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Archive for January, 2012

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German mercenaries failed to help Britain save the American Colonies

Posted in America, Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Revolution, War on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

This edited article about mercenaries originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 621 published on 8 December 1973.

Battle of Saratoga, picture, image, illustration

In 1777 at the Battle of Saratoga the British and their Hessian mercenaries suffered a crushing defeat, by Severino Baraldi

It was January, 1783, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and at night men cried with the cold. Few could put up a tent properly and many preferred to lie under piles of wet canvas and poles rather than to try to erect them on the rocky ground. They had had no experience of camping since they had been recruited or pressed into service and the few old soldiers among them smartly avoided the extra chore of demonstrating what should be done. The men were dejected. Their officers despaired. But the American spies in the camp whooped exultantly when they returned to their own lines. The German mercenaries whom the British had brought over in a last attempt to subdue their rebellious colonies in America were, they reported, not the monsters they were reputed to be; they were merely whimpering boys.

The mercenaries’ trade had declined in the 18th century as an increasing number of nations kept standing armies of their own. Only in the small states which formed what is now Germany did the tradition survive. The German princelings hired out their soldiers to those who needed them and on two occasions Britain made use of their services. The first time was in Scotland, when Hessian troops were used in the campaign against the Jacobites in 1745. The second time was in America. On neither occasion were they worth the money.

On the night of 21st January two of King George’s hirelings crouched in the shadow of a baggage-wagon, planning to do what many of their comrades had done already – desert. They were sick of the camp at Halifax. There had been little or no fighting; just a few desultory shells from the French who were taking advantage of Britain’s entanglement in America to threaten her again in Canada. And they had come to sympathise with the Americans’ desire for independence and for liberty. Little wonder, when you consider what they had witnessed in their military careers. Take one of them, Johann Seume, for example.

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The primal fear aroused by snakes is a cautionary warning system

Posted in Animals, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

This edited article about snakes originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 621 published on 8 December 1973.

Rattlesnake, picture, image, illustration

Rattlesnake by Richard Hook

Cruising along a deserted African road in his open-top sports car, a young driver failed to notice the deadly black mamba in his path. Quite unknowingly he ran over the snake. And suddenly it happened. Viciously angry, the mamba shot forward in high-speed pursuit, caught up with the car, whiplashed up into the back and struck dead the driver with one swift bite.

Believe that tale and you will believe anything. On the other hand, you would not be the only person taken in by the story. Many others accepted its truth with wide-eyed gullibility when it was told a few years ago. Though it was pointed out that it must have been an extremely versatile snake also to stop a car safely and then spread news of its feat, some people still weren’t convinced.

Snakes continue to strike terror in people’s hearts more than any other creatures, and have done so since ancient times. The Romans, for instance, knew this and put the knowledge to profitable use in naval battles. Many a skirmish was won by dropping snake-filled earthenware pots on the decks of enemy vessels; for, in the ensuing panic, more men jumped overboard than were actually bitten.

Why there is such a widespread fear of snakes may never be fully known. They are generally quite attractive in colouring and exceptionally graceful in movement; they usually keep out of man’s way and also promote his survival regularly by keeping down rodent populations which spread disease. Then, of the world’s 3,000 kinds of snakes, only 300 are equipped with venom fangs, and of these only about 200 can be said to be dangerous to Man.

Yet still snakes are feared. Is there a good reason for this?

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Up Helly Aa! A spectacular Viking festival in Shetland

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History, Invasions, Leisure, Scotland on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

This edited article about Shetland customs originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 621 published on 8 December 1973.

Up Helly Aa, picture, image, illustration

The Viking longship is aflame during Shetland’s Up Helly Aa festival in Lerwick, by Andrew Howat

“Sssssh. They’re coming!”

A hush falls on the crowd, muffled in brightly-coloured sweaters, scarves and woolly caps against the night-wind funnelling through the narrow streets.

Everyone leans forward, listening. From a distance comes the sound of singing, the rhythmic crunch of feet on frozen snow, the flicker of smoke and flame.

“They’re coming. They’re coming!”

Suddenly round the corner ‘they’ are there, a strange and awesome sight. Out of the past, into the heart of Shetland’s capital, Lerwick, twenty men come marching, in winged helmets, tunics of gilded scales, cross-gartered hose; flourishing battle-axes, clasping shields, roaring a strange song and turning their eyes upwards to a commanding figure riding in a thirty-foot dragon-headed longship: the Guizer Jarl, Earl of the Steering Oar and their warrior chief.

A thousand years ago they would have struck terror into the hearts of Shetland islanders. Tonight they are greeted with cheers. This is a peaceful invasion, a time for gaiety and fun. It is the last Tuesday in January. It is Up Helly Aa!

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Metal workers of the Italian Renaissance became master armourers

Posted in Historical articles, History, War, Weapons on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

This edited article about armour originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 621 published on 8 December 1973.

Bartolomeo Colleoni, picture, image, illustration

Bartolomeo Colleoni (inset), the famously fierce and unprincipled condottierre, leading his cavalry into battle, by Severino Baraldi

Pope Pius II feared the Turks. Constantinople, Christendom’s last bastion in the east, had fallen to the Sultan and surely Italy would be next. “All Christian men must unite to face the infidel.” This was the message that Pius tried to drum into the nobility of 15th century Italy – but the Pope’s task was hopeless. Now even he had got bogged down in Italy’s petty squabbles.

The year was 1493 and the Papal army under the leadership of a brilliant Condottierre named Federigo of Urbino was drawn up before the fortress of Fano, ready to crush the most famous and cruel Condottierre of them all, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta.

These Condottiere were perhaps the most successful mercenaries of all time. They grew rich defending the merchant cities of Renaissance Italy, the citizens of which refused to do their own fighting. Very few Condottierri actually died in these endless wars. This was not so surprising. Wealthy mercenaries not only wore the finest armour in Europe, but had a sort of code between them. When Condottierri found themselves on opposite sides they carried on their wars like games of chess, with complicated tactics, sieges and counter-sieges, and only occasional set-piece battles.

Sorties like those made by Sigismondo from the Fano fortress against rival Federigo, must have been like a rougher version of the melee in a medieval tournament when two forces met in mock battle. Of course there were casualties in these Italian wars, but nothing like the carnage in the 100 Years’ War between England and France.

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Britain’s military adventure in Walcheren Island met a watery fate in 1809

Posted in Disasters, Historical articles, History, War on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

This edited article about the Napoleonic Wars originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 621 published on 8 December 1973.

British lines at Flushing, picture, image, illustration

Soldiers in the flooded British lines at Flushing by C L Doughty

It is brash and noisy where once it was sleepy. There are crowds of people where once folk drifted by in twos and threes. There are cars, sounding like clockwork trains as they chug past in low gear, where once big raw-boned horses stepped sedately. There is hygiene, clean air and concrete where once there were stagnant waters and flies. There is life where once there was a graveyard.

Where? On the island of Walcheren at the mouth of the River Schelde on the southern frontier of Holland. There in 1809 a British army lay down and died, victim of criminal neglect, by its government, its leaders and its doctors.

The army had been sent to Walcheren to weaken Napoleon in the west. By destroying the enemy’s fleet in the Schelde, by destroying its arsenals at Flushing and Antwerp, Britain would not only have smashed a significant concentration of Napoleon’s forces but she would have established a powerful base from which to operate in the Low Countries.

Unfortunately, although the scheme looked well on paper, it was based on faulty intelligence about the plans and strength of the enemy and about the nature of the territory and waters.

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Hawaii – an island paradise which enchanted the great Mark Twain

Posted in America, Anthropology, Geology, Historical articles, Travel on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

This edited article about Hawaii originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 621 published on 8 December 1973.

Hawaiian dancers, picture, image, illustration

Hula! – Hawaiian dancers by Robert Brook

Hawaii, the largest of the eight major islands in the Hawaiian group, is a land of waterfalls, orchids and active volcanos. It is known as the ‘big island’ and is said to be dominated by the spirit of Pele, the fire goddess who causes the volcanos Mauna Loa, one of the largest in the world, and Kilauea to erupt. Mauna Loa is highly active, and every few years molten lava runs down the mountain covering several square miles. Although it is very spectacular, it is considered harmless.

