In the 11th hour — connecting the Great War and modern virology research

Today is November 11th, also known as Remembrance Day, Poppy Day, or Armistice Day. On this day in history, 94 years ago, on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, World War I — also known as the Great War and the War to End All Wars — ended.

The Great War, which resulted in a staggering nine million soldiers dead and 21 million soldiers wounded, ended, as it started, with a stroke of a pen. It ended with Germany’s signature being placed on an armistice document in a railroad care outside Compiégne in France, and, although triggered in the summer of 1914 as reaction to an assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, and his wife by Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo, Bosnia, it really started with the sign-off by the German General Staff on the Schlieffen Plan in 1905.

Count Alfred Schlieffen in 1890

Count Alfred Schlieffen in 1890

The Schlieffen Plan — Failed assumptions

After the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the subsequent German annexation of Alsace and Lorraine, French territories for almost 200 years, it was clear to Germany that relations with France would be problematic and that war with France was likely.

When relations between France and Russia strengthened after Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albert, a decisively aggressive person with a clear agenda to raise Germany’s status to that of a world power, became German Emperor and King of Prussia in 1988, Germany had to face the political and military reality that the expected war with France would involve a war with Russia as well, leading to the dreaded two-front war scenario.

After Britain and France in 1904 entered into the Entente Cordiale, a normalization of the relations between the two countries, the military reality for Germany was quite clear, and Emperor Wilhelm asked Count Alfred von Schlieffen to devise a plan which would allow Germany to fight a war on two fronts. The plan was drafted throughout the year 1905 and would be revised numerous time, including a most significant revision by Helmuth von Moltke the Younger after Count Schlieffen’s retirement from the German General Staff.

The basic idea behind the plan, an annihilation of the French army first, followed by a shift of operations to Russia, second, rested on two key assumptions: (1) that the French and their Western Allies would be a lesser threat that Russia; and (2) that Russia’s mobilization would be sufficiently slow, at least six weeks, and that the Russian threat could be contained by Austria-Hungary until such time that the German army could shift its focus from the Western Front to the Eastern Front. As such the plan called for 91% of German troops to be allocated to the Western Front, and expected that France would capitulate in 42 days after which the highly capable German army, which was of such high quality relative to the Russian army that it did, in fact, make mince-meat of a numerically superior Russian field-army in the battle of Tannenberg in 1914, would shift its concentration of forces to the Eastern Front and decisively beat the Russian army.

As it were, both assumptions were false. The French army, supplemented by the elite British Expeditionary Force — consisting of battle-hardened veterans who had learned a lot about trench warfare, the effect of massed defensive rifle fire applied by highly trained marksmen on an opposing force, mobile warfare, and asymmetrical warfare during the Boer war — would be no push-over, and Russia mobilized in record-time and quickly made gains on the Eastern Front, effectively threatening Berlin from the outset of the war. The rest, as they say, is history.

The BEF — Harbinger of things to come

From a military historic standpoint, the very first run-in with the British Expeditionary Force, starting August 21st, 1914, is notable in that it gave the German army its first indications that this war would be different than any conflict before then, with the British army assuming lightly dug in positions at Mons in Belgium and pouring high volume of precise rifle fire on German soldiers who, in perfect accordance with a hundred years of tactical doctrine, attacked en masse over terrain devoid of cover in something that amounted to parade ground formation.

The riflemen that were members of the British Expeditionary Force, an entirely professional force consisting of long-service volunteers, equipped with the excellent .303 Lee Enfield bolt rifle fitted with an easily loaded ten-round magazine, were trained to pour out fifteen rounds a minute, hitting a man-size target at 300 yards, and were capable of putting down effective fire out to a range of 1,000 yards. And at Mons they did just that, pouring such volume of fire on the advancing German line that German intelligence concluded that each battalion of British infantry was equipped with 28 machine guns, when, in reality, primarily out of cost considerations, each battalion was allocated only two machine guns.

The object lesson about the significance of prepared positions and massed fire that would be taught by the British at Mons would eventually be accepted as de rigueur by all combatants in the early and middle stages of the Great War. However, in 1914 the German army, which had learned its latest and most significant lesson of modern warfare in 1866 in Saxony and Bohemia, a full 30 years before the British learned their latest and most significant lesson in South Africa, was assuming that the most important factors for winning wars were not training in fire disciplines, application of modern firepower, defensive protective positions, or attrition, but, rather, speed of mobilization and speed of concentration.

In the Western theater, the Schlieffen Plan called for rapid double envelopment, executed through a gigantic right hook. This double envelopment, inspired by execution of the Carthagian army under Hannibal at Cannae in 216 B.C. against a superior Roman force, avoided a frontal assault on the bulk of the Allied’s forces, instead using a flanking maneuver to get on the sides and the rear of the armies, with the farthest right side of the hook reaching all the way to the English channel and down through the South of France.

The British army, consisting of 75,000, or so, men and being outfitted as an expeditionary force, was deliberately placed in a guarding role on the left flank of the allied defensive line, an area thought to be non-critical, primarily because it was considered to be a weak force unable to stem the full brunt of the German onslaught. In reality, with the German army attempting to exercise the right-hook double enveloping maneuver, reaching the English Channel before swiping back into Southern France, under Paris, the left flank became the most critical part of the early part of the war, and, ironically, it would be the British army’s superior application of firepower combined with the Belgian army’s spirited static defense that weakened the right-hook sufficiently to cause the German army to ultimately abandon the double envelopment part of the Schlieffen Plan and, instead, swing east towards Paris.

This break allowed the French and British armies to mobilize and concentrate their troops in one critical battle along the Marne River, the First Battle of the Marne, in which the German army would be forced to first retreat 40 miles in order to avoid encirclement and destruction, and, then, to dig in and engage in a war of attrition, which it could not possibly win with the Russian army engaging it on its Eastern front.

Wrapping up the Great war

Technically, what went into effect on 11th hour of November 11th, November 1918 was a ceasefire, which was agreed to at 5:20 in the morning, and the two sides was still at war until Germany entered into the Treaty of Versailles on June 28th, 1919.

Coincidently, the last allied soldier to be recognized as having been killed in the Great War, was an American, Henry Gunther, who was killed 60 seconds before the armistice came into force while bayonet-charging astonished German troops who, like Mr. Gunther, were aware the Armistice was nearly upon them. The last reported German casualty occurred after the armistice was in force, when a German lieutenant went forward to inform approaching American soldiers that he and his men would be vacating houses that they had been using as billets, and was shot dead by the American soldiers, who had not been told about the ceasefire.

Thomas Edward Lawrence

From the Great War to Sir Sykes to the Spanish Flu and to Sir Sykes again

I was reminded of the Great War not just because of today’s date, but also because I yesterday watched the remastered version of Lawrence of Arabia, a master-piece of movie-making and the crowning achievement by director David Lean and producer Sam Spiegel.

The movie deals with the Arab Revolt and the Sinai and Palestine Campaign of the Great War (mostly a campaign against the Ottoman empire, an ally of Germany) — in particular the decisive attacks on Aqaba and Damascus and the involvement of Colonel Thomas Edward Lawrence, the eponymous Lawrence of Arabia, in the Arab National Council.

Sir Mark Sykes

The connection I made was rather subtle, and came about when I reflected on the early deliberations by the British, French, and Russian of how key parts of the Arab peninsula would be divided into spheres of influences and control among themselves after the cessation of hostilities, ultimately manifesting itself as the establishment of the secret Asia Minor Agreement in 1916.

On the British side, the agreement, also known as the Sykes–Picot Agreement, was master-minded and negotiated by Colonel Sir Mark Sykes, a character every bit as remarkable as his contemporary T. E. Lawrence, and the sort of person that only the British Empire’s Foreign Office — a remarkably efficient organization — and hundreds of years of nobility could create.

Sir Sykes would die in 1919 while in Paris in connection with the peace negotiations, a victim of the Spanish Flu pandemic, which, in a severe twist of fate, would enable a remarkable connection through to modern history.

The Spanish Flu — not so Spanish after all

Today, the Spanish Flu is little thought of by most of us, but it cannot be underestimated. This remarkable influenza pandemic — spreading across the globe from January 1918 through 1920 — killed a conservatively estimated 20 million to 50 million people and possibly as many as 100 million people, amounting to up to 3% or 6% of the world’s population, thereby easily dwarfing the killing efficiency of the armed forces during the Great War. To understand the spread of this pandemic, consider that an estimated 500 million people, a full third of the world’s population in 1918, were infected at some point or another during the pandemic and the only recorded instance of a major region in the world that did not report an outbreak was the island of Marajo in Brazil’s Amazon River Delta.

