Archive for July, 2009

Fled Zeppelin

July 19, 2009

BlimpAnd here’s why

An obscure but interesting one, I think. If you’ve visited Edinburgh at all, you’ve likely heard of (or jumped at the report of) the One o’clock Gun – a time-keeping gun that goes off, well, every day at 1pm. These were originally practical devices that all the rage in the 19th century. Connected to a dropping ball indicator, they allowed ship’s captains, factory owners, and residents alike to keep their chronometers and watches set accurately. Now, the Edinburgh gun mainly just scares the bejeezus out of tourists. The gun is supposedly linked to another fascinating (and sad) piece of Edinburgh history – the raid by German airship L.14 on April 2 1916 that killed 13 people (including the port town of Leith). The story goes that, faced with this technological terror, the Edinburgh Castle garrison used the only heavy weapon at their disposal – the artillery piece used to fire the time signal – to try to scare off the Zeppelin using its standard issue blank rounds. The claim has propagated across tourist websites and blogs, and is on its way to becoming lore (if it wasn’t already). I decided to investigate.

I next spotted the claim on the Historic Scotland website whilst looking into the zeppelin raid itself, and despite these being the very people that run Edinburgh Castle, I was still sceptical. I traced it online to an even bolder claim in a 2001 Daily Record article featuring Normandy veteran ‘Jock’ Wilson:

“…even Mon’s Meg, uncharacteristically firing in anger, found it impossible to pierce the thick hide of the balloon as it floated high out of range.”

This is ludicrous, and I’m inclined to see it as a journalist’s misquoting of Wilson for reasons that will become apparent. Mons Meg is a 16th Century bombard – basically a massive medieval cannon. Even if such a thing could have been readied to fire in 1916 without the necessary tackle and stone ball ammunition – or even a carriage, since a replica was not supplied until 1935(!) – Mons’ firing days were long since over, as she had burst way back in 1681. The confusion likely arises from Mons’ use as a saluting gun – a role also carried out today by the timegun – but Mons Meg ceased to perform that duty two centuries before the time gun idea was even thought of. Live rounds would simply not have been kept at the castle, which had no functioning artillery aside from the timegun. Edinburgh had a true artillery fort at Leith – no chance of getting rounds from there up to the Castle in time to fire at any raider.

The oldest version of the story that I could find online dates to 1998 (July 24th) in the form of another Edinburgh Evening News article entitled ‘Gun’s Story Will Stand the Test of Time’. This is an interview with the then District Gunner, Sergeant Thomas ‘Tam the Gun’ McKay. It (unsurprisingly) follows the line of the latest Evening News reference, giving more dramatic detail;

“During the First World War a German zeppelin tried to bomb the castle and the gunners tried to fight it off.”

McKay himself is then quoted as saying;

“They manned the gun and the zeppelin was chased round the back of the castle where it dropped its bombs, killing a small number of people in the Grassmarket. “What the folk on the zeppelin didn’t know was it was only blank ammunition. It’s stories like that which need to be told.”


I reached a dead end at this point, but was able to take the search offline when I came across a copy of ‘What Time Does the One O’clock Gun Fire?’ by McKay, published in 2000 and widely available in Edinburgh gift and bookshops the few years afterward. In this we discover that Tam was not privy to special Royal Artillery or MoD information, or even unit folklore, but actually received the story orally from none other than… Jock Wilson. The story, though pre-dating the Daily Record interview with Wilson, is more akin to the History Scotland and Edinburgh Evening News versions – blank rounds fired by the timegun to put the wind up the Zeppelin. Either this was Wilson’s actual story, later corrupted by the Record journalist, or McKay adapted Wilson’s story in line with his own knowledge. Another offline source, from which I’m told the curator quoted in the Evening News took his statement, is an article from History Scotland magazine in 2004. On checking this out, it agrees with both of McKay’s accounts – the blanks/timegun combination – but gives no source of its own. Most likely it is McKay’s book and/or newspaper interview.

So from the gun firing live, to Mons Meg firing live, we’re back to the timegun again, but now firing only blanks – a much more plausible-sounding claim. Or is it? Because at that time the gun was a 32-pounder breech-loading cannon that, unlike the 25-pdr and 105mm guns that replaced it, could not have been elevated to fire in the manner of, say, a German 88mm Flak gun. From the photo, it also appears that the gun’s muzzle was permanently inserted into a masonry firing loop. The zeppelin was operating at a height of several thousand feet – achievable for an anti-aircraft gun using airbursting shells, but not in this case. There is also the fairly major complication that, despite the claim of the Evening News that it was a bright, moon-lit night, April 2-3 in fact saw a new moon – there would have been no way to locate the zeppelin in the sky, much less direct fire onto it. We also have to look for corroborating evidence, Wilson’s claim being effectively oral history – anecdotal evidence decades after the fact. There just isn’t any, and though the official report by the War Office makes mention of machine-guns on Arthur’s Seat opening fire as the zeppelin retreated, there’s nothing on any form of artillery. There is mention in the Scotsman’s archive of rifle fire from the Castle, but again, nothing about the One o’clock Gun.

Despite this, I don’t disbelieve Wilson as such. No doubt he was in the vicinity of the Castle at some point during or after the raid – just not as a 13-year-old boy within a military installation under air attack at midnight. It seems likely to me that he received his information via local hearsay, though that is speculation on my part it’s more parsimonious than Wilson’s memory being that faulty, or his lying for some reason. It’s easy to see how a desire to see the city defended, combined with the confusion of noise and light on a pitch-dark night might give rise to this idea. This snippet from a book about children’s rhymes on Google Books hints at this being popular belief at the time and afterward, though given the date it could have come from Tam the Gun’s book.

Reading McKay’s comments above, it’s easy to see why he might embrace a story told him by a fellow serviceman. Rather than being completely at the mercy of the German invaders, and the city avoiding a large death-toll only because of the limitations of the airship as a bomber, we have the stalwart and resourceful defenders of the Scottish capital saving life, limb and property. Whereas if I’m right, the 13 deaths (two of whom were children), 24 injuries and not inconsiderable damage to houses, businesses, and even a school, were a result of the zeppelin operating entirely unmolested (small-arms fire notwithstanding) due to a total lack of air defence capability. For this reason any other present-day members of the Royal Artillery have no reason to cover any embarassment with urban myth. Nor should the Royal Naval Air Service, who sent a fighter to intercept but had no way of locating the enemy. The airship was a very new and high-tech threat, and if anyone is to blame for a failure to anticipate and defend against L.14’s attack (and it’s a big if), it is the military commanders and politicians who considered the risk too small to divert resources toward.


So, I think this is myth=busted, but I am interested in any evidence of it being part of folklore beyond Jock Wilson’s account. As ever, if anyone has any more information, please do leave me a comment.

Regarding Henry (and his bodycount)

July 9, 2009

henry viiiIf in doubt, resort to a cheap Carry On reference

For once I’m going to respond to something right up to date – a claim on the nonetheless excellent and thoroughly entertaining (if somewhat ghoulish) ‘Execution of the Day‘ blog that King Henry VIII, famous for killing all his wives (two of them actually), also had executed 72,000 of his subjects. In its defence, they do say that it came from ‘reality’ TV programme ‘Big Brother’, although you might think that this would be reason enough to reject it out of hand.

Except it’s not really an up to date claim. It’s been doing the rounds since the 16th century, and is practically received knowledge. But more on that in a moment, as I like to subject these things to the old bullshit ‘smell test’. How plausible is the claim?

Well, the population in 1550 was around 2,800,000. 72,000 is 2.6% of the population – more than the percentage of the US population killed in the American Civil War, for example. That’s 2000 people a day on average – the equivalent of a large scale set-piece medieval battle. In fact, 72,000 deaths is more than twice the number of deaths than occurred in the bloodiest battle in English history. And I think the battle analogy is appropriate, because you’d be talking about a majority of physically able males – precisely the sort of people required to keep a strained post-medieval economy and fluctuating birth-rate going (bearing in mind that we aren’t just talking ‘capital’ crimes here). This would surely be a massive impact upon society (for better or worse) that (to the best of my knowledge) we just don’t see evidence of in the historical record. More than just one chronicler would have noticed a death toll of that nature. But more than that there’s the logistical difficulty of getting that many people killed. The Nazis had poison gas and automatic weapons. The Tudors had archery, arquebuses, and artillery. Then there’s the expense of (for the sake of argument) firing several people at a time out of a bombard – much easier to half-starve a criminal in a disease-ridden shithole of a prison that he might well die in anyway.

Anyway, we’re verging on argument from incredulity, so let’s look at the evidence. This work has already been done, by James Anthony Froude and mid-19th century contributors to Notes and Queries. To summarise, the figure of 72,000 is usually (even today) attributed to chronicler Holinshed, but incorrectly so (a sure sign of a lack of primary source checking by those perpetuating a claim). The figure is sometimes disputed on the basis that said author was writing some 30 years after Henry’s death, but in fact by historical standards, that’s still a primary source. It’s actually William Harrison’s ‘Description of England‘ that the claim appears;

“Henry the Eighth, executing his laws very severely against such idle persons, I mean, great thieves, petty thieves, and rogues, did hang up threescore-and-twelve thousand of them in his time.”

Note that far from decrying Henry’s brutality, Harrison is actually approving of the idea, due to a perceived rise in crime at the time of writing (despite 3-400 crims still being executed by his own estimation!). This is a bit like pining for the days of Margaret Thatcher, but ironically this hard-line criminal justice angle isn’t the origin of the claim. Thanks to Harrison giving his sources, we see that, via astrologer Girolamo Cardano, the source is actually the Bishop of Lisieux. Now, I don’t need to tell you that bishop is a Catholic post. Nor should I that Henry’s relationship with the Pope was not the most cordial. But if I also told you also that the claim by this bishop is often given as being 72,000 Catholics, and not “thieves and rogues”, you might get a sense of the bias bound up in this myth. Note also an Irish Republican who states that the figure has been “computed” in order to lend it extra weight.

What if I then told you that the bishop in question was the brother of one of King Henry’s sworn enemies – the Admiral of France who led the same failed invasion of England that also saw the loss of Henry’s flagship, the Mary Rose? Between the personal, national, and denominational angst that the bish must have held toward Henry, we have more than enough bias to have serious concerns over the figure given.

There is also the extreme unreliability of figures in individual historical sources in general. It’s rare for historians to go with a single claimed figure for anything because of an awareness of this tendency to over-estimate numbers – people were not, for one thing, aware of the population of the country at the time. Take battle casualties – which are routinely re-assessed at much lower totals, sometimes even 50% lower. Or, as the Notes and Queries link relates, the number of churches in England was overestimated by fives times the actual figure. In short, we cannot take this source on face value.

Now, let’s qualify this debunking somewhat: Henry absolutely did have people killed for being Catholic – amongst other things – and directly or indirectly, must have been responsible for a lot of deaths. In the best (or worst) traditions of English monarchs, he also killed lots of French people – as the source of this piece of propaganda would have been all too aware! By today’s standards, he was bloodthirsty, and although he was not responsible for killing that many people, it may not have been for want of trying – the implication of Froude’s research is that the laws enacted during Henry’s reign were actually too harsh and were unworkable, ironically (and unintentionally) saving lives. But whatever the truth, this is why we need to critically examine sources in order to make reasonable judgements of figures from history, without being blinded by our evolved sense of morality and social justice.

Deadliest Warrior – Fact vs Fiction

July 5, 2009

Zombie vs SharkIdea for the xmas special – Zombie vs Shark!

I’ll make no bones about it – Spike TV’s ‘Deadliest Warrior‘ is absolute arse gravy. In fact, it’s so ridiculous, it’s almost beyond criticism. What they’ve done is take a pub argument and make a ‘documentary’ series about it. The very premise of pitting two warriors who never met and could never have met is of course completely meaningless.  Then there’s the total lack of objective criteria for establishing a victor. I know what you’re thinking – I’ve seen it said online already – “you’re taking it too seriously”. I would counter that it’s the show itself that’s taking itself too seriously for sheer entertainment, and not nearly seriously enough as an educational effort. Besides, a quick google demonstrates not only that there are a lot of credulous goons actually buying the ‘scientific’ and ‘historical’ content of the show, but that the makers and promoters of the series are selling and defending it as popular science and history – not as pop-culture-based fun and frolics. It’s not even internally consistent, and appears to resort to outright fakery on a fairly regular basis. In other words, it’s ‘professional’ wrestling in a lab coat.

The episode that really takes the cake is ‘IRA vs Taliban’. No, I’m not joking. If, like me, you’ve ever wondered where the line should be drawn with the popular interpretation of bloody conflict, a new benchmark has been set. Whereas re-enactment groups (for example) tend to have a healthy respect for and knowledge of the history and even politics of the period they ape, these people come out with lines like;

“[The IRA] fought the british military for over 30 years and were successful.”

“…repressed like the irish people have been for hundreds of years…”

“You cannot defeat the ira. it’s literally impossible, or it would have been done already”.

“The IRA’s never been beaten by anybody, and they never will be”. (Apart from the British army, who exactly would they be beaten by?!)

They also refer to the Irish Civil War as the “War of Independence, and claim that it was ‘lost’.

All of this depends upon your point of view of course, but that’s precisely my point. Not a hint of impartiality, all statements go unchallenged and unqualified. The same goes for the Taliban, though they were noticeably more careful with their words given the (to them) more obvious risk of offending their demographic. I’ve no problem with entertainment, nor of challenging received ideas about our collective enemies – but this is how a lot of especially young people, will form their opinions and prejudices about history and politics. There were a few seconds devoted to the history of the Troubles, and that was it. Nothing about the peace process, the different factions etc. American viewers would come away thinking that full-scale battle rages on a daily basis even today to ‘liberate’ Ireland – the independent nation of the Republic wasn’t even mentioned! The whole presentation pandered to those fantasists across the pond that view the IRA as some sort of wholesome group of patriots, yet would have soiled themselves with indignation had the taliban “won” this insane contest. Simplistic views of history need to be challenged, not reinforced.

Breathtakingly enough, despite this Geiger says -

“…we decided that one of the things we could do with the episode is use it to raise awareness about the effects of these weapons on civilian population in a lot of places around the world”.

Yet nothing in the show reflects this awareness of the sensitive issues at hand (not his fault I suppose). He goes on;

“So the cast and crew got together and we all made a donation to landmines.org, which is the United Nation’s humanitarian fund, which goes and directly clears mine fields. They’re the adopt a minefield program.”

Oh, well that’s alright then. Guilty consciences about controversial weapons (but not the murderous terrorists deploying them) salved, we can all move on. What’s next, The Spanish Inquisition vs Guantanamo Bay? Max, you seem like an intelligent and thinking chap. Get the feck away from this trainwreck as soon as you can.

On to the completely unscientific testing, which includes such choice quotes as;

“…the centre of mass of the face!”

And, regarding the slingshot (you really need the narrator’s OTT husky voice);

“a child’s toy turned deadly sniper weapon!”

This is just one of many problems with the whole set-up – they need to give each side/warrior a balance of weaponry and equipment to allow anything like the “Top Trumps” comparison they’re striving for. So you get comedy weapons like this added – something that is, as they admit, not fatal, and in a historic sense, hardly an “IRA” weapon. Had they gone with a real IRA slingshot – ones used as petrol bomb projectors, it would have thrown out their back-of-a-fag-packet calculations.

It got worse. The Rocket Propelled Grenade test was faked. The backblast was (rubbish) CGI, and there was a careful and drastic cut to the projectile itself in flight, which flew in a most untypical manner with a suspicious-looking smoke trail, and might actually have placed the cameraman forward of the launcher. No, it was fake alright. This is likely because actual RPGs are impossible to get outside of hot sandy places, and quite a lot more dangerous than small arms. Here’s a real RPG launch as a comparison.

It was the same story with the AR-15 vs the AKM/AK-47 torture test, done with mud carefully applied to the exterior of the bolt of both weapons and water into the muzzle. Yet the guns in that state are not shown to be fired, instead there’s a crafty cut  to scenes of shots being fired from the other (non-muddy) side of the weapon. These will have been different or cleaned weapons. This is likely a ‘health and safety’/insurance issue – if you’ve seen Mythbusters (and this applies to the explosive RPG warhead too) you’ll know that the really dangerous tests get vetoed. The final giveaway is that after supposed firing, the muddy weapons remain just as muddy – none has been removed by the cycling of the action. nor by the firer as in a real torture test.

The results we saw/heard – that the RPG was ‘devastating’ and the AR-15 unreliable compared to the AK, were therefore wholly preconceived and contrived – how many other ‘tests’ are likewise but less transparent? Even if they accurately reflect reality, why go through the charade of a scientific  ‘test’? I think you can guess the answer, and it rhymes with ‘gratings’. Perhaps this practice should be coined as “pulling a Brainiac”, after that programme was caught similarly faking its ‘experiment’ with reactive metals by using explosives. At least they tried to get real results and resorted to fakery, rather than planning it before filming even began.

The other episode I subjected myself to pitted William Wallace against Shaka Zulu. Honestly, it might as well have been against Chaka Khan. At least as far as the Scottish kit went, weapons, uniform, equipment and historical details were all wildly inaccurate. Wallace the “savage Scottish outlaw” himself was even more anachronistic than the also inexplicably-blue-faced Mel Gibson portrayal. Kilt, spiked targe, dirk and claymore all date from a minimum of 200 years later. Even the historical mythmakers never associated Wallace with a highland claymore – the sword purported to be his is of ‘Lowland’ type, and in any case there’s no evidence to suggest it’s anything but the later weapon it appears to be. The ‘ball and chain’ is straight out of the movie – no evidence at all for this. The programme makers might claim that “unrivetted mail armour” is “very typical for the william wallace era”, but I can assure you that it isn’t. The result of the zulu spear going through it is therefore utterly bogus, as the mild-steel links would simply open up and allow the point through, where the real rivetted iron or steel links would easily resist it. Unrivetted mail is not represented in the European historical record for a reason – it would have been a lot of work and weight to wear for little actual protection.

The final battles are (admittedly well-) choreographed, budget-CGI-ridden nonsense with no apparent input whatsoever coming from the “simulation software”. The IRA/Taliban one was grimly hilarious, with the Team America style comedy swarthy gentlemen in fake beards duking it out (literally at one point) in a US junkyard (for some reason). The only nod to consistency appears to be making the stuntmen use all of the arbitrarily chosen weapons “tested” in the main programme. When the last IRA terrorist…sorry… “freedom fighter” pulled out his slingshot, I involuntarily shook my head in wonderment. Absolutely bizarre. Worth watching only for connoisseurs of car crash TV (like myself!).

Another major problem I have with the show are the so-called ‘experts’ that they employ. The main host Geoffrey Thor (don’t laugh) Desmoulin is a published medical scientist, and injects the only actual science into the show (although his touted experience in the Canadian armed forces doesn’t appear even on his own CV). His helper appears to be a (student) game designer, so I suppose can legitimately be described as a ‘programmer’ and ‘computer whiz’. However, the computer programme that he wrangles is highly suspect, involving punching numbers into a spreadsheet which is then interpreted over a series of encounters using a modified piece of computer game code. These guys have taken a closer look at it, and to me its clear that even ignoring the dubious data that’s being fed into it, there’s little chance that it’s producing meaningful results from it.

The other ‘experts’ change each week, two per ‘side’, and they give more cause for concern, being drawn not from academia, but from the entertainment world:

IRA
Skoti Collins – great-nephew of Michael Collins (even if true, so what?) and an ‘IRA historian’ – actually a jobbing Scottish bit-part actor.
Peter Crowe – ‘IRA weapons specialist’ with zero web presence including publications. At least he sounds Irish.

Taliban
Fahim Fazli – (boy) mujahideen he may have been (he does seem favourable toward the Taliban), but he is now a film actor.
Alex Sami – an ‘FBI anti-terrorism agent’? Well, if he ever was, he ain’t now. He’s a bodyguard.

William Wallace
Kieron Elliott – ‘highlander weapons expert‘ (whatever that means) and ‘william wallace expert’ – actually a radio DJ with a layman’s knowledge of Wallace.
Anthony Delongis – ‘blademaster’ – another actor cum theatrical fight director.

Shaka Zulu
Jason bartley – ‘zulu combat expert’ – a stuntman.
Earl White – martial artist, and possibly the only ‘qualified’ ‘expert’ in both episodes due to his stick-fighting skills.

The ‘experts’ and ‘historians’ presented to us demonstrate just how debased the terms have become within the media. Not one academic historian amongst them. Seemingly it’s just another part to be played out in front of the camera, with no regard for credentials, experience, or expert knowledge itself. Bigging oneself up over and above your experience and qualifications is common in entertainment, where you are after all only playing a role. But if a programme desires subject specialists, it should hire them. The ubiquitous Mike Loades styles himself a “military historian”, but has yet to publish on the subject (or any other). But at least his role as host in such shows makes a certain amount of sense given his background as a stage and screen fight director, and he clearly does have a certain amount of specialist knowledge about arms and armour. Not so these people, none of whom could legitimately be described as historians, even if they do play one on TV. Finally, there are many out there who study historical swordfighting techniques based upon primary source – why were none of them employed?

I’ve only stomached these two episodes all the way through, but seeing clips of the ‘ninja’ and ‘pirate’ warriors made me wonder whether I was just the victim of a clever prank – that no-one really believed after all that this show was in any way serious. It would surely be the only defence this programme could mount – that it’s just for fun. But actually, that’s bollocks. Everything about the show’s promotion makes out that it IS scientific – one host even associating it with Mythbusters (which is hardly hard science but does balance it well with entertainment).

Even as entertainment – recommended only for the terminally hard of thinking or those (like me) morbidly fascinated by bad TV.

Update – after introducing UK viewers in the episode of ‘You Have Been Watching’ linked in the comments below, Charlier Brooker has now written a piece on this also.


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