The Human Story – The Agricultural Revolution

Last time we looked at early man and his migration from the African continent and dispersal throughout the planet. Today we will focus on the most important innovation that Homo sapiens ever stumbled upon and the ramifications of what that means for us today.

The First Seeds

For most of human history, our ancestors were hunters and gatherers, risking life and limb to provide a slab of mammoth meat and some edible berries upon the dinner table. And then everything changed. In a mere 15,000 years, humanity has gone from hunting and gathering to creating such improbabilities as the airplane, the internet, the destructive power of the nuclear bomb and the delicious pizza. These are all things that we take for granted in the modern era (perhaps except for the nuclear bomb) but the reality is that without the advent of agriculture we would have none of it.

15,000 years ago, humans were gathering fruits, nuts, wild grains and grasses whilst hunting allowed for more protein rich sources of food. By far the best source of hunting was fishing as the rivers and coastlines were bountiful in marine life and they were unlikely to provide much of a threat to the fishermen – not much chance of a sea-bear mauling them to death, really. This is the primary reason why so much of humanity’s early migrations were along coastlines and up rivers.

Wheat

This changed when different pockets of humans began to develop agriculture. It is worth noting that the cultivation of crops developed independently over millennia with the nascent farmers using the crops that grew locally. For example:

• The Fertile Crescent and Egypt began the cultivation of wheat around 11,000 years ago
• East Asia and the island of New Guinea started farming rice and taro respectively around 9,000 years ago
• West Africans began domesticating sweet potatoes around 5,000 years ago
• In the new world, the potato was first grown in the Andes region 7,000 – 10,000 years ago whilst Maize was created by human selection in Mesoamerica (Mexico) roughly 6,000 years ago

All over the world, people began abandoning foraging in favour of agriculture. It is easy to assume that since so many tribes developed this way of life independently of one another then it must have been a good choice, right? Not necessarily.

We tend to imagine that the lives of our foraging ancestors were harsh, nasty and short but the fossil evidence suggests otherwise. The bones and teeth of foragers appear to be stronger and healthier than those of their agriculturalist progeny. Additionally, anthropologists who have studied the few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes have noted that they spend significantly less time working and more time on leisurely pursuits such as storytelling, art and music so it is hardly a great leap to assume that earlier hunter-gatherer tribes did the same.

As with everything else there was advantages and disadvantages to hunkering down and reaping what the earth provided…. providing you were willing to put in the back-breaking work, that is.

Advantages
• Farming provided a controllable food supply. Although there may have been droughts and flooding, human selection allowed the early farmers to breed hardier crops which meant less chance of starvation.

• It also meant that there was a surplus of food. A food surplus makes cities possible and allows the specialisation of labour to develop. Before farming, everyone’s job had been foraging for food where it takes approximately 1,000 calories of energy to gather 1,000 calories of food. This made it impossible to create large population centres. However, if there is a food surplus then it can support more people not directly involved in food acquisition. This led to people being able to specialise in other jobs such as trades people who could, for example, design and create better farming technology which in turn made farming easier which lead to more food being created more efficiently.

• Agriculture can be practised all over the planet, although in some areas it requires significant manipulation of the environment: irrigation, controlled flooding, damning or terracing.

Disadvantages
• To keep feeding more and more people as the population grows requires radically changing the environment of the planet.

• As the population grew and settlements expanded in size, disease was able to spread more easily throughout these packed settlements.

• Farming is hard work, especially before the Industrial Revolution. As such, one down side that is so often associated with the social order of agricultural communities is, unfortunately, slavery.

Not Quite Farming but Not Quite Hunting

An interesting and good alternative to both foraging and hunting is herding. It is quite simple really: domesticate some animals and then take them on the road with you. The advantages to herding are that the domesticated animals provide milk and meat. They can also provide wool and leather to produce clothing and shelter. The primary disadvantage to the herding, nomadic lifestyle is that you are forced to move around often in search of new grass for your herd to pasture and this makes it very difficult to settle and build cities.

Nomad

The reason that herding only really caught on in certain parts of the world is that there are not too many animals that lend themselves to being domesticated by humans. Herders were geographically restricted to Afro-Eurasia and even then, herding was (and still is) mainly practised in the high plains of central Asia. The only animal native to the Americas that was even semi-useful to humans was the llama.

Interestingly, looking at it from a purely biological viewpoint, one of the greatest evolutionary traits that an animal can have is its usefulness to humans. Many animals that can be considered either dangerous or of little use to us have either been wiped out or are on the brink of extinction. For example, there are an estimated 1.4 billion cows in the world, whilst only 23,000 lions.

Why It Happened

Back to the Agricultural Revolution. Why did it happen?

Plant

This is a question that no one knows for sure but there are some prevailing ideas. Perhaps the pressure of population growth necessitated a solution and agriculture was that solution even though it required more work. Maybe this abundance gave people more time to experiment with domestication or perhaps planting seeds originated as a fertility rite. Some historians have even made the argument that humans needed to domesticate more grains to produce more alcohol – for which human civilisation is forever grateful.

Perhaps there was no Agricultural Revolution at all but the whole thing came about accidently because of the evolutionary desire to eat more. Evidence suggests that early hunter-gatherers knew that seeds grew when they were planted. It is human nature to want to do more of something when you know it produces something that you want more of. This could have led early farmers to find the most accessible forms of crops and plant them and to experiment with them, not because they intended on furthering human development, but rather, because they simply wanted more food.

Archaeologists working in southeastern Greece found an early example of this. In the Franchthi cave that had been almost continuously occupied for 35,000 years they found evidence that roughly 13,000 years ago the inhabitants of the cave had been domesticating snails. They had been selectively breeding them to make them bigger and more nutritious. This was hardly a revolution but simply people trying to increase their food supplies.

How It Happened

We have looked at why it happened (and determined that we do not know) so now we will briefly look at why it happened (spoiler: we do not know).

Historians have postulated various theories as to how this massive shift in human activity came about. One such theory suggests that warming climates led to lush eco-systems with abundant food supplies. So much food, in fact, that the foragers stopped migrating and, instead, began to settle down. After several generations of population growth, the food began to become scarcer in these “Gardens of Eden” but the people had become so sedentary by this point that they had forgotten how to effectively forage. If this theory is correct then people would have been forced to get more out of the land. People already had a deep understanding of the local plants and of nearby animals that could be domesticated. Bingo!! You now have agriculture.

Cow.jpg

Another theory proposes that quarrels between different groups of people would occur over resources such as food, ponds and sexual partners. These peoples began to “claim” the land not for agriculture but, rather, to protect and safeguard the members of their group. In this scenario the people stayed in one place long enough to gain an awareness of the yields produced by the local vegetation and later developed agriculture to control and grow these yields rather than rely on the capricious nature of, well, nature.

Both theories are fraught with problems and actions inconsistent to the lifestyle of hunter-gatherers. However, as agriculture developed independently and at different times throughout history, the reality is that there are probably numerous reasons for how it came about. Regardless of the reasons for it, agriculture represents an incredible shift in human activity. Before agriculture, humans had adapted themselves to the environment. After agriculture, humans adapted the environment to suit their specific needs.

Some even go as far as to suggest that the Agricultural Revolution had been a mistake. In his incredible bestseller (seriously, if you have not read this then you need to), Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari suggests:

Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease… The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.

What Harari seems to forget to acknowledge in this viewpoint is that Homo sapiens is just another animal. We have looked at both the advantages and disadvantages of the agriculturalist lifestyle over the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and ultimately it boils down to that one primal urge that all life forms have and propagated the very first organisms: the survival and expansion of the species.

And The Rest is History

Enjoy this? Then check out the rest of the series in the links below:

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey

The Human Story – The Wise Man’s Journey

Welcome to the first instalment of Rest is History’s series on world history. Over the course of the series we will explore how in a mere 15,000 years humans went from hunting and gathering to putting man on the moon. But first, before we tell the stories that make up world history, it is useful to understand where and how it all began: where our human story, the story of all of us, begins.

The Evolution of Man

Modern humans (Homo sapiens) are just one of a group of animals known as hominids which were the earliest humanlike creatures. Archaeological evidence suggests that hominids speciated (separated) from other primates some time between 2.5 million and 4 million years ago in eastern and southern Africa. Though there was a degree of diversity among the hominid family, they all shared one common trait: bipedalism.

Hominids continued to evolve and develop unique characteristics with their brain capacities increasing and approximately 2.3 million years ago, a hominid known as Homo habilis began to create and use simple tools. Around 1.8 million years ago, some hominid species began to migrate out of Africa and into Eurasia where they began to make other important advances to the human story such as the ability to control fire.

To get an idea of the vast timescales we are talking of here, the earliest hominid migrations out of Africa took place so long ago that they occurred almost six times earlier than modern humans have even been around!

3 Species

Although there were once many variations of hominids, only one remains today: us, Homo sapiens. It is estimated that humanity, in its modern iteration, has been around for at least 200,000 years. The speciation of Homo sapiens out of archaic human varieties derived from Homo eructus is estimated to have taken place between 300,000 and 200,000 years ago.

A Migrating Species

The dispersal of early Homo sapiens from east Africa began soon after its emergence, as evidenced by the Jebel Irhoud fossil discovery in western Morocco near the Atlantic coast. These finds have been dated at around 300,000 years old. There is also indirect evidence to suggest that modern humans had made it as far as west Asia by 270,000 years ago.

Migration

Concrete evidence suggests that our early ancestors began to migrate out of Africa sometime between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago and began populating parts of Europe and Asia. Sometime between 35,000 and 65,000 years ago humans reached the Australian continent using simple boats. These early Australians are the ancestors of the Aborigine people. Around 35,000 to 30,000 years ago man had migrated as far as north eastern Siberia and some of these crossed into North America via the Bering Plain some 20,000 to 15,000 years ago. The Bering Plain intercontinental land bridge appeared between Siberia and Alaska due to the drop of sea levels by up to 137 metres (450 feet) during the closing stages of the last ice age. From here, Homo sapiens was able to head east and south, populating both the North and South American continents. Humanity had become a global species.

The question of why our ancestors decided to leave their homes in Africa remains unanswered but scientists, archaeologists and anthropologists have theories. It is estimated that the development of language occurred between 60,000 and 100,000 years ago. This evolutionary breakthrough allowed early man to make plans, solve problems and organize more effectively. We cannot be sure of the exact reasons that Homo sapiens first migrated from the African continent, but it likely correlated with a depletion of resources, particularly food, in their regions and competition for those sparse resources with other Homo sapiens as well as other hominids. Another theory posits that Homo sapiens migration was due to curiosity: they instinctively wanted to know what was beyond their environment. It is quite easy to picture really:

Ugg: ‘What is behind that mountain, Thug?’
Thug: ‘I don’t know Ugg. Why don’t we go find out?
Ugg: ‘Okay.’

Whatever the reason may be, once humans had the ability to communicate these concerns and make plans then they could collectively evaluate whether the pressures in their current situations outweighed the risks of leaving home to find a new one.

Otzi

A consequence of human migrations into new regions of the world was the extinction of many animal species. In the modern age, when we think of human induced extinction we tend to think of the dodo or the numerous animals currently on the brink of extinction due to habitat loss and hunting. The truth is, we have been doing this for millennia. By 11,000 years ago, human hunters in the Americas had seemingly played a huge role in the extermination of 135 species of mammals including three quarters of the larger ones (think mammoths, giant sloths, mastodons). These extinctions occurred rapidly too; it is thought no more than a few hundred years. This trend was not isolated to the Americas neither. Similar mass extinctions occurred with the arrival of the aboriginal people in Australia and Polynesians in New Zealand. In both cases humans were directly responsible for wiping out easily hunted species. The large vulnerable marsupials were the main sufferers in Australia with up to 90% of the larger species being wiped out within 5,000 years; whilst large, flightless birds were driven to extinction in New Zealand following the arrival of humans in the 10th – 13th centuries CE.

It was not just other genus of animals that Homo sapiens had a hand, either intentionally or not, in the extinction of. Next, we shall look at why it was us and not some other bipedal offshoot of Homo habilis who came to dominate the planet.

The Wise Man Triumphant

First off, I think that it is important to understand just what Homo sapiens translates into. As some of you will know Homo is the name given to the genus (or biological classification like feline for cat or equine for horse) that encompasses modern humans and some other species that are classified as ancestral or closely related to modern humans. It is Latin for “man” whilst sapiens translates to “Wise”. The term was coined by, Swedish zoologist, Carl Linnaeus in 1758.

Troll

Do we deserve such a distinguished and enlightening title? It may seem hard to see how, with the popularity of trash television and an ever-increasing number of internet trolls spewing hatred and stupidity onto the internet, but the simple answer is yes. Yes, we do. It is because of our greater brain capacity that we even have the television to idle away our time or the internet to heatedly debate strangers on topics that we don’t really care about. We are the only hominid to have developed these wonders, we are the only hominid left standing. How did this happen? What differentiated us from our early cousins?

The consensus is that our ancestors were more adaptable than their ancient counterparts, meaning that we were not restricted to a single environment but could survive, thrive even, in many environments. Homo erectus was the first hominid to leave the ancestral continent, making the journey around 1.8 million years ago. Homo sapiens would still not speciate for a further 1.5 million years at this point so Homo erectus had plenty of time to explore and populate Eurasia.

When the later evolving Homo sapiens dispersed from Africa and journeyed across Europe and Asia they would have crossed paths with members of the Homo erectus species. No one can know for sure how these first interactions would have gone down but there is some evidence to suggest that a degree of interbreeding occurred. However, some argue that this is where the co-operation ended and Homo sapiens outcompeted their lesser evolved cousins for resources (Go Us!). They occurred together and used the same resources, so it is quite plausible that Homo sapiens could have caused the extinction of Homo erectus. This scenario where the later evolving species replaced the earlier evolving species is known as the replacement hypothesis.

Brain SIZE2

Complicating the picture further was the Homo neanderthalensis, more commonly known as the Neanderthal. Genetic evidence suggests that Neanderthals were more closely related to modern man having diverged from him between 800,000 and 500,000 years ago before they too left Africa. Once again, there is evidence hinting at interbreeding between the two hominids in Europe. Homo sapiens may have outcompeted Neanderthals for resources just like they did with Homo erectus.

All of this occurred during the Pleistocene ice age when Europe was experiencing bouts of extensive glaciation. As noted above, Homo sapiens were more adaptable to changing environments and so it is possible that climate change was the actual cause or perhaps a contributing factor in the extinction of Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis or both, whilst modern man simply adapted to these changes.

