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Battle of the Falkland Islands

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Battle of the Falkland Islands
Part of World War I
Battle of the Falkland Islands, 1914 (retouched).jpg

A painting by William Lionel Wyllie of Battle of the Falkland Islands.
Date8 December 1914

British victory[1][2][3]

 United Kingdom  Germany
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Doveton Sturdee
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Archibald Stoddart
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland John Luce
German Empire Maximilian v. Spee  
2 battlecruisers
3 armoured cruisers
2 light cruisers and
1 grounded pre-dreadnought
2 armoured cruisers
3 light cruisers
3 transports
Casualties and losses
10 killed
19 wounded
1,871 killed
215 captured
2 armoured cruisers sunk
2 light cruisers sunk
2 transports captured and subsequently scuttled

The Battle of the Falkland Islands was a naval action between the British Royal Navy and Imperial German Navy on 8 December 1914, during the First World War in the South Atlantic. The British, after the defeat at the Battle of Coronel on 1 November, sent a large force to track down and destroy the victorious German cruiser squadron. The battle is commemorated every year on 8 December in the Falkland Islands as a public holiday.

Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee—commanding the German squadron of two armoured cruisers, SMS Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the light cruisers SMS Nürnberg, Dresden and Leipzig, and three auxiliaries—attempted to raid the British supply base at Stanley in the Falkland Islands. The British squadron—consisting of the battlecruisers HMS Invincible and Inflexible, the armoured cruisers HMS Carnarvon, Cornwall and Kent, the armed merchant cruiser HMS Macedonia and the light cruisers HMS Bristol and Glasgow—had arrived in the port the day before.

Visibility was at its maximum, the sea was placid with a gentle breeze from the northwest, and the day was bright and sunny. The advanced cruisers of the German squadron were detected early. By nine o'clock that morning the British battlecruisers and cruisers were in hot pursuit of the five German vessels, which had taken flight in line abreast to the southeast. All except the auxiliary Seydlitz were hunted down and sunk.

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  • ✪ The Battle At The Falkland Islands - The Death of Maximilian von Spee I THE GREAT WAR Week 20
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The 50 years prior to the War had seen military medicine advance more slowly than other branches of science, and without antibiotics, gangrene was a massive killer, but only one among many. Bullets, disease, drowning, murders of civilians, and more, and as winter began and the carnage continued, scenes of the worst horror imaginable were now not only very much real, they were every day happenings. I’m Indy Neidell; welcome to the Great War. Last week we saw the Austrians, with German help, pushing back the Russian colossus. Further south in the Balkans, other Austrians had taken Belgrade but were now on the run, the British Indian troops were nearing Qurna in the Middle East, and on the western front it was unusually quiet after the interminable battles of the autumn. The Western Front wasn’t especially quiet this week, though, as the British and French made attacks that didn’t have any specific physical goal, but were intended to tie down German forces and prevent them from being transferred to the Eastern Front to fight the Russians. German Chief of Staff Falkenhayn had committed to sending three divisions from west to east, but refused to send more, even though General Ludendorff in the east repeatedly asked for them. In November, Ludendorff had launched a pre-emptive offensive against the Russians that had resulted in the Battle of Lodz, a truly colossal engagement, with over half a million troops involved. This attack had ruined Russian plans for an invasion of Germany, but the Germans had been unable to take the city itself, which was a well-supplied strategic railway center. This week they tried again, and after a series of frontal assaults using those three transferred divisions managed to capture Lodz on December 6th. The Germans advanced another 50 kilometers before they came up against Russian troops that had dug themselves in to trenches. The Germans dug in as well and as winter came on in force we see the whole center section of the eastern front frozen, physically and militarily. It would remain so until the summer of 1915. But if things seemed stalled in the west and the east, they were anything but that in the south. The Austrians seemed to have the Serbs beaten only a week ago when they took the Serbian capital, but incredibly, only a few days later the Serbs had the Austrian army on the run. The Austrians had fallen back to Valjevo, but the Serbs managed to surround them there and in just a few days of fighting had taken over 20,000 Austrian prisoners. By December 10th, most of the remaining Austrian soldiers had left the country. Belgrade held out for a few more days, but on December 15th the Serbian High Command issued a proclamation that stated “Not one enemy soldier remains at liberty on the soil of the Serbian kingdom”. This was an enormous defeat for the Austrians and an equally enormous victory for Serbia. It was a huge blow to Austrian pride and confidence- I mean, if they couldn’t beat Serbia, what would happen against Russia? And for Serbia it meant being in the news headlines all over the world. The result was political and humanitarian aid, and people from around the world even coming to fight for the underdog. But there was a cost- the Serbs had suffered over 100,000 casualties in just a few weeks, and the Austrian defeat certainly wasn’t irreversible. Serbia had drained her forces down to the last dreg to beat the Austrians, and the country was devastated. Whole towns were emptied, and refugees roamed the blasted countryside. One other thing often overlooked - Serbia was now linked to the world by only a single-track railway to Salonika in neutral Greece, through which all supplies had to be transported painfully slowly. Disease was rampant throughout the country - cholera, typhus, and dysentery killed thousands, and the poverty and misery would only get worse. In the First World War, over 60 percent of Serbian men between the ages of 15 and 55 would die. As for the Austrians, General Oskar Potiorek was finally relieved of his command for incompetence since by the end of the year his army had suffered close to 300,000 casualties out of a total deployment of 450,000. But Conrad von Hotzendorf was still chief of staff, in spite of the fact that against both Russian and Serb, his operations had pretty much uniformly ended in disaster. Another, far more successful commander did meet his end this week, though, on December 8th at the battle of the Falklands. A few weeks ago at the Battle of Coronel, German Admiral von Spee had given the British their first defeat at sea for 100 years, sinking two cruisers and taking 1,600 lives. The outraged British had subsequently redeployed their forces to try to intercept Spee wherever he went, the Japanese navy had repositioned units to help, and two British battle cruisers, the Invincible and the Inflexible had been sent to the South Atlantic. Spee was being hunted in the Indian, the Pacific, and the Atlantic Oceans, and this week he made the mistake of attacking the Falkland Islands, arriving at Port Stanley December 8th, which the battle cruiser squadron had also decided to visit. The battle cruisers were stronger and faster than any of Spee’s ships and though Spee tried to run and eventually turned to fight, his ships were destroyed, with 2,200 German sailors, including Spee himself, dying against ten British. Only the Dresden got away and she would spend the next three months hiding in the sub Antarctic waters around Cape Horn until cornered and forced to scuttle. This battle marked the end of the High Seas activity of the German navy. After this, surface fighting was limited to landlocked waters like the Black Sea, the Baltic, or the Adriatic. One area of the world that was really just heating up though was the Middle East, where the British Indian Army won the Battle of Qurna[ad], where the Ottomans had retreated after losses at Fao and Basra. Thing is, the British had pretty much secured their coastal oil production with those battles, but the Ottoman defenses had been quite weak so they’d moved further in land. Qurna, though, which is supposed to be a possible site of the Garden of Eden, was anything but good as a base. Endless winds stirred up clouds of dust and the flood plain meant that when you dug trenches, they just filled with water. Bad water, bad sanitation, the total lack of communication except along the Tigris and Euphrates, and endless small raids by the local Arab population further complicated things, and you could really see that this campaign was going to be no picnic for anybody. The British also now began to wonder how strong the enemy was actually going to be and just how big was the threat to the oil fields. In other foreshadowing news, we see that the mobilization of Russian students began December 1st. This provided many more soldiers, but also gave Bolshevik student activists access to the army. Of course, when hundreds of thousands of your men are dying, eventually you need to recruit more, whether too old or too young to traditionally serve. And one thing to consider too- though so many troops of all ages died, even more were taken as prisoners of war. The ICRC- the Red Cross- arranged visits to POW camps in all of the warring nations, and they determined that the Germans, French, and British were following humanitarian guidelines for military POWs, but not the Russians or Austrians. Now, we’ve already mentioned before that many Austrian officers took pride in the atrocities committed in the Serbian campaign, but John Reed, an American war correspondent, was at this point traveling through the Balkans getting material for his soon to be published book, which would confirm for Allied readers the barbarism of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, such as a photograph Reed was shown from Leknica, showing over 100 women and children chained together, whose heads had been cut off. But as awful and shocking as scenes like that may be, they really were just a drop in the bucket. Think of life on the front lines in the west, for example. First off the destruction from artillery fire from miles away: a huge belt of land littered with corpses; farms and villages now just blackened masonry, the fields and trees destroyed, and the bodies of horses, cattle, and sheep scattered throughout, dismembered, abandoned, or starving, while the wounded men and animals cried out endlessly in pain. Thousands more die of disease or rot in the mud and rain. The conditions would only worsen as the winter came on. And winter was coming on all over Europe, and at the end of the week we still see sporadic fighting in Flanders, the Germans being stopped by the Russians and settling in, the Austrians being expelled from underdog Serbia, the German Pacific navy destroyed, and the British again victorious in the Middle East. It’s two weeks to Christmas. With all the battle talk and maps and strategy, it’s very easy to overlook what was going on on an individual level in the war, and I’d like to end this week with a quote, a scene of horror from 1914 recounted by Alois Lowenstein, “among a bunch of corpses lay three wounded Frenchmen. One man had both legs shattered; the second’s stomach was torn open; the third had tried to shoot himself until one of our chaps took away his revolver. He fired twice at his own head to escape pain, but aimed clumsily, a little too high. The skullcap was uplifted and he moaned in a fashion to melt the heart. Another man lay apparently dead, but with one leg still twitching like that of a partridge that is unable to die.” This was war. See you next week. A war whose just described suffering was even more gruesome in combination with weather and seasons. In our episode about the week of Ocotber 2 1914 we’re discussing the consequences of autumn rain and mud for the soldiers. Click here to watch the episode. If you don’t want to miss anymore episodes, click subscribe and don’t forget to ask questions for our new format OUT OF THE TRENCHES, so, we can answer them in one of the next episodes.



The British battlecruisers each mounted eight 12 in (305 mm) guns, whereas Spee's best ships (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau) were equipped with eight 210 mm (8.3 in) pieces. Additionally, the battlecruisers could make 25.5 knots (47.2 km/h; 29.3 mph) against Spee's 22.5 knots (41.7 km/h; 25.9 mph); thus, the British battlecruisers not only significantly outgunned their opponents, but could outrun them too. The obsolete pre-dreadnought battleship HMS Canopus had been grounded at Stanley to act as a makeshift defence battery for the area.

Spee's squadron

At the outbreak of hostilities, the German East Asia Squadron commanded by Spee was outclassed and outgunned by the Royal Navy and the Imperial Japanese Navy. Spee and the High Command did not believe Germany's Asian possessions could be defended and doubted the squadron could even survive in that theatre. Spee wanted to get his ships home and began by heading southeast across the Pacific, although he was pessimistic about their chances.

Spee's fleet won the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Coronel, Chile, on 1 November 1914, where his ships sank the cruisers HMS Good Hope (Admiral Cradock's flagship) and Monmouth. After the battle, on 3 November, Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Nürnberg entered Valparaíso harbour and were welcomed as heroes by the German population. Von Spee declined to join in the celebrations; when presented with a bouquet of flowers, he refused them, commenting that "these will do nicely for my grave".[4] As required under international law for belligerent ships in neutral countries, the ships left within 24 hours, moving to Mas Afuera, 400 mi (350 nmi; 640 km) off the Chilean coast. There they received news of the loss of the cruiser SMS Emden, which had previously detached from the squadron and had been raiding in the Indian Ocean. They also learned of the fall of the German colony at Tsingtao in China, which had been their home port. On 15 November, the squadron moved to Bahia San Quintin on the Chilean coast, where a ceremony was held to award 300 Iron Crosses, second class, to crew members, and an Iron Cross first class to Admiral Spee.[5]

Spee's officers counseled a return to Germany.[citation needed] The squadron had used half its ammunition at Coronel; the supply could not be replenished, and it was difficult even to obtain coal. Intelligence reports suggested that the British ships HMS Defence, Cornwall and Carnarvon were stationed in the River Plate, and that there had been no British warships at Stanley when recently visited by a steamer. Spee had been concerned about reports of a British battleship, Canopus, but its location was unknown. On 26 November, the squadron set sail for Cape Horn, which they reached on 1 December, then anchored at Picton Island, where they stayed for three days distributing coal from a captured British collier, the Drummuir, and hunting. On 6 December, the British vessel was scuttled and its crew transferred to the auxiliary Seydlitz. The same day Spee proposed to raid the Falkland Islands before setting course for Germany. The raid was unnecessary because the squadron now had as much coal as it could carry. Most of Spee's captains opposed the raid, but he nevertheless decided to proceed.[6]

British preparations

On 30 October, retired Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Fisher was reappointed First Sea Lord to replace Admiral Prince Louis of Battenberg, who had been forced to resign because of public outcry against a perceived German prince running the British navy.[7] On 3 November, Fisher was advised that Spee had been sighted off Valparaíso and acted to reinforce Cradock by ordering Defence, already sent to patrol the eastern coast of South America, to reinforce his squadron. On 4 November, news of the defeat at Coronel arrived. The blow to British naval prestige was palpable, and the English public was rather shocked. As a result, the battlecruisers Invincible and Inflexible were ordered to leave the Grand Fleet and sail to Plymouth for overhaul and preparation for service abroad. Chief of Staff at the Admiralty was Vice-Admiral Doveton Sturdee. Fisher had a long-standing disagreement with Sturdee, who had been one of those calling for his earlier dismissal as First Sea Lord in 1911, so he took the opportunity to appoint Sturdee Commander-in-Chief, South Atlantic and Pacific, to command the new squadron from Invincible.[8]

On 11 November, Invincible and Inflexible left Devonport, although repairs to Invincible were incomplete and she sailed with workmen still aboard. Despite the urgency of the situation and their maximum speed of around 25 knots (46 km/h; 29 mph), the ships were forced to cruise at 10 knots (19 km/h; 12 mph) to conserve coal in order to complete the long journey south across the Atlantic. The two ships were also heavily loaded with supplies. Although secrecy of the mission was considered important so as to surprise Spee, Lieutenant Hirst from Glasgow heard locals discussing the forthcoming arrival of the ships while ashore at Cape Verde on 17 November; however the news did not reach Spee. Sturdee arrived at the Abrolhos Rocks on the 26 November, where Rear Admiral Stoddart awaited him with the remainder of the squadron.[9]

Sturdee announced his intention to depart for the Falkland Islands on 29 November. From there, the fast light cruisers Glasgow and Bristol would patrol seeking Spee, summoning reinforcements if they found him. Captain Luce of Glasgow, who had been at the battle of Coronel, objected that there was no need to wait so long and persuaded Sturdee to depart a day early. The squadron was delayed during the journey for 12 hours when a cable towing targets for practice-firing became wrapped around one of Invincible's propellers, but the ships arrived on the morning of 7 December. The two light cruisers moored in the inner part of Stanley Harbour, while the larger ships remained in the deeper outer harbour of Port William. Divers set about removing the offending cable from Invincible; Cornwall's boiler fires were extinguished to make repairs, and Bristol had one of her engines dismantled. The famous ship SS Great Britain—reduced to a coal bunker—supplied coal to Invincible and Inflexible. The armed merchant cruiser Macedonia was ordered to patrol the harbour, while Kent maintained steam in her boilers, ready to replace Macedonia the next day, 8 December; Spee's fleet arrived in the morning of the same day.[10]

An unlikely source of intelligence on the movement of the German ships was from Mrs Muriel Felton, wife of the manager of a sheep station at Fitzroy, and her maids Christina Goss and Marian Macleod. They were alone when Felton received a telephone call from Port Stanley advising that German ships were approaching the islands. The maids took turns riding to the top of a nearby hill to record the movements of the ships, which Felton relayed to Port Stanley by telephone. Her reports allowed Bristol and Macedonia to take up the best positions to intercept. The Admiralty later presented the women with silver plates and Felton received an OBE for her actions.[11][12][13][14]


The Battle of the Falkland Islands
The Battle of the Falkland Islands

Opening moves

Spee's cruisers—Gneisenau and Nürnberg—approached Stanley first. At the time, the entire British fleet was coaling. Some believe that, had Spee pressed the attack, Sturdee's ships would have been easy targets,[15] although this is a subject of conjecture and some controversy. Any British ship that tried to leave would have faced the full firepower of the German ships; having a vessel sunk might also have blocked the rest of the British squadron inside the harbour. However, the Germans were surprised by gunfire from an unexpected source: HMS Canopus, which had been grounded as a guardship and was behind a hill. This was enough to check the Germans' advance. The sight of the distinctive tripod masts of the British battlecruisers confirmed that they were facing a better-equipped enemy. Kent was already making her way out of the harbour and had been ordered to pursue Spee's ships.

Made aware of the German ships, Sturdee had ordered the crews to breakfast, knowing that Canopus had bought them time while steam was raised.

To Spee, with his crew battle-weary and his ships outgunned, the outcome seemed inevitable. Realising his danger too late, and having lost any chance to attack the British ships while they were at anchor, Spee and his squadron dashed for the open sea. The British left port around 10:00. Spee was ahead by 15 mi (13 nmi; 24 km) but there was plenty of daylight left for the faster battlecruisers to catch up.


It was 13:00 when the British battlecruisers opened fire, but it took them half an hour to get the range of Leipzig. Realising that he could not outrun the British ships, Spee decided to engage them with his armoured cruisers alone, to give the light cruisers a chance to escape. He turned to fight just after 13:20. The German armoured cruisers had the advantage of a freshening north-west breeze, which caused the funnel smoke of the British ships to obscure their target practically throughout the action. Gneisenau's second-in-command Hans Pochhammer indicated that there was a long respite for the Germans during the early stages of the battle, as the British attempted unsuccessfully to force Admiral Spee away from his advantageous position.

Invincible and Inflexible steaming out of Port Stanley in chase, a painting by William Lionel Wyllie
Invincible and Inflexible steaming out of Port Stanley in chase, a painting by William Lionel Wyllie

Despite initial success by Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in striking Invincible, the British capital ships suffered little damage. Spee then turned to escape, but the battlecruisers came within extreme firing range 40 minutes later.

Invincible and Inflexible engaged Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, while Sturdee detached his cruisers to chase Leipzig and Nürnberg.

Inflexible and Invincible turned to fire broadsides at the armoured cruisers and Spee responded by trying to close the range. His flagship Scharnhorst took extensive damage with funnels flattened, fires and a list. The list became worse at 16:04, and she sank by 16:17. Gneisenau continued to fire and evade until 17:15, by which time her ammunition had been exhausted, and her crew allowed her to sink at 18:02.[16] During her death throes, Admiral Sturdee continued to engage Gneisenau with his two battlecruisers and the cruiser Carnarvon, rather than detaching one of the battlecruisers to hunt down the escaping Dresden. 190 of Gneisenau's crew were rescued from the water. Both of the British battlecruisers had received about 40 hits between them from the German ships, with one crewman killed and four injured.

Meanwhile, Nürnberg and Leipzig had run from the British cruisers. Nürnberg was running at full speed but in need of maintenance, while the crew of the pursuing Kent were pushing her boilers and engines to the limit. Nürnberg finally turned for battle at 17:30. Kent had the advantage in shell weight and armour. Nürnberg suffered two boiler explosions around 18:30, giving the advantage in speed and manoeuvrability to Kent. The German ship then rolled over and sank at 19:27 after a long chase. The cruisers Glasgow and Cornwall had chased down Leipzig; Glasgow closed to finish Leipzig, which had run out of ammunition but was still flying her battle ensign. Leipzig fired two flares, so Glasgow ceased fire. At 21:23, more than 80 mi (70 nmi; 130 km) southeast of the Falklands, she also rolled over and sank, leaving only 18 survivors.


HMS Inflexible picking up German sailors from Gneisenau after the battle
HMS Inflexible picking up German sailors from Gneisenau after the battle

Casualties and damage were extremely disproportionate; the British suffered only very lightly. Admiral Spee and his two sons were among the German dead. Rescued German survivors, 215 total, became prisoners on the British ships. Most were from the Gneisenau, nine were from Nürnberg and 18 were from Leipzig. Scharnhorst was lost with all hands. One of Gneisenau's officers who lived had been the sole survivor on three different guns on the battered cruiser. He was pulled from the water saying he was a first cousin of the British commander (Stoddart).[17]

Of the known German force of eight ships, two escaped: the auxiliary Seydlitz and the light cruiser Dresden, which roamed at large for a further three months before her captain was cornered by a British squadron (Kent, Glasgow and Orama) off the Juan Fernández Islands on 14 March 1915. After fighting a short battle, Dresden's captain evacuated his ship and scuttled her by detonating the main ammunition magazine.

As a consequence of the battle, the German East Asia Squadron, Germany's only permanent overseas naval formation, effectively ceased to exist. Commerce raiding on the high seas by regular warships of the Kaiserliche Marine was brought to an end. However, Germany put several armed merchant vessels into service as commerce raiders until the end of the war (for example, see Felix von Luckner).

Secret service trap

After the battle, German naval experts were baffled at why Admiral Spee attacked the base and how the two squadrons could have met so coincidentally in so many thousands miles of open waters. Kaiser William II's handwritten note on the official report of the battle reads: "It remains a mystery what made Spee attack the Falkland Islands. See 'Mahan's Naval Strategy'."[18]

It was generally believed Spee was misled by the German admiralty into attacking the Falklands, a Royal Naval fuelling base, after receiving intelligence from the German wireless station at Valparaiso which reported the port free of Royal Navy warships. Despite the objection of three of his ships' captains, Spee proceeded to attack.[19][20]

However, in 1925 a German naval officer, Franz von Rintelen, interviewed Admiral William Reginald Hall, Director of the Admiraltry's Naval Intelligence Division (NID), and was informed that Spee's squadron had been lured towards the British battlecruisers by means of a fake signal sent in a German naval code broken by British cryptographers.[21] (Similarly, on 14 March 1915, Dresden was intercepted by British ships while taking on coal at sea in a location identified by NID codebreakers).[22]


Plaque to the 8 dead of HMS Kent in Canterbury Cathedral
Plaque to the 8 dead of HMS Kent in Canterbury Cathedral
  1. ^ Jaques. Dictionary of Battles and Sieges. p. 346.
  2. ^ Scott & Robertson. Many Were Held by the Sea: The Tragic Sinking of HMS Otranto. p. 16.
  3. ^ "The Battle of the Falkland Islands". This Day in History.
  4. ^ Massie, 2004, p. 237, citing Pitt pp. 66–67.
  5. ^ 'Castles' pp. 251–52
  6. ^ 'Castles' pp. 253–56
  7. ^ Prince Louis had been British and in the Royal Navy since the age of 14
  8. ^ 'Castles' p. 248
  9. ^ 'Castles' p. 249
  10. ^ 'Castles' pp. 249–51
  11. ^ "United Empire". 14. 1923: 687.
  12. ^ Ian J. Strange (1983). The Falkland Islands. David & Charles. p. 100. ISBN 0715385313.
  13. ^ Paul G. Halpern (1995). A Naval History of World War I. Naval Institute Press. p. 99. ISBN 1557503524.
  14. ^ "No. 30576". The London Gazette (Supplement). 15 March 1918. p. 3287.
  15. ^ "...the prospects should the Germans press home an attack without delay were far from pleasant." Corbett, J.S. British Official History – Naval Operations. (London: H.M. Stationery Office, 1921) vol. I, chapter XXIX, cited in Baldwin, Hanson W. World War I: An Outline History. (New York: Grove Press, 1962) p. 46
  16. ^ Regan, Geoffrey. Military Anecdotes (1992) p. 13 Guinness Publishing ISBN 0-85112-519-0
  17. ^ Regan p. 14
  18. ^ Franz von Rintelen (in English). The Dark Invader: Wartime Reminiscences of a German Naval Intelligence Officer (1998 ed.). Routledge. pp. 326. ISBN 0714647926.
  19. ^ Halpern, p. 97
  20. ^ Massie, p. 255
  21. ^ Franz von Rintelen (in English). The Dark Invader: Wartime Reminiscences of a German Naval Intelligence Officer (1998 ed.). Routledge. pp. 326. ISBN 0714647926.
  22. ^ Beesly, Patrick (1982). Room 40. London: Hamish Hamilton Ltd. pp. 77–78. ISBN 0241108640.


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