On February 7, 1940 — Ash Wednesday, as it happened to be — Peter Barnes and James McCormack became the last Irish Republican Army men executed by the British
They were condemned by the outraged British after a then-shocking terrorist bombing that has largely vanished from the historical memory, subsumed by the simultaneous outbreak of World War II.
Although it was neither the first nor the last strike in the 1939-1940 campaign of Irish Republican attacks on English soil aimed at forcing London to relinquish control of Northern Ireland, the five-pound bicycle-mounted bomb that ripped apart Broadgate on August 25, 1939, might have been the one that most hardened British hearts against the authors.* Five people were killed in the explosion and some 70 injured; the scene resembled a war zone.**
The resulting investigation — explored in great detail here — never laid hands on the man who actually planted this bomb, eventually revealed to be Joby O’Sullivan.
Many years later and near his death, O’Sullivan claimed that the bomb was supposed to be parked at the Coventry police station; other reports have it destined for an electrical station, and the decision to abandon the ticking bicycle in a crowded street a freelance cock-up by O’Sullivan. Maybe. What is known is that on August 24, London police had busted an IRA plot to place explosives at Westminster Abbey, Scotland Yard, and the Bank of England — all timed to explode at the very same moment as the Coventry package, 2:30 the next afternoon. Had that coordinated fourfold bombing occurred, it would have rated one of the bloodiest and most spectacular terrorist events in history.
But the single blast that did take place was more than enough to bring down the crown’s fury.
Five faced trial for their lives, even though no hand among them had actually set the Coventry bomb. In Ireland and many other places, this latter stipulation made the entire affair an outrageous injustice, especially if one takes as a given that the bomb was not meant to hit civilians. We leave that interesting question of justice to the reader’s consideration, but it must be understood that our hanged men were certainly party to the IRA’s bombing project. The accused, for a trial that December, were:
Barnes, an IRA operative in London who had delivered bomb components to Coventry
McCormack, part of an IRA cell in Coventry who had rented the house where the bomb was constructed
Joseph and Mary Hewitt, and Mary’s mother Brigid O’Hara, Irish immigrants who had taken on McCormack as a lodger
Little evidence could be produced against Hewitt family, who appeared to be quite innocent of their tenant’s intentions. The latter three were cleared of all charges, and then vengefully deported.
McCormack kept stoically silent during the trial, rising only at his sentencing to announce “that the part I took in these explosions since I came to England I have done for a just cause. As a soldier of the Irish Republican Army I am not afraid to die, as I am doing it for a just cause. I say in conclusion, God bless Ireland and God bless the men who have fought and died for her.”
Barnes, whose role on the far end of the supply was even more remote from the final detonation, said as he would maintain to the end, “I am innocent and later I am sure it will all come out that I had neither hand, act or part in it.”
The pair hanged together in Birmingham’s Winson Green Prison. The return of Barnes and McCormack’s remains from that gaol’s unmourned yards to Irish soil soon became a running national demand; the remains were finally repatriated (to great fanfare) in 1969.
Amid the patriotic encomia, civil war veteran Jimmy Steele gave an address on the occasion of the republicans’ reburial critical of the Sinn Fein leadership — an address that is often considered a milepost en route to the imminent (December 1969) splitting-away of the Provisional IRA.
* And in a less justifiable expression, against the Irish generally; Coventry’s Irish immigrant populace faced an immediate racist backlash.
** A chilling preview, for the next year Coventry was devastated by German planes — one of the cities hardest hit by the Reich’s bombing campaign.
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog here. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“I must make a statement in regard to this matter. I feel it my duty to God and to man to do so. I am guilty of killing the two men. My soul is stained with blood and my punishment is just. I hope all will forgive me. I pray God to guide and prosper this country. I am the murderer of William Spence. And George W. Sisney. That is all I have to say.”
Crain, a twenty-year-old hired assassin, murdered Sisney and Spence in 1876. The double murder, labeled by the press the “Williamson County Vendetta,” was part of a long- standing feud between the Bulliner and Henderson families of Carbondale, Illinois. Before Crain’s execution, he was remanded to a jail in Marion County in order to avoid a lynching at the hands of an angry mob.
The Chicago Tribune noted: “He was born, raised, educated, married, committed his crimes and was executed within a radius of 10 miles.”
