The Christmas Truce

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As Christmas approached in 1914, a number of impromptu cease-fires broke out on the Western Front in which German and British troops exchanged greetings, song, and even food. Rifleman Oswald Tilley of the London Rifle Brigade wrote to his parents on Dec. 27 regarding an incident near Ploegsteert, just north of the Franco-Belgian border:

On Christmas morning as we had practically ceased to fire at them, one of them started beckoning to us so one of our Tommies went out in front of our trenches and met him halfway amidst cheering. After a bit a few of our chaps went out to meet theirs until literally hundreds of each side were out in No Man’s Land shaking hands and exchanging cigarettes, chocolate and tobacco etc. … Just you think that while you were eating your turkey etc. I was out talking and shaking hands with the very men I had been trying to kill a few hours before. It was astonishing!

In subsequent years the authorities tried to discourage such truces. Apart from reproving the breakdown in discipline, they had trouble getting the war started again. In late 1915 Ethel Cooper, an Australian woman living in Germany, met a soldier home on leave from the XIX Saxon Corps who told her that his unit had fraternized extensively with a British battalion for two days beginning that Christmas Eve. She wrote, “The trouble began on the 26th, when the order to fire was given, for the men struck. Herr Lange says that in the accumulated years he had never heard such language as the officers indulged in, while they stormed up and down, and got, as the only result, the answer: ‘We can’t — they are good fellows, and we can’t.’ Finally, the officers turned on the men, ‘Fire, or we do — and not at the enemy.’ Not a shot had come from the other side, but at last they fired, and an answering fire came back, but not a man fell. ‘We spent that day and the next day,’ said Herr Lange, ‘wasting ammunition in trying to shoot the stars down from the sky.'”

(From Marc Ferro et al., Meetings in No Man’s Land, 2007)

The Defenestrations of Prague

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On July 30, 1419, Czech priest Jan Želivský was leading his congregation through the streets of Prague to protest corruption in the Catholic church when someone threw a stone at him from the window of the town hall. His followers stormed the hall and threw 13 members of the town council from a high window, killing them.

Remarkably, the same thing happened again in 1618, when King Ferdinand dissolved the Protestant estates in Bohemia. Aggrieved Protestants confronted Catholic officials in the chancellory and threw several of them from a third-floor window. All three survived — Catholics contended that they had been saved by angels, Protestants that they had landed on a dunghill. (Or, a reader suggests, “the Czechs bounced.”)

The Little Man

In 1525, more than 100,000 German peasants demanded an end to serfdom and were massacred by the well-organized armies of the ruling class. After observing the ornate memorials with which the aristocrats congratulated themselves, Albrecht Dürer proposed a similarly baroque monument to the slain peasants:

Place a quadrangular stone block measuring ten feet in width and four feet in height on a quadrangular stone slab which measures twenty feet in length and one foot in height. On the four corners of the ledge place tied-up cows, sheep, pigs, etc. But on the four corners of the stone block place four baskets, filled with butter, eggs, onions, and herbs, or whatever you like. In the centre of this stone block place a second one, measuring seven feet in length and one foot in height. On top of this second block place a strong chest four feet high, measuring six and a half feet wide at the bottom and four feet wide at the top. Then place a kettle upside down on top of the chest. The kettle’s diameter should be four and a half feet at the rim and three feet at its bottom. Surmount the kettle with a cheese bowl which is half a foot high and two and a half feet in diameter at the bottom. Cover this bowl with a thick plate that protrudes beyond its rim. On the plate, place a keg of butter which is three feet high and two and a half feet in diameter at the bottom. Cover this bowl with a thick plate that protrudes beyond its rim. On the plate, place a keg of butter which is three feet high and has a diameter of a foot and a half at the bottom, and of only a foot at the top. Its spout should protrude beyond this. On the top of the butter keg, place a well-formed milk jug, two and a half feet high, and with a diameter which is one foot at its bulge, half a foot at its top, and is wider at its bottom. Into this jug put four rods branching into forks on top and extending five and a half feet in height, so that the rods will protrude by half a foot, and then hang peasants’ tool on it – like hoes, pitchforks, flails, etc. The rods are to be surmounted by a chicken basket, topped by a lard tub upon which sits an afflicted peasant with a sword stuck into his back.

