Research Notes – The Great War (22) Royal Cousins

The royal houses of Europe have always been a bit of an incestuous bunch —at least until recently when standards have been relaxed. For those of royal blood, their selection of future mates was largely arranged so as to form or strengthen political alliances. As a result, the pool of choices was very limited and the families of Europe (including Russia up through the 19th century) became a confusingly intermarried bunch.

Three of the principal combatants during the First World War –Britain, Germany and Russia– were ruled by men whose close family ties were unable to prevent that dreadful conflict. King George V of Great Britain, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany were first cousins. Here’s how they were related:

King George V was the son of King Edward VII and his wife Alexandra of Denmark.

Tsar Nicholas II was the son of Tsar Alexander III and his wife Dagmar of Denmark (Alexandra’s sister).

Kaiser Wilhelm II was the son of Kaiser Friedrich III and his wife Victoria of Great Britain (Edward’s sister).

Additionally, Tsar Nicholas II and Kaiser Wilhelm II were related further back in the family tree through the marriages of the tsar’s distant cousin (the granddaughter of Nicholas’ great grandfather —I’m not sure what that relationship works out to be…) to Wilhelm I, King of Prussia (Wilhelm II’s grandfather).

AND, Tsar Nicholas II married Alexandra of Hess-Darmstadt —daughter of Alice of Great Britain, sister of Edward VII, making him cousin by marriage as well.

Despite these close familial relationships, in 1914 the monarchs found themselves at war in the worst conflict the world had ever seen up to that time. By the end of The Great War, two of those monarchies had been brought to their end —the Russian through revolution and the German through defeat. Tsar Nicholas II and his family were executed on July 17, 1918 by the revolutionary Bolsheviks who had been holding the Romanovs captive after Nicholas’ abdication of the throne. The kaiser was forced to abdicate the Imperial German Crown and the Prussian Kingship on November 9, 1918 as the German army was near collapse and revolution loomed on the home front. Wilhelm fled by train to the neutral Netherlands where he lived out his life in exile.

Above: George, Nicholas and Wilhelm. Three Royal Cousins.

The Kiss – Siegfried Sassoon

This poem is by Siegfried Sassoon is from the collection Men Who March Away, edited by I.M. Parsons some fifty years after World War I. I have in my possession a biography of Sassoon which is climbing close to the top of my to-read pile, so watch for more about that fascinating War Poet. Meanwhile, here is one of his poems and a little background. In his introduction to the collection, Parsons writes about The Kiss:

“The Sassoon poem is particularly interesting, not only for its technical accomplishment and for the terrifying image in the final line, but because in spirit it is so completely alien to the author’s whole attitude to war. For that reason, Mr. Sassoon was understandably reluctant to let me reprint it, fearing that it might be taken as meant seriously –as a ‘fire-eating’ poem.”

Sassoon himself said, “I originally wrote it as a sort of exercise … After being disgusted by the babarities of the famous bayonet-fighting lecture. To this day I don’t know what made me write it, for I never felt I could have stuck a bayonet into anyone, even in self defense. The difficulty is that it doesn’t show any sign of satire.”

The Kiss:

To these I turn, in these I trust–
Brother Lead and Sister Steel,
To his blind power I make appeal,
I guard her beauty, clean from rust.

He spins and burns and loves the air,
And splits a skull to win my praise;
But up the nobly marching days
She glimmers naked, cold and fair.

Sweet Sister, grant your soldier this:
That in good fury he may feel
The body where he set his heel
Quail from your downward, darting kiss.

Research Notes – The Great War (21) The Influenza Epidemic of 1918

Reworked and edited from an earlier post:

In researching for my story Here Lies a Soldier, I needed to educate myself on The Spanish Flu Epidemic: the plague that killed some 50 million people worldwide in 1918, more than 10 times the number killed by The Great War. I found an excellent book about the flu:  Living With Enza -The Forgotten Story Of Britain and the Great Flu Pandemic Of 1918. The author, Mark Honigsbaum, has compiled and sifted through a huge amount of data to write this book. Here are some of the things I found interesting and frankly, horrifying.

Some facts about influenza:

Influenza viruses spread aerially, usually in small droplets expelled when someone coughs or sneezes, and tend to be more stable in cool dry conditions. Researchers have also discovered that at around 5 degrees C (41 degrees Fahrenheit) the virus transmits for about 2 days longer than at 20 degrees. A popular (and morbid) children’s rhyme of the time may actually be spot on. It goes like this:

I had a little bird
Its name was Enza
I opened the window
And in-flu-enza

The Spanish Flu in particular:

The Spanish Flu was so virulent because of its genetic makeup. There are 3 types of influenza viruses: A, B, and C. The B type produces classic winter flu while the C type rarely causes disease in humans. The A type, however, is the one responsible for the great pandemics of history. Because viruses are not cells, they do not have DNA to organize their replication. Rather, they use 8 delicate strands of RNA which codes for proteins and enzymes on the surface of the virus. Trouble arises during replication because the RNA cannot copy perfectly. Errors called ‘antigenic drift’ occur when the avian or swine strain of the virus is exchanging genes with the human host.  The result is a new subtype of the virus. Then once inside the new host, the 8 strands of RNA randomly shuffle, generating an entirely new virus for which the human immune system has no antibodies. With no defense, the virus can spread like a wild-fire.

The rate of mortality fell disproportionally on young adults, usually the least vulnerable of a population. The 1918 flu struck suddenly and without warning. One moment a person was up and about, the next day they would be lying incapacitated, coughing up greenish-yellow sputum. The final stage came when their lungs filled with fluid, prompting the heart to leach oxygen from the head and feet, resulting in a dark purple staining across the lips and cheeks of the victim.

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Courtesy Philly Voice

Possible contributing factors:

The effects of gas attacks during the war.  Gasses like phosgene and chlorine were not only capable of disabling and killing on contact, they also acted as soil contaminants denying valuable ground to the enemy. In all, it is estimated that some 150,000 tons of poison gasses – the equivalent of a modern day supertanker – were dumped on the killing fields of Flanders and Northern France during the last 2 years of the war, saturating the soil to the point where it became impossible for attacking troops to hold territory without large numbers of men having to retreat to field hospitals with suppurating blisters, damaged lungs, and eyes.

The most mutagenic of all gasses – mustard gas – 12,000 tons of which was dumped on the Western Front in 1917, accounted for 400,000 casualties. According to John Oxford, Professor of virology at Queen Mary’s Medical School of London and military historian Douglas Gill: these agents may have prompted ‘stepwise mutational changes’ in the influenza virus. And in combination with the bitterly cold conditions that prevailed at the Western Front in the winter of 1917, and the stresses and strains of war, it is possible such contaminants would have lowered men’s resistance to the flu.

Though this particular strain of flu was traced to a United States Army barracks in Kansas (for more on that see Patient Zero: The Spanish Flu) it quickly spread all over North America and Europe. Some of it’s famous victims included: American President Woodrow Wilson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, German Kaiser Wilhelm II, Spain’s King Alfonso XIII, the future Emperor of Ethiopia Haile Selassie, artist Edvard Munch, and celebrities Walt Disney, Lilian Gish, and Mary Pickford.

Header Image: courtesy health dot.am