had to be fitted.

A change which did receive Harris’s enthusiastic backing was “streaming”. Previously each bomber had been free to choose its own route to the target and, except in a few cases, to deliver its attack at the time and height the pilot preferred. However, casualties caused by night fighters and anti-aircraft guns had been rising steadily as the Germans became experienced in the difficult skills of accurate shooting in the dark.

Henceforth the bombers were to be organised in a stream. This meant that every bomber had to follow the same route to and from the target, flying at a similar height and time to all the others. It was hoped that the enemy fighters and gunners would no longer be able to pick off the bombers one by one as they made their attacks but, instead, would be swamped by a vast number of attackers arriving at once. There were initial fears that bombers would collide in the dark, but such casualties proved to be far less than the numbers saved from German attacks.

At first the bomber streams were haphazard and only loosely organised. In time that would change and develop until by 1945 every single bomber had its allotted time and height to be over the target. Streaming proved to be among the most effective defensive tactics adopted by Bomber Command.

Monday, 13 December 2010

RAF Bomber Command: The great disputes of 1945

The year 1945 opened with Bomber Command trying to get over a serious and ill-tempered disagreement between Sir Arthur Harris, head of Bomber Command, and Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff. Although the extent of the row was not known lower down the chain of command – and certainly not to the men flying missions out of Norfolk – it was to influence the types of missions undertaken for the rest of the war.

The heart of the problem was that Portal was in possession of vitally important information that he was not allowed to give to Harris. This meant that Harris, not knowing all the facts, relied on the information that he did have. Portal gave orders based on what he knew, Harris argued against them using perfectly logical arguments based on what he knew.

For most of 1944 the Allies had been able to intercept and decode the majority of the military and government radio messages sent by German army units in the field. This showed that the German war effort was being severely hampered by a lack of fuel. British government intelligence experts did some calculations and soon realised that the German armed forces would run out of fuel within 12 months, and even sooner if oil storage and refinery plants could be hit by Bomber Command. The problem was that this was all so highly secretive that even the people decoding the messages were not told what they were doing. There were probably only about 25 people who knew what was going on. If the Germans had realised that their supposedly unbreakable codes had been cracked, they would have changed them at once and the Allies would have been deprived of enormously valuable information.

Portal knew about the codebreaking – codenamed Ultra – and therefore knew that the targetting of oil was both vital and necessary. Harris did not know about the source of this information and was baffled by Portal’s insistence. Harris remembered earlier directives telling him that if only ball-bearings or molybdenum or rubber could be denied to the Germans then the enemy war production would grind to a halt. Time and again, Harris had sent bomber crews on extremely dangerous missions to hit these supposedly invaluable targets. Many crews had been killed, but although the targets had been hit the Germans did not seem to suffer the severe blow Harris had been promised.

Now Harris was being asked to do it again. He did not want to risk his men unnecessarily. He knew that the area bombing of industrial centres was having an effect, as were attacks on transport links. Harris preferred to keep his men bombing targets of known worth rather than shift them to dangerous targets of doubtful importance.

In any case, Harris argued forcibly, the US 8th Air Force was better equipped and trained for precision bombing. Now that long range day fighters could escort the Flying Fortresses all the way over Germany such raids were no longer as costly as before. The RAF Bomber Command was better suited to area bombing, be it of industrial centres or transport links.

So serious did the conflict between the two become that Portal and Harris stopped talking to each other and instead wrote each other formal letters. In the last two months of 1944 they wrote each other 24 letters, totalling 25,000 words on the subject. In the end, Harris offered to resign but Portal refused the offer. The dispute was never really resolved, but for the immediate future it was masked by the dreadful winter weather over Europe which made precision attacks on small oil targets impracticable anyway.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

The Build up to the Battle of Pinkie 1547

The defeat of the English at Ancrum Moor forced King Henry VIII to adopt a new strategy for dealing with the Scots. Instead of launching border raids and trying to pressure the Scots into marrying their child queen, Mary Queen of Scots, to an English prince, Henry decided on a purely military option.

The new war plan envisaged a large English army marching into Scotland to capture key towns, cities and fortresses. These were to be garrisoned with strong bodies of English troops and supplied from the sea by the newly powerful English Royal Navy. There would be no attempt to rule Scotland or to occupy its more rugged areas. Instead, the English-held strongpoints would disrupt attempts to muster an army while English money would be used to bribe the various factions of nobles into continuing their disputes.

In this way Henry hoped to keep Scotland in turmoil and unable to invade England. Henry died in January 1547 and left the plan to his nine year old son, the boy-king Edward VI.

As Edward was unable to rule the kingdom, Henry had put a Regency Council in control, led by the Duke of Somerset. Somerset was King Edward’s uncle, being his mother’s brother. He also had plans to usurp the powers of the Council and become sole Protector of England. To do this he needed prestige, and he looked for a military victory in Scotland to give it to him.

Declaring he was merely carrying out the dying wishes of Henry VIII, Somerset called a muster of English soldiers for the end of August in Berwick. Then he hired a force of European mercenaries, who could be relied upon to be loyal to himself as the man paying them, and marched north to take command. At Berwick Somerset met up with the Earl of Bothwell, the Earl of Cassilis and other Scottish nobles who opposed the Earl of Arran’s government. In the harbour Somerset had a fleet of 32 merchant ships laded down with all the supplies his army would need and 30 warships armed with the heaviest cannon available.

On September 1st, Somerset marched north. He moved slowly, anxious to avoid the notoriously successful Scottish ambushes and raids. At Coldingham Moor, on the Lammermuir Hills, a party of Scottish scouts was seen and Somerset halted the army until his own scouts drove them off. At Tantallon Castle, Somerset bypassed the defences and pressed on. On the 8th September the English army crested Falside Hill and looked down into the valley of the Esk, with Edinburgh beyond. Drawn up in battle array on the far bank of the river was a Scottish army. It was obviously larger than his own, so Somerset gave orders to halt. He put his men into defensive positions along the Falside ridge while he consulted his officers about what to do next.

The Scots army was confident of success, and with good reason for, despite their internal differences, Scotland had rallied to face the invader. The Regent, the Earl of Arran, had persuaded the majority of the nobles to bring their men to the mustering in front of Edinburgh. The Earl of Huntly had brought the Highlanders, Lord Home had brought the Borderer light cavalry and the Earl of Angus, victor of Ancrum Moor, had come with all his men.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Xerxes arrives to watch the battle at Thermopylae

The first signs of action would have been a force of Persian troops marching out of camp towards the West Gate. These men would undoubtedly have been royal guards from the unit known as Immortals. On campaign most Persians wore the more convenient dress of the Medes, but these men would have been drawn from the crack 1,000 Royal Guards and they were there to make a show. It is likely, therefore, that they marched into action  arrayed in the finery of the Persian nobility.

These robes swept down to the ankle and wrists with great billowing folds of brightly coloured cloth. Each man had his own pattern of embroidery and patchwork so that the mass must have shimmered like a rainbow on the march in the early morning sun. Each man carried a brightly decorated quiver over his left shoulder which contained his bow as well as his arrows. The 2 metre spear was tipped with an iron head, burnished to silvery sparkle, while the butt end was a gilded silver pomegranate as large as a man’s fist. The men habitually carried the spear point downward so that the gilding of the butt would catch the sunlight as they marched.

Behind this imposing display of armed might would have come a small army of workmen. No doubt these men were drawn from the ranks of the more primitive nations marching with Xerxes, such as the Mysians or Milyae. These men were poorly armed and may have been brought along to undertake exactly this sort of ground levelling manual labour.

The Greek scouts in the West Gate will have fallen back before the Persians. One would have been sent scampering back to the Phocian Wall to alert Leonidas, while the others kept a wary distance from the advancing Persians.

But the glittering ranks advanced only a short distance on to the plain from the West Gate. There they formed a defensive line and came to a halt. Behind them the workmen swarmed up the hillside to begin their work. Attacking the ground with shovels, pickaxes and spades they would have cleared and levelled an area of ground on which the throne could sit. Then the throne would have been manhandled up the slope and put into place. Tents, banners and sunshades would have followed until the small platform of level ground resembled nothing so much as a gorgeous and brightly coloured pavilion.

Finally, Xerxes himself would have appeared. Accompanied by his officers and advisers, plus a host of servants, the Great King would have walked through the West Gate, turned to his right and mounted the hill to take his place on his throne. Secretaries sat at his feet ready to write down whatever was Xerxes’ will. Messengers hung around nearby to take his orders to the army. Commanders waited patiently for the king’s pleasure. All was at last ready.

All this can be reconstructed from the single sentence in Herodotus that “Xerxes watched the battle from his seat”, from studying the topography of the battlefield and an understanding of how the Persian army operated. In a similar way it is possible to describe a plausible reconstruct of much of the course of the fighting.

This is an extract from The Battle of Thermopylae by Rupert Matthews

Friday, 3 December 2010

Truths and Myths about the Spanish Armada

The Spanish Armada of 1588 was passing into legend even before the last ships of the ill fated fleet struggled back to Spain. It suited the propaganda purposes of England’s Queen Elizabeth to claim divine assistance, so it was put about that “God blew, and they were scattered”. Credit was being given to God for the works of man.

Thereafter the myth makers and balladeers got to work with a will. Incidents were romanticised, invented or forgotten. Individuals raised to the status of hero by storytellers and historians, while those less lucky were written off as cowards or blamed for the faults of others. Within just a few years the general public across Europe had been presented with dozens of written versions of the story of the campaign, most of which had been written with a clear political motive which pushed truth and accuracy out of the way.

In the decades that followed other myths and legends grew up. Among the more persistent of these was the idea that the English ships had been smaller and less well armed than the vast Spanish galleons of the Armada. In fact, the largest ship in the campaign had been English, while it was the guns of the English ships that were the more effective and which did much to win the campaign for England. And yet there was an underlying truth in the myth, for the English ships had generally been smaller and were certainly less impressive to look at.

Another legend that began early was the story of Drake playing a game of bowls. According to the story as it was most often told, Drake and Lord Howard of Effingham were in Plymouth with the English fleet awaiting news of the Spanish Armada in July. With nothing much to do but kick their heels, the senior officers went up to Plymouth Hoe, a broad grassy hill just outside the town, to play a game of bowls. As they were playing a messenger came racing up to announce that the dreaded Armada had been sighted, and that it was closer than expected. The ships’ captains, senior commanders and even Lord Howard began to dash about in a panic, sending out orders and then countermanding them in their haste to get to sea. Drake’s voice then boomed out calling on them for silence. The agitated mob turned about to see Drake calmly taking up his stance to bowl his ball. “There is time to finish our game and beat the Spaniards too”, said Drake. Instantly the hubbub was calmed and the game went on even as the Spanish masts came up over the horizon.

As we shall see, this particular legend had a real basis in fact.

This is an extract from The Spanish Armada by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Supply System of the Macedonian Army under Alexander the Great

Philip had some years earlier banned the Macedonian army from using carts to transport food or equipment of any kind. Everything had to be carried by the men or on pack animals. The reasons for this were three fold.

First, carts could operate only on good roads. At the time of Alexander the only roads to have paved surfaces were those within towns and cities or the limited number of sacred roads that linked temples, shrines and cult centres. Processions moved along such roads and needed flat, secure paving to take the weight of the large carts that carried cult statues. Good as such roads were, they did not tend to go where armies would want to march.

The vast majority of roads were little more than strips of ground that were cleared of boulders, bushes and other obstructions. In wet weather they quickly deteriorated to quagmires interrupted by deep puddles. In dry weather they turned to dust that flew up in clouds of choking powder that got into noses, mouths and eyes. So irritating and penetrating could this dust be that “traveller’s eye” was a recognised complaint. In any case, such roads as there were existed only in the lowlands. Mountains were crossed by paths and tracks that no cart could traverse.

If the army had depended on carts for transport it would have been tied to lowland roads. That would be bad enough in territory that had been thoroughly scouted and efficiently mapped. But no army can rely on fighting over only such lands. By abandoning carts, the Macedonian army was freed to march over rough ground and high passes that were impassable to more traditional military forces.

A second problem with carts was their speed. The usual draught animal in ancient Greece as the ox. Oxen can plod along at only around 3.5 kilometres per hour. Moreover an ox can work for only five hours per day if it is to keep up a sustained effort. The resulting average daily speed of 17 kilometres was very slow. A fit man can easily sustain daily speeds of 30 kilometres or more. Relying on carts drawn by oxen would slow the army down considerably.

Even if horse-drawn carts were used, which could keep up with a man’s daily marching rate, there was a third problem. Until some anonymous genius of the early medieval period invented the horsecollar made from straw-stuffed leather and braced by metal fittings, the only horse collar available was the throat and girth harness. This has the unfortunate effect of exerting pressure on the horse’s windpipe. The harder the horse pulls, the more it is choked by the weight it is pulling. This put a strict limit on the amount of weight that a horse could pull. Bizarre as it may seem, this meant that a horse could actually carry on its back more than it could pull.

This is an extract from The Battle of the Granicus by Rupert Matthews

Monday, 29 November 2010

Teashop Walks in Sussex - The Video

Teashop Walks in Sussex
Watch the video HERE
Learn more and buy the book HERE

The Siege of Calais by Edward III 1346

Having won a spectacular and bloody victory at the Battle of Crecy, Edward faced up to the changed situation in which he found himself. He no longer had to worry about any sort of pursuit by Philip nor, in all likelihood, to any sort of opposition at all from a French field army. He could march where he liked and do what he liked.

As ever, things were not so simple as they might appear. The English were short of almost every sort of supply that could be imagined. Without the fear of a French army on their track, they could now spare the time to attack towns and castles. Knowing this, most garrisons chose to surrender as soon as a force of Englishmen appeared. As a result the immediate food problem was soon solved. But the army was still short of arrows, horseshoes and other military necessities. Many men were wounded, needing care and rest.

On 2 September Edward and his army reached Boulogne. He demanded the prompt surrender of the town, but the garrison rightly guessed that Edward lacked serious siege equipment and refused. Edward moved on to the port of Wissant, which was captured. Edward stayed there long enough to write his letter home announcing the great victory, and to ask for reinforcements and supplies to be sent to him. Wissant was then burned, and by 4 September the army was outside the gates of Calais.

The city of Calais was one of the largest and most prosperous ports in northern France. That was enough to make it a tempting target for attack, but its position was strategic, both militarily and economically. If Edward had control of Calais and Dover he would be able to secure a tight grip on any shipping moving between the North Sea and the English Channel. Not only that but the port was ideally placed to handle English exports to the continent, easing the intractable and complex issues about customs and taxation that had bedevilled English government for decades.

The failure of any important noblemen or significant sections of the population to join Edward’s cause since he landed at St Vaast had by now convinced the English king that he was not going to get the French to accept him as their rightful king. Instead he was now looking for a very practical and solid gain from his campaign. He decided that Calais would be his.

The English began to build their siege works on 5 September.

This is an extract from the Battle of Crecy by Rupert Matthews

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Rise to Power of Genghis Khan

Genghis Khan united the nomadic tribes of the Asian steppes and set them on course to conquer the largest land based empire the world has ever seen. His ruthless pursuit of power, wealth and prestige makes Genghis Khan one of the most astonishing and cruel conquerors of history.

Genghis Khan was born with the name of Temujin in Mongolia in about the year 1162. His father was chief of the Borjigin, a small and rather insignificant Mongol tribe. When Temujin was about 10 his father was murdered by a neighbouring tribe as part of a feud. The Borjigin refused to be led by a boy, so they abandoned Temujin and his family to poverty. In 1182 Temujin was captured by the Tayichiut tribe and enslaved. He escaped and took to leading a band of young men who raided tribes for food and wealth. In 1178 Temujin completed an arranged marriage to Börte of the Konkirat tribe, a match put in place by Temujin’s father before his death.

The link to the Konkirat proved to be a turning point for Temujin. It gave the young warrior access to a larger force of men willing to follow him in his raids. Temujin offered himself and his men as allies to his father’s blood brother, Toghrul who was chief of the powerful Kerait tribe. Soon after, Temujin teamed up with a boyhood friend named Jamuka who was now chief of the Jadaran tribe. By a succession of alliances, wars and treaties, Temujin gradually came to be the leader of the most powerful confederation of tribes the nomadic Mongols had ever seen.

Those opposed to Temujin’s growing power grouped behind Jamuka, who also won the backing of the Naiman, another nomadic tribe. A series of battles between the followers of the two former friends followed, but before a final showdown took place Jamuka was betrayed by a group of his own men and handed over in chains to Temujin. Temujin offered Jamuka a position as a general in his army, but Jamuka replied “There can be only one sun in the sky” and requested an honourable death.

After Jamuka’s execution in 1206, Temujin was appointed supreme chief of all the Mongol tribes. It is by this title of Genghis Khan that he is generally known today.

This is an extract from Conquerors by Rupert Matthews

Monday, 22 November 2010

A ghostly duel in York

At the south end of  Tower Street you will see a tree-shaded stretch of grass known as St George’s Field. In centuries past this patch of land formed part of a much larger meadow that filled the area outside the city walls and between the Foss stream and the River Ouse. Much of the area is now covered by a car park, but before the land was properly drained in the early 20th century, it tended to be boggy and marshy throughout the winter - and muddy even in the summer after rain. It flooded often and was never built upon. It made a convenient meeting point for duellists, lovers and others who wanted to be away from prying eyes within the city.

It floods still, though not so often, and the city council has deemed it useful for nothing except being covered in asphalt to serve as a car park. Maybe they are right. The ghosts, however, have another use for it.

So far as the phantoms are concerned, St George’s Field is still an open meadow dotted with trees. They come back time and again about their own business, ignoring the humans and their motorised contraptions that dominate the scene today.

The first of the ghosts here is a gruesome, but unusual figure. This is Baron Stafford, who came from one of the oldest and proudest families in England. The family descends from a minor Norman knight who fought at the Battle of Hastings with William the Conqueror and was granted Stafford Castle and surrounding lands by way of thanks. Over the centuries the family has been promoted through the ranks of nobility to be earls, dukes or marquises, lost their titles through rebellion, rebuilt their fortunes, passed through the female line, lost titles again, regained them and gone through periods of penury and affluence. Through all this, however, they have managed to hang on to both Stafford Castle and the title of Baron Stafford - a quite remarkable feat.

In 1694 one of these Staffords came to York on business, but got into a quarrel with a local gentleman. The details of the argument have been lost, but they were considered serious enough by the two men to be the cause of a duel. At this date the duel was - officially at least - illegal in England. In earlier centuries the duel had been considered a better option than a blood feud which might claim the lives of dozens, but there had been too many scandals for it to survive. More than once a highly skilled swordsman had challenged a man with less ability over a mere trifle with the intent of murdering him and there had been instances of seconds tampering with guns. By he 1690s a duel between consenting adults of approximately equal ability was unlikely to attract the attentions of the magistrates, but anyone duelling still risked a charge of attempted murder. That was why the Stafford duel was fought on St George’s Field at dawn.

The fight was short and fatal. Stafford received a rapier thrust through the chest just minutes into the fight. He could not believe it, staring in bewilderment at the spreading blood stain on his shirt before he dropped to the ground. He was dead in seconds.

It is this fatal duel that is replayed time and again in spectral form on St George’s Field as the cold light of dawn creeps up over the city. What makes this haunting so peculiar is that only Stafford is seen, the other participants in the duel have not returned. So the ghost of the nobleman is seen apparently dancing around thrusting his sword at some invisible opponent, parrying non existent thrusts and finally receiving his death wound from a weapon that none can see but himself. As in the real duel the phantom Stafford stares for a moment at the wound, then collapses. And then the ghost vanishes.

This is an extract from Haunted York by Rupert Matthews

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Hampshire Regiment at the Battle of Blenheim

Meredith’s Regiment (later 37th North Hampshire Regiment) was in the Netherlands in early 1704, forming part of Ferguson’s Brigade in an army led by the Duke of Marlborough. News arrived that a large French-Bavarian army was advancing on Vienna, the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, so Marlborough set off on an epic march of 250 miles from Bedburg to the Danube at Donauworth in order to get between the French and Vienna. Having linked up with the Imperial commander, Prince Eugene of Savoy, Marlborough advanced to attack the French in their entrenched positions around Blenheim (now Blindheim).

French Marshal Tallard positioned his infantry in three fortified villages: Blenheim on his right and on the north bank of the Danube, Oberglau on the left and Lutzingen on the far left. Covering the gaps between the villages were artillery and cavalry, with infantry in reserve. The boggy Nebel stream ran along his entire front. He took command of the right himself and gave the left to Marshal Marsin with the Elector of Bavaria. He had about 56,000 men in all.

Marlborough planned to assault the three villages to tie down the French and Bavarian infantry, then smash through the French centre between Blenheim and Oberglau. The plan called for precise timing and close co-operation between Marlborough on the left with his army of 40,000 British and German allies, and the 12,000 strong Imperial army of Prince Eugene on the left. Meredith’s Regiment was positioned with Ferguson’s Brigade as a reserve on the British left wing. It was to support the assault on the village of Blenheim by the five regiments of Row’s Brigade.

The battle began with desultory artillery and infantry skirmishing around Blenheim and along the Nebel while Prince Eugene moved his troops over difficult ground to get to his start lines. At 12.30 all was ready. The infantry moved up to attack the three villages. On the left, Row’s Brigade reached the barricades, but after a fierce fire fight were driven back. Row himself had been killed, so his deputy rallied the men out of range of the French muskets. Ferguson’s Brigade now advanced with cavalry support, pausing only while a French cavalry charge was beaten back, then charging into Blenheim. Ferguson’s lead troops got over the barricade and were engaged in street fighting when the commander of the garrison Clerambault called in the French infantry reserve to support him.

This was the moment that Marlborough had been hoping for. He ordered Ferguson to pull his men out of the village, then to surround it and pour heavy and continuous musket fire into the village. Meredith’s Regiment was among those that pulled out, then formed up in line to fire again and again.
Behind this dense cloud of musket smoke, Marlborough moved his main force of cavalry and German infantry over the Nebel. He then launched a massed assault on the French centre — now held by cavalry and artillery without infantry support. First into action was the German cavalry which crossed the Nebel and advanced up the slope toward the French guns. The French heavy cavalry charged down the slope, tumbling Marlborough’s horse before them. Meanwhile, Lord Orkney had been crossing the Nebel with Hamilton’s Brigade of British infantry in line, four pieces of artillery and fresh cavalry on the flanks. The French charge broke against the new force and fell back up the hill. Orkney advances, supported by the mass of the German infantry and cavalry.

In the centre, the Allies now had 80 squadrons of cavalry and 23 battalions of infantry marching to attack just 60 squadrons of French cavalry, most of which had already been in action that day. The French fought well, but they could not hold back the tide. At about 4pm the French turned and fled. Marshal Tallard was taken prisoner while the Bavarians on the French left pulled out in good order and marched home.

The French infantry in Blenheim village were rapidly surrounded. As dusk came on Meredith’s Regiment was fixing bayonets ready to assault the village once again, when Clerambault came forward under a flag of truce. No less than 24 regiments of infantry and 4 regiments of dragoons surrendered, some 11,000 men. In all the French-Bavarian army had lost 40,000 men killed, wounded or captured and had ceased to exist as a fighting force. Marlborough and Eugene had lost about 12,000 men. Vienna was saved. The Battle Honour of Blenheim was one of those confirmed many years later.

This is an extract from The Battle Honours of the Royal Hampshire Regiment by Rupert Matthews, published by Bretwalda Books

Friday, 12 November 2010

Who was the Real King Arthur?

The History Man travelled to Shilton in Oxfordshire to talk to the Shilton Historical Society on the subject of "Who was the Real King Arthur".

The talk began with the legend as we have it, then ranged back to the dimly known Dark Ages that followed the fall of Roman Britain. The talk embraced characters such as Vortigern, Ambrosius, Hengist, Horsa, Aelle, Cerdic, Gildas, Merlin, Gawain, Kai and - of course - Arthur himself. The true historical background to Arthur's time was explained, after which the History Man put forward his own views and theories regarding this most enigmatic of British heroes.

To book Rupert to speak at your event contact him via HIS WEBSITE.

War comes to Bindon, Devon, in 612

The Dark Ages did not get their name for nothing. After the Romans left the skills of writing and reading were restricted to a very few people, and most of the books that did remain were subsequently lost, destroyed or simply fell to pieces. Not until the coming of literate Christians from Rome in the 590s does some semblance of recorded history return to Britain. During those lost years much happened: Roman Britain collapsed, King Arthur ruled, the English invaded and countless battles and campaigns were fought.

One of the very first military campaigns to be recorded as writing spread across Britain with Christianity was the Battle of Bindon Hill, fought in 612. In truth the records of the event were not written down until some years later – perhaps as may as fifty or more – so the details are lacking, but the general outline of what happened has been preserved and it is possible to put together a good idea of the battle.

In 612 Britain was a very different place from how it appears today. The English then occupied only part of what is now England. In the north they were restricted east of the Pennines, while in the south they had crossed neither the Severn nor the Axe. Nor were they united: Kent, Sussex, Wessex, East Anglia, Mercia and Northumbria were all independent kingdoms. The Welsh were no less disunited with at least 7 kingdoms in what is now Wales, plus Rheged in Cumbria and Strathclyde in southern Scotland. The counties now known as Cornwall and Devon, plus parts of Somerset, then formed the Kingdom of Dumnonia.

It was the Welsh kingdom of Dumnonia and the English kingdom of Wessex that clashed at Bindon Hill.

At this date Wessex stretched from the Axe to Portsmouth and north to the Thames. It was one of the larger English kingdoms, though was rather smaller than Mercia or distant Northumbria. It was ruled by a king named Cynegils, who was probably half Welsh himself and may have been descended from the Celtic aristocracy of Hampshire as much as from English invaders.

This Cynegils was a pagan king of an English kingdom that relied almost exclusively on agriculture for its wealth. The complex trade routes of Roman Britain had vanished. There seems to have been only local trade in agricultural products such as flour or cheese. The ruler gained his wealth by taxing the farmers of his kingdom. For Cynegils and others like him, the only way to get richer was to be king of more land. It was this land hunger that drove the wars of the period.

Cynegils father, King Ceolwulf, had occupied what is now Dorset in around the 590s. Whether this expansion of Wessex was by conquest, diplomacy or dynastic marriage we do not know, but it did bring Wessex on to the borders of Dumnonia.

This prosperous Welsh kingdom had emerged around the year 450 when the tribal aristocracy of the Dumnoni declared themselves independent of the authorities of post-Roman Britain. The records of Dumnonia have been lost, but later legend makes them among the most loyal supporters of King Arthur in his attempts to unite the post-Roman Britons against the invading English. They are also known to have acquired, apparently  by marriage, a ruler from the royal dynasty of the Cornovii, a tribe in east-central Wales. In 612 Dumnonia covered all of Cornwall and Devon, and eastern Somerset at least as far north as Glastonbury.

We do not know the name of the King of Dumnonia in 612, but he was clearly in communication with the King of Gwent in south Wales. The rulers of Dumnonia and Gwent had both been eyeing the expanding might of Wessex with concern. When Ceolwulf died in 611 they decided that the time had come to strike. The new king, Cynegils, was young and inexperienced. His nobles may not have fully trusted the abilities of their new king. Wessex was vulnerable.

