When you think of WWI German troops you probably imagine them wearing helmets like those above. (C’com we all spend time thinking about WWI German soldiers, don’t pretend you don’t.) That style helmet is known as a pickelhaube. Which literally translates to “pickaxe bonnet”. It was a staple of the Prussian military and made its way in the German military and many of their civil services.
Originally designed in 1842 by King Frederick William IV of Prussia, it was based on a style that the Russian army had recently adopted That was based on the old French Napoleonic cuirassier helmet. The spike at the top was originally used to hold a plume of horsehair as these were primarily used in cavalry units.
At the start of WWI in 1914, the Germans manufactured their helmets out of leather. As the war went on the stocks of leather dwindled and versions of the helmet started being made out of everything from thin sheets of metal to pressurized felt. Even paper. None of which offered great protection. By 1915, materials aside, the biggest problem with the pickelhaube was the actual spike itself. A new model was developed with a detachable spike. When on the front lines the spike would be removed.
In 1916 the Germans started issuing a new model steel helmet that provided a lot more protection for the head from shell fragments. Yes, steel proved better protection than felt and paper. Who knew? With the fall for the German Empire in 1918, the fancy version of the helmet was demoted to ceremonial uses. Many countries and organizations have some form of pickelhaube in use today.
A Side Story to the 1765 Stamp Act
The Stamp Act had an incredible effect on history, but it had an unusual side effect that sometimes gets missed in the discussion. To tell that though we need to first look the Stamp Act itself.
In 1765 the American Colonies were firmly under the control of the British Parliament. The recently ended French & Indian War (Seven Years War in Europe) had left the British the undisputed ruler of the North American continent. The British Army in conjunction with the American colonial forces defeated the French and all seemed well for a time. Prior to the French & Indian War, the British rulers had a sort of hands-off policy towards the American colonies. Only occasionally tweaking or supporting but never really “ruling” as they could.
Now the British were faced with two issues. The cost of the war to defend the colonies from the French and the now ongoing expense of posting substantial force in America to defend against the natives. They needed money and felt it was time for the colonies to foot their share of the bill. The first attempt at this was the 1765 Stamp Act passed by Parliament.
The tax would require the colonists to pay on anything that required paper. This included legal documents, licenses, newspapers, other publications. Even playing cards. This did not sit well with the colonists who opposed this sort of “direct” taxation. They took to the streets in protest through most of the colonies. It could be said that the revolution started here. It was eventually repealed and Parliament would spend the next ten years stumbling through a bad idea after a bad idea to get the Americans to pay taxes.
So the unusual side effect? People in the colonies who took offense with the Stamp Act looked for some way to show their displeasure and to speak out beyond the newspapers and protests. So a market developed to fill that need. Whereas today we would wear ribbons or buttons or put bumper stickers on our cars, items like you see in the photo above, a simple teapot with a slogan became one of the more popular forms of subtle protest. Surely these items were made in Boston or Philadelphia or any other of the hot spot of the revolution.
Nope. They were made in England and Ireland and shipped to the Americans. While the British government struggled with how to deal with the Americans, their merchants figured the best way was to take their money and laugh all the way to the bank.
Surrender at Yorktown
On October 19, 1781, the Sige fo Yorktown finally came to an end. American and French forces accepted the full surrender of the British army. The war would go on for several more years, but the British defeat at Yorktown was the last full battle of the American Revolution.
The actual surrender was completed on paper in fourteen articles of capitulation that were agreed upon by the commanders. The document above was believed to have been printed on a French ship in the bay and was one of several copies used to first spread the word of the surrender. It is original and dates to 1781.
The Fourteen Articles
- Article 1
- British and German soldiers and sailors in York and Gloucester were to surrender themselves as prisoners.
- Article 2
- Artillery, arms, stores and military chest (money) were to be turned over.
- Article 3
- Two redoubts on the left flank were to be handed over to the American/French forces.
- Article 4
- Officer may keep their sides arms and personal belongings.
- Article 5
- The soldiers while prisoners were to be afforded the same rations as American soldiers. They would be allowed to receive additional supplies as provided by their officers or other parties.
- Article 6
- Some of the men not counted above may be paroled to Europe for the remainder of the war.
- Article 7
- Officers will be allowed to maintain soldiers as servants.
- Article 8
- A ship was to be provided so that Cornwallis could communicate with his commander, General Clinton, in New York.
- Article 9
- Traders that were captured with the British Army were no to be treated as prisoners and were allowed to dispose of their goods.
- Article 10
- Natives or inhabitants of other parts of the country are not to be punished for providing service to the British. (This one became tricky.)
- Article 11
- Proper hospitals should be provided.
- Article 12
- Wagons should be furnished for transport.
- Article 13
- Shipping and boats captured in the harbor will be turned over to American naval officers.
