Military disasters

IT IS ALWAYS PLEASING to read about a subject that is new to me. A friend gave me a copy of “Fall of the Double Eagle” by John Schindler. It deals with the conflict between Austria Hungary (‘AH’) and its enemies Russia and Serbia at the beginning of WW1.

BLOG book

Schindler’s book is clearly written and engaging. It reveals a tale of truly lethal incompetence, that of the military leaders of AH during their pointless attacks on Galicia and Serbia. These were confrontations whose aim appeared to be to satisfy the egos of the arrogant leaders of AH’s military.

With the exception of skilful use of radio interception of Russian signals, everything else that the leaders of AH’s military laid their hands on led to the unnecessary deaths and injuries of a horrendously large number of brave and loyal soldiers. These soldiers, drawn from all of the numerous ethnic groups in the AH Empire, were united in their loyalty to their Habsburg rulers and very brave in battle. However, the incompetence of their superiors rendered their bravery pointless and in most cases their actions resembled those of lemmings running towards a lethal ending.

Despite knowledge of recent examples of modern warfare, the Anglo-Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Balkan Wars, the AH high command made little or no attempt to update military equipment and tactics/strategies. Schindler describes this well, and also the unwillingness of the AH government to invest money on bringing the military up to date. Consequently, when the AH armies came into conflict with the Russians and Serbians, courage and bravery were futile in the face of superior artillery and tactics.

What Schindler describes brilliantly in his book is a tragic epic of incompetence. The military leaders of AH should have had, but did not appear to have had, very bad consciences in the light of the number of fatalities caused by their negligence.

Reading Schindler’s fascinating compendium of official arrogance, refusing to learn from experience, and lack of foresight, during the first years of WW1, made me have worrying thoughts about what is going on around us today during the current pandemic.

I recommend Schindler’s book to anyone interested in WW1 and/or the importance of competent planning by governments.

PS: The inclusion of some maps might have been helpful to assist the reader in following the exciting descriptions of some of the campaigns described.

The leaning tree

LATE 18 leaf

“A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS” It is not known exactly when this well-known sentence was first used, but an article in Wikipedia suggests that one of the first times it appeared in print was in an advertisement for a Texan newspaper, the “San Antonio Light”, in 1918. I do not know whether I can write a thousand words to put the attached picture in context, so you will have to make do with what I am able muster.

Just over a year ago, my wife and I were ‘wintering’ in India. We left our daughter looking after our flat in Kensington. One day, she sent us a message informing us that one of the old trees in our street had toppled over in the middle of the night.

The tree that fell always looked precarious as its trunk leaned over the road at quite a sharp angle, making it tricky to park a car next to it. A neighbour told us that it had done so for well over a century. His evidence was that the very same tree can be seen leaning over the road in an old photograph of our street taken about 150 years ago. So, the tree was not inherently unstable.

Many years ago, while walking through woods with my old PhD supervisor (and by then a close friend), he pointed out the variety of shapes and inclinations of the tree trunks around us. He wondered how a tree ‘knew’ how to grow in various directions whilst maintaining a centre of gravity that stopped it toppling over. Clearly, our late lamented leaning tree ‘knew what it was doing as it had been leaning seemingly precariously for at least a century and a half.

After we returned from India, there was a bare patch where the tree had stood for so long. A neighbour, who makes it his business to find out in detail what happens in our small street told us what befell our tree. The local council decided to move the position of the curb and so to widen the pavement around the tree, the idea being to narrow the road at that point and thereby prevent parking next to the tree.

Unfortunately, the workmen assigned to carry out this job managed to cut through part of the tree’s root system. This destabilised the tree, which then fell over across the street. While falling, the tree damaged a first-floor balustrade and terrace on a building across the street. Luckily, there were no human casualties.

For some months, the site of the fallen tree remained treeless. Then, a small tree with a slender trunk, a sapling, was planted by the council. Day by day, we watched it producing leaves. These changed colour in the autumn, looked sickly, and fell off, leaving a sad looking spindly tree. Then, we spent another winter in India.

When we returned in late February this year (2020), the young tree was still standing and still looking lifeless. As the weeks passed, we were very pleased to see buds forming on its slender branches. These buds have grown in size and are, at last, unfurling to reveal the tiny leaves seen in the photograph.

It is pleasing to see that even in these troubled times, nature has something positive to lift our spirits.

Well, I have reached about 580 words, not quite a thousand. However, as the saying goes, I hope my photo is worth at least a thousand words and is something to enjoy.

Paris

Wallace ladies_500

 

The recent tragic conflagration of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris and its resultant degradation of one of the world’s best-known buildings evoked a sensation that I had not experienced since 1976. In that year, there was a devastating earthquake in the Friuli area of north-east Italy. 

We had good friends living in that area. They had taken us to see many  unique masterpieces of Longobard art and architecture that existed in the area. When we first heard the news, we were extremely worried about the fate of our friends, who, luckily, all survived. We were also concerned about the works of art and architecture we had grown to love.  Fortunately, most of these were restored eventually.

Ten years before the earthquake in Friuli, there was a terrible flood in Florence in November 1966. About 100 people were killed, and many, many valuable works of art perished in the oil-filled flood waters. Our family was extremely upset because we used to visit the Tuscan city every year to see old friends and to enjoy its rich artistic heritage.

We did not visit Florence the following year because of the damage, but recommenced our annual visits in 1968. For years after the flood, the height of the flood water levels was visible on the walls of buildings where central heating oil from the city’s boilers and tanks had mixed with the water and made indelible stains.

