December 2, 1943 The Surprising Origins of Chemotherapy

In the 12th century, Bernard of Chartres described a process of finding truth, in building on previous discoveries. The concept is best remembered in the words of Sir Isaac Newton, in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.


Ancient Greek mythology depicts Hercules, poisoning arrows with the venom of the Hydra. Both 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 produced by the burning of toxic vegetation, used to disperse a peasant revolt in AD178.

“Soul-hunting fog”.

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

Imperial 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.

WW1 gas attack in Flanders

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

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.

Japanese, Gas Artillery

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”.

Nazi Germany possessed some 45,000 tons of blister and nerve agents, though such weapons were rarely used against western adversaries.  The “Ostfront” – the battle on the eastern front – 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”.

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None of the western allies resorted to chemical warfare in WW2, despite having accumulated over twice the chemical stockpile as that of 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.  Great Britain possessed massive quantities of mustard, chlorine, Lewisite, Phosgene and Paris Green, awaiting the retaliatory strike should Nazi Germany resort to such weapons on the beaches of Normandy. 

General Alan Brooke, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, said he “[H]ad every intention of using sprayed mustard gas on the beaches” in the event of a German landing on the British home islands.

The official American policy toward chemical weapons was enunciated by President Franklin Roosevelt, in 1937: “I am doing everything in my power to discourage the use of gases and other chemicals in any war between nations. While, unfortunately, the defensive necessities of the United States call for study of the use of chemicals in warfare, 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”.

The Geneva Protocols of 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.

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.

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Air raid on Bari, December 2, 1943

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.

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.

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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 a garlic odor as the yellow-brown, heavier-than-air cloud creeps along the ground.  Contact results in redness and itching at first, 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.

Death comes in days or weeks.  Survivors are likely to develop chronic respiratory disease and infections. DNA is permanently 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 was shrouded in secrecy and remains to this day, one of the lesser-known chapters of World War 2.

At the time, the nature of the chemical disaster at Bari was uncertain.  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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It was Dr. Alexander who figured out the responsible agent was mustard, and where the stuff had come from.   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. 

In the 12th century, Bernard of Chartres described a process of finding truth, in building on previous discoveries. The concept is best remembered in the words of Sir Isaac Newton, in 1675: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants”.

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

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 today estimates cancer survivors in the range of 16.9 million.

November 11, 1918 Sacred Soil

Over the summer of 2013, more than 1,000 British and Belgian schoolchildren visited 70 battlefields of the Great War. Ypres. Passchendaele. Verdun. The Somme. It was a singular event. Never before had the Commonwealth War Graves Commission permitted excavation on Any of these battlefields.

November 11. Veteran’s Day.  A federal holiday in the United States, set aside to honor those who have served in the US Armed Forces. The Commonwealth nations call it Remembrance Day and sometimes Poppy Day, harking back to the tradition of the Remembrance Poppy. Once, it was simply “Armistice Day”. The end of the “Great War”.  Before they had numbers.

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Passchendaele

There is barely a piece of 20th century history that can’t be traced back to World War One, the “War to end all Wars”.

International Communism was borne of the Great War, without which there would have been no cold war, no Korean War, no war in Vietnam. The killing fields of Cambodia would have remained, mere rice fields.  The spiritual descendants of Chiang Kai-shek’s brand of capitalism would be running all of China, instead of only Taiwan.

The current proportions of the Middle East arose from the Great War. While tribal alliances and religious strife are nothing new in that region, those conditions would have taken a different form, had it not been for those boundaries.

Ypres. The aftermath. Stop for a moment if you will, and imagine. What this felt like. What this smelled like. What this looked like. In color.

There were five such battles for the Ypres salient, of WW1

World War II, an apocalypse which left more dead, wounded or missing than any conflict in world history, was little more than the Great War, part II. A Marshall of France, on reading the Versailles Treaty formally ending WWI, said “This isn’t peace. This is a cease-fire that will last for 20 years”.  He was off, by about 36 days.

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It’s hard to understand how a participating citizen of a self-governing Republic, can function without some understanding of our own history. We can’t know where we want our nation to go, if we don’t understand where it’s been.  It’s one of the principle reasons for examining history.  It’s why I think something wonderful happened just a few years ago, and I don’t think many of us heard about it.

Over the summer of 2013, more than 1,000 British and Belgian schoolchildren visited 70 battlefields of the Great War.  Ypres.  Passchendaele.  Verdun.  The Somme. It was a singular event.  Never before had the Commonwealth War Graves Commission permitted excavation on Any of these battlefields.

All over Northern France and Belgium, the region known as “Flanders”.  There these children collected samples of the sacred soil of those fields of conflict.

No ordinary dirt, the soil of Flanders Fields is literally infused with the essence of those who fought and died there. The soil from those seventy battlefields was placed in as many WWI-style burlap sandbags, each stenciled with a red poppy, where it came from, and the dates. 

A hundred-odd years ago, countless British and Commonwealth soldiers passed through the Menenpoort, the Menin Gate in the Belgian city of Ypres. Some 300,000 gave their lives in defense of the “Ypres Salient” of WW1. Some 90,000 of those, have no known graves.

With a solemn Armistice Day ceremony at the Menin Gate, those 70 sandbags began their journey.

The sacred soil of Flanders Fields was transported to London aboard the Belgian Navy frigate Louisa Marie and installed with great care at Wellington Barracks, the central London home of the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards and Scots Guards.

There the soil of the Great War would nourish and support a simple garden.  It was all in preparation for the following year, 2014 and the solemn remembrance of the centenary, of the War to end all Wars.

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I cannot think of anything more fitting than that it was children, our future and posterity, who retrieved the sacred soil of Flanders and installed it in that garden. A grassy mound, surrounded by the native trees of Flanders and inscribed with a poem by Dr. John McCrea, the 41-year-old Canadian physician who could have joined the medical corps based on his age and training. He volunteered instead to join a fighting unit, as gunner and medical officer.

His poem is called, “In Flanders Fields”.

In Flanders Fields, by Dr. John McCrae

In 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.

It is now for that posterity to keep our history alive, never to let it fade into some sepia-toned and forgotten past.

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Afterward

Moina Belle Michael was a professor at the University of Georgia. She took a leave of absence when the US entered the war in 1917 and accepted a job at the YMCA Overseas War Secretaries headquarters, in New York.  Browsing through the Ladies Home Journal, she came across Dr. McCrae’s poem. It was Saturday morning, November 9, 1918.  The war would be over in two days.

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.

Professor 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”.

We Shall Keep the Faith

Moina Michael

Oh! 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

poppy. red poppy isolated on white background.red poppy.

