On a Horse Race

June 4, 1913, was the day of the famous Derby Race held in Epsom, Surrey. The 1 1/2 mile race is the premier thoroughbred horserace in the United Kingdom. That day, the Derby was won by a 100-1 long shot named Aboyeur, although he was not the first horse to cross the finish line. Another horse crossed first, but, unusually, that horse was disqualified because the horse and rider had committed several fouls along the race course. That’s why Aboyeur ended up in the winner’s circle that day. However, we don’t remember the 1913 Derby because a long shot won that day.

Jockey Herbert Jones is one reason we remember that particular race so well. That day, Jones was astride a steed named Anmer, and Anmer was owned by none other than King George V. Now, Jones was one of the best-known riders of his day. Jockeys were celebrities like pro athletes are today, even gracing the fronts of collectors cards (like a horseracing version of baseball cards). Jones won Britain’s version of the Triple Crown, and he had been astride other colts owned by royalty before. Some said he was one of the favorite jockeys of Edward VII, a king known for his love of the ponies and racing and betting.

But this was not Jones’s day. Anmer broke late and never had a chance to move up to challenge the leading pack that day. In fact, Anmer didn’t finish the race at all. You see, an obstruction was on the race course, and Anmer struck the obstruction, falling, and throwing Jones off his back. He summersaulted and landed on top of Jones. The jockey was knocked unconscious and later was determined to have had a concussion. He also had to have an arm in a sling. King George was most disappointed. He noted in his diary for that day, “Herbert Jones and Anmer had been sent flying” by the obstruction and that it was “a most disappointing day” all around. Luckily, Anmer wasn’t badly injured, and Jones even managed to ride the horse in races again not to much later after he recovered from his injuries.

But, what exactly was this obstruction?

Well, it happened at turn four as the race was about to enter the home stretch. Something ran out onto the racecourse in the direct path of Jones and the king’s horse. Newsreels of the day captured the moment it happened, and you can see it on the internet today. The obstruction–the object that ran out in front of a mounted horse running about 35 miles per hour–was a woman.

It seems Emily Davidson, a 39 year old suffragette from London, crossed under the barricade and moved alongside Anmer and Jones as they sped towards her. The newsreel footage seems to show that she was trying to attach some sort of suffragette pennant to the horse’s tackle or bridle as it flew past. The horse struck her—and killed her almost instantly.

Davidson’s dramatic death is said to have led to the public outcry that would give women in the UK the vote only 5 years later.

On a Family Wedding

Weddings are usually joyful occasions for families. Large families especially mark weddings and funerals as major events in family lore. Those major life events are times of reconnecting with cousins and distant relations that you don’t normally get to see. That was definitely the case of a large family wedding that took place in 1913 in Berlin.

The bride, Vicky, was marrying a guy she’s gotten acquainted with the year before at, of all places, a family funeral. He was even a distant cousin, and his name was Ernie. Vicky’s dad, from the wealthy class, wanted everyone to come to the nuptials of his only daughter (and favorite child), so he sent word to all the family to make their way to Berlin in May 1913 for the wedding of the decade. He also wanted to use the event to bring the family closer. It’s difficult to keep so many people in touch, especially when there are as spread out as Vicky’s family was. So, the extended family began making their way to the city to witness what surely would be a grand time.

Since this family was from the land-owning class, many of the men in this large group were attached to the military, so the wedding party was resplendent with fancy dress uniforms and gleaming medals and swords. The women wore their best expensive gowns to not only the ceremony but also to the various balls and dinners held to celebrate the happy couple’s wedding. Tens of thousands of German marks were spent on the catering, the bands, the alcohol, the gifts, the decorations, and the cake (the height of which reached almost one story, according to one report).

And, so, it proved to be exactly what Vicky and Vicky’s dad wanted. It was indeed an affair that brought this large, wealthy family together in celebration. Yes, it proved to be an amazing time that was reported in all the papers, an event that people were destined to talk about for the rest of the decade.

Except they didn’t talk about it.

The wedding was forgotten in a little over a year, lost in the disaster that was to follow over the next five years.

You see, Vicky, the bride, was named after her great-grandmother, a woman named Queen Victoria of Britain. Her dad was Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, and the cousins that came to the wedding–the crown heads of Europe, including King George of Britain and Czar Nicholas II of Russia, and all those other men who wore their uniforms to the event–they went back to their homes and their armies and navies.

And, within 16 months, they would start World War I against each other, in August of 1914 to be exact.

And Vicky’s wedding would be the last time all those royal cousins saw each other alive.

On a Name Change

What’s in a name?

My dad’s dad came from Greece to the United States in 1907. His Greek name was Papapistolos, a name so long it would need two mailboxes so all the letters could be seen by the postman. The family lore says that, since my grandfather wanted to work in the steel factories around Pittsburgh, PA, he chose the last name Millson as his “American” name. After all, he wished to be a “son of the mill.” I like that story, even if it’s probably apocryphal.

Families choose to change their names for many reasons. Sometimes, the act represents a new start as in the case of my grandfather. Sometimes, a name can be a tribute to the past or to a particular person or tradition. I’m thinking of some celebrities lately whose families chose more “American” sounding names and have Jewish heritage and who are now choosing to return to a name that reflects that heritage more. Sometimes, names are changed for political reasons.

During World War I, anti-German sentiment in the United States was so high (despite German being the second-largest ethnic group in the US) that many Americans with German-sounding names changed them in order to not have their loyalties to the US questioned at all.

George was one of those on the allied side who felt that his German-sounding last name might cause some to wonder where his loyalties really were. Mary, his wife, while not born in Germany, also had a German last name because both of her parents came from there. The couple discussed the issue at length. Their family was large, and whatever choice they made would have far-reaching impact on generations to come. Yet, anti-German feeling was so strong that there had been news reports of street violence against people who were discovered with names like Schultz or Mueller or Baum. Such stories frightened both George and Mary.

The couple decided to take the step and make the change. They weren’t sure how to go about it. They knew it would require much paperwork and legwork to accomplish, but they were willing to put in the effort. The next thing was for George and Mary to decide what their new family name would be. One man who worked with George suggested that they take the name of a famous nearby building. It sounded distinctly English, and no one could possibly mistake it for anything but. George ran the idea Mary, and she whole-heartedly agreed.

So, on July 17, 1917, King George V and Queen Mary abandoned the last name Saxe-Coberg-Gotha and chose instead the last name Windsor.

On an Air Raid

Everyone knows about the German bombing of London during the war. We see something similar on the news in 2022 with the Russian air attacks on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. However destructive and terrorizing the Kyiv attacks are–and they are–the bombings of London were a shock for a world not used to attacks on the civilian population during the war.

You see, it was the German mentality that war was not only waged by the military, but that it was also fought and supported materially by the civilian population. The chances of German success on the battlefield, the theory went, would be greatly increased if the population that supplied the opposing army would be itself harmed and its ability to supply that army stopped.

Thus, on September 8th, in the war’s second year, the British capital city was first attacked by the air. Massive damage resulted. Twenty-two civilians were killed, and six of them were children. The Germans were promptly labeled “baby killers” by the British public. Besides the blackout orders and bomb shelters that were put in place, anti-aircraft batteries were moved from other places to London to provide improved protection against future attacks by the German air force. Searchlights crisscrossed the night skies above the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace.

The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) also fought bravely to combat the attackers. As the bombings of London increased, the pilots of the RFC took to the air to defend the population. Lt. William Robinson became an instant minor celebrity in Britain for being the first RFC pilot to shoot down a German aircraft during the raids. It seems he was the first to discover the tactic of flying much higher than the German raiders and then attacking them from above. The Germans, much more interested in the placement and release of their deadly cargoes as well as the deadly anti-aircraft fire from below, didn’t expect attacks from above. The tactic changed the course of the air war above London.

By the war’s end, almost 3,000 Londoners had either been killed or seriously wounded by the bombings. What the Germans didn’t kill was the fighting spirit of the British people. In fact, the bombings may have galvanized English public opinion to fight the war to a successful conclusion at any cost. Some of the citizenry felt a sense of pride that they, too, had been under fire during the war. But London would suffer much worse two decades later. In fact, almost ten times worse.

Yes, the German bombings of London in World War I–first by zeppelin, then by large bombers–as terrible as they were, paled in comparison to the London Blitz that would take the lives of 20,000 Londoners in World War II.

On an Interrogation

Margaretha said she wasn’t sure why the authorities were questioning her. The Dutch woman found herself being interrogated by the French military police. They wanted to know her movements in the previous weeks.

To say that war time is stressful is to state the obvious. Governments during war often take away liberties in the name of national security because of the fear they feel about enemies being behind every door. That seems to have been the case here. The French authorities were looking for a scapegoat.

Margaretha felt she was being unjustly accused of…well, she wasn’t sure exactly what the French were accusing her of. Her interrogators kept asking about her past. Her family had money when she was growing up, so that allowed her some perks that most people in the late 19th and early 20th Century didn’t have–she could travel, she rubbed elbows with other wealthy people, and she knew people from many countries. It was this last thing that the French police wanted to know. Who were her friends in Germany? Britain? Belgium? To Margaretha, it was all confusing. What did who she knew have to do with anything?

She had spent some years in the Dutch East Indies (another thing that the French police wanted to know about, by the way), and it was there her husband, a rich and spoiled Scottish man, began to beat her and cheat on her with others. It was there that she had two children, a boy and a girl. There, too, her son got sick and died. Returning to The Netherlands, the couple broke up, and Margaretha won custody of her daughter. Her husband didn’t give her any money, so she turned to performance art–dancing and modeling–for a living. She had learned a bit about exotic dancing while in the Indies, and she took on a persona of someone from Asia for her act.

Famous people came to see her perform her dances. By the late 1910s, she had became famous and wealthy from her work. Wealthy men vied for her attention (and lavished her with even more money). By this time, however, Margaretha was in her late 30s. Her youth and her performance days were over, and she had become something else to make money–a courtesan. She parlayed her notoriety as a performer on stage into a performer in the bedchamber, and she had “clients” in almost every nation in Europe. Important people in Germany, France, and Britain had shared her bed by this time. The inquisitors were very curious about this last point.

We know how these things go; the friend of my enemy is my enemy. Here was a woman who knew too much, and there were secrets that she might have had that simply could not be allowed to see the light of day. She was questioned for hours and then accused of being a traitor to the Allies. She is supposed to have said, “A harlot? Absolutely. A traitor? Never!” She was put on trial more, it seemed, for being a woman of questionable morals than for knowing any secrets that might hurt or embarrass the Allied Powers. At dawn, on October 15, 1917, twelve French soldiers shot her for being a spy for the Germans. It is unclear to this day what her crime actually was. She maintained both her innocence and her flirtatious nature the entire time.

In fact, right before the order to shoot was given, Mata Hari blew a kiss to the firing squad.