Davis was born in Washington D.C. and, although his army records and gravestone claim that he was born in 1877, his biographer has found a census document that suggests he was actually born three years later and falsified his birth year in order to join the army.
Davis first entered military service following the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, and later served as Professor of Military Science and Tactics at both Wilberforce University in Ohio and Tuskegee University in Alabama as well as serving tours of duty around the world. Having been assigned to the 369th Regiment, New York National Guard in 1938, he later took command of the unit and was promoted to brigadier general by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on 25 October 1940.
During the Second World War, Davis was an influential member of the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies. Having been tasked with improving race relations and securing the morale of black soldiers in the European theatre, he lobbied to end segregation and introduce full racial integration. Davis was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) on 22 February 1945 for his ‘wise advice and counsel’ that ‘brought about a fair and equitable solution to many important problems which have since become the basis of far-reaching War Department policy.’
Benjamin O. Davis Sr. died on 26 November 1970 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., had already followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming the first African-American general in the United States Air Force.
At around 11pm on the 20th August 1968, troops from the USSR, Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary entered Czechoslovakia in an invasion that brought the Prague Spring to an end. The invasion, known as Operation Danube, led to almost half a million soldiers crossing the border to bring Alexander Dubček’s reforms to an end.
The Prague Spring began in early January, shortly after Dubček became the leader of Czechoslovakia. Keen to push forward with de-Stalinisation within the country, he granted greater freedom to the press and introduced a programme of ‘socialism with a human face’ by which he intended to decentralise parts the economy and introduce some limited democratic reforms.
This new openness saw open criticisms of the Czechoslovakian government begin to appear in the press, which concerned the other Warsaw Pact countries. János Kádár, the leader of Hungary who came to power after the fall of Imre Nagy in 1956, even warned that the situation in Czechoslovakia seemed “similar to the prologue of the Hungarian counterrevolution”.
Concerned that Dubček’s reforms might spread to other Eastern Bloc countries and threaten the USSR’s security, the Soviet leader Brezhnev chose to open negotiations with the Czechoslovakian leadership that lasted into August. The talks ended in compromise, but Brezhnev continued to be unhappy with the situation and began to prepare military intervention.
Overwhelmed by the military invasion, Dubček asked his people not to resist. 72 Czech and Slovak soldiers and 108 civilians were killed, with a further 500 civilians injured. It later emerged that members of the Czechoslovakian government had asked for Soviet assistance against Dubček’s reforms.
On the 19th August 1991 Mikhail Gorbachev, the President of the Soviet Union, was placed under house arrest in what is known as the August Coup. Opposed to Gorbachev’s reforms, the leaders of the coup believed that the new Union of Sovereign States, which had been approved in a union-wide referendum, threatened the complete disintegration of the USSR. A number of individual states had already declared their independence, but the New Union Treaty would devolve much of the Soviet Union’s remaining power to individual states.
It was while Gorbachev was on holiday in Foros, a resort in the Crimea, that the coup was launched. On the 17th August, the coup’s leaders met with Gorbachev and demanded that he either declare a state of emergency or resign. Although the specific details of the conversation are unclear, the outcome was that Gorbachev refused.
Gorbachev was placed under house arrest, and the leaders of the coup – known as the Gang of Eight – created the State Committee of the State of Emergency to govern the USSR due to Gorbachev suffering from an “illness”. The changes in government were announced on state media on the morning of the 19th but, having chosen not to arrest Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the coup faced a blow when he began speaking against it. Two days later, the military supporting the coup failed to take control of the Russian parliament building in the face of civil resistance.
The coup collapsed on the 21st August, but the USSR was left seriously weakened. Just over four months later the Soviet Union was officially dissolved.
On the 16th August 1819, the Peterloo Massacre occurred at St Peter’s Field in Manchester when a group of over 60,000 protesters were charged by cavalry. An estimated 15 people died, and approximately 700 others were injured.
The protesters had gathered to hear the radical speaker Henry Hunt demand parliamentary and social reform. Britain was caught in the midst of economic depression and the textile industry, concentrated in the industrial centres of northern England, was particularly badly hit. Factory owners cut wages by as much as two-thirds which, combined with the increased price of grain due to the Corn Laws that imposed tariffs on cheaper imports, led to workers facing famine as they could no longer afford to buy food.
