Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

European History

British soldier with experimental body armor meeting with his medieval counterpart; ca. October 1917

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Before the First World War, no military used true protective helmets; Pith helmets and Pickelhaubes technically are helmets, but offer very little protection against bullet fragments and shell splinters. Similarly, any armor used previously to the First World War would be of medieval-inspired designs, for instance in the armor found on heavy cavalry. Even the French helmet from that conflict was designed with medieval aesthetics in mind.

In the First World War context, modern body armor would have primarily been used for machine gunners and others in static positions exposed to heavy small arms fire. This, though, is the most modern in appearance and design that I’ve seen – the groin protector is surprisingly sophisticated.

The First World War was the true introduction of so much modern military equipment on a vast scale: helmets and body armor designed for modern threats, gas masks, tanks, fighter and bomber aircraft, light machine guns, submachine guns, semi-automatic battle rifles, and more. The Second World War, with the exception of the nuclear bomb, offered more incremental improvements than revolutionary ones.

The preserved body of Royal Navy stoker John Torrington who died in 1846 during Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition in the Canadian Arctic; ca. 1984

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Petty Officer John Shaw Torrington (1825 — 1 January 1846) was an explorer and Royal Navy stoker. He was part of an expedition to find the Northwest Passage, but died early in the trip and was buried on Beechey Island.

Torrington was a part of Sir John Franklin’s final expedition to find the Northwest Passage, a sea route to Asia, via the northern edge of North America. They set off from Greenhithe, England in two ships, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, on 19 May 1845. The trip was expected to last about three years, so the ships were packed with provisions which included more than 136,000 pounds of flour, 3,684 gallons of high-proof alcohol and 33,000 pounds of tinned meat, soup and vegetables. However, after late July no one heard from or saw the crew again.

Since Torrington was one of the earlier of Franklin’s crew members to perish during the arctic expedition, he was buried in a tomb beneath approximately five feet of permafrost by his fellow men.

As a result of the subzero arctic temperatures, Torrington was preserved remarkably well with identifiable features including bright, pale blue eyes and skin that was still intact despite bruising and yellowing. A fellow crew member who had died around the same time and was buried next to Torrington also showed minimal signs of decomposition.

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A full, four-hour autopsy was performed on Torrington’s body in 1984 with the permission of living descendants. The procedure was performed out in the open arctic air; it consisted of dissecting and sampling each of the body’s organs,bone examination, and extraction of hair, and nail samples for analysis. The autopsy team then re-dressed and re-buried the body in its arctic tomb.

Torrington had developed a fatal case of pneumonia prior to the disappearance of Franklin’s expedition. Bone tissue samples taken from the body in 1984 also revealed that Torrington had lead poisoning; a common condition of arctic explorers of the time due to early canned foods as a primary food source. Additionally, inspection of the lungs also indicated that Torrington was likely a cigarette smoker, a plausible theory as he came from an industrial region of Britain. The lead poisoning and history of smoking would have worsened the symptoms and severity of pneumonia thereby leading to Torrington’s demise around 1846.

Torrington’s body was bound with strips of cotton to hold the limbs together during preparation for burial:

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The tinned wrought iron plaque nailed to the lid of John Torrington’s coffin. The inscription reads: ‘John Torrington dies January 1st 1846 aged 20 years’:

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The coffin containing John Torrington. The arrow points true north:

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The Moulin Rouge nightclub at Montmarte, Paris; ca. 1914

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The original house, which burned down in 1915, was co-founded in 1889 by Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller, who also owned the Paris Olympia. Close to Montmartre in the Paris district of Pigalle on Boulevard de Clichy in the 18th arrondissement, it is marked by the red windmill on its roof. The closest métro station is Blanche.

Moulin Rouge is best known as the spiritual birthplace of the modern form of the can-can dance. Originally introduced as a seductive dance by the courtesans who operated from the site, the can-can dance revue evolved into a form of entertainment of its own and led to the introduction of cabarets across Europe.





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MERIAN Paris Jasmine

Wesel, Germany shows the effects of carpet bombing by the Allies; ca. 1945

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97% of the city was destroyed.

Wesel became a target of the Allies, particularly in its strategic position as a depot with bridges on the Rhine. On the 16, 17, 18 and 19 February 1945, the town was attacked by the Royal Air Force with impact and air-burst weapons and almost entirely destroyed.

On 23 March, Wesel came under the fire of over 3,000 guns when it was bombarded anew, in preparation for Operation Plunder. That day 80 Lancasters from No. 3 Group RAF attacked Wesel Then that night of 23/24 March, 195 Lancasters and 23 Mosquitos of RAF Bomber Command No. 5 Group aided in the softening up of the German defenders. 97% of the town was destroyed before it was finally taken by Allied troops and the population had fallen from almost 25,000 in 1939 to 1,900 in May 1945.

The town was taken quickly with 36 civilian casualties. Field-Marshal Montgomery said “the bombing of Wesel was a masterpiece, and was a decisive factor in making possible our entry into the town before midnight.”



