Category Archives: World War One

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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Chief Petty Officer Harold Parfitt

Aside from British decorations and gallantry medals, one subject thats always interested me is that of foreign awards to British servicemen. I have come across quite a few Portsmouth who were awarded a foreign decoration – French, Belgian, even Russian. But I have never come across somebody who was awarded British, Russian and Italian decorations – until now.

Harold Poole Parfitt was born in Bedminster Bristol, on 1 June 1875, the son of a Steam Engine Driver. Parfitt seems to have joined the Royal Navy some time prior to 1891, as in that year’s census he was a 15 year-old Boy Seaman serving on HMS Impregnable in Devonport – a training hulk.

Harold Parfitt married his wife Emmie (nee Walker) in late 1908 in Portsmouth, and in the 1911 he was a Petty Officer, living at Mayhall Road in Copnor. His daughter Elsie Parfitt was just one year old, and his wife’s Brother, seven year old Frederick Walker, was also living with them.

I’m not sure exactly where Harold Parfitt served during the First World War, but he was mentioned in despatches, awarded the Italian Bronze Medal and the Russian Silver Medal of the Order of St Stanislas. One would imagine that CPO Parfitt must have seen some serious action, and even if not he must have given sterling service to be considered for so many awards.

Immediately after the war Parfitt was serving at HMS Excellent, the naval gunnery school on Whale Island. Sadly, after an operation he died on 26 February 1920. He was 44, and is buried in Kingston Cemetery in Portsmouth.

 

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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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Birdsong – Part 1 Reviewed

I enjoyed reading Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks immensely. But so often TV adaptions just don’t cut the mustard. I’ve come to the conclusion that the best any screenwriter can hope for is to make an ‘OK’ version, that doesn’t sell out on the book too much. To be honest, I haven’t ever seen a TV drama that was better than the book in question. Is that because with a book, we have the bare bones, but we paint the canvas in our minds? Whereas with TV, everything is much more proscribed? I wonder. But there is a place for the TV drama – many people watch a TV programme who would never read a book. After all, how many people got into Sharpe through the books rather than the TV series?

But I think the Beeb did quite well here. Certainly a lot of effort went into the set – tons of chalk were specially imported to match the Picardy terrain, and the make up and construction of the trenches, for example, seemed accurate to me. As far as I can remember it seemed pretty faithful to the book, with no major parts of the plot being substituted, nor any extra bits being added in. And for all the geeks, as far as I could tell, all of the cap badges, shoulder titles, weapons, uniforms etc seemed accurate ;)

I thought that the dramatic tension between the laidback pleasure seeking of peacetime, and the tragedy and bloody nature of war was even more effective than in the book. The incongrous nature of a steamy romp interspersed with men laid out ready for burial was most haunting and evocative. And the acting was very good, save for perhaps a few too many soppy glances.

The Great War is rising in public consciousness, thanks to War Horse and now Birdsong. I would expect this trend to continue for the next couple of years at least, right up until and beyond the centenary in 2014. The BBC look to have made a valuable contribution here by bringing Birdsong to a wider audience.

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Portsmouth’s WW1 Sailors – some thoughts and findings

Having taken a more detailed look at Portsmouth’s Royal Marines of the Great War and come up with some pretty interesting conclusions, I thought it might be interesting to do the same kind of analysis for the men for whom Portsmouth is famous – the humble matelot. So far I have inputted sailors between A and N (inclusive). Out of those I have at least partly identified 930 on the CWGC. I have found 777 of them on the National Archives, which means that I have been able to chart their dates of birth and places of birth.

The findings are pretty interesting. Out of those 777, twenty were in their fifities. An extremely large percentage were in their 30′s and 40′s – many of them leading seamen, petty officers or warrant officers. It’s probably not surprising that many long-serving ratings found themselves in Portsmouth. Six were boy ratings under 18. The conclusion seems to be that the Royal Navy was not a service that called up many recruits in 1914 – many of its roles were skilled, and could not be performed immediately by hostilities only men. And actually, the navy’s role in wartime was only marginally more active than in peacetime.

Ordinarily, most regular naval ratings served via one of the three main manning ports – Portsmouth, Devonport or Chatham. Ships were crewed virtually entirely from one of these ports, even if they were overseas for years. And they frequently were, with naval fleets stationed in Australia, China and suchlike.

In the event of war the Royal Navy relied upon former sailors to bolster its ranks. In the main, their role was to crew ships re-activated from the reserve fleet. Obviously it would take too long to begin building new ships once war was declared, so obsolescent or surplus ships were heald in readiness in the event of war. 45 men who were called up from the Royal Fleet Reserve were killed.

On 1 November 1914 HMS Good Hope was sunk the in Battle of the Coronel off South America – 80 Portsmouth men are known to have been lost, many of them called up from the Royal Fleet Reserve. On 26 November 1914 the Battleship HMS Bulwark exploded in the Thames Estuary off the North Kent Coast. 63 Portsmouth men were killed.

The Battle of Jutland saw probably the largest loss of life of Portsmouth men in one event in history. 219 men were killed on 31 May 1916  on the ships Invincible, Black Prince, Queen Mary, Lion, Shark, Indefatigable, Princess Royal and Southampton. 25 men were killed in Destroyer actions the next day on 1 June 1916, onboard Tipperary, Ardent, Fortune, Sparrowhawk, Onslaught.

HMS Hampshire was sunk by a mine off the Shetland Island on 5 June 1916, carrying the Secretary for War Field Marshal Lord Kitchener to  Russia. 37 Portsmouth sailors were killed, some of whom are buried in Lyness Naval Cemetery near Scapa Flow.

6 men were killed fighting with the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division, at Gallipoli and in France and Belgium. Most of the RN Division were spare ratings who were in depots when war was declared, or some of the few hostilities-only recruits who joined up after August 1914.

69 Portsmouth submariners were killed. This is a pretty high number, considering that the Navy had only begun operating submarines just over a decade previously. It suggests that submarine service was dangerous and highly active. 8 won some kind of decoration – seven Distinguished Service Medals, one mention in despatches, and a French Medal Militaire.

By contrast, seamen in general were not very well rewarded medal wise, especially compared to my similar research for the Second World War. One Officers Steward was a CBE, and an Engine Room Artificer was a Companion of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India. Chief Bosun Ernest Griffin won the DSC, as did Engineer Lieutenant Joseph House, and there were 9 DSM’s – seven of them to submariners. As well as the French MM already described, there were also eight mentions in despatches. Leading Seaman Percival Frost was a holder of the Messina Medal, awarded to men who were present and gave assistance when a volcano erupted at Messina in Sicily in 1908. Canteen Manager James Cramb, who was killed on HMS Bulwark, was awarded the Royal Humane Society‘s medal, an award usually made for lifesaving.

But medal or no medal, where did these men come from?

  • 18 Scotland
  • 12 Ireland
  • 1 Bedfordshire
  • 2 Berkshire
  • 2 Ceylon
  • 11 Channel Islands
  • 3 Cheshire
  • 6 Cornwall
  • 3 Cumbria
  • 1 Derbyshire
  • 18 Devon
  • 11 Dorset
  • 6 Durham
  • 8 Essex
  • 7 Gloucestershire
  • 386 Hampshire
  • 1 Herefordshire
  • 4 Hertfordshire
  • 20 Isle of Wight
  • 34 Kent
  • 12 Lancashire
  • 3 Leicestershire
  • 4 Lincolnshire
  • 59 London
  • 3 Malta
  • 7 Middlesex
  • 1 Monmouthshire
  • 1 New Zealand
  • 5 Norfolk
  • 1 Northamptonshire
  • 2 Northumberland
  • 2 Nottinghamshire
  • 5 Oxfordshire
  • 2 Shropshire
  • 11 Somerset
  • 5 Staffordshire
  • 6 Suffolk
  • 15 Surrey
  • 49 Sussex
  • 8 Warwickshire
  • 6 Wiltshire
  • 10 Yorkshire

Interesting, huh? This would suggest that around half of all Portsmouth-based naval ratings came from Hampshire. Large contingents came from neighbouring maritime counties such as Sussex and Dorset, with a large proportion from the Isle of Wight. London, as a large urban area, supplied many men. Apart from that, recreuitment appears to radiate out like an onion skin. The figure for the Channel Islands is surprising – with such a small population, how come so many joined the Navy? But then, when you think about it, most young men in the Channel Islands would have known their way around a boat, and at the same time jobs prospects can hardly have been great.  Note also that three men were born in Malta – a key base for the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean – and two were born in Ceylon, another key base. One man somehow travelled from New Zealand.

These statistics suggest just how transient Portsmouth’s society was at the height of the Royal Navy’s power. If half of the Portsmouth-based seamen were coming from outside, that’s an awful lot of newcomers every generation. Over a hundred or so years, we can see that virtually all of Portsmouth families will have come from elsewhere. This migration resulted in notable diaspora in Portsmouth, such as Irish, Scottish and northern. It would be interesting to compare these findings to Plymouth and Chatham.

Given that for many of these men we even have street names and house numbers, I am looking forward to getting a large scale map of Portsmouth and plotting casualties geographically – it should give us a better idea than ever before of where naval families lived, and the effect of war upon Portsmouth society.

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2nd Portsmouth Pals – The story of a raid: Ploegsteert, June 1916

English: War cross in a Commonwealth War Grave...

Image via Wikipedia

The 15th Bn Hampshire Regiment, 2nd Portsmouth Pals, had entered the front line on the Western Front on 30th May 1916. They had gone into the front line at Ploegsteert Wood, a relatively quiet sector to the south of the Ypres Salient that was often used to ‘blood’ new arrivals in Flanders.

The 31st was a quiet day, with A, B and C Companies in the front line and support trenches and D Company in Reserve. No casualties were suffered. The next day Battalion HQ was shelled with 59 High Explosive rounds – the orderly room was demolished – and eight casualties were suffered. One man was killed, 2 accidentally injured, one returned to duty and three wounded.

Private Andrew Baillie, 20 and from Buckland, was killed on the 1st and is buried in Rifle House Cemetery. The next couple of days were relatively quiet, with several men wounded but none killed. On 5th June the Battalion was relieved by the 21st Kings Royal Rifle Corps at 5am, and went into billets at Creslow. The Battalion’s time out of the line was relatively quiet, but on 7th June A Companies billets at Touquet Berthe were shelled, and a barn destroyed, as well as nearby Royal Engineers supply dumps. Miraculously no casualties were suffered.

The Battalion went back into the line on 11th June, relieving the 21st KRRC at 5am in the same Ploegsteert Wood trenches. That evening two patrols were sent out from A and B Companies. Patrols were put out for the next couple of nights. On 14th June a patrol from B Company went out for 24 hours into no-mans-land. Pte Harris 18479 and Cpl Hopkins 20768 brought in a bad of three bombs (grenades) and saw several enemy patrols near Hampshire Trench. More patrols went out over the next couple of nights, and there were also several gas alarms. Several men were killed by enemy bombardment on 17th June, none of them being from Portsmouth.

On 18th June the Battalion was relieved by the 21st Bn KRRC, retiring to billets at Creslow. The men were congratulated by the Commanding Officer for their work on the night of 17/18 June. Later in the day a gas alarm was sounded, but no gas was present over the Battalion’s area. Although the Battalion was technically in reserve, patrols were still being sent out most nights. On the 21st the Battalion went back into the line relieving 21/KRRC, and the next couple of days in the front line were relatively quiet, with the usual patrols being sent out. On the 28th artillery fire from both sides became heavy. Private William Stephenson, aged 17 and from Twyford Avenue in Stamshaw, was killed and is buried in Ballieul Nord Cemetery. The next day Private L. Marshall, of Milton, was killed and is buried in Berks Cemetery Extension.

A major raid was planned on 30 June. Artillery began firing at 0730 and continued until 1700. The enemy wire was succesfully cut. At 2115 a preliminary bombardment began, ceasing at 2145. At 2200 gas was discharged. Then at 2201 artillery recommenced, before smoke was discharged at 2202. The smoke was turned off at 2215, and the raiding party started at 2223. Five minutes later the artillery lifted, and the raiding party advanced. The raiding party reached the enemys trenches at 2243 – after what must have been an agonising 15 minutes in no mans land. The artillery finally ceased at 2253, and later in the evening a second discharge of gas was made at 0125.

The raiding party was formed of three groups. No 1 was under Sergeant Green, No 2 under Lieutenant James and No 3 under Lieutenant Gates. No 1 group reached the enemy lines and threw in grenades, before returning as per the programme. No 2 group lost Lieutenant James wounded, and his second in command was gassed. No 3 group reached the enemy trenches, but had some difficulty in getting through the wire and returned. The raiding party was delayed in reach the enemy lines due to gas in no mans land which did not clear, resulting in the party having to don cumbersome gas masks. Sergeant Green was killed, Corporal Knight died of wounds and Private William Penfold (21, Fratton) later died of the effects of gas. Six men were gassed and wounded. In total 9 men were killed during the day, 28 men were wounded and two died of wounds. Three Portsmouth men died on the 30th – Private Edward Sansom (40, Stamshaw), Private E.H.W. Judd and Private William Fenfold (21, Fratton). All three are buried in Berks Cemetery, near Ploegsteer Wood. A number of men were recommended for awards.

Enemy retaliation was heavy. Lieutenant Gates, Corporal Murden and Private Parris returned into no mans land and recovered Sergeant Green’s body from about halfway across. The party was congratulated by the commander of 41st Division, Major-General Lawford. The objective of the raid had been achieved – to keep the enemy pinned down, and prevent them from sending reinforcements elsewhere. The next day the Battle of the Somme would commence further South. The raid by the Portsmouth Pals was obviously intended to pin down Germans along the western front. I would expect that it was replicated all along the line.

Raids and patrols were often insisted upon by Generals in order to foster an offensive spirit in troops, particularly those who had newly arrived on the front. The 2nd Portsmouth Pals were learning quickly, and a lot safer than their fellow Pals who were to suffer grievously on the first day of the Somme.

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Tommy by Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes was, in my eyes, unique. As a military man and an academic historian, he actually managed to capture the public’s imagination with his work. I can think of no other academic military historian who has reached out to society at large like Holmes. And surely, that is a fine, fine achievement.

As Holmes himself states in his preface, his initial military history interests involved researching battles and generals. Note his accomplished biographies of Marlborough, Wellington and French. But along the way he developed an interests in the ordinary man at war, and this led to his series of books such as Redcoat, and this book, which I consider to be his greatest achievement.

It does not have the revisionism of a writer such as Corrigan, and historiographically it sits in between narrative and probing challenges of the perceived wisdom. It is emminently readable and makes prolific use of first hand sources. But what I think is the real achievement here, is that Holmes has examined pretty much every aspect of war on the Western Front, and successively passed them all under a historical microscope. He doesn’t fall into the trap of hindsight, but neither does he go for hero worship or a bland recasting of earlier works.

The subjects that Holmes covers are vast, and some are not for the faint of heart – crime, punishment, homosexuality, venereal disease, honours, ranks, officer-men relations, attitudes to the war, food, drink (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), uniforms, lice, mud, weapons, training, and so on. In fact no stone is left unturned; there is no literary no-mans land here.

Holmes’ progression from a soldier, to an academic military historian, to a social military historian, is perhaps the best example possible of how military history itself is evolving. Not only has the field opened up beyond career soldiers alone, but we are more and more interested in the experiences of the common man – the millions of Tommies – rather than the deliberations of a few middle aged men who sat at the top of the tree. Perhaps this is a reflection of a change in modern society overall. As a military historian with both feet firmly in social history, I can only hope that this movement continues.

This book is a military history tour de force, by the late great Professor. It is the kind of book that makes me, as a historian, hope that I could one day write a book 5% as good as this. This is exactly the kind of book to get historians in the right frame of mind for the centenary projects looming in the next couple of years. It’s going to sit on my bookshelf for some time to come.

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War Horse

War Horse (film)

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve just got in from seeing War Horse, so I thought I would post a review while it’s still fresh in my mind.

The film is set in Iddisleigh, a picturesque village in Devon not far from my better half’s place of origin. The scenery is absolutely stunning, and equally well matched by the soaring, classical soundtrack. Some of the action scenes are mind-blowing, particularly the cavalry charges. The battle scenes are not as bloody as say Band of Brothers or the Pacific, but I don’t really think that they needed to be horrific for the sake of it.

In historical terms, there were perhaps a few bloopers. The german accents are almost laughable, and I can’t think for the life of me why Spielberg didn’t make them sound better. And in the final scenes in France all kinds of random men in random units seem to mingle together freely, which seems a bit unrealistic. But apart from that, it seemed to ring true for the most part. It IS a completely unrealistic story – but then that is the beauty of a novel, it doesn’t have to be absolutely realistic, and we can forgive a little historic or artisitic licence if it serves the story.

My performing arts student girlfriend tells me that there isn’t any particularly great acting, in fact the real star of the film is/are the horse(s). This film is very much an epic rather than a drama. That said, there are some very touching moments – apart from the final reunion scene, when the main equine protagonist becomes entangled in barbed wire is likely to move even the most cynical of hearts.

Whenever a new war film or programme comes out, you can guarantee that there will be scores of internet ‘experts’, bemoaning the inaccuracies and claiming the moral high ground. Sure, no war film is ever 100% accurate. But they can never be – no one really dies in a war film, surely? We need to look beyond the historical inaccuracies of incorrect shoulder titles or weapons. They might matter to us geeks, but in the bigger picture a film like War Horse has got thousands of people interested in the First World War, which is something that no manner of scholarly articles or mediocre books will achieve. Neither geeks, enthusiasts nor academics have any universal ownership of war. War is a human experience that touches everyone when it occurs, so it is the right of everyone to be interested by it.

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Portsmouth’s WW1 Royal Marines

Having visited the Royal Marines Museum the other day to take a look at their ‘More than a Name’ exhbition, I thought I would follow it up by taking a look at what I have learnt about Portsmouth‘s Royal Marines of WW1.

The names of Royal Marines from Portsmouth who died between 1914 and 1921 are included in the Royal Navy panels on Portsmouth’s WW1 Cenotaph in Guildhall Square. So far I have processed and researched all of the Navy names from A up to M, so just over halfway and probably enough to start drawing some conclusions.

So far, 161 men from Portsmouth died serving with the various units of the Corps of Royal Marines in the Great War. 72 were Royal Marine Light Infantry, 68 were Royal Marine Artillery, 14 were Royal Marine Bandsmen, and 1 was a Royal Marine Engineer. 1 served in the RM Canteen Service, and one was an officer of as yet unknown origin.

As in WW2, most Marines were killed on sea service in ships. 12 Marines were killed in HMS Good Hope on 1 November 1914, 9 in HMS Bulwark on 26 November 1914, and a total of 30 at Jutland on 31 May 1916, in Black Prince, Invincible, Lion, Princess Royal, Queen Mary, Indefatigable and Defence.

9 were killed serving with the Royal Marine Howitzer Brigade on the Western Front, and 16 were killed serving with the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division (8 in France, 5 at Gallipoli, 2 in Britain, 1 in Belgium and 1 in Greece). One man, Private William Elliot of the RMLI, was killed serving in Northern Russia on 27 August 1919, during the Russian Civil War.

Thanks to the National Archives, we have information available for when Royal Marines enlisted in the Corps. And the findings are striking. Out of the 144 who we have enlistment dates for, only 18 joined up after the start of the war. In fact, 61 had enlisted when Queen Victoria was still on the throne. This suggests that the Royal Marine of 1914-18 was an older, experienced man, and that the Corps did not actually expand that much in wartime. Much as with the Royal Navy, its role in peace was almost as demanding as it was in war. Of course, the Corps had its own emergency manpower to fall back on, in the form of the Royal Marines Reserve. 12 RMR men were killed in action.

Out of those 18 who joined up post August 1914, four of them were killed serving with the Royal Naval Division. This would suggest that the RN Division was composed of a higher proportion of hostilities only men than ships detachments. As we might expect, a large proportion of Royal Marines were living in Southsea and Eastney, near to the Royal Marine Barracks. Of the 97 that we have age statistics for, 44 were aged 30 or over – the oldest at 51!

So whilst the British Army of 1914-18 was very much a wartime creation – particularly from 1915 onwards – the Royal Marines, and to an extent the Royal Navy by definition – were still very much a product of Victorian Society.

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2nd Portsmouth Pals – formation to May 1916

 

With the euphoric volunteering for the British Army that was experienced in the late summer of 1914, many towns and cities formed their own Battalions for service in the Army. Comprised virtually of volunteers, in many cases these became known as ‘Pals’ Battalions. The word ‘Pals’ is normally applied to midlands or northern working class towns or cities, but my research has shown that the 1st and 2nd Portsmouth Pals – the 14th and 15th Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment respectively – were very much Pals Battalions. And it was quite credible of Portsmouth to raise two Battalions – over 2,000 men – considering that most of her young male population must have been either at sea with the Royal Navy, or engaged on important war work. Fortunately, the war diary for the 2nd Portsmouth Pals is available to download online from the National Archives website, and it tells us an awful lot about what happened to these young men from Portsmouth in those dramatic years.

 

The 1st Portsmouth’s were formed by the Mayor and a local committee on 3 September 1914, and would have taken the initial rush of recruits. After gathering and training locally, it was found that there were still enough recruits to form a second battalion, which took place on 5 April 1915. Several men died before they even left Britain – Private R.P.A. Cornhill on 6 August 1915, who is buried in Kingston Cemetery. After training locally, on 30 May 1915 both battalions were accepted by the war office, and began training for service abroad. With so many raw recruits, so many new units and a shortage of equipment, naturally things happened slowly. In October 1915 the 2nd Portsmouths joined the 122nd Brigade, in the 41st Division at Aldershot. In February 1916 they were at Marlborough Barracks in February 1916, before landing in France in early May. Private H.T. Sait died on 11 March 1916, and is also buried in Kingston.

 

The Battalion disembarked at Le Havre at 0600 on 2 May 1916, marching to a rest camp from the port. The next day they entrained at 1139, before detraining at Godewaerveld the next day and marching to Meteren. After three days in billets at Meteren, the Battalion marched to new billets in the La Creche area. On 10 May 12 officers and 40 NCO’s spent two days in the trenches, attached to the 11th Royal Scots, in order to gain experience. Whilst they were there they experienced some heavy bombardments, and then an attack on the Royal Scots trenches. Two were repelled, but a third gained access to the Scots front lines before being pushed back.

