Fritz Haber and WWI Gas Warfare – a summary

On 22 April 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, French and Algerian soldiers, fighting together, noticed a strange yellow-grey-coloured cloud floating across no man’s land in their direction. As it descended over them, many collapsed, coughing and wheezing, gasping for air, frothing at the mouth. Men nearby watched as their colleagues fell to the ground in agony yet there were no gunshots to be heard and they appeared not to be visibly wounded in any way. Seized by panic, they bolted, throwing away their rifles, and even their tunics so that they might run faster, leaving a hole some four miles wide. But the Germans, wary of stepping into the cloud of poison gas protected only by their crude gasmasks, felt unable to exploit the opportunity. This, with 400 tones of chlorine gas, was the world’s first successful chemical weapon attack, resulting in the deaths of some 6,000 Allied soldiers.

GassedThis new terrible weapon was inhumane, cried the Allied generals, only to be using it themselves within five months. Britain’s first use of chlorine gas, at the Battle of Loos in September 1915, was not a great success. Sir John French and the British commanders had banned the use of the word ‘gas’, believing it too provocative a word; instead they called it the ‘accessory’, a vague euphemism if ever there was one. Having waited for a favourable wind, they released the gas from cylinders. But the wind turned and the gas ended up causing greater causalities among the British than it did the Germans. (Pictured, segment of the painting Gassed by John Singer Sargent. Click to enlarge).

Fritz Haber

Fritz HaberThe pioneer of poison gas was a German called Fritz Haber, a Jew who, conscious of the anti-Semitism already prevalent in fin-de-siècle Germany, had, in 1893, converted to Christianity. Haber had developed the means to convert nitrogen in a way that it could be used to produce cheap and effective fertilizer, which, of course, improved and revolutionized agricultural efficiency. His work won him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918.

The use of poisonous gas in war was prohibited by the 1899 Hague Convention yet as soon as the First World War broke out Fritz Haber and his team worked on developing gas as a weapon. Haber, as a Jew, was determined to prove his devotion and loyalty to Germany. “During peace time,” Haber once said, “a scientist belongs to the World, but during war time he belongs to his country”. Killing enemy troops with gas was, according to Haber, no worse than blowing their heads off with artillery. For his work, Haber was personally made an honorary captain by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Clara Immerwahr

Clara ImmerwahrThe successful use of chlorine gas at Ypres in April 1915 was, for the Germans, and Haber in particular, an occasion for celebration. But not so for Haber’s wife, Clara. Clara Immerwahr, who herself had been a successful chemist, had been appalled by her husband’s work, which she saw as a perversion of science. On 2 May, at their Berlin home, Haber hosted a party. While he and his friends toasted his success, Clara took her husband’s service revolver, went into their garden and shot herself in the heart. She died the following morning in the arms of her 13-year-old son, Hermann.

Despite the setback of his wife’s suicide, Haber was buoyed by his success with chlorine at Ypres but conscious of its limitations. He developed a new, more effective gas, called phosgene, which omitted a smell akin to hay. Its first use, on the Eastern front, in January 1916, proved successful. Those inflicted often showed no immediate ill effects but then would succumb, violently, some 48 hours later.

In 1917, the Germans introduced mustard gas, so named because of its odour, which could penetrate clothing and be absorbed through skin. Gas had become a common feature by the end of the war and although it was effective at incapacitating troops and causing long-term illness, gas accounted for only three per cent of fatalities.

Post-war

Following the war, Fritz Haber continued his work. But, despite his Christian conversion, and despite his efforts on behalf of Germany’s war efforts, he was still a Jew, and hence felt very vulnerable once, in 1933, Hitler had come to power. On seeing many of his Jewish colleagues harassed, mistreated and dismissed, Haber resigned. He emigrated to England in 1933 but, after only four months, decided to start afresh in Palestine. Stopping off in Basel in Switzerland, Haber, aged 65, died of a heart attack on 29 January 1934.

His son, Hermann, later emigrated to the US where, apparently ashamed by his father’s work, committed suicide in 1946.

