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The Battle of Lissa, July 20 1866. When ironclads ruled the seas…

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I am still surprised that many people have no knowledge of or interest in history. World War Two might as well have been in the Dark Ages for many people. I suppose there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in our lives now with the Internet and cable TV, so history seems dry in comparison. And a lot of history isn’t presented in a particularly interesting way. Still, I think it’s a shame, and a failing of our educational system that a greater appreciation of the depth and breadth of what has gone on before us is not instilled in people. As a victim of the American educational system, I can say unconditionally that the view of history we were taught was extremely limited in its scope. The nineteenth century consisted of Napoleon, Lewis and Clark, and the American Civil War. In the rest of the world…nothing much happened.

So of I’ll start this little side trip down history lane with the American Civil War, a familiar jump off point. During this war there was a famous sea battle, the Monitor vs the Merrimac. (The Merrimac was this ship’s original name, it was rechristened the CSS Virginia at the time of the battle.) These were some of the world’s first armoured warships, and this was the first time armoured warships had met in battle. The battle tactically was a draw, neither ship was able to seriously damage the other. The Confederates needed a win a lot more than the Union, so in effect this was a Union victory, it proved they had a weapon that could protect the obsolete Union wooden warships that were blockading the Confederacy’s ports.

After this battle, the world’s navies began to build and experiment with ironclad warships, and the era of the ironclad was born. Though of course then as now big weapons like large wooden sailing warships were way too expensive to just scrap, so they remained in use, many having their masts cut off and engines installed, some even being converted to ironclads. During the age of ironclad there was only one major battle between fleets of ironclads, the Battle of Lissa between Italy and Austria in 1866. This little known battle took place during the also little known Third Italian Independence War, which was part of a larger war between Austria and Prussia. Italy was basically just trying to capture (or liberate I suppose) some Italian territory and provinces from Austria, such as the city of Venice.

In any event, a large Italian fleet was sent to invade the Dalmatian Islands, some islands on the west coast of what is now Croatia. The Italian fleet consisted of 12 ironclads and 10 wooden warships, all of which had steam engines and most of which still sported sails. The smaller Austrian fleet had only 7 ironclads and 7 large wooden warships. The Italians had more than twice as many rifled guns as the Austrians, and by numbers alone, the battle should have been an easy Italian victory.

Numbers alone do not victory make though. The Italian Fleet was commanded by sixty year old Count Carlo di Persano. The Italians were not prepared for battle and hastily cancelled their landing operations and arranged their fleet for battle when word of the approaching Austrians reached them. Admiral Persano changed his mind and rearranged his ships twice. Then he decided to change flagships, and ordered his fleet to stop while boats were lowered so he could transfer to his new flagship. A third of his fleet didn’t get the order and sailed out ahead of the rest of the Italian fleet, leaving a big gap between the two groups of ships. How does one say “Oops” in Italian?

While the Italians were screwing around the Austrian fleet under the command of thirty nine year old Wilhelm von Tegetthoff was rapidly approaching with his ships in a three ships deep flying wedge formation. His plan was to get as close as possible to the Italians and fight one-on-one ship vs. ship duels, where the Italian numerical advantage would be minimized. When Tegetthoff saw the gap appear in the Italian line of ships, he headed right for it. While charging toward the Italians the Austrian ships could only fire their forward guns, while the Italians could fire full broadsides. The Italians were however caught by surprise because of all the confusion, and while they raked the Austrians with fire, only minor damage was done for the most part. The Austrian fleet charged into the middle of the Italian fleet, and the battle was on.

Despite a lot of gunfire, most of it missed its mark or was deflected by armour. The Austrian’s one really large wooden battleship, the Kaiser, managed to engage and escape from no less than four Italian ironclads, a feat unmatched in naval history. The Austrian flagship managed to ram two Italian ironclads. One of them, the Palestro, caught fire, and eventually exploded and sank with the loss of almost all hands. The Italian Admiral then belatedly ordered his flagship, the most powerful ship in the Italian fleet, into the battle. It was too late, the Austrian flagship managed to re-ram the first Italian ironclad they had rammed, this time scoring a direct hit because the Italians zigged when they should have zagged and ran right in front of the Austrians. The Italian ironclad Re d’Italia sank within two minutes.

