The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

June 14, 2013

Fighting ‘General Winter’

By David Christy, News Editor
Enid News and Eagle

— I was out in my yard this past weekend, sweating profusely on one of the first really warm days Garfield County has seen since last summer.

Having finished mowing half my front yard and while adding gas to the chlorophyll mulcher, I could hear a young child crying and carrying on in the distance.

Sounded like an older sibling was picking on him and he kept up that semi-fake wail — you know, the one where they aren’t hurt, they’re just tired and really need a nap.

And it occurred to me, what if I just laid down in the grass, started crying and threw a tantrum? Do you suppose someone would come along and tell me I didn’t have to mow anymore, and make me go in the house and take a nap?

Well, after 10 minutes of laying in the grass, crying and throwing a tantrum, nobody came along and told me to go take that nap.

All I had for my effort were a few chigger bites, grass itch and some weird rash on the back of my legs.

OK, enough of that silliness, but my flight of fancy had gotten me to thinking about extremes in weather, and how they have changed our history here on Earth.

In the past, I’ve given short shrift to Union Army mud marches in Virginia, and a tornado that had killed more British soldiers than American bullets when they fled a burning Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812.

History is full of examples, but two readily come to mind — weather always greatly affecting armies and navies because they constantly are exposed to the elements.

The first is the fate of the Spanish Armada, a massive fleet assembled by King Phillip II of Spain in 1588 to invade England.

Consisting of 130 ships and more than 30,000 men — a vast by-sea-to-land invading force for its day — the armada was spotted off the English coast July 29, 1588.

While the Spanish fleet was tightly packed and unassailable by the smaller and faster English ships, they used the innovative tactic of fire ships packed with gunpowder to break up the Spanish fleet.

Defeated and finally fleeing to the North Sea, the armada attempted to return to Spain by way of the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland.

Many ships, having cut their anchors to get away from the fire ships, were hopelessly pounded by the unusually powerful storms and gales of the North Atlantic.

The seemingly invincible fleet returned to Spain, having lost 24 ships off the coast of Ireland, and more men to the storms than to the English — nearly destroying the national treasury of Spain in the process.

But perhaps the greatest turn of history occurred during the Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleon Bonaparte and his Grand Armée had invaded Russia with 500,000 soldiers in late June of 1812 — the largest European military force assembled on the continent to that date.

Constant skirmishing and the delaying tactics of the Russians drew Napoleon deeper and deeper into Russia, and he captured Moscow Sept. 14, looking to resupply his tired army.

He found Moscow nearly deserted, and Russian patriots began burning the city.

With no supplies and anticipated winter quarters in Moscow swept away by fire, the greatest army the world had ever seen to that point now faced the full fury of a Russian winter.

Starving and beyond exhaustion, Napoleon’s famous retreat back to France was constantly attacked by the Russian army, which had been only marginally successful in open fighting with the French when the weather was good.

Crossing rivers became a nightmare for the Grand Armée, and supplying it nearly impossible because of Russia’s scorched earth policy along the route back to France.

A lack of forage saw more than 50,000 horses die along the route — including those eaten by the starving troops.

No horses meant virtually all artillery was abandoned, and the invincible army had been reduced to a ragged, starving shell of its former self.

Legend says just 22,000 of Napoleon’s men survived battles, starvation, succumbing to the icy cold and those taken prisoner, from the half-million strong that had invaded just months before.

How different would our history here in America have been had these two epic struggles gone the other way?

Maybe it would have been Spain and not England that eventually would have colonized America, had the Spanish Armada been successful.

Maybe Napoleon would have retaken the Louisiana Purchase lands he sold in 1803 to President Thomas Jefferson, had “The Little Corporal” won in Russia, and returned with his army intact.

We will never know.

What is certain in history — and all Oklahomans can attest — man always is at the unrelenting mercy of weather.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid