The Final Few

World War One ended on 11th November 1918. Of the war’s forty million casualties, a staggering 11,000 of them occurred on the final morning of the fighting. The US Marines alone sustained 10% of that number, sustaining 1,100 casualties.

When the German peace delegation arrived at Compiegne Forest to negotiate the terms for an armistice on 8th November, they found that the Allies were in no mood to negotiate. The Allied Supreme Commander, Ferdinand Foch, believed that there was no reason to negotiate and that the Germans should sign anything that was put in front of them. In this, Foch was ironically supported by the German government; the situation in Germany was such that the government feared civil unrest due to chronic food shortages caused by the Royal Navy’s blockade of German ports. The government ordered the delegation, led by Matthias Erzberger, to sign whatever was placed in front of him. At 05:10 AM, he signed the thirty-four terms of the armistice, as harsh as he may have believed them to be.

The war would officially cease at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Even though the commanders on both sides knew as early as 05:30 AM that the war would end in less than six hours, many of the generals ordered their troops to continue fighting. Some hoped to secure additional ground in case the armistice collapsed, and the fighting resumed. Other leaders simply wanted to land a few final blows on the enemy. Some artillery units ordered final barrages for no other reason than to avoid having to haul crates of unused ammunition to the rear once the guns fell silent.

One example of the determination of the Allies to maintain pressure on the Germans until the very last moment, whilst also strictly adhering to the Armistice terms, was Battery 4 of the US Navy’s long-range 14-inch railway guns. It fired its last shot of the war at 10:57:30 AM from the Verdun area. The gun crew had timed it so that the shell would land far behind the German front line only seconds before the scheduled Armistice.

George Edwin Ellison

Of the millions of heart-rending stories of sacrifice and loss to come from the Great War, perhaps that of the last British soldier killed during the fighting, Private George Edwin Ellis is the most moving.

By the autumn of 1918, Ellison of Leeds, England had become something of a legend amongst his squad. The 40-year-old career soldier was still alive and kicking after four gruelling years of trench warfare; this was practically unheard of. This was no small feat for a British Tommy on the Western Front. The British army had effectively been wiped out and reconstituted with fresh volunteers and conscripts several times over since the beginning of the conflict.

Ellison had fought in the British Expeditionary Force’s first actions in 1914 and would go onto surveive the bloody slaughter of the Battles of: Mons; First Battle of Ypres; Armentières; La Bassée; Loos; and Cambrai.

Tragically, it was on the very final day of fighting that the veteran’s luck finally ran out. At 09:30 AM George Edwin Ellison was shot dead in a firefight while on patrol in western Belgium. His death came only four hours after the war-ending Armistice was signed but ninety minutes before the 11:00 AM ceasefire was to take effect.

Ironically, the ill-fated soldier fell near Mons, the site of his very first battle four years and three months earlier. The British generals had ordered an assault on the town knowing full well that the war’s end was at hand. They believed that depriving the enemy of the ground upon which Britain had suffered its first defeat of the war was a symbolic victory too great to pass up. Donkeys leading lions, indeed.

Private George Edwin Ellison was laid to rest in a small cemetery near the town of Mons. By a strange coincidence, his plot faces the grave of the very first British soldier killed in the war – 17-year-old Private John Parr. The fact that the first soldier and the last soldier killed in the war lie facing one another shows the futility of the whole conflict and is a tragic example of the stalemate nature of the Great War.

Augustin-Joseph Trébuchon

Private First Class Augustin-Joseph Trébuchon was the final Frenchman to be killed in action during World War One. With the Armistice only fifteen minutes away, the former shepherd was making for the Allied lines along the Meuse River clutching what he believed to be a vital communiqué. At 10:45 AM, a sniper’s bullet found its mark, killing the 40-year-old Trébuchon instantly. This important message that he carried called for his comrades to muster for hot soup at 11:30 AM.

The French Army was embarrassed that it had sent men into battle after the Armistice had been signed. In their embarrassment, the French government recorded the deaths of all their soldiers on 11th November as occurring on 10th November.


Trébuchon was the last of 91 Frenchmen killed that morning on his part of the front.

George Price

The final man to fall from the British Empire was 25-year-old Private George Lawrence Price. Born and raised in Nova Scotia, Price moved to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan as a young man. He was conscripted in Moose Jaw in October 1917.

On the morning of 11th November 1918, Price’s battalion had driven the enemy across the bank of a canal in the Belgian village of Ville-Sure-Haine and at 09:00 AM they learned that the fighting would end. Acting on their own initiative, Price and a small group of soldiers crossed the canal to clear the houses on the opposite bank from the battalion. The group discovered a German machine gun crew who opened fire on them, but they took cover behind a wall. The Germans, aware that they had been outflanked, began to retreat. Private Price darted out onto the road in pursuit of the enemy and was struck in the chest by a rifle round. It was 10:58 AM.

Henry Gunther

At almost the same moment as George Price fell, 230 Km to the south in the Meuse Argonne sector, a 23-year-old American private named Henry Gunther was single-handedly charging a machine gun nest.

H. Gunther

The Baltimore native and son of German immigrants had been drafted into the US Army in September 1917. After serving as a supply sergeant, Gunther was busted down to private when a military censor reported him for criticizing the war in a letter home. Determined to win his stripes back, Gunther spent the final weeks of the war volunteering for dangerous assignments. With the war’s end just seconds away, the former bookkeeper fixed his bayonet and charged towards an enemy position as his comrades stayed in their foxholes. The Germans, realising that peace was imminent, frantically attempted to wave the American off but when he was within grenade-throwing range they were forced to open fire. Henry Gunther died at 10:59 AM. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the US military’s second highest award for valour, and restored to the rank of sergeant.

The Germans 

Information about the German casualties is more difficult to ascertain. In all, there were more than 4,000 German casualties in the war’s final morning. There seems to be no clear indication of which of them was the last to fall but some speculate that it may have been a junior officer called Tomas. According to one account, the young officer was struck down in a hail of gunfire by US troops several minutes after the truce while attempting to surrender the house he and his men were in the process of vacating. His killers were supposedly unaware that it was after 11:00 AM when he approached them.

The War to End All, Oh Wait!

Sadly, for millions, the unprecedented bloodletting of the First World War would continue long after November 1918.

Fighting would rage on in Russia between the Bolsheviks and counter revolutionary forces for another four years in the Russian Civil War. A multi-national expeditionary force consisting of British, American, French, Canadian, Italian and even Japanese forces formed part of the White Army which fought against the Red Army of the Bolsheviks.

The collapse of the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire sparked years of bloody nationalist unrest. The newly reformed country of Poland, for its part, would fight in five different wars with its neighbours in as many years.

Germany, too, was racked with civil unrest and political violence well into 1919.

Although the fighting stopped in November 1918, the First World War did not officially end until the Treaty of Versailles was signed in June 1919. The treaty imposed such harsh and crippling terms on the vanquished Germans that it allowed the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (Nazis) to take advantage of discontent in the country and eventually seize power. French Marshal Ferdinand Foch actually believed that the Treaty did not go nearly far enough and predicted that, “This is not a peace. It is an armistice for twenty years.” He was off by sixty-five days.

The Rest is History

How the Dominoes Fell – The Lead Up to World War One

The centenary of the end of the First World War is approaching. This war saw a change in warfare, from the hand-to-hand style of older wars to the inclusion of weapons that used recent technological advances and removed the individual from close combat. The first war to involve tanks, barbed wire, aeroplanes and machine guns in great quantities. Industrial slaughter for an industrial age. The war had extremely high casualty rates – over 15,000,000 dead and 20,000,000 injured.

One of the great tragedies of human history, the First World War could have been avoided… but, as is the case with so many things, hindsight is always 20/20. Perhaps the dominoes that fell were just too heavy to be stopped by the next… Such waste.

There were five main causes for the war: Mutual Defence Pacts; Imperialism; Militarism; Nationalism; and the immediate cause which was the assassination of an Archduke in the Balkans. We will have a look at each one in turn but before we can do that, we must first understand the transformation that was taking place in Germany in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The Rise of Germany

Prior to 1870, Germany consisted of several small kingdoms, duchies and principalities rather than one unified nation. During the 1860s, Prussia, led by King Wilhelm I and his prime minister, Otto von Bismarck, began a series of conflicts with the aim of unifying the German states under Prussian influence. The first of these wars was the Second Schleswig War fought in1864 between the German Confederation, headed by Prussia and the Austrian Empire, and Denmark. The Germans won the war and the territory of Schleswig-Holstein was ceded by the Danes. Following this, Bismarck turned on his former Austrian allies to eliminate their influence over the southern German states of the Confederation. The Austro-Prussian War was a swift and bloody victory for the Prussians, lasting only 6 weeks in the summer of 1866. The well-trained Prussian military (with the help of the Italians) quickly defeated their larger neighbour. Prussia annexed parts of other German states and dissolved the German Confederation and formed the North German Confederation in its stead with the exclusion of Austria from Germany.

Bismarck’s new state included Prussia’s German allies, while the states that had sided with the Austrians were pulled into its sphere of influence. All that was left for Bismarck’s grand vision of a united Germany was to unify these states into one country.

But he needed an excuse, a common enemy.

In 1870, opportunity knocked on his door after the new North German Confederation entered into a war with France after Bismarck had attempted to place a German prince upon the Spanish throne.  The Franco-Prussian War saw the Germans utilise their superior numbers, better training and leadership more efficiently than the French. They also made more efficient use of modern technological advances, particularly railroads and artillery. Basically, the French did not really stand a chance against this new juggernaut of Europe and within seven months the Germans had routed the French forces, captured Napoleon III and occupied Paris.

The kings, princes and representatives of the German states met in the Palace of Versailles on 18 January to proclaim their union as the German Empire under the Prussian King, uniting Germany as a nation-state. France was also forced to cede the territories of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany which badly stung the French and was a motivating factor for war in 1914.

The Tangled Web of Mutual Defence Pacts

Chancellor Bismarck of the newly unified German Empire set about protecting his new home from foreign attack. Very aware that Germany’s position in central Europe made her vulnerable, he began seeking alliances to ensure that her enemies remained isolated and that a two-front war would be avoided. The first of these was with his frenemy, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and Russia, known as the League of the Three Emperors. This did not last long, however, due to disagreements over the Balkans between Austria-Hungary and Russia and was replaced by the Dual Alliance with Austria-Hungary which called for mutual assistance if either of them was attacked by Russia.

In 1881, the Dual Alliance became the Triple Alliance when Italy joined the signatories to aid one another in the case of an attack from France. This was soon weakened after the Italians signed a secret pact with France stating that they would assist the French in the case of a German attack! Still concerned with Russia, Bismarck concluded the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887 with Russia, in which both countries agreed to remain neutral in the event of an attack by a third party.

In 1888, Kaiser Wilhelm I died and was succeeded by his more pompous and impulsive grandson (after a brief ninety-nine day rule by his son Frederick III), Wilhelm II. He and the aged Bismarck did not see eye to eye on much and so the latter resigned. As a result, the carefully constructed web of delicate treaties that Bismarck had built to ensure Germany’s protection began to unravel. The Reinsurance Treaty with Russia lapsed in 1890 and France jumped at the chance to encircle its old enemy. In 1892, France and Russia concluded a military alliance.


Wilhelm II began construction of a navy to rival that of Britain’s Royal Navy which Britain, naturally, did not like. They moved to form an alliance with the burgeoning power in the Far East, Japan, in 1902 to restrain German ambitions in the Pacific. This was followed in 1904 by the Entente Cordiale with France. Although not a military alliance, this agreement resolved many of the colonial differences between Great Britain and France. Due to further German militarism, Britain concluded an Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907 which tied British and Russian interest together and effectively formed the Triple Entente of Great Britain, Russia and France which was opposed by the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy (if they could decide who their friends were).

So, that is how we got the unlikely friendship between Britain, France and Russia and the delicate partnership of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy.

Web Alliance


Imperialism is when a country increases its power and wealth by bringing additional territories under their control. Come the outbreak of war in 1914, no one was as accomplished at empire building than the British with the French in second place. Kaiser Wilhelm II, jealous of his rivals, wanted a slice of this glory and wealth and for Germany to have her “place in the sun”.

Before World War One, Africa and parts of Asia proved to be points of contention among the European powers because of the raw materials that they could provide and tensions around these areas ran high.

Once Bismarck had left the scene in 1890, Germany adopted an aggressive imperialist foreign policy called Weltpolitik. The aim was to transform Germany into a global power through aggressive diplomacy, the acquisition of overseas territories, and the expansion of its navy. This marked a decisive break with the defensive Realpolitik practised by Otto von Bismarck who saw no real value in an overseas German Empire.

This new foreign policy of aggressive diplomacy nearly saw war with France on two occasions over Morocco and isolated Germany even further on the world stage. The ambitious Germans wanted influence in northern Africa and were ready to use force against the French if needs be. They acted aggressively and foolishly by sending a gun boat to protect German interests in Morocco during a local conflict involving French forces.

There were also land disputes in the Balkans in south-east Europe causing rivalry between the great powers of Europe. Without these land disputes and worry over German bellicosity, it is unlikely that France and Britain would have formed the Entente Cordiale.

All of the countries sought to better one another and be the most powerful. However, powers seeking greater empires would not have been such a big problem for European stability if it had not been for militarism.

The increasing competition and desire for greater empires led to an increase in confrontation and helped push the world closer to war.


As the world entered the 20th century, an arms race was already well under way.

An ambitious leader, Wilhelm II sought to elevate Germany to equal status with the other great powers of Europe. As a result, Germany entered the race for overseas territories, as mentioned above, with the goal of becoming an imperial power. To become an overseas empire though, Germany would first need a top-rate navy.

Wilhelm II began a massive program of naval construction after he was embarrassed by the German fleet’s poor showing at his grandmother’s, Queen Victoria, Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 1897. This sudden expansion in naval construction shocked Britain, who possessed the world’s largest navy. In 1906, Britain completed HMS Dreadnought, a battleship of such ferocity that it made existing battleships all but obsolete overnight. This only accelerated the naval arms race between the two, with each striving to build more tonnage than the other. A direct challenge to the Royal Navy, the Kaiser saw his fleet as a way to increase German influence and force Britain to meet his demands.


By 1914, Germany had the greatest increase in military accumulation, with the largest standing army in Europe and the second largest navy. Further, in Germany and Russia, particularly, the military establishment began to have a greater influence on public policy, which is never a good thing – just see the military-industrial complex of the United States and their endless quests for war currently!


While the European powers were posturing for colonies and greater arms, the Ottoman Empire was in deep decline. Once a powerful state that had, in centuries past, threatened European Christendom itself, by the early 20th century it had been labelled as the “sick man of Europe”. With the rise of nationalism in the 19th century, many of the ethnic minorities trapped within the empire’s boundaries began demanding independence. As a result, several new states, such as Montenegro, Romania and Serbia began to secede and emerge on the periphery of the receding Ottoman Empire. Sensing weakness, Austria-Hungary occupied Bosnia in 1878, officially annexing the territory in 1908.

This annexation of fellow Slavs sparked outrage in Serbia and Russia, permanently and irreparably damaging already tense relations between the countries. The Austro-Hungarians viewed Serbia as a threat, and for good reason: Serbia desired to unite all Slavic peoples, including those living in the southern parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This pan-Slavic sentiment was backed by the Russians who signed a military agreement to aid Serbia if the nation was invaded by their larger neighbours.

And the web entangles even further (palm, meet forehead)!

The Spark that set the World Alight!

It may come as no surprise to anyone to learn that the final spark that ignited this huge powder keg occurred in the Balkans. With the situation in the area already exceedingly tense, a plan was hatched by Serbian military intelligence to assassinate the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. He and his wife, Sophie, planned to make an inspection tour in Sarajevo, Bosnia on 28 June 1914.

While the first two assassins failed to act when the Archduke’s car passed by, the third threw a bomb which bounced off the car, exploding and injuring those in an accompanying vehicle. The Archduke wanted to visit the injured men at the hospital and as he did so, his car crossed paths with Gavrilo Princip, one of the assassins, who shot both Franz Ferdinand and his wife. Both died soon after.


The July Crisis – As shocking as the assassination of the heir to Austria-Hungary was, few in Europe thought that it would lead to a continental war. The Austro-Hungarians quickly learned of the details of the plot and used the assassination as an opportunity to deal with Serbia. Although desperate to take military action, the government in Vienna was hesitant due to concerns that any action would lead to Russian intervention. They turned to their allies and asked the Germans for their take on the situation. On 5 July, Kaiser Wilhelm downplayed the Russian threat and informed the Austrian ambassador that his country could count on full German support regardless of the outcome. This carte blanche assurance from the Germans shaped the Austro-Hungarians next moves.

With the backing of Berlin, the Austro-Hungarians undertook a campaign of intimidating diplomacy designed to bring about war between themselves and their smaller neighbour. The emphasis of this diplomacy was on an ultimatum presented to Serbia at 04:30 PM on 23 July. Ten demands, ranging from the arrest of the conspirators to allowing Austrian participation in the investigation. Failure to comply with all ten demands within forty-eight hours would result in war. Desperate to avoid conflict, the Serbian government sought aid from Russia. Tsar Nicholas II, feckless as ever, told them that they should accept the ultimatum and hope for the best.

On 24 July, with the deadline approaching, most of Europe began to awaken to the severity of the situation. Russia, looking out for their Slavic allies, asked for an extension to the deadline or the terms altered, whilst the British suggested a conference be held to prevent war. Shortly before the deadline was due, Serbia announced that it could accept nine of the ten terms but that it would not allow Austrian authorities to operate in their territory. The Austrians immediately broke off relations and the army began to mobilise for war. The Russians began to mobilise too.

At 11:00 AM on 28 July, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. As Europe began lurching towards a greater conflict, Nicholas of Russia opened communications with Wilhelm in an effort to prevent further escalation. German military officials secretly wanted war with Russia but were restrained as they wanted Russia to appear as the aggressors.

While the German military clamoured for war, the countries diplomats anxiously worked to keep Britain neutral. On 29 July German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg told the British ambassador that he believed his country would soon be at war with France and Russia. He also implied that German forces may violate Belgian neutrality. The 1839 Treaty of London bound Great Britain to protect Belgium and this meeting between the ambassador and the chancellor pushed the British government’s position to further support their entente partners.

