Monthly Archives: April 2010

Dunkirk 1940: Whereabouts Unknown by Tim Lynch

One of the biggest probems with writing history is the danger of hindsight. Its often far too easy to look at a long-gone event, and for our understanding of it to be influenced by what came after. Dunkirk is certainly one of those events. Over the past 70 years it has become part of the British psyche that in 1940 the French turned tail and ran, while the BEF was gallantly rescued from Dunkirk to fight another day. While there are some elements of truth to this, there are also many more aspects to Dunkirk than we hear about. This book by Tim Lynch goes a long way to shedding new light on an often misunderstood campaign.

while the book is titled ‘Dunkirk’, the analysis goes much deeper. Lynch looks at the British Army’s preparations for war, and how these were inadequate and too little, too late. The Army’s leadership and organisation was also not up to the job of fighting a modern war. In particular Lynch looks at the men of several territorial divisions that were sent to France as labourers, but ended up fighting in the front line. They were seriously undertrained and unprepared for the task that fell to them.

Regarding the question of the French Army’s conduct in 1940, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the French Generals seriously let down their men. While there were many examples of French troops fighting hard – often in hopeless positions – Gamelin had virtually no grip on the battle, and Weygand was far too unstable. Among this unsatisfactory set-up the BEF’s commander, Lord Gort, was far too passive and was out of his depth. Unbelievably, it is generally agreed that Gort was only sent to France as the Secretary of War, Hore-Belisha, could not stand him and wanted him out of Whitehall. Whether he was right for the job does not seem to have mattered.

The fate of the Lines of Communication come in for special attention from Lynch – in particular, the Labour Divisions aforementioned. The manner in which the British and French allowed themselves to be turned, outflanked and cut off led to the vulnerable lines of communication being flayed open. Therefore many non-front line troops found themselves in the thick of the fighting. This turbulent situation also led to the loss of so much equipment. While some historians might criticise Montgomery as a materiel commander, this ‘insult’ holds no water, given Gort’s ignorance of logistics and the disasters that this caused.

Another misconception about Dunkirk is that the whole of the BEF was evacuated through the sand dunes of the channel port. On the one hand, much fighting went on elsewhere. And in terms of the lines of communications, they were forced to fall back on places such as Dieppe, Rouen and even the Brittany ports. A second BEF was also landed in Normandy, but swiftly evacuated.

Lynch also suggests that the 51st Highland Division was sacrificed at St Valery as a sop to encourage the French to keep on fighting. Given the evidence this assertion is clear. Furthermore, the authorities should have realised at that point that the battle was lost – another Division evacuated to Britain would have been a godsend. While Anglophobes in the French Government and society might hold to the contention that Dunkirk represented the British abandoning their allies, it is hard to see what else the BEF could have done.

This book is a credible effort. I found it very readable indeed – Lynch’s experience as a writer for Britain at War Magazine no doubt helps. Lynch makes a good balance between personal stories and strategy, has found some good illustrations, and has used a wealth of sources.

Dunkirk 1940: Whereabouts Unknown is published by The History Press

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WW1 Prisoners of War

Regular readers will be well aware that I have long had an interest in the history of Prisoners of War – my own Granddad was one of them, after all. But when we think of POW’s, we tend to think of the Second World War, the Great Escape, Colditz, the Wooden Horse… along those lines.

But prisoners are taken in any war – what happened to British Soldiers captured in the First World War – and specifically, those from Portsmouth?

Its quite easy to find prisoners from 1914 to 1918 who died in German captivity. Unlike in the Second World War, when fighting took place in Germany, and the Bomber Offensive meant that airmen died and were buried i Germany, if a British servicemen died in Gerany between 1914 and is buried there, he would have been a Prisoner of War.

Private A.M. Cooper, 28 and from Stanley Road, Stamshaw, died on 22 January 1915. He is buried in Berlin South West War Cemetery. He was captured while serving with the 1st Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment – a Regular Army unit – and was probably captured in the battles of 1914.

Corporal F.T.C. Ennis died on 15 December 1916. He is buried in Niederzwehren War Cemetery. He was captured while serving with the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, the first of the Portsmouth ‘Kitchener’ Battalions.

Lance Corporal G. Avis was also a member of the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. He died on 5 May 1917, and is also buried in Niederzwehren.

Private William Lonnon, 19, died on 24 June 1918. He is buried in Berlin South West War Cemetery, and was a member of the 6th Battalion of the Northamptonshire Regiment. He came from Worlds End, a small village near Hambledon, outside Portsmouth.

Private E.G. Barham, 20, came from Balfour Road in North End. He died on 13 September 1918, and is buried in Niederzwehren. He was serving with the 50th (Northumbrian) Signal Company of the Royal Engineers, providing signals support to the 50th Division. At this point in the war the Signals were still part of the Royal Engineers.

Private George Atkins, 28, died on 6 October 1918. He was serving with the 1/8th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, and is buried in Niederzwehren. He came from Tennyson Road in Copnor.

Notice how all but one of them were infantrymen. Almost always – but not exclusively – supporting troops were behind the lines, and might only have been captured in the event of a big attack or breakthrough, both rare things in the static warfare of the Eastern Front. This contrasts firmly with the Second World War, when all manner of troops were captured at Dunkirk, Singapore and Tobruk.

Niederzwehren was a major Prisoner of War camp in the First World War, near Kassel. After the war it was chosen as one of four sites where prisoners who had died in captivity were to be buried. As a result men who had been buried in Baden, Bavaria, Hanover, Hesse and Saxony were brought to Niederzwheren. There are 1,796 men buried or commemorated there.

We know a lot less about WW1 POW’s than their 1939-45 counterparts. But the Red Cross do have records of Prisoners, and perhaps there are some sources in the National Archives that might shed more light?

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – prelude to the Somme

The beginning of May found the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment in billets away from the front line. Battalion Headquarters was at Bienvillers, A and D Companies at Fonquevillers, and B and C Companies in Hannescamps.

It’s one of the peculiarities of war diaries that how detailed they are depends very much on who was filling them out – usually the Adjutant. In previous months the Battalion’s war diary had covered up to a page a day. Yet in May 1916 the whole month fits onto one page! This is partly because the Battalion was behind the lines, but still, it is hard to believe that nothing of any interest happened.

On 3 May the Battalion marched to Auteuil. On 6 May they marched from there to Longvillers. After a days Company training on 7 May, the Battalion then marched to Yrencheux. 15 May saw the beginning of Battalion and Brigade training. Preparations were well underway for what was already being called ‘The Great Offensive’. Ground had been chosen similar to that that the Hampshires were going to attack over.

On 18 May Lieutenant-Colonel Palk rejoined the Battalion and assumed command on the 19th when Lieutenant-Colonel Middleton left to take command of the 2nd Hampshires.

On 21 May the Battalion marched to Bernaville, and on the 22nd to Amplier. On the 23rd they reached Berthancourt, where they were billeted in huts.

From the 24th of May and the end of the month the Hampshires were occupied digging assembly trenches that they were to occupy prior to the forthcoming attack. Given the frequent references in the war diary to ‘The Great Offensive’ and the ‘forthcoming attack’ the men must have been under no illusions as to what was awaiting them. Time and time again in the First World War we find that each battle was awaited as the ‘big push’ that would lead to the breakthrough that the Generals craved.

The first ten days of June found the 1st Hampshires continuing to dig assembly trenches. On 11 June, however, the Battalion marched to Beauval, arriving at 3am on 12 June. After resting for two days on 16 June they marched to Braussart, where they remained until the 22nd, when they moved to Mailly. There time at both of these places was spent widening assembly trenches.

On 26 June A and D Companies relieved the 1st Warwicks in the front line North West of Beaumont-Hamel, with B and C Companies remaining in reserve at Mailly. A and D Companies were relieved on 29 June, and the next day the whole Battalion was formed up in the assembly trenches.

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HMS Albion




HMS Albion

Originally uploaded by dalyhistory2010

HMS Albion, seen today leaving Portsmouth Harbour. She’s on her way back to her home port of Plymouth.

She called into Portsmouth last week to bring home members of 3 Rifles and British tourists stranded in northern Spain during the volcanic ash-enforced shutdown of the airways over Britain.

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Portchester Castle #1 – the outer bailey

Portchester Castle lies at the top of Portsmouth Harbour. And, luckily, just over a mile from my house! Originally built by the Romans, and subsequently inhabited by the Saxons and Medieval Kings, today the Castle is open to visitors.

It’s unknown exactly when the first work on the site was carried out. The Romans called the area Portus Adurni, are thought to have built the first fort at Portchester in the 3rd Century AD. Goodall suggests a date of between 285 and 290 AD, while Cunliffe has written about evidence of a small settlement prior to this date. The outer Bailey is the main remaining part of the Roman Castle. It is easily recognisable, constructed from flint and mortar, and remarkably well preserved. There is ample evidence of the different occupiers of the Castle in its stonework. Roman flint, Norman and Medieval stone blocks, and later Georgian and Victorian repairs carried out in red brick. The Roman works in particular were an incredible achievement, with none of the machinery modern builders would rely on. That they are still standing now is testament to their skill.

The Flint Wall of Portchester Castle

The Flint Wall of Portchester Castle

The original walls were some five feet thick and twenty feet high, and include features such as crenellations and fire steps.

Crenellations

Crenellations

There are also large circular bastions in each corner. The Castle also has substantial outer defences – one two sides it faces the sea, and a system of moats on the landward sides. There is an excellent plan of the Castle here.

The Castle’s location is extremely important. Located in the middle of the South Coast, opposite France, and at the top of a well defended harbour, it was an ideal base for travelling to the continent, for defending the local coastine, and assembling armies. The English Armies that sailed to Crecy and Agincourt were assembled at Portchester. As time passed by the top of Portsmouth Harbour silted up, and Portchester was eclipsed by Portsmouth. But in the middle ages, Portchester was a crucial settlement. And naturally, a village soon grew up near the Castle, along the approach road.

After the fall of the Roman Empire the castle was probably taken over by the indigenous english. The area received its current name around the 6th Century AD. Ancient chronicles describe how a Saxon Warrior landed and captured the fort. For the next 4 centuries the Castle was in Saxon hands, and the current Watergate is largely of Saxon origin.

Watergate

Watergate

Over time extra bastions have been added, as well as latrine chutes and several gates. In particular, latrine chutes can be seen on the south wall, where the old Priory once stood.

Latrines

Latrines

On the north side we can also see a nasty looking archway, where the defenders would have been able to pour boiling hot oil onto any attackers attempting to scale the walls.

Arch

Arch

After the Norman Conquest the Castle was handed over to one one of William’s trusted Lieutenants. The Domesday Book shows William Mauduit as being the owner of the Castle. This was part of William’s policy of handing Castle and manors to trusted Frenchmen, in order to control the english population.

The large Keep was constructed in the early 12th Century. It now stands at over 100 feet high, after various phases of construction. The Keep was the main stronghold of the castle, surrounded by the inner bailey and then the outer bailey (more on the inner bailey at a later date).

The Keep

The Keep

Located close to the Forest of Bere, a prime hunting area, the Castle was also used by many English Kings as a hunting lodge. Nowadays the Castle is surrounded by trees and other buildings. But for many years it would have been by far the biggest building for miles around, a powerful status symbol of the local lord, and by definition the King. The building of the Round and Square Towers at the mouth of Portsmouth Harbour in the 15th Century, and later Southsea Castle in 1544, largely made Portchester obsolete. Redundant as a fortress, it served as a storehouse and a Prison over the following centuries.

My next post will look in detail at the inside of the Castle – in particular the Church, the Inner Bailey, and the Keep.

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The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Alistair Horne

The Battle of Verdun has long been regarded as perhaps the sharpest Schwerpunkt of the Great War. In an attempt to bleed the French Army dry, the Germans launched an offensive on the strategic fortress of Verdun. There was no other aim than to lure the French into losing so many men that they could not carry on the war. In fact, the Somme Offensive – another byword for attrition – was launched early in an attempt to relieve the pressure on Verdun. Yet Verdun is almost completely overshadowed by the Somme and Ypres in the British understanding of the First World War.

The title is perhaps slightly misleading, in that the book focuses much more on the general conduct of the Great War than it might suggest. This is not surprising, as it is in fact part of a trilogy of books by Horne focussing on the long rivalry between France and Germany – the Franco-Prussian War, and the 1914-1918 and 1939-1945 Wars. The latter two books cover the wars in general, but choose Verdun in 1916 and Dunkirk in 1940 as the apex of the French experience.

Horne is a master of the close study of the military leader – here, in paticular, he paints lucid and telling pictures of men like Joffre, Falkenhayn and Petain. Horne’s grasp of the big picture, and the personality of command, is clear indeed. Horne also delves into describing contemporary France in detail, a wise move that puts the conduct of the French Army into suitable context. It is very important to immerse yourself in the military culture of a nation if you want to understand the actions of its armies. Here Horne considers the impact of French society on her army, the hstorical legacy of Napoleon and the Franco-Prussian War, the French Army’s belief in the offensive reform, and the effect of the Grand Quartier General.

Criticisms? It does show its age. Having been written in the 1960′s, it is stil couched very much in Great War mythology. Historians of that era were prone to compare the World Wars, and conclude that the First World War was much bloodier. Modern Historians might be more critical, and challenge such assumptions. And given that this is such a masterful study, it is a great shame that it is not referenced properly. Clearly a lot of research went into the writing of this book, and it is a pity indeed that the reader cannot see the sources that went into Horne’s conclusions. This is not to dispute Horne’s integrity – far from it – but a modern book would suffer from a lack of referencing. One other annoying habit is that of including a wealth of French quotes, without a translation – back in the 60′s every Historian might have been fluent in French, but in the twenty-first century it does seem a rather snobby trait.

Between 21 February and 15 July 1916 the French Army suffered over 275,000 men and 6,563 officers as casualties. On the German side, almost a quarter of a million men were lost. But, crucially, the French had sent 70 Divisions into battle at Verdun; the Germans ‘only’ 46. Thus Falkenhayn’s strategy of bleeding the French dry backfired horribly – the French had certainly not ‘won’, but the German’s for their part could not afford anything over than success. Horne calls Verdun the ‘worst’ battle in History, and also the First World War in microcosm – arguments that are hard to dispute.

This is a very enlightening book indeed. It is of its time, but in its time it was a classic, and still stands up remarkably well.Perhaps a reworking – or better still a new book on Verdun – would be interesting to see?

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Historian admits to negative Amazon reviews

I’ve just read a quite remarkable article on the BBC website, describing how a leading Historian has admitted to writing negative Amazon reviews on his rivals work. Professor Orlando Figes, of London’s Birbeck College, has finally owned up to writing a string of damming comments on his rivals books on Amazon. The admission comes after weeks of intrigue. Figes – who is currently on sick leave – has issued a statement of apology.

The row began after Rachel Polonsky, a Russian expert, discovered a less than complimentary review on Amazon of her recently published book. The comment said that her book was ‘hard to follow’, while another book by Robert Service was apparently ‘awful’. Yet the same username described a book by Figes as ‘fascinating’. Polonsky discovered that the username, ‘orlando-birbeck’ (not exactly imaginative) had the same home address as Figes. When confronted with the allegations Figes initially threatened legal action. Then he claimed that his wife had written the comments.

“It was stupid – some of the reviews I now see were small-minded and ungenerous but they were not intended to harm… This crisis has exposed some health problems, though I offer that more as explanation than excuse… I need some time now to reflect on what I have done and the consequences of my actions with medical help.”

Service, a leading authority on Russian History and one of the authors targeted by Figes, stated in the Guardian that the “secretive rubbishing of my work… [was] disgraceful.”

It really is a unique story, and not the kind of thing that you would expect from Historians. I would be very surprised if it does not go on more than we think, but for someone so prominent to not only do it but get caught out, is quite unheard of. It does sound as if Figes has some mental health issues that need addressing. But even then, it is hard to see him being able to come back from this. How can he go back to being a Professor of History, teaching History students? If I knew that one of my tutors had been exposed for trying to smear their peers, I wouldn’t be able to take them seriously.

Historians are meant to let their books do the talking – ugly spats and hostile reviewing should be left to the TV pundits. Objectivity is crucial, and if a historian stoops to trying to smear his rivals, how can we take his work seriously? One big lie casts doubt on all of his work – if someone can lie like that, what does that say about their integrity? Like David Irving after Richard Evans demolished his arguments, his credibility is shot to pieces.

Its a warning to us all, thats for sure. It shows how tempting it is to lower ones self to petty squabbles, rather than channeling our energies into our work. And even the great and the good are open to the temptation of dirty tricks. And finally, it shows how the internet has affected the history profession, in that wider bookselling has upped the intensity of publishing, and also made it possible for such smearing to take place. How many historians will be casting a suspicious eye on their reviews now?

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – Spring 1916 on the Somme

1916 began much as 1915 had ended for the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment. In the trenches at Hamel, they were bombarded by 4.2 inch guns and Trench Mortars from the Bation Guillaumet. After marching back to Hedauville on 2 January, on the the 4th news came through that Hamel was being heavily bombarded. The Battalion was warned to stand by. The next day Mesnil was also shelled. When the Battalion went back into the front line on the 8th the Trenches had been heavily knocked about. Some men of the East Lancashire Regiment, who the Hampshires had relieved, had been buried alive by a trench mortar explosion – one of them was dug out alive 6 days later!

The next tour of duty began on 20 January. On the 21st 2nd Lieutenant Wilde was posting sentries on the gates of the mill in the marsh when ‘a fracas with the enemy occured’. All of the group managed to escape, except for 2nd Lt. Wilde and Private Chapman, who had not been seen since. Later in the tour a sniper was reported to be in the mill: 27th Battery Royal Field Artillery fired at him, but their aim was wide. The next day Private Harwood was killed by a sniper at the Stone Bridge post near the mill. On the 25th a German noticeboard was seen between the trenches; it was brought in that night, and found to read ‘give in before you are all straffed’.

To give an idea of the low-intensity of the Somme sector during this part of the war, in January 1916 the Battalion suffered 2 men killed and 5 wounded, 1 officer and 1 man missing; 51 men admitted to Hospital and 27 discharged. Compared to the losses suffered at Ypres the previous year, these were very light indeed.

A change in routine came after the Battalion left the trenches on 5 February. After resting for the night and the net day at Hedauville, on the 7th the Hampshires marched off, reaching Beauval at 3pm. The Battalion remained in billets at Beauval until 18 February, training and working in the surrounding countryside. However given the wet weather outdoor training was held up, confining the men to indoor lectures. An inter-platoon Football league was started.

On 18 February 11th Brigade was allocated a new sector, and moved off to Beaudricourt and Oppy, two small villages north of Lucheux. There the Brigade remained until 29 February. They were the first British troops to occupy the area, and were made very welcome by the inhabitants. The officers in particular were please to be able to house their mess in the village. Once they were settled training and Football continued. The last few days of the month, however, were lost to heavy snow that quickly turned into slush.

March brang better weather, and the Battalion were able to get on with training. Much of the local countryside was cultivated and out of bounds, but Lucheux Forest and a wood to the north of Beaudricourt were available for tactical exercises. On 3 March the eagerly-awaited Brigade Sports competition began. The Hampshires Machine Gun team won their event, as did the Lewis Gun Detachment. The Battalion also won the stretcher bearers competition. An icy wind and sleet meant that the rest of the events were postponed until the 5th. The Cross Country event took place, with teams of 200 from each unit – 150 had to finish in order for the Battalion to qualify. The Hampshires won, and were the only unit to have 150 finishers.

On 6 March the Battalion marched from Beaudricourt to Sus-st-Leger, a distance of a mile. The snowfall was extremely heavy. The next day the Brigade Horse Show took place, with the Hampshires finishing third. The Athletics took place on the 9th, with the Hampshires winning the Bayonet Attack and Relay Race contests. Going into the last event – the Tug of War – the Hampshires and Somerset Light Infantry were tied on first place. Each Battalion won one pull each, but on the third and final pull one of the Hampshires fainted, costing them the competition.

After the excitement of the sports events the Battalion carried out a tactical exercise through Lucheux Forest on 13 March. Between 14 and 19 March a rifle range was constructed nearby, along with other training. The Football League was completed, having been won by 5 Platoon. On 19 March the Officers played the Sergeants at Football, resulting in a 2-2 draw. News arrived that the 11th Brigade would soon be going back into the line, but that the Hampshires had been selected to act as Pioneers, employed in trench-digging, tree-felling and road-making. On the 20th the Battalion left for the main Doullens-Arras Road, where the various companies were to be located.

Battalion Headquarters were located at Berles-au-Bois, along with A Company and the Lewis Gun Detachment; B Company and the Battalion transport were based at St. Amand; C Company at La Cauchie, and D Company at Henu. There the Companies set to on various Pioneer work for the rest of the month. The war diary closes March 1916 with the comment that ‘the last few days of this month were really beatiful and reminded one that the winter was at last over’.

In April A Company moved to Bienvillers, and Headquarters moved to Pommier. On 6 April heavy firing could be heard from the direction of the Battalion’s old trenches at Hamel, but stopped as suddenly as it began. On 8 April the Battalion Football team played the 6th Bedfords at Humbercamp, resulting in a 1-1 draw. The next day some officers and men went over to visit the 2nd Hampshires who had recently arrived from Galipoli.

On 23 April the Battalion once again went into the front line east of Fonquevillers. The trenches were absolutely filthy, with much flooding and very few dug outs. There was a good deal more activity than in the Hampshire’s previous tours at Hamel. At stand-to in the morning and evening a Machine Gun at Gommecourt Wood fired at Fonquevillers, but little damage was done. On 28 April Lieutenant V.C. Smith and 2nd Lieutenant J.J. Sims were wounded by a shell. On the 29th Captain Westmorland was wounded by a snipers bullet, and 2nd Lieutenant Sweetenham by shrapnel. On the same day the Battalion suffered bad luck when a 5.9 inch shell landed on a working party in a communication trench, killing four men and wounding three. 30 April found the Battalion in close support, with two companies in Fonquevillers and two Hannescamps.

We can tell from the Battalion’s activities and movements during the Spring of 1916 that the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front was adapting to the routine of static trench warfare. In 1914 and 1915 the Hampshires spen much of their time in the front line, either serving in the trenches or in attack. By the beginning of 1916 the Territorial Force and Kitchener’s New Army were mobilised and arriving, and thus regular units such as the 1st Hampshires were able to take time out of the line for rest, training and sports. Around this time Field Marshal Haig was also planning a Great Offensive to take place later in the year, so the time out from the line spent resting and training was almost certainly with that in mind.

The 1st Hampshires suffered very light casualties in the winter of 1915 and the spring of 1916 compared to their losses at Le Cateau, the Marne, First Ypres, Ploegsteert Wood and Second Ypres. But the summer of 1916 was to bring horrific losses on an unimaginable scale.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – the winter of 1915 on the Somme

The 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment saw out the rest of 1915 serving in the relatively Somme sector of the western front.

The first seven days of October 1915 were spent in demi-repos at Mesnil. There was fine weather throughout the weak, and the men were mostly occupied working on the defences of the village. Several big ‘coppers’ from around the village were set up in an empty house, and the men were able to have a hot bath. 8 to 14 October were spent in the trenches at Hamel. It was a remarkably quiet tour – the only enemy activity being a heavy bombardment by trench mortars and ‘aerial torpedoes’ on 12 October. A great deal of damage was done, but casualties were exceptionally small. The war diary described it as a ‘most unpleasant day’.

On 14 October the Hampshire’s marched back to billets at Hedauville. There they had seven days good rest. Each company had to one day’s duty working on the divisional defence line, and on the 17th the whole Battalion took part in a route march. On the 22th the Battalion Football team played the Divisional Army Service Corps at Sarton, losing 2-0. On 21 and 22 October the NCO’s and officers lectured to the 12th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles. The Battalion went back into the trenches at Hamel on 21 October.

During the ensuing tour in the front line the length of tours was increased to eight days, to ensure that the relief would not always take place on the same night each week. This was no doubt a sensible precaution, especially if the Germans had worked out the predictable routine. Otherwise it was a very quiet tour, ‘the enemy scarcely firing a shot’. The weather was very bad, with incessant rain causing problems with drainage. As the leaves had fallen from the trees screens had to be erected to prevent the enemy from seeing into the village of Hamel. The tour ended on 29 October, with the Battalion once again marching back to Mesnil.

The start of November found the Hampshire’s in demi-repos in Mesnil, carrying out work parties. All the men were able to have a bath in the bath house. The next tour of the front line took place between 7 and 13 November, with little activity but more incessant rain. Back in billets at Hedauville on 14 November, there were hard frosts and two snowfalls. Never the less, a route march was carried out on the 14th. On the 18th the Battalion were notified that front line tours would henceforth last for 6 days, two days shorter. Colonel Palk went on leave on the 18th, leaving Captain R.D. Johnston in command.

The Battalion’s next front line tour, beginning on 20 November, was more eventful. Several patrols were carried out. Lieutenant Hills and a party of men twice managed to get behind the mill in the marsh. Lieutenants May and Goodford made a very daring reconnaissance of the German mound on the railway. Another patrol managed to cut off a two feet long section of the German barbed wire. The tour ended on 26 November, when the Battalion retired to Mesnil. The weather was getting colder and frosty. While at Mesnil Colonel Palk returned from leave. Major Perkins left the Battalion to join the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force at Galipoli.

The beginning of December 1915 found the Battalion taking over the trenches at Hamel. This tour was again more lively, including a more or less continuous bombardment between the 2nd and 5th, by Trench Mortars and ‘aerial torpedoes’. On 7 December the Hampshires were relieved and moved back to Hedauville – from then onwards, a scheme was begun whereby the Hampshires always rested in Hedauville, instead of Mesnil. Back in the trenches on the night of 13 December, another uneventful tour passed by.

The Battalion spent Christmas 1915 in reserve. With the help of the Regimental Relief Fund the Quartermaster – Lieutenant E.V. Tarrant – gave the men ‘a splendid christmas dinner’. Puddings were provided from Divisional funds. During the day General Prowse and General Lambton made a tour of the billets, and in the words of the war diary, ‘wished the men the compliments of the season’. Unlike the previous christmas, there was no truce on the front line.

The Battalion were back in the trenches on Boxing Day. The Germans brought up heavier guns and managed to fix their aim on several points in Hamel and its approaches. British artillery fired in turn on the German front line. British Machine Guns also fired continuously, but the Hampshire’s adjutant felt that ‘it is difficult to imagine they do any harm’. The year ended with a great burst of fire from the Germans at 11pm (midnight Berlin time), ‘and a certain amount of cheering and so on’.

So ended the 1st Hampshires second year on the western front. The last few months had been spent in relative peace compared to the early months in and around Ypres. For example, in December 1915 only one man was killed, and 9 wounded. 62 were admitted to Hospital.

It is remarkable, knowing what we know about the Somme and what 1916 would bring, what a quiet time the Hampshires had in the sector at the end of 1915.

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Blitz Street on Channel 4

Channel 4 has long had a tack record for producing first class History programming, and this is one of their best yet. Produced to mark the 70th anniversary of the Blitz, this Tony Robinson-presented series is a great look at the events of the late summer and autumn of 1940.

The centrepiece of the programme is a full reconstruction of a 1940′s style street. The first programme shows the team exploding replicas of German bombs to study the effect of blast and shrapnel. The footage and analysis is gripping stuff. Too often we hear about bomb damage in words, or see the effects in black and white photographs. But to watch a full reconstruction, in slow motion colour, really adds something to our understanding of the Blitz. What really occurs to me, is how the biggest bomb detonated in this programme was 500 kilograms -and the explosion was huge. But by the end of the war the RAF was using 20,000lb bombs!

The programme also makes excellent use of eyewitness accounts – people who lived through the blitz, such as firemen, air raid wardens and nurses. And they tell some harrowing stories, such as people who were killed by blast, without a mark on them. Some great colour footage of 1940 Britain is also incorporated in the programme. It is always good to see colour footage, as it does bring to life a period in british history that is often seen in black and white, in more ways than just its colour. The Historian’s used are perhaps not the best, however. But the production is slick, as we might expect, and as usual Tony Robinson is an enthusiastic and spot-on presenter.

It will be interesting to see how future episodes pan out. In particular I will interested to see how the programme deals with the tetchy issue of civilian morale during the Blitz.

Click here to watch on Channel 4oD

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Pompey debts hit £119m

So according to a report published by the administrators, Portsmouth Football Club’s debt levels now stand at £119m, and could rise even further.

Several issues jump out from the report.

The people I really feel for are the smaller creditors – the butchers, bakers and candlestick makers who are owed money, ranging from a few pence to thousands of pounds. Most of them are prominent local businesses – caterers, shopfitters, florists, plant hire companies, and such like. If Pompey’s debts to them have to be written off, several at least may go to the wall. The knock-on effect locally may well be huge. Even if debts are paid, may companies have already got a lot of un-welcome publicity.

Yet the FA and Premier League have to shoulder part of the blame, for creating an industry where football debts have to be paid up first. This means that non-footballing creditors are seen as of a low priority. People like players, former owners, agents like Pini Zahavi, are not going to go bankrupt over Portsmouth’s state. But several smaller businesses may well do.

The report also puts beyond doubt the assertion that those running the club did nothing to solve the problems. OK, so players were sold. But PFC were still living extravagantly, spening money they didnt have, knowing full well that a time might come where businesses may go bust because of it.

The FA’s role in all of this is also rather odious. It is not good enough for people like Richard Scudamore to shrug their shoulders at the mess. OK, so financial mismanagement was taking place, but how was it allowed to go on? Why were there no checks and balances? In all probability, because all Football Clubs – and Football itself – run in the same way. It just so happens that Pompey are the first club to go to the wall.

It does seem as well that the football authorities are not overly concerned by the fate of Pompey. A small, provincial, unglamorous club, you cannot help but feel that they cannot wait for us to disappear, having never wanted us in the limelight in the first place. West Ham are probably in a far worse position than Pompey are, but no-one would dare make them – darlings of Fleet Street – go into administration. ’66 and all that, you see!

As for the issue of European qualification, its also clear that the FA do not want Pompey in Europe, and that other clubs have lobbied to make sure that it does not happen. Funnily enough, if Pompey are not allowed to enter the Europa League, Liverpool are one of the teams who stand to qualify instead – fancy that!

All this shows just how rotten the institution of English football has become – corrupt, ill-scrutinised, insolvent, bent on success, and centred on the big, rich and glamorous clubs with everyone else there to make up the numbers.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – the Somme front in the summer of 1915

The Hampshires found that the trenches they occupied on the Somme front were extremely comfortable, and featured huge dug outs several feet below the earth. It was a common feature of French trenches that units were allowed to dig bigger and deeper than their British and German counterparts. The Somme was also relatively quiet, with hardly any sniping or gunfire. Battalion HQ was agreeably located in a house in Hamel, and cookers were even brought up to within a mile of the trenches, so the men could have hot meals in the front line. On 31 July 1915 a few officers even went and had a look at a swimming pool that had been constructed by the French nearby! It must have been a welcome change to men used to the Ypres Salient.

August 1915 saw a new regime implemented, whereby Battalions spent 7 days in the front line. The war diary stated, however, that ‘as the trenches are so comfortable, with so little shooting by the enemy, the men are as happy here as anywhere’. It would be interesting to know the opinions of the men themselves.

After being relieved from their first stint in the front line the Battalion retired to Mesnil on 5 August 1915. Mesnil was a large village 1,000 yards behind Hamel. Hidden behind a hill, only the spire of the church was visible to the Germans, who none the less knew that it was occupied by the British, and sent over a few shells every day. These largely had little effect, apart from on 8 August when a German shell killed 3 men and wounded 3 others. During their next tour in the front line the Battalion were engaged in digging a new trench.

The routine of front line and reserve duties carried on quietly for quite some time, with only sporadic shelling interrupting proceedings. The Battalion regularly had detachments and officers from territorial and Kitchener Battalions attached in order for them to gain experience – many of them seem to have been Irish. Occasionally patrols took place, such as on 18 August when 2nd Lieutenant Flint, Corporal Elton and 6 men went on a patrol from Poste Castor to the mill in the marsh, and remained there for some hours.

On 28 August the Germans unleashed an artillery barrage that was heavier than usual, from a trench mortar near the railway line. This was followed at once by their main artillery (in the opinion of the adjutant, 5.9′s). The trench was blown in in two places, and two men killed. The appareance of a British aeroplane overhead caused the Germans to cease fire. 27 Battery of the Royal Field Artillery gave good support throughout with their 18 pounders. One Portsmouth man was killed during this period – Private Alfred Collyer, aged 19, from Collyers Pit in Cosham. He is buried in Hamel Cemetery.

On 31 August 1915 Colonel Palk went sick with ‘a touch of fever’ and handed over command to Major Perkins. Hospital admissions four August show just how more comfortable life was on the Somme in 1915 compared to Ypres -in August 1915 only 40 men were admitted to Hospital, compared to 100+ every month when in the Ypres Salient. Aside from the less intense fighting, the drier, more sanitary conditions of the Somme area must have been much healthier than those in Flanders. Additionally, only 5 men were killed all month.

The Hampshires tour in the trenches in the beginning of September 1915 was more lively than usual, ‘our casualties totally 26 killed and wounded’. Once casualty was Sergeant Jackson, ‘an energetic, hard working and valuable NCO’. After going into reserve in Mesnil on 4 September the Battalion HQ’s kitchen and dining room were destroyed by a German shell – mercifully there were no casualties. Even being in reserve was not to be completely safe.

The front remained relatively quiet. On 15 September, however, all leave was suspended, and the noise of artillery became more intense from the north. On 25 September news came through of a joint British and French offensive – the Battle of Loos, to the north. Bombing parties set out to ascertain whether the enemy trenches had had their garrisons weakened – they were still held in strength. The Battalion observed considerable railway activity behind the German lines, however, in both directions east of Miraumont. By the end of September the weather was becoming wetter and colder.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – Ypres to the Somme 1915

After retiring to their billets after the second battle of Ypres in June 1915, the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment entered one of the quietest periods of the war on the western front. While the war continued in France and Belgium, the allies in particular were attempting to circumvent the deadlock with their offensive at Galipolli. Therefore the western front settled down into something of a deadlock for the rest of 1915 and early 1916, until the great attritional battles of Verdun and the Somme.

June 1915 saw the Battalion being inspected by Lieutenant-General Sir J.L. Keir, the Corps Commander. They took several turns in the front line, east of the Yser Canal and about 2,500 yards north west of La Brique. Very few men were lost during this period, and the biggest concern seems to have been improving the trenches. Several officers even went home to England on leave. On 18 June 1915 the War Diary recorded that two officers of the Zouave Regiment – presumably a French unit – came over for dinner. On the 20th ‘a good many’ allied aeroplanes were flying around – obviously a novel occurence at the time. On the 22nd, however, a freak incident wounded two officers – Major Humphrey and 2nd Lieutenant Beatty were hit in the neck by the same bullet. Near the end of the month the Battalion enjoyed a rare treat of baths.

6 July, however, saw the Battalion committed to an attack near Hulls Farm, west of the Yser Canal. The bombardment of the German trenches began at 6am, at which point the 1st Rifle Brigade attacked succesfully. The British guns kept firing all day, and several German counter-attacks came to nothing. By nightfall the Battalion began to move east across the canal. The 7th saw the Germans launch more counter-attacks that had little effect. Heavy shelling continued on the 8th, when the Hampshires relieved the Lancashire Fusiliers on the front line. The next day found the Medical Officer, Captain J.F. Gwynne RAMC, up in the trenches tending the wounded left by the Lancashires, and also a serious wounded Rifleman. No sooner had he finished than he was shot by a sniper and killed instantly.

July 1915 saw three Portsmouth men killed with the 1st Hampshires in the Ypres Salient. On 1 July 1915 Sergeant W.G. Benham, who is buried at Talana Farm Cemetery, on 5 July Private Norman Goodall (aged 17, and from Windsor Road in Cosham), buried at Ferme-Olivier Cemetery, and on 10 July – the day the Battalion came out of the line – Private E.V. Burchell, 36, from Regent Street, Mile End. He is buried in Lijssenthoek Cemetery.

10 July saw the Battalion out of the line again, marching back to ‘halfway billets’ north east of Poperinghe. At 4pm they continued on to their ‘real’ billets, a mile west of Watau. The war diary recorded that ‘it really was a blessing to be clear… of that awful salient’. The period from 11 to 22 July saw the Battalion resting, during which they were inspected by the Brigadier (Prowse), the Army Commander (Plumer) and the Commander-in-Chief (French). Otherwise the period was spent getting the men into good shape. ‘Naturally there was much speculation as to the next move, ‘official’ rumours varied from the Dardanelles to England’.

The speculation ended, however, on 23 July 1915 when the Battalion entrained at Codewaersvelde at 5.30pm, and reached Doullens on the Somme at 12.30am. In moving to the Somme sector the Battalion was swapping the frenetic pace of the Ypres Salient for what was, in 1915, a relatively quiet part of the front.

After detraining early on the 24th the 1st Hampshires marched to Freschvillers, where they bivouaced in tents and barns. The next few days were spent preparing to move up to the front. On 25 July the new Army commander, General Monro, inspected the Battalion. Finally, on 29 July the Hampshires relieved 62nd French Infanterie Regiment in the trenches north of Hamel.

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Navy to the rescue? or a drop in the ocean?

There has been much publicity in the last few days about the Royal Navy ships sailing to the rescue of the thousands of Brits stranded in Spain. The BBC website even compared it to Dunkirk. Whilst its great that the Navy is able to help, lets try and get a few things in perspective.

HMS Albion is a 13,000 ton Landing Platforn Dock, commissioned in 2004. She is designed to land a military force, using Landing Craft and Helicopters. She can carry 300 troops over a long period, and 650 for short emergency situations. She has been deployed to Santander in northern France to bring home military personnel on their way home from Afghanistan, and a number of civilians. In 2006 her sister ship HMS Bulwark evacuated 1,300 people in one day. As civilians will take up much less space than soldiers and their equipment,

HMS Ocean is a 20,000 Landing Platform Helicopter, or Heliopter Carrier. She entered service in 1998. She has a very similar role to Albion, only using Helicopters more than Landing Craft. She can normally carry up to 800 me for short periods. This, however, is while the air group is embarked, so potentially with more space in her hangar more could possibly be accomadated.

HMS Ark Royal is the current Flagship of the Royal Navy. An Invincible Class Aircraft Carrier, she weighs in at 20,000 tons. Her primary role is to operate Harriers, but she can also act as a Helicopter Carrier in a similar manner to HMS Ocean. Ark Royal is currently at sea off the west cost of Scotland, with her air group embarked. Therefore to use her to evacuate civilians from Spain will take her – the UK’s only active aircraft carrier – away from an important exercise.

Between the three ships we are looking at a lift capacity of somewhere in the region of 3,000 people. However according to the BBC, there are somewhere in the region of 150,000 British nationals stranded around the world – a drop in the ocean indeed. Given that a run from northern Spain to the south of England will take the best part of a day, the three ships will make an almost microscopic dent in the backlog of Brits needing help.

Not only that, but the three ships represent almost all of the Royal Navy’s large assets – having them removed from duties dents the capability of the Royal Navy. They are not designed to carry large amounts of people, in the same manner as a roll-on-roll-off ferry or a cruise liner. The Royal Fleet Auxiliary does possess four Bay Class Landing Ships which would be ideal, but they are very stretched indeed.

Its great that the Royal Navy is able to assist in this kind of a crisis, but in this particular example it is hard to argue that their contribution is important. If, for example, thousands of Briton’s needed evacuating from a far-away country with little infrastructure, such as Lebanon, the Landing Craft and Helicopters would be absolutely invaluable. That would be exactly the kind of job the Navy is there for.

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Prisoner of the Gestapo by Tom Firth

The word ‘unique’ gets bandied about a lot in historical circles, but this book really is something special, and in all likelihood, the only one of its kind. And for so many reasons.

Tom Firth was born to an English father and a Polish mother, and hence had dual Anglo-Polish nationality. After living abroad for most of his youth, the summer of 1939 found him holidaying in Poland, of all places, seemingly little aware of the grave danger awaiting him. After German forces invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, and Britain declared war on the 3rd, Firth found himself an enemy alien on two counts.

Finding himself in the soviet zone, after the Germans and Russians had shamefully colluded to carve up Poland, Firth actually made the effort to cross into the German zone. Once back in Warsaw he had to procure a fake identity card and assume a fully Polish identity – as an British national he ran the very grave danger of being rounded up and assumed to be an escaped POW. Despite this danger, he became involved in an escape organistation helping British evaders.

Almost immediately, however, the escape line was broken, and Firth was captured by the Gestapo. Taken to Montelupich Prison in Krakow, where he was held for several years, he endured numerous interrogations and beatings and maltreatment. All the time he managed to keep up the pretence of being an ordinary Pole, aided by his fluent Polish. And despite the Gestapo’s best efforts, they had no real evidence against him. Eventually – and luckily – he was released. As his story shows, not many escaped the Gestapo alive.

Even after his release, Tom Firth seems to have lived life on the edge. He found work teaching English to the daughters of a wealthy landowner in the east of Poland. When the Red Army neared in 1944 he and the other men on the estate were rounded up and marched west to become slave labourers. By a miracle, Firth was released – the rest of the group were later murdered.

This book really is something else. Tom Firth’s predicament is one that I had never really given much thought to, and I suspect many others are the same. Just how many British nationals were caught in the wrong place at the wrong time during the war, in Poland and in other places? For example, how about the many Commonwealth War Graves Commission employees? How many lives were affected by the tragedy of war? For that is one thing that jumps out from these pages – the sheer number of people who were uprooted, churned around and spat out again by wartime occupation.

Firth gives us a very illuminating picture of life in wartime Poland – under the Russians and the Germans, life as an enemy alien ‘behind the lines’, and being a prisoner of the Gestapo. Its an aspect of the Second World War that we do not know a great deal about, and for that reason this book is truly unique and very special.

Prisoner of the Gestapo is published by Pen and Sword

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