Thursday, June 29, 2017

Damn, Girl-Lakshmi Bai

Rani (Queen) Lakshmi Bai is often called the 'Joan of Arc of India', and with good reason. At just 22 years old she seized control of the kingdom of Jhansi, and spearheaded a revolt against the British. Like Joan, Lakshmi's life was short, but she certainly caused the English a lot of trouble.

Image result for Lakshmi BaiLakshmi was the daughter of a scholar and a king's adviser. She was raised with the young men of the court, and in addition to learning the usual school subjects, she was also trained in combat. She was, by all accounts, a lovely and intelligent young lady, and the age of fifteen, she married Raja Gangadhar Rao, Maharaja of the kingdom of Jhansi.

The couple were married for about ten years until Gangadhar died of illness. They had no surviving children, and so they had adopted a young cousin, Damodar Rao, as their own, and the throne passed to Damodar, despite the fact that he was only five years old.

Enter the English. The English had a policy at the time of stealing every bit of land they could. It was no different with Jhansi. In a move reminiscent of the Romans dealings with Boudicca, the English refused to recognize Damodar as being the rightful heir, and they moved in to take control. Lakshmi was granted a pension of 5,000 rupees a month, and Damodar was allowed to keep his palace, but control of Jhansi had ceded to the enemy.

Now, as you might imagine, the Indians were non too pleased with this arrangement. Big shock, I know. The Indians weren't very fond of having the British in their country in general, but then the English went a step too far, or the Indians thought that they did.
Image result for Lakshmi Bai
See, the English had enlisted thousands of sepoys, or native Indian soldiers, both Muslim and Hindu. When their superior officers introduced the Enfield Cartridges, the soldiers balked. They had heard rumors that the cartridges were greased with beef and pig fat. As the soldiers had to put the cartridge in their mouth to tear off the end before they could load it in the gun, they would be getting a small amount of beef or pork in their mouth, and, as you may no, beef and pork are serious no-nos in Hinduism and Islam respectively.

So the sepoys were being difficult. And by 'being difficult' I mean they were in revolt. To add to that, local revolutionaries in Jhansi had risen up and killed all the English civil servants and their families. This is when Lakshmi took control of the situation.

The narrative splits into two parts from here. Some sources claim that Lakshmi took instant control of the situation, and started hacking away at the English. There were even rumors that she'd started the revolt in the first place. Other sources claim that she took control of Jhansi in the name of the English, and asked them what to do. They never got back to her, so she just did what she wanted until the English pitched a fit a few months later.

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The statue of Lakshmi at Jhansi
Here is where the story comes back together. The English soldiers marched on Jhansi, and besieged the fort where Lakshmi was living with her adopted son. Lakshmi commanded her soldiers as well as the rebels, and though they held the fort for a long time, they eventually had to escape.

From there they fled east to Gwalior. There had been skirmishes along the way, and by this point Lakshmi's forces were tired and few in number. In a last ditch effort against the English, Lakshmi tied her son to her back, armed herself with two swords, and plunged into battle. It was in this battle that she was killed.
 Today Lakshmi is remembered as a brilliant Indian queen who fought for freedom from the English. She is revered by the Indians, and her statue watches over Jhansi to this day.

Sources
Encyclopedia Britannica
Maps of India
History Net
The Famous People

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

General Frost vs. Europe

When making a 'Top Ten Places Not to Invade In The Winter' list, Russia inevitably comes in number one (with Greenland and Canada following close after.). There were multiple occasions in history, when European leaders thought it might be a good idea to poke the Russian Bear with a stick. Some, like the Mongols, were successful, most, like pretty much everyone else, were not.

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St. Basil's Cathedral, Moscow.
Russia's pretty big, which makes it difficult to defend and control. Russia's long history of internal conflicts (more recently in Georgia and Chechnya) prove this. However, Russia has a secret weapon-General Frost.

You've probably guessed this, but General Frost is a poetic name for winter. Russia is far north, and has some pretty gnarly cold spells. We're talking spit freezing before it hits the sidewalk cold. The winter snows cover everything, and the country more or less goes into hibernation. Nothing grows, and game isn't always plentiful. If you haven't prepared, you're dead. 

So, despite its size, Russia is pretty well defended. They have reasonable armies (and more recently nuclear weapons) to help the in the summer, and unlivable conditions in the winter. However, that hasn't stopped some people from trying to invade Russia in the winter.

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Charles XII
The Swedes were the first (as far as I can dig up) to try invading Russia in the winter. They were the first, so they get a bit of a pass. Sweden itself is northerly, and it's not like they had someone else's mistakes to learn from.

Although, quite frankly, even if there had been someone else's failed attempts to learn from, it is doubtful that that would have stopped Charles XII, the young, brash, and ridiculously successful King of Sweden. Charles was a genius military commander, and dangerous risk taker. He frequently dove into battles with forces that vastly outnumbered his own, and usually came out victorious. Charles was That Kid. You know, that kid in school who claimed to never study for a test, and then got full marks. Charles was the monarchy equivalent of that kid, and, quite frankly, the rest of Europe was a little sick of it.


See, Sweden at the time was something of a world power. They'd taken most of the land around the Baltic sea. The only things they didn't own was Denmark and Norway (Norway belonged to Denmark). This worried the Danes, as well as the newly minted Czar of Russia, Peter the Great. So, to combat the Swedish, the Danes, Russians, Poles and Saxons (part of modern Germany) all decided to gang up on Charles. They were banking on his youth and inexperience (Charles was only 18 at the time). Bad decision. Charles was not only something of a genius, but he had good advisers, ad he listened to them. When the Danes came for Sweden, Charles snck into Denmark, and took them down. Then he turned his eyes to Poland, and successfully installed a King favorable to Sweden. Done with Poland, he turned his eyes to Russia.

Charles had had great success with small armies that attacked quickly and unexpected. He adopted the same strategy in Russia. In 1700 he attacked Narva, a town in Modern Estonia. He was outnumbered about 3 to 1, and it was the middle of a blizzard. Remarkably, but also unsurprisingly, Charles won.

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Peter the Great, czar of Russia at the time
of Charles XII's invasion.
The Swedes continued across Russia like this, but the Russians, as per the usual, implemented a scorched earth policy, leaving nothing for the Swedes to eat. The Russians then cut off the Swede's supply lines. Despite all this, the war wasn't going too badly for the Swedes, until General Frost stepped in.

1709 was one of the coldest winters of that era. 2,000 Swedish soldiers died from cold in a single night. Northern Russia wasn't a good place to hang out, so, against the council of his advisers, Charles decided to winter with his buddy Mazeppa in the Ukraine.  

Ivan Mazeppa was a former Russian ally who wanted to get the Russians out of Ukraine. He told Charles of his plan to start an Ukranian rebellion, and invited Charles to invade. Never one to pass up new territory, Charles agreed.

Thing was, most of Charles' forces were very ill, and couldn't fight. Charles himself had been wounded. Additionally, the Russians found out about the planned uprising, and moved to quash it before it even began. So when Charles arrived in Ukraine he had much fewer Ukrainian troops than expected, and only the skeleton of an army.

Realizing the fight was already lost, Charles escaped with 2,000 of his sickest men, leaving the rest of the army behind. The Russians caught up with them, thoroughly defeating the 16,000 Swedish forces left behind.

Next up to the plate was the young French protegee, Napoleon. The year was 1812, and Napoleon had had it with Russia. Russia was supposed to be his ally. They were buds. They were part of the continental system, they had no reason to fight each other, and they promised each other that neither of them would trade with England. It was a good arrangement. For France.

What Napoleon failed to realize was that this arrangement wasn't helping out Russia very much. Russia needed trade with the English to bolster its economy, and France had done the unthinkable--they helped Poland.

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Napoleon Bonaparte, making sure
his ribs are still there.
Well, Napoleon couldn't handle that sort of betrayal, not from an ally, so he invaded Russia to teach Czar Alexander a lesson. He gathered some 450,000 men (give or take), the largest military force ever assembled in Europe to that point (probably). With his typical modesty, Napoleon named his forces the 'Grande Armee'

Now, I have absolutely zero historical evidence to back this up, but I imagine Czar Alexander's reaction to Napoleon's invasion was something like 'lol wut?', and he slipped on his shades, and watched the French armies confidently walk into his territory, just knowing that they wouldn't last a year in Russia.

As I mentioned, there's no historical evidence, but it's a pretty amusing picture.

What is fact, though, is that the Russians put up very little resistance to the French at first. Instead of standing to fight, they let the French take the towns of Vilna, Vitesbk, and Smolensk, virtually without a fight. Instead of fighting the Russians torched the cities and all surrounding crops, leaving the French to die of starvation, exposure, and sporadic attacks. This worked very well. Tens of thousands of soldiers died of starvation, exhaustion, and dehydration. Many more deserted.

The Russians didn't stand and fight until the French were just 75 miles from Moscow. The French and Russians were fairly evenly matched, and each suffered heavy losses. The Russians, however, decided not to stick around. They set fire to Moscow, all of Moscow's food storage, and left, leaving only a large amount of hard liquor behind.

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Czar Alexander I
So, while they French may have been merrily drunk, they were also starving. Napoleon had decided to stay in Moscow for a while, and wait for Czar Alexander to make peace, but Czar Alexander decided to sit back, and let winter take care of things. Eventually, Napoleon threw in the towel, and decided to head back to France, just as winter was approaching.


Now, this went as well as you might expect, which is to say, poorly. The Russians were determined that the French stay out, so they drove the remnants of the Grand Armee along the same route they came in on. If the food options had been picked over before, they were completely nonexistant on the way back. The Russians kept the French from ranging further afield to find further sustenance. Added to that was the cold. Many men froze overnight. Dead bodies were stacked up against walls to provide insulation, and tales were told of men slitting open their horses, and climbing inside them to keep warm. The French died in massive waves, and only 20,000 of them returned home to France.

Then there's Hitler. As I'm sure you well know, nothing good ever starts with Hitler, and this is no different. Stalin was in charge of Russia at the time, and both of these repugnant knaves should have studied their history. Had they done so, many lives would have been saved, because:

  1. Hitler would have known better than to invade Russia. 
  2. Stalin wouldn't have insisted that no city be surrendered, and instead adopted the scorched earth tactics that has kept Russia independent for so many generations.
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Adolf Hitler, looking unfriendly as usual.
Instead, Hitler and the Germans were the ones scorching the earth, and the citizens of the USSR were being attacked by not only the Germans, but their own government. Stalin ordered that deserters and suspected traitors be shot, not to mention his abhorrent policy of relocating ethnic minorities to Siberia.

Having conquered France, Hitler needed to get on with the rest of the world. Conquering the UK would be a difficult, and not entirely worthwhile endeavor, so he decided to go after his land and resource rich neighbor, the USSR. This was the start of 'Operation Barbarossa'. 

Germany and the USSR had signed a non-aggression pact two years before, but Hitler still considered communism a major threat to the German Empire he wanted to build. Because Nazi Germany didn't do anything by halves, Hitler planned to completely wipe out the communist population of the USSR, not just the Jews, Romani, Homosexuals, and political dissenters that he usually went after.  

Hitler started by forming a group of elite troops called the Einsatzgruppen. He sent these soldiers into Russia to murder Jewish males, communist leaders, and anyone who looked like they might start a resistance, en masse. He then gathered a force of more than three million soldiers, and stormed Russia's frontier. While Allied powers had repeatedly warned Stalin about a German invasion, Stalin had refused to listen, and was caught by 'surprise'. 

Unlike his predecessors, Stalin refused to give ground. He ordered that no city surrender or be abandoned. As a result of that three million USSR soldiers were taken captive in Kiev. Instead of evacuating the countryside, and torching all the crops, villagers were ordered to stay put, and anyone suspected of disloyalty or cowardice was shot. Because of this the Germans were able to subsist off the crops of the small Russian villages, and were able to penetrate further into USSR territory.