In the small hours of 31 July, Russia began a full mobilisation of its forces in preparation for war with the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Germans used this as an excuse to mobilise its own forces even though it was scheduled to do so anyway (cheeky!). Concerned about the intensifying situation, the French President Raymond Poincaré urged the Russians to back down and not provoke war with Germany. Shortly thereafter, the French government was informed that if the Russian mobilisation did not cease then Germany would attack France! That seems a tad ridiculous!

The following day, 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia and began moving troops into Luxembourg in preparation for invading Belgium and France. In response, the French began mobilizing its military that day. On 2 August, Germany contacted the Belgian government requesting free passage through Belgium for its soldiers. This was refused by Belgian King Albert I as it would be a violation of their neutrality. In response Germany declared war on both Belgium and France on 3 August. Although it was unlikely that Britain would or could have remained neutral in the event of a German attack on France, its hand was forced when German troops invaded neutral Belgium. On 6 August, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia and six days later Britain and France declared war on them. By 12 August 1914, the Great powers of Europe were at war and over four years of bloody warfare that would see fighting all over the globe and eventually drag over 30 countries and their colonies into conflict was to follow.

To quote the English military historian, Sir Basil Liddell Hart, who served in the First World War himself:

Fifty years were spent in the process of making Europe explosive. Five days were enough to detonate it.

The Rest is History

“From Hell” – The Whitechapel Murders


With Halloween nearly upon us, I thought that this would be a good time to write a post on the most infamous horror mystery of them all: the Whitechapel Murders.

Between late August and early November 1888, a terror stalked the streets of the impoverished Whitechapel district of Victorian London. Its name was Jack the Ripper!

I would not consider myself a fan of the macabre but there is something about the Jack the Ripper tale that really appeals to me on some level… Does that make me strange? I don’t care if you think that it does. There is something that really gravitates me towards this mystery. I believe the story to be fascinating in a grotesque way; the sheer brazenness of the man utterly astonishes me.

Jack the Ripper is also sometimes known as the Whitechapel Murderer and both terms will be used to describe the fiend interchangeably throughout the piece.

From Hell


The parcel fell onto the desk of George Lusk, the Chairman of the newly formed Whitechapel Vigilance Committee. The paper containing whatever was inside appeared to be weeping. Lusk suspiciously eyed the small, seeping lump before opening and reading the accompanying letter which was personally addressed to him:

From hell.
Mr Lusk,
I send you half the Kidne I took from one women prasarved it for you tother piece I fried and ate it was very nise. I may send you the bloody knif that took it out if you only wate a whil longer
Catch me when you can Mishter Lusk

Lusk re-read the letter several times, trying to make sense of it. All the while, the small package laying on his desk becoming visibly damper.

His face as white as a ghost, Lusk finally set the letter aside and stared at the, now glistening, parcel. Slowly he peeled at the edges, pulled back the layers and to his horror saw what he feared: half of a human kidney.

This was the infamous “From Hell” letter. Over the course of the Whitechapel Murders there were hundreds of letters claiming to be from the murderer himself but only three of these received any serious consideration: the “Dear Boss” letter; the “Saucy Jack” postcard; and the “From Hell” letter. We will look at these in a little more detail later.

“The Nemesis of Neglect”

So, the question remains, how exactly had London reached such a piteous state that half of a human kidney was able to be delivered by express delivery to the desk of a man tasked with keeping an East End district safe?

In the mid nineteenth century, Britain had experienced a huge influx of desperate Irish immigrants who swelled the populations of the major cities, particularly the more deprived areas such as the East End of London. To add to this already engorged populace came Jewish refugees fleeing from pogroms in Tsarist Russia and other areas of Eastern Europe. Work and housing conditions worsened, and a significant economic underclass developed. Robbery, violence, lechery and alcohol dependency became the norm for many Whitechapel residents and the widespread poverty forced many women into prostitution.


As is so often the case, the economic problems were accompanied by a steady rise in social tensions with anti-Semitism, crime, social disturbance, racism and severe deprivation influencing public perception that Whitechapel was a notorious den of immorality (the sort of place that Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray would have got his jollies). These perceptions were only strengthened in 1888 when a series of brutal and grotesque murders attributed to Jack the Ripper received unprecedented media coverage. One Punch cartoon aptly named the Nemesis of Neglect portrays Jack the Ripper as the personification of social neglect, stalking the streets of Whitechapel.

So now we have an idea of the social environment that allowed the murders to take place, so let’s investigate the murders themselves, shall we?

The Murders


Eleven murders, stretching from 3rd April 1888 to 13th February 1891, were included in a London Metropolitan Police Service investigation and were known collectively as the “Whitechapel Murders”. However, opinions vary as to whether these murders should all be linked to the same culprit, but five of the eleven are widely believed to be the work of Jack the Ripper and these are known as the “canonical five”. These are the five murders that we will focus on and they were:

• Mary Ann Nichols – 31 August
• Annie Chapman – 8 September
• Elizabeth Stride – 30 September
• Catherine Eddowes – 30 September
• Mary Jane Kelly – 9 November

You may notice that two of these women, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes, were both killed on the same night. This was referred to as the “double event” in the “Saucy Jack” postcard but more on that later.

Let’s delve a little deeper into each murder and the characters belonging to the unfortunate victims.

Mary Ann Nichols – Nichols is thought to be the first victim of Jack the Ripper. The 43-year-old led a tragic life of destitution, unhappy relationships and alcohol dependency.

On the night of 30th August and the wee hours of the 31st Nichols was seen by multiple witnesses as she plied her trade and drank her way across Whitechapel. She was rejected from a boarding house at 01:30 AM for lacking the fourpence required for a bed for the evening. She was last seen alive standing on the corner of Osborn Street and Whitechapel Road at approximately 02:30 AM by her roommate, Emily Holland, whom she told that she had already earned enough money to pay for a bed three times over that evening but had repeatedly spent the money on alcohol. This alcoholism would prove to be detrimental to Nichols’ health, but not in the way one would usually associate with heavy drinking.

Nichols’ body was found lying on the ground outside a gated stable entrance in Buck’s Row at 03:40 AM. Her throat had been severed by two separate cuts and the lower abdomen was partly ripped open by a deep wound with several other incisions on the abdomen. No one in the area had reported hearing or seeing anything suspicious before the discovery of the body.


The attending surgeon determined that death would have been instantaneous from the slashes to the throat and that the abdominal injuries would have taken less than five minutes to perform and were made after she had been killed.

Annie Chapman – Chapman’s early life had not been as tragic as Mary Ann Nichols had been. However, her youngest child and only son had been born disabled and her eldest daughter died at the age of 12 from meningitis. After those very personal tragedies and hardships, both Annie and her husband took to excessive drinking and split in 1884. By 1888, Chapman had been living in Whitechapel for two years, earning money from crochet work (being a young man in the 21st century I had to look this one up – it looks like knitting) and casual prostitution. One acquaintance described her as “very civil and industrious when sober” but added “I have often seen the worse for drink”.

Much like the Whitechapel Murderer’s first victim, his second failed to afford lodging for the evening and so set out at 01:45 AM on 8th August to earn money on the streets.

One witness testified that she had seen Chapman talking to a man at about 05:30 AM just beyond the back yard of 29 Hanbury Street. The man was described as over forty and a little taller than Chapman with dark hair and of “foreign, shabby-genteel” appearance. He was wearing a deer-stalker hat (think Sherlock Holmes) and a dark overcoat.

The body of Annie Chapman was discovered just a little before 06:00 AM lying on the ground near a doorway in the back yard of 29 Hanbury Street. This time, however, something suspicious had been heard: voices in the yard followed by the sound of something falling against the fence had been heard at about 05:30 AM.

Annie Chapman’s body had been mutilated to a higher degree than that of Mary Ann Nichols a week earlier. A similar cut across her throat and a gash in her abdomen but Chapman’s intestines had been torn out and delicately placed on the ground over her right shoulder, although still connected to her body. The body was also missing her uterus and parts of her bladder and vagina. Lovely.

Elizabeth Stride – This was the first victim of what became known as the “double event” as Stride was the first of two victims of the Whitechapel Murderer on the night she was killed. However, both women will get their own segments so that their individual lives and deaths are not diminished by combining the two.


Stride was born in Sweden and, unlike, most of Jack the Ripper’s other victims did not fall into prostitution through desperation after failed marriages but rather took the profession up early in the city of Gothenburg. In 1866 she moved to London and married a man 13 years her senior and the two ran a coffee shop in the East End of London for a time. After separating from her husband, Stride lived in a common lodging-house in Whitechapel and the social reformer Dr Thomas Barnardo (yes, of Barnardo’s charity fame) claimed to have met her.

On the night of her murder Stride was seen with at least three clients. The final sighting was at 12:35 AM by a police officer who claimed to have seen Stride with a man who was wearing a hard felt hat opposite the International Working Men’s Educational Club, a socialist and predominantly Jewish social club. The man was said to be carrying a package around 18 inches in length. Elizabeth Stride’s body was found only 25 minutes later at 01:00 AM by the steward if the Worker’s Club in an adjacent yard with a wound in her neck, the blood still flowing from it. It appeared that she had been killed only moments before he arrived as members of the Club had been departing between 12:30 and 12:50 and had not seen nor heard anything suspicious.

