WWI Centennial: Battle of Messines

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 278th installment in the series.

June 7-14, 1917: Battle of Messines

The abject failure of the Nivelle Offensive in April 1917 triggered mutinies throughout the French Army in May and June, threatening to paralyze the Allied war effort. Although the Germans never caught wind of them, the Allies were understandably worried they might try to exploit the disastrous French defeat and ensuing chaos with a sudden onslaught against the demoralized, disorganized French forces.

At the same time huge shipping losses inflicted by U-boats beginning in the spring of 1917 focused Allied attention on German submarine bases on the coast of Belgium, whose location allowed the U-boats to slip through the English Channel to prey upon the Atlantic sea lanes (as opposed to the much longer route through the North Sea and around Scotland, which burned up precious fuel, limiting their time in the hunting grounds). The Royal Navy made a number of attempts to destroy or disable these bases, including an attack by destroyers against Ostend on June 4-5, 1917, but these were ultimately unsuccessful, while other measures – including mine fields and submarine nets to block the Channel route – were still mostly ineffective at this stage of the war.

To relieve pressure on the French, deprive the Germans of their submarine bases, and maybe even achieve a strategic breakthrough, Douglas Haig, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, planned to carry out two linked offensives in Belgium in the summer of 1917. The first attack yielded a British tactical victory at Messines; the second, the waking nightmare of Passchendaele.

Western Front June
Erik Sass

"THE NOISE WAS IMPOSSIBLE"

The first offensive concentrated on high ground south of Ypres (already the scene of two ferocious battles in 1914 and 1915) and especially the Messines Ridge near the village of the same name – strategic positions with a sweeping view of enemy lines, laying the groundwork for the second offensive east of Ypres. 

At Messines, twelve divisions of the British Second Army under Sir Herbert Plumer, numbering 216,000 men (including Canadian and ANZAC troops) would face five divisions of heavily entrenched defenders from the German Fourth Army under Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, numbering 126,000 men – not a favorable balance of forces for the attackers, by the standards of the First World War.

However the British had a few key advantages, including the new tactic of the creeping barrage, which had proven effective at the recent Battle of Arras, and another weapon of truly demonic power – a chain of 26 massive mines, painstakingly excavated beneath the German lines on Messines Ridge over many months and then packed with over 450 tons of ammonal high explosive. The detonation of these mines would produce one of the largest manmade non-nuclear explosions in history (although four of the mines failed to explode; top, one of the craters).

The British offensive was preceded by ten days of extraordinarily intense artillery bombardment, as over 2,200 guns of varying sizes dumped approximately 3.5 million shells on the German lines. Finally, around 2:40 a.m. on June 7, 1917 the guns briefly fell silent, while the first wave of British soldiers quietly crept out of the trenches and lay flat on the earth in no-man’s-land, preparing to rush the German lines as soon as the mines exploded (below, British soldiers take communion during the battle).

The sudden pause in firing alerted the Germans that the British infantry attack was imminent, and the defenders streamed back to their frontline trenches in preparation for the assault – exactly as the British has hoped they would. At 3:10 a.m. the mines were fired and the bowels of the earth opened, while simultaneously the British guns resumed firing. Lieutenant A.G. May, a British machine gun officer, recalled the moment:

When I heard the first deep rumble I turned to the men and shouted, “Come on, let’s go.” A fraction of a second later a terrific roar and the whole earth seemed to rock and sway. The concussion was terrible, several of the men and myself being blown down violently. It seemed to be several minutes before the earth stood still again though it may not really have been more than a few seconds. Flames rose to a great height – silhouetted against the flame I saw huge blocks of earth that seemed to be as big as houses falling back to the ground. Small chunks and dirt fell all around. I saw a man flung out from behind a huge block of debris silhouetted against the sheet of flame… At the same time the mines went off the artillery let loose, the heaviest group artillery firing ever known. The noise was impossible and it is impossible for anyone who was not there to imagine what it was like.

