Monthly Archives: July 2012

Third Ypres (Passchendaele) 95: Portsmouth connections

The Menin Gate Memorial, in Ypres, Belgium.

The Menin Gate Memorial, in Ypres, Belgium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

95 years ago today the Third Battle of Ypres, often somewhat erroniously referred to as Passchendaele, began.

There are hundreds of books out there about Ypres and Passchendaele – some of which I am busily thumbing right now researching Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes! – and if you want to find out more about the battle there is certainly a lot of information out there. Suffice to say, Passchendaele has become, alongside the Somme, a byword for futility, needless slaughter and mud. To what extent this legacy is deserved has been debated keenly by historians in recent years.

The campaign began with an assault on Pilckem Ridge, on the northern side of the Ypres Salient. Although the battle was relatively succesful, heavy rainfall turned the ground into a quagmire, which delayed subsequent operations and potentially gave the Germans time to reinforce their positions.

11 Portsmouth men were killed on the first day of Third Ypres. Seven of them were fighting with the 1st Portsmouth Pals, more properly known as the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, who were involved in the attack on Pilckem Ridge. They were Private T.J. Fitzgerald (19, North End), Private Reginald Chamberlain (27, Forbury Road, Southsea), Private Frank Childs (a parishoner of All Saints Church), Private Henry Harnden (27, South Brighton Street in Southsea), Private G. Jerrard (23, College Street, Portsea), Lance Sergeant Joseph Wilkins (Dover Road, Copnor) and Private Ernest Shawyer (19, Lake Road, Landport). Fitzgerald, Chamberlain and Shawyer are buried in Buffs Road Cemetery, Jerrard is buried in Gwalia Cemetery while the rest are remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres. Wilkins had been awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for bravery on the Somme the previous year.

Portsmouth men also died serving with other units on 31 July 1917: Lance Corporal H.P. Evans (1st Bn Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers; parishioner of All Saints Church, buried at Artillery Wood Cemetery), Private Albert Jackson (11th Bn, South Wales Borderers; aged 32, Dickens Road, Mile End; remembered on Menin Gate), Private John White (26th Field Ambulance RAMC; age 20, Gunner Street, Landport; remembered on Menin Gate) and Private Moses Purkiss (196th Company, Machine Gun Corps; age 24, from Grosvenor Street, Southsea; buried in Vlamertinghe Cemetery) also fell.

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Life onboard a Royal Navy submarine

There’s an interesting article about life on HMS Triumph, on the BBC website here.

 

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New Patrol Vessels could plug gap for Royal Navy and Portsmouth

HMS Severn (P282) and HMS Mersey (P283), two R...

A report in today’s Portsmouth News suggests that the Government may be on the verge of ordering two new Patrol Vessels for the Royal Navy.

Apparently such a move would be partly motivated by a need to keep the BAE shipbuilding yard in Portsmouth occupied between the end of the Type 45 and QE Class programmes, and the beginning of the Type 26 project. The proposed new ships would be built in 2014 and 2015, at a combined cost of £150m. BAE in Portsmouth already have a good track record of  building Patrol Vessels, having completed HMS Clyde and similar vessels for Trinidad and Tobago, which have recently been sold to Brazil. I am very dubious about the idea of building ships solely to preserve jobs, but in this case there is a strategic need for them.

I have long been of the opinion that well-armed Offshore Patrol Vessels are the answer for tackling low-intensity operations in places such as the Horn of Africa and the Carribean. A helicopter is a must, and the current 30mm gun is probably not powerful enough. A few more miniguns would probably not go amiss either. The ability to operate and launch several RIBs would also be important. Some might point to the lack of decent anti-air defences as a downside, but is this really needed for anti-narcotics and anti-piracy? Perhaps a shoulder-launched SAM or two might be the answer?

But looking at the current situation, is it a good use of a £1bn air defence Destroyer to have it sat east of Suez chasing Arab Dhows and Pirate Skiffs? Basing a patrol vessel in the Carribean and the Horn of Africa semi-permanently – as with minehunters – and rotating crews would free up a lot more escort hulls. An RFA as a mother ship would be pretty sensible as well I should imagine. It’s not far from the global corvette concept that was advanced a few years ago. And if you think about it, 30 or 40 years ago Frigates were not much bigger than River Class patrol vessels anyway. Yet the size of escort vessels has creeped up relentlessly, with the addition of ever more complex weapon systems.

Aside from the operational considerations, such a move would safeguard jobs in Portsmouth, and keep BAE’s shipbuilding in England running. Portsmouth is now BAE’s only shipbuilding operation in England, with its other main yard being on the Clyde. The political implications of Scottish independence do not bear thinking about, and it is surely sensible for the Government to play it safe when it comes to ensuring that such a strategic industry remains in British hands for the future. The shipbuilding industry in Scotland has enjoyed many years of political subsidy, and now must  endure the consequences of Alec Salmond’s bluff and bluster.

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Filed under Navy, News, politics

The Evening News in 1914: Portsmouth goes to war

I’ve begun looking at microfilm copies of the Portsmouth Evening News from 1914, to try and get some kind of handle on what was happening in those heady days, and what public mood and reaction was like to the climactic events that took Britain to war.

In July 1914, the crisis in Ireland was dominating news. In early 1912 the Liberal Government had proposed Home Rule for Ireland. Unionist in Ulster objected to the possible creation of an autonomous government in Dublin, and later that year the Ulster Volunteers were formed. In 1914, faced with the threat of civil disobedience, the Army in Ireland was ordered to prepare to act against any violence. Many officers and men refused to act, including the future General Sir Hubert Gough and Sir Charles Fergusson. The following scandal forced the Chief of the Imperial General Staff Field Marshal Sir John French, to resign. The Irish crisis was very much dominating news in July 1914, and the stormclouds gathering over Europe were received only very minor coverage.

During July many of the areas Territorial Force units were on their annual camps. The Hampshire Fortress Royal Engineers Electric Light Companies were training with their searchlights at Southsea Castle, and the Wessex Royal Artillery were ‘enjoying’ what was described as a ‘dismal’ camp at Okehampton in Devon. The 6th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment were in camp at Bulford on Salisbury Plain. The reports from these camps made little or no mention of European Affairs. Elsewhere the traditional English summer season carried on regardless, with the horse racing at Goodwood and Cowes week planned for early August.

However, by the end of July, with the mobilisation and counter-mobilisations taking place among the European powers, the threat of war was beginning to be taken more seriously. The Kings Harbour Master posted a lengthy ‘notice to mariners’ in the Evening News, warning that there would be stringent restrictions on watercraft in Portsmouth Harbour and the Solent, and that navigation lights were subject to being turned off without prior warning.

Whilst usually naval movements in Portsmouth were publicised in the Evening News, with the coming of war these movements were taken out of the public domain, with the editorial of 30 July 1914 stating ‘…especially in a town like Portsmouth is extreme reticence necessary’. A special late edition on the same day reported on the Austrian invasion of ‘Servia’. On 31 July Russia mobilised, and the King, of course a naval officer and a keen sailor, called off his annual visit to Cowes Week.

On 1 August the 6th Hampshires were still in camp on Salisbury Plain, but were expressing ‘great excitement’ at the news from abroad. Goodwood was much quieter, as a great many naval and military officers have been recalled to re-join their units. Not all in Portsmouth were excited about the prospect of war, however. On 3 August an article in the Evening News advertised a Labour and Socialist protest against the war in Town Hall Square, to be held at 7.30pm the next day. Also on 3 August naval reservists were streaming into Portsmouth, and the submarine depot’s sports day was postponed indefinitely. The Government was to order full mobilisation the next day.

The Evening News of 4 August, the day that Britain finally found itself at war, carried a slightly bizarre notice, announcing that ‘owing to the serious aspect of affair, Lady Fitzwygrams garden party on August 8th will not take place’. The Evening News began publishing late special editions, as the demand for the newspaper was reaching unprecedented levels. The day’s News also contained the first direct appeal for recruits, initially for the Territorial Force. Colonel A.R. Holbrook, the local recruiting officer, appealed for 680 men to join local TF units. A large ‘your king and country need you’ advertisement also drove the message home. The Labour and Socialist protest of the same day was described as an anti-climax, and ended with the police having to intervene after trouble flared with pro-war crowds.

By 5 August, the war news had been promoted to the font page. Traditionally, 1914-era newspapers carried adverts on the front, and news inside. The local TF units had been mobilised, and the 6th Hampshires had returned from their summer camp, receiving an enthusiastic reception at the town station.

On 6 August it was reported that the Portsmouth Board of Guardians – ie, those who ran the Workhouse – had offered their facilities to the Government, and other local buildings such as schools were rumoured to be about to be requisitioned. The Corporation, it eas reported, had been badly disorganised by the indiscriminate enlistment of many of its employees, leaving many vacancies behind. There was also a notice explaining ‘how the join the army’, directing recruits to local barracks, the post office or recruiting offices. This was very much in line with national patterns, where during August most recruits enlisted in either the regular Army or local Territorial units. By the end of August it was reported that over a thousand men in Portsmouth had enlisted.

Whilst the first Pals type Battalion was raised by Robert White from among financial workers in the City of London, it was in Liverpool that the idea really took off. Lord Derby organised a recruiting campaign and managed to recruit over 1,500 men in two days. Speaking to his men, he said ‘this should be a Battalion of Pals’. Within a few weeks Liverpool had raised four Pals Battalions. Inspired by Lord Derby’s enthusiasm, Lord Kitchener encouraged other areas around the country to raise similar units, writing letters to local authorities to suggest the idea. The normal machinery for recruiting men into the Army was swamped. Kitchener also had a very low regard for the Territorial Force. Hence the solution was to recruit completely new Battalions, in what came to be known as Kitchener’s New Armies. A key part of these New Armies were the locally raised, or Pals Battalions.

As I have previously recorded, Portsmouth was the only town south of London to recruit what might be called Pals Battalions. Yet the impetus for recruiting a Pals Battalion in Portsmouth began much earlier than most of the more famous northern Pals Battalions. A report in the Evening News in late August stated that a Portsmouth Citizens Patriotic Recruiting Committee was being formed, and that a public meeting would be held in the Town Hall on 3 September 1914, when it was resolved that a Portsmouth Battalion should be formed. Among the speakers encouraging recruitment were Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, the town’s MP. The Town Hall was packed, with an overflow meeting on the steps being relayed the proceedings by megaphone.

Hence Portsmouth was among one of the first towns to raise its own Battalions. By comparison, recruiting began for the Sheffield Pals on 10 September, and for the Accrington Pals on 14 September. Lord Kitchener soon wrote to theMayor to accept the Towns offer of raising a Battalion. The Evening News began to publish lists of recruits to the Battalion. Ominously, around this time the News was also publishing the first casualty reports from the Western Front and the first Royal Navy ships to be sunk.

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Public Lending Right

Did you know, that as an author you can earn money when your books are borrowed from public libraries?

To qualify you have to register your books with www.plr.uk.com. Signing up doesn’t cost a penny. Payments are made on an annual basis, based on loans data supplied from a sample of public libraries in the UK. There is a minimum threshold of £1, up to a maximum of £6,000. Out of more than 23,000 recipients, only 313 authors received more than £5,000, and more than 16,000 authors did not meet the £1 threshold. The vast majority of recipients received less than £100. Your PLR rights carry on for the rest of your life after you have registed, and for your estate or descendants for 70 years after your death.

Over 23,000 writers, illustrators, photographers, translators and editors who have contributed to books lent out by public libraries in the UK receive PLR payments each year. But compare that 23,000 to the amount of books published, and it seems that there are plenty of authors unaware that Public Lending Right exists! It might not seem like much, but it’s money that you are entitled to for your hard work, and it doesn’t cost you anything to apply for it.

 You can also register for other payments for use of your work from the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society. For a one-off joining fee of £25 – deducted from any future royalties – you can collect payment for various secondary uses of your work, such as photocopying, scanning and digital transmission, and also foreign public lending rights from Austria, Holland, Belgium, France, Spain, Germany, Estonia and Ireland.

It might not work out at much, but if you’re entitled to it then why not? It’s just recognition for the contribution that writers make to public culture. It’s hard enough trying to make it as an author – only people like Anthony Beevor or Max Hastings are making millions – so anything that you can get to cover your costs can’t be a bad thing.

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Deal signed for armed forces new boots

The MOD ann0unced yesterday that it had just signed a new contract for the supply of new boots for servicemen in the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force. The contract, worth £80m, will provide servicemen with a new range of brown combat boots. The name of the succesful contractor has not been divulged, but according to the pictures from the MOD it seems to be HAIX, a german company.Troops will have the choice of five different types of footwear:

  • Desert Combat, to be worn by on-foot troops, undergoing high levels of operations in heat of up to 40 degrees (such as Afghanistan)
  • Desert Patrol, as above but designed for mounted troops, such as drivers and armoured troops
  • Temperate Combat, for wear by dismounted troops in temperate climates (such as North West Europe)
  • Patrol, as above but to be worn by mounted troops
  • Cold Wet Weather, for dismounted troops in temperatures down to minus twenty degrees (for example the Falklands)

Each of the five types of boot come in two different styles – what styles these are the MOD have not announced – and in two different widths, so for the first time women can choose a boot that fits them more closely.The new boots were chosen after trials involving 2,000 personnel in Kenya, Cyprus, Canada and the UK.

In the pictures supplied by the MOD the Temperate Brown Boots in particular look very much like the hill walking boots you might buy from a brand such as Brasher. Black boots will still be work by ‘non-camouflage’ units, such as much of the Royal Navy and the RAF, and with full dress uniform – eg the Guards Regiments when on ceremonial duties in London. 

The history of combat boots is actually a pretty interesting one. Of course, soldiers operate on their feet. And on your feet you wear shoes (or boots!). If your boots aren’t good enough, you can’t move. And even in the twenty first century, and army that can’t move on its feet isn’t much good to anyone.

For years troops had worn hobnailed boots, or ammunition boots. With the advent of technology, and in particular the growth of outdoor pursuits such as hill walking, more advanced boots gradually became available.

Yet, in the Falklands troops actually suffered cases of trench foot, as the DMS boots then in use were completely unsuitable to fighting in cold and wet conditions. One supposes that having fought much of the last 50 years in places like North West Europe, Northern Ireland and potentially against the Warsaw pact, boots designed to fight in extremely hot or extremely cold places were not a priority. The DMS even still had toecaps. Initially there for reinforcement, they were beloved of Sergeant Majors as they were ideal for bulling – that is, polishing to a mirror-like state. British soldiers even took their regular fitness runs in DMS boots for many years, until someone inevitably realised that running long distances in unsuitable boots caused injuries.

After the Falklands the MOD introduced BCH – Boots, Combat, High – boots in a very simialkr fashion to those worn by practically every other NATO army for some time. A reliable source once told me all about these famous British Army boots that used to melt in the heat – as seen during exercises in Oman in 2001. I’m not sure about what exactly happened, but it sounds as if the MOD tried to upgrade the boots issued to the forces, but in going for the cheapest option – and potentially buying British – ended up buying a sub-standard product that didn’t do what it needed to do. SA80 mk1, anyone?

With the Army fighting two medium-intensity wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, attention has turned once again to finding a style of boot that is comfortable, durable and can work in different climates. At one stage in the Iraq and Afghan deployments it was well known that troops were purchasing their own boots from companies such as Meindl, Lowa or Altberg. Obviously this situation is pretty ridiculous and led to the MOD putting out a tender in 2011, resulting in todays announcement.

In terms of most military equipment, I am of a functional mind – first and foremost, get something that does the job, and well. Buying sub-standard usually ends up costing more in the long run. And ceremonial considerations such as what they look like should come a distant second to operational matters.

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HMS Defender due into Portsmouth on Wednesday

 Type 45 Destroyers HMS Daring & HMS Dauntless

The fifth and newest Type 45 Destoyer, HMS Defender, is due to enter Portsmouth Harbour for the first time at 9.30am on Wednesday morning. The penultimate ship of the class to arrive, she will anchor up overnight in the Solent tomorrow evening, and should be visible from Southsea seafront.

Very nice ships, all with great names (well, except Duncan maybe!), but still too few of them – even just two more might have really made a difference. With Daring, Dauntless AND Diamond all away on deployments at the moment, and Dragon preparing to leave later this year, the operational tempo for escort ships is clearly creaking at the seams. It does seem a waste to use ships that were designed to provide area defence for 60,000 ton carriers chasing pirate Dhows.

History has shown that to keep one ship on station on deployment, you need four ships. Ships are normally in one of four states – on deployment (or transiting), working up, shaking down or in refit. Given that the average deployment to the South Atlantic or east of Suez lasts 5 to 7 months, working up and FOST can take the same kind of time frame, and comprehensive refits can take around 18 months, we can see quite easily that six ships will not be enough to everything that we want them to do. The bizarre thing is that everyone knows it, even amateur analysts such as myself. The Admirals definitely know it, but aren’t allowed to say so as it would embarass the politicians.

Such a procurement strategy does seem strange, when only a couple of weeks ago the Army managed to keep the vast majority of its tanks, which are only – on average – used once in a decade, and then in nothing more than an armoured brigade level. Destroyers and Frigates are like infantry battalions – on a never-ending deployment cycle that has no slack. Sure, ships cost money, but lack of ships when it matters can cost a whole lot more.

The other problem is one of strategy. What exactly do we want the Type 45’s to do? In conception, and in armament, they are powerful area defence Destroyers, with a very capable anti-air and missile system, and a very powerful radar fit. Is it a good use to send them patrolling? Granted, any military asset should be able to perform basic functions specific to its service in the short term – witness gunners and sappers, for example, operating as infantry in Northern Ireland. But it seems that the Type 45’s are very much written into the escort deployment roster. Things do seem to smack of short-termism.

Once the Type 45 programme has been delivered, attention shifts to the imminent arrival of the Carriers, in whatever shape or form that takes, and then the crucial Type 26 programme of future Frigates.

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Portsmouth-based soldier’s 1914 VC sells for £276,000

Sidney Frank Godley VC, the first Private to b...

The First Victoria Cross awarded to a private soldier in the First World War has been sold at auction for £276,000. Private Sidney Godley, of the 4th Royal Fusiliers, earnt his VC at Mons on 23 August 1914 when he single-handedly managed to hold up a German advance on a bridge over the Mons-Conde Canal.

Born in East Grinstead in West Sussex on 14 August 1889, he moved to London when he was 7 and later worked in an ironmongers store. On 13 December 1909 he joined the Royal Fusiliers, a Regiment that has traditionally recruited from London. In 1911 Godley was with the 4th Royal Fusiliers at Corunna Barracks near Farnham, and no doubt lived in Barracks in Portsmouth.

The 4th Royal Fusiliers were one of the first units to go to France in August 1914, and found themselves facing the German Army at Mons in Belgium. Under heavy fire, he was wounded twice, with shrapnel in his back and a bullet in his head. He carried on the defence of the bridge for two hours while his comrades escaped, until he ran out of ammunition and was eventually captured.

Godley remained a Prisoner of War for over four years until 1918, learning that he had been awarded the VC whilst in captivity. He received the medal from King George V at Buckingham Palace on 15 February 1919. He died on 29 June 1957, and was buried at Loughton Cemetery in Essex.

Intriguingly, I was researching the 4th Royal Fusiliers only the other day, as  in 1914 they were based in Portsmouth as part of 9 Infantry Brigade. One of the first photos that I saw was that of Private Gidley, with his distinctive moustache. The next day, unbeknown to me, his VC was sold.

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Portsmouth as an Army Garrison 1914

Something that has always intrigued me is the manner in which Portsmouth’s military heritage is often overlooked, compared to its naval past. Sure, we all know that Portsmouth is the historic home of the Royal Navy, but few people know about the long and enduring presence of the British Army in Portsmouth. It stands to reason that such a critical naval base and embarkation point will be a natural place for a significant Army garrison.

The regular Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment were both based outside of Hampshire. The 1st Battalion were at the Essex garrison town of Colchester, while the 2nd Battalion were overseas at Mhow in India. The convention in the British Army for many years had been for one of a Regiment’s Battalions to be based at home in Britain, whilst the other would be based overseas in one of Britain’s colonies.

In 1914 Portsmouth came under Southern Command, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. Smith-Dorrien later commanded a Corps in the BEF in 1914 and 1915. Southern Command was Headquartered at Salisbury, but the Portsmouth Garrison in particular was commanded by Major General W.E. Blewett CB CMG, the General Officer Commanding the Portsmouth Garrison.

9 Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General F.C. Shaw, comprised the bulk of Portsmouth’s infantry.  9 Infantry Brigade had four Infantry Battalions under its command, and was designated as a part of the BEF to go overseas in the event of war breaking out. 1st Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers and 1st Bn Lincolnshire Regiment were barracked in Portsmouth, while the 4th Bn Royal Fusiliers were at Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight and the 1st Bn Royal Scots Fusiliers were based across the Harbour in Gosport. The Brigade was one of the first units to go to France in August 1914, fighting with the 3rd Division.

Surrounded by fortifications, Portsmouth was also home to several Artillery units. 1 Heavy Brigade of Royal Garrison Artillery was based in Palmerston Forts nearby at Fareham, with 26 Battery at Fort Wallington, 35 Battery at Fort Fareham and 108 Battery at Fort Nelson.

The Army Service Corps also had a strong presence in Portsmouth, with 12 and 29 Companies being based in the town, along with 62 Mechanical Transport Company. A section of 2 Coy of the Army Ordnance Corps was also based in Portsmouth. No 6 Company of the Royal Army Medical Corps was based at Cosham, I suspect at the new Queen Alexandra Hospital on Portsdown Hill.

Portsmouth was also home to significant Territorial Force units. The 6th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment had its Headquarters at the Connaught Drill Hall in Portsmouth. Much of Portsmouth’s defence, in the event of war, comprised Territorial Forces. The General Officer Commanding South Coast Defences, under Southern Command, was based in Portsmouth. 37 and 42 Companies of the Royal Garrison Artillery formed part of the inner defences of the Portsmouth area, while 29 and 67 Companies comprised the outer defences.

III Reserve Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery was Headquartered at Hilsea, comprising 140 and 141 Batteries. The Artillery Barracks at Hilsea were located near Gatcombe Park, and several of the Barrack buildings still exist, including the Riding School. The Brigade’s 3 Depot was based nearby, close to Cosham Railway Station. 1 Wessex Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery had its Headquarters at St Pauls Road in Portsmouth, consisting of 1, 2 and 3 Hampshire Battalions RFA, and 1 Wessex Ammunition Column.

Territorial units of the Royal Engineers were based in Portsmouth. Hampshire Fortress RE had its Headquarters in Commercial Road, with No 1 and No 2 Work Companies being based in Hampshire Terrace, along with No 4 Electric Lights Company. 3rd Wessex Coy of the Royal Army Medical Corps was also based in Portsmouth.

In all, Portsmouth was home to several thousand Regular troops of Infantry, Artillery, Army Service Corps, Army Ordnance Corps and Royal Army Medical Corps. There was also a Brigade Headquarters and no doubt the usual support services that come with any substantial garrison. Soldiers would have been a frequent and daily sight to the townspeople.

Interestingly, it seems that quite a few servicemen who went to France in 1914 with 9 Infantry Brigade had put down roots in Portsmouth. In particular, a not insignificant number of men who were killed serving with the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers and the 1st Lincolnshire Regiment seem to have been living in private residences in Portsmouth. Of course, neither Regiment could lay claim to southern Hampshire as a recruiting area, so it would seem that men from Northumberland and Lincoln who found themselves stationed in Portsmouth ended up marrying local girls and living out of Barracks in the town.

Portsmouth was by no means a prominent Garrison in the manner of towns such as Aldershot and Colchester, or Salisbury Plain, but never the less the town did play host to a much more significant military force than most people are aware of. It is perhaps hard for modern Portsmuthians to imagine, considering that the Army garrison began to shrink after 1918 and nowadays consists solely of the Army contingent at the Defence Diving School on Horsea Island. 

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Filed under Army, Local History, portsmouth heroes

Recognising the Portsmouth Pals Battalions

English: Original Kitchener World War I Recrui...

English: Original Kitchener World War I Recruitment poster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you think of a ‘Pals Battalion‘, you will invariably think of a bunch of lads from a northern, industrial working class town. Say, Hull, Sheffield, Manchester, Tyneside, or Liverpool. So ingrained has this perception of the pals become, that you could be forgiven for thinking that nowhere south of Watford Gap raised any similar units. I even remember reading on a military history forum that, in the opinion of one member, a Battalion had to be from the North of England to be entitled to be called a Pals Battalion.

I’ve just taken Peter Simkins excellent ‘Kitchener’s Army: The Raising of the New Armies 1914-1916′ out of the library. It is without doubt a great history of how the New Armies were recruited and raised, and launched into action, and Simkins does give good coverage to some non-Northern Pals – the Royal Sussex Downs Battalions, for example, and the Cardiff Pals. Yet I am slightly amazed to find not one mention of the 14th and 15th Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment, or, as they were otherwise known, the 1st and 2nd Portsmouth Pals.

I don’t think that history has been too kind to the Portsmouth Pals. Formed by the Mayor of Portsmouth and recruited locally, overwhelmingly from local young lads, many of whom no doubt knew each other, I think they are perfectly entitled to be called Pals. They served in the same manner as other better-known Pals Battalions, in particular at Flers and Guillemont on the Somme and again at Third Ypres, and were in New Army Divisions. Obviously, by the end of the war the numbers were being made up by men who were not from Portsmouth, but all the same, losses were horrific. The 14th Battalion lost 644 men killed, whilst the 15th lost 781 men. When we consider that the amount of wounded was often three times the number of those killed, then the two Portsmouth Pals Battalions lost their entire strength several times over as casualties.

For Portsmouth to raise two Pals Battalions – or three if we count the 16th Battalion, the Depot Battalion – was nothing short of magnificent. Remember that a very large proportion of Portsmouth’s young men were already serving in the Royal Navy, working in the Dockyard or were perhaps already serving soldiers, Portsmouth being a significant garrison town at the time. Nowhere else south of London managed to equal this feat. The Royal Sussex Regiment did have three ‘Downs’ Battalions that could be refered to as Pals, but these recruited from a much wider area and didn’t quite have the same link to place as the Portsmouth Pals did.

To put things into context, Southampton – at the time comparable in size to Portsmouth – did not raise any Pals Battalions of its own. Perhaps the people of Portsmouth were so keen to do their bit, as they were well used to sending young men off to fight, and it did not take too much to stir the martial spirit in a town that would have been full of serving and retired sailors and soldiers. I’m looking forward to reading the Portsmouth Evening News editions from those heady days in the summer of 1914. To what extent did these brave young men answer Lord Kitcheners call?

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The Lee Enfield .303 and British marksmanship

Thanks to x for pointing out this video.

You’ll often read in Great War history books about how the regular troops of the British Expeditionary Force at Mons in 1914 managed to put out such a rate of fire that the German’s thought that they were being faced with Battalions of Machine Guns. Watch this video and its easy to see how well trained troops could put out some serious lead with an SMLE! Multiply this rate of fire by 1,000 – the strength 0f a Battalion – and you really wouldn’t want to be in the way.

Historically, British marksmanship has always been pretty good compared to other armies. I can remember reading about how even during the Napoleonic War the British Army was the only one that practised with live rounds, and reading the Sharpe novels you get a real sense of how important massed ranks of volley fire were. When you add in the early interest that the British Army took in the Baker rifle, then you also have a heritage of accuracy too.

All this possibly goes some way to explaining why the establishment feared the Machine Gun – the Generals preferred their soldiers to fire deliberate, well aimed shots, making each one count. But, as any good guitar player will tell you, speed is a by product of accuracy – get it right first, and then get it fast. Read Dan Mill’s ‘Sniper One’ about the insurgency in Iraq in 2004, and you’ll see how apparently the insurgents found it seriously uncool to aim their AK47’s, and simply to blaze away from the hip. No wonder during World War Two the Army feared the sub-machine gun – calling them’gangster guns’ – apprehensive that soldiers would begin blasting away like Al Capone!

This culture might also explain why post-WW2 Britain adopted a rifle like the SLR, rather than something like the M16.

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Government confirms new 20 year rule for official documents

The National Archives website has confirmed that the long-standing 30 year rule for the release of official documents will be reduced to a new 20 year rule from 2013 onwards. From 2013, two years worth of documents will be released each year, until the ‘backlog’ is cleared by 2023.

The change follows a review of the 30 year rule that I covered way back in 2009. We can look forward to important documents being released on key events in history, much sooner after they actually happened – it should be a real bonus for historians and researchers.

Some of the records that we should get to see early in the next few years include Northern Ireland in the 1980’s, the miners strike, Lockerbie, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the first Gulf War.

Traditionally the 30 year rule had given protection to politicians and civil servants, that there actions would not be scrutinised too closely in the immediate aftermath of events. Of course, there is a fine balancing act between confidentiality on the one hand, and transparency and probity on the other.

One restrictive rule that is still in place is the 100 year rule for the release of census information. However, the 1911 census was released a couple of years early in 2009, and there is a Freedom of Information appeal ongoing for the wartime ‘mini-census’ to be released early.

I would also like to see a radical shift from the shortsighted British practice of charging for access to records, compared to countries such as Canada and Australia who make many documents available online for free. It stifles historic research to a degree that the mandarins and accountants could never understand.

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The Home Front during the Great War

In hindsight, maybe one of my (self) criticisms of Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes is that I didn’t look enough at the social factors behind some of the stories, in particular, I maybe should have added a chapter on Portsmouth society leading up to 1939-1945, to give some kind of background to the inndividual stories.

So while I’m beginning to write the chapters for my next book, I am also doing a fair bit of research into the social history of Britain – and Portsmouth – at war between 1914 and 1918. What can we find out about Portsmouth society in 1914 that sheds light on the more than 6,000 people from Portsmouth who were killed? I think it’s something that a lot of military historians tend to ignore, but it is crucial if we are to understand unique institutions that are the British Army and the Royal Navy in the Great War, then we need to grasp an understanding of the broader society that these soldiers and sailors came from; how it shaped them, and how it dealt with their losses. Surely if you’re going to look at the war diary of a Pals Battalion on the Western Front, you need to give due credence to the local Newspapers from around the time that it was formed?

The standard text for looking at the Home Front during the Great War is still Arthur Marwick’s The Deluge, almost 50 years after the first edition was published in 1965. And there are a plethora of other books that are pretty interesting on the subject too. It’s a rather intriguing sense of de-ja-vu, having done a lot of research on social history and war whilst at University. Of course, on the flip side, social historians tend to snigger at anything that strays too much into the military sphere. One lecturer at my alma mater thought that the most significant thing about the First World War was that women began smoking and riding motorbikes. Apparently the millions of men killed weren’t too significant.

I must confess I had never really thought about the home front during the First World War. We think of the Home Front and we think of 1940, the Blitz, and Roll out the Barrell. Yet social phenomena that are usually associated with the Second World War – such as rationing, aerial bombing, war socialism, government intervention, welfare, registration to name but a few – first occured over 25 years earlier during the Great War.

Just a stab in the dark, but I actually suspect that in terms of social change, the Great War had a much bigger effect on Portsmouth than the Second World War. Not only from the more than twice as many men who were killed, but the disruption and dislocation to communities changed Portsmouth forever from what had been more than a century of constant development centred around the Royal Navy and the Dockyard. Portsmouth in 1914 was remarkably similar to Portsmouth in say 1860, or certainly after the Great Extension of the Dockyard. Yet the Portsmouth of 1939 was very different indeed.

To paraphrase Churchill about Alamein, it might not have been the end, but it was certainly the end of the beginning.

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National Archives drop digital download fees

The National Archives, Kew, London.

The National Archives, Kew, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The National Archives have dropped many of their fees for downloading digital scans of documents.

Previously First World War Unit Diaries were something like £7 per download, as were Service Records and Medal Citations. However, now all digital downloads are priced at £3.50 – a significant saving for those of us who have to download quite a few such documents for our research!

It’s a sensible approach that should help generate more historical research, particularly for people who find it hard to get to Kew.

Other documents you can download from the National Archives online include Naval Service Records (pre 1922), Royal Flying Corps and RAF Records 1914-1919, BEF War Diaries, and WW1 Campaign Medal Index Cards.

Now just to sort out institutions charging mortgage-level reproduction fees!

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Army 2020 unpicked

Now we’ve had a bit more time to look at what last week’s Army 202 statement means, lets take a bit of a look at some of the finer details.

Among the announcements, articles and suchlike, there was an accompanying brochure on the Army’s official website that received very little publicity, but details the Army 2020 cuts and restructuring in much more detail than I have seen anywhere else.

Of course, some of the most high profile cuts have come in the Infantry, with the loss of some famous names.

The Argylls are currently an Air Assault Battalion, based in Canterbury, so moving to Edinburgh as an incremental company will obviously arouse quite a few howls north of the border. It is a similar move to the manner in which the second Battalions of Guards Regiments were reduced to incremental company status in the early 1990’s.

The Following Infantry Battalions, and the traditions of some of their antecedent Regiments, will be lost:

Two threads seem to emerge – a reduction in armoured infantry in particular, and a cut in Germany-based units in preparation for the units that remain there being brought back to Britain in the forseeable future. Apart from one case the MOD has chosen to cut the junior Battalions of each Regiment, apart from in the case of the Green Howards, who are a relatively senior Battalion with the 3rd Bn (Duke of Wellington’s) being junior. It was obviously felt that a theatre reserve Battalion was not necessary and easier to cut in terms of operational tempo.

The following Armoured units are to merge:

  • 1st and 2nd Royal Tank Regiments to merge; 1st RTR currently at Warminster and RAF Honington as CBRN, and 2nd RTR are currently at Tidworth as an Armoured Regiment.
  • Queens Royal Lancers and 9th/12th Royal Lancers to merge; QRL are currently at Catterick as a recconaissance Regiment, and 9/12 are currently in Germany as a reconaissance Regiment.

Obviously in terms of armour, the decision was to merge where there was commonality – reducing to a single Tank Regiment, for example, and creating a new Regiment of Lancers. Merging similar Regiments should cut down on overheads.

The loss of two Regiments from the Royal Artillery:

  • 39 Regiment RA. Known as the Welsh Gunners and recruiting from Wales, currently operate MLRS in Newcastle.
  • 40 Regiment RA. Known as the Lowland Gunners, recruiting from Lowland Scotland, currently operating the 105mm light gun.

These are two most junior Artillery Regiments, apart from 47 Regt RA who operate the UAV systems, which are presumably too important to cut what with UAV’s being a growth area for the future. Again, the MOD seems to have gone with cutting the most junior Regiments first.

Royal Engineers:

  • 24 Commando Regiment RE, currently based at RMB Chivenor near Barnstaple. Leaving 59 Independent Commando Squadron RE.
  • 25 Regiment RE, already disbanded.
  • 28 Regiment RE, an amphibious bridging unit currently based in Hameln in Germany.
  • 38 Regiment RE, based in Antrim.
  • 67 Works Group RE

The cutting of 24 Cdo RE suggests that it is not felt that a full Regiment will be needed to support 3 Cdo Bde in an expeditionary capacity, or at least not to the extent that another Engineer Regiment could not be attached to augment the independent Commando Squadron. The disbanding of 28 Regiment seems sensible, given that it was only ever intended to facilitate the withdrawl of the British Army of the Rhine from Germany in the face of the Warsaw Pact. With the withdrawl of British Forces from Germany, it would seem un-necessary to re-home them in the UK. The cutting of 38 Regiment seems to be part of the move to de-militarise Northern Ireland.

Royal Signals:

  • 7th Signal Regiment, ARRC, at Elmpt (old RAF Bruggen)

Probably not a surprising move given that the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps has relocated from Rheindalen to Innsworth recently, and with the withdrawl of the rest of the British Army from Germany.

Army Air Corps:

  • 1 Regiment AAC and 9 Regiment AAC to merge, both Lynx Wildcat Regiments.

Royal Logistics Corps:

  • 1 Logistics Support Regiment
  • 2 Logistics Support Regiment
  • 23 Pioneer Regiment; Oxford
  • 8 Regiment RLC; Catterick
  • 19 Combat Service Support Bn
  • 24 Regiment RLC; Germany

REME:

  • 101 Force Support Bn; a hybrid regular and TA unit

RMP:

  • 5 Regiment RMP

I actually had trouble finding out much information about the RLC, REME and RMP units concerned. Any contributions would be gratefully received.

Looking at it, it does seem like a salami-slicing exercise. The promised dramatic reductions in Armour haven’t happened, and various Infantry Regiments were protected due to political concerns. Aside from a few cases more junior Regiments were cut, with the Army having its age-old concern with seniority above much else. It seems inaccurate to describe Army 2020 as a restructuring exercise. The Mike Jackson led cuts in the mid 2000’s at least dealt with the problems of arms plot and lots of tiny infantry Regiments.

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