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The Arms Race Shifts into High Gear

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

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 59th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

March 6, 1913: The Arms Race Shifts into High Gear

In March 1913, amid the continuing crisis resulting from the First Balkan War, the European arms race shifted into high gear with three practically simultaneous moves by Germany, France, and Russia. 

On March 1, the German government presented a novelle (amendment to an existing law) to the Reichstag that would boost the effective strength of infantry and field artillery units, create new cavalry brigades and regiments, strengthen fortress artillery, and add more communications personnel, in addition to improving training and speeding up wartime mobilization. The artillery procurement included a secret order for several 42-centimeter mortars (pictured) specifically designed to destroy the fortifications around Liège, Belgium, as part of the Schlieffen Plan; nicknamed “Big Berthas” by designers at the Krupp armaments firm, these monstrous guns weighed 43 tons and fired shells weighing up to 1830 pounds.

The additions called for in the March 1913 novelle actually fell short of the three additional army corps originally requested by the German Army—but they still represented a sizeable increase in its peacetime strength from 790,000 in 1913 to 890,000 in 1914 (including officers, one-year volunteers, and auxiliary personnel). Some of the other measures, like new fortifications, wouldn’t be complete until 1915 or 1916. The price tag for all this included a one-time splurge of 895 million gold marks, plus a recurring annual outlay of 184 million marks, making it the biggest military spending bill in German history.


Click to enlarge.

Less than a week later, on March 6, 1913, Premier Aristide Briand presented the French Chamber of Deputies with a momentous request to increase the standard term of service from two years to three. The “Three Year Law,” as it became known, was supported by President Raymond Poincaré, army chief of staff Joseph Joffre, and the other members of the conseil superieur de la guerre, or Supreme War Council. By lengthening the term of service for conscripts by a year, the new law would increase the size of France’s standing army from 690,000 in 1913 to 827,000 in 1914, including officers and auxiliary personnel. For obvious reasons, this idea was unpopular with young Frenchmen liable to conscription (as well as their families) and probably wouldn’t have passed if not for public alarm over the new German military program, unveiled just days before; French officials warned that a strengthened German army might be able to launch a surprise attack without even waiting to mobilize reserves (a “standing start” attack).

While it signaled France’s determination to keep pace with Germany, in retrospect the Three Year Law was just as important for what it failed to do. For political reasons, the new law only applied to the 1913 (“freshmen”) conscript class, not previous classes, which were discharged as planned under the old schedule. This served to delay much of the law’s benefit as far as manpower was concerned, and also increased the proportion of untrained “green” recruits, meaning the army’s preparedness would actually decrease in the short term; the maximum benefits wouldn’t be felt until 1916.

Perhaps more importantly, the French government dragged its feet in procuring heavy artillery, which would prove crucial in trench warfare as the only means of breaking up enemy lines before advancing infantry. Although the war ministry asked the Chamber of Deputies to spend 400 million francs over seven years on howitzers and heavy artillery, the volatile French political environment prevented Parliament from agreeing to the request until June 1914—far too late to do any good in the opening stages of the war. The delay was partly due to complacency, as conventional wisdom held that France’s famous 75-millimeter cannons were the best field artillery in the world, as indeed they were—but these light guns, intended for a war of maneuver, were soon found to be inadequate in the face of a heavily entrenched enemy.

Last but certainly not least, in March 1913 the Russian government—eager to demonstrate solidarity with its French ally—began developing plans for a huge increase in armaments known as the “Great Military Program.” Although the details remained sketchy, on March 19, Tsar Nicholas II’s Council of Ministers agreed to a plan, outlined by Minister of War Vladimir Sukhomlinov, calling for a massive increase in the size of Russia’s standing army, procurement of new artillery, and construction of new strategic railroads to speed mobilization.

All this came on top of ambitious projects already underway. The current military bill, passed in 1912, was set to expand the Russian standing army from 1.2 million men in 1913 to 1.45 million men in 1914; the Great Military Program called for a further addition of half a million men by 1917, bringing Russia’s peacetime strength to nearly two million men. That alone would have been enough to trigger serious alarm in Germany and Austria-Hungary—but the program also promised to accelerate wartime mobilization with new military railroads, paid for in part by French loans. Remarkably, St. Petersburg was confident it could fund the rest of the program without having to resort to borrowing, thanks to Russia’s breathtaking economic growth: from 1910 to 1914, gross national product soared 25 percent to over 20 billion rubles, flooding government coffers with new tax revenues.


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But Russia’s autocratic government proved just as inefficient as the democratic regime of the French Republic: Final plans for the Great Military Program weren’t approved by Nicholas II until November 1913, and the bill wasn’t passed by the Russian Duma until July 1914—again, far too late to have much impact on Russia’s performance in the Great War. Indeed, the Great Military Program managed to induce panic in Berlin and Vienna without actually contributing to Russian military potential, and so ended up being counter-productive.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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Health
How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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