Small World

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A striking example of the strength of the British Empire in the early 20th century: In 1911 Britain completed the “All Red Line,” a network of telegraphs that linked its possessions. The system was so redundant that an enemy would have had to cut 49 cables to isolate the United Kingdom, 15 to isolate Canada, or 5 to isolate South Africa. As a result, British communications remained uninterrupted throughout World War I.

Sir Sandford Fleming described the network as “the cerebro-spinal axis of our political system … through which would freely pass the sensory impressions and the motor impulses of the British people in every longitude.”

Related: In Air Facts and Problems (1927), Secretary of State for Air Christopher Thomson noted that the whole empire might be visited by an aircraft capable of “long hops”:

For the purposes of the immediate future a ‘long hop’ may be taken as 1,500 miles in length. One such hop would cover the distance from the south coast of England to Malta, a second would reach Egypt, a third Bushire (on the Persian Gulf), a fourth India, at Karachi or Bombay, a fifth Ceylon, a sixth the Straits Settlements, a seventh Port Darwin in Northern Australia; three more would reach New Zealand.

“Thus, in ten ‘long hops,’ or ten days and nights, the traveller and the mailbag out of England would arrive in the most distant of our dominions without landing at an air station which was not either British or under British control.”

Podcast Episode 106: The Popgun War

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During wargames in Louisiana in September 1941, the U.S. Army found itself drawn into a tense firefight with an unseen enemy across the Cane River. The attacker turned out to be three boys with a toy cannon. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll revisit the Battle of Bermuda Bridge and the Prudhomme brothers’ account of their historic engagement.

We’ll also rhapsodize on guinea pigs and puzzle over some praiseworthy incompetence.

Sources for our feature on the “Battle of Bermuda Bridge”:

Elizabeth M. Collins, “Patton ‘Bested’ at the Battle of Bermuda Bridge,” Soldiers 64:9 (September 2009), 10-12.

Terry Isbell, “The Battle of the Bayous: The Louisiana Maneuvers,” Old Natchitoches Parish Magazine 2 (1997), 2-7.

Special thanks to the staff at the University of North Carolina’s Wilson Library for access to the Prudhomme family records.

Listener mail:

Alastair Bland, “From Pets To Plates: Why More People Are Eating Guinea Pigs,” The Salt, National Public Radio, April 2, 2013.

Christine Dell’Amore, “Guinea Pigs Were Widespread as Elizabethan Pets,” National Geographic, Feb. 9, 2012.

Wikipedia, “Guinea Pig” (accessed May 20, 2016).

David Adam, “Why Use Guinea Pigs in Animal Testing?”, Guardian, Aug. 25, 2005.

Maev Kennedy, “Elizabethan Portraits Offer Snapshot of Fashion for Exotic Pets,” Guardian, Aug. 20, 2013.

“How Did the Guinea Pig Get Its Name?”, Grammarphobia, Dec. 22, 2009.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Tommy Honton, who sent these corroborating links (warning: these spoil the puzzle).

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Enter code CLOSET to get $5 off your first purchase of high-quality razor blades at Harry’s.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Followup

During World War I, cable censors would sometimes change a word here and there in a telegram, preserving the meaning but hoping to interfere with any enemy codes the messages might contain.

‘Father is dead,’ ran a cablegram from Sweden to New York which passed through the British censorship.

For some inexplicable reason the censor didn’t like the word ‘dead.’ He changed it to ‘deceased.’

Within a short time this question, sent from New York to Sweden, passed through the hands of the same censor: ‘Is father dead or deceased?’

“What did that word ‘dead’ mean? It might have covered a whole volume of enemy news; it might have provoked a disaster on land or sea. And yet the censor had no better reason for cutting it out than a certain ‘hunch’ which came over him that the word ought to be changed.”

(“Our Dear Friend, the Censor,” American Printer, June 5, 1917.)

Principle

A Quaker objector in the Civil War:

I was ordered out and required to fall in line with the company and drill, but I refused. They tried to make me and I sat down on the ground. They reminded me of the orders to shoot me, but I told them my God said to fear them not that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather to fear him that is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. The company was then ordered to fall back eight paces, leaving me in front of them. They were then ordered by Colonel Kirkland to ‘Load; Present arms; Aim,’ and their guns were pointed directly at my breast. I raised my arms and prayed: ‘Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.’ Not a gun was fired. They lowered them without orders, and some of them were heard to say that they ‘could not shoot such a man.’ The order was then given, ‘Ground arms.’

After weeks of such punishment, William Hockett was captured at Gettysburg and released to live in Philadelphia. He remained there until the end of the war.

Wing Men

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Bombers in World War I were typically manned by two crew members, a pilot and an observer. The pilot operated the forward machine gun and the observer the rear one, so they depended on one another for their survival. In addition, the two men would share the same hut or tent, eat their meals together, and often spend all their free time together. This closeness produced “some remarkable and amusing results,” writes Hubert Griffith in R.A.F. Occasions (1941):

There were pilots who took the precaution of teaching their observers to fly, with the primitive dual-control fitted to the R.E.8 of those days — and at least one couple who used to take over the controls almost indiscriminately from one another: there was the story that went round the mess, of Creaghan (the pilot) arriving down out of the air one day and accusing his observer of having made a bad landing, and of Vigers, the observer, in turn accusing Creaghan of having made a bad landing. It turned out on investigation that each of them had thought the other to be in control of the aircraft; that because of this neither of them, in fact, had been in control at all; and that, in the absence of any guiding authority, the machine had made a quite fairly creditable landing on her own.

Griffith writes, “It was, I suppose, the most personal relationship that ever existed.”

“Courage”

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A poem written by Amelia Earhart in 1928:

Courage is the price that
Life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not, knows no release
From little things:
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear
The sound of wings.

How can life grant us boon of living, compensate
For dull grey ugliness and pregnant hate
Unless we dare
The soul’s dominion? Each time we make a choice, we pay
With courage to behold the resistless day,
And count it fair.

“Please know I am quite aware of the hazards,” she wrote in a final letter left to her husband. “I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

Moving Pictures

In 1864 a photographer employed by Mathew Brady used a four-lens camera to record activity at a Union Army wharf along Potomac Creek in Virginia. The four images were taken in quick succession, so staggering them produces a crude time lapse of the events they record:

In effect they present a four-frame film, perhaps the closest we’ll come to a contemporary movie of life during the Civil War. Here are a few more, all taken in Virginia in 1864:

Union cavalry crossing a pontoon bridge over the James River:

Traffic in front of the Marshall House in Alexandria:

Union soldiers working on a bridge over the Pamunkey River near White House Landing:

There’s more information at the National Park Service’s Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park blog.

Leave-Taking

British infantry sergeant Harry Neale says goodbye to his 10-year-old daughter Lucy, April 4, 1917:

At about six o’clock in the evening, my father called me in and said he’d got to go back to Kidderminster, back to barracks. ‘Will you walk with me a little way, just up the hill, will you come with me?’ Of course I would. He said goodbye to my mother, who was crying, and we went off down the road and then up this long hill. It was a ten-minute walk, I suppose, but we didn’t hurry, we just walked slowly up the hill and I really can’t remember what we talked about. I held on to his hand so tight, and when we got to the top, he said, ‘I won’t take you any further, you must go back now, and I’ll stand here and watch you until you’re out of sight,’ and he put his arms round me and held me so close to him; I remember feeling how rough that khaki uniform was.

‘You must go now, wave to me at the bottom, won’t you?’ I went, I left him standing there and I went down the hill and I kept looking back and waving and he was still there, just standing there. I got to the bottom and then I’d got to turn off to go to where we lived, so I stopped and waved to him and he gestured as much as to say, ‘Go on, you must go home now,’ ever so gently gestured and then he waved and he was still waving when I went, and that was the last time I ever saw him.

Badly wounded in battle, he died of dysentery in East Africa that October.

(From Richard van Emden, The Quick and the Dead, 2011.)

Poem Codes

During World War II the British Special Operations Executive used poetry to communicate with its agents in enemy territory. The sender and receiver would agree in advance on a poem, and by numbering its letters they produced a simple cipher that could be used to transmit messages. Because both sides could memorize the poem, there was no codebook to lose, but the Nazis could break the code fairly easily, particularly if the poem was well known.

Realizing this, SOE codes officer Leo Marks began to introduce original poems of his own creation. He gave this one to French agent Violette Szabo in March 1944:

The life that I have is all that I have,
And the life that I have is yours.
The love that I have of the life that I have
Is yours and yours and yours.

A sleep I shall have, a rest I shall have,
Yet death will be but a pause.
For the peace of my years in the long green grass
Will be yours and yours and yours.

Marks had written it three months earlier in memory of his girlfriend Ruth, who had died in a plane crash in Canada. The poem became famous when it was read in the 1958 film Carve Her Name With Pride, about Szabo’s exploits in the war. Unfortunately, Szabo herself was captured, tortured, and killed before she could transmit any messages.