Monthly Archives: November 2012

Napoleon’s Secret Letter Decoded

From AP, November 30, 2012:

The single line of Napoleon’s secret code told Paris of his desperate, last order against the Russians: “At three o’clock in the morning, on the 22nd I am going to blow up the Kremlin.”

By the time Paris received the letter three days later, the Russian czar’s seat of power was in flames and the diminished French army was in retreat. Its elegantly calligraphic ciphers show history’s famed general at one of his weakest moments.

“My cavalry is in tatters, many horses are dying,” dictated Napoleon, the once-feared leader showing the strain of his calamitous Russian invasion, which halved his army.

The rare document — dated Oct. 20, 1812, signed “Nap” in the emperor’s hand and written in numeric code — is up for auction Sunday at France’s Fontainebleau Auction House.

The Napoleon code, used only for top-secret letters when the French emperor was far from home, aimed to stop enemies from intercepting French army orders. The code was regularly changed to prevent it from being cracked.

Napoleon must have dispatched his strongest horses and riders to carry the news: It only took three days to reach France’s interior ministry — 1,540 miles (2,480 kilometers) across Europe.

“This letter is unique. Not only is it all in code, but it’s the first time we see this different Napoleon. He went into Moscow in 1812 at the height of his power. He returned profoundly weakened. In Moscow, the Russians had fled days before and burnt down the city. There was no victory for Napoleon, nor were there any provisions for his starving, dying army,” says Jean-Christophe Chataignier of the auction house.
The only thing left for the weakened leader was to give the order to burn Russia’s government buildings — coded in the letter as “449, 514, 451, 1365…”

It is evidence of what historians call the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s glorious empire, which started in Russia and ended at Waterloo three years later.
In June 1812, Napoleon’s “Grand Army” — at 600,000 men one of the largest in human history — confidently entered Russia. But they were woefully unprepared for the harsh weather, the strong Russian defense and the Russian scorched-earth tactics, which left nothing behind to sustain the hungry and freezing French troops.
“This letter is an incredible insight, we never see Napoleon emotively speaking in this way before,” says Chataignier. “Only in letters to (his wife) Josephine did he ever express anything near to emotion. Moscow knocked him.”

In the text — which announces that his commanders are evacuating Moscow — Napoleon laments his army’s plight, asking for assistance to replenish his forces and the ravaged cavalry, which saw thousands of horses die.

In September, 200 years after Russia’s victory over Napoleon, the Kremlin held huge celebrations aimed at rousing patriotism among modern Russians. The highlight was a re-enactment of the battle of Borodino — one of the most damaging clashes for Napoleon’s troops — which saw thousands in Russian and French military uniforms perform before several hundred thousand spectators.

The 1812 victory played an important role in Russia’s emergence as a major world power. Until World War I, Napoleon’s Russian campaign and the ensuing wars were the largest European military face-off in history.

The letter, which is accompanied by a second decoded sheet, is estimated to fetch up to €15,000 ($19,500).
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Richard III’s Remains Possibly Uncovered in England

Story by Anthony Faiola in The Washington Post, November 24, 2012:

Tyrant or hero? Rightful monarch or child-killer? Despotic hunchback or brave scoliosis sufferer? Now is the winter of our debate over one of England’s most notorious villains: Richard III.

Underneath a drab parking lot 90 miles northwest of London, archaeologists have unearthed what may become one of this nation’s finds of the century — half-a-millennium-old bones thought to be the remains of the long-lost monarch. But if the discovery has touched off a feverish round of DNA tests against his closest living descendants, it has also lurched to the surface a series of burning questions in a country where even arcane points of history are disputed with the gusto of modern-day politics.

What was the true nature of a king famously depicted by William Shakespeare as a twisted soul who locked his young nephews — and rivals to the throne — in the Tower of London, never to be heard from again? Did Shakespeare offer a fair accounting of historical record, or was the Bard the Karl Rove of his day, a spin doctor for the House of Tudor that assumed power after the monarch fell with fateful cries of “Treason!” at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485?

Whether the bones prove to be Richard’s or not, the discovery in September has already set academic journals, Web sites, university lecture circuits and the mainstream media abuzz across Britain, sparking intense and occasionally impolite exchanges. On the floor of the House of Commons, members of Parliament are eloquently clashing, with representatives from York — for whom Richard was the last hope against rival Lancastrians in the War of the Roses — demanding the restoration of his tarnished image. One organization of die-hard Richard III supporters (there are at least two) is running a national ad campaign to clear the king’s name.

