Tag Archives: british empire

Portsmouth’s Great War Emigrants and Immigrants

I’ve always found the transient nature of Portsmouth society pretty interesting. As a port people have been coming and going from the place for hundreds of years. In fact, Portsmouth probably knew more about Immigants and Emigrants than any other place before the Empire Windrush.

My research into Portsmouth’s World War One dead is throwing up some pretty interesting findings with regard to people either leaving Portsmouth or coming here. A number of Portsmouth men were killed serving with foreign military units. 5 men were killed with African units. 12  were with the Australian Army, as well 6 men who were loaned to the Royal Australian Navy. 29 men were serving with Canadian units, 3 with Indian units, and 2 New Zealand. For many of these – in particular Australian and Canadian – their service records survive, so it should be possible to research their careers and lives in a fair bit of detail – how did they come to leave Portsmouth?I suspect that some may never have set foot in their ‘adopted’ country, but might have been transferred in theatre as manpower needs dictated. All the same, the majority of them probably emigrated in search of a better life, and im many cases, were killed serving closer to their homeland than they could have ever imagined.

Looking down the list of surnames of war dead, it is possible to find quite a few foreign sounding surnames. Some of them sound distinctly German, French, Spanish, Italian, Polish and possible Jewish. Some of them I have picked out are as follows:

Gunner Alfred Baulf (RFA), Gunner Henry Berger (RFA), Private Henry Bosonnet (15th Hampshires), Private Cyril Brunnen (2nd Hampshires), Lieutenant George Cosser (6th Hampshires), Private Walter De Caen (2nd Hampshires), Lance Corporal Joseph Hassalt (South Wales Borderers), Private John Hedicker (2nd Hampshires), Lance Corporal Harold Heffren (1st Hampshires), Private H.W. Heinman (2nd Hampshires), Lance Corporal R.J. Pamphilon (London Regiment), Sergreant Albert Petracca (Army Service Corps), M. Weiner (not yet identified, Ships Cook William Boggia (HMS Victory),PO Frederick De Barr (HMS Natal), PO Walter De Ste Croix (HMS Hampshire), AB Charles Farlou (HMS Ardent), Telegraphist John Hefferman (HMS Princess Irene), Chief Engine Room Artificer William Lucia (HMS Queen Mary), Sick Berth Attendant Arthur Mazonowicz (HMS Victory), Gunner Albert Mehennet (RMA Siege Guns), Signal Bosun Arthur Mortieau (HMS Hampshire), Officers Cook 1st Class Herbert Weitzel (HM Yacht Zarefah), Musician John Whichello (RM Band Service), Alexander Zeithing (unidentified), Gunner Albert Rosser (RMA, HMS Vanguard), Officers Cook Alfred Santillo (HMS Goliath), PO William Koerner (HMS Niobe).

There are also quite a few men who came from ‘foreign’ places with links to the British Empiure – 17 men from the Channel Islands, and five from Malta. Many of these men may have fled strife at home – possibly some French-descended men of Hugenot origin? – or perhaps Eastern Europeans of Jews fleeing pogroms in Central and Eastern Europe. Sadly for many of them service records are not available, but it might be an interesting exercise to try and chart their lives.

When it comes to Royal Naval and Royal Marine Servicemen, for the vast majority their service records still survive. And better still, in the search function on the National Archives Documents Online website, you can see their date and place of birth without having to pay! The following were born in foreign climes:

PO George Temple (Bermuda), PO Samuel Greenway (Ceylon), AB William Morrison (Ceylon), Lieutenant George Walker-Williamson (India), Cooks Mate William Opie (India), Cooks Mate Frederick Shephard (India), Warrant Mechanician Thomas King (New Zealand), Leading Seaman Edward Williams (Campos Gabrielle, South America, possibly Chile), Chief Engine Room Artificer Stamper Wade (Boston US).

They all have distinctly British names, so it would seem that they were born to British parents who for whatever reason were living or working abroad. Interesting that many of their places of birth – India, Ceylon and New Zealand for example – were part of the British Empire. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but Stamper Wade sounds like a typical American name! It would also be interesting to find out about Edward Williams – as far as I can tell, Campos Gabrielle could be in Chile.

We don’t know quite as much about the provenance of men who served in the Army, but on his Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry we see that Private Henry Hodge was born in Barbados, but was living in Cosham at the time that he was killed. Again, it would be very interesting to find out why!

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Filed under Local History, Uncategorized, World War One

ANZAC #4 – Lieutenant Harry Gearing

The fourth Australian soldier to be buried in Milton Cemetery presents us with a pretty interesting story indeed. Harry Alan Cheshire Gearing was born in India, on 16 August 1884. Hence he was very much a son of the British Empire. He was the son of Henry George and Mary Gearing. In civilian life prior to joining the Army he was Secretary and Accountant, and his wife was Bertha Gearing.

Sadly, as he was an officer Harry Gearing did not go through quite the same recruitment process as the rank and file. Harry Gearing was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Australian Army Service Corps on 22 April 1915. Prior to embarking for the Middle East, Gearing was in charge of rations at the Brisbane Army base, issuing rations daily for 4,000 men and 1,000 horses.

2nd Lieutenant Gearing embarked from Australia onboard the HMAT Ascanuis (A11), from Brisbane on 24 May 1915. He reached Egypt sometime later, but had been taken ill on the voyage. On 21 July 1915 he was examined by a Medical Board at the Australian Hospital in Heliopolis, outside Cairo, and found to be suffering from Diabetes, his symptoms including glycosuria, unquenchable thirst and asthemia.

On 28 July he left Egypt, onboard the HMAT Ceramic bound for England. By 7 August he was in Britain, and was again examined at the 3rd London General Hospital in Wandsworth. Again, a Medical Board found that he was suffering from Diabetes, caused by service, and that he was unlikely to be fit for any future active service away from home. He was immediately given 3 months sick leave, leaving London on 31 August 1915.

Whilst on sick leave Gearing seems to have been perpetually on the move, taking in vast swathes of England and Scotland in something of a grand tour. His letters to the Australian Headquarters in London passed on his forwarding address, even if he was only staying for one or two days! In September he stayed with a Mrs Stewart at Culgruft, in Cross Michael in Scotland. From there he went to Dollar in Clarkmananshire, and from there on to Lauriestone Hall in Mossdale. In October he took in Corsock, Dalbeatie, Kircudbrightshire; and Balmaghie House, Castle Douglas.

In late October 1915 he was informed that he had to come back to London to sit before another Medical Board, in order to assess his fitness for further service. An argument then ensued, about whether he was entitled to a Railway Warrant for his journey! Gearing also stated that he would be willing to foregoe the rest of his sick leave if he could be garuanteed a post with the ANZAC base depot at Weymouth, but AIF Headquarters would not promise this.

Gearing was finally examined by yet another Medical Board at the AIF Headquarters at 130 Horseferry Road on 26 November 1915 The board found that his weight was still fluctuating, and that he had Polyuric and pains in the limbs, much sugar in the urine. He was found permanently unfit for active service. For some reason he does not appear to have been discharged there and then, but sent on more sick leave.

Between November 1915 and April 1916 his movements are somewhat vague, but we do know that Lieutenant Gearing was finally discharged from the Australian Imperial Forces in April 1916, in London. Although his letters suggest that he wished to return to Australia, for whatever reason he did not do so immediately. Upon arrival in London in April he was staying at Messrs Wallace and Co,Russell Court, ClevelandRow, in West London. In early May 1916 he sent a number of telegrams that suggest that he had been to Marseille in the South of France before returning to London. At some time in early April we know that he was in Gibraltar, making that a likely possibility. Later in May he stayed at Faulkners Hotel, Villiers Street, Strand, before travelling to stay at The Bungalow, Praa Sands, Vis Ashton, Cornwall.