They also lacked political representation. The millions of people who lived in the Lancashire mill towns were represented by just two Members of Parliament due to out-of-date constituency boundaries and, due to the limitations of voting rights, they weren’t eligible to vote anyway. These inequalities became a target for radicals, who quickly gained working class support.
Contemporary accounts say that the crowds were peaceful and in good spirits when they assembled on the morning of the 16th August. However, the chairman of the magistrates was concerned by the enthusiastic reception when Henry Hunt arrived, the ordered the local Yeomanry to arrest him. Caught in the crowd, the cavalry began hacking with their sabres. The melee was interpreted by the magistrates as the crowd attacking the yeomanry, and more cavalry were sent in. The crowd dispersed within ten minutes, but eleven people died on the field.
On the afternoon of 26th April 1937, the Basque town of Guernica experienced what is seen by many as the first large-scale modern air raid against a civilian population.
By the Spring of 1937, Guernica was just 30km away from the front line fighting of the Spanish Civil War, and lay within the focal area for the Nationalist army’s advance on the city of Bilbao. The town was also a Republican communication centre, and was the location of a weapons factory. Documents released in the 1970s show that the attack was part of a larger Nationalist strategy in the north, in which roads and bridges would be destroyed in order to upset Republican troop movements.
However, as historian César Vidal Manzanares notes, the level of destruction was disproportionate to the town’s strategic value. At first, five waves of bombers attacked Guernica over a period of 90 minutes. Further waves came in the early evening, along with a number of fighter planes that strafed the roads leading out of the devastated town, increasing the civilian death toll as people tried to escape the burning ruins.
The number of civilian casualties from the attack has never been fully determined. However, figures in excess of a thousand that were cited until the 1980s are now known to have been exaggerated. Historians now accept that between 170 and 300 civilians were killed in the bombing, although it’s likely that many more died from their injuries.
On the 22nd April 1915, the Second Battle of Ypres began in Belgium. The battle has become most remembered for seeing the first use of gas in the First World War, but Second Ypres really marked its first effective use. A form of tear gas had previously been used by the Germans fighting the Russians at Bolimov in the east 3 months earlier, but it had proved wholly unsuccessful. The freezing temperatures meant that a lot of the gas failed to vaporize, and that which did got blown back towards the German trenches.
At Ypres, the situation was dramatically different. 5,700 gas canisters were released by hand, all of which contained highly poisonous chlorine gas. The Germans relied on the wind to blow the gas towards their enemy but, despite some German casualties due to the rudimentary system of release, the gas was terribly effective.
Over 5,000 French Algerian, Moroccan and territorial troops died within ten minutes of the gas being released. A further 5,000 were temporarily blinded, with nearly half of them becoming prisoners of war.
The Germans didn’t expect the gas to be as effective as it was, and so didn’t fully exploit their initial advantage. However, by the end of the battle on 25th May, the Germans had certainly scored a tactical victory. They had compressed the size of the Ypres salient and had demonstrated the effectiveness of chemical warfare. The Allies soon developed their own poison gas, making chemical warfare part of the offensive strategy for the rest of the war.
On the night of 18th April 1775, Paul Revere rode from Charleston to Lexington with his message that “the Regulars are coming!” The action that was to signal the start of the American Revolutionary War has passed into legend, but whether he referred to the approaching army as ‘Regulars’ or ‘Redcoats’ is unclear. However he certainly didn’t say that the British were coming. At the time the American settlers would still have seen themselves as British, albeit living in a colony and ruled by a faraway King. It’s also highly unlikely that Revere shouted his warning as he passed peoples’ houses. His mission was secret, and the countryside was known to contain army patrols and royalist sympathisers.
By the time British troops entered the town of Lexington the next morning, 77 militiamen had assembled. Their leader, Captain John Parker, knew that his men were outnumbered and so gave an order that is now engraved on a stone at the site. “Stand your ground; don’t fire unless fired upon, but if they mean to have a war, let it begin here.”
