Daily Archives: 25 June, 2010

Mud, Blood and Bullets: Memoirs of a Machine Gunner by Edward Rowbotham

Having researched 1,500+ Portsmouth soldiers who died in the First World War, sadly I know very little about any of them as people. There really aren’t as many Great War veterans accounts as there as there are from their counterparts who fought twenty or so years later. Therefore anything that sheds new light on the soldiers experience of the Trenches is to be applauded. Here, a Granddaughter has edited her Grandfathers wartime memoirs.

Edward Rowbotham was born into a large Midlands mining family, one of 14 children. Although he followed his father and most of his brothers down the pit, as soon as war broke out in 1914 he wanted to join the Army. Although he initially remained at home, in 1915 he finally volunteered as part of Kitcheners Army.

Although he initally joined this local unit the Staffordshire Regiment, he was soon drafted to a brand new formation – the Machine Gun Corps. Although infantry Battalions had begun the war with Vickers Machine Guns in their weaponry, it was soon found that for them to be fully effective they would need to be put into the hands of a dedicated unit. And thus the Machine Gun Corps was formed.

Rowbotham fought at the Somme – particularly at the Battle of Flers – and then at Passchendale in 1917. Almost continuously in the front line for three and a half years, his story takes us right up to the point where the British Army marched into Cologne as an occupying force. Three and a half years is an awful long time to he survived on the Western Front, and it is difficult not to have the feeling that Rowbotham had a charmed life.

As so often is the case with personal accounts, it is not the ‘what happened when’ that is interesting, it is the very human tales that emerge that are worth their weight in gold. Stories of bizarre wounds, boxing matches, grumbling about bully beef, officer-men relations, the usual ‘British-soldier-in-a-strange-country’ stories and tales of super-strength Army Rum are what make personal stories such as this so valuable. At all times we are reminded that we are reading about a real person and their experiences, the text has such a personal feel to it. I found myself not just by the war stories, but also by the tales of failed romances. Rowbotham’s premonitions about his own safety are also amongst some of the intriguing episodes I have read about.

Ted Rowbotham distinguished himself on a number of occasions. On one occasion he went ino no-mans land to find a missing soldier, after receiving a premonition of his own safety. Having found him mortally wounded, Rowbotham sought out a stretcher and remained with the wounded man. Eventually Rowbotham managed to have him evacuated to Hospital, where he later died. Although this incident was not reported at the time, when Rowbotham later took over a gun position and manned it all night he was recommended for a Military Cross. But, as with so many men decorated for bravery, he is entirely modest about it in his memoirs.

Not only is Ted’s account of the Western Front interesting, but also is stories of what happened to him before and afterwards – its like the bread in the sandwich, it holds the filling together. But what really makes this book a pleasure to read is the authors warm, grandfatherly style of writing – its very much in the tone you would expect a wisened older relative to take when passing on their life experiences to the young. But not at all patronising, more ‘warm fireside’.

Mud, Blood and Bullets is published by The History Press

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Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Family History, social history, western front, World War One

UK-US Spy agreement revealed

The National Archives have today released into the public domain the text of a landmark agreement between the British and American intelligence communities. Agreed shortly after the end of the Second World War, the pact led to the sharing of information during the Cold War, an arrangement that is still in place today.

During the Second World War ad-hoc arrangements were in place regarding the sharing of intelligence, such as ULTRA intercepts. In March 1946 the UKUSA Agreement was signed. In later years the Agreement was extended to include Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The agreement has long been known about, but this is the first time that its existence has been acknowleged by either Government, and the first time that its exact has been released. The release follows separate Freedom of Information requests on both sides of the Atlantic.

Alongside documents relating to the agreement itself, the National Archives have also released examples of the kind of information that was shared. The newly-available documents are likely to be a gold-mine for Historians of Stalinist Russia. Intercepts shed light on private conversations and correspondence between Soviet citizens, military personnel, Party officials and religious leaders between 1946 and 1949.

The bulk of the intercepts focus on military issues, and give an important sense of the Soviet build up during the early years of the Cold War. There are reports of a “stormy meeting” taking place and one person says, ominously: “of the Moscow representatives nothing remains but a wet spot”. A Soviet Major says he can be “patient no longer”, as his son, who had been “foully killed”, was yet to receive justice. The war-readiness of the population is illustrated by an intercept which picks up a mother saying: “I am afraid of leaving the kids here. What about a war, all of a sudden?”

Intercepts also gleaned information about Political repression behind the Iron Curtain. Folksongs were banned on the grounds that they were “inartistic and trivial”. Songs such as “Why do you destroy me, you foolish woman”, were popular with the peasantry but not the authorities and were forbidden. The Kazakh Communist Party reported its local crime statistics to Moscow, crimes which included ‘anti-party activities’, ‘concealment of social origin’ and ‘desertion from the Soviet army’.

Reports also gave information about ordinary everyday life in Soviet Russia. Measures were taken to prevent infected grain reaching the food chain, and there were also reports of food shortages, diseases and plagues. One file reports a “widespread sickness” among all kinds of animals and reports that “vets are unable to cope”.

Stalin himself also featured in reports. In 1948 Patriarch Alexis, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, said that special prayers and singing will take place in all of Moscow’s churches for the “preservation and long-life of our state and its leader”. The files also contain personal messages addressed to Stalin.

During the immediate post-war period Russia was facing the dual challenges of reconstruction after the war and cementing her status as a world superpower. Reports described various problems in Agriculture, Industry and the Economy, for example. Agricultural workers in Kamchatka complain to Comrade Molotov that they have failed to receive living accommodation, cattle, seeds and fodder, four years after their resettlement in the region. The unsatisfactory progress being made at a gas construction site is blamed on “hooliganism” and low morale.

Given that these documents refer only to a three year period, hopefully in the future we can look forward to the release of a mass of material on Soviet Russia during the Cold War. This should shed a whole new light on our understanding of the Cold War.

To find out more about the Agreement and the Documents, click here

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