In 1958 Winston Churchill broke his spine in a fall and was required to sleep with a bedrest, which he hated. He and nurse Roy Howells got into a heated argument in which the two swore at one another.

In making up afterward, Churchill said, “You were very rude to me, you know.”

Howells said, “Yes, but you were rude too.”

Churchill said, “Yes, but I am a great man.”

“There was no answer to that,” Howells remembered later. “He knew, as I and the rest of the world knew, that he was right.”

(From John Perry, Winston Churchill, 2010.)

Two Gruesome Incidents

On Jan. 28, 1393, during a riotous wedding at the royal palace of Saint-Pol, Charles VI and five French nobles dressed up as wild men using linen costumes covered with pitch and hair and ranged among the guests, howling like wolves and daring them to guess their identities. One guest approached too closely with his torch and set them ablaze. The Duchess of Berry had the presence of mind to throw a cloak over the king, and one of the nobles managed to dive into a barrel of water. “The other four were burned alive their flaming genitals dropping to the floor, [the Monk of St. Denis] remarks with a sharp but on this occasion rather unsavoury eye for detail, releasing a stream of blood,” notes Jan R. Veenstra in Magic and Divination at the Courts of Burgundy and France. “Three of them, the count of Joigny, the bastard of Foix and Aymeri de Poitiers were deeply mourned; a fourth victim, Huguet de Guisay, was left wailing in agony for three days before he too expired, but he was not mourned, the Monk of St. Denis explains, since he was a vicious man and people were glad to see him perish.”

On March 26, 1351, during the Breton Civil War, the contending fortresses of Josselin and Ploërmel agreed to an organized contest: Each side would select a team of 30 knights who could fight with any weapons they chose, including swords, maces, and battleaxes. Referees would signal the start of the melee and manage truces for refreshments and medical care. The fight went on for hours. In the end, English commander Robert of Bamborough, of Ploërmel, and eight of his men were slain and the rest taken captive; the pro-French Breton team lost four (or perhaps six) knights; and both sides were badly wounded. The “combat of the thirty” made heroes of its victors and became a symbol of chivalry during the Hundred Years’ War; in 1373, Jean Froissart saw firsthand the honor accorded to a survivor who displayed his scars at a feast given by Charles V.

(Thanks, Davecat.)

The Armistice Carriage

The armistice that ended World War I was signed aboard Marshal Foch’s private train in the forest of Compiègne in November 1918.

In June 1940, Hitler demanded that France surrender aboard the very same carriage in the same spot in the forest.

“The disgrace is now extinguished,” wrote Joseph Goebbels in his diary. “It is a feeling of being born again.”

The Germans destroyed the carriage during the war, but in 1950 a replacement, correct in every detail, was rededicated. It’s on display today in a memorial at Compiègne.

Sudden Stop

One last odd weapon, this from Popular Science, September 1917: Enid S. Wales of Detroit proposed a shell that would spread coils of barbed wire before an onrushing enemy, stopping their progress and exposing them to attack by infantry and machine guns.

Four hollow caps containing coils of barbed wire would be fitted to a trench mortar shell, one end of each coil secured to the body of the shell. “When the projectile explodes, the caps containing the barbed wire shoot out like bullets in all directions distributing the wire in great tangled masses.”

I don’t know if the idea was ever put into practice.

Pest Control

Besieged by cotton worms in 1870, Louisiana planter Auguste Le Blanc invented the 19-century equivalent of a bug zapper. The worms transform into noctural moths in order to reproduce, so Le Blanc suspended an eight-foot ring of gasoline burners from the roof of a horse-drawn cart that he drove through his fields at night, following lanes that he had laid out for this purpose.

The roof may serve not only to protect the burners from rain, but also as a means of destroying the moths, for I sometimes coat the underside of the roof with a paint, preferably white paint, made without any ‘drying’ in it, that is to say, made with oil alone, so as to present a sticky surface. When the machine is in use, the moths, attracted and blinded by the light, will either be destroyed by the flame, or else will come in contact with and adhere to the sticky coating of paint.

I don’t know how well it worked, but he deserves credit for his ingenuity. “A machine of eight burners will protect from forty-five to fifty acres of cotton, while the cheapness of the fluid employed for burning purposes renders the expense trifling in comparison with the benefits derived.”

