The sound of the bugle

I haven’t posted a blog for ages, despite having lots of material to draw upon but other stuff has got in the way.  As it’s my birthday today I thought I would blow my own trumpet.

Yes, I know the photo is a bugle!  But that seems more appropriate and in any case the Cambridge dictionary describes a bugle as: a musical instrument like a simple trumpet, used especially in the army.  This bugle is part of a collection to which I have access and is engraved as follows: 2nd/5th Princess Louise’s Kensington Battalion London Regiment. Presented by Captain Godfrey W. Collier, September 1915.

So, blowing my own trumpet is a collection of screen shots at the end of this blog of feedback I have received about Frank Speaking. I have also posted the link to Chris Baker’s review on his website The Long, Long Trail. In addition is Peter Hart’s review, copied and pasted below from his email to me.  Peter, of course, has written critically acclaimed books on the First World War and, until retirement, was oral historian at Imperial War Museum.

Peter Hart’s review:

Frank Speaking: From Suvla to Schweidnitz

Carole Hope, H & K Publishing, 2021 

Obtain from: Carole.s.hope@btinternet.com

More and more people are unwilling to entrust their life’s work to the grubby hands of small publishers. Randomly imposed restrictions on space, skimping on supporting photos and maps, combined with the perils of intrusive – or even worse – non-existent editing, means the ‘end product’ often does not match the author’s initial ‘vision’. Add to this a sales policy of simultaneous publication and remaindering to cut-price book outlets, and it makes it impossible for the author to make any money – or indeed to recoup their costs. As a result, many are turning to self-publishing in the best sense of the word i.e., far away from the dreadful tosh of vanity publishing – establishing a ‘firm’ to publish their work, controlling the product from top to bottom, printing a realistic number,  and then marketing themselves at a realistic price. Carole Hope is the latest to follow this trail for her second book ‘Frank Speaking’ on the wartime career of Frank Laird.  

The book is based on a very rare book of recollections by Frank Laird, Personal Experiences of the Great War (An Unfinished Manuscript) published shortly after his death in 1925.

We are introduced to Frank Laird, look at his early background, before his recruitment into D Company, 7th Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Then we follow them through their training in Ireland and then the exotic sun-drenched fields of Basingstoke, before they board the Alaunia for the long voyage out to Mytilene. Then the excitement begins as they land at Suvla Bay on the 7 August 1915. The editor’s notes are helpful, not only in explaining the background and introducing the various characters that are name-checked, but also in providing quotes from the rather wonderful Henry Hanna, whose book – which also focussed on D Company – The Pals at Suvla Bay – is excruciatingly rare in its first edition. Other material from the History of the 10th (Irish) Division history further helps the story flow and explains the bigger picture. 

Laird doesn’t last long at Suvla before he is wounded and evacuated back to Lemnos and then aboard the Cawdor Castle to the UK, ending up in hospital in Birmingham. Then he is sent to the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Depot at Naas in Ireland. Here he was on light duties to recover his health and fitness. He was even sent out as a member of a staggeringly ineffective recruitment party in Wicklow and Kildare.  Laird was then posted as a barrack policeman with the 10th Royal Dublin Fusiliers at the Royal Barracks – just in time for the Irish rebellion of April 1916. He was fortunate enough to avoid any of the serious fighting, being largely confined to a local barracks and looking on with amazement. He applied for a commission in the Army Service Corps but was only offered the ‘Poor Bloody Infantry’ and in July 1916 was posted for training to the Officers Cadet Battalion at the Curragh. 

In January 1917, he was despatched to the Western Front where he would serve with the 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Here he fitted well, and his account is augmented by the letters of the padre, Father Willie Doyle whose career had been well-documented by Carole Hope in her first book,  Worshipper and Worshipped: Across the Divide: an Irish Padre of the Great War. Fr. Willie Doyle Chaplain to the Forces 1915-1917. We get a nice, detailed picture of life in and out of the line, shot through with humour. Then there is a gap in Laird’s original manuscript which Hope has drawn on various sources to fill, revealing that Laird was once again badly wounded, this time hit in the head by shrapnel during a German barrage around 10 August 1917 at Ypres. 

After hospitalisation and recuperation, Laird is again passed fit and posted to the 20th Entrenching Battalion in February 1918. During the German Spring Offensive in the Somme area, he is ordered forward with a draft of men to join the 1st Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the line. In an impromptu counter-attack launched on 27 March, he is again badly wounded in the left side – and this time taken prisoner.  I found the account of his POW life fascinating, as he moved from camp to camp, gradually improving in health. Like so many, he rejoiced once the food parcels caught up with them. He would only return home in December 1918. The final section follows his final years, culminating in his tragically early death in 1925. Detailed appendixes pick up on various aspects thrown up in the book. 

In all Frank Laird was wounded three times, endured the heat and flies of Gallipoli, the mud and blood of the Western Front, and nine months as a POW –  quite a lot for any young chap to suffer never mind one in his mid-thirties.  Laird comes across as a likeable chap, considerably older – and more mature – than most, but possessed of a wry sense of humour which makes his account an easy read. Very much recommended. 

Peter Hart

A shout out, also to the designer of the dust jacket and inside designs – Lyndsay Knight. She did a fab job.

The Soldier Boy of the McFadzeans

I have researched several soldiers of the Great War but none of them to date was involved in the opening day of the Battle of the Somme.  Paradoxically, the first book I read about the First World War was Martin Middlebrook’s The First Day of the Somme and one of the casualties featured in that has always stayed with me.  

Of course, one would be struck by the fact that Private William Frederick McFadzean, 14th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles, was one of nine men to be awarded the Victoria Cross as a result of their actions on 1st July 1916.  

However, the aspect of his story that particularly struck me was a quote from a letter written home on 5th October 1915 whilst Billy was crossing from England to France on the Isle of Man Paddle Steamer, the Empress Queen.

Billy McFadzean was from the Belfast suburb of Cregagh. His father was a Justice of the Peace and the family were Presbyterian.  He was an apprentice in a Belfast linen company and he divided his leisure time between the Collegians Rugby Club and he was a member of the 1st Belfast Regiment of the Ulster Volunteer Force.  Martin Middlebrook informs that:-

“When recruiting started for the Ulster Division, Billy McFadzean immediately joined the Belfast Young Citizens’ battalion sometimes known as the ‘Chocolate Soldiers’ because most of its men had a commercial background and came from ‘good families’.”

At six foot tall and 13 stone not only did Billy have the physique for rugby, but it propelled him into becoming an expert grenadier – or bomber. 

 In the early hours of the morning of 1st July 1916 he was with his battalion colleagues in an assembly trench, on the front line edge of Thiepval Wood, with boxes of grenades open in readiness to be distributed to the grenadiers.  

German shells were falling in the wood and Middlebrook suggests that perhaps the shock wave of one of those explosions may have been what dislodged a box of grenades onto the floor of the trench.  The fall knocked the pins out of two grenades, which would have had disastrous consequences in the narrow, crowded trench, except for the intervention of Private McFadzean.  Billy pushed forward, threw his body over the grenades, a moment later they exploded, killing the brave twenty year old.  Only one other man in the trench was slightly hurt.

Private McFadzean’s body was subsequently lost in the fierce fighting that followed shortly after and he is remembered on the Memorial to the Missing at Thiepval.  

His was the first posthumous Victoria  Cross to 36th (Ulster) Division and one of four VCs to that division that day.  

The citation, London Gazette, 8th September 1916 reads:-

No. 14/18278 Pte. William Frederick McFadzean, late R. Ir. Rif. For most conspicuous bravery. While in a concentration trench and opening a box of bombs for distribution prior to an attack, the box slipped down into the trench, which was crowded with men, and two of the safety pins fell out. Private McFadzean, instantly realising the danger to his comrades, with heroic courage threw himself on the top of the Bombs. The bombs exploded blowing him to pieces, but only one other man was injured. He well knew his danger, being himself a bomber, but without a moment’s hesitation he gave his life for his comrades.

That aspect of the story of this young man’s life is remarkable in itself, yet the one that hovers in my head every year on this anniversary is the quote from the letter referred to above.  It was couched, as Middlebrook said, in the language of the period and the spirit of (many) of the men:-

“You people at home make me proud when you tell me ‘I am the Soldier Boy of the McFadzeans’. I hope to play the game and if I don’t add much lustre to it I will certainly not tarnish it.”

Images: from Middlebrook’s book, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, plus the Victoria Cross and Billy standing on the steps of his family home “Rubicon” are from the website:-

https://www.royal-irish.com/persons/william-mcfadzean-vc

The following website also has more images and detail relating to Billy, the Soldier Boy of the McFadzeans:-

http://www.vconline.org.uk/william-f-billy-mcfadzean-vc/4587587881

An internet search will also reveal other results.

Source other than those websites: Middlebrook, Martin, The First Day of the Somme, Allen Lane, 1971

A Second VC for the MO

I might need my tin hat for this blog as it relates to an icon of the Great War.  I have been mulling writing this blog for a while, but as my Twitter feed has recently contained posts about double Victoria Cross winners, and also Gordon Corrigan’s Mud, Blood and Poppycock, I decided to let my small world of blog readers know that I am a bit sceptical about the award of the Bar to the Victoria Cross for the medical officer Captain Noel Chavasse.

*** Disclaimer – I don’t doubt for one moment that Noel Chavasse was an outstandingly brave and extraordinarily dedicated man.***

On the off-chance that anyone does not know about Noel Chavasse, here is one of many links available from an internet search.

http://www.vconline.org.uk/noel-g-chavasse-vc/4586173443

I have often seen in battalion war diaries “wounded at duty”. For those who do not know, it refers to a wound that is not so severe that it prevents carrying on with one’s duties.  It appears that early on 31st July 1917 Captain Noel Chavasse was wounded at duty.  Then, in the wee small hours of 2nd August he sustained a fatal wound and died on 4th August 1917.

I have pondered for while about the circumstances that gave rise to his tragic death and the award of the bar to his Victoria Cross, announced in the London Gazette on 14th September 1917.  The citation says:-

“For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty when in action.  

Though severely wounded early in the action whilst carrying a wounded soldier to the Dressing Station, Capt. Chavasse refused to leave his post and for two days not only continued to perform his duties, but in addition went out repeatedly under heavy fire to search for and attend to the wounded who were lying out.

During those searches, although practically without food during this period, worn with fatigue and faint with his wound, he assisted to carry in a number of badly wounded men, over heavy and difficult ground.

By his extraordinary energy and inspiring example he was instrumental in rescuing many wounded who would otherwise undoubtedly succumbed under the bad weather conditions.

This devoted and gallant officer subsequently died of his wounds.”

However, first hand testimony conflicts with that description on two levels. Does it matter? 

Let’s first deal with the conflicts.  The citation for the Bar to the VC is at odds with testimony Ann Clayton gathered for her biography Chavasse Double VC.  Amongst her sources are family letters, the diary of Private Edmund Herd who, from April 1916, had acted as Chavasse’s orderly as well as a stretcher-bearer and other first hand accounts.

Ann Clayton describes Noel setting up an Aid Post at Bossaert Farm in an advanced position from the Dressing Station at Wieltje.  

She writes: “Early in the attack on 31 July, while standing up and waving to soldiers to indicate the location of the aid post, Noel was hit by a shell splinter”.  Writing on 8th August 1917, four days after the death of Noel, his brother Bernard referred to the wound as a scalp wound.  By 1935 another brother, Christopher, referred to it as a fractured scalp.  Ann Clayton says that: “He was, however, well enough to return to the dressing-station at Wieltje dug-out, where the wound was dressed.”  The dressing station was about 1,000 yards away from the aid post, across several lines of trenches.  Contrary to medical advice, after his head was bandaged, Noel returned to the aid post to carry on working.

So, here we have the first conflict: the citation says he was severely wounded early in the action while carrying a wounded soldier, whereas Ann Clayton’s biography indicates that early in the action he was wounded at duty, whilst waving directions to soldiers, and that he took time out to have the wound dressed at Wieltje.  Both versions agree that Captain Chavasse refused to leave his post for two days and continued to perform his duties.

Note that although the citation refers to the wounded medical officer carrying on with his duties, it says nothing about the subsequent fatal wound.  In fact, there is a degree of uncertainty, according to accounts cited by Clayton, as to how many wounds Noel Chavasse suffered; there may have been more between the first scalp wound on 31st July 1917 and the fatal body wound on 2nd August.  However,  what is clear is that Noel continued working.

The second conflict is that the citation says Noel, over a period of two days, “went out repeatedly under heavy fire to search for and attend to the wounded who were lying out”.  There is a first hand account from Captain Thomas Owtram of 1/5 King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment testifying to Captain Chavasse directing stretcher bearers to wounded lying out in exposed positions on the night of 31st July 1917.  The Clayton biography says that at nightfall on the 31st Noel assisted stretcher bearers to comb an area of the former battle zone, now in possession of Allied forces but under bombardment, for casualties. This implies that prior to nightfall Noel had been elsewhere i.e. for a period of time at Wieltje and then at the aid post. She also makes it clear that the following day Noel was hard at work inside the aid post. By this time there was a queue of wounded outside and he had the assistance of a captured German Medical Officer.  The war diary for Noel’s battalion 1/10 (Scottish) King’s Liverpool Regiment recorded 180 men wounded as a result of the opening engagements of the Battles of Third Ypres on 31st July 1917 and men of other battalions were also fighting, and sustaining wounds, in the same vicinity as them.

I decided to read the Ann Clayton biography some years ago after being intrigued by Gordon Corrigan’s assessment of Noel Chavasse in Mud, Blood and Poppycock.  Corrigan’s stance was that Medical Officers should remain in the Regimental Aid Post and that: “Without in any way attempting to detract from Chavasse’s personal heroism and self sacrifice, this author, cynical old soldier that he may be, cannot help but reflect that if he had been Chavasse’s commanding officer, then he might have awarded a rocket rather than the Victoria Cross”.  

Had Noel Chavasse died at Guillemont in August 1916 during the actions for which he received his first VC (and was wounded in the side) then Gordon Corrigan might have a point.  The first citation referred to multiple actions of Noel leading stretcher bearers to ground in front of the enemy’s lines i.e. in the face of the enemy, to recover and treat men.  It  refers to timing, distance, numbers of men.  Should we read anything into such detailed omissions from the second citation, in addition to it being factually incorrect and obviously having been written without reference to the eye witness testimony of other ranks, such as Private Herd. 

The Clayton biography, subsequent to Corrigan’s book, indicates a degree of exaggeration in the second VC citation about how much time Noel was working outside of his aid post. Indeed, it seems that he remained, largely, “at duty” and and that the wounds he received (whether it be 2,3 or 4) were sustained at duty at the aid post by shellfire.

Do the conflicts matter? Is it important that there are a number of erroneous implications/claims in the second VC citation i.e. that a severe wound was sustained on 31st July and it was, apparently, that from which Noel Chavasse eventually died after carrying on working beyond the call of duty; that he was carrying a wounded soldier at the time of that wound; that he split his time over two days between retrieving wounded from the battlefield as well as treating others at the aid post?

I have pondered for a while whether the Bar to Captain Noel Chavasse’s Victoria Cross was awarded as an act of morale raising expediency?  I wonder, from whom did the recommendation originate and who provided the witness testimony for the citation?  Army Form W3121 was used for the recommendations of all gallantry awards during the Great War and the basis for the entry to the London Gazette.  It recorded the unit, regimental number, rank and name, date, place and details of action for which the individual is commended.  It was annotated to indicate the levels it had reached and the outcome of the recommendation.  Any award that was made then had to be listed on a schedule and the schedule number entered on AF W3121.  I have searched without success; I have no idea where to locate these documents and I suspect they may form part of the burnt records from the Blitz.

Captain Chavasse’s commanding officer at the time of both VCs was Lieutenant Colonel J.R. Davidson, yet the format of the citations are very different (see first citation at end).  Lieutenant Colonel Davidson visited Noel in hospital and wrote home to Captain Chavasse’s father, but no mention was made of a recommendation for a gallantry award.  Neither was there anything in the battalion war diary, despite a whole string of other gallantry awards.  However, neither of those is an unusual circumstance.  What is unusual, though, is that, for the second time, Lord Derby, Secretary of State for War and Chairman of the Liverpool Cathedral Building Committee, contravened War Office rules, to write to Noel Chavasse’s father, the Bishop of Liverpool, to advise him of the granting of the Victoria Cross before it was officially approved. He had previously done so (whilst Under Secretary) for the first VC in 1916.

On 5th September 1917 (a month after Noel’s death) Lord Derby wrote to advise the bishop that a Bar was to be granted to Noel’s VC:  “I signed something last night which gave me the most mixed feelings of deep regret and great pleasure and that was the submission to His Majesty that a Bar be granted to the Victoria Cross gained by your son.  There is no doubt whatsoever that this will be approved …I do not think there is one that will appeal to the British public more than the record for which this Bar is to be given, and as I said at the beginning of my letter, it was a great pleasure to think that this recognition of his services is thus recorded”.  

Ten days previously, Lord Stamfordham (Principal Private Secretary to King George V) had written to General Sir W.R. Robertson (Chief of the Imperial General Staff) on 26th August 1917, part of which states:-

“The King has read Lord Milner’s Minute of the 23rd in the War Cabinet papers, G.T. 1823.  It confirms what His Majesty has heard for some time of the harm done by the repeated Press utterances in praise of the Dominion troops, while there is almost silence as to the British achievements and losses … His Majesty asks whether you do not think that more information should be given as to the doings of the British units and their efforts and successes … It certainly would be popular in the country and  and at the same time help to dissipate the erroneous ideas formed by our Allies as to the share we are taking in the war”.  

What better person to award a Victoria Cross to, and advertise the doings of a British unit, than the Medical Officer of the Liverpool Scottish.  And a Bar to the VC at that!  Stamfordham also conveyed the King’s condolences to Noel’s father.

In 2013, whilst researching someone recommended for the Victoria Cross, but not awarded (a not unusual circumstance), I came across an interesting file in the National Archives.  It was thought provoking because I wondered whether one of the documents was there randomly, misfiled, or whether there was a connection with the other contents that was more than coincidence.

The file contains an annotated transcript of the original royal warrant for the Victoria Cross of 29th January 1856, an exchange of correspondence in March 1917 between F.E.G. Ponsonby of the Privy Purse Office at Buckingham Palace and Lieutenant General J.S. Cowans at the War Office, plus the citation for the Bar to Noel Chavasse’s VC typed on War Office embossed paper.  

The Ponsonby/Cowans correspondence references Lord Derby’s opinion with regard to the protocol around wearing the VC ribbon and possible Bar to VC.  

One wonders why this had not been established in 1914 following the award of the Bar to the VC to Lieutenant Arthur Martin-Leake?  (As an aside, a quirk of fate saw Captain Chavasse, VC, en-route to Casualty Clearing Station Number 32 at Brandhoek in which he died, pass through the 46th Field Ambulance whose Commanding Officer was, by now, Lieutenant Colonel Martin-Leake, VC and Bar.)

The typed document setting out the Royal Warrant has hand-written annotations, one of which highlights the fifth clause that the Cross: “shall only be awarded to those officers or men who have served Us in the presence of the enemy”.  It bears repeating that the citation for Noel’s second VC erroneously implies that he: “went out repeatedly under heavy fire to search for and attend to the wounded who were lying out” over a period of two days.

Looking at the citation for the first VC it just says “For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty” whereas the second citation adds the words “when in action.”  There is no doubt in my mind that Noel displayed outstanding devotion to duty and bravery. What bothers me are the conflicts in the second citation as explained, as if something had to be engineered, given the lack of detail compared to the first VC citation.  If he had lived, a Bar to his Military Cross could have been awarded, which possibly may have been more in keeping?  Nevertheless, if the powers-that-be thought a Bar to the VC was correct, then why not let the facts speak for themselves instead of embellishing them?  I don’t think Noel Chavasse was served well by his contemporaries on this issue.  I suppose it never occurred to them that a century later anyone would be researching the subject (not that I exactly have a big audience!)

Although Stephen Snelling, in his entry for a VC series of books, flags up a discrepancy between the 1930 History of the Liverpool Scottish (which echoes the VC citation) and Clayton’s findings, he leaves it at that.  It also bothers me that, having set out her narrative, Ann Clayton leaves it to the reader to ponder on the discrepancy between the facts and the citation, as she makes no mention of it herself.  Nevertheless, it is a biography worth reading and is still available from Pen & Sword.  

All food for thought as I retreat back to my bunker!

Sources:

Clayton, Ann Chavasse Double VC, Pen & Sword Military, 2006

Corrigan, Gordon Mud, Blood and Poppycock, Cassell, 2003

Snelling, Stephen VCs of the First World War Passchendaele 1917, Sutton Publishing, 1998

National Archives files:-

WO 256/21 Sir Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief of British Forces Western Front, diary 

T331/1 Victoria Cross including warrants

WO 95/2929 1/10 King’s Liverpool Regiment war diary

Citation for First Victoria Cross 24th October 1916

For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty.

During an attack he tended the wounded in the open all day, under heavy fire, frequently in view of the enemy.  During the ensuing night he searched for wounded on the ground in front of the enemy’s lines for four hours.

Next day he took one stretcher-bearer to the advanced trenches, and under heavy shell fire carried an urgent case for 500 yards into safety, being wounded in the side by a shell splinter during the journey.  The same night he took up a party of twenty volunteers, rescued three wounded men from a shell hole twenty-five yards from the enemy’s trench, buried the bodies of two Officers, and collected many identity discs, although fired on by bombs and machine guns.

Altogether he saved the lives of some twenty badly wounded men, besides the ordinary cases which passed through his hands.  His courage and self-sacrifice were beyond praise.

Wee Pat and Lanky Frank

Wee Pat dropped through my letterbox a few days ago, which was a pleasant surprise as I had forgotten I’d pre-ordered it some months previously.  Pat Nevin is one of my all time favourite Chelsea F.C. players.  Opening it put me in mind of my own book published a few weeks previously, especially the sub-title the accidental footballer because in many ways Frank Laird was an accidental soldier.

Frank Laird was in his mid-30s when the Great War broke out, a mild mannered civil servant working for the courts of the Dublin Metropolitan Police who “had never considered soldiering as at all in my line” and “was naturally a man of peace”.  He could have ignored the early recruitment drives and sat tight; conscription never took place in Ireland.  However, as the months went by he “began to experience searchings of heart” and by the end of 1914 he found himself in military barracks at The Curragh to begin training as a Private of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.  By the time the First World War ended, and he returned from internment in Germany as a Prisoner of War, he was Lieutenant Laird and had been badly wounded three times during the course of his service at Gallipoli and the Western Front.

The two books cover the “accidental” stage of the two men’s working lives and are similar in terms of size, number of pages and price.  And there the similarity ends.  A celebrity name is a big bonanza for conventional publishers who bring all their expertise to ensuring a polished end product, a slick marketing exercise, product placement in retail and online outlets, bulk buying postage rates and, at some point down the line, they can discount the recommended retail price shown on the dust jacket.  This service also applies to publishers of professional historians.

As a mere amateur I did my best to produce a polished product, but discounting the price and postage isn’t an option.  Of course I could have self-published a cheaper version in order to try and attract purchases from people (even obsessive Great War bibliophiles) doubtful at paying £20 for my hardback book with dust cover and colour images.  I chose not to and early into reading Pat Nevin’s memoir I was struck by the last couple of sentences in the Prologue, because it pretty much sums up how I feel about my treatment of Frank Laird’s memoir:-

Try and stick to what you believe to be right, if you possibly can.  There is nothing wrong with failure on your own terms if you have given it your best shot.  But there’s a great deal to regret if you fail doing something you don’t believe in.”

I’d like to say thank you to those people who have invested in Frank Speaking to date; I hope he’ll come to the top of your reading pile soon.  It’s still early days and I await reviews.  They say patience is a virtue!

It’s always going to be possible to reorder Frank Speaking from the print on demand service; even now my first book published in 2013 is available online.  It’s great to be in control, given that I’ll never reach the dizzy heights of having a conventional publisher. I’m lucky to have a small disposable income to self-finance and, having researched self-publishing and found a helpful printing company always willing to take time to address my queries, I found the process a lot less daunting than I originally thought.  Who knows, I might break even on my costs some time down the line!

I could tag Pat Nevin on Twitter to say the bill’s in the post for promotion, but I don’t think he needs my help!

The image shows:-

Pat Nevin, the accidental footballer, published by Octopus Publishing Group, 2021

Frank Speaking, from Suvla to Schweidnitz, published by me (H&K), 2021

Frank Speaking:finishing the unfinished

Frank Speaking relates to the unfinished First World War memoir of Royal Dublin Fusilier Francis Morrow Laird, which I transcribed. I added context and also narrative to finish his story, by reference to battalion war diaries and other primary sources.

I have added notes in nearly every chapter of the memoir, but have made no attempt to provide a narrative, let alone detailed analysis, of the Great War as a whole, or even individual battles, nor of political events that I may have touched upon.

The book (with end papers) is 371 pages, including designed (orientation only) maps by Lyndsay Knight, other maps (possibly not as many as some readers might like), images, bibliography and index.  It has just over 50K of Frank’s words and just under 60K of words added by me.  It is a hardback book, blue board with a dust jacket designed by Lyndsay Knight and has a ribbon marker (I love the ribbon marker!)

How did Frank Speaking come about?  It began with the publication, in 1926, by May Laird of her husband’s memoir of his experiences during the period 1914 -1918.  I don’t know how many copies were circulated by May, but judging by how few copies have ever been available for purchase subsequently (plus the price) I would say very few.

The next stage in the evolution of Frank Speaking was when I was researching my previous book, about a military chaplain, and Frank’s name came up on several occasions. I concluded from the quotes I read that Frank was equally an engaging writer as Fr Doyle, albeit with a more understated style of writing and wry humour, and that he could be my next project.

Moving on, the next (unexpected) step was the acquisition (a gift) of a physical copy of Frank’s memoir, albeit it has been digitalised and is available online:-

https://www.irishfamilyhistorycentre.com/store/703

Frank Laird’s early demise, aged 45 in 1925, meant that he never finished his memoir, but the absent timeline has been completed by me.  However, the missing section was not at the end of his service but roughly halfway through.  He had started by writing about the last eleven months, before reverting to the beginning of his service.

Frank was a mild-mannered civil servant in his mid-thirties when he signed up to take the King’s shilling in 1914 as a private soldier.  He saw action at Gallipoli, witnessed events of the Easter Rising while on home duty in Dublin, then was commissioned and served in Flanders.  In the spring of 1918 he became a Prisoner of War after being wounded during a counter-attack on the Somme, this being the third serious wound he had sustained in the course of his service.  He was promoted to lieutenant in his absence as a guest of the Kaiser.

A contemporary wrote of him some years after his death: “Francis Morrow Laird was one of those rare souls whom everybody liked.  His overflowing good humour was infectious … Rather slight in build and not of the athletic type, one could hardly imagine him a soldier, but when the call came he volunteered, and worthily upheld the traditions of his famous regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers”.

In presenting Frank’s story, I also tried to tell a more rounded account of the men with whom he served.

Frank Speaking has been published by me i.e. I am the publisher as well as the editor/author of this book.  The most daunting part of being one’s own publisher is the expense involved.  It’s a bit like placing a bet at the “Bookies”, if you can’t afford to lose the money then best not to.  The clear advantage, for unknown authors, of being one’s own publisher is the level of control over the process.  Nowadays, with print on demand services, there is no need to pay for and have a huge stack of books stockpiled at home, hoping to make a big dent in the pile.

It takes some time to work out how to go about being your own publisher and sourcing a printer.  The printing company I chose is not close to my home, but having identified it as my probable printer of choice I made one visit to discuss my project.  This was, of course, when out of lockdown and they had Covid protocols in place.  Subsequently, everything else was done online, via email and with the occasional telephone call when things got a bit fraught!  How to explain to someone with no knowledge of your subject and how does that person convey their expertise to you, a layman?!  I did receive a physical copy of the book, also to proof, after I approved the PDF.

I have 50 copies of the book on order, priced at £20 for sale.  If I sold all 50 books, it would cover the printer’s invoice, with a bit of profit but, as I will be sending out complimentary review, legal deposit and “thank you” copies, that isn’t going to happen.  In addition, there were other one off costs such as the purchase of ISBN number. I am under no illusion that this is going to be a money spinner!

Those people who are kind enough to purchase a copy of Frank Speaking will see that the nominal profit will be split between me, the Great War Group and Great War Huts.  Please do visit their websites to see what *great* initiatives they have on offer. 

Please also look out for reviews – don’t worry I will let you know!

The cost of packaging (cardboard book wrap) and second class postage within the UK is £3.50.  I can investigate costs for posting abroad on request.  It would be great to get the book into Ireland, albeit Brexit has made things tricky in that regard (I should have pulled my finger out and published earlier!).  I’m still thinking about Amazon.

Please leave a comment on this blog, or DM me on Twitter or Messenger, if you would like to be added to the list of sales of the first batch of fifty. I hope there will be further batches!  Once we can gather again, I shall be taking the books to conferences etc to sell and outlets hopefully in Ieper.  

Now to start work on my next project, scaling down the large tome that is Worshipper and Worshipped (yes, it is far too big and yes, I did ignore all advice on the subject – but amazingly it still sold) to publish, renamed Chaplain and Correspondent aiming at less than 400 pages!  In the meantime, I look forward to feedback from those kind purchasers of Frank Speaking – warts and all (the warts will be mine, not Frank’s!)

Wrong place, wrong time

A topical photograph!

Moving to an unpleasant note, noted by another chaplain, on 22nd March 1917 a private of 36th (Ulster) division was similarly employed in the military barbers at Locre (Ypres Salient) when a stray shell found its mark, with disastrous consequences for him.  Although well behind the front line, long range guns did occasionally penetrate the area around Mount Kemmel, including Locre, and the barber became a fatality that day. There are three burials at Kemmel Chateau Military Cemetery recording date of death as 22nd March 1917 (the military cemeteries at Locre have no burials prior to June 1917) which is the date the battalion war diary for 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers records: “About 20-30 5.9s were sent into Locre during the afternoon between 2 and 3pm.”  Unfortunately, the private was killed by a shell fragment that came through the window as he was cutting the hair of an officer.  During 1917 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions served side by side in the Ypres sector, mixing behind the lines, and two officers of the former division wrote about this incident.  The chaplain attached to 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers wrote home on the day it occurred and included the details of it in his letter.  It was also recalled post-war by a Second Lieutenant of the same battalion in his memoirs, albeit neither was in the barber shop at the time.

I believe that two of the 22nd March 1917 burials could be discounted as the barber i.e. a skilled rifleman attached to a trench mortar battery and someone else was with another specialist unit, the Machine Gun Corps.  But it’s only a hunch on my part.  That leaves Private A. Graham, twenty-two year old son of Charles and Jane Graham of Ternascobe, Armagh.  Private Graham served with 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, 108th Infantry Brigade, 36th (Ulster) Division.  They were located at a camp near Locre that day and had paraded at 8.30 a.m. for platoon training, a day of snow and sleet.

Second Lieutenant Frank Laird remembered:-

“Two officers were there, one waiting and one having his hair cut by the private who officiated as barber, when a stray shell fell just outside the window, through which a piece came and took the barber’s head off.  Some days later I met the two officers who had had a few days in hospital to recover from shell shock.  The one who was being barbered said he put his hand up, and finding his head covered with blood and brains, concluded they were his own, a fact which he found difficult to reconcile with his being able to stagger out from the hut.”

Fr Willie Doyle, SJ, MC described something more dramatic, which was typical of the engaging letters he wrote home.

“… this morning an officer was sitting in the barber’s shop having his hair cut, not a thousand miles from where I am sitting now. Everything had been quiet for days, when suddenly the scream of a shell was heard from the enemy’s lines.  The officer had just remarked ‘That beastly shell is coming jolly near’ when he was flung to the other side of the hut and saw the barber’s head lying on the ground beside him; the shell had come smashing through the wall, killing the unfortunate man, taking his head off and only slightly wounding the officer”.

One assumes Second Lieutenant Laird’s version of a shell fragment, rather than the whole shell, is the correct version of events, otherwise there would have been more fatalities than just the one unfortunate man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Here are the CWGC records for the three men who died that day and were buried in Kemmel Chateau Military Cemetery.

When we are at last free to travel to Belgium I shall visit Kemmel Chateau cemetery to pay the three men a visit. Also unluckily killed, in a similar manner to the barber, on 4th June 1917, whilst in Clare Camp close by, are two officers of 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, resting in Loker Churchyard, mentioned by Second Lieutenant Laird in his memoir:-

“One unlucky shell in the daytime fell near an old farmhouse at our corner of the camp, and caught Cooney and Marchant, two 2ndLieutenants of the Dublins, killing both. They were the only casualties I think.  Marchant had been in the next cubicle to me at Divisional school, and Cooney had come out with me from Dublin, two decent chaps.”


Hazards of Spring

As a result of the Germans’ Spring Offensive in 1918, many units of the allied forces went into hasty retreat.  The 7th Battalion Canadian Railway Troops, with attachments from elsewhere, were working on laying a new railway track in the Peronne area i.e. Quinconce-Cleary line and Quinconce-Tincourt line. Their war diary recorded on 23rd March 1918: “At midnight Friday 22/23rd word was received from XIX Corps that Battalion should be moved to back area.  All Companies were accordingly withdrawn and Battalion moved to ESTREES”.

One of those attached to the Canadian railway battalion was Royal Dublin Fusilier Second Lieutenant Frank Laird, who later reported in his memoir how the bridges at Peronne were being blown up as his entrenching battalion was beating a hasty retreat across the Somme.  

The war diary of 16th (Irish) Division contains a map of the line of retreat and the work of the Divisional Pioneers (11th Hampshires)  and 167th Company Royal Engineers.

They had, on 23rd March 1918:-

“ … fought a gallant action at Doingt where they held the enemy up for 2 hours while the Brigade (49th) was extricated.”  

Four days later, Major Cecil Hazard of the 11th Hampshires who had done fine work at Doingt, was recorded as missing in the war diary, 27th March 1918: “Major C.J. Hazard was in command of a group of men belonging to various units of the Bde who were checking the hostile advance on the right. This is the last that was seen of him & it cannot be ascertained what his ultimate fate was”.  In fact, he had been taken Prisoner of War following a hopeless counter-attack and survived the war.  Second Lieutenant Frank Laird was also captured in the same action.

Had the National Archives not been out of bounds for the past year, Major Hazard’s personal file would have been on my list to consult out of interest to read his account of the action.  It was the case that returned POWs in 1919 were required to write an account of the circumstances of their capture.  As it happens, I had already consulted the file for Second Lieutenant Laird which contains his explanation, on the official form, Form 2.A, which had to be returned to the War Office in Whitehall.  This document, however, commences from 25th March 1918, whereas the bigger picture from four days previously can be obtained from Frank’s memoir.  

Frank Laird’s testimony dated 17th January 1919 Form 2.A, Confidential document reference number 139588/7 

“On 25th March 1918, while with the 20th Entrenching Battalion, I received orders to join my regiment, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, with seven other officers and a number of men.  We proceeded, under the command of Lieut. W. McHutchinson (sic) to the transport lines of the 48th Brigade near La Motte, & thence in search of our own battalions (1st and 2nd Dublins).  We failed to get in touch with them on the 26th, but after two days continuous marching met, on 27th March, the remains of the 48th Brigade in retreat near Morcourt, Somme, under machine gun and shell fire.  I was placed with 2/Lt P.R. Ellis (sic) RDF and between 20 & 30 men by Brigadier General Ramsey (sic)  48th Bde on a bluff commanding a cross roads outside the village (Morcourt, as I believe) with instructions to see the last of our men through before retiring.  Here we lost one man killed and two wounded by a shell.  Having seen the last man through, Lt Ellis & I withdrew our own men under strong machine gun fire and proceeded west, parallel to the Amiens-Peronne road.  After proceeding some hundreds of yards we met a major of the Hampshire Regiment and Captain Cowley of the R.Dub.Fus. who ordered us to turn and counter attack.  Accordingly we formed the men who were with us in line and advanced against the enemy.  We were immediately brought under heavy shell fire.  We continued to advance until close enough to see a number of the enemy running away about 300 yards ahead.  We then came under machine gun fire at close range from the left flank which quickly brought us to a stand still.  I believe that every officer, N.C.O., & man of our own party was either killed or wounded.  Lt. P.R. Ellis was wounded over the kidneys by a piece of shell.  I dressed him, and, having gone to a man shot through the legs, was myself wounded in the left side by a bullet which incapacitated me.  It was now dusk, and after a short interval, the enemy advanced again and took prisoners those who remained alive.  Two of their stretcher bearers dressed my wound and assisted me behind a haystack where I met Captain Duff-Taylor [and] 2/Lieut W.R.W Briscoe both of the R. Dub. Fus.”

Captain S. Duff-Taylor, MC and Second Lieutenant W.R.W. Briscoe survived their imprisonment, as per the Monthly Army List of January 1919.

Lieutenant W. MacHutchison was one of eight officers wounded, but was retrieved by colleagues and taken on their withdrawal to Villers-Bretonneux.  However, he did not survive and was buried at that place.

Neither Captain Cowley nor Second Lieutenant Ellis made it into captivity in Germany, they both died of wounds.  Ellis lies in Hautmont Communal Cemetery and Cowley at Le Cateau, having died in the makeshift hospital at Le Cateau where Frank Laird had been treated for his wound.

A longer version of this blog can be found in the second edition of the Great War Group’s Salient Points Journal.

An even more detailed account can be found in the forthcoming publication Frank Speaking, which is my full transcription of Frank Laird’s memoir with additions by me and also fills in the gap of the original memoir, following Frank’s early demise.

Notes

Frank misspelled names in his testimony of 17/1/19. He transposed 2/Lt Ellis’ initials and McHutchison does not have a middle *n* and Ramsay is with an *a* not an *e*.

War diary of 7th Canadian Railway Troops, Volume 12, 1st – 31st March 1918 can be downloaded online from http://www.collectioncanada.ca

National Archives references:-

Frank Laird personal file WO 339/64735

Cecil Hazard personal file WO 339/10673

WO 95/1972 16th (Irish) Division war diary

WO 95/1966 11th Battalion Hampshire Regiment (Pioneers) war diary

Appalled, terrified, horrified and stupefied

This blog post is a temporary digression from the Great War into the Second World War; a review of Peter Hart’s new book At Close Range, Profile Books, 2020, ISBN 978-1-78816-165-7. Peter’s end product is a seamless transition from the quality of his previous excellent work, both in terms of the writing and the accompanying maps and photos. There are 493 pages of text, excluding the bibliography and index, 8 maps and 32 black and white photographs. I noticed a couple of typos, which is a comfort to those authors who do not have access to a conventional publisher! However, my only complaint is that there is no map for the actions on mainland Europe. N.B. Any errors/omissions in this blog are mine in trying to summarise 493 pages.

This is a long review suitable for a blog, rather than something succinct for a magazine or some other platform.  However, no review, can do justice to Peter’s detailed narrative of the South Notts Hussars during the Second World War and I heartily recommend his book.  Note that I mostly only refer to the generic South Notts Hussars/ SNH even in situations when other units form part of the bigger picture, as explained in the book by Peter.

It’s a different war, but the story Peter tells of the involvement of the 107th Royal Horse Artillery Regiment, South Notts Hussars has echoes to the earlier world-wide conflict.  Despite the name of the regiment implying otherwise, the South Notts Hussars was an artillery regiment and the gun they were initially trained to use was an 18-pounder field gun, a mainstay of the Great War.  Also, many of the men’s fathers had fought in the Great War.

The book is effectively split into two parts.  The first part follows the evolution and formation of the South Notts Hussars, the men who joined, their training and deployment to North Africa at the end of January 1940 until the regiment was decimated in June 1942 during the Battle of Knightsbridge, in Cyrenaica, a desert region in present day Libya (German and Italian Axis forces) bordering Egypt (Commonwealth Allied forces).

The second part charts the rebuilding and refitting of the regiment and the actions they subsequently saw, starting with the build up to the Battle of El Alamein.  There was a shift in the demographic when new arrivals proved to be from almost anywhere except Nottinghamshire and some reinforcements even came from detention camps, having previously committed some sort of transgression. 

Peter Hart draws on the wealth of archival material i.e. first hand accounts of veterans, many interviewed by him, held at Imperial War Museum for all his books. In At Close Range his interviewees were younger than veterans he had previously interviewed: “their voices were vigorous, their memories vivid, their grip of details still firm”. Once again, Peter uses the accounts of veterans to good effect in strengthening his narrative and analysis.

Mobilised in 1939 the territorial volunteers of the South Notts Hussars fought in almost every major battle in North Africa, going on to fight in Sicily, the invasion of Europe and into defeated Germany. The Preface explains that the book covers the adventures of this one regiment of the Royal Artillery and that the main focus is on the men rather than strategy or operational and tactical minutiae. That said, Peter always sets out the political, military and logistical context, the interaction of the SNH with other military units, together with a cast of senior officers, to tell a rounded story. 

I liked the scene setting of Chapter 1, briefly covering the aforementioned Battle of Knightsbridge, leaving the reader in no doubt about the nature of the conflict that the Nottinghamshire volunteers experienced, as described by Sergeant Ray Ellis of A Troop, 425 Battery.  Chapter 2 then commences with a chronological account.

We learn about the class divisions, family, sporting and social connections of the men that made up this territorial unit, including the difficulties of getting promotion, irrespective of ability, unless one’s face fitted.  We learn that one motivation for joining a territorial unit, in the build up to an imminent war, was to have an element of control over one’s fate with local chums, rather than wait to be conscripted who knew where.  We learn about drills, training, annual camp, the workings of the 18 pounder field gun and the six man team to make it operational, taking into account all variables including weather. 

The book covers the whole spectrum of life as lived by a serving soldier in all the theatres of war the gunners found themselves in. There is first hand testimony of such issues as transportation, living conditions, feeding the troops, alcohol, health challenges, plagues of fleas, flies and mosquitos, keeping themselves entertained, the humour, the tension, how they handled stress and quarrels to maintain morale. There was the first experience of being bombed, of which Ray Ellis describes his reaction, as per the title of this blog – “I was appalled. I was terrified, horrified and stupefied”. There was the difficulty of keeping the guns clean and operating in desert conditions, and later in the wet, low-lying ground of Belgium and the Netherlands, and adapting to upgrades of guns and other kit. There is testimony, good and bad, of their relationship with civilian populations when located behind the battle zones and their ingenuity in procurement of “goods”, anything from eggs to lorries!

We follow the SNH to Egypt, to the military base at Mersa Matruh and the challenging conditions of a firing camp in the Sinai desert. They helped to hold the strategically important port of Tobruk through nine months of siege conditions in 1941 (the defence of which depended mainly on the guns, the most effective weapon against tanks). During the action commencing 30th April 1941, all the 107th RHA SNH 425 Battery’s records for continuous firing were broken during two days of fighting. An indication of the size of the garrison is gleaned from the fact that in October 1941 the Australian Division was withdrawn in stages from Tobruk by sea and replaced by 70th Division, some 47,000 men were evacuated and replaced by 34,000 others.

In November, Operation Crusader took place, which was a close run thing but which saw the end of the siege and the Allies holding on to Tobruk. After the fighting died down the men of SNH were left mentally and physically exhausted, following a fortnight’s hard fighting on top of the effects of the eight month siege.  It was estimated that during the siege the regiment had fired some 70,000 shells.  Nineteen of their men were dead and thirty-seven wounded. 

On 30th December 1941 the South Notts Hussars were recalled to Cairo and they had a period of R&R. In the new year they were issued with a brand new set of 25-pounders and Quad gun towers and were moved between different camps (Alexandria and Cairo) before arriving in late April at Fort Capuzzo near the Libyan border for intensive training, involving getting used to operating as part of a “brigade box”, as explained by Peter.

By May 1942 they were located inland in the desert south of Tobruk as part of the Knights Bridge Box.  Nothing I can say in a review can convey the chaos, the confusion and the viciousness of the fighting of the Battle of Knightsbridge, commencing 27th May 1942, which lead to heavy casualties in dead, wounded and many men taken Prisoner of War by the Germans. 

The remnants of the SNH moved back to Royal Artillery Base Depot, Almaza in Cairo to rebuild and regroup. The war raged on without them and General Erwin Rommel became the man of the moment, his Afrika Korps armoured columns driving across the border deep into Egypt.  A new Eighth Army defensive line was established beginning at El Alamein.  The SNH were posted to form part of the 7th Medium Regiment, RA a regular regiment that had previously fought in the Western Desert, Greece and Crete.  They moved up to El Alamein, arriving 15th July 1942, the SNH assigned to gun positions about 200 yards from the sea and had hard task masters in the form of the regular officers with whom they now worked. All through July and August the SNH strove to match their new colleagues and they achieved significant improvements.

Enter, also, into the story, Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery to take over command of Eight Army and Rommel once again looking to go on the offensive. Over the course of a few days at the start of September the SNH fired an enormous number of rounds in support of the fighting of Battle of Alam Halfa and took a strong retaliatory battering, before returning to their coastal gun positions.

As the SNH resumed their daily routines, innovations in command, control and deployment of weapons, old and new, took place in the build up to the Battle of El Alamein for which there were meticulous preparations by all, from Montgomery downwards.  The artillery bombardment for Battle of El Alamein commenced on 23rd October 1942 at 21.40 paving the way for the infantry 20 minutes later.  Although at one point the position was in the balance, slowly the strength of the Germans started to drain away as their long supply lines fast ran out of fuel.  The main attack, Operation Supercharge, commenced on 2nd November; on 5th November the SNH were ordered to advance some 10,000 yards to take up new positions amid what had been the German lines, following the retreat of Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

We now move on to the advance to victory in North Africa early in 1943.  SNH were again on the move, a long trek rewarded when they drove out of the desert on the approach to Tripoli flanked by green fields, orchards and farmhouses.  Plenty of fighting lay ahead for the Eighth Army, the March battles of Medenine and then Mareth, the SNH playing their part including the fall of the port of Sfax in April, after which the North Africa Campaign was over for them.  The SNH missed the final battle for Tunis when they were withdrawn from the line.

After two months rest at Cheriba the SNH and colleagues of 7th Medium Regiment RA were moved to a transit camp before embarking ship in July 1943 headed for Malta to train for landing on Sicily, where they would be tasked to support the 1st Canadian Division. For the SNH the scale of the war was to become bigger and they lost a sense of belonging, compared to what had previously been a close knit group in North Africa. Between then and the end of the war they were to work with, or be in close proximity to, a variety of units and nationalities, including Commandos and Airborne troops. Their self-assurance and morale was further undermined when exposed to the heartbreaking sights of Sicilian civilians (and infrastructure) who were unavoidable collateral damage, which had not been part of the dynamic of operations in North Africa. The contrast in the fighting environment was heightened by the different ground and weather conditions which was more exhausting than that to which they had previously acclimatised.

In the event the campaign fizzled out for SNH when they were removed from the front line and sent to Messina, to support the bombardment across the Straits in readiness for the Allied landing on the Italian mainland. Whilst the bombardment and invasion was a success, SNH remained in Sicily at Pitunina as they were to be detailed off elsewhere. Here they were able to relax for several months, leaving Sicily on 8th November to return to the UK.  The journey back was somewhat fraught at times, but eventually they docked at Liverpool on 10th December 1943 and were allowed a months leave.

Regrouping at billets at Felixstowe they began training for landing in Normandy and there was a change of status for SNH, becoming part of  9th Army Group Royal Artillery.   They moved to Brighton, where there were conflicts and difficulties of integrating men who had seen action with those who had not.  At the end of April 1944 they were posted to Yorkshire, then in June to Dudsbury camp near Bournemouth, on to Tilbury from where they set sail across the English Channel on 13th July 1944, passing hundreds of ships involved in Operation D-Day landings and skies filled with aircraft.  Once again an indication that they were a very small cog in a massive machine.

They disembarked at Arromanche and again came under the command of Canadians, to prepare for Operation Goodwood and the capture of Caen. They had their first casualty on 18th July when the attack went in. German resistance in Caen crumbled on 21st July and the SNH moved forward, astonished at the amount of damage caused by the Allies’ attack.

The next target, in August, was Falaise providing support so close up to the Canadians and Polish Armoured Division that they came under friendly fire. And still their colleagues asked them to position themselves far forward during the assault on Quesnay Wood.  Eventually, the wood was abandoned by the Germans; the Allies advance continued.  The Falaise battles ended with most of the German Seventh Army having been destroyed or in captivity.

There followed a period of respite for British units, back behind the lines, including the SNH, who ended up in the Rouen area. Some of the men even went on unofficial leave to drive to Paris late in August, albeit with little or no money!  After R&R the SNH were assigned to support 3rd Canadian Division, taking up positions near Marquise from where their batteries had Calais within their range.

Calais fell on 29th September.  The next area of operations for SNH was the Leopold Canal in north-west Belgium as part of the operation to capture the port of Antwerp. Their preparatory bombardment was not only returned in kind, but with the lethal interest of flamethrowers. Eventually the Germans started to fall back, but not without further fighting in their desperation to hold on to Antwerp. They still controlled the Scheldt estuary and even after they were cleared from its south bank, they clung on to two islands that formed the north bank. Here the SNH were faced with an amphibious challenge in providing fire support for the attack.

By 4th November the Germans had been cleared from the Scheldt estuary and SNH moved east into the Netherlands. They formed part of a mass artillery barrage for a successful assault by XII Corps across the Canal du Nord and River Meuse towards Roermond.  On they advanced, in stages, towards Sittard; men were maimed by mines and lives lost from bombs rained down from the Luftwaffe. On 14th December 1944 the Germans launched a last gasp offensive in the Ardennes i.e. the Battle of the Bulge, but SNH remained in Sittard.

Here their gun positions were being shelled by enormous 210mm German guns, which engendered a state of nervousness they had never previously felt. The SNH’s batteries were pulled back 4 miles to Geleen where they celebrated Christmas in comfortable billets. By now it was so cold they had to regularly fire the guns at random during the day to keep the mechanisms going. Moving in the new year, the SNH found themselves firstly at Susteren and then on to Koninsbosch near the German border. This phase of operations for SNH come to an end in the knowledge that the Germans’ Ardennes offensive had failed. They were moved north to the west bank of the River Meuse early in February 1945, taking up the worst gun position they had ever come across, for a number of reasons, including deep, unyielding, mud. The whole area bristled with guns. They were attached to XXX Corps tasked with driving the Germans out of the area and secure a bridgehead over the River Rhine at Wesel. The barrage began on 8th February and a stricken Allied bomber jettisoned its bombs causing the SNH multiple deaths and casualties. On 13th February they fired a barrage to assist Scottish infantry units in their attack on Goch. By the time the ground the other side of the Meuse was cleared late in February, the SNH had fired about 14,000 rounds. Across the river they went, north, close to Nijmegen, then returning south to take up positions on the outskirts of Gennep. On 1st March they moved forward across the border into Germany where they had a period of rest before crossing the Rhine.

The crossing was planned for the early evening of 23rd March, SNH went to the main British concentration area near Xanten, where they were part of hundreds of medium and heavy guns firing a preliminary heavy counter-barrage to silence German batteries. One of their last tasks, in support of the Canadians again, was clearing the “island” formed between the River Waal and the Rhine close to Arnhem.

Despite the end being so obviously near, the Germans fought on and the men of SNH got edgy, fearing fate dealing them a cruel blow just as a positive outcome was “in the bag”.  The last round the SNH fired in the war was on 14th April 1945 as the Allies rapidly advanced, during which one gun malfunctioned and a gunner was hit in the foot.  However, there was no more fighting for them and they pressed on to billets near the town of Coesfeld.  Here their war ended 8th May 1945; they got very inebriated!

The South Notts Hussars were given the responsibility by the Military Government for the administration of the whole of the Coesfeld area in Westphalia – about 55 square miles in total – where they were accommodated in reasonable comfort.  They were to clear the area of battlefield debris, equipment and munitions and in doing so incurred some casualties, but no major ones. They tried to restore some normality to the region despite the strictures regarding non-fraternisation, which made their task difficult. Gradually official policy in that regard changed, making SNH’s job easier. They were also  responsible for displaced persons and seven POW camps of varied nationalities in their area, presenting challenges of maintaining law and order, especially when Russians took revenge on the local population. The SNH were kept amused in their spare time with sport, producing their own magazine, cinema with British films etc. – and an active black market!

From Autumn onwards the SNH were gradually demobilised. On 28th February 1946 the regiment was no more, following receipt by the regimental adjutant of notice of its official disbandment. By this time most of the original members who had been mobilised on 1st September 1939 were already back home.

Peter’s final chapter Après la Guerre reflects on the anti-climax of no great homecoming, no common response to the return to civilian life, no brave new world fit for heroes and that some dealt with the aftermath better than others. I will end with Peter’s final paragraph:-

“The interviews may have wakened demons, but most of the men were nonetheless keen to record their memories so that people might understand what it was really like. Not the gung-ho imaginings of journalists, or the fantasies of war films, but the nitty-gritty reality of life at war. Of the unstinting comradeship of their fellows. Most of all to remember and pay tribute to the friends they had lost in battle; the friends left buried beneath the sands or mud of far-off lands. Now that almost all of the South Notts Hussar I interviewed are dead, it is time to remember and pay due homage to them all. But most of all to say thank you.”

I recommend this book which I thoroughly enjoyed, despite having no previous interest in the subject.