November 12, 1912 Frozen in Time

Over a hundred years later you can still feel anguish from the man’s diary: “The worst has happened…All the day dreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place”.

Roald AmundsenAs long as he could remember, Roald Amundsen wanted to be an explorer.  As a boy, he would read about the doomed Franklin Arctic Expedition, of 1848.  A sixteen-year-old Amundsen took inspiration from Fridtjof Nansen’s epic crossing of Greenland, in 1888.

The period would come to be called the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration.  Amundsen was born to take part.

Not so, Robert Falcon Scott.   A career officer with the British Royal Navy, Scott would take a different path to this story.

Clements Markham, President of the British Royal Geographical Society (RGS), was known to “collect” promising young naval officers with an eye toward future polar exploration.  The two first met on March 1, 1887, when the eighteen-year old midshipman’s cutter won a sailing race, across St. Kitt’s Bay.

In 1894, Scott’s father John made a disastrous mistake, selling the family brewery and investing the proceeds, badly.  The elder Scott’s death of heart disease three years later brought on fresh family crisis, leaving John’s widow Hannah and her two unmarried daughters, dependent on Robert and his younger brother, Archie.

Now more than ever, Scott was eager to distinguish himself with an eye toward promotion, and the increase in income which came with it.

RobertFalconScott.jpgIn the Royal Navy, limited opportunities for career advancement were eagerly sought after, by any number of ambitious officers.  Home on leave in 1899, Scott chanced once again to meet the now-knighted “Sir” Clements Markham, and learned of an impending RGS Antarctic expedition, aboard the barque-rigged auxiliary steamship, RRS Discovery.  What passed between the two went unrecorded but, a few days later, Scott showed up at the Markham residence, and volunteered to lead the expedition.

The Discovery expedition of 1901-’04 was one of science as well as exploration.  Despite a combined polar experience of near-zero, the fifty officers and men under Robert Falcon Scott made a number of important biological, zoological and geological findings, proving that the Antarctic continent was once, forested.  Though later criticized as clumsy and amateurish, a journey south in the direction of the pole discovered the polar plateau, establishing the southernmost record for its time at 82° 17′ S, only 530 miles short of the pole.

Kathleen Bruce Scott

Discovery returned in September 1904, the expedition hailed by one writer as “one of the great polar journeys”, of its time.  Once an obscure naval officer, Scott now entered Edwardian society, and moved among the higher social and economic circles, of the day.

A brief but stormy relationship ensued with Kathleen Bruce, a sculptress who studied under Auguste Rodin, and counted among her personal friends, the likes of Pablo Picasso, Aleister Crowley and Isadora Duncan.  The couple was married on September 2, 1908 and the marriage produced one child, Peter Markham Scott, who went on to found the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

The elder Scott would not live to see it.

Ernest Shackleton, ca 1909

The “Great Southern Journey” of Scott’s Discovery officer Ernest Shackleton, arrived at a point 112 miles short of the pole on January 9, 1909, providing Scott with the impetus for a second attempt, the following year.  Scott was still fundraising for the expedition when the old converted whaler Terra Nova departed Cardiff, in South Wales.  Scott joined the ship in South Africa and arrived in Melbourne Australia in October, 1910.

Meanwhile, and unbeknownst to Scott, Roald Amundsen was preparing for his own drive on the south pole, aboard the ship “Fram” (Forward).

It was in Melbourne that Scott received the telegram: “Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic Amundsen“.  Robert Falcon Scott now faced a race to the pole.

Unlike Amundsen who adopted the lighter fur-skins of the Inuit, the Scott expedition wore heavy wool clothing, depending on motorized and horse-drawn transport, and man-hauling sledges for the final drive across the polar plateau. Dog teams were expected to meet them only on the way out, on March 1.

Mount Erebus
Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano, in the world. Robert Falcon Scott took this photograph in 1911

Weak ponies, poorly acclimatized to the wretched conditions of Antarctica, slowed the depot-laying part of the Scott expedition.  Four horses died of cold or had to be shot, because they slowed the team.

Expedition member Lawrence “Titus” Oates warned Scott against the decision to locate “One-Ton Depot” 35-miles short of the planned location at 80°.  “Sir, I’m afraid you’ll come to regret not taking my advice.”  His words would prove prophetic.

Scott Expedition

Unlike the earlier attempt, Robert Falcon Scott made it to the pole this time, only to find that Amundsen’s Norwegian team had beat him there, by a mere five weeks. Over a hundred years later you can still feel anguish from the man’s diary: “The worst has happened…All the day dreams must go…Great God! This is an awful place”.

