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WWI Centennial: The Conference of London Convenes

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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 50th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)


Bulgarian delegates leaving London's Ritz Hotel, for the Peace conference at St James Palace. Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

December 17, 1912: The Conference of London Convenes

In mid-December 1912, as Europe seemed to teeter on the edge of war, diplomats representing the Great Powers, the Balkan League and the Ottoman Empire hurried to an international conference in London organized by British foreign secretary Edward Grey with the goal of settling the situation in the Balkans and keeping the peace.

The Conference of London was actually two parallel conferences. The first consisted of peace negotiations between the Balkan League—Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro—and the Ottoman Empire. Following a rapid series of victories over the Turks, the armies of the Balkan League had occupied almost all of the Ottoman Empire’s Balkan territories, and it was clear that the Turks would have to give up most of these, including a large part of Thrace, Macedonia, and Albania. But there were still a number of unresolved issues, including the fate of the ancient city of Adrianople (Edirne) – a key Turkish possession under siege by the Bulgarians, but still holding out, at least for now. The Turks also wanted to keep a buffer zone in Thrace along the straits, which the Bulgarians were also occupying. The Bulgarians, by contrast, wanted the Turks to give up all their territory west of the defensive lines at Chataldzha.

In the second conference, Europe’s Great Powers came together to decide on the new shape of the western Balkans—focusing on the central issue of Serbia’s long-term ambition to gain access to the Adriatic Sea, now a real possibility following the Serbian conquest of Ottoman Albania, including the ancient port city of Durazzo (Durrës). Fearing the effect that this enhancement of Serbian prestige would have on Austria-Hungary’s own restive Slavic population, Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister, Count Berchtold, was determined to prevent Serbia from keeping Albania. He hoped to accomplish this by creating a new, independent Albanian state, free from Serbian occupiers. Of course, this put Austria-Hungary at odds with the Serbs and, through them, their Russian backers.

The first task of the Conference of London, therefore, was to gain international recognition for Albanian independence—especially from Russia. This goal was achieved almost immediately: On December 17, 1912, the representatives of the Great Powers agreed in principle to recognize an independent Albanian state. However, a number of important issues remained unresolved, including Albania’s precise boundaries in the north, south, and east.

In the north, would the new Albanian state include the important city of Scutari, currently under siege by the Montenegrins? To the south, would it include territory currently occupied by the Greeks, who were still fighting the Turks despite the armistice? (On December 20, 1912, the Greeks occupied Koritsa, triggering further alarm in Austria-Hungary.) And to the east, just how far would Albania’s borders extend into territory claimed—and occupied—by Serbia, including Kosovo?

While these territorial negotiations might sound trivial, they were taking place in the context of growing tension between the two main European alliances, with Austria-Hungary supported by Germany on one side, and Russia supported by France on the other. And the threat of military action wasn’t just hypothetical: Austria-Hungary had mobilized eight army corps near the Russian and Serbian borders, and although Tsar Nicholas II’s attempt to mobilize four military districts was countermanded by his own ministers, the Russians were secretly keeping recruits from that year’s military class in service, rather than discharging them (similar to the U.S. military’s “stop loss” policies).

Fortunately, there were also a lot of factors at work for peace. With Grey in the forefront, the British and Italians were doing their best to get everyone to agree to a peaceful resolution. Meanwhile, beneath all the posturing for the benefit of allies and domestic public opinion, the leaders of the other Great Powers were more ambivalent than they let on.

In St. Petersburg, Russian foreign minister Sazonov was advised by Russian generals that the Russian military wasn’t ready for a war, and on November 8, he secretly informed Russia’s French allies that Russia wouldn’t go to war for a Serbian port. In Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II and his military advisors were belligerent as usual—but as early as November 9, the mercurial German monarch also expressed the opinion, in a telegraph to German foreign minister Kiderlen-Wächter, that the issue of Serbian access to the sea wasn’t worth a war. In Vienna, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian and Hungarian thrones, also privately voiced doubts that it was worth going to war to prevent Serbian access to the sea (there was also pressure from Austro-Hungarian finance officials to end the hugely expensive mobilization, which cost 200 million crowns by the end of 1912). Finally, for their part, the Serbs knew better than to defy a consensus among the larger European powers: On December 20, 1912, the Serbian general and diplomat Sava Gruji? assured Grey that Serbia would accept whatever decision the Great Powers rendered on the issue.

In the end, although it took several months and 63 meetings to resolve the situation (including a period of renewed fighting in the Balkans in early 1913), eventually all these factors contributed to a peaceful outcome. Thus, the Conference of London seemed to provide a promising model for international diplomacy—and reason to believe that rational human beings, united by mutual good will and a sense of collegial responsibility, could hold back the darkness. But the situation in the Balkans remained unstable to say the least, promising fresh crises in the near future. In 1912 and 1913, European diplomats succeeded in keeping the peace; in 1914, they failed.

See all installments of the World War I Centennial series here.

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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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