Daily Archives: 14 March, 2010

Portsmouth’s ‘old contemptibles’ – part 1

The British Army in 1914 was relatively small compared to those of France and Germany. Throughout most of its history used as an imperial police force, it was only in the early years of the twentieth century that the British Army was committed to providing an Expeditionary Force to fight on the continent.

The BEF that sailed for France in August 1914 was a small but professional force. Even so, it was referred to derisively by Kaiser Wilhelm as ‘that contemptible little army’. Or so the story goes. In fact, there is now doubt that he ever said that all. Some suggest that it was a useful morale booster invented by the British. If so, it worked – the men of the first BEF in 1914 became known as the ‘old contemptibles’.

The 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment sailed for France in 1914, as part of the 11th Brigade in the 4th Division. They landed at Le Havre on 23 August 1914. They arrived at the front in time to take part in the battle of Le Cateau, during the retreat from Mons. Private William Baldock was killed on 26 August 1914. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre Memorial.

The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers suffered extremely heavy losses in a rearguard action at Etreux on 27 August 1914. Among those killed was Lance Corporal Edward Carroll, 29 and from Milton. A member of E Company, he is buried in Etreux.

After the withdrawal from Mons, the British Army finally made a stand at the Battle of the Marne. There Private Frederick Browne was killed on 10 September. 19 and from Southsea, he was serving in the 2nd Battalion of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps.

Private Walter Chapman, 28 and from Portsmouth, died shortly after the end of the Battle of the Marne on 15 September 1944. From the 1st Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, he is buried at La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre.

Notice that the surnames of he men I have mentioned above only run from A to C. So far, these are the only names that I have researched, there are bound to be many more from D to Z. Even so, the BEF in 1914 was remarkably small compared to the size it would reach by 1918. Sadly, very few of the original ‘old contemptibles’ would live to see 1918.

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Escape from Arnhem by Godfrey Freeman

Godfrey Freeman attempted to join the RAF several times, but was turned down for having a depressed sternum. Instead he enlisted in the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry, and then fulfiled his flying ambition by volunteering for the Glider Pilot Regiment. The Glider Pilot Regiment gained a strong reputation, for not only were they fully trained pilots, but upon landing they also went into action as infantry.

Escape from Arnhem begins shortly after the fall of Arnhem Bridge, and follows Freeman into captivity. He feigned shell-shock, figuring that he would therefore be kept in Hospital rather than sent to a Stalag, and thus would have a much better chance of escape. He was initially sent to a makeshift hospital at the Royal Palace of Het Loo near Apeldoorn. My own Grandfather, who was also wounded and captured at Arnhem, may well have been in the same place. He eventually escaped, and took part in the daring Pegasus escape across the Rhine, along with 120 other refugees. The Pegasus Operation was featured in Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers. One of the men who originally escaped with Freeman, Major John Coke, was killed in a later escape attempt.

Freeman’s account gives us a very good impression of the experience of the Airborne soldiers who were captured at Arnhem. On a personal level I find this very interesting, as my Granddad talked very little about what happened to him. To read about the conditions, the relations with their German Guards, the medical care and the rations, helps fill some gaps in my understanding. It is the crystal clear memories that Freeman imparts that make a book like this. Like his recollections of Major-General Urquhart being airsick in the back of his glider, and the hospitality afforded by Dutch people who sheltered the escapees.

I find it quite telling that Freeman had to be talked into compiling his memories by his friends and family – he feared sounding like a ‘big-I-am’. His style of writing is very humble and matter of fact, which is important – these stories need no embellishing or glossing, indeed to do so would discredit them. So many books have been written about Arnhem, but none with such humility.

Escape from Arnhem is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Airborne Warfare, Arnhem, Book of the Week, World War Two