Living Close to Greatness

History records great deeds. Usually, it is the famous personalities whose actions are written about to the detriment of others who were also involved. One of the reasons for this blog is to attempt to redress that and to record the great feats of the lesser players on history’s field… players who have shown greatness which has often been subsumed by the broader story and the bigger characters.

This blog is full of great or significant acts by the bit players of history. But what is greatness and how do we define historic significance.

My neighbour, Conor, whose house is just a few doors from my own, would enjoy getting his teeth into that question. Conor and I have a lot in common… both with journalism backgrounds, both with children of very similar age, both with a love of books and writing.

It was Conor who encouraged me to join a local writing group. I’ve since left it, but when we were there we critiqued each other’s work. His writing was dense and complex, full of allusion and nods to the research and study he undertook. Mine was much more slight and pacier. Our styles were very different. Nonetheless we helped each other hone our skills.

He has encouraged others, too, through his love of football…coaching young players in his spare time when he wasn’t trying to earn a living.

I’ve watched Conor change bit by bit over the years… his slightly crumpled look got that bit more crumpled, the stubble grew a little longer and a little greyer and there was a tiredness that hung about him. Journalism work was drying up and he was struggling to make ends meet.

Despite the hard times, though, he still retained his soft spoken ways and gentle manner. When times got really tough, he left his wife and children and went to Saudi Arabia to work as an English teacher so that he could send money home to the family that he worshiped.

I know that he worshiped them because he told me so on several occasions over pints in our local pub. His voice would take on an almost reverential tone as he spoke about the various qualities of his children. He was like every doting dad in that respect, I suppose – myself included – but it was nice to hear.

You might wonder what all this has to do with great deeds and history. Well, great deeds come in many forms, and the fact was that Conor absolutely detested Saudi Arabia. He hated the way women were treated there, hated the religious police, hated how less well-paid workers (particularly Filipinos) were treated by their bosses.

And yet, he went there for several years, far away from the family that he loved, in order to help pay for all that his children needed. There’s greatness in such sacrifice. Conor showed his greatness by doing that and by still managing to retain his gentle nature and warmth.

Conor died yesterday. He had a brain hemorrhage while his wife and children were out at school. He was lying in his house alone while I was a few feet away playing with my little girl on the path outside. He leaves behind a wife and three children (aged 13, nine and seven). In fact, it’s his little boy’s birthday next week.

Conor was a great guy, who did great things – he wrote stories, poems, very heavy science articles (see, he was a football coach, a photographer, a husband and a father. He was my neighbour, my friend… and he deserves his place in history.

Conor Caffrey, I salute you.

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The Two Elizas – The Irish Courtesans who set the World Alight

Lola Montez

Lola Montez

Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl… so far, so true (and with thanks to Barry Manilow), but this particular Lola  also happened to be one of Europe’s most beautiful and talked-about women, who married several times and who was linked to some of the most prominent men in Europe.

Lola Montez… the name is redolent of exotic allure, and she certainly didn’t disappoint. Lola’s reputation for being a beautiful and temperamental seductress who could wrap men around her finger was well deserved, but what wasn’t so well known at the time was that she was actually Irish.

Eliza Rosanna Gilbert was born in Grange, Co Sligo, in 1821 (or 1818, depending on which articles you read) to Elizabeth Oliver, daughter of the former High Sheriff of Cork, and Edward Gilbert, an army officer, who took his family off to a posting in India soon after the birth.

Shortly after their arrival, Eliza’s father died of cholera. Elizabeth remarried the following year, and sent Eliza back to England to be raised by her husband’s relatives.

Young Eliza had an independent streak, a trait she showed in 1837, when she eloped with a Lieutenant Thomas James. After five years together, they separated and she became a professional dancer. In June of 1843, Eliza appeared on a London stage as “Lola Montez, the Spanish dancer”.

Unfortunately for her, she was recognised and it soon became the talk of London that the sexy dancer called Lola was none other than Mrs. James, the wife of a British officer.

It all became too much and Lola headed to Paris where she worked as a dancer, enjoying the attention of a string of lovers, including composer Franz Liszt and author Alexandre Dumas. France got a little too hot, however, following the death of one of her lovers in a duel.

