August 30th 1914: Battle of Tannenberg ends
On this day in 1914 during World War One, the Germans defeated the Russians at the Battle of Tannenberg after four days of fighting. The first major battle on the Eastern front, Tannenberg devastated the underprepared Russian army, who suffered 170,000 casualties to the Germans’ 12,000, thus eviscerating the Russian Second Army. The overwhelming victory of the German army made this battle one of the few decisive battles in a war characterised by stalemate and attritional warfare. The Germans thus successfully repelled the Russians from East Prussia, and their victory can partly be attributed to their superior tactics, including the use of large turning movements by train. One German leader for this battle was Paul von Hindenberg who went on to become President of Germany and saw the start of Nazi rule before his death in 1934. The Russian generals were largely incompetent due to their personal feud and one, Alexander Samsonov, committed suicide on August 30th after the Battle of Tannenberg rather than report the defeat to Tsar Nicholas II. The Russian First Army soon suffered the same fate as the Second and fell under German attack.
100 years ago today
August 28th 1955: Emmett Till murdered
On this day in 1955, the 14-year-old African-American boy Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi. While visiting family in the state, Till allegedly flirted with the young white shopkeeper Carolyn Bryant while buying candy. Bryant told her husband and a few nights later he and his half-brother abducted Till and brutally tortured and murdered him. His mutilated body was found three days later in the Tallahatchie river; Till’s face was unrecognisable, but he was identified by the ring he wore engraved with his father’s initials that his mother gave him before he left for Mississppi. The viciousness of this unprovoked, racially-motivated crime sent shockwaves throughout the nation. The case drew attention to the oppression of African-Americans throughout the nation and provided a name and a face to the threat of lynching. Till’s mother Mamie, a highly educated woman who went on to become a devoted fighter for African-American equality, insisted on an open-casket funeral in order to show the world what was done to her young son. Thousands attended the funeral and thousands more saw the horrific images of Till’s body. Due to the fierce reactions the murder had engendered it was a particularly painful, but sadly expected, outcome when the all-white jury in Mississippi acquitted Till’s killers, despite Till’s great-uncle openly identifying them in court. A few months later the killers, now protected by double jeopardy laws, sold their story to Look magazine and openly confessed to the murder in chilling detail. Taking place a year after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education, the outrage over the murder galvanised the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. 100 days after Emmett Till’s murder Rosa Parks, on her way back from a rally for Till hosted by the then-unknown Martin Luther King Jr., refused to give up her seat for a white man on an Alabama bus. This sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, thus beginning the movement that would result in the dismantling of the system of Jim Crow segregation and win successes in promoting African-American social and political equality.
August 26th 1910: Mother Teresa born
On this day in 1910, Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu (now best known as Mother Teresa) was born to an Albanian family in Skopje, Macedonia which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. She became a nun when she was 18 and joined the Sisters of Loreto. In 1946 she claimed that she had a vision of God telling her to leave the convent and help the poor. She obeyed and lived among the poor in India and it was during this time that she went from Sister Teresa to Mother Teresa. In 1950 she established Missionaries of Charity, a Catholic congregation which helps the poor, the ill and the homeless. Members of the order, which still continues to do good works, make four vows, the last of which is to give “Wholehearted and Free service to the poorest of the poor”. Her work drew great international attention and in 1979 she received the Nobel Peace Prize. While being praised by many she was also a figure of controversy partly due to her opposition to contraception and for the large donations from disreputable sources her organisation accepted. Towards the end of her life Mother Teresa began to feel doubts about her religious convictions, and died in Calcutta on 5th September 1997, aged 87.
"I was to leave the convent and help the poor while living among them. It was an order. To fail would have been to break the faith."
