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News from Jutland

News of the great battles of the Great War took time to reach home. With no instantaneous method of communicating information to the public, information filtered through newspapers, telegrams, letters and rumours. This was true of the lengthy land battles, but also of the shorter naval battle at Jutland on 31 May-1 June 1916. News came through over the next week and it was confusing. There were great losses, but what should be made of the result?

Damage to the HMS Queen Elizabeth, being worked on in dry dock after the battle of Jutland © IWM (Q 23212)

Damage to the HMS Queen Elizabeth, being worked on in dry dock after the battle of Jutland © IWM (Q 23212)

Londoner Georgina Lee was out of town at the time, but her diary gives a good indication of how the news filtered back:

Saturday June 3: There has been a great naval battle in the North Sea, and it was very serious in our losses. With a naval force which included 28 battleships and 5 battle cruisers we attached a powerful German fleet of 34, off the coast of Jutland, with the result that we have lost 3 battleships Queen Mary, Indefatigable and Invincible and several other warships. Over 2,000 men on the Invincible died: there were only 6 survivors.

Sunday June 4: The naval battle was a far bigger affair than anything we dreamt of. In their endeavour to get through our blockade the German High Fleet were frustrated, for they fled back to their ports when they found Sir John Jellicoe with the main fleet coming to the rescue of Admiral Beatty’s cruiser-fleet. By their hasty retreat, when confronted with our Dreadnoughts, they robbed us of the opportunity of another Trafalgar.

Monday June 5: The Battle of Jutland is now being viewed in the light of a British victory, as news comes into the Admiralty of fresh German losses. It is now stated that the Germans lost 18 ships to our 14. This, taken with the fact that the Germans fled back to their harbours and that Jellicoe remained in possession of the high seas, goes to show that our Fleet got the best of the encounter.

Well-connected business-man F.S. Oliver recorded a similar evolution of news from the battle in his letters to his brother. On Saturday 3 June, he commented “We heard abut the Naval Battle last night, but so far I don’t feel that I understand exactly what it amounts to. One thing, however, is quite clear – it will shake up the British people more than anything which has so far occurred in the war. That is a good thing, whatever evil may be done in other directions.” By the 8th, he was criticising the “lily-livered Liberal papers” for scaremongering in their (accurate) reporting that the Royal Navy had suffered greater losses than the German Imperial Navy. Like Mrs Lee, he also alluded the Trafalgar, in this case to demonstrate that the victors in great naval battles did not immediately scuttle off to their ports pursued by the enemy. Thanks to reports of a German victory, he implies, “Saturday was not a very pleasant day in London, neither was Sunday (no place is more unpleasant I think at times of crises and excitement than a nerve centre)… On Monday morning, however, the situation was set out in quite a rosy light.”

Contrary to what Lee and Oliver had heard in the days after the battle, the Germans had in fact lost fewer ships and men during the battle. It is fair to say, though, that it was a success from the British perspective because, as the London County Council’s record of war service puts it “Their [the Germans’] fleet did not continue the contest, but in the darkness of the early morning of 1st June returned to port. Our blockade was maintained, and never again did they venture to dispute our naval supremacy.

 

One group of people in London who must have longed for news over those days were the families of the sailors involved in the battle. As Mrs Lee’s diary shows, the loss of ships was known quite early on. Families and friends of sailors would have known what ship they were serving on. According to the ‘British Royal Navy & Royal Marines, Battle of Jutland 1916 servicemen transcription‘ some 38,890 men served at Jutland, of whom 4,856 were born in London (presumably not including the areas of Essex, Surrey and Kent that are now in London) and another 360 from Middlesex.

So great were the casualties on 31 May 1916, that the record-keepers made a stamp to mark service records with men's date of death. In this case Benjamin V. Brown from Wapping.

So great were the casualties on 31 May 1916, that the record-keepers made a stamp to mark service records with men’s date of death. In this case Benjamin V. Brown from Wapping.

The WW1 Naval casualty records shows that 5,705 died on 31 May and 1 June 1916, including over 650 from London and Middlesex – a casualty rate of around 12.5%. Among them were William R.C. Wiseman from Peckham, and George Dorling from Shepherd’s Bush, who had worked for the London Fire Brigade before the war.

Acting Leading Stoker William Richard Charles Wiseman of HMS Invincible.

Acting Leading Stoker William Richard Charles Wiseman of HMS Invincible.

George Dorling from Shepherd's Bush, who died on HMS Queen Mary

George Dorling from Shepherd’s Bush, who died on HMS Queen Mary (image posted on IWM Lives of the First World War by Maggie Coleman)

 
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Posted by on 2 June 2016 in Events, Ordinary Londoners, War Dead

 

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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

 

Captured at Loos: John Easton’s story

Yesterday, we heard about the 2nd London Division in action at Loos on 25 September 1915. The battle did not end that day, however: the fighting continued over the next few days and the battle itself officially lasted into October. One of those who fought in the days after the initial attack was John Easton from Friern Barnet.

John Easton was born in February 1895 and finished school in the summer of 1914. He had attended the City of London School (then at Blackfriars, now next to the Millennium Bridge) and served in its Officer Training Corps.