November 10, 1918 11th Hour

The German King abdicated on November 10, as riots broke out in the streets. The final surrender was signed at 5:10am on November 11, and back-timed to 5:00am Paris time, scheduled to go into effect later that morning. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.


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 combined with slavish obedience to mobilization timetables, to draw the Great Powers of Europe, into the vortex.  On August 3, the “War to End All Wars” exploded across the continent.

Many of the soldiers who went off to war in those days, viewed the conflict as some kind of grand adventure. Many of them singing patriotic songs, the men and boys of Russia, Germany, Austria, England and France stealing last kisses from wives and sweethearts, and boarding their ships and trains.

Believing overwhelming manpower to be the key to victory, British Secretary of State for War Lord Horatio Kitchener recruited friends and neighbors by the tens of thousands into “Pal’s Battalions”, to fight for King and country.

Four years later, a generation had been chewed up and spit out, as if in pieces.

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The signs could have been written in any number of languages, in the early phase of the war

Any single day’s fighting during the great battles of 1916 produced more casualties than every European war of the last 100 years, civilian and military, combined.

As a point of reference, 6,503 Americans lost their lives during the savage, month-long battle for Iwo Jima, in 1945. The first day’s fighting during the 1916 Battle of the Somme, killed three times that number on the British and Commonwealth side, alone.

Over 16 million were killed and another 20 million wounded, while vast stretches of the European countryside were literally, torn to pieces. Tens of thousands of sons, brothers and fathers remain missing, to this day.

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Over 1.5 million shells were fired in the days leading to the battle of the Somme

Had you found yourself stuck in the mud and the blood, the rats and the lice of the muddy trenches of New Year 1917-’18, you could have heard a plaintive refrain drifting across the barbed wire and frozen wastes of no man’s land, sung to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne”.

We’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here,
We’re here, because we’re here,
because we’re here, because we’re here.

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Cher Ami

Many of those who fought the “Great War”, weren’t even human.  The carrier pigeon Cher Ami escaped a hail of bullets and returned twenty-five miles to her coop despite a sucking chest wound, the loss of an eye and a leg that hung on, by a single tendon.  The message she’d been given to carry, saved the lives of 190 men.

“Warrior” was the thoroughbred mount to General “Galloper” Jack Seely, arriving in August 1914 and serving four years “over there”. “The horse the Germans can’t kill” survived snipers, poison gas and shellfire, twice buried alive in great explosions, only to return home to the Isle of Wight, to live to the ripe old age of 33.

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First division Rags

First Division Rags” ran through a torrent of shells, gassed and blinded in one eye, a shell fragment damaging his front paw and even then, he got his message through.

Jackie the baboon lost a leg during a heavy bombardment from German guns, frantically building a protective rock wall around himself, and his comrades.

Tirpitz the German pig jumped clear of the sinking light cruiser SMS Dresden, only to be rescued in open ocean to become mascot to the HMS Glasgow.

Sixteen million animals served on all sides and in all theaters of WW1:  from cats to canaries to pigeons and mules, camels, donkeys and dogs.  As “dumb animals”, these were never given the choice to “volunteer”.  And yet they served, some nine million making the supreme sacrifice.

In the end, starvation and malnutrition stalked the land at home as well as the front. Riots were rife at home as well as in the trenches. The Russian Empire of the Czars was collapsed into a Bolshevik hellhole, never to return.  The domestic economies of nearly every combatant nation was disintegrating, or teetering on the brink.

A strange bugle call came out of the night of November 7, 1918. French soldiers of the 171st Régiment d’Infanterie, stationed near Haudroy, advanced into the the darkness, expecting to be attacked. Instead, the apparitions of three sedans appeared out of the fog, their sides displaying the German Imperial Eagle.

Imperial Germany, its army disintegrating in the field and threatened with revolution at home had sent a peace delegation, headed by 43-year-old politician Matthias Erzberger.

The delegation was escorted to the Compiegne Forest near Paris, to a conference room fashioned from a railroad dining car. There they were met by a delegation headed by Ferdinand Foch, Marshall of France.

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The German delegation was stunned at what Foch had to say. ‘Ask these gentlemen what they want,’ he said to his interpreter. Dismayed, Erzberger responded. The German believed they were there to discuss terms of an armistice. Foch dropped the hammer: “Tell these gentlemen that I have no proposals to make”.

Ferdinand Foch had seen his nation destroyed by war, and had vowed “to pursue the Feldgrauen (Field Grays) with a sword at their backs”. He had no intention of letting up.

Marshall Foch now produced a list of 34 demands, each a sledgehammer blow on the German delegation. Germany was to divest herself of all means of self-defense, from her high seas fleet to the last machine gun. She was to withdraw from all lands occupied since 1870. With her population starving at home – the German Board of Public Health claimed a month later, that 763,000 civilians were dead of starvation – the allies were to confiscate 5,000 locomotives, 150,000 rail cars and 5,000 trucks.

Adolf Hitler would gleefully accept French surrender in that same rail car, some twenty-two years later.

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By this time, 2,250 combatants were dying every day on the Western Front.  Foch informed Ertzberger he had 72 hours in which to respond. “For God’s sake, Monsieur le Marechal”, responded the German, “do not wait for those 72 hours. Stop the hostilities this very day”.  The plea fell on deaf ears. Fighting would continue until the last minute, of the last day.

The German King abdicated on November 10, as riots broke out in the streets. The final surrender was signed at 5:10am on November 11, and back-timed to 5:00am Paris time, scheduled to go into effect later that morning. The 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month.

The order went out. The war would be over in hours, but specific instructions, were few.

Some field commanders ordered their men to stand down. Why fight and die over ground they could walk over, in just a few hours?

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The last six hours

Others continued the attack, believing that Germany had to be well and truly beaten. Others saw a last chance at glory, or promotion. One artillery captain named Harry S Truman, kept his battery firing until minutes before 11:00.

English teacher turned Major General Charles Summerall had a fondness for the turn of phrase. Ordering his subordinates across the Meuse River in those final hours, Summerall said “We are swinging the door by its hinges. It has got to move…Get into action and get across. I don’t expect to see any of you again…

No fewer than 320 Americans were killed in those final six hours, another 3,240 seriously wounded.

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Still smarting from the disaster at Mons back in 1914, British High Command was determined to take the place back, on that final day. The British Empire lost more than 2,400 in those last 6 hours.

The French 80th Régiment d’Infanterie received two orders that morning – to launch an attack at 9:00, and cease-fire at 11:00. French losses for the final day amounted to 1,170. The already retreating Germans suffered 4,120.

All sides suffered over 11,000 dead, wounded or missing in those last six hours. Some have estimated that more men died per hour after the armistice was signed, than during the D-Day invasion, some 26 years later.

Over in the Meuse-Argonne sector, Henry Gunther was “visibly angry”.   Perhaps this American grandson of German immigrants felt he had something to prove.  Anti-German bias had not reached levels of the next war, when President Roosevelt interned Americans of Japanese descent, but even so. Such animosity was very real.  Gunther’s fiancé had broken the engagement. He’d been busted in rank after that letter home, complaining about conditions.

Bayonet fixed, Gunther charged the German machine gun position, as enemy soldiers frantically waved and yelled for him, to get back. He got off a “shot or two”, before the five round burst tore into his head. Henry Nicholas John Gunther of Baltimore Maryland was the last man to die in combat, in the Great War.  It was 10:59am.  The war would be over, in sixty seconds.

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After eight months on the front lines of France, Corporal Joe Rodier of Worcester Massachusetts, was jubilant.   “Another day of days“.   Rodier wrote in his diary.  “Armistice signed with Germany to take effect at 11 a.m. this date. Great manifestations. Town lighted up at night. Everybody drunk, even to the dog. Moonlight, cool night & not a shot heard“.

Matthias Erzberger was assassinated in 1921, for his role in the surrender. The “Stab in the Back” mythology destined to become Nazi propaganda, had already begun.

AEF Commander General John “Black Jack” Pershing believed the armistice to be a grave error. He believed that Germany had been defeated but not beaten, and that failure to smash the German homeland meant the war would have to be fought, all over again. Ferdinand Foch agreed. On reading the Versailles treaty in 1919, he said “This isn’t peace! This is a truce for 20 years”.

The man got it wrong, by 36 days.

Norman Francis Long
On a personal note:

At sixty-two I still enjoy the memories of a five-year-old, fishing with his grandfather.

PFC Norman Franklin Long was wounded during the Great War, before they had numbers, a member of the United States Army, 33rd Pennsylvania Infantry.  He left us on December 18, 1963. A few short hours before his namesake, my brother Norm, was born.

A 1977 fire in the national archives, left us without the means to learn the details of his service.

My father’s father went to his final rest on Christmas eve 1963, in Arlington National Cemetery.  Section 41, grave marker 2161.

Rest in peace, Grampa.  You left us, too soon.

November 4, 1918 Dulce et decorum est

And finally it came, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The church bells rang out in celebration that day in 1918, even as his mother and father, opened the dread telegram. “Deeply regret to inform you, that…”

The words come down to us some 2,000 years from the Roman poet, Horace. Dulcē et decōrum est prō patriā mōrī. It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.

When the “Great War” broke out in 1914, Wilfred Owen was working as a private English tutor, in Bordeaux. At first in no hurry to sign up, Owen considered joining the French Army before returning home, to England.

In October 1915, he enlisted in the Artists Rifles Training Corps. Originally formed in 1859, the Artists Rifles was a British special forces regiment, raised in London and comprised of painters, musicians, actors and architects, symbolized by the heads of the Roman gods Mars and Minerva.

It must have felt natural.  Wilfred Owen was a poet, a talent first discovered about ten years earlier, at the age of 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 all to be louts and barbarians.  He wrote home to his mother Susan in 1917, describing his company as “expressionless lumps”.  The war was soon to beat that out of him.

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

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

Following this experience, soldiers reported Owen behaving strangely. He 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 on his poetry, to overcome shell shock.  There he met another patient, the war poet Siegfried Sassoon. The chance meeting would elevate Wilfred Owen to one of the great war poets, of his generation.

Owen’s work was different before this time, vaguely self important but never self pitying. Never the pacifist – he held those people in contempt – Owen’s nightmares now brought forth a savage honesty and bottomless compassion for the burdens of the ordinary soldier.  Tales of trench life:  of gas, of lice, of 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 gives a sense of this 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.

Owen continued to write through his convalescence, his fame as author and poet growing with 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 that life 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 to return to front line combat, made all the more urgent when Sassoon was once again wounded, and removed from the front.

Back in France, Owen captured a German machine gun position on September 29, for which he was awarded the Military Cross.  Posthumously.

He wrote home to his mother on October 31, from the shelter of a cellar in a small wood called Bois l’Évêque, near the Sambre–Oise Canal.  It was the last such note she would ever receive.  “Of this I am certain” he wrote, ” you could not be surrounded by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.

Sambre-Oise Canal, now

The 44-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 traverse the canal by portable foot bridges or climbing across lock gates.

The battle of the Sambre–Oise Canal was one of the last Allied victories of the Great War, but 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 leading a raiding party when the German machine gun barked and chattered to life, the bullets tearing into his body. The armistice ending the ‘War to End All Wars” was to come a week later, nearly to the hour.

Sambre-Oise Canal, then

The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The church bells of Shrewsbury rang out in celebration that day in 1918, even as Tom and Susan Owen, the 25-year-old’s mother and father, opened the dread telegram.

“Deeply regret to inform you, that…”

Wilfred March 18, 1893 – November 4, 1918

“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

July 10, 1040 Death and Taxes

Tax revolts are nothing new.  Neither are the many and sometimes novel ways that politicians have concocted to fleece those of us who pay their bills.

In the age of Edward the Confessor somewhere in the English midlands, there lay the Kingdom of Mercia. It was 1040 or thereabouts and Leofric, Earl of Mercia, had a problem. Leofric was the kind of ruler who never saw a tax he didn’t like, his latest the “Heregeld”, a tax to pay for the King’s bodyguard.  The Earl’s wife  Godgyfu had other ideas, her name in the Olde English, signifying “Gift of God”.  Today, we call her “Godiva”.

Take pity on the people of Coventry, Godiva said, they are suffering under all this oppressive taxation.

Lady Godiva

A guy can only take so much, even if he IS an Earl. Tired of his wife’s entreaties, Leofric agreed to repeal the tax on one condition; that Godiva ride a horse through the streets of town, dressed only in her birthday suit.  Lady Godiva took him at his word.  She issued a proclamation requiring all townspeople to stay indoors and shut their windows, so it was she took her famous ride through Coventry.

The story probably isn’t true, any more than the one about Tom, the guy who drilled a hole in his door so he could watch and lost his sight at what he saw.  But a thousand years later, we still use the term “Peeping Tom”.

