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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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.

Related articles

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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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Thomas Picton

Sir Thomas Picton, by Sir Martin Archer Shee (...

Image via Wikipedia

I was interested to read this article about the Waterloo General Sir Thomas Picton. Picton was famously played by Jack Hawkins in the film Waterloo by Dino de Laurentis, complete with civilian top hat. A portrait of Picton has hung for many years in Camarthen Court in Wales. A criminal solicitor, however, has suggested that it should be removed, as there is evidence that Picton mistreated a young native girl whilst a colonial governor in the West Indies, prior to Waterloo. Picton was killed commanding the 5th Division at Waterloo on 18 June 1815, when his Division was repelling the attack of D’erlon’s Corps early in the afternoon. Picton’s uniform had not arrived, and he fought wearing a civilian coat and top hat.

Picton was known for being irascible. But he was a bloody good General. Wellington was known as cold fish. But he was a bloody good General. Montgomery was egotistic and abrasive. But he was a bloody good general. Churchill was a poor strategist and an alcoholic. But he was an inspirational leader. And Nelson was an adulterer and van. But he was a winning admiral. And it is more often than not these kind of people who go into battle for us and defend us, personality flaws and all, rather than lawyers safe in their chambers.

I can’t help but wonder whether some people tend to highlight cases such as this in an attempt to boost their own liberal credentials. All I’m saying, is that we need to be very careful looking back at history through modern lenses. Of course mistreating anyone, regardless of race, is wrong and should never be condoned. But we do need to remember that we have very different prevailing social attitudes to the early Nineteenth Century, and cruelty was happening all over the world – not least in the mills and factories of Industrial Revolution Britain. We need to bear that in mind before we come to screaming assumptions about people who are no longer around to defend themselves.

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Thoughts on War Memorials

Given my recent work researching names on War Memorials, I have been thinking about the history of War Memorials themselves.

Of course, they are important – anything that helps us remember the sacrifices of generations past cannot be a bad thing. But then again, are there aspects of the war memorial in popular culture that, in a non-intentional way, limit our remembrance? Are they a convenient way of shoeboxing remembrance? Are they a relic of Victorian and Edwardian fascination with grief?

Think about it. A certain place in a town is the place where we remember fallen heroes. Does that mean that we don’t remember them anywhere else? I guess its like Armistice Day – why should we only remember them one day a year out of 365? Does that mean that they don’t matter for the other 364?

In another sense, there is also something quite limiting about war memorials, in that very often they only show the name, or in some cases, only initials. And of course, unless you knew them, can lists of unknown names really be ‘remembered’? Does it encourage us to think ‘thats their names, they’re remembered’ and leave them there, when in actual fact, we can’t remember them if we know nothing about them in the first place?

Of course I’m not suggesting that we tear down war memorials. They are a part of our heritage. But in the modern world, with technology and no end of information at our fingertips, why limit remembrance to names in stone? We say ‘we will remember them’, and that they won’t be forgotten, but surely if all we know is someone’s name and thats about it, then they’re virtually forgotten anyway?

 

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Sneak peak of the cover!

The History Press have today listed my forthcoming book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’, on their website. And alongside the listing, is also a sneak peek of the cover!

Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes – The History Press

I’m working through the proofreading as we speak, before I get cracking on the index. Happy days!

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Sergeant Jonathan Heaton MM, Royal Marine Artillery Howitzer Brigade

Royal Marine Artillery crew loading a 15-inch ...

Unsurprisingly, I’ve come across quite a few Royal Marines from Portsmouth who were killed in the Great War – 113 so far, in fact. And I’m only up to the letter H. Of those I have information for 101 of them. And the statistics are striking – only 13 joined up after the war had started. And incredible 37 had actually enlisted in the Nineteenth Century! All this adds up to suggest that many Royal Marines were long serving, experienced men. There was also a strong likelihood that if a man was serving for a long time in the Royal Marines, sooner or later he might settle near the Barracks in Portsmouth.

Jonathan Heaton was born on 6 March 1876. He enlisted in the Royal Marine Artillery on 15 September 1896, when he was 20. In 1901 he married his wife Jane in Portsmouth. In 1914 they were living at 83 Adair Road in Eastney, very close to the Royal Marine Barracks in Portsmouth.

The Royal Marines in 1914 were formed of a number of distinct corps. Of the combatant arms, the Royal Marine Light Infantry and the Royal Marine Artillery were most prominent in the Great War. The Royal Marine Artillery actually formed two Artillery Brigades to serve on the Western Front in October 1914. These Brigades actually supported the Army, and not just the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division as I first suspected. One was an anti-aircraft unit, whilst the other manned heavy howitzer guns.

The RMA Howitzer Brigade was only really an administrative headquarters, as each of the guns were so large, they were deployed individually along the front. The RMA actually operated a unique weapon – the 15 inch breech loading Siege Howitzer. It had a maximum range of over 10,000 yards, and fired a 1,400lb shell. The Brigade operated 12 of the Howitzers in total.

Sergeant Heaton was killed on 24 September 1917, and is buried in Gwalia Cemetery in Belgium. Late September 1917 saw the closing stages of the battle of the Menin Road, during the third battle of Ypres – better known to history as Passchendaele. Gwalia is actually back from the front line, near Poperinghe, which suggests that Heaton was probably wounded and taken to the rear before he died.

On 11 December 1917 Jonathan Heaton was awarded a posthumous Military Medal. The London Gazette has no information about how his MM was won, but as it was posthumous we can reasonably assume that it was won in the action in which he was killed.

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Under the Devil’s Eye: The British Military Experience in Macedonia 1915-1918 by Alan Wakefield and Simon Moody

During my research into Portsmouth’s Great War casualties, I have come across a number who are buried in Greece. I must confess that although I knew that the British Army had fought in ‘Salonika‘ during the First World War, I had very little awareness of what had actually happened in that campaign. As the Introduction explains, when this book was first published in 2004 it was the first book on Salonika to reach a British market in 39 years! Little wonder that the campaign has been ignored by history, overshadowed by both the Western Front on the one hand, and Gallipoli on the other.

The Balkans has always been a notoriously sensitive region throughout European history, with the melting pot of Yugoslavia, and numerous ethnic and religious tensions in the area. Into this dangerous context, the British Army landed in 1915. Ostensibly their presence was protect Greece against Bulgarian agression, yet many in the Greek establishment were decidedly anti-British and pro-German. The real intention was to divert Bulgarian resources away from a possible attack on Franco-Serbian forces elsewhere in the Balkans. The campaign took place in the Greek province of Macedonia (not to be confused with the modern state of Macedonia, which is nearby but part of the former Yugoslavia), and British forces depended on the port of Salonika for their lines of communications. Thus it was into a very delicate and awkward theatre that British soldiers entered in 1915.

Viewed from the foresight of British military overconfidence, and underestimation of the enemy, the campaign was a disappointment military. British forces failed to make much headway, even when the Bulgarians were on the point of collapse. In the end, the Armistice in September 1918 came completely out of the blue. Personally, I would argue that to have fought a tricky campaign with a lack of resources, lack of priority, and against a formidable enemy, climate and disease, not to mention a neutral host country, was no mean feat at all.

Many British troops at Salonika had embarked from Gallipoli, and there were many similarities between the two campaigns. Both were borne out of a desire to avoid mass casualties by fighting on the western front, and to attempt to ‘knock away the props’ by defeating Germany‘s allies. Little did the ‘easterners’ understand that Germany was propping up her allies. Similar arguments would be heard twenty five years later when Churchill exhoted the allies to exploit Europe’s ‘soft underbelly’, irritating american suspicions in the process. But the similarities do not end there. Troops fighting in the Eastern Mediteranean fought against the enemies of the heat, disease, and an foe that turned out to be much more formidable than had been expected.

This is a very useful book indeed. It sheds new light on a vastly under-studied campaign, and it certainly expanded my Great War horizons. It is incredibly well researched, and makes plentiful use of primary sources – both official documents and eyewitness accounts. It is not just a political narrative, but gives ample attention to the rank and file soldier, and wider contexts.

Under the Devils Eye is published by Pen and Sword

 

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Playing the Game: the British junior officer on the Western Front 1914-1918 by Christopher Moore-Bick

Much has been written about British senior officers in the Great War – the so called ‘Donkeys’. With popular cultural references such as ‘Oh what a lovely war’ and ‘Blackadder goes forth‘, it became an orthodoxy for many years that the British General Staff between 1914 and 1918 were Victorian and incompetent. In recent times, there have been a number of reactions to this. Firstly, attempts have been made to ‘rehabilitate the donkeys’, with varying success. And in a more refreshing manner, much effort has been put into uncovering the experiences of the rank and file on the Western Front, particularly poignant with the passing of the Harry Patch generation.

But somewhere in between those two appraches, we are missing something – an understanding of the lives of the junior officers of the British Army, those who commanded platoons and companies, whether regular, territorial or volunteer. And that void presents us with an opportunity. Not only to understand the middle level of the British Army in 1914-18, but also to take a closer look at the society that created them. And that’s what Christopher Moore-Bick has done very ably here.

In many respects the Great War heralded the end of the Victorian/Edwardian society in Britain. The title of the book is indicative of this – to young officers, everything was akin to a game, played on the public school playing fields. Baden-Powell encouraged his Boy Scouts to ‘play up, play up, and play the game!’. Portsmouth’s supporters, around the same time, encouraged their team to ‘Play up’. It could well be argued that the loss of so many young, educated men harmed British society irrevocably – how many future generals and politicians perished in Flanders fields?

It would not be enough to simply confine a look at the BEF‘s junior officers to their activities during the war and on the front line, and this book does not disappoint. Moore-Bick takes a broad view, examining Education and Upbringing, Training, the psychology of fear, responsibility and personal development working relationships with seniors and juniors, class factors, social activities and leisure pursuits, morale, bravery, identity and the relationship between war, dying and the public school ethos. No historical stone is left unturned.

A glance at the endnotes and bibliography gives an impression of just how hard the author must have worked on this project. Prolific use has been made of primary sources, in particular testimonies of junior officers. Great use has been made of a wide range of secondary published sources also. It is always impressive to see the reading that has gone into an authors approach and conclusions.

The only reservation I have about this book, is the manner in which Winchester College is mentioned profusely throughout. It transpires, reading the authors biography, that he is an ex-pupil of Winchester College. I’m sure that old-school tie is inspirational to people who didn’t go to the local state school, but it is slightly over-present here. I guess in a way that is an example of the class loyalties shown by junior officers during the Great War – the only school that existed was the one that you went to, and the only and by far the best Regiment in the British Army was the one that you joined. Tribal loyalties did breed healthy competition.

This book is a godsend to those researching the social history of the British Army in the First World War. For a first book it is a very credible effort, and I can only marvel at the time and effort that it must have taken to research. I’m going to find it invaluable during my research in the months and years to come.

Playing the Game: The British Junior Infantry Officer on the Western Front 1914-1918 is published by Helion

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South African native labourers buried in Portsmouth

Steamship SS Mendi, which sank on 21 February ...

The SS Mendi (Image via Wikipedia)

While I’ve been looking at the Australian Great War troops buried in Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth, I have also come across other foreign nationals who are buried in military war graves in the city. Servicemen from Canada, the Netherlands and Belgium are buried in Milton, Kingston and Highland Road. But by far the largest contingent are South Africans, of the South African Native Labour Corps. They were killed in one of Britain’s worst ever maritime disasters.

Thousands of black south african natives were recruited to provide a non-combatant labour pool for the vast BEF on the Western Front. The intention was to free-up infantry from fatigue duties to allow them to concentrate on front-line duties. Black South Africans were not obliged to perform war service, but could volunteer to work on a contract basis. Historians have argued that using black native labour in an inferior support role was acceptable, given the prevailing ideology at the time. It was also deemed acceptable to contain the natives in their camps at all times, and to not let them anywhere near the front line.

A total of eight men from the Native Labour Corps are buried in Milton Cemetery. They were all killed when their troopship the SS Mendi was sunk off St Catherines Point, on the Isle of Wight. On the night of 21 February 1917 the Mendi was transporting 823 men and officers of the 5th Battalion of the Native Labour Corps from Cape Town to Le Havre, via Lagos and Plymouth. At 5am she was hit by the SS Daro, a meat ship travelling to Argentina.

Legend has it that when the Mendi sank, Reverend Isaac Dyoba rallied the men calling;

“”Be quiet and calm my countrymen, for what is taking place now is what you came here to do. We are going to die, and that is what we came for. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Zulu, say here and now that you are all my brothers… Xhosas, Swazis, Pondos, Basotho and all others, let us die like warriors. We are the sons ofAfrica. Raise your war cries my brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais back in the kraals, our voices are left with our bodies.. Let us die like brothers.”

616 South Africans were killed, 607 of them black labourers. The 30 British crew were also killed. The majority of those killed were lost at sea, and are remembered on the Hollybrook War Memorial in Southampton. Presumably the few bodies that were recovered were brought to Portsmouth, being the nearest port and the location of military hospitals. 200 men survived. It is estimated that up to 140 men may have died trapped in the hull.

Looking at the information we know of the natives, we can learn a lot about how just how different their way of life was. Many only have one name. In most cases there are very few of the details that we would expect with white European casualties, such as full names and addresses. People in different cultures obviously recorded their names and details very differently, and it seems also that the personnel administration for native labourers was a lot more lax than for British troops.

Other men who died on the Mendi are buried elsewhere: one at Hastings, one at Littlehampton, one at Wimeraux in France (south of Calais) and two in Holland (Wassenaar and Bergen-op-Zoom). Some of the survivors drifted ashore in their lifeboats as far afield as Dorset. It is touching to note that whilst they were treated as inferior in life, in death the native labourers whose bodies were found were all given standard CWGC war graves, under the commonwealths forward thinking policy (for the time) of making no distinction between rank, race, colour or creed.

With political developments in South Africa and elsewhere in the 94 years since the Mendi went down, 600 black labourers dying in such tragic circumstances in a ‘white mans war’ has been a subject of much discussion in South Africa, but is little-known in Britain. The Wreck of the Mendi is now a protected war grave, and has been subject of investigations by English Heritage and Wessex Archaeology.

 

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Proofreading the final draft

As I write I am happily scanning though a PDF file of my book, kindly sent to me by my publisher.

I can gladly report that it looks the biz. When you’ve worked on something like this for a couple of years, at times it seems like a long haul and when you read the chapters in word format, it just looks like another undergraduate essay. But when you see it designed, laid out with photos and in a fancy font, you suddenly realise that you’re a historian! I’m really pleased with how it looks. I was concerned about the ratio of pictures to text, but I seem to have got it just right.

One thing I hadn’t bargained for was working on the index, which should be interesting as it’s something I’ve never done before. Prioritising the key points to fit into the space avasilable should be a challenge.

Once the index and any amendments are sent back to the publisher its all systems go, with just over 70 odd days left before publication.

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