1946: In July, hyperinflation in Hungary reached a monthly rate of 13,000,000,000,000,000 per cent. Put another way: prices doubled every 15.6 hours. By the time the pengő was replaced by the forint at the beginning of August, the Hungarian currency was so devalued that the dollar value of all the Hungarian bank notes in circulation amounted to just one-thousandth of one cent.
1945: “Command post moved to Potsdamer Platz station,” a German officer noted on 27 April as Soviet troops fought their way into the centre of Berlin. “Direct hit through the roof. Heavy losses among wounded and civilians. . . . Terrible sight at the station entrance, one flight of stairs down where a heavy shell has penetrated and people, soldiers, women and children are literally stuck to the walls.”
Source: Tony Le Tissier, Berlin Then and Now (1992), p. 226
1944: On 24 March, in what was dubbed the “Great Escape”, 76 Allied prisoners of war scrambled to freedom through a tunnel under the perimeter wire of Stalag-Luft III. A year earlier, the prisoners had begun work on three tunnels: one had been discovered by the Germans, one had been abandoned, and one had been successful. Their code names were Tom, Dick and Harry.
Source: Anton Gill, The Great Escape: The Full Dramatic Story with Contributions from Survivors and Their Families (2002), p. 106
1943: The Royal Air Force lost 55,000 men during the bomber offensive against Europe, and the Americans, 26,000. Aircrews were gloomily aware of the odds against them. “If you live on the brink of death yourself,” the pilot Denis Hornsey pointed out, “it is as if those who have gone have merely caught an earlier train to the same destination. And . . . you will almost certainly be catching the next one.”
Source: Max Hastings, Bomber Command (1979), pp. 220–2
1942: In European colonies, white settlers used their political clout to reshape economies for their own benefit. Discrimination was thinly disguised. Kenya’s chief native commissioner described the colony’s monopoly on the marketing of maize, introduced in 1942, as “the most barefaced and thorough-going attempt at exploitation the people of Africa have ever known since Joseph cornered all the corn in Egypt”.
Source: Paul Mosley, The Settler Economies: Studies in the Economic History of Kenya and Southern Rhodesia 1900–1963 (1983), p. 100
1941: In May, Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, flew to Scotland on what appears to have been a misguided peace mission. Hess baled out of his aircraft and parachuted down near a cottage where David McLean, a ploughman, lived with his mother, Annie. The ploughman checked the airman for weapons, and then escorted him to the cottage. Mrs. McLean, meanwhile, had responded to the excitement by making a pot of tea. Hess politely refused the tea but asked for a glass of water.
Source: Roy Conyers Nesbit and Georges van Acker, The Flight of Rudolf Hess: Myths and Reality (1999), pp. 70–1
1940: Clement Freud began his culinary career as a trainee chef in the “huge dank dark” kitchen of the Dorchester Hotel. The vegetable cook was an elderly Frenchman, a heavy-drinking garlic chewer who garnished dishes by stuffing his mouth with chopped parsley and spraying it through the gaps between his teeth. This technique, Freud reported, was “particularly effective with new potatoes, where the evenness of his aim made the dish look impressive”.
Source: Clement Freud, Freud Ego (2001), pp. 35, 36
1939: “A perfect day,” wrote Harold Nicolson from his home in Kent, “and I bathe in the peace of the lake.” The date was 4 September; Britain had declared war on Germany the previous day. It was all very confusing: the tranquillity of the English countryside; the way things seemed to carry on as they had before. “Even as when someone dies, one is amazed that the poplars should still be standing quite unaware of one’s own disaster, so when I walked down to the lake to bathe, I could scarcely believe that the swans were being sincere in their indifference to the Second German War.”
Source: Harold Nicolson, Diaries and Letters 1939–1945, ed. Nigel Nicolson (1967), p. 30
1938: The eruption of Bilyukai, on the Kamchatka peninsula in eastern Siberia, produced huge amounts of lava. Rivers of it, which, as it flowed away from the volcano, cooled and formed a crust on its surface.
The volcanologists V.F. Popkov and I.Z. Ivanov, showing scant regard for their personal safety, decided that the only way to properly study the lava was to go out on to it.
They tossed rocks on to the crust to strengthen it, and then Popkov gingerly stepped on to the band of lava that separated the riverbank from the crust. “Without letting go of Ivanov’s hand, I put . . . one asbestos-shod foot on the incandescent lava,” he wrote. “I released Ivanov’s hand and made another step by resting my body on the iron rod which I used as a walking stick and which sank slowly into the plastic mass.”
1937: When the entomologist Oscar Scheibel acquired a specimen of a previously undocumented blind cave beetle, found in only a few caves in northern Yugoslavia, he demonstrated his admiration for Germany’s leader by naming it Anophthalmus hitleri.
1936: Boris III of Bulgaria had his hands on the levers of power in more than one sense. Figuratively, he was absolute monarch of his country; literally, his favourite pastime was driving locomotives. His brother, Kyril, was also a railway enthusiast, and when Edward VIII and Mrs. Simpson visited Bulgaria, the two brothers squabbled over who should drive the train.
Source: Duke of Windsor, A King’s Story: The Memoirs of H.R.H. the Duke of Windsor K.G. (1951), pp. 308–9
1935: In Germany, special schools were set up as the SS was expanded from a personal bodyguard into a fighting force. Training was rigorous. At the Bad Tölz school, an officer cadet might be ordered to pull the pin out of a grenade, balance it on his helmet and stand to attention while it exploded.
Source: Gerald Reitlinger, The SS: Alibi of a Nation 1922–1945 (1956), p. 78
1934: Charles Johnson’s Shadow of the Plantation laid bare the poverty of black people in rural Alabama. Seventy years after the abolition of slavery, many still lived in ramshackle cabins (“Do it leak in here? No, it don’t leak in here, it jest rains in here and leak outdoors”), many endured ill-health (“All my chillen is fond of having fevers”) and many despaired of anything better (“Ain’t make nothing, don’t speck nothing no more till I die”).
Source: Charles S. Johnson, Shadow of the Plantation (1934), pp. 99, 126, 194
1933: When the Nazi Party organised a plebiscite in November to demonstrate nationwide support for Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations, 99.5 per cent of the inmates of Dachau concentration camp voted in favour.
Source: Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1889–1936: Hubris (1998), pp. 495, 740
1932: Ralph Bagnold was a pioneer of motorised desert travel who later, during the Second World War, founded the British Army’s Long Range Desert Group. In Sand, Wind, and War, he recalled an incident from a peacetime expedition in the eastern Sahara.
Bagnold and his companions were driving across the Selima Sand Sheet. Their immediate destination was a small, uninhabited oasis, where they anticipated finding a petrol dump guarded by a policeman and his camel. They had driven hundreds of kilometres on a compass bearing. In the early morning, as they neared the oasis, Bagnold “distinctly smelt camel” on the breeze. He decided to follow his nose. “We drove for eight miles, and there, in a small depression out of sight from any distance, was the little oasis, the petrol, the policeman, and his camel.”
Source: Ralph A. Bagnold, Sand, Wind, and War: Memoirs of a Desert Explorer (1990), pp. 88–9
1931: Like most Western mothers in China, Lucy Soothill hired an amah to care for her baby. The amah was generally reliable, but not always. On one occasion Soothill discovered that her daughter’s skin was “irritable and red”, and when she kissed her, she noticed a “salty sharp taste”. On a hunch, Soothill checked the puff box in the baby’s basket and found that the contents had the same distinctive taste. Instead of powdering the baby’s skin with talcum, the amah had been using “extra strong American baking-powder”.
Source: Lucy Soothill, A Passport to China: Being the Tale of Her Long and Friendly Sojourning amongst a Strangely Interesting People (1931), p. 55
1930: Photographer Lawrence Beitler was in Marion, Indiana, on the night of 7 August, when a mob of whites lynched two black men, Abram Smith and Thomas Shipp. Beitler made a tidy sum from selling souvenir photos of the spectacle at 50 cents each. It was probably one of these keepsakes that provoked Lewis Allan’s searing condemnation:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Source: Dora Apel and Shawn Michelle Smith, Lynching Photographs (2007), pp. 11–25; David Margolick, Strange Fruit: Billie Holiday, Café Society, and an Early Cry for Civil Rights (2000), pp. 15, 33–7
1929: “Black Tuesday”, 29 October, when the New York Stock Exchange lost an eighth of its value, was also the day the Casa Loma Orchestra recorded “Happy Days Are Here Again”.
Source: Richard M. Sudhalter, Lost Chords: White Musicians and Their Contribution to Jazz, 1915–1945 (1999), p. 342
1928: The War of the Hoe Handle took its name – Kongo Wara in the Gbaya language of central Africa – from the hoe handles, or kongo, that the messianic leader Karnu distributed to his adherents to protect them against European bullets.
Karnu attracted followers in western Ubangi-Shari by claiming to have the power to get rid of the detested French colonisers and, for good measure, the ability to turn them into gorillas.
Source: Canadian Journal of African Studies, 1984
1927: “Adieu, mes amis, je vais à la gloire!” the dancer Isadora Duncan shouted from the passenger seat of her car – “Farewell, my friends. I go to glory!”
The car was an Amilcar Grand Sport – low and fast. The driver was a young garage owner from Nice named Bénoit Falchetto.
Duncan sat with a red shawl draped round her neck. The shawl was the size of a tablecloth; its fringe slipped over the side of the car and dangled dangerously close to the rear wheel. “Isadora, ta châle! Ramasse ta châle!” shouted a friend – “Isadora, your shawl! Pick up your shawl!”
Falchetto revved the engine and put it in gear. The car surged forward. The fringe caught in the spokes. The shawl wrapped round the wheel, yanked back Duncan’s head and snapped her neck.
Source: Peter Kurth, Isadora: The Sensational Life of Isadora Duncan (2002), pp. 553–6
1926: In West Dallas, 16-year-old Clyde Barrow had his first tangle with the law when he was picked up for chicken theft. The Texas neighbours doubtless shook their heads and predicted: “That boy will come to no good end.”
Source: Jeff Guinn, Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie & Clyde (2009), p. 34
1924: Christopher Hollis amused his friend Evelyn Waugh with a story he must have heard from someone in the legal world:
“Mr Justice Phillimore was trying a sodomy case and brooded greatly whether his judgement had been right. He went to consult [the former Lord Chancellor, Lord] Birkenhead. ‘Excuse me, my lord, but could you tell me – What do you think one ought to give a man who allows himself to be buggered?’ ‘Oh, 30s or £2 – anything you happen to have on you.’ ”
Source: Evelyn Waugh, The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, ed. Michael Davie (1976), p. 168
1923: On 11 January, French and Belgian troops occupied the Ruhr region on the pretext that Germany had defaulted on the payment of reparations: specifically that it had failed to deliver a shipment of telegraph poles and cut timber on time.
Source: Conan Fischer, The Ruhr Crisis, 1923–1924 (2003), p. 28
1921: Gormless book title of the year: Handbook for the Limbless, edited by Geoffrey Howson with a foreword by John Galsworthy, published by the Disabled Society in London.
Source: Handbook for the Limbless, ed. Geoffrey Howson (1921)
1920: Bizarre royal death of the year: that of Alexander, king of the Hellenes. On 2 October, the king and his dog Fritz encountered two pet monkeys playing in a garden on the royal estate at Tatoi, near Athens. The monkeys scampered over, screaming, and one of them attacked Fritz. The king tried to separate the animals, whereupon the second monkey intervened, and in the ensuing scrimmage the king was severely bitten on the legs and belly. The wounds were not properly cleaned, infection set in, and on 25 October the king died of sepsis.
Source: John van der Kiste, Kings of the Hellenes: The Greek Kings 1863–1974 (1994), pp. 122–4
1919: The Boston molasses flood of 1919 would have been comical, were it not for the resulting deaths, injuries and destruction. Shortly after midday on 15 January, a huge molasses storage tank near the Boston waterfront burst. One might have expected the viscous liquid to have oozed from the tank and to have slowly spread out to form a gooey brown lake. In fact, the molasses surged out in a wave almost as high as a house, moving faster than a man could run. Nearby buildings were swept off their foundations. People were crushed or smothered. Twenty-one died and 150 were injured.
1918: The epitaph to Second Lieutenant W.L. Smart of the Lancashire Fusiliers consoles us that “to live in the hearts of those left behind is not to die”. Subaltern Smart was killed on 29 August 1918 and is buried at the Mory Street cemetery south of Arras. Personal inscriptions in the British military cemeteries of France and Belgium convey immense grief and tenderness. The inscription on the nearby grave of Private T.M. Finn of the Irish Guards, killed two days earlier, reads: “I loved him in life how I love him in death”. Serjeant S. Bates of the Manchester Regiment, who died on 29 March 1917 at the age of 20, is remembered simply and touchingly as “one of the best”.
Source: Personal diary
1917: “When all is said and done,” Siegfried Sassoon later reflected, “the War was mainly a matter of holes and ditches.”
Source: Siegfried Sassoon, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), p. 235