Category Archives: social history

Christmas in the Trenches by Alan Wakefield

 

One of the most eponymous – and in some ways, most tragic – images of the First World War is that of the Christmas Truce in 1914. A real-life event, the Christmas Truce has taken on an almost mythical status, to the extent where it was even featured in mournful conversation during the classic last episode of Blackadder Goes Forth. The term ‘home by christmas’ also entered popular consciousness during the Great War.

The 1914 Christmas Truce really did happen. It began in an unplanned manner, with Tommy and Fritz initially not firing upon each other, and then exchanging compliments across no-mans-land, then advancing to meet each other and pass the time of day. Men swapped gifts, and in places even played football matches. There is something very warming and innocent about the Christmas Truce, in the early days of the war when men had hoped that the war would be over in time for them to be home by Christmas Day.

The British authorities were horrified by the truce. Heaven forbid that men might realise that their enemies were human just like them – it might make it harder to fight and kill them. In future years the Generals issued stern edicts forbidding fraternisation, to the point of threatening court martials, even to the point of treason. Despite this in 1915 there were attempts to renew the Christmas Truce, ironically enough by units of the Guards Division. This incident caused a minor scandal.

But where this book is important is the broader emphasis, looking at Christmas during wartime, and not just in 1914 on the Western Front. There are some fascinating stories about how men made the most of Christmas during wartime, even in the front-line trenches. There is something pretty stirring about how British troops always seemed to be able to find themselves a Turkey for Christmas Day. Loved ones at home were also able to send parcels and comforts, thanks to the British Forces enviable postal system. The King and commanders also made a habit of issuing seasonal christmas messages to their troops, and Wakefield has quoted from many of them.

And not only were British troops serving on the Western Front in France and Belgium. During the First World War British and Commonwealth troops spent Christmas in Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Salonika, Italy, East and West Africa, Palestine and after the Armistice also in Germany with the occupation forces and in North Russia. The men spending Christmas in far-flung parts of the globe in particular must have felt far from home and their loved ones.

Excellent use is made of photographs in the Imperial War Museum‘s collections, of christmas cards sent home from the front, and also of soldiers diaries and personal accounts. Perhaps one area where the author could have expanded on is that of Christmases spent at sea by sailors of the Royal Navy – there must be plenty of photographs and accounts in sailors diaries, and the senior service definitely has more than its fair share of christmas traditions. Apart from that, this book is a very useful social history of the First World War, but with lessons that resonate far beyond that conflict.

Christmas has traditionally been a time when people take stock of the year just gone, the year to come and where they are in life. Christmas is also a time to think of those less fortunate than us, such as the British troops serving in Afghanistan over Christmas. Christmas also has to be a time when we pause to think that British troops have been serving over christmas for hundreds of years, and – sadly – probably will continue to do so for years to come.

Christmas in the Trenches is published by The History Press

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

The poor: deserving or not?

This post on the BBC website got me thinking. The latest recession has re-polarised talk about class in British Society. In particular, emphasis has fallen upon one particular section of society: ‘the poor’. The semantics are important – the proletariat, the plebians, the working class, and so on are all names for the lower rung on the ladder of society. Most of them constructed and imposed from above. But do the poor deserve to be poor? Do the deserve help? Are the rich undeservedly rich? I spent three years at Uni looking at ideas of class, and what were are hearing now is all too familiar.

I don’t think it would be remiss of me to state that of the population at large, the poorest have the most to lose in any recession. Their jobs are always the first to go. People who generally make ends meet without any luxury will suffer the most from losing their jobs – mortgages unpaid, food and fuel bills struggling to be met, etc. The working class are also the kind of people who have the most to lose when services are cut – such as state education, healthcare and social services – because in most cases they lack the resources to go private. Middle and upper classes, however, can well afford to pay for private education, private healthcare, etc etc. And why should they care if other people cannot look after themselves? Now, more than any time since the Second World War, our senior Ministers are made up of people who know nothing of how the majority of the population life from day to day.

Most of these services, provided by the state, are still relatively modern. State education for all only developed in the very late Nineteenth Century, while the modern welfare state was born out of the Beveridge report during Second World War. So, state help for those in society who are struggling is a relatively modern theory. And I cannot help but think that there are plenty of people – namely those who are doing very well for themselves – who would be quite happy to take things back to the Nineteenth Century way of doing things, the ‘fuck you I’m alright Jack’ approach. For hundreds of years the upper classes held the view that the poor being poor was their own fault. I’ve never read a satisfactory explanation as to why this should have been – after all, until perhaps the Twentieth Century the opportunities for poor people to advance themselves were virtually nil, class barriers being all but impermeable. One of the most important ways that poorer people can get on life is via a University Education. Until soon, when the ConDem‘s policies will restore Higher Education to being a privilege of the few.

Talking about class, is class as a term still relevant in modern society? I think so, its just slightly different to our old ‘working-middle-upper’ constructions. You could almost argue that there is a ‘non-working’ class, of people who, for whatever reason, do not work. Either they are long-term unemployed, disabled, or haver simply made a life choice to not bother. In my experience, working people tend to have more disdain for non-working people than anyone else. Why should they have the same standard of living as me, they might wonder, if I work and pay taxes, and they don’t work and receive everything for free?

This brings up the theme of ‘work’. Work does seem to be the gold standard for whether somebody is deserving of help from the state. I find it hard to argue with the idea that somebody who loses their job through no fault of their own deserves help. Also, people who have worked, but become ill or for whatever reason cannot work. Or people who cannot work at all, through no fault of their own. But I cannot help but feel that all the time working people are being squeezed for taxes and facing the threat of redundancy, it is not quite right for people who have no intention of contributing anything to society to take out of society. The problem is, those looking on the lower classes from above tend to lump everyone in this bracket. But does the working class exist now as it did 60 or so years ago? I feel not, as work itself is such a different term, what used to be the working class is now so much more fracturous.

Norman Tebbitt famously said that the unemployed should ‘get on their bikes and find a job’. Expect to hear more patronising headlines like that in the next few months. Whilst there are plenty of people out there who are content to sit on their arse at home doing nothing and getting paid for it, many thousands of people are going to find themselves out of work, looking hard for work, but finding nothing. Telling them to ‘get on their bikes’ when there arent any jobs to pedal after in the first place shows how out of touch some politicians are. The phrases might be different, but the mindset is the same.

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Filed under debate, News, politics, social history

The student protest: a historical perspective

I’ve found it quite amusing watching and reading some of the historyonics regarding Wednesdays student protests in London. Witness the howls in the blue-rinse broadsheets, and one newspaper even launching a name-and-shame the students campaign. At the risk of marking myself out as Brother Daly, or Red Jim, these are my thoughts.

Lets get this in perspective. Out of 50,000 students, about a hundred kicked off. And even then, I doubt many of them were actually students, more like rent-a-mob. Look at the film of the incident at Tory Party HQ – more photographers than protesters and police put together. Funny that, isn’t it? An angry mob always makes for good pictures and definitely sells papers.

A few windows got kicked in, the reception got trashed. We’re talking tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage – nothing to somebody like Lord Ashcroft. The damage being wreaked to this country – higher education, education in general, the nhs, the armed forces, welfare – goes way way beyond any sum of money. We’re talking about society, and peoples lives here. The problem is, the Tory party love to claim the moral high ground when it comes to angry mobs of erks rampaging. But if they weren’t hell-bent on wrecking British society from every direction, there would be nothing to protest about in the first place.

The problem is, nowadays protest-inspired damage is pretty alien to us. Yet hundreds of years ago – particularly in class-fraught periods such as the Nineteenth Centuryworking class people would routinely protest if they felt wronged. In the early Nineteenth Century the Luddites protested against the introduction of machinery by smashing it up. By and large, protests were against the wage labour system, and the class control system in particular. Property has always been one of the most visible symbols of class – think in terms of the haves and the have nots – so damaging property has always been a primal way of normal people making their feelings obvious.

Its funny also how the establishment is more concerned about damage to property than to people. This is almost a medieval, victorian attitude – one peasant can murder another peasant and nobody cares, but if a peasant steals a loaf of bread from a rich persons kitchen, then there’s hell to pay. So as well as working class people feeling a need to protest by damaging the property of the middle and upper classes, those classes in turn are ultra-sensitive about their class-symbolism being challenged. The fear of ‘the mob’ after the French revolution was electrifying.

So essentially, what we have seen this week is a return to early Nineteenth Century society – an embattled working class, and a middle class attempting to exert its control. Its all very well complaining about people protesting and getting angry, but think about WHY they are protesting, and WHY they are angry. If you try and shaft people, limit their options in life, restrict their social mobility and condemm them to a life of debt, you shouldn’t be surprised if they’re not too happy about it.

Forget taking us back to the 1980′s, this Government is taking us back to the 1800′s. ‘Tory scum’ is an ancient cry in British class struggle; right back to the Duke of Wellington and the Corn Laws. And as much as I admire the Iron Duke as the greatest British field commander in history, do we really want to go back to that archaic age?

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Filed under crime, debate, education, News, politics, social history, Uncategorized

A Bloody Picnic: Tommy’s Humour 1914-18 by Alan Weeks

Alan Weeks is a very good social historian of the First World War on the Western Front. Having already reviewed his look at the Wipers Times, I have been looking forward a great to getting my hands on this book. First off, its a pleasure to read a book that isn’t big enough to sink the Bismarck! Given the book’s topic thats quite appropriate – wouldn’t it be ironic to read a book about Tommy hunour that was so big and wieldy that it could sink the Bismarck!

There are some fantastic stories here. Weeks has looked at virtually every aspect of humour at war, including general cheerfulness, comedy, officer-men relations, attitudes to commanders, pantomimes, humorous incidents, sex, weather, lice, rats, letters, songs, drinking, animals and the live-and-let-live system. This wide range of subjects gives us an indication of just how prevalent humour could be throughout life. It’s not difficult to imagine that humour actually made bearable what was quite a grim life. Humour could not win the war on its own, nor could it take away from the grievous casualties. But would the western front have been tougher without some light moments? Almost certainly.

There has always been something about the British Tommy that finds dry humour in even the most miserable of circumstances. And given the British military’s propensity for finding itself in miserable circumstances, this is no doubt a very useful trait. Its something that filters through to British society in general – dry British wit, as evinced by the archetypal Butler, has even been referenced in the Simpsons, of all places. I’ve read of examples of ‘Tommy humour’ during the Napoleonic Wars, which is appropriate given that the name ‘Tommy Atkins’ originates from this time.

This is a very important addition to the historiography of the western front – Alan Weeks must have spent years compiling these anecdotes. I won’t even begin to cover them all, but heres a few tasty morsels for you all:

Two of Private Webb’s comrades were killed by a grenade. An officer enquired as to what had happened… Private Webb was a good cricketer. ‘Blimey, whats happened sir’, he responded cheerfully, ‘is one over, two bowled’. Then he glanced down at the mess where he once had a leg. ‘And I’m stumped sir’.

One Sunday morning, Corps Command instructed Thorp to aim at four targets in quick succession. He chose Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The 6/Connaught Rangers were carefully coached before the arrival of a General to inspect them… they were particularly instructed on what their precise function in the Battalion was. The General asked one Ranger, ‘are you a Catholic?’, to which the man replied, ‘no sir, I’m a Rifleman’.

In front of the MO, one sapper was asked ‘have you been circumcised?’, to which he replied, ‘Oh no sir, thats just fair wear and tear’.

‘French girls are nice to sleep with, but not as good as you my wife. I miss you very much’.

A Bloody Picnic is published by The History Press

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Filed under Army, social history, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

Turn Back Time – The High Street

The historic marketplace, with the Market Cross

Shepton Mallett, the setting for The High Street (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve just watched this fascinating programme on BBC iplayer. Beginning with the 1870′s, each episode takes a look at the culture of the British High Street through the ages. Set in Shepton Mallet, four shops have been transformed into historic themed shops. I’m a big fan of hese ‘history brought to life’ programmes, even if some people sniff about them not being realistic or being cheap.

Of course we all know pretty well that the old British High Street has taken something of a hammering since the advent of the supermarket and out of town shopping. This isn’t necessarily all bad, but it is impossible not to think that shopping in an old school High Street might have been a lot more pleasant than battling your way through the endless supermarket aisles. And not only in terms of shopping, but in terms of community, the High Street was important to life. Its a fascinating glimpse into ways of life that have all but disappeared – how female members of the family would never work in the front of house, how most shopkeepers would routinely deliver items at no extra charge (beating online shopping by a clear century), and how Victorian Butchers would display their wares on the outside of their shops – something that Environmental Health curtails nowadays.  

It was interesting to see how the various traders fared. The Grocers learnt to be flexible, to adapt to what they did or did not have in stock, and to deliver. The Baker struggled to begin with, but fared better after compromising quality for economy – clearly the Victorian consumer was not bothered overly if their bread was fluffy or white enough, but just wanted something to eat at a decent price. The Butcher struggled with modern sensibilities about what exactly goes into sausages, and in trying to sell every part of a pig. Even though we still eat most of the body of an animal nowadays, we have a naive ‘out of sight out of mind’ attitude – people were really not used to seeing a carcass being Butchered in front of them. And the Ironmonger struggled to sell to customers, but spent most of his time servicing the other shopkeepers.

Lets take a quick look at Portsmouth High Street. The main thoroughfare in the town, it was an extremely fashionable place, and was described by conteporaries during the nineteenth century as ‘ranking among the finest streets in London’. You could purchase telescopes, barometers, books, miniatures, clothes, and also the usual fare such as food and drink. Everyone would have known each other, and the shopkeepers all moved in the same circles, and lived above their shops. Charpentier’s 1840 guide to the High Street even included a full length panorama of the street, showing each shop and house. On market day in particular you could have walked the length of the street and picked up everything that you needed, and also nearby you had a host of pubs, inns, hotels, coffee shops, banks, the Parish Church and of course the Town Hall and Market House in the middle of the street. Its not difficult to see how communities are more disjointed without this kind of hub.

I’m not sure if it was really necessary to have the annoying bloke from masterchef as the presenter, but thankfully he doesn’t rear his shiny head or open his mouth too often.

Future episodes will focus on the Edwardian, Wartime Britain, the 50′s, 60′s and 70′s; and its that change through time that I’ll be interested to see. The BBC is also running a ‘Hands on History’ campaign tied in with the programme, encouraging viewers to find out more about their High Street. That’s the beauty of a programme like this – it could apply to any High Street in any town in the country.

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Filed under On TV, social history, Uncategorized

A Long Long War by Ken Wharton

I’ve always had an interest in ‘the troubles‘, as the war in Northern Ireland has euphemistically been called. I’ve already reviewed Ken Wharton‘s book ‘Bloody Belfast‘ which I enjoyed immensely, so I’m very interested to be able to read his first book on the war in the province, which has just been reprinted by Helion in paperback. The title really is ‘ronseal’ – Northern Ireland was the longest continuous operation fought by the British Army, and virtually every British soldier from 1969 to 1998 would have experience of the province.

Historiographically, at present it isn’t quite the ‘done thing’ to try to write about Northern Ireland ‘as it was’ – the peace process and the Good Friday agreement have meant that a certain political correctness has prevailed. Between Paisley and McGuinness shaking hands, the British soldier has vanished. Just as political prisoners were freed, much of the history has been ignored, whether it be the role that certain republicans played, and also the experiences of the British Squaddie on the streets and in the countryside. I suppose its the adage that ‘one mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter’, and at the moment, one cannot help but feel that the IRA are seen as freedom fighters by many. Many of the stories in this book are extremely callous – the murder of female soldiers, indsicriminate bombings, using schools and children as cover, the cold-blooded murder of unarmed soldiers who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the massace at Enniskillen in 1987.

I think its absolutely critical to really understand as much as we can the experiences of the British Squaddie on the ground in Belfast, Londonderry, Crossmaglen and elsewhere. Not only in terms of the lessons in counter-insurgency, of which there are many, but also in terms of what they, as men, went through. Its incredibly harrowing to read some of the traumatic stories of shootings and bombings. To be honest its hard to know where to begin recounting stories, but suffice to say I was incredibly moved reading some of the incidents that took place. And these are only case studies. Its all the more poignant when you know of relatives who served in Northern Ireland too. But amongst all the moving tales, there also some typical tommy-humour anecdotes too. Time and time again, the British soldier somehow manages to make light of even the most dire situation.

On a more strategic and tactical level, this book shows just how professional the British Army and its soldiers became at counter-insurgency and fighting amongst the civil population. This was a very different war to most others. There was never going to be any kind of surrender, or victory parade. The Army were there to support the civil power in bringing about peace, and not to defeat the nationalists. The Army in Ulster could in all likelihood have gone all out to destroy the IRA, but that would only have polarised the situation and recruited more terrorists for the cause. The Army therefore found itself in an all-but impossible position of having to be on the streets, but only being allowed to fire if fired upon or under threat. A testing ordeal indeed for any soldier. Fighting among the people was also a different experience – soldiers interaction with society, good and bad and with both protestant and catholic, was crucial. Verfy often the squaddie cuts to the chase where officers, historians or politicians would be prone to waffle, and I cannot help but agree with the one soldier who felt that Ian Paisley recruited more young catholics for the IRA than anyone else.

One thing I have always wondered, is to what extent the IRA – and this might apply to other paramilitary groups also – drew its membership from politically-motivated men, or rather from a thuggish element who would have turned to crime in any case. Some of the stories shared by soldiers here suggest that political motivation may not have been as strong as we might first think. Here the importance of civil and military co-operation is clear – if living conditions, employment etc are sorted out, people are less likely to turn to terrorism, as with most types of crime.

If I have to single out some stories, it is those of the members of the Ulster Defence Regiment that really have my admiration. Mostly territorial, the members of the UDR had normal day jobs, and served in the evenings and weekends. Living in the communities that they were serving, they were extremely vulnerable to terrorists 24/7, any many of them – including a number of female members – paid the price.

Regular readers of my blog will know that I believe very much in balance in history. For too long the history of Northern Ireland has been completely out of balance. Ken Wharton has done some crucial work in redressing the balance, and I’m sure these eyewitness history accounts will be useful for historians for years to come. Not just for the major incidents, but also for the recollections about barracks, equipment, food and morale. The photographs, many of them personal images taken by soldiers on the ground, are fascinating too. The men in this book, and those that they represent, deserve the utmost credit for the job that they did. The troubles might have deeply scarred Northern Ireland, but they must also have scarred many thousands of British soldiers and their families.

A Long Long War is published by Helion

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, social history, Uncategorized

The blitz re-examined

Burned-out buildings in Hamburg - picture poss...

Burned-out buildings in Hamburg (Image via Wikipedia)

As its recently passed the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz, there has been plenty in the news recently about people’s memories of the start of the bombing.

We hear about victors justice – about how the victors in any war are able to pronounce on rights and wrongs, and to dispense justice accordingly. It could be argued too that victors also have a near monopoly on the judgement of history. The outcome of any long process is bound to frame people’s perceptions when looking back. This can increase over time, especially when concerning something so emotive as a war, and even more so with a war where so much was at stake.

We hear plenty about ‘Blitz spirit’, in a similar fashion to ‘Dunkirk spirit‘. And indeed there is a certain stoicism in the British psyche. Look at Wellington’s thin red line at Waterloo, or the South Wales Borderers at Rorke’s Drift. Gandalf’s ‘you shall not pass’ could have been inspired by British military history. And, indeed, the British people did show a remarkable fortitude in some very testing circumstances in 1940 and 1941, when the Bombing was at its height. But one cannot help but feel that over the years the Blitz has been built up into part of the national spirit, out of all proportion to the actual historical events that took place 70 years ago. Britain is by no means the only country to build an event up out of all recognition (ie, the Alamo). But I feel that by embellising something as remarkable as the Blitz, you are taking away from what was already quite some story in its own right. The average person with a passing interest in the social history of wartime Britain is more than likely to buy into the myths than the reality, which is a pity.

I’m also baffled as to why the Blitz is remembered almost solely as a London event. Other parts of the country were hit too. London did receive a large number of raids and a high tonnage of bombs, but as the country’s capital and an important port in its own right, it was always going to be a target. But in 1940 it was still a huge city, and the attacks were concentrated largely in the centre. London was the home of the Government, and the high commands of the armed forces. Yet although it was an important port and a centre of large population, its importance was more symbolic than anything else. Whereas if we look at other cities, the danger was more stark – Coventry with its motor works and Sheffield and her steel works, for example.

The example of Portsmouth during the Blitz is useful to consider. Geographically a very small island city, being on the coast it was much easier for the Luftwaffe to locate and target. Population density was also very high, which no doubt reflected in casualty rates. A Bomb dropped over Portsmouth was almost certainly more likely to cause heavy casualties, as it had more chance of hitting a built up area than in a more spread-out city. Of course the Naval Dockyard was a prime target, and large housing areas such as Portsea, Buckland and Landport were virtually next door to the Dockyard’s walls. If the Luftwaffe had been targetting the Dockyard they were seriously at risk. According to Andrew Whitmarsh’s ‘Portsmouth At War’, however, the Knickebein radar beams intersected over Southsea Common, which would suggest, with the low level of accuracy that the Luftwaffe was capable of early in the war, that they were content to area bomb the city with a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs.

John Stedman’s Portsmouth Paper ‘Destruction and Reconstruction’ charts Portsmouth’s experience during the bombing of the war years, and in particular its effect on the people and the fabric of the city. Between July 1940 (the first raid) and July 1944 (the last V1rocket) 1,320 high explosive bombs, 38 parachute mines and 38,000 incendiaries were dropped on Portsmouth. Two V1′s also fell on Pompey. 930 civilians were killed, 1,216 were injured enough to be admitted to hospital, and 1,621 were injured less seriously. 6,625 properties were destroyed, and 80,000 damaged. This in a city of 200,000 people and 70,000 properties. Therefore some properties must have been damaged more than once. The damage was therefore more against property than person, although morale seems to have held up reasonably well. The most destructive individual raid came on 10 January 1941, when 300 planes dropped 25,000 incendiaries.  172 people were killed, and 430 injured.

No doubt these experiences were harrowing for the people of Portsmouth – in particular in a close-knit city. Yet to put these into perspective, when the Allied Air Forces began bombing Germany in earnest later in the war, Bomber Harris launched a number of 1,000 bomber raids. And Allied four-engine bombers, much larger than any planes the Luftwaffe had, could drop a much higher payload. With developments in navigation, and the use of pathfinders, raids generally hit the cities they were targetting. Lets take the example of Duisburg, Portsmouth’s twin city in Germany. The Duisburgers suffered 229 bombing raids. The first serious raid came on 12 May when 577 RAF bombers dropped 1,559 tons of bombs. The old town was destoyed and 96,000 people were made homeless. The during Operation Hurricane in 19 October 1944 967 bombers dropped 3,574 tons of high explosive and 820 tons of incendiaries. Then in a raid later the same night a further 4,040 tons of HE were dropped, and 500 tons of incendiaries. Although there are no statistics for Duisburg Casualties, it is estimated that up to 80% of the city was destroyed.

And it wasn’t just Duisburg. The Battle of Berlin between November 1943 and March 1944 killed 4,000 Berliners, injured 10,000 and made 450,000 homeless. The operation Gomorrah raids on Hamburg in July 1943 used successive waves of over 700 heavy Bombers, dropping over 9,000 tons of Bombs. In the huge firestorm an estimated 50,000 people were killed. And the most infamous raid on Germany, that on Dresden in February 1945, saw 1,300 bombers drop 3,900 tons. The casualty rate is disputed, but it is estimated that somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000 people perished.

The most infamous raid on Britain hit Coventry on 14 November 1940. 515 German Bombers dropped 500 tons of high explosive, and 36,000 incendiary bombs. Around 600 people were killed, and more than 1,000 injured. 4,000 homes were destroyed, and three quarters of the city’s industry. As harrowing as Coventry must have been for those who were caught up in it, the later raids on Hamburg, the Ruhr, Berlin and Dresden took on a whole new level of destruction and intensity. That is by no way to belittle the suffering of those who experience the blitz – much as hearing that someone else has lost two legs does not make you losing only one better, the knowledge that others had it worse was probably not as much comfort as hindsight would have us believe.

But in the modern day, when we have the benefit of numerous studies, statistics, and case studies looking at the various raids and cities, the popular media really should know better than to promulgate the myth of the blitz. Especially when the real picture is still pretty inspiring in its own right. While the good old-east end version of the Blitz would have us believe that everyone stood in the street defiantly shaking their fists at the Luftwaffe, the more realistic version of civilians calmly and quietly seeing the nights out in shelters and trying to go about their business is, to me, distinctly more British than the ‘knees up mother brown’ and jellied eels school of history.

Morale did not crack under sustained bombing, either in Britain or in Germany. Considering the onslaught that the Germans received, its incredible how their civilians kept on living. But then again, living under a brutal dictatorship might have had something to do with it. But for me, the key is, do German’s nowadays have their own version of the ‘blitz spirit’? I’ve never heard of it. And thats in a lot of studying of the Second World War, the bombing campaign, plenty of visits to Germany, including talking to elderly Germans who must have lived through it. The German experience of the Second World War means that their ordeal under bombing has been quietly left alone, whereas our eventual victory has shaped our history of the Blitz.

Is it an ironic coincidence that the 70th anniversary of the start of the blitz came during the same week that Peggy Mitchell left Eastenders?

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Filed under Bombing, Royal Air Force, social history, Uncategorized, World War Two

Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45 by Stephen Bourne

Its hard to overstate just how important this book is in terms of the social history of wartime Britain. Personally, I have always been quite unhappy with what I call the ‘windrush assumption’ – that the first ever black people to live in Britain arrived in the 1950′s, no-one in Britain had ever seen a black person before, and that everyone was most unpleasant to them. One national museum even staged a major exhibition that subscribed to – and no doubt helped propagate – this myth.

Stephen Bourne, however, has shattered some misconceptions here. Black people WERE part of British society long before 1939. Black people DID play a part on the Home Front, and DID even serve in the armed forces. And it is very important that their contribution to the war effort is understood and recognised. Black people faced exactly the same risks as their white compatriots, and contributed to the war effort in much the same way – serving as ARP wardens, Firemen, Foresters, factory workers, and in many other roles.

Many different countries became part of the British Empire; the Empire on which the sun never set. Many different ethnic groups came under the imperial banner – African and Carribean among them. Inevitably, black people came to view Britain as the ‘mother country’ (something that goes against the grain of apologist imperial history), and many came to settle in Britain from the Nineteenth Century onwards. In some parts of Britain there were sizeable black communities – the east end of London and Bristol, for example.

Another interesting contribution of black people in wartime was in the field of entertainment. Performers such as Adelaide Hall and Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson played an important part in keeping up morale, both at home and overseas with the armed forces. Johnson was killed during the war when a bomb struck the theatre in which he and his band were performing. Not only were they contributing to morale, but they were also facing exactly the same risks as their white colleagues. The BBC also produced radio programmes aimed at black people in Britain, and also in the West Indies and Africa.

Sadly, it does seem that discrimination against black people reached a height when the US Army came to Britain after 1941. US servicemen came from what was still a deeply segregated society, particulary in the deep south. The US authorities imposed the same restrictions whilst on British soil (historians have described the situation as ‘when Jim Crow met John Bull‘) which not only upset many British white people, but also had knock-on effects for British black citizens too. There were cases in my area of white GI’s attacking Black servicemen, and then being confronted by locals who were sympathetic to the Black GI’s.

Stephen Bourne has made a fine contribution to the historiography of the Home Front. Hopefully this book will shatter some myths and bring about a new understanding not only of wartime Britain, but also broader black history too.

Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45 is published by The History Press

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Filed under Empire History, social history, Uncategorized, World War Two

The Great Western Railway in the First World War by Sandra Gittins

The problem with Railway History, is that any mention of ‘railways’ or ‘trains’ always has people jumping to conclusion, frequently of the anorak-wearing type. But railways are just as much about social history as they are about technology, as Sandra Gittins has shown. And this social history really came to the fore in 1914.

I found this book a real eye-opener in more ways than one. I hadn’t realised just what an impact railways had had on the war, but also what an impact the war had on the railways. An iconic image in British military history is the eponymous train pulling away from the station loaded with waving troops. More humbling is the spectre of trains pulling back into the same station carrying scores of wounded men.

If the First World War was the first truly industrialised war, then the Railways seem to have been a real force multiplier. The combustion engine had not been developed quite enough to be as significant as it would later become. The German state had built – in a typically German fashion – a complex system of railways that would speed their armies to the western front to enact the Schlieffen Plan, and then across Germany to fight the Russians in the east. The French and British took much longer to perfect their rail networks nearer the front, and the immediate importance of the Great Western Railway was in ferrying troops around country – principally to the embarkation ports for France, and also to the training camps on Salisbury Plain.

Other aspects of the GWR’s war I was quite unaware of. It comes as something of a surprise to read that the GWR’s engineering works were making munitions and artillery pieces for the Army. The GWR was also crucial in transporting coal from the Welsh mining areas to coastal ports, from where it could be taken to fuel the Royal Navy, which was still overwhelmingly coal powered. The company’s ferries were also pressed into service. There were so many train services running on Government service, and so little rolling stock left, that passenger services were seriously curtailed.

As the western front stagnated into static warfare, so infrastructure grew up to service the men and materiel flowing towards the trenches. An important component of this was the rail network. Initially the GWR sent a number of engines and rolling stock, and then built more specificially for the Government for service abroad. Some of these were of completely new designs, to transport aircraft and tanks. Eventually, GWR men were sent to France to both operate the existing rail networks, and to build new ones.

As with most large companies (in 1914 GWR employed in the region of 80,000 people), many employeed joined the forces. Some of these were on an individual basis, but the GWR also contributed men and officers to several Royal Engineers Railway Companies, and also some volunteer infantry units. This was very much in keeping with the ‘Pals’ ethos; that men who worked together and joined up together would be allowed to fight together. The absence of young men to work the railways led to the employment of women in many roles, and also not a few retired GWR employees.

Sandra Gittins has also included a very impressively researched Roll of Honour, in which most names have been discovered in the CWGC database. I’m working on a similar project at the moment, and its very inspiring to see that someone has gone into such depth. There are also some gallant tales, such as the sergeant and the private who managed to take prisoner 250 Germans between them, form them into a column and march them back to the British lines.

Overall, we are left with a couple of impressions. Firstly, that Railways were such a huge part of life in early twentieth century Britain, and for a large and prominent company such as the GWR, this must have been even more so. Also, we are given a sense of community – not only did companies form the heartbeat of the community, but also that these communities suffered so much from the human cost of war.

The Great Western Railway in the First World War is published by The History Press

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Shedding light on Second Word War Servicemen

I’ve been spending years now researching Servicemen from the Second World War, whether it be my own family members, or the names from Portsmouth’s proposed War memorial. Sadly, its not as easy as it could be. And what makes it even sadder, is that its usually much easier to research a person who died than it is to find out about someone who survived.

For a start, if somebody died during the Second World War, their name will be on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s online roll of honour. Chances are they will appear on other memorials, and possibly in regimental rolls of honour or official histories. And if somebody died in action, there is a stronger possibility that they were awarded a medal. And if somebody died, there is a fair chance that there will be a picture of them in the local newspaper, along with perhaps a death notice and messages from friends and family, and possibly also a ‘thanks for sympathy’ message later. These often give you somebody’s address, and names of family members, and other details such as how they died. But its a case of trawling through newspapers, often on microfilm, around certain dates.

The problem is, even if you know when and where somebody was killed, you have no firm way of knowing what else else happened to them, unless somebody else has already researched them. If you’re not a next-of-kin then you cannot access service records, which give by far the most details. Service Records are made available to the next-of-kin under strict data protection rules, assuming that the person may still be alive. At some point in the future one imagines that these will become available to the public, but when that will be, who knows… for the forseable future we will have to do without them.

For the most part, Army war diaries, naval ships logs or air force operations books only record the general outline of what was happening with a unit and rarely mention names, particularly of men. For example, a parachute Battalion at Arnhem contained just over 500 men – which is a lot of blokes. And without knowing which Company a man served in, its difficult to pinpoint his movements very specifically.

Of course, if you’re researching somebody who fought in a well-known battle, then you will have a lot more to go on – when it came to researching my Grandad at Arnhem, it was a case of working out which of the books weren’t worth reading, as enough books have been written about Arnhem to clear Sherwood Forest. But if your man fought in a line infantry regiment, say in Normandy in July 1944, or Holland in the winter of 1944, you might not find as much printed material.

If a sailor served prior to 1928 – and many of the older, more experienced sailors from Portsmouth had done – then this is the genealogy equivalent of striking oil. Their service records are available from the National Archives online. With a list of ships and dates, you can get a perspective on a man’s career in the Navy. And of course, there are other nuggets of information, such as courses, assesments, and so on.

There is one way of finding out more about officers – the Navy, Army and Air Force lists. These list Each of the commissioned officers in each particular service, and what rank they held, where they were stationed, and a small amount of other information, such as if they had attended staff college. By trawling through each years volume, you can build up a picture of how an officers career progressed. This is particularly useful for pre-war Regular officers, but less so for the large number of officers who served only during wartime.

Another aspect that many people neglect is a serviceman’s background – when and where was he born? What kind of family did he come from? What about the people that he left behind? What job did he do before joining up? Where did he live? Very often these little details help you to build a picture of a man who otherwise would be just a name. To do this, is pretty much a case of working your way through street directories and electoral registers to find addresses, and register office indexes and certificates to pin down births, marriages and deaths.

A major gap in resources is the lack of any census after 1911 being available to the public. Freedom of Information challenges have all but shown the irrelevance of the 100 year rule when it comes to releasing censuses, and having information about who was living where – including younger people – would be an absolute godsend for historians. In particular, the so-called 1939 ‘war census’ – an emergency count of people in Britain just before the outbreak of war – would be invaluable.

Isn’t it ironically sad that its much easier to research people who were killed than it is to research people who survived?

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Filed under Army, debate, Family History, Navy, Royal Air Force, social history, World War Two

40 years since the end of the Rum Ration

Its 40 years ago today that the Royal Navy ended the tradition of serving sailors a daily Rum ration. The age-old practice was a firm part of Naval heritage and tradition, and its abolition was viewed with dismay by many sailors. Yet it was argued at the time that serving sailors with free alcohol on a daily basis had no place in a modern, computerised and missile based navy.

The tradition of giving spirits to sailors originated in the 18th Century. Originally neat rum was served, until Admiral Vernon ordered that the strong spirit be cut with water to make it slightly weaker – hence the term ‘Grog’, from Vernon’s Grogram boat cloak. British Army soldiers were also served alcohol – Gin or Rum – at around the same time.

Various reasons have been advanced for the Rum ration. It helped keep sailors anaesthetised, against both the hard life at sea, and also the stresses of battle. Alcohol Spirits were also much easier to store, as water would putrify in the hold of a ship, whereas the alcohol in rum would preserve it. Originally beer was used, but as the size of the British Empire expanded, and ships spent longer and longer at sea, the sheer volume of Beer caused problems, and so spirits were used instead. Rum – brewed from molasses – came to the Navy’s attention during Seventeenth Century Wars in the Carribean.

There are also many cases of Rum being used in a medicinal way – survivors of sinkings were given rum or brandy after being fished out of icey waters, for example. In other cases, I have read of men who had swallowed oily water being given spirits to make them vomit. Rum was the only anaesthetic given to sailors before having limbs amputated. Soldiers and Sailors were even given rum before and after a flogging.

Yet we also need to remember, that the Rum ration was born – and existed – in a time when people drank far more than we do nowadays, despite what is said about binge drinking in the media. Looking back, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that people could handle their drink much better in years gone by, and that perhaps modern lager and alcopops are more to blame than alcohol in general.

There was also a strong social aspect to the Rum ration. The practise of every crew member over 20 stopping work once a day to drink together was no doubt good for espirit-du-corps. Terms such as ‘splice the mainbrace’ became a part of naval folklore. After Admiral Nelson was killed at Trafalgar, his body was preserved in a cask of various alcoholic spirits, leading to the term ‘Nelsons blood’. The rum ration and its elaborate ceremony must have been greeted with amazement by foreign visitors to Royal Navy ships, particularly those from ‘dry’ navies.

The legacy of the Rum ration lives on, however. A read of David Yates’ Bomb Alley onboard HMS Antrim leaves the reader in no doubt that a culture of drinking existed in the Royal Navy well beyond 1970. And not always when the sailors were off-duty, either. I guess its not surprising that groups of young men pitched in together will enjoy a drink or ten, and in many ways it cannot be bad for teambuilding.

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The crew of HMS Victory at Trafalgar




Victory Crew

Originally uploaded by dalyhistory2010

Recently I mentioned the nationality of seamen in the Royal Navy at Trafalgar. Well, at the Dockyard today I snapped this information board about the crew of HMS Victory herself. Its a bit small, so heres the vital statistics again:

515 English, 88 Irish, 67 Scottish, 50 Welsh, 1 African, 1 Brazilian, 2 Danish, 4 French, 2 Indian, 6 Maltese, 1 Portuguese, 2 Swiss, 22 American, 2 Canadian, 7 Dutch, 2 German, 1 Jamaican, 2 Norwegian, 4 Swedish, 4 West Indian, 48 Unknown.

So out of a crew of 820, 720 came from the British Isles, and over 12% came from many other parts of the world. The 100 foreigners would have had all manner of reasons for joining the Royal Navy – many of them not by choice. But its clear that the Navy and maybe even contemporary society were a lot more diverse than is often thought.

Britannia did indeed rule the waves, but only with the help of some friends!

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Portsmouth’s WW2 Dead: the Army (part 3)

Officers

73 Portsmouth men died while serving as officers during the Second World War:

4 – Lieutenant-Colonel (5.48%)
12 – Major (16.44%)
31 – Captain (42.47%)
21 – Lieutenant (28.77%)
5 – 2nd Lieutenant (6.58%)

Overall, 10.83% of the Portsmouth soldiers who were killed in the Second World War were Officers.

A couple of points are interesting here. Notice also how relatively few Portsmouth officers were of a senior rank. Unlike the Navy, it seems that Army officers did not settle in Portsmouth, and also that joining the Army was not seen as a career path for young men who might choose to become officers. And out of the four Lieutenant-Colonels who came from Portsmouth, two were serving with Indian or Hong Kong based units, where commissions were not so popular.

Its intriguing how over 42% of Portsmouth officers who died were Captains. An average infantry Battalion would have had much less Captains than Lieutenants – routinely a Lieutenant would command a platoon, whereas a Captain might be the second-in-command of Company. So even though statistically there were fewer Captains than Lieutenants in the Army, is it that more Portsmouth men happened to be Captains, or that Captains were more at risk of becoming casualties?

