Posts Tagged ‘people worth remembering’

Mad Jack Churchill.

July 4, 2014

A bloke worth remembering.  Not Scottish.  Honestly.  But he liked this sword and played bagpipes and fought in a kilt …

Was in 1939 world Archery competition.  In WW2 became a Commando, killed a German NCO using a bow and arrow; with his NCO captured 42 German soldiers in one night raid, one or two at a time; played the bagpipes as, with his troops,  moved out to attack; carried and fought using  a basket-hilted scottish one-handed sword.

After the war he qualified as a parachutist and transferred to the Seaforth Highlanders, before serving in Palestine as second in command of the 1st Battalion of the Highland Light Infantry.  While there he successfully defended a medical convoy from Arab attack while  in full dress uniform of kilt, white spats, glengarry and red and white diced stockings – he had come straight from a battalion parade.

Served as an instructor in Australia and, naturally, learned to surf.

Mad Jack Churchill, 1906 – 1996

A legend with moral authority

September 30, 2013

I am considering a question from implementing the Australian Curriculum: why and how to teach history.   (I am also breaking a half-dozen of the “rules” they teach for writing-to-the-test, because my authentic voice doesn’t fit the standard pattern.  Just saying …)

My main interest here is not the understanding that, as Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”  It’s not the hope that flows from seeing the marvellous changes over time, and the thankful feeling from comparing most of the-lives-lived with our own.  (I really appreciate instantaneous hot water, vaccination, soap, and eye-glasses, for example.)  It’s not the intellectual training from asking the questions like “When does now become history?  How do we know what happened – what do historians do?” – or the surprises that brings when we find that our “history” was propaganda, as in Josephine Tey’s “Daughter of Time.”  (Worth borrowing from the library, even if you have read it – I reread it this week, and was enthused.)

It’s the creation of legends with moral authority, to give a deeper meaning to”Being Australian.”

Consider the etymology of the word:

from the delightful  legend (n.)

early 14c., “narrative dealing with a happening or an event,” from Old French legende (12c., Modern French légende) and directly from Medieval Latin legenda “legend, story,” literally “(things) to be read,” on certain days in church, etc., from Latin legendus, neuter plural gerundive of legere “to read, gather, select” (see lecture (n.)). Used originally of saints’ lives; extended sense of “nonhistorical or mythical story” first recorded late 14c. Meaning “writing or inscription” (especially on a coin or medal) is from 1610s; on a map, illustration, etc., from 1903.

As a child I came across “Van Loon’s Lives” and was entranced by the stories of truly interesting people from the past.  I read and watched many biographies, but few were of Australians, and none of those struck me as really amazing.  It was only as an adult, through an ABC Radio National program (one which seems no longer to be on the net, alas)  that I was introduced to the life of an Australian whom I rate with those Van Loon chose:  Sir John Monash.

Sir John Monash was the child of Jews who had emigrated from Prussia, at a time when Jews were socially unacceptable unless wealthy (remember, this bias continued in many places even after WWII – “No Blacks or Jews” signs in lodging house windows.)  He excelled at school and loved music and drama as well as  languages and mathematics.  A respected  engineer, he served in World War I as an officer – not in Engineering – becoming one of the most respected Generals of the war.  Higher ranks were impressed by his planning, execution of plans, and ability to command; returned soldiers appreciated his victories, but praised his ability to get them hot food.

After the war, he chose not to seek election to Parliament, but – despite social rejection by some traditionalists – used his skills to improve the country.  For example, he worked as the head of the Victorian State  Electricity Commission, changing electricity from a “rich man’s commodity” to a basic utility.

A more important example to consider: when the police were on strike and looting and rioting broke out, he led – at the request of the Premier – a group of other  generals and ex-servicemen ( five battalions, not just a mob) to restore order.  Another:  when the State government had rejected a proposal for developing the power grid, he talked his way into addressing the Cabinet, and told them 

‘Gentlemen,  you have rejected my proposal because you have clearly failed to understand it’. He explained it to them. For thirty minutes. In the end, they agreed! He then said ‘Well, you will now need an Order in Council to implement the decision’, pulling from his pocket one that he had prepared earlier. He stood there while it was signed.

There are many sites with pieces on his life, but I am interested in an aspect less commonly (at present) reported: his decision not to lead armed groups to overthrow the Australian Government.   The Australian Returned Services League (RSL) has one teaching resource which puts it in historical context ( it is in Source 9), and Engineers Australia has a biography    where it is in his life context on page 9.

An outsider by birth, often insulted for his race and his ideas, a brilliant man who cared for the unfortunate, a polymath  who had won the respect of common soldiers, an expert who faced down politicians for the good of the State, a man who saw fools in elected positions of power at a time of crisis, a man who was then offered the chance to take control of the nation  – and supported the fledgling democratic system.  Would you like that to be the children’s idea of a hero?  Their idea of  what it is to be Australian?

That’s a man who deserves to become a legend.

Fortune favours the well prepared, well-mannered, and hard-working

May 10, 2011

 How British horse chestnuts influenced the foundation of Israel.

There is a tale of a British politician in WWI  who had a policy of having tea with a wide range of people, and one day had tea with a  White Russian (refugee from destruction of Czarist Russia) Jew.  It happened that conversation turned to the problems of the military, as their main source of acetone –   an ingredient in cordite  for munitions – was lost through the war.  The refugee said ” I can help you there – I have a way to make acetone from horse-chestnuts”  .    The government invested in his method, and was able to make the shells needed to continue the war.  Later, grateful for his assistance, the British listened to his arguments in support of the creation of Israel.

This sounds like chance favouring the politician who was willing to meet odd people and listened to a refugee grumble , and the refugee who met the politician – but the reality is more complex.  The politician was Lloyd George, the “refugee” was Chaim Weizmann.

According to Wikipedia, “Weizmann studied chemistry at the Polytechnic Institute of Darmstadt, Germany, and University of Freiburg, Switzerland. In 1899, he was awarded a doctorate with honors. In 1901, he was appointed assistant lecturer at the University of Geneva and, in 1904, senior lecturer at the University of Manchester.”

Weizmann had become interested in the bacteriology of fermentation, and sent many years testing cultures for the ability to produce useful chemicals like butyl alcohol from fermenting maize.  This was complicated by commercial restrictions on other scientists sharing processes and cultures.  One of his cultures (later named ‘Clostridium aceto-butylicum Weizmann’) produced good amounts of butyl alcohol, but also fair amounts of acetone.

At the same time, he was strongly involved in the more militant branch of Zionism, weary of centuries of racism.  He was invited to tea with a middle-class, well-assimilated Jewish family, and there met another guest – a distinguished journalist. Through conversation with this gentleman he gained introductions to senior politicians, arguing for his cause.

In  1915, through a series of contacts suggested by scientific friends, and through demonstrations of the laboratory-level success of his bacillus and brewing and distillation techniques, he became one of three scientists separately funded to develop methods for manufacturing acetone.   He made modest requests for immediate funding,  accepting later payment in order to support the war effort, with a gentlemanly manner much appreciated by the Government.    He rapidly scaled up the process from kilogram to tonne output, and found ways to ferment carbohydrate sources other than maize.

The other two methods proved less successful, and, with the strict rationing required later in WWI, the ability  to ferment horse-chestnuts was a strong factor in Weizmann’s popularity: children would collect the nuts for shipping to the factory, “helping the war effort.”  Thus,the Government’s willingness to support early-stage science paid off, even though two in three did not pan out.  They prepared for later needs by seeking out appropriate science,  were courteous in dealing with the scientists, and  dealt with the bureaucratic labour involved – so fortune later favoured them.

And Weizmann?  From a great deal of hard work, a gentlemanly approach, and knowing influential people on more than a scientific basis; with a good public profile and with the British Government in his (moral) debt, as the head of the British Zionist Federation and later the World Zionist Organisation he dealt with British (and other)  politicians.    This took up a great deal of his time between the wars (WWI and WWII), while he continued his research, industrial production of fermentation products, and development of what became the Weizmann Institute of Science in what became Israel.

Weizmann became the first President of the new state of Israel in 1949.

Fortune favoured the well-prepared, well-mannered,  and hard-working.


This blog entry was made possible through talking with a friend who watched a documentary on the Atlantic, through Wikipedia, and through my paying an annual fee to have access, through a University library, to online versions of journal articles. In this case, particularly to J. Reinharz (1985) Science in the service of politics:the case of Chaim Weizmann during the First World War. English Historical Review Vol. 100, No. 396 (Jul., 1985): 572-603. doi: 10.1093/ehr/C.CCCXCVI.572: .  This is worth reading in its entirety.

The title derives from “Dans les champs de l’observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés.”  (In the fields of observation chance favoors only the prepared mind) : Louis Pasteur, Lecture, University of Lille (7 December 1854)

The topic here is a wider field than observational science, but I assert that the concept still applies.