May 4, 1943 Death by Chocolate

In 1943, Adolf Hitler’s bomb makers concocted an explosive coated in a thin layer of real chocolate and wrapped in expensive black & gold foil labeled “Peter’s Chocolate”. When you break a piece off this thing, you might wonder in the last moments of your life.  What the hell is this canvas doing in a chocolate bar?

In a Spanish dictionary, the word “Bobo” translates as “stupid…daft…naive”. The slang form “bubie” describes a dummy. A dunce. The word came into English sometime around 1590 and spelled “booby”, meaning a slow or stupid person.

In a military context, a booby trap is designed to kill or maim the person who activates a trigger. During the war in Vietnam, Bamboo pit vipers known as “three step snakes” (because that’s all you’ll get) were tucked into backpacks, bamboo sticks or simply hung by their tails, a living trap for the unwary GI.

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Punji stakes were often smeared with human excrement, resulting in hideous infection to the unsuspecting GI

The soldier who goes to lower that VC flag might pull the halyard rope may hear distant snickering in the jungle, before the fragmentation grenade goes off. Often, the first of his comrades running to the aid of his now shattered body hits the trip wire, setting off a secondary and far larger explosive.

Not to be outdone, the operation code-named “Project Eldest Son” involved CIA and American Green Berets sabotaging rifle and machine gun rounds, in a way that blew the face off the careless Vietcong shooter.

German forces were masters of the booby trap in the waning days of WW1 and WW2. A thin piece of fishing line, connecting the swing of a door with a hidden grenade at your feet. A flushing toilet explodes and kills or maims everyone in the building. The wine bottle over in the corner may be perfectly harmless, but the chair you move to get to it, blows you to bits.

Virtually anything that can be opened or closed, stepped upon or moved in any way, can be rigged to mutilate the unwary, or kill. Fiendish imagination alone, limits the possibilities. Would the “Joe Squaddy” entering the room care if that painting on the wall was askew? Very possibly not but the “officer and a gentleman” may be moved to straighten the thing out at the cost of his hands, or maybe his life.

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Exploding Peas, illustration by Laurence Fish

In the strange and malignant world of Adolf Hitler, the German and British people had much in common.  Are we not all “Anglo-Saxons”?  The two peoples need not make war, he thought, except for their wretched man, Winston Churchill.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been a true leader of world-historical proportion, during the darkest days of the war.  To take the man out, just might cripple one of Hitler’s most virulent adversaries.

In 1943, Adolf Hitler’s bomb makers concocted an explosive coated in a thin layer of real chocolate and wrapped in expensive black & gold foil labeled “Peter’s Chocolate”. When you break a piece off this thing, you might wonder in the last moments of your life.  What the hell is this canvas doing in a chocolate bar?

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So it was, that Nazi Germany planned to kill the British Prime Minister, by booby trapped chocolate placed in a war cabinet meeting room.

We rarely hear about the work of the spy or the saboteur in times of war. They are the heroes who work behind enemy lines, with little to protect them but their own guts and cleverness. Their work is performed out of sight, yet there were times when the lives of millions hung in the balance, and they never even knew it.

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The lives of millions, or perhaps only one.  German agents operating inside the United Kingdom were discovered by British spies, the information sent to MI5 senior intelligence chief, Lord Victor Rothschild.

Lord Rothschild, a scientist in peace and member of the Rothschild banking family immediately grasped the importance of the information.  On this day in 1943, Rothschild typed a letter to illustrator Laurence Fish.  The letter, marked “secret”, begins:

“Dear Fish, I wonder if you could do a drawing for me of an explosive slab of chocolate…”

The letter went on to describe the mechanism and included a crude sketch, requesting the artist bring the thing, to life.

Laurence Fish went on to be a commercial artist and illustrator, best remembered for his travel posters of the 1950s and ’60s.  He always signed his posters, “Laurence”.  Dozens of wartime drawings were quietly forgotten and left in a drawer, for seventy years.

Hitler’s bomb makers devised all manner of havoc, from booby trapped mess tins to time-delay fuses, meant to destroy shipping, at sea.   In 2015, members of the Rothschild family were cleaning out the house, and discovered a trove of Fish’s work.

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The artist is gone now but his work lives on.  Fish’s illustrations are now in the hands of his widow Jean, an archivist and former journalist living in Winchcombe, Gloucestershire.  Perhaps to be shown one day, in some public archive or museum.

