Porter Rockwell

Essay: Porter Rockwell, Richard Lloyd Dewey, 1986, 2002.

Orrin Porter Rockwell wasn’t just any Mormon gunfighter. He was the first Mormon baptized after the parents of the church’s founder, Joseph Smith. He was a man Rockwell revered like an older brother.

While you may have never heard of Rockwell, he is a saint-like figure among the Saints, an anti-Peter in the Mormon story of their founder’s martyrdom. It’s no coincidence that I first came across him in the weird westerns of Mormons Joel Jenkins and David J. West and not in accounts of Old West gunfighters. He supposedly appeared in his own dime novels of the 19th century (a claim I have not confirmed) and as a character in several films, it took a Mormon – Dewey himself – to write and direct movies centering on him. Statutes, songs, and places are named after him. There are Rockwell bobblehead dolls. And, of course, you can get his likeness on t-shirts.

Several Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ affiliated sites favorably mention him.

It’s no mistake that, according to one of his descendants (he had many but was never a polygamist), historians who might be interested in Rockwell stray away from writing about him. Too many undocumentable stories, good and bad, about him.

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Histories of a Plague Year

Regular readers of this blog know I’m not given to picking my reading based on bestsellers, hype, popularity or any contemporary trend.

However, I did engage in a bit of “COVID reading” back in April. Actually, I just wanted toread another Black Plague book, one of the few unread in my library.

So let’s look at the Sanitary Dictatorship circa 1630-31. Readers may recognize it from our current versions: shut businesses, informers, and house arrest.

Review: Histories of a Plague Year: The Social and Imaginary in Baroque Florence, Giulia Calvi, trans. Dario Biocca and Bryant T. Ragan, Jr., 1989.

While the bubonic plague that came to Florence in 1630-31 wasn’t quite as deadly as the second European pandemic of the plague in 1347, it still killed between 20 and 60 percent of those infected.

Florence was prepared for the return of the plague. It never really left Europe since 1347.

They formed the Florentine Public Health. When plague hit the city, Public Health initiated a series of laws regarding entry to the city, identification of infected people, isolating them, treating them, and, all too often, burying them.

What could be the problem? It seems so sensible – apart from the fact that doctors, barber-surgeons, and herbalists had no clue what caused the disease.

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The Suicide Battalion

This one I read solely because Gilbert Stuart MacDonald served in the 46th Canadian Infantry Battalion (South Saskatchewan). He’s my closest personal link to World War One combat. And not a very close one at that. If I understand genealogical terminology, he’s my fifth cousin three times removed.

Review: The Suicide Battalion, James L. McWilliams & R. James Steel, 1978.

As the authors point out at the very beginning, the 46th Canadian Infantry Battalion (South Saskatchewan) was not the only battalion to be designated the “Suicide Battalion” in the Great War. Its losses in the war were heavy. Of the 5,374 men who served in the unit during the war, 1,433 died and 3,484 were wounded. Only 457 were unscathed. But there are units on both sides of the war that could claim similar statistics.

This is a very personal book for the authors. McWilliams is from Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, home of the unit. Steel’s grandfather served in the unit.

The book is from Hurtig Publishers, founded by Mel Hurtig because he thought Canadians should have some Canadian history books in their bookstores instead of just American history books.

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Turn Off Your Mind

I’ve longed liked Gary Lachman’s articles in the Fortean Times. I’m also an admirer of his work, under the name Gary Valentine, with the rock band Blondie, particularly his song “X Offender”.

So, it was only a matter of time before I decided to read one of his books.

Review: Turn Off Your Mind: The Mystic Sixties and the Dark Side of the Age of Aquarius, Gary Lachman, 2001. 

Lachman’s basic thesis is that several elements of the mystic 1960s led not just to the Summer of Love but the murders of Charles Manson and that the strains of thought that produced both go back to the late 1890s.

