Several interesting facts stand out in a recent story by the British publication The Independent about the first British death of World War I, that of Pvt. John Parr, a bicycle scout who was killed by German troops in southern Belgium on Aug. 21, 1914:
- Parr was the first British combat casualty in western Europe since the Battle of Waterloo, nearly 100 years earlier;
- He was just 16, having lied about his age when he left his job as a golf caddy at the North Middlesex Golf Course north of London in the summer of 1913; and
- Parr was the first of approximately 1 million British Commonwealth soldiers who died during the 1914-18 conflict.
Even more remarkable is that by the time Parr fell, tens of thousands of Belgian, German, Russian, Austrian and Serbian soldiers had already died, the first wave of death in a struggle that would claim more than 10 million lives.
Perhaps not surprising in a war in which hundreds of thousands of soldiers are still reported as missing in action nearly a century a later, Parr’s family didn’t receive confirmation of his death until after the cessation of hostilities more than four years later.
In fact, for many months, the British Army failed to report that Parr was dead or even missing, according to The Independent.
“His mother, Alice Parr … finally wrote a letter complaining that she had not heard from her son for months. The War Office replied curtly saying that it could not help,” according to the publication. “It was not until after the war that a soldier who had been on the same bicycle scouting mission finally confirmed the time and place of John Parr’s death.”
Instead of trying to sell the works – valued today at $50 million – on the black market or to a specific art patron willing to purchase purloined paintings, they dumped the works on a train traveling from Paris to Turin, Italy.
The paintings were never claimed and railway authorities, unaware of the provenance of the masterpieces, put the works up for sale in 1975, when they were purchased at auction by an employee of automobile manufacturer Fiat for $25.
The paintings – Gauguin’s “Still Life of Fruit on a Table With a Small Dog” and Bonnard’s “The Girl With Two Chairs,” hung in the unnamed individual’s kitchen for nearly 40 years in Turin before he took them with him to a retirement home in Sicily.
Recently, the auto worker’s son decided to have the paintings evaluated by an art expert, who realized that the “Still Life” was likely a work by Gauguin, a leading French Post-Impressionist, according to the New York Post.
From the standpoint of the average soldier, there have been some pretty miserable military alliances over the past century.
The Australians and New Zealanders who ended up at Gallipoli in World War I at the behest of the British; Newfoundlanders cut down at the Somme, also fighting for the British; and most Arab soldiers who found themselves going up against Israelis between 1948 and 1973, would all have likely wondered what their nations had got them into.
But probably no group of Allies was more poorly served in the 20th century than those of Nazi Germany.
Hitler, who was only too happy to feed his own divisions into the seemingly endless maw of death that was World War II in his attempt to take over Europe, had absolutely no compunctions about frittering away the troops of collaborating nations.
One of the more striking accounts of this lesser-known aspect of the war was written by Eugenio Corti, an Italian officer who died earlier this month at 93.
Corti is best known for The Red Horse, a 1,000-page novel based on his experience during and after World War II. First published in 1983, it has gone through 25 editions.
But in his 1947 work Few Returned: Twenty-Eight Days on the Russian Front, Winter 1943-1943, Corti vividly described the utter hopeless of a soldier’s life on the Russian Front during the war.
More than six years after stumbling across a giant 9-foot barnacle-encrusted anchor in the muck of Puget Sound, Port Angeles, Wash., resident Doug Monk may shortly get confirmation whether his find is indeed one of the long-sought relics of European exploration in the Pacific Northwest.
Monk believes the anchor uncovered while diving for sea cucumbers in January 2008 belonged to a ship that accompanied Capt. George Vancouver’s famed exploration of Puget Sound in 1792.
Since his find, Monk and several others have sought to convince historians, scouring books and explorers’ journals, unearthing centuries-old patents and British court documents and even asking the government weather experts to recreate 18th-century currents, according to the Seattle Times.
They hope to have it tested by experts at Texas A&M University, according to the publication.
Though the anchor’s monetary value is undetermined, its exact location is being withheld to prevent looting, according to the Whidbey News-Times. The find was officially recorded with the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation in 2009.
Vancouver’s exploration of Puget Sound was but a small but important part of a 4-1/2 year voyage which took him and his crew around the globe between 1791 and 1795.
The grandson of the last emperor of Austria-Hungary believes no one nation was responsible for World War I, and that if the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 hadn’t triggered the conflict another event would have.
Karl Habsburg-Lothringen, grandson of Charles I, who ruled Austria-Hungary from 1916 until the end of the war two years later, told a group of European newspapers earlier this month that his family should not be blamed for causing the conflict that cost more than 10 million lives.
“If you were to simplify it, you could say that the shooting (of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary) in Sarajevo started the First World War,” he said. “But if there hadn’t been the shooting in Sarajevo, it would have kicked off three weeks later somewhere else.”
The fatal shooting of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28, 1914, by 19-year-old Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip is widely held to have begun a chain reaction that dragged much of Europe, including Russia, Germany, France and Britain, into war.