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Josef Stalin
Looking through the lens of history, Hitler has done far better than expected. However, according to Hitler and company, the invasion of the USSR was taking far longer than expected. Hitler had expected the invasion of Russia to go like the invasion of France, quick and relatively painless. But the Russians held out far longer than he'd expected. By the time the Germans were ready to head to Moscow, winter wasn't too far away.

And, in a move that will surely have you banging your head against the nearest flat surface, the Germans did not have any winter supplies. They hadn't expected to stay the winter, and so they were completely unprepared. They started to slowly retreat, but before they could get out of Russia entirely, war had flared up again in the west with the invasion of Normandy. 

Unlike previous invasions, the failure of Operation Barbarossa was not a decisive win for the Russians. Had another front not opened up Hitler would have most likely started the invasion up again in the spring. The German soldiers were able to subsist off the food they found in the countryside, all they lacked was warm clothing. Had Stalin stuck to the proven tactics of his forerunners, and set everything on fire, WWII may have gone much differently.

Sources

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Documentary Review-Empire of the Tsars

My general feelings about documentaries is that they ought to be longer, and more in depth. Unless they're heinously boring, in which case I have several other feelings as well. But this fantastic documentary series is one that I didn't want to end.

Image result for empire of the tsars romanov russia with lucy worsleyNarrated by historian Lucy Worsley, Empire of the Tsars takes a close look at Romanov Russia from its tenuous beginning to its tragic end. Over three episodes Worsley gives a biography of the most famous, and infamous Romanovs-Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander I, Alexander II, and, lastly, the unfortunate Nicholas II.*

I loved this documentary a lot. Not only is Worsley a great story teller, but she makes it easy for the viewer to visualize the sights and sounds of the history she's presenting. I had maybe a hazy (if that) image of what an 18th century boat looked like, so when Worsley brought out actual replicas (staffed by full time reenactors!) of the boats Peter the Great built, everything made so much sense. That's just one example. She also modeled the dress of the era, and took us inside the 'rooms where it happened'**. Ever wondered the logistics of Rasputin's murder? She walks you through it.

Most of all, I love that a thorough, well researched, in-depth, three part documentary on Russian history is available. Russian history is so fascinating, yet it so often gets overlooked (in the west at least). In my high school, as well as my college classes we only discussed Russia in the context of the Cold War, and a little bit about their contributions to WWII, and that's such a shame. Russia is a country with a fascinating history. It seems that the nation is in a perpetual struggle to join the future, pulled between their traditions of autocracy (or communism) and more western ideals.

Image result for empire of the tsars romanov russia with lucy worsleyBut this isn't the place to ramble about Russia, I'm telling you about a fantastic documentary that I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to finish watching. In case you haven't gotten the idea, I really liked this documentary, and I highly recommend it. Worsley was an amazing presenter, and a quick IMDB search shows that she has a dozen other credits to her name, and I have no doubts I'll be watching her other documentaries as soon as I can get my hands on them.

*There were like three other that she also talked about, but they were mostly to put the reigns of the actually important tsars in context.
** 'Hamilton' reference, in case you were wondering. But let's face it, if you're here, not only have you at least heard of the world's most famous history based musical, you probably know all the words.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Damn, Girl- Florence Nightingale, Lady With the Lamp

You've probably heard of Florence Nightingale, at least in passing, she basically invented modern nursing after all. But, heavens above, what an achievement that is. Nightingale was one of the first to insist on cleanliness and sterilization, meticulous record keeping, and giving patients nutritious food. During the Crimean War she cut the mortality rate of her hospital by 2/3rds, an amazing achievement, especially considering that the hospital was literally situated on top of a cesspool.


Image result for florence nightingaleFlorence was born into an aristocratic family, and at a young age showed a penchant for taking care of those in need. Deeply religious, in her teens Florence told her parents that God had shown her her destiny, and that her destiny was to be a nurse, and to help the sick (she's kinda like the medical Joan of Arc). Her parents were less than thrilled about this. They expected their daughter to marry an aristocrat and carry on the proud family tradition of being wealthy and marrying well, not work at what was considered a menial task. Nevertheless, Florence persisted, and she was able to receive nurses training.

After completing her training, Florence worked for some time in local British hospitals. Then the Crimean War broke out. Soldiers were dying en masse, and they were mostly dying from poor living and hospital conditions. Florence needed to do something about that. Luckily, she was friends with Sidney Herbert, the secretary of state for war. In a case of great minds thinking alike, she sent him a letter requesting to be sent to Crimea with a group of female nurses, and he sent her a letter asking the exact same thing. On November 5, 1854 Florence arrived in Scutari,Turkey.

Florence likened the Barrack Hospital in Scutari to the Kingdom of Hell. I mentioned before that the hospital was located on a cesspool. The cesspool poisoned the water and air. Soldiers were poorly attended, lying in their own urine and feces, and the hospital was severely overcrowded. Upon arriving in her living quarters, Florence found the body of a dead Russian soldier abandoned to the flies. The hospital was filthy, and reeked of death. This was, as one might imagine, completely unacceptable to Florence, and so she set to work.

Florence attacked the hospital mercilessly. She enlisted some of the more hearty patients to scrub the hospital from top to bottom, and recruited the soldier's wives to wash the clothing and linens the hospital needed to function. She insisted that medical instruments be sterilized, and that patients' wounds be cleaned, as well as the general bathing of the patient.


While all that may seem like a no-brainer to us today, it was not the case in Florence's time. From the 1500's to the mid 1800's hospitals were more a place to die than a place to get well. Filthy conditions were normal. Germs had yet to be discovered, so wounds went uncleaned, and medical personnel didn't wash their hands. Florence changed that.

But not only did Florence insist on cleanliness and sanitation, she also saw to it that soldiers received assistance in writing home to their families, established a library to stimulate minds, and insisted on around the clock care. She herself was known for wandering through the wards of sick at night to check on her patients, it was for this that she received the epithet 'Lady with the lamp'.

Eventually, the Crimean War came to end, and Florence returned to England. But she didn't leave empty handed. She contracted brucellosis, or Crimean Fever, a disease that would leave her home bound and bed ridden for much of the rest of her life.

Florence came back home to find herself a national hero, a development which both baffled and unnerved her. This fame was, however, to allow her to further her work in revolutionizing both nursing and hospital administration. She was granted a tete-a-tete with Queen Victoria, a conversation that resulted in the entire army health system being overhauled, as well as the position of minister of health being created. She received several hundreds of pounds, all of which she put into creating her own nursing school in St. Thomas Hospital.

Once back in England, she still had to dodge her family's demands that she marry Stubborn as ever, Florence refused on the grounds that she was deathly ill. Sub-sequentially, two female relatives, first an aunt and then a cousin moved in with Florence to care for her. Florence established a firm attachment with both of these women, in one letter saying that she and her aunt were 'like two lovers'.

Image result for florence nightingale tombNow, if while reading this you have a little voice in your head that's screaming 'GAY', that voice is completely justified in that argument. Not only did Florence describe her relationship with her aunt as being like two lovers, but she also spoke of a female cousin, saying "I have never loved but one person with a passion in my life, and that was her." Florence never married, and rebuffed marriage proposal from no less than four men. She seemed to have preferred the company of women over all, and was also known to have said, 'I have lived and slept in the same beds as English Countesses, and Prussian farm women. No woman has excited passions among women more than I have.' And while we will never be sure* if Florence was a bi or homosexual, it isn't an unfair assumption to make.

During her years after Crimea Florence not only established her own nursing school, but she also published the definitive guide to nursing, and provided valued statistics and mathematical formulas for calculating and prediction mortality rates. She remained an expert on public health, and was frequently consulted by the British government for ways to improve healthcare.

There's no arguing it, Florence revolutionized healthcare. She established procedures for modern nursing, and she elevated a once despised profession to one of the most valued professions today. She is honored to this day as being a true visionary and pioneer.


*Unless, of course, you manage to contact and interview her ghost. If you do manage such a feat, please contact me. I have much interest in gaining details of the past from those beyond the grave.

Sources
University of Alabama at Birmingham
Biography
Encyclopedia Britannica
Owlcation
Autostraddle