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