Defeated, the five-man Scott party turned and began the 800-mile, frozen slog back from the Pole on January 19, 1912.  Team member Edgar “Taff” Evans’ condition began to deteriorate as early as the 23rd. A bad fall on Beardmore Glacier left the man concussed on February 4, “dull and incapable”.  Another fall two weeks later, left Evans dead at the foot of the glacier.

Man-hauled sledges

Dog teams failed to materialize at the appointed time.  Within days, Titus himself was severely frostbitten, concerned that his incapacity would become a threat and a burden to the team. He left his tent for the last time and limped into a blizzard on March 17, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”.  He never returned.

Noble as it was, Lawrence Oates’ suicide, came to naught.  The last three made their final camp on March 19, with 400 miles yet to go.   A howling blizzard descended on the tents the following day and lasted for days, as Scott, Henry “Birdie” Bowers and Dr. Edward Wilson wrote good-bye letters to mothers, wives, and others.


Starving and frostbitten, Robert Falcon Scott wrote to his diary in the final hours of his life “It seems a pity, but I do not think I can write more.” In his final entry, he worried about the financial burden on his family, and those of the doomed expedition: “Last entry.  For God’s sake look after our people”.

The lowest ground level temperature ever recorded was −128.6° Fahrenheit at the Soviet Vostok Antarctic Station, in 1983.  Meteorological conditions for those last days in the Scott camp, went undocumented.

The frozen corpses of Robert Falcon Scott and his comrades were found on November 12, 1912, that last diary entry dated March 29.  A high cairn of snow was erected over it all, that final camp becoming the three men’s tomb. Ship’s carpenters built a wooden cross, inscribing on it the names of those lost: Scott, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers, Lawrence Oates and Edgar Evans. A line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses, was carved into the cross:

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.
article-2087811-001f786700000258-615_964x687 (1)
Defeated by only weeks, the Scott party spends a moment at the south pole, before turning for the frozen, 800-mile slog, back.

It was eleven miles short of the next supply depot.

On hearing the fate of his rival, Roald Amundsen said “I would gladly forgo any honor or money if thereby I could have saved Scott his terrible death”.

A century later, ice and snow have covered the last camp of the southern party.  Pressed ever downward by the weight of snow and ice, their corpses are encased seventy-five-feet down in the Ross Ice Shelf and inching their way outward, expected to reach the Ross Sea sometime around 2276.  One day to break off and float away, at the heart of some unknown and nameless iceberg.

Feature image, top of page:  Last Camp of the Southern Party, of Robert Scott Falcon


November 4, 1918 Soldier Poet

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Edward Salter Owen was working as a private English tutor in Bordeaux, when the “Great War” broke out in 1914.

800px-Memorial_to_the_Artists_Rifles,_Royal_Academy,_LondonAt first in no hurry to sign up, he even considered joining the French Army before returning home to England, to enlist in the Artists Rifles Training Corps, in October 1915.

Originally formed in 1859, the Artists Rifles was a British special forces regiment, raised in London and comprised of painters, musicians, actors and architects, and symbolized by the heads of the Roman gods Mars and Minerva.

It must have felt a natural place.  Wilfred Owen was a poet, a talent first discovered about ten years earlier, at age ten or eleven.

Owen was commissioned Second Lieutenant after six-months training, and posted with the Manchester Regiment of line infantry.  An application to the Royal Flying Corps was rejected in 1916 and he was shipped to France, joining the 2nd Manchester regiment near Beaumont Hamel, on the river Somme.

He was contemptuous of his men at first, considering them to be louts and barbarians.  He wrote home to his mother Susan in 1917, describing his company as “expressionless lumps”.  The war would soon beat that out of him.

Owen was close with his mother, his letters home telling a tale of mud and frostbite, of fifty hours spent under heavy bombardment, sheltered only by a muddy, flooded out dugout, of falling through shell-shattered earth into a cellar below, earning him a trip to the hospital.  It would not be his last.

Owen was caught in an explosion during the bitter battle of St. Quentin, blown off of his feet and into a hole, there to spend days fading in and out of consciousness amidst the shattered remains of a fellow officer.

d6d65d6After this experience, soldiers reported him behaving strangely. Owen was diagnosed as suffering from neurasthenia or shell shock, what we now understand to be Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, for treatment.

