Monthly Archives: July 2016

191. Nobody Won

World War I began 102 years ago today with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and continued until November of 1918. Millions died, centuries old dynasties disappeared, countries ceased to exist, and new countries were formed. It was the Great War, the war to end all wars, but when it was over, the dance continued.

Nobody really won. But then again, no one deserved to. It was, in many ways, a continuation of wars from Napoleon onward through the Crimea, when dozens of European countries, regions or ethnic groups tried to gain dominance, or to retain dominance, or to avoid being dominated. Only the last might be considered valid. Before the final smoke of battle had cleared at the end of World War I, the seeds of World War II had sprouted and were growing strong.

Until past the middle of the nineteenth century, Germany did not exist as a modern nation. Numerous small states coalesced under pressure from Prussia into a single country – Germany – in 1871. France and Russia feared this shift in power, and formed an alliance to counteract it. Germany reacted by forming an alliance with Austro-Hungarian Empire. Italy joined Germany and Austria shortly after. Britain reacted to the change in Europe by aligning itself with old enemies France and Russia.

The assassination caused Austria-Hungary to force war on the Kingdom of Serbia. Russia intervened on Serbia’s behalf, and the dominos fell.

In America, we tend to think of Germany as the aggressor and Britain as the victim. That won’t really hold water. All the groups on the battlefield were in contention for colonies, wealth, power, and trade. Germany was newly arrived on the world stage and aggressive. Bismarck made a good cartoon villain – he is sometimes painted as a sort of proto-Hitler – and the British have always been a gentle and civilized people in their own eyes and ours. Even though Americans would never have achieved independence from Britain without the French navy, we still think of Britain as our mother country.

It isn’t.

At least it is no more the mother country to America than France, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Scotland (who were not part of Britain when America was colonized, and who were still at war with England thirty years before 1776), Norway, Sweden, Italy, Spain, a dozen European states that no longer exist, China, Japan, and – oh yes – Germany. And let’s not forget Africa.

During the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth century, European nations changed allies more often than hippies changed partners at a love-in. Britain had been at war with her World War I ally Russia just sixty years earlier in the Crimea, and had been at war with her World War I ally France for most of the preceding two hundred years. Who was on our side and who was on their side was mostly an accident of which decade the war broke out.

I admit to an illogical fondness for Buchan and Edwardian espionage novels, but I also know that war was largely about possessing the wealth of Africa, the Middle East, India, and the Far East. The Germans who died under English guns were as much the victims of a senseless war as the English who died under German guns.

The people of the colonies world were the victims, whether there was a war going on or not.

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Jandrax 75

He dropped down on a broken stave and sat inert. Slowly he forced himself to consider the meaning and implications of his plight.

Jean could not return, yet he had not entirely planned to return. He realized then that he had been thinking, in the back of his mind, of returning to the island, to the abode of peace, there to spend his life in the company of the semi-human dilwildi. The fear that had driven him away had abated over the subsequent weeks, but he had not acknowledged his plans even to himself.

Now he could not return to the island, nor could he return to the colony by water. The wood in the gig would not make a raft even if he could recover it all, and there were no trees here. Perhaps there were trees in the mountains that his map had shown to be several hundred kilometers to the west, but there was no way he could reach them, nor cut them down, nor return them to the lake. The bushes that grew during the melt were all but useless for wood.

He could not go by water and he could not remain where he was. Soon the melt would pass, and he would starve here. Without shovels he could not dig a permafrost cellar, nor could he hope to fill one while hunting alone. He would starve if he remained, nor did he wish to remain cut off from his fellows in such a desolate place. Solitude might have been acceptable amid the beauty of the island but not here.

He would follow the herds. There was no other hope.

For years the younger colonists had speculated whether the others lived nearby or followed the herds. Only a few would champion the latter position. It seemed absurd that anyone could survive constant migration, or that anyone could trek so many kilometers every year. Now Jean would get a chance to prove or disprove the theory. It was not a prospect that pleased him.

He searched through the wreckage of the gig, recovering his few belongings. These he bundled together and then he laid out the torn sail. It was too large to carry so he carefully cut out a sleeping robe from the best of it and then sat before a fire made of the pieces of his gig and made himself a fresh pair of moccasins from part of the remainder.

As he sat, he calculated that the melt moved at an average rate of thirty-five kilometers per day. He would be hard pressed to maintain that pace day after day, especially since he would also have to hunt and avoid being hunted at the same time.

He would not survive. Somewhere he would be too slow and a trihorn or longneck would get him. Or he would run out of ammunition. Or, worst of all and most likely, his leg would not let him keep up the pace and he would slowly fall behind the melt until low winter and starvation overtook him.

If so, so be it. His earlier shock had given way to a new fatalism. His one great adventure was ended and an even greater one had begun. It would be better to die thus than to have lived out a miserable life as a half-man in the colony. Yet he did not look forward to death as he had before, for it would be sweeter still to survive and return.

Night was about him and the fire was low. He had not slept the night before and now he must. He might die from sleeping, but there was no help for it. He put his finger through the trigger guard, his thumb on the hammer, and let go of consciousness. more tomorrow

190. Riddle of the Sands

Riddle of the Sands was the first British spy story, according to Eric Ambler. Over the years, it has been a favorite of lovers of old-fashioned British writing and of small boat sailors, both real and wannabe. Riddle of the Sands is fiction, but it usually get listed with such books as Falcon on the Baltic (referenced internally) or A Voyage Alone in the Yawl Rob Roy – century old books about real small boat journeys.

Don’t expect a thriller; it may say thriller on your copy’s cover, but you know how unreliable back blurbs are. If you are a fan of Bond and Bourne, you’ll fall asleep by the third page, but it is one of my all time favorite books because it is so English, in the best sense of the word.

You might get the idea from the BREXIT posts and from 188. Before the Storm that I am down on the English. Far from it. It’s just that they spent several centuries as winners on the world stage, and winners get a lot of chances to do terrible things to the losers. America has now inherited their position, along with all its moral perils.

Riddle of the Sands is the story of two Brits, Davies and Carruthers, on an extended exploration of the waters off the Netherlands and Germany a decade before World War I. It unfolds slowly, in typical old-British fashion with intimations from the first that there is more going on than appears on the surface. Carruthers finally worms the truth out of Davies, and discovers that he is convinced that Dollmann, a German yachtsman of his acquaintance, is in fact a renegade Englishman acting as a spy for the Germans. Davies fears that there is a plot afoot to do great harm to England, and he has recruited Carruthers to help him ferret it out.

The plot against England is real and the danger is imminent, and its unfolding is properly slow and logical. But the charm of the book lies elsewhere, in the day to day work of seamanship as the two try to discover Dollmann’s intentions. And they are such good chaps, in the most English sense of decency, courage, and selfless patriotism.

Dollmann’s plot is uncovered, the British authorities are warned and danger is averted. Yet, at the end of the book, the author complains that the events uncovered by Davies and Carruthers have again been forgotten, and danger is still on the horizon.

Indeed, it was.

Jandrax 74

Vapor slipped away from the fire after half an hour. By that time he knew everything that could be learned from it. The aroma of the meat told him that it was hump ox and the absence of caterwauling nearby told him that the stranger had sense enough to make camp far from the scene of his kill. He carried a muzzleloading rifle, but of a different design from those Vapor had seen before.

The other wore a full beard and shaggy hair, neither yet streaked with gray, though his face was lined with worry or some great sorrow, giving him the false appearance of age. He had been injured at some time in the past, for he unconsciously stroked his left thigh in the manner of one remembering some old pain.

His clothing was of fur, of course, but much more conservatively cut than that which Vapor’s people wore. Also it was quite heavy and the fire was high. Perhaps this one was ill or he was not inured to the climate or he did not know how to avoid the carnivores at night. Perhaps a combination of these factors existed.

Vapor was curious, but Grandaddy Longneck was getting too close for comfort. Vapor could smell the creature upwind of where he lay. It would not do to become careless while watching the stranger. He slipped away into the night.

By first light he was backtracking the stranger and soon he reached the humpox. Only bones and tattered hide remained. Vapor made a large circle about the site in order to get beyond the area which the carnivores had churned. There he found the stranger’s back trail again and followed it toward the lake.

Vapor was amazed at what he read in the mud.

The stranger was a cripple! His right footprint was uniformly deeper than his left and showed a dragging trail where he lurched each time his left foot was down. His left footprint was shallow and smudged where he twisted to thrust his good leg forward. That such a one should be here was incredible.

He soon observed the lurching gait for himself as he came up behind Jean making his way toward the lake. Vapor followed close behind, chafing at the slowness of their progress.

The stranger reached the bluff overlooking the lake and turned north, worked his way to the beach down a stream and turned north again. Vapor stayed on the embankment out of sight. Then he saw how the stranger had come and at the same time realized that he was about to get a new insight into his character.