“It would be wrong to point the finger at one state,” Habsburg-Lothringen said. “If you do that, you would have to take into account that there were already significant tensions, especially between Germany and Russia, who had already started to mobilize their troops along the borders.”
Instead, Habsburg-Lothringen, 53, pointed to nationalism and militarism among the leading European nations as among the main causes for the war.
“Many were already in the starting blocks, waiting for the great conflict,” he said. “If you had to blame someone, then the greatest blame would lie with nationalism itself.”
David Boaz of the Cato Institute pulls excerpts from three books to demonstrate how different – and difficult – life was not too many generations ago.
It must be just about impossible for a denizen of middle-class 21st-century America to imagine the toil and suffering that Catharine Martin [born 1800] and her counterparts underwent every day: living in crude houses – mere huts when they first settled in Illinois and elsewhere – slaving at open fires to prepare food for their families, and worst of all watching children fall ill and having nothing in their powers to help them: ‘Within a year of her marriage, with the fated fertility of women then, Catharine had her first baby, and named her Catharine Anne, after herself. They called her Sissie. This baby was followed by Charlotte Augusta in 1830 and Martha Olivia in 1831. When they were one, three, and five years old, all three little girls died in the space of a week or two.’ Catharine herself was ill but survived to write many years later: ‘When I got up, my house was empty, three little prattlers all gone, not one left.’
Having walked through many an older cemetery and seen family plots with several infant gravestones – sometimes a half-dozen or more – next to those of their parents, I can only wonder at the grief previous generations often had to endure, and their ability to do so.
Concerned that its gold reserves would disappear with the outbreak of World War I, Canada withdrew nearly 250,000 newly minted gold coins from circulation in 1914.
The currency, minted between 1912 and 1914, represented the first gold coins ever minted by Ottawa. The coins would spend the next century in cloth bags inside a Bank of Canada vault.
Some 30,000 of the $5 and $10 pieces were offered for sale to collectors late last year, but the remainder will be melted down, part of the Conservative government’s efforts to help balance the country’s books.
The $10 coins sold for either $1,000 or $1,750 each, depending on whether they were classified as “premium” quality or not, according to the Globe and Mail.
Final figures connected with the sale, which just closed, won’t be known until spring, but a mint official confirmed that nearly all coins were sold.
The publication, in fact, described the sale as a creating a bit of gold rush among Canadian collectors.
“It’s the most popular topic for 2013, for sure,” said Michael Wang, a Vancouver coin collector who bought individual coins and also paid $12,000 for a six-coin set. “My wife was about to kill me when I told her I bought this thing.
Beginning in 1845, potato blight destroyed a significant proportion of Ireland potato crop, ultimately leading to the deaths of more than 1 million individuals and the emigration of another 1-million plus.
Many today place blame for the tragedy on the British government of the 1840s, namely its adherence to a combination of laissez-faire relief efforts, trade laws that curtailed importation of grains that would have helped offset dwindling potato stocks and a general indifference to the fate of poor Catholic Irish by ruling Protestant British.
But, as Stephen Davies of the Foundation for Economic Education points out, the underpinnings of the Irish Potato Famine began at least 150 years before Phytophthora infestans first began attacking Irish potato crops.
Following the defeat of England’s last Catholic king, James II, by Protestant forces led by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution in the late 17th century, a series of “penal laws” were passed by the Irish Parliament, which was dominated by the Protestant minority who had supported William.
The first law, passed in 1695, took away the right of Catholics to bear arms, while another forbade Catholics to leave the island for education and prohibited them from teaching or running schools within Ireland.
“The most important, however, was the Act to Prevent the Further Growth of Popery (1704),” according to Davies. “This prevented Catholics from buying land or inheriting it from Protestants, or from leasing land for more than 31 years. At about this time the potato was introduced as a major crop. The combination of the legislation and the new crop was ultimately disastrous.”
Long before Antiques Roadshow became a mainstay on American public broadcasting channels, it was popular on British television.
But in the 36 years the show has run on the BBC, it has never identified a more valuable painting than that first brought in by Father Jamie MacLeod in June.
The work, of a Renaissance official, was purchased by MacLeod for approximately $660 from an antiques shop in Cheshire, England.
After it caught the eye of Antiques Roadshow folks earlier this year, the painting was cleaned and restored, after which it was verified to be the work of Flemish master Anthony Van Dyke, and worth nearly $660,000. The pronouncement was made this past weekend on the program.
Van Dyck (1599-1641) served as court painter in England under King Charles I. The work is a portrait of a magistrate of Brussels and probably was made by Van Dyke in preparation for a 1634 work showing seven magistrates, according to the BBC.
The painting was authenticated by Van Dyck specialist Christopher Brown as a genuine piece by the Flemish artist.
MacLeod runs a retreat house in north Derbyshire. He told the BBC he wants to sell the painting and buy new church bells from the proceeds.