WWI Centennial: The Tide Turns; the Romanovs are Executed

John Warwick Brooke, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
John Warwick Brooke, Imperial War Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 313th installment in the series. Read an overview of the war to date here.

JULY 15-22, 1918: THE TIDE TURNS; THE ROMANOVS ARE EXECUTED

In the spring of 1918, German chief strategist Erich Ludendorff launched four huge offensives against the Allies on the Western Front, using troops freed up by the victory on the Eastern Front, in a desperate attempt to defeat Britain and France before American forces started to arrive in Europe in large numbers. Codenamed Michael, Georgette, Blücher-Yorck, and Gneisenau, this series of attacks delivered powerful blows against the Allies and succeeded in conquering a large amount of territory, bringing the Germans alarmingly close to Paris—but failed to achieve the hoped-for strategic breakthrough.

With hundreds of thousands of fresh American troops arriving every month, and with Germany’s internal political situation nearing the breaking point, as spring gave way to summer Ludendorff had no choice but to keep rolling the dice in hopes that the Allies would make a mistake. His efforts culminated in the fifth German offensive, Marneschutz-Reims, (“Marne Defense-Reims”) launched on July 15, 1918—yet another attempt to force the French to move reinforcements south from Flanders, leaving the overstretched British Expeditionary Force vulnerable to a decisive German knockout blow in the north.

However, Ludendorff had finally met his match. The Allied commander-in-chief, the French general Ferdinand Foch, seemed to possess nerves of steel. Once again he refused to panic, and instead carefully husbanded his reserves in Flanders and in the Reserve Army Group of 55 divisions under General Émile Fayolle north of Paris, waiting for the perfect moment to launch a massive Allied counterattack. With the failure of Marneschutz-Reims from July 15-17, 1918, that moment had finally arrived: the surprise counterattack on July 18, supported by tens of thousands of American soldiers at the Battle of Chateau-Thierry, would prove the turning point of the war.

MARNESCHUTZ-REIMS

The fifth (and final) German offensive supposedly had several purposes—although, like its predecessors, this may have simply reflected the muddled thinking of the German general staff. At the local level, simultaneous attacks by the German Seventh and Third Armies, both part of the army group commanded by the German crown prince Wilhelm, were supposed to capture the key rail hub at Reims in a giant pincer movement, easing the task of resupplying the German forces in the new salient extending south to the Marne River, previously conquered during Blücher-Yorck. At a strategic level, capturing Reims would straighten the German line and free up more German troops for subsequent attacks, while hopefully frightening the French into moving reserve forces that were then backing up the BEF in Flanders and Picardy. At this point Ludendorff would unleash another huge offensive, codenamed Operation Hagen, against the British by the Second, Fourth, Sixth, and Seventeenth Armies, all part of the army group commanded by Bavarian crown prince Rupprecht. By splitting the French and British near Amiens and pushing the latter into the sea, there was still a chance Germany could win the war.

Western Front, July 15, 1918
Erik Sass

Ludendorff was betting on another big tactical victory, but the situation had changed since the dramatic advances of Michael, Georgette, and Blücher-Yorck. For one thing, he no longer enjoyed the key element of surprise. As the German salients ballooned out, it was relatively easy for Allied intelligence officers to guess where the next blows might land, and Reims, jutting into the German flank, was an obvious target. Additionally, German preparations for the offensive were hard to conceal from Allied aerial observers, reflecting the shifting balance of power in the air. The Allies had also finally adopted the German doctrine of defense in depth, leaving frontline trenches lightly held and keeping most of their troops further back, from which they could mount counterattacks once the initial enemy assault began losing momentum. Finally, the Allies had figured out the Pulkowski technique, used by the Germans to target artillery without having to test fire the guns to find the range (which gave away where an attack was coming), meaning they had a few surprises of their own up their sleeves.

The Allies stole the show right from the start with a surprise counter-bombardment by French artillery, beginning shortly after midnight on July 15, using additional artillery pieces brought up secretly and carefully hidden in the weeks before the attack. In line with the Pulkowski technique copied from the Germans, the French used meteorological and mathematical calculations to target the German frontline trenches where the attacking infantry were assembled, inflicting heavy casualties and threatening to disrupt the assault. One American soldier described the French surprise counter-barrage:

“Thousands of French guns broke the weeks of quiet and fired with an intensity that caused the atmosphere to shake with a constant rolling, unbroken sound. The deep roar of the heavy guns, smashing detonations of the middle calibers, and the bark of the 75’s coalesced with the vibrating swishing note of the departing projectile. It was a hellish music. To its accompaniment, the stars were snuffed out and the skies turned in blotches and splashes and flashes to red, yellow and green. The surface of the earth was like a shaking table.”

