Life in the trenches
British Army officer in the First World War.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.
What am I?
With the return of the cooler weather this season, more than a few people on the east coast were reaching for me. Humphrey Bogart rocked me in Casablanca. Burberry made me famous and I'm now a feature of the Kardashian Kollection.
I am, of course, the ubiquitous trench coat.
As the name suggests, the trench coat's origin lay in the muddy and rancid trenches of Western Europe during the First World War. The full-length, heavy 'Greatcoat' that was standard issue to British officers proved to be completely impractical in those dreadful conditions. This inadequacy led to the adaptation of the type of sport coats worn by the English elite whilst on fox hunts, and hence the 'trench coat' was born.
A waterproof coat made from heavy-duty gabardine and sometimes of leather, the double-breasted trench coat came equipped with a storm flap, deep pockets for storing items, and vents that enabled it to breathe. Importantly, the coats were shorter and lighter than their predecessor, meaning their wearer would be more agile during combat – a highly desirable feature that today's manufacturers of combat clothing continue to strive for.
We regret to advise that when we last checked, the Kardashian Kollection Lace Trench Coat—their fabric most resembling camouflage—is currently out of stock.
Bite the bullet
The Chassepot integrated paper cartridge, image by Rama, Creative Commons.
If you've had school-aged children, odds are you've had to head to the local art supplies store to buy them some sturdy cartridge paper. But as well as being useful for school projects, cartridge paper has bygone applications in defence.
Historical writings indicate that paper cartridges for handheld firearms were first used in the 1500s and were in widespread use in the Neapolitan wars 200 years ago. A prefabricated paper cartridge permitted the correct measure of gunpowder to be used and also contained the bullet; and the contents of the cartridge were secured simply by twisting its ends.
For the muzzle-loading guns used at the time, a soldier would bite the base of the paper cartridge off and pour its contents of gunpowder down the barrel, followed by the bullet. Then the paper would be rammed down on top to assist compression in the chamber, and importantly, stop the bullet from falling out of the barrel before the weapon was 'fired' - hence the phrase 'to bite the bullet'.
The evolution of paper cartridges and guns went hand-in-hand for some time and by the early nineteenth century, the first integrated paper cartridges such as the one pictured were in use. The paper was often coated with bees' wax or tallow to initially protect their contents from moisture and subsequently assist lubrication. By the mid-nineteenth century, metal cartridges were becoming more commonplace.
Although there is probably no connection, it is thought the Chinese first filled paper tubes with gunpowder to create firecrackers early in the second millennium AD to replace their traditional bamboo firecrackers. Initially used to ward off evil spirits, the potency of gunpowder for use in warfare was soon realised, but we'll leave that exposition for another day.
What's in a name?
Image courtesy Department of Defence.
History is littered with memories of ferocious-sounding war machines. Think of the legendary Archimedes Claw and the Greek's siege machine Helepolis (“Taker of Cities”). Think Destroyers, Dreadnaughts and Typhoon class subs.
Aircraft have taken fearsome names to the next level: the Flying Fortress, Hurricane, Spitfire, Super Hornet, Fury, Devastator, Blackhawk, Tiger and Apache helicopters, and Triton and ScanEagle UAVs. The list goes on.
So with all of these intimidating names, how did Boeing's benign-sounding Chinook get its name?
The name is a nod to the Native American Chinook tribes who inhabited the pacific north-west region of the United States, particularly around Oregon and Washington. It was in Seattle (a.k.a. Jet City) in Washington State that Bill Boeing manufactured his first aircraft - a bi-winged floatplane in 1916. More specifically, the name was inspired by what is known locally as the ‘Chinook Wind’, a wet and warm coastal wind that frequents the pacific north-west and is renowned for melting deep snow.
And if anyone thinks something named after a wind event is not particularly awe-inspiring, just talk with anybody living in the top end lately!
Boeing's CH-47 Chinook and its modern variants were first used by the US Army in 1962 primarily for troop movements, artillery placements and battlefield supply and Australia is one of 20 countries around the world currently operating this versatile, yet largely unheralded twin-rotor workhorse. By 2017, the Australian Army's existing fleet of seven CH-47Ds is due to be replaced by seven of the new CH-47Fs, which will be based in Townsville.
Check out some of the Chinook's capability in this YouTube clip.
What's the link between dynamite and peace?
Alfred Nobel. Image from Valentin Serov, Creative Commons.
In 1867, the gifted Swedish chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel patented dynamite as a stable form of high explosive. Considered to be safer than gunpowder and nitro-glycerine, the use of dynamite spread quickly and led to the invention of the dynamite gun.
The gun was developed by the US military and was deployed on both land and at sea, using compressed air to discharge its volatile cargo. Because of its relatively low muzzle velocity – necessary to prevent the dynamite from exploding in the muzzle – barrel trajectory was very high, resulting in longer projectile flight times and inaccurate targeting. So within a few decades, less volatile high explosives were developed and dynamite guns were decommissioned.
But this unintentional contribution to the development of a flunked war-time weapon was just one of Nobel's claims to fame. He amassed considerable wealth through the invention and manufacture of explosives and other armaments and held over 350 patents, including ones for gelignite and a type of detonation cap.
It is alleged that a few years before his death at the age of 63, Nobel, stung by references to him in the French press as the 'merchant of death', bequeathed the lion's share of his fortune to be awarded annually as prizes to those who excelled in chemistry, physiology, medicine, literature and, of course, peace.
With 95 peace prizes awarded to 128 Nobel Laureates between 1901 and 2014, hopefully Nobel's conscience has now been cleared.
A ‘wee walk’ takes on a whole new meaning
Image from www.firstworldwar.com. Photographer unknown.
We're all familiar with today's hazardous materials (HAZMAT) suits—space-like clothing made of vapour or liquid impermeable materials augmented by a limited self-contained breathing apparatus. They're pretty handy things to have when faced with a Sarin gas attack or trying to deal with an Ebola epidemic. But HAZMAT suits of today are a far cry from what was available 100 years ago to soldiers that were experiencing poison gas attacks for the first time.
The use of poison gas—first chlorine, then phosgene and subsequently the more prominent mustard gas—in warfare was first exploited by French forces very early in the First World War, although Germany soon adopted the practice, as did other allied forces led by Great Britain not long after.
Troops were initially equipped with wads of cotton gauze or flannel impregnated with bicarbonate to moisten and hold over their mouths in the event of an attack. In a pinch troops were advised to urinate on a cloth and hold that to their faces. Whilst these measures were somewhat effective against chlorine and phosgene gases, which largely acted as respiratory inhibitors, they did little to guard against mustard gas which caused serious blisters both internally and externally upon contact and remained an active agent in the soil for many weeks after its use.
Thankfully, by the end of the war highly effective filter respirators had been developed and were widely used by troops to guard against poison gas attacks.
Here's a highly-moving, first-hand account of the first poison gas attack during the war.
Power of the pigeon
Image: Dawn Beattie, Creative Commons
There's no lack of examples where mankind has tried to use animals to get an edge over its enemies, but here's one example you may not have heard.
During World War II the U.S. military was grappling with the problem of directing its missiles accurately at enemy targets. Enter B.F. Skinner, one of the foremost exponents of behavioural psychology during the twentieth century. In 1943, Skinner approached the U.S. Government's National Research Defense Committee with an idea to use pigeons to guide missiles. With desperation no doubt overwhelming scepticism, Skinner's project received financial support.
Having already successfully applied behavioural conditioning techniques to train pigeons for a variety of tasks, Skinner trained pigeons to identify particular targets and, by means of pecking a series of images, keep the target ‘centred’. The selective pecking effectively controlled the missile's tail fins and corrected its course and a specially designed missile nosecone was developed to house the pigeon.
While the technique proved very accurate, at the eleventh hour, the military opted to abandon the project in favour of pursuing the development of an electronic guidance system.
This video clip contains more details.
What does spotting Nazi warplanes in WWII have to do with microwave popcorn?
Image: Randy Auschrat, Creative Commons
During the early 1940s, US defence contractor Raytheon was utilising magnetrons in British radar systems employed to detect Nazi warplanes. By sheer chance, a self-taught engineer, Percy LeBaron Spencer, noticed a chocolate bar in his pocket melted whilst he was standing next to an active radar set. Curious to a fault, Spencer placed a bag of corn kernels near the magnetron and his suspicions were realised as the corn ‘popped’.
Further research ensued, and shortly after the end of the war, Raytheon filed a patent describing the microwave cooking process. In 1946 the company released the first commercial microwave oven, the “Radarange”. Standing at nearly six feet tall and weighing around 340kg, the Radarange sold for more than $50,000 in today's prices. It would be a further two decades of enhancements before the device developed into a smaller, countertop model accessible to the average household.
Do you know the origins of the torpedo?
Remains of the Brennan Torpedo launching rail at Cliffe Fort, UK
Image: Creative Commons
“Fish in the Water”
Named after the family of electric rays known as Torpedinidae (from the Latin word meaning “numb” or “stunned”), the torpedo began life as a static explosive that was either anchored in shipping lanes or clandestinely attached to anchored ships.
By the 1860s, Englishman Robert Whitehead had produced the first successful self-propelled torpedo, which was powered by compressed air and travelled at up to 17 knots. While Whitehead discovered how to govern the depth of his torpedo to compensate for wave action, effective navigation remained a problem.
It wasn't until 1877 that Irish-Australian mechanical engineer Louis Brennan developed what is regarded as the first practical guided torpedo. Inspired by the action of an unraveling spool of cotton string, the ‘Brennan torpedo’ was propelled and guided by two contra-rotating propellers that could be operated independently. Travelling at a depth of 3.7 metres and a top speed of 27 knots, in the hands of an effective operator, the weapon could hit its target from a range of 1800 metres. It also possessed the capacity to turn 180 degrees in pursuit of its ‘victim’.
Considered unsuitable for shipboard deployment, the Brennan torpedo was used extensively by Royal Engineers for the defence of strategic ports and harbours within the British Empire until, after 15 years of use, it was phased out in 1906 in favour of using torpedo boats.
Torpedo technology is constantly evolving to improve targeting capability by way of GPS, infrared, radiation and laser solutions, to the point that those used today bear only slight resemblance to the Brennan torpedo. So how many innovations will we see over the next century? Well, how long is a piece of string?
The history of the tank
In an effort to find a way through the trenches and barricades that typified the Western Front during World War I, the first tank appeared on 15 September 1916 in the form of the 28 tonne British Mark I during the Battle of the Somme, France. At a point where many nations were racing to develop a viable, heavily-armoured, all-terrain vehicle that could haul supplies and artillery through rough terrain, the Mark I was inspired by the fully-tracked caterpillar tractors that were in use at the time.
However, had the British War Office taken on board the suggestions and design put forward in 1912 by Australian engineer Lancelot de Mole, the tank would have made its appearance much sooner. Having already built a 'tank' for his own use earlier that year, de Mole’s design was disregarded by the War Office because at the time they couldn’t see a practical use for it.
While credit for inventing the Mark I eventually went to William Tritton and Major WG Wilson, in 1919 the UK Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors conceded that de Mole's design surpassed that of the Mark I and that it was unfortunate that de Mole was simply ahead of his time. In recognition of his efforts, de Mole was made an honorary corporal and subsequently bestowed the award of Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Tritton received a knighthood.
A scale model of de Mole's invention can be seen at the Australian War Memorial.
Incidentally, the name ‘tank’ was proposed as a security measure by a member of the then Landships Committee established in 1915 to support the development of such a vehicle. In a classic act of misdirection, the Committee was renamed the ‘Tank Supply Committee’ in order to conceal the true nature of its work, with paperwork and communications referring to the development of water carriers.
The Periscope Rifle
An Australian sniper using a periscope rifle in the trenches at Gallipoli. Note the spotter to his right who is also using a periscope.
The ANZAC legend was forged in the trenches of Gallipoli during 1915-1916 and endures today. Among the many innovations during the Great War—where significant advancements in military strategy were only made possible due to significant advancements in technology—was the development on 19 May 1915 of the Periscope Rifle by English-born ANZAC Lance Corporal William Beech.
The sight of many fatal head wounds sustained by allied soldiers seeded in Beech the need to find a way to return fire in relative safety. It was reported that within a few hours of having this thought, Beech, a builder’s foreman by trade, had knocked-up a prototype periscope rifle using broken boxwood and wire, some pocket mirrors and the standard issue Lee-Enfield .303 rifle. The device enabled ANZAC soldiers to remain safely in their trenches whilst returning fire from the Ottoman Army. The periscope rifle proved to be very accurate up to about 100 metres and a workshop was soon established at ANZAC Cove to enable the mass production of this innovation.
The evolution of RADAR
It's no secret that military-led research and development has paved the way for much of the technology in our daily life. RAdio Detection And Ranging, or ‘radar’, started from humble beginnings in the late nineteenth century as an anomaly during tests of ship-to-ship communication, to prototypes in the mid 1930s, to arguably the most important technology in Britain's air defence during WWII. Today, the technology behind radars is used in a variety of ways.
Radar is now used in ground mapping, border protection, speed enforcement, satellite communication, altimeters and short-term weather forecasting and subsequent emergency management. It's also an essential tool in national defence networks such as Australia's Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN), and both marine and aviation navigation.