Intriguingly, Lieutenant Gearing does appear to have had a sister in England – Hope G. Gearing, who lived in Culver Lodge, at Sandown on the Isle of Wight – by no means a million miles from Portsmouth. Ironically given his extensive travelling, there is no indication that he visited her during his time in Britain.

It seems that Gearing did not return to Australia. He died of Diabetes on 16 March 1917, almost a year after he had left the Australian Army. He was 31. Death records suggest that he did die in Portsmouth. Perhaps he was in the Military HospitalHe was buried in Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth, alongside other Australian Great War soldiers. Why he was buried in Milton is something of a mystery, but in 1919 his widow, who had been in Australia during the war, was living at Red Lodge, Craneswater Park in Southsea. She was still in Britain during 1920 and 1921, and according to her brother, was ‘always on the move’ – much like her husband, it appears.

Although he did not see active service, Harry Gearing’s experience is another example of the way in which servicemen could become ill during their service, and many sadly died. Although Gearing seems to have been of a slightly different class to most Diggers – an accountant, who seemingly had contacts throughout Britain - like his comrades, he died and was buried thousands of miles from home.

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Filed under Pompey ANZAC's, Uncategorized, World War One

Chitral Charlie by N.S. Nash

Since studying the Operation Market Garden from an early age, I have had a keen interest in military incompetence. Arguably, one of the most well-known military disasters was that of Arnhem. Whether Boy Browning was culpable has been debated ever since. On the other hand, modern historians nowadays accept that Arthur Percival could not have done much more than he did to save Singapore from surrender.

Yet perhaps the greatest military disaster to befall the British Empire was that of Kut. During the Great War British and Indian troops advanced in Mesopotamia – modern Iraq – against the Ottoman Turk. In command was Major-General Charles Townshend. Townshend had joined the British Army in the late Victorian period. It is interesting that he chose a military career, as he had a very keen interest in the theatre and performing arts, and liked moving in those circles.

It is probably surprising that Townshend managed to reach the rank of Major-General at all. He spent large periods on leave gallivanting around Europe and North America, and swapped cap-badges for a hobby. But perhaps worst of all, he had a nasty habit of alienating his superiors, and even officers who supported him soon grew tired of his obsessive letter writing. He was constantly hassling commanders for a better posting, or bemoaning his supposed ill-fortune.

So why did the Army not simply cut him off at a lower rank? Firstly, Townshend did serve in the Sudan under Kitchener, and on the North West Frontier in India. He was awarded a total of NINE mentions in despatches. Secondly, patronage still counted for much in the British Armed forces, and ability and potential were not always the final arbiter of a career.

Regulars will by now be fed up of reading my opinion of military biographies – ie, that they are mostly hopelessly inadequate. Yet this attempt by ‘Tank’ Nash is very fair. It bears no baggage, recognises Townshend’s service but also calls his indiscretions and weaknesses very accurately.

Townshend at first advanced into Iraq, pushing the Turk’s onto the back foot. Drunk on victory, he decided to stand at Kut, and await reinforcements. The reinforcements never arrived, and eventually, after a bloody siege, Townshend and his men were captured. Many of them died brutally, yet Townshend spent the rest of the war in luxury in Constantinople. Not only did he show little concern over his men, but when he returned home he could not understand why he came in for such criticism. Incredibly, he felt that he could act as an envoy to the Turks, and could not comprehend that the Army was keen to get shot of him as soon as possible.

Townshend has many similarities with Browning. Both had shown bravery early in the careers, but then spent time away from active soldiering, and hence were rusty when war came. And worst of all, both careers were driven by ambition and patronage rather than ability. And lost battles were the result.

Chitral Charlie is published by Pen and Sword

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Zulu: Queen Victoria’s Most Famous Little War by W.B. Bartlett

I’m reading another book at the moment about Winston Churchill, and the author writes at one point that after 1945 Churchill was harking for the long peace that he knew during the latter years of the Victorian era, in the early years of his life. Which is rather strange, as Churchill himself charged at Omdurman and was a war correspondent in the Boer War.

The ‘golden’ age of the British Empire was hallmarked by a lengthy peace between the European powers (save the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War), which is a very British way of seeing things, pulling up the draw bridge an’ all that. But at the same time, the British Empire brought about a plethora of small wars on virtually every continent. I’m always amazed by the huge range of wars that redcoats and native contingents found themselves fighting, particularly on the North West Frontier and in Africa.

Perhaps the most famous of these ‘little wars’ was that fought with the Zulu Empire in South Africa 1879. Here W.B. Bartlett has given this well-known but oft-misunderstood war a measured and scholarly treatment. Firstly, perceptions of the war have inevitably been tinted by the battle fought at Rorkes Drift, as immortalised in the 1946 film Zulu. The Zulu Impi descended on Rorkes Drift after inflicting a humiliting defeat on a British column at Isandlwana, another battle that is well known. But these two battles overshadow the rest of the war to the extent that the final outcome is little known.

The war seems to have begun in a typically British manner – no-one could point out precisely why the British wanted to advance into Zululand. In hindsight, it seems to have been a classic case of what I think of as ‘Empire creep’ – once one realm was captured, eyes instantly turned to that next door, even if there was nothing to capture and it was only a case of securing the frontier of land already held. There was no specific reason for the British to fight the Zulus, making the war somewhat un-necessary in any case.

The British commander was General John Thesiger, who during the campaign inherited the title of Lord Chelmsford. A controversial character, his legacy has been shaped by the humiliation at Isandlwana. The war began with several British columns advancing into Zululand, and in hindsight it appears that they were woefully underprepared and underestimated the Zulus. There was no intelligence to speak of, and the Natal Native Contingent were unreliable. This is a typically British military trait – starting a war with as little resources as possible, unprepared, and trying to get away with using as few British troops as possible. After the debacle at Isandlwana the Army was shaken out of its comfort zone, and eventually defeated the Zulus and captured King Cetshwayo.

The battle at Rorkes Drift is a curious incident in British military history. Undoubtedly a very brave action fought against overwhelming odds, it is important to remember that the South Wales Borderers were armed with Martini-Henry Rifles and were behind improvised but strong fortifications. Whilst it was a brave action, did it warrant such a large number of Victoria Crosses? It has to be said, that Rorkes Drift was probably used as a publicity coup to deflect attention from the terrible news of Isandlwana. Which as a shame, as it was still a brave fight none the less.

Another interesting story to come from the Zulu War is that of the death of the French Prince Imperial. A great-nephew of Napoleon and son of the Exiled French Emperor Louis Napoleon, the Prince Imperial begged to be allowed to go to South Africa to take part in the war in some capacity. That it was not his war in the first place and that he had no conceivable use was of no consequence, somehow he managed to pull enough strings to be allowed to go to a war that was not his. He was killed in the process. Although his death became something of a cause celebre, modern historians mostly agree that he should not have been there in the first place.

This is a balanced and refreshing take on what is a well-known but oft-understood war, two traits that often go hand in hand. By not concentrating overly on Isandlwana and Rorkes Drift, Bartlett reminds us that the war was much wider than we might realise, thanks to Hollywood.

Zulu: Queen Victoria’s Most Famous Little War is published by The History Press

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Empire History, victoria cross

Is ‘victory’ in Afghanistan possible?

Soviet President Michael Sergeevich Gorbachev

Image via Wikipedia

I’m always astounded to read yet-another scaremongering article about how NATO is ‘losing’ the war in Afghanistan. Whilst it is difficult to argue with such a prominent figure as Mikhail Gorbachev, he is not quite right to compare the current war in Afghanistan with the war that the Soviet Union

All historical and military evidence suggests that you do not ever ‘win’ a counter-insurgency campaign in the traditional military ‘win or lose’ manner. For that is what the war in Afghanistan is – a campaign to prevent the Taliban from taking hold, rather than to capture ground or openly defeat an enemy. There will never be any kind of cushing, convincing victory, no ticker tape reception or victory parade.

The British Army fought perhaps the most succesful counter-insurgency campaign in history in Northern Ireland. Whilst it could not be said that the Army ‘won’ in the strictest military sense, it did make it impossible for the paramilitaries to achieve their objectives. I’m sure that at any point the Army could have gone all-out and eliminated every terrorist that it knew of, but while this might have made for good headlines, it would have hardened a whole generation to the nationalist cause. Just look at the effect that Bloody Sunday and Internment had – any kind of bigger offensive does not bear thinking about. The objective in counter-insurgency has to be not only to improve matters, but to ensure that they do not get worse.

Another perspective I have never understood is the argument that ‘the British Army has never won in Afghanistan’. History does not bear out this argument at all. British Armies in Afghanistan did have a very hard time in Afghanistan in the Nineteenth Century, but we need to understand what exactly they were doing there. There was – and indeed, still is not – anything in Afghanistan to conquer. The British Empire was not about conquering empty countries; it was built on trade. Rather, campaigns in Afghanistan were aimed at presenting a strong bulwark against Russian expansionism in Asia, and safeguarding the North West Frontier of India. All of these objectives were achieved.

I do agree that the sooner international forces can leave Afghanistan the better, as their mere presence can be a recruiting tool for the Taliban, but at the same time there is no sense in pulling out pell-mell unless the Afghans themselves can take care of their own security. History suggests that problem states that are left along – Germany post 1918, and Iraq after the first Gulf War – will only need to be dealt with at a later date, and usually in a more bloody fashion. I do not believe either that Afghanistan will become another Vietnam - the US and the international have – or should have – learnt an awful lot in dealing with counter-insurgency since then.

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HMS Gloucester barred from Uruguay

HMS Gloucester docked on Portsmouth harbour.

HMS Gloucester in Portsmouth Harbour (Image via Wikipedia)

According to today’s Portsmouth News HMS Gloucester has been barred from calling in at a Uruguayan port.

The Type 42 Destroyer, on her way to the South Atlantic for her stint as Falkland Islands Guardship, had originally been granted permission to stop in Montevideo for supplies and fuel, as Royal Navy warships in the South Atlantic have frequently done for decades. When Gloucester arrived in Montevideo last week, however, she was informed that she was not welcome and asked to leave. An anonymous Uruguayan source even referred to the Falklands as the ‘Malvinas’.

Argentina had previously requested that all South American countries refuse to allow British warships or aircraft to use their facilities, in an attempt to blockade British Forces and make their job much more difficult. In 2007 HMS Nottingham was also barred from Montevideo, while also heading to the Falklands. On that occasion a specific request was made by the Argentinian Foreign Minister. Apparently that was not the case with HMS Gloucester. The barring of ports in South America is a very serious issue. In 1982 Argentina was a virtual pariah, as a military dictatorship. Although most countries did not give Britain open support (apart from perhaps Chile), neither did they support Argentina.

In the past year or so Argentina has been slowly ratcheting up pressure over the Falklands, brought to a head by the discovery of oil reserves in the South Atlantic near the Falklands. Funnily enough they were not so bothered about them until oil was discovered. I’ve written before about my views on the Falklands. British soveriegnty of the islands is something of an oddity of empire, but its by no means the only one - after all, most of the continent of South America is populated by – and ruled by – people who originally came from Spain. What happened to the indigenous people there? Yet the Falklands had no native population. The British people there now have been living there for hundreds of years, which in anyones book, makes them pretty settled. The arguments have been raked over over and over again. If there are issues, they should be raised in the United Nations.

The parallels with 1982 are rather alarming. An unpopular Argentinian Government with economic and social problems, a Thatcherite British Government looking to slash British Armed Forces, a decision pending over a South Atlantic Ice Patrol Ship, and fears that the Royal Navy might lose Aircraft Carrier and Assault Ship resources. Against that background, a lack of support – and, indeed, ambivilence to Britain in South America – is something we could well do without.

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Hugh Quarshie – Who Do You Think You Are?

Finally, a WDYTYA episode that one, has an imperial twist, and two, doesnt try to make us all feel guilty for the British Empire! Actor Hugh Quarshie (Ric in Holby City) is of Ghanaian ancestry. The first part of the programme shows Hugh travelling to Ghana to trace that side of his family tree.

Interestingly, the programme sheds light on the fact that Ghana – known as the Gold Coast – had imperial masters before the British, in the shape of the Portuguese, and then the Dutch. And Quarshie’s family had Dutch blood, in the shape of a Dutch imperial civil servant who married a Ghanaian woman and had children with her. The Dutchman, Peter Kamerling, founded the village where Hugh’s ancestors lived. And when he visits the village, we get a surprise – none of present day inhabitants are bothered about the imperial past. In fact, he is greeted as minor royalty, and other villages who have links with the Kamerlings are very proud of their heritage. Kinda throws new light on the liberal assumption that Empire is terrible and that the natives are always hard done by.

Then Hugh travels to Holland, and manages to trace more records about the Dutch side of his family. And, incredibly, he meets a Dutch descendant of the Kamerlings, who has researched his family tree. Although Kamerling has apparently deserted his Ghanaian family to return to Holland, Hugh finds that his will made provisions for all of his children in Ghana, and he even included their birth certificates in his will in order to prove that they were his children. Although he had left them, he had not forgotten them.

The Dutch Empire of the 17th Century is all but forgotten in the race to lay on the guilt over the British Empire. The Dutch built an impressive trading network, covering parts of North America, the west coast of Africa and the East Indies. The Dutch were methodical record keepers, which helped Hugh trace that part of his family history. But they were also ruthless. I have read an account from modern day Indonesia, where Dutch merchants caught an English rival trading in one of their ports. They chased him, and when they caught him he was cut, and ‘washed in salt and vinegar’. Lovely!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Do You Think You Are? – Rupert Penry-Jones

Its not really a secret that I am not the biggest fan of WDYTYA. All too often it makes it look too easy, when in reality genealogy can be – for us mere mortals, anyway – bloody hard work. And after five series, they’re starting to run out of decent celebrities to research. But tonight’s episode was pretty damm interesting. And funnily enough, I hadn’t even heard of Rupert Penry-Jones before watching it! (he’s an actor, apparently…)

His Grandfather was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Indian Army Medical Service, and commanded a Field Ambulance in the Eighth Army from 1943 until the end of the war, including at Monte Cassino. Penry-Jones travelled to Italy and met with a veteran of Monte Cassino to talk about the battle.

As we might expext from someone called Rupert who has a double-barrelled-shotgun surname, his family were very much ‘of the Raj’. One ancestor was responsible for the ceremonial events in Dehli in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, including the incredible 1911 Dehli Coronation Durbar.

Going back even further, another ancestor was serving as an officer in the British Army in India during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Penry-Jones managed to track down letters that his ancestor sent his wife while taking part in the crushing of the rebellion, before he died of Cholera whilst marching to Lucknow.

Incredibly, Penry-Jones was also able to confirm a family rumour that they had Indian blood, by going back a full eight generations, to 1817. All those generations back one of his ancestor’s married a woman who was described as an ‘Indo-Britain’. Further research established that she was the product of an Anglo-Indian marriage.

Perhaps not the kind of story that most normal people will find themselves researching in their family history (and even if we did find it, who could afford to fly to India for a spot of genealogy?), but very interesting none the less. It would be even more watchable if Rupert didn’t insist on wearing an ethnic-style scarf whilst walking rould Allahabad!

