Archive for the ‘Military History’ Category

The gun that goes ‘PING’ didn’t get soldiers killed. But they thought it might…

January 8, 2017


The clip ejecting from an M-1 Garand rifle in a period photograph.

The clip ejecting from an M-1 Garand rifle in a period photograph (my title is a Monty Python reference…)


One of the most persistent firearm myths out there is that American soldiers fighting in the Second World War (or in Korea for that matter) were at risk of getting shot by the enemy because of the distinctive ‘ping’ sound made by their rifles. The M-1 ‘Garand’ was ahead of its time as a military self-loading rifle, but unlike modern rifles it did not feature detachable box magazines. Instead it was loaded with eight round metal ‘en bloc’ clips. These were inserted into the open action from the top and retained inside until the last round was fired, at which point the clip would eject (along with the empty case of the last shot) with a distinctive ‘ping’ sound (you can clearly hear this in the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’, for example, and see it in slow motion in this Forgotten Weapons video). Now, this idea of the ‘ping’ being a fatal flaw really is a myth, in that there’s no evidence that it ever happened. However, there’s a bit more to it than that…

A lot of ink and pixels have been expended arguing the ‘M-1 ping’ myth back and forth, and some have even tried to practically demonstrate why it’s a silly idea. Tactical trainer Larry Vickers recreated a scenario for his ‘TAC TV’ series, and more recently YouTuber ‘Bloke on the Range’ has tackled the myth. The Bloke shows just how difficult it would be to even hear the ‘ping’, without the various other loud noises associated with battle. Soldiers have only recently begun to wear any kind of hearing protection after all. Not to mention the very obvious fact that soldiers rarely fight alone. If a German or Japanese soldier did manage to take advantage of the ‘ping’ window of opportunity, he’s likely to get shot by another GI. More importantly, the Bloke shows how easy and quickly one could reload following the ‘ping’. At all but the closest ranges, this really is a myth and a total non-issue. As Bloke points out, there is no actual historical evidence for this ever having happened, and for every claim that a veteran experienced it, there is an ‘equal and opposite veteran’ saying the opposite. This is typified by an exchange in ‘American Rifleman’ magazine in 2011/12 (reproduced here). I’m not sure that I’ve ever actually read a first-hand account either; it’s always a relative, a friend, or a friend-of-a-friend, and therefore being told and retold decades after the fact. Hardly ideal. At this point, I would normally call ‘case closed’ as Garand expert Bruce N. Canfield has done online, in no uncertain terms.



However, it’s more complicated than just the bare facts. Sometimes, myths intrude into reality by being thoroughly embedded in thought and practice. There is no doubt whatever that whether this ever happened or not, quite a lot of soldiers in the ‘40s and ‘50s clearly DID believe that this was a real threat. This is proven by a fascinating document scanned and uploaded by the Garand Collector’s Association. This 1952 ‘Technical Memorandum’ (ORO-T-18 (FEC)) is entitled ‘Use of Infantry Weapons and Equipment in Korea’, and was written by G.N. Donovan of ‘Project Doughboy’. This was an effort by the Operations Research Office of the John Hopkins University to gather feedback on the practical usage of US military weapons in the then-current Korean War.


On page five we read the conclusion that:


‘The noise caused by ejection of the empty clip from the M-1, despite the fact that at close range it could be heard by the enemy, was considered valuable by the rifleman as a signal to reload.’


And on page eighteen;

‘One other complaint about the M-1 was the noise made by the safety. Half the men had a nagging fear that some day the noise made in releasing the safety would reveal their positions to the enemy, yet only one-fourth objected to the distinctive noise the empty clip made when ejected. They were quite willing to retain the noise of the clip even though the enemy might be able to use it to advantage, because they found it a very useful signal to reload.’


Now, the question that prompted this response was rather a leading one (page 51):


‘Interviews Conducted on Noise of the Rifle

  1. Is the sound of the clip being ejected of possible help to the enemy or is it helpful to you as an indication of when to reload, or is it of no importance?

[Question Men Reporting, No.]

Helpful to the enemy 85

Helpful to know when to reload, therefore retain 187

Of no importance 43




But, the answers speak for themselves. Twice as many soldiers surveyed thought that the noise was helpful to the enemy, as thought it unimportant. Many more again thought it was actually a useful audible indication of an empty weapon, bearing out the Bloke’s results that yes, you can hear the ping if you’re close enough, but no, you probably can’t successfully rush a chap before he can get another clip into his rifle.


In defence of their findings, the researchers commented thusly;


‘Results of these interviews show that there is great uniformity in responses to questions asked, and all numerical estimates of such items as range of firing, load carried, etcetera, have been found to cluster around a central point with comparatively little scattering. Thus it is felt that the results are reliable and can be fairly said to represent what the infantryman believed he did. The fact that these were group interviews further increased the reliability of the results, since any apparent exaggeration by one man was quickly picked up and questioned by others. In this way the men themselves provided a check on the accuracy of their answers.’
In other words, if other soldiers thought it impossible for the enemy to take advantage of the ‘ping’, they would have said so. This is probably true, although interviewees are likely to behave differently under observation and questioning, so one can’t rely on this 100%. There was also no recommendation made with respect to this perceived ‘flaw’ with the weapon, and no comment from officers on the issue (interestingly they did point out that the noisy safety could be carefully operated not to make noise). However, again, the numbers here speak for themselves, along with the later anecdotal evidence. Once again, some soldiers really did believe that it was possible for the enemy to hear your ‘ping’, rush your position, and kill you. And there’s no reason to believe that such a thing is impossible. For example, in an incident that occurred in Afghanistan in 2008, a skirmish between a British patrol and a small number of Taliban came down to just such a one-on-one situation, with a British officer and Taliban fighter positioned just feet from each other with only a river bank in the way. Realising his weapon was empty, the attacking officer opted to use his bayonet (and the element of surprise) rather than take time to reload, and killed the (admittedly already wounded) enemy. If we imagine a similar engagement where one party is armed with a Garand, it would be eminently possible to hear the final shot and the clip go ‘ping’, close the distance, and kill the unfortunate soldier. There are many other scenarios in which this could happen, but all would involve a lull in firing, being isolated from one’s squadmates (or at least in their firing line, preventing them from shooting past you), running out of ammunition at just the wrong moment, and a certain amount of bravery and/or luck on the part of the defender. It may have happened, it may never have happened; on that question the balance of the evidence suggests that it did not. However, and this is an important caveat, I think it’s important not to insist that this claim is a total myth as Canfield has done, stating that it is ‘…so silly as to not be worthy of serious discussion’ (this is not intended as a slight, I have done the same many times). The implication is that no-one with any knowledge of the subject would make them claim, but we now know that many of the actual guys who fought with this rifle DID believe it. They just thought that the noise was more likely to ensure that they had ammunition in their weapon than it was to result in them being caught without. Of course, there is also the fact that soldiers are people, and people believe all sorts of weird things…

Secret Squirrels

December 3, 2016
It's no good, Secret; your codename has been linked. We're going to have to come up with some disinfo...'

‘Bad news Secret; your code-name has been leaked. We’re going to have to come up with some disinfo…’


Pressures of work have kept me away for a long time, but I’m hoping to get back to posting at least sporadically. Now, I recently read an interesting claim on the SOFREP website about the nickname for spies and intelligence operatives ‘secret squirrel’. As in, ‘that Mr Bond; he’s not actually a clown, he’s a ‘secret squirrel’ (spy). If you’re not interested in this world or its history, you may not have heard the name, but it was one I’d heard and intuitively understood. The linked explanation (which in fairness the author makes clear is hearsay) is along the lines of it being a tongue twister code phrase that German operatives wouldn’t be able to pronounce. A bit like that bit at the end of ‘The Great Escape’ where the Germans trick the escapee by speaking English in a German accent…

This sounds very much like post hoc fabrication to me. Whilst I can’t say for sure how this phrase was coined, nor can I disprove an anecdote from the intelligence community itself; this kind of claim is not likely to have left any written evidence, and if it had, it would likely still be classified! But there’s a tangible reason why this is very likely untrue. As people of a certain age will know, there is an old cartoon series about a spy squirrel, called, er, ‘Secret Squirrel’. It must be at the very least contemporary with the source of this tongue-twister explanation, since he was not himself of WW2 vintage, but had allegedly heard it from someone who was. For what it’s worth, I was using the phrase in daily speech well before I read this new rather redundant explanation. It’s an obvious thing to call spies. So I very much doubt that a tongue twister had anything to do with it, and if I had to speculate myself, I’d say this guy has been sold a shaggy dog story (or perhaps the original teller believed it himself, who knows?). Anyway, I thought I’d point out the (to me) obvious real origin in case this new version grows ‘legs’ on the internet.

Conscience Bullets – Firing Squads and the use of blank cartridges

June 26, 2016

I’ve been following Indy Neidell’s brilliant video series ‘The Great War’ on YouTube, and a recent post on that channel prompted me to write this. In the video, one of Indy’s viewers asks about firing squads and how the shooters were selected, how they coped with taking part in such a traumatic event etc. In his answer, Indy quotes from Victor Silvester’s autobiography, ‘Dancing Is My Life’ (1958):


‘The victim was brought out from a shed and led struggling to a chair to which he was then bound and a white handkerchief placed over his heart as our target area. He was said to have fled in the face of the enemy. Mortified by the sight of the poor wretch tugging at his bonds, twelve of us, on the order raised our rifles unsteadily. Some of the men, unable to face the ordeal, had got themselves drunk overnight. They could not have aimed straight if they tried, and, contrary to popular belief, all twelve rifles were loaded. The condemned man had also been plied with whisky during the night, but I remained sober through fear.’


Grim stuff. My own interest was piqued by the oblique reference to the practice of having one rifle loaded with blank (a cartridge with a powder charge but no bullet, or a bullet that will break up on firing – used for military training). This has understandably been condemned as a myth, on the basis that it just doesn’t seem plausible. Guns recoil, and (then) modern military rifles recoil very stoutly. A blank cartridge, having no bullet and therefore building up no pressure on firing, gives no recoil at all. As such, any firing squad member who was issued a blank would know immediately upon firing that he had been the ‘lucky’ one and need face no moral qualms about taking aim at a fellow soldier and human being. Additionally, every other firer would immediately know that they had fired a live round, and so unless they had deliberately ‘aimed off’ so as not to strike the victim, would know that they had caused or at least contributed directly to his death.


However, this is not reason enough to dismiss the practice as a myth. Why? Quite simply because regardless of the practicalities, we know that blanks were used in firing squads. There are many examples, but I have a note of a very relevant one from a First World War veteran whose testimony appeared on the BBC’s own ‘The Great War’ documentary. This man, tasked with shooting deserters with his SMLE rifle, reported that:


‘…some were loaded with ball, others with blank…one knew by the recoil if it had been loaded with ball or not.’


Rifleman Henry Williamson, London Rifle Brigade, published in “Voices of the Great War” (p.89, another reference reported on Arrse) tell us that:


“We didn’t know what the rifles were loaded with, some were loaded with ball others with blank. Then we had the order to fire and pulled the triggers, we knew by the recoil if it was loaded with ball or not.”


Not all sources report blanks, and as we’ve seen some state otherwise. However, later in the 20th century it had become formal doctrine for both UK and US forces. Both of the references below were found by posters at the forum:


13. The officer charged with execution will…(g) Cause eight rifles to be loaded in his presence. Not more than three and nor less than one will be loaded with blank ammunition. He will place the rifles at random in the rack provided for that purpose.
US Army procedure for executions, 1947.



(c iii) Mean-while the DAPM will change the places of the rifles, unload two of them and reload them with live rounds which have had the bullets removed from them or with blank ammunition. The DAPM will carry the rounds in question.

-Military Provost Manual 1963, Chapter XXVIII, Section 4, 704


This source also makes clear that the firers were not to handle or inspect the rifles allocated to them. Clearly the intent was that they should not discover, nor should other shooters be able to determine (without confabulation) which of them had been given the blank.

So we have plenty of evidence that blank rounds were used by different militaries and in different periods, despite the obvious fact that any soldier would realise he’d fired a blank. What gives? The solution to this apparent paradox lies in the psychology of killing. Consider why up to twelve men were used to execute a prisoner. Only one shooter is needed to kill a man, in fact an officer was always on hand to deliver the coup de grace, as Silvester himself reports. So why so many firers? Plausible deniability for the men. Even without a blank, each man could tell himself that his shot had not been the fatal one, or that even if he had not been there, the prisoner would still have died. In fact, it’s an incentive to fire precisely on the order given, so as not to shoot early or late, and consequently become aware of the effect of your individual shot on the unfortunate target.


I’m not saying that this worked exactly; clearly Silvester suffered greatly from his involvement in these squads. But it allowed something of a coping mechanism for the horrible task at hand. If we then at least claim that one rifle was loaded with blank, that gives each shooter an additional way to rationalise their participation, and may even function as an incentive to willingly take part. If there is a 1 in 12 chance that your shot definitely won’t kill anyone, you’re more likely not to desert yourself, foment further mutiny, or to fire in a disorderly and therefore unseemly fashion.


This is not mere supposition on my part. In a 1943 (22 Nov, p.6) issue of LIFE magazine, Captain William Hastings of the U.S. Army Air Forces wrote on the ‘myth’ of the firing squad blank. However, he makes clear that the only myth here is that the shooter might not know whether he had fired a live round or not. He confirms the issue of blank cartridges:


‘The story on the German spy execution (LIFE, Nov.1) by a French firing squad gave credence to a popular myth that members of a firing squad do not know whether they fire a blank or live cartridge. A man firing a blank knows full well that it is a blank since there is no recoil. He can, however, later claim that he fired a blank regardless of whether his rifle was loaded with ball or blank ammunition, as long as it is generally known that some of the rifles contained blank cartridges’.


As Wikipedia puts it;


‘This is believed to reinforce the sense of diffusion of responsibility among the firing squad members, making the execution process more reliable. It also allows each member of the firing squad to believe afterward that he did not personally fire a fatal shot–for this reason, it is sometimes referred to as the “conscience round”.’


A version of this practice dates back to the American Civil War, when the single weapon might be charged with powder only, or up to half might be so loaded:


‘Only half of the guns were loaded, but no man among the executioners knew whether or not his was a blank charge’.

-‘The life of Johnny Reb, the common soldier of the Confederacy by Bell Irvin Wiley, 1943, p.228.


Perhaps surprisingly, it was last used as recently as 2010, in the U.S. state of Utah, whose standing practice is as follows:


‘On the command to fire, the squad fires simultaneously. One squad member has a blank charge in his weapon but no member knows which member is designated to receive this blank charge.’


Again we see the reasoning behind the issue of a blank cartridge, as well as emphasis on the importance of firing simultaneously. This is meant to be a group effort in which no one individual is wholly responsible.


In the UK, capital punishment was finally fully abolished in 1998 (for the remaining capital crimes of treason and piracy at sea), and the last execution by firing squad was that of German spy Josef Jakobs in 1941. If you visit the Tower of London, you can see the chair in which Jakobs became the last person to be executed at the Tower, and the last to be executed in this way by British authorities (two U.S. servicemen were executed at a British site under U.S. jurisdiction the following year). There is no evidence to suggest that a blank cartridge was used in Jakobs’ case. Perhaps it was not thought necessary where British soldiers were executing an enemy spy? Nonetheless, the chair remains a stark reminder of former systems of justice in which prisoners might be shot dead for their crimes. In the case of First World War soldiers who decided that they could not face the horrors of war, that death would come at the hands of their comrades, perhaps even their friends. Blank cartridges were no myth, but their effectiveness remains difficult to assess. How can we possibly measure psychological trauma of this kind? The First World War was a conflict so horrific as to challenge even the most deeply rooted justifications for war, and levels of desertion or mutiny were high. From the perspective of those in authority therefore, firing squads were a brutal but effective way to keep soldiers in line and see the war through to its bloody conclusion in 1918.

Attack of the Dead Men 1915

February 14, 2016




Watching a recent episode of Indy Neidell’s superb ‘The Great War’ on YouTube, I came across an interesting story regarding an incident in the First World War apparently known to Russians (today, at least) as the ‘attack of the dead men’. An unreferenced version is to be found on Wikipedia, and a documentary version by Russia Today is on YouTube (skip to 15:30 for the relevant portion). But in short, on August 6th 1915, Russian defenders of the fortress of Osowiec (in present-day Poland), suffering the effects of a German poison gas attack, unexpectedly counterattacked. Covered with gore from their own damaged lungs, these 60 (or less than 100 according to RT) ‘walking dead’ soldiers fought off far superior numbers (3 divisions, says RT) and saved the fortress.


Perhaps inevitably, comparisons were drawn in the video and in the comments with George Romero-style zombies; it’s a compelling image. A forum version here uses the phrase ‘the living dead’. Having researched this far, to quote Deadpool, my common sense was tingling…


I found few web sources already in English, mostly from the last five years or so (some of them badly translated), which I presumed meant that it simply that it hasn’t been as celebrated in English as it has in Russian.


A much more sober, Russian language account is to be found here, (Буняковский В. Краткий очерк обороны крепости Осовца в 1915 г.’ or ‘Brief Defence of the Fortress of Osovca in 1915’ by B. Bunyakovsky, as the index page reveals), from a book published in 1924. This makes clear that it was actually an entire company supported by a reserve company (so 300-400 men) that counterattacked, supported by the fortress’s artillery batteries. Pretty impressive, but hardly the zombie Rorke’s Drift now being claimed online. There’s no mention of anything like the ‘attack of the dead men’ to describe this fighting retreat. I say ‘fighting retreat’, because as RT admits, after the counterattack the Russians were forced to raze the fortress and evacuate.


The event doesn’t seem to crop up in English history books; the one I did find is less sensational but does reference the blood-stained uniforms. Frustratingly the preview doesn’t allow me to see the footnoted source. However, I did manage to find a period English language source for the story (‘The War of the Nations’ by Le Queux & Wallace, vol.5, p.203 – you can access it for free via the Bodleian Library), and even better, it’s a contemporary one free of patriotic hyperbole or later embellishments. It’s based on a ‘brief report’ made by the Commandant of Osowiec fortress, Major General B.R.J. Osovsky. This makes no mention of the numbers involved, but equally, there’s certainly no claim that only 60 were still combat effective after the initial attack:


‘There was a lull which lasted until August 7th, when the enemy began his assault by sending into the fortress 600 balloons of asphyxiating gas.


The Russian troops were taken by surprise, and nearly all in the first and second lines of the defence were poisoned. They fell back, but encouraged by their officers, they made a superhuman effort and drove back the enemy at the point of the bayonet.’


The incident clearly happened, but was not so desperate, nor so horrific to behold, as some would have us believe. Many similar sieges took place during the war, though this one does seem to have significance in Russia equivalent to Verdun for the French. It seems likely (and has been suggested on the Wiki talk page) that the story was embellished by the Soviets in the Second World War for propaganda purposes, but I have no evidence of that. All countries are liable to exaggerate such achievements as time passes, particularly to justify having to retreat in the face of superior forces.


What intrigues me is the burgeoning ‘zombie’ connection being made. This reminds me of the instant reaction to the ‘Miami Zombie’ a couple of years back. A man eating another man’s face? Must be a real-life zombie! This fantasising of real life events seems to be irresistible to us, at least in the ‘west’. In contrast, Russian sources don’t seem to imply any paranormal connection; that seems to be a western addition that’s gained currency in recent years. Of course, zombies as we know them today didn’t exist. We had Haitian mindless slave zombies of course, but although these were thought to be ‘dead’, they weren’t depicted as bloody or corrupted in any way. That form of fictional ‘horror’ zombie came later; much later than 1915. Of course, there were other gore-smeared ‘undead’ creatures in (non)existence by that time, such as vampires or other revenant corpses. But western European soldiers are highly unlikely to believe in such things. In addition, though poison gas was relatively new to warfare, its effects would have been well known (and feared) by the Germans who, after all, were the ones deploying it! So I seriously doubt that the Germans thought they were fighting dead men. If the attack really was known as the ‘attack of the dead’ at the time, I think it’s just a turn of phrase; and likely originated with Russians rather than Germans. Despite this, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this WW1 zombie meme grow legs in the coming years.

WW1 Zombie by Savagezombie (Deviantart)

WW1 Zombie by Savagezombie (Deviantart)

Not Quite the Whole Nine Yards

August 14, 2015

An interesting mini update on the old ‘Whole Nine Yards’ chestnut, from this post on firearms site ‘Forgotten Weapons’. The question of the possible machine gun origin for the phrase is raised in the embedded video, and then, in the comments, we find this:


“The 350-round belt of 0.50in used in the inboard guns on each side of the M2 .50 gun system of the P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt (four guns on the six-gun P-51, six guns on the 8-gun P-47), was exactly 27 feet, or 9 yards, in length when fully assembled.

The 240-round belt used on the outboard guns on each side was 18 feet 6 inches long altogether. But “the whole six and a half yards” doesn’t sound nearly as emphatic.


To figure it for yourself, treat each round of ammunition in its link as being .915 inch in width. A calculator helps.”


I had previously said that no such machine gun belt existed, and therefore this origin, despite being the most commonly accepted one, was nonsense. I’m still sort of right on the first point, and entirely right on the second (unfortunately – I’d love this one to be true!).


The first problem is that by this chap’s own calculations, this particular ammunition belt is just shy of nine yards – 8.89583 yards to be precise. This might sound like nitpicking, and frankly, it is. If this really were the origin of the phrase, I doubt anyone would care if it was slightly shorter or longer than the exact nine yards, and linked ammunition being flexible, there would be a fair amount of ‘slack’ that could vary the precise length quite considerably (which is I suspect why this myth refuses to die – you can’t actually disprove it by measurement alone, and most people don’t have a spare full belt of .50 BMG lying around…). But hey, I ran the numbers as he suggested, and it isn’t quite ‘the whole nine yards’ to start with.


There’s a bigger logical problem with the claim, one that has always dogged it in fact. That is, all of the aircraft claimed were fitted with more than one belt of ammunition, and it wasn’t possible to fire only one gun at a time. So you could never ‘give him the whole nine yards’ unless you experienced a malfunction of all of your other guns. Sure, the phrase could have stuck despite this, but it just doesn’t ring true.


Much more importantly than either of these minor gripes is that we already know that the phrase pre-dates the existence of aircraft machine guns by several years. The first machine gun was fired from an aircraft in 1912, whereas the first known incarnation of our phrase (in the form ‘full nine yards’) dates back to 1907.


So I’m afraid that, as much as I like the idea, this nine yard long machine gun belt is just a coincidence. It’s possible that Second World War air and ground-crew might have used it to refer to these belts, but there’s no actual written evidence for this, and above all, it cannot be the actual origin of the phrase.
As far as I’m concerned, we have a provisional origin for this phrase, and it’s baseball. If we’re to confirm or refine this conclusion further, we need to look back in time from 1907, not forward.

Like a (Nazi) Boss

July 5, 2015
These would have required less fabric...

These would have required less fabric… From the fantastic ‘The Producers’

With due apologies for the title… I was at a World War 2 event this weekend and within a few minutes had spotted my first Waffen SS re-enactor. Just as inevitably, conversation turned to the allure of playing the ‘dark side’ (as one re-enactor put it), and I myself repeated the claim that noted fashion designer Hugo Boss had designed the (in)famous black SS uniform. Later I remembered that I’d read something disputing that claim, so I thought I’d post to help set the facts straight. This is all on Wikipedia, so this is hardly earth-shattering, but worth repeating I think.

Hugo Boss did NOT design any Nazi uniforms. His company, along with others, did receive contracts in the 1930s to produce quantities of unspecified Nazi party uniforms, which they appear to have fulfilled.

This doesn’t really change much in terms of the political arguments. Whether he designed or only produced uniforms is pretty moot in that respect, and it’s well documented that Boss was an ‘early adopter’ of the Nazi party (he joined in 1931) and made use of slave labour. But it’s an important historical nuance that somewhat lessens his/the company’s intimate involvement with the Nazi party, but at the same time undermines a common justification (e.g. here) for those who seek to dress in Nazi uniform (as if fashionable outfits were a good reason in the first place). Note that I’m not opposed to Axis re-enactment, even of overtly Nazi units – but if you’re going to do it, you should have a well thought-through justification (as the author of the above-linked piece actually does) for the controversy you are courting and the dark history you’re representing.

First World War Myths

January 21, 2014

Quite a brave article from the BBC after the recent hoopla from Michael Gove’s Daily Mail piece. Efforts by historians like John Terraine [thank you for the correction commenters – brain fart there I fear!] and Gary Sheffield have made little inroads into our Blackadder-tinted view of the Great War, so this is quite an encouraging bit of popular-level scepticism. It will be interesting to see which group of revisionists ‘wins’ the public perception war as the centenary nears.

Truce Truth?

December 25, 2013


A brief seasonal post to comment on Snopes’ enthusiastic take on the infamous ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914. Such a truce did actually happen, but I feel the Snopes article might give the reader the impression, by omission and by implication, that it was a)universal across the trenches, and b) an effort by working class soldiers to actually stop the war from progressing, only to be bullied into continuing the war by the officer class and harshly punished afterward.

The Long, Long Trail has an excellent balanced summary of what actually happened at Christmas 1914. The background is important here. By Christmas 1914, offensive action by both sides was stagnant, and fighting men were coming to terms with the idea that they would be there for the long haul, and that the war certainly wouldn’t be “over by Christmas”. They longed for a break from the boredom, the adverse living conditions, the threat of death and disease, and the tension and stress of the sporadic fighting. At this stage in the war, the memory of home and Christmas would have been quite fresh, and the arrival of parcels from home, including the official “Princess Mary boxes” of chocolate, nuts and cigarettes, fostered a festive mood. Though the so-called ‘Rape of Belgium’ had taken place, the levels of resentment and hatred for ‘the Hun’ amongst the British troops had yet to peak. The Germans were in much the same boat, and as the lines of the front were so close together, it was not difficult to communicate a desire for cease-fire. This is exactly what happened at many points along the front. Curiosity too played a part, cease-fires being an opportunity to learn something of the enemy, his equipment, tactics, and psychology. In any case, the following year, similar behaviour (at least one incident did occur) was actively discouraged by British and no doubt German command.

Many of the actual meetings began as practical opportunities to bury the accumulated dead, with the spiritual/psychological bonus/trigger of it being a time of a shared religious occasion. Both sides saw the lull as a chance to get into no-man’s land and seek out the bodies of their compatriots and give them a decent burial.  Once this was done the opponents would inevitably begin talking to one another. The 6th Gordon Highlanders, for example, organised a burial truce with the enemy.  After the gruesome task of laying friends and comrades to rest was complete, the fraternisation began.

Though these truces were indeed spontaneous and strictly unofficial, this was no overt protest against authority or the validity of the war. A number of officers did take part or at least observe, even if they were obliged to report what was happening to commanders. Whilst threats of courts martial were made to prevent a recurrence, no significant punishments were actually meted out. Comments about the theoretical moral significance of the cease-fires came from officers as well as men;

“These incidents seem to suggest that, except in the temper of battle or some great grievance, educated men have no desire to kill one another; and that, were it not for aggressive National Policies, or the fear of them by others, war between civilised peoples would seldom take place”.
-Captain Jack, the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), 13th Jan 1915