It appears as if the murderer had been disturbed during his work. He had no time to “rip” at Elizabeth Stride. Less than one hour later a second victim was found within walking distance of the Stride crime scene.

Catherine Eddowes – Also known as “Kate Conway” and “Kate Kelly” after her two successive common-law husbands, Catherine Eddowes was born in Wolverhampton. She took up with an ex-soldier in Birmingham and they moved to London and had a daughter and two sons. Eddowes gave in to drinking and left her family in 1880 and took to the streets selling her body. Friends of Catherine Eddowes described her as “intelligent and scholarly” but added that she “possessed a fiery temper” and that she was “a very jolly woman, always singing.”

At 08:30 PM on 29th September, Eddowes was found lying drunk in the road and taken to Bishopsgate police station and detained until she was sober enough to leave at 01:00 AM. She was last seen alive at 01:35 AM by three men who had just left a club. They said that she was talking to a man at the entrance to Church Passage which led to Mitre Square. The man she was talking to was described as having a fair moustache and wearing a navy jacket, peaked cloth cap and red scarf. This description was subsequently doubted by Chief Inspector Donald Swanson.

A patrolling policeman walked down Church Passage very shortly after the witnesses had seen Eddowes and the man, but his beat had him double-back on the Passage without entering Mitre Square.

Catherine Eddowes was killed and mutilated in Mitre Square sometime between 01:35 and 01:45 AM. Yet another incredibly close call for the murderer.

At 01:45 AM, Eddowes’ body was discovered by the Square’s beat policeman who entered at 01:44 AM having been there only 14 minutes previously.

Like the previous four victims, Eddowes had been killed with a cut to her throat. Then the killer got to work. She was cut open from the chest to the upper thighs. Her intestines had been cut out and placed beside her body. Her reproductive organs had been mutilated and a kidney had been removed. The face had been cut and hacked at, one of her earlobes was cut off and the end of her nose was barely hanging on by a piece of skin.

If Jack the Ripper had failed to get the satisfaction of mutilating Elizabeth Stride’s corpse, he more than made up for it with the body of Catherine Eddowes that same night. The killer would not strike again for over a month so it’s quite possible that hacking at Eddowes’ corpse did, in fact, provide enough pleasure to satisfy his crazed mind for some time.

However, the worst was yet to come!

Mary Jane Kelly – Unlike the other Ripper victims, the final victim, Mary Jane Kelly’s origins are unclear and what little is known may have been fabricated by Kelly herself as there is little to no corroborating documentary evidence. It is likely that she was born in Limerick, Ireland and that her family moved to Wales when she was young.

In 1884, Kelly supposedly left Wales for London and found work in a brothel in the affluent West End. She was reportedly invited to France by a client but disliked her life there and returned to England within two weeks.

On the night of her murder, Kelly’s neighbour and fellow prostitute, Mary Ann Cox, reported seeing Kelly return home drunk in the company of a stout ginger-haired man wearing a bowler hat at about 11:45PM. The two wished each other a goodnight and Kelly went into her room with the man and started singing. She was still singing when Cox left at midnight and when she returned at 01:00 AM. Kelly’s upstairs neighbour reported that the singing had stopped by 01:30 AM.

One of the main witnesses to the Mary Jane Kelly murder was a labourer named George Hutchinson who reported that he had met the victim at 02:00 AM and she had asked him for a loan of sixpence. When he denied her the loan Hutchinson claims that Kelly went on her way and was approached by a man of “Jewish appearance”. Hutchinson later provided an exceptionally detailed description of the man right down to the colour of his eyelashes… which he could discern in the middle of the night…. Mmm? Perhaps this man’s story should be taken with a pinch of salt; which the police also thought. However, Hutchinson did explain that he overheard the two and he claimed that they headed for Kelly’s room at 13 Miller’s Court which was partly corroborated by another witness who reported seeing a man watching the entrance to Miller’s Court. Hutchinson claimed that he was suspicious of the man due to his wealthy appearance which was unusual in that neighbourhood.


Mary Ann Cox returned home again around 03:00 AM and reported hearing no sound and seeing no light from Kelly’s room. A faint cry of “Murder!” was heard around 04:00 AM but it was not uncommon to hear such things in the East End.

On the morning of 9th November 1888, Kelly’s landlord sent his assistant, ex-soldier Thomas Bowyer, to collect the rent from Kelly who was six weeks overdue. At 10:45 AM he came across a ghastly sight that he had never seen in all his days of soldiering: the wall behind the bed was sprayed with blood and on the bedside table was a pile of human flesh. There on the bed, barely identifiable as human, lay the virtually skinned down corpse of Mary Jane.

The mutilation of Mary Jane Kelly was the most brutal of any of the Ripper’s murders, almost certainly because he had more time to commit his atrocities in the privacy of a room, rather than in the street.

The subsequent post mortem report makes for some uncomfortable and disturbing reading, even today as accustomed as we are to graphic depictions of violence and bloodshed on television and in films:

The body was lying naked in the middle of the bed, the shoulders flat, but the axis of the body inclined to the left side of the bed. The head was turned on the left cheek. The left arm was close to the body with the forearm flexed at a right angle & lying across the abdomen. The right arm was slightly abducted from the body & rested on the mattress, the elbow bent & the forearm supine with the fingers clenched.

The legs were wide apart, the left thigh at right angles to the trunk & the right forming an obtuse angle with the pubes. The whole of the surface of the abdomen & thighs was removed & the abdominal Cavity emptied of its viscera.

The breasts were cut off, the arms mutilated by several jagged wounds & the face hacked beyond recognition of the features. The tissues of the neck were severed all round down to the bone.

The viscera were found in various parts viz: the uterus & Kidneys with one breast under the head, the other breast by the Rt foot, the Liver between the feet, the intestines by the right side & the spleen by the left side of the body.

The flaps removed from the abdomen and thighs were on a table. The bed clothing at the right corner was saturated with blood, & on the floor beneath was a pool of blood covering about 2 feet square…The face was gashed in all directions the nose cheeks, eyebrows and ears being partly removed. The lips were blanched & cut by several incisions running obliquely down to the chin. There were also numerous cuts extending irregularly across all the features.

The neck was cut through the skin and other tissues right down to the vertebrae, the fifth and sixth being deeply notched. The skin cuts in the front of the neck showed distinct ecchymosis. The air passage was cut at the lower part of the larynx through the cricoid cartilage.

Both breasts were more or less removed by circular incisions, the muscle down to the ribs being attached to the breasts. The intercostals between the fourth, fifth, and sixth ribs were cut through and the contents of the thorax visible through the openings.

The skin and tissues of the abdomen from the costal arch to the pubes were removed in three large flaps. The right thigh was denuded in front to the bone, the flap of skin, including the external organs of generation, and part of the right buttock. The left thigh was stripped of skin fascia, and muscles as far as the knee.

The left calf showed a long gash through skin and tissues to the deep muscles and reaching from the knee to five inches above the ankle. Both arms and forearms had extensive jagged wounds.

– Dr Thomas Bond

The poor quality black and white photographs of the crime scene are enough to turn anyone’s stomach once you realise what it is that you are looking at. I will add a photo of Mary Jane Kelly’s mutilated corpse at the end of the article for those curious to see. You have been warned!!!

The Investigation

What survives of the police files on the Whitechapel Murders reveals a detailed understanding of investigative procedure in the Victorian era. A large team of policemen conducted house-to-house inquiries throughout the area and forensic material was collected and examined. Suspects were identified, traced, and either examined more closely or eliminated from the investigation (modern police work pretty much follows the same processes). Throughout the investigation more than 2,000 people were interviewed, over 300 were investigated and an incredible 80 of those were detained.

The investigation was initially conducted by the Whitechapel Division of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), headed by Detective Inspector Edmund Reid. Soon after the murder of the first victim, Mary Ann Nichols, several detectives including Detective Inspector Frederick Abberline were sent from Scotland Yard to assist.

A group of volunteer citizens from the East End calling themselves the Whitechapel Vigilance Committee, headed by George Lusk, patrolled the streets looking for suspicious characters due to dissatisfaction with the police effort. These men were local businessmen who were worried that the murders and notoriety associated with them was having an adverse effect on local commerce (and here was me thinking that they were concerned about the women of Whitechapel!).

Criminal Profiling – You may already know this, but butchers, slaughterers, surgeons and physicians were suspected due to the nature of the cadaver dismemberments. It is worth noting here that the most prominent physician involved in the Jack the Ripper investigation, Dr Thomas Bond, believed the murderer to be an amateur with little scientific or anatomical knowledge.

It is from the investigation of the Whitechapel Murders that the earliest surviving account of criminal profiling comes from. Dr Thomas Bond’s assessment was based on his examination of the most extensively mutilated victim, Mary Jane Kelly, and the post mortem reports from the previous four canonical murders. He wrote:

All five murders no doubt were committed by the same hand. In the first four the throats appear to have been cut from left to right, in the last case owing to the extensive mutilation it is impossible to say in what direction the fatal cut was made, but arterial blood was found on the wall in splashes close to where the woman’s head must have been lying.

