Category Archives: The Past is Another Country

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week —

German combatants took shelter in the "Helden-Keller" (Cellar of Heroes).

German combatants took shelter in the “Helden-Keller” (Cellar of Heroes).

In this 100th anniversary of the Great War, there are still unexplored, privately protected sites along the Western Front. American doctor and photographer Jeff Gusky was initiated into these secrets, and passes on an incredible set of photographs of forgotten WWI positions and the artifcts they still contain.

Frozen-in-time, these cities beneath the trenches form a direct human connection to men who lived a century ago. They make hundred years ago seem like yesterday. They are a Hidden World of WWI that is all but unknown, even to the French.

American medical doctor, fine art photographer and explorer Jeffery Gusky was introduced to these underground cities by landowners and dedicated volunteers and their families who fiercely guard the secrets of these spaces with loving care to prevent them from being vandalized and to preserve them for the future.

via Jeff Gusky – The Hidden World of WWI.

In lovingly carved Gothic script: "God Damn England"

In lovingly carved Gothic script: “God Damn England”

Gusky has an eye to the image, to composition, to the bathos of a rifleman’s name or a carefully constructed water fountain, still brimming a century on. He has an eye for the religious touches, including the one that wasn’t like the others — a German prayer for the damnation of England.

(The phrase “Gott strafe England” can be translated “God damn…” or the G-rated “God punish…” It was coined by the German poet Ernst Lissauer, also remembered for his Hymn of Hate. And it was inescapable in the Kaiser’s Germany: on posters, pins, graffiti, and, as seen here, trenches and dugouts).

That all this remains of the Western Front makes us wonder what amazing discoveries are yet to surface from the Eastern Front and the mountain war between Italy and Austria-Hungary.

Gusky did not take many weapons photos. This rusted rifle with a rotted-away stock is filed with photos from a French position.

Gusky did not take many weapons photos. This rusted rifle with a rotted-away stock is filed with photos from a French position. It’s not a Berthier. Lebel? Doesn’t seem quite right for that, either. 

Gusky makes no attempt to explain the pictures, or to parse out unit numbers or personal names. He just takes the picture, and lets the image speak. And a powerful speech it is.

Good-by, Lenin!

The monster of the 20th Century came tumbling down in Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city that was the scene of calamitous tank battles between two of world history’s most evil empires.

lenin statue in Kharkiv

It was the biggest Lenin left in Europe. Now it’s rubble, kind of like the Evil Empire that Lenin presided over, an empire built on lies and murder, an Empire that replaced the too-slow liberalization of the Romanovs with “a boot stepping on a human face, forever.”

But it wasn’t forever, Vladimir Ilych.

When the monster tumbled, he was found to be a classically Soviet production: shoddy.

Lenin's head showing shoddy Soviet construction


Free Ukrainians tore the statue apart with their bare hands, taking pieces of Lenin for souvenirs, as Berliners did with the evil Wall that was, ultimately, part of the empire of slaveholding that Lenin and Stalin built.

We kind of wish we’d gotten a Lenin bust for the war room (or maybe as a garden gnome) before they were all gone. But it was, and is, past time for Lenin to join his peer Hitler among the reviled and de-monumented.

Next summer, the kids will go to movies in which spandex-suited heroes fight supernatural monsters. But this ruins of a Lenin is a reminder that monsters are real, they are not supernatural, and they walk among us. But they can be toppled by men and women in street clothes — everyday heroes.


Put a HRT on ‘em — 1985 style

This video, found on Soldier Systems Daily, is a 1985 briefing on the FBI Hostage Rescue Team. The HRT was riding high at the time, coordinating closely with military special operations forces assigned the hostage rescue mission (overseas; FBI had authority stateside), and years from its appalling 1990s performances that included a sniper team getting (deservedly) indicted for homicide and saved only by a legal maneuver that introduced a technicality preventing prosecution.

The video starts with some action video of live-fire training in tire houses, and then goes into individual section briefings on equipment, arms, snipers, etc.

As you can see from the video, their TTPs are really dated now, but at least in terms of HR assault this was the heat in the Reagan years. (So were the mustaches).

Unlike their military counterparts, the FBI HRT members are all very well compensated, sworn Special Agents, college graduates who must have already been selected into FBI and succeeded in training as SA’s before applying to HRT.

A significant minority of them were at the time military veterans, mostly former officers, and that’s probably even more true today. (The guy with the Randall on his belt is one who’s at least seen some ARSOF cross-pollination).

