Wednesday 31 October 2018

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle March 1915

After the storm of 1914, the Germans opted for a defensive pause on the Western Front. Their main thrust for 1915 would be toward the East to support their ailing ally, Austro-Hungary; this was to be a grave error. In early 1915, the Germans overrated the military might of the Russians and severely underrated the British. The Germans had not yet appreciated that the British army was a blank cheque, the necessary noughts would be filled in, given time. The military presence of the British on the Western Front in early spring of 1915 was not formidable, but with the mobilisation of the Empire, the weight of its economic and military might would become fully manifest in 1916. In hindsight, the German strategy for 1915 should have concentrated on the British front in the west. Repeated violent assaults on an emerging army may have forced the decision in Germany’s favour. But history is not a matter of ‘might be’. Hindsight makes victors of us all.
The British High Command decided on offensive action in the spring of 1915 in the Artois district of Northern France. Initially, the battle was planned as a joint affair with the French attacking from the south in the Champagne. The aim was to snap off the German salient forcing a German retreat. Furthermore, Allied advances in the region would result in the capture of the strategically important Douai lateral rail line. Moreover, there was a political dimension influencing the British decision to move to the offensive. As a matter of national pride, it became incumbent upon the British to formulate and execute an offensive plan. The French, and indeed the Germans, had no high regard for the attacking capacity of the British army of the time. At best the French envisaged the British holding the line and taking over further trenches to free the French army for the offensive. As the war unfolded, ally and foe alike would come to appreciate and respect the British Army as a fighting machine. 
The joint offensive did not occur. As a prelude to the attack, the French insisted that the British take over a portion of the French trench line. Events elsewhere conspired against this. The last regular British Division available, the 29th, earmarked for trench extension was diverted to fight for the folly that was the Gallipoli campaign. Perhaps in a fit of Gallic pique, the French related to the British that without the trench extension, they would no longer have the necessary resources to aid the British attack to the south. Thus, for the want of a single Division grand joint allied strategy would flounder. This event cruelly underlined the pitiful weakness of the British military at this early stage of the war. So, for prestige and in part to stimulate/simulate morale, the British would attack, alone.    
The attack would introduce a few innovations and frank novelties. The Royal Flying Corps would provide information concerning the German lines, information subsequently incorporated into the British maps and attack plans. Light railways were constructed for supply, infantry rehearsals and deceptions using dummies became part of the grand scheme. Even with elaborate precautions, it was considered unlikely that anything of significance would be achieved without French support. 
On the 10th May, the British First Army, under Sir Douglas Haig was committed to the battle of Neuve Chapelle. Thus, the peal of ordinance rang out on the morn of the 10th with a barrage of 35 minutes. A desultory bombardment compared to later battles, not so much governed by tactics but by available resources. The short bombardment, in the end, turned out to be a blessing as it caught the Germans completely by surprise. The lengthy bombardments which would characterise 1916 and 1917 always alerted the defender allowing them to rush reinforcements to the line in anticipation of the infantry attack. On this occasion the British infantry broke the German line, the only time it would do so throughout this grim war. Unfortunately, the British were bewildered by their own success and failed to exploit the breach. Part of the problem lay with communication and the confusion inherent in all battles (‘fog of war’). As the British hesitated the Germans reacted, rushing reinforcements to the ruptured line. The British had lost the initiative and once the hole had closed they could advance no more. In keeping with the military doctrine of the time, the Germans counterattacked also to no avail.
The battle lasted a mere three days but sent a message to all who could read. Initial success, perhaps achieved with great loss could never be maintained. Attacking armies moving at the pace of the marching man would quickly face fresh enemy reserves rushed to the scene by rail. The Allied hope of rolling up the enemy line was always just another battle away. Twas a dangerous illusion/delusion which would dictate Allied strategy for most of the war.  
The British lost around 13,000 men a figure mirrored by Germans. Not a great deal in comparison to Somme battle where the British suffered 58,000 casualties in one day. At the time the casualty list at Neuve Chapelle caused a degree of alarm and consternation with the British public. The Germans and French were both impressed by the British effort. No longer could the Germans disregard the attacking fortitude and ability of the British army. The single line opposite the British line would start to thicken making future offensives by the British incredibly costly as witnessed by the Somme and Passchendaele offensives of 1916 and 1917. And so, the war throughout 1915 rattled on in the west and continued with British and French offensives. Little was to be achieved against a stubborn German enemy in defence. Indeed, the battles of 1915 seemed but a bloody prelude to the debacle of the great battles to come
Four of the 13,000


Saturday 27 October 2018

Flaxen’s Retirement Update

Eggert in repose
Tis four months into my retirement and I have to say I’m not missing work at all. That said, I’m not saying I’ll never work again. Perhaps in a year or so I’ll consider part-time work to fund my hobbies. The last couple of weeks in the Wairarapa have been glorious with unbroken sun with endless hours spent gardening and lawn cutting. Apart from the ‘south field’ the rest of the property has been landscaped with a multitude of tree species interspersed with oases of flower bed in profusion. As it is mid-spring the trees are a riot of blossom and the spring plants have brought forth a rainbow of colour. 

Our Alpacas, curious creatures that they are, seem to seek out our company and enjoy an occasional stroke and hand feed. I’ve been indulging my hobbies and have found plenty of opportunities for archery and bow making. I’m grateful for the metal detector which I purchased 30 years ago as it is an invaluable tool for finding errant arrows in the long grass. 
The weather is about to break and bring much-needed rain to the land. Although the summers are dry in the Wairarapa, this year’s ‘drought’ has come a little early. Greenhouse crops are thriving and the lettuce garnered is a welcome addition to the table. Looking forward to our crop of potatoes and assorted root vegetables later in the year.
The hen house and run have been cleared and cleansed just in time for our Hyline chucks which were delivered today and Mrs S has knocked up an egg laying box complete/replete with polystyrene dummy eggs. Apparently, the faux eggs encourage ‘new layers’ to deposit in the correct area. We will be looking forward to enjoying the eggs from these prolific layers when the hens reach maturity in about two weeks’ time. However, I need to curb my hunting instinct and concentrate on shooting the abundant conies. Rabbits bad chickens good.  Our dog, Mandy, may be more of a problem as she seems mightily impressed with the new additions and circles the pen incessantly looking for a weak spot. Luckily, for the hens, our very crap dog has very few teeth these days. 
Oddly enough the chap we bought the chucks from is called Eggert!
The beer brewing is going well. I bottled 23 litres of an English style bitter on Tuesday and I’m starting a Pilsner lager today. Hopefully, both brews will be ready for Christmastide. My experience with home brewing has been mixed. It seems the longer you leave it the better the taste. There are grape vines and crab apples on site and I’ll be making my own wine and cider latter in the year.   
That’s enough for now as I’m starting to get bored.        

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Epigenetics: Sins of the fathers?

A picture worth a thousand words?
The term, ‘Central Dogma Theory’ was coined soon after the structure of DNA was elucidated back in 1953. In essence, it refers to the flow of genetic information. Thus, as stated by the theory, genetic information flows in one direction: from gene to intermediary RNA molecules, finally culminating in the production of proteins, the building blocks and rate controlling molecules of life. It was anathema to consider information flowing the other way. And the main heresy, in particular, involved the consequence of environmental factors influencing gene expression with heritable consequences. Sane, grown-up biologists would shudder at the very thought. To think so invited the resurrection of Lamarckism, an 18th-century proto-evolutionary theory. This theory, as presented by the French savant, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, postulated that the environment could influence the genetic form of an organism and hence propagate for posterity. The classic example involved the giraffe. Lamarck’s hypothesis contends that in lean times giraffes would stretch their necks to obtain succulent leaves further up the tree branch. In time the neck would be elongated and this increase in length would be passed on to their offspring. Over generations, an elongated neck would become fixed in the giraffe population. The idea has a certain elegant simplicity especially as it was formulated well before the genetic mechanism had been discovered. However, subsequent experimentation, often involving cutting the tales off mice, showed that Lamarckism was not a viable mechanism for the transmission of genetic information. 
Conventional genetics contends that gene expression can be altered through dynamic mutation. Alteration of the structure of DNA can occur through mutagenic insults from natural radiation, replication errors and chemicals within the cell environment. If this change occurs within the ‘germ cells’, cells responsible for the production of sperm and eggs, this change may be passed on to subsequent offspring and a given mutation may result in the loss of gene function. This underlying mechanism is important for the transmission of genetic disease. If a mutation occurs in cells, other than the gonads (somatic cells), the gene alteration, in certain differentiated cells and in certain genes (oncogenes), may result, or contribute to the initiation of cancer. This model seemed to be all-encompassing with regard to gene expression up to the middle of the last century, but things were about to change.
Let us reminisce to the last Great War. In the latter part of 1944, the Allies seemed poised to liberate the Netherlands and storm into the Third Reich. However, for reasons outside the remit of this post, there was a winter’s pause. The unliberated Dutch folk experienced a period of intense famine during late 1944 and early 1945. Postwar clinical trials exposed an interesting medical trend. Children born to pregnant mothers during this critical 1944/1945 period exhibited relatively high rates of obesity and heart disease in comparison to a control population. Thus, the shade of Lamarckism seemed to emerge from a deep pit of despond, shake off its anachronistic shackles to insinuate on a stunned biological community (Flaxen waxing bollox). Was it conceivable that environmental factors could influence gene expression? Further experimentation and medical trials confirmed the apostasy.
It became quickly established that the initiating event was not due to classical genetic mutation altering the genetic code. Gene expression seemed to be altered by other means not involving a change to DNA base pairs. To cut a long story short, with regard to the Dutch study, it was discovered that a methylation change occurred at a growth factor gene called insulin-like growth factor II (IGF2). The methylation status of a gene controls its expression. In this instance, the IGF2 gene was upregulated. I’m not going to delve into the convoluted biochemistry. My blog with regard to biology is pitched at the intelligent layman/laywomen. For those who would like to know more concerning the fascinating world of genetics, I suggest a Google search. We truly live in wondrous times with information, often erroneous information, a mere click away. Changes in DNA chemistry and DNA conformation resulting in changes in gene expression, influenced by the environment, comes under the auspices of epigenetics. Epigenetic changes can occur in the womb and therefore the mother’s health status appears to be important for subsequent offspring. That said, post birth lifestyle choices may also have an influence on our genetic makeup and heritage.  
What I find fascinating is how the bodily environment can influence genes resulting in the modification of gene expression. I mentioned methylation as an important mechanism in turning genes on and off. The addition of methyl groups to a gene generally prevents the expression of that gene, while the removal of methyl groups promotes expression. Other mechanisms involve a change in the conformational status of the DNA and associated protein complex (histone modification). How change is conveyed at the cellular level is poorly understood at present and much research is being devoted to uncovering the underlying biochemistry. 
Clearly, epigenetic changes are highly important in contributing to our genetic makeup. Individual lifestyle influences (voluntary and involuntary) are only part of the story. The epigenetic status of our parents and grandparents will have a role to play in our genetic milieu. Surely the sins of the fathers will project unto their offspring to the nth generation. Predictably, commercial companies will latch onto the ‘epigenetic phenomenon’. A potion for all our ills will come under the guise of ‘genetic science’. Beware, of the new snake oil. For there is little doubt that companies will take commercial advantage and promote ‘gene modifying’ products supported by baseless pseudoscience. You have been warned.     

Monday 15 October 2018

Maginot Line

Aftermath of war

I rarely venture into the Second World War. I’m much happier contemplating and writing about the Great War for reasons I find difficult to articulate. Maybe: To understand the Second Great War you must understand the First.
Today, I would like to make an exception and discuss a topic that I feel has brought forth many misconceptions and downright falsehoods. In popular opinion, and even amongst professional historians, the French Maginot line constructed between 1930 and 1940 was an expensive folly responsible for squandering vast resources and money for no avail. Subsequent events seem to vindicate this harsh analysis as the Germans bypassed the frontier fortifications along the Franco-German border. In mitigation, I would argue that this assessment does not consider France’s strategical, social and political dilemma following the Great War.
Although victorious in the Great War, France suffered greatly at the hands of its German enemy. Her manhood had been stripped bare during the 4-year war resulting in 1,400,000 deaths. In comparison, Germany lost 1,600,000 men. While it is true Germany suffered greater causalities than the French, in terms of proportion of the population the French losses were much larger due to the larger size of the German population. French society was transformed by the loss of a generation of young men and the deep-seated psychological trauma shaped strategic thought leading up to the Second World War.
The problem, from the French perspective, was although Germany had been thoroughly humbled and demilitarised following defeat in November 1918 and hobbled by the Treaty of Versailles, it was recognised that a day would come when Germany would emerge as a powerful European nation. What was not apparent immediately following the war was whether a resurgent Germany would masquerade as friend or foe. Certainly, from past history, the latter possibility seemed most likely. Indeed, sage heads considered the future conflict between the nations inevitable given Germany’s humiliation at the end of the Great War. 
Although not without political opposition or controversy, the French government decided to build a strong line of fortifications along the frontier with Germany. The Maginot line project began in 1930 and continued until France’s defeat in 1940. The Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933 added fresh urgency to the building of the fortifications. The bellicose and expansionist nature of the German National Socialist regime made the prospect of war almost a certainty.   
How was France to respond to a war from a powerful populous neighbour given France’s declining population? Maintaining a military alliance with Britain was part of the solution. But British power would only manifest in a prolonged conflict. Initially, the French would have to bear the brunt of German aggression in any future war. Thus, the concept of border fortifications became a reality.
The line on the German border would not be continuous but consist of a series of mutually supporting forts. In keeping with later First World War doctrine, defence would occur in depth. A series of large forts together with a number of smaller redoubts would form the backbone of the defence. Retractable reinforced turrets were designed to resist the heaviest of bombardment. Great galleries were built to accommodate the men, the ammunition and food.  Anti-tank ditches and extensive barbed wire belts were built to deter and impede the attacker. The cost of the Maginot line exceeded 3 billion francs, not a trifling sum for 1930s France. 
Although France and the international community seemed mightily impressed with the line, Belgium appeared less so. Allied with France during the 20s and up to 1936, Belgium realised that the border fortification almost guaranteed that the next war would involve an invasion of Belgium territory. Perhaps this accounted for Belgium’s decision to become neutral in 1936. However, due to strategic priorities, it would be unlikely that the Germans would refrain from invasion regardless of neutral status.  Belgium was under no illusion how a future war would evolve and her neutral status would ensure that not only would she be invaded by the Germans, but the French and British as well.   
The Maginot line was not perceived as an impenetrable barrier. Lessons from the first war had shown that formidable fortifications and earthworks, although conceived in depth, could eventually be pierced given time, energy and men. The Maginot line was meant to be a temporary stop, designed to occupy the attacking Germans and deflect manpower from more vulnerable sectors if only the Germans would/could oblige. The French hoped that they would buy time and send the bulk of their army to engage and defeat the dreaded Boche in Belgium, or at least form a trench line, again in Belgium. Fettered by doctrine belonging to the First World War, the British and French responded in a predictable manner once Belgium was attacked. For the French, it was vitally important that they did not cede vast swaths of northeastern France, as happened, in the Great War. Mayhap the French were being unduly optimistic or fatalistic, depending on stance.      
The Germans had other plans based on their concept of ‘Blitz Krieg’. On the 10th May 1940, the German army made a predictable advance into Belgium taking in the Netherlands as an afterthought. However, the main armoured thrust occurred through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes. When the Germans debouched from the Ardennes the French army was outflanked and outmanoeuvred. This is something the Allies hadn’t anticipated or could respond to- France was defeated within 6 weeks and the Maginot line was bypassed and rendered useless.   
The Maginot line should have worked if the Germans had envisaged a future war as the French did. The French hadn’t prepared for a war of movement spearheaded by concentrated tank thrusts combined with tactical air power. Both powers appeared to have learned important lessons from the Great War, however, only one power appeared to have looked beyond the tactics of that war. Vae Victis.   


Thursday 11 October 2018


Can't help notice that my posts have become heavy and serious of late. So when I spotted this cartoon I couldn't help but appropriate it for the blog. There is something about the cartoon which appeals to my sense of humour. Arse. 

Normal service is to be resumed shortly

Image result for funny eureka cartoon arse

Friday 5 October 2018

Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation

Apparently, he was a very naughty boy
It is difficult for us living in the 21st century to contemplate the sheer secular power and authority held by the Pope and the Catholic church in the Middle Ages. It could be said that the collapse of this authority or at least the beginning of its decline was largely down to the energies of one man, a German Monk, called Martin Luther who initiated the Protestant Reformation. Before the Reformation, virtually all Christians, at least in Western Europe, belonged to the Universal or Catholic church. And at the top of this theological edifice sat the supreme arbiter of religious doctrine, the Pope.   
You may ask why an atheist such as myself should be consumed with things theological. Regardless of individual beliefs, religious belief has proved important in society both ancient and modern and religious beliefs have been overwhelming in shaping world history and culture. Thus, if we want to understand the world we live in today it is important that we take a glance at theology and religion even if that glance is achieved with a tired and jaundiced eye. 

Setting the Scene/Schism
Not only was the Catholic Church incredibly wealthy back in the Middle Ages, but it also had a monopoly on the social services of the time. It ran the orphanages and gave alms to the destitute. Monks were literate in an illiterate society and therefore were responsible for interpreting Christianity’s sacred literature, the Bible. And this interpretation was strictly controlled by the Catholic hierarchy. What little medical care was available was often administered by the Monastery. Importantly, the Church was the caretaker of the human soul and had a great influence over whether a person would eventually abide in eternal bliss or suffer the eternal fires of hell. The parish priest was a pivotal entity in the community providing spiritual guidance, confession and presided over a succession of life’s important punctuations such as baptism, marriage and finally the full stop, last rites.
So how did a chronically constipated Monk set forth a chain of events which proved the Catholic Church’s undoing? Back in 1517, Luther was a resident at Wittenberg University and was already an outspoken and turbulent priest. However, the flame that engulfed Christianity was kindled by a spark in the incandescent form of an itinerant friar, named John Tetzel. When John arrived in town he began to sell indulgences to the town’s folk. An indulgence remitted the time spent in ‘cleansing’ purgatory after death. A necessary intermediate step before advancing unto eternal paradise. As purgatory involved extreme agony, perhaps through burning, it was something that most folk would like to omit or at least minimise. Consequently, ‘indulgence’ was a big revenue spinner for the Church at a price of 3 marks per soul- about 6 months income for the average sinner. 

Luther was outraged at what he saw as a blatant ploy to exploit the flock through fear. Luther opined that Salvation could only be attained by faith, not by good works, revelation, prayer and certainly not by paying a toll. His anger was propelled by a righteous appreciation of how corrupt and venal the Church had become; no different from a money-grubbing extortion racket. Indignation propelled Luther to dramatically nail his 95 Theses, against indulgences, to the gates of the local church, on 31st October 1517, for all to see, but not all to read.  Opposition against the Church was a big thing and Luther’s action provoked much debate amongst the clergy and the literate (mostly the same thing). 

Luther’s theological stance began to evolve and became more radical with time culminating with the denial of Papal and Church infallibility. Furthermore, he stated that the Church lacked any spiritual authority. This was an extremely bold condemnation requiring a bold reaction from the Church and ruling elite. In 1521 Luther was called before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, at Worms to explain his theological position. Needless to say, others had criticised the Catholic Church before Luther (cf John Wycliffe) without causing catastrophic and irrevocable damage to this teetering power structure/stricture. However, new to the mix was the power of the newly arrived, printing press. This allowed a wide dissemination of Luther’s tracts and pamphlets enabling large numbers of literate folk to access and consume Luther’s revisionist ideas. Over two thousand editions of his work appeared between 1517-1526. This volume of work, greatly propagated, introduced the literate clergy to criticism of the Catholic Church. For many, this proved a novel and intellectually refreshing experience. Of equal importance, Luther translated the Latin Bible into German. For the first time, non-priests could read the Bible for themselves- hundreds of thousands of copies were printed. Lay people could now discuss the meaning and interpret Biblical passages for themselves. The genie was out of the bottle. Once scripture became widely available coupled with the injunction that anyone’s interpretation was as valid as the Pope's you arrive at alternative interpretations of scripture only limited by the imagination of the beholder. Catholicism was no longer all-inclusive. 

Alternative views resulted in a shattering of doctrine culminating in the formation of numerous and diverse Protestant churches each with their own religious understanding and ‘truth’. Then, of course, the fractured/fractious religious groups started to fight amongst themselves and the Catholic Church fomenting social discord and violence. Years of religious strife and intolerance ensued. What started as a doctrinal dispute transformed into a peasant’s revolt in 1525 involving 300,000 people. People applying Luther’s ideas and methodology not only criticised the Church but the landowners and rulers as well. The German peasant revolt was eventually crushed with great loss of life, but Protestantism was here for good and soon found favour with various rulers of Europe and not just because Lutheran doctrine proved theologically attractive. It also gave rulers an excuse to appropriate Church lands and money if they could. Certainly, King Henry VIII profited greatly from appropriations and this is why the Queen of England, Elizabeth II, is the greatest landowner in England today. 

Consequently, the Reformation was not just a religious revolution, it proved a potent force for political and social change. Thus, European civilisation lurched toward the modern era and this is why today we have only one Catholic Church and  200 of the Protestant persuasion.  Arse.