Monthly Archives: February 2012

Thinking about Great War communities

My first book has only been on the shelves for a matter of days, but I guess its never too early to start thinking about lessons learnt, and how I might be able to do things differently next time around.

So far, everyone who has read the book has seemed to really enjoy reading the individual stories that I was able to tell. For some of the casualties I researched, especially officers and medal winners, there certainly was a lot of information out there. But the interesting thing is, for, say, a Private who was died of illness and didn’t win a medal, its next to impossible to find out much about him. As a result, I virtually had to write about what I could, based on the sources that were available.

One of the big differences between researching World War Two dead and World War One dead is the vastly different amount of information available. For Second World War Dead, the CWGC only tells us what area somebody came from. And not in all cases either. By contrast, for the Great War, for many we not only have the area that they came from, but also their street name and even house number. This enables us to build a unique picture of Portsmouth, that would impossible for the Second World War.

But the information does not end there. For sailors and Royal Marines, we can obtain their service records. Even though to download a few thousand of them would cost me megabucks, the National Archive’s search entries give us a date and place of birth for sailors. For Royal Marines, we can see their date of birth, but also their date of enlistment. Hence for sailors we can chart immigration into Portsmouth from elsewhere, which could lead to some groundbreaking research.

Also, we have a wealth of information available from the censuses of 1901 and 1911. Already, these have helped me to gain an insight into casualties previous careers, their households, their neighbourhoods, and their families. Something that is impossible for the period 1939-1945. And this gets me thinking : while there is a dearth of information about individuals, such as medal citations, there is a treasure trove of sources available for broader social history.

Maybe it would be interesting to look at Portsmouth in 1914, through the historical microscope that the Great War provides us with? Nobody has really looked at the late victorian and Edwardian working class communities of Portsmouth – these, inevitably, are the communities from which the vast majority of war dead came. Lets think about an area such as Landport. Straddling the Dockyard, it was home to thousands of sailors and Dockyard workers. If ever a community was a Navy community, it was somewhere like Landport. Using the CWGC entries and the census, it should be possible to look at a multitude of facets of life – occupations, families, leisure, recreation, housing, and even sanitation and healthcare. How many naval pensioners resided in the area? How many worked in the Dockyard? How many pubs were there? What were the levels of crime like?

There is an interesting element to the Landport story. Inspired by the den of iniquity for which the area was infamous, in 1885 an Anglo-Catholic Priest, Father Robert Dolling, set up a mission in Landport, funded by Winchester College. For ten years he ministered in the area, leading to the opening of the church of St Agathas in 1895. Shortly after Dolling resigned, when the Bishop of Winchester refused to sanction Dolling’s preference for what were virtually Catholic worship rites. The year after his resignation Dolling published Ten Years in a Portsmouth Slum, based on his experiences in Landport. I haven’t read it, but I’m hoping that it will be one of those rare, invaluable social investigations, a la Charles Booth in the Victorian period, and Mass Observation in World War Two.

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Filed under Local History, portsmouth heroes, World War One

Naval Weapons of World War One by Norman Friedman

Norman Friedman gives us an incredibly comprehensive view of the weapons used by the Great War navies of… ready for this…? Britain, Germany, France, the United States, Italy, Russia, Japan, Austria, Spain, Sweden, and other navies. Here, naval weapons include guns, torpedoes, mines and anti-submarine weapons. There must have been a risk that main guns would overshadow mines and torpedoes.

This is quite some book, and I can only marvel at the amount of research that must have gone into it. Perhaps I found some of the technological stuff a bit perplexing – there were so many different calibres of gun, for example, it is hard to keep track of them all! But Friedman doesn’t just offer a technological narrative, he also gives a very good background in the historical developments that led to the early twentieth century naval arms race, and how the manufacture and development of weapons progressed. Names such as Armstrong figure prominently. And that is refreshing, as so often we get a – dare I say it – geeky analysis of why a 4.99inch gun is different to a 5inch gun, without any regard for the ships that they were fitted to, the men who operated them, and the admirals who fought them. I have found quite commonly when analysing modern naval warfare, than some correspondents tend to get too bogged down with the technology – ie, the make up or resistors in a sea wolf launcher – with no regard at all for the human aspect of things.

One thing that surprised me is just how many different types of guns were in use. In these days of commonality and procurement-led equipment policies, it is hard to fathom that the Royal Navy used to operate all manner of different calibre and type of guns. It must have been a supply chain nightmare. Imagine all of the spare parts, maintenance know how, operating experience and ammunition complexities. I guess it was as a result of the rapid change in technology in the nineteenth century. After all, the Royal Navy fought at Trafalgar with smootbore muzzle loaders, and went into action at Jutland with huge, rifled breech loaders. And then when you take into account the massive innovations in explosives, then its little wonder that the navies changed so dramatically. After all, guns and rounds are the raison d’etre of any Dreadnought. And then we have the vastly complex issues of naval tactics in the Dreadnought age, the Battlecruiser conundrum et al. And then when you compare these issues among the various navies, you have a very interesting picture.

But here Friedman does place the technology well within the wider context. There is a lot of compare and contrast, which is of course vital when considering why and how certain navies fared differently to others. It is excellently illustrated with some first class photographs, which are well interpreted. I found it very illuminating indeed. As somebody who does tend to concentrate on the social history side of things, it would be all too easy to ignore technology as ‘cold’ history. But to understand the story of men who served at sea in the Great War, then we should be prepared to be engrossed in the weapons that they worked with.

Not only that, but it looks pretty snazzy on my bookshelf!

Naval Weapons of World War One is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, technology, Uncategorized, World War One

BBC piece on Falklands 2012

The BBC news website published an article earlier today comparing the Falklands War of 1982 with any potential conflict over the Islands in 2012.

Click here

Not sure what you guys make of it, but it does seem to broadly support my conclusions.

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The History of Fratton Park

English: Entrance to Fratton Park football sta...

Much as actors can become typecast, one of the inherent risks of a career as a historian is that you end up becoming typecast in the same manner. Of course, specialising in a subject is one thing, but on the other hand, pursuing some slightly diverse fields do show flexibility, and not only that, it keeps things interesting.

With that in mind, and inspired by recent developments with Pompey, I have been giving increasing attention to the feasibility of writing a comprehensive history of Fratton Park, and Pompey’s traumatic search for a new home. I’ve always been quite interested in football stadia – not just in a technological sense, but in the context of social history too. And if you’re looking to study the history of football stadia, Fratton Park probably gives as interesting a case as any.

The plot of land off Goldsmith avenue was originally purchased in 1898, soon after the clubs foundation. In the manner of most late 19th century grounds, a pavillion housed the dressing rooms and offices, and the other three stands were open terracing. The pitch was surrounded by a quaint white picket fence. The first main stand at Fratton was in the south west corner, the origins of the famous mock tudor entrance that is still there today. At the time, the ground was bounded by houses in Carisbrooke Road and Specks Lane, but was open on the north and west sides – parts of Portsmouth were still relatively open at the time, given that urban growth had not completely taken hold. The massive increase in shipbuilding in the dockyard, and the wars of 1914-1918 and 1939-45, probably precipitated the building of more houses, which in turn hemmed in the ground. But this was certainly not unusual for the time.

In 1929 the present South Stand was built, by the famous architect Archibald Leitch, and is one of the few examples left of his work. The South Stand featured a small paddock, partly sunk below pitch level, and an upper tier housing the directors box. Sadly, the famous iron lattice work on the facade of the upper tier was covered over in the 1980’s. In 1934 the current North Stand was built, mainly by the income raised from the sale of defender Jimmy Allen. A tier of seating was placed on top of the North stand terracing, which was left largely uncovered. At some point a basic roof was placed over the Fratton End. And that is pretty much how the ground stayed for almost 50 years. In the so-called ‘boom years’ of English football, an unbelievable 51,000 packed into Fratton Park to watch an FA Cup Quarter Final with Derby County in 1949 – still a record attendance.

In the mid 1950’s, the club took the remarkably forward step of constructing one of the first pre-fabricated concrete structures in the country. The ‘old’ Fratton end – as we call it nowadays! – was a remarkable structure, and subject to quite a bit of interest in the architectural community. Unusually, the upper tier provided extra standing space, on top of the existing terraced banking. I actually attended my first football match at Fratton Park stood on the lower tier of this stand in about 1988. Sadly, the stand was condemmed shortly after due to concrete cancer. After a couple of years of dilapidation, the upper tier was taken down, leaving the ‘hump’ of the low tier as a small terrace.

With the rise of hooliganism in football, from the 1970’s onwards, the first winds of change began to blow through football stadia. Steel fences and segregation of fans were introduced. This had the effect of cutting capacity. But stadium disasters at Bradford in 1985 and Hillsborough in 1989, and the subsequent Popplewell and Taylor Reports, changed the face of football stadiums forever. Capacities were cut dramatically in the interests of safety after Bradford, and new fire escapes were introduced. But after the Hillsborough disaster capacities were cut yet further, and the steel fences were taken away. The biggest changes were motivated by introduction of all-seater stadia by 1994. With a lack of space, the club could not easily adapt Fratton to seating, and the only option was to bolt seats onto existing terracing – reducing the capacity to 15,000. Almost exactly 50 years before, the same ground had held 36,000 more people.

With the constraints of the Fratton site, the club looked at relocating to a new site at Farlington. Called Parkway, the proposal was for an exciting new stadium, similar in design to Huddersfield and Bolton’s new stadiums; a retain park, and a new train station. The plan was widely supported by most of Pompey’s fanbase and the city as a whole, but the local residents – presumably not football fans – campaigned vigorously against it. The planning application was turned down by the City Council’s planning committee, and then overturned by the full council. The application was referred to the Department of the Environment for a public inquiry, which eventually turned down the plan on the somewhat spurious basis that it would remove important grazing land for Geese. Is it possible that residents in the most affluent area of Portsmouth found an unlikely ally in these feathered migrants?

Stuck in an outdated, vintage stadium, and in financial problems, Portsmouth spent the 1990’s at Fratton Park. There was neither the will nor the financing for any kind of large scale redevelopment. Under the ownership of Terry Venables – whose name is still a swear word in these parts – the new Fratton End was built, a large single tier stand holding 4,500 seats. a roof was also put on the North Stand covering the lower tier, with the stadium having an overall capacity of 19,000. However, Venables did not put the necesarry finance in place, and the cost of these works almost bankrupted the club. But as a silver lining, the new Fratton End improved what was already a famous atmosphere. Famous nights such as a home match against Stockport in 1998, when the crowd sang continually for 90 minutes, cemented this reputation.

When Milan Mandaric bought the club out of administration in 1999, securing its medium term future, thoughts turned once again to the stadium. With the problems of relocation, the immediate plan was to rebuild a new stadium on the Fratton site, along with a retail development on the Fratton Goods Yard land that was being vacated by British Rail. Mandaric, however, dithered. He did not wish to build a large new stadium, that whilst Pompey were in the lower leagues would have swathes of empty seats. The retail development went on, leaving the football stadium behind. Meanwhile, Mandaric began looking at alternative sites, and practically every available open space in Portsmouth was mooted – from Hilsea Gasworks to Port Solent; from Tipner to King George V playing fields in Cosham; even Farlington (again!). Yet nothing happened.

When Pompey won promotion to the Premier League in 2003, Mandaric announced plans for Pompey Village – a 34,000 stadium, turned 90 degrees on the existing stadium, incorporating three new stands, and a retail and residential development. This development gained planning permission, and at one point Mandaric even demolished a wall ceremonially to mark the beginning of work. The wall was later rebuilt. Once again, Mandaric procrastinated. Nothing happened, whilst Pompey stayed in the Premier League for seven seasons, playing in one of the smallest and oldest grounds in the top flight.

Eventually Mandaric sold up to Sacha Gaydamak, without ever delivering on his promise of providing Pompey with a new home. Gaydamak did not like the Pompey Village plans, and forwarded an even more radical plan – constructing a landmark bowl (or bedpan) design on reclaimed land at The Hard. This plan, unsurprisingly, did not get off the ground, and attention shifted towards a new Stadium at land on Horsea Island in Portsmouth Harbour. Although Horsea is miles from a train station, it is close to the M275, and free from any constraints such as local residents or lack of land. However, with the clubs well documented recent problems, the Horsea plan is a distant memory and the club is fighting to survive.

It would be hard not to come to the conclusion that the lack of a large modern ground has cost Pompey dearly. With such a small capacity, and in poor facilities, it has been difficult to grow a fanbase. There are no lucrative corporate boxes, and very little commercial opportunities with a dearth of conferincing venues. A larger stadium would enable the club to cut prices, which would then encourage more to attend. Yet, Fratton Park is loved by the vast majority of Pompey fans. It plays a large part in making the club what it is, when other clubs have been transplanted into bland, soul-less bowl type meccano stadiums.

Complaints from visiting fans abound. Particularly when the Milton End didn’t have a roof. Historically, and socially, how did we go from dockies and sailors standing up on a saturday afternoon off, to cossetted fans whinging about getting wet and a lack of leg room? To what extend do these changing attitudes reflect wider society, and football’s commercialisation? Perhaps as ticket prices have gone up, we have expected more for our money. Whilst this is understandable, it has led to football – and fans – turning their back on the games heritage. I suspect, also, that we have gone soft. I can remember standing on the old open Fratton End, surrounded by weeds, with only rudimentary toilets and one solitary burger van for a couple of thousand people. And you know what? I preferred it.

Given the manner in which Portsmouth is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, and its small size and island location, Horsea Island probably remains the only long term option for a new ground, alongside the option of redeveloping Fratton. The option of redeveloping Fratton, however, hinges on the possibility of resolving land ownership issues with Balram Chainrai (who holds a debenture on the ground) and Sacha Gaydamak (who owns much of the land around the stadium). Given its built up location, however, Fratton presents significant transport problems. Personally, I think that Horsea Island is probably the ‘ideal world’ option.

If a club such as Brighton can turn things around – witness their fantastic new Amex stadium at Falmer – then there is no reason not to dream that one day Pompey might not be walking out into a new home fit for such a famous club.

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Forgotten Victory by Gary Sheffield

Cover of "Forgotten Victory: The First Wo...

Cover via Amazon

Going against a commonly-held perception is perhaps the greatest challenge that faces any historian. Some things in history are just so taken for granted that they are held as unassailable truths. As one of the fell0w-students on my degree course stated once, memorably, ‘Henry VIII was just a fat bloke who ate chicken’. Run against such a ‘historical truth’, and you runk the risk of being desricbed as a revisionist as best, and at worst a charlatan. In this book Gary Sheffield treads a very careful and well-reasoned path. Our understanding of the First World War is choc full of myths and misconceptions. Sheffield sequentially and convincingly deals with many of the inaccuracies that have become ingrained in national consciousness. National Consciousness, as Sheffield enlightens us, does tend to pull historical events out of their context.

Perhaps the biggest myth that Sheffield deals with is that of the ‘Lions led by Donkeys‘. Haig et al are filed neatly under ‘butcher’, and they sacrificed the lives of millions of brave men. Sheffield argues – convincingly, in my mind – that not only could Haig and his generals have not done much different, but also that progressively from 1916 onwards the BEF – and its generals – learnt rather quickly how to fight a modern war, and didn’t do too bad in the circumstances. On the Somme in 1916 the BEF relieved the pressure from the French at Verdun, and almost caused the German Army to crack. It almost did the same once again in 1917 at Ypres. It has become all too easy for any of us, in hindsight, to judge that the First World War was a a barbaric waste of life for no good reason. In fact, the BEF, by its actions, did result in the defeat of the German Army in the field, which ended the war. Haig was not a complete technophobe, as has been alleged. He understood air power, and embraced innovations such as the Tank – giving them his full support.

Trench Warfare, and the demands that it placed upon the British Army, was a complete abboration in British military history. Never before had Britain fielded a vast citizen army on the continent; for a small, elite, imperial police force, this resulted in a waterfall of change in a matter of weeks and months, let alone years. Once Kitcheners Armies took to the field and the BEF gained some valuable lessons, the British Army began to acquit itself quite well. Plumer, in particular, comes in for much praise. Perhaps the most important innovation of the Great War was the importance of the set-piece attack – detailed planning of an all arms battle, with all arms communicating as far as possible. Interesting, is it not,  that Montgomery served on Plumers staff? Crucually, Sheffield does not doubt that the BEF suffered horrific casualties, but he does argue – thougtfully – that a high butchers bill does not necessarily mean that those thousands of lives were lost in vain.

World War One did, in some respects, end unsatisfactorily for all sides. The German Army had been defeated – or, in many ways, had defeated itself. Yet the German nation and people did not suffer the full consequences of defeat, and hence the myth of the stab in the back took hold. The US under Wilson imposed ideals of liberal democracy on the rest of the world, then promptly retreated to isolationism once more. The vast loss of life led to policies of appeasement, particularly for Britain and France. And hence, perhaps, perceptions of the Great War have been shaped by its consequent events that took place years afterwards. The Allies won the war, but did not win the peace.

In terms of British military history, Gary Sheffield is perhaps the most prominent voice in the field today. Forgotten Victory has considerably aided my broader understanding of the First World War, from the international rivalries and complex web of alliances that made it happen, to the hopelessly compromised peace settlement after, which all but condemmed Europe to war less than a generation later. But sadly, calm, collected histories do not tend to change popular consciousness. Which is a pity, as I cannot help but feel that Sheffield treads a very well reasoned path here.

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

Navy to get Four new Tankers

The Ministry of Defence announced yesterday that it is to go ahead with the purchase of four new tankers for the Royal Fleet Auxiliary, under the MARS programme.

The contract for the four 37,000 ton vessels has been placed with Daewoo Shipbuilding in Korea. They are expected to enter service in 2016. They are badly needed and should represent excellent value for money, at £452m for all four. They will have double-skinned hulls, to comply with new international regulations.

There have been numerous comments, in various newspapers and on forums and on twitter, as to why the contract was not awarded to a British company. Put simply, there is not a British company capable of building them. And thats before we even consider BAE’s dubious project management track record. The MARS ships are, essentially, of a commercial design, of which Daewoo have much experience.

The MOD confirmed that no British company actually bidded for the contracy. They were actually designed by BMT in Bath, so one would imagine that at least some of the design work stayed in this country. £150m of associated contracts have been awarded to British companies. It is good if defence work can stay in this country, but the armed forces should not be a monopoly for over-priced, under-performing companies.

One of my regular correspondents has raised the interesting question, what are the ships going to be called? The RFA tend to follow RN convention by choosing historical names – the Leaf, Rover, Bay, Point, Ness, Wave, Fort and Round Table classes are all examples. Perhaps as they are tankers they might take on the Tide names?

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Heroes – Radio appearances and signings

I’ve got a few exciting pieces of news.

Firstly, I will be signing copies of ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ at Waterstones in Portsmouth on Saturday 7th April, between 11am and 3pm.

I appeared on BBC Radio Solent earlier today, talking about Portsmouth’s Women of World War Two. It is available to listen to on the BBC website; my interview is about 1 hour and 53 minutes in. I’m not sure if you can listen to it from abroad I’m afraid, and it is only online for seven days.

At the time of writing my book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ is ranked around 13,000 on Amazon, out of 5.6 MILLION books! That works out at me being in the top 0.2%! Currently, the book is also ranked at #99 on Amazon’s bestseller list for Second World War Military History. #100? Only Robert Lyman’s ‘Operation Suicide’, which I reviewed last week! I have some way to go though before I overhaul Winston Churchill and Stephen Ambrose and reach 90 ;)

On Monday I recorded an interview with BBC Radio Solent, and actually ended up recording two segments – one on Portsmouth’s women who served in the Second World War, for their ‘Women in a man’s world’ series, and a second piece promoting my book in general.

My first book talk at the D-Day Museum on Thursday went very well, and the first happy customers went away with signed copies. Pre-ordered copies have been shipping out via Amazon, some of my relatives received their copies towards the end of last week. If you would like to order a copy, please see the various links immediately to the right of the page.

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