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Somme

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Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Somme, the bloodiest single day in one of the most devastating conflicts in human history. In many ways, it was the event that proved that technology and human nature had come together to irrevocably expand the capacity of man to kill man. It was a battle that proved to the world that war could no longer be imagined as a contest of courage or virtue. It was a machine. A mechanized meat grinder that fed on the flower of a nation’s youth and produced only endless suffering.

For the first time, the capacity of mankind to destroy itself came into horrifying focus.

Yet, somehow, it has largely been forgotten here. Americans weren’t involved in the battle, and our national mythology has been spared a devastating dose of reality like the Somme. It allows America to imagine war as something other than it is. In the American conception, our wars allow us to flex our muscle on the world stage. We like to imagine that when America goes to war our victories are not only decisive but largely uncontested.

That’s why days like today are important. They remind us of what the true cost of war is. So, today we examine the horror of the battle of the Somme and honor those who gave their lives that day.

July 1st 1916, The Somme River Valley, Northern France

It’s 7 AM and Alan Seeger of the first regiment of the French Legion Étranger is preparing for roll call. He is an American, born in New York. An intellectual and hopeless romantic, he was studying in Paris when War was declared in 1914. Seeger, wanting to fight for the country he had fallen in love with, volunteered.

The French Foreign Legion was known for attracting all sorts of men. Since the days of Napoleon, murderers, thieves, failed revolutionaries, and romantics like Seeger were all famously attracted to the Legion as a place where they might find a new beginning. Most found, however, that they could only expect two things. One, that as foreigners, their commanders would be less hesitant to spend their blood than that of the true sons of France, and two, a hard ration of cold bread.

Alan Seegar

Image: Poetry Foundation

Seeger didn’t mind the conditions, and by all accounts, the life of a soldier and the possibility of a glorious death thrilled him. Even as a Legionnaire he continued to write poetry, including his most famous work, I Have A Rendevous With Death:

 

 

 

I have a rendezvous with Death

At some disputed barricade,

When Spring comes back with rustling shade

And apple-blossoms fill the air—

I have a rendezvous with Death When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

One wonders if as Seeger shaved that morning and prepared for battle, he had some sense of how prescient those words would be.

As Seeger presented for roll call, the rolling artillery barrage that had been going on for the past five days would have intensified. Almost 2 million shells had been fired already at the German lines. Hidden deep in subterranean dugouts, they would have been relatively safe from casualties. Of more pressing concern was the possibility of a lucky, or rather unlucky, shell catching someone in the open trenches or a bunker, weakened by constant artillery barrages, collapsing and burying the men inside.

Perhaps the true danger in the trenches was not physical at all. Shell shock was a term coined in World War One to describe the effects that constant artillery fire had on the mental state of the men enduring it. Under the strain of shelling, men would come unhinged. Some would wander out into the trenches towards certain death. Others withdrew into themselves or began shaking uncontrollably. At the Somme, as many as forty percent of the men will have this reaction.

Imagine for a moment what being a German soldier trapped under this weeklong bombardment of artillery was like. One day, as you are digging your trench, or perhaps in the middle of lighting a cigarette, you hear a faint screeching. Hardened veteran that you are, your body flings itself into the nearest trench before you are even aware of what is happening on a conscious level. The new recruit you were with a moment ago is not as lucky, and his delay costs him his life when a shell lands in the trench next to him. The explosion of 16 pounds of gunpowder leaves little of him behind. Though you are deep underground, your eardrums are ringing and the shockwave rattles the room. A heavy clump of earth falls through the reinforcing slats above you and lands in your lap. You wonder how long the bunker will be able to hold up. You look around at the solemn faces of the other men, each wondering when the barrage will end and the enemy will swarm over the trenches hoping to dispatch their dazed opponents with hand to hand weapons and grenades.

The shelling picks up momentum. At the height of the Somme, 500 shells were being fired every minute. It’s a constant, pounding sound that runs so close together you can no longer distinguish individual shells. All you know is that every few minutes one hits much closer and louder than the others. The shelling continues into the night as you struggle to sleep. As the shelling continues the sun still rises and sets. Some days it rains, bringing torrents of mud and gore into your dugout. You think it’s been three days, or is it five? You can’t remember.

Alan Seeger waits at the line with his fellow Legionnaires. The action on his rifle has been checked and rechecked. Shivs, barbed clubs, and other improvised tools of trench warfare have been rigged up and passed around. Seeger listens as the barrage continues. The Allies have developed a new technique. Rather than stop the shelling while the infantry advance, the barrage will be “walked up” in front of them, keeping the Germans away from their defensive positions until the infantry can close the distance between the lines. It has been determined through experience that 10 percent of the Allied infantry will be killed by shrapnel from their own shells, though this has been judged an acceptable loss for the tactical advantage it gives. Seeger may be thinking about how he hopes he is not part of that 10 percent.

The Germans have been enduring 5 days of the heaviest shelling of the war. As the whistle blows at 4 O’clock precisely and Seeger and his comrades advance over the trench, they try to stay together. Though it would be safer to spread out, without concentrated firepower they have no chance of forcing their way into the German trenches. Though they seem empty now under bombardment, the second it stops the Germans will rush to their machine guns and direct murderous fire into the French and British lines.

Suddenly, in the German trenches, the shelling does stop. At first, they likely don’t notice. Their brains have become adapted to expect that the shelling is just a part of reality now. Then they hear the grinding, hand-cranked alarms of their commanders, the sign to prepare to repel the enemy. As the men take position everything is still. They wonder if it’s a trick. The Allies have recently begun stopping the bombardments until they come out into the trenches. It’s an adaptation of a technique invented by the Germans. After a few minutes, the shelling begins again, maximizing casualties. Many are ready to leap back into the bunker at the first sign of trouble. Then the rattle of machine gun fire. Guns all along the line bark into life. The attack has begun.

Seeger advances at a measured pace toward the German lines. As they come closer and the pace quickens, Seeger holds his rifle in the attack position with its gleaming bayonet outstretched. Men he knows are falling left and right. In the trenches ahead of him, hurled grenades go off in a series of explosions. As he nears the trench he feels a dull blow impact his body. Though he likely doesn’t fully know it yet, he has been struck by several bullets from a machine gun. For a moment, he stumbles, then falls. He struggles to his feet and encourages his men forward as best he can. He takes a few more steps forward and collapses mere yards from the German lines. He will never rise again.

Seeger was one of the first casualties that day, though he was far from the last. The rest of the battle on the first day of the Somme was brutal and took place in the trenches. Hand to hand. The allies made modest gains at first until a series of German counterattacks drove them back to the first line of trenches. As night fell, they took stock of their casualties. As the dead and wounded were counted up, they got their first indication that something had gone horribly wrong.They had suffered almost 60,000 casualties in the space of a few hours. Meanwhile, the Germans have only suffered 8,000.

The Allies have unwittingly played into the enemy’s hands.

Up Next Part 2: The First Modern War

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Almost Like History

The tragic tale of Florence Foster Jenkins, terrible opera singer

Florence Foster Jenkins had a dream. She wanted to be a famous opera singer. The problem was, she couldn’t actually sing.

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Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins had a dream. She wanted to be a famous opera singer. The problem was, she couldn’t actually sing.

Well, she could sing. Just not very well. Let’s listen, shall we?

If you can’t watch the video above, let me try to do it justice with a description. It sounded like two sick cats fighting over a tin can full of marbles. It was like a box of accordions being dragged behind a wandering troupe of Vietnamese folk musicians. It was the sound your elderly grandmother makes as she takes a fatal tumble down a flight of stairs.

So how did a woman like that become an opera singer? Well,basically it came down to a large inheritance and a legendary capacity for self-delusion. Not to mention a healthy dose of syphilitic brain damage.

Florence was born in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania in 1868. Early on, she discovered a love of music, and was actually something of a child prodigy on the piano. She was so good that she was invited to play at the White House during the Hayes administration.

But, Florence didn’t want to play the piano, she wanted to sing. So, she asked her father if she could go to Europe to study Opera.

Presumably having heard her sing, her father took a long draw on his pipe, worked his lip under what was probably a pretty impressive mustache and said, “No”.

Betrayed, and set on revenge, Florence eloped with a local doctor named Frank Jenkins. Unfortunately for Florence, the good doctor had a predilection for ladies of the evening and contracted a case of Syphilis, which he promptly spread to Florence. This being the 19th century, that wasn’t grounds for a divorce so Florence set out on her own while still legally married to the man whose name she would keep the rest of her life.

Florence made a meager living giving piano lessons until an arm injury stopped her from playing. She and her mother Mary moved to New York where Florence met her second, common-law husband, St. Clair Bayfield in 1909. By this time her Syphilis was doing what Syphilis does and virulently attacking her brain.

In that same year, her wealthy father died, leaving Florence with the funds she needed to bankroll her own singing career. So, that’s just what she did, renting out concert halls to give private recitals. She hand delivered invitations to these recitals, making sure never to invite any critics.

Her performances were marked with mistakes in pitch, timing, and pronunciation of the foreign words that are sort of necessary to pronounce correctly when you’re singing opera. Her accompanist was forced to make frequent adjustments to his playing to account for her tendency to rapidly switch tempo and pitch, which can be heard on the recordings that survive.

Florence became the celebrity she wanted to be, though not for the reason she would have hoped. Word got around the city about her “so bad it’s good” performances and it became something of an inside joke among the New York elite to send friends to a show with purposely vague reviews. One critic wrote that her singing was “like the untrammeled flight of some great bird.”

The ultimate payoff was to go with a friend who expected to hear a lovely rendition of The Magic Flute and then watch the expression of bewilderment on their face as they tried to figure out why such a terrible singer would be giving recitals.

By popular demand, Florence was finally convinced to give a performance at Carnegie Hall at age 76, and tickets quickly sold out. People stood outside waving hundreds of dollars in the air in the hopes of securing entrance to the show. The most valuable seats were in the back where people would fall to their knees behind doubled over in laughter. People advised each other to bring handkerchiefs to shove in their mouths. Others had to be carried out after laughing themselves hysterical.

Meanwhile, Florence took the laughter as adulation rather than derision. As she walked off the stage to raucous applause, she must have thought this moment the culmination of her life-long dreams to sing opera at Carnegie Hall.

The next morning she read the reviews. One critic praised her great range saying, “She can sing anything except notes.” Another said, “It was largely a recital without voice for the tones that Madam Jenkins produced were tiny. Much of her singing was hopelessly lacking any a semblance of pitch but the further a note was from its proper elevation the more the audience laughed and applauded.”

Two days later, Florence suffered a fatal heart attack. Some attribute her demise to the stress of learning what people actually thought of her singing.

Her long-time accompanist, Cosme McMoon, argued that it was unrelated. He stated in an interview that her capacity for self-delusion was such that she could have easily convinced herself that it was the reviewers who were wrong.

Regardless of the truth of the matter, Florence Foster Jenkins probably summed it up best when she said, “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”

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Almost Like History

The Dwarf Who Became A Giant

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Adam Ranier
Adam Ranier

Image:Achetron.com

If you’re familiar with Game of Thrones, and its most popular character, you know it can be tough to be a dwarf with all the white walkers and having to murder your father with a crossbow. But it’s probably also tough to be a giant. After all, you have to duck under doors and constantly get asked to pull things off of high shelves.

But it’s probably even tougher to go from one to the other. Luckily, there’s only one person in history who has ever had to go through that. In 1899 a child named Adam Ranier was born in Austria. For most of his life. he was small and sickly. When he was 18, he was evaluated by army physicians after his draft number was called who rejected him after finding that he only measured four and a half feet tall.  He was, technically speaking a dwarf.

But then one day he started growing for some reason. And in the next ten years, he grew to be over seven feet tall, making him the tallest man in the country. But while most people would be pretty excited to discover that they could suddenly dominate their local pick up basketball game, Adam had some pretty severe side effects from his growth spurt.

His spine began to curve significantly, and he lost the vision in his right eye along with the hearing in his left ear. In 1931, two doctors studying him discovered that the source of his incredible growth. They found a large tumor pressing on his pituitary gland, pushing huge amounts of growth hormones into his body. Today the condition is called Acromegaly, and Adam displayed all the symptoms, including unevenly spaced teeth, a pronounced jaw and brow, and unusually large hands and feet. Adam also found that eating was difficult and he began to suffer the effects of a poor diet.

Due to his condition, Adam remained bedridden for much of his life. The doctors performed a surgery that was intended to remove the tumor, but after examining him a few years later they found that he was still growing, which meant that they had been unable to correct the condition. Adam died at a fairly young in 1950 at a height of seven feet and ten inches.

But to this day, Adam Ranier remains the only person who has ever lived as both a dwarf and a giant. It’s a shame that more isn’t known about his life. Though, even at the time, his case attracted a lot of attention in the international press. And the Guinness Book of World Records included an entry on him in 1975. And though he was unfortunate to have to suffer such debilitating physical conditions, at least he will be remembered as unique in the history of mankind.

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7 weird things we’ve learned through science

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Virus

Ah, science! Domain of the geeks. I may not have loved you when I was a teenager with other things to think about, like the insane changes in my body, but now that I’m older I have come to be fascinated by your astounding discoveries.

Here’s a look at some of the strangest of natural phenomena—whether in biology, anatomy, archeology, or astronomy. Some of them are too weird too believe… and yet it’s all true!

Clouds

Thought clouds weigh nothing because they float? Wrong. Clouds weigh millions of tons. Yet they float because they are less dense than the surrounding air and than the rising currents of hot air. That’s why the sky does not fall on our heads dufus!

Bacteria

In this very moment, there are about 100 billion bacteria living in your mouth, and 100 trillion (100,000 billion) in your digestive tract. Oh and there are 25,000 germs walking on each square inch of your cell phone, and 7.2 billion on your kitchen sponge. Bacteria and germs are living beings—that makes your body, phone and kitchen extremely social places! Fortunately, most of these microscopic life forms are harmless and work actively for our mutual benefit.

Mosquitoes Allergy

… But they are not allergic to us, unfortunately. The itch that results from a mosquito bite is simply an immune response from your body. When the insect “bites” you, it in fact sucks your blood through its “trunk” (i.e. its proboscis) while simultaneously injecting substances including an anticoagulant. This helps the blood pass easily through its proboscis and its digestive tract. Itching is not directly caused by the bite or chemicals contained in the mosquito’s proboscis but by the immune response of the body fighting them. Our body releases histamine, a protein involved in many allergic reactions, to fight against parasites. Histamine causes swelling around the bite so that the blood rushes to the affected area, and this has the side effect of itching.

Stardust

93% of your body mass is actually stardust. Time to start writing poems y’all. Most of the elements that make up your body, like your bones, organs, and muscles are made of various atoms and molecules. And where do you think those atoms and molecules come from? Technically from your mom, but if you trace everything back far enough, these particles come from the stars.

DNA

Believe it or not, you have 2 meters of DNA in every cell in your body, which has 10 trillion cells. If we put all that DNA together and made a string out of it, we could tie the string from the Earth to the Moon over 100,000 times!

Giant Dinosaur Stomach

The Sauroposeidon, of the brachiosaur family, is one of the largest dinosaurs ever found. It could reach up to 18 meters in height and weigh up to 60 tons. Naturally, his stomach was the size of a swimming pool. Time for a swim in the dino’s tummy!

Eye Muscles

The muscles in your eyes are the most active ones in your body. According to one study, they actually move more than 100,000 times a day. Does that sound like a lot? Try to count how many times your eyes just moved just to read this paragraph. Now, if only I could do one push-up for every eye-movement!

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