“Breakdown – The Crisis Of Shell Shock On the Somme 1916”

A dozen, or so, of us from the Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire Branch of the Western Front Association were treated to a talk, on the evening of 15th December, by Taylor Downing, the author of the recently published book “Breakdown – The Crisis Of Shell Shock On The Somme 1916”.

Taylor began by explaining that he makes significant use of contemporary writers, writing about shell shock, in his research and his talks on the subject. One central comment from the time that he highlighted came from a Doctor who said that “In those days we fixed men’s bodies we didn’t think of their minds”

Early symptoms of Shell Shock (although that expression didn’t exist at that time) first identified in 1914, were paralysis, uncontrolled shaking, inability to stand and inability to speak coherently. This, of course, was not just a British phenomenon and it was also experienced by men fighting with all Armies on the Western Front.   

The term “shell shock” first appeared in “The Lancet” in February 1915. Suggested treatments varied significantly, the Canadian medic Lewis Yealland believed in the administration of electric shocks as a treatment – this could be quite brutal. On the other hand, Maghull Hospital, in Liverpool, followed a course of treatment using talking therapy.

Doctor Charles Samuel Myers was appointed consultant psychologist to the British armies in France – indeed it was Myers who wrote of “Shell Shock” in “The Lancet” (although he later admitted that he had not created the term). He treated a number of psychiatric cases and advocated psychological training, alongside hypnosis and rest.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Army differentiated between the rank of sufferers and “Neurasthenia” was the word most often used to describe the symptoms in Officers while “Shell Shock” was used for the other ranks.

Craiglockhart War Hospital, in Scotland, was set up to treat Neurasthenia and included amongst its many patients Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen and it was here that Wifred Owen was encouraged to write poems as a positive part of his recovery.
In a separate development, Arthur Hurst began to use the medium of film to record the effects of shell shock on men and a number of these films are available online to view today.

To gauge the prevalence of it, Taylor believed that 1,200 men out of an estimated 1.5 million were diagnosed with shell shock on the Western Front in the second half of 1915. This figure must have increased significantly after the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
One of the key problems for the men in the trenches was that they were unable to follow their embedded human instincts and move away from a trench under fire.

Some newspapers actually began to list those suffering from shell shock as a form of wound in its own right. This would not have pleased the Senior Ranks of the British Army who viewed the condition as being contagious and saw it as a threat to the war effort. A number of units such as, famously, the 11th Borders “The Lonsdales” were punished for having too many shell shock sufferers amongst their ranks. On the 9th July 1916 the Battalion was ordered once more “over the top” but many men reported sick. The attack went ahead but failed almost immediately. The result was that four NCOs were arrested and were charged with cowardice. Captain George Notman Kirkwood, the Battalion Medical Officer, was removed from duty and the Battalion was mustered and issued a formal rebuke by its commanding officers. The message was also clearly sent out that Medical Officers throughout the Army were not to over exempt men on the grounds of this condition.

Taylor, during his research, had calculated that 17 to 20% of all wounded men were shell shocked.

#After the war, a quantity of literature featured stories involving shell shock sufferers. And, amongst the 250,000 or so wounded ex servicemen that returned home from the war, many of those suffering from shell shock found it much harder to secure employment than those suffering from more obvious physical wounds.

The Tavistock Clinic, in North London, and The Maudsley Hospital in Camberwell, both opened their doors in the early 1920s. Both provided psychological therapies for all sufferers based upon the lessons learnt to date in treating shell shock.

The more recent term of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) only came in to the vocabulary during the Vietnam War.
The British Army now has full time psychological assistance and all troops are encouraged to talk about any experiences that might be classed as PTSD or Shell Shock.

Simon Goodwin           January 2018

The Work Of The Shorncliffe Trust - “A Light In The Darkest Hour, WW1 Commemorations 2014 – 2018 And Beyond”

On the evening of Friday 17th November 2017 a small group of Western Front Association members met at St George’s School, Harpenden, to listen to Chris Shaw and Steve Head, of the Shorncliffe Trust, talk to us about the work of their organisation.

Chris explained that his involvement with the site lay in his interest in Napoleonic Re-enactment and History, particularly that of the 95th Rifles, which was originally formed at the site. Steve’s interest came more through one of his grandfathers who was trained on the site during World War One.

The Shorncliffe Trust was created in 2005 to tell the story of, and preserve where possible, this military training site and cemetery on the Kent coast. Indeed, so little was known that Chris originally had to Google the site name, when trying to find out more, because he couldn’t find a place called Shorncliffe on a modern map.

 Shorncliffe Barracks were the original home of the 95th Rifles (think the “Greenjackets” in the TV Series “Sharpe”) - the first Regiment in the British Army to teach its men to Read and Write. The location was based upon it being a possible site for a French Invasion during the Napoleonic Wars and the Redoubt built to stop the French is still there in the landscape today. The site, and incorporated battery, were originally set out by Sir John Moore, an officer well regarded both at the time and since as a great trainer of men. Further development of the site amounted to the building of a chain of Martello Towers on the nearby coast and the creation of a Military Canal at Hythe.

 In Victorian times the camp was regarded as a nice posting because of its modern brick barracks and other facilities. Indeed, it also had a number of famous soldiers serving there, including Colour Sergeant Bourne and Surgeon Major Reynolds post their experiences at the Battle Of Rorke’s Drift in the Zulu Wars. In more recent times, Montgomery of El Alamein, was at a Trench Warfare School there in the 1920s.

The site was actually partially excavated on TV by the “Time Team” archaeology team in 2007 and Chris elaborated on what that experience was like – including a few humorous anecdotes involving alcohol consumption.

The site had many international heads visit it, both up to and during the First World War, indeed the last Head of State to attend the site, pre the Great War, was the German Kaiser in 1902.

During WW1, Practice Trenches were dug on the site and in April 1915 the 2nd Canadian Contingent arrived to be based at the site – the 1st Canadian Contingent having been sent to Salisbury Plain for their training after arriving the UK.

One particular story, which has a resonance down to the modern day, concerned the Canadians and a German Gotha bomber raid on the Folkestone area in May 1917. About 120 civilians were killed in the raid on Folkestone and the Canadian Troops quickly volunteered to help where they could in the rescue operations. One Canadian serviceman, who had become very friendly with a local girl, was killed by a bomb and, unusually for the time, she organised his funeral in the Camp Cemetery.

The following year, on the 23rd June 1918 (Canada Day) the locals went to lay flowers on all the Canadian graves in the Camp Cemetery, in recognition of their help the year before, and that is a tradition that has carried on up until modern times. 

The site was also used in the Second World War for apparent Glider Training – but this was only two days before D Day and it is quite possible this was part of the major ruse to keep the Germans believing that the landings would take place further to the East than the Normandy beaches.

The Shorncliffe Trust is a group of volunteers who always like to take local anecdotal comments and stories and explore them to explain them and to learn in that way. The site was actually for sale when the Group was first formed and they all agreed that part of the WW1 commemorations should include preserving some parts of the site and retaining the stories of the men trained there.

On the 4th August 2014, 400 lanterns were lit on the 400 graves in the Camp Cemetery to represent “Light In The Darkest Hour 2014” with a reference to the comment made by the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Gray, on the eve of the UKs entry in to the War.

A number of events have been organised with a large Canadian bias because of the history of the camp and the numbers of Canadian men buried in the Cemetery.

Sadly, despite encouragement not to do so by English Heritage, the new landowners and developers have been systematically clearing the site for a house building program. And now there are just a few original buildings and other pieces of architecture left on site.

All in all this was a fascinating talk presented with an abundance of enthusiasm by Chris and Steve and none of those attending could fail to be swept up in their enthusiasm for the project and their determination to commemorate the part this site played in the story of the Great War. Indeed, I am convinced that had we had more time then they could have continued to regale us with more stories about the camp and facts and artefacts they had discovered – but sadly our time with them was up. Maybe next time, Chris can tell us more on the unspent bullet that was found on the site which was of an unusual calibre and turned out to only have been used in German Messerschmitt 109 fighter aircraft for one year early in the war. The obvious conclusion being that it was fired during an aerial dogfight during the Battle Of Britain and, most importantly, it failed to hit it’s target and simply fell to earth where it was found seventy years later.

We thanked Chris and Steve very much for travelling to see us and were only sorry we didn’t get the chance to hear all of their stories – maybe another time.

Simon Goodwin - November 2017


Unsung Heroes – The Stretcher Bearers of World War One’ – Dr Emily Mayhew

The evening started with the presentation of prizes for the St George's School trench diary project. These had been selected from the ten best put forward to our committee by the history department. This was attended by the prize winners and their parents. The presentations were made by our guest speaker.

Dr Emily Mayhew of Imperial College, London, is a researcher into military medical history in the Department of Bioengineering, and gave us an excellent talk on stretcher bearers in WW1. The formation of a stretcher bearers corps saw a transformation in the way that battlefield casualties were dealt with, and Dr Mayhew made it clear that the bearers were more than just porters. Although at first the bearers were recruited by virtue of being big, or too stupid for anything else, or being bandsmen, the basic medical training that these people were given enabled them to render vital aid to the wounded, which ensured that so many survived their injuries. Indeed, the bearers can be seen as direct ancestors of the modern combat medical technicians. As a result of their efforts, death rates from femoral fractures came down sharply.

Gradually, more men were recruited from heavy industry or mining, their strength being so vital in carrying the wounded over difficult ground. Dr Mayhew pointed out that very little by way of statistics or other information has survived, so she has been dependent on personal testimonies in diaries and other sources.

Another source of recruits was conscientious objectors, who made up about 30% of the corps, as bearers were not usually armed. Stretcher bearing was certainly not without its dangers. They were likely to be shot at, as they made a tempting target. Dr Mayhew pointed out in fairness that we did the same! Bearers were often required to attend military executions to deal with the corpses. All of this added up to great strain on the bearers, and Dr Mayhew illustrated this with the story of one such whom, on returning home to greet his family, promptly shot himself. Another suffered for the rest of his life with bad hands, caused by the chafing of the stretcher handles. It was not surprising to learn that 13 VCs were awarded to bearers, as well as many MCs and MMs.

Dr Mayhew is a published author. "Wounded" came out a couple of years ago, and her new book, "A Heavy Reckoning", is due out this May 2017.

Andrew Gould, January 2017

16th December 2016 "The Great War – Rothamsted’s Contribution" - Professor Roger Plumb

For the Christmas Branch Meeting we welcomed Professor Roger Plumb who explained the part played in the Great War by the local agricultural research station based at the south side of Harpenden at the Rothamsted estate. Fortunately an extensive archive was maintained by George Dunkley, a secretary at Rothamsted, until he was sent to the Front in 1917. At that point others took over this task. The archive included a great number of letters between those who were away serving and those who remained at the research station and Professor Plumb’s talk included many references to these letters. 

In the mid-nineteenth century John Bennet Lawes, the Lord of the Manor at Rothamsted, patented superphosphate fertiliser, and from this made his fortune. Two factories were established at Deptford (1842) and Barking (1857) and were very successful. However the decline of the agriculture industry in the late decades of the century led Lawes to sell his business for £ 300,000 in 1872. Several years later, in 1889, he used £ 100,000 of the proceeds to set up the Lawes Agricultural Trust. Lawes died in 1900 but the Trust continued and developed into the agricultural research station that we know today. In 1912 twenty-seven scientific staff worked at Rothamsted. Three of these were women. In addition nine non-scientific staff were employed and two of these were women. 

From the outset of the Great War in 1914 Rothamsted was viewed as an important resource. In the Second World War the establishment concentrated on methods to increase food production, and most of the staff were retained on “War Work”, and were not enlisted into the services. However increasing food production was not the primary role for Rothamsted throughout the Great War. Although some of the staff did serve in combat roles in the Great War, many of the scientific staff were directed to scientific roles at other establishments in the UK. The Royal Society intervened on behalf of several of the scientists, declaring that they were too important to be sent to serve in the trenches, and thirteen men were exempted and were sent to manage or organise other scientific work in the UK. The staff at Rothamsted were mainly employed on relatively short term contracts, and when War broke out, whilst they were keen to “do their bit”, they were very concerned as to what would happen if they enlisted. Early in the War the establishment announced that all positions would be kept open, and the amount of time remaining for a contract would continue from the end of the War. In addition it was announced that wherever possible, and if funds allowed, Army salaries would be topped up. 

Scientific and non-scientific support staff joined up from the outset. Virtually all of the scientific staff served in some capacity during the War. Many, being educated gentlemen sought a commission when they joined the Army, and coming from all over the country, served with a diverse number of regiments from the Gordon Highlanders to the Hertfordshire’s. The non-scientific staff were mainly from the local area, and they joined more locally based regiments. Most eligible men had enlisted before conscription was introduced in 1916, however exemptions were applied for several of the workers that worked on the Rothamsted farms, and although many were granted an extension, in the end virtually all ended up in the Army. A list of those serving, or in reserved occupations was maintained throughout the War as part of the Rothamsted archive. 

Professor Plumb continued to recount the stories of a number of the Rothamsted staff. Two of the scientific staff were “Killed in Action” relatively early in the War. Lieutenant Charles Martin, a bacteriologist, went to France in February 1915, and was killed at Polygon Wood on 2nd May 1915 serving with the Monmouthshire Regiment. Lieutenant Kenneth Lewin, a Protozoologist) joined the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry in September 1914, and was shot by a sniper whilst having breakfast near Ypres on 9th March 1916. Both men were included on the Rothamsted War Memorial, which is sited in the main building of the research station. Gertrude Bates, who was the Director’s Personal Secretary, volunteered as a nurse, but was rejected as being without nursing experience. She became the Secretary to the Senior Matron at Addenbrooke’s Hospital at Cambridge and later in the War was accepted as a VAD nurse. She survived the War but didn’t return to Rothamsted. Many of the scientists, who were barred from serving abroad, were sent to munitions factories throughout the country, where they took on managerial or senior research roles. An A. Appleyard was sent to manage a munitions factory at Kings Lynn, where he developed a way to produce acetone from starch. Acetone was used in the manufacture of explosives and the new process produced seven tons of the product each week. Later in the War Appleyard was sent to manage an acetone factory in India, and after the War did not return to Rothamsted. 

Professor Plumb concluded a well-researched and informative evening by answering a number of questions from the audience, and explained how the work of the establishment continued through to the Second World War and beyond.

Roger Yapp, January 2017

11th November 2016 "Public Schools And The Great War" - David Walsh

On 11th November, a poignant date, David Walsh was welcomed to Harpenden to speak on the subject of “Public Schools in the Great War”. The talk was based upon information researched by David and Anthony Selden for their 2013 book entitled “The Role of the Public School in the Great War”. David, a retired Deputy Headmaster at Tonbridge School sought to dispel the negative views held in some quarters with regards to bumbling ex-Public School Generals, miles from the Front, making a complete mess of the War, and young ex-Public School educated officers recklessly ruining the lives of all in their charge. 

This view, supported by TV series such as “Blackadder”, and the 1960’s production “Oh What a Lovely War” has more recently been challenged, and a more balanced view is now more widely held. To try to redress the balance David explained that over 70 General were Killed in Action, near the Front Line, during the War, and more than 300 were wounded Generally there was a 10% (1 in 10) probability for a soldier in the ranks to be “Killed in Action”, whereas for ex-Public Schoolboys the probability was 20% (1 in 5). The higher up the social scale, the greater was the probability of death. Those from the Public Schools were more likely to have volunteered earlier in the War for combat units, and would have been “Killed in Action” leading their men into battle. 

One hundred and fourteen Public Schools were registered in the UK in 1914. They were generally fee paying and independent of State control. There had been great strides with the provision of education for the masses in Britain in the late nineteenth century. However, with a growing Middle and Upper Class, resulting from the Victorian age of prosperity, there grew a desire for a level of education greater than could be provided by the State system. The State system educated children to the age of 12. Public School pupils continued their education into their teens, and the system, based on the pillars of Duty, Service and Patriotism was replicated at schools throughout the British Empire. As a result a boy’s character was set by their School. Twice daily religious services taught self-denial and sacrifice. The Spartan living conditions bred toughness. The Prefect System helped build leadership skills, and the emphasis on School Games added principles of Fair Play, and morality as well as developing fitness. In most schools boys joined the Officer Training Corps (OTC). OTC’s had been introduced as part of the Haldane Reforms of the Army in 1907, and each Corps was put under the direct control of the War Office. The objective of introducing the OTCs was to provide a ready supply of officers in time of War. 

When War was declared in August 1914, membership of the School OTC provided many ex-pupils a passport to an immediate commission into combat units in the Regular Army. In some schools Army Classes were set up to prepare boys to take and pass the entry exams for the Army Colleges at Sandhurst (Infantry, Indian Army and Cavalry) and Woolwich (Royal Engineers and Artillery). On reflection the brighter boys went to Woolwich. In the first seven months of the War, 25,000 officers were commissioned, and were mainly ex-Public Schoolboys with OTC experience. In fact it was difficult to become an officer in the first two years of the War without a Public School background, or without the social standing that could finance officer status. Throughout the War all of the senior ranks in the Army were held by ex-Public Schoolboys. Ex-Public Schoolboys flocked to join the Army in the early days of the War. Suddenly, as Junior Officers, they found themselves in charge of around 30 men in a platoon, and usually the men were a lot older and more experienced. The Junior Officer had to set an example of courage, endurance and sacrifice. Often they had to often provide paternal support to the men in their unit, and induce a feeling of family amongst the group, and deal with their issues both at the Front and at home. The War had a great impact on the Schools back in Britain. 

By 1915 there were food shortages and rationing. At Lancing School the CrossCountry course had to be shortened as it was realised that the boys’ stamina had decreased. School work-shops took on War Work and an example was given that at one School shell cones were produced in some quantity. At some Schools buildings were hastily converted to become hospitals and nursing homes. Ever lengthening Casualty Lists depressed the morale of those coming through the Schools, and there was a fear and expectation that young officers went to the Front and died very soon afterwards. Boys suffered the personal loss of friends, former pupils and teaching staff. For some Schools the sheer number of casualties and deaths was enormous, especially when men from the same School served and were killed in the same battalion, when the battalion was decimated going “over the top”. Over half of the Public School casualties were under 24 years old, and were mainly from combat officers in the Front Line. Eton School suffered the most casualties, but provided the greatest number of recruits. It was not just the ex-pupils that joined up. School-masters, often exPublic school-boys themselves, left their jobs and enlisted. Women school-teachers resigned and went to employment in “War Work” occupations. Twenty-five percent of the teaching staff were lost to the Services in 1914, and replacing them caused quite a problem. Unlike industry, where in many cases women replaced the men, this was not seen as a viable option. Headmasters were faced with how best to deal with the growing number of teachers who were reported “Missing in Action”. Could their jobs be formally given to those who had temporarily filled the vacancies after they went off to War, until confirmation of death came later, sometimes up to a year after the event ?  

The legacy of the Great War is deeply embedded in the history of most of the Public Schools. The Schools remember the Great War and their tremendous loss of life in many ways. Harrow School built a complete War Memorial Building, whilst others chose more conventional memorials, plaques and statues. The negative views of the influence of Public Schools in compounding the suffering of War sustained until well after the 1960’s, but now that we appreciate more about how the war was really conducted, it is now realised that for the most part the expupils were fighting for a cause and a country for which they believed. David ended the evening by answering a selection of questions on a wide variety of topics associated with the training, school-life and service experiences of the soldiers from the Public Schools. On reflection it seems hard to see how the British Army could have functioned in the early War years without the officers that emerged from the many Officer Training Corps from the British and Empire Public Schools.

Roger Yapp, December 2016

14th October 2016  ‘From Roxeth to the Royal Fusiliers – The War Time Service of Walter Thomas Kirby’ – Doug Kirby

Unfortunately, at short notice, our planned speaker was not able to join us at the WFA Branch Meeting on the 14th October 2016. So, our previously advertised talk, on “The Angels Of Pervyse : Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm” was rapidly replaced with one on the War Time experiences of the Great Uncle of one of our Branch Members, Doug Kirby.
Doug’s Great Uncle, Walter Thomas Kirby, was born in January 1897 and lived in Stanley Road, South Harrow. At home, everyone would have had to get on well as, by the time of the 1911, census there was Walter, five of his brothers, his Parents and a Lodger all living in one three bedroom house.

Walter attended Roxeth School, in South Harrow, and by 1911 was working as an Errand Boy for a local Fishmongers. Doug illustrated his talk well with the use of a collection of period, and more modern day, photographs of the places he was describing amongst which would have been many views familiar to Walter as he was growing up. At the outbreak of the War, Walter was aged just 17 and he was not going to be 18 until January of the following year. So, in October 1915, he joined the 32nd Battalion the Royal Fusiliers, a unit originally raised by the Mayor of East Ham. He did his basic training in Aldershot. On the 4th May 1916 the Battalion left Farnborough Station to travel to Southampton Docks to sail on a small flotilla of three Steamships to Le Havre, France.

Doug was then able to explain where and what the Battalion was doing in France and Belgium using transcripts of the Battalion War Diaries that he had been to view at the National Archives in Kew during his research. This included the fact that the Battalion went, for the first time, in to the Front Line at Ploegsteert Woods on the 4th June 1916. The Ploegsteert Woods section of the line had a reputation for being a relatively “quiet” sector and the British Army often used it to “blood” new troops and to give them their first experience of Trench Warfare. Having said that, the Wood did have a reputation for being full of German Snipers and this was an everyday hazard that the men in the front line had to quickly learn the lessons from. During their second spell in the Front Line, on the 18th June, the Battalion lost its first man, an NCO. Sadly, Walter’s war ended very soon after this, on the 22nd June, when he, and another soldier, lost their lives in what the Battalion War Diary describes as a “heavy artillery bombardment”. This was only Walter’s 49th day on the Western Front and his 14th day in the Front Line. As Doug highlighted, what a tragically short time for a military service to last. Walter was aged just 19 years of age. The Battalion was relieved a few days later and the War Diary tells us that casualties were 1 NCO and 2 men killed and 5 NCOs and 4 men wounded during their time in the lines. Walter is buried in the Berkshire Road Extension, Ploegsteert, in a grave on the front row, demonstrating the fact that he was one of the first casualties interred there. His gravestone bears the simple line “Gone But Not Forgotten”. To demonstrate that promise Doug shared with us the fact that his Father, who was born in 1930, was given a middle name of Walter in memory of his Uncle.

Seventy six men from Roxeth were to lose their lives during the War, including a staggering eleven from the same street as Walter had lived on, Stanley Road. Doug also shared with us the fact that he, his Mother and his Sister all travelled out to Ploegsteert to visit Walter’s grave on the 100th anniversary of the date of his death. They laid a wreath, read some poetry by the grave and also put a small laminated sheet of paper describing Walter’s life story and his photograph on the grave. They also put a wreath on the grave next to Walters, containing the body of the other soldier to die the same day as Walter and, next to that, the grave of the Sergeant from their Battalion who died just a few days earlier. We are extremely grateful to Doug for having stepped “in to the breach” at such short notice and for giving us such an excellent talk about one casualty whose story, so sadly, probably represents the stories of so many other men who lost their lives soon after arriving in the front line. This was a very personal story and we thank Doug for sharing it with us. The evening ended with the nineteen members in attendance thanking Doug with a warm round of applause at the end of his presentation.

Simon Goodwin, October 2016

Branch Annual General Meeting And Roger Yapp Talk "The Man From The Bottom Of My Garden"

The Members’ Evening was an entertaining and successful one with Roger Yapp divulging the identity of the ‘Man From the Bottom of My Garden’ in the context of the Abbot’s Langley ‘Back to the Front’ Great War Project which covers over 700 men and women from that village who served in the war.

The formal part of the evening covered the Annual General Meeting and the election of officers following which I shall be serving another year as Branch Chairman and Secretary; Clive Mead continues in office as our Treasurer and your other Committee members are Clive Mead and Ivor Webb – thank you all for your support.

The Branch has had a successful year although the average attendance continues to decline. It is now nearly half of the number of four years’ ago as illustrated in the table below.

Accounting Year Average Attendance Per Meeting

2011/2012           31
2012/2013           28
2013/2014           22
2014/2015           21
2015/2016           17

During the last year we have tried to give the Branch a higher profile with the launch of the Branch website on 4 December 2015. A large debt of gratitude for the success of this project goes to Simon Goodwin, our self-styled webmaster, who set-up and now updates and maintains the site in working order. I would also like to mention the contribution made by Andrew Gould as the Branch’s representative for the Joint Regional Seminar with the Milton Keynes Branch. The seminar is now only a week or so away and so I encourage you all to see Andrew at our meeting on 14 October and to buy your tickets without delay. The Branch has also continued to foster its strong relationship with St. George’s School with our participation in the annual Trench Diary Competition which this year was judged and the awards presented just after Christmas. This was deemed a success and drew a nice piece from the Head of History in the Headmaster’s weekly e-bulletin.

From a financial standpoint, it is clear that as each year passes the Branch’s financial reserves (about £2,000 at 30 June 2016) are reducing as we use them to make up the shortfall between the declining income and the generally fixed expenditure of room hire and speakers’ fees. We are still well within the WFA guidelines for reserves but the profile and trend of the losses does impact on the long-term viability of the Branch.

As I said last year, the Branch has a proud 30 year history; we shall need to adapt and re-focus to take it forward in these changing times. Ultimately, we want to ensure that we can offer our members the type of interest group that they want. It is your group, so please contact us if you have ideas and suggestions as to how we can improve and encourage all Herts & Beds members to attend our meetings. I do thank you for your continuing support and I look forward to seeing you at one of our presentations very soon – the 2017 programme is now in place.

And as always, do remember to keep up with what is going on at the Centenary News website which gives all the up-to-date information on events over the coming months http://www.centenarynews.com/

Finally, please book your seminar tickets now.

Geoff Cunnington, October 2016

"The Man From The Bottom Of My Garden" - Roger Yapp

Roger is part of the “Back To The Front” Research Group from Abbots Langley. With no WW1 casualties in his own family he decided one day to write down the names of all those mentioned on his local War Memorial. He soon began researching one of these men, Walter John Edward Owen, who, by coincidence, died 100 years ago this week. Walter’s Military records survive and we know that he was 5’ 3” and had blond hair. He became a “surrogate” family member for Roger when he discovered that Walter had actually lived in a wooden house at Mainspring Farm – literally at the bottom of Roger’s garden. Walter Owen’s family came from Rickmansworth and he was one of six children. In 1898 his Father died and this meant that the family lost their house – hence the move to live in a wooden house in Abbotts Langley. Before the War, Walter worked at a Chocolate Factory in Watford, but in August 1914 he enlisted in the 15th Hussars, stating his occupation to be a Groom.

By March 1915 he was in hospital with Tonsillitis and it was following his release from there that he transferred to join the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire and Lancashire Regiment. In June 1915 he was sent to Ypres and he then spent the next two months in the area until, on the 3rd August 1916, his unit was sent to the Somme area. The Battalion was sent to Chimpanzee Alley, via Wedge Wood, on the 14th September to act as a Reserve for an attack on the Quadrilateral German Strongpoint to support the 8th Bedfordshires and accompanying tanks the following day. At 5.50am the following morning, one of the three tanks that were to take part in the attack arrived half an hour early. Things rapidly went wrong when the tank (C22) misidentified their own men and opened fire on troops from the 9th Norfolks, killing twenty five men in the process. At 6.20am the Bedfords went over the top and soon became stuck so Walter and his Battalion were sent in to support the advance. By lunchtime the first tank had retreated and had been replaced by a second tank (C20) which was also forced to retreat in the face of heavy fire. (Note : The story of these two tanks and their crews is told in various other places and can be found online by searching under the names of the two Tank Commanders 2/Lt Basil Henriques (C22) and Lt George Macpherson (C20).)

Many of the Yorks & Lancs troops were forced to take cover in a nearby wood after they were deployed but, by 7.30pm, further orders were received and an attack on the Quadrilateral was carried out. In the space of just quarter of an hour three to four hundred men, out of a Battalion strength of just seven hundred, became casualties. Walter was one of these men and, with no known burial; his name is
recorded on the Thiepval Memorial.

Roger finished his excellent talk, which was a trimmed down version of one he had already presented in Abbotts Langley, by discussing the possible reasons for the failure of the attack and the high casualty numbers. It is clear that the Germans knew that an attack was coming and that it would most likely involve Tanks. This is suggested by the fact that they had supplies of armour piercing bullets in supply to the troops. Trench maps were also subsequently found to be wrong and the main consequence of this was that British artillery shelling fell in the wrong places. All in all an excellent talk and a real example of the art of creating a whole narrative around the war time experiences of just one name taken, almost at random, from a village War Memorial.

Simon Goodwin, October 2016

24th June 2016 ‘Those Who Served: Remembering First World War Nurses’

In 2014 the Royal College of Nursing mounted an exhibition to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the Great War. Based on the information researched for the exhibition Dianne Yarwood gave a short, but nevertheless interesting talk about the part played by nurses in the War, and the foundation of the College of Nursing.

In 1914 nurses were encouraged to join the British Military Service. They were mainly in the age range from 25 to 35, were usually well educated, and were expected to have trained for at least three years at an approved hospital. From the outset many ladies of good social standing were attracted to the Service, but as the War continued, this unofficial criteria was relaxed.

At the outset of the War there were three major branches of the Service. In 1914 there were only 297 nurses serving with the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service (QAIMNS). This was the primary nursing service supporting the complete British Army.  By the end of 1914 some 2,200 temporary nurses had joined the QAIMNS Reserve, and the nursing service was swelled by 2,760 more nurses from Territorial Force Nursing Service (TFNS). In anticipation of a War the TFNS had been introduced as part of the Haldane reform of the Army in 1907/8, with the aim of providing a nursing service to support the newly formed Territorial Army. The TFNS nurses normally worked full time at hospitals throughout the country, but joined up in the same way as men joined the Territorial Reserve. By the end of the War the Nursing service comprised some 20,000 trained women nurses, 8,000 of whom joined the College of Nursing.

As part of the research for the 2014 exhibition Yvonne McEwen compiled a Roll of Honour, through checking the records of the College, the National Archives, Newspaper articles, and through searching the Web. Twelve members had died in Military Service – three from enemy action, five from influenza or infection, one from cancer, two for other reasons, and one for whom the reason couldn’t be consistently confirmed. One died in 1917 and the rest between March and November 1918. In total it is estimated that around 150 nurses died as a direct result of the War.

Dianne continued to recount some of the stories that had been discovered during the research. Jessie McRobbie served in Egypt, and was mentioned in despatches. Her letters had been found, and explained that she, like many who served, had been anxious to join, and to get abroad.

Staff Nurse Agnes Murdoch Climie was “Killed in Action” in November 1917 at the 58th Scottish General Hospital near St Omer, when two bombs fell on the site. Three nurses were killed and three more wounded, and 16 Other Ranks also died in the raid. The deaths caused uproar and outrage back in Britain.

In early 1918 HM Hospital Ship Glenart Castle was torpedoed in the Bristol Channel. She was clearly marked as a Hospital Ship, and was sailing at night with all of her lights on. Fortunately she was not carrying any wounded troops but nevertheless was attacked and sunk. During the War seven Hospital Ships were torpedoed.

Throughout the stories there was a constant theme of a desire for these women to go out and do their bit, and to be able to care for the gallant men at the Front. Sadly Dianne brought her interesting and informative talk to a close too soon but continued to take questions from the Members about researching Great War Nurses and Hospitals. 

Roger Yapp, September 2016

20th May 2016 “The Glorious Dead : Figurative Sculpture Of British First World War Memorials”

We were joined, on the evening of 20th May 2016, by Geoff Archer, who had travelled down from Macclesfield in Cheshire, to share with us his talk on figurative sculpture seen on WW1 British War Memorials. Geoff was the author of “The Glorious Dead”, a 2009 publication which represents the first comprehensive analysis of this subject.

There are thousands of War Memorials in towns and villages throughout the United Kingdom, but only a few hundred of these include figurative sculpture. Despite the numbers, this still formed the greatest project of public sculpture in the history of this country.

It was realised, before the War ended, that there would be a demand for public memorials to the men who lost their lives in the conflict and this led, in 1919, to two major exhibitions of sculpture suitable to adorn War Memorials. In July 1919 an exhibition was held at the Victoria & Albert Museum and, three months later, another was held at the Royal Academy. It was hoped that these would help those planning commemorative sculpture to see what was possible and to establish contact with available sculptors able to undertake commissions. Sculptors were also picked because of their location or on the basis of recommendations. Competitions were also quite frequent with multiple plans being submitted for the work by different sculptors – for example there were three rival plans put forward for the Luton War Memorial. Some of the larger commissions, such as that at the Canadian National Memorial in Ottowa, attracted 127 entries of which 25 were from Great Britain. Sculptors would also often report to the Architect on the project.

Geoff demonstrated, with the use of photographs, how some particular statue figures were used in multiple locations. For example the same statue can be seen on the Colchester, Leeds, Burton on Trent and Portadown (N. Ireland) War Memorials with only minor changes. The same is also true of the character depicted in the Memorials at Crewe, Morley (Yorkshire) and Troon (Scotland).

Moving on to look at individual Memorials, Geoff highlighted the Wolds Wagoners Memorial at Sledmere in Yorkshire. This, quite unique Memorial, shows a tableau of soldiers experiences from receiving their call up papers through to fighting on the front line and is carved in a very “naïve” style.

For sheer scale, Geoff highlighted the “Commercials” Memorial in Newcastle.

At Port Sunlight, on Merseyside, Geoff told us was one of the most impressive Memorials he had seen on his travels. The sculpture on the Memorial shows men, armed with rifles and bayonets, defending women and children, possibly signifying the belief that men who go to fight are defending their country against German aggression as well as the fact they are also seen defending the Cross, possibly also signifying a religious dimension to the conflict.

When it comes to soldiers with rifles and bayonets, the vast majority of statues show men in a defensive or watchful stance rather than an aggressive one. Furthermore, it is very rare to see the enemy portrayed on a British War Memorial.

What is certain is that War Memorials were widely recognised as being primarily a memorial for the wives, mothers and children of men who had lost their lives in the conflict – this can be seen in the Memorials in Macclesfield and Liverpool. In addition some Memorials showed injured or wounded servicemen and a few even showed dead soldiers bodies. Those showing dead bodies were often criticised by the local media when the plans were revealed – with the possible exception of Memorials inside churches, where the dead body created far less of a furore.

Many Memorials show a Soldier and a Christian Cross – signifying the idea of the War being a Christian struggle for salvation. Some also show symbols or Victory or Jubilation to signify what was won.

On some Memorials there is some fairly straight forward symbology to denote the British defeating the Germans. This can be seen at Rickmansworth, where a British Lion holds a pinned German Eagle on the ground, or at a host of sites where St George is spearing and killing the German Dragon. In some, unusual circumstances, the symbology is far more basic and at Bambridge, in Northern Ireland, one of the panels shows the act of a British soldier actually bayonetting a German soldier

Geoff told us that the most common type of sculptured War Memorial showed a Crucifix and that the second most popular showed a Soldier.

There were also, at the end of the Great War, a small number of Private Memorials made and included in these was that of Private Haron Baronian, killed in Mesopotamia in 1917. The life size bronze statue was made by William Hamo Thorneycroft R.A. (the same sculptor who worked on Luton War Memorial) and was kept by his family in the gardens of a private house in Knutsford until 1977. Since 1977 it has been located in the grounds of Knutsford War Memorial Cottage Hospital. What appears certain is that few people who view it today will (a) realise it is sculpted to represent one unique individual and (b) realise that it was not originally designed as a public Memorial to the town’s missing.

Figurative sculpture continues to be in demand as new projects, especially now we are in the WW1 centenary period, go ahead. For example in Houghton Regis, the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, and Chorley where a gate way into the Park was the primary site of commemoration.

Geoff rounded off the evening by answering questions from the floor and the meeting showed it’s appreciation by applauding him and his talk at the end of the meeting.

Simon Goodwin, May 2016

22nd April 2016 ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning – Wind & Words of World War 1’

The April Meeting was something a little bit different and something a little bit special. Arriving at our usual meeting room we were faced with amplifiers, speakers and microphones and instead of our normal talk and slide-show type of presentation we were treated to an evening of music and verse entitled “Keep the Home Fires burning” from a duo called “Wind and Words”.

Much of the programme consisted of poems written by poets who served in the Great War, including Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke, John Mcrae, Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg. The music, made famous at the time, featured a range of composers including Ivor Novello, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin. Chris Hooker gave a rendition on clarinet of well-known and lesser known tunes from the Great War, interspersed with prose and poetry from Valerie Fry. When not performing with “Wind and Words” Chris is the leader of the saxophone quartet “River City Saxes”, and is a member of several bands playing alto, tenor and soprano saxophone. Valerie, the voice of “Wind and Words”, combines her interest in writing with performance and is a prize-winning poet and has given readings across the country to a range of audiences.

The duo gave a polished and accomplished performance. The audience listened in total silence and after the customary refreshment break the duo answered questions.They had performed “Wind and Words of World War One” to several, varied types of audience, from many backgrounds and of all ages.

Whilst many of the musical pieces and poems were well known, Valerie included one of her own poems – “For the record”. She had located the Service Record of her Grand-father, and extracted the details, of age, address, unit, service history, casualty, demob and disciplinary records, and wove them into a emotive and very powerful poem recited almost as a machine gun spits out bullets.

Many of the audience would have trawled through innumerable Service Records noting these details as part of their various researches, but it’s unlikely that they would have thought of using the information to make a poem.

Roger Yapp, May 2016

18th March 2016 - "The Battle Of Arras 1917 – Visiting The Fallen"

On the 18th March, approximately twenty of us gathered at St George’s School in Harpenden to hear Peter Hughes talk about the Battle Of Arras 1917. Peter soon demonstrated his significant knowledge of the Battle – which is unsurprising given that he has already published three books on the subject, via Pen & Sword Books, entitled “Arras North”, “Arras South” and “Arras Memorials”. Peter described these books as being a “Who’s Who of the Cemeteries in the Battlefield”, a plot by plot look at the lives of many of the men who are buried there.  There is a website to complement these three books at http://visitingthefallen.co.uk

This talk provided something different to those members who attended when, instead of perhaps a more traditional overview of a whole battle and it’s context in the wider conflict, Peter quickly dove into discussing particular Divisional based objectives, the topography they faced, and a “what-if” in terms of what might have happened had certain command and control decisions, taken during the actual fighting, been different. He looked specifically at the experiences of the 4th Division, part of Fergusson’s XVII Corps.  To help the listener better understand the battlefield, Peter had brought with him a number of map handouts which were handed out at the start of the talk and which helped those attending better track the individual force movements.

The Battle was originally targeted at distracting the Germans from the forthcoming French attack at the Chemin des Dames, part of the Second Battle of the Aisne, which began on the 16th April 1917. Peter began by setting out how he would divide his talk into five parts, each looking at a particular part of the battle.

• Use Of Cavalry On The First Day Of The Battle (9th April 1917)

By 4pm on the first day the advance of the 4th Division had become stuck, in the area of Fampoux, due to heavy enemy fire.  From their advance positions it became apparent that the defending Germans were able to withdraw a number of their artillery pieces, to behind Greenland Hill, because the assaulting infantry couldn’t reach them – and the question was raised should cavalry have been sent in to stop them doing so. Peter went on to explore this idea and how he came to the conclusion that the decision not to deploy the cavalry was, with hindsight, probably the best one. This was especially true because much of the German forces were located in bombed out buildings and this was not the kind of combat that cavalry were trained for and would have received heavy losses being involved in.

• “A Lost Day” The Second Day Of the Battle (10th April 1917)

A period of sustained bad weather had resulted in significant deterioration in the local roads. This resulted in large problems with bringing up artillery pieces to support and new infantry advances. On the first day of the Battle the 4th Division had advanced 3 ½ miles but it was now taking approximately 100 men and 18 horses to move each field gun up to new firing support positions. Peter looked at these comments that this was a day of “Lost Opportunity” but argued that this was not completely true as the Brown Line, to the south of the River Scarpe, was captured that same day.

• Roeux and Greenland Hill

The German held village of Roeux was soon identified as a key Allied target but it was protected on its south side by the River Scarpe and was overlooked by another German position on Greenland Hill. Earth embankments built around the village, prior to the war, also offered the defending troops significant defensive options. The village was, if fact, not taken until 5 weeks after the start of the Battle.

• Monchy-le-Preux

Peter spent a short while discussing the defence of this village after it had been captured by British forces on the 12th April 1917.

• The Shape Of The Battlefield

By the end of April, the Canadians on Vimy Ridge could not advance too much further forward because of the strong German presence in Lens. So the Battlefield, as far as ongoing actions was concerned, was becoming more limited and now centred around the middle of the original attack frontage. The Battle also lasted longer that had originally been planned because the French attacks in the Champagne region were not going well and because the British also needed to keep the Germans distracted from the forthcoming British attack at Messines.

Overall, Peter rounded off by explaining that while the Battle of Arras was a shorter Battle, in terms of duration, than the Battle of the Somme that had taken place the previous year, it was a much more costly one in terms of casualties. British casualties during the Battle of Arras were in the order of 4,000 per day and this compared to 3,000 a day during the Somme Offensive

Simon Goodwin. March 2016

19th February 2016 - "Letter To An Unknown Soldier"

On Friday, 19th February 2016 we were joined by Angela McSherry, an Arts Consultant, who came along to talk to us about the “Letter To An Unknown Soldier” Project she had been a key member of back in 2014.

On Platform One of Paddington Station, in London, there is a statue of an unknown soldier, commemorating all those employees of the Great Western Railway (GWR) who fell during the First World War, he’s reading a letter. The statue shows great detail for the time and was created by the sculptor Charles Sargeant Jagger MC (1885 – 1934) who had himself served in the Great War in the Artists Rifles and, later, the Worcestershire Regiment. He served in Gallipoli and the Western Front and was wounded three times.  

The Theatre Director, Neil Bartlett, had walked past the statue at Paddington Station on many occasions and had always wanted to include it in a piece of work. Then, just prior to the start of the centenary, he was approached by the “14-18 Now” group and invited to create something around the centenary. He formed a small group of collaborators with a writer, Kate Pullinger, and Angela McSherry to bring his ideas to reality.

The group determined that they would invite the public to write the letter that the soldier is seen reading – either from the perspective of it being written today or at the time. They also decided early on that a website would be the best way to collect and display the public submissions. To get the project started a number of established writers, from a variety of backgrounds, were invited to submit their own letters, including ….

Andrew Motion, Sebastian Faulks, Andy McNab, Stephen Fry, Stella Duffy, Benjamin Zephaniah, Lee Child and Melanie Blackman

The last of these, Melanie Blackman, was Children’s Poet Laureate at the time and her inclusion was a clear signal that children were actively encouraged to participate. Indeed the idea was that the project would be an inter generation experience and 3,000 letters had already been submitted by school children by the first day of the project going live online.

Permission was also obtained from the Railway Authorities to use the statue in this way and, indeed, a number of station workers, including one of the cleaners who regularly worked around the statue all day, submitted letters.

The Website opened on the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and closed on the anniversary of the date that Britain went to war. There was also a presence on Facebook and Twitter. Each day a selection of six letters, specially chosen by a panel, were highlighted on the site.

Many schools became strongly involved and Bohunt School, in Liphook, Hampshire, actually suspended its syllabus for a week to explore the story of WW1 with its students.

Other activities included taking the project out “on the road” and the group teamed up with the BBC at a number of country fairs and other history events. The project also had individual “Champions”, in different parts of the country, who worked with local groups to encourage participation in the project. Although not sought, certain celebrities and politicians also became engaged and Angela showed us a photograph of Joanna Lumley visiting the statue with a group of Ghurka trainees.

The Management Group did consider, at the outset of the project, that there may be the risk of some “nasty stuff” being submitted so eight English Literature students from Bath Spa University acted as moderators and read all letters before they went on the website – a tough job.

A total of 21,439 letters were received, some coming from as far away as Afghanistan, Iceland and South Korea. I know that our Branch Chairman, Geoff Cunnington, submitted one, as did I. The youngest letter writer was aged 3 ½ years old and the oldest 91, indeed half the letters written were submitted by those aged under 25. Interestingly, 2,320 writers also wished to remain anonymous. As well as being available to read on line, copies have also been archived at the British Library.

Looking at “spin off” projects, Angela went on to tell us that a selection of letters had also been taken and published, by William Collins, in a 256 page paperback edition. A Composer has also approached the group with a potential plan to turn some of the letters into an Opera and an American Producer is talking about using some of the letters as starting points for TV dramas. Although nothing to do with this project, a project called “Talking Statues” has also used the statue, which is now accompanied by a QR code which, once activated, has the voice of Patrick Stewart telling the visitor about the statue.

The project can be found online at …… https://www.1418now.org.uk/letter/

Simon Goodwin, February 2016

15th January 2016 - ‘Art & Reality – The Artist Fortunino Matania’s Vision of the Great War’

One hundred years later Fortunino Matania is a relatively unknown Great War artist. However at the time his work was widely viewed in the Sphere magazine, where he worked as the War Artist. Lucinda Gosling’s talk was enthusiastically and expertly given, and explained how she had come across the artist. She recounted his career from a child prodigy, through his time during the Great War, through to the latter days of his career. Lucinda has worked in the Picture Library industry since 1993, and from 2003 she managed the achives of the Illustrated London News, which included the “Sphere” magazine. It was through this publication she became familiar with the work of Matania. The archive also included several of Matania’s original works, mainly from the time of the Great War, but these have now been sold or auctioned.
Fortunino Matania was born in Naples in 1881 into a family of illustrators. His father Eduardo worked for the top magazine in Italy, and Fortunino learned his skills at his father’s studio. He was a child prodigy and produced some amazing pictures at a very early age. By the age of 9 he had published his first advertisement, for a soap company, and by 11 was displaying paintings at the Academy in Naples. At the age of 14 he was employed by “L’Illustratzione” magazine in Italy, and soon moved to Paris to work on the leading French magazine “L’Illustration”. In 1904 Clement Shorter, from the “Sphere” Magazine saw Matania’s drawings of action from the Russo-Japanese War, and invited him to join the magazine. Matania was assigned to provide illustrations of Royal and High Society occasions and to illustrate major events as they happened.
Matania worked as an illustrator, as opposed to a fine artist, often working in black and white pen and ink and watercolour mediums, sketching events and producing a final picture incredibly quickly to meet the publication deadlines. His pictures include incredible detail and accuracy, and he used a wide range of techniques to create pictures that could easily be mistaken for a photographic images.
In 1912, the “Sphere” published an article about the sinking of the Titanic. Matania interviewed a Steward from the ship who had survived the catastrophe, and gleaned much detail about the event, and those involved, which enabled him to create two pictures for the magazine. He used the same technique to capture Captain Scott’s fated journey to the South Pole. In 1913 he was commissioned to illustrate the wedding of the Kaiser’s daughter, Princess Victoria-Louise, and returned a year later, in 1914, just months before War broke out to illustrate the christening of the Princess’ first child.
When War broke out the “Sphere” was keen to record the action, but it was seven months before Matania was allowed to get to the Front. He used his interview technique to help him produce pictures, often visiting wounded soldiers in hospital to get all of the details. In April 1915 Matania visited the Front , and not only produced drawings first hand, but wrote an excellent series of articles as he travelled along the Western Front. Each week Matania’s pictures from the Front and the Home Front were published in the “Sphere”, as he magnificently and accurately captured all of the action, emotions and events of the time, working at frenetic speed to meet publication deadlines. In September 1916 he was back at his home in Potters Bar when Zeppelin L21 was shot down in the vicinity. He immediately rushed to the crash site. His eye-witness account and pictures appeared in the“Sphere”. Perhaps his most famous and popular picture was “Good-bye Old Man”, a picture which showed Royal Artillery Driver tending his dying horse. The “Sphere” continued to sell reproductions of this picture through to the 1930’s. In 1917 Matania visited the Italian Front, and was later back on the Western Front producing pictures through to the end of the War. He continued to take commissions for War topics in the years following the War, but after the excitement of the trenches, he reverted to his previous duties, drawing Royal occasions and Society events. However it was at this time that Matania started to create drawings of events from Ancient History. He visited archaeological sites and either bought junk from Caledonian Market, or created his own statues and artefacts to include in these drawings.
Later in his career he began to produce pictures for a new Women’s magazine “Britannia and Eve”, and wrote and painted until the 1950’s. However by this time his work was becoming less and less popular, and as photographic technology developed, so the work of an illustrator became of less importance.
Fortunino Matania was a unique talent. He died in 1963 in London, and although nearly everyone with an interest in the Great War will have seen his work, he is not a well-known War Artist. To see some of the pictures that Lucinda used to illustrate her excellent talk, visit the following web site or just Google - Matania Images.

Roger Yapp, January 2016

11 December 2015 - “Suicide Club to Butchers: The Palestine Brigade RFC/RAF 1917-1918”

On the evening of Friday, 11th December, we were joined at our final WFA Branch Meeting of 2015 by Stuart Hadaway, a Senior Researcher to the RAF’s official historians at the Air Historical Branch. Stuart had kindly agreed to come along and speak to us about the experiences of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), and later the Royal Air Force (RAF), in Egypt and Palestine during the First World War.

On the 4th November 1914 the British Expeditionary Air Unit (BEAU) was sent to Egypt, comprising of three obsolete Maurice Farman aircraft and a further two obsolete aircraft which they purchased in Italy on the way to Egypt. By the 17th November they were in Ismailia and created the first ever airfield in Egypt. These aircraft were useful because their main role was to help guard the Suez Canal and, from a height of 4,000 feet, they could see all 50 miles of the canal from a single vantage point. Unfortunately, the range of these aircraft was only 60 to 70 miles and so a number of new remote airfields had to be set up to increase the area they could cover.

Their arrival “in Theatre” was timely as between January and February 1915 the Ottomans launched a major attack towards the Suez Canal but they were spotted while they were still crossing the desert by Seaplanes from the coast and the BEAU. This gave commanders on the ground time to marshal their defences to counter the attacks. A month later the BEAU was renamed as No. 30 Squadron RFC.

At this stage of the war, there was no Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) involvement in the Middle East – their units were kept closer to home in Britain. What the British did do, however, was identify that the French had five Nieuport Seaplanes in the Mediterranean and borrowed these, along with their ground crews, to form the Port Said Seaplane Squadron. Whilst nominally based at Port Said, these aircraft moved around mounted on naval ships, including two captured German Merchantmen, the Aenne Rickmersl (HMS Anne) and the Rabenfelsl (HMS Raven).

Unfortunately, the width of the wings on the Nieuport Seaplanes and the positioning of the cockpits made camera work almost impossible and so the planes Observers were often left to sketch pictures of enemy positions and return to base with these. In addition, a wireless set of the time weighed about 50 kilograms and so many pilots were left with a choice of whether to take up an Observer OR a radio. Some planes were lost because of reliability issues and there were other problems around the availability of spare parts but, generally speaking, things went reasonably well.

By early 1916 the RNAS began to arrive from Gallipoli and, at the same time, there was a reorganisation of RFC units when Nos. 14 and 17 Squadrons, armed with BE2’s, arrived to form the 5th Wing, and No. 30 Squadron was pulled out to Mesopotamia. It was also at this time that the Senussi, a religious sect in Libya and Egypt, were encouraged by the Ottomans to rise up against the British forces and Nos. 14 and 17 Squadrons were heavily involved in scouting missions to spot groups of Senussi so that ground forces could be dispatched to attack them. Elsewhere, problems were also had with Dervish groups and “C” flight of No. 17 Squadron were despatched to locate them and to work with ground forces to eradicate them.

RNAS units in the area now include three ships HMS Ben My Chree, HMS Empress and, briefly, HMS Ark Royal. Also, in April 1916, the French Seaplane units were re-called as they were needed for anti-submarine duties and, at the same time, new German air units arrived and proved to be much more effective. Amongst these was the Fliegerabteilung 300 who were equipped with six Rumpler C1’s and 2 Faust E2’s.

It was soon realised that the German Aircraft were now superior to the British planes and this was demonstrated when the German’s bombed Port Said twice, from their base at Beersheba, in early May 1916 and the British were forced to move No. 14 Squadron to the city to defend the town.

Soon thereafter, No. 1 Australian Field Squadron (also known as No. 67 Squadron RFC) arrived in the area from Australia and the Middle East Brigade of three squadrons (Nos. 14, 17 and 67) was formed.

Not only were combat  and scouting missions undertaken in the area, but over 1,500 RFC pilots were actually trained during the course of war in Egypt for service in other “theatres”.

With a technical inferiority in terms of planes the casualty rates in combat for Allied pilots were high – however, the sheer scale of the terrain that was covered meant that actual air to air combat was far less frequent than it would have been over the Western Front.

In the Summer of 1916 events on the ground led to changes in the way the squadrons were now used, as Allied forces began to advance to attack the Ottomans. Indeed, by the end of that year British troops were pushing through the Sinai and a regular tactic was for the RFC crews to spot the location of Ottoman troops and then the cavalry would be sent in to encircle and attack them. At this time a few German Albatross D3’s were arriving in the area – these were soon established as the best individual planes in the combat zone.

The first four months of 1917 saw heavy losses amongst RFC crews on the Western Front and all new planes were sent there – meaning that the squadrons in the Middle East continued to have to manage with old aircraft.

Since 1915 the use of grid lines on maps, to identify precise locations, had been a regular feature for RFC pilots on the Western Front, however, it was not until 1917 that it was adopted in the Middle East. This was a great help to the British pilots who were now engaged in photography and bombing missions as part of the Battle of Gaza.

Other ingenious ways of using the aeroplane were also being discovered as, in a famous incident, a German pilot flew out and landed by a remote British railway and pipeline and blew up both using explosives he had carried in his cockpit, before returning safely to base.

The tide now changed again and new British Aircraft began to arrive in the shape of the Bristol M1C, the Vickers Bullet and the DH2. On the back of this General Allenby ordered that two new squadrons be formed from pilots currently serving with the local Training Units and the RFC Palestine Brigade was formed, comprising …

5th Wing                No. 14 Squadron                              16 aircraft – BE2’s

                             No. 113 Squadron                            13 aircraft – BE2’s and RE5’s

“B” Flight                                                                      8 BE2 aircraft (dedicated to Ground Attack roles)

40th Wing             No. 111 Squadron                              17 aircraft – various types

                            No. 67 (Australian) Squadron          18 aircraft – BE2’s and RE5’s

No. 21 Balloon Company

These forces were now used for Artillery Spotting (sometimes for naval guns when the target was near to the coast), Mapping and Bombing. This latter role became especially important as the British troops advanced and quite often discovered that their own artillery could not keep up.

By December the Winter rains kicked in and flights became much fewer and weather problems continued into the Spring of 1918 when British forces were attacking through the Jordan Valley.

The weather wasn’t the only problem for the RFC units because, at about this time, five new German Squadron (totalling 56 aircraft) arrived in the area. These were Fliegerabteilung 301, 302, 303, 304 and 305 and they flew a mixture of AEG C4’s and Albatross D3’s.

Other new roles for aircraft developed and, on occasion, the planes were used to drop, mainly medical, supplies to front line troops.

By May, the RFC and the RNAS had been merged and now formed the RAF and three new Squadrons were formed in the area, Nos. 142 (armed with RE8’s), No. 144 (armed with DH9’s) and No. 145 (armed with SE5’s). These aircraft helped wrest control of the skies back from the Germans and the British were soon flying “Standing Patrols” over German Airfields to keep German planes on the ground to prevent them spotting British troop movements.

On the 1st October the British took Damascus, two weeks later they took Homs and on the 25th they captured Aleppo. Following this the Ottomans sued for peace.

Such was the aerial superiority that No. 14 and 144 Squadrons had already been “crated up” to go to Salonika and these units were very happy when they discovered this meant they could be amongst the first to return back home at the end of the war.

Stuart had shown us, through the development of new plane types and tactics, how the pendulum had swung on a number of occasions between the two competing air forces and how in the end the men of the RAF had truly changed from being a Suicide Club into the aggressors.

Simon Goodwin, December 2015

13th November 2015 - ‘The Battle Bus Project’

Tim Shields the Project Manager of the London Transport Museum Battle Bus Restoration Project was our Speaker in November. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the London Transport Museum and Transport for London Tim explained how a small group of enthusiasts restored a B-type bus, B2737 in time for the summer of 2014, and the 100th anniversary of when London buses were used in the Great War for the first time.
B-type buses brought together the best engine features and ideas of the many types of buses that had been developed in the early twentieth century. The B-type was developed by the London General Omnibus Company (LGOC) and became the first mass-produced bus utilising standardised components. It replaced horse-drawn buses and thirty-seven different designs of motorised buses when it first arrived in service on the streets of London in 1910. The B-type quickly became the standard design for motorised buses, and the interchangeability of parts across the standardised fleet made maintenance much easier. By 1913 there were 2,500 B-type buses in service. The B-type carried 34 passengers, 16 below and 18 on the upper deck. It was built at Walthamstow, and had a top speed of around 16-17 mph, although Police regulations limited it to just 12mph. Police regulations also prevented a roof being fitted as it was considered that the weight of a roof would make the vehicle top-heavy. As early as 1908 the War Office realised that buses could be used to move troops quickly, and in 1908 they were used in manoeuvres effectively moving 500 men from Norfolk and Essex regiments. Soon afterwards a voluntary subsiding scheme was developed to assist Bus Companies to purchase new vehicles in partnership with the Government on the understanding that a proportion of vehicles would be commandeered in the event of War. At the outbreak of War, in August 1914, buses started to be commandeered for the war effort. In the first month of the War buses were sent to France and were used by the Royal Naval Division at the siege of Antwerp. Many drivers and mechanics joined the Army Service Corps (ASC) and converted the buses for war, and they were replaced by women, who also worked as conductresses to keep the London services running.
To prepare them for War service the buses were fitted with protective boarding and painted a shade of khaki green. Each bus could carry 25 soldiers, and apart from being used for troop transport buses were converted to be used as lorries, pigeon lofts, ambulances, gun carriers, mobile workshops and wireless bases.
In all 952 LGOC buses were used by the War Department. Most went to France and Belgium, but some got as far as Greece. 438 didn’t return, and 33 were exported to Australia. By 1921 the B-types were being withdrawn from service, the last being withdrawn in October 1926. Over the years artefacts from the B-type buses have survived and more recently three chassis were found with a private collector in North Yorkshire. With 2014 fast approaching a project was hastily put together, and a HLF Grant Aid applied for. The standardisation of design and the interchangeability of the components allowed one “new” chassis to be constructed from the three that had been found.
Photographs from the Great War period provided great detail for the restoration, and eventually B2737 was reconstructed.
By August 2013 the engine had been rebuilt, and by January 2014 it was fitted to the chassis. The chassis was completed in March 2014, and between April and May the body reconstructed. On 11th June 2014 B2737 was handed over, painted in its original LGOC red livery and displaying reproductions of its original advertisements. Following a Press Launch on 12th June 2014 the bus resumed duties on the old Number 9 Route, from Barnes Bridge to Liverpool Street, carrying non-fare paying passengers. It also attended many charity events.
As the Anniversary of the start of the Great War approached B2737 was converted for Service. Using detailed photographs depicting the conversion process at the ASC depot at Grove Park, the bus was repainted khaki green, using mops – the original method used during the War time conversion. There was much discussion as to which shade of green should be used. Seats were repositioned and window glass replaced by rough sawn boards. In September 2014 B2737 embarked on a short tour along the old Western Front, through Belgium and into France, and another trip is planned for 2016 to coincide with the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.
The Project includes a community learning programme commemorating the centenary of the First World War, and the role of London’s transport workers within it. It is expected that B2737 will remain in khaki green colours at least until 2018, when it is likely that it will take its place at the London Transport Museum restored to its original red livery.

Roger Yapp, December 2015

9th October 2015 - ‘Cycling in the Great War’ and ‘St. John Ambulance in the Great War’.

At the October Members’ Meeting, Charles Harvey presented two short talks on subjects which combined relatively little known aspects of the Great War and two of his major interests – Cycling and the St John Ambulance Service.

Cycling in the First World War

Whilst stuck at home recovering from a ruptured tendon in 2014 Charles was inspired by the Tour de France visiting a number of significant Great War sites, and as a result wrote a short article for the “Cycling Club” magazine, which has become the basis for his talk “Cycling in the Great War”. By the 1880’s several technical innovations came together to greatly improve the humble bicycle – the roller chain, tension spoke wheels, new light-weight metal tubing and the pneumatic tyre. Old-style “Penny-Farthing” bicycles were replaced by new “Safety Bicycles primarily developed by John Kemp Starley and the Rover Company. By the end of the 1880’s basic design of the bicycle was determined and has largely remained unchanged through to the modern day. In 1888 the first Cycle Unit was raised – the 26th Middlesex Rifle Volunteers. Similar developments were taking place in the Armies of the world. Bicycles were used for reconnaissance and communications, with some success by both sides in the Boer War and on 12th August 1914 the Belgian Army used 500 Cyclists to stem the flow of the German advance at the Battle of Haelen at the start of the Great War. In the opening months of the War the British and Germans made extensive use of Cyclists for reconnaissance, to carry messages, to move troops, and to mount limited surprise raids. The French used cycles to pursue the Germans after the Battle of the Marne, and the Germans used cycles to reinforce their troops on the Aisne. In 1914 fourteen Cycling Battalions, numbering 14,000 Cyclists, were formed into the Army Cyclist Corps. As the trench warfare developed, cycles were of little use in the Front Lines, but continued to be used for communication. At Home, Cyclist Companies were used to patrol the East Coast, to protect against German invasion, but as the War progressed, and the Germans showed no intention to invade many of the units were disbanded and the men sent abroad as Infantry. The London Cyclist Battalion was posted to India. The Army Cyclist Corps was disbanded in 1919. In 1921 a Memorial was unveiled to the Cyclists killed in the Great War, at Meriden, near Coventry.

The St John Ambulance in the Great War

The Order of St John started in the Middle Ages when the St John Hospital in Jerusalem was established as a place of hospitality and care for pilgrims and the sick. The Catholic Order continued to expand throughout the Mediterranean lands and Europe. During his reign Henry VIII wound up the Order in Britain, but in 1858 the Order was re-founded as an Anglican organization. In 1877 the St John Ambulance Association was founded and in the absence of a National Health Service provided first id training at a time when there was an increasing number of railway, industrial and mining disasters and accidents. The organisation flourished and in 1887 the St John Ambulance Brigade was founded. This uniformed group provided trained volunteers to cover the first aid at major events, which until then had been handled by the local Police. The Brigade continued to grow, and introduced qualifications and re-certification for their members to ensure that they maintained the highest stands of care and by the end of the 19th Century a First Aid Manual was produced to standardize practices and procedures. Over 2,000 St John Ambulance volunteers served during the Boer War (1899-1902), providing 25% of the medical orderlies involved in the conflict. They served alongside the Royal Army Medical Corps and sixty-one of them died on duty. Whilst the Medical Service on the whole was criticised after the Boer War the support of the St John Ambulance Brigade was well received . As part of the Army Reforms the Territorial Army was established in 1907/8, and this brought the foundation of the Royal Navy Sick Berth Reserve, the Military Home Hospital Reserve, and Voluntary Aid Detachments (V.A.D), and St John Ambulance members joined all of these. One third of the male members were associated with these reserve units. In August 1914, at the outbreak of the Great War, the reserve organisations were mobilized. After First Ypres it was realized that the Medical Services needed to be re-organised, to support an industrialised war, which “wouldn’t be over by Christmas”. A joint committee of the St John Ambulance and the Red Cross was set up to avoid duplication of services and competition for charitable funds, and to support the Military Medical Services. From 1914 the St John Ambulance members joined up with their local regiments, or provided back-fill for Home based medical units, releasing more able-bodied men to be sent to the Royal Army Medical Corps at the Front. In September 1915, in time to receive casualties from the Battle of Loos, a St John Hospital was set up at Etaples on the French Coast. It included 550 beds, X-Ray machines and the first electro cardiograph in France. It was bombed by accident by the Germans in 1918, and was re-opened at Deauville later in the same year. As the War progressed the accidents and injuries on the Home Front increased, and the St John Ambulance continued to provide first aid training and support, but at times found it difficult due to the loss of their members to the services and the Front. By the end of the War over 30,000 persons from the St John Ambulance had served either in local regiments, with the Brigade or with the Royal Army Medical Corps. At least 1,000 died and are commemorated on the Brigade Roll of Honour. St John Ambulance contribution to the War Effort was considerable. It was recognized by the War Office that they were providing well-trained and disciplined personnel, and
that the Medical Services could not cope without their support.

Roger Yapp, October 2015

11th September 2015 - "A Recording Of An Interview With Samuel Fisher (1890 - 1987)" (Recorded In 1984 at St Albans College)

This was a real “coup” for the Committee to be able to share this re-discovery with the Branch. The recording had been gathering dust in the back of a cupboard for the last thirty years but thanks to the efforts of William’s Grandson, Jonathan Sinfield, the interview was transferred onto DVD and can now be seen again. William Samuel Fisher was born in the Thatched Cottage on the corner of Lower Luton Road, Batford, Harpenden, on the 9th September 1890. On the day that war was declared he was making his way to Old Welwyn to take part in “Sports”. He was employed at the time at a Tomato Nursery in Harpenden. William volunteered in Hertford, along with a friend of his called Tom Smith, but his workmate Sandy didn’t want to volunteer and chose instead to wait until he was conscripted later in the war (Sandy did eventually serve and was wounded) William and Tom originally volunteered to join the Artillery but were sent to join the Cavalry, based in Hertford. After six months training as a Cavalryman, at Colchester, under the instruction of the 20th Hussars, William was sent to Mesopotamia, via Egypt. While in the Cavalry William passed his Marksman qualifications and was granted a badge to wear on his uniform bearing the two crossed rifles. He was three years in the Middle East, serving with the 13th Cavalry Division, and did not come home at all during that time. At one stage he was wounded by shellfire but survived despite his friends thinking he was dead. He later contracted a bad fever and had to be evacuated to hospital. This involved a journey of a couple of weeks by camels and ox-wagon as well as a 200 mile trip down the River Tigris by barge to reach a Hospital Ship. The Hospital Ship took him from Basra to Karachi – a journey that took six days and he was then admitted to the Freeman Thomas Hospital in Bombay. Later, while convalescing in India, he was also diagnosed as having a cataract in his left eye and he had to wait for a specialist eye surgeon from England to arrive in Karachi. The surgery took place but went wrong and he ended up losing the sight in his left eye. He eventually returned to Mesopotamia rejoining his old unit. During the war he served with “D” Squadron of the Hertfordshire Yeomanry, part of the 13th (Western) Division. Other cavalry units served in the area including the Australian Light Horse, the 7th (Queen’s Own) Hussars and the 14th (King’s) Hussars. At the end of the war, when the unit was based at Amara, all the horses (except those belonging to officers) had to be destroyed because it was not economical to take them back. He did, however, manage to bring back with him a Turkish Officer’s Pocketbook. William returned to the United Kingdom on the 16th April 1919 and soon discovered that all the jobs and accommodation had already been taken up by the returning men of the BEF. He received no Pension, at the end of the war, for having lost the vision in his left eye. He married Elizabeth Oakley in 1922 and spent the rest of his working life as a gardener, including 16 years spent working at Rothamstead Experimental Station. He died on the 4th March 1987. We thank Jonathan very much for sharing this interview with us and I know that many of those attending were deeply jealous of the fact that not only was his Grandfather interviewed about his WW1 experiences in front of a video camera but also that the family had the foresight to keep a copy that can now be seen again almost thirty years after the death of William Fisher.

Simon Goodwin, September 2015

26th June 2015 - “From The Good Soldier To The Emperor – The Austro-Hungarian Army 1914 -1918”

Alan Wakefield, of the Photographic Section of the Imperial War Museum, very kindly stepped into the breach at short notice to give us a talk on the Austro Hungarian Army. Alan explained that while Austro-Hungarian forces fought in my many theatres of war, Italy and the Eastern Front were their main areas of operation. Alan highlighted a couple of notable Austro Hungarian references including Captain Von Trapp, of “Sound Of Music” fame, who was a WW1 Submarine Ace, and Jaroslaw Hasek who, based upon his experiences as batman to an officer, wrote a comedic book about the stereotypes in the Austro-Hungarian Army called “The Good Soldier Svejk”. At the outbreak of the War the Hapsburg’s had been ruling for a few hundred years and the Empire covered a huge area, as demonstrated by a handout map that Alan gave out before the talk began, but their military spending had lagged behind their European neighbours ….

1910 Defence Spending (as a % of national Income)

15.5% Austro Hungary
20% Russia
28% France
29% United Kingdom

Indeed, in 1914 they could field just 49 Infantry Divisions and 11 Cavalry Divisions against, for example, 100 Infantry Divisions and 35 Cavalry Divisions from the Russians alone. So, clearly, in any central European conflict they needed Allies. Furthermore, the Austro- Hungarian Empire has fought in no major conflict, with the exception of the Boxer Rebellion in China, since 1867 and so its experience of modern warfare was severely restricted. The Empire didn’t even have one consolidated Army, its forces being split between the Common (or old) Army, the Austrian Landwehr and the Hungarian Honved. But a lack of a single identity and cohesion weren’t its only problems – it was fundamentally under resourced in money and equipment. Indeed, in 1914 there were 3.3 million men who could be conscripted but the Army could only afford to pay 136,000 of these men at any one time. That said, at the outbreak of War the Army totalled some 450,000 men but even these were under resourced and whole units had to be trained in capturing and using enemy weapons. To add to problems of supply, the military determined in 1914 that the best way to manage the Railways was to take them into Military control – this went so badly wrong that by 1915 civilian authorities were once more in control and levels of performance increased again. Given its huge land mass the Empire always had a large number of different nationalities within its borders and pressure to at least be seen to be even handed with all these groups. All officers in the Army actually swore allegiance to the Emperor rather than to the country to avoid any problems like this. There were a total of ten different languages spoken within the Army (German, Hungarian, Czech, Italian, Polish, Rumanian, Ruthenian, Serbo-Croat, Slovak and Slovenian) and officers had to learn at least two of these to be able to lead their men. Fortunately, eighteen basic commands were always spoken in German. Tactics were very dated in 1914 and officers were expected to lead their men into battle with their NCOs carrying the Battle Flag of their unit. This was not helped by the relatively small size of the peace time Army which resulted in little chance for promotion for good men and the creation of a commanding elite who were quite old and therefore only knew old tactics. That said, many officers were promoted based upon their abilities, however, there were eighteen Arch Dukes within the Hapsburg family and each of these had to be given a senior role in the Army, irrelevant of their particular abilities. For a variety of historic reasons it seems that everyone in the Austro Hungarian military hated the Italians and sending men to fight them was nowhere near as hard as sending them to the Eastern Front where many deserted. Indeed, desertion was such a big problem that at one stage there were estimated to be 400,000 armed deserters in groups throughout the Empire and these men had to be policed, effectively tying up more men away from the War effort. By the end of the War national tensions within the Empire had increased and many were thinking of their own interests before those of the Empire. In 1918, following the death of Archduke Franz Joseph, the Hungarians and the Czechs sought independence. The Federation of Independent States was formed in October 1918 and the members started to call men of their own nationalities back home from the war despite there being no end to the overall conflict.

During the course of the War …

8 million men (a third of the male population of the Empire) served
1 million men were killed and 1.9 million were badly wounded or disabled.
3.7 million men were hospitalised and 1.7 million became Prisoners Of War (of whom 480,000 died in captivity, mainly in Russia).

This was a very interesting talk which, with the help of cartoons from the book “The Good Soldier Svejk”, was told in a light hearted way and educated us all in the unique problems of the Austro Hungarian Army. We thank Alan once again for stepping into the breach at such short notice and educating us in an area of the conflict seldom explored in this country.

Simon Goodwin, June 2015

Registered Charity No. 298365 
Community Web Kit provided free by BT
Cookie Policy | Charity Number: 298365