Tag Archives: the Great War

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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Filed under Canada, France, History, Personal, Politics

“The Memorial: Beyond The Anzac Legend” with Dr Neil Oliver

 

Recently I have been watching a TV series with Neil Oliver about the Australian War Memorial in Canberra:

poppies

It was called “The Memorial: Beyond The Anzac Legend” and it was on History Channel.
Here is the link.

The programmes examine what is being done to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, and in particular from an Australian point of view, the centenary of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.

This is an extremely moving set of five programmes and in my opinion by far the best work that Dr Oliver has ever done on television:

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One episode featured the letters of two brothers initially from Manchester, England who then settled in South Australia and became Australians. The elder brother served as Second Lieutenant John Alexander Raws and his younger brother was Lieutenant Robert Goldthorpe Raws. After Gallipoli, they were both sent to France and the disastrous Battle of the Somme.

Robert was to die on either July 28th or 29th 1916 and John was killed shortly afterwards on August 23rd 1916. Their biographical details are available here. Firstly John Raws and then his brother Robert.
What makes it all so interesting is the fact that the letters home from the two officers have been preserved and can be downloaded from this link.

The best thing is to do is to download them as a 164 page PDF document. I actually right clicked the download link on my computer, and then I selected “Save target as”. I could then choose where the letters were downloaded on my computer. I am no computer wizard, and I found that if I just clicked “Download”, I couldn’t find them afterwards. At least two lost copies are just wandering around inside the machine somewhere.

The whole point about these letters is that, for some unknown reason, they came through to the people waiting at home without the censors doing anything about them. I have read a fair amount about the Great War and I have never come across any letters quite like these.

Some of the things said are just unbelievable by the censorship standards of the day. Just to encourage you to take that first step, here are a few extracts, with the page references:

Page 134

July 16, 1916

There is something rather humorous in this situation, when I actually come to it.

John Alexander Raws, who cannot tread upon a worm; who has never struck another human being except in fun; who cannot read of the bravery of others at the front without tears well into his eyes; who cannot think of blood, and mangled bodies, without bodily sickness, this man, I, go forth tomorrow to kill and maim,  murder and ravage.

It is funny.

But I am glad to go. It is what I set out for, and the mission must be fulfilled:

recruit

Pages 136 and 137

How we do think of home, and laugh at the pettiness of our little daily annoyances. We could not sleep, we remember, because of the creaking of the pantry door, all the noise of the tram cars, all the kids playing around and making a row.
Well, we can’t sleep now because six shells are bursting around here every minute, and you can’t get much sleep between them:
Guns are belching out shells, with the most thunderous clap each time;
The ground is shaking with each little explosion;
I am wet, and the ground on which I rest is wet;
My feet are cold. In fact, I’m all cold, with my two skimpy blankets;
I am covered with cold, clotted sweat, and sometimes my person is foul.
I am hungry;
I am annoyed because of the absurdity of bloody war;
I see no chance of anything better for tomorrow, or the day after, or the year
after;
One could go on and on…..
And don’t think I always sleep on the wet ground. I sometimes get a dry bit. And I had a hot bath yesterday, and I am clean-for the time. By the way, while I was having my bath, another officer of his Majesty’s gallant forces was blown to pieces a little way in front. He had just come out of the trenches and was going to have his bath.

page 140

July 25th 1916

I am still alive but living rather a risky existence, what with shells and bullets and bayonets…..

August 4th 1916

I write from the battlefield of the Great Push with thousands of shells passing in a tornado overhead and thousands of unburied dead around me. It seems easy to say that, but you who have not seen it can hardly conceive the awfulness of it all:

pozieres shatteredzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

My battalion has been in it for eight days, and one-third of it is left–all shattered at that. And they’re sticking it still, incomparable heroes all. We are lousy, stinking, ragged, unshaven, sleepless. Even when we’re back a bit we can’t sleep for our own guns. I have one puttee, a dead man’s helmet, another dead man’s gas protector, a dead man’s bayonet. My tunic is rotten with other men’s blood and partly splattered with a comrade’s brains.
It is horrible, but why should you people at home not know? Several of my friends are raving mad. I met three offices out in No Man’s Land the other night, all rambling and mad. Poor Devils!

Chateau_Wood_Ypres_1917

page 141

Myself, I am alright. I have had much luck and kept my nerve so far. The awful difficulty is to keep it. The bravest of all often lose it. Courage does not count here. It is all nerve. Once that goes one becomes a gibbering maniac. The noise of our own guns, the enemy shells, and the getting lost in the darkness.
You see this is enemy country. We’re in the remnants of their trenches and wrecked villages, and the great horror of many of us is the fear of being lost with troops at night on the battlefield. We do all our fighting and moving at night and the confusion of passing through a barrage of enemy shells in the dark is pretty appalling . You’ve read of the wrecked villages. Well some of these about here are not wrecked. They are utterly destroyed, so that there are not even skeletons of buildings left. Nothing but a churned mass of  débris, with bricks, stones and girders and bodies pounded to nothing. And forests! There are not even tree trunks left, not a leave or a twig. All is buried and churned up and buried again.
The sad part is that one can see no end of this. If we live tonight we have to go through it tomorrow night and next week and next month. Poor wounded devils you meet on the stretchers are laughing with glee. One cannot blame them. They are getting out of this.

pages 147 and 148

Just before daybreak, an engineer officer out there, who was hopelessly rattled, ordered us to go. The trench was not finished. I took it on myself to insist on the men staying, saying that any man who stopped digging would be shot. We dug on and finished amid a tornado of bursting shells. All the time, mind, the enemy flares are making the whole area almost as light as day. We got away as best we could. I was again in the rear going back, and again we were cut off and lost. We eventually found our way to the right spot. I was buried twice, and thrown down several times–buried with the dead and dying. The ground was covered with bodies in all stages of decay and mutilation, and I would, after struggling free from the earth, pick up a body by me to try to lift him out with me, and find him a decayed corpse. I pulled a head off one man and was covered with blood. The horror was indescribable:

cotrpses_Somme_1916

In the dim misty light of dawn I collected about 50 men and sent them off, mad with terror, on the right track for home. Then two brave fellows stayed behind and helped me with the only unburied wounded man we could find. The journey down with him was awful. He was delirious. I tied one of his legs to his pack with one of my puttees. On the way down I found another man and made him stay and help us. It was so terribly slow.

page 153

Well, I’ve had my whack and enough to last a life time. I think one could call it a crowded time. Shells—millions of shells, shells all day and all night, high explosives. I want to put somewhere in here that Goldy fell at Pozières, or rather beyond it. Shrapnel, minenwerfers, whizz-bangs, bombs, tear gas shells, gas shells, sulphur shells-and thousands of gaping dead:


The stench, and the horridness of it can but be mentioned. I have sat on corpses, walked on corpses, and pillaged corpses. I got many interesting German souvenirs and could have secured cartloads from their trenches, but I lost most of what I took, and usually was too busy to pick up anything. I lost nearly all my equipment and clothes and with them my curiosities, but I brought back one bonzer souvenir that I did not expect to bring back—myself.

You always told me I would stick it all right, and I did, but I’d give anything to be out of it for good. All of us would. I saw strong men who had been through Gallipoli sobbing and trembling as with fever–men who had never turned a hair before. The fact that it was all so new to me probably helped me enormously. Goldy fell in the first hour, before I even saw him. I reached the same ground next day.

I worry that if we are not careful, we will finish up celebrating the Great War and our eventual victory over the Germans. This collection of Australian letters will go a long way in preventing anybody from making that ridiculous mistake.

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Filed under France, History, Writing

Ancient initials carved a century ago

In the High School, there is a much vandalised stone mantelpiece over an old fireplace on the ground floor. Boys have carved their names on it well over a hundred years ago and the letters are only just beginning to disappear into the thick levels of gloss paint now used to cover the original stone. The fireplace is located between the General Office and the entrance to the Assembly Hall, so literally thousands of boys will have queued past it as they go into Morning Assembly.

On Wednesday, January 18th 1899, Thomas Ignatius Joseph Gillott entered the school. He was to leave during the course of his fourth academic year, in July 1902. Sadly Thomas died on Sunday, July 6th 1913, after a failed operation at the London Hospital. On that same day in 1899, his brother Bernard Cuthbert Gillott, also entered the school. He was destined to remain a pupil only until the end of that academic year and he left in July 1899. With the advent of the Great War, Bernard was to join the army, where he served as a Captain in the 6th Northamptonshire Regiment. A brave man, he won both the British Military Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. Eventually he was  severely wounded, but thankfully he survived, and he was invalided home to England.

On Tuesday, September 12th 1899, the youngest of the three brothers, Oswald Cornek Gillot entered the school aged nine. Oswald was born in Ripley on July 22nd 1890 and his father was Thomas Gillot, M.I.C.E., a civil engineer whose address was given as either, Upland House, Eastwood, or Langley Mill near Ilkeston.  Possibly towards the end of the Summer Term, 1905, Oswald carved his name on that extremely popular stone mantelpiece on the ground floor fireplace between the General Office and the Assembly Hall. Oswald left the High School in March 1907.

Gillott ccccccccc

Taking decent photographs of these carved signatures has in actual fact, proved extremely difficult. They are located on the northern side of the school where the usually tropical English sun does not often penetrate,  and they are surrounded by vast thick walls of stone and brick, with a singular lack of windows. This means that the whole area is more or less permanently dark from a photographic point of view. Added to this is the fact that in the century or so since these interesting acts of senseless vandalism were carried out, a succession of school caretakers, under the almost inhuman management pressure to hurry up that all school caretakers permanently face, have repainted the mantelpiece with a succession of layers of whitish gloss paint, all of them applied without having the time to remove the previous one. The stone therefore, now wears a building’s equivalent of an inflatable Sumo suit.
Consequently, I have been forced to Photoshop the pictures I took so that the now faint carvings stand out a little more clearly from the dimly lit and pale coloured background. One unfortunate young man, R.Salew, has proved completely impossible to conjure out of the camouflaging layers that now hide his signature. But he is definitely there.
Towards the end of the Christmas Term, 1904, John Francis Haseldine carved his name, in rather florid handwriting, on that same stone mantelpiece.

