Monday, 27 June 2011

Life in a Front Line Trench, 1916

Infantry soldiers in the trenches had an uncomfortable life during the winter of 1914-15.

Each battalion stayed in the front line for a few days, then it moved to form a reserve close to the front line. Then it would be moved to the rear so that the men could rest before going back to the front line again.

Battalions changed position at night, moving carefully along communication trenches. Most units stayed in the same area for months, so they knew the trench network very well.

The trenches were infested with lice, fleas and other vermin. The British soldiers called these creatures “chats”. Each day men went to the second or third trench in small groups to pick the vermin off each other. This was called “going for a chat”.

Soldiers began to suffer a strange, new disease called “trench foot”. This was caused when feet were wet and cold for more than 48 hours at a time. The feet became infected with fungus. Trench foot was so painful men could not stand.

In the three months of January, February and March 1915 more than 30,000 British soldiers got trench foot. They had to be taken out of the fighting to go barefoot in warm, dry houses for two weeks to cure the condition.

In April 1915 it was found that trench foot could be prevented if boots were made waterproof by soaking them in whale oil and socks were changed three times each day. By 1916 trench foot was a rare disease.

Soldiers tried to make themselves feel at home by giving familiar names to features in the trenches. London soldiers called trenches names such as “Regent Street”, “Mayfair” or “Piccadilly”.

It was often too dangerous to retrieve bodies of men who were killed. The bodies lay rotting in the open for weeks.

Boredom was a major problem. The soldiers formed choirs, drama groups and trench schools to help pass the time.


Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Puppet Emperors of Rome

After the catastrophic military defeat of Adrianople in 378 (see page 42) the prestige of the emperors among the soldiers was seriously undermined. The soldiers preferred to trust the commander on the spot, not an emperor a distance away.

In 455 the army appointed Petronius Maximus to be emperor and the Senate, as usual, agreed to pass the usual motion conferring power and wealth on him. It was almost the last time that army and Senate bothered with such action.

When Petronius Maximus was killed fighting the Vandals three months later the Visigothic King Theodoric II announced that he wanted his friend, the Roman Senator Avitus to be emperor. Nobody objected.

Avitus did not even make the effort of going to Rome. He stayed at the court of Theodoric in southern Gaul and issued his instructions from there.

After just a year, Avitus was told by the Germanic army commander, Ricimer, that he was no longer emperor. Theodoric did not want war, so Avitus was made Bishop of Placentia.

Ricimer knew that the eastern emperor, Leo would not tolerate a German as western emperor, so he did not take the title for himself. Instead he appointed the noble and respected Roman senator, Majorian, to be emperor.

In 461 Ricimer killed Majorian when the emperor refused to do as he was told. Ricimer chose as the next emperor another senator, Libius Severus, who wisely did exactly what the German army commander told him to do. Severus died of old age in 465.

The next two emperors were chosen by Ricimer to be his puppets. By this date the emperor had power only in Italy. All other areas had fallen to barbarian kings who ignored any orders from Rome.

Ricimer died in 472 and his position as commander of the German troops that by now comprised the army of the western empire was taken by Gundobad. The new military hard man appointed a new emperor, but both were ousted by an army coup in 475.

The new commander, Orestes, put his own son in position as emperor. By this time, however, the western empire no longer had access to enough tax money to pay the German soldiers. Orestes was killed by mutinous troops and the last emperor abdicated.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Ancient Greek Kingdom of the Dead

The Kingdom of the Dead

Funerals in ancient Greece could be grand affairs. The body was carefully washed and dressed in a white robe, then it was laid out on a bed in a room of the house where the person had lived.

After one day during which friends and relatives could visit to pay their respects the body was carried to the burial grounds. A rich person's body would be transported on a carriage.

The funeral procession included musicians and professional mourners, who were paid to wail and weep as loudly as possible. The family and friends of the dead person followed behind.

Most families had a tomb in which the ashes of their dead relatives were buried. The living relative would visit the tomb regularly to pay respects and make offerings to the dead.

The Greeks believed that the souls of the dead went to the Underworld, which was ruled by the god Hades.