All the circumstances surrounding the murders lead me to form the opinion that the women must have been lying down when murdered and in every case the throat was first cut.

– Dr Thomas Bond

The Letters – Over the course of the Ripper murders, the police, newspapers and other agencies received thousands of letters regarding the case. Some were well-intentioned offers of advice, but the majority were useless. Many of these letters claimed to be from the killer himself but, as stated earlier, only three were ever taken seriously:

• “Dear Boss” Letter
• “Saucy Jack” Postcard
• “From Hell” Letter

The “Dear Boss” letter, dated 25th September was received by the Central News Agency and was forwarded to Scotland Yard. This was initially believed to be a hoax until three days later when Catherine Eddowes was found with one ear partially cut off, the letter’s promise to “clip the ladys (sic) ears off” gained attention. The name “Jack the Ripper” was first used in this letter by the signatory and gained worldwide notoriety.

The “Saucy Jack” postcard was received by the Central News Agency on 1st October. The handwriting was very similar to that of the “Dear Boss” letter. The postcard mentions that two victims were killed very close to one another: “double event this time”, which was thought to refer to the murders of Stride and Eddowes. Some have argued that the postcard was posted before the murders were publicised, making it unlikely that an eccentric would have knowledge of the crime…. But it was postmarked more than 24 hours after the killings took place, long after the details were known to local residents.


The “From Hell” letter was received by George Lusk on 16th October, over two weeks after the double murder of Stride and Eddowes. The handwriting and writing style is unlike that of the “Dear Boss” letter and “Saucy Jack” postcard. Along with the letter came a small parcel, in which Lusk discovered half of a human kidney preserved in ethanol (Catherine Eddowes’ left kidney had been cut away by the killer, remember).

Many decades after the killings, in 1931, a journalist named Fred Best confessed that he and a colleague had written the letters signed “Jack the Ripper” to heighten interest in the murders. It would explain why these letters were usually sent to a news agency. Like so many other aspects of this case it is unclear whether Best was telling the truth or if he just wanted his 15 minutes of fame in his twilight years. Personally, I believe that the only letter to be sent by the true killer was the “From Hell” letter which was sent to one of the men tasked with catching him. This, in my opinion, fits the bold character of the Whitechapel Murderer. The letter itself is quite chilling to just look at with its long, sharp strokes!

The Suspects – From a Prince to a Pauper

So, who was the Whitechapel Murderer? Who wrote the “From Hell” letter? Who stalked the parish of Whitechapel in the autumn of 1888, killing and mutilating prostitutes?

For the past 130 years men from every rung of society have thought to be responsible for the Ripper murders. Two particularly note-worthy but completely rubbished theories that have been proposed were that the murderer may have been either Lewis Carrol, of Alice in Wonderland fame, or Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence and Avondale who was Queen Victoria’s eldest grandchild and second in line to the throne.

Enough of the fanciful now though, let’s get down to some of the suspects who could truly have been the Whitechapel Murderer. Dozens of men have been named and Ripperologists (yes, that is a real thing!) all have their own theories (and this article is already long enough!) so we will focus solely on the men that may have been responsible for all five slayings and avoid those, for example like John Pizer, who had solid alibis for two of the murders.

Seweryn Klosowski – Poland born Klosowski emigrated to London shortly before the start of the murders, sometime between 1887 and 1888 and was hanged in 1903 for poisoning three of his wives. He changed his name to George Chapman around 1893.


During the time of the Ripper murders, Chapman worked as a barber in Whitechapel and according to a book written in 1930 about the Chapman murders, the author suggested that Abberline favoured him above all the other suspects. It was also reported after Chapman’s hanging in the Pall Mall Gazette that Abberline continued to suspect him. Many experts have, since, dismissed Chapman as a possible suspect due to the differences in the modus operandi which was poisoning rather than butchering. I don’t believe that Chapman can be dismissed as easily as that, however, and if Chief Inspector Frederick Abberline suspected the man then we should be very open to the idea that George Chapman may have been Jack the Ripper. He proved that he certainly had the capacity to take life on at least three occasions.

Montague John Druitt – Born in Dorset, Druitt was a barrister who also worked as an assistant schoolmaster in Blackheath, London. Druitt was named as a Ripper suspect by Assistant Chief Constable Sir Melville Macnaghten, after his decomposing body was pulled from the River Thames on 31st December 1888; the cause of death being suicide by drowning. Druitt was considered a prime suspect as his suicide took place just weeks after the murder and mutilation of Mary Jane Kelly on 9th November.

Shortly before his suicide, Druitt was released from his position as assistant schoolmaster, perhaps, as some modern historians believe, due to homosexuality which would have been enough reason to dismiss him at the time, and may have been enough to drive him to suicide!

Later on in the investigation, Inspector Abberline was believed to dismiss Druitt as a serious suspect due to a lack of any substantial evidence beyond the timing of his coincidental death.

William Henry Bury – Bury was one of the favourite Ripper suspects of the contemporaneous media, and for good reason. He was hanged in Dundee, Scotland for the murder of his wife but it was his actions after the murder that drew comparisons with the Ripper slayings. Bury had been living in Bow, London during the time of the Ripper murders, with his wife Ellen, a former prostitute herself, and the pair moved to Dundee soon after the death of Mary Jane Kelly.


On the night of 4 February 1889, Bury strangled Ellen to death with a rope; not what you’d expect from Jack the Ripper who was known to slash his victim’s throats. However, afterwards Bury inflicted several abdominal wounds with a penknife and stuffed his wife’s body in a trunk which he kept hidden in their flat for six days. On 10th February Bury reported Ellen’s suicide at the Dundee Central Police Station. He claimed that he had woken up the next day after drinking to find his wife on the floor with a rope around her neck. Rather than seek out medical help, Bury claimed that, he cut the body and hid it in the trunk that they had used to move their belongings from London. Bury expressed guilt about his intent to conceal the body but feared that he may be arrested as Jack the Ripper.

Shortly before his execution, Bury admitted to killing Ellen and on 22nd April he wrote a confession which claimed that he had strangled his wife in the midst of a drunken argument over money. He then stated that he tried to dismember the body the following day for ease of disposal but became too squeamish to finish the job. The statement differed from the post-mortem report which determined that the incisions were made “within at most ten minutes of the time of death”.

Unable to continue with the mutilation of his wife’s corpse, Bury decided to hide her body and then fearing that her disappearance would be noted, invented the story about her suicide. Despite extreme media suspicion, Bury adamantly denied any connection between himself and the Ripper murders. Police did investigate a possible link between Bury and the Whitechapel Murders, but found no substantial evidence and discounted him as a suspect.

Given that Jack the Ripper clearly took great pleasure from mutilation, it does seem unlikely that William Henry Bury who claimed that he could not carry out such an act without feeling nauseous was him. However, the jury is still out!

Thomas Hayne Cutbush – this young man had been a medical student (and so would have an intimate knowledge of the human anatomy) at the time of the Ripper murders in 1888 and was believed to be wandering the streets of London throughout this time.

While suffering from delusions thought to have been caused by syphilis, young Cutbush was sent to Lambeth Infirmary in 1891 where he was prone to rants including outbursts where he’d threaten to “rip” staff open with a knife. After stabbing a woman and attempting to stab a second (how was this man allowed to get his hands on anything sharp?!) he was committed to Broadmoor Hospital where he died in 1903.

The police never took the media’s speculation that Cutbush may have been Jack the Ripper seriously, although I reckon he is a serious contender going by what little information is known of him.

Jacob Levy – born in Aldgate, London Levy was a butcher by trade and in 1888 was living in Middlesex Street with his wife and children, which was right in the heart of Ripper territory. Levy contracted syphilis from a prostitute, making revenge a probable motive.

Curiously, one of the principal witnesses to Catherine Eddowes’ murder had reported that he saw the same man again, less than six weeks later… on Middlesex Street. Probably just a coincidence.

Additionally, one of the surgeons who had been present at Eddowes’ post-mortem had suggested that the killer’s knowledge of anatomy may have been possessed by someone in the habit of cutting up animals… like say, a butcher?

The true identity of Jack the Ripper may never be known but Jacob Levy, in my opinion, leads the pack of suspects.

I would love to delve deeper into those suspected of being the Whitechapel Murderer but there have been dozens named over the past 130 years so I have cut down this segment for brevity to focus more on the victims and their murders but if you are interested in learning more on the suspects and crimes themselves then I highly recommend Jack the Ripper by John Bennet and Paul Begg who perfectly re-create the crime scenes in a CSI kind of way and break down the forensics.


Believe it or not, and it feels a little disrespectful to even suggest it but, the Whitechapel Murders did have a silver lining. The nature of the murders and of the victims illuminated the poor living conditions in the East End of London and galvanised public opinion against the overcrowded and unsanitary slums. Within two decades of the murders, the worst of these slums were cleared and demolished

In popular culture too, Jack the Ripper and his (or her) legend have had a huge impact. Hundreds of works of fiction including novels; short stories; poems; graphic novels; games; songs; television programs; movies; and even operas feature the Ripper of Whitechapel. These murders are one of the most written about true-crime subjects.

