Category Archives: western front

Sergeant James Stevenson DCM MM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ANZAC Day service in Portsmouth

Earlier today Sarah and myself went to the annual ANZAC service at Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth, in remembrance of the 13 Great War Australian soldiers buried in Portsmouth. Regular readers might remember that I ran a series earlier in the year about the men and their experiences.

The service was attended by the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth Councillor Cheryl Buggy, Royal British Legion Standard Bearers, Royal Marines Cadets and members of the public. After a few words and prayers from the Chaplain, the last post was sounded and a minutes silence observed. After the reveille wreaths were laid, along with Poppy crosses.

It was great to see such a turn out, especially for some very young men who died over 95 years ago, so far from home. Hopefully they would be pleased that they have not been forgotten.

As you can see the graves are in a beautiful condition, and are tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. All of the 11 in this particular row were buried separately, but then exhumed and re-interred after the war in the same row. Hence their graves look very much like war graves in some of the big foreign war cemeteries in France and Belgium. Also buried next to them is Edward Sanderson, who voluntarily tended the Australian graves, and his wife Harriet.

I also have pictures of each of the men’s graves, and I will be updating their biographies on my blog with their pictures. If anybody from Australia would like to take copies of these pictures, then please do. I am also hoping to write an article about Portsmouth’s adopted ANZAC’s for th Australian War Memorial Journal in the near future.

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The Twynam family of Soberton, Hampshire

For the most part, I have confined my WW1 research to people who either lived, were born or had strong connections with the area bounded by Portsmouth city. But my brother has tipped me off on an interesting little subject from a small village just to the north of Pompey.

My brother is a middle distance runner, and on one of his recent training runs he passed through the small village of Soberton, near Droxford and Bishops Waltham. It’s on the back road from Portsmouth to Winchester. Anyway, near the centre of the village is a Great War Memorial, as in many villages, consisting of a hewn stone cross and a plaque of names. And it’s that plaque of names that grabbed Scott’s attention, there being four men of the same surname. This is remarkable, and in such a small village too.

After a little research, I can confirm that the men are:

TWYNAM John

Staff Sergeant 131 1st South African Mounted Rifles. Died on 30/11/1914 Age unknown. Commemorated at Barnea Siding Burial Ground, Bethlehem, Free State, Africa. Apparently John Twynam was killed accidentally by a lightning strike.

TWYNAM Godfrey

Second Lieutenant 11th Bn. Border Regiment. Died on 18/11/1916 Age 25. Son of the late John and Mary Twynam, of Soberton House, Droxford, Bishop’s Waltham, Hants. Waggon Road Cemetery, Beaumount-Hamel, Somme, France, A. 24.  Born Droxford Apr/May/Jun 1891. The 11th Borders were a Kitchener Battalion, so it is probable that Godfrey was a wartime volunteer.

TWYNAM Hugh

Lieutenant H.M. Submarine E.36. Royal Naval Reserve. Died on 19/01/1917 Age 29. Son of John and Mary Twynam, of Soberton House, Soberton Hants.. Commemorated at Portsmouth Naval Memeorial, Hampshire, United Kingdom, 27. Born Droxford Apr/May/Jun 1888. Earlier censuses suggest that he had served as a cadet in a training ship on the Thames, and was then a Mate in the Merchant Service. Like many Merchant Seamen, he seems to have also been a member of the Naval Reserve.

TWYNAM William Hugh

Corporal 16391 7th Bn. Canadian Infantry (British Columbia Regiment). Died on 24/04/1915 Age 33. Son of the late John and Mary Rachel Twynam, late of Soberton House, Soberton, Hampshire. Commemorated at Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Ieper, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium, Panel 18 – 28 – 30. Born Droxford Jan/Feb/Mar 1883. William was in Canada at the time that war was declared working as a clerk, and seems to have volunteered straight away for Canadian forces. An earlier census states that he was a bank clerk. His attestation papers state that he had served with South African forces for five years.

After a little more research, it transpires that the Twynams were an ancient family with a long connection to the Soberton area, as might be expected of a family living in what appears to be the Manor House. In the 1891 census the family had four domestic servants, including a governess, a nurse and a cook. In an earlier census it is suggested that the family were involved in farming, employing a considerable number of people locally. Hampshire Records Office holds title deeds relating to land and property owned by the family, and also wills of several of the family members.

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Forgotten Victory by Gary Sheffield

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

Cover via Amazon

Going against a commonly-held perception is perhaps the greatest challenge that faces any historian. Some things in history are just so taken for granted that they are held as unassailable truths. As one of the fell0w-students on my degree course stated once, memorably, ‘Henry VIII was just a fat bloke who ate chicken’. Run against such a ‘historical truth’, and you runk the risk of being desricbed as a revisionist as best, and at worst a charlatan. In this book Gary Sheffield treads a very careful and well-reasoned path. Our understanding of the First World War is choc full of myths and misconceptions. Sheffield sequentially and convincingly deals with many of the inaccuracies that have become ingrained in national consciousness. National Consciousness, as Sheffield enlightens us, does tend to pull historical events out of their context.

Perhaps the biggest myth that Sheffield deals with is that of the ‘Lions led by Donkeys‘. Haig et al are filed neatly under ‘butcher’, and they sacrificed the lives of millions of brave men. Sheffield argues – convincingly, in my mind – that not only could Haig and his generals have not done much different, but also that progressively from 1916 onwards the BEF – and its generals – learnt rather quickly how to fight a modern war, and didn’t do too bad in the circumstances. On the Somme in 1916 the BEF relieved the pressure from the French at Verdun, and almost caused the German Army to crack. It almost did the same once again in 1917 at Ypres. It has become all too easy for any of us, in hindsight, to judge that the First World War was a a barbaric waste of life for no good reason. In fact, the BEF, by its actions, did result in the defeat of the German Army in the field, which ended the war. Haig was not a complete technophobe, as has been alleged. He understood air power, and embraced innovations such as the Tank – giving them his full support.

Trench Warfare, and the demands that it placed upon the British Army, was a complete abboration in British military history. Never before had Britain fielded a vast citizen army on the continent; for a small, elite, imperial police force, this resulted in a waterfall of change in a matter of weeks and months, let alone years. Once Kitcheners Armies took to the field and the BEF gained some valuable lessons, the British Army began to acquit itself quite well. Plumer, in particular, comes in for much praise. Perhaps the most important innovation of the Great War was the importance of the set-piece attack – detailed planning of an all arms battle, with all arms communicating as far as possible. Interesting, is it not,  that Montgomery served on Plumers staff? Crucually, Sheffield does not doubt that the BEF suffered horrific casualties, but he does argue – thougtfully – that a high butchers bill does not necessarily mean that those thousands of lives were lost in vain.

World War One did, in some respects, end unsatisfactorily for all sides. The German Army had been defeated – or, in many ways, had defeated itself. Yet the German nation and people did not suffer the full consequences of defeat, and hence the myth of the stab in the back took hold. The US under Wilson imposed ideals of liberal democracy on the rest of the world, then promptly retreated to isolationism once more. The vast loss of life led to policies of appeasement, particularly for Britain and France. And hence, perhaps, perceptions of the Great War have been shaped by its consequent events that took place years afterwards. The Allies won the war, but did not win the peace.

In terms of British military history, Gary Sheffield is perhaps the most prominent voice in the field today. Forgotten Victory has considerably aided my broader understanding of the First World War, from the international rivalries and complex web of alliances that made it happen, to the hopelessly compromised peace settlement after, which all but condemmed Europe to war less than a generation later. But sadly, calm, collected histories do not tend to change popular consciousness. Which is a pity, as I cannot help but feel that Sheffield treads a very well reasoned path here.

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The Post Office Rifles from Portsmouth

I’ve been doing a little bit of work on my WW1 Portsmouth War Dead database, as a bit of light relief from working on promoting my WW1 Book. I’ve been using Tim Backhouse’s eternally useful memorials in Portsmouth website to flesh out some details on the names on my list. Tim has listed pretty much every name on every kind of memorial in Portsmouth. I have been using his listing of the WW1 Cenotaph to create the bulk of my database – without his listing I would have had to do twice as much work.

Aside from the main memorials, Tim has also listed names from the plethora of other memorials around in Portsmouth. Of chief interest to me are three kinds – Company and Organisation Memorials; School Memorials; and Parish Memorials. In terms of Organisations and Companies we have names for the Portsmouth Gas Company, the Electric Company, the Passenger Transport Depot, the Police, and even Handleys, a local Department store. Schools are chiefly the local Grammar and public schools – Portsmouth Grammar School, St Johns College, Southern Grammar School for Boys and Northern Grammar School. The Parish listings are also useful too, helping me to confirm where in the city somebody came from, and sweeping up a few names that are not on the Cenotaph. Funily enough, many of the names from RC parishes have a distinctively Irish ring to them. St Johns Cathedral even has some latin sounding names – from Malta, perhaps?

Just to give an example of from one company joined up, lets take a look at the Portsmouth District of the Post Office. Four men from the Portsmouth Posties joined the 8th Battalions of the London Regiment – or, the Post Office Rifles. The London Regiment was a Territorial-only Regiment, and the Post Office Rifles are a fine example of a profession-based unit.

Rifleman A. Toleman was killed on 18 May 1915. He is buried at Bethune in France. Rifleman Victor Papworth was just 19 when he was killed on 21 May 1916, and is remembered on the Arras Memorial in France. Rifleman Thomas Brady was killed the next day, aged 20. He is buried in Barlin Cemetery. Lance Corporal Leonard Cox was killed on 20 September 1917, and is remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial. Another Portsmouth man was killed serving with the Post Office Rifles, but does not seem to haved been a postie – Rifleman G Croad, who was killed on 7 June 1917 and is buried in Voormezeele. He joined the Army in September 1916, and seems to have gone to the front in January 1917, suggesting that he joined the Post Office Rifles as a replacement. As the wore drew on and the manpower situation became more acute, earlier recruiting loyalties and conventions were quietly ignored and men were sent to wherever they were needed.

The Post Office Rifles are a unique example – for Portsmouth, at any rate – of how men could join the armed forces based on their professional loyalties.

 

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Birdsong – Part 2 Reviewed

On reflection, although I enjoyed the first instalment of Birdsong, I did find that it was very heavy on moody silences, and wistful glances into the distance. Historically, it seemed accurate, and compared to other adaptations, it seemed pretty faithful to the book.

I felt that the battle scenes were very well handled. In all fairness, I think we are setting our stalls out too much to expect battle scenes to be 100% accurate – how can they be? no one actually dies in a war film. I personally feel that the best we can hope for is that battle scenes are thoughtful and respectful to history, and that was what was achieved here. I was very moved especially by the ‘big push’ on the Somme, in particular the scene where the Sergeant-Major is taking a roll call of endless absent names. The final tunnel scene really did justice to the story, and must have taken quite some work in terms of the set and props.

One aspect where I felt that the TV dramtisation really let itself down, was the manner in which the screenwriters, for whatever reason, ommitted any reference to the fact that the events of the book are actually seen through the eyes of a descendant, researching in the 1970’s. This gave the story added longitudinal meaning, that was perhaps absent on screen. Also, maybe I missed it, but there was no reference in either part as to where the title of the book originates from.

There were also a few aspects of the plot that I felt were light – little explanation of why Isabelle left Stephen, and why Stephen was in France in the first place. But then again, I guess translating such a monumental book into three hours of TV was always going to be a challenge. It’s always the same with TV adaptations – they’re never going to hit every note that the book does, but as long as they’re faithful and in keeping, then you have to give credit where credit is due.

What with the phenomenal success of War Horse, and the impending Great War Centenary in 2014, we are probably well into a period of renaissance of interest in the events of 1914-1918. It’s quite an exciting time to be a modern military historian.

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The Somme by Gary Sheffield

It’s nice to actually read a book about the Somme that actually makes me feel like I have learnt something. Too many books on the battle indulge in what has become rather cliched poetry. Most of us are well aware that the first day of the Somme was the bloodiest day in the British Army’s history. Most of us are equally as aware that the Somme was ultimately futile.

What Sheffield does so well here is threefold. Firstly, he does not allow the narrative to become embroiled in cliche or hyperbole. The events of 1916 are examined and explained in a clinical, methodical manner. Secondly, he looks beyond the first day of the Battle. So many histories of the Somme look only at 1 July 1916. Yet the battle raged on for almost five months after that before the offensive ceased. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is eminently readable.

Each phase of the offensive is examined in a manner which makes it clear to the reader. 1 July obviously comes in for special attention, and Sheffield looks at the Divisions all along the front, from Gommecourt in the north to the anglo-french boundary in the south, and relates their objectives and their experiences. As the late great Richard Holmes so rightly stresses in his foreword, Martin Middlebrook gave so much to our understanding of the first say of the Somme, but perhaps out attention in the past has been too focussed on this one day, out of a much longer battle.

Sheffield does not allow himself to get too bogged down in considering whether the battle was a waste of lives or not. The general assumption amongst most people is that the Somme was a horrific waste of lives, a by-word for futility. Or was it? As Sheffield reminds us, the French Army had its back to the wall at Verdun, and the Somme was vital in diverting German resources from that battle. Politically, to do nothing was not an option. In addition, the British Army learnt an awful lot on the Somme, that it put into practice in 1917 and 1918. Could Haig, Rawlinson and Gough have done much different on the Somme. Like Sheffield, I suspect not. The strategic thinking and even most of the tactics were sound, but the Army had not developed its technology and expertise – particularly around communications – enough to really take the offensive to the Germans.

I cannot stress enough how much this book has helped – and will help me – in my research into Portsmouth men killed on the Somme. In particular, the 1st Hampshires on the 1st day near Beaumont Hamel, and then the 15th Hampshires (2nd Portsmouth) at Flers in September – incidentally, one of the most succesful days on the Somme.

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