Researching Portsmouth’s Great War dead has thrown up some pretty interesting findings. It’s always occured to me, that for a naval and military town, Portsmouth never really seemed to contribute that many officers, to either service – particulary when you consider Pompey’s size and heritage. As I’m nearing the end of compiling my WW1 database, I’m starting to get a pretty good idea of where in Portsmouth the various officers and other ranks came from. And it’s a pretty intersting – albeit predictable – conclusion.
The vast majority of officers from Portsmouth came from Southsea. A leafy, fashionable nineteenth century seaside resort, Southsea had been started by Thomas Croxton earlier in the 1800’s, before being susbstantially developed by Thomas Ellis Owen in the mid-century. Owen built many well-adjusted villas, and shaped Southsea with sweeping, curving terraces, crescents and groves. Unsurprisingly, Southsea become home to wealthy professionals, and a not insignificant number of the officer class. Remember, aside from a premier naval town, Portsmouth was also the most heavily fortified place in Europe in the mid 19th Century, and home to a sizeable military garrison.
70 Officers from Southsea were killed between 1914 and 1921 – 10.5% of all of its 663 war dead. That’s significantly more than the usual officer-other rank ratio in either service. I should stress as well that my research into Southsea’s war dead is ongoing – in all probability, both numbers will be higher.
- Twenty two were 2nd Lieutenants in the Army. Notably, only 5 were in Hampshire Regiment suggesting that officers did not necessarily join units with regional loyalties in mind. Occupation wise, we know that one was a Solicitor and another a Surveyor. One was the son of a knight of the realm, another was the son of a vicar, and a sizeable number were 0ld boys of either the Southern Grammar School of Portsmouth Grammar School.
- Eighteen were Lieutenants in the Army. One man held the Distinguished Conduct Medal, suggesting that he had been commissioned from the ranks. Again, several were old boys of the Southern Grammar.
- Ten men were killed serving as Captains with the Army. Only 1 Hampshire Regiment, and intriguingly, three were sons of Lieutenant Colonels – suggesting that military families did inhabit Southsea.
- And on a more senior level, two Majors and two Lietenant Colonels came from Southsea.
It would be interesting to know how many of these were pre-war regulars, and how many were hostilities only officers. Also, how many of them were promoted from the ranks? The other thing that we need to bear in mind, is that the 1914-18 definition of Southsea included what we now know of as Somers Town, a predominantly working class area. If we were to limit our research to the area that we now know as Southsea, the officer-men ration would be much higher.
Interestingly, there were actually fewer naval officers than army officers from Southsea:
- Four men were administrative officers – one Clerk, and three Paymasters.
- Four men were serving as Commanders, including three Engineer Commanders.
- One man was serving as an Engineer Lieutenant Commander
- Of the three men serving as naval Lieutenants, two of them were Engineers
It’s striking that out of the 12 naval officers, half of them were Engineers. Now, I’m sure that Engineering Officers did not consitute 50% of the Royal Navy’s officer establishment, so does it seem that Southsea was home to something of a naval engineering set, possibly? As a fashionable officer town, but also home to numerous professionals and intelligentsia, did this make Southsea an attractive home for Engineers?
With the Royal Marine Barracks at Eastney nearby, it is probably not surprising that several Royal Marines Officers were killed from Southsea. Two were Lieutenants, and the other was a Brevet Lieutenant Colonel of the RM Light Infantry, who was killed commanding a naval Battalion of the RN Division on the Somme in December 1916. Southsea was probably a more palatable home for an RM officer than the more working class streets in Eastney.
By Comparison, only ONE man out of 450 who were killed from Landport was serving as an officer, an Army Captain. This represents a microscopic 0.2% out of the areas total war dead. It is not hard to escape the conclusion that Landport – an infamous, poor, working class neighbourhood, was exremely unlikely to produce naval or military officers, when compared with the well-off, educated folk of Southsea. It’s surprising the difference that a mile in geography can make, and I can’t think of many places where the difference is more pronounced between fashionable officers resorts on the one hand, and sailors slums on the other.
- 2nd Portsmouth Pals – formation to May 1916 (dalyhistory.wordpress.com)