WDYTYA with Rupert Penry-Jones can be watched on BBC iplayer until Monday 20 September 2010.

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Crimson Snow: Britain’s first disaster in Afghanistan by Jules Stewart

Britain. Disaster. Afghanistan. Words that are never far away from any news programme. And words that are also used quite casually by ill-informed commentators to suggest that the war in Afghanistan is doomed. Normally along with some reference to ‘the Russians couldnt do it’. We could be excused for thinking that the war currently being fought in Afghanistan at the moment is the first time that British troops have ever set foot in Afghanistan, and that the issues facing ISAF in Helmand and the rest of the country are completely new. Of course, we all know that the British Army first crossed the frontier into Afganistan way back in 1839, and this book by Jules Stewart sheds new light on one of the British Army’s biggest but least known disasters.

The ill-fated expedition into Afghanistan was conceived out of the broader picture of the ‘Great Game’, in other words the strategic contest between Russia and Britain for dominance over Persia and Central Asia. Britain was fearful of Russian expansion, and in particular feared that Russian success in countries such as Persia and Afghanistan might put India – the jewel in the crown of the British Empire – at risk.

As a result, the British Government ordered a military operation to occupy Afghanistan. The reasons are important to understand – there was clearly nothing to conquer in Afghanistan itself. The aim was rather to present a strong bulwark on the North West Frontier of India against the perceived Russian threat. The British Empire was built on trade rather than territory, and it would have run counter to all common sense to annexe Afghanistan purely for the sake of it.

21,000 British and Indian troops set out from India, commanded by Major-General William Elphinstone. Although the force managed to occupy Afghanistan with little trouble, it was only after the majority of the troops returned to India that the problems began. Surrounded by a plethora of hostile tribes, the British were forced to hole up in Kabul. Disaffected tribes flocked to the leadership of Akbar Khan. After a long and arduous siege, an agreement was finally reached with Khan to allow the remaining British troops and civilians in Kabul to return to India. Despite the promises of safe passage that Elphinstone had secured, the force was atacked in the snowbound passes. A massacre ensued, and only one man escaped.

The lessons in this book are not just interesting nuggets of History – after all the foreword written by General Sir David Richards, the current head of the British Army, and a former commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. And I feel that Stewart captures these running themes very well. Firstly, that Afghanistan is such a patchwork of different tribes and loyalties, that it is almost misleading to think of it as a nation in the usual sense. And secondly, that Afghans have a very different code of values to those that we have in Western society. If we want to succeed in Afghanistan, then we need to immerse ourselves in these factors and work within them. Thirdly, that a large Army marching into any country where the populace is less than 100% supportive is bound to have a tough time. And finally, rather than send a tiny force to begin with, and then a larger Army to avenge is massacre, might it have been more sensible to do it properly in the first place? For 1842′s army of retribution, read 2010′s surge.

Did the first Anglo-Afghan war deflect Russia from the country? It is impossible to tell without looking at Russian sources. That must surely be the measure of whether the 1839-42 war was a success. Although the massacre is bound to attract attention, the mere presence of British troops might have been enough to blunt Russian designs.

Perhaps this book, in its focus on the 1839-182 war, does give the impression that British involvement in Afghanistan has always been a failure. But although a punitative force did exact revenge for the massacre, and the later Afghan wars were more succesful, this is very much a cautionary tale based on the first confict. Jules Stewart has used some impressive research, including original sources, to shed new light on this important episode. I found it a gripping read, and it should be standard issue to officers preparing to go to Afghanistan.

Crimson Snow: Britain’s first disaster in Afghanistan is published by The History Press

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Empire of the Seas: High Tide

This is the third and penultimate episode in this BBC series, presented by Dan Snow. And having watched it last night, and again this morning on catch-up, I think its the best of the bunch. I’m still fed up with seeing shot after shot of Dan Snow climbing rigging, rowing in boats or sailing yachts – after 3 episodes its getting a bit boring now, and precisely how much did it all cost?

This programme does an excellent job of showing how Nelson’s Navy evolved into the magnificent machine that it became by the time of Trafalgar. The wooden walls and jack tars didn’t suddenly turn up off Cape Trafalgar in 1805. Their development was a long process. There does also seem to be an assumption that the loss of the American colonies was a grievous blow, but in truth the West Indies sugar islands and – increasingly – India were far more lucrative. Arguably, the loss of the 13 colonies freed up the Navy. And the combinaton of men, ships and gunnery almost always proved critical, wherever they were in the world.

Empire forced the Royal Navy into become a global force, with highly trained and ambitious men. The Navy was overwhelmingly a meritocracy, due to the constant pressure it commitments made on it. Men such as Nelson came to the fore. And the succesful protection of Imperial trade, combined with an exploring ethos, led to further imperial expansion.

Perhaps too often we think of the Navy as being a fighting force. But in peacetime brave officers spent years exploring, surveying and charting. These kinds of activities were very much in keeping with the Navy’s aggressive, global outlook.

That the Navy has such a central place in British culture and society is important to grasp. The need to fund the Navy led to the Income Tax. And technological innovations were driven by a need to make the fleet efective. Copper sheathing is a brilliant case in point. And tchnology in turn fuelled British industry.

Snow also makes the extremely relevant point that a Navy that isnt fighting, almost always becomes inefficient and loses its sharp edge. The Politicians and Admirals might like to bear this in mind when they give our ships off Somalia restrictive terms of engagement.

Catch Empire of the Seas: High Tide here on BBC iplayer

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Dan Snow’s Empire of the Seas: Heart of Oak

In this series Dan Snow charts the role that the Royal Navy played in shaping modern Britain. As someone with a keen interest in naval and maritime history, and a confessed non-admirer of Mr Snow, I have been keenly awaiting the first programme.

The Royal Navy’s dominance of later years grew out of its defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and a need to protect the seas around the British Isles. It was but a small step from passive defence, to an aggressive form of defence, taking the fight to enemies such as the Dutch, the Spanish and the French.

Out of this dominance of the seas came an ability to trade. Trading networks grew around the globe branching back to Britain: from the Baltic, the Americas, the Baltic, the Mediterranean, Africa and the Far East. These were the beginnings of the British Empire. And Empire that was built wholly on the Oceans.

Many other aspects of the modern British state also grew out of the Royal Navy: administration, central organisation and a place in British national heritage. A huge supportive infrastructure also grew up out of the maintenance of the Royal Navy and commercial shipping. Patriotism, trade, Protestantism and national identity welded together to provide a crucible for the Royal Navy that would develop over the next few hundred years.

This programme also introduces some interesting aspects that are little-known to a modern audience, in particular the threat of the Barbary Corsairs, Pirates who operated out of the North African coast and preyed on fishing vessels at sea, and even the Southern Irish and South West British coastline. The Royal Navy patrolled the coastlines in defence. Lessons could be learnt here for the current scourge of Piracy off the Somalian Coast.

I do feel however that some earlier developments have been ignored. The Royal Navy was really founded initially by King Alfred, long before Snow’s series starts. And how could England launch succesive invasions of France during the Hundred Years War, other than with sea power? Henry VII and Henry VIII did much to develop maritime trade, and the Mary Rose in 1545 saw the Navy defending the realm against a foreign agressor 33 years before the Armada, yet somehow this is omitted.

This is a most interesting programme, and should hopefully inform a wider public about the long tradition of British naval power. What is most disappointing, however, is the discovery that the ‘historical consultant’ for the series is Brian Lavery – a well known Naval writer and academic. Seems that Dan ‘son of John’ is none other than a presenter. I could take him a lot more seriously if he actually did some work for the programme.

If you missed it, Episode 1 can be watched here on BBC iplayer

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