Crossing the Divide

It’s about time I posted on this blog as it costs money to keep it going. But who reads blogs nowadays – it’s all vlogs, Twitter threads and whatever goes on in the strange lands of TikTok and Instagram?

My thoughts on this blog post stem from the presentation I gave to the Surrey branch of Western Front Association on Wednesday (15th February 2023) about the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines, Belgium. Many of their members had visited the Peace Park, as have no doubt readers of this blog, but they were keen to hear and see, via my PowerPoint slides, the wider story that they had not picked up during their fleeting visit.

My photo

I was fortunate that back in 2008 I was given a photocopy of an illustrated document that detailed the background and events leading to the opening of Peace Park, much of which cannot be discovered by a search of the internet. I’m not going to reproduce my presentation in this blog, but rather ruminate on what I consider to be an oddity of the Peace Park and also a missed opportunity.

Both of these issues relate to individual servicemen of the Great War from the Island of Ireland chosen to be named in the Peace Park. On the only other occasion that I have given a version of this talk (my first one ever back in 2008) I tried the patience of both the audience and myself telling the biographies of the nine men that are named. One soon learns that less is more! In any case, as the ethos of the memorial site is about peace and reconciliation, the individual biographies are of small significance. The nine men are a representative sample; across 10th (Irish) Division, 16th (Irish) Division and 36th (Ulster) Division there are four officers, one NCO, one Private, one war artist, one chaplain and one stretcher bearer who then went into military intelligence.

Having said that, I find it strange that there is nothing in the Peace Park dedicated to the story of Major William Redmond of 16th (Irish) Division and Private John Meeke of 36th (Ulster) Division. Although the overarching message of the Peace Park is not about the Battle of Messines, the reason the site was chosen is because the southern Irish 16th and northern Irish 36th Divisions lived, worked and fought side by side on the Messines Ridge.


Image from Western Front Association

One of the architectural features of the Peace Park is a bronze topped stone with a map depicting the deployment of the two divisions side by side for the battle, during which Major Redmond sustained fairly minor wounds to his wrist and leg. He was attended to by Private Meeke and taken to a Field Ambulance Station of 36th (Ulster) Division where the 53 year old subsequently died from the shock of his wounds. During their preparations, on the field of battle and in the medical environment, differences of north and south, loyalist and nationalist, Catholic and Protestant did not matter. No story exemplifies this more than that of Redmond and Meeke (the story is well enough known for there to be plenty of material on the internet, for those who don’t know it).


Private John Meeke (image from Ballymoney Museum)

The other missed opportunity (in my opinion) relates to the nine flat stones, each of which is inscribed with a quote from the named individual. I don’t know how these men and their quotes were chosen and I should imagine it was a difficult and, perhaps, contentious task. Obviously there had to be something in the public domain from which the quotes could be sourced e.g. the Imperial War Museum in London holds an unpublished memoir of Private David Starrett of 36th (Ulster) Division.

My photo

Another of the stones is to a chaplain of 16th (Irish) Division, Fr Francis Gleeson, whose papers have been digitalised by University College Dublin. I have not read any of the documents because I’ve only just discovered they have been digitalised and I wonder if there are any examples in them of the priest reaching out to cross divides? I ask this because one of the main drivers for the establishment of the Peace Park, the late Paddy Harte, a former Teachta Dála of Dáil Éireann, said of another chaplain: “Both Protestant and Catholic alike praised Fr Willie Doyle whose name is chiselled on the Tyne Cot memorial. He did not see soldiers as friend or foe, Catholic or Protestant, but as human beings in need of spiritual aid.”


A more recent addition to the Peace Park than at my last visit. Photo kindly provided by Genevra Charsley (Glen Barr was a community activist from Northern Ireland)

In addition to this, Fr Doyle was also well known for his humour and his positive outlook, even if forced at times, which kept up the morale of the men to whom he ministered. Yet only one of the nine Peace Park stones contains an uplifting quote – that by Terence Poulter relating to the armistice. The other eight stones reference either the miseries of war, or are despairing or melancholy in tone.

My photo and contrary to what I said above I am advised this was chosen by Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association

As Peter Hart and Gary Bain say in their Introduction to their book ‘Laugh or Cry’ “This is a book that looks at the way humour helped the soldiers survive their terrible experiences … ‘You have to laugh or you would cry’ could have been their motto.” Taff Gillingham points out in the Preface “In some cases even their darkest moments had been alleviated with a well-timed quip from a chum … It kept his spirits up at times when others may have given in and plays a vital part in helping us to understand the Army of 1914-18.”

And so, returning to the Peace Park, the quotes chosen there focus on the ‘terrible’ :-

My photo

Here is something uplifting from Fr Doyle.

My photo of portrait in descendants’ family home


“I am writing the same afternoon and the Bosch has begun again his old game, quite spoiling my lunch.  It was all so quiet and peaceful when suddenly a biggish shell came plump down close to where I was writing, sitting.  Three of my lads came tearing in to my dug-out, they had nearly been sent to glory and felt they were safe with the priest.  The poor priest cracks a joke or two, makes them forget their terror, and goes on with his lunch while every morsel sticks in his throat from fear and dread of the next shell.  A moment passes, two – ‘here he comes’ – dead silence and anxious faces for a second and then we all laugh, for it is one of our own shells going over to Fritz, a sort of polite ‘leaving cards.’  Five minutes more and we know all danger has passed, but it has been a memorable day for me, though only one of many such in the past.”

Even had someone suggested it, perhaps this quote was too long to fit on one of the stones, or could not be edited?

I’m going to finish with Paul Smith, who served with 9th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Unfortunately I do not have a photo of him, only several images from letters he wrote to a resident of Ypres, Dr Caenepeel, whom he met during a visit in 1970. The doctor had asked him for some information about Fr Willie Doyle, SJ, MC. The former Lance Corporal Smith described advancing into Wytschaete when the mines blew up on Messines and that during his recent visit:

“Our coach on our journey brought us through Wytschaete Village. The coach stopped outside a cottage, a lovely lady and her husband were at the door. The lady spoke good English. She asked if any 16th Division amongst us, I was the only one, I showed her my cap badge, Royal Dublin Fusiliers.”

Paul Smith was born in Manchester to an Irish mother and returned there post war, although he often visited Dublin, including to visit the father of the chaplain Willie Doyle. He travelled to Ypres in the Spring of 1970 with the Old Comrades Association of 19th Division. Had he lived in Ireland, no such opportunity would have been available to him.

Half a century on the Peace Park receives regular visitors of all ages from the Island of Ireland.

My photo from a photocopy


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.

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 following the fatal wound 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!


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.

Bad Gas Discipline

Often when the casualties of the Great War of 1914-1918 are mentioned one’s first thoughts turn to the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916. Or maybe the thoughts of people with an interest in a specific regiment focus on their casualties in that, or any other, theatre of the war. For example, according to Terence Denman the casualties for 16th (Irish) Division for September 1916, including the Battles of Guillemont and Ginchy, were 643 deaths, 2851 wounded and 859 missing. For August 1917, including the Battle of Langemarck, there were 563 deaths, 2883 wounded and 779 missing. Dr Denman compiled casualty figures on a monthly basis from January 1916 when the first units of 16th (Irish) Division arrived in France until its demise in March 1918.

However, what of casualties for actions that were not “battles”? I raise this because the little known casualties for 16th (Irish) Division during two days of chlorine gas attacks, while in the front line trenches of the Loos sector at the end of April 1916, are comparable to their well known later battle losses. Denman’s figures for that month are 538 killed 1526 wounded 64 missing. The Official History (for the two days only) are 570 killed (232 from shelling, 338 from gas) 1410 wounded (488 shelling, 922 gas) but no figure for missing. There is no definitive answer to the question of how many casualties were sustained from the gas attacks, each source consulted varies from the one before, e.g. Captain J.H.M. Staniforth of 7th Leinsters, refers in his diary to evacuating 440 men killed by gas.

I have an interest in these chlorine gas attacks because a long account was written of them, shortly after they occurred, by someone I have researched, one of the Division’s padres, Fr William Doyle, SJ who was attached to 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers, 49th Infantry Brigade at that time.

This battalion was situated on the left of the 16th Divisional front line on 27th April 1916, facing Hulluch. Their brigade colleagues next to them 7th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and, especially the other centre battalion, 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers of 48th Brigade, took the brunt of the two attacks. (There were some casualties in other parts of the line, including 15th (Scottish) Division on the left).

On 27th April 1916 chlorine gas was emitted from 3,800 cylinders from the trenches of the 5th Bavarian and 5th Bavarian Reserve Regiments of the German 4th Infantry Division. The enemy penetrated the 16th (Irish) Division’s line, gaining entry to trenches, before being driven off by machine gunners; there was also bloody hand-to-hand fighting and Fr Doyle administered the last rites to a young officer fatally wounded by a bullet to the stomach.

Major General William Hickie, Officer Commanding 16th (Irish) Division, later wrote: “It is suggested that the Germans, knowing they were attacking an untried Division in not very good trenches, hoped to clear those trenches with gas and by the bombardment.”

8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers’ war diary notes on 27th April 1916 that “a dense cloud of black gas and smoke was between us and the sun and gradually spreading over our lines”, commencing at 4.45 a.m. driven by an almost imperceptible breeze from the east. Thirty-five minutes later there was a heavy bombardment on their trenches and “heavy rolls of whitish gas was seen to come from all the sap heads in front of Hulluch sub-section and the Posen crater and pass over 49 Infantry Brigade on our left”. The bombardment then lifted and under cover of the gas the Bavarians (protected by superior gas helmets) entered a section of the 8th Dublins’ trench and nearly all the Dubs there were killed or wounded. The enemy was beaten out by “the remnants of the two companies reinforced by B Company from the reserve trench and later (at dark) by A Company of 9 Dublins from Gun Trench”.

The diary notes a strong barrage from their own guns late in the afternoon and the night “passed in evacuating the wounded and burying dead, identifying where possible”. The following day there was intermittent shelling but some repairs to the trenches was possible and during the night the evacuation of the dead continued. In the early hours of 29th April, at 3.20 a.m. the gas signal was given again. There was no wind and a gas cloud settled over their trenches. Although there was no artillery bombardment or enemy advance, the 8th Dublins’ diary says “scarcely a man could survive this attack … The casualties from gas poisoning were more severe than on 27th owing presumably to the gas clouds meeting and remaining stationary and concentrated over trenches”.

The casualties recorded for 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers were 3 officers killed, 5 wounded, 3 gassed (named) plus several others (unnamed) wounded or gassed, 102 personnel were missing and total casualties for other ranks was 368, leaving a battalion strength of 578. See images from the war diary for details of casualties, listed as killed, wounded, died of wounds, gassed or missing.

7th Royal Inniskillings’ war diary says casualties were 10 out of 24 officers (2 gassed and later died, 4 gassed, 1 gassed but remained at duty, 1 wounded, 1 wounded at duty, 1 missing) and 253 out of 603 other ranks, but no details. However, the history of that battalion records 66 killed, 52 wounded, 8 missing, 137 gassed totalling 263.

Fr Doyle conducted the burial service on 1st May of many of those killed. As for the chaplain’s own battalion, 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers’ losses were 25 killed, 45 wounded and 66 gassed, including himself. Fr Doyle was one of 20 men, from a private to a major, highlighted in Lieutenant Colonel S.T. Watson’s report for performing acts of initiative and bravery.

Casualties formed one element of the flood of reports spawned by the chlorine gas attacks. All reports had one or more of the following elements: a narrative of events; how the British responded to the German attack; how the whole gamut of equipment used (ordnance, protective and preventative gear, communications) responded to the proximity of gas; what intelligence was gained from German prisoners; what lessons could be learned; recommendations and the casualties.

There were preliminary reports, reports, and recommendations of reports; reports at battalion level, yet more reports at Brigade, Division, Corps and Army levels and from the Field Ambulance Service. There were unofficial reports which were included in immediate personal accounts (such as Fr Doyle’s) and, later on, in memoirs. Amongst this plethora of reports that mushroomed like the gas clouds there was some suggestion that, whilst the Irishmen had undoubtedly conducted themselves in a courageous manner, it was their lack of discipline which led to such horrendous casualties e.g. lack of gas drills. After the war this viewpoint was driven by other political factors, but at the time it provided a focus away from any possible defects in equipment, particularly the gas helmets.

Irish Independent

Lieutenant A. Bowen of the Royal Army Medical Corps attached to 16th Division concluded on 1st May 1916 that there was a: “want of drill in the use of the gas helmet and not to any defect in the helmet.” On the other hand 8th Royal Irish Fusiliers, Lieutenant Colonel Watson, reported:
When gas was detected helmets were adjusted with promptitude and all men rearmed. This action prevented any casualties occurring from gas with the exception of a few men who, subsequent to the attack, drank tainted water.”

Lt Bowen asserts that: “Some men stated they never had a gas helmet on before… One officer was reported to have been seen walking about with his helmet pulled on and no attempt made at tucking it in.” However, he also stated: ”Another officer reported that he put on the ‘P.H.’ helmet and being alarmed at the choking sensation changed it for his old helmet, which he stated was perfectly efficient. Several men stated on pulling on their helmets, they were alarmed by the sensation of choking and pulled them off again.” On the other hand: ”One man admitted to No.112 Field Ambulance, suffering from Grenade Wounds, received subsequent to the gas attacks, was [sic] through both gas attacks and was in no way affected, only one helmet being used by him, which is apparently still quite effective.”

There were incidents of men who either didn’t get their helmets on in time or took them off too early. Men emerged from mines to find a gas attack in progress; men in forward saps and listening posts, or men caught in latrines, who could not get their helmets on in a timely manner. Lieutenant General L.E. Kiggell, Chief of the General Staff, First Army, in his report on the first gas attack on 27th April, noted the ruse played by the enemy in first delivering an innocuous, mostly smoke cloud, ahead of a very strong gas cloud, by which time a few men had been fooled into taking their helmets off. Fr Doyle initially mistook the beginning of the first gas attack as being shell smoke and he later misjudged discarding his helmet prematurely because he felt hindered by the helmet.

Fr Doyle had struggled in assisting a gassed officer, who had his helmet on (see below) but was trying to tear it off because he was choking. Perhaps he was one of those officers who had tried to assist his men before getting his own helmet on first. This phenomenon was noted in several reports, along with the fact that some officers removed helmets in order to deliver orders to their men. 49th Infantry Brigade, Major Rudkin, said “It is feared the lives of Officers and N.C.O.’s were lost owing to the fact that they moved along the trenches giving instructions to the men during the gas attack, and in doing so removed the tube from the mouth. The necessity for no talking during a gas attack should be impressed on all ranks and also for as little movement as possible”.

Several official reports conceded that there were issues with gas helmets such as: “a prickling irritating sensation is to be expected in the eyes, nose and throat” thus: “causing a man’s field of vision to be very limited and his hearing to be dulled” and: “the difficulty of seeing owing to gas helmets and goggles becoming blurred with moisture.” Therefore, some men had no choice when it came to properly executing their duties; for example the men of Machine Gun 9 were slightly gassed owing to removing their goggles in order to remedy stoppages when the gun over-heated. They had no other option in view of the fact that three of their fellow Machine Gun teams had been killed, and their guns knocked out.

Quite evidently there were inconsistencies in the performance of P.H. helmet then in use i.e. a flannel hood, impregnated with anti-gas chemicals Sodium-Phenate and Hexamethalyne-Tetramine, with two round glass eye pieces, a flat breathing tube to go in the mouth, connected to a rubber valve on the outside of the helmet. The bottom of the helmet had to be tucked in the top of the tunic for the helmet to be effective, with the wearer breathing in through the fabric and out through the mouth via the tube. This crude, clumsy arrangement demanded practice, but use of the helmet during practice, as well as waiting for and during a gas attack, diminished the level of protective chemical. The satchel in which the helmet was kept was designed to keep the helmet lubricated by the protective chemicals. There was a fine balancing act to be achieved between being prepared quickly enough for an attack and being prepared for an attack with a helmet that was not compromised. However, Major General O.H.D. Nicholson of the General Staff, First Army complained: “The helmet was not put on quickly enough. This was probably the result of the helmets being carried in the satchels, instead of being rolled up on the head”. 48th Infantry Brigade reported gas helmets being too dry and four authentic cases of men gassed dead with their helmets on after the attack of the 29th April.

Whilst there were variations in the performance of the gas helmets, the one other simple reason for the high number of casualties for 16th (Irish) Division is where troops were located in relation to the release of a high concentration of gas from cylinders. First Army reports were adamant that the P.H. helmets functioned properly when used correctly. This initially seems to be borne out years later in the history of The Special Gas Brigade, which states that the helmets “gave absolute protection against much higher concentrations of gas than could be experienced from a gas cloud, provided that they were in good condition and properly adjusted in time.” Curiously, however, the words ‘absolute protection’ later gave way to noting that none of the P, P.H. or P.H.G. helmets were “as efficient as the box respirator which was introduced later”.

Conclusions drawn post war by an official Historian of the Great War, Brigadier General Sir James E. Edmonds about the issue of alleged bad gas discipline at Loos were “All units practised gas alerts daily… The gas alert, for which everyone was ready, was given … It was light when the gas clouds were released, and the men of the 16th Division had full warning and were ready – not a dead man was found without his helmet properly on – yet the gas casualties were somewhat heavy. Although it was not admitted at the time, and the casualties were unjustly attributed to the bad gas discipline of the 16th Division, the helmet was obviously insufficient protection against the strong concentration of gas which the enemy was able to produce, the heaviest incidence of casualties and the highest mortality occurring at those parts of the front line nearest to the enemy’s trenches. The manufacture of the gas respirators, therefore, was pushed on with all speed”.

Unfortunately, inflammatory statements post-war, along the lines of “wild Irishmen” completely losing their heads and severe casualties due to the “Irish temperament”, had already been made by former personnel of 12th and 15th Divisions and I Corps. Nevertheless, at the time, the Commander-in-Chief of British forces, General Sir Douglas Haig, visited the 16th (Irish) Division on Friday 5th May 1916 and observed that the gas attacks: “seem to have been the most severe which we have yet encountered. The Irishmen did very well.”

The report of 49th Infantry Brigade gives a picture of German losses after the first attack. Over one hundred fresh German bodies were counted in No-Man’s-Land between the Kink and Smith’s Crater, some of which were lying in, or near, British barbed wire, but the majority were lying about mid-way between the opposing lines.

It was asserted that the enemy must have suffered severely from artillery fire aimed into their trenches and from gas blowing back. About forty or fifty large German motor ambulances were seen to come up rapidly to Bois Benifontaine in the afternoon and, after a short time, go slowly away. The 15th Division’s history notes “In connection with this attack on the part of the enemy, it is interesting to note that in October 1918, at the commencement of the ‘Advance to Victory’ an officer of the 15th Division saw, in the German cemetery at Pont-a-Vendin, [approximately three miles from Hulluch] the graves of 400 Germans killed on April 27 and 29, 1916, ‘gassed with their own gas’.”

Finally, a quote from Fr Doyle’s account in his letter to his father dated May 1916:

As I made my way slowly up the trench, feeling altogether ‘a poor thing,’ I stumbled across a young officer who had been badly gassed. He had got his helmet on but was coughing and choking in a terrible way. ‘For God’s sake’ he cried ‘help me to tear off this helmet – I can’t breathe, I’m dying.’ I saw if I left him the end would not be far, so catching hold of him I half carried, half dragged him up the trench to the medical aid post. I shall never forget that 10 minutes, it seemed hours. I seemed to have lost all my strength: struggling with him to prevent him killing himself by tearing off his helmet made me forget almost how to breathe through mine. I was almost stifled though safe from gas, while the perspiration simply poured from my forehead. I could do nothing but pray for help, and set my teeth, for if I once let go he was a dead man. Thank God we both at last got to the aid post and I had the happiness of seeing him in the evening out of danger, though naturally still weak.”

Sources: Denman, Terence Ireland’s Unknown Soldiers, Irish Academic Press, 1992; Edmonds, Brigadier-General Sir James E., History of the Great War, Military Operations, France and Belgium 1916, MacMillan and Co. Ltd., 1932; Staniforth, J.H.M., private papers, IWM reference 14337; Cooper-Walker, G.A., The Book of The Seventh Service Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, Brindley & Son, Printers, Dublin, 1920; Foulkes, Major-General C.H. ‘Gas!’ The Story of the Special Brigade, William Blackwood & Sons Ltd, 1934; Stewart, Lieutenant-Colonel J, D.S.O., and Buchan, John, The Fifteenth (Scottish) Division 1914-1919, William Blackwood and Sons, 1926.

Letter dated 3rd May 1916 from Fr William Doyle, SJ to his father Hugh, in descendants’ family archive.

National Archives:-

WO 158/269 various First Army Reports concerning gas attacks at Hulluch, 5th May 1916; WO 256/10 Sir Douglas Haig diaries; WO 95/1978 8th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers War Diary including 16th Division Report No. D.S. 1182, Major General William Hickie; WO 95/1976 49th Infantry Brigade War Diary; WO 95/1977 7th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers War Diary; WO/1974 8th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers War Diary.

Salient Reflections

Where to start with this blog? I suppose if I was thirty years younger I would be vlogging, or posting short video clips via smart phone on social media. Everything seems to be “in the moment” nowadays. That’s why I’m an Old Gal I suppose!

This time last week I was packing to return home from Ypres.

The trip reinforced what the pandemic had shown me, that life sucks without personal interaction with people. Social media and “zooming”  can fill that role to an extent, but it will never beat face-to-face (or often, sadly nowadays, mask-to-mask) contact.

Returning to the Ariane hotel was a joy, but a joy slightly diminished by not being able to see the full familiar faces of the staff.

Still, they say that you can tell the sincerity of a smile by its reflection in the eyes and many eyes were lit up!

It seems a no brainer, despite some curmudgeonly opinions on social media, that the travel and hospitality industry in Ypres would welcome the return of British tourists from so-called “Plague Island”. However, what was also telling was a conversation our table of four had one evening in St Arnoldus bar with a young couple on an adjoining table. They were local residents who did not work in tourism but told us how pleased they were that British tourists were drifting back and how much they and the town in general had missed them.

In 1919 when Ypres was still in ruins, later to rise again as Ieper, Winston Churchill, Secretary of State for War, expressed a personal desire that the British should be enabled to acquire the ruins of Ypres and preserve them as a monument: “A more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world”.[1] Whilst his wish could not have been more heartfelt, it could not have been more facile. Equally, what the Covid pandemic has taught us is that the over-simplification by some people to the challenges others face in making an honest living is just as distasteful. For example, Eeyores who complain about commercialisation of the Salient examine one side of a coin, that which reflects their own safe perspective. The other side of the coin is that, for example for others, branded poppy goods are a means of paying the bills.

I can take or leave the poppy branding and, of course, I have a poppy scarf and other bits and pieces, however I draw the line at a thong! But, whatever rocks your boat and I don’t suppose such an item can be purchased in Ieper anyway. What I do find distasteful is the way some consumers of poppy branded goods flaunt them as if they are a badge of honour. And don’t get me started on modern tacky memorials, which often are about reflected glory on people *now* rather than people *then*.

This Armistice trip held a couple of surprises for me, one of which related to these graves and I will blog about another time:-

The other was interaction with someone whom I would never have expected to bump into or exchange conversation. Whilst waiting under the Menin Gate to lay a wreath on 11th November, I became aware that the lady standing next to me seemed familiar. She spoke to me first and evidently also did not recognise me; we were both wearing masks, which did not help matters, albeit many people were not. Eventually I realised that she was a local councillor at home and that we had crossed swords on the opposite side of a particular argument on many occasions. This was confirmed when I asked her name and introduced myself. Nevertheless, we exchanged pleasantries whilst waiting and also at the end of proceedings and parted on friendly terms, which was wholly appropriate given the occasion. This is the wreath she laid:-

Part of my party’s recce of the Salient was to Hill 35 where we took a rookie battlefield visitor for a lesson on orientation by reference to church architecture on the horizon. And also how one’s perspective of the landscape changes, and the military challenges involved, when viewed at ground level, rather than from the window of a vehicle. Along this road is to be found a modern granite monument to 16th (Irish) and 36th (Ulster) Divisions, plus a blue plaque which was appended to it some years ago commemorating a much loved chaplain. (I’m not including a photo of the plaque!)

From my research, of which I have done a bit more than some others, my feeling is that Fr Doyle would be content with how his death in service had been commemorated i.e. in the standard manner by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission alongside the other missing of the Salient (post-15th August 1917) at Tyne Cot. He would not have wanted any special recognition. However, some people decided that something extra was required and, irrespective of one’s views on modern memorials, there are several things wrong with the resulting blue plaque. 

Following years of training William Joseph Doyle formally entered the ranks of the Society of Jesus in July 1907; the religious order’s initials, SJ, after his name is what defined his adult life and thereafter he was known as Fr Willie Doyle, SJ. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1917 and became Fr Willie Doyle, SJ MC. The CWGC only record names, initials and gallantry awards on their Royal Army Chaplains’ Department memorial panel at Tyne Cot i.e. in this case Doyle W.J., MC.

This brings us to a second issue in that the blue plaque on Hill 35 says Fr Doyle’s unit was 8th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, whereas he was recruited to and served on behalf of the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department.

The reference to 8th RDF is not wholly incorrect, neither is it anywhere near being correct. It is true 8th RDF is the battalion Fr Doyle was with at the time of his death, one of four battalions of 16th (Irish) Division’s 48th Infantry Infantry Brigade. Fr Willie Doyle, SJ MC was padre to two of the brigade’s battalions, 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers and 2nd Royal Irish Rifles and his Jesuit compadre, Fr Frank Browne, SJ MC ministered to the other two, 2nd and 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers. When Fr Browne was transferred back to the Irish Guards at the beginning of August 1917 a replacement chaplain failed to turn up and Fr Doyle took charge of all four battalions. Indeed, Fr Doyle would not have regarded himself as being identified to only one battalion, one brigade, one division, one religion or one nationality, he saw himself as God’s emissary to minister to whomsoever was in need.

The other problem with the identification of Fr Doyle to 8th RDF on the blue plaque is that it leads to an assumption that he won his Military Cross while attached to that battalion. In fact, the multiple actions in 1916, for which the 1917 New Year’s honours award of an MC was made, occurred when he was attached to 49th Infantry Brigade’s 7th and 8thRoyal Irish Fusiliers.

Moving on, it was great to see a British coach back in the Salient, parked outside Hooge Crater café and museum and proprietor Niek echoed the general local vibe of welcome. There are two stories attached to the cemetery of the same name opposite that members of our party had researched before we came out and I shall save one, as stated above, for another time.  The other relates to these two graves, casualties of the First Battle of Ypres:-

In the local church to the residence of two of our party is a memorial to Lieutenant Colonel H.O.S. Cadogan who lost his life when he left the shelter of a trench to go to the aid of his Adjutant, A.E.C.T.  Dooner (recorded as Lieutenant in the war diary but Captain on the headstone) who was returning from delivering orders to men in the front line.

The history of the Royal Welch Fusiliers[2] contains the testimony of Lieutenant Wodehouse who was wounded and captured:-

30th October – We were holding a line about three-quarters of a mile long. A Company on the right, then B,D and C on the left. Battalion H.Q. was in a dugout about 600 yards to the rear. The trenches were not well sighted for field of fire. So far as I know, no one was on our right; some ‘Blues’[3] were supposed to be there, but I did not see them. It was foggy in the early morning, so that the Germans could not shell us much, which was lucky, as they had two batteries on Zanvoorde Ridge. About 8 a.m. the shelling increased, and we saw large numbers of Germans advancing down a slope about 1,500 yards to our front. Also I believe large numbers were seen coming round our exposed right flank. The batteries on the ridge were now firing point-blank into our trenches, so that it was difficult to see what was happening, and the rifle fire also increased from our right rear. No orders were received, so it was thought best to stay where we were, and about midday the whole battalion was either killed, wounded or taken prisoner.” [The battalion was already depleted from earlier actions.] Casualties: Colonel Cadogan,

Dooner, Egerton, and an officer of the Cornwalls killed, self wounded and prisoner, Poole, Evans and Barrow (Cornwalls) prisoners. During that day or the next Baxter, who was doing Staff-Captain, was killed. I was taken to a dressing-station in Zandvoorde and patched up.” 

This is a lot more detail than the battalion war diary at the time and even that is truncated because of damage to the file.

I’ll finish this blog by returning to the subject of battlefield tourism being integral to the local economy of many former war torn areas, by giving a shout out to Mieka and her Aladdin’s Cave of eatables and drinkables. Many of Chez Marie’s products are locally produced and it’s worth popping in when next in Ieper.

I don’t know from whence the Ariane Hotel obtains their chocolate, but this battlefield visitor is glad of a bit of frivolity! 

[1] Ypres as Holy Ground, Menin Gate Last Post, Dominiek Dendooven, translated by Ian Connerty, de Klaproos, 2003, page 20.

[2] Regimental Records of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (23rd Foot) Compiled by Major C.H. Dudley Ward, D.S.O., M.C., Vol III, 1914-1918, France and Flanders, Forster Groom & Co. Ltd., London, pp 94-95.

[3] Blues were the Royal Horseguards.

A remarkable letter?

I saw a thing going round on Twitter the other day along the lines of what is your greatest achievement? 

I expect a lot of people my age would reply with having children of whom they are proud, who do them credit. That doesn’t apply to me because I do not have children. I am, however, proud of my friendship with my ex-husband, the fact that there is no bitterness between us, after growing apart and breaking up following thirty years of marriage.

I’m also rather proud of the fact that I overcame a fear of heights in order to be able to take up downhill skiing, a past-time I enjoyed for three decades (and I still hanker to give it one last go!)

So, as this is a blog centred on the Great War I thought I’d refer to the result of a piece of detective work relating to this envelope which really makes me proud.

The story goes:-

In 1919 Professor Alfred O’Rahilly published a biography of a military chaplain of 16th (Irish) Division, Fr Willie Doyle, SJ, MC.  I acquired a copy of a first edition from my partner, a collector of militaria, after I developed an interest in the Irish participation in the Great War. I skimmed through the first 400 odd pages of deeply spiritual material, then read all of the final section relating to the padre’s war service and death in the front line of the Third Ypres battlefield in August 1917. The biography is largely based on letters and diaries that Willie Doyle wrote throughout his life and I was enthralled by the engaging and often humorous nature of the quotations. I decided that I wanted to write my own biography of this complex man, except that it would largely concentrate on his war service.

The book, published in 2013, was the product of a writer who had ignored all advice and, despite good intentions to the contrary, tried to juggle too many balls; the book was far too large and wide-ranging. Nonetheless, there was a small audience for it (sold about 300 copies) and there was plenty to be proud about, including that it made Fr Doyle’s descendants happy.

What made me most proud was, firstly, tracking down Fr Doyle’s descendants. Two of Willie’s brothers had not married, one had an adopted daughter and no other children, one sister was also unmarried and I did not know the surname of the two sisters who had married, therefore my task proved difficult. As it turned out, only one of the siblings, Willie’s sister Lena, had gone on to have a large family.  Secondly, I discovered a letter written by Major-General William Hickie, Officer Commanding 16th (Irish) Division (1915 to February 1918), in a family archive of a descendant of Lena; the letter being an important part of Fr Doyle’s story.

I made the decision to write my biography Worshipper and Worshipped in 2007, at which point social media was in its infancy, I had not signed up for any such platform, nor did I subscribe to genealogy websites, so those were resources for which I had no recourse. If possible, I wanted to see the letters Fr Doyle had written home from the France and Flanders, instead of just quoting from the O’Rahilly book.  I started off by emailing all the institutions I could think of that might hold the letters. I drew a blank for each one, except that someone from Belvedere College in Dublin, where Willie Doyle had been a teacher, gave me a name and a phone number for Fr Doyle’s great nephew.

Here was a dilemma. I tried to work out how old and in what state of health (I needn’t have worried) this great nephew was likely to be. I wondered whether a phone call from me would be welcome. I was also hesitant about phoning because of the differences of accents. I used to have a lodger from Dublin and we communicated with no problem at all in person – but not so much by phone when one would often ask the other to repeat him/herself!

As it happened, I had already booked a research trip to Dublin (by now August 2009) and decided to seek out a phone directory to look for the address in order to write a letter to the great nephew. This was a successful exercise, albeit it meant I did not receive a reply until after I had returned home to south London. An invitation was proffered by the family in north County Dublin, and a visit duly took place.  I uncovered a treasure trove of documents and artefacts relating to Willie from early infancy (a lock of baby hair) onwards.

I now had access to the transcripts of Fr Doyle’s letters home from the war front, typed by one of his sisters as an extra (also easier to read) copy