Saturday, 30 December 2017

The Battle of the Herrings, 1429

The Battle of the Herrings did not involve any herrings as combatants, and none of them was actually alive at the time, but their presence was a vital factor in an incident during the Hundred Years War that would come to have important and unexpected ramifications.

In February 1429 an English army was besieging the French city of Orleans. The season of Lent was approaching, during which time meat was off the menu for Christians, which naturally meant the entire English army. With starvation being preferable to eternal damnation, an alternative source of protein was needed, and the solution took the form of a convoy of carts loaded with barrels of salted herrings.

The herring carts were under the protection of Sir John Fastolf, whose name would later be the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff. Problems arose when the convoy, protected by Fastolf’s troops, reached Rouvray, north of Orleans, on 12th February. A combined French and Scottish army intercepted the English and opened a bombardment of cannon fire against which the English had no reply.

This assault should have been enough to put paid to the herrings, but the Scottish commander made the mistake of sending in his men on foot to finish the job. The English had no cannons but they did have archers, and as soon as the Scots came within range they were the recipients of volleys of arrows. The French commander then sent his men in to rescue the Scots, but they suffered the same fate. Sir John then attacked with his own men-at-arms and put the combined French/Scottish force to flight.

The herrings were thus able to continue their journey to Orleans and the besiegers of the city could carry on with the siege.

The net result of the battle was that the French had to have second thoughts about lifting the siege of Orleans. It so happened that on the very day of the Battle of the Herrings, when the force that should have been doing the job of relieving Orleans was being routed at Rouvray, a would-be commander was pleading for a chance to show how it should be done. With no other alternatives on offer, the high command agreed and thus the legend of Joan of Arc was born.
© John Welford

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Amistad case and the slavery debate

A revolt aboard a ship transporting slaves from one part of Cuba to another in 1839 led to a celebrated case before the US Supreme Court that some have seen as a precursor to the US Civil War.

La Amistad was a two-masted schooner in private ownership that was used to transport goods along the coast of Spanish-owned Cuba and to other parts of the Caribbean. On 28th June 1839 La Amistad set sail from Havana bound for a small port in eastern Cuba. The ship’s crew was captained by the owner, Don Ramon Ferrer.

On this occasion the ‘cargo’ included 53 slaves who had been sold in Havana and were being taken to the sugar plantation where they would be put to work and probably spend the rest of their lives. Also on board were the slaves’ new owners. The slaves were members of the Mende tribe from Sierra Leone who had been shipped across the Atlantic not long before. By this time the Atlantic slave trade had been declared illegal, although the institution of slavery had not.

The slaves were not conveyed in La Amistad in the conditions that they would probably have experienced during their previous voyage. Some of them were kept in the ship’s hold and others on deck.

After a few days at sea the slaves in the hold were able to free themselves and get hold of knives that were used for cutting cane. They overpowered the crew, some of whom were killed, including the captain. They demanded that the navigator set a new course, namely for Africa. However, he was able to trick the slaves and sailed north instead of east. The ship was eventually intercepted by an American naval ship, USS Washington, and escorted to New York.

The United States was now in possession of a Spanish ship together with its cargo of slaves, and it was the status of that cargo that was to occupy the best legal minds of the country over the next two years or so.

The Spanish demanded the immediate return of La Amistad and the slaves, and President Martin Van Buren was at first minded to agree with the request. However, it was pointed out to him that the transport of slaves in ships had been outlawed by both the United Kingdom and the United States, so under American law the slaves were the victims of a crime, not the perpetrators of one.

When the case came before the Supreme Court it was stated that the slaves had been ‘unlawfully kidnapped and forcibly and wrongfully carried on board’. This view was supported by Justice Joseph Story and the slaves therefore won their case, the verdict being delivered on 9th March 1841.

There was already a strong abolitionist movement, especially in the northern United States, and funds were raised to accommodate the freed slaves and give them lessons in English, as well as Bible classes. Further funds were raised to pay for their repatriation to Sierra Leone, which happened the following year.

One of the former slaves later returned to the United States to study at college, after which she became a Christian missionary back in Sierra Leone.

The Amistad case exposed the deep divide in American society between those who supported the institution of slavery and those who did not. Many southerners took the line that the slaves were non-persons who were the property of their owners and should therefore be returned to them, as would any other stolen and subsequently recovered goods. The abolitionists (led by former President John Quincy Adams) argued that persons who had been illegally transported to Cuba, and were therefore free, were entitled to the protection of the American legal system.

The Supreme Court verdict undermined the racist assumptions of the southerners and gave the abolitionists a significant moral victory. Tensions between north and south were heightened, and the case therefore constituted a step on the path that would eventually lead to civil war.

The case was remembered in 1997 when Steven Spielberg directed the film ‘Amistad’ that brought the case before a modern audience. Criticisms have been levelled at the film for its historical inaccuracies, and for portraying the case as a vital turning point in the story of the ending of slavery in the United States. It has to be remembered that the former slaves of the Amistad had returned home nearly 20 years before the first shot was fired in the war that finally settled the matter.
© John Welford

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Battle of Aljubarrota, 1385

14th August is an important date in the history of Portugal and in Portuguese/British relationships. It was the day of which the Battle of Aljubarrota was fought in 1385, with far-reaching consequences.

The central figure of the story was João o Bastardo, which translates as John the Bastard. He was the illegitimate son of King Pedro I, and therefore not able to inherit the throne when his father died. However, when João’s half-brother also died the throne fell vacant and widowed Queen Leonor was persuaded to invite John I of Castile (a Spanish kingdom) to become King of Portugal as well.

This move did not please a group of Portuguese noblemen, one of whom, Pereira Nuno Alvares, urged João to seize power on his own behalf. Queen Leonor fled the country and implored John of Castile to invade Portugal in order to defeat her late husband’s half-brother. This he did, assisted by a contingent of 2,000 knights from France.

John’s army was met by that of João and Pereira at Aljubarrota, which was on the road to Lisbon. João also had a powerful ally, namely England, which supplied a brigade of longbowmen.

1385 was well within the period known as the “Hundred Years War” when English and French monarchs did battle against each other for mastery within western Europe. On this occasion the struggle for Portugal became a proxy battle in a much larger conflict. The battle turned out to be an echo of earlier ones (notably Poitiers in 1356) and a model for later ones (such as Agincourt in 1415) in that it featured French mounted troops facing English bowmen and coming off worse.

The most familiar feature was the ability of a relatively small force to defeat a much larger one by the use of superior tactics. John of Castile sought to outflank the Portuguese/English force by taking a long march on a hot day that only succeeded in exhausting his troops. João and Pereira merely had to wait in their well-defended positions for the enemy to approach and be soundly defeated. Losses were heavy on both sides, but the Portuguese victory was decisive.

The French and Castilians were eventually forced to withdraw, with many of them being killed by Portuguese civilians as they tried to escape back to Spain. King John fled the field but was able to escape by sea to Seville.

João, now firmly established as King of Portugal, thus established the independence of his country. He showed his gratitude to the English the following year by signing the Treaty of Windsor that pledged “an inviolable, eternal, solid, perpetual and true league of friendship”. The alliance has indeed remained solid down the centuries and is the oldest in European history. João cemented the alliance by marrying Philippa, the daughter of John of Gaunt, brother to Edward the Black Prince.

Pereira was also well rewarded for his efforts and later used his riches to found a Carmelite monastery. Some would say that his reward was the best of that of all the participants in the Battle of Aljubarrota, in that – some 500 years later – he was declared a saint.
© John Welford

Sunday, 1 January 2017

How Marconi bridged the Atlantic Ocean

The first morse code message sent across the Atlantic Ocean by radio, as opposed to cable, was received by Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) on 12th December 1901. He was stationed at Signal Hill, near St John’s, Newfoundland, and the signal was sent by a transmitting station at Poldhu, near Lizard Point in Cornwall, England.

Early experiments

Marconi first started experimenting with wireless telegraphy in 1895 in his native Italy, but moved to England in 1896 because he hoped to attract more interest and support, which was indeed the case. He developed gradually more sophisticated transmitting and receiving equipment and achieved progressively greater distances over which signals could be transmitted.

He was particularly interested in establishing ship-to-shore radio communications, and many of his early experiments were from ships and yachts to receiving stations that he had built onshore. There was clearly a business opportunity here because ships could not be connected by undersea cables in the way that fixed stations could. During the course of these experiments it became clear that radio signals could be picked up even when the transmitter and receiver were not within line of sight of each other, as would be the case when a ship was below the horizon as far as the shore station was concerned. If radio signals could “bend”, what limit could there be to how far they could travel?

Marconi became convinced that it should be possible to send a radio signal for thousands of miles, provided that the transmitting equipment was powerful enough. However, up to this point the best distance achieved had been no greater than about 90 miles (from near Boulogne on the French coast to Chelmsford in Essex, where Marconi had established his business headquarters). Nevertheless, he pressed on with his project to leap the Atlantic.

Preparatory work

Work on the transmitting station at Poldhu Cove began in October 1900, the plan being to build a similar station at Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and the work on this station began in March 1901. Each station was to comprise 20 masts, each being 200 high, set in a circle that was 200 feet in diameter. In terms of transmitting equipment, Marconi calculated that the energy needed to send a signal the required distance would be around 20,000 volts, and this was to be provided by a Hornsby-Ackroyd oil-driven engine that would drive a 25 kilowatt alternator and a pair of transformers that would boost the alternator’s 2,000 volts to the necessary 20,000 volts. The final output of the plant, in terms of signal energy, would be 100 times greater than that of any previously built transmitter.

All seemed to be going well until 17th September 1901. By this time the aerials at both Poldhu and Cape Cod were nearly complete and Marconi was carrying out tests on the parts of the system that were serviceable, getting very satisfactory results. However, on that day a storm blew up and wrecked the circle of masts. This was clearly a massive setback, but it proved possible to create a temporary aerial, based on only two masts, that was operational only seven days later. Experiments using this aerial showed that strong signals could reach Marconi’s station at Crookhaven in County Cork, Ireland, 225 miles away, so Marconi decided that there was no need to rebuild the station before trying the ultimate test.

The Newfoundland test

He therefore abandoned the original plan to set up two-way communications between Poldhu and Cape Cod and on 26th November 1901 he set sail, with two colleagues, for St John’s, Newfoundland. He had begun to have doubts about whether the signals would reach as far as Cape Cod and decided to bridge a shorter distance, Newfoundland being the closest point of the North American continent to Cornwall. As it happened, just before setting sail he heard news that the Cape Cod station had also been wrecked in a gale.

The party arrived at St John’s with a quantity of balloons, hydrogen cylinders and large kites, apart from their portable receiving apparatus. They were received hospitably by the authorities at St John’s (Newfoundland was a British colony at the time) and offered space in a disused fever hospital on a rocky promontory overlooking the town. The appropriately named Signal Hill had been used in past ages for sending semaphore communications, and was also close to the point at which the first transatlantic cable had reached shore in 1866.

The trio tried various methods for getting an aerial wire airborne using the balloons and kites. The winds were strong and at times threatened to be too strong, but, once in place, the kites were perfectly serviceable for what was needed.

The station at Poldhu had been instructed to transmit a morse code “S” (three dots) for three hours every day. This letter was chosen because it would be unmistakable if picked up on the other side of the ocean. Any letter including a dash could be indistinguishable from atmospheric noise.

The first attempts at reception were made on 11th December. Marconi and his team recorded in their notes that something was detected on the Morse detectors, and as clicks on a telephone monitor, but they could not be definite that they were the Poldhu “S” dots.

However, on the following day there was no mistaking the regular three dots. One of the kites broke free, but, when a second kite was raised with a slightly shorter wire, the signals were heard continuously for more than two hours. Marconi was convinced that the experiment had succeeded.

Conditions on later days proved difficult, such that further tests were not possible and Marconi was concerned that his claims would not be believed. In this he was partially justified, because the London press was slow to accept his word for what was a remarkable claim, given the scientific opinion of the time that radio waves could not be “bent” (actually, the waves were being bounced off the ionosphere, but nobody knew that at the time).

Later work

Ironically enough, what most convinced people that Marconi had succeeded was the vehemence shown by the Anglo-American Telegraph Company, whose undersea cable had transmitted Marconi’s triumphant massage back to England. They immediately threatened legal action against Marconi for breaking their monopoly, and Marconi promptly ended his testing in Newfoundland.

However, he was clever enough to make public his correspondence with the “Anglo” and won immediate support from the Canadian press and government agencies, the news soon spreading to the United States. Many messages of support came his way, including one from Alexander Graham Bell who made Marconi an offer of land at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, for a permanent transmitting/receiving station.

Marconi packed up his equipment on 23rd December, sending everything back to England with one of his colleagues, while he undertook visits to inspect various possible sites and to meet government officials.

Before he left Canada, Marconi had a draft contract in his pocket to establish a permanent wireless telegraph service, and he was promised government finance towards building a wireless station. Both in Ottawa and New York, Marconi was feted and dined, being hailed as a hero for his magnificent achievement, although his evidence for success was extremely sketchy and impossible to demonstrate without a receiving station being in place.

Fortunately, Marconi had been correct, and later work confirmed what he had claimed. The stations at Poldhu and Cape Cod were quickly rebuilt, with substantial wooden towers instead of flimsy masts, and many technical refinements were to follow.

On 22nd February 1902 Marconi set sail on the SS Philadelphia from Southampton to New York, with a view to sorting out the final details of his Canadian contract. However, he used the voyage to demonstrate his system to the world at large, by transmitting and receiving messages as the ship sailed across the Atlantic. The ship’s mast acted as an excellent aerial (albeit much shorter than that used at Signal Hill) and various improvements allowed for dashes as well as dots to be received.

The result was that readable messages could be transmitted for up to 700 miles during daylight and more than 1500 miles at night. The three-dot “S” signal could be detected at more than 2000 miles distance. With this very public demonstration the critics were finally silenced.

Marconi’s equipment was to prove its worth in two very notable instances within the following ten years. In July 1910 a radio message to the SS Montrose led to the arrest of Dr Hawley Crippen, who had murdered his wife and attempted to escape to Canada. Radio messages from RMS Titanic in April 1912 led to the saving of many lives due to the signals being picked up by other ships within steaming distance.

© John Welford

Saturday, 31 December 2016

The Hull rail crash, 1927

This is an account of a fatal rail accident in Hull, England, in 1927. Despite all the fail-safes built into the signalling system, one sequence of events allowed disaster to occur.

The crash at Hull Paragon station in 1927

The rail crash that occurred at Hull on 14th February 1927 was one that really should not have happened. That might be said of most accidents, of course, but in this case it would appear that all the systems were in place to prevent two trains meeting head-on on the same track, but there was one small chink in the armour of railway safety and that was enough to lead to the deaths of twelve passengers.

Hull Paragon is a terminus station, from which the lines run westward for about half a mile before branches lead west and north. There are fewer routes from Hull now than there were in 1927, and one of the lines no longer in existence led to Withernsea on the east coast. A train from Withernsea was running into Hull on the morning of 14th February, the engine being driven by Robert Dixon.

Meanwhile, Sam Atkinson was leaving Hull in charge of a Scarborough service. The two trains should have passed each other without incident.

However, as Driver Atkinson ran under the signal gantry at Park Street, still within sight of the station, he had the strange feeling that his train had been switched on to the wrong track. He checked on both sides of the footplate and, once he was certain that this was so, he slammed on his brakes. However, this was not enough to prevent a collision with Driver Dixon’s approaching train.

Once Driver Atkinson had picked himself up and taken stock of the situation, he ran up the steps of the nearby signal box and demanded to know what had happened.

There were three signalmen on duty, and their aim that morning had been not to allow the approaching Withernsea train to delay the departure of the Scarborough train. They therefore set their signals and points in conjunction so that everything should run as smoothly as possible.

What clearly happened at some stage was that a set of slip points was activated that allowed the Scarborough train to get on to the wrong line. These were controlled by lever 95 in the signal box. The systems in place made it impossible for the lever to be moved unless lever 171, which controlled the signal faced by the Scarborough train, was also moved.

While one signalman was dealing with the Scarborough departure, another was controlling the Withernsea arrival. The levers he needed to operate were 96 and 97.

Lever 171 should not have been returned to danger until the whole train had passed it, by which time it would have cleared the slip points, but, in his hurry to speed things up, the signalman in question moved the lever after only the engine and the first few carriages had passed it.

The other signalman then moved what he thought were levers 96 and 97 but must have been 95 and 96. The slip points controlled by lever 95 were therefore moved during the few seconds between lever 171 being moved and the train reaching the points. Disaster was then inevitable.

Both signalmen were therefore to blame, one for moving lever 171 too soon and the other for moving lever 95 in error. This was therefore a classic case of being too hasty, such that the correct procedure was not followed. Had the signalmen taken more care, even if that meant a train being held at a signal, the accident would not have happened.

