One Man Went To Meaux…

 

Interior Museum of the Great War
Interior Museum of the Great War

The Museum of the Great War, Pays de Meaux, is in the Town of Meaux, pronounced “mow”- to rhyme with “toe”. This, the first French National museum dedicated to the Great War 1914-19, is one of the big investments by the French government to commemorate the Centenary and cost 28 million Euros.

It is sited a short distance East of Paris, close to Disneyland, on the 1914 battlefields of the Marne. Close by are the places where French troops deployed by Paris Taxis. The BEF withdrew through Meaux towards the end of the long retreat from Mons. It’s a short distance from the sites of the scattered engagements that made up the 1914 battle of the Marne and not too far from where the French and American troops halted the Germans in 1918.

 

French infantry in 1914
French infantry in 1914

The battles that take place in the Marne are very important parts of the Great War. They are the turning points of the war, where the Germans were beaten back in 1914 and in 1918. There are narratives to be told about how the British Army saved Paris, France and Europe in 1914 and how the Americans saved Paris , France and Europe in 1918. It is also a place to hear about the French Army of 1914 and the battle to save Paris, to contemplate the French sacrifices for their country from 1914-18.

The Great War Museum at Meaux is very good as a “Museum of History and Society”. It is a museum about the Great War as seen by the French. It is not an interpretation centre for the battlefields in the area. It is based around the collection of Jean-Pierre Verney, which is particularly strong in the artefacts from the American Army, the AEF. It has a few big pieces of equipment, mainly selected to illustrate the contrast in technology between 1914 and 1918; pigeons and wireless, a Paris Taxi and a Renault tank. A lot of thought has gone into the interpretation, and I was particularly impressed by the way they have designed the exhibits to be experienced by the blind. Thus there are handling collections throughout the museum. Cases with manikins displaying uniforms and equipment are supported by statues extending out of the display case for people to feel the the shapes.

It’s not without its limitations. It is not geared towards telling the story of the British or Americans in France. and while exhibits are labelled in French English and German, there is no English language guide book or supporting materials for British or English speaking schools visitors. The collection lacks many of the kinds of pieces with historic provenance that are the highlights of the Imperial War Museum. It has no equivalent of the battered gun and limber from F Sub of L Battery, nor the gun served by Jack Cornwall.

Charles_peguy
Charles Péguy

One of the casualties of the battle was the French philosopher and poet Charles Péguy, killed in action on 5th September 1914 by German rifle fire near Villeroy. He is buried in a mass grave on the battlefield. One account says that he was killed because he would not take cover but stood up encouraging his men in the firing line. He was an established poet like Rupert Brooke. He had been a protester, socialist, anti-cleric, catholic, philosopher and poet. T. S. Eliot commended him as “one of the most illustrious of the dead who have fallen in this war,… a national, a symbolic figure, the incarnation of the rejuvenated French spirit.” It is claimed that he influenced Mussolini and Graeme Green. Much of his work has not been translated into English. Read more at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_P%C3%A9guy

David Campbell
David “Soarer” Campbell

If Charles Peguy was a special type of intense, intellectual Frenchman hard to envisage as a British hero, then David Graham Muschet “Soarer” Campbell is a Briton straight out of an Edwardian adventure story. A professional solider and amateur sportsman, he played cricket and polo well and won the 1896 Grand National riding “The Soarer”, from which he gained one of his nicknames. Twice wounded in the Boer War, he was the commanding officer of the 9th Lancers in 1914. On 24th August at Elouges, he led his Regiment in a charge over sugar beet fields in the industrial landscape outside outside Mons at the start of the Retreat. On 6th September 1914, the day after Peguy died, at Montcel 35km south east of Meaux, Campbell led two troops of the 9th Lancers to overthrow a squadron of the German1st Guard Dragoons, in what was the start of the BEF’s advance on the Marne. The Regiment’s doctor found Cambell “sprawled in a patch of clover a revolver wound in his leg, a lance wound in his shoulder, and a sword wound in his arm”. Despite this, Campbell told the doctor “I’ve just had the best quarter of an hour I’ve ever had in my life! Four months later Campbell returned to the BEF to command a cavalry brigade and was wounded a further time in May 1915 by the same shell which mortally wounded the poet Julian Grenfell. He survived his wounds to command the 21st New Army division on the western front, as a far from stereotypical British general officer.

The Marne area was never as devastated as the Somme, Aisne or Artois and many of the villages retain buildings from the time. One of the village cemeteries has the loopholes where the soldiers of the 45th Algerian Division fortified themselves. It is easy to see how the fighting unfolded. The fighting in the Marne was very different from the trench warfare that is normally associated with the Great War. It was a war of manoeuvre and cavalry charges. There are great stories about the people who fought that can make this tale of interest to a general British or American audience. But it needs a battlefield guide who can bring history to life from a British or US point of view.   

Villeroy Mass Grave

The Other British “Private Ryan” – Meet Fred Dancocks and His Brothers

Private Fred Dancox VC
Private Fred Dancox VC

Private Fred Dancocks of the Worcestershire Regiment was an unlikely hero. He was a middle aged man in 1917, a father of five children, from a large family of labourers who lived in the poorer parts of Worcester City. He was baptised in 1878, the middle of three sons. Two years later his father died and his mother remarried a William Whittle, who already had two sons from his first marriage, and they had further children. From the age of 18 Fred lived with Ellen, and they had five children, one which died in infancy. His occupation was “Hay Trusser” which seems to have been seasonal labouring work. When war broke out he joined the army, and shortly afterwards married Ellen, enabling her and the children to access the benefits, such as they were of an army wife. When he joined his name was recorded as “Dancox” in error, which is the name entered which he is referred in the military records. (1)

There seems to have been no reason for him to have been preparing to go over the top with the 4th Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment on the 9th October 1917 near Langemarck in Belgium. Fred had already done his bit, joining the battalion in Gallipoli in September 1915, and since then serving for over a year in France. His battalion formed part of the “Incomparable” 29th Division, which had participated in many of the most bloody battles of the Great War. After Gallipoli the 29th Division, and the Worcesters with them served two tours on the Somme. Their red triangle is prominent at Newfoundland Park on the Somme and the Division had already taken part in two “big pushes” in 1917; at Arras in the spring and at the capture of Langamarck in August.

Private Fred – known by his nickname of “Dando” was the HQ Company sanitary orderly – the man who emptied the lavatories. This was an essential   but undistinguished task, and one which could have kept him from the worst dangers. However, Fred Dancock had apparently volunteered to join the attack and was to the “mopping up party”. This party of ten men would search each captured position to make sure that there were no enemy hiding and able to shoot the advancing allies in the back.

As the battalion advanced it came under fire from a machine gun in a bunker, which had not been hit by the barrage, close to the railway bridge over a road at Namur Crossing. A belt fed machine gun could fire 550 rounds a minute, nine shots a second, creating a wall of steel across the front of the battalion. By 1917 the army had learned lots of lessons, and the battalion halted while mortars were brought up to deal with the bunker. But before the mortars could be brought up, the fire of the machine-gun suddenly stopped. A minute later every man within sight was on his feet cheering and laughing, for stumbling through the mud towards the British line came a little crowd of the enemy with hands raised in surrender, and behind them came a solitary British soldier, labouring along under the weight of a machine-gun—the machine-gun. The cheering grew as he was recognised: “Dancox!” the troops shouted, “Good old Dando !”(2) Fred hadn’t heard the order to halt. He had continued to advance, working his way from shell hole to shell hole until he was behind the German bunker. He then went to the back door and walked into it holding a hand grenade and motioning for the Germans to leave – which they did.(3)

