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An Aerial View of Lochnagar Crater in Summer of 2009

On July 1st 1916 at 7:28 AM, the British Army detonated the Lochnagar mine–two underground charges of a high explosive compound called ammonal (respectively 24,000lb and 30,000lb) thereby entirely vaporizing a large section of trenches filled with German infantryman.  This was only one of 17 giant mines which the British exploded in Northern France that morning.  In fact there were an original total of 21 buried explosive charges—but, because of various exigencies, two of these were not exploded until much later on July 1st (one of the remaining charges was detonated by lightning many years after the war, and another was never found).

One of the Other 17 Mined Explosions that Morning (Hawthorne Ridge)

The explosions followed 16 days of heavy artillery fire and immediately preceded a general infantry charge which began the Battle of the Somme. It was an appropriately apocalyptic beginning of the worst day ever for the British armed forces—by midnight there were 57,470 British casualties (19,240 of whom died of their injuries).  The battle of the Somme itself ground on until 18 November, 1916 by which point it had claimed over 1,200,000 casualties from both sides.  More than three hundred thousand people were killed during the course of the battle.

Lochnagar Crater after the Battle of the Somme

Today the huge scars from that morning have been filled in by farmland—with the notable exception of Lochnagar crater, which was privately purchased and left as a monument to the futility and destruction of World War I. Erosion is taking its toll on the crater, yet, even after nearly a century, the great hole still has a diameter of approximately 91 meters (300 feet) and a depth of 21 meters (70 feet).  Lochnagar crater is said to be the largest extant crater created by human artifice during war (obviously pit mines and nuclear test sites are much larger).  It still possesses a unique horror—a round void in the placid farmlands of Picardy. To this day the grain fields around it yield rusted rifles, dented helmets, and skeletons in addition to wheat.

I am writing about this disquieting pockmark as preparation for writing about Armistice Day later this week, when we can reflect on World War I — surely one of the most comprehensive disasters to befall humankind.  I am also writing about the largest wartime crater on earth, as an opportunity to note how feebly small it is in comparison to even modest meteor impact craters such as Lake Lonar or Kaali Craters, both of which happened in the remote past–to say nothing of giants like the Manicouagan Crater in Quebec which has a diameter of 70 kilometers (even after 225 million years of erosion).

A High Altitude Photo of Manicouagan Crater

Of course all of this should really be cause to reflect on how lucky we are—not only have we missed the Great War (except for you, Florence Green, if you’re reading this), but we have also missed all sorts of other unfortunate events.  Today at 6:28 PM EST, an asteroid passed by the Earth.  At its closest point it was nearer to us than the moon.  The space rock (unsentimentally named “2005 YU55”) was about the size of an aircraft carrier and was traveling faster than 13 km (8 miles) a second.  An amateur astrophysicist on the web estimates that it would have created a crater more than 5 kilometers in diameter if it had struck a limestone region of Earth.

Asteroid 2005 YU55

The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii

Since prehistory, cinnabar (mercury sulfide) has been sought after for its brilliant red-orange hue. Crushed into a pigment, this mineral becomes vermilion, and it is one of history’s great colors.  The bright red-orange of vermilion is unmistakable and takes pride of place in many—maybe most–of the great paintings created prior to the introduction of modern cadmium paints. The villa of the mysteries in Pompeii was painted with vermilion. Medieval illuminators made extensive use of vermillion to color the bibles, codexes, and prayer books of the times.

Michael Battling Demons (from the Book of Hours of Catherine of Cleves)

In the 8th century, Chinese chemists discovered how to artificially synthesize cinnabar.  The alchemists of medieval Europe mastered this trick later in the 12th century (after which both painting and chemistry made great strides forward).  The brightest reds in the great masterpieces of Renaissance art are vermillion as are the brightest reds in the masterpieces of Baroque, Rococo, and Romantic painting.

Portrait of Cardinal Pietro Bembo (Titian, ca. 1540, oil on canvas)

Because of its high mercury content cinnabar is very toxic to humans. People affected by mercury poisoning develop tremors, violent mood swings, and tunnel vision.  They lose first their hearing, then their eyesight, and ultimately their sanity and lives. The Romans knew these problems were associated with cinnabar mining and so they sent criminals and war slaves to man the mines of Spain and Slovenia.  Such wretches had an average life span of only three years.

Powdered Cinnabar

Because of its magnificent red color, and because it could be refined to yield liquid mercury (which was regarded as a magical regent of life) cinnabar was thought to be one of the keys to the fabled elixir of life.  Taoist charlatans and magicians made extensive use of raw cinnabar for allegedly rejuvenating cups, trinkets, and potions. Contrasting this paragraph with the one prior to it yields an obvious irony: the magical life giving elixirs quaffed by Taoist mystics were toxic.  Many Chinese emperors, aristocrats, and elites probably greatly shortened their life by becoming too enamored with the deadly beauty of vermilion

Carved cinnabar lacquer gourd-shaped ewer with floral design Mid Ming Dynasty (c. late 15th-early 16th Century)

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