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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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Gibb Mapplebeck: early aviator and escaper

The war experiences of ‘Gibb’ Mapplebeck sound more like something from a Biggles-type adventure novel than a year in the life of a young man from Liverpool. By the end of August 1915, he was buried in Streatham churchyard, but he had already been injured in aerial combat, carried out the RFC’s first battlefield reconnaissance and escaped capture behind enemy lines.

Gilbert William Mapplebeck was born in Liverpool on 26 August 1892 and joined the Special Reserve of the King’s (Liverpool) Regiment as an officer in 1912. That year applied to transfer to the newly-formed Royal Flying Corps, to which he was attached (officially remaining a Liverpool Regiment officer). In January 1913, he qualified as a pilot at Hendon, earning Royal Aero Club Certificate number 386.

G.W. Mapplebeck's Royal Aero Club Certificate photo

G.W. Mapplebeck’s Royal Aero Club Certificate photo 

A few months later, this young pilot – apparently a bit of a daredevil, prone to stunt flying – suffered his first flying injury. In June 1913, he was thrown from an aeroplane (presumably while landing or taking off) at Upavon in Wiltshire and fractured his skull. He recovered, though: by October was fit to return to duty and in December he was appointed as a Flying Officer.

In August 1914, he was mobilised, with the rest of the armed forces, for the war in Europe. His first months at war were certainly incident-filled.

On 19 August, Mapplebeck and Philip Joubert carried out the first aerial reconnaissance ever by RFC airmen. Michael O’Connor quotes Mapplebeck’s account of the flight in his book Airfields and Airmen – Cambrai:

At 8 o’clock on the morning of the 19th Aug, I and my machine were both ready. At 8.15 Joubert (who was going in the Bleriot) and I were sent for by General Henderson, who told us each our particular jobs. Joubert was to go straight to Brain l’Allend(sic) via Nivelles, I was to go to Gembloux near Namur. He was to be over friendly territory and look out for Belgians, and I was to look for advanced German cavalry. […]

Using large scale map, followed Bleriot.. I did not pick up my position on the map, so I depended on Bleriot’s pilot for correct route, intending to branch off on arriving at Nivelles. Missed Nivelles, arrived at a large town (I was at 3,000 feet & in clouds) but could not place it on map. (on my return I discovered this had been Brussels.) I flew to the other side of the town, turned round and steered S.S.E. I then took out the small scale map and picked up my position at OTTIGNIES and soon found GEMBLOUX. After being in cloud I made a wide circle round it, being in clouds part of the time, but only saw a small body of cavalry about a mile in length moving faster than a walk in a south easterly direction. At this time I was at 3,400 [feet] and was just turning a little further south when I was enveloped in clouds. I flew on for about 5 miles, and then descended about 300 feet out of the clouds and saw Namur. I then turned west and passed CHARLEROI, & altered my course a little south. I missed MAUBEUGE, flew on for about 15 miles after realizing that I had missed it and landed at WASSIGNY (near Le Cateau) at 11.30 am, and flew back, landing at MAUBERGE at 12.0”

If Mapplebeck’s journey sounds haphazard, so too was Joubert’s. He got lost near Mons, landed and was fed by a local functionary at Tournai, then ran out of fuel and landed near Courtrai. There the locals were less hospitable and he was unable to identify himself as an ally until a Belfast linen manufacturer came to his rescue and confirmed that he was English. Eventually, he too got back to Maubeuge and the two officers gave their reports to General Henderson, the commander of the RFC, who personally delivered them to General Headquarters. (Some pages from Mapplebeck’s account appear on the RAF Museum’s blog, here).

BE2a (Bleriot) aeroplane of the type flown by Joubert and Mapplebeck in August 1914 (note Union Flag on the tail rather than the tricolour used later)

BE2a (Bleriot) aeroplane of the type flown by Joubert in August 1914 (note Union Flag on the tail rather than the tricolour used later)

During the battle of Mons a few days later, Mapplebeck was again in action, flying over Belgium trying to keep track of where the British front line was. And on 25 August, he dropped a hand-grenade onto a German aircraft as it was landing – although he wasn’t able to tell whether he had done much damage (the machine overturned, but that may have because of the bad ground it was landing on)

A month later, Mapplebeck found himself in combat. On 22 September, he returned from combat with a German two-seater having been hit in the thighs, groin and stomach by gunfire while flying at 6,000 feet. His local newspaper, the Liverpool Echo, reported that he still “managed to reach the British lines, being unconscious when he landed and his machine being filled with his blood”. Joshua Levine notes one aspect of his injury: “Unfortunately, he happened to be carrying loose change in his pocket and the force of the bullet drove a twenty-five cent piece into his groin, slicing away the tip of his penis”. His comrades found this wound rather entertaining; it’s probably safe to say that Mapplebeck did not.

Copies of telegrams sent to his mother in Mapplebeck’s army service record show that he was sent to a hospital in Braisne by 8 October and then on to the Astoria Hospital in Paris a few days later. By late November, his condition was said to be improving and on 11 December he was transferred to a Red Cross Convalescent Hospital for officers. After a stay in another such home, he was discharged on 2 February 1915. By this date, Mapplebeck had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (gazetted 18 February 1915); he had also been promoted to Lieutenant (back-dated to October) and was mentioned in despatches in October 1914.

Within weeks of leaving hospital, he was back in action again. On March 11th he took part in what was apparently in the first ever night-time aeroplane raid. Along with Captain Barton and Lieutenant Warrand (each in separate aircraft), he set out to bomb a German wireless station at Lille. Mapplebeck and Warrand were both shot down behind enemy lines. The Liverpool Echo reported that, after destroying his aeroplane, which the Germans soon found:

“Captain Mapplebeck lay for three days in a wood, living only on chocolate which he had carried, and then found shelter for a day in an empty house. Later, he made friends with some strangers and afterwards, steadily steered a course for Holland, it being impossible to get to our own lines in France. He loitered in Lille, only to tear down the proclamation which the German commandant had posted respecting himself and a comrade. He won through to Dutch territory and, still passing himself off as a French peasant, got to London on April 4, reporting himself to Farnborough on the same day.”

One particular ‘friend’ known to have helped Mapplebeck to escape was Camille Eugene Jacquet, a tradesman from Lille. Later that year, the German Governor of Lille posted a notice that Jacquet and three others were to be shot on 22 September “for having hidden the English aviator who came down at Wattignies on March 11th last; for having lodged him, and for having made his passage through France easy, so that he was able to rejoin the enemy’s lines; for having kept and helped members of the enemy’s armies, and who after their stay in Lille or suburbs, got them away into France.”

According to a website about a road named after Jacquet, a (or the) pilot that he and his daughter helped to escape in March 1915 flew over Lille a few months later and dropped an insulting message for the governor, which probably didn’t help matters for the captured escape committee! (At least that’s what google translate seems to say that the website says)

On 15 January 1916, General Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, issued an Order of the Day honouring Jacquet for his work in concealing French soldiers and helping them to escape. (Flight magazine, 1916)

Mapplebeck, however, did not make it to September 1915. In June, he was posted to No 2 Reserve Air Squadron and in August he was at Joyce Green, near Dartford, carrying out flight tests. On 24 August – just over a year after his first wartime escapades – Mapplebeck was flying a Morane aeroplane at Joyce Green – after taking off he climbed to 80 feet and then entered a sharp right-hand turn. The aeroplane stalled and spun ground into the ground. Mapplebeck was killed. Like Perry and Parfitt’s deaths in 1914, this crash was highlighted by Noel Pemberton-Billing in Parliament and investigated in 1916. Billing claimed that the pilot was killed in an aeroplane condemned by the French air force and due to some problem with the safety belt. The investigation concluded that the type of machine had indeed largely been taken out of use by the French. It would have been negligent to put an inexperienced pilot in such a machine, they said, but Mapplebeck was an ‘expert’ so it was not negligent; the crash was, they concluded, caused by ‘an unfortunate error of judgment on the pilot’s part’.

And so ended a colourful, early-war flying career. He may not have achieved the aerial victories and public plaudits of a James McCudden or Albert Ball, but Mapplebeck was one of the exciting characters who made up the early Royal Flying Corps.

Other sources:

 
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Posted by on 18 August 2015 in Award-winners

 

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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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Frank Thomas Rapps: heroism, chance and a bloody nose

Chance and luck had a big impact on whether those serving in or near the front lines survived the Great War. No matter whether someone was a hero, a coward or somewhere in-between, a chance occurrence could kill or injure them, or save them by taking them away from the front line. Frank Thomas Rapps was a war hero but suffered accidents that kept him away from the front for much of the war.