On the other side the heavy German artillery bombardment pounded the French frontline trenches with around 4.5 million shells on the first day alone, but this had relatively little effect on the French Fourth and Fifth Armies bearing the brunt of the attack. The frontline trenches were almost empty, with most of the French infantry waiting safely in a series of trenches in the “defense zone” to the rear. Elsewhere the Allies were less fortunate, as the French Sixth and Ninth Armies also received heavy fire, including American troops. John Miller, an American medical officer, wrote in his diary on July 17:

“Some fight! The barrage started at just midnight July 14th, and kept it up until 11 o'clock the next day and then they shelled steadily the rest of that day, that night and the following day (today). All our horses are dead, almost half the men, I think, were casualties and things are in a hell of a mess in general. The dressing station and surroundings are a sight. The damn woods is just about torn down and filled with dead men and horses. And they are beginning to smell pretty rank.”

The first wave of German storm troopers and infantry went “over the top” at 4:50 a.m., preceded by a double creeping barrage, a moving wall of artillery fire intended to force defenders to take cover until the attacking infantry were upon them. But once again, the creeping barrage had minimal effect, because the frontline trenches were unmanned. As the lead German storm troopers arrived to find the positions totally undefended—the first indication that the assault would not go to plan—French 75-millimeter guns, still considered the best field artillery in the world at that time, opened up on the tightly packed ranks of German infantry. Another American soldier recalled the bloody work done by French field artillery as the dawn lifted on July 15 (below, French machine gunners):

“Wave after wave of Germans swept across no man’s land in close formation. They came over half of the distance without any marked break and then the French opened up on them with 75’s that [had] been placed for just that purpose … The destruction was terrible and the advancing waves were torn and split apart. The great gaps were filled, only to be again torn and shattered by the direct artillery fire. Doggedly they kept pushing for war … but the force of the charge was gone and they were beaten back.”

French troops, July 1918
U.S. War Department, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

An American sergeant described carnage all too typical of the war: “we had them stacked up in front of our wire two and three deep.” And Vernon Kniptash, an American soldier in the 42nd (Rainbow) Division, recorded similar impressions in his diary on July 15, 1918:

“Their Infantry came over in three huge waves and our 75’s, machine guns, and trench mortar batteries fired at ‘em point blank. The first wave was just naturally killed standing up. They came over shoulder to shoulder and couldn’t find room to fall down. The second and third waves suffered the same fate. Then our doughboys went out and took prisoners or finished up the ones that the artillery didn’t get.”

By 7:30 a.m. the Germans had progressed a few kilometers in places, paying a terrible price for these meager gains, as they ran headlong into a deep “defense zone” bristling with machine gun nests and strong points. Their own artillery was mostly unable to come to their assistance: They were simply out of range in some places; in others the German gun crews were already moving their pieces forward on the assumption that they had achieved another breakthrough, making it very difficult to set up the guns and start targeting them again.

Without additional artillery support, the German infantry attacks quickly lost their momentum, and by mid-afternoon the eastern half of the German pincer had stalled far short of its objective for the first day, indicating that the plan had already failed. The situation was even worse to the west, where the French counter-barrage had thrown the German Seventh Army’s attack into chaos—amplified by dauntingly ambitious objectives, which called for the attacking infantry to cross the Marne River on pontoon bridges.

Although the Germans had achieved remarkable success with these tactics before by crossing multiple river obstacles in Blücher-Yorck, their preparations for Marneschutz-Reims weren’t nearly as thorough, and the bridges were subjected to ferocious Allied artillery fire and aerial bombardment. As a result, six German divisions that managed to cross the Marne ended up temporarily stranded on the south bank without artillery or ammunition after the pontoon bridges were destroyed.

By the following morning it was clear that the attack had failed, leaving officers and rank-and-file soldiers alike thoroughly demoralized. Herbert Sulzbach, a German artillery officer, noted in his diary on July 16, 1918:

“Our morale is quite terrible, we can’t get the faintest glimpse of what is going on, and all we can guess is this great offensive hasn’t come off! ... We hear that our attack has in fact been repulsed by the French in this sector, with heavy losses. We feel really desperate.”