Taken together, Laurence fish’s illustrations represent a precise and hand drawn record of an all but forgotten part of the most destructive war, in history.

 

Feature image, top of page:  Booby trapped “Bangers & Mash” tin,  compliments of Herr Hitler’s bomb makers.  H/T IrishTimes.com

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May 3, 1915 In Flanders Fields

  “If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields”

800px-Lieut.-Col._John_McCrae,_M.D.John McCrae was a physician and amateur poet from Guelph, Ontario. Following the outbreak of war in 1914, McCrae enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at the age of 41. He had the option of joining the medical corps based on his age and training, but volunteered instead to join a fighting unit as gunner and medical officer.

McCrae had previously served in the Boer War.  This would be his second tour of duty in the Canadian military.

Dr. McCrae fought one of the most horrendous battles of the Great War, the second battle of Ypres, in the Flanders region of Belgium. Imperial Germany launched the first mass chemical attack in history at Ypres, attacking the Canadian position with chlorine gas on April 22, 1915. The Canadian line was broken but quickly reformed in an apocalyptic battle lasting over two full weeks.

Dr. McCrae later described the ordeal, in a letter to his mother:

“For seventeen days and seventeen nights”, he wrote, “none of us have had our clothes off, nor our boots even, except occasionally. In all that time while I was awake, gunfire and rifle fire never ceased for sixty seconds … and behind it all was the constant background of the sights of the dead, the wounded, the maimed, and a terrible anxiety lest the line should give way”.

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Stop and imagine for a moment, what this looked like in color.

On May 3, Dr. McCrae presided over the funeral of friend and fellow soldier Alexis Helmer, who had died in the battle. He performed the burial service himself, when he noted how quickly the red poppies grew on the graves of the fallen. He composed this poem the next day while sitting in the back of a medical field ambulance, just north of Ypres.  McCrae called the verse, “We Shall Not Sleep”.  Today, the composition is better remembered as:

In Flanders Fields

Moina Michael: We Shall Keep the FaithIn Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Moina Belle Michael was born August 15, 1869 near Good Hope Georgia, about an hour’s drive east of Atlanta. She began teaching at age fifteen and, over a long career, worked in nearly every part of the state’s education system.

In 1918, Michael was working at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters, in New York.  Browsing through the November Ladies Home Journal, she came across McCrae’s poem. It was Saturday morning, November 9, 1918.  Two days before the armistice.

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Dr. McCrae had succumbed to pneumonia by this time, while serving the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital (McGill), at Boulogne.  He was buried with full military honors at the Wimereux cemetery where his gravestone lies flat, due to the sandy, unstable soil.

Michael had seen McCrae’s poem before but it got to her this time, especially that last part.

  “If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
      In Flanders fields”

Moina was so moved she made a personal pledge to “keep the faith”, vowing always to wear a red poppy, in remembrance of the dead. She scribbled down a response, a poem, on the back of a used envelope.  She called it:

We Shall Keep the Faith

Moina MichaelOh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a luster to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.

The vivid red flower blooming on the battlefields of Belgium, France and Gallipoli came to symbolize the staggering loss of life in the “Great War.  The “War to End all Wars”. Before they had numbers, a war where the death toll from a single day’s fighting could exceed that of every war of the preceding one hundred years.

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Since that time, the red poppy has become an internationally recognized symbol of remembrance of the lives lost in all wars. I keep one always, pinned to the visor of my car. A reminder that no free citizen of a self-governing Republic, should ever forget where we come from. Nor the prices paid by our ancestors, to get us here.

 

Did You Know?
In Greek and Roman mythology, poppies were used as offerings to the dead.

April 28, 1752 John Stark, American Cincinnatus

Of all the General officers who fought for American Independence, there is but one true Cincinnatus. A man who risked his life in the cause of Liberty, and truly retired from public life.

The Roman Republic of antiquity operated on the basis of separation of powers with checks and balances, and a strong aversion to the concentration of authority. Except in times of national emergency, no single individual was allowed to wield absolute power over his fellow citizens.

The retired patrician and military leader Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was called from his farm in 458BC to assume the mantle of Dictator and, despite his old age, again, twenty years later. With the crisis averted, Cincinnatus relinquished all power and the perks which came with it, and returned to his plow.

The man’s name remains symbolic, from that day to this. A synonym for outstanding leadership, selfless service and civic virtue.

Of all the General officers who fought for American Independence, there is but one true Cincinnatus. A man who risked his life in the cause of Liberty, and truly retired from public life.

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Outside of his native New Hampshire, few remember the name of John Stark.  Born August 28, 1728 in Londonderry (modern day Derry), the family moved up the road when the boy was eight, to Derryfield. Today we know it as Manchester.

On April 28, 1752, 23-year-old John Stark was out trapping and fishing with his brother William, and a couple of buddies. The small group was set upon by a much larger party of Abenaki warriors. David Stinson was killed in the struggle, as John was able to warn his brother away. William escaped, in a canoe.

John was captured along with Amos Eastman.  267 years ago today, the hostages were heading north, all the way to Quebec, where the pair were subjected to a ritual torture known as “running the gauntlet”.

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Frontiersman Simon Kenton, running the gauntlet

In the eastern woodlands of the United States and southern Quebec and Ontario, captives in the colonial and pre-European era often faced death by ritual torture at the hands of indigenous peoples, a process which could last, for days.  In running the gauntlet, the condemned is forced between two opposing rows, where warriors strike out with clubs, whips and bladed weapons.

Eastman barely got out alive, but Stark wasn’t playing by the same rules.  He hit the first man at a dead run, wrenching the man’s club from his grasp and striking out, at both lines.  The scene was pandemonium, as the tormented captive gave as good as he got. To the chief of the Abenaki, it may have been the funniest thing, ever. He was so amused, he adopted the pair into the tribe.  Eastman and Stark lived as tribal members for the rest of that year and into the following Spring, when a Massachusetts Bay agent bought their freedom. Sixty Spanish dollars for Amos and $103, for John Stark.

3590100173_0a6114e466_bSeven years later during the French & Indian War, Rogers’ Rangers were ordered to  attack the Abenaki village with John Stark, second in command.  Stark refused to accompany the attacking force out of respect for his Indian foster family, returning instead to Derryfield and his wife Molly, whom he had married the year before.

John Stark returned to military service in 1775 following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, accepting a Colonelcy with the 1st Regiment of the New Hampshire militia.

During the early phase of the Battle of Bunker Hill, American Colonel William Prescott knew he was outgunned and outnumbered, and sent out a desperate call for reinforcements. The British warship HMS Lively was raining accurate fire down on Charlestown Neck, the narrow causeway linking the city with the rebel positions. Several companies were milling about just out of range, when Stark ordered them to step aside. Colonel Stark and his New Hampshire men then calmly marched to Prescott’s position on Breed’s Hill, without a single casualty.

Stark and his men formed the left flank of the rebel position, leading down to the beach at Mystic River.  The Battle of Bunker Hill was a British victory, in that they held the ground, when it was over. It was a costly win which could scarcely be repeated. At the place in the line held by John Stark’s New Hampshire men, British dead were piled up like cord wood.

John Stark’s service record reads like a timeline of the American Revolution. The doomed invasion of Canada in the Spring of 1776. The famous crossing of the Delaware and the victorious battles at Trenton, and Princeton New Jersey. Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum and his Brunswick mercenaries ran into a buzz saw in Bennington Vermont, in the form of Seth Warner’s Green Mountain Boys and John Stark, rallying his New Hampshire militia with the cry, “There are your enemies, the Red Coats and the Tories. They are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow!”  When it was over, Stark reported 14 dead and 42 wounded. Of Lt. Col. Baum’s 374 professional soldiers, only nine walked away.

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Battle of Bennington

The loss of his German ally led in no small part to “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne’s defeat, at Saratoga.  Stark served with distinction for the remainder of the war and, like Cincinnatus before him, returned home to his farm.

In 1809, a group of Bennington veterans gathered for a reunion. Stark was 81 at this time and not well enough to travel. Instead, he wrote his comrades a letter, closing with these words:

“Live free or die: Death is not the worst of evils.”

The name of the American Cincinnatus is all but forgotten today but his words live on, imprinted on every license plate, in New Hampshire.  “Live Free or Die”.

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A Trivial Matter
Neither George Washington nor Samuel Adams liked political parties, believing that such “factions” would splinter the Congress and divide the nation.