Spanish_flu_death_chartAlthough it has been difficult to determine an epicenter for the Spanish Flu there is broad agreement that the pandemic was linked to the incredibly increase in global interconnectivity that the Great War prompted and was directly related to the exceptional high concentration of multi-ethnic groups in relatively small areas. In fact, one theory by a British virologist team from the reputable St Bartholomew’s Hospital and the Royal London Hospital almost certainly identified a major troop staging and hospital camp in Étaples in France as the center of the pandemic, while some historian has identified Fort Riley in Kansas, a major mobilization and training center for the United States army, as the epicenter. In a sense, the Spanish Flu may have been the very earliest and one of the most lethal unintended consequences of globalization.

So, the Spanish flu did not, in fact, originate in Spain. In fact, the name came about because of aggressive censorship during the Great War. Whereas wartime censorship by the belligerent nations successfully managed to initially minimize or suppress information about the scope and lethality of the illness in their home territories, papers were free to report on the effect of the pandemic in Spain, a neutral country, and, therefore, the initial impression was that Spain was particularly hard hit and that Spain was the epicenter of the outbreak. Somehow, through almost a century, the name has stuck, although, of course, a more correct name is 1918 Flu Pandemic.

It is difficult to wrap ours head around how fast moving and lethal the pandemic was, but we can try…. Overall, the disease killed approximately 20% of those infected, as opposed to the usual flu epidemic mortality rate of 0.1%. For the United States, for instance, the death count exceeded 500,000 over a period of approximately two years, which, of course, is an enormous number of fatalities incurred at an enormous speed (as a reference point, this number is on par with the total number of United States fatalities attributed to all warfare by the United States through the 20th century — a period of 100 year) and caused the population count to become negative in 1918 — the only time when this has happened in the 20th century. Moreover, if we population adjust the fatality count, the fatalities would in year 2000 have numbered between 1.5 million and 2 million, approximately the population of Alaska, Delaware, and the District of Columbia — combined.

However hard and fast the United States was hit, it pales next to Tahiti where 14% of the population died in only two months and Samoa where 20% of the population died a similar period.

Sir Sykes’ Coffin

Because of the exceptional lethality of the Spanish Flu and a very real concern that influenza strains can be cyclic, there is an ongoing medical investigation of the pandemic, frequently involving exhumation of its victims. And, so, Sir Sykes would in 2008, again, be expected to play a significant role in human history, when, 88 years after his death, his body was exhumed. Sir Sykes remains were of particular interest because it was known that he had buried in a lead-lined coffin, and it was thought that this lead-lining might have served to preserve Spanish Flu viral particles, which could be critical for the development of a defense against similar future pandemic (if this seems like a far-fetched possibility, consider that the Spanish Flu became a human infection through a mutation from the now infamous H1N1 avian virus.)

Since there are only five extant samples of the Spanish Flu virus in the world, Mr. Sykes was poised to return to fame. Unfortunately, however, Sir Sykes’ coffin was found to have collapsed from the weight of the soil over it, and, although samples were taken, the exhumation did not yield the results hoped for.

Memorial and Reflections

So, tonight, on the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 2012, I will be lighting a candle in memory of not only the millions of soldiers who died in an around the trenches of the Great War, but also for the many more who died from the Spanish flu, for T. E. Lawrence and for Sir Sykes. In doing so, I will reflect on war, pandemics, globalization, and the unique and disproportionate roles that singularly minded individuals have played throughout history.

As a motorcycle rider, I will also reflect on T. E. Lawrence’s rather silly death in a motorcycle accident in 1935 in the English country side, seemingly an unsuited end for someone who had traveled the world and avoided certain death on several occasions.


Spectre of Death – Mr. Arlen Specter is dead

I was driving to the airport earlier this week and found myself wondering why the American flag in the airport was flying on half staff.

As it happens, Arlen Specter, a United States Senator, had died on October 14th, 2012, and someone, somewhere had decided that this was cause for what we in the United States colloquially call half-masting, although the correct term is half-staffing (half-masting is reserved for usage aboard ships,) presumably to indicate that the whole nation was in mourning.

The general idea of half-staffing is to leave room for an imaginary, invisible flag of death on top of the American flag, the only case where any flag is allowed to be hoisted higher than the flag of the United States. The intent, of course, is to indicate that the entire nation is in mourning. Such national periods of mourning are generally proclaimed by the President of the United States, in the event of the death of a member or former member of the federal, state or territorial government or judiciary.

No disrespect to Mr. Specter’s family and the President of the United States, but I am pretty sure that the entire nation was not in mourning, and, in fact, given the general population’s overall disgust with politicians, the engineers behind the political gridlock that have effectively held the country in chaotic paralysis for four years, causing massive direct and consequential economic and societal damage to American households, I am pretty sure that it would be challenging to find even as few as 2,000 people in the United States who were genuinely mourning the passing of Mr. Specter (In Alabama 2,000 citizens or less, by the way, is the standard for whether or not a municipality can be considered a town.)

I certainly was not mourning. Particularly because I remember Mr. Specter for mostly silliness, such as his radical, and, in my view, opportunistic changes of political affiliation throughout his political career, his work on the Warren Commission, investigating the assassination of Mr. John F. Kennedy, the President of the United States from January 20th, 1961, through November 22nd, 1963, where he co-authored the single bullet theory, and his generally inconsistent flip-flopping and politicking over the years.

One Bullet

Mr. Specter illustrating the single bullet theory

Mr. Specter illustrating the single bullet theory

Making the case for what would be known as the single bullet theory, the Warren Commission in its monumental report concluded that exhibit CE 399, a copper-jacketed, lead-core 6.5-millimeter rifle bullet fired from the sixth floor of the, now infamous, Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, passed through Mr. Kennedy’s neck before hitting Texas Governor Mr. John Connally, who was sitting in front of Kennedy, in his chest, wrist, and thigh, and finally ended its journey at the Parkland Hospital when it literally — with impeccable timing and sense for drama — fell out of of Mr. Connally’s thigh and was picked up by a hospital staff member.

Note, that the issue was not if more than one bullet was fired. In fact, there is general agreement that more than one bullet was fired, and somewhat consensus that as much as three or four bullets may have been fired. Rather, the issue is whether the one bullet that struck and killed Mr. Kennedy was also the same bullet that hit Mr. Connally (if you don’t know why this was important, don’t worry — it will all become clear.)

The description of the trajectory of this single bullet in itself requires that the reader apply quite a bit of imagination as well as an overarching belief in the body-contortion abilities of Mr. Connally, but when you add that the bullet that was found in the hospital was in excellent condition after having penetrated four bodies of tissue in addition to having penetrated a necktie knot, removed 4 inches of rib, and shattered a radius bone, we may be stretching the limit of the reader’s imagination and belief (the bullet traversed 15 layers of clothing, seven layers of skin, and approximately 15 inches of tissue.) That, as Seinfeld would famously say, is one magic loogie.

CE 399 butt view CE 399 side view

Now, I am not saying that Mr. Specter and the Warren Commission were not right — as anyone who shoots will attest to, bullets do strange things once they leave the barrel and encounter obstacles. Rather I am saying that the Warren Commission’s finding violates Occam’s razor in a radical way, but is entirely consistent with Mr. Specter’s remarkably byzantine mind, as we would see it demonstrated throughout his post-Warren Commission career.

A Perfect Man to Explain an Imperfect Crime

For readers without substantial understanding of ballistics or an understanding of why the Warren Commissions finding was significant, here is the take-away. Feel free to skip this section if you already are well-versed in these issue.

The key issue was whether or not there was more than one shooter involved in the assassination of Mr. Kennedy, since, if there was more than one shooter, then this would imply that we were dealing with a conspiracy rather than a lone, crazed gunman, opening up a Pandora’s box.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation had concluded that the Carcano Model 1891/38 short rifle found at the Texas School Book Depository, the presumed murder weapon, could not be fired twice in less than 2.3 seconds. This created somewhat of a problem because the timing of the shooting of Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Connally, as determined by the Warren Commission using a private film shot by Abraham Zapruder and some fancy frames-per-second legwork, happened in less time than these 2.3 seconds.

Faced with the possibility of two shooters being involved, the Warren Commission engaged Mr. Specter, an individual with marvelous mind and a unique ability to bend any situation into a reality that would maximize his personal return, and the rest, as they say, is history.

From a ballistic standpoint, the lone gunman’s single bullet’s path, including the final leg of the journey when it conveniently fell out of Mr. Connally’s thigh at Parkland Hospital, is feasible. CE 399 would have exited the riffle at a supersonic velocity of between 1,850 and 2,000 feet per second, and because of the relatively short distance it traveled before entering Mr. Kennedy, 189 feet, it would have expended little energy and would probably be traveling at 1,700 feet per second at the time of impact, providing for ample energy to penetrate Mr. Kennedy’s neck and traverse the 25.5 inches of space between Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Connally.

Having entered and exited Mr. Connally’s back, where, among other things, it obliterated Mr. Connally’s fifth right rib bone, the bullet would now have spent a tremendous amount of energy and have become subsonic, traveling at an estimated 900 feet per second as it reached Mr. Connally’s wrist.

Once the bullet had exited Mr. Connally’s hand, it is estimated that its speed would be around 400 feet per second, and, therefore, it is conceivably that the it buried itself only buried itself only shallowly into Mr. Connally’s thigh, and, so, it is perfectly possible that the bullet would simply drop out when Mr. Connally was being man-handled at the hospital.

Naturally, velocity is only part of the issue. However, with CE 399’s initial arch, its tumbling characteristics, and the objects it encountered inside and around Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Connally, it is conceivable that the bullet could have travelled at the extra-ordinary angles required.

The point, of course, is not whether the Warren Commission was right or not. Rather, the point is that if you wanted one person that could create and present the most complex and counter-intuitive solution to a problem and defend it to his dead in return for a political gain, then Mr. Specter was your man.

On a closing note, although all seven members of the Warren Commission signed off on a statement that there was no question in their mind that all the shots which caused the President’s and Governor Connally’s wounds were fired from the sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository, it did not conclude that theory of a single bullet had been proved. United States Representative Hale Boggs and United States Senators Richard Russell and John Cooper thought the theory improbable, and, in fact, Mr. Russell requested that his opposition to the theory be stated in a footnote in the Warren Commission’s report, causing the Commission to, in the end, “bleed out” its original language, supporting the single bullet theory.

A later investigatory body, the aptly named United States House Select Committee on Assassinations, established in 1976 to investigate the assassinations of Mr. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the shooting of George Wallace, ruled that Mr. Kennedy was very likely assassinated as a result of a conspiracy, citing scientific acoustical evidence that established with a high probability that at least two gunmen fired at the Mr. Kennedy.

By the way, if you want to read through the Warren Commission report you can. Simply get it at the National Archives, right here. While you are at it you can visit the Central Intelligence Service (CIA) archives and read the CIA Inspector General’s incredibly candid report on the agency’s ill-fated April 1961 attempt to implement national policy by overthrowing the Fidel Castro regime in Cuba by means of a covert paramilitary operation, here, or you can read the full 9-11 report, here. That, of course, is what democracy is about, the ability to access controversial information without, subsequently, being picked up at night in some Nacht und Nebel like campaign.

But I digress… Let’s get back to Mr. Specter…

Flipping the Flop

Mr. Specter’s flip-flopping was manifest for his entire career. In 1996, for instance, he supported the Defense of Marriage Act, the United States federal law that defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman for federal and inter-state recognition purposes in the United States, effectively attempting to block same-sex marriage. Without any sign of remorse, he would then, in 2009, in an extra-ordinary act of contortion, call for the repeal of the same act.

In another example, in 2006, when the USA PATRIOT Act was signed into law, it amended the process for interim appointments of United States Attorneys, and included a key clause that Mr. Specter wrote as part of his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This key clause allowed the Bush Administration to appoint interim United States attorneys without term limits and without confirmation by the United States Senate — an opportunity for mischief that the Bush administration immediately capitalized on by placing numerous such interim United States Attorneys into office in 2006. Mr. Specter, in a classic Specter-move, would later claim that the clause was added by a staff member.

Snarlin’ Arlen

Mr. Specter was, to my mind, a singularly self-centered person, who considered a lost of committee assignments as the worst thing that could happen to him, or, as described by Rich Yeselson in The American Prospect he was:

“[a guy] who cherishes the power of his seniority more than anything on Earth, who sometimes promoted progressive goals, sometimes conservative ones, depending upon the exigencies of his own career, and who got to the highest levels of his profession despite a reputation for being so nasty to staff and colleagues that he was known as “Snarlin’ Arlen…””

So, I am sorry to be insensitive, but, no, I do not mourn Mr. Specter’s passing.

What about you? Did you you mourn Mr. Specter’s passing? In fact, did you know that Mr. Specter had passed and who he was?

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