Tag Archives: Royal Navy

The Evening News in 1914: Portsmouth goes to war

I’ve begun looking at microfilm copies of the Portsmouth Evening News from 1914, to try and get some kind of handle on what was happening in those heady days, and what public mood and reaction was like to the climactic events that took Britain to war.

In July 1914, the crisis in Ireland was dominating news. In early 1912 the Liberal Government had proposed Home Rule for Ireland. Unionist in Ulster objected to the possible creation of an autonomous government in Dublin, and later that year the Ulster Volunteers were formed. In 1914, faced with the threat of civil disobedience, the Army in Ireland was ordered to prepare to act against any violence. Many officers and men refused to act, including the future General Sir Hubert Gough and Sir Charles Fergusson. The following scandal forced the Chief of the Imperial General Staff Field Marshal Sir John French, to resign. The Irish crisis was very much dominating news in July 1914, and the stormclouds gathering over Europe were received only very minor coverage.

During July many of the areas Territorial Force units were on their annual camps. The Hampshire Fortress Royal Engineers Electric Light Companies were training with their searchlights at Southsea Castle, and the Wessex Royal Artillery were ‘enjoying’ what was described as a ‘dismal’ camp at Okehampton in Devon. The 6th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment were in camp at Bulford on Salisbury Plain. The reports from these camps made little or no mention of European Affairs. Elsewhere the traditional English summer season carried on regardless, with the horse racing at Goodwood and Cowes week planned for early August.

However, by the end of July, with the mobilisation and counter-mobilisations taking place among the European powers, the threat of war was beginning to be taken more seriously. The Kings Harbour Master posted a lengthy ‘notice to mariners’ in the Evening News, warning that there would be stringent restrictions on watercraft in Portsmouth Harbour and the Solent, and that navigation lights were subject to being turned off without prior warning.

Whilst usually naval movements in Portsmouth were publicised in the Evening News, with the coming of war these movements were taken out of the public domain, with the editorial of 30 July 1914 stating ‘…especially in a town like Portsmouth is extreme reticence necessary’. A special late edition on the same day reported on the Austrian invasion of ‘Servia’. On 31 July Russia mobilised, and the King, of course a naval officer and a keen sailor, called off his annual visit to Cowes Week.

On 1 August the 6th Hampshires were still in camp on Salisbury Plain, but were expressing ‘great excitement’ at the news from abroad. Goodwood was much quieter, as a great many naval and military officers have been recalled to re-join their units. Not all in Portsmouth were excited about the prospect of war, however. On 3 August an article in the Evening News advertised a Labour and Socialist protest against the war in Town Hall Square, to be held at 7.30pm the next day. Also on 3 August naval reservists were streaming into Portsmouth, and the submarine depot’s sports day was postponed indefinitely. The Government was to order full mobilisation the next day.

The Evening News of 4 August, the day that Britain finally found itself at war, carried a slightly bizarre notice, announcing that ‘owing to the serious aspect of affair, Lady Fitzwygrams garden party on August 8th will not take place’. The Evening News began publishing late special editions, as the demand for the newspaper was reaching unprecedented levels. The day’s News also contained the first direct appeal for recruits, initially for the Territorial Force. Colonel A.R. Holbrook, the local recruiting officer, appealed for 680 men to join local TF units. A large ‘your king and country need you’ advertisement also drove the message home. The Labour and Socialist protest of the same day was described as an anti-climax, and ended with the police having to intervene after trouble flared with pro-war crowds.

By 5 August, the war news had been promoted to the font page. Traditionally, 1914-era newspapers carried adverts on the front, and news inside. The local TF units had been mobilised, and the 6th Hampshires had returned from their summer camp, receiving an enthusiastic reception at the town station.

On 6 August it was reported that the Portsmouth Board of Guardians – ie, those who ran the Workhouse – had offered their facilities to the Government, and other local buildings such as schools were rumoured to be about to be requisitioned. The Corporation, it eas reported, had been badly disorganised by the indiscriminate enlistment of many of its employees, leaving many vacancies behind. There was also a notice explaining ‘how the join the army’, directing recruits to local barracks, the post office or recruiting offices. This was very much in line with national patterns, where during August most recruits enlisted in either the regular Army or local Territorial units. By the end of August it was reported that over a thousand men in Portsmouth had enlisted.

Whilst the first Pals type Battalion was raised by Robert White from among financial workers in the City of London, it was in Liverpool that the idea really took off. Lord Derby organised a recruiting campaign and managed to recruit over 1,500 men in two days. Speaking to his men, he said ‘this should be a Battalion of Pals’. Within a few weeks Liverpool had raised four Pals Battalions. Inspired by Lord Derby’s enthusiasm, Lord Kitchener encouraged other areas around the country to raise similar units, writing letters to local authorities to suggest the idea. The normal machinery for recruiting men into the Army was swamped. Kitchener also had a very low regard for the Territorial Force. Hence the solution was to recruit completely new Battalions, in what came to be known as Kitchener’s New Armies. A key part of these New Armies were the locally raised, or Pals Battalions.

As I have previously recorded, Portsmouth was the only town south of London to recruit what might be called Pals Battalions. Yet the impetus for recruiting a Pals Battalion in Portsmouth began much earlier than most of the more famous northern Pals Battalions. A report in the Evening News in late August stated that a Portsmouth Citizens Patriotic Recruiting Committee was being formed, and that a public meeting would be held in the Town Hall on 3 September 1914, when it was resolved that a Portsmouth Battalion should be formed. Among the speakers encouraging recruitment were Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, the town’s MP. The Town Hall was packed, with an overflow meeting on the steps being relayed the proceedings by megaphone.

Hence Portsmouth was among one of the first towns to raise its own Battalions. By comparison, recruiting began for the Sheffield Pals on 10 September, and for the Accrington Pals on 14 September. Lord Kitchener soon wrote to theMayor to accept the Towns offer of raising a Battalion. The Evening News began to publish lists of recruits to the Battalion. Ominously, around this time the News was also publishing the first casualty reports from the Western Front and the first Royal Navy ships to be sunk.

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Deal signed for armed forces new boots

The MOD ann0unced yesterday that it had just signed a new contract for the supply of new boots for servicemen in the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force. The contract, worth £80m, will provide servicemen with a new range of brown combat boots. The name of the succesful contractor has not been divulged, but according to the pictures from the MOD it seems to be HAIX, a german company.Troops will have the choice of five different types of footwear:

  • Desert Combat, to be worn by on-foot troops, undergoing high levels of operations in heat of up to 40 degrees (such as Afghanistan)
  • Desert Patrol, as above but designed for mounted troops, such as drivers and armoured troops
  • Temperate Combat, for wear by dismounted troops in temperate climates (such as North West Europe)
  • Patrol, as above but to be worn by mounted troops
  • Cold Wet Weather, for dismounted troops in temperatures down to minus twenty degrees (for example the Falklands)

Each of the five types of boot come in two different styles – what styles these are the MOD have not announced – and in two different widths, so for the first time women can choose a boot that fits them more closely.The new boots were chosen after trials involving 2,000 personnel in Kenya, Cyprus, Canada and the UK.

In the pictures supplied by the MOD the Temperate Brown Boots in particular look very much like the hill walking boots you might buy from a brand such as Brasher. Black boots will still be work by ‘non-camouflage’ units, such as much of the Royal Navy and the RAF, and with full dress uniform – eg the Guards Regiments when on ceremonial duties in London. 

The history of combat boots is actually a pretty interesting one. Of course, soldiers operate on their feet. And on your feet you wear shoes (or boots!). If your boots aren’t good enough, you can’t move. And even in the twenty first century, and army that can’t move on its feet isn’t much good to anyone.

For years troops had worn hobnailed boots, or ammunition boots. With the advent of technology, and in particular the growth of outdoor pursuits such as hill walking, more advanced boots gradually became available.

