The last king of Rome

800px-Gentile_Bellini_003

When he was 21 years of age the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II conquered the unconquerable city:  Constantinople.  He is known as Mehmed the Conqueror for this reason.

What is less known is that he presented his rule as a continuation of the Empire of Rome  instead of a conquest.  He named himself Caesar of Rome – Qayser-i Rûm intending his rule to be a continuation of the Roman Civilization that began some 2,206 years before the capital fell to him in 1453.  His successors did not continue the practice, but we may say that Mehmed was the last Caesar, the last Emperor of Rome.

When a man who besieged and conquered the greatest city on Earth comes to your pesky little fort in Wallachia you pretty much know that there is little to be gained by hiding behind the walls.  This was the astute assessment of Vlad III Dracula known as “The Impaler”.  This is how the Night Attack at Targoviste was born.

On June 17th, 1462 the Wallachian Prince threw the dice in a winner takes all gambit.  He assembled his knights and launched attack after attack on the Turkish encampment in an attempt to assassinate the Sultan of the Turks.  It was a night of confusion and slaughter as the mounted knights made charge after charge into the encampment.

Ultimately the attacks failed because they did not kill Mehmet that night.  Ultimately the attacks succeeded because the Ottoman Army withdrew.  Faced with such passionate and suicidal bravery Mehmed realised that his life was in very real danger.  A number of Pashas; senior officers in Tents very close to the Sultan, had been killed.  So the Turks made for home and steered a course south.

On their retreat they encountered a further demonstration of the resolve of the Romanians.  They passed through the “Forest of Death” where Vlad had impaled 23,844 turks (he recorded the exact number in a letter to Matthias Corvinus).  The Sultan and his troops filed past the corpses of tens of thousands of men, women and children.  It was a clear and unequivocal statement of intent from the Romanians to the Turks.

Mehmed II was a poet who wrote under the pen name Avni and many of his poems are dedicated to his lover, a beautiful foreign boy:

The roses of your cheeks, they made my tongue a nightingale.
The locks on your forehead, they made me desire, lose my mind.

If the fruit of love is for lovers, the worry and grief,
thank God, they have many for us, the fruits of your love.

The breeze is powerless to untangle the ends of your locks.
No, it is not easy to resolve the difficulties at all!

What is the relationship came between us, as the nectar from the lips of the beloved,
this poison of grief is halva for me, but for the rival, the poison of assassins?

How many enlightened men became insane by your love!
How many sensible men have gone mad with desire for you!

To what good is the saying: “Let the arrows of his eyelashes murder you!”?
They are brave inexperienced people who hold such remarks.

O Avni! If one day you were on a pilgrimage to the temple of the Magi*
you would have seen the lights of the wine candles illuminating the company!

 

 

 

Land Ship

Tank

Today is the anniversary of the appearance of the Tank in battle.  The British used them, in a limited capacity, in the Somme offensive.

The Tanks were not very effective.  Winston Churchill envisaged them as dreadnoughts, great armoured ships of the land which would devastate the German lines.  In reality there were too few, they were too unreliable and nobody knew quite how to use them.

That comes as no surprise.  The British army was all at sea in the early phase of the Somme.  The French were making excellent ground, eating up the miles and chewing up German lines.  They had learned their lessons well at Verdun.  They understood how to fight the industrial war.  Concentrated artillery wins the ground and the troops hold the gains.

The French learned the need to have specialist squads for different duties, who were well trained in the requirements of their role.  Riflemen to take the lines cleared by the artillery, light machine-gun companies to clear out strong-points and grenade companies to “clear-out” dugouts and trenches while the riflemen advanced.

The British had not absorbed these lessons.  They had not fought this type of battle before.  In their arrogance they did not listen to the French advisers.  The generals thought they knew what they were doing and the poor blighters on the front lines died to prove them wrong.

Blighters: by Siegfried Sassoon

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, sweet Home’,
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

Old Contemptibles

Dease

When they marched into war in 1914 the British regular army was unsure of its credentials on the great European stage.  It was over 60 years since the Crimean war, the last time Britain engaged with European foes.  In the interim years the German and French armies had modernised and traded blows with each other a number of times.

The Germans were respectful of the French army, but saw the British Expeditionary Force as irrelevant to the bigger picture.  On 23rd August 1914 the Germans met the British at Mons.  Though they outnumbered the British 3:1 the Germans were stopped in their tracks for 48 hours.

So rapid and concentrated was the fire from the British rifles that the Germans were sure they faced machine gun batteries.  They came away from the battle with a new found respect for the British army.

At British headquarters the brass concocted a supposed order from the Kaiser to his troops, telling them to “march over the contemptible little British army”.  Although it was pure morale boosting propaganda, the soldiers believed it and the story stuck.  The survivors of the British regular army were proud to bear the nickname “the old contemptibles”.

Not many of them survived the “race to the sea” and the regular British army ceased to exist as a force by the 1st battle of Ypres in November, 3 months after their first encounter with the Germans at Mons.

Mons became legendary for the British.  Practically, it demonstrated that the British regulars were more than a match for the Germans, and gave hope to the raw recruits drafted to replace the regulars.  Psychologically it established a legend for the British in France.  Soldiers spoke of seeing the “Angel of Mons” charging to battle with the British, supported by the spirits of longbowmen from Crecy and Agincourt.

100 years on, we remember the Great War, a war which lasted, to all intents, from 1914 to 1945.  We remember the fallen.  They shall not grow old.

 

For the Fallen; by Robert Laurence Binyon

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.