A Thankful Village

The township of Thierville, in Normandy, has not lost any service personnel in France’s last five wars — the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, either world war, the First Indochina War, or the Algerian War.

It was the only community in France in which no war memorial was erected between 1919 and 1925 — the only one with no dead to mourn.

Light Exercise

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William Howard Taft sometimes tipped the scales at 350 pounds. While serving as governor of the Philippines, he made a trip into the mountains for his health. He cabled Secretary of War Elihu Root:

STOOD TRIP WELL. RODE HORSEBACK 25 MILES TO 5,000 FEET ELEVATION.

Root wrote back:

REFERRING TO YOUR TELEGRAM … HOW IS THE HORSE?

High Drama

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When Theodore Roosevelt was reelected president in 1904, his friend Owen Wister, author of The Virginian, sent him a congratulatory telegram:

RICHARD THIRD ACT ONE SCENE ONE LINES ONE AND TWO

The lines read “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York.”

Roosevelt spent the next four years fighting a recalcitrant Senate and House. As he was leaving office he received another wire from Wister:

ROMEO AND JULIET ACT THREE SCENE ONE LINE THREE PRECEDING MERCUTIO’S EXIT

The line is “A plague o’ both your houses!”

War Games

In 1916 British movie houses thrilled to The Battle of the Somme, which depicted actual fighting in the trenches of France as it unfolded that summer. At the visual climax of the film (30:33 in the video above), the British Army goes “over the top,” climbing over the parapet and losing a number of soldiers as it advances on the German position.

“Oh God, they’re dead!” cried a woman in the audience. The Dean of Durham entered “a protest against an entertainment which wounds the heart and violates the very sanctity of bereavement.” And H. Rider Haggard wrote, “[I]t does give a wonderful idea of the fighting … The most impressive [picture] to my mind is that of a regiment scrambling out of a trench to charge and of the one man who slides back shot dead. There is something appalling about the instantaneous change from fierce activity to supine death … War has always been dreadful, but never, I suppose, more dreadful than today.”

Unfortunately, six years later a panel of experts pronounced the sequence a fake. The troops are not carrying heavy equipment, the grass is lush, and the trenches are open to sniper fire and unprotected against artillery, and, most telling, the camera positions would have been dangerously exposed to enemy fire if this footage were authentic. It appears that cameraman Geoffrey Malins had staged certain crucial scenes for the sake of the drama.

Malins had profited from the film’s notoriety with a book called How I Filmed the War in 1920. This came back to bite him: Another cameraman later described meeting a soldier who had “died” for Malins in a trench well behind the lines.

(Roger Smither, “‘A Wonderful Idea of the Fighting’: The Question of Fakes in ‘The Battle of the Somme’,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio & Television, 13:2 [June 1993], 149)

Off Duty

A striking story is going the rounds concerning an officer who, being refused leave to go with the Chitral expedition, obtained five days’ leave to go ‘shooting.’ He entrained to a point as near the operations as the railway would carry him, and then, being unable to obtain a horse, set out to march. Equipped with a bottle of gin and a huge sausage as his only rations, he plodded the weary miles over rough ground cheerfully. He reached the head of the column just as the charge was about to be made on the Malakand Pass. He was in time to join the head of the storming column, and was in the first three on the summit. When the battle was over he had to eschew the camp and the rest that awaited the fighting line, and had to make his way back as best he might to a point where the railway would take him up. The London correspondent of the Birmingham Gazette says he heard General Sir Evelyn Wood say that this officer is a full colonel. He went into action as a common soldier, tearing the straps off his Kharka uniform that his rank might not be discovered. For, as Sir Evelyn remarked with a twinkle in his eye, if he had been discovered he would have been put under arrest.

Hawke’s Bay Herald, New Zealand, June 28, 1895

(Thanks, Donald.)

Advance and Retreat

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This chart, devised in 1869 by French civil engineer Charles Minard, illustrates the disastrous toll suffered by Napoleon’s army on its foray into Russia in 1812. Yale political scientist Edward Tufte describes it in his 1983 book The Visual Dislay of Quantitative Information:

Beginning at the left on the Polish-Russian border near the Niemen River, the thick band shows the size of the army (422,000 men) as it invaded Russia in June 1812. The width of the band indicates the size of the army at each place on the map. In September, the army reached Moscow, which was by then sacked and deserted, with 100,00 men. The path of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow is depicted by the darker, lower band, which is linked to a temperature scale and dates at the bottom of the chart. It was a bitterly cold winter, and many froze on the march out of Russia. As the graphic shows, the crossing of the Berezina River was a disaster, and the army finally struggled back into Poland with only 10,000 men remaining. Also shown are the movements of auxiliary troops, as they sought to protect the rear and the flank of the advancing army. Minard’s graphic tells a rich, coherent story with its multivariate data, far more enlightening that just a single number bouncing along over time. Six variable are plotted: the size of the army, its location on a two-dimensional surface, direction of the army’s movement, and temperature on various dates during the retreat from Moscow.

He concludes, “It may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.”

Behind Schedule

Predictions from British journalist John Langdon-Davies’ A Short History of the Future, 1936:

  • “Democracy will be dead by 1950.”
  • “There will be no war in western Europe for the next five years (from 1935).”
  • “By 1960 work will be limited to three hours a day.”
  • “Abundant new raw materials will [by 1960] make food, clothing and other necessities universally obtainable.”
  • “By 1975 parents will have ceased to bring up their children in family units.”
  • “By 1975 sexual feeling and marriage will have nothing to do with one another.”
  • “Crime will be considered a disease after 1985 and will cease to exist by A.D. 2000.”
  • “The high-brow art of our day will have no future save as a historic curiosity, since it has sacrificed everything to a misguided individualism.”
  • “By A.D. 2000 every community will have adopted a planned birth-rate and population will be kept at a fixed level by state-controlled contraception, abortion and sterilization.”
  • “England will have a population one-tenth of its present size.”
  • “Large tracts of America will go back to the primeval wilderness.”
  • “Mankind, like the social insects, will be divided into four or five different sexual types and will forget the he and the she in the needs of physiological and social division of labour.”

“The present can have no meaning unless it is to be found in the future,” he wrote, “so that our happiness and our efficiency as thinking beings depends upon the clarity with which we see what the future holds.”

About Face

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To commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada, England struck a medal bearing the device of a fleet flying under full sail.

The inscription read Venit, vidit, fugit — “It came, it saw, it fled.”

Hair Today …

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In 1943, Colorado broom factory worker Mary Babnik Brown saw an advertisement in a Pueblo newspaper soliciting blond hair, at least 22 inches long, that had not been treated with chemicals or hot irons. Brown had never cut her hair, which she combed twice a day and washed twice a week with pure soap. When her samples were deemed acceptable, she cut off all 34 inches and sent it in, considering this her contribution to the war effort, though “I cried for two months.”

At the time she was told that her hair would be used in meteorological instruments. It wasn’t until 1987, the year of her 80th birthday, that she learned that it had been used in the Norden bombsight, a top-secret instrument that guided bombs to their targets. Engineers had determined that fine blond human hair worked ideally in crosshairs, but the technology was a closely guarded secret, so the donors weren’t told how their contributions would be used. “I couldn’t believe it when they told me,” Brown said. “All I knew was that they needed virgin hair.”

She did get some compensation: Pueblo declared Nov. 22, 1991, “Mary Babnik Brown Day,” she was inducted into the Colorado Aviation Historical Society’s hall of fame, and Ronald Reagan sent her this letter:

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Looking Up

Planetary economy will be a determining factor in the change of diet which the coming century must inevitably witness. Such a wasteful food as animal flesh cannot survive: and even apart from the moral necessity which will compel mankind, for its own preservation, to abandon the use of alcohol, the direct and indirect wastefulness of alcohol will make it impossible for beverages containing it to be tolerated. Very likely tobacco will follow it.

— T. Baron Russell, A Hundred Years Hence, 1905