There, Dr. Arthur Brock encouraged Owen to work hard on his poetry, to overcome his shell shock.  There he met another patient, the soldier and poet, Siegfried Sassoon. The chance meeting would elevate Wilfred Owen to one of the great war poets, of his generation.

Owen’s work was qualitatively different before this time, vaguely self important but never self pitying. Never a pacifist – he held those people to ridicule – Owen’s nightmares now brought forth a brutal honesty and a deep compassion for the burdens of the ordinary soldier.  Tales of trench life:  of gas, lice, mud and death, of Hell and returning to earth, steeped in contempt for the patriotic sentimentality of non-combatants and the slurs of cowardice, so lightly dispensed by the women of the “White Feather” movement.

Anthem for Doomed Youth, is a classic of the period:

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

wilfred-owenOwen continued to write through his period of convalescence, his fame as author and poet growing through the late months of 1917 and into March of the following year. Supporters requested non-combat postings on his behalf, but such requests were turned down. It’s unlikely he would have accepted them, anyway. His letters reveal a deep sense of obligation, an intention to return to the front to be part of and to tell the story of the common man, thrust by his government into uncommon conditions.

Wilfred Owen well understood his special talent.  He wanted a return to front line combat, made all the more urgent when Sassoon was once again wounded, and removed from the front.

He was back in France by September 1918, capturing a German machine gun position on the 29th, for which he would be awarded the Military Cross.  Posthumously.

On October 31, Owen wrote home to his mother, from the cellar of the Forrester’s house, at Ors.  It was to be the last such note she would ever receive,  “Of this I am certain: you could not be surrounded by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.

The forty-four mile Sambre-Oise Canal flows through the Meuse river basin, a network of 38 locks directing the water’s flow and connecting the Netherlands and Belgium with the central waterways of France. Forces of the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex forced the canal on November 4, in coordination with elements of the 2nd Manchester Regiment and the Lancashire Fusiliers. British forces were to cross surrounding fields lined with high hedges, then to cross the canal by portable foot bridges, or climbing across the lock gates, themselves.


The battle of the Sambre–Oise Canal was one of the last Allied victories of the Great War, and not without cost. Lock houses on the opposite side formed strong points for German defensive fire, from small arms and machine guns.

Wilfred Owen was at the head such a raiding party, when the bullets from the German machine gun tore into his body. He died a week nearly to the hour, from the armistice which would end the war.  He was twenty-five.

The church bells of Shrewsbury rang out in celebration that day in 1918, as Owen’s parents Tom and Susan, received the telegram.  The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

“Deeply regret to inform you, that…”

“Dulce et Decorum Est”

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen, 1917

October 21, 1774 First Flag

“…Steadfast, in Freedom’s Cause, we’ll live and die,
Unawed by Statesmen; Foes to Tyranny,
But if oppression brings us to our Graves,
and marks us dead, she ne’er shall mark us Slaves”

The Mayflower set sail from England on September 6, 1620, and fetched up on the outer reaches of Cape Cod in mid-November, near the present-day site of Provincetown Harbor.

Mayflower, historic reproduction

One was born over those 66 days at sea, another died.  They were 101 in all, including forty members of the English Separatist Church, a radical Puritan faction who felt the Church of England hadn’t gone far enough, in the Protestant Reformation.

There the group drew up the first written framework of government established in the United States, 41 of them signing the Mayflower Compact on board the ship on November 11, 1620.

With sandy soil and no place to shelter from North Atlantic storms, a month in that place was enough to convince them of its unsuitability. Search parties were sent out and, on December 21, the “Pilgrims“crossed Cape Cod Bay and arrived at what we now know, as Plymouth Harbor.

Fully half of them died that first winter but the rest hung on, with assistance from the Grand Sachem Massasoit (inter-tribal chief) of the Wampanoag confederacy, in the form of the emissaries, Samoset and Squanto. The Mayflower returned to England in April 1621, with half its original crew.

british red ensign mini 2
British Red Ensign

Three more ships arrived in Plymouth over the next two years, including the Fortune (1621), the Anne and the Little James (1623). Those who arrived on these first four ships were known as the “Old Comers” of Plymouth colony, and were given special treatment in the affairs of “America’s Home Town”.

A short seventeen years later, members of the Plymouth Colony founded the town of Taunton twenty-four miles inland, and formally incorporated the place on September 3, 1639.

In 1656, the first successful iron works in Plymouth Colony and only the third in “New England” was established in Taunton, on the Two Mile River. The Taunton Iron Works operated for over 200 years, until 1876.

