John Lewis Gaddis on the failure of the Spanish Armada

Stephen Davies, seeking to explain Europe’s technological and economic breakthrough into modernity, and John Lewis Gaddis reflecting on the emergence of the USA as the world’s current superpower, both identify the defeat of the Spanish Armada as a key moment. Davies says that the failure of Catholic Spain to subdue Protestant England meant that Europe, unlike all the other great civilisations of the world, remained disunited and hence internally competitive.

And Gaddis argues, in his book On Grand Strategy, argues, at the beginning of his chapter entitled “New Worlds” (pp. 151-152) that the defeat of the Armada “made possible the creation of the United States” as we now know it:

It’s not counterfactual to claim that the real events of 1588 in the English Channel echoed loudly and long enough “to shake a hemisphere.” The previous century had seen the Portuguese and the Spanish, neither hitherto seismically significant, exploiting a new understanding of ships, sails, winds, and currents to explore and conquer immensities of strange new things.’ “NON SUFFICIT ORBIS,” Philip II’s motto for his Iberian kingdoms and the empire they’d acquired, was eloquently apt: Eurasia, the old world into which all earlier empires had fit, had indeed not been enough. As the Armada left Lisbon that summer, few from whom it faded from sight would have anticipated anything other than enduring Catholic monarchies throughout what had become known as America.

For how could God not be on the side of the Christian kingdoms of Castile and Aragon that had, in the single year 1492, expelled their Muslim neighbors, ejected their Jews, and almost as an aside expanded the size of the earth? Or, in the year that followed, gained title to the new territories, together with Portugal, by papal edict? Or, as Spain, required only three years to conquer Mexico and not many more to control Peru, thereby ensuring apparently endless supplies of gold and silver? Or, using these riches, imposed administrative and even architectural uniformity on two unfamiliar continents? Or mapped out, for their diverse inhabitants, a single path to salvation? Accomplishments on this scale require more than self-confidence: they presume knowledge of, and correspondence with, God’s will.

Two hundred and thirty-five years after the Armada sailed, however, a staunchly Protestant statesman, in the swampy new capital of a secular state, was drafting an equally presumptuous proclamation for his republican sovereign: “that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” When Secretary of State John Quincy Adams made the Monroe Doctrine a motto for the “United States of America” in 1823, that country lacked the means of securing the “new world” against its “old” masters. It had the self-confidence, though, of Spain in its prime, and that, Adams saw, would suffice.

“The failure of the Spanish Armada,” Geoffrey Parker has argued, “laid the American continent open to invasion and colonization by northern Europeans, and thus made possible the creation of the United States.” If that’s right, then the future pivoted on a single evening – August 7, 1588 – owing to a favorable wind, a clever lord admiral, and a few fiery ships. Had he succeeded, Philip would have required Elizabeth to end all English voyages to America.’ But from the moment his captains cut their anchor cables, Spain began a slow decline, and a new world order its gradual ascendancy.

This book (which I have just ordered from Amazon) presumably being one of the places where Geoffrey Parker (a new name to me) makes this argument.

James Stewart impresses Robbie Robinson

And when I say James Stewart I mean this James Stewart, that American fellow who used to act in movies like It’s A Wonderful Life, and Mr Smith Goes To Washington, and The Philadelphia Story. Many screen heroes are nothing much to bother with off screen, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s called acting. But Stewart was a hero both on screen and off. He didn’t just star in movies, concerning such things as WW2. He fought in WW2, as a bomber commander in the US Air Force.

I’ve been reading Big Week, James Holland’s book about “the biggest air battle of World War Two”. I haven’t yet got to the actual big week in question, which happened in February 1944. But I can’t help thinking that Captain James Stewart is going to be up to his neck in it, bombing Germany and fighting off German fighters, because he has already had several mentions. Here is one of them, concerning an encounter that happened late in 1943, described on pages 226-227.

Captain James Stewart had been ordered to London to face the press on Thursday, 2 December. He had been promised this would happen only once. The questions were ridiculous and he found the exercise painful and embarrassing, but then he returned to Tibenham to get on with being a squadron commander.

On Sunday, 5 December, a sergeant came to Robbie Robinson’s hut and told him and his crew-mates to prepare – briefing at 9 a.m. and ready to fly. It was to be a ‘shakedown’ flight – a training flight to see whether they were ready for combat operations. Out by Bullet Serenade, they were just getting ready to move off when a Jeep pulled up and Captain Jimmy Stewart stepped out. ‘Fellas,’ he told them, ‘I’ll be riding with you.’