He had come by boat, but he would not leave in that manner, for the gig remained only as memory and a scattering of shattered staves and timbers. Vapor could read the story in the mud even from the embankment above. A small herd of trihorns had been spooked by a pair of longnecks and had stampeded down the beach, running over the boat in the darkness and in their panic.

The stranger broke into a lurching trot, then stopped dead. Vapor settled down to see how he would handle this new situation.

***

Jean’s emotions ran the gamut, from disbelief to anger, to selfrecrimination, to fear, to grief, and back to disbelief. The gig was shattered beyond repair and scattered over three-hundred meters of beach.

He dropped down on a broken stave and sat inert. Slowly he forced himself to consider the meaning and implications of his plight. more tomorrow

189. World War Zero

They called it the Great War, for its size and horror. The term World War I came later, to distinguish it from WW II, which came with even greater size and horror. Neither name is accurate. By 1914, Britain had already been waging world wars for at least 250 years.

Of course early Europeans had been fighting since the first Homo Sapiens Sapiens hit the last Neanderthal on the head with a rock. With increasing food sources, skirmishes became battles. With the rise of social organization, so that armies could stay in the field longer, battles became wars. With increasing population density, the wars could become both wide spread and long lasting, but a world war could not be fought until Europe exploded across the globe as the Age of Exploration morphed into the Age of Colonization.

Portugal began it all. Spain – including Columbus – came close behind, followed by the Dutch, French and English. Exploration led to colonization, and colonies were fought over. The Dutch were early world wide colonizers, especially in the Americas and the far East. The Anglo-Dutch wars of the 1600s were primarily fought in the North Sea, but the prize was world domination. The English won, New Amsterdam became New York, and the Dutch were left dominating the Spice Islands (basically modern Indonesia).

North America was fought over for centuries by Spain, England and France. Our French and Indian War was only one theatre in the globe spanning Seven Years War, fought by England and her allies against France and hers. That conflict involved Europe, the Americas, Africa, India, and the Philippines.

The Treaty of Paris ended the war, but not the fighting. A decade later, France was again fighting the English as allies of the newly forming United States. The three way battle between France, England and Spain continued off and on through the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, and at every step the nations’ colonies were involved as actors or as pawns. The Louisiana Purchase, which defined America, came about because France, which had control of the territory through its control of Spain, needed to consolidate its position before engaging England, by obtaining money while getting rid of a vulnerable possession.

You should realize that I have left out innumerable wars, battles, and skirmishes to keep the size of this post in check. All this conflict was on a world wide scale, in pursuit of world wide trade. Call it World War Zero.

Needless to say, this much active history can’t pass without an accompanying literature. My personal interests are not military, but they are maritime, so I found myself caught up in the stories of “wooden ships and iron men” despite myself. I discovered Forrester’s Hornblower when I was in my twenties and read them all, several times. Hornblower is such a complex character, so full of ambition and self-doubt, that I can’t recommend him to everyone, even though he is my favorite. I would start someone new to this kind of novel with Kent’s Bolitho. He is a more normally heroic captain; I liked him quite well, but by the time I was half way through his adventures I had overdosed on the genre. Bear in mind that I had probably read all the Hornblowers three times before I discovered Bolitho, so that isn’t a criticism. For the last decade or so, O’Brian’s Aubrey and Maturin books have been widely popular. By the time they came on the scene, I had moved on, so I can only report them as hearsay.

Jandrax 73

Even if he were that fortunate, the other cow would kill him. He was sorely tempted. Here would be a fitting end for a man and a hunter. He sighted on the bull, his finger caressing the trigger, but did not fire.

After a time the trihoms wandered away, the cows having sensed something strange in the area. Trihom belligerence is matched only by trihom caution, so the beasts drifted off to the north.

Jean sat beneath the siskal, chewing a fresh stalk and thinking. He tried to unravel what had held his finger. It was partly because of what he had glimpsed on the island – the possibility of an existence where killing did not reign supreme. It was also partly the influence of Levi-Stuer who had preached that being a man was more than merely being a hunter. Part of his hesitation was due to his own thinking as well. He had done things that no man had done before. No brave hunter from the colony had ever dared the lake or sought out the secret of the disappearing herds, yet he, a cripple, had done so. His impulses had been largely self-destructive, true, but they were not so any longer. He had faced death and therein found the courage to face life.

When he crawled out of the bushes and set off he limped no less but was somehow less conscious of it.

He had not found new self-worth in a moment, but in a moment he had realized the culmination of that which had been building for a year. He was a man; let others think what they wished – he knew his own worth.

And having so reestablished his own worth, his loneliness was thereby intensified.

***

Firelight flickered in the night. Jean lay against the backrest of lal that he had woven, contemplating the fire and the various night sounds beyond. His belly was full to repletion and a massive hunk of humpox meat hung beside the fire, slowly drying and cooking. The carcass that had given up this meat lay nearly a half kilometer to the west and was doubtless even now being stripped by longnecks and krats. Jean had killed early in the afternoon and had lost no time getting what meat he could eat and retreating before the carnivores arrived.

His rifle, carefully recharged, lay across his knees. Behind him was a shallow pool which would give warning splashes if anything tried to reach him from that side. He did not even bother to turn his head in that direction. Ahead the ground fell away from the hummock he had chosen and any carnivores out there would be wary of the fire. Of course he dared not sleep until he returned to the gig and put safely out into the lake. That he would do in the morning, for he had much to think about tonight.

He had found the herds, which had been his ostensible purpose. Now he could return to the colony with his findings. Yet he knew that few would be interested, for it would be knowledge without practical import.

For the first time since his injury, he was lonely for humankind. Even during the year he had spent with LeviStuer he had shunned his fellows. Now he was transformed, though outwardly unchanged. It had been a slow process, but he had established a deeper acquaintance with himself and a truer picture of his abilities and failings.

He had no illusions about his fellow man, however. They would no more accept him now than they had before. This then was his dilemma, that he had progressed beyond his fellows and was thereby cast out.

Beyond the firelight, eyes watched him. Yellow, slitted eyes on a finely sculpted head – longneck. Other eyes watched him as well, brown eyes like his own, set in a human face. more tomorrow

188. Before the Storm

On July 28, 1914, 102 years ago Thursday, World War I began.

The years just before the war were a high point in British life, at least if we judge by Masterpiece Theatre. John Buchan set his early espionage novel The Thirty-nine Steps in that era, writing it shortly after WWI had begun. The Riddle of the Sands (see this Wednesday’s post) was an actual prophesy of the coming conflict, since it was published before the war began.

After the Great War, as it was then called, Buchan and many others looked back to the pre-war era with longing. They saw it as a golden age. Perhaps; it depends on your perspective. Young men who expected to work their way up through the ranks of British society – like Buchan when he was young – saw a world of opportunity before them. Their perspective was very different from the working class poor trapped by industrialism.

It was certainly different from the millions in British colonies, toiling to keep the Empire rich, and the ruling class richer.

Victoria was dead; Victorianism wasn’t, at least on the surface. Baden-Powell had just organized the Boy Scouts. Conservatism, especially in sexual matters, was the norm – on the surface.

What was going on at gatherings in the great houses of England was often a different matter. There:

much silent and furtive corridor-creeping between one double bedroom and another took place. . . . During the day, a clandestine affair could develop unobserved . . . At night, the names written on cards slotted into brass holders on the bedroom doors were as helpful to lovers as to the maids bringing early morning tea. Assignations confirmed by . . . a whispered exchange over the candle that lit the way up the stairs . . . ensured that extra-marital sex went on with ease. . . At six in the morning a hand-bell rung on each of the bedroom floors gave guests time to return to their own beds before the early morning tea trays arrived.

That quotation is from The Perfect Summer by Juliet Nicholson. John Buchan’s world never looked like this. (Some critics suggest that it would have been better if it had.) Nicholson has clearly cherry picked among the movers and shakers, the avant-garde, the spoiled children of the rich to whom the rules didn’t apply, to find the subjects of her book. She portrays a world of arranged, often loveless, marriages with gatherings in the great houses designed to facilitate swapping partners on the sly.

Discretion was the watchword. Letting the rest of the world in on your secrets, even if they had similar secrets, could lead to social disaster. Mrs. Patrick Campbell said, “Does it really matter what these affectionate people do in the bedroom as long as they don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses?” The answer to her rhetorical question was, Yes. It mattered very much. Just ask Lady Cunnard, who was in bed with Thomas Beecham when an early morning workman on a ladder saw the two of them through a crack in her bedroom curtain. The scandal almost ruined her.

This is the atmosphere in which the ruling class of England spent the summer of 1911, while their servants scurried about facilitating their dalliances, while the working class struck for higher wages and better working conditions, while natives in tropical colonies slaved in the pitiless sun. And while Germany hungered for their own colonies in a world where the early arriving nations had already gathered them up and sucked them dry.

Their days were numbered.