There are even calls for a state funeral, giving the medieval king a send-off steeped in the pomp and circumstance of contemporary Britain.

“I suppose we won’t dash off to the Folger Library in Washington and destroy the First Folio, but we must rewrite the history distorted by that, ahem, writer from Stratford,” Hugh Bayley, a member of Parliament from York, said with tongue only partly planted in cheek. “The fact that a Mr. Shakespeare decided to write some play about a hunchback shouldn’t blacken the name of a fine, upstanding defender of country.”

Where to lay the bones?

Yet if the remains are indeed those of the long-lost sovereign — something archaeologists call extremely likely — it also raises a conundrum: Where to bury one of England’s most demonized characters?

Under Church of England protocol, the bones, should they prove to be Richard’s, appear destined to end up in the cathedral at Leicester, the city where the remains were found. But many insist they should instead go to the Anglican cathedral in York, the city where history suggests that he wanted to rest. Still others question whether burial should be in an Anglican cathedral at all, as he died a Roman Catholic, reigning by the grace of God and the pope.

Some of his staunchest backers — who paint him pious, brave and unyieldingly loyal to England — suggest that he deserves nothing less than a spot at Westminster Abbey, an honored resting place of legendary historical figures. But that option seems to have been quickly nipped in the bud by Queen Elizabeth II, who owes her own arrival on the royal stage to a chain of events set off by Richard’s death, which changed the course of history.

“We understand the queen has suggested that she doesn’t want him there,” said Phil Stone, chairman of the Richard III Society. Stone, interestingly, sides with critics who are against a state funeral, saying it would simply be “too much” in these troubled financial times. “But it would be nice if we could at least have a procession, with the coffin being carried in a stately carriage.”

Questioning Tudor history

That bones were found at all is a testament to the tenacity of Richard’s supporters. After his death, the king’s body was interred at a Leicester monastery and became buried in time and memory. But earlier this year, screenwriter and Richard III aficionado Philippa Langley cobbled together $52,000 to finance what become a single-minded ambition: finding his remains.

After comparing ancient maps and modern city plans, a team of archaeologists at Leicester University pinpointed possible locations of the old monastery and had a stroke of luck when the most likely site for Richard’s grave was found to be in a city parking lot. Spurred by the hope of tourism dollars, the city approved the dig, which in September uncovered the remains of a man — exactly where texts said the monarch was buried — who was of the right age and nourishment level and who had suffered battle trauma and spine damage.

DNA tests against a Canadian descendant of Richard’s eldest sister should be completed early next year. Yet even if the remains turn out not to be his, Richard III supporters have nevertheless already succeeded in provoking a nation to rethink his legacy.

“So much of what we know about him currently is wrong, and in the past we accepted the Tudor version of history unquestionably,” she said. “But not anymore.”

Indeed, for historians and Shakespearean scholars the find has also dug up the centuries-old debate over a much-maligned monarch.

Experts say there are few objective depictions of Richard III from his reign. Rather, his legacy was built largely on “Tudor propaganda,” including Polydore Vergil’s landmark “Anglica Historia” and the works of John Rous, who assured the medieval world that Richard III had been born with teeth and hair after two years in his mother’s womb.

What is clear is this: After decades of war between rival houses, Richard III became the last king of England to fall on the battlefield, slain while defending his crown against a marauding upstart backed by France. That upstart, Henry VII, seeded a House of Tudor that over a century would break with the Vatican, humble mighty Spain and usher in a golden age of British arts, enlightenment and power.

Analysis of the bones may also suggest the extent to which Shakespeare and early historians — upon whose accounts the writer drew — took creative license with the king’s appearance. He was described in Shakespeare’s “Richard III” as a hunchback “so lamely and unfashionable that dogs” barked at him as he went by. But the remains found in Leicester instead suggest a man with a less-dramatic curvature of the spine, likely from scoliosis.

Even Richard III backers tend to acknowledge that he is guilty of locking up the “princes in the tower” — his two nephews, 12 and 9, who were declared illegitimate so he could seize the throne after the death of his brother Edward IV. But the scant, unclear evidence of their fate — especially whether he took the step of having them killed — is now facing its deepest scrutiny in the better part of 500 years.

For his critics, the lost-and-found king cannot escape what history holds to be his most ghastly deed. “England cannot, should not, celebrate a child-killer,” said Gareth Russell, British novelist, historical blogger and certainly no friend to Richard III.

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Posthumous Pulitzer Prize Wanted for WWII Journalist

Manuel Roig-Franzia for The Washington Post, November 23, 2012:

In headier days, Ed Kennedy personified the hard-drinking, hard-charging war correspondent of another era. The first time his future wife saw him, he was sidled up to a hotel bar in Paris with none other than Ernest Hemingway, both of them so “dead drunk” they could hardly stand.

Kennedy was a star Associated Press correspondent with a penchant for daring evasion of authority, dashing into World War II battle zones where he wasn’t supposed to go because he had to get the story. He just had to.

But it was the biggest scoop of his career — Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender — that ruined his career. And a determined group of prominent journalists wants to do something about that.

They want Kennedy to be posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a recognition of a singular moment of courage when a star correspondent defied political and military censorship to file one of the biggest stories of the century.

“The way a craft evolves is that somebody has to define the edges, the boundaries,” says Kim Komenich, a Pulitzer-winning news photographer who is among 54 journalists pressing for Kennedy to receive a Pulitzer. “Ed got it right.”

On May 6, 1945, U.S. military officials ushered Kennedy and 16 other correspondents onto a plane in Paris. The plane was airborne before they learned the purpose of the trip: They were flying to Reims, France, to witness the signing of surrender documents ending the largest conflict in world history.

Kennedy chafed at being controlled. The reporters on the plane were “seventeen trained seals,” he observed acidly in a memoir, “Ed Kennedy’s War: V-E Day, Censorship, & the Associated Press,” that was published this spring, nearly a half-century after his death.

Their military handlers insisted that news of the signing be kept secret for several hours. But after they returned to Paris, the embargo was extended. Not for security reasons, which might have been an acceptable rationale, but for political reasons, Kennedy learned. It turned out that Russia’s leader, Joseph Stalin, wanted to stage a signing ceremony of his own to claim partial credit for the surrender, and U.S. officials were interested in helping him have his moment of glory.

The correspondents complained, but the military wasn’t budging. They had to hold the story. But then something happened that changed Kennedy’s mind and his life. He got word of a German radio report announcing the surrender.

The story was out, but the U.S. censors were holding fast.

Kennedy went to his room at the Hotel Scribe and stewed for 15 minutes. Then he found a military phone that he happened to know wasn’t monitored by censors. At 3:24 in the afternoon, he placed a call to AP’s London bureau.

“Germany has surrendered unconditionally,” he said, according to an account of the call by AP’s outgoing president, Tom Curley. “That’s official. Make the date[line] Reims, and get it out.”

Ed Kennedy’s story ran big in newspapers around the world. It should have been his greatest moment, but it became an ordeal. The military revoked his credentials, but that was the least of the indignities. His fellow correspondents turned on him, voting 54 to 2 to condemn him. And the head of AP — the Philadelphia Bulletin’s publisher, Robert McLean — apologized for Kennedy’s report rather than praising him.

Kennedy was summoned back to AP headquarters, where his bosses refused to accept his resignation but also refused to give him any work. Several months later, he discovered more than $4,000 in his checking account — it was a severance, though no one had the courtesy to tell him he was being fired. “They did it in the most cowardly way,” says Kennedy’s daughter, Julia Kennedy Cochran, a former journalist.

After being cut loose, Kennedy moved west, working for two years as managing editor of the small Santa Barbara News-Press, then shifting to Monterey, where he became editor of the Monterey Peninsula Herald, “a sad, little newspaper” that he turned into an award winner, Cochran said. It was a steep drop from his days as a star war correspondent, but Kennedy seemed to embrace it nonetheless, writing editorials, covering city council meetings and editing copy.

Ray March, who was a young reporter at the paper, remembered walking into Kennedy’s office and seeing the framed front page of the New York Times with his boss’s byline under the story of the German surrender. “This isn’t just your run-of-the-mill editor of a small newspaper,” March recalls thinking.

Kennedy had divorced by then, but his daughter would spend her teenage summers in Monterey with her chain-smoking, book-loving, exacting reporter of a father. She recalls a devoted, enthusiastic dad who, at times, inexplicably “seemed kind of depressed and sort of morose about something he wouldn’t talk about.”

Later, she would wonder whether he had second thoughts about his decision on that long-ago afternoon in Paris, even though he publicly declared he would have done it all over again.

One rainy night in November 1963, a sports car knocked Kennedy off his feet as he was walking home. He lingered in the hospital for several days before dying at age 58. The doctors found a cancerous tumor in his throat; his cause of death was listed as cancer, complicated by the injuries he suffered.

He’d been a prolific writer and, of course, there was an editorial he’d just penned waiting to be published. His editors ran it while he lay in the hospital. “One of the problems of publishing a newspaper is that you have to sell something that is dead,” the piece read. “We can sell these pieces of dead trees only by creating the illusion that they are alive. This we attempt to do, with varying success, by headlines that grip the eye and written material that clutches the heart and soul of man.”

