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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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A long way to Piccadilly

In 1920, a book called 500 of the best Cockney War Stories was published by the London Evening News (“with an opening yarn by General Sir Ian Hamilton”).

Here is one, contributed by R. Allen, a veteran of the Middlesex Regiment (one of its battalions in the 41st Division), living in Finchley after the war. For context you need to know that Swan and Edgar was a department store on Piccadilly; like many famous landmarks it had a trench named after it.

Towards the end of September 1918 I was one of a party of nine men and an officer taking part in a silent raid in the Ypres sector, a little in front of the well-known spot called Swan and Edgar’s Corner. The raid was the outcome of an order from Headquarters demanding prisoners for information.

Everything had been nicely arranged. We were to approach the German line by stealth, surprise an outpost, and get back quickly to our own trenches with the prisoners.

Owing perhaps to the wretchedness of the night—it was pouring with rain, and intensely black—things did not work according to plan. Instead of reaching our objective, our party became divided, and the group that I was with got hopelessly lost. There were five of us, including “Ginger,” a Cockney.

We trod warily for about an hour, when we suddenly came up against a barbed-wire entanglement, in the centre of which we could just make out the figure of a solitary German. After whispered consultation, we decided to take him prisoner, knowing that the German, having been stationary, had not lost sense of direction and could guide us back to our line. Noiselessly surmounting the barbed wire, we crept up to him and in a second Ginger was on him. Pointing his bayonet in Fritz’s back, he said, “Nah, then, you blighter, show us the way ‘ome.”

Very coolly and without the slightest trace of fear, the German replied in perfect English, “I suppose you mean me to lead you to the British trenches.”

“Oh!” said Ginger, “so yer speak English, do yer?”

“Yes,” said the German, “I was a waiter at a restaurant in Piccadilly before the War.”

“Piccadilly, eh? You’re just the feller we want. Take us as far as Swan and Edgar’s Corner.”

German prisoners, September 1918 © IWM (Q 11334)

German prisoners, September 1918 © IWM (Q 11334)

 
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Posted by on 16 September 2015 in Famous companies, Ordinary Londoners

 

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The National Register: the beginning of the end of voluntary recruitment

August 1915 brought Britain a “Registration Day”, an extraordinary census on 15 August recording information about every man and woman between 15 and 65 for a new National Register. Its purpose was to find out how many men of military age were still civilians, how many could be spared for war work and, more pressingly, how many could join the armed forces.

During the first year of the war two million men had joined Britain’s army and navy (the air force was not formed until 1918). Hundreds of thousands were also serving as regulars, reservists or territorial force men, having joined up before August 1914. By February 1915, 15% of London’s male industrial workforce, and probably more of its service sector employees, were serving. (This was roughly in line with the national picture for industrial employees, but London’s large service sector bumped up London’s level of war service).

By early 1915, the numbers joining up each month had levelled out at around 110,000 and the authorities were worried that not enough men were coming forward to build up an army (and replace its casualties) to win the war. The Government wanted to know how many eligible men were still available. The National Registration Act 1915 was passed by Parliament on 15 July 1915, paving the way for the creation of the register a month later on August 15th. While the register did not in itself make men liable to serve, the responsible minister (Walter Long) said that ‘it will compel them to declare that they are doing nothing to help their country in her hour of crisis.’

Preamble and first clause of the National Registration Act 1915 (from legislation.gov.uk)

Preamble and first clause of the National Registration Act 1915 (from legislation.gov.uk)

The Derby Scheme website summarises the process of building the register well:

“The registration was to undertaken in a similar way to a census however, unlike a census, the head of household was not responsible for completing the form and instead each person who came under the act would complete their own form. Some 29 million forms were issued across England, Scotland and Wales.

Men were required to complete a granite blue form and women a white form.

“The returned forms were collected shortly after 15 August 1915 and compiled by the local authority. A summary of the register was passed to the Registrar General who compiled statistics however the actual forms were retained at a local level.”

Registering in a common boarding house from Trevor Wilson, Myriad Faces of War

Registering in a common boarding house from Trevor Wilson, Myriad Faces of War

It was a major undertaking and required a huge amount of work to complete. In England it was organised by local authorities (in Scotland it was centralised), and conducted with the help of a large number of volunteers. In St Marylebone, the council’s general purposes committee noted on 7 October that,

“The Town Clerk has reported to us on the steps taken for compiling and maintaining the Borough’s portion of the National Register. The work has engaged a very considerable number of voluntary helpers and a large number of the staff since the beginning of August. The invitations of the President of the Local Government Board and the Registrar General for capable voluntary helpers from among the professional and official classes did not meet with a very large response, although several barristers, members of the Council, and leading residents kindly offered their services; but at the last moment a number of church workers, workers from the Women’s Emergency Corps, the Women’s Service League, and others, came forward, and a sufficient number of enumerators undertook the difficult task of the distribution and collection of the Registration forms.

“Owing to the large number of foreign residents in the Borough it was also necessary to secure interpreters, and several residents volunteered for this work.”

The register of men in St Marylebone had been completed by 7 September but the register of women was still being worked on. Nearly 100,000 forms had to be dealt with and over 70,000 certificates completed and sent out.

