Parting Orders

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Marshal Ney directed his own execution. The military commander, whom Napoleon had called “the bravest of the brave,” was convicted of treason and executed by firing squad in December 1815. He refused a blindfold and requested the right to give the order to fire, which was granted:

“Soldiers, when I give the command to fire, fire straight at my heart. Wait for the order. It will be my last to you. I protest against my condemnation. I have fought a hundred battles for France, and not one against her … Soldiers, fire!”

Related: In 1849 Fyodor Dostoyevsky was arrested for his membership in a secret society of St. Petersburg intellectuals. He and his friends were standing before a firing squad when word came that the tsar had commuted their sentence. He spent the next four years at hard labor in Siberia.

No Man’s Lands

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Lake Superior contains a phantom island. After the American Revolution, the Treaty of Paris established the boundary between the United States and Canada as running “through Lake Superior northward of the Isles Royal and Phelipeaux to the Long Lake,” following an inaccurate map created by John Mitchell. In the 1820s surveyors discovered that Phelipeaux does not exist, and the boundary had to be negotiated anew.

Around the same time, the dramatically named Mountains of Kong appeared on maps of West Africa, apparently placed there originally by English cartographer James Rennell. It wasn’t until the 1880s that French explorer Louis Gustave Binger discovered that they don’t exist either. They persisted in Goode’s World Atlas until 1995.

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A Hidden Drama

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When Japanese forces took Wake Island in December 1941, they put 98 captured Americans to forced labor. When the American military threatened to retake the island in October 1943, the Japanese took these civilians to the north end of the island, blindfolded them, and executed them by machine gun.

One of the Americans somehow escaped this massacre and fled. We know this because he returned to the scene and carved the legend “98 US PW 5-10-43” on a coral rock near the mass grave. He was subsequently captured and beheaded.

The rock remains a landmark on the island. The American’s identity has never been discovered.

Likeness

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At left is the official White House portrait of John Quincy Adams, painted by George Peter Alexander Healy. At right is a daguerreotype of Adams in 1843, when he became the first president to be photographed.

In a diary entry for Aug. 1, 1843, Adams noted that four daguerreotypes had been taken and pronounced them “all hideous.” Three more were taken the following day, but he found them “no better than those of yesterday. They are all too true to the original.”

That raises an interesting question: Which of these images is the more revealing record of the man? In Puzzles About Art, philosopher Matthew Lipman asks, “Which would we rather have, a portrait of Socrates by Rembrandt or a photograph of Socrates?”

Ship of State

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In 1855, American whaler James Buddington came across an abandoned vessel stuck in the ice off Baffin Island in northeastern Canada. It was HMS Resolute, a British exploration ship that had been abandoned two years earlier and drifted rudderless through 1200 miles of the Canadian Arctic.

The U.S. Congress returned the ship to Queen Victoria, and in 1879 its timbers were made into two desks with admirable pedigrees: One resides in Buckingham Palace … and the other is in the Oval Office, where it’s been used by almost every president since Rutherford B. Hayes.

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The Bat Bomb

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Pennsylvania dentist Lytle S. Adams had a bright idea in 1942: Since Japanese cities were largely built of paper, bamboo, and other flammable materials, they could be disrupted effectively with fire. And a novel way to spread fire in public buildings would be to release bats bearing incendiary devices. Rigged bats dropped over an industrial city would roost in the buildings as living time bombs, and the resulting fires would spread chaos over a wide area.

Surprisingly, the government liked the idea, and it set about designing a bomblike canister in which a thousand bats could be dropped from an altitude of 5,000 feet. At 1,000 feet the container would open, releasing the bats over a wide area. Ten bombers carrying 100 canisters each could unleash a million intelligent bombs over the industrial cities of Osaka Bay.

Preliminary tests were encouraging, even setting a New Mexico air base accidentally ablaze, but the project evolved too slowly and was eventually eclipsed by the atom bomb. In a way that’s a shame: “Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of 40 miles in diameter for every bomb dropped,” Adams had said. “Japan could have been devastated, yet with small loss of life.”

Testament

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In July 1945, a former inhabitant of Poland’s Lódz ghetto, Avraham Benkel, returned to find his home in ruins. Lódz had been the last of 200 ghettos in German-occupied Poland, and as the war neared its conclusion tens of thousands of its inhabitants had been deported to death camps. When the Red Army reached it in January, only 877 survivors remained.

In the abandoned building next door to his own, Benkel found a book, François Coppée’s The Truly Rich, on whose endpages and margins an anonymous boy had kept a diary of his ordeal:

June 1, 1944: “I just finished my ‘loaf, which I had to have for eight days; today is the third. It may turn [out] to be lethal for me to behave in such a manner, but my will-power is so weakened and my ever increasing appetite so strong that I can’t help it. Is there no bread, dry unsavoury bread enough for me and my fellow-sufferers in this world?”

July 10, 1944: “I am exhausted, I have no more patience, my nerves are frayed. What I do have is an indescribable disgust toward the world and mankind, toward the masses and people, toward doctrines and dogmas. I do not believe, I do not believe in any change in the world, no! Anyone who can sink as low as the modern man has can be nothing more than an unsuccessful experiment of nature, which certainly regrets it!”

July 20, 1944: “I feel such a need to open my diary and to write in order to ease my bitter heart, about what hell we go through, how terribly we suffer. During the time when we had literally nothing to eat, we were willing to believe that the physical annihilation of men, women, and children of our nation had appeased the blond beast. But now it looks as if they have not had enough, and that they want to satisfy their thirst with the blood of the innocent.”

Almost nothing is known about the boy’s identity, age, background, schooling, or fate. Only the verb forms in his entries tell us that he was male. In all likelihood he was deported to Auschwitz as the Russians closed in.

“My God, why do you allow them to say that you are neutral?” he wrote in a final, undated entry. “Why will you not punish, with all your wrath, those who are destroying us? Are we the sinners and they the righteous? Is that the truth? Surely you are intelligent enough to understand that is it not so, that we are not the sinners and they are not the Messiah!”

(From Alexandra Zapruder, Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust, 2002.)

Shell Sense

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In All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Maria Remarque describes a battlefield reflex that is “far quicker, much more sure, less fallible, than consciousness”:

A man is walking along without thought or heed;–suddenly he throws himself down on the ground and a storm of fragments flies harmlessly over him;–yet he cannot remember either to have heard the shell coming or to have thought of flinging himself down. But had he not abandoned himself to the impulse he would now be a heap of mangled flesh. It is this other, this second sight in us, that has thrown us to the ground and saved us, without our knowing how.

Apparently this was a real phenomenon, at least in World War I. Stephen Foot, a British officer who spent three years on the western front, writes in his 1934 memoir Three Lives:

It was about this time that I suddenly realised that I had become acclimatised to shell fire; not that I liked or had ceased to fear it, but that I was able to discriminate between a shell that was coming near and one that was far enough away not to worry about. Some officers recently arrived from England were responsible. They were in charge of one of the working parties, and while we were standing in a group, not far from Plug Street, we heard the whine of a German shell. I looked instinctively in the direction of the church to see the usual cloud of dust and stones, and at the same time I realised that the officers with me had ducked. I was certainly no braver than they were — quite the contrary; but my ear had somehow become attuned, so that as soon as the first sound was heard I knew approximately where the shell would burst.

Foot calls this sense “a great relief to one’s nervous system” and speculates that the worst cases of nervous breakdown occurred in men who didn’t have it. “One cannot explain it,” Remarque wrote. “If it were not so, there would not be one man alive from Flanders to the Vosges.”

Misc

  • What time is it at the North Pole?
  • The shortest three-syllable word in English is W.
  • After the revolution, the French frigate Carmagnole used a guillotine as its figurehead.
  • 823502 + 381252 = 8235038125
  • PRICES: CRIPES!
  • “Conceal a flaw, and the world will imagine the worst.” — Martial

When Montenegro declared independence from Yugoslavia, its top-level domain changed from .yu to .me.