What would that look like?

durer peasants memorial

The Bellamy Salute

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When minister Francis Bellamy published the American Pledge of Allegiance in Youth’s Companion in 1892, his colleague James Upham devised a salute to go along with it, snapping the heels together and extending the right arm toward the flag:

At a signal from the Principal the pupils, in ordered ranks, hands to the side, face the Flag. Another signal is given; every pupil gives the flag the military salute — right hand lifted, palm downward, to a line with the forehead and close to it. Standing thus, all repeat together, slowly, ‘I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands; one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all.’ At the words, ‘to my Flag,’ the right hand is extended gracefully, palm upward, toward the Flag, and remains in this gesture till the end of the affirmation; whereupon all hands immediately drop to the side.

This worked fine until the 1920s, when Italian fascists and then German Nazis adopted similar salutes. Congress delicately changed the American salute to the hand-on-heart gesture in 1942.

Junk Mail

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After the San Francisco earthquake, James Jones wrote this letter on a detachable shirt collar and mailed it without postage to his son and daughter-in-law in New York:

Dear Wayland and Gussie: All safe but awfully scared. Frisco and hell went into partnership and hell came out winner — got away with the sack. Draw a line from Ft Mason along Van Ness Ave. to Market St., out Market to Dolores to Twentieth, thence to Harrison, 16th & Portrero Ave. R.R. Ave. to Channel St. and bay. Nearly everything east and north of this boundary line gone, and several blocks west of it, especially in Hayes Valley as far as Octavia St. from Golden Gate Ave. east. Fire is still burning on the northside but is checked in the Mission. I and a band of 40 or 50 volunteers formed a rope and bucket brigade, back-fired Dolores from Market to 19th, pulled down houses and blanketed westside Dolores and won a great victory. More with paper & stamps. James G. Jones. April 21st, 1906.

It was delivered. The post office had resolved to handle “everything, stamped or unstamped, as long as it had an address to which it could be sent,” remembered William F. Burke, secretary to the city postmaster. When he made the rounds of camps, “the wonderful mass of communications that poured into the automobile was a study in the sudden misery that had overtaken the city. Bits of cardboard, cuffs, pieces of wrapping paper, bits of newspapers with an address on the margin, pages of books and sticks of wood all served as a means to let somebody in the outside world know that friends were alive and in need among the ruins.”

At the close of the first day, “95 pouches of letters carrying mail composed of rags and tatters and odds and ends — and burdened with a weight of woe bigger than had ever left the city in a mail sack — were made up for dispatch. … It came to our knowledge later that not one piece of this mail that was properly addressed failed of delivery.”

An Invisible Map

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Shot down over South Vietnam in 1972, Air Force navigator Iceal Hambleton needed to reach the Cam Lo River but was surrounded by enemy forces who might intercept any radio messages sent to him. After some consultation, rescuers told him to play the first hole at the Tucson National Golf Course. “Before you start be damned sure you line your shot up properly,” they said. “Very bad traps on this hole.”

Hambleton was bewildered at first but came to understand. As an avid golfer he was familiar with a number of American courses, and he had a photographic memory of each hole’s length and layout. The first hole at Tucson was 430 yards long and ran southeast, so he set off accordingly across country, following an imaginary fairway.

This worked. By invoking additional holes from three Air Force bases, as well as a par 3 from Augusta National, rescuers led Hambleton to the river, where a Navy SEAL picked him up.

“Two things kept me alive,” he told Golf Digest in 2001. “The will to live, and my wife. And we’re playing golf Friday.”

Higher Math

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During the hyperinflation that followed World War I in the Weimar Republic, a 5,000-mark cup of coffee could cost 8,000 marks by the time it was drunk. Newspapers published the stupefying multipliers by which prices had risen each day:

Tramway fare: 50,000
Tramway monthly season ticket:
— For one line: 4 million
— For all lines: 12 million
Taxi-autos: multiply ordinary fare by: 600,000
Horse cabs: multiply ordinary fare by: 400,000
Bookshops: multiply ordinary price by: 300,000
Public baths: multiply ordinary price by: 115,000
Medical attendance: multiply ordinary price by: 80,000

By the end of 1923 there were 92,844,720,742,927,000,000 marks circulating in the German economy, nearly 93 quintillion (note the logarithmic scale in the chart above).

This had a curious psychological effect. In December Time reported, “With the price of bread running into billions a loaf the German people have had to get used to counting in thousands of billions. This, according to some German physicians, brought on a new nervous disease known as ‘zero stroke,’ or ‘cipher stroke,'” a “desire to write endless rows of [zeros] and engage in computations more involved than the most difficult problems in logarithms.”

Human minds are not made to comprehend such large numbers. Foreign minister Walther Rathenau called it the “delirium of milliards”: “What is a milliard? Does a wood contain a milliard leaves? Are there a milliard blades of grass in a meadow? Who knows? If the Tiergarten were to be cleared and wheat sown upon its surface, how many stalks would grow?”

Fortunately the madness was stemmed with the introduction of a new currency — in 1924 one could exchange a trillion of the old marks for a single new Rentenmark, and the economy was finally stabilized.

Scoop

Cleveland Press reporter John Raper took a vacation in New Mexico in 1944 and came back with a sensational story — he had discovered a “mystery city” there, a closely policed community at work on some top-secret project northwest of Santa Fe.

Uncle Sam has placed this in charge of two men. The man who commands the soldiers, who sees that the garbage and rubbish are collected, the streets kept up, the electric light plan and the waterworks functioning and all other metropolitan work operating smoothly is a Col. Somebody. I don’t know his name, but it isn’t so important because the Mr. Big of the city is a college professor, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, called ‘the Second Einstein’ by the newspapers of the west coast. …

It is the work of Prof. Oppenheimer and the hundreds of men and women in his laboratories and shops that makes Los Alamos such a carefully guarded city. All the residents will be obliged to remain there for the duration and for six months thereafter and it seems quite probable that many of them don’t know much more about what is being done than you do.

Apparently Raper had driven into the compound to investigate but was escorted closely and allowed to see nothing. He told curious New Mexicans, “I don’t know a bit more about it than I did before I went.” Santa Fe residents whispered that Oppenheimer was building some sort of chemical weapon, an explosive, or “a beam that will cause the motors to stop so that German planes will drop from the skies as though they were paving blocks.” But all of this appeared to be rumor.

Raper published his story in the newspaper on March 13. It provoked an immediate stir among the Manhattan Project authorities, who quashed a followup story in TIME and briefly considered having Raper drafted into the Pacific Theater. But ultimately nothing came of it, and no Axis spy seems to have pursued it. American Institute of Physics science historian Alex Wellerstein discusses the story, and provides the full text with its lurid illustrations, on his Restricted Data blog.

(Thanks, Larry.)

Honorable Prisoners

After John II of France was captured by the English in 1356, he paid 1 million gold crowns for his ransom and promised to pay 2 million more. As a guarantee he offered his son Louis as a hostage. When word came that Louis had escaped, John voluntarily returned to captivity in England, citing reasons of “good faith and honor.” He died there in 1364.

In 1916, after two years in a German prisoner-of-war camp, British Army captain Robert Campbell received word that his mother was dying of cancer. He wrote to Kaiser Wilhelm II asking permission to visit her, and was given two weeks’ leave on condition that he return afterward. Campbell went to England, spent a week with his dying mother, then returned to confinement in Germany, where he remained until the war ended.

“Captain Campbell was an officer, and he made a promise on his honor to go back,” said historian Richard Van Emden, who uncovered the episode while researching his book Meeting the Enemy. “Had he not turned up there would not have been any retribution on any other prisoners. What I think is more amazing is that the British Army let him go back to Germany.”

Sitting Protest

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German shipyard worker August Landmesser openly loved a Jewish woman under the gathering cloud of Nazism in the 1930s. He had joined the party hoping it would help him to find a job, but was expelled when he became engaged to Irma Eckler in 1935. Unwilling to renounce their love, the two were forbidden to marry, prevented from fleeing to Denmark in 1937, and eventually sent to concentration camps.

The photograph above was taken at the launch of the naval training vessel Horst Wessel on June 13, 1936, a year after their engagement. The man in the center, the only one not giving the Nazi salute, is believed to be Landmesser.