Victory of Canakkale

March 18


The long and brutal battle for the Dardanelles is one of the most commemorated campaigns of the 20th century.

Australia and New Zealand remember the Battle of Gallipoli each year on April 25, the anniversary of the first engagement of ANZAC (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) in World War I.

Turkey, meanwhile, remembers the nine-month campaign each year on March 18—the anniversary of the 1915 naval battle of Canakkale which, had the Allies succeeded, would have paved the way for the capture of Istanbul. Turkey calls March 18th the “Victory of Canakkale”, or the more sobering title Martyrs’ Day.

The Allies’ plan was to combine their naval strength to blast their way through the Dardanelles, a stretch of water connecting the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea. The Dardanelles are 60 km long and a maximum of 7 km wide. At its narrowest point (appropriately named “the Narrows”) overlooked by the city of Canakkale, the shores are separated by a mere 1600 feet.


By taking the Dardanelles, the Allies, led by France and Britain, would have a route from the Mediterranean to their Russian Allies, while cutting off the Germans from their ally the Ottomans (Turkey was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time), effectively removing the Ottoman Empire from the war.

However, on March 18, after a month of French and British naval bombardment, the Allied attempt to breach the Dardanelles met a disastrous failure. The fleet failed to clear the minefields strategically placed by the Ottomans and several key British and French warships were destroyed.

It became clear to the Allies that Turkish resistance was too strong for a purely naval victory. They sent in ground troops, including tens of thousands of eager Australian and New Zealand recruits.

Against the armed might of four nations, including two of the most powerful navies in the Western world, Turkish armed forces held their ground for a full nine months. The long campaign and victory in January 1916—like the initial victory on March 18, 1915—fueled national pride and cohesiveness across the land that would be Turkey.

Much of the success of the defense of Canakkale is attributed to the strategic foresight of a young commander by the name of Mustafa Kemal.

After World War I, Mustafa Kemal went on to lead forces in the Turkish War for Independence, and became the founder and leader of the new nation of Turkey. He is probably the most significant figure in the creation of of Turkey as we know it today, and because of the significance of Canakkale, many view 1915—not 1923—as the true birth year of the Turkish state.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk at Gallipoli, 1915
Mustafa Kemal at Gallipoli, 1915

One side won, one side lost. But statistics tell another story.

The Turks and the Allies suffered nearly a quarter million casualties each—that’s over half of all men on both sides who fought in the nine-month battle.

“Those heroes that shed their blood, and lost their lives …
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country
Therefore, rest in peace.
There is no difference between the Johnnies
And the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side,
Here in this country of ours.
You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries…
Wipe away your tears.
Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.
After having lost their lives on this land, they have
Become our sons as well.”

— Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, 1934

Nuclear Victims Day – Marshall Islands

March 1

Marshall Islands flag
Marshall Islands flag

In the 12-year period from 1946-1958, when the Marshall Islands was a United Nations Trust Territory administered by the United States, the United States conducted 67 atomic and hydrogen atmospheric bomb tests in islands, with a total yield of 108 megatons, which is 98 times greater than the total yield of all the U.S. tests in Nevada. Put another way, the total yield of the tests in the Marshall Islands was equivalent to 7,200 Hiroshima bombs. That works out to an average of more than 1.6 Hiroshima bombs per day for the 12-year nuclear testing program in the Marshalls…

—From the Marshall Islands’ Four Atolls Submit Statement before the Senate Energy Committee to Address Nuclear Testing Issues

Over a tenth of that 12-year yield was delivered in a single day: March 1, 1954.

The hydrogen bomb known as Castle Bravo was expected to yield a 5 megaton blast, equivalent to over 300 Hiroshima sized blasts. The starter alone on Castle Bravo (Hydrogen bombs required the detonation of a smaller atomic device known as a ‘primary’ to kick-start the fusion process) was itself twice the size of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima.

A miscalculation of the reactive properties of the lithium isotope present in the fusion fuel resulted in a runaway chain reaction that created an explosion three times larger than scientists had predicted.

The Castle Bravo explosion was visible from 250 miles, it left a mile-wide crater on the atoll, and the mushroom cloud stretched  60 miles across. It remains to this day the largest nuclear weapon the U.S. ever tested.

The high yield, combined with shifting winds, resulted in hundreds of residents of the nearby atolls receiving dangerous doses of radiation. A Japanese fishing vessel was also in the path of the radiation fallout; the crew became ill and one member died. Japanese and English scientists were able to use radiation samples from the vessel to determine that fallout caused by thermonuclear tests in the Pacific was much higher than the U.S. had claimed.

According to the Marshall Islands’ Report, “The Bikinians have been exiled from their homeland since 1946, except for a brief period after President Johnson announced in 1968 that Bikini was safe and the people could return.”

That announcement, it turns out, was premature. The residents were moved off the island permanently 10 years later.

Short clip of Bravo and aftermath

Another clip
Nuclear Survivors Say They Were Fed Lies


February 13

Overlooking Dresden

When I first visited Dresden in the mid-1990’s, to my eyes it looked like the city had just stepped out of World War II, even though, in retrospect, it must have undergone a great deal of renovation by that time.

Dresden miraculously survived the first five years of World War II intact, having dodged the Allied bombings that destroyed much of Berlin, Hamburg, and other German cities. Many Germans felt that the city had developed a de facto immunity, perhaps because of Dresden’s cultural significance, the beauty of its historic buildings, churches, and neighborhoods, and its diminished value as a military target.

For this reason, in early 1945 refugees streamed into the safe haven of Dresden from all directions. By February of that year, things were looking bleak for Germany; the Russians were closing in from the East, the British and Americans from the West. As stories of Russian atrocities filtered in from refugees from the East, Erika Dienel, a 20 year-old typist in Dresden, recalled the feeling on February 13:

“[W]ith a small ration of red wine, we brewed a hot punch and talked about where we would go should the Russians overrun us. But the Americans were also not too far away, and we only hoped they would come first.

World War II: The Allied Counteroffensive, 1942-1945

The Americans did come first, but hardly in the way the residents of Dresden could have imagined.

When the air-raid sirens began that night at ten minutes to nine, Erika and her family headed down to the cellar.

25 minutes later, approximately 250 British and U.S. planes unleashed over 800 tons of explosives and incendiaries. The largest bombs weighed two tons and were called “block-busters” because of their capacity to take out a city block.

When Dresden residents came out of the basements to see their city in flames, they thought the worst was over. They were wrong.

Around 1:20 am, just as crews were trying to put out the flames, a second wave of over 500 bombers arrived, dropping 1,800 more tons of explosives on the city. Because the first bombs had destroyed the city’s air-raid siren system, most received no warning of the attack.

By the morning of February 14 the entire center of the city was engulfed in a firestorm. Waves of bombers continued. Just when survivors would think the bombings had ceased, they would begin again. The temperature in the center of the city reached 1600 degrees Fahrenheit. Thousands of families who sought shelter in their cellars suffocated to death as the oxygen was sucked up by the massive fires.

The bombings continued until February 15. Erika Dienel survived like many others by diving into the Elbe River:

“Dresden was to burn for seven nights and days…In the centre there was no escape. The town was a mass of flames. People, burning like torches, jumped into the Elbe on this cold February night…

Every house we passed stood in flames; under our feet there were bodies, nothing but bodies.”

Kurt Vonnegut was an American POW in Dresden during the attack. His experiences there inspired the novel Slaughterhouse V in which the main character, Billy Pilgrim, is part of a squad of prisoners whose job is to remove countless corpses from destroyed buildings and shelters.

The Dresden death toll will never be known because the city at the time housed hundreds of thousands of uncounted refugees. The lowest estimates are in the tens of thousands. The highest are around a quarter million

The following year Dresden residents held memorial ceremonies on February 13, but the Soviet-occupied territory was under strict supervision:

“Anything that makes 13 February appear as a day of mourning is to be avoided…It is the mayor’s opinion that if a false note is struck when 13 February is commemorated, this could very easily lead to expressions of anti-Allied opinion. This is to be avoided under all circumstances.”

Dresden, Tuesday, February 13, 1945

Now however, Germans young and old gather in Dresden on the evening of February 13 and remember the lives lost here, known and unknown.

I was in Germany in March 2003, with a friend from East Germany, and learned Dresden was again a cultural landmark, “Paris of Germany” they called it, rebuilt like a Phoenix, except for the Dresden Church that remains as a reminder of the bombing.

That evening we turned on the TV see another city on fire. U.S. planes had just begun bombing the city of Baghdad.

My friend translated the reporter:

“Shock and awe.”

Victory Over the Genocidal Regime Day

January 7

When Cambodia has a holiday it does not mess around with names.

Victory Over the Genocidal Regime Day, or Commemoration of the Fall of the Khmer Rouge, marks the end of the Pol Pot led genocide of 1.7 million Cambodians during the 1970s, out of a population of 7 million.

“We will always remember the most horrific events of three years, eight months and 20 days under the regime of Democratic Kampuchea, which carried out the most cruel genocide policy resulting in massive and limitless destruction.”

–President of the Cambodian People’s Party in a 2004 address, marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge. (BBC)

Most of the killings occurred between April 17th, 1975, when the Khmer Rouge assumed power of Cambodia until January 7th, 1979, when after a two-week war with Vietnam, the Vietnamese government invaded ousted Pol Pot and his followers.

The dates April 17th and January 7th are remembered by every Cambodian, for there is virtually no family that did not lose someone during the Khmer Rouge regime.

The genocide was the result of the world’s most morbid social experiment. The Khmer Rouge virtually annihilated the middle and upper classes of Cambodia, and did not stop there. Anyone deemed educated or cosmopolitan was killed. Ordinary people could be killed simply because they wore glasses, seen as a sign of literacy.

In an effort to “purify” the “Khmer race” and create an absolutely classless utopian society, the Khmer Rouge began by emptying all Cambodian urban centers of their population, abolishing banking, finance and currency, outlawing all religions, reorganizing traditional kinship systems into a communal order, and eliminating private property so completely that even personal hygiene supples were communal.

Orn Theng recalled:

“I was the only one who survived in my family [of nine],” Orn said. “It was not because they didn’t have food … there was bran and rice in stock. They didn’t kill us with hoes or axes. They killed us by starving us.”

Yet despite the bloodshed the Khmer Rouge flag still hung at the United Nations until the 1990’s. Ben Kiernan, a professor who works to document and increase awareness of genocides in places like Cambodia and East Timor, compares it to:

“Image the swastika flying in New York in the 1950s, with the Nazis still maintaining an army on the border of Europe and threatening to return to power.”

In addition to the almost two million lives lost, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians emigrated during and after those years.

The largest concentration of Cambodians in the USA, and perhaps anywhere outside Cambodia, is Long Beach, California, although the Cambodian population of Lowell, Massachusetts is soon to surpass it.

In Flanders Fields… Remembrance Day/Veterans Day

November 11

One of the most famous poems of war was written in May 1915 by a Canadian doctor stationed at Ypres during World War I. When the Canadians arrived on April 17 they were strangers to trench warfare. The Germans were not.

The Canadians occupied what would prove to be a particularly tragic stretch of grass of the infamous Flanders field. When the Germans attacked, they used every weapon in their arsenal, including poison gas.

The Canadians suffered 6,000 casualties during the April-May 2nd Battle of Ypres, half of them on a single day. Lt. Colonel John McCrae recalled it as

“Seventeen days of Hades! At the end of the first day if anyone had told us we had to spend seventeen days there, we would have folded our hands and said it could not have been done.”

Dr. McCrae was entrusted with the futile task of treating the wounded. On May 3, the day after his friend and former student Alexis Helmer was killed in battle, McCrae surveyed the poppies of the cemetery field and paused to scribble three verses.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

One of the first people to read it was a young soldier named Cyril Allinson.

“The poem was an exact description of the scene in front of us both. He used the word blow in that line because the poppies actually were being blown that morning by a gentle east wind. It never occurred to me at that time that it would ever be published. It seemed to me just an exact description of the scene.”

McCrae would never know peace. He died of pneumonia in January 1918 in northern France, 10 months before the Armistice that ended World War I. In the United States, the anniversary of the armistice is known as Veterans Day. In Europe and Canada, November 11th is Remembrance Day.

Lt. Colonel Dr. John McCrae
Lt. Colonel Dr. John McCrae

Today veterans sell poppies in memory of all those who have served since Flanders Fields.

How the tradition of selling poppies for veterans began:

Vietnam Independence Day

September 2

On this day in 1945, Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence of the newly-proclaimed Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

To sum up the prior 2000 years of Vietnamese history in an internet-friendly morsel:

Vietnam was ruled by China for nearly a thousand years, until 938 AD, when a Vietnamese Lord defeated the Chinese at Bach Dang River. The Vietnamese then enjoyed 900 years of autonomy (though not necessarily peace), after which the Europeans moved in, first as allies against neighboring armies, then as conquerors. The French gained control of the region known as Indochina in a series of conflicts in the 19th century and maintained control until World War II when the Japanese invaded.

At the time, France was occupied by Japan’s ally, Germany, and an uneasy alliance of power developed between Japan and Vichy France, the French puppet government that Germany had installed. French authorities in Indochina were thus able to maintain the illusion of sovereignty.

However, in March 1945 the Japanese staged a coup, kicking out the French and dispelling any notions of European dominance.

The Japanese surrendered to the Allies in August of that year, and British and Chinese troops were sent to Vietnam to quell the growing independence movement. But by that time, Vietnam had already proclaimed its independence. Ho Chi Minh became the head of the provisional government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

The First Indochina War would last nine years.

Ho Chi Minh declares independence, September 2, 1945
Ho Chi Minh declares independence, September 2, 1945

The Declaration of Independence that Ho Chi Minh read on September 2, 1945, began with a familiar ring:

All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.”

Those are undeniable truths.

Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow-citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice…

They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots; they have drowned our uprisings in rivers of blood….

After the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies, our whole people rose to regain our national sovereignty and to found the Democratic Republic of Vietnam…

Our people have broken the chains which for nearly a century have fettered them and have won independence for the Fatherland. Our people at the same time have overthrown the monarchic regime that has reigned supreme for dozens of centuries. In its place has been established the present Democratic Republic…

We are convinced that the Allied nations which at Tehran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.

Ho Chi Minh’s northern-based government did not receive the support it had hoped for from the U.S. The Second Indochina War began not long after the first had ended. The U.S. supported the South Vietnamese government against Ho Chi Minh’s Communist government in the North; the Second Indochina War took the lives of millions of Vietnamese as well as 58,000 Americans. The U.S. withdrew completely in 1975 and North and South Vietnam unified as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

With over 86 million people, today Vietnam is the 13th largest country in the world by population.

Full Text of Declaration of Independence

Liberation of Paris

August 25, 1944

Is Paris Burning?

The above line was supposedly uttered by Adolf Hitler to his chief of staff Alfred Jodl, referring to his order to General Dietrich von Choltitz, military governor of Paris during the German occupation, not to let majestic city of Paris fall back into Allied hands, except as complete rubble.

In August 1944, General Eisenhower originally refused to divert troops to help the liberate Paris on the Allies’ way to Berlin; however, Charles de Gaulle threatened to take his own Free French forces anyway, alone if need be.

As Free French forces neared, the Parisians launched a massive strike and mobilized for an all-out war with the German occupying forces. The French Resistance and Free French battled the German occupying force for nearly a week in late August 1944, until Choltitz surrendered on August 25, 1944.

August 20, 1944
August 20, 1944

Choltitz is one of the most controversial figures of the Vichy France. He is seen as a hero to some for refusing to obey HItler’s orders to destroy one of the greatest cities in the world. However, in addition to having served Hitler and the Nazis faithfully during the war, he ordered the executions of numerous French Resistance fighters and destroyed Paris’s Grand Palais in the final days before the Liberation. His motivations may never be fully known, but fortunately for us, centuries-old Parisian landmarks survived the war and the battle for liberation with minimal physical damage.

Free French forces on the Champs Elysees, August 25

On this day in 1944, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French, addressed his newly liberated countrymen from the Hotel de Ville:

We will not hide this deep and sacred emotion. These are minutes which go beyond each of our poor lives. Paris! Outraged Paris! Broken Paris! Martyred Paris! But liberated Paris! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of the whole France, of the fighting France, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France…

We, who have lived the greatest hours of our History, we have nothing else to wish than to show ourselves, up to the end, worthy of France.

Vive la France!

Liberation Day is not a national holiday in France. Rather, the French celebrate Victory Day 1945 on May 8, the anniversary of the official end of hostilities in Europe the day after the surrender of German forces in Rheims, France.

Memorial Day

last Monday in May
May 30, 2011
May 28, 2012

In the United States the May tradition of honoring the dead of wars past began after the Civil War. In individual towns in the South, women would lay flowers and wreaths atop the graves of their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons.  It was called Decoration Day. The song “Kneel Where Our Loves Are Sleeping” was published in 1867 with the dedication “to the ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”

“Kneel where our loves are sleeping. They lost but still were good and true.
Our fathers, brothers fell still fighting, We weep, ’tis all that we can do.”

The following year the Commander of the U.S. Army, moved by the ceremonies of the South, declared a similar tradition in the North.

“The 30th of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land…

“Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and found mourners. Let no vandalism of avarice or neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten, as a people, the cost of free and undivided republic.”

Three decades after the Civil War, Richard Burton wrote his famous “Memorial Day“.

Now is the cleavage deep of North and South
Well closed, —the years o’er-cover it, as grass
Softens and sweetens some dry place of drouth
When comes the blessed rain; the requiem-mass
Is chanted of the mood that shattered peace:
Where common sorrows are, anger must cease:
Sorrow and love remain, while passions pass…

How like cathedral chimes the names we know,
Ringing above a leal united land:
Bull Run, Antietam
; Gettysburg, Shiloh,
Sherman’s grim march
to reach the white sea-strand,
Lookout’s cloud fight
, The Wilderness, —each bell
Reverberating valor—list! they tell
How Lincoln and Lee are friends, and understand.

What is a patriot? Not the man who swears:
“My country, right or wrong;” nor he who claims
That sacred thing, yet like a dastard dares
To use her to his ends, to hide his shames;

For higher, holier than the will to war
The will to love, —now may the path of Peace
Within our states be like the pilot star
In the night sky, by myriads to increase
As the millennium broadens, gleam by gleam:
This is the prophet’s word, the poet’s dream:
All nations living in love’s great release.


"Beneath this stone repose the bones of 2,111 unknown soldiers..." Arlington Cemetery

Southern states still observe separate dates for honoring the Confederate dead.

Texas – January 19;
Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Florida – April 26
South Carolina – May 10
Louisiana and Tennessee –  June 3

After WWI, Memorial Day included remembering the dead of other wars, not just the Civil War.
To date, more Americans died in the Civil War than in all other wars combined.

Francis Miles Finch’s The Blue and The Gray