October 23, 1943 The Last Great Act of Defiance

You may take my freedom, she might have said. You may take my life but you will not take away, my free will.

Before the age of the internet, sight gags were copied and re-copied and passed around from hand to hand, much the same as we text each other amusing memes, today. One stands out after all these years, as worth remembering. A “Last Great Act of Defiance”, in the face of certain destruction.

I considered whether such an image trivialized the death of a human being, because that’s what this story is about. But no, silly as it is this cartoon works just fine, as a symbol. A symbol of a small woman, naked, defenseless and yet defiant, in the face of the Nazi death camp. A ballerina barely 100 pounds soaking wet by the look of her photographs and yet, a woman who, in her last moments of life managed to take one of the Nazi sons of bitches, with her.

Franceska Mann

They say if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. Franceska Mann was born to dance. Any mother or father of such a child would smile at the thought of what she must have been like, growing up. By the time Franceska had come of age she had mastered classical and several forms of popular dance.

Mann studied dance at Irena Prusicka’s School of Gymnastics and Artistic Dance, one of three major studios, in pre-war Warsaw. She competed in 1939 in an international dance competition in Brussels placing fourth, out of 125 ballerinas. She was the pride of Poland considered by many to be the most beautiful and most talented, of her generation.

When the Nazi war machine invaded Poland in 1939, she was performing at the Melody Nightclub in Warsaw

For a time, Franceska’s physical features allowed her passage on the “Aryan” side of the city while up to 460,000 fellow Jews and not a few Romani people were rounded up in the “Residential District”, the infamous Warsaw Ghetto.

The Warsaw Ghetto and others like it were little more than waiting rooms, for the death camps. Even before ultimate deportation conditions, were grisly. The daily food ration for Jews in the ghetto was a scant 184 calories compared with 699 for Polish gentiles and 2,613, for Germans. Disease and starvation quickly set in to begin a process the waiting “showers”, were built to complete.

The human being is a funny critter. We’re capable of believing anything, we want to believe. For two years under these conditions, residents clung to the desperate hope that the “resettlement” promised by Nazi authorities, meant something better. By the end of 1942 it was clear nearly to all that the transports out of this place, meant only death.

Irena Sendler

Books have been written about the ghetto uprising and the desperate attempts of Irena Sendler and others, to save these people. Using her work as nurse for cover this “Angel of the Ghetto” would smuggle children out of that place with the help of a small dog trained to bark, at Nazi soldiers.

Irena would be ratted out and savagely tortured by the Gestapo but never did give up the names of countless children written on slips of paper and buried for safekeeping, in her garden.

Weapons’ and ammunition were smuggled through the sewers of Warsaw throughout much, of 1942. Nazi soldiers entered the ghetto on January 18, 1943 bent on yet another roundup. Some 600 were summarily shot and 5,000 removed from their homes when all hell broke loose from Jewish underground members, and resistance fighters.

Armed only with handguns and Molotov cocktails, resistance fighters kept the Nazis at bay for nearly four months but the end, was never in doubt. 2,000 Waffen-SS soldiers began the final assault on April 19 systematically burning or blowing up ghetto buildings, block by block. Some 56,065 people were murdered on the spot or rounded up, for extermination. Major resistance came to an end on April 28. The May 16 demolition of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw little more, than symbolic.

The “Jewish Residential District” of Warsaw, after the uprising.

Today, the Nożyk Synagogue is the only pre-war Jewish house of worship left standing, in the Polish capital. The building was used as a horse stable for the German Wehrmacht, during the war.

At this point, the Nazi government turned its attention to rooting out those left in hiding, outside the ghetto. Since 1941, Jewish and Polish diplomats worked with certain South American nations to send documents into the Warsaw ghetto. Such documents it was believed, may help Jews and others “prove” to be nationals of neutral nations and thus eligible, for safe transfer.

Passports both real and forged flooded into the region often, through the Hotel Polski. Many if not all such documents were intercepted by the Gestapo. With the help of Jewish collaborators, thousands left in hiding were lured to the Hotel Polski in hopes, of escape. Nations from Paraguay, Honduras and El Salvador to Peru and Chile beckoned, or so it was imagined. Genuine passports of Jews no longer alive sold on the black market for the equivalent, of up to a million 2021 dollars.

As many as 3,500 came out of hiding and moved to the Hotel Polski. The Polish Underground warned Jews it was probably a trap but we all believe what we want to believe, don’t we? Franceska Mann most likely received her own passport, in this manner.

Some 1,700 were rounded up at this place arriving on the trains to Auschwitz-Birkenau, on October 23. You can find a dozen or more versions of what happened next since it all comes out, of the death camp rumor mill. What is certain is that women were separated from men and made to disrobe for “delousing”. It was all prior to final deportation to Switzerland, they were told.

Fit, young and attractive as she was Franceska Mann drew the attention of two of her guards, Josef Schillinger and Wilhelm Emmerich. Using her considerable gifts she drew them in close and, with the speed of an athlete knocked Schillinger in the face with her shoe, drew the man’s gun and shot him twice in the belly. Emmerich was shot once, in the leg. Pandemonium broke out near the showers as hundreds of women in all states of dress and undress, turned on their tormenters. One SS man had his nose bitten off. Another was scalped by the desperate, angry mob.

This fanciful artist’s rendition is anything but accurate but, we get the picture.

Reinforcements arrived within moments. The gas was turned on killing those trapped, inside the chamber. Women in the changing area were machine gunned while those few caught outside were summarily, murdered.

On this day in 1943 it was all over, in minutes. Josef Schillinger died a painful death from those two gunshots. Emmerich recovered from his wounds.

Dark rumors may be found on the internet as to whether Mann herself was a Nazi collaborator. Witnesses who were there tell a different story, their stories recorded in transcripts, of the Nuremberg trials. The tales told by foreign professors born decades after the fact may be accepted or dismissed as you wish but one thing is left to contemplate. How would the chattering classes have behaved had they themselves lived in such a time, and such a place.

The Nazi extermination machine ground on for nearly two more years but one thing was certain. One terrified, desperate ballerina disarmed and about to die had rendered the beasts short, one of their own number.

October 1, 1918 Lawrence of Arabia

“This creed of the desert seemed inexpressible in words, and indeed in thought.” TE Lawrence

In 1879, 18-year-old Sarah Lawrence arrived at Killua Castle in Tremadog, Wales, the estate of Sir Thomas Chapman and his wife, Edith.  Sarah had come to work as governess for their four daughters, but would soon become more than a mere employee.

