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Heroism and bloodshed behind the lines

As they do today, local newspapers during the Great War liked to run stories of bravery by local people. In 1916, the Middlesex Chronicle told the story of Charles William Jordan’s bravery under fire when he rescued comrade Frederick Moles.

Moles and Jordan were both young men who had joined their local Territorial battalion – the 8th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment – in the years before the war. They were called up on 5 August 1914. The battalion proceeded to France in September. Both men saw action in 1915, were wounded and sent back to the UK. By early 1916 they were both back with the battalion, serving in “B” Company, which the press describe was the Brentford Company.

Frederick Moles was born in Chiswick in 1894, the son of Eliza Moles and her farm labourer husband Edward. He was the eldest of the couple’s eight surviving children – they had four more sons and three daughters. In May 1913, 18 year old Frederick – working as a van boy in Ealing – joined the 8th Middlesex as a private. After returning to the front after being wounded in 1915, he got into trouble in his unit, being punished with 3 days of Field Punishment No 2 (and 5 days suspension of pay) in June and 10 days of Field Punishment No 1 (the infamous ‘crucifixion’) in mid-November, both the offence of ‘misconduct’.

Charles William Jordan was born in Brentford in 1893, son of Thames lighterman Thomas Jordan and his second wife Mary. Charles was their eldest child and became a doctor’s assistant, his elder half-brother John followed their father as a lighterman. In November 1912, he joined the 8th Battalion. Although the available records don’t say so, it is fair to assume that he also went to France with the battalion in September 1914. In early 1915, he was hit in the head by both a bullet and a piece of shrapnel, after which he spent several months in hospital. He then returned to the front and was promoted to Corporal.

Jordan’s exploits in January 1916 were also recounted in the pages of the Middlesex Chronicle:

“The 1/8th [Battalion] were in Brigade Reserve during the greater past of January… During the last week of their stay, it was a daily occurrence to turn out of the headquarters billet and stand on the safest side, while the enemy’s shells, directed on an object immediately in the rear, missed the building by a few feet each time. The shelling usually commenced as the men were sitting down to a meal, and they got so used to it that it soon seemed to be in the day’s work. On the afternoon of January 22nd the enemy’s shells were dropping all round “B” Company’s billet, and four when right into it.”

Some of the shells hit a nearby house, killing an 18 year old girl and setting fire to the roof – which some of the Middlesex men extinguished. A letter written by Jordan on January 24th picks up the story about the shells that hit the Brentford Company’s billet:

“It was on Saturday last that the Germans started shelling the farm in which we were billeted. The first shell burst in front of the barn; the next one in the doorway, and as soon as this one had burst one of our chaps (Fred Moles of Isleworth) cried out ‘Charlie, I’m hit.’ I ran over to him and managed to get him outside when a shell plonked clean through the roof. I got Fred on to my back and carried him to a safe place, where his wounds were dressed. In the evening, when the shelling had ceased, our officer had the company on parade and told them what I had done. He then called for three cheers for me, and while the boys were giving them I was blushing like a girl.”

Unfortunately, we can’t know who the poor civilian girl was. But we do know what happened to Private Moles and Corporal Jordan. At the end of his letter, Jordan comments that he had been recommended for a medal for his bravery on the 22nd and on other occasions. Presumably this for the Distinguished Conduct Medal, since he comments “As I daresay you know, Sergt. Titcombe has just got his D.C.M. after waiting nine months for it. I hope I don’t have to wait as long for mine.” He was subsequently given a commendation from the commander of 8 Division (which the 8th Middlesex before joining the London Division in February 1916), which was then sent home and displayed in the window of the Globe Portrait Company in Brentford High Street.” Photographic studios often had displays of war-related photos and ephemera, as did some newspaper offices. Jordan did not get the DCM he appears to have expected, but he was promoted to Sergeant and was awarded the Military Medal later in the year (presumably for his actions on and around 22 January, but possibly for later actions). He was later transferred to the Essex Regiment and left the army in 1919. He died in Brentford in 1934.

Sadly, things did not go well for the man he saved in January 1916, who had a severe shrapnel wound in his buttock. Moles was sent to 26th Field Ambulance (attached to 8th Division) and then on to No 2 Casualty Clearing Station at Bailleul. On 28 January, he was operated on at an Australian Hospital at Boulogne (probably No 2 Australian General Hospital) – doctors removed two pieces of shrapnel from his wound. On 9 February, he arrived at No 1 Reading War Hospital, based in then aptly named Battle Hospital.

P00156.055

A ward at No 2 Australian General Hospital at Wimereux. Image (c) Australian War Memorial

On 6 March, he suffered from a secondary haemorrhage from his gluteal artery, which was ended by medical staff applying pressure to his wound. A month later more ‘foreign bodies’ were removed from his wounds. On 12 April, he suffered another haemorrhage, which was temporarily kept at bay but recurred two days later, after which staff gave him stimulants, a saline infusion and transfusion, but to no avail – Frederick Moles died at the age of 22. He was buried soon afterwards in South Ealing cemetery.

Moles

Report of death from Fred Moles’s service record

Such stories of bravery and of young lives cruelly ended abound in wartime. Sadly, Charles William Jordan’s bravery in January 1916 did not ultimately save the life of his comrade Fred Moles; nor could the skills of nurses and doctors at the Reading War Hospital.

Sources:

  • Middlesex Chronicle, 5 February, 1 April and 1 July 1916
  • Long, Long Trail
  • Service records, census and silver war badge record
 
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Posted by on 1 May 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Shrapnel helmets: an iconic London design

The way that soldiers on the Western Front looked changed dramatically during the war. The Germans ditched their pickelhaube, the French cavalry decided that cuirasses were no longer appropriate. The British Tommy, too, changed in appearance – and the Spring and Summer of 1916 marked a significant part of that change as they moved from wearing caps to wearing steel helmets.

In his diary, Frank Hawkings of Queen Victoria’s Rifles (otherwise the 9th Battalion London Regiment), records April as a month of training for the newly formed 56th (1st London) Division at Houvin-Houvigneul in France.

His diary entry for 6 April reads:

Met my friend Murray from the 7th Middlesex [another unit in the 56th Division] and we had a jolly evening together at the Hotel d’Amiens at Frevent.

Shrapnel helmets or ‘tin hats’ (as they were immediately christened) have been issued. They are made of steel and weigh five pounds.

These helmets were the new ‘Brodie‘ steel hemets that became the iconic headwear for British Tommies through the First World War.

Men of Loyal North Lancashire Regiment showing of their new Brodie helmets, 1916

Men of Loyal North Lancashire Regiment showing of their new Brodie helmets, 1916

Until early 1916, British soldiers fought wearing their cloth caps or other warmer headwear. The number of head injuries was alarming – particularly given the large use of shrapnel and the fact that most of the men’s bodies were protected by trenches, while their heads would have been particularly susceptible to injury. All nations involved in the war on the Western Front searched for protection. The French got there first with the Casque Adrian, the Germans ended up with the Stahlhelm (the pickelhaube, the spiked helmet of 1914 was more a decorative than a protective helmet).

John Leopold Brodie invented the Britsh steel helmet, a cheaper design that is basically just an inverted steel bowl with lining and a chin-strap.  Brodie, born Leopold Janno Braude in Riga in 1873, was an inventor who spent the years prior to 1914 in the UK and the USA, accumulating a number of bankruptcies along the way. Resident in Cheshire in 1914, he and his wife moved to London at the start of the Great War. He patented his steel helmet in August 1915 and the British Army started to issue it towards the end of 1915.

On the Imperial War Museum catalogue entry for a Brodie helmet, it states that

By March 1916, some 140,000 helmets…had been issued to troops serving on the Western Front, but being as they were regarded as “trench stores” [i.e. equipment issued when troops went into the trenches] issue was very limited and there were not enough to enable soldiers to claim their own personal issue.

Presumably Queen Victoria’s Rifles were among the first troops to be issued them as personal equipment, since they were not about to go into the front line in April 1916. (Two weeks later, Hawkings notes that the division was in no state to go into the firing line as it had no medical or army service corps units attached for some reason).

Brodie’s DNB entry tells of its development in early 1916:

Experience in the field led to minor improvements from May 1916 including a folded rim to the edge of the helmet, revised liner, and a roughened exterior texture to what was now known as the ‘Mark 1’ helmet. While the helmet clearly covered less of the head than its German counterpart the munitions design committee would nevertheless express satisfaction that ‘our helmet steel probably gives better results, weight for weight’…That the new British helmet was useful can be judged both from increased numbers of men surviving head wounds, and from complaints that it was not issued quickly enough

The helmets were widespread by the summer, when the British Army launched its largest ever offensive in the Somme region. They were also sold to, and later produced in, the USA when the Americans entered the war.

As the DNB entry relates:

By the end of the conflict, the shallow inverted ‘soup bowl’, ‘tin hat’, or ‘battle bowler’ had become an iconic object, later adorning both British commemorative statuary, and American war cemeteries. Though there were further modifications, the basic design remained current until 1942 in the USA, and 1943 in the UK.

Brodie himself moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1921, became a US citizen and died there in 1945. He outlived production of his famous helmet by just a few days.

 

 
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Posted by on 6 April 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Permission to return home

Separation in wartime meant that many servicemen and women must have missed the deaths of their parents or siblings, or the births of new family members, at home. One soldier from Forest Gate was lucky enough to be granted special permission to go home to his mother’s sick bed.

Eliza Georgina Benison married civil engineer Alexander van Ransellaer Thuey in 1877 and they raised eight children, first in Stevenage and later in Forest Hill. Alexander died in 1902, but the family were living at 1 Sidney Road, Forest Gate in East London in 1911. Alexander junior (the eldest son) and his wife and son (also Alexander) lived there along with Eliza and five of her other grown-up children (Johnny, whose name is crossed out on the census form, was boarding in nearby Courtenay Street with his employer, a grocer). Shortly after the census was taken, Eva married an Adolphus Herbert Fiford from the Isle of Wight

Census entry for 1 Sidney Road, Forest Gate, 1911

Census entry for 1 Sidney Road, Forest Gate, 1911

When war came, the three Thuey brothers all joined up.  John joined the Essex Regiment on 8 March 1915, Alexander enlisted in the Army Service Corps as a motor driver on 29 May 1915, and Cecil joined the Royal Field Artillery – I’m not sure of the date, but he was a Corporal by the end of 1915, serving on the Western Front. Someone called Herbert A Fiford served in the artillery during the war, it seems likely that this was Eva’s husband.

Alexander Thuey had gone to the Western Front (via India, after enlisting at Grove Park) in September 1915. On 21 November 1915, he was at Armentieres when he was seriously wounded in action – his service record lists his wounds as GSW, i.e. gun-shot wound, a generic term that could include shell fragments to his left foot, head, Hand and abdominal wall.

Eliza collapsed in shock when she heard that her eldest son was badly wounded. According to newspaper reports, she was “crying out day and night for sight of her boy” (whether this meant Alexander or Cecil is not clear). The family feared that she was dying.

When he heard about his mother’s condition, Cecil immediately requested leave from his unit to go and be with her. It was refused. Another letter, countersigned by their doctor (a Dr Goodson) also had no effect. Desperate to get her brother home, Eva Fiford then wrote to the King, explaining the situation.

Daily Mirror article on the Thueys' story, 27 Jan 1916

Daily Mirror article on the Thueys’ story, 27 Jan 1916

Remarkably, the King replied positively – or rather B.B. Cubbitt (later Sir Bertram Cubbitt, vice-president of the Imperial War Museum), a senior official at the War Office, wrote to her saying

Madam – In reply to your petition to the King, which was forwarded on to this department, I am commanded by the Army Council to acquaint you that a telegram has been sent to the military authorities over-seas that leave may be granted to your brother, Corporal C. Thuey, R.F.A., as an exceptional case. – I am your obedient servant, B.B. Cubbitt

So, Cecil Thuey, who had apparently concluded that he would never see his mother alive again, was woken in the night and told that he was allowed to go home. He then rushed back and his presence apparently had a huge restorative effect on his mother, who recovered and survived her illness. Cecil returned to the front in late January 1916.

In September 1916, Alexander Thuey was discharged from the army suffering from bronchitis, which had developed prior to the war but was aggravated by his active service. Sadly, he then died on 2 October 1918, leaving Gertrude a widow.

Having served on the Western Front in the Essex Regiment in 1916-17, John Thuey transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as a driver in February 1918 and thus joined the Royal Air Force when it was founded in April that year. He served with his unit in South Russia from April 1919 until March 1920, after which he left the RAF. He and Cecil both survived their military service: John died in 1943; Cecil married Neva Oxley in 1918 and lived until 1975.

Eliza Thuey died aged 61, towards the end of 1919, a year after her eldest son had passed away and while her youngest son was still absent on military duties. I hope that Cecil and his sisters and sister-in-law were able to be there for her at the end, as they had been when she was ill four years earlier.

Sources:

 

 
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Posted by on 26 January 2016 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead, Women

 

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A wartime blow to world Esperanto

In the communal cemetery at Forges-les-Eaux in France there are 18 Commonwealth War Grave Commission headstones, five of them dating from the Great War. Under the name of British officer Captain H.B. Mudie, one of them bears the unique inscription “Filantropo Prezidanto De Brita Kaj Universala Asocioj De Esperanto”*.

Harold Bolingbroke Mudie (from wikipedia)

Harold Bolingbroke Mudie (from wikipedia)

The man in question is Harold Bolingbroke Mudie, who was born in London in 1880. He was the son of Alfred and Annie Elizabeth Mudie; they were part of the family of Mudies who ran Mudie’s Circulating Library in the 19th Century. Young H. Bolingbroke Mudie (as he appears to have been known) was educated at Folkestone and at University College School (in north London); he then studied at London University before going to work in the Stock Exchange.

The Stock Exchange Memorial Book (transcribed here on roll-of-honour.com) describes his real interest:

“Speaking several languages he added the International one in 1902, and single-handed founded and edited the “Esperantist” [a journal of the language] in 1903. He organized and controlled the famous International Congress at Cambridge in 1907, where only Esperanto was spoken. He published the New Testament in Esperanto through the British and Foreign Bible Society. Professor Mayor, of Cambridge, in eulogizing Mudie, said: “It is not only his talent—we have plenty of that here—but wisdom, which is very rare in so young a man.” ”

In 1910, he became the president of the British Esperanto Association. He was also an advocate of Esperanto around the world and became the first president of the Universal (or World) Esperanto Association, based in Geneva, in 1908.

In 1914, war came to Europe and Mudie went to war. According to the Stock Exchange Memorial Book,

“When war broke out he immediately gave his services. He acted first as recruiter, lecturer, journalist. Then he conveyed horses to the Belgian Government: and of his report, containing “Suggestions for Transport of Horses,” General Sir W. H. Birkbeck, K.C.B., C.M.G., Director of Remounts, wrote: “It was a gem in its way; and he was given a commission at the earliest opportunity.””

Mudie was commissioned into the Army Service Corps in October 1914 and set up a Remount Depot near Forges-les-Eaux in France. According to a notice about him in The Times, he was fluent in French, German and Flemish, which was useful for a man in his role – providing horses for the army. Presumably his Esperanto was rather less useful at this point.

Mudie returned home on leave over Christmas 1915 and went back to the Western Front on New Year’s Eve. On 6 January, he and another officer were being driven in a motorcar at night reached a level crossing on the line between Rouen and Serquex. The car was hit by an express train, which destroyed it, injuring the other officer and killing both the French driver and Captain Mudie outright (for some reason the Daily Mirror’s coverage of the accident calls him ‘Captain Mudge-Mudie’).

The remnants of Mudie's car by the railway tracks, Daily Mirror 14 Feb 1916

The remnants of Mudie’s car by the railway tracks, Daily Mirror 14 Feb 1916

Mudie was buried with honour in the town of Forges-les-Eaux.

Captain Mudie's funeral, from Daily Mirror 14 Feb 1916

Captain Mudie’s funeral, from Daily Mirror 14 Feb 1916

On his gravestone are those wordsr “Filantropo/ Prezidanto De Brita Kaj/ Universala Asocioj De/ Esperanto”, which google tells me means “Philanthropist/president of British and /universal associations of/ Esperanto”. It took until after the war, three years later, for the Univeral Esperanto Association to appoint a successor as president.

Mudie’s story tells us something of the variety of things that people did in the military during the war – and the variety of ways in which they could be killed or wounded. It is interesting to note that such a committed internationalist was also so keen to be involved in his nation’s war effort. With his death, the British Army lost a useful linguist and logistics officer, and the cause of Esperanto lost one of its leading figures.

 

Note:

*The War Graves Commission allowed the next of kin to write a short message under the regimental emblem or cross on their otherwise standardised headstones. The CWGC website has a record of these in the additional documents recently made available on the page for each casualty the Commission commemorates.

Sources:

 
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Posted by on 6 January 2016 in Uncategorized

 

The loss of the Persia

Soon after Christmas 1915, the British public heard bad news from the Mediterranean. A P&O passenger ship, the SS Persia, was sunk by a German submarine with the loss of 334 lives.

The Persia was built in Glasgow and launched in 1900; it left Tilbury docks on 18 December with 519 passengers and crew on board, 184 of them passengers. According to a contemporary newspaper article, “She was very heavily loaded with parcel post and mails, but there was very little cargo on board, and no war material.” After calling at Gibraltar and Marseilles, the Persia headed towards the Suez Canal on its route to India. On 30 December, its journey was abruptly ended in the Mediterranean.

SS Persia at Aden, c. 1900

SS Persia at Aden, c. 1900

Londoner Georgina Lee (in Wales for New Year) wrote in her diary on January 3rd 1916,

“Another terrible tragedy like the Lusitania horror. This time a P&O liner, the Persia, has been torpedoed in the Mediterranean off Crete without warning. Out of about 500 souls, 334 have been lost including 60 women and children. There was no panic, a few boats were lowered, and as the ship went down a few among those washed overboard were taken up into the boats but the vast majority were drownded.
“Some of the lost are American, including the American Consult for Aden [the British colony in modern-day Yemen] and his secretary. Perhaps this new outrage will at last arouse Present [Woodrow] Wilson’s anger and break his determination to remain patient.”

In her hopes about Wilson’s actions, Lee was wrong – it took him another 15 months to declare war, only after having fought a general election in which his party trumpeted his record in keeping America out of war with Germany and with Mexico. Lee’s diary entry gives a good insight, though, into the public revulsion at attacks of this sort. The New Zealand newspaper quoted above referred to “a profound sensation throughout Great Britain” caused by the sinking of the Persia following the recent “piratical destruction” of French and Japanese ships.

The SS Persia was sunk at lunchtime on 30 December 1915, south-east of Crete, by German submarine U-38, which had not issued a warning to the ship before opening fire.

The website The Sinking of the Persia gives a lot of detail about the ship and the sinking. Their description of the passengers is worth quoting at length:

“On board was a diverse mix of military (mainly officers) going out to postings in far flung parts of the British Empire, wives and children going out to India to be reunited with their fathers administering the Empire, there were Belgian nuns heading out to India, a team of YMCA staff heading to Egypt, missionaries, an American diplomat, business executives, the entourage of a maharajah, an Indian gentlemen having just had his case heard at the Privy Council, civil engineers, doctors, nurses, the headmistress of a Bombay school and a miscellany of other professions. The group that was under-represented was tourists for the run had become dangerous and wartime was not a time for the frivolity of viewing the pyramids or going tiger hunting in up-country India.”

That website gives information about many of those who died (including one of the proprietors of the Times of India, F.M. Coleman) and who survived the journey, so I will focus only on a few of the London connections, three women of the 32 who died – only 15 women survived the sinking. The three were women had very different life stories, but strong connections to the Empire.

The most glamorous is Eleanor Velasco Thornton. Nelly Thornton (also known as Thorn or Thorny) was born in 1880 in Stockwell, the daughter of an Australian engineer, and has supposedly found immortality as the model for the female figure on the bonnet of Rolls Royce cars. She worked as secretary to Claude Johnson, the first secretary of the Royal Automobile Club, until 1902 when he became a partner at Rolls Royce and she became the personal assistant of John Douglas-Scott-Montagu MP (later Lord Montagu), the owner of The Car Illustrated. Thornton went on to become his mistress and they reportedly had an illegitimate child together – Montagu was married to someone else.

Nelly Thornton and the Rolls Royce emblem said to have been modelled on her.

Nelly Thornton and the Rolls Royce emblem said to have been modelled on her.

The figure for the cars was commissioned in 1910 by Johnson from sculptor Charles Robinson Sykes. There were rumours immediately after its unveiling that the figure was Thornton, who had certainly modelled for Sykes. According to a detailed article on the subject, however

“By now he [Sykes] had obtained plenty of practice at drawing scantily clad winged goddesses, and at sculpturing nude female figures. He would therefore have had no difficulty in creating the figurine he had in mind, though he would have needed the services of a model to help him perfect details of the mascot’s pose. Jo Sykes remembers Eleanor Thornton as a strong, vigorous, statuesque woman – rather like Nike in many ways – and not the floating delicate form embodied in The Spirit of Ecstasy. So although Eleanor probably posed for the specific purpose of helping Charles develop his design for the mascot, it is not in its finished form a figure of her or any real person.”

Even so, Thornton appears to have been as close to being a model for the Spirit of Ecstacy as it was possible to be. She was on the Persia with Lord Montagu, who survived the submarine attack.

Another young Londonerror who perished was Miss Gladys Enid Macdonald. She was also the daughter of an Australian, her father being James Middleton Macdonald, chaplain at Oxford University and later a senior chaplain in India. Enid’s brother Roy was a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy when he was drowned aboard HMS Hawke in October 1914; the Macdonalds therefore losthe both of their children at sea during the war. In the official records, Enid’s address is stated as 60 Stanhope Gardens, Kensington (near to the museums). She was on the Persia travelling to India to marry the wonderfully named Rowland Hatt-Cook, of the Public Works Department of the Indian Civil Service; their wedding was due to be held in Bombay in January 1916. Hatt-Cook later served as an officer in the Royal Garrison Artillery.

Gladys Enid Macdonald's entry in the record of lives lost at sea

Gladys Enid Macdonald’s entry in the record of lives lost at sea

Another woman with a London address was Mary Fernandez. In the National Archives’ list deaths at sea, her occupation is stated as “Mrs Bird’s Ayah” and her address as “Ayah’s House, 26 King Edward Road, Hackney”. Ayahs were private nannies hired by British families in India to look after their children and often accompanied the families on their journeys back to the UK. An article on the Women’s History Network blog gives more information about these travelling Indian nannies. It summarises how they ended up in London:

“We can divide them into ‘ayahs who happened to travel’ and professional ‘travelling ayahs’. The usual pattern was that ‘ayahs who happened to travel’ sailed to Britain with the family they worked for in Asia, to help with the children on the voyage. The families were either returning home on furlough, or to re-settle. The ayahs then waited in Britain, sometimes at the Ayah’s Home in Hackney, for a new family who would engage them for the trip back to Asia.”

The Ayahs’ Home in Hackney is precisely where Mary Fernandez gave as her last address. She appears to also have been there in 1911; at least there is a Mary Fernandez listed there in the census, aged 41 and born in Bombay. Her occupation is listed as ‘ayah (travelling)’. The Women’s History Network article also refers to the fact that many ayahs were given European names, so Mary Fernandez may not have been her real name. It would be very interesting to find out more about her than the scant references in wartime records. A set of letters sold in 2014 on ebay mention her and her death on the Persia; these appear to be letters to and from her aunt, Isabella Bell.

The Ayahs’ House in Hackney had been at 26 King Edward’s Road since 1900, when it moved from near Aldgate. It was run by a matron called Mrs Sara Annie Dunn, under the auspices of the London City Mission who tried to convert the stranded ayahs (and other nannies) to Christianity.

According to an Open University article “Mrs Dunn told the India Office in 1910 that the Home dealt with about ninety ayahs a year. The Home was designed not only for Indian ayahs but also for nurse-maids from other countries such as China who were similarly brought over by families and required assistance in returning. The travelling season was March to November and so the Home was practically empty from November to March. During the First World War, women were not allowed to travel by sea and so there were many more stranded ayahs during those years.” Mary Fernandez was obviously an exception to the wartime travel ban for some reason, to her cost. (If you saw the BBC tv series Remember Me, starring Michael Palin, Mary Fernandez’s death is remarkably similar to the series’ back story)

These three women ended up travelling across the British Empire on board the Persia for very different reason: a nanny, a mistress/secretary and a bride-to-be. They all met the same end, though, when the ship encountered a German submarine. The loss of these and the other 331 people who perished on board is a reminder of the reach of the the war beyond the Western Front.

 

 
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Posted by on 30 December 2015 in Events, War Dead, Women

 

The Derby Scheme: Voluntary Conscription

The creation of a vast volunteer army in Britain in 1914 and 1915 was an impressive achievement, with two million men joining up in 12 months, but by the end of 1914 there were fears that the numbers coming forward were too small. Through 1915, calls for conscription increased and in October the last gasp of ‘voluntaryism’ was launched: the Derby Scheme.

Military aged men were asked to ‘attest their willingness to serve’, in other words to volunteer to be called up when they were needed. The Derby Scheme concluded in mid-December with what the press depicted as another ‘rush to the colours’ akin to that of September 1914, but it did not save the voluntary recruiting system.

Some London Derby Scheme attestees and staff, with standard headline about a rush to join the army (Daily Mirror, 10 December 1915)

Some London Derby Scheme attestees and staff, with standard headline about a “race” to join the army – arguably it was a race to stay out of the army (Daily Mirror, 10 December 1915)

The Scheme in action

The ever-useful Long, Long Trail website describes what the scheme entailed administratively:

“Men who attested under the Derby Scheme, who were accepted for service and chose to defer it were classified as being in “Class A”. Those who agreed to immediate service were “Class B”. The Class A men were paid a day’s army pay [2 shillings and 9 pence] for the day they attested; were given a grey armband with a red crown as a sign that they had so volunteered; were officially transferred into Section B Army Reserve; and were sent back to their homes and jobs until they were called up.”

'Armlet' given to Derby attestees in 1915

‘Armlet’ given to Derby attestees in 1915

In essence there were two prongs to the so-called ‘Derby Scheme’: the first was a systematic survey of all military-aged men on the National Register who were not in ‘starred’ employment (i.e. war-related work). This meant sending canvassers out again to the houses of men on the register.

This was not pleasant work. Researching the Great War in Essex, I found a few signs of the unpopularity of canvassing for attestees in the diary of Revd Andrew Clark: William Brown, in Great Leighs, was reluctantly involved and told Clark that it was “the most unpleasant job he ever took on, to recruit your neighbours’ sons, your neighbours’ men, your own men, but no one else would touch it.”’ The appearance of posters in Chelmsford advertising for Derby canvassers suggest that townspeople were also reluctant to undertake the role. [Bodleian Library, Clark diaries, 7/12/1915 and 3/11/1915]. Still millions of men were asked to attest their willingness to serve.

National Registration card

National Registration card of Thomas Gorman, showing that he attested under the Derby Scheme on 11 December 1915

 

The other prong to the campaign was a renewal of the general recruiting campaign but calling for men to sign up either as new recruits for immediate enlistment or as attestees willing to go when called. Again recruiting meetings were held and posters went up across the country; now the threat of conscription was greater than ever as a back-drop to these meetings.

As part of the campaign, the Government stressed two things: first, that men would be able to appeal against their call up, with the strong implication that men who had not attested would be unable to appeal against their later conscription. It was stressed that men should leave the decision over whether their personal or work situation meant they should stay or go to the local tribunal. This was important for many men who joined up, since it meant that they could attest on the assumption that their circumstances would keep them out of the army – they would appear patriotic but not actually have to fight. It probably also increased the number of ‘starred’ men attesting.

The second strong message was even more important: the single men would go first. Prime Minister Herbert Asquith made an explicit pledge to married men to this extent: On 2 November, he told the House of Commons:

“I am told by Lord Derby and others that there is some doubt among married men who are now being asked to enlist whether, having enlisted, or promised to enlist, they may not be called upon to serve, while younger and unmarried men are holding back and not doing their duty. Let them at once disabuse themselves of that notion. So far as I am concerned, I should certainly say the obligation of the married man to serve ought not to be enforced or held binding upon him unless and until – I hope by voluntary effort, but if it be needed in the last resort by other means – the unmarried men are dealt with.”

The official nature of this promise is emphasised in this recruiting poster produced by the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee, which cries out: “MARRIED MEN! ENLIST NOW (sic). YOU HAVE THE PRIME MINISTER’S PLEDGE THAT YOU WILL NOT BE CALLED UPON TO SERVE UNTIL THE YOUNG UNMARRIED MEN HAVE BEEN SUMMONED TO THE COLOURS.”

Official recruiting poster including Asquith's pledge to married men. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 5062)

Official recruiting poster including Asquith’s pledge to married men. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 5062)

 

Like the potential for exemption, the promise that men could patriotically attest without actually having to serve (at least until the single men had gone) may have allowed men to attest on the assumption that they would not actually have to serve.

In honour of this tendency, the East Ham Collegian magazine satirically defined the attestee’s armlet as ‘A badge worn by married men […] to show their sympathy with the principle of “Single Men First”.’ (quoted in East Ham Echo, 29/12/1915)

A proud Derby attestee (Daily Mirror, 30 November 1915)

A proud Derby attestee (Daily Mirror, 30 November 1915)

The pledge to the married men was to become very important in early 1916, as we shall see.

In December, Lord Derby reported to Parliament that 2,950,514 men had attested, enlisted or come forwards and been rejected on medical grounds from 23 October to 19 December 2015, out of 5 million men of military age. He revealed that 2,246,630 had attested, with another 275,031 enlisting and 428,853 being rejected (although whether from attesting or enlisting it is not clear).

He gave figures broken down into categories for the men who had come forward from 23 October-15 December, with an estimated breakdown between married and single men: (or image from Cmd paper)

Single Men

  • Total 2,179,231, of which starred 690,138
  • Number who enlisted 103,000
  • Number who attested 840,000
  • Number rejected 207,000
  • Total men who attested, enlisted or tried to enlist 1,150,000
  • Total men who had not attested, enlisted or tried to enlist 1,029,231

 Married men

  • Total 2,832,210, of which starred 915,491
  • Number who enlisted 112,431
  • Number who attested 1,344,979
  • Number rejected 221,853
  • Total men who attested, enlisted or tried to enlist 1,679,263
  • Total men who had not attested, enlisted or tried to enlist 1,152,947

Total figures

  • Total men available for enlistment 5,011,441
  • Total men who attested, enlisted or tried to enlist 2,829,263
  • Total men who had not attested, enlisted or tried to enlist 2,182,178

Lord Derby stressed that “the men in the married groups can only be assumed to be available if the Prime Minister’s pledge to them has been redeemed by the single men attesting in such numbers as to leave only a negligible quantity unaccounted for.”

A more positive aspect of the figures that he noted was the vast numbers of men who came forward to attest in the last few days of the scheme. A total of 1,070,478 men attested on the four days starting Friday 10 December, with over 325,000 coming forward on both the Saturday and the Sunday. Somewhat predictably this was compared to the rush to enlist in the late summer of 1914, when over 30,000 men had come forward on each of four days in early September. Clearly far more men ‘attested their willingness to serve’ in 1915 than enlisted in those days, the key differences being, of course, that the 1915 men did not have to go off immediately to serve their King and Country and – as noted above – many will have come forward on the assumption that they would not have to serve.

Attestation section of army service papers for Henry George Jesse Peavot, a librarian for London Zoo. It shows that he attested on 9 December 1915 and was called up (to the Honourable Artillery Company) on 6 December 1916

Attestation section of army service papers for Henry George Jesse Peavot, a married librarian for London Zoo. It shows that he attested on 9 December 1915 and was called up (to the Honourable Artillery Company) on 6 December 1916. He was killed in action in 1917.

The start of the call-up and conscription

Overall, the Scheme was deemed a failure. It can be seen either as the last attempt by a Liberal-led government to retain the voluntary principle. But it can just as well be seen as a cynical effort to hasten the demise of ‘voluntaryism’ but demonstrating it’s inability to bring in the numbers of men needed. Either way, January 1916 brought the Military Service Act, which made all single men of military age liable to being called up.

Alongside the Derby Scheme the Government asked all local authorities to create tribunals to hear the appeals of men against their call up. We have seen in a previous post how these tribunals worked, hearing appeals from both Derby attestees and conscripts under the Military Service Acts of 1916.

In theory the only difference in the right to appeal was that while both attested men and conscripts could appeal on the basis of medical unfitness, exceptional business or personal circumstances (such as the potential collapse of their business, or that they were vital in caring for elderly relatives), and work of national importance, only conscripts could appeal on the basis of conscientious objection. This was logical since attested men had sworn that they were willing to serve, but since men had been told  (at least implicitly) that military service could only be avoided by attesting and going to the tribunals, it is not surprising that some attested despite being being conscientious objectors or being so unwilling to serve that they felt it better to be tarred with the label of ‘conchy’ than to join up.

Also of interest in relation to the Derby Scheme is the tribunals’ attitude early on, as the first groups and classes were being called up and made their appeals (the classes being the MSA equivalent of the Derby Scheme Groups: classes 1-23 for single and, later, 24-46 for married men). The expectation had been that the groups and classes would be called up only gradually, as Londoner Georgina Lee wrote of attested men in the diary she kept for her infant son on 11 December: “Of course they will not all be required for a long time, as they will be called up in groups and the single ones go first.”

In fact on 20 December 1915 it was announced that the first four groups (2-5, since group 1 were too young) would be called on 20 January 1916. By 16 February the call-up dates for all the higher-numbered single groups had been announced, all to begin by 18 March (group 1 were then to follow at the end of March). The records of the early tribunal meetings show how unexpected this was, with many men being put back by a set number of groups (say from group 6 to group 16, in reality a three week reprieve) rather than a set number of months as became the practice for the rest of the war.

In March, the married men were called for. There was uproar (from the married men at least) that Asquith’s pledge had not been fulfilled and there were still large numbers of single men who were not serving. What was more, those ‘unpatriotic’ married men who had not attested were not to be called up at all. The obvious point that the attested men had attested their willingness to serve and shouldn’t have done if they were not actually willing to serve did not sway the campaigners. A second Military Service Act was passed, extending conscription to married men. I can’t tell whether the ‘married men’ dispute was an error on the government’s part or a brilliant scheme to get a result that would have been thought impossible 18 months: compulsory service for married men. Either way, full conscription was the result

Success or failure?

So, how many Derby men ended up joining up?  As we have seen, there were some 2.25 million attested men by mid December 1915. The scheme was reopened in the new year until 1 March 1916 (leading to the ‘Will you March Too, or Wait till March 2’ poster campaign), so the intake would actually have been greater.

Topical humour from Punch, 3 March 1916

Topical humour from Punch, 3 March 1916

 

The Statistics of the Military Effort in the Great War tell us that between January 1916 and March 1917 recruiting figures were:

  • Volunteers:                                196,725
  • Groups and Classes:               1,309,799
    • Of which Derby men:   849,454
    • And Conscripted men: 457,345

These statistics tell us two things about the Derby Scheme. First, that less than two in every five attested men joined the army in the first 15 months of the Scheme’s operation. At the same time, Derby attestees made up the largest group of recruits in that period (after which no distinction is made in the official statistics). Despite the ‘failure’ of the scheme, with only 56% of available men attesting or enlisting, the Scheme probably brought in more recruits than did the Military Service Act and the last tailing off of voluntary recruitment during the year in which all three routes into the armed forces were open (March 1916-March 1917 – the figures of volunteers and attested men above, of course start in January 1916) – with volunteers probably including some Derby men and likely conscripts who wanted to join particular regiments or avoid the stigma of conscription.

Similarly, we see that most of the men seen by the tribunals were Derby attestees in 1916: Chingford tribunal, for example, heard 200 cases from attested men, compared with 154 from conscripts. (Walthamstow Guardian 5/1/1917). Middlesex Appeal Tribunals, which heard cases where men or the military appealed against the decision of the local tribunals in the county, heard 8,791 original appeals between March 1916 and November 1918 (another 2,000 applications were presumably repeat applications), of which 4,090 were attested men and 4,701 under the MSA. Given that the Derby Scheme closed in March 1916, it is impressive that the figures are so similar. (National Archives MH 47/5/7, Minute book)

Was the Derby Scheme a failure? It depends what the objective was. If it aimed to save ‘voluntaryism’, it failed. If it aimed to make conscription more palatable by showing up the limits of voluntary recruiting and persuading men to volunteer to be conscripted, then it was surely a success. Either way, it was certainly a bizarre transitional period in recruitment in Great War Britain.

Sources:

 

 

 
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Posted by on 10 December 2015 in Military Service Tribunal, Recruitment

 

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Tun San: London’s Burmese Great War hero

Britain’s effort in the Great War was really an imperial effort. Locally-raised forces travelled from across the Empire to fight in Europe, the Middle East and East Africa. As we have seen, there were also men from across the Empire – and elsewhere – serving in the British units of the Armed Forces. One of these was Tun San, a Burmese man based in Richmond who became a war hero.

Tun San was born in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1888; his father Tun Aung Gyaw lived in the Mawlee Quarter of Akyab (now Sittwe), Burma.* Tun San attested for the army in Kingston-upon-Thames on 10 December 1915, giving his address as 12 St John’s Road, Richmond (although his family name was presumably Tun, he appears in army records as T. San) and his correspondence address as the Burma Society, St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith. Presumably he was living in Richmond at the time but it was not his permanent home; he appears to have given his profession as clerk and as student, so possibly he was studying in London at the time.

At the time Burma was part of the “Indian Empire”, the largest part of Britain’s possessions in Asia. According to the 1911 census, Tun San would have been one of around 3,200 Indian-born people in Surrey at the time, under 0.1% of the population (the 12,000 Indian-born people in London being 0.28% of the population). It is worth bearing in mind that many of those thousands would have been white men and women born in India: the children of soldiers, traders, travellers and administrators. London was relatively cosmopolitan compared to the rest of the UK, with a larger proportion of its population being of Asian or African descent, but the general population was overwhelmingly white. As we have seen, Londoners born in other parts of the Empire did join the British armed forces, including Lal Roy, the Indian pilot who earned the Military Cross, and GEK Bemand, the Jamaican-born artillery officer who died in 1916. Tun San was another of these young men.

Tun San joined the army on 20 January 1916, becoming a private in the East Surrey Regiment. Seven months later, he was posted to the Machine Gun Corps and its Motor section – the forerunner to the Tank Corps. September 1916 had seen the first ever use of armoured fighting vehicles – which the British authorities nicknamed ‘tanks’ – so Tun San and his comrades were at the cutting edge of military technology. On official paperwork his role is listed as ‘1st driver mech’.

Part of Tun San's service record

Part of Tun San’s service record

After nine months of training, he was sent to France and on 30 July 1917 he joined “F” Battalion. He appears to have still been serving with them when the tanks went into action at Cambrai in November – the biggest tank action in history up to that point.

The attack at Cambrai began on 20 November. The infantry were supported by 350 tanks in the offensive against the German ‘Hindenburg Line’.  ‘F’ Battalion attacked south of Cambrai: on 21 November they were part of the successful attack at Marcoing and pushed on towards Rumilly; the next day they continued their attack. The Germans held the attackers off at Rumilly and the offensive ground to a halt. The attack was a great success for the British and news of the advance was greeted with the ringing of bells across the UK (including at St Paul’s) – but the victory did not last long, with a German counter-attack a week later taking back virtually all of the captured territory.

An F Squadron tank at Rumilly. Was it San's tank? (From With the Tanks 1916-1918: Memoirs of a British Tank Commander in the Great War By W.H.L Watson)

An F Battalion tank at Rumilly. Was it Private San’s tank? (From With the Tanks 1916-1918: Memoirs of a British Tank Commander in the Great War
By W.H.L Watson)

 

Tun San was in the thick of the action near Rumilly and was wounded in the hand while he was in his tank on 22 November, with shrapnel injuring his left thumb and fingers. He was captured by the Germans on the same day. Unfortunately, I don’t know which tank he was in. The photo above shows tank FW1, which seems to have been the only one lost by F Battalion in the offensive, so perhaps that was his vehicle. Official news of his capture was received in January 1918 and he remained in German hands for the rest of the war, before being repatriated straight after the Armistice – he was back in Britain before Christmas.

Tun San did not hang around in Britain for very long after the war. He was demobilised in May 1919 and returned to Burma during the summer. His address there is given as Deputy Superintendent of Police in Thayetmyo (or Thayet, a coastal district). Sometime that summer, though, he would have heard that he had been awarded the Military Medal. Sadly, most awards of the MM during and immediately after the war do not give an account of the action for which it was earned – his name simply appears in the list of recipients in the London Gazette on 20 August 1919. We do know that it was earned for bravery in action, because that was what entitled people to earn the medal; perhaps it was for his actions at Rumilly. He received his actual medal early in 1920. I don’t know how Tun San’s life panned out after 1920, save that he was Deputy Superintendent of Police in Tavoy (now Dawei) in 1931.

The UK’s war effort took all sorts: men and women from all walks of life and from all around the world – primarily from around the British Empire. Tun San was one of from the furthest reaches of the Empire who served in Britain’s armed forces, not only that but doing it with great distinction, being wounded and captured and earning the Military Medal.

 

*Apologies for any bad spelling of Burmese names and places – a combination of early-twentieth century transliteration and handwriting, and my own lack of knowledge of the region, means that I have probably made mistakes.

 

Sources:

 

 
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Posted by on 24 November 2015 in Award-winners

 

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