Today in History: June 24-26
The Berlin Blockade and the Korean War begin, and more
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June 24, 1812: Napoleon leads his Grande Armée into Russia. Despite capturing Moscow in September, this was easily Napoleon’s greatest military catastrophe. The Russian army simply stayed out of Napoleon’s way until he was forced to withdraw, at which point his army ran smack into a Russian winter for which the Grande Armée was evidently unprepared. Of roughly 685,000 men who entered Russia under Napoleon’s command in June, only about 80,000 made it out of Russia in December (Napoleon having already returned to France). The disaster was not the end of Napoleon’s empire, but it was a big step on the road toward its end.
June 24, 1932: A joint civilian-military junta led by the People’s Party forces Siamese King Prajadhipok to adopt constitutional reforms, ending the country’s centuries-old absolute monarchy. The coup, known as the “Siamese Revolution,” is one of the seminal events in the history of modern Thailand, as it replaced the absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy and democracy. The legacy of the coup and its effect on civilian-military relations continues to be debated to some degree today.
June 24, 1948: Soviet authorities blockade the western portion of Berlin, setting off one of the most serious crises of the Cold War. Two days later, the US, UK, and others launched the Berlin Airlift to keep the city supplied, and the Soviets lifted the blockade in May 1949. The airlift was successful in that it sustained West Berlin and the Soviets ended the blockade as a result.
June 25, 841: Charlemagne’s three surviving grandsons via Louis the Pious duke it out in the Battle of Fontenoy. On one side was Lothar I, fighting to keep Charlemagne’s kingdom united under his rule, and on the other his brothers Louis the German and Charles the Bald, who wanted to carve the kingdom up and each take their own piece. The “divisionists” won, which put them in the driver’s seat in the Carolingian civil war and eventually led to the Treaty of Verdun that formally divided the kingdom.
June 25, 1950: The Korean War begins with, by most accounts, a North Korean invasion of South Korea, although the Korean People’s Army claimed that South Korean forces invaded their territory first. There was already a North Korean-supported insurgency in South Korea, and conflicts at the Korean border had been going on almost since the Allies liberated and partitioned the peninsula in 1945, but the US decision to intervene two days later makes the June 25 incident stand out as the “official” start of the conflict. The war still hasn’t technically ended, but the fighting stopped in 1953 in a stalemate after two failed North Korean/Chinese invasions of South Korea sandwiched around one failed South Korean/US invasion of North Korea.
June 26, 1243: The Battle of Köse Dağ
June 26, 1409: The Council of Pisa elects Cardinal (though this is somewhat debatable) Peter of Candia as Pope Alexander V. This otherwise unremarkable event is noteworthy inasmuch as there were already two other popes in place at the time, Gregory XII in Rome and Benedict XIII in Avignon. Pisa was held at the height of the “Western Schism,” after a group of cardinals in Rome had elected their own pope to counter the French-controlled papacy in Avignon. A group of senior Catholic Church officials decided to call a general council to depose both popes and elect a new one who would officially heal the schism. As you might expect, neither of the two pre-existing popes recognized his deposition and so the Church found itself with three popes instead of one, which was ideal, or even two, which while still bad was not as bad as three.
June 26, 1794: The French Republican army defeats the Coalition at the Battle of Fleurus, in the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium nowadays). The victory forced the Coalition to retreat and thereby opened the Netherlands to French forces. This marked the death knell for the Dutch Republic and set France on course to winning the War of the First Coalition. The battle is also notable in that it involved the first successful use of aircraft (a French reconnaissance balloon) in a military context.