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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.

Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
The DEA Crackdown on Thomas Jefferson's Poppy Plants
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.
Composite by Mental Floss. Illustrations, iStock.

The bloom has come off Papaver somniferum in recent years, as the innocuous-looking plant has come under new scrutiny for its role as a building block in many pain-blunting opiates—and, by association, the opioid epidemic. That this 3-foot-tall plant harbors a pod that can be crushed and mixed with water to produce a euphoric high has resulted in a stigma regarding its growth. Not even gardens honoring our nation's Founding Fathers are exempt, which is how the estate of Thomas Jefferson once found itself in a bizarre dialogue with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over its poppy plants and whether the gift shop clerks were becoming inadvertent drug dealers.

Jefferson, the nation's third president, was an avowed horticulturist. He spent years tending to vegetable and flower gardens, recording the fates of more than 300 varieties of 90 different plants in meticulous detail. At Monticello, his Charlottesville, Virginia plantation, Jefferson devoted much of his free time to his sprawling soil. Among the vast selection of plants were several poppies, including the much-maligned Papaver somniferum.

The front view of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate
Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate.

"He was growing them for ornamental purposes,” Peggy Cornett, Monticello’s historic gardener and curator of plants, tells Mental Floss. “It was very common in early American gardens, early Colonial gardens. Poppies are annuals and come up easily.”

Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, the flower garden at Monticello was largely abandoned, and his estate was sold off to help repay the debts he had left behind. Around 115 years later, the Garden Club of Virginia began to restore the plot with the help of Jefferson’s own sketches of his flower borders and some highly resilient bulbs.

In 1987, Monticello’s caretakers opened the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants, complete with a greenhouse, garden, and retail store. The aim was to educate period-accurate gardeners and sell rare seeds to help populate their efforts. Papaver somniferum was among the offerings.

This didn’t appear to be of concern to anyone until 1991, when local reporters began to obsess over narcotics tips following a drug bust at the University of Virginia. Suddenly, the Center for Historic Plants was fielding queries about the “opium poppies” in residence at Monticello.

The Center had never tried to hide it. “We had labels on all the plants,” says Cornett, who has worked at Monticello since 1983 and remembers the ensuing political scuffle. “We didn’t grow them at the Center. We just collected and sold the seeds that came from Monticello.”

At the time, the legality of growing the poppy was frustratingly vague for the Center’s governing board, who tried repeatedly to get clarification on whether they were breaking the law. A representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture saw no issue with it, but couldn’t cite a specific law exempting the Center. The Office of the Attorney General in Virginia had no answer. It seemed as though no authority wanted to commit to a decision.

Eventually, the board called the DEA and insisted on instructions. Despite the ubiquity of the seeds—they can spring up anywhere, anytime—the DEA felt the Jefferson estate was playing with fire. Though they were not a clandestine opium den, they elected to take action in June of 1991.

“We pulled up the plants," Cornett says. “And we stopped selling the seeds, too.”

Today, Papaver somniferum is no longer in residence at Monticello, and its legal status is still murky at best. (While seeds can be sold and planting them should not typically land gardeners in trouble, opium poppy is a Schedule II drug and growing it is actually illegal—whether or not it's for the express purpose of making heroin or other drugs.) The Center does grow other plants in the Papaver genus, all of which have varying and usually low levels of opium.

As for Jefferson himself: While he may not have crushed his poppies personally, he did benefit from the plant’s medicinal effects. His personal physician, Robley Dunglison, prescribed laudanum, a tincture of opium, for recurring gastric issues. Jefferson took it until the day prior to his death, when he rejected another dose and told Dunglison, “No, doctor, nothing more.”

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Pop Culture
Mr. Rogers’s Sweater and Shoes Are on Display at the Heinz History Center
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images
Family Communications Inc./Getty Images

To celebrate what would have been Fred Rogers’s 90th birthday on March 20, the Heinz History Center of Pittsburgh has added two new, iconic pieces to its already extensive Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood display: his trademark sweater and shoes.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Rogers's green cardigan and blue Sperry shoes are now part of the fourth-floor display at the History Center, where they join other items from the show like McFeely’s “Speedy Delivery” tricycle, the Great Oak Tree, and King Friday XIII’s castle.

The sweater and shoe combo has been in the museum’s storage area, but with Rogers’s 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on deck for 2018, this was the perfect time to let the public enjoy the show's legendary props.

Fred Rogers was a mainstay in the Pittsburgh/Latrobe, Pennsylvania area, and there are numerous buildings and programs named after him, including the Fred Rogers Center and exhibits at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

If you’re in the area and want to take a look at Heinz History’s tribute to Mr. Rogers, the museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

[h/t Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]


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