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WWI Centennial: German Planes Bomb Britain

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 277th installment in the series.

May 25, 1917: German Planes Bomb Britain

Spring 1917 brought a new kind of scourge to the skies of Britain, in the form of German heavy long-range bombers – representing an escalation of the strategic bombing campaign as fast, nimble planes replaced the slow, awkward zeppelins that loomed over London and other English towns in earlier raids. Long-range bomber raids would be a regular (but unpredictable) feature of life in all the belligerent nations for the remainder of the conflict, giving civilian populations a taste of war’s terror, often hundreds of miles from the front.

The move to long-range bombers was prompted by the growing vulnerability of Germany’s zeppelin airships to a new generation of faster British fighter planes armed with incendiary ammunition. The latter included a new “tracer bullet,” the .303 SPG Mark VIIG, which emitted a regular bright green-white trail and was capable of igniting hydrogen in the zeppelins’ gasbags, resulting in spectacular explosions of the sort later familiar to the whole world from the Hindenburg disaster.

On September 2, 1916, Lieutenant William Leefe-Robinson shot down a zeppelin using incendiary ammunition for the first time, and five more zeppelins were brought down in the following months. One British pilot, Lieutenant W.J. Tempest, left this dramatic account of a successful interception on October 1, 1916:

I decided to dive at her… firing a burst straight into her as I came. I let her have another burst as I passed under her and then banked my machine over, sat under her tail and flying along underneath her pumped lead into her for all I was worth… As I was firing, I noticed her begin to go red inside like an enormous Chinese lantern. She shot up about 200 feet, paused, and came roaring down straight on to me before I had time get out of the way. I nose-dived for all I was worth, with the Zeppelin tearing after me… I put my machine into a spin and just managed to corkscrew out of the way as she shot past me, roaring like a furnace…

Another eyewitness, a British civilian named Michael MacDonagh, described seeing the same event from the ground:

Looking up the clear run of New Bridge Street and Farringdon Road I saw high in the sky a concentrated blaze of searchlights, and in its centre a ruddy glow which rapidly spread into the outline of a blazing airship. Then the searchlights were turned off and the Zeppelin drifted perpendicularly in the darkened sky, a gigantic pyramid of flames, red and orange, like a ruined star falling slowly to earth. Its glare lit up the streets and gave a ruddy tint even to the waters of the Thames. The spectacle lasted two or three minutes… When at last the doomed airship vanished from sight there arose a shout the like of which I never heard in London before – a hoarse shout of mingled execration, triumph and joy…

Their huge size and low speed and maneuverability meant zeppelins were sitting ducks from now on, a fact underlined by the loss of the zeppelin L-22 off Yarmouth on May 14, 1917. Clearly the German military would have to turn to new weapons in its effort to bring the war home to British civilians (motivated in large part by the German public’s demand for retaliation against the Allied “starvation blockade”). The obvious choice was long-range heavy bombers, specifically the Gotha G.IV, first introduced in 1916 (top, below).

The G.IV was a 40-feet-long aircraft with a wingspan of 78 feet
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The G.IV was a formidable aircraft: 40 feet long, with a wingspan of 78 feet, it carried a crew of three and was powered by two 260-horsepower Mercedes engines, giving it a top speed of 84 miles per hour and a maximum altitude of 16,400 feet. Its maximum takeoff weight of 8,763 pounds included a bomb payload of 1,100 pounds, in the form of up to ten bombs released directly from the underside of the plane (as opposed to a bomb bay). The plane also carried three machine guns, facing fore and aft, for defense against enemy fighters. With a maximum flight time of six hours and a maximum range of 373 miles, the Gotha G.IV could easily hit London and its suburbs, as well as other targets on the British coast and interior, from bases in Belgium and northern France.

On May 25, 1917, 21 Gotha G.IV bombers attacked London and other targets in southeast England, killing scores and highlighting the island nation’s vulnerability to the fast new raiders. After a mostly unsuccessful attack on London, the bombers struck the seaside town of Folkestone to offload their bombs before returning across the English Channel, inflicting numerous casualties, including 81 dead and over 100 injured in Folkestone, plus another 14 dead elsewhere. The total of 95 dead included 18 servicemen killed at the nearby Shorncliffe Camp, of which 16 were Canadian troops.

Jenkins Burris, an American correspondent and YMCA lecturer, happened to be in Folkestone during the German bomber raid, remembering:

When I rushed out of our house by the seaside I found crowds gazing upward in the direction of the sun. I could see nothing for the glare, neither apparently could the others. Suddenly two little girls cried: “There they are!” Then I saw them, two airplanes, not Zeppelins, emerging from the disc of the sun almost overhead. Then four more, or five, in a line; and others, all like bright silver insects hovering against the blue of the sky. The heavens seemed full of them. There were about a score in all and we were charmed with the beauty of the sight. I am sure few of us thought seriously of danger. Then the air was split by the whistle and rush of the first bomb, which sounds like the shrill siren of a police car. This was followed at once by a detonation that shook the earth.

With a jolt, the crowd suddenly realized that their town was under attack, but the German planes were already fleeing:

I glanced in the direction of the shell-burst, 100 yards away, and the debris was still going up like a column of smoke. Then came two more strokes, apparently in the same spot. Then three other bombs fell. I afterwards found the missiles wrecked the Osmond hotel and wounded our motor driver. Then another bomb demolished the manor house by the sea… Other shots fell, but I could count no further. They came thick and fast, like crackling, rolling blasts of our western lightning and thunder… Anti-aircraft shells were now bursting on the fringes of the air fleet. Then followed in the distance the purr of the machine guns and we knew that our own planes were up in pursuit.

Memorial to 1917 Air Raid Tontine Street

Jeremy Miles // Leshaigh.co.uk

As expected, these fast bombers were often able to elude fighter planes trying to intercept them (a task made even harder by the lack of warning when bombers were approaching, in an age before radar). James T.B. McCudden, a British ace, described a failed attempt to intercept German Gothas returning from a bombing raid in June 1917:

In a minute my machine was ready, and I took off in an easterly direction, towards the south of the Thames… I now found that there were over twenty machines, all with two-“pusher” engines. To my dismay I found I could not lessen the range to any appreciable extent. By the time I had got to 500 ft. under the rear machine we were twenty miles east of the Essex coast, and visions of a very long swim entered my mind, so I decided to fire all my ammunition and then depart… How insolent these damned Boches did look, absolutely lording the sky over England!

While the fighter pilots of Britain’s Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service might not be able to stop the enemy bomber raids, their comrades in Britain’s new strategic bombing division could at least repay them in kind, leading to escalating “tit-for-tat” raids foreshadowing the horrors of large-scale strategic bombing in the Second World War.

Handley Page Type "O"
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The British champion in the bombing contest was the Handley Page Type “O”, a huge biplane, which was first introduced in 1916 and began long-range bombing raids in March 1917 (above, below).  Measuring 63 feet long, with a wingspan of 100 feet, the behemoth had a crew of four or five men and was powered by two Rolls Royce 360-horsepower engines, giving it a top speed of 97.5 miles per hour and a maximum takeoff weight of 13,360 pounds, including a 2,000-pound bomb payload held in a bomb bay. The Handley Page had a maximum flying time of eight hours, a maximum range of 700 miles, and was protected by five Lewis machine guns.

Paul Bewsher, a British bombardier who participated in long-distance raids by Handley-Page bombers based in northern France, recalled his first mission in the spring of 1917, a nighttime attack targeting a blast furnace outside the German city of Metz:

Below me now I could see incessant shell-bursts, vicious and brilliant red spurts of flame. I put my head out of the hole for a moment into the biting wind, and looked down, and saw that the whole night was beflowered with these sudden sparks of fire, which appeared suddenly like bubbles breaking to the surface of a pond. The Germans were firing a fierce barrage from a great number of guns… I was very excited as I lay face downwards in my heavy flying-clothes on the floor, with my right hand on the bomb-handle in that little quivering room whose canvas walls were every now and then lit up by the flash of a nearer shell… The engines thundered. The floor vibrated. Below the faint glow of the bomb-sights the sweep of country seemed even darker in contrast with the swift flickering of the barrage, and here and there I could see the long beam of a searchlight moving to and fro.

Bewsher’s account is testimony to the primitive state of technology employed in the strategic bombers at the time, as at the climax of the attack he is forced to resort to an age-old mechanical trick – kicking the offending machinery, in this case a bomb: “Then I pressed over my lever, and heard a clatter behind… I looked back and saw by the light of my torch that one bomb was still in the machine… I put my foot on the top if it and stood up. It slipped suddenly through the bottom and disappeared.”

Bewsher also noted that the reality of war could include instances of surreal beauty, in this case the spectacle created by German anti-aircraft searchlights and flares:

The dim country is slashed and cut across by these almost dazzling beams which wheel and hesitate and cross each other in gigantic patterns… A few second after the appearance of this company of searchlights there rise from three or four points in the neighbourhood of the docks long chains of vivid green balls, which cast an unearthly gleam upon the water of the basins… They bend over slowly in the upper sky, and one by one fade away to red sparks dropping swiftly.

As time went on many participants noted the emotional detachment of pilots in planes regarding their victims on the ground, the inevitable result of the physical distance between them, which left those on the ground looking like “ants” to the godlike pilots, if they were visible at all. Bewsher described the strange absence of feeling experienced by some bomber pilots, yet another instance of dehumanization resulting from modern warfare:

If at any time I had been sent at night to attack a British town I would have released my bombs with no feeling of horror; indeed I would not have had any feelings at all.  At first sight that statement sounds brutal and incredible… The explanation is that the airman dropping bombs does not drop them on human beings… It is merely a scientific operation. You never feel that there are human beings, soft creatures of flesh and blood, below you. You are not conscious of the fear and misery, of the pain and death, you may be causing. You are entirely aloof.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.

1. BEZOARS

Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?

2. MITHRIDATES

This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.

3. HORNS

An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.

4. PEARLS

Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.

5. THERIAC

Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.

BONUS: WHAT ACTUALLY WORKS

Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.

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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes
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By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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