War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War.

War of Attrition: Fighting the First World War by William Philpott. Overlook Press, 2014.

Despite a vast expenditure of human life and materiel during the Great War, neither the Central Powers (the German, Austria-Hungarian, and Ottoman Empires) nor the Entente (the British, French, Belgian, Russian, Italian) managed to achieve a war of movement or win decisive battles. The military stalemate that occurred almost immediately in the fall of 1914 continued until one side, it turned out the Central Powers, found themselves physically and mentally exhausted. Hence the war of attrition, William Philpott insists, made military sense, given the circumstances.


By the fifth year of the slaughter, morale on both sides was sagging.  Still mutinies in French army and German naval, the collapse of both the Austro-Hungarian and Russian imperial regimes, and food shortages in Central Europe did not much dim public support for a continued pursuit of the war.


There were even additional motives for continuing to fight. For one, there had to be something to show for the huge loss of life and fortune. Also Europeans had invested their savings in war bonds, and the only certainty of recovering their investment was to be on the winning side of the war and hence able to impose the total cost of the war on the losing side.


World War I is best known for its trenches, an elaborate network that stretched across northeastern France and Belgium. The trenches were dug to protect troops from an increase in the deadliness of firepower resulting from improved field canons, machine guns, and rifles. Light railroads kept the front supplied with that firepower. Truck transport was replacing horse-drawn wagons. We also associate WWI with tanks, barbed wire, and poisonous gas. Zeppelin airships and their bombs terrorized British cities near the coast, including London. None of these, according to Philpott, proved decisive. Contrary to the accepted historiography of the war, the military on both sides improved on their deployment of these new combat weapons, learning from the battlefield.


While war weariness was growing, all belligerents were well aware that defeat would place their political and economic institutions in jeopardy. The Russian imperial regime had succumbed to its domestic opponents in 1917. The socialist movement and its pacifism had quickly dissolved with the “the guns of August” in 1914 and no longer imposed any threat. However, the ardent nationalism that replaced it, while supporting the war effort in Britain and France, was hostile to the imperial regimes on both sides.


The Germans deployed submarines along the Atlantic shipping lanes to stop shipments of war materiel to the Britain and France.  The U.S. quickly became (as in the next war) the “arsenal of democracy.” This triggered the German decision to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare, and that, in turn, provoked the U.S. entry into the war in the spring of 1917. By 1918 millions of American males were under arms and being deployed on the Western Front. The original belligerents had exhausted their reserves, and U.S. divisions did eventually make a difference. Though here again, Philpott believes that the strategy of attrition was the real victor, not the American doughboy.


The author does not intend for his book to be a history of WWI.  So it is interesting to see what he has omitted. The important German victory over the Russian army at Tannenberg in the first month of the war brought attention to Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg and his staff officer, Erich Ludendorff. Both became heroes of the German Right in the interwar years. Tannenberg was considered to be a disaster for the Russians. Like the decisive battles on the eastern front in World War II, Tannenberg has not gotten its due.


There is little mention of the military successes of the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally. Before the War German officers had been military advisors to the Ottoman army, in part because the Russians and British had made no secret of their ambition to divide up the Asian provinces of the “sick man of Europe.” British and ANZAC (Australian, New Zealand, South African, and Canadian) came ashore and occupied the high ground above the Dardanelles in 1915. The landing, a precursor to amphibious warfare in the Second World War, proved to be a military disaster. The Turkish armies fought well and were well-lead.


Philpott doesn’t fault the planning behind the Gallipoli campaign, as most everyone else does. He suggests, however, that an invasion of Mesopotamia would have more easily accomplished the Entente’s objectives of knocking Germany’s Ottoman and Balkan allies out of the war. But the foremost proponent of the Gallipoli landing, Winston Churchill, was thinking that occupation of the Straits was the best way of exploiting an Ottoman defeat to strengthen the post-war British Empire.    

Rain; A Natural and Cultural History.

Rain; A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett. Crown Publishing, 2015.

Cynthia Barnett’s wondrous book demonstrates the fact that a comprehension of natural phenomena such as rain can contribute to an appreciation of its beauty.  A travelogue of sorts as she follows rain patterns around the world, her book also takes us back in time.


Barnett begins with her asking a geochemist to speculate on the “first rain,” perhaps better, the first recognition of the importance of rain falling from the sky. We Homo sapiens were around to see Earth subjected to periods of cooling, “ice ages”, when the land was covered by glaciers, followed by dramatic warming and greater precipitation. Early on we learned how to capture and use rainfall for our own purposes, but also to revere it as life-giving.


The Indus Valley Civilization (present-day Pakistan) may have been done in by dramatic changes in rainfall. It, like the civilizations centered in the Tigris and Euphrates Valley (Mesopotamia), may have succumbed to a period of desiccation. Both were rain-dependent agricultural systems; both stored rainfall. When the rains were late or even failed to come, or if there was too much rain, food shortages occurred. Barnett has recounted the failure or surplus of rain to cause substantial disruption of medieval economies as well. This alternation between rainlessness and flooding also resulted in the vulnerability of the medieval world to pestilence and plagues.


Rain is often associated with a male god, Jupiter in the Roman world; Earth with various goddesses. Thus rain becomes associated with semen. (The male role in reproduction was understood long before the female.) The rain god would, from time-to-time, bestow his blessings upon his devotees by sending rain, and his anger by sending too much rain. We know of the Biblical great flood, when a deserving family was instructed to build an arc and save both humankind and the animal kingdom. That myth is also told in the Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia dating from c.a. 2100 b.c., centuries before the Biblical account.


In early centuries holy men got credit for ‘predicting’ weather patterns. They claimed a hot line to the god that controlled rainfall and other weather phenomena. They likely supplemented that source with their own observations, the earliest weathercasters.


But these observations could be wide of the mark. During the American Civil War, Barnett tells us, it was observed that rain often followed a cannonade. Could it be that thunderous noises, in some unexplained way, brought about rain? Doesn’t rain follow thunder? (Barnett points out that most Civil War battles were fought in a region of more than ample rainfall.)


In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the U.S. Department of Agricultural got interested in rainmaking and took part in an experiment over a parched Texas prairie. A patent attorney, Robert St. George Dyrenforth, set out to prove that rain could be coaxed out of the clouds by firing off mortars. It was not a success, but other rainmakers followed with various schemes. The best time to try, they figured, would be days when rain was predicted. Of course. rain anywhere in the vicinity would be cited as evidence of success. Also one region’s rainfall was another region’s drought.  And finally woe to the person whose firing into the air produced too much rain.


The U.S. military was also interested in the possibility of using rain as a weapon. Stop campaigns with mud. Cloud seeding was tried; it at least was backed with better physics.


The reader is allowed to enjoy the phenomenon of rain in all of its beauty and goodness before being taken through a discussion of climate change. Barnett includes the problem of industrial air pollution mixing with rainfall – those “pea-soupers,” as they are called in London; acid rain and its impact on plant and animal life. The present intrudes.


Cynthia Barnett’s Rain; A Natural and Cultural History was nominated for a National Book Award.



The Sound Book; The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World.

The Sound Book; The Science of the Sonic Wonders of the World by Trevor Cox. W.W. Norton, 2014.


A British acoustical engineer who studies sound, Trevor Cox, has been documenting the wonders of the sonic world – soundscapes. He is describing two distinct phenomena. Reverberation is the sound that you hear bouncing around an enclosure after a word or musical note has stopped. Try bursting a balloon in a large room. The reverberations will seem to be coming from several directions. Unless, that is, the sound is absorbed by soft furnishings such as drapes and carpet that don’t resonate. Spaces are “alive” or “dead” depending upon how well they reverberate. An echo is a repetition of a sound from one direction. Try yodeling in the mountains.


Concert halls are intended to reverberate sound, and sometimes they fail to do so. Three notable failures are the Lincoln Center Philharmonic Hall in New York, the Royal Festival Hall in London, and the University Auditorium in Gainesville, Florida. Part of this failure is that the sound was not reflected back toward the stage so the musicians have difficulty hearing each other. In the past, good acoustics were left to happenstance; more important was the architectural magnificence of the building. Failed auditoria have had to be refitted, usually with sounding boards that focus the sound more successfully.


Cathedrals, regardless of their grandeur, have often been acoustical failures. That was not so important when huge pine organs could fill the church with sound and its reverberations. The failure became more important when protestant sermons had to be heard. So a sounding board or “tester” was installed above the preacher.


The author takes us on journeys to the various “sonic wonders.” Remember, he is interested in the sound not the sight. We visit the Wormit near Dundee, Scotland to investigate the soundscapes of several underground water reservoirs built there in 1923.  The town fathers were speculating on population growth which never happened. So the reservoirs lie unused, empty, and an object of curiosity for those interested in sonic phenomena, both reverberation and echoes. The visit is not for anyone vulnerable to claustrophobia. Nor is a visit to some above-ground oil storage tanks twice the size of a football field built in Scotland in the 1930s as a defense measure when the ‘clouds of war’ were gathering on the continent.


Not only does Trevor Cox wander about listening for sonic wonders, he also wanders back in time to explore past sonic phenomena. Perhaps the loudest sound ever experienced by humans was the eruption of Krakatoa, a volcanic island in Southeast Asia, in 1883. It is claimed that the eruption was heard 3000 miles away. Cox believes that it is possible to understand the location of Neolithic drawings found in caves by looking into the cave’s sonic qualities. The drawings seem to have been located where reverberations are focused. He explores the sonic qualities of a replica of Stonehenge in Maryhill, Washington, USA. The great prehistoric monument near Salisbury, England, is believed to have captured meaningful solar phenomena but also to have had extraordinary acoustical qualities, adding to its power as a site for religious showmanship.


Cox and others are documenting and storing unusual soundscapes as we do sites with our picture-taking. Curved domes have acoustical properties if constructed correctly. And sampling those acoustics is always part of a tour of the Iman Mosque in Isfahan, Iran and the Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur, India. The main hall of Grand Central Station in New York does not have any memorable acoustical qualities. But the arches on the lower level are whispering galleries. If you position yourself against the wall at the base of one of the arches, it will carry the sound well enough to be heard as a whisper on the other side.


Heterophonics are words spoken in one language that, under the right conditions, echo back in another. This fanciful phenomenon reminds us that we often hear what we want to hear. Still Trevor Cox has convinced me that touring ought to include soundscapes as well as landscapes and cityscapes.




The War on Alcohol; Prohibition and the Rise of the American State.

The War on Alcohol; Prohibition and the Rise of the American State by Lisa McGirr. W.W. Norton, 2016.

Lisa McGirr reminds us that the Eighteenth Amendment which prohibited the manufacture, distribution, or sale of alcoholic beverages was the only amendment that took away, rather than upheld a right. It sailed through Congress in January 1919 and was quickly approved by three-fourths of the state legislatures. The Volstead Act, a year later, provided the administrative apparatus to support enforcement and funding.


The deleterious impact of alcohol on public and private life was one of an array of public anxieties in the early years of the last century. Others: the massive growth of industrial capitalism that was transforming the U.S. economy, fear of the resulting volatile proletariat, apprehensions about large numbers of recent European immigrants, and Southern blacks and poor whites crowding into northern cities. Given all these worries it is difficult to explain why the public focused on the proletarian culture of the saloon and the liquor trade. The easy passage of a constitutional amendment, McGirr suggests, and its repeal in 1933 only fourteen years later with much the same enthusiasm, needs explaining.


It must be remembered that the anti-liquor crusade was nothing new to the Country. Individuals and groups had been advocating prohibition for decades. The best known were the Anti-Saloon League, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and several of the prominent religious congregations, though not the Roman Catholics. Most of the immigrants to the US in the early decades of the twentieth century were from Southern and Eastern Europe and were Catholic. And they brought with them their fondness for socializing in saloons.


The U.S. entry into World War I in April 1917 may have been the tipping point. We required a disciplined fighting force, and alcohol consumption was considered inimical to that need. It was also true that the beer industry was dominated by German-Americans.


It is also important to remember that Prohibition was part of a more general concern about recreational narcotics. The dispute over the regulation of alcohol resembles the current division in this country about suppressing narcotics – our war on drugs.


And like the present-day war on drugs, enforcement of the Volstead Act and the many state laws was “selective.” And this eventually soured public opinion. Federal and state agents seemed to concentrate on working-class neighborhoods. True, many of the individuals who took part in the illegal trade were working-class. McGirr talks about “kitchen table” drinkers, who would buy and consume alcohol in their homes where they brewed or distilled spirits. Or in speakeasies in poorer neighborhoods. Less bothered by enforcement were those who patronized more elegant drinking establishments and night clubs where they would purchase both liquor and entertainment. The illicit trade in alcohol supported many ragtime and jazz musicians.


Once in a while the federal agents would make some sensational bust, which would be covered by the press. The Bureau of Prohibition gained a reputation for its strong-arm tactics. Like many a banned activity, the illicit liquor trade attracted a criminal element, and they frequently fought amongst themselves and with the “G-men” over turf. All sides became armed; the machine gun was introduced into law enforcement. The resulting carnage produced some memorable photojournalism.


The Bureau claimed that there was never enough money available to support Prohibition. So it invited the public to help with enforcement. Sheriffs would deputize locals. McGirr discusses the substantial involvement of the revitalized Ku Klux Klan in the enforcement of Prohibition. She claims that Prohibition, and the violence surrounding its enforcement, contributed to the KKK’s rebirth in the twentieth century. The African-American leadership wondered why so much energy was devoted to the suppression of recreational drinking amongst blacks, but not to suppressing lynching.


During the 1928 presidential campaign, Herbert Hoover appointed a committee to look into the shocking rise in criminal activity in the country and what should be the appropriate federal response. The eleven-member Wickersham Commission focused on Prohibition enforcement. It was critical of the resulting “penal state.” It found little support for the continuation of Prohibition from those who testified at the Committee’s hearings.


President Hoover, on the other hand, advocated more enforcement, more prisons, getting tougher on crime, a more efficient judicial system, and better surveillance methods. Al Smith his opponent in the 1928 campaign was openly “wet.” Hoover won in a landslide getting 58.2% of the votes. McGirr claims, nevertheless, that the ‘28 election closed one political era and opened another. The industrial working class left the Republican Party, in part over the Prohibition issue.


The Amendment was repealed and the Volstead Act Amended in the early days of Franklin Roosevelt’s first term. The nation now had the sobering “Great Depression” to think about. Though much of the elaborate legislation enacted by the states remained and remains on the books. McGirr claims that the U.S. war on alcohol in the early part of the twentieth century also built the foundations of the penal state which flourishes in our new century.




The Cabaret of Plants; Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination .

The Cabaret of Plants; Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination by Richard Mabey. W.W. Norton, 2016, paper.

Richard Mabey describes interesting plant species and families raising along the way questions about the boundary between the plant and animal kingdoms. He argues that our confidence in that division should be weakened after reading his book. Plants, like animals, have agency; they shape their existence, exerting their instrumentality, even power. “Human imagination” in Mabey’s title is there to suggest that we have “invented nature,” and that being the case, we can reimagine our invention. Throughout he requires us to examine how we think with and use our language in talking about plant life, including plant/animal interactions.


We have tended to regard the five senses – sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch – as limited to animals. But plants are capable of chemical sensing (smell?) and altering their behavior accordingly. For example, plants gather knowledge through their physical interaction with insect pollinators (touch?).


Scientists are working on the possibility that animals are capable of “electronic signaling.” Carnivorous plants may use such signaling to trap insects in flowers ‘designed’ to expose the captured insect to the plant’s digestive juices. The Venus fly-trap is the most notorious of these animal eaters. Many plants secrete fluids to repel, even kill, insects that would otherwise harm them. Few digest them.


The creation story told by modern science dates back much further than the Biblical creation stories. In the beginning we imagine that a primeval forest once covered Earth until mankind arrived. The world that the Genesis myth describes is not the primeval forest but rather, Mabey maintains, more like an enclosed garden. The Tree of Life in Christian mythology is envisioned as a free-standing specimen with symmetrical branches in a park-like setting with no under canopy. Our Midwestern lawns and magnificent street trees resemble this notion of that earthly garden where Adam and Eve frolicked. Until they were put to work.


Perhaps that Tree of Life was a yew. The English trek through their countryside, seeking what Mabey calls their “yew experience.” These ancient trees are often thought to have been planted near a country church and the yew’s presence is woven into the sacredness of the building and the nearby graveyard. (The yew is, in fact, associated with the Christian rite of marriage rather than death.) The yews in those churchyards, Mabey reminds us, are much older than the churches. The spreading yew’s branches and huge trunks may have been a sacred Druid haunt that was appropriated by Christians.

We Floridians revere our ancient live oaks. Like the yews and other ancient plants, they often maintain possession of their grounds after they have fallen, living on as sprouts at the base of the still living parts of their trunks.


The “vegetable lamb” is what the cotton plant was called because it rivaled wool as a cloth material. There were species of cotton the Old World and the New. Native Americans had long understood cotton’s qualities and were skilled in its use before their encounter with the European species.


The myth of the vegetable lamb is one of several involving an imaginary creature who is both animal and vegetable. Mabey points out that the “green man,” usually an animal face surrounded by leaves was a combination of plant and animal (in this case human) forms, much used in church architecture and decoration.


An apple’s fall to the earth has been fashioned into Isaac Newton’s  metaphor for an otherwise unseeable force. The apple has figured in many tales that associate humans with nature. That original apple, which most probably fell to ground somewhere in northwest China, has been bred and cross-bred. It is estimated that there are now 20,000 varieties. The Chinese brown bears were the first to begin working on a better variety. They browsed around for the largest and sweetest apple and their scat assured its dispersal.


We do not generally speak of plants as experiencing earthly pleasures, which are reserved for humans and perhaps their animal pets. But the English Romantics speak of daffodils as “dancing” in the wind. We have been asked to “consider the lilies and how they grow.” The ‘cabaret’ in Mabey’s title suggests this possibility.


Many of the phenomena that Richard Mabey describes will already be familiar to the general reader. But he attaches engaging names to these phenomena, for example, “forest gardening” practiced by Native Americans centuries before the coming of the Europeans. These were cleared patches in the forest that would grow food crops such as maize and squash. Once the forest soils were exhausted, the Indians moved on to a new area and created a new forest garden, allowing the old plot to be reinvigorated by nature.


The Cabaret of Plants is an examination of the language we use when we talk about nature.