At this point, even though his ship was in great position to ram the now badly damaged Austrian flagship, Admiral Persano ordered the Italian fleet to withdraw. He returned home with his damaged fleet, two ironclads sunk with over six hundred dead, and proclaimed that he had achieved a great victory over the Austrians! He was celebrated as a hero for a few days before the news out of Austria arrived, they had lost no ships and only thirty eight dead. At that point Persano was court-martialled and dismissed from the Italian navy. Tegetthoff was celebrated as a victorious hero, and is considered one of the greatest naval commanders in Austrian history. And rightfully so, he had defeated a superior enemy fleet, a feat few have matched.

The ultimate result from this battle? Historically, basically none. The Prussians decisively won the land war with Austria, so the Austrians were forced to pretty much give the Italians what they wanted. Austria did get to keep the Dalmatian islands as a consequence of the battle, as the Italian invading fleet had been driven off. Ship designers continued to put rams on warships for another 50 years, even though they were never really used in battle again and in fact did a lot of damage in ship to ship accidental collisions. Gunfire did comparatively little damage in the battle, mainly because the ammo of the day wasn’t designed to penetrate armour. Ironclad ships evolved into the all iron pre-dreadnought warships exemplified by the American battleship Maine, sunk by misadventure in Havana. The next great naval battle was over forty years later, the battle of Tsushima, where warship designers discovered just how badly they had applied the lessons of Lissa, but that’s for a future post.

Any historical lessons illustrated here? Quite a few. Just because the leader says they won the battle doesn’t mean it’s so. The inferior force can and does sometimes win battles. The biggest lesson I see here is that a great victorious battle can ultimately mean nothing. The sailors who died that cloudy July day ultimately died pointlessly, an all to common result in history. A collection of contemporary and other images/photographs of the battle, its participants, and the aftermath can be viewed here.

(The above lithograph of the Battle of Lissa is public domain under US copyright law, I think. I chose it because it shows the fine mix of vessels in the battle. In the middle left is an unidentified Austrian wooden cruiser. The Italian Re d’Italia is shown sinking in the foreground, the Palestro exploding in the far left. The ironclad in the middle appears to be the Ferdinand Max, the Austrian flagship. I think the ship at the right is the Italian flagship, the only ship with a turret that fought in the battle. Note the small civil war Merrimac style gunboat in the middle left, several small armoured gunboats fought in the battle. Credit: F. Kollarz, ‘Battle of Lissa’, coloured lithograph, n.d. Copy in Institute of Arts and Science, Hazu, Split.)

Written by unitedcats

August 13, 2007 at 10:42 am

Posted in History, Philosophy, War


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As per a commenter’s suggestion, a history quiz. No particular topic but since my main interest is military history, that will be the lion’s share of the questions. Ten questions, some trivia, some obscure, most because I thought they were interesting in some ways. (Basically this is just an excuse for me to tell stories about history. People do the most amazing sheet.) Pencil and paper required if one wants to be serious I suppose. Answers at bottom.Good luck, enjoy!

  1. How many times was Greenland colonised? Including successful and unsuccessful attempts. By human beings, just to be clear. The 47 failed penguin colonies don’t count.
  2. What exotic animal did Roman Emperor Commodus publicly slay in the colosseum to demonstrate his godhood? (No, I’m not making these up, people do weird sheet.)
  3. Who was Gil-Galad’s standard bearer at the siege of Barad Dur?
  4. How many tanks did Germany build in World War One? (World War One, not World War Two, where they built thousands.)
  5. What was the only daylight surface battle between battleships in World War Two?
  6. Everyone (well, primarily Americans I expect) knows about the first battle between ironclad warships, the Monitor vs the Merrimac during the American Civil War. What was the only battle ever fought between two fleets of ironclad warships? (Hint, no, it wasn’t during the American Civil War.)
  7. What weapon did a fully armored knight typically carry into battle during the late Middle Ages?
  8. When the British attacked the City of Buenos Aires during the 2nd Battle of Buenos Aires, how many directions did they attack from?
  9. What was the greatest defeat of an American army by native warriors during America’s conquest of the western Americas?
  10. When was the only time an entire American army surrendered to an enemy army?


