Fresh Hell

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The Battle of the Somme saw the advent of a frightening new engine of war. “A man came running in from the left, shouting, ‘There is a crocodile crawling in our lines!'” recalled one German infantryman. “The poor wretch was off his head. He had seen a tank for the first time and had imagined this giant of a machine, rearing up and dipping down as it came, to be a monster. It presented a fantastic picture, this Colossus in the dawn light. One moment its front section would disappear into a crater, with the rear section still protruding, the next its yawning mouth would rear up out of the crater, to roll slowly forward with terrifying assurance.”

Interestingly, the first tanks came in two varieties, “male” and “female.” Males weighed a ton more and bore a cannon that the females lacked; early writers referred to “adventurous males,” “determined males,” “all-conquering females,” and “female man-killers.” Eventually the two merged into one standard design … called a hermaphrodite.

(From Peter Hart, The Great War, 2013. Thanks, Zach.)

Podcast Episode 119: Lost in the Taiga

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In 1978 a team of geologists discovered a family of five living deep in the Siberian forest, 150 miles from the nearest village. Fearing persecution, they had lived entirely on their own since 1936, praying, tending a meager garden, and suffering through winter temperatures of 40 below zero. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll meet the Lykov family, whose religious beliefs committed them to “the greatest solitude on the earth.”

We’ll also learn about Esperanto’s role in a Spanish prison break and puzzle over a self-incriminating murderer.

See full show notes …

Special Interests

harry burn

In the summer of 1920, as the states were considering whether to grant suffrage to women, Tennessee became a battleground. The 19th amendment would become law if 36 of the 48 states approved it, but only 35 had ratified the measure, and 8 had rejected it. Of the remaining states, only Tennessee was even close to holding the needed votes. When the state senate voted 25 to 4 in favor, suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt wrote, “We are one-half of one state away from victory.” The final decision would fall to the state house of representatives, where it appeared poised to fail by a single vote.

On the morning of the vote, the General Assembly’s youngest member, Republican Harry Burn, who had been counted as a certain opponent of the amendment, received a letter from his mother:

Dear Son:

Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I noticed some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don’t forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.

Your Mother

When his name was called, Burn said “aye” and the measure passed. The next day, he rose to explain his vote: “I want to take this opportunity to state that I changed my vote in favor of ratification because: 1) I believe in full suffrage as a right, 2) I believe we had a moral and legal right to ratify, 3) I know that a mother’s advice is always safest for her boy to follow, and my mother wanted me to vote for ratification.”

Flip-Floppers

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The leaders of Russia have been alternately bald and hairy since 1881.

And monarchs’ profiles on British coins have faced alternately left and right since 1653.

(The exception is Edward VIII, who stares obstinately at the back of George V’s head.)

flip floppers 2

Company

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What it’s like to be attacked by the Red Baron:

Richthofen dove down out of the sun and took Dunn by surprise. The first notice I had of the attack was when I heard Dunn from his seat behind me shout something at me, and at the same time a spray of bullets went over my shoulder from behind and splintered the dashboard almost in front of my face.

I kicked over the rudder and dived instantly, and just got a glance at the red machine passing under me to the rear. I did not know it was Richthofen’s. … I endeavoured to get my forward machine gun on the red plane, but Richthofen was too wise a pilot, and his machine was too speedy for mine. He zoomed up again and was on my tail in less than half a minute. Another burst of lead came over my shoulder, and the glass faces of the instruments on the dashboard popped up in my face. I dived again, but he followed my every move. …

Another burst of lead from behind, and the bullets spattered on the breech of my own machine gun, cutting the cartridge belt. At the same time, my engine stopped, and I knew that the fuel tanks had been hit. There were more clouds below me at about six thousand feet. I dove for them and tried to pull up in them as soon as I reached them. No luck! My elevators didn’t answer the stick. …

I was busy with the useless controls all the time and going down at a frightful speed, but the red machine seemed to be able to keep itself poised just above and behind me all the time, and its machine guns were working every minute. I found later that bullets had gone through both of my sleeves and both of my boot legs but in all of the firing, not one of them touched me, although they came uncomfortably close. I managed to flatten out somehow in the landing and piled up with an awful crash. As I hit the ground, the red machine swooped over me, but I don’t remember him firing on me when I was on the ground.

