Category Archives: France

Will Knifton v the Kaiser (Round 3)

My Grandfather Will, as we have already seen, spent approximately two years four months in a Canadian Army at war. At the end of the conflict, an officer stood at the front of the men on parade, and made a speech about what would happen when they all returned home. With his optimistic words, delivered no doubt in all sincerity by this upper class young man, Will became one of an unknown but enormous number of soldiers who, in 1919, were promised “a home fit for heroes”. Politicians were quick to jump on the bandwagon, of course:

In actual fact, before his return, Will was already very cynical about whether he would receive his just rewards for fighting in the war. Indeed, after just a short time back home in England, he became certain that he was destined never to be given what was due to him. These were the days, of course, when injured ex-soldiers would beg in the streets, unable to find employment. It affected both the victors and the vanquished:

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Overall, Will had very little time for high ranking officers. He did not like the way that they refused to visit the front line with its ever present smell of rotting corpses, but preferred instead to stay in the palatial comfort of country houses miles behind the fighting troops:

As a boy, I remember him telling me never ever to buy a poppy for the Haig Fund because he hated Earl Haig so much. He thought that Haig had no regard whatsoever for the casualties among his men, and that he did not care a jot about their eventual, and dismal, fate. Thank God that Will had no access to the Internet and never found out that Haig was Field Marshal Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, KT, GCB, OM, GCVO, KCIE. Will did not realise either that Haig’s wife, Maud, was a maid of honour to Queen Alexandra, wife of King George V, and that that, supposedly, was how he got his job, in charge of the armies of the British Empire. Years before, in 1905, Haig had put his hat in the ring for a plum job at the War Office but his efforts had all been in vain because he was accused of “too blatantly relying on royal influence”.  (Groot). Here are Queen Alexandra and her daughters at “Maud’s wedding”:

For Will and a very large number of his fellow soldiers, the establishment of Haig’s post-war charity was merely a means for a guilty butcher to salve his blood soaked conscience:

Instead, Will urged me to give any money I had to the Salvation Army, who had always been on hand, ready and willing to help the ordinary soldier.

One final tale. In later years, Will told me how, in the Great War, Gurkhas were sent out at night, to make their way over to the German trenches and to kill as many of the enemy as possible. The Gurkhas were paid one shilling for every German’s right ear that they brought back, threading them carefully onto a piece of wire carried on the front of their chest. The problem was, however, that the Gurkhas were extremely efficient and brought back so many ears that the whole process became a very expensive one, so expensive, in actual fact, that it was discontinued. Fierce little chaps. Every time they get their kukris out they must draw blood, even if it is their own:

The senior officers also seem to have considered it vaguely disquieting to kill the enemy in this very direct, but rather brutal, or even unsporting, way.

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Will Knifton v the Kaiser (Round 2)

When Will was in Flanders during the First World War, he would occasionally get stuck in deep mud, or, in the winter, perhaps out on sentry duty, he would actually become frozen solid into it:

Over the course of the days, and more particularly the nights, Will would often go through the ghastly process of having his feet freeze, melt and then refreeze again. This gave him the unmistakable scars of a condition known as “trench foot”, which, although it is relatively unknown in our modern army, was a frequent occurrence in the trenches of the Great War.

When he was in Burton-upon-Trent Hospital in 1970, dying at some eighty years of age, Will became a bit of an attraction, as young doctors, who had never seen trench foot before, came flocking from all over the hospital to see an example of it. I myself looked at his feet, and, if there had not been a nearby bed to sink down onto, would probably have fainted outright. I will never forget the brown, yellowing skin, almost like a tattoo in the same colours as the Flanders mud, and his scars, and his twisted, mutilated toes:

On at least one occasion during a particular period of action Will was hit in the legs and wounded by two bullets from a German machine gun. He never expressed any real hatred of the Germans to me, though, despite the fact that he risked his life fighting them for more than two years.

I  always thought that Will considered the enemy as just somebody whom you had to shoot at when ordered to do so, but there were no particularly personal issues involved. It was just what happened in times of war:

This attitude may, of course, have been accentuated by the fact that Will spent a fair proportion of his wartime career with the Royal Canadian Field Artillery. Firing projectiles at an enemy who may be five or more miles away does not necessarily encourage anybody to hate them as individuals.

During the enormous battles of the Great War though, Will recounted how, on several occasions, he was on the fire-step of a trench, defending the Canadian line against waves of advancing German infantry. He used to say how, at the time, he resented it, when the officer gave the order, “Fire at Will ! ” because he always thought it was going to be something personal against him.

According to his official service records, Will spent more or less all of his time in France with the Canadian Field Artillery. Conceivably, the moment when Will was firing a mere rifle in such apparently defensive circumstances, may have come in an emergency situation during the great Ludendorff Spring Offensive of 1918.

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Will Knifton v the Kaiser (Round 1)

I reported a long time ago how I had paid for the official records of my Grandad’s service with the Canadian Army during the First World War. In the early part of his military career, which had begun in July 1916, Will seems to have earned some fifteen Canadian dollars per month. This amount appears to have risen eventually to thirty dollars in 1917 and 1918. After his marriage, Will also received a separation allowance of varying amounts, ranging from six to fourteen English pounds. You never know much about your family’s private affairs but I suspect that it was Will’s money from the Canadian Army that allowed him and his wife to buy their own house during the 1920s. Here are their wedding photographs:

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His army documents recorded his leave from the Front after he was given permission to marry on July 15th 1917. There were two other periods when domestic problems caused his leave to be extended. The first of these was a week from October 21st 1918 to November 4th 1918, which was extended to November 9th for “private family affairs”. His service records say that he returned to the Western Front on November 10th, which means that he was probably present when the guns, his own included, fell finally silent the following day. It was too late for many men, though:

The same pattern occurred again with a leave from March 1st-March 8th 1919, which was extended to March 22nd. He had returned to the Fourth Brigade in the field by April 4th 1919. I suspect that both of Will’s extra leaves may have been because of his wife’s miscarriages, when she needed time to recover both physically and mentally from the ordeal. She lost a number of babies before her only son, Fred, was born, whole and healthy, on November 22nd 1922. Here he is, a few years later:

On one occasion when Will was back home on leave from the trenches of the Western Front, he was given a white feather by a woman who accosted him in the street. This was something that happened in the days before conscription had to be introduced, when women, especially suffragettes, would give any man they saw in the street who was apparently of military age, but not wearing military uniform, a white chicken feather as a sign of their cowardice.  Giving one to Will was made doubly ironic by the fact that at this particular time, he had just been given an extra long period of recuperation, because he was recovering from being wounded. Will didn’t get angry with the misguided, stupid, woman. He just laughed, which I suspect may have made her even angrier.

Here’s the caption:

On April 25th 1919 Will finally came back from France for the last time. He sailed for England from the French port of Le  Havre. Will’s journey home was not a particularly rapid process however. He had lingered in the port of Le Havre on his way back from the Western Front since at least Saturday April 19th 1919 when this postcard was posted, via the Army PO1 :

The message on the back of the card reads:

“Dear Wife Trust you are much better. Affectionate love Will  Sig W Knifton 19TH C F A”

“CFA” by the way. means “Canadian Field Artillery”. The following day, Sunday April 20th,  he sent another card:

On the back, he  labelled the card “on active service”.  The message reads “Thoughts of home and you. Sincere love Will. Sig W H Knifton 19TH C F A”

This next postcard was posted on Tuesday, April 22nd 1919, as Will continued his slow return from the Great War.  Perhaps he had important things to think about. He wanted to go back to Canada, but his wife didn’t want to, presumably wishing to stay with her family. Perhaps he was wondering whether they would ever have a child to love. Or perhaps he had just been allocated to a later sailing:

The faded pencil inscription reads “Monday Dear Wife I hope this finds you much better. I hope you enjoyed easter. We are having very cold weather Give my love to all (illegible) my thoughts are of (you ? ) with fondest love to (illegible) leave here Wednesday Sig W H Knifton  19TH C F A

Will’s military records show that he did not leave on Wednesday, the 23rd as he thought. Indeed, he was still in Le Havre on Friday, April 25th 1919, which may just possibly have been the date that he “proceeded to England”. These kind of delays, of course, were enough to provoke mutinies and other serious disorder, most notably among the Canadians in north Wales.

On March 4th and 5th 1919, at Kinmel Park in Denbighshire, north Wales, Canadian troops rioted against their dreadful living conditions, sick of the constant, apparently pointless delays, and longing to be allowed to go home at last back to their families in Canada. The rioters were fired upon by British troops. Five brave Canadian veterans were killed and 23 were wounded. It was one of 13 mutinous riots by Canadian troops, all for exactly that same reason. Here is a picture of Kinmel after the riot:

Will,  listed as a Signaller, seems to have been finally “struck off service on being discharged in British Isles” on May 23rd 1919. From his medical examination, he had put on some sixteen pounds during his time in the army, and now weighed a hundred and forty pounds, a glowing testimony to the quality of the food in the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force. He had also apparently grown half an inch taller.

In later life, of course, Will was to become profoundly deaf. It is tempting to think that the very first steps in this unfortunate process began with the enormous volume of noise he must have experienced in the Canadian artillery during the First World War.

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A young German dies (2)

Last time I was talking about how much I had enjoyed hearing Norm Christie’s Canadian viewpoint about World War I:

But let’s move forward to World War II.
Probably my favourite story from Norm’s programmes is when he recounts an incident in Normandy in the weeks after D-Day in July 1944.
It’s a long time now since the glory days of 1940 and 1941, when leather overcoats were handed out free:

By July 1944, a lot of the Germans were beginning to realise just how gullible they had been, both as boys in the Hitler Youth, and then as proud young men in the German army.

Anyway, here’s the story, taken from the soundtrack of the programme. The events are recounted by a Canadian infantryman:

“I led my section down a small hill from the north into the main part of the city .The Germans were headed my way and we crossed at the end of the hedge. I had brought a Sten gun with me and I poked it through the hedge and fired. Three Germans went down. The rest put up their hands and surrendered.

I stayed with a mortally wounded German. He had a few words of English. He got across to me that he was 23 years old. He was a very good looking boy. He showed me pictures of his parents, his girlfriend. He gave me his parents’ address and asked me to go and see them when we got to Germany. He knew he was dying. I would have given anything to save his life. But I was helpless. And to make matters worse I was the one who had shot him.
He held both of my hands in his and cried, and then pulling them up tight under his chin, he coughed up blood all over my hands and then he died.

I threw away the things he had given me. I went back to my men and washed the blood from my hands.”

Only one person is guilty here.

The one who started the war.

 

 

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A young German dies (1)

Death in war is very strange.  As kindly old Uncle Joe Stalin used to say, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” He would frequently ease his constantly untroubled conscience with wise old peasant maxims like that one.

The Russian means “Glory to the Great Stalin!”

Let’s just take a look at a million deaths and a single death.

This account isn’t quite a million deaths but it makes a good contribution to the overall total. These are the statistics about a single night during the Second World War. They are taken from “The Bomber Command War Diaries and Operational Reference Book 1939 to 1945” by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt.” This is one of the best, if not the best, reference work about the activities of Bomber Command. It is not in the slightest bit gung-ho. It is factual and leaves the reader to make up his or her own mind. And it relates the death toll both in the air and on the ground.

“April 22-23, 1944.  Düsseldorf bombed by 596 aircraft….323 Lancasters, 254 Halifaxes, 19 Mosquitoes.  29 aircraft… 16 Halifaxes and 13 Lancasters were lost, 4.9% of the force.”

In those 29 bombers, a minimum of 134 men were killed.

“2150 tons of bombs were dropped in this heavy attack which caused much destruction but also allowed the German night fighter force to penetrate the bomber stream. Widespread damage was caused on the ground. Among the statistics in the local report are: 56 large industrial premises hit, of which seven were completely destroyed, more than 2000 houses destroyed or badly damaged”:

“Casualties recorded by 2 PM on April 25th were 883 people killed, 593 injured and 403 still to be dug out of wrecked buildings ; at least three quarters of this last figure would have been dead.”

For my single death, I will go to the programmes of Norm Christie, one of my very favourite presenters of historical programmes on TV:

Christie always presents the Canadian point of view, which is very often different, and may well be a lot less favourable to the British ruling classes than, say, the BBC one.  One of his best programmes contained a portrayal of Arthur Currie, the leader of the Canadian forces in World War One and a man from very humble origins. He changed the face of warfare at the time. I realised that Norm Christie would have some interesting ideas when he contrasted a photograph of Haig’s Generals with one of Currie. Do you see what makes Currie a man apart?

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And Norm Christie is not directly related to an officer involved in masterminding the carnage of the First World War. At least one regular television presenter can’t say that and I refuse to watch any programmes he has made. To be continued.

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The Mosquito at Cosford

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Yetta.”

“Yetta, who?”

“Yetta nother Mosquito.”

An even more terrible joke, but according to my Dad, a genuine RAF joke from World War II. Well, I suppose they had to do something while they waited for Premier League football to be invented.

We went to RAF Cosford in April 2011.  Like Hendon, they too have a Mosquito.

This is TA 639, which is a Mark 35 Target Tug. The website explained that “After the war Mosquitoes continued in use as fighters until 1952 and others, including this example, were converted to tow targets for anti-aircraft gunnery practice.”

How sad. A Mosquito pulling targets. It’s like going into the park and finding your greatest sporting hero as a fat, helpless drunk, semi-conscious on a park bench.

Mosquitoes could do anything.

Mosquitoes could free prisoners from Amiens jail.

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Here is a Pathé news broadcast:

And here is a film, almost an hour long:

In Operation Carthage, Mosquitoes could bomb the Shell House, headquarters of the Danish Gestapo, and destroy the buildings and the German records and release Resistance prisoners. Here’s a short video:

And a stretched version of 20 odd minutes

In a tragic twist, Operation Carthage went wrong and 86 schoolchildren and 18 adults were killed when a nearby school was bombed. I recently read a really good book about the Danish Resistance, “Hitler’s Savage Canary” and I must admit that the Danes of the time viewed events in a much more positive way than we would nowadays. Danes in 1945 seemed to consider the deaths an unfortunate price that had to be paid for a whole nation’s resistance network to survive.

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The greatest of all Mosquito squadrons, although fictional, was 633 Squadron. Originally it was a book:

And you could name your own price for a mint condition film poster:

Here is just one of almost 250 videos taken from the film on Youtube….

Here are my photographs from Cosford. Here’s a general view. It seems to be painted as a bomber but I bet given half a chance it would be back with those targets, dragging them around the sky:

From behind it looks as if the mystery line has been omitted from this aircraft:

The great lumbering brute behind is an Avro Lincoln. I already did a post about this development of the Lancaster. Indeed, it was called the Avro Lancaster Mark IV until somebody pointed out that it didn’t look that much like a Lancaster.

Last look at the Mosquito. If only I could see one doing what it does best, rather than just sitting in a museum:

 

 

 

 

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Vive l’Empéreur !! (3)

Last time I was busy listing all the things that Napoléon did to help his country and its ordinary people. They are the reason that he was so hated by the British aristocracy with their mad king and his disgraceful son. They were all afraid that Napoléon’s ideas would sweep away their comfortable and lucrative world.

The best book about Napoléon was the source of the author’s TV series on BBC2:

cover

In it, Andrew Roberts summarises Napoleon’s legacy:

“The ideas that underpin our modern world–meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and so on–were championed, consolidated, codified and geographically extended by Napoleon. To them he added a rational and efficient local administration, an end to rural banditry, the encouragement of science and the arts, the abolition of feudalism and the greatest codification of laws since the fall of the Roman Empire.”

Napoleon had no time for the idea that men were superior just because of their birth. He believed totally in having people around him who were genuinely talented rather than members of the nobility:

napoleon-passant-en-revue

Napoleon had between 20-25 “Marshals of the Empire”. Here is a list of the occupations of their fathers. Nobody got a job with Napoleon because his Dad owned huge tracts of land:

“An officer in the Engineers, a Hussar, a well off farmer and an innkeeper, a small town lawyer, a surgeon (although his son enlisted in the army as a private), a shopkeeper, a fruit seller and servant, a small town prosecutor, a lawyer, a country solicitor, a surgeon barber, two farmers, a master barrel-cooper and ex-soldier, a farmer (whose son served in the army as a drummer boy), a Jacobite rebel, exiled from the Outer Hebrides, a brewer, a farmer and distiller of brandy, a silk manufacturer and a tanner.”

Napoleon made use of the nobility, with four major nobles and two members of the petty nobility. None of the noblemen he used, though, were from the absolute top of the Nobility Tree.  Napoleon chose one petty noble who was a Seigneur de Sort. His bizarre job was to act as a mole-catcher at the king’s horse breeding stud. Another was a mere sergeant in the city of his birth and had the job of locking the city gates every night. Another one had begun his career as a lowly page-boy.
This wasn’t how the English kings organised things. Nor indeed, the way anybody has ever organised things in England, right up till the present year.
No wonder the English upper classes wanted Napoleon dead. And that is why they exiled him to a place where the appalling weather would soon kill him off, housing him in a property where water ran down the walls when the weather was damp:

napoleondeath

When the ship with Napoleon’s coffin arrived back in France from St Helena, a million people were waiting there to shout “Vive l’Empéreur !!” And this was 25 years after he was exiled from France for ever.

In Paris, between the River Seine and the site of his funeral at Les Invalides, another crowd of around a million people were assembled. There were in excess of 150,000 ex-soldiers there too, loyal veterans of the Emperor’s army. There would, no doubt, have been more spectators, had there not been a blizzard that particular day. Here is his ornate sarcophagus:

tomb

And here is how his people remember him. The man who crowned himself Emperor:

Napoleon[1]

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