They’re obviously pretty tactically hopeless in the woods. This is one thing that hasn’t changed.

A wise old friend who had served his country as a combat soldier and as an intelligence officer once explained the mindset difference to us: “Soldiers suck as spies. Spies suck as soldiers.” He would illustrate this with many pungent examples from Army and CIA history, most of them unclassified now. But the whole thing extends into a nine-square matrix when you factor in cops (and the FBI are simply glorified cops), who suck at soldiering and spying. (Despite the fact that more FBI guys are doing spook stuff than chasing Mann Act violators these days).

And soldiers and spies? They suck at being cops, and we can quote further examples….

“Book” Link: the Rhodesian African Rifles

Most of the writing about the Rhodesian Army concentrates on three specific units: the Rhodesian Light Infantry, the SAS, and the Selous Scouts. One of the most effective regiments in the Rhodesian army was the Rhodesian African Rifles, a unit in which other ranks were all black natives, and which led, or tried to, anyway, in developing black African officers. The RLI was a white unit, as was the SAS; the Scouts were a mixed-race unit, like the RAR.

Commander and sergeants major of the RAR (identified by name in the book).

Commander and sergeants major of the RAR (identified by name in the book).

All of these units, and the overall strategy and tactics of the Rhodesian UDI government, were significantly more effective than a simple comparison of available forces would suggest. Why was that?

While the other three units participated in the high-profile cross-border operations, the RAR most we operated inside the country. There were reasons for this, and they come out in the volume we’re currently reading, thanks to DTIC. It also answers some of the questions about why the Rhodesians were so effective, and most interesting of all, it suggests why the RAR was effective, even though its officers and men were came from three different, and sometimes politically opposed, ethnic groups: white Englishmen, black Ndebele (relatives of the Zulus) and black Shona (the ethnic majority in Rhodesia and today’s Zimbabwe).

The Rhodesian African Rifles: The Growth and Adaptation of a Multicultural Regiment through the Rhodesian Bush War, 1965-1980 is actually a thesis, written by MAJ Michael P. Stewart as a Command and General Staff College graduation requirement, and it’s over 160 pages of deep dive into RAR history and sociology. Stewart notes the cultural differences between the RAR’s battalions, as well as the cultural “secret sauce” that made the unit not only one of Rhodesia’s most effective, but the only one the Zimbabwe government could count on when faced with a coup threat by the Matabele minority ZAPU party and its well-armed ZIPRA wing in the first year of majority rule. The abstract tells you what Stewart thought that “secret sauce” is: regimental tradition and spirit:

The Rhodesian African Rifles overcame profoundly divisive racial and tribal differences among its members because a transcendent “regimental culture” superseded the disparate cultures of its individual soldiers and officers. The RAR’s culture grew around the traditions of the British regimental system, after which the RAR was patterned. The soldiers of the RAR, regardless of racial or tribal background, identified themselves first as soldiers and members of the regiment, before their individual race and tribe. Regimental history and traditions, as well as shared hardships on deployments and training were mechanisms that forced officers and soldiers to see past differences. The RAR is remarkable because these bonds stayed true through to the end of the war, through incredible pressure on black Rhodesians to succumb to the black nationalist groups and cast off a government that was portrayed to them as oppressive, racist and hateful. Through the end of the Bush War, 1965-1980, RAR soldiers remained loyal and steadfast to their regiment, and that must be their legacy. In the end, the values of the government were irrelevant. It was the regiment that drew these men in, and their loyalty was more to their comrades and their heritage than to any particular government or cause.

While Stewart depends heavily on previously published works, and on Rhodesian historian Dr JRT (Richard) Wood, he also conducted 30-odd interviews with former RAR officers and warrant officers. He came away with a great admiration for them and their “worthy and noble regiment.”

As early as World War II, the RAR distinguished itself, against the Japanese in Burma. Stewart quotes an excerpt from Japanese officer’s diary, initially published in Christopher Owen’s 1970 The Rhodesian African Rifles.

[t]he enemy soldiers are not from Britain, but are from Africa. Because of their beliefs they are not afraid to die, so, even if their comrades have fallen, they keep on advancing as if nothing had happened. They have excellent physique and are very brave, so fighting against these soldiers is somewhat troublesome.

When officers of the Imperial Japanese Army take note of your fearlessness, you’ve arrived.