  1. Greenland was colonized at least five times, only twice successfully. Pretty good for a remote barely inhabitable island. There were at least two failed North American native colonizations before the Vikings arrived in 980. The Viking settlement failed due to being cut off from Europe by the Little Ice Age. While the Vikings were there, the Inuit settled in Northern Greenland, the first successful colonization of Greenland. The Viking colony died out, but they returned some centuries later in the second successful colonization of Greenland.
  2. Emperor Commodus went nuts in his later years, deciding he was Hercules reborn, naming Rome after himself and other nonsense. He “fought” many gladiators in the Colosseum, though none actually fought him, they were all wise enough to know that submitting right away was their only chance of living to sundown. And Commodus was still sane enough to know that killing men who submitted to him in public wasn’t wise. (He had no such qualms about killing men in gladiator practice. Gladiators were slaves by the way.) This was all considered outrageous by the Romans, as if the US President decided to take up WWE wrestling. The animal he killed to prove his godhood? A giraffe. While very few Romans had ever seen a giraffe, they could tell it was just a helpless terrified exotic animal, the killing impressed no one. Though it further cemented opinion that the Emperor was losing it.
  3. Elrond! What, fantasy history is history, right? (Recounted in the Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien.)
  4. Germany ordered only a 100 A7V tanks (see image)  during the course of World War One. The Allies built thousands. And only 15-20 of the German tanks were completed in time to see action. They didn’t change the course of the war of course, but they did get to be part of the world’s first tank battle.
  5. The Battle of the Denmark Strait. Two British battleships vs the Nazi battleship Bismark and cruiser Prinz Eugen. This is the one where the Bismark sunk the Hood with one shot, the flagship of the British fleet. One of the flashes in this film (taken from the Prinz Eugen during the battle blew up the Hood killing 1500 Brits. Three Brits survived.
  6. The Battle of Lissa, 1866, between Italy and Austria. A brilliantly led Austrian fleet defeated a much larger but incompetently led Italian fleet. IThe battle basically accomplished nothing except humiliating the Italians: The Italian fleet got home, its admiral declared he’d won a great victory even though two of Italy’s finest warships had gone down, and he was the toast of the town. He probably got laid, but that’s just historical conjecture. By the next day word got to Italy that no Austrian ships had been sunk, and the admiral’s partying days limply ended.
  7. A sword! No, of course not, what good would a sword do against a guy wearing steel armor? A hammer of some sort was their primary weapon, designed specifically to damage armor. The sword though was already steeped in mythology, and certainly was still widely in use, just not against guys wearing armor.
  8. 12. That’s right, they attacked a hostile city from twelve different directions. In 1808. This was part of one of Britain’s tragicomedy attempts to conquer Spanish colonies in South America. Britain made a number of attempts to seize the supposedly weak colonies from Spain’s decaying and definitely weak empire, all ended badly. In this case the British commander apparently thought the tiny number of Spanish troops in the city would be quickly located and defeated. And if the residents of the city had stood meekly by and watched, great plan. No, the residents, including quite a few actual militias (no bison horns, Chewbacca robes, or silly flags) didn’t particularly want to be part of the Spanish Empire (Argentina would be independent within a decade;) but the definitely didn’t want to be conquered and ruled by Britain. It ended badly for Britain, thousands dead all told and a humiliating surrender.
  9. No, it wasn’t Little Big Horn, that was just the most famous native defeat of American forces. It was in 1791, The Battle of the Thousand Slain, or as the less imaginative Americans called it, The Battle of the Wabash. Basically a poorly planned, poorly equipped, poorly supplied, poorly manned, and most especially poorly led American army marched into what was then the wilderness of Ohio to teach the natives a lesson for defeating an American army the previous year! Even the not particularly astute reader can guess how this turned out. 24 Americans out of about 1,000 made it back safely.
  10. The Siege of Detroit, during the War of 1812, America’s misbegotten attempt to make Canada the “14th colony” of the United States. Basically a brilliant British general psyched out the American commander, and tricked him into surrendering to a much smaller British/native army.

That’s that, some of this was from memory, if I made any egregious mistakes please excoriate me in a comment. I write history posts provoke thought and curiosity, not to recount history for academic purposes.  Don’t worry, more Trump antics soon enough. What a time to be alive. Future blog suggestions welcome. I hope everyone had a safe and warm weekend. I’m ready for spring. #StaytheFHome #WearaDamnMask #FelesRegula

Copyright © 2021 Doug Stych. All rights reserved.

(Image: Captured world War One German tank “Mephisto.” Australians captured it, hauled it back to Australia, where it’s in a war museum and is indeed the only German World War One tank still in existence. Photo taken in 1918 and is Public Domain under applicable copyright law.)

Written by unitedcats

January 24, 2021 at 8:10 pm


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That meme made me laugh. It’s getting harder to laugh these days. I was going to blog about my decision to vote for Biden, but as so often happens these days, other stuff came up. Watching all those movies in the 80s and 90s about a dystopian 21st century, from Mad Max to Blade Runner, I was so relieved that the 21st century in America  was mostly the eighties with cooler gadgets. And now here we are, the country is going down the tubes. The weirdest thing about it, most people are still in denial about how bleak it is.

Moving right along, Trump’s reactions to the wildfires in California. In a nutshell he blamed them on poor forestry practices, not doing enough logging, and environmentalism. And that California had refused his “rake the leaves” advice for years, and he was thinking of cutting funding to them as a result of these fires. Ah, where to start? This is textbook narcissism; narcissists always victim blame and frame things so that they look good. Yeah, if they’d only followed Trump’s advice, everything would be fine. It’s also a stunningly childish argument for a man in his seventies.

Back in reality, California has a wildfire problem for a number of reasons. It’s always been prone to wildfires, in fact they are a natural part of the ecology there. Exacerbated by global warming, California has been getting hotter and drier. And the Smokey the Bear factor. For a hundred years America religiously put out fires as quickly as possible all over the west. Turns out this was a terrible mistake, the regular fires had kept the burnables to a minimum and prevented giant out of control fires. So yes, bad forestry practices contributed to this, but they ended decades ago. And lastly, too much poorly thought out development in fire prone areas. Maybe the state shares some blame for that, but sure as shit the environmentalists don’t. Lastly, very few of these fires are in logging areas, the idea that more logging would have prevented this is, well, a lie.

And in other weirdness, the current USPS situation. This summer Trump appointed a political donor and personal ally as Postmaster General, a man with exactly zero experience in running the USPS; in fact this is the first time in history that the Postmaster General wasn’t from the ranks of the USPS. The USPS is a key government service, it’s in fact the only government service mandated by the Constitution. It’s a service for all Americans. And as far as anyone can tell Mr Louis DeJoy is doing what he can to hamper the USPS in its duties. It’s caused some pretty ugly problems already. And Trump has all but admitted it’s all about making voting by mail difficult. This is something that we would normally think of as happening in a corrupt third world dictatorship. It’s like putting someone who has never served in charge of an army, simply because he’s got the right political connections. Yeah, that never turns out well.

Then the pardoning Susan B. Anthony thing. Trump wonders why it wasn’t done before. Um, because she would have rejected the pardon, the same way she rejected the crime she was accused of? A pardon implies the person being pardoned did something wrong, a charge Susan B Anthony would have disputed. She didn’t get a fair trial, so her conviction was bogus. If Trump had actually wanted to do the right thing, he would have voided her conviction, not pardoned her. On the one hand this is no big deal, on the other hand more evidence Trump is pandering for votes without any real understanding of the issues.

Lastly I read an interesting article about Q-Anon: ‘We Are Your Family Now’: What It’s Like to Lose a Loved One to QAnon. Not sure what to think. Sure sounding like Q-Anon is turning into a cult. The Minutemen or Tea Party never turned into cults. I know one fellow who lost his wife and kids to a cult, but it was a real cult, not an online one. Q-Anon doesn’t appear to even have a central leader or organization. It’s people who believe, apologies to future readers and sane people the world over, that a secret pedoplhile ring is trying to take over the world, and Trump is engaged in an epic secret battle to destroy it. And soon Trump will triumph, and something great will happen, and all sorts of monsters will be arrested. This sounds like bat-shit lunacy to me, convince me otherwise.

I guess in one sense it makes sense. Working Americans are hosed by the American system in myriad ways that appall the rest of the developed world. And the narrative they are fed (by both parties) to justify it all is one giant pile of steaming BS. On some level people get this, so they are vulnerable to anyone who claims to have an answer that explains it all. Q-Anoners  are no longer victims of an oppressive system, they are heroes fighting for freedom!

Fun times ahead. Maybe tomorrow I will blog about why I am voting for Biden. Hint: It has nothing to do with Trump. Have a great weekend everyone, stay safe, stay sane. Or a reasonable approximation thereof.  #StaytheFHome #WearaDamnMask #MundiSolisOccasum

Copyright © 2020 Doug Stych. All rights reserved.

(Image: Facebook post, used without permission, claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. Credit: Elizabeth Hackett.)

Written by unitedcats

August 21, 2020 at 7:36 pm

The Battle of Stirling Bridge

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The more I study the history of war, the more it becomes apparent that most military leaders got their position through politics or connections, rarely through military prowess. The results are usually predictable, in fact for the most part I think victory in most wars and battles is determined by who made the fewest stupid mistakes. Even worse, I think just by chance some people win a few and then get promoted far beyond their capability, thus ensuring an eventual catastrophe of  historical proportions. If a Sargent makes a dumb mistake, him and dozens of others may die. If a general makes a dumb mistake, the sky’s the limit. Battles have been lost, wars have been lost, nations have been lost … all because someone in charge did something so stupid as to defy belief.

Believe it. Here, in the first of a series, battles where the people in charge made mistakes that were obvious to those around them. Yes, in every one of these battles there were intelligent educated people (like the readers of Doug’s Darkworld for example) standing around saying “This is a bad idea my Lord.” In this case they were saying it in an thick English accent while standing in the mud and gorse near the town of Stirling, Scotland. Yes, the Battle of Stirling Bridge is about to begin, and no, it’s nothing like how it was depicted in Braveheart.

OK, brief background. England had conquered Scotland in 1296. The Scots revolted, and the First War of Scottish Independence was on. An English army under the command of the Seventh Earl of Surrey, John de Warenne, was advancing into Scotland. The Earl had crushed the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar, and seemed to believe he was facing only rabble. And he was accompanied by one Hugh de Cressingham, the King’s treasurer for Scotland. Cressingham was along to make sure no money was wasted and the war was won cheaply and quickly. He was despised by the Scots, and not particularly well liked by the English either. When Surrey’s army got to Stirling, the gateway to the Highlands,  there was one small bridge across the River Forth. The Scots army under the command of William Wallace was on the other side. The English clearly had a vastly superior force, several thousand mounted knights and ten thousand or more infantry. The Scots had a few thousand pikemen and maybe a few hundred mounted knights. Both armies stared at each across the river for several days, the English hoping that the Scots could be talked into surrendering.

No such luck. On the morning of September 11th the Earl decided to cross the river and deal with this Scots rabble. Apparently under intense pressure and advice from Cressingham, who was eager to press forward and win this quickly. I mean, all these soldiers were costing money! This is the point where people standing around started saying things like “Um, my lord … a word.” One turncoat Scottish knight in particular, Sir Richard Lundie, pointed out that just a  few miles away was a ford where sixty riders could cross abreast. Wouldn’t it make sense to send some knights to cross there  and flank the Scots, instead of sending everyone across a narrow wooden bridge? Cressingham however would have no more delays, and the army began to cross the river.

The Scots could hardly believe their luck, and far from being a rabble, they were a displined fighting force under the able command of William Wallace (he wasn’t even a knight then.) Wallace bided his time and struck. In fact by some accounts the bridge had been previously weakened and Scots soldiers were hiding under it to knock it down when the time was ripe. In any event, after about half the English army had crossed, Wallace and his men charged. They quickly seized the bridgehead, preventing more English troops from crossing, and forming a wall of pikes facing any English soldier trying to flee. Exactly one English knight, Sir Marmaduke Tweng, managed to fight his way through the Scots pikemen and across the bridge to safety.  Now that must have been some scene, like something out of Lord of the Rings.

The English army on the safe side of the river, upon seeing their brethren trapped and being massacred by rampaging Scots, did what so many armies have done under similar circumstances. They turned and ran back to England. Very few of the Engliish who had crossed the river made it back alive to join them. The Earl was left with the unpleasant task of explaining to the King just how badly he had screwed up. He managed to do so though and continued to command armies for the King. Wallace was knighted for his stunning victory, and though he eventually lost the war and was captured and executed, his place in history was secure.

Hugh de Cressingham however was spared the trouble of explaining himself to anyone. In his eagerness to move things along, he had been one of the first to cross the bridge. He was not one of the few that made it back to safety. In fact, by all accounts, his skin was flayed and cut into souveniers by the victorious Scots. Some accounts even claim that William Wallace had a sword belt made from a strip of Cressingham’s flayed skin. That’s one way to go down in history I suppose.

For first time readers, welcome to Doug’s Darkworld. This post is one of my most popular posts of all time, if you liked it you might also like The Battle of the Crater, The Spanish Armada, and The Battle of Lissa, When Ironclads Ruled the Seas. A number of Doug’s Darkworld posts are available in a more organized fashion on the Doug’s Darkworld Annex. I am a professional writer and my commercial site is Doug Stych, Writer-at-Large. Peace.

(The above image of William Wallace is believed to be public domain under US copyright law as it predates 1927. It’s an eighteenth or nineteenth century woodcut of unknown origin. Can you see the resemblance to Mel Gibson? Me neither. And no, Scots warriors stopped wearing blue face paint about a thousand years before the Battle of Stirling Bridge. And on a final curious note, William Wallace’s sword still exists, the damn thing is five foot six inches long, Wallace must have been a big guy.)

Written by unitedcats

June 22, 2009 at 5:45 am

Posted in History, War