Man’s Best Friend

I cannot write a piece on early man and his evolution without mentioning his best friend: the domesticated dog and his evolution. Very little about the causes and context of dog domestication are known. It is known that domestic dogs evolved from a group of grey wolves; and it is believed that these wolves encountered European hunter-gatherers sometime between 18,500 and 32,000 years ago. Other scientists believe that the first domestication occurred as recently as 14,000 years ago, whilst others place it at over 30,000 years ago. Some believe it first occurred in the middle-east, whilst others think it happened in the far east…. In other words, no one has a scooby.

Wolves.jpg

Okay, so we know what we don’t know about canine domestication then. We know that we don’t know the place or the time of the first domestication, but do we know why it happened? I’m afraid that we do not know that either. What I do know, however, is that there are several theories and I know which one I believe to hold most weight.

Early wolves would, as scavengers, be attracted to the bones and refuse dumps of human campsites. The wolves would recognise specific human groups as their own and would protect the territorial range from strange wolf packs and other animals. These early feral adoptees became tame wolves, dependent upon the humans for their source of food and became less fearful of humans than most wild wolves. This trait may have been heritable, making these wolves more susceptible to being domesticated.

Whatever the cause and wherever and whenever it happened, canine domestication was very important for the human story. If you remove domestication from the human species then there would probably only be a couple million Homo sapiens on the planet, maximum. Instead, we have over seven billion people, environmental manipulation, climate change, the internet and space travel. Human domestication has influenced the entire earth and it all started with the dog. For most of human history, we were not that dissimilar from the other primates that roamed the planet. We were manipulating our local environments but on no bigger scale than any other large mammal. And then we go into partnership with a group of wolves: they altered our relationship with the natural world.

And the Rest Is History

Next time we will look at how these adaptable Homo sapiens went from hunter-gatherers to farmers and the consequences of this agricultural revolution.

17 Brutal Punishments of History

We all know that the human capacity for inflicting pain on others has no limits. If you did not know this then pick up a book or, better yet, turn on the news.

Thankfully, the world has become a much more humane place over the past several decades and I think that we can all agree that that is a great thing. If you do not believe this to be a good thing then, please, immediately stop reading and go seek professional help – I do not want to be held responsible for giving you any gruesome ideas!

I know how torturous it can be when you lose wi-fi signal or have to endure, yet, another one of your friend’s stories about how unfair life is because her “serious” boyfriend of three weeks decided to dump her just as she was being overlooked for a promotion at work. I get it; you have my sympathies. But after reading this list of seventeen of the most terrible punishments in history you will be super grateful that two minutes without Facebook on the bus is the worst of your immediate problems.

1. The Brazen Bull

brazen-bull

The Brazen Bull, sometimes known as the Sicilian Bull, was a bronze statute of a bull with a cavity large enough to fit a person inside – you know where this is going don’t you? Designed by the ancient Greeks on Sicily, the bull held the condemned prisoner locked inside as a fire was lit beneath it. The bronze bull would heat and the unfortunate soul inside would be slowly roasted alive while screaming in agony. The bull was specially designed to amplify these screams and make them sound like the bellowing of a real bull.

2. The Rack

THe Rack

One of the most famous torture devices to make the list, the rack was a very popular torture device made of a wooden rectangular frame. The limbs of the convicted would be attached to either end of the frame with chains, and with the help of pullies and rollers they would be stretched until they either became useless or were completely torn from the body. Originally used in antiquity, although we are unsure which civilisation first conceived such a monstrous contraption, it was recorded that Alexander the Great used it. The rack gained popularity in western Europe in the Late Middle Ages when it was first introduced to England in 1447, although the French added to the torment by sticking spikes to the rollers.

3. Crucifixion

Crucifixion

Ah yes, the crucifixion! Just about everyone on the planet knows about this particularly cruel form of punishment. Jesus Christ was the most famous victim of crucifixion but it was widely used throughout Roman times and the 6,000 rebels of Spartacus’ Slave Revolt unlucky enough to not be killed in battle were crucified along the Appian Way (a road spanning 200 kilometres)! Although principally practised in antiquity this barbaric method of torture has, sadly, not yet been thrown in the trash heap of history. Several Islamic states still use crucifixion as a legitimate form of execution. It is a deliberately slow and excruciating execution where the condemned person is tied or nailed to a large wooden cross and left to hang until they die, which usually takes days.

4. Guillotine

Guillotine.png

Probably the most humane form of execution on this list it was still very brutal. Although not actually invented by Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the guillotine has bore his name ever since he proposed the idea for a more humane (and equal) form of execution for Revolutionary France. The contraption was used as the standard form of execution in France until the country abolished the death penalty in 1981; the last execution occurred in 1977. The guillotine was made of a razor sharp blade attached to a rope which dropped onto the victim’s head, severing it from their body.

5. The Tub

The Tub

Known as the punishment of ‘sitting in the tub’, the convicted would be placed inside a wooden tub with only their head sticking out. It doesn’t sound all that bad, eh? Quite pleasant compared to the previous punishments on the list really. Wait for it! The executioner would paint the victim’s face with milk and honey, and soon flies would begin to feed on them. Being fed regularly, the prisoner would end up swimming in their own excrement and after a few days, maggots, worms ad other lovely creepy crawlies would feast on their body as they decayed alive. Not so pleasant after all.

6. Rat Torture

Rat

If you have ever read George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four then you will be aware of the terrifying prospect of rat torture as the book’s protagonist, Winston Smith, discovers when subjected to the terror of Room 101. If you have not read it then I highly recommend it. Anyway, back to rat torture. This chilling torture technique involved a cage with one open side strapped to the victim’s body (often the chest). The cage would then be filled with rats and the metal cage would be heated. The rodent’s natural instinct led them to flee the intense heat. Where could they possibly flee to? Through the condemned of course. In order to escape they would burrow through the victim’s body with fatal results.

7. Breast Ripper

Breast Ripper

Here’s one for the ladies. Though women were subjected to much of the torture techniques found in this list, this one was designed specially for them. Used to cause major blood loss, the metal claws, which were often red hot, would be placed on the exposed breasts as the spikes penetrated beneath the skin. The claws were then tugged at, causing large chunks of flesh to come off with them.

8. Republican Marriage

Republican Marriage2

Another “ingenious” method of execution developed during the French Revolution, the Republican Marriage was a little less humane than the guillotine. It involved binding a naked male and a naked female together and then throwing them into waters to drown. What happened when there was no river or lake nearby, I hear you ask? Well, the soldiers would just run the victims through with swords and bayonets. This was the preferred method used to execute priests and nuns; what a crime!

9. Spanish Donkey

Spanish Donkey

From Revolutionary France to the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish Donkey may just be one of the most brutal punishments ever conceived by mankind. The victim sat astride, naked, on a vertical wooden board with a sharp V-wedge on top of it. The torturer would then add varying weight to the victim’s feet, allowing gravity to do what it does best, until finally the wedge sliced through the body.

10. Saw Torture

Saw Torture.jpg

Similar to the Spanish Donkey (in that it involved splitting a human being in half) was saw torture. You really would not like this one. The unfortunate victim would be suspended by his or her feet. This allowed the blood to rush to their head so that they would be conscious for most of the execution. The victim was then sawed in half, from the groin to the head. Simple.

11. Flaying

flaying

Flaying was a form of torture popularised by the Assyrians. It literally means to skin: as in “skin you alive”. Lovely. Depending on the amount of skin removed from the victim, it was a punishment that could leave you either dead or a heavily scarred (emotionally as well as physically) cripple. Similarly, some were punished by having chunks of their flesh removed – Shylock did not make a demand out of the blue, after all.

12. Death by Burning

Burn Stake

Deliberately causing death through the effects of combustion has a long lineage as a form of execution. Many societies throughout history employed its use for various crimes, such as treason; witchcraft; sexual transgressions; heresy and the Japanese, with a wry sense of humour, used it to execute arsons. This was a crowd favourite as it made for a grand spectacle.

13. Impalement

Impalement

Given his nickname, it should come as little surprise to discover that this was the favoured method of execution of 15th century Romanian ruler, Vlad the Impaler. The victim was forced to sit atop a sharp, thick pole. When the pole was raised upright, the victim’s body would be pierced by the point and would slide down the pole from their own body weight. This gruesome execution method could take days to kill (depending on where the pole had been placed) and it was reported that the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II once fled with his army at the sight of 20,000 impaled corpses rotting on the outskirts of Vlad’s capital city of Targoviste.

14. Judas Cradle

Judas Cradle.jpg

Closely related to both impalement and the Spanish Donkey was the Judas Chair. This gruesome punishment involved the victim sitting atop a pyramid shaped cradle. The victim would be pulled down using ropes with the intent of stretching the anus over a long period of time, slowly impaling them. To maximise the humiliation, the victim was usually completely naked and the device was rarely, if ever, washed. If the torture did not kill you then the infection that you would inevitably contract would.

15. Cement Shoes

Cementshoes

A more modern form of execution, similar to the Republican Marriage, but more lonely at the end. The Cement Shoes were introduced by the American Mafia as a form of execution. The condemned would have their feet placed in breeze blocks (cinder blocks to our American cousins) and then have cement poured in. Once it dried, the victim would be thrown into a river, lake or ocean to sleep with the fishes.

16. Tongue Tearer

Tongue Tearer2

The Tongue Tearer was basically an oversized pair of scissors that was used to cut a victim’s tongue off. Usually reserved for a blasphemer or heretic, the mouth would be forced opened and the iron Tongue Tearer would catch the tongue with it’s rough grippers. Once a firm hold was maintained, the screw would be firmly tightened and the victim’s tongue would be roughly torn away from the mouth. So the next time you take the Lord’s name in vain, just think of how you would have been punished in an earlier age – don’t you feel fortunate.

17. Hanged, Drawn & Quartered

HDQ.png

The punishment for treason in Medieval England was to be hanged, drawn and quartered in public. Lasting for hundreds of years (as late as the 19th century) as a form of execution, thousands met their grisly end this way. The victim was tied to a wooden frame and dragged behind a horse to the place of execution. They would then be hanged by the neck for a short period of time until near-death (hanged), followed by castration and disembowelment where the entrails and genitalia were burned in front of the still breathing victim (drawn). The condemned would then be divided into four separate parts and beheaded (quartered). One of the most famous men to be hanged, drawn and quartered was the Medieval Scottish resistance leader, Sir William Wallace. His quartered limbs were sent to Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth to serve as a warning whilst his head was set on London Bridge.

 

 

For Valour – 3 Recipients of the Victoria Cross

I guess a good place to begin my history blogging journey would be to start at the beginning of my love for history.

When I was nine years old my parents took me to France. I think we may have visited Disney Land Paris, but I honestly cannot remember. What I do remember though is the scarred and pockmarked fields of the Somme Valley created by the trenches and bursting shells over eighty years before and the behemoth bunkers that had sheltered the German troops as the allies stormed the beaches of Normandy.

It was here, in northern France, that my fascination of military history exploded like the Lochnagar Mine near the French village of La Boisselle had done on July 1st, 1916. I needed to know everything possible about the First and Second World Wars. This was my new obsession at age nine but it did not take long to snowball into an obsession to learn all things militaria. Mum and dad, supportive as ever, added fuel to the fire and encouraged my obsession and even helped me start collecting military memorabilia from different conflicts throughout history.

To this day I have quite an extensive collection of militaria at my parent’s house, but there is one thing that I have always longed for above all else and that is a Victoria Cross (VC). Sure, I have a replica but the real deal costs upwards of six figures (which is a little out of my price range). The largest collection of Victoria Crosses is held by Lord Michael Ashcroft who privately holds 162 medals, over one-tenth of all VCs ever awarded. His collection, along with the Victoria Crosses and George Crosses held by the Imperial War Museum can be seen at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery in the Imperial War Museum in London.

VC3

 

Brief History
The Victoria Cross is the highest award of the British Honours System and is awarded for gallantry “in the presence of the enemy” to members of the British Armed Forces and formerly to members of the forces of Commonwealth countries. The VC was introduced on 29th January 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of heroism performed during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856). Since then, the decoration has been awarded 1,358 times to 1,355 individual recipients, only 15 since the end of the Second World War. The bronze from which all Victoria Crosses are made is cut from cannons captured from the Russians after the Siege of Sevastopol in 1855.

The greatest number of Victoria Crosses awarded for a single day was twenty-four for deeds performed during the Indian Mutiny on 16th November 1857. Twenty-three of these were awarded for the action at Lucknow, whilst one was received for an action at Narnoul, south of Delhi. The largest number of VCs awarded to a single unit during a single action is seven, to the 2nd battalion of the 24th Regiment of Foot (Warwickshire Regiment) for the defence of Rorke’s Drift over the 22nd and 23rd January 1879 which saw a little over 150 British and colonial troops successfully defend the garrison against an assault by over 3,000 Zulu warriors. The greatest number of VCs awarded for a single conflict is, unsurprisingly, the First World War (1914 – 1918).

The decoration is a bronze cross, bearing the crown of Saint Edward surmounted by a lion, and the inscription “FOR VALOUR”. The cross is suspended from a “V” to a bar ornamented with laurel leaves, through which the crimson ribbon passes. The reverse of the suspension bar is engraved with the recipient’s name, rank, number and unit, whilst on the reverse of the medal in the circular panel is the date on which the act is engraved. Although all VC ribbons nowadays are crimson in colour, originally, the crimson ribbon was designated for the army whilst recipients from the navy received a blue ribbon. This changed after the creation of the Royal Air Force in 1918 when King George V signed a warrant stating that all recipients would receive the crimson ribbon and that living recipients of the naval version were required to exchange their ribbons for the new colour.

Now that we know a little about the Victoria Cross, let’s have a look at some of the recipients and the courageous actions that they performed.

Chief Skipper Joseph Watt VC – Royal Naval Reserve
Born in 1887 in the Scottish fishing village of Gardenstown into a large family, Joseph Watt’s family moved to Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, when he was ten after his father, a fisherman, was lost at sea. Young Joe learned the fishing trade from an early age, but the war changed the community as most men volunteered for service with the Royal Navy on patrol service, hunting for enemy shipping and submarines. Joe was no exception and was transferred to Italy in 1915 serving on drifters, like the ones he used back home, in the Adriatic Sea, attempting to keep Austrian submarines from breaking through into the Mediterranean Sea.

Drifter
On 15th May 1917, Skipper Watt and his crew of eight men and a dog were part of a patrol on the Otranto Strait looking out for suspicious activity following an increase in submarine sightings (the 72km patrol line was known as the Otranto Barrage). Unbeknownst to the Allies, the Austrians had planned a major operation against the naval blockade. The attack fell upon the drifter line during the night and sank fourteen of the forty-eight drifters defending the Otranto Barrage. Watt’s drifter, Gowanlea, was confronted by the Helgoland, an Austro-Hungarian cruiser, which demanded the surrender of Watt’s tiny ship and ordered the crew to abandon ship before sinking it. Rather than comply with the enemy’s demands, Watt ordered his crew to open fire on their much larger opponent with the drifter’s six-pound gun.

The Gowanlea was hit by heavy shells sustaining serous damage and wounding some of the crewmen. However, the other drifters around Gowanlea followed her example but were also subjected to heavy fire. The Royal Naval cruisers HMS Dartmouth and HMS Bristol came to the rescue of the tiny drifters and the Austrian cruiser fled but subsequently became engaged in the inconclusive Battle of the Otranto Barrage. Despite her own heavy damage and casualties, the Gowanlea moved amongst the wreckage and flotsam of the battle rescuing wounded men and providing medical attention to those in most need.

After the war, Joe Watt returned to Fraserburgh, refusing to speak of his war experiences. He joined the navy again as a drifter captain to serve in the Second World War, accompanied by his son who had been invalided out of the army after being wounded serving with the Gordon Highlanders during the Battle of France.

Watt, who always shunned the fame generated by his Victoria Cross, kept the medal in a drawer full of junk on board his boat. Chief Skipper Joseph Watt VC also received the French Croix de Guerre and the Italian Silver Medal for Military Valour for his courageous actions on 15th May 1917.

Private Sidney Godley VC – The Royal Fusiliers
As previously noted, the First World War holds the record as being the single conflict with the largest number of VCs awarded. Well, Sidney Godley’s award was the first of 628 won through the war.

Godley was born in 1889 in East Grinstead, West Sussex. His mother died in 1896 and young Sidney was sent to live with his uncle in London. Between the ages of fourteen to twenty, he worked in an ironmonger’s store before joining the Royal Fusiliers in 1909.

Britain joined the war on 4th August 1914. On 23rd August at Mons, Belgium on the Mons-Condé Canal Godley and Lieutenant Maurice Dease were manning a machine gun after the previous crews had been killed or wounded. Lieutenant Dease was killed and the order to retreat was issued. Godley offered to defend the railway bridge whilst the rest of his unit retreated. Private Godley single-handedly held the bridge under heavy fire. He was wounded twice; a shell fragment lodging itself in his back and he took a bullet to the head. Despite his injuries, Private Godley continued his defence of the bridge for two hours whilst his comrades made their escape. When he eventually ran out of ammunition, Godley dismantled his machine gun and threw the pieces into the canal. He attempted to crawl to safety but was captured by the advancing German soldiers.

Nimy PlaqueIt was originally believed that Godley had been killed by the enemy until it was later discovered by POW lists that he was, in fact, being held as a prisoner in a camp called Delotz. He received the information that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross whilst in this camp. He received the actual medal from King George V at Buckingham Palace in February 1919.

 

Captain Charles Upham VC & Bar – 20th Battalion (New Zealand)
Of the 1,355 recipients of the Victoria Cross, only three have ever been awarded a second. A bar across the ribbon represents the second award of the VC. These men are: Arthur Martin-Leake and Noel Chavasse, both doctors with the Royal Army Medical Corps who received both awards for rescuing wounded under heavy fire; and New Zealander Charles Upham who remains the only combatant soldier to have received a VC and Bar.

Charles Upham was born in 1908 in Christchurch, New Zealand. He attended Agricultural College where he earned a diploma in agriculture in 1930. He worked first as sheep farmer and later as a manager before valuing farms for the government. In September 1939, Upham enlisted in the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force and was posted to the 20th Battalion. Despite five years’ experience in the Territorial Army where he held the rank of sergeant, Upham insisted on joining as a private. He was eventually convinced to join Officer Cadet Training Unit in July 1940.

It did not take long before the newly minted officer saw action. He picked up his first Victoria Cross during the German invasion of Crete in May 1941. Second Lieutenant Upham led his platoon over 3,000 yards without heavy weapons or support and captured a strong German defensive position head on. He personally destroyed three German machine gun positions with grenades and a pistol. After this he helped evacuate the wounded under heavy fire before passing 600 yards of hostile territory to recover a platoon in danger of becoming isolated.

By this point in the fighting, Upham had already received mortar shrapnel wounds to the shoulder and a bullet in the foot, but he pressed on with the fight. When orders to withdraw south were given, he sent his platoon south whilst he moved forward warning other units that they were in danger of being cut off. As he advanced forward he was forced to play dead after being fired upon by two enemy soldiers. With only one functioning arm he was able to crawl to a tree and prop up his rifle to kill the soldiers.

Later, whilst still heavily wounded and using ingenious tactics, Upham led his platoon into deceiving an enemy section into exposing themselves whereupon he quickly mowed twenty-two of them down with a Bren Gun.

The Battle of Crete only lasted for 11 days, but Charles Upham had put together such an extensive catalogue of gallantry that could only be rewarded with the Commonwealth’s highest military honour.

WHAT A GUY!!!!! And that was just the first one!

charles-upham-vc-statue
After recovering from his injuries in Egypt, Upham was promoted to Captain and given command of a company of NZ troops. During the First Battle of El Alamein, Captain Upham VC continued to lead from the front and by the evening of 14th July 1942 he had already been wounded twice but continued to remain with his men. During an attack on El Ruweisat Ridge, he personally scouted ahead of his company to assess the initial phase of the attack, braving sustained fire to bring back the important information.

When his company was ordered into the main assault, it came under heavy fire from four machine gun positions and several tanks. He could be seen and heard above the great din of battle by his men and he rallied them at great personal risk to take the objective. Upham single-handedly destroyed several gun positions – surely his bread and butter by then – and added a tank to his ever-mounting tally. He was shot through the elbow during the attack which shattered his arm.

Eventually, weak from the loss of blood, he was finally removed from the field to the Regimental Aid Post but once his wounds were dressed he quickly returned to his men who were still under heavy fire. His company continued to hold off the numerically superior enemy forces throughout the day, but he eventually collapsed from exhaustion and further wounds. By this point, Upham’s company had been reduced to only six men and the position was eventually overrun leading to his capture. For these actions, Captain Charles Upham was awarded a second Victoria Cross after the war.

Once in captivity, Upham still had a willingness to fight the enemy. He made several attempts to escape his captors, once breaking an ankle jumping from a moving truck and once knocking himself unconscious after throwing himself off a high-speed train. Charles Upham ultimately ended up in the escape-proof Colditz Castle but once this fell into Allied hands, he attempted to re-arm and join an American unit.

Major-General Howard Kippenberger remarked, upon being asked by King George VI, that ‘in my respectful opinion, sir, Upham won the VC several times over.’ After learning of this man’s exploits I believe Kippenberger was bang on.

Further Reading
There are many books, websites, and television and radio programmes available on the Victoria Cross, but I highly recommend a book that I received for Christmas several years ago. It was written by, arguably, the leading authority on the VC, Lord Michael Ashcroft. Victoria Cross Heroes can be found by clicking on the link.

The Journey Begins

Thanks for joining me!

I am the type of person who needs to learn as much as possible about a topic that I am interested in. When I find a subject that interests me I latch onto it like a dog with a bone, tenaciously devouring every scrap of information that I can sink my teeth into. I have always been this way. In Primary One I was the class expert on dinosaurs, pirates in Primary Two and no one knew more than I did about sharks by Primary Three.

Throughout the years there have been many topics that have attracted my attention, from the Aztecs to the Zulus and everything in between. The unifying factor is, of course, history – all things fall under the delightfully colourful umbrella that is history. The beauty of studying history is that it is the all-encompassing discipline.

Herodotus may be widely regarded as the Father of History but history itself stretches as far back as time itself: all the way back to the Big Bang! Only at the quantum scale of physics, where time itself appears to break down, does history hold no relevance – but I will leave this for smarter people who understand such complex matters to explain it.

I have been fortunate in both my parents and the place that I was born. I was born and have lived my entire life in Scotland, a country famed for its (in)glorious history – the land of Robert Bruce, William Wallace, Robert Burns, James Clerk Maxwell, Walter Scott, Alexander Fleming, Adam Smith and Ewan McGregor. Scots have provided many wonderful gifts to the world, including: the pneumatic tyre; the steam engine; the telephone; radar; Encyclopædia Britannica; Sherlock Holmes; modern economics; Dolly the Sheep; golf; penicillin; insulin; the Bank of France; the Bank of England; the television; the refrigerator; the flushing toilet; colour photography; Irn Bru; the Grand Theft Auto games series and of course, Ewan McGregor – You’re welcome world! This list is only the tip of the iceberg too.

My parents have always encouraged my obsessions (and they were obsessions). With such a rich culture right on the doorstep my parents would take me across the country, visiting museums, castles, battlefields, stately homes and other visitor attractions. Mum, in particular, shares my love and fascination of Scottish history and I credit much of my nascent studies in the field of Scottish medieval history to her nurturing influence.

So, the question is why do I want to start a history blog in the first place? Firstly, I guess I want to share my interest in the human story with anyone who is willing to read and, dare I say, learn about it. Secondly, the blog provides me with a reason and an end goal to do the research that I enjoy so much. Thirdly, I do it, simply, for the Love of History!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

post