The Military History Carnival
August 18, 2008 12:00 AM
Every four years it seems as if the world goes mad. All normal television broadcasts are cancelled. Newspapers and magazines stop delivering news. Whole populations become couch potatoes overnight. And everyone (well everyone in Britain anyway) suddenly become interested in some of the most bizarre sports. Like rowing. Or shooting. Or sailing. Yes, it is time for the Olympics, that sporting World War, where once again it is perfectly acceptable for countries to violently compete over natural resources… well bronze, silver and gold anyway!
The history of the Olympics is long and is quintessentially tied in with military history. From its evolution in Olympia, Greece in 776 BC, through to its revival in 1859 and up to the Games' current incarnation in Beijing, the Olympic Games seem to have been intertwined with war. Past Games were cancelled because of the two World Wars and boycotted because of Suez and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This year, the Olympic torch was subjected to protests over allegations of human rights abuses in China. The Olympic torch itself is tainted by the fact that it was devised by Hitler and the Nazis for the Berlin Olympics.
Because the Olympics are such an international event, I thought it would be interesting to theme this Carnival as an Olympic series of events, and it seems to have worked rather well… so hold on tight and let’s dive right in!
THE MEDAL WAR
The Olympics for the last 50 years were largely dominated by the Cold War. Unable, or unwilling to meet each other in full-on military confrontation, the Soviet Union and the West (particularly the USA) embarked on a ‘medal battle’ to prove themselves superior – at least on the sporting field. There is an interesting article about the Cold War and sport here…
This division of the world into competing blocs was firmly rooted in the political situation of the time (think the Eurovision Song Contest but with running instead of singing). A great blog has been submitted to me from The Whited Sepulchre, which brings this division of the world into sections into a starker light. Apparently drawn up in 1942, the map discussed in the blog provides a stark insight into how the world was going to split into opposing sections along political, social and geographic lines. It is also interesting to note how these divisions still apply today.
The Olympics allowed East and West to compete against each other, without bringing about the end of the world. It was a bearable way of portraying one nation’s victory over another – without the bloodshed and horror. A blog submitted from Icybooh examines and discusses a video that attempts to portray the history of the world at war. The video needs to be seen to be believed. It is a comic, sanitised portrayal of war which seems all the more horrific for the light hearted nature of the piece.
The name of the marathon event comes from the legend of Pheidippides, a Greek messenger who was sent from the town of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon. It is said he ran faster than any other man, never stopping for rest, food or drink, before arriving in Athens, announcing the victory and promptly dying of exhaustion.
Even if you have no interest in history (or sport) you will probably know this story, but it is an interesting example of legend and history becoming intertwined, a subject that is touched on at The Historical Archives, where Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 has become the single available reference for people new to history. They argue that it is commendable that the graphic novel and the movie spin-off have interested a new generation of historians, but both sources completely ignore the help that the Spartans received from other elements of the Greek army.
Rowing has been contested at the Olympics since 1900, but it was only from 1976 that women were able to compete in the sport. Steve Redgrave is often held up as the greatest Olympian of the modern era following his haul of 5 gold medals in 5 straight games, overshadowing the Romanian rower Elisabeta Lipa who arguably had a greater rowing career, winning two medals more than Redgrave, appearing in 6 games and having a 20 year gap between her first and last Olympic golds.
This brings me on to a great post submitted by Alexander Clark on the Military History and Warfare site, which describes the life of the Swedish Warship ‘Vasa’. With some great photographs of the warship attached, it traces the history of the ‘Vasa’ from construction through its service during the 30 Years War, its eventual sinking and more recently, its salvage and restoration.
GRECO-ROMAN WRESTLING :
One of the two styles of wrestling practised at the Olympic games, but the name of the sport is grossly misleading. This style of wrestling grew out of a 19th century French form of wrestling and was dubbed Greco-Roman to underline the interest in ‘ancient values’.
Either way, Greece and Italy have never performed tremendously well in this sport – and most recently the Greco-Roman mat is being dominated by Eastern nations, particularly Russia and former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan.
At The Waving Flag there is a blog that relates to the defeat of Rome in the East. He reviews a free chapter of a new book by publishers Pen and Sword which he notes is an ideal freebie for wargamers!
ARCHERY AND FENCING:
Archery and Fencing both have a long Olympic pedigree, but it always seems to me that they would be more suited to the medieval joust than to the modern day Olympics. Time has moved on, of course. The bows are now composites made from the finest materials available – and usually with a massively ungainly sighting apparatus hanging off the side of the bow. I always tend to wonder how the modern day archer would rate when placed up against an archer from Agincourt with similar equipment. Though I would imagine that back then it was more about the quantity of arrows in the air rather than pinpoint accuracy...
Master James of St George comes back to life at The Lost Fort to tell us what it was actually like to be responsible for building castles – complete with the window slits for the archers defending the castle.
At the same blog there is an interesting array of pictures taken in the dungeons of medieval castles. Although the waxwork figures there don’t look terribly lifelike!
Made its debut at the 1900 Olympics in Paris and includes three main events, Dressage, Eventing and Jumping. Again, this is another sport which seems more suited to the medieval joust.