 

All was quiet again until the 18th, when a gas alarm was raised. The Battalion stood to at 0115, and stood down at 0150. The next day more men went into the trenches for experience, this time 4 officers and 80 NCO’s. On the 25th the Battalion suffered a sad casualty, when Private H. Evans committed suicide. A Court of Enquiry found that he had become temporarily insane. Private Evans was buried in Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension (Nord), but unfortunately his record on the CWGC does not give any information as to where in Portsmouth he lived.

 

On the 28th the Battalion marched from La Creche to billets at Creslow. Two days later on the 30th they moved up to the front line at Ploegsteert Wood, taking over trenches from the 8th Black Watch, between Le Gheer to opposite the Birdcage. A, B and C Companies were in the front line, with D Company in reserve. Ploegsteert was often used to give new units experience, rather than the more active Ypres Salient.

 

 

 

 

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The Irish who fought for Britain

Apparently there is a programme on BBC Radio 4 in a few days time looking at the discrimination suffered by Irishmen from the Republic who fought for Britain during the Second World War. I never knew this, but apparently the Irish Government had a blacklist of men who had deserted from the Irish Republic‘s forces and joined the British Armed Forces. The discrimination reached quite far, down to all Government agencies. It must have been hell for many of the poor blokes to have to hide their past for 60 odd years. As somebody says on the programme, it is incredible that men who volunteered to fight fascism were persecuted far more than men who simply deserted and went on the run. Even men who died in action were still included on the list.

On the face of it, this policy isn’t surprising. Ireland in 1939 still had a decidedly anti-British chip on its shoulder, particularly in officialdom. Of course, Eamon de Valera was the only world leader to offer his condolences to Nazi Germany on Hitler’s death. The rationale for which, I have never understood. But to learn that the Government actually went as far as to have a blacklist of names, to the point of affecting men’s employment prospects, is rather startling.

To this day, Irish citizens have a unique status when it comes to applying to serve in the British Armed Forces. If anyone has looked at the entry requirements, they often specify ‘UK, Commonwealth or Irish’ nationality. But Irish recruitment into the Royal Navy and British Army, in particular, has been going on for hundreds of years. During the Napoleonic era legions of Irishmen served in Wellington’s Army – Sergeant Patrick Harper of the Sharpe novels, for example. My own Catholic Irish ancestry brought my family to Portsmouth, to join the Royal Navy. In 1914 my great-grandfather, Thomas Daly, journeyed from Birkenhead to Portsmouth to join the Royal Navy.

Interestingly, we can tell where WW1 sailors were born. 5 sailors out of 745 I have researched so far came from Ireland. This doesn’t include men who might be second generation immigrants. It is also noticeable that many Portsmouth servicemen died fighting with Irish Army units – the Royal Munster Fusiliers, in particular. In his many books Richard Doherty has charted the great contribution that Irishmen – from north and south of the border – made to the allied cause in the Second World War. And in the First World War, the Republican and Unionist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland put aside their differences and joined Divisions that included Protestant and Catholic men.

It seems to me that discrimination against Irishmen who fought Hitler was petty, and had more to do with an inherent anti-Britishness than any thoughts about the morality of the Second World War. When men have to hide medals that they earnt fighting against extremism and tyranny, its a very strange world indeed.

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ANZAC #13 – Corporal Herbert Townsing

Since reading the article in the Portsmouth News about Australian Great War Soldiers buried in Milton Cemetery, I have always thought that the story was limited to the twelve lads buried in Milton. However, after taking a glance at Tim Backhouse’s excellent memorials in Portsmouth website, I have discovered that there is also one ANZAC buried in Kingston Cemetery in Portsmouth. It seems only right to tell his story too.

Corporal Herbert Townsing was born in Avoca, Ampitheatre, Karra Karra, in Victoria. Townsing joined the Australian Forces on 27 August 1915, at Black Boy Hill in Western Australia. He was a 29 year old labourer, married with one child. At the time of his enlistment he was living at 62 Sterling Street, Perth, Western Australia, which would suggest that he had moved from Victoria looking for work. He was very tall at 6 foot 2 inches, and weighed a strapping 196lbs. With chest measurements of 38 and 40 1/2 inches, he had blue eyes – with imperfect eyesight – brown hair, and was a member of the Church of England. He had a scar over the bicep on his left arm.

After joining up he was posted to 26 Depot, and from there joined the 12th reinforcements for the 12th Battalion, Australian Infantry on 16 October 1915. Just before Christmas on 17 December 1915 he embarked on the HMAT Ajana (A31) from Freemantle. Upon arrival in Egypt he reported to the 3rd Training Battalion. On 3 March 1916 he was transferred from the 3rd Training Battalion to the 52nd Battalion, Australian Infantry, who were then at Zeitoun. Less than two weeks later, however, Herbert Townsing was transferred again, this time to the 4th Pioneer Battalion, at Tel-el-Kebir. Perhaps this transfer was due to his background as a Labourer.

Townsing was swiftly promoted in the Pioneers. On 14 April 1916 he was made a Temporary Corporal whilst at Serapeum, and this appointment was made permanent on 27 May 1915 at Merris. Soon after on 4 June 1916 he embarked for Europe, onboard the HMT Scotian at Alexandria. Disembarking at Marseilles on 11 June, he went up to the western Front.

On 9 August 1916 Herbert Townsing was wounded, receiving a shrapnel wound in his back. The next day he was admitted to the 2nd Australian General Hospital in Wimereux, where he was described as having spinal injuries. On 11 August he was embarked on the Hospital Ship St Dennis, and a week later – possibly after passing through other hospitals – Townsing was admitted to the 5th Southern General Hospital in Portsmouth. Unlike the other Australians, however, Townsing was sent to the Fratton Bridge Hospital, rather than Milton or Fawcett Road. This suggests that the 5th Southern General was in fact an umbrella for a number of smaller military hospitals in Portsmouth.

Only a day after being admitted, Herbert Townsing died on 19 August 1916, of his wounds. Surprisingly, he was buried the same day in Kingston Cemetery. His personal effects were sent back to his wife Molly in Australia – 2 notebooks, purse, 2 photos, 2 letters, 2 cigarette holders, 3 badges, 7 coins, knife, watch in tin, small bag. Interestingly, Townsing was referred to as a Sergeant in  the caccompanying letter note. The only other reference in his service record to this rank is the letter to AIF HQ in London informing them of his casualty. My guess is that he was serving as a local acting Sergeant, and that this had not been entered on his records at the time of his death. Sadly, the re

Molly Townsing lived in various places after the war, including at Gordons Hotel, Buabura; and Frazer St, Bunbury in Western Australia. In 1922 her last known address was care of the Post Office at Wyalcatchem, Western Australia. She was awarded a pension from 2 November 19i6, and in writing to AIF Base HQ in 1917 had the following to say:

‘I am very grateful for your kindness in informing me as to where he lies, it is consoling to know that he lies in friendly soil’

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ANZAC #12 – Private Thomas Lynch

I thought having reached the W’s I had concluded my look at the Australian Great War soldiers buried in Milton Cemetery, but it seems that I had overlooked Private Thomas Lynch.

Lynch was born in Adelaide, in South Australia, the son of Henry and Mary Lynch. Enlisting at Keswick on 25 July 1915, he was aged 18, and lived on the corner of Auckland and Ifauld Streets in Adelaide. He was an unapprenticed boilermakers assistant. He was 5 foot 7 inches tall, weighed 140lbs, had chest measurements of 33 and 35.5 inches, a medium complexion, brown eyes (with good eyesight), light brown hair, was a Roman Catholic and had two vaccination marks on his left arm. As an 18 year old he required his mothers permission to enlist, which was duly given.

Upon joining Thomas Lynch was posted to K Group, Base Infantry at Mitcham. Whilst there he was fined a days pay for going absent without leave. Before leaving Australia he was posted to A Company of the 32nd Battalion, Australian Infantry. Lynch embarked from Adelaide on 18 November 1915, onboard the HMAT Geelong (A2). He arrived at Suez on 16 December 1915. Whilst at Tel-el-Kebir on 14 March 1916 he was punished for failing to have his kit stacked properly, and at Moascar on 6 June 1916 he was punished for quitting the ranks without permission. He was awarded four days of Field Punishment Number 2 – being shackled. Not long after this incident Lynch embarked to join the BEF, at Alexandria on 17 June onboard the Transport Transylvania. Disembarking at Marseilles on 23 June.

Lynch was wounded at Fromelles on 20 July 1916, receiving gunshot wounds to his left thigh. He was admitted to the 8th Field Ambulance and then the 8th Casualty Clearing Station. By the next day he was at the 32nd Stationary Hospital in Wimereux. His wound was obviously slight, as a day later he was discharged to the 1st Convalescence Camp, also at Wimereux. Four days later, after processing through the Base Details Depot at Etaples, he returned to the Battalion on 15 August 1916.

Lynch was wounded again in the winter of 1916. On 29 November, whilst on the Somme sectory, he received gunshot wounds to his right arm and right thigh. Admitted to the 38th Casualty Clearing Station, the next day he was in the 2nd General Hospital. On 3 December he was embarked on the Hospital Ship Gloucester Castle, and taken across the channel to the 5th Southern General Hospital in Portsmouth. Sadly, at 2.30am on 18 December 1916 Private Thomas Lynch died of his wounds. He was buried in Milton Cemetery two days later.

Strangely, AIF HQ in London received the report of his funeral before being informed of his death, which no doubt resulted in some administrative hair-pulling. After his death, it transpired that Thomas was not actually the biological son of Henry and Mary Lynch. In correspondence with Australian Army officials, Mary Lynch referred to him as her adopted son. He had been brought up by her since he was a baby, and he never knew that she was not his mother. She had never told anyone. Despite this, Mary Lynch was paid Thomas’s estate of £16.3.6 on 3 December 1917, and received a fortnightly pension of 15/- from 26 February 1917.

And in a fascinating insight into the attitudes of a bereaved mother, Mary Lynch also had this to say in correnspondence with officials:

There is not one thing in the world this minute that I longed to have more than a photo of his grave. How I yearned to have that photo no one knows. I pray that it will not be long before we will have a glorious victory over those inhuman brutes of Germans.

Oddly, there is no report of Lynch’s funeral in his service records, nor any detailed hospital records of how exactly he died. We do know, however, that his personal effects were sent back home to his mother. They consisted of:

Cigarette Case, Rosary, part of Rosary, Shaving brush (damaged), 7 religious medallions, wallet, money belt, prayer book, Postcards, 2 cotton bags, scarf, cap-comforter, razor strop, pipe.

This suggests that he was quite a religious young lad. Funnily enough, most of the 12 ANZAC’s we have looked at had either cigarettes or pipes, which is interesting. The Great War is often cited as an example of how cigarettes replaced pipe tobacco, as they were easier to transport up to the front line.

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ANZAC #11 – Lance Corporal George Wall

So far in our study of Australian soldiers buried in Portsmouth we have come across a fairly even spread of men who either died of illness or wounds received in battle. Yet one man was drowned at sea, whilst being transported from France to England on a Hospital Ship, having been wounded on two separate occasions and suffering from three serious illneses.

George Savoury Lipscombe Wall was born in Thorpdale, Balu Balu in Victoria. The son of Francis and Blanche Wall, when he enlisted in the Australian Forces on 17 April 1916 the Wall family were living at Koncwak, South Gippsland in Victoria. George Wall was a 22 year old farmer, and was unmarried. Interestingly, it seems that he had served in the Australian Light Horse previously for 2 years, but his attestation form records ‘no discharge – removed from training centre (I would be interested to hear if anyone can suggest what this means). Wall actually attested at Leongathra. Wall was quite tall at 6 foot 1 3/4 inches, 168lbs, and had a chest measurement of 38 inches. He had a dark complexion, blue eyes – of which both had perfect sight – and brown hair. He was a member of the Church of England, and had 2 vaccination marks on his right arm, and a scar on his left shin. He was allocated to the 37th Battalion of the Australian Infantry.

Wall embarked from Melbourne on 28 July 1916, onboard the HMAT Themistocles (A32). The Themistocles docked at Plymouth on 11 September, and from there Wall joined the 2nd Training Battalion on Salisbury Plain. After twelve days training he joined the 37th Battalion. The Battalion was evidently in England at this point, as Wall did not embark for France until 23 November 1916. On 16 January 1917 George Wall was admitted to the 9th Field Ambulance and then the 9th General Hospital, suffering with Mumps. After being discharded from Hospital on 6 February, he finally rejoined the Battalion on 22 February. On 5 April he was promoted to Lance Corporal.

On 7 June 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, Lance Corporal Wall was wounded in action. Admitted to the 9th Field Ambulance and then the Casualty Clearing Station, by the next day he was in Hospital at Le Touquet, where his wounds were described as a gunshot wound to the left forearm. Four days later on 12 June he was shipped to England on the Hospital Ship Stad Antwerpen. Admitted to the 3rd General Hospital the next day, and spent several months recovering. A medical report states that no bones were broken, that the wound was healing well, and there was no discharge. He finally went back to France on 6 August 1917, after spending time at the Training Depot near the Brighton Downs. He finally rejoined his Battalion on 18 August 1917, where despite his absence, he was promoted to Temporary Corporal four days later – perhaps losses at Passchendaele brought about his promotion.

Several months later Corporal Wall was wounded a second time, on 19 November. This time he received a gunshot wound to his right leg and bruised his back. He was admitted to the 9th Field Ambulance and then the 53rd Casualty Clearing Station, and as he was only a Temporary Corporal, reverted to his substantive rank of Lance-Corporal upon leaving the front line. The next day he was admitted to the 55th General Hospital in Boulogne. His wounds were obviously slight, as only five days later he was discharged to the 12th Convalescence Depot at Aubenque. On 7 December he reported to the 3rd Base Details Depot at Rouelles, and rejoined his unit on 18 December.

Only two days later, however, George Wall was again admitted to Hospital, this time suffering with Trench Fever. He was processed swiftly through the 11th Field Ambulance, the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station to the 1st Canadian General Hospital. After reaching the Hospital on 23 December he spent Christmas there, before once again being shipped to England on 13 January, onboard the Hospital Ship Pieter de Connick. He was admitted to the Military Hospital in Edmonton, suffering from slight Trench Fever. Twelve days later he was transferred to the 3rd Auxiliary Hospital, at Dartford in Kent. On the same day he was admitted to the 3rd Australian General Hospital. On 4 February he was discharged to the 4th Convalescence Depot at Hurdcott, as he was still feeling very week and feeling pain in his back – possibly a recurrence of his earlier back inbjury. Six weeks later he reported to the Training Battalion at Longbridge Deverill. The long time that Wall was out of action shows just how debilitating Trench Fever could be.

After a months re-training, George Wall re-embarked for France on 17 April 1918, via Southampton. The next day he reported the the 3rd Base Depot at Rouelles, which we are told was a New Zealander-run depot. Five days later he moved out to the front, and on 24 April he rejoined his Battalion after an absence of almost four months. From then on Wall actually managed to spend three months at the front relatively unveventfully, before being sent to Hospital sick on 21 July 1918. The next day he was admitted to the 10th Field Ambulance with Enteric Collitis, and the next day found him in the 12th Casualty Clearing Station, where his diagnosis was changed to ‘dysentery’. On 26 July he was admitted to the 16th General Hospital at Le Treport.

On 1 August he was shipped to England, onboard the Hospital ship Warilda. Earlier in the war the Warilda had served as a troopship, but by 1918 had been converted to a hospital ship (Private Clarence Jones, buried in Portsmouth, had left Australia on the Warilda). In the English Channel the Warilda was torpedoed by the German submarine UC-49, 35 miles off Littlehampton, en route to Southampton. The ship sank in two hours, and of the 801 people on board, 123 were killed. Of the 471 patients onboard, 115 perished.

George Wall was reported missing presumed drowned. his body was one of the few recovered at sea, and taken to Southampton, and then to the 5th Southern General Hospital in Portsmouth. He was buried in Milton Cemetery on 7 August 1918. At some time between his enlistment and his death Wall must have converted to Catholicism, as although his attestation papers state that he was a member of the Church of England, by the time of his funeral he was recorded as a Roman Catholic. His funeral was conducted by Reverend Timothy A. Toomey, of Bishops House in Edinburgh Road, the residence of Portsmouth’s RC Bishop. The undertaker was Alfred G. Stapleford of Crasswell Street. Unlike most Australians buried in Portsmouth Wall had a number of relatives present at his funeral – his uncle Mr. Charles A. Wall, of the Hollies, Harcourt Road, Wallington in Surrey; and aunts Misses Ethel and Dorothy Wall, of 21 Maldon Road, also in Wallington. Wreaths were sent by George Wall’s mother and father, his uncle and aunts, staff at the hospital and australian patients. 30 Australian patients followed Wall’s coffin from the hospital to Milton Cemetery.

As he was lost at sea, very few of his possessions were returned to his family – only items held in storage either in France or in Britain. His family received 1 book (knots untied), 1 belt, 2 prayer books, pair boots, 1 khaki shirt and 1 strop. George Wall was insured with the National Mutual Life Insurance, and his will was handled by Messrs Corr and Corr of Melbourne. His will bequeathed his entire estate to his father.

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ANZAC #10 – Private John Roberts

John Roberts was born at Mount Egerton in Victoria. The son of William and Esther Roberts, John was living at Herbert Road in Footscray, Victoria when he joined the Australian Army on 4 October 1916. Upon enlisting he was aged 27 years and 9 months, and had been working as an unapprenticed miner. He wasn’t married, and his next of kin was his mother, suggesting that his father was dead. His permanent address was given as care of the Post Office, Bulong in Western Australia. He hadn’t previously served in the armed forces, and he took the oath at Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. That he was living in Western Australia is not surprising, I would imagine there are more openings for miners there than in Victoria! He was quite a small man, at 5ft 6 and a half inches and he weighed 135lb. He had a ruddy complexion, with brown hair and hazel eyes, with perfect eyesight. His chest measured 32 inches and 35 expanded. He was a member of the Congregational Church – a church where each congregation pretty much runs itself – and had a tattoo of a heart and clasped hands on his left forearm.

Upon enlisting, he was posted to 87 Depot, and from there was drafted to the 44th Battalion, Australian Infantry on 11 November 1916. In October he received unspecified dental treatment, and at some point during this period Roberts spent some time in the Clearing Hospital in Black Boy Hill, Western Australia, with an inflamed right buttock – possibly a training injury.Roberts service record, uniquely, give us an impression of just how many vaccinations servicemen had to receive – Roberts was vaccinated on 17 and 26 October, and 13 and 28 December – the last two for influenza. He was also vaccinated on 16 February 1917, whilst in transit to Britain. He embarked from Freemantle, Western Australia onboard the HMAT Persic (A34), on 29 December 1916. The day before leaving Australia Roberts made a will, lodged with a Miss Margaret McInnes, at the Government Hospital in Kargoolie, West Australia.

The Persic finally arrived at Devonport on 3 March 1917, and from there Roberts processed through the Camp Details Section at Sutton Manderville. Five days later, he joined the 11th Training Battalion at Larkhill on Salisbury Plain. All Australian troops arriving from Australia spent some time with a training Battalion, even if they had already been designated for a Battalion that was at the front. After three months training, Roberts left for France. On 19 June 1917 he proceeded overseas via Southampton, arriving at the 3rd Australian Base Details Depot at Le Havre the next day. After 18 days there he finally left to join his Battalion, joining up with the 44th on 9 July 1917.

After less than a month at the front, John Roberts was admitted to the 11th Australian Field Ambulance suffering with Influenza – possibly an early sufferer of the Spanish influenza epidemic. After a week in the Field Ambulance he was discharged and returned to duty on 16 August. Less than four days later, however, Roberts was again admitted to Hospital sick. He was processed through the 9th Australian Field Ambulance and the 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station, and was believed to be suffering from appendicitis. On 21 August he boarded 38 Ambulance Train, to the 5th General Hospital in Rouen. Five days later he was sent to England on the Hospital Ship Esquibo, by now diagnosed with acute Nephritis. The next day he was admitted to the 5th Southern General Hospital in Portsmouth, where his Nephritis was described as slight.

Upon admission Roberts was assessed by a doctor. No blood was found in his urine, but a large ischio-skeletal abcess was discovered on his right side, in the kidney region. Over two months his condition deteriorated, and he died at 12.50pm on 11 November 1917, of Nephritis. He was buried in Milton Cemetery at 3pm on 21 November 1917 – an unusually long 10 days after his death. Prior to his internment a service was held in the Chapel at the Cemetery – the only time this happened for any of the twelve Australians in Milton – conducted by the Reverend J. Watkins Daines, a Congregational Minister of Milton. And unlike most other Australian servicemen, Roberts elm coffin had brass mountings. A Firing party, bugler and pallbearers were provided by the Hampshire Regiment. Roberts brother, Private A.B. Roberts of 3 Coy Australian Army Service Corps Divisional Train was present at the funeral. Interestingly, Roberts was originally buried in unconsecrated ground – why, exactly, I have yet to establish. The undertaker was H. Osborne of Gosport – again, unusual, as all of the other ANZACS were ‘looked after’ by A.G. Stapleford, of Crasswell Street, Portsmouth.

John Roberts personal effects comprised the following:

1 wallet note book (containing letters), 2 discs, 1 coin, 1 silk shirt and collar, strop, pipe, jack knife, mirror, gospel, writing pad, hair brush, badges, shaving brush, soldiers guide, testament, 1 holdall (containing toothbrush, razor, 2 combs), 1 pair mittens, 1 pair socks.

Interestingly, these objects were sent to Mrs. M. McInnes at Kargoolie, who had been appointed as Private Roberts executor in his will. She was given sole powers over his estate, as if she were his sole beneficiary. If there was a dispute with his mother is unknown.

Sadly, John Roberts other brother also died during the war. Private Lawrence Moyle Roberts, of the 2nd Australian Machine Gun Company, was 20 when he died on 9 December 1916, and is buried in Lodge Hill Cemetery in Birmingham. Their mother Esther Roberts received a pension for both of them after their deaths.

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