Category Archives: Army

War Surgery 1914-18 edited by Thomas Scotland and Steven Hays

How many military historians – people for whom writing about death and injury is part of their vocation – actually have anything more than a rudimentary understanding of battlefield medicine? Nope, me neither. And for somebody who has been specialising in war casualties, that is something I really should remedy.

Therefore I was intrigued to receive this book looking at war surgery in the First World War. It is actually edited by a pair of medical professionals who also have an interest in military history, which for me is crucial. Medicine is such a specialist field, that to be honest I think only medical professionals can really do it justice. But this isn’t just a scientific, geeky look at things that the layman would never understand. It is structured very sensibly, beginning with a basic introduction to the First World War and the Western Front, and also to the history of battlefield medicine.

A very interesting chapter looks at the manner in which wounded soldiers came into contact with medical help – namely, the evacuation chain. Wounded soldiers were treated immediately by their Regimental Medical Officer, aided by a team of stretcher bearers. Men were then taken to a Field Ambulance, usually by ambulance wagons and cars. Lightly wounded might be sent to an advanced dressing station to be patched up and sent back. More seriously wounded would be passed on to a Casualty Clearing Station by motor convoy. From there the wounded would be despatched to a stationary base hospital, usually in French coastal towns such as Rouen, Etaples, Le Havre of Boulogne. Men who did not respond to treatment might be shipped back to England for further care. With much of the war being fought in a stationary, almost siege-like manner, evacuation trains could be implemented, even incorporating river transport.

Obviously, many wounded were in shock, and in need of stabilising and resucitation. And with thousands of men requiring treatment almost on a daily basis, it was an ideal proving ground for medical officers to establish best practice. Anaesthetic had been discovered and pioneered in the later years of the nineteenth century, and with many men requiring operations, anaesthesia was also a key consideration in the treatment of many.

Something I had not really though of is the varying pathology of warfare. Men wounded on the Western Front – in cold, wet and muddy conditions – were very vulnerable to infections, and the heavily fertile Flanders mud was an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. And with a large proportion of open wounds, the early onset of infection was a serious problem. By contrast, men serving in warmer climes were at threat of other illnesses, notably Dysentery in Gallipoli and Malaria in Mesopotamia. As in previous centuries, a large proportion of deaths were to illness rather than wounds received in action.

As with Anaesthesia, X-rays had been pioneered relatively shortly before 1914. Gradually X-ray facilities were established at base hospitals, and a few locations further forward in the medical chain. X-ray machines were relatively large, unwieldy and expensive, and being so far back behind the lines it took time for men to reach them. Another consideration was the quality of imaging, and the ability of medical officers to interpret them and consider an appropriate course of treatment.

With many men suffering broken bones – in particular due to gunshot wounds – orthopaedic surgery was important. a large proportion of broken bones were suffered in the form of fractured femurs. As a major bone, a frature of the femur could be catastrophic, and poorly healed might cripple a man for life. The newly-invented Thomas splint helped medical officers on the front line to immobilise a man quickly, and radically improve their chances of recovery. A great example of how war prompted a remarkable medical innovation.

Throughout military history abdominal wounds had often been regarded as particularly troublesome, as to a lesser extent had penetrative chest wounds. Any wounds in these areas might threaten vital organs, and hence chances of recovery were often very low. Performing delicate operations on vital organs were particularly trying, and not something that could be performed easily in makeshift facilities. Also, the risk of infection was ever-present.

Something I had not ever thought of was the development of plastic surgery during the First World War. As with any way, men suffered horrific scars. I had always thought that plastic surgery was first developed during the Second World War with burnt aircrew, but some of the images of Great War Soldiers having their faces gradually rebuilt with flaps and the like are staggering. The Great War was possibly the first war in which cosmetic injuries were taken seriously.

Something else that really impressed me is the manner in which the medical services expanded to take on what was an unbelievable burden. The Royal Army Medical Corps was tiny in 1914, as was the British Army as a whole. With each Regimental-level unit needing an MO, and countless other medical units needing staffing, where did all these extra doctors come from? It was a considerable balancing act to make sure that there were adequate doctors at the front, but that there were also adequate doctors at home in Britain too.

I’ve got the utmost respect for doctors who serve on the front line. They deal with some of the most traumatic injuries, in trying circumstances and with scant resources. When faced with overwhelming casualties they have to take on an unbelievably tragic method of triage – which casualties have the best chance of success with the resources available? Those deemed unlikely to survive are left to their fate.

This is a brilliant book. Considering that the editors and contributors are medical professionals, it reads incredibly well as a history book – much more readable than many a military history text! I recommend it wholeheartedly to any historian of the Great War who wishes to develop a broader understanding of battlefield medicine. It has certainly helped me to broaden mine, and I must confess, I now think that researching casualties of war without looking at surgery in war is simply inadequate.

War Surgery 1914-18 is published by Helion

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Sergeant James Stevenson DCM MM

I’ve found another interesting Portsmouth man who died during the First World War – officially, just after it had ended. And like Sergeant Frederick Godfrey, he was well decorated too. His story also illustrates how Portsmouth servicemen came from vastly different parts of the world.

James Stevenson was born in Tannadice, a small village near Forfar, Scotland in 1890. The son of James Stevenson, in the 1891 census he is living with his grandparents at the Regristrars House in Tannadice. Thomas Stevenson, aged 50 in 1891, was the Inspector of Poor and Registrar. Where James Stevenson’s parents are is not recorded, in this census or in any other records.

In 1901 James is still living with his grandparents in Tannadice. By this time he was 11, and a scholar. Interestingly, a visitor was staying with the Stevensons on census night – an Alfred E. Waterman, aged 28, who gave his occupation as a ‘Military Land Surveyor RE’. This is particularly interesting, given the career path that Stevenson would follow.

In the 1911 census, James Stevenson was stationed at the Royal Engineers Brompton and St  Marys Barracks, as a Lance Corporal Clerk. At this point he was still single. Based on his birth date he would have to have served at least a couple of years to be promoted to Lance Corporal.

In late 1915 Stevenson married Isabel M. Lever, in Southampton. Isabel had been born in Portsmouth in early 1888. She does not appear in the 1891 census, but in the 1901 census she was living in St Mary’s Street in Southampton, where her parents ran a Pub. In the 1911 census was working as an Infirmary Nurse Southampton Union Infirmary. Did James and Isabel meet while he was being treated in hospital, perhaps?

His medal index cards at the National Archives state the was successively a Sapper, Corporal, Acting Sergeant, Temporary Sergeant with the Royal Engineers. And, interestingly enough, a Staff Sergeant attached to the Nigeria Regiment. Hence it is very possible that he fought in German West Africa.

In 1917 James Stevenson was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The citation appeared in the London Gazette on 17 September 1917, stating the he was from Southampton:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in surveying battery positions under shell fire. He completed his work with accuracy and success, notably on one occasion when he was in the midst of heavy hostile shelling.

There is nothing in the citation to suggest when the acts of bravery took place, nor indeed where. He was serving with thr 5th Field Survey Battalion of the Royal Engineers, a specialist unit that worked on finding the location of German guns from their noise signatures. This could often take them

Sergeant James Stevenson died on 11 December 1918. He was 29, and is buried in Busigny in France. I haven’t been able to find out how he died, but as it was after the Armistice it was probably either due to wounds or illness. After his death Stevenson was awarded a posthumous Military Medal, announced in the London Gazette of 14 May 1919.

His entry on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission states that his widow, Mrs Isabel M. Stevenson, was living at 37 Kimberley Road in Southsea. She isn’t there in the 1911 census, so whether they moved there shortly after, or indeed Mrs Stevenson moved their independently after the war, I have yet to find out. I think it is quite possible that James Stevenson was stationed in Portsmouth at some point.

Tragically, It looks possible that they had a son – Ian R. Stevenson, who was born in Southampton in either July, August or September of 1918. Whether James Stevenson ever saw his son, seems pretty unlikely given the scarcity of leave during the Great War.

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Forgotten Victory by Gary Sheffield

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

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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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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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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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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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2nd Portsmouth Pals – formation to May 1916

 

With the euphoric volunteering for the British Army that was experienced in the late summer of 1914, many towns and cities formed their own Battalions for service in the Army. Comprised virtually of volunteers, in many cases these became known as ‘Pals’ Battalions. The word ‘Pals’ is normally applied to midlands or northern working class towns or cities, but my research has shown that the 1st and 2nd Portsmouth Pals – the 14th and 15th Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment respectively – were very much Pals Battalions. And it was quite credible of Portsmouth to raise two Battalions – over 2,000 men – considering that most of her young male population must have been either at sea with the Royal Navy, or engaged on important war work. Fortunately, the war diary for the 2nd Portsmouth Pals is available to download online from the National Archives website, and it tells us an awful lot about what happened to these young men from Portsmouth in those dramatic years.

 

The 1st Portsmouth’s were formed by the Mayor and a local committee on 3 September 1914, and would have taken the initial rush of recruits. After gathering and training locally, it was found that there were still enough recruits to form a second battalion, which took place on 5 April 1915. Several men died before they even left Britain – Private R.P.A. Cornhill on 6 August 1915, who is buried in Kingston Cemetery. After training locally, on 30 May 1915 both battalions were accepted by the war office, and began training for service abroad. With so many raw recruits, so many new units and a shortage of equipment, naturally things happened slowly. In October 1915 the 2nd Portsmouths joined the 122nd Brigade, in the 41st Division at Aldershot. In February 1916 they were at Marlborough Barracks in February 1916, before landing in France in early May. Private H.T. Sait died on 11 March 1916, and is also buried in Kingston.

 

The Battalion disembarked at Le Havre at 0600 on 2 May 1916, marching to a rest camp from the port. The next day they entrained at 1139, before detraining at Godewaerveld the next day and marching to Meteren. After three days in billets at Meteren, the Battalion marched to new billets in the La Creche area. On 10 May 12 officers and 40 NCO’s spent two days in the trenches, attached to the 11th Royal Scots, in order to gain experience. Whilst they were there they experienced some heavy bombardments, and then an attack on the Royal Scots trenches. Two were repelled, but a third gained access to the Scots front lines before being pushed back.

 

All was quiet again until the 18th, when a gas alarm was raised. The Battalion stood to at 0115, and stood down at 0150. The next day more men went into the trenches for experience, this time 4 officers and 80 NCO’s. On the 25th the Battalion suffered a sad casualty, when Private H. Evans committed suicide. A Court of Enquiry found that he had become temporarily insane. Private Evans was buried in Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension (Nord), but unfortunately his record on the CWGC does not give any information as to where in Portsmouth he lived.

 

On the 28th the Battalion marched from La Creche to billets at Creslow. Two days later on the 30th they moved up to the front line at Ploegsteert Wood, taking over trenches from the 8th Black Watch, between Le Gheer to opposite the Birdcage. A, B and C Companies were in the front line, with D Company in reserve. Ploegsteert was often used to give new units experience, rather than the more active Ypres Salient.

 

 

 

 

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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): The Reckoning

So, we’ve looked at the various elements that might constitute a re-run of the 1982 Falklands War – the political dimension; the naval war (Aircraft carriers, naval aviation, amphibious warfare, escorts, logistics, submarines); the air war; and the land battle.

I think the key points to emerge are as follows:

  • Lack of carrier-borne air cover MIGHT not preclude a succesful task force, but it would be useful
  • We have JUST enough amphibious capability to effect a landing if need be
  • We have some very high quality Destroyers and Frigates, but nowhere near enough of them
  • We are perilously short of auxiliaries, and would need much assistance from the Merchant Navy
  • Our submarines are very capable, but far too few
  • The four Typhoons at Mount Pleasant would be crucial
  • Any landing force would be battle-hardened, thanks to Iraq and Afghanistan
  • The Argentines forces, although more professional, are outclassed equipment wise

As we can see, there are a lot of ‘might’, ‘just’. Which is hardly ideal when planning to embark on a military operation. The theme that seems to emerge is that the British Armed Forces – in terms of inventory and personnel – are very high quality, but few in number. This situation is not likely to change any time soon, given the economic situation – in fact, it is likely to get worse before it gets better. And if future defence cuts prune back – salami slice – ship numbers, for example, then we would go beyond the point where an operation ‘might’ be possible, to a point where one would be foolhardy.

Politically, the Falklands/Malvinas issue is unlikely to disappear any time soon, and certainly not after the discovery of natural resouces in the seabed of the South Atlantic. The current Argentine President is continually spouting ‘route-one’ politics, ie fooling the population away from domestic problems by targetting an external bogeyman. The current period of South American love-in has also emboldened Kirchner, it seems. How long this might last is anyones guess, given the fickle nature of Latin American politics.

1982 taught us that signs of weakness, such as cutting vital and sometimes symbolic assets, can be the first domino in causing unsavoury types to play their hand. Any possible savings that might have been gained from retiring HMS Endurance in 1982 were completely dwarfed by the costs – human, financial and materiel – that were incurred after Argentina took it to be a launchpad for war. As such, cost-cutting can be short-sighted – cutting a ship might save a few million, but will it cost us much more in the long run? Defence does give traction on the world stage. It was this lack of co-ordination between defence and diplomacy that caused such problems in 1982.

Is it narrow-minded to think solely about the Falkland Islands? After all, history is full of examples of forces and leaders who prepared to fight the last war, only to find that they were hopelessly stuck in the past. Aside from extremist terrorism, and perhaps Iran in the straights of Hormuz, Argentine threats to the Falklands are the most serious threat to British interests today. And we would be sensible to plan accordingly. All the time the Falkland Islanders wish to remain British, we have a duty to defend them.

Also, we should be aware that any ignominious outcome in the Falklands would have big domestic and international repurcussions. If the Argentines were to reclaim the Falklands, what is to stop the Spanish applying pressure over Gibraltar? We might find that we also put other nations in sticky positions over their far-flung possessions. And for Britain to be defeated by a second-world state would be embarassing to say the least – losing wars and surrendering territories does nothing for your international standing. In 1982 the Soviets and the Warsaw Pact cannot have failed to note that the British Armed Forces punched very hard. Showing that you will not be pushed about will surely make other enemies think twice about having a pop.

In 2012 the Falklands could be defended, and retaken if necessary. Just.

 

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Refighting the Falklands War (2012): Land Forces

English: 2 para guarding POWs Port Stanley 1982

In 1982, the quality of British troops held out when the task force’s land troops came up against the Argentine Army. Much has changed since 1982, both in the British Army and the Argentine Army. Land Forces would play a pivotal part in any future battle for the Falklands, whether it be defending them, or attempting to retake them.

If the Falkland Islands were threatened, one would imagine that the first reaction of the British Government would be to reinforce the lone infantry Company at Mount Pleasant. This would probably involve flying in another infantry Battalion via Ascension, and some extra air defence in the form of Rapier and Starstreak of the Royal Artillery. An infantry Battalion is usually on standby as a spearhead Battalion to move anywhere in the world at short notice.

If, however, the islands were taken by Argentina, then larger land forces would be required to land and retake them. There are 9 Brigades available to the British Armed Forces for rapid deployment anywhere in the world:

There are also a number of other administrative Brigades, that are not geared up towards active deployment. These are the umbrellas for battalions and Regiments not earmarked for deployments, but which could in times of crisis be called upon. In such a manner in 1982, the Scots and Welsh Guards were deployed after finishing a stint of public duties in London, as they happened to be available.

As in 1982, we would probably be looking to the spearhead Brigades, ie 16 Air Assault and 3 Commando Brigade to bear the brunt of any operations. Realistically, with the shipping available, the likely Argentine Garrison to be faced and the troops available, any mission to retake the Falklands would probably consist of two reinforced Brigades, with a similar level of supporting troops – artillery, engineers, etc – as was seen in 1982.

The fly in the ointment, at present, would be Afghanistan. Currently light infantry and mechanised Brigades serve 6 month stints in Afghanistan, meaning that Brigades such as 16 AA and 3 Cdo have spent up 6 months of every two years in Helmand. Prior to this, they are training up for the role, and afterwards building themselves up again. Of course, if it really came to it, troops arriving back from Afghanistan could be sent down south a week later, but this would hardly be ideal. In an ideal world, 16 AA and 3 Cdo Brigades would both be available. In the next best case scenario it would be 3 Cdo Brigade plus one of the light infantry Brigades, and the least satisactory scenario would be 16 AA plus a light infantry Brigade. 3 Cdo Brigade, of course, would be invaluable due to their amphibious role.

There can be few personnel in the British Army who have not served at least one tour of Afghanistan, and many have probably served more, as well as in Iraq and possibly in Northern Ireland, Kosovo and Bosnia for some older sweats. The British soldier of 2012 is much more experienced and battle-hardened than many of his predecessors, and thanks to some early disasters in Iraq, personnel equipment seems to have seriously improved. In 1982, many troops went down with trench foot thanks to having inferior boots for cold weather. Most weapons systems have been updated – for example the SLR with the SA80, the Bren with the Minimi, and Milan with Javelin. A lot of the new vehicles that have been procured for use in Afghanistan to replace Land Rover are great for that theatre, but would be totally unsuitable to peat bogs in the Falklands. As in 1982, Scimitars and others of the CVR(T) family would be very handy.

Ideologically, the British Army is in a strange place compared to 1982. The last ten years have been spent largely fighting counter-insurgency wards against extremist islamic terrorists – firstly in Iraq, and then Afghanistan. To what extent could the Army go from fighting in the sand to fighting in chilly mountain ranges overnight? One suspects so, given the similarity between the Falklands and the Brecon Beacons, for one. Could it summon up the agression for a conventional war, after devoting much of its attention to ‘wars among the people’? I suspect that this wouldn’t be a problem – in 1982 the British Army was geared towards fighting the Russians in North West Europe, and also dealing with terrorists in Northern Ireland, which especially provided very good training for junior leaders. And unlike 1982, most British troops are not already commited to NATO.

The Argentine Army abolished conscription after the fall of the military dictatorship in 1983. In 1982, the Argentine Garrison consisted of two strong Brigades, which consisted of 8 Regiments, the equivalent of a British Battalion. The Argentines also had many support troops, in terms of artillery, engineers and armoured cars. But as has often been written, in 1982 the Argentines had to keep their best troops in South America to guard against a possible Chilean attack. As a result, most of the troops deployed to the Falklands were inexperienced conscripts, and many were from warmer parts of the country, not suited to fighting in the cold and wet Falklands.

In 2012, the Argentine Army has 10 Brigades in total – two armoured, three mechanised, three mountain, one paratrooper and one jungle. In particular, a Rapid Deployment Forces is built around the Paratroop Brigade. The Argentine Marines consists of 4 Infantry Battalions with supporting troops. With the addition of dedicated Mountain Brigades, the Argentines could probably provide a better garrison for the Falklands than they did in 1982.Of course, what we do not know is how well trained their troops are – although the Argentine Army does seem to have benefited from increased international co-operation. In addition, friendly relations with the rest of South America means that Argentina would not have to leave units behind to guard her own frontiers.

But, as with the British Task Force, the Argentine’s real problem would be getting their troops to the islands in the first place. With one sole amphibious ship, and the tricky prospect of taking Mount Pleasant intact, they might have a bit of trouble actually getting them to the Falklands in the first place. But if a re-run of 1982 was to be experienced, but with modern forces, I would expect a British land force to edge it based on experience and training.

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The Irish who fought for Britain

Apparently there is a programme on BBC Radio 4 in a few days time looking at the discrimination suffered by Irishmen from the Republic who fought for Britain during the Second World War. I never knew this, but apparently the Irish Government had a blacklist of men who had deserted from the Irish Republic‘s forces and joined the British Armed Forces. The discrimination reached quite far, down to all Government agencies. It must have been hell for many of the poor blokes to have to hide their past for 60 odd years. As somebody says on the programme, it is incredible that men who volunteered to fight fascism were persecuted far more than men who simply deserted and went on the run. Even men who died in action were still included on the list.

On the face of it, this policy isn’t surprising. Ireland in 1939 still had a decidedly anti-British chip on its shoulder, particularly in officialdom. Of course, Eamon de Valera was the only world leader to offer his condolences to Nazi Germany on Hitler’s death. The rationale for which, I have never understood. But to learn that the Government actually went as far as to have a blacklist of names, to the point of affecting men’s employment prospects, is rather startling.

To this day, Irish citizens have a unique status when it comes to applying to serve in the British Armed Forces. If anyone has looked at the entry requirements, they often specify ‘UK, Commonwealth or Irish’ nationality. But Irish recruitment into the Royal Navy and British Army, in particular, has been going on for hundreds of years. During the Napoleonic era legions of Irishmen served in Wellington’s Army – Sergeant Patrick Harper of the Sharpe novels, for example. My own Catholic Irish ancestry brought my family to Portsmouth, to join the Royal Navy. In 1914 my great-grandfather, Thomas Daly, journeyed from Birkenhead to Portsmouth to join the Royal Navy.

Interestingly, we can tell where WW1 sailors were born. 5 sailors out of 745 I have researched so far came from Ireland. This doesn’t include men who might be second generation immigrants. It is also noticeable that many Portsmouth servicemen died fighting with Irish Army units – the Royal Munster Fusiliers, in particular. In his many books Richard Doherty has charted the great contribution that Irishmen – from north and south of the border – made to the allied cause in the Second World War. And in the First World War, the Republican and Unionist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland put aside their differences and joined Divisions that included Protestant and Catholic men.

It seems to me that discrimination against Irishmen who fought Hitler was petty, and had more to do with an inherent anti-Britishness than any thoughts about the morality of the Second World War. When men have to hide medals that they earnt fighting against extremism and tyranny, its a very strange world indeed.

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ANZAC #10 – Private John Roberts

John Roberts was born at Mount Egerton in Victoria. The son of William and Esther Roberts, John was living at Herbert Road in Footscray, Victoria when he joined the Australian Army on 4 October 1916. Upon enlisting he was aged 27 years and 9 months, and had been working as an unapprenticed miner. He wasn’t married, and his next of kin was his mother, suggesting that his father was dead. His permanent address was given as care of the Post Office, Bulong in Western Australia. He hadn’t previously served in the armed forces, and he took the oath at Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. That he was living in Western Australia is not surprising, I would imagine there are more openings for miners there than in Victoria! He was quite a small man, at 5ft 6 and a half inches and he weighed 135lb. He had a ruddy complexion, with brown hair and hazel eyes, with perfect eyesight. His chest measured 32 inches and 35 expanded. He was a member of the Congregational Church – a church where each congregation pretty much runs itself – and had a tattoo of a heart and clasped hands on his left forearm.

Upon enlisting, he was posted to 87 Depot, and from there was drafted to the 44th Battalion, Australian Infantry on 11 November 1916. In October he received unspecified dental treatment, and at some point during this period Roberts spent some time in the Clearing Hospital in Black Boy Hill, Western Australia, with an inflamed right buttock – possibly a training injury.Roberts service record, uniquely, give us an impression of just how many vaccinations servicemen had to receive – Roberts was vaccinated on 17 and 26 October, and 13 and 28 December – the last two for influenza. He was also vaccinated on 16 February 1917, whilst in transit to Britain. He embarked from Freemantle, Western Australia onboard the HMAT Persic (A34), on 29 December 1916. The day before leaving Australia Roberts made a will, lodged with a Miss Margaret McInnes, at the Government Hospital in Kargoolie, West Australia.

The Persic finally arrived at Devonport on 3 March 1917, and from there Roberts processed through the Camp Details Section at Sutton Manderville. Five days later, he joined the 11th Training Battalion at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain. All Australian troops arriving from Australia spent some time with a training Battalion, even if they had already been designated for a Battalion that was at the front. After three months training, Roberts left for France. On 19 June 1917 he proceeded overseas via Southampton, arriving at the 3rd Australian Base Details Depot at Le Havre the next day. After 18 days there he finally left to join his Battalion, joining up with the 44th on 9 July 1917.

After less than a month at the front, John Roberts was admitted to the 11th Australian Field Ambulance suffering with Influenza – possibly an early sufferer of the Spanish influenza epidemic. After a week in the Field Ambulance he was discharged and returned to duty on 16 August. Less than four days later, however, Roberts was again admitted to Hospital sick. He was processed through the 9th Australian Field Ambulance and the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station, and was believed to be suffering from appendicitis. On 21 August he boarded 38 Ambulance Train, to the 5th General Hospital in Rouen. Five days later he was sent to England on the Hospital Ship Esquibo, by now diagnosed with acute Nephritis. The next day he was admitted to the 5th Southern General Hospital in Portsmouth, where his Nephritis was described as slight.

Upon admission Roberts was assessed by a doctor. No blood was found in his urine, but a large ischio-skeletal abcess was discovered on his right side, in the kidney region. Over two months his condition deteriorated, and he died at 12.50pm on 11 November 1917, of Nephritis. He was buried in Milton Cemetery at 3pm on 21 November 1917 – an unusually long 10 days after his death. Prior to his internment a service was held in the Chapel at the Cemetery – the only time this happened for any of the twelve Australians in Milton – conducted by the Reverend J. Watkins Daines, a Congregational Minister of Milton. And unlike most other Australian servicemen, Roberts elm coffin had brass mountings. A Firing party, bugler and pallbearers were provided by the Hampshire Regiment. Roberts brother, Private A.B. Roberts of 3 Coy Australian Army Service Corps Divisional Train was present at the funeral. Interestingly, Roberts was originally buried in unconsecrated ground – why, exactly, I have yet to establish. The undertaker was H. Osborne of Gosport – again, unusual, as all of the other ANZACS were ‘looked after’ by A.G. Stapleford, of Crasswell Street, Portsmouth.

John Roberts personal effects comprised the following:

1 wallet note book (containing letters), 2 discs, 1 coin, 1 silk shirt and collar, strop, pipe, jack knife, mirror, gospel, writing pad, hair brush, badges, shaving brush, soldiers guide, testament, 1 holdall (containing toothbrush, razor, 2 combs), 1 pair mittens, 1 pair socks.

Interestingly, these objects were sent to Mrs. M. McInnes at Kargoolie, who had been appointed as Private Roberts executor in his will. She was given sole powers over his estate, as if she were his sole beneficiary. If there was a dispute with his mother is unknown.

Sadly, John Roberts other brother also died during the war. Private Lawrence Moyle Roberts, of the 2nd Australian Machine Gun Company, was 20 when he died on 9 December 1916, and is buried in Lodge Hill Cemetery in Birmingham. Their mother Esther Roberts received a pension for both of them after their deaths.

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Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division at War: Invention, Innovation and Inspiration by Richard Doherty

Richard Doherty is a first class military historian, and I have really enjoyed his previous books, in particular his work on Irish military history. As somebody with Irish ancestry, I find it quite relevant. What I really like about this book, is that it takes something that most people with an interest in military history are aware of, but then shows us, that actually, we weren’t anywhere near as aware of it as we thought we were. Of course, everyone has heard of ‘Hobart’s funnies‘. But what do we actually know about the funnies? About the men who fought in them? Or Hobart himself?

An in-law of Montgomery, Percy Hobart was a pretty interesting character. Commissioned as an Engineer prior to the First World War, in 1923 he transferred to the Royal Tank Regiment, and hence was one of the first pioneers of armoured warfare. Despite this he wasn’t exactly the easiest of people to get on with. As a result, despite forming Britain’s first armoured Division in Egypt (what would later become 7th Armoured), he was retired in 1939 and subsequently became a Corporal in the Home Guard.

Rescued from obscurity by Winston Churchill – ever an advocate of the eccentric innovator – he was brought back into service and formed the 11th Armoured Division. Sadly, Hobart was removed from command before the Division could see service, but that the Division later went on to become one of the finest Division after D-Day under Major General Phillip Roberts, is testament to Hobart’s skill in training and creating espirit-du-corps.

But this time Hobart did not find himself on the career scrapheap. He was given the responsibility of forming a specialist armoured Division, the 79th Armoured. Hobart was given the responsibility of forming the Division to operate specialist armoured fighting vehicles. Although the concept of specialist armour was by no means his invention, appointing Hobart to command such a Division was a stroke of genius – his individuality and innovative streak paying dividends.

The Division never fought together as a single entity, but was distributed amongst the British and Canadian forces in North West Europe as was seen fit to enable them to accomplish their objectives. It is not commonly known, but the Funnies did fight on after D-Day until VE Day, in difficult operations, in particular the crossing of the Rhine. Hobart himself did not lead his Division in the conventional sense, but acted as its advocate and adviser to the High Command, including Montgomery himself.

One thing that this book does illustrate very well, is the big difference between British and American approaches to invention. Especially when we consider that the US Army, for the most part, did not innovate when it came to armoured vehicles. But when it did, it did decisively and quickly – such as the Sergeant who had the idea of welding Rommel’s apaspargus onto the front of tanks, for use as a plough through the difficult Bocage terrain. Britain – and this is a historical trend- tends to spend years developing and evolving such equipment, but when a US General saw the Sergeant’s invention, he ordered it adpoted immediately!

After reading this vivid and detailed account, I understand so much better the role of the funnies on D-Day and beyond. It is a classic tale of British innovation in the face of obstacles, led by an eccentric and irascible leader who found his moment in history, and Richard Doherty has considerably advanced our understanding of it. It is a very British story. That all armies now operate a vast range of specialised armour is testament not only to how important the funnies were, but Hobart’s role in getting them formed and into action.

Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division at War is published by Pen and Sword

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The Falklands Then and Now… AND Now: initial thoughts

Soon after starting my blog, I ran a series looking at the 1982 Falklands War. As a long-term resident of Portsmouth I have always had a very strong interest in the conflict, and wanted to do something of an annual ‘Open University Lectures’ style series over Christmas to give us all something to do. I didn’t really expect anyone to read it, but thanks to a plug from Mike Burleson (proprietor of the now-ceased New Wars blog) things snowballed and my hit ratings have never quite been the same since!

Much has changed in two years In the winter of 2009 we were looking ahead to a closely fought general election, under the spectre of a massive economic crisis. In the years since we have seen a new Government, a swingeing Defence Review which has radically altered the picture of British defence planning and capability. No strike Carrier, No Harriers, half the amphibious ships, less escorts, less everything really. Since 2009 tensions have also arisen with Argentina pulling various diplomatic strings to unsettle the British presence in the South Atlantic. Coincidentally, since the discovery of oil reserves in the South Atlantic.

With much change since then, and also with the 30th Anniversary of the war coming up next year, I think it is the ideal time to revisit the ‘Falklands: Then and Now’ series. Over christmas and the new year period I will be re-examining my original conclusions, and trying to find some sort of assesment as to how the Falklands War might feasibly be re-fought in 2012.

In 2009 I looked at the following:

  • Aircraft Carriers
  • Amphibious
  • Escorts (Destroyers and Frigates)
  • Submarines
  • Auxiliaries
  • Merchant Navy
  • Land Forces
  • The Air War
  • Command and Control
  • The Reckoning

If there is anything that I should add, or if anyone would like to make suggestions, please feel free to comment or email me via the ‘Contact Me’ bar above. If anybody would like to guest on any of the sections, please feel free to get in touch.

As I’m sure you can see, it is very sea-orientated, but then again as the Falklands are Islands 8,000 miles way then that is always bound to be the case. I remember also getting some pretty snobby comments in the past, about it being ‘hardly rocket science’. Well, that’s exactly the point – we need ordinary people to support our military, and we won’t do that by getting excited about the screws securing the sprockets in a Sea Wolf missile’s motor.

Suffice to say, only the most deluded of commentators will find this a positive exercise, but it is an opportune time to assess the declining state of Britain’s defence capabilities, and to use a historical yardstick to illustrate how we are incapable of defending those who wish to live under British citizenship.

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2nd Portsmouth Pals Battalion War Diary located!

For a long time I had been labouring under the misaprehension that only a select few WW1 war diaries had been made available for download via The National Archives Documents Online service. In such a manner I had downloaded a copy of the 1st Hampshire’s War Diary some time ago, and not long ago I posted up a summary of their activities from Le Cateau in August 1914 until the beginning of 1918. It’s a thread that I’m sure I will pick up again some time in the future.

But thanks to browsing on the Grear War Forum, I have discovered that more War Diaries are available than I had originally thought. It works like this – for many Battalions, in particular territorial or hostilities only, the Battalion diaries have been grouped by brigade, hence by a cursory glance, it appears that it is only the Brigade HQ War Diary that is available. But, and here’s the golden bit, they are actually consolidated – so in reality you get four for the price of one!

Of course I have a very keen interest in the Portsmouth Pals, as I will be carrying out a lot of research into their formation, their membership, their battles and their losses. Sadly the war diary for the 1st Portsmouth Pals (14th Hampshires) is not available, and will necessitate a trip to Kew, but that of the 2nd Portsmouth Pals (15th Hampshires) is.

I’ve downloaded a couple of hundred page PDF’s, and although I have only had a quick flick through, it seems like it is unusually detailed for a war diary. Not necessarily in terms of grid references, maps or operational matters, but it does seem to give an unusually high amount of attention to other ranks rather than just officers. Of course this will be priceless for finding out about when Private X died, or when Sergeant Z won his Military Medal.

Let the transcribing begin!

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