To reach Hades the dead soul had to be ferried across the River Styx by Charon, the ferryman. Charon charged for the service, so most people were buried with a bronze coin.

Once past the Styx, a dead person had to get past the three-headed dog Cerberus, who stopped the living entering the Underworld or the dead leaving.

On arrival in the Underworld the soul was met by Hades, brother to Zeus and king of the dead, along with the souls of (by) King Minos of Crete and King Rhadamanthys of the Cyclades, both of whom had been famous for justice when alive.

Hades, Minos and Rhadmanthys questioned the souls that came before them. Those who had offended the gods were imprisoned behind bronze gates in Tartarus, where they were tortured for eternity. Most souls went to the Underworld, which was a dray(?), dull place.

The souls of those who had pleased the gods were sent to the Elysian Fields. This was a sunny, beautiful country swept by warm, gentle breezes where good food and wine was plentiful.


Saturday, 18 June 2011

Arthur defeats the Saxons at the Battle of Mount Badon

Arthur defeats the Saxons at Mount Badon

On a battlefield somewhere in Britain at a date which is in dispute the British leader, Arthur, defeated the Saxons. So great was the slaughter that the Saxons remained quiet for a generation, before they attacked again and began the final conquest of England.

The Battle of Badon Hill was the climactic event of post-Roman Britain. Before Badon there had been scattered bands of Saxon mercenaries facing forces led by Roman governors and their successors. After Badon Hill the picture changed to one of petty kings ruling agricultural societies facing each other across an ethnic divide.

Writing some 50 years later, the Briton Gildas states that Badon was almost the last battle fought between Britons and Saxons and that it was followed by decades of relative peace, lasting to his own time. The date at which Gildas wrote is unknown. However, references to other events would seem to place him in around 530 or 550. This means the Battle of Badon Hill should be dated to around 490.

A chronicle kept in Wales and copied out in the 9th century gives a date of 516 for Badon Hill and states “The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights on his shoulders and the Britons were the victors”. The same source gives the date 537 for “The Battle of Camlann, in which Arthur and Medraut fell.”

No other source gives even a vague date for the Battle, though they all agree that there was a massive slaughter of the Saxons. One even makes the unlikely statement that “nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day from a single charge of Arthur’s – and no one laid them low save he alone and he was victorious in all his campaigns”. This last source has survived in a semi-poetic form and lists 12 battles fought by Arthur. As it fails to mention his death at Camlann, it is possible the poem was written to flatter Arthur while he was still alive.

Almost as contentious as the date of the battle is its location. Scholars have tried to locate Badon Hill in all corners of Britain. The fact that the battle is said to have lasted three days would indicate a siege of some kind of defensive works. Various dark age fortifications or even refortified iron age forts have been suggested. However, Nennius, writing in the early 9th century, lists the natural wonders of Britain. One of these are the hot springs of Badon. It is clear Nennius is talking about the ruined Roman baths in Bath, Somerset.

Believing that Bath was the site of Badon makes some sense. The city stood on the meeting point of several major Roman roads and seems to have survived in some form into the 5th century. A later strategic goal of the English was to reach the Bristol Channel and cut off the Welsh from Britons in Devon. The attack on Bath may have been an early attempt at a similar move.

Whatever the truth, Badon Hill was a major victory for Arthur. Despite all the later legends about King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, the early sources are consistent about him. He is described as a mighty war leader or commander, but never as a king in his own right. Most likely he had the prestige and authority necessary to weld the forces of the various British governors and warlords together in a common struggle against the Saxon enemy.

Arthur’s death at Camlann, apparently in the course of a civil war, marked a turning point for the British. Never again could they unite against the Saxons. The conquest of what was to become England took several generations, but the advance of the Saxons and Angles was remorseless. Badon was a great victory, but it was no turning point for the British threw away their chance by internal squabbles.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

What is the Royal Academy?

More properly styled The Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Academy has become a firmly established institution in Britain. Its Summer Exhibition has become the traditional opening event of the London Season for high society.

From its very inception the Royal Academy was aiming for gentility as well as for artistic integrity. The men who set up the institution included the painters Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough as well as the architect William Chambers. They gained the support of King George III, who promised in 1768 to be the ‘patron, protector and supporter’ of the institution, which meant the title ‘Royal’ could be added to the name.

