Tag Archives: France

To Caen and back

On Monday I travelled to France and back, without actually setting foot in France!

To go back to the start of the story, my employers very kindly asked me to give a lecture onboard Brittany Ferries MV Normandie, on the route between Portsmouth and Ouistreham-Caen. I gave a talk on my book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ on each leg. It wasn’t actually worth me getting off the boat while it was docked at Ouistreham, so I stayed in my cabin and took some pictures of the gorgeous looking beach. Of course, those sands formed part of Sword beach on 6 June 1944.

Both talks were very well received. It is a new venture that Brittany are trialling, and it seems to have been appreciated by many people who attended. It was also a new experience for me, as I had never sailed on this route before. Hence for the first time I was able to take pictures, up on deck, of the warships in Pompey Harbour, and also experience sailing out past the Round Tower, down past the Solent forts, then round Bembridge ledge and past the round tower.

HMS Bristol

ex HMS Liverpool and ex HMS Ark Royal

a Batch 3 Type 42, Endurance and Illustrious

USS Normandy

mid-Channel on the way out

Ouistreham. The beach was part of Sword beach on D-Day

mid-Channel on the way back

late evening sun off the Isle of Wight

 

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Missing Believed Killed: Casualty Policy and the Missing Research Enquiry Service 1939-1952 by Stuart Hadaway

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that has ever shed such light on something that I have worked on in the past. I’ve written about plenty of men – particularly airmen – who were lost during the Second World War – and reading about the work of the Missing Research Enquiry Service has helped me gain a much better understanding of the process involved in tracing missing men during and after the war. I guess it’s one of those things that we don’t tend to think about too much, but how did we get from the height of the war, with thousands of men being lost in action – many of fate unknown – to the neatly-kept Commonwealth War Cemeteries and Memorials to the Missing of today?

As the war was ongoing, the RAF maintained a Casualty Branch that dealt with information about men lost – either killed, taken prisoner or missing – over enemy territory. This involved collating intelligence – in some cases from the enemy via the Red Cross – to maintain personnel records, and inform next of kin. Many bereaved relatives of course received a terse Government Service telegram. But it is the fate of those thousands of missing airmen that concerns us most in this book. Early in the war it was recognised that the RAF’s apparatus for tracing missing airmen was inadequate – hence the birth of the Missing Research Section in 1941. Collecting and collating intelligence reports from a variety of sources, this information provided a basis for post-war inquiries.

With the liberation of Europe ongoing, in December 1944 the MRS was expanded into the Missing Research and Enquiry Service, and small teams were sent to France and then the rest of Europe to gradually seek the missing men. Initially the MRES consisted of only 14 men, which was soon found to be nowhere near enough. With 42,000 men missing in Europe alone, this was quite some task.

One thing that really struck me is how few people were working in this field, and dealing with so many cases. And it was extensive work – travelling, working on intelligence, talking to locals, and being present at exhumations. It certainly wasn’t a job for the faint of heart. Thousands of men were lost over thousands of square miles of Europe, let alone other continents such as South East Asia, which posed problems all of its own.

The manner in which some men were identified is quite intriguing. For the most part, RAF identity discs perished quickly in soil, so identification was left to items such as uniforms, rings, or even paperwork that had survived stuffed in pockets. It was detective work of the highest order, which in some respects a historian of war casualties can both sympathise with and admire.

I think especially of men such as Flight Lieutenant Patrick McCarthy DFC and Flight Sergeant Francis Compton DFM, men who were shot down over occupied Europe and must have gone through the process of having their crash sites and burial locations being traced and identified by the MRES.

This is a fascinating book, full of anecdotes. As I mentioned in my introduction, I can’t remember the last time I learnt so much from one book about a subject I knew very little about, and a subject that I should know a lot about at that. It certainly adds to my grasp of researching ‘missing’ airmen, and adds a vital puzzle to understanding their stories.

Missing Believed Killed is published by Pen and Sword

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Filed under Bombing, Book of the Week, Remembrance, Royal Air Force, Uncategorized, World War Two

Another radio appearance and more talks

Hi All!

I’m going to be a studio guest on the Sasha Twining Show on BBC Radio Solent this Saturday morning, between 8 and 9am – an early wake up for me! I will be talking about my book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’, the Falklands War and myself. If you can prize yourself out of bed so early at the weekend feel free to listen, or if not it will be on iplayer for a short time after the show.

I also have a couple of new talks booked.

On Saturday 12th May I will be giving a talk at Portsmouth Central Library, as part of Adult Learning Week. I will have books available for sale, and I will be happy to sign them of course.

And… on Monday 28th May I will be giving a talk on a Brittany Ferry from Portsmouth heading to France, and then another one on the return journey!

Has anyone else given a talk outside of territorial waters?!

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The Post Office Rifles from Portsmouth

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Filed under portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One

Birdsong – Part 2 Reviewed

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under fiction, On TV, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

War Horse

War Horse (film)

Image via Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One