Body of French boy blown into a tree by German shellfire at Avocourt Wood (Battle of Verdun); ca. 1916

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How did Napoleon fund his wars?

One of the hallmarks of the Napoleonic tax administration was that it introduced a degree of efficiency and systematization that meant the Empire could count upon a steady stream of revenue. The recent memory of Revolutionary hyperinflation inhibited more experimental and flexible approaches to finance. For example, one of the achievements of Napoleon that his proponents frequently trumpet, the Banque de France, played a relatively marginal role in governmental finance. Napoleon’s aversion to short-term loans meant that ensured that the Banque’s contributions to French state financing was never more than 10 percent of total expenditures. The state’s commitment to metallism, another legacy born out of a painful Revolutionary experience, meant that the Banque adapted the “Palmer Rule” in which a third of its notes in circulation would be backed by metallic currency. The main sources of war revenue for France would be the systems of direct and indirect taxation from domestic sources and contributions from defeated or allied states.

There is a strong line of continuity between the tax policies of the later Revolutionary governments and the Napoleonic Consulate and Empire. Although the Directory resorted to paper currency and suffered from a repeat of hyperinflation, there was a strong corpus of administrators within the French state who advocated a more stable French economy and logical reforms. The Directory relied upon a series of land taxes, contributions, and later, indirect taxes to finance the French government. The main impact of Napoleon on the French tax structure was that his characteristic focus upon systematization and efficiency, coupled with the promotion of able servitors that were already advocates of reform. One of the unsung administrators of the Napoleonic period was Martin-Michel-Charles Gaudin, Napoleon’s Minister of Finance from 1799-1814, and 1815.

Gaudin directed an overhaul of the la contribution fonciere(land tax), an assessment based upon agricultural income. This form of direct taxation made up to three-quarters of all taxes derived from direct taxation for most of the Napoleonic period. The Ministry of Finance enacted systemic cadastral surveys in 1802, and expanded them into a massive project to catalog the whole of France in 1807. The grand cadastral surveys assessed France parcel by parcel, judging soil quality, buildings, and other factors to predict the ideal agricultural value of the land. The surveys rendered this particular tax burden more equitable, but also expanded both state power and control.

Another form of direct taxation in the Napoleonic period was la contribution personelle-mobiliere (taxes on personal or industrial incomes), which was a legacy of the Revolution and mostly hit towns. This somewhat progressive tax had a fixed sum, plus a variable amount based upon external signs of wealth like chimneys or the number of servants. In keeping with its principles of systematic reform and efficiency, Napoleon overhauled this highly arbitrary system between 1803-04. Its main replacement was the droits d’octroi which was a levy upon all goods entering into a town. There were also various taxes licensing trades and services and upon items like doors and windows.

Although these taxes introduced a steady and reliable stream of income to the French government, they could not cover all of the expenses of the Napoleonic state. Napoleon reintroduced various forms of indirect taxes to make up for this shortfall. These droits reunis were levied upon tobacco, playing cards, alcohol, and salt became increasingly important for French finance from 1806 onwards. The revenue from these indirect taxes increased some fourfold between 1806 and 1812. Again, in keeping with Napoleonic centralization, the state instituted a central excise office to enforce these indirect taxes. Additionally, the French government created a state monopoly on tobacco in 1810. Collectively, these excise taxes made up a quarter of France’s tax revenue in 1813.

Yet even Napoleonic efficiency could not keep pace with the growing costs of France’s wars. The Napoleonic fiscal system became increasingly dependent upon making war pay for war. From 1806 to 1814, non-French states bore more than half of Napoleon’s military expenses. The quartering of troops in Italy, Central Europe, and Spain displaced some of the defense burden upon Napoleon’s allies and occupied states. Indemnities upon defeated powers became a normal means of the French to cover their budgetary deficits. Between 1806 and 1812, Prussia had to provide France with somewhere between 470 and 514 million Francs. To put that figure in perspective, the Banque’s contribution to the French budget peaked in 1805 with a figure of 80 million Francs and provided the campaign of 1805 60 million Francs. Even Napoleon’s allies were not immune from this system of contribution. Tax levels in the southern German states doubled from their 1806 levels, but this was often not enough to keep pace with fiscal demands. The Rheinbund states had to engage in a tricky shell-game of forced bonds purchases to pay for their upkeep. In the Kingdom of Westphalia, 1808 bonds that were due in 1811 were paid off with more bonds. The Hanseatic towns of the northern German coast, officially annexed to the French Empire in 1810, had the French system of indirect and direct taxes imposed, but imperial authorities were more diligent at squeezing out whatever wealth they could get out of these German cities than those in France. Due to their proximity to the Central European battlefields, it was more urgent to collect imperial taxes from these areas. In Hamburg, between 1810-13, approximately a third of all the city’s taxes went to outfitting the French military in Germany. The city’s support infrastructure for Hamburg’s indigent correspondingly suffered as orphanages and hospitals closed up shop.

