Category Archives: World War One

The Twynam family of Soberton, Hampshire

For the most part, I have confined my WW1 research to people who either lived, were born or had strong connections with the area bounded by Portsmouth city. But my brother has tipped me off on an interesting little subject from a small village just to the north of Pompey.

My brother is a middle distance runner, and on one of his recent training runs he passed through the small village of Soberton, near Droxford and Bishops Waltham. It’s on the back road from Portsmouth to Winchester. Anyway, near the centre of the village is a Great War Memorial, as in many villages, consisting of a hewn stone cross and a plaque of names. And it’s that plaque of names that grabbed Scott’s attention, there being four men of the same surname. This is remarkable, and in such a small village too.

After a little research, I can confirm that the men are:

TWYNAM John

Staff Sergeant 131 1st South African Mounted Rifles. Died on 30/11/1914 Age unknown. Commemorated at Barnea Siding Burial Ground, Bethlehem, Free State, Africa. Apparently John Twynam was killed accidentally by a lightning strike.

TWYNAM Godfrey

Second Lieutenant 11th Bn. Border Regiment. Died on 18/11/1916 Age 25. Son of the late John and Mary Twynam, of Soberton House, Droxford, Bishop’s Waltham, Hants. Waggon Road Cemetery, Beaumount-Hamel, Somme, France, A. 24.  Born Droxford Apr/May/Jun 1891. The 11th Borders were a Kitchener Battalion, so it is probable that Godfrey was a wartime volunteer.

TWYNAM Hugh

Lieutenant H.M. Submarine E.36. Royal Naval Reserve. Died on 19/01/1917 Age 29. Son of John and Mary Twynam, of Soberton House, Soberton Hants.. Commemorated at Portsmouth Naval Memeorial, Hampshire, United Kingdom, 27. Born Droxford Apr/May/Jun 1888. Earlier censuses suggest that he had served as a cadet in a training ship on the Thames, and was then a Mate in the Merchant Service. Like many Merchant Seamen, he seems to have also been a member of the Naval Reserve.

TWYNAM William Hugh

Corporal 16391 7th Bn. Canadian Infantry (British Columbia Regiment). Died on 24/04/1915 Age 33. Son of the late John and Mary Rachel Twynam, late of Soberton House, Soberton, Hampshire. Commemorated at Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Ieper, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium, Panel 18 – 28 – 30. Born Droxford Jan/Feb/Mar 1883. William was in Canada at the time that war was declared working as a clerk, and seems to have volunteered straight away for Canadian forces. An earlier census states that he was a bank clerk. His attestation papers state that he had served with South African forces for five years.

After a little more research, it transpires that the Twynams were an ancient family with a long connection to the Soberton area, as might be expected of a family living in what appears to be the Manor House. In the 1891 census the family had four domestic servants, including a governess, a nurse and a cook. In an earlier census it is suggested that the family were involved in farming, employing a considerable number of people locally. Hampshire Records Office holds title deeds relating to land and property owned by the family, and also wills of several of the family members.

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Royal Humane Society Medals

Among the decorations won by Portsmouth servicemen in both world wars, I have come across several who have been awarded the Royal Humane Society‘s Bronze Medal for lifesaving. Having done a bit of research on them, I thought it might be timely to take a look at the history of the RHS, and how these brave men came to be awarded their medals.

The Society was founded in London in 1774 by two Doctors, William Hawes and Thomas Cogan. They aimed to promote the revolutionary new techniques that had emerged for resucitating people who were apparently dead. The Society presents awards for acts of bravery and lifesaving, and not surprisingly some servicemen find themselves in situations where they are called upon to save lives.

Here are a few details of Portsmouth men who won RHS Bronze Medals, from WW1 and WW2:

KIRKPATRICK, James Cramb; Canteen Manager, HMS Bulwark. Killed 26 November 1914, aged 45, remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. Born in Birkenhead on 18 March 1869, lived at 17 St Helens Park Crescent in Southsea, a Parishioner of St Wilfrids Church. He was an ex Chief Petty Officer. Sadly I have not been able to find the citation for his Royal Humane Society award.

SMITH, Samuel Charles Arthur; Gunner, HMS Comet. Killed 1 February 1915, aged 37, buried in Basra War Cemetery, Iraq. Lived at Eastfield, 3 Kewsick Avenue, Copnor. Smith was awarded the Bronze Medal of the Royal Humane Society in 1912. Whilst serving as the Gunner on HMS London, Smith was involved in the rescue of survivors from the SS Delhi, a wrecked merchant vessel. On 15 December 1911, as Lascars (foreign seamen) were being landed to shore, one of them was washed away in rough seas. Smith swam after him and got him back to the Delhi, where they were both hauled aboard. Smith was also awarded the Board of Trade’s Medal for lifesaving.

WOOD, Frederick James; Lieutenant, HMS Cerberus II. Died 16 January 1941, aged 48, remembered on the Portsmouth Naval Memorial. From Southsea. Wood’s RHS Bronze Medal was awarded in 1917, when as a Petty Officer, he and an officer rescued a man who had gone overboard in the Thames. Although the sea was choppy and the ship was travelling at 12 knots, they managed to keep him afloat until they could be rescued.

HEAP, Jack Edward; Aircraftsman 1st Class, 151 Maintenance Unit, RAF. Died 9 April 1945 aged 35, buried in Ambon, Indonesia. From Southsea. He was captured by the Japanese on 8 March 1942 and held as a prisoner at Java, Malacca and Celebes. He died at Muna. His RHS Bronze Medal was awarded posthumously in 1947 for an unspecified incident on 8 November 1944.

I find the RHS Medals quite humbling. The citations stand out amongst other military decorations, as they are explicitly for saving life. Whereas – obviously – many ‘mainstream’ medals are awarded for the opposite. Of course, in war killing is something of a necessary evil, but never the less, it is difficult not to be inspired by the humanity shown by some of these men.

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ERA 2nd Class William Shaw DSM

As a general rule, Great War sailors from Portsmouth don’t seem to have won as many medals as their counterparts in the Second World War. I’m intruiged as to why this might be. But in the meantime, I have found one sailor who had a pretty interesting career.

William Fleetwood Shaw was born in Portsmouth on 8 July 1889.He was the son of Mr W.F. and Mrs. E. Shaw, of 46 Cleveland Road, Southsea. Shaw was an Engine Room Artificer 2nd Class when he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal on 28 September 1917, for ‘service with the Royal Naval Air Service on patrol duties and submarine searching in Home Waters’. Quite what an Engine Room Artificer was doing serving with the RNAS is anybody’s guess.

William Shaw was killed on HM Submarine L55 when she was sunk in the Baltic on 4 June 1919. L55 had been targeting two Soviet warships – the Gavril and the Azard. It is unclear whether the submarine was sunk by soviet gunfire, or from straying into a British-laid minefield.

The wreck remained on the Batlic seabed for eight years, until L55 was raised from the seabed by the Soviets on 11 August 1928. The remains of her 34 crewmembers were transferred from a British trawler to HMS Champion – a Light Cruiser. Their remains were buried in Haslar Royal Naval Cemetery in Gosport in a joint grave. My grandad’s birth certificate states that his father – my grandfather, Stoker Thomas Daly – was on HMS Champion at the time, so its quite possible that one of my ancestors played a small part in bringing William Shaw home! The photograph above shows some of the 34 coffins on the foredeck of HMS Champion, and her sailors and marines maintaining an honour guard. Interestingly, after being raised L55 was repaired by the Soviets, and used until the Second World War.

Interesting how a young man from Portsmouth – an Engine Room ‘tiffy’ – wins a DSM for service with the RN Air Service, is then killed serving in a submarine during the Russian Civil War, and finally finds his way home to Portsmouth almost a decade later.

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Ten years in a Portsmouth Slum by Father Robert Dolling

English: Geometric perfection, near to Portsea...

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I mentioned yesterday a fascinating memoir about the life of a missionary priest in a late nineteenth century Portsmouth slum. I’ve actually found a copy of it available to read online. Click here to take a look.

Father Robert Dolling was a pretty interesting character. An Anglican Priest, he had a strong liking for what were virtually Catholic rituals – for instance, giving masses for the dead – yet at the same time, showed much of the evangelical zeal seen in many a non-conformist. But in his case, he was not converting savages in the rainforests, but bringing salvation to the desparate poor of Britain’s biggest naval town. The mission was funded by Winchester College, one of the most prestigious public schools in Britain.

Dolling came to Portsmouth in 1885, apppointed to run an Anglican mission church in the area of Landport. Just outside the Dockyard walls, Landport was inhabited by many sailors, dockyard workers and their families, and was probably one of the most deprived places in the city. Dolling went out into the community, and his observations are social history goldust. He frequently allowed locals to sleep in his house, on one occasion sleeping in the bath to allow others to sleep over. He set up a gymnasium, classes, and worked in the community with the sailors and their families. His book contains invaluable observations on their morality, work, clothing, health, leisure pursuits, and the transient nature of Portsmouth society. And we need to remember, this is the society into which the vast majority of Great War Dead were born.

By the time he left in 1895, Dolling left a galvanised Parish, who worshipped in an incredibly opulent church – St Agathas. Two sets of my grandparents were actually married at St Agathas, by Dollings successor – Father Tremenheere. I’ve visited it myself, and I genuinely thought that it was a Catholic Church. It has a fantastic Sgraffitio by Heywood Sumner, and is built in a Mediterranean Basillica style. Whilst it was built in the middle of slums, almost like a guiding light to the feckless poor, during the Second World War the surrounding slums were largely decimated, and the remains cleared in peace time. For many years the building was actually used as a naval storehouse, until it was restored as a church in the early 1990’s. Now, it stands, lonely, near the Cascades shopping centre. Apparently, despite enthusiastic fundraising, Dolling spent more than £50,000 during his time at St Agathas, and when he left the parish it was over £3,000 in debt. Dolling was personally responsible, and apparently wrote his book to go some way towards clearing this debt.

Dolling himself was eventually forced to resign in 1895, when the new Bishop of Winchester refused to allow him to dedicate a special altar for the giving of masses for the dead – unsurprisingly, given the level of anti-catholic feeling at the time. In the Appendix of his book Dolling actually publishes a lenghty, and eventually heated correspondence with the Bishop. It is intriguing to say the least why Dolling did not just go the whole hog and convert – as in the case of Cardinal John Henry Newman, the most prominent Anglo-Catholic. But Dolling does seem to have taken to his role as Parish priest with great relish. But at the same time, he does, like earlier victorian social investigators, talk about his poor parishioners as if they are animals, waiting for salvation. He undoubtedly cared about them, but in a way that we nowadays would find far too paternalistic.

A curious and contradictory man indeed.

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Thinking about Great War communities

My first book has only been on the shelves for a matter of days, but I guess its never too early to start thinking about lessons learnt, and how I might be able to do things differently next time around.

So far, everyone who has read the book has seemed to really enjoy reading the individual stories that I was able to tell. For some of the casualties I researched, especially officers and medal winners, there certainly was a lot of information out there. But the interesting thing is, for, say, a Private who was died of illness and didn’t win a medal, its next to impossible to find out much about him. As a result, I virtually had to write about what I could, based on the sources that were available.

One of the big differences between researching World War Two dead and World War One dead is the vastly different amount of information available. For Second World War Dead, the CWGC only tells us what area somebody came from. And not in all cases either. By contrast, for the Great War, for many we not only have the area that they came from, but also their street name and even house number. This enables us to build a unique picture of Portsmouth, that would impossible for the Second World War.

But the information does not end there. For sailors and Royal Marines, we can obtain their service records. Even though to download a few thousand of them would cost me megabucks, the National Archive’s search entries give us a date and place of birth for sailors. For Royal Marines, we can see their date of birth, but also their date of enlistment. Hence for sailors we can chart immigration into Portsmouth from elsewhere, which could lead to some groundbreaking research.

Also, we have a wealth of information available from the censuses of 1901 and 1911. Already, these have helped me to gain an insight into casualties previous careers, their households, their neighbourhoods, and their families. Something that is impossible for the period 1939-1945. And this gets me thinking : while there is a dearth of information about individuals, such as medal citations, there is a treasure trove of sources available for broader social history.

Maybe it would be interesting to look at Portsmouth in 1914, through the historical microscope that the Great War provides us with? Nobody has really looked at the late victorian and Edwardian working class communities of Portsmouth – these, inevitably, are the communities from which the vast majority of war dead came. Lets think about an area such as Landport. Straddling the Dockyard, it was home to thousands of sailors and Dockyard workers. If ever a community was a Navy community, it was somewhere like Landport. Using the CWGC entries and the census, it should be possible to look at a multitude of facets of life – occupations, families, leisure, recreation, housing, and even sanitation and healthcare. How many naval pensioners resided in the area? How many worked in the Dockyard? How many pubs were there? What were the levels of crime like?

There is an interesting element to the Landport story. Inspired by the den of iniquity for which the area was infamous, in 1885 an Anglo-Catholic Priest, Father Robert Dolling, set up a mission in Landport, funded by Winchester College. For ten years he ministered in the area, leading to the opening of the church of St Agathas in 1895. Shortly after Dolling resigned, when the Bishop of Winchester refused to sanction Dolling’s preference for what were virtually Catholic worship rites. The year after his resignation Dolling published Ten Years in a Portsmouth Slum, based on his experiences in Landport. I haven’t read it, but I’m hoping that it will be one of those rare, invaluable social investigations, a la Charles Booth in the Victorian period, and Mass Observation in World War Two.

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Naval Weapons of World War One by Norman Friedman

Norman Friedman gives us an incredibly comprehensive view of the weapons used by the Great War navies of… ready for this…? Britain, Germany, France, the United States, Italy, Russia, Japan, Austria, Spain, Sweden, and other navies. Here, naval weapons include guns, torpedoes, mines and anti-submarine weapons. There must have been a risk that main guns would overshadow mines and torpedoes.

This is quite some book, and I can only marvel at the amount of research that must have gone into it. Perhaps I found some of the technological stuff a bit perplexing – there were so many different calibres of gun, for example, it is hard to keep track of them all! But Friedman doesn’t just offer a technological narrative, he also gives a very good background in the historical developments that led to the early twentieth century naval arms race, and how the manufacture and development of weapons progressed. Names such as Armstrong figure prominently. And that is refreshing, as so often we get a – dare I say it – geeky analysis of why a 4.99inch gun is different to a 5inch gun, without any regard for the ships that they were fitted to, the men who operated them, and the admirals who fought them. I have found quite commonly when analysing modern naval warfare, than some correspondents tend to get too bogged down with the technology – ie, the make up or resistors in a sea wolf launcher – with no regard at all for the human aspect of things.

One thing that surprised me is just how many different types of guns were in use. In these days of commonality and procurement-led equipment policies, it is hard to fathom that the Royal Navy used to operate all manner of different calibre and type of guns. It must have been a supply chain nightmare. Imagine all of the spare parts, maintenance know how, operating experience and ammunition complexities. I guess it was as a result of the rapid change in technology in the nineteenth century. After all, the Royal Navy fought at Trafalgar with smootbore muzzle loaders, and went into action at Jutland with huge, rifled breech loaders. And then when you take into account the massive innovations in explosives, then its little wonder that the navies changed so dramatically. After all, guns and rounds are the raison d’etre of any Dreadnought. And then we have the vastly complex issues of naval tactics in the Dreadnought age, the Battlecruiser conundrum et al. And then when you compare these issues among the various navies, you have a very interesting picture.

But here Friedman does place the technology well within the wider context. There is a lot of compare and contrast, which is of course vital when considering why and how certain navies fared differently to others. It is excellently illustrated with some first class photographs, which are well interpreted. I found it very illuminating indeed. As somebody who does tend to concentrate on the social history side of things, it would be all too easy to ignore technology as ‘cold’ history. But to understand the story of men who served at sea in the Great War, then we should be prepared to be engrossed in the weapons that they worked with.

Not only that, but it looks pretty snazzy on my bookshelf!

Naval Weapons of World War One is published by Pen and Sword

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Forgotten Victory by Gary Sheffield

Cover of "Forgotten Victory: The First Wo...

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Going against a commonly-held perception is perhaps the greatest challenge that faces any historian. Some things in history are just so taken for granted that they are held as unassailable truths. As one of the fell0w-students on my degree course stated once, memorably, ‘Henry VIII was just a fat bloke who ate chicken’. Run against such a ‘historical truth’, and you runk the risk of being desricbed as a revisionist as best, and at worst a charlatan. In this book Gary Sheffield treads a very careful and well-reasoned path. Our understanding of the First World War is choc full of myths and misconceptions. Sheffield sequentially and convincingly deals with many of the inaccuracies that have become ingrained in national consciousness. National Consciousness, as Sheffield enlightens us, does tend to pull historical events out of their context.

Perhaps the biggest myth that Sheffield deals with is that of the ‘Lions led by Donkeys‘. Haig et al are filed neatly under ‘butcher’, and they sacrificed the lives of millions of brave men. Sheffield argues – convincingly, in my mind – that not only could Haig and his generals have not done much different, but also that progressively from 1916 onwards the BEF – and its generals – learnt rather quickly how to fight a modern war, and didn’t do too bad in the circumstances. On the Somme in 1916 the BEF relieved the pressure from the French at Verdun, and almost caused the German Army to crack. It almost did the same once again in 1917 at Ypres. It has become all too easy for any of us, in hindsight, to judge that the First World War was a a barbaric waste of life for no good reason. In fact, the BEF, by its actions, did result in the defeat of the German Army in the field, which ended the war. Haig was not a complete technophobe, as has been alleged. He understood air power, and embraced innovations such as the Tank – giving them his full support.

Trench Warfare, and the demands that it placed upon the British Army, was a complete abboration in British military history. Never before had Britain fielded a vast citizen army on the continent; for a small, elite, imperial police force, this resulted in a waterfall of change in a matter of weeks and months, let alone years. Once Kitcheners Armies took to the field and the BEF gained some valuable lessons, the British Army began to acquit itself quite well. Plumer, in particular, comes in for much praise. Perhaps the most important innovation of the Great War was the importance of the set-piece attack – detailed planning of an all arms battle, with all arms communicating as far as possible. Interesting, is it not,  that Montgomery served on Plumers staff? Crucually, Sheffield does not doubt that the BEF suffered horrific casualties, but he does argue – thougtfully – that a high butchers bill does not necessarily mean that those thousands of lives were lost in vain.

World War One did, in some respects, end unsatisfactorily for all sides. The German Army had been defeated – or, in many ways, had defeated itself. Yet the German nation and people did not suffer the full consequences of defeat, and hence the myth of the stab in the back took hold. The US under Wilson imposed ideals of liberal democracy on the rest of the world, then promptly retreated to isolationism once more. The vast loss of life led to policies of appeasement, particularly for Britain and France. And hence, perhaps, perceptions of the Great War have been shaped by its consequent events that took place years afterwards. The Allies won the war, but did not win the peace.

In terms of British military history, Gary Sheffield is perhaps the most prominent voice in the field today. Forgotten Victory has considerably aided my broader understanding of the First World War, from the international rivalries and complex web of alliances that made it happen, to the hopelessly compromised peace settlement after, which all but condemmed Europe to war less than a generation later. But sadly, calm, collected histories do not tend to change popular consciousness. Which is a pity, as I cannot help but feel that Sheffield treads a very well reasoned path here.

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