“Bullet Serenade”being the airplane they’d all be flying in.

On board, Stewart went to the flight deck, but once the were airborne he came back down, speaking to each of the crew, then went back to the cockpit. Over the intercom, Robinson listened to him asking questions of every man. ‘What are you doing now, Sergeant Robinson?’ he asked. ‘What do you see out of the waist window?’ Robinson told him. More questions followed. ‘Can you see the super-charger gate position? Are the exhausts smoking? What colour is the engine exhaust? How much fuel do we have on board? Are you checking it? Are the fuel gauges off and drained?’ He then called them up in turn to the cockpit. Robinson, like the rest of the crew, had gone through incredibly thorough training. Although a waist gunner, he was a fully qualified flight engineer and even had sixty hours’ piloting in his logbook. The idea was to ensure there was always back-up if anything happened to the main operating crew members. ‘Robinson,’ Stewart asked once he had reached the flight deck, ‘can you fly as first engineer?’ He also wanted to know whether he could man all gun turrets and arm the bombs. It was quite a grilling, but Robinson was impressed. ‘Stewart really knew this airplane,’ he noted. ‘He wanted us to know it too.’

By all accounts I’ve encountered, Robinson wasn’t the only one who was impressed by this star of stage and screen. And war.

Some podcasting numbers

On Thursday, I did a little posting on Samizdata, flagging up the conversation that Patrick Crozier and I recorded on the subject of the Falklands War. I’ve already mentioned this conversation a couple of times here, but I think this is the first time I’ve mentioned any of them over there, on my version of the mass media. There has so far been only one comment on this Samizdata posting (way below the Samizdata average (but a very informative one comment)), but I think I detect a very slight and non-coincidental uptick in our listener numbers. These have gone from pretty much non-existent, to infinitesimally tiny. Which is a significant improvement, I think.

All of which means that I now want to record the number of downloads there have so far been for each of these conversations that Patrick and I have done, as of now, so that I can see if these numbers continue to rise, and so that I am prevented from deceiving myself about how much they go up by, if they do. Here’s the state of play, in reverse order of recording: The Falklands War (28); The First Wold War: what happened next? (15); Christianity (13); Brexit (18); Why the West won the Cold War (12); History (11); Transport (19); The importance of being number three (11); Trump (19); Diversity (13); Television 7 (7), 6 (9), 5 (9), 4 (7), 3 (7), 2 (8), 1 (10); The First World War (26).

I know, these are ridiculously small numbers. But so what? We both like having these conversations. Think of it not as any sort of business, where the number and satisfaction of consumers is what makes it worthwhile. See it as Patrick and me enhancing our social life by having a more disciplined conversation than if we had just banged on in a pub for an hour, and what’s more a conversation where we can be sure of exactly what we earlier said, should we want to be. My feeling is, from where I sit, that we’re not just chatting, we’re learning. Learning things, with our homework and from each other, and also we are doing that particular kind of learning that consists of arranging things inside our heads, so that they make more sense than they might if we didn’t record what we said. And if a few others find that they like listening to our conversations, so much the better.

Patrick Crozier and I talk about the Falklands War

As earlier noted, Patrick Crozier and I recently recorded a conversation about the Falklands War, involving both what we each remembered about it from when we lived through it (early in 1982), and what we have learned about it since, which was not a lot in my case but a bit.

It was a strange conversation, because we basically talked only about what happened and what we remembered, and almost nothing about what the war “proved” or “demonstrated”, about life generally or about the libertarianism that we are both supporters of in other contexts. The questions we began with were: What was it? What happened? How did events unfold? And that’s what we talked about. There were a few ruminations about the difference between a country which had fought several recent wars and another country which had not, and what that meant in terms of the differences between the people fighting each other. That difference being a major reason why Britain won. But even that was strictly to try to explain events, rather than to get all grand and philosophical and what it all meant.

What Patrick felt and what I felt at the time, about the rights and wrongs of it, were rather different. He was gung-ho and very clear. The Argies stole the islands and we should get them back, and do whatever that took. I was rather baffled and wanted Britain to win more because losing would be so terrible. Not least politically. Because, as we speculated, it would have been hard for Thatcher to have survived as PM if there had been a British military and naval catastrophe down there in the South Atlantic. (The South Atlantic being where, as so many Brits of my sort were rather unsure about at the time, the Falkland Islands are to be found.) There nearly was a catastrophe. Luck played a scarily big part, far bigger than we were told at the time.

