Tanks! A little off topic… but good history is good history!

Let’s slide up the time line to World War II for just a bit… a blogger’s indulgence, if you may allow:

But hey… he spends much of the presentation discussing the finer points of the Sherman tank, named after General William “Uncle Billy” Sherman.  So I claim a Civil War connection on that basis.

This is a lengthy video (just over 45 minutes).  But worth the listen.  Nicholas Moran turns what would normally be a bland discussion of olive drab minutia into an entertaining presentation.

I’ll admit to envy of Moran’s job.  He works for Wargaming.net and gets paid to go around doing research in promotion of the company’s products… which include the World of Tanks game.  I usually keep aloof from wargame discussions, for several reasons.  But I do find many of the analysis models used with wargaming (speaking to the hobby in general, not just the company with their fancy video games) to be most useful tools for the historian’s trade.

At any rate, Moran asks us to call into question “common knowledge” about historical events.  He’s not saying something is wrong.  He’s asking us to challenge what is often accepted as fact.  That common knowledge, he contends, should be supported by sources.

Furthermore, we should put those sources in context.  Fast forward to the 14 minute mark and you see Moran mention Belton Cooper’s Death Traps.  A fine read.  Cooper’s memoirs are on many professional reading lists, for good reason.  But, when used as source material, a memoir must be placed into context.  In this particular case, the writer of the memoir was not an authoritative source for a specific piece of “common knowledge.”  Again, this is not to say Cooper is all wrong or should be discounted in whole.  It is to say we must weigh each component equally with other sources.

For those of us who study the Civil War, doesn’t that sound familiar?  It should!

How about this – Sherman, the general, didn’t go about spontaneously burning everything across Georgia and the Carolinas.  The real story is more complex.  And we know of that complexity from thorough examination of the source materials.

Likewise, Sherman, the tank, was not more prone to catching fire than any other armored fighting vehicle of its time.  The real story is, also, more complex. And we know of that complexity… you guessed it… from examining the source materials.

Good history is the product of proper analysis of source materials, to include understanding context.  The time period in focus does not change the rules about sources.

June 6, 1944 and now: Putting decisions under fire under fire

D-Day is to World War II what Gettysburg is to the Civil War… at least from the American perspective.  I could argue, with much justification, that Guadalcanal and the Bulge should occupy that place… but, with good reasons, the mountain of books focused all or in part on June 6, 1944 outweighs the other subjects.  Yes, movies catering to the general audience hit theaters to show us Gettysburg and D-Day.  But scenes from Vicksburg and “Starvation Island” are rare.

With that focus, we see the smallest details… minute to minute, minutest details… analyzed to a degree not allocated with other subjects.  We have experts who can walk us through every regiment’s experience at Gettysburg, at the step by step level.  Likewise for D-Day, though at the battalion level allowing for tactical shifts.  With that detailed focus, we see so may decisions analyzed and assessed.  Decisions that often proved pivotal within a larger pivotal historical event.  Decisions in focus… and under “fire” or review by historians… much more so than for other times in history.

If I recall an incident from my own experience here… one morning while chatting with a company first sergeant (senior NCO on the base in particular), he lamented the morning report was past due, again.  I remarked, half in jest, “you know, Top, some day a historian will find your morning report most valuable.”  The old sergeant responded, “I doubt it.  Most times historians are more interested in the things that don’t get into the reports.”  And as an example he referenced a “oh-five-hundred” decision by the Captain to dispatch men to a “hot spot.”  Point well made.

We, the historians, have the task of explaining what happened.  But we have the luxury of detachment from the happening.  We, and the consumers of history, live through the written word to gain appreciation for those times.  And with respect to places like D-Day and Gettysburg, the appreciation requires us to look at details of decisions made.

Thinking, as the day calls for, to D-Day, I look towards the actions of two generals on the beach – Brigadier-General Norman Cota and Brigadier-General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.

Consider Cota’s situation on Omaha Beach.  Leading the 29th Infantry Division (the “Blue and Gray” division, alluding to Civil War heraldry among the division’s regiments), Cota was with the second wave ashore but one hour after the first landings.  The situation was a shambles.  Pinned down under direct and indirect fire, the division simply could not attain more than a finger-hold on the beach.  It was “bloody Omaha.” Within that grim situation, Cota made a decision.  And as with any major decision within a battle which has been depicted on the silver screen, we have the moment dramatized in the film “The Longest Day”:


At one part, Robert Mitchum, playing Cota, rallies his men:

I don’t have to tell you the story. You all know it. Only two kinds of people are gonna stay on this beach: those that are already dead and those that are gonna die. Now get off your butts. You guys are the Fighting 29th.

As with any good Hollywood adaptation, the facts are conflated to make a good script.  The quote by Mitchum was actually the rally of Colonel George A. Taylor, 16th US Infantry.  Likewise,  Cota’s line, “Gentlemen, we are being killed on the beaches. Let us go inland and be killed.” was given to Eddy Albert, playing Cota’s aide, in the movie.  Such is the work of screen-writers wrangling with the facts to make an entertaining story less accurate….

My point is not that Hollywood provides misleading history, but to use that movie scene as a prop to illustrate a decision made.  Cota had options. None of which were really palatable.  Still, he selected a course of action – that of trying another assault up from the beach.  Historians can, and have, analyzed that decision, after the fact, in detail.  And Cota’s decision was vindicated.

To the west of Cota and Bloody Omaha, Roosevelt’s landing on Utah Beach met with much less resistance.  Roosevelt was the assistant division commander of the 4th Infantry Division.  And, famously, he was the only general officer landing in the first wave of the assault.  Again, another episode dramatized in “The Longest Day”:



While not facing a murderous fire, Roosevelt, played by Henry Fonda, likewise faced a critical decision.  Although meeting scant resistance, the 4th Division was in the wrong place.  They secured one causeway off the beach, but they were supposed to have two… and those a mile down the beach. Such threw all plans into disarray.  Roosevelt’s decision?  Move inland, to heck with the plan.  In the movie, we hear, “The reinforcements will have to follow us wherever we are. We’re starting the war from right here. Head inland. We’re going inland.”  Not far off Roosevelt’s actual words… or so the historians say.  And again, historians have been able to analyze and review Roosevelt’s decision in light of information at his disposal at that time, as well as information Roosevelt would never know, and have determined the decision was correct… and what’s more was decisive to the outcome of the battle.

Consider, in the cases of decisions made by Cota and Roosevelt on June 6, 1944, historians have the luxury of spending years, if not decades, to ponder.  The information gathered to explain those decisions might fill a book all by itself.  Thousands of words have, over the years, related the story of those decisions.  Yet, in it all, we have to remember those decisions were made under fire in an instant.  The “participant” of history often has but a moment to act.  Historians have forever afterward to discuss.

Still, we must keep the nature of the moment in mind.  Cota and Roosevelt among others on June 6, 1944… just like Buford, Chamberlain, Cushing, and others at Gettysburg some eighty years before … made quick decisions under fire.  As we review these episodes, we should not forget how little time the participant has to make those decisions.

These decisions under fire are often made within the space between half-seconds on the clock.

“I do not claim omniscience” – The historian’s proper persective

This last weekend was the anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea.  The seventy-fourth anniversary, to be exact.  Just one short of the dodranscentennial observance… or semisesquicentennial, if you prefer.

The passing of the day prompted me to pick up Samuel Elliot Morison’s volume covering that portion of World War II.  If you are not familiar with his work, Morison wrote the fifteen-volume History of United States Naval Operations of World War II shortly after the close of that war. These were published from 1947 through 1962.  There is an interesting back story as to how the history came about. The short version is that Morison served as a naval staff officer during the war, allowing him access to the history “first hand” in some cases, with aim to produce a the work. The product of those years was a history still considered as defining within the subject.

What makes the work stand out, in my opinion, is exactly why I pulled Volume IV off my shelf for the anniversary, is the style of writing.  Morison’s history may be dated somewhat, but his prose is elegant.  Indeed, I could have selected one of the more recent histories produced in more recent years.  Those works that followed have largely addressed many shortcomings and flaws in the Morison’s work.  And to that point, something Morison wrote in the preface of the volume stands out for consideration:

Several books and articles covered by this volume, by able and gifted writers, have already appeared.  Most of them contain important errors, largely because the authors lacked sufficient information to tell the story correctly. In particular, they lacked information from the Japanese side; and any attempt to describe the air battles – such as Coral Sea and Midway essentially were – from one side only is fatally handicapped. Instead of taking time out to refute these errors, I have simply gone ahead and told the story as it happened, to the best of my knowledge and ability.  I do not claim omniscience. As fresh data appear, mistakes will be found and later writers will make new interpretations. It is the fate of all historians, especially those who take the risk of writing shortly after the event, to be superseded.  Far safer to write about an era long past, in which all the actors are long since dead!

