Wednesday, August 07, 2013

27: Who's In Charge of the Light Brigade?

In 1854, in what was basically part of a big game of "Risk", Russia invaded Turkey.
Britain and France insisted that this would not do and came to the aid of poor, defenceless, strategically important Turkey by sending a joint army out to the Crimean peninsula, a blob of land on Russia's Black Sea coast. On the southern tip of the Crimea was Sebastopol, Russia's main military port for its invasion on Turkey.
Running the show on the British side was Lord Raglan, a veteran of Waterloo with a missing arm to prove it. Raglan was getting on a bit and kept absent-mindedly referring to the enemy as "the French", often in front of the French generals.
In command of the cavalry was Lord Lucan, and beneath him, in charge of the elite and flamboyant Light Brigade, was Lord Cardigan. Cardigan somehow got it into his head that his command of the Light Brigade was independent of Lucan and behaved as if Lucan had no authority over him. The two men already despised each other and this didn't help.
After a gruelling campaign of bloody military clashes and much dysentery and cholera (relieved to some extent by Florence Nightingale) we get to the following situation.
Imagine a long, wide, shallow valley, shaped like a Y lying on its side - the base at the Western end and the tips in the East. At the Western end was the Light Brigade, parked waiting for orders. At the other end, in the Northern valley was half the Russian army, biding their time. In the Southern valley, the British Navy had placed some artillery, but the Russians had just captured this and were now starting to cart it off.
Lord Raglan and his staff were overlooking the valley from the high ground to the south and could see the whole thing. Three times Raglan sent down a skilled horseman, Captain Lewis Nolan, with a written order for the cavalry to advance and intercept the Russians who were taking the guns, but none of these orders were clear to Lucan and Cardigan, who, from their position in the valley, could see nothing of this.
Finally in exasperation Raglan sent a fourth order, to 'advance into the valley and prevent the Russians from taking away the guns'. This was no more clear than the previous orders to Lucan and Cardigan, who lost their rag with Raglan and demanded clarification from Nolan, who was also exasperated by now and pointed wildly over his shoulder, shouting "There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!"
Sadly he wasn't paying close attention to where he was pointing, and Lucan and Cardigan dutifully led the Light Brigade straight up the wrong valley, in the full knowledge that the bulk of the Russian army was up there. About a third of it came back.
Nolan had joined the brigade for the advance, and as soon as he realised what was happening tried to rectify the mistake by galloping ahead to tell Cardigan, but got shot down before Cardigan could realise that he wasn't just showing off.
The whole sorry episode led to some questions over whether the Purchase System was a good idea.
In those days, if you wanted a military command, and could afford it, you could simply buy it, as Cardigan had done. The reasoning behind this was that only landed gentry could afford such a thing, so you would have commanding officers with a special vested interest in defending their country.
Consequently any great twit, as long as he was a rich great twit, could be in charge. Shocking, don't you think?

Sunday, August 04, 2013

26: Botany on the Bounty

In 1787 the British Empire had a problem. Their plantation colonies in the West Indies had a great many slaves, and were running out of cheap ways to feed them.
Someone had the idea of feeding them breadfruit, a cheap and versatile plant about the size of a grapefruit. Unfortunately it only grew in Tahiti - almost exactly the opposite side of the planet.
The navy got the job of transporting a shipful of these plants, all potted and growing, from the one place to the other (why seeds alone would not have done I'm not sure) and to show how seriously they took the job they sent one of their smaller ships, the Bethia, (renamed 'Bounty' just for the occasion) and a junior officer, Lt William Bligh, though there must have been plenty of seasoned captains twiddling their thumbs in peacetime.
It seems the admiralty were uninspired by the whole mission, and my impression of Bligh is that he was a rather serious, earnest young officer; highly competent but a bit charmless, probably with a hankering to be given the chance to make his name. No doubt he saw this as his chance, while the Admiralty probably had a good giggle about it and made bets on whether his ship would even make it.
Bligh did make it but got there late thanks to an ambitious, and abortive,  attempt to go by way of the notoriously stormy Cape Horn. This meant waiting around for months on Tahiti until the season was right again to transport the plants. In the meantime Bligh's crew were living it up in the tropical paradise, thanks largely to the attentions of the local young ladies, who evidently found their visitors as exotic as the sailors found them.
This is where Bligh fell down on the job. By failing to keep his crew occupied and disciplined, they ceased to be a crew and when it came time to leave it was no easy task getting them to become one again and Bligh was not really up to it. He couldn't inspire them so he had to shout and swear and bully. They did not react well to this.
After a few weeks they decided they had had enough and a large section of the crew mutinied. The leader of the rebellion was Fletcher Christian, a man who comes across as a rather vain and spoilt young aristocrat. Once a good friend of Bligh, his pride was probably wounded by being reduced to another of Bligh's sounding boards, and in front of the crew too.
Bligh and his loyal officers and crew were set adrift in one of the ship's rowing boats three thousand miles from the nearest European outpost, while Christian took the Bounty back to Tahiti with the goal of picking up their girlfriends and starting their own colony.
That plan did not go well. The local islands were all already populated by natives who did not take kindly to settlers so they had to go further afield, eventually fetching up on a remote rock called Pitcairn, where their descendants still live.
Bligh now came into his own, successfully dealing with hostile natives, all sorts of weather, food and water shortages, and even having to practically carry their boat across parts of the Great Barrier Reef, cutting their feet to bits on the coral, plus the occasional mishap such as accidentally setting fire to a whole island, finally arriving at a Dutch outpost  on East Timor... all without the benefit of charts. The navigation was all down to Bligh's memory.
That was only half the battle. With only his good name as a British officer to trade with he had to get his crew back to England in stages, either hitching lifts on ships or getting his own built when none were available. Tragically, after surviving the epic open boat trip, several of the crew died of cholera in disease-ridden Jakarta.
A few bets might have been lost when Bligh finally got back to England. Tempers certainly were, and this time a real no-nonsense captain, Edward Edwards, was sent in an armed frigate, the Pandora, to find the mutineers and bring them back to be fairly tried then hung.
At Tahiti, he found several of Bligh's crew - a few bona-fide mutineers, but some loyal men who had stayed with the Bounty because the boat was full. Edwards didn't discriminate but had them all locked up in a wooden cage on the ship's open deck.
Edwards had less joy than Bligh at the Great Barrier Reef, though - the Pandora struck it and sank. Two of the Bounty men went down with it, while the survivors had to recreate Bligh's open boat voyage. The citizens of East Timor must have started to think this was some new extreme sport.
In a bitter twist of fate, two of Bligh's crew had sailed with Edwards to help identify the mutineers, and they had to endure the open boat voyage a second time.
Three mutineers were eventually hung.
Bligh was given another shot at the breadfruit mission, perhaps at the request of the gambling enthusiasts at the Admiralty. This time he succeeded. Depressingly though, he noted in his logs that the once pristine topical paradise of Tahiti was no longer unspoilt. Other European ships had called since the Bounty and many of the natives were going around in European clothes.
Even more sadly, the slaves in the West Indies didn't care for breadfruit and refused to eat the stuff.
As a footnote, the fate of the Bounty was a mystery for 25 years until Pitcairn was stumbled upon by an American ship. They found John Adams, last survivor of the Bounty and now patriarch of the colony, some native women and their offspring, including one Thursday October Christian, named after the day of his birth.
When the Americans informed them that their island was the other side of the international date line, the colonists corrected their calendars, and Thursday changed his name to Friday.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

25: The Titanic

In the early 20th century there was a huge rivalry going on in the luxury liner business. Bigger and more luxurious passenger ships were constantly being built to court the lucrative trade of well-heeled aristocrats and industrialists, especially on the transatlantic route. One of the biggest shipping lines, White Star, commissioned what were intended to be the three largest liners ever built - the Olympic, the Titanic and the Gigantic.
The first of the three to enter service, the Olympic, had a long and distinguished career. When it was broken up, the wood panelling from the dining room was used to redecorate the restaurant of the White Swan hotel in Alnwick, half a mile from where I'm writing this. When launched, it was marketed as the largest liner ever.
When the next one, the Titanic, was being readied, they could hardly use the same tagline, as the two ships were practically identical, so instead they went with 'unsinkable'.

Well, we know what happened. The expression 'tempting fate' probably wore a little thin for a while afterwards.
It wasn't a totally hollow boast, though. The hull was divided into sections by watertight bulkheads, the idea being that if there was a leak, the worst that could happen was that only one section would flood, whereas it would take at least three flooded compartments to sink the ship. What conceivable maritime accident could do that? Why, you would have to cut a gash in the hull a hundred yards long.

When the third ship was being prepared, the marketing department found itself with a bit of a problem. 'Gigantic' now sounded a bit too cocky - too blasé. What could they call this one instead... Something that would give an impression of reliability, security, invulnerability?
What better than 'Britannic'?

That one sank too... though to be fair it was in the middle of a war at the time.

Friday, August 02, 2013

24: Magna Carta

OK, back to stuff I haven't read lots of books about. Thanks to my nephew Thomas for suggesting this one, though he could probably tell you more about it than I can.
Magna Carta, AKA the Great Charter, was a contract signed at a spot on the Thames called Runnymede ('wet field', I think) in 1215. My mental picture of it includes a rather gloomy King John signing a bit of paper with a lot of legal jargon on it - thirteenth century legal jargon at that so it's possible he was blagging it a bit - and a lot of smug knights and barons across the table, giving the distinct impression that this document was scoring a point for them over the king. Some dramatisations put Robin Hood in there somewhere.
All I can tell you is that Magna Carta is often invoked as a founding document of the rights of the common people over the whims of the monarch... It placed the word of law above the word of the king.
Although, when I say common people, obviously I mean landowning aristocrats. Actual common people barely even counted as people in those days... An attitude that still seems to be politically expedient from time to time.
Rather a sad figure, King John, as kings go. He had a hard enough time of it being the bad guy who had to raise taxes to fund King Richard's crusades while Richard, the guy spending the money, got all the glory for being out there doing the fighting when really he should have been at home running his own country.
Once John became King in his own right we see him being browbeaten into signing away a good deal of his allegedly God-given power.
Interesting that there's never been a King John II. Whenever we have a monarch we're a bit embarrassed about we seem to stop using the name...hence, no Richard IV, William V, or Charles III. Not yet anyway.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

23: Where Snowman Has Gone Before, pt2

To continue with the South Pole story: Big exploration ventures to places that are, in all probability, useless, seem to go through three phases in the eyes of the cultures that produce them.

1. "We must do this, it'll be fantastic."
2. "We're doing it, and it's fantastic, but it's also incredibly expensive."
3. "What was the point of that, exactly?"

We were already in the third phase when Ernest Shackleton decided to mount his own expedition to the South Pole. Shackleton had been with Scott on his first Antarctic expedition and narrowly failed to reach the Pole with his own venture a few years later, so he sort of had a bee in his bonnet about the place.
Problem was, it had already been done.
Ah, said Shackleton, but this will be different - we'll traverse the continent from one side to the other.
You can imagine the level of public enthusiasm for that, with Scott barely thawed out in his grave, but Shackleton would have none of it. Unfortunately the government was also cool on the idea and refused to fund it, so Shackleton had to find private backing. His timing could scarcely have been worse either, as Wold War I broke out almost the day he set sail, diminishing interest still further.
After that, to paraphrase Douglas Adams's Marvin, things went into a bit of a decline. After getting stuck in the ice for a whole winter, the ship sank. And that was only start of it. Weeks of hauling the ship's rowboats over the ice were followed by weeks floating around on chunks of pack ice, then still grimmer weeks of rowing their open boats through the icy ocean before fetching up on a barren, icy rock called Elephant Island, hundreds of miles from any hope of rescue.
Not one to hold out false hope or fail to face reality, Shackleton took five other men on a thirty-foot rowing boat and sailed and rowed across 800 miles of the world's most hostile sea to the nearest inhabited land, South Georgia, where there was a Norwegian whaling station. Once there, all that remained was to cross the uncharted mountain range down the middle of the island, as they'd been forced to land on the wrong side and the current made sailing around impossible.
For the icing on the cake (though I don't think he'd have appreciated the expression), the first news Shackleton heard when he reached the whaling station, and before he got to have his first hot food, hot bath, or more than lukewarm anything for some time, was that not only had the war not been over by Christmas as expected, it was still in full flow two years later.
Properly refreshed, Shackleton still had work to do. After no less than four attempts at commandeering a ship in the middle of a major war and navigating it through icy seas, he succeeded in picking up his stranded crew, every one alive and as well as could be expected.
For achieving all of this, Shackleton is rightly held in high regard as a great hero, but it's worth remembering that by undertaking the expedition in the first place, he was after all the one who got them all into that fine mess for no better reason than a place in the history books.
Ever heard of Aenaes Mackintosh?
Shackleton's plan had been to cross the Antarctic continent, and to achieve that he needed a support party on the other side to lay supply depots for the last few hundred miles across the ice shelf. For this purpose, he sent a second party to the far side of the continent. Unfortunately, when only the captain - Mackintosh - and five others were ashore, with a fraction of the expedition's supplies and equipment landed, the ship was swept away in a storm and couldn't get back. Mackintosh and his men, believing that the lives of Shackleton's party depended on them and with no way of knowing that he wasn't going to need those depots after all, had to make do and lay the depots anyway. This they did, dragging what supplies they had across 600 miles of ice, with not enough of anything, and what they had - tents, furs, sleeping bags - inadequate for purpose. Three of the six men, including Mackintosh, died of exhaustion, cold and malnutrition before the job was done.
To me, Mackintosh's standing in the hero stakes is at least equal to Shackleton's, but either way, it all makes the familiar modern expression 'sporting hero' ring a little hollow, doesn't it?


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

22: Where snowman has gone before

Between about 1900 and 1916, we had what's known as the golden age of polar exploration, when adventurous types from assorted leading nations developed an urge to go off to the farthest and coldest points on the Earth and freeze themselves solid for years at a time.
Sometimes they had a consignment of scientists with them, which helped give those enterprises an edge of genuine worth-while-ness, but the thing that fired up the public, the funding governments, private backers and, on the whole, the explorers themselves, was the kudos of being able to say they'd gone as far away as it's possible to go and gone there first.  
Concerning the South Pole, three names loom large in these tales: Amundsen, who got there first, Scott, who got there a narrow second and died on the way back, and Shackleton, who never got there at all. There's an edge of bitterness connected to all three.
Amundsen's ambition was always to be first man at the North Pole, and he borrowed a ship on the understanding that he was going that way, but in the meantime Robert Peary made the claim that he'd reached it, so Amundsen boldly headed south with the goal of taking the other pole instead.
Scott, however, was already down there with an expedition, and it was generally considered - by the British at least - that it was only right and proper for the British to get there first.
There was some justification for this. The British had been mapping and exploring the Antarctic for about ten years by this time, and had already made a couple of game attempts at the pole. Most of what was known about that side of the continent - the lie of the land, the climate, the wildlife and geology - came from British expeditions. It seemed unfair for foreign interlopers to suddenly turn up and take advantage of groundwork laid down by others. (They did have the courtesy to land a couple of hundred miles along the ice shelf and navigate a new route, however.)
Amundsen had the advantage of having lived among Eskimos and knew a lot about how to get around and survive on the ice. Scott was an old school British naval officer who would never dream of doing such a thing. Consequently, while Scott was pottering about trying to persuade primitive tractors and mangy Siberian ponies to haul his sledges as well as rather disagreeable dogs, Amundsen only had dogs and knew how to use them to best effect (before shooting them and feeding them to each other, incidentally - something Scott balked at). In addition, Scott felt he was there to do scientific work, which possibly held him up a little.
The net result of all this was that Amundsen got there first and got home safely. Scott, thanks to a combination of  poor decisions, once-in-a-lifetime bad weather and and mile after mile of a gritty ice surface that they had to drag their sledges over inch by painful inch, died along with his team just 11 miles short of a vital supply cache. Fortunately his tent was found, along with all his team's notebook including Dr Edward Wilson's meteorological and geological observations, which along with the expedition's other research, was still proving its value over half a century later.
Amundsen got the glory, but his expedition didn't add an atom to mankind's store of knowledge.
On the other hand, if Scott had known just one thing that Amundsen had learnt from the Eskimos, - that if you spit on the runners of a sledge and let it freeze, it will pull smoothly over a surface of coarse ice instead of sticking and dragging, things might have turned out differently.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

22. Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo Da Vinci, who lived around 1500-something, is remembered for two things - scribbling down a lot of very clever ideas in a notebook in back-to-front writing, and for painting the Mona Lisa, the most famous portrait ever, with its enigmatic smile... personally I think she looks a little smug.
The clever ideas: Along with other things, his notebooks contain sketched ideas for how to build helicopters, gliders, and (just to show he was thinking ahead) parachutes. Although somewhat underdeveloped - the helicopter sketch shows a big helical propeller being pushed round in circles by four big chunky blokes - a tough way to get it up to the required speed - the principles are sound. But none of these ideas get beyond a first draft. If he'd built the helicopter he might have deduced that air is too thin for a man-powered helix to act upon effectively, but that it would have a fighting chance in water if you had some sort of gearing system in place. He might then have gone on to invent some sort of pedalo, in which case he could have set up a franchise operation all down the Italian Riviera, but there's no record of him doing any such thing. (Actually I'm guessing there but I think it's a safe bet.)
So it seems to me that, genius though he was, he just wasn't a completer-finisher.
Clearly he kept getting distracted by something. Perhaps that's what that cheeky smile is all about.
Maybe if he'd had a shed....

Monday, July 29, 2013

21. World War One

I've decided to dispense with chronological order from now on and just write whatever comes to mind. It's my blog, I'm allowed to do that.

So - First World War.  The name refers to the fact that it was the first of a series of world wars, not a war that only concerned the First World, as in 'First World problems'. If that's what you understood it to mean, you probably think it was a lot less serious than it actually was. Even so the name is a bit deceiving - the geographical area most associated with the First World War was about a hundred miles long, a hundred yards wide, and (with tragic symbolism) six feet deep.

It's often been said - probably - that there would be fewer wars if those who went round starting them were made to fight them themselves, instead of recruiting legions of less fortunate and less empowered individuals to do it for them. Though kings had to go off and fight in the old days and things were just as bloody then, so perhaps that's just a hollow platitude. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine a well-groomed general with a waxed moustache and a cultivated taste in sherry sticking it out for long in a cold muddy trench, rats scampering between his feet and bullets whizzing over his head, for much more than a week, without thinking 'why are we doing this again?'
It's well documented that those who were stuck with the job would have been quite happy to settle the whole thing over a game of football, even on a freezing cold day in December. Letting people run the show when they don't have to participate is a bit like gambling with someone else's money. These days the losing generals would probably get million pound bonuses.
Perhaps that's unfair to the generals, who after all were under the orders of their respective governments, who in turn were honour-bound to side with each other on account of treaties written up in another age, when wars between European nations meant a fairly swift series of colourful cavalry charges and a lot of stirring tales to inspire the kiddies with in later years. Nobody expected the long-drawn-out misery and factory-like slaughter that they got... which just goes to show how careful you need to be about starting things that might turn out to be hard to finish.