Category Archives: Today in History

Napoleon defeated at Waterloo

Battle_of_Waterloo_1815

Jun 18, 1815:

Napoleon defeated at Waterloo

At Waterloo in Belgium, Napoleon Bonaparte suffers defeat at the hands of the Duke of Wellington, bringing an end to the Napoleonic era of European history.

The Corsica-born Napoleon, one of the greatest military strategists in history, rapidly rose in the ranks of the French Revolutionary Army during the late 1790s. By 1799, France was at war with most of Europe, and Napoleon returned home from his Egyptian campaign to take over the reigns of the French government and save his nation from collapse. After becoming first consul in February 1800, he reorganized his armies and defeated Austria. In 1802, he established the Napoleonic Code, a new system of French law, and in 1804 was crowned emperor of France in Notre Dame Cathedral. By 1807, Napoleon controlled an empire that stretched from the River Elbe in the north, down through Italy in the south, and from the Pyrenees to the Dalmatian coast.

Beginning in 1812, Napoleon began to encounter the first significant defeats of his military career, suffering through a disastrous invasion of Russia, losing Spain to the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsula War, and enduring total defeat against an allied force by 1814. Exiled to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean, he escaped to France in early 1815 and set up a new regime. As allied troops mustered on the French frontiers, he raised a new Grand Army and marched into Belgium. He intended to defeat the allied armies one by one before they could launch a united attack.

On June 16, 1815, he defeated the Prussians under Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher at Ligny, and sent 33,000 men, or about one-third of his total force, in pursuit of the retreating Prussians. On June 18, Napoleon led his remaining 72,000 troops against the Duke of Wellington’s 68,000-man allied army, which had taken up a strong position 12 miles south of Brussels near the village of Waterloo. In a fatal blunder, Napoleon waited until mid-day to give the command to attack in order to let the ground dry. The delay in fighting gave Blucher’s troops, who had eluded their pursuers, time to march to Waterloo and join the battle by the late afternoon.

In repeated attacks, Napoleon failed to break the center of the allied center. Meanwhile, the Prussians gradually arrived and put pressure on Napoleon’s eastern flank. At 6 p.m., the French under Marshal Michel Ney managed to capture a farmhouse in the allied center and began decimating Wellington’s troops with artillery. Napoleon, however, was preoccupied with the 30,000 Prussians attacking his flank and did not release troops to aid Ney’s attack until after 7 p.m. By that time, Wellington had reorganized his defenses, and the French attack was repulsed. Fifteen minutes later, the allied army launched a general advance, and the Prussians attacked in the east, throwing the French troops into panic and then a disorganized retreat. The Prussians pursued the remnants of the French army, and Napoleon left the field. French casualties in the Battle of Waterloo were 25,000 men killed and wounded and 9,000 captured, while the allies lost about 23,000.

Napoleon returned to Paris and on June 22 abdicated in favor of his son. He decided to leave France before counterrevolutionary forces could rally against him, and on July 15 he surrendered to British protection at the port of Rochefort. He hoped to travel to the United States, but the British instead sent him to Saint Helena, a remote island in the Atlantic off the coast of Africa. Napoleon protested but had no choice but to accept the exile. With a group of followers, he lived quietly on St. Helena for six years. In May 1821, he died, most likely of stomach cancer. He was only 51 years old. In 1840, his body was returned to Paris, and a magnificent funeral was held. Napoleon’s body was conveyed through the Arc de Triomphe and entombed under the dome of the Invalides.

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British and Allied troops continue the evacuation of France, as Churchill reassures his Countrymen

RAF personnel being evacuated from Brest.
RAF personnel being evacuated from Brest.

Jun 17, 1940:

British and Allied troops continue the evacuation of France, as Churchill reassures his Countrymen

On this day in 1940, British troops evacuate France in Operation Ariel, an exodus almost on the order of Dunkirk. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill offers words of encouragement in a broadcast to the nation: “Whatever has happened in France… [w]e shall defend our island home, and with the British Empire we shall fight on unconquerable until the curse of Hitler is lifted.”

With two-thirds of France now occupied by German troops, those British and Allied troops that had not participated in Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk, were shipped home. From Cherbourg and St. Malo, from Brest and Nantes, Brits, Poles, and Canadian troops were rescued from occupied territory by boats sent from Britain. While these men were not under the immediate threat of assault, as at Dunkirk, they were by no means safe, as 5,000 soldiers and French civilians learned once on board the ocean liner Lancastria, which had picked them up at St. Nazaire. Germans bombers sunk the liner; 3,000 passengers drowned.

Churchill ordered that news of the Lancastria not be broadcast in Britain, fearing the effect it would have on public morale, since everyone was already on heightened alert, fearing an imminent invasion from the Germans now that only a channel separated them. The British public would eventually find out—but not for another six weeks—when the news finally broke in the United States. They would also enjoy a breather of another kind: Hitler had no immediate plans for an invasion of the British isle, “being well aware of the difficulties involved in such an operation,” reported the German High Command.

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Portuguese army sees first action in Flanders

Portuguese troops loading the Stokes Mortar.
Portuguese troops loading the Stokes Mortar.

Jun 17, 1917:

Portuguese army sees first action in Flanders

On June 17, 1917, the Corpo Expedicionario Portugues (CEP), or Portuguese Expeditionary Corps, goes into action for the first time in World War I, on the battlefields of Flanders on the Western Front.

With the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914, Portugal entered the war on the side of the Allies in order to secure international backing of its colonial holdings in Africa. While Portuguese participation in the war was at first limited to naval support, Portugal sent its first troops–an expeditionary force of two divisions, or some 50,000 men–to the Western Front in February 1917.

On June 17 of that year, the CEP saw its first action of the war, against the Germans in Flanders, Belgium. From the beginning of the fighting, the Portuguese troops, fighting alongside the British, were plagued by problems, including negative reactions to the poor rations and harsh weather on the battlefield and low morale due to the fact that they were fighting far from their native land, on behalf of a foreign cause. On April 9, 1918, the CEP saw action again against Germany near the town of Lys, during the major German offensive of that spring. During the Battle of Lys, one Portuguese division of troops was struck hard by four German divisions; the preliminary shelling alone was so heavy that one Portuguese battalion refused to push forward into the trenches. All told, the victorious Germans took more than 6,000 prisoners at Lys and were able to push through the Allied lines along a three-and-a-half mile stretch. By the time World War I ended, a total of 7,000 Portuguese soldiers had died in combat.

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Marshal Petain becomes premier of occupied France

 

Jun 16, 1940:

Marshal Petain becomes premier of occupied France

On this day in 1940, Marshal Henri-Philippe Petain, World War I hero, becomes prime minister of the Vichy government of France.

As Germany began to overrun more French territory, the French Cabinet became desperate for a solution to this crisis. Premier Paul Reynaud continued to hold out hope, refusing to ask for an armistice, especially now that France had received assurance from Britain that the two would fight as one, and that Britain would continue to fight the Germans even if France were completely overtaken. But others in the government were despondent and wanted to sue for peace. Reynaud resigned in protest. His vice premier, Henri Petain, formed a new government and asked the Germans for an armistice, in effect, surrendering.

This was an ironic position for Petain, to say the least. The man who had become a legendary war hero for successfully repelling a German attack on the French city of Verdun during the First World War was now surrendering to Hitler.

In the city of Vichy, the French Senate and Chamber of Deputies conferred on the 84-year-old general the title of “Chief of State,” making him a virtual dictator–although one controlled by Berlin. Petain believed that he could negotiate a better deal for his country–for example, obtaining the release of prisoners of war–by cooperating with, or as some would say, appeasing, the Germans.

But Petain proved to be too clever by half. While he fought against a close Franco-German military collaboration, and fired his vice premier, Pierre Laval, for advocating it, and secretly urged Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco to refuse passage of the German army to North Africa, his attempts to undermine the Axis while maintaining an official posture of neutrality did not go unnoticed by Hitler, who ordered that Laval be reinstated as vice premier. Petain acquiesced, but refused to resign in protest because of fear that France would come under direct German rule if he were not there to act as a buffer. But he soon became little more than a figurehead, despite efforts to manipulate events behind the scenes that would advance the Free French cause (then publicly denying, even denouncing, those events when they came to light).

When Paris was finally liberated by General Charles de Gaulle in 1944, Petain fled to Germany. He was brought back after the war to stand trial for his duplicity. He was sentenced to death, which was then commuted to life in solitary confinement. He died at 95 in prison. The man responsible for saving his life was de Gaulle. He and Petain had fought in the same unit in World War I and had not forgotten Petain’s bravery during that world war.

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Battle of the Piave River

Jun 16, 1918:

Battle of the Piave River

On June 16, 1918, the Battle of the Piave River rages on the Italian front, marking the last major attack by the Austro-Hungarian army in Italy of World War I.

After turmoil-plagued Russia bowed out of the war effort in early 1918, Germany began to pressure its ally, Austria-Hungary, to devote more resources to combating Italy. Specifically, the Germans advocated a major new offensive along the Piave River, located just a few kilometers from such important Italian urban centers as Venice, Padua and Verona. In addition to striking on the heels of Russia’s withdrawal, the offensive was intended as a follow-up to the spectacular success of the German-aided operations at Caporetto in the autumn of 1917.