On about the 18th December 1942 a group of about 6 prisoners intended to escape but were betrayed by somebody. All six prisoners were led out ofthe camp beyond the wire, taken about 20 metres to a pit and shot without any hearing. Before the execution the interpreter told the prisoners that the 6 men had wanted to escape from the camp and for that they would be executed. This would happen to anyone who tried to escape from the camp. The surnames of those who died are not known to me.
This is the testimony of Konstantin Krupachenko, a Red Army prisoner-of-war retrieved from the Germans’ “Dulag-205″ camp — a transit facility behind German lines at Stalingrad which was liberated as the Soviets overran the encircled German position.
Krupachenko’s testimony was part of the evidence prepared against six Wehrmacht officers taken prisoner at that camp and ultimately executed, men whose case we have previously detailed.
Though not well-known and hardly by scale a major contributor to the ghastly death toll among Soviet POWs, Dulag-205 was horror aplenty for those who survived it. Starvation rations gave way to no rations at all in the dead of winter, and the skeletal inmates cannibalized the dead. Harassment by guard-dogs, capricious beatings, and the usual regimen of dawn-to-dusk forced labor were the lot of the lucky ones.
The less fortunate, well …
On about the 25th November 1942 while working on a road which led to Gumrak three kilometres from the camp a group of prisoners of about 50-60 was levelling and clearing the road. One prisoner whose name I don’t know collapsed from tiredness and exhaustion and couldn’t work. The guard tried to force the exhausted man to stand and work but the prisoner couldn’t get up. Then the guard shot the prisoner dead with a sub-machine gun and ordered that he be buried in a ditch at the side ofthe road. (Krupachenko again)
There were public executions in the camp. In January 1943 on about the lOth-llth a former senior Lieutenant of the Red Army, his surname I don’t know, was executed for allegedly organising an escape attempt. (Anatoly Alexeev)
In all cases the Germans would shoot prisoners without any warnings at all. In the month of October 1942 I personally saw up to 30 prisoners shot. They shot people every day for falling behind to and from work, and sometimes for breaking ranks. I am unable to give the surnames of the prisoners shot by the Germans. Moreover, when we were herded from the Alekseevka camp to the area of Karpovka village, then several prisoners were shot dead by German officers for the fact that when we were working we were bombarded by Soviet troops and several prisoners took cover. After the firing had stopped the officers came out of their trench dug-outs and shot them on the spot. Three prisoners were shot dead for taking some tobacco while working on a dump. (Ivan Kosinov)
As one of the Germans on trial for these abuses agreed (Otto Mäder was trying to throw blame onto the camp commanders),
[t]here was no trial of any kind, they [prisoners] were shot without any trial on the order of [Dulag-205 commandant] Colonel Korpert. I am a lawyer by education and I understand perfectly that this these shootings were illegal, simply murder in fact.
All these quotations are via Frank Ellis’s “Dulag-205: The German Army’s Death Camp for Soviet Prisoners at Stalingrad” (Journal of Slavic Military Studies, March 2006),
Pakistani army Capt. Arshad Jameel (or Jamil) was hanged at Hyderabad Prison 20 years ago today.
Capt. Jameel exploited a security sweep to orchestrate the summary execution of nine Indian-armed terrorists … who turned out not to be terrorists at all, but ordinary residents of Tando Bahawal village whom Jameel had a personal grudge with.
It was a resonant case in a country dominated by its military and only wide public outrage at the journalistic expose unveiling the crime put Jameel in the dock of a military court.
Even so, the wheels turned so painfully slow that Pakistanis could not but suspect an institution accustomed to a broad grant of impunity of dragging its feet. Four years deep into Jameel’s appeals, two sisters of victims protested the delay by publicly immolating themselves on September 11, 1996. They died painfully of their burns, but they got the result they wanted: appeal denied.
On this date in the year 96, the Roman Emperor Domitian was assassinated … his very last act in the purple having been to condemn to death an astrologer who predicted Domitian’s murder.
Son and second successor of the Flavian dynasty’s founder, Vespasian, Domitian left his mark on Italian postcard stands by decorating the Roman Forum with the Arch of Titus to salute his older brother and immediate predecessor.
In his day he was known as a tyrant, especially compared to the dynasty which followed him; indeed, Domitian’s murder was the exact birth date for imperial Rome’s golden age in the judgment of Gibbon, who opined that “if a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.”