On July 17 Ludendorff agreed with the recommendation of crown prince Wilhelm’s staff and army commanders to go on the defensive, and the Germans successfully withdrew all six divisions from the south bank of the Marne. However, worse was to come: on July 18 Foch ordered French Tenth Army commander Charles Mangin, nicknamed “the Butcher,” to attack the western edge of the enemy salient northeast of Paris, held by the German Ninth Army, recently transferred from Romania.

Western Front, July 18, 1918
Erik Sass

AMERICANS VICTORIOUS AT CHATEAU-THIERRY

The Tenth Army attack achieved total surprise thanks to Mangin’s unorthodox approach of sending the infantry over without prolonged artillery preparation, instead relying on hundreds of tanks for fire support and a brief “rolling barrage” to force enemy troops to take cover. As part of the Allied counterattack, Mangin also had nine American divisions under his command, including the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 26th, 28th, 32nd, 42nd (known as the Rainbow Division because its soldiers were drawn from all over the United States) and 77th. In this sector the American divisions—with a strength of 28,000 men each, around twice the size of European divisions—were distributed in a long arc beginning opposite Soissons and extending down to Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood.

The rolling barrage began at 4:35 a.m., and thousands of American troops advanced close behind the creeping wall of fire, surging forward despite very heavy casualties from German gas, machine gun fire, and aerial ground attacks. The attackers soon succeeded in pushing the enemy out of their first defensive zone, forcing the Germans to send reinforcements from other parts of the front—spelling the definitive end of the German offensive (below, the Chateau-Thierry bridge, destroyed during the battle). On July 18, Sulzbach and his comrades were floored by the order to withdraw and redeploy to help fend off the surprise French counterattack on the Seventh Army:

“This order tells us everything, and we are speechless … So we are moving along behind the front; it looks as though we are being thrown into the largest enemy offensive of all time—and it was supposed to be our offensive! We couldn’t even have dreamed that this would happen—never.”

Chateau-Thierry bridge, 1918
United States Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

The Allied counterattack supposedly pushed Ludendorff to the edge of a nervous breakdown, although he eventually recovered his composure. It now became clear that his recent conquests, far from bringing them closer to victory, were a huge strategic liability, as the overstretched German armies had to hold hundreds of kilometers of new front, exposed to Allied counterattacks on all sides. The only answer was an immediate retreat from the Marne by the Seventh and Ninth Armies to more defensible positions to the north—in other words, giving up all the hard-won territorial gains of previous offensives. As the Germans withdrew from the Marne salient, the French offensive expanded to include advances by the French Fifth, Sixth, and Ninth Armies, although Foch failed to achieve his goal of cutting off the German armies in the salient (below, a bridge at Chateau-Thierry destroyed in the battle).

Although the German armies mostly escaped intact, they suffered significant losses. Guy Bowerman, Jr., an American ambulance driver, witnessed the scenes following the German retreat with his comrades on July 19, 1918:

“It was here that our barrage must have caught a road-full of retreating Germans and what a hell-hole it must have been! Dead men, dead horses and demolished wagons and trucks are everywhere … Close beside the truck are the charred bodies of two men, beyond at the side of the road the bare leg of a man with a piece of a boot and a sock still around it sticks up from the bushes as if it had become stuck as the man hurried along and had pulled out of the socket … As we stood there waiting Bal came over, his face somewhat pale and there was no denying the sincerity of his words as he said ‘God! Bowie but this makes me sick.’”

For many Americans soldiers Chateau-Thierry and the Second Battle of the Marne were their first contact with the horrors of war. In a letter home written July 20, 1918, William Russel, an American pilot, tried to convey his feelings on seeing the battlefield from the air:

“Father, it is truly terrible beyond description—the once-beautiful country ravaged and pitted with shell holes, and the homes of the people who were happy so short a time ago, and the attractive buildings and churches either burning or already leveled to the ground in ruin. Very little has escaped the cruel fire of the large guns and the frightful destruction of a merciless enemy. This was my introduction to actual warfare, and my first impression was one of horror and stupefaction. It was far worse than I had thought, and truly, it seems to me that it is inconceivable to one who does not see it with his own eyes.”

