Letter from a Scotsman

Mr. Harry D. Watson of Braehead Grove in Edinburgh has written a letter to the editor of the The Scotsman, one of Scotland’s highest circulation newspapers.

I wish journalists would stop using reverential terms like ‘one of Scotlands oldest families’ when describing our aristocracy . . .

Thanks to the new science of genetic genealogy . . . in my own case it turns out that I am descended – like many fellow Scots – from the first hunter-gatherers to settle in what is now Scotland at the end of the last Ice Age.

All without benefit of any title, save the humble ‘Mr’.


‘Fascination and Disbelief’

Another book I am reading, at least selected parts of, is Trench Fighting 1914-18 by Charles Messenger. The copy is a bit beat up and came from the Lyons Public Library. It’s apparently part of a series, Ballantine’s Illustrated History of the Violent Century. It is labeled ‘weapons book No 28’ and has a distinctly British bias. Most, if not all, of its contributors are English.

John Keegan, the terrific writer about the war, wrote an introduction.

The physical conditions of the fighting in the First World War arouse by fascination and disbelief. How was it that the individual soldier put up with the cold, the wet, the dirt, the noise, the frequent death of comrades, the constant danger and the apparent inevitability, sooner or later, of personal extinction, perhaps cleanly by a bullet in the open but much more probably by multiple woundings by a shell, by suffocation in a trench cave-in or by shock and loss of blood before medical care could reach him? And how was it that the extraordinary trench environment in which the millions suffered this agony, came into being in the first place?”

When the frontlines stalled in September 1914, the fighting intensified. The “combat was mutual and progressive, and seemingly obeyed mathematical rather than human laws. Hence the inhumanity of its conditions and the helplessness which the individual subjected to those laws so very often felt. ‘Attrition’ ‘materialschlacht’, ‘guerre de usure’; in whatever language soldiers sought to describe the character of trench warfare, they expressed the same idea.”


Some of Today’s News

Here are some of the stories I am reading today. Voice of America has a program on “becoming an explorer of your family history.” And here’s an interesting piece on ‘cut-and-paste’ DNA. There’s also some promising progress on a better understanding of prostate cancer, although it is proving to be quite complex. Several companies appear to be competing to map Ozzy Osbourne’s genome. Osbourne has often said that based on the years of drug abuse and other risky behavior he should have been dead long ago.


The Beginning of the Trenches

Here’s some more material from Trench Fighting of World War I by John Hamilton. It’s describes the beginning of the trench system, when a German general told his men to stop giving up more ground and dig in.

By “September 1914, the German army’s push through France was stopped cold at the First Battle of the Marne. With their exhausted forces spread too thin, the Germans were forced to retreat.

After falling back and collecting reinforcements and supplies, the German army stopped. General Erich von Falkenhayn didn’t want to give up any more captured French territory. He ordered his men to dig in and stop the Allied counterattacks. His troops dug shallow trenches . . .

The Allies couldn’t break through the German defenses, so they dug trenches of their own . . . At first the trenches were nothing more than shallow ditches, but they eventually grew into elaborate systems of earthworks . . . By the end of 1914, the trenches stretched from the North Sea all the way to the border of Switzerland.”


Native Americans’ 15 ‘Founding Mothers’

A new study by the folks at the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation (SMGF) in collaboration with other researchers, including the department of genetics and microbiology at the University of Pavia in Italy, has been published in Genome Research on Native American mitochondrial DNA.

There are “at least 15 unique maternal genetic lines, many more ‘founding mothers’ than had been expected for the Paleo-Indians who initially immigrated into the unpeopled, resource-rich Western Hemisphere 15-18,000 years ago.”

The paper documents “every known maternal Native American lineage, including some so rare only a single DNA sample exists.”

 “We found previously undetected founding lineages by looking at mitochondrial DNA sequences at the highest attainable level of resolution,” Ugo Perego, the paper’s lead researcher and director of operations at Sorenson, said. “We thought there were only six, but now we have learned there are at least 15.”

Earlier “research the same scientific team found that approximately 95 percent of modern Native Americans descended from six ancestral founding mothers. Building on that data in this study and using many more DNA samples—thanks to the SMGF database—researchers found one of those six lineages needed to be split into two.”

A January 2009 study by the same research group was the featured story of Current Biology. It indicated the first Paleo-Indian groups immigrating into the Western Hemisphere came not from a single population source but from distinct groups.


Trench Foot

World War I was remarkable for how men — the common soldier — were treated. Reading a simple children’s book about the war, Trench Fighting of World War I by John Hamilton, helped to bring aspects of it into perspective, such as a condition known as trench foot.

It was a “common ailment suffered by many soldiers in the trenches . . . Trench foot was caused by the wet and muddy conditions, and a lack of dry socks and boots. In severe cases, diseased toes or feet had to be amputated.”

Rain made conditions even more miserable in the trenches . . . The bottom of the trenches filled with mud, sometimes knee-deep. Shell holes usually filled up with water, creating a muddy quagmire. Men going on the attack in no-man’s-land often fell into these holes, sometimes drowning in the mud.”

“Because the men went a long time without changing their wet boots and socks” trench foot became a serious problem. It was similar “to frostbite in symptoms” and “caused the feet to go numb, and then turn red or blue. In very bad cases, gangrene set in, which meant that the tissue had died. In that case, toes, or even the whole foot, had to be amputated.”


Another ‘Great’ Depression?

I certainly hope Paul Krugman of The New York Times is wrong, but I fear he isn’t. His latest op-ed column warns of a third depression for the United States.

We are now, I fear, in the early stages of a third depression. It will probably look more like the Long Depression than the much more severe Great Depression. But the cost — to the world economy and, above all, to the millions of lives blighted by the absence of jobs — will nonetheless be immense.”

There’s also discussion of the fiscal mess of many Western nations in the Financial Times by columnist Clive Crook.


The Replacements

 Here’s some more material from The Long Way Home by Laskin. It focuses on the days just prior to Leslie Darling‘s death during World War I. Major George R. Rau, another immigrant soldier, had just been killed.

On July 25, just hours after the shell exploded on Major Rau, the Yankee Division was removed from the line and the 42nd Division . . . took its place.”

There’s some good background on the the Rainbow, the 42nd Division.

By American standards, the men of the Rainbow Division were battle-hardened veterans, having been among the first American troops to arrive in France in November 1917; but they had never been in action as fierce as the fighting they encountered at the Ourcq River in the last days of July. The Rainbow Division’s Fighting Irish 69th . . . lost nearly half its men in the push to cross the Ourcq River (the River O’Rourke, the Irish boys called it).”

Joyce Kilmer, the soldier-poet, was killed on July 30. He was “shot through the head while scouting out German machine guns.”

The Aisne-Marne offensive raged on for another week . . . and finally ended on August 6.”

Pershing’s plans for ‘open warfare’ were costly. In “the three weeks of fighting the American Expeditionary Forces had suffered some thirty thousand casualties. General Pershing’s insistence on open warfare was proving to be just as costly in human life as the agonizing trench warfare that had come before.”

Laskin ends with a note on the birds among the battlefields.

So many who fought that summer in the farm fields of France remarked on the birdsong. For minutes or hours or days on end, the air reverberated with the boom and roar of artillery or the swarming rush of machine-gun fire, a ‘queer zeep-zeep, like insects fleeing to the rear,’ as one soldier described it. But when the guns fell silent at last , the song of birds resumed—perhaps it had never stopped?—as if nothing had happened, as if just another summer day was coming to an end, as if everything under the sun was as lovely and sweet as it had ever been.”


‘The Long Way Home’

I noticed the book The Long Way Home by David Laskin while at Borders a few weeks ago. Instead of buying it I decided to check the library system for a copy. There’s some good material on the immigrant experience and World War I.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, one-third of the nation’s population had been born overseas or had a parent who was an immigrant. At the peak of U.S. involvement in the war, nearly one in five American soldiers was foreign-born.”

At times Laskin describes things rather well.

Every family departed with a store of memories, fears, terrible regrets, wild expectations, and pangs of anguish that would forever haunt their dreams.”

One of the dozen or so soldiers featured in the book is Maximilian ‘Max’ Cieminski. He was from the Kaszubia region, near where my great grandparents lived.

They weren’t refugees from war—that would come later—but they were refugees all the same. From hunger, passed like a disease from father to son. From villages with no water, no doctors, no schools, no hope. From state-sanctioned riots and systematic oppression and military conscription from which their sons never returned. Between 1880 and the 1920s, more than 23 million immigrants came to the United States—one of the largest population sifts in human history.”

It’s an interesting mix of scholarship and writing.

They came for work, and for freedom, opportunity, and the hope of better lives. They came to keep their sons out of the armies of kings and emperors, czar and Kaiser. None of them dreamed that one day these sons would be transported back across the ocean, some on the same ships that had carried them to freedom, to fight in Europe’s war.”