Domitian, shall we say, set a low bar for the Antonines to step over by keeping the capital in a state of perpetual terror with wanton purges, not even excepting the sacred Vestal Virgins.
As is usually the case with ancient scrolls, our lurid accounts rarely furnish convenient dates to later death-bloggers. Our excuse for this occasion will be the condemnation Domitian issued to a nameless astrologer immediately preceding his own fate; alternatively, we could cite the subsequent execution of Domitian’s assassins which was successfully demanded by the soldiery, who admired him.
If this seems a cheat for an almanac site, consider that given a better documentary environment, the man’s entire reign would supply the execution-blogger a near limitless stock.
“It would be impossible to discover the total number of those who were executed by Domitian,” wrote Cassius Dio, conveniently excusing a gap in his research.* “Indeed, he condemned himself so severely for this course that, in order to prevent any remembrance of those who were put to death from surviving, he prohibited the entering of their names in the records.”
Pretexts for these executions under Domitian were as varied and capricious as the killings were numerous.
Many men and women alike among the wealthy were punished for adultery; some of these women had been debauched by Domitian himself. Many persons were also fined or put to death on other charges. Thus, a woman was tried and put to death because she had undressed in front of an image of Domitian, and a man for having associated with astrologers. Among the many who perished at this time was Mettius Pompusianus, whom Vespasian had failed to harm after learning from some report that he would one day be sovereign, but on the contrary had shown him honour, declaring: “He will surely remember me and will surely honour me in return.” But Domitian first exiled him to Corsica and now put him to death, one of the complaints against him being that he had a map of the world painted on the walls of his bed-chamber, and another complaint being that he had excerpted and was wont to read the speeches of kings and other leaders that are recorded in Livy. Also Maternus, a sophist, was put out of the way because in a practice speech he had something against tyrants. The emperor himself used to visit those who were expecting to accuse or to give evidence of guilt and he would help to frame and compose all that required to be said. Often, too, he would talk to the prisoners alone, while holding their chains in his hands; for he would not entrust to others the knowledge of what was going to be said, and as for the accused, he feared them even in their bonds.
As a consequence of his cruelty the emperor was suspicious of all mankind, and from now on ceased to repose hopes of safety in either the freedmen or yet the prefects, whom he usually caused to be brought to trail during their very term of office. He had first banished and now slew Epaphroditus, Nero’s freedman, accusing him of having failed to defend Nero; for he wished by the vengeance that he took on Nero’s behalf to terrify his own freedmen long in advance, so that they should venture no similar deed.
The historian Suetonius concurred that the emperor was taking Tiberius’s old turn into a paranoid old coot.
He put to death a pupil of the pantomimic actor Paris, who was still a beardless boy and ill at the time, because in his skill and his appearance he seemed not unlike his master; also Hermogenes of Tarsus because of some allusions in his History, besides crucifying even the slaves who had written it out. A householder who said that a Thracian gladiator was a match for the murmillo, but not for the giver of the games, he caused to be dragged from his seat and thrown into the arena to dogs, with this placard: “A favourer of the Thracians who spoke impiously.”
He put to death many senators, among them several ex-consuls, including Civica Cerealis, at the very time when he was proconsul in Asia, Salvidienus Orfitus, Acilius Glabrio while he was in exile — these on the ground of plotting revolution, the rest on any charge, however trivial. He slew Aelius Lamia for joking remarks, which were reflections on him, it is true, but made long before and harmless. For when Domitian had taken away Lamia’s wife, the latter replied to someone who praised his voice: “I practise continence”; and when Titus urged him to marry again, he replied: “Are you too looking for a wife?” He put to death Salvius Cocceianus, because he had kept the birthday of the emperor Otho, his paternal uncle; Mettius Pompusianus, because it was commonly reported that he had an imperial nativity and carried about a map of the world on parchment and speeches of the kings and generals from Titus Livius, besides giving two of his slaves the names of Mago and Hannibal; Sallustius Lucullus, governor of Britain, for allowing some lances of a new pattern to be named “Lucullean,” after his own name; Junius Rusticus, because he had published eulogies of Paetus Thrasea and Helvidius Priscus and called them the most upright of men; and on the occasion of this charge he banished all the philosophers from the city and from Italy. He also executed the younger Helvidius, alleging that in a farce composed for the stage he had under the characters of Paris and Oenone censured Domitian’s divorce from his wife; Flavius Sabinus too, one of his cousins, because on the day of the consular elections the crier had inadvertently announced him to the people as emperor elect, instead of consul.
His savage cruelty was not only excessive, but also cunning and sudden. He invited one of his stewards to his bed-chamber the day before crucifying him, made him sit beside him on his couch, and dismissed him in a secure and gay frame of mind, even deigning to send him a share of his dinner. When he was on the point of condemning the ex-consul Arrecinius Clemens, one of his intimates and tools, he treated him with as great favour as before, if not greater, and finally, as he was taking a drive with him, catching sight of his accuser he said: “Pray, shall we hear this base slave to?morrow?”
Domitian also seems to have been extremely superstitious, even by Roman standards. Suetonius gets a little carried away here, enough so that it is impossible at 2,000 years’ distance to guess precisely where the embroidery was sewn to the facts; after all, Domitian’s subjects and observers were all superstitious too. It certainly makes a jolly good story.
It is said that when Domitian was but a boy astrologers had forecast the very moment of his eventual violent death: the fifth hour of September the 18th in this very year. Domitian became extremely jumpy as Atropos’s shears drew nearer and dark omens began to accumulate around him:
For eight successive months so many strokes of lightning occurred and were reported, that at last he cried: “Well, let him now strike whom he will.” The temple of Jupiter of the Capitol was struck and that of the Flavian family, as well as the Palace and the emperor’s own bedroom. The inscription too on the base of a triumphal statue of his was torn off in a violent tempest and fell upon a neighbouring tomb. The tree which had been overthrown when Vespasian was still a private citizen but had sprung up anew, then on a sudden fell down again. Fortune of Praeneste had throughout his whole reign, when he commended the new year to her protection, given him a favourable omen and always in the same words. Now at last she returned a most direful one, not without the mention of bloodshed. (Suetonius again)
He tried to defeat the gods by having put to death an astrologer named Ascletarion, having first demanded Ascletarion’s prediction of his own manner of death: “that he would shortly be rent by dogs,” the oracle replied. To prove him wrong, Domitian had him killed some other way and immolated — but his satisfaction drained away when “it chanced that the pyre was overset by a sudden storm and that the dogs mangled the corpse.” Death closed around the prince, to his growing fear, and now he watched for the very hour.
At about midnight he was so terrified that he leaped from his bed. The next morning he conducted the trial of a soothsayer sent from Germany, who when consulted about the lightning strokes had foretold a change of rulers, and condemned him to death. While he was vigorously scratching a festered wart on his forehead, and had drawn blood, he said: “May this be all.” Then he asked the time, and by pre-arrangement [of those conspiring against Domitian] the sixth hour was announced to him, instead of the fifth, which he feared. Filled with joy at this, and believing all danger now past, he was hastening to the bath, when his chamberlain Parthenius changed his purpose by announcing that someone had called about a matter of great moment and would not be put off.
Retiring his bedroom to prepare for an exultant bath, Domitian was there attacked and stabbed to death by a steward named Stephanus, joined by several others — “Clodianus, a subaltern, Maximus, a freedman of Parthenius, Satur, decurion of the chamberlains, and a gladiator from the imperial school.”
Domitian’s memory was immediately damned by the overjoyed Senate, which proclaimed as his successor an elderly placeholder named Nerva (who immediately canceled treason trials against this same Senate). Nerva’s line of adoptive succession (Nerva himself adopted the redoubtable Trajan) would rule that “happy and prosperous” Rome of Gibbon’s celebration for the best part of a century.
* Cassius Dio wrote more than a century after Domitian. Suetonius and Tacitus are truer primary sources as both wrote their histories in the early second century, and both had themselves experienced life in Domitian’s Rome. Unfortunately the books of the latter’s Histories that cover the reign of Domitian have not survived to posterity — so from Tacitus we have only fleeting glimpses of the young Domitian aiding his father’s rise to power.
Were you a Bolshevik propagandist during that war, interested in portraying the tsarist rearguard as literally a gaggle of psychopathic foreigners, Roman von Ungern-Sternberg was some kind of godsend. (Here’s his English Wikipedia page | German | Russian)
A German-descended lord in Estonia whose family owed its ennoblement to the exercises of the “crusaders and privateers” (the baron’s words, perhaps holding more of self-promotion than truth) up the family tree. One ancestor was supposedly a notorious Baltic Sea pirate.
