The Liverpool and Manchester Railway

The greatest inventions in history are created because they are needed. The wheel – transport. Writing – to record crops and trade. The machine gun – to efficiently kill. The trench – to avoid machine guns. The plane – spy on trenches. The rocket – to dodge the RAF and strike British cities. The first modern railway? Read on.

In the early 1800s Britain was the workshop of the world. Raw materials had barely arrived into bustling ports before they were bent and boxed into products ready to be bartered for and bought around the globe. Money was king and it seemed that Adam Smith’s invisible hand was guiding progress from beyond the grave.

This process was none more evident than the cities of Liverpool and Manchester. The former was the port built on profits of carrying slaves to America but now thrived on the cotton picked by the unfortunate descendants of their wicked trade. Manchester was the workshop in which great looms transformed the cotton into cloth. But there was a problem. The canals linking the cities could not cope with the 1,000 tons of cargo per day being hauled on the 31 mile trip. Unreliable in cold weather and heavily tolled by their aristocratic owners, the transport princess of the 1700s had become the ugly sister in a matter of a few short decades.

Market forces were again demanding the development of another invention in history. The covetous gaze of northern businessmen finally fell on metal tracks in mines. And why not? After all coal was the new gold. Heaps of crushed carbon were dragged from underground on metal tracks by donkeys before being emptied and rushed back down again. It was small scale but it worked. Between Stockton and Darlington carts were hauled by stationery engines at either end of short tracks then by horses in between. It was slow and laborious but it worked. The route between the two great northern cities involved hills, valleys and a deep stretch of marshland. It would also need an engine that would move with it’s carts. It was large scale but it could work.

A joint stock company dedicated to creating the railway was created May 1823 with investors from London, Liverpool and Manchester. It took three years to finally ‘convince’ the landowners on whose property the railway would cut through and enough members of parliament to support the bill through a vote before work could finally start.

It was on the shoulders of George Stephenson that the mammoth task was placed. He designed the smooth railway which would roll over the bog at Chat Moss, a viaduct at Sankey Valley and a two mile tunnel through rock at Olive Mount. Once this neared completion much debate centred upon what kind of engine would carry the freight and passengers along the line. Conventional thought pointed to the use of stationery engines at the end of line to drag the carts, but this was not a conventional project. Engineers asked for the chance to prove that a fast-moving engine could travel along the tracks instead.

It was finally decided to stage a competition for perspective locomotives. Each had to pull a load three times its own weight at a speed of at least 10 mph. This was to be held at Rainhill and the lucky winner would receive £500 and the honour of their invention being used on the railway. The clear victor was ‘The Rocket’ designed by George Stephenson. It was a simple design of a boiler with several tubes to heat up the water. Once boiling the pressure of the steam turned the wheels. Though not by any means efficient this machine certainly was effective.

Eleven months later the great railway opened to huge fanfare at both ends of the line and indeed the social spectrum. The political and landed classes gathered alongside working men and women to witness history. Though disaster struck as William Huskinson, a Liverpudlian MP, crossed the track to supposedly apologise to the Prime Minister Lord Wellington for a drunken remark the night before. Not hearing the approaching train on it’s first ever journey, he was struck and his legs crushed. The locomotive carried him to hospital where he died later that day. Rather bizarrely an Athenian style statue of him resides in a quiet corner of Pimlico.

The railway became a huge success. In it’s first year it carried almost half a million passengers not to mention thousands upon thousands of tons of industrial produce. Behind the scenes investors could not contain their delight as their shares regularly paid out a 10% annual dividend. The word was out; railways were in. With laws restricting the number of people permitted to invest in companies relaxed, investors from the landed gentry to the expanding middle classes threw their money into what became known as ‘iron horses’. Although there was considerable opposition to each projet, within twenty years thousands of miles of track zigzagged the country from Cardiff to Kent, Ealing to Edinburgh.

Perhaps the greatest impact of the revolution was the effect on regular people. The world felt like it had shrunk, well at least Britain did. Before the arrival of trains it took almost two weeks to get from London to Edinburgh – now it took six hours. Each town had had it’s own time zone however due to the confusion of timetables these were now co-ordinated by the picturesque London suburb of Greenwich. National sporting leagues were created as teams and their adoring fans could travel the length and breadth of the land for matches yet return home for work. And of course rules needed to be agreed upon so the likes of the FA and RFU were created. Families who would rarely leave their neighbourhood, village or town could now afford holidays courtesy of cheap rail travel.

The first railway had been created to whet the appetite of some industry owners in the north east yet it’s impact appeared to benefit all of society. The theory of capitalism which stated that people striving for their own gain without government interference would help all seemed to be coming true. However within decades millions lived in abject poverty and danger across the industrial cities of Europe with practically no chance of getting a foot on the bottom rung of society’s ladder which seemed eternally out of reach. The Liverpool and Manchester railway symbolised the greatness of the ingenuity of man yet also how this greed could exclude the masses from ever truly profiting from it.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gin and Tonic

Gin Lane

Look at the picture above.

Now actually look at it and note at least three details.

I imagine you have picked up the lady with the open sores of syphilis dropping her baby, the man who could be dead or alive, the hanging body, the dentists? This picture was created in 1751 and is called ‘Gin Lane’. The message is quite clear – gin is having a detrimental effect on the lower classes of London. The purpose of the picture was to have gin banned, or at least regulated.Yet within a century this drink was the darling of the British Empire. Together with it’s partner tonic water they became known as the ‘G&T’. And they would save hundreds of thousands of lives. Indeed, Winston Churchill firmly stated, “The gin and tonic has saved more lives, and minds, than all the doctors in the empire.”

When the Dutch William of Orange was invited by parliament to become king of England in 1689, he and his wife Anne brought a penchant for genever with them. A trading embargo with France cut off the supply of bourbon so Britons were encouraged to distil their own liquor and what better drink to create than the one enjoyed by the royal family? By this stage though British soldiers had enjoyed genever when fighting alongside the Dutch during the Eighty Years War. Known for it’s effects of calming the mind before battle it gained the nickname of ‘Dutch Courage’.

Over the coming decades Londoners took to genever, now shortened to gin, like ducks to water. Adults and children alike drank over one hundred pints per year on average. When, in 1736, the government imposed high taxes to address the problem there were drunken riots. Distillers turned to making illegal gin and replaced the costly juniper with the deadly turpentine. Death became so commonplace that it was a contributing factor in the population of the city stabilising. So another law was passed 15 years later which seemed to quell the issue.

Not before long what was the scourge of the lower classes became the quaint tipple of the middle classes. Gin Palaces complete with shiny glass windows and twinkling gas lighting captured the imagine of those with newly found disposable income. Charles Dickens described them as, “perfectly dazzling.” Although gin was enjoying fleeting popularity alone, alongside tonic water it was to take the world by storm.

As ever necessity breeds invention and a growing problem for Brits abroad was malaria. Though largely eradicated in Europe it was a growing problem in India and the tropics. The answer came in the form of a bark from the Peruvian cinchona tree which was imported to Europe by the Spanish. This lifeline became vital in maintaining a healthy population of soldiers, civil servants, businessmen and sailors in the British colonies. By the 1840s 700 tons per annum were used by the British in India alone. The vital ingredient quinine was extracted and used in powder form as a daily malaria medicine for those in the tropics.

The powder was incredibly bitter so became mixed with soda and sugar to created ‘tonic water’. In 1858, one year after the British government took control of the vast colony from the East India Company, tonic water was commercialised. It was perfected in 1870 by the Schweppes company to satisfy the great demand. Unsurprisingly a glass of tonic water in the mornings was no replacement for tea. Perhaps inevitably, gin was added to the mix and what was once a reluctant morning routine became an afternoon delight. When the race for Africa began in earnest in the ensuing decade, Europeans brought immunity to a deadly disease in their drinks cabinets.

The final garnish of the gin and tonic was the wedge of lime. Since 1756 a small amount of lime had been added to sailors’ daily rum rations to prevent scurvy. Indeed the American term ‘limey’ for Englishmen came from this practice in the 1800s. Not before long pieces of lime found their way into the medicinal drink of gin and tonic. The G&T was finally born.

Now that you have finished this piece why not treat yourself to some history in a glass and enjoy some of my other articles?

Posted in British Empire, British History, Gin and Tonic, Malaria | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Would you have dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Following the detonation of ‘Little Boy’ 1000 feet above the centre of Hiroshima on 6th August 1945 the city became engulfed in a firestorm of biblical proportions. The river became a boiling inferno into which people whose skin had melted off like bacon jumped into for relief. A thick dark cloud, which later emitted black rain, blocked out the sun as the community descended into a loud piercing darkness. One girl who was driving a tram when the bomb exploded was so badly burnt that when she finally made her way home her parents could only identify her through her cracked voice. Most medicine in the well prepared city had evaporated away as their glass containers melted in the heat. These small details could not be recorded by the observation planes flying high above; they reported back that the mission had been a resounding success. At this stage, let’s discuss the title of this article – would you have dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

The argument first peddled out is that the dropping of the atomic bombs prevented one million American soldiers dying in a land invasion. This figure is grossly exaggerated and was predicted to be somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 men if the Allied forces did invade mainland Japan. Although one study in June 1945 based on the battle of Okinawa estimated that casualties would be 40,000. Rarely however during these discussions is the potential number of Japanese deaths brought up. A staggering 22 Japanese deaths was estimated for every 1 Allied death, even if this was double the actual number then a ratio of 11:1 is still frightening. As its one quarter and one eighth. The research at the time certainly pointed towards the bombs actually saving lives on both sides.

The morality of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks has been discussed and debated extensively in the past 70 years. Both cities had been left untouched by any Allied bomb to ascertain the damage which a nuclear weapon would do to a normal city. Both cities had little military presence. Both cities were so stretched in manpower that schoolchildren contributed greatly to most of their inner workings such as public transport and factory work. However we must remember the context of 1945. Both sides in the war had taken part in horrific actions against defenceless civilians. Britain had suffered carpet bombing of their main cities and had in return destroyed their German counterparts with ruthless efficiency. The Japanese had conducted the rape of Nanking while the Americans firebombed Tokyo killing 125,000 in twelve hours. The list could go on indefinitely. Ultimately the attack of civilians at this late stage of the war was not measured using the moral compass of today.

And what of the Soviet Union? Cracks had formed and were spreading in their relationship with Britain and America. Without a common enemy there was little binding a totalitarian communist state with democratic capitalist countries. Throughout the war Russia had suffered the deaths of 27 million people, all of it’s industry was destroyed and it was economically crushed. Stalin wanted huge war reparations and Germany to be squeezed to the extent that they would never have the ability to even consider invading Russia for the third time in three generations. To support this he wanted a buffer zone of Eastern European countries, loyal to Moscow, in order to protect their borders. But it was not just what Stalin wanted which worried the Allies, it was what he already had. In August 1945 62 Red Army divisions were stationed in Europe and should they have wished to move west they would have outnumbered their new enemies by eight to one. What America lacked in soldiers they made up for in nuclear power. And thus, the decision to drop nuclear weapons on Japan was as much the last shot in World War Two as it was the first shot in the Cold War.

Again we come back to the question, would you have dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Perhaps the question is too vague as arguments have been put forward for the counterfactual options of sending a video of a detonation of a weapon to the Japanese in advance of demanding a surrender, or of detonating one at sea and stating that a city would be next or even calling it quits after dropping the first bomb on Hiroshima. Or simply not dropping one at all. The debate will not end but it will surely influence a similar decision in the future which will eventually come.

Posted in Cold War, WW2 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Why was the Labour Party founded?

In 1888 Fleet Street media fed the news and gossip hungry Londoners with their daily snacks. During the warm summer stories of Mrs Benz driving an automobile designed by her husband a staggering 40 miles alongside updates from India and speculation surrounding Jack the Ripper’s latest victim kept the greasy wheels of gossip turning. It was on this street that the British Labour movement was born as 200 determined young women bounded to the offices of The Link newspaper demanding to meet with the radical journalist Annie Beasant.

They were employees of the Byrant and May match company who after reporting huge dividends of 22% the previous month were paying their employees a measly twenty pence per week and seemingly firing the unskilled workers at will. Beasant investigated the claims of the girls and ensured that their story captured the imagination of the liberal middle classes whose pennies and pounds funded a popular strike. After weeks of a standoff the factory owners acquiesced to the demands of the girls. They had shown that unskilled workers could organise themselves to put pressure on unscrupulous bosses.

Their lesson was learnt and the following year 10,000 London dockers went on strike over their dangerous working conditions and demeaning pay. International trade at the heart of the British empire virtually ceased. Through patient leadership and an organised system of funding and mobilisation the strikers were successful. Over the next five years two million British men joined trade unions and a Labour movement was born. Those who had sown the seeds of success in representing the workers turned their eyes towards the bigger prize of representing the people in the field of politics.

Within ten years their political nous was developing and West Ham soon became the first Labour council in London. A minimum wage was introduced alongside an eight hour working day coupled with two weeks of holiday per annum. Although they lost their power two years later, their ability to reform and organise at a local level was clear.

The next step was to climb up to the daunting heights of national politics and in 1900 at a meeting called by the Trade Union Congress a ‘distinct Labour group in parliament’ was created. This group who would have their own party whips and a clear policy was led by Keir Hardie. A Scottish mine worker who had vigorously worked in various unions for decades, Hardie had become the socialist MP for West Ham in 1892. He refused to don the traditional garb of a member of parliament and instead entered the Palace of Westminster in a tweed suit, a red tie and a deerstalker hat. He advocated women’s rights, free education, the abolition of the House of Lords alongside a staunch anti immigrant stance for Scotland stating that, “God made Scotland for the Scotchmen and I would keep it that way.”

Hardie’s choice of attire symbolised the different approach of the Labour Party


The election of 1900 came too soon for the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) but nonetheless MPs were elected in Merthyr Tydfil and Derby. Six years later however the party, benefitting from a secret pact created by Ramsay MacDonald with the Liberals, won 29 seats. In their first meeting the members of parliament decided to ditch their LRC title and adopt the name of the Labour Party instead with Hardie as their leader. Initial successes included their support of the Workmen’s Compensation Act, the Old Age Pension Act and the Health Insurance Bill. They experienced their first taste of government during the war but in 1929 came the success they had been waiting for, a majority government.

The Labour movement of the early 1900s owed it’s popularity to the demand for urban workers in the Industrial Age to the greed of their employers who underestimated the strength of their workforce in cooperating to achieve their aims. Success of political parties depends on their ability to reflect the wants and needs of the populace. This was true in 1900 and is true in 2015.

Posted in British History, Nineteenth Century | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Birth of the NHS

After a roadside picnic on the campaign trail in 1945 Winston Churchill turned to his aides and said, “I’m going to lose this. I have nothing to offer them.” He was right. The same man who took the lonely stance of continuing the war in 1940 when others wanted to negotiate, who led Britain to survival against odds at which any betting man would scoff and whose military were pounding the Germans into submission alongside the soon-to-be foes of Russia and America was right. After the previous war the British wanted to return to the old ways, now they wanted a fresh start. Clement Attlee and the Labour Party swept into office and begun wrapping their gift for a new age – the National Health Service.

While it is tempting to imagine the colourful NHS rolling out across Britain and crushing the old Victorian Poor Law as men in top hats dropped their monocles into their crystal glasses of armagnac amid warnings of a greedy underclass seizing the means of production – that, somewhat surprisingly, is not the case. The NHS, while revolutionary, did build upon existing systems.

In 1911 David Lloyd George introduced the National Insurance Act which provided medical care, unemployment benefits and a pension to working men in return for weekly deductions from their pay. But the medical care provided a limited service from a doctor and hospital treatment only if suffering from tuberculosis. Local authorities also provided medical care for ratepayers and in 1930 the London County Council took control of 140 hospitals. In short, the system did not work well as it was a mix of different solutions to different problems in different regions.

