Category Archives: Military History

Le Quesnoy New Zealand’s Last Battle 1918

The battle of Le Quesnoy on 4th November 1918 was the last battle fought by the New Zealand expeditionary force. It is commemorated in New Zealand and France as a successful operation in which the New Zealanders advanced ten miles, captured 2,000 prisoners and 60 field guns and liberated the fortified town of Le Quesnoy (pronounced Ken-Wah by its residents).  In a dramatic climax to the operation New Zealander soldiers stormed the ancient ramparts with scaling ladders.

British media coverage of the lead up to the centenary of the Armistice of November 1918 is dominated by stories of the sadness of soldiers who died shortly before the end of the War.  Yet this misses a key point. Had these soldiers not fought with determination to the end, the war might not have ended when it did. Until July 1918 most people on the allied side thought the war would continue until at least 1919. After the battles of July and August an increasing number of soldiers, from Foch and Haig down, thought victory might be possible in 1918.  The efforts of the New Zealanders at Le Quesnoy deserves commemoration as much as the death of, say, Wilfred Owen, and other soldiers who fought on.

New Zealand military historian, and sometime Christopher Pugsley had written a new book about this action. Le Quesnoy, New Zealand’s Last Battle 1918, Oratia ISBN: 978-0-947506-49-0 As might be expected of an ex infantry officer and Sandhurst Lecturer, it is very well written account of this important engagement.   It is impeccably sourced from the New Zealand perspective, reconciling inconsistencies in the official accounts and flavoured with personal stories from veterans. The book includes a chapter on the organisation and character of the New Zealand Division.  It is well illustrated with clear maps and diagrams.

The OP is off to Le Quesnoy in the next week with Spirit of Remembrance’s Armistice Tour armed with Pugsley’s book.

Elstob – A One Man Show

Last Friday the OP visited a remarkable show at  the Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Gaisford Street London NW5.  It was a one man show by Jonathan Douglas, MBE a veteran actor and radio journalist, best known as  a radio host in Hong Kong.  This was a series of monologues exploring the last 24 hours of life of  Lieutenant Colonel Wilfreth Elstob VC, DSO MC who died, aged 29, in the heroic defence of Manchester Hill on 21st March 1918.   It was great to see a play written about a real soldier from the First World War who wasn’t a war poet.  Elstob himself  was an interesting man, whose character, motivation and deeds offers a different view of the men who fought and died in the Great War.

Why Elstob?   The 16th Manchesters were one of  dozens of battalions that faced the onslaught of the German kaiserschlacht,  the action for which “Journey’s End” is a  theatrical  prologue.  Elstob was one of ten men awarded the Victoria Cross for actions on the  21st March, and one of some four hundred and fifty recipients of that award on the western Front.

Standards presented to the City Pals 1914

‘Wilfreth Elstob joined the Manchester Regiment as a private soldier in 1914; ‘a burly former schoolmaster.’  He was quickly commission into the 16th battalion (1st City Pals) and a captain and acting company commander  on their successful assault on the first day of the Somme.  1st of July when the battalion stormed the German lines at Montauban.  In October 1916 he took comm and of the battalion. He commanded his battalion through the 1917 battles  at Arras and Passcendaele, and temporarily a whole brigade  Elstob was a gallant popular, efficient and effective commander.  His comrades cared enough about his posthumous reputation to collect the information and lobby for him to be awarded the Victoria Cross after the war ended.

Memorial to the 2nd and 16th Manchester dedicated in 1996

Richard Holmes singled out the action on Manchester Hill as the focus for the Kaiserschlacht  part of the 1918 episode of ‘The Western Front.’   Holmes used a couple of quotes from Elstob.  As the band turning back to camp after the battalion marched to Manchester Hill Elstob remarked. “Those are the only men  who will get out of this alive”; About the quarry. “Here is battalion HQ: Here we fight and here we die.”   Was this a fatalistic reflection of the mood of the time?   Were these sentences  evidence that Elstob was close to cracking?  After all, either of these phrases deserve a listing in the Army Rumour SErvice’s list of “Phrases you would rather not hear”

Officers of the 16th Manchester Regiment 1914 – Elstob was the last to survive.

Its a brave attempt to get inside the mind of a hero and charismativc leader.   Jonathan Douglas’  interpretation of Elstob’s mind is thought provoking.   Douglas had done a good job of researching the details of his subject’s service.  References to places such as Montauban and  Trones Wood reflect diligent research,  beyond the expectations of typical Camden Fringe goers.   The dialogue reflects the known comments about Elstob’s character.

Sure, Douglas is not Au fait with the details of military life. It was “stand to” rather than “reveille”  in the  trenches themselves and a singing competition is more plausible in camp than in the quarry.   However, the result is a characterization of a complex character, a far cry from the caricature  often portrayed.  This is more ambitious than another version of RC Sherrif’s Stanhope.

Douglas had gone well beyond the call of duty and made a reconnaissance of the quarry on Manchester Hill. He bypassed the metal gates to break in across the barbed wire and worked his way through the  tangled undergrowth to take a picture of the site where Elstob and his comrades may still lie.

I could not find a review or a website, but if anyone wants to contact Jonathan Douglas, the OP has contact details.

Anatomy of a Campaign: The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940 – John Kiszely

I cannot recommend too highly John Kiszely’s book: Anatomy of a Campaign: The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940.   This is a great book that anyone interested in modern strategy and military affairs will find interesting.  It also casts a contrasting light on the popular view of 1940 influenced by films about Dunkirk and Churchll.

On Tuesday, at RUSI, he received the Duke of Wellington Award for the best military history work of the year. This is a military history, but with a specific purpose.  The work was inspired by his time at the Higher Command and Staff College for a study of a campaign as a whole, and that the Norway Campaign which ended in a defeat might offer more lessons than a success. In his book he dissects the campaign from policy decisions in cabinet through to the events on the ground and on the waves.

It should be a valuable case study for anyone with an interest in business or political strategy. While written for the general reader, John Kiszely explores causality and the interplay between the personalities and institutional cultures of the organisations that took part.