Perhaps one of the most enduring aspects of the whole, sad and disturbing, tale is how legendary it has become; due, in no small part, to the mystery behind the killer himself. The image of Jack the Ripper has merged with symbols from other horror stories, such as Dracula’s cloak, Victor Frankenstein’s organ harvest, or the dual lives of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. No-one wrote Jack the Ripper, it really did happen – people lived and died throughout his brief reign of terror on the streets of Whitechapel. Jack the Ripper was a true-life horror story!

The Rest is History

Have a safe Halloween guys!


The Human Story – The Indus Valley Civilisation

Today we are going to take a close look at civilisation and a closer look at the oldest civilisation of them all, the Indus Valley Civilisation.

A civilisation is any complex society characterized by urban development, social hierarchy which is controlled by a social elite, symbolic systems of communication such as writing and a supposed separation from and command over the natural environment. You will recall from the last instalment of the Human Story series that the proto-cities of Jericho in the Levant and Jiahu in the far east had some of these characteristics but failed in possessing all of them: hence why they are not considered civilisations. Another way to look at the prerequisites for the status of civilisation is whether a society possess at least four of the following:

• Surplus of food
• Specialisation of labour
• Social stratification and centralised government
• Shared values (e.g. religion)
• Writing

Born of Water


The Indus Valley Civilisation, sometimes known as the Harappan, named after the first site of their discovery (Harappa), was a Bronze Age civilisation that lived and thrived in the flood plains of the north western regions of South Asia in what is modern north east Afghanistan, Pakistan and north west India. Along with Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia (both of which we will cover soon) the Indus Valley Civilisation was one of the three early cradles of human civilisation and the most widespread of the three.

This was just about the best place in the world to set up an ancient civilisation. The rivers reliably flooded twice every year and provided the most calories available per acre of land of almost anywhere on the planet. The slow southward migration of the monsoons across Asia initially allowed the Indus Valley villages to develop by taming the floods of the Indus and its tributaries. This flood supported style of farming led to large agricultural surpluses which, in turn, accommodated the development and growth of cities. It is likely that the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation did not develop irrigation technology as they did not need to, instead, relying mainly on seasonal monsoons leading to floods. This is what made the ancient Indus Valley region such a desirable piece of agricultural real estate: nutrient rich silt deposits were naturally spread across the flat, well-watered floodplains. Ironically, this reliance upon the monsoon and lack of irrigational knowledge may have led to the eventual downfall of the Harappan civilisation when the climate changed drastically, but we will come to that soon.

An Egalitarian Architectural Wonder

Everything that we know of the Indus Valley Civilisation has been discovered through archaeology. This culture did have a symbolic written system, however, no one, yet, has been able to decipher it and the secrets of the Harappan civilisation continue to remain a mystery. Want to make a name for yourself amongst the archaeo-linguistic scene? See if you can decipher the writing below:

IVC Language

What archaeologists and researchers have been able to uncover though is absolutely astonishing. The Indus Valley Civilisation created incredible cities, Mohenjo-Daro and Harappa being the two most well-known. As of 2018, archaeologists have discovered over 1,000 sites and settlements belonging to the Indus Valley Civilisation. It is estimated that Mohenjo-daro alone could have been the home to 50,000 residents.

These sites indicate that the Indus Valley Civilisation knew about advanced urban planning. The cities were laid out in dense multi-storeyed homes using standardised bricks stretching along perpendicular streets, rather than the usual erection of buildings in a hodge podge fashion found throughout history the world over. This level of urban planning would have required some form of city civic planning. Perhaps even more incredible than the standardised layout of the cities was the orientation of the layout. The larger cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation were designed in such a way as to catch the wind and create a natural form of air-conditioning! It amazes me to think of the forward planning and ingenuity that must have gone into these cities at such an early stage of their development.

The advanced architecture of this civilisation is shown in the impressive dockyards, warehouses, granaries and protective walls. The massive walls of the Indus Valley Civilisation were most likely used to protect the people from floods and may also have dissuaded military conflict.

There is one huge cultural architectural anomaly of the Harappan that sets them in stark contrast to their Egyptian and Mesopotamian contemporaries. There is a serious lack of monumental structures to be found in the Indus Valley. There is no conclusive evidence of temples or palaces which suggests that there was possibly not even kings or priests and amazingly there is a lack of evidence for armies too.

The largest building discovered at Mohenjo-Daro is not a temple, nor was it a palace. It is a giant public bath known as the Great Bath and it is the earliest known water tank of the ancient world. No one knows for sure what the Great Bath was used for, but scholars generally agree that it was most likely the centre piece in religious functions where water was used to purify and renew the well being of the bathers. Perhaps it was some sort of large baptismal pool. Later Indian culture placed huge emphasis on ritual purity which is the basis of the caste system still in use today. I don’t think that it is a massive leap of faith to assume that this may have its origins in the Mohenjo-Daro Great Bath rituals…. although it probably does not.

Great Bath

Most city dwellers appear to have been traders or artisans living with others pursuing the same occupation in well defined neighbourhoods. Although some houses were larger than others, Indus Valley Civilisation cities are noteworthy for their apparent egalitarianism. It appears that almost every home had access to water and drainage facilities, including flushing toilets which were connected to a sophisticated sewage system that carried waste away from the cities using big sewer ditches that ran under the main streets. (The sewerage and drainage systems that developed in this region was far more advanced than any found in urban cities in the contemporary Middle-East and even more efficient than those found in many parts of modern Pakistan and India.) This gives the impression of a society with a relatively low wealth concentration, though there are clear signs of social levelling seen in personal possessions and decorations. Perhaps the wealthy of the Harappan were content to keep it to themselves and not flaunt it in the faces of the less well off.

Peaceful Traders

There is substantial evidence to suggest that the Harrapan traded far and wide. Archaeologists have discovered materials from distant regions used in the Indus Valley for constructing seals, beads and other objects. Soapstone seals with images of animals, people (perhaps deities), and other types of inscriptions (including writing that has yet to be deciphered). Some of these seals were used to stamp clay onto trade goods as identification markers and have been found as far afield as Mesopotamia in the Middle East. Bronze and the materials used for making bronze have been discovered in the Indus Valley region. So, what I hear you ask? Well, neither bronze, nor the materials used to manufacture it are native to the Indus Valley region, so they must have been traded for.


What exactly did the Indus Valley Civilisation have to trade? Their main export was cotton cloth. The farmers of the Indus Valley were the first people to spin and weave cotton. In 1929 archaeologists recovered fragments of cotton textiles at the Harappan city of Mohenjo-Daro, dating to between 3250 and 2750 BCE. The Indus cotton industry was well developed and some of the methods used in cotton spinning and fabrication continued to be used until the industrialisation of India in the early nineteenth century. That’s over 5,000 years!! Well, I guess if it’s not broken then don’t try to fix it.

Toys IVC.jpg

The Indus Valley Civilisation, aside from being incredible city developers and cotton merchants, were an unbelievably peaceful society. Over 1,000 sites have been uncovered but very little evidence of warfare or even weaponry have been found. Archaeologists have discovered more children’s toys than swords or spears in the Indus Valley region. I think that there is a lesson for the whole world here.

What Happened?

Around 1900 BCE the Indus Valley Civilisation began to decline until it eventually faded into historical obscurity 200 years later. So, what happened to these peaceful people? Several theories have been put forward to explain the disappearance of the ancient Indus Valley people. The first is that they were conquered. It is possible that the Harappan were overrun by people invading east from the Caucasus and they had little weapons with which to fight back. The second theory is that an earthquake changed the course of the rivers so much that many of the tributaries dried up. Without the adequate water supply for irrigation the cities could not sustain themselves, so the people simply left. The third (and most probable) explanation is another type of environmental disaster: aridification. It is quite possible that aridification of the region in the third millennium BCE may have been the initial spur for urbanisation. However, this drying of the region never ceased and eventually reduced the water supply enough to cause the civilisation’s demise and forced the population to migrate further eastward in search of water supplies.

Whatever caused the eventual decline of the Indus Valley Civilisation, it is one of history’s great tragedies that such a peaceful, innovative, egalitarian and prosperous people succumbed at such an early stage of the human story.

The Rest is History

Next time we will be travelling west to the ancient lands of Mesopotamia where we will learn of the epic struggle between urban life and wild life. See you then.

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

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution
  3. Early Settlement

“Not One Step Back” – The Battle of Stalingrad

Considered by many historians to be the largest and bloodiest battle in history, the Battle of Stalingrad was undoubtedly hell on earth for those who fought it and the civilians who lived and died throughout the conflict. Fought between 23rd August 1942 and 2nd February 1943, it is estimated that between 1.8 and 2 million people lost their lives.

The battle is generally considered to be the turning point of World War II in Europe: the point at which the allies finally halted the unstoppable juggernaut that was the German Wehrmacht. The German army was bled dry at Stalingrad and German High Command was forced to pull troops from other theatres of the war to replace the manpower lost in the rubble of the ruined city. One of the great ironies of the war was that the German Sixth Army need not have gotten itself entangled in the city in the first place as other German forces were well on their way to the Caucasus and Caspian oilfields when Hitler gave the order to capture the city which bore the name of his ideological adversary.