- Mother Teresa on her message from God
August 24th 1929: Hebron Massacre
On this day in 1929, around 67 Jews were killed by an Arab mob in Hebron, Palestine. The massacre took place during the 1929 Palestine Riots, which in total resulted in the deaths of 133 Jews and 110 Arabs. At this time, Palestine was under British administration and was known as the British Mandate of Palestine. The local Arab majority resented the immigration of Jews into their homeland, especially Hebron, a city considered a holy site for both Muslims and Jews. The tensions came to a head when false rumours spread that Jews were killing Arabs in the holy city of Jerusalem and were threatening Muslim holy sites. Violence thus soon erupted in Hebron, where many Jews (both foreign settlers and Palestinian Jews) were killed and wounded, with scores of homes and synagogues also targetted and destroyed. Around 435 Jews survived the massacre, largely due to the support of local Arab families who hid them, allowing them to survive the violence and soon be evacuated. Despite repeated warnings of possible violence in the area, the British authorities in Hebron were woefully unprepared, with just one British policeman stationed there. The rest of the police force was made up of local Arabs, some of whom actually joined in the killings. Hebron, located in the West Bank, remains a place of tensions between local Palestinians and Jewish settlers.
August 22nd 1910: Japan annexes Korea
On this day in 1910, Japan formally annexed Korea with the signing of the Japan-Korea Treaty. Signed by Prime Minister of the Korean Empire Lee Wan-yong and Japanese Resident General of Korea Count Terauchi Masatake, the treaty completed the process of dwindling Korean autonomy that had been furthered by other treaties since 1876. The treaty became effective on August 29th, a week after it was signed, on which day it was also officially promulgated to the public. This marks the beginning of the period of Japanese rule in Korea, during which time Koreans were expected to assimilate with Japanese culture and reject their own. Japanese colonial rule over Korea ended after Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, at which time Korea became an independent nation. In 1965 the treaties between Japan and Korea before 1910 were declared “already null and void”, but a debate continues over whether they were ever legally valid. The legacy of Japanese colonialism remains a controversial one. Many Koreans are still resentful of the treaty, which they believe was invalid as it was forced upon the Koreans, and the years of brutal imperialism that followed. As for the Japanese, there are mixed messages of sincere apology and defiant justification of imperialism; therefore full reconciliation between the two nations is still not complete.
August 20th 1938: Lou Gehrig hits 23rd Grand Slam
On this day in 1938 the famous New York Yankees baseball first baseman Lou Gehrig hit his 23rd Grand Slam. Nicknamed ‘The Iron Horse’, Gehrig’s 23 Grand Slams remained the most on record until it was broken by fellow Yankees player Alex Rodriguez in 2013. The remarkable career of this exceptionally talented baseball player ended in 1939 when, after his performance had been deteriorating, Gehrig was diagnosed with a terminal neurodegenerative disease which severely limits physical mobility (often to the point of paralysis) while not affecting the brain. The disease is known by different names, for example in the UK it is called motor neurone disease (or MND), and in the US as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The diagnosis led Gehrig to retire aged 36 and on a July 4th 1939 ‘Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day’ at Yankee Stadium, he gave an emotional farewell speech that has become known as baseball’s Gettysburg Address. Lou Gehrig died two years later just before his 38th birthday. His legacy continues as one of the greatest players of all time and in the fact that many Americans now refer to ALS/MND as ‘Lou Gehrig’s Disease’. Other notable people to have this disease include Stephen Hawking, whose is an unusual case as he has lived with it for over 50 years. This cruel disease, which affects hundreds of thousands of people across the world, has been brought to the forefront of public attention due to the recent ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ in which someone has a bucket of ice water tipped over their head and then nominate others to do the same and donate to charity. To donate to this cause and find out more about the disease visit the ALSA website (US) or MNDA website (UK). The effort to raise funds and awareness of this disease which tragically ended Lou Gehrig’s life has been a great success, with over $30 million in donations being made to the ALSA and celebrities like Bill Gates, Robert Downey Jr. and the Foo Fighters getting involved.
"Today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth…I might have been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for”
- Lou Gehrig in his 1939 farewell speech
August 18, 1771. Phillis Wheatley, a famous poet, becomes a full member of Old South Meeting House, the church and public meeting space where she attended since being brought to Boston as an enslaved child more than ten years earlier. Old South Meeting House is where she first heard the Reverend George Whitefield preach, and her poem about him was the first poem to earn her widespread recognition. In 1773, she became the first African to publish a poetry book in the English language, and the third woman in America to do so.