Zyklon B

But the most tragic irony was that in his agricultural research, Haber helped develop pesticide gases, which included a cyanide-based pesticide called Zyklon B, indeed one of his assistants was credited as the official inventor of Zyklon B. Zyklon B was the main component used by the Nazis in their death camps. Among the six million killed in the gas chambers during the Holocaust were several members of Fritz Haber’s extended family, including his nieces and nephews.

Rupert Colley

World War One coverRead more about the Great War in World War One: History In An Hour and 1914: History In An Hour, both by Rupert Colley and both published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, and available in various digital formats and as downloadable audio.

Rupert Colley’s novel, This Time Tomorrow, a compelling tale set during the First World War, is now available.

The Bloodstoppers of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

One winter’s evening in the late 1930s, in the town of Shingleton, a small logging community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, or U.P., two local laborers, one by the name of Mike Bobic, the other George White, got into a knife fight over an old dispute aggravated by an evening of heavy drinking. When White, by far the larger of the two, challenged his opponent, Bobic slashed him across the chest, leaving a deep wound from which White lost a lot of blood.

Staggering through the snow, the injured White collapsed into the doorway of a local tavern, where patrons quickly dragged him inside and sent for the doctor. Although they tried to make him as comfortable as they could, nobody in the tavern believed the wounded man would survive; the doctor lived almost ten miles away and at night, in the snow, he would surely be unable to reach them before White bled to death.

Suddenly, a man named Archie Clark, of Native American descent and who just happened to be in town, stood up, walked toward White and, according to witnesses, uttered a prayer that immediately stopped the flow of blood. When the doctor eventually arrived several hours later and was told of this feat, he simply replied ‘Oh, I see.’ The people of Shingleton and the doctor were impressed but not surprised, they recognized Archie Clark as one with ‘the power’. He was a Bloodstopper of the U.P.

The land time forgot

Michigan Upper Peninsula 1849The state of Michigan was the 26th state to enter the union of the United States of America on January 26 1837, and is the only US state to consist of two separate peninsulas. It was just before statehood, following a boundary dispute with Ohio known as the Toledo War, that Michigan was awarded the Upper Peninsula as concession for territorial losses to the south.

(Pictured: an 1849 map of Michigan Upper Peninsula, Click to enlarge).

Initially considered a ‘sterile region… [destined] to remain forever a wilderness’ the U.P.’s fortunes changed following the discovery of rich mineral deposits in the 1840s. By 1860, mines in the U.P. were producing 90% of America’s copper and a large proportion of its iron, creating more overall wealth than the California Gold Rush of the decade before.

Despite this swift industrial growth and accompanying influx of workers, the U.P. remained a wild and sparsely populated region, its relatively remote location contributing to a sense of seclusion from both the rest of Michigan and the United States. Originally inhabited by several different indigenous tribes including the Menominee, Chippewa and Potawatomi, by the beginning of the twentieth century, the U.P.’s population consisted mostly of immigrants from Canada, Ireland, Finland, and Eastern Europe.

(Pictured: five Chippewa chiefs).

The diverse origins of its people coupled with the isolation afforded by the Great Lakes led to the U.P. becoming a cultural melting pot where folk traditions from Europe and Canada could mix with those of its indigenous inhabitants. Tales of charms and magical chants with the power to stem the flow of blood were a common aspect of many European and Native American cultures, yet the large scale belief in the effectiveness of such practices had largely died out by 1900 following better standards of education and greater access to professional medical care. It is remarkable then that tales of bloodstopping continued to circulate in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula well into the 1950s, with belief in ‘the power’ corroborated by eyewitness accounts such as those reported in the case of George White.

‘The Power’

In the late 1940s, historians visited the U.P. and collected an array or oral tales surrounding ‘the power’ and its various healing properties. Many of the experiences recounted were similar to that of George White, whilst others offer details as to how ‘the power’ is acquired and passed on.

According to Cal Wright who was a Shingleton resident, bloodstoppers were people who had been born with a ‘veil’ over their face, ‘like tissue paper, which choked them and had to be cut off by the doctor’. Here, Wright appears to be describing a caul birth, a relatively rare event in which a baby is born with a piece of membrane from the womb covering its face.