For anyone with an interest in the events of 1940, it adds sharp critical insight to the state of Britain’s armed forces and leadership. This pulls no patriotic punches. The frank admission that companies of Guardsmen ran away must have been painful to document. The book is an essential sobering complement to the sometimes public smugness about 1940 Dunkirk and Churchill.

It is a cautionary tale about military intervention and compulsory reading for anyone advocating that something must be done about some international crisis.  It is well written without labouring points or underlining obvious lessons, there is much that is familiar from recent history.  A divided cabinet. Public opinion demanding action. Institutions barely fit for purpose. It is also an object lesson about the longer view.  The OP asked how much damage did the occupation of Norway do in the long term to the allied cause.  The answer was probably very little: indeed, the German naval losses may have saved Britain from the Germans attempting an invasion the same year.

Its published by Cambridge University Press £28.00

 

1918: A Year Britain has chosen not to Remember…

The official government website shows nothing between Passchendaele and the Armistice

The main focus for commemoration in 2018 will be the centenary of the Armistice on 11th November.  If you take your history from Blackadder, Sebastian Faulks, or even the Royal British Legion or Commonwealth War Graves Commission, you might be forgiven for thinking that Passchendale was the climax of the First World War and that the fighting ended in the vicinity of the same lines of trenches fought over since the end of 1914.

What do the official commemorative  websites say happened in 1918?

There is nothing on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission campaign history pages for the Western Front 1918

As of 2 February 2018, the Commonwealth War Grave Commission lacks any pages for 1918 in the Western Front campaign pages, which end at Cambrai.   Nor does the British Government First World War Commemoration website make any reference to any events of 1918 before the Armistice.  The Royal British Legion seems to have lost interest in the Centenary too. It’s focus for the year is to celebrate the 90th anniversary of its own Great Pilgrimage in Ieper, a location peripheral to the events of 1918. It offers a “100 days” option, alongside one to visit the battlefields of 1914-17, suggesting Loos and Mons as destinations. It looks self indulgent, if not neglectful for the Royal British Legion, as custodians of national Remembrance to organise an event celebrating 90 years of battlefield pilgrimages at a peripheral location that competes with the commemoration of the anniversary of the battle of Amiens.

The Royal British Legion’s commemoration is a parade of standards at the Menin Gate. If Pilgrimage 90 follows the path of the 1928 Pilgrimage the “organised tour commemorating the last 100 days of WW1” looks like a tour of the highlights of the rest of war on the western front – such as Ypres, Mons and Loos.

If you want to see the impact of official amnesia of 1918, read the coverage of centenary events in the media.  The printed The Times report of the centenary of the sinking of the SS  Tuscania on 5th February, in with the loss of over 200 American servicemen merely as “shortly before the end of the First World War.”   This misses the point that the Americans men were on their way to fight the decisive battle. T he Daily Mail use the same language in their coverage of the airmen who wore slippers to face von Richthofen.   The implication is that the war of 1918 is more of the same old trenches until November, and ignores entirely the intense air war that would kill von Richtofen and many of the other leading aces in the meantime.

1918 – the year that Challenges Preconceptions

An iconic of the First World War on the Western Front – laden Tommies on Pasechendaele ridge

But this overlooks the dramatic events of 1918 itself.  These do not sit comfortably with the popular stereotype of the Western Front.   And that is one reason why the events of that year and the actions of those who fought deserves special recognition

1918 wasn’t about waves of Tommies going over the top in a vain attempt to break through lines of trenches. Instead, the battles of 1918 started with the Germans on the attack.  Nor was it a tale of mud, blood, barbed wire and trench foot.  Much of the fighting took place in open country and some distance from the battle fields of Passchendaele and Loos.  The year contained some of the lowest points in British military history – and some of the highest.

It’s a pity that the events of 1918 have not attracted more support from the  institutions that have led the commemorations of the First World War. It is shameful for their events to be bundled together as merely the overture to the centenary of the Armistice.

1. The German Spring offensives were among the biggest and bloodiest battles in history

The Russian revolution and armistice ended Germans’s Eastern Front.  For the first half of 1918, until the Americans arrived in force,  the Germans would have superior numbers on the Western Front.  Between March and May 1918 they stuck the British and then the French with a series of hammer blows.  A combination of infiltration tactics, clever use of artillery and broke the stalemate of the trenches.  These battles were the most intensely fought and bloodiest of the Western Front, if not in history.  The casualties were very high.

Between 21st March and 5th April the British Army lost 160,000 casualties, an average of over 10,000 casualties a day, compared to some 2,700 casualties per day for the Somme and Passchendaele.   The opening day, 21st March 1918, was the second worst day in British military history, costing 35,000 casualties.

Between 9th -30th April the next German attacks, in Flanders cost the British a further 80,000 casualties.  Again, a higher rate of casualties than endured by the British Army in the offensives between 1915-1917.  In May , a further attack on British Troops sent to a “quiet sector” cost the British a further 27,000 casualties in nine days. Between 21st March and 6th June the British lost some 260,000 casualties, higher losses than in Flanders in 1917.  Between March and July 1918 the German Army lost nearly 1,000,000 casualties. This is a story worth as much dedicated attention as Passchendaele,  Loos and Cambrai

2. The July and August battles on the Marne and the Somme were the turning point of the first World War

8th August 1918 Australian infantry following British tanks on the Black day for the German Army

Between 15 July and 7th August six French armies, with American, British and Italian Army Corps, halted and turned back the last great German offensive. This was followed by the British led offensive at Amiens on 8th August – the black day of the German army.

From this time the Germans were on the back foot and under continuous pressure from the allies. The last 100 days of the war cost the British 360,000 casualties. About one quarter of the strength of the BEF.  Only the 1916 battle of the Somme cost more.

3 The feats of arms of the British Forces of 1918 were one of the high points in British Military history

Australian Artist Septimus Power has captured the combination of arms of the 1918 BEF – artillery, tanks and air power. More 1940 than 1914….

It isn’t fashionable to praise the First World War as an allied victory; or to admire its generals. But there is much merit in the performance of British and commonwealth armed forces on the Western Front in 1918.

