Sunday, November 11, 2018

A special Bone Rooms - Brachiosaurus and the First World War

Tendaguru in Tanzania

On the Centenary of the guns falling silent and ending the First World War I want to share this strange moment in paleontology.
Prussia was the last European superpower to enter the colonization game, and so began sending out explorers to take possession of the few remaining regions on the world map that didn’t already have a European flag flying over it.
Tendaguru image from an early German Expedition
One such explorer was W.B. Sattler, a German geologist who’d been searching East Africa for precious stones. While investigating a nasty little place called Tendaguru (in German Tanzania) he literally tripped over a large boulder and, muttering some colourful and highly descriptive German words that I can’t repeat here, Sattler picked himself up, dusted himself off, and noticed the boulder was in fact a giant bone.
upper leg bone of Brachiosaurus 
Reporting his find to the local Prussian governor (called Wendt), Sattler’s account somehow got into the hands of Professor Eberhard Frass, head the Stuttgart Natural History Museum and one of the few men in Africa at the time interested in such fossils.
Both men returned to Tendaguru and quickly unearthed several large bones, but before any serious excavating could be done Frass fell ill and was forced to return to Berlin. Once home he tapped into Germany’s growing national pride by calling on his fellow Prussians to travel to Africa and retrieve the fossils. He argued they simply couldn’t allow the bones to just lay there and be destroyed without becoming the laughing stock of Europe.
Wilhelm von Branca
The ploy worked! Wilhelm von Branca, head of the Berlin Museum of Natural History, soon had scientific institutions, the city of Berlin, the Prussian Ministry for Culture, the Imperial government and a long list of rich benefactors throwing fists of money at them to organise a dig. There has never been a better financed paleontological excavation than Germany’s Tendaguru expedition!
Werner Janensch in Tendaguru
Werner Janensch, Hans von Staff and Edwin Hennig would be sent to work the dig, while Wollf Furtwängler, son of the world famous archaeologist Adolf Furtwängler (who’d been with Heinrich Schliemann at Olympia in Greece), was hired to help with the Africans as he’d worked on nearby plantations, so knew a few local dialects.
Tendaguru suffers from torrential rains, scorching droughts, energy sapping heat, lions, and is literally riddled with flies, mosquitoes and ticks carrying an assorted number of fatal diseases. This meant no pack animals could be used to travel to and from the remote area, instead everything, including water, had to be carried by the locals - the only people with any sort of immunity to the region. At first the expedition had 170 such porters, but this number soon ballooned to over 500, which led to a small tent city being built to house them all.
Still, even with all its problems, Tendaguru proved to be a rich site, the equal to anything found anywhere in the world, with Henning alone finding over fifty stegosaurs called Kentrosaurus.
Over several seasons the Germans shipped nearly 1000 crates containing some 235 tonnes of rock out of Tendaguru, all of which had to be hand carried out on a five day trek. These fossils would take almost 25 years to clean and display, with one vertebra alone requiring 450 hours to prepare. 
From this location were fossils of pterosaurs, reptiles, mammals and the dinosaur species, Dicraeosaurus, Australodocus, Janenschia, Tendaguria, Tornieria, Ceratosaurus, Elaphrosaurus, Ostafrikasaurus, Veterupristisaurus, Dysalotosaurus, Kentrosaurus, and of course the largest dinosaur ever found at that time, Brachiosaurus (today renamed Giraffatitan), many of which can be seen on display in Berlin (below).
Hans Reck
After three tours into Tendaguru, Janensch was tired and headed home. Taking his place was a young palaeontologist called Hans Reck, who barely arrived before the First World War started.
As the conflict spread out of Europe to the rest of the world, in East Africa the German scientists found themselves under siege, surrounded by the British, French, Portuguese, Belgians and South Africans. Most joined the German African army under the command of Colonel Paul Erich von Lettow-Vorbeck, whose army was made up of mostly native conscripts (Deutsche Ost-Afrika Gesellschaft). This meant most German citizens in the region were quickly promoted into the officer ranks. This African army would only field around 20,000 men during the entire conflict, while against them marched nearly ¼ of a million troops.
Hans Von Staff would use his geology skills to find water for the army, while Bernhard Sattler organised and led native Askaris. Hans Reck, along with two Europeans and ten native soldiers, organised the local Wagogo people into something of a fighting force at Ufiome. Ever the palaeontologist, Reck would also unearth some prehistoric elephant remains (Elephas antiquus) as he helped organise and supply the main German garrison in east Africa. Here he was joined by geologists Erich Krenkel and Gustav Schulze, who’d been on their way to work in Olduvai Gorge but had been caught up in the war before they could start a dig.

During these dangers days Reck feared he would lose his fossils if captured, especially some pterosaur remains (the first found in Africa), so he handed his specimens to a neutral Swiss friend, F.G. Ricki, for safekeeping.
As for Werner Janensch - the palaeontologist who prepared and described Berlin’s world famous Brachiosaurus - he enlisted in the Zeppelin service. Does anyone else find it a weird coincidence that the discoverer of the largest complete dinosaur skeleton helped fly the world’s largest vehicles ever to take to the air?
One of these zeppelins was linked to one of the more bizarre and tragic stories of the First World War. The German African army was starving and out of ammunition, so in an attempt to break the allied blockade strangling Germany, a 226 m long zeppelin (L-59) - nicknamed das Afrika-Schiff (the Africa Ship) - was organised to simply float over the heads of everyone and supply the desperate army.
das Afrika-Schiff, zeppelin L-59
On board was 50 tons of provisions, including weapons, ammunition, food and extra personal. As zeppelins need hydrogen to stay airborne (which wasn’t readily available in Africa at the time) the mission was planned to be a one-way trip, with the zeppelin itself being added to the supply list at the other end. Its frame and balloon skin were designed to be used for constructing towers, tents and bandages.
The journey of L-59
However, as L-59 was crossing the Mediterranean,it was caught in an electrical storm and lost its radio, one engine and almost crashed until those on-board started jettisoning the valuable equipment and buoyancy was restored. The plucky airship then continued to bob along, and later criticism of its crews actions during the storm (as those had been much needed supplies they had thrown out) was easily deflected when it was proved that the men, who’d been suffering migraines and hallucinations during the voyage, had been continuously poisoned by the very gas keeping them afloat.
Eventually some wisenheimer (that’s a German word isn’t it?) repaired the radio as the dirigible soared over Khartoum. Almost immediately came an order crackling through the ships speakers for the airship to return home as the German army in Africa had already surrendered.
I dare say having made a round-trip of nearly 7,000 km (a long standing record by the way), L-59's captain was a little surprised when he returned to Germany and everyone started asking why he’d come back? It turns out the recall message was a British trick as no order had ever been issued by the Prussian high command. What should have given it away was the order was given in English (citation needed as I have no idea if this is true or not :) - though there are reports that a transcript of the radio message has been found in German archives and the files of the British Public Records office).
Back in Africa the German paleo-army continued to fight with little more than rocks and baboons, while L-59 was sent to bomb the city of Naples (which it somehow missed). It was last seen plummeting to earth in a ball of fire by infamous German U-boat, UB-53, who claimed she’d been shot down while trying to bomb Malta. There are rumours, however, it was actually UB-53 who shot down the Zeppelin, perhaps mistaking it for an Italian dirigible, as they were an allied nation during the First World War and the only other country that used the balloons as bombers.
UB-53 at sea

UB-53 had become famous when it sailed into Newport harbour (Rhode Island) on the 7th of October 1916. Her captain (Hans Rose) later paid a visit to American admirals, Austin M Knight and Albert Gleaves, on-board the USS Birmingham. The admirals then later return the favour by visiting Rose and the UB-53. There was such a friendly atmosphere between the two groups that Gleaves even brought his family for the tour.
UB-53 in Newport harbour, Rhode Island
Rose only left America when he heard talk about the US interring his ship - choosing to simply sail away before such an action could be taken. He then stationed himself off the American coastline and started sinking allied ships left, right and centre. UB-53 would even stop the American steamer Kansan, but released the ship when an inspection proved she carried no contraband cargo. The same could not be said for the British Strathdene, the Norwegian Christian Knutsen and the West Point, which were all sunk with their cargo of goods bound for England and her allies. Rose had removed the crews of these ships first - he even allowed passenger steamers to pass as he knew he could only sink them by risking civilian lives, which he refused to do.
The American navy was aware of what was happening off their shore and sent 17 warships, not to destroy the U-boat, but to help in rescue operations. The USS Ericcson would be on station and watched as UB-53 sank the Dutch Blommersdyk and British passenger liner Stephano, and never lifted a finger to stop it. The Ericcson did rush in though and remove the crew and passengers before retreating and allowing the U-boat to sink both ships and sail away.
Now I know America wasn’t officially at war with Germany, but couldn’t they have stopped these sinkings? They could have done anything, positioned themselves between predator and prey and dared the German warship to fire on an American naval vessel, or stall the U-boat long enough for the three British warships they knew were steaming from Canada to arrive…or better yet, have rammed the bloody thing and saved all the hassle?
As it turns out they should have acted while they had the U-boat under their guns as UB-53 would later become the first German to sink a US warship. When Amarice finally joined the war against Germany the USS Jacob Jones would also be the first US destroyer ever lost to enemy action. She went down after being torpedoed when her compliment of depth charges exploded, killing two officers and sixty-four men.
UB-53 would sink 80 ships, including several American vessels, throughout the entire war…and possibly one zeppelin as well!

Back in Africa, what was left of the German army invaded Rhodesia...sadly after the war had officially ended. When this news arrived the Germans quickly surrendered and went into prisoner of war camps. Here a large number of them died from the Spanish influenza outbreak that ravaged a wold that had already suffered so much after the war. One happy end to this story is that the German government paid these native troops a pension well into the 1960’s. 

Germany lost all her her colonies during the war, while the conflict continued to cause suffering for years among the African communities that had so little to begin with and had lost so much. After their men, animals and crops had been stolen from them at will, droughts ravaged the continent, along with the many diseases carried by all those thousands of soldiers and pack animals that had rampaged across the continent... and what of our palaeontologists?
Frass never returned to Africa as the sickness that had struck him down turned out to be Amoebic dysentery, which continued to eat away at his body until he was a shell of his former self. He died four days after his son was killed on the Western Front!
Hans Reck would fall ill, was captured and spent two years in an Egyptian prisoner of war camp. He should have become world famous for his discovery of the first significant human fossils at Olduvai Gorge, yet this glory would fall on a young Rhodesian anthropologist who’d been employed by the new lords of Tendaguru, the British, as he could speak several local dialects.
Louis Leakey joined a hauntingly similar effort to the Germans when the British also collected a large amount of money through donations and selected a Canadian palaeontologist called William E. Cutler to dig the site. This expedition also ended in tragedy as, ignoring Leakey’s warnings about the dangers of malaria and other disease born by the insects of the region, Cutler refused to sleep under a net and died with six months of his arrival.
Leaky would go on to fame and glory for his Olduvai Gorge discoveries, while Reck is all but forgotten, dying in 1936 while travelling to Tanganyika to examine a new human skull found there. As for the fossils he had hidden for protection, many would never been seen again!
Janensch and Henning had also become ‘kriegsgeolge’ (war geologists) during the conflict, with Janensch winning an Iron Cross 2nd grade. Both returned to palaeontology after the war.
Wollf Furtwängler had arrived missing much of his equipment, including his bedding and mosquito nets. While sleeping in a grass hut he was bitten by ticks and fell gravely ill. He was sent to nearby Lindi to recover, only to walk all the way back when he began feeling a little better. This move destroyed his health forever and he was sent home, never to return to Tendaguru either.
Former governor Wendt was killed after leading his small force of natives to push the invading Portuguese out of the German territory. Hans von Staff died drilling boreholes to supply the African army with water as it crossed the Namibian desert. He had been suffering from Typhus, and became so exhausted trying to save his men that he could no longer fight off the disease.
Bernhard Sattler - who’d originally found the fossil site - was killed in 1915 when he tried to stop one of his own drunken troops from looting. Apparently the rest of his Askari captured the murderer and put him to a very slowly death, a sure sign of how much the Africans had respected the geologist.
The Berlin Museum's East African fossils proved to be the best survivors from these expedition. Even though it took decades to prepare them, and had cost the lives of almost everyone involved, while all around them was destroyed they alone seem to have survived the allied bombing of Berlin during the Second World War . Allied commanders it turns out had been asked to try and avoid damaging the buildings storing them, which astonishingly they did. This of course was not true for other African fossils found and stored in Germany, with most famously the Spinosaurus fossils from Egypt (found and described by Ernst Stromer in 1915) were destroyed "during the night of 24/25 April 1944 in a British bombing raid of Munich". 
All we have left of the original Spinosaur fossils are images like this

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