Other Ranks

601 men from Portsmouth died serving as other ranks in the Army between 1939 and 1947:

3 – Warrant Officer I (0.5%)
5 – Warrant Officer II (0.83%)
11 – Staff Sergeant (1.83%)
51 – Sergeant (8.49%)
90 – Corporal (14.98%)
48 – Lance Corporal (7.98%)
393 – Private (65.39%)

(ranks also include their equiavalents, ie Private includes Gunners, Sappers etc.)

89.73% of Portsmouth soldiers in the Second World War were serving in the ranks – overwhelmingly more than the equivalent figure in the Royal Navy. It is also noticeable how few soldiers were of senior rank – only 1.3% were Warrant Officers, for example. Many more Portsmouth seamen rose to higher rank in their service. Would, perhaps, there be more senior NCO’s in a town such as Aldershot, where long-serving soldiers were bound to live?

That such a high proportion of soldiers who were killed were serving as Privates is interesting. Certainly, it seems that the majority of Portsmouth soldiers called up to the Army during the war were young men, recruited to add to the numbers of the vastly expanding Army. The pre-war regulars, on the other hand, formed a cadre for promotion to NCO rank.

Did a soldier’s rank affect the likelihood of him becoming a casualty? Unlike in the Navy, where if a ship was sunk all ranks were at equal risk, different ranks had different duties and positions on the battlefield. Inevitably Privates were more likely to be at the sharp end. But conversely, officers and NCO’s often became casualties when they went foward to try and drive attacks on. They were also conspicuous targets for snipers.

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, social history, Uncategorized, World War Two

Don’t Panic: Britain Prepares for Invasion, 1940 by Mark Rowe

Writing about the summer of 1940 in British History is, in many ways, attempting to write about something that did not, in the event, happen. It is hard for us, 70 years later, to fathom what it must have felt like to live under the threat of invasion. But this new book by Mark Rowe suggests that some of our ancestors might have been just as ambivelent at the time.

This is a very well researched book, based on primary and published sources, including some very useful personal diaries. Rowe also uses some great illustrations, many from publications such as Home Guard handbooks, and many of which are previously unpublished. It’s written from a clear perspective, without letting hindsight get in the way – Dunkirk spirit, the blitz, spitfires and ‘all that… Evidence does suggest that there WERE parts of the population who would have collaborated, and there WERE parts of the population who would have panicked in the event of invasion. False alarms such as the ‘Battle of Bewdley’ suggest that quaint views of British calm might be inaccurate.

With a clever use of case studies, the author makes some very pertinent points. Although the Home Guard attracts a fair degree of nostalgia value, in the summer of 1940 ‘Dads Army’ was ill-equipped, untrained, disorganised and ridden with a multitude of problems. The examples of local worthys assuming command simply based on being, say, the master of the local foxhunt, would be hilarious if they were not so shocking. Could a country resist invasion when class consciousness was so inhibiting?

There were also puzzling issues for many in those uncertain days. Should civil authorities, such as local councils, remain in place if occupied by the enemy, or evacuate to elsewhere? Should the Police force be armed? To what extent should the Police co-operate with the enemy in the event of occupation? Should civilians flee or stay put? As none of these dilemmas were ever put to the test it is hard to be certain. But what is certain, is that we should not allow hindsight and floklore to cloud or judgement.

Another point well made is how Churchill insisted on meddling on military affairs – his attempts to take charge of the local defences of Whitehall are a fine example of the interference, completely outside the chain of command, that bedevilled so many of his commanders. Many of whom were facing the prospect of fighting an invasion with an army bereft of much of its equipment, having to fend off numerous notes from the Prime Minister.

I found this a fun book to read. Which, to be fair, is unusual with history books. Think about it, why just because a book is about the past, does it have to be dry? As this book shows, plenty of amusing anecdotes take place even in the most tumultuous of times, so why not portray this in how they are written about?

What-if’s are a very dangerous territory to stray into where history is concerned. But reading this book, it is only natural to ponder how Britain would have fared had the German Army crossed the channel. And not just the Army, but also the Home Guard, the politicians, the civil authorities, and the population and society as a whole.

Don’t Panic: Britain Prepares for Invasion, 1940 is published by The History Press

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The untold Battle of Trafalgar

I watched this documentary on Channel 4 on Monday night.

It portrays the crew of the Royal Navy ship of the line HMS Bellerophon and her crew at the Battle of Trafalgar. While I would like to believe that the story told in the programme is ‘untold’, sadly I think that previous research has already made the same points. I’m not sure how the programme makers can claim that it is based on the same research, when a full register of seamen who served at Trafalgar has been available since at least 2005 on the National Archives website here.

It has long been known that the Royal Navy was an ‘equal opportunities’ employer, long before the term was even dreamt up. And a quick glance at the database on the National Archives website shows that a fair proportion of Trafalgar sailors were not English. Many seem to have come from Ireland. Aside from England and Scotland, men onboard the Bellerophon on 21 October 1805 came from… Portugal, West Indies, Ireland, Prussia, Holland, America, France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Malta, Canada and India.

I haven’t got my copy of Peter Goodwin’s Nelson’s Victory: 101 Questions and Answers immediately to hand, but I recall that one of the 101 questions was about the composition of the crew. As far as I can remember, a large proportion of the crew was non-British – possibly a larger proportion than the Bellerophon – and was possibly more diverse too.

Perhaps we need to give bygone times more credit for their lack of prejudice? This common wisdom that back in the dark ages everyone was prejudiced against each other, and now we’re striving to some kind of equality utopia, is pretty blinkered. Its just a shame that it takes a documentary based on reycled research that is freely available to anyone and everyone!

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