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Will Owen’s Old London Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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Santa in wartime

Although war is almost the antithesis of the festive spirit of goodwill, this feeling did show through during the Great War. Most famously, there was the Christmas Truce of 1914. There was also the continued work of old Saint Nick.

Santa Claus was already a fixture of Christmas time well before the First World War – both by that name and as Father Christmas. The traditions of his annual visit to the children of the world was almost a century old in 1914, related in the 1821 poem “A visit from St Nicholas” (better known now as “The Night Before Christmas”.

This peacetime tradition continued into the Great War. Santa could be seen in the streets and hospitals visiting poor and unwell children:

Santa in Hackney (Daily Mirror 27/12/1917)

Santa in Hackney (Daily Mirror 27/12/1917)

He also visited sick soldiers:

Santa visits a wounded soldier in Fulham (Daily Mirror, 27/12/1916)

Santa visits a wounded soldier in Fulham (Daily Mirror, 27/12/1916)

Of course he also visited soldiers at the Front:

Santa making a delivery on the Western Front (© IWM (Art.IWM PST 13397) )

Santa making a delivery on the Western Front (© IWM (Art.IWM PST 13397) )

Some of those soldiers didn’t quite understand the Christmas spirit, though, it seems:

A less generous-looking Father Christmas! (Daily Mirror 21/12/1916)

A less generous-looking Father Christmas! (Daily Mirror 21/12/1916)

Obviously, Santa was not so pro-British that he couldn’t also visit people on the other side of the lines. In Austria-Hungary, money was raised to help him to visit wounded soldiers (presumably, his capacity to deliver presents to the country suffered alongside the rest of their infrastructure during the war!)

"This Year Santa Claus Belongs to the Invalid Soldiers" (© IWM (Art.IWM PST 7182) )

“This Year Santa Claus Belongs to the Invalid Soldiers” (© IWM (Art.IWM PST 7182) )

 
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Posted by on 24 December 2014 in Famous People

 

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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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A strange good-bye, Paddington Station 1914

British Tommies heading for the Western Front were not the only people to leave London by train in the Great War.  On 17 August 1914, the Austrian Ambassdor departed the capital from Paddington Station accompanied by a strange chorus.

When a nation declares war on another, they expel the other country’s ambassador. On 6 August, the German ambassador Prince Lichnowsky left his residence at 9 Carlton Terrace, watched by a small but quiet crowd of Londoners.  The Prince had been quite pro-Britain and was disappointed in his nation’s role in bringing about the war – as he set out in his book about his time in London.

After the United Kingdom declared war on Austria Hungary on 12 August, the Austrian Ambassador Albert, Count von Mensdorff-Pouilly-Dietrichstein also had to leave. Count Mensdorff too had tried to avert war. He had been ambassador since 1904, but had also been an attaché as far back as 1889. After 25 years in London, he had to go back to Vienna. He reportedly received a telegram from King George V saying that he would be welcome back in London in future.

Count Mensdorff by Philip Alexius de Lazlo (c)NPG

Count Mensdorff by Philip Alexius de Lazlo (c)NPG

On 17 August, the Count left the Embassy in Belgrave Square, watched by a crowd of people – mostly British but with a few Austrians. According to the Manchester Guardian’s account, one Englishman stepped forward to bid the ambassador ‘Good-bye’.

Count Mensdorff arrived at Paddington Station, where members of the public were not allowed onto the platform. However, a group of 30-40 Austrians and Germans had managed to get onto a neighbouring platform and began to sing their national anthem, which had the same tune as the more famous German anthem Deutschland uber Alles.

Journalist Michael McDonagh was there and wrote: “It was indeed a strange experience to hear the two enemy National Anthems sung together by enemy groups and filling a London railway station with the commingling strains.”

It really must have been a strange sight – and sound – to hear the two groups trying to outdo one another in singing the national anthems of nations on opposite sides of the Great War.

 

 
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Posted by on 17 August 2014 in Famous People, Places

 

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Your King and Country Need YOU: the initial rush to the colours

One of the abiding images of 1914 in London is the crush of men trying to join the army. The biggest rush to enlist came at the end of August, but the initial rush overwhelmed the recruiting machinery and so created a memorable image.

