Category Archives: Great War

Who Would You Include?

I was just answering a comment on a previous post – the review of Famous 1914-18 when a question crept up on me. The question is – who would you include?

The authors included A A Milne, George Mallory, Arnold Ridley, Ralph Vaughan Williams, John Reith, Dennis Wheatley, John Reginald Halliday Christie, C S Lewis, Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce, Alexander Fleming, R C Sherriff, B L Montgomery, Ned Parfett,Tom Denning, J R R Tolkien, Winston Churchill, Henry Moore, J B Priestley, Harold Macmillan and Peter Llewelyn Davies.

It seems that the over 35s do best when asked if they recognise the names. Teenagers do worst, but it would, to be fair, be a well-informed teenager who recognised more than Tolkien. I recognised all except Ned Parfett and Peter Llewelyn Davies (which was embarrassing as I’d only just read about him in The Final Whistle as the nephew of Guy du Maurier).  But I am over 35, and I do spend too much time reading about the Great War.

The rules of selection are simple – they need to have been involved in the Great War and they need to be reasonably interesting. It would probably help if they survived.

I’ll start with three to consider.

Captain W E Johns – wrote about Biggles though he wasn’t a fighter pilot or a Captain. He landed at Gallipoli in 1915 and saw a variety of active service before being shot down and wounded whilst on a bombing mission in 1918. After the war he was the recruiting officer who signed Lawrence of Arabia up for the RAF.

Percy Toplis – better known as the Monocled Mutineer, though that is probably inaccurate. He was born near Alfreton so is reasonably local, and was once arrested by the ancestor of one of our neighbours for attempting to defraud a jeweller in Hucknall.

Charles Lightoller joining the Merchant Navy as a thirteen-year-old apprentice Lightoller endured shipwreck, fire at sea and malaria. His career started to look up when he went to sea again, ending up on the RMS Titanic. He was played by Kenneth More in A Night to Remember.  For those of you wondering who played him in other films, don’t bother – they aren’t worth it.

 

Rather than run on, I’ll let you click the link to read about his exploits in the war, and at Dunkirk in 1940.

 

 

Book Review: Famous 1914-18

Famous – 1914 – 18

by Richard van Emden and Victor Piuk

Pen & Sword Military (2009)

Paperback 352 pp  £10.99

ISBN-10: 1848841973

ISBN-13: 978-1848841970

Sorry it’s another Great War book, I’ll try something lighter for the next review, I promise.

It’s a slightly misleading title, as the people in the book weren’t really famous between 1914 and 1918. With two exception they were famous after the war, and this is what they did in the years of the war. The exceptions are Ned Parfett (the newspaper boy from the Titanic picture – who was famous in 1912) and Peter Llewelyn Davies, known as the boy who inspired the character of Peter Pan. Davies, after the death of his parents was brought up by four guardians, including J M Barrie and Guy du Maurier (see previous review).

I have to admit I was also thrown by the name Tom Denning, before it clicked that this meant Lord Denning, one time Master of the Rolls. I’m not really sure how famous he is these days, though he was hardly out of the news at one time. That’s the problem with this sort of book, where do you draw the line?

The subjects need to have been reasonably famous after the war, but quite a few people with post-war fame have been left out. That’s because they need to have left information about their wartime exploits – there’s not been a great deal of digging out original material here. So, post-war fame and memoirs seem to be the requirements.

That means Jack Warner has been left out, as has Victor McLaglen and Victor Silvester. I suppose they just aren’t famous enough, despite interesting wartime careers. To be honest, I didn’t realise how much Silvester had packed in until I just checked the reference. I knew he’d participated in a firing squad, which was why I looked him up: the rest was all new to me.

To be fair, I don’t want necessarily want a lot of original research, I’m happy with an entertaining book, and that’s what I got.

It also helped me out with a question hanging over A A Milne, who was criticised for his unsoldierly manner in a book of war poetry I was reading recently.  It left me feeling he’d been a bit of a slacker, but it’s clear from Famous 1914 – 18 that he did his share, and did it well.

It’s not a fault of the book, but if like me you were interested in reading more about John Laurie (who served in the Honourable Artillery Company during the war) you will, like me, be disappointed. He isn’t in, despite the write-up in the Amazon blurb. I wrote to tell them, using the button for reporting inaccurate content but so far it’s still there.

So, as long as you don’t want information on John Laurie, it’s a good read, and, because of the length of the chapters, easy to dip in and out. For the Dad’s Army fans out there, Arnold Ridley and his service in two World Wars is covered.

Amongst others it covers C S Lewis, J R R Tolkein, Basil Rathbone, Nigel Bruce (next to each other in the book as they were in the post-war Holmes films) and Christie of Rillington Place fame.  I won’t give you a list of all the names, as it will spoil the surprise…

Book Review: The Final Whistle

The Final Whistle – The Great War in Fifteen Players

by Stephen Cooper

History Press 2012, this edition Spellmount 2013

Paperback 347pp    Paperback £9.99     Oxfam £1.99

ISBN-13: 978 0 7524 9900 0

I’ve always been interested in rugby and the Great War and I did some research on rugby internationals who were killed in the two World Wars, but it came to nothing because (a) I’m lazy and (b) Nigel Mccrery wrote Into Touch.

This book takes a slightly different approach, looking at the lives of fifteen members of Rosslyn Park rugby club who were killed in the Great War. They represent about 20% of the club’s fatalities during the war (72 killed from 350 members or ex-members who served in the war).

I’ve always liked this sort of book, with stories that turn statistics into people, and I’ve always liked rugby, as I’m not fashioned by nature for games of grace and skill. On the quiet I’m also an admirer of Edgar Mobbs, a well known player of the time. However, this isn’t about Mobbs, as he didn’t play for Rosslyn Park.

It is about Charles Bayley, great-nephew of General Gordon, who was one of the first two Royal Flying Corps officers to be killed in action in the Great War, on 22nd August 1914 or Guy du Maurier, regular soldier and playwright (yes, he was one of that du Maurier family), who killed in action in 1915 at the age of 49. It’s about other people too, including international players, an Olympic silver medallist and a VC winner.

Don’t expect a cross section of British casualties though; it’s about officers or people who could have been officers. Rugby was a game for people from good schools, and they were required to name their school when applying for membership. That, as the author admits, was a great help in doing the research James Urquhart is an exception to this, listing Grimsby Municipal College as his school (though he did end up at Cambridge University). In truth he wasn’t even a Rosslyn Park player, he just seems to have given them as his team when he played for the Barbarians (captained by Edgar Mobbs) versus Shoreham Camp. He only gets a couple of lines.

Despite this, it’s an excellent view of the Great War and rugby of the period, including the Western Front, Gallipolli, aircraft, ships, tanks and balloons, and obviously written by a man with a good command of the subject and a great enthusiasm.

 

 

The most famous medal in the world

There are probably several contenders for this title. For the purposes of this post I will suggest that the most famous medal in the world is Siegfried Sassoon’s Military Cross. There’s a lot written about Sassoon’s decorations – some people claiming he won a bar to his MC, and others that he was recommended for a DSO and even a VC. Be that as it may, he was given an MC, and, according to the legend, he threw it in the Mersey when he decided to make his protest against the continuation of the war.

I haven’t seen the film Regeneration but I’m told that Sassoon tears the medal from his tunic and throws it in the water.

It’s a good story, though it isn’t true. That’s the trouble with legends, and as they say in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The novel Regeneration is quite clear that it’s only the tunic ribbon that gets thrown away and in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer Sassoon says:

I ripped the M. C. ribbon off my tunic and threw it into the mouth of the Mersey. Weighted with significance though this action was, it would have felt more conclusive had the ribbon been heavier. As it was, the poor little thing fell weakly on to the water and floated away as though aware of its own futility.

So, what did happen to the medal?

It finally came to light in 2007 when a member of the family went through a trunk in the attic and found the MC in its case, along with an ID disc, a revolver and “some poetry medals”. It was put up for auction “on behalf of the family” with an estimate of £25,000 (about 100 times more than an MC without the Sassoon connection at the time).

However, it seems that not all the family agreed and it was withdrawn from the sale, later turning up with his Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in the Museum of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers.

In case you find it off-putting to discuss fame and bravery in terms of cash, don’t. As an ex-antiques dealer I can tell you nobody else does. In fact, many of the recipients sell their own medals. As the links show, Sassoon wasn’t much bothered about his medals, and apparently told the family to sell them.

He never bothered to claim his campaign medals, which were eventually claimed by his son. They were duly put up for auction with his CBE and made £4,375 despite the fact he was dead before the campaign medals were issued so they had no personal link to him. Again, this would be about 100 times more than you’d normally expect.

If you think that’s a lot, how about his hockey medal? It was sold with the final contents of Heytesbury House (after the building itself had been sold) and then sold again in 2012 for £880.

I could go on. In fact I’ve probably gone on too long anyway.

There are plenty of catalogues of around relating to sales of Sassoon’s property (he seems to have had a lot of stuff) if you search for them, including his Point to Point Cups and hunting coats – Wooley and Wallis 27th October 2010 if you’re interested. (I just had a look through their last militaria sale and see they recently sold Lord Kitchener’s tea cosy for £600).

Just one final note – when Cambridge University bought his papers, seven boxes of them, they paid £1.25 million. That really is a lot of money for the sort of stuff Julia makes me throw away.

 

Shakespeare, St George and the Calcutta Light Horse

I have now managed 102 consecutive days of posting. It’s an example of habit taking over. You sometimes hear about it when athletes are interviewed on TV when the interviewer refers to dedication in training and the athlete responds that it’s just about establishing a habit.

That much is true: training is just a habit. However, I’m not trying to make it sound easy. The habit bit is easy, but simply turning up for training doesn’t guarantee success. That is where the dedication comes in. And the luck, the talent, the work ethic, the…

As I’ve said before, quantity is no guarantee of quality. It also means that I’ve resorted to posting at five past midnight just to ensure that I’m credited with a post for that day. It has also led to me writing things in advance and, as mentioned here, posting by accident. That was a simple button pushing error.

Here, I wrote a post and automatically pushed the button, which means I posted several times yesterday. If I’d pushed the button 15 minutes later it would have been OK, but I ended up posting just before midnight, so I posted three times yesterday and need something for today.

It’s St George’s Day today, and if Labour win the election it will be a public holiday, as will St David’s Day, St Patrick’s Day and St Andrew’s Day. That’s March 1st, March 17th, April 23rd and November 30th. I don’t know about you but I really don’t need days off in March and November. As for 23rd April, we already have Easter, which moves, May Day and Late Spring Bank Holiday  (which used to be Whitsun). That would be three Bank Holidays in 5 weeks. Well, it would be in England and Wales, it’s different in other parts of the UK.

Even more confusingly, whilst re-enacting the Battle of Dunbar, I found out that Haddington in Scotland also follows some English holidays.

It’s also the 99th Anniversary of the Zeebrugge Raid. It wasn’t necessarily a great strategic success, but it’s a good story. The Hundred Year’s War didn’t end particularly well but we still have Henry V.

There are some interesting sidelights on the raid. It was, for instance, the last time a VC Ballot was held. The VC is unique amongst British decorations in that if a unit performed in a particularly valorous manner the participants are allowed to vote on who they think should be awarded a VC. That way you limit the number given out, and they go to people who really deserve them.

One of the casualties of the raid was Wing Commander Frank Brock of the fireworks family. Amongst other things he invented the machinery to produce the smokescreen for the raid.

Another participant was Bill Grice. He lied about his age to join the Royal Navy and was Mentioned in Despatches for his part in the raid. Thirty years later took part in another daring raid with the Calcutta Light Horse. This link has more details – there’s a bit of a proofing issue with this article but it’s better than some of the others out there. The man who took his glass eye out before the action started was called Bill Manners. When volunteering he’d asked if the glass eye would be a problem. Grice said it hadn’t been a problem for Nelson…

There were no decorations for the 1943 raid, though Grice was played by David Niven in The Sea Wolves.

I’m already running on, and haven’t even started on Shakespeare’s Birthday or the likely consequences of having a public holiday on St George’s Day. I’ll have to cover them on another day.

 

 

Trawsfynydd, Toilets and Serendipity

Sometimes things just fall into place.

During our visit to Wales we dropped into Dolgellau looking for a toilet. We found one without too much trouble but, as described, they were locked and barred lest villainous visitors from afar should try and use them after 6pm.

That left us with two choices, one of which was to stroll across the  car park to a restaurant which offered steaks and, presumably, toilets. It also offered the sight of a man in chef’s whites standing outside smoking. We decided not to disturb him.

We therefore left Dolgellau and set off for Bangor with a sense of purpose. When the sign for Trawsfynydd cropped up, complete the WC on it,  I was so surprised that I missed the first turn. My excuse is that the sun was in my eyes. The same happened in the village as I missed the turn for the cat park. After turning round we saw a statue in the Chapel grounds, with the name Hedd Wynn on it.

We’d seen several statues during the day and every time Julia had asked if  I knew who the subject was. She didn’t ask this time. But I told her all the same.

Hedd Wynn was the bardic name of Ellis Evans, a shepherd. He won his first Eisteddfod at Bala in 1907 and ten years later after winning more local competitions he won the National Eisteddfod in 1917. Unfortunately the date, 1917, holds a clue as to why he won no more competitions.

I’ve only read one of his poems, though there are several transactions available on the net. I suppose that’s why he isn’t better known, and why I’ve never seen him an anthology.

He was killed during the 3rd Battle of Ypres, on the same day as Francis Ledwidge, an Irish war poet.

If you check the above links, you will find a fascinating story.

It’s tempting to suggest that if he’d been English, and an officer, people would have taken more notice of him. Of the 16 war poets listed on the plaque in Westminster Abbey, 12 are officers, and if memory serves, all 16 are English.

Bombardment, Bones and Captain Cook

We decided to give Whitby another look on the way back from Sandsend. There’s a lot to see in Whitby and we decided to have a look at the Captain Cook statue and the whalebone arch on the West Cliff.

The first thing we saw was the Bombardment Garden, which commemorates the East Coast bombardment of 16th December 1914. On that day two groups of German warships sailed down along the coast and attacked the towns of Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool. One group attacked Scarborough, killing 18 people, before steaming up the coast and killing three more in Whitby. The other group attacked Hartlepool, killing over 100 people.

To be fair to the Germans they were attacking military targets -they shelled a naval radio station at Scarborough and the railway at Whitby. At Hartlepool they engaged shore batteries and the Royal Navy.

The garden represents a house destroyed by a shell.  The shell in the middle of the living room floor is a proper WW1 shell that was given to the town for fund-raising during the war and donated to the project by the town council.

 

Just along the cliff is the statue of Captain Cook. He was born at Marton, which is now part of Middlesbrough, lived at Great Ayton, was apprenticed to a haberdasher on the coast in Staithes and finally ended up in the Merchant Navy at Whitby. He first came to official notice for his service in the Royal Navy when his charts of the St Lawrence River helped General Wolfe to take Quebec. This led to him being selected to make his famous voyages of discovery, with a certain William Bligh acting as his sailing master on the third and final voyage.

Despite his great achievements he is little more than a cycle rack and seagull perch these days.

 

The third thing of note on the cliff top is the whale bone arch. Whitby was a major whaling port and between 1753 and 1837 the Whitby fleet accounted for 2,761 whales, 25,000 seals and 55 polar bears.

The inventor of the Crow’s Nest (William Scoresby) came from Whitby and used to be commemorated by a modern sculpture (now replaced by a war memorial). His son, also William Scoresby, was, like his father, a whaler and arctic explorer, but also a scientist and priest, who was quoted by Ishmael in Moby Dick.

The original arch was set up in 1853 to signify the importance of whaling in Whitby’s history. That set lasted around a century and were replaced by a set from a Fin whale donated by Norwegian whalers. They only lasted until the 1990s, when their replacement caused a certain amount of ethical concern. One suggestion was that there might be some bones preserved in the cold of the Falklands. In the end Whitby’s twin town of Barrow in Alaska came to the rescue with a set of jawbones from a Bowhead whale killed in a legal hunt by Alaskan Inuit.

I don’t know what I’d do if I was in charge of the whalebone arch. Fibreglass and plastic have been considered but dismissed, which I think is fair enough, but I’m not easy with the idea of using real bones, even if they are legally taken. I think I’d opt for a nice stainless steel sculpture.

Or a plaque saying that there used to be whale bones there but we have moved on.