On September 2nd, he was one of the 3,479 men who joined up in London (and nearly 17,000 nationwide) – this was the height of the recruiting boom, remember. Easton joined the 19th (2nd Public Schools) Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers; as with many recruits to the public schools units, he never saw action with them but was identified as a potential officer.

On 4 January 1915 he filled out a blue ‘Application for appointment to a temporary commission in the Regular Army for the period of the War’ and on the 28th he left the 19th Royal Fusiliers to take up his commission.

In the late summer of 1915, Second Lieutenant John Easton arrived on the Western Front. He was still with the Royal Fusiliers, but now was an officer in B Company of the 12th Battalion – which in turn was part of 73rd Brigade in 24th Division. 24th Division was one of the reserve units used during the Battle of Loos. Along with the 21st Division, the 24th were sent in too late, according to historian Trevor Wilson,

‘But this did not meant they went unused. Late in the morning of the 26th, without aid of gas or significant artillery preparation, they were directed to advance across 1,500 yards of No-Man’s-Land towards solid banks of barbed wire and well sited machine-guns. So hopeless was their task, and so atrocious was the resulting slaughter, that when the battered remains abandoned the attempt and began to stumble back, numbers of German machine-gunners and riflemen stopped shooting because they had not the heart to continue the massacre.’

The 24th Division went into action around ‘the Dump’ and Fosse 8, as seen on this map:

Detail from map of the area attacked by 9 Division on 25 September, showing the Dump and Fosse 8. The red lines are the British front line of 25 Sept, the Green lines the German trenches. From battlefields1418.50megs.com

Detail from map of the area attacked by 9 Division on 25 September, showing the Dump and Fosse 8. The red lines are the British front line of 25 Sept, the Green lines the German trenches. From battlefields1418.50megs.com

John Easton was in the centre of the melee. He later wrote a brief account of the events leading up to his capture at Fosse 8. It gives an impression of the hardship and loss suffered by the soldiers there.

At 11.0 am on Sept 25th 1915 the battalion marched up from Beuvry, where it had breakfasted and slept. Water bottles were empty owing to the non-arrival of the carts, nor could men find opportunity to fill them on the road. We also had no bombs [i.e. hand grenades]. We took up supporting position at 3.0 p.m. and at 7.0 my company with ½ A Coy were pushed up into an advanced position holding workman’s cottages at Fosse 8. Iron rations [i.e. emergency rations] were eaten on the 26th, orders Lieut Col Garnons Williams,* second in command 12th Royal Fusiliers. We could get neither rations nor water in the rear, nor was any of the latter to be found in the houses. Owing to the continuous bombardment, lack of cover in shallow trenches and extent of front [being held], men could get no sleep. We held these trenches until after midday on the 27th, by which time, owing to the success of the German attacks on our flanks (they had captured the Dump and houses between us and the Fosse Trench) we were practically surrounded. Two officers and some sixty men succeeded in retiring through the small gap, 200 yds, left to us between the Dump and the Village. We took up position in Dump Trench and passed the day in repelling attacks, reorganising the men, who were now mixed up with units of two other brigades, and attempting to obtain food, water, and bombs. Rifles jammed in the mud, the night was bitterly could. The men were soaked by a fine drizzling rain, and, owing to the necessity of being on the alert, were again unable to get any sleep. We were now reduced to the last stages of physical exhaustion, several of the men also suffering from light wounds. At 3.0 a.m. on the 28th we joined in with a company of the 1st Berkshires to retake the Dump. We cleared the Dump of the enemy, who however, being much superior in number, surrounded the whole of the bottom of the Dump. We had no bombs with which to dislodge them; both the Berkshire officers were killed so I lined the edge of the Dump facing Slag Alley, while Lieut Skeet lined the Northern edge. I was captured by enemy coming up in rear while engaged to my front. They told me later they had a shaft leading up into the centre of the dump. I had between 15 and 20 men with me while Lieut Skeet had a similar number. The remainder of the attacking force, which had consisted of about 200 men were killed by the continuous machine gun and artillery fire which swept the Dump from all quarters. I was captured at 4.30 am.

(* R.D. Garnons Williams died during the battle, he was 59 years old and had played for Wales in their first ever rugby international.)

A much longer account, also written by Easton is held by the National Archives (as part of this file) and makes for very interesting reading.

According to Wilson, ‘Even in a war so rich in episodes of purposeless sacrifice, the travails of these two divisions on 26 September seem cause for indignation’. Immediately after the battle, 73rd Brigade’s commander was dismissed – his successor seems to have partly laid the blame on the greenness of the brigade’s soldiers and staff, but acknowledged that it would have been tough for even an experienced, regular army unit to have succeeded under the conditions that 73rd Brigade found themselves.

Easton remained a prisoner of war until November 1918; strangely he was promoted to acting Lieutenant in July 1917. In August 1916, he is recorded as having been a prisoner in Fürstenberg officers’ camp in Germany. As an officer, he would have been spared the hard labour and terrible conditions faced my the other ranks soldiers, sailors and airmen who were taken prisoner. All sides on the Western and – particularly – the Eastern Front mistreated prisoners of war during the Great War, including physical assault, poor diet and work in perilous conditions, including close to the battlefields (see Heather Jones’s excellent book Violence against Prisoners of War in the First World War for a detailed study of the subject).

By September 1918, Lieutenant Easton was interned in Holland – which is where he wrote the longer account. On 16 November 1918, Easton was sent home via Rotterdam, arriving in Hull on 18 November and reporting to the Prsioners of War Reception Camp in Ripon. He was granted two months’ leave during which time we was asked to write the account of his capture quoted above. In April 1919, a Standing Committee of Enquiry, made up of senior officers, looked into the capture and decided that ‘no blame attaches to him in the matter’.

The fighting on the Western Front could be utterly horrendous and the Battle of Loos was a notoriously badly-handled one on the British side. John Easton’s account of the 12th Royal Fusilers’ part in the battle, and his own capture, give us an insight into just one of the smaller battles fought within the wider battle of Loos.

Sources:

  • National Archives: Accounts of Loos (CAB 45/120); Lt J Easton’s service record (WO 339/32692).
  • The Long, Long Trail
  • Trevor Wilson, Myriad Faces of War
  • Nick Lloyd, Loos 1915
 
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Posted by on 26 September 2015 in Events, Ordinary Londoners

 

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The 2nd London Division at Loos, 25 September 1915

The battle of Loos began on 25 September 1915. It was the first offensive that was viewed, in Britain, as the British Expeditionary Force taking the fight to the Germans in an attempt to break the stalemate on the Western Front. It was the largest battle that the British Army had ever fought (soon overtaken by the battle of the Somme), with nearly 60,000 British troops engaged in it, supported (with very mixed results) by poison gas. One of the key units taking part was the 2nd London Division, who attacked at the southern end of the British line.

There are plenty of good accounts of the battle as a whole – for example here on the ever-useful Long, Long Trail website. For us the focus is on the 2nd London Division.

The division was formed in August 1914, made up of units of the London Regiment, an entirely Territorial Force regiment. As the 1915 order of battle (see below) shows, many of its units came from particular areas of London: for example the 17th battalion was the Poplar and Stepney Rifles, while the artillery batteries in VII London Brigade RFA were from Fulham and Shepherds Bush. Others reflected jobs or background, such as the Post Office Rifles and the London Irish Rifles.

Emblem of the 47th (2nd London) Division

Emblem of the 47th (2nd London) Division

The division was eventually given the official title of the 47th Division – rather untidily, since the 1st London Division was made the 56th Division. The 47th Division was sent to France in March 1915, the second TF division to arrive in France and Flanders. The division took part in the battles of Aubers Ridge and Festubert in May 1915 and were allocated a position on the right wing of the attack at Loos.

47 Division's area of the front, 25 September 1915

47 Division’s area of the front, 25 September 1915

The division’s official history is available online. Here is its account of the part the division played on 25 September:

On the morning of the 25th the extreme right of the British line — W1 sector — was held by the 21st and 22nd Battalions, whose left flank was to be the pivot of the whole attack. On their left — in W2 sector — was the 140th Brigade, and on the left again — in W3 sector — the 141st Brigade, which joined the right flank of the 15th Division. The remaining units of the 142nd Brigade were in reserve in the Grenay line.

At 5.50 a.m. zero the gas and smoke operations started. The gas was worked by the Special Coy., R.E., and the smoke by a company of the 4th R.W.F. (Pioneers). On the 47th Division front the gas went fairly well. The cloud rolled slowly forward, and its effect was apparent from the lessening force of the enemy rifle fire. Nearly all the cylinders were emptied, and our own casualties in letting off gas were few, owing entirely to discipline and obedience to orders regarding the wearing of smoke helmets in the advanced trenches before the attack.

British troops advancing through gas, taken by a soldier in the London Rifle Brigade (not part of 47 Division) (c)IWM

“Strange figures, hung about with sandbags and bandoliers of ammunition, with no caps, but smoke-helmets on their heads rolled into a sort of turban, with the mouthpiece nodding by way of ornament over their foreheads”  British troops advancing through gas at Loos, taken by a soldier in the London Rifle Brigade (not part of 47 Division) (c)IWM

Forty minutes after zero the infantry attack began. On the right a gallant army of dummy figures, worked with strings by the 21st and 22nd Battalions, made progressive appearances in the smoke-cloud, and did their duty in attracting a fair share of fire. The real attack started opposite the Double Crassier, and north-wards of this point line after line of men left our trenches. In outward appearance they were hardly more human than the dummies farther south — strange figures, hung about with sandbags and bandoliers of ammunition, with no caps, but smoke-helmets on their heads rolled into a sort of turban, with the mouthpiece nodding by way of ornament over their foreheads. Each line went forward at quick time down into the valley and was lost in the smoke. It is a splendid proof of the thoroughness of the practice of the attack and previous reconnaissance that, in spite of the thick smoke, direction was kept all along the line.

The 7th Battalion advanced on the Double Crassier, the west end of which, with the trench running just under it, was their first objective. Their second objective was some 400 yards of the German second line north of its junction with the Crassier. The 6th Battalion attacked on their immediate left the first and second German lines. The 8th Battalion was in close support, and the 15th in brigade reserve. Both the 6th and 7th Battalions reached the first line without many casualties; but it was strongly held, and the garrison seemed to have been frightened rather than incapacitated by our gas, which had mostly drifted across to the 141st Brigade front. The wire in front of the second line was a more serious obstacle, and both battalions had many casualties here ; later in the day the 8th Battalion was sent forward to reinforce them. A counter-attack came early against the 7th. The enemy tried to work round the end of the Crassier and eject them from the front line, but Captain Gasson’s A Company successfully met every attempt, and, with the help of the 8th Battalion grenadiers, established a firm position on the Crassier. The whole of the 140th Brigade objectives were captured by 8 a.m., together with some 300 prisoners and three machine- guns.

From The 47th (London) Division by Alan H Maud

From The 47th (London) Division by Alan H Maud

Out of eighteen officers who took part in the attack the 7th Battalion lost fourteen, ten of whom were killed. Captain Casson was among the latter, and his gallant company was cut to pieces, but he had, by a very bold piece of soldiering, held the German counter-attack till reinforcements arrived.

The 141st Brigade, on the left, had farther to go. Their attack was led by the 15th Battalion, whose objective was the German second line from the Lens-Bethune road (where they joined the 6th Battalion) to Loos Cemetery. Two battalions followed them abreast, the 20th on the right and the 19th on the left, and passed through the i8th Battalion when the latter had attained its objective. The 20th were to capture important points south of the village — a copse and chalk-pit, a small enclosed ” garden city,” and a crassier (slag heap) running south-east towards Lens from the Tower Bridge; the 19th attacked the cemetery, the southern edge of the village itself, and the Pylons, or “Tower Bridge.” The 17th Battalion was held in reserve.

Wrecked British transport amongst the debris in a ruined street, Loos, 30th September, 1915. The famous tower bridge can be seen in the distance. (c)IWM Q 28987

Wrecked British transport amongst the debris in a ruined street, Loos, 30th September, 1915. The famous Tower Bridge can be seen in the distance. (c)IWM Q 28987

The 15th [Battalion] started off, kicking a football in front of them. No Man’s Land was easy going, and difficulty began at the first German line. It was here that the leading waves suffered most severely. The second line was reached well up to time, and was found to be strongly wired, but, fortunately, it had few defenders. On the right the 20th pushed on to the “garden city,” which fell into their hands. A Company, under Captain G. Williams, successfully fought their way to the Chalk-pit. Here they captured two field-guns, which were standing a few weeks later in London on the Horse Guards Parade. A line was established northwards from the Chalk-pit to join up with the companies on the Loos Crassier. The 19th Battalion, in the meantime, had a hard fight for the cemetery, where a trench was cut actually through the graveyard, but they won their way through and on to the village, where they joined the 15th Division in clearing houses and cellars.

Here Lieutenant F. L. Pusch, of the 19th, who was killed in action later in the war, did particularly gallant work, for which he was awarded the D.S.O. He led a party of bombers, and in one house, which he entered alone, he captured seven prisoners, after being badly wounded in the face by one of them.

Another act of gallantry, which also won the D.S.O., was performed by Major E. B. Blogg, of the 4th London Field Coy., R.E. Beneath the church tower of Loos the enemy had laid mines. Under heavy shell fire Major Blogg went in and cut the fuse, thereby saving many lives. The 19th Battalion finally reached their last objective, the Tower Bridge. Lieut.-Colonel C. D. Collison-Morley was killed soon after leaving our trenches at the head of his battalion, and the 19th was put under the orders of Lieut.-Colonel A. B. Hubback, of the 20th Battalion, who so had charge of the whole front line of the 141st Brigade.

Soon after nine o’clock all objectives had been captured by the Division except the western end of a narrow spinney which ran south-west from the Chalk-pit, which the 20th Battalion had taken. This contained a network of trenches, and its very plucky defenders held us up for the next forty-eight hours.

The remainder of September 25th was spent in consolidating. Local counter-attacks were met and beaten off on the Double Crassier, in the spinney, and on the south-east edge of Loos, largely by the concentration of artillery fire previously arranged in anticipation of this counter-attack.

During the night the Pioneers linked the southern point of the captured trenches with our old line, thus completing the defensive flank which it had been the task of the 47th Division to secure. Units of the Division had sent back as prisoners 8 officers and 302 other ranks, and had captured 3 field-guns. For the measure of success attained our casualties had been light, amounting to about 1,500 all ranks.

The 47th Division was one of the more successful units in the attack on 25 September. In other areas the gas blew back into the faces of the British troops without hampering the defending Germans.

A few notes on people mentioned in the text:

  • The football kicked into action is said, by Ed Harris in his book on the subject, to have been blown up and kicked by Private Frederick Edwards, a 21 year old from Chelsea serving in the London Irish Rifles.
  • Frederick Leopold Pusch was the son of a Russian-born banker; he was born in Islington and educated at Harrow. He was awarded his DSO by the King in March 1916 (as you can see in this newsreel, 6 minutes into the video) after having transferred to the Irish Guards. He was killed in action on 27 June 1916, aged 20 – his brother Ernest died a few weeks later.
  • Major Casson was 42 year old William Casson, originally from Port Madoc, Carnarvonshire. In 1911 he was the chief assistant engineer for London Central Railway (i.e. the Central Line) and living in Notting Hill; in 1914 he had married Annie Gertrude Allsop.

At the time of the battle of Loos, the Division was made up of the following units (list from 1914-1918.net): 140th (4th London) Brigade

  • 1/15th Bn, the London Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own Civil Service Rifles)
  • 1/6th Bn, the London Regiment (Rifles)
  • 1/7th Bn, the London Regiment
  • 1/8th Bn, the London Regiment (Post Office Rifles)

141st (5th London) Brigade

  • 1/17th Bn, the London Regiment (Poplar and Stepney Rifles)
  • 1/18th Bn, the London Regiment (London Irish Rifles)
  • 1/19th Bn, the London Regiment (St Pancras)
  • 1/20th Bn, the London Regiment (Blackheath and Woolwich)

142nd (6th London) Brigade

  • 1/21st Bn, the London Regiment (First Surrey Rifles)
  • 1/22nd Bn, the London Regiment (The Queen’s)
  • 1/23rd Bn, the London Regiment
  • 1/24th Bn, the London Regiment (The Queen’s)

Divisional Troops

  • 1/4th Bn, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers (Pioneers)

Divisional Mounted Troops

  • C Sqn, the 1st King Edward’s Horse
  • 2nd London Divisional Cyclist Company

Divisional Artillery

  • V London Brigade, RFA (made up of batteries from Kennington and Paddington)
  • VI London Brigade, RFA (batteries from Brixton)
  • VII London Brigade, RFA (batteries from Fulham and Shepherds Bush)
  • VIII London (Howitzer) Brigade, RFA (batteries from Clifton and Gloucester)
  • 47th Divisional Ammunition Column RFA

Royal Engineers

  • 517th (3rd London) Field Company
  • 518th (4th London) Field Company
  • 520th (2/3rd London) Company
  • 47th Divisional Signals Company

Royal Army Medical Corps

  • 4th London Field Ambulance
  • 5th London Field Ambulance
  • 6th London Field Ambulance
  • 47th Sanitary Section

Other Divisional Troops

  • 47th Divisional Train ASC
  • 2nd London Mobile Veterinary Section AVC
  • 47th Divisional Ambulance Workshop

London soldiers played a full part in this first British offensive (which in fact was part of a bigger French assault in the Champagne region). Indeed the 47th Division did better than most other British divisions on the day; despite the official history’s assurances about light casualties, its attack was still costly.

Sources:

 
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Posted by on 25 September 2015 in Events, Ordinary Londoners

 

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Capture the flag

In the newspapers a hundred years ago today were the exploits of young Londoner Ernest Norman Lawrie, who had gone out into no-man’s land to capture a German flag.

Lawrie and the German flag, Daily Mirror 9 June 1915

Lawrie and the German flag, Daily Mirror 9 June 1915

Ernest Norman Lawrie was born in West Hampstead in April 1893 and grew up in Kew Gardens. He was the son of John and Elizabeth Lawrie; John was the manging director of Whiteley’s department store in Kensington. After being educated at Haberdasher’s School in Cricklewood, young Lawrie (who appears to have been known as Norman) started working at Elkington and Co plate silver makers of Regent Street in 1912.

Norman Lawrie was among the first wave of volunteers for war service after the Britain declared war in 1914. On August 10th, he joined the Kensington Battalion, the 13th Londons. Two and a half months later, he and his comrades went to the Western Front. Lawrie saw action at Neuve Chapelle in early 1915 and was commissioned as an officer in the battalion on 3 April 1915.

In a letter home he describes his efforts to win glory among the officers and men of the battalion soon after he was made an officer himself:

“The first time I went into the trenches as an officer I had rather an exciting experience.

“It had been a very dark night, and I kept on telling the sentries to keep a good lookout.

“In the morning we were surprised to see, midway between our lines and the German lines, a little German flag flapping in the wind. Underneath was a board with some writing on it, and all this stuck on to a post.

“It had been put there by some German patrol, who had the cheek to come thus far and stick it in the ground.

“Great excitement reigned all day, and our fellows potted at the post ‘like mad’ to knock it down, and the Boches potted at our fellows to do likewise, but neither side succeeded.

“During the evening I heard a group of about ten officers talking about it, and each saying he was going out when it was dark to bring it in.

“Well, to cut a long story short, I didn’t wait till it was dark but at dusk I strolled out, revolver in hand (loaded in all six chambers), with a corporal, in case I should get potted.

“After passing the word along our sentries, ‘Cease fire, patrol going out in front,’ the corporal and I started on our journey.

“We first of all had to climb over our own entanglements – that is one of the reasons why I went out before it was quite dark, as you get torn to pieces by the barbed wire in the dark; and reason number two, I wanted to get there before our other officers; and number three, because I didn’t want to meet a German patrol, which always comes out in front of their wire in the dark.

“Having safely climbed our wire, we crawled along and found to our dismay a ditch 5ft across and with 7ft of water in front of us.

“I had a pretty long journey. Well, we got there all right, and I gripped the post, when a sudden fear seized me.

“Here was I isolated between the two trenches, and suppose a wire was attached to the post from the trench and when I pulled it they would open a machine gun on me.

“Well, I felt carefully all over it, but ah! no wire. So I tore it out of the ground and – good heavens! A star shell went up and dropped within 5 ft of the corporal and I.

“You know what a white flare is like at a firework display, which shows up everybody all round. Well, both sides use these as rockets to show up the ground between the trenches at night, and this was one of them.

“Of course, the Boches spotted the flag was gone, and then spotted two black forms lying flat on the ground.

“My word, it was hot for a moment! The bullets fairly scraped us as they whizzed past. Well, we waited till the flare died down, and, picking up the flag, we ran to a hole in the ground made by a shell and dropped into this. And once more a star-light went up, but we were hidden this time.

“At last the star-lights stopped, and we hurried back to our trench, and huge cheers greeting me hugging the flag like a baby.”

 

The Daily Mirror described the incident as showing “better than anything the spirit of our men at the front” and revealing “once again the British soldier’s utter contempt for death”. Viewed another way, it was a reckless gamble with two men’s lives over a simple flag. Either way, it certainly shows how important such symbols as the flag were in the contest over no-man’s land.

From de Ruvigny's 'Roll of Honour'

From de Ruvigny’s ‘Roll of Honour’

Norman Lawrie was killed in action a few weeks later. I don’t know how he died, but his commander’s letter says that “He met his death leading his men in the true British way, and under circumstances as exacting as any that troops could be called upon to face”, so it doesn’t seem to have been in another wild venture out into no-man’s land.

Sources:

  • de Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour
  • Daily Mirror 9/6/1915
 
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Posted by on 9 June 2015 in Events, War Dead

 

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Bobs, the funeral of a national hero

In November 1914, the nation mourned a collective loss. One of the nation’s most famous soldiers had died and was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral: Field Marshal Lord Roberts VC, known to many simply “Bobs”.

Such was the appeal of Lord Roberts, his image was used on a recruiting poster.

Such was the appeal of Lord Roberts, his image was used on a recruiting poster.

Roberts was born in India in 1832 and, after growing up in the UK, he first made his name there in 1858 when he was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry during the Indian Mutiny (as it was known by the British) when he saved the life of a sepoy (Indian private soldier) loyal to the British, and captured the flag of a rebelling unit. He was also present at the arrival of British troops at Lucknow in March that year.

His lasting fame came after his actions in Afghanistan in 1880 in the UK’s second war in that country, when he launched a 300-mile march from Kabul to Kandahar to relieve a British garrison there. The march made him a household name.  In 1885 he became the commander-in-chief of army in India. He was appointed as commander in South Africa during the Second Anglo-Boer War in 1899 and further advanced his national reputation when the British eventually won that war.

Lord Roberts in around 1882 (c)NPG

Lord Roberts in around 1882 (c)NPG

After three years as Commander-in-Chief of the Forces (i.e. head of the Army) he retired in 1904. The next decade saw him campaigning for national service – conscription – and preparation for war against Germany. In 1906, he helped William Le Queux to prepare his book The Invasion of 1910, a bestseller that was serialized in the Daily Mail. He was president of the National Service League from 1905.

When war was declared in 1914, he was made colonel-in-chief of the empire forces (i.e. the non-British part of the Empire’s forces). While visiting Indian troops at St Omer, he died of pneumonia on 14 November 1914. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes him as “Roberts was perhaps the ablest field commander since Wellington”. Gaumont’s contemporary compilation film about Roberts can be viewed on the IWM website.

 

The funeral procession reaches St Paul's (Daily Mirror 20/11/1914)

The funeral procession reaches St Paul’s (Daily Mirror 20/11/1914)

On 19 November, he was laid to rest in St Paul’s Cathedral after his body had travelled in a flag-draped coffin on a gun limber through Ascot (where his estate was), on a flag-draped train to London, and through the hushed streets of the capital.

Arnold Bennett gives an extended description of the service in his wartime novel The Pretty Lady (1918: quotation here from the Project Gutenberg transcription)

The great dim place was full, but crowding had not been permitted. With a few exceptions in the outlying parts, everybody had a seat. G.J. [the book’s central character] was favourably placed for seeing the whole length of the interior. Accustomed to the restaurants of fashionable hotels, auction-rooms, theatrical first-nights, the haunts of sport, clubs, and courts of justice, he soon perceived, from the numerous samples which he himself was able to identify, that all the London worlds were fully represented in the multitude—the official world, the political, the clerical, the legal, the municipal, the military, the artistic, the literary, the dilettante, the financial, the sporting, and the world whose sole object in life apparently is to be observed and recorded at all gatherings to which admittance is gained by privilege and influence alone. […]

The music began. It was the Dead March in Saul. The long-rolling drums suddenly rent the soul, and destroyed every base and petty thought that was there. Clergy, headed by a bishop, were walking down the cathedral. At the huge doors, nearly lost in the heavy twilight of November noon, they stopped, turned and came back. The coffin swayed into view, covered with the sacred symbolic bunting, and borne on the shoulders of eight sergeants of the old regiments of the dead man. Then followed the pall-bearers—five field-marshals, five full generals, and two admirals; aged men, and some of them had reached the highest dignity without giving a single gesture that had impressed itself on the national mind; nonentities, apotheosised by seniority; and some showed traces of the bitter rain that was falling in the fog outside. Then the Primate. Then the King, who had supervened from nowhere, the magic production of chamberlains and comptrollers. The procession, headed by the clergy, moved slowly, amid the vistas ending in the dull burning of stained glass, through the congregation in mourning and in khaki, through the lines of yellow-glowing candelabra, towards the crowd of scarlet under the dome; the summit of the dome was hidden in soft mist. The music became insupportable in its sublimity.

G.J. was afraid, and he did not immediately know why he was afraid. The procession came nearer. It was upon him…. He knew why he was afraid, and he averted sharply his gaze from the coffin. He was afraid for his composure. If he had continued to watch the coffin he would have burst into loud sobs. Only by an extraordinary effort did he master himself. Many other people lowered their faces in self-defence. The searchers after new and violent sensations were having the time of their lives.

The Dead March with its intolerable genius had ceased. The coffin, guarded by flickering candles, lay on the lofty catafalque; the eight sergeants were pretending that their strength had not been in the least degree taxed. Princes, the illustrious, the champions of Allied might, dark Indians, adventurers, even Germans, surrounded the catafalque in the gloom. G.J. sympathised with the man in the coffin, the simple little man whose non-political mission had in spite of him grown political. He regretted horribly that once he, G.J., who protested that he belonged to no party, had said of the dead man: “Roberts! Well-meaning of course, but senile!” … Yet a trifle! What did it matter? And how he loathed to think that the name of the dead man was now befouled by the calculating and impure praise of schemers. Another trifle!

As the service proceeded G.J. was overwhelmed and lost in the grandeur and terror of existence. There he sat, grizzled, dignified, with the great world, looking as though he belonged to the great world; and he felt like a boy, like a child, like a helpless infant before the enormities of destiny. He wanted help, because of his futility. He could do nothing, or so little. It was as if he had been training himself for twenty years in order to be futile at a crisis requiring crude action. And he could not undo twenty years. The war loomed about him, co-extensive with existence itself. He thought of the sergeant who, as recounted that morning in the papers, had led a victorious storming party, been decorated—and died of wounds. And similar deeds were being done at that moment. And the simple little man in the coffin was being tilted downwards from the catafalque into the grave close by. G.J. wanted surcease, were it but for an hour. He longed acutely, unbearably, to be for an hour with Christine in her warm, stuffy, exciting, languorous, enervating room hermetically sealed against the war. Then he remembered the tones of her voice as she had told her Belgian adventures…. Was it love? Was it tenderness? Was it sensuality? The difference was indiscernible; it had no importance. Against the stark background of infinite existence all human beings were alike and all their passions were alike.

The gaunt, ruthless autocrat of the War Office and the frail crowned descendant of kings fronted each other across the open grave, and the coffin sank between them and was gone. From the choir there came the chanted and soothing words:

“Steals on the ear the distant triumph-song.”

G.J. just caught them clear among much that was incomprehensible. An intense patriotism filled him. He could do nothing; but he could keep his head, keep his balance, practise magnanimity, uphold the truth amid prejudice and superstition, and be kind. Such at that moment seemed to be his mission…. He looked round, and pitied, instead of hating, the searchers after sensations.

A being called the Garter King of Arms stepped forward and in a loud voice recited the earthly titles and honours of the simple little dead man; and, although few qualities are commoner than physical courage, the whole catalogue seemed ridiculous and tawdry until the being came to the two words, “Victoria Cross”. The being, having lived his glorious moments, withdrew. The Funeral March of Chopin tramped with its excruciating dragging tread across the ruins of the soul. And finally the cathedral was startled by the sudden trumpets of the Last Post, and the ceremony ended.

Real-life Londoner F.S. Oliver attended the funeral.  He wrote to his brother on 20 November that:

Lord Roberts’s funeral yesterday was a very impressive event – I’m not sure that it wasn’t the most impressive I have ever seen. The cold showery, sleety day – the scratch lot of troops, representative in spite of their scratchness – the great dark Cathedral – the slow march and reversed weapons – khaki uniforms – no colour – and solemn Chopin March (which hits one somehow so much more than Handel) – it seemed to explain itself.– If you had known nothing about what has been happening, you would still have guessed what it was – the funeral of a great soldier at a time of grave national anxiety.

Roberts’s funeral was one of the big events of the first months of the Great War in London, between the rush to the colours and the Zeppelin raids. One gets the sense that Roberts’s death was in some way emblematic of the deaths of the much younger men dying every day at the Front, whose bodies were not brought back from burial in Britain (with the exception of the Unknown Warrior almost exactly six years later).

 

Sources:

  • Dictionary of National Biography
  • F.S. Oliver, Anvil of War
  • Arnold Bennett, The Pretty Lady
 
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Posted by on 28 November 2014 in Award-winners, Events, Famous People

 

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Armistice Day pandemonium in Westminster

Today, the nation will mark the anniversary of the Armistice of 1918. Millions of people will keep a two minutes’ silence in memory of the men and women who died in the Great War, and other conflicts. Armistice Day in 1918 in London was quite different as people, understandably, swarmed through the streets celebrating the end of the war. Swirling crowds, fireworks, bonfires and stolen artillery pieces were the order of the day!

The fighting on the Western Front ended at 11 a.m. on 11 November 1918. News of the Armistice immediately spread through London. Guns were fired to announce the occasion in central London; in Croydon, the air-raid warning maroons were fired, followed by the all-clear bugle calls; the Union Flag was run up the flagpoles of the town hall and churches simultaneously. In the City of London, ‘Within a minute the central streets were packed from side to side with wildly cheering crowds’ and the buildings sprouted flags and decorations.

Taking over a London bus in the Armistice day celebrations, 1918 (image from battlefield-tours.com)

Taking over a London bus in the Armistice day celebrations, 1918 (image from battlefield-tours.com)

Outside Buckingham Palace, 5,000 people gathered within five minutes. At 11.15, the King appeared on the balcony before a large and vociferous gathering.

Christopher Addison MP, the Minister for Munitions, described the scene in Westminster in his diary: “not only the inhabitants of the Government Offices, but as it seemed, the whole of London simultaneously “downed” tools and rushed into the streets – taxicabs, motors, lorries, buses and vehicles of every description were commandeered by joyful crowds, driven up and down – cheering whistling, singing, rejoicing.”

That evening, Vera Brittain was outside the Admiralty building on Whitehall where “a crazy group of convalescent Tommies were collecting specimens of different uniforms and bundling their wearers into flag-strewn taxis; with a shout they seized two of my companions and disappeared into the clamorous crowd, waving flags and shaking rattles”.

It was not quite a day universal joy. For some, the thought of what, or whom, they had lost prevented it being a day for celebration. Georgina Lee’s friend Florence Younghusband ‘was on top of a bus when the guns were fired. In front of her were two soldiers one with his face horribly scarred. He looked straight ahead and remained stonily silent; the other just bowed his head in his hand and burst out crying. The omnibus conductress dropped into the vacant seat next to Florence, leant her head to her soldier and cried too. “I lost my man two months ago, I can’t be happy today”, she murmured.’ Likewise, Vera Brittain simply wanted to be alone, realising that the young men she cared about and had wanted to share her future with were gone.

The mood of the day, though, was predominantly one of celebration. All across London, crowds gathered in public places. Mayors made speeches from the steps or balconies of their town halls. The festivities were not as extensive beyond Westminster and the West End, but many Londoners had streamed across the capital to be part of that crowd (around 100,000 are estimated to have taken to the streets to celebrate the Armistice). The King and Queen’s visit to the East End on 12 November was described as a ‘return visit’ after so many had come to Westminster the previous day.

The celebrations in central London continued every evening for the rest of that week. Addison noted that “crowds filled the streets from Trafalgar Square as far as Waterloo Bridge, still dancing and singing. Thanks perhaps to the still prevailing liquor restrictions, I do not remember myself seeing anybody who appeared to be drunk, although no doubt, like most other rules that week, the Closing Hour Regulations were a good deal disregarded.”

Despite this description of calmness, the Daily Express described a ‘pandemonium’ on 12 and 13 November, with ‘rivers of people’ and ‘whirlpools of dancers’, accompanied by concertinas, cornets, tambourines, wooden rattles and singing. On the 12th, a big bonfire was lit on Trafalgar Square against the base of Nelson’s Column; it was started at around 10 p.m. and fuelled by wooden road-blocks from the nearby roads, and a temporary wooden structure in the square was burned to the ground – later one of the captured German guns that lined the Mall was added to the flames!

That night, the whole square was full of people setting off fireworks and crackers. Another bonfire was lit in Piccadilly Circus, fuelled by advertising hoardings from the Pavilion theatre.

The flames of the Trafalgar Square bonfire actually caused permanent damage to the plinth of Nelson’s Column. After the war, the authorities decided that replacing the stone with new pieces would look worse than leaving the original damaged pieces in place. The damage is still visible on the western side of the plinth.

On the 13th, a number of German guns went missing. “One gun was taken for a riotous joy-ride on a great motor-lorry” and disappeared along the Strand towards the East End trailing a “Buy War Bonds” banner, according to the Express. Others were pulled by hand and abandoned nearby; many appeared in Trafalgar Square, one making it as far as Piccadilly Circus. Just before midnight, the gates of Admiralty Arch were closed to try to stop the departure of more of the weapons. Another bonfire was lit in Trafalgar Square, this time near the end of Cockspur Street. Some soldiers fetched another captured German gun, which was again added to the fire while the crowd cheered.

In the years after 1918, Armistice Day became increasingly a day for reflection and mourning rather than celebration – particularly once it became obvious that war in Europe had not been banished for ever. On 11 November 1918, though, the mood in London was primarily – and understandably – one of relief and rejoicing for the lifting of the immediate burden of the war.

Sources:

  • Daily Express
  • Daily Mirror
  • Christopher Addison, Four and a half years
  • Georgina Lee, Home Fires Burning
  • Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth
  • Adrian Gregory, Silence of Memory
 
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Posted by on 11 November 2014 in Events, Places