Another harmless, but even more spectacular sight is the unbelievable sunsets that all the Hawaiian islands glory in. Passengers on aircraft flying in to land at any of the airports in the late afternoon have a grandstand view of one of nature’s most magnificent sunsets. The sun, a great ball of fire, sinks very fast and appears to fall into the sea and be extinguished. There is hardly any twilight over the Pacific; one minute it is light and the next it is dark. As the sun disappears, a brilliant red glow covers the whole of the horizon, making it seem as if the world was on fire. No wonder the early Hawaiians worshipped their sun god.

Surrounded as they are by the blue waters of the immense Pacific ocean, the biggest and deepest in the world, occupying a third of the Earth’s surface and larger than all the land masses put together, the Hawaiians have, of necessity, been men of the sea. Before the epic voyages of the Phoenicians and the Vikings, the Polynesians colonised islands more than 7,500 miles apart. Over 2,000 years ago these people made their long sea voyages through the vast and often stormy Pacific in frail outrigger canoes, and they are considered to be the greatest ocean pathfinders the world has ever known. During the course of the centuries they have scoured this gigantic expanse of water, navigating by the stars. For their voyages two canoes were often lashed together to support a makeshift platform for their women folk, children, plants and animals to travel on. Their major voyages ceased 150 years before the Europeans’ began.

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Greatest of all Romans, Julius Caesar bestrode the world like a colossus

Posted in Ancient History, Famous battles, Famous crimes, Famous Last Words, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

This edited article about Ancient Rome originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 621 published on 8 December 1973.

Ides of March, picture, image, illustration

‘The Ideas of March’ by Sir Edward John Poynter, depicts¬† Calpurnia trying to persuade Caesar not to go to the Senate

‘This young man,’ said the Roman dictator Sulla, ‘hides the soul of a Marius.’

Marius was Sulla’s great and deadly political rival, one of the most powerful men in the Roman republic in the last century before the birth of Christ.

The tousled-haired young man of whom Sulla spoke did indeed hide the soul of a Marius. But he hid much more than that. For although the daggers of assassins were to bring the career of Gaius Julius Caesar to an untimely end, he stands as one of the few men who, single-handed, changed the history of the world.

Arguably the greatest soldier of all time, a scholar and writer of distinction, and an orator and statesman of wonderful insight, Caesar, born in the year 100 B.C., was the greatest of all the Romans.

His parents were wealthy patricians, but there was nothing aloof about young Caesar. He had a ready smile and wore his clothes carelessly. Who would not have laughed to scorn the suggestion that this relaxed and affable youth would some day be the conqueror of the world and the most powerful man in Rome?

During the civil wars between Marius, of the popular or plebeian party, and Sulla, of the aristocratic or patrician party, Caesar had to hurry into exile. This was because Sulla, during the period of his dictatorship, was brutally executing all who had supported his rival Marius.

When he returned to Rome at Sulla’s death, Caesar concealed a shrewd purpose under that smiling exterior. He had seen in exile how vast the Roman dominions had grown, and yet how corrupt was the rule of the republic in Rome. In that rule the distribution of wealth was fearfully unequal, and capital and pauperism faced each other menacingly. There was only one way to put that right, Caesar decided, and that was by the iron rule of one man.

And that one man was himself.

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Man’s most merciless killer is the cunning vicious shark

Posted in Fish, Nature, Sea, Wildlife on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

This edited article about sharks originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 620 published on 1 December 1973.

Great White Shark, picture, image, illustration

The Great White Shark, deadliest of all the shark family

It was calamity enough when the Nova Scotia fell victim to German torpedoes on the morning of the 28th November, 1942. With 900 men aboard, 765 of them Italian prisoners, she went down about thirty miles from the coast of Natal, South Africa. But only then, as hundreds floundered helplessly in the water, did tragedy at its most terrible and gruesome strike. The sharks came.

They were between six and seven feet long, and their gaping grins exposed razor-sharp teeth as they sped smoothly through the warm waters towards the struggling men. Those lucky enough to be on makeshift rafts clubbed wildly with spars of driftwood in attempts to drive off the relentless sea predators. Most of those in the water died horribly.