The unit heritage, history, culture and traditions provided something to unify everyone; the badge combined Ndebele and Shona symbology, but the basic trust was man-to-man and mutual leader-subordinate respect.

There were also informal traditions, one of the most amusing being the African soldiers’ secret nicknames for their white officers:

African soldiers had a name for every officer in the regiment. It was a sign of acceptance for a white officer to be given a name by his soldiers, from Lt Col F.J. Wane (named Msoro-we-gomo, or “the top of the mountain”), who served with the Rhodesia Native Regiment in World War I and then rebuilt the RAR in 1940, to a young subaltern (named “Mr. Vice” after his father’s position in the Rhodesian Air Force), or Captain (later Brigadier in the Australian Army) John Essex-Clark (named Mopane, after the tall, slender hardwood found in the Rhodesian bush). The names were not always particularly flattering or exalting, but the existence of a nickname demonstrated acceptance of an officer among the ranks of his soldiers, and were shared with the officers only occasionally by the NCOs of his platoon.

The best traditions, in our experience, are organic and spontaneous. The naming of officers is a perfect example.

There was also a uniquely RAR adaptation on the TO&E, the Platoon Warrant Officer, in effect a platoon-level sergeant major — something a bit grander than the American platoon sergeant, and a bit more dedicated to the propagation of unit culture.

He knew, taught, and exemplified the history and values of the regiment. Without exception, every former officer interviewed spoke with special respect and reverence for this class of leaders in the regiment.

Coming in to this multitribal, multiracial environment, the successful officer was the one who best learnt his men’s language and culture, and who led by example.

RAR troops with FALs and MAG-58.

RAR troops with FALs and MAG-58.

Finally, Stewart notes that the lessons of the RAR, the African soldiers who fought like lions against African nationalism, are exactly on point to those, native and foreign, trying to build multicultural armies today, in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere.

The Rhodesian African Rifles: The Growth and Adaptation of a Multicultural Regiment through the Rhodesian Bush War, 1965-1980 is not the last word on the RAR — Stewart admits it’s too dependent on the views of former officers, and the enlisted men’s viewpoint is largely missing and left to a future researcher. But it’s an excellent work that you ought to enjoy reading, if the Rhodesian bush war interests you, or if you might be charged with unifying disparate groups under a single command.

You can download the .pdf or read it online from DTIC, and if DTIC reorganizes their files again and breaks that link, you can pull a copy from Rhodesian African Rifles – a556553.pdf

SPARTY, Circa World War I

This grainy, moïre-wracked image comes from American Machinist, Volume L (50) Jan-Jun, 1919.


It appears in the bound volume of the trade magazine on page 266, and does not seem to be referenced in the text. A few pages earlier, there’s another self-propelled artillery piece, a 9.2 inch howitzer.


The first of these weapons, at least, is well known to specialist researchers. The Holt Tractor Company of Stockton, California made early tracked tractors for agriculture. Their initial models steered not by differential braking or power to the tracks, but by a “tiller wheel” that was mounted out in front of the machine. By World War I their ag tractors were very successful, and their engineers adapted them to military use around the time of the US’s entry into the long-running European war in 1917.

All the military tractors were experimental. The Army Ordnance Department experimented with them, but deployed none of them to France.

The versions included what may have been the first manufactured tank, and at least seven or eight iterations of the self-propelled artillery design, most of which mounted the US 75mm M1916 field gun, a variant of the French 75.

The popular Holt tractor was also adapted in Britain, experimentally, and France and Germany produced tanks based on Holt running gear. The most famous of these tanks was the German A7V, a tank that was outnumbered in German service by captured British tanks.

The Holt company is a trademark you may not recognize today, as the forerunner of a modern giant whose trademarks you definitely know. As the company was best known as the maker of the Holt’s Caterpillar Tractor, it changed its name first to Holt’s Caterpillar and finally, just to Caterpillar. So Holt’s tractor is still with us.

While Caterpillar (and small-c caterpillar) tractors would be successful as artillery prime movers, the company does not seem to have adapted their post-war tractor models into potential military sales. The engineering requirements for tank tracks and suspensions are too different from those needed for tractors, bulldozers and earth-moving equipment. And also, the US didn’t get serious about tanks until it began to seem clear that we’d need to start numbering our World Wars, so there was no money in tank development for an American firm in most of the interwar years.