By June 1918, however, Austria-Hungary’s troops were in a radically different condition than they had been at Caporetto. Supplies were low, as was morale, while the Italians had bulked up their numbers along the Piave and received new shipments of arms from Allied munitions factories. Nevertheless, both commanders in the region–former Commander-in-Chief Conrad von Hotzendorff and Svetozar Boroevic von Bojna–favored an attack. Preparations were laid to divide their two forces and carry out the offensive in a pincer-like motion, with Conrad taking the main task of reaching the city of Verona and Boroevic attempting to cross the Piave and aim for Padua and the Adige Valley.

After some diversionary attacks, the main Austrian offensive was launched on June 15. Conrad’s 10th and 11th Armies made limited progress, and their advance was checked the following day by the forceful counterattack of the Italian 4th and 6th Armies, fortified by British and French troops. Within a week, the Austrians had suffered over 40,000 casualties. Meanwhile, Boroevic’s 5th and 6th Armies, which had crossed the Piave River along the Italian coast on June 10, gained slightly more territory–some three miles along a 15-mile front–but was also forced to give up those gains and retreat on June 19 under the Italian counterattack by the 3rd and 8th Armies. The Austrian troops stalled in their attempt to cross back over the rapid-flowing Piave, however, and the Italians were able to attack their flank; by the time they finally reached the other shore, a total of 150,000 of Boroevic’s men had been killed or wounded.

Though the cautious Italian commander in chief, General Armando Diaz, chose not to pursue the fleeing enemy troops across the river, the offensive ended in dismal failure. It was a fateful blow for Austria-Hungary’s presence on the Italian front. In the months that followed, the depleted, demoralized army ceased to exist as a cohesive force, a destruction that was completed by the Italians during the Battle of Vittorio Veneto in late October 1918, just days before the end of World War I.

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The “Blobel Commando” begins its cover-up of Atrocities

Jun 15, 1943:

The “Blobel Commando” begins its cover-up of Atrocities

On this day in 1943, Paul Blobel, an SS colonel, is given the assignment of coordinating the destruction of the evidence of the grossest of Nazi atrocities, the systematic extermination of European Jews.

As the summer of 1943 approached, Allied forces had begun making cracks in Axis strongholds, in the Pacific and in the Mediterranean specifically. Heinrich Himmler, leader of the SS, the elite corps of Nazi bodyguards that grew into a paramilitary terror force, began to consider the possibility of German defeat and worried that the mass murder of Jews and Soviet prisoners of war would be discovered. A plan was devised to dig up the buried dead and burn the corpses at each camp and extermination site. The man chosen to oversee this yearlong project was Paul Blobel.

Blobel certainly had some of that blood on his hands himself, as he was in charge of SS killing squads in German-occupied areas of Russia. He now drew together another kind of squad, “Special Commando Group 1,005,” dedicated to this destruction of human evidence. Blobel began with “death pits” near Lvov, in Poland, and forced hundreds of Jewish slave laborers from the nearby concentration camp to dig up the corpses and burn them–but not before extracting the gold from the teeth of the victims.

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Germans enter Paris

Jun 14, 1940:

Germans enter Paris

On this day in 1940, Parisians awaken to the sound of a German-accented voice announcing via loudspeakers that a curfew was being imposed for 8 p.m. that evening-as German troops enter and occupy Paris.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had tried for days to convince the French government to hang on, not to sue for peace, that America would enter the war and come to its aid. French premier Paul Reynaud telegrammed President Franklin Roosevelt, asking for just such aid-a declaration of war, and if not that, any and all help possible. Roosevelt replied that the United States was prepared to send material aid—and was willing to have that promise published—but Secretary of State Cordell Hull opposed such a publication, knowing that Hitler, as well as the Allies, would take such a public declaration of help as but a prelude to a formal declaration of war. While the material aid would be forthcoming, no such commitment would be made formal and public.

By the time German tanks rolled into Paris, 2 million Parisians had already fled, with good reason. In short order, the German Gestapo went to work: arrests, interrogations, and spying were the order of the day, as a gigantic swastika flew beneath the Arc de Triomphe.

While Parisians who remained trapped in their capital despaired, French men and women in the west cheered-as Canadian troops rolled through their region, offering hope for a free France yet.

The United States did not remain completely idle, though. On this day, President Roosevelt froze the American assets of the Axis powers, Germany and Italy.

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