© John Welford

Monday, 12 December 2016

The Elliot Junction rail crash, 1906

1906 was a bad year for railway accidents in Great Britain, with derailments at Salisbury and Grantham followed by a serious collision at Elliot Junction, in Scotland, on Friday 28th December.
Elliot Junction

Elliot Junction was a station that no longer exists, as the branch line that it served was closed in 1929. The station lay about one mile south of Arbroath, on the line from Dundee (to the south) to Aberdeen (to the north), which is very much open and running at present. In the photo, the station platform was where the car park is now, and the branch line went in the direction of the distant woods.

The weather at the time of the accident was appalling, with winter having set in hard on the east coast of Scotland. Temperatures were well below freezing and ice hung thick on the telegraph wires. Snow-laden winds blew in from the North Sea where the track ran close to the shore. Thick snow lay on the ground.

The accident

On the morning of the accident there had been another mishap south of Elliot Junction when some goods wagons had become derailed, resulting in one of the two tracks being blocked. Single-line working was therefore in operation for this stretch. However, because of problems with the telegraph line this information was not passed to the signal-box at Arbroath, the next main station to the north.

The 07:35 northbound express service from Edinburgh to Aberdeen was driven by Driver Gourlay, who was highly experienced. He was driving locomotive 324, a 4-4-0 of the 317 class. He was an hour late reaching Arbroath, which he did at 10:41, but that was as far as he was able to go as the lines further north were blocked by snow. The train waited for four hours, in the hope of things improving, but it was eventually decided that it would have to return to Edinburgh.

Normal practice would be for the locomotive to be turned on a turntable so that it could be coupled to the other end of the train and run funnel first, as it had on its northward journey. However, this was not done, and 324 was coupled to run tender first, thus giving the driver and fireman no protection from the elements in their open cab.

Another train needed to head south, this being a local train that was returning to Dundee from Arbroath. This was given a sixteen minute start over the returning express, with Driver Gourlay being warned to take special care.

At Elliot Junction the local train was held at the station while waiting for clearance to proceed through the temporary single-track section, about which the driver had not been told before leaving Arbroath. With the telegraph lines being down the only way to ensure that the track was clear was for a man to walk up and back through the affected section, a total distance of three miles.

The stationmaster at Elliot Junction had just decided to allow the passengers off the train to wait in the comfort of a warm waiting room when the express hurtled out of the snowstorm and hit the local train at about thirty miles an hour.

Three coaches of the local train were wrecked as was the leading coach of the express. Engine 324 fell on its side with the wheels still racing until the driver of the local train could crawl into the cab and close the regulator. Driver Gourlay was pulled out from underneath a pile of coal that had fallen on top of him but he was otherwise uninjured. However, his fireman was dead, as were 21 passengers from the two trains.

The cause of the crash

The blame for the crash lay firmly with Driver Gourlay, whose behaviour had clearly been reckless. For one thing, he was travelling “all stations”, which meant that he should have been preparing to stop at Elliot Junction and not proceeding at speed as he approached the platform. Furthermore, he had been instructed to drive under “caution” conditions which meant that the signalling system was not to be relied upon (due to the snow conditions) and safety was ensured by sending trains off at timed intervals and travelling at similar speeds, with drivers keeping a sharp lookout for obstacles on the line.

In any case, the driver’s visibility was severely curtailed by the conditions under which he was driving, with snow and coal dust blowing straight into his face with the engine running in reverse. This should have made him take extra care, not less.

Another question is why, having passed the obstruction of the blocked line on his way up the line earlier that day, he did not think to mention it to the station staff at Arbroath or the driver of the local train. After all, he did have four hours to kill before starting off back down the line.

Driver Gourlay defended himself at the subsequent enquiry by saying that he thought he had an all-clear signal as he approached Elliot Junction. However, the reason for the signal being slightly depressed (it should have been at a 45 degree angle for the all-clear) was that snow on the controlling wire was weighing it down. On the other hand, when driving under caution conditions, as mentioned above, a signal purporting to show all-clear should itself have been an indication that all was not well, given that all signals should have been in the “stop” position.

He also complained that there was no fog warning at the outer signal. In this he was probably correct, because this was standard practice in poor weather conditions, but it was pointed out that it was hardly reasonable to expect a fogman to stand in a blizzard with a warning lamp when there had been no trains between 09:00 and 15:30.

However, what pointed the finger of blame straight at Driver Gourlay was the fact that, while waiting at Arbroath, he had been “entertained” by a friendly passenger at the Victoria Bar on the station platform. He said that he had only had a single “nip” of whisky and had refused other offers from passengers, but Inspector Pringle, who conducted the enquiry, did not believe this. His conclusion included the words:

“The lack of intelligence, or of caution and alertness, displayed by Driver Gourlay were, in part at all events, induced by drink, the effects of which may possibly have been accentuated after he left Arbroath by exposure to the weather.”

Following the inquiry, Driver Gourlay stood trial and was found guilty by a majority verdict. He was sentenced to five years in prison but this was later remitted.

The inspector also had criticisms to make of the practices employed on the railway at the time, which had become slack under the joint ownership of the Caledonian and North British railway companies, who did not get on well together. The accident would have been avoided had the blockage on the line south of Elliot Junction not occurred, and this was due to an avoidable act of folly by a railway employee.

Under modern signalling and communications conditions, as well as Automatic Train Control, an accident such as that at Elliot Junction is extremely unlikely these days. However, outbreaks of human error and stupidity are always possible, so drivers still need to be aware of their responsibilities, one of which is staying well clear of the station bar!

© John Welford

Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Tsarina who moved a comma and saved a life

Students are often told to be careful how they use punctuation when writing, but this story - which is supposedly true - is an example of how a comma in the wrong place can make a huge difference to a person’s life.

Tsar Alexander III of Russia

Tsar Alexander III ruled Russia from 1881 until his death in 1894 when he was succeeded by the last tsar, Nicholas II. Alexander came to the throne when his father, Tsar Alexander II, was assassinated. Alexander III ruled as an absolute monarch and was constantly aware of the threats he faced from real or imagined opponents. He was determined not to give an inch in terms of social or political reform.

Given the fate of his father, it is hardly surprising that he sought to clamp down hard on the various protest movements that bedevilled Russia at the time. Punishments were harsh; those anarchists who were not executed were exiled to Siberia, from which only a handful of them ever returned.

Among those executed for an attempt on his life was Alexander Ulyanov, whose younger brother, Vladimir, would in later life take his revenge on the Russian monarchy under his nom-de-guerre of Lenin.

Tsarina Maria Feodorovna

The Tsarina, however, was a very different type of person.

She only became Alexander’s wife by default, in that she had been “bequeathed” to him by his elder brother Nicholas. Nicholas died in 1865 at the age of 21, when he was engaged to be married to Maria, who was a Danish princess (originally named Dagmar). On his deathbed (he appears to have died from meningitis) he expressed his wish that Maria should marry Alexander instead, which she duly did. She therefore became Tsarina, as originally intended, but as the wife of the “wrong” Tsar.

Maria clearly had much more humanity in her than did her husband, who was noted for his dour and cold personality. The episode of the comma would seem to show just how different she was.

The changed comma

The famous event occurred when Maria happened across a document that Alexander had signed. This was a list of supposed traitors and criminals whose fate lay in Alexander’s hands. Against one of the names Alexander had written “Pardon impossible, to send to Siberia”. Maria saw her opportunity to save the life of an unknown prisoner and quickly scratched out and re-inserted the comma. The line now read: “Pardon, impossible to send to Siberia”.

But is it true?

This story is often told, mainly as an object lesson in correct punctuation, but is it really true?

To my mind there are several problems with it. For one thing, who told the story? The change of the comma would have been done in secret, with only the Tsarina knowing that it had happened. She would hardly have let slip at the time that a prisoner had been freed by her action and against the will of her husband. So at what point would she have told the story, and to what end? Granted, she lived a long life (she died in her native Denmark in 1928 at the age of 80), so there might have been other opportunities for telling the tale, but what purpose would she have had in so doing?

Another factor is that the document would have been written in Russian and not English. I have no idea whether a change of comma in the equivalent Russian sentence would work as neatly as in does in English, so that is another question mark against the story.

My own feeling is that it all sounds a bit too contrived, as though somebody had realised that this was a sentence that would illustrate the grammatical point at issue, and the story was written around it as one that would fit the known facts and be believable as it stood.

That said, it is a good story. Whether true or not, it does make very clear that a misplaced comma, whether the error is the result of carelessness or deliberate action, can make a huge difference to somebody’s life!

© John Welford