Tax revolts are nothing new.  Neither are the many and sometimes novel ways that politicians have concocted to fleece those of us who pay their bills.

isOn December 31, 1695, King William III decreed a 2 shilling tax on each house in the land. Never one to miss an opportunity to “stick-it-to-the-rich”, there was an extra tax on every window over ten, a tax which would last for another 156 years.

It must have been a money maker, because the governments of France, Spain and Scotland followed suit. To this day, you can see homes where owners have bricked up windows, preferring darkness to the payment of yet another tax.

singelIn Holland, they used to tax the frontage of a home, the wider your house the more you paid. If you’ve ever been to Amsterdam, narrow houses rise several stories, with hooks over windows almost as wide as the building itself. These are used to haul furniture up from the outside, since the stairways are too narrow. The narrowest home in Amsterdam can be found at Singel #7, the house itself barely wider than its own front door.

You can find the same thing in the poorer quarters of New Orleans, where the “shotgun single”, a home so narrow you can fire a shotgun in the front door and pellets will go out the back, and the “Camelback” (second story out back) are the architectural remnants of long-dead taxation policy.

Charles_Marville,_Urinoir_en_ardoise_à_3_stalles,_Chaussée_du_Maine,_ca._1865The Roman Emperor Vespasian who ruled from 69 to 79AD, levied a tax on public toilets. When Vespasian’s son, the future Emperor Titus wrinkled his nose, the old man held a coin under the boy’s nose. “Pecunia non olet”, he said.  “Money does not stink”.  2,000 years later, the name remains inseparable from public urinals. In France, the er…pissoir… is called vespasiennes, in Italy vespasiani.  If you need to piss in Romania you could go to the vespasiene.  History fails to record the inevitable push-back on Vespasian’s toilet tax, but I’m sure that ancient Romans had to look where they walked.

benfranklinEnvironmentalist types in Venice, Italy have been pushing a tax on tourism, claiming the city’s facing “an irreversible environmental catastrophe as the subsequent increase in water transport has caused the level of the lagoon bed to drop over time”. Deputy mayor Sandro Simionato said that “This tax is a new and important opportunity for the city,” explaining that it will “help finance tourism”, among other things. So, the problem borne of too much tourism is going to be fixed by a tax to help finance tourism.  I think. Or maybe it’s all just another money grab.

cig-tax-revenueAs of December 2015, state and territory tax rates on cigarettes ranged from 17¢ per pack in Missouri to $4.35 in New York, on top of federal, local, county, municipal and local Boy Scout council taxes (kidding).  Philip Morris reports that taxes run 56.6% on average, per pack. Not surprisingly, tax rates make a vast difference in where and how people buy cigarettes.  There is a tiny Indian reservation on Long Island, measuring a few miles square and home to a few hundred people. Tax rates are close to zero there, on a pack of butts.  Until recent changes in tax law, the tiny reservation was selling 100 million cartons per year.

If all those taxes are supposed to encourage people to quit smoking, I wonder what income taxes are supposed to do?

131228122048-exp-why-icebreakers-get-stuck-00001601-story-topBack in 2013, EU politicians were discussing a way of taxing livestock flatulence, as a means of curbing “Global Warming”.  At that time there was an Australian ice breaker, making its way to Antarctica to free the Chinese ice breaker that got stuck in the ice trying to free the Russian ship full of environmentalist types.  They were all there to view the effects of “Global Warming”, until they got stuck in the ice.

Honest.  I wouldn’t kid you about a thing like that.

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March 1, 1420 Reformation

A popular story has Martin Luther nailing the document to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it may never have happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church at this time. This was an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate. 

Hans Luder sent his son Martin to a series of Latin schools beginning in 1497.  There the boy learned the so-called “trivium”: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. He entered the University of Erfurt in 1501 at the age of 19, receiving his master’s degree in 1505. The elder Luder (“Luther”) intended that his son become a lawyer. Years later, the younger Luther described his Latin school education as time spent in purgatory, his University a “beerhouse” and a “whorehouse”.

Martin Luther was not cut out for that world.

He entered Law School in 1505 and dropped out almost immediately. His father was furious over what he saw as a wasted education. Martin entered an Augustinian cloister that July, saying “This day you see me, and then, not ever again.”

download - 2020-03-01T075128.41316th century Church doctrine taught that the Saints built a surplus of good works over a lifetime, sort of a moral bank account.  Like “carbon credits” today, positive acts of faith and charity could expiate sin. Monetary contributions to the church could, so it was believed, “buy” the benefits of the saint’s good works, for the sinner.

As he studied the bible, Luther came to believe that the church had lost sight of the central truths of Christianity. The Grace of God wasn’t traded as a medium of exchange, he believed, but rather through faith in Jesus Christ, as the Messiah. “This one and firm rock”, he wrote, “which we call the doctrine of justification, is the chief article of the whole Christian doctrine, which comprehends the understanding of all godliness”.

Papal “commissioner for indulgences” Johann Tetzel came to Wittenberg in 1516, selling expiation to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica, in Rome.  A saying attributed to the Dominican friar, went “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

Martin Luther wrote to Archbishop Albrecht on October 31, 1517, objecting to this sale of indulgences. He enclosed a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, a document which came to be known as his “95 Theses”.

cc-1509034747-1xk2ppowve-snap-imageA popular story has Martin Luther nailing the document to the door of the Wittenberg Palace Church, but it may never have happened that way. Luther had no intention of confronting the Church at this time. This was an academic work, 95 topics offered for scholarly debate.

Be that as it may.  Luther’s ideas would rock the Christian world.

What seems to the modern mind as mere doctrinal differences, were life and death matters in the late middle and early modern ages. Archbishop Albrecht forwarded Luther’s note to Pope Leo X, who responded slowly and “with great care as is proper”.

Three theologians drafted heresy cases against Luther. In 1520, the papal bull (edict) “Exsurge Domine” commanded Luther to recant under pain of excommunication.

download - 2020-03-01T073858.558Luther stood on dangerous ground. Jan Hus had been burned at the stake for such heresy, back in 1415. On this day in 1420, Pope Martinus I called for a crusade against the followers of the Czech priest, the “Hussieten”.

The Italian reformer Girolamo Savonarola confessed under torture to any number of inventions and then recanted, and confessed again. Savonarola was ritually stripped of his Dominican garments and hanged in 1498, while fire was ignited from below to consume his body.  Henry VIII’s famous break with the church over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon was still years in the future in 1521, the year Henry was named “Fidei Defensor” (“Defender of the Faith”). Nine years later, French theologian Jean Calvin would be forced to flee a deadly outbreak of violence against Protestant Christians. Jan Matthias, Bernhard Rothmann and Bernhard Knipperdolling would be tortured to death with white-hot pliers in the Münster marketplace in 1535, their corpses placed in cages and hanged from the steeple of St. Lambert’s Church.

The bones of the three were later removed but those three cages remain there, to this day.lambert-cages-700x438The papal bull had the effect of hardening Luther’s positions. He publicly burned it, on December 10. Twenty-four days later, Luther was excommunicated. A general assembly of the secular authorities of the Holy Roman Empire summoned Luther to appear before them in April, in the upper-Rhine city of Worms. The “Edict of Worms” of May 25, 1521, declared Luther an outlaw, stating “We want him to be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic”. Anyone killing Luther was permitted to do so without legal consequence.

Luther went into hiding at Wartburg Castle. In 1516, Erasmus had expressed the wish that the holy text should be available in every language, “so that even Scots and Irishmen might read it”. It was there that Luther translated the New Testament from Greek into German, laying the foundation for other vernacular translations and, for the first time, making the bible accessible to the common man.

Radical sects took Luther’s teaching far beyond his intent.  Luther found himself in the odd position of defending the faith against more radical reformers. The Zwickau Prophets rejected holy scripture in favor of direct revelations from the holy spirit. The Anabaptists took the “equality of man” in radical egalitarian directions, sounding more like the principles Karl Marx would write about, in 1848.

Martin Luther’s reformations plunged Europe into a series of wars. The Peasant’s War of 1524-25 alone killed more Europeans than any conflict prior to the 1789 French Revolution. The established church would respond with counter-reformation, but the idea that Christian faith was more than the exclusive province of a special, segregated order of men, was here to stay.

On October 31, 1999, 482 years to the day from Martin Luther’s letter to Archbishop Albrecht, leaders of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches signed the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification”, ending the half-millennium old doctrinal dispute, once and for all.

January 1, 45BC Happy New Year

Most of the non-Catholic world took 170 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain and its American colonies “lost” 11 days synchronizing with it in 1752. The last holdout, Greece, would formally adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Since that time we’ve all gathered to celebrate New Year’s Day on the 1st of January.

From the 7th century BC, the Roman calendar attempted to follow the cycles of the moon. The method frequently fell out of phase with the change of seasons, requiring the random addition of days. The Pontifices, the Roman body charged with overseeing the calendar, made matters worse. They were known to add days to extend political terms, and to interfere with elections. Military campaigns were won or lost due to confusion over dates. By the time of Julius Caesar, things needed to change.

When Caesar went to Egypt in 48BC, he was impressed with the way the Egyptians handled their calendar. Caesar hired the Alexandrian astronomer Sosigenes to help straighten things out. The astronomer calculated that a proper year was 365¼ days, which more accurately tracked the solar, and not the lunar year. “Do like the Egyptians”, he might have said, the new “Julian” calendar going into effect in 46BC. Caesar decreed that 67 days be added that year, moving the New Year’s start from March to January 1. The first new year of the new calendar was January 1, 45BC.

Caesar synchronized his calendar with the sun by adding a day to every February, and changed the name of the seventh month from Quintilis to Julius, to honor himself. Rank hath its privileges.

Not to be outdone, Caesar’s successor changed the 8th month from Sextilis to Augustus. As we embark on the third millennium, we still have July and August.

Roman-calendar (1)

Sosigenes was close with his 365¼ day long year, but not quite there. The correct value of a solar year is 365.242199 days. By the year 1000, that 11 minute error had added seven days. To fix the problem, Pope Gregory XIII commissioned Jesuit astronomer Christopher Clavius to come up with yet another calendar. The Gregorian calendar was implemented in 1582, omitting ten days and adding a day on every fourth February.

Most of the non-Catholic world took 170 years to adopt the Gregorian calendar. Britain and its American colonies “lost” 11 days synchronizing with it in 1752. The last holdout, Greece, would formally adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1923. Since that time we’ve all gathered to celebrate New Year’s Day on the 1st of January.

The NY Times Newspaper moved into “Longacre Square” just after the turn of the 20th century. For years, New Years’ eve celebrations had been held at Trinity Church. Times owner Adolph Ochs held his first fireworks celebration on December 31, 1903, with almost 200,000 people attending the event. Four years later, Ochs wanted a bigger spectacle to draw attention to the newly renamed Times Square. He asked the newspaper’s chief electrician, Walter F. Painer for an idea. Painer suggested a time ball.

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A time ball is a marine time signaling device, a large painted ball which is dropped at a predetermined rate, enabling mariners to synchronize shipboard marine chronometers for purposes of navigation. The first one was built in 1829 in Portsmouth, England, by Robert Wauchope, a Captain in the Royal Navy. Time balls were obsolete technology by the 20th century, but it fit the Times’ purposes.

The Artkraft Strauss sign company designed a 5′ wide, 700lb ball covered with incandescent bulbs. The ball was hoist up the flagpole by five men on December 31, 1907. Once it hit the roof of the building, the ball completed an electric circuit, lighting up a sign and touching off a fireworks display.

The newspaper no longer occupies the building at 1 Times Square, but the tradition continues. The ball used the last few years is 12′ wide, weighing 11,875lbs; a great sphere of 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles, illuminated by 32,256 Philips Luxeon Rebel LED bulbs and producing more than 16 million colors. It used to be that the ball only came out for New Year. The last few years, you can see the thing, any time you like.

times-square-ball (1).jpg

In most English speaking countries, the traditional New Year’s celebration ends with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, a poem written by Robert Burns in 1788 and set to the tune of an old pentatonic Scots folk melody. The original verse, phonetically spelled as a Scots speaker would pronounce it, sounds something like this:

“Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an nivir brocht ti mynd?
Shid ald akwentans bee firgot, an ald lang syn?
CHORUS
“Fir ald lang syn, ma jo, fir ald lang syn,
wil tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn.
An sheerly yil bee yur pynt-staup! an sheerly al bee myn!
An will tak a cup o kyndnes yet, fir ald lang syn”.
“We twa hay rin aboot the braes, an pood the gowans fyn;
Bit weev wandert monae a weery fet, sin ald lang syn”.
CHORUS
“We twa hay pedilt in the burn, fray mornin sun til dyn;
But seas between us bred hay roard sin ald lang syn”.
CHORUS
“An thers a han, my trustee feer! an gees a han o thyn!
And we’ll tak a richt gude-willie-waucht, fir ald lang syn”

Happy New Year, from Mr & Mrs Cape Cod Curmudgeon, Rick & Sheryl.

November 29, 1918 A Medical Mystery

Further study is needed but, perversely, such study is only possible given more cases of the disease. For now, the lethal pandemic of 1915 – 1924 remains one of the great medical mysteries. An epidemiological conundrum, locked away in a nightmare closet of forgotten memory.

The Great War was in its third year in 1917, with another year to go. Before they had numbers, this was the most cataclysmic war in living memory, destroying the lives of some thirty-six million on all sides and leaving untold millions more, maimed.

In March of the following year, a new batch of trainees cycled through Fort Riley in Kansas, fresh recruits destined for the “War to End All Wars”. On reporting for breakfast one morning, none could know that an enemy lurked among them, more lethal than the war itself.

Private Albert Gitchell was coming down with cold-like symptoms: sore throat, fever and headache. Never mind breakfast. Pvt. Gitchell was headed for the base hospital.  More than one-hundred reported sick by noon, with similar symptoms.

file-20180109-36019-q61srvOrdinary flu strains prey most heavily on children, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems. Not this one. This flu would kick off a positive feedback loop between small proteins called cytokines, and white blood cells. This “cytokine storm” resulted in a death rate for 15 to 34-year-olds twenty times higher in 1918, than in previous years.

The young and healthy immune system of the victims, were what killed them.

The armistice was a bare two weeks in the past on November 29, 1918.  Formal peace negotiations would occupy the whole of 1919.

History has a way of swallowing some events, whole. Like they never happened. The Spanish flu afflicted some five hundred million worldwide, killing an estimated fifty to one hundred million.  Two to three times the number killed by the war itself and yet, the story was overshadowed by the end of the war.

Small wonder it is then, that such an event would itself eclipse a pandemic far smaller but in some ways more terrifying, than the worldwide calamity of the Spanish flu. To this day, nobody knows where this enemy came from. Or where it left to, when it went away.

In 1915, Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist Constantin von Economo described the signs and symptoms of a strange new condition which came to be called Von Economo’s Disease. The illness was labeled Encephalitis Lethargica, literally “Inflammation of the brain which makes you tired”.

“We are dealing with a kind of sleeping sickness, having an unusually prolonged course. The first symptoms are usually acute, with headaches and malaise. Then a state of somnolence appears, often associated with active delirium from which the patient can be awakened easily. He is able to give appropriate answers and to comprehend the situation. This delirious somnolence can lead to death, rapidly, or over the course of a few weeks. On the other hand, it can persist unchanged for weeks or even months with periods lasting bouts of days or even longer, of fluctuation of the depth of unconsciousness extending from simple sleepiness to deepest stupor or coma,” Die Encephalitis lethargica, Constantin von Economo, 1917

Encephalitis Lethargica is also known by the deceptively benign name of “Sleepy Sickness”. Von Economo distinguished three phases of the illness. Symptoms of the somnolent-ophthalmoplegic include paralysis of the cranial nerves, leading to expressionless faces and involuntary eye movements, with overwhelming sleepiness leading to coma. Fully one-third of E.L. sufferers died during this phase, of respiratory failure. The hyperkinetic form manifested itself with restlessness and motor disturbances leading to facial contortion, anxious mental state and an inability to sleep, often leading to death by exhaustion.

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Dr. Constantin von Economou top left, described the plight of E.L. sufferers, in 1917

The amyostatic-akinetic form frequently resulted in a chronic state resembling Parkinson’s disease, called Postencephalitic Parkinsonism.

Autopsies revealed this third phase to result from localized neurodegeneration of the Substantia Nigra, the basal ganglia structure of the mid-brain which plays a role in reward and associative learning as well as bodily movement. Unknown to the sufferer, this neurodegeneration takes place over an interval of a few days to thirty years, consigning the sufferer to a trance-like state in which the patient is rendered speechless and motionless, fully aware but, for all intents and purposes, a statue.

Substantia_nigra
Substantia Nigra

The 1973 non-fiction book Awakenings by Oliver Sacks, describes what that looks like:

“They would be conscious and aware – yet not fully awake; they would sit motionless and speechless all day in their chairs, totally lacking energy, impetus, initiative, motive, appetite, affect or desire; they registered what went on about them without active attention, and with profound indifference. They neither conveyed nor felt the feeling of life; they were as insubstantial as ghosts, and as passive as zombies”.

It is hard to imagine a more terrifying condition.   Worldwide, Encephalitis Lethargica afflicted some five million between 1915 and 1924.  The disease preyed mostly on young victims, between 15 and 35.  Early symptoms include high fever, headache, fatigue and runny nose. Sufferers would take to bed believing it to be nothing more than a severe cold, or flu. Meanwhile, the unknown enemy within quietly spread to the brain.

j8zjvpoiOne-third of sufferers died in the acute phase, a higher mortality rate than the Spanish flu of 1918-’19.  Many of those who survived never returned to pre-disease states of “aliveness” and lived out the rest of their lives institutionalized, literal prisoners of their own bodies.  Living paperweights.

A bare 14% emerged from the condition, with no lasting effect.

140297_patient_from_20s_300_24-7-98_grab.jpgProfessor John Sydney Oxford is an English virologist, a leading expert on influenza, the 1918 Spanish Influenza, and HIV/AIDS. Few have done more in the modern era, to understand Encephalitis Lethargica: “I certainly do think that whatever caused it could strike again. And until we know what caused it we won’t be able to prevent it happening again.”

Doctors Russell Dale and Andrew Church discussed 20 new cases in 2004, published in the Oxford University medical journal Brain. The two hypothesize infection leading to a massive auto-immune response, possibly brought on by an unusual Streptococcus bacterium.

Further study is needed but, perversely, such study is only possible given more cases of the disease. For now, the lethal pandemic of 1915 – 1924 remains one of the great medical mysteries. An epidemiological conundrum, locked away in a nightmare closet of forgotten memory.

We can only hope it stays that way.

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November 17, 1558 Strange Beauty Secrets

The archaeological record suggests humans have been coloring their lips, for 4,000 years.

Popular ideas of what is beautiful have changed with time and place, but strange beauty secrets are as old as history itself.

Live-Persian-Miniature-Painting-12.jpgIn ancient Greece, blond hair was perceived as beautiful, probably because it was unusual. Women would lighten their hair using a mixture of ashes, olive oil & water, and sometimes arsenic.

Cleopatra used a lipstick of mashed up beetle guts and powdered her eyes with the dried excrement, of crocodiles.  She would bathe daily in the sour milk of donkeys, 700 of the animals kept on-hand, for the purpose.