After the funeral, Cochran’s mother, Lyn Crost — a former war correspondent herself — took her daughter to Kennedy’s office. Her mother knew there was a treasure to be found: the manuscript Kennedy had written back in 1951 and never been able to find someone to publish.

Over the years, Cochran tried to read it. But she could never finish it. It was too painful to recall the father she’d lost when she was just 16. She kept it packed away for more than 40 years, through marriage and divorce and a career change. Eventually, in retirement, she found time to read it anew and to gain a deeper understanding of the father she’d lost.

She set about searching for someone who would let her father tell his story. The publisher she found — Louisiana State University Press — didn’t tell her who they’d asked to write the introduction. It was Curley, the AP president. She was “overjoyed” when she read what he’d written, sentiments that he said Kennedy’s former bosses and AP’s board of that era “could not admit.”

“Edward Kennedy,” Curley wrote, “was the embodiment of the highest aspirations of the Associated Press and American journalism.”

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Civil War Relics Found in Fredricksburg, Virginia

Michael Ruane for The Washington Post, November 23, 2012:

Perhaps the Yankee boys from Company C had tumbled into the basement on Princess Anne Street to escape the rebel snipers hidden in the ruined buildings outside.

Maybe they had sought refuge after the suicidal slaughter on the nearby heights, where the Confederates packed behind a stone wall had mowed down rank upon rank of charging Union lads.

Or maybe they were among the Northern soldiers who pillaged Fredericksburg as the battle here unfolded in a federal defeat.

All the archaeologists have to go on are the things they left behind — bullets, charred clay pipe bowls, buckles, buttons and other refuse of war.

Last month, experts finished unearthing, in the basement of a long-vanished house, a trove of artifacts that appears to date from the Civil War’s Battle of Fredericksburg — 150 years ago next month.

Thousands of items, dropped, discarded or forgotten, were dug from the site, which became sealed in time after the Union army retreated from the December 1862 battle and the house on the site burned down.

They were tantalizing finds — bullets that had been unloaded from muskets; two brass letters, “C,” likely from Union hats; two number “2” insignia, perhaps indicating the soldiers’ regiment.

There were also knapsack hooks, the finial from a cartridge box, and the remains of ration tins, almost all of it the equipment of Yankee soldiers, archaeologists said.

For a century and a half, it stayed buried. After the war passed, modern buildings came and went on the site, and the soldiers who fought at Fredericksburg aged, died and faded into memory.

Then, in September, the Glen Allen, Va., firm Cultural Resources began an archaeological dig at the behest of the city of Fredericksburg, prior to the construction of a new court building.

As the archaeologists peeled back the layers of dirt and history, artifacts by the thousands began to emerge.

“I had never really sunk into a Civil War feature like that, so it was childlike for me,” said Donald Sadler, a project archaeologist. “You’d take your trowel and go across the one layer and it was ‘chink, chink, chink, chink, chink.’ The bullets were that numerous.”

The experts recovered “boxes of this stuff,” Taft Kiser, another project archaeologist, said recently at the company’s headquarters, where the items are being curated. The dig, which cost about $70,000, ended Oct. 19.

Ellen M. Brady, the firm’s president, said the basement had become a time capsule, encased most recently beneath the concrete slab of a modern building, since torn down.

“We think that the house that was there during the Civil War was burned, either during the battle in 1862 or shortly thereafter,” she said. “What the archaeology is telling is that sometime after this battle . . . this house was gone.”

“There’s no 20th-century trash,” she said. “There’s no co-mingling with later material.. . . It’s very discrete, which is rare.”

She said some of the items — glass inkwells, a comb, a watch chain — suggest that the Yankees’ stay in the basement might have been for more than a few hours.

Also intriguing were a pile of bullets found in a corner of the basement that bore indications that they had been loaded in muskets but were extracted without being fired.

The basement occupants may have charged “up the hill as far as they could, and . . . kind of recoiled back looking for shelter,” Kiser said.

The Union army fought over, and then occupied, Fredericksburg for several days during the battle. “We think they were basically just camped out,” Brady said, “taking refuge in the houses of Fredericksburg before they were expelled or moved on.”

The battle was one of the Union’s most disastrous defeats.

A Northern army of about 120,000 men, under newly installed commander Gen. ­Ambrose E. Burnside, sought to cross the Rappahannock River and attack 78,000 Confederates under Gen. Robert E. Lee, assembling at Fredericksburg.