Ungern — he’s often known simply by the one name — had the courage of rash irascibility; as a tsarist officer in the years ahead of the Great War he was notorious for his hard drinking and penchant for fighting duels.** Expelled from his regiment, he wandered in the transbaikal and beyond, picking up the Mongolian tongue and Buddhist occultism into the bargain.† He returned to fight in the European front up to 1917 like a loyal Russian, and got court martialed for attempted murder after one of his furies, but his destiny lay in the East.
The man was a ferocious monarchist and a disdainer of the “morally deficient” West — unto which he would make a terrible scourge when the hated Communists seized the state. Ungern had been at that time collaborating with Grigory Semenov to raise non-Russian troops from the peoples on the fringes of Moscow’s empire; now they would become with those troops warlords holding out against the Reds, Ungern returning to establish himself in Mongolia — indeed, as the power in an unsettled frontier itself between tworevolutions. Prior to his execution in 1921, he was the dictator of Mongolia, the power behind the throne of the very last khan — and that wasn’t the half of it for Ungern also positioned himself as an avatar of the very God of War.
Certainly he strove to justify this colorful apotheosis by dint of a legendary bloodthirstiness, now that he had armies and states into which to pour his violent passions instead of merely rival barracks-mates.
Reports of Ungern’s sadism almost beggar belief and might have profited by extra embroidery since both the man and his enemies inclined to show him in the most implacable light imaginable. As James Boyd points out in “‘A Very Quiet, Outspoken, Pleasant Gentleman[sic]': The United States Military Attache’s Reports on Baron von Ungern-Sternberg, March 1921″ in Inner Asia, vol. 12, no. 2 (2010), much of what we think we know of his behavior traces ultimately to the less than reliable (albeit firsthand) pen of a traveler named Ferdinand Antoni Ossendowski.
The latter was a Polish wanderer who went to Mongolia. Ossendowski became Ungern’s friend, but he’d already been born a prose-purpler. Ossendowski’s account of his and his soon-to-be-ex-traveling companion first encountering “the terrible general, the Baron” would curl your hair.
After a talk with Kazagrandi the Baron invited Colonel N. N. Philipoff and me into his presence. Colonel Kazagrandi brought the word to me. I wanted to go at once but was detained about half an hour by the Colonel, who then sped me with the words:
“Now God help you! Go!”
It was a strange parting message, not reassuring and quite enigmatical. I took my Mauser and also hid in the cuff of my coat my cyanide of potassium. The Baron was quartered in the yurta of the military doctor. When I entered the court, Captain Veseloffsky came up to me. He had a Cossack sword and a revolver without its holster beneath his girdle. He went into the yurta to report my arrival.
“Come in,” he said, as he emerged from the tent.
At the entrance my eyes were struck with the sight of a pool of blood that had not yet had time to drain down into the ground — an ominous greeting that seemed to carry the very voice of one just gone before me. I knocked.
“Come in!” was the answer in a high tenor. As I passed the threshold, a figure in a red silk Mongolian coat rushed at me with the spring of a tiger, grabbed and shook my hand as though in flight across my path and then fell prone on the bed at the side of the tent.
“Tell me who you are! Hereabouts are many spies and agitators,” he cried out in an hysterical voice, as he fixed his eyes upon me. In one moment I perceived his appearance and psychology. A small head on wide shoulders; blonde hair in disorder; a reddish bristling moustache; a skinny, exhausted face, like those on the old Byzantine ikons. Then everything else faded from view save a big, protruding forehead overhanging steely sharp eyes. These eyes were fixed upon me like those of an animal from a cave. My observations lasted for but a flash but I understood that before me was a very dangerous man ready for an instant spring into irrevocable action.
He is a warrior in the 20th century’s great ideological battle, yes, but it is difficult to capture in an excerpt like this the spellbinding and queer monster that Ossendowski presents us, a European landlord able to bend Asiatic mythology to his person until charges who were convinced that Ungern could not be slain were “rushing about in long blue coats; Mongols and Tibetans in red coats with yellow epaulets bearing the swastika of Jenghiz Khan and the initials of the Living Buddha.”
