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Monthly Archives: June 2014

The investiture

In a previous blog post we saw that tens of thousands of Londoners were awarded decorations for gallantry or good service. What were the ceremonies like?  Here are three personal accounts, one by a recipient and two by observers, of ceremonies at Buckingham Palace.

Seaman William Williams receives his VC from the King at Buckingham Palace (Daily Mirror, 23/7/1917)

Seaman William Williams receives his VC from the King at Buckingham Palace (Daily Mirror, 23/7/1917)

Edward Brittain earned the Military Cross on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. Waiting to go over the top, his trench was crowded by men wounded earlier in the attack (Edward’s unit was not in the first wave) and the men in front began to panic. As he told his sister Vera, “It looked like a regular rot, and I can’t remember just how I got the men together and made them go over the parapet. I only know I had to go back twice to get them, and I wouldn’t go through those minutes again if it meant the V.C.” About 70 yards into the advance, Edward was hit and could go no further, despite his best efforts. Crawling into a shell-hole he was hit again. After a while he crawled back towards the British lines past the bodies of the dead and wounded from that morning’s attack. After 20 minutes crawling he was helped back into the trenches by two stretcher-bearers. When he was sent back to the UK to recover from his wounds, Edward ended up in the hospital where Vera was a nurse, 1st London General Hospital in Camberwell.

On 24 August, Edward received a letter saying that he was to be awarded the Military Cross for his bravery on 1 July. He wrote to Vera in December 1916 about what happened when he arrived at the Palace to receive his award:

“I came up to town on Tuesday the 16th, went to Buckingham Palace on the 17th at 10.30 am. Mother came with me in the taxi from home and I dropped her just outside the gates and drove in alone; I ascended a wide staircase and deposited my hat and stick in a sort of cloak room, keeping my gloves (your gloves), went up more stairs, was asked by an old boy in a frock coat what I was to receive, was then directed to another old boy who verified my name etc and told me to stand on one side of the room – a large room with portraits of royal personages round the walls. There were 3 C.M.G.’s, about 12 D.S.O.’s and about 30 M.C.’s* so it was a fairly small investiture.

“We were instructed what to do by a Colonel who I believe is the King’s special private secretary and then the show started. One by one we walked into an adjoining room about 6 paces – halt – left turn – bow – 2 paces forward – King pins on cross – shake hands – pace back – bow – right turn and slope off by another door. The various acts were not read out, but the Colonel just called out ‘Receive the C.M.G.’ etc. Colonel so-and-so.

“The King spoke to a few of us including me; he said “I hope you have quite recovered from your wound”, to which I replied “Very nearly thank you, Sir”, and then went out with the cross in my pocket in a case. I met Mother just outside and we went off towards Victoria thinking we had quite escaped all the photographers, but unfortunately one beast from the Daily Mirror saw us and took us, but luckily it does not seem to have come out well as it is rather bad form to have your photo in a ½ d rag if avoidable.”

Edward Brittain MC and his mother, leaving Buckingham Palace

Edward Brittain MC and his mother, leaving Buckingham Palace

The crowd at the gates of Buckingham Palace for a VC investiture, July 1917 (Daily Mirror, 23/7/1917)

The crowd at the gates of Buckingham Palace for a VC investiture, July 1917 (Daily Mirror, 23/7/1917)

Michael MacDonagh attended an investiture outside at the palace the following summer. This was a VC ceremony, with fewer recipients and a crowd of the public watching – and listening to the accounts of the acts for which the honour was being awarded:

“I attended to-day one of the public conferring of War honours by the King in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. […] It was the Investiture of the Victoria Cross – that plain cross of bronze with the simple motto “For Valour” which is the most honoured and coveted military decoration in the world. The recipients were nine soldiers – an officer of the Royal Flying Corps, an officer of the Royal Army Medical Corps, five sergeants and two privates of the Line.