It’s an interesting story, but most parts of it were familiar to me already, and I’m not going to talk much about them. I am also not sympathetic to mysticism, the Summer of Love, or the spirit of the 1960s.

What I am going to talk about is the surprising amount of material in the book about writers and works of fantastic fiction and how they were connected to the mystic Sixties.

Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier’s not only wrote the very popular The Morning of the Magicians, but Bergier also wrote a letter praising H. P. Lovecraft that appeared in the March 1936 issue of Weird Tales. The Morning of the Magicians, published in 1960, had Fortean material and centered on mysticism, transcendence, mutation and the evolution of consciousness. It was a heady mix that drew from the zeitgeist.

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The Great Siege, Malta 1565

One of my historical interests is the Crusades, but I haven’t done a lot of reading about them lately, and I’ve only posted about an account of Richard III’s Third Crusade. This history, of course, is not about the Crusades, but it does center on one of the peculiar institutions that sprang from them: the warrior-monk of Christendom.

Review: The Great Siege, Malta 1565, Ernle Bradford, 1961.

In the summer of 1565 on the parched ground of Malta, the future of Western Civilization was decided. Would the Moslems continue their expansion into the Mediterranean, preying on European ships and taking Christian slaves as far away as England? Or could they be held back?

It was an epic struggle, an astounding tale of resolve and leadership, of disunity in command and disunity among allies.

Soleyman the First was on the move. Even his European foes grudgingly said he earned the title “The Magnificent”. He had conquered large parts of the Middle East. His movement into Europe was only stopped at the gates of Vienna in 1529. But, at age 70, he was not resting on his laurels. Malta was a strategic thorn in the side of the Ottoman Empire, a base Christians could use to attack his supply and communication lines.

It would not be the first time Soleyman had tangled with the Knights of St. John, the Hospitallers, who used Malta as their base. In 1493, he had driven them off Rhodes. But they had turned Malta with its fine harbors into a base for raiding Moslem shipping.

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The Great Scuttle

Knowing I was heading to Scapa Flow and hearing of this book’s release, I pre-ordered a copy from Amazon prior to my trip.

It didn’t come. On first arriving in Kirkwall, I went to the local Orcadian Bookshop. Of course, they had a copy.

Review: The Great Scuttle: The End of the German High Seas Fleet, David Meare, 2019.

Lots of us have went on school field trips. I doubt any of those were as historic as the one the children of Stromness in the Orkney Islands took on June 21, 1919. From the deck of the Flying Kestrel, they saw more ships go to the bottom of the sea at one time than any day before or since.

There are, of course, other histories of that day. I reviewed one recently, Dan van der Vat’s The Grand Scuttle. Meara covers much the same ground as that book. We hear about the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet, its time in Scapa Flow, its scuttling, and the salvage efforts that raised much of it.

What Meara brings, besides the concision of 96 pages and lots of beautiful photographs and paintings, some in color, is the local angle all but ignored before now – what the Orcadians said about that day.

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The Grand Scuttle

Last fall I took a trip to the Orkney Islands in Scotland. In preparation, I took this book off the shelf.

I inherited it from a late friend of mine who had a keen interest in naval history and World War One history.

He tried three times to make it to the Scapa Flow Museum. Once he got no closer than London due to a missed flight. Another time he made it to the ferry port on the mainland, but the ferry wasn’t running. Another time, he made it to the museum – only to find it closed for remodeling.

I didn’t do much better. It was closed when I was there too.

This book, published by the respected Naval Institute Press, is still well thought of by historians. You can still find it in places in the Orkneys. It was in The Orcadian Bookshop in Kirkwall, and I believe I saw copies at the Stromness Museum when I nipped in for an all too short look at some of the artifacts from the Grand Scuttle.

Review: The Grand Scuttle: The Sinking of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow in 1919, Dan van der Vat, 1986.Grand Scuttle

The scuttling of the German Fleet on June 21, 1919 sank more marine tonnage in a single day than any time before or since.

