Astronaut Alan B. Shepard, first American in Space, in his capsule "Freedom 7 " during a test shortly prior to his flight on Mercury-Redstone 3, 5 May 1961 (NASA photo).
All kinds of interesting historical events, today. On this day in 1961, Alan Shepard became the first American in space when Mercury-Redstone 3 blasted-off from Cape Canaveral's Pad 5 and took Astronaut Shepard and his capsule Freedom 7 into space. Freedom 7 did not orbit, only going up, and then right back down (a "suborbital" flight), and he was only up for 16 minutes.
After moon landings and space shuttles, it doesn't sound like much now, but if you have ever seen a real Mercury capsule (eleven and a half feet wide, just over six feet in diameter), you would understand how absolutely brave a stunt it really was to climb into this thing (actually, you pretty much wore it, you didn't get in it) and sit quietly on the pad while the smart boys fired up a rocket as likely to crash or explode as to fly.
Rear-Admiral Shepard, who later played golf on the Moon commanding Apollo 14, died in 1998. I will never forget, when I was about 16, having the honor to shake the man's hand and talk with him briefly.
On this day in 1883, the first Earl Wavell, or to give him his full titles, Archibald Percival Wavell, Field Marshal, Earl Wavell, Viscount Wavell, Viscount Keren of Eritrea and Winchester, GCB, GCSI, GCIE, CMG, MC, PC -- was born in Colchester, England. Colchester, the oldest Roman town in Britain, seems an appropriate place of nativity for such a distinguished soldier, of a family of soldiers. The future Lord Wavell was not long in Britain, however: he spent most of his youth in India. Wavell's father, like his son and grandson, was a career soldier in the British Army, the father retiring with the rank of Major General.
After a glittering British Army career in the First World War and between the wars, Wavell was given command of all British forces in the Middle East early in World War II. Wavell was given an almost impossibly huge task (containing the Vichy French, beating the Italians and later Rommel, and keeping the Arabs quiet) -- with far too few forces.
Wavell's problems were compounded by excessive political interference, particularly by Winston Churchill. In early 1941 Wavell's forces were winning in Libya and mopping-up the Italian East Africa colony. However, in February 1941, Wavell was ordered by London (that is, Churchill) to halt his advance from Egypt into Italian Libya (Wavell was beating the Italians), and send his best forces off to Greece to fight Germans and Italians. Wavell protested, and the British intervention in Greece proved, as Wavell had predicted, a complete disaster.
The intervention in Greece, with the diversion of effort it occasioned, and the loss of much of the intervention force and its heavy equipment in Greece and Crete, gave the Italians and Germans a breathing space in Libya, and an German general named Rommel his opening. Wavell's efforts to stop Rommel were unsuccessful, although he was able to keep Iraq in the British orbit by successfully suppressing pro-German nationalist rebels (the Anglo-Iraq War), as well as ending Vichy French control of Syria (Operation Exporter).
Wavell was eventually shunted off to Asia, being made the British commander-in-chief there, just in time for Japanese entry into World War II. Again, Wavell was asked to do much too much with far too little, and he made as good a job of it as could be expected, finishing his career as a Field Marshal, and Viceroy of India, and the king creating him Earl Wavell in 1947. Upon Wavell's death on 24 May 1950, all his titles passed, of course, to his only son, another Archibald, another soldier. Major Lord Wavell was killed in action in 1953 in Kenya (fighting the Mau-Mau), and with the son's death, the titles became extinct.
Today is also the anniversary of the death in 1821 of French Emperor Napoléon I, while in British captivity on St. Helena in the South Atlantic. "To live defeated is to die every day" the Emperor said, during this bitter period of his life; and, passing his days at rat-infested Longwood house, Napoleon had ample time to ponder the subject. But Napoleon never gave up or accepted defeat lying down: as a captive exile he fought and won his last (political) battle for control of the popular imagination. Aided by the petty humiliations of his stupid and unimaginative British jailer, the Emperor constructed a political and historical narrative of his life (which was even a little bit true) describing a great man brought low by pygmies. The "Napoleonic legend" helped his nephew become Emperor Napoléon III.
Speaking of Emperor Napoléon III, on this day in 1862, his forces in Mexico (there to collect debts and carve out a Mexican Empire) suffered a check at the Battle of Puebla, on the road to Mexico city, in 1862. General-de-Division Charles Ferdinand Latrille, Comte de Lorencez, with his tough little army of line infantry; Chasseurs a Pied; Zouaves; mounted Chasseurs d'Afrique; sailors with rifles; and the Troupes de Marine -- the French Marines -- tried to overrun General Ignacio Zaragoza's dug-in Mexican Army regulars and local militia straight off the march, but soon learned that fighting even raw or half-trained troops in buildings and behind the walls and trenches of both regular and extemporized fortifications was quite different from catching them in the open, where French fire discipline and training would have told to best advantage.
Count de Lorencez possibly deserves a marginally better press than he gets. True, he rushed into a fight after only slapdash reconnaissance and after ignoring advice from friendly Mexicans. But he had reasons for haste: he was trying to collapse resistance to the French and the Mexican faction they supported with a quick blow to the Mexican forces around Puebla. Most importantly, Count de Lorencez knew he had with him some really splendid troops, which had routed a similar Mexican force with ease on 28 April at Aculzingo. However, the quality of his own force led him to discount that of his Mexican opponents: many of whom (even the militia) were veterans of Mexico's most recent civil conflict and were fighting on their home ground.
In any case, the Mexicans repulsed the French attack, and de Lorencez fell back out of range. The French waited in their own positions for two days, hoping to draw a Mexican attack on their own positions: and when it did not come, they fell back on Orizaba to await reinforcements, allowing the Mexicans to claim the victory.
Count de Lorencez would not be the first general confronted, without realizing it, with a politico-military situation that was quite beyond him. Possibly my Francophile side is showing. In any case, the anniversary of the Puebla engagement is celebrated in parts of Mexico, and among Mexicans in the United States as Cinco de Mayo.
Today in 1864 saw the beginning of the Battle of the Wilderness, first battle of the Overland Campaign, and of US General Ulysses S. Grant (accompanying Meade's Army of the Potomac) against CS General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Grant thought to move quickly through the Virginia Wilderness, south of the Rapidan, towards more open country to the southeast, where the US firepower advantage could be used to more affect. General Lee, needing to nullify Grant's advantage in artillery, had other plans -- and two thirds of his 60,000 men struck the whole 100,000 man Yankee Army in flank today, in heavy woods along the Orange Plank Road and the Orange Turnpike.
Over the next two days, the armies fought to stalemate; each time one side or the other appeared poised to make a breakthrough, reinforcements arrived and re-established the equilibrium. Grant suffered more casualties than Lee. . .but unlike previous Yankee generals, he did not give up but stayed on the field. If the battle was a tactical Confederate victory, strategically it was a draw (or worse). Spotsylvania awaited. . .