Well, if you want to hear what we said about this strange war, and are not expecting any bigger lessons beyond a small and rather meandering history lesson, here is where to go.

They’re about to dig up the road

Another quota photo, because: another busy day. I may have time later to do something for here, but don’t want to have to be bothering about this.

So:

Again, photoed quite recently. Well, this year. And very near to where I live. I recall having to put down two big bags of shopping, and to dig out my camera from underneath shopped items, to immortalise this scene. When you see the photo, photo it, now. Leave it until later and, first, you won’t come back later, and second, it you do, it will probably be gone. In this case, dug up. That’s the photo-rule to have been following here.

The other relevant photo-rule is: If someone sees you doing this and thinks you’re a weirdo, this does not matter. You either care about your photos looking good, or about yourself looking good at all times. Pick one.

What it is is marks on a road, prior to some digging, digging which was still not, when last I looked, completed. My guess is that the symbols refer to pipes, but what do I know?

In its small way, this photo reminds me of something a war correspondent once said about D-Day, which he was at and was reporting on. He said something like: “I didn’t know what the plan was, but I had the strong sense that events were unfolding in accordance with that plan.” I don’t know what the plan was for all the digging that subsequently happened, but there clearly was a plan, and the digging was surely done in accordance with it.

Also (ISIBAISIA), I like photoing things that look like Modern Art but which are not Modern Art. I think this is partly because if reality itself mimics Modern Art on a regular basis, that means that deliberately creating Modern Art is unnecessary, and Modern Artists are not nearly as important contributors to the ongoing march of civilisation as they like to think that they are. Without them, there would still be plenty of Modern-Art-like stuff around for people who like that sort of thing to be looking at.

There you go. Not bad for a mere quota post. And it only took about ten minutes.

The voice of the Falklands War

This afternoon, Patrick Crozier and I recorded another of our podcasts. In due course, assuming the machine recording us didn’t misbehave, it should be showing up here.

Towards the end, during the “anything else we want to say” bit, we reminded ourselves of this amazing character:

For many Brits, Ian McDonald is the sight and the sound which will most vividly take us back to that bizarre time. Would the internet have anything to say about this unique bit-part player in recent British military history? Somewhat sadly, yes it did, in the form of obituaries. Ian McDonald died, in March 2019, one day before what would have been his 83rd birthday.

In the above video, which I found here, the news of the sinking of HMS Sheffield was imparted to Britain’s television viewers in the ponderous and funereal style that McDonald adopted no matter what news he was conveying.

As McDonald said later, this eccentric manner of speaking was deliberate:

“I knew right from the start there would be bad news as well as good news, which is why the delivery I chose was drained of all emotion with no adjectives, short and truthful. …”

Maybe short on paper, but it took an age for him to read it out. Nevertheless, it made a refreshing change from the bombastic and excitable style often adopted by other official spokesmen doing this sort of job, eager to talk up triumphs, but either saying nothing or telling lies about the inevitable setbacks. At the time, most of us trusted that McDonald was, as he said, telling the truth, even if not the whole truth.

“Every educated person in the land knew of the Eder and the Möhne dams …”

I have been reading James Holland’s book about the Dam Busters, which contains some illuminating pages concerning the history of the dams that got busted. These pages (pp. 242-247 of my paperback edition) are interesting in their own right, and they also explain why busting the dams was more than just a materially very damaging blow to the German war effort; it was also deeply demoralising for the German people:

There was another very good reason why the dams were a good target, however, one that was touched upon by Barnes Wallis during his second meeting with Gibson on 29 March. ‘The Germans,’ he said of the Möhne, ‘are very proud of this dam.’ In fact, they were proud of all their dams, although of the Möhne and Eder in particular; they were among the best-known structures in the Reich. Dams, of course, were as old as the hills. It was a German, Georg Steinfurth, who discovered the world’s oldest in 1885 – the Kafara Dam south of Cairo. In Spain, the Roman dam at Cornalvo had been standing for the best part of two millennia. However, although these were ancient structures, they had not been built on the kind of scale that the Germans began building them in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