Ferdinand Jelke, an American liaison officer to the French Army, described the horrors of chemical warfare in a letter home on July 22, 1918:

“This mustard gas is a dastardly and damnable thing, frightfully blistering and burning the body, especially in the moist and hairy places, and making the most horrible sores. If enough gets into the lungs, it kills either at once or by a long and horrible, lingering death … In talking with some of the cases today that were burned 12 days ago, and are still suffering intensely and lingering between life and death, they said they would far rather lose an arm or leg.”

Chateau-Thierry station, 1918
United States Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

On July 23, the American medical officer Miller noted a horrifying scene with a few laconic remarks in his diary. “Crossed Marne today at about 3 o'clock on pontoon bridges. Horses and men still unburied. Saw one dead American machine gunner at Mazy with 160 dead Boches around him,” he wrote. “He did well.”

Another American surgeon was appalled by conditions near the front (above, American wounded at the Chateau-Thierry railroad station, converted into a makeshift hospital). “Hospitals were again swamped. Our field hospital with 200 beds was inundated by more than 3,000 wounded,” he noted. “Men lay in the streets outside in the wet and cold; many who might have been saved died from exposure, shock, and lack of care.”

Robert C. Hoffman, a medical officer with the U.S. 28th Division, conveyed the horror of seeing American wounded:

“The more pitifully wounded did not wish to live. They constantly begged doctors and nurses, sometimes at the top of their voices, to put an end to them. Some made attempts to end their lives with a knife or fork … One of the orderlies told me that a blinded man who was suffering greatly and did not wish to live had killed himself at one time with a fork. It was hard to drive it deep enough through his chest to end his life, and he kept hitting it with his clenched fist to drive it deeper.”

By July 22, the battle of Chateau-Thierry was over—but many considered these few days to be the turning point of the war, as Mangin’s offensive marked the end of German offensive capability, and with it any prospect of German victory. In fact the German chancellor at the time, George Hertling, later recalled:

“At the beginning of July, 1918, I was convinced, I confess it, that before the first of September our adversaries would send us peace proposals. … We expected grave events in Paris for the end of July. That was on the 15th. On the 18th even the most optimistic of us knew that all was lost. The history of the world was played out in three days.”

After months of skepticism, French commanders showered praise on American fighting spirit at Chateau-Thierry, with one reporting to the French high command, “The conduct of American troops has been perfect and has been greatly admired by French officers and men. Calm and perfect bearing under artillery fire, endurance of fatigue and privations, tenacity in defense, eagerness in counterattack, willingness to engage in hand-to-hand fighting—such are the qualities reported to me by all the French officers I have seen.”

On the other side, German troops were stunned and demoralized, not only by American fighting spirit, but also by the evident material superiority of the Allies, as demonstrated by massive French artillery power, carefully accumulated over the two years since Verdun. Sulzbach was at a loss for words to describe a French barrage on July 21, 1918:

“I don’t know the word indicating the difference in degree required to describe the wholly crazy artillery fire which the French turned on for the attack in the morning. The word ‘hell’ expresses something tender and peaceful compared with what is starting here and now … It’s as though all the barrages one had ever known have been combined to rattle down on us now.”

On July 23, Sulzbach endured another horrific bombardment. “At 4 a.m. a barrage suddenly began: the very earth was rumbling, and it seemed as though the world were coming to an end. You couldn’t hear what the next man was saying; it was indescribable,” he wrote. Faced with these overwhelming odds, and with troops starving and decimated by influenza, German morale was starting to collapse. Dominik Richert, a German soldier from Alsace, remembered his decision to defect to the French:

“On the following Wednesday, the 23rd of July 1918, we once again had a miserable lunch—burnt dried vegetables. NCO Beck and I were standing on our own up in the trench shoveling down the terrible much. Suddenly, in an abrupt outburst of rage, Beck took his canteen and its contents and flung it against the traverse near him. ‘Goddamit!’ he raged. ‘I’ve just about had enough of this!’ I pointed across towards the French front as if to say: ‘What do you think, Gustav?’ He suddenly looked at me and said: ‘Would you be willing to come?’”

DEATH OF THE ROMANOVS

As the First World War entered its final phase on the Western Front, the Russian Civil War, which would claim around 3 million lives by 1923, was just beginning, pitting Lenin’s “Reds” (Bolsheviks) against the “Whites” (a coalition of conservative anti-Bolshevik forces, most led by former Tsarist generals). By mid-1918 the chaos was deepening as the vast realm hurtled off a cliff. July brought the first foreign interventions with Allied occupations to Russia’s far north and Far East, intended to protect war materiel provided by the Allies to the former Provisional Government from capture by the Germans or Bolsheviks. Meanwhile, a dozen small regional factions had formed, operating independently of both the Reds and Whites, including the Czech Legion, now consolidating its control of the Trans-Siberian Railroad.

Map of Russian civil war, 1918
Erik Sass

Both sides exercised utmost brutality as the government lapsed once again into arbitrary tyranny. Sophie Buxhoeveden, a former lady-in-waiting, noted worsening conditions in Bolshevik-controlled areas, as well as the glaring disparity between Bolsheviks and the rest of the population:

“The Bolsheviks did not suffer from these hardships. They had special facilities for getting what they wanted, and money in abundance, so they could pay the fancy prices that the underhanded dealers demanded for those articles which they still managed, in some mysterious way, to produce. The unfortunate people who were not in Bolshevik service could get no work, and these lived by selling the last of their belongings, most of which was clothing.”

Buxhoeveden described how the Bolsheviks extorted valuable possessions from members of the “bourgeoisie,” now deemed enemies of the people and therefore fair game, but also more humble folk:

“Merchants and the bourgeoisie were put into prison for even the slightest infringement of the regulations, and their relations, knowing the treatment they would be exposed to, hastened to pay bail for them. As there was no ready money available, their womenfolk sold the last bits of jewelery they still possessed, but paid whatever was the sum demanded. Gradually the arrests extended also to less prominent people.”

Justice, never secure in Russia before the war, was now a naïve dream, Buxhoeveden continued:

“Trials were a farce. There were no longer any regular law courts; the old penal code was abolished and no other existed. For every kind of offense people were brought before a revolutionary tribunal, the members of which were all appointed by the Soviet and consisted almost exclusively of Red guardsmen. These men were instructed to give their judgments according to their ‘revolutionary conscience,’ as there were no staple laws.”

The steep descent into anarchy accelerated on the night of July 16-17, 1918, with the Bolsheviks’ brutal summary execution of the Romanov royal household, including the former Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Alexandra, their five children, and a number of courtiers who accompanied them into exile. Held prisoners in Yekaterinburg, the Romanovs were executed at the explicit order of Lenin, prompted by fears that the approaching Czech Legion might liberate the former royal family, raising the prospect of a restoration by sympathetic pro-royal White forces.

Pavel Medvedev, one of the soldiers guarding the family, recalled the sad scene as the royal family, including the 13-year-old former heir to the throne Alexei, were suddenly roused from their sleep in the modest home where they had been living before being led to the basement where they were shot, bayoneted, and clubbed to death:

“During my presence none of the Tsar’s family asked any questions. They did not weep or cry … When the room (which adjoins the store room with a sealed door) was reached, Yurovsky ordered chairs to be brought, and his assistant brought three chairs. One chair was given to the Emperor, one to the Empress, and the third to the heir … It seemed as if all of them guessed their fate, but none of them uttered a single sound … At this moment 11 men entered the room … Yurovsky ordered me to leave, saying, ‘Go on to the street, see if there is anybody there, and wait to see whether the shots have been heard.’ I went out to the court, which was enclosed by a fence, but before I got to the street I heard the firing. I returned to the house immediately (only two or three minutes having elapsed) and upon entering the room where the execution had taken place, I saw that all the members of the Tsar’s family were lying on the floor with many wounds in their bodies. The blood was running in streams. The doctor, the maid, and two waiters had also been shot. When I entered the heir was still alive and moaned a little. Yurovsky went up and fired two or three more times at him. Then the heir was still.”

See the previous installment or all entries, or read an overview of the war.

The Disturbing Reason Schools Tattooed Their Students in the 1950s

Kurt Hutton, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Kurt Hutton, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Paul Bailey was born at Beaver County Hospital in Milford, Utah on May 9, 1955, it took less than two hours for the staff to give him a tattoo. Located on his torso under his left arm, the tiny marking was rendered in indelible ink with a needle gun and indicated Bailey’s blood type: O-Positive.

“It is believed to be the youngest baby ever to have his blood type tattooed on his chest,” reported the Beaver County News, cooly referring to the infant as an “it.” A hospital employee was quick to note parental consent had been obtained first.

The permanent tattooing of a child who was only hours old was not met with any hysteria. Just the opposite: In parts of Utah and Indiana, local health officials had long been hard at work instituting a program that would facilitate potentially life-saving blood transfusions in the event of a nuclear attack. By branding children and adults alike with their blood type, donors could be immediately identified and used as “walking blood banks” for the critically injured.

Taken out of context, it seems unimaginable. But in the 1950s, when the Cold War was at its apex and atomic warfare appeared not only possible but likely, children willingly lined up at schools to perform their civic duty. They raised their arm, gritted their teeth, and held still while the tattoo needle began piercing their flesh.

 

The practice of subjecting children to tattoos for blood-typing has appropriately morbid roots. Testifying at the Nuremberg Tribunal on War Crimes in the 1940s, American Medical Association physician Andrew Ivy observed that members of the Nazi Waffen-SS carried body markings indicating their blood type [PDF]. When he returned to his hometown of Chicago, Ivy carried with him a solution for quickly identifying blood donors—a growing concern due to the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. The conflict was depleting blood banks of inventory, and it was clear that reserves would be necessary.

School children sit next to one another circa the 1950s
Reg Speller, Fox Photos/Getty Images

If the Soviet Union targeted areas of the United States for destruction, it would be vital to have a protocol for blood transfusions to treat radiation poisoning. Matches would need to be found quickly. (Transfusions depend on matching blood to avoid the adverse reactions that come from mixing different types. When a person receives blood different from their own, the body will create antibodies to destroy the red blood cells.)

In 1950, the Department of Defense placed the American Red Cross in charge of blood donor banks for the armed forces. In 1952, the Red Cross was the coordinating agency [PDF] for obtaining blood from civilians for the National Blood Program, which was meant to replenish donor supply during wartime. Those were both measures for soldiers. Meanwhile, local medical societies were left to determine how best to prepare their civilian communities for a nuclear event and its aftermath.

As part of the Chicago Medical Civil Defense Committee, Ivy promoted the use of the tattoos, declaring them as painless as a vaccination. Residents would get blood-typed by having their finger pricked and a tiny droplet smeared on a card. From there, they would be tattooed with the ABO blood group and Rhesus factor (or Rh factor), which denotes whether or not a person has a certain type of blood protein present.

The Chicago Medical Society and the Board of Health endorsed the program and citizens voiced a measure of support for it. One letter to the editor of The Plainfield Courier-News in New Jersey speculated it might even be a good idea to tattoo Social Security numbers on people's bodies to make identification easier.

Despite such marked enthusiasm, the project never entered into a pilot testing stage in Chicago.

Officials with the Lake County Medical Society in nearby Lake County, Indiana were more receptive to the idea. In the spring of 1951, 5000 residents were blood-typed using the card method. But, officials cautioned, the cards could be lost in the chaos of war or even the relative quiet of everyday life. Tattoos and dog tags were encouraged instead. When 1000 people lined up for blood-typing at a county fair, two-thirds agreed to be tattooed as part of what the county had dubbed "Operation Tat-Type." By December 1951, 15,000 Lake County residents had been blood-typed. Roughly 60 percent opted for a permanent marking.

The program was so well-received that the Lake County Medical Society quickly moved toward making children into mobile blood bags. In January 1952, five elementary schools in Hobart, Indiana enrolled in the pilot testing stage. Children were sent home with permission slips explaining the effort. If parents consented, students would line up on appointed tattoo days to get their blood typed with a finger prick. From there, they’d file into a room—often the school library—set up with makeshift curtains behind which they could hear a curious buzzing noise.

When a child stepped inside, they were greeted by a school administrator armed with indelible ink and wielding a Burgess Vibrotool, a medical tattoo gun featuring 30 to 50 needles. The child would raise their left arm to expose their torso (since arms and legs might be blown off in an attack) and were told the process would only take seconds.

A child raises his hand in class circa the 1950s
Vecchio/Three Lions/Getty Images

Some children were stoic. Some cried before, during, or after. One 11-year-old recounting her experience with the program said a classmate emerged from the session and promptly fainted. All were left with a tattoo less than an inch in diameter on their left side, intentionally pale so it would be as unobtrusive as possible.

