The Battle of Monte Cassino began when Allied forces launched the first of four attacks against the Gustav Line in Italy.
The Gustav Line, which together with the Bernhardt and Hitler lines formed a series of defences known as the Winter Line, had been established by the Germans and Italians to defend Rome from a northern advance by the Allies. The Allied forces had secured a foothold in Italy in Operation Avalanche the previous September, having first captured Sicily.
By early January 1944 the Allies had advanced a long way north, but their progress had been stopped by poor weather that forced them to approach Rome along Highway 6 that ran from Naples through the Liri valley. The southern entrance to the valley was dominated by the town of Cassino and overlooked by the Benedictine abbey of Monte Cassino.
Although the German army did not position defensive units in the abbey itself, the natural topography gave them a notable advantage over the Allies. Combined with minefields that had been laid in advance, the strong German position withstood the first assault that lasted for two and a half weeks and involved troops under British, American and French command attacking the position from three sides.
German forces finally withdrew on 17 May, and the following morning soldiers from the Polish 12th Podolian Cavalry Regiment raised a Polish flag over the ruins. The four assaults that made up the Battle of Monte Cassino had led to 55,000 Allied casualities and destroyed the ancient abbey. The treasures it contained had been evacuated to Rome in November 1943.
Dr William Brydon of the British East India Company Army was the only survivor of an army of 4,500 men and 12,000 camp followers to reach safety at Jalalabad in Afghanistan.
Although it later emerged that a further 115 British officers and soldiers, along with their wives and children, had survived as hostages Brydon was the only Briton to have escaped from Kabul without being captured.
Part of the First Anglo-Afghan War, British troops had maintained a garrison in Kabul since 1839 following the restoration of the British-supported Shuja Shah. On 2 November 1841 a group of locals, under the leadership of Akbar Khan, launched an uprising against the occupying forces. The British commander General William Elphinstone, who had been called “the most incompetent soldier who ever became general” by his contemporary General William Nott, did little to re-establish control and instead agreed to the British withdrawal to the garrison at Jalalabad.
Having handed over gunpowder, new muskets and canon to Akbar Khan in return for safe passage approximately 16,000 British soldiers and civilians left Kabul on 6 January 1842. They were soon set upon by Afghan tribes, and within three days 3,000 people had died while the column had only moved 25 miles. Freezing conditions and desertions further increased the losses so that by 11 January the army had been reduced to just 200 men. A final standoff at the Gandamak pass finished off much of the rest of the British army leaving only Brydon, who had earlier become separated from the remnants of the army, to make it to Jalalabad alone despite his own life-threatening injuries. On being asked what had happened to the rest of the army Brydon is said to have responded, “I am the army”.
On the 27th November 1095, Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade with an impassioned speech at the Council of Clermont. The Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos had appealed to the Pope for support against invasion by the Seljuk Turks, and many historians argue that Urban II took advantage of the situation as a way to reunite Christendom under the papacy.
By the 11th Century, Christianity had secured a stable base across most of Europe. However the Byzantine Empire was on the very periphery and faced continuous threats from Muslim conquests. The city of Jerusalem had been in Muslim hands since 638, but ongoing wars between different Arab dynasties had resulted in it being captured by the Seljuks in 1076. When their army began threatening to attack Constantinople, Alexios appealed to the Pope for assistance.
There is no record of how many people responded to the Pope’s call, but estimates suggest anywhere between 60,000 and 100,000 of which a large number were ordinary peasants. Exactly why so many people chose to “take the cross” is also a question subject to fierce debate. Certainly some nobles went in the hope of seizing riches along the way, but a large number of crusaders almost certainly did so out of piety.
Although Pope Urban had intended the Crusade to depart on the 15th August 1096, large numbers of peasants and low-ranking knights set off earlier on what became known as the People’s Crusade. Poorly disciplined and with little to no military training, these Crusaders killed thousands of Jews in the pogroms of 1096 before even leaving Europe.
On the 15th November 1917, Georges Clemenceau was appointed Prime Minister of France for the second time. His appointment was something of a surprise, especially as it was made by President Raymond Poincare with whom he had a particularly frosty relationship. Clemenceau had previously held the position until 1909, after which he spent much of his time criticising the government in his own radical newspaper. However, within the first three years of the war three separate Prime Ministers had served and Poincare recognised that Clemenceau’s desire to defeat Germany made him the best replacement.
As 1917 wore on, the French government had become increasingly divided over whether to negotiate peace with Germany. Clemenceau was a fierce critic of this approach, having held a deep-seated hatred of Germany since France’s loss of Alsace-Lorraine in the Franco-Prussian War five years before he was first elected to parliament. His appointment therefore heralded a marked change in government as he sought to consolidate French support behind its troops.
In a speech three days after his appointment, Clemenceau declared, “Nothing but the war. Our armies will not be caught between fire from two sides. Justice will be done. The country will know that it is defended.” This coincided with a clampdown on pacifist opponents and suspected traitors, and he continued to speak in favour of ‘war until the end’ until Germany’s surrender in November 1918. Victory was a double-edged sword: he now needed to negotiate the terms of the peace treaty with Wilson and Lloyd-George, which he described a like being “between Jesus Christ on the one hand, and Napoleon Bonaparte on the other.”
On the 11th November 1918, fighting on the First World War’s Western Front ended when representatives from the Allies and Germany signed the Armistice of Compiègne. Named after the location in which it was signed, the armistice was agreed at around 5:00 a.m. in a railway carriage that was part of Allied supreme commander Ferdinand Foch’s private train. Designed to come into effect at 11:00 a.m. Paris time, the armistice was extended three times before the Treaty of Versailles finally came into force on the 10th January 1920.
President Woodrow Wilson of the USA had outlined his war aims in the Fourteen Points that he announced in a speech in January 1918. These provided a framework for peace, and were a key factor in encouraging Germany to enter negotiations.
By the end of September, the German High Command had realised that the German cause on the Western Front was doomed. The Kaiser was informed of the situation on the 29th September, and by the 5th October the German government had contacted President Wilson of the United States to begin preparations for negotiating an armistice. However, the two sides didn’t come together until the 8th November because Britain, France and Italy were unwilling to enter discussing based on the 14 Points. By this point the German Revolution was about to result in the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
The negotiation wasn’t really a negotiation: the German delegation was presented with the terms and had no option but to sign. The railway carriage in which they did so was later used by Hitler for France’s surrender to Nazi Germany in 1940.
On the 1st November 1911, the first aerial bombing took place when Italian Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped four grenades on Turkish troops in Libya. Although unmanned balloons had been used by Austrian troops to carry bombs in their war against in Venice in 1849, Gavotti was the first to drop explosives from a manned aeroplane. The four 4-pound grenades that he dropped caused no injuries, but his action was still widely condemned by the international community. Despite this, within three years aerial bombing had become an established part of modern warfare.
The weakness of the Ottoman Empire demonstrated by Italy’s victory in the Italo-Turkish War is seen by some historians as a contributor to the rise of Balkan nationalism that preceded the First World War. Indeed the First Balkan War was launched while Turkey was still fighting the Italians in Libya. The Italo-Turkish War was also significant for its impact on the use of aircraft for military purposes. As well carrying out as the world’s first aerial bombing, the Italians were also responsible for conducting the first ever aerial reconnaissance mission a week earlier.
Gavotti himself was flying a reconnaissance mission when he decided to drop the four grenades from his Taube monoplane. Although nobody was injured during the attack, the Ottoman Empire complained that aerial bombing contravened the Hague Convention of 1899. However, Italy argued that the agreement specifically stated that bombs could not be dropped from balloons and said nothing about bombs dropped from aircraft. However, it’s probably worth pointing out that the aeroplane hadn’t even been invented when the agreement in question was signed.
At 9:00 am on the 28th October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis ended when Soviet Premier Khrushchev agreed to remove Russian nuclear missiles from the island of Cuba. Although the missiles were identified by American reconnaissance on October 15th, the Thirteen Days of the crisis officially began when President John F. Kennedy was informed on the morning of the 16th.
Cuban President Fidel Castro had met with Khrushchev in July 1961, where the two men had agreed to station short-range nuclear missiles on Cuba. America already had a number of nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey that threatened the USSR, and had supported the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba in April 1961.
Threatened by the discovery of the missiles on Cuba, which lay barely 90 miles from the coast of Florida, the USA responded by enforcing a naval blockade around the island in an attempt to stop any more missiles being delivered. Although the Soviet Union initially refused to recognize the blockade, the ships carrying missiles turned back while Kennedy and Khrushchev continued a series of tense negotiations.