Another Shingleton local by the name of George MacDonald claimed that rather than being born a bloodstopper, the secret technique could be passed from generation to generation via gender hopping oral tradition. ‘A man can learn a woman and a woman can learn a man’ he explained. ‘They do it with words that are learned out of the Bible.’

As with the example of Archie Clark and George White, the exact prayer or passage of the bible used to stop blood is often unknown to the witnesses who claim the healer ‘mumbled’ or ‘whispered some sacred words’. John Rantimaki however, a magazine editor from the city of Hancock in the far north of the U.P., was able to recall a Finnish prayer he had been taught by an old woman in Torstila, Finland in 1902:

Seisota veri, seisota veri! Niikuin vesi Jordanissa, kun kristus kastettiin” “Stop, blood, stop, you blood! As the flow of river Jordan when Christ was baptized”

Moreover and despite his education and important position within the local Hancock community, Rantimaki maintained that he had used the prayer himself and stopped one of his friend’s cuts from bleeding when a boy.

Folk tales, faith healers, and the power of suggestion

Based on the evidence presented in these interviews, the community in the mid twentieth century U.P. was a particularly superstitious one with bloodstoppers also known as charmers or faith of healers. Indeed there are a number of similarities between the tales told in the U.P. and the magic or witchcraft traditions of medieval Europe.

Johann Joseph GassnerIn Northern Italy during the sixteenth and seventeenth century caul, or cowl births were often viewed as harbingers of ‘magical’ powers such as with the cult of the Benandanti. Invoking the power of the bible to heal was a practice also common to many early modern European cultures and exorcist healers such as Johann Joseph Gassner (pictured) were sensationally popular in their day.

Furthermore, bloodstoppers are often attributed additional powers to sooth a number of other ills by those who describe them, including drying goiters, cooling burns and lessening pain. The story of one such multi-talented individual is told in a letter written by Bessie Philips of Keweenaw County who recounts the tale of John Buddo.

Buddo who claimed to be the seventh son of the seventh son, apparently had the power to ‘draw the pain from his patient to his own body’. When doing so, he would reportedly sweat profusely, his whole body ‘a quiver, and articles in the room would vibrate due to his emotions.’ Perhaps even more remarkably, Buddo’s gift was said to be so strong that he could cure toothache over the phone, an apparently seamless integration of medieval folk charm and twentieth century technology.

Whilst the exact nature of the events that occurred in Shingleton on that winter’s night in the 1930s may never be known, the owner of the tavern White stumbled into, Mr Dolaski, who was present on the night, believed he had the answer.

In an interview he gave in 1946, Dolaski attributed Archie Clark’s seemingly miraculous effect to the power of suggestion. ‘There are two minds’, he explained, ‘the objective and the subconscious or subjective. You’re still living in your sleep, but your objective mind is at rest.’ Since White was slipping in and out of consciousness, he was unable to resist ‘the Indian’s power of suggestion’ and under Clark’s influence, White’s body checked its own bleeding.

Whether the power of suggestion, or simply myth, the survival of bloodstoppers in northern Michigan culture until so late into the twentieth century is a remarkable aspect of the U.P.’s history and a unique chapter in the folk tradition of the United States.

Ancient MedicineLiam A. Faulkner

Liam is the author of Ancient Medicine: Sickness and Health in Greece and Rome, published by Collca.

Kim Il Sung – a summary

Much of Kim Il Sung’s life remains wrapped in mystery and regime propaganda. As such, some of his biographical details are ‘best guesses’. It seems clear that he was born the day the Titanic sunk, 15 April 1912, in a mountainous region to the north of Pyongyang, the eldest of three brothers. His parents may have been involved in missionary work and there is evidence that his mother was active in the anti-Japanese opposition. The family moved to Manchuria when Kim was young; much of his own early activity would, therefore, be there and in China.

Kim Il SungKim Il Sung became a Communist at a young age. He may even have been arrested by the Japanese while still a boy. It is thought that he joined the Chinese Communist Party in 1931 and that by 1935 he was fighting as a guerrilla against the Japanese, mainly in Manchuria. He enjoyed some success in these efforts, but had to flee to Russia during the Second World War. Once there he studied and eventually joined the Russian Army, fighting in the 1945 Manchurian campaign against Japan.

