Weekly read 154
Monday 2nd June 2014 Week 154 France.
Battle for Verdun
You may never have heard of Verdun, but there’s a small chance your kids, or possibly your grandchildren have. This is because Verdun features in a top computer battle simulation game. It's the site of possibly the worse and most ferocious battle in military history.
Early in January 1915, the Germans, with their eye firmly on Britain, launched an attack on the fortifications around Verdun. The then German high command believed that Britain was hiding behind a 'French shield of defence'. They also believed that Britain was no match for German military might and would quickly fall once the French were defeated. In a memo to the Kaiser, who was a fanatical militarist, one high ranking German officer said he would bleed the French dry of blood. -That comment has since been disputed-
The initial assault and following battle lasted for 300 days and nights. An estimated 60 million shells were dropped. At its most intense, shells landed at a rate of ten a second from numerous artillery positions. The ground was said to have shaken for days. Daily casualty numbers, dead or wounded on both sides, were 2,500. A total, by the end of the battle, of three quarters of a million. A large number of soldiers were not found, buried under repeated shelling.
The soldiers were generally poorly fed, thirsty, ill-equipped and had to fight in trenches often filled with mud and the stench of rotting bodies. Fear and despair their ever present companions. Their orders were to hold the line at any cost to themselves. This was a war of attrition. It was hand to hand combat. Kill of be killed and no room for compassion or mercy. It was hell on earth. Created by politicians but more importantly European royalty.
Monument to the batttle of Verdun
We walked around the battle field at the weekend. Some of the trenches and positions are still preserved. Bomb craters still very evident although grown over. Fortifications buried under ground their gun turrets just visible above. Rusting barbed wire strung across vantage points. Its all eerily real and scary.
The monument to their sacrifice is, as you can see, substantial. The building is an ossuary. Within it are the thousands who died who couldn't be recognised, the physical bones of soldiers.
If you ever find yourself thinking that international disputes are solved by war, or that military intervention is an arm of diplomacy, or war can be justified, come here for your reality check.
More recently I read the recent report from the RUSI, the defence think tank. It said the war in Afghanistan and Iraq has been a 'strategic failure. The invasion of Iraq has only fuelled the spread of radical Islamic's and terrorism in the UK and wider. The war on terrorism, far from being fought has had the effect of promoting it. The subsequent occupation of Iraq has led to the deaths of at least 100,000 Iraqis. And since our military campaign in Afghanistan, the production of opium has surged.
Tuesday 3rd June 2014 Week 154 France
(We need a change of topic. You're in danger of depressing the few readers you have left. Ed). True.
Thankfully, many of the questions that have dumbfounded mankind since the dawn of time have been answered. For example: Where did we come from?. What lies at the outer reaches of the Cosmos? Does anything really travel faster than light?. Who was the fifth Beatle? And so on....
And yet there are questions, while not as complex, that still require answering. Why, for example, can't they get escalator hand rails to move at the same speed as the stairs? What is a free gift? Surely all gifts are free by their very definition. If ignorance is bliss, then why aren't we all a damn-sight happier? On a job application, in answer to the question: Who to notify in an emergency?, why don't we give the name of our doctor, or therapist?. I sometimes wonder if we have the answers but to all the wrong questions.
Still the greatest question has not even been tackled. Perhaps because its just too complex. The greatest minds seem to have given it a wide berth. It's certainly one that has always perplexed me and I've had five wives! And that’s a clue. Let me throw it open here.
Why do women need so many clothes?.
For example: My entire wardrobe for this, now four year trip, occupies the shower!. Let me clarify. We rarely use the shower as a shower. The previous owner fitted it with a rail - detachable should you want to use it as a shower - so this now doubles as my wardrobe. This is where I hang my clothes, all twelve items. That's it. Twelve. And yet oddly I'm still stuck as to what to put on some mornings. Go figure?
Hazel, on the other hand, has the actual wardrobe, two cardboard boxes stowed away, a large drawer and four overhead lockers. She opened one the other day and a skirt fell out. The last time I saw her wear it was, I think, in 2008.
“Christ I'd forgotten you had that” I exclaimed, as any bloke might.
“Well you never know” she replied casually stuffing it back in. “We might go somewhere where it'll be ideal”. Since even Hazel would agree it was a tad too short, I was tempted to suggest it would only be 'ideal' attire at a wife swapping party but thought better of it. Us blokes have to tread cautiously. If you're not careful the whole debate can quickly escalate into: “Well you never take me anywhere where I could wear it”. And that argument is a black hole from which few men escape unscathed.
We've seen them all over.Denmark, Holland and now France, the old BT loo.
