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WG Heighton, shooting down a German aeroplane

We have heard stories about pilots who were shot down, like Sidney Herbert Quicke shot down by the Red Baron, or John Young and Cyril Taylor, who died fighting bombers over London. Others showed bravery in the air and survived, like CRL Falcy. This week, the story of a man who shot down a German aeroplane from the ground: William George Heighton.

William George Heighton was born in 1887 in Sussex. By the time of the Great War he was married and living in London; he and his wife Eva Amy (nee Collyer) lived in West Hampstead and had no children. Heighton worked as a policeman.

When the Derby Scheme came along in late 1915 as a way of prompting men to join up by asking them to volunteer to be conscripted, Heighton was one of many who signed up – putting pen to paper on 16 November in Hampstead. He was called up over a year and a half later, in July 1917, joining the Royal Garrison Artillery. After a stint in hospital, he was sent to the Western Front in December.

By mid-February 1918, Heighton was a gunner in 163 Siege Battery, RGA. This was armed with 6-inch howitzers, but Heighton was no ordinary gunner – he was a Lewis Gunner. Instead of firing the looping shells of a howitzer on to German trenches and defences, his role was to protect his battery and their comrades from attack by enemy aircraft.

An RGA Lewis Gunner at Monchy-le-Preux, 18 March 1918. Is it Gunner Heighton? Image© IWM (Q 10748)

An RGA Lewis Gunner at Monchy-le-Preux, 18 March 1918. Is it Gunner Heighton? Image© IWM (Q 10748)

In March 1918, the Germans launched their Spring Offensive, their last attempt to break the Allies in the West before American reinforcements could arrive in large numbers. The initial attack was stunningly successful.

A few days later, a flight of German aeroplanes British troops around 163 Siege Battery. Heighton’s account says that five or six aeroplanes were using their machine guns to attack the British reserve trenches when he fired on those aeroplanes. He brought one of them down and the others fled back over the German lines. Heighton was applauded as a hero. His commanding officer, Major McWatt, told him that he should be commended for his bravery and a few infantry officer wtinesses shook his hand to congratulate him for his actions.

Before Heighton could hear any more about any commendation, though, he was taken prisoner. As the German advance continued, he was captured at Monchy-le-Preux on 29 March. He had clearly been an attentive letter-writer, because his wife wrote to the War Office looking for information on 15 April, saying, “Could you please send me any news of my husband I have now heard from him since the 26th Match – until this date I have always heard so frequently – but have not even had a field card.”

A month later, Eva had heard from her husband, who had written to her that he was being held in Cassell in Germany. She continued to write to the War Office for more information, though, so obviously she did not hear much from him. It seems as though he was ill during the last months of the war, when he was held in Limburg. He was quickly repatriated after the war, arriving in Hull on the first day of 1919.

Back in civilian life, Heighton wondered whether anything had come of the promise of a commendation. In fact, he hadn’t even received his service medals, let alone anything in recognition of shooting down that aeroplane.

In September 1921, he wrote off to the officer responsible for RGA records, but they could not find any record of the incident. The National Archives only holds 163 Siege Battery’s war diary to up February 1918, so perhaps the March record was lost during the German attacks in which Heighton was captured. In December, Heighton acknowledged receipt of his campaign medals: the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.

It doesn’t look as though William George Heighton was ever rewarded officially for shooting down a German aeroplane, but doing so was quite an achievement – and driving away the remaining aircraft attacking British forces must have been a relief to his comrades.

 
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Posted by on 10 April 2015 in Ordinary Londoners

 

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Patience Huthwaite and Reginald

War can break families apart, it can disrupt the normal patterns of family life through absence or death on war service. Patience Huthwaite suffered just this problem when her boyfriend Reggie Bryant was sent to serve in Iraq in 1916 and was reported missing in action.

Patience Huthwaite was born in London, daughter of house decorator Henry Huthwaite and his wife Patience. In 1901, she was seven and living with her parents and three brothers (Henry junior, James and George) at 40 Euston Road.  In 1911, though, she was living in an “Industrial School” in Blackburn Lancashire, doing laundry work

In August 1915, she was living in central Colchester. We know this because she was receiving letters from Reginald Bryant, a young man from Diss (apparently also a decorator) who was in training in Colchester as part of the Norfolk Regiment. These letters are available on the Great War Archive. It is not clear whether Patience was already in Colchester and met Bryant there, or moved to Colchester to be near him – something a number of girlfriends and wives did during the war.

Reginald Bryant, Norfolk Regiment (image from Great War Archive ©University of Oxford) - sadly there are no photos of Patience

Reginald Bryant, Norfolk Regiment (image from Great War Archive ©University of Oxford) – sadly there are no photos of Patience available

Sometime in early 1916, Reggie was sent overseas. Unfortunately for Patience he was sent to Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), meaning that he was unlikely to be able to come back on leave – which men serving on the Western Front could about once a year (or more often for officers).

Reggie being away was a particular problem because Patience was pregnant. Worse was to come, though, when Reggie was reported missing in action. He was with his unit at Kut-al-Amara when the garrison there was besieged and defeated by the Turkish Army. The garrison fell at the end of April and a large number of Reginald’s comrades were taken prisoner (and treated terribly by their captors). Reggie Bryant was not among those prisoners, however – he was reported missing a week before Kut fell.

Letter to Patience confirming that Reginald was missing in action (from Great War Archive ©University of Oxford

Letter to Patience confirming that Reginald was missing in action (from Great War Archive ©University of Oxford

Patience gave birth to a son in September 1916, whom she named Reginald Bryant Huthwaite. As the letter above shows, when Regginald junior was born it was still not confirmed whether his father was alive or dead – Patience was writing to the War Office in December 1916 to try to find out. The advice sent to her was probably that she should write to the Red Cross office that dealt with inquiries about missing servicemen.

Contrary to what is often thought, pre-marital sex was not so uncommon in the first half of the twentieth century. In some ways the change from the 1970 was more in how people responded to pregnancies, with unmarried parenthood becoming more acceptable.

As Pat Thane put it in a report for the British Academy:

“Until the 1970s, illegitimate and legitimate birth rates followed similar trajectories: they rose and fell together, both rising between c.1750 and 1850 and falling from the later nineteenth century to the 1930s, suggesting that they were influenced by similar factors. In 1846-50, 67 in every 1000 live births were illegitimate. The figure fell steadily to 40 in 1906-10. During World War One it rose to 53.9 in 1916-20. This was probably due to marriages being prevented or delayed due to the absence or death of men at war rather than, as was assumed at the time, to licentious behaviour by young people liberated by wartime conditions.”

At the time of the Second World War (in advance of which illegitimacy rates were similar to before 1914), the moral panic about illegitimacy that had occurred in the Great War re-emerged. The Registrar General’s pre-war statistics showed that pre-marital pregnancies (i.e. illegitimate births and those within marriage that occurred significantly less than nine months after the wedding) accounted for 14.6% of all births, and more among younger mothers. This figure decreased as illegitimate births increased during the war. He felt that the explanation for the increase in illegitimacy was

“almost unquestionably to be found in the enforced degree of physical separation of the sexes imposed by the progressive recruitment of young males into the Armed Forces and their transfers to war stations at home and abroad, rendering immediate marriage with their home brides increasingly difficult – and, in the case of many – quite impossible”

It seems more than likely that Reginald Huthwaite was one of those children whose parents would have married had they had the chance. Eventually, the authorities decided that Reggie Bryant had died (usually this was after about a year with no news). This left young Reginald without a father of course. He soon acquired one, though, when Patience married Reggie’s brother Clarence (also a veteran of the Norfolk Regiment in the Great War: the Commonwealth War Graves Commission page for Reggie says he was one of six brothers who served). According to the family’s account (on the Great War Archive), Reginald Huthwaite was brought up by his maternal grandmother, Patience senior, in London. He remained a Huthwaite for the rest of his life and died in 1999.

The Great War affected families in many ways. The lives of Reggie Bryant, Patience Huthwaite and their son show just one of those stories.

 
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Posted by on 24 March 2015 in War Dead, Women

 

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Benjamin Adams: a riveting war story

The British armed forces in the Great War took in men with a vast array of skills and experience. Many men ended up in combat arms, but where they had skills that could be useful in other parts of the military machine, they were often moved into roles where those skills could be used. Benjamin Adams was one of those.

Benjamin John Adams was born in Poplar in 1893, the one of the 13 children of boilermaker Robert Adams and his wife Mary. In 1911, he was living with his parents and his surviving siblings: five brothers and three sisters; two of his brothers were boiler makers like Robert, while Benjamin was a riveter.

On 15 April 1915, Adams enlisted in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry at Poplar. In December that year, he was sent overseas. He was not sent to the Western Front, Gallipoli or another war zone, though: Private Adams was sent to Belfast to work for Harland and Wolff, the shipbuilding company responsible for building the Titanic. In the years leading up to the war, the company had successively built six ships that where – at the time of their launching – the largest vessels ever made.

Harland and Wolff riveters, working in Glasgow © IWM (Q 20003)

Harland and Wolff riveters, working in Glasgow © IWM (Q 20003)

During the war, Harland and Wolff continued to build ships, including the ‘mystery ships’ – warships designed as civilian shipping. According to Grace’s Guides, they and one other company were the main builds of the standard warship designs.

After three months in Belfast, Adams returned to the DCLI before being sent away in April 1916 to County Durham for more non-military work. In July, they found him suitable employment in the army, but not in the DCLI: Adams was transferred to the Railway Operating Division of the Royal Engineers. He soon qualified, unsurprisingly, as a riveter.

In September 1916, Adams was finally sent overseas with the RE. He served on the army’s vital railway system for three years, before returning to the UK on 8 November 1918.

Benjamin Adams may not have had an exciting war, nor a particularly dangerous one, but his work was vital. It was also an example of the army making good use of the skills of the men who ended up in its ranks.

 
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Posted by on 24 February 2015 in Ordinary Londoners

 

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SS Oriole and the blockade of the UK

On Friday January 29 1915, the merchant vessel SS Oriole set sale from its home port of London, heading for le Havre in France. It was last seen off Dungeness on Saturday 30th. A few days later two of its lifebuoys were washed ashore on the Sussex coast.

The SS Oriole (Daily Mirror 10 February 1915)

The SS Oriole (Daily Mirror 10 February 1915)

The blockades by the Germans against the UK and by the UK against Germany were hugely important in the course of the Great War.  Starvation through lack of imported food was a grave risk to both nations. In the end it was the British blockade that had the decisive effect, although the German attacks on merchant shipping in 1915 and 1917 helped to bring the USA into the war, which also helped to tip the balance in favour of the Allied Powers. Our story today, though, comes just before the German navy proclaimed the seas around Britain to be a war zone.

The Oriole was a steamer built in 1914 and weighing 1,489 tons, owned by the General Steam Navigation Co of London. On 29 January, it set sail with a normal cargo under captain William George Dale, from Wimbledon; under Dale were 20 other crewmen. On the 30th, the crew of (appropriately named) SS London Trader passed the Oriole off Dungeness.

What happened next is not definitively known.  On 6 February, two lifebuoys from the Oriole were washed up on the shore at Rye. On 20 March, a bottle was found by Guernsey fisherman containing a message written by the Oriole’s carpenter: “Oriole torpedoed – sinking”. By that time, the vessel had already been declared lost, and along with it all 21 lives aboard.

It is thought that the Oriole was sunk by submarine U20, captained by Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger. That same submarine struck two other vessels that day: the Ikaria, which had sailed from Buenos Aires, and the Tokomaru, which had come from New Zealand. The crew of the Tokomaru managed to get away before it sank and were taken to Le Havre; the Tokomaru stayed afloat and was towed into that same port but was taken back out and sank on February 2nd. Nothing was seen of the Oriole, the vessel on the shortest journey.

The newspapers reported the Oriole as missing on 9 February, quoting an official statement:

“The British steamship Oriole, of the General Steam Navigation Company, which left London on January 29, was due at Havre the following day.

She has not arrived, nor is there any news of her whereabouts, except that two lifebuoys marked ss. Oriole were picked up near Rye last Saturda.

There is grave reason to fear that she may have fallen victim to the German submarine which torpedoed the Tokomaru and Ikaria. She carried a mercantile crew of twenty-one hands all told

[The Oriole, a London steamer of 1,489 tones gross was built last year.]”

The Express also carried accounts by the captains of the other two ships. The experience of Dale and his crew, if they were also attacked by U20, may have been similar. Captain Robertson of the Ikaria stated:

“When about twenty-five miles N.W. of Havre, 12.30 on that day, I was on the bridge with the chief and the second officer when we saw the wake of a torpedo coming towards the ship at about 30 ft. from the ship. The ship was stopped at the time for the purpose of getting a pilot as two tug-boats were coming up with flags to the fore.

About a second after we saw the wake of the torpedo we were struck in the fore part of the ship on the port side. An explosion occurred, and a volume of water, mixed with cargo, cement, and parts of the torpedo, arose about 60ft. and fell on the deck.

The ship immediately began to sink by the head. The crew were ordered to launch the boats to leave the ship. The crew and I then boarded the tug which was lying close to us, and waited for the ship to sink.”

Robertson and his crew were lucky; they got away onto the tug.

According to naval history dot net, the attacks by U20 were the first ships sunk without a warning by the submarine crew. Robertson had 30 seconds’ warning after spotting the torpedo, the Tokomaru crew spotted the periscope as they were attacked; we do not know what warning, if any, Dale and his crew on the Oriole had.

The crew of the Oriole are all believed to have died that day. Their details are listed on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database:

Surname Forename/initials Age Rank Additional information
ARDY HENRY JOHN ALFRED WILLIAM 42 Cook HUSBAND OF FLORA ARDY, OF 9, KINSALE RD., PECKHAM RYE, LONDON.
BROOKE W S 53 Assistant Steward BORN IN LONDON.
CHAINEY W Able Seaman
CHAPLIN J Fireman
CHITTENDEN G H Seaman
CROWTHER J Fireman
DALE WILLIAM GEORGE Master HUSBAND OF MRS. M. L. DALE, OF 17, CAMBERLEY AVENUE, WEST WIMBLEDON, LONDON.
FISHENDEN FREDERICK CLIFFORD 31 First Mate HUSBAND OF ISABEL DAISY ELLYCE FISHENDEN (NEE MILES), OF 47, PORT HALL RD., PRESTON, BRIGHTON.
GRACE E G Seaman
HARGRAVE JAMES WILLIAM 43 Boatswain and Lamps HUSBAND OF ALICE ELIZABETH HARGRAVE (NEE JEFFERY), OF 78, ST. LEONARD’S RD., SOUTH LOWESTOFT.
HOLLAND THOMAS WILLIAM 23 Ordinary Seaman SON OF ANN ELIZABETH HOLLAND, OF 15, DOVE ST., LOWESTOFT, AND THE LATE ROBERT HOLLAND.
LYNCH TIMOTHY JAMES 30 Fireman and Trimmer SON OF THOMAS LYNCH OF 20, STOREY ST., NORTH WOOLWICH, LONDON.
MULCAHY WILLIAM GEORGE 28 Fireman and Trimmer SON OF MRS. MARY MULCAHY, OF 1, CORRIG CASTLE TERRACE, DUN LAOGHAIRE, CO. DUBLIN.
PIERCE GEORGE REGINALD 31 Second Engineer HUSBAND OF ETHEL VINE PIERCE (NEE BULLEY), OF 5, BURLINGTON TERRACE, CHISLEHURST, KENT.
SADLER JOSEPH ROBERT 30 Fireman and Trimmer HUSBAND OF ELLEN CATHERINE SADLER (NEE STEIN), OF 33, CHANCERY BUILDINGS, BEWLEY ST., CABLE ST., LONDON.
SCHAFER JOHN GEORGE 30 Fireman HUSBAND OF ELLEN LOUISA SCHAFER (NEE MARCH), OF 71, HARCOURT AVENUE, MANOR PARK, ESSEX.
STATHAM HENRY GEORGE 23 Third Engineer HUSBAND OF SARAH ELIZABETH STATHAM (NEE SMART), OF 63, QUEEN’S RD., BAYSWATER, LONDON.
SWAIN REUBEN FRANK 50 Carpenter HUSBAND OF ELIZA MARIA SWAIN (NEE SMIZZEN), OF 12, MAYVILLIE RD., ST. PETER’S, BROADSTAIRS, KENT.
THOMSON OSWALD 51 First Engineer HUSBAND OF JANE MERCER (FORMERLY THOMSON, NEE BORTHWICK), OF 11, CLARENDON RD., LEWISHAM, LONDON.
TODMAN NELSON VICTOR 27 Second Mate HUSBAND OF ANNIE GERTRUDE TODMAN (NEE MITCHELL), OF OAKWOOD LODGE, OLD RD., CRAYFORD, KENT.
WALFORD EDWARD CHARLES 35 Donkeyman HUSBAND OF ANNIE POND (FORMERLY WALFORD, NEE STOKES), OF 51, LIVERPOOL RD., CANNING TOWN, LONDON.

 

As you can see, most (10 of the 16 with additional details) were Londoners by origin or residence. I don’t know what wives like Sarah Elizabeth Statham in Bayswater or parents like Thomas Lynch in North Woolwich were told during the days after the loss.* Did they start to mourn straight away, or wait until the presumed deaths were official six weeks later?

All 21 men are now commemorated on the Tower Hill memorial to merchant seamen lost and sea.

The U20 sinking the Lusitania

The U20 sinking the Lusitania

A few weeks after the loss of the Oriole, Ikaria and Tokomaru, the Germans declared their first major submarine campaign with its attacks without warning. A few months later the same submarine – U20 – sank the RMS Lusitania, sparking outrage in the UK and the USA. A renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 helped to finally bring the USA into the war.  Many more men and women lost their lives during the war at sea in 1914-18, but these 21 men were among the first of this period of increased aggression by the German Navy in 1915.

 

Sources:

http://www.naval-history.net/WW1NavyBritishBVLSMN1501.htm

http://www.wrecksite.eu/casualty-list.aspx?bIfW66QyuzE7kohz3L2IKQ==#13369

 

* The next of kin details were collected after the war, which explains why some of the wives have new surnames.

 
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Posted by on 30 January 2015 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead

 

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ML Gardner and a tragic air crash

Maurice Leigh Gardner was killed in a tragic air crash just as he was about to set out on his career as an officer in the Royal Flying Corps.

Maurice Leigh Gardner's accident, reported in the Daily Mirror, 21 January 1915

Maurice Leigh Gardner’s accident, reported in the Daily Mirror, 21 January 1915

Maurice Leigh Gardner was born in 1886, the son of Frederick Leigh Gardner and his Cape Town-born wife Miriam Gardner. Living with his father (and a domestic servant) at 14 Marlborough Road, Gunnersbury in 1911, he is described in the census return as living on ‘private means’. Frederick Leigh Gardner was similarly described – he had been listed in the 1891 census as a ‘dealer in stocks and shares’, but early in the new century gave that up and became an occultist, bookseller and author.

In the summer of 1914, Maurice Leigh Gardner took up flying lessons at the Beatty School at Hendon (run by American aviator George W Beatty). After a few months’ training, he passed his flying test on a Wright biplane and earned his Royal Aero Club Certificate (No. 1002).  At the same time he must have applied to join the Royal Flying Corps because on 19 January 1915, the London Gazette carried a notice that, as of 11 January, he was a Second Lieutenant in the RFC Military Wing.

That same day, 19 January, disaster struck. Flying in a Maurice Farman biplane at Farnborough, Gardner had completed a number of manoeuvres and was approaching the aerodrome at around 4.30pm. Suddenly the aeroplane dived and ploughed into the ground, engulfed in flames.  RFC comrades were soon on the scene and extinguished the flames as quickly as possible, but Gardner was dead and his body charred by the time he was pulled from the wreck.

Accounts vary about exactly what happened. Initial reports were that the aeroplane had mysteriously caught fire in the air (this was reported in Flight magazine and the Daily Mirror). However, the inquest found that the fire occurred after impact, when the fuel tank crashed into the engine.

Why Gardner’s aeroplane plummeted so spectacularly and disastrously into the ground that day is something of a mystery, as far as I can tell. The official inquest was inconclusive. The Aeroplane magazine stated in 1915:

 “An eyewitness of the accident expresses the opinion that Mr.  Gardner must have fainted in the air and have fallen onto his controls, so causing a dive for die last 60 feet. It may be, however, that he merely misjudged his height, and had no room in which to pull the machine back, as in the fatal accident to Flight Sub-Lieut. Ffield, R.N., at Hendon recently. It was not made known whether he was strapped into his seat or not.”

Either way, like Henry Ralph Lumley a few years later, Gardner’s nascent flying career came to a horrible end just as it was beginning. He is now commemorated in Golders Green crematorium.

Sources and links:

 
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Posted by on 19 January 2015 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead

 

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Joseph Ball, shot at dawn

At 7.30am on 12 January 1915, a firing squad was assembled behind the British lines on the Western Front. Its grim task was to carry out the first double execution of British soldiers in the war. Those men were Private J Ball and F Sheffield of the 2nd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. This is Joseph Ball’s story.

The Shot at Dawn memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire

The Shot at Dawn memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire

Joseph Ball was born in West Kilburn; by 1912, he was 18, working as a van guard, and apparently keen to join the army. First up, he joined the Special Reserve (which could be called up in wartime) in the 5th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, in May. Then in August, he enlisted full-time as a soldier in the same regiment’s 2nd Battalion. He is described as fresh of complexion, with dark brown hair. Ball served with the unit in England for a year before it went to Malta in September 1913.

In his peacetime service, Ball was far from the perfect soldier. Every month or so, he was punished for some misdemeanour: untidiness, dirtiness, having a rusty rifle, not complying with orders, absence from parade and falling asleep while on sentry duty. The punishments ranged from brief detention, to a few days confinment to barracks, to simply an admonishment.

It was clear to his officers that this young man was not good soldier material. In March 1913, his Company commander wrote to the battalion’s adjutant, “Pte Ball was brought before me again today. I have remanded him in order to ask whether the [battalion’s Commanding Officer] cannot apply for his discharge. The man has absolutely no vice but is less than half witted. He will never make a soldier.”

It was not at all unusual for new recruits to be rejected as unlikely to become an “efficient soldier”, although in this case the application was for discharge as no longer required. In the year to September 1912, over two hundred recruits were rejected by the army within their first three months’ service for reasons over than medical; the following year the figure was 148. Around 400 were rejected on medical grounds in that same period after enlistment.

Sadly for all concerned, this officer’s recommendation for Ball’s discharge was not heeded. The soldier stayed in the Company; his annual reviews reported him (perhaps surprisingly) as of “Fair” military character, but noted that he was “Untidy and unreliable. Weak intellect”.

In September 1914, the 2nd Middlesex went rushed back from Malta to England in readiness to go to war. They arrived in France on 6 November, with Ball in their ranks. According to David Stevenson’s website on Middlesex regiment soldiers who were executed, Ball and Private Frederick Sheffield deserted together: “After only six weeks active service, they had deserted together from their unit. … Ball and Sheffield were discovered hiding in a barn, pretending to be French civilians. They were tried on 30 December 1914.”

Details of Ball's trial and execution, from his service record.

Details of Ball’s trial and execution, from his service record.

The Field General Court Martial convicted them of “when a soldier on active service attempting to desert His Majesty’s Service and sentenced [them] to suffer death by being shot.” Field Marshal Sir John French confirmed the sentence, and the two men were shot on 12 January 1915.  They are now remembered on the Le Touret Memorial in France.

It seems from Joseph Ball’s service record that the 2nd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, let themselves and this young soldier down terribly. Despite his clear inadequacy as a soldier, they kept him on for some reason, punishing his misdemeanours but not sending him back out into civilian life. When it came to the Great War, they took this unreliable soldier with them to France, and when he deserted, ruthless punishment ensued and he was executed.

Sources:

  • J Ball’s service record
  • Annual reports of the British Army, 1912-13 and 1913-1919
  • David Stevenson’s website on Middlesex Regiment men shot at dawn
  • The website Blindfold and Alone shows the stages of trial and confirmation/variation of sentence involved in cases like Ball’s (although his case is not featured)

 

 
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Posted by on 12 January 2015 in Ordinary Londoners

 

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Will Owen’s Old London Town

Men and women at war often long for home. Quite what their image of home is can vary. During the Great War, an effort was made to provide a positive, homely and nostalgic vision of London for soldiers returning here on leave (or passing through).  Illustrator and writer Will Owen produced words and images evoking ‘old London town’.

Freybourg and Treyer; illustration from Will Owen's Old London Town (1921)

Freybourg and Treyer; illustration from Will Owen’s Old London Town (1921)

When service personnel arrived on the leave train at one of the London terminal stations in the last six months of the war, they could pick up the free weekly newspaper ‘Welcome’ from WH Smith. It provided those on leave with practical information about getting around, where they could find accommodation and how they could avoid scammers. Much of the material was produced by the propagandist National War Aims Committee.

Among those things, there was also a regular series called ‘bits of old London town’. This consisted of line-drawings and brief, chatty descriptions of old bits of London – buildings and things in the street that evoke a sense of London’s history.

William Widden Owen was born in Malta in 1869 but grew up in London. In 1881, he lived with his parents Thomas and Mary Elizabeth in Brixton; by 1891 he was a Government Clerk at the Post Office Savings Bank, still living with his parents, now at 35 Mervan Road. In around 1898, he married Irishwoman Margaret Florence; in 1901 they were living in Richmond and by 1911 they were raising their two daughters in Deal, Kent. By then, Owen’s profession is listed in the census as ‘Artist (painter)’ – he was writing and producing illustrations for various magazines.

His wikipedia entry describes his work during the war: “During the First World War he produced cartoons for the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, introducing readers to new terms such as ‘strafe‘, ‘Blighty‘, ‘pipsqueak‘ and ‘brass’.”

He also produced those illustrations for ‘Welcome’.  They range from No 10 Downing Street and the Royal Hospital at Chelsea to the Wapping Old Steps and the London Stone, as well as points at the limit of the urban area of London like Neasden-cum-Kingsbury Parish Church. About the journey to the latter, he writes “A curious fact about Neasden Station is that if you turn to the right you will see nothing but bricks and mortar the whole of the way into London, but turning to the left you find yourself almost immediately in rural England at its truly ruralest.”

The illustrations are mostly street scenes, but there is very little of the streetlife of the war – the food queues and servicemen and women that wartime brought to the streets of London. A solitary exception is the illustration of Shepherd Market off Piccadilly, which shows an officer and a nurse.

Shepherd Market, off Piccadilly; illustration from Will Owen's Old London Town (1921)

Shepherd Market, off Piccadilly; illustration from Will Owen’s Old London Town (1921)

In his thesis on propaganda and the NWAC, David Monger notes the role of these pictures as depicting an idealised British home-front community that servicemen and women were serving to protect.

Owen also continued to create more traditional images for magazines such as The Sketch. Lucinda Gosling’s book Brushes and Bayonets includes several examples.

After the war, Owen continued his work as an illustrator, including for the London Underground. Gosling describes Owen’s most famous work as the creation of the ‘Bisto Kids’.

The "Bisto Kids", Will Owen's most famous creation

The “Bisto Kids”, Will Owen’s most famous creation

Will Owen’s wartime illustrations for ‘Welcome’ were published in 1921 as Old London Town, which is available in its entirety on Project Gutenberg. The book has the rather nice preface, ‘I make no apology for the publication of this little book – on the contrary’.

 

Acknowledgement: Thanks to David Monger for alerting me to the original use of Will Owen’s illustrations, which is covered in his thesis ‘The National War Aims Committee and British patriotism during the First World War’ and more recent articles.

 
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Posted by on 9 January 2015 in Famous companies, Famous People

 

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