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Britain Winning Naval Arms Race, Churchill Says

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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 78th installment in the series.  

July 17, 1913: Britain Winning Naval Arms Race, Churchill Says

“We shall receive in the near future incomparably the greatest delivery of warships ever recorded in the history of the British Navy,” First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill (above) informed Parliament on the evening of July 17, 1913. British shipbuilding, spurred on by German competition, was indeed impressive: “During the next twelve months we shall receive, on the average, a light cruiser every thirty days, and—this is the most impressive fact of all—during the next eighteen months we shall, on the average, receive a ‘super-Dreadnought’ of the latest possible type … every forty-five days.”

Churchill was quick to point out that the “next strongest Naval Power” (no one needed to be told this meant Germany) was adding new dreadnought-type battleships at less than half this rate. In short, Churchill’s vow to outpace German construction by a margin of at least 60 percent was being realized, and the threat to Britain’s naval supremacy was receding—at least for the time being. 

There was some reason to hope the Germans were throwing in the towel in the naval rivalry. Back in February 1913, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz had given a speech to the Reichstag indicating the German government was prepared to accept 60 percent superiority in the British dreadnought fleet, as demanded by Churchill. This concession came amid a general warming of relations between Britain and Germany, who cooperated at the Conference of London to resolve the crises resulting from the First Balkan War and also settled disagreements about colonial boundaries in Africa.

Unsurprisingly, Churchill remained leery of the Germans, noting that their naval concessions were provisional and easily revoked. On March 26, 1913, the First Lord cautioned Parliament, “We must not try to read into recent German naval declarations a meaning which we should like, but which they do not possess.” But on April 30, Churchill struck a more positive note, privately informing the German ambassador, Prince Lichnowsky, that the naval rivalry was the only real obstacle to good relations between Germany and Britain.

Ironically, the improvement in Anglo-German relations in 1913 may have inadvertently contributed to the outbreak of war in 1914 by leading the Germans to believe the British wouldn’t intervene in a conflict between Germany and France. This was (typically) wishful thinking on their part—the British had learned they couldn’t allow a single nation to dominate Europe, as Louis XIV and Napoleon had, with disastrous consequences for Britain. While the British were undoubtedly pleased to slow the naval arms race and settle colonial issues, this didn’t mean they would stand by while Germany crushed France and seized control of the continent.

Bulgarian Government Falls

The Second Balkan War was an unmitigated disaster for Bulgaria, which found itself under attack (or rather, counter-attack) on all sides, resulting in the loss of most of its conquests from the First Balkan War. With Serbian and Greek armies advancing in the west, in the east Romanian troops occupied the northern Bulgarian province of Dobruja on July 11, 1913, and two days later Turkish troops moved to reclaim Adrianople, which had been left completely undefended.

Bulgaria’s traditional Slavic patron, Russia, made no move to help, and Tsar Ferdinand frantically turned to Austria-Hungary for military assistance, pointing out that the rise of Serbian power endangered both their interests.  But the indecisive Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, Count Berchtold, kept adding new conditions for a potential alliance. Thus, on July 15, he demanded that Bulgaria’s pro-Russian civilian government resign, to be replaced by a new government formed by the pro-Austrian opposition.

Grasping at straws, Ferdinand gave the word, and on July 17, 1913, a new Bulgarian government was formed by the pro-Austrian liberal politician Vasil Radoslavov, who begged the Austro-Hungarian ambassador for military assistance the following day: “How is it possible that Vienna does not seize this chance to make an end of Serbia?” But by this point Bulgaria’s defeat was an accomplished fact, and Berchtold (who was being advised to stay out of the Second Balkan War by Austria-Hungary’s Triple Alliance partners) merely encouraged the Bulgarians to make peace on whatever terms they could.  

Nonetheless, the fall of Bulgaria’s pro-Russian government had serious lasting consequences. The loss of Bulgaria meant that Russia was left with Serbia as its sole remaining ally in the Balkans, and that in turn meant Russia would have to back Serbia up in any future conflicts, or risk losing its influence in the Balkans altogether. In July 1914, this would result in disaster.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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