Eventually an agreement was struck in which the USSR would publicly remove the missiles from Cuba while the USA would secretly remove its own from Turkey and Italy. The Soviet Union broadcast its intention to remove the missiles on Radio Moscow on the morning of the 28th October, and the first dismantled missiles were shipped out of Cuba on the 5th November.
Because America’s part of the agreement was kept secret, Khrushchev appeared to have ‘lost’. The reality is that both sides made concessions.
On the 26th October 1860 Giuseppe Garibaldi met with Victor Emanuel II, the King of Sardinia, at Teano and handed him control of southern Italy. Hailing him as King of Italy, Garibaldi’s surrender of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies effectively ended any hope for an Italian republic but was one of the most significant events in the unification of the peninsula.
Garibaldi landed with his ‘Thousand’ – better known as the Redshirts – on the island of Sicily on the 11th May. The number of troops under his command quadrupled within just three days and so, on the 14th, Garibaldi proclaimed himself dictator of Sicily in the name of Victor Emmanuel II of Italy.
Within a fortnight he had besieged the Sicilian capital of Palermo, where many of the inhabitants joined with him and began to attack the Neapolitan garrison. Despite the arrival of 25,000 reinforcements the Neapolitans surrendered the city following an armistice facilitated by a British admiral, but not before the city had been virtually reduced to rubble.
Further difficult battles followed, but by the start of September Garibaldi had crossed to the mainland and taken control of Naples after the king fled with his army. However, he was not yet defeated, and still had the support of around 25,000 soldiers. At the Battle of Volturno, Garibaldi’s Redshirts were only successful against them thanks to the arrival of the Piedmontese Army who made it clear that they would not allow Garibaldi to march on Rome. When Victor Emmanuel arrived on the 26th October therefore, Garibaldi handed over his territory and retired to the island of Caprera.
The Italian government of Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti launched its invasion of Libya in order to formalise its influence in the provinces of Tripolitana and Cyrenaica amidst the declining power of the Ottoman Empire. Having sent an ultimatum to the Ottoman government that was not accepted in full, war was declared on 29 September 1911.
Carlo Piazza formally qualified as a pilot in April 1911, and soon took control of the Royal Italian Army air detachment having proved himself as a talented racing pilot. When the Italo-Turkish War broke out later that year, the Italian military transported its entire fleet of nine aircraft to Tripoli following the prediction of aviation theorist Giulio Douhet that aircraft would cause significant problems for the enemy.
Having arrived in Libya by steamship, the Italian aircraft were brought on shore after the 20,000 ground troops began disembarking their ships on 10 October. The Italians soon found that the Ottoman defence was stronger than they had expected and, during a standoff near Benghazi, Piazza made history’s first reconnaissance flight when he observed the Turkish lines from a Blériot XI aircraft. This type of machine, powered by a 25-horsepower, three-cylinder engine, had famously made the first flight across the English Channel in a heavier-than-air aircraft in 1909.
Barely a week later the Italo-Turkish War would also see the first ever aerial bombing, when Italian Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti dropped four grenades from his Taube monoplane. Later in the conflict, the Turkish military was the first to shoot down an aircraft with rifle fire.
On the 22nd September 1980, the longest conventional war of the 20th Century began when Iraq launched an invasion of Iran. The Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein, dubbed it the ‘Whirlwind War’ in which he expected Iran to be defeated relatively swiftly. However the war persisted for nearly 8 long and bloody years, and an estimated half a million soldiers and the same number of civilians were killed.
Having become President of Iraq in 1979, Saddam Hussein was keen to consolidate the power of his minority Sunni Muslim Ba’ath government. However, at almost exactly the same time, Ayatollah Khomeini came to power through the Iranian Revolution, installing a Shi’ite Muslim theocracy in Iraq’s neighbor and calling for the overthrow of Saddam’s regime. Unsurprisingly, this was met with hostility in Iraq, especially after Shia militants assassinated 20 party officials in April 1980.
Iraq also wanted to push Iran back from the Shatt Al-Arab waterway in order to secure its own oil exports. If the army was successful, they could even increase their oil reserves by capturing some of Iran’s oil fields. Iran was poorly prepared for war as its army had recently been purged of officers and soldiers loyal to the former Shah. Furthermore, the country’s economy was in tatters as a result of western countries boycotting trade due to the ongoing hostage crisis at the American Embassy.
Despite Saddam’s expectations of a quick and easy victory, Iran mobilised its revolutionary population who voluntarily streamed to the front lines and pushed the Iraqis back to their own border. The war raged for an unprecedented eight years.