During the opening stage of the war on the Eastern Front, the Soviets had experienced heavy losses along with mass retreat and desertion. Less than one month before the attack on Stalingrad on 28th July 1942 Joseph Stalin issued Order No. 227 to re-establish order and discipline in the Red Army. It is famous for the line “Not one step back!” which became a Soviet slogan of resistance.

Attack on the City

Despite the failure of Operation Barbarossa to decisively defeat the Soviet Union in a single campaign, the Wehrmacht had succeeded in capturing vast expanses of Soviet territory, including Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics. With the initial operations being very successful, the Germans decided that their summer offensive in 1942, codenamed Case Blue, would focus on the southern parts of the Soviet Union. The initial objectives were the region’s strategically important natural resources: the coalmines of the Donets Basin and the oilfields outside Maykop, Grozny and Baku.

En Route

On 23rd July, Hitler personally rewrote the operational objectives for the campaign, greatly expanding them to include the occupation of the city of Stalingrad and the destruction of its industrial capacities. This expansion of objectives was a substantial factor in Germany’s failure at Stalingrad, caused in no small part by Hitler’s hubris and German underestimation of Soviet reserves. Both sides began to attach propaganda value to the city simply because it bore Stalin’s name. It was assumed that the capture of Stalingrad would secure the northern and western flanks of the German armies as they advanced on Baku, with the aim of capturing the Caspian petroleum resources for the Third Reich.

The battle began with heavy bombing from the Luftwaffe. Generaloberst Wolfram von Richthofen’s (cousin of Manfred von Richthofen, the World War One aerial ace, also known as the Red Baron) Luftflotte 4 air fleet dropped 1,000 tons of bombs in 48 hours! Some 400,000 civilians were trapped inside the city as Stalin, in very characteristic fashion for lack of empathy and human suffering, had prevented the civilian population from evacuating in the belief that their presence would encourage greater resistance from the city’s defenders. Much of the city was quickly turned to rubble, although some factories continued production: incredibly, the Tractor Factory continued to produce T-34 tanks until the German troops were through the doors.

Soviet reinforcements were rushed to the east bank of the River Volga, many from as far away as Siberia. The Luftwaffe, who had complete control of the skies, destroyed all the regular ferries before targeting troop barges being slowly towed across the river by lumbering tugs.

Civilian Defender’s

Prior to the attack on the city, the Soviets realized that there were tremendous constraints of both time and resources and ordered that anyone strong enough to hold a rifle be sent to fight – the lucky ones would receive said rifle. Civilians, including women and children, were put to work building trenchworks and defensive fortifications in and around Stalingrad.

Incredibly, the initial defence of the city fell upon the 1077th Anti-Aircraft Regiment which was a unit made up of mostly young female volunteers who had no training for engaging ground targets. Despite this, the AA gunners stayed at their posts and bravely fought the advancing Panzer tanks. The 16th Panzer Division reportedly fought the AA gunners “shot for shot” until all 37 AA guns were destroyed or overrun. The men of the 16th Panzer were shocked to find that they had been fighting female soldiers.

Poorly armed worker’s militias composed of civilians not directly involved in war production were organized by the NKVD (Stalin’s secret police) in the early stages of the battle. These civilians were often sent into battle without rifles, presumably as human shields to soak up German ammunition; poor souls of one totalitarian regime sent to die in front of the guns of another totalitarian regime. Staff and students from the technical university displayed great courage and ingenuity in forming a tank destroyer unit. They assembled tanks from leftover parts at the Tractor Factory and, unpainted and lacking gunsights, drove them straight from the factory floor to the front line.

Street Fighting Men

German High Command had intended to avoid urban, street-to-street conflict where possible. However, with the prize of Stalin’s city on the line this seemed an impossibility and the fighting soon degenerated into some of the most brutal close-quarter combat since the invention of gunpowder. German military doctrine was based on the principle of combined arms: close cooperation between tanks, infantry, engineers, artillery and the air force. The Soviets adopted the tactic of always keeping their front-line forces as close as possible to the Germans to counter the advantage that the Germans had in supporting fire. Vasiliy Chuikov, commander of the 62nd Army, called this tactic “hugging” and it proved to be very effective.

The Red Army converted multi-floored apartment blocks, factories, warehouses, street corner residences and office buildings into a series of well defended strongpoints manned with 5-10 soldiers. Stalingrad had become an impregnable wasteland of rubble, military detritus and mini fortresses. Bitter fighting raged for every street, factory, ruined house, basement and even staircase. The battle was even taken below the city and into the sewer, with the Germans calling this underground urban warfare RattenKreig (Rat War).

Each building had to be cleared room by room. German soldiers bitterly joked about capturing the kitchen but still needing to fight for the living room and the bedroom. Some of the taller buildings in the city even experienced vicious floor-by-floor combat with Germans and Soviets on different levels of the building firing at each other through holes in the floors.

Fighting on and around the Mamayev Kurgan, a prominent hill south of the industrial sector in the north of the city, was particularly merciless with the position changing hands many times. This hill would later play a pivotal role in the battle.

In another part of the city, Sergeant Yakov Pavlov led a Red Army platoon who had fortified a four-story building that oversaw a square 300 metres from the river bank. This building was later known as Pavlov’s House. The soldiers surrounded the structure with minefields, set up machine-gun positions at the windows and breached the walls in the basement for better communications. The soldiers found about ten civilians hiding inside the basement of the house. These soldiers held their ground for two months without relief. As testament to the doggedness of the defenders, Pavlov’s House was labelled Festung (Fortress) on German maps.


Aside from the prospect of close quarter combat at any moment whilst on the front line was the terror of being shot from afar. Both sides used snipers to inflict casualties in the ruined city. The most famous Soviet sniper of the battle was Vasily Zaytsev with 225 confirmed kills. The 2001 film Enemy at the Gates, stars Jude Law as a fictionalised version of Zaytsev.

Operation Uranus

After three months of bitter fighting through the streets of Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht finally reached the banks of the river Volga in November 1942, capturing 90% of the city and splitting the Soviet forces into two narrow pockets. Despite this, fighting, especially on the slopes of Mamayev Kurgan and inside the factory area, continued. The German 6th Army had already lost 60,548 men, including 12,782 killed on reaching the banks of the river by 20th November.

By this time, ice floes had begun to appear on the Volga. Recognising that the Axis troops were ill prepared for offensive operations during the winter, the Stavka (Soviet High Command) decided to conduct several offensive operations themselves.

Snow Tank

The other Axis powers of Italy, Hungary and Romania also had forces in the south of Russia. These troops were generally less-well equipped, less-well trained and less-well fed than their counterparts in German uniform. This, unsurprisingly, led to poor morale within the ranks of these armies. Red Army Marshal Georgy Zhukov stated that “Compared with the Germans, the troops of the satellites were not so well armed, less experienced and less efficient, even in defence.” These were the troops who were tasked with protecting Army Group B’s flanks and they were thinly stretched. It was not uncommon, for example north of Stalingrad, to find a single Hungarian platoon (approximately 40 men) defending a stretch of 1-2 kilometres. Similarly, the southern flank was held only by the Romanian 4th Army and beyond that, a single German division (10,000 -20,000 men) covered 400 kilometres. These numbers demonstrate how wildly massive the Eastern Front was.

German General Friedrich Paulus had requested permission to withdraw the 6th Army behind the relative safety of the river Don. His request was rejected outright by Adolf Hitler. This would prove to be one of the Fuhrer’s many costly mistakes over the war.

On 19th November, the Red Army launched Operation Uranus. Thinly spread, deployed in exposed positions, poorly equipped and outnumbered, the Romanian 3rd Army, which held the northern flank of the German 6th Army was overrun. No preparations had been made to defend key points behind the front lines and the response of the Germans was indecisive with poor weather conditions preventing the Luftwaffe from staging an effective air action against the Soviet offensive.

“Compared with the Germans, the troops of the satellites were not so well armed, less experienced and less efficient, even in defence.” – Marshal Zhukov

The next day, on 20th November, the Soviets launched a second offensive to the south of Stalingrad, focusing on points held by the Romanian 4th Army. This Romanian force too was swept aside with relative ease by large numbers of Soviet tanks. The two Soviet forces raced west and linked up on the 23rd November at the town of Kalach 72 kilometres west of Stalingrad. The German 6th Army was now cut off from their comrades and surrounded in what they referred to as a Kessel or cauldron.

The Kessel

The surrounded Axis personnel comprised nearly 300,000 Germans, Romanians, Italians, Croatians and Soviets who had volunteered for the German army. Army Group Don was hastily formed under Field Marshal Erich von Manstein who advised Hitler not to order the 6th Army to break out, stating that he could break through the enemy lines and relieve them. This advice, along with Hermann Göring’s boast that the Luftwaffe could supply the besieged troops with an air bridge sealed the 6th Army’s fate.

On November 27th, Paulus thought to assuage his beleaguered troops by concluding with the slogan “Hold on! The Fuhrer will get us out!” The Russian winter and heavy shelling of the airfields hampered the Stalingrad air bridge and the men trapped inside the Kessel began to suffer visibly from shortages in food and munitions.

