Monthly Archives: January 2012

HMS Dauntless to deploy to the South Atlantic

Todays Portsmouth News revealed that HMS Dauntless is due to deploy to the South Atlantic. The second Type 45 Destroyer to deploy is rumoured to be leaving Portsmouth in late March, to relieve the Devonport-based Type 23 Frigate HMS Montrose. The South Atlantic patrol is a task that has been performed by the older Type 42 Destroyers for some years.

One would imagine that the deployment has been long planned – as was her older sister ship HMS Daring going to the Gulf several weeks ago. The move however does dramatically enhance British forces in the Falklands – a Type 45 sat off the islands, with its Sea Viper missile system and SAMPSON radar, would provide a significant deterrent to any Argentine threat. In addition, she does also carry a Lynx helicopter with anti-surface capability. She could also provide direction for the Eurofighters on the Islands. If you were an Argentine senior officer, you would think twice about sending in your obsolescent airfcraft against a Type 45 Destroyer, with four Eurofighter Tyhoons under direction. Of course, one ship is not enough to fight a war, but as was found in 1976, one ship in the right place might be enough to prevent one from occuring.

There have been some rather inaccurate comments in some media outlets about the deployment. According to the Telegraph, one navy ‘source’ claimed that Dauntless could take out all of South America’s air forces, let alone Argentinas. Well, I’m not sure whether this ‘source’ got his GCSE maths, but there are more military aircraft in Argentina than 48. Not every missile is guaranteed a hit, as the Falklands showed, and even then, missiles are often fired in salvos, ie, more than one per target. Another odd claim is that Dauntless could shoot down Argentinian aircraft as soon as they leave their bases. Well, I doubt Dauntless would be sat off the Argentine coast – too risky – and with my rudimentary knowledge of the geography

The delpoyment is bound to increase tensions with Argentina at an already difficult time – any move that comes across as inflamatory is bound to incense Buenos Aires,

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Birdsong – Part 2 Reviewed

On reflection, although I enjoyed the first instalment of Birdsong, I did find that it was very heavy on moody silences, and wistful glances into the distance. Historically, it seemed accurate, and compared to other adaptations, it seemed pretty faithful to the book.

I felt that the battle scenes were very well handled. In all fairness, I think we are setting our stalls out too much to expect battle scenes to be 100% accurate – how can they be? no one actually dies in a war film. I personally feel that the best we can hope for is that battle scenes are thoughtful and respectful to history, and that was what was achieved here. I was very moved especially by the ‘big push’ on the Somme, in particular the scene where the Sergeant-Major is taking a roll call of endless absent names. The final tunnel scene really did justice to the story, and must have taken quite some work in terms of the set and props.

One aspect where I felt that the TV dramtisation really let itself down, was the manner in which the screenwriters, for whatever reason, ommitted any reference to the fact that the events of the book are actually seen through the eyes of a descendant, researching in the 1970′s. This gave the story added longitudinal meaning, that was perhaps absent on screen. Also, maybe I missed it, but there was no reference in either part as to where the title of the book originates from.

There were also a few aspects of the plot that I felt were light – little explanation of why Isabelle left Stephen, and why Stephen was in France in the first place. But then again, I guess translating such a monumental book into three hours of TV was always going to be a challenge. It’s always the same with TV adaptations – they’re never going to hit every note that the book does, but as long as they’re faithful and in keeping, then you have to give credit where credit is due.

What with the phenomenal success of War Horse, and the impending Great War Centenary in 2014, we are probably well into a period of renaissance of interest in the events of 1914-1918. It’s quite an exciting time to be a modern military historian.

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Chief Petty Officer Harold Parfitt

Aside from British decorations and gallantry medals, one subject thats always interested me is that of foreign awards to British servicemen. I have come across quite a few Portsmouth who were awarded a foreign decoration – French, Belgian, even Russian. But I have never come across somebody who was awarded British, Russian and Italian decorations – until now.

Harold Poole Parfitt was born in Bedminster Bristol, on 1 June 1875, the son of a Steam Engine Driver. Parfitt seems to have joined the Royal Navy some time prior to 1891, as in that year’s census he was a 15 year-old Boy Seaman serving on HMS Impregnable in Devonport – a training hulk.

Harold Parfitt married his wife Emmie (nee Walker) in late 1908 in Portsmouth, and in the 1911 he was a Petty Officer, living at Mayhall Road in Copnor. His daughter Elsie Parfitt was just one year old, and his wife’s Brother, seven year old Frederick Walker, was also living with them.

I’m not sure exactly where Harold Parfitt served during the First World War, but he was mentioned in despatches, awarded the Italian Bronze Medal and the Russian Silver Medal of the Order of St Stanislas. One would imagine that CPO Parfitt must have seen some serious action, and even if not he must have given sterling service to be considered for so many awards.

Immediately after the war Parfitt was serving at HMS Excellent, the naval gunnery school on Whale Island. Sadly, after an operation he died on 26 February 1920. He was 44, and is buried in Kingston Cemetery in Portsmouth.

 

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Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes – out in mid-February

I just wanted let you all know some exciting news about my new book.

My publishers have informed me that the books will be released from the distributors on 14 February, so hopefully they will start to appear soon after that. Thank you to everyone who has pre-ordered, if you haven’t purchased a copy yet but would like to do so it is available from the outlets linked to the right.

I am hoping to confirm a couple of signing events soon at local venues – you’ll hear it here first!

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The Somme by Gary Sheffield

It’s nice to actually read a book about the Somme that actually makes me feel like I have learnt something. Too many books on the battle indulge in what has become rather cliched poetry. Most of us are well aware that the first day of the Somme was the bloodiest day in the British Army’s history. Most of us are equally as aware that the Somme was ultimately futile.

What Sheffield does so well here is threefold. Firstly, he does not allow the narrative to become embroiled in cliche or hyperbole. The events of 1916 are examined and explained in a clinical, methodical manner. Secondly, he looks beyond the first day of the Battle. So many histories of the Somme look only at 1 July 1916. Yet the battle raged on for almost five months after that before the offensive ceased. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is eminently readable.

Each phase of the offensive is examined in a manner which makes it clear to the reader. 1 July obviously comes in for special attention, and Sheffield looks at the Divisions all along the front, from Gommecourt in the north to the anglo-french boundary in the south, and relates their objectives and their experiences. As the late great Richard Holmes so rightly stresses in his foreword, Martin Middlebrook gave so much to our understanding of the first say of the Somme, but perhaps out attention in the past has been too focussed on this one day, out of a much longer battle.

Sheffield does not allow himself to get too bogged down in considering whether the battle was a waste of lives or not. The general assumption amongst most people is that the Somme was a horrific waste of lives, a by-word for futility. Or was it? As Sheffield reminds us, the French Army had its back to the wall at Verdun, and the Somme was vital in diverting German resources from that battle. Politically, to do nothing was not an option. In addition, the British Army learnt an awful lot on the Somme, that it put into practice in 1917 and 1918. Could Haig, Rawlinson and Gough have done much different on the Somme. Like Sheffield, I suspect not. The strategic thinking and even most of the tactics were sound, but the Army had not developed its technology and expertise – particularly around communications – enough to really take the offensive to the Germans.

I cannot stress enough how much this book has helped – and will help me – in my research into Portsmouth men killed on the Somme. In particular, the 1st Hampshires on the 1st day near Beaumont Hamel, and then the 15th Hampshires (2nd Portsmouth) at Flers in September – incidentally, one of the most succesful days on the Somme.

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The Waterloo Collection DVD: Victory and Pursuit

This is the final part of a four volume series of DVD’s, looking at the Waterloo Campaign of 1815. I enjoyed the other three DVD’s very much, but for me this was the best of the bunch.

We all know about the last-ditch advance of the Imperial Guard, and of Wellington shouting ‘up guards and at ‘em!’; must of us military nerds will probably already know about Napoleon’s desparate attempts to rally his army, before making a desparate flight back to Paris.

But what is really ingenious about this DVD, is that it really does tell us what 95% will know next to nothing about. For almost 200 hundred years the focus of historians looking at Waterloo has radiated out from that valley south of Mont St Jean. But the whole campaign was fought on a much broader canvas. Of particular interest here is the epic march of the Prussians from Wavre to Waterloo. We are shown around Wavre itself, and told like never before how they managed to evade Grouchy.

We are also given a very good summary of the pursuit of Napoleon after Waterloo, back towards Paris; and how Grouchy attempted to check the Prussian Cavalry. I was also very impressed by the attention given to the aftermath of the battle in terms of the numbers of dead and dying, and the thoughts of the Duke of Wellington regarding the loss of so many of his friends.

It has always been an ambition of mine to go to Waterloo. I haven’t managed it yet, but this is the next best thing. Call me a geek, but I love the shots of re-enactor units massed on the field. What I really thought was invaluable about this DVD in particular was the in-depth look at a Black Watch Highlander’s clothing and equipment, courtesy of a couple of re-enactors. Most of it was completely new to me, and a real eye opener. I had no idea that Highlanders wore Moggins, for example. And I have read about the Trotter knapsack in Sharpe, but never really seen one before. Its things like that that really make for an interesting experience.

One change I would possibly make is the number of presenters. They are all very knowledgeable, but our ‘host’ changes too often for the viewer to build up a rapport. Perhaps it might work better to have perhaps one or two key hosts who address the viewer directly, and then they interview other expert guests? But apart from that rather superficial point, I think this is an excellent DVD. I found it interesting, informative, educational, and very well presented. History DVD’s are definitely here to stay.

Victory and Pursuit is published by Pen and Sword

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Birdsong – Part 1 Reviewed

I enjoyed reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks immensely. But so often TV adaptions just don’t cut the mustard. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best any screenwriter can hope for is to make an ‘OK’ version, that doesn’t sell out on the book too much. To be honest, I haven’t ever seen a TV drama that was better than the book in question. Is that because with a book, we have the bare bones, but we paint the canvas in our minds? Whereas with TV, everything is much more proscribed? I wonder. But there is a place for the TV drama – many people watch a TV programme who would never read a book. After all, how many people got into Sharpe through the books rather than the TV series?

But I think the Beeb did quite well here. Certainly a lot of effort went into the set – tons of chalk were specially imported to match the Picardy terrain, and the make up and construction of the trenches, for example, seemed accurate to me. As far as I can remember it seemed pretty faithful to the book, with no major parts of the plot being substituted, nor any extra bits being added in. And for all the geeks, as far as I could tell, all of the cap badges, shoulder titles, weapons, uniforms etc seemed accurate ;)

I thought that the dramatic tension between the laidback pleasure seeking of peacetime, and the tragedy and bloody nature of war was even more effective than in the book. The incongrous nature of a steamy romp interspersed with men laid out ready for burial was most haunting and evocative. And the acting was very good, save for perhaps a few too many soppy glances.

The Great War is rising in public consciousness, thanks to War Horse and now Birdsong. I would expect this trend to continue for the next couple of years at least, right up until and beyond the centenary in 2014. The BBC look to have made a valuable contribution here by bringing Birdsong to a wider audience.

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More thoughts on military museums

Regular readers will be pretty aware – and possibly tired of me stating the fact! – that I have quite an interest in military museums. I’ve visited more than I care to remember, and in recent years I have made use of more than a few in a more professional capacity as a researcher and author. And having worked in museums in a number of capacities, naturally I have thoughts about the direction – or lack of – that some military museums are heading in.

The Ministry of Defence, facing serious budget pressures, has recently introduced a new report looking at the way that it supports Army museums in particular (as featured in the December issue of the Museums Journal). This month’s journal features an editorial from Richard Smith of the Tank Museum, Bovington – one of the more forward thinking military museums.

The Army currently supports 69 museums – infinitely more museums than there are Corps and Regiments in the modern Army. This is a legacy of a shrinking Army, which 50 years ago had scores of country Regiments, various Corps for every little function, and all kinds of other oddities. Between them these Museums host 5 million visitors a year, working out at an average of 72,000 each. When we consider that some such as Bovington will be getting much more than that, it is not too difficult to imagine that – to take a made-up example – the museum of the Royal Loamshire Fusiliers, merged in 1960, is probably a couple of rooms in Loamshire and gets about 5,000 visits a year.

I am not too sure that you could argue that military museums per se are industy leaders, as Richard Smith. SOME are – Bovington and the Imperial War Museum perhaps, and some of the more visionary provincial museums – but for every progressive museum there are plenty more standing still. Sadly, I think that it is probably right for the MOD to withdraw funding for museums 25 years after a Regiment has been amalgamted or disbanded. After 25 years, if the local community, old comrades etc have not managed to get the Regiment’s heritage onto a self-sustaining footing, its probably time to look at other options. With budget pressures, spending on heritage has to concentrate on what is relevant to today.

Army museums have to adapt or die. Appointing the National Army Museum as a sector leader is a positive move, and perhaps they could take on a leadership role much as the National Archives does for records offices and other repositories. Museums need to work together better – perhaps shared posts are an answer, as might be joint working such as travelling exhibitions, integrated events and education programmes, and increased loans.

I also think there is much potential for army museums to work more closely with ‘civilian’ museums. With the hundredth anniversary of the Great War looming, it is a perfect opportunity for local Regimental Museums to co-operate with the local town or city museum on putting together co-ordinated exhibtions, and loaning each other objects and materials to mutual benefit. The military, and by default military museums, should not sit divorced from society, but should look to become more involved in it. Regiments recruited from their area, losses in battle affected their communities, and veterans demobilising went back into society changed by their experiences. Their stories should be told in a ‘joined-up’ manner, not in dusty isolation.

Society at large is where the visitors, income and school groups come from that will keep many a small museum alive. Many museums have great potential for school groups, by linking into the national curriculum. Technology and Science is presented in museums such as REME at Arborfield, Logisitics Corps at Deepcut and Signals at Blandford Forum. Or how about medicine at the RAMC Museum in Aldershot? School groups are a real goldmine for museums. Venue Hire might be another income stream that would save museums from charging exobrient admission prices. But these are things that most public sector museums have been grappling with for years.

I do hope that Army museums can raise their game in years to come. It is so frustrating knowing that many of them have an aladdins cave of objects, documents and photographs, but are so short-staffed and cash starved that you cannot get at them. They usually charge just to visit their archives, and then charge the earth to reproduce photographs. Hence, the history of many Regiments and their men go hidden away. Which is a traversty.

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Portsmouth’s WW1 Sailors – some thoughts and findings

Having taken a more detailed look at Portsmouth’s Royal Marines of the Great War and come up with some pretty interesting conclusions, I thought it might be interesting to do the same kind of analysis for the men for whom Portsmouth is famous – the humble matelot. So far I have inputted sailors between A and N (inclusive). Out of those I have at least partly identified 930 on the CWGC. I have found 777 of them on the National Archives, which means that I have been able to chart their dates of birth and places of birth.

The findings are pretty interesting. Out of those 777, twenty were in their fifities. An extremely large percentage were in their 30′s and 40′s – many of them leading seamen, petty officers or warrant officers. It’s probably not surprising that many long-serving ratings found themselves in Portsmouth. Six were boy ratings under 18. The conclusion seems to be that the Royal Navy was not a service that called up many recruits in 1914 – many of its roles were skilled, and could not be performed immediately by hostilities only men. And actually, the navy’s role in wartime was only marginally more active than in peacetime.

Ordinarily, most regular naval ratings served via one of the three main manning ports – Portsmouth, Devonport or Chatham. Ships were crewed virtually entirely from one of these ports, even if they were overseas for years. And they frequently were, with naval fleets stationed in Australia, China and suchlike.

In the event of war the Royal Navy relied upon former sailors to bolster its ranks. In the main, their role was to crew ships re-activated from the reserve fleet. Obviously it would take too long to begin building new ships once war was declared, so obsolescent or surplus ships were heald in readiness in the event of war. 45 men who were called up from the Royal Fleet Reserve were killed.

On 1 November 1914 HMS Good Hope was sunk the in Battle of the Coronel off South America – 80 Portsmouth men are known to have been lost, many of them called up from the Royal Fleet Reserve. On 26 November 1914 the Battleship HMS Bulwark exploded in the Thames Estuary off the North Kent Coast. 63 Portsmouth men were killed.

The Battle of Jutland saw probably the largest loss of life of Portsmouth men in one event in history. 219 men were killed on 31 May 1916  on the ships Invincible, Black Prince, Queen Mary, Lion, Shark, Indefatigable, Princess Royal and Southampton. 25 men were killed in Destroyer actions the next day on 1 June 1916, onboard Tipperary, Ardent, Fortune, Sparrowhawk, Onslaught.

HMS Hampshire was sunk by a mine off the Shetland Island on 5 June 1916, carrying the Secretary for War Field Marshal Lord Kitchener to  Russia. 37 Portsmouth sailors were killed, some of whom are buried in Lyness Naval Cemetery near Scapa Flow.

6 men were killed fighting with the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, at Gallipoli and in France and Belgium. Most of the RN Division were spare ratings who were in depots when war was declared, or some of the few hostilities-only recruits who joined up after August 1914.

69 Portsmouth submariners were killed. This is a pretty high number, considering that the Navy had only begun operating submarines just over a decade previously. It suggests that submarine service was dangerous and highly active. 8 won some kind of decoration – seven Distinguished Service Medals, one mention in despatches, and a French Medal Militaire.

By contrast, seamen in general were not very well rewarded medal wise, especially compared to my similar research for the Second World War. One Officers Steward was a CBE, and an Engine Room Artificer was a Companion of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India. Chief Bosun Ernest Griffin won the DSC, as did Engineer Lieutenant Joseph House, and there were 9 DSM’s – seven of them to submariners. As well as the French MM already described, there were also eight mentions in despatches. Leading Seaman Percival Frost was a holder of the Messina Medal, awarded to men who were present and gave assistance when a volcano erupted at Messina in Sicily in 1908. Canteen Manager James Cramb, who was killed on HMS Bulwark, was awarded the Royal Humane Society‘s medal, an award usually made for lifesaving.

But medal or no medal, where did these men come from?

  • 18 Scotland
  • 12 Ireland
  • 1 Bedfordshire
  • 2 Berkshire
  • 2 Ceylon
  • 11 Channel Islands
  • 3 Cheshire
  • 6 Cornwall
  • 3 Cumbria
  • 1 Derbyshire
  • 18 Devon
  • 11 Dorset
  • 6 Durham
  • 8 Essex
  • 7 Gloucestershire
  • 386 Hampshire
  • 1 Herefordshire
  • 4 Hertfordshire
  • 20 Isle of Wight
  • 34 Kent
  • 12 Lancashire
  • 3 Leicestershire
  • 4 Lincolnshire
  • 59 London
  • 3 Malta
  • 7 Middlesex
  • 1 Monmouthshire
  • 1 New Zealand
  • 5 Norfolk
  • 1 Northamptonshire
  • 2 Northumberland
  • 2 Nottinghamshire
  • 5 Oxfordshire
  • 2 Shropshire
  • 11 Somerset
  • 5 Staffordshire
  • 6 Suffolk
  • 15 Surrey
  • 49 Sussex
  • 8 Warwickshire
  • 6 Wiltshire
  • 10 Yorkshire

Interesting, huh? This would suggest that around half of all Portsmouth-based naval ratings came from Hampshire. Large contingents came from neighbouring maritime counties such as Sussex and Dorset, with a large proportion from the Isle of Wight. London, as a large urban area, supplied many men. Apart from that, recreuitment appears to radiate out like an onion skin. The figure for the Channel Islands is surprising – with such a small population, how come so many joined the Navy? But then, when you think about it, most young men in the Channel Islands would have known their way around a boat, and at the same time jobs prospects can hardly have been great.  Note also that three men were born in Malta – a key base for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean – and two were born in Ceylon, another key base. One man somehow travelled from New Zealand.

These statistics suggest just how transient Portsmouth’s society was at the height of the Royal Navy’s power. If half of the Portsmouth-based seamen were coming from outside, that’s an awful lot of newcomers every generation. Over a hundred or so years, we can see that virtually all of Portsmouth families will have come from elsewhere. This migration resulted in notable diaspora in Portsmouth, such as Irish, Scottish and northern. It would be interesting to compare these findings to Plymouth and Chatham.

Given that for many of these men we even have street names and house numbers, I am looking forward to getting a large scale map of Portsmouth and plotting casualties geographically – it should give us a better idea than ever before of where naval families lived, and the effect of war upon Portsmouth society.

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2nd Portsmouth Pals – The story of a raid: Ploegsteert, June 1916

English: War cross in a Commonwealth War Grave...

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The 15th Bn Hampshire Regiment, 2nd Portsmouth Pals, had entered the front line on the Western Front on 30th May 1916. They had gone into the front line at Ploegsteert Wood, a relatively quiet sector to the south of the Ypres Salient that was often used to ‘blood’ new arrivals in Flanders.

The 31st was a quiet day, with A, B and C Companies in the front line and support trenches and D Company in Reserve. No casualties were suffered. The next day Battalion HQ was shelled with 59 High Explosive rounds – the orderly room was demolished – and eight casualties were suffered. One man was killed, 2 accidentally injured, one returned to duty and three wounded.

Private Andrew Baillie, 20 and from Buckland, was killed on the 1st and is buried in Rifle House Cemetery. The next couple of days were relatively quiet, with several men wounded but none killed. On 5th June the Battalion was relieved by the 21st Kings Royal Rifle Corps at 5am, and went into billets at Creslow. The Battalion’s time out of the line was relatively quiet, but on 7th June A Companies billets at Touquet Berthe were shelled, and a barn destroyed, as well as nearby Royal Engineers supply dumps. Miraculously no casualties were suffered.

The Battalion went back into the line on 11th June, relieving the 21st KRRC at 5am in the same Ploegsteert Wood trenches. That evening two patrols were sent out from A and B Companies. Patrols were put out for the next couple of nights. On 14th June a patrol from B Company went out for 24 hours into no-mans-land. Pte Harris 18479 and Cpl Hopkins 20768 brought in a bad of three bombs (grenades) and saw several enemy patrols near Hampshire Trench. More patrols went out over the next couple of nights, and there were also several gas alarms. Several men were killed by enemy bombardment on 17th June, none of them being from Portsmouth.

On 18th June the Battalion was relieved by the 21st Bn KRRC, retiring to billets at Creslow. The men were congratulated by the Commanding Officer for their work on the night of 17/18 June. Later in the day a gas alarm was sounded, but no gas was present over the Battalion’s area. Although the Battalion was technically in reserve, patrols were still being sent out most nights. On the 21st the Battalion went back into the line relieving 21/KRRC, and the next couple of days in the front line were relatively quiet, with the usual patrols being sent out. On the 28th artillery fire from both sides became heavy. Private William Stephenson, aged 17 and from Twyford Avenue in Stamshaw, was killed and is buried in Ballieul Nord Cemetery. The next day Private L. Marshall, of Milton, was killed and is buried in Berks Cemetery Extension.

A major raid was planned on 30 June. Artillery began firing at 0730 and continued until 1700. The enemy wire was succesfully cut. At 2115 a preliminary bombardment began, ceasing at 2145. At 2200 gas was discharged. Then at 2201 artillery recommenced, before smoke was discharged at 2202. The smoke was turned off at 2215, and the raiding party started at 2223. Five minutes later the artillery lifted, and the raiding party advanced. The raiding party reached the enemys trenches at 2243 – after what must have been an agonising 15 minutes in no mans land. The artillery finally ceased at 2253, and later in the evening a second discharge of gas was made at 0125.

The raiding party was formed of three groups. No 1 was under Sergeant Green, No 2 under Lieutenant James and No 3 under Lieutenant Gates. No 1 group reached the enemy lines and threw in grenades, before returning as per the programme. No 2 group lost Lieutenant James wounded, and his second in command was gassed. No 3 group reached the enemy trenches, but had some difficulty in getting through the wire and returned. The raiding party was delayed in reach the enemy lines due to gas in no mans land which did not clear, resulting in the party having to don cumbersome gas masks. Sergeant Green was killed, Corporal Knight died of wounds and Private William Penfold (21, Fratton) later died of the effects of gas. Six men were gassed and wounded. In total 9 men were killed during the day, 28 men were wounded and two died of wounds. Three Portsmouth men died on the 30th – Private Edward Sansom (40, Stamshaw), Private E.H.W. Judd and Private William Fenfold (21, Fratton). All three are buried in Berks Cemetery, near Ploegsteer Wood. A number of men were recommended for awards.

Enemy retaliation was heavy. Lieutenant Gates, Corporal Murden and Private Parris returned into no mans land and recovered Sergeant Green’s body from about halfway across. The party was congratulated by the commander of 41st Division, Major-General Lawford. The objective of the raid had been achieved – to keep the enemy pinned down, and prevent them from sending reinforcements elsewhere. The next day the Battle of the Somme would commence further South. The raid by the Portsmouth Pals was obviously intended to pin down Germans along the western front. I would expect that it was replicated all along the line.

Raids and patrols were often insisted upon by Generals in order to foster an offensive spirit in troops, particularly those who had newly arrived on the front. The 2nd Portsmouth Pals were learning quickly, and a lot safer than their fellow Pals who were to suffer grievously on the first day of the Somme.

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Tommy by Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes was, in my eyes, unique. As a military man and an academic historian, he actually managed to capture the public’s imagination with his work. I can think of no other academic military historian who has reached out to society at large like Holmes. And surely, that is a fine, fine achievement.

As Holmes himself states in his preface, his initial military history interests involved researching battles and generals. Note his accomplished biographies of Marlborough, Wellington and French. But along the way he developed an interests in the ordinary man at war, and this led to his series of books such as Redcoat, and this book, which I consider to be his greatest achievement.

It does not have the revisionism of a writer such as Corrigan, and historiographically it sits in between narrative and probing challenges of the perceived wisdom. It is emminently readable and makes prolific use of first hand sources. But what I think is the real achievement here, is that Holmes has examined pretty much every aspect of war on the Western Front, and successively passed them all under a historical microscope. He doesn’t fall into the trap of hindsight, but neither does he go for hero worship or a bland recasting of earlier works.

The subjects that Holmes covers are vast, and some are not for the faint of heart – crime, punishment, homosexuality, venereal disease, honours, ranks, officer-men relations, attitudes to the war, food, drink (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), uniforms, lice, mud, weapons, training, and so on. In fact no stone is left unturned; there is no literary no-mans land here.

Holmes’ progression from a soldier, to an academic military historian, to a social military historian, is perhaps the best example possible of how military history itself is evolving. Not only has the field opened up beyond career soldiers alone, but we are more and more interested in the experiences of the common man – the millions of Tommies – rather than the deliberations of a few middle aged men who sat at the top of the tree. Perhaps this is a reflection of a change in modern society overall. As a military historian with both feet firmly in social history, I can only hope that this movement continues.

This book is a military history tour de force, by the late great Professor. It is the kind of book that makes me, as a historian, hope that I could one day write a book 5% as good as this. This is exactly the kind of book to get historians in the right frame of mind for the centenary projects looming in the next couple of years. It’s going to sit on my bookshelf for some time to come.

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War Horse

War Horse (film)

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve just got in from seeing War Horse, so I thought I would post a review while it’s still fresh in my mind.

The film is set in Iddisleigh, a picturesque village in Devon not far from my better half’s place of origin. The scenery is absolutely stunning, and equally well matched by the soaring, classical soundtrack. Some of the action scenes are mind-blowing, particularly the cavalry charges. The battle scenes are not as bloody as say Band of Brothers or the Pacific, but I don’t really think that they needed to be horrific for the sake of it.

In historical terms, there were perhaps a few bloopers. The german accents are almost laughable, and I can’t think for the life of me why Spielberg didn’t make them sound better. And in the final scenes in France all kinds of random men in random units seem to mingle together freely, which seems a bit unrealistic. But apart from that, it seemed to ring true for the most part. It IS a completely unrealistic story – but then that is the beauty of a novel, it doesn’t have to be absolutely realistic, and we can forgive a little historic or artisitic licence if it serves the story.

My performing arts student girlfriend tells me that there isn’t any particularly great acting, in fact the real star of the film is/are the horse(s). This film is very much an epic rather than a drama. That said, there are some very touching moments – apart from the final reunion scene, when the main equine protagonist becomes entangled in barbed wire is likely to move even the most cynical of hearts.

Whenever a new war film or programme comes out, you can guarantee that there will be scores of internet ‘experts’, bemoaning the inaccuracies and claiming the moral high ground. Sure, no war film is ever 100% accurate. But they can never be – no one really dies in a war film, surely? We need to look beyond the historical inaccuracies of incorrect shoulder titles or weapons. They might matter to us geeks, but in the bigger picture a film like War Horse has got thousands of people interested in the First World War, which is something that no manner of scholarly articles or mediocre books will achieve. Neither geeks, enthusiasts nor academics have any universal ownership of war. War is a human experience that touches everyone when it occurs, so it is the right of everyone to be interested by it.

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Surgeon at Arms by Lipmann Kessel

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I tend to devour anything written that pertains to Operation Market Garden. It’s what got me into military history, and even when I’m in a nursing home myself I’ll probably still be reading my Op MG library. The funny thing is, I don’t actually enjoy the general histories – there are so many of them, and to be honest, since Martin Middlebrook none of them have really offered anything new. But there are a wealth of personal and micro histories out there, many of them under-published and little-known.

Captain Alexander Lipmann-Kessel was serving with 16th Parachute Field Ambulance during the Battle, parachuting in on the first day and leading a surgical team at St Elisabeths Hospital in the town until after the surrender. Not only was he a very brave man and a distinguished surgeon, but he was, miraculously, a South African Jew. As such, he had more to lose than most. And as he himself states in the text, he did look stereotypically Jewish. Heaven knows how the germans did not cotton on.

Having previously read Stuart Mawson’s Arnhem Doctor, I was very interested to read another account of battlefield medicine. The privations of running an operating theatre in action, under enemy occupation, using very basic equipment and a minimum of supplies, is very inspiring indeed. For much of the battle Kessel was working alongside Dutch civilian doctors and nurses, and under pressure from the Germans all of the time. Kessel has some interesting observations about the German doctors approach to battlefield medicine. The SS doctors refused to operate on any head or stomach wounds, preferring to administer a lethal injection. Lipmann-Kessel, on the other hand, decided to operate on Brigadier Shan Hackett’s severe stomach wound, with a casual, ‘oh I don’t know, I think I might have a go at this one’.

After the withdrawl across the Rhine, the Germans gradually evacuated the hospital – not before Kessel could have Brigadier Hackett spirited away into hiding, and assist the Dutch underground in giving a ‘funeral’ to a consignment of arms. Transported to a barracks in Apeldoorn, Lipmann-Kessel eventually escaped. Coming into contact with the Dutch underground, he took part in the abortive Pegasus II attempt to get airborne fugivites back across the Rhine. Lipmann-Kessel finally made it to allied lines by canoeing down a Dutch river, evading German patrols along the way. It’s stirring stuff indeed, the stuff of a boys own novel.

Although it doesn’t state so in the book, when Lipmann-Kessel died in the 1980′s, he requested to be buried in Arnhem civilian cemetery, close by to his comrades who were killed in September 1944. Having read his account of those dramatic days, such a gesture seems completely in character with the man.

Surgeon at Arms is published by Pen and Sword

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Scotland, Subs and Royal Yachts

The Royal Yacht Britannia

A couple of interesting stories emerged today in naval circles.

Firstly, the Mail in Scotland yesterday reported that the Ministry of Defence was considering contingency plans to re-locate submarines and ships based at Faslane in Scotland, in the event of an independence referendum voting in favour of severing ties with the rest of Britain. Currently, Faslane hosts the four Vanguard Class Ballistic Missile Submarines, HMS Astute, and eight Sandown Class MCMV’s of the 1st MCM Squadron. Faslane is also due to be the base port for the rest of the Astute Class as they come in to service.

Devonport has the sole nuclear refuelling and repair facility for submarines in Britain, including a dock specially built to fit the Vanguard Class, so it would make sense to base at least some of the submarines there. Given that Plymouth is more remote than Portsmouth, it might make sense to base the Vanguards there, and the Astutes at Portsmouth. The Sandown Class Minehunters would fit in well at Portsmouth, given that the Hunt Class are already based there. Or, perhaps, Plymouth could become more of a Submarine base, taking Vanguards and Astutes and transferring surface ships to Portsmouth in their stead. The fly in the ointment would be the Trident missile facility at Coulport on the Clyde – not something you could move in a hurry.

Secondly, Education Secretary Michael Gove has egg on his face after suggesting that perhaps the Government could purchase a new Royal Yacht for the Queen to mark her Diamond Jubilee this year. The last Royal Yacht, HMY Britannia, was retired in 1997 as a cost-cutting measure. As wonderful as she was, the concept of a Royal Yacht belongs in the twentieth century. The figure being quoted for building a replacement is £60m, which seems conservative for me – that was the figure quoted in 1997, and with inflation, it must be well over twice that now. At a time when the Royal Navy is losing ships hand over fist, is it a great idea to commit it to running a Royal Yacht? Not only do we need to consider the build costs, but the fitting out, the manning, the basing, the maintenance, the running costs… can we really afford it? I doubt it. I’m a keen supporter of traditions and heritage, but only where it makes sense on an operational and economic level.

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Portsmouth’s WW1 Royal Marines

Having visited the Royal Marines Museum the other day to take a look at their ‘More than a Name’ exhbition, I thought I would follow it up by taking a look at what I have learnt about Portsmouth‘s Royal Marines of WW1.

The names of Royal Marines from Portsmouth who died between 1914 and 1921 are included in the Royal Navy panels on Portsmouth’s WW1 Cenotaph in Guildhall Square. So far I have processed and researched all of the Navy names from A up to M, so just over halfway and probably enough to start drawing some conclusions.

So far, 161 men from Portsmouth died serving with the various units of the Corps of Royal Marines in the Great War. 72 were Royal Marine Light Infantry, 68 were Royal Marine Artillery, 14 were Royal Marine Bandsmen, and 1 was a Royal Marine Engineer. 1 served in the RM Canteen Service, and one was an officer of as yet unknown origin.

As in WW2, most Marines were killed on sea service in ships. 12 Marines were killed in HMS Good Hope on 1 November 1914, 9 in HMS Bulwark on 26 November 1914, and a total of 30 at Jutland on 31 May 1916, in Black Prince, Invincible, Lion, Princess Royal, Queen Mary, Indefatigable and Defence.

9 were killed serving with the Royal Marine Howitzer Brigade on the Western Front, and 16 were killed serving with the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division (8 in France, 5 at Gallipoli, 2 in Britain, 1 in Belgium and 1 in Greece). One man, Private William Elliot of the RMLI, was killed serving in Northern Russia on 27 August 1919, during the Russian Civil War.

Thanks to the National Archives, we have information available for when Royal Marines enlisted in the Corps. And the findings are striking. Out of the 144 who we have enlistment dates for, only 18 joined up after the start of the war. In fact, 61 had enlisted when Queen Victoria was still on the throne. This suggests that the Royal Marine of 1914-18 was an older, experienced man, and that the Corps did not actually expand that much in wartime. Much as with the Royal Navy, its role in peace was almost as demanding as it was in war. Of course, the Corps had its own emergency manpower to fall back on, in the form of the Royal Marines Reserve. 12 RMR men were killed in action.

Out of those 18 who joined up post August 1914, four of them were killed serving with the Royal Naval Division. This would suggest that the RN Division was composed of a higher proportion of hostilities only men than ships detachments. As we might expect, a large proportion of Royal Marines were living in Southsea and Eastney, near to the Royal Marine Barracks. Of the 97 that we have age statistics for, 44 were aged 30 or over – the oldest at 51!

So whilst the British Army of 1914-18 was very much a wartime creation – particularly from 1915 onwards – the Royal Marines, and to an extent the Royal Navy by definition – were still very much a product of Victorian Society.

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