According to later estimates around 10,000 German soldiers lost their lives in the space of a few moments when the mines exploded. Another British officer, E.N. Gladden, recorded similar impressions of the horrific event:

The ground began to rock and I felt my body carried up and down as by the waves of the sea. In front the earth opened and a large black mass was carried to the sky on pillars of fire, and there seemed to remain suspended for some seconds while the awful red glare lit up the surrounding desolation. No sound came. I had been expecting a noise from the mine so tremendous as to be unbearable. For a brief space all was silent, as though we had been too close to hear and the sound had leapt over us like some immense wave… And then there was a tremendous roar and a tearing across the skies above us, as the barrage commenced with unerring accuracy. It was as though a door had been suddenly flung open. The skies behind our lines were lit by the flashes of many thousand guns, and above the booming din of the artillery came the rasping rattle of the Vickers guns pouring a continuous stream of lead over into the enemy’s lines.

As so often, some observers noted that the horror and violence of the war were accompanied by surreal, spectacular beauty (above, the “Pool of Peace,” a pond formed in one of the craters). Jack Martin, a signaler in the Royal Engineers, wrote in his diary:

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember very vividly for the rest of my life – all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.

Private Edward Lynch, an Australian soldier, left a description of strange high-altitude atmospheric effects later associated with the explosion of nuclear weapons:

‘Look!’ And there to the north on the crown of the great black dome we know is Messines Hill, we see a movement as of an enormous black tin hat slowly rising out of the hill. Suddenly the great rising mass is shattered into a black cloud of whirling dust as a huge rosette of flame bursts from it and great flames lick, dancing and flickering. High up in the sky above the explosion we see a bank of dark clouds turn red from the reflection of the terrible burst below.

With debris still raining down, and the creeping barrage forcing any remaining defenders to take cover, the attackers began to advance across no man’s land along a stretch of front ten miles long in the slowly rising dawn, supported by tanks and a large number of reserve troops waiting to exploit the breakthrough. Unsurprisingly, following the detonation of the mines in many places the advancing troops found that there was no resistance – and in fact no sign of defenders, trenches, or fortifications of any kind, aside from small scraps of barbed wire. In other places hundreds of German soldiers, still alive but traumatized by the explosions, surrendered en masse.

After around half an hour the attackers had captured their first objective and advanced halfway to the German second line. But plenty of German defenders remained alive, putting up a fierce fight from isolated strongpoints, while others withdrew to their rear trenches on the far slope of the ridge, where they worked feverishly to establish new defensive positions. Meanwhile German artillery, some of which managed to survive the mines and bombardment, plastered the attackers with shrapnel, high explosives, and poison gas. Lynch, the Australian private, described British artillery in action around 11 am, along with the German counter-barrage:

We watch the gunlayer on the nearest gun. He sits on his job laying his gun just as fast as the men can feed and fire it. His body jerks to the kicking recall. Blood is streaming from his nose and ears but he never lets up – bleeding from concussion. The great tanks move towards the big Messines Ridge. We move off to climb that great dusty, smoking hill… Suddenly the hillside above kicks up in fifty places as the Fritz barrage of screeching, roaring, bursting shells comes down and through which we must somehow walk… We see a section of men get a shell clean amongst them and get tossed like ninepins everywhere. One lone man rises and moves on where eight moved only a minute before.

The German guns also hit British rear areas in an attempt to disrupt British artillery and block the arrival of fresh troops. William Presser, a bombardier in the Royal Artillery, recalled being gassed at Messines while trying to sleep in a dugout later in the battle:

I was awakened by a terrific crash. The roof came down on my chest and legs and I couldn’t move anything but my head. I thought, “So this is it, then.” I found I could hardly breathe. Then I heard voices. Other fellows with gas helmets on, looking very frightening in the half-light, were lifting timber off me and one was forcing a gas helmet on me… The next thing I knew I was being carried on a stretcher past our officers and some distance from the guns… I supposed I resembled a kind of fish with my mouth open gasping for air. It seemed as if my lungs were gradually shutting up and my heart pounded away in my ears like the beat of a drum. On looking at the chap next to me I felt sick, for green stuff was oozing from the side of his mouth… I was always surprised when I found myself awake, for I felt sure that I would die in my sleep.