The retreat from Mons by the BEF in 1914 is famous, but the fighting retreats of March and April 1918 were fought by an amateur citizen army which fought a series of continuous engagements instead of two battles and a series of skirmishes.   According to the Official History the retreats of 1918 were a greater achievement.

Turning defeat into victory is a remarkable achievement. The BEF of 1918 lost twice as many casualties as the BEF in 1940, but then turned around and beat the Germans.  The experience was unique and unlike the trench warfare that preceded it.

The British army of 1918 won the war.  In the last 100 days it took almost as many prisoners as other allied armies put together. Its tactics were closer to 1940 than 1914.  Its leaders, castigated as “butchers and bunglers” turned out to be good effective experienced commanders. The leadership and tactics in 1918 are hard to fault. At the end of the First World War the Britain’s Armed Forces were at a peak. They had mastered modern mechanised warfare. The Royal Air Force was the worlds largest, and only independent, air force, and had mastered most of the elements of air power.  These were remarkable achievements for a citizen army.

4. The experience of 1918 was unique and deserves the same recognition extended to the Somme and Paschendaele.

There are qualitative differences in the solders’ experience, and in how we perceive them and the losses they suffered. The battles of 1916 were fought by citizen armies largely new to the fray and with a sense that they would deliver the big push that would end the war. There was a false dawn in 1917 with Vimy Ridge and Arras, but by Passchendaele the British and commonwealth armies had lost their sense of optimism. Their losses in retrospect have been seen as an almost biblical sacrifice. “what passing bell tolls for those who die like cattle?” -” I died in Hell men called it “Passchendaele.” The late Bob Bushaway wrote a perceptive paper on this elevation of the war dead from the casualties of war to sacrifices for mankind.   Passchedaele epitomes loss and futility that is perhaps the mostly widely popular narrative of the First World War.   That  the war continued for another decisive year is an inconvenience for this interpretation, doubly so as British soldiers return to undertake operations in the national interest and end as victors not sacrifices.  It is easy to understand the temptation to lose interest after Passchendaele.

The situation 11 November. Each Arabic number is a division of C 15,000 men. Fresh formations are shown in black and tired formations in red. Click on the map to enlarge.

But that does not do justice to the story of the men who fought in 1918.  The last hundred days was an unrelenting battle. Those who fought did not know that the war would end imminently. Many in authority thought it would continue to 1919 or 1920. Some of the soldiers’ letters refer to the thought that they had the Germans on the run and would try to finish them off before winter weather gave the Germans a respite.   One striking feature of the graves of the men who fell in 1918 is the proportion with at least one decoration.  These men had already done their bit but were determined to finish the job. Their knowing sacrifice deserves some focused reflection.

Places to evoke memories of 1918

Battlefields are places of historic memory. Yes, they inform the visitor about how the micro-terrain influenced events, and the sights, sounds and smell of the landscape. They are also powerful symbols evoking memories and emotions.  They have a deep cultural significance as places of sacrifice, reinforced by memorials and ceremony.   The places dedicated to the sacrifices of 1916 and 1917 won’ t serve the memories of 1918. It is hard to think about successful open warfare at Amiens while standing at the Menin Gate, literally on the road to the mud of Passchendaele.

 The Somme

In 1918 the fighting crossed the 1916 battlefields twice.  But the 1918 battlefield covered a much wider area.  To interpret the battle the visitor should explore the area around St Quentin. West of that town were the British lines that formed the setting for the play Journey’s End and the German onslaught in March. In late September the British with Australian and American troops forced their way across the Hindenburg line a few miles north of St Quentin. Peronne, ten miles to the west was the site of British rear-guard fighting in March and a great feat of arms by the Australian Corps in August. It also has a fine museum, the Péronne Museum of the Historial de la Grande Guerre, overlooked by many visitors to the 1916 battlefields. The graves dating from March and August 1918 are evidence of the fighting that took place across the old battlefield.  The memorial to the Fifth Army missing of 1918 is in the Pozieres war cemetery on the road from  Pozieres to la Boiselle – often ignored by visitors. The fighting extended west of Albert to Villers Bretonneaux outside Amiens, the site of Australian feats of arms and their national memorial in France.  The graves of many British soldiers in Villers Bretonneaux is ample evidence of the part played by British troops in the area, which is also the location of the first battle between tanks.

There is no single memorial to the battle of Amiens. The paths of British and Commonwealth troops east can best be evidenced by the graves dated August 1918. The formidable Hindenburg line lay east of the March 1918 Allied lines. You can find remains of German defences and memorials to the battle that forced this line.

Flanders

Semper Fidelius The last stand of the 2nd Devons at the Bois des Buttes

The second German offensive was in Flanders, in the area between Armentieres and La Bassee, stretching West as far as Hazebrouck and Mount Kemmel.  Start with the Portuguese cemetery just south of the Indian Army memorial at Neuve Chapelle.  Under equipped and under-trained the Portuguese defenders of this quiet sector were some of the unfortunate victims of the Germans Georgette offensive. The 55th Division memorial at Givenchy commemorates the gallant stand by the territorial soldiers from West Lancashire holding the flank of the German breakthrough.   The German Alpine corps took Mont Kemmel, south west of Ieper, which then fought over by British and French troops for the next three months. Mount Kemmel is an overlooked battle. The French war cemetery with 5,000 graves testifies to the ferocity of the fighting. The US memorial at Vierstraat Kemmel is a reminder of the 60,000 American soldiers who served in the area in August 1918. On 27th September Ieper was the starting point for the last act in the Salient. A single day was all that was needed to capture the whole of Passchendaele Ridge.  The fighting that followed half-way to Brussels was hard enough for several VCs to be awarded and for Brigadier Freyburg to be awarded two bars to his DSO.  The Americans captured Oudenarde, and their Flanders Fields cemetery at Waregem has  those that fell.

Arras to Le Cateau and Mons

Thousands of people visit the impressive memorial and preserved battlefield of Vimy Ridge, captured by the Canadian corps in 1917.  Far, far fewer follow the story of the Canadian and British troops that advanced from Arras to Cambrai, Mons and Le Cateau.  This was no triumphal parade.  The memorial to the missing at Vis-en-Artois was the site of a bloody set back at the end of August, while at Iwuy in October the Germans counterattacked with tanks, throwing the British back.

The Aisne

British troops were also deployed to the Aisne area North East of Paris. In May an army corps of some 80,000 battered in the earlier German attacks was sent to a quiet sector to recover and integrate reinforcements.  Unfortunately for them they were in the path of the next German offensive.  The experiences of Captain Ulick Bernard Burke of the Devonshire Regiment were recorded and the digitised recording is held by the Imperial War Museum available . From 11 minutes into reel 17 he describes the last stand of the battalion.

Battle of Tardenois. Infantry men of the 62nd Division looking out for the enemy in the Bois de Reims. (Imperial War Museum image Q11089)These British troops were some of the 60,000+ Tommies fighting alongside Italians and Americans under French command in July 1918. Once French General Foch had been appointed Supreme Allied Commander formations were deployed where they were needed.

Further east, in July two divisions, some 35,000 soldiers fought under French command near Rheims, supported by American tanks and Italian artillery in the second battle of the Marne.  From Paris eastwards the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) played a major role in halting the Germans and turning them back.  The AEF battlefields of the Aisne-Marne, Champagne, Meuse-Argonne and St Mihel are well preserved and interpreted.  If you are interested in visiting these, check out americanvictory.com

There is far more to the fighting in 1918 than the 100 days as a prelude to the Armistice. It is a shame that there is so little public awareness or interest in public education by the bodies that should take the lead.

If you are interested in visiting the battlefields of 1918 contact info@baldwinbattlefieldtours.com

 

The forgotten soldiers of Passchendaele – the French First Army

French Map showing the phases of the battle.
General François Paul Anthoine commander of the First French Army. “It is a question of national hon our. We have to keep our word we gave to the British”

One army has been almost completely absent from any mention in the commemorations of this weekend’s centenary of the start of the 3rd Battle of Ypres. This army is the French 1st Army which also took part in the battle. Although the operation was led by the British, it was an allied operation With 135,000 men and over 1000 guns the French Army that took part was larger than the Australian, Canadian or New Zealander contingents that fought. Yet their role and sacrifices have been ignored.
The French First Army’s deployment on the British left was a commitment to the alliance, despite the strikes and mutinies afflicting their army after the failure of the Nivelle offensive April 1917. Their tactics were designed around using artillery fire to destroy and neutralise defences and seizing limited objectives to minimise infantry casualties.  The tactics used on 31st July were the first use of those methods that Petain would use to rebuild the confidence of the  French Army.

French artillery positions and artillery supply routes. 21 July 1917
French engineers building a footbridge – probably across the Yser canall
French troops visiting positions captured on 31 July.
Canadian troops visiting a super heavy French gun October 1917

The two divisions of the 1st Army attacked on a 4 km frontage. Particular attention was paid to artillery support. The artillery included 60 batteries of 75mm guns, 240 pieces, 277 pieces of trench artillery – mortars, 164 heavy howitzers, 148 long ranged guns (105- 240mm) for counter battery fire and 64 heavy guns (305mm,320mm and 370mm) to smash concrete bunkers. This artillery train was supported by aircraft detachments for heavy artillery and counter battery fire, bomber, and reconnaissance squadrons and the elite Cigognes fighter squadron.
The French were faced with the problem of assaulting across the Yser canal against defences based on concrete bunkers. The French thought the concrete bunkers were less of a tactical challenge than the deep shelters capable of protecting entire platoons the Germans dug is drier country. The assaulting troops were preceded by a creeping barrage of shrapnel 150m ahead of the infantry.
On the 31st July the French First Army was tasked with protecting the Northern flanks of the British 5th Army. They succeeded in this mission, advancing 2500 metres, almost as far as the Guards division to their right. The French took part in several attacks in concert with the British , until the end of October.
The French had advanced some 10 km, capturing 1,500 prisoners. Their casualties were low, 1,625 killed or missing and 6901 wounded or taken prisoner. These are very light compared to those suffered by British formations, and raise some questions about British tactics.
The French army of Flanders was deployed to support the British led operation “as a matter of honour.” It is a shame that their gesture has not be remembered a century later.

Aldbourne’s War Dead and Easy Company’s Band of Brothers

Albourne Heritage Centre Curator John Dymond points out the layout of the 506 PIR camp with the help of Ww2 era photographs.

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of being the historian guide for the US National World War 2 Museum  “Band of Brothers Tour”. They are partners of the Liberation Route Europe. I accompanied the group to Aldbourne in Wiltshire, where the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment were billeted in 1943-44. The Aldbourne Heritage society were splendid hosts.

Memorial to Second World War dead: Aldbourne Parish Church
Memorial to Second World War dead: Aldbourne Parish Church

Travelers were curious about the reaction of villagers to the influx of American soldiers doubling the population. One of the overwhelming thoughts must have been reminders to them of their own menfolk, doing their bit for the war effort far from home.

The names on the memorial plate in the church provide evidence of the war service of villagers. Most of those who served came back, and the memorial is merely a fragment of the part that Aldbourne played in the war. By the time that Easy Company arrived in Aldbourne many men were serving in one of the armed forces, and eight people from Aldbourne had already died.

Picture of M V Zealandic
M V Zealandic

At 00.45 hours on 17 Jan 1941 the unescorted M V Zealandic was hit underneath the forward mast by one torpedo from U-106 about 230 miles west-northwest of Rockall. The ship stopped for a short time, sent distress signals and then continued. The ship sank slowly after being hit amidships by more two torpedoes at 00.59 and 01.27 hours. The Germans observed how the crew abandoned ship in three lifeboats, but they were never seen again. The master, 64 crew members, two gunners and six passengers were lost. The passengers included 31 year old Wing Commander D. P. Lascelles RAF, and his wife Diana Trelawny,who lived on the Green, Aldbourne. Wing Commander Lascelles’ younger brother Flying Officer John Richard Hasting, had been lost over the Atlantic three month earlier, aged 20.

HMS Hood in 1924

Two others died at sea before 1943. 17 year old Desmond Trevor Wooton was serving as a Boy 1st Class in the Royal Navy on 24th May 1941 aboard H.M.S. Hood when it was sunk by the German battleship Bismarck in the Denmark Straits between Iceland and Greenland. He was the youngest of the village war dead.

HMS Tigress in 1918
A sister ship to HMS Niger
Map of the Denmark Strait
The Denmark Strait between Greenland and Iceland. Both HMS Hood and HMS Niger were sunk in this water

Commander Arthur Jelfs Cubison, (D.S.C. and Bar) RN was a naval hero. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) as the Gunnery officer of the 770 ton destroyer HMS Tigress, when the Tigress and three other small craft gave chase to a German-Turkish squadron including the 22,500 ton battle cruiser Yavuz Sultan Selim (Ex German SMS Goeben) and 4,500 ton cruiser Midilli (Ex German SMS Breslau). Cubison showed marked ability, quickly straddling and hitting an enemy destroyer. Between the wars his career included service on river gun boats in Iraq during the Arab Rebellion in 1924 and ended with his retirement in 1934, after 21 years in the Royal Navy. At the outbreak of war, he re-joined the Navy and served at HMS Vernon, the Navy’s torpedo and mine recovery school. He took part in the evacuation from Dunkirk and was awarded a bar to his DSC. In 1942 he was the Captain of the 835 ton minesweeper HMS Niger. In fog on 5 July 1942, with visibility of less than a mile, he mistook an iceberg for Iceland’s North Western Cape and led six merchant ships of the Murmansk to Reykjavík convoy QP 13 into Northern Barrage minefield SN72 laid one month earlier at the entrance to the Denmark Strait. Every ship detonated British mines. 46 civilian crew and 9 Naval Armed Guards died aboard the American Liberty ship John Randolph, and the freighters Hefron and Massmar. There were only eight survivors of the 127 men aboard Niger. Only one freighter could be salvaged. An expensive accident and a tragedy for mariners who had survived the Arctic passage to Russia.

Four airmen died before Easy Company arrived. Corporal Leonard John Barnes died in the UK on 12th June 1942, aged 26, and is buried in Aldbourne Churchard.

Picture of spitfiare
Spitfire Mk V in markings of No 234 Squadron April 1942.

There is also a private headstone to Pilot Officer George Roxberry Bland, of 234 Squadron RAF who died on 16th April 1942, age 20, but his body was never found. His was one of two Spitfire aircraft from, 234 Squadron RAF probably shot down by German fighters as cover to an air sea rescue patrol off Cherbourg. Sergeant Robert Herbert Charles Crook of 45 Squadron RAF was lost on 18th April 1941 over the Western Desert. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the El Alamein Memorial in Egypt.

Lancaster Mk 1 R5573 ZN-B of 106 Squadron RAF

 

Memorial in Harze to the aircraft

Sergeant Ronald Charles Barrett, 21, was the wireless operator of Lancaster Mk 1 R5573 ZN-B of 106 Squadron RAF, returning from a raid by 287 bombers on the city of Cologne when it was shot down at 01.53 on 9th July 1943, by a German night fighter over the Ardennes. He is buried in Heverlee War Cemetery near Louvin Belgium. There is a memorial in the Ardennes village of Harze to the crew of the aircraft. Two other Lancaster bombers were lost by 106 Squadron on the night of 8/9 July. One was flown by 1st Lieutenant Eugene Leon Rosner USAAF, from Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania who had initially served with the RCAF before transferring to the USAAC in early July. This was the first mission in which Rosner flew in

1st Lt Eugene Rosner USAAC who died as captain of Lancaster III ED720 ZN-R 8/9 July 1943

USAAC uniform.  Rosner is buried in the Normandy American Cemetery in Plot A Row 3 Grave 38, above Omaha Beach.
During the period that Easy Company were billeted in Aldbourne before D-Day, three more men from Aldbourne would die. 35-year-old Captain Dermot Horace Thomas Hanbury, Royal Engineers died in India in January. Lieutenant Thomas Martin Francis Lowinsky of 1st Battalion Scots Guards died 16th February 1944, age 22, at the height of the fighting at Anzio, Italy. Sapper William Robert May, of 42 Field Company, Royal Engineers also died in the battle for Rome, on 1st June 1944, and is buried in Cassino War cemetery. He left a widow, Florence, in Aldbourne.
Easy Company’s campaign is entwined with the fate of Aldbourne’s war dead through the remainder of the North West Europe Campaign. Sapper Derek Thomas Brind died in Normandy on 24th August 1944, aged 24, and is buried in the Bayeux War Cemetery. Lieutenant Colonel

Picture of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Irwin Bishell, DSO TD
Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Irwin Bishell, DSO TD

Thomas Irwin Bishell, DSO TD commanded the 94th (Dorset and Hampshire Yeomanry) Field Regiment Royal Artillery throughout the Normandy campaign. Born in 1899 he was a veteran of the First World War. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his inspirational leadership during the tough fighting south west of Caen during the first two weeks of July 1944. He met all emergencies with calm and resolute action and set an example of devotion to duty $rand contempt for danger. His regiment was part of the divisional artillery of the 43rd Wessex

Image of Route marker for 94 Field Regiment 43rd Wessex Division
Route marker for 94 Field Regiment 43rd Wessex Division. Markers like these would have been familiar to the 101st.

Division which played an important role in Operation Market Garden. He was killed by a shell splinter on 1st October a dozen miles from where Easy Company made their attack on the same day. “Every single man in the regiment had the greatest confidence and admiration for him, and whenever he visited the gun position during lulls in the battle he always had a cheery word and smile for everyone.” Bishell is buried in Arnhem Oosterbeek War Cemetery.

305 (Polish) Squadron RAF Mosquito Mk VI

Not far very far away, across the German border is the Commonwealth Reichswald War cemetery, which contains the graves of many RAF airmen, including that of Flight Sergeant Kingsley Osbern George Nugent, the Navigator of a twin engine Mosquito fighter bomber downed on 26th November 1944. He is buried alongside the Bahamian pilot, flying in the 305th (Polish) Squadron, an illustration of the patchwork of nationalities in the RAF. Easy Company’s route to Berchtesgarten passed within ten miles of the War Cemetery at Durnbach where Sergeant/Air Gunner Bernard Conrad Ricketts of 170 Squadron, Royal Air Force is buried after his Lancaster bomber was shot down in the last RAF raid on Nuremburg, Bavaria.

PIcture of oldiers from 6th South West Borderers Burma 1944
Soldiers from 6th South West Borderers Burma 1944

The British army in Burma is sometimes known as the “Forgotten Army.” But there were some 20,000 British soldiers who fought in the Chinese American Northern command under US General “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell. They weren’t “forgotten” because few people ever knew they existed! One of these men was Private Ronald Arthur Hacker, 6th Battalion South Wales Borderers, who died on 15th November 1944, age 25. At Gyobin Chauang on the road to Mandalay, his battalion fought a five day battle with the Japanese 128th Infantry Regiment in thick jungle. Hacker has no known grave and is commemorated on the memorial at Yangon(Rangoon), Burma.

The last Aldbourne fatal casualty of the war was Flight Lieutenant Guy Richard Brown, DFC RAF who died, aged 24, on 6th September 1945, three weeks after the Japanese surrender and is buried in Heliopolis War Cemetery, Cairo, Egypt. Brown was awarded the DFC for his service in 50 operational missions over Egypt and Libya leading to the capture of Tripoli. After then he seems to have flown for a electronic countermeasures unit in Britain against Germany. At the time of his death he was serving in an air ferry unit. The bus shelter was built as a memorial to him.

There is another name on the village war memorial, Sergeant Ernest Wakefield Royal Engineers. This name cannot be linked to any name in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database. Village memorials were erected by the local parish and we may never know anything more about this man.
Of the seventeen names on the memorial, seven have no known grave. Their relatives would have received a message that their loved ones were missing, and that it was possible that they would be found or had been taken prisoner. Much later there would be a letter stating that their status was “missing presumed killed.” It must have been hard to hope that it was all in error, and that one day they would come home.
The Band of Brothers of Easy Company 506 PIR fully illustrates the experience of every and any American soldier in the liberation of Europe. Aldbourne is a village which can represent every and any English village. While every village has its own unique history and Aldbourne seems to have been the home of a higher proportion of officers than many, the war service of its villagers covers all three services, across the globe. The fortunes of war took many of them into contact with American servicemen in general and several of them even cross the paths of Easy Company. They all did their bit.

British Commission for Military History Battlefield Tour to the battlefields of the Spring Offensive 1917

The OP spent last weekend on a Battlefield tour with the British Commission for Military History to the battlefields of the Allied Spring Offensive of 1917. Travelling with a bunch of military historians is more of a master class seminar than a battlefield tour. The historians leading on different aspects included Tim Gale on French Tanks, Tony Cowan and Jack Sheldon on the Germans in Spring 1917, Michael Orr on Bullecourt,(and Gavrelle), Andy Simpson on Arras, Robin Brodhurst on Monchy-le-Preux and Gordon Corrigan on the Canadians. The OP’s contribution was to defend the reputation of Robert Nivelle and the odd matters artillery in the absence of a more distinguished Gunner historian .

Interesting topics.

– Was there any real learning curve in the Allies in 1917?

– Was there any way that the Nivelle Offensive could have been successful?

– Did the Germans really have a consistent “elastic defence doctrine”

– What were the Russian Brigades doing on the Western Front?

BTW did you know that the lethal strain of Influenza that killed more than 45 million in 1918-19 first mutated in the British military hospitals in Etaples.

SOUTH AFRICAN CONFLICT HERITAGE – REFLECTION AND RECONCILIATION

Battlefield Tourists at Spion Kop  (© Frank Baldwin February 2017 )
Boer gravestones Wagon Hill/Platrand Burgher Memorial and Cemetery. (© Frank Baldwin February 2017 )
Inscription on British Memorial Spion Kop. (© Frank Baldwin February 2017 )
Memorial to a Afrikaans military success: Fort Schanskop Pretoria.  A statue of a burger on soil from the Magersfontein Battlefield. (© Frank Baldwin February 2017 )
Famous connections: memorial on the site of the train ambush where Winston Churchill was captured. A few weeks later Mohandas Gandhi passed the same spot.
Post 1990 memorial on Spion Kop to the Indian Stretcher bearer Corps. Was Ghandi the last British commander on the hill?
The Battle of Blood River – Voortrekker memorial Pretoria
Constitution Hill – the old gaol buildings preserved next to the Supreme Court building – which is made from bricks from the prison.
Information board Spion Kop. The battlefields are well signposted and supported by maps with GPS co-ordinates and signposts
Entrance to the Apartheid museum. Visitors are assigned entrance tickets randomly marked as white or non white – and follow a different route.
The Voortrekker memorial In the background is a monument to the Afrikaans national myth; In the foreground is the Garden of Remembrance in Freedom Park Pretoria
Each of the rear views of modern South Africans is linked to a display in the museum telling the story of the country through the eyes of an ancestor. This personal stories approach is similar to that used by the Liberation Route Europe.

The Republic of South Africa is a country which has systematically promoted its battlefield and other conflict sites as heritage tourism destinations.
It is also a country that has been shaped by the conflicts between the different peoples of different races. The wars against the Xhosa in the Cape, the wars between the Boers and different native tribes, the Anglo Zulu and Anglo Boer wars left their legacy in the Union of South Africa, the apartheid regime which replaced it, and the modern South African state. It is hard to understand South Africa without knowing something of the significance of the battles of Blood River, Ulundi and Spion Kop. I have used the term “conflict” rather than “battlefield”, as the scope of the heritage is far wider than purely conventional battlefields, including the prisons and memorials that tell of the conditions of the majority population under colonial and apartheid rule.
It is also a story with a wider international significance. British reverses at the hands of the Zulus and Boers were visible signs of the fragility of the British Empire. The Anglo Zulu War generated the iconic images of colonial warfare – the film Zulu. The Anglo Boer War brought together men who would influence the world long after the peace of 1902: Kitchener, Haig, Churchill, Gandhi and Smuts.
Many of the sites are very well preserved by European standards. The battlefields are often dominated by substantial topographical features, rivers and Kojpies. Over the last century human settlements have grown larger. The centre of the colonial town of  Ladysmith is filled with shopping malls, and a power station obscures the view from Long’s guns at Colenso.  However, many of the actions took place outside settlements, and it is still possible to trace the pattern of some of the shallow trenches and rock sangers. War graves also provide archaeological evidence of the battlefields. Road maps and tourist guides to the country include the battlefields and memorials.  Historic sites are signposted, and many include informative interpretation for the visitor.
There is a network of guides and a scheme to licence guides. This varies by region, with KwaZulu- Natal promoting their battlefield heritage of the Anglo-Zulu and Anglo Boer wars as a destination. It is easy for an informed visitor to find the sites and interpret the ground.
There is a lot to see, and a lot of food for thought. There are layers of interpretation, which reveal the interests and priorities of different regimes. For example, at battlefields such as Spion Kop and Caesar’s Camp there are the graves of British and Boer soldiers who fell, and British Regimental memorials. There are then more elaborate memorials to the Boers, with concrete paths presumably erected in the Aparthied era and more recent memorials, that remember the African and Asians who also took part and suffered.

Some of the interpretation boards and heritage material look rather faded.  The story of battlefield presentation in ZwaZuluNatal is more complicated, driven by a group of enthusiasts in the 1980s, with inconsistent support from local authorities.  An anticipated tourism boom from the 2010 World Cup, did not materialise, and there is a shortfall in funding battlefield tourism infrastructure. See Moller (1)  and van der Meurwe (2)

The preserved prison buildings on Constitution Hill, Johannesburg are a stark reminder of the experience of those who fell foul of racist regimes, where the discriminatory pass laws blurred the difference between political and criminal offences.  The visitor bears witness to the inhumanity of mankind.
About fifteen miles away on one of the hills overlooking Pretoria is the Voortrekker memorial, built in 1948. It is a memorial and museum which tells the story of the Afrikaans struggles against the African tribes and the British, using the language of a white supremacist regime. It is hard to imagine, say, memorials in Germany Europe advocating Italian Fascism or the world view of German National Socialism.
The current South African Government has an interesting approach to the past. One clue is on the another hill overlooking Pretoria, landscaped to form Freedom Park, envisaged as a national and international icon of humanity and freedom. Its noble sounding , if lengthy mission is to “provide a pioneering and empowering heritage destination, in order to mobilise for reconciliation and nation building in our country; to reflect upon our past, improving our present and building our future as a united nation; and to contribute continentally and internationally to the formation of better human understanding among nations and peoples.”

Symbolism in front of the Union Buildings Pretoria. In the foreground: a statue of Mandela with arms raised. In the background, below Mandela’s elbow, is a copy of the South African War memorial at Delville Wood; a symbol of an earlier age. It is surmounted with a bronze of Castor and Pollux, by Alfred Turner. They represent the two white races of the South African Union, British and Afrikaans.
Original of Castor and Polloux. Dev=livlle Wood Memorial Somme, France

The summit of the park is the Garden of Remembrance, a focus for national commemoration. This has a roll of honour of those who contributed to the freedom of the country in the main conflicts in South Africa’s past, among them genocide, slavery, the wars of resistance, the Anglo-Boer wars, the First and Second World Wars, and the struggle for liberation from apartheid.
Of course, the current state faces little threat from any resurgence of white supremacy. But the decision to leave layers of historic interpretation is also due to the tone set by Nelson Mandela. The truth and reconciliation commission under Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with a remit which extended to reparation and reconciliation, made any rewriting of history seem rather petty.

South Africa’s Conflict heritage raises two questions:-

Souvenirs mugs based on the arbitrary entrance tickets: controversial conversation piece or a joke in poor taste?

Firstly,  the experience of South African conflict heritage deserves wider notice and study. The  Republic of South Africa has taken conflict heritage tourism seriously and invested in destinations, marketing, preservation and interpretation and supporting a network of licenced guides.  It started this strategy over a decade ago.  There is evidence emerging about the value and and implementation issues. Knowing the answer to this would help anyone interested in battlefield preservation.

The second question is what lessons can be learned from how South Africa presents its history for telling the story of European wars, in particular those of the C20th? There are parallels between the problems of presenting the conflicted history of South Africa and  that of Europe.  Different peoples have different myths and memories from a traumatic past.  There is something positive in the idea of drawing on a shared experience as a catalyst for reconciliation, creating mutual understanding and a united future in peace and freedom.  While South Africa is very different from Europe, it is a useful benchmark for organisations such as Liberation Route Europe.

References

  1. Maricki Moeller:  Battlefield Tourism in South Africa with Special Reference to Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift KwaZulu-Natal. 
  2. Clinton David van der Merwe: Battlefields Tourism: The status of heritage tourism in Dundee, South Africa

 

BOOK REVIEW – THE WESTERN FRONT : LANDSCAPE, TOURISM AND HERITAGE DR STEPHEN MILES

Of all the books published about the First World War in the last few years, Dr Miles’ book is probably the most important for the Battlefields Trust. It one of the few books that covers the subject matter of the Trust – preservation, interpretation and presentation, and their value in economic and cultural terms.

Dr Miles covers the history of battlefield visits, the status of the battlefields and nature and motivation of battlefield visitors and addresses some of the issues that have arisen.  He starts with history of battlefield tourism to the western front and analyses the tourist experience. He uses the concepts of “dark tourism”, the multi-disciplinary academic approach to tourism to sites of death; including battlefields.

This is an academic book, but very accessible and stimulating to anyone with an interest in battlefield tourism.  The analysis of the economic benefits of battlefield tourism supports the case for preserving and developing battlefields as heritage tourism destinations. Unfortunately, the charts are not clearly labelled or referenced within the text.  There are thought provoking chapters on topics such as the morality of battlefield travel and the etiquette of visiting battlefields and cemeteries.

There are some shortcomings in the work. There is little reference to the value of battlefield landscape rather than monuments or the remains of trenches.  Professor William Philpott once referred to the landscape as important in three ways. Firstly, the micro-terrain that influenced   the course of events; the dips and hollows that may have determined that some men died and others survived. Secondly, the landscape enables the visitor to experience sounds and sights familiar to the combatants. The beet fields of Flanders evoke 1914 while the visitor to the Somme in July can see the flora and fauna that Sassoon describes. Thirdly, and perhaps most important, the landscape has a mythical significance as hallowed ground sanctified by the blood of the fallen. Monuments are erected in recognition of the sacred significance of the ground, a process which continues.

There could have been more of the educational value of battlefield heritage.  Pioneer tour operators, guides and guidebook authors Tony and Valmai Holt talked of battlefield travel as being a mixture of information, entertainment and education. Education is also the primary purpose of the thousands of visits by school and university students and soldiers under training. The desire for education or enlightenment is one way to distinguish between the respectful pilgrim and the sensation seeking tourist.  Other dark tourism studies have commented on the way that visits to historic thanatourism sites result in the visitor reflecting on their own mortality.

Visits to the Western Front as the setting to facilitate thought about war and society at a deeper level than the idea that peace is better than war.  The well informed or well guided visitor should be aware that the British memorials were not erected to glorify war, but to glorify the sacrifice of a generation who were thought to die in a “war end war.” Over the last fifteen years around 100,000 British servicemen and women under training have visited the battlefields to reflect on the core values of the army and their own role -and mortality.  The Irish Peace memorial at Mesen is mentioned, but not for the battlefield setting of Mesen as the base for projects to communities across the sectarian divide.

Over the last two decades, perhaps half a million to a million school and college students studying C20th History will have explored battlefields which bear the scars of two world wars.  The Western Front is not just a reminder of the cost of war, but also the choice between war and an unsatisfactory or unjust peace. It is perhaps standing on the battlefields that the European Union makes most sense – a point emphasised by French Western Front sites; such as the museum at Meaux, with its 1914 room labelled “Disunited Europe” and the EU, French and German flags over Fort Douamont.  This message pointedly ignored by the British media and politicians in the Brexit debate, which seem very keen not to mention the war.  I wonder if one consequence of visiting the western front might have predisposed young Britons to see the European Project more favourably than their grandparents and voted in greater numbers to remain in the EU referendum of 2016

Of course, the observations in the preceding critical paragraphs were stimulated by reading his work. Were Dr Miles to have expanded his work to deal with these themes it would have been a much larger work and he might still be writing it!

This is an important and thought provoking book which should be read by anyone with a serious interest in battlefield heritage and tourism.  Frank Baldwin

The Overlooked Remembrance – the British Army Learns Lessons from the Somme

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The view from the sights of a German machine over the Lancashire Fusiliers exit from the Sunken Road at Beaumont Hamel. (Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)
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Mine explosion at the Hawthorn redoubt. The German machine gunners had ten minutes to occupy a position to the left of the explosion
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A line of twenty-first century soldiers climbing Hawthorn ridge blend into the iconic silhouette from the Great War. (Photo and copyright: Frank Baldwin.)

This November is the centenary of the end of the battle of the Somme, one of the battles selected to commemorate the First World War by the UK Government. One of the most impressive acts of Remembrance has been overlooked by the media and the public.  On 10th November on BBC Radio 4 General Tim Cross, reminded listeners that one reason for Remembrance is to learn the lessons of the past. One of the eternal, if pessimistic, truths is how rarely people learn from history. So it ought to be news when the armed forces actually do try to see what lessons can be learned from the past.  That is what the British Army did in mid September, entirely unremarked and ignored by the media.  This is a pity. Not only is is comforting to know that the sacrifices were not ignored, but many of the lessons uncovered ought to be considered by the politicians who set defence policy and the public who elect them.

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Group photograph on the old French front line at Frise with the river Somme in the background. (Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)
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German historian Lieutenant Colonel Dr Mattias Strohn from the War Studies Department Sandhurst, author of The Somme Companion. (Photo Frank Baldwin)

The Army’s Operation Reflect Staff Ride Somme 2016 spent two weeks exploring the story of the battle of the Somme and learn the lessons for the current day. This was not a battlefield tour or a pilgrimage, but a serious professional study of the battle as a case study of the British Army in a war against a “first class peer enemy”, coalition warfare, development of tactics and technology, men in battle and supporting the army. It is very apposite to prepare for the worst, given the uncertainties of the current international situational politics.

This was a consultancy exercise involving some 200 Lieutenant Colonels, Majors and Warrant Officers mainly from the British Army, but with representatives from the French ,German, Commonwealth and US Armed forces, the RAF and the Civilian MOD. It was supported by battlefield historians from the British Commission for Military History, including the “OP” , and input from French and German historians.

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Syndicate discussion on the site of the Schwaben redoubt. (Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)
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At Rancourt German Cemetery this senior German general read out the words of “Wild Geese Rushing.” (To find out more about this song  read about Walter Flex and his wild Geese follow this link  )(Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Senior British French and Germans Generals lay wreaths at the Thiepval memorial. (Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)

The OP was struck by the fresh perspective from French and German historians. Even now much British military history written about the Somme ignores the French. The first book in English that sought to give anything like a fair balance between the British and French contribution to the battle was William Philpott’s “Bloody Victory” published as recently as 2010. The set text for the exercise was Dr Matthias Strohn’s “Somme Companion,” published for the exercise and featuring contributions from some of the historians taking part.

It was interesting to see the First Day of the Somme from the Belvedere de Frise, taken by the French 6th Army with only a fraction of the casualties suffered by the British further north, and to explore why this was. Few Britons, even professional historians are familiar with the capture of Bouchavesnes by the French in September 1916. Yet this high point of French endeavour on the Somme was the context for the first use of tanks by the British a few miles North West and a few days later.

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Group Photograph outside the marie at Albert. (Photo: LCpl Rich Howman. Crown Copyright)

This wasn’t just an intellectual exercise. The best part of a day was spent in acts of commemoration and Remembrance at the German cemetery at Rancourt and the Anglo French memorial at Thiepval led by senior British French and German general officers.

It was a pity and a surprise that there has been no media coverage of this huge exercise in remembrance and reflection. The public ought to know that our military institutions have committed serious time and effort to try to learn lessons from the past – real institutional Remembrance.

Frank Baldwin is a battlefield historian, a member of the British Commission for Military History and member of the Guild of Battlefield Guides. www.frankbaldwin.co.uk