Frank Thomas Rapps was born in Bromley in 1890, the son of shop manager Thomas and his wife Nellie. By 1911, he was a clerk boarding with a family in Deptford. Like his brother, Percy, he was a clerk for the National Telephone Company (from 1912 he worked for the London Telephone Service). In 1914, he was living in Mitcham, Surrey, and he joined the army at the beginning of the war. Unlike Percy, who we met in a previous blog post and who was injured playing football, Frank Rapps was injured in more obviously military activities.

Corporal F.T. Rapps, Daily Mirror 24 June 1916

Corporal F.T. Rapps, Daily Mirror 24 June 1916

He joined the 15th Battalion of the London Regiment, the Civil Service Rifles, at Somerset House on 28 August 1914 and went out to France with them in March 1915, as part of the 47th (2nd London) Division. In November he transferred to the 140th Brigade’s Machine Gun Corps unit (i.e. part of 140th Brigade, the one that the Civil Service Rifles were in). By the summer of 1916, Frank Rapps was a Corporal.

On 8 August 1916, Rapps was awarded the Military Medal. At the end of June, The Daily Mirror reported on the forthcoming award and noted that “A few months before war broke out he played football on the fields on which he has since fought the Huns.” Clearly he and his brother shared a fondness for playing football. It’s not clear when or how he earned the medal. The brigade were involved in the battle at Vimy in May 1916, so it is most likely that he earned the medal (which was only awarded for battlefield bravery) there, in a battle that a modern history of the Civil Service Rifles describes as a ‘disaster’.

A few weeks later, on 25 August 1916, the machine-gunners were near Franvillers being trained in using hand grenades. After an hour of throwing dummy grenades (i.e. the metal casings without explosives), the instructor called a halt – at precisely the moment that Private Jim Rutledge threw a dummy grenade. Corporal Rapps looked round to see who had called out and, despite shouts of alarm from Rutledge and others, did not get out of the way of the dummy grenade, which hit him in the face, breaking his nose. He was immediately treated by medics of the 4th London Field Ambulance (attached to the 47th Division) and then sent on to No 34 (West Lancashire) Casualty Clearing station at Vecquemont. He was then sent back to the UK.

After recovering from his injuries and being posted to the depot battalion at Winchester, Rapp applied to become an officer in early 1917. After officer training at Bisley, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Machine Gun Corps in July and posted to their 62nd Battalion. He arrived back in France on 14 January 1918.

In February 1918, Rapps and his men were helping to fend off German raids at Gavrille/Gavrelle in the Arras sector. A medical board report picks up his story:

“while enemy was raiding [the British] trenches, this officer scratched the bridge of his nose with barbed wire. It was dressed the same day he did not go sick. The wound did not heal and on 8th March he was sent to hospital when he states incision was needed on bridge of nose and then he was transferred to England.”

He left Calais on 24 March, just as the German Spring Offensive was pushing British forces back over the land captured at great cost in 1916 and 1917. Back in England he was treated at Worsley Hall in Manchester and was operated on by a nasal specialist for a defective septum. By May, the wounds had healed and he was able to breathe through his nose as normal. He was graded at C1 level of fitness (not fit enough for overseas service). A later medical board heard that he suffered from “attacks of epistaxes” after blowing his nose hard: he suffered from bad nosebleeds. The May medical board awarded him three weeks’ leave and he was ordered to the MGC depot at Grantham. A series of medical boards assessed that he would be fit again within three months. By the end of 1918, he was serving at the RAF’s school of armament at Uxbridge and was a temporary Lieutenant. He was discharged from the army in 1920.

After the war, Rapps moved back to Mitcham and in April 1922 he rejoined the London Telephone Service as a clerk officer. He married a Marion Broughton Wright in Camberwell in late 1926. They lived in Surrey until at least 1945. By the time of his death in 1963, Rapps was living in Hampshire; Marion had died a few years earlier, so Frank’s estate went to David Wright, a commercial artist (and presumably a relative of Marion’s)

This brave Londoner somehow managed to be put out of action twice by accidental injuries to his nose. After being rewarded for his bravery in 1916, he was injured in training and missed the Battle of the Somme – and remained at home throughout the doomed Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. Back at the front and in action in February 1918, he was accidentally injured again and missed the whole of the rest of the war. Just one example of how chance and luck could play a major part in a soldier’s service and survival in 1914-1918.

