Tag Archives: first world war

The Long Long LONG Trail: First World War on the TV (part 1)

With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War looming, we have already seen a steady increase in the amount of programs related to the First World War on television. Here’s my assessment of what we have seen so far.

Jeremy Paxman’s ‘Britain’s Great War’ was a welcome surprise. I must admit, I find Paxman rather unlikeable on Newsnight, which, as it turns out, does him a great dis-service as a presenter. I really enjoyed ‘Britain’s Great War’, and I felt that it covered many aspects of the First World War that have been previously ignored. We all know about the Somme and Gallipoli, for example, yet how many people knew that Britain was bombed during the First World War? Or about conscription, or rationing?

Max Hastings’ ‘The Necessary War‘ was a disappointment. Aside from the fact that I find Hastings style incredibly grating, I felt that ‘the Necessary War’ was essentially produced for a ‘Daily Mail’ market, as per much of Hastings work, and was full of great power, imperialist nostalgia of a significantly conservative bent. It is certainly useful to question previously held assumptions – of which the ‘futile war’ argument has become something of an orthodoxy. Presenting the First World War as unavoidable is slightly ridiculous – is any war ever completely unavoidable? If not then we might as well all just kill each other now and get it over and done with!

I have long been a big fan of Niall Ferguson’s book ‘The Pity of War‘, but the TV adaptation was rather disappointing. I enjoyed the open format, and it was very refreshing to watch a topical issue being debated in the studio by the audience and academic alike. However I felt that Ferguson’s segments did not really reflect the content of the book on which the program was based, and some of the elements were completely off on a tangent. I felt that it slightly missed the point overall, but the intention was noble and the format more interesting.

So far ‘37 Days‘ has, in my book, been by far the most impressive. A three part docu-drama following the events of July and August 1914 as the unfold, in Sarajevo, Vienna, Berlin and London. As a series it fills a gap in popular understanding. It is not enough to cite’ the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’ as the cause of the First World War – so much happened in between that and the first shots being fired, as this program shows. And I had not realised just how dramatic events were, how interlinked events were, and the complex personalities involved. I am not normally a fan of the ‘great man’ school of history, but this was illuminating, insightful and entertaining in its own right.

We can expect a significant amount of First World War-centric television over the next few months. As much as I welcome the interest, I do hope that we won’t experience overkill by the time 4 August arrives – in the rush to produce topical and relevant documentaries, we can only hope that there is a marked improvement in the scope and quality!

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Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes – book talks

ImageI’m going to be giving some talks based on my new book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’, courtest of Portsmouth Library Service:

Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes

  • Saturday 8 February – 1.30pm, Carnegie Library (Fratton)
  • Saturday 8 March – 1.30pm, Southsea Library
Over 6,000 men from Portsmouth are believed to have been killed during WW1. Not only were thousands of Portsmouth soldiers killed on the Western Front, but Portsmouth-based ships were sunk throughout the war, causing massive loss of life. Thanks to a
wealth of sources available, it is possible to tell their stories in more detail than ever before.

Researching your World War One Ancestors

  • Saturday 29 March – 11am, Central Library

A special talk for the ‘Lost Hour’ event, this talk will show you how you can research your ancestors who took part in the First World War, using examples of men from Portsmouth who fought and died, and shwoing you the sources available to help with your research.

All talks are fully illustrated, and copies of my book will be available for purchase. Hope to see you there, come and say hi!

For more information about how to find the venues, and about other events taking place at Portsmouth Libraries over the next few months, click here.

Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes is also available to purchase on Amazon and other online booksellers, Waterstones Commercial Road, Blackwells at the Student Union, the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson and the City Museum.

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Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes available for pre-order

I haven’t even written it yet, and it’s not due for publication for another eleven months, but my next book ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’ has been listed on Amazon and is now available for pre-order:

Pre-order ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’ on Amazon

Here’s the blurb:

“Over 5,000 men from Portsmouth are believed to have been killed during the First World War – the greatest loss of life that the city has ever known. Not only were thousands of Portsmouth soldiers killed on the Western Front, but Portsmouth based ships were sunk throughout the war, causing massive loss of life. Thanks to a wealth of sources available and painstaking use of database software, it is possible to tell their stories in more detail than ever before. James Daly builds an extremely detailed picture of Portsmouth’s World War One dead, down to where they were born, and where they lived. Not only will their stories tell us about how the war was fought and won, and their sacrifices; but they will also provide a clearer picture than ever before of how Portsmouth and its people suffered”

I’ve also got some other interesting World War One related projects at an early stage of developmentat the moment. Of course with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War not far off now, there’s going to be a lot of attention on all things Great War over the next few years.

 

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Encouragement for the ‘non-establishment’ historian

One of the first military history books I read, as a young lad, was Arnhem by Martin Middlebrook. For no other reason than that it was the biggest book about Arnhem in the library, and it simply screamed ‘Arnhem’ from ten paces away. If only one day I could write a book like that. Years later, it is still a staple on my bookshelf, and I’ve reccomended it to most of my family (my late grandfather being an Arnhem veteran).

Years later, I’ve got a book of my own on the shelf at the same library, not very far from where Middlebrook’s Arnhem sat (and still does). Now that I’m researching the First World War I’ve gone to Middlebrook’s first book – the First Day on the Somme. For those of you who aren’t aware, Martin Middlebrook was an established poultry farmer when he went to the Somme battlefields in the late 1960′s. Motivated by what he saw, he resolved to write a book about 1 July 1916, the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Remember, he was a poultry farmer with no literary background.

After writing ten chapters, he sent it to his prospective publisher. The publisher in turn sent it to an un-named military historian for feedback. They received back 13 pages of critique, some of which I quote below:

‘mugged-up knowledge by an outsider’

‘familiar and elementary stuff’

‘all the old bromides’

‘his account of the army’s organisation and the trench system… rather like a child’s guide’

‘flat and wooden in the narrative’

Over 40 years later, Martin Middlebrook has written almost twenty books on military history, many of them bestsellers, about Arnhem, the RAF in the Second World War, and the Falklands. Isn’t is a good job that he and his publisher didn’t listen to the advice of a so-called military history expert?

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News – Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes book

I’m very pleased to announce that I have just signed a contract with my publishers, The History Press, for my next book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’.

At present we are aiming for publication in late 2013, in time for the Great War Centenary in 2014. Obviously I am writing it as we speak and I do not want to give too much away, but it’s going to be like my previous book, but longer; and with the wealth of sources available for the First World War I have been able to go into a lot more depth. It will include some individual stories, stories of battles and units, a look at Portsmouth in 1914 and how the fallen of the Great War were remembered in the town. As with my previous book, most of these stories have never been told before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War Surgery 1914-18 is published by Helion

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Forgotten Victory by Gary Sheffield

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

Cover via Amazon

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

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

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

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

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

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Retreat and Rearguard 1914: The BEF’s actions from Mons to the Marne by Jerry Murland

I have always felt that perhaps the military history of the First World War has focussed far too much on the events of 1916 and 1917 – primarily, Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele. Sure, all three were epic battles with a profound social and military impact, but viewing them without looking at what became before and after is to only see half of the picture. The British Expeditionary Force landed in France in August 1914, and marched up to the Belgian frontier. In defence of Belgian neutrality, the BEF marched into Belgium itself to meet the German Army’s advance.

I have studied something of the retreat from Mons, during my research into the 1st Hampshires and their battle at Le Cateau. But given that I am hoping to write a book or two on the First World War, I was very pleased to see this land on my doormat. I have always been mystified by the portrayal of Mons as a defeat. True, I think it would be hard to paint Mons itself as a victory, but Smith-Dorrien‘s decision to stand at Le Cateau was a masterpiece. Much like Quatre Bras almost a hundred years before, success there gave the rest of the Army time to slip away orderly. And although it is never inspiring for an army to retreat, a General should not be afraid to do so if the strategic situation demands it. French and the BEF had little option but to fall in line with Joffre’s overal strategy, particularly with an unreliable Lanzerac on the BEF’s right flank. The Duke of Wellington retreated many times, but almost always in an orderly fashion, with a plan up his sleeve. True, French might not exactly have had a Waterloo planned, but the retreat forced the German Army to over extend itself and to falter on the Marne. I think history would probably hold out that this was a far wiser strategy than to stand at Mons and be destroyed.

I feel a special mention is in order for the fighting at Etreux on 27 August 1914, where the 2nd Bn Royal Munster Fusiliers were attacked by the Germans at 7am near Chapeau Rouge, before a fighting withdrawal throughout the day, before a dramatic last stand at the Orchard in Etreux. The Battalion was decimated, and four of those killed were from Portsmouth – Lieutenant Challoner Chute (19), Lance Corporal Edward Carroll (29, Milton), and the two brothers Corporal Charles Roberts (23) and Corporal George Roberts (21),  of Meyrick Road in Stamshaw. I am very grateful to Jerry Murland for adding to me knowledge of how these Portsmouth men died.

Murland has made a fantatic contribution to the history of the BEF on the Western Front. Impeccably researched, it is based on a wealth of primary and secondary material. In particular I was very impressed with the maps, which really helped to gain a feel for the battles of August 1914. He has dealt very well not only with giving a full and insightful narrative of the campaign, but has also shed light on often overlooked areas – the relations between French, Haig and Smith-Dorrien, and between French and Joffre and Lanzerac; the myth that the BEF’s marksmanship was so rapid that the Germans thought that every man was armed with a machine gun; and he has also given new prominence to the sterling work of the gunners and sappers during the retreat.

A retreat in contact with the enemy is perhaps the most challenging military maneouvre to pull off – if it works, you have barely survived; if it fails, you have a rout. Not only was it a success for the BEF get itself back to the Marne in the state that it did, but it is also very commendable that Murland has looked at every last little aspect of the campaign in such a forensic yet fulsome manner. As good as John Terraine’s book on Mons is, I found Jerry Murland’s much more insightful.

Retreat and Rearguard 1914 is published by Pen and Sword

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Artillery in the Great War by Sanders Marble and Paul Strong

The First World War has often been described as an ‘Artillery War’. Particularly after the war on the western front descended into stalemate, all belligerents turned to heavier and heavier guns to try and break down their opponents.

The British Army in particular started the war in 1914 with its artillery configured for imperial policing – small, mobile guns that could follow behind infantry or cavalry easily. The French, with their offensive spirit, held to a similar approach. But by the end of the war, all sides were fielding huge cannons, some of which could only be moved by Railway.

Major attacks on the Somme and at Passchendale were heralded by huge artillery barrages, some of which, it was said, could be heard from London.The barrage before the Somme lasted for days. But was this massive firepower worth the loss of the element of surprise? It probably didnt take much for the German defenders to work out that a weeks artillery barrage would lead to a major offensive. In any case, the artillery rarely achieved what was hoped – to cut barbed wire and destroy enemy fortifications. In too many instances neither was achieved.

Not only did technology change, but theory too. At Le Cateau in 1914, British gunners were firing over open sights, much as their ancestors had done at Waterloo a hundred years earlier. Once trench warfare ensued, indirect fire became the norm, with more complex fire plans. A certain Major Alan Brooke is credited with creating the creeping barrage. The question of control was also raised. Should artillery barrages be controlled at Army, Corps or Division level? And at what level should artillery be commanded? This issue was all the more acute, considering that many General officers lacked the aptitude to use artillery to its potential.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the use of artillery between 1914 and 1918 is the impact that it had on its use in the Second World War. At Alamein, and in Normandy, Montgomery prepared for every major set piece battle with a detailed, preliminary barrage. Between 1939 and 1945 the Royal Artillery was seen as perhaps the most crucial corps in the British Army, in breaking up attacks and wearing down the enemy. This use of firepower was all the more important, with Britain suffering acute manpower shortages, and fielding inferor small arms and tanks.

Artillery in the Great War is published by Pen and Sword

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Donald Dean VC edited by Terry Crowdy

Donald Dean‘s story is a quite remarkable one. Spanning two world wars, and the small matter of Britain’s highest honour for bravery, there can’t be many tales out there quite like this.

What I really like as well, is that Dean’s memoirs have such an easily-readable manner, which is no doubt down to his affable yet modest nature. Joining the Artists Rifles on the outbreak of war (he was underage), Dean was soon identified as an officer candidate and commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Queens Royal West Kent Regiment. Promoted to Captain by 1917, he was severely wounded in an action at Passchendaele, where he led a Platoon in defending an outpost for days against a vastly superior enemy. Modestly, he makes virtually no mention in his memoirs of his VC.

Dean was recalled to service immediately prior to the start of the Second World War, when the British Army was expanding after the Munich Crisis. Dean was originally given command of a Battalion of the Buffs, in the process raising several more Battalions. Upon the outbreak of war, however, his divisional commander removed him from command, with the explanation that he did not want his division to be commanded by territorials. Even First World War veterans with the VC. Unfortunately I have not been able to trace the Major-General in question.

Passed over for command in his Regiment, Dean was transferred to take command units in the Pioneer Corps. Historically the Army’s Navvies, and possibly the least glamorous unit in the army, the Pioneers performed valuable yet unsung physical labour. Taking part in the withdrawal to Dunkirk, Dean’s units of Pioneers held together firm on the perimeter of Boulogne while unmentioned units of the Guards fell back, commandeering their own ships in the process. Dean was strongly warned never to mention the fiasco. That a man who had been adjudged as an ‘amateur’ when it came to commanding an infantry unit led a Pioneer unit in a rearguard action should not be lost on the reader. The Pioneer Corps was traditionally a dumping ground for men who were deemed not clever enough or fit enough for the rest of the Army, and unwanted officers such as Dean, but as so often in British military history the Pioneers punched well above their expectations.

After returning from Dunkirk Dean and his Pioneers defended a section of the British coastline, before he left to take command of the Pioneer element of one of the least known operations in the Second World War – the invasion of Madagascar. Held by the Vichy French, a British task force secured the island as a safety measure against capture by the Japanese. Once ashore on Madagascar, Dean had an extremely complicated task in leading a rag-tag labour force, including natives and other various contingents. Commanding such diverse units must have called upon leadership and people skills in spades. Dean was not averse to taking matters into his own hands, and at one point was censured by a senior commander for ‘wanton destruction of civilian property’ for using metal railings to form an improvised roadway!

After Madagascar Dean was transferred to command Pioneer forces in Italy. There once again Dean was in command of a polyglot collection of men, including British, Canadian, South African, Polish, native Africans and Italians to name but a few. By the end of the war he had acquired the monicker ‘Dogsbody Dean’ for his ability to deal with any awkward situation, and for handling any task given to him. Not a bad record at all for someone deemed not good enough to command an infantry Battalion in 1939. We can only wonder what the Army missed out on thanks to that ridiculous decision.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Dean’s remarkable story – there cannot be many others like it. He gives some valuable insights into leadership in war, and some very useful anecdotes about the human experience of war.

Donald Dean VC is published by Pen and Sword

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A Bloody Picnic: Tommy’s Humour 1914-18 by Alan Weeks

Alan Weeks is a very good social historian of the First World War on the Western Front. Having already reviewed his look at the Wipers Times, I have been looking forward a great to getting my hands on this book. First off, its a pleasure to read a book that isn’t big enough to sink the Bismarck! Given the book’s topic thats quite appropriate – wouldn’t it be ironic to read a book about Tommy hunour that was so big and wieldy that it could sink the Bismarck!

There are some fantastic stories here. Weeks has looked at virtually every aspect of humour at war, including general cheerfulness, comedy, officer-men relations, attitudes to commanders, pantomimes, humorous incidents, sex, weather, lice, rats, letters, songs, drinking, animals and the live-and-let-live system. This wide range of subjects gives us an indication of just how prevalent humour could be throughout life. It’s not difficult to imagine that humour actually made bearable what was quite a grim life. Humour could not win the war on its own, nor could it take away from the grievous casualties. But would the western front have been tougher without some light moments? Almost certainly.

There has always been something about the British Tommy that finds dry humour in even the most miserable of circumstances. And given the British military’s propensity for finding itself in miserable circumstances, this is no doubt a very useful trait. Its something that filters through to British society in general – dry British wit, as evinced by the archetypal Butler, has even been referenced in the Simpsons, of all places. I’ve read of examples of ‘Tommy humour’ during the Napoleonic Wars, which is appropriate given that the name ‘Tommy Atkins’ originates from this time.

This is a very important addition to the historiography of the western front – Alan Weeks must have spent years compiling these anecdotes. I won’t even begin to cover them all, but heres a few tasty morsels for you all:

Two of Private Webb’s comrades were killed by a grenade. An officer enquired as to what had happened… Private Webb was a good cricketer. ‘Blimey, whats happened sir’, he responded cheerfully, ‘is one over, two bowled’. Then he glanced down at the mess where he once had a leg. ‘And I’m stumped sir’.

One Sunday morning, Corps Command instructed Thorp to aim at four targets in quick succession. He chose Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The 6/Connaught Rangers were carefully coached before the arrival of a General to inspect them… they were particularly instructed on what their precise function in the Battalion was. The General asked one Ranger, ‘are you a Catholic?’, to which the man replied, ‘no sir, I’m a Rifleman’.

In front of the MO, one sapper was asked ‘have you been circumcised?’, to which he replied, ‘Oh no sir, thats just fair wear and tear’.

‘French girls are nice to sleep with, but not as good as you my wife. I miss you very much’.

A Bloody Picnic is published by The History Press

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New footage shows WW1 battlefields from above

Extraordinary aerial pictures of First World War battlefields have been discovered, after being hidden for nearly a century.

The dramatic aerial shots show the huge damage wreaked on towns such as Ypres and Passchendaele. The programme, on BBC One this Sunday evening, also includes aerial footage taken by British pilots. These new images give historians of the First World War a new insight into the impact of the fighting on the western front.

‘The First World War from Above’ is on BBC One on Sunday at 9pm.

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Wandsworth and Battersea Battalions in the Great War by Paul McCye

After the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, it was quickly realised that the relatively small size of Britain’s regular Army would not be enough to fight a long European War. Even after being reinforced by the Territorial Army, the British Expeditionary Force that left for France in 1914 was woefully small compared to the huge French and German Armies. The Secretary of State for War, Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, was under no illusions that the war would be long and bloody. His famous ‘your country needs you’ appeal inspired hundreds of thousands of men to volunteer to fight.

One of the most unique and tragic features of the Great War had its genesis in this recruitment drive. Kitchener promised that men who joined up together would be allowed to fight together, in the same Battalions. This ruling led to many ‘Pals’ Battalions, that were either distinctly in nature, or indeed some which were recruited from whole factories, professions or other social groups. Many towns and cities sponsored their own Battalions, recruited from the local young men. This book by Paul McCue focuses on the Pals Battalions raised by two London Boroughs – Wandsworth and Battersea.

Wandsworth’s Pals Battalion became part of the East Surrey Regiment, and was officially titled the 13th (Service) Battalion East Surrey Regiment (Wandsworth). Battersea’s Pals came under the Queens (Royal West Surrey) Regiment. Their proper title was the 10th (Service) Battalion Queens (Royal West Kent) Regiment (Battersea). After the decimation of the original British Expeditionary Force at the battles of Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and First Ypres, the demmands of war on the Western Front increasingly fell upon Kitchener’s ‘New Armies’, particularly the Pals Battalions. After a long period of training, most of them reached the front by early 1916, in time for Haig’s planned ‘big push’ on the Somme.

Both the Wandsworth and Battersea Battalions were mercifully spared the bloodshed on 1 July 1916 on the first day of the Somme, but both went on to see active service in the Somme and Ypres sectors, as well as other parts of the front. The Wandsworth Pals fought in several particularly tough battles at Villers-Plouich and Bourlon Wood, and then through the ‘Kaiser Offensive’ in 1918, when most of the Battalion were captured. After this the Battalion was disbanded. The Battersea Pals fought at Devil’s Wood, and in early 1918 were sent to reinforce the Italian Front, returning to Flanders in time for the armistice. The Battalion served in the occupation of Germany, before disbanding.

Paul McCue starts each section with a detailed history of each area in question. This is important, but I would probably give a very bried overview of the early history, with more emphasis on the early twentieth century context of the borough. We then progress onto an interesting history of how each Battalion was formed – in both cases, by the Mayor and Council. There are interesting tales of how the Councils insisted on the Battalion’s being officered completely by local men, and of interesting recruitment drives and fundraising efforts to kit out the units. There are plenty of stories about individual men, particularly Corporal Edward ‘Tiny’ Foster, who won the Victoria Cross. At the end of the book McCue has included a full Roll of Honour for both Battalions, listed by Cemetery and Memorial. This is an excellent resource for researchers.

The ‘Pals’ idea proved to be a dismal failure. If a Pals unit had a particulary tough battle, a whole towns menfolk could be lost in one fell swoop, and the impact on morale, both at home and on active service, was substantial. Whereas if men were dispersed around other units, losses would be more spread out. During the Second World War the Army did not make the same mistake, and dispersed men around Regiments much more.

I applaud Pen and Sword for their Pals series. The Pals units are a uniquely local story – perhaps the most striking example in military history of towns and cities having a shared military heritage, forged through enlistment, training, battle and then losses and casualties. Producing histories of each of the Pals Battalions around the country provides not only something of local importance, but also a rich tapestry of the experience of war for ordinary local men and its impact on communities. It’s seriously got me thinking about the Portsmouth Pals, and what little we know about them.

Wandsworth and Battersea Battalions in the Great War is published by Pen and Sword

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Researching First World War Soldiers

Vis en Artois British Cemetery and Memorial, F...

Vis en Artois Cemetery and Memorial (Image via Wikipedia)

I’ve now entered over 2,000 names into my database of Portsmouth men killed serving in the Second World War. So far this covers 4 panels of the War Memorial in Guildhall Square, and these are only the men who fought with the Army. I have one more panel of Army names to enter and analyse. And then its on to the Navy, who have about the same number of names again!

The process goes like this – look up the names on the War Memorial (handily transcribed  by Tim Backhouse on Memorials in Portsmouth), enter the names onto my Access Database, then search for them on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Of course, when you start with just initials for forenames, its quite difficult – especially if all you have is ‘A. Smith’, which there are hundreds of – it would take days searching through that to find the right person. Fortunately, quite a few of the names on the CGWG have their house number, road name and area listed – which makes it much easier to find the right person – if you’re looking through a list of 20 or so names, its heartening to find one listed as ‘…Twyford Avenue, Stamshaw’, cos odds are you’ve found your man. But when there are 4 or 5 names, and none of them have any details, its so frustrating – its got to be one of them, surely? But sometimes the sheer number of names can be daunting.

Its going to take some serious research to track down the several hundred men who are remaining elusive – but by using Street Directories, Register Office Records, the 1901 and 1911 Census, and electoral registers, it should be possible to slowly but surely fill out the gaps.

Another problem can be when you enter the name into the CWGC and NOTHING comes up – they must have been a real person, surely? Otherwise why would their names have been put forward for the memorial? The only thing I can suggest is that mistakes were made in compiling the names for the memorial, or perhaps people had different given names – someone registed officially as Harry James, for example, might have been known as Jim, and thus entered on the Memorial as J., and not H.J… it takes a bit of imagination to ferret these things out.

Another difference with researching First World War soldiers, is that it is much harder to trace details of any medals that they won. With the Second World War, more often and not you can find their award listed in the London Gazette. But for the First World War there are just so many, its like trawling through a haystack. You have to use some cunning, such as typing in a mans service number in the search, rather than their name. The problem there, of course, is that prior to 1920ish the Army didnt have an Army-wide numbering system, so if you’re looking for a Military Medal awarded to Private Jones 14532, there might be scores of 14532′s in the Army. Also, whereas many Second World War medal citations have been made available online on the National Archives website, the only information we have for First World War soldiers are their medal cards – relatively spartan in detail.

But on the flipside, one other source we have readily available for the Western Front are the War Diaries. Select War Diaries have been made available on The National Archives, such as the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment, which I have been serialising on Daly History for the past few months. Although these rarely mention individual soldiers – especially not other ranks – they do give you the wider picture of what was hapenning day to day. If you know that someone died on a particular day, you can look up what was happening – if they were in the front line undergoing heavy shelling, maybe the man was killed that way. Or if there was a raid and he is listed on a memorial to the missing, he might have been killed in no mans land. Alternatively, if he died somewhere away from where the Battalion was, or on a day when they were not in action, he probably died of wounds or illness in a hospital behind the lines.

Another useful source is the National Roll, a publication produced after the war, the lists not only men who died, but other men who survived. Its not comprehensive – men or their families put their details forward, meaning that only a percentage of men are listed – but none the less, for the men who are included, it is a gold mine of information. Most entries tell you when a man joined the Army, and whether he was a regular, mobilised with the territorial force, volunteered in 1914, attested under the Derby Scheme, or was conscripted. This fact on its own builds up a veritable social history of the manpower situation. Some men have more information than others – most entries tell us where a man fought, if he was wounded, or if he won medals. Some tell very interesting stories – such as the Hampshire Regiment soldier who was captured at Kut, fell ill with Dysentry and fell out of the march to captivity and was left to die on the side of the road; the Sergeant killed in a Grenade accident at a training school in the New Forest; or the Sapper serving with Grave Registration unit after the war who drowned in a Canal. Without these details, they would just be names. But with their stories, we are so much closer to knowing who they were and what they went through.

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1st Hampshires in the Great War – the Kaiser Offensive continues

After the hard-fought battle on 28 March 1918, the 1st Hampshires went back into Brigade reserve trenches. March 1918 closed relatively uneventfully. On 1 April the Hampshires went into Brigade support, relieving the Somerset Light Infantry north of the River Scarpe, 3.5 miles east of Arras. Their spell in support was quiet, until the Germans began shelling on 5 April. The adjutant, writing in the war diary, felt that this was a ‘demonstration’ connected to the attacks being made at the same time, further south on the Somme. That evening the Hampshires went into the front line in Fampoux, holding Stoke Avenue, Pudding and Port trenches. The next few days saw intermittent shelling, until the Battalion was relieved on 8 April.

After being relieved the Hampshires marched back to St Laurent Blangy, and from there boarded buses to ‘Y’ Huts, about four miles north west of Arras. The next few days were spent in the usual clean up after the front line, and on 9 April it was announced that six other ranks had been awarded the Military Medal for their part in the battle on 28 March. On 10 April the Battalion moved again, marching to camps near Haute Avesnes. During the same day a draft of 159 other ranks joined the Battalion. A rare treat was enjoyed on 11 April, when the Battalion were treated to baths. Also that day Lieutenants Edwards and Evans were awarded the Military Cross for their part in the battle on 28 March.

The Battalions time away from the front was short lived, however, for on 12 April they boarded buses, and proceded to Bethune. Once there, the 11th Brigade took over a section of the line to the south of La Basse Canal, with the Hampshires being billeted for the time in Gonnehem. An attack was clearly imminent, for the next day certain personnel were detailed to remain with the transport. Sure enough, on 14 April the Battalion marched up from Gonnehem, and formed up. At 6.30pm the advance began, covered by artillery support and with the Somersets on the right. The Somersets took the village of Riez du Vinage, taking 120 prisoners. The Hampshires met no opposition, and after advancing 1,500 yards dug in on a line level with the Somersets. During the day only one man was killed, and four wounded. The next day orders were received to continue the advance. Attacks were made by the Ox and Bucks on the flank, and although they were initially succesful and the Hampshires pushed out patrols to keep in touch with them, they were eventually forced back to their start line. At 4.30am on 16 April the Hampshires were relieved, and went back to billets at L’Ecleme.

Although the 17th was spent in billets, as the situation was still very unstable the Hampshires were soon put on alert to return to the front. On 18 April a German attack on the 4th Division led to the Hampshires being recalled to Gonnehem to stand by. The attack was unsuccesful, and the Hampshires returned to L’Ecleme. This attack was part of the Germans Operation Georgette in the Lys Sector. The next day the Battalion went into the front line, holding a section south of La Basse Canal, south of Bois de Pacaut. That night a patrol led by 2nd Lieutenant Clegg crossed the canal and captured a prisoner from the 471st Regiment. Prisoner snatch patrols were a hallmark of an agressive unit. The next day brought heavy shelling. During the night C Company pushed three platoons across the Canal and occupied the Bois de Pacaut, capturing two wounded prisoners. 21 April was relatively quiet.

On 22 April the Battalion launched another attack on the Boise de Pacaut. The plan was to clear the southern portion of the Pacaut Wood, and establish a line on the road junction at La Pannerie. The attack was to be on a three Company front, with each being alloted its own objectives, and with the remaining company in support. Zero hour was to be at 5.15am, with the troops assembling south of the Canal by 5am. Three bridges were to be erected across the canal by the Royal Engineers. Stokes Mortars and Machine Guns were attached to give fire support. Supporting artillery fire was also planned, including the use of Gas if the wind was favourable. A Special Company of the Royal Engineers was also attached, to project ‘burning oil’ onto a house thought to be an enemy stronghold. Troops were reminded of the importance of consolidating captured ground. At 7am an aeroplane was tasked to fly over to observe progress.

The attack began as planned, but the heavy artillery barrage alerted the enemy almost at once to the impending attack. Enemy artillery fell as the Hampshires were crossing the Canal bridges, causing casualties. The centre bridge in particular received heavy fire, with the leading officer being killed whilst crossing the Bridge. The right and centre companies came under machine gun fire from the wood almost at once, but the left met no opposition. The right hand company pushed Lewis Guns out front, and managed to overcome resistance. By 5.35am the left flank company had reached its objective, and by 5.40am platoons of the right company were on their objective. The centre company, however, had taken heavy casualties in officers and NCO’s, but after being held up for a short time they managed to make progress and link up with the other Companies. At 9am a platoon of the support Company was ordered up to fill a gap in the Battalion’s line. After daybreak heavy Machine Gun fire was directed on the wood, and the Canal area received heavy shelling. At 1.30pm Lieutenant-Colonel F.A.W. Armitage, who had commanded the Battalion since shortly after the Somme, was killed. At 5.30pm the Germans launched a counter-attack south-west through the wood, with the intention of clearing the area and pushing the Hampshires back. This counter-attack was beaten off with machine gun fire. The centre Company were still struggling to make progress to their objctive. 12 men were detached from the support Company as reinforcements, but it was not possible to attach any more men as the Support Company themselves were suffering heavy casualties on the Canal Bank, and if the Canal Bank were to be lost the rest of the Battalion might have become cut off. Any further attacks were impossible, as the whole Battalion was heavily committed fighting off German resistance. The Battalion was finally relieved the next day.

The battle of Pacaut Wood was part of a larger counter-offensive, the battle of Bethune, was designed to hit the Germans hard after the failure of Operation Georgette. The Hampshires paid a high price, however. During the attack on 22 April three officers were killed, including Colonel Armitage. Five officers were wounded, two dying later. 22 men were killed, one died of his wounds, 147 were wounded, eight were wounded but remained at duty, and 20 men were missing.

A number of Portsmouth men were killed during this period. 2nd Lieutenant Eric Reid, aged 19 and from Lennox Road in Southsea, was killed on 29 March 1918. He is remembered on the Arras Memorial. Lance Corporal G.H. Lacey, 33 and from Clive Road, Fratton, died on 31 March 1918. He evidently died in a Base Hospital or on his way home on leave, for he is buried in Boulogne Eastern Cemetery. Several men were killed on 3 April – Lance Corporal P.O. Lawrence is buried in Roclincourt Valley War Cemetery, and Private Frederick Henwood, 21 and from Bishop Street, Fratton, is buried in Athies War Cemetery. Four men were killed During the Battle of Bethune and the attack at Pacaut Wood. Corporal S. Metcalf, 40 and from Orange Street, Portsea, was killed on 21 April and is buried in Mont Bernanchon War Cemetery. Private Harry Reeve, 29 and from Rivers Street, Southea, was killed on 22 April, and is buried in St Venant-Robecq Road Cemetery. Also killed on the 22nd was Private C.F. Jerome, who is buried in Mont Bernanchon Cemetery. Finally, on 23 April, Private W. Brockway, 22 and from London Road, North End, who is buried in Lapugnoy War Cemetery.

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