Morison wrote that in 1953.  But the sentiment is one that applies well for a historian working at any time and towards any subject.

Indeed, replace the battles with respective turning points from the Civil War and, of course, Japanese with Confederate, perhaps.  Do we not see this as a “truism” to relate towards studies of the “War of the Rebellion”?  Revision is the nature of history.  And we would do well to recognize how that force need play out against the subject.  The first “revision” of history occurs when the first-person reports are written down!  To label something as lesser history because of “revisionism” is to misunderstand how the product is derived.

Proper history is based on material – sources, data, information. As that follows, a proper revision considers new, unused, or reanalyzed material.  Such revisions offer sound, logical steps through the subject.  And those are healthy evolution of the subject. At the same time, we must also keep in mind that today’s revision will be revised tomorrow!

No historian is granted the complete history to work with. What is most important is to remain true to the subject.  The historian’s work will be revised.  Such is inevitable.  But the historian’s handling of the subject will remain fixed. Thus the latter is the true legacy to consider. I think we can say something similar in regard to notable Civil War histories by notable historians.  Catton and Freeman stand on pedestals for a reason.  Any serious student of the Civil War who has not read those respective trilogies is simply missing the point of studying the Civil War to begin with!

But there are two other, perhaps more subtle, messages from that paragraph.  Morison didn’t feel the need to engage, point by point, in a refutation of earlier histories.  However, even a short read through the text will demonstrate he was willing to demonstrate corrections where needed.  Morison was not aloof from the opinions of contemporaries.  Rather he placed that discussion where it needed to be – in the notes and to the side – rather than allow it to consume the center place of the reader’s attention.  I dare say that some of our contemporary historians would do well to heed that approach.

The other subtle point made by Morison is to the production.  His is not synthesized history.  It was written whole cloth from what source material he had.  And he was not ashamed of that. We can criticize him for being a “homer”… that is being bias towards his “team” and what he’d seen those members of the United States Navy accomplish during the period of 1941-45.  Later historians have called out his slights of the British and other allies… and the U.S. Army, of course.  Still others have pointed out that he had access to some information which remained classified at the time of writing or was otherwise compartmentalized.  At most, those lead to errors of omission.  Maybe a greater part of the story might have emerged at Morison’s time.  But regardless of bias or source selection, Morison avoided more egregious errors that befell… and still befall… historians… historians with or without direct contact with the subject on which they are writing.

I think that is reflective in Morison’s greater work.  His focus was to produce, using the sources and perspective he held, a history of the events that was readable.  He wanted the story to be approachable… not obscured.  That he accomplished.



Really, really complicated history… the way history ought to be!

Does this give you pause?


A Nazi swastika with a Christian cross?  Is this the cap of Pope Benedict XVI?

This was part of a display seen during my visit to the Eisenhower Farm’s World War II weekend last summer (An excellent event, by the way… particularly if you need a breath of non-Civil War air while visiting Gettysburg).

The display belonged to a living historian portraying a German chaplain from World War II:



But I’m fascinated at times with those who dress up in German World War II uniforms and attend the “World War II days” that seem to frequent in the summer. They are not crazy neo-Nazis. And they are passionate about the study of history. In this case, the “German Chaplain” was not a “he”… but a “she” in “he” clothing.  And before readers start dismissing that situation… she was a living historian, not a real, live soldier, on that weekend.  She was there to discuss history and use the props demonstrate her depth of research and knowledge.  That’s what living historians do. Who cares what pronoun is used in the third person.  Take the dosage of history and don’t worry about who’s holding the spoon, OK?

I’m no expert on German uniforms. Barely conversant on American uniforms of the period. So I cannot speak to the authenticity of the uniform or other particulars about the props.  But after the event last summer, I researched into the subject of German chaplains. She seemed generally right about the uniform and appearance. And, as you see on her table, she had reference books and a binder of materials to show visitors… who were always inquisitive about the role she opted to portray.

The most important take away I had from the display and subsequent research was, indeed there were chaplains in the German Army during World War II.  Did I not know that before?  Well, let’s just say that I had not considered the topic and thus not appreciated the subject.  The problem is the common perspective on World War II focuses on the Nazis as villains.  And villains are to be de-humanized to some extent.  So there is a tendency to overlook that little niche within the larger, contextualized history.  Somewhat as many attempt to do with the Civil War context – either the Confederate or the Federal soldier being de-humanized in order to serve a convenient villain.

At the event, I asked her the obvious, blunt question – why this particular impression? Certainly German chaplains had to be among the obscure.  She simply said something along the lines of, “Because it was a story to tell.”

Yes, a story to be told. How could someone wear the Nazi swastika on the same hat as the Christian cross? Well, it is complex. One has to sit down and listen to the story in order to understand and appreciate.  And it is an individual-level story.  It fits within the larger context.  Adds to that larger context, I would say.  Going as far to say it actually makes the history “human” in review.  Why would a religious person serve in Hitler’s army?  To find that answer, one need get to know the subject… the human subject… as an individual.

Now let us take things a step further.  These people who lived through those times were much as you and I.  They went about their lives just as humans before and after their times.  They made decisions about things using similar logic as any other human.  From those decisions, they acted out their lives.  Those actions played into the larger script we know as history.  Individual experiences form into an aggregate that brings living color to history.  Maybe the individual has no pull on the larger course of events, but the individual lives through those events – shaped by them, or shaping them.  Perhaps among the worst things we do as historians is attempt to simplify the complexity by pushing a context to that individual experience.  Such suffocates the rich, vivid individual story.

Does the presence of a Christian cross on a cap somehow distance (if not absolve) a German chaplain from the horrors that were Nazi Germany?  No.  Far from it.  But it does say there is more to consider and think about.  It says the human experience within those historical times requires more research before fully understood.  I say we stand to learn something important from that understanding.

You see, when you bring history down to the individual level, we see more often than not the experience is not too far removed from our own.  Maybe we would not make the same decisions. I dare say, particularly as with those who donned uniforms with Nazi swastikas on the caps, we hope never to be put in a position were such decisions have to be made.  But we can relate to that past human experience.  We can have moment of contemplation “in their shoes” and gain some insight to the times.  Perhaps even yield lessons to apply to our own experience. To me, that is the beautiful simplicity of the complexity.

So, I say, savor the complexity. Such is the nature… the context… of any life. We shouldn’t lose sight that both the good and bad elements of history are comprised of actions by men and women just like us. We are all compromises and complexities. Nothing in the scope of human experience is simple.

The nuts-and-bolts history when studying the nuts-and-bolts OF history

This last weekend, we took the aide-de-camp to World War II Weekend at the Eisenhower Farm, Gettysburg.  As one might expect for a boy his age, the attraction was the soldier stuff on display. And a number of the displays were “hands on.”  At one of those tents, we stopped to examine some World War II era signal equipment operated by some living historians.


In front of the young man is a telephone switchboard.  For the demonstration, the crew had a couple of field telephones wired up.  They demonstrated the process involving hand-cranked phones, bells, flags, and patch cords. And this is rightfully defined as a process.  The operator had specific functions to perform in a sequence, lest the call be broken or otherwise disrupted.

Very early in my Army days, I trained on and operated similar switchboards (with marginally better “insides”).  So I was acquainted with the process.  One point the living historians placed emphasis on was the call termination.  When the conversation was over, they didn’t just hang up the phone.  Instead, the caller had to ring the switchboard again to let the operator know to close the connection… basically pull the patch cord out and return it to the stored position.

It was that point that the aide-de-camp looked confused.  In his experience, when you hang up the phone, the call is terminated.  Done.

But field telephones of World War II (and even many of the Army’s phones of the 1980s) didn’t “just hang up.”  The technology to “just hang up” required some development and refinement.  That said, few are the readers who will recall having to ask the operator to terminate a call at the switchboard (heck, few will actually recall having to reach a real, live operator to make a call!)   I had to pause and explain all this to the Aide.  He was very intrigued and noted the complication involved with making a simple phone call (paraphrasing here, of course).