The stories of Lola’s cavorting are legion – she is said to danced her way around the globe, to have privately ‘entertained’ the Tsar of Russia and been paid one thousand roubles for her efforts. She is also said to have refused a fortune to be the mistress of the Viceroy of Poland and was even implicated in the alleged murder of a man on a riverboat in Fiji.

King Ludwig I of Bavaria

King Ludwig I of Bavaria

By 1846, Lola was in Munich and it is at this point that her career as a courtesan really took off when she caught the eye of Ludwig I of Bavaria. The story goes that Ludwig rather crudely asked her in public whether her bosom was real. Lola quashed any doubts by tearing open her dress to prove that it was.

From that point on Ludwig was hooked… so much so that he gave her a palace, lots of money from the public purse and made her Countess of Landsfeld in 1847.

Lola wasn’t slow in making her influence felt.

Europe at this time was fizzling with revolution. Rebellions would take place in Ireland, France and Belgium in that year and political intrigue was rife throughout the continent. Bavaria was in the thick of it.

For more than a year, she exercised great political power, encouraging support for liberalism at the expense of arch conservatives. In fact, her influence became so great that the conservative administration of Karl von Abel was dismissed because Von Abel objected to her being made a Countess.

Bavaria’s university students were divided in their sympathies, and conflicts arose, leading Ludwig, at Lola’s instigation, to close the university, which in turn led to further unrest as traders came out in support of the students.

In March 1848, under pressure from a growing revolutionary movement, the university was re-opened and Ludwig abdicated. Montez fled to London later that year where she met married George Trafford Heald, a young and wealthy cavalry officer.

However, the terms of her divorce from Thomas James did not permit remarriage while either party was living, and Lola and her new husband had to flee to France, and later Spain, to escape a bigamy action. This marriage didn’t last either. In 1851, Lola set off to make a new start in America.

For over a year she performed as a dancer and actress in the eastern United States, one of her offerings being a play called Lola Montez in Bavaria. In 1853, she moved to San Francisco, marrying journalist Patrick Hull in July.

That marriage failed, too. Nearly two years later Montez departed for a tour of the Australian gold fields. Here she performed her risque Spider Dance, in which she would find spiders in her clothing, peeling layer after layer off until she was naked. The routine caused outrage and rapture in equal measure.

Any hopes she had of bagging herself a rich miner came to nothing, though. All that Lola managed to get was a bad review from The Ballarat Times. After reading it, she attacked the paper’s editor with a whip – something which she was quite fond of doing, apparently.

Lola was thoroughly fed up with Australia and departed for America in 1856. Back in the States, she lectured and wrote several books on beauty and deportment. Though achieving a modicum of success, she was never again to enjoy the fame and influence of her days as Ludwig’s mistress. She contracted pneumonia and died penniless in Brooklyn in 1861.

It had been a whirlwind life for Sligo-born Eliza Gilbert aka Lola Montez, the woman whose dance routines and sex appeal had set stages alight around the world. However, she wasn’t the only Irish Eliza setting influential hearts aflutter.

Eliza Lynch

Eliza Lynch

There was another Eliza, a contemporary of Gilbert’s, who would achieve equal notoriety in South America and go down in history as the ‘Queen of Paraguay’.

Born in Charleville,Co Cork, Eliza Alicia Lynch left Ireland aged seven and moved to Paris. Ten years later she was married to a French army officer, who was posted to Algeria.

That didn’t last long and soon young Eliza Lynch was back in France, having left her husband. Eliza wangled her way into the salon of Princess Mathilde Bonaparte. it is suggested that she was a courtesan to wealthy men during this period.

Francisco Solano Lopez

Francisco Solano Lopez

In 1854, though, she managed to catch the eye of General Francisco Solano Lopez, heir apparent to the Paraguyan presidency and one of the richest men in South America.

Lopez loved her, and brought Eliza back with him to his homeland that same year.

The pair never wed, despite Eliza’s own marriage having being annulled. Nevertheless, she did bear him six children.

Francisco succeeded his father as president in 1862, with Eliza becoming de facto first lady. She would spend the next 15 years as the most powerful woman in the country, leading the way in the fashion, arts and culture scenes.

Things changed, though, when Lopez embroiled his country in the vicious War of Triple Alliamce, in which Paraguay was pitted against the combined forces of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay.

The war was a brutal affair in which up to 90pc of Paraguay’s men would die and almost 50pc of its women.

Eliza accompanied López during the entire war and was present when he and their eldest son were killed in Cerro Cora on March 1, 1870. She buried them both with her bare hands before being taken as prisoner.

Madam Lynch, as she was known, fled to Europe with her children, dying in obscurity in Paris on July 27, 1886. In Paraguay, she is celebrated for her courage and loyalty through that bitter war period.

Over a hundred years after her death, Eliza’s body was exhumed and re-interred in Paraguay’s national cemetery. However, it is only in recent times that the life of this extraordinary woman has been brought to light in the country of her birth.

Two extraordinary Irish women… two Elizas… contemporaries who made places for themselves on the world stage at a time when females were meant to be seen and not heard. Rare women, indeed, and ones worth celebrating.

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The Price of Freedom

What price freedom? Some people could answer that better than others. When it comes to Irish freedom that price was paid in 1916 in the stonebreakers’ yard of Kilmainham Gaol, where the leaders of the insurrection were executed. It was also paid throughout the War of Independence and the subsequent civil war. They were times that defined a nation.

My grandfather fought in those times… killed people for a cause and suffered for it, too. I have often thought of how he was tortured by the Black and Tans and of the day he threw a hand grenade into a British armoured truck. I have thought, too, of the firing squad he was part of and the man that he killed. They were bloody times… times that must have left their mark on his psyche in the years that followed.

My grandfather was just one ordinary man who did some extraordinary things in the name of freedom. There were plenty more like him – and there were those who continued to pay the price for their actions long after the last bullet had been fired.

George Lennon (left) seen here with a former IRA comrade, Roger  McCorley

George Lennon (left) seen here with a former IRA comrade, Roger McCorley

George Lennon was one such man. His war of freedom began at the ripe age of 16 when he helped hold up a military train on Easter Monday, 1916. He served a jail term for robbing a British soldier of his rifle, and another term – three months in solitary confinement – led to him being hospitalised suffering from consumption. He came out of prison in a state of physical breakdown.

But George was tough. He recuperated over that summer and was soon back in the fight. By the time he was 20, George Lennon was commanding his own Flying Column – a guerrilla active service unit – in Waterford.

Those were heady times for a young man… dangerous ones, too.  George spent his days seizing weapons and holding up troop trains. His role as a commander meant he also made life and death decisions – decisions that would have a profound impact on him in the years ahead.  One of those decisions involved the capture of a member of the Royal Irish Constabulary during an ambush at The Burgery, outside Dungarvan.

The RIC man – Sergeant Michael Hickey – was a childhood acquaintance of George’s. But there is little room for sentiment in war, and George ordered that Hickey be executed.

Hickey was Catholic and Irish, but that wouldn’t save him. The fact was that he could identify several of the attackers and they couldn’t risk letting him go. Before he was shot, Sergeant Hickey pleaded for his life, as George recalled in his memoir, Trauma in Time.

“I knew you as a child,” the policeman said. “… You are the only person in the world that can save me.”

“I would give anything in the world to save you,” Lennon replied. “But I cannot.”

As George Lennon later recalled, the two men exchanged a “glance of understanding.”

Hickey, who had turned 36 the day before and was soon to wed, squared his shoulders. Lennon blindfolded the RIC man and ordered the executioners to fire. Shots rang out. Hickey slumped to the ground, dead.

Lennon walked over to his body and fired one shot into Hickey’s head, before having a tag placed on his body that said “Police Spy.”

It was a brutal act, but war breeds brutality.

Members of Dungarvan RIC

Members of Dungarvan RIC

The blood-letting wouldn’t end there. Crown forces later attacked George’s IRA party, killing two Volunteers and losing one of their own in the process.  Shortly after this George and other IRA members were ambushed by soldiers from the Devon Regiment. He received several blows to the head from rifle butts and, though initially captured, he somehow managed to escape, reaching a farmhouse in “a dazed and shaken condition” as he later wrote. It “shook me badly and my health began to decline”.

By 1921, at the age of 20, George had already lived a life – and he had the physical and mental scars to prove it.  His health would suffer even further in the years to come.

When the treaty ending the War of Independence was signed it lead to civil war. George fought with the anti-treaty side. Between March and August 1922, he led three hundred IRA men in the occupation of Waterford city. During this time he was so sick he had to be confined to bed for two weeks.

Free State soldiers bombarded the city defences with artillery fire, eventually forcing George and his men to retreat. At this point he suffered a complete breakdown and had to resign from the army.

It was only after the war that the full effects of George’s traumatic experiences became clear. There followed a series of jobs and a sad but predictable pattern. In 1923, he secured a temporary job as a County Council clerk.  A year later, his mother died, which only added to what George’s doctor described as his ‘debility and progressive neurasthenia’ (post-traumatic stress in today’s language).

Not only did George have to contend with his mental frailty, he also had to look after his three younger siblings, all of whom eventually emigrated to America. He joined them there in 1927.

The following year found him promoted to a “responsible position” in Prudential Insurance, in Newark, New Jersey. Almost at once he had a nervous breakdown, leading him to give up the post. He refused further offers of promotion for fear of how he might react.

In 1928, George had another breakdown, on top of which he suffered insomnia and gastric problems. These led to him taking a three-week stay in the New England Rest Haven.

He left Prudential at the end of that year and took an ‘easier job’ in January, 1929 as night auditor in a large hotel. He was working well until a promotion resulted in him having another breakdown. “Lack of concentration, memory lapses and an intense desire to escape” were how he described his symptoms. George took time off in health resorts and was treated by various doctors between 1930 and 1931. By 1935, he was chief cashier at the hotel. His doctor advised three months leave of absence due to his frail state.

Sick “from intense nervous irritation and exhaustion”, he resigned from the job and returned to Ireland where he was treated for neurasthenia and tuberculosis. Despite his ailments, he did find time for love and, in 1939, George Lennon married May Sibbald.

He clearly had ability, despite his sickness, and in 1940 he headed the Topographical Survey of Ireland. In 1943, May gave birth to their son Ivan. The same year, George was appointed Acting Secretary to the National Planning Conference. Unfortunately, this triggered another bout of anxiety.

In early 1946, he returned to the US, followed soon after by a reluctant May and Ivan.  George got work in the Lexington hotel but was fired in 1948 for union activities. He then worked as a machine operator but left that position after a few months and took a janitor job with the Kodak Company.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he wrote a play (Down by The Glen Side) and his memoir, Trauma in Time, but the trauma of those early years stayed with him. So painful were the memories that George sometimes resorted to drink to alleviate them. He did find peace eventually when he adopted Zen Buddhism and became one of the founders of the Rochester Zen Center.

There’s no doubt that George Lennon walked a hard road… a road that would eventually leave him feeling disillusioned with the whole journey. He would later recall his freedom-fighting days as a “tuppence ha’penny revolution’. One that was best consigned to the “dustbin of history”.

Thankfully, he is beginning to get some recognition for his important role in Ireland’s past, with the publication of Rebel Heart: George Lennon Flying Column Commander, by Terence O’Reilly and with Ulster to the Deise: Lennons in Time, by his son, Ivan. There has even been a TV documentary chronicling George’s role in the War of Independence.

It has all come late in the day but, hopefully, other historians will also acknowledge his service to the country.

This post isn’t just about one of our forgotten heroes, it’s about the cost of war – and about all those other George Lennon’s out there who lived fractured lives once the dust had settled… men who, along with their families, paid the toll, day in, day out.

Rebel HeartI never knew my grandfather, but I’ve thought of him and I’ve wondered how I would have fared had I been in his shoes. I’ve wondered how he coped in the aftermath of war and whether he was haunted by his actions.

What price freedom?  Philosophers, historians and academics could give all sorts of nuanced answers to that question, but I think the best answer – the most real – would come from those who actually fought for it in the first place.

  George Lennon died in 1991. His wife, May, passed away eight years earlier. Their son, Ivan, lives in New York.

 To read more about George…

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Childhood – the forgotten casualty of war

I’d like to welcome Ian Skillcorn, a publisher of women’s and historical fiction, to History With A Twist. Ian’s fiction imprint Corazon Books has already notched up a Top 10 bestseller on Amazon and a #1 in the Women Writers and Fiction category. Ian is re-publishing a novel by author Diana Raymond, which is set in 1930s’ England.     
Diana was born during the First World War, and lost her father to the fighting a year later. 

Here, Ian shows how that tragic event impacted on her life. We hear so much about the casualties of war and precious little about the widows and children who must cope with those losses. Ian’s article redresses that imbalance and highlights the achievements of a fascinating woman…

We are all familiar with the images of destruction on the battlefields during the Great War, but the fighting also had a devastating effect on the youngest lives on the home front. Over half a million children in the UK lost their fathers during the First World War.

The financial and psychological impact on them was profound. For many, it marked the end of childhood. They were required to take on adult roles, to leave school early and start working; young boys suddenly found themselves the ‘man of the house’.

Author Diana Raymond

Author Diana Raymond

Some children, born during or just after the war, were never to know their fathers; the author Diana Raymond was one of those children. She was born one year before her father, William Thomas Young, was killed at the age of thirty six, in the preliminary bombardment to The Third Battle of Ypres (or The Battle of Passchendaele). This loss affected both the course of her life, and her writing career.

In the immediate post-war years, newspapers published frequent appeals for help for the children of those who had made ‘the supreme sacrifice’. Orphan Schools, Orphanages and Funds beseeched the public to support and educate the fatherless children of the fallen. One such charity was the

Officers’ Families Fund, established by the Marchioness of Lansdowne. It was thanks to this fund that Diana benefited from an education at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. The college was both a boarding school and a day school. Diana went as a ‘Day Girl’ and said that one of the greatest skills she learned there was working on her own.

On leaving, like many young women of the era, she learned shorthand and typing. During her lunch-hours she would sit in an ABC café, writing her first novel in notebooks.

While financial hardship could be addressed by aid from charitable bodies, the psychological effect of losing a father in conflict was life-long. Diana recounted that during her childhood, so many children had lost a father that ‘one looked on families with fathers in a kind of puzzled surprise’.

She and her mother did not talk much about her father, and this was a background which Diana later gave to a character in her fiction.

Diana suggested that spending a great deal of her childhood alone was probably responsible for her being a somewhat private person; perhaps finding it easier to write than talk, although she liked to think she could listen. In fact, in a recent interview, her daughter-in-law Margaret said that Diana was ‘a wonderful listener’.

By the time Diana visited her father’s grave for the first time, she was a grown woman. Her husband, the acclaimed novelist Ernest Raymond, traced it to the Brandhoek Military Cemetery in Belgium.

Previously, Diana had never attached particular importance to graves, viewing them as no more than ‘stone-silent’, but the visit to her father’s final resting place moved her deeply, and she felt that the trip brought her closer to the man she had never known.

Ernest Raymond lived through, and survived, the Great War, during which he was a padre.

In contrast to Diana’s childhood, their son Peter was able to talk to his father about the war, particularly about Ernest’s experiences in Gallipoli.

Ultimately, it was a shared love of the poet Keats which bridged time to connect Diana to her father.

Before enlisting, William Young had been a Lecturer in English at Goldsmiths College, London University. His last book, published posthumously, was an anthology of Keats. For almost 60 years, Diana lived in Hampstead, and was a frequent visitor to the nearby Keats House.

In the 1940s she wrote a play, John Keats Lived Here, which was performed by the Hampstead Players to mark the bicentenary of Keats birth, in 1995. Although Diana always felt her father’s absence, his introduction to the anthology of Keats served as a comforting presence.

In Diana’s possession throughout her life was a bronze medallion ‒ this was The Memorial Plaque (also known as the ‘Dead Man’s Penny’), which was given to the next-of-kin of servicepeople killed in the First World War. Engraved on the medallion ‘the figure of Britannia stands with arms outstretched, holding a laurel wreath, a lion at her feet’.

Lily's Daughter cover artwork(1)Beneath the wreath are her father’s name and the words ‘He Died for Freedom and Honour’. In later life, Diana reflected that her father would have believed this was what he fought for, but ‘the subsequent years seem to question such certainty’.

Diana Raymond (1916-2009) wrote 24 novels, as well as theatre criticism, poetry and a play about Keats.

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The Tsarevich’s Dog

Crown Prince Alexei with his dog, Joy

Crown Prince Alexei with his dog, Joy (picture from The SIberian TImes)

We all love a good mystery, and if it’s tied to an historic event then even better. From Roswell to JFK, the theorists have had a field day speculating on endless scenarios and supposed cover-ups.

Such momentous mysteries are few and far between, but there was one which over the decades generated as much fodder for conspiracy theorists as the Kennedy assassination or UFOs.  It concerned the fate of Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter to Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra of Russia.

The story begins on July 17, 1918 when the Tsar and Tsarina, their son, the Tsarevich Crown Prince Alexei, his four sisters, and four servants were ruthlessly gunned down and bayoneted by Red Army soldiers in the cellar of Ipatiev House, in Yekaterinburg,  just as opposing White Army forces were closing in.

It was a brutal act that stunned many in a time when brutality was the norm. The youth of the victims – the Tsarevich, Alexei, was just 13 years old – together with the allure of their royal pedigree and the ruthless nature of the executions made for a compelling reading.

Tsar Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and their family

Tsar Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and their family

Gathered together in that cellar, unaware of their fate until the last moment, the royal Romanovs were wiped out in a hail of gunfire. Some died instantly. Others took a little longer. The Empress’s maid, Anna Dermidova, was stabbed trying to defend herself with a cushion stuffed with jewels.

Alexei was shot twice in the head after the killers noticed that he had survived the first bullet.

Grand Duchess Maria is said to have been the last to die, protected as she was by diamonds sewn into her clothing. She cowered against the wall, covering her head in terror before being stabbed with a bayonet.

For years after this brutal event, however, rumours circulated that the youngest daughter, Anastasia, had actually survived the cellar atrocity. Over time, a number of women came forward claiming to be her, each one offering a story as to how she had survived the killings of the rest of the family.

Anna Anderson became the best known. She first appeared publicly between 1920 and 1922, asserting that she had feigned death amongst all the bodies in the cellar, and had managed to flee with the help of a compassionate guard.

Anderson was a stubborn  (or just deluded) woman, and her legal battle for recognition lasted from 1938 up to 1970. It only ended with her being deemed having failed to provide sufficient proof that she was indeed the Grand Duchess.

She died in 1984 and her body was cremated. Ten years later, DNA tests compared a tissue sample from Anderson, located in a hospital, with that of the blood of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, a great-nephew of Empress Alexandra. There was no match.

It had taken over 70 years to finally put the speculation to rest. The experts agreed that there never was a survivor from the Yekaterinburg executions.

But the experts were wrong…a flop-eared spaniel called Joy – the beloved pet of the Tsarevich Alexei – really had been there that day.

Two other dogs present in that cellar weren’t so lucky to escape the revolutionaries’ bullets, but Joy was somehow overlooked. According to The Siberian Times, a week after the royals were murdered, he was found by a soldier in the yard of Ipatiev House.

The malnourished dog was eventually homed with Colonel Pavel Rodzianko, a member of the British Expeditionary Force in Siberia, who took Joy back to England with him.

In his book Tattered Banners, Rodzianko wrote: ‘With heavy hearts we sailed away from Vladivostok. Joy, the little ill-named spaniel who had seen his master murdered, that fateful night, traveled with me. I have never seen Russia again.’

Joy lived out his days in a house on Clewer Hill Road in Windsor, in a happy, safe environment.

It was all a far cry from the horrors of those final moments in Yekaterinburg when he saw the Russian royal family shot and bayoneted before his eyes.

The little dog was eventually buried close to Windsor Castle, home to the Duke of Edinburgh – great-cousin to Joy’s beloved master, the murdered Tsarevich.

Whenever you hear of the Russian royals, remember Joy – the Crown Prince’s dog who survived a massacre… and lived to bark another day.

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Trench warfare, but not as we know it…

War may come and go, but its aftermath can linger for a lifetime – or more, to judge by a recent newspaper article.

According to reports, a fungus that was found growing in the grounds of the former Craiglockhart War Hospital (which is now part of Edinburgh Napier University, in Scotland) is thought to have been brought there on the boots of First World War soldiers, who were being treated for shell shock.

Ecologist Abbie Patterson found the fungus, Clavulinopsis cinereoide (which is common in mainland Europe but rare to that part of Britain), on a lawn at the university while carrying out a biodiversity audit of the campus. When looking at old photographs taken during World War One, he noticed that soldiers and nurses were standing in the exact spot where the fungus was found.

That little nugget of information got me thinking of what other ‘souvenirs’ World War 1 soldiers might have brought back from the trenches. The list makes for quite depressing reading…

A flooded trench during World War One

A flooded trench during World War One

One of the most common and debilitating conditions suffered by soldiers was that of ‘Trench Foot’. Due to poorly constructed trench systems (particularly in the early phase of the war), British troops were required to spend long hours in the cold with their feet submerged in mud and water.

Such conditions led to soldiers’ feet becoming waterlogged. Circulation was restricted and feet became extremely painful, causing them to swell and blister. Nerves were damaged and numbness set in. Over time, skin became infected with fungus. If the feet were not dried and circulation re-established, gangrene would set in.

On the Western Front alone in the first winter of 1914/15 over 20,000 men suffered from the condition.

feet inspectionMeasures were taken to halt the occurrence – feet were regularly inspected (see picture) and fresh socks issued so they could be changed several times a day.

The troops operated a buddy system whereby they would rub whale oil into each other’s feet to stimulate circulation and waterproof the skin. Better trench drainage and the issuing of gum-boots also alleviated the problem.

A severe case of 'Trench Foot'

A severe case of ‘Trench Foot’

Nevertheless, by the war’s end 74,000 British servicemen fell victim to ‘Trench Foot’. That figure is, no doubt, an underestimation as neglect of the feet was a chargeable offence in many units, thus suggesting that other cases went unrecorded.

As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, body lice – or chats as the soldiers called them – also presented a terrible problem.  The lice nestled in the crevices of uniforms and would only emerge to feed.

Soldiers scratched lice bites, forcing the infected faeces of the louse into the lesions caused by the bites… and that’s when the problems really began.

A soldier might not show any sign of infection for up to a month, at which point he would suffer severe headaches and debilitating muscle pains. This ‘Trench Fever’ could last for five days before subsiding, but could then reoccur at a later date.

The condition commonly led to depression. Up to 80pc of sufferers remained unfit for duty for up to three months.

To counter the lice, men would run a flame along the seams of their uniforms in a bid to kill their unwelcome guests.

Disinfecting baths were also set up in the rear lines where men could take a quick wash while their uniforms were de-loused, but the lice always returned.

An incredible 800,000 cases of ‘Trench Fever’ were recorded in the British Army alone during the war. Its effect on the other armies in the theatre must have been equally devastating.

Acute Necrotizing Ulcerative Gingivitis or ‘Trench Mouth’ was another common ailment. Poor hygiene, stress bad diet and heavy smoking caused a huge increase in oral bacteria, which would attack the gums, causing bleeding, ulceration and – probably the least of a soldier’s worries – bad breath.

Pain was such that eating, swallowing and talking were difficult. Often, painful swellings in the glands in the throat and neck occurred.

The only cure was a return to a decent diet, plenty of rest and good hygiene – in short, all the things unavailable to a front-line soldier.

When we think of war our minds, inevitably, turn to its noisy carnage – the thunderous explosions, the rattle of machine guns and the screams of wounded men.

However, we should also bear in mind the silent, hidden enemies – the ones that never ceased in their attacks and which, in their own way, caused as much havoc as the hot lead and cold steel of the battlefield.

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Hitler’s Female Accomplices

When one thinks of the Nazi killing machine one tends to imagine armies of jackbooted soldiers marching inexorably from one torched and plundered village to the next, herding people together for transportation to the camps or, perhaps, to be hastily murdered in freshly dug pits.

There was another section of Nazi society just as culpable, though to this day they have somehow evaded the cold scrutiny that their actions deserve. To put it mildly, the women of the Third Reich have a lot to answer for.

naziposter Thirteen million of them were actively engaged in work for the Nazi party. Half a million of them went eastwards, to Poland and the Ukraine, in the wake of the German advance and they went in many guises

They were secretaries who typed orders to kill, nurses who euthanised patients or aborted unborn children with ‘defects’. They were wives and mothers, willing to ensure the Nazi ideal was promulgated to its nth degree, and they were camp guards who tortured and murdered for pleasure.