At the same time that grade schoolers—and subsequently high school students—were being imprinted in Indiana, kids in Cache and Rich counties in Utah were also submitting to the program, despite potential religious obstacles for the region's substantial Mormon population. In fact, Bruce McConkie, a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, declared that blood-type tattoos were exempt from the typical prohibitions on Mormons defacing their bodies, giving the program a boost among the devout. The experiment would not last much longer, though.

 

By 1955, 60,000 adults and children had gotten tattooed with their blood types in Lake County. In Milford, health officials persisted in promoting the program widely, offering the tattoos for free during routine vaccination appointments. But despite the cooperation exhibited by communities in Indiana and Utah, the programs never spread beyond their borders.

The Korean conflict had come to an end in 1953, reducing the strain put on blood supplies and along with it, the need for citizens to double as walking blood banks. More importantly, outside of the program's avid boosters, most physicians were extremely reticent to rely solely on a tattoo for blood-typing. They preferred to do their own testing to make certain a donor was a match with a patient.

There were other logistical challenges that made the program less than useful. The climate of a post-nuclear landscape meant that bodies might be charred, burning off tattoos and rendering the entire operation largely pointless. With the Soviet Union’s growing nuclear arsenal—1600 warheads were ready to take to the skies by 1960—the idea of civic defense became outmoded. Ducking and covering under desks, which might have shielded some from the immediate effects of a nuclear blast, would be meaningless in the face of such mass destruction.

Programs like tat-typing eventually fell out of favor, yet tens of thousands of adults consented to participate even after the flaws in the program were publicized, and a portion allowed their young children to be marked, too. Their motivation? According to Carol Fischler, who spoke with the podcast 99% Invisible about being tattooed as a young girl in Indiana, the paranoia over the Cold War in the 1950s drowned out any thought of the practice being outrageous or harmful. Kids wanted to do their part. Many nervously bit their lip but still lined up with the attitude that the tattoo was part of being a proud American.

Perhaps equally important, children who complained of the tattoo leaving them particularly sore received another benefit: They got the rest of the afternoon off.

Grace O'Malley, the Fearless 16th-Century Irish Pirate Queen Who Stood Up to the English

Rockfleet Castle, which Grace O’Malley used as a base
Rockfleet Castle, which Grace O’Malley used as a base

If asked to name a pirate from history, many people will mention Blackbeard or Captain William Kidd. If pressed to name a female pirate, they might mention Anne Bonny, who terrorized the Caribbean alongside Captain "Calico" Jack Rackham in the early 18th century. Anne Bonny, however, was far from the only female pirate to terrorize the seas. More than a century before Bonny's birth, another woman ruled the waves, debated with Queen Elizabeth I, and sat at the head of a prosperous pirate empire. She was Grace O'Malley, Pirate Queen.

Grace With the Cropped Hair

Known in Gaelic as Gráinne Ní Mháille, Grace was born in Ireland sometime around 1530. She was the daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, ruler of the territory of Umhall and the lord of an ancient, powerful dynasty in the province of Connaught. The Ó Máille family's money came from the seas, raised in the form of taxes levied on anyone who fished off their stretch of the Irish coast. The family were also shrewd traders and merchants, trading (and sometimes plundering) as far away as Spain. Ó Máille castles also dominated the southwest coastline of County Mayo, providing protection from invasion for the wealthy lord's territory. At a time when the Tudors in England were ramping up their conquest of Ireland, such defensive measures were vital.

The folklore of Grace O'Malley begins in her childhood, when she supposedly begged her father to let her join him on a trade mission to Spain. When he refused his daughter's request on the grounds that her long hair would be hazardous on the rolling deck of a ship, she hacked off her mane, earning herself the nickname Gráinne Mhaol, or "Grace with cropped hair."

Though little is known of Grace's early life, when she was about 16 she made a political marriage to Dónal Ó Flaithbheartaigh, heir to the lands of Ó Flaithbheartaigh. It was an excellent dynastic match, but despite bearing her husband three children, Grace wasn't made for housewifery. She had more ambitious plans.

Soon Grace was the driving force in the marriage, masterminding a trading network to Spain and Portugal and leading raids on the vessels that dared to sail close to her shores. When her husband was killed in an ambush by a rival clan around 1565, Grace retreated to Clare Island, and established a base of operations with a band of followers. According to legend, she also fell in love with a shipwrecked sailor—and for a time life was happy. But when her lover was murdered by a member of the neighboring MacMahon family, Grace led a brutal assault on the MacMahon castle at Doona and slaughtered his killers. Her actions earned her infamy as the Pirate Queen of Connaught.