The affair between the Victorian Aristocrat and the domestic servant produced a son, born in secret in 1885.  When the scandal was discovered, Chapman left his wife and moved his new mistress to England.  Edith never did grant a divorce, so the couple adopted Sarah’s last name and pretended to be, husband and wife.  The couple’s second of five children, Thomas Edward Lawrence, learned the true identity of his parents only after his father died, in 1919.

TE Lawrence

TE, as Lawrence preferred to be called, was reading books and newspapers by the age of four.  He first went to the Middle East as an archaeology student in 1909 walking 1,100 miles across Syria, Palestine, and parts of Turkey, surveying the castles of the Crusaders for his thesis. 

During this time he was shot at, robbed and severely beaten.  Despite all of it, TE Lawrence developed a love for the Middle East and its people which would last, the rest of his life.

In 1914, the British government sent Lawrence on an expedition across the Sinai Peninsula and Negev desert.  Ostensibly an archaeological expedition, this was in reality a secret military survey, of lands then controlled by the Ottoman Turks.

Lawrence joined the Army after the Great War broke out that August, taking a desk job as an intelligence officer, in Cairo.

You may picture the man as 6-foot 3-inch Peter O’Toole, especially if you’ve seen the film.  In reality, Lawrence stood only 5’5” a fact about which he was always, self conscious. 

Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif in the 1962 film, Lawrence of Arabia

It irritated him to have a safe desk job while millions were dying, on the front.  The guilt must have become overwhelming when two of his own brothers were killed in 1915.

The Ottoman Empire was in decline at this time, the “Sick Man of Europe”, though still one of the Great Powers.  The Hashemite Kingdom of the Arabs had long chafed under Ottoman rule, particularly following the “Young Turk” coup of 1908 when secular, Turkish nationalism replaced the formerly pan-Islamic unity of the Caliphate.

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T.E. Lawrence and the Arab Revolt, of 1916 – 1918

Seeing his chance to break away and unify the Arab Lands and trusting in the honor of British officials who promised support, Sharif Hussein bin Ali, Emir of Mecca and King of the Arabs, saw his chance and launched the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, in 1916.

Despite zero military training, Lawrence took to the field at the outbreak of hostilities.

Lawrence and Feisal

Dressing himself in the flowing Arab Thawb, Lawrence joined the forces of Ali’s son, Feisal.

In theory, the Hejaz Railway could take you from the Ottoman capital at Constantinople to the Arab city of Medina, some 1,800 miles distant, without your feet ever touching the ground. In reality, the rail line was a ripe target for attackers. By his own count, TE Lawrence “scientifically” destroyed 79 bridges, a method of his own perfection by which bridges were destroyed but left standing, requiring Turkish workmen to dismantle the wreckage before repairs could begin.

Lawrence was captured in 1916, subjected to beatings, torture, and homosexual rape by the Governor of Daraa, Hajim Bey, a man he described as an “ardent pederast”.

Lawrence at Aqaba
Lawrence at Aqaba, 1917

Lawrence escaped, though shattered by the experience, joining the desert guerilla war against the Turk.  He would take personal risks he would not order on his followers, spying behind enemy lines, leading camel charges, blowing up trains and enduring the hardships of the desert.  Lawrence would suffer dozens of bullet and shrapnel wounds, in raids that tied up thousands of Ottoman troops and undermined their German ally.

By the summer of 1918, there was a price on his head.  One officer wrote “Though a price of £15,000 has been put on his head by the Turks, no Arab has, as yet, attempted to betray him. The Sharif of Mecca [King of the Hedjaz] has given him the status of one of his sons, and he is just the finely tempered steel that supports the whole structure of our influence in Arabia“.

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.

(T.E. Lawrence to artist Eric Kennington, May 1935 )
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Feisal party at Versailles Conference. Left to right: Rustum Haidar, Nuri as-Said, Prince Faisal (front), Captain Pisani (rear), T. E. Lawrence, Faisal’s slave (name unknown), Captain Hassan Khadri. H/T Wikimedia Commons

Two thousand years after the Apostle Paul’s dramatic conversion on the Road to Damascus, “Lawrence of Arabia” entered the defeated city on October 1, 1918.  Like many, Lawrence saw Damascus as the future capital of a united Arab state.  He tried to convince his superiors that Arab independence was in their own best interest, but found himself undermined by the Sykes-Picot agreement, negotiated in secret between French and British authorities with the backing of the Russian government back in May, 1916.

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Lawrence of Arabia, 1919

Lawrence was furious, believing what had been won by Arab arms, should remain in Arab hands.  Interrupting the praise of his own exploits at a war cabinet meeting, Lawrence snapped ‘Let’s get to business. You people don’t understand yet the hole you have put us all into.’  He refused a knighthood personally given him by King George V, thinking instead that he’d been summoned to discuss Arab borders.

In the end, the pan-Arab kingdom of the Hashemites was never meant to be.  The Middle East was carved into zones of English and French influence. Lawrence never did come to terms with the betrayal.

Today, Lawrence of Arabia is the subject of three major motion pictures, and at least 70 biographies.  A prolific writer himself, author  of countless letters and at least twelve major works, Lawrence seems to have disliked the fame which had come his way.  “To have news value”, he would say, “is to have a tin can tied to one’s tail”.  TE Lawrence would go on to serve under a series of assumed names, his latest being TE Shaw, a nod to his close friend, the Irish playwright and noted polemicist, George Bernard Shaw.

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The Brough Superior motorcycle, T. E. Lawrence’s eighth, was awaiting delivery when he died. It is at the Imperial War Museum.

An avid motorcyclist, Lawrence would ride 500-700 miles a day, once even racing a Sopwith Camel biplane.  He owned several Brough (rhymes with rough) motorcycles, the last a Brough Superior SS100.  This thing came with a certificate, guaranteeing that it would do 0-100 within ¼ mile.

There is a roadside memorial in Dorset, marking the spot where TE Lawrence went over the handlebars, trying to avoid two boys on bicycles.  He was forty-six.  Mourners at his funeral included Winston and Clementine Churchill, novelist EM Forster and his own brother Arnold, the last of the Lawrence sons left alive.

It’s been said that only he who rides the camel, understands the camel. It may be that only he who understands the camel, understands the desert. To the rest of us the desert is an inscrutable place, as is the mind, culture and history of the Middle East.  Few westerners would ever get to know this part of the world like TE Lawrence.

Lawrence taught us a bit about it, when he said “Men have looked upon the desert as barren land, the free holding of whoever chose; but in fact each hill and valley in it had a man who was its acknowledged owner and would quickly assert the right of his family or clan to it, against aggression”.

September 30, 1946 Goobers

The British taxpayer still held a ration card a year after the war while his government owed a crushing 270% of the entire economy to its former colony, across the Atlantic. The answer to both problems became one of the greatest government boondoggles, of the colonial era.

Emerging from the door of the aircraft, the Prime minister began to speak. The piece of paper Neville Chamberlain held in his hand annexed that bit of the Czechoslovak Republic known as the “Sudetenland”, to Nazi Germany. Germany’s territorial ambitions to the east, had been sated.

The cataclysm of the War to end all Wars was as recent on September 30, 1938 as the horrors of 9/11 is, to our own time. Now, a world could breathe a little easier. It was “Peace in our Time”.

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Unlike the participants in this tale we know, how the story ends. World War 2 was all but foreordained. The world was an altogether different place on this day in 1946, a burned and broken thing struggling to emerge from the greatest catastrophe, in human history.

European GDP would triple between the end of the war and the turn of the century but, on September 30, 1946, a continent lay on its back.

At one point during the war, every major power on the European continent was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation. The island nation of Great Britain stood alone against the onslaught, aided by heroic contributions by individuals from Poland to Jamaica and massive economic support, from the United States.

A study by the World Bank once reported, national debt exceeding 77% to have a deleterious effect, on a nation’s economy. For every percentage point over that number, the situation gets worse. On this day in 1946, Britain owed fully 270% of its GDP, to the US.

Still a colonial power in 1946, Great Britain looked to her assets overseas to help settle those debts and hit upon one of the great hare-brained ideas, of the modern era.

During the late 1940s the British government tried to create vast plantations in Tanganyika (now known as Tanzania) for growing groundnuts (peanuts).; (add.info.: East African Groundnuts Scheme. .

They would grow goobers, in Africa.

Goober peas, monkeynuts, groundnuts or ground peas. Whatever you call Arachis hypogaea, microfossil and starch grain analysis dates the peanut back some 8,500 years to the Zaña mountains, of Peru. The Incas used peanuts as sacrificial offerings as early as 1500BC and entombed them, with their dead.

Today, worldwide peanut consumption amounts to some 42,600,000 tons making goobers the most popular nut on the planet by a factor of ten compared with the next nine nuts, combined.

East Africa was a German colony in 1914 under the military command of one Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, der Löwe von Afrika. The Lion of Africa, a German patriot who detested the upstart führer so much he once told Adolf Hitler to perform an anatomically improbable act. Only he wasn’t that polite.

Vorbeck returned to Deutschland a hero, the only German commander during all world war one, to be undefeated in the field. So it was that Britain took control of Tanganyika, as a League of Nations mandate.

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Which brings us back, to goobers. Peanuts and peanut butter were important parts of Armed Forces rations, during both world wars. Following WW2 the Labor party of Prime minister Clement Atlee faced what economist John Maynard Keynes called “financial Dunkirk”.

With the British population still on food rations in 1946, Frank Samuel, head of the United Africa Company, came up with a scheme to produce food and cooking oils, in Tanganyika.

Warnings of too much clay in the soil and too little rain fell on deaf ears as did 5,000 years of African experience, in farming their own soil. John Wakefield, former director of agriculture in Tanganyika led the delegation, that April. Three months work produced a favorable report. It didn’t hurt that the area contemplated was largely unpopulated solving the problems up front, of relocation.

There might be a reason nobody lived there but none of them noticed that.

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Some 3¼ million acres were designated for peanuts, an area the size, of Connecticut. European “Experts” soon discovered they had underestimated what the legendary British explorer Henry Morton called “an interminable jungle of thorn bushes…mile after mile of damn-all“. Former Labor politician Allen Wood wrote, “In patches the thickets of scrub are impenetrable. A rhinoceros can force a way through, a snake can wiggle through but no size or shape of animal in between, except a bulldozer“.

Early land clearing met with a maze of rubbery tree roots so thick as to defeat the efforts of all but bulldozers and even those broke down, within days. Towering baobab trees of a kind known to live 6,000 years and more were impervious, even to that. Even if you did knock one down you still had to deal with Volkswagen-sized hives, of African honey bees. Ever hear of “Killer bees”? Yeah. Those are what results when you “Africanize”, the North American variety.

With farm equipment in short supply in post-war Europe, Sherman tanks were retrofitted by the score at the Vickers corporation and converted to monstrosities known as “Shervicks”.

Even today you can ask someone, what animal kills more humans than any other, in Africa. It’s a great trivia question the answer to which, is the mosquito. Malaria, Dengue fever, sleeping sickness…entire textbooks have been written of mosquito borne diseases in this region to say nothing, of poisonous snakes.

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At the end of two years land clearing was 90 percent short, of projections. Peanut production was less than half of what was purchased as seed, in the first place.

And here’s where that clay comes in. During the dry season the soil becomes as hard as asphalt. Regular plows had a life expectancy of five hours in that stuff. With a miniscule percentage actually planted one worker claimed “Nothing but pneumatic drills and dynamite could get the nuts out“.

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Devices were attached to engines and operators were paid according to the time the engine was running. It wasn’t long before tractors were found running in ditches while their operators were off, drinking.

During the four year life of the Great Tanganyika Groundnut Boondoggle only one year brought enough rain, to sustain a peanut crop. Those groundnuts actually produced cost six times to grow, what they were worth. Making matters worse, many men abandoned family farms to the lure of high wages contributing to severe famines in 1947, 1949 and 1950.

A last ditch effort was made to save the whole trainwreck planting sunflowers, instead of goobers. At least those could be harvested above ground but even that failed, due to lack of rain. The plug was pulled after four years, about the time it took conservative politicians to quit hollering out “Groundnuts“! every time a Liberal rose up, to speak.

The whole boondoggle cost 36 million pounds equivalent to a Billion, today. Not a single British taxpayer ever received so much as an increase, in margarine rations.

September 18, 1931 An Incident at Mukden

The “Mukden incident” was entirely staged, a “false flag” operation and bald pretext to war, carried out by Japanese military personnel and identical in purpose to that carried out against Poland by Nazi aggressors some eight years later, nearly to the day.

As Japan emerged from the medieval period into the early modern age, the future Nippon Empire transformed from a period characterized by warring states, to the relative stability of the Tokugawa Shōgunate.  Here, a feudal military government ruled from the Edo castle in the Chiyoda district of modern-day Tokyo, over some 250 provincial domains called han.  The military and governing structure of the time was based on a rigid and inflexible caste system, placing the feudal lords or daimyō at the top, followed by a warrior-caste of samurai, and a lower caste of merchants and artisans.  At the bottom of it all stood some 80% of the population, the peasant farmer forbidden to engage in non-agricultural activities, and expected to provide the income that made the whole system work.