The stuff was supposed to have smoothed out wrinkles and just might have worked too.  Soured lactose turns to lactic acid, capable of removing the top layer of skin.  The Greek princess-turned Egyptian Pharoah all but owned the hearts of the most powerful men of the age, but at a cost.  Burning your own skin off seems a tough way to go.

cleopatra-last-queen-egypt-main.jpgThe 12th century Queen Isabeau of France likewise favored the sour donkey milk routine, followed up by rubbing her skin with crocodile glands and the brains of boars.

empress-elisabeth-of-austria-by-georg-raab-1867
Empress Elisabeth of Austria, considered by many to be the most beautiful woman, on earth

History remembers Empress Elisabeth of Austria for helping to bring about the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary, in 1867.  Less well known is the woman’s obsessive dedication to her own youthful figure and exceptional beauty.

Elisabeth would crush strawberries over her face, neck and hands, followed by a bath in warm olive oil.  She would sleep in a mask lined with raw veal.

Elisabeth emphasized her already slender figure by “tight-lacing” a leather corset, a practice which infuriated the mother-in-law who regarded the queen’s duty, as being perpetually pregnant.

Even after four pregnancies, on her death at age 60 at the hands of an Italian anarchist, the woman’s waist measured 18½”-19 inches.

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“Blood Countess Erzsébet Báthory

During the Heian period in Japan, 794 to 1185AD, a woman’s beauty was judged by the length of her hair. The ideal was considered to be about two feet below her waist.

The Hungarian “Blood Countess” Erzsébet Báthory who lived from August 7, 1560 – August 21, 1614, may be the most prolific female serial killer in history, bathing in the blood of as many as 650 virgins, to keep herself looking young.

Erzsébet’s four cohorts were convicted in the murder of 80, while the Countess herself was neither tried nor convicted due to her exalted rank. She was simply thrown into a cell on her arrest in December, 1610 and there left to die, four years later.

On a less macabre note, Mary, Queen of Scots, bathed in wine. Strange beauty rituals weren’t limited to women, either.  Novelist George Sands liked to soak himself in cow’s milk (3 quarts) and honey (3 pounds).

Nofretete_Neues_Museum.jpgNefertiti ruled as Egyptian Queen ca. 1351–1334 BC, the Great Royal Wife of Pharoah Akhenaten, predecessor to the great Tutankhamun. Nefertiti , her name translates as “The Beautiful Woman has Come”, would shave herself hairless from head to foot, donning a wig and lining her eyes with Egyptian kohl, a substance derived from lead. In case that wasn’t enough, Nefertiti would color her lips with a combination of seaweed and bromine nitrate, a plant-derived toxin so powerful, some believe the stuff to be the origin of the phrase, “the kiss of death”.

Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, was crowned this day, November 17, 1588.  As queen, Elizabeth followed a path taken by women for thousands of years, sporting the high forehead and daubing her face with a powder makeup called ceruse. High lead content made the practice deadly enough, but women would top it off with a rouge containing mercury, leading to an untold number of birth defects and miscarriages. It’s all but certain the combination of lead and mercury led to her complete loss of hair.  Small wonder she was the “Virgin Queen”.

Virgin Queen.jpgThe European quest for the perfect, porcelain complexion lasted well into the 19th century, for which some women ate clay.  The ladies of the French Court obsessed over flawless, alabaster skin, until the end of the 18th century. They would fake it with thick layers of white powder, made from white lead, or talcum powder, or pulverized bone.  Whatever they could get hold of. Combined with wax, whale blubber, deer fat or vegetable oil, the stuff had a nice, greasy consistency that stayed where they put it.

ots32styherapghk5a1539c073789Meanwhile, African women of antiquity favored lavender oil for its distinctive feminine scent and a red tea called Rooibos to keep skin looking young and supple. With its naturally high levels of zinc and vitamin D2, the stuff was an important defense against the hot African sun.

Marie Antoinette washed up with “Eau Cosmetique de Pigeon”, the stuff bearing the promise right there on the  label,  that every bottle contained no fewer than “eight pigeons stewed.”

55b1b8d611d27aa735b1fd0267fc1f33.jpgHers was a time of big hair, when hair was piled high on top of the head, powdered and augmented with the hair of servants and the fur of pets. The do was often adorned with fabric, ribbons or fruit, sometimes holding props like birdcages complete with stuffed birds and even miniature frigates, under sail.

It wasn’t just women’s hair, either. Fashionable European men of the 18th century wore wigs made of both animal and human hair, a practice that soon spread across the water and into North America.

The wealthy wore longer wigs, often powdered and curled while those who couldn’t afford them wore shorter versions, usually styled into a braided ponytail.

custer (1).jpgGeorge Edward Pickett, he of the famous charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, was acclaimed for his oiled and perfumed locks.  The “Boy General”, the youngest Civil War General in the Union Army, would anoint his hair with cinnamon oil.  A lock of George Armstrong Custer’s hair recently sold at auction, for $12,500.

Well into the 20th century, women and men alike chose between slicking their hair down with a greasy brilliantine, or spraying it with shellac dissolved in an admixture of water and alcohol.

Weird beauty tips are easy to find on-line.  Some say that Preparation H under the eyes reduces puffiness (I hear it works).  Hot pepper sauce applied to the roots of the hair will help it grow, (the jury’s out on this one). Some believe that urine works as an astringent to clear up acne, (it doesn’t), and rubbing your face with a potato dries up oily skin (that one’s false as well).

MIrrorTheme.jpgToday we look on past practices as bizarre, but maybe we shouldn’t. If those people from the past were to peer into their own future, they’d see spray tanning, teeth bleaching, and Brazilian bikini wax. They’d see people injecting the neurotoxic output of Clostridium Botulinum into their faces, and sticking metal objects through all manner of body parts.

You have to wonder what our own future will bring. Not even Nostradamus could have foretold tattooed grandmothers.

Ancient Beauty

 

November 11, 1921 Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Passing between two lines of French and American officials, Sgt. Younger entered the room, alone.  Slowly, he circled the four caskets, three times, before at last stopping at the third from the left.  “What caused me to stop” he later said, “I don’t know.  It was as though something had pulled me”.  Younger placed the roses on the casket, drew himself to attention, and saluted.  This was the one.

Many years ago, Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck said “If a general war begins, it will be because of some damn fool thing in the Balkans“.

The Chancellor got his damn fool thing on a side street in Sarajevo, when a tubercular 19-year old leveled his revolver and murdered the heir-apparent to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife on June 28, 1914.

In another time and place, such an event could have led to limited conflict. A policing action, in the Balkans.  Instead, mutually entangling national alliances brought mobilization timetables into effect, dictating the movement of men and equipment according to precise and predetermined schedules.

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German troops, leaving for the front

The hippie subculture of the 1960s produced an antiwar slogan based on the title of a McCall’s Magazine article by Charlotte E. Keyes. “Suppose They Gave a War and No One Came.”  In 1914, the coming war Had to happen.  If only because everyone was there.

The cataclysm could have been averted, as late as the last day of July. By the first of August, mutual distrust had brought events past the point of no return. By the time it was over a generation was shattered, a continent destroyed and a new century, set on a difficult and dangerous course.ruins.jpgSome 40 million were killed in the Great War, either that or maimed or simply, vanished.  It was a mind bending number, equivalent to the entire population in 1900 of either France, or the United Kingdom. Equal to the combined populations of the bottom two-thirds of every nation on the planet.  Every woman, man, puppy, boy and girl.

The United States entered the conflict in 1917, suffering casualties of 320,518 in only a few short months.world-war-i-100-year-anniversary-american-entry-legacy-1The idea of honoring the unknown dead from the “War to end all Wars” originated in Europe. Reverend David Railton remembered a rough cross from somewhere on the western front, with the words written in pencil:  “An Unknown British Soldier”.

In November 1916, an officer of the French war memorial association Le Souvenir Français proposed a national-level recognition for the unknown dead of the Great War.  Across the English Channel, Reverend Railton proposed the same.

The two nations performed ceremonies on the first anniversary of Armistice Day, the Unknown Warrior laid to rest at Westminster Abbey on November 11, 1920.  La Tombe du Soldat Inconnu was simultaneously consecrated under the Arc de Triomphe with the actual burial taking place, the following January.

Left to Right:  Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, London.  La Tombe du Soldat Inconnu. lArc de Triomphe, Paris.

That was the year, the United States followed Great Britain and France in honoring her own, unknown dead. Four unidentified bodies were selected from the Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Somme and St. Mihiel cemeteries and carefully examined, lest there be any clues to identity. The four were then transported to the Hôtel de Ville at Châlons-sur-Marne, and placed in a makeshift chapel.

Six soldiers were invited to act as pallbearers, each man a highly decorated and respected member of his own unit.  Outside the chapel, Major Harbold of the Graves Registration Office handed a large spray of pink and white roses to twice-wounded Sergeant Edward F. Younger, of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).  It was he who would perform the final selection.9664b-10-24-selection2bof2bworld2bwar2bi2bunknown2bsoldierPassing between two lines of French and American officials, Sgt. Younger entered the room, alone.  Slowly, he circled the four caskets, three times, before at last stopping at the third from the left.  “What caused me to stop” he later said, “I don’t know.  It was as though something had pulled me“.  Younger placed the roses on the casket, drew himself to attention, and saluted.  This was the one.

The body was transferred to a black casket bearing the inscription:  “An Unknown American who gave his life in the World War” and transported to the protected cruiser USS Olympia.

Flags at half-mast with stern bedecked with flowers, Commodore George Dewey’s former flagship during the Battle of Manila Bay, received the precious cargo and returned to the United States, arriving in the Navy Yard in Washington DC on November 9, 1921. There the flag draped casket was solemnly transferred to the United States Army, and placed under guard of honor on the catafalque which had borne the bodies of three slain Presidents: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, and William McKinley.Unknown_Soldier_at_the_Washington_Navy_Yard.jpgOn November 11, the casket was removed from the Rotunda of the Capitol and escorted under military guard to the amphitheater at Arlington National Cemetery. In a simple ceremony, President Warren G. Harding bestowed upon this unknown soldier of the Great War, the nation’s highest military decorations.  The Medal of Honor.  The Distinguished Service Cross.

Special representatives of foreign nations then bestowed, each in turn, his nation’s highest military decoration.  The Croix de Guerre of Belgium.  The English Victoria Cross. Le Medaille Militaire & Croix de Guerre of France.  The Italian Gold Medal for Bravery. The Romanian Virtutes Militara.  The Czechoslavak War Cross.  The Polish Virtuti Militari.

tomb-soldier-in-snowWith three salvos of artillery, the rendering of Taps and the National Salute, the ceremony was brought to a close and the 12-ton marble cap placed over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  The west facing side bears this inscription:

“Here Rests In
Honored Glory
An American Soldier
Known But To God”

Two years later, a civilian guard was placed at the tomb of the unknown.  A permanent Military guard took its place in 1926 and there remains, to this day.

In 1956, President Dwight David Eisenhower signed a bill to select and pay tribute to the unknown dead of WW2 and the American war in Korea. Selection and interment of these Unknowns took place in 1958.

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United States Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie

The Unknown from the American war in Vietnam was selected on May 17, 1984, but wouldn’t remain unknown, for long.

Advances in mitochondrial DNA led to the exhumation and identification of Air Force 1st Lt. Michael Joseph Blassie of St. Louis, Missouri, shot down near An Lộc, in 1972.

The Tomb of the Unknown from the Vietnam conflict remains empty.  It is unlikely any future war is capable of producing a truly “Unknown”.

So it is through bitter cold and scorching heat, through hurricanes and blizzards and irrespective of day or night or whether Arlington is open or closed, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stands under guard.

This Guard of Honor is performed by a carefully selected elite body of the 3rd Infantry Division.  The “Old Guard”.  In service since 1784, the Tomb Guard is part of the longest-serving active infantry unit in the United States military.

Since the 14th-century, the cannon salute signified the recognition of a sovereign state and a peaceful intent, among nations.  The 21-gun salute is the highest military honor, a nation can bestow.   The Tomb Sentinel who “walks the mat” walks precisely 21 steps down the 63-foot black mat laid across the Tomb of the Unknown, signifying that 21-gun salute.   The Guard then turns east to face the Tomb, pauses another 21-seconds, before beginning the return walk of 21-steps.

The Tomb Sentinel will continue in this manner for a half-hour, one hour or two depending on the time of day, and the season of the year.  If you have witnessed the Changing of the Guard, you are not likely to forget it.  My brother and I were once privileged to experience the moment, in the company of an Honor Flight of WW2 veterans. If you’ve never seen the ceremony, I recommend the experience.

Back in 1919, AEF commander General John Pershing and Allied Supreme Commander Marshall Ferdinand Foch of France were adamantly opposed to the treaty, at Versailles. Germany had been defeated they argued, but not Beaten. Without destroying the German war machine on its own soil, Pershing believed the two nations would once again find themselves at war. Marshall Foch agreed, reading the treaty with the remark: “This isn’t a peace. It’s a cease-fire for 20 years!

He got that wrong.  By 36 days._MG_0016_1466631465932.jpg