Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Kamikaze: the Divine Wind

Towards the end of World War II, desperation by the Empire of Japan led them to adopt the extreme tactic of flying suicide missions against allied shipping. Planes laden with explosives would be deliberately crashed into ships with the object of causing maximum casualties for the loss of a single Japanese pilot.

These missions were termed “kamikaze”, which means “divine wind”. But where did the term originate?

It relates to an important incident in Japanese history back in 1281. The Mongols of central Asia had established a vast empire that stretched from Hungary in the west to Korea in the east. This had been due largely to the campaigns of Genghis Khan, but it was his grandson Kublai Khan who was determined to add Japan to what had, up to that point, been a contiguous land-based empire.

In August 1281 he assembled a vast fleet of ships that were capable of transporting 140,000 soldiers. These were landed at Hakata Bay on Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, but they were met by a fierce response in the form of Japanese samurai warriors. The invaders withdrew to their ships to plan their next move.

Traditionally, the Japanese had always feared the 1st of September, which is day 210 of the lunar calendar then in use in Japan. This was called the “day of storms” because it was the mid-point of the typhoon season and bad weather often occurred on that day.

Had the Mongols spent more time at sea and less on land during their many years of conquest, they might have realized that this was not a good time of the year to mount an invasion from the sea, but that was the mistake they had made. A terrible typhoon duly arrived on 1st September and caused utter havoc to the Mongol fleet.

Many of the ships were sunk in the storm, with others being driven on shore and the shipwrecked soldiers promptly killed by the Japanese defenders. One estimate of the disaster put the casualty figure as high as 100,000.

The typhoon therefore became the divine wind – the kamikaze that would deliver Japan from its enemies.
© John Welford

Monday, 19 March 2018

John Appleby reluctantly takes to the air

The first man to take off from the ground and fly was not Orville Wright in 1903 but (it is believed) John Appleby, a coachman who was a highly reluctant pioneer of aviation fifty years earlier. He had his employer, Sir George Cayley, to thank for that.

Sir George Cayley

Born in 1773 at Brompton in Yorkshire, George Cayley was born into wealth and privilege. He inherited his father’s baronetcy in 1792, with which came ownership of Brompton Hall and its large estate. At one time in his life he represented Scarborough as its Whig Member of Parliament.

However, having a considerable amount of leisure time on his hands, he decided to put that time to good use in the investigation of scientific and engineering matters. He had varied interests but is best remembered for his lifelong desire to find a way of getting a man to fly like a bird.

From watching seagulls gliding on the wind he soon deduced that something as heavy as a man could only get airborne if his “wings” were still rather than flapping, and from that he proposed that there were four fundamental forces that had to be co-ordinated, namely gravity, lift, drag and thrust.

He was the first man to realise that a wing would provide lift if it was shaped in such a way that the airflow above and below moved at different speeds when the wing was in forward motion. This is the principle that has been behind fixed-wing flight ever since.

A machine takes shape

Sir George Cayley spent many years working on his theories and building models that put these theories into practice. However, it was not until 1853 that he was able to build and test a real man-carrying flying machine. This was a monoplane with kite-shaped wings made from cloth to the extent of around 500 square feet (46 square metres), an adjustable tail and fin, a boat-shaped cockpit slung underneath and a tricycle undercarriage.

Sir George, having spent a lifetime working on this project, was now an old man of 80, and therefore not suitable as the first pilot. There have been suggestions that he would have liked to make the experiment but his wife would have none of it!

Step forward, John Appleby

The next part of the narrative is admittedly uncertain, because there are conflicting versions of it, but it makes a good story and could possibly have been true.

John Appleby was Sir George’s coachman, who had witnessed all Sir George’s previous contraptions and experiments with bemused interest. When the glider was pulled into the open in front of the entire household, John peered at it a little too closely and was duly spotted by Sir George.

“Just the chap I was looking for”, said Sir George, and John Appleby found himself strapped into the cockpit before he knew what was happening.

The machine was wheeled to the top of a slope and pushed downhill. The basic theory proved correct and the forward momentum was enough to provide enough lift on the cambered wing to take the craft, and John Appleby, into the air above the valley in front of Brompton Hall.

The flight was a short one, with the craft making a crash landing on the other side of the valley. Sir George and the entire household rushed across on foot, to find the coachman only slightly injured but far from pleased. 

John Appleby glared at Sir George and promptly resigned his position, stating that he had been hired to drive carriages and not flying machines.

Sir George Cayley’s place in history

Sir George died in 1857 and so was not able to make any further experiments, such as building an improved design. It was therefore left to others to carry forward the notion that manned flight was possible.

The invention of the internal combustion engine made it possible to think of flight that not only started from level ground but could also be sustained in the air, despite the extra weight that would have to be carried. This was clearly where the future lay, but it would be another 50 years before the Wright brothers were able to make this dream a reality.

That said, Sir George Cayley’s theories were largely correct and only lacked other technologies to make them realisable. For that reason, Sir George and John Appleby (assuming that this part of the story is true) deserve their place in the history of aviation.

© John Welford

Sunday, 18 March 2018

How the journey of Lewis and Clark had an impact on American English

Lewis and Clark were two explorers who were sent by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the interior and west of the North American continent. Inadvertently, they also made important contributions to the development of American English.

 The western adventure of Lewis and Clark

It cannot be denied that American English exhibits many features that are peculiar to it and which set it apart from other varieties of English spoken around the world, noticeably that of the “home” country of English, namely the United Kingdom.

One contribution that is not always appreciated is that of Lewis and Clark, two explorers who were sent west by President Thomas Jefferson to, if possible, discover a river that flowed to the west coast.

This expedition was made possible after the American government doubled its territory in 1804 through the Louisiana Purchase, surely one of the best bargains of all time. However, little was then known about what this new land contained, whether it offered enticing prospects for development or dangers for the unwary, whether the natives were friendly or hostile, and much else besides.

Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) and William Clark (1770-1838) were army captains (technically, Clark was only a 2nd lieutenant but this detail was overlooked) who led an expedition that totalled 33 individuals, setting off on 14th May 1804.

The journals of Lewis and Clark

For the story of American English, the important thing to note is that Lewis and Clark kept meticulous daily journals throughout their travels, at President Jefferson’s insistence. On their return, these journals were published, becoming hugely popular and widely read, and from them came a whole host of words that had never been seen before.

Lewis and Clark were not highly educated men, having spent much of their young lives exploring the outback and fighting small campaigns against various native tribes. Clark, who seems to have done much of the writing of the expedition journal, was particularly conscious of his lack of skill as far as grammar and spelling were concerned. It was, in any case, a time when spelling had not yet been standardised by dictionaries such as Noah Webster’s which first appeared in 1806.

New uses for old words

The journals therefore describe places, geographical features, animals, and much else besides, in the best language that Lewis and Clark could manage. This was partly due to their ignorance as a result of poor education but also from the need to find names for the unfamiliar. For example, the word “creek”, which means a tidal inlet in British English, was now used to mean any sort of stream. The word “rapid” is an adjective, but it could do excellent service to describe water moving rapidly over a rocky bed, as “rapids”.

When Lewis and Clark had no word for something, they were apt to stick two words together to create a new one. A snake which shook its tail to make a rattling sound could best be described as a “rattlesnake”. A wood of trees bearing tufts that looked like cotton gave rise to “cottonwood”. There are hundreds of such examples in the journals.

Mistakes and new words

Some of the mistakes of modern American English can be laid at the doors of Lewis and Clark, due to their lack of knowledge. The animal known to Americans as a “buffalo” has no connection with the African or Asian animals of that name, as what Lewis and Clark thought were buffaloes were in fact bisons, which are a completely different species. The same is true of “elk”, which is not the same species in Europe that it is in America.

On their travels, Lewis and Clark came across several native American tribes and picked up many names from them. Some 500 words in the journals are of native origin, including “maize”, “opossum”, “hickory” and “toboggan”.

Noah Webster declared that his dictionary contained only about fifty words that could be said to be peculiarly American. That is far from the case with the journals of Lewis and Clark, which are full of “Americanisms”, many of which have since flowed out of America and into the English spoken in other parts of the world. Without in any way intending to create a revolution in the way English was written and spoken in North America, Lewis and Clark did precisely that.

© John Welford

How did the Sphinx lose its nose?

The Great Sphinx of Gisa, which stands next to the Pyramids, is one of Egypt’s most famous monuments. It is believed to be around 6,500 years old and its head to be a representation of the Pharaoh Khafra.

One notable feature of the Sphinx, which has the head of a man but the body of a lion, is that it has no nose. This has given rise to considerable speculation down the years as to why this might be. The question is therefore: “who broke the Sphinx’s nose?”

One oft-supposed culprit is Napoleon Bonaparte, who fought two battles in Egypt, one of which – fought in 1798 – is known to history as the Battle of the Pyramids. Maybe a misdirected cannon shot removed the nose of the Sphinx? One problem with this scenario is that - despite the name – the battle was fought nine miles away from the Pyramids, and thus well out of range of a cannon shot at that time.

Napoleon returned to Europe after the defeat at Trafalgar in 1805, leaving behind 55,000 soldiers and a team of “savants” who were civilian experts with a mission to study the artefacts of ancient Egypt. The story is still put about by Egyptian guides at the Pyramids that it was one of these savants who stole the nose and took it back to the Louvre in Paris.

However, not only does the Louvre not have the nose in its possession – and this was never the case – but there are sketches in existence that show a nose-less Sphinx as long ago as 1737, which was 32 years before Napoleon was born.

The only reliable account of vandalism to the Sphinx dates from 1378, when an Islamic cleric was summarily executed for damaging the statue – but not for removing the nose.

The most likely reason why the Sphinx has no nose is that sand-laden desert winds are very good at eroding soft limestone. After 6,500 years, it should be no surprise that the Sphinx does not look the same as it did originally!
© John Welford

HMS Dreadnought and the Abyssinian princes

One day in 1910 the crew of HMS Dreadnought played host to a rapidly arranged royal visit. The ship, which was the British Navy’s flagship and its pride and joy, was lying at anchor in Weymouth Bay off the Dorset coast as part of the Home and Atlantic Fleets. The visitors, so the ship’s officers were informed, would be four princes from Abyssinia, who were to be made welcome, shown every courtesy, and – in effect – treated like the royalty they were. A telegram, signed by the Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, made this abundantly clear.

At about the time that the telegram was being received, the stationmaster at London’s Waterloo Station was being harangued by a man in a posh suit and a top hat who told him that he was Herbert Cholmondesly from the Foreign Office and that he needed a special VIP coach to be added to the next train to Weymouth so that four princes from Abyssinia could be conveyed on a visit to the Royal Navy. They would, of course, need to be welcomed appropriately at the other end of the line.

And that is what happened. The coach was duly provided, the princes boarded it, and a few hours later they arrived at Weymouth to be given the full VIP treatment with a guard of honour.

They were ferried out to HMS Dreadnought where they were piped aboard the ship which had been duly decked with flags and bunting. One problem was that the ship did not have a flag of Abyssinia that they could fly, nor did the ship’s band have the music for the Abyssinian national anthem. They did the next best thing, in their view, by running up the flag of Zanzibar and playing the Zanzibar national anthem. They might have been concerned that the princes would be offended, but in the end their worries were groundless – these “princes” were none the wiser, because they were not from Abyssinia or anywhere remotely close to it.

The Royal Navy, and the stationmaster at Waterloo, had fallen victim to a superbly organized prank, courtesy of William de Vere Cole, who must count as one of the greatest practical jokers Britain has ever produced. It was he who sent the telegram to HMS Dreadnought and he was the man who claimed to be Herbert Cholmondesly of the Foreign Office.

The four princes were nothing of the sort. One of them was actually the novelist Virginia Woolf! The four friends of de Vere Cole were fully made up and costumed by a professional theatre make-up artist – another friend of the joker. They were accompanied on the trip by Woolf’s brother Adrian (as “interpreter”) and de Vere Cole himself.

Once on board HMS Dreadnought the “princes” performed their roles in ways that would have excited the suspicion of anyone who knew anything about life in Abyssinia, but fortunately for them that did not include any of the people they met.

The jokers handed out visiting cards printed in Swahili and spoke in Latin, disguised by what they hoped was a passable East African accent. The only non-Latin expression they uttered was “bunga-bunga!”, which was their appreciation when shown anything of interest.

As they were shown around they bestowed Abyssinian military honours on the senior officers. At sunset they requested prayer mats. However, they refused all offers of refreshment, this being done just in case any of their false lips fell off while eating or drinking.

There were two occasions on which the hoax might have backfired. The first was when half of one of the princes’ moustaches flew off when he sneezed – he was able to recover it and stick it back on before anyone noticed.

The second was when the group was introduced to an officer who was not only related to Virginia Woolf but was also well acquainted with William de Vere Cole, who was not in disguise. Either the officer really did not recognize them or he realized that the arch-joker was up to his tricks again, and spilling the beans would cause far too much embarrassment all round.

After photographs were taken (see above), the visitors returned to shore and thence to London, presumably laughing all the way.

There must have been red faces at the Admiralty when the story emerged that all it took for the pride of the Royal Navy to be boarded by perfect strangers was a fake telegram and a brilliant piece of theatrical make-up. Fortunately, military security has been improved in the century since this trick was pulled off with such great success!
© John Welford

Friday, 16 March 2018

Don't blame the Lynches for Deep South lynchings

One of the ugliest aspects of an ugly time in American history was the upsurge in violence by whites against blacks in the Southern States during the late and 19th and early 20th centuries. A particularly unpleasant custom was lynching – a black victim would be accused of an offence, dragged from their home by group of white men, tried by a kangaroo court and executed in public, usually by hanging. Records show that more than 2,800 deaths could be attributed to the activities of lynch mobs between 1880 and 1930.

The custom of mob violence leading to summary execution has by no means been limited to the Deep South or the era of “white supremacy”, and the terms lynch mob and lynching can be applied far more widely than to that context. But where does the word “lynch” come from?

There seems no doubt that it derives from a person’s name but which Lynch can take the credit, if that is the right word to use? On the one hand is Charles Lynch, a Virginia planter (born in 1736, died in 1796) who was a revolutionary during the War of Independence who punished suspected loyalists in his own irregular court, thus dispensing “Lynch law”.

However, there was an unrelated Lynch, Captain William Lynch (1742-1820), who claimed that he was the originator of the term.

William Lynch came from Pittsylvania County, Virginia. In 1780 he made a formal agreement with a group of his neighbours to deal with local troublemakers by taking the law into their own hands and inflicting whatever punishment they saw fit on any miscreants that they captured, although they did not go as far as actually executing anyone – a severe thrashing was as far as they went in terms of chastisement.

It does seem strange that two Virginians named Lynch, who were probably unknown to each other, were doing something similar at roughly the same time that could easily have led to a new word entering the language. It sounds like a remarkable coincidence, but could this be an example of a double attribution – Lynch law and Lynch mob deriving from different Lynches?

Whatever one might think of the rightness or otherwise of their actions, they cannot be blamed for the utterly despicable deeds carried out more than a century later to which their name was attached.
© John Welford

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Berwick-upon-Tweed's peaceful war with Russia

Berwick-upon-Tweed is England’s most northerly town, although that has not always been the case because it has changed hands between England and Scotland no less than 13 times in its history. Having said that, it has been part of England ever since 1482 so that argument would appear to be over.

Even so, the town’s status is odd in several respects. For one thing it lies on the northern – Scottish - side of the River Tweed. For another, the former county of Berwickshire was in Scotland, and Berwick Rangers Football Club plays in the Scottish League, not the English one.

Stranger still is the fact that for 110 years Berwick-upon-Tweed was (it is said) at war with Russia when this did not apply to either England or Scotland! How so?

As mentioned above, the status of the town was in dispute for much of the medieval period, which made it necessary to quote the name of the town specifically in all state documents. This tradition continued for hundreds of years after the final settlement of Berwick’s status in 1482.

The story goes that Britain’s declaration of war on Russia in 1853 (the Crimean War) was signed by Queen Victoria as “Queen of Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all British Dominions”. However, the Treaty of Paris in 1856, which ended the war, did not mention Berwick-upon-Tweed. That meant that Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions were no longer at war with Russia, but Berwick-upon-Tweed still was!

The “Hundred Years War” between Berwick and Russia turned out to be a remarkably peaceful affair, with no shots fired and no residents of the town being seized as potential spies should they have ventured to Moscow or St Petersburg.

The anomaly was eventually sorted out in 1966 when a Soviet official made a goodwill visit to Berwick to declare peace and the mayor of the town replied: “Please tell the Russian people that they can now sleep peacefully in their beds”.

But is the basis of this story what it appears to be? A later investigation showed that, although the 1856 peace treaty did not mention Berwick-upon-Tweed, neither did the original declaration of war. It simply did not need to. Not only was Berwick firmly part of Great Britain, along with England and Scotland, but an Act of 1746 had already made it clear that English law applied to Berwick-upon-Tweed and thus legal documents (including declarations of war) that applied to England would apply equally to Berwick.

On the other hand, it made a good story and people believed it for a very long time!
© john Welford