Though Grace remarried for the sake of expanding her political clout, she wasn't about to become a dutiful wife. Within a year she was divorced, though pregnant, and living at Rockfleet Castle, which she'd gained in the marriage and which became her center of operations. According to legend, the day after giving birth to to her ex-husband’s son aboard a ship, she leapt from her bed and vanquished attacking corsairs

Grace continued to lead raiding parties from the coast and seized English vessels and their cargo, all of which did little to endear her to the Tudors. She was known for her aggression in battle, and it's said that when her sons appeared to be shirking, she shamed them into action with a cry of "An ag iarraidh dul i bhfolach ar mo thóin atá tú, an áit a dtáinig tú as?"—which roughly translates as "Are you trying to hide in my arse, where you came out of?"

In 1574 an English expedition sailed for Ireland with the aim of putting an end to her exploits once and for all. Though they besieged Rockfleet Castle, no one knew the coastline better than Grace, and she repulsed them with the might of her own ships.

But Grace made history in 1593 after her son was captured by Sir Richard Bingham, the English governor of Connaught. Appointed in 1584, Bingham had taken office as part of English efforts to tighten their hold on Ireland, and in 1586 his men had been responsible for the death of one of Grace's sons. Bingham also took cattle and land from Grace, which only served to increase her thirst for revenge. Yet she was a politician as much as a warrior, and knew that she couldn't hope to beat Bingham and the forces of the English government single-handedly.

Instead, she took the diplomatic route and traveled to England, where she requested an audience with Queen Elizabeth I to discuss the release of her son and the seizure of her lands. In addition, she challenged Gaelic law that denied her income from her husband's land and demanded that she receive appropriate recompense. She argued that the tumult reigning in Connacht had compelled her to "take arms and by force to maintain [my]self and [my] people by sea and land the space of forty years past." Bingham urged the queen to refuse the audience, claiming that Grace was "nurse to all rebellions in the province for 40 years," but Elizabeth ignored his entreaties. Perhaps the monarch was intrigued by this remarkable woman, because Grace's request was granted, and the two women met in September 1593.

A Meeting With the Queen

An 18th-century depiction of the meeting between Grace O'Malley and Elizabeth I
An 18th-century depiction of the meeting between Grace O'Malley and Elizabeth I
Anthologia Hibernica volume II, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Grace's Greenwich Palace summit with the queen has become legendary. She supposedly wouldn't bow to Elizabeth, whom she didn't recognize as the Queen of Ireland. Though dressed in a magnificent gown that befit her status, she also carried a dagger, which she refused to relinquish. The queen, however, was happy to receive her visitor—dagger and all. The summit was conducted in Latin, supposedly the only tongue the two women shared. Ignoring the fact that they were virtually the same age, Elizabeth decided that there was only "pity to be had of this aged woman" whom she believed "will fight in our quarrel with all the world."

By the end of the long meeting, an agreement had been reached. Bingham would be instructed to return Grace's lands, pay her the funds she had demanded, and free her son. In return, Grace would withdraw her support of the Irish rebellion and attack only England's enemies.

Yet the victory was short-lived. Though her son was freed, Bingham's censure was brief, and Grace received back none of the territory she had lost. Grace was furious, and she soon withdrew from public life.

The last years of Grace O’Malley are shrouded in mystery. It’s believed that she died at Rockfleet Castle around 1603—the same year as Queen Elizabeth I. Her memory lives on, not least in the Irish ballads, which remember her with these verses:

In the wild grandeur of her mien erect and high
Before the English Queen she dauntless stood
And none her bearing there could scorn as rude
She seemed well used to power, as one that hath
Dominion over men of savage mood
And dared the tempest in its midnight wrath
And thro' opposing billows cleft her fearless path.

Additional Sources: Granuaile: The Life and Times of Grace O'Malley; Pirate Queen; Anecdotes of the Aristocracy; "The day the Virgin Queen bowed to the pirate queen," Times of London; A Forgotten Part of Ireland; "Gráinne Mhaol, Pirate Queen of Connacht: Behind the Legend," History Ireland.

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