Sunday, November 11, 2018

100 Years Ago On The Western Front

A month before the Armistice, the second in command of the German forces, Erich Ludendorff,* advised the Kaiser that victory was no longer possible and that peace should be sought. The principle factors, he said, were the depletion of German manpower and British tanks.
[As they] looked towards the English the blood froze in veins as two mysterious monsters came creeping over the crater fields...They have learned not to fear men, but there was something approaching which the human brain, with tremendous mechanical powers, had fitted out for a devil's trick, a mystery which approached and shackled the powers because one could not comprehend it with understanding -- a fatality against which one seemed helpless. One stared and stared as if paralyzed.
The monster approached slowly, hobbling, moving from side to side, rocking and pitching, but it came nearer. Nothing obstructed it; a supernatural force seemed to drive it onwards. Someone in the trenches cried "the devil comes," and that word ran down the line like lightening. Suddenly tongues of fire leapt out of the armoured skin of the iron caterpillar, shells whistled over our heads, and a terrible concert [from] a machine gun orchestra filled the air. The mysterious creature had surrendered its secret, and sense returned with it, and toughness and defiance, and the English waves of infantry surged up behind the devil's chariot. 
The Devil's Chariots

The early tanks were hazardous even under normal conditions:
Bullet splash was a hazard peculiar to the tanks. When standard issue rifle and machine-gun bullets hit armour, their lead cores flattened and became molten, the resultant "splash" entering the hull through the slightest crack as a super-hot spray of atomized shrapnel. Entry points included the knife-thin gaps surrounding a loophole and vision slit covers, and the junction of sponson with hull where severe stresses tended to open the felt-packed joint to a crack of daylight. Concentrated Maxim fire could so hammer a section of plate as to cause its internal face to spall, throwing off hot steel fragments and leaving a characteristic rank smell of burned paint. Splash lodged under the skin of face and hands as black pinpricks, emerging weeks later, and commanders and gunners were particularly at risk of being blinded. Various forms of face shield were issued later -- principally steel goggles with inadequate vision slits and a square of chain mail beneath to protect nose, mouth, and throat -- but most men soon discarded them. Hull exteriors could quite literally become shot-blasted, as Lt. Henry Williamson, an infantry supplies officer, confirmed to his father in the spring of 1917: "My experience of the Hindenburg line is that it is bloody awful. One of our tanks that did comeback shined like hell from the bullets but the bloke inside was mad." Yet in spite of all, if any crewman had a fleeting moment to consider his position he thanked God he was not outside in the infantry.
*Ludendorff was a major malefactor in the Weimar years. He remained active in politics. He participated in Hitler's Beer Hall Putsch but was acquitted, no doubt because of political influence.  He viewed peace as a mere lull between wars.

Letters From Their Eleventh Hour: Dr. Elsie Maud Inglis

Commandant, Scottish Women’s Hospitals 
Educated Edinburgh School Of Medicine for Women. Active in Women’s Francise Movement. Founder of Scottish Women’s Hospitals and commanded units in Serbia and Russia. Died of illness due to war service, Newcastle, 26 November, 1917, at the age of 53.
                                                                 [Reni, Rumania] 
                                                                                     March 23, 1917 
We have been awfully excited and interested in the news from Petrograd.* We heard of it, probably long after you people at home knew all about it!  It is most interesting to see how everybody is on the side of change, from Russian officers, who come to tea and beam at us, and say Heresho (good) to the men in the wards. In any case, they say we shall find the difference all over the war area.... 
Do you know we have all been given the St. George Medal? Prince Dolgourokoff, who is in command on this front, arrived quite unexpectedly, just after roll call. The telegram saying he was coming arrived a quarter of an hour after he left!  General Kropensky, the head of the Red Cross, rushed up, and the Prince arrived about two minutes after him. He went all over the hospital, and a member of his gilded staff told matron he was very pleased with everything.  He decorated two men in the wards with St. George's Medal, and then said he wanted to see us together, and shook hands with everybody and said, "Thank you," and gave each of us a medal too; Dr. Laird's was for service, as she had not been under fire. St. George's Medal is a silver one with "for Bravery" on its back. Our patients were awfully pleased, and impressed on us that it carried with it a pension of a rouble a month for life. We gave them all cigarettes to commemorate the occasion. 
It was rather satisfactory to see how the hospital looked in its ordinary, and even I was fairly satisfied.    I tell the unit that they must remember that they have an old maid as commandant, and must live up to it!  I cannot stand dirt, and crooked charts and crumpled sheets. One Sister, I hear, put it delightfully in a letter home: "Our C.M.O. is an idealist!"  I thought that was rather sweet; I believe she added, "but she does appreciate good work." Certainly, I appreciate hers. She is in charge of the room for dressings, and it is one of the thoroughly satisfactory points in the hospital. 
The Greek priest came yesterday to bless the hospital. We put up "Icons" in each of the four wards. The Russians are very religious people, and it seems to appeal to some mystic sense in them. The priest just put on a stole, green and gold, and came in his long grey cloak.  The two wards open out of one another, so he held the service in one, the men all saying the responses and crossing themselves. The four icons lay on a table before him, the three lighted candles at the inner corners, and he blessed  water and sprinkled them, and then he sprinkled everybody in the room. The icons were fixed up in the corner of the wards, and I bought little lamps to burn in front of them, as they always have them. We are going to have the evening hymn sung every evening at six o'clock. I heard that first in Serbia from those poor Russian prisoners, who sang it regularly every evening... 
I have heard two delightful stories from the Sisters who have returned from Odessa.  There is a great rivalry between the Armoured Car men and the British Red Cross men about the capabilities of the Sisters. (We, it appears, are the Armoured Car Sisters!). A B.R.C. man said their Sisters were so smart they got a man on to operating table in five minutes after the other went off. Said an Armoured Car man: "But that's nothing. The Scottish Sisters get the second one on before the first one is off."  The other story runs that there was some idea of the men waiting all night on a quay, and the men said, "But you don't think we are Scottish Sisters, sir, do you?" I have no doubt that refers to Galatz, where we made them work all night. 

*The Russian Revolution which led to an early ceasefire on the Eastern Front.

The letter is part of series called "Letters From Their Eleventh Hour" which I began a few years ago. The letters come from two books described here.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Letters From Their Eleventh Hour: Paul Rohweder (1890-1915)

Student of Theology, Kiel 
Born December 18th, 1890, at Zarpen (Holstein),
Killed April 23rd, 1915 near Het Sas. 
October 29th, 1914 
Under a golden poplar lies a dead comrade. In the peasants’ farmyards lie dead cattle. The windows are broken by shell-fire. Not a bird is to be seen. All nature holds its breath with fear. The air is heavy with the reek of gunpowder. The sun is setting, blood-red. Yet I cannot say that things are going ill with me. A man feels himself really free and independent only when he has learned to be ready to give up his life at any moment. 
I have already fired many a shot and the bullets may have gone home. I can now only think with disgust of the battle-pictures which one sees in books. They show a repulsive levity. One never takes a real battle lightly. When one is in the midst of it and fully conscious of its reality, one can speak of it only in the most deeply earnest spirit. How many a quite young married man have I seen lying dead!  One must not attempt to sweeten or beautify such a thing as that.* 
I dream so often of you. Then I see our house in the moonlight. In the sitting-room a light is burning. Round the table I see your dear heads: Uncle Lau is reading; Mum is knitting stockings; Dad is smoking his long pipe and holding forth about the war. I know that you all are thinking of me. 
If only our warfare achieves the right kind of success; if it brings blessing upon the Fatherland and eventually on the whole of mankind; if we were sure of that, we should bear our sufferings and privations gladly. How I thank God that I am naturally endowed with powers of such endurance! I never felt so strong as I do now.
*Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Letters From Their Eleventh Hour: Albin Müller (1892-1915)

Student of Theology, Bamberg Lyceum 
Born December 16th, 1892, at Tiefenstockheim, Unterfranken. Died March 28th, 1915, in the military hospital at Tourcoing. 
Comines, January 19th, 1915 
Here with us it pours with rain every day. You can’t possibly imagine how filthy we get, wet to the skin. To-day we had to lie down in such filth that it made me shudder. But then I said to myself: ‘Into it, in the name of God!’ And while the others were cursing I thought of the story of our Holy Father St. Francis, how he said to one of the Brothers: ‘When we get home, soaked with rain and besmirched with mud as we are, and knock at the door of the Convent, and the porter strikes us and calls us thieves and rogues, therein is perfect joy.’* 
*My Google search of St. Francis and the keywords from that St. Francis story was fruitless. I wish I knew his writings well enough to recall.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Letters From Their Eleventh Hour: Friedrich Sohnrey (1887-1914)*

Student of Political Economy, Berlin 
Born December 21st, 1887, at Möllenden.
Killed November 8th, 1914, near Clamecy. France 
In the trenches near Clamecy, October 24th, 1914. 
    I go everyday into the village here to see a family with six children. The father is in the war.1 The woman says that he is a Reserve Dragoon. She innocently believes that he has not yet been under fire, but she has no news for two months. She sheds tears when she tells me that and hears that we get letters from home every day. I get hot water there so as to have a good wash after four days' interval., but I can't stop too long, as suspicious scratchings on the part of the children indicate undesirable house-mates.2 
    One does feel sorry for these poor people, who have hardly a stitch of underclothing to change into, not to speak of anything to eat--nothing left but potatoes, and the woman is always tearfully asking me how much longer she and her children will have to go on living like that. She is always lamenting over the war: 'C'est triste pour nous et pour vous." She lays the blame for it on the English and curses them. It makes her very unhappy when I tell her that we are making preparations for the winter and shall probably spend Christmas in the village. She just sobs helplessly. By way of thanks I leave her some bread and an army biscuit, which the children fall upon with shouts of delight. The youngest is five months old. It is true that one cow has been left in the village, by order of the Area-Commandant, to supply milk for the babies, but even so that is little enough. On the second day I gave each of the children two sous. The woman was very much pleased and touched by my sympathy. She followed me to the door and assured me that her house always 'à votre disposition.' 
    We all pity these poor people who are clinging to the last remnants of their former happy existence, though in constant danger of seeing all their possessions burnt and smashed up by their own artillery, and I hardly think that a single one of our soldiers would treat them with anything but friendliness. Many of the men habitually give them some of their bread. The inhabitants of the place gather round our field-kitchens regularly to collect their tribute. So we are seeing to it that our enemies' belongings do not starve. Kindliness is probably that part of the German character from which it derives its greatness. 'It is the German soul, that makes a sick world whole'3 -- and no doubt that means the German heart. 

*The letter is part of series called "Letters From Their Eleventh Hour" which I began a few years ago. The letters come from two books described here.

1France and Germany lost comparable numbers of soldiers, but France and Belgium bore the brunt of civilian casualties on the Western Front.


3He was quoting someone -- who?

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Letters From Their Eleventh Hour: Rudolf Hauer (1894-1914)

Student at the High School of Commerce, Munich* 
Born March 18th, 1894, at Munich.
Killed December 13th, 1914, near Peronne. 
Halle, near Perone, December 9th, 1914. 
...When we have the treat of a beautiful sunset over the watery marshes of the Somme; when a beautiful, cold, December morning breaks through the mist of dawn and the red clay of the trench glows in the sunshine: then we are happy and rejoice like children over the beauty of it. We watch our men in their fleld-grey uniforms; they come out of the dug-outs, stretch themselves, wash themselves and clean their rifles. They look over the edge of the trench with shining eyes, and their bodies seem to be bursting with health and fitness. They are all young, full of joy in Nature, are living parts of that most wonderful whole--a nation developed into full beauty, goodness and strength.

*Quite possibly the Königlich Bayerische Technische Hochschule München, the forerunner of today's Technical University Munich.

The letter is part of series called "Letters From Their Eleventh Hour" which I began a few years ago. The letters come from two books described here.

Hauer's words are so striking and full of color that I chose a WW I color photo to illustrate.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Alcohols Give Acids Wings*

Acids are sticky things -- they cling to each other and hardly break ranks. The reason why is called "hydrogen bonding." Alcohol loosens up acids, making them leave their own. Acids do bond with alcohols, but the combination is volatile esters.** That leads to flying apart.

Volatility --> wings --> nose (aroma).
*The metaphor dates from (at least) Lord Kelvin. See my discussion here.

**The word "ester" is pure invention, without metaphor: link

Thursday, September 28, 2017


From the mailbox:
Photo by Sixty Grit
I finally used up most of my Waterlox - I used rocks to displace the air inside the can and it worked out pretty well, the last bit left was pretty gooey, so there was still plenty of room for air between the rocks. I have attached a picture of the Waterrox* drying in the sun - I am so cheap I will reuse them in the next can. 
Do you have an update on your house?
Yes, I do have updates on the house. We're living in it now. We're renting our old house in Oceanside to our son. Our daughter just went off to college last weekend. I will post when I get more time and daylight to capture things. Lots of unfinished indoor projects and two small yards to tame.
*This inspired me to seek out this old Kingston Trio tune:

Can you weason rye?

Monday, April 3, 2017

Yes, It Is She... the photo, I mean.*

A "new" theory is going round that Titanic was in a race to get to New York before a controlled fire got out of control. We've been there before, back here.
*That's a gorgeous old photo and I did not know it until recently. Apparently, the black smudge on the hull is what supports the new theory (see link). It's supposed to be charred paint caused by an internal fire.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

100 Years Ago On The Western Front

The winter of 1916-17 seemingly froze movement in the trenches. The French and British commanders awaited the spring thaw to resume the Somme Offensive. On the German side, elaborate plans for a calculated retreat were in motion. The German High Command, feeling attrition on two fronts, wished both to strengthen and to shorten their Western front line. Work began already in September of 1916 on new fortifications along what they called the Siegfriedstellung (Hindenburg Line) -- about 25 miles east of the front line. The new defense would delay any French or English assaults in the spring of 1917. This would buy the Germans another year of trench warfare. Operation Alberich commenced on Feb 9, 1917.

Elsewhere, two ominous events would forever change the world. The first was the entry of the US into the war against Germany, triggered by Germany's resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February, 1917.* The second was the collapse of Imperial Russia in March of 1917, the subsequent rise of Lenin's power, and the consequent peace treaty with the Russians. The latter event allowed the Germans to fight a single-front war and to transfer men and materiel to the West. The arrival of American Doughboys bolstered the dwindling French morale and lessened the horrific casualties of the British. All in all it guaranteed another 23 months of fighting.
*The Germans had suspended unrestricted submarine warfare in 1915, after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Eulogy For A Mood

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. 
~ George Orwell,"Politics And The English Language" (1946)
The American Chemical Society (ACS) maintains a data base for each and every unique chemical substance. Currently, more than 102 million organic and inorganic substances and 66 million protein and DNA sequences fill the ever-growing data base. But only "real" chemical species get registry numbers.  A separate and distinct data base houses "hypothetical" chemical species. Hypothetical chemical species exist because chemists (more often patent attorneys) often claim genuses (genera) of species without naming each and every species. One reason to do this is to avoid being copycatted by some trivial variant of an invention. So there are both "real" and "unreal" chemical substances. It is a bit like the difference between real property (estate) and intellectual property. A similar dichotomy exists in language.

Verbs have "moods." One of them is for stating facts;* another is for voicing commands; yet another, called the subjunctive,** is for stating wishes and non-facts. We are losing the subjunctive. It is pedantic to bemoan the loss of a mere verb form; it's altogether another thing to dismiss the line between fact and fantasy. But that is what's happening.

"X alleges that Y did Z" becomes simply "Y did Z."

*As the fossilized metaphor "indicative" preserves, the indicative mood allows the speaker to point out facts in writing or conversation. When there is doubt or uncertainty in the mind of the speaker, i.e., when you shouldn't be pointing, use the subjunctive mood.

**The Latin modus subiunctivus probably is a translation of Greek hypotaktike enklisis -- literally, "subordinated mood" -- so-called because the Greek subjunctive mood is used almost exclusively in subordinate clauses. We do the same thing in English.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Chemical History of a Candle

The "Chemical History Of A Candle" by Michael Faraday, is perhaps the most popular science book ever published. It has been published continuously since 1861. By design, the book is a series of lecture notes given by Faraday at his annual Christmas Lectures, beginning around 1849 in London. Faraday was a science celebrity in his lifetime, but much more so than those we have today because they lack such career achievements in science as his.

In this simple series of lectures, Faraday ties together much of what was know about chemistry and physics, simply by considering a burning candle. What I love about this first lecture is the way Faraday demonstrates what a perfect storage medium of energy the wax candle is. Hydrocarbons are our friends -- not something to be demonized.


Thursday, December 15, 2016

Last Letters From Stalingrad: #34

..Nobody knows what will happen to us now, but I think this is the end. Those are hard words, but you must understand them the way they are meant. Times are different now from the day when I said good-bye and became a soldier. Then we still lived in an atmosphere which was nourished by a thousand hopes and expectations of everything turning out well in the end. But even then we were hiding a paralyzed fear beneath the words of farewell which were to console us for our two months happiness as man and wife. I still remember one of your letters in which you wrote that you just wanted to bury your face in your hands in order to forget. And I told you then that all this had to be and that the nights in the East were much darker and more difficult than those at home.
The dark nights of the East have remained, and they have turned much darker than I had ever anticipated. In such nights one often listens for the deeper meaning of life. And sometimes there is an answer.  Now space and time stand between us; and I am about to step over the threshold which will separate us eternally from our own little world and lead into that greater one which is more dangerous, yes, even devastating. If I could have made it through this war safely, I would have understood for the first time what it means to be man and wife in its true and deepest sense. I also know it now--now that these last lines are going to you.
The key to understanding the series is here, and here. Each letter (39 in all) was written by a different and anonymous German soldier who knew he was going to die. I associate these letters with Christmastime for reasons explained at the links.

Friday, November 11, 2016

100 Years Ago On The Western Front

Link to original
100 years ago, the Battle of the Somme was winding down. The fighting lasted another week before both sides, exhausted, hunkered down for the winter.  Fighting resumed in the Spring of 1917.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Conversations With Henry

Henry: God gave us thermodynamics but not kinetics!

Me: What do you mean?

Henry: I mean -- we can measure differences between where we are and where we've been, and also between where we are and where we'll be. Those things never change -- they're tabulated.

Me: But you're talking about free energy differences and chemistry....

Henry: Yes, of course...that too.


Henry: How things get from here to there is what we fight and argue's the kinetics!

Monday, July 4, 2016

I Have a Rendezvous with Death

 I have a rendezvous with Death  
At some disputed barricade,  
When Spring comes back with rustling shade  
And apple-blossoms fill the air—  
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.  
It may be he shall take my hand  
And lead me into his dark land  
And close my eyes and quench my breath—  
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death  
On some scarred slope of battered hill,  
When Spring comes round again this year  
And the first meadow-flowers appear.  
God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,  
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,  
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,  
Where hushed awakenings are dear...  
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,  
When Spring trips north again this year,  
And I to my pledged word am true,  
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Alan Seeger, 1888 - 1916
Seeger, a 28 year old American, was killed in action at Belloy-en-Santerre (The Somme) by German machine gun fire on July 4, 1916. He had joined the French Foreign Legion -- not because of enmity towards Germany but -- for his love for France. Seeger was the uncle of American folksinger and pacifist Pete Seeger.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Tommy vs. Gerry: 1916

Restart and play both videos at the same time to get the full effect.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Somme -- A BBC Dramatization

The focus is on the Thiepval assaults on the first day. Not the usual lefty diatribe, there is plenty of blame to go around -- mostly for the men in trees.
The Somme: From Defeat to Victory challenges the traditional view of the battle as a disaster and reveals how it was on the Somme that the British Army learnt to fight a modern war.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The Somme Then And Now

The assault phase of the Battle of the Somme commenced 10 minutes after the blowing of the Hawthorne mine. The original black and white footage is from a full-length, silent documentary film, The Battle Of The Somme (1916).  That film has been digitized and set back to the original camera speed (something I worried about back here). Watch the original film here. It's lengthy, but worth it.

A couple years ago, two amateur filmmakers skilfully blended past and present cinematography. You won't realize what they've done for a minute or so but then it's incredible! The film is poignant too: Most of these men would be dead 40 minutes after this film was made.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Britian's Secret Terror Weapon At The Somme

100 years ago tonight, British engineers were secretly installing four 56 ft long, 2.5 ton machines called "Squirts" by their operators and "Judgements" by more senior officers. History calls them Liven's Large Gallery Flame Projector.

British Flame Projector. First used by British at the Battle of the Somme, 1st July, 1916. Range 40 to 50 yards. Oil was forced through pipes under pressure, and ignited at a jet.

Here is a British TV presentation of the weapon and its excavation at the Somme battlefield in France. Yes it was real and yes, they did find the remains.