Today, Old South Meeting House is a history museum, and we celebrate Phillis Wheatley day on August 18.
August 16th 1819: Peterloo massacre
On this day in 1819 a cavalry charge killed 17 and injured 600 at a public meeting in St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, England. The meeting of around 60,000 was held to demand parliamentary reform and was addressed by famous radical Henry Hunt, known as ‘the Orator’. Radical agitation had been on the rise in recent years due to the famine and unemployment that followed the Napoleonic Wars and the introduction of laws that many felt unfair to the working class. Despite the peaceful intentions of the meeting, local magistrates feared it and sent in the cavalry, who violently dispersed the crowd. 15 people died in the ensuing violence, with hundreds more injured. The event was nicknamed ‘Peterloo’ in reference to the Battle of Waterloo of 1815. The massacre caused public outcry which only encouraged the government, led by Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, to crack down on radicalism. This period is sometimes referred to as ‘reactionary toryism’.
August 29th 1842: Treaty of Nanking signed
On this day in 1842, the Treaty of Nanking was signed by the United Kingdom and China. The treaty ended the First Opium War which began in 1839 and resulted in the defeat of Qing China by the British. The war was fought over the smuggling of European opium into China, and was sparked when Chinese officials confiscated around 20,000 chests of the drug from British traders. With China defeated, the two sides met aboard the HMS Cornwallis moored at Nanking and their representatives signed the treaty. The agreement, considered unequal by the Chinese as they received no concessions, mostly concerned trade and gave the British more control over Chinese trade. It also provided for the Qing government to pay reparations for the confiscated opium and the cost of the war. Very importantly, the treaty also saw the Chinese cede the territory of Hong Kong to the British, which only returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
August 27th 1896: Anglo-Zanzibar War
On this day in 1896, the shortest war in history was fought between the United Kingdom and the Zanzibar Sultanate. The war lasted only 40 minutes. The conflict was caused by the death of pro-British Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini the day before. The British wanted the successor to be another sultan who would support Britain. The new sultan Khalid bin Barghash refused to stand down and barricaded himself inside his palace. British forces bombarded the sultan’s palace between 09.02 and 09.40, when the attack and thus the war ended. The sultan’s forces suffered 500 casualties, whilst the British only had one soldier wounded. The British were then able to put their preferred sultan in power in Zanzibar.
August 25th 79: Pliny the Elder died
On this day in 79 AD, the famous Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder died. Pliny was a prominent Roman citizen, serving in the army and becoming a friend of Emperor Vespasian. Among his written works include his comprehensive Natural History which is the precursor for all modern encyclopedias. In his capacity as fleet commander of the Roman Navy, Pliny witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum. Following the eruption, Pliny crossed the Bay of Naples in an attempt to rescue a friend from the devastation and to observe the phenomenon directly. Despite the rubble raining down on his boat, Pliny pushed his boat onward and declared "Fortune favours the brave". Once he reached the shore and found his friend, Pliny’s party became stranded on the shore. The next day he collapsed and died, supposedly from the toxic fumes, however the rest of his party returned safely. In his will he legally adopted his nephew Pliny the Younger who also became a renowned philosopher and served as a provincial governor of Bithynia; his letters to Emperor Trajan provide fascinating evidence of the relationship between emperors and governors in the Roman Empire.
August 23rd 1305: William Wallace executed
On this day in 1305 William Wallace was executed for high treason in London. Wallace was one of the major leaders of the Wars of Scottish Independence that took place throughout the late 13th and early 14th centuries. He led Scottish forces against the English with great success, such as at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, for which he was knighted. However he was later defeated at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298 and eventually captured in 1305, at which point he was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered by King Edward I of England. After his grisly execution, Wallace’s preserved head was set on a pike atop London Bridge. The Wars for Independence that Wallace had fought so valiantly for were successful, and Scotland remained an independent nation until it joined with England in 1707 to form Great Britain. Wallace has since become a Scottish icon and a symbol of the nation’s continuing campaign for independence. He remains a popular figure in literature and film, most famously portrayed by Mel Gibson as the protagonist of the 1995 film Braveheart.