Although Germany was a new nation, just seventy years old, there was nonetheless a tradition among the German people over the previous 200 years of transforming their landscape, or conquering nature. Germany by the beginning of the war was a quite different place from how it had been just a couple of hundred years earlier, especially its lowlands. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, it was a wild place, full of low-lying marsh and fenland. Travellers likened it to Amazonia and the New World. Wild animals like boar and wolves roamed, while the Rhine, Germany’s greatest river, snaked its way north through hundreds of separate channels, which were divided by endless little islands, sandbars and gravel banks. Along long stretches of its banks were damp forests, not lush farmland and industry. And because this river was so wild, because its flow of water so unpredictable and its depth so varied, it was for large parts completely impassable.

Yet as Prussia’s strength grew, so did its prosperity, and with it the increased need for mobility. What a difference it would make if this wild part of north-west Germany could be tamed. One German engineer, Iohann Tulla, believed he could, and so began one of the most extraordinary engineering feats the world had ever known. Quite simply, Tulla straightened the Upper Rhine. Not only was it an extraordinary achievement, it was also one of the world’s biggest engineering feats. By carving out new channels and damming up the twists and turns, the flow of water improved. The Rhine took on a completely different appearance, and was now shorter by some fifty miles. Moreover, the water now flowed deep enough and fast enough to allow large-scale navigation. The Rhine, by the early part of the nineteenth century, had become one of Germany’s most important arteries.

Now that the Rhine was properly navigable, the population along it rose rapidly. Further to the east, in the Ruhr area, coal seams were developed and through the nineteenth century the area grew with industrial plants springing up all around it. More and more water was needed: for the rising population to drink, and for the rapidly increasing industrial processes. Canals were built, and so too were railways, providing a network that enabled all this industry to be spread around the country.

Suddenly, there was no longer enough water consistently feeding into these rapidly growing areas. The natural cycle of water flow running into the Möhne, Wupper, Ruhr and Eder followed an irregular pattern – heavier in winter, less so in summer, but one that had become more extreme through deforestation and cultivation in their upper reaches.

Dams were the solution, although, as the Germans were discovering, by upsetting one of nature’s rhythms, they were being forced to alter another. Constructing large dams had begun in Alsace as a means of building up a mass of water from the inconsistent flow of rivers running down from the Vosges Mountains. These dams, comparatively small, were so effective they paved the way for the golden decade of dam building in Germany. In the 1890s, dams were the solution to the booming industrial region of Rhineland- Westphalia.

The first large dam was the Eschbach, which provided drinking water for the growing population of Remsheid. This had been designed by the greatest of German dam builders, Otto Intze, and his stamp would be all over many of those that followed: by his death in 1904, he had built no fewer than twelve.

A regular flow of water may have been needed in the rapidly growing area of Rhineland-Westphalia, but it was even more essential a little further north in the Ruhr Valley. The annual flow of water into the Ruhr was heavy, but deforestation in the Sauerland, the mountainous region east of the Ruhr, had intensified the extremes of seasonal variation. These were also exacerbated enormously by the huge amounts of water being pumped from the lower reaches. Water was needed for drinking, not just by the populations of towns on the Ruhr, but by those on the now polluted Wupper, Emscher and Lipper. Water was also needed by the mining, metallurgical and chemical industries, for cooling, cleaning and processing. The Krupps Works in Essen, alone, were responsible for using vast amounts of water both for their manufacturing processes and for their hordes of thirsty workers.

By the turn of the century, the Ruhr Valley was in crisis. In high summer, water levels were so low, it was possible to walk across the river without getting barely wet at all. Dams were clearly the only solution. Intze built two across a couple of small tributaries, but it was not enough. After long arguments about whose responsibility it was to resolve the crisis – after all, building dams was not cheap – the Ruhr Valley Reservoirs Associaton, or Ruhrtalsperrenverein – was formed in 1899. This collection of interested parties collectively funded the programme of dam building that now hurriedly got under way. Seven were built by 1906 – all by Intze – but then came a move to build substantially larger dams. The first was the Lister, which, by 1912, when it opened, had a capacity of 22 million cubic metres.

Its supremacy lasted just a year, for in 1913 a new, even bigger dam, designed by Intze’s star pupil, Ernst Link, was opened. It held a staggering 130 million cubic metres of water – more than the combined capacity of all of the dams built previously in the Ruhr and Wupper region. This vast edifice was the Möhne Dam.

