Letters from Readers -- October 2006 Military History Magazine | HistoryNet
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Letters from Readers — October 2006 Military History Magazine

9/18/2006 • MH Issues

Fired Imagination
I enjoyed reading “The Lost Secret of Greek Fire,” by Bruce Heydt in the April 2006 issue. In regard to the mysterious apparatus used by the Byzantines to spray the liquid fuel toward their attackers, the term “siphon” recorded in the chronicles of that era offers a clue. The spray nozzle might have been pressurized by simply hoisting a barrel of the fuel high up the ship’s mast (or a spire near the city’s defensive walls). In that case the tube used to transport liquid pressurized by gravity to the nozzle is correctly termed a siphon. The Romans also used siphons in their aqueduct systems. If the Byzantines wished to conceal the barrel’s presence on the ship’s mast, they could easily hide it behind a sail. The fuel supply could be replenished by lowering the barrel into the ship’s hold, where it could be refilled from a larger vat. This scenario explains why Greek fire was never used by a field army. I consider it unlikely that the Byzantines used compressed air, since pneumatic seals, valves and pumps are considerably more complex than those required to handle incompressible liquids. I also think that the extreme hazards would militate against the likely use of ship-borne fires to treat or pressurize the fuel.

Coincidentally, shortly after reading Mr. Heydt’s excellent article I began reading the historical mystery novel Dark Fire, by C.J. Hanson, which features the fictional rediscovery of Greek fire during King Henry VIII’s reign from clues found in a demolished monastery in London that had been the last refuge of a Crusader expelled from Constantinople by the Turks. I was better prepared to appreciate Hanson’s novel by virtue of my subscription to Military History.

Jerome J. Schmitt III
Lake Worth, Fla.

In the otherwise well-written “The Lost Secret of Greek Fire,” Bruce Heydt gives an incorrect sequence for the Byzantine emperors between 685 and 717. Leontius did not come to power until 695, when he overthrew Justinian II. He himself was indeed overthrown by Tiberius III as Heydt states, but Tiberius was not overthrown by Philippikos, but by Justinian II, who returned from exile with Bulgarian aid in 705, executed both Leontius and Tiberius, and ruled until 711. Nor is Heydt’s reference to “General Philippikos” correct. Philippikos was the name assumed by the Armenian Bardanes or Vardan after he ascended the throne, and thus it is proper to speak only of “Emperor Philippikos.”

Brian Gottesman
Wilmington, Del.

No Luxury Cruise for Peter Petersen
The interview with Peter Petersen in the May 2006 issue of Military History really caught my interest for two reasons. First, in 1985 I met a German submariner while I was on a ski vacation in St. Anton, Austria. He had told me of how he escaped from his U-boat when it was sunk off the coast of North Carolina. Years later, he was asked to revisit the sub, since he knew what munitions were on board, so that they could be removed and any human remains retrieved for interment in Germany. Second, just as Mr. Petersen had spent some time on the luxury liner Europa, renamed Liberté, I had the experience of sailing on its last voyage from New York to Le Havre, France at the tender age of 20.

Richard R. Gaier
Pittsburgh Pa.

Chemical Ironies
Regarding the “Weaponry” department on mustard gas in the May 2006 issue, it would have been interesting to recount the fate of its German inventor, Fritz Haber, who ironically was Jewish, though he converted to Christianity while in his 20s. Although the Nazis still regarded Haber as a Jew, after coming to power they generously told him he could stay at his job, but all other Jewish scientists on his staff would be fired. Haber refused and was expelled, dying in Switzerland in 1934 at age 66.

Sanford H. Margalith
San Diego, Calif.

Expiration From Aspiration?
I enjoyed Dr. Caldroney’s “Perspectives” piece on Thomas J. Stonewall Jackson’s death in the May 2006 issue. I concur with his comments dealing with possible contributing factors resulting in Jackson’s terminal “pneumonia.”

While the author mentioned aspiration related to Jackson’s ingestion of fluids shortly after his injury, he did not include the use of inhalation anesthesia as a significant cause. General anesthesia had been introduced two decades prior to the American Civil War, but the complication of aspiration during the induction of the anesthetic was not generally recognized. If a patient developed pneumonia postoperatively, it was not considered related to the administration of the anesthetic. While all of the factors mentioned by Dr. Caldroney possibly contributed to Jackson’s fatal pneumonia, I have long felt that aspiration during inhalation anesthesia was the major factor.

Walter J. Loehr, M.D.
Durham, N.C.

Premature VC
I read the article “First Blood in the Boer Wars” in the June 2006 issue and was fascinated to know that Harry Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross for his victory over the Sikhs at Aliwal (January 28, 1846), since the Victoria Cross was actually first awarded on January 29, 1856, to recognize bravery in the Crimean War. The award was not backdated for conflicts prior to 1855. In fact, the VC was originally meant for soldiers other than senior officers, who could gain a knighthood or Companion of the Bath for services rendered. Harry Smith was awarded the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath for Aliwal.

John A. Davidson
Ottawa, Canada

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