Tragically the British also suffered a number of casualties from “friendly fire,” due to confusion about the position of troops. James Rawlinson, a Canadian engineer, recalled surviving a German bombardment only to be hit by a British shell, permanently losing his sight to a sliver of shrapnel:

The enemy guns… opened up with a terrific fire, and the scenery round about was soon in a fine mess. Shells of varying calibre came thundering in our direction, throwing up, as they burst, miniature volcanoes and filling the air with dust and mud and smoke… We were congratulating ourselves that we were to pass through this ordeal uninjured, when suddenly a 5.9-inch shell fell short. It exploded almost in our midst, and I was unlucky enough to get in the way of one of the shrapnel bullets. I felt a slight sting in my right temple as though pricked by a red-hot needle--and then the world became black.

Meanwhile the attackers pressed on over Messines Ridge, with Lynch recalling:

Dust and smoke cover everything. We can barely see the sections on either hand yet somehow they still climb on and so do we. Eyes stinging from gas, dust and smoke, our dry throats burning from the biting fumes of the shells, coated with sweat and dirt, we climb through this terrible barrage, walking on the crumbling edge of a roaring, flashing volcano. Fifty times we’re up and down as shells nearly get us. Mad with thirst we move ever on. The leading two men of our little section go down hit. We step by them and climb on as orders are that no man is to fall out to attend the wounded.

German defenders captured during the attack could count themselves lucky, as according to Lynch, the attackers often weren’t in the mood to take prisoners alive:

‘Kamerad! Kamerad!’ And a small bunch of Fritz rush out of the pillbox as we near it. ‘Kamerad this amongst yourselves!’ And Whang! one of our men has thrown a bomb at them. Terrified, they fly out of the trench. Crack! Crack! Crack! blaze our rifles and not an enemy is on his feet. They’ve gone the way most machine-gunners go who leave their surrender too late. War is war.

Despite sustaining heavy casualties in some places, by the afternoon of June 7 the attackers had captured their final objective, the German third defensive line behind Messines Ridge. However the battle continued to rage, as the British pushed forward and the Germans staged a fighting retreat, while Rupprecht rushed reinforcements up to stem the advance (below, a captured trench). During the following week the British made their biggest gains on the southern half of the battlefield, allowing them to consolidate control of the lower reaches of the Messines Ridge to the south, while forcing the Germans back towards the village of Warneton.

Of course these gains came at a heavy price, as the German defenders dug in and more reinforcements arrived. Lynch recalled his final memory of the battle after being wounded on June 10:

I must reach our trench. I begin to crawl up the side of the shell hole I’m in. The side of the hole keeps moving upwards. Struggle as I may I can’t get out, can’t climb that moving bank. I begin to slip back, back, back into the hole and the bottom has dropped out of it. I can’t climb, can’t cling to the moving sides of this bottomless hole, and begin to drop, drop, drop into swaying utter blackness.

By June 14 the attackers had advanced up to three kilometers in many places – a major victory in the context of trench warfare. But as so often during the war, victory was as ghastly as defeat, although soldiers found themselves increasingly inured to scenes of horror. Martin, the signaler in the Royal Engineers, described advancing over the captured ground in his diary on June 8, 1917:

We had seen numerous dead bodies in all the ghastly horrors and mutilations of violent death, men with half their heads blown off and their brains falling over their faces – some with their abdomens torn open and their entrails hanging out – others stretched out with livid faces and blood-stained mouths, and unblinking eyes staring straight to heaven. Oh wives and mothers and sweethearts, what will this victory mean to you? Yet nature very readily adapts itself to its environment and can look on all these horrors without a shudder. But I should feel sick and almost terrified if I saw a man break his leg in the streets of London.

Unfortunately, as in previous victories (like the Canadian advance on Vimy Ridge during the Second Battle of Arras) the generals weren’t prepared to exploit the gains won by the valor of ordinary fighting men. Indeed, the logistical difficulties involved in bringing up fresh troops and ammunition shouldn’t be underestimated. Martin’s account gives some idea of the frenetic activity required to sustain the initial advance, as he wrote on June 10:

The RE Field Companies are working hard on pit-prop roads and trench tramways. They have carried them as far as the old front line and are now working across no-man’s-land. Their hardest work is now commencing. It is an extraordinary scene of animation. Wagons and lorries full of materials are arriving in constant succession and hundreds of men are unloading and carrying and putting in place…

Although Plumer urged Haig to press their advantage by continuing the attack, the BEF commander insisted on waiting until late July, giving the Germans almost eight weeks to adjust and enhance their defensive positions on the Gheluvelt Plateau and high ground to the east of Ypres, including around Passchendaele – a small Flemish village fated to become synonymous with mindless slaughter.