April 27, 1941 The Guinea Pig Club

The mind recoils in horror at the human body enveloped in flame, but that’s just the beginning.  Both Hurricane and Spitfire fighters place fuel tanks, directly in front of the pilot. The wind speed of an F5 tornado is 201MPH+. The nozzle speed from a common pressure washer, 243. The maximum speed of these two fighter aircraft are 340 and 363 respectively, the explosive force of escaping gasses, geometric multiples of those numbers. The burns resulting from exploding aviation fuel were called “Hurricane Burns”.  The wreckage wrought on the human form, beggars the imagination.

The attraction of taking flight in time of war is unmistakable.  For a lad of nineteen, twenty, twenty one, he is a latter-day knight at the prime of his life, mounting his steed of steel to do battle with evil.  Life seems indestructible and without end at that age, except, reality is shockingly different.  Of a group of 100 RAF airmen in the early phase of World War Two, a mere twenty escaped being killed, captured or incinerated alive.

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Flying Officer Desmond “Des” O’Connell was just nineteen when he joined the British Royal Air Force, in 1938.

O’Connell was assigned to RAF Limavady in the north of Ireland in the early months of World War Two, around the time the Capital Battleship Bismarck cleared the Kiel Canal and emerged into the Baltic Sea. On this day in 1941, Desmond O’Connell and six other flyers were assigned to find and take out the German warship.

The twin engine Whitworth Mark V ‘Whitley’ medium bomber never had a chance, overloaded as it was with extra crew, tanks full of fuel and bombs. The aircraft struggled to gain altitude and clipped the mountains outside of Limavady before striking the ground, and breaking apart.

Desmond O’Connell miraculously survived as did the rest of the crew, but his ordeal had just begun.  Soaked with fuel and suffering a skull fracture, he was crawling on his hands and knees when the fire caught up.   He remembers peering through the flames at his hands, as pieces came off of his gloves.  But those weren’t gloves.  The flesh was burning from his hands.

Archibald Hector McIndoe took to medicine at an early age, earning the first New Zealand fellowship to the prestigious Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota, at only 24. Dr. McIndoe moved to London in 1930 and, unable to find work, joined in private practice with his great uncle, fellow Kiwi Sir Harold Gillies. Gillies was a pioneer in the field of plastic surgery by this time, made famous through his work in the Great War as “The Man who Fixed Faces“.

Dr. McIndoe was a talented surgeon:  confident, precise, and quick on his feet.  Under Harold Gillies’ direction, Archibald McIndoe became a leading figure in the field of plastic surgery.

With the outbreak of WW2, Dr. McIndoe took a position at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, Sussex, where he headed up a center for plastic and maxillofacial surgery. A trickle of patients from the “Phoney War” period soon turned to a flood, during the Battle of Britain.

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The mind recoils in horror at the human body enveloped in flame, but that’s just the beginning.  Both Hurricane and Spitfire fighters place fuel tanks, directly in front of the pilot. The wind speed of an F5 tornado is 201MPH+. The nozzle speed from a common pressure washer, 243. The maximum speed of these two fighter aircraft are 340 and 363 respectively, the explosive force of escaping gasses, geometric multiples of those numbers. The burns resulting from exploding aviation fuel were called “Hurricane Burns”.  The wreckage wrought on the human form, beggars the imagination.

Dr. McIndoe treated no fewer than 649 of these men, not only Brits but Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders.  There were Americans and French, Czechs and Poles.  Each man required dozens and sometimes hundreds of surgeries over agonizing years.  Sausage-like constructions of living flesh called “tubed pedicles” were “waltzed” up from remote donor sites on patient’s own bodies, to replace body parts consumed by the war.

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To be rendered hideous and unsightly in service to one’s nation, a subject of horrified stares, is more than most can bear.  McIndoe understood as much and his treatment methods threw convention, out the window.  Inmates were treated not as patients or objects of pity, but as men.  They wore not the ‘jammies or those degrading hospital johnnys with their asses hanging out but their own clothing, and even uniforms.  They had parties and socialized.  Those who were able went “out on the town”.  They were the “Guinea Pig Club”, they socialized, threw parties.  More than a few relationships were formed with nurses, many ended in marriage.

“Others met women from East Grinstead, a place the ‘guinea pigs’ referred to as ‘the town that never stared’”. H/T nzhistory.govt.nz

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Dr. McIndoe was knighted in 1947 and passed away at only fifty nine, but his work lives on in the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), and the British Association of Plastic Surgeons (BAPS) for which he once served, as president.  The Blond McIndoe Research Foundation opened at the Queen Victoria Hospital in 1961, and continues to conduct research into new methods of wound management, to this day.

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The Guinea Pig Club turned seventy-five years old in 2016.  Most of those early RAF members are gone now, but the organization lives on.  Today, new members come from places like the Falkland islands.  And Iraq.  And Afghanistan.

 

Feature image, top of page:  A scene from the 2012 play “The Guinea Pig Club”, depicts the agonies of WW2-era RAF airmen, treated for severe burns

 

A Trivial Matter
“Until the spring of 1944, the priority for manpower in the UK was not the navy, RAF, army, or even the merchant navy, but the Ministry of Aircraft Production. In the war, Britain alone built 132,500 aircraft, a staggering achievement – especially when considering that Fighter Command in the battle of Britain never had more than 750 fighters”. H/T HistoryExtra.com

April 25, 1915 ANZAC Day

Following four months training in Egypt, the fledgling ANZAC forces came ashore on this day in 1915, under heavy Turkish fire. 

Europe was unprepared for what was to come in September 1939.  Wags called the eight months ending in May 1940 the ‘Phoney War”. The “Sitzkreig”. The outbreak of the “Great War” was different in August 1914, as war exploded across the European landmass. France alone suffered 140,000 casualties over the four-day “Battle of the Frontiers”, where the River Sambre met the Meuse. 27,000 Frenchmen died in a single day, August 22, in the forests of the Ardennes and Charleroi.

The British Expeditionary Force escaped annihilation on August 22-23 only by the intervention of mythic angels, at a place called Mons. In the East, a Russian army under General Alexander Samsonov was encircled and so thoroughly shattered at Tannenberg, that German machine gunners were driven to insanity over the damage inflicted by their own guns, on the milling and helpless masses of Russian soldiers. Only 10,000 of the original 150,000 escaped death, destruction or capture. Samsonov himself walked into the woods, and shot himself.

The “Race to the Sea” of mid-September to late October was more a series of leapfrog movements and running combat, in which the adversaries tried to outflank one another. It would be some of the last major movement of the Great War.

A million men were transported by all sides to the ancient textile town of Ypres, “Leper” to the Dutch and “Wipers” to the Tommies, for the purpose of killing each other.

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75,000 men from all sides lost their lives in the month-long apocalypse at Ypres while, all along a 450-mile front, millions of soldiers dug into the ground to shelter from what Private Ernst Jünger later called the “Storm of Steel”.

With stalemate on the western front in early 1915, Allied powers considered opening an offensive in another theater. The Ottoman Empire had entered the war on the side of the Central powers by this time, against whom Russia’s Grand Duke Nicholas was asking for help in the Caucasus. A Naval expedition was decided upon to seize the Dardanelles, the narrow strait connecting the Aegean with the Sea of Marmara and taking Turkey out of the war.

Despite misgivings, naval bombardment opened on the Dardanelles on February 19, 1915. A month of French and British shelling failed to force the straits and Allied planners fell back on amphibious invasion.  The table was set for the eight month disaster known as the battle of Gallipoli.

489,000 French and Commonwealth troops were fed into the abyss, including some sixty five thousand Australians and New Zealand forces collectively known as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. or ANZACs.

Following four months training in Egypt, the fledgling ANZAC forces came ashore on this day in 1915, under heavy Turkish fire.  Commonwealth forces fought heroically, thousands of individual stories including the famous “Six Before Breakfast”, pre-dawn actions leading to as many Victoria Crosses.   Despite all of it, the landing was a fiasco, stranding thousands of men, vehicles and vast quantities of stores on the beach.

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The traffic jam, was horrendous.  With the water behind them red with blood, ANZAC forces attempted to force the high ground despite determined fire from Turkish forces under Mustafa (Atatürk) Kemal.

A bold strike designed to knock the Ottomans out of the war became a stalemate, the blood soaked campaign dragging on for eight months.

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By the end of 1915, Commonwealth forces suffered some 302,000 casualties.  While the Gallipoli campaign made little difference in the course of the war, the actions of the ANZACs left a powerful legacy.    In time, this date became that rarest of days, a solemn day of remembrance shared by two sovereign nations, a part of the national identity of both countries.

With the beginning of WWII, ANZAC Day became a day to commemorate the lives of Australians and New Zealanders lost in all wars, the meaning of the date broadened to include those killed in all military operations in which the two nations have been involved.