Cold Water

There is also another matter to be mentioned for which both present and future ages have good reason to bless the name of Jonas Hanway. He was the first person who had the courage to hold an umbrella over his head in walking along the streets of London. ‘The eighteenth century,’ writes Chambers, ‘was half elapsed before the umbrella had even begun to be used in England. General Wolfe, writing from Paris in 1752, remarks: “The people here use umbrellas in hot weather to defend them from the sun, and something of the same kind to save them from the snow and the rain. I wonder that a practice so useful is not introduced in England.” Just about that time, however, a gentleman did exercise the moral courage to use an umbrella in the streets of London. He was the noted Jonas Hanway, then newly returned form Persia, and in delicate health, by which, of course, his using such a convenience was justified both to himself and to the public. “A parapluie,” we are told, defended Mr. Hanway’s face and wig. For a time no other than dainty beings, then called “Macaronies,” ventured to carry an umbrella; and any one doing so was sure to be hailed by the mob as a “mincing Frenchman.” One John Macdonald, a footman, who has favored the public with his memoirs, found as late as 1770 that, on appearing with a fine silk umbrella which he had brought from Spain, he was saluted with the cry of “Frenchman, why don’t you get a coach?”‘

— “Jonas Hanway, the Philanthropist,” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly, April 1884


As the Battle of Trafalgar commenced, Horatio Nelson famously signalled the English fleet that “England expects that every man will do his duty.”

Actually that message arose only due to a last-minute conference on the flagship, as signal officer John Pasco recalled after the battle:

His Lordship came to me on the poop, and after ordering certain signals to be made, about a quarter to noon, he said, ‘Mr. Pasco, I wish to say to the fleet, ENGLAND CONFIDES THAT EVERY MAN WILL DO HIS DUTY,’ and he added, ‘You must be quick, for I have one more to make which is for close action.’ I replied, ‘If your Lordship will permit me to substitute the word expects for confides, the signal will soon be completed, because the word expects is in the vocabulary, and confides must be spelt.’ His Lordship replied, in haste, and with seeming satisfaction, ‘That will do, Pasco, make it directly.’

The days of such clear language are over — in an August 1939 letter to the London Times, A.P. Herbert wrote:

Alas, the strong silent Services have been corrupted, too. If Nelson had to repeat his famous signal today it would probably run thus:–

England anticipates that as regards the current emergency personnel will face up to the issue and exercise appropriately the functions allocated to their respective occupation-groups.

Grunt Work

During World War I, one of the worst jobs in the French army was that of wirecutter, the scout deputed to cut through the wire entanglements set up by the enemy, often unprotected in exposed positions. To improve his chances, the army introduced this one-man tank. From Popular Science Monthly, May 1917:

The device is made to resemble a cannon which it is hoped will be considered by the enemy to be broken and discarded. It is provided with slits and larger openings through which the scout may see and get air. The wheels, though apparently rusty and old, are smooth-running and noiseless, and the legs of the scout, moving cautiously at the rate of perhaps one-half inch per minute during critical times, resemble the drooping muzzle of the gun — or it is hoped that they will.

“It is also considered among the possibilities that the device will be of service when it is necessary for a bold and death-defying dash to be made through showers of shrapnel into the teeth of the foe. But this is problematical since the device is not made for rapidity of movement.”

Warm Words

Future president Herbert Hoover published a surprising title in 1912: An English translation of the 16th-century mining textbook De Re Metallica, composed originally by Georg Bauer in 1556. Bauer’s book had remained a classic work in the field for two centuries, with some copies deemed so valuable that they were chained to church altars, but no one had translated the Latin into good modern English. Biographer David Burner wrote, “Hoover and his wife had the distinct advantage of combining linguistic ability with mineralogical knowledge.”

Hoover, a mining engineer, and his wife Lou, a linguist, spent five years on the project, visiting the areas in Saxony that Bauer had described, ordering translations of related mining books, and spending more than $20,000 for experimental help in investigating the chemical processes that the book described.

The Hoovers offered the 637-page work, complete with the original woodcuts, to “strengthen the traditions of one of the most important and least recognized of the world’s professions.” Of the 3,000 copies that were printed, Hoover gave away more than half to mining engineers and students.

The Pied Piper of Saipan

Marine private Guy Gabaldon was 18 years old when he took part in the invasion of Saipan in the Mariana Islands in June 1944. In order to secure the island, Gabaldon began to go on “lone wolf” missions, using his smattering of Japanese to convince enemy civilians and troops to give themselves up.

“Immediately after landing on Saipan I decided that I would go off into enemy territory to fight the war as I saw fit,” he wrote in his 1990 memoir Saipan: Suicide Island. “I always worked alone, usually at night in the bush. I must have seen too many John Wayne movies, because what I was doing was suicidal.”

“My plan, as impossible as it seemed, was to get near a Japanese emplacement, bunker or cave, and tell them that I had a bunch of marines with me and we were ready to kill them if they did not surrender. I promised that they would be treated with dignity, and that we would make sure that they were taken back to Japan after the war.”

He must have been stupendously persuasive, because he captured 1,500 Japanese single-handed — including 800 on a single day in July. “When I began taking prisoners it became an addiction,” he wrote. “I found that I couldn’t stop — I was hooked.”

Gabaldon earned a Navy Cross for his efforts, and Jeffrey Hunter played him in the 1960 film Hell to Eternity. “The heroes are still over there,” he told the Chicago Tribune at the film’s opening. “Those who gave their all are the heroes.”