Archive for History

Spring Equinox in the Ancient Irish Calendar | 20 March 2019

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 20, 2019 by telescoper

I’m sharing this interesting post with a quick reminder that the Vernal Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere occurs today, 20th March 2019, at 21:58 GMT.

Stair na hÉireann/History of Ireland

Equinox is the date (or moment) some astronomical alignments in Ireland mark as being auspicious. Not many, mind you, but some, like the cairn on Loughcrew or the two passages of Knowth, a sort of super-alignment with quadruple significance. Though the actual alignment of Knowth is disputed, it might be a lunar alignment or not an alignment at all.
The equinox is far less obvious an astronomical event than the two solstices, celebrated in Ireland and also the subject of astronomical alignments. It is like the equinox, which occurs in-between the winter solstice and the summer solstice, and vice versa, twice a year. However, it is just one event, as the spring and autumn equinox happens at different dates, but are for all intents and purposes identical events.
Taking place around 20th March and 22nd September, the equinox is the moment when the plane of the Earth’s equator passes…

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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.

Three Lions

Posted in Football, History with tags , , , , , , on July 11, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve been struggling and failing to put together lots of bits for a grant application today; the deadline is tomorrow at 4pm so it looks like I’ll be working late tonight (either side of the England-Croatia World Cup semi-final). Anyway, having a short break for a cup of tea I decided to put up a short post about the `Three Lions’ symbol used by the England football team and its supporters.

You can study the evolution of this symbol in detail here is based on a design originally brought to England by Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou (in France), grant patriarch of the Angevin dynasty and father of Henry Plantagenet (who became Henry II of England). Geoffrey of Anjou’s emblem had six lions rather than three, and his son used designs with either one or two, but King Richard I and King John occasionally used versions with three lions and by the time of Henry III (who lived from 1216 to 1272) the Three Lions appeared on the Royal Coat of Arms pretty much as they are now:

En passant, in heraldic jargon this coat of arms is described Gules, three lions passant guardant Or. The objects shown in the centre of a coat of arms (i.e. the lions in this case) are called `charges’. `Gules’ is basically `red’ and `Or’ is yellow; `passant’ means `moving towards the viewer’s left’ and `guardant’ means `looking at the viewer’ – a lion passant would have its head facing the direction of motion.

Anyway, my point is that this symbol which is now taken to represent England was actually of Angevin origin and is really a French emblem. I don’t know for sure but I don’t think any of the Angevin or Plantagenet Kings mentioned above could even speak English…

An O-Level History Examination from 1979

Posted in Biographical, Education, History with tags , , , , on April 18, 2018 by telescoper

I have in the past posted a few examples of the O- and A-level examinations I took when I was at school. These have been mainly science and mathematics papers as those are relevant to the area of higher education in which I work, and I thought they might be of interest to students past and present.

A few people have emailed me recently to ask if I could share any other examinations, so here are the two History papers I took for O-level in June/July 1979. Can that really have been almost 40 years ago?

These were Papers 5 and 12 out of an unknown number of possible papers chosen by schools. My school taught us exclusively about British and European history from the mid-19th to early 20th centuries; you will observe that in both cases `history’ was deemed to have ended in 1914. It’s possible that some of the other papers paid more attention to the wider world.

I have no idea what modern GCSE history examinations look like, but I’d be interested in any comments from people who do about the style and content!

Manchester Hill – “Here we fight, and here we die”

Posted in History with tags , , , , on March 21, 2018 by telescoper

Today is the centenary of the start of a major offensive of the Western Front by the German forces against the British and French armies during the First World War. One particular action that took place on the first day of that offensive took place at a location now known as Manchester Hill, a region of high ground forming a salient overlooking the town of St Quentin, on this day 100 years ago i.e. on 21st March 1918. I read about this some time ago, but thought I would do a brief post about it to mark this grim anniversary.

Lieutenant-Colonel Wilfrith Elstob, Commanding Officer, 16th Battalion Manchester Rifles.

Manchester Hill had been captured by the 2nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment in April 1917 and in March 2018 it was held by the 16th Battalion of the same Regiment under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Wilfrith Elstob, a schoolteacher before the War who had joined the army in 1914 as a private soldier and was promoted through the ranks. His gallantry on that day earned him a posthumous Victoria Cross with the citation:

For most conspicuous bravery, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice during operations at Manchester Redoubt, near St. Quentin, on the 21st March, 1918. During the preliminary bombardment he encouraged his men in the posts in the Redoubt by frequent visits, and when repeated attacks developed controlled the defence at the points threatened, giving personal support with revolver, rifle and bombs. Single-handed he repulsed one bombing assault driving back the enemy and inflicting severe casualties. Later, when ammunition was required, he made several journeys under severe fire in order to replenish the supply. Throughout the day Lieutenant-Colonel Elstob, although twice wounded, showed the most fearless disregard of his own safety, and by his encouragement and noble example inspired his command to the fullest degree. The Manchester Redoubt was surrounded in the first wave of the enemy attack, but by means of the buried cable Lieutenant-Colonel Elstob was able to assure his Brigade Commander that “The Manchester Regiment will defend Manchester Hill to the last.” Sometime after this post was overcome by vastly superior forces, and this very gallant officer was killed in the final assault, having maintained to the end the duty which he had impressed on his men – namely, “Here we fight, and here we die.” He set throughout the highest example of valour, determination, endurance and fine soldierly bearing.

His last action, after the Germans had broken through the last line of defences, was to use the field telephone to call down an artillery barrage onto his own position. His body was never found and he has no known grave.

You can read the stories of other soldiers who fought and died that day here.

Manchester Hill jutted out into the German lines so, although it was heavily fortified, it was very vulnerable and difficult to defend. Enemy troops were in position on three sides of the hill, and in the event of an attack was difficult to prevent it being surrounded, isolated and destroyed. In the days and hours preceding March 21st the troops on Manchester Hill could see the Germans moving into position and knew a major offensive was imminent. Elstob repeatedly asked his superior offices for permission to withdraw, but it was repeatedly refused. When specific intelligence was received that the attack would take place in the morning of 21st March he once more contacted his HQ to request position to withdraw. After having his request refused once more, he returned to his men and made the famous statement “This is our position. He we fight and here we die.”

There was thick fog the following morning, hiding the inevitable German advance which began at 6.30am with an artillery bombardment until it was too late to prevent them encircling the British garrison. By 11.30 the British were completely encircled. Nevertheless the defenders of Manchester Hill fought off repeated attacks and managed to hold their position until late afternoon against an overwhelmingly larger force. Elstob was in the thick of the action throughout, once holding a position alone using his service revolver and hand grenades. By 4pm however, the battle was lost and virtually all the defenders were dead. Of the 168 men (8 officers and 160 other ranks) who participated in the defence of the Manchester Hill redoubt, just 17 survived (two officers and 15 other ranks).

The German advance broke through Allied lines and stormed on, even at one point threatening Paris, but the pace of the advance led to supply difficulties and it eventually stuttered, was stopped and then flung back into a full retreat. Although German forces had been reinforced by troops no longer needed in the East after the Russian Revolution of 1917, American forces had been arriving in huge numbers – 300,000 a month – at the time of the Spring offensive and it this influx of troops across the Atlantic that proved decisive in the end.

We should celebrate the bravery of the defenders of Manchester Hill, especially Lieutenant-Colonel Elstob, but one can’t help asking why he was not given permission to withdraw. It is true that they delayed and disrupted the German advance, but at a terrible cost. It does seem to me that for all the courage and gallantry displayed by Elstob and his men, their sacrifice was unnecessary.

Campaigners warn on Guy Fawkes Bonfire Night Pogonophobia

Posted in Beards with tags , , on November 5, 2016 by telescoper

Remember, remember the…. er…

Kmflett's Blog

Beard Liberation Front

PRESS RELEASE           4th November

Contact Keith Flett     07803 167266



The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers, has warned of Guy Fawkes pogonophobia as bonfires around the country burn effigies of a hirsute man over the weekend.

Pogonophobia is the ancient Greek for an irrational fear or hatred of facial hair, known as beardism in modern English.

The BLF says that November 5th is the traditional highlight of the pogonophobes year as they burn an effigy of what they assume to be a dangerous radical figure with a beard, although few will openly discuss their often deep-seated concerns about beard wearers

BLF Organiser Keith Flett said the irony is that Guy Fawkes was a deeply reactionary character who, had he lived now, would almost certainly not have had a beard under any circumstances

The BLF is calling…

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R.I.P. Asa Briggs (1921-2016)

Posted in History with tags , , on March 16, 2016 by telescoper

Asa Briggs (1921-2016)

The frivolity of yesterday’s post it’s time today for a piece of sad news. Eminent historian and distinguished former Vice Chancellor Asa Briggs (Lord Briggs of Lewes) has passed away at the age of 94.

There will be many others who can comment more meaningfully on his immense contribution to academic research, but it seems to me that Asa Briggs was a rare example of a historian whose work transcended the boundaries of academic research. Even an ignorant astrophysicist like me has read his marvellous Social History of England , for example. He was Vice Chancellor of Sussex University from 1967 until 1976, but when he retired from his post as Provost of Worcester College, Oxford, in 1991, he lived in Lewes which is just a few miles up the road from the Falmer campus so his association with the University remained strong.

Having twice been based at Sussex during my career I was of course familiar with Asa’s name and work but it wasn’t until two years ago that I finally got to meet him, at a Commemoration Dinner in the Royal Pavilion. For some reason I was seated next to him at this event and we talked about a wide range of subjects, including football. He was quite frail at that time, but full of good humour and very friendly. In short he was excellent company and clearly a very nice man.

Rest in Peace Asa Briggs (1921-2016).