In a Word

adj. resounding with arms

The Battle of the Somme began with a weeklong artillery bombardment in which more than a million shells were fired at the German lines. A soldier describes the first day:

The sound was different, not only in magnitude but in quality, from anything known to me. It was not a succession of explosions or a continuous roar; I at least, never heard either a gun or a bursting shell. It was not a noise; it was a symphony. And it did not move. It hung over us. It seemed as though the air were full of vast and agonized passion, bursting now with groans and sighs, now into shrill screaming and pitiful whimpering … And the supernatural tumult did not pass in this direction or in that. It did not begin, intensify, decline and end. It was poised in the air, a stationary panorama of sound, a condition of the atmosphere, not the creation of man.

At the Battle of Messines in June 1917, 19 mines comprising 600 tonnes of explosives were detonated, producing the largest man-made explosions in history to that date. One witness recalled that the “earth rocked as though a giant hand had roughly shaken it.”

(John Ellis, Eye-Deep in Hell, 1989, via Joy Damousi et al., eds., Museums, History and the Intimate Experience of the Great War, 2020.)

Better Safe

The word curfew derives from the Old French phrase couvre-feu, which means “cover fire.” Under a law imposed by William the Conqueror, all lights and fires had to be covered by 8 p.m. to reduce the risk of conflagration in towns still built largely of timber.

The practice spread through medieval Europe. Writes historian Roger Ekirch, “Not only were streets swept of pedestrians, but homes still aglow after the curfew bell ran afoul of authorities. Besides incurring fines, offenders faced the risk of incarceration, especially if caught outdoors.”

(At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, 2006.)


Another example of Horace Greeley’s terrible handwriting: According to biographer Lurton Dunham Ingersoll, in 1870 the town of Sandwich, Illinois, invited Greeley to address its lecture association. He responded:

Dear Sir. — I am overworked and growing old. I shall be 60 next Feb. 3. On the whole, it seems I must decline to lecture henceforth, except in this immediate vicinity, if I do at all. I cannot promise to visit Illinois on that errand — certainly not now.

The town replied:

Dear Sir. — Your acceptance to lecture before our association next winter came to hand this morning. Your penmanship not being the plainest, it took some time to translate it; but we succeeded; and would say your time ‘3d of February,’ and terms ‘$60,’ are entirely satisfactory.

They added, “As you suggest, we may be able to get you other engagements in this immediate vicinity; if so, we will advise you.”


A curious observation by a British ornithologist during World War I:

The Zeppelin raids … were nearly always heralded in this country by the crowing of pheasants, and the sensitiveness of this species to distant sounds was frequently a subject of comment. There seems no reason to suppose that pheasants have keener powers of hearing than men; it appears more probable that these birds are alarmed by the sudden quivering of the trees, on which they happen to be perched, at the time of an explosion … During the first Zeppelin raid in January 1915, pheasants … thirty-five to forty miles from the area over which the Zeppelins flew, shrieked themselves hoarse. In one of the early battles in the North Sea … Gamekeepers on the east coast used to say that they always knew when enemy raids had commenced, ‘for the pheasants call us day and night’.

On the Western Front, a starling learned to imitate the whistle that warned of enemy aeroplanes. One artillery officer wrote, “It was great fun to see everyone diving for cover, and I was nearly deceived myself one day.” A gun commander wrote of an owl, “The beastly bird learnt to imitate the alarm whistle to a nicety; on several occasions he turned me out in pyjamas and, when the crew had manned the gun, gave vent to a decided chuckle.” See Onlookers.

(Joy Damousi, Deborah Tout-Smith, and Bart Ziino, eds., Museums, History and the Intimate Experience of the Great War, 2020.)

All’s One for That
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The remains of Richard III were discovered under a Leicester car park in 2012. In the city center searchers located the site of the demolished Greyfriars Church where Richard’s body had been buried hastily in 1485, and the skeleton of an adult male human was found beneath the church’s choir. It exhibited severe scoliosis of the spine and 10 injuries to the head, rib, and pelvis, including “a mortal battlefield wound in the back of the skull” apparently inflicted by a halberd. The king’s identity was confirmed by a mitochondrial DNA sample provided by his modern descendants.

He was reburied in Leicester Cathedral in 2015.

04/13/2024 UPDATE: He was identified through descendants of his elder sister, Anne of York — he had no direct living descendants. My mistake. (Thanks, Steve.)


In The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), Paul Fussell calculates that the trenches on the Western Front in World War I totaled about 25,000 miles, “equal to a trench sufficient to circle the earth.”

Stanley Casson wrote in 1935, “I used to wonder how long it would take for me to walk from the beaches of the North Sea to that curious end of all fighting against the Swiss boundary; to try to guess what each end looked like; to imagine what would happen if I passed a verbal message, in the manner of the parlor game, along to the next man on my right to be delivered to the end man of all up against the Alps. Would anything intelligible at all emerge?”

In fact in early June 1916 Alexander Aitken had heard the Germans celebrating some news, and “a tremendous tin-canning and beating of shell-gongs had begun in the north and run south down their lines to end, without doubt, at Belfort and Mulhausen on the Swiss frontier.” Fussell adds, “Impossible to believe, really, but in this mad setting, somehow plausible.”

After You

The Soviet Union established the first regular paratrooper units in the world, forming its first airborne forces in the mid-1930s.

Rather than jumping from the cabin, early troopers slid from the wings of the plane. In this newsreel footage from 1938, troops drop from a Tupolev TB-3.


The Fireside Book of Humorous Poetry contains this resonant scrap of anonymous verse:

John Wesley Gaines!
John Wesley Gaines!
Thou monumental mass of brains!
Come in, John Wesley
For it rains.

In The American Treasury, Clifton Fadiman writes, “Mr. Gaines is believed to have been a Congressman.” And lo, a John Wesley Gaines did indeed serve in the House, representing Tennessee’s 6th district from 1897 to 1909. A Washington journalist wrote in 1907, “Down in Tennessee they started a song about Gaines which found its way to Washington, and every now and then you’ll hear some one giving him a line of it just to liven things up a bit.”

Gaines is largely forgotten today, but I find that gimlet little rhyme in 18 different treasuries. I wonder who wrote it.


Why do people in bygone days wear such gloomy expressions? In the 16th and 17th centuries, smiling wasn’t encouraged in part because of poor dental hygiene. Louis XIV had no teeth, and the Mona Lisa may have been trying to hide gaps or stains in her smile.

Beyond the dental challenge, broad smiles and open laughter were often actively criticized, seen as reflecting a distressing lack of emotional control. Upper-class manners insisted that a boisterous laugh was a sign of poor breeding, really no better than a yawn or a fart. A French Catholic writer argued, in 1703, ‘God would not have given humans lips if He had wanted the teeth to be on open display.’ Children might smile, to be sure, but an adult should have learned to know better.

Fashionable audiences disdained laughing aloud — Molière said that this goal was not to entertain but to “correct the faults of men.” And in Protestant countries people sought to “walk humbly” in the sight of God — one writer commented that in his view, the Almighty “allowed of no joy or pleasure, but of a kind of melancholy demeanor or austerity.” This finally changed with the Enlightenment — John Byrom wrote in 1728, “It was the best thing one could do to be always cheerful.”

(Peter N. Stearns, Happiness in World History, 2020.)


English history 1066-1154 as depicted by Mark Twain:

He had discovered that taking notes using pictures helped to fix details in his memory, and in an 1899 essay he recommended the practice to children. An explanation of the diagram, starting at the bottom:

21 whales heading west: These represent William I, whose reign lasted 21 years (1066-1087). “We choose the whale for several reasons: its name and William’s begin with the same letter; it is the biggest fish that swims, and William is the most conspicuous figure in English history in the way of a landmark; finally, a whale is about the easiest thing to draw.”

13 whales heading east: William II, 1087-1100. The change in direction marks a change in leaders. “Make him spout his water forward instead of backward; also make him small, and stick a harpoon in him and give him that sick look in the eye. Otherwise you might seem to be continuing the other William, and that would be confusing and a damage.”

35 hens going west: Henry I, 1100-1135. “That is a hen, and suggests Henry by furnishing the first syllable.”

19 steers going east: Stephen of Blois, 1135-1154. “That is a steer. The sound suggests the beginning of Stephen’s name. I choose it for that reason. I can make a better steer than that when I am not excited. But this one will do. It is a good-enough steer for history.”

The essay was published in Harper’s Monthly Magazine in December 1914, four years after Twain’s death.