Having been to the premiere of Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old last night – a film I thoroughly recommend – it seemed appropriate that my offering this week should have a connection to World War One.
You may not know the name Phoebe Ann Moses, but you will recognise her by her stage name – Annie Oakley, sharpshooter and star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
Her name is synonymous with the world’s view of life in the American West, but she is also the subject of one of the more intriguing ‘what ifs’ of history.
What if she had drunk more whisky the night before? What if she hadn’t been quite the sharpshooter she was? What if she had been blessed with foresight? If she had, then millions of lives might have been saved and the world might have been spared a great deal of grief.
It happened like this. In 1889, Oakley toured Europe to great acclaim, performing for the likes of Queen Victoria, King Umberto of Italy and the president of France.
On a cold November afternoon, Buffalo Bill’s circus had arrived at Berlin’s Charlottenburg Race Course and among the crowd was the young Kaiser Wilhelm II who had been on the German throne for little more than a year.
As usual, Oakley announced that she would attempt to shoot the ashes from a cigarette held by a man or woman from the audience and asked for a volunteer.
This was just for laughs as she didn’t expect anyone to put themselves forward. It was almost always her husband, Frank Butler, who offered himself as the human cigarette holder.
But on this occasion, it was Kaiser Wilhelm who leapt out of the royal box, stepped into the arena, and took a cigarette from his gold case which he lit with a flourish.
Several policemen tried to intervene but were waved away by the Kaiser. Oakley was horrified, but couldn’t go back on the dare. Sweating under her buckskin, Oakley raised her Colt .45 in a shaking hand and blew away the ashes of the cigarette to her great relief and tremendous applause.
If her aim hadn’t been quite so true, or her shakiness made worse by the whisky she drank the night before, then Wilhelm’s reign would have ended that day and history would not have recorded the events set in train by this ambitious, volatile and bellicose ruler.
Oakley herself came to regret the opportunity she had missed and at the outbreak of WWI, she wrote to the Kaiser asking for another shot. Wilhelm did not reply.
As mentioned above, this post is at least partly inspired by Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary that uses archive footage taken from the first great war to be captured on film. It is in turn horrifying, amusing and moving, but most of all it is a technical masterpiece that I hope other film archives will follow. And I hope you will see it too.