But the Möhne was also about to be eclipsed. Forty-five miles to the south-east, an even taller, though not wider, dam was being built across the River Eder, one that would have the capacity to hold a mind-boggling 200 million cubic metres of water, ten times the amount of the Lister, which when it had been inaugurated had been the largest of its kind. The Eder Dam, when it was completed in that fateful month of August 1914, was the largest dam in Europe. Its waters stretched for seventeen miles, covering a lush, fertile valley where villages and many farmsteads had once stood. Its construction was considered such a profoundly incredible achievement, the Kaiser and his wife had been due to attend its inauguration. That had been planned for 15 August 1914. War had scuppered that plan, but during its construction, the Kaiser had visited the rapidly growing dam wall, as had his daughter, Princess Victoria.

It was no wonder these structures attracted so much attention. They personified the German conquest of nature and were symbols of German identity. Every educated person in the land knew of the Eder and the Möhne dams, as familiar as the Empire State Building became to Americans. They symbolized the emergence of a great and unified power. The Book of Famous Engineers was a popular book aimed as much at a youth market of aspiring young Germans as anyone, and contained a whole chapter on dam builders. Men like Otto Intze were household names in Germany, held as champions of a bright new dawn and an age of technological wonder. On no fewer than three occasions he gave private lectures to the Kaiser, who was, like most of his subjects, fascinated by technological innovations and developments.

Another popular, post-First World War tome was In the Wonderland of Technology: Masterpieces and New Achievements That Our Youth Should Know. And most of them did: radios, Zeppelins, Mercedes-Benz motor cars and the Eder and Möhne dams were all written about, feats from Germany’s proud era of technology.

The large lakes behind the dams became huge tourist attractions. Tens of thousands of visitors travelled to the Möhne, Eder and other dams every year. Hikers walked around the shores, anglers fished, sailors sailed, or rowed on pleasure dinghies, or took steamer trips. Others just stood at the foot of the vast walls of granite and masonry and marvelled at the wonder of such enormous constructions – constructions that looked so solid, so thick. So impregnable.

It is possible that there may be objections to me reproducing such a long excerpt from this book. If there are any objections, either from the author or the publisher, this posting will immediately be removed.

The things you learn from lurking on Twitter …

Here:

The most interesting thing about Apsley House, former home of the Duke of Wellington, is that there’s a massive naked statue of Napoleon at the bottom of the stairs.

It’s huge apparently, over eleven feet tall. Official Apsley House website here.

And no, he does not look like Danny de Vito at all. All that hooey about Napoleon being small, “Napoleon complex”, etc. is indeed hooey. (Can’t remember where or when I read this, but I did.)

Soleimani etc.

In connection with the death of Qasem Soleimani, Mick Hartley posts this picture [photo credit: AFP]:

Plenty of Middle Easterners are now, it seems, rejoicing.

In another posting, Hartley quotes Gerard Baker of The Times saying:

… But this wasn’t simply a case of retributive justice. This was no Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who were all essentially busted flushes when they met justice. Soleimani was the mastermind of a vast programme of slaughter, enslavement and repression that was continuing across the Middle East until the day he died. …

Meanwhile the Daily Mail offers this characteristically terse headline:

‘Death to liars!’ Iranian protesters in Tehran turn against regime and demand the Ayatollah RESIGN after country’s military admits it shot down passenger plane full of its own citizens

But no, I too had never heard of Soleimani until Trump had him killed.

“It is now well known that …”

I continue to read The Square and the Tower, and very good it is too, just like it says inside the front cover and on the back cover.

In the chapter about the Russian Revolution, appropriately entitled “The Plague”, we read (by which I mean that I read (on pages 214-5)) this:

It is now well known that fewer people were killed in the October Revolution than were killed in the shooting of Sergei Eisenstein’s tenth-anniversary film about it.

Well, this may now be “well-known”, but I did not know it.

Not that this makes the event insignificant. After it, the “plague” spread with astonishing speed.

Only amongst the vast peasantry and the Cossacks did the Bolsheviks lack leaders – which helps explain therapid descent of Russia into an urban-rural civil war in the course of 1918. Essentially, the Bolshevik virus travelled by train and telegraph; and literate soldiers; sailors and workers were the most susceptible to it.

That literacy was at the heart of the Bolshevik story is something that I did know.