Van der Vat’s book looks at the German High Seas Fleet from its beginning as a notion in the head of Captain Alfred von Tirpitz to its voyage to outer space.

Some parts of that story are relatively well known.

Histories of the war’s beginning often talk about the Anglo-German naval arms race as a cause of World War One, and van der Vat places too much emphasis on it. Germany lost that arms race by late 1912, and both sides knew it. But he does show it was a definite cause in the souring German-British relations before the war.

Certainly, German naval actions in skirmishes in the North Sea and, of course, the Battle of Jutland have gotten wide coverage.

Likewise, the actual scuttling of the fleet on the summer solstice has certainly been covered elsewhere. The nine German sailors who died that day – half shot in lifeboats as they left their sinking ships – are the symbolic last German casualties of the war.

Where the book shines is in its coverage of the fleet between the Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice and the scuttling and the fate of the fleet after the scuttling. Continue reading “The Grand Scuttle”

A History of the First World War in 100 Objects

Review: A History of the First World War in 100 Objects, John Hughes-Wilson, 2014.History of the First World War in 100 Objects

A remarkably complete history of the war covering every major combat theatre – Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East – from mining operations below ground to air combat and bombing, from under the sea to the Battle of Jutland. It covers weapons and war financing, logistics and espionage, home front politics and war production, mutinies, the soldiers’ life in combat and behind the trenches and on leave, and artists and the war.

The format is simple. Each chapter has a full-page picture of an object, an inset talking about it, and anywhere from one to six pages of text, often with additional, smaller photos, covering the subject the object represents.

The objects are not always what you expect. For instance, a “body density map” is shown for a chapter on Western Front casualties, a fullerphone (a scrambler for voice and Morse signals passed on a wire), Lieutenant Augustus Agar’s boat (used in a raid on the Bolshevik fleet for which he won “the mystery VC”), and a harpoon gun used by interred German sailors at Scapa Flow to supplement their meagre rations with birds. Continue reading “A History of the First World War in 100 Objects”

The Bloody White Baron

Baron Ungern-Sternberg has held a fascination for me since encountering him in Mark Samuels’ story “A Call to Greatness”, so I picked up a biography of him.

Review: The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia, James Palmer, 2008.61KdS6fLnuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

In 1921, Baron Ungern-Sternberg, convinced by oracles that he had 130 days to live, issued, as the “Incarnated God of War, Khan of grateful Mongolia”, his notorious General Order 15. (Numbered “15” for superstitious reasons. It was actually the first order issued by the paperwork-averse man born Freiherr Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg.)

It stated, among other things:

‘Truth and mercy’ are no longer admissible. Henceforth there can only be ‘truth and merciless hardness.’ The evil which has fallen upon the land, with the object of destroying the divine principle in the human soul, must be extirpated root and branch. Fury against the heads of the revolution, its devoted followers, must know no boundaries.

Chilling words, anathema to civilized values. Yet, being of a dark and pessimistic turn of mind, I wonder if we will, under some circumstance in the not-so-distant future, have to ponder its application. Continue reading “The Bloody White Baron”

Gilbert Stuart MacDonald and Passchendaele

Gilbert Stuart MacDonald
Gilbert Stuart MacDonald, 1889 – 1917

As I’ve mentioned before, there is not much of a tradition of military service in my direct ancestors.

One served in the 42nd Wisconsin Infantry during the Civil War. But he joined in August 1864 and was out in less than a year. The company was on “post and garrison duty” in Illinois during that time.

Before that I have to go back to the American Revolution for ancestors who were in the military (as well as ancestors who were Loyalists and had to flee to Canada after the war).

But among indirect relations on the Canadian side several saw combat. One was in the Canadian Mounted Rifles in the Boer War.

Two were involved in World War One. One never left Canada and served as a cook in a training camp.  (He was also an American citizen born in Missouri but drafted in the Canadian Army. I am unclear about the legalities involved.)

