Tag Archives: great war

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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Portsmouth WW1 – total number of war dead revealed

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

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

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

My Database includes names sourced from the following:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War Surgery 1914-18 is published by Helion

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Accidents and illness in war time

Something that I don’t think military history has ever quite convinced in portraying is the extent to which people are vulnerable to accidents and illness war time. In particular during the periods of mass mobilisation during both world wars. The National Roll of the Great War gives unparalleled information about how people died, which sheds new light on the experiences that affected the people of Portsmouth.

During war time, the usual health and safety and economy measures go out of the window. On a Dreadnought, or on the front line, for that matter, there are all manner of things that can go wrong. Several men were washed overboard warships. There were accidental explosions. Men fell into dry docks, or even Canals. One man drowned whilst attempting to rescue a man who fell overboard. One man was seriously injured when he fell under his horse. All manner of dangers could befall individuals during war. And we need to remember as well that in general life was more dangerous than it is now. Danger was an accepted part of life, and there was no such thing as health and safety. Personal Protection Equipment did not exist, and neither did risk assessments. But neither did litigation.

During wartime people seem to have been far more susceptible to illnesses that might be less than fatal in peacetime. Men died of illnesses as varied as Meningitis, Heart disease, Rheumatism, Brights Disease (nowadays called Nephritis), Blood Poisoning, appendicitis, post-operation illnesses and Malaria. If you think about it, a young man with an underlying heart weakness or defect is going to be susceptible to becoming ill during stressful circumstances. And that goes for pretty much any kind of illness. And in situations where there was a lack of sanitation, medical care or supplies, and poor diets, it is not surprising that so many people succumed to illness. Cuts and grazes or even insect bites could cause blood poisoning, and of course men in tropical climates were susceptible to Malaria.

Of course many men died during the Spanish Influenza epidemic during 1918 and 1919. Again, with so many men moving around the world, it is not surprising that the flu virus spread so virulently. Men who were tired and malnourished may not have had the immune system to fight off the flu. It is interesting also that a few men died of pneumonia during 1918 and 1919 – was this misdiagnosed influenza, or caused by it?

More obviously, several men died of the lingering effects of being gassed, some almost a couple of years after they had come home. Theirs must have been a horrific demise. A couple of men died from the effects of exposure – one the master of a Tug who had probably been at sea in cold weather, and suffered the consequences. Men also died of the effects of Trench Fever, and one man even died of frostbite in the Ypres sector in 1917.

Several men died soon after being invalided home with shell shock. Whilst it is hard with the information available to prove that shell shock killed them, it is not impossible – particularly considering the way in which shell shock was treated in the Great War.

One painter actually died from the effects of lead poisoning – almost certainly down to the lead content in paint. He was only 27 and had joined the Navy at the age of 18. Clearly nine years of working with lead paint on a daily basis was deadly. How many other men died of what we now know as industrial diseases? We all know nowadays about asbestos, but a hundred years ago so many hazards were not known. I also wonder how many stokers died of respiratory disease, or of illness linked to their job.

One man died from the effects of what was termed, at the time, acute nervous prostration. Nowadays, this would be termed a serious nervous breakdown. I’m loath to mention the gentlemans name, but he was a seaman who had been invalided out to hospital in 1916, and died the next year. If you think about it, many of us suffer from mental health issues, so for one man among almost 5,000 to experience a breakdown is not that surprising. Especially when you consider what he might have been through. Also, in 1916 treatment for mental illness was a lot more harrowing, as the condition was not nearly so well understood.

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Ancestry or Find My Past? A dilemma

For a while I have been pondering subscribing to one of the online family history websites. By far the most prominent are Ancestry and Find my Past. I’ve found myself doing more and more social history, which uses things such as the censuses and registers. And of course, both websites also have military records that are quite useful.

My problem is, which one to go for. Each has some records that the other does not have.

Find my Past has all of the censuses from 1841 to 1911, Merchant Navy crewlists and Seamans records, some miscellaneous occupational records, Parish Registers from 1538 to 2005, Birth Marriage and Death indexes from 1837 onwards, divorce indexes, some probates and wills, and some travel and migration records, such as East India Company records, Passenger lists and Registers of Passport applications.

It is in the military area that I am most interested. FMP has armed forces births, marriages and deaths 1796-2005; Army Roll of Honour 1939-45; British Army Service Records 1760-1915; De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour 1914-1918; DCM Citations 1914-1920; Irish Great War Records; National Roll of the Great War 1914-1918; Naval Casualties 1914-1919; New Zealand WW1 Soldiers; RA Honours 1939-46; RA MM’s 1916-93; RM Medal Roll 1914-1920; RN Division 1914-19; RN Officers 1914-20; Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914-19; WW2 POW’s; and the Waterloo Medal Roll of 1815.

Ancestry has all of the censuses, plus some foreign; and even some electoral rolls and slave registers; the usual BMD Registers, plus Parish Registers; British wills and probate and some foreign too; an extensive range of Passenger Lists and alien entry books. In terms of the military, Ancestry has British Army WW1 Service Records 1914-1920; British Army Medal Index Cards 1914-1920; British Army Pension Records 1914-1920; ‘Soldiers Died'; Military Campaign Medal and Award Rolls 1793-1949; Army Roll of Honour 1939-45; WW1 Silver War Badge Records; POW’s 1939-45; Navy Lists 1908 and 1914; De Ruvigny’s R of H; DCM Citations and RN Division Records.

How the hell am I, as a WW1 historian, supposed to choose between the two of them? Whichever website I subscribe to, I am missing out on something vital on the other. If I join FMP I get RN Officers 1914-1920, and the RM Medal Roll; but if I join Ancestry I get Medal Index Cards and Silver Badge Records.

I have a feeling that this dichotomy in record digitisation is caused by the National Archives policy. Lacking the resources to digitise things themselves – they tend to charge by the item, in any case – TNA outsource each particular project to the highest bidder, either FMP or Ancestry. As a result, records are scattered between the two. As a result commercial interests are seriously hampering historical research.

Has anyone else in the field had this problem?

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Naval Weapons of World War One by Norman Friedman

Norman Friedman gives us an incredibly comprehensive view of the weapons used by the Great War navies of… ready for this…? Britain, Germany, France, the United States, Italy, Russia, Japan, Austria, Spain, Sweden, and other navies. Here, naval weapons include guns, torpedoes, mines and anti-submarine weapons. There must have been a risk that main guns would overshadow mines and torpedoes.

This is quite some book, and I can only marvel at the amount of research that must have gone into it. Perhaps I found some of the technological stuff a bit perplexing – there were so many different calibres of gun, for example, it is hard to keep track of them all! But Friedman doesn’t just offer a technological narrative, he also gives a very good background in the historical developments that led to the early twentieth century naval arms race, and how the manufacture and development of weapons progressed. Names such as Armstrong figure prominently. And that is refreshing, as so often we get a – dare I say it – geeky analysis of why a 4.99inch gun is different to a 5inch gun, without any regard for the ships that they were fitted to, the men who operated them, and the admirals who fought them. I have found quite commonly when analysing modern naval warfare, than some correspondents tend to get too bogged down with the technology – ie, the make up or resistors in a sea wolf launcher – with no regard at all for the human aspect of things.

One thing that surprised me is just how many different types of guns were in use. In these days of commonality and procurement-led equipment policies, it is hard to fathom that the Royal Navy used to operate all manner of different calibre and type of guns. It must have been a supply chain nightmare. Imagine all of the spare parts, maintenance know how, operating experience and ammunition complexities. I guess it was as a result of the rapid change in technology in the nineteenth century. After all, the Royal Navy fought at Trafalgar with smootbore muzzle loaders, and went into action at Jutland with huge, rifled breech loaders. And then when you take into account the massive innovations in explosives, then its little wonder that the navies changed so dramatically. After all, guns and rounds are the raison d’etre of any Dreadnought. And then we have the vastly complex issues of naval tactics in the Dreadnought age, the Battlecruiser conundrum et al. And then when you compare these issues among the various navies, you have a very interesting picture.

But here Friedman does place the technology well within the wider context. There is a lot of compare and contrast, which is of course vital when considering why and how certain navies fared differently to others. It is excellently illustrated with some first class photographs, which are well interpreted. I found it very illuminating indeed. As somebody who does tend to concentrate on the social history side of things, it would be all too easy to ignore technology as ‘cold’ history. But to understand the story of men who served at sea in the Great War, then we should be prepared to be engrossed in the weapons that they worked with.

Not only that, but it looks pretty snazzy on my bookshelf!

Naval Weapons of World War One is published by Pen and Sword

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More thoughts on military museums

Regular readers will be pretty aware – and possibly tired of me stating the fact! – that I have quite an interest in military museums. I’ve visited more than I care to remember, and in recent years I have made use of more than a few in a more professional capacity as a researcher and author. And having worked in museums in a number of capacities, naturally I have thoughts about the direction – or lack of – that some military museums are heading in.

The Ministry of Defence, facing serious budget pressures, has recently introduced a new report looking at the way that it supports Army museums in particular (as featured in the December issue of the Museums Journal). This month’s journal features an editorial from Richard Smith of the Tank Museum, Bovington – one of the more forward thinking military museums.

The Army currently supports 69 museums – infinitely more museums than there are Corps and Regiments in the modern Army. This is a legacy of a shrinking Army, which 50 years ago had scores of country Regiments, various Corps for every little function, and all kinds of other oddities. Between them these Museums host 5 million visitors a year, working out at an average of 72,000 each. When we consider that some such as Bovington will be getting much more than that, it is not too difficult to imagine that – to take a made-up example – the museum of the Royal Loamshire Fusiliers, merged in 1960, is probably a couple of rooms in Loamshire and gets about 5,000 visits a year.

I am not too sure that you could argue that military museums per se are industy leaders, as Richard Smith. SOME are – Bovington and the Imperial War Museum perhaps, and some of the more visionary provincial museums – but for every progressive museum there are plenty more standing still. Sadly, I think that it is probably right for the MOD to withdraw funding for museums 25 years after a Regiment has been amalgamted or disbanded. After 25 years, if the local community, old comrades etc have not managed to get the Regiment’s heritage onto a self-sustaining footing, its probably time to look at other options. With budget pressures, spending on heritage has to concentrate on what is relevant to today.

Army museums have to adapt or die. Appointing the National Army Museum as a sector leader is a positive move, and perhaps they could take on a leadership role much as the National Archives does for records offices and other repositories. Museums need to work together better – perhaps shared posts are an answer, as might be joint working such as travelling exhibitions, integrated events and education programmes, and increased loans.

I also think there is much potential for army museums to work more closely with ‘civilian’ museums. With the hundredth anniversary of the Great War looming, it is a perfect opportunity for local Regimental Museums to co-operate with the local town or city museum on putting together co-ordinated exhibtions, and loaning each other objects and materials to mutual benefit. The military, and by default military museums, should not sit divorced from society, but should look to become more involved in it. Regiments recruited from their area, losses in battle affected their communities, and veterans demobilising went back into society changed by their experiences. Their stories should be told in a ‘joined-up’ manner, not in dusty isolation.

Society at large is where the visitors, income and school groups come from that will keep many a small museum alive. Many museums have great potential for school groups, by linking into the national curriculum. Technology and Science is presented in museums such as REME at Arborfield, Logisitics Corps at Deepcut and Signals at Blandford Forum. Or how about medicine at the RAMC Museum in Aldershot? School groups are a real goldmine for museums. Venue Hire might be another income stream that would save museums from charging exobrient admission prices. But these are things that most public sector museums have been grappling with for years.

I do hope that Army museums can raise their game in years to come. It is so frustrating knowing that many of them have an aladdins cave of objects, documents and photographs, but are so short-staffed and cash starved that you cannot get at them. They usually charge just to visit their archives, and then charge the earth to reproduce photographs. Hence, the history of many Regiments and their men go hidden away. Which is a traversty.

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