 

Sources:

  • Long, Long Trail
  • FT Rapps service record (National Archives)
  • Daily Mirror 24/6/1916
  • Jill Knight, The Civil Service Rifles in the Great War
 
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Posted by on 16 October 2014 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners

 

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William Wedgwood Benn, MP and war hero

There has been talk recently about the new Viscount Stansgate seeking to enter the House of Lords. His father, Tony Benn, famously resigned his peerage in the 1960s after the first Viscount Stansgate died. William Wedgwood Benn, the first Viscount Stansgate was more than just a politician – he was a bona vide hero of the Great War.

William Wedgwood Benn was born in Hackney in 1877, the son of publisher and politician Sir John Williams Benn and Elizabeth (nee Pickstone), who was distantly related to the Wedgwood pottery family. Benn was elected as Liberal MP for St George’s (made up of Wapping and St George’s in the East), for which his father had been MP in 1892-95 (Sir John was MP for Devonport in Plymouth 1904-10); the younger Benn became a party whip in the House of Commons from 1910.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes his extraordinary war experiences after leaving behind the more conventional charity-organising work that an MP aged nearly 30 would be expected to undertake in wartime:

“In 1912 he successfully organized relief of suffering during the dock strike and two years later, when war broke out, he became chairman of the organizing committee of the National Relief Fund.

In October, when over £2 million had already been raised, Benn answered an inner call and resigned this post to apply for active service. Despite his short stature, he secured a commission in the Middlesex yeomanry. He took part in the fierce fighting on the heights above Suvla Bay in August 1915, during the Gallipoli campaign, and later became an observer with the Royal Naval Air Service; he participated in the pinpoint bombing of the Baghdad railway. Among his other exploits was to be rescued from a sinking aeroplane in the Mediterranean, and to be aboard an improvised aircraft-carrier sunk by shore batteries at Castelorizo. He also commanded a party of French sailors in guerrilla activities against the Turks and served in authorized privateering in the Red Sea, before returning to Britain to qualify as a pilot.”

William Wedgwood Benn as a new pilot, 1917 (from his Royal Aero Club certificate)

William Wedgwood Benn as a new pilot, 1917 (from his Royal Aero Club certificate)

When David Lloyd George replaced H.H. Asquith as Prime Minister in late 1916, Benn was offered the job of Chief Whip (a pivotal behind-the-scenes role in Government), but he turned it down – apparently because he did not trust David Lloyd George. Although he was 40 years old – much older than most wartime trainee pilots, who were generally in their late teens or early twenties – Benn went through his training and became an operational pilot. Much of his work still as an observer.

He then went out to Italy, where he earned a string of medals for bravery and good service. In 1917, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Working with the Italian army, he and another British pilot organised and carried out the first parachute drop of a secret service agent over enemy lines. The story is told in Robert Kershaw’s book Sky Men:

“In mid-1918 an old Savoia-Pomlio SP4 biplane piloted by two British fliers, Lieutenant Colonel W Barker and Captain William Wedgwood Benn, flew over the Piave River in darkness. Fixed searchlight beams guided them towards the approaching Austrian lines. Nervously sitting in the back with a brave face was Italian agent Allessandro Tandura, attached to a black-canopy Guardian Angel parachute fixed to an iron frame beneath the undercarriage. To drop accurately on targets in total darkness, Wedgwood Benn explained: ‘We arranged that the agent should sit in a cockpit on a trap-door hinged at the sides and opening in the middle. This floor was held in place by bolts controlled by a rope connected with the observer’s seat. The result was that it was the observer who decided when the bolt was to be drawn and the agent, waiting presumably with some qualms, at the right moment found himself suddenly with nothing under him and thus launched into the future.’

“Several attempts with dummies had taken place and the uneasy Tandura was instructed to fold his arms on nearing the objective. His predicament was closely akin to the hangman’s drop. Wedgwood Benn dryly added: ‘with little required of the agent other than exceptional fortitude, it was not thought necessary to train him in the art of parachuting. Two hand-dropped bombs were lobbed out to aid deception. Barker, piloting the aircraft, gave the signal and slowed to stalling speed, while Wedgewood Benn jerked the trap-door handle: ‘I pull, and wait. No jerk, no apparent result. The bolts have stuck” I pull again. The wire slacks with a rush, the machine shivers and resumes its course. For good or ill, Tandura is gone.’

“Tandura survived the experience and successfully completed his mission.”

In September 1918, Benn was awarded the new gallantry medal for bravery in the air, the Distinguished Flying Cross. The citation reads:

“A gallant observer of exceptional ability. After setting out on a bombing raid, the Scout machines assigned to act as an escort became separated, and it then became necessary for the bombing planes to proceed on their task without support. Captain Benn’s machine took the lead, followed by three other bombers, and succeeded in dropping his bombs (direct hits) on an enemy aerodrome. On the return journey the bombing machines were attacked by several enemy scouts, which were eventually driven away. Recently, this officer organised and carried out a special flight by night over the enemy’s lines, under most difficult circumstances, with conspicuous success. He has at all times set a splendid example of courage”

In November 1918, he was awarded the Italian Bronze Medal for Military Valour. As well as this and his British awards, he also earned the Italian War Cross and the French Croix de Guerre and was made a chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. By the Armistice, Benn had served in all three of Britain’s armed forces: the Middlesex Yeomanry in the army, the Royal Naval Air Service, and the newly-formed Royal Air Force.

Capt Wedgewood Benn DSO DFC

Capt Wedgewood Benn DSO DFC

In December 1918, there was another election (delayed by the war since 1915 and called quickly by Lloyd George after the Armistice). Benn, still not keen on Lloyd George, stood as a non-Coalition Liberal in Leith, Scotland, after the boundary reforms of 1918 had abolished his St George’s seat. He remained a Liberal MP until 1927 when he left the party; as a Labour MP he was Secretary of State for India in 1929-31. Although out of Parliament from 1931, he won a by-election in 1937. He rejoined the RAF in 1940 and was made an Air Commodore, he was also made a Viscount in 1942 to increase the number of Labour peers in the (predominantly Conservative) House of Lords. As Viscount Stansgate he worked on planning the reconstruction of Italy and after the 1945 he became Secretary of State for Air before being reshuffled out of that post the next year.

William Wedgwood Been died in 1960. His two eldest sons had served as pilots in the Second World War: Michael, the eldest and therefore the heir to the peerage, earned the DFC but died of wounds in 1944. Tony therefore became the heir and helped to change the constitution by refusing to take his seat in the House of Lords as the Second Viscount Stansgate after his father’s death in 1960. Tony Benn had been MP for Bristol South East for ten years and the voters there re-elected him despite the fact that he was disqualified from sitting in the Commons. The man who came second (Conservative Malcolm St Clair) took the seat and promised to give it up if Benn was able to disclaim his peerage; Benn did so after the Peerage Act 1963 allowed him to, and St Clair gave up his seat to Benn by resigning to prompt a by-election.

Now that Tony Benn has died, his eldest son (Stephen) is the Third Viscount Stansgate but is not currently a member of the House of Lords. Ninety-two hereditary peers are entitled to sit in the House, alongside the more numerous Life Peers; hereditary peers are replaced through by-elections when they die, so Stansgate may have a wait on his hands to replace one of the two Labour hereditaries currently in the House.

William Wedgwood Benn had an extraordinary Great War. He could have stayed at home and helped to steer vital legislation through the House of Commons as a whip and later as Chief Whip, but instead he served in all three armed forces and earned a staggering array of medals for his bravery and good work.

 

Sources:

Oxford DNB

Biography on Spartacus

Wikipedia

 
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Posted by on 14 July 2014 in Award-winners, Famous People

 

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The Squire brothers: on the Somme and at Jutland

In June and July 1916 the British army and navy took part in their largest battles so far in the Great War. London brothers Alfred and Sydney Squires played their parts in the two battles respectively, but their experiences were dramatically different.

Alfred Webb Squires worked as clerk for Nestlé’s and Anlgo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company in Eastcheap in the City in 1914. Sydney Charles Squires had also been a clerk before joining the Royal Navy in November 1910. They were the only surviving sons (by 1911) of Alfred Squires, a dock clerk with the Port of London Authority, and his wife Ann, nee Webb. Alfred junior lived with his parents in Arthurdon Road, near Ladywell cemetery in South London.

By the summer of 1914, Sydney was a sick bay attendant at Haslar Royal Navy Hospital in Gosport. Within days of the outbreak of war, on 8 August 1914, Alfred joined the 9th Battalion of the London Regiment – Queen Victoria’s Rifles. He went out to France with them in November 1914.

In the summer of 1916, Alfred was a stretcher bearer with his battalion, which went into battle at Gommecourt on 1 July 1916 as part of the 56th (London) Division, described by Martin Middlebrook as probably the best Territorial division in France at that time. The attack on Gommecourt was a diversionary attack alongside the main offensive at Albert. The events were vividly described by journalist Philip Gibbs in his post-war book Now it Can be Told:

“The Londoners of the 56th Division had no luck at all. Theirs was the worst luck because, by a desperate courage in assault, they did break through the German lines at Gommecourt. Their left was held by the London Rifle Brigade. The Rangers and the Queen Victoria Rifles — the old “Vics” — formed their center. Their right was made up by the London Scottish, and behind came the Queen’s Westminsters and the Kensingtons, who were to advance through their comrades to a farther objective. Across a wide No Man’s Land they suffered from the bursting of heavy crumps [of shell fire], and many fell. But they escaped annihilation by machine-gun fire and stormed through the upheaved earth into Gommecourt Park, killing many Germans and sending back batches of prisoners. They had done what they had been asked to do, and started building up barricades of earth and sand-bags, and then found they were in a death-trap. There were no [British] troops on their right or left. They had thrust out into a salient, which presently the enemy saw. The German gunners, with deadly skilled, boxed it round with shell-fire, so that the Londoners were enclosed by explosive walls, and then very slowly and carefully drew a line of bursting shells up and down, up and down that captured ground, ravaging its earth anew and smashing the life that crouched there — London life.”

This map (apologies for the image quality) from Martin Middlebrook’s book The First Day on the Somme shows the salient the Londoners pushed on into as they advanced south of Gommecourt. The “Vics” are the second from the left of the four foremost battalions in the diagram.

 

The attack on Gommecourt. From Martin Middlebrook 'The First Day on the Somme'

The attack on Gommecourt. From Martin Middlebrook ‘The First Day on the Somme’

 

London life certainly was smashed that day. The Queen’s Westminster Rifles suffered over 500 casualties, with all 28 officers and 475 of their rank and file killed, wounded or missing by the end of the day. Queen Victoria’s Rifles suffered heavily too, with nine officers and 212 other ranks listed as killed on that day by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database.

Among the other casualties in the “Vics” was Rifleman Squires, with gunshot wounds (meaning either bullets or other projectiles, such as shrapnel or shell fragments) to his right shoulder and his back, broken ribs and a punctured lung. He passed through 2/1st London Field Ambulance and 43 Casualty Clearing Station (at Warlencourt) before going on to No 2 Canadian General Hospital at Le Treport. He was sent back to the UK a few days later. In October, he was awarded the Military Medal. As we have seen before, this was a new medal established during the war and only awarded for bravery in the field.  No further details of A.W. Squires’s award are available online, but it seems safe to assume that he earned it for his bravery on 1 July 1916.

By November Alfred Squires was fit enough to rejoin his unit, but only in the UK – he worked as a grenade instructor, but never went back out to the Front. In 1918 he got married, and was demobilised after the war in 1919.

Sydney’s battle experience in June 1916 was considerably less dramatic. Although he was now based on board a ship, the HMS King George V, that took part in the Battle of Jutland, its participation was minimal. The Wikipedia page summarises it briefly: “King George V was lightly engaged during the battle, firing nine 13.5-in rounds at the German battlecruiser SMS Derfflinger, which missed. King George V was undamaged in the battle.” Sick-bay attendant S.C. Squires was probably not as busy as his comrades on other ships that day when over 6,000 British sailors were killed and over 600 wounded. He served on a number of other ships and stations over the next six years before leaving the navy in 1922, after twelve years’ service.

Experiences of the Great War could vary enormously. Both Squires brothers played their part in the major battles of 1916 – indeed both worked to help the sick and wounded – but their experiences were wildly different. Thankfully both survived the war.

Sources

Map from Martin Middlebrook ‘The First Day of the Battle of the Somme’

Findmypast: SC Squires service record

Ancestry: AW Squires service record

The Long, Long Trail – as ever an indispensable source of information.

Battle of the Somme website’s transcription of Philip Gibbs ‘Now It Can Be Told’

 
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Posted by on 1 July 2014 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners

 

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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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