The novel, The Reader, by Bernhard Schlink explored these issues through the tale of one young man’s infatuation with a former Nazi camp guard.  It presented us with a simple woman who helped to do monstrous things. It showed us evil in its most ordinary form and asked ‘why’.

A fascinating book by Professor Wendy Lower, called Hitler’s Furies: German Women In The Nazi Killing Fields, explores the very same subject to devastating effect. Lower cites case after case of how members of the fair sex were just as depraved as some of their male companions. The evil that they did was hideous.

The few ever called to account were notorious concentration camp guards —such as Irma Grese and Ilse Koch. Now, though, others are being probed by German prosecutors for their wartime roles.

A little old lady by the name of Gertru Elli Schmid (now 92) is one such suspect.  She was once an SS guard at Majdanek where an estimated 235,000 people were murdered during the war. After service there she was sent to Auschwitz, where over a million people were exterminated.

Another woman, Charlotte S. (now 94), was a guard at Ravensbrueck concentration camp, where she was remembered for beating prisoners and using her Alsatian dog to attack them.

Such women are the exception in that they may well be punished for their ancient crimes.  Most of the following, though, got away with murder.

Pauline Kneissler worked at Grafeneck Castle, a euthanasia ‘hospital’ in southern Germany, and toured mental institutions selecting 70 ‘patients’ a day to be gassed.

Lisolotte Meirer

Lisolotte Meirer

Liselotte Meier, an administrator in Belarus, would accompany her SS officer boss on shooting parties to hunt and kill Jews for ‘fun’. She also coordinated arrangements for massacres and decided who lived or died.

Erna Petri followed her husband to Poland where she lived in a mansion and managed a huge slave estate for the SS . On one occasion she found six starving children who had somehow managed to escape. She took them home gave them something warm to drink then led them out to the garden where she shot all six in the head.

Lisel Willhaus, the wife of an SS camp commandant, used to sit on the balcony of their house and take pot shots at Jewish prisoners with her rifle.

Johanner Altvater

Johanner Altvater

Johanna Altvater worked in the Ukraine as a secretary for a regional Nazi leader.  During the liquidation of a Jewish ghetto, Fräulein Hanna as she was known marched through the children’s ward of a makeshift hospital. She stopped, picked a child up, took it to the balcony and threw the child to the pavement three floors below. She did the same with other children.

Altvater is said to have often lured children with sweets, shooting them in the mouth when they opened wide to receive their treat. On another occasion she grabbed a child by the ankles and swung her through the air, smashing her head against a wall before depositing her lifeless form at the feet of her horrified father.

There are many more examples of crimes by these and other vile women, but I can’t write them anymore. Apart from Petri, who served over 30 years in prison, all the others escaped punishment.

Of course, not all women of the time were so evil, but they were far from being simple pawns either. They bought into the Nazi ideal wholeheartedly and were placed on a pedestal by its ringleaders.

Simply put, a woman’s role in Nazi Germany was considered sacred – they were the breeding ground for the master race. Special pre-marriage courses were even set up to ensure they became the perfect partner for SS soldiers.

Gertrud Scholtz-Klink

Gertrud Scholtz-Klink

The six-week training programme was run by Gertrud Scholtz-Klink, chief of the Nazi bride schools. The courses, which were run under the close supervision of SS chief Heinrich Himmler, ensured women learned how to become ‘good wives’, but they would also ‘acquire special knowledge of race and genetics’, according to a bridal rulebook of the time.

Females with Jewish or gypsy blood, mental illness or physcial deformity were barred from attending the schools.

Thirteen million women provided idealogical and practical support to one of the world’s most evil social programmes. Not all of them were innocent bystanders to what took place.

Hitler's FuriesYet, when Hitler’s forces were finally defeated, these same women returned to their lives and never really had to deal with the consequences of their actions. Lower’s book is important because it addresses this oversight and finally calls them to account.

Hitler’s Furies, by Wendy Lower

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