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Shrapnel helmets: an iconic London design

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

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

His diary entry for 6 April reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the DNB entry relates:

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

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

 

 
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Posted by on 6 April 2016 in Uncategorized

 

Permission to return home

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

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

Census entry for 1 Sidney Road, Forest Gate, 1911

Census entry for 1 Sidney Road, Forest Gate, 1911

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

 

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

 

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A wartime blow to world Esperanto

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

Harold Bolingbroke Mudie (from wikipedia)

Harold Bolingbroke Mudie (from wikipedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Note:

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

Sources:

 
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Posted by on 6 January 2016 in Uncategorized

 

The loss of the Persia

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

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

SS Persia at Aden, c. 1900

SS Persia at Aden, c. 1900

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

The Derby Scheme: Voluntary Conscription

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

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

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

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

The Scheme in action

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

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

'Armlet' given to Derby attestees in 1915

‘Armlet’ given to Derby attestees in 1915

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

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

National Registration card

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Single Men

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

 Married men

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

Total figures

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

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

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

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

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

The start of the call-up and conscription

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

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

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

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

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

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

Success or failure?

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

Topical humour from Punch, 3 March 1916

Topical humour from Punch, 3 March 1916

 

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

 

 

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

 

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Tun San: London’s Burmese Great War hero

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

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

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

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

Part of Tun San's service record

Part of Tun San’s service record

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

Sources:

 

 
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Posted by on 24 November 2015 in Award-winners

 

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The Sangers and Roses: service, loss and love in South-East London

The toll the Great War had on some families and communities was tremendous. The experience of ‘Pals’ units sent into action together with heavy losses, leading to deep mourning among their friends and relations at home, is well known. Similar stories played out on a smaller scale, as in the case of the Sanger family from South London.

John James Sanger and his wife Mary had fourteen children, of whom eleven survived childhood. In 1901, they lived with ten of those children at 44 Camden Grove North, Peckham (now Cronin Road). 20 year old John James junior was a tin plate worker like his father; two more children daughters were in work, Sarah (19) as a button-hole cutter and Florence (17) as a laundress. The other children were all 15 or younger, in descending order: Caroline, Martha Jane, Louisa, William Albert, Frederick, Arthur Ernest and the youngest was Bertram Ernest, only 11 months old. By 1911 all bar Florence and the youngest five children had left home and the (now smaller) family lived at 31 Reaston Street, New Cross. Only ten year old Bertram was still at school: Florence (now 27) was a machinist, William Arthur (19) a machine engineer, Frederick (18) a haberdasher, Arther Ernest (16) a general labourer (no occupation is stated for Louisa).

When the war came, the younger Sanger boys joined up. Bertram was too young and does not appear to have served (at least not overseas). William, Frederick and Arthur all joined the London Regiment. Into the same regiment also went George Rose, the brother of William Sanger’s fiancée Emily Rose. The Roses were also from South East London, living in 1911 at 36 Kings Road, Peckham. Emily was a 22-year old waitress in a restaurant and George was a gas-fitter.

The four men all joined up in Kennington and given that Arthur, William and George were given consecutive service numbers (2396, 2397 and 2398 respectively) it seems likely that they all joined up together on September 2nd 1914, at the height of the recruiting boom.  Frederick ended up with a higher number – perhaps because he joined later on. Sometime after they joined up, the men posed for the camera in their uniforms.

Frederick, Arthur and William Sanger standing, with George Rose seated

Frederick, Arthur and William Sanger standing, with George Rose seated

In March 1915, these four young men from South London went to the Western Front; in May they were taking part in the fierce fighting at Festubert. They were in the 1/24th battalion of the London Regiment, part of the 142nd Brigade in the 47th (2nd London) Division. The author of the Division’s official history (Alan H Maude, an Army Service Corps officer) witnessed the fighting:

The attack by the 142nd Brigade on the German trenches, known as the “S” bend, north-east from Givenchy, was to be made at 6.30 p.m. on May 25th, and was to precede an attack by the Canadians  farther north at 9 p.m. ; and it was the first big attack in which the Division took part.

From the trenches on the left, near Le Plantin, the present writer saw that attack by the 142nd Brigade. The 21st Battalion was in support, and the first advance was made by the 23rd and 24th London Battalions, who swept across the open ground just like a field-day attack at St. Albans [where the division had trained], and at once captured, with comparatively small losses, the German trenches opposite to them. But they then encountered a fierce and deadly enfilading fire from the German guns, and particularly from a heavy battery posted near Auchy-les-la-Bassee, far to the south and out of reach of the guns of our Division.

Later on these would have been dealt with by other guns which could reach them, but in those days there were no counter-batteries, and no corps artillery, and each division had to rely upon the guns posted behind it in its own divisional billeting zone. Supports were brought up, including the 20th Battalion, which was then in divisional reserve, and desperate efforts were made to extend our gains, but tremendous losses were suffered by the men crowded in the captured trenches. Nothing could be done to keep down this enfilading fire, and by the following morning much of the captured trenches had been knocked to bits and had to be abandoned, but a considerable part of their front line was retained and taken into our own trench system.

One of their comrades in the 24th, Leonard Keyworth, later described the scene (as recounted in an excellent blog post by Neil Bright of the London WFA):

The South London Press recorded his words, “Well, on the afternoon of May 25 we were in our billets behind the lines when we received orders to prepare to get on the move and though we were not told what we were going to do, we all felt we were going to take part in a charge. We got to the communication trenches round about six o’clock and half an hour later we were ordered to get over the parapet. I was one of the bombers with the 9th Platoon. No sooner were we over the parapet than the Germans turned their machine guns upon us and five or ten of our chaps fell. I don’t suppose there were more than half a dozen of our Platoon left.”…

Keyworth wrote to his sister, Lillie about the battle, “…We were told to mount the trenches and straight away commence our attack on the German trenches, which were about 250 yards away. The attack was made without any artillery covering fire. Our lads went at it with go and determination and were very soon successful. I was with the bombing party and came through without a scratch. I went along a ridge on my stomach and threw bombs into the German trench, my distance being about fifteen yards. Men were shot down by my side. I continued and came out safe.”

Over 900 men in the 142nd Brigade became casualties that afternoon; as Maude recounted “The 142nd Brigade suffered severe losses in this affair, and by the evening of the 26th their fighting strength was reduced to 1,225 in all.” A Brigade should have contained around five thousand men. Over their ten days in the battle the 47th Division suffered 2,355 casualties.

Leonard Keyworth survived and earned the Victoria Cross for his bravery there on 25 May, throwing grenades for 2 hours. The Sangers brothers and George Rose were not so lucky.

George Rose and Arthur Edward Sanger died on 26 May, two of at least 132 men of the 1/24th Londons who died on 25-26 May 1915. They are commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial which “commemorates over 13,400 British soldiers who were killed in this sector of the Western Front from the beginning of October 1914 to the eve of the Battle of Loos in late September 1915 and who have no known grave.” Frederick Sanger died of wounds on 8 August 1918 and was buried in Brockley cemetery. Given that he was in the same unit, it may well be that he was wounded at Festubert. His brother William Sanger was.

Brothers Killed - Daily Mirror article 28 August 1915

Brothers Killed – Daily Mirror article 28 August 1915

On 26 May, William arrived at the 4th London Field Ambulance – one of the RAMC units for 47th Division – with a bayonet wound in his right thigh. Two days later he reached Number 9 General Hospital at Rouen, from where he was sent on to England on 29 May. Thankfully, William survived and recovered sufficiently to go to work. Instead of going back to the army, though, he was demobilised to work for mechanical engineering company Waygood Otis (forerunner of the modern Otis lifts company). He worked there from 1915 until March 1918, possibly at their works on Falmouth Road, SE1.

While he was working for Waygood Otis, William married Emily Rose at St Jude’s Church in Peckham on Christmas Eve, 1916. Their daughter Doris was born in 1918. Between those two events, William was recalled to the army – in the wake of the German Spring Offensive of 1918, when men were desperately sought. His second stint of military service did not last long, though, and after two months and a transfer to the Machine Gun Corps (Motors) (i.e. tanks), he was discharged again in May 1918. William Sanger survived the war and died in 1960, aged 68.

Just as in the more famous ‘pals’ battalions, men across the country joined up in 1914 (and indeed earlier) to serve with their friends and relatives. This was helpful for recruiting, but could be devastating when those units suffered heavy losses. In 1915, the Sanger and Rose families in South London must have felt the force of the war’s destructive powers; more happily, though, one of their young men did survive and lived a long life, bringing the families together in a wartime wedding in 1916.

 

 
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Posted by on 15 October 2015 in Ordinary Londoners

 

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Captured at Loos: John Easton’s story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

 

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The 2nd London Division at Loos, 25 September 1915

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

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

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

Emblem of the 47th (2nd London) Division

Emblem of the 47th (2nd London) Division

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few notes on people mentioned in the text:

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

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

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

141st (5th London) Brigade

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

142nd (6th London) Brigade

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

Divisional Troops

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

Divisional Mounted Troops

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

Divisional Artillery

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

Royal Engineers

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

Royal Army Medical Corps

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

Other Divisional Troops

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

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

Sources:

 
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Posted by on 25 September 2015 in Events, Ordinary Londoners

 

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Stepney conscription exemptions scandal

From 1916, all British men of military age could be called up for military service unless they had an official exemption. Perhaps unsurprisingly, some tried to get them through unofficial means. A trial at Old Street Police Court in 1918 highlighted the scale of the problem in Stepney and resulted in one young lady being sentenced to prison.

While a huge proportion of the male population was in the armed forces (as we have seen before, by 1918 nearly half of London’s male voters were in the services), military service was not universal.  Men were able to remain at home because their employment was important for the war effort, because they were unfit, because their personal situation (such as urgent family or business needs) meant that leaving would cause undue hardship, or (for a small number) because they held a conscientious objection to military service.

Early 1916 poster instructing single men to apply for exemption or face being called up. (From US Library of Congress website)

Early 1916 poster instructing single men to apply for exemption or face being called up. (From US Library of Congress website)

In April 1917, there were 3.6 million men in the British Army, including 2 million actually serving overseas, while another 2.74 million military aged men had exemptions from service. Of the latter, 1.8m (66%) held exemptions due to being in ‘protected’ industries, half of those in Government factories. Another 779,900 held exemptions granted by the military service tribunals – which included 373,000 in ‘reserved occupations’ but not granted Government exemptions. In October 1918, 2.57 million men were working in reserved industries, including one million in munitions works, 500,000 coal miners and 400,000 in railways and other transport roles (compared with 2.1 million in the army overseas, 1.6 million of whom were on the Western Front).

For those who were not automatically exempted because of their jobs, or who were young and liable to be ‘combed out’ of protected jobs when lower age limits for exemptions were raised, getting an exemption from the local tribunal could be vital if they were to avoid military service.

In Stepney (and, presumably, elsewhere as well), some men were willing to resort to corruption.  An investigation by the police found that of the 8,000 men they detained and questioned about their exemptions from military service there (albeit not all of them were Stepney residents):

  • 30% held exemptions (presumably Government exemptions)
  • 20% were exempt on the basis of hardship or running a one-man business (presumably granted by the tribunal)
  • 10% were Russians (whose military service was dealt with by a different body)
  • 12% or 960 held ‘legitimate exemptions’ (this term is not defined in the description)
  • 8% or 640 had forged exemption papers
  • 5% or 400 had papers stolen from the tribunal

The Old Street trial focussed on the office of Robert Abrabrelton, clerk to the Stepney tribunal, where his two assistants Miss Carter and Miss Terleshky were alleged to have given papers to men who were not eligible for exemption. The Old Street trial in August 1918 focussed on Ida Lilian Carter, a 19-year-old (in 1918) clerk in Abrabrelton’s office from summer 1916 to July 1918. She was the daughter of an engineering clerk and grew up in Poplar; in August 1918, her address was given as Marsala Road, Lewisham.

The trial focused on papers given to men who had received exemptions in the past and were applying for renewal. It was the young ladies’ duty to look after these forms, which were prepared in advance by using stamps bearing Mr Abrabeltron’s signature and the address of the tribunal. It turns out that no record was kept of the number of forms issued each day and very little control was maintained over the signature-stamp (at one point it was kept in a locked draw, but apparently it was still accessible without the key).

Example of an exemption certificate stamped rather than signed (from Peace Pledge Union website)

Example of an exemption certificate stamped rather than signed (from Peace Pledge Union website)

According to the Times’s report:

Mr Abrabrelton and his assistance being engaged upstairs, the young women [Carter and Terleshky] and their young male friends had the office more or less to themselves. The defendant in a statement said:-“I must admit that I have been asked as has Miss Terleshky, on many occasions, by young men of military age attending the tribunal, to get them a form which would keep them out of the Army. These young men have given us money to buy chocolates and sweets, the usual sum being 2s 6d. When they met us in the streets they would buy us ices and sweets.”

Counsel for the defence noted that “Both she and Miss Terleshky were good looking young girls and they had been flattered and cajoled by the young men who came to the offices and who wished to dodge the Army.” Carter had also, apparently, sent a fake exemption certificate to her brother “for the purposes of a joke he wished to play on another member of his orchestra” in Brighton. The brother was arrested, sentenced to a month’s imprisonment and then drafted into the army.

The matter seems to have come to a head at the point at which Carter was sacked by the Tribunal anyway. She had already left their employ before the trial, apparently on the basis of “irregular attendance”. Abrabrelton told the court that “He had warned the defendant about accepting chocolates and sweets. She was told she would be dismissed, but her parents had intervened, and as he had a great respect for her father he had kept her on.” This rather makes it sound like he suspected that something dodgy was going on, but hoped that Mr and Mrs Carter would be able to get their daughter into line.

Defence counsel appealed for lenience on the grounds of ‘her youth and respectability’, but the magistrate “said that the charge was very serious. There had been very serious results, and it was impossible to pass over the matter by a fine” and Carter was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment.

Many men hoped to avoid military service during the Great War. While most sought out protected jobs or went through the official tribunal procedures, clearly some were inclined towards corruption to keep themselves out of khaki and blue. Apparently, all it cost in Stepney in 1918 was 2s 6d, some sweets and a bit of flattery.

Sources:

  • Times reports of the trial
  • Statistics of the Military Effort
 

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