Yet, in the Falklands troops actually suffered cases of trench foot, as the DMS boots then in use were completely unsuitable to fighting in cold and wet conditions. One supposes that having fought much of the last 50 years in places like North West Europe, Northern Ireland and potentially against the Warsaw pact, boots designed to fight in extremely hot or extremely cold places were not a priority. The DMS even still had toecaps. Initially there for reinforcement, they were beloved of Sergeant Majors as they were ideal for bulling – that is, polishing to a mirror-like state. British soldiers even took their regular fitness runs in DMS boots for many years, until someone inevitably realised that running long distances in unsuitable boots caused injuries.

After the Falklands the MOD introduced BCH – Boots, Combat, High – boots in a very simialkr fashion to those worn by practically every other NATO army for some time. A reliable source once told me all about these famous British Army boots that used to melt in the heat – as seen during exercises in Oman in 2001. I’m not sure about what exactly happened, but it sounds as if the MOD tried to upgrade the boots issued to the forces, but in going for the cheapest option – and potentially buying British – ended up buying a sub-standard product that didn’t do what it needed to do. SA80 mk1, anyone?

With the Army fighting two medium-intensity wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, attention has turned once again to finding a style of boot that is comfortable, durable and can work in different climates. At one stage in the Iraq and Afghan deployments it was well known that troops were purchasing their own boots from companies such as Meindl, Lowa or Altberg. Obviously this situation is pretty ridiculous and led to the MOD putting out a tender in 2011, resulting in todays announcement.

In terms of most military equipment, I am of a functional mind – first and foremost, get something that does the job, and well. Buying sub-standard usually ends up costing more in the long run. And ceremonial considerations such as what they look like should come a distant second to operational matters.

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HMS Defender due into Portsmouth on Wednesday

 Type 45 Destroyers HMS Daring & HMS Dauntless

The fifth and newest Type 45 Destoyer, HMS Defender, is due to enter Portsmouth Harbour for the first time at 9.30am on Wednesday morning. The penultimate ship of the class to arrive, she will anchor up overnight in the Solent tomorrow evening, and should be visible from Southsea seafront.

Very nice ships, all with great names (well, except Duncan maybe!), but still too few of them – even just two more might have really made a difference. With Daring, Dauntless AND Diamond all away on deployments at the moment, and Dragon preparing to leave later this year, the operational tempo for escort ships is clearly creaking at the seams. It does seem a waste to use ships that were designed to provide area defence for 60,000 ton carriers chasing pirate Dhows.

History has shown that to keep one ship on station on deployment, you need four ships. Ships are normally in one of four states – on deployment (or transiting), working up, shaking down or in refit. Given that the average deployment to the South Atlantic or east of Suez lasts 5 to 7 months, working up and FOST can take the same kind of time frame, and comprehensive refits can take around 18 months, we can see quite easily that six ships will not be enough to everything that we want them to do. The bizarre thing is that everyone knows it, even amateur analysts such as myself. The Admirals definitely know it, but aren’t allowed to say so as it would embarass the politicians.

Such a procurement strategy does seem strange, when only a couple of weeks ago the Army managed to keep the vast majority of its tanks, which are only – on average – used once in a decade, and then in nothing more than an armoured brigade level. Destroyers and Frigates are like infantry battalions – on a never-ending deployment cycle that has no slack. Sure, ships cost money, but lack of ships when it matters can cost a whole lot more.

The other problem is one of strategy. What exactly do we want the Type 45’s to do? In conception, and in armament, they are powerful area defence Destroyers, with a very capable anti-air and missile system, and a very powerful radar fit. Is it a good use to send them patrolling? Granted, any military asset should be able to perform basic functions specific to its service in the short term – witness gunners and sappers, for example, operating as infantry in Northern Ireland. But it seems that the Type 45’s are very much written into the escort deployment roster. Things do seem to smack of short-termism.

Once the Type 45 programme has been delivered, attention shifts to the imminent arrival of the Carriers, in whatever shape or form that takes, and then the crucial Type 26 programme of future Frigates.

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Recognising the Portsmouth Pals Battalions

English: Original Kitchener World War I Recrui...

English: Original Kitchener World War I Recruitment poster. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you think of a ‘Pals Battalion‘, you will invariably think of a bunch of lads from a northern, industrial working class town. Say, Hull, Sheffield, Manchester, Tyneside, or Liverpool. So ingrained has this perception of the pals become, that you could be forgiven for thinking that nowhere south of Watford Gap raised any similar units. I even remember reading on a military history forum that, in the opinion of one member, a Battalion had to be from the North of England to be entitled to be called a Pals Battalion.

I’ve just taken Peter Simkins excellent ‘Kitchener’s Army: The Raising of the New Armies 1914-1916′ out of the library. It is without doubt a great history of how the New Armies were recruited and raised, and launched into action, and Simkins does give good coverage to some non-Northern Pals – the Royal Sussex Downs Battalions, for example, and the Cardiff Pals. Yet I am slightly amazed to find not one mention of the 14th and 15th Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment, or, as they were otherwise known, the 1st and 2nd Portsmouth Pals.

I don’t think that history has been too kind to the Portsmouth Pals. Formed by the Mayor of Portsmouth and recruited locally, overwhelmingly from local young lads, many of whom no doubt knew each other, I think they are perfectly entitled to be called Pals. They served in the same manner as other better-known Pals Battalions, in particular at Flers and Guillemont on the Somme and again at Third Ypres, and were in New Army Divisions. Obviously, by the end of the war the numbers were being made up by men who were not from Portsmouth, but all the same, losses were horrific. The 14th Battalion lost 644 men killed, whilst the 15th lost 781 men. When we consider that the amount of wounded was often three times the number of those killed, then the two Portsmouth Pals Battalions lost their entire strength several times over as casualties.

For Portsmouth to raise two Pals Battalions – or three if we count the 16th Battalion, the Depot Battalion – was nothing short of magnificent. Remember that a very large proportion of Portsmouth’s young men were already serving in the Royal Navy, working in the Dockyard or were perhaps already serving soldiers, Portsmouth being a significant garrison town at the time. Nowhere else south of London managed to equal this feat. The Royal Sussex Regiment did have three ‘Downs’ Battalions that could be refered to as Pals, but these recruited from a much wider area and didn’t quite have the same link to place as the Portsmouth Pals did.

To put things into context, Southampton – at the time comparable in size to Portsmouth – did not raise any Pals Battalions of its own. Perhaps the people of Portsmouth were so keen to do their bit, as they were well used to sending young men off to fight, and it did not take too much to stir the martial spirit in a town that would have been full of serving and retired sailors and soldiers. I’m looking forward to reading the Portsmouth Evening News editions from those heady days in the summer of 1914. To what extent did these brave young men answer Lord Kitcheners call?

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Warship preservation: HMS Caroline and HMS Plymouth

This is HMS Caroline (1914) in the Titanic Qua...

HMS Caroline (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been following with interest the stories of two particular ‘grey navy’ warships of the twentieth century: the Great War vintage Destroyer HMS Caroline, and the Falklands veteran Frigate HMS Plymouth.

I’ve gone on record before with my opinion that warship preservation in this country is woeful. We have a marvellous collection of older historic ships – Mary Rose, Victory, Warrior, Trincomalee, Great Britain to name but a few. But HMS Belfast aside, we have a terrible record of preserving twentieth century warships for the future admiration of British people who did not live through those turbulent years. It’s an inadequate tribute to the millions of British men – and women – who served with distinction during some of Britain’s finest years.

Portsmouth was perhaps the first place to really tap into the naval heritage idea. Of course, HMS Victory went into dry dock here in the 1920’s, around the same time as which the Royal Naval Museum was founded. With the freeing up of space and docks in the yard as it was run down, HMS Warrior and the Mary Rose joined in the 1980’s, making a fine collection of ships. There was definitely a concerted effort to develop the historic dockyard in Portsmouth, with an awareness that the Royal Navy and the Dockyard were winding down, and that tourism would be a growth sector.

Yet what is really missing is a ship from the ‘grey navy’, the twentieth century. Time and time again ships have been decomissioned, and ideas for preservation mooted, with nothing happening and a flood of fine old ships going to the breakers yard. Personally I think that HMS Fearless would have made a fine museum, with a flight deck for various events, and a tank deck that would have given plenty of potential for exhibitions etc. It also would have made a useful link up with the Royal Marines Museum.

At present HMS Caroline and HMS Plymouth are the two most prominent warships up for grabs. But both, steeped in history, are at serious risk of going for razorblades. HMS Caroline was built in 1914, and served at Jutland. After the end of the First World War she was decomissioned and has served as a naval reserve depot ship in Northern Ireland ever since. She was finally decomissioned in March 2011. She is formally under the ownership of the National Museum of the Royal Navy, based in Portsmouth. There have been plans to open her up as a museum ship in Belfast, but nothing more than public pronounciations. It’s time for definite action if they want to keep her there – such an important ship should not be allowed to sail into oblivion because the city leaders in Belfast can’t come up with a plan to make good on their promises. The MOD will commence disposal procedures soon if a concrete plan is not formed for her future use, and the National Museum of the Royal Navy have promised that if Belfast cannot get their act together she will be brought to Portsmouth. Presumably if that happens then we’ll hear a lot from Belfast about the pesky English stealing their ship. If it matters that much, they’ll find a way. Somehow I doubt it. Whatever happens, she should be preserved as closely to her 1914 appearance as possible, where as many people as possible can see her and appreciate her.

The Falklands War veteran HMS Plymouth, a Type 12 Frigate, is also in a vulnerable state at present. Decomissioned in 1988, for some years she was a Museum ship in Birkenhead. However, In 2006 the Trust that owned her closed, leaving her homeless. She is still in Birkenhead, but time is running out to find a permanent home for her. Plymouth has expressed a trust in homing her, fittingly in her old home port and namesake city. However, the offer of a berth at Millbay Docks was withdrawn in 2007, and it has been rumoured that she has been sold for scrapping – these reports are, as far as I can tell, unconfirmed. The situation with inactivity is similar to that in Belfast – Plymouth City Council has ‘expressed an interest’, but nothing more. Plymouth’s record on naval heritage isn’t so much woeful, but non-existant. Time and time again we hear MP’s Plymouth pleading that the loss of the naval base would decimate the city. Yet virtually nothing has been done to develop any kind of alternative industries or maritime heritage sector. We’re constantly being told that Devonport is the largest naval base in Europe. Look on google maps, and then the list of RN ships based in Plymouth, and you can see that there is plenty of superfluous space there. There was a possibility at one time that she could come to Portsmouth, but to be honest she has very little connection with Pompey, and if it comes to a choice between Caroline and Plymouth, the authorities will probably choose Caroline.

Personally I would like to see both preserved, and maintained to their 1916 and 1982 appearance respectively, in a setting that does them justice. But we just don’t do warship preservation in this country. I’ve done a bit of research on Museum ships in the US – they have seven battleships, five aircraft carriers, once cruiser, five submarines and two destroyers. Considering Britain’s proud naval history, what we have left is a poor return. Although they are large and expensive to maintain, ships should be seen in the same context as how museums develop their collections of other historically important artefacts. And what better way to display naval heritage than in a ship? Any other way seems inadequate in my opinion. Reading about the Nelsonian navy is one thing, but going onboard HMS Victory is on a different planet. It just needs more planning and foresight – potential museum ships need to be identified before they leave service, and chosen for their suitability.

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Another Aircraft Carrier U-turn

Artist depiction of the Queen Elizabeth-class,...

Artist depiction of the Queen Elizabeth-class, two of which are under construction for the Royal Navy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m several days late in reporting this one, but earlier in the week it emerged that the current governing coalition is planning to perform a u-turn and introduce both Queen Elizabeth Class Aircraft Carriers into service. Previously, it had planned to mothball one. Both will enter service with the Royal Navy once completed, as was originally planned by the previous Labour Government.

The mothball option emerged in the Strategic Defence and Security Review, which also opted to purchase conventional ‘cat and trap’ versions of the joint strike fighter rather than the vertical version -a decision that was also reversed earlier this year. Yet another defence u-turn raises questions about the coalitions judgement – whilst changing your mind is nothing to be ashamed of if the situation demands it, that decision makers have got so many things wrong in the first place is worrying. If decisions about acquiring equipment appear to be unsound, how much confidence can we – or more importantly our servicemen – have about the decision making when it comes to commiting troops?

I have always been a firm believer that there is no point in having just one of anything in defence terms. If you only have one aircraft carrier, it can only be fully operational half of the time. At best. And if you feel that you can do without it 6 months of the year, do you really need it that other 6 months? The French have had all kinds of trouble with their carrier Charles de Gaulle, and whenever she’s in port, the French have no other carrier. The Falklands – and the Royal Navy’s recent operational tempo – shows that to have one ship effective at any one time, you need at least one, preferably two more in refit or working up. One suspects that the current era of no strike carriers was prompted by the RAF trying to prove that we do not need them at all. That philosophy has clearly proved to be unsound, with carrier-borne air cover proving to be effective – militarily and financially – over Libya.

According to Defence sources, the first Carrier – Queen Elizabeth – should be undergoing sea trials by 2017. Sections being constructed in shipyards around Britain are currently being assembled in Scotland. Both ships will be based in Portsmouth, and extensive work is going on in Pompey to configure jetties and supporting infrastructure to take them. Seeing them steam into Portsmouth for the first time is bound to be an impressive sight. They are perhaps overkill for out financial means nowadays, and probably bigger than we really need militarily, but on the flip side, it is difficult to overestimate what an impact a 60,000 ton flat top could project.

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River Pageants and Fleet Reviews

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with Admiral Si...

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II with Admiral Sir Alan West on board HMS Endurance at the Trafalgar Fleet Review in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I did find it quite amusing watching the coverage of the Diamond Jubilee Thames River Pageant. A lot was made of how we haven’t had one since the times of Charles II. Presumably, we are led to believe that such an event is incredibly rare and fitting for such an occasion. The reality is, that for virtually every coronation or Jubilee in recent centuries, we have held a Fleet Review, normally at Spithead in the Solent.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 was marked by a fleet review, as was the coronation of Edward VII in 1902. George V’s coronation was marked in a similar fashion in 1911, as was his Silver Jubilee in 1935. A Coronation Review followed in 1937 for George VI. A Coronation Review was held for our current Queen in June 1953 (plan of the fleet at anchor), and then another for her Silver Jubilee in 1977 (plan of the fleet at anchor). The first major Royal event for over a century to not be marked by a fleet review was the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 2002 – ostensibly on the grounds of cost, but one suspects because we haven’t got anywhere near enough ships to make a decent review. A Fleet Review was held in 2005 to mark the bicentenary of the Battle of Trafalgar (list of ships present), and one suspects that this event was given primacy because international navies were probably more likely to attend a fleet review for this than one for a Golden Jubilee.

Much has been made of the fact that the Royal Navy has shrunk so much in intervening years that we do not have enough ships to form a large fleet review. In the opinion of this historian, it’s just a sign of the changing of times. Britain no longer has an Empire, and thus no need for a navy the size of that that it had in the late Victorian period. I’m sure none of us would like the tax bills – and no doubt the bankruptcy – that would come from maintaining a massive fleet of warships without the finances to do it. Also, a cursory glance down the Royal Navy’s Fleet Bridge Card shows that most ships are either on operations, about to go on operations, have just returned, or are in refit. There isn’t much time for spit and polish in the modern, threadbare operational tempo.

But, as a Portsmouth person, it is a shame that the Solent cannot play its traditional part in marking such a major royal event. For all the wonderful post-modernist rhetoric about the Thames River Pageant, it is a face-saving event, make no mistake about it. Whatever the rights or wrongs about it, it is a sign of change.

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