See the previous installment or all entries.

10 Things You Might Not Know About the Battle of New Orleans

Library of Congress // Public Domain
Library of Congress // Public Domain

The Battle of New Orleans was epic. Andrew Jackson's victory over 8000 British troops turned him into a folk hero, and paved his way to the White House. The campaign also helped modernize naval warfare and spelled doom for America’s oldest political party. Here's everything you need to know about the last major engagement in the War of 1812.

1. IT WAS FOUGHT AFTER THE AMERICANS AND THE BRITISH SIGNED A PEACE TREATY.

New Orleans was a major port and transportation hub that promised effective control of the lower Mississippi, which made it a prime target for Great Britain. So in late November 1814, Royal Navy Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane and a fleet of 50 ships set sail for Louisiana with the goal of capturing the city, along with the rest of the lower Mississippi Delta.

The fighting in Louisiana started on December 14, when a British naval squadron defeated an inferior American force in Lake Borgne. Nine days later, an encampment of around 1800 redcoats was ambushed by Jackson’s men at Villeré Plantation. Though the Americans soon pulled out, the skirmish bought Jackson, a.k.a. Old Hickory, some time to reinforce his defenses around New Orleans proper.

At the same time, an agreement to end the whole war was being negotiated. Representatives from both countries met in modern-day Belgium to hammer out the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed on December 24, 1814, 15 days before the Battle of New Orleans broke out on January 8, 1815. The treaty didn’t go into effect until it was ratified on February 16, 1815, though, so the U.S. and Great Britain were still technically at war during the battle.

2. JACKSON SHOWED UP WITH A BAD CASE OF DYSENTERY.

The Battle Of New Orleans
iStock

On November 7, 1814, with 3000 men, Jackson (then a Major General) took the city of Pensacola in Spanish Florida, where he learned about Britain’s planned invasion of New Orleans. He left for Louisiana in mid-November and—after stopping to build up Mobile, Alabama’s defenses—arrived in NOLA at the beginning of December with his personal staff.

Jackson also brought some dysentery. When he first reached New Orleans, he could barely stand. Digestion problems forced him to subsist on boiled rice for much of the campaign, and before the redcoats attacked, many of Jackson’s orders were given while the general languished miserably on a couch. Still, he wasted no time in organizing a survey of the many swamps, bays, roads, creeks, and rivers in southern Louisiana.

3. NOTORIOUS PIRATE JEAN LAFFITE DOUBLE-CROSSED THE BRITISH SO HE COULD HELP THE AMERICANS.

Jean Laffite claimed he was born in France in 1780 or so, but historians aren’t entirely sure if that's true. What they do know is that at some point in the early 19th century, he moved to Louisiana with a man named Pierre, who claimed to be his brother. The pair were smugglers, pirates, and privateers, and by the time the War of 1812 rolled around, they had established themselves in the New Orleans black market. Their base of operations was the remote Barataria Bay in southern Louisiana, where Jean made a port for his ships and set up dwellings for the ragtag collection of ne'er-do-wells involved with his criminal operation.

On September 3, 1814, a contingent of British officers arrived in Barataria Bay with an offer for Jean Laffite. The proposal went like this: If Laffite agreed to help the redcoats take control of New Orleans, he would be rewarded with a good, high-ranking job in the British navy—and he’d get to keep at least some of his ill-gotten gains. Plus, he would supposedly receive some free land along with a large sum of money.

Laffite accepted the deal—then double-crossed the British as soon as he could. No one knows why the pirate decided to help the Americans, but he might have been thinking of Pierre, who was imprisoned in New Orleans at the time. By assisting the U.S., Laffite probably figured he could get Pierre released (as it turned out, that wasn't necessary; Pierre escaped). He may have also believed that his business empire would crumble if the British took over Louisiana.

In any case, Laffite had a hard time getting the American authorities to accept his help. When he explained the situation in a letter to Louisiana’s governor, the U.S. Navy responded by laying siege to Barataria Bay. Jackson initially balked at the idea of working with Laffite, calling the smuggler’s men “hellish banditti.”

But Old Hickory eventually came around and agreed to join forces. Laffite couldn’t supply many troops; his men only represented about 2 percent of all the soldiers at Jackson’s disposal. He did, however, donate weapons to the cause, and advised the general on how to navigate the tricky rivers and bayous of Louisiana—expertise that helped turn the tide against Great Britain.

After the war, the Laffites and their men received full pardons for past crimes from the U.S. government. Jean and Pierre eventually left New Orleans, relocating to Galveston Island off the coast of present-day Texas.

4. THE FAMOUS KENTUCKY MILITIAMEN DIDN’T BRING ENOUGH GUNS—OR CLOTHES.

At his rallies during the presidential elections of 1824 and 1828, Jackson’s supporters would sing a little ditty called “The Hunters of Kentucky.” Written by Samuel Woodworth in 1821, the song pays tribute to the roughly 2500 Kentucky militiamen who fought under Old Hickory at the Battle of New Orleans. It turned into one of the most popular anthems of the 1820s and encouraged future politicians to choose campaign songs of their own.

But Woodworth’s lyrics don’t paint the whole picture. According to one verse, “Jackson he was wide awake, and was not scar’d at trifles, for well he knew what aim we take, with our Kentucky rifles.” But before taking aim, you need a gun—and most of those 2500-odd Kentuckians were unarmed when they reached New Orleans in early January 1815.

The militiamen had been led to believe that munitions would be handed out in New Orleans, so only around one-third of them came down with their own guns. But in New Orleans, there weren't enough arms to go around. “I don’t believe it,” Jackson supposedly said. “I have never seen a Kentuckian without a gun and a pack of cards and a bottle of whiskey in my life.”

Decent clothing was also in short supply among his visitors from the Bluegrass State, so the Louisiana citizenry and state legislature spent $16,000 to make new clothes and bedding for them.

5. STEAMBOAT WARFARE CAN TRACE ITS ROOTS TO THIS CAMPAIGN.

Jackson, who needed all the weapons he could get, must have been relieved to hear that Secretary of War James Monroe was sending over a veritable stockpile. One of the men who ferried the crucial firearms down the Mississippi was Henry Miller Shreve, captain of a large, flat-bottomed steamboat called the Enterprise. On January 3, 1815, Jackson asked Shreve to deliver some supplies to Americans holed up at Fort St. Philip, 80 miles downriver from New Orleans. Though the Enterprise had to bypass armed British forces en route, she completed the mission—a feat recognized as the first usage of a steam vessel in a military campaign. As for Shreve, he saw action at the Battle of New Orleans itself, where he commanded a 24-pound gun.

6. OLD HICKORY PLACED NEW ORLEANS UNDER MARTIAL LAW.

During the conflict, Jackson took actions that no American general had ever taken before. The decisions would ultimately come back to haunt him.

On December 16, 1814, General Jackson subjected all of New Orleans to martial law and suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus, a legal principle that acts as a safeguard against unlawful imprisonment. He kept a tight hold on the reins: Ship captains needed military-issued passports to take their vessels out of the city and all citizens had to abide by a 9 p.m. curfew or be threatened with immediate arrest.

It didn’t take long for Jackson’s men to start incarcerating locals: Mayor Nicolas Girod warned on Christmas Day that the Guard House would soon be overstuffed with prisoners. It was hoped that all was going to return to normal if and when the redcoats were driven out of Louisiana. Things didn’t work out that way. Fearing a second British attack against New Orleans, Jackson decided to keep it under martial law until March 13, when the state learned that the Treaty of Ghent had been ratified.

These were tough times for the Big Easy. During his tenure, Jackson censored local newspapers and banished French-American citizens suspected of disloyalty. Louisianans were further outraged when he had State Senator Louis Louaillier and U.S. District Court Judge Dominick Hall arrested. Once the latter was eventually set free, he put Jackson on trial and fined him $1000 for contempt of court. The general paid up, but he wasn’t out of the woods yet. Old Hickory’s actions came back to bite him decades later, when anti-Jacksonians used his conduct in New Orleans to paint the man as a tyrant.