National Registration work in Bermondsey town hall. From Daily Mirror 11 Sept 1915

National Registration work in Bermondsey town hall. From Daily Mirror 11 Sept 1915

The information on the forms was sent to the Local Government Board, who transferred the details of men of military age (i.e. 18-41 years old) onto pink forms that listed their employment and family details. If they employed in war work (for example, coal mining, munitions work, railways and some agricultural work) their pink forms were marked with a black star – leading to the term ‘starred’ meaning that someone had an essential war role.

Article on the pink form, Daily Express 18 August 1915.

Article on the pink form, Daily Express 18 August 1915.

People who were registered were sent a registration card:

National Registration card

National Registration card

As you will see, this one – for Thomas Gorman of 28 Farmilo Road, Leyton, records his name, address and occupation. It also carried the mark of the next step in the process – the Derby Scheme: Thomas Gorman ‘attested his willingness to serve’ in December 1915.

Nationally, the 1915 register showed that over 5 million men were not in the forces, of whom 2.18 million were single and 2.83 million were married. Of those single men (the first to be conscripted in 1916), 690,138 were in ‘starred’ roles meaning that nearly 1.5 million were potentially available for military service.

The National Register was a major waypoint in the move from the voluntary recruitment of 1914 to the conscription system introduced in 1916. It gave the Government a statistical breakdown of how many single and married men, of what ages, remained in the civilian population – and it gave them those men’s names and addresses. After those men were asked to enlist or attest in the Derby Scheme at the end of 1915, the Military Service Acts of 1916 introduced compulsory military service for all men of military age (unless they could get an exemption).

Sources:

  • Trevor Wilson, The Myriad Faces of War
  • Derby Scheme Website
  • Peter Simkins, Kitchener’s Army
 
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Posted by on 25 August 2015 in Recruitment

 

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Gibb Mapplebeck: early aviator and escaper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other sources:

 
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Posted by on 18 August 2015 in Award-winners

 

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Lewis Havens’s voice: lost on the Somme, found in Hampstead

Delving into London and the Great War throws up many extraordinary stories, some of which happy endings. Lewis Havens’s story is one of those – seeing him lose his voice in the horror of Delville Wood but recover it three years later. Lewis Havens was a handyman living at 163 Newport Buildings, Shaftesbury Avenue, and working at the London Hippodrome.  He had married Minnie Gertrude Light in July 1912. Havens attested under the Derby Scheme in November 1915, approaching his 25th birthday, and was called up for service in the Rifle Brigade in April 1916.

Lewis Havens in uniform (image uploaded to Lives of the First World War by Milford Harrison)

Lewis Havens in uniform (image uploaded to Lives of the First World War by Milford Harrison)

Havens’s military career was short but eventful. After a few months of training, he was sent to the 8th Battalion in France on 24 August 1916 and joined the battalion on 8 September and went into Delville Wood. Delville Wood was the scene of great carnage in 1916. From July to the start of September, British and South African troops wrested control of the wood from the Germans as part of the Battle of the Somme. The Battle itself ended before Havens arrived, but it was far from safe: the 8th Rifle Brigade lost 100 men killed on 15 September alone – many more must have been wounded.  

 View from within Delville Wood, 20 September 1916 - just after Havens was wounded there. © IWM (Q 1156)


View from within Delville Wood, 20 September 1916 – just after Havens was wounded there. © IWM (Q 1156)

  Havens was one of those wounded in the wood that week. His medical record notes:

“When in trenches was blown up twice and gassed on Sept 14 and 15. Came to himself in Rouen Base Camp where he was for 3 days. Has been dumb ever since. Was deaf at first (3 months)”

He was immediately sent back to England, diagnosed with shell shock (neurasthenia) and was discharged in March 1917. He then returned to work at the London Hippodrome. According to the medical board Lewis Havens could hear perfectly well but was unable to speak. They noted that he had previously become mute 5 years earlier for two years following a fall through a trap door on a stage. The Hippodrome employed Havens as a “greencoat”. As the Milwaukee Journal explained “he attends to raising and lowering the front curtain and to placing, at the sides of the proscenium, the cards which bear the names of the next performers.” Able to hear but not speak, Havens adopted a whistling response to questions: once for “yes”, twice for “no”. In 1919, a performer named Mrs Wanda Lyon paid for Havens to see a masseur called Frank Horler, working at Sir Frederick Milner’s hostel for shell shock suffers in Hampstead. According to the Milwaukee Journal: “Intense was the astonishment of all on stage within hearing of Havens when he announced, just as he had before he went to the front: ‘All’s ready to begin’.” Understandably, Horler was not so surprised by the recovery, but he did express surprise at its speed: “I tried massage and electrical treatment for four days. On the fourth evening I saw him, and he surprised me by saying in a low voice, ‘I congratulate you.’” Another person who was pleasantly surprised was Havens’s young son, who was able to hear her father’s voice for the first time.

Havens and his daughter, from Daily Mirror 16 August 1919

Havens and his son, from Daily Mirror 16 August 1919

Sources:

 

 
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Posted by on 21 July 2015 in Ordinary Londoners

 

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Capture the flag

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

Lawrie and the German flag, Daily Mirror 9 June 1915

Lawrie and the German flag, Daily Mirror 9 June 1915

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

From de Ruvigny's 'Roll of Honour'

From de Ruvigny’s ‘Roll of Honour’

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

Sources:

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

 

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