The town was once home to several silver smithing operations, including Reed & Barton, F.B. Rogers, and Poole Silver. To this day, Taunton is known as the “Silver City”.

Taunton also has the distinction of flying what may have been the first distinctly American flag, in history.

united_states_taunton_flag_liberty_and_union_1774_coffee_mug-rf4e479fc61a14108aaef1be92fcbb695_x7jgr_8byvr_512First raised above the town square on October 19, 1774, the flag’s canton featured the Union Jack, on the blood red field of the British Red Ensign. The Declaration of Independence lay two years in the future for these people.  They were, after all, still British subjects.

Between hoist and fly ends were written the words “Liberty and Union”, a solemn declaration that the colonies were going to stick together, and that their rights as British citizens, were not about to be violated.

Not so long as they had something to say about it.

On October 21, 1774, the Taunton Sons of Liberty raised the flag 112-feet high on a Liberty Pole, and tacked the following inscription on that pole:

“Be it known to the present,
And to all future generations,
That the Sons of Liberty in TAUNTON
Fired with Zeal for the Preservation of
Their Rights as Men, and as American Englishmen,
And prompted by a just Resentment of
The Wrongs and Injuries offered to the
English Colonies in general, and to
This Province in particular,
Through the unjust Claims of
A British Parliament, and the
Machiavellian Policy of their fixed Resolution
To preserve sacred and inviolate
Their Birth-Rights and Charter-Rights,
And to resist, even unto Blood,
All attempts for their Subversion or Abridgement.
Born to be free, we spurn the Knaves who dare
For us the Chains of Slavery to prepare.
Steadfast, in Freedom’s Cause, we’ll live and die,
Unawed by Statesmen; Foes to Tyranny,
But if oppression brings us to our Graves,
and marks us dead, she ne’er shall mark us Slaves”.

The Taunton flag is considered to be among the oldest distinctly American flags if not the oldest, in history. The city officially adopted it on October 19, 1974, the 200th anniversary of the day it was first raised above Taunton green. Stop and see it if you ever get by.   It’s there on the Liberty Pole, directly beneath the Stars and Stripes of the Star Spangled Banner.


.If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 17, 1814 The Great London Beer Flood, of 1814

Nine people lost their lives altogether, including one man who died of alcohol poisoning, apparently leading a heroic one-man effort to drink the entire flood.

On April 1, 1785, the Times of London reported: “There is a cask now building at Messrs. Meux & Co.’s brewery…the size of which exceeds all credibility, being designed to hold 20,000 barrels of porter; the whole expense attending the same will be upwards of £10,000”.

013-giant-beer-barrel-q75-1364x1616The Meux’s Brewery Co Ltd, established in 1764, was a London brewery owned by Sir Henry Meux. What the Times article was describing was a 22′ high monstrosity, held together by 29 iron hoops.

When completed, this would be one of several such vats, each designed to hold 3,500 barrels of brown porter ale.

Ministry_of_Information_First_World_War_Official_Collection_Q28331The brewery was located in the crowded slum of St. Giles, where many homes contained several people to the room.

On October 17, 1814, storehouse clerk George Crick noticed one of those 700-pound iron hoops had slipped off a cask. This happened two or three times a year, and Crick thought little of it, writing a note to another employee, to fix the problem.

It was a bad decision.

The explosive release of all that hot, fermenting liquid could be heard five miles away, causing a chain reaction as the other vats went down like exploding dominoes.

323,000 imperial gallons of beer, equivalent to two-thirds of an Olympic swimming pool, smashed through the brewery’s 25-foot high brick walls and gushed into the streets, homes and businesses of St. Giles. The torrent smashed two houses and the nearby Tavistock Arms pub on Great Russell Street, where 14-year-old barmaid Eleanor Cooper was buried under the rubble.

the_manor_house_of_toten_hall_1813.gif.CROP.cq5dam_web_1280_1280_gifOne brewery worker was able to save his brother from drowning in the flood, but others weren’t so lucky.

Mary Mulvey and her 3-year-old son Thomas were drowned, while Hannah Banfield and Sarah Bates, ages 4 and 3, were swept away in the flood. Both died of their injuries. Nine people lost their lives altogether, including one man who died of alcohol poisoning, apparently leading a heroic one-man effort to drink the entire flood.

As the torrent subsided, hundreds of people came outside carrying pots, pans, and kettles – whatever they had on hand to scoop up some of it. Some just bent low and lapped at it like dogs, as all that dirty, warm beer washed through the streets. Meanwhile, several injured were taken to the nearby Middlesex Hospital, where a near-riot broke out as other patients demanded to know why they weren’t getting some of it, too.

london-beer-floodIn the days that followed, the crushing poverty of the slum led some to exhibit the corpses of their family members, charging a fee for anyone who wanted to come in and see. In one house, too many people crowded in and the floor collapsed, plunging them all into a cellar full of beer.

The stink lasted for months, as the Meux Brewery Company was taken to court over the accident. Judge and jury ruled the flood to be an ‘Act of God’.  The deaths were just a ‘casualty’, leaving no one responsible. Meux & Co. survived, though the financial loss was made worse by the fact that they had already paid tax on the beer. The company successfully applied to Parliament for a refund, and continued to brew beer on the same site.

The brewery was closed in 1921 and demolished the following year. Since 2012, a London tavern called the “Holborn Whippet” ( marks the event with its own vat of porter, specially brewed for this day. Cheers.


Holborn Whippet Pub Sicilian Ave, London
If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 14, 1939 Death of the Royal Oak

Captain Benn was almost alone in believing that his ship was attacked by torpedo.  The cause of the sinking was still being argued over the next day, when divers went down and found a German torpedo propeller. Only then was it understood, that the Kriegsmarine  had taken the war, into British home waters.  By that time, U-47 was gone.

In the early days of WWII, the British Royal Navy based the main part of the Grand fleet at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland.  Protected as it was by blocking ships and underwater cables, the anchorage considered impregnable to submarine attack.

f918c0672ea9cc256d0295ed46d0ca83The harbor at Scapa flow had been home to the British deep water fleet since 1904, a time when the place truly was, all but impregnable.  By 1939, anti-aircraft weaponry was all but obsolete, old block ships were disintegrating, and anti-submarine nets were inadequate to the needs of the new war.

The men of the German Unterseeboot U-47 commanded by officer Günther Prien, were not impressed. U-47 entered the Royal Navy base in the evening hours of the October 13, 1939. By 12:55am on the the 14th, they were within 3,500 yards of the unmistakable silhouette of the WWI era Revenge Class Battleship, HMS Royal Oak.

Believing he had a certain kill, Prien aimed two of his four torpedoes at the Battleship, and the other two at the 6,900 ton Pegasus, which he’d mistaken in the dark for the much larger HMS Repulse. Tubes one, two and three fired successfully, torpedoes away, but #4 jammed. Only one found its mark, blowing a hole in the starboard bow of the Royal Oak, near the anchor chains.

On the battleship, Captain William Benn was told the most likely cause was an internal explosion, either that or a high flying German aircraft had dropped a bomb. Damage control teams were assembled to assess the damage, while aboard U-47, Prien thought his one hit had been against Repulse (Pegasus). He was prepared to run, but saw no threat from oncoming surface vessels.  Coming about and firing the stern torpedo, the crew worked to free the jammed #4 torpedo tube, while reloading bow tubes 1-3. That one missed as well, and the Germans cursed their luck.

400px-U-47_raid.svgThe electric torpedoes of the era were highly unreliable, and this wasn’t shaping up to be their night.

Finally, tubes one and two were reloaded, and the jammed tube #4 was serviced and ready to go. U-47 crept closer and, at 1:25am, fired all three torpedoes at the Royal Oak. All three found their target within ten seconds of one other, blasting three holes amidships on the starboard side. The explosions set off a series of fires and ignited a cordite magazine and exploding with a fiery orange blast that went right through the decks.\

Royal Oak rolled over and sank in thirteen minutes. 833 sailors and officers were lost from ship’s company of 1,234, including Rear Admiral Henry Evelyn Blagrove, commander of the 2nd Battle Squadron.


The Royal Navy considered the anchorage so secure that, even now, searchlights and anti-aircraft fire raked the sky, searching for the air attack that wasn’t there.  Captain Benn was almost alone in believing that his ship was attacked by torpedo.  The cause of the sinking was still being argued over the next day, when divers went down and found a German torpedo propeller. Only then was it understood that the Kriegsmarine had taken the war, into British home waters.

Royal Oak Wreck

The successful attack at Scapa Flow was a crushing defeat for the British, and payback for the Germans. The entire German High Seas Fleet had been interned there at the end of WWI. Admiral Ludwig von Reuter wasn’t about to let his fleet fall into allied hands, and ordered the lot of them, scuttled. British guard ships succeeded in beaching a few at the time, but 52 of 74 vessels had sunk to the bottom.

Many of those wrecks were salvaged in the interwar years, and towed away for scrap. Those which remain are popular sites for recreational divers, but not Royal Oak. As a designated war grave, Royal Oak is protected by the Military Remains Act of 1986.  Unauthorized divers are strictly, prohibited.

The wreck of the Royal Oak lies nearly upside down in 100′ of water, her hull just 16-feet beneath the surface. Each year, divers place the red St. George’s Cross with the Union Flag of the White Ensign at her stern, a solemn tribute to the honored dead of World War 2, and to the first Royal Navy battleship lost in the most destructive war in history.

Royal Oak Ensign

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.

October 11, 1915 The Execution of Edith Cavell

“Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”. – Edith Cavell, October 11, 1915

The Cavell vicarage in Swardeston is now a private home

As a little girl growing up in Swardeston, Norfolk, Edith Cavell was no saint.  Nor was she a “bad girl “.  Just a normal kid, growing up in Victorian England.   The daughter of a Vicar of the Church of England, she thought her father’s sermons were ‘boring’. Even so, she would hold her Christian faith until the day she died.

Reverend Frederick Cavell was something of a Puritan and nearly ruined the family finances, building the vicarage with his own money.  Yet, this was no crabbed and dour man of the cloth.  He was easily tempted into roaring like a bear and chasing the three Cavell sisters and their brother about the house, to squeals of children’s laughter.

Chalk drawing by Edith Cavell

A gifted artist, Edith loved to paint and draw, the birds, flowers and even fellow villagers, frequent subjects. She and her sister once painted and sold cards to finance a new room in their father’s Sunday school, raising the impressive sum of £300.

As a young woman, she once danced until her feet bled, and destroyed a new pair of shoes, in the process.

Edith worked a number of jobs as governess, including one in Brussels, Belgium.  The children under her care remembered her as wonderfully kind and always smiling, and great fun to be with.

On Summer breaks she’d return to Swardeston, where she loved to play tennis, and to paint.  It was there that she cared for her father in 1895, nursing the parson through a brief illness.  Reverend Cavell recovered, but the experience convinced Edith, she was cut out for a career in nursing.

Edith Cavell with Dr. LePage at the Berkendael Institute

Following training at Royal London Hospital, Edith worked a number of positions, rising through the ranks and becoming matron of Queen’s District Nursing Homes, in 1906. The following year, Edith returned to Brussels at the request of Dr. Antoine Depage, to nurse a child patient under his care. That October, Depage opened the nursing school ‘L’École Belge d’Infirmières Diplômées’ based in his Berkendael Institute, and asked Edith to run it.

In 1913, Cavell’s educational program was producing exceptionally qualified professional nurses, providing for the staffing needs of three hospitals, 24 communal schools and 13 kindergartens. When Queen Elizabeth of Belgium fell and broke her arm, one of Edith’s nurses was personally requested, to provide her care.

On top of it all. she was still giving four lectures a week to doctors and nurses, and still finding time to care for a friend’s daughter who was addicted to morphine, providing for a runaway girl, and for her two dogs, Don and Jack.


In June 1914, a tubercular nineteen-year-old named Gavrilo Princip murdered the heir-apparent to the dual monarchy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in Sarajevo. As diplomats bungled their way through the “July Crisis” of 1914, Edith returned to Norfolk, to visit with her now widowed mother. She was pulling weeds from the garden on August 1, when she learned that Austro-Hungarian troops had invaded Serbia.

Entangling alliances and mutual distrust drew a continent into war in the days that followed, as Edith returned to Brussels, feeling her nursing skills were now needed, more than ever.

Edith Cavell with some of her nurses, in Belgium

German soldiers invaded and occupied Brussels later that August, and the wounded came pouring into Edith’s clinic.  The International Red Cross took over the hospital at this time, the neutral organization established to care for the wounded of all nationalities.  Medical personnel were strictly forbidden from taking sides.  Edith cared for all who needed her services, regardless of uniform or nationality.

The German violation of Belgian neutrality was an outrageous provocation, the single cause for which England entered the war.  German troops were afraid of Belgian guerrilla fighters, the francs-tireurs, believing them to be every bit as dangerous, as the French soldiers they were fighting. Allied propaganda magnified tales of German brutality into the “Rape of Belgium”, but such atrocities against civilians were very real, particularly in places like Liège, Andenne, Leuven and foremost, Dinant.

The Battle of Mons of August 23 was a crushing defeat for the badly outnumbered British Expeditionary Force (BEF), the first such confrontation on European soil since the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815. Hundreds of British and allied soldiers were cut off and stranded, behind enemy lines. Word got back to the Red Cross hospital about allied soldiers being shot by German troops, while locals took others into their homes to hide them from harm.


That September, Edith took in two British soldiers, hiding them for two weeks in her clinic.  She was later asked to join an underground organization, dedicated to hiding these stranded soldiers and spiriting them across borders into neutral territories.  Despite the danger to herself, she agreed.  She was now in violation of the law.

For the rest of 1914 until the following September, Edith hid 200 stranded soldiers at the Berkendael Institute, while architect Philippe Baucq secretly organized their evacuation to neutral Holland.

Edith Cavell

Now enters this story, a name which must be remembered with the likes of Judas Iscariot,  Ephialtes of Trachis and Vidkun Quisling, as Traitor.  Five years later, Georges Gaston Quien would be tried and convicted by Parisian authorities of collaborating with the enemy, and put to death.  Quien had betrayed Edith Cavell’s organization, to German secret police.

Baucq was arrested on July 31, 1915, with another member of the escape-route team.  Letters found in their possession incriminated Edith Cavell and she was arrested, on August 5.  German interrogators tricked her into confession, claiming that they knew everything, already.  The best thing she could do, was save her friends.  Confess.

She was placed in solitary confinement for the rest of that month, and tried for treason, in early October.  At trial, Edith freely confessed to helping allied soldiers escape German occupied territory.


Edith Cavell’s Brussels cell

Edith Cavell was convicted of treason on October 11, 1915, along with Philippe Baucq, and three others. The sentence was death. Neutral governments in the United States and Spain protested, and attempted to get the sentence reduced. Such efforts came to nothing.

The English chaplain Stirling Gahan visited her cell on the last day of her life, and found her calm, as she received the Sacrament.  “I am thankful to have had these 10 weeks of quiet to get ready”.  she told him.  “Now I have had them and have been kindly treated here. I expected my sentence and I believe it was just. Standing as I do in view of God and Eternity, I realise that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”. 

Her final words were as worthy, as those of that hero of the American Revolution, Nathan Hale, who regretted only that he had but one life to give for his country.  In the last moments of her life, she calmly spoke to the German Lutheran prison chaplain, Paul Le Seur.  “Ask Father Gahan to tell my loved ones later on that my soul, as I believe, is safe, and that I am glad to die for my country.”

Edith Louisa Cavell was executed by firing squad at 2:00am on October 12, at the Tir National shooting range, in Schaerbeek.  She was forty-nine.


Hat tip to, from which I have learned much of this story, and drawn many of these images.

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September 20, 1066 Fulford Gate

How different were those last thousand years, but for this one day’s outcome, at a place called Fulford Gate.

Edward the Confessor, King of England, went into a coma in December 1065, having expressed no clear preference for a successor. Edward died on January 5 after briefly regaining consciousness, and commending his wife and kingdom to the protection of Harold, second son of Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex, and Gytha Thorkelsdóttir.

The Anglo-Saxon Kings didn’t normally pick their own successors, but their wishes carried import. Nobles of the Witenagemot, the early Anglo-Saxon predecessor to the modern parliament, were in Westminster to observe the Feast of the Epiphany. Convening the following day, the council elected Harold Godwinson, crowning him King Harold II on January 6.

For some, Harold’s quick ascension was a matter of administrative convenience and good fortune, that everyone just happened to be at the right place, at the right time. Others saw shades of conspiracy.  A brazen usurpation of the throne.  Edward’s death touched off a succession crisis which would change the course of history.

H/T By Amitchell125 at English Wikipedia

Harold’s younger brother Tostig, third son of Godwin, was himself a powerful Earl of Northumbria, and thoroughly detested by his fellow northern Earls.  Tostig was deposed and outlawed by King Edward in October 1065, with support from much of the local ruling class as well as that of Tostig’s own brother, Harold.

King Edward’s death a short two months later, left the exile believing he had his own claim to the throne. Tostig’s ambition and animosity for his brother, would prove fatal to them both.