But neither this officer nor his men were thinking to try to end the war by their actions. Even some of the senior ‘brass hats’ did not entirely disapprove, as long as efforts to actually win the war were resumed afterward. Some Germans did tell individual Brits that though they could not visit them again, they would “remain (their) comrades” and if they were forced to fire, they would aim high. This by no means reflects a consensus among the troops, as evidenced by the next four years of bitter fighting! Officers did not generally seek to stop the fraternisation; they passed reports up the command chain instead. No doubt some of them did not approve, but neither did some of the men, as letters show. Interestingly, a young Adolf Hitler is supposed to have commented that;
 ‘..such a thing should not happen in wartime…Have you no German sense of honor left at all?’
Certainly not everyone felt like taking part, nor did they all have the opportunity to do so. Some soldiers sent to parley with the enemy ended up as prisoners. The truce(s) were also very much a British/German thing, reflecting the great effort put into averting Britain’s entry into the war, Germany being somewhat kindred, and no direct threat to British sovereignty. The mood of the French and Belgian troops would have been much less buoyant, fighting as they were in their own occupied and war-torn countries. Cease-fires were a result of young men with national but not personal scores to settle, coming from equally diverse backgrounds with plenty in common culturally. They could have been friends under different circumstances. Many had family in Germany, and some German soldiers had lived or even been brought up in Britain. It seems strange to us that sworn enemies having reconciled so easily in this way, could so easily go back to killing each other. It’s a paradox, but it’s not unusual as far as the experience of fighting men goes.
This was not a unique reaction to nor a rejection of the new form of ‘total’ war. Similar incidents of “peace breaking out” are said to have taken place in the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, the Revolutionary war, the Crimean War, and even the Second World War (see Gilbert’s ‘Stalk and Kill’, 1997). In all the theme is similiar, bored battle-fatigued combatants in close proximity start larking about with each other. Gilbert’s stories involve one side holding up a target for the opposing side to shoot at and then cheering or deriding them depending on the marksmanship. They usually seem to be in a spirit of camaraderie, albeit with the enemy. It always ends the same way – back to the business of war the next day. The Civil War story is interesting in that during an unofficial truce one side accidentally fired a round. As the two sides picked up their arms to resume fighting, the offending party sent the man over the trench who had fired the shot and made him parade back and forth carrying a heavy beam for two hours. This appeased the offended party who did not fire at the man but applauded their efforts.
Some have drawn parallels with medieval “truces of God” which allowed combatants to observe sacred feasts whilst on campaign. But there’s also a psycho/sociological angle, that many of us in the civilian world just don’t get. You don’t have to hate your enemy or want to kill him individually, to have no hesitation to kill him in battle. It’s the warrior’s paradox; something peculiar to fighting men and women that people find increasingly difficult to understand. Patriotic ideals aside (though there was no shortage of these during the War), it’s about doing what you’ve been trained to do, no hard feelings (at least at this stage of the war). Richard Dawkins has speculated that one of his theories may apply here, wherein two competing groups will work together for mutual benefit; in this case, getting a break from the fear and tension of war. Participants would have known that it couldn’t last, so took advantage of the opportunity to blow off steam.
I would conclude by saying that though ‘the truce’ happened, it wasn’t really the universal realisation of the futility of war that many think. No more than 50% of the Western Front took part, and many protested the fraternisation, both officers and men. The great human cost of the war as it developed, and the subsequent reaction against imperialism and economic/territorial war between states, has led us to reimagine the various separate incidents of fraternisation as a single organised legendary event. So much so, that people receiving a version of the story in their email inboxes in recent years have questioned its veracity, hence the Snopes verdict. However the phenomenon has been altered by time and hindsight, there’s no doubt that the men of both sides appreciated the chance for a brief return to normality and civilisation, and looked forward to the return of real peace to Europe.

A Fuller Understanding

December 21, 2013


“Ere, Fred, pass me the fuller; I think this ‘un needs a fuller fuller!”

A few weeks ago I received this interesting comment on my article about the so-called ‘blood groove’ on blades. Thank you to Charles for this, and for pointing out that the term derived from the tool used to create it, something that I was aware of but did not comment upon as the thrust (ha) of my article was more the concept of the blood groove than the term itself. However, I want to react by explaining why that fact in itself does not by any means make ‘fuller’ incorrect. It’s an odd quirk of language that the word now refers to both tool and its product, but that’s just the way things have worked out. In fact, it is the dictionary definition of a groove made by the tool of the same name. Standard dictionary definitions aren’t enough, however, as technical language is distinct from colloquial speech. ‘Blood groove’ does appear in dictionaries, but it’s not technically correct. However, technical dictionary entries from 1848, 1855 and 1868 show that ‘fuller’ was in use at least that far back. Importantly, it is also the preferred term used within the relevant field of study; that of arms and armour. Non-academic specialists also favour the term. It’s worth noting also that even the word ‘fuller’ to describe the tool is only attested from 1864. So whilst it must assuredly have come first as Charles suggests, we don’t actually know that ‘fuller’ was a pre-modern term for the type of hammer used to create the groove. Even if it was, it may not have been long before people were describing a fullered blade as possessing a ‘fuller’.

Ideally speaking, technical words would remain fixed in their meaning, but this ignores the reality of language, in which even technical meanings drift. Charles uses the term ‘flat iron’ as an example to show that the tool is not its product, but just because this as a phrase did not lend itself to that adaptation does not mean that other words didn’t drift like ‘fuller’. The very obvious rebuttal is the jigsaw, originally the type of saw used to create it. Yes, its fuller (ha) name is ‘jigsaw puzzle’, but just plain ‘jigsaw’ has been in currency for over a century and makes no more logical sense than ‘fuller’. This example might suggest that we are missing an intermediate stage for ‘fuller’ too, something like ‘fuller groove’, contracted to simply ‘fuller’ just as ‘jigsaw puzzle’ has become simple ‘jigsaw’. Another example is ‘brand’ to refer to both the hot iron tool used to mark cattle, and the distinctive mark that it creates on the animal. There’s also ‘bulino’, a form of Italian punched decoration named directly after the tool used to create it. Similarly, ‘scrimshaw’ was originally the act of carving bone or tooth, but for a long time  now has also described the carved object itself. There’s even an equivalent from the arms & armour world, in the the word ‘rifle’, which was originally the act of cutting grooves into the bore of a gun, resulting weapon being termed a ‘rifle gun’. By at least 1700 however, people were referring to simply ‘rifle’, for short, before the more specific term ‘rifle/rifled musket’ was even in use.

All of this shows that language adapts where there is a gap; a recent example being the adaptation of ‘text/texting/texted’ to describe the act of sending an SMS text message. In Charles’ example, the flat iron flattens the hair, yes, but it does not create a discrete new feature upon it that demands description. It’s enough to say that the hair is ‘flat ironed’. In the case of blades, the fuller fulls the blade, but also creates a distinct groove, a new feature that then begs to be named. ‘Fuller’ has most likely been adapted to fill this gap because it allows precise and efficient description. ‘Blood groove’ serves the same function, with added implication of gory intent. What else would we use? ‘Blade groove’ doesn’t really do it, because there are other grooves that might appear on a blade that are not a fuller (e.g. a decorated blade). ‘Fuller’ also has the advantage of being only one word long. ‘Groove’ is perfectly fine, in fact C19th military textbooks use ‘groove’ for sword and bayonet. It just isn’t very precise unless you qualify it.

Did those who made blades historically use ‘groove’, ‘fuller’, or something else entirely? I have no idea. It would be interesting, though difficult given the limitations of written history, to properly research period usage. Given the rate of change in language (witness arquebus, harquebus, hackbutt etc), correct usage in one period is likely to be out of use in another. Charles doesn’t directly offer an alternative term that he feels is more correct than ‘fuller’, but based on his comments it looks like he favours ‘gutter’. Perhaps ‘old timer’ knifemakers and other blade-smiths did use it, but we’ve no evidence of this. You won’t find it in a dictionary or an arms & armour publication. I’ve no problem with it as a descriptive word, but I feel it’s misleading to the layman. Like ‘blood groove’ or ‘blood gutter’, it clearly implies a function that does not exist; the collection and direction of fluids.

To address the suggestion that ‘fuller’ is wrong because other languages don’t have an analogue, that’s just irrelevant, I’m afraid. Yes, my link above shows that terms like ‘goutierre’ (gutter) and ‘cannelure’ (channel) were preferred European terms. That has no bearing on either correct contemporary, or even period English usage. Some words are shared between languages either intact as loan-words, or adapted as variants, but by no means all. ‘Fuller’ is one of many unique English words.

None of which changes the fact that ‘blood groove’ is (technically) incorrect and ‘fuller’ correct, both in terms of the purpose served by the groove (which was the point of my article) and its lack of favour in academic and specialist circles. But again, there’s colloquial language and technical language, and ‘blood groove’ is both in popular usage and in the bloody dictionary, so I can only get so precious about it!


November 17, 2013


‘We ride at once to rebellious Stoke, where it is my sworn intent to approach the city walls,
bare my broad buttocks, and shout, “Behold! I honor thee most highly!”’

I really like the ‘Horrible Histories’ TV series. I wasn’t quite sold on the books – too many one-liners – nor Terry Deary’s apparent disdain for actual historians. But the TV version is much funnier and, like the books, no doubt helps get youngsters into history. It does drop the ball sometimes, notably for me the repetition of the Charles I Tower of London ravens myth (I must cover that one soon). I don’t see why with a bit more effort, you couldn’t run the exact same sketches, but instead of the little pop-up flag saying ‘TRUE!’ and ‘THIS ACTUALLY HAPPENED!’ you couldn’t have one that said ‘MYTH!’ or ‘UNCONFIRMED!’ or something. The stories are still part of history, but that way you could introduce some critical thinking for children.

Anyway, I was particularly interested in their version of ‘the Witch of Brandon’ story, featured in a repeated episode I saw recently. Here’s a version from the BBC’s Emma Borley in 2004;

‘William knew that he had to act against this band of fen-men. He ordered many attacks on the Isle of Ely, with little success (even going so far as to employ a witch, who bared her bottom at William’s foe in an act of repulsion!).’

I had to check that out, because I wanted it to be true, but it did sound like a garbling of some pretty early medieval history. So a win-win for me really. Guess what? It’s a real piece of history;

‘The twelfth-century Gesta Herewardi, a legend of the historical Hereward the Wake, tells of a witch of the Fens who offended her pursuers by muttering incantations while baring her backside at them (ch. xxv).’

That’s from Cambridge University’s Press’s ‘A Social History of England, 900–1200’ (p.407). I should point out the word ‘legend’ in that source, and qualify my phrase ‘real piece of history’. I’m afraid that even here there’s an historian to throw a spanner in the works. Anthony Davies, who also references the incident, suspects that it was made up to make William look bad for employing witchcraft against pious Christians.

Still, it’s still genuine medieval history with a traceable primary source being conveyed here, even if the incident itself may not have happened quite as painted. Well done ‘Horrible Histories’; just keep an eye on the ball and maybe take a leaf out of QI’s book.