The leaders of both sides ordered their men not to fire, but a single shot from an unknown source rang out. The Battle of Lexington lasted for just a few minutes, killing eight militiamen and wounding a further 10. Moving on to the town of Concord, however, the British met significantly more opposition. The American Revolution had begun.
The Bay of Pigs Invasion was launched by the CIA-sponsored paramilitary group Brigade 2506.
The invasion saw over 1,400 American-trained Cuban exiles attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro. Castro had come to power in 1959 during the Cuban Revolution which toppled the previous president, General Fulgencio Batista. The new government quickly began introducing agrarian reforms and nationalising US-owned interests. These actions led to the USA imposing a trade embargo against Cuba from late 1960, after which Castro began to further develop his relationship with the USSR.
As concerns grew over these developments, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorised the CIA to begin devising a way to overthrow Castro. He allocated $13.1 million for them to begin training counter-revolutionary Cuban exiles and, on 4 April 1961, his successor John F. Kennedy authorised the final invasion plan.
While the seaborne invasion force gathered in Guatemala, a smaller group of Cuban exiles attacked Cuban airfields on 15 April using CIA-obtained B-26 bombers painted to appear like they were captured Cuban planes. That evening the Cuban government tabled a motion to the United Nations, accusing the United States of being behind the attacks. Consequently a series of airfield attacks planned for the early hours of the 17 April were cancelled by Kennedy.
The amphibious assault went ahead as planned but quickly began to go wrong. The exiles from Brigade 2506 were pinned on the beach by a counterattack from the Cuban Army and assorted militiamen, leading to 114 exile deaths and the capture of over a thousand others. In the aftermath, Cuba developed even closer links with the USSR that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year.
On the 16th April 1922, former First World War enemies Germany and Russia signed the Treaty of Rapallo. Both countries had been excluded from the League of Nations, and this acted as a catalyst for the pact.
The Western powers were startled by the agreement. When Germany drew up the harsh Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918, Russia had been forced to sign away large swathes of land. The Treaty of Rapallo meant the two countries abandoned all territorial and financial arguments stemming from Brest-Litovsk and, instead, to “co-operate in a spirit of mutual goodwill in meeting the economic needs of both countries”.
The Treaty of Rapallo was particularly important for Russia, as it was the first international recognition of the Bolsheviks as the official government. However, it was the military clauses – most of them secret – that were most valuable to both sides. German factories producing military goods were able to move to Russia, effectively bypassing the Treaty of Versailles limits on German weaponry. Furthermore the two armies conducted joint training exercises deep inside Russia, which enabled the German army to continue to use technology banned by Versailles such as tanks and war planes.
Russia benefited from this agreement as well. They were able to see Western European military technology, and work with German engineers who shared techniques that were to be the bedrock of Stalin’s Five Year Plans.
The Rapallo Treaty alarmed the Western Powers, but the danger was short-lived. By the middle of the 1920s, Germany under Stresemann had begun to improve relations with them as a result of the Locarno Treaties, meaning a close relationship with Russia was less vital.
On 8th April 1904, a series of agreements between Britain and France known as the Entente Cordiale were signed. The name is French for “warm understanding,” with the Entente Cordiale settling imperialistic disputes between Britain and France in places such as Egypt and Morocco. The agreement marked the end of years of intermittent conflict between Britain and France, and set the stage for the series of agreements known as the Triple Entente that bound Britain, France and Russia together at the start of the First World War.
Throughout the late 19th Century, German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had been constantly toying with the European balance of power to keep France from forming alliances with other European nations. Meanwhile, Britain had actively maintained its own “splendid isolation”, focusing instead on its sprawling Empire. The Entente Cordiale therefore marked a significant change in European politics.
However, it was not a military alliance. Despite being closely associated with the First World War due to the later emergence of the Triple Entente, the Entente Cordiale was simply an understanding between France and Britain over foreign policy in three very specific regions.
When the centenary was celebrated in 2004, posters at the Gare du Nord railway station in Paris and the Waterloo railway station in London, were emblazoned with the words ‘Entente Cordiale’. The irony that Waterloo was named after the battle where a British-led coalition destroyed Napoleon’s army was not lost on either side.