Tag Archives: World War I

The Lee Enfield .303 and British marksmanship

Thanks to x for pointing out this video.

You’ll often read in Great War history books about how the regular troops of the British Expeditionary Force at Mons in 1914 managed to put out such a rate of fire that the German’s thought that they were being faced with Battalions of Machine Guns. Watch this video and its easy to see how well trained troops could put out some serious lead with an SMLE! Multiply this rate of fire by 1,000 – the strength 0f a Battalion – and you really wouldn’t want to be in the way.

Historically, British marksmanship has always been pretty good compared to other armies. I can remember reading about how even during the Napoleonic War the British Army was the only one that practised with live rounds, and reading the Sharpe novels you get a real sense of how important massed ranks of volley fire were. When you add in the early interest that the British Army took in the Baker rifle, then you also have a heritage of accuracy too.

All this possibly goes some way to explaining why the establishment feared the Machine Gun – the Generals preferred their soldiers to fire deliberate, well aimed shots, making each one count. But, as any good guitar player will tell you, speed is a by product of accuracy – get it right first, and then get it fast. Read Dan Mill’s ‘Sniper One’ about the insurgency in Iraq in 2004, and you’ll see how apparently the insurgents found it seriously uncool to aim their AK47’s, and simply to blaze away from the hip. No wonder during World War Two the Army feared the sub-machine gun – calling them’gangster guns’ – apprehensive that soldiers would begin blasting away like Al Capone!

This culture might also explain why post-WW2 Britain adopted a rifle like the SLR, rather than something like the M16.

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Filed under Army, videos, World War One

National Archives drop digital download fees

The National Archives, Kew, London.

The National Archives, Kew, London. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The National Archives have dropped many of their fees for downloading digital scans of documents.

Previously First World War Unit Diaries were something like £7 per download, as were Service Records and Medal Citations. However, now all digital downloads are priced at £3.50 – a significant saving for those of us who have to download quite a few such documents for our research!

It’s a sensible approach that should help generate more historical research, particularly for people who find it hard to get to Kew.

Other documents you can download from the National Archives online include Naval Service Records (pre 1922), Royal Flying Corps and RAF Records 1914-1919, BEF War Diaries, and WW1 Campaign Medal Index Cards.

Now just to sort out institutions charging mortgage-level reproduction fees!

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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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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

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

Portsmouth’s WW1 Merchant Seamen

Memorial to the Merchant Seamen in Tower Hill

Memorial to the Merchant Seamen in Tower Hill (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the chapters in my recent book ‘Portsmouth’s World War Two Heroes’ concerned Merchant Seamen who were killed in the Second World War. Whilst I did argue that the fate of merchant seamen had been overlooked compared to their counterparts in the three ‘main’ armed forces, merchant seamen in the Second World War have had a relatively high profile compared to their predecessors of the First World War.

Whilst we all know about the U-Boat wolf packs of the Second World War, it is less well known that Germany first attempted what it called ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’ in the First World War, in an attempt to bring Britain to her knees by choking her maritime links with the rest of the world. Just to give some kind of comparison, in the Second World War the British Merchant Navy lost 11.7 million tons of shipping – around 2,828 ships, with the los of around 30,000 men. In the First World War, the total was 7.7 million tons – 14,661 Merchant Seamen were lost. Less than in the Second World War, but clearly not insignificant either.

26 Merchant Seamen from Portsmouth died between 1914 and 1919. The interesting thing is, that three were killed in 1915, then two in 1916, before 8 were killed in 1917 and then 6 in 1918. It was in 1917 that Germany really ramped up it’s U-Boat offensive, and it really shows in the statistics of casualties.

Henry Kinshott, aged 33, was a waiter onboard the liner RMS Lusitania. A Cunard Liner, on 7 May 1915 the Lusitania was torpedoed by U-20, 13miles off of Kinsale in Ireland. She sank in just 18 minutes, with the loss of 1,198 of her complement of 1,959. 128 of those lost were American, and the disaster arguably played a part in encouraging the US to come into the war on the side of Britain and France. Kinshott is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial in London. Born in Fareham, Kinshott lived at 3 Hampshire Street, Landport. Although thousands of people were killed, the Lusitania is relatively unknown compared to the Titanic.

A number of Hospital Ships were also lost at sea. On board the 12,000 ton HMHS Asturias was Greaser Stanley Cross, aged 2. On 21 March 1917, the Asutrias – formerly a Royal Mail ship – was damaged by U-66, 6 miles off Start Point in Devon. She was running between Avonmouth and Southampton, presumably carrying war casualties. The ship was beached and salvaged, but 35 men were lost, among them Stanley Cross. He is buried in Southampton Cemetery. Although Born in Landport in Portsmouth, he lived in Southampton.

One merchant ship actually had two Portsmouth men onboar. On the  SS Joshua were Master Thomas Jarrett, 48, and from 47 Derby Road in North End; and Mate Arthur Puddick, 40, from 27 Fourth Street in Kingston. The Joshua, a 60 ton coaster carrying china clay between Fowey in Cornwall and Dieppe in France, was stopped on 11 October 1917 by UB-57 west of the Isle of Wight. 3 of her crew were lost. Jarrett is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial, while Puddick’s body was recovered and buried in Kingston Cemetery in Portsmouth.

A number of Navy Yachts were also lost during the war. The Royal Navy requisitioned a large number of smaller vessels, particuarly for Patrolling coastal waters. In most cases their civilian crews served onboard throughout hostilities. At least seven Portsmouth men were lost crewing Yachts.

The WW1 U-Boat offensive seems to have been a lot more indiscriminate than that of 1939-1945. As an illustration of this, even a Trinity House Pilot vessel was sunk. On 26 September 1915 the Vigilant, a 69 ton wooden ketch built in 1879, was sunk by UC-7 off the South Shipwash Buoy off Harwich. 14 of her crew were lost, uncluding Steward William Barley, 41, who lived at 42 Darlington Road in Southsea. He is remembered on the Tower Hill Memorial.

 

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ANZAC Day service in Portsmouth

Earlier today Sarah and myself went to the annual ANZAC service at Milton Cemetery in Portsmouth, in remembrance of the 13 Great War Australian soldiers buried in Portsmouth. Regular readers might remember that I ran a series earlier in the year about the men and their experiences.

The service was attended by the Lord Mayor of Portsmouth Councillor Cheryl Buggy, Royal British Legion Standard Bearers, Royal Marines Cadets and members of the public. After a few words and prayers from the Chaplain, the last post was sounded and a minutes silence observed. After the reveille wreaths were laid, along with Poppy crosses.

It was great to see such a turn out, especially for some very young men who died over 95 years ago, so far from home. Hopefully they would be pleased that they have not been forgotten.

As you can see the graves are in a beautiful condition, and are tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. All of the 11 in this particular row were buried separately, but then exhumed and re-interred after the war in the same row. Hence their graves look very much like war graves in some of the big foreign war cemeteries in France and Belgium. Also buried next to them is Edward Sanderson, who voluntarily tended the Australian graves, and his wife Harriet.

I also have pictures of each of the men’s graves, and I will be updating their biographies on my blog with their pictures. If anybody from Australia would like to take copies of these pictures, then please do. I am also hoping to write an article about Portsmouth’s adopted ANZAC’s for th Australian War Memorial Journal in the near future.

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Filed under event, Pompey ANZAC's, western front, World War One