This blog may in the future cover archaeology, cycling, anatchism and other things… However, for the time being, it will deal with Emily Dickinson’s time fighting with the Lincolns in the defence of the Spanish Republic.
The world owes you a debt of gratitude for shedding light on the hitherto little-known participation of Dickinson in the Spanish conflict. For the sake of accuracy permit me to correct a small but important aspect of your account.
While you describe Miss Dickinson defying the limits of her elderly frame to haul, fire and indeed cool a Maxim gun, the weapon in question was actually a Vicars’ machine gun. As they were both water-cooled this is understandably confused with similarly named Vickers gun of the same era.
However, the Vicars’ gun predates the Vickers by a number of years having been developed in the early 1890s for use in the Sudan by the Church of England’s Archbishop Laud Brigade. This example of the ‘muscular christianity’ so beloved of the late Victorians was an attempt to prove the inherent superiority of the Christian faith to Sudanese muslims via a combination of gamesmanship, the ability to wear stout fabrics in blistering heat and the armour-like qualities of the Book of Common Prayer and Crockfords Clerical Directory when worn in the appropriate pockets.
Prayer, tweed and leather bindings however, were not enough when facing in the massed and hostile Mahdist forces and so the Vicars’ gun (VG) was developed. Although water-cooled, the temperature of the VG was not moderated by holy water, as some wags of the day claimed. Any informed person will know that the practice of employing ‘holy’ water within Anglican ceremonies was little-used even before being expressly forbidden in the Report of the Royal Commission on Ecclesiastical Discipline of 1906.
For the observant Anglican cleric, perhaps the most attractive attribute of the VG was its gross unreliability and inaccuracy. Then, as now, the difficulty of reconciling the fifth Commandment with the realities of warfare proved a struggle for the even the most elastic of clerical consciences. A gun which gave its target every prospect of living to a ripe old age proved to be a very acceptable option.
So it was that a consignment of Vicars’ guns found their way to Spain in 1937 in the company of a squad of squeamish but zealous Belgian subdeacons. Not surprisingly, these were entirely wiped out less than a day after their arrival in Spain and the VGs were captured by Republicans who were entirely ignorant of their less-than-effective fighting qualities.
Or were they? Is this why Miss Dickinson was issued with one? Was a comrade ironically alluding to her ‘My Life had stood – a loaded Gun’ and in particular offering her a weapon that did not actually have ‘the power to kill’.
We will never know. But we do know that the excessive uric acid being expelled by Dickinson’s ancient bladder afflicted by Bight’s disease would have quickly corroded the gun’s mechanism. Perhaps history would have been different if she had indeed been issued with an air-cooled Maxim gun.
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