So other than a quaint demonstration at some nostalgic event, what would that matter?   Well, to me this was another example of how the nuts-and-bolts fit into our greater understanding of history.  Technology has a way of abstracting people from our primitive past.  Consider….

There may be a future where these food replicators are all over the place.  And when that day comes, how far will the people be abstracted from the primitive?  Will they know and understand the supporting activities needed to put catfish on the plate?   Will they relate to the frustration of “the fish are not biting today” given that the nearest fishing hole is hundreds of light years away? Will they gladly accept the “clean the fish” chore as a necessity to obtaining the meal?  Will they have their own personal recipes for catfish?  I prefer mine breaded and fried with a side of hush puppies, please, Mr. Replicator.   And how would I know that as a favored preparation, verses the baked version that the computer spit out?  Answers depend upon how far the people have allowed the technology to remove them from the primitive.

And will the people of those times look back and wonder how any food shortages could have existed? Will they understand the great deal of effort required, in our time and even more so in “primitive” times of old, required just to obtain nourishment?  In essence, will they cast presumptions upon our times and our decisions because they don’t know first hand just how hard it is to catch, clean, and fry a catfish?

Likewise, do we, as we look at history, understand the effort required just to make a phone call on those primitive devices of 1944?  The idiosyncrasies of placing a call on the battlefield of 1944 has some value to the historian studying the time period.  One must understand the nature of that experience, at the nuts-and-bolts level in order to put in context the interactions made between participants of the events.

More to the point, we must understand the process… or protocol… of using a courier to send orders on the battlefield of 1863.  Battles and campaigns, and ultimately the course of a war, turned on how those couriers were used to convey information.  Ask Robert E. Lee or William Rosecrans about that.  It’s not enough to simply say “things were misunderstood.”  And beyond just battlefield activities, we might consider how public opinion was shaped in a time without Cable News Network and the immediacy of a 24-hour news cycle… you know when one had to wait until the morning paper… the LOCAL morning paper, that is, which might be carrying news from three day’s earlier.

We’ve got to work with the nuts-and-bolts of the process to understand the particulars as to why things occurred as they did.  That’s the nuts-and-bolts of history.

If the Dutch can confront their complex history, can we?

I think it a good practice to consider how other countries and cultures chose to display their history, and heritage, in public spaces.  For instance, from Goirle, Netherlands:

The helmet identifies the nationality and context of this figure very well – he is a German soldier.  A soldier serving in the German Army in World War II.  Why would the Dutch people chose to honor a soldier from an army which occupied their country – a brutal occupation I would add – with a statue? An article from War History Online offers some background for this statue memorializing Karl-Heinz Rosch:

October 6, 1944 – Three days after Rosch’s turned 18, the young German soldier, along with his platoon, was stationed in a farm in Goirle when Allied forces took fire on them. He was about to hide in the basement along with his comrades when he noticed that the two children of the farmer who owned the land seemed oblivious of the danger that was on them and continued to play in the courtyard. He quickly dashed to them, took each in his arms and brought them into the safety of the basement. He again ran outside to position himself on the other side of the courtyard when a grenade hit him right at the spot where the children were earlier.

The article goes on to say that Rosch was killed on the spot. Years pass and yet the villagers of Goirle remembered the incident.  It stood out large among many other, arguably more important, incidents during World War II.  Rosch’s story was a part of their shared history.  But it was not one that could be spoken of without reservation.  After all, Rosch was “...just a damn Kraut” in the eyes of some. Then after three-quarters of a century, the village decided something should be done.  Herman van Rouwendaal, a former city councilor of the area, determined in 2008 that it was time to bring Rosch’s story out into the light of day.  To explain and interpret this display, the statue has this plaque at the base:

I’m not going to fool you with my attempt to translate the whole.  It is the last line which stands out to me:

Dit beeld is een eerbetoon aan hem en allen die het goede doen in kwade tijden.

My Dutch is not even passing. But from about every other word I can translate, I get:

This is a tribute to him and all who do good in bad times.

The direct approach to the “good, bad, and ugly” of history. But this project was not necessarily a “feel good” story where everyone simply joined hands to agree. Those advocating for the memorial argued with others contending that no honors should be offered to soldiers who fought for Nazi Germany during World War II.  In the end, the memorial was placed on private space, without public funding.  But the display was allowed. The article provides another “gem” for us to consider.  Rouwendaal went on to say:

Some Dutch are caught in a black-and-white way of thinking. The Germans were all Nazis, the Dutch were all good. That there were also unsavory characters among us, who for example betrayed Jews and robbed them, one does not like to hear… We will not be honoring the Wehrmacht, but rather the humanity of a young German soldier.

At a time in our history where many loud calls are made towards extreme ends about memorials and unsavory aspects of our own history, we might paraphrase Rouwendaal’s to reflect that “some Americans” are caught up “in a black-and-white way of thinking.”  I don’t think that would be threading the eye of some needle.

O/T… HMAS Perth wreck stripped by salvagers (A warning about Civil War wrecks, sites?)

This is a bit off topic for “To the Sound of the Guns” and the sort of news item I prefer to send over to my pal XBradTC.  However, I think this is a story those interested in Civil War shipwrecks, and beyond that even Civil War battlefields, should take interest.

On Friday the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran this story:

HMAS Perth: World War II warship grave stripped by salvagers

Survivors, historians and Defence personnel have been horrified to discover that the wreck of HMAS Perth, which was sunk by the Japanese in 1942, is being destroyed by commercial salvagers in Indonesian waters.

Australian authorities have tried to keep the scandal a secret, fearing the issue might add fuel to the ongoing diplomatic tensions between Australia and Indonesia.

The warship, which sank in the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java, is the last resting place of as many as 355 Australian sailors who went down with the vessel after it was struck by multiple torpedoes.

But it has never been protected as an official war grave.

Australia and Indonesia are yet to ratify the UNESCO Convention on Underwater Cultural Heritage, a binding national treaty which would oblige both countries to protect such sites.

Since at least September, scuba divers have made official reports of large-scale damage to the wreck from a massive floating crane equipped with a salvage claw.

These reports have been made to the Australian embassy in Jakarta and to local officials in the Department of Environment and Heritage, and the Department of Defence.  (Read more.)

There’s a video segment and additional information with the news article.  As the citation above notes, there was no legal protection for this war grave.  So any action to block further salvage rests with the respective governments.

A bit of background, the HMAS Perth sank in the battle of Sunda Straits, fought during the opening phases of World War II.  The ship is well remembered by Australians.  A modern frigate carries the name and memory of the Perth.  So this is a touchy subject for many, to say the least.  Like many shipwrecks close enough to the surface, divers have visited the wreck… to include commercial sport divers from what I gather… but there has always been an effort to keep the activity respectful.

And we cannot say this is just an Australian-Indonesian issue.  The wreck of the USS Houston, another cruiser sank in the action, lays nearby.  I think, but have not confirmed, that the Houston is protected by the UNESCO treaty.

Furthermore, with the cost of scrap metal on the open markets, there is ever more a threat to other wreck sites around the world.  Although with respect to Civil War era wreck sites, it is more so the lure of “treasure” and “relics” as opposed to raw scrap metal.  Of course we have a set of laws and regulations which protect, preserve, and govern access to the wrecks in American waters.  Even when the wrecks are disturbed by officially sanctioned maintenance, reviews are made to ensure preservation and if necessary proper recovery.  (For example, the long running story of the preservation and recovery efforts of the CSS Georgia.)

Beyond that, what about on land?  Anyone who has picked up a National Park Service brochure knows metal detecting is illegal on the battlefields.  Same goes for most state and local sites (and lump in there most sites owned by preservation groups).  But with so much battlefield lands in public hands, “digging” does occur on Civil War battlefields.  And in most cases the work is done without any regard for the archeological context that lies beneath.  Or for that matter who’s grave is being disturbed.

I don’t wish to have readers interpret this as a “broad brush” condemnation.  I know many in the hobby who have done right, and in many cases helped efforts to preserve, protect, and interpret Civil War sites.   The hobby can and should police itself.  However, there’s little difference in my mind from the people hauling steel from the HMAS Perth for sale as scrap, and the fellow using the metal detector to find musket balls for resale at some trinket store.