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May 18, 2021

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Short Rounds

"What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate"

During the late nineteenth century, Italy joined Germany and Austria-Hungary in a defensive arrangement that came to be known as the “Triple Alliance.” Now this seemed like a good idea at the time. Italy had two potential major enemies. One was France. Since France was also Germany’s principal enemy, an alliance with the Second Reich would be mutually beneficial. Italy’s other potential enemy was Austria-Hungary. It would thus seem strange that Italy would form an alliance with Austria-Hungary. But there was method to the madness, on several fronts. Austria-Hungary’s great enemy was Russia, allied with France, and thus also an enemy of Germany. So German chancellor Otto von Bismarck arranged the Triple Alliance to keep Italy off Austria-Hungary’s back in the event of a war with Russia, by insuring that the “Dual Monarchy” would keep the peace with Italy, and at the same time Italy would have a powerful ally in the event of war with France.

Of course, as Lord Palmerston once said, “Nations have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, only their interests are permanent.” As time passed, friends and foes can change.

In 1902 Italy and France concluded a secret agreement that made hostilities between the two countries extremely unlikely, resolving various issues to the mutual satisfaction of both countries. But due to some bureaucratic turf wars, the French Foreign Minister neglected to inform the War Minister. As a result, for the next seven years the French Army continued to assume that in the event of a war with Germany, Italy would be an enemy as well, and continued to plan to deploy several corps on the Alpine frontier. This curious oversight continued until 1909, when someone finally tipped off the War Ministry.

Meanwhile, the Italian Foreign Minster made precisely the same mistake, failing to notify the War Minister that a conflict with France was highly unlikely. This had even worse consequences, for the error was never corrected. As a result, the Italian Army continued to plan on the assumption that it would support Germany in a war against France, only to be blindsided when Italy issued a declaration of neutrality on August 3, 1914.

And if that was a shock, consider how it went down in Vienna and Berlin, where the general staffs were keeping rail lines open to move Italian troops to the Rhine.

 

America’s First Insignia of Rank

On July 3, 1775, George Washington arrived at Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a brief from the Continental Congress to take command of America’s first army and press the siege of Boston, held by the British

George certainly had his work cut out for him.

The nearly 20,000 New England and New York militiamen around Boston could hardly be termed an “army.” Although each of the five colonies had a surprisingly well structured militia system, there was not much uniformity of organization; regiments ranged from 599 men for Massachusetts to 1,046 for Connecticut. And neither equipment, nor drill, nor uniforms were particularly uniform either. In fact, hardly any of the troops were uniformed, though George himself did have his simple blue uniform as a colonel of the Virginia militia. Naturally, the lack of uniforms in general, and of insignia in particular, provided for some confusion.

So on July 23, 1775 Washington issued a general order; “As the Continental Army has unfortunately no uniforms, and consequently many inconveniences must arise from not being able to distinguish the commissioned officers from the privates, it is desired that some badges of distinction may be immediately provided.

George then proceeded to prescribe “some badges of distinction.”

Corporals "an epaulette or stripe of green cloth
sewed upon the right shoulder"
Sergeants " . . . one of red."
Subalterns " . . . green colored cockades in their hats"
Captains " . . . yellow or buff [cockades]"
Field officers " . . . red or pink colored cockades in their hats"
Aides-de-camp &
Brigade Majors
" . . . a green ribband worn across the heart
between the coat and waistcoat"
Brigadier Generals " . . . a pink ribband worn in like manner."
Major Generals " . . . a pink ribband worn in like manner . . [with] sleeves
. . . distinguished by a broad purple ribband
Commander-in-Chief " . . . a light blue ribband across his heart ..."

Later in the war, particularly after French money became available, a more sophisticated system of “badges of distinction” was introduced, with officers sporting proper epaulettes. But corporals and privates continued to wear the cloth stripe in green or red on their right shoulders, which were later converted into proper epaulettes of the same color on the same shoulder, until after the War of 1812.

 

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