Necessity breeds invention and the impending war again created a need for the fighting fit. But as the world entered the chasm of total war the ‘fighting fit’ no longer meant men at the front line, it meant the entire population who also required medical care from impending Luftwaffe attacks as well as general health. The medical service, as with almost all services and industry, came under state control. Towards the end of the war as Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin planned for the post-war world, the Labour Party planned for the post-war Britain.

Published in December 1942 the Beveridge Report proposed huge reform to tackle the five ‘Great Evils’ of society: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Needless to say it was hugely popular across the board but the realist Churchill in a broadcast entitled ‘After the War’ warned the public not to impose huge spending on the government without any relation to the, “circumstances which might prevail at the time.” After all in that month Britain suffered huge losses to German U-Boats in the Atlantic as the Russian war effort was badly creaking in the east. These discussions were all well and good but the outcome of the war was far from certain and Britain was surviving day to day on heavy American finance.

But by the following year it became clear that Britain would become a welfare state after the war. It is unclear whether this as a reward for the people’s endeavour since 1939 or as a logical step for a healthy populace in an uncertain age. Regardless, the decision had been made and the general principles of the new NHS were as follows:

  1. Services were to be provided free at the point of use
  2. Services were financed by general taxation
  3. Everyone was eligible for care, even those visiting the country

The structure of the new National Health Service was passed by law in November 1946 and was launched on 5th July 1948. It now took control of 480,000 hospital beds, 125,000 nurses and 5,000 consultants. The introduction of the welfare state could not have come at a better time for the people as rationing, a national housing shortage and spiralling tuberculosis deaths rocked the country after six years of war.

Following it’s introduction, the Minister for Health Aneurin Bevan stated, “This is the biggest single experiment in social service that the world has ever seen undertaken.” Nobody would debate that however how long the experiment will continue to last is up for grabs.

Posted in British History, NHS, WW2 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Magna Carta, Magna Carta, Magna Carta…


It’s one of those events in history that you know is important but really can’t put your finger on it. You’ve glanced at the articles which proclaim that it was the first agreement protecting the people of England, that it influenced the American Revolution and that our government are trying to dismantle it altogether but yet you get the feeling that those authors know as much as you do. This is where I come in. After reading this you will not only know what it is but also why it pales in significance to a much more important document from the time. And yes there will be references to Robin Hood. 

First off, it means ‘Great Charter’ and was an agreement between king John (The cartoon lion from Disney’s take on Robin Hood) and his barons in 1215. 
But to get the context we are going to leap back to… 1066! When William of Normandy seized power in England he confiscated 96% of the land from the English barons and gave it to his Norman lords. In order to begin a successful dynasty he needed lords, or barons, to collect taxes, maintain order and fight in his wars. So from the outset there was a necessary balance of power between the monarch and the nobility. The monarch granted land in return for duties while the barons performed these duties within reason. 
Fast forward to 1191 when the swashbuckling King Richard the Lionheart went off on crusade to engage in battle with the honourable Saladin the Great. While away the crown of England was given to his younger brother John, an unfortunate soul who missed most if not all of the great family traits possessed by Richard. As his father tactically left him little or no property his nickname was ‘Lackland’. 
Much to the despair of the kingdom Richard died in battle in 1199 and the crown officially passed to John. In his first military campaign in France he suffered terrible losses and surrendered huge tracts of English land. In order to pay for this costly defeat he had to raise taxes for his resentful barons to collect. To make matters worse his new moniker became ‘Soft Sword’ which wasn’t solely to do with his military acumen either… 
His popularity fell further when he became entangled in disputes with the pope and the final straw for the barons came in 1214 when he lost another key battle on French soil. God appeared to be sending clear signals about the English king. 
Enough was enough and a group of rebellious barons attempted to seize London and overthrow John. They were not met with total success so both groups convened at Runnymede to thrash out an agreement. This document became known as Magna Carta and explicitly limited the rights of the monarch. It promised that no free man could be unfairly imprisoned, no unfair taxes could be levied on free men, church rights were to be protected (Clerical positions were often held by the younger brothers of the nobility) and that King John’s actions would be closely supervised by a group of 25 barons. 
This great document unquestionably outlined unprecedented political reform but two things must be noted:
1) John had no intention of abiding by it and as a result the First Barons War began within weeks. Following his death a year later the barons then sided with his son Henry who signed a diluted version of the charter. 
2) The term ‘free men’ which relates to the nobility who made up less than 10% of the population. The barons were quick to preserve the status quo of the serfs who were often not permitted to leave their town of birth or even marry without their lords permission. Make no mistake, Magna Carta protected the interests of an elite group of Anglo-French landowners and not those of lower birth. 
But before you go and spread the word of Magna Carta please allow me to pitch what I believe to be the real protector of the People – The Charter of the Forest from 1217. This document, which lasted for centuries, secured the rights of all people to use the royal forests. Because it was in forests that they found fuel, food, land for animals to graze, timber for building, medicine, clothing and much much more. This charter was unique because it guaranteed the rights of all people not just those who had the foresight to be born into a noble family. After all, in Robin Hood do he and his merry men protect the rights of the nobility to feudal tax breaks or do they fight for the right of the people of Sherwood Forest to use the ecosystem on their doorstep?

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

The Spy Who Won World War Two

World War Two often conjures up a variety of images in our minds. Perhaps cleanly shaven men dashing to their spitfires to defend Blighty in the Battle of Britain (Almost a third of whom were Polish incidentally). Or brave men storming the beaches of Normandy against a tide of bullets and bombs. But in actual fact the war was won and lost in terrible battles deep within Soviet Russia in which ten million men fought. To put this number in context, the British army at the start of World War One had 100,000 men, 1% of that number. Four out of five slain German soldiers died there. Four out of five Russian men born in 1923 didn’t live to see their 23rd birthday. And within six months of the German invasion 15,000 limbs were amputated due to frostbite on their side alone. The Russian victory turned the tide of war and set up the ideological stand off known as the Cold War. A decisive factor in the Allied victory was the work of one man; a heavy drinking, womanising spy named Richard Sorge.

A patriotic German soldier, he served with great distinction on the eastern front of World War One. In 1916 he was awarded the Iron Cross when his leg bones were shattered in battle. Following the age old tradition of the warrior, he seduced his nurse. As fate would have it her father was a Marxist and he fastidiously adopted the political ideology. After being discharged he joined the German communist party but the feeding frenzy of the failing Weimar Republic was no life for a budding Marxist. For the second time in his life he marched East but this time he was welcomed with open arms and was recruited as a member of Comintern. His aim? To encourage Marxist revolution worldwide.

Fast forward to 1941 and Sorge was in Tokyo as a Nazi party member, a respected journalist and crucially, Stalin’s most important spy in Asia. He had lived in Tokyo for nine years and had created strong links with the German and Japanese embassies. His lifestyle was one that now has become somewhat of a cliché. A flamboyant womaniser with a penchant for cocktails, he was notorious for speeding through the streets of Tokyo on his glamorous motorbike. All conducted without a helmet or any care for the effects of alcohol on one’s driving of course.

When not living his fast-paced social life, his secret role was to ascertain whether the Japanese would invade Russia. After all they had defeated the largest country on earth in 1905. However he did not just limit himself to this task, and in June 1941 he warned Stalin with considerable reliability of the surprise Nazi invasion of Russia. But it may surprise you to know that Uncle Joe did not take kindly to advice and dismissed the report, bluntly stating that Sorge was, “a sh*t who has set himself up with some little factories and brothels in Japan.” But once proven right his future reports proved invaluable. More importantly, they were now listened to.

So let’s provide the context of June 1941. Nazi Germany controlled almost all of Europe. There were fewer than ten democracies left on the planet. Pearl Harbour would not occur for six months so America had not yet joined the war although they were heavily subsidising the Allies. Two months later Britain and America agreed to place an oil embargo on Japan. This was crucial. It meant that they would have to source black gold through invading what is now Indonesia. They began to pull troops away from the Russian border to engage in this enterprise. Sorge’s ears pricked up.

Unbeknownst to the busy combatants of this horrific conflict, the winds of change were blowing. He fed this key information to Moscow – the Japanese would, “NOT, REPEAT NOT,” invade Russia for at least one year. This time he was listened to – within weeks the creaking Red Army in Europe were bolstered with 15 infantry divisions, 3 cavalry divisions, 1700 tanks and 1500 aircraft from the Japanese border. The tide in the Battle of Moscow turned and as a result they began to push back the German juggernaut. In the same month, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour and the sleeping giant of America ferociously plunged into war. Bookmakers around the globe rushed to lower the odds on an Allied victory.

Without these key reserves provided by Sorge’s top drawer espionage the Soviet house of cards may well have tumbled leaving Europe, the Middle East and perhaps even India to the mercy of the National Socialist Party and their horrific regime. Maybe not though. Maybe the Red Army would have shone through without the reserves gained from Sorge’s insights. Maybe history wouldn’t have changed after all. Maybe…

While the Soviet Union survived their fiercest test, Sorge did not. Within weeks his spy ring crumbled and he was arrested. After one week of torture he agreed to talk on the condition that his mistress not be harmed. The Japanese tried to exchange Sorge for a spy of their own but Stalin wasn’t interested, after all he had served his purpose. So one of the greatest spies on history was unceremoniously hung on 7th November 1944 in a quiet Tokyo prison yard. However the Japanese authorities stuck to their word, his mistress was not harmed and she lovingly tended his grave until her own death fifteen years ago.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How close we came to nuclear war – The Cuban Missile Crisis

Lying quietly in deep international waters close to Cuba, the Soviet submarine B59 came under attack by American depth charges. The furious officers scrambled to activate their key weapon as their instructions were clear – if provoked, launch your nuclear missile at an American city. The submarine had been evading it’s US Navy pursuers for days and was too deep to receive radio contact so it’s officers were unaware if war had broken out or not. In this scenario they had to presume the worst and return fire without question. But this submarine was unique, instead of having two commanding officers there were three and all had to agree to any action. The third was Vasili Arkhipov who broke rank and refused to sanction the launch. This son of a peasant farmer from outside Moscow narrowly averted nuclear war on 27th October 1962.

During the 1950s the small island of Cuba situated 90 miles from Florida was a playground for wealthy Americans seeking a good time. With legal gambling and swinging nightclubs, Havana attracted numerous packs of fun loving tourists. With 200 million American dollars invested in the country, the dictator Batista naturally cuddled up to his friendly neighbours. Little of this money was seen by the Cuban peasants and socialist rebels began to educate them for free. The message was mass redistribution of land and wealth. Led by Fidel Castro they seized power in 1959. Corrupt officials were executed and American firms were nationalised. The money generated from this was spent primarily on a national health system and widespread education. In response America initiated a total trade embargo which came close to bankrupting the island. Castro had no choice but to turn to America’s greatest foe for trade and support – the Soviet Union.