Burnside crossed the river on pontoon bridges and seized the town. He then launched a series of futile assaults on Rebels dug in behind a stone wall at a place called Marye’s Heights, on the western outskirts.

About 12,600 of Burnside’s men were killed, wounded or missing, according to the National Park Service. Lee lost less than half that and remarked to a subordinate, “It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.”

But less discussed aspects of the battle were its house-to-house street fighting — the first on the American continent, according to historian Francis Augustin O’Reilly — and the despoiling of the town by the Yankees before they left.

“The war was embittered here to a degree that really very few other battlefields can match,” said John Hennessy, chief historian at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.

“That was because of, at least for the South, this image of civilians under duress, civilians as refugees, civilians’ homes being bombarded . . . and then, of course, soldiers entering homes and looting them,” he said.

There are accounts of drunken Union soldiers plundering houses, slashing oil paintings, and cavorting through the streets in women’s clothing. “The sacked and gutted town (had) the look of pandemonium,” a Union soldier remembered later.

Hennessy said he believes it is most likely the artifacts from the basement are “associated with that moment . . . when Union troops committed what Southerners saw as a grave offense.”

The city “had been reduced to ruins,” O’Reilly wrote of the battle — setting the stage “for the way modern armies would fight from then on.”

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WWII Secret Code Found

From Sydney Morning Herald, November 25, 2012:

THEY have eavesdropped on the enemy for decades, tracking messages from Hitler’s high command and the Soviet KGB, and moved on to the murky, modern world of satellites and cyberspace. But a lowly and mysterious carrier pigeon may have them baffled.

Britain’s code-breakers have acknowledged that an encrypted, handwritten message from World War II, found on the leg of a long-dead carrier pigeon in a household chimney in southern England, has thwarted all efforts to decode it since it was sent to them last month.

Pigeon specialists said it might have been flying home from British units in France about the time of the Normandy landings in 1944 when it expired in the chimney at the 17th-century home in Bletchingley, south of London.

After sustained pressure from pigeon-fanciers, Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters code-breaking unit in Gloucestershire agreed to try to crack the code.

But on Friday the secretive organisation acknowledged that it had been unable to do so.

”The sorts of code that were constructed during operations were designed only to be able to be read by the senders and the recipients,” a historian at GCHQ told the BBC.

”Unless we get rather more idea than we have about who sent this message and who it was sent to, we are not going to be able to find out what the underlying code was,” said the historian, who was identified only as Tony under GCHQ’s secrecy protocols.
The pigeon’s skeleton was found by David Martin, a retired probation officer, when he was cleaning out the chimney as part of a renovation.

The message, identifying the pigeon by the code name 40TW194, had been folded into a small scarlet capsule attached to its leg.

Mr Martin said he was sceptical that GCHQ had been unable to crack the code. ”I think there’s something about that message that is either sensitive or does not reflect well” on British special forces operating behind enemy lines in wartime France, he said.

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Night of the Broken Glass/Kristallnacht

From The Algemeiner.com, November 9, 2012:

A striking article on the BBC’s news magazine website tells the story of Edgar Feuchtwanger, a former neighbor of Adolf Hitler’s in an affluent Munich neighborhood.

Feuchtwanger recalls early memories of seeing Hitler in the street, describing the quixotic notions he had as an 8-yr old being so close to power.

“It all sounds so cosy when I talk about how I lived in the same road as Hitler, like it was not a big deal,” he told the BBC. “But it’s so difficult to think that people you saw almost on a daily basis were responsible for turning the world upside down.”

Feuchtwanger began to incorporate Hitler into his daily routine. He would walk by his residence in the hopes of spotting him, and once even approached the door to see if he could spot his name on the door-bell.

Other Jewish families were moved out of the neighborhood on Hitler’s orders but for several years Feuchtwanger’s family was undisturbed.

But, as the BBC article explains: On November 10, 1938 “that false sense of security was crushed. Early in the morning, the 14-year-old Edgar heard officers from the feared Gestapo arrive at the family home. The previous night had seen the first wave of organised Nazi violence directed against Jews across Germany and parts of occupied Austria.”

Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass, changed Feuchtwanger’s world forever. The Gestapo arrested Feuchtwanger’s father, who was taken away to Dachau. “They did not mistreat him,” he told the BBC. “My mother was terribly brave.” Feuchtwanger’s father was fortunate. He returned from Dachau six weeks later and in 1939 the family fled to England.

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New History Books

Interested in finding the newest history books to read? Just take a look at our “New History Books” section on our blog. Updated frequently.

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