At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the first-hand veterans account is the most important aspect of military history right now. While in the immediate years after the war historians were pre-ocuppied with grand strategy, and what colour socks Churchill wore, recent years have seen a surge in the popularity of the memories and experiences of the ordinary man at war. Perhaps this is down to a realisation that as time passes, their memories might be lost. Perhaps it is also down to a broader democratisation of history. Maybe a combination of both.
This book by Martin Bowman comprises a unique selection of experiences from British and Commonwealth Bomber aircrew. Their accounts are not pre-occupied by strategy or tactics, but rather the emotional aspect of war. They are not the usual ‘tally-ho’ accounts of senior officers – most of the men in question were plucked from civvy street – but they are strirring, gripping and memorable.
The Bomber war was a unique experience. While battleships might see action infrequently, and army units might train for and fight set piece battles, Bomber crews routinely went into battle several nights a week – often night after night. Losses were heavy, even on supposedly quiet nights. The empty places in the mess halls must have had a sobering effect indeed. How on earth do men deal with such emotions and experiences?
There is nothing in this book that is particularly new in terms of the bigger picture. There are plenty of other similar books out there, but this book is very well presented and researched. Often veterans accounts can be overshadowed by the authors writing, but not here. Every similar book adds a new building block. We should be grateful that the individual stories of these men have been recorded for posterity – the more personal memories and experiences that are captured, the more material historians of future generations will have to ensure that the Bomber crews are never forgotten.
Bombs Away! is published by Pen and Sword
As 1915 began the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment found themselves occupying the same trenches running, 400 yards north of Legheer, turning right and ending in a t-piece. A very wet communications trench ran back to Plogsteert Wood, which was defenced by the Rifle Brigade. The weather was wet right up to the end of January, and given the very high water table in Flanders, flooding must have been a serious concern. However conditions in the trenches steadily improved with more pumps and better revetting. The houses behind the trenches were also strengthened.
Towards the end of the month the Germans began shelling the wood more regularly, with howitzers and field guns. Apparently one of the guns in particular was nicknamed ‘Little Willie’. Despite the shelling losses for January 1915 were very low – only 6 men killed, 7 wounded, and 1 officers and 50 other ranks admitted to hospital. As there was little fighting, these casualties were almost certainly down to illness.
February 1915 carried on in very much the same vein. There was again little activity, apart from enemy shelling. Much work was made in improving defences. It was a quirk of the western front that usually the opposing troops knew each other – in February 1915 the Hampshires were still facing a Saxon Infantry Regiment. For several days a Colonel of the Royal Munster Fusiliers was attached to gain experience. Between the 4th and 8th two companies of the Sherwood Foresters were attached, and between the 21st and 27th two companies of the 7th Canadians. February losses were light; Captain Knocker and 2 men were killed, and 16 men wounded. 2 officers and 114 men were admitted to hospital. During the month the Battalion received 4 Lieutenants and 80 other ranks as reinforcements.
March 1915 witnessed a change in routine. As trench warfare settled down into monotony, it was recognised that units could not be kept in the front line permanently. The 11th Brigade reflected wider Army policy by implementing a Battalion relief scheme. Each Battalion in the Brigade spent 6 days in the front line, then 6 days in support, and then 6 days in reserve. The support Battalion remained close by near Ploegsteert Wood. The Brigade’s front line extended from the road junction south of Legheer to German House. March saw even less activity; both sniping and shelling decreased. However the Hampshires were occasionally bombarded with rifle grenades. 3 men were killed, and 1 officer and 11 other ranks wounded. 1 Lieutenant and 94 men were sent to hospital, and 118 reinforcements were received throughout the month.
April began much the same as the previous few months. The war diary gives us a feeling for how the new relief system was implemented. 1 to 5 April were spent in trenches at Ploegsteert Wood, then after being relieved by the East Lancs the Hampshires marched to rest billets at Nieppe. After 6 days rest the Battalion returned to the Ploegsteert Wood trenches. They were relieved again on 15 April by the 4th Royal Berkshires. Interestingly, the adjutant noted very clearly that the 4th Berkshires were a territorial battalion. After spending 8 days in rest billets at Noote Boom, near Bailleul, on 23 April the Battalion received warning to be ready to move at short notice.
The 1st Hampshires were about to be sent to plug the gap at the Second Battle of Ypres. But the Hampshire’s time in Ploegsteert Wood left a lasting legacy – one of the farms in the wood became known as Hants Farm.