At the weekend we popped into town and I found myself 'in tow' as Hazel shopped for T-shirts. I said, as carefully as I could, and the knack here is to sound genuinely interested and not whiny, “Really T-shirts!....erm, good idea. You can never have enough”.
“Yeah, but I don't have any with thin straps”. Bugger, thin straps, why did I not realise that?
Over the years I've picked up some useful pointers when it comes to shopping with the wife. For example: She'll step out of a cubical and ask, 'What do you think?'. This is precisely the reason men don't like shopping with women, they get asked these trick questions. You can only really say, 'It looks great luv' even if it doesn’t. This because it's better than any of the alternatives. The least offensive of which is, 'Well it doesn’t really suit you'. A rookie mistake that one, because she will now want to know why it doesn't suit her. 'What's wrong with it?” you'll be asked. You’ve now got to come up with something that's not going to offend. You could say it makes you look fat. But, take it from me, Don't. Just don't Okay? You could say, 'It's not your colour'.But if she has clothes the same colour you could be looking at a whole new wardrobe. The worse is reply is 'it's too young for you'. If you went with that line I suggest you find yourself a solicitor asap....
No, many question remain unanswerable and that's for the best I guess.
Wednesday 4th June 2014 Week 154
I know what some of you think. You imagine I'm living the life of old Reilly over here. Feet up, never out the pool, lathered in sun tan lotion and rarely found without a glass of something alcoholic in my hand. Well it might come as a surprise, but I spent yesterday morning attempting to unblock the sink.
Motor-home plumbing is quite unlike domestic plumbing. For a start the pipe work is ridiculously narrow. This is just bad design and ceases to work if you so much as let a pea skin disappear down the plug hole. I had to remove the sink. Then thread all manner of long pointy things down the pipe in an attempt to clear it, I didn't. I eventually cleared the obstruction but only after disappearing under the van and dismantling great lengths of flexi pipe. I so never signed up for this.
In the afternoon we visited an art gallery. Well we would have, had it been open. I've said this before, in France, you can't rely on anything being open when you think it might be. It's pretty much pot luck. There was a sign saying something to the effect that we never close and then in brackets (except Tuesdays). So we took the opportunity to visit Notre Dame Cathedral. I find it slightly confusing that France is littered with Cathedrals all called Notre Dame. I pointed this out to Hazel who said really!, in such a way I was left in no doubt it was clearly something I should know.
The Cathedral was tucked away in the older part of town up a steep hill. I've no idea why all these sites seem to involve a climb but, trust me, they always do. I think Cathedrals and churches are built on hills to be closer to God. Then.....in days of yore..... God lived just above the clouds in the firmament. He has an entirely different address today. (Probably moved because the aircraft noise got on his nerves! Ed.)
The oldest part of Verdun, thay pulled the other half down so that cars could turn left.
On arrival Hazel tentatively tried the door. I'm not sure if she expected a bell to announce our arrival but I'm pleased to say one didn't. Ignoring the lack of a chime we entered. Inside was pretty much like any other cathedral, they're all built on the scale of the Grand Canyon so I’ll not bore you with a description. I will point out however it was started in 900 AD and completed by the year 1200 AD. This, I thought, was comforting. Clearly French builders are little better than British ones. They all promise to be back on Monday morning and you then don't see 'em for a decade or two.
I don’t know what it is about cathedrals or churches but you daren't make a sound. You whisper. A veil of reverence always descends over me even though I'm a non believer in a single creator, an Almighty. I much preferring the paradigm of the Big Bang theory. Still this doesn’t stop me showing respect. I stifle my coughs and sneezes, and the odd trump.
I'm always struck by the same thought in places like this. Back then, in 1200 when the Cathedral bells called the local peasants to prayer, whatever must they have thought entering a building like this? The sheer scale of the place. The art work. The obvious opulence of the interior and them out in the fields all day trying to scrape two francs together, one of which they dropped in the collection plate.
Odd that organised religion, while offering salvation also, at the same time, strived to ensure people were God fearing....
I guess places like this helped.
Thursday 5th June 2014 Week 154 France.
Are the Germans missing a trick?
We've upped sticks. As much as we like Verdun it can be well...., a bit OTT. There’s only so much WW1 horror any sane person can absorb. Thing is, the whole town is the site. The Cathedral, and other important buildings, are still riddled with bullet holes and there are monuments, statutes, memorials and shrines up your Wausau. Here, you can't forget the past, even if you wanted to, but that’s the point I guess.
We've been on the road so here's something I prepared earlier. It's a light-hearted observation I made while in Germany about another particular tourist attraction.
We'd taken a day trip to see a castle, or Schloss as the Germans call them. It was set high on a low mountain over looking the Eder river. The name may ring a bell with you. It was the scene of one of the RAF's greatest and most daring raids of the second world war. The bombing of the Edersee dam. The events of that night were made famous by the film 'The Dam Busters'. In reality it only blew a small chunk out of the dam but that was enough to cause widespread flooding and the untimely demise of sixty eight sleeping Germans.
What went through the minds of the guards on that fateful moonlit night when they saw the bouncing bomb is anyone guess. I imagine their first response was:
“What the f......”. Which soon turned to “Bugger me! run Fritz, run!”.
The attacking RAF planes had released a unique bomb, designed to skim across the surface of the lake, strike its target, sink and then explode. Impressive stuff.
While I stood there it occurred to me the Germans were missing a trick. Imagine, if you will, a disneyesque re-enactment. Sounds fun, right? And tell me if you wouldn't be happy to shell out a few Euros to see that?
Look out Jerry!
You sit high above the lake and hear, over the PA, the faint, and yet unmistakeable distant rumble of Lancaster engines. Playing gentle in the back ground is 'Land Of Hope and Glory. Staring out across the lake you suddenly see the aircraft drop from the clouds and position themselves just a few hundred feet above the lake surface. Over the speakers comes the clipped tones of an old Etonian, -sounding as if he's taking into a tea cup- “Bomb bay door open, let's give ole jerry something to think about”
The planes distinctive drone can be heard across the German countryside, a low resonant rumble. The Lancaster would then slowly lumber past at eye level: the pilot gives you a casual thumbs up, turns and lines itself up for the bombing run. Two anti aircraft guns opened fire. Tracer bullets illuminate the dark evening sky. The music increases. Suddenly you here “Bombs away”. The bouncing bombs are dropped from the belly of the Lancaster. The bomb, spinning, would kiss the steel grey surface of the water a glancing blow and then lift almost majestically into the air, its bright spherical shape shining in the evening moonlight. Over the loud speaker would come the voices of two terrified guards on the dam;
"Look out Fritz, zay are dropping zee whacky bombs on us". For added gravitas you could have Winston Churchill’s face painted on the side with his two fingers raised in defiance.
Clearly, and this in the interest of present day Anglo-German relationships, I don't think it'll be a good idea to use a live bombs.
Friday 6rd June 2014 Week 154 France.
What's on my mind?
I'm told our intelligence is a major difference between us and animals. Another, is our unique ability to pass on knowledge. Through books, the sum total of the history of mankind can further, not only our understanding of the world, thereby making it a better place to live, but also, and more importantly, ourselves. As individuals, through learning from the mistakes of others, the application of knowledge and common sense we gain that wonderful virtue, wisdom. Well that all sounds mighty impressive. So my question is: what’s gone wrong? Because if the above were true then I'd next have to ask why, after so many generations, are there still so many idiots about? And there are. You know there are. Strikes me: each generation, far from learning from the last, seems to walk blindly into making exactly the same mistakes that the last one did! and, trust me, that’s not good news. The results of a fortnight ago proves that, which I'll come to.
Of course once upon a time we really didn't have to worry too much. I've made the point before, Nature, through the process of natural selection, weeded out those that it didn't imbibe with too much sense. Early on, if you didn't wise-up you'd end on some creatures menu. If you didn't listen to others, wiser then yourself, your days were numbered. Life is an accident waiting to happen. It's a wise man that can side step all its pitfalls. And that is natural selection at work. Left alone it would have ensured that by the time we got to say, this generation, the idiot gene would have been eradicated from mankind and we'd all be pretty smart cookies, but we're not. Take the Polish couple who laid on a railway track to engage in coitus and then, perhaps not entirely surprisingly, were cut in two by the 8.15 to Lodz. Had the train been cancelled they could have gone on to breed (Think that was the idea at the time. Ed) and chances are their offspring would be as dim as they were. Trouble is, nature has since been replaced with the Heath and Safety executive, instruction books, warning messages, safety features on just about everything - thus ensuring the idiot gene is alive and well in far too many people.
But you're not convinced. Perhaps you think I'm being too harsh and cynical. Well then let me point to the EU election results as another example, see if I can persuade you dumb people are actually taking over the world.
Right across Europe millions voted into positions of power and influence a bunch of right wing, Neo Nazi, anti Islamic, fascist, racist, extremists. People whose wisdom is surely measured in single digits, if at all. People who have ignored what history has to offer and gone with hatred, prejudice and ignorance. I'm guessing those that voted for them were taken in by their rhetoric. And also agreed with them when they point accusatory fingers at small groups within our societies and blame them for all our ills. By doing so, they have completely ignored the real culprits, those that are elected to manage! They argue we'd have no problems if only we had kept those people out.
Now where have I heard that before?
If mankind doesn’t soon start to collectively wise-up and start taking lessons from its past then we really do deserve to have the idiots running the madhouse.
Have a good weekend.