1346: Nine years into the Hundred Years War, British Longbowmen create a decisive victory for King Edward III and a shattering defeat for French King Philip VI at the Battle of Cresy, just south of Calais, in northern France. The battle confirmed the validity of massed longbow attacks against armored knights and is widely viewed as the beginning of the end of the period of classical chivalry since the 1500(+) French knights who fell were killed not in honorable hand-to-hand combat, but by randomly fired arrows puncturing their armor. After the battle, the British also dispatched, rather than captured and treated, wounded French knights, another violation of the knightly virtues. In modern terms of the battle, it was organization, tactics, and equipment that carried the day. Casualties (these are consensus numbers): British- 2 knights and approximately 300 soldiers killed. French- 11 noblemen (including King John of Bohemia), 1542 knights and 2300 Genoese crossbowmen killed, in addition to “several thousands” of infantry killed.
1498: Michelangelo receives a papal commission to carve the Pieta. The magnificent sculpture sits in the first gallery on the right on entering St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
1577: Death of the Italian Renaissance painter Titian.
1609: Italian mathematician, astronomer, physicist, and inventor Galileo Galilei presents his first telescope to the Doge of Venice. It was a 3x magnification model, with hand-ground lenses carefully placed in a stable brass tube to give an upright (i.e. not inverted) image to the viewer’s eye. The instruments became very popular for surveying and navigation, providing a steady stream of income that supported Galileo’s other studies. He, himself, used a 30x instrument to make his discovery of four of the moons of Jupiter. His continuing observations and predictions of their movements proved a core theory of orbital mechanics, and thus the validity of Copernican heliocentricity.
1768: Captain James Cook, in HMS Endeavour, departs Plymouth on his first voyage of discovery. The ostensible reason for the voyage is to observe for the Royal Society the Transit of Venus across the face of the sun. In Cook’s case, this will be from Tahiti, which is one of the dozens of pre-planned locations around the globe to observe and record the event, with the eventual goal of using the data to determine the exact distance between the sun and the earth. Once the observation was completed the following April, Cook opened his sealed Admiralty orders, which directed him to map the unknown regions of the South Pacific, in particular, to search for and claim for Great Britain the fabled Terra Australius, which had long been mapped but never seen.
1776: General George Washington and the Continental Army suffered a strategic defeat at Brooklyn Heights when the British army under General William Howe outflanks his defenses and almost completely encircles the American forces as they retreat to prepared position on the heights. By late afternoon Washington recognizes they cannot hold the ground at Brooklyn and orders a retreat across the East River to Manhattan Island. While Howe is carefully digging in for a siege of the American redoubts, Washington evacuates the American army without further loss of life. Between the excellence of the Howe’s forces and the strength of the British fleet that controls New York harbor, Washington eventually realizes he will have to completely evacuate New York. On the positive side, the successful evacuation from Brooklyn ensures that the entire Continental Army remains a viable force-in-being that the British will not be able to ignore as the war deepens.
1789: The French National Assembly, in an intentionally symbolic moment, approves and orders published The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It is designed around the principle of Natural Law, similar in concept to the preamble of our own Declaration of Independence, but focuses more on popular sovereignty as the antidote to the divine right of kings, and on individual rights and democracy. Although noble in intent, it nonetheless became associated with mob rule and many of the anarchistic and subversive movements of the 19th century.
1799: In a little-known episode from the continuing wars of the various anti-France coalitions (in this case, the Second Coalition), a British fleet under the command of Vice-Admiral Andrew Mitchell captures an entire Batavian Dutch fleet of twelve ships under the command of Rear Admiral Samuel Story without firing a shot. The victory hinged on an outstanding intelligence estimate, the Brits’ timely and correct application of diplomacy, a credible threat of devastating force, and a civil-military “strategic communications” plan that played directly into the nationalistic sentiments of Dutch sailors who served under the French-ruled Batavian Republic. The action took place near present-day Den Helder at the mouth of the Zuider Zee: a British army had made a landing three days earlier on the North Sea side of the peninsula. The fleet then made its way into the Helder roadstead, flying the flag of the Hereditary Stadtholder, the Prince of Orange. The knowledge of the British landing, combined with the sight of the British fleet and the knowledge that their actual sovereign was within range, triggered a spontaneous mutiny of the Dutch sailors and most of their officers against the hated French. Admiral Story, recognizing that resistance would be fruitless, offered to surrender his fleet to the Stadtholder and himself and his men to the British as Prisoners of War. Admiral Mitchell made a point of delaying the decision but then took it before the French had an opportunity to re-establish their control of the fleet. British prize crews sailed the best of the ships back to England, where they were inducted into the Royal Navy. This event became known as the Vlieter Incident. It was a singular success from an otherwise disastrous 1799 Anglo-Russian Campaign, which began to unravel almost immediately after today’s startling victory.