7. A 1500-YARD RAMPART WAS KEY TO THE AMERICAN VICTORY.

Map of Battle of New Orleans
Stefan Kühn, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

General Edward Pakenham came to the January 8 battle with around 8000 professionally trained British soldiers. By comparison, Jackson was at a distinct disadvantage: Many of his men—a hodgepodge coalition of forces from the Army/Navy/Marine Corps, militiamen, pirates, Choctaw recruits, and other fighters totalling 5700 people—had little experience fighting together. To give his troops an advantage, Old Hickory did some terraforming.

In late December, he visited the Rodriguez Canal, a shallow drainage ditch on the eastern bank of the Mississippi six miles south of New Orleans. Knowing that Pakenham would march his men up the river across some wide-open terrain, Jackson had his men build a 1500-yard rampart—made of wood, earth, and possibly cotton bales—in front of the canal. Dubbed Line Jackson, the wall began on the river bank and jetted deep into a nearby cypress swamp. For insurance, Old Hickory had the Rodriguez Canal widened so it could be used as a moat; the extra dirt that they dug up went into building the rampart.

The Battle of New Orleans began at 5 a.m. on January 8, 1815. Though there was an American contingent stationed across the river, most of the men were lying in wait for the British behind Line Jackson. The geography forced column after column of red-coated soldiers to pass through a narrow stretch of exposed countryside as they pushed towards the rampart. From the safety of their muddy wall, Jackson’s men mowed down over 2000 British troops in about two hours. It was a slaughter.

8. MISPLACED LADDERS HURT THE BRITISH.

Pakenham had a plan for dealing with Line Jackson, but one of his subordinates botched it. Before the battle, Pakenham had gathered some ladders, sugar cane bales, and other valuable supplies and entrusted them to Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Mullins. With the ladders, Pakenham’s men could have climbed over Line Jackson while using sugar bales to fill the moat. But Mullins quickly lost track of the goods—and didn’t realize his mistake until his regiment was within 1000 yards of the American line.

At that point it was too late. Unable to cross the barricade or ford the moat, the British on the eastern bank turned into sitting ducks. Pakenham was killed and so was Major General Gibbs, who supposedly said, “If I live until tomorrow, I will hang Colonel Mullins from one of these trees.” Despite gaining lots of ground on the western bank, the surviving British officers chose to withdraw from both sides of the river.

By one estimate Jackson lost just 13 men (with an additional 49 missing, captured, or wounded), despite inflicting thousands of casualties. His job wasn’t over yet: Britain didn’t pull out of Louisiana until the end of January. Nevertheless, he’d scored an impressive, morale-boosting victory along the Rodriguez Canal. America would never forget it. “History records no example of so glorious a victory obtained with so little bloodshed on the part of the victorious,” wrote Secretary of War James Monroe.

9. NO, THE SCOTTISH TROOPS DIDN’T WEAR KILTS INTO BATTLE.

Great battles inspire great artwork, but artists don’t always pay heed to historical accuracy. Some of the paintings that were made to celebrate Jackson’s rout show the Scottish troops in Britain’s 93rd Highland Regiment wearing kilts in combat. The Scotsmen at best donned tartan trousers, although some historians doubt even that, saying they likely wore gray campaign overalls.

10. IT HELPED KILL THE FEDERALIST PARTY.

Established by Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist Party is recognized as the first political party in U.S. history. It enjoyed national dominance under the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams—but the Federalists lost that control in 1800 with the election of Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's tenure bred discontent across New England, a Federalist stronghold, and members of the party who lived there began to discuss seceding from the Union as early as 1804.

The War of 1812 intensified their resolve; New England Federalists were extremely suspicious of Democratic-Republican President Madison’s efforts, with prominent Federalist Rufus King proclaiming it “a war of party, and not of the Country.” To discuss their grievances against President Madison, his Jeffersonian agenda, and the war, Federalist representatives from all over New England quietly convened in Hartford, Connecticut on December 15, 1814. They put together a list of constitutional amendments for the U.S. federal government to consider that were designed to benefit northeastern states.

It was rumored that New England would secede if the Federalists’ suggestions were ignored. The Hartford Convention wrapped up on January 5, 1815, and its proposals were soon read aloud in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. At the same time, the country was just starting to celebrate Andrew Jackson’s big win in New Orleans. Most Americans were in a jubilant mood, and the griping Federalists now looked more out of touch than ever. “Hartford Convention Federalist” became a euphemism for “disloyal traitor,” and the party declined into oblivion.

The Time 14 Cargo Ships Were Trapped in the Suez Canal ... for Eight Years

iStock
iStock

Egypt and Israel had a salty relationship in the mid-20th century. In 1967, war broke out between the two and Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula next door. In response, Egypt attempted to cripple the Israeli economy by blockading the Suez Canal with sunken ships, mines, and debris—trapping 14 unlucky foreign cargo ships in the canal for eight years.

Marooned on the canal's Great Bitter Lake, the ships—British, French, American, German, Swedish, Bulgarian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian—“clustered in the middle of the lake like a wagon train awaiting an Indian attack,” reported The New York Times [PDF]. Israel controlled the east bank of the canal; Egypt, the west. The sailors watched helplessly as both sides exchanged gunfire and rockets over their heads.

“We were in a very comfortable prison,” Captain Miroslaw Proskurnicki of the Polish ship Jakarta said. “The first month was like a holiday. The second month was very hard. By the end of the third month, it was terrible.” With nothing to do besides clean the ships and do basic maintenance, the boats puttered aimlessly around Great Bitter Lake in an attempt to keep the engines well-tuned. With nowhere to go, the crews eventually set aside their homelands' differences, moored together, and formed an unofficial micronation of sorts, calling themselves the “Yellow Fleet,” a reference to the windswept sand that piled on their decks.

Each ship adopted a special duty to keep the "country" running smoothly. The Polish freighter served as a post office. The Brits hosted soccer matches. One ship served as a hospital; another, a movie theater. On Sundays, the German Nordwind hosted "church" services. “We call it church,” Captain Paul Wall told the Los Angeles Times in 1969. “But actually it is more of a beer party.” (The Germans received free beer from breweries back home.)

Beer was the crew’s undeniable lifeblood—one of the few things to look forward to or write home about. “In three days we tried Norwegian beer, Czechoslovak beer and wine and Bulgarian beer and vodka,” Captain Zdzislaw Stasick told The New York Times in 1974. In fact, the stranded men drank so much beer—and tossed all of the bottles into the lake—that sailors liked to joke that the lake’s 40-foot deep waters were actually “35 feet of water, and 5 feet of beer bottles.” As the British captain of the Invercargill, Arthur Kensett, said: “One wonders what future archaeologists in a few thousand years’ time will think of this.”

It was like adult summer camp. The men (and one woman) passed the time participating in sailing races and regattas, water-skiing on a surfboard pulled by a lifeboat. They played bingo and cricket and held swim meets. It was so hot outside, they regularly cooked steaks atop 35 gallon drums. During the 1968 Tokyo Olympics, they hosted the “Bitter Lake Mini-Olympics,” with competitions in weightlifting, water polo, air rifle shooting, high jumping, and, of course, swimming. (Poland won the gold.) During Christmas, they installed a floating Christmas tree and lowered a piano onto a small boat, which roved around the lake and serenaded each ship. The Yellow Fleet dubbed themselves the “Great Bitter Lake Association” and made special badges. They even had a club tie.

By the mid-1970s, much of the cargo the vessels had been carrying was rotten. The original shipments of the remaining wool, rubber, and sheet metal—which had been loaded in places as far away as Australia and Asia—were no longer needed. The Yellow Fleet resembled a ghost town, manned by world-weary skeleton crews.

Their patience was rewarded. By 1975, approximately 750,000 explosives had been successfully removed from the Suez Canal, making escape possible. The Great Bitter Lake Association disbanded, and the vessels of the Yellow Fleet finally returned to their separate homes. But by that point, the crew had learned that, no matter your circumstances, home is truly where you make it.

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