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World War I Centennial: The Belgian Question

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the sixth installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

February 21, 1912: The Belgian Question

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After his previous attempt was rebuffed, French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre (pictured) took the opportunity of a change in France’s civilian leadership to ask a second time to be allowed to violate Belgian neutrality in the event of war with Germany. However, at a secret meeting of the French Superior War Council on February 21, 1912, Joffre found the new premier, Raymond Poincare, not much more receptive to the idea than his predecessor, Joseph Caillaux; ultimately Poincare left the question ambiguous.

At first glance there seemed to be some good strategic arguments in favor of marching into Belgium before the Germans did so themselves. The Germans were likely to try to slip around heavy fortifications along France’s eastern frontier by sending one wing of their army through neutral Belgium to the north; a preemptive invasion of Belgium might be able to stop them before they got to France. Moreover, the French doctrine of offensive a outrance, or total attack, called for boldly bringing the fight to the enemy wherever he stood. On this point, the Belgian plains offered a good arena for offensive operations of the type envisaged by French strategy (in the event World War I combat was characterized by defensive stalemate, with little resemblance to outdated French offensive tactics).

Even in the context of “total attack,” however, there were good reasons to avoid violating Belgian neutrality first, as Poincare reminded Joffre. Most important by far was the likely British reaction: if Germany violated Belgian neutrality first, Britain’s treaty obligations to Belgium would automatically put her on the French side against Germany (where the British government and public opinion wanted to be anyway). But if France gave up the moral high ground by violating Belgian neutrality first, Britain would very likely remain on the sidelines; stern reminders from British diplomats and officers reinforced the need to respect Belgian neutrality on several occasions around this time.

In this situation, the French leadership judged British aid more strategically valuable than trying to head off the German attack through Belgium. Indeed, at the February 21 meeting Joffre said he was counting on six British infantry divisions and one British cavalry division to be ready for action in France two weeks after mobilization, leaving him little choice but to accept British constraints and forgo a preemptive invasion of Belgium.

An Unsatisfying Compromise

But the idea of French intervention in Belgium wasn’t totally off the table. Poincare and the rest of the French leadership were aware of the German threat to Belgium, and through it France, but fear of diplomatic repercussions in Britain prompted them to split the difference with an unsatisfying compromise. The French military might be allowed to intervene preemptively in Belgium in the event of a “certain menace of German invasion.” Of course this didn’t serve to advance the argument – or French strategy – very much, as it simply restated the basic French dilemma without clarifying what, exactly, constituted a “certain menace.” Would a German troop buildup near Belgium suffice? And if this was the scenario, what about the British concerns about Belgian neutrality?

In his memoirs, Joffre recalled that France’s civilian leaders left the answers deliberately ambiguous to avoid alarming the British and give themselves flexibility – but ended up saddling Joffre and other war planners with the complex task of planning for multiple contingencies, many of them mutually exclusive, depending on the timing of German thrusts.

Ultimately the French military’s doctrine of total attack led them to focus on planning to attack German armies where they would be sure to find them – coming across the Franco-German border, from Germany. But Joffre never doubted that Belgium would be the main battlefield in a war between France and Germany, even if the exact shape of the German attack was still unclear, meaning he would essentially have to improvise strategy in the first days of the war.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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The Secret World War II History Hidden in London's Fences

In South London, the remains of the UK’s World War II history are visible in an unlikely place—one that you might pass by regularly and never take a second look at. In a significant number of housing estates, the fences around the perimeter are actually upcycled medical stretchers from the war, as the design podcast 99% Invisible reports.

During the Blitz of 1940 and 1941, the UK’s Air Raid Precautions department worked to protect civilians from the bombings. The organization built 60,000 steel stretchers to carry injured people during attacks. The metal structures were designed to be easy to disinfect in case of a gas attack, but that design ended up making them perfect for reuse after the war.

Many London housing developments at the time had to remove their fences so that the metal could be used in the war effort, and once the war was over, they were looking to replace them. The London County Council came up with a solution that would benefit everyone: They repurposed the excess stretchers that the city no longer needed into residential railings.

You can tell a stretcher railing from a regular fence because of the curves in the poles at the top and bottom of the fence. They’re hand-holds, designed to make it easier to carry it.

Unfortunately, decades of being exposed to the elements have left some of these historic artifacts in poor shape, and some housing estates have removed them due to high levels of degradation. The Stretcher Railing Society is currently working to preserve these heritage pieces of London infrastructure.

As of right now, though, there are plenty of stretchers you can still find on the streets. If you're in the London area, this handy Google map shows where you can find the historic fencing.

[h/t 99% Invisible]

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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