Monthly Archives: January, 2015

“The Men Who Died In Captivity:” British POWs March For Fallen Comrades, 1928

A “heavy and persistent” winter rain was falling over London on the morning of Saturday, 28 January 1928, but it did not deter hundreds of people from making their way to the Embankment to take part in a unique event: the first ceremony to honor the thousands of British soldiers who had died as prisoners of the Great War.

As the crowds milled around the staging area near Cleopatra’s Needle, surviving ex-prisoners looked at the shields the organizers had created – Camp Friedrichsftel, Holzminden, Beuthen, Burg Steinfurt, Döbertz, dozens of shields in all – and sorted themselves into groups. At the appointed time, the 2nd City of London Regiment took their place, and a column of nearly a thousand people began a march towards Whitehall.

British Pathé had cameras on the scene to record the event:

A decade after the Armistice, these survivors and the families of those who had never come home felt forgotten by the Government and by the public at large. Continue Reading

716 Jones: The Long Journey of a Zulu War Veteran

“On the 22nd, January, 1879, the Zulus attacked us, we being only a small band of English soldiers and they in very strong and overwhelming numbers. On commencing fighting, I was one of the soldiers who were in the hospital to protect it. I and another soldier…were on duty at the back of the hospital, trying to defeat and drive back the rebels, and doing our endevours to convey the wounded and sick soldiers out through a hole in the wall, so that they might reach in safety the small band of men in the square….”Robert Jones, VC, 1891

On the morning of September 6, 1898, gardener Robert Jones went to his employer to request a shotgun and two cartridges to rid the grounds of a pest. He was found in the gardens some time later, dead of a shot to the head.

716 Pte Robert Jones

Robert Jones was 41 when he died, loving father to five young children, an amateur poet, a war hero. Born in Wales in 1857, he enlisted in the British Army’s 24th Regiment of Foot at age 18 and was designated “716 Jones” to differentiate him from hundreds of other Joneses in the ranks. By January 22, 1879, his battalion was stationed at Rorke’s Drift, a small outpost on a ford of the Buffalo (Mzinyathi) River, 250 miles southeast of Johannesburg. Continue Reading

Things Written: New Biography Looks At Forgotten Female Chronicler Of The Civil War

In the desperate summer of 1862, Secretary of State William Seward sat in his Washington residence and wrote one of his frequent letters to his 17-year-old daughter at their home in Auburn, New York.

Blessed, my dear child, is the cheerfulness of the young,” he said. “Your letters are pleasing to me, because they bring no alarm, no remonstrances, no complaints, and no reproaches.” Under the strain of the ongoing Civil War, “my table groans, and my heart sinks, under the weight of complaints that I can put to no practicable use.”

“Write to me then cheerfully, as you are wont do do, of boys and girls and dogs and horses, and birds that sing, and stars that shine and never weep, and be blessed for all your days, for thus helping to sustain a spirit…” Continue Reading

Why We Don’t Ask Historians To Pick Powerball Numbers: New York Magazine’s ‘Obama History Project’ Shows Limits of Historical Prognostication

Do you recognize this man?

Do you recognize this man? (Source)


With the Obama presidency entering the home stretch, the battle over ‘legacy’ has begun. How will he rank among presidents? How will history judge him? What will future historians say about his foreign policy? His military policy? His economic policy? What will they think is his single most significant accomplishment? What speech or phrase will be remembered?

New York Magazine actually asked more than 50 historians to muse on these and other questions in a cover story in their most current issue.

“It’s a fool’s errand you’re involved in,” warned historian Gordon Wood. Historians may be able to make some educated guesses about legacy, but they aren’t necessarily good prognosticators.

Though they are good bluffers. The 53 questionnaires reprinted in the magazine are a master class in erudite ways of saying “I dunno. Maybe.”

Here’s the problem: our perception of the past is always influenced by the present. Barack Obama’s status as the first African-American president is important today, but may not carry the same weight to the historians of 2065 or 2115 – because race relations will inevitably change in coming decades, in ways we today can’t anticipate.

Things that didn’t look particularly important at the time often come to have outsized importance later on. If you asked a historian in 1807 if allegations of Thomas Jefferson’s dalliance with his slave would be remembered twenty or fifty or a hundred years later, that historian would have thought you were nuts. Study of the Jefferson-Hemmings relationship reflects modern interests in slavery and race relations. In 1864, Abraham Lincoln was sort of the George W. Bush of his era. Today, he’s the most revered president in our history. Had he survived his second term, there’s no telling how he might have been remembered.

And things that looked consequential at the time are often dimly recalled later on. James K. Polk – you remember him, right? – pushed the borders of the United States all the way to the Pacific, fought a successful war with Mexico, and oversaw the establishment of the first Federal Treasury, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Naval Academy. He also broke ground on the Washington Monument and issued the first Federal postage stamps. He kept every campaign promise and, despite his popularity, didn’t run for re-election. He was one of the most productive presidents in U.S. history and the most powerful chief executive between Jefferson and Lincoln. But, admit it: you don’t remember James K. Polk.

A study on presidential recall published late last year shows that the majority of American presidents are all but forgotten within 50 to 100 years of leaving office. That’s just rating name recognition. Biography and accomplishments vanish from our collective memory even earlier.

That said, there are any number of reasons to believe Barack Obama will probably linger in memory longer than most of his predecessors and future historians are going to have endless avenues for study and debate. Even within these questionnaires you can already see outlines of the opposing views on the issues. Who will turn out to be right? We’ll find out in a century or two. Maybe.


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This work by Heather K Michon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Mother of Animation: The Silhouetted World of Lotte Reiniger


Form rejection letter from Disney Studios, 1938.

A copy of a 1938 rejection letter from the Walt Disney Company to a would-be female artist has been making one of its periodic rounds on social media over the last few weeks.

“Women do not do any of the creative work in connection with preparing the cartoons for the screen, as that task is performed entirely by young men,” it reads in part. “For this reason, girls are not considered for the training school.”

If nothing else, the letter a reminder of how much of the history of women seems to include the words “that task is performed entirely by young men.” Change the wording a bit, and you could insert just about any career – with the exception, of course, of “wife” or “mother.”

There were enough women applying to the Disney studios that this was actually a form letter, but that isn’t to say that Walt Disney himself was not entirely averse to hiring women. As the letter notes, women did some of the inking on celluloid, and Carrie Tupper notes in the that a handful of pioneering women animators were working in the studio’s story department by the late 1930s. If you were born in the United States in the mid-20th Century, your childhood was animated and voiced by a legion of largely unknown female artists and voice actors.

But where is the origin story? To find the “mother” of animation, we need to look back to Weimar Republic Germany, and the remarkable career of Lotte Reiniger.

Born in Berlin in 1899, Reiniger became fascinated by the art of Chinese silhouette-cutting as a child and developed exceptional skill at cutting silhouettes to stage elaborate shadow-theater performances, starting at the age of 6. Originally planning to be an actress, she instead joined the experimental animation studio, Berliner Institut für Kulturforschung, in 1919. It was here she made her first animated short films – and also where she met her future husband and collaborator, Carl Koch.

Lotte Reiniger at work. Each figure in a scene could be made of up to 50 pieces, articulated with thin wires.

Lotte Reiniger at work. Each figure in a scene could be made of up to 50 pieces, articulated with thin wires.


Over the next six decades, Reiniger created 60 animated films, including the feature-length Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) and Doctor Dolittle and his Animals (1928). Marrying the ancient art of shadow puppetry with the modern technology of animation, Reiniger brought to life an astonishing array of fairy tales and stories using paper, scissors, a light table, and a camera. “No one else has taken a specific animation technique and made it so utterly her own,” says the British Film Institute. “[F]or all practical purposes the history of silhouette animation begins and ends with Reiniger.”

Disney would become famous for its use of the multiplane camera, which moved different layers of artwork at different speeds and created traditional animations smoothness of motion and three-dimensionality. Walt Disney is sometimes credited as the inventor of the multiplane, and certainly his technical staff made significant improvements over the original models, but it was Lotte Reiniger who made the first animated feature film using the multiplane technique, a decade before Disney founded his studio.

Däumelinchen (Thumbelina) by Lotte Reiniger.

Reiniger left Germany for England in the mid-1930s “because I didn’t like this whole Hitler thing and because I had many Jewish friends whom I was no longer allowed to call friends.” After her husband’s death in 1963, she made no films for a decade, living as near-recluse. But in 1970s, her contributions to animation and filmmaking began to draw the attention of a new generation of artists, and is still in evidence today. “As soon as shadow figures appear on screen, her oeuvre comes to mind, as in “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” where a fairytale in presented with cutout silhouettes,” writes the website Deutsche Welle. “The animated version of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” also references Reiniger’s techniques.”

Amazingly, she maintained the dexterity to cut detailed silhouettes right up until her the end, making her final film in 1980, the year before her death at the age of 81. A true avant-garde artist to the last, Reiniger never lost sight of her target audience. “I love working for children,” she said in one of her final interview, “because they are a very critical and very thankful public.”


Note: Many of Reiniger’s animations are available on YouTube. One critic notes that, because many of her original prints were lost, these are copies of copies, and most are shown at a faster film speed than intended. Her originals were more sharply detailed and smoother.
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This work by Heather K Michon is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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