Into this world stepped the “gunboat diplomats” of President Millard Filmore in the person of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, determined to open the ports of Japan to trade with the west.  By force, if necessary.

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Gunboat Diplomacy, Commodore Perry

The system led to a series of peasant uprisings in the 18th and 19th centuries, and extreme dislocation within the warrior caste. In time, these internal Japanese issues and the growing pressure of western encroachment led to the end of the Tokugawa period and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor, in 1868.

Many concluded as did feudal Lord (daimyō) Shimazu Nariakira, that “if we take the initiative, we can dominate; if we do not, we will be dominated”.  In the following decades, Japanese delegations and students traveled around the world to learn and assimilate Western arts, sciences and technologies. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, Japan was transform from a feudal society into a modern industrial state.

The Korean peninsula remained backward and “uncivilized” during this period, little more than a tributary state to China, and easy prey for foreign domination.  A strong and independent Korea would have represented little threat to Japanese security but, as it was, Korea was a “a dagger pointed at the heart of Japan” in the words of German military adviser to the Meiji government, Major Jacob Meckel.

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The first Sino-Japanese war of July 1894 – April 1895, was primarily fought over control of the Korean peninsula.  The outcome was never in doubt, with the Japanese army and navy by this time patterned after those of the strongest military forces of the day.

The Japanese 1st Army Corps was fully in possession of the Korean peninsula by October, and of the greater part of Manchuria, in the following weeks.  The sight of the mutilated remains of Japanese soldiers in the port city of Lüshunkou (Port Arthur) drove their comrades to a frenzy of shooting and slashing.  When it was over, numbers estimated from 1,000 to 20,000 were murdered in the Port Arthur Massacre.  It was a sign of things to come.

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An illustration of Japanese soldiers beheading 38 Chinese POWs as a warning to others by Utagawa Kokunimasa.

Russian desire for a warm-water port to the east brought the two into conflict in 1904 – ’05, the Russo Japanese War a virtual dress rehearsal for the “Great War” ten years later, complete with trench lines and fruitless infantry charges into interlocking fields of machine gun fire.

Subsequent treaties left Japanese forces in nominal control of Manchurian railroads when, on September 18, 1931, a minuscule dynamite charge was detonated by Japanese Lt. Kawamoto Suemori, near a railroad owned by Japan’s South Manchuria Railway near Mukden, in modern Shenyang, China. The explosion was so weak that it barely disturbed the tracks. A train passed harmlessly over the site just minutes later, yet, the script was already written.

Mukden (1)

The Imperial Japanese Army accused Chinese dissidents of the incident, launching a full scale invasion and installing the puppet emperor Puyi as Emporer Kangde of the occupied state of “Manchukuo”, one of the most brutal and genocidal occupations of the 20th century.

The “Mukden incident” was entirely staged, a “false flag” operation and bald pretext to war, carried out by Japanese military personnel and identical in purpose to that carried out against Poland by Nazi aggressors some eight years later, nearly to the day.

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As Western historians tell the tale of WW2, the deadliest conflict in history began in September 1939, with the Nazi invasion of Poland. The United States joined the conflagration two years later, following the sneak attack on the American Naval anchorage at Pearl Harbor, by naval air forces of the Empire of Japan.

Eastern historians are more likely to point to a day eight years earlier, when this and subsequent invasions and the famine and civil wars which ensued, killed more people than the modern populations of Canada and Australia, combined.

September 16, 1906 One of a Kind

From the Catania (Sicily) to the Salerno landings of 1943, Mad Jack could be seen stepping onto the beach, trademark broadsword at his belt, bagpipes under an arm and an English longbow and arrows, around his neck.

On this day in 1906 a child was born .  John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill, the first son and grandson of British civil servants in the Ceylon Civil Service.  The family lived in Hong Kong at the time, returning to England in 1917.  “Jack” graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, serving with the Manchester Regiment in Burma where he rode the length and breadth of the nation, on a motorcycle.

It was around this time Churchill learned to play bagpipes, a bit of an eccentricity for an Englishman of his era. Mad Jack was nothing if not eccentric.

He taught himself to shoot a bow and arrow, and became quite good at it. Good enough to represent his nation in the 1939 world archery championship in Oslo scoring #26, in the men’s recurve. A remarkable feat considering his weapon of choice, was the longbow.

Churchill left the military ten years later and worked as a newspaper editor for a time in Nairobi Kenya, along with the occasional stint as male model and even appeared in two motion pictures, The Thief of Bagdad and A Yank At Oxford. From there he may have faded into obscurity unlike his fellow Englishman of no relation, with the same last name. Except, then came World War II and that transformation into the truly one-of-a-kind, “Mad Jack”.

Churchill resumed his military commission and rejoined the Manchester Regiment later that year, when Germany invaded Poland. Part of the British Expeditionary force to France in 1940, Churchill signaled an ambush on a German unit, by taking out the Feldwebel (staff sergeant) with a broadhead arrow. No one could have been more surprised than that German NCO who surely died wondering, “How the hell did I get an arrow in my chest?”

That one unfortunate German is, to my knowledge, the only combatant in all WWII to be felled by an English longbow.

Not long after, allied military forces were hurled from the beaches of Europe. The only way back in, was via those same beaches. We’ve all seen the D-Day style waterborne assault: invading forces pouring out of Higgins Boats and charging up the beaches. Amphibious landings were carried out from the earliest days of WWII, from Norway to North Africa, from the Indian Ocean to Italy. In all those landings, there’s likely no other soldier who stepped off a Higgins Boat, with a bow and arrows.

On December 27, 1941, #3 Commando raided the German garrison at Vågsøy, Norway. As the ramp dropped on the first landing craft, out jumped Mad Jack Churchill playing “March of the Cameron Men” on the bagpipes, before throwing a grenade and charging into battle.  Mad Jack made several such landings, usually while playing his bagpipes, a Scottish broadsword at his belt.

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“Mad Jack” Churchill, speaking at a landing exercise

Churchill was attached to that sword, a basket hilted “Claybeg”, a slightly smaller version of the Scottish Claymore. He said “Any officer who goes into action without his sword is improperly dressed.” From the Catania (Sicily) to the Salerno landings of 1943, Mad Jack could be seen stepping onto the beach, trademark broadsword at his belt, bagpipes under an arm and an English longbow and arrows, around his neck.

