Tag Archives: Ypres

Fred joins the RAF (1)

When war broke out in September 1939, Fred took advice from his father, Will, about which of the three services to join. Will, of course, had been a veteran of the First World War, and was well aware that, until conscription was introduced, there was a free choice of where to spend the conflict, with, hopefully, a maximised chance of survival.

Will told Fred not to join the Army, as he himself had fought on the Western Front, and had seen the horrors of Passchendaele, followed by a period on active service in the area of the Somme battlefields:

Will knew all too well that for the army commanders, the men remained just cannon fodder, whose eventual fate was of little importance to them, as they ate and drank in palatial comfort, miles behind the Front Line. The ordinary soldiers were just a list of names on a war memorial :

Will could not recommend the Navy either, because, if your ship were sunk, it would take you far too long to die, floating around in the water, with little real prospect of rescue. Don’t miss the shark :

Instead, along with thousands of other First World War veterans, he recommended to his son that Fred join the RAF. Will had seen the aircraft of the then Royal Flying Corps, flying high over the trenches. He knew that when they died, it was usually by burning, a relatively quick, and clean, way to go:

The supreme irony, of course, was that Fred was eventually to find himself in the ranks of Bomber Command. Throughout the entire war, their casualty rates were destined always to bear direct comparison with those of the British Army on the Western Front during the First World War, and even with the appalling rates of carnage of specific battles such as Ypres or the Somme.

Fred knew that his mother was extremely worried about her only son when he was away in the RAF. Like many thousands of his colleagues in Bomber Command, therefore, he told her that he had a totally safe job, working from nine till five in the quartermaster’s stores, doling out uniforms to new recruits. Fred’s father, however, who had experience of the sharp end of war, was fully aware that Fred was in aircrew, and of the risks that that involved:

Fred had very dismissive and, at the same time, modest, memories of what rank he had held in the RAF. He always insisted that he had been an AC2, an “Aircraftman Second Class”, but that he had once been promoted to the lofty heights of Lance Corporal, so that he would have the authority to guard a pile of boxes.

Fred’s parents had a photograph of their beloved only son, taken by Wilkes of Elgin:

They kept the photograph on the piano throughout the conflict, and indeed, long afterwards, as, perhaps, some kind of thanksgiving for his safe return. Fred’s mother and father had tried so hard to have a baby, with things going wrong with a number of pregnancies before Fred was born. And he was an only child.

Almost seventy years later, Fred’s granddaughter was to make a public appeal for information about her grandfather’s time in the RAF, and for just a few hours, this particular photograph was to be the main attraction on the RAF’s Facebook page:

 

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Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, Personal

The End of the British Empire, December 26th 1913

The very first game of Rugby in the long history of the High School was played on Friday, December 26th 1913, the last Christmas and the last Boxing Day before the outbreak of the Great War. The game took place on the High School’s playing fields at Mapperley Park Sports Ground , used by the school since 1897, when they had left the Forest Recreation Ground which was considered to be too dangerous for boys to play sport there.

This map shows the walk from the High School (which is in the bottom left on the opposite side of the yellow road from the “C” of “Cemy”) down to Mapperley Park in the centre right, indicated by the orange arrow. The present day Games Field, at Valley Road, is the blue word “Day”  in the top left hand corner.

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This map shows the site of the Sports Ground in greater detail. Look for the orange arrow again.

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This is the Pavilion at the Mapperley Park Sports Ground which was demolished only within the last twenty or thirty years . The young men are a long forgotten First XI school cricket team from just a few short years before  the Great War.

pavilionThe gentleman on the left of the back row is Mr.Albert Grant Onion, the groundsman. He coached the High School cricketers with great enthusiasm, and saw many of them go on to do very well with local clubs. In 25 years, he did not miss umpiring a single 1st XI fixture, and was famed for his fairness and impartiality. He and his wife and daughters were responsible, too, for preparing all of the teas for the players. The young man at the other end of the back row is probably the team scorer, who kept an exact record of the game. Alternatively, he may be the reserve player, the so-called twelfth man.

On this occasion though, on Boxing Day, 1913,  it was not a cricket match but a rugby game. As a preliminary before the school’s changeover from Football, which was played from 1870-1914, to the new sport of  Rugby Union, therefore, the Old Nottinghamians played against Notts Rugby F.C.. The Old Boys lost a closely fought game by (three tries) 9 points to (three goals), 15 points. The tries were scored by H.A.Johnstone, C.G.Boyd and D.P.C.Grant. The referee was Mr.Lionel Kirk. Presumably, this fixture served for many people as a demonstration of the new sport.  In the days before television, the majority of Old Boys and Masters, and especially the parents and current pupils, would probably never have seen the game played before.

The Old Boys’ team was Stocks; H.A.Johnstone, H.S.Stocks (Captain), A.Willatt, R.L.W.Herrick, C.G.Boyd, W.Johnstone; D.P.C.Grant, F.Hardwick, J.K.Turpin, A.R.S.Grant, H.W.Ballamy, L.W.Peck, E.G.Hogan and W.S.Facon.

A pleasant interval in the Christmas festivities, one might think, a little respite from a surfeit of roast turkey, brussels sprouts, Christmas pudding, port, sherry, cigars and all the other indulgences of this wonderful time of year. Except that nobody who was there on that fatal Friday knew that a World War was to break out within less than eight months. That more than four years of fighting would leave almost a million British dead, and in that number would be more than three hundred Old Nottinghamians.

In actual fact, the eventual fate of the members of the Old Boys’ Rugby team pretty much defies belief. As well-intentioned, patriotic, decent, optimistic, courageous and athletic young men, they were to run forward into the maelstrom of the Great War as if it were a blood spattered combine harvester.

Henry Archer Johnstone became a Major in the 152nd Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery. He was the beloved son of John and Ada Johnstone, of Fairmead, Risley, Derbyshire.

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Henry was to die on Tuesday, May 21st 1918, at the age of only twenty eight. He is buried in Wancourt British Cemetery near Arras in northern France. His rugby playing days were finally over.

H.S.Stocks, who left the High School in July 1904, was eventually to become a Lieutenant in the 7th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment. He was severely wounded on Friday, July 7th 1916, in the Battle of the Somme, and rendered unfit for further active service. I would certainly have been very surprised if he ever played any more Rugby matches with his young laughing friends.

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John Riversdale Warren Herrick was a Captain in the “2nd King Edward’s Own Gurkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Rifles). He was in the 3rd Battalion attached to the 11th Gurkha Rifles when he was fatally wounded on active service in Iraq. The son of Dr.R.W.Herrick and Mrs.Edith Herrick of 30, Regent Street, Nottingham, Captain Herrick was to die from his wounds on Sunday, October 24th 1920 at the age of only twenty seven. He is buried in the Basra War Cemetery, Iraq. His rugby playing days were finally over.

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Charles Gordon Boyd was a Second Lieutenant in the 7th Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, but was attached to the 9th Battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment. On Thursday, May 3rd 1917, he was killed whilst attacking Fontaine-Les-Croiselles with ‘D’ Company at the age of only twenty four. He was the son of George Herbert Boyd and Sarah Louisa Boyd, of, initially, 13, Tavistock Drive, Mapperley Park. Charles Boyd had been the Captain of the School in 1911-1912. In cricket, he was the First Team’s wicketkeeper and he was an enthusiastic footballer who played regularly for the First Eleven. His full record as a goalscorer was eleven goals in nine appearances. He surely got changed for this particular fixture in his own home nearby and perhaps walked along Tavistock Drive to the pitch in a laughing little group of his fellow players.  At the time of his death, his parents had moved to St Peter’s-in-Thanet, Kent. Tragically, Charles Boyd’s remains were not found until some six years after his death, in November 1923, when he was reburied in the Heninel-Croisilles Road Cemetery in the Pas-de-Calais in northern France. His rugby playing days were finally over.

James Knowles Turpin was the beloved only son of Harry and Minnie Turpin, of 68, Henry Road, West Bridgford. James was a Second Lieutenant in “A” Battery, 241st South Midland Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery.

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On Tuesday, August 14th 1917, he was killed in action at Boundary Road behind the Brigade HQ at Hill Top Farm near St Jaan just west of the frontline.  he was just twenty five years of age. He was buried in Plot 6, Row D, Grave 7 in Vlamertinghe New Military Cemetery, West-Vlaanderen, Belgium. His rugby playing days were finally over.

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Allan Roy Stewart Grant, while he was at school as A.R.S.Grant, was nicknamed “Pongy” by his fellow students, because of his parents’ choice of initials for him. He served as a Captain in the 10th Battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders, Ross-shire, Buffs, and the Duke of Albany’s. He was awarded the Military Cross. “Pongy” survived the conflict and duly returned to Nottingham.

Not so his elder brother, Donald Patrick Clarke Grant, who was in the 7th Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders.  He is listed as either a Lance-Corporal (by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission), or a Lieutenant (in the school lists of the fallen). He was killed on Thursday, April 12th 1917 at the age of only twenty seven. He had previously been the Manager at the British Crown Insurance Office in Nottingham. His remains were never found but his death is commemorated on the Arras Memorial.

Both young men were the beloved sons of the Reverend John Charles Grant, a Minister of Religion, and his wife Ellen Jemima Grant who lived at “The Manse” at 16, Baker Street, Nottingham. The family was of Scottish origin. Donald had, in actual fact, been born at Loanhead in Midlothian.

Harold William Ballamy was a Lieutenant in “B” Battery of the 231st Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery.

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He was the beloved son of Frederick William Ballamy, a commercial traveller, and his mother,  Mrs.M.A.Ballamy of 17a, Gedling Grove.

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He was killed on either Tuesday, August 14th or Wednesday, August 15th 1917, as part of the Third Battle of Ypres, usually known as the Battle of Passchendaele. He was twenty four years of age, and is buried in Fosse No 10 in the Communal Cemetery Extension at Sains-en-Gohelle,  in the Pas-de-Calais in northern France. His rugby playing days were finally over.

Leslie Wayland Peck was the son of Thomas Wayland Peck, a Clerk in Holy Orders, and a Diocesan Inspector of Schools, who had been, from 1885-1900, a master at the High School. From 1886-1893, despite being a teacher, Peck Senior had played regularly for the school’s First Team at both football and cricket. The family lived initially at 12, Arboretum Street, Nottingham, and then in Gedling Grove. He must certainly have known Harold Ballamy, a near neighbour. Perhaps the two boys used to make the short walk to school every morning, accompanied by Mr Peck. What could have been more embarrassing than walking to school with one of the teachers? Fortunately it was a very short walk. Today it would just necessitate crossing over the tram lines at  the High School tram stop.

Leslie Peck left the High School in June 1910, and joined the Bank, an establishment which was later to change its name to the National Westminster Bank. He had already served in the School Cadet Corps under Captain Trotman, and then joined the Sherwood Foresters Special Reserve. He was called up, and sent to France quite early in the Great War. He was “Mentioned in Dispatches”, but after being extremely badly shell-shocked, was invalided back home for a period of hospital treatment.

H08331 Leslie was then posted back to the Sherwood Foresters, but was never well enough to serve overseas again. I would certainly have been very surprised if he ever played any more Rugby matches with his young laughing friends.

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M.J.Hogan was the school goalkeeper from 1903-1905. In the Great War he became a Sergeant in the 1st Battalion of the Grenadier Guards. He was severely wounded on an unknown date. His goalkeeping days, and his rugby playing days too, were probably over for ever.

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I have been unable to trace anything concrete for W.S.Facon although according to the London Gazette, a Lieutenant W.S.Facon was promoted to Captain on December 21st 1921. The Internet also reveals that in the Air Force List for May 1939, a W.S.Facon worked at the Air Ministry in the Department of the Permanent Under-Secretary in the Directorate of Contracts.

I have been unable to trace either how many of these keen pioneer rugby players had been in the Officer Training Corps, but however many it was, it certainly had not trained them well enough for the Somme (1916) or Passchendaele (1917)

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Filed under France, History, 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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