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.

Last Orders

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About noon, when Major Pendleton came into the room, he asked, ‘Who is preaching at headquarters today?’ He was told that Mr. Lacy was, and that the whole army was praying for him. ‘Thank God,’ he said; ‘they are very kind to me.’ Already his strength was fast ebbing, and although his face brightened when his baby was brought to him, his mind had begun to wander. Now he was on the battle-field, giving orders to his men; now at home in Lexington; now at prayers in the camp. Occasionally his senses came back to him, and about half-past one he was told that he had but two hours to live. Again he answered, feebly but firmly, ‘Very good; it is all right.’ These were almost his last coherent words. For some time he lay unconscious, and then suddenly he cried out: ‘Order A.P. Hill to prepare for action! Pass the infantry to the front! Tell Major Hawks –‘ then stopped, leaving the sentence unfinished. Once more he was silent; but a little while after he said very quietly and clearly, ‘Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees,’ and the soul of the great captain passed into the peace of God.

— George Francis Robert Henderson, Stonewall Jackson and the American Civil War, 1903

Condolence

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A letter from Abraham Lincoln to Fanny McCullough of Bloomington, Ill., whose father had died leading a charge in Mississippi, Dec. 23, 1862:

Dear Fanny: It is with deep regret that I learn of the death of your brave and kind father, and especially that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours sorrow comes to all, and to the young it comes with bitterer agony because it takes them unawares. The older have learned ever to expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say, and you need only to believe it to feel better at once. The memory of your dear father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad, sweet feeling in your heart of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.

Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.

Your sincere friend,

A. Lincoln

As Directed

churchill prescription

After being struck by a car in January 1932, Winston Churchill found himself laid up in New York at the height of Prohibition. He convinced his attending physician to write the prescription above.

“I neither want it [brandy] nor need it,” he once said, “but I should think it pretty hazardous to interfere with the ineradicable habit of a lifetime.”

Viewpoint

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Captured by the British near the end of World War I, submarine commander Karl Dönitz was a prisoner at Gibraltar when news of the armistice came through. As he and a fellow German officer watched the celebrations “with infinitely bitter hearts,” a British captain joined them on deck.

Dönitz waved his arm in a gesture to encompass all the ships in the roads, British, American, French, Japanese, and asked if he could take any joy from a victory which could only be attained with the whole world for allies.

‘Yes,’ the Captain replied after a pause, ‘it’s very curious.’

In his memoirs, Dönitz wrote, “I will hold the memory of this fair and noble English sea officer in high regard all my life.”

(From Peter Padfield, Donitz: The Last Führer, 2013.)

Podcast Episode 98: The St. Albans Raid

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Seemingly safe in northern New England, the residents of St. Albans, Vermont, were astonished in October 1864 when a group of Confederate soldiers appeared in their midst, terrorizing residents, robbing banks, and stealing horses. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the St. Albans raid, the northernmost land action of the Civil War.

We’ll also learn about Charles Darwin’s misadventures at the equator and puzzle over a groundskeeper’s strange method of tending grass.

See full show notes …

Lanchester’s Laws

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In 1916 English engineer Frederick Lanchester set out to find a mathematical model to describe conflicts between two armies. In ancient times, he reasoned, each soldier engaged with one enemy at a time, so the number of soldiers who survived a battle was simply the difference in size between the two armies. But the advent of modern combat, including long-range weapons such as firearms, changes things. Suppose two armies, A and B, are fighting. A and B represent the number of soldiers in each army, and a and b represent the number of enemy fighters that each soldier can kill per unit time. Now the equations

dA/dt = -bB
dB/dt = -aA
,

show us the rate at which the size of each army is changing at a given instant. And these give us

bB2aA2 = C,

where C is a constant.

This is immediately revealing. It shows that the strength of an army depends more on its bare size than on the sophistication of its weapons. In order to meet an army twice your size you’d need weapons (or fighting skills) that are four times as effective.

Simple as they are, these ideas shed light on the historic choices of leaders such as Nelson, who sought to divide his enemies into small groups, and Lanchester himself illustrated his point by referring to the British and German navies then at war. Today his ideas (and their descendants) inform the rules behind tabletop and computer wargames.

Good Fortune

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In 1777, in conversation with diplomat Arthur Lee, Benjamin Franklin reflected on the “miracle” of the American Revolution:

To comprehend it we must view a whole people for some months without any laws or government at all. In this state their civil governments were to be formed, an army and navy were to be provided by those who had neither a ship of war, a company of soldiers, nor magazines, arms, artillery or ammunition. Alliances were to be formed, for they had none. All this was to be done, not at leisure nor in a time of tranquillity and communication with other nations, but in the face of a most formidable invasion, by the most powerful nation, fully provided with armies, fleets, and all the instruments of destruction, powerfully allied and aided, the commerce with other nations in a great measure stopped up, and every power from whom they could expect to procure arms, artillery, and ammunition, having by the influence of their enemies forbade their subjects to supply them on any pretence whatever. Nor was this all; they had internal opposition to encounter, which alone would seem sufficient to have frustrated all their efforts. … It was, however, formed and established in despite of all these obstacles, with an expedition, energy, wisdom, and success of which most certainly the whole history of human affairs has not, hitherto, given an example.

“He told me the manner in which the whole of this business had been conducted, was such a miracle in human affairs, that if he had not been in the midst of it, and seen all the movements, he could not have comprehended how it was effected.”

(From Lee’s journal, Oct. 25, 1777.)

Podcast Episode 97: The Villisca Ax Murders

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Image: Flickr

Early one morning in 1912, the residents of Villisca, Iowa, discovered a horrible scene: An entire family had been brutally murdered in their sleep. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the gruesome crime, which has baffled investigators for a hundred years.

We’ll also follow the further adventures of German sea ace Felix von Luckner and puzzle over some fickle bodyguards.

See full show notes …

Disappeared

first ladies

There are no known pictures of two American presidents’ wives: Martha Jefferson and Margaret Taylor.

We have one silhouette (left) of Jefferson, who was a little over 5 feet tall and had auburn hair and hazel eyes.

And one 1903 book contains a suggested likeness of Taylor (right), who was described during her life as “a fat, motherly looking woman,” “countenance rather stern but it may be the consequence of military association.”

But no portrait of either woman is known to exist. Some artists have attempted renderings based on pictures of their daughters, whom they were said to resemble, but that’s the best we can do.