Tag Archives: great war

News – Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes book

I’m very pleased to announce that I have just signed a contract with my publishers, The History Press, for my next book, ‘Portsmouth’s World War One Heroes’.

At present we are aiming for publication in late 2013, in time for the Great War Centenary in 2014. Obviously I am writing it as we speak and I do not want to give too much away, but it’s going to be like my previous book, but longer; and with the wealth of sources available for the First World War I have been able to go into a lot more depth. It will include some individual stories, stories of battles and units, a look at Portsmouth in 1914 and how the fallen of the Great War were remembered in the town. As with my previous book, most of these stories have never been told before.

16 Comments

Filed under portsmouth heroes, site news

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.

9 Comments

Filed under portsmouth heroes, World War One

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

8 Comments

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

Accidents and illness in war time

Something that I don’t think military history has ever quite convinced in portraying is the extent to which people are vulnerable to accidents and illness war time. In particular during the periods of mass mobilisation during both world wars. The National Roll of the Great War gives unparalleled information about how people died, which sheds new light on the experiences that affected the people of Portsmouth.

During war time, the usual health and safety and economy measures go out of the window. On a Dreadnought, or on the front line, for that matter, there are all manner of things that can go wrong. Several men were washed overboard warships. There were accidental explosions. Men fell into dry docks, or even Canals. One man drowned whilst attempting to rescue a man who fell overboard. One man was seriously injured when he fell under his horse. All manner of dangers could befall individuals during war. And we need to remember as well that in general life was more dangerous than it is now. Danger was an accepted part of life, and there was no such thing as health and safety. Personal Protection Equipment did not exist, and neither did risk assessments. But neither did litigation.

During wartime people seem to have been far more susceptible to illnesses that might be less than fatal in peacetime. Men died of illnesses as varied as Meningitis, Heart disease, Rheumatism, Brights Disease (nowadays called Nephritis), Blood Poisoning, appendicitis, post-operation illnesses and Malaria. If you think about it, a young man with an underlying heart weakness or defect is going to be susceptible to becoming ill during stressful circumstances. And that goes for pretty much any kind of illness. And in situations where there was a lack of sanitation, medical care or supplies, and poor diets, it is not surprising that so many people succumed to illness. Cuts and grazes or even insect bites could cause blood poisoning, and of course men in tropical climates were susceptible to Malaria.

Of course many men died during the Spanish Influenza epidemic during 1918 and 1919. Again, with so many men moving around the world, it is not surprising that the flu virus spread so virulently. Men who were tired and malnourished may not have had the immune system to fight off the flu. It is interesting also that a few men died of pneumonia during 1918 and 1919 – was this misdiagnosed influenza, or caused by it?

More obviously, several men died of the lingering effects of being gassed, some almost a couple of years after they had come home. Theirs must have been a horrific demise. A couple of men died from the effects of exposure – one the master of a Tug who had probably been at sea in cold weather, and suffered the consequences. Men also died of the effects of Trench Fever, and one man even died of frostbite in the Ypres sector in 1917.

Several men died soon after being invalided home with shell shock. Whilst it is hard with the information available to prove that shell shock killed them, it is not impossible – particularly considering the way in which shell shock was treated in the Great War.

One painter actually died from the effects of lead poisoning – almost certainly down to the lead content in paint. He was only 27 and had joined the Navy at the age of 18. Clearly nine years of working with lead paint on a daily basis was deadly. How many other men died of what we now know as industrial diseases? We all know nowadays about asbestos, but a hundred years ago so many hazards were not known. I also wonder how many stokers died of respiratory disease, or of illness linked to their job.

One man died from the effects of what was termed, at the time, acute nervous prostration. Nowadays, this would be termed a serious nervous breakdown. I’m loath to mention the gentlemans name, but he was a seaman who had been invalided out to hospital in 1916, and died the next year. If you think about it, many of us suffer from mental health issues, so for one man among almost 5,000 to experience a breakdown is not that surprising. Especially when you consider what he might have been through. Also, in 1916 treatment for mental illness was a lot more harrowing, as the condition was not nearly so well understood.

13 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized, World War One

Ancestry or Find My Past? A dilemma

For a while I have been pondering subscribing to one of the online family history websites. By far the most prominent are Ancestry and Find my Past. I’ve found myself doing more and more social history, which uses things such as the censuses and registers. And of course, both websites also have military records that are quite useful.

My problem is, which one to go for. Each has some records that the other does not have.

Find my Past has all of the censuses from 1841 to 1911, Merchant Navy crewlists and Seamans records, some miscellaneous occupational records, Parish Registers from 1538 to 2005, Birth Marriage and Death indexes from 1837 onwards, divorce indexes, some probates and wills, and some travel and migration records, such as East India Company records, Passenger lists and Registers of Passport applications.

It is in the military area that I am most interested. FMP has armed forces births, marriages and deaths 1796-2005; Army Roll of Honour 1939-45; British Army Service Records 1760-1915; De Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour 1914-1918; DCM Citations 1914-1920; Irish Great War Records; National Roll of the Great War 1914-1918; Naval Casualties 1914-1919; New Zealand WW1 Soldiers; RA Honours 1939-46; RA MM’s 1916-93; RM Medal Roll 1914-1920; RN Division 1914-19; RN Officers 1914-20; Soldiers Died in the Great War 1914-19; WW2 POW’s; and the Waterloo Medal Roll of 1815.

Ancestry has all of the censuses, plus some foreign; and even some electoral rolls and slave registers; the usual BMD Registers, plus Parish Registers; British wills and probate and some foreign too; an extensive range of Passenger Lists and alien entry books. In terms of the military, Ancestry has British Army WW1 Service Records 1914-1920; British Army Medal Index Cards 1914-1920; British Army Pension Records 1914-1920; ‘Soldiers Died’; Military Campaign Medal and Award Rolls 1793-1949; Army Roll of Honour 1939-45; WW1 Silver War Badge Records; POW’s 1939-45; Navy Lists 1908 and 1914; De Ruvigny’s R of H; DCM Citations and RN Division Records.

How the hell am I, as a WW1 historian, supposed to choose between the two of them? Whichever website I subscribe to, I am missing out on something vital on the other. If I join FMP I get RN Officers 1914-1920, and the RM Medal Roll; but if I join Ancestry I get Medal Index Cards and Silver Badge Records.

I have a feeling that this dichotomy in record digitisation is caused by the National Archives policy. Lacking the resources to digitise things themselves – they tend to charge by the item, in any case – TNA outsource each particular project to the highest bidder, either FMP or Ancestry. As a result, records are scattered between the two. As a result commercial interests are seriously hampering historical research.

Has anyone else in the field had this problem?

11 Comments

Filed under Family History, World War One

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

1 Comment

Filed under Book of the Week, Navy, technology, Uncategorized, World War One

More thoughts on military museums

Regular readers will be pretty aware – and possibly tired of me stating the fact! – that I have quite an interest in military museums. I’ve visited more than I care to remember, and in recent years I have made use of more than a few in a more professional capacity as a researcher and author. And having worked in museums in a number of capacities, naturally I have thoughts about the direction – or lack of – that some military museums are heading in.

The Ministry of Defence, facing serious budget pressures, has recently introduced a new report looking at the way that it supports Army museums in particular (as featured in the December issue of the Museums Journal). This month’s journal features an editorial from Richard Smith of the Tank Museum, Bovington – one of the more forward thinking military museums.

The Army currently supports 69 museums – infinitely more museums than there are Corps and Regiments in the modern Army. This is a legacy of a shrinking Army, which 50 years ago had scores of country Regiments, various Corps for every little function, and all kinds of other oddities. Between them these Museums host 5 million visitors a year, working out at an average of 72,000 each. When we consider that some such as Bovington will be getting much more than that, it is not too difficult to imagine that – to take a made-up example – the museum of the Royal Loamshire Fusiliers, merged in 1960, is probably a couple of rooms in Loamshire and gets about 5,000 visits a year.

I am not too sure that you could argue that military museums per se are industy leaders, as Richard Smith. SOME are – Bovington and the Imperial War Museum perhaps, and some of the more visionary provincial museums – but for every progressive museum there are plenty more standing still. Sadly, I think that it is probably right for the MOD to withdraw funding for museums 25 years after a Regiment has been amalgamted or disbanded. After 25 years, if the local community, old comrades etc have not managed to get the Regiment’s heritage onto a self-sustaining footing, its probably time to look at other options. With budget pressures, spending on heritage has to concentrate on what is relevant to today.

Army museums have to adapt or die. Appointing the National Army Museum as a sector leader is a positive move, and perhaps they could take on a leadership role much as the National Archives does for records offices and other repositories. Museums need to work together better – perhaps shared posts are an answer, as might be joint working such as travelling exhibitions, integrated events and education programmes, and increased loans.

I also think there is much potential for army museums to work more closely with ‘civilian’ museums. With the hundredth anniversary of the Great War looming, it is a perfect opportunity for local Regimental Museums to co-operate with the local town or city museum on putting together co-ordinated exhibtions, and loaning each other objects and materials to mutual benefit. The military, and by default military museums, should not sit divorced from society, but should look to become more involved in it. Regiments recruited from their area, losses in battle affected their communities, and veterans demobilising went back into society changed by their experiences. Their stories should be told in a ‘joined-up’ manner, not in dusty isolation.

Society at large is where the visitors, income and school groups come from that will keep many a small museum alive. Many museums have great potential for school groups, by linking into the national curriculum. Technology and Science is presented in museums such as REME at Arborfield, Logisitics Corps at Deepcut and Signals at Blandford Forum. Or how about medicine at the RAMC Museum in Aldershot? School groups are a real goldmine for museums. Venue Hire might be another income stream that would save museums from charging exobrient admission prices. But these are things that most public sector museums have been grappling with for years.

I do hope that Army museums can raise their game in years to come. It is so frustrating knowing that many of them have an aladdins cave of objects, documents and photographs, but are so short-staffed and cash starved that you cannot get at them. They usually charge just to visit their archives, and then charge the earth to reproduce photographs. Hence, the history of many Regiments and their men go hidden away. Which is a traversty.

6 Comments

Filed under Army, Museums

Walking the Somme by Paul Reed

Regular readers will probably need no introduction to Paul Reed. A prolific military historian, he is also a battlefield guide and a regular expert on the TV screens when it comes to military history. One of those people who makes you wonder, how do they fit it all in?!

Hopefully one day I will get myself to the Somme, and when I do this book will be in my rucksack. But until then a read of this is not a bad substitute. I wonder how many people, like me, own plenty of battlefield guides but have never been anywhere near the places? I find that because they are written in a manner aiming to interpret the lie of the land, and bring the battle to life, battlefield guidebooks come across like that even if you’re reading them in the comfort of your own home. And surely that is the whole intention of writing history? It’s something that Paul Reed does very well here. My understanding of the Battle of the Somme has been vastly improved thanks to this book. In particular, I have a much stronger grasp on what happened to the Portsmouth Pals- the 14th and 15th Hampshires – at Flers and Guillemont respectively. And considering I’m quite new to studying the Great War, but looking to publish a book on it myself in the non too distant future, thats a very useful thing.

The battlefield of the Somme is ‘broken up’ into a series walks, logical in scope and and sensible in duration. The book is amply illustrated, with photographs, archive maps and sketch maps – which somehow are very evocative of the great war, a nice touch. I also like how it concentrates far more on the common soldier than it does on the Generals, which is not always the case with First World War books! Sensibly, Paul has concentrated on the battlefields themselves, without swamping the reader with ancilliary information. Most of us have the internet at hand nowadays, and tourist information for Albert should be at our fingertips with a quick google search. Hence theres no need to overload the book with hotels, trains and toilets, when there is far more interesting stuff to think about.

This book was actually first published almost twenty years ago. And I have to say, considering the changes in technology and the shifts in military history since then, it has ‘aged’ remarkably well. I guess its comparable to, say, writing a battlefield guide now, say, for an iphone app, who knows what innovations might take place between now and twenty years time? So to pass the test of time is no small achievement.

Walking the Somme is published by Pen and Sword

10 Comments

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

Playing the Game: the British junior officer on the Western Front 1914-1918 by Christopher Moore-Bick

Much has been written about British senior officers in the Great War – the so called ‘Donkeys’. With popular cultural references such as ‘Oh what a lovely war’ and ‘Blackadder goes forth‘, it became an orthodoxy for many years that the British General Staff between 1914 and 1918 were Victorian and incompetent. In recent times, there have been a number of reactions to this. Firstly, attempts have been made to ‘rehabilitate the donkeys’, with varying success. And in a more refreshing manner, much effort has been put into uncovering the experiences of the rank and file on the Western Front, particularly poignant with the passing of the Harry Patch generation.

But somewhere in between those two appraches, we are missing something – an understanding of the lives of the junior officers of the British Army, those who commanded platoons and companies, whether regular, territorial or volunteer. And that void presents us with an opportunity. Not only to understand the middle level of the British Army in 1914-18, but also to take a closer look at the society that created them. And that’s what Christopher Moore-Bick has done very ably here.

In many respects the Great War heralded the end of the Victorian/Edwardian society in Britain. The title of the book is indicative of this – to young officers, everything was akin to a game, played on the public school playing fields. Baden-Powell encouraged his Boy Scouts to ‘play up, play up, and play the game!’. Portsmouth’s supporters, around the same time, encouraged their team to ‘Play up’. It could well be argued that the loss of so many young, educated men harmed British society irrevocably – how many future generals and politicians perished in Flanders fields?

It would not be enough to simply confine a look at the BEF‘s junior officers to their activities during the war and on the front line, and this book does not disappoint. Moore-Bick takes a broad view, examining Education and Upbringing, Training, the psychology of fear, responsibility and personal development working relationships with seniors and juniors, class factors, social activities and leisure pursuits, morale, bravery, identity and the relationship between war, dying and the public school ethos. No historical stone is left unturned.

A glance at the endnotes and bibliography gives an impression of just how hard the author must have worked on this project. Prolific use has been made of primary sources, in particular testimonies of junior officers. Great use has been made of a wide range of secondary published sources also. It is always impressive to see the reading that has gone into an authors approach and conclusions.

The only reservation I have about this book, is the manner in which Winchester College is mentioned profusely throughout. It transpires, reading the authors biography, that he is an ex-pupil of Winchester College. I’m sure that old-school tie is inspirational to people who didn’t go to the local state school, but it is slightly over-present here. I guess in a way that is an example of the class loyalties shown by junior officers during the Great War – the only school that existed was the one that you went to, and the only and by far the best Regiment in the British Army was the one that you joined. Tribal loyalties did breed healthy competition.

This book is a godsend to those researching the social history of the British Army in the First World War. For a first book it is a very credible effort, and I can only marvel at the time and effort that it must have taken to research. I’m going to find it invaluable during my research in the months and years to come.

Playing the Game: The British Junior Infantry Officer on the Western Front 1914-1918 is published by Helion

7 Comments

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

1st Hampshires in the Great War – Passchendaele

artillery barrage map from ...

An example of a creeping artillery barrage at Passchendaele (Image via Wikipedia)

The Battle of Passchendaele had begun on 31 Jul7 1917. The first phase during July and August had failed to make any serious progress. The Battle of Broodseinde was to be the last assault launched in the Ypres Salient as part of the offensive, and was an attempt to protect the southern Flank of the salient. The ever-elusive breakthrough was still hoped for, however.

After arriving at Proven on 20 September, the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment spent the next week training hard. It was hard to get much training done, however, due to the limited amount of space available. On 23 September a draft of 103 men arrived, and on the 27th the Divisional Commander, Major-General Matheson, inspected the Battalion.

On 28 September the Battalion entrained at Proven in the afternoon, and detrained at Elverindghe. From there the Hampshires marched to Roussol Camp. The next day Company Commanders instructed their NCO’s and men in the plans for the forthcoming offensive. The day after that on the 30th each Company rehearsed their plan for the attack.

later on the 30th the Battalion went into Brigade reserve at the Canal Bank, relieving the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers. The detailed operation order issued by the Adjutant listed the equipment and rations that the men were to carry. Officers were not to carry swagger sticks, and were to dress exactly the same as the men. Haversacks and entrenching tools would be left behind. Instead every man was issued with either a pick or shovel. Each platoon would carry 10 wire cutters, every man 2 aeroplane flares and every man 3 sandbags.

A detailed map was issued, showing the ground over which the Brigade was to advance. Starting in the area of Langemarck, the 11th Brigade was to attack on a narrow front, capturing ground to the North East of Poelcappelle. The 1st Hampshires were on the left, the Somerset Light Infantry on the right, and the 1st East Lancs in support and the Rifle Brigade in reserve. The Hampshires objectives, in order, were to be the Red House, Beek Villa, Imbros House, Kangaroo Huts and Tragique Farm. The principal objective, however, was merely a green line marked on the map. An even more detailed Battalion-level map was issued, that showed each of the Companies objectives, and also the distances between each landmark on the map. A diagram of how the platoons were to be set out in the advance was also included, and each platoon was allocated a specific objective, either to capture or, for the support companies, to consolidate once it had been captured.

The attack was to be on a 2 Company front, with each company’s front being 150 yards wide. The two other companies were to be in close support. A creeping Artillery Barrage was planned, as well as a Machine Gun Barrage. A detailed map showed the planned creep of the Barrage, beginning at Zero hour, and creeping forward on lines in front of the advance, moving forward every 2 to 3 minutes. Each Battalion was also alloted 2 Vickers Machine Guns to act in support. 2 Platoons were also designated as counter-attacking platoons, and designated authority to act on their own initiative to break up any German attacks. A Lewis Gun team of the 21st West Yorks was to be attached for anti-aircraft duties. A contact aeroplane was to overfly the area at set times to observe and report on progress.

On 1 and 2 October officers and NCO’s went forward to reconnoitre the line. The next day, on the 3rd, the Battalion went forward to its assembly area at Eagle Trench. It comprised 19 officers and 522 men. 3 officers and 118 men were to be left with the transport, to form a nucleus for reforming the Battalion if it were wiped out. Two tins of hot tea laced with rum were brought up for each Platoon. Heavy rain had fallen in the first few days of October, turning the artillery-riddled ground into a morass.

The troops were formed up and ready to go at 2am on 4 October. The enemy began shelling at 5am. At 6am the advance began, advancing behind the creeping barrage. They met light resistance, but the barrage was reported as being ‘ragged’, and caused many casualties to the Battalion. 30 prisoners and a machine gun were captured in Kangaroo trench. The Battalion advanced well, however. At 1pm it was noticed that the 10th Brigade on the left flank were retiring. An advance by the Rifle Brigade, coming up from reserve, checked this withdrawl. The Hampshires held firm on their objective line as night fell. Overall the battle of Broodseinde was one of the most succesful of the war. All objectives had been captured, for relatively light casualties when compared with the Somme and the earlier phases of Passchendaele. This was

The Battle on 4 October inflicted heavy casualties on the Battalion. 4 officers and 36 men were killed, and 8 officers and 182 men were wounded. 25 men were missing. Among the wounded were Colonel Armitage and Captain Laurie, the Chaplain, who both remained at their post.

Four Portsmouth men were killed on 4 October 1917. Private William McCarthy, 32 and from Highland Street, Eastney, is remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial. 19 year old 2nd Lieutenant Henry Hall, of Victoria Road South, Southsea, is also remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial. Private Charles McCable is another man remembered on the Tyne Cot Memorial, while Private Frank Oxford, 29, is buried in Cement House Cemetery.

8 Comments

Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One

1st Hampshires in the Great War – Christmas and New Year on the Somme

For their first stint back in the front line since the grievous losses on 23 October, D Company was in the front line, C Company in support, and A and B Companies were in reserve. The Battalion’s front line was about 500 yards long, and opposite St Pierre Vaast Wood. This tour of the front line also saw a new rotation of companies. Instead of all of the Battalion being in the line for the duration and having other Battalions in reserve, the Hampshires held a shorter front, with Battalions rotating between front line, support and reserve every day. This caused less strain on the men by lessening the time they were in the front line for any continuous period, and also gave newer soldiers a chance to gain experience gradually.

The 1st Hampshires were relieved on 23 December 1916 by the 1st Somerset Light Infantry, after four days in the front line. After marching to Maurepas the next three days were spent carying out fatigues, including on Christmas Day. The Battalion were in the front line again on 27 December, relieving the 1st East Lancashire Regiment. A similar routine of rotating Companies was once again carried out. This was a very short tour, however, for on 29 December the 1st Hants were relieved by the 2nd Middlesex Regiment. After once again marching back to Maurepas, lorries took the men the rest of the way to Bray. There the Battalion worked on making its camp habitable, including building roads and paths. The day before New Years Eve a draft of 132 reinforcements arrived.

The first page of the War Diary for 1917 records that the first week of January was spent in a ‘plucky attempt’ at training in spite of very poor conditions. The camp now had a road into it, and chalk paths round the huts. Training was mostly limited to musketry and gas helmet training. A regimental course was set up for training men in using the Lewis Light Machine Gun. Due to operational commitments on the actual day, the 4th Division celebrated Christmas Day on 7 January 1917, putting on a good dinner but in a typically british manner the War Diary bemoans the lack of plates or glasses.

The next week was again spent on training, until 15 January when the Battalion marched to huts in Curlu. This camp was much better than the one at Bray, consisting of small huts with a capacity for 25 men each. Training was impossible, however, due to a heavy fall of snow. Therefore time was spent improving drainage and building cookhouses.

On 20 January the Battalion relieved the 1st East Lancashire Regiment in the front line. D Company, however, remained in Curlu and was attached to the East Lancs. The front line was around 500 yards long, and about 500 yards east of Bouchavesnes, which itself was three miles north of Peronne. Rations had to be carried 5 miles from the nearest road – a significant logistical undertaking. The front line was exposed, as the enemy occupied higher ground. The front line does seem to have been relatively quiet during this stage of the war, however; the Germans limiting themselves to the odd shell and the odd sniper.

On 24 January the 1st Hants were relieved by the 1st East Lancs, and went back tot dugouts in Clery or camp in Curlu. No work could be carried out while the men were out of the line, as the ground was so hard. The Battalion were back in the front line again on 28 January, and again the Battalion practised a roulement of Companies. On 1 February the Hampshires were relieved by the 1st Kings Own Regiment, and marched back to camp near Suzanne, the last Company arriving just before 6am on the 2nd.

Leave a comment

Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

1st Hampshires in the Great War – return to the Somme

The beginning of October 1916 found the 1st Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment billeted at Cobie, a town some 20 miles behind the Somme front-line. The men were under no illusions as to what they were preparing for, as they had been informed sometime previously that they would be going back into action. After the failure to make a breakthrough on the first day, Field Marshal Haig kept pressing his Generals to keep attacking on the Somme, and the battle was still raging there over 4 months later.

Tellingly, the 1st of October found the Battalion practising attacking an entrenched position. The next day found them practising consolidation – that is, the tactic of holding onto positions that had been captured. After being confined to billets for several days due to wet weather, on 5th October the whole 11th Brigade, in conjunction with the 10th Brigade, practised assaulting a village.

On 7th October the Battalion marched eight miles nearer the front line, to Meaulte. The roads were crowded with troops, all moving in preparation for the next phase of the Somme offensive. The Battalion were billeted in 20 man tents. The next day the Battalion marched even nearer to the line, on flooded country tracks. When they arrived at Montaubaun the tents earmarked for them had already been occupied, so the men had to devise makeshift shelters, which they slept in until their tents became free on the 12th.

While the officers went forward to familiarise themselves with the front-line, the Battalion also continuted practising assaulting trenches. On the 17th of October 1916 the Hampshires were in Brigade reserve, while the other 3 Battalions were in the front line east of Guillemont. (The 14th and 15th Battalions of the Regiment – the Portsmouth ‘pals’ Battalions – had suffered heavy losses in the Battle of Guillemont during September). The next day the 1st Rifle Brigade and the 1st East Lancashires attacked the German front line. There was not much success, due to the very wet conditions. The Hampshire supplied carrying parties for the Brigade Headquarters and the front-line Battalions.

The next day the Brigade retired to support lines near Lesboeufs. On the 22nd the Battalion relieved the 1st Somerset Light Infantry in the front line, midway between Morval and Lesboeufs. The next day, the 23rd, dawned very misty. Zero hour for the coming operation – the Battle of le Transloy – was put back from 11.30am until 2.30pm in order to allow the ground to dry. The Hampshires were in the front-line, and were next to the French Army on their right. Their objective was an ‘imaginary line’ on the map, known as ‘the brown line’. The British Guns were falling short of the German lines most of the morning, leaving them relatively unscathed.

At 2.30pm the Battalion went over the top. C Company were on the right, A Company on the left, D Company in support and B Company in reserve. As soon as they entered no mans land very heavy Machine Gun and Rifle fire was directed at the Hampshires. The right flank suffered very heavy casualties, but managed to enter the first line of German trenches. They had to retire, however, due to a shortage of ammunition. Eventually the whole line had to retire to their original positions.

The next day the Battalion counted the cost – 10 officers and 192 other ranks. After being relieved the Battalion marched back to bivouac in Trones Wood. By the end of the month the Battalion was billeted at Abbeville. After such serious losses on the first day of the Somme, during the Gas attack in the Ypres Salient and on the 23rd of October, the 1st Hampshires were by now seriously understrength.

The battle on 23 October 1916 caused more casualties to Portsmouth men than the first day of the battle on 1 July. The men from Portsmouth who were killed on 23 October were: Private William Bampton (27, Stone Street, Southsea), Private Cyril Baker, Lance Corporal Albert Boyle (28, Peckham Street, Southsea), Private James Kneller (Oxford Street, Landport), Private Harry Carter, Private Douglas James, and Private Joseph Green. All have no known grave and are remembered on the Thiepval Memorial. Private Frederick Hatch (40) died two days later – presumably of wounds – and is buried at Guards Leboeuf Cemetery.

5 Comments

Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One

1st Hampshires in the Great War – The eye of the Storm

After the Gas attack 0n 8 August 1916, the 1st Hants were relieved on 11 August. The Battalion went back to camp accomodation. Space was cramped, and water supply was a problem. After the first couple of days were spent resting, what the war diary describes an ‘ambitious’ training programme was curtailed by having to provide men for working parties. This pattern continued until 21 August when the Battalion entrained at Brandhoek for Ypres. There Headquarters was based in the Town Ramparts, C and D Companies in the Infantry Barracks, and A and B Companies in the Zillerbeke Bund.

It was only a short stay in the front-line town, for on 22 August the 1st Hants relieved the 42nd Canadian Infantry. The sector occupied was only 1,000 south of Ypres, along the Menin Road itself, and stretched for 800 yards. The position was described as ‘rather unpleasant’, due to being overlooked by all points of the Salient. Most of the trenches were in a poor condition. The Germans were relatively quiet, apart from sending over light guns and trench mortars in the evening. A heavy barrage on the 26th, however, resulted in two officers being buried by earth and being badly shaken. 5 men were killed and 15 wounded. During the bombardment 10 Germans tried to infiltrate A Company’s positions but were beaten off. The next day the Battalion was relieved.

August 1916 had been a hard month for the Hampshires, particularly considering they had been sent to the Ypres sector to recover from their mauling on the first day of the Somme. They had lost 23 men killed (including 7 from Gas), 38 wounded, 2 missing, 46 men were gassed, and 91 were sent to hospital, with only 36 returning in the opposite direction. This was hardly a Battalion rebuilding itself – replacements were going straight in at the deep end.

September 1916 proved to be a much quieter month for the Battalion. On 1st September they went back into the front-line east of Zillebeke. On the 2nd two men were killed in D Company, the Battalion’s only loses for the whole month. On the 5th the 1st Hants were relieved and went back to Montreal Camp, 2 miles south of Vlamertinghe. After spending several days resting and on inspections, on 10 September the Battalion marched to Poperinghe, then by train to Bollezeele and thence to billets at Merckegem. The next day the whole Brigade marched to Capelle, two miles south of Dunkirk, and the next couple of days were spent in the sand dunes at Dunkirk.

On the 15th the Battalion marched back to Merckegem, where Lieutenant-General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston wished them ‘godspeed on their departure for the Somme’. The next day they marched to Esquelbecq station, where they entrained for Amiens. After several days spent in billets in Amiens the 11th Brigade marched to Corbie. On the march the 1st Hants fought a readguard action exercise against the rest of the Brigade. The rest of the month was spent training hard and in practising assaulting enemy positions.

Finally the Battalion had been allowed to rest and gather itself after its hard time on the Somme and a less than quiet spell at Ypres. However, only 27 men and 4 officers arrived as reinforcements during September 1916, so the Hants would still be seriously undermanned on their return to the Somme, where the Battle had been raging ever since their departure.

Leave a comment

Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One

1st Hampshires – The Ypres Salient, Summer 1916

The next day the Battalion went into the front line, relieving the 1st Grenadier Guards. It was very hot and the trenches in most part were dry, unusually for Flanders, which normally had a very high water table. The spell in the line was relatively quiet, with the only interruptions being Trench Mortars and mainly snipers. Enemy Machine Guns were also more active at night.

On the 28th Major Armitage of the West Yorkshire Regiment arrived to take over command. It was most unusual for an officer from outside the Regiment to be posted, especially to take command. The losses on the Somme had been so great, however, that it is likely that the usual tribal considerations had fallen by the wayside.

On 31 July the Battalion was relieved, and went back into support at Elveringhe. The time in support, and the men found time to bathe in the lake at Elveringhe Chateau. Some training was carried out, as well as providing fatigues for night work. On 4 August the Battalion went back into the line. It was still extremely hot, but the men were able to get on with work to improve their trenches.

The quiet was shattered, however, on the 8th. A warning was issued the day before that the enemy might use gas, as the wind was from the north east. Sure enough, at 10.30pm on the 8th the Germans discharged Gas. 10 minutes later a raiding party of 20 to 30 enemy was spotted, but was beaten back by rifle fire and grenades. An artillery barrage was called up, which effectively cleared no-mans land in front of the Hampshires sector.

The day afterwards Major Armitage submitted a detailed report of the incident. The numerous anti-gas devices, such as ‘gas gongs’ and klaxons, had not worked. 3 men had been killed, 14 wounded and 8 missing. 3 men were killed by gas, 37 suffering from the effects of gas, and 1 from shell shock. 1 officer had been wounded, and 1 affected by gas.

The Battalion went back into support for some much-needed rest, but D Company in particular were still feeling the effects of gas. Working under the threat of gas not only caused horrific casualties, it also seriously hampered the ability of a unit to resist attack – men wearing gas masks found breathing, moving and fighting much more difficult.

Among the dead during this period were Lance Corporal Wilfrid Cox (18, Copnor) who was killed on 4 August 1916, Private Albert Harris (29, Fratton) who was killed during the Gas attack on 8 August 1916, and Sergeant H.W. Doige who died on 10 August 1916. Cox and Harris are buried at Essex Farm Cemetery, and Doige at Lijssenthoek.

8 Comments

Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, Uncategorized, western front, World War One

1st Hampshires in the Great War: Aftermath of the Somme

On 10 July 1916 the 1st Hants left billets in Bertrancourt to take over front line trenches from the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers – this only nine days after the Battalion had been decimated on the first day of the Somme. – in the Beaumont Hamel-Serre sector. There they found trenches in a very bad condition. In some places Mills Grenades were buried in the mud – B Company lit a fire which exploded some grenades, killing one man and wounding two. There were only six officers in the front line, excluding Battalion HQ.

On the 13th a big fire demonstration was put on along the front line of the whole Corps. Gas, Smoke and High Explosive Shells were sent over all night, but retaliation from the enemy was light. By the next day trenches were beginning to dry out. Two patrols were sent out that night, and found that the German front line was strongly held. On the 15th the Battalion was relieved, and went back to billets in Mailly-Maillet. They were still close to the front line, and had to sleep in cellars to avoid shelling.

On the 16th the men attended a church parade in the morning, followed by 100 men forming a working party on the communication trenches. A draft of 15 men arrived, most of them men who had recently been lightly wounded. This suggests both how seriously understrength the Battalion was, and how desparate Britain’s manpower situation had become after the losses on the Somme. The next day a draft of 300 men arrived, mostly from the 16th (Depot) Battalion, but some from the 14th (1st Portsmouth) Battalion. Again, taking on such a huge number of men in one go suggests how depleted the Battalion was. The War Diary notes that the physical condition of these men was very poor – one man was sent to the Hospital within two hours of arriving. More new arrivals appeared on the 19th, including, as the War Diary puts it, ‘our old friends Capt Lockhart and Lt. Smythe’. Slowly, the Battalion was rebuilding. The influx of men who were no doubt volunteers or conscripts marked the point at which the Battalion lost much of its regular make-up.

On the 22nd the Battalion paraded for inspection. The next day they marched at 3am from Beauval to Doullens (Nord) Station, where they boarded trains for a 5 hour journey to Esquelbeeq (Nord) in Belgium. From their the men were billeted in farms. Battalion HQ was in Wormhoudt. The move to Flanders was evidently unpopular, as the War Diary records ‘those of us who were in Flanders before showed no zeal at renewing our acquaintance with this part of the world’. This is somewhat intriguing, given that the Battalion had suffered crippling losses on the Somme only weeks earlier, and that during 1916 the Ypres Salient proved to be relatively quiet. It is very possible that the 1st Hants were sent to this quiet sector in order to rest, rebuild and integrate their new recruits.

1 Comment

Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, western front, World War One