Richthofen instructed his pilots: “Aim for the man and don’t miss him. If you are fighting a two-seater, get the observer first; until you have silenced the gun, don’t bother about the pilot.”

(From Floyd Gibbons’ The Red Knight of Germany, 1927, quoting British lieutenant Peter Warren.)

Podcast Episode 117: The Road to En-dor

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Image: Flickr

In 1917 a pair of Allied officers combined a homemade Ouija board, audacity, and imagination to hoax their way out of a remote prison camp in the mountains of Turkey. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll describe the remarkable escape of Harry Jones and Cedric Hill, which one observer called “the most colossal fake of modern times.”

We’ll also consider a cactus’ role in World War II and puzzle over a cigar-smoking butler.

See full show notes …

Timekeeping

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Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King took peculiar note of the relative position of clock hands. This began as early as 1918, when his diary shows that he began to notice moments when the hands overlapped (as at 12:00) or formed a straight line (as at 6:00). By the 1940s the diary sometimes refers to clock hands several times a day. On Aug. 25, 1943, when Franklin Roosevelt was visiting Ottawa, King wrote a whole “Memo re hands of clock”:

  • “Exactly 10 past 8 when I looked at clock on waking — straight line.”
  • “12 noon when noon day gun fired & I read my welcome to President — together.”
  • “25 to 8 when I was handed in my room a letter from Churchill re supply of whiskey to troops … — both together.”

A year later, Nov. 2, 1944: “As I look at the clock from where I am standing as I dictate this sentence, the hands are both together at 5 to 11.”

Biographer Robert Macgregor Dawson writes, “What significance he attached to the occurrences is difficult to determine; there is no key to his interpretation.” But one clue comes later in 1944, when King records a conversation with Violet Markham: “As I … went to take the watch out of my pocket, to show her how the face had been broken, I looked at it and the two hands were exactly at 10 to 10. I mentioned it to her as an illustration of my belief that some presence was making itself known to me. That I was on the right line, and that the thought was a true one which I was expressing.” But the two had been discussing the death of King’s dog, so the meaning is still very obscure.

(From C.P. Stacey, A Very Double Life, 1976.)

Sorted

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In the U.S. presidential election of 1884, Republican James G. Blaine was accused of having sold his influence in Congress and of manipulating stocks. Democrat Grover Cleveland had fathered a child out of wedlock and had paid a substitute $150 to take his place in the Civil War. One journalist wrote:

Mr. Blaine has been delinquent in office but blameless in private life, while Mr. Cleveland has been a model of official integrity but culpable in his personal relations. We should therefore elect Mr. Cleveland to the public office which he is so qualified to fill and remand Mr. Blaine to the private station which he is so admirably fitted to adorn.

The people agreed, narrowly electing Cleveland and breaking a six-election losing streak for the Democrats.

Decoy

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In March 1945 the Japanese painted the giant image of an American B-29 on the Tien Ho airfield in China. They gave it a burning engine and a 300-foot wingspan, so that when viewed from a great altitude it would look like a stricken bomber flying at several thousand feet. Their hope was that this would induce high-flying Allied planes to drop down to investigate, bringing them within range of their anti-aircraft guns. I don’t know whether it worked.

The Atlantic has a collection of similar deceptive exploits from World War II.

Too Late

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For 500 years it was thought that Geoffrey Chaucer had written The Testament of Love, a medieval dialogue between a prisoner and a lady.

But in the late 1800s, British philologists Walter Skeat and Henry Bradshaw discovered that the initial letters of the poem’s sections form an acrostic, spelling “MARGARET OF VIRTU HAVE MERCI ON THINUSK” [“thine Usk”].

It’s now thought that the poem’s true author was Thomas Usk, a contemporary of Chaucer who was accused of conspiring against the duke of Gloucester. Apparently he had written the Testament in prison in an attempt to seek aid — Margaret may have been Margaret Berkeley, wife of Thomas Berkeley, a literary patron of the time.

If it’s aid that Usk was seeking, he never found it: He was hanged at Tyburn in March 1388.