It seems that the King of Dumnonia believed that the people of Dorset, being mostly Celtic, were unhappy with rule by the English of Wessex. Perhaps the Dumnonians believed that they could raise a popular rebellion. They certainly launched the campaign by gathering a mighty army at Exeter, then marched east towards Dorchester. Meanwhile, the King of Gwent had mustered his own army and was marching southeast past Gloucester toward Bath.

Cynegils decided to meet the Dumnonian threat first, perhaps that army was marching first. His scouts told him the route being taken by the invading Welsh, and he decided to meet them at Bindon Hill.

This is an extract from Battlefield Walks in Devon by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Video about RAF Bomber Command at War

Watch the video HERE

Global Warming talk in Beaconsfield

Today Rupert Matthews, the History Man, travelled to Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire to give a talk to the local Probus Group. The talk gave an historical persepective on the current issues surrounding climate change and global warming. The packed meeting filled the Royal British Legion Hall and the talk was followed by a a long question and answer session that ranged widely over the Climategate email scandal, problems with Chinese metadata and the acitvities of the Royal Society.

To book Rupert for your event contact him via HIS WEBSITE

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Arthur Bomber Harris takes against barmy inventors

Back in 1916 “Bomber” Harris had been a young major leading a fighter squadron in the tough and dangerous business of protecting England against the Zeppelin airships. He was one day sent a device produced by an inventor who declared it to be a foolproof method of destroying Zepplins. The device consisted of an explosive charge on the end of a wire which was dangled down beneath the fighter. The fighter then flew over the Zeppelin so that the charge hit the airship, exploding on impact and setting fire to the aerial monster.

Harris tried it out on a routine flight and found it a positive menace. The wire and charge seriously hampered the fighter and almost caused him to crash. Next day the inventor came down to the airfield to see how his invention was doing. Harris explained the problems to the man, who at first refused to accept that his brainchild was useless.

“Well,” said Harris, “why not forget the dangling wire and just drop the charge on to the Zeppelin?”

The inventor brightened up. “Yes, that might work,” he said.

“But the charge will need to be streamlined so that it will fall accurately,” suggested Harris.

“Absolutely,” agreed the inventor.

“And you will need some way to release it from the aircraft.”

The inventor beamed. “You’re right,” he said. “I’ll get back to work and see what I can come up with.”

“Just a moment,” snarled Harris. He pointed to his aircraft. “What the Hell do you think those things are?”

The things to which Harris pointed were light incendiary bombs designed for dropping on Zepplins. From that moment on Harris was proverbially hostile to what he called “inventor chaps” armed with “half-baked plans”.

This is an extract from Bomber Command at War by Rupert Matthews

Monday, 8 November 2010

The Origin of the Gladiators

The Games were vicious, violent and frequently vindictive. Hundreds of thousands of men and women died in the arena for the amusement of the mob and the ambitions of politicians.

Some of the victims who died on the sands of the amphitheatres were murderers and brigands, sentenced to death for their crimes. Others were prisoners of war or rebellious subjects of Rome sent to their deaths to provide an example to others who might be tempted to defy the might of Rome. But many of the dead were gladiators, men or women set to fight each other for the entertainment of the crowd. Thousands of these gladiators died each year, the death toll rising as each new politician or emperor tried to outdo the one before in the magnificence of the games in the arena.

The idea of setting men to fight and kill each other for the entertainment of the crowd is so brutal and bizarre that it is difficult to imagine how the bloody gladiatorial games began. In fact, the Romans had a very different attitude to these events than is often thought. The gory events of the arena were certainly entertainments, and were much appreciated for that, but in essence they were religious events which dated back to a time so ancient that the Romans themselves had largely forgotten their origins.

The gladiatorial fights were known to the Romans as munus, or munera in the plural, meaning an ‘obligation’ and in particular an obligation to the dead. They formed part of the funeral celebrations with which the living celebrated the life of a member of their family. The idea of gladiatorial contests as part of the munus owed to a deceased relative did not originate in Rome, though it was the Romans who developed the combats to the highest degree.

This is an extract from The Age of the Gladiators by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The Tasks of a Pharaoh

Into Battle
One of the main tasks of the pharaoh was to lead the army during times of war. During the time of the New Kingdom the most important part of the army were the chariot units. These light vehicles galloped around  the battlefield while archers shot arrows at the enemy. Pharaohs rode into battle on chariots.

Army Organisation
The Egyptian army was divided into units named after gods. Most men in each division were infantry armed with shields and either spears or swords. Most Egyptian shields had a rounded top and a flat bottom. The infantry formed up in solid masses when going into battle.

The Sea Peoples
In around 1220bc Egypt was attacked by warriors from the north who arrived in ships. The Egyptians called these invades the Sea People. The Sea Peoples were finally defeated by Raises III in 1163bc. The warships of Raises III were designed to carry soldiers to attack the ships of the enemy.

The Sed Festival
Each pharaoh had to prove that he was fit and active enough to continue to rule by performing the Sed festival every 12 years. During the festival the pharaoh had to run a course around stone pillars set up in the desert within a set period of time. If the pharaoh finished within the set time he was thought to have proved that he was fit to rule. There then followed rituals at the temple.

The Window of Appearing
Every day the pharaoh had to show himself to the people by looking out of a window in whichever building he was staying in. Palaces had specially decorated windows for this purpose that were  called Windows of Appearing. This allowed people to see that the pharaoh was alive and fit enough to rule.

Dispute Settlement
It was a prime duty of the pharaoh to ensure peace and harmony. If any dispute between Egyptians could not be settled by officials, the dispute would go to the pharaoh for him to judge. The pharaoh would listen to both sides of the dispute, then announce his decision.

Quiz Question
How often was the Sed festival organised?

Games of Ancient EgyptRun the Sed
You will need:
Markers, such as sticks or pieces of cloth
A watch
Pencil and paper
A garden or park
Two or more players

First mark out the Sed course by putting the markers around your garden or in a park. Be careful not to put the markers where they will cause a nuisance to anyone else.

Take it in turns to run around the Sed course. Time the runs using the watch and write down the results with the pencil and paper.

The player who completes the course in the fastest time is the Pharaoh.

This is an extract from Action Files Egypt by Rupert Matthews.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

RAF in Surrey - talk in Guildford

On 3 November Rupert the History Man went to the Guildford Institute to give an afternoon lecture on the history of the RAF in Surrey. The meeting was packed with the largest audience of the year.

You can watch a video about my book Heroes of Fighter Command in Surrey HERE

To book Rupert the History Man to speak at your event contact him VIA HIS WEBSITE

Speaking in Spalding

The second of November found Rupert the History Man in Spalding, Lincs, talking to a Ladies Luncheon Club on the subject of "How Women Led Society in the Age of Chivalry". It was a cracking event, with a lovely lunch of lamb cutlets and jam roly poly pud. And everyone seemed to enjoy the talk as well.

To book The History Man to speak at your event, contact him via his WEBSITE HERE.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Video about Teashop and Pub Drives in Kent

Watch the VIDEO HERE


America Declares war on Germany 1917

When war broke out in 1914, the United States of America was not directly affected by any of the issues that divided the European powers. President Woodrow Wilson was supported by most Americans when he declared the USA would be strictly neutral.
A large proportion of the population of the USA in 1914 were immigrants from Europe, or their children. They tended to support their various mother countries in the European war.

The USA quarrelled with Britain in the autumn of 1914 when the Royal Navy began stopping US ships from steaming to Germany. President Wilson moved quickly to avert an open dispute.

It was agreed that no goods likely to be useful to the war effort would be sent from America to Germany, but that peaceful trade could continue.

In February 1915 a more serious quarrel broke out with Germany. The German navy announced that from 4 February it would sink without notice any merchant ships heading to Britain.

On 10 February Wilson told Germany that he would declare war if any US ships were sunk. When the British passenger ship, Lusitania, was sunk and many Americans killed, Wilson began moves to break diplomatic relations. Germany called off the campaign.

Public opinion in America was outraged by the German execution of Nurse Edith Cavell. Stories of German behaviour in occupied areas also upset many Americans.

On 31 January 1917 the German ambassador told President Wilson that Germany was once again beginning unrestricted warfare on merchant ships, as of the next day. Wilson again said he would declare war if any US ships were sunk.

On 1 March, attempts by the German government to persuade Mexico to attack the USA were discovered. American public opinion turned firmly against Germany.

On 20 March a German U-boat sank an unarmed American merchant ship. On 2 April the USA declared war on Germany.

This is an extract from 1000 Facts on World War I by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 28 October 2010

“Father Christmas Comes to Hungerford”

The grand old man of Christmas came to Hungerford a bit early this year as author Rupert Matthews gave a talk on the history of the real Father Christmas to a packed meeting of the Hungerford Probus.

Rupert said “This was a great event – made all the better by scrumptious roast beef and the apple pudding dessert. I outlined the development of our favourite Christmas character from his origins as the fearsome pagan English god of winter Geol (as in Yule),  through his medieval guise as a stern imposer of winter tasks and jolly glutton of Christmas feasting to his meeting with St Nicholas, from whom he borrowed the habit of giving presents to children. I wound up by bringing Father Christmas fully up to date, explaining where the reindeer came from, why Father Christmas drives a flying sleigh and how he is viewed in China, Japan and other non-Western societies.”

To book Rupert Matthews to speak at your event, contact him via HIS WEBSITE

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The End of the Roman Republic

The concept of imperium (see page 114) that underlay the republican system of government relied on two main conditions. First the voting citizens were free to vote for the person they thought was the best candidate. Second the elected officials kept within the law when doing their jobs.

The republic came to an end because both these conditions were broken.

The Roman system of government had been established when Rome was a relatively small city state, one of many in Italy. By 100bc, Rome was the ruler of a rich and powerful empire.

Many of the citizens who had votes were very poor. They would sell their votes for cash, voting for whichever candidate paid them the most. Others would vote for the head of their gentes (see page 56), or his preferred candidate.

Other voters were soldiers, who would usually vote for whoever their general told them to support.

Elected officials were given great opportunities to enrich themselves and their friends by the vast treasures and resources of the empire. Bribery and corruption spread as a few men became astonishingly rich.

The permanent army established by Gaius Marius (see page 84) was by 50bc more loyal to its commanders than to Rome. Generals used their troops to enforce their will.

Street violence became more common as the officials who were supposed to keep order actually hired gangs of toughs to beat up their political opponents.

In 49bc all these factors combined in the persons of Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompey (see page 26) – both successful army commanders and elected officials with enough money to bribe their way to victory in elections.

The civil wars and chaos that followed Caesar’s appointment as dictator convinced most Romans that the old system was no longer working. At the same time, they valued their freedoms and did not want to be ruled by a dictator or king.

This is an extract from 1000 Fact - Ancient Rome by Rupert Matthews

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Religious Cults in Ancient Greece

196     The Cults

In addition to the official Olympian Gods (see page 182) and the ceremonies carried out in public at temples, the Greeks also had a number of cults.

A cult was the worship of one particular god within the context of a club or society, the membership of which was often kept secret. Most cults had secret rituals and beliefs.

The wine god Dionysius was the focus for a very popular cult. Dionysius was officially worshipped at the Dionysian festival in the spring, but his cult continued all year round.

Women took part in the cultic ceremony of Dionysius. They would leave their homes to gather in a nearby wood. There they drank large quantities of wine and took part in wild dances, after which they ate a meal of raw meat.

The women's cultic ceremony of Dionysius was based on a legend of semi-divine women, called Maenads who were said to follow the god in a wild dance, and tore to pieces anyone who did not fall down and worship the god.

Men who took part in the Dionysius cult attended ceremonies held in private houses. These usually involved drinking huge quantities of wine.

During the Hellenistic Period (see page 38) the Persian god Mithras became the focus for a new cult. Mithras was a sun god who helped crops to grow and was linked to fertility.

The cult ceremonies of Mithras took place in caves or underground rooms in which was placed a statue of Mithras killing a bull. Rituals included sacred meals of roasted meat.

The Egyptian goddess Isis was the centre for a cult that seems to have catered mostly for women and for travellers, though the details are obscure.

In 331bc Alexander the Great visited the Egyptian temple of Ammon. The priests declared that he was a god. Some cities set up a cult of Alexander, and other Hellenistic kings later claimed that they were gods as well.

This is an extract from 1000 Fact on Ancient Greece by Rupert Matthews

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Henry VIII and his six wives

The family troubles of Henry VIII were to have a profound effect on England, in both religious and political affairs. Yet they had such profound effects only because England was changing and some have argued that Henry merely hastened changes that were inevitable.

Henry married his first wife, Catherine of Aragon in 1509, the year he became king. It was a political marriage as an alliance with Spain against France was thought essential. Catherine had previously been married to Henry’s elder brother, Arthur, and special permission from the Pope had been necessary for the wedding to go ahead.

For many years the policy of friendship with Spain paid handsome dividends. Henry strutted the diplomatic stage as a powerful monarch whose friendship was to be greatly prized. In 1521 he reached his finest hour when he mediated between the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor. The display of wealth and opulence Henry put on for the occasion caused the event to be dubbed the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

But in 1529 the European monarchs settled their differences and England became an irrelevance. Henry was not happy and he was further angered by the failure of his queen to produce a male heir, the only surviving child, young Princess Mary, being of no account in Henry’s eyes. Through his chief minister, Cardinal Wolsey, Henry demanded that the pope granted a divorce. The Pope was friendly with Catherine’s relative the Emperor of Austria and refused. Henry’s determination on a divorce grew greater when he fell in love with Anne Boleyn, a young noblewoman.

In 1530 Wolsey was dismissed and replaced with Thomas Cromwell who promptly supported the king in his desire for his marriage to be annulled. Henry disavowed the Pope, made himself supreme head of the Church in England and promptly gave himself a divorce. In 1533 he married Anne Boleyn. The new queen quickly fell pregnant, but the child was a girl, Elizabeth. After at least one miscarriage, Henry decided to get rid of Anne. He charged her with treason on dubious grounds of adultery and had her executed in May 1536.

The break with Rome caused by the marriage to Anne Boleyn, however, was to last much longer and have profound effects. In 1536 Henry disbanded the monasteries and took their vast wealth for himself. The huge lands owned by the monasteries were sold off to the increasingly wealthy merchants who were making small fortunes under the benevolent economic measures of the Tudors. Many of the merchants were Protestants, religious objectors to the abuses and corruption of the Pope and his court. Although Henry himself was  a devout Catholic, and only split with Rome to get a divorce, his move encouraged his subjects to become Protestants. By the time of Henry’s death England would be well on its way to being a Protestant nation and twenty years later it would be firmly so. The break with Rome became permanent and continues to this day.

Meanwhile, however, Henry had married Jane Seymour, sister of the Duke of Somerset. The new Queen gave birth to a son, Edward, within a year of the marriage, but then died from an infection caught in childbirth.

Henry was by now 47 years old and had a son and heir. He decided it was time for a political marriage and ordered his minister, Cromwell, to find a suitable young bride among the rulers with whom Henry needed an alliance. Thomas Cromwell suggested that Anne of Cleves would be a suitable bride as she was the daughter of the powerful Protestant ruler, John Duke of Cleves, and moreover came with a substantial dowry.

Henry agreed to marry the German princess, but regretted the decision within days of the wedding. Anne turned out to be a remarkably plain lady and failed dismally to match the king in witty conversation. Henry demanded and, as Head of the Church, received an annulment just six months after the wedding. Cromwell was executed in 1540, partly due to what Henry saw as the monstrous mistake of recommending Anne of Cleves.

Next to marry the king was Catherine Howard, a startling beautiful girl who was niece to the powerful Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. Henry was clearly infatuated with his new wife, marrying her only days after the annulment of his previous marriage. It therefore came as a great shock to discover that the new queen was secretly seeing a young man she had known and been close to before the marriage. Leaping to the conclusion, which may have been true, that Catherine was committing adultery, Henry ordered her execution. The marriage had lasted just two years.

The final queen of Henry VIII was Catherine Parr, a highly educated widow from the lesser nobility. The marriage took place in 1543 and seems to have brought stability and some happiness to Henry in his final years. Catherine was an expert on religious matters, though she did not always agree with Henry, and kept herself informed about various foreign affairs. Her main contribution to history was to persuade Henry to declare his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, to be legitimate. This meant glossing over the various dramas of Henry’s previous marriages and was a considerable achievement. It left the way open for the two girls to succeed to the throne after their younger brother died an early death.

This is an extract from 200 Things You Need to Know About the British by Rupert Matthews