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Gallipoli Landing, April 1915

ANZAC Day was first commemorated at the Australian War Memorial in 1942 but, due to government orders preventing large public gatherings in case of Japanese air attack, this was a small affair with neither march nor memorial service.

For the wounded, the dead and the maimed of that day one hundred four years ago today, ANZAC Day remains an occasion for solemn remembrance, from that day to this.

April 24, 1916 The World is Mad

In the early days of the Great War, the Endurance expedition of Sir Ernest Shackleton disappeared into the ice pack, within sight of the Antarctic continent. Theirs was a 497-day struggle for survival, re-emerging twenty months later to learn, the war wasn’t over. Millions were dead. Europe had gone mad. The world had gone mad.

In an alternate history, the June 1914 assassination of the heir-apparent to the Habsburg Empire may have led to nothing more than a regional squabble. A policing action in the Balkans. As it was, mutual distrust and entangling alliances drew the Great Powers of Europe into the vortex. On August 3, the “War to End Wars” exploded across the European continent.

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The period has been called the “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration”. As the diplomatic wrangling, mobilizations and counter-mobilizations of the “period preparatory to war” unfolded across the continent, Sir Ernest Shackleton made final arrangements for his third expedition into the Antarctic. Despite the outbreak of war, first Lord of the Admiralty Sir Winston Churchill ordered Shackleton to Proceed. The “Endurance” expedition departed British waters on August 8.

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The German invasion of France ground to a halt that September. The first entrenchments were being dug as Shackleton himself remained in England, departing on September 27 to meet up with the Endurance expedition in Buenos Aires.

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H/T GreatWarPhotos.com

With the unofficial “Christmas Truce” of 1914 short weeks away from the trenches of Flanders, Shackleton’s expedition left Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia Island. It was December 5.

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The Endurance expedition intended to be the first to cross the Antarctic continent. The way things turned out, the crew wouldn’t touch land, for 497 days.

zeppattwarsaw2hThe disaster of the Great War became “Total War” with the zeppelin raids of January, as Endurance met with disaster of its own. The ship was frozen fast, within sight of the Antarctic continent. There was no hope of escape.

Endurance trapped in ice, 1916

HMS Lusitania departed New York City on May 1, 1915, with no way to know she had only six days to live. The sun that vanished that night over the Shackleton expedition, would not reappear for another four months.

World War I. 7th May 1915. An illustration of the sinking of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania, torpedoed by German U-boat U-20 off the old head of Kinsale, Ireland.

As the nine-month battle unfolded across the Gallipoli Peninsula, Shackleton’s men abandoned ship’s routine and converted to winter station. On September 1, the massive pressure of the pack ice caused Endurance to “literally [jump] into the air and [settle] on its beam,” as losses to the Czar’s army in Galicia and Poland lead to a mass exodus of Russian troops and civilians from Poland. The “Great Retreat” gave way to the sort of discontent which would end the Czarist regime, as Shackleton gave the order to abandon ship. On November 21, the wreck of the Endurance slipped below the surface.

 

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That December, Allies began preparations for a summer offensive along the upper reaches of the River Somme. The Shackleton party camped on pack ice, adrift in open ocean as Erich von Falkenhayn began the Verdun offensive with which he would “bleed France white”. The ice broke up that April, forcing Shackleton and his party into three small lifeboats. Seven brutal days would come and go in those open boats, before the party reached land at the desolate shores of Elephant Island.

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The whaling stations at South Georgia Island, some 800 miles distant, were the only hope for survival. Shackleton and a party of five set out on April 24 aboard the 22½’ lifeboat James Caird, as the five-month siege at Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia ended with the surrender of 13,000 British and Indian soldiers, to the Turks.

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The party arrived on the west coast of South Georgia Island in near-hurricane force winds, the cliffs of South Georgia Island coming into view on May 10. As Captain Frank Worsely, Second officer Tom Crean and expedition leader Ernest Shackleton picked their way across glacier-clad mountain peaks thousands of feet high, Austrian troops attacked Italian mountain positions in the Trentino.

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The trio arrived at the Stromness whaling station on May 20, ten days after the temporary German suspension of unrestricted submarine warfare . They must have been a sight, with thick ice encrusting long, filthy beards, and saltwater-soaked clothing  rotting from their bodies. The first people they came across were children, who ran in fright at the sight of them.

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The last of the Shackleton expedition would be rescued on August 22, ending the 20-months long ordeal.  Six days later, Italy turned on her future ally and declared war on Germany.  At South Georgia Island, Ernest Shackleton asked how the war had ended. The response hit him like a hammer.  “The war isn’t over. Millions are dead. Europe is mad. The world is mad“.

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A Trivial Matter
“The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was minus 128.56 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 89.2 degrees Celsius), registered on July 21, 1983, at Antarctica’s Vostok station”. – H/T LiveScience.com

April 22, 1915 From Trench Warfare to Modern Chemotherapy

Mustard gas is a cytotoxic agent, capable of entering the system via skin, eyes and respiratory tract and attacking every cell type with which it comes into contact. First comes the garlic smell, as the yellow-brown, heavier-than-air cloud creeps along the ground. 

According to Greek mythology, the malevolent centaur Nessus attempted to force himself upon Deianeira, wife of Hercules (Herakles).  Seeing this from across a river, Hercules shot Nessus with an arrow, poisoned by the venom of the Hydra.  In a final act of malice, the dying centaur convinced Deianeira his blood would make her husband, faithful for life.  Deianeira foolishly believed him, coming to realize her error only as her husband lay dying by the tainted blood of his victim.

Bauer_-_Hercules_Nessus_DeianiraBoth sides in the battle for Troy used poisoned arrows, according to the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer.   Alexander the great encountered poison arrows and fire weapons in the Indus valley of India, in the fourth century, BC.  Chinese chronicles describe an arsenic laden “soul-hunting fog”, used to disperse a peasant revolt, in AD178.

The French were first to use poison weapons in the modern era, firing tear gas grenades containing xylil bromide against German forces in the first month of the Great War: August, 1914.

1D7Imperial Germany was first to give serious study to chemical weapons of war, early experiments with irritants taking place at the battle of Neuve-Chapelle in October 1914, and with tear gas at Bolimów on January 31, 1915 and again at Nieuport, that March.

The first widespread use of poison gas, in this case chlorine, came on April 22, 1915 at the second battle of Ypres.

The story of gas warfare is inextricably linked with that of WW1.  124,000 tons of the stuff was produced by all sides by the end of the war, accounting for 1,240,853 casualties, including the agonizing death of 91,198.

Had the war continued into 1919, technological advances promised a new and fresh hell, unimaginable to contemporary and modern reader, alike.

Gas

Today we think of chemical agents in WW2 as being limited to the death camps of the Nazis, but such weapons were far more widespread.  The Imperial Japanese military frequently used vesicant (blister) agents such as Lewisite and mustard gas against Chinese military and civilians, and in the hideous “medical experiments” conducted on live prisoners at Unit 731 and Unit 516.  Emperor Hirohito personally authorized the use of toxic gas during the 1938 Battle of Wuhan, on no fewer than 375 occasions.

The Italian military destroyed every living creature in its path during the 1936 Colonial war with Ethiopia, in what Emperor Haile Selassie called “a fine, death-dealing rain”.

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Nazi Germany possessed some 45,000 tons of blister and nerve agents, though such weapons were rarely used against western adversaries.  The “Ostfront” – the apocalyptic race war pitting the Teuton against the Slavic states of the Soviet Union – was a different story.  Russian resistance fighters and Red Army soldiers were attacked, most notably during the assault on the catacombs of Odessa in 1941, the 1942 siege of Sebastopol, and the nearby caves and tunnels of the Adzhimuskai quarry, where “poison gas was released into the tunnels, killing all but a few score of the (3,000+) Soviet defenders”.

Animals in World War1

The official American policy toward chemical weapons was enunciated by President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1937.  

“ I do not want the Government of the United States to do anything to aggrandize or make permanent any special bureau of the Army or the Navy engaged in these studies. I hope the time will come when the Chemical Warfare Service can be entirely abolished”. – Franklin D Roosevelt, in a letter to the United States Senate

None of the western allies resorted to chemical warfare in WW2, despite having accumulated over twice the chemical stockpile as Nazi Germany.  The policy seems to have been one of “mutually assured destruction”, where no one wanted to be first to go there, but all sides reserved the option.

main-qimg-6cec6b7ffb5cac17681e9f4e14d99d61-cGreat Britain possessed massive quantities of mustard, chlorine, Lewisite, Phosgene and Paris Green, awaiting retaliation should Nazi Germany resort to such weapons on the beaches of Normandy.  General Alan Brooke, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, “[H]ad every intention of using sprayed mustard gas on the beaches” in the event of a German landing on the British home islands.

dog_gas_masks_02The Geneva Protocols on 1925 banned the use of chemical weapons, but not their manufacture, or transport.  By 1942, the U.S. Chemical Corps employed some 60,000 soldiers and civilians and controlled a $1 Billion budget.