1859: First commercial extraction of oil, from a well near Titusville, Pennsylvania. “Pennsylvania grade crude” and “Pennzoil” are a couple of legacies of this event, as is Standard Oil & J.D. Rockefeller, among others.
1883: The Indonesian volcanic island of Krakatoa self-destructs in a paroxysm of explosions that caused the landmass to completely disappear beneath the waves of the Sunda Strait. The final explosion was heard distinctly in Perth, Australia (1,930 miles away) and on Rodrigues Island off the coast of Africa, over 3,000 miles across the Indian Ocean. The force of the detonation is nominally estimated at 200 Megatons, equivalent to about 13,000 “Little Boy” atomic bombs (Hiroshima). The explosion ejected into the atmosphere approximately 5 cubic MILES of pumice, rock, and ash, creating beautiful sunsets around the world for several years. Since 1927 the volcano has been building a new island, named Anak Krakatau (Child of Krakatoa), which is growing about 5 meters a year.
1896: The shortest war in history is fought between Great Britain and Zanzibar, a result of a dispute over the accession of the new Sultan of Zanzibar. With an ultimatum expiring to no effect at 0900, a British task force opened fire on the palace, setting it afire and destroying Zanzibar’s only artillery pieces, in addition to sinking a royal yacht. When the palace flag is finally hit and knocked down at 0940, the Brits cease-fire and complex diplomatic dance between Germany, Zanzibar and Great Britain ensues, with the British choice for sultan eventually taking the throne. Total time in combat: 40 minutes.
1899: Birth of British author Cecil Louis Troughton Smith, better known by his pen name, C.S. Forester (d.1966), from whose fertile mind came the eleven books detailing the life and times of Captain Horatio Hornblower, among other swashbuckling heroes, and the delightful anti-hero of Charlie Allnut of The African Queen (1935). He is also the author of The General (1936), a cold-eyed satire of a generic WWI British general, portraying for the first time the stereotype of a military leader as a hidebound and unimaginative dolt, insulated by the perks and prerogatives of his position. If you think about the standard Hollywood image of a general, you are thinking about The General, with the exception that Forrester’s story remained reasonably sympathetic and tender toward him as a human being (it takes place as he’s pacing around in the Old Soldiers Home).
1910: Birth of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (d.1997), the Albanian nun better known as Mother Teresa, who founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India in 1950. Her selfless work with the poor and destitute earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. She died in September 1997, and was beatified by Pope John Paul II as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.
1911: Birth of North Vietnamese general Vo Nguyn Giap (d.2013), victor over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, who also completed the final roll-up of the South Vietnamese army in 1975 after the United States declined to honor its commitments to the Vietnamese government.
1914: Only four weeks into the Great War, the Imperial German 8th Army of 166,000 under the command of Field Marshalls Paul von Hindenburg and Eric Ludendorf, decisively smashes the Russian 1st and 2nd Armies in the Battle of Tannenburg. The three-day fight in East Prussia saw Hindenburg take full advantage of the German railroad network to quickly move his forces to a position where Ludendorf could engage them as a singular unit against both Russian groups. Their adaptability and ability to concentrate against the Russian flanks allowed them to completely dominate the battlefield, killing or wounding 78,000 and capturing 92,000 of the 416,000 total Russian force. Rather than report the loss to the Tsar, the Russian commander committed suicide. Over the next three years, Russia was never able to recoup from the loss, and eventually sued for a separate peace.
1928: The Kellog-Briand Pact is signed by the United States and 14 other nations. The treaty, negotiated outside the jurisdiction of the League of Nations, essentially outlaws war as a legitimate diplomatic tool, except for self-defense. It is no stretch to say the treaty (which is actually still in force) is honored only in the breach, but it was the basis for the “crimes against the peace” that underlay the post-WWII Nuremberg Trials.
1939: Opening night for The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland.
1944: After four years of German occupation, and two and a half months after the landings in Normandy, Allied armies liberate Paris. The local German commander, in an uncharacteristically humane decision, did not burn the city to the ground during his evacuation.
1945: Death of Baptist missionary and OSS agent John Birch (b.1918), at the hands of communist Chinese forces. He is considered the first casualty of the Cold War, and 14 years after his death a rabid anti-communist organization adopted his name as their own.
1948: The House Un-American Activities Committee holds its first televised Congressional hearing, the dramatic confrontation between former Communist Whittaker Chambers** and not-former Communist Alger Hiss.