While this system of contributions and making war pay for war was not unprecedented in European history, but it added another onerous burden upon the other middling and great powers of Europe and made it much harder for Napoleon to cement a lasting peace. The contributions system created a persistent grumbling about French exploitation and undercut Napoleon’s attempts to forge a working alliance with these small states. The disaster of 1812 made pushed this precarious economic system off a cliff as Napoleon had to wring yet more revenue from his allies, and increasingly, from metropolitan France. Despite his reservations about short-term financing, Napoleon assented to sale of short-term bonds within France and expanded the various indirect tax systems. By 1813, many of the states in central Europe were approaching physical insolvency and had an inability to pay their civil servants.

One solution for these European states to meet French demands was to implement French fiscal methods. In the Kingdom of Italy, Giuseppe Prina played the role of Gaudin by strengthening local fiscal institutions and conducting cadastral surveys to render the system more efficient. Although a mob murdered Prina in 1814, his methods lived on. During the post-Napoleonic period, many European states continued the trend of systematizing and streamlining tax revenue through the increase in state powers of regulation and control. The utility of a steady revenue stream and increase in state power often transected ideological barriers in ways that other legacies of the French Revolution, such as nationalism or popular sovereignty, did not. Even Piedmont-Sardinia, one of the most reactionary of the post-1815 governments, had no problem embracing the French-created system of tax inspectorates and gendarmes to enforce order as essential component for the operation of the state. In France, the Bourbon and Orleanist governments continued Gaudin’s cadastral survey would not be finished until the 1820s, but was one of the bedrocks of French tax policies up to the First World War. Napoleonic occupation created a need for an overhaul of revenue collection within continental Europe and this new found efficiency outlasted Napoleon. Although it lacks the drama of the corps system of Napoleon or other elements of martial glory, the reform of tax codes was a persistent legacy of the Napoleonic period and impacted the daily lives of Europeans for the coming century.



Aaslestad, Katherine. “Paying for War: Experiences of Napoleonic Rule in the Hanseatic Cities.” Central European History 39, no. 04 (2006): 641-675.

Bergeron, Louis. France under Napoleon. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Bordo, Michael D., and Eugene N. White. “A tale of two currencies: British and French finance during the Napoleonic Wars.” The Journal of Economic History 51, no. 02 (1991): 303-316.

Chadha, Jagjit S., and Elisa Newby. ‘Midas, transmuting all, into paper’: the Bank of England and the Banque de France during the Napoleonic Wars. No. 1315. School of Economics Discussion Papers, 2013.

Ellis, Geoffrey James. The Napoleonic Empire. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Emsley, Clive. Napoleon: Conquest, Reform and Reorganization. Harlow, England: Pearson/Longman, 2003.

Kain, Roger J. P., and Elizabeth Baigent. The Cadastral Map in the Service of the State: A History of Property Mapping. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1992.

O’Rourke, Kevin H. “The worldwide economic impact of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1793–1815.” Journal of Global History 1, no. 01 (2006): 123-149.

Planert, Ute. “From collaboration to resistance: Politics, Experience, and memory of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars in southern Germany.” Central European History 39, no. 04 (2006): 676-705.


circus elephant from a Belgian zoo is put to work on a Belgian farm during World War I. Horses and mules were drafted to aid in the war effort, which left a shortage for farmers in Europe; ca. 1915

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Princess Elizabeth hugging her Corgi; ca. 1936


Throughout her life, the queen has cared for more than 30 corgis, starting as a young girl when her father, King George VI, brought home one of the dogs from a local kennel in 1933, naming him Dookie.


German soldiers on outpost duty near Antwerp, sharing their food with Belgian orphans, published in 1915.


The basic Pickelhaube, as seen in the photo, was made of hardened (boiled) leather, given a glossy-black finish, and reinforced with a metal trim. Starting in 1892, a light brown cloth helmet cover, the M1892 Überzug, was issued for use during manoeuvres and active service. The Überzug was intended to protect the helmet from dirt and reduce its combat visibility, as the metallic fittings were highly reflective. As you mentioned regimental numbers were then sewn or stencilled onto the front of the cover.

This photo was most likely staged to generate evidence that countered Great Britain’s aggressive propaganda campaign against the German occupation of Belgium. Given this assumption there would be little reason for these men to don their Überzug.

As the war progressed, and Britain’s blockade limited Germanys leather supply, the economic factors you mentioned drove the government to produce Pickelhauben from thin sheet steel. However by 1915, as demand rapidly outpaced supply, pressurized felt and even paper was used to construct pickelhauben

By 1916, the Pickelhaube was slowly replaced the the new Stahlhelm (steel helmet) which offered greater over-all head protection.

Stonehenge; ca. 1867


In 1915, Sir Cecil Chubb walked into a property auction in Salisbury and on a whim he bought it as a gift for his wife and walked out £6,600 poorer and the owner of Stonehenge.

Unfortunately, she apparently did not like it so he gifted it to the Crown and today it is estimated the property is worth about $100 million.