The other was Gilbert Stuart MacDonald who died 100 years ago today.

I was told he died at Passchendaele, so I took a couple of books on the battle off the shelf and read them for the anniversary.

Review: Passchendaele: The Tragic Victory of 1917, Philip Warner, 1987 and Passchendaele: The Untold Story, Robin Price and Trevor Wilson, 1996.

Americans give little thought to Passchendaele. Neither American soldiers or marines fought in it, and Americans generally don’t give a lot of thought to World War One. It is the American Civil War and World War Two which are important in American culture and thoughts.Warner Passchendaele

But the British and Australians and Canadians and New Zealanders definitely still think about it. It was, in some ways, the most horrible battle of the war.

The bare metrics of the battle don’t agree for battles Commonwealth forces fought in. John Terraine’s The Smoke and the Fire provides some. It says Passchendaele lasted 105 days to the Somme’s 21 days. The Somme and the British offensive of August through November 1918 had more casualties than Passchendaele’s 244,000. Many other battles in the war exceeded its casualty average of 2,121 per day.

Nor was the battle the worst in the number of casualties measured against the ground taken or movement of the lines.

But it was the worse for the conditions it was fought in. (The fighting in the Italian Alps between Italians and Austrians, where avalanches and tunnels were part of the weaponry,  has its own unique, if smaller scale, horror.)

Some of the most iconic pictures of the war are from Passchendaele: men and beast moving across duckboards in a landscape of flooded craters and a few shattered trees. Men and horses really did drown when they stepped off those boards. Wounded men really did scream as they lay helpless in craters filling with water. Marches that would take an hour under normal conditions would take many multiples of that as men moved through the mud. Weapons clogged in the mud and rain; artillery shells had to be cleaned of mud before firing. Men waded exhausted across swamps under machine gun fire.

Passchendaele’s horrors came from the incessant rain and the nature of the battlefield.

It was fought on low ground, badly drained because of an underlying layer of clay. What little drainage work had been constructed before the war was destroyed by massive use of artillery, the highest density of shelling yet seen in the war.

Rain was expected around Ypres – the official name of the battle is the Third Battle of Ypres, but the rains were unusually heavy that year.

The battle started with a bang, a very loud bang, the largest explosion in history when 19 mines were detonated under the Germans at 3:10 AM on June 7, 1917. Over a million tons of ammonal explosive going off was heard as far off as London where David Lloyd-George, the British Prime Minister, was working late in his office. To give an idea of the low topographical relief, one of the mines was under Hill 60, a German strongpoint a mere 60 meters above sea level. [Update: The detonation of the mines was not heard in England. The following artillery barrage was as per historian Simon Jones.]

Yet, the chaos caused by those mines, some sources say about 10,000 German troops were killed when they exploded, didn’t start the battle proper. General Douglas Haig’s offensive started on July 31, 1917 and ground to a halt, the Germans pushed off their “high ground” of Messines and Passchendaele Ridges and the Gheuvelt Plateau, on November 10, 1917. [Update: Simon Jones says the German casualties from the mine were nowhere near this amount.]

I read Prior and Wilson’s book second, but I should have read it first. Even Martin Marix Evans, author of several books on the battle, points out in the February 2007 issue of Over the Top: A Magazine of the First World War (put out by the people who do the Roads to the Great War site listed on my blogroll), who disputes their conclusion that the battle lacked “discernible consequences or achievements”, admires the clarity of their presentation.Wilson Passchendaele

They break each phase of the battle into its own chapter with relevant, clear, small scale maps showing lines of movements and zones of operation for the Commonwealth forces. Warner’s book, a popular history, uses 1920 maps from French sources. While they sometimes show important villages and topographical features lacking in Trevor and Wilson, they don’t show locations of units. It’s even hard to discern the Menin Road that is so much a part of British memory (as much as anything of World War One is) and site of the Menin Gate monument. Continue reading “Gilbert Stuart MacDonald and Passchendaele”