Monthly Archives: January 2014

Ice Storms, Supply Chains and Fuel

Josh MacFadyen recently wrote an interesting piece on urban firewood and the Toronto ice storm of December 2013. The discussion of the Montreal wood famine of 1872 was informative and I look forward to reading the larger work that it comes out of. However, as a fuel historian there are a few things I would like to expand upon in terms of supply chains and large populations.
As fuelwood is the annual growth of plants, its production is limited by photosynthesis. As a result, there is only so much of it that can be produced and very large cities have never been primarily wood-burning. In fact, the first city to have a population significantly over 1 million inhabitants was coal-burning London in the early nineteenth century. I do not know of any city over a million residents at any point that was wood-burning. If anyone does, please let me know. The City of Toronto currently has 2.6 million residents and the Golden Horseshoe over 6 million. Given its propensity for somewhat cold winters, to supply such a population with consistent fuelwood would require around 10,000 square miles of land efficiently dedicated to producing only firewood. Fossil fuels and electricity can be generated on larger scales and are easier to ship to major cities. Without them, it would be difficult to have places as large as Toronto and it is difficult to revert.
One thing that strikes me as a fuel historian of the 18th century is that 21st century Canadians heat their houses to much higher temperatures than past people. My research focuses on England, where winter temperatures are generally warmer. The normal interior temperature was such that in 1790 medical writer James Adair warned about the dangers of overheated rooms. Those overheated rooms in winter were ones that reached 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15.5oC). Meanwhile, in Denmark it was normal to have frost inside homes in the eighteenth-century and in homes were not heated in relatively cold Iceland. It is easy to say that 21st century Torontonians are soft, but the ability to heat spacious rooms to any desired temperature represents a major improvement to the quality of life. To have this many people living to these standards is a major achievement of electricity generation, oil pipelines and modern technology. The massive energy infrastructure is fragile, as evidenced by last month’s storm and it could probably be better maintained but it cannot be replaced for a city that large.

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Commemoration and the First World War

We begin 2014 in the midst of renewed discussions about the appropriate ways to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the First World War’s outbreak. In England this is evident with the recent column by Education Secretary Michael Gove and the numerous responses to it. Commenters on various sides of the political spectrum are using the anniversary for political advantage and most public discussion is for 21st century purposes. In this context, there are a few things that have come to my mind about the anniversary and its commemoration.

The first of these is that many people have difficulty separating the actions of ordinary soldiers from the overall war aims or military strategy. Whatever one thinks of the war’s justness or the effectiveness of its conduct, 15 million men died. On both sides, these were mostly hard-working men about whom we would think positively on a personal level. Similar things can be said about the survivors. Many people’s likeable grandfathers risked lives and endured misery in Belgian trenches. However, the same can be said for those who fought in the German, Austrian, Ottoman and Russian armies. To honour the soldiers and remember the war’s massive impact, need not justify it.

Another important thing to remember is that many soldiers enlisted for reasons that had nothing to do with the war aims. One of these was unemployment. The outbreak of war collapsed global trade and triggered a deep recession in August and September 1914. In the midst of unemployment and few prospects for better circumstances, it is easy to understand why many enlisted during those months. Another factor that affected military enlistment, particularly in Britain, was the relatively high pay and good food of soldiers. Robert Roberts recalled his childhood in the poor Manchester suburb of Salford in The Classic Slum. He describes that when war broke out those who enlisted were properly nourished for the first time in their lives and came back for leave after the first month’s training an inch taller and a stone heavier. With higher wages and more opportunities than back home, it is easy to understand why some men enlisted in the war whether or not they had any opinion on Prussian militarism. Separating the actions and motivations of ordinary soldiers from war aims and strategy would allow us to critically evaluate the latter without it being superseded by individual heroism in the Somme.

There is also a tendency in the English-speaking world to discuss the war’s effects without considering the Russian Revolution and Civil War. It is very difficult to imagine that these would have occurred without the preceding two and a half years of war on the Eastern Front. They also led to more deaths than the formal fighting between states generally associated with the First World War. In terms of longer-term impact, the Soviet Union was also the most significant consequence of the war. It is possible to argue that despite the deaths in the Russian Civil War, it made the world a better place. I don’t subscribe to that view and I highly doubt that Michael Gove or Stephen Harper do either. To argue that the war improved the world without considering the Russian Civil War, failed communist revolutions in Europe or the loss of global trade that John Maynard Keynes lamented in The Economic Consequences of the Peace is to look for heroes on the battlefield rather than understanding its actual effects. Given that the Russo-Japanese War had ended in a revolution in Russia in 1905, the 1917 Revolution was also foreseeable consequence of the First World War. In fact, as the war began Albertan newspapers predicted both the war’s scale and the likelihood that it would end in revolution.

Public commemoration of the First World War would be more intelligent and less polarizing if we acknowledged that the valour of soldier’s need not justify the war, that they didn’t necessarily enlist in support of war aims and that its consequences were heavily tied up in the Russian Civil War.

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