After a series of inconclusive springtime raids, Tostig went to a Norman Duke called William “The Bastard”, looking for military support. William had his own claim to the English throne, and had already declared his intention to take it. The Norman Duke had little use for King Harold’s younger brother, so Tostig sought the assistance of King Harald of Norway, also known as Harald Hardrada (“harðráði” in the Old Norse), the name translating as”hard ruler”.

Harald Hardrada. The Last Great Viking

Tostig sailed for England with King Harald and a mighty force of some 10,000 Viking warriors, arriving in September, 1066.  Six thousand were deployed on September 20, to meet 5,000 defenders on the outskirts of the village of Fulford, near the city of York.  Leading the defenders were those same two brothers, Edwin of Mercia, and Morcar of Northumbria.

The Anglo-Saxons were first to strike, advancing on a weaker section of the Norwegian line and driving Harald’s vikings into a marsh.  With fresh invaders hurrying to the scene, the tide turned as the English charge found itself cut off and under attack, wedged between the soft ground of the marsh and the banks of an adjoining river. The encounter at Fulford Gate was a comprehensive defeat for the English side.  It was over in an hour.  On this day in 1066, two of the seven Great Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, were decimated.


Perhaps not wanting to have his capital city looted, Tostig agreed to take a number of hostages, and retired seven miles south to Stamford Bridge to await formal capitulation.  Harald went along with the plan, believing he had nothing further to fear from the English.

Meanwhile, King Harold awaited with an army in the south, anticipating William’s invasion from Normandy.  Hearing of the events at Fulford, Harold marched his army north, traveling day and night and covering 190 miles in four days, on foot, completely surprising the Viking force waiting at Stamford Bridge.

The new Stamford Bridge over the River Derwent, built in 1727

Believing they had come to accept submission, the Norwegians must have looked at the horizon and wondered, how a peace party could raise that much dust.  This was no peace party.  With their forces spread out and separated on opposite sides of the River Derwent, Harald Hardrada and his ally Tostig now faced a new army.

At the height of the battle, one Berserker stood alone at the top of Stamford Bridge, wielding the great two-handed Dane Axe.  Alone and surrounded, this giant of a man slew something like 40 English soldiers when one of Harold’s soldiers floated himself under the bridge, spearing the Viking warrior from below.

Stamford Bridge

The savagery of the battle at Stamford Bridge, can only be imagined. Before the age of industrialized warfare, every injury was personally administered with sword, axe or mace.  Before it was over 5,000 of King Harold’s soldiers lay  dead, about a third of his entire force. Two-thirds of King Harald’s Vikings died at Stamford Bridge, about 6,000 including Harald himself and the would-be King, Tostig Godwinson.

So many died in that small area that, 50 years later, the site was said to have been white with the sun bleached bones of the slain.  Of 300 ships arriving that September, the battered remnants of Harald’s Viking army needed only 24, to sail away.

Battle_of_Stamford_Bridge-04 (1)

Stamford Bridge is often described as the end of the Viking invasions of England, but that isn’t quite so. There would be others, but none so powerful as this.  The Last of the Great Vikings, was dead.

The Norman landing King Harold had been waiting, for took place three days later at Pevensey Harbor, just as his battered army was disbanding and heading home for the Fall harvest. The Anglo Saxon army would march yet again, meeting the Norman invader on October 14 near the East Sussex town of Hastings.  King Harold II was killed that day, with an arrow to his eye.  He was the Last of the Anglo Saxon Kings.

Twenty years later, William “The Conqueror” would commission the comprehensive inventory of his new Kingdom, the “Domesday Book“.


Alternate histories are fraught with peril.  It’s hard to tell the story of events, which never occurred. Even so, I have to wonder.  Some of the best men in the England of 1066 were killed under King Harold‘s banner, in the clash at Stamford Bridge. Surely every last man among them faced some degree of exhaustion to say nothing of wounds, the day they faced Duke William’s Norman force on that Hastings hillside.

Those who survived Stamford Bridge performed a round-trip march of some 380-miles, in the three weeks since Fulford.

Those three weeks in 1066 altered the next 1,000 years of British history and with it, her former colonies in America.  How different were those last thousand years, but for this one day’s outcome, at a place called Fulford Gate.

Feature image, top of page”  One scene from the Bayeux Tapestry.   At 20-inches tall and nearly 230-feet long, the 11th-century textile tells the story of the Norman conquest of England, in 1066. 

If you enjoyed this “Today in History”, please feel free to re-blog, “like” & share on social media, so that others may find and enjoy it as well. Please click the “follow” button on the right, to receive email updates on new articles.  Thank you for your interest, in the history we all share.