Archive for the History Category

Private Arnold Ridley

Posted in History, Television with tags , , , on November 11, 2018 by telescoper

You probably recognize the elderly gentleman in the photograph on the right as Arnold Ridley who played Private Godfrey in the TV comedy series Dad’s Army. You might not have realized that the person on the left is also Arnold Ridley, photographed shortly after he enlisted in the Somerset Light Infantry in 1915. You also may not know that Ridley fought with great courage in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, during which he was very badly injured.

After being ordered to go `over the top’ near Gueudecourt as part of the Somme offensive, many of Ridley’s battalion were killed by machine gun fire as they advanced towards the enemy lines, but Ridley was among those who survived long enough to reach the German trenches.

In the desperate hand-to-hand struggle that ensued as he and the rest of unit fought their way along a trench, Ridley was knocked out by a blow from a rifle butt that turned out to have cracked his skull, and was bayonetted in the groin. His legs were riddled with shrapnel and he received a further bayonet wound to the hand, which left him permanently disabled. Somehow he survived, though for the rest of his life he suffered from blackouts and recurrent nightmares. He was discharged from the army on medical grounds in 1916, at the rank of Lance Corporal.

He never told anyone – not even his family – how he sustained his wartime injuries, and the facts only became known long after his death (in 1984, at the age of 88).


A Suspension of Hostilities

Posted in History, Politics with tags , , , , on November 11, 2018 by telescoper

Among all the images produced during this weekend’s commemorations of the centenary of Armistice Day, this image of Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron struck me as particularly moving.

Part of the reasons is that it reminded me of this photograph, of President Mitterand and Chancellor Kohl, taken in 1984:

Exactly one hundred years after the truce that effectively ended the First World War, these images remind us how much suffering took place before Europe reached a point at which war between France and Germany became unthinkable. That peace now looks increasingly fragile as the forces of nationalism, spurred on by populist demagogues, and funded by greedy disaster capitalists, threaten to tear apart the institutions that have brought Europe together in a spirit of mutual cooperation for so long. All that has been achieved could so easily be lost.

As Fintan O’Toole has written in a long article in this weekend’s Irish Times, the First World War is, in many ways, still being fought. The Second World War was certainly very much a continuation of the First, after a break of just over twenty years, to which the short-sightedness of Western governments in their treatment of Germany was a contributing factor. The end of the First World War saw not only the disintegration of the German Empire (and the abdication of the Kaiser), but also the collapse of Tsarist Russia, and the end of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires to boot. We are still living with the consequences of that upheaval.

All this reminds us – or should remind us – that the word `armistice’ means `a truce’ or `a suspension of hostilities’ rather than a lasting peace, and it is by no means impossible we could be sleepwalking to disaster once more. As President Macron put it in his speech today

Les démons anciens resurgissent : des idéologies nouvelles manipulent des religions, l’Histoire menace de reprendre son cours tragique. Faisons une fois de plus ce serment des Nations de placer la paix plus haut que tout, car nous en connaissons le prix.

Frankly, I fear very much for the future and take solace only in the fact that I am no longer young.

I have found the pomp and ceremony of this year’s official Armistice commemorations very difficult to endure. Perhaps there are some people, including some in high places, who have learned the lessons of history, but it is also clear that there are very many who have not.

Which brings me to the poppy. I have written quite a few pieces on this blog, around the time of Remembrance Sunday, about the wearing of a poppy, the last being in 2016. I have worn a poppy at this time of year for most of my adult life, but I decided last year to stop.

For one thing, there is no pressure to wear a poppy here in Ireland. Indeed, many Irish people see the poppy mainly as a symbol of British militarism and colonial oppression. Even at Friday’s concert to mark the Armistice I saw only a few audience members wearing a poppy, and most of them were the shamrock version commemorating the sacrifice of Irish soldiers during the Great War.

But I don’t think I’ve ever really been that susceptible to peer pressure, so that’s not the main reason for my not wearing a poppy. The main reason is that over the past couple of years the poppy has been appropriated by the likes of racist thug, career criminal and founder-member of the EDL, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (also known as Tommy Robinson):

I simply cannot bring myself to wear the same badge as this creature, nor can I stand the hypocrisy of those politicians who make a show of wearing it while happily encouraging the rise of nationalism. Enough is enough. The message of the poppy is supposed to be `Lest We Forget’. I’m afraid far too many have already forgotten.

On The Alteration Of Time

Posted in History with tags , , , , on October 28, 2018 by telescoper

So here we are again, having put our clocks back an hour. Summer Time is over, but at least I had extra time to do this morning’s crosswords. Or so it seems. It’s really only the clocks that changed, not the time. But then what is time, other than what clocks measure?

Anyway, before I get too philosophical let me mention that I found the marvellous poster above on Twitter. It’s from 1916, when British Summer Time was introduced. I was surprised that the practice of changing clocks backwards and forwards began so recently in the United Kingdom. To be honest I’m also surprised that the practice persists to this day, as I can’t see any real advantage in it.

It would be better in my view to stick with Greenwich Mean Time throughout the year. Any institution or organisation that wants to change its working hours in summer can easily do so, but the world of work is far more flexible nowadays than it was a hundred years ago and I think few would feel the need.

Anyway, while I am on about Mean Time, here is a another poster from 1916.

Until October 1916, clocks in Ireland were set to Dublin Mean Time, as defined at Dunsink Observatory rather than at Greenwich. The adoption of GMT in Ireland was driven largely by the fact that the British authorities found that the time difference between Dublin and London had confused telegraphic communications during the Easter Rising earlier in 1916. Its imposition was therefore, at least in part, intended to bring Ireland under closer control and this did not go down well with Irish nationalists.

Ireland had not moved to Summer Time with Britain in May 1916 because of the Easter Rising. Dublin Mean Time was 25 minutes 21 seconds behind GMT but the change was introduced at the same time as BST ended in the UK, hence the alteration by one hour minus 25 minutes 21 seconds, ie 34 minutes and 39 seconds as in the poster.

Shostakovich – The Leningrad Symphony

Posted in History, Music with tags , , , on October 27, 2018 by telescoper

I don’t know. You wait 50-odd years for the opportunity to hear a live performance of Symphony No. 7 in C by Dmitri Shostakovich, and then two come along within a year. It was last November in Cardiff that I first heard this epic work in concert, and last night I was at the National Concert Hall in Dublin where it was performed by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stanislav Kochanovsky.

The first half of last night’s concert featured two works by Dmitry Kabalevesky (a contemporary of Shostakovich): his overture to the Opera Colas Breugnon and is Cello Concerto No. 1 with soloist Richard Harwood. Both of these were pleasant enough but I (and, I think, most of the rest of the audience) had their minds firmly on the main event to come after the interval.

The Leningrad Symphony is a piece that evokes particular memories for me as I first heard it about thirty years ago on the radio while sitting in a car that was driving through a torrential downpour in the middle of the night from Kansas City to Lawrence in the mid-West of the USA. The repeating theme and snare drum figures in the 1st Movement that represent the remorseless advance of the invading army had even more powerful effect when accompanied by the incessant driving rain. I’ve heard this piece on recordings and live broadcasts on many occasions since then, but had never heard it performed live until last November.

Shostakovich in a fireman’s uniform in Leningrad, 1941

What can I say about this work? Well, not much that hasn’t been said before. It was dedicated to the city of Leningrad where the composer lived, until he was evacuated during the siege, and where he wrote most of the 7th Symphony. He served as a volunteer fireman in Leningrad during the early part of the Second World War (see above), having been turned down for military service owing to his poor eyesight. Leningrad was besieged by German forces for almost 900 days, from September 1941 until January 1944, and it’s impossible not to see the work in this historical context.

Though the four movements have themes – `War’, `Memories’, `My Native Field’ and `Victory’ – this is not really a programmatic piece. It does, however, succeed in invoking the terror and brutality of armed conflict in a manner that is so compelling that it’s almost overpowering. Many symphonies have as a theme some kind of struggle between light and dark, or between good and evil, but it always seemed to me that this work is not so much like that as it is a representation of a struggle simply for survival against annihilation. Even the end of the intense fourth movement, when the music finally resolves into the key of C Major, suggesting a kind of `victory’, echoes of the previous conflict persist, suggesting (to me anyway) that this particular battle does not intend in any kind of triumph but in a sense of grim endurance that is more resignation than resolution. The composer himself, however, explained later in life that the ending represented

..the victory of light over darkness, wisdom over frenzy, lofty humanism over monstrous tyranny.

We could do with a victory of that sort these days.

Musicologists tend not to like this Symphony so much as some of Shostakovich’s others and its reputation dwindled in the West in the post-War period. Maybe it is true that it has defects when thought of as an exercise in composition, but fortunately I am not a professional critic so I am quite content to say that for me, personally, this work has an emotional impact like few others and it is one of my favourites in the whole symphonic repertoire. Last night the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra delivered an impassioned performance that confirmed everything I felt about this work but with the added dimensions that you can only get from a live performance.

At the beginning I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy last night’s performance. I thought it began at an uncomfortably brisk tempo, but once the orchestra had settled down it turned into a magnificent performance. From the immaculately controlled crescendo representing the advancing invaders that erupts into a nightmarish depiction of the ensuing battle right through to the last movement with its ending in resolution tempered in bitterness and regret, this performance had me gripped at least as much as last year’s.

In the first movement, Kochanovsky had the strings playing with a strident, agonized sound that was remarkably affecting . But the highlight of the evening came from the brass section placed in the choir stalls (four French horns, three trombones and three trumpets; you can see their empty desks in the picture I took before the start of the concert). When they stood up and let rip at the climax of the first movement crescendo the effect was absolutely thrilling. Their position high above the stage made it seem they were playing right in your face. When the glorious noise eventually subsided I realized that I had been gripping the armrests of my seat and my knuckles had turned white. I don’t think you can experience music with such intensity unless you hear it live.

At the end there was an immediate outbreak of cheering and a well-deserved standing ovation. I wish I could have stayed longer but I had to leave to catch a train back to Maynooth. (The Leningrad Symphony being rather long, I thought I might have to dash off at the end so I booked an end-row seat.) Let me at least use the opportunity afforded by this blog to congratulate Stanislav Kochanovsky and all the musicians last night for a magnificent performance of an epic masterpiece.

Halloween in LaTeX

Posted in History, mathematics on October 21, 2018 by telescoper

I forget where I found this list of spooky LaTeX commands but, with the dreaded Halloween coming up soon, I thought I’d share it here.

Anyway, it reminded of the mathematical curve known in English as The Witch of Agnesi, the witch of which is a mistranslation of the Italian versiera meaning a ‘sheet’ (ie the rope connecting to a ship’s sail) rather than a shortened version of ‘avversiera’ meaning ‘a female devil’ or ‘witch’.

The Leinster Disaster

Posted in History with tags , , , , on October 10, 2018 by telescoper

The radio news this morning reminded me that  solemn commemorations were taking place today to mark the centenary of the greatest maritime disaster ever to occur in the Irish Sea.


A little before 9am on 10th October, the Leinster serving as the Royal Mail Ship RMS Leinster, set out from Dún Laoghaire (then named Kingstown), which is about 8 miles south of Dublin, en route to Holyhead, with an estimated 771 people on board. About an hour into her journey, a few miles from the Kish Lighthouse, the Leinster was struck by three torpedoes from German submarine UB-123 and sank. At least 500 people lost their lives in this disaster, and some estimates put the death toll as high as 591. It wasn’t particularly cold that day but the Irish Sea was still rough after a storm had passed through. The survivors of the sinking were largely those who made it into lifeboats, but many of the people who had to attempt to cling to floating wreckage could not hold on until help arrived and were drowned.

To complete this horrible illustration of the tragedy of war, nine days later on 19th October 1918, the U-boat UB-123 struck a mine in the North Sea and went down with all hands.

You can read a fuller account of the Leinster disaster here.

Charles Kingsley on the Irish

Posted in Biographical, History, Politics with tags , , , , on September 4, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve been aware since my schooldays that there has been (and still is) a significant tendency among the English (especially their governing classes) to regard the Irish as lawless barbarians, but this quote which I found in a book I’ve been reading really took my breath away. It’s from a letter written by Charles Kingsley to his wife in 1861, while he was travelling through an Ireland still reeling from the devastation of the Great Famine:

But I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don’t believe they are our fault, I believe that there are not only more of them than of old, but that they are happier, better, more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.

This passage is revolting in so many ways that I don’t think it needs any further comment, but it is worth mentioning that Charles Kingsley was, by the standards of his time, regarded as something of a progressive. As well as being a Church of England priest, Professor of History and a novelist (I read The Water-Babieswhen I was a child), he was also a social reformer involved in such initiatives as the working men’s college and labour cooperatives. Clearly his concern for the poor and oppressed didn’t extend much beyond his own people.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention that Charles Kingsley did his undergraduate studies at Magdalene College, Cambridge, as did I (thought not at the same time).