Category Archives: World War One

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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The Lee Enfield .303 and British marksmanship

Thanks to x for pointing out this video.

You’ll often read in Great War history books about how the regular troops of the British Expeditionary Force at Mons in 1914 managed to put out such a rate of fire that the German’s thought that they were being faced with Battalions of Machine Guns. Watch this video and its easy to see how well trained troops could put out some serious lead with an SMLE! Multiply this rate of fire by 1,000 – the strength 0f a Battalion – and you really wouldn’t want to be in the way.

Historically, British marksmanship has always been pretty good compared to other armies. I can remember reading about how even during the Napoleonic War the British Army was the only one that practised with live rounds, and reading the Sharpe novels you get a real sense of how important massed ranks of volley fire were. When you add in the early interest that the British Army took in the Baker rifle, then you also have a heritage of accuracy too.

All this possibly goes some way to explaining why the establishment feared the Machine Gun – the Generals preferred their soldiers to fire deliberate, well aimed shots, making each one count. But, as any good guitar player will tell you, speed is a by product of accuracy – get it right first, and then get it fast. Read Dan Mill’s ‘Sniper One’ about the insurgency in Iraq in 2004, and you’ll see how apparently the insurgents found it seriously uncool to aim their AK47’s, and simply to blaze away from the hip. No wonder during World War Two the Army feared the sub-machine gun – calling them’gangster guns’ – apprehensive that soldiers would begin blasting away like Al Capone!

This culture might also explain why post-WW2 Britain adopted a rifle like the SLR, rather than something like the M16.

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The Home Front during the Great War

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Portsmouth WW1 – total number of war dead revealed

Well, I’ve been working on it for over two years, but now I have finally finished inputting names into my Portsmouth World War One Dead Database.

I’ve taken names from the Cenotaph in Guildhall Square, and local school, church, business and other organistion memorials. I’ve then cross-referenced each of these against the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. I also took names from the Portsmouth Section of the National Roll, and the Roll of Honour in Gates’s ‘Portsmouth in the Great War’. Then, as an extra sweep, I used Geoff’s WW1 search engine to search for any extra ‘strays’ from Portsmouth who might not appear on any other memorial.

The total number I have come up with, so far, is 5,824 men and women from Portsmouth who died between August 1914 and December 1921. Some of them do not appear on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but as there is sufficient evidence that they died of the effects of war service, I have included them.

My Database includes names sourced from the following:

  • 4,416 – Guildhall Square Cenotaph
  • 688- Geoff’s WW1 Search Engine
  • 287 – Parish Church Memorials
  • 280 – Gates ‘Portsmouth in the Great War’
  • 87 – National Roll
  • 44 – Portsmouth Grammar School Memorial
  • 7 – Handley’s Memorial
  • 5 – Royal Mail Memorial
  • 5 – City of Portsmouth Passenger Transport Depot Memorial
  • 3 – Portsmouth Gas Company Memorial
  • 2 – Southern Grammar School

That’s 1,408 men from Portsmouth who died during the Great War, who – for whatever reason – do not appear on the Cenotaph in Guildhall Square. Hopefully I can give them some recognition for their sacrifice.

Sadly, Great War Casualties are that much more difficult to identify than their descendants from the Second World War. There are so much more of them, and if, for example, you’re looking for an ‘A. Smith’, you have literally hundreds to search through. Considering that there are so few details for many of them, it does seem, sadly, that we will never be able to definitively identify all of them.

At present, I have been unable to positively identify 1,068 of the names on the Database. I will of course be trying to narrow down this number. I do have information about some of them – I know what service each of them served with, and in some cases other information such as a ship or Regiment, or a Parish Church Memorial. And there are ways I can try to find some of them – service records, directories, for example, or birth and marriage records.

I’ve found a multitude of problems in matching names on war memorials to names on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. In most cases the War Memorial only gives a surname and initials. As I mentioned, there are few details on some entries, so matching, for example, a ‘B. Jones’ on the memorial is hard if there are 100+ ‘B. Jones’ on the CWGC. Another problem I have come up against is that of the humble spelling mistake or misheard transcription. Particularly in the case of complex surnames, they sometimes occur differently on memorials and on the CWGC.

Another problem that is by no means confined to the Great War period is that of the ‘nom de guerre’. We’ve all had a relative who, for whatever reason, is known by either their middle name, or a name that does not appear on their birth certificate. Thus – and this is hypothetical – somebody called Norman David Smith might be on the memorial as ‘D. Smith’, as his family might have called him David. Or, in some cases, his family and friends might have called him Frank, and he might have gone on the war memorial as that. Very confusing to the researcher!

In the next few week’s I’ll start to post some articles summarising the statistics that come from the Database, much as I did for my WW2 research a few years ago.

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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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Portsmouth’s WW1 Merchant Seamen

Memorial to the Merchant Seamen in Tower Hill

Memorial to the Merchant Seamen in Tower Hill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the chapters in my recent book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ concerned Merchant Seamen who were killed in the Second World War. Whilst I did argue that the fate of merchant seamen had been overlooked compared to their counterparts in the three ‘main’ armed forces, merchant seamen in the Second World War have had a relatively high profile compared to their predecessors of the First World War.

Whilst we all know about the U-Boat wolf packs of the Second World War, it is less well known that Germany first attempted what it called ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ in the First World War, in an attempt to bring Britain to her knees by choking her maritime links with the rest of the world. Just to give some kind of comparison, in the Second World War the British Merchant Navy lost 11.7 million tons of shipping – around 2,828 ships, with the los of around 30,000 men. In the First World War, the total was 7.7 million tons – 14,661 Merchant Seamen were lost. Less than in the Second World War, but clearly not insignificant either.

26 Merchant Seamen from Portsmouth died between 1914 and 1919. The interesting thing is, that three were killed in 1915, then two in 1916, before 8 were killed in 1917 and then 6 in 1918. It was in 1917 that Germany really ramped up it’s U-Boat offensive, and it really shows in the statistics of casualties.

Henry Kinshott, aged 33, was a waiter onboard the liner RMS Lusitania. A Cunard Liner, on 7 May 1915 the Lusitania was torpedoed by U-20, 13miles off of Kinsale in Ireland. She sank in just 18 minutes, with the loss of 1,198 of her complement of 1,959. 128 of those lost were American, and the disaster arguably played a part in encouraging the US to come into the war on the side of Britain and France. Kinshott is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London. Born in Fareham, Kinshott lived at 3 Hampshire Street, Landport. Although thousands of people were killed, the Lusitania is relatively unknown compared to the Titanic.

A number of Hospital Ships were also lost at sea. On board the 12,000 ton HMHS Asturias was Greaser Stanley Cross, aged 2. On 21 March 1917, the Asutrias – formerly a Royal Mail ship – was damaged by U-66, 6 miles off Start Point in Devon. She was running between Avonmouth and Southampton, presumably carrying war casualties. The ship was beached and salvaged, but 35 men were lost, among them Stanley Cross. He is buried in Southampton Cemetery. Although Born in Landport in Portsmouth, he lived in Southampton.

One merchant ship actually had two Portsmouth men onboar. On the  SS Joshua were Master Thomas Jarrett, 48, and from 47 Derby Road in North End; and Mate Arthur Puddick, 40, from 27 Fourth Street in Kingston. The Joshua, a 60 ton coaster carrying china clay between Fowey in Cornwall and Dieppe in France, was stopped on 11 October 1917 by UB-57 west of the Isle of Wight. 3 of her crew were lost. Jarrett is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial, while Puddick’s body was recovered and buried in Kingston Cemetery in Portsmouth.

A number of Navy Yachts were also lost during the war. The Royal Navy requisitioned a large number of smaller vessels, particuarly for Patrolling coastal waters. In most cases their civilian crews served onboard throughout hostilities. At least seven Portsmouth men were lost crewing Yachts.

The WW1 U-Boat offensive seems to have been a lot more indiscriminate than that of 1939-1945. As an illustration of this, even a Trinity House Pilot vessel was sunk. On 26 September 1915 the Vigilant, a 69 ton wooden ketch built in 1879, was sunk by UC-7 off the South Shipwash Buoy off Harwich. 14 of her crew were lost, uncluding Steward William Barley, 41, who lived at 42 Darlington Road in Southsea. He is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial.

 

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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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