Daily Archives: 27 March, 2010

Using War Diaries

As background for my research into Portsmouth’s WW1 dead, earlier today I downloaded the War Diary of the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, from 1914 to 1918. Many other WW1 War Diaries are available to download, for the small sum of £3.50, from the National Archives’s Documents Online website. This is a fantastic resource – without it, I would have to make a trip to Kew to photoraph nigh on a thousand pages!

I’ve used War Diaries before – I’ve looked at the 11th Parachute Battalion and the 10th Berkshires, from the time my Granddad was serving with them in the second world war. I’ve also had a look at the War Diaries of the Grenadier Guards in the First World War, when conducting some research into Boy Browning.

A few things are noticeable from glancing over the War Diaries. When the 1st Hampshires embarked for France, the war diary was written by hand, in an almost flowery – some might say officer-like – manner. But what it does do is describe the fighting in a lot of detail. In some places they also contain extracts from officers and even mens diaries. By 1916, however, the war diaries become more formal. The are typewritten, on official forms. They also become very matter of fact – I guess by that stage in the war going up to the line was nothing special to the Adjutant writing the diary.

The War Diaries tend to give a lot more information about officers than men. At the end of each month a return was made of the officers in the Battalion, which had been admitted to or discharged from Hospital, who was on leave, and who had been killed, wounded or reported missing. The same information is recorded for other ranks, but only in terms of numbers. The only time that other ranks were mentioned was when they were awarded Gallantry Medals.

As well as giving us an idea of when a Battalion was attacking, when it was in line or in reserve, the war diary tells us so much more. We can see when Platoon Football Leagues were held. In terms of training, we see when companies took part in Bayonet training, for example. We can also see when they carried out work parties. The Diary also contains orders that have been archived, and maps. The problem with maps, however, is that they often have code names for locations, instead of their real names!

Another thing that is noticeable, is the losses among officers. Commonly the Battalion seems to have been commanded by a Major, and Companies by Lieutenants. If officers got more coverage in the war diary, they also got a lot of attention from the enemy.

I will post more excerpts and observations from the 1st Hampshires War Diary as I read through it.

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Contract signed for next phase of Type 26 warship project

The MOD has recently signed a contract with BAE systems for the Assessment Phase of the Royal Navy’s planned Type 26 combat ship, the next generation of British warships.

A joint BAE-MOD team will work on designs for the Type 26 class, which are due to replace the Type 22 and Type 23 Frigates by the end of the decade. The Type 26 nomenclature has been used, as the Type 24 and Type 25 Frigates were projects that never left the drawing board. By giving the project a formal Type name, the MOD is making it seem that much more of a reality.

According to the official MOD press release, the purpose of the Assessment phase will be to ensure ‘…that the necessary capabilities identified during the Strategic Defence Review are incorporated into the Type 26 design’.

The published key design aims for the Type 26 are for a ship that is:

• Versatile – able to undertake a number of roles;
• Flexible – to adapt to the changing needs of defence;
• Affordable – both in build and support through its service life;
• Exportable – designed with the international market in mind.

I have long thought that these ships will be very important to the future of the Royal Navy. The design aims seem to be broadly sensible, and of course affordability will be important in the current economic climate. That the Assessment phase is largely dependant on the Strategic Defence Review may seem worrying, but it is also pragmatic – there is no sense in forging ahead with a project that may be cancelled or radically altered. And ship design and procurement needs to work within the broader strategic context.

The Royal Navy is currently far behind many of its allies where smaller escort ships are concerned – the Danish Absalon and the Swedish Visby classes are examples of this. Its crucial that the Type 26 is delivered.

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The Machine Gun Corps 1914-1918

One of the new aspects of the First World War was the Machine Gun. Although it had a lineage going back to the American Civil War, it was in the static, trench warfare conditions of the Western Front that the Machine Gun began to have a decisive effect.

At the start of the First World War in 1914 British Army infantry battalions each had a machine gun section of two maxim guns, manned by a junior officer and 12 men. However, experience in 1914 and 1915 suggested that the Army would need many more Machine Guns, and that they would need to be manned by dedicated units, using specialist tactics and organisation. On 2 September 1915 a proposal was submitted to the War Office to create a specialist Machine Gun Company per each infantry brigade, instead of Machine Guns being operated by the battalions themselves. These Companies were organised into a new Machine Gun Corps.

The re-organisation was completed by the start of the battle of the Somme in July 1916. Shortly after the Machine Gun Corps was create the Maxim was replaced by the Vickers. Infantry battalions were given the Lewis light machine gun to increase their firepower.

With their rate of fire, machine guns could generate as much fire as hundreds of rifles, and could seriously hamper attacking infantry. This was shown on the first day of the Somme on 1 July 1916 – if Machine Guns were set up along the line, with interlocking fields of fire, the attacking troops would face a death trap.

A total of 170,500 officers and men served in the Machine Gun Corps, of which 62,049 were killed, wounded or missing. A number of them came from Portsmouth.

Lance Corporal Owen Bugden, 20 and from Fratton, was serving with 163rd Company of the Machine Gun Corps when he was killed on 19 April 1917. He was supporting 54th Division in Palestine, and is remembered on the Jerusalem Memorial.

Machine Guns played a critical role in defending against German attacks at Arras. Sergeant Nathaniel Cranley, 40 and from Cosham, was killed on 3 May 1917. He was serving with 93rd Company, who were supporting 31st Division. He is remembered on the Arras Memorial in France. Private Henry Blackman, 21 and from Landport, was serving with 100th Company when he was killed on 20 May 1917. 100th Company were suporting 33rd Division. He is also remembered on the Arras Memorial.

Private J.E. Burridge was killed on 13 March 1918. He was serving with 2nd Battalion, who were supporting 2nd Division. He is buried in Neuville-Bourjonval War Cemetery, France. Also of 2nd Battalion was Private Dennis Cake, 19 and from Southsea, who was killed on 28 July 1918. He is buried at Bienvillers War Cemetery, France.

Private Herbert Exell, 19 and from Copnor, was a member of 49th Company when we was killed on 25 April 1918. 49th Company were supporting 16th Division. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial, Belgium.

Private Arthur Bone, 19 and from Kingston, was killed on 27 September 1918. He had originally enlisted in the Hampshire Regiment, and then transferred to the 5th Battalion of the MGC, who were supporting the 5th Division. He is remembered on the Vis-en-Artois Memorial, France.

Private Frederick Coward, 28 and from North End, was killed on 2 October 1918, seving with the 2nd Company of the Australian MGC. He is buried in Bellicourt War Cemetery, France.

Private Albert Evans, 19 and from Powerscout Road, was serving with the 19th Battalion of the MGC when he was killed on 6 November 1918, only five days before the end of the war. 19th Battalion were supporting 19th Division. Evans is bured in Cross Roads War Cemetery, France. His brother Charles Evans, a Gunner, was also killed in 1918.

What can we tell from this small sample of casualties? Firstly, how young these men were – 6 of the men named above were 20 our younger. Secondly, given that they all died in 1917 and 1918, it seems that the British Army only began using Machine Guns in serious numbers – and incurring losses in Machine Gunners – from 1917 onwards.

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, Uncategorized, World War One

In the ranks of death: The Irish in the Second World War by Richard Doherty

Hot on the heels of Bloody Belfast, I received another book on Irish History, this time focussing on the contribution of Irish people and Irish units to the Second World War.

Irish History really is like trying to untangle a particularly nasty ‘birdsnest’ on a fishing reel. Particularly if we are looking at Anglo-Irish History – its a prime example of how history can be affected by past and indeed future events. Cromwell’s campaigns in Ireland affected the path towards Irish nationalism, as much as the Easter Rising and the Troubles affect how Cromwell is seen today. Somewhere in amongst this passionate and complex historiography, we have the fact that a significant number of Irishman have fought for the British Crown over hundreds of years. Perhaps one of the best – although fictional – examples is that of Sergeant Harper in Sharpe.

But that is not all. Add into the equation the many thousands of Irish diaspora, particularly people who left during hard times to seek work, and joined the British Armed Forces. This leads us to consider one crucial question – why would Irishmen, particularly from the south, serve the British Crown? Doherty offers a number of reasons – hardship being one, alongside a desire to defend Democracy. Tellingly, however, Doherty tells us that in the post-war years when the Troubles were at their height, many Irish veterans had to use hardshp as an excuse for joining the Royal Navy or the British Army. A prime example of how current events can shape our understanding of the past.

This book by Richard Doherty sheds new light on this fascinating aspect of the War. In particular the first chapter uses some extensive research and statistics to challenge previous work on Irish participation and losses. The rest of the book follows a chronological path, detailing Irish units and Irishmen who took part in key actions. Medal winners are well documented, as are some typically Irish anecdotes – including the Protestant Northern Irish CSM who met the Pope wearing his Orange Order sash.

Its only after reading an account like this that you realise just what a contribution the Irish, from North and South, made to the British war effort. So many Generals seem to have had Irish connections – Dill, Brooke, Alexander, Montgomery, Horrocks and O’Connor to name but a few. And then there was a plethora of other officers who distinguished themselves- Blaire ‘Paddy’ Mayne (DSO and 3 Bars, CO of the SAS and an Irish Achilles if ever there was one), Brigadier Hackett of Arnhem fame, Colonel Otway of Merville Battery, and Joe Vandeleur, CO of Irish Guards in the frantic dash up the corridor to Arnhem. As well as men, we are informed about some fine units, including the Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 8th Kings Own Royal Irish Hussars, the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Irish Guards.

On the downside, it is sometimes difficult to follow the Irish thread in amongst the broader strategic picture. Admittedly, Irishmen took part in virtually every battle and served on board most ships, so it must have been difficult to keep to the Irish thread. But this is a fantastic book, with thorough research complementing an analytical and well scoped approach.

In the ranks of death is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Navy, Uncategorized, World War Two