Battle of Coronel, Author’s Day, and Stella’s Game

Yes, someone actually decided that authors were worthy of recognition. This happened nearly a century ago…when people were still reading and not waiting for the video.

Battle of Coronel: 1 November 1914

The Endless Game of Weapons Innovation

In the late 19th century, naval ship development was driven by two contrasting needs: beat the other fellow and do it cheaply. The “other fellow” was often hard to define, but the biggest challenge that European navies felt they faced would be merchant ships that their warships couldn’t outrun. Propulsion systems for merchant–especially passenger–ships of all kinds were being developed faster than the more hidebound, budget-conscious navies could adapt.

If this starts to look like a game of paper-scissors-rock, you’re got the right idea

In the mid-19th century, Russia built the first ship called an “armored cruiser” that was meant to show the flag powerfully at distant stations. This preceded by a decade or so the first armed merchant cruisers by that giant arbiter of naval fashion, Britain’s Royal Navy. Their idea was to take one of those speedy merchantmen and arm it to catch other speedy merchantmen. Then someone popped their heads up and announced to no one’s surprise that the enemy could make those, too. so the RN adapted the Russian idea of a powerful warship on a smaller hull but with great speed and range to counter the theoretical armed merchant cruiser menace. Then these ships got big, and fast, and powerful and in 1911 the RN came up with the third part of this deadly game: the battle cruiser. If this starts to look like a game of paper-scissors-rock, you’re got the right idea, but arms designers had done this for centuries at sea: this ship design to counter that one, then another innovation to overcome the next.

…the bosses back in Berlin were light on how this flotilla would survive on the other side of the world if the war went on more than a few months.

Then came WWI, and the game became deadly. Trapped in the Pacific at the start of the war was the German East Asia Squadron, led by Maximilian von Spee. Its mission was to raid enemy commerce in the Pacific in the event of hostilities. While a great idea for a short war, the bosses back in Berlin were light on how this flotilla would survive on the other side of the world if the war went on more than a few months.

So, after running more or less wild in the Pacific for a couple of months, von Spee decided to raid the coast of Latin America for a while. At the same time he realized that he’d run out of ammunition pretty soon, so he decided he’d hightail it for home around the end of the year. But the Royal Navy got in the way.

the German ships were manned by long-service professionals…the British by reservists just called up. German gunnery was renowned; British gunnery…not so much.

The Germans had two armored cruisers (see above) and three light cruisers (defined as a warship in size and power somewhere between that of a destroyer and of a bigger cruiser) with them, in addition to a number of auxiliaries and storeships. To counter this force, Britain’s Christopher Cradock commanded two armored cruisers, a light cruiser, an armed merchant cruiser and a pre-Dreadnought battleship. On paper it looks like the British had the advantage with that big battlewagon…but they didn’t because the battleship was too slow to keep up with the rest of the squadron. In addition, the German ships were manned by long-service professionals; most of the British vessels were manned by reservists just called up. German gunnery was renowned; British gunnery…not so much.

Battle off Coronel, Chile. British ships in red; German in black. Wikimedia Commons

The result was well within the realm of predictable on 1 November 1914. British losses were over 1,600 men and both armored cruisers, which were literally buried in shells. German losses were three men wounded. However, that was but one battle in a long campaign, and to win that fight the Germans expended half their irreplaceable ammunition. Any more commerce raiding anywhere would have to wait; von Spee decided to run for home.

It was the heyday of the half-century long race to outrun those fast armed merchantmen

But in this deadly game of paper-scissors-rock, the rocks were dispatched to break the scissors. Two battlecruisers arrived in the Falklands just in time to destroy the German squadron a month later. It was the heyday of the half-century long race to outrun those fast armed merchantmen, then to outgun those fast armored cruisers. It was also the last demonstration of this kind of deadly one-upsmanship, as the armed merchant cruisers were replaced in strategic importance by the submarine, making the armored cruisers and the battlecruisers strategically pointless.

National Author’s Day

The Unknown Author, plugging away…

Now you, too can honor at least one author…me…by buying at least one of my books. Or at least, by putting one on your list.

In 1928, Nellie Verne Burt McPherson, teacher, avid reader and president of the Bement, Illinois Women’s Club had an idea of setting aside a day to celebrate American authors. She did this because she sent a fan letter–remember those, not just likes on a page somewhere–and decided that mere thanks were not enough. She submitted the idea of an Author’s Day to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs–that’s still around, too–which passed a resolution declaring 1 November as National Author’s Day. The US Department of Commerce followed suit in 1949.

Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendship

Have a seat; we’re dealing Stella’s Game.

And here’s one you really should put on your list–Stella’s Game: A Story of Friendship, due for publication 3 December 2019. Stella’s Game follows four kids from 1963 to 1974; half their lives. It’s about friends, family, learning, challenging, fun and danger. It’s also the first volume in a trilogy that will follow these kids until 2001. Look for it in December.

Spanish Flu begins and Pi Day

In the late winter of 1917, a handful of Indo-Chinese laborers crossing the US on their way to France stopped in Haskell County, Kansas for at least three days. They had limited contact with any local Americans, and what contacts there were, were casual at most. On the morning of 11 March 1918, Albert Martin Gitchell reported to sick call at Camp Funston, Kansas (on the site of the modern Fort Reilly). He complained of a high fever, aches and pains, and a cough. Usually, this would have meant isolation in a sick ward (which was done), but Gitchell was a cook, who had been serving food as late as the night before. By noon there were 107 influenza patients; in a week, over 500. By April, over 1,000. Even this would have been unremarkable if 46 hadn’t died–horribly, coughing lung matter out in their final moments, blue-in-the-face.

Red Cross in Detroit, Michigan during the Pandemic: Author’s grandmother third from right in white. Grampa got the flu but survived; Gramma’s hair turned white

What no one appreciated just then was that this H1N5 strain of influenza (so-called for the proteins in the outer shell of the virus) might have started as early as 1916 in Britain or France–to this day it is unclear. There were no centralized reporting mechanisms then, no CDC or WHO that anyone could recognize as such. Modern researchers believe that this strain of influenza may have been a close genetic match to the 1898 influenza, a milder form that swept the globe starting in China (as the flu always does) from October 1898 to March of 1899–flu season. It seems likely that the Vietnamese laborers carried the virulent Asian bug into Kansas, where it crossed with another strain, though the truth is unknowable.

What was remarkable about it wasn’t the “knock-me-down fever” that the flu was called, but that so many (proportionately) died, and not the elderly, infirm or very young who were usually flu fatalities. These were young people, healthy and in a prime state. Four deaths would have been odd, but 46 such horrible deaths was downright alarming. But the war came first, and the survivors–many still weak from the experience–shipped out in April and May for France, on slow-moving trains that stopped a dozen times before they reached whatever port they departed from–and spread the flu as they went.

At the time, medicine was in a state of transition. The only widely accepted vaccine was for smallpox; there were no antibiotics; there were still physicians whose medical training took about four months and did not involve looking at a cadaver. This bug spread from town to town, state to state, country to country. By June it had spread to most of the ports of debarkation and exploded worldwide. The Wilson administration was aware of the pandemic but forbade widespread news coverage of it because it would have been bad for morale. The British and French, Italians and everyone else had similar reasons for not covering it as the bodies stacked up in the morgues, ships arrived in port with bloody flux all over the decks and dead in the hundreds. For this reason, the only major European power that covered this plague in their mass media–the newspapers–was Spain, and that’s how it came to be known as the Spanish Flu.

This flu hit the sufferers suddenly and often violently. Caregivers came to know which sufferers were going to survive and which would not within the first few hours the symptoms presented. Extreme sufferers (about 20%) turned blue, cracked their ribs coughing, spewed black fluids from their mouth and nose, and died in hours..sometimes minutes. There was no treatment save codeine for their cough, and it hit those between the ages of 20 and 40 the hardest. Post-mortems showed the extreme sufferers were drowned in the detritus of their own immune systems that attacked the invading virus so vigorously that it killed their hosts. In milder forms, the affected simply weakened and died (40%) within days. The mildly afflicted–the lucky or strong 40%–suffered from a malaise that often lasted for years, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

By the second week in November 1918–when the War to End All Wars was ending–leading clinicians in the US and Britain, Russia (where the Revolution came to a brief halt) and even Japan were calculating the end of the human race. Most gave humanity perhaps six months to live. Many believed it had to be a new plague…a resurrected, reconstituted Black Death.

The American Army’s fatality roles 1917-18 were doubled by influenza. Large cities like Detroit and Chicago, Paris and London monitored traffic and imposed quarantines; rural communities and isolated islands stopped traffic altogether, frequently at gunpoint. A streetcar in Johannesburg loaded with passengers and departed a stop and five blocks later unloaded all of the 21 passengers and the conductor–dead. Children deprived of their caregivers starved to death, especially in urban areas. Funeral directors ran out of coffins and embalming fluids, which combined with shortages of gravediggers resulted in mass cremations: one in Vienna, Austria was said to have contained over 10,000 dead. Entire North African and Chinese villages were burned. Actuaries in the United States dropped the average life expectancy for 1918 from 55 to 37.

By the end of November, the rate of infection slowed, and by the end of January 1919, it became clear that the crisis had passed. It came again that winter, and once more in the winter of 1920-21, but the virulence seemed decreased, and the number of fatalities far less. Nearly 100 million people worldwide were killed directly or indirectly by the 1918 influenza; one in four (about a billion) were affected one way or another–sickened and survived like my mother’s father, overworked and weakened like my father’s father, or watched whole populations wiped out like my father’s uncle. In closing:

  • There are no lab samples, despite years of searching in graves: thus, there are no specific vaccines against the 1918 influenza.
  • Since the 1918 bug struck those in the prime of life–those who make vaccines–it is not clear that one could be made available if it should strike again.
  • The failure rate of the annual flu vaccine is about 30%; in bad years, like 2017-18, it rises as high as 60%. However, even failed or non-specific vaccines decrease the symptoms and the likelihood of retransmission.
  • Herd immunity is best sustained when 92% or more of any given population has been vaccinated, even with a non-specific vaccine.
  • The “reaction” to the flu shot shows that it is not only working but that the sufferer has already been exposed and is likely contagious.
  • About 20% of adults do not get regular flu shots.

Got your flu shot yet? Why not?

Pi Day

Um…yeah…

Thursday is Pi Day–3.14. It started out in 1988 as a celebration of mathematics by Larry Shaw of the San Francisco Exploratorium. The US Congress passed a non-binding resolution in 2009 recognizing 14 March as Pi Day. Nominally, this clever holiday has been celebrated or observed by throwing pies, holding mathematical symposiums, eating pizza and other more or less benign activities.

However, like many other things, Pi Day has been hijacked by…other interests. In 2005, an Oregon State physics major named Bobby Henderson sent an open letter to the Kansas State Board of Education, which was then struggling with creationism and intelligent design requirements alongside more scientifically accepted versions of Earth’s origins. He suggested that it is as likely that a Flying Spaghetti Monster created everything as it was any other deity. The most significant phrase reads:

I don’t have a problem with religion. What I have a problem with is religion posing as science. If there is a god and he’s intelligent, then I would guess he has a sense of humor.

Bobby Henderson

Not exactly 97 Theses nailed to a door, but in the 21st century, it was enough. Soon, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster–the Pastafarians–was born. A book entitled The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was released in 2006. There are websites, and more books, and the odd, odd convention, and somehow piracy and other odd things got tossed in the chaotic mix. Mostly the Pastafarians are polking fun at organized religion, especially when it pretends to circumvent falsifiability.

Oh, and Pi Day is celebrated by some Pastafarian sects as recognition of a related deity. It is observed by reverently eating pizza…at least, according to my late buddy Bill, may Pasta rest his soul.

Alvin York, Confirmation Bias, and American Touch Tag Day

Alvin York was nearly thirty when he was drafted in 1917 and had recently joined a fundamentalist Christian sect that forbade fighting, among other things. But drafted he was. As a marksman of great skill, it was thought odd that he had no stomach for battle, but he did reluctantly agree.

As a member of Company G (3rd Battalion), 328th Infantry Regiment in the 82nd Division, Corporal York’s first taste of combat was in the Meuse-Argonne sector, where his seventeen-man patrol got into a confused firefight behind enemy lines on 8 October 1918 and captured an unclear number of Germans: this late in the war, even the elite Prussian Guards were giving up. But a German machine gun tried to compel their comrades to fight again, and York and three comrades eventually silenced the gun, killing 25 in the process. York never claimed to have accounted for more than nine.

Not what you got from the movie, is it?

But America needed a hero, and the beleaguered American Army in France needed one even more. While the survivors of his patrol did capture over a hundred Germans, it is important to remember that by then most of the German Army had been on less than a thousand calories a day for nearly two years. Much of Germany was starving; the fleet was in mutiny; the cities were crumbling from lack of labor. While York and his companions were indeed heroes, he never thought as much of the Medal of Honor that hung around his neck as everyone else did.

http://www.worldwar1.com/heritage/sgtayork.htm

Alvin York (right) and the then-Governor of Tennessee Prentiss Cooper

York spurned the role of hero and icon after the war, and by the 1930s was preaching from the isolationist pulpit with Charles Lindbergh, but Hollywood change his mind. While making and promoting the movie (that he wanted to make to raise money for a bible school) that made him even more famous, he became a preparedness spokesman. The film, Howard Hawk’s 1941 Sergeant York, was based on a 1928 novel Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary which contains excerpts of  York’s diary and greatly exaggerated other contents. It was good enough to win Gary Cooper, who played York, an Academy Award in 1942 for best actor.

Audiences today see the film as a feel-good flag-waver, entertaining enough for a little over an hour once or twice, but after that just old black-and-white hokum. While this purely personal assessment may be just that, the Hollywood folks–and York–in 1940 were after a lot more. They were looking at the ashes of the French Army that had been torn apart by the Germans in less than a month, and at the outnumbered and outclassed British, who barely escaped total annihilation by running back to England, which by then was under aerial siege. The US Army, then smaller than that of Uruguay, was woefully unprepared, and Hollywood was willing to work with the Army and York to make a hokey, black-and-white film with the bankable but down-home Gary Cooper in the lead to get a peacetime draft passed in Congress.

The tactic worked mostly because they used confirmation bias–the tendency for an observer to like something already believed in. The wartime myth of York’s single-handed exploit in the Argonne was played up not just to make the film more exciting and York’s role more central, but to make the down-home country boy who never handled a smokeless powder firearm before he was drafted more approachable by typical audiences and future bond-buyers, and thus more believable. That York never personally promoted the film is usually ignored; that he never saw it is possible.

But it is also irrelevant.

Many consumers of history are the victims of confirmation bias, as they usually enjoy and agree with the works that confirm what they already think they know. Yes, we’re building up to another plug for Why the Samurai Lost Japanbut that’s what this blog is for–selling JDBCOM.COM books. Japan attacked the US, British Commonwealth, and the Netherlands in 1941, and yes it was because the West had cut off their oil and other resources because of their war in China. But, why was Japan so interested in China? The West had warned Japan time and again about their military adventures in East Asia. Why, finally, did the showdown come just as the Germans were chewing up the Soviets in the summer of 1941?

It wasn’t as coincidental as it looks.

WHY_07_CUT

Cover for “Why the Samurai Lost Japan”

Why the Samurai Lost Japan explores this and many other issues. While researching the book, my co-author and I found a great deal of confirmation bias in the sources, some of which nearly parrot themselves and each other with their insistence on Japan’s arrogance (but why), military prowess (but failed to defeat the Chinese in four years), and technological sophistication (but had to import most of its machine tools). While the terrific storm of American military might fought its way across the Pacific from the ashes of Pearl Harbor (where only three warships were permanently lost), the tenacious Japanese fought tooth-and-nail in defense of their far-flung empire (which was so porous US submarines were ranging off the Japanese coast by mid-1942).

But, what a war, anyway, huh?

Our subtitle gives a little better hint at what to expect: A Study of Miscalculation and Folly. Expect to see it in December.


Today is American National Touch Tag Day for reasons lost in posterity. In the Great Lakes it still might be warm enough for these girls to be playing Touch And Go (didn’t know it just might be an acronym, did you? Neither does Snopes, but what do they know?) in their summer dresses, but it likely isn’t. Still, when was the last time you did that, ran around in the sun, giggling with whoever you can catch? Yeah, me neither.

http://wkdq.com/did-you-know-what-the-game-of-tag-stands-for/

Remember? Yeah, me neither.

The game of Tag is, was and has been an innocent enough activity,  but the Fun Police have been criticizing it lately for encouraging bullying, harassment, reckless running, unwanted touches (which is the point), and predatory behavior.  It is banned in some schools in the US, but so are cellular phones and guns for all the good that’s done.

Defy authority and start up a game of tag. Have some outrageous fun while running and touching friends. Show the Fun Police what you’re made of.

Shell Shock Described and National Sock Day

December already…jeesh, just last week it was November…where does the time go…?  But 4 December is an auspicious day indeed, for it marks the death of Persian poet Omar Khayyam in 1123 (yes, there really was a guy by that name); the end of the Council of Trent (after sixteen years) in 1563; Pere Marquette building the first dwelling in what is now Chicago in 1673 (wonder if he had a permit for it); George Washington’s farewell to his officers a Fraunces Tavern in New York in 1783 (so he wouldn’t have to pay that bar tab); the Electoral College declared James Monroe President of the United States in 1816; merchant brigantine Marie Celeste was found off the Azores in 1876, abandoned by passengers and crew (a mystery that persists to this day); Woodrow Wilson became the first sitting president to leave the county on this day in 1918 when he boarded SS George Washington for France; and Gemini VII was launched from Cape Canaveral in 1965.  But today we talk about one of the worst horrors of war, and socks.

Rivers and other practitioners had treated men who, in the eyes of the military establishment, were simply cowards. 

On 4 December 1917, Dr. WIlliam H. Rivers committed heresy.  For his crime, he was terminated from his post because, well, the Army can’t have heretics treating fighting men. River’s heresy was embodied in a report he submitted to the Royal School of Medicine entitled The Repression of War Experience, which was based on his work at the Craiglockhart War Hospital for Neurasthenic Officers in Scotland. There, Rivers and other practitioners had treated men who, in the eyes of many in the military establishment, were simply cowards.

…the “slackers” started to exhibit behaviors other than just being unable or unwilling to go to the front: panic, fearfulness, wakefulness, babbling, diarrhea, starting at loud noises, dizziness, amnesia.

Since the beginning of organized warfare, military organizations had treated those who, for whatever reason, refused to fight after the battles had begun and they had participated, as simply slackers. In the mid-to-late 19th century, as explosive artillery became more commonplace, range increased and soldiers were in contact longer, the “slackers” started to exhibit behaviors other than just being unable or unwilling to go to the front: panic, fearfulness, wakefulness, babbling, diarrhea, starting at loud noises, dizziness, amnesia. As medical science began to get itself organized, there were some clinicians in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) who looked at medical records and notes from older conflicts, including the Crimean War (1853-1856), and the American Civil War (1861-1865) to see a pattern of sorts: these symptoms appeared after the sufferers had been exposed to high noise level explosions, such as artillery bombardments of some duration. While the medical profession in general either ignored these findings or discredited them, they did not go away.  Indeed, after 1914 they became more prevalent.

As the numbers of these “malingers” increased in the British Army the leadership became alarmed, and actively suppressed any findings related to the phenomenon. 

By the end of 1914, as much as 10% of British officers and 4% of the enlisted men were complaining of one or another of the signs of what was labeled “shell shock” (which in this essay it shall be called regardless of current fashion) in a 1915 article in The Lancet. There were other symptoms by then, including neurasthenia, mutism and fuge. At the time these were regarded as related to head trauma, but many of the patients showed no head injury. As the numbers of these “malingers” increased in the British Army the leadership became alarmed, and actively suppressed any findings related to the phenomenon.  But scientists resisted such manipulations, and began comparing notes by proxy with German, Austro-Hungarian, and even Ottoman clinicians through neutrals, including Scandinavia and the United States, and found that all of them were reporting similar cases.

Rivers and several other neuropsychiatrists came and went, with no supervisor lasting more than a few months before they were sacked because they simply kept their patients too long. 

Grudgingly, British military leaders had decided that a simple rest cure should be sufficient for an officer to recover his wits and spine: perhaps two or three weeks should do.  In 1916, a disused hydrotherapy hospital at Craiglockhart in Scotland was opened to study the phenomenon in British officers, and give them a good long rest. When Siegfried Sassoon and Reginald Owen were sent there in 1917, it was quickly dubbed “Dottyville.” Rivers and several other neuropsychiatrists came and went, with no supervisor lasting more than a few months before they were sacked because they simply kept their patients too long.

Humans can only take so much exposure to these things, and everyone has a different limit.

After the end of WWI, clinicians from all over the world began to talk about the phenomenon called shell-shock, and found that no nation, no culture, no rank or society was immune. The Americans looked at cases as far back as Mexico; the Russians found indications not just in the Crimea but before, as early as 1812, especially among artillerymen. Even Japanese doctors could find an occasional mystery-coward (executed in their case) who simply could neither speak nor stand after fighting in Korea in 1892.  It was called “bullet wind,” “soldier’s heart,” “irritable heart,” and “operational exhaustion” to name but a few of many score titles observers have given it through the ages. But the military was slow to recognize the phenomenon–officially–and had to wait until the 1930s, when the profession of psychoanalysis became socially acceptable. But failure to recognize the side effects of prolonged exposure to high-intensity noise, extreme sound and air pressure, fear, horror, long hours of wakeful alertness and uncertainty on human beings at all levels lingered as late as George Patton’s famous “slapping incidents.” Humans can only take so much exposure to these things, and everyone has a different limit.

The moniker “post-traumatic stress disorder” or PTSD has been adopted since the 1970s to describe the phenomenon, but it too has been abused to the point where it has become meaningless.

For some peculiar reason, the victims of shell shock or any other name given to those whose minds have been affected to one extent or another by warfare, puts medical professionals on edge, and on their guard. Since the 1930s, the collective phenomenon of shell shock has been shuttled around by the medical profession and the insurance industry like a live grenade. Sufferers are often medicated, talked to, given “strategies” that sometimes work and sometimes don’t, and generally treated like a fungus that won’t go away. The moniker “post-traumatic stress disorder” or PTSD has been in use since the 1970s to describe the phenomenon, but it too has been abused to the point where it has become meaningless. The short, technical-sounding catchall term “PTSD” does, however, make it much easier to write up in clinical notes, and easier to pass of to the next poor schlemiel to try to put the sufferer back together and at least be able to function.

The medical profession does not trouble itself, however, to explain how an abused spouse, a bullied school kid, and a combat veteran can all fall under the same label.

To be clear, I personally know no one who suffers–clinically defined–from this horrid affliction, and I don’t–clinically defined–suffer from it, but there are degrees of such trauma.  I have been under fire, and I saw people torn apart by gunfire. I sometimes have nightmares about it, and I sometimes can’t sleep because of it.  It was more than four decades ago, but still…I’m convinced that the condition is difficult for anyone who has never been shot at or exposed to such horrors as war can make to understand. The insistence of many overtrained and underqualified ignorami who want to put all of these conditions and more under the general heading of PTSD is beyond any and all understanding to those who have to deal not just with symptoms and with the patients, but with the record. The medical profession does not trouble itself, however, to explain how an abused spouse, a bullied school kid, and a combat veteran can all fall under the same label.


Today is also National Sock Day, an observance that, according to the founders of National Sock Day, Pair of Thieves, is on 4 December because of two events.  On 4 December 1954 the final curtain fell on “On Your Toes,” a unique Rodgers and Hammerstein ballet/musical that had run since 1936. The second was in 1991, when the Judds “that kept toes two-stepping” performed their final concert together in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  Okay, whatever…

The folks over at National Day Calendar also tell us that it’s a day that “recognizes the rarest of all lasting unities, the marriage of matched socks.”  Now, not to be a killjoy (OK, I will), I never have trouble with matched socks because, well, I buy all the same socks.  And yes, I do my own laundry.

Meuse-Argonne Begins and National One-Hit Wonder Day

And now, finally, on to 25 September, that famous date in history where so much happened.  What, you ask?  Well, there’s the battle at Stamford Bridge in 1066, where Harold the Unlucky beat back the last Dane/Norse invasion of England (before he lost it to the Normans a few weeks later; then there’s the birth of Robert Clive in England (you remember–explorer, first viceroy of India) in 1725; and Benedict Arnold went over to the British in 1780; and Henry Ford announced that his plants were to adopt a 40-hour, 5 day a week workweek in 1926; Smolensk was liberated in 1943, for the last time, as it happened; and finally, Sandra Day O’COnnor was sworn in as the first woman Supreme Court Justice of the United States.  Too, who can forget that today is Math Storytelling Day (for the real geeks), and National Lobster Day (for…whatever).  But today we talk about America in World War One, and one-hit wonders.

The United States only reluctantly entered the Great War in Europe (which took place from the mouth of the Yalu to the English Channel, and from the North Sea to the Horn of Africa), and then not as an ally but as an “associated power,” whatever that meant.  Indeed, it took most of the summer of 1917 just to decide to send a sizable force.  John J. Pershing was the best general the US had to offer, and he had enough political pull to be assigned as head of the BEF in June 1917.  Because they had been pummeling each other for three years with little to show for it, both the British and the French wanted the Americans to become reinforcements for their battered units, but that was not what President Woodrow Wilson wanted.  Wilson told Pershing, essentially, that he wanted a seat at the conference table when the war was over.  To do that, Pershing was told, an independent American force had to make a significant enough contribution to end the conflict as it could possibly make.

At first the Americans arrived in driblets in 1917, drawing their first blood in a trench raid in November 1917.  Gradually the pace increased, and by the summer of 1918 it was a flood.  By September 1918, 1.4 million Americans were under arms in France. By that time Pershing had enough men to launch an offensive to the north of the old Verdun battlefield, a sector dominated by the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest. The Germans had been there since 1914, more or less undisturbed since 1916, and had built a line of pillboxes, wire entanglements, and prepositioned artillery strongpoints that made it a five-mile deep fortress.  But behind it was Pershing’s objective–the railway hub at Sedan, through which most of the German supplies to the entire Hindenburg Line flowed.

But the Americans had had very little experience in the kind of warfare that had developed in France and Flanders.  They had taken their first objective of the war, the small town of Cantigny, with the support of British planes and French artillery and three days of savage fighting that reduced the attacking companies to squads.  They had performed well enough in a relatively small offensive at St Mihiel, and were considered to be stable, but not “savage” enough to do what the Canadians and Australians were doing in the Hundred Day’s offensives that had started in August.  But this wasn’t a limited push: this was seventeen divisions in what would become two field armies totaling nearly three fourths of a million men. It was to be the biggest battle in American military history between Appomattox in 1865 and the invasion of Sicily in 1943.

The opening moves were small parties of doughboy engineers that crawled forward on the night of 25 September to the first band of German barbed wire, cutting as much as they could and marking what they could not.  At 2:35 AM on 26 September, over 1,400 American, French and British artillery pieces from 75mm to 15 inch railway guns opened up on a five-mile wide by three-mile deep band, expending more ordnance in that first three hours than both armies had used up in the whole four years of the American Civil War.  Then, at 5:30, the ground troops started moving ahead.  Then the bloodletting began.

In proportion to the French and British and even the Germans and Belgians, the American casualties from WWI were small. But, what the wags who argue that body count is the measure of sacrifice don’t say is that the Americans lost half (26k) of their total combat deaths (53k) in WWI during the last ten weeks of the war, at the Meuse-Argonne.

But the Americans barely knew what they were doing, and in their untutored zeal they died by the scores in open ground, where Pershing said they would be victorious because in the trenches lay fear and exhaustion.  He was right, but just getting to that open-country warfare took hundreds of thousands of gallons of American blood.  By the first week in November, American artillery was ranging across the Luxembourg frontier, and American troops had penetrated the Hindenburg Line.  By then the German government had fallen, the politicians were taking over the scene, and by the time the first Americans were out of France and within a day’s march of Germany, the armistice came.

Scholars (myself included) have argued ever since as to whether the Meuse-Argonne was in any way decisive in itself.  Part of the title for my essay for A Companion to the Meuse-Argonne Campaign (Wiley-Blackwell 2014) is “We Can Kill Them But We Cannot Stop Them,” taken from a letter by a German lieutenant in the Meuse-Argonne sector to his wife.  He was referring to the Americans, who in their ignorance kept getting killed while they continued to take ground. After the war, Paul von Hindenburg, the victor of Tannenberg and the architect of Russia’s defeat in WWI, said that it was the Americans, after all, who were most to be feared, not because of their fighting abilities (which he admitted improved with time), but because of their raw numbers and energy.

And, from his perspective and from that of all of Europe, he was right.  There were plans to have two million American soldiers, sailors and Marines in France by the end of 1918, and by the spring of 1919, as many as three million (influenza notwithstanding).  By the end of 1919 as many as four million Americans could have been under arms and either in Europe or on the way; more than Germany and France could field combined.  If Germany had continued to fight after that disastrous fall of 1918, and the Allies had not accepted the armistice offered (and some senior officers did not want to), most of Europe might have been bystanders in an American victory parade through Berlin, Vienna and Budapest.  Thus followed the Peace of Versailles, where Wilson was the first American president to not only leave the country while in office, but was the first to negotiate foreign treaties in Europe.  That American victory parade through western Europe was delayed by a generation, even if the Soviets had captured Berlin, Vienna and Budapest.

Also, 25 September is National One-Hit Wonder Day:

MacArthur’s Park is melting in the dark 
All the sweet, green icing flowing down…

Say what, we said. What in the name of…and who is that, anyway?

We all (most of us, anyway) first heard the self-taught Irish actor Richard Harris belt out those immortal Jimmy Webb lines in April 1968.  And, for most of us, those nonsensical lines and the rest of the lyrics stick in our heads as many One-Hit Wonders and ad jingles do. MacArthur’s Park was covered by Glenn Campbell, Donna Summer and Waylon Jennings amog others, but Dave Barry called it the worst song ever recorded in 1992, and Weird Al Yankovic parodied it a year later.  Often forgotten by the industry, these tunes caught on for some reason, but the original artist was never able to duplicate that success with another song. Mungo Jerry’s In the Summertime;  One Tin Soldier by The Original Caste; One Toke Over the Line by Brewer and Shipley; and of course Brandy by Looking Glass are only a few. One-Hit Wonders have often been covered by other, better-known artists.  Sad, but, like the Meuse-Argonne, necessary for everything to move on.

 

The K9 Corps and National K9 Veteran’s Day

Well, there’s a lot to say about 13 March, but I’m only covering war dogs today.

There isn’t a field of endeavor that humans haven’t involved dogs in. Animal husbandry, farming (property protection), human assistance (leader dogs for the blind date back to Roman times), laborers (pulling everything from carts to wagons), motive power (treadmills), foot warmers and clowns. And of course, war.

The ancient Egyptians and Chinese bred dogs to act a sentinels, as shock weapons, and to attack enemy livestock and pack animals. Despite their ancient history, use of military dogs was haphazard before WWI, and even then there was little organization in their training or husbandry. Military dogs become more widely known after the Great War when an abandoned German Shepard named Rin Tin Tin was brought to America and became a movie sensation in the 1920’s. By 1942, there was enough demand for war dogs in the United States that the US Army Quartermaster Corps formed an official organization unofficially named the “K9 Corps” as outlined by Edmund Gregory on 13 March 1942.  Regular training centers sprang up everywhere, preparing thousands of dogs for all branches of service, including the Coast Guard and Merchant Marine. Primarily German Shepards were used, but Dobermans, several breeds of Huskies, Labradors and herding dogs were used as sentinels, scout and patrol animals, sniffers for mines and casualties, and some (mostly privately owned National Guard members) as trackers and prisoner herders.

The Americans were not alone in using dogs in WWII, of course.  The Germans used them for routine sentinel duties; the Soviets trained some as anti-tank mines (which didn’t work); the Italians used them in Africa to control rats; the Belgians to tow machine guns; the Norwegians and Icelanders for search-and-rescue.  The only major belligerents that made no official use of dogs in WWII were the Japanese.

After WWII most military organizations turned their dogs over to the military police, which is where they are in the US armed forces today. By 2008, there were over 500 dog handler teams in the Army, and an unknown number n the other branches. The USO and VA use dogs as greeters and as therapy for returning human vets.

So today, 13 March, is marked as National K9 Veteran’s Day. As much as the dogs who serve two masters (their handlers and their country) are valued, many are simply destroyed when they reach the end of their useful lives, usually about five years.  An organization called SaveAVet.org is out to change that, finding homes for “the other forgotten soldiers” who have done their bits and just want to live out their lives by the fire. Click the link and see if you can help.

Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, and Jeanette Rankin

In recognition of the hysterical—-um, historic–election in the US tomorrow, I thought I’d talk about a few ladies who made history with connections to 7 November: two were born and a third set a precedent in the US Congress.  Oh, sure, there was Tsingtao and Yarmouth in 1914, and there was Tippecanoe in 1811, and Belmont in 1861, but today is Ladies’ Day here.  For what it’s worth…

Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born in Warsaw in what was then the Kingdom of Poland, which was a part of Russia, on 7 November 1867.  She got some of her initial schooling at the clandestine Flying (or Floating) University in Warsaw before she moved to Paris in 1891 where she met and married Pierre Curie. Between teaching and writing the Curies put together enough of a living to scrape by until 1903, when the Curies and Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Marie Curie (as she was known in France) was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.  In 1906 Pierre was killed in a road accident, but in 1911 she was awarded a second Nobel Prize in Physics for her isolation of radium and polonium.  She was the first person to win two Nobels, and the only woman to win two.

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Liese (originally Elise) Meitner was born in Vienna, in what was then Austria-Hungary, on 7 November 1878.  Unlike Marie Curie, Meitner was unable to obtain much of a formal early education, but instead got her early training externally, through tutors and testing…what today would be deemed “homeschooling.” She was the second woman to earn a PhD from the University of Vienna, gaining that distinction in 1905.  Listening to lectures by Max Planck at the Friedrichs-Wilhelms-Universitat in Berlin, she was drawn to the work of Otto Hahn as one of Planck’s assistants.  Together they discovered radioactive recoil, a key concept in nuclear fission. By 1938, Meitner had lost her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because she was a Jew, and had fled to Sweden. She was there in 1939 when fission was announced by Hahn and Fritz Strassman: her considerable contribution to fission work before 1936 was not mentioned in Hahn’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944.  Subsequent historical research has concluded that Meitner was, indeed, wrongly deprived of the honor she was due.

By 1938, Meitner had lost her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because she was a Jew, and had fled to Sweden.

With World War One raging in Europe, the American elections of 1916 were still fairly closely contested.  As Woodrow Wilson was reelected in part based on the slogan “he kept us out of the war,” the President-re-elect knew that it was only a matter of time before America would have to choose a side.  But on the same day, Jeannette Pickering Rankin, a suffragette/social worker and influential lecturer, was elected to represent Montana’s 1st Congressional district, the first woman to ever hold federal elective office in the United States.  Rankin took her seat on 4 March 1917.  The day before, the German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmerman acknowledged the authenticity of the telegram he sent to the Carranza government of Mexico that January, offering the return of Texas and Arizona if Mexico would go to war with the US.  The Zimmerman Telegram was a media sensation when it was released to the media on 18 February, 1917.  Combined with Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February, Wilson believed he had no choice but to ask Congress for a declaration of war on 2 April. After intense debate, Rankin was one of fifty members of the House to vote “no” on 4 April.  She later stated: “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.” After losing her bid for reelection in 1920, Rankin finally re-entered Congress in 1940, and in December 1941 cast the only dissenting vote after FDR’s request to declare war on Japan.  “As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said to her detractors, “and I refuse to send anyone else.” She didn’t run for reelection in 1942, and was a peace activist until her death in 1973.

She later stated: “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.”

As ironic as 7 November seems to be–two nuclear physicists born, one dyed-in-the-wool pacifist elected–as I write this the results of tomorrow’s election are unknown to me, but by the time you read this maybe we’ll know…or not, depending on how close it really is.  We shall see…