The M1917 Revolver: Brilliant Adaptation

Two Colt 1917 revolvers (one repark'd for WWII), from an excellent article in

Two Colt 1917 revolvers (one repark’d for WWII), from an excellent article in

One of the most remarkable and unique improvisations in American military history was the M1917 .45 caliber revolver. There were actually two: one made by Colt, and one by Smith & Wesson. The Colt was quite close to the Model 1909 that the company had made for the Army in cal. .45 Long Colt; the Smith was based on the company’s large-framed revolvers. But both were chambered for a first among revolvers: a rimless cartridge, using the then-novel, now-routine improvisation of a “half-moon clip.” It was the success of the M1917 that made the idea possible.

Reviewing a period (1918) source on this weapon’s development, the 7 Nov 1918 issue of American Machinist1, some things jump out at us:

  • The mechanics of the day had a remarkable can-do spirit;
  • Even then, there was a tendency for some people to condemn service weapons; the purchase of revolvers, “led to the circulation of the gross fallacy that the 45-caliber Government Colt automatic was a failure and that it was given up by the Government in favor of a new type of double action revolver.” (In almost everything written postwar by an Ordnance man, whether members of the tiny prewar cadre of 100 officers and 750 men, or one of the many thousands of engineers and workmen called to the colors, you can expect to find reference to unfair press criticism). Plus ça changé, plus c’est la même chose;
  • The Army made plans for a certain level of handgun issue, but the demand for handguns on the front was much higher, leading to a doubling of the order of Colt pistols, and still leaving unmet demand even after Colt upped production “200 percent in six months.” That was the impetus for the 1917;
  • Institutional memories of ammo mismatches in the Spanish-American War made Ordnance peremptorily rule out reissue of stored .38 Colt M1904 revolvers. (The article does not mention stocks of .45 LC revolvers, so they may have already been through disposition by the time the US entered the war);
Here's a Colt 1917, one of many now for sale on GunBroker.

Here’s a Colt 1917, one of many now for sale on GunBroker.

  • The article, which was “Passed by the office of the Chief Military Censor, Washington, DC on 16 Oct 1918,” was lighter in technical depth than we’d have liked to see. Whether those two facts were related, we can only speculate.
  • The article contains some errors, many of them small: “Smith-Wesson” instead of “Smith & Wesson”, etc. The mere contemporaneous nature of a source is no guarantor of accuracy, it just removes one potential cause of inaccuracy.
And here's a "Smith-Wesson" -- heh.

And here’s a “Smith-Wesson” — heh.

  • Some errors are larger, like the suggestion that the velocity lost by gas leakage in the revolver’s cylinder/barrel gap was “balanced by that used in the operation of the automatic pistol.” But the revolver’s gap comes before the barrel exits the bore; most of the auto’s use of the shot’s energy comes after the bullet exits the bore, and after the bullet exits the bore it has all the energy and velocity it’s ever going to get. As a simple matter of physics, Mr MacKenzie should have caught this.
  • This may also be an error, but the article suggests that Winchester was about to begin producing M1911 pistols. Fascinating if true; imagine the collector enthusiasm for them, if the programmed half-million Winchester 1911s had been made.
  • One of the keys to the success of the 1917 was the three-cartridge half-moon clip. Colt and S&W revolvers both accepted the same clips, and the ammunition was supplied to the front like that, in clips.
  • The initial 1917 revolvers were made from revolvers and parts that were in inventory at Colt and Smith.
  • An Army pistolero was supposed to be content with 24 rounds of ammunition, back in those days!

By December 7, 1918, the US Army Ordnance Department had accepted 417,275 “Pistols, cal 0.45, Model 1911″ from “Colt and Remington, Bridgeport.” (We’re not sure whether that means that the pistols were made or inspected there), and an additional 289,211 “Revolvers, caliber 0.45, Model 1917 (Colt and Smith & Wesson)2. We are not sure whether production stopped at that time, but we know rifle production, at least, continued into 1919, so it’s possible that revolver production was continued to fulfill new contracts.  However, the November, 1918 article only described contracts for 250,000 revolvers; there must have been another order beyond those noted by MacKenzie.

The text of MacKenzie’s article is attached, after the jump.


1. MacKenzie, Paul Allen. Using Rimless Cartridges in New Service Revolvers. American Machinist, Volume 49, No. 19. 7 Nov 1918. Contained in Volume XLIX, July 1 to December 31, 1918, p. 366. Retrieved from Google Books.

2. Colvin, Fred H. How Ordnance is Inspected. American Machinist, Volume 50, No. 7. 13 Feb 1919. Contained in Volume L, January 1 to June 30, 1919, p. 312. Retrieved from Google Books.

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Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal

Actors in an Indian movie about the 21 Sikhs.

Actors in an Indian movie about the 21 Sikhs. Note the practical Khakis for desert/mountain combat.

Say whaaat? We thought we were perfectly clear. We said, “Jo Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal!”

But of course, for most of the world that Sikh battle cry is meaningless. It means “Victory is his who calls on God with a true heart,” and it was the last phrase on the lips of the “21 Sikhs of Saragarhi,” the most valiant forlorn-hope defense that you probably never heard of. Everyone knows about the 300 at Thermopylae, the 47 Samurai, the Alamo, the Little Big Horn, Isandlhwana, and Dien Bien Phu. If you’re a military historian you might have heard of Lima Site 85, Camarone or Shiroyama. But we had never heard of these plucky Sikhs until recently.

After the battle, the outpost was in ruins. With soldiers from the 36th Sikhs.

After the battle, the outpost was in ruins. With soldiers from the 36th Sikhs’ too-late relief force.

Saragarhi was a rocky outcrop with hastily built brick or rock sangars, west-southwest of Peshawar, and two Pathan tribes were in arms: the Afridi and the Orakzai. These same Pathans — we call them Pushtuns — have been involved in numerous insurgencies ovet the centuries, and in 1897 they were rebelling against Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, and Victoria’s Indian Army.

The British and their Indian allies had built a chain of forts, but Saragarhi was not designed to be a defense position. It existed because the British had a radical new communications tool, the heliograph, and there was no line of sight between the deliberate forts Gulistan and Lockhart, which had been sited by Maharajah Ranjit Singh to defend a major line of communication.

The helio-relay site was occupied by 21 Sikh soldiers of the 36th Sikh Regiment, under command of Havildar (Sergeant) Ishar Singh. Their mission was to defend their communicator, Sepoy (Private) Gurmukh Singh (Sikhs take “Singh,” lion, as a surname). But instead of targeting the harder forts, the Afridi-Orakzai force, 10,000 tribesmen armed with a mix of modern rifles, jezails, and edged weapons, attacked the relay site.

Havildar Ishar Singh had Gurmukh Singh send an immediate request for relief, or support. But his commander, Lt. Col. John Haughton, had his hands full (perhaps with a feint or demonstration) at Fort Gulistan to the west. Haughton asked the Sikh detachment to hold out.

At this point, Ishar Singh and his 20 men — a corporal, a lance-corporal, and 18 privates — made a pact. They would not surrender; they would fight to the last round and the last man. There was a camp follower with them, a cook, and he would share their fate.

Ishar Singh was remembered by Viscount Slim as having the reputation of an extrovert.

The Pathans would take a bloodless victory if they could get it, and they made all kinds of promises to the holdout Sikhs, both before the battle was joined and once it was underway. Pushtunwali would not let them dishonor a truce, so their promise to the Sikhs that they might keep their lives was, and the Sikhs new it was, not an empty one.

The Sikhs rejected every offer.

The Sikhs fought until their ammunition was exhausted — then, the shrinking garrison fought with sword, bayonet, and captured arms. As night approached, Pathan engineers who had approached by stealth breached the wall, and the garrison went down in desperate cold-steel fighting.

The last man at his station was Gurmukh Singh, reporting all of this faithfully by heliograph to Lt. Col. Haughton. With Ishar Singh and the other 19 privates dead, Gurmukh respectfully asked permission to fix bayonet and charge the Pathans.

Haughton granted permission. Gurmukh was soon among his mates, in the Sikh afterlife.

The burnt-out ruins of Saragarhi

The burnt-out ruins of Saragarhi.

The Pathans set fire to the outpost and celebrated their victory — 14,000 men had defeated 21. About then, the British forces shook off their opponents and began to rain artillery on the Pathans. Point made, the Pathans withdrew, leaving behind a garrison of Orakzai who, in turn, died in the ruins of the fort.

The 21 Sikhs were granted posthumously the highest medal of the time, the Indian Order of Merit, in an unprecedented and unrepeated mass award. Their mates of the 36th Sikhs advanced on the post the next day.

The Pathan withdrawal hadn’t been deliberate; they’d left 600 of their dead unshriven on the field alongside the 21 Sikhs of Saragarhi.

The 36th Sikh Regiment has, in the way of these things, undergone some changes as the British granted India independence and the Indian Army reorganizes from time to time, as any Army must do. But its traditions and honors remain with the 4th Battalion, Sikh Regiment, Indian Army today, where the story of the 21 Sikhs of Saragarhi is taught to every recruit, and the Sikh forces celebrate it much as the Foreign Legion celebrates their glorious last stand at Camarone.

Sources: The Business Standard (India), Times of India, Badass of the Week, SikhWiki, News and Views 24.

“A Weapon is Where you Find It” — the Legal Angle

According to a court brief reported in the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog, an 18th-Century definition of “arms” includes: “any thing that a man wears for his defence, or takes into his hands, or useth in wrath to cast at or strike another.” The authors of the amicus curiae brief that cited that Supreme Court precedent: Michael Rosman, Michelle Scott, Lisa Steele and Eugene Volokh filed the brief in a Massachusetts case, seeking to overturn the extreme anti-gun state’s ban on nonlethal self-defense weapons.

First, they had to propose a definition of weapons, or, in Constitution-era legal English, “arms.” They choose to draw on the Supreme Court’s Heller decision of 2008, in which the Court wrote (as quoted in the amicus brief):

The 1773 edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary defined “arms” as “weapons of offence, or armour of defence.” Timothy Cunningham’s important 1771 legal dictionary defined “arms” as “any thing that a man wears for his defence, or takes into his hands, or useth in wrath to cast at or strike another.”

it is, in our opinion, hard to beat the concept that arms are any thing that a man wears for his defence, or takes into his hands, or useth in wrath to cast at or strike another. That’s part of why we have our When Guns Are Outlawed… series, in which we cite various odds and ends used as murder weapons, or that draw blood in the course of mishaps.

The most important weapon is the human mind. Then, hands and feet, and only then need you look for items that extend the reach, momentum and striking power of your hands and feet, or that launch a projectile. But the decision to fight is tied to the decision to survive. It’s a conscious decision and it happens in your own cerebral cortex. Once that decision has been made, the impulse to arm oneself to increase probability of survival has been born.

Until next post, let’s all keep our wrath under control, and look to our individual and collective survival.

Ari Fleischer Remembers 9/11 (via twitter)

Geez. Ari was President Bush’s press secretary and was close by him for most of the day. Ari writes (tweets, to be specific):

I started 2take notes of what Bush was saying and doing. I have some 6 pages of notes on a legal pad. The originals are in a bank vault now.

There were a few times he wasn’t with the president, like this moment:

He also called Ted Olson, the Solicitor General, whose wife was killed on Flight 77. I stepped out of his cabin so he could have privacy.

Everyone who was old enough to be alert that day knows where he was and what he was doing. Imagine the memories that survivors like Ted Olson have of that day. One’s heart fills.

Fleischer’s whole Twitter feed is worth a look, to see his memories of that day. He was in the eye of the hurricane, and they were getting just as much bullshit and misinformation as we were getting out in the cheap seats. It was 13 years ago, so for many people some aspects of the raw shock of the day may have dimmed, some memories of the fog of war descending on our fair land may have evaporated. Read Ari. They’ll come back.

Your humble WeaponsMan was in Florida. My team had drilled that prior weekend (it was the weekend our unit had a disastrous range accident, nearly killing former team member Rich Connolly, who is alive and well today, thank a merciful God and a lot of good surgeons) and we were already trying to process both Rich’s wounding (which we all expected to be fatal; sometimes it’s great to be mistaken) and the murder of Ahmad Shah Massoud, which had just taken place. And then this happens. Rich’s injury was coincidental (but it would deprive us of his good nature and talents in Afghanistan in the coming year) but Massoud’s assassination, by suicide bombers disguised as reporters, was not.

We were immediately convinced the attack was a response to the weak, feeble answer of standoff munitions lobbed at the perps of previous al-Qaeda atrocities. A family member who was a devotee of President Clinton, the man launched those inept and ineffective strikes between, shall we say, puffs on his cigar, didn’t want to hear it. Fans never do.

We had missed the Fort Drum range weekend for a corporate board meeting in FL. After the attacks, US airspace was closed, and all of us were stranded in Florida (the board members and presenters were mostly from the Northeastern USA and Central and South America; Miami is where inter-American business gets done). But that’s another story.

Ari’s twitter feed from yesterday brings back all the confusion, the false reports, the horror of that day. So if you don’t want to see that, with insights as to how it looked from three feet left and behind the President, you don’t want to check out his feed. We have no idea what he’s doing now.

One Franklin Expedition Ship Found


Of the many Victorian and Edwardian voyages of discovery, the two that became the most amazing stories of human survival against the cruel elements have to be Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition of 1914, and Sir John Franklin’s attempt to map the Northwest Passage of 1845-48. But no two heroic voyages have ever had such disparate outcomes. Even though both voyages failed their intended missions, all but one of Shackleton’s men survived an island stranding, thanks to careful selection, unparalleled leadership and Shackleton’s own almost otherworldly seamanship. And, perhaps, Divine Providence or a series of unimaginably lucky breaks. On the other hand, Franklin’s expedition sailed off into oblivion. The entire expedition — 129 officers and men on two well-found and well-preparedships — simply vanished for many years. Gradually, discoveries made it clear that the men had all perished in the long nights of the inhospitable Canadian Arctic winter. (A few may have survived into May).

Artist's impression of the abandonment of Erebus or Terror.

Artist’s impression of the abandonment of HMS Erebus or HMS Terror on the pack ice.

Sir John was a veteran of high latitude operations, and his two sturdy ships had been rebuilt for Antarctic service (and gave their names to two mighty mountains there — HMS Erebus and HMS Terror). They had originally been built as “bomb ships,” vessels which carried a pair of huge mortars for shore bombardment; Terror, the older of the two ships, bombarded Stonington, Connecticut and Fort McHenry at Baltimore in the War of 1812. It was customary for “bomb ships” to be named after fear-inspiring things, including volcanoes and monsters or bad areas from mythology (“Erebus: was a region of Greek Hades). When they were rebuilt for high-latitude exploration, the ships were stripped of their mortars and they sailed first to Antarctica under the command of James Clark Ross of Ross Ice Shelf fame. They were rebuilt again before going to seek the Northwest Passage with Franklin, with steam engines, screw propellers, and iron-reinforced prows fitted for limited ice-breaking. The ships were last reported to have been seen by Inuit natives in early 1847, frozen tight in pack ice.

Beginning with their preparation for Ross’s southern journey, these wooden ships got the best of 19th Century Admiralty high-tech (from Cool

In preparation for the voyage, the admiralty dockyards doubled the thickness of the ships decks with a layer of waterproof cloth being sandwiched in between the old and new layers. The interiors of the two ships were braced fore and aft with oak beams to resist and absorb shock from ice. The hulls were scraped clean and double planked and finally the keels were sheathed in extra thick copper plate. Triple strength canvas was fitted for the sails.

They ships had sail power only for the Antarctic expedition, but were fitted out with single screw propellers powered by 20hp engines for the Northwest Passage voyage.

Many expeditions were dispatched in search of Sir John and his men, but they found only scattered artifacts, and not many of those. Some crewmen were found on King William’s Land (seen below in a scan by Philip V. Allingham at Victorian Web) — rather than pull their boats toward the water, freedom, and possible rescue, they’d gone inexplicably inland.

discovery of remains

For over 100 years the Arctic kept its secrets. Then, in the 1980s, three crewmen were found, carefully buried six feet deep on Beechey Island. The bodies were perfectly preserved in permafrost, which allowed them to be examined in the interests of science. Discovery: their bones had staggering levels of lead, reinforcing the suspicion that what had killed the explorers was not just the inhospitable conditions in the Far North, but also the use of then-novel canned food — in cans held together with toxic lead solder.  A can found intact from one of the attempted rescue operations showed toxic levels of lead in the soup and in the can itself. (More recent research argues that the lead in the deceased’s bodies might have come from pre-expeditionary ingestion, for example from living in a city with lead water pipes, common in the 19th Century).

Meanwhile, the expeditions which hadn’t found Sir John had done something worthwhile that might not have been done for many scores of years — mapped the Canadian Arctic. In the end, the Northwest Passage that Franklin sought proved to be a will-o-the-wisp; while exploring ships can occasionally get through in summer, it will never work as an economical trading route.

This left the final mysteries of the Franklin expedition as the last resting places of its leader, his men, and his ships. With the expedition capturing the imagination of many explorers and playing an important role in the folklore of both the Royal Navy (their worst peacetime disaster) and the nation of Canada, there was no lack of modern explorers.

Canadian PM Steven Harper wanted any discoveries to come from a Canadian expedition as a matter of Canadian pride, and his government has sponsored several attempts to find Franklin or his ships. This week they announced proudly that one of the ships — which one is still unknown — was found, resting in shallow water. Here’s a sonar image:



A remote operated vehicle (ROV) returned images and video of the vessel in close-up, showing that the hull has been ravaged by marine life and a brisk tide or current. A few artifacts, including two small signal cannon, are visible in the imagery.

Two signal guns. Still from a video provided by Canada Parks.

Two signal guns amid decaying timbers. Still from a video provided by Canada Parks.

As the ships were abandoned by the crews, the issues that come with respecting sea graves probably don’t enter into the exploration plans here — and exploration plans are definitely being made. For one thing, while the wreck appears certain to have been one of the expedition’s ships, the specific identity of the wreck (Erebus or Terror) is not confirmed; for another, the second ship remains unlocated. And finally, the ships are likely to contain a great deal of information about the expedition and about the vessels themselves. (For example, no clear plan of Erebus or Terror survives, although supposedly enough is known of their differing steam installations to make it clear which one is which, under examination).

This table from a period book shows no usable distinctions between Erebus and Terror, unfortunately.

This table from a period book shows no usable distinctions between Erebus and Terror, unfortunately.

Harper, whose government has supported the Franklin search, is well pleased, and scientists are excited about a return to the site — possibly in force next year, but some divers will go down before this season ends.

As early as Saturday, Parks Canada’s underwater archaeologists will descend to the wreck, which lies in 11 metres of water, bringing high-definition video equipment to document their exploration.

The search team is prepared for the possibility it may find human remains, a development that would change how it explores the centuries-old vessel. Inuit accounts from the 19th century mention spotting the body of a white man in a ship adrift near O’Reilly Island.

“We are going to approach it as a site that may be a burial,” Marc-Andre Bernier, chief of the underwater archeology team at Parks Canada, told reporters Wednesday.

Canada has promised the UK that, if remains are found, they won’t be disturbed except inasmuch as necessary. Britain has given up any claim to artifacts from the expedition, except for a reputed stash of gold, and any “artifacts deemed important to the RN.” Hey, at the rate they’re going, they may need those cannon.

Franklin-37-m-tribord-starboard-rail.ashx Franklin-37-m-tribord-starboard.ashx

In a touch of irony, the ship was only found because the intended search area was closed to the searchers — by pack ice, the very killer of Franklin and his men.


Antarctica Fact File. Erebus and Terror, the Antarctic Expedition 1839-1843, James Clark Ross. Cool Antarctica, n.d. Note that this contains at least two glaring errors, “Terror saw service in 1812 in the Crimea,” Right year, wrong war. And “20 hp engines” when Bourne, a more credible source, says 30. Despite that, some good technical data on the ships on their previous voyage of exploration.

Antarctica Fact File. Erebus and Terror, Ships of the Antarctic Explorers. John Franklin, Northwest Passage. Cool Antarctica, n.d.

Bourne, John. A treatise on the screw propeller: with various suggestions of improvement. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1852. (This is the source of the ship-engine table above).

Cassidy, Kathryn. The Franklin Expedition: 1845-1849. Victorian Web: 27 March 2002. A general overview.

Chase, Steven.  Long-lost Franklin ship found in Arctic, solving 169-year-old mystery. The Globe and Mail, Toronto, 9 Sep 2014. Reveals and discusses the find.

Chase, Steven. Fate of Franklin’s ship and gold will be decided by 1997 Canada-U.K. deal. The Globe and Mail, Toronto, 10 Sep 2014. Exploration plans.

McGoohan, Ken. The Franklin discovery’s not about what, but where. The Globe and Mail, Toronto, 10 Sep 2014. Author of books on polar exploration discusses what the location of the find means, in terms of revising the known history of the expedition (which he considers long-settled, in its fundamentals).

Spears, Tom. Franklin expedition discovery solves one of Canada’s great mysteries. Sasakatoon, Sask.: The Star-Phoenix, 11 Sep 2014. (This story was used in writing the post. It was inadvertently left off the original Sources list).

Uncredited. The 2014 Search for the Lost Franklin Expedition. Parks Canada, 2014. This is the source of the sidescan sonar images.