In August 1943, Roosevelt authorized the delivery of chemical munitions containing mustard gas, to the Mediterranean theater. Italy surrendered in early September, changing sides with the signing of the armistice of Cassibile.

The liberty ship SS John Harvey arrived at the southern Italian port of Bari in November, carrying 2000 M47A1 mustard gas bombs, each containing 60 to 70-pounds of sulfur mustard.

Bari was packed at the time, with ships waiting to be unloaded.  It would be days before stevedores could get to her. Captain John Knowles wanted to inform port authorities of his deadly cargo and request that it be unloaded immediately, but secrecy prevented him from doing so. As it was, John Harvey was still waiting to be unloaded, on December 2.

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For Luftwaffe Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring, the traffic jam at Bari was an opportunity to slow the advance of the British 8th army on the Italian peninsula.

The “Little Pearl Harbor” began at 7:25PM, when 105 Junkers JU-88 bombers came out of the East.   The tactical surprise was complete, and German pilots were able to bomb the harbor with great accuracy. Two ammunition ships were first to explode, shattering windows 7 miles away. A bulk gasoline pipeline was severed, as a sheet of burning fuel spread across the harbor, igniting those ships left undamaged.

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43 ships were sunk, damaged or destroyed including John Harvey, which erupted in a massive explosion.  Liquid sulfur mustard spilled into the water, as a cloud of toxic vapor blew across the port and into the city.

Mustard gas is a cytotoxic agent, capable of entering the system via skin, eyes and respiratory tract and attacking every cell type with which it comes into contact. First comes the garlic smell, as the yellow-brown, heavier-than-air cloud creeps along the ground.  Contact first results in redness and itching, resulting 12-24 hours later in excruciating, untreatable blisters on exposed areas of the skin.  Sufferers are literally burned inside and out, as mucous membranes are stripped away from the eyes, nose and respiratory tract.

Mustard_Gas-_Sketch_to_Illustrate_the_Effect_of_Mustard_Gas_on_Horses_Art.IWMART4942.jpgDeath comes in days or weeks.  Survivors are likely to suffer chronic respiratory disease and infections. DNA is altered, often resulting in certain cancers and birth defects. To this day there is no antidote.

A thousand or more died outright in the bombing.  643 military service personnel were hospitalized for gas symptoms.  83 of those were dead, by the end of the month.  The number of civilian casualties is unknown.  The whole episode remained shrouded in secrecy.

At the time, the chemical disaster at Bari was all but unknown.  Everyone with any knowledge of John Harvey’s secret cargo was killed in the explosion.  Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Francis Alexander, an American physician from New Jersey, was sent by the Deputy Surgeon General of the US Army to find out what happened.

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Dr. Alexander identified mustard as the responsible agent.   In the process of testing, Dr. Alexander noticed the unknown agent first went after rapidly dividing cells, such as white blood cells. Alexander wondered if it might be useful in going after other rapidly dividing cells.  Like cancer.

Based on Dr. Alexander’s field work, Yale pharmacologists Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman developed the first anti-cancer chemotherapy drug, in the treatment of lymphoma.

Dr. Sidney Farber of Boston built on this work, producing remission in children with acute Leukemia using Aminopterin, an early precursor to Methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug still in use, today.

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Dr. Sidney Farber, regarded by many as the “Father of Modern Chemotherapy”

Writers have labeled SS John Harvey a Savior of Millions, due to the vessel’s role in the pioneering era of modern chemotherapy drugs.

The claim may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not entirely so.  The American Cancer Society estimates that there were 7,377,100 male cancer survivors in the United States as of January 1, 2016 and another 8,156,120, females.

 

A Trivial Matter
German chemist Albert Niemann discovered cocaine in 1859, and went on to document the poison effects of sulphur mustard around the time of the American Civil War. In 1913, British and German civilian researchers were accidentally exposed to mustard and had to be hospitalized. The German military obtained notes about the incident and promptly went about weaponizing the stuff.