Category Archives: western front

VC’s of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 by Stephen Snelling

I am a big fan of this series of books on the Victoria Cross. There are literally hundreds of books out there about the VC, and with many hundreds of winners there are plenty of subjects to write about. The problem I find is, that often we read about the same or similar stories in books. Some of the VC stories are well known – and for very good reasons, of course. But isn’t it great to read about some of the lesser-known deeds as well? Therefore I think it’s quite a nice touch to cover all of the Victoria Crosses awarded for a particular campaign, in one volume. This particular volume looks at the Battle of Passchendale – more properly, Third Ypres – fought between July and November 1917.  A remarkable 61 VC’s were awarded, to men from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. There were a couple of VC winners at Passchendaele with strong Portsmouth connections.

James Ockendon was a 26 year old action Company Sergeant Major in the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who won the Victoria Cross at ‘t Goed ter Vesten Farm on 4 October 1917. Born in Portsmouth, Ockendon had joined the ‘Dubs’ pre-war in 1909, and was serving in India when war was declared. When the Battalion were recalled in 1914, he joined the 29th Division and subsequently fought at Gallipoli, before being sent to the Western Front in 1916. Apparently on the eve of Battle, Ockendon’s Battalion were adressed by a General, who asked ‘who is going to win a Victoria Cross tomorrow?’, to which Ocekdon replied, ‘I am, sir, or I will leave my skin in dirty old Belgium’. Two months previously he had been awarded the Military Medal. When a platoon officer was killed by a Machine Gun and another wounded, Ockendon found himself in charge of his company and took it upon himself to charge the position, killing all but one of the Germans. He chased the survivor for some distance before bayonetting him. After the attack Ockendon gathered the survivors of his company, and headed for ‘t Goed ter Vesten Farm. Although they were met by heavy fire, Ockendon somehow managed to convince the Germans to surrender. Ockendon wad described as a quiet, unassuming man, and was feted when he returned to Portsmouth on leave later in 1917. He was discharged from the Army in 1918 after suffering from the effects of Gas. James Ockendon VC MM died in 1966, at the age of 75. His son, also called James, is still a member of the Portsmouth Royal British Legion, and to this day Ockendon’s VC is the only one that I have seen outside of a display case.

Dennis Hewitt was serving with the 14th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, the 1st Portsmouth Pals, when he won the Victoria Cross at St Julien on the first day of Third Ypres, on 31 July 1917. Born in London, his maternal grandfather was a deputy lieutenant of Hampshire, which might explain why he joined the county regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916 after studying at Winchester College and then Sandhurst. At the age of 19 he found himself commanding a company, in the second wave of the attack near Steenbeck. Resistance was stiff along Pilckem Ridge, and Hewitt tried to re-organise his company, despite being badly wounded by a shell blast. Refusing treatment, he led the company on to the next objective line, and although the objective was secured, Hewitt became a casualty in the hail of machine gun fire. He has no known grave, and is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial. He might not have strictly speaking been a Portsmouth lad, but he died serving with and leading many a young man from Portsmouth.

Montague Moore was serving in the 15th Hampshires, the 2nd Portsmouth Pals, at Passchendaele. Born in Bournemouth in 1896, he went to Sandhurst in 1915 at the age of 18. Commissioned into the Hampshire Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in 1916, he was wounded in the leg at Messines Ridge in 1917. Back in time for Third Ypres, he led 120 men in an attack at Tower Hamlets on 20 October 1917. They captured the objective, but suffered heavy losses. They remained on the objective overnight, and were shelled the next day by British artillery, who thought that they had all been killed. Eventually Moore had only 10 men left. Moore and his party sat out the rest of the day and the next night, and returned to the British lines under the cover of the morning mist, after being in no mans land for almost 48 hours. Their return was greeted with amazement. Moore retired from the Army in 1926, and retired to Kenya, where he died in 1966.

All of the stories are very well written, and have been researched in fitting detail. It’s a very inspiring read. Of course, I’m a big fan or researching, writing and reading individuals stories, whether they be decorated or not. They all have something different to teach us. I’m thinking out aloud here, but wouldn’t it be interested to see a book of ‘near misses’ to the VC sometime?

VC’s of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 is published by The History Press

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Working on Portsmouths World War One Heroes

Ive spent the past month or so working hard on writing my next book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’.

Somehow I’ve managed to write almost 27,00 words in less than a month, which is certainly a record for me and I suspect it’s probably a lot quicker than many a historian writes! All this, of course, while working a day job and you can probably see how I only really have time for sleeping and eating besides.

Writing aboutr WW1 is quite a lot different to writing about WW1, more so than many of you would probably imagine.  For two reasons. Firstly, there are a lot more records available – war diaries, rolls of honour, more detail on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and so on. Yet at the same time, it was so long ago – nearly 100 years ago – that there are very few – if any – descendants around who have information about their relatives who were killed in the Great War. When writing Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes I was fortunate enough to hear from many children of people I wrote about; I doubt very much whether that will happen with this book.

I’ve done a lot of secondary reading – I would not be surprised if the bibliography contains 100+ books by the end – but I still have a lot of primary research to do. In particular, sources such as the Portsmouth Evening News on microfilm, Portsmouth Military Service tribunal records, records of corporation employees such as tram workers and policemen, and also official documents at the National Archives and the Imperial War Museum.

I won’t give too much away about the book, but I am writing about:

  • Lt Col Dick Worrall DSO and Bar MC and Bar
  • The Royal Flying Corps
  • Emigrants and Immigrants
  • The Military Service Tribunal
  • The early Tank men
  • Boy soldiers
  • Gallipoli, Salonika, Mesopotamia and Palestine
  • Brothers
  • Royal Naval Division/Royal Marines
  • Submariners
  • Jutland
  • The first day on the Somme
  • The Portsmouth Pals
  • Prisoners of War
  • 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Brickwood

With the wealth of sources available, I have been able to go into a lot of detail about many of the men I am writing about, in particular I have been able to give a fresh insight into the social history of Portsmouth in the period 1914 to 1918, and indeed before and afterwards.

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Third Ypres (Passchendaele) 95: Portsmouth connections

The Menin Gate Memorial, in Ypres, Belgium.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Evening News in 1914: Portsmouth goes to war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Recognising the Portsmouth Pals Battalions

English: Original Kitchener World War I Recrui...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War Surgery 1914-18 is published by Helion

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