In 1961 President Kennedy approved a clumsy military operation led by Cuban exiles to take back governance of the island. It was a disaster. Landing at the Bay of Pigs with no maps of the island, Jeeps with no fuel and no air support promised by the US Air Force, they were easily defeated. With a hostile neighbour on his doorstep, Castro sought a closer relationship with the Soviet Union. Kruschev, the Soviet Premier, slyly took advantage of the situation.

On 16th October 1962 a U2 spy plane took a photograph which threw the Kennedy administration into chaos – Soviet missile launch pads were being constructed in the Cuban jungle.

With a potential range of 2000 miles, missiles launched from this base could kill upwards of 80 million Americans within less than half an hour. Alarmingly, intelligence then confirmed that 20 Russian ships carrying nuclear weapons were on their way to the Caribbean. Instead of an air strike or full invasion, Kennedy and his group of advisors ExComm (Executive Committee of the National Security Council) initiated a naval blockade of the island. The Cuban Missile Crisis had begun.

On 22nd October JFK addressed the nation from the oval office. He stated that if any Russian ship carrying offensive weapons broke the blockade then the United States would launch a, “full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” Countries around the world began to take sides, China pledged 650,000 soldiers in support of the Cuban people while the West German government applauded the hard-line stance of America. Pope John XXIII appeared to briefly calm tensions with a much-publicised plea to rulers, “not to be deaf to the cry of humanity.”

At a televised meeting of the United Nations Security Council the Soviet Ambassador Zorin refused to admit the existence of the missiles. The following day America logistically prepared for war. B52 bombers went on continuous airborne alert while B47 bombers equipped with nuclear weapons were dispatched to civilian airfields, ready to begin offensive missions with fifteen minutes notice while 145 inter-continental ballistic missiles were placed on active notice. Still the Soviet fleet headed for Cuba.

Throughout this time there was a flurry of secret messages back and forth from Washington and Moscow. Neither side wanted war but equally neither wished to back down and face humiliation. Kennedy, supported by his brother Robert the Attorney General, fluctuated between launching a full scale invasion of Cuba and lessening the blockade. Both he and Kruschev had groups of so called hawks and doves providing conflicting advice behind closed doors. Privately, Kennedy noted that the chances of all-out nuclear war were, “between one third and even.”

On the same day as the B59 incident, Kruschev received the ‘Armageddon Letter’ from Castro urging the use of force against America. Elsewhere Soviet and American fighter jets squared off over the Bering Sea. But by midnight on the day known as ‘Black Saturday’ both sides finally came to an agreement.

The Soviet Union would remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for America removing their Jupiter missiles which were secretly located in Italy and Turkey. America also had to respect the sovereignty of Cuba in the future. However the American removal of their missiles remained secret which gave Kennedy the upper hand in the eyes of the public. Oddly enough, as yet undiscovered nuclear tactical missiles remained in Cuba as they were not technically part of the agreement but the Soviet Deputy Prime Minister authorised their removal within weeks. By April of 1963 each side had fully removed any weapons which the other would see as threatening and within months signed the Nuclear test Ban Treaty.

One year later Kruschev fell from power. A key reason behind this was the ill thought-out and executed plans to support Cuba followed by the embarrassing retreat in the spotlight of the world. The Soviet leadership viewed the Cuban Missile Crisis as, “a blow to it’s prestige bordering on humiliation.” In a practical sense the ‘Red Telephone’ hotline was created between the White House and the Kremlin. This enabled instant communication to verify the actions of each side. It switched to fax in 1986 and in 2008 evolved to email. In the long term, the crisis benefitted relations between the two superpowers. Each now knew that the other would refrain from all out hostilities and a period of friendship known as Détente began. This era ended on Christmas Day 1979 when the Soviet Union made the grave error of invading Afghanistan.

Posted in Cold War, Cuban Missile Crisis | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

What made a plague become the Black Death?

Ring-a-ring o’ roses,

A pocket full of posies,

A-tishoo! A-tishoo!

We all fall down.

It’s from the Black Death you see. Posies were the herbs and flowers that people carried around and then they cough with the plague and when they fall down they die.

Well that’s how the explanation generally goes. Or you may hear that the plague was carried by rats but foolishly people thought that it was something to do with cats so they were all hunted which left the real culprits with no natural predator.

But what it rarely asked is how a disease, which returned regularly for centuries afterwards, happened to kill one in three people in Europe within five years? I will attempt to answer that today.

Before the arrival of Yersinia Pestis in 1347 the European population was weak. Due to a fall in world temperature by roughly one degree Celsius agriculture was in turmoil. Grain and cereal production in Scandinavia virtually ceased and wine production stopped in Britain. From 1300 onwards the European population may have dropped by 10%. China was ravaged by widespread famine in the 1330s which created ideal conditions for the disease to rapidly spread west. Medieval society was routinely ravaged by war which further weakened the general population whose food and resources were requisitioned by the military. The One Hundred Years War between England and France had begun in 1337. Battles were also waged between German Teutonic Knights and the Poles, the Swiss Confederation surged through central Europe, Ireland and Scotland were torn from within by Civil War and floods hurt the trading cities of Florence and Venice. To add insult to injury, from 1309 the Pope no longer resided in Rome but in southern France under the influence of the powerful French monarchy. The condition of the papacy seemed to reflect the condition of the people of Europe. All was not well in Christendom.

The plague itself was a bacterium called Yerstinia Pestis which had evolved to spread through airborne infection and fleas before attacking the blood initially through the lungs. Symptoms began with a fever then the lymph nodes, located in the neck and armpits, swelled into black ‘buboes’ which could be as large as golf balls. Smaller blood vessels in fingers and toes clogged and ruptured turning black. Death finally came from septicaemia usually in about three days.

Talk of the Black Death reached Europe before the plague itself. Towns and cities prepared by regulating trade in and out, isolating areas for potential victims and rather reluctantly digging mass graves away from the general population. Kaffa on the Crimean peninsula was the first town to be hit as it lay on the Silk Road, the principal trading route between Europe and Asia.

Thereafter it rapidly spread across Europe and North Africa, generally through trade whether on ships or in goods drawn by horses. Although it did spread in the Islamic Empire, their standards of hygiene and greater understanding of medicine limited the impact.

It eventually hit Scandinavia on an English ship in which all occupants had died since setting off carrying their cargo of wool. As it drifted aimlessly towards the coast of Norway, thieves boarded it to steal the precious cargo. Unwittingly they escorted the hungry killer again onto dry land. It then spread clockwise into Russia before petering out in the plains where it had first appeared five years before.

As humans descended into a pack mentality, minority groups were blamed for the great pestilence. Jews, friars, foreigners, lepers, Romani and pilgrims were all persecuted in different forms across the continent. Pope Clement VI issued two Papal Bulls condemning these actions but the cat was out of the bag.

Nobody can be sure how many died within this short period of time. Roughly one in three Europeans died although in certain towns such as Kilkenny in Ireland 80% of the population perished.

On a local level the social consequences were polarised. Some embraced their religion with a fervent passion, begging god for mercy through public acts of reverence. Groups such as the flagellants took it to an extreme by travelling the country publicly whipping themselves in a frenzy of religious devotion. Others figured that they had been spared death and made an effort to enjoy the fruits of life while they could. At the far end of this scale, the pseudo-flagellants travelled the country performing sexual acts publicly to the fixation of townspeople and villagers. The church soon put an end to this as their power exponentially grew because so many of the dead had left them land and possessions in their wills.

On a grand political and economic scale the feudal system began to break down. Wages naturally increased as the demand for labour grew. No longer could lords deny peasants the right to leave their fiefdom in search of work. An economy based on supply and demand slowly replaced the previous system in which peasants would till their lord’s land in return for meagre resources and protection. In cities such as Paris and Florence powerful groups were created to protect the rights of peasants and in England this shift was noted most clearly in the Peasants Revolt of 1381. In the fifteenth century the power of the monarch gradually waned and in the sixteenth the parliament grew more powerful until the Civil War in the seventeenth century. Although this overwhelmingly basic narrative of English history cannot be traced solely to the Black Death.

Although the consequences of this epidemic cannot be emphasised enough, it must be noted that the plague did return in 1369, 1374, 1379, 1390, 1407 and countless other times throughout Europe until there were widespread improvements in hygiene and medicine. It’s last great sweep was in China and India in 1855 and in 1959 the World Health Organisation finally declared it finished.

What separated this this plague of the 1340s from it’s weaker predecessors and subsequent versions was that the victims it had preyed upon had been gradually weakened for decades by a consistent lack of food for a large population mainly due to environmental shifts and to a lesser extent, war. These factors combined to make what could have been a plague into the vicious Black Death.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The Easter Rising

Easter Sunday 2015: An expectant crowd has gathered in the centre of Dublin. The President and Taoiseach (The Irish Prime Minister) prepare to lead the commemorations, four air force pilots are distantly circling preparing for their flyby, the armed forces stand in solemn respect, the foreign dignitaries of Britain and France heap praise on the rebels as do crowds in squares and cemeteries across Ireland. The time for remembering the 1916 Easter Rising has come around again.

By 1914 the tempestuous waters of Ireland were again reaching boiling point. The failures of rebellions in the past had led to a new political and peaceful demand – Home Rule. A parliament in Dublin would represent the island of Ireland but not assuming full control as the country would remain within the British Empire. What seemed quite a reasonable suggestion, as after all the dominions of Canada and South Africa had control of their affairs, was anything but. The overwhelmingly protestant Unionists feared that Home Rule would mean Rome Rule and their inevitable sectarian subjugation while their overwhelmingly Catholic nationalist counterparts saw Home Rule as a step towards full independence. Civil War appeared to be on the horizon as the armed groups of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) in the north and Irish Volunteer Force (IVF) in the south prepared for conflict. The British Parliament were on the verge of passing the Home Rule Bill until the European Crisis of 1914 rapidly descended into war.

Both sides clamoured to support the war effort. A stunning 200,000 Irish men joined up in the fervour of 1914. Whether to show that they were loyal to the British war effort, to protect Belgian neutrality, for adventure or simply for a steady wage and pension, Ireland had now greatly contributed to the Great War. Of 188,000 members of the IVF, only 13,500 decided not to support the war effort. The men of Ireland had appeared to make up their minds – the popular movements of Home Rule and independence were on the back burner for now.

At this point it should be noted that Ireland had a long tradition of serving in the British armed forces. In the 1830s 40% of their soldiers were Irish. 60,000 served before the war, half of them reservists. But it was not just the rank and file but 12 generals were Irish too.

So in this context, how did a major rebellion occur? As the war progressed there was increasing resentment towards British rule. As Ireland was largely an agrarian society, there was resentment towards government regulation of wartime agriculture coupled with the grave threat of conscription. Never far from Irish minds was the horrific experiences of famine and subsequent mass emigration, blame for which was placed in the hands of the British government. From the late 1880s onwards there had developed a cultural nationalism which took the form of plays, books, songs and sport, mainly the hugely popular Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) created in 1888. This naturally led to a desire for Irish self determination be it in the form of Home Rule or indeoendence.

Though despite this patriotic surge, in 1916 the numbers in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB), a key group of the IVF committed to armed insurrection, were only 2000. As the noted historian R.F. Foster noted, “1916 was made by the minority of a minority.”

The rebellion not only took the people of Dublin and Ireland by surprise, but most of the Irish Volunteers as well. Mixed messages and coded cancellations followed by vague retractions led to an underwhelming turnout. On Easter Monday a group of 100 armed volunteers seized the General Post Office on Sackville Street (Now called O’Connell Street) and quickly read the proclamation declaring Ireland a republic. Bank holiday shoppers were initially disinterested until a mob formed and began to loot shops in the absence of police. A rebel force of 1,300 quickly took over key strategic buildings across the city. However within the hour the Irishmen of 3rd Royal Irish Rifles and 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers recently recruited for the war took up positions against their fellow countrymen. But what was meant to be a national revolution was largely confined to Dublin as in Kerry 20,000 promised rifles from the Germans had failed to materialise and support for the rebellion faded away.

During a week of one sided fighting in the capital, ambivalence and pragmatism across the country turned to patriotic support from students and republicans alike. However this was by no means on the scale of the great European and American revolutions of the past. By the end of the week 450 people (Mostly citizens) had been killed and 2614 wounded. The centre of the capital city was reduced to rubble after the gunship SS Helga had sailed up the Liffey to shell rebel positions. As the defeated volunteers were marched through the streets to prison, they were verbally and physically abused by the people of Dublin. The rebellion was over and hope was lost.

The British authorities were faced with a choice – kill the rebellion with kindness or crush any remaining support. They chose the latter and as a result placed those involved in the rebellion into Irish folklore. Within weeks 75 of the leaders were executed as traitors save for Countess Markievicz on account of being female and Eamon de Valera on account of being American. A further 1400 rebels were interned in Wales. Draconian measures such as martial law were instituted across the country and the paranoid British army abused the previously ambivalent people of Ireland. These actions played into the hands of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) as the British lived up to their reputation of fierce oppressors. The lone spark of the rising had lit what was becoming a roaring flame. A small force of 2000 rebels had convinced the majority of their country to dance to their tune. The gamble had worked. In the 1918 General Election Sinn Fein won a landslide victory with their representation rising from 6 seats to 73. Within months an Irish Republic was declared and the War of Independence began.

From the start though, the Easter Rising was not a popular movement. The revolutions of 1848 with huge crowds demanding reform in the streets of Paris and Vienna show the Easter Rising to be comparatively weak and under supported. The monster meetings of Daniel O’Connell 70 years prior had hundreds of thousands from all over the country demanding reform. The Easter Monday of 1916 however started in quite a similar vein to your average Bank Holiday. Indeed the reaction of shoppers to loot instead of joining the rebels gives us quite an insight into the concerns of Dubliners at the time. It was the ill-advised reaction of the preoccupied British government which created a mass republican movement out of a slow burning desire for an Irish parliament within the British Empire. By adding martyrs and a common enemy, the national struggle for independence began when the Irish leaders were executed and martial law introduced. In less than a decade 26 out of 32 counties had gained a form of independence as the Irish Free State and in 1949 Ireland officially left the Commonwealth and became a republic.

Although now wadding into murky waters, let us address what would have happened if the Rising never actually took place? After all this was a great possibility until the morning of 24th April 1916. Home Rule had been passed in August 1914 but was postponed until the end of the war. So once all of the 200,000 recruits returned to Ireland, their land fit for heroes would have taken the form of an Irish Parliament for an Irish people. And with Woodrow Wilson’s desire for self-determination of smaller states then full independence for Ireland was only a matter of time. But this view fails to take into consideration the ardent views of Ulster Unionists. Before the Great War the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) had signalled their desire for armed resistance to Home Rule backed up with 250,000 people signing a pledge against it in Belfast. It is foolish to think that four years later those same men now hardened with front line battle experience against a formidable foe would have quietly accepted their fate at home. Unfortunately for Ireland war was an inevitability regardless of whether the Easter Rising occurred or not. It just so happened that conflict was firstly between Irish Republicans and the British before the Civil War which started when the victorious Michael Collins fell for the cunning political trap set by Winston Churchill.

A key legacy of the Easter Rising, on top of the Civil War and eventual independence of 26 put of 32 counties, was the belief that a small group of patriots can dictate the beliefs of the Irish people. As it was not representative of a popular movement, violent groups since have used it as a precedent to justify their actions. However with the centenary of the Rising one year away and the debate regarding the events very much alive in all aspects of Irish society, perhaps it is too early to say what it’s legacy will be.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment