Category Archives: Army

Retreat and Rearguard 1914: The BEF’s actions from Mons to the Marne by Jerry Murland

I have always felt that perhaps the military history of the First World War has focussed far too much on the events of 1916 and 1917 – primarily, Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele. Sure, all three were epic battles with a profound social and military impact, but viewing them without looking at what became before and after is to only see half of the picture. The British Expeditionary Force landed in France in August 1914, and marched up to the Belgian frontier. In defence of Belgian neutrality, the BEF marched into Belgium itself to meet the German Army’s advance.

I have studied something of the retreat from Mons, during my research into the 1st Hampshires and their battle at Le Cateau. But given that I am hoping to write a book or two on the First World War, I was very pleased to see this land on my doormat. I have always been mystified by the portrayal of Mons as a defeat. True, I think it would be hard to paint Mons itself as a victory, but Smith-Dorrien‘s decision to stand at Le Cateau was a masterpiece. Much like Quatre Bras almost a hundred years before, success there gave the rest of the Army time to slip away orderly. And although it is never inspiring for an army to retreat, a General should not be afraid to do so if the strategic situation demands it. French and the BEF had little option but to fall in line with Joffre’s overal strategy, particularly with an unreliable Lanzerac on the BEF’s right flank. The Duke of Wellington retreated many times, but almost always in an orderly fashion, with a plan up his sleeve. True, French might not exactly have had a Waterloo planned, but the retreat forced the German Army to over extend itself and to falter on the Marne. I think history would probably hold out that this was a far wiser strategy than to stand at Mons and be destroyed.

I feel a special mention is in order for the fighting at Etreux on 27 August 1914, where the 2nd Bn Royal Munster Fusiliers were attacked by the Germans at 7am near Chapeau Rouge, before a fighting withdrawal throughout the day, before a dramatic last stand at the Orchard in Etreux. The Battalion was decimated, and four of those killed were from Portsmouth – Lieutenant Challoner Chute (19), Lance Corporal Edward Carroll (29, Milton), and the two brothers Corporal Charles Roberts (23) and Corporal George Roberts (21),  of Meyrick Road in Stamshaw. I am very grateful to Jerry Murland for adding to me knowledge of how these Portsmouth men died.

Murland has made a fantatic contribution to the history of the BEF on the Western Front. Impeccably researched, it is based on a wealth of primary and secondary material. In particular I was very impressed with the maps, which really helped to gain a feel for the battles of August 1914. He has dealt very well not only with giving a full and insightful narrative of the campaign, but has also shed light on often overlooked areas – the relations between French, Haig and Smith-Dorrien, and between French and Joffre and Lanzerac; the myth that the BEF’s marksmanship was so rapid that the Germans thought that every man was armed with a machine gun; and he has also given new prominence to the sterling work of the gunners and sappers during the retreat.

A retreat in contact with the enemy is perhaps the most challenging military maneouvre to pull off – if it works, you have barely survived; if it fails, you have a rout. Not only was it a success for the BEF get itself back to the Marne in the state that it did, but it is also very commendable that Murland has looked at every last little aspect of the campaign in such a forensic yet fulsome manner. As good as John Terraine’s book on Mons is, I found Jerry Murland’s much more insightful.

Retreat and Rearguard 1914 is published by Pen and Sword

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ANZAC #8 – Driver Andrew ‘Snowy’ Melville

We are now two-thirds of the way through our look at the 12 Australian Soldiers buried in Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth. We have heard stories of disease and illness, of battles and wounds, of far off lands in the Empire. All of these lads stories are touching, but so far I don’t think a story has quite grabbed me like that of Andrew Melville.

 

Andrew Melville was born in Ballarat in Victoria, the son of Andrew and Sophie Melville. Andrew Senior had died some years prior to the first world war, so it was in 1915 that Andrew junior, then just over 18 years old, had to gain the consent of his mother to allow him to apply to join the Australian Imperial Force. Melville initially applied for the prestigious Australian Light Horse, but this was quietly crossed out on his attestation papers, and replaced with the 24th Battalion of the Australian Infantry.

 

Upon attestation on 15 March 1915 Melville was 18 years old, and an un-apprenticed Butcher. His mother lived at Peel Street North in Ballarat, and his only previous service was via the cadets. He was relatively tall at 5 foot and 10 1/4 inches, and weighed 146lbs. His chest was 34 inches normal and 37 inches expanded, and he had a fair complexion, with blue eyes and fair hair. He was a member of the Church of England, and had four vaccination marks on his left arm, and moles on his right shoulder and the left side of his neck.

 

After joining the Army, Melville initially served at a Depot in Australia. On 10 May 1915, he embarked on the HMAT Euripides (A14) from Melbourne, bound for Egypt. Sadly Melville’s service records do not suggest precisely what he was up to between when he left Australia, and the beginning of 1916 – a gap of around 7 months. We do know, however, that the 24th Battalion was in action at Gallipoli, fighting in the Lone Pine sector from September until December 1916. After being evacuated from Gallipoli the Battalion was in Egypt, guarding the Suez Canal Zone. On 4 March 1916 Melville was taken ill with influenza – perhaps an early case of the later epidemic? – and was admitted to the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station at Ismailia. He must have recovered, as on 20 March 1916 he was with the 24th Battalion when they embarked from Alexandria, to join the BEF.

 

Landing at Marseilles on 27 March 1916, the Battalion spent much of 1916 fighting in the Battle of the Somme, in particular at Pozieres in late July and early August and at Mouquet Farm in August and September. On 13 September Melville was remustered as a Driver, suggesting that he had taken on a role with transport within the Battalion. On 5 Oct0ber 1916, however, he reported sick with a septic buttock, and was quickly admitted to a Dressing Station, then a Casualty Clearing Station. By the next day he was in the 3rd Canadian General Hospital in Boulogne. Two days later he was embarked on the Hospital Ship St Patrick, arriving in England the same day. Melville spent some time in the Shorncliffe Military Hospital in Kent, then at the 2nd Auxiliary Hospital, before being discharged to the ANZAC Depot in Weymouth on 4 November 1916. Whilst there he recuperated at a Depot in Wareham, near Poole.

 

Melville obviously required some recuperation and/or remedial training, for it was not until 24 January 1917 that he embarked again for France, on the Princess Clementine. The next day he arrived at the Australian Base Depot at Etaples, before finally rejoining his Battalion on 5 February 1917, after an absence of exactly four months. He was next ill on 22 March, when he was admitted to the 2nd Dressing Station and 2nd Australian Field Ambulance succesively with Trench Foot. He was discharged back to the Battalion on 2 April 1917.

 

Melville was only back with his Battalion for four days, however, as on 6 April he was admitted to the 45th Casualty Clearing Station, and then the 6th Australian Field Ambulance, with ‘Pyrexia of an unknown origin’. Two days later he was put onboard an ambulance train, and from there was admitted to the 10th General Hospital in Rouen. His records do not suggest whether his illness was resolved, but On 22 April he was well enough to be discharged to the 11th Convalescence Depot at Buchy. After several weeks there he was back at the Australian Base Depot at Etaples, before once again rejoining his Battalion on 13 May 1917, just in time to take part in the closing stages of the first battle of Bullecourt, part of Third Ypres. The Battalion later fought in the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October 1917.

 

Life was pretty uneventful for Snowy Melville, until 1 February 1918 when he was granted a rare two week leave pass to England. For whatever reason, he did not return as scheduled on 16 February, and was absent without leave until 18 February, for a total of two days. He was sentenced to 14 days of Field Punishment Number 2 (ie, shackled), and fined 16 days pay. His punishment over and done with, Melville was with the 24th when they were part of the desparate defence of the allied line during the Kaiser Offensive in the spring of 1918.

 

On 31 July 1918, Melville – by now no stranger to military medicine – again reported sick. He was admitted to the 6th Field Ambulance, and three days later to the 5th Casualty Clearing Station, where his condition was once again described as ‘Pyrexia of unknown origin‘ – obviously a recurrence, as the origin obviously not having been found since his last admission back in April 1917. By 5 August 1918 he was in the 16th US General Hospital in Le Treport, before being shipped to England on 11 August. He was admitted to the 5th Southern General Hospital in Portsmouth. His condition does not seem to have been too serious initially, but thirteen days after he arrived he suddenly began to experience acute abdominal pain. An abdominal section was performed, which revealed that his abdomen was full of fluid and food matter, but no perforation was found. He became worse, and Driver Andrew Melville died of what was later found to be a perforated gastric ulcer, at 10.15am on 28 August 1918.

 

Snowy Melville was buried in Milton Cemetery on 31 August 1918. The burial was officiated by the Reverend J.M. Young, with Mr. A.G.Stapleford being the undertaker. Melville’s friend, a Miss K. White of 90 St Marys Road in Portsmouth, attended. Melville was given a full military funeral, with a firing party, bugler, military pallbearers and his coffin as draped with the union jack. Wreaths were given by the nursing staff of the hospital, Miss K. White, Sister Smith of the Hospital, and comrades from B2 Ward. Large number of patients and sisters were in attendance, and the Last Post was sounded. It seems that Melville was extrermely well liked in the Hospital, by nurses, patients and visitors alike. A comrade and a visiting English lady reported that he never complained, and that the doctors and nurses tried very hard to save him, but to no avail. Reportedly all were saddened by his death.

 

Melville’s personal effects were sent back to his mother, and consisted of correspondence, 1 wallet, photos, 1 comb, 1 metal ring, 1 cigarette case, badges, 1 razor, 1 penknife, 1 safety pin, 1 disc, 1 nail file. Interesting, that most of the dead ANZAC’s possessions seem to have been very simple, personal comfort items. Melville is also the first to have had a cigarette case. Cigarettes overtook the pipe as a means of smoking during the war, given the ease of transporting and keeping cigarettes when compared to loose tobacco.

 

An interesting postscript emerged after the war regarding Melville.  Two bodies of unknown Australian soldiers were discovered near the Serre Road, around Pozieres where the 24th Battalion had fought in 1916. One of the bodies wore a watch, engraved with ’227′ – Melville’s Army number. All of the men around the unknown soldiers were of the 24th Battalion, in an area where the Battalion had fought on the Somme. As we know that Snow Melville was buried in Portsmouth, it seems that he had somehow parted with his watch, which was buried with a comrade and possible friend. The two unknown soldiers were never identified.

Snowy Melville was an incredible, very young man. We have to remember that he was barely eighteen when he first left home for the war, and fought for almost three years on the other side of the world. Evidently well liked, he had fought practically everywhere – Gallipoli, the Somme, Ypres, and the Kaiser Offensive of 1918. He had suffered from numerous illnesses, but showed a remarkable ability to keep bouncing back. Sadly, it seems that his luck simply run out, so close to the end of the war. Had he lived, Melville would surely have been something of a legend amongst his friends and family.

 

Snowy, we salute you.

 

 

 

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ANZAC #7 – Private Clarence Jones

HMAT Warilda

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Clarence Morgan Jones was born in Colebrook in Tasmania in 1892. The son of Charles James and Mary Ann Jones, after leaving school he worked as a Shepherd. Attesting in the Australian Forces in Colebrook, Clarence Jones was 23 on 15 September 1915. He hadn’t previously served with the armed forces. He was a well built young man, at 5 foot 9 inches tall and 13st 1lb, and a 38 inch chest, 40 inches expanded. He had a fair complexion, brown hair and dark eyes, was of a church of england persuasion, and had no distinguishing marks.

After enlisting, Jones was sent to A Company of the 12th Australian Infantry Battalion, as part of the 14th reinforcements for that unit. Jones actually stayed in Australia for a lot longer than most new recruits, and did not embark until 8 February 1916, on the HMAT Warilda out of Melbourne. The Warilda arrived at Suez on 8 March 1916, where Jones joined the 3rd Training Battalion. Not long after arriving in Egypt he was transferred to the 52nd Battalion, then at Serapeum.

Whilst undergoing training Jones was admitted to Hospital, on 23 May 1916 going to the 34th Casualty Clearing Station, From there he was admitted to the 1st Australian Stationary Hospital, suffering with Pleurisy. His service records do not indicate when he was discharged, but he must have recovered swiftly as on 21 June he embarked at Alexandria to join the BEF in Europe.

Disembarking at Marseilles on 30 June 1916, Jones was at the 5th Divison Training Base at Etaples until 22 July, when he was transferred to the 57th Bn, Australian Infantry. The Battalion fought at Frommeles, entering the line on 19 July without first aclcimatising on a quiet sector. On 27 November Jones was admitted to Hospital, apparently suffering with Trench Feet. On 29 November he was sent from the 38th Casualty Clearing Station, on no 2023 Ambulance Train, to the 2nd General Hospital at Le Havre. From there he was shipped to England, on the Hospital Ship Gloucester Castle on 3 December 1916.

After arriving in England Clarence Jones was admitted to the 5th Southern General Hospital, but his condition did not improve. By then he was suffering from gangrene in both feet and pneumonia. He died at 10.50am on 10 December 1916, and was buried in Milton Cemetery three days later. Sadly, his parents were only informed that he was seriously ill in a telegram on 12 December, after he had already died.

His effects were sent to his father, and consisted of the following:

Hair brush, razor in case, shaving brush, mirror, 2 knives, belt containing badges and buttons, spectacles in case, razor strop, testament, pipe, housewife, identity disc, 2 bullets, purse, comb, pocket book, letters.

In 1925 Jones’s father sent a touching letter to the Base Records Department of the Australian Army:

We received the photographs of our dear lad’s grave, Pte. CM Jones. For which we thank you so very much for them. We are so pleased to have them and they are so well cared for which we are so thankful to know. And we are pleased to have Mr Sanderson’s photo he has been so kind in writing to me so kindly and he seems to very interested in our loved ones graves.

But that’s not all. A letter from Mr and Mrs Jones to Base Records in 1923 suggests that they lost more than one son in the War. Whats more, it seems that it took quite some time for their memorial plaques to reach them, after problems with the post. By this time his parents were living at Green View, Lake Road, near Oatlands in Tasmania. At some point they also lived in Tower Marshes, Jericho, also in Tasmania.

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Battleground General Arnhem 1944 by Jon Sutherland and Diane Canwell

Wargaming is something that I have always fancied having a go at. In the main, it has been time and expense that has precluded me having a go. Similarly, I tend to steer clear of wargaming PC games, as I find it all too easy to spend all weekend playing them! Therefore I was very interested to see this book by Sutherland and Canwell which is, in essence, wargaming in a book. And obviously, with my personal interest in the Battle of Arnhem, I was doubly fascinated to have a go at wargaming Arnhem.

The concept is thus. You play in the role of either of the opposing commanders – in this case, either Major General Roy Urquhart or Waffen SS General Wilhelm Bittrich. After reading the opening entry, you are given a series of choices, which usually entail making a tactical decision. Each step entails going on to another decision if you decide on a particular course of action. In essence, it is kind of like a giant flow chart, but only listed in a book. As far as I can tell it is pretty accurate to history, militarily and in terms of the geography and the ‘feel’ of the battle. I’ve walked over the ground at Arnhem a couple of times, as well as reading every book about the battle more than once, so I guess I’m as much an expert about Arnhem as you can get. Of course, it is quite simplistic, compared to say a PC game or a school hall long board wargame, but that’s the beauty of it – you can sit on the train and play it with yourself, or maybe in conjunction with another fellow military history nerd.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, I won! Playing as Urquhart, I stayed at my HQ initially on the first day, but went ahead to switch the Recce Squadron and the rest of 1st Parachute Brigade to the southern route once I hit opposition on the way into the town. As a result the 2nd Battalion made the Bridge, and more of the Brigade than did in reality. Of course, I know that on the evening of the 17th Urquhart got himself trapped in Arnhem, so I prompltly pulled myself back to main HQ. The rest of the 1st Brigade were held up in the town, but on the second day I switched the 4th Brigade (Grandad included!) to the southern route, down through Oosterbeek. Along with the balance of the 1st Brigade, they made it to the Bridge. The 1st Airlanding Brigade remained on the drop zones, where the Poles later landed. With enough men on the northern end of the Bridge, I sat it out – too many Germans on the south, my probing recces found that the opposition there wasn’t worth wasting too many men on. However, once I heard that XXX Corps had taken Nijmegen Bridge and were advancing up the Island, I charged the south bank in an all or nothing coup de main – and took it!

Having read plenty of Arnhem books, I think that plan might well have worked – but of course, that takes a lot of hindsight. But then again, isn’t that what we do, as historians? Take account of hindsight where others could not at the time? When you consider how it must have been trying to make decisions back in September 1944 – when Urquhart et al knew none of this – you can see how success and failure were divided by such a thin line. A very sobering realisation indeed.

Battleground General Arnhem 1944 is published by Pen and Sword

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MOD reviews support for Army Museums

English: Infantry of the British Army recruiti...

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The Ministry of Defence has recently reviewed its support for Army Museums, as a result of the well-publicised ‘black hole’ in MOD funding. The proposals could save the MOD more than £0.5m a year, according to an article in this month’s Museums Association Journal.

At present many army museum staff posts come under the civil service. The MOD proposals are that 113 posts cease to be civil servants, and instead be funded by the museums. The review proposes to only fund one member of staff for each Museum from MOD funds, and this would lead to a reduction of another nine posts. Another proposal is to only support the Museums of disbanded Regiments for 25 years. This would lead to a fall in MOD funded museums from the current 69 to 36, based on current Army structures.

The issue of antecedent regimental museums is a very sensitive one. The politics involved in regimental mergers, disbandments etc since the end of the Second World War have been complicated enough to give even the most diplomatic civil servant a migraine. Just to give an example, the British Army currently consists of some 12 Infantry Regiments. In 1881 there were 74. With Cavalry, other Corps and Arms, the Ogilby Army Museums Trust currently lists 136 Army Museums in the UK. The MOD currently spends £4.3m on regimental museums, and £5.4m on the National Army Museum.

Take for example, the merger between the Royal Hampshire Regiment and the Queens Regiment in the early 1990′s. The Although that was over 20 years ago, there is still a Hampshire Regiment Museum in Winchester. There is also a Queens Regiment in Dover, which is also titled the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment Museum. Confused? You will be even more, when you find out that there are also Regimental Museums for the Sussex, Surrey and Royal West Kent Regiments. Whilst it is very admirable that Regimental families wish to keep going their history in their local area, some of these museums are so small, and badly in need of overhaul, in terms of approach and environment. One example of good practice I can recall is that of the Rifles. Formed a few years ago from the Royal Greenjackets, Light Infantry, the Devons and Dorsets and the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiments. Obviously, this meant a variety of Museums around the South West. The Greenjackets and Light Infantry Regiment Museums in Winchester promptly merged – conveniently they were next door to each other – and the Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment Museum in Salisbury now carries the title ‘Rifles’ in brackets.

To see how Army museums have evolved, we need to understand how the have developed throughout history. Most army museums grew up independently, along regimental lines. Regiments have always ‘looked after’ their own history and heritage, out of pride, and also to educate new recruits about their new families history. British Army Regiments have always been a fiercely tribal lot, and this translates into museums too. Whilst some have modernised very encouragingly, some are still stuck in the stone age.Museums have changed immeasurably in recent years – priorities have changed, the market is more commercialised, and more focus is needed on aspects such as learning. Technology has also changed, as has society itself. The options are to either stand still and receive few visitors, or evolve and stay relevant. And it can easily be understood how this is very difficult for museums dedicated to Regiments that have been disbanded for decades.

In some respects the state of Army museums is mirrored from the history of the Army itself – fragmented, tribal, and diverse. It is regrettable if cuts mean that some museums close, but perhaps it is an opportunity for rationalisation, and rationalisation does not necessarily have to mean moving backwards in all respects. In some respects cuts do force us to be more efficient than we might otherwise be in more plentiful times. I see it as an opportunity to improve standards – which, in my experience, are low where some regimental museums are concerned – and secure the future.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Under the Devils Eye is published by Pen and Sword

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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British Army programmes on BBC iplayer

I’ve stumbled upon a fantastic collection of programmes on the British Army on bbciplayer, some modern, and some archive. Apparently, unbeknown to me, BBC4 have launched an ‘Army Collection‘, many of which are available to view online. Only, I’m afraid to say, to those of you watching in the UK. But to those of us sitting up in bed suffering from a hideous case of man-flu, its a goldmine!

One series I know will be very popular is The Paras, a famous 1982 documentary. There is also a set of 30-minute regimental histories, covering amongst other the Grenadiers and Coldstreamers, the Paras and the Gurkhas. Some of it is a little basic, and as usual with anything Regimental in the British Army, everyone’s own Regiment is of course the best ever bar none. But when you watch the ‘In the Highest Tradition’ programmes, you realise that all Regiments have their own, equally barmy, traditions and claims to fame. I also realise I could never have made an officer – silver service is not my style, give me take-away any time.

The BBC have also made available a great set of programmes from the Silver Jubilee in 1977, including the Scots Guards Trooping the Colour on Horse Guards. My personal favourite is the Queen reviewing the 4th Division of the British Army of the Rhine on the Sennelager training area in Germany. It involved 578 tracked vehicles, over 3,000 troops, and 27 Regiments. Incredible stuff, and something we will probably never see the like of ever again – it would be unthinkable to bring together a division for just a review! 3 Regiments of Chieftan  Main Battle tanks, 1 Recce Regiment, and 4 armoured infantry Battalions in 432 AFV’s, as well as supporting arms, including Gazelle and Scout Helicopters. Abbott 105mm guns, M109 155mm guns, 175mm guns, Lance nuclear missiles, Engineer AFVs including bridge laying equipment, RAMC Field Ambulances, REME in Armoured Recovery Vehicles, Stalwarts, you name it.

Other treats include ‘how to make a Royal Marine officer’, the life of a Household Cavalry Corporal of Horse, the Pathfinder Platoon in training, training in the Royal Marines Mountain and Arctic Warfare Cadre, Panorama behind the scenes at Sandhurst, and the Army in Belize and Borneo.

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WW1 Dead research – some stats on the Army

A ration party of the Royal Irish Rifles in a ...

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I’ve been busy beavering away with my research into Portsmouth’s Great War Dead. It’s a mammoth task, and one that will probably never be completed in the true sense of the word. There are just so many names to contend with, and the sources are that much more fragmentary than for the Second World War. But having said that, I thought it might be interesting to share some statistics so far.

So far, I have established that 2,574 men were killed serving with British and Empire Forces between 1914 and 1921. That compares to 2,549 men and women from Portsmouth killed in ALL services between 1939 and 1945. Out of those 2,574, some 890 have eluded identification so far, with around 1,600 odd having been traced on the CWGC. The Army casualties are a lot more difficult to research. This is probably down to the fact that most sailors were serving pre-war, so there is a significant paper trail on their existence. Whereas most soldiers volunteered or were conscripted, hence there is minimal documentation compared to sailors.

The vast majority of those men were killed serving with the Infantry. Most fell fighting with the Hampshire Regiment – 747 to be exact. Out of those, 133 with the 1st Battalion, 148 with the 2nd Battalion, 150 with the 14th Battalion (1st Portsmouth), 154 with the 15th Battalion (2nd Portsmouth), and 46 with the 1/4th Battalion (Territorials). These massive losses led to the War Office spreading men around regiments far more in the Second World War to dilute the effect of heavy casualties.

It is interesting that out of 1,600 men I have managed to identify, almost half of them were serving with the local Regiment. This is a much higher proportion than in 1939-1945. Out of the other Infantry Regiments, the next highest membership was of the Rifle Brigade (28 men) and the Kings Royal Rifle Corps (32 men). Both Regiments had no geographical recruiting area, taking men from all over Britain, and of course had their depots nearby in Winchester. Small numbers of men served in virtually every Regiment of the British Army. This attests not only to the mobility of Portsmouth people, but also that Portsmouth was a Garrison town – Battalions were based here as part of the city defences, and some men may have put down roots here, in the same manner as Portsmouth based sailors tended to.

90 men were Royal Engineers, 100 Field Artillery, 86 Garrison Artillery, 36 Machine Gun Corps, 9 RE Signals, 9 Tank Corps, 19 Guardsmen, 19 in Irish Regiments, 36 serving with Commonwealth Forces (5 African, 8 Australia, 19 Canada, 3 India and 1 New Zealand), 18 Cavalrymen, and 35 Army Service Corps. The tiny number of Cavalrymen killed does suggest that they were not particularly active during what was primarily a siege warfare scenario.

89 men are known to have been Regular Soldiers. 4 ex-Regulars re-enlisted. 60 men were Territorials or reservists mobilised on the outbreak of war. 211 men, by contrast, Volunteered between August 1914 and February 1916. 47 volunteered in August 1914 alone, followed by 27 in September. Once conscription was introduced in 1916 103 men were called-up. 2 men had attested under the Lord Derby scheme. So almost as many Portsmouth men were alreading in the Army system as volunteered for King and Country.

887 men were killed in France, 415 in Belgium, 12 in Germany, 22 in Greece (Salonika), 19 in India, 81 in Iraq (Mesopotamia), 27 in Israel (Palestine), 11 in Italy, 77 in Turkey (Gallipoli). Although we know much about France and Belgium, and to a lesser extent Gallipoli, campaigns such as Mesopotamia, Palestine and Salonika still need more research for us to understand their impact locally.

22 men are known to have been younger than 18. The youngest man was 16 year-old Private H Rampton, who died in April 1916. The oldest man was 72-year old Quartermaster Sergeant R.F. Robertson, of the Royal Field Artillerywho died in March 1916.

In terms of ranks, the vast majority – 1,242 – were privates. Only 92 were officers, the majority being 2nd Lieutenants. As my WW2 research suggested, historically Portsmouth does not contribute many Army officers. Is this because it was not such a fashionable place for the officer class to live, or that there were not many men in Portsmouth with officer-type qualities who volunteer?

Most men were killed in the bloody battles on the Western Front in 1916 and 1917, but a large number fell in 1918, which is often overlooked by history. 87 men were killed in 1914, 214 in 1915, 441 in 1916, 495 in 1917 and 495 in 1918 up to the Armistice. 112 men died post-Armistice – many, I suspect, from Influenza.

256 men were killed on the Somme, 148 at Passchendaele, 6 at Loos, 165 during the German offensive in Spring 1918, 189 in the Allied Offensive in 1918, 21 at Cambrai, 59 at Arras, 32 at 2nd Ypres in 1915, and 21 at 1st Ypres in 1914. These numbers would appear to suggest that as many men died in the meatgrinder of day-to-day Trench Warfare as died in set-piece attacks.

Where casualties came from tells us a lot about how the population of Portsmouth was made up in 1914, and how it changed by 1939. 76 men came from Buckland, 55 from Copnor, 30 from Cosham, 11 from East Southsea, 39 from Eastney, 69 from Fratton, 41 from Kingston, 216 from Landport, 38 from Mile End, 41 from Milton, 94 from North End, 6 from Old Portsmouth, 74 from Portsea, 119 from ‘Portsmouth’, 333 from Southsea and 61 from Stamshaw. In 1914 the vast majority of people in Portsmouth were concentrated in the city centre and Southsea, with fewer people in outlying areas such as Milton, Copnor, Cosham and Eastney. Paulsgrove did not even exist as we know it, and Cosham covered the whole area of the mainland part of the city.

This is all very interesting, but there are still 890 men I need to identify, which is going to take more work than researching the other 1,600!

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Serious questions for Defence Secretary

Liam Fox, British Conservative politician.

Can he out-Fox this one? (Image via Wikipedia)

I’m sure you’ve all seen the furore regarding the Defence Secretary‘s murky relationship with his former flatmate/best man/adviser (delete as appropriate). Apart from the point of view of the ministerial code and integrity in public life, there are very serious concerns for those of us interested in British Defence issues.

The Defence Secretary is supposed to be advised by the Chief of Defence Staff, the service chiefs (First Sea Lord, Chief of the General Staff and Chief of the Air Staff), and the relevant other senior personnel and civilians in the armed forces and the MOD. The MOD has plenty of departments, dealing with things such as policy, plans, procurement, anything and everything. There can hardly be a lack of capability there.

If the Defence Secretary really feels the need to be ‘advised’ by anyone who is outside the MOD chain, there are a number of learned, credible institutions such as the RUSI, which possess a wealth of knowledge and experience around Defence and Security issues. People who have actually paid their dues, either serving or studying military history.

All of which should suggest that at face value, the Defence Secretary shouldn’t really be in need of a special adviser. OK, in reality most Cabinet ministers have staff who advise on spin – how stories are presented, the politics of the issue, etc. But Mr Werrity has been described as a ‘Defence lobbyist’. Funnily enough, when Liam Fox was Shadow Health Secretary, Werrity was a ‘Health lobbyist’. Interesting, no? And surely if a Cabinet Minister cannot do his job without a poorly qualified siamese twin, doesn’t that cast judgement on his ability full stop?

Interestingly, Adam Werrity is, at 33, only five years older than myself. He gained a 2:2 degree in public policy – whatever that is – from the University of Edinburgh. Apparently he also stayed rent-free at Fox’s London apartment between 2003 and 2005, all of which hardly makes for a professional relationship.

It all makes you wonder what ‘advice’ exactly is being sought and offered. I’ve never liked the thought of special advisors who are outside the foodchain – it is completely unaccountable and open to all kind of abuse. What kind of influences are being brought to bear on these middle-men, say from commercial interests? There is absolutely no oversight, no accountability, and no control. Nobody elected him, based on a manifesto, and nobody selected him after an interview process.

This isn’t, for me, a red vs. blue/yellow political issue – all politicians have questions to answer about ‘lobbyists’, and who influences them and their decision making. The Defence of the Realm is far too important to be left to the Defence Secretary’s mini-me. But, as a high-profile Defence blog put it so succinctly, once again the British armed forces have become a political football, and the servicemen and women of the country are hardly likely to be winners.

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Suvla – the August offensive by Stephen Chambers

One of the fundamental tenets of modern British military practice has been to never, ever reinforce defeat. In other words, to not keep on flogging a dead horse. The Gallipoli campaign is a sober example of this. Noble in its intentions, once the Anglo-French fleet failed to force the Dardanelles by sea (and they might have succeeded if only they had pressed on a bit further) ground forces were landed on the Gallipoli peninsula, in an attempt to dominate the straits from the land.

In an abject lesson for later amphibious operations, the British at Helles and the ANZAC‘s further north failed to gain sufficient lodgement areas to build up their forces. In addition, the front line was so close to the sea that the lines of communications were frequently under fire. This lack of a lodgement area prevented the Allied forces from building up enough momentum to push on and capture the rest of the Peninsula.

Rather than seriously evaluate the viability of the whole Campaign, General Sir Ian Hamilton chose to make another landing, in between ANZAC and Helles at Suvla Bay. Quite why he thought that another limited landing, lacking in expertise and resources, would work where two others had failed is beyond me, it does strike one as a lack of imagination. Things might not have been so bad, had Kitchener not sent out Sir Frederick Stopford to command the Corps at Suvla. Lacking in experience and elderly, Stopford was sent out for old-fashioned, Army seniority reasons. One of the Divisional Commanders was a Lieutenant-General, and Stopford was the only available General who was senior to him – sending out a junior would have been unthinkable to what was still a hierarchy conscious Army.

Predictably, the landings at Suvla  met with little success. They were hallmarked by a lack of urgency in the initial landings and poor leadership thereafter, but also some very brave service by the rank and file, and indeed the opposing Turkish soldiers. Incidentally, the Turks at Suvla were led by a certain Mustafa Kemal. Among the men who fought at Suvla were the 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, containing more than a few Portsmouth men. The whole peninsula was evacuated in late 1916, a costly failure indeed.

This book by Stephen Chambers serves as a very good history not only of the Suvla Campaign, but also the Gallipoli Campaign in general. It is by no means light on the bigger picture, in particular the issues surrounding Stopford. It also serves as a very good battlefield guide. Of course visiting Gallipoli is a bit more tricky than just nipping over on the ferry to Normandy or Flanders. It’s a long trek from the nearest airport, is in a pretty remote region with few facilities and poor transport, and apparently is home to plenty of wild dogs!

Naturally the amount of people going to Gallipoli is never going to be huge, but when I come to think of it, I’ve read plenty of battlefield guides for places I’ve never been anywhere near. For me, its actually quite an interesting way of being a battlefield tourist without the bother! In  that sense, I enjoyed it very much and it certainly added a lot to my understanding of the Gallipoli Campaign.

Suvla – the August offensive is published by Pen and Sword

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Thinking about Portsmouth’s WW1 Army Heroes

Join the brave throng that goes marching along...

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

I’ve started thinking about how I’m going to write up the stories of Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes. So far I have analysed something like 2,672 soldiers, and almost 300 sailors and Royal Marines, out of a total of more than 5,000 servicemen and 3 women.

There are so many names and stories, its really difficult having any idea knowing where to start. In an ideal world, I would write a full chapter on all of them. But with space constraints, I’m really interested in hearing what people would like to read about, or which stories you think are really important to ‘get out there’. Particularly with the 100th anniversary of the start of the war coming up in 2014.

  • The Portsmouth Pals – the 14th and 15th Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment, recruited solely from Portsmouth men who volunteered after the start of the war to join Kitcheners Army. Their story has never really been told before, but by my reckoning over 300 men were killed serving with both Battalions
  • Portsmouth’s Commonwealth Soldiers – how did young men from Portsmouth end up serving with the Imperial Armies? According to my research 43 men died serving with the Australian, African, New Zealand, Canadian and Indian Forces.
  • Lt-Col Dick Worrall – a Portsmouth man who had served in the ranks of the British Army, emigrated to America and joined the pre-war US Army, then once war was declared went to Canada and volunteered. He was quickly commissioned, and ended the war as a Lieutenant Colonel, and the holder of a DSO and Bar and MC and Bar – a remarkable story.
  • The Old Contemptibles. 156 men from Portsmouth were killed in 1914, before Britain had fully mobilised. Hence many of them were probably regular servicemen.
  • The Royal Flying Corps. Four young men from Portsmouth were killed serving with the Royal Flying Corps, at least two of them either in flying accidents or in action.
  • The Tank Corps. The First World War saw the advent of the tank as a major force in warfare. 10 Portsmouth men died serving with thee Tank Corps.
  • Brothers in Arms. Many families lost more than one son in the war – many lost two, some three, and one poor family lost four sons in action. I would like to take a look at this element of the human cost.
  • Gallipoli. At least 91 men from Portsmouth were killed in Gallipoli, a campaign beset by disaster which has perhaps not had as much attention through history as it should have.
  • Mesopotamia. 94 men from Portsmouth were killed in Iraq, many at the disastrous siege of Kut in 1916. Many more were captured, and suffered terribly in captivity. Again, I feel that its a campaign that has been much ignored in history, particularly given how the British Army has found itself fighting in Iraq at least three times since!
  • Oddities. I would like to be able to write about the interesting little stories that perhaps don’t fit in anywhere else, or don’t quite warrant a chapter on their own. Like the elderly Royal Engineer who was sent on grave registration duties after the armistice, and died after drowning in a Canal in Belgium.
  • Prisoners of War. We don’t ever hear much about WW1 Prisoners of War, yet at least 12 servicemen from Portsmouth died in Germany whilst being held as prisoners.

Any thoughts at all would be very welcome!

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Hougoumont and D’Erlon’s attack – the DVD by Battlefield History TV

Much to my regret I’ve never managed to visit the battlefield at Waterloo – the closest I have got was a realisation at Brussels main station that we didn’t have enough time to get to Waterloo, have a good look, and get back again in time for the Eurostar. But in lieu of a visit in the past 10 years, this DVD, and the others in the Waterloo series, are easily the next best thing.

I’m somebody who has devoured everything about the battle of Waterloo that I could lay my hands on – down to playing with little cut out squares of paper, each representing a unit, when I was but a wee lad. Not to mention being ever so slightly obsessed with Sharpe.But even I learnt something from this programme – in particular, the amount of depth given to the attack on Hougoumont was fascinating. I also enjoyed the little ‘diversions’ from the battle, to explain aspects such as the British heavy cavalry sabre, or the French Artillery system.

What I really like about this programme, is that you actually feel that you are there. You are given a very good feel for the lie of the land – what Montgomery would have called ‘smelling the battlefield’. That’s one thing that is very hard to put across without actually being there, so to convey that sense by DVD is a great achievement. The height of Hougoumont’s walls, the steepness and proximity of the French and Allied ridges, and the feel of the cropfields. There are some great graphics in this as well, perfectly illustrating the conduct of the battle, and some pretty interesting scenes of living history enthusiasts on the battlefield itself.

Using experienced battlefield guides at experts makes complete sense – the experience in showing visitors round the battlefield shows. In fact, the programme feels very much like a virtual battlefield tour, from the comfort of your own armchair. I enjoyed it immensely.

Hougoumont and D’Erlon’s attack can be purchased from Pen and Sword

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The Soviet Soldier of World War Two by Philippe Rio

This book is an absolute gem!

As somebody who was brought up on D-Day and Arnhem, my knowledge of the Eastern Front is pretty limited. Sure, I know about Stalingrad,  the Kursk, Berlin, that kind of thing. But to say I know very little about the Red Army is an understatement indeed.

In concept this book is very similar to the ‘handbook’ series produced by Sutton, but bigger, shinier, and more detailed. My first thought was, how the hell did they get hold of all this militaria and ephemera? If it’s somebody’s personal collection, it must have taken them years – and a decent bank balance – to acquire. Some of the photographs in particular have never been seen before.

Im also glad to say its not just a nerdy look at trinkets. If there is one thing that you can say about the Red Army, it is that it was very much a child of its contexts. And those contexts are very important – Lenin and the 1917 Revolution, the Civil War, Stalin and the Great Purges, and the Spanish Civil War. The fact that Russian -and indeed Soviety – history, culture and society are so different from what we know in the west make it all the more important for us to come to terms with peculiarities such as the commisar and womens service.

It’s jammed full of statistics – hardware, manpower and units – and also gives good coverage to the different arms of service – infantry, cavalry, ski troops, parachutists, armour, and services such as the signals, medics, engineers, NKVD and partisans. But it is in medals, orders, badges and insignia where things get really crazy. For what was supposed to be a classless society, the USSR had an unbelievable amount of decorations, rank distinctions and identifying marks! The possibilities for different arm of service colours on headwear, sleeves and shoulder boards are mind boggling!

The amount of different headgear and uniforms is also interesting – in particular my personal favourite, the Ushanka. Of course, the Red Army also developed much specialist equipment and clothing for cold weather fighting, such as warm footwear and greatcoats. Personal Equipment and small arms are also covered, and the book finishes with a number of portrait studies and interpretations of Red Army figures. An Infanty Kapitan in Brest-Litovsk in 1941, for example, or a Serzhant of the Guards Infantry in Poland in July 1944.

I should imagine anyone wanting to re-enact the Red Army would find this absolutely invaluable.

The Soviet Soldier of World War Two is published by Histoire et Collections

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Tracing your Tank Ancestors by Janice Tait and David Fletcher

Some books land on your doormat and you think ‘thank you!’. The Tracing your.. Ancestors series books are most definitely among them, and particularly anything of a military persuasion! This book is published in conjunction with, naturally enough, the Tank Museum in Bovington. The authors are Janice Tait and David Fletcher, resident Librarian and Historian at the Tank Museum respectively.

As we might expect, this book is very strong on the history of Tanks in the British Army.Right from the Corps beginning during the Second World War, its difficult experiences in the inter-war period and the mechanisation of the old Cavalry Regiments, the crucial armoured battles in the Second World War, the era of national service, and then the modern world of the Cold War and the British Army of the Rhine. The history is flawless, as is the coverage of technical issues, tank names and industrial aspects. It is also very good at covering those quirky little historical points that are unique to the British Army – namely the manner in which men consider themselves members of their Regiment rather than the Army as a whole, and the politics of mergers and inter-Corps rivalries.

Each chapter is structured chronologically, looking at the Tank history of a particular era. Then at the end the reader is given pointers towards where to research, be it institutions, documents, websites or books. Even though I consider myself an experience military historian, I learnt a few things here. Perhaps the family history aspect is slightly light compared to the general history, but then again, I’m not sure that there is much more than could be added. I would maybe have liked to have read more about what is held in the Tank Museum’s collections, perhaps some comprehensive listings rather than ‘here are some examples…’

One issue where I feel it does let down the reader, is when the authors allow themselves to become, dare I say it, slightly snobby about family history. Yes, for us experts, we can get frustrated at ‘amateurs’ getting things wrong. But it is their family history, more than it is ours. We shouldn’t expect every person to know the difference between the Tank Corps and the ROYAL Tank Corps. Or fussing over whether someone was actually a ‘Desert Rat’. Such points are not really that important to the reader, I feel. Thats exactly why we ask the experts.

But I applaud Pen and Sword for collaborating with the Tank Museum. It makes sense, in terms of accessing unparalleled expertise, and also gaining access to an unrivaled collection of photographs. This book will be of interest to all military historians, not just in terms of family history – I can imagine it coming in handy when researching any tank-servicemen. It’s going to stay on my bookshelf thats for sure.

Tracing your Tank Ancestors is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Family History, Uncategorized, western front, World War One, World War Two