The above painting by Gilbert Holiday shows Private Dancox holding his bomb ready to throw as he orders his prisoners off to our lines. This painting is in the possession of the Regiment
The above painting by Gilbert Holiday shows Private Dancox holding his bomb ready to throw as he orders his prisoners off to our lines. This painting is in the possession of the Regiment

Fred Dancocks’ courage was recognised with the award of the Victoria Cross. His was the first VC to a man from Worcester. He wrote home to say that he was given leave to return home and receive the medal from the King on the 30th November. Worcester prepared to celebrate the homecoming of the local hero in style: bunting was put up and alongside the Dancox family waited civic dignitaries, reporters, and hundreds of local people. He did not arrive.

Only a few weeks after the attack on 9th October, his unit took part in the attack at Cambrai on 20th November, and before he could take his leave, the Germans had counter-attacked. Fred Dancocks was killed by a a shrapnel ball to the head. His body was never found and hie is commemorated on on Panel 6 at the Cambrai Memorial, Louverval. (4)

Fred was not the first of his family to die in the Great War. His older brother William Dancocks was a regular soldier in the 3rd Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment and was killed on the 23rd October 1914, in the fighting East of Neuve Chapelle, one of six men from that unit to die on that day. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Le Touret memorial to the Missing . (5) His younger step-brother, Thomas Whittle was killed on the Somme on 21st August 1916, serving with 1/7th Battalion The Worcestershire Regiment. He has no known grave, and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial a few hundred metres North of where his battalion fought on the day he died.(6)

Four months after Fred died his younger stepbrother, William Whittle was killed in the battle in defence of Amiens on 31st March 1918, serving with 2/8th Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment. This was another bad day for his battalion, as 37 men died that day in the less known 1918 battle of the Somme.. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Pozieres memorial on the Somme.  (7)

Another brother, Henry Dancocks, survived the war having served alongside Fred in the 4th Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment.

That left Ellen with three dependent children in a world before the welfare state. King George wrote to Ellen to express his sincere regret that Fred’s death had denied him “the pride of presenting to him in person the Victoria Cross.” The City of Worcester established a public fund for Ellen Dancox, and made an initial donation of £50. In February 1918 the council minuted that ‘subscriptions were not coming in very satisfactorily’, but eventually a total of £451 was subscribed (which, in 2007, would have had the purchasing power of over £15,000). .The city council bought the medal from the family. Their house in Bull Entry was demolished in a slum clearance programme during the 1930s.

Besides the VC, Fred Dancocks and his brothers represent a loss as significant to their families as the Johnson’s reported in the Mail or the Niland Brothers whose story inspired the plot of Saving Private Ryan or the fighting Sullivans. The fact that none of these men has a known grave makes their fate particularly poignant. Yet relatively few people hear of or commemorate the Fred Dancocks and his brothers.

Dancox House, a sheltered accommodation facility in Worcester city centre, is named after him. In 2006 the Worcester and Herefordshire branch of the WFA erected a memorial to Fred Dancox VC close to Namur Crossing. It is only a short detour from the German cemetery at Langemarck. I first heard the story of Fred Dancocks and his brothers from Major John Cotterill who has championed the cause of the memory of the Worcesters for as long as I have known him and am grateful to him and for the work carried out by the Regiment by the local community for the information in the links which are the sources for this tale, which is worth telling and sharing.

Walter Flex and his Rushing Wild Geese

Walter Flex (wikipedia)
Walter Flex (wikipedia)

Poetry and music are very much part of the British story of the Great War. But what did the Germans sing?

I found Walter Flex in “The Lost Voices of Word War One, An International Anthology of Writers, Poets and Playwrights,” by Tim Cross. (Bloomsbury) ISBN 0-7475-0276-5 Flex said he wrote it whist on sentry duty in Lorraine, and it was first published in 1916  in his book “Between two Worlds“

1.Wildgänse rauschen durch die Nacht
Mit schrillem Schrei nach Norden –
Unstäte Fahrt! Habt acht, habt acht!
Die Welt ist voller Morden.