Out of the original 900 men, 192 survived. Of the dead a few were killed by the explosions and more than a few were drowned. The others, numbered in hundreds, were killed by sharks.

There are many similar grim tales. Eighty out of a hundred shipwrecked men in lifebelts were massacred by sharks near Bermuda. Off the coast of South America during World War Two, the numbers of shipwrecked shark victims were estimated to be in the tens of thousands. Every year now, thousands of people are believed to fall prey to these deadly killers of the sea. For all his technology and talent for killing off most wild animals, Man has failed to overcome the shark, one of the most fearsome man-killers of all time.

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Chivalric honour gave way to arrogant folly in provoking duels

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, History, Weapons on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

This edited article about duelling originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 620 published on 1 December 1973.

Wellington and Winchelsea duel, picture, image, illustration

The Duke of Wellington challenged Lord Winchelsea to a duel following an argument over Roman Catholic voting rights, by C L Doughty

“Pistols for two and breakfast for one.” That was the macabre instruction given to a servant before his master went to fight a duel. History does not record whether the master ever needed his breakfast or whether he merely required an undertaker.

Although duelling has virtually died out in the world now, there were times when one could scarcely move about in a large city without hearing of some affair of honour that had just been settled in blood. Before looking at some of the more unusual fights, it will be helpful to consider a brief history of duelling.

It originated in the early Middle Ages, just after the Norman Conquest. If a man (or woman) was charged with a crime, there was no trial by jury. They could choose either trial by ordeal or trial by combat. Unless you could bribe the judge, trial by ordeal wasn’t much use. You had to do something like carry red-hot iron a number of paces without burning yourself. So, some people chose to plead: “Not guilty. I am ready to defend the same by my body.” That meant they would fight.

Accuser and accused would fight to the death at an appointed time and place. The idea was that God would favour the innocent, and justice would thereby be done. Sadly, cunning men began to cheat a little, by employing champions to fight on their behalf.

Duelling also had its opponents; such as King Edward I, who preferred the spreading habit of asking for a trial by one’s peers – a system that was to become refined to trial by jury as it exists today. But, trials by combat went on long after the king’s death. One of the oddest of these occurred in France in 1400. Aubrey Montargis was walking in a wood near Paris, accompanied only by his faithful dog. An enemy, the Chevalier Maquer, attacked and killed him. It was noticed in the next few days, that the dog became uncontrollable when near Maquer, and people began to suspect that he could be the murderer. Proper lists were set up for the combat, and Maquer appeared on horseback, armed with a lance. Amazingly, when the dog was released against him, the man was unable to hit it. When the point of the lance was lowered for a moment, the dog attacked him by the throat. Maquer screamed for help, saying he would confess to the crime. He was duly executed.

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Nice’s spectacular flower festival has ancient Bacchic origins

Posted in Customs, Historical articles, Plants, Religion, Travel on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

This edited article about France originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 620 published on 1 December 1973.

Nice, picture, image, illustration

Hotel des Anglais and the Promenade des Anglais

Blue sky, blue sea, golden sunshine, waving green palms, the great sweep of a fashionable promenade lined with huge hotels; it seems a strange background for a battle! The sounds of battle are curious too. Bands play stirring tunes, but they are cheerful rather than martial; and the “warriors”, many of them women and girls, instead of yelling war-cries, egg one another on with laughter and song.

Strangest of all is the ammunition flying in every direction – flowers.

Round the lovely, beautifully-named Bay of Angels clatter the war-chariots, little two-wheeled carriages driven by gnarled old men, drawn by ageing nags, each one crammed with pretty girls elaborately or skimpily dressed, armed with flowery “hand-grenades” which they hurl, enthusiastically, rather than accurately, at their high-spirited victims crowding the pavements.

The more skilful catch them, and lob them back. The wise ones duck the bigger bunches. Soon the air is a mist of fluttering petals, white, blue, pink, yellow and violet. The roadway and pavements are ankle-deep in colour and the air heavy with the scent of crushed blossom. On the roadside flower-sellers do a roaring trade in “missiles” with the spectators.

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