Pro-Soviet

By September of that year he was back in his native Korea, as the favoured candidate to head the pro-Soviet regime being established north of the 38th Parallel. There are those who claim that this Kim was an impostor, following the death of the guerrilla leader in Russia; such speculation is generally regarded as implausible. On the 9 September 1948 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, with Kim at its head, was proclaimed. Its constitution claimed sovereignty over the entire Korean peninsula. Kim ruled through the Workers’ Party of Korea, instigating land reform and the beginnings of a Soviet-style state.

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Primo Levi – a summary

After almost four years of warfare, Italy capitulated to the Allies in the summer of 1943 and was subsequently occupied by German forces in September. Until this time Italian Jews had not been subject to arrests and deportations, but now, in a period of around eighteen months, an estimated 10,000 were sent to Nazi concentration camps. Among these deportees was a young chemist named Primo Levi. He would survive almost a year in Auschwitz and, in the second half of the twentieth century, become respected as one of the most significant literary voices to emerge from the Holocaust.

Primo LeviPrimo Levi was born into an assimilated Jewish family in Turin on 31 July 1919. While virulent anti-Semitic policies had been increasingly enforced in Nazi Germany from 1933, Italian Jews suffered relatively little under Mussolini’s rule until the introduction of racial laws in 1938. These included legislation that forbade Jews from entering university, but as he had already commenced his studies, Levi was permitted to continue reading for his degree in chemistry. It was nevertheless hard for him to find secure work after graduating and in 1943, he joined the Italian partisans. He was captured by fascists in December of that year, handed to Nazi soldiers, and deported to Auschwitz in February 1944.

Surviving Monowitz

Auschwitz was the largest concentration camp and extermination centre built by the Nazis; a vast complex formed of three main camps and around forty sub-camps. Auschwitz I, the original concentration camp, was an old Polish army barracks that predominantly housed male prisoners. Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, was the women’s camp and also evolved into the main killing centre. Auschwitz III, Buna-Monowitz, was the location of the I.G. Farben industrial factory, which manufactured synthetic rubber. This was where Primo Levi was sent after he passed the initial selection upon his arrival to the camp.

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The Borgias: History’s Most Notorious Dynasty by Mary Hollingsworth – review

Ever since the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire first coined the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility”, the maxim has been used as a yardstick by which to judge many of those who have assumed a position of influence and authority, and their subsequent deeds. Did those in power use their position to benefit others, or did they capitalise on and manipulate their success for personal gain? Unfortunately, history is littered with many more examples of the latter than the former.

The Dark Side of Power

The BorgiasIf we were to assess the Borgia family in these terms, how would they fare? Not well, I fear.  This infamous Aragonese dynasty, which spawned no less than three popes and which dominated 15th century European politics, has long been associated with the dark side of power.  Indeed, the Borgia name itself has become a byword for corruption, avarice, ruthlessness, and debauchery.  Add to this a blatant disregard for celibacy and a fondness for nepotism among those members of the family who had taken up Catholic holy orders, and we are left with a rather unflattering impression of the Borgia clan in general.

Mary Hollingsworth does not shy away from these uncomfortable truths in her book, The Borgias: History’s Most Notorious DynastyIn her account of the family’s rise to prominence, she presents the history of Borgia family year by year, providing insightful and illuminating commentary along the way.  Starting with Alonso de Borja, who hailed from Valencia in modern-day Spain, we follow his inexorable rise from lawyer to diplomat of the Court of Aragon to cardinal in Rome, culminating in his ascension to the Papal throne as Calixtus III in 1455.

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Clementine Churchill – a summary

Born Clementine Hozier on 1 April 1885, the woman who was to become Winston Churchill’s wife came from straightened circumstances. Her parents seperated when she was young, and she grew up in Britain and France, her mother unable to afford the university education recommended by her teachers. Like Winston, Clementine Churchill had aristocratic blood, though it seems possible that she was illegitimate.

Whirlwind Romance

Clementine ChurchillThey first met when she was nineteen, and Churchill a twenty-nine year old MP, noted for his radical views and wartime adventures. The occassion was a dance, at which the rather gauche Churchill failed to impress. Four years later they sat together at a dinner, and matters turned out very differently. Clementine had been engaged several times before, always to older men. The romance with Churchill might now be described as ‘whirlwind’: within a month he had proposed, while taking shelter from a rainstorm in a folly at Blenheim Palace.

Even so, the marriage might never have taken place. Clementine was furious when she learnt that Churchill had visited twenty-one year old Violet Asquith in Scotland, to tip her off about their engagement. It seemed that there had been some kind of romance between Churchill and Violet. After learning about Churchill’s engagement, Violet became depressed and unstable.

Clementine balanced a keen political intellect with a love of children and family life and a talent for offering her husband the support he needed. She was never frightened to speak (or write) her mind. When Winston was in the trenches during 1916, the politcal Clementine urged him to stay – it would reflect well on him, while the loving wife craved his return to safety. In 1936 they argued furiously about the abdication of Edward VIII, Clementine recognising that Churchill’s position was hopelessly out of touch with the mood of the nation. She was also totally opposed to another term of office in 1951 – a view which although ignored, was astute and prescient.

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Dwight Eisenhower – a summary

Born in Texas into a family of German immigrant pacifists, Dwight Eisenhower, the third of seven boys, was brought up in Kansas. He attended the West Point Military Academy, graduating in 1915. Although he rose to the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel during the First World War, during which he spent most of his time training tank crews, he never saw any action; a drawback, as he saw it, that caused him embarrassment and was later used against him.

Dwight D EisenhowerAfter the war Eisenhower continued to work in the tank arm, befriending George Patton and sharing his views on the importance of mobility. While stationed in France, he wrote a guide to the battlefields of the Great War, as it was still known.

Inter-war

From 1933 he worked with General Douglas MacArthur, moving with him to the Philippines in 1935, where he stayed until 1939. More senior staff work ensued and in 1941 he was made Brigadier General. When the USA entered the Second World War Eisenhower worked in the War Plans Office, which he eventually headed.

Despite his lack of frontline experience he was made US Theater Commander in Europe in June 1942. As such, he had overall command of the Torch landings in North Africa in November, and thereafter the Anglo-American armies which invaded Italy. In December 1943 he became Supreme Allied Commander for Europe – a role in which his deft political skills were more important than his military ones. Somehow he managed to operate successfully between such egos as Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Patton and Bernard Montgomery. He emerged from the war a full five star General, highly regarded by all sides.

Following the liberation of Nazi-occupied France, Eisenhower favoured a ‘broad thrust’ into Germany rather than the quicker but riskier narrow front favoured by Montgomery.

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Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint-Nazaire – review

‘It was one of those enterprises which could be attempted only because in the eyes of the enemy it was absolutely impossible.’ Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, describing the Second World War raid on Saint-Nazaire.

Into the Jaws of Death - coverOn 28 March 1942, 621 men of the Royal navy and British Commandos attacked the port of Saint-Nazaire in occupied France. The mission has been dubbed ‘the greatest raid of all time.’ It was certainly daring, audacious in the extreme and terribly dangerous – less than half the men returned alive. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded, two of them posthumously. As the title of this new book on the raid states, the men went Into the Jaws of Death.

Historian, Robert Lyman, has written much about specific aspects of the Second World War, with books about the Cockleshell Heroes, the Siege of Tobruk, Kohima, the Middle East during the war, and a biography on General Bill Slim. Now, Lyman has turned his attention to the Saint-Nazaire raid. Into the Jaws of Death: The True Story of the Legendary Raid on Saint-Nazaire is a detailed book on the raid: the reasons that lay behind it, the preparation, the training, the raid itself and its aftermath.

A Bleak Time

Early 1942, as Lyman reminds us, was a bleak time for the Western Allies during the Second World War – British forces had just surrendered their garrison at Singapore; Britain was losing the Battle of the Atlantic; and wartime austerity was beginning to bite. In Europe, following the fall of France eighteen months earlier, Nazi occupation had been firmly established; and the first deportations of Jews residing in France had just begun.

Britain’s high command was gripped by fear of Germany’s huge battleship, the Tirpitz, a massive ship, a sixth of a mile long. Its sister ship, the Bismarck, had been sunk in May 1941, but the Tirpitz still roamed large. The only dry dock on the French coast capable of accommodating such a ship was to be found at the port Saint-Nazaire, a town of some 50,000 people. If the Normandie dock, as it was called, the largest dry dock in the world at the time, could be put out of action, then the Tirpitz’s activity in the Atlantic would be severely constrained.

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Syngman Rhee – a summary

Syngman Rhee, first president of South Korea and uncompromising leader during the Korean War, was in fact born in the North. Born 26 March 1875, his family were of modest means and economic hardship forced their relocation to Seoul in 1877, when Rhee was only 2. He had four siblings and, following an early Confucian upbringing, was primarily educated by Christian missionaries. Exactly when Rhee became a Christian is unclear, though he was later to claim it was when he was in prison as a young man.

Syngman RheeCertainly Syngman Rhee was forthright in his opinions. In 1896 he was among a group of radical young men who formed the ‘Independence Club’ – a nationalist organization critical of the role of Japan in Korea’s affairs. Two years later he was arrested and imprisoned for sedition. He spent six years incarcerated, during which he wrote copiously. When a more liberal government took power in 1904 he was released and fled in exile to the USA.

Nationalist

Once there he continued his studies in earnest, focusing on history and politics and securing a PhD from Princeton. By now a prominent Korean Nationalist, his advice was sought by Theodore Roosevelt’s negotiating team on the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russio-Japanese War. Yet he was unable to secure anything like Korean independence on the back of this.

In 1910 he returned to Korea for just over a year, in a management role with the YMCA. It quickly became clear that the Japanese authorities would not tolerate his political activism and so he again went into exile. This time he moved to Hawaii, which would be his base for thirty years.

In absentia

In 1919 he was elected in absentia as Head of the Korean Provisional Government. In fact, this was nothing more than a pressure group, largely based in China. Although he moved to Shanghai for a few years in 1920, his relations with others in the group waned. He was ousted in 1925 – accused of abuse of power – and returned to Hawaii.

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The Debate on the Origins of World War One

Beginning with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Dr Annika Mombauer explores the opposing debates about the origins of World War One. Is it possible for historians to arrive at a consensus?

The hundred-year debate

How could the death of one man, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated on 28 June 1914, lead to the deaths of millions in a war of unprecedented scale and ferocity? This is the question at the heart of the debate on the origins of the First World War. How did Europe get from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife to the situation at the beginning of August when Germany and Austria-Hungary were at war with Serbia, Russia, France, Belgium, and Britain? Finding the answer to this question has exercised historians for 100 years, and arriving at a convincing consensus has proved impossible.

Cupidity‘Cupidity’, a satirical drawing showing the hands of men from countries involved in World War One, arguing for control of the world.

The need to fight a defensive war

Establishing the responsibility for the escalation of the July Crisis into a European war – and ultimately a world war – was paramount even before fighting had begun. The governments of Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary tried desperately to ensure that they did not appear to be the aggressor in July and August 1914. This was crucial because the vast armies of soldiers that would be needed to fight this war could not be summoned for a war of aggression. Socialists, of whom there were many millions by 1914, would not have supported a belligerent foreign policy, and could only be relied upon to fight in a defensive war. Populations would only rally and make sacrifices willingly if the cause was just – and that meant fighting a defensive war.The French and Belgians, Russians, Serbs and British were convinced they were indeed involved in a defensive struggle for just aims. Austrians and Hungarians were fighting to revenge the death of Franz Ferdinand. Germans were assured by their Kaiser, Wilhelm II, and their Chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, that Germany’s neighbours had ‘forced the sword’ into its hands.[1] In 1914, Germans were certain that they had not started the war. But if not they (who had after all invaded Belgium and France in the first few weeks of fighting), then who had caused this war? Continue reading