Thus lived this camp of martyrs, refugees pursued by events to their tryst with Death, driven on by the hate and contempt of this offspring of Teutons and privateers! And he, martyring them, knew neither day nor night of peace. Fired by impelling, poisonous thoughts, he tormented himself with the pains of a Titan, knowing that every day in this shortening chain of one hundred thirty links brought him nearer to the precipice called “Death.” also permit Ungern to have his own say for himself.
— but also sympathetically channel Ungern’s self-vindication:
“Some of my associates in the movement do not like me because of my atrocities and severity,” he remarked in a sad voice. “They cannot understand as yet that we are not fighting a political party but a sect of murderers of all contemporary spiritual culture. Why do the Italians execute the ‘Black Hand’ gang? Why are the Americans electrocuting anarchistic bomb throwers? and I am not allowed to rid the world of those who would kill the soul of the people? I, a Teuton, descendant of crusaders and privateers, I recognize only death for murderers!”
Ungern’s khanate became increasingly squeezed between the Red Army and Chinese nationalist forces, and he was finally driven out by a mutiny to eventual capture by the Soviets — who found the white War-God alone in the deserts that had answered his mastery, clad in the saffron robes of his deposed estate. There was none of his rage on display at his short trial; Ungern full well knew his fate, and when mockingly offered his life by the judge if he would humiliate himself by singing the “Internationale,” the defendant cleverly countered by daring the judge first to sing the tsarist national anthem. As it should for any mystic, Ungern’s enigma outlived his fleshing form.
“You can interpret Ungern as you wish,” Leonid Yuzefovich wrote,‡
as a hero of the anti-Bolshevik struggle, a brigand-chief, a Eurasian in the saddle; as a predecessor to fascism, a medieval fossil, a herald of future global clashes between East and West, a creator of one of the darkest utopias of the twentieth century; as one of the tyrants that grow on the remnants of great empires, or as a maniac, inebriated with the crude extracts of great ideas. But whatever you think, in all these variants the fate of that Baltic baron who became the ruler of Mongolia, in all its frightening unreality conceals some answers to the crucial questions of the epoch.
* Not to be confused with the Black Baron, a stone-faced Germanic nobleman named Peter Wrangel who wound up commanding White forces in southern Russia during the same war. Wrangel (as “Vrangel”) enjoyed a prominent role as public enemy no. 1 in anti-White propaganda.
** In one such fray, Ungern-Sternberg picked up a nasty saber knock to the noggin. It’s been speculated that the unbalanced behavior of his later life owed a lot to that head injury: concussions are no joke.
† Biographical details heavily cribbed from Canfield Smith, “The Ungernovshchina — How and Why?” in Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas, Bd. 28, H. 4 (1980), pp. 590-595.
‡ Quote via a review of The Autocrat of the Desert by Julia Latynina in History Workshop Journal, no. 39 (Spring 1995).
Zum Kampf! Zum Kampf! from Max Bruch‘s 1877 oratorio about Teutoburg Forest victor Arminius. Also be sure to check out the Handel opera.
September 11 in the year 9 AD marked the bloody conclusion of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest — the engagement that permanently scared the Romans off Germany.
One of history’s true turning-point battles, Teutoberg Forest abruptly stanched decades of expansion that had seen Roman arms ascendant from Britain to the Levant. Indeed, the Roman commander who had the dishonor of falling on his sword at this legendary defeat, Publius Quinctilius Varus, was an experienced imperial patrician as well-traveled as the Roman standards who has been seen in these very pages collaborating with the Judean King Herod to execute Herod’s former heir.
But it was in the shadows and bogs of Germany’s primeval forests that Varus made his legacy to the world, which was to have his name famously bemoaned by facepalming Emperor Augustus once news of the disaster made its way back to the Eternal City.
Prior to this cataclysm, the empire had been working a years-long plan to annex fringe chunks of the vast Magna Germania beyond the Rhine and Danube rivers with its customary view towards eventually bossing the whole place. “Upper Germania” and “Lower Germania” to the west of Magna Germania already answered to Rome, testament to recent campaigns launched from neighboring Gaul;* the vast frontier beyond peopled by fractious warring barbarian tribes, with whom Rome cut strategic divide-and-conquer alliances, appeared to promise a future march of Roman glories all the way to the Baltic Sea.
This imperial hubris was shattered at a blow by the Cheruscan chief Arminius, who thereby made his name immortal to Germany.**
He had the element of surprise on his side, because his family had been such loyal Roman allies that Arminius had been trained up in the Roman army as a youth, and even held Roman citizenship. Whatever it was he experienced seems to have nurtured an implacable desire him to keep it away form his homeland. When the time came his familiarity with Roman military orders would be a high card in his hand, too.
Back in Germania, Arminius maintained his overt affiliation with Rome but started sending out feelers to assemble a confederation against the legions. He played this double game so adroitly that Varus still trusted his “ally” implicitly when Arminius reported a Germanic uprising that wanted Roman chastisement. Blind to his danger, Varus duly (and with casual discipline that would read very culpably in retrospect) marched his 17th, 18th, and 19th legions out through the unfamiliar glooms of the Teutoburg Forest.
It was a right massacre.
Their column broken up by rough terrain and pounding autumn rains, the Romans were ripe pickings for German sorties beginning on September 9. Harried by the Germans over two days’ panicked marching, the Romans were pressed into a dead end where palisades trapped the desperate legions at the edge of a slough and put them to slaughter. A bare handful escaped to tell the tale, and no future legion would bear the numerals of those annihilated on this day.
Varusschlacht, by Otto Albert Koch (1909).
The scale of the defeat, by rude tribesmen the empire always counted on being able to bully, beggared the Roman imagination.
“An army unexcelled in bravery, the first of Roman armies in discipline, in energy, and in experience in the field, through the negligence of its general, the perfidy of the enemy, and the unkindness of fortune was surrounded,” Paterculus lamented. “Hemmed in by forests and marshes and ambuscades, it was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it had always slaughtered like cattle, whose life or death had depended solely upon the wrath or the pity of the Romans.”
To judge by Roman reports — and what gives this event a purchase on the annals of Executed Today — the battlefield rout transitioned directly to the ceremonial butchery of captives. (As well as the posthumous beheading of the suicide Varus.) While some suffered torture and execution, others were offered as ritual sacrifices to the Germanic gods who had so magnificently delivered the day.
Several years later, a Roman force out to re-capture the lost standards of the Teutoburg legions reached the site of the empire’s humiliation. Tacitus describes the scene as a horror.
In the center of the field were the whitening bones of men, as they had fled, or stood their ground, strewn everywhere or piled in heaps. Near lay fragments of weapons and limbs of horses, and also human heads, prominently nailed to trunks of trees. In the adjacent groves were the barbarous altars, on which they had immolated tribunes and first-rank centurions.
Some survivors of the disaster who had escaped from the battle or from captivity, described how this was the spot where the officers fell, how yonder the eagles were captured, where Varus was pierced by his first wound, where too by the stroke of his own ill-starred hand he found for himself death. They pointed out too the raised ground from which Arminius had harangued his army, the number of gibbets for the captives, the pits for the living, and how in his exultation he insulted the standards and eagles.
And so the Roman army now on the spot, six years after the disaster, in grief and anger, began to bury the bones of the three legions, not a soldier knowing whether he was interring the relics of a relative or a stranger, but looking on all as kinsfolk and of their own blood, while their wrath rose higher than ever against the foe.
Despite the devastation, Teutoburg Forest was no extinction-level event for the Roman Empire. The Rhine and Danube frontiers remained an ongoing source of action for the many centuries to come, but despite raids and incursions here or there Rome never more seriously aspired to Magna Germania.
A few books about the Battle of Teutoburg Forest
* The future emperor Tiberius campaigned heavily in Germania, the last of which was post-Varus operations from 10 to 12 AD sufficient to permit the Romans to declare an honorably victorious conclusion to the project. (Tiberius celebrated a Triumph afterwards.)
** Arminius — whose name has been held equivalent with “Hermann” — has been the subject of many literary celebratins in a nationalist vein, great business especially in the 19th century.
Carrera hurried home to join it … and in 1811, he seized control of it in a coup d’etat.** As a progressive dictator type, Carrera would go on to promulgate a constitution, set the stage for slavery abolition by declaring “freedom of the womb”, introduce the country’s first printing press, and establish diplomatic relations with the United States. Carrera’s sister Javiera even sewed the first Chilean flag.
