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August 25, 2019

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Short Rounds

"But that’s Illegal!"

During the late 1930s rearmament was in the air. Of course the totalitarian powers - Germany, Japan, Italy, Russia - had a head start on the liberal ones - Britain, France, America - who lagged well behind. In August of 1939, with war seemingly imminent, the Royal Air Force proposed a little "swap" with the U.S. Army Air Corps; the RAF would give the AAF one of its new Spitfire fighters in exchange for a one of American’s experimental XP-40 Warhawks. That way each air force would have some idea of what the other’s latest technology was like.

The Army Air Corps thought this an excellent idea. So the RAF crated up one of its precious few Spitfires, trucked it down to Southampton, and loaded it aboard the freighter American Importer, bound for New York. Then a snag arose. It seems that between the time the AAF and the RAF had come up with their little arrangement, Britain had gone to war with Germany.

Getting wind of the arrangement, the State Department opined that such a swap violated the Neutrality Acts. Enacted during the mid- and late-1930s, the Neutrality Acts were intended to prevent the U.S. from being "dragged" into a war against its will, as many isolationists claimed had been the case in 1917. The acts barred making loans to nations at war, the production of goods for belligerents, and so forth. Naturally, they barred any contacts between the U.S. armed forces and those of belligerents, as in the case of the Spitfire/Warhawk swap. So the deal fell through.

More or less.

The British removed the Spitfire from American Importer before the ship left the U.K. But they then loaded it onto a freighter bound for Canada. Meanwhile, the U.S. arranged to quietly ship a XP-40 to Canada. And so in May of 1940, some months later than originally planned, a "fly off" was held at Uplands Airport, near Ottawa, with some British pilots testing the XP-40 and some Americans the Spitfire, each side gaining some ideas and experience that later proved very useful.

 

A Fair Price?

The Battle of Waterloo was so signal a victory that the British Army awarded a special medal to all ranks. In an age when decorations were rare, and usually reserved for the officers, this was unusual, and initiated the modern practice of awarding service medals to all the troops who have taken part in campaign, and to the families of those who have perished.

Instituted on March 10, 1816, the "Waterloo Medal" was a simple affair. On the obverse was the head of the Prince Regent of Britain (later King George IV) and the reverse showed a winged Victory, with the words "Wellington" and "Waterloo" and the date "June 18, 1815"). The name and regiment of the veteran was engraved in a space provided. The medal was suspended from a deep red ribbon edged with blue.

By chance, some years after the great battle, a English soldier in uniform chanced to fall in with a Frenchman. The Frenchman, an unreconstructed Bonapartist, asked what the medal on the man’s uniform was for. Upon being told, he made a snide remark about the stinginess of the Crown, to present so trifling an award, not even worth three francs.

To this, the quick-witted Briton replied, "That is true, to be sure. It did not cost the government three francs. But it cost the French a napoleon," punning of the new unit of coinage that Bonaparte, in his egomania, had instituted.

 

Mother Love, Medieval Style

During the Middle Ages, Aquitaine, a vast spread in the south of France, was the most progressive, prosperous, and desirable territory in all of western Europe. In 994 a new duke came to power, William V (969-1030). A patron of the arts and a bibliophile, William maintained good relations with his neighbors and the Church, and ruled so justly as to earn the sobriquet “The Great.” Of course, like all good feudal rulers, William tried to insure the succession to his territories. So he married.

Alas, William’s marital life was marred by misfortune. Two wives in succession died, each of them leaving him a son. Thinking that the boys might need a mother, in 1018 William wed yet again, to the much younger Agnes de Macon, Princess of Lombardy, commonly known as Agnes of Burgundy (995-1068). Agnes gave William two more sons, and three daughters as well. In 1030, William died. Naturally, he was succeeded by his eldest son, who became William VI (reigned 1030-1038), and was commonly known as “William the Fat.”

Now this didn’t sit very well with Duchess Agnes. After all, she had her sons to consider. So, being still a relatively young woman, she married Geoffrey Martel (1006-1060), heir to Count Fulk Nerra of Anjou who was even younger (she was about 35, and Geoffrey was about 25). Agnes soon convinced Geoffrey that he should “stand up” for the rights of her sons by William the Great. This began a series of wars between Anjou and Aquitaine. Of course, not everyone in France thought Agnes and Geoffrey were behaving properly, even by the cut-throat standards of the times. In fact, not even Count Fulk Nerra, the Duke of Anjou, who happened to be Geoffrey’s father!

In 1036 Geoffrey managed to capture William the Fat, but then had to free the duke on payment of a heavy ransom, under pressure from many of the other high nobles of France, among them his own father. As luck would have it, William the Fat died about two years later. William was succeeded by his half-brother Odo of Gascony. But Odo didn’t last very long. Having made up with his father, Geoffrey renewed hostilities with Aquitaine having made up. In March of 1039 Odo was killed during a siege.

The way was now clear for Agnes’ eldest son to succeed to the Duchy of Aquitaine. William VII (born 1020, and reigned 1039-1058) was a dutiful son and for many years let his Mom run things. Known to history as “William the Brave,” he was "warlike, second to none in daring, and endowed with foresight and abundant wealth." Agnes did well at managing the duchy in her son’s name, though she had a falling out with her husband Geoffrey. In fact, the falling out was so serious there was outright war between the two for a time! Fortunately, Geoffrey died in 1060, leaving no sons, despite having repudiated Agnes (with whom he had three daughters), a decade earlier to marry a younger woman, and then dumping her for yet another. Meanwhile, in 1058 Agnes’s eldest son had died, and Aquitaine passed to her second son, William VIII (1026-1086). Soon afterwards, Agnes retired to a convent, where she died in 1068. Her grandson, Duke William IX, was the grandfather of the great Eleanor of Aquitaine, who clearly inherited her ancestress’ great determination.

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