The Soviets consolidated their forces around Stalingrad and fierce fighting to shrink the pocket began. Army Group Don undertook Operation Winter Storm in order to relieve the trapped 6th Army and it was initially successful. By 18th December, von Manstein’s forces had pushed the Soviets back to within 48 kilometres of the 6th Army’s positions. The starving and encircled Axis forces made no attempt to reach the relief army. Some German officers requested that Paulus defy Hitler’s orders to stand fast and instead attempt a break out, but Paulus refused. On the 23rd December, von Manstein’s forces abandoned the attempt to relieve Stalingrad and went, instead, on the defensive against continued Soviet onslaughts. It was noted by Zhukov that “The military and political leadership of Nazi Germany sought not to relieve them, but to get them to fight as long as possible so as to tie up Soviet forces.” German High Command sought to gain as much time as possible in order to withdraw forces from the Caucasus and redeploy troops to form a new front to check a Soviet counter-offensive.

The Stavka began a massive propaganda campaign at the end of November in an attempt to persuade the Axis forces to surrender. Aircraft dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets describing the hopelessness of their situation and a delegation of German communist exiles broadcast political messages over loudspeaker. These attempts proved futile. On 6th January, two weeks after Army Group Don aborted its relief operation, General Rokossovsky offered Paulus terms for an honourable surrender. Paulus chose to ignore the deal.

The Soviet’s final push to crush the encircled German troops began on 10th January 1943. Pushing from the west, soldiers on the Don Front drove the enemy back into the city, whilst at the same time, troops intensified attacks from the banks of the Volga. On 26th January the two forces joined at the Mamayev Kurgan hill, cutting the German forces into two separate Kessels, one in the north, the other in the south of the city. General Paulus was repeatedly forced to give up his quarters during the retreat further into the city.

On January 30th, the tenth anniversary of Hitler’s coming to power, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels read a proclamation that included the sentence: “The heroic struggle of our soldiers on the Volga should be a warning for everybody to do the utmost for the struggle for Germany’s freedom and the future of our people, and thus in a wider sense for the maintenance of our entire continent.” Hitler promoted Paulus to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall. The implication was clear: no German field marshal had ever surrendered and if Paulus were to do so he would shame himself as the highest ranking German officer ever to be captured. Hitler expected Paulus to choose suicide over disgrace.


In the morning hours of January 31st, a German officer emerged from a department store in the aptly named Square of Fallen Soldiers with a white flag and offered terms of surrender. A group of Red Army officers were escorted into the basement where Paulus’ army staff were assembled (minus Field Marshal Paulus himself) and discussed the terms of surrender. The south Kessel had fallen but the soldiers trapped in the north Kessel in the Tractor Factory held out until 2nd February.

Around 91,000 exhausted, ill, wounded and starving soldiers were taken prisoner, including a whopping 22 generals. Hitler was apoplectic and reportedly stated that Paulus could have “freed himself from all sorrow and ascended into eternity and national immortality, but he prefers to go to Moscow.”

Aftermath of Carnage

The disaster at Stalingrad marked the first time that the Nazi government publicly acknowledged a failure in its war effort, although the public was not officially told of the imminent catastrophe until the end of January. On February 18th, Goebbels gave his famous Sportpalast speech, encouraging Germans to adopt a total war that would claim all resources and efforts from the entire population. With the prospect of the “Bolshevik hordes” from “Asia” threatening to cross into Europe, fighting on seemed like the only way out for the terrified population. Which they did, with greater intensity than before, as the war raged for a further two years.

Of the 91,000 Prisoners of War captured in the Kessel it was not until 1955 that the last of the 5,000-6,000 survivors were repatriated to West Germany. The other 85,000 men became casualties of ruthless Stalinist policies.

When Red Army troops recaptured Stalingrad, they counted 7,655 civilian survivors who had miraculously survived in the ruins of the frozen city. As the clean-up began, mass graves filled with residents that the Germans had executed were discovered. Several thousand German prisoners were put to work in February 1943, clearing bodies and defusing bombs and would eventually help rebuild the city that they had destroyed.

The Rest is History

For a more in-depth look into the Battle, I highly recommend Stalingrad by Antony Beevor which I listened to as an audiobook.

The Human Story – Early Settlement

Last time we discovered that the Agricultural Revolution stimulated a massive shift in human activity: agriculturalists manipulated the environment to suit their needs rather than adapting themselves to the environment. With their newly discovered control over the food surplus, these farming folks were able to begin creating settlements. However, thousands of years passed before civilisations began to spring up across the great River valleys of Afro-Eurasia. What came after humans had settled but before the early great civilisations?

Here we will have a look at three Neolithic archaeological sites and their significance and importance in paving the road to civil societies. This article will be a little shorter than usual and should be regarded as more of a supplemental to the previous, Agricultural Revolution, post.

Before we start it is important to understand the importance of the proto-city. A proto-city was a large village or town of the Neolithic period which exhibited features of both rural and urban life. A proto-city is distinguished from a true city in that it lacks planning and, or centralized rule. For example, Jericho had a class system but no roads, while Çatalhöyük seemingly lacked any social hierarchy. This is what distinguishes proto-cities from the first city-states.

Now onto the important stuff.

Göbekli Tepe

Göbekli Tepe changes everything! Some archaeologists and researchers believe that these interconnected structures in southern Turkey were built by hunter-gatherers. If they are correct then it would mean that the ability to construct monumental complexes was within the capacity of these types of groups, overturning previous assumptions.


The site dates to 12,000 years ago and consists of pillars of varying size with reliefs of many varied animals such as lions, bulls, boars, gazelles, donkeys, insects and arachnids, snakes, other reptiles and birds, particularly vultures. Some of these pillars and the artwork are very impressive indeed (I mean, just look at that sculpture ->), even more so when considering that the artisans were most likely stone age hunter-gatherers. Wow!

The lead archaeologist of the German team excavating Göbekli Tepe was Klaus Schmidt who believed that the site was not a settlement but rather a sanctuary or shrine where people from a wide region would periodically congregate. He argued that Göbekli Tepe may have contributed to the later development of urban civilisation, saying: ‘First came the temple, then the city.’


‘When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city.’ Joshua 6:20

Almost everyone knows of or has at least heard of the Walls of Jericho (any WWE fans out there?) and how the Israelites conquered the city with the help of a little divine intervention. By the time that Joshua’s band of Israelites captured the city some 3,400 years ago, Jericho as a settlement was already ancient by any standard.

The land where Jericho, the proto-city, was eventually built was within close proximity to both the Jordan River and the deep, clear waters of an oasis spring which led to repeated settlement prior to Jericho itself. The original Wall of Jericho was either a defensive or flood protection wall thought to date to approximately 10,000 years ago! If interpreted as a defensive fortification wall, then it is the oldest city wall thus far discovered anywhere in the world. This Neolithic wall was complemented by a stone tower built into it. It is estimated that the wall would have stood at roughly 15 feet high with the tower looming over it at a height of 28 feet. The height of the wall, the thickness of the wall (approximately 6 feet) and the addition of the stone tower, suggests that it was used as an urban fortification. The construction of such a project implies some sort of social structure, the division of labour and a social hierarchy class system: just as we saw when we looked at the Agriculture Revolution last time.


The ruins that have been excavated at Jericho indicate that the proto-city was governed by a distinct ruling class and that they were almost certainly closely connected to the priests. There were sophisticated artisans and most likely a small merchant class too. Though the economy of Jericho was based primarily upon the farming of wheat and barley, there is considerable evidence to suggest a reliance upon both hunting and trade. From these archaeological discoveries, we can see that the people of Jericho were not quite ready to fully cut the ties with their hunter-gatherer roots.

Now it is time to travel east to the Henan Province of modern China to learn of a people who may have been the first to discover things that we take for granted nowadays.


Jiahu was the site of a Neolithic settlement based on the central plain of China near the Yellow River. This area was originally settled around 9,000 years ago by a complex and highly organised society and would have been home to at least 250 people and perhaps as many as 800.

There are three very important and exciting discoveries attributed to the people who lived in the Jiahu settlement. The first of these are the Jiahu Symbols which may (or may not) be one of the world’s earliest examples of written language, dating back to approximately 8,600 years ago. Some scholars believe these 16 markings to be similar in form to some characters used in the much later Oracle Bone Script (the earliest known form of Chinese writing from the late 2nd millennium BCE). However, others have disputed this claim and do not believe that the markings represent any form of systematic writing but are merely etchings for decorative purposes.

The second of these incredible discoveries are the Jiahu Flutes: thirty-three flutes which have been delicately carved from the wing bones of cranes and are believed to be the oldest playable musical instruments in the world. The third and final discovery from the Jiahu settlement is evidence of an early fermented beverage. This alcoholic drink was created by combining rice, honey, hawthorn fruit and, or grapes and the residue found embedded on pottery vessels is dated at 9,000 years old. This Jiahu concoction is thought to be the oldest known fermented wine to date. And wine and other alcoholic beverages have been fuelling terrible decisions ever since!


And The Rest is History

I hope that you are excited to learn about the Great River Valley Civilisations as those will take up the next three instalments of the Human Story. Next time we will visit the incredible inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilisation and learn a little about ancient Indian toilets! See you then.

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

  1. The Wise Man’s Journey
  2. The Agricultural Revolution


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.


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.

• 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.

• 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.


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?


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.


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