The entire Carrera family would play a leading part in their nation’s birth throes, although whether for good or for ill history has hotly disputed. Our man Jose put himself at the head of the army to meet the Spanish reconquista force in the field — leaving his brother Juan Jose at the head of an unstable government — and by 1814 was mired in a virtual civil war against his former subordinate turned rival Bernardo O’Higgins. Spain (temporarily) recaptured Chile from its divided patriots, who by and large fled into exile.
Never a soul to eschew adventure, Carrera spent the next several years in derring-do plots. He finagled a flotilla from the Yankees, sailed it back to Argentina where he was arrested, and escaped captivity to Montevideo from which perch he waged a propaganda campaign against the Argentine government. By that time his enmity with Argentine revolutionary Jose de San Martin was quite personal: the O’Higgins-aligned San Martin had captured Carrera’s brothers Juan Jose and Luis and had them shot in Mendoza in 1818.
Carrera threw himself into the federalist war against San Martin’s unitary government in Argentina. The hated O’Higgins — who had by now declared Chilean independence and made it stick — routed aid to his longtime rival’s enemies. He was at last betrayed to his death after a defeat at Punta del Medano, and like his siblings, given over to a firing squad in Mendoza.
The Last Moments of J.M. Carrera.
* Present-day Chile’s independence day, September 18, marks the founding of this junta in 1810. It was Carrera who established the holiday.
** Actually Carrera authored two distinct coups in 1811: one to replace the junta with a new council, in September 1811 — and a second to replace that new council with himself that November. In January of 1812, he then replaced his November governing council in a move that essentially made him the dictator. Let’s say that institution-building wasn’t Carrera’s thing.
Royal Irish Constabulary officer Gerald Smyth was executed by an Irish Republican Army hit team on this date in 1920.
A true child of empire, born in Punjab and veteran of the First World War where he had lost the use of one arm, Smyth had been assigned to Ireland during the bloody Irish War of Independence. One year’s time out from this post, almost to the day, Great Britain threw in the towel by agreeing to a truce that led to Irish self-government (and Irish Civil War).
The “execution” — assassination — that we mark this date was consequence of an event called the Listowel Mutiny, which occurred in June 1920.
The account for this event is quite incendiary, and it bears mentioning that it hails from a Republican newspaper, Sinn Fein’s Irish Bulletin. In it, former policeman Jeremiah Mee explains the circumstances of his own departure from the constabulary: Smyth had arrived at the Listowel barracks to deliver his demoralized constables an ukase directing an aggressive shoot-on-sight policy, to take the fight to suspected militants.
Sinn Fein has had all the sport up to the present and we are going to have the sport now … I am promised as many troops from England as I require, thousands are coming daily. I am getting 7,000 police from England [Smyth is referring here to the influx of Black and Tans -ed.] …
Police and military will patrol the country at least five nights a week. They are not to confine themselves to the main roads but take across the country, lie in ambush, and when civilians are seen approaching shout “Hands up.” Should the order not be immediately obeyed, shoot, and shoot with effect. If persons approaching carry their hands in their pockets and are in any way suspicious looking, shoot them down. You may make mistakes occasionally and innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped and you are bound to get the right persons sometimes. The more you shoot the better I will like you; and I assure you that no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man and I will guarantee that your names will not be given at the inquest.
The constables gaped at this directive until Mee retored, “By your accent I take it you are an Englishman and in your ignorance forget that you are addressing Irishmen.” Then he removed his cap, belt, and bayonet: “These too are English. Take them as a present from me and to hell with you — you are a murderer!”
This Listowel Mutiny reached its narrative closure a month later when that IRA team burst into Cork smoking room where Lieutenant-Colonel Smyth was relaxing and startled him with the revengeful taunt, “Colonel, were not your orders to shoot on sight? Well you are in sight now, so prepare.”
Smyth’s murder in turn further escalated tensions in war-torn Ireland, helping contribute to an outbreak of sectarian pogroms days later that saw thousands of Catholics driven out of the city and/or work in Belfast.
A year ago today, Dok Macuei Marer was executed by hanging at Wau Prison in South Sudan.
Dok assassinated tribal chief Chut Dhuol in August 2014, in a possible revenge killing for the previous murder of another chief. There is very little information about this whole affair readily accesible online, a circumstance consistent with the sketchy state of information about the death penalty in the world’s newest state. (Executed Today itself predates South Sudanese independence by four years.)