Greetings history buffs, and welcome back to This Week in History! With finals and the end of the fall semester coming up quickly, there is no better time to get comfortable and learn some history, so let’s jump in!
While the temperatures in Connecticut are cold, they certainly do not surpass the sub-zero climate experienced in Antarctica for those partaking in the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. On Dec. 5, 1914, the incredible 1,800 mile voyage began.
Under the leadership of prominent English explorer Earnest Shackleton, the aim of the expedition was to cross Antarctica by land, a feat unaccomplished by prior journeys.
The plan revolved around a land crew, led by Shackleton, that would make the journey across the continent, using a ship known as the “Endurance” to get as deep into Antarctica as possible.
Disaster struck almost immediately as the Endurance became trapped in ice and sank. Shackleton’s 28-man crew had to build makeshift shelters, rely on limited supplies and brave the harsh winter leading into 1915. They had no way to communicate for assistance.
The expedition marks the last of the “heroic” Antarctic expeditions, a period of endeavors to explore the continent before modern technology allowed for better communication, navigation and supply. The vessels and equipment used were extremely limited in their capabilities and expeditions often led to the deaths of many; a total of 19 crew members across the period perished during expeditions.
As horrifying as being stranded alone in the frozen wastes of Antarctica sounds, Shackleton was well used to such difficulties. Leaving his ship and stranded crew, Shackleton and five crew members used a salvaged lifeboat from the Endurance and attempted to sail for Elephant Island. As part of the Shetland Islands, the location was a place to find refuge and organize the rescue of the stranded crew members.
The region through which the boat sailed is home to notorious ship-sinking winds, known as the “Furious Fifties.” Known as the Voyage of the James Caird, against all odds the small boat made the journey successfully. Historians to this day consider this feat to be one of the greatest human journeys ever undertaken.
Fortunately, the stranded crew members were rescued and not a life was lost on the Endurance. While the expedition was largely unsuccessful in their aims of exploration, they had managed to prove the strength of the human spirit.
Thankfully, heading southwards to warmer lands, on Dec. 7, 1776, Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette entered the U.S. army with the rank of major general; a man who proved vital for American success in the Revolutionary War.
A young and well spirited French noble, Lafayette was only 19 when he left for America, disobeying the commands of his parents for him to stay in France. Against the wishes of his parents, Lafayette secretly bought a ship to bring him – along with 5,000 rifles and other officers – to America, even buying the cargo on the ship to avoid needing to port along the way.
Upon arrival, Lafayette was welcomed by the likes of Benjamin Franklin and later, George Washington. Notably, the Continental Congress could not pay him for his role, so Lafayette entered as an unpaid Major General.
Lafayette immediately helped rally and reorganize the Continental Army, preventing a total defeat at the battle of Brandywine in 1777 by organizing a retreat. That same year he bested a British force in New Jersey despite being outnumbered. He went on to recruit the Oneida to fight for the Americans, with the tribe calling him the “fearsome horseman.” Lafayette was also notable for living amongst his soldiers.
While in America, Lafayette gave the Continental forces morale and confidence, but more importantly, was a major factor in French support to the American cause. Because of his role and popularity in France, the French recognized American independence and even sent their navy to assist in the war, proving crucial for eventual British defeats in Rhode Island, Virginia and New York.
Lafayette came to be known as “The Hero of the Two Worlds” because of his impact in France and the United States. He lived out his post-Revolutionary War days in service to the French Revolution, continuously fighting for democracy.
The final event for this week shifts focus to Germany in the buildup to World War I, when on Dec. 8th, 1912, the German Imperial War Council discussed the prospects of global war.
While the outbreak of World War I is commonly associated with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary, or even the political breakdown of the July Crisis, the War Council held in secret in 1912 proved that war was a possibility well before 1914.
Kaiser Wilhelm was accompanied by naval and military administrators, while civil government officials were completely excluded from the meeting. The members of the council discussed the possibilities of a global war in 1912, but due to lack of naval preparation, it was deemed “too early.”
Eerily, the navy decided that August 1914 would be a fitting date for the start of a war as the Kiel Canal and naval production would be at a sufficient level for war with Britain. It just so happens that such a date matches the real start of the war nearly two years following the meeting. The immediate outcomes of the meeting would be an increase in military funding and the largest peacetime expansion of the German military up to that point.
Historians often refer to the meeting as an example of the war-oriented nature of the German high command, who were preparing for war with nearly all of their neighbors. Likewise, the meeting played a major factor in the later placement of war guilt on the German Empire.
And that concludes This Week in History, stay warm and best of luck studying for finals!