"I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject"
- Wallace on his treason charge
August 21st 1831: Nat Turner’s rebellion begins
On this day in 1831 the Virginian slave Nat Turner began the deadliest slave rebellion the United States had ever seen, which resulted in the deaths of 55 whites. Turner, a slave preacher, had come to believe that God intended for him to lead a black uprising against the injustice of slavery. In the evening of August 21st 1831, Turner and his co-conspirators met in the woods to make their plans and early the next morning began the rebellion by killing Turner’s master’s family. Turner and his men, who soon numbered over 80, then went from house to house assaulting the white inhabitants. Eventually a local militia, and then federal and state troops, confronted the rebels and dispersed the group. Turner himself initially evaded capture but was captured on October 30th. Subsequently Turner, along with over fifty other rebels, was executed. However the retribution for Nat Turner’s rebellion did not end there. The uprising sent shockwaves across the South, and while full scale rebellion such as Turner’s was rare in the Deep South due to the rigid enforcement of the slave system, caused widespread fear of another rebellion. In the ensuing hysteria over 200 innocent black slaves were killed by white mobs. Turner’s rebellion came close to ending slavery in Virginia, as in its wake the state legislature considered abolishing the ‘peculiar institution’. However the measure was voted down and instead the state decided to increase plantation discipline and limit slaves’ autonomy even further by banning them from acting as preachers and learning to read. Similar measures were adopted across the slave-holding South and thus Nat Turner’s rebellion increased the South’s commitment to slavery, despite undermining the pro-slavery argument that it was a benevolent system and slaves were content. Turner has left behind a complicated legacy, with some seeing him as an African-American hero and others as a religious fanatic and villain; his memory raises the eternal question of whether violence is justified to bring about necessary change.
August 19th 14 AD: Augustus dies
On this day in 14 AD the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, died aged 75. Born Gaius Octavius and known as Octavian, he was named as heir of his great uncle Julius Caesar. Upon Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC, Augustus formed an alliance - the Second Triumvirate - with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Mark Antony, to rule and take vengeance on Caesar’s assassins. The alliance soon fell apart and the three fought for sole rule of Rome. Octavian emerged victorious after defeating Mark Anthony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Octavian then set about ‘restoring’ the Roman Republic, which had been ruled by Caesar as Dictator, by formally returning power to the Senate. However in reality the new leader kept considerable power in his person, adopting many titles which became part of the imperial pantheon, including ‘Augustus’ (which loosely translates as ‘magnificent’), ‘princeps’ (first citizen), ‘pontifex maximus’ (priest of Roman religion) and ‘tribunicia potestas’ (power over the tribune assemblies elected by the people). Augustus’s constitutional system gave way to the birth of the Principate, the first period of the Roman Empire. He is also considered the first Roman Emperor because the empire greatly expanded under his rule. Augustus died in 14 AD, and was succeeded by his step-son and adopted heir Tiberius. Augustus thus began the stable line of ‘adoptive’ Roman Emperors which ended with Marcus Aurelius’s decision to name his birth son Commodus, who came to power in 180 AD. This year is the momentous 2000th anniversary of the death of the first Roman Emperor. Even today Rome is remembered as a pinnacle of civilisation and empire and much of modern Europe continues to be shaped by its legacy.
2000 years ago today
August 17th 1987: Rudolf Hess dies
On this day in 1987 Adolf Hitler’s former deputy in the Nazi Party, Rudolf Hess, died in Spandau Prison, Berlin. Hess, a leading figure of the Nazi regime, famously fled Hitler’s Germany during World War Two and flew to Scotland in an attempt to negotiate peace with the United Kingdom. On May 10th 1941, he flew from Augsburg and later parachuted near the Scottish village of Eaglesham. He told authorities he had an important message and was handed to the army who took him as a prisoner of war. Winston Churchill sent Hess to the Tower of London, making him its last inmate. After the end of the war and the fall of Hitler’s government in 1945 Hess was tried at Nuremberg alongside 22 others for his role in Nazi war crimes. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and incarcerated at Spandau until his death aged 93. Hess committed suicide via asphyxiation by electrical cord, however some have claimed that he was murdered.