“The forecourt was flooded with sunshine when at a quarter to twelve o’clock the King in the uniform of a Field-Marshal came out of the Palace attended by his Staff. The guard of honour was provided by the Grenadier Guards. With them was the band of the regiment. The soldiers who were to be decorated were seated on chairs. Civilians present were chiefly wives, mothers and children of the soldiers. From the pavement outside the great sweep of the railings of the forecourt, and from the high steps and terrace of the Victoria Memorial, crowds of spectators obtained a view of the ceremony.

“As each recipient of the Victoria Cross was presented to the King the official account of his valour was read by an officer. Neither the name nor a word of the record could be heard by the public outside the railings, but they cheered and clapped their hands all the same, well knowing that each story might worthily be proclaimed in trumpet tones to listening London. The King pinned the Victoria Cross on each hero’s breast, and having held him in conversation for a few moments gave him a warm clasp of the hand. The exploit of the non-commissioned officers and privates was the same in each case – putting out of action enemy machine-gun nests that were holding up a British advance.

“There was one absentee, Captain Harold Ackroyd, R.A.M.C., who was killed in action. Utterly regardless of danger, he worked continuously in the front line during several battles, tending the wounded, bringing disabled officers and men to a place of safety under heavy machine-gun, rifle and shell fire. When the widow and little son of this gallant officer were presented to the King and the widow received her husband’s Victoria Cross, the cheers of the spectators were particularly warm and prolonged. The Military Cross had also been bestowed on Captain Ackroyd. It was handed by the King to the boy.”

Harold Ackroyd VC MC

Harold Ackroyd VC MC

Remarkably there is a video of this investiture (see from 1.55), showing some of the men receiving their VCs, and Captain Ackroyd’s wife and son being given his VC and MC. Ackroyd’s Victoria Cross was awarded for his extreme bravery in tending and rescuing the wounded in the first two days of the 3rd Ypres (aka Passchendaele); so impressive was his heroism that 23 separate recommendations for him to receive the honour were submitted. Sadly, he was killed less than two weeks later, searching for wounded men behind the front line.

By 1918, the ceremony had become even more of a public event, with a large crowd

* CMG is the medal of a Commander of the Order of the St Michael and St George (although, see Yes Minister), DSO is the Distinguished Service Order, and MC is the Military Cross.

Sources:

Alan Bishop (ed) Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends

Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth

Michael Macdonagh, In London During the Great War

Spartacus biography of Edward Brittain

VictoriaCross.org.uk on Harold Ackroyd

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Posted by on 26 June 2014 in Award-winners, Places

 

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Kathleen Passfield and the end of the Zeppelin menace

Women in the Great War could not play an active role in fighting the Germans, but they could be important in supporting the war effort. The most direct way was in munitions factories, making ammunition to help the armed forces win the war. Kathleen Passfield worked in a factory with a more immediate war purpose – to bring down the Zeppelins spreading terror across London.

Zeppelin-inspired recruiting poster, 1915

Zeppelin-inspired recruiting poster, 1915

Kathleen Hamilton Devonald was born in 1897 in New Cross (also known as Hatcham New Cross), the eldest of five children of crane driver William James Passfield and his wife Ellen. The family lived in Edmonton, with William’s mother Sophia; in 1911 they were living at 6 Exeter Road.

In May 1915, the German aerial campaign against Britain began with Zeppelins dropping bombs with apparent impunity. Londoners suffered air raids for more than a year without seeing one of these huge cigar-shaped raiders destroyed (although one was brought down in the Channel in March 1916). Forty-six people had been killed in the raid on 13/14 October that later led to the suicide of J.N. Petre, the landlord of the Old Bell Pub. In the summer of 1916, they returned in force. A raid on 24-25 August saw 44 bombs dropped on the Isle of Dogs and south-east London killing nine and injuring 45.

The breakthrough came on the night of 2-3 September 1916, as one witness described it:

“Never shall I forget…hearing an odd chunkety, chunkety noise. It sounded as if a train with rusty wheels were travelling through the sky. I ran out on to the balcony and saw something which looked like a large silver cigar away to my left, and I realized that it was a Zeppelin. Almost immediately it burst into flames and the sky turned red. Then came the sound of cheering. It seemed as if the whole of a rather far-away London was cheering, and almost unconsciously I began to cry ‘Hooray! hooray!’ too. But suddenly I stopped. We were cheering whilst men who were after all very bravely doing what they thought it their duty to do were being burned to death.” (Quoted in Mrs Peel, How We Lived Then)

Zeppelin SL11 had been destroyed by Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson, a 21-year-old pilot with 39 Squadron flying a BE2c.

As he wrote in his report of the action (from wikipedia):
“At about 1.50 a.m. I noticed a red glow in the N.E. of London. Taking it to be an outbreak of fire, I went in that direction. At 2.05 a Zeppelin was picked up by the searchlights over N.N.E. London (as far as I could judge).
“Remembering my last failure, I sacrificed height (I was at about 12,900 feet) for speed and nosed down in the direction of the Zeppelin. I saw shells bursting and night tracers flying around it.
“…I flew about 800 feet below it from bow to stem and distributed one drum among it (alternate New Brock and Pomeroy). It seemed to have no effect;
“I therefore moved to one side and gave them another drum along the side – also without effect. I then got behind it and by this time I was very close – 500 feet or less below, and concentrated one drum on one part (underneath rear). I was then at a height of 11,500 feet when attacking the Zeppelin.
“I had hardly finished the drum before I saw the part fired at, glow. In a few seconds the whole rear part was blazing. When the third drum was fired, there were no searchlights on the Zeppelin, and no anti-aircraft was firing.
“I quickly got out of the way of the falling, blazing Zeppelin and, being very excited, fired off a few red Very lights and dropped a parachute flare.”

The destruction of Zeppelin SL21, viewed from Hampstead Heath (artist's impression, from Flight Magazine 7 Sept 1916)

The destruction of Zeppelin SL11, viewed from Hampstead Heath (artist’s impression, from Flight Magazine 7 Sept 1916)

 

Key to the victory was having the right ammunition. Lt Leefe Robinson’s report notes the mixture of Pomeroy (exploding) and Brock (incendiary) ammunition, which he fired into a particular gas drum in the Zeppelin to set it alight.

John Pomeroy, the New Zealander who invented the explosive bullet had had a long fight to get it adopted for attacking Zeppelins. After an initial rejection by the War Office, he came back to London in 1916. He and his wife apparently made the first 5,000 rounds of this ammunition in a room at the top of Adastral House (the headquarters of the Air Ministry at No 1 Kingsway). The ammunition was adopted and went into full production in August 1916. According to a 1924 newspaper article, Mrs Pomeroy and 500 ‘girls’ worked on this ammunition order in Edmonton.

One of the women who worked at the Pomeroy factory in Edmonton was Kathleen Devonald, who married Private J.H. Passfield in Essex in late 1916. Kathleen became a superintendent at the factory. Through their work, the Pomeroys, Kathleen and their colleagues helped in a very direct way to end the Zeppelin raids, which died out over the winter of 1916/17. In 1919, Kathleen Passfield was awarded the Medal of the Order of the British Empire for her work at Pomeroy’s factory: ‘for great courage in continuously exposing herself to serious personal risk in the court of the manufacture of munitions of a peculiarly dangerous character’.

Kathleen’s husband James Harold Passfield had joined the Middlesex Regiment in 1915 and served with them – and later the 6th Highland Light Infantry – at Ypres, the Somme and Cambrai. He was wounded twice and suffered from shell shock. Her brother Ernest also served on the Western Front and in Egypt in 1917-1918, first in the Queen’s Regiment (West Surrey) and later in the Machine Gun Corps. Both men survived the war. After the war, James and Kathleen lived first on Durley Road in Stamford Hill and later on Grays Inn Road

 

Sources:

National Roll of the Great War

Dictionary of Australian Biography on John Pomeroy

A War Narrative, Northern Advocate , 22 January 1924;

Anti-Zeppelin Bullet, New Zealand Herald, 14 February 1919