Churchill lost his sword in confused, hand to hand fighting around the town of Piegoletti, for which he received the Distinguished Service Order. Almost single-handed but for a corporal named Ruffell, Churchill captured 42 Germans including a mortar squad. “I always bring my prisoners back with their weapons”, he explained. “It weighs them down. I just took their rifle bolts out and put them in a sack, which one of the prisoners carried. [They] also carried the mortar and all the bombs they could carry and also pulled a farm cart with five wounded in it….I maintain that, as long as you tell a German loudly and clearly what to do, if you are senior to him he will cry ‘Jawohl’ and get on with it enthusiastically and efficiently whatever the … situation. That’s why they make such marvelous soldiers…” It looked, he said, like “an image from the Napoleonic Wars.

Churchill later trudged back to town, to collect his sword. He encountered an American squad along the way, who seemed to have lost themselves and were headed toward German lines. When the NCO refused to turn around, Churchill informed him he was going to be on his way, and he “wouldn’t come back for a bloody third time”.

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Archery historian Hugh Soar, pictured with four of “Mad Jack’s” English longbows

Mad Jack’s luck ran out in 1944 on the German-held, Yugoslavian island of Brac. He was leading a Commando raid at the time, in coordination with the partisans of Josip Broz Tito. Only Churchill and six others managed to reach the top of hill 622, when a mortar shell killed or wounded everyone but Churchill himself. He was knocked unconscious by a grenade and captured.

He’d been playing “Will Ye No Come Back Again?” on his pipes.

Hitler’s infamous ‘Commando Order” had long since taken effect, and Churchill and his surviving men escaped immediate execution at the hands of the Gestapo, thanks to the decency of one Wehrmacht Captain Thuener. “You are a soldier“, he said, “as I am. I refuse to allow these civilian butchers to deal with you. I shall say nothing of having received this order.” Churchill was able to pay Thuener back for his kindness after the war, keeping the man out of the merciless hands of the Red Army.

Churchill was flown to Berlin and interrogated on suspicion that he might be related to the more famous Churchill, before being sent off to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Oranienburg, Germany. There, Mad Jack and Royal Air Force officer Bertram James escaped that September, slipping under the wire and crawling through an abandoned drain and walking all the way to the Baltic coast. They almost made it, too, but the pair was captured near the coastal city of Rostock, just a few miles from the coast.

Mad Jack was sent off to Burma, following the defeat of Nazi Germany. He was disappointed by the swift end to the war brought about by the American bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “If it wasn’t for those damn Yanks” he’d say, “we could have kept the war going another 10 years!”

As a Seaforth Highlander, Mad Jack was posted to the British Mandate in Palestine, in 1948. He was one of the first to the scene of the ambush and massacre of the Haddassah medical convoy that April, banging on a bus and offering evacuation in an armored personnel carrier. His offer was refused in the mistaken belief that Hadassah was mounting an organized rescue.

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No such rescue ever arrived. Churchill and a team of 12 British Light Infantry were left to shoot it out with some 250 Arab insurgents, armed with everything from blunderbusses and old flintlocks, to Sten and Bren guns. Seventy-eight Jewish doctors, nurses, students, patients, faculty members and Haganah fighters were killed along with one British soldier. Dozens were burned beyond recognition and buried in mass graves. Churchill later coordinated the evacuation of some 700 Jewish patients and medical personnel from the Hadassah hospital at Hebrew University, in Jerusalem.

Churchill served as an instructor at the land-air warfare school in Australia, where he became passionately devoted to surfing. Returning to England upon his retirement, he became the first to surf the 5-foot tidal surge up the River Severn, on a board of his own design.

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Surfing the Tidal Bore, up the Severn River

Once and always the eccentric, Mad Jack Churchill loved sailing radio-controlled model warships on the Thames. Little seemed to bring him more joy than the horror on the face of fellow train passengers, when he opened the window and hurled his briefcase into the darkness.

Not one of them suspected he was throwing the thing into his own back yard. It saved him the trouble of carrying it home from the station.

He scribbled a couplet once on a postcard, and mailed it to a friend.  The face of the card bore the regimental colors.

On the back, Mad Jack Churchill had written these words.

“No Prince or Lord has tomb so proud / As he whose flag becomes his shroud.”

He may have been talking about himself.

August 13, 1941 Beans

The car itself was destroyed long ago, the ingredients for its manufacture unrecorded, but the thing lives on in the hearts of hemp enthusiasts, everywhere.

The largest museum in the United States is located in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. The sprawling, 12-acre indoor-outdoor complex in the old Greenfield Village is home to JFK’s Presidential limo, the Rosa Parks bus and the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop. There you will find Abraham Lincoln’s chair from Ford’s Theater along with Thomas Edison’s laboratory and an Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. George Washington’s camp bed is there, with Igor Sikorski’s helicopter and an enormous collection of antique automobiles, locomotives and aircraft.

One object you will not find there is Henry Ford’s plastic car. Made from soybeans.

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As a young man, Henry Ford left the family farm outside of modern-day Detroit, and never returned. Ford’s father William thought the boy would one day own the place but young Henry couldn’t stand farm work. He later wrote, “I never had any particular love for the farm—it was the mother on the farm I loved”.

Henry Ford went on to other things, but part of him never left the soil. In 1941, the now-wealthy business magnate wanted to combine industry, with agriculture. At least, that’s what the museum says.

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Ford gave the plastic car project to yacht designer Eugene Turenne Gregorie at first, but later turned to the Greenfield Village soybean laboratory. To the guy in charge over there, a guy with some experience in tool & die making. His name was Lowell Overly.

The car was made in Dearborn with help from scientist and botanist George Washington Carver, (yeah, That George Washington Carver), a man born to slavery who rose to such prodigious levels of accomplishment that Time magazine labeled the man, the “Black Leonardo”.

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George Washington Carver, at work in his library

The soybean car, introduced to the public this day in 1941, was made from fourteen quarter-inch thick plastic panels and plexiglass windows, attached to a tubular steel frame and weighing in at 1,900 pounds, about a third lighter than comparable automobiles of the era. The finished prototype was exhibited later that year at the Dearborn Days festival, and the Michigan State Fair Grounds.

The thing was built to run on fuel derived from industrial hemp, a related strain of the green leafy herb beloved of stoners, the world over.

Ford claimed he’d be able to “grow automobiles from the soil”, a hedge against the metal rationing of world War Two. He dedicated 120,000 acres of soybeans to experimentation, but to no end. The total acreage devoted to “fuel” production went somehow, unrecorded.

