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War Trophies, 1915

During the opening stages of the British campaign against the Turks in what is now Iraq,  during World War I, Arab irregulars were quite active in harassing the invaders, especially at night.

It was not uncommon for raiders to sneak into camps, evading sentries and making their way among sleeping soldiers, to steal whatever they could find, such as boots, rifles, and blankets, and then getting away, usually without waking anyone.  One night in January of 1915, a raider managed to make off with a yellow flag from the camp of the 2nd Battalion, the Norfolk Regiment, shortly after which a Turkish spokesman reported the capture of “an enemy flag.” 

Since flags have historically been among the most treasured of war trophies, the raider was probably well-rewarded for his efforts.  Naturally, other Arabs sought to emulate his achievement.  Soon thefts of the yellow flags became rather common.  To stop them, the British set booby-traps, and several raiders were killed trying to make off with the flags.

At the time of the first theft, Captain Alfred J. Shakeshaft of the Norfolks wrote in his diary, “We wondered if this would be hung up in the military museum at Constantinople.”  One wonders even now, particularly since yellow flags were the British Army’s standard markers for latrines.

Biographical Note:  Captain Shakeshaft was a prewar regular officer.  As with most of the personnel of the 6th Indian Division, he endured the Siege of Kut (Dec. 7, 1915-Apr. 29, 1916), and then became a prisoner-of-war under appalling conditions.  Liberated at the end of the war, he continued in service for many years, rising to major.   In 1934,  Shakeshaft was instrumental in creating the Norfolk Regiment’s museum.  He retired at the end of 1936, and died the following year aged 50.  Excerpts from his war diary are online at http://www.stephen-stratford.co.uk/capt_diary.htm .    

 

The Legend of King Wamba of the Visigoths

In 672 the king of the Visigoths died.  Naturally, the Visigoths, who had been established in what is now Spain for some 250 years, had to seek a new king.  As the throne was not hereditary, electors were summoned to the little village of Gerticos, some eight miles from the city of Valladolid, where the late king had breathed his last, to debate the succession. 

Alas, the great nobles, bishops, and commanders could come to no consensus.

At that point legend intervenes, as there are several versions of what happened next.

The first hoary tale is that the late King Wamba had sired two illegitimate sons, one with a noblewoman and one with a peasant woman, and both mothers had been dispatched to an isolated village to bear their children, who were then both raised there by the peasant woman.  Supposedly, during the deliberations over the king’s successor, someone remembered these boys, and proposed that the noblewoman’s son be made king.  This apparently suited the electors, and emissaries were dispatched to carry the news to the young man. 

Upon reaching the village, the emissaries heard a woman calling to her son, who was named “Wamba.”  They immediately took this as a sign that the youth was destined to be king, and approached him, not realizing that he was the son of the peasant woman.

After brief introductions, one of the emissaries said, "You are the rightful king and we must ask you to come with us to the palace."  The young man, either not believing them or from some other motive, such as realizing that they thought he was the son of the noble woman, rather than of the peasant woman, stuck his staff into the ground and replied, "I will only accept the throne if this stick takes root."  Lo! the staff started to sprout, and thus Wamba accepted the throne.

A second tale has it that when the impasse was reached, Saint Leo, declaring that he had been given divine guidance, told the electors to seek out a farmer named Wamba.  Messengers were dispatched to find the man.  After some time, Wamba was found tilling a field.

Approaching the man, who was of mature years, one of the messengers said, "Leave your plough in the furrow", one of the messengers said, “for nobler work awaits you; you have been elected king of the Visigoths."

Wamba answered, "There is no nobler work.  Seek elsewhere your king.  I prefer to rule my fields."

Astonished, the messengers didn’t know what to do.  They begged, pleaded, reasoned, and so forth, until, annoyed at their pestering, Wamba said, "I will accept the crown when the staff in my hand grows green again." And thrust it into the soil.  At that, of course, the staff began to sprout leaves, and Wamba was trapped, though a variant of this legend says that he still tried to wiggle out of the deal, but was convinced to accept the throne when one of the nobles threatened to behead him if he refused.

Now, both legends have a lot of problems.  For one thing when the king who died in 672 was not named Wamba, but Recceswinth (r. A.D. 649-672).  For another, it’s not at all clear which of quite a number of saints named “Leo” was the “Saint Leo” of the second legend; in fact, none of them lived in Spain around the period in question.

The historical Wamba was a man of noble birth who was elected king on September 21, 672.  The first year of his reign was spent in suppressing usurpers, and persecuting the Jews, whom he expelled from his kingdom.  Over the next few years he consolidated the kingdom, annexing the territory of some smaller realms, and beat off raids by Moslem pirates from North Africa.  Toward the end of Wamba’s reign these raids became increasingly frequent, while the Romanized Celtiberians who constituted the bulk of the population, proved increasingly restive under Visigothic domination, resisting heavier taxation and growing demands for military service.  Finally another civil war broke out, during which Wamba was poisoned in 680, to be succeeded by Erwig (r. 680-687), a poor ruler who further weakened the kingdom, which in a generation would fragment in further civil war and then fall to the invading Moslems beginning in 711.

BookNote: The best recent treatment of the Visigothic kingdom in what is now Spain is Roger Collins’ aptly titled Visigothic Spain 409 - 711 (A History of Spain) (Maldon, Ma.: 2006)

 


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