2.Fahrt durch die nachtdurchwogte Welt,
Graureisige Geschwader!
Fahlhelle zuckt, und Schlachtruf gellt,
Weit wallt und wogt der Hader.

3.Rausch’ zu, fahr’ zu, du graues Heer!
Rauscht zu, fahrt zu nach Norden!
Fahrt ihr nach Süden übers Meer –
Was ist aus uns geworden!

4.Wir sind wie ihr ein graues Heer
Und fahr’n in Kaisers Namen,
Und fahr’n wir ohne Wiederkehr,
Rauscht uns im Herbst ein Amen

This is translated as

1. Wild geese are rushing through the night,
With shrill cry, northbound rangers.
Hazard awaits, take care your flight
And world is full of dangers.

2. Fly through the night-filled air my friends,
You squadron grey and mighty.
Dawn breaks as battle cry extends
Far o’er the lands below ye.

3. Fly on, rush on, you grey-winged flight,
Rush on to Northlands safety.
When you fly south again some night,
What will my fate have made me?

4. We are, as you, a gray-clothed pack,
The Kaiser’s fighting yeomen.
Should our flight end with no way back,
Fly south and sound our Amen.
Tr. Frank 2002 http://ingeb.org/Lieder/wildgans.html

There are parallels with Flanders Fields in that it was written in the field and contrasts the war with nature. It touched a Germanic nerve for romanticism when coupled with the tune by Gotz and is claims to be the most popular soldiers song of the German army of the Great War.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LO6fSDZbXUQ

After the Great war the song was adopted by the Wandervogel movement of ramblers and hikers and other youth organisations – and the the Hitler Youth. It was a standard of the German soldier-songbooks of the Wehrmacht – with the references to the Kaiser changed..

The same song passed across frontiers. and has been adopted by French youth movements and the French Army’s airborne forces

and the school of quartermasters!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQSX5NRZ7d4

French Lyrics here:-  http://musique-militaire.fr/parachutistes/les-oies-sauvages

Of course the song fits the ethios of the Franco-German Corps

Is there any other song of the Great War which is still sung?

The Gunners who supported the Bayonet Charge that saved the British Army

The Defence of Gheluvelt. - The Critical Day 31st October. Detail of a map compiled for the Official History of the War to accompany Military Operations, France and Belgium, 1914, Volume II
The Defence of Gheluvelt. – The Critical Day 31st October. Detail of a map compiled for the Official History of the War to accompany Military Operations, France and Belgium, 1914, Volume II

For ten years from 2000 -2010 every soldier who joined the army as an senior entry soldier took part in a Realities of War Tour to Ypres (modern Ieper) in Belgium. A whole generation of soldiers will have heard of the story of “the bayonet charge that saved the British Army.”, made by the 2nd Battalion the Worcester Regiment,  Far fewer will be aware of the gunners who supported them.

On the 31st of October the Germans Army nearly won the First World War. They had assembled an overwhelming force of artillery and battered a hole in the British front line East of Ypres at a village called Gheluvelt, on the road between Ypres and Menin, the Menin Road. The only British reserved were the 2nd Battalion the Worcester Regiment, and they mounted a gallant bayonet charge which stopped the Germans and allowed the British line to recover, but at the cost of one third of their number.

But they did not do this alone. They were supported by the Gunners, and in particular by a heroic and skilful action by 54 Dragon Battery, which was one of the batteries which became 129 Dragon Battery, currently part of 4th Field Regiment Royal Artillery.

The map from the Official History of the War in France and Flanders shows a part of the battle of Gheluvelt. It shows German guns at the Western end of Gheluvelt and the position of 54 Battery ­

According to an infantry officer nearby “Lt Blewitt of 54 Battery came up to say to his battery commander that the Germans appeared to be bringing a gun to the barricade in the middle of Gheluvelt and asked permission to take an 18 pounder onto the road and deal with it. Having got permission, he manhandled the gun onto the road. The German gun fired first and missed. Blewittt did not give them a second chance. He put a stop to any trouble from that quarter for the rest of the afternoon. If the Germans had pushed home their attack during the afternoon there was nothing to stop them.”” Lt Blewitt was awarded the DSO for this action. His letters are in the Imperial War Museum archives. At the time his letters home gave no hint to his family and fiancé of the dangers he ran or his heroic and skillful acts.

Three years later, while a Gunnery instructor on England, he was persuaded to write about the circumstances which led to his award for gallantry. He wrote “My layer at the time was Bombardier Steel, whose efficiency I think solely we all – the detachment and I , owe our lives. The detachment as far as I can remember was: Sergeant, now (1917) BSM Howes, a sturdier man than whom never stepped, as No 1, Bombardier Steel, layer,. Bombardier Priestley, (killed a few days later1), No 6, while think Gunners Hobson and Delamere,(Both at later times my servant, the first wounded by a French battery few days later, and the latter gassed as a sergeant in the battery this year). Made up the crew. Who the last man was I can’t remember, but a damn fine crowd they were, every one of them.”

The German infantry in Gheluvelt. was the 16th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, most famous for one its soldiers, the 19 year old Adolf Hitler. . .

1Gunner (Local Bombardier?) Alfred Priestley, husband of Nancy Priestley of Preston is commemorated on the Menin Gate.

See where this happened and contact Gunner Tours!

gunner tours logo white on brown

 

Who Checks the UK Newspaper Obituaries?

Charles Durning memorial day 20088 (Wilkipedia)

 The Obituaries columns sometimes disclose fascinating facts about someone’s past life. In particular when you discover that a celebrity had a heroic military history. But over Christmas the UK Obituary writers seem to have been watching too many old movies judging by what was written about Charles Durning the prolific American character actor who died on Christmas eve 2012 and was a WW2 veteran.

For much of his career he said little about his military service, but in recent years he appeared with and supported US WW2 Veterans. Although Durning himself didn’t say much about his experiences, contradictory stories about his service abound. For example, Durning himself spoke publicly about landing on Omaha Beach from a landing craft on D Day, Burt Reynolds, in episode “S03E09” of the television chat show Dinner for Five, revealed that on D Day Durning was in a group of gliders who overshot their landing zone and that he had to fight alone all the way back to the beach.

The US press, with a strong ethos of fact checking seem to have been quite circumspect about the details of his war service, beyond a reference to D Day. Not so the obituary pages in the UK broadsheets.

  • On 26th December 2012 the printed edition of The Times published an obituary which reported that Charles Durning was a decorated war hero who landed with the 1st Infantry Division on Omaha Beach, in the first wave and survived the Malmedy Massacre in the Ardennes. The following day it published a longer version which expanded the story of his survival of a massacre in the Ardennes which seemed to include details from the fictional film, The Battle of the Bulge rather than those of the massacres investigated at Malmedy, Ligneuville, Honsfeld, Bullingen, Stavelot La Gleize, or Wereth etc
  • On the 30th December, the Daily Telegraph posted an obituary on-line which was vaguer about the Ardennes massacre, but said that he was in the 386th AAA (AW) Battalion and landed on D Day with the 1st Infantry Division. By the 8th January 2013 The Daily Telegraph’s website had been amended to read “Drafted into the US Army in 1944, he served with the 386th Anti-aircraft Artillery (AAA) Battalion on D-Day and was the only member of his Army unit to survive when he went ashore at Omaha Beach in the Normandy landings. He killed several Germans and was wounded in the leg by an enemy mine. After recuperating in Britain, Durning returned to active service in December 1944, only to be bayoneted by a young German soldier whom he killed with a rock. Captured in the Battle of the Bulge, the German counter-offensive through the Ardennes forest in Belgium, he survived a massacre of prisoners-of-war. He was awarded the Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.” The Telegraph is usually reliable, but this doesn’t fit with the history. Charles Durning can’t both be in the 386th on D Day and losing most of his comrades landing on Omaha Beach, because that unit didn’t land on D Day, a fact easily established.  By 12 January it merely refers to Durning’s “harrowing WW2 service”
  • The Guardian’s Online obituary says that “Charles joined the army aged 17 and took part in the D-day landing aged 21. In a Memorial Day speech in 2007, he recalled: “I was the second man off my barge, and the first and third man got killed.” Shot in the hip shortly afterwards, he spent months in hospital, then fought at the Battle of the Bulge. He received the Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.”
  • The Independent went even further. “as an Army infantryman he was one of the first to land on the Normandy beaches on D-Day in 1944. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge and, in hand-to-hand combat, killed a German soldier with a rock. He was bayoneted eight times. At Omaha Beach on D-Day, he said in one of his Memorial Day appearances in Washington, “I was the second man off my barge, and the first and third men got killed.”…He was among more than 100 US soldiers captured near Malmedy in Belgium. German troops opened fire, killing more than 80. Durning managed to escape but returned to help identify the victims. He was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star Medal and three Purple Hearts. He also helped liberate Buchenwald. It took years for him to recover. “It’s your mind that’s hard to heal,” he said. “There are many horrifying secrets in the depths of our souls that we don’t want anyone to know about.”

What were the sources that these newspapers used? How did they manage to write such conflicting stories? Anyone who has tried to check the veracity of these war stories quickly discovers that there isn’t anything much that corroborates them.  The stories of Charles Durning’s war service don’t add up, because most of these were some of the tall tales that have surrounded old soldiers since Centurion was a rank not a tank and Pontius Pilot was only a navigator. Because Charles Durning was a Hollywood character, his old soldier’s stories had wider currency than most, but that doesn’t make them a proper part of his obituary.

The Durning family merely states that he was a war hero and a beloved family member. I am sorry for their loss, even at the end of what seems to have been a long and full life. Well written obituaries can dignify a life. However, I am not sure how the UK Press have added anything dignified to the memory of this man’s military service.   Or have they all outsourced their obituary columns to lazy freelancers?

Be Proud to be a Pongo!

Pongos in camp – (image from 95 Rifles reenactment website)

For as long as anyone can remember, British soldiers have been traditionally nicknamed “pongos”. If you ask a sailor, marine or airman where the nickname comes from, they might tell a lame tale: “soldiers are in the dirt and so they are where the pong goes”.

But that is not a very convincing explanation. It sounds a little contrived, as a secondary explanation for a term after the original understanding has been lost.

The answer could lie in the Napoleonic wars and a foreign land. One legacy from the British Army’s overseas campaigns has been the fragments of foreign language which have been adopted as slang. For example, a key French phrases to be mastered by a British soldier of the Great War  was to ask for an alcoholic drink.  “Vin blanc” as mangled by a Tommy led to “plonk” entering the English language as a slang for for cheap white wine.

During the Napoleonic wars the British Army was based in Portugal from 1807-1814. The Portuguese word for bread is written “pão”, and pronounced “pong”. We know that the Peninsular War soldiers used the term “pong” as there is a letter from a soldier complaining about the lack of “pong”. One of the distinctive differences in service between the sailors and soldiers of the time is that sailors lived on biscuit while, in the peninsular at least, the army lived on bread. So a sailor meeting Wellington’s Peninsular soldiers, and hearing them complain about the quality or quantity of “pong” might reasonably refer to soldiers as pong-goes – bread eaters.

So maybe, when the jolly jacks and the crabs call soldiers  “Pongos” its not an insult. Its a reminder of the British Army’s traditions and the men who beat old Boney’s men over the hills and far away, in Flanders Portugal and Spain..

..and the next puzzle is which Indian term for a snack gave rise to the term “Egg banjo” for a fried egg sandwich.

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