At first the Royal Academy had rooms in Somerset House, then a rambling and rather run down old mansion used for government offices and storerooms. The rooms occupied were well lit, but rather small. They were used for the lessons given by masters of art to promising pupils, among them Constable and Turner, but were too small for exhibitions. A house was therefore rented in Pall Mall and converted into an art gallery.

In 1776 the government decided to pull down Somerset House and replace it with a purpose-built block of offices, one of the first such buildings ever erected. After a period in rented rooms, the Royal Academy moved back into the new Somerset House to find a suite of rooms in which 700 paintings could be displayed to the public. In 1837 the Royal Academy moved to share the home of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, but in 1868 finally reached its present home in Burlington House, formerly the London home of the Earls of Burlington. The house, which dates back to the 1660s was extensively remodelled to provide 17 main galleries of display space and ample rooms of for the schools and lessons held there.

Before an artist can be accepted as a member of the Royal Academy, he or she must present a piece of work that they have chosen as representative of their art. In this way the Royal Academy has amassed an unrivalled collection of works by British artists. But for the general public it is the Summer Exhibition for which the Royal Academy is so famous. Held every year since the Royal Academy was founded, the Summer Exhibition features the best 1,000 or so works submitted to the Royal aCademy for inclusion. Currently about 10,000 works are submitted each year by some 4,000 artists. The only criteria for a work to be presented is that the artist must submit it in person and that it must not have been shown in London before.

But whether it is putting on grand exhibitions for the general public, conducting lessons in private for promising students or holding talks and seminars, the Royal Academy has long been instrumental in maintaining the reputation of British art. Perhaps because it is run by artists for artists, it has rarely lapsed into the excesses of modernity favoured by some critics but has continued to present works the public can enjoy.

Friday, 10 June 2011

The First Animals on Earth

Worms were among the first animals found around the world
Worms are soft-bodied animals that have long bodies shaped rather like a tube. They first evolved around 600 million years ago and lived in seas across the world. Ottoia (oh-toe-ee-ah) lived in what is now Canada. It lived in the mud of the sea bed, searching for tiny animals and plants. 

Trilobites were the most numerous arthropods
Trilobites first lived about 550 million years ago. Soon there were more trilobites than any other sort of creature. The word “trilobite” (try-low-bite) means “three parts”. It was given to creatures such as Conocoryphe (kone-oh-corr-eeff) because the body is always divided into three parts, a head, a body and a tail.

Trilobites had jointed bodies
Trilobites had a tough, hard covering all over their bodies. This protected them from injury. The outer shell was jointed wherever the animal needed to be able to move. Together with other animals with jointed outer shells – such as modern crabs – the trilobites belonged to a group of animals called the arthropods (arr-throw-pods).

Pterygotus was the first large hunter
Growing to be over 2 metres long, the same size as an adult human, Pterygotus (terr-ee-got-uss) was a ferocious hunter. It had powerful pincers to catch prey and could move quickly by beating its tails against the water. It belonged to a group of animals called sea scorpions. Sea scorpions lived between 500 and 250 million years ago.

Ammonites had curled shells
Scientists have found thousands of fossils with curly shells. The animal that lived inside the shell is called an ammonite (amm-oh-nite). Most of the shell was filled with gas to help the creature float in the water. Ammonites existed for millions of years, but they all died out around 65 million years ago.

All animals with backbones are related to each other
Many different sorts of animals – such as fish, reptiles and mammals – have backbones. A backbone is a series of bones inside which run nerves to carry messages to and from the brain. Scientists believe that all these animals are descended from a single type of animal. The earliest known creature with a single spinal nerve was Pikaia (pye-kee-ah). It lived about 530 million years ago in seas covering what is now North America.

1. Which animals are shaped like a tube?
2. What does the name “trilobite” mean?
3. When did sea scorpions live?
4. What filled most of an ammonite shell?
5. What made Pikaia special?


Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Gladiator Facts

Most gladiators used only one type of armour and weapon, training with them for hours every day.

Romans could buy lamps and other souvenirs at the Games made in the shape of gladiator helmets.