The fire in Paris brought back feelings of horror and disbelief that i had experienced in 1966 and ten years later. 

The picture illustrating this blog piece is a reminder of another tragedy that hit Paris: The Siege of Paris (1871) and the Commune. During those difficult times, there were great water supply problems. The English philanthropist Richard Wallace (1818-1890) built a number of drinking fountains for the people of Paris. Each was decorated with the four sculpted ladies shown in my illustration.

Already, many people are offering to donate money to help restore Notre Dame to its former glory. Had he been alive, i am sure Richard wallace would have been a willing contributor.

Good Friday

Years ago, I knew a dentist, who owned his own practice. His residence was in the same building. His patients could ring him any time of the day or night. If there was an urgent out-of-hours problem, he would usually open the surgery and try to help the unfortunate patient. Most of his patients were considerate and did not ring him at inconvenient times. However, once someone rung him at three in the morning. The caller said that his toothache was so bad that he was unable to sleep. My friend, an intelligent man, said to him:

“You come and see me at eight in the morning. That way only one of us will have a sleepless night.”

 

boy

 

Occasionally, I had to be ‘on call’ for out-of-hours and weekend emergencies. When I worked in Kent before the widespread use of mobile ‘phones had begun, I had to carry a small radio receiver in my pocket during the hours I was ‘on-call’. If the gadget bleeped, I had to ring the telephone number of some remote call-handling centre. The centre would then provide me with the telephone number of the person in trouble. Usually, the ‘emergency’ turned out to be someone wanting to make or cancel a dental appointment in the middle of the night or on a Sunday or bank holiday. There was little I could do about these abuses of the emergency system.

One Easter weekend, I was contacted by a mother, whose son’s front tooth had snapped off and he was in pain. I asked the caller to bring her son to see me in the surgery, which I opened specially for her son. The boy arrived. The situation was not good. The child had managed to snap off a lateral incisor, leaving the root below gum-level. The tooth was un-saveable and needed to be removed. To extract it, I knew that I would have to perform some minor surgery, lifting the gum and then replacing it (using sutures). It was a job that would have been difficult to perform alone without an assistant. Fortunately, I had the ‘phone number of one of the practice nurses, who lived nearby. Luckily, she was able to come to assist. The operation was done without problem.

When I had finished treating the child, the mother neither thanked my assistant nor me.  She was typical of many National Health Service (‘NHS’) patients, who do not appreciate what is done for them because it is done free of charge. Many of the services provided by the NHS are free, and because of this a proportion of patients show no gratefulness. They take the system for granted, feeling that what is done for them is their birth right.

It was Good Friday morning when this emergency treatment was carried out. The boy’s mother said:

“What a shame that this happened today of all days, Good Friday.”

Silently, I agreed with her. I said:

“Well it’s been a bad Good Friday for your child.”

After a few moments, I added:

“It was also not an awfully good day for Jesus Christ.”

The mother gave me a dirty look, and then took her child home.

 

[Picture source: “Der Zahnarzt in der Karikatur” by E Henrich (1963)]

A narrow escape

Ladbroke monument

 

My first job as a dentist was in a lovely practice in the Medway Towns. After having worked there for eleven years, I married and then lived in London. As it became tiring commuting by car between Kensington and north-east Kent, I changed practices. I worked for about nine months in north-west London in a practice where I was not happy. Then, I moved to another practice near Portobello Road. After about four years, the owner of that practice decided to open another branch in Maidenhead, Berkshire. I thought it would be interesting to work in a brand-new practice, and as Maidenhead was served by a good rail connection from Paddington, which is near my home, I decided to move to the new practice, where I treated its very first patient.

Usually, I boarded a local train that left Paddington a few minutes past eight in the morning. Just over half an hour later, I used to disembark at Maidenhead station, which was a couple of minutes’ stroll from the practice. Of the patients whom I treated there, the less said the better. My best memory of the place was that it was near a wonderful sandwich shop. The people who worked there had no idea about portion size control. So when I ordered my favourite sandwich, filled with prawn mayonnaise, it contained so much filling that I could hardly get my mouth around it.

One Monday evening, I returned to Paddington a little earlier than usual. Not being in a great hurry, I bought a ticket for the following Monday’s journey to Maidenhead.

On the following day, Tuesday the 5th of October 1999, I arrived at Paddington early as usual. Having already bought my ticket the evening before, I was able to take the train that left a few minutes earlier than the one I usually boarded. It left just before 8 am. The train I normally travelled on left a few minutes after 8 am.

I arrived at Maidenhead and began working. In those days, I used to have a radio running in my surgery. I heard a news bulletin that mentioned that there had been a terrible rail crash. I thought nothing of it until I returned to Maidenhead station that afternoon. I discovered, to my annoyance, that no trains were running as far as Paddington. They were all terminating west of Paddington at Ealing Broadway, where, fortunately, there is an Underground line which allowed me to continue my homeward bound journey.

It was only when I reached London that I learned more details about the crash. The train that I normally boarded every morning, the one which left a few minutes past 8 am, had collided head-on with a high-speed express train coming in the opposite direction on the same set of rails. Later, it was reported that 31 people had died and over 500 were injured. Most of the victims, killed and injured, were on board the train that I missed taking because I had bought my tickets on the night before.

There is a monument to those who died in the crash. It is near the large Sainsbury supermarket on Ladbroke Grove. Whenever I see this simple stone monument or think about the incident, I shudder. One of the names on that memorial could have easily been mine.