100 Years Ago – The Battle of the Somme

Cemetery at Poziers, France, in the Somme River Valley

Cemetery at Poziers, France, in the Somme River Valley

“I’ve never met a grandson of someone who fought on the Somme, or a granddaughter, who hasn’t said to me, ‘My grandfather never recovered.'” – Sir Martin Gilbert, historian.

One hundred years ago this morning, at 7:30am in northern France, 150,000 British, Canadian, Australian, and French troops went “over the top” to attack German trenches along a 40 km. front in the Somme river valley. Six months in planning, the assault was designed to break through the German lines and end the war in the west.

When the battle ended four and a half months later, more than a million men on both sides lay dead or wounded. British and French troops had gained just six miles of mud, strewn with corpses, many of which had lain unburied for months.

“The most gigantic, tenacious, grim, futile and bloody fight ever waged in the history of war.” – Lloyd George, on the Battle of the Somme.

When the first day’s casualty reports – 19,240 dead and 38,230 wounded – reached British headquarters, the high command assumed the figures to be mistaken; the battle plans, in the making for six months, were foolproof – they couldn’t go that wrong! The generals ordered the attacks to continue.

British Field Marshal Douglas Haig had launched a massive artillery barrage through the week before the assault to destroy the German trenches, not realizing that during the months of stalemate, the Kaiser’s troops had worked tirelessly on their fortifications. Some trenches were 30 feet deep in the chalky ground, reinforced with concrete and steel, with electric lighting, running water, and ventilation. An estimated third of the British shells fired were duds, and many that did explode were the wrong kind of shell – shrapnel rather than high explosive charges, which failed to damage the trenches or cut the barbed wire as planned. Quality control had suffered during the British effort to ramp up production of war material.

A few minutes before the attack began, the British detonated a series of mines that engineers had tunneled to place near the German lines. The effects were limited and not worth the clear signal they sent that the attack was about to begin. The craters soon became killing fields as the British troops struggled to cross them, with no cover, under fire from German machine guns placed along the eastern rims.

Many of the British troops were new volunteers and draftees.  On the assumption that to keep order, the inexperienced troops needed to march in close formation – and assuming the artillery barrage had cleared the barbed wire and dispatched the German defenders – the infantry was ordered to walk, not run, in close, shoulder-to-shoulder formations, carrying 70 pound packs which made dodging and weaving impossible anyway. Nine out of every ten men in a Newfoundland battalion were cut down in the first 40 minutes of the assault.

The units that fared best were those with young commanders, who ordered their troops to drop the packs, duck, and run forward.  Before the day was over, German gunners in the center of the lines, where the carnage was the worst, shut down their guns, unable to keep firing. They simply watched in silence as the British retreated with as many wounded as they could carry.

“When we started to fire we just had to load and reload. They went down in their hundreds. We didn’t have to aim, we just fired into them. – German machine gunner.

Somme-film-ad

July 1, 1916, was and remains, the worst day in British military history. A generation later, during the Normandy invasion, it was a full 20 days before the combined British and American casualties would equal those of the first day of the Somme offensive.

One of the inexperienced members of “Kitchener’s army,” at the Somme was a young second lieutenant named J.R.R. Tolkien. Fortunately for millions of book lovers, his unit was held in reserve for the first week of the battle. Although he saw action and served to the best of his ability, he survived, unlike most of his school and university friends.

In October, Tolkien was struck down with Trench Fever, a serious illness related to Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and also carried by ticks, fleas, and lice. This was likely a godsend. He was evacuated to Britain weeks before Haig broke off the offensive. While recuperating in a hospital in Birmingham, Tolkien began a story about three mystic gems called the silmarilli in the first age of a place called Middle Earth.

While celebrating Tolkien’s survival, we can only wonder how many other gifts we have never seen because those who might have given them died in France.

The first American casualty of the first world war was Alan Seeger, a 28 year old poet. Seeger graduated Harvard in 1910, spent two years in Greenwich Village, and then moved to Paris, where he thrived in the bohemian atmosphere of the Left Bank. When war broke out, he joined the French Foreign Legion to defend the land he loved so much.

In his last letter, dated June 28, 1916 Seeger said:

“We go up to the attack tomorrow. This will probably be the biggest thing yet. We are to have the honor of marching in the first wave.  I will write you soon if I get through all right. If not, my only earthly care is for my poems.”

Seeger did not advance with the first wave; his regiment was held in reserve until 4:00 pm on July 1, then ordered to advance on the village of Belloy-en-Santerre.  His friend, John Keegan, wrote in his diary:  “How pale he was! His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend. . . .”

These prophetic lines are from one of Seeger’s last poems, “I Have a Rendezvous with Death.”

Alan Seeger

Alan Seeger

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.

From “I Have A Rendezvous with Death” by Alan Seeger

 

Between July 1 and November 18, 1916, there were 420,000 British, 200,000 French, and 500,000 German casualties along the Somme. Though we only know and can tell a few of those stories, it is good to do so at the time of this centennial.  Lest we forget their sacrifice. And lest we again entertain the delusion that a war can end all wars…

Posted in History | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Happy 100th Anniversary to the Schwarzschild Radius

Imagined image of black hole - public domain

Imagined image of black hole – public domain

There aren’t many things to celebrate about 1916, which set a new record as the bloodiest year in the history of human warfare, but an exception to that rule was discussed on a fascinating segment on Science Friday today, Tracing Light to Map the Cosmic Darkness.

German astronomer, Karl Schwarzschild, who was serving in the trenches, used his free time to solve the gravitational field equations of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. He communicated his findings to Einstein on a postcard. The great scientist didn’t like his solution, but recognizing its validity, he presented it to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in 1916. Ever since then, the Schwarzschild radius has defined a black hole.

Karl Schwertschild, 1873-1916, Wikimedia Commons.

Karl Schwertschild, 1873-1916, Wikimedia Commons.

And why is this important to anyone other than diehard Trekies?  Given that dark matter comprises 96% of the total matter in our universe – the stars, our earth, ourselves make up only 4% – it’s a rather interesting topic. Something to contemplate next time you’re under a sky full of stars.

One of Ira Plato’s guests, Sheperd Doeleman, Director of the Event Horizon Telescope project, hopes to soon have photographs of these objects that can’t be photographed. His other guest, Priyamvada Natarajan, Professor of Astrophysics at Yale and author of Mapping the Heavens, creates maps of dark matter, this mysterious background in which we and our universe dance.

This is a fascinating segment, so grab a cup of coffee, put you communicators on vibrate, and tune in for a wonderful glimpse at all we don’t know about our world.

Posted in Article, Imagination, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Of Kids and Legos

Studies in the psychology of happiness list the factors that contribute to wellbeing. Not surprisingly, good health is most important, followed closely by a satisfying social network. Having money for necessities and simple comforts is important, though the curve flattens out once we have “enough.”

Statistically, having children is a wash; those with kids and those without have the same chances of feeling satisfied in life. Two parents in China experienced the downside of little ones, when their four year old son, unable to read a “Do Not Touch,” sign, destroyed a $15,000 lego critter that had taken three days and 10,000 legos to create.  Oops!!!

The creator, who identifies himself as Zhao, said he feels “frustrated and depressed,” though he understands the act was not intentional. I am reminded of Tibetan sand mandalas, especially as China is warming up to Buddhist practice again. The sand mandalas are ritually destroyed after use to demonstrate the impermanence of all created things.

Still, I certainly sympathize with Zhao. I managed to screw up or set back painstaking projects at work from time to time, even without a four year old to help. The end result was that I became very careful…

Here’s hoping Zhao gets back in his groove!

Posted in art, News | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Farewell to a Truth Teller: Morley Safer

If you’re old enough, you will remember a time when reporters and news media aimed for the truth.  We just lost one of the greats of that era, Morley Safer.

Here’s what truth-telling looked like during that time when the corporate media and the government allowed it, and we would not have settled for reality TV.

RIP Morley, after a life lived with courage and integrity.

Posted in Culture, News | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Welcome to 1984!

This post from Ipledgeafallegiance is a tragic but pertinent summary of the fruits of a foreign “policy” that Jimmy Carter cautioned against 37 years ago. Saying we had a choice between national self-restraint and dependence on foreign oil, Carter said:

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God…too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve…learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

To continue on this course, he said, was “a road to certain failure.” Read it and weep.

ipledgeafallegiance

I think that President Obama has done a good job as President of the United States. I know that not everyone agrees with me and even though I don’t agree with everything that President O. has done, our 44th elected President is about to do something that no other president in the history of the United States has ever accomplished.

He is about to become the only president who has been at war during all 8 years of his presidency! And when you consider that President G.W. Bush had the nation at war for the last 6 years of his presidency then the United States has been at war for the past 14 years, non stop…with no stopping in sight.

Hillary Clinton, should she become our next president, is well known in Washington for being a “war hawk” herself… and Donald trump, should he become our next Commander in Chief…

View original post 398 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave…

You mean Belgium, right?  That is, after all, the home of Anheuser-Busch InBev, parent company of Anheuser-Busch, maker of Budweiser, which shall henceforth be known as America beer. Until the election is over, that is.

America beer

And who among us, cannot wait for that day?

Ad Age, which announced the change noted that the motto, “King of Beers” will become, “E Pluribus Unum,” and the bottom of the can will feature this text: “From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream Waters this land was made for you and me.”

Yep, let’s hoist one for good old Woody Guthrie. I’d love to hear the songs he’d be writing this year!

Posted in Culture, humor, News | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Devil’s Sooty Brothers

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1855. Painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, 1855. Painting by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

“People think stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way round.” – Terry Pratchett

“The Devil’s Sooty Brother” is the catchiest name among a group of tales from the Brothers Grimm about career soldiers who are discharged when they are wounded, or peace breaks out, or for no given reason. They find themselves on the road, with a loaf of bread and a few coins if they’re lucky, and no clear path to making their way in the world.

Most of the best known Grimm tales feature young people – a lad or a maiden, just starting out in the world. In contrast, we imagine these soldiers as middle aged career men, whose services are no longer needed. I thought of these stories when I heard that Oreo, “America’s favorite cookie,” will now be produced in Mexico, where Nabisco expects to save $130 million a year. Six hundred people join the hundreds of thousands before them whose working lives have been disrupted by technical, financial, and social changes that continue to accelerate in speed.

Do the old stories have anything practical to say to 21st century people when the world turns upside down?  Maybe…

These stories have elements in common:

  1. The protagonists are combat veterans. They’ve been around the block.
  2. They take up with shady, trickster-like characters, who take them underground, into the darkness, or other trials.
  3. They either are, or must learn to be, trickier than their tricky benefactors. In modern terms, they need to think outside the box, and there, if anywhere, is the relevance for us now. Circumstances may change, but the value of seeing the world afresh, free from habit and preconception, is probably even more vital now than in the “simpler” times when these tales emerged.

I will consider two of the tales of discharged soldiers that depend on wit. I’ll skip several others that hinge more on religious piety and luck. Piety and luck may pay off in real life, but they aren’t satisfying story elements.

German mercenary pikeman. Wikimedia Commons

German mercenary pikeman. Wikimedia Commons

In our title story, The Devil’s Sooty Brother, (Grimm Tale #100), Hans, a hungry and penniless out of work soldier, meets the Devil in the woods. This Devil is a dark trickster and initiator rather than a personification of evil. If the soldier agrees to the terms of a seven-year contract, he’ll be set for life.  If he violates the terms, he will die, and presumably, be stuck in hell. Continue reading

Posted in Folklore, Imagination, oral tradition, Stories | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Hungry Ghosts

Section of Hungry Ghosts Scroll, Kyoto, late 12th c., Public Domain

Section of Hungry Ghosts Scroll, Kyoto, late 12th c., Public Domain

In traditional Buddhist cosmology, there are six major realms of existence. Only two of these, the human and animal realms, are visible. The other four, which include both heavens and hells, are not manifest to our physical senses. Unlike Christian heaven and hell, none of these are forever – the length of one’s sojourn depends on karma.

Many contemporary teachers, while not denying the metaphysical reality of these regions, focus on our inner “location” in the here and now. One who is filled with love and compassion dwells in heaven. The one seething with anger, red in the face, like a devil, at that moment experiences one of the hells.

Hungry ghosts have a region all to themselves; their dominant trait is insatiable craving. Hungry ghosts are depicted with huge bellies but tiny throats and mouths – desperate hunger and thirst that can never find relief.

Never enough, there is never, ever enough,” is the mindset of hungry ghosts, both in the imagined subtle realm and in this world. Addictions and insatiable cravings of all sorts make us hungry ghosts. The pre-repentant Ebenezer Scrooge, the archetypal miser, is the best known western hungry ghost. Now, the Panama Papers reveal how widespread is this disease, and how it drives the leaders and elites in nations throughout the world. Nor do we, at least in “the free world,” get to sit back and righteously condemn “those bad people.” Not in Buddhist thought, at least, where everything is interconnected.

The people of Iceland forced their Prime Minister out of office within 48 hours of the time the story broke. They did the same with the bankers in 2008. We, who have elected officials of both parties who tolerate bailouts and corporate shell games, are are not separate from the hungry ghosts who are fucking this world.

In his public discourse, Buddha never commented one way or another on metaphysical truths. There’s plenty to worry about here and now, he said. If greed locks us into the hell of the hungry ghosts, generosity, the mindset of Scrooge on Christmas morning, opens the gates of heaven.

Ratnasambhava, the primordial Buddha of "the wisdom of equality," manifests the virtue of generosity.

Ratnasambhava, the primordial Buddha of “the wisdom of equality,” manifests the virtue of generosity.

Perhaps there are no big or small acts of generosity. Our world, the people in it, and we ourselves, need nothing more urgently at this time.

Posted in Buddhism, Culture, Current Events, ghosts, News, Spirituality, Tibet | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments