When Grandpa Was A Boy, Were There Any Dinosaurs?

Category archive: 1910s

“Basket Case”

1919: “Basket case”, in its original sense, referred not to an economy gone to pot, but was American military slang for a soldier who had lost all four limbs on the battlefield and needed to be literally carried around in a basket.

Source: Jonathon Green, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang (2005), p. 75

Talented Bank Clerk

T.S. Eliot, photographed by Lady Ottoline Morrell in 1934

1917: The literary world regarded T.S. Eliot, after the publication of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, in terms of his poetry, but Lloyds Bank, where Eliot commenced work in 1917, viewed him in terms of his clerical skills. A more senior Lloyds employee whom the literary scholar I.A. Richards bumped into offered an assessment of Eliot the bank clerk: “If he goes on as he has been doing, I don’t see why – in time, of course, in time – he mightn’t even become a Branch Manager.”

Source: Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century (1971), p. 94

“Back Of ’Is ’Ead”

1916: While on night patrol in no man’s land, a grenade exploded in Captain Harold Macmillan’s face. His corporal explained what happened next: “Well, sir. I saw the German trying to run away. So I ’it ’im, and ’is ’elmet came off. Then I ’it ’im again and the back of ’is ’ead came off.”

Source: Alistair Horne, Macmillan 1894–1956 (1988), p. 43

Mail-Order Brides

1915: “If you want any French women there are plenty here, and they are very good looking,” wrote Umed Sing Bist in a letter from France to Sali Seok, in India. “If you really want any I can send one to you in a parcel.”

Source: Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914–18, ed. David Omissi (1999), p. 123

Three Categories

Sir Ernest Shackleton, photographed on board the Antarctic exploration vessel Aurora, between about 1914 and 1917

1914: Sir Ernest Shackleton announced in a letter in The Times that he intended to lead an expedition across Antarctica. Response was enthusiastic. Nearly 5,000 would-be polar explorers applied to accompany him. Shackleton placed their letters in three large drawers labelled “Possible”, “Hopeless” and “Mad”.

Source: Hugh Robert Mill, The Life of Sir Ernest Shackleton (1923), p. 195

Mitford Connection

Unity Mitford, sketched by William Acton in 1937

1913: In view of her future infatuation with Adolf Hitler, it was appropriate that Unity, the fourth of the Mitford daughters, was conceived in the Canadian gold-mining town of Swastika.

Source: Mary S. Lovell, The Mitford Girls: The Biography of an Extraordinary Family (2001), p. 33

Zzxjoanw

1912: The Music Lovers’ Cyclopedia, edited by Rupert Hughes, defined zzxjoanw as a Maori word meaning “drum”, “fife” or “conclusion”. It would be a difficult word to pronounce in any language, and more so in Maori, which does not contain the letters z, x or j. (Evidence that editors are not without a sense of humour.)

Source: Michael Quinion, Port Out, Starboard Home and Other Language Myths (2005), p. 278

Statistical Inquiries

Sir Francis Galton, photographed by Eveleen Myers

1911: Sir Francis Galton was inclined to measure whatever was measurable (“Count wherever you can”): the plump curves of an African woman (by means of a sextant and trigonometry); the time taken for a headmaster to thrash schoolboys (eight minutes for 11 boys); “Statistical inquiries into the efficacy of prayer”; and a map showing the distribution of beauty across Britain (the prettiest girls were in London and the plainest in Aberdeen).

Source: Martin Brookes, Extreme Measures: The Dark Visions and Bright Ideas of Francis Galton (2004), pp. 24, 83–5, 183–6, 240

Ghostly Music

1910: On 11 December, the German steamship Palermo ran aground off the coast of Galicia, in northwestern Spain. Its cargo included accordions, and their music was said to have wafted ashore from the stricken vessel, although that’s a story that needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Source: Rafael Lema Mouzo, Catálogo de Naufragios: Costa da Morte – Galicia (2014), p. 27

Flying Felines

1919: John Alcock and Arthur Whitten Brown, who became the first men to fly an aeroplane non-stop across the Atlantic, and the crew of the airship R34, which traversed the ocean in both directions, grabbed the headlines, but it was also a good year for flying cats. A tabby kitten named Whoopsie stowed away on the outbound flight of the R34, and Alcock and Brown were accompanied on their flight by two stuffed black cat mascots, Lucky Jim and Twinkletoe.

Sources: Sir John Alcock and Sir Arthur Whitten Brown, Our Transatlantic Flight (1969), p. 67; George Rosie, Flight of the Titan: The Story of the R34 (2010), pp. 102, 157, 163

Invasive Species

1918: Lord Howe Island, 600 kilometres east of the Australian mainland in the Tasman Sea, is remote enough to have evolved its own distinctive flora and fauna. On 15 June, the steamship Makambo ran aground at the northern end of the island. While the ship was being refloated and patched up, black rats, which had been unknown on the island, made their way from ship to shore. The rats thrived, and during the next few years they wiped out several bird species, including the vinous-tinted thrush, the Lord Howe gerygone, the grey fantail, the robust white-eye and the Tasman starling. To make matters worse, masked owls were introduced to control the rat population, but they failed, and were probably responsible for the extinction of the southern boobook.

Source: K.A. Hindwood, The Birds of Lord Howe Island (1940), pp. 22–6

All-In Wrestling

1917: “What surprises me,” Charles Carrington wrote after the war, “is that historians have elevated” the fighting at Broodseinde, during the third battle of Ypres, “into a tactical masterpiece”. To Carrington, in the thick of it, it had been more like “all-in wrestling in the mud”.

Source: Richard Holmes, Firing Line (1985), p. 155

Harshly Critical

Sergei Prokofiev, photographed in about 1918

1916: The music critic Leonid Sabaneyev described the first Moscow performance of Sergei Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite as bad, cacophonous and barbaric. Sabaneyev wrote the review off the top of his head; he didn’t bother to attend the performance. If he had, he would have known that it was cancelled at short notice.

Source: Nicolas Slonimsky, Lexicon of Musical Invective: Critical Assaults on Composers Since Beethoven’s Time (2000), p. 129

Round Of Drinks

1915: To curb alcohol consumption, Britain’s Central Control Board (Liquor Traffic) made it illegal for people to buy each other drinks. A Liverpool man was sentenced to three months’ hard labour for treating a friend, and in Bristol a husband was fined 9 shillings for buying a drink for his wife.

Source: Norman Longmate, The Waterdrinkers: A History of Temperance (1968), p. 269

Multiple Deaths

Ferdinand Foch, portrayed in 1918

1914: The French dead from fighting near the Belgian border on 22 August included Germain Foch, the only son of corps commander General Ferdinand Foch, and, on the same day, the general’s son-in-law, Captain Paul Bécourt.

Source: Martin Gilbert, First World War (1995), p. 56

Recent Superstition

1913: It would be wrong to assume that the superstition surrounding Friday 13th is particularly ancient. Although the notions of Friday as an unlucky day and 13 as an unlucky number have longer histories, the first definite reference connecting Friday, the 13th day of the month and bad luck dates only to 1913.

Source: Steve Roud, A Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles (2004), pp. 23–5

Solar Power

1912: At Maadi, south of Cairo, the American inventor and engineer Frank Shuman began work on the world’s first solar-powered steam engine. Rows of trough-shaped mirrors heated water to provide steam to power the engine, which pumped water from the Nile to irrigate nearby fields.

Source: Richard Cohen, Chasing the Sun: The Epic Story of the Star that Gives Us Life (2010), pp. 392–3

Gunboat Diplomacy

1911: Germany’s attempt to increase its influence in southern Morocco at the expense of France provoked the Agadir crisis, which almost bump-started the First World War three years early. Under the pretext of protecting German citizens during a period of insecurity, Berlin dispatched the gunboat Panther to the port of Agadir. There were in fact no German citizens in Agadir so, to keep up appearances, one had to be fetched from a town up the coast.

Source: Robert K. Massie, Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (1992), chap. 39

Snuffing Out Life

1910: The astronomer and writer Camille Flammarion caused consternation with his warning that cyanogen in the tail of Halley’s comet could “impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet”. The approach of the comet led to brisk sales of “comet pills” as an antidote to the highly toxic gas.

Source: Robert E. Bartholomew and Hilary Evans, Panic Attacks: Media Manipulation and Mass Delusion (2004), pp. 19–37

Bone Dry

1918: With average yearly precipitation of less than a millimetre, Arica, on the edge of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, is one of the driest places on Earth. In January 1918, rainfall was recorded there for the first time since October 1903 – 14 consecutive years without rain.

Source: Nick Middleton, Going to Extremes: Mud, Sweat and Frozen Tears (2001), p. 93

Cordite And Conkers

1917: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”

“In present circumstances it is felt that school children could give most valuable assistance in collecting the [horse] chestnuts . . .”

What could possibly link the Balfour Declaration with a Board of Education circular urging British youngsters to gather conkers? The answer: cordite, acetone, the bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum and the chemist (and ardent Zionist) Chaim Weizmann.

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Graves Gets Cold Feet

1915: “I only once refrained from shooting a German,” Robert Graves recalled. “While sniping from a knoll in the support line, where we had a concealed loop-hole, I saw a German, perhaps seven hundred yards away, through my telescopic sights. He was taking a bath in the German third line. I disliked the idea of shooting a naked man, so I handed the rifle to the sergeant with me. ‘Here, take this. You’re a better shot that I am.’ He got him; but I had not stayed to watch.”

Source: Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1982), p. 112

Day In The Country

1913: Motor cars were unwelcome arrivals in the countryside. They hurtled noisily along narrow roads, stirred up clouds of dust, frightened horses, flattened chickens. Angry peasants sometimes scattered nails and broken glass on the roads, or pelted cars with stones, or blocked their way with ropes or barricades.

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Making Mischief

1912: Eight-year-old Cecil Day-Lewis entered Wilkinson’s prep school in central London. The future poet laureate got to know Nicholas Llewelyn Davies, one of J.M. Barrie’s adopted boys. When Llewelyn Davies took his friend to the playwright’s house in Campden Hill Square, the two youngsters went up to the attic and fired an air gun at pedestrians in the square.

Source: C. Day Lewis, The Buried Day (1960), pp. 72–4

Murder Incorporated

1911: On 11 January, Takács Rozália succeeded in murdering her husband, Takács Lajos. It wasn’t from want of trying; she had already made several attempts. According to his wife, Lajos was a good-for-nothing “alcoholic beast” who regularly mistreated her. His death was the first of a string of murders in the Hungarian village of Nagyrév. The killings were the work not of individuals acting in isolation, but of groups of villagers sharing their murderous expertise. Almost all of the murderers and their accomplices were women. Their victims – four-fifths of them – were men: abusive husbands, unfaithful lovers, elderly and frail fathers-in-law. The preferred means of murder was poisoning with arsenic, which was easily dissolved out of flypapers. Between 1911 and 1929, when the authorities eventually cottoned on that something was amiss, forty or more villagers were poisoned.

Source: Béla Bodó, Tiszazug: A Social History of a Murder Epidemic (2002), chap. 5

God’s Too Busy

1910: Among those taken to see the funeral of Edward VII was Lord Kinnoull’s young daughter. That evening, at bedtime, the girl’s mother asked her whether she had said her prayers. She hadn’t.

“Why not?”

“I don’t mean to say them to-night.”

“Why not?”

“Well, because it won’t be any use, as God will be too busy unpacking King Edward.”

Source: Lord Riddell, More Pages from My Diary 1908–1914 (1934), p. 149