Another reason for a car made from soybeans, was to help American farmers. In any case Henry Ford had a “thing”, for soybeans. He was one of the first in this country, to regularly drink soy milk. At the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago, Ford invited reporters to a feast where he served soybean cheese, soybean crackers, soy bread and butter, soy milk, soy ice cream. If he wasn’t the Bubba Gump of soybeans, perhaps Bubba Gump was the Henry Ford, of Shrimp.

Ford’s own car was fitted with a soybean trunk and struck with an axe to demonstrate the material’s durability, though the axe was later revealed to have a rubber boot.

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Henry Ford’s experiment in making cars from soybeans never got past that first prototype and came to a halt, during World War 2. The project was never revived, though several states adopted license plates stamped out of soybeans, a solution to the steel shortage farm animals found to be quite delicious.

The car itself was destroyed long ago, the ingredients for its manufacture unrecorded, but the thing lives on in the hearts of hemp enthusiasts, everywhere.

The New York Times claimed the car body and fenders were made from soy beans, wheat and corn. Other sources opine that the car was made from Bakelite or some variant of Duroplast, a plant-based auto body substance produced in the millions, for the East German Trabant.

One newspaper claimed that nothing ever came from Henry Ford’s soybean experiments, save and except for, whipped cream.

July 9, 1943 The Most Decorated K9, of WW2

“Chips, a German shepherd, collie, husky mix, was the most famous and decorated sentry dog in World War II, one of 10,425 dogs that saw service in the Quartermaster Corps’ new “K-9 Corps.” Prior to the K-9 Corps, dogs such as Admiral Wags on the carrier Lexington and World War I canine hero Sgt. Stubby were mascots and had no official function in America’s military.” H/T Defense Media Network

By the last year of the “Great War”, French, British and Belgian armed forces employed some 20,000 dogs on the battlefield, the Germans, 30,000. General Headquarters of the American Expeditionary Forces recommended the use of dogs as sentries, messengers and draft animals in the spring of 1918. However, with the exception of a few sled dogs in Alaska, the US was the only country to take part in World War I with virtually no service dogs in its military.

US Armed Forces had an extensive K-9 program during World War II, when private citizens were asked to donate their dogs to the war effort. One such dog was “Chips”, a German Shepherd/Collie/Husky mix who ended up being the most decorated K-9 of WWII.

Chips belonged to Edward Wren of Pleasantville, NY, who “enlisted” his dog in 1942. Chips was trained at the War Dog Training Center, Front Royal Virginia, and served in the 3rd Infantry Division with his handler, Private John Rowell. Chips and his handler took part in North Africa, Italy, France and Germany.  He served as a sentry dog for the Roosevelt-Churchill conference in 1943, and the team was part of the Sicily landings later that year.

The Allied invasion of Sicily was a large scale amphibious and airborne operation, beginning this day in 1943 and lasting through the 17th of August.  Six weeks of land combat followed in an operation code named “Operation Husky”.

During the landing phase, private Rowell and Chips were pinned down by an Italian machine. The dog broke free from his handler, running across the beach and jumping into the pillbox.  Chips attacked the four Italians manning the machine gun, single-handedly forcing their surrender to American troops. The dog sustained a scalp wound and powder burns in the process, demonstrating that they had tried to shoot him during the brawl.  In the end, the score was Chips 4, Italians Zero.   

Platoon commander Captain Edward Parr recommended Chips for the Distinguished Service Cross for “courageous action in single-handedly eliminating a dangerous machine gun nest and causing surrender of its crew.”

He helped to capture ten more later that same day.

Chips was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, Silver Star, and Purple Heart but his awards, were later revoked.  At that time the army didn’t permit commendations to be given to animals. His unit awarded him a Theater Ribbon with an Arrowhead for the assault landing anyway, along with eight Battle stars.  One for each of his campaigns.

Chips was discharged in December, 1945, and returned home to live out his days with the Wren family in Pleasantville. In 1990, Disney made a TV movie based on his life.  It’s called “Chips, the War Dog”.

July 7, 1944 Banzai

Crowded into the north end of the island, lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito assembled everything he had, over 4,000 hardened troops, into the largest banzai charge of World War 2.

The largest amphibious assault in history began on June 6, 1944, on the northern coast of France.  By end of day, some 156,000 Allied troops had successfully stormed the beaches of Normandy.  Within a week that number had risen to a third of a million troops, over 50,000 vehicles and more than 100,000 tons of equipment.

Half a world away the “D-Day of the Pacific” launched the day before and landed nearly two weeks later, to take the first of three islands in the Mariana group. Saipan.

The “leapfrog” strategy bringing US Marines onto the beaches of Saipan were nothing new. The earlier campaigns to recapture New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, clearing the way for the “island hopping” tactics of admiral Chester Nimitz, to move on the Japanese archipelago.  

The Solomon Islands of Tulagi, and Guadalcanal. The heavily fortified atolls of Tarawa and Makin, in the Gilbert islands. The Marshall islands group: Majuro, Kwajalein and Eniwetok. These and more were pried from the grasp of the Japanese occupier, retaken only by an effusion of blood and treasure unheard of, in previous conflicts.

Saipan was different. Captured in 1914, the League of Nations awarded Saipan to the Empire of Japan five years later, part of the South Seas Mandate of 1919. Saipan was Japanese territory, the first not retaken since the Japanese offensives of 1941 -’42. Not only that. Allied control of Saipan put the Japanese archipelago well within range of B29 long range bombers. Control of the Marianas and Saipan in particular spelled the beginning of the end of the war in the Pacific, and both sides knew it.

Prime Minister Hideki Tōjō publicly swore the place would never be taken. This was to be the most pivotal battle, of the war in the Pacific.

We’ve all seen that hideous footage from the closing days. The cataracts of human beings hurling themselves from the cliffs of Saipan to certain and violent death, on the rocks below. Destroying themselves to avoid who-knows-what kind of atrocities the propaganda ministers of their own government, had taught them to expect at the hands of the Americans.

And those were the civilians. The ferocity of Japanese military resistance can scarcely be imagined, by the modern mind. US Marines took 2,000 casualties on the first day alone, June 16, on the beaches of Saipan.

US Army joined in the following day and, for almost four weeks, battled dug-in and fanatical Japanese soldiers for control of Saipan. Fighting was especially intense around Mount Tapotchau, the highest peak on Saipan. Names such as “Death Valley” and “Purple Heart Ridge” etched themselves in blood, onto the histories of the 2nd and 4th divisions of the United States Marine Corps and the US Army’s 27th Infantry Division.

By July 6 what remained of the defenders had their backs to the sea. Crowded into the north end of the island, lieutenant General Yoshitsugu Saito assembled everything he had, over 4,000 hardened troops, into the largest banzai charge of World War 2.

Banzai as the allies called it after the battle cry “Tennōheika Banzai” (“Long live His Majesty the Emperor”) was a massed assault, one method of gyokusei (shattered jewel) whose purpose is honorable suicide, not unlike the hideous ritual of self-disembowelment known as seppuku.

Imagine if you will, an irresistible tide of shrieking warriors, thousands of them pouring down on you bent on destroying you and everyone around you, each seeking that honorable suicide only to be had, from death in battle.

The evening of July 6 was spent immersed in beer and sake At 4:45am local time July 7, the largest banzai charge of World War 2 came screaming out of the dawn to envelop US forces. First came the officers, some 200 of them, waving their swords and screaming, at the top of their lungs. Then came the soldiers. Thousands of them, howling in the morning’s first light. Major Edward McCarthy said it was like stampeding cattle, only these, kept coming.

The tide was irresistible at first, sweeping all before it. The American perimeter was shattered leaving nothing but isolated pockets, fighting for their lives. Fighting was savage and hand to hand with everything from point-blank howitzers and anti-tank weapons to rifle butts, fists, and rocks.

The human tide advanced some 1,000 yards into the American interior before it was slowed, and then stopped. By six that evening, American armed forces had regained original positions in what was now a charnel house, of gore.

406 Americans were killed that July 7 and an another 512, maimed. 4,311 Japanese troops, lay dead. Three stories come down to us, from that day. Three stories among thousands who have earned the right, to be remembered.

Lt. Col. William O’Brien fired two pistols into the faces of his attackers until he was out, of bullets. Receiving a severe shoulder wound in the process O’Brien leaped onto a jeep and blazed away with its .50 caliber mounted machine gun, all while shouting encouragement to his retreating comrades.

At last even that was out of ammunition. Lt. Col O’Brien was overwhelmed by his attackers his body riddled with bullets, and bayonet wounds. On retaking the position that evening American observers credited 30 dead Japanese, to O’Brien’s .50-cal.

Private Tom Baker exhausted his rifle’s ammunition before turning it, as a club. His rifle butt shattered Baker began to pull back, before he was hit. A fellow soldier began to carry him when he himself, was shot down. Baker refused further aid asking instead to be propped up against a tree facing the enemy with a cigarette, and a pistol.

He was found that afternoon, dead, the eight bullets from that pistol, spent. He was still sitting up against that tree. At his feet, were eight dead Japanese.

Captain Benjamin Salomon was a rear-echelon guy, a dentist assigned to a medical unit. Captain Salomon was treating the wounded in an aid station, when the first attacker, crawled under the tent wall. Salomon hit the man with a medical tray before killing him with a wounded soldier’s carbine.

Ordering the aid station to be evacuated of all wounded, Dr. Salomon covered their retreat with a .30-caliber water-cooled machine gun. He too was found later his body riddled with bullets, and bayonet wounds.

Seven men were awarded Medals of Honor for their actions on Saipan, all of them, posthumous. Among those were Lieutenant Colonel O’Brien, and Private Baker. Dr. Salomon did not receive the medal of honor as his final actions, involved a machine gun. The Geneva Conventions prevent medical personnel from defending themselves with anything more, than a pistol.

June 10, 1944 Village of the Damned

French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour“. The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-seven years ago today. 

It was D+4 following the invasion of Normandy, when the 2nd Panzer Division of the Waffen SS passed through the Limousin region, in west-central France.  “Das Reich” carried orders to help stop the Allied advance, when SS-Sturmbannführer Adolf Diekmann received word that SS officer Helmut Kämpfe was being held by French Resistance fighters in the village of Oradour-sur-Vayres.

Diekmann’s battalion sealed off nearby Oradour-sur-Glane, seemingly oblivious to their own confusion between two different villages.

Everyone in the town was ordered to assemble in the village square, for examination of identity papers. The entire population was there plus another half-dozen unfortunates, caught riding bicycles in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

The women and children of Oradour-sur-Glane were locked in a church while German soldiers looted the town. The men were taken to a half-dozen barns and sheds where machine guns were already set up.

SS soldiers aimed for the legs when they opened fire, intending to inflict as much pain as possible. Five escaped in the confusion before Nazis lit the barn on fire. 190 men were burned alive.

Soldiers then lit an incendiary device in the church and gunned down 247 women and 205 children, as they fled for their lives.

47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche escaped out a back window, followed by a young woman and child.  All three were shot.  Rouffanche alone escaped alive, crawling to some bushes where she managed to hide, until the next morning.

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642 inhabitants of Oradour-sur-Glane, aged one week to 90 years, were shot to death, burned alive or some combination of the two, in just a few hours.  The village was then razed to the ground.

Raymond J. Murphy, a 20-year-old American B-17 navigator shot down over France and hidden by the French Resistance, reported seeing a baby. The child had been crucified.

After the war, a new village was built on a nearby site.  French President Charles de Gaulle ordered that the old village remain as it stood,  a monument for all time to criminally insane governing ideologies, and the malign influence of collectivist thinking.

Generals Erwin Rommel and Walter Gleiniger, German commander in Limoges, protested the senseless act of brutality.  Even the SS Regimental commander agreed and began an investigation, but it didn’t matter.  Diekmann and most of the men who had carried out the massacre were themselves dead within the next few days, killed in combat.

The ghost village at the old Oradour-sur-Glane stands mute witness to this day, to the savagery committed by black-clad Schutzstaffel units in countless places like the French towns of Tulle, Ascq, Maillé, Robert-Espagne, and Clermont-en-Argonne; the Polish villages of Michniów, Wanaty and Krasowo-Częstki and the city of Warsaw; the Soviet village of Kortelisy; the Lithuanian village of Pirčiupiai; the Czechoslovakian villages of Ležáky and Lidice; the Greek towns of Kalavryta and Distomo; the Dutch town of Putten; the Yugoslavian towns of Kragujevac and Kraljevo and the village of Dražgoše, in what is now Slovenia; the Norwegian village of Telavåg; the Italian villages of Sant’Anna di Stazzema and Marzabotto.

And on.  And on.  And on.

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The story was featured on the 1974 British television series “The World at War” narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, who intones these words for the first and final episodes of the program: 

“Down this road, on a summer day in 1944. . . The soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years. . . was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road . . . and they were driven. . . into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then. . . they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War”.

Sir Laurence Olivier

French President Jacques Chirac dedicated a memorial museum in 1999, the “Centre de la mémoire d’Oradour“. The village stands today as those Nazi soldiers left it, seventy-seven years ago today. 

It may be the most forlorn place on earth.

May 14, 1915 Canary Girls

Munitions workers began to complain of headaches and nausea and skin conditions, like hives. Constant exposure to toxic chemicals turned the hair and skin of these women a brilliant shade of yellow, or orange. Expectant “Canary Girls’ gave birth to bright yellow “Canary Babies”.

Since the age of antiquity, heavy weapons have tilted the scales of battlefield strategy. The first catapult was developed in Syracuse, in 339 BC. The Roman catapult of the 1st century BC hurled 14-pound stone balls against fixed fortifications. The age of gunpowder brought new and ghastly capabilities to artillery. In 1453, the terrifying siege guns Mehmed II faced the walls of Constantinople, hurling 150-pound missiles from barrels, wide enough to swallow a grown man.

Monument to Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II, Edirne, East Thrace, Turkey

Such weapons were slow to reload and sometimes, unreliable. Mehmed’s monsters took a full three hours to fire. Seven years later, King James II of Scotland was killed when his own gun, exploded.

This experimental three-shot cannon belonging to Henry VIII burst, with predictable results for anyone standing nearby.

By the Napoleonic wars, artillery caused more battlefield casualties than any other weapon system.

At that time such weapons were virtually always, loaded at the muzzle. The first breech loaders came about in the 14th century but it would take another 500 years, before precision manufacturing made such weapons reliable, and plentiful.

Breech loading vastly increased rate-of-fire capabilities. By the end of the 19th century, technological advances brought new and hideous capabilities to what Josef Stalin would come to call, the “God of War’.

Heretofore, the massive recoil of such weapons required a period of time to re-set, re-aim and reload. In the 1890s, French soldier Joseph Albert DePort solved that problem with a damping system enabling the barrel to recoil, leaving the gun in place. Recoilless weapons could now be equipped with shields keeping gun crews as close as possible while smokeless powder meant that gunners could clearly see what they were shooting at.

By World War 1, trained crews serving a French 75 could fire once every two seconds. Massed artillery fired with such horrifying rapidity as to resemble the sound, of drums.

This clip is five minutes long. Imagine finding yourself under “drumfire”, for days on end.

While guns of this type were aimed by lines of sight, howitzers fired missiles in high parabolic trajectories to fall on the heads, of the unlucky.

The great Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke (the elder) once said, “No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy”. So it was in the tiny Belgian city of Ypres where the German war of movement met with weapons of the industrial revolution.

A million men were brought to this place, to kill each other. The first Battle for Ypres, there would be others, brought together more firepower than entire wars of an earlier age. The losses are hard to get your head around. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) alone suffered 56,000 casualties including 8,000 killed, 30,000 maimed and another 18,000 missing, of whom roughly one-third, were dead.

British 18-pounder

The breakdown is harder to get at for the other combatants but, all in, Germany suffered 135,000 casualties, France 85,000 and Belgium, 22,000. The three week struggle for Ypres cost the lives of 75,000 men, enough to fill the Athens Olympic Stadium, in Greece. Soldiers on all sides dug frantically into the ground, to shelter from what Private Ernst Jünger called, the “Storm of Steel”.

First drum fire in the war, in the Champagne, Lasted 75 hours, from Sept. 22 to 25. Was directed against 20 Miles of the German Front. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The French alone expended 2,155,862 shells during the Anglo-French offensive called the second battle of Artois, fought May 9 through June 18, 1915, a fruitless effort to capitalize on German defenses, weakened by the diversion of troops to the eastern front. The objective, to flatten the German “Bulge” in the Artois-Arras sector.

Immediately to the French left, the British 6th army under Sir John French was to advance on May 9 in support of the French offensive, taking the villages of Aubers, Fromelles and Le Maisnil and the elevation known as Aubers Ridge.

The battle of Aubers was an unmitigated disaster. The man-killing shrapnel rounds so valued by pre-war strategists were as nothing, against fortified German earthworks. No ground was taken, no tactical advantage gained despite British losses, ten times that on the German side.

War correspondent Colonel Charles à Court Repington sent a telegram to The Times, complaining of the lack of high-explosive shells. On May 14 The Times headline read: “Need for shells: British attacks checked: Limited supply the cause: A Lesson From France”. The article placed blame squarely on the government of Herbert Asquith who had stated as recently as April 20, that the army had sufficient ammunition.

“We had not sufficient high explosives to lower the enemy’s parapets to the ground … The want of an unlimited supply of high explosives was a fatal bar to our success”.

The Times, May 14, 1915

For British politics at home, the information fell as a bombshell, precipitating a scandal known as the Shell Crisis of 1915.

Governments were slow at first to understand the prodigious appetites, of this war. Fixed trench lines led to new rail construction capable of providing cataracts of munitions, to front lines. The problem came from a munitions industry, unable to supply such demands.

Men shipped off to the war by the millions leaving jobs vacant and families at home, without income. Women represented a vast pool of untapped labor. Despite social taboos against women working outside the home, wives, sisters and mothers came flooding into the workplace.

By the end of the war some three million women joined the workforce a third of whom, worked in munitions factories.

Ever conscious of husbands, sons and sweethearts at the front, women worked grueling hours under dangerous conditions. “Munitionettes” manufactured cordite propellants and trinitrotoluene (TNT) explosives, hand filling projectiles from individual bullets to giant shells.

At the front, the war was an all-devouring monster consuming men and munitions at rates unimagined, in earlier conflicts. During the first two weeks of the 3rd Battle for Ypres, better known as Passchendaele, British, Australian and Canadian artillery fired 4,283,550 shells at their German adversary.

Munitions workers began to complain of headaches and nausea and skin conditions, like hives. Constant exposure to toxic chemicals turned the hair and skin of these women a brilliant shade of yellow, or orange. Expectant “Canary Girls” gave birth to bright yellow “Canary Babies”.

Nothing could be done and the yellow tended to fade over time but not a very different yellow, caused by toxic jaundice.

The work was well paid but exhausting, often seven days a week. Grueling 14-hour shifts led to girls as young as 14 coming into the workforce, but it wasn’t enough. “History of Yesterday” writes that two women on average died every week from toxic chemicals, and workplace accidents. One 1918 explosion at the National Shell Filling Factory №6 near Chilwell caused the death of 130 women.

The modern reader can scarcely imagine the crushing burdens of these women caring for families at home and ever conscious of sons, brothers and sweethearts, struggling to survive in this all consuming war.

The canary colored hair and skin would fade in time, but not the long term health effects of daily exposure to toxic substances. It didn’t matter. Twenty years later another generation would do it, all over again.