Daily Archives: 10 April, 2010

Time Magazine article on the British armed forces

Thanks for Think Defence for drawing my attention to this link. Its an article in the prestgious American magazine Time. Its a very interesting read indeed, looking at the history of Britain’s military and its current position. A perfect example as well of how the past and the present relate to each other. And, as is often the case, an outside view is devoid of the usual baggage and partisan perspectives.

The article is quite right in highlighting the firm divide between supporting the troops and opinion about the war in Afghanistan. Public shows of support, such as at Wootton Bassett, and appeals such as Help for Heroes, are more prominent now than at any time since the end of the war, with the exception perhaps of the Falklands in 1982. Yet defence is virtually a non-issue when it comes to the upcoming General Election.

It is hard to argue that British defence is not in crisis. Equipment costs are spiralling, defence spending falling in real terms, commanders are engaged in turf wars for profile and funding, and the Government is looking at burden-sharing with the French – a prospect that has not gone down well with the forces or the public at large. But while the British public might balk at the prospect of our armed forces fighting under the Tricolor, and are proud of their military history, they are also savvy enough to know when they are being lied to, and when their servicemen are being let down.

The upcoming Defence Review is perhaps the most crucial crossroads for the British armed forces since the end of the cold war. And in many ways, the review will have to deal with many delayed hangovers from the Cold War, particularly in the mindset of Generals, Admirals and Air Marshals. There is undoubtedly a gap between how Britain perceives itself, and the reality of what it can afford. The world is clearly a far more uncertain place than 20 years ago. Therefore, there need to be some earnest questions and honest answers about every facet of the armed forces – something that has been avoided since the end of the Cold War.

“All I could make out in their language were the words Mr. Bean. They were laughing at me … making me feel about three inches tall.” So spoke Royal Navy Seaman Arthur Batchelor about his ordeal being held captive by Iran in 2007. Such an image does not sit well within British naval history. British forces have long been held up as role models on the international scene. In 2003 British forces strolled into Basra wearing Berets, while their US counterparts treated Iraqi civilians with extreme caution. British forces have unrivalled experience and expertise of a wide range of scenarios. But incidents such as the capture of sailors and marines by Iran in 2007, and the inability to tackle pirates in 2009, undermines the morale of Britain’s forces and their global standing.

The recent Iraq inquiry, however, has identified that while there is a wealth of capability within the armed forces, the real problem with British Defence policy lies in a serious lack of defence expertise within the politicians of Whitehall. There is undoubtedly a gulf between the military and the Government, illustrated clearly by the almost open warfare between Gordon Brown and General Sir Richard Dannatt during the latter’s time as Head of the British Army. Can former lawyers and union leaders really govern the armed forces properly? It is no wonder Generals become politicised when they are treated as shabbily as they have been by the current Government.

British defence governance, leadership and culture clearly needs a serious reconfiguration, as Time suggests. In fact, in many ways it could be argued that the cultural and political issues are bigger than that of funding. It is almost reminiscent of the ‘frocks and hats’ divide during the First World War. As funding is inherently determined by the culture and government of the military, it makes far more sense to square this problem before talking about whether we need aircraft carriers or whether we have too many eurofighters.

We should have a much clearer picture after 4 May…

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Filed under debate, defence, Navy, politics, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized

1st Hampshires and the second Battle of Ypres

On 22 April the German Army around Ypres released 168 tons of chlorine gas over a 4 mile section of front. Approximately 6,000 French and colonial troops were killed, and the surviviors were forced to pull back. This however left a 4 mile gap in the front line between the French and the Canadians on the flank. There was a very serious danger that the Germans might breakthrough the allied front line. Reinforcements were taken from quieter sectors of the front to try and plug the gap.

The War Diary of the 1st Hampshires takes up the story. Also the Commanding Officer, Colonel F.R. Hicks, left a very detailed account of the battle.

On 24 April 1915 the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment left Bailleul by train at midday. They reached Poperinghe about 3.15pm, and from there marched to Basse Boom where they were billeted for the night, accoring to Hicks in some farms. At 6am the next day the Battalion marched to Vlamertinghe. There they remained until 6.30pm, when the 11th Brigade was ordered to relieve the Canadians Zonnebeke. The Battalion reached Wieltje at about 9pm, where they were to be met by guides from the Canadian Brigade. However after waiting for more than an hour the Canadian Brigadier had arrived, but no guides. Little information could be found. Hicks described it as a ‘horrid situation’.

Brigadier-General Haslar, commanding the 11th Brigade, ordered the Hampshires up to occupy a line to the right of the 85th Brigade. The 85th Brigade was severely stretched and had gaps in its line. Furthermore, the Brigade’s left flank was open. There was very little information about which trenches the Germans had captured. With only a couple of hours left before daybreak a hasty reconnaissance was made, and the Battalion began to dig itself in. It was, as Hicks described, ‘a race with dawn’, as to be caught in the open in daylight would have meant annihilation. Fortunately there was a thick fog at dawn, which gave an extra hour digging before the men were exposed to the view of the enemy. ‘There was no time to lose and we started to dig. The men were tired out. They dug like bricks. Most of them knew that their lives depended on being underground by dawn’.

Heavy shelling began at midday, followed by German advances. The position proved to be a strong one, and prevented the Germans getting round the flank of the 85th Brigade. The Hampshires were however heavily enfiladed from both flanks. At the extreme point in the Ypres Salient and overlooked on three sides by thee enemy, who also had the advantage of high ground, the Hampshire’s position was not an enviable one. On the left A Company, under Captain Sandeman, had occupied some houses. A surprise attack caused some confusion and Sandeman was killed, before a local counte-attack secured the situation. By nightfall the Battalion had lost 4 officers and 50 men killed. 2 officers and 98 men were wounded. 9 men were missing. These losses were incredibly light given the weight of fire the Battalion was under – Colonel Hicks writes that the ‘hung on’, and that the 26th was the worst day of the battle.

At one stage Battalion Headquarters had a very lucky escape, when the C.O., Adjutant and 3 orderlies were buried by a shell which pitched just into the side of the parapet. ‘Luckily the soil was dry and light and they were dug out unharmed’.

During the night of the 26th-27th the trenches were extended and improved. The situation was obviously still fairly chaotic, as the Battalion learnt during the night that the Rifle Brigade were about 1.5 miles to their left and rear, leaving a large gap. Although the war diary states that 27 April was a fairly quiet day, 1 officer and 16 men were killed, 1 officer and 28 men wounded, and 2 men missing.

On 28 April the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Hicks, was called away to take over command of 11 Brigade after Brigadier-General Haslar was killed. Major Palk took over command of the Battalion. 1 officer and 10 men were wounded.

By the 29th the front was firming up. The Hampshires made contact with the Rifle Brigade on their left and the Buffs on the right, forming a continuous front line. 6 men were killed, and 13 men wounded.

The 30th saw a counter-attack by the French to the north, but little progress was made. The Battalion Headquarters was heavily shelled. Also on the 30th Colonel Hicks returned to command the Battalion. During the day 3 men were killed, and 1 officer and 3 men wounded.

During April 1915 the Battalion received 2 officers and 223 men as reinforcements. However taking into account the men lost killed wounded or missing, and the 89 men admitted to hospital during the month, these reinforcements were nowhere near enough to make up losses. The rate of attrition amongst officers in particular was very heavy.

The Battalions dead included 6 Portsmouth men. Private Frederick Hall, Private J Cooper (24, Portsea) and Private J.K. Blofield were killed on 26 April. Sergeant John Cleall was killed on 28 April, and Private Frank Bridger (19, Cosham) and Private John Battell (29) were killed on 1 and 2 May respectively.

Colonel Hicks rounded off his account of the battle with some stirring words:

‘The gallant deeds performed by the men of the Regiment would fill pages… and the stretcher bearers were beyond praise… young officers of 18 (and some under) commanding platoons through such a week of terror and keeping control of their men, when in the ordinary course, they might have been trembling before an awe inspiring Headmaster.’

‘Though few remain who fought in 1914, the spirt of the Regiment remains as fine as ever’.

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One

The Hyson Brothers?

An interesting little story has transpired from my WW1 dead research.

Before the widespread use of motor vehicles, Railways were used during the First World War to transport men an materiel quickly around to the front line, and then around the front quickly as threats arose. To operate these military railways a large specialist service sprang up within the Royal Engineers.

Sapper F.C. Hyson, from Portsmouth, was serving with 98th Light Train Crew Company Royal Engineers when he died on 31 December 1917. He is buried at Alexandria in Egypt. The train crew companies made up the drivers, fireman and other crew members of the trains.

Sergeant R.H. Hyson, a resident of 34 Gladstone Road, Mile End, was serving with 19th Railway Operating Company Royal Engineers when he died on 30 December 1917. He was 32. He is buried at Salonika in Greece. The Railway Operating Companies were responsible for operating the tracks, stations and signalling.

It seems a huge coincidence to find two men, with the same surname, from the same city, serving in the Railway units of the Royal Engineers. Is it possible that the men were brothers who worked on the Railways pre-war and volunteered or were conscripted for their skills and experience? Its not uncommon to find whole families who worked on the Railways. Lets see what we can find out!

Although we only know the mens intials, we do know that at least one of them lived at 34 Gladstone Road, Mile End.

One way to check whether the men were related is to find their birth records on FreeBMD, and see if they have the same parents. According to FreeBMD Frederick Chares Hyson was born in Portsea Island in either January, February or March 1894. This would make him 23 when he died. Sadly, his record has no mention of his parents. I can find no entry for R.H. Hyson.

According to the 1901 census, Frederick Charles Hyson was living in Portsmouth, and was 7. Robert Henry Hyson was 15, and an apprentice blacksmith – certainly the kind of skill that would come in handy working on the railways. Apparently he was born in Aldershot. The age fits exactly if he was 32 when he died in 1917, so back to FreeBMD to check for Hysons born in Aldershot!

According to FreeBMD Robert Henry Hyson was born in the Farnham registration district – which at that time included Aldershot – in either July, August or September 1885. Again, the dates match perfectly. But no clue as to his parents!

Its looking like I will have to check electoral rolls and street directories to see whether there is any connection between Frederick and Robert Hyson, but at this stage it is not impossible. It would be a huge quirk of fate indeed if two men from the same city with the same rare surname died within a day of each other, serving in the same specialist arm of the Royal Engineers.

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Filed under Army, Family History, portsmouth heroes, railway history, World War One