Many gladiators belonged to clubs which organised entertainments and paid for funerals.

Only noblemen were allowed to wear togas with purple stripes.

Every Roman town had large, blank walls on which adverts for gladiator shows could be painted.

In ad84 a storm drenched the audience during a naumachia. Nearly everyone caught a cold, except the emperor Domitian who had a warm cloak on.

The emperor Nero once fought a lion in the arena when armed with only a single spear.

The oldest arena still standing is that in Pompeii, which was built in 80bc.

Wild animal fights remained popular for 200 years after the last gladiator fight.

The History Man in Hartley Wintney

Last night I travelled down to Hampshire to speak to the Hartley Wintney Preservation Society AGM on the subject of RAF Bomber Command. They were a very welcoming bunch of folks, and it was nice to be back in the WI hall where I did my WI audition some years ago.

Great Fun.

If you need a speaker for your event, you can contact me on MY WEBSITE.


Sunday, 5 June 2011

Arms and Armour in medieval China

Chinese armour was made of dozens of small plates. The armour worn by Chinese troops was made up of metal plates about 8 cm by 6 cm that were sewn onto a leather garment or held together by leather thongs. In about 221bc the various states of early China were united under the rule of one emperor. Although there would be later civil wars in the Celestial Empire, or Middle Kingdom, as China called itself, the Chinese armies fought most of their wars against outsiders.

Infantry often used pole weapons. Chinese infantry usually carried spears just over 2 metres long. Often the spearhead was replaced by an axe-like chopping weapon, a slicing blade or a side spike. These pole weapons allowed the infantry to attack their enemies with a variety of actions to get around shields or even to deal with cavalry.

Crossbows were first used in China. Because they were more powerful than the bows used by nomadic tribesmen living to the north of China, the crossbow was often used by troops manning the northern frontier. Crossbows consist of a short, powerful bow mounted on a wooden shaft and operated by a trigger.  

Silk shirts helped protect against arrows. Many Chinese soldiers wore a silk shirt under their armour. If an arrow pierced the armour it would drag the silk shirt into the wound without tearing it. By gently pulling on the shirt, the arrow could be extracted cleanly.   

Chinese cavalry were heavily armed. When patrolling border regions, the Chinese cavalry operated in large formations that could defeat any tribal force causing trouble. The men were equipped with iron helmets and body armour, together with wooden shields and long lances tipped with iron.   

1. In what year was China first united?
2. What did Chinese soldier wear as protection against arrows?
3. Where did the nomadic tribesmen live?

1. 221bc
2. Silk shirts
3. To the north of China

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Hellicopters in World War II

The helicopter has proved to be a highly adaptable war machine. It has been used in a wide variety of roles and has been likened to the light cavalry of previous generations both for its outstanding successes and its strict limitations. In the modern battlefield no advanced army can afford to be without helicopters.

It was the Germans who first put the helicopter on to the battlefield, and they who anticipated most of the roles the helicopter would perform. The Focke Achgelis Fa223 Drache entered service in 1941. The Drache had been designed as a pre-war passenger and transport aircraft for use in remote areas lacking a proper airfield and runway. It had a speed of 109mph, a ceiling of 8,000 feet and a range of 435 miles. The Flettner Fl282 was not dissimilar in performance, though it was significantly smaller.

Less than 50 of these helicopters entered service, but they were used for a wide variety of tasks. These included ferrying senior officers, transporting equipment between ships, reconnaissance, artillery spotting and mountain transport. The Luftwaffe was so impressed that it placed orders for hundreds of helicopters, intending them to be used to drop mines at sea, evacuate the wounded from battlefields and as a ground attack craft in addition to the tasks they were already performing. However technical problems and the bombing of the production factories by the RAF and USAAF meant that the various models were never put into production.

IN the USA the potential uses of the helicopter had also been indentified and the Sikorsky R-4 Hoverfly entered service in limited numbers in 1944. It was used primarily for evacuating wounded men or for transport in areas where runways were impossible to construct such as in Burma and the Aleutians. Like the Flettner helicopter, the Hoverfly was small and able to lift only two passengers or an equivalent weight of equipment in addition to the pilot.