haseldine cccccc

John was born on December 28th 1886 and entered the High School on May 4th 1896, aged nine. His father was Frank Haseldine, a lace manufacturer of St.John’s Grove, Beeston. John was a very good footballer (soccer player), and made his début for the First XI on Wednesday, March 26th 1902, in an away game against Loughborough Grammar School. We know that the school’s best player, J.B.Sim, worked hard throughout the match, but, according to the School Magazine of the time,“The Forester”, he was “too carefully watched” by the Loughborough defence, and the game was lost by 0-2. That particular spring, John had been in the team which had won the Football Sixes, a six-a-side competition organised within the school by the boys themselves, with the teams all drawn out of a hat. It was taken, of course, extremely seriously. Coincidentally, the winning team’s captain was that very same J.B.Sim, who was a well-known High School footballer of that era, with more than fifty appearances for the First XI.
On Wednesday, February 14th 1903, John scored his only goal for the school, in a 4-1 away victory over Mansfield Grammar School, “a rather poor and one-sided game”. As an ever present in the team, John won his football colours at the end of this season and was also awarded a “Standard Medal” for Football . In season 1903-1904, he became Captain of Football.  John spent the Christmas Term of 1904 at the High School, but, like so many boys during this period, he left half way through the academic year in December 1904.
In the Great War John was a Major in the Royal Engineers, Special Reserve. He was Mentioned in Dispatches on June 3rd 1916 and received the Military Cross on January 1st 1917. By 1929, he was living at Northdene, New Barnet, in  the northern suburbs of Greater London.
Among the other more legible carved names are “A.E.Anthony” and “G.Devey”. What is apparently “R.Salew” is also there, although there are many, many  layers of gloss paint to obscure the lettering of this particular name, and the photo has not come out because of this. Another seems to read “B.Abel 1905-190” as if the young man had been interrupted, perhaps by a Master (teacher), as he came towards the end of his carving, and then did not ever return to finish the job.

Alfred Edward Anthony was born on June 12 1906, and entered the school on September 18th 1918, aged twelve. His father was F.W.Anthony of 120, Radcliffe Road, West Bridgford. He was the Managing Director of Gotham Co Ltd (apparently sic). Alfred left the school in December 1922.

anthony 1 ccccccc

“G.Devey” was the elder brother of Reginald Devey, whose own name had already been carved on the fireplace upstairs, in the staffroom corridor, alongside that of D.H.Lawrence and L.S.Laver, the High School’s very own Latin Champion of the World.

r.a. devey cccccccv

This ground floor effort though, was Gerald Bertil Devey, who was born on June 10th 1903,. Gerald entered the school on May 27th 1918 at the rather late age of fourteen. His father was James Edward Devey, a civil servant, and the family lived at 22, Ebury Road, Sherwood Rise. Gerald left the High School in July 1919.

devey cccccc

John Rylett Salew entered the school on May 4th 1916, aged fourteen. He left in December 1918. John was born on February 28th 1902 and his father was Joseph William Salew, an “agent” of 19, William Rd, West Bridgford.

Bertram Albert Abel was born on July 31st 1889 and entered the school on September 13th 1905, aged sixteen. His father was William Jenkinson Abel, a clerk to the Nottingham Education Committee. The family lived at 99, Waterloo Crescent, and Bertram left the school in July 1907.

b abell ccccccc
The fact that “S.Vasey” has carved his name in two different places on the stone, one of them complete with his own personal dates, namely “1917” and “1917-1922” shows not only that he had an extremely strong desire for immortality, but that, within the context of the High School, it has been fulfilled. He must have been a very swift, and fairly brazen, vandal.

zzzzz  s vasey 1907

Stanley Vasey was born on June 5th 1905 and he entered the school at the age of thirteen, on September 18 1918. His father was Alfred Vasey, a shop inspector, and the family lived at 15, Glebe Road, West Bridgford. He left in December 1922.

zzzzzzzzzz vasey 1922
It is actually possible to best guess friendship groups among these carved names. Messrs Anthony, Devey and Vasey, for example, all joined the school in 1918. They all left in the latter half of 1922. They must surely have known each other. John Rylett Salew and Stanley Vasey both lived within a penknife’s throw of each other in the very posh Nottingham suburb of West Bridgford. Did the four boys seal their friendship by committing their names to the hard surface of that much painted fireplace ? Did three of them keep watch while the fourth scratched his name into the welcoming stone ?

The other names on the fireplace, some of them extremely indistinct, include “F.B.Ludlow”, “N.G.Peet”, “Littler”, “Meigh” and “Holmes”. The latter was possibly the George Chudleigh Holmes who was a regular player in the First XI football team during the 1902-1903 season. Born on June 15th 1887, George entered the school on January 17th 1900, aged twelve. His father was George H.Holmes, a Lace Manufacturer of Gregory Street, Old Lenton. George left at Easter 1903, perhaps once the football season was over.

hiolmes 2 ccccccccc
Fred (sic) Ball Ludlow was born on April 28th 1891. He entered the school on May 1st 1900 aged   nine. His father was William Ludlow, a clerk in the Gas Depôt. The family lived at 10, Willoughby Avenue, Lenton in the western suburbs of the City. Fred left in June 1907.

ludlow cccccc

Noel George Peet was born on December 26th 1901 and entered the High School on April 26th 1917, aged fifteen. His father was William George Peet, a “general agent”, and the family lived at 413, Mansfield Road. Noel left the school in July 1919. Perhaps he was a relative of Mrs.Mary Peet who was the school’s nurse during the late 1970s and the 1980s.

Samuel Littler was born on May 16th 1891. He entered the school on September 16th 1903 aged twelve. The family lived at 8, Appleton Gate, Newark-on-Trent, and his father, a veterinary surgeon, was also called Samuel Littler. Samuel junior left in July 1908.

Vincent George Meigh entered the school as an Agnes Mellers scholar on September 12th 1899 aged ten, the cost of his place in the school automatically paid for. His father was George Meigh, a schoolmaster of 3, Willoughby Avenue, Lenton. Vincent left in December, 1903.

meigh ccccc
On the mantelpiece, one set of letters to set the heart a-flutter is “(illegible)BALL  1900-1907” , but this cannot be the famous air ace, as there are clearly a fair number of letters before the B-A-L-L. In any case, Albert Ball did not stay long in the High School, being expelled after an incident when he disrupted school assembly by emptying a large bag of bullseyes, gobstoppers and bouncing sweets onto the floor.

Best fit is probably Oliver Herbert Ball, who was born on August 13th 1891. He had entered the school on January 17th 1900, aged eight, as the third of three brothers. Oliver was to leave in July 1907. His mother was called Emma, and his father was Alfred Holmes Ball, the “Laundry Man” of “Sunnyside”, Daybrook, Notts.  Presumably, this was the company which was eventually to become the massive “Daybrook Laundry”.’ It was situated opposite the Home Brewery on the Mansfield Road, and was only recently demolished during the first decade of the twenty first century. The Arnold branch of the “Aldi” supermarket chain has now been built on this site during the latter part of 2014. It was open for business by the end of the year. Look for the orange arrow:

north nottingham

During the Great War, Oliver Ball was to serve as a Second Lieutenant in the 10th Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment.  Aged only twenty five, he was killed on September 28th 1916 and is buried in the Guards’ Cemetery at Lesboeufs in France. Oliver’s  death was part of the Somme offensive.  He shares the cemetery with 1,492 identified casualties, and a grand total of 3.136 men.

oh ball

Oliver Ball’s elder brother was Walter William Ball, the second son of the three, and himself an Old Nottinghamian. Walter had returned to the Western Front, and the Yorkshire Regiment, from his leave in Nottingham on Friday, November 19th 1915. The “Nottingham Guardian” reported his death on Monday, November 29th 1915. He had apparently been shot through the head by a sniper while organising a firing party with his captain. The tragic news was communicated to his parents by his younger brother, Second Lieutenant Oliver Ball, who held a commission in the same regiment. According to the “Nottingham Guardian”, Walter was “well-known in Nottingham and had a large circle of friends”. He had received his commission as a Second Lieutenant a mere twelve months previously. Walter is buried in Houplines Communal Cemetery Extension in France, Plot 1, Row A, Grave 21. He was 28 years of age.

ww ball

As far as I can trace, the third brother seems to have survived the war.

One of the more notable objects on the mantelpiece is perhaps the school badge which has been carved relatively large, and in primitive style, with the lozenge and the three merles or heraldic blackbirds still recognisable even now, the best part of a century after it was executed by some unknown, juvenile artist.

badge cccccccc c

Less time proof perhaps, are the boys who managed to carve only their initials, namely “JL”, “MV”, either “WA” or “WR”, and either “BFW” or “SFW”. It is just so difficult to be certain about whose initials they might be. In some cases, there are literally dozens of possible candidates in the school registers, and it becomes almost a pointless effort to try and guess who has carved them.

Some boys seem to have been able to make only part of their name legible. We appear to have, therefore, a group of letters which seems to spell “H-LLF”.

Similarly, I have tried so hard to turn “—-NGTON” into Victor George Darrington, one of the very few young men to have captained the school at both football and rugby. The time is right (he entered the school in 1909, aged twelve) but the fact is that the blurred and multi-layer gloss paint painted-over obscured letters just do not look like they were ever meant to spell Darrington.

Even more striking is the young member of what is probably the “Chambers” family who did not manage to carve his initials clearly. The name can be seen just above “A.E.Anthony”, although the letters seem to be an even whiter shade of pale.  Just a cursory perusal of the school registers reveals the existence, between 1897 and 1926, of “E.Chambers”, “W. Chambers”, “P. Chambers”, “N. Chambers”, “J.F. Chambers”, “J.S. Chambers”, “A. Chambers”, “C.G. Chambers”, “J. Chambers”, “B.J. Chambers”, “C.C. Chambers”,  “S.H. Chambers”, “D.B. Chambers”, and a second “W. Chambers”

chambers 1zzzzzzzzzzzz

No doubt a really thorough search would reveal even more members of the apparently vast Chambers clan.
It would be nice to think, though, that the perpetrator was the (uninitialled) Chambers of Form IVb, whose doings are reported in the Prefects’ Book for Thursday, February 1st 1912….

“…A meeting was held before afternoon school, Towles and Haubitz (prefects) being absent. Chambers (IVb) had been reported for carrying a loaded revolver in his pocket. He admitted the offence, and produced the weapon, which proved to be loaded in four chambers. He was requested not to bring it to school again, and the School Captain decided to interview the Headmaster.”

Most unfortunately, no record has survived of the outcome of this conversation. Here again, it is possible to guess at putative friendships between the names in the stone. Two of the boys, for example, Fred Ball Ludlow and Oliver Herbert Ball, both joined the school in 1900, and their entries are virtually next to each other in the School Register. Perhaps the use of the surname of one as the middle name of the other hints at a blood relationship, rather than just one of mere friendship.
Coincidentally, a third name on this single ancient page of the school register is that of Harold Binks, who entered the school in the very same year of 1900, although Harold was never to carve his own name on the fireplace. From his reminiscences, published in April 1935, we know that one of his best friends in the Senior School was called Ball. It seems likely too that another of the friends was Oswald Cornek Gillot, who was already in the school when Ludlow, Ball and Binks arrived. All these boys were of the same age, and they all left the school in the latter part of the academic year 1906-1907. As we have already noted, Gillot lived near distant Ilkeston, but Holmes lived in Gregory Street, Old Lenton, very close to Ludlow and Meigh who themselves both lived in the same street, namely Willoughby Avenue, Lenton. Again, we can imagine two keeping watch while the third one carried out the evil deed with his penknife.

On Thursday, June 7th 1917, just  ten years after carving his name on the stone fireplace, Oswald Cornek Gillott was killed at the age of twenty six, yet another hapless victim of the Great War. Even a school as small as the High School (400  pupils) was to provide some three hundred young men, all destined to die well before their time.

After he left the school, Oswald moved to Teesside, and became a twenty year old apprentice mechanical engineer living at 2, Woodland Terrace, Borough Road, Middlesbrough, Yorkshire. When the Great War came, Oswald joined the 68th Field Company of The Royal Engineers. They trained at Newark-on-Trent before sailing from Liverpool for Gallipoli at the end of June 1915. They remained at Lala Baba in Suvla Bay until December 19th and 20th 1915, when they withdrew and returned to Egypt by the end of January. Oswald was recorded as having been wounded during this period. In June 1916 the Division was ordered to France to reinforce the Third Army on the Somme. By July, they were in the Front Line and took part in the fighting at Thiepval. In early 1917 they were fighting on the Ancre, and then moved north to Flanders for the Battle of Messines
Messines_Ridge_from_Hill_63 cccccccSecond Lieutenant Oswald Gillott’s last day on Earth was June 7th 1917, coincidentally no doubt, the first day of the successful attack on the Messines Ridge.  The assault was preceded by the detonation of nineteen large mines, in what was described at the time as “the loudest explosion in human history”. Oswald, as a member of the Royal Engineers, may well have been involved in this activity when he was killed. On the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website there are a mere three pages of Gillotts, with only thirty two men of this name killed. Oswald Gillott lies in the Messine Ridge British Cemetery in Mesen, West-Vlaanderen in Belgium along with the 577 of his colleagues whose remains have been identified.

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Second Lieutenant Gillott, aged twenty seven was one of a trifling 24,562 casualties, as the British under Field Marshal Herbert Charles Onslow Plumer, 1st Viscount Plumer, GCB GCMG GCVO GBE slowly began to learn how to fight battles at much lower costs than previously. (Battle of the Somme, 623,907 dead).

The other side of the coin, of course, is the fact that if the Field Marshall and his lordly colleagues are not much more careful with the lives of their social inferiors, they will risk actually running out of men. The  623,907 men killed in the Battle of the Somme is a catastrophe, but the apparently much lower figure of 24,562 killed during the assault on Messine Ridge could well be regarded as every single man in a town the size of, say, present-day Arnold or Newark-on-Trent.

One set of initials I have not dealt with. That is F.C.Mahin, one of the High School’s very few Americans, and I will talk about his incredible and hitherto completely unknown life in another blog post.

 

 

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Filed under Criminology, History, Humour, Nottingham, The High School

This sepulchre of crime

Today is the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a date which, in this country is celebrated, if that is the right word, as Remembrance Day. In the United States I believe that it used to be called Armistice Day but is now renamed as the more inclusive Veterans Day. I always feel rather guilty at this time of year because I have never been able to see the “First World War”, or what we used to be able to call,  unfortunately, “The Great War”, in any really positive light. I am now of such an age that in earlier years I was able to speak personally to at least two veterans of the Great War, both of whom were able to give me their highly critical points of view.
It is not my intention to offend anybody by what I say in this blogpost, but it has always been my firm conviction that there are fundamental truths about the Great War which are always quite simply ignored because they are so unpalatable, and it is far more convenient just to forget them. Because of this, I would fully concur with the writer whose article I read in a newspaper recently, who called “The Great War”, “ineptitude followed by annihilation”.
I have never been able to see The Great War as anything other than the story of, literally, millions of well intentioned, patriotic young men whose idealism was taken advantage of by older men of a supposedly better social class, but who were in reality buffoons who signed treaties, and then declared wars which other people had to fight. And when the conflict itself was fought, the way in which it was carried out guaranteed unbelievable levels of casualties, most of which as far as I can see, were considered as merely inevitable by the top brass as they enjoyed constant  five star cuisine in their châteaux five or six miles behind the lines. In the trenches the average life expectancy of the ordinary soldier was about six weeks. An average of at least 6,000 men were killed every day, as the two sides fought over an area about the size of Lincolnshire, or Delaware, or half the size of Connecticut.
You may think that I am being appallingly cynical, but I have always seen these young men as having been robbed of their lives for little real purpose, victims who, if they had been given the choice, would have ultimately rejected a government gravestone in France or Belgium in favour of an ordinary life in their own home town or village, with a wife and children and all the usual cares and happiness which we now, a hundred years later, see as a basic right. Most of all, I would not take particularly kindly to criticism of my point of view from anybody who has not been to visit the cemeteries of the Great War which are scattered in great profusion across the areas where the battles took place.

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This piece of land is perhaps as large as a medium-sized house with a medium-sized garden. It contains the remains of just fewer than 25,000 men. They were for the most part killed in the very first few weeks of the war, when, having joined up straightaway so that they didn’t miss any of the excitement or the glory, they were worried in case it was all over by Christmas. A very large number of them are now known to have been university students, who were soon to find that war had its negative side. At least one of these young men is not forgotten, though.Here is a little remembrance offered to his brother, Friedrich Stieme from Halle, who was killed in 1915.

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Here are the names of just some of the young men who are buried in that plot of land.

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Here are the names of some British and Commonwealth troops. They are recorded in enormous number on the Menin Gate in Ypres as the soldiers who were killed in fighting around the Ypres Salient and whose graves are unknown. There are 54,896 of these men and they were killed before August 15th 1917, a date chosen as a cut-off point when the people who designed what Siegfried Sassoon  called this “sepulchre of crime” suddenly realised that they had not built the monument big enough for all the casualties to be recorded. These, of course, are just the men with no known grave. If every death is counted, then the total Allied casualties exceeded 325,000.(the population of Coventry or Leicester). German casualties were in excess of 425,000.(the population of Liverpool)

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This whole area is dotted with cemeteries whose names, like this one, I have now forgotten. Some of them have just twenty or thirty graves, whereas some of them have a number that would take you a very long time indeed to count.

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Too many of these men were unable to be identified because the British Army would not pay for their soldiers to have metal dog tags. The soldiers’ dog tags were made of leather, so that if their bodies remained in the wet ground for very long, the dog tags would rot away. This is why so many of them can be identified only as “A soldier of the Great War”. In addition, the fact that sixty per cent of casualties on the Western Front were caused by shellfire often made identification of casualties difficult. Notice too how nearly all the graves are covered in green slime, almost inevitably, given the rainfall totals in north western Europe.

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These graves are in a cemetery containing 300 British Commonwealth and 300 French graves which lies at the foot of the Thiepval Memorial.

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More important, though, is the enormous building itself wherein are recorded the names of the fallen who have no known resting place.

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A large inscription on an internal surface of the memorial reads:

“Here are recorded names of officers and men of the British Armies who fell on the Somme battlefields between July 1915 and March 1918 but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death.”

On the stone piers are engraved the names of more than 72,000 men who were slaughtered in the Somme battles between July 1915 and March 1918. More than 90% of these soldiers died in the first Battle of the Somme between July 1st and November 18th 1916. Here are some of the names.

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Here are some of the graves in another, fairly large cemetery whose name I am afraid I cannot remember …

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It is an insane thought that the Great War still continues to kill people nowadays. I was told by our tour guide that on average usually one person is killed every week as they explore the old battlefields looking for souvenirs.  This shell has been found by the farmer and has been left at the side of a country lane so that the regular patrols by the local council lorries can take it away. Only idiot foreigners, of course, touch these unstable objects. The French and the Belgians leave them alone.

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This graveyard too I am afraid is one whose name I have forgotten. I remember that we went there because one of the other people on the coach had a relative who was buried there and he laid some poppies on his grave.

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This is one of the few places where I saw French graves. France had approximately 1,397,800 men killed in the war, with a further 4,266,000 wounded, giving a total of 5,663,800 casualties. Nowadays there are many areas of the country, particularly in central and southern France, which remain unfarmed wilderness because of this conflict a century ago which left whole provinces chronically short of men. The population of Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and West Yorkshire added together is approximately 5.7 million.

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This is part of the Tyne Cot Cemetery which is a burial ground for those who were killed in the Ypres Salient on the Western Front. It contains 11,956 men, of which 8,369 remain unidentified.

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This is the “Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing.” As mentioned above, the builders of the Menin Gate discovered it was not large enough to contain all the names, so the casualties after August 15th 1917 were inscribed on the Tyne Cot memorial instead. The memorial contains the names of 34,949 soldiers of the British and Commonwealth armies. The panels on which the names are written stretch away, seemingly  to the horizon.

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Sadly, at Tyne Cot cemetery, there are always relatives looking for members of their family who fell during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

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It is very difficult to find a neat conclusion to all this, but I am happy to leave the last word to His Majesty King George V, speaking in Flanders in 1922…

“I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon earth through the years to come than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.”

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Armistice signed! But keep fighting!

Let me first say that it is not really my intention to offend anybody by my views in this blog post, but I believe that many uncomfortable truths about the Great War are quite simply ignored because they are so unpalatable, and it is far more convenient just to forget them.
Most people, therefore, are completely unaware that at the end of the Great War, inanely and insanely, combat continued right up until 11.00 a.m. on that very last day, November 11th 1918, even though it had been widely known for five or six hours across the whole world that hostilities would soon cease, and despite the fact that the war had already claimed an enormous number of lives.

On the Allied side there had already been 5,525,000 soldiers killed and 4,121,000 missing in action. A total of 12,831,500 soldiers had been wounded, including both of the veterans that I myself had the privilege of knowing. In the east, the Russian Empire had  suffered casualties of 3,394,369 men killed with as many as 4,950,000 wounded.  On the side of the Central Powers, 4,386,000 soldiers were killed and 3,629,000 were missing in action. A total of 8,388,000 soldiers were wounded.

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In total, Allied casualties were 22,477,500 and for the Central Powers the figure was 16,403,000. Overall, that is 38,880,500, roughly the current population of Poland, or a total more than Canada (35 million) or Belgium and Australia combined. Presumably, a few more pointless deaths on the last day were not seen as being particularly important.

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The last to arrive in the carnage of the Great War, of course, had been the Americans, but they soon began to waste their poor young “Doughboys” lives in the same way as their more experienced allies had already done for three long years.

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In the first four hours in the Argonne Forest, for example, they lost more men than they were to lose on D-Day. Indeed, the Meuse-Argonne was “probably the bloodiest single battle in U.S. history,” with the largest number of U.S. dead, at more than 26,000. Hopefully, this blood soaked struggle is not as forgotten as many websites claim, and if the Argonne War Cemetery, which contains the largest number of American military dead in Europe (14,246) is apparently often ignored by the tourist coaches, then it clearly should not be. Overall,  the American casualties in the Great War were to number 117,465 men.

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Negotiations to end hostilities had actually begun on November 8th but Marshall Foch, the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Armies, refused to stop the war, because of fears that the German delegation, led by Matthias Erzberger, were not totally sincere in their desire for peace.

ger,manThis was after Foch’s own country had lost 1,737,800 men killed. The story is told by Joseph E.Persico

“On average, 2,250 troops on all sides were dying on the Western Front every day. “For God’s sake, Monsieur le Maréchal,’ Erzberger pleaded, ‘do not wait for those seventy-two hours. Stop the hostilities this very day.’ The appeal fell on deaf ears. Before the meeting, Foch had described to his staff his intention “to pursue the Feldgrauen (field greys, or German soldiers) with a sword at their backs” to the last minute until an armistice went into effect.”

So, the next day, November 9th, the Canadians attacked Mons and General Currie, helped by the men of the Canadian Infantry Brigade, captured the town during the night of November 10th-11th. As for the Americans…

“Late on November 9th, instructions from the Allied Commander-In Chief were transmitted, directing a general attack, which was executed by the First Army on November 10th-11th. Crossings of the Meuse were secured by General Summerall’s (V) Corps during the night of November 10th-11th and the remainder of the army advanced on the whole front.”

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Summerall’s actions on November 10th-11th resulted in more than eleven hundred American casualties, mainly in the Marine Corps.

All of this military action took place despite the fact that the Armistice had already been signed at 5:10 a.m. on the morning of November 11th. Within minutes of the signing, news of the cease fire had been transmitted all around the world. The “war to end all wars”, was finally over. And every general and every high ranking officer knew this. They were all aware of what had happened that day at 5.10 a.m., a time which was then backed up officially to 5.00 a.m.

Even the primitive technology of the day allowed the wonderful news to be in every major city by 5.30 p.m. and celebrations began in the streets well before most soldiers were aware of the end of hostilities.
Except that technically, the “war to end all wars”, was not yet actually over, because the cease-fire was not to come into effect until Foch’s deadline: the eleventh month, the  eleventh day and the eleventh hour of 1918. In this way all the soldiers in the trenches would be completely sure of being told the news that the conflict had finished.

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For this reason General William M. Wright thought it would be a fine idea for the American 89th Division to attack the tiny village of Stenay in north-eastern France only hours before the war ended.

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A total of 365 men died because, in Wright’s words,

“the division had been in the line a considerable period without proper bathing facilities, and since it was realized that if the enemy were permitted to stay in Stenay, our troops would be deprived of the probable bathing facilities there.”

Indeed, the Americans were to take heavy casualties on the last day of the war. This was because their commander, General John Pershing, believed that the Germans had to be severely defeated at a military level to effectively “teach them a lesson”. Pershing saw the Armistice as being too soft. He supported the commanders who wanted to attack German positions – even though he knew that an Armistice had been signed.

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It says it all perhaps to reveal the detail that the French commander of the “80th Régiment d’Infanterie” received two simultaneous orders on that morning of November 11th. The first  was to launch an attack at 9.00 a.m., the second was to cease fire at 11.00 a.m..

The last British soldier to die in the Great War seems to have been Private George Edwin Ellison, who was killed at 9.30 a.m. after serving a full four years on the Western Front. He was forty years of age, and had seen combat on the very first day of the conflict.

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A soldier in the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, Ellison was scouting on the outskirts of the Belgian town of Mons where German soldiers had been reported in a wood. In just ninety minutes or so, the war would be over and George Ellison, an ex-coal miner and the son of James and Mary Ellison, would go back to 49, Edmund Street, in Leeds, to his wife Hannah Maria and their four-year-old son James.  And then a rifle shot rang out, and George was dead. He would never go home to his loving family, but would rest for ever in St.Symphorien Military Cemetery.

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The last French soldier to be killed was Augustin Trebuchon from the “415th Régiment d’Infanterie”. He was a runner and was taking a message to his colleagues at the front telling them of the ceasefire. He was hit by a single shot and killed at 10.50 a.m. Some seventy five French soldiers were killed on the last half-day of the war but their graves all give November 10th as the date of death. Optimists believe the reason for this discrepancy was that by stating that these men had died well before the end of the war, their family would be guaranteed a war pension. Realists believe that the government wanted to avoid any political scandal if it ever became known that so many brave men had died so pointlessly on the last day of the conflict.

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The last Canadian to be killed was Private George Lawrence Price of the Canadian Infantry (Second Canadian Division) who died, like Englishman George Ellison, at Mons in Belgium. Private Price was killed at 10.58 a.m., and he was officially the last Commonwealth casualty in the Great War. So Private Price would never be going home to Port Williams, in Nova Scotia to see again his loving parents, James and Annie Price. Instead their wonderful son would rest for ever in St.Symphorien Military Cemetery, just a short distance from the grave of Private George Ellison.

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The last American soldier to be killed was Private Henry Gunter who was killed at 10.59 a.m, one minute later than Private Price, the Canadian. A Private from Baltimore, ironically, of German ancestry, Gunter was officially the last Allied soldier to die in the Great War.

According to Joseph E.Persico

“His unit had been ordered to advance and take a German machine gun post. It is said that even the Germans – who knew that they were literally minutes away from a ceasefire – tried to stop the Americans attacking. But when it became obvious that this had failed, they fired on their attackers and Gunter was killed. His divisional record stated: “Almost as he fell, the gunfire died away and an appalling silence prevailed.”

Again according to Joseph E.Persico,

“The last casualty of the Great War seems to have been a junior German officer called Tomas who approached some Americans to tell them that the war was over and that they could have the house he and his men were just vacating. However, no one had told the Americans that the war had finished because of a communications breakdown and Tomas was shot as he approached them after 11.00 a.m.”

The total British Empire losses on the last day of the war were around 2,400 dead. Total French losses on that day amounted to an estimated 1,170. The Americans suffered more than 3,000 casualties, and the Germans lost 4,120 soldiers.

Indeed, Armistice Day, with its ridiculous totals of killed, wounded or missing, exceeded the ten thousand casualties suffered by all sides on D-Day, some twenty six years later. There was a crucial difference however. The men beginning to liberate Western Europe on June 6th, 1944, were risking their lives to win a war. The men who died on November 11, 1918, were losing their lives in a war that the Allies had already won.

This account occurs on an American website……

“When the American losses became public knowledge, such was the anger at home that Congress held a hearing regarding the matter. In November 1919, Pershing faced a House of Representatives Committee on Military Affairs that examined whether senior army commanders had acted accordingly in the last few days of the war.”

The story is continued on another website….

“Bland, the other Republican on Subcommittee 3, knifed quickly to the heart of the matter when his turn came to question General Conner.
“Do you know of any good reason,” Bland asked, “why the order to commanders should not have been that the Armistice had been signed to take effect at 11 o’clock and that actual hostilities should cease as soon as possible in order to save human life?”
General Conner conceded that American forces “would not have been jeopardized by such an order, if that is what you mean.”
Bland then asked, regarding Pershing’s notification to his armies merely that hostilities were to cease at 11 a.m., “Did the order leave it up to the individual commanders to quit firing before, or to go ahead firing until, 11 o’clock?”
“Yes,” General Conner answered.
Bland then asked, “In view of the fact that we had ambitious generals in this Army, who were earnestly fighting our enemies and who hated to desist from doing so…would it have been best under the circumstances to have included in that order that hostilities should cease as soon as practicable before 11 o’clock?”
General Conner answered firmly, “No sir, I do not.”
“How many generals did you lose on that day?” Bland went on.
“None,” General Conner replied.
“How many colonels did you lose on that day?”
General Conner: “I do not know how many were lost.”
“How many lieutenant colonels did you lose on that day?”
General Conner: “I do not know the details of any of that.”
“I am convinced,” Bland continued, “that on November 11 there was not any officer of very high rank taking any chance of losing his own life….”
General Conner, visibly seething, retorted, “The statement made by you, I think, Mr. Bland, is exceedingly unjust, and, as an officer who was over there, I resent it to the highest possible degree.”
Bland shot back, “I resent the fact that these lives were lost and the American people resent the fact that these lives were lost; and we have a right to question the motive, if necessary, of the men who have occasioned this loss of life.”
With that, General Conner was dismissed from giving evidence.

Would that such a hearing had taken place in every country, especially Great Britain.

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