What happened this month in history?

September 8th 1900

The Great Galveston Hurricane.

The deadliest hurricane in U.S. history struck one of the nations busiest ports, Galveston, in Texas, in the summer of 1900. Four days prior to the catastrophic disaster that devastated Galveston island, U.S. Weather Bureau sent out warnings of a ‘tropical storm’ moving northwards over Cuba. With forecasters having no way of knowing the storms projected direction, the first of many mistakes were made, when they assumed it would travel to the northeast of America. Even when Cuban forecasters advised the U.S. Weather Bureau that the ‘storm’ was in fact heading westwards towards Texas, as a much larger storm than predicted, the Weather Bureau was still unwilling to act appropriately. Eventually when the Weather Bureau had no choice but to upgrade the storm as a hurricane, it was all but too late. When the first of the strong winds and swells hit Galveston on the morning of the 8th September, summer vacationers and residents of Galveston were trapped on the island. (Any attempts of a mass evacuation were lost in the days prior to the 8th because of poor communication between authorities.) The force of a Category 4 hurricane, boasting 145 mph winds, hit Galveston late in the day, towing with it a massive 15-foot storm surge that complete devastated the entire island. At least 6,000 people were killed, with tens of thousands made homeless. An estimated 3,500 buildings were also destroyed.

In the wake of the disaster, one of the criticisms levelled at the weather bureau was its inept ability to predict the storm’s trajectory. In the years that followed the Weather Bureau would take measures to improve its role and policies to protect people from life-threatening weather circumstances such as hurricanes. As for Galveston, it would never fully recover its status as one of the nations busiest ports, with investors instead focusing their attention to the discovery of the rich oil lands of Houston. One of the single best reminders today of the tragedy at Galvaston is the sea wall that was begun in 1902 to protect the city. Interestingly, in August 1915, the sea wall helped save the city from another disaster. If success is measured by fatalities, only an estimated eleven people were killed.


September 9th 9CE

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest

The expansion of the Roman empire must have seemed limitless to generations of Romans. Nearing the end of the first century BC, the Romans had conquered vast swaths of territory from Gaul in the west to Anatolia in the east. Under Augustus, around 12 BC, Roman ambitions of further conquest reached new heights with important plans to conquer and expand the German frontier from the Rhine river to the Elbe river.

In short, the troublesome task of subjugating the German tribes over nearly two decades went reasonably well. But eventually Rome’s arrogance and mistreatment of the tribes they had tried to pacify, between the Rhine and Elbe Rivers, spilled over into deep resentment and eventually open rebellion.

Led by a Germanic chieftain named Arminius, who served in the auxiliary of the Roman army, the German tribes planned to take back their lands in a brilliant coordinated ambush. The crafty Germans realizing they were no match for the Romans in open battle, set a trap for the Romans in the Teutoberg Forest, near the area around Kalkriese Berg. This narrow wooden pass would act to stop the Romans from forming any kind of defensive formation.

Once the Romans were deep within the forest, Arminius gave the signal for Germanic warriors to attack the Roman legions who stumbled their way through the forest, truly unaware of the fate that awaited them. By the end of the ambush, the vengeful Germanic warriors had annihilated three Roman legions, in which huge numbers of men, possibly 15,000 in all perished. (Only a few hundred men escaped the carnage.)

In the wake of the massacre, the Germans proceeded to wipe out Roman garrisons and forts east of the Rhine and for years the Romans were unable to make progress in subduing the Germanic tribes. The ambush in a nutshell stopped the northern expansion of the Roman empire, convincing Augustus that the empire was probably its most practical limits of expansion.


September 12th 1940

Lascaux Cave Art Discovery

Seventy-six years ago, on this day, only just fifteen miles away from the town Montignac, in southwest France, four French teenagers made a discovery of a lifetime, a cave decorated with prehistoric paintings of imposing animal figures.

This story first began four days earlier on the 8th September, when Marcel Ravidat, a seventeen year old apprentice mechanic, his trusty dog and a few friends set out in search of the Lascaux cave, for the fabled treasure they had heard about growing up. It was sometime during that day that they first stumbled across a hole hidden in undergrowth that was the entrance to the cave. Though with the days light fading by the evening, these amateur ‘Indiana Jones’ had to wait for another day to explore the cave.

Four days later, Marcel Ravidat returned with three friends, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel, and Simon Coencas, and entered the cave via a long flint-scattered shaft. As the boys pushed through the cave they reached a narrow passage. It is said that when Ravidat raised his crude home-made lamp above his head, they were all staggered to see a wonderful array of painted horses and bulls covering the whole roof cave.

For the next two days, the boys explore the cave before they agreed to share their find with their former school teacher, Leon Laval. It was Laval, who subsequently sent sketches of some of the amazing animals that adorned the cave walls, to scholar Henri Breuil, who immediately recognized the Lascaux cave art as an extraordinary discovery.

Breuil would go onto study the cave paintings for three months in late 1940. During that time the world would come to hear about the discovery of the Lascaux paintings. Years later after the Second World War, Lascaux would be opened to the public. In 1963, the cave was unfortunately eventually closed because excessive heat and light had damaged the 15,000 to 17,000 year-old paintings. Today, there is a stunning replica of the cave’s paintings built only a short distance away.


September 14th 1812

Napoleon enters Moscow

The campaign of Russia in 1812 has often been said to be the beginning of the end for Napoleon. (Two years later Napoleon was forced into exile in 1814.) Though at the beginning of the campaign there were no obvious signs that Napoleon would falter. He was optimistic and bullishly confident that he would once again compel the Czar of Russia to stop trading with the British. But, of course, the Russians refused exacerbating tensions between the France and Russia. Napoleon was left with no choice but to teach the Russians a lesson. He assembled a massive army and entered Russia on June 24th.

Napoleon was somewhat surprised by the ease his army was allowed to penetrate into Russia. In short, the Russians hoped to lure Napoleon away from his bases, so as to weaken his army, and only then engage them when they were exhausted by famine and their long march deep into Russia.

Eventually, the Russians had to take a stand against Napoleon, in order to protect Moscow. The two great armies met at Borodino in which both suffered heavy losses. Even though Napoleon was able to claim a tactical victory, the Russians were smart enough to still manage an orderly withdrawal to fight another day. This, of course, left the road to Moscow open to the French.

On September 14, Napoleon entered Moscow with his army, but found the capital almost entirely deserted and set alight. (A great fire eventually destroyed almost the whole city.) Napoleon unceremoniously endured a whole month in Moscow, waiting for the Czar to oblige him, by answering to the peace proposal he had sent him. That peace proposal would never come and on October 19 Napoleon left Moscow with his tail between his legs. (It is said that Napoleon was able to later save face in the eyes of the French, simply because he had captured the capital of Moscow.)

Napoleon’s failed gamble to make the Czar comply with his demands would prove fatal to his Grand Armée. During their long retreat back to their starting point in Germany, the Grand Armée was almost completely annihilated by the Russian winter, famine, disease and the Russian counterattack.


September 17th 1987

Pope John Paul embraces AIDS sufferer

The AIDS pandemic in the mid 1980’s created out-and-out fear in communities around the world. Reaching out to those who suffered with HIV/AIDS was almost inconceivable in those early years of the disease. The reaction of the Catholic Church led by Pope John Paul II in 1987, as one of the first leaders of any major faith was unprecedented. During the first papal visit to the city of San Francisco on September 18th , he urged communities that “God loves you all, without distinction, without limit. He loves those of you who are sick, those who are suffering from AIDS…He loves all with an unconditional and everlasting love.”

His pastoral sensitivities to people affected with AIDS was no better illustrated to the world than when he held and kissed four-year old Brendan O’Rourke who was living with AIDS (contracted from a blood transfusion). He went on to bless and comfort many others on that day who were suffering from the disease at the Mission Dolpres Church.


September 30th 1955

Life in the fast lane: Death of James Dean

James Dean became a racing enthusiast late in his short life. He harboured dreams of racing in the Indianapolis 500, however realistically this was never going to happen with his star on the rise. Dean was one of the hottest young actors of his generation. He is best remembered for his roles in East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956). Unfortunately, a promising career was cut short late in September 1955.

In the late afternoon, on the 30th September, in between filming commitments, James Dean who longed for a return to racing (Warner Brothers banned Dean from racing while filming Giant), jumped into his car with his mechanic friend Rolf Wutherich. With James Dean at the wheel, they planned to drive to Salinas for an upcoming race. Unfortunately, tragedy struck when Dean crashed his high-powdered Porsche Speedstar almost head-on with a Ford Tudor sedan at the junction of State Highways 41 and 46, near Cholame, California. James Dean died that afternoon at the age of twenty-four.

Interestingly, almost immediately after his death, James Dean became a pop icon. He was instantly recognized as the face of teenage delinquency (thanks to his film Rebel Without a Cause) and the king of cool.

This series aims to take a look at many of the important events or memorable moments that shape our history month after month. It will be on occasions updated to include additional material, giving you the reader a rough guide to what happened this month in history! *This particular article was originally published on September 8th 2016. 

Photo Credits: All images are used with varying free licenses. The image of the Teutoburg Forest is used under the GNU Free Documentation license. The image of cave paintings of aurochs, horses and deer at Lascaux and James Dean in his Porsche Speedstar are both used under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license. Finally, I make use of the emotional image of Pope John Paul hugging Brendan O’Rourke under the rationale of fair use. It also enables me to makes an important contribution to the reader’s understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone.