Monday, July 28, 2014

Centenary of WWI – But Not Many Lessons Learned

This first of August 2014 is the centennial of the start of the Great War.  

 The road to The War to End All Wars was a long one and although not compeletly inevitable, but became more certain as the military and political lines hardened.  I am going to take a different track in looking at this misunderstood conflict and use the perspective of the timetable, (which is how the general staffs of the belligerents looked at it) and less at the classic timeline and battle approach.  But a timeline is also important to get the facts in their correct order. 

As every school child knows, the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand by a terrorist group on 28 June 1914, one month before the start of the war, (see the July Crisis) began the final (and probably inevitable) sequence leading to a world war.  The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on little Serbia and the whole series of patched-up relations and entangling treaties between European powers began to unravel.   I won’t go deeply into the causes, because it’s pretty involved, but I am sure that the TV entertainment powers will jump onto bandwagon and we’ll have endless rehashes and revisions and finger pointing, all with commercial interruption galore.  One thing I will talk about is timing, but more on that a bit later. 
The regional war that started in the Balkans on the 28th of July 1914 became a world war by the 1st of August, when some of the world powers declared war on each other.  Note the world war starts when the big power war declarations fall on and just after 1 August.   America manages to hold off from joining in the war until 6 April 1917. 

On a personal note, for those of us folks who can remember the centennial of the Civil War, the bicentennial of the American Revolution, the Centennial of WWI is a sobering thought if nothing else, due to the passage of time and how few lessons have been learned.  Years back I had met a small number of WWI vets from different of countries and they are all gone now.  It’s made me to reflect and I have to wonder about what the world will look like by the time of the Centennial of the Gulf War.  If I don’t miss my bet, it won’t look any better and people won’t be any smarter.  See also, “A rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” with the coda that “the rich get richer”.  Sounds kind of jaded, doesn’t it, but it rings true regardless of your political affiliations. 

OK, back to timing.  One thing that most modern people fail to realize in this age of large standing armies, is that previously, a military mobilization was generally felt to be an act of war.  Mobilization was a key part of warfare in a time of small standing armies.  Europe, while keeping small but professional armies, had wide-spread conscription and a complex and in-depth system of reservists and national service.  In the US the system was a bit different.  They augmented their very small standing army with state militias (later national guard units) along side conscription of raw recruits.  In this way, countries could have both a large and small army at the same time.  In times of national emergency, you mobilized your reservists, who then went to their local depots, drew their war fighting gear and then under a war plan, were either set in a defensive stance or as a combat reserve in pre selected locations or went to marshalling areas to be sent on the offensive and meet the enemy in battle.

Here’s how the dominoes fall:  On 28 July, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declares war on Serbia (Russian ally) and the Russians begin mobilization on 1 August, the French order a general mobilization, and the Germans mobilize also on 1 August.  The world war has started.  The actual declarations of war follow swiftly with Germany declaring war on Russia (and its allies by way of interlocking treaties), on 4 August the UK officially declares war on Germany (and its allies), and France declares war on Germany somewhat belatedly on 11 August.  Note that it is the mobilizations that start the war and the declarations are somewhat beside the point. 

So you see how this works?  It’s like launching missiles in this day and age, they may be armed or they may not, they may have nukes and they might be filled with flowers.  You launch we launch.  You mobilize, we mobilize.  Guess what, a war has just broken out.  To follow the analogy, a country calling a mobilization in 1914 equals launching rockets in the Cold War or today.    In the next few days in the summer of 1914, things get uglier as the great powers unlimber for war and declarations fly fast and furious and it all goes downhill from there.

As a quick aside, one myth about WWI is that it was a war completely tied up in trench warfare.  The truth of the matter is that it was only the portion of the world war, located in Western Europe that eventually devolved into defensive trench warfare. The war in Eastern European theater was one of classic maneuver as was the war in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.  It’s a world war remember, not the war of Western Europe. 

Let's return to the timetable.  The clock was ticking for a war by the fall of 1914:  Military theorists of the time held that seizing the offensive was extremely important. Timetables were paramount and starting your war by the end of the fall harvest had been part of war ever since there were agricultural civilizations.  This theory encouraged  belligerents to start their was as early as possible after harvest and strike first to gain the advantage.  If you mobilize when the harvest is over, releasing your agricultural workers to fight, who at this time are over half the population, you then have at least 150 days of decent weather to fight.  Once you get northern European snows, wars bog down and movement is pretty much over in this period, so you have a limited time to get your work done, mobilize and fight your war before winter sets in.  If you get caught, then you have to wait for the spring thaw and the inevitable mud bogging your down your spring offensive.  So the fall timetable works best if you want a quick war.  See how the timetable works?  The ultimate application would be the blitzkrieg (a later term, but quite succinct), whose roots were in the Franco Prussian War, was the prime ideal for rapid employment and a quick war, but not drawn into full fruition until WWII by the Germans.  Practice makes perfect.

So if you could field your army first while the other countries were still trying to muster, you would have the field and the initiative.  If the other guy fails miserably in mustering their army, they probably will lose or at the very least, be dangerously on the defensive as they flounder.  The French found that out in the Franco Prussian War.  To misquote Confederate General Forrest of American Civil War fame, you will “Git there fustest with the mostest”.* 

The actual conduct of the battles in the World War is not within the purview of this brief blog post so I’ll fast-forward a few years and a few million casualties later to 1918.  After years of fighting and with casualties in the millions, the fatigued belligerents signed an armistice on 11 Nov 1918 at 11 a.m., the famed 11, 11, 11.  It put the war on hold, stopped the fighting, but did not actually end the state of war.  That happened on 28 June 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was hammered out.  But military actions continued, such as on the Russian front with an allied invasion of the Bolshevik held portions of Russia, but that’s another story for another time.  There was plenty of unfinished business and lots of new bad business created by the Treaty of Versailles.

The general reaction once the war was over, was to try forget as much as possible for some, to marginalize the event for others, and a movement towards pacificism (and even pacifism)+ and isolation for the US.  Victorious allies heaped indemnities upon Germany through the Treaty of Versailles, which also dismantled the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires and carved up Asian, African, Pacific, and Middle Eastern colonies of the losing side for the victor’s own benefit.  In general setting up the world for more problems in the following decades, not the least of which was another world war.

Here are some “didja knows” for your next cocktail party’s awkward moment:  Italy and Japan were on the side of the Allies in WWI, with Japan declaring war on 23 August 1914.  The Dutch were neutral.  Mexico was supposed to be neutral, but that didn’t stop them from being part of casus belli for getting the USA into the war, see also the Zimmerman Telegram.  Brazil declared war on Germany on 28 October 1917.  China declared war on Germany 17 October 1917 – it might be of note that Germany had colonies in China, something previously noted by Japan, who wanted Port Arthur and other German areas.  They ended up with a number of German owned Pacific islands as war booty.  See my previous post about early Japanese aircraft.  That those factoids should get you disinvited to the next soiree.   

For those of you who come to my blog for reasons other than an interest in history, e.g. H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos and movies, there is indeed some link to this post and horror writings (other than the obvious).  In a previous post I wrote about Arthur Machen Angels of Mons becoming folklore and in a post about author William Hope Hodgson, that was killed in WWI, who was a major influence on the writings of  H. P. Lovecraft.  Further you might check out the movie horror series Hellraiser and the origin of Pinhead, Capt Elliot Spencer, who turns out to be a disillusioned WWI vet in his own private hell.  Along with rank and file, WWI ate up company grade officers at a phenomenal rate as they were expected to lead their men personally.  If kings, dictators, generals, and presidents were obligated to lead charges, there might be less wars. 

WWI even had literary repercussions in such innocuous works as Herge’s Tintin books in the person of war profiteer and all around badguy, Bazil Zarahoff, AKA Basil Bazarov in the Tintin adventure, The Broken Ear.  Herge even drew the fictitious Bazarov exactly as Zarahoff to make the point clearly.  Another pop culture post WWI reference to war profiteering was in the person of  Little Orphan Annie’s adopted father, Sir Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks, a steel industrialist.  Sadly, despite eventually inheriting a fortune, Annie never got eyeballs.^

In ending, I hope that some of you out there, up-time from us won’t be observing the Centennial of a future WWIII.  If you are, swill your grog from the skull cups made from your enemies and enjoy the Dark Ages, if the lord of the castle allows.
If you are actually interested, but don’t know much about WWI – read a book or two, there are quite a number of good ones around.  I don’t mean that facetiously because this is far too complex and involved for a short treatment on television or on a blog. If the subject is too big to eat whole (and it is), take it a bite at a time, starting with what you think you know and try to expand your knowledge base from there.  Good reading to you.

*This misquote first appeared in the New York Tribune (a Northern publication, mind you) “written to provide colorful comments in reaction to European interest in Civil War generals” (no date to the NYT article provided) from a Wikipedia article about Gen Forrest.  I would appreciate somebody finding the date of the NYT misquote, if they would and possibly a scan. 

^She died Sunday 13 June 2010 at the age of 97, unrepentant and in the hands of a Guatemalan kidnapper. 

+For the distinction  between the two, see this article

Links of interest:
Newspapers of the era:  declarations of war 

WWI timeline of causes

Detailed timeline for WWI 

On the lighter side, a blog post about Turkish delight, WWI and the Crimean War

A Quotable quote not used in this blog article:
“Violence” came the retort, “is the last refuge of the incompetent.”  Isaac Asimov, from The Encyclopedists as originally published in Astounding magazine in May of 1942.  The story was published as a whole as the novel, Foundation the first of the Foundation Trilogy in 195.  The quote was just too good not to use somewhere.

"But what good came of it at last?"
    Quoth little Peterkin.
"Why that I cannot tell," said he,
    "But 'twas a famous victory."

From Robert Southey’s poem, 
After Blenheim

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Sixtystone: A Web of Deceit and Illusion – Arthur Machen, the Black Seal, and the Nesting Story of The Three Imposters

The background of the short story, The Novel of the Black Seal is a lot older, a lot weirder, and a lot more fun than I expected.
Arthur Machen is not as well known now as he was originally, but he was a highly influential author of the Weird Fiction genre.  His important short story, The Novel of the Black Seal is a portion of an elaborate overstory or nesting novel, The Three Imposters, published in 1895.  I’d like to leave the rest of the book alone and focus on just one story, The Novel of the Black Stone in this blog article.  

My first exposure to the Machen’s book, The Three Imposters was from the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series of books when it released an affordable reprint in 1972.  The series was a real boost to average fans that wanted above average fantasy books but couldn’t afford or find costly, rare editions.

Arthur Machen’s works have had a powerful influence on many writers and quite strongly on H. P. Lovecraft, who cites Machen in his Notes on Writing Weird Fiction as a great author along with Lord Dunsany, Edgar Allan Poe, Montague R. James, Algernon Blackwood, and Walter de la Mare.   

As you will note in HPL’s Notes on Weird Fiction, he states:
One cannot, … present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel.”

The careful placement of the “single marvel” in this particular story (which is part of a larger story) is a small black stone, which cannot to be taken casually by any means.  One way to do this is to embed your single marvel, in this case a seal stone of great antiquity and evil, into the fabric of reality and history by having it written about by previous authors, preferably real, but they can be fictional as well.  In some cases, the reference book itself is the marvel, such as the Necronomicon.

The Sixtystone or Black Seal in the story is very masterfully borrowed from the 2nd century Roman writer Solinus, who refers to a stone called the Hexecontalithon in his writings.  Machen carefully misquotes the original work, Caii Julii Solini de Mirabilibus Mundi to add depth and to move locality of the story from Libya to England.  This embeds the historical cited Sixtystone with accompanying text and author into Machen’s universe quite deftly.  Machen makes no secrecy about the lifting, giving the original author’s name and the source.  It’s all in good fun anyway.*

Machen’s rework of Solinus is quoted from The Novel of the Black Seal:
 "This folk," I translated to myself, "dwells in remote and secret places, and celebrates foul mysteries on savage hills. Nothing have they in common with men save the face, and the customs of humanity are wholly strange to them; and they hate the sun. They hiss rather than speak; their voices are harsh, and not to be heard without fear. They boast of a certain stone, which they call Sixtystone; for they say that it displays sixty characters. And this stone has a secret unspeakable name; which is Ixaxar."

Along with the Sixtystone being taken from ancient writings, the title of the main book itself, The Three Imposters, may be a direct reference to another book of great age, the Treatise of the Three Imposters, itself a hoax book, which (in many modified forms) has been circulation for centuries.   Both Solini de Marabilibus Mundi and The Treatise of The Three Imposters had been in circulation for centuries and available in a number of print editions in England.  I have to wonder if anybody sees the possible connection between the two books called The Three Imposters, one published in 1895 and the other circulating in manuscript form since at least the 1200s. 

Did Machen use the title The Three Imposters as a nod to the earlier esoteric book of the same name?  It certainly looks likely, although I have not downloaded or read the medieval version of The Three Imposters.  Like the Necronomicon, The Treatise of the Three Imposters is considered an imaginary or spurious book in a blog post at

While considering all the in jokes, the transparent borrowings, and the scholarship required to spot them, consider that the Sixtystone is referred to as a black stone by Machen, but not Solinus – which may be an oblique reference to another black stone, which is real and located in the Middle East.  But also consider it may be a play on the name of a contemporary writer of weird fiction with Machen (and also cited by HPL in Notes on Weird Fiction) Algernon Blackwood.  It’s hard to say for sure, but it is interesting to note the multiple use of layers in Machen’s The Three Imposters, especially looking at the stories within The Novel of the Black Seal.  It’ll certainly take a some scholarship to unravel the puzzle. 

Consider also that IXAXAR, may be a play on ΙΧΘΥΣ (fish in Greek) which was a secret symbol from early Christianity, dating to the first century, the same period as Solinus wrote.  But I don’t want to jump too deeply into religious waters for concern about offending and a lack of serious scholarship on my part in this matter.  Machen would appear to be both serious and playful at the same time.  Another idea that may just be coincidental is that there are sixty stones at Stonehenge.  Once you start the association game, it’s hard to stop.

Another anchor into history for the story and the Sixtystone is the Sumerian’s and later the Babylonian’s use of a sexagesimal, (base 60) numeral system.  This works well linking the Sixtystone into another culture and body of researchable data.  Interestingly, we still use many of the Babylonian’s base 60 concepts like the 60 minutes in an hour & etc.  Solinus would have been quite familiar with the system himself.  The great thing is that with a well-imbedded artifact is that the more you dig, the more associations or coincidences you find.  The accidental associations weave themselves automatically into the body of works, supporting the whole, even though the author may not have been aware of the association.  Coincidence can be an author’s friend, as long as it doesn’t become a forced literary cliché.+

As a side note, Robert E. Howard did a short story called the Black Stone (pub Nov 1931), which is supposedly set in the Lovecraftian universe.  So everybody has had a shot at the title.   For Howard fans, here’s a nice article about Howard’s debt to Lovecraft.

Certainly Machen’s association with mysticism, theosophy, and neo-romanticism and it’s associated interest in pagan and pre Christian beliefs lends some credence to these theories of literary association.  Eventually, Machen purposeful mistranslantion of Solinus’ work made its way into texts of modern esoteric teachings, bringing the farce full circle.  It’s much like Lovecraft’s imaginary Necronomicon becoming esoteric canon.  See the article by Christopher Josiffe in the links section at the end of this post for more information.

One more quick aside:  If you are still following this, you prop making fans might check into the Cyrus Cylinder, as fodder for thought, although that is clay not stone.  

The power of Machen’s mythmaking power is quite evident in his creation of The Angels of Mons from a 1914 story, The Bowmen, later released as a book of short stories, The Bowmen and Other Legends of the War.  Machen explained the story was fictional, but the more he protested, the more people believed it was real.  I have to wonder if there is a link between this WWI story of ghostly protectors and the raised dead protecting Britain from invasion in WWII in the movie, Bedknobs and Broomsticks of 1971.  But that’s for someone else to ferret out.  Additionally, see this article on about Machen’s mythmaking and the Angels of Mons:  

What really got this whole thing rolling was a Sixtystone prop posted on Propnomicon’s outstanding Cthulhu Mythos prop making site a good while back.  It got me interested again in Machen and rekindled my old interest in cylinder seals.  I did a little digging and as usual, things got wonderfully out of hand.  The result is this blog article.      

Arthur Machen’s writing prowess continues to influence readers, writers, makers of props, and esoteric authors.  His works influenced writers from Lovecraft to Steven King, as well as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Frank Belknap Long, and James Branch Cabell.  By the way, most of these authors had stories and books appear in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.  Machen also influenced other authors outside of the genre such as Jorge Luis Borges with his magic realism and even writers of mysticism Aleister Crowley and Kenneth Grant owes a debt of gratitude to the writings of Machen. 

Machen was also an originator in what would be later called psychogeography,^ due to his writing about the interconnectivity between landscape and imagination.  Along that line, you might also check out my previous post on William Hope Hodgson who was another influence on Lovecraft and his Dreamlands.  The problem with imaginary lands is that you introduce the great possibility of unreliable narrators, in which The Three Imposters is rife at multiple levels.  But that's part of the fun.

Hopefully this information dump will make you want to follow the links and enjoy the ride or do some follow-up work in places I have only touched.  Many of these referenced authors were contemporaries and friends so cross pollenization is inevitable.  They certainly influenced each other and molded our ideas about fantasy and horror today.  I hope you will be intrigued to enough read a few of the different cited authors’ works.  The great thing is that many of them are available for download for free.  See the links below.
*More contemporarily, take a page from NCIS Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs’ Rulebook:  Rule 7, "Always be specific when you lie.”  
+(Op Cit) Keep in mind Gibb's Rule 39 and of course, while writing Weird Fiction, remember his Rule 45 also applies.  Good detective work has much the same rules as being a good writer. 
^Psychogeography has strong links to ley lines, earth mysteries, and chaos magic.  It also is linked to magic realism and other techniques used in fiction writing. 

          Additional links of interest
Download these books for free from Project Gutenberg by Arthur Machen
The Three Imposters, (1895) which contains the story The Novel of the Black Seal
The Great God Pan (1894)
The House of Souls (1906)
The Hill of Dreams (1895, pub 1907) 
The White People (1899, pub 1904) by Machen
Also Famous Modern Ghost Stories (1921) with Machen stories inside 

An article about Machen in the Spanish language

A link to a good article by Christopher Josiffe is just below, about the Sixtystone and Machien’s use of Solinus’ writings.  Josiffe’s makes use of Arthur Golding’s English translation of Solinus from the late 1500s makes for really good reading, but also note in this article, tracing of the Machen of Solinus mistranslation making its way into modern esoteric writing.   Fun stuff.  or 

A Latin language downloadable copy of the 1847 edition of Solinus’ Caii Julii Solini de Mirabilibus Mundi  The part you want is XXXI for the Sixtystone hexecontalithon reference used by Machen.  Prop makers, this would be a great source for text for your prop books and documents.  Alas I could not find the Arthur Golding late 1500’s English translation quoted so colorfully by Christopher Josiffe in the above article.  

For those interested in a 1904 English translation of the 1716 French edition of De Tribus Impostoribus, (1230), AKA The Three Imposters, a download is available here:

Robert E. Howard's The Black Stone, available for free download: