Monthly Archives: November 2011

Birmingham Pals by Terry Carter

In the past year or so there has been a real increase in the number of military history books looking at the First World War. And refreshingly, many of them are focused on the experiences of the average guy caught up in conflict. Among them is Pen and Sword‘s series of books on the Pals Battalions.

In 1914 the British Army was relatively small – virtually an Imperial police force, and a continental role was never really envisioned until only a few years before the war began. As a result, the Army had to expand massively in order to field a sizeable expeditionary force in Flanders. The solution of the Secretart of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, was to recruit masses of volunteers into a ‘New Army‘, or ‘Kitchener Battalions’. Many of these were centred on large urban areas, including Birmingham.

Birmingham eventually raised three Kitchener Battalions – the 14th, 15th and 16th Battalions of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Birnimgham’s local country Regiment. Of course, if we try to divorce units from their social history, and indeed their communities in general, they make much less sense in history. As raw recruits, the Battalions spent much time in England training before embarking for France. Like most of the Kitchener Battalions, the Birmingham Pals first action was on the Somme. The fate of the Pals Battalions on the Somme has really struck a chord in British military history, probably due to the grievous losses combined with the fact that it was the first time that Britain had truly fielded a citizen army.

But this isn’t just a narrative, ‘1914 to 1918 what happened’. Terry Carter grounds his work with a chapter on the social and economic context of Birmingham’s history, and the events of August 1914 which saw mass volunteering amid a wave of euphoria. It is impeccably well researched, and generously illustrated. It contains a roll of honour of all members of the three Battalions who fell, and a list of gallantry medals – a real bonus for anyone wishing to look up their ancestors. Overall it is very well handled, and at no point does the text stray into the oft-heard stereotypes about the Pals, and instead wisely focuses on sources and events.

I found this a very interesting read indeed. Not only will it interest Brummies, but also those of us from further afield who are interested in this kind of research, with the 100th anniversary looming in 2014. Terry Carter has definitely put down a marker here, and I hope I can do half as good a job when it comes to paying tribute to Portsmouth’s own pals.

Birmingham Pals is published by Pen and Sword

 

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Filed under Book of the Week, social history, western front, World War One

Find my Past: The TV series

The other day I stumbled on a new genealogy programme on the Yesterday Channel. Under the banner of the commercial family history website findmypast, this series takes climactic historic events, andfollows the journeys of people whose ancestors were involved.

This trailer is for the episode looking at the hundreds of British soldiers shot for cowardice, desertion and other offences such as falling asleep on duty on the Western Front during the Great War:

Other episodes look at the Battle of Britain, the Mutiny on the Bounty, D-Day, Jack the Ripper and the Titanic.

I watched the Jack the Ripper episode the other day and found it very engaging. It is nice to see family history with ‘normal’ people and not just celebrities. The Jack the Ripper episode featured Dr Nick Barratt (genealogy’s own Troy Mclure who crops up everywhere), and a host of other experts.

As I have often said, anything that heightens awareness of family history is a good thing, as long as it doesn’t gloss over the long yet rewarding work that is involved.

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Engineer Lieutenant Joseph House DSC

The British Grand Fleet imposing the blockade ...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve often written that naval officers, as a general rule, do not seem to either come from Portsmouth or live there. Lieutenant-Commander William Hussey DSO DSC is obviously an exception from the Second World War.

But I have come across a rather distinguished officer from Portsmouth who, although he did not die during the Great War ‘proper’, was decorated for bravery at Jutland, and was killed in anti-Bolshevik operations in the Gulf of Finland in 1919.

Joseph Alfred House was born in Southampton on 22 June 1879. House actually joined the Royal Navy in the ranks, serving as an Artificer Engineer earlier in his career. He joined the battlecruiser HMS Princess Royal in November 1913, and was present when she was in action at Heligoland Bight in 1914, Dogger Bank in 1915 and Jutland in 1916. At Jutland she received numerous hits, and suffered casualties of over 100 men, many of them from Portsmouth.

For bravery at Jutland, Joseph House was recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross. House’s DSC was announced in the London Gazette on 15 September 1916:

When the ship was hit and badly damaged, he efficiently made repairs to pipes under very difficult circumstances of smoke and darkness, whereby fires were got under control which otherwise must have been a very grave danger.

In October 1917 House was drafted to HM Submarine P17. After being promoted to Engineer Lieutenant he was posted to the Destroyer HMS Verulam. The Verulam hit a mine in the Gulf of Finland on 3 September 1919, and was sunk in two minutes. Only eight bodies were washed ashore, of which three were identified – one of those being House’s. He is buried in Styrssud Point War Cemetery, on a hill among pinewoods a quarer of a mile from the sea.

House’s medals – Distinguished Service Cross, 1914-15 Star, British War and Victory Medals – were auctioned at Dix Noonan and Webb in December 2007. With a guide price of £3500-£4000, they went under the hammer at £4,500.

I must confess I had always thought that the DSC was an officers award, but it seems that in some cases it was awarded to warrant officers who performed particularly bravely at sea. Reaching Warrant rank and earning a DSC at Jutland obviously earnt house his full commission in due course.

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USS Miami

Spotted coming into Portsmouth this afternoon. USS Miami, a Los Angeles class nuclear powered attack submarine of the US Navy.

20111128-020248.jpg

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Walking the Somme by Paul Reed

Regular readers will probably need no introduction to Paul Reed. A prolific military historian, he is also a battlefield guide and a regular expert on the TV screens when it comes to military history. One of those people who makes you wonder, how do they fit it all in?!

Hopefully one day I will get myself to the Somme, and when I do this book will be in my rucksack. But until then a read of this is not a bad substitute. I wonder how many people, like me, own plenty of battlefield guides but have never been anywhere near the places? I find that because they are written in a manner aiming to interpret the lie of the land, and bring the battle to life, battlefield guidebooks come across like that even if you’re reading them in the comfort of your own home. And surely that is the whole intention of writing history? It’s something that Paul Reed does very well here. My understanding of the Battle of the Somme has been vastly improved thanks to this book. In particular, I have a much stronger grasp on what happened to the Portsmouth Pals- the 14th and 15th Hampshires – at Flers and Guillemont respectively. And considering I’m quite new to studying the Great War, but looking to publish a book on it myself in the non too distant future, thats a very useful thing.

The battlefield of the Somme is ‘broken up’ into a series walks, logical in scope and and sensible in duration. The book is amply illustrated, with photographs, archive maps and sketch maps – which somehow are very evocative of the great war, a nice touch. I also like how it concentrates far more on the common soldier than it does on the Generals, which is not always the case with First World War books! Sensibly, Paul has concentrated on the battlefields themselves, without swamping the reader with ancilliary information. Most of us have the internet at hand nowadays, and tourist information for Albert should be at our fingertips with a quick google search. Hence theres no need to overload the book with hotels, trains and toilets, when there is far more interesting stuff to think about.

This book was actually first published almost twenty years ago. And I have to say, considering the changes in technology and the shifts in military history since then, it has ‘aged’ remarkably well. I guess its comparable to, say, writing a battlefield guide now, say, for an iphone app, who knows what innovations might take place between now and twenty years time? So to pass the test of time is no small achievement.

Walking the Somme is published by Pen and Sword

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ANZAC #6 – Gunner Hubert Gray

Hubert Gray was born in Prahan, near Melbourne, Victoria; the son of John and Jane Gray. He worked as an engine driver, prior to enlisting in the Australian Army on 22 July 1915.

Upon enlistment he was married to Corea Isabel Gray, of Beech Street, Whittlesea, Victoria. He had previously served with I Company of the Rangers, in Victoria. He Attested in Melbourne, when he was 34 years and 10 months old. He was relatively tall at 5 feet 11 1/2 inches, and weighed 11 stone. He had a chest of 35 inches, and 36 1/2 expanded. He had grey eyes, black/brown hair, and was a member of the Australian Church. The only identifying marks he had were vaccination marks, moles and a scar on his left knee.

Upon joining the Army Gray was posted to D Coy, of the 12th Battalion, Australian Infantry. He remained with them until 10 November 1915, when he transferred to the 4th Brigade of the Australian Field Artillery. On 1 April 1916 he was serving with the 3rd Battery in the 8th Field Artillery Brigade. Unlike most Australian Great War troops, Gray remained in Australia for some time after he enlisted. He finally embarked at Melbourne on HMAT Medic (A7) on 20 May 1916, almost ten months after first joining up. He disembarked at Plymouth on 18 July 1916.

Gray did not leave England for the Front, and he was clearly not a well man. On 14 August he was taken ill, and four days later on 18 August 1916  he was taken into Hospital with suspected influenza. Gray was admitted to the 3rd Southern General Hospital, and was discharged three days later. He was back in hospital on 7 September, and this time remained there for some time, being kept in for observation. On 12 September he was tested for meningitis, and given the all clear.

He was still quite ill, however. His medical case notes report that on 6 October he was very thin, and on a low diet. By 10 October he was complaining of intense pain. Although by 14 October he had slightly recovered, was mildly conscious and felt hungry, by 20 October his condition had worsened considerably, but the doctors still had no idea what was wrong with him – he tested negative for typhus. Although he could talk rationally, he was clearly a very sick man. By the end of the month he was unconscious. By 10 November his condition was grave, grave enough for the doctors to perform a lumbar puncture, but he died at 3.45am on 11 November 1916, in the Military Section of Portsmouth General Hospital. He was 35.

After his death, pathology tests confirmed that Hubert Gray had in fact been suffering from chronic meningitis for some time. This would explain why he had been so ill for the previous few months, although his service records do not contain any evidence as to why the doctors failed to diagnose his illness correctly. The negative test for meningitis in September probably threw them off the scent.

Gunner Hubert Gray was buried in Milton Cemetery on 14 November 1916. His family were sent his effects, namely:

2 handkerchiefs, mirror, 3 note books, purse, 2 identity discs, pocket book, clasp knife, pocket knife, 2 combs, 2 hair brushes, shaving brush, badges (various), letters.

Sadly, Hubert Gray’s case is an example of how apparently fit young men could still die of natural causes and illness during wartime. It might not necessarily have been caused by his war service – although a stressful sea voyage and wartime privations cannot have helped – but, all the same, he was in uniform prepared to serve his country and the Empire.

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The inaugural Portsmouth Airshow launched

 

A Royal Air Force Avro Vulcan Display Team Vul...

Vulcan - coming to Portsmouth? (Image via Wikipedia)

Next year over the weekend of 18 and 19 August, the skies above Portsmouth will play host to up to seven hours of air displays. Sandwiched between the London Olympics and the Paralympics, it’s shaping up to be a fantastic occasion. It should be a huge draw, and great for Portsmouth. And best of all, it will be completely free to the general public!

 

The organisers are in the process of assembling an impressive array of participants. Already confirmed are a De Havilland Sea Vixen and the Breitling Wing Walkers. The organisers are also in talks with the Vulcan Bomber, various Spitfires and a Hawker Hunter. From the RAF the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, Eurofighter Typhoon, Tornado, Tucano and a Jet Provost have been invited. The Red Arrows have also been applied for, although given recent events they are grounded and their 2012 schedule will not be confirmed until February. The Royal Navyhave also been asked to provide displays, and in terms of foreign assets the French Air Force display team and the Swiss aerobatic team are also in discussion, and these kind of rarities are the icing on the cake of the airshow circuit. Two parachute display teams have also been invited, from the RAF and the Royal Navy. In many cases the organisers have actually been approached by teams wanting to display.

 

But it’s not just about what is going on in the skies. Southsea Common will be alive with events, including a Family village, retail and merchandise areas, a food village, craft village, business and enterprise areas and corporate hospitality. Of course Southsea Seafront, with its panoramic views, historic setting and naval heritage, is perfect for such an event. And in a real treat, there will be a pop concert on the Saturday evening – including a Queen tribute act! – and a firework display finale. A field gun competition between the Royal Navy and Royal Marines is also a possibility.

 

The idea is that this will become an annual event, and the organisers Maurice and Steve are very keen to make sure that it is a sustainable event, on a firm business footing. In the words of Steve, it should have a real ‘Goodwood’ atmosphere. There are plenty of opportunities for sponsorship and corporate hospitality. The organisers are also on top of the game thinking about transport – park and ride will be an option in getting to and from the seafront for the festival.

 

Whats more, the event is not-for-profit, and will be to benefit some very appropriate charities – the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charities, The Army Benevolent Fund and the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. The event will also support the Exercise Tiger Trust, raising awareness of a tragic event at Slapton Sands in Devon prior to D-Day in 1944.

 

I absolutely applaud Maurice, Steve and everyone involved. It has taken a massive amount of work to get this far, and they are to be congratulated. I wish them all the best. Lets all get behind it and give ourselves yet another reason to be proud of Portsmouth.

 

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Filed under airshow, event, Navy, Royal Air Force, Vulcan Bomber