Personally I am not sure how ‘kind’ horse riding events are, but their lot has certainly improved since the Crimean War. The Historical Archives submitted this brilliant post about the legendary Charge of the Light Brigade, which investigates the causes behind the decision to charge a battery of artillery.
Speaking of men charging into battle on horseback, the author of this blog is obviously a massive fan of armour – and he discusses his personal experiences of wearing armour – and how its weight and style has evolved over time. Having had to ‘suit up’ myself in the past – I can totally understand why he is going to replace his armour with a light-weight version.
“What?” I hear you cry…”Golf is not an Olympic Sport!”. And you would be almost right. Golf was featured in the Summer Games programme in 1900 and 1904. However, since then we have not had the opportunity to watch golfers knee deep in bunkers trying to birdie their way to a gold medal.
Speaking of bunkers, at City of Ember Underground, there is a blog about a whole different type of bunker – the Cold War era nuclear bunker in Burlington, which was built so that the government could continue in the event of a massive attack. The bunker complex has been recently decommissioned and is now up for sale.
Gliding is one of a number of sports that has been a 'demonstration' Olympic sport. It was trialled at the 1936 Olympics and was intended to be introduced as a full, official sport in the 1940 Olympics, until the Second World War intervened and the games were cancelled.
Gliders were used throughout the Second World War. The Germans famously used them in the invasion of Crete, whilst the allies used them to drop troops behind enemy lines during D-Day.
On a World War 2 / Aviation note, this blog on The Spitfire site, is the story of a young radar operator, describing how radar worked, the problems that they faced, and what life was like for the young women who worked on the radar system. At Teaching the Civil War with Technology there is another blog about women and their importance and role in wartime. The blog is about Clara Barton, who during the Battle of Antietam nursed hundreds of wounded soldiers. The Word on Employment Law with John Phillips might not seem to be an obvious place to discover military history blogs, but he has submitted two articles. The first of these continues the theme of women in the military, focusing on the nomination of Lt. Gen. Ann E Dunwoody to head the Army’s Material Command as a four-star general, and how this will hopefully aid the ongoing equality battle in the military in particular and in the workplace in general.
Now, water motorsports is one of those discontinued Olympic sports that I reckon I could have done quite well in. It appeared for one brief moment in the Olympics in 1908, and in each of the three events that were held, only one boat finished because of some truly terrible weather. But I think, if the weather was good it could be quite an enjoyable sport – sitting back with a cocktail and having a great time…which rather worryingly is all that seems to be happening with the crew of the USS Mullinnix 50 years ago when it was preparing to depart for Tampico. The blog is a great, rollicking description of a very good night out for some of the crew!
Shooting at the Summer Olympics has featured in every modern Olympics (except 1904 and 1928). In the second of his submitted posts, here John Phillips discusses recent gun law decisions in the US – and the convoluted legal ramifications therein!
THE SPIRIT OF THE OLYMPICS
Whilst this year's games have come under scrutiny for possibly not being in the spirit of the games, I have always thought that sport was a great unifier, and was hopeful that this year the Olympics would have staged a fantastic coup by bringing North Korea and South Korea to the games as one unified team. Unfortunately, whilst early discussions appeared promising, eventually this plan fell through, and both Koreas are now sending separate teams. Hopefully this will not be the end in efforts to get the two nations together. The recent conflict between Russia and Georgia has also reared it's
head at these Olympics - with Russians and Georgians facing off against
each other. In the shooting event the Georgian and Russian athletes were able to put aside politicking and embraced the spirit of the Olympics. All of which brings me nicely onto the last featured post this month, a haunting piece from the Army of Tennessee that speculates about how close the American South may have come to declaring war on the American North after the end of the American Civil War – in effect creating a Civil War II. Thankfully this never happened and bloodshed was avoided.
And that is it for this month's edition of the Military History Carnival. A massive 'thank you' to everyone who submitted posts and suggestions - we couldn't put this together each month without you all! Next month's carnival will be hosted by Alex Clark at History of Warfare on the 14th September. To submit a blog email Alex here.
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One big difference between the ancient Olympics and the modern is that wars could be postponed or cancelled so that the games could take place with all Greeks participating. The games, and the Spartan’s Carneia festival, were given as a reason for the poor turn-out at Thermopylae (in fact sufficient for what needed to be done), but the commitment of at least ten-times the manpower and most of the Greek fleet to the parallel naval action at Artemisium strongly suggests that religious obligations were a lesser consideration on this occasion. As to Marathon, no ancient sources contain any reference to Phidippides making the famous run and the earliest sources make no reference to the run at all. However, the forced march on the same day of the triumphant but exhausted Greeks back to the shoreline of Athens to scare off the Persian fleet was Olympian enough. Before the battle, Phidippides was credited with the extraordinary feat of running to Sparta and back with the Athenians’ urgent request that the Spartans march to their assistance, 140 miles each way: now that would be a decent antidote to beach volleyball as an Olympic event! The Spartans didn’t make it in time because, as in 480, they were busy celebrating the Carneia, as important to them as the Olympics.
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