- Article 14
- No article is to be infringed on based on reprisals.
For more details on the articles click here.
The Power Of The Press
As part of the celebration of the Bicentennial (America’s 200th Birthday) President Gerald Ford was presented with a printing press that had been built in France in 1785. The gift was to point out how the printing press in our struggle for independence. The power of the press accomplished more than any battle ever could have.
Americans in the Eighteenth Century were among the most literate people in the world. Newspapers were numerous and political pamphlets and broadsides were as common as blogs are today. This enabled people in Georgia to read about the events in Boston in the words of people who witnessed events. This chain of paper bound the colonies together.
Pamphlets formed the spine of the resistance. Some of the most important ones in the years prior to 1775 are:
- John Dickinson, Letters of a Farmer in Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1768)
- James Warren, Oration to Commemorate the Bloody Tragedy of the Fifth of March, 1770 (Boston, 1772)
- Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British Americans (Williamsburg, 1774)
The opposition also generated a ton of paper to get their views out to as many people as possible. Some of their most notable are:
- Samuel Seabury, The Congress Canvassed (New York, 1774)
- Thomas B. Chandler, A Friendly Address to All Reasonable Americans(New York, 1774)
- Daniel Leonard, Origin of the American Contest . . . by Massachusettensis (Boston, 1775)
As for newspapers, well there were many on both sides that spoke for the Patriots and the Loyalists, each a propaganda arm of the various movements. The best look at newspapers during the Revolution comes in the collection Reporting the Revolutionary War by Todd Andrlink. In that collection, he gathers many of the surviving newspaper articles. Worth a read. You can catch an interview with him about the book here.
The printing press was a very apt present for the country. It serves as a reminder that the power of the press is an awesome power that should be wielded responsibly, now more than ever.
Keep Your Gunpowder Dry
Gunpowder changed the way that lives were lived and wars were fought, no one can deny that. From guns to bombs, to fireworks, to any number of uses. It gives a great amount of bang for the buck (pun intended). The only problem is that once it gets wet, it quits banging. So for ages people have been coming up with ways to keep their powder dry. The most popular was the good old-fashioned cow horn. It was waterproof and easily obtainable, just eat a cow and usually you get two!
During the French & Indian War, American and British forces took the old-fashioned powder horn to new heights by engraving them with military themes. The smooth surfaces were perfect for engraving and anyone that has been to war knows the old adage, “hurry up and wait.” So the men had plenty of time to be creative.
The powder horn above was a custom job that was carved for a veteran of the 1758 siege of Louisbourg (Nova Scotia, yeah, we invaded Nova Scotia once). The horn contains a map of the city showing where each artillery battery was located, shows ships in the harbor firing on the city, a hunter with his dog, and a light infantryman firing his weapon at Native Americans. (It was a different time!)
In the center of the horn is a distinctively carved tree. This style of the tree was like a signature for the artist. Unfortunately, he remains unidentified, but his work has been seen several times.
A War On Your Doorstep…Twice for McLean
Wilmer McLean was a businessman, in fact, a wholesale grocer in Virginia that probably would have never been a blip on the historical radar if not for where he chose to live. When the Battle of First Manassas (Bull Run to our Yankee friends) broke out in Virginia on July 21, 1861, McLean’s house was literally on the front line.
Confederate General Beauregard used it for his headquarters and the house itself suffered damage from Union artillery during the fight. In the picture above is the foundation stone from that very house. The inscription reads simply “Wilmer McLean, 1856…Rector. Builder.” The battle ended in a Confederate victory and four long and bloody years of war were underway.
At 47 Wilmer felt he was too old to join in the fighting though he was a retired major in the Virginia militia. Instead, he worked in his capacity as a grocer, supplying what he could to the Confederate army. With Northern Virginia now pretty much under Federal control though he found it tough to provide for his family and feared for their safety. So in the spring of 1863, he packed them up and bought a house about 120 miles south. To Appomattox, Virginia.
On April 9th, 1865 a knock on his front door let Wilmer know that his home had been chosen as the sight of the surrender negotiations between Generals Robert E. Lee and US Grant. There in his parlor, the two titans met and all but ended the major fighting of the Civil War. His home had seen the start of the war and the end of the war.
Falling on hard times in 1867 he sold the house in Appomattox and moved the family back to Manassas then later to Alexandria. It would be easy to feel a little sorry for this man who the war seemed to follow like a specter, but then again for a number of years in the 1870’s he worked for the Internal Revenue Service, so maybe not.
Counting on the Continental Currency
On June 22, 1775, the Continental Congress issued the first Continental currency in the form of $2 million in bills of credit. At the time paper money was almost a rarity as most people preferred hard currency. Actual coins made of silver and gold. Unfortunately, there was not enough of the hard specie, as it was called, in the colonies to pay for the war.
