Category Archives: social history

Bomb Sight – mapping the blitz in London

This fantastic website was launched yesterday. It maps every bomb – high explosive, incendiary, parachute – that landed on Greater London during the Blitz, from 7 October 1940 until 6 June 1941. Produced by the University of Portsmouth (my alma mater), the National Archives and JISC, it’s a great example of geography and history working together.

Researchers used the WW2 Bomb Census in the National Archives, and painstakingly plotted the site of every bomb onto a map of London. From this we can see obviously the hardest hit areas. Whilst an overall look at the map shows an overall spread, when you zoom in closer, the Docklands – in particular the area around the Royal Victoria and Royal Albert Docks – were hard hit. Whilst the Luftwaffe were bombing London in general to attempt to subdue the civilian populations morale, and for this indiscriminate bombing across the whole city would suffice – bombing the important docks also seems to have been a priority. There are two reasons for these dual approaches – firstly, they probably lacked the accuracy to actually pinpoint small targets inland, however the docks were relatively easy to find as all the bombers had to do was fly up the Thames Estuary.

I’ve always been fascinated with the use of geographical plotting to give context to historical events. Data that sits in a chart or a spreadsheet comes alive when interpreted onto a map. I’m very interested in the thought of using similar techniques to plot war dead from Portsmouth. It could really help us to understand not just the impact of losses in Portsmouth’s communities, but also the nature of Portsmouth Society in general – for example, blue dots for sailors and red dots for soldiers.

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Filed under social history, World War Two

The Home Front during the Great War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under portsmouth heroes, social history, Uncategorized, World War One

The officer class of Southsea

Researching Portsmouth’s Great War dead has thrown up some pretty interesting findings. It’s always occured to me, that for a naval and military town, Portsmouth never really seemed to contribute that many officers, to either service – particulary when you consider Pompey’s size and heritage. As I’m nearing the end of compiling my WW1 database, I’m starting to get a pretty good idea of where in Portsmouth the various officers and other ranks came from. And it’s a pretty intersting – albeit predictable – conclusion.

The vast majority of officers from Portsmouth came from Southsea. A leafy, fashionable nineteenth century seaside resort, Southsea had been started by Thomas Croxton earlier in the 1800’s, before being susbstantially developed by Thomas Ellis Owen in the mid-century. Owen built many well-adjusted villas, and shaped Southsea with sweeping, curving terraces, crescents and groves. Unsurprisingly, Southsea become home to wealthy professionals, and a not insignificant number of the officer class. Remember, aside from a premier naval town, Portsmouth was also the most heavily fortified place in Europe in the mid 19th Century, and home to a sizeable military garrison.

70 Officers from Southsea were killed between 1914 and 1921 – 10.5% of all of its 663 war dead. That’s significantly more than the usual officer-other rank ratio in either service. I should stress as well that my research into Southsea’s war dead is ongoing – in all probability, both numbers will be higher.

  • Twenty two were  2nd Lieutenants in the Army. Notably, only 5 were in Hampshire Regiment suggesting that officers did not necessarily join units with regional loyalties in mind. Occupation wise, we know that one was a Solicitor and another a Surveyor. One was the son of a knight of the realm, another was the son of a vicar, and a sizeable number were 0ld boys of either the Southern Grammar School of Portsmouth Grammar School.
  • Eighteen were Lieutenants in the Army. One man held the Distinguished Conduct Medal, suggesting that he had been commissioned from the ranks. Again, several were old boys of the Southern Grammar.
  • Ten men were killed serving as Captains with the Army. Only 1 Hampshire Regiment, and intriguingly, three were sons of Lieutenant Colonels – suggesting that military families did inhabit Southsea.
  • And on a more senior level, two Majors and two Lietenant Colonels came from Southsea.

It would be interesting to know how many of these were pre-war regulars, and how many were hostilities only officers. Also, how many of them were promoted from the ranks? The other thing that we need to bear in mind, is that the 1914-18 definition of Southsea included what we now know of as Somers Town, a predominantly working class area. If we were to limit our research to the area that we now know as Southsea, the officer-men ration would be much higher.

Interestingly, there were actually fewer naval officers than army officers from Southsea:

  •  Four men were administrative officers – one Clerk, and three Paymasters.
  • Four men were serving as Commanders, including three Engineer Commanders.
  • One man was serving as an Engineer Lieutenant Commander
  • Of the three men serving as naval Lieutenants, two of them were Engineers

It’s striking that out of the 12 naval officers, half of them were Engineers. Now, I’m sure that Engineering Officers did not consitute 50% of the Royal Navy’s officer establishment, so does it seem that Southsea was home to something of a naval engineering set, possibly? As a fashionable officer town, but also home to numerous professionals and intelligentsia, did this make Southsea an attractive home for Engineers?

With the Royal Marine Barracks at Eastney nearby, it is probably not surprising that several Royal Marines Officers were killed from Southsea. Two were Lieutenants, and the other was a Brevet Lieutenant Colonel  of the RM Light Infantry, who was killed commanding a naval Battalion of the RN Division on the Somme in December 1916. Southsea was probably a more palatable home for an RM officer than the more working class streets in Eastney.

By Comparison, only ONE man out of 450 who were killed from Landport was serving as an officer, an Army Captain. This represents a microscopic 0.2% out of the areas total war dead. It is not hard to escape the conclusion that Landport – an infamous, poor, working class neighbourhood, was exremely unlikely to produce naval or military officers, when compared with the well-off, educated folk of Southsea. It’s surprising the difference that a mile in geography can make, and I can’t think of many places where the difference is more pronounced between fashionable officers resorts on the one hand, and sailors slums on the other.

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Filed under Local History, portsmouth heroes, social history, Uncategorized

Birmingham Pals by Terry Carter

In the past year or so there has been a real increase in the number of military history books looking at the First World War. And refreshingly, many of them are focused on the experiences of the average guy caught up in conflict. Among them is Pen and Sword‘s series of books on the Pals Battalions.

In 1914 the British Army was relatively small – virtually an Imperial police force, and a continental role was never really envisioned until only a few years before the war began. As a result, the Army had to expand massively in order to field a sizeable expeditionary force in Flanders. The solution of the Secretart of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, was to recruit masses of volunteers into a ‘New Army‘, or ‘Kitchener Battalions’. Many of these were centred on large urban areas, including Birmingham.

Birmingham eventually raised three Kitchener Battalions – the 14th, 15th and 16th Battalions of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, Birnimgham’s local country Regiment. Of course, if we try to divorce units from their social history, and indeed their communities in general, they make much less sense in history. As raw recruits, the Battalions spent much time in England training before embarking for France. Like most of the Kitchener Battalions, the Birmingham Pals first action was on the Somme. The fate of the Pals Battalions on the Somme has really struck a chord in British military history, probably due to the grievous losses combined with the fact that it was the first time that Britain had truly fielded a citizen army.

But this isn’t just a narrative, ‘1914 to 1918 what happened’. Terry Carter grounds his work with a chapter on the social and economic context of Birmingham’s history, and the events of August 1914 which saw mass volunteering amid a wave of euphoria. It is impeccably well researched, and generously illustrated. It contains a roll of honour of all members of the three Battalions who fell, and a list of gallantry medals – a real bonus for anyone wishing to look up their ancestors. Overall it is very well handled, and at no point does the text stray into the oft-heard stereotypes about the Pals, and instead wisely focuses on sources and events.

I found this a very interesting read indeed. Not only will it interest Brummies, but also those of us from further afield who are interested in this kind of research, with the 100th anniversary looming in 2014. Terry Carter has definitely put down a marker here, and I hope I can do half as good a job when it comes to paying tribute to Portsmouth’s own pals.

Birmingham Pals is published by Pen and Sword

 

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

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

Tattoos – a quick social history

I went with someone to go and get a tattoo done the other day. And no, before you ask, it wasn’t on me! I actually found the process quite interesting, much nicer than having a blood test or an injection, no doubt because the environment is much nicer…

Anyway, while there I got talking to the tattooist. Much like taxi drivers and barmen, they see all sorts and hear all sorts. And we got onto the subject of how tattoos are perceived by society. We came to the conclusion that although tattoos have gone a lot more mainstream nowadays – thanks to people like David Beckham, Robbie Williams et al – there is still a stigma attached to them. People still assume that if you have a tattoo, then you must be either a criminal, a sailor, a biker or a prostitute.

Maybe it’s because I come from Portsmouth – the home of the Royal Navy – or that I’ve got a lot of friends into heavy metal, but I’ve never understood the fuss about tattoos. Someone once described it to me thus… some people go out and buy a painting and hang it on the wall. Some people, however, like to wear the ‘painting’ on them. It’s a form of expression, albeit a very commited and lasting one. And gone are the days when the black ink turned manky and green – you can see some really impressive tattoos now, it really is an artform.

It’s not surprising that Royal Navy sailors picked up the art of tattoing. It has been going on in some parts of the world for thousands of years, in particular some of the Pacific Islands. And on their travels, sailors picked up these kind of customs and made them their own. How else do we think that curry was eaten in Portsmouth, well before Indian restaurants? I would argue that in actual fact, tattoos have been part of the mainstream in Portsmouth society for hundreds of years. Many young men in Portsmouth would have had tattoos, in fact it was probably the norm, especially for sailors. And what Portsmouth’s families don’t have a sailor or two down the line somewhere? Ironically my great-grandfather, Thomas Daly, had more tattoos than any of his descendants, to my knowledge. According to his service record he sported a cross on his right forearm and dots on his left. George Cross winner Reg Ellingworth had tattoos on both arms. Colour Sergeant Frederick Bird of the Royal Marines had two dots on his left forearm. Chief Yeoman of Signals George Pankhurst had an interesting tattoo on his right arm – a bird on a branch. Apparently there were complex conventions about what tattoos represented what in the Navy – often where a person had served or what they had done.

A few years ago the Royal Naval Museum held an exhibition on the naval history of tattoos. Sadly I did not get to see it, but I’m sure it must have been pretty interesting. I’ve read plenty of stories about how young sailors would get taken to a tattooist by their ‘sea-daddy’ whilst on a run ashore, not having any choice in the matter. No less a person than King George V was tattooed in this manner – although these were never seen in public, the Steven Poliakoff drama the Lost Prince alludes to them.

So in conclusion, I think the stigma about tattoos is completely unwarranted. They have been a part of life on earth for thousands of years. Having a tattoo does not make anyone less of a person. If anything, I think that judging someone for something so trivial is, subconciously, a way of putting yourself on a pedestal by putting them down. Very sad, and very 19th Century.

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Filed under Local History, Navy, social history, Uncategorized

SAS Trooper by Charlie Radford, edited by Francis Mackay

I really enjoyed this book, and probably for different reasons than intended. And probably for what some people consider to be the least glamorous parts of this story!

Charlie Radford grew up in Devon. Joining the Royal Engineers just prior to the start of the Second World War as a boy Sapper. We follow Charlie to North Africa, where he was in action with an RE Field Company in Algeria and Tunisia – one of the least known campaigns of the war. Volunteering for Special Forces, Charlie then joined the SAS. The SAS had been formed only a few years before in North Africa, and Charlie Radford joined just in time to take part in operations behind enemy lines in German occupied France, immediately after D-Day. After returning from France, his unit were then sent to Italy, to link up with Partisans in Northern Italy.

The SAS in 1944 was still in its infancy, and although the modern Regiment traces its lineage back to this time, the early pioneers were still very much finding their way by trial and error. Trained to parachute into action, the SAS had much success operating in North West Europe behind German lines, with heavily armed and mobile Jeeps. It was a tactic that had worked in the Desert. By contrast, when Radford and his comrades parachuted into Northern Italy, they seem to have struggled for equipment and supplies, and were dependant on local partisans – a slightly precarious position, one feels.

After leaving the SAS, Charlie had to serve out his service with the Royal Engineers, his parent unit. He didn’t do this quietly, for he was sent to East Africa as an NCO in an Engineer Squadron, working with African natives, in particular the Askari tribe, in Kenya, Tanazania and Somalia. These were interesting times, and Radford’s recollections of life in 1940’s British Africa are fascinating. In fact, to consider this just another  Special Forces memoir is to do it a diservice.

The stories of SAS raids are exciting, and I suspect why the publishers felt Radford’s memoirs deserved to make it into print. But for me, it is the human elements that make this story so interesting. The memories of a young man from Devon joining the Army and going through basic training, life onboard troopships, liaisons with women during wartime, Army food, and things like that. For example, Charlie felt that Winston Churchill lost the General Election in 1945, as his generation were more educated and more independently minded than their forefathers in 1918, and did not want to be controlled or talked down to any more. Interesting stuff for the social historian. In particular I was rivetted by his experiences in East Africa, certainly not a part of the world that many young men from England would have known much about in the 1940’s.

But all throughout, Radford sounds like a very normal, down to earth young man – something that is very endearing to the reader, and very important in keeping our sense of perspective that these men were young men, the same as we are today. The more of these kinds of memoirs that make into print the better – we will be very glad of it in years to come.

SAS Trooper is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Book of the Week, social history, special forces, Uncategorized, World War Two