Saturday, March 26, 2016

one plucky little ship

As Ireland commemorates the centenary of the Easter Rising, I’ll chip in with what little I know about a relative of mine who played a small role in this story, as second officer on the Aud (Libau), which was to deliver weapons to the Irish rebels.

Date/Time: Saturday 17th December 2016
Event: Official Launch of The Aud Exhibition on Spike Island
Location: Spike Island, Cork Harbour
Additional Information: With the support of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Cork County Council is undertaking an exhibition to the Aud on Spike Island; Spike Island having been the only Irish soil that the crew of the Aud set foot on in 1916. The exhibition will be launched by County Mayor Cllr. Séamus McGrath. Places on the boat over and back will be limited but for those interested in attending more information is available by emailing - source

Walter Düsselmann was born at Krefeld 22.12.1882 the third of five children of August Düsselmann (1844-1899) and Anna Josephine Hagermes. August was the founding director of Krefeld’s fire brigade when it became professional in 1890. He was one of 13 children from this "Krefeld clan" benefiting from that town's silk weaving boom.

In 1904, Walter was steward on the ship Elfrieda, from Rotterdam to Portland, Oregon, arrival 21.5.

In 1913, he was third officer on the Volturno, which caught fire in the North Atlantic on 11.10. 1913. The ship carried 657 people including 500 migrants from Rotterdam to New York. It had to be evacuated completely, with nine other vessels coming to the rescue. Heavy seas made the rescue operation difficult, and 136 people died in the disaster.

In March 1916, he was recruited as second officer on the Libau, with the mission to evade the sea blockade and to deliver arms to Ireland’s Easter revolution. Masquerading as the Norwegian fishing vessel Aud, the Libau took the long route to Ireland, via the Arctic circle.

Against considerable odds, the ship reached its destination, the town of Tralee on Ireland’s west coast, on April 20, but its signals remained unanswered. (The Easter Rising began on Monday 24.4.) It was then captured by the Royal Navy and escorted to the harbour of Queenstown on the southern coast, where the crew destroyed the ship to keep the weapons out of enemy hands.

The crew were held prisoners between two and four years. The captain of the ship, Karl Spindler, later wrote a book about the adventure, with the occasional honourable mention of Walter's contributions.

At Christmas 1921, Walter gave a copy of Spindler’s book, published that year, to his cousin Josephine Bender (1881-1966). The book is still in the possession of Josephine’s descendants.

On 17.10.1943 Walter died in the war, not clear where.

In 2012, one of the anchors of the Aud is retrieved from the wreck and conserved under the supervision of the National Museum of Ireland.

Descendants of Aud crew members have called for the crew to be honoured in the course of the centenary celebration, but no specific recognition has been offered so far.

Strangely, I can't even find a crew list online, so I'll just type it out here, as given in Spindler's book (leaving out military titles, filling in first names where I know them):
1. Kommandant: Kurt Spindler
2. I. Offizier: O. Heß
3. II. Offizier: Walter Düsselmann
4. Obermaschinist: P. Rost
5. II. Maschinist: K. Hauenschild
6. III. Maschinist: Wilhelm Augustin (1890)-1972)
7. W. Bruns, Steward
8. R. Strehlau
9. P. Mathiesen
10. Friedrich Schmitz (1892-1977)
11. A. Schabbel
12. A. Hoffmann, Schiffskoch
13. Signalgast K. Battermann
14. Chr. Meyer
15. F. Schildknecht
16. P. Gutzner
17. H. (Jans) Dunker (1891-1978)
18. G. Pöhlmann
19. I. Kuligofski
20. A. Böthling
21. G. Schmidt
22. H. Brock

Map from Spindler's book.


Arthur Spurgeon: The burning of the Volturno, Cassell and Company Ltd. London, 1913.

Karl Spindler: Das geheimnisvolle Schiff. Die Fahrt der Libau zur irischen Revolution, August Scherl Verlag, Berlin, 1921. English translation published as: Gun running for Casement in the Easter Rebellion, 1916. W. Collins 1921.

Mario Vargas Llosa: El sueño del Celta. / The dream of the Celt

Monday, March 21, 2016

plague's progress

Here in Europe we have the plague so firmly associated with the Middle Ages that many are not aware that the disease's causative agent, the bacterium Yersinia pestis, is still going strong in natural reservoirs eg in the western parts of the US. At the moment we don't need to worry too much, as it can be easily treated with antibiotics, but what if it develops multidrug resistance? Or if some unsavoury characters develop it as bioweapon complete with drug resistance?

Reason enough to worry a bit and to look at the trail of destruction that Yersinia has left in the past as well as its current presence and future risks. All this cheerful stuff appears in my latest feature which is out now:

A plague on mankind
Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 6, p R219–R221, 21 March 2016
Abstract and FREE access to full text

The city of Marseille suffered the last major outbreak of the second plague pandemic in Europe in spite of sophisticated quarantine procedures. After heavy casualties, the epidemic was confined to this area and died down there. This contemporary engraving is by the artist Michel Serre (1658–1733), who distinguished himself in the city’s response to the disaster. (Photo: Robert Valette/Wikipedia.)

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

clear coast

People in Norway are kept very busy cleaning marine litter off their famously fractal coastline. Bo Eide, who was involved with my first feature on the issue, has just told me that they have made another video, Ren Kyst II. Like the first one, it's a very neat clip on a very messy subject:

See also my more recent feature focusing on microplastics, from February 2015, so it must be freely accessible now.

Monday, March 07, 2016

how plants think

Plants don't have a brain, so any claims that they can conduct cognitive processes are bound to be controversial, as they challenge our views of cognition. And yet, over the last few years, evidence has accumulated showing that plants can communicate, remember, count ... This still doesn't mean that they understand when we talk to them, but at least one should keep an open mind to be able to discover cognitive processes that may look very different from the ones in animals but ultimately serve the same functions.

I've rounded up some examples of plant cognition in my latest feature which is out today:

Could plants have cognitive abilities?

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 5, 7 March 2016, Pages R181–R184 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2016.02.044

FREE access to the full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

The root space of plants is a highly complex and insufficiently understood system described as the rhizosphere. It enables communication both among plants and between plants and other species. (Photo: N. H. Groß)