The paper money was backed only by the promise of future tax revenues and fluctuated badly from the start. The value rising and falling based on the performance of the Continental Army against the British. It did not take long for the up and down to become simply a down as rampant inflation, lack of faith in the currency and the British penchant for counterfeiting (Read more about that here! Or in the hardcover annual here.) made the paper not even worth the paper it was printed on.
By 1781 the exchange rate was $225 to $1. ($225 in Continental currency for $1 of hard specie.) This was at a time when the average Continental Army private made $5 a month in Continental scrip. If they were paid at all. Most men had received little if any pay since 1778.
Joseph Plumb Martin, a soldier from Connecticut, relays in his memoirs a story where to earn a little extra (having not been paid in many months) he assisted in a roundup of runaway slaves that had fled to the service of British after the siege at Yorktown in 1781 had ended. “… the fortune I acquired was small, only one dollar; I received what was then called its equivalent, in paper money, if money it might be called, it amounted to twelve hundred (nominal) dollars, all of which I afterwards paid for one single quart of rum; to such a miserable state had all paper stuff, called-money- depreciated.”
Twelve hundred dollars for a quart of rum, and we thought prices were high today. The struggle to pay for the war is an epic tale for another time. It almost came to pass that counting on currency was almost a disaster.
The Sound of Drums
Since the beginning of warfare leaders needed to be able to communicate with their troops from a distance. To get their commands heared through the din of battle. during the roar of battle. In many places in the world, the drum has always been one of the most favored methods of battlefield communication.
Drums would be used to men where to gather, and when to attack. When to leave the battlefield and when to curfew had fallen on the camp. From a distance, units could communicate with other to coordinate. Drums would also help the soldiers keep their pace when marching.
Since our military heritage is drawn mainly from European tradition, it is interesting to note that prior to the Crusades, drums were not used in European armies. In fact, when facing off against the forces of Islam, who made heavy use of large kettledrums to command the troops, they found that their horses reacted poorly to the noise to which they had never heard. Early battles were heavily affected by the enemies drums until they grew accustomed.
Returning armies worked the drums into their operations. By the time that the European powers came to the American continent, they found themselves up against indigenous people that had been using drums for communication for thousands of years.
Drums, bugles and other musical instruments found their way into the US military. They only started to fade from use during the Civil War when the telegraph began taking its place in the command and control realm. Eventually, the radio would provide the most direct communication method and the drums fell silent as a battlefield tool.
The Quonset Hut, A Home Away From Home
A small city in the middle of nowhere made up of the same style buildings. Semi-circular, corrugated metal, long and low. That is a Quonset Hut you see making up these small cities that have served as makeshift homes and office for the military since the early days of WWII.
In 1941 the US Navy was looking for a lightweight, general purpose prefabricated building that could be shipped anywhere in the world. The George A. Fuller construction company won the bid and the first of many of these huts rolled off the assembly line.
During WWII over 150,000 of these buildings were produced and after the war, they were sold for about $1,000 to the civilian market with many turned into small starter homes for families. Colleges turned them into cheap student housing, many churches and small business invested in the steel half-shells. Some military bases, especially overseas, still make use of these and other similar designs. You can even buy the kits on eBay if you wanted to have a new one for whatever purposes.
Odds are you have seen them in one place or another. If you were or are military I can almost guarantee it. They will always be a symbol of the industriousness and flexibility of the armed forces. The ones in the picture above were deployed during the Vietnam War and served as a hospital and administration.
Oh and the name, Quonset Hut? It comes from where they were originally manufactured, Quonset, Rhode Island. Which is famous for exactly nothing else!
In the Civil War, it was not uncommon for soldiers to write their name and hometown on pieces of paper to be pinned onto their backs. The idea was that if they were to fall in battle someone would know who they were. Maybe even there would be a chance for their body to make it home.
To that extent, the Civil War saw innovations in embalming techniques that would allow for a body to be preserved for the trip home. If they could afford it. A soldier who purchased the service would be issued a medallion that they were to wear around their neck. After the battle representatives of the embalming company would search through the bodies to find their clients. These men would be embalmed and sent home.
What would eventually become “dog tags” was born.
On December 20, 1906, War Department General Order No. 204 that was issued. This order made the “identification tag” standard military issue. This tag was to be an aluminum disk approximately the size of a silver half-dollar. It would be stamped with name, rank, company, and regiment. The order provided that the tags would be issued to enlisted men for free, but officers had to purchase theirs at cost.
In 1916 the regulations were changed to provide two tags to each individual. One to be kept with them and one for the burial services and record keeping. At a later point, the religious beliefs of the wounded were added to ensure the proper services during burial.
The tags in the picture above are from the Pre-WWI era and were most likely issued to American soldiers that were engaged in the Philippine Insurrection.