Recruiting lining up outside the Whitehall Recruiting Office in London, August 1914 (c)IWM

Recruiting lining up outside the Whitehall Recruiting Office in London, August 1914 (c)IWM 

Over the first five days of war – 4th to 8th August 1914 – nearly 8,200 men joined the British Army (not including the existing reservists and Territorials who were called up). In London alone, 2,152 men joined up in those couple of days.

August 6th saw the first ‘call to arms’ published, Lord Kitchener (the Secretary of State for War) called for 100,000 men to join up ‘for three years or the duration’ and recruiting posters went up around London. These were not the ones with Kitchener’s face on them, those posters (by Alfred Leete, based on a cover image for the magazine London Opinion) were not widespread and appeared on in late September. The first posters were text-based, as were most 1914 recruiting posters. One read: “Your King and Country need – YOU”. Another restated the call to arms.

An example of the first wave of recruiting posters in 1914 (c) Library of Congress

An example of the first wave of recruiting posters in 1914 (c) Library of Congress

The crush and long queues at recruiting stations caused much frustration, particularly at the central London recruiting office on Great Scotland Yard and the headquarters of the various Territorial units. City clerk Bernard Brookes waited for two or three hours on Buckingham Palace Road on 7 August to join the Queen’s Westminster Rifles (16th battalion of the all-Territorial London Regiment): ‘After much swearing outside the building, we were “sworn in”’. On that day, 7 August, The Times reported new offices opening in Camberwell, Islington, Battersea, Fulham, and Marylebone.

The men who joined up included both completely new recruits like Brookes and people with previous military experience, either Regular or Territorial. Among the latter was shipping clerk Ronald Charles Colman. Colman was 23 years and 6 months old and had joined the London Scottish (14th battalion, London Regiment) in 1909; he left the unit in 1913 after his 4 years’ Territorial service was up. When war came in 1914, he immediately rejoined at their headquarters, signing up at 59 Buckingham Gate on 5 August 1914 and passing the medical examination. He was immediately ‘embodied’ (i.e. mobilised) and after little more than a month, he and his comrades were in France (arriving on 16 September 1914) a few days after Colman had signed the ‘imperial service’ declaration that was required at that point for Territorials to be sent overseas, since they had joined units designed for home defence.

The London Scottish were the first Territorial unit to go into action alongside Regular soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force. On 31 October (Hallowe’en) 1914, they went into action at Messines, in the south of the Ypres Salient. The Scots went moved to Wystschaete from 8 a.m. to reinforce the 4th Cavalry Brigade (who were fighting as infantry). They advanced into a dangerous gap in the British line, suffering casualties all the way and resisted attacks by the Germans through the night, denying them access to the road to Ypres.

The Messines 1917 blog‘s concludes that “the efforts of the London Scottish had won time and ultimately prevented a far superior force breaking through to Ypres. The Scots had lost 394 of their 700 officers and men in their short time on the ridge.” A famous photo shows some of the London Scottish at their roll call the next day, when only 150 men answered their names – although stragglers made the numbers up to over 300 uninjured survivors in the end.

One of the casualties that day was Pte R.C. Colman, whose injury is summarised in his medical records:

Fracture of ankle (Rt)

“In action near Ypres 31-10-14. Man states that when advancing a shell burst near him, and he was thrown heavily injuring his right foot either by the fall or his foot being struck. There is considerable thickening of [right] ankle. There is also some tenderness and after walking any distance there is pain”

He was treated at the 4th Cavalry Field Ambulance before being sent back to the UK. He was in hospital from 6-11 November at St Bartholomew’s in London, before being transferred to the 3rd barraltion of the London Scottish (3/14 Londons). In May 1915, Colman was discharged as no longer physically fit for military service, after only 274 days of wartime service, just 47 of which were spent on the Western Front.

Colman’s injuries, although they were serious enough to stop him from serving as a soldier, did not constrain his ambitions elsewhere. According to the Dictionary of National Biography, “Colman began to take up the acting career which had fascinated him since amateur dramatics in childhood. He made his début with Lena Ashwell at the London Coliseum in 1916, playing a black-faced herald in a short sketch called The Maharani of Arakan by Rabindranath Tagore; he was soon after that taken by Gladys Cooper into her Playhouse company for minor roles, which Miss Cooper considered he played ‘with amiable but remarkable clumsiness’. Very soon, however, his natural good looks were recognized by a film producer and by 1919 he had appeared in three short silent dramas, despite a casting card that read ‘does not screen well’.”

He did suffer from the wound though, as the DNB notes “he was to spend much of the remainder of his life and career attempting, often in considerable pain, to conceal [the limp caused by his war wounds] from audiences and cameras alike.” Ronald Colman went on to star in films like Beau Geste (1926) and Bulldog Drummond (1929). He has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Los Angeles, one for his film work and one for theatre.

Post-war photo of Ronald Colman, veteran of the London Scottish at Messines, 1914

Post-war photo of Ronald Colman, veteran of the London Scottish at Messines, 1914

Ronald Colman was, in a sense, one of the lucky ones. The volunteers of 1914 were the most likely to be killed or wounded during the war (because they served for longer and probably also because of the poor quality of the early trenches and the Tommies’ lack of helmets before 1916). When he was wounded, it was enough to get him out of the war but not enough to prevent him being an enormously successful star of stage and screen. He died in California in 1958; the Times called him ‘the most complete gentleman of the cinema’.

 

Sources:

 
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Posted by on 6 August 2014 in Famous People, Recruitment

 

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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 YMCA, the Great War and the Bard

On the corner of Gower Street and Keppel Street in Bloomsbury stands the impressive inter-war building of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. The site’s earlier history, though, is important in the history modern Shakespearean performances in the capital, linked to the RSC and the National Theatre – and it provided a haven for soldiers and sailors in London in the Great War.

In the years before the Great War, a group of like-minded and well-connected people were campaigning to open a Shakespeare Theatre in London as a venue for the Bard’s plays in the capital. In 1913, Sir Oswald Stoll gave 1616 guineas towards the project (an enormous sum when working men’s wages were around 20 or 30s per week – a guinea was 21 shillings). Israel Gollancz (uncle of the publisher Victor Gollancz) led the project and by early 1914 a site had been found and cleared, and a competition to design the theatre was launched, with a view to opening the theatre in 1916 for the tercentenary of the Bard’s death. In August 1914, the project came to a halt.

During the first eighteen months of the war, the YMCA and other organisations opened up places for soldiers and sailors to relax in London. Many were based around the railway termini (and we have seen that one was opened in 1917 for US servicemen: the Eagle Hut), but in August 1916 the ‘Shakespeare Hut’ was opened by Princess Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein (wife of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a grandson of Queen Victoria).

Advert for the opening of the Shakespeare Hut 11 August 1916 (from the Times)

Advert for the opening of the Shakespeare Hut 11 August 1916 (from the Times)

The Shakespeare Hut, photo by GP Lewis © IWM (Q 28741)

The Shakespeare Hut, photo by GP Lewis © IWM (Q 28741)

The hut was used throughout the war for entertainments and as somewhere for soldiers and sailors to sleep if they had no accommodation in the city. The Times reported in September 1918 that over 2,000 men were sleeping in the Shakespeare Hut each week, the most of any of the YMCA huts whose statistics they listed.

After the war, the huts on the site were made into accommodation for students at the nearby University of London (the site is close to Senate House), mainly Indian students. The site was sold in April 1922 as the site for a new School of Hygiene in the University; as Gollancz (by now Sir Israel) put it, “On the site secured for the Shakespeare Memorial National Theatre there will soon arise a Temple of Hygeia”. This new building and others around the university have completely changed the scene around the site of the hut.

YMCA Shakespeare Hut, Gower Street (C)IWM Q 28740

Then: YMCA Shakespeare Hut, Gower Street (C)IWM Q 28740

 

The junction of Gower Street and Store Street today (image from Google streetview)

Now: The junction of Gower Street, Store Street and Keppel Street today (image from Google streetview)

While it was lent (rent-free) to the YMCA during the war years the site had increased in value, and in the years after the war rent had accumulated from the use by Indian students. This money went towards the National Theatre movement and the creation of a New Shakespeare Company, as the campaign for a Shakespeare theatre in London became more closely allied with the one that had already been built in Stratford. Although it never became the site of a Shakespeare memorial theatre, the site was part of the story of the genesis of the National Theatre (eventually established in 1963) and the Royal Shakespeare Company (created in 1961 at the Stratford theatre)

 
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Posted by on 22 April 2014 in Famous companies, Famous People, Places, Then & Now

 

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