D Day the 6th of June and a Whiff of Grapeshot.

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We still live in awe of the magnitude of the D Day undertaking; the logistics and organisation; the secrecy of the preparation; the firepower released and the courage and sacrifice of so many lives. A Frenchman observing the bombing of his home town of Caen, remarked that freedom was being bought at a terrible price. Strategists and historians can explain the methods and means by which war is waged. Ingenious inventors can provide more and more instruments to bring about the dismemberment and destruction of human beings. They will sell these instruments, if they are permitted, to the highest bidder. Terrible things happen in wars, people say in justification. The whole enterprise is usually swathed in patriotic rhetoric or the quest for “Glory”. Yet the images that persist from World War II are short on glory and long on horror and unimaginable cruelty. Remember though, that Hitler was elected. Is that you, 457th from the right in the 23rd row? I hope not.

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The glory lies in the courage and determination of those who went to war against a vile regime, conceived by a mind distorted by bitterness and hatred; a mind filled with lunatic notions of greatness, conquest and racial purity. The tragedy is that he could sway so many to his way of thinking. They call it ‘charisma’ when people surrender their freedom of thought and action to one all-knowing and all powerful leader. D Day dealt a body blow to the regime yet Hitler did not stop until he had brought his country and its people to devastation and misery. There are still some who revere his memory. On this day we revere the people who carried out the D Day invasion at a terrible cost to themselves.

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In two weeks’ time we mark the 200th anniversary of The Battle of Waterloo, a battle that saw the end of Bonaparte’s career as emperor of France. In that most republican of countries he is still admired and revered for his many achievements. Foremost among these was his ability to organise and use force to get his own way. His use of grapeshot against a Royalist mob attacking the government in October (Vendemiaire) 1795 marked him as the coming man in French political life. Approximately  300 citizens died in the street. On that day too died the French Revolution, with its ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Grapeshot is efficient against a mob in narrow city streets. This is not to suggest that the Royalists would have been preferable. They were not organised. Bonaparte’s particular genius lay in his decisiveness. Grape shot brings a quick and tidy solution to thorny political disputes. As a reward he was appointed commander of the Army of Italy, not an Italian army but a French army sent to invade and conquer Italy.  Shortly afterwards he received a positive reply to his application for a job as gunnery officer on a British East-Indiaman. He turned it down for better pickings. Behold a pale horse……

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The man could do no wrong. General Vendemiaire, as he was nicknamed after the grapeshot episode, “my first title of Glory,” looked to greater things. He declared himself Emperor. Look at the costume…Drag artists everywhere take note. The mentally unhinged frequently turn to Emperor Napoleon for inspiration.

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Like any good, ward-heeling politician, he began to get jobs for his family. He set the brother up as King of Spain. That didn’t work out too well. He decided to invade Russia, as you do, when you become all-powerful. It will cost the lifeblood of your country but sure, why not? Onward to Glory!  On the days before Waterloo he was conspicuous on his pale horse, often silhouetted against thunder clouds and lightning, as he marshalled his army. Dramatic stuff. His Guards fought to their deaths for him. He was captured and conveyed to England as a celebrity, on HMS Bellerophon. The crowds came out in their boats on Plymouth Sound, to see him. He doffed his hat to the ladies and to his new fans. Charlie Chaplain complained that only a quarter of a million people turned out to greet him when he arrived back in England. Disgraceful. Fair play to Charlie though, he did a great job in satirising The Great Dictator.

'Scene in Plymouth sound in August 1815' oil on canvas by John James Chalon, 1816

‘Scene in Plymouth sound in August 1815’
oil on canvas by John James Chalon, 1816

Strategists and historians explain the ‘How?’ of empires, dictators and war. Psychologists struggle with the ‘Why?’  There may be days when you would like to have some grapeshot to hand, to deal with people who irritate you but you keep the idea in check…because you are sane. Hang on to that and be grateful to the soldiers of D Day.

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By the way, Churchill was voted out of office in the first general election after the war. Democracy,  he remarked, is a terrible system but it’s the best we have.

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A Tide in the Affairs of Men, Latvians and Winkles.

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Teacher:”What happened after Caesar mustered his army?”

Pupil: “He peppered the enemy and took the city by assault, Sir.”

Teacher: “Sit down, boy. I’ll have none of your sauce.”

Boom. Boom.

Okay, it’s an old one. At this time of year, I always recall Julius Caesar and his account of his first invasion of Britain, D Day in reverse. Being from the Mediterranean, he had no understanding of tides, a vital component of a naval invasion. Fair enough. He was caught out once in the Rhine estuary amid straggling streams and endless mud flats. The locals helped him to refloat his ships, whereupon he conquered them and took hostages. Since then the Dutch have become the world’s acknowledged masters of tidal defences and marine salvage. It’s a matter of survival. When Julius came ashore in Kent, to go marauding inland, his ships were stranded by a great spring tide. It could happen to anyone. They were then battered by an equinoctial gale, causing extensive damage. He learned, quickly, how to ‘cannibalise’ his wrecks and build an emergency fleet.  He returned to France. Better luck next time.  If you paid attention in school,(sit up straight there and take your hands out of your pockets) you know that he did have better luck the following year, slaughtering great numbers of the enemy. The enemies could argue that they weren’t enemies until he invaded them. Nit picking. ‘Great’ men don’t concern themselves with minor details.

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A party of jovial Skerries yachtsmen set off some years ago, for a picnic on Lambay Island. They took the short route inside Shennick Island. Their boat, a twin keeled craft, sat down on the Dorn. They were stuck. The spring tide ebbed away, stranding them for hours, under the gaze of their amused fellow yachtsman. Fortunately there were no hostile native javelin throwers or careering charioteers to attack them and plunder their supplies. Julius could have explained it all to them: mountains, especially those near the edge of the world,  generate winds which in turn cause tides. The Ocean spills over the edge, maximising the pull and tug of the tides.  The waxing and waning moon sends omens to warn unwary sea voyagers. The jovial yachtsmen made the best of their predicament. They broke out their emergency supplies of wine and fine food, to fortify themselves against the gale of mockery and laughter they knew was waiting for them. Only Leo Flanagan, a Latinist himself, was angry. It was a slight on his seamanship.  The others enjoyed a Lucullan feast on the Dorn, for  a long summer’s afternoon, lampreys stuffed with larks’ tongues and good Falernian wine.

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The people to consult about tides are the Latvian winkle-pickers. They arrived about ten years ago, with changes to the E.U. rules about free movement of workers. They came. They saw. They conquered. They caused dismay to the local lads who had picked winkles on a small scale for generations. They are phenomenal workers, moving with military precision along the coast and appearing at Shennick, when the spring tides allow them to wade across. They appear to be impervious to the weather. I asked some of them about this. “We are Latvian,” they replied. “We do not feel the cold.”  They often work by lamplight, in the bleakest weather, even on Christmas Day. They gauge to the minute, when it is time to leave. It’s not easy money.

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Surprisingly, for people from a Baltic country, where tides are modest, they have adapted to the phenomenon of the tide, as surely as the creatures they collect. I have met Swiss who were caught out by the onrushing tide. It comes in like a river. We had little boys from Belfast staying with us years ago. They panicked when they woke up in the morning. “It’s gone!” they shouted. “It’s all gone.”  It came back, much to their relief. A good friend goes to the pub at the harbour to ‘conduct tidal studies.’ It can take some time. There was probably no need for the helicopter the other evening, but it was dramatic. Apologies for the shaky focus. This was not the result of tidal studies, but rather, the lack of a tripod and a photograph taken in haste. Full marks to the vigilant Coast Guard. Think what Julius would have done with a few of these machines at his disposal.

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I no longer worry about the Latvians. I shiver and go back to bed. Like the Romans, I have grown soft. I have even bought mussels from the fish shop. They don’t stock lampreys.

Ebenezer thought he was Julius Caesar

So they put him in a ho-o-ome

Where they gave him medicinal compound

Now he’s Emperor of Rome.

This is where Julius met his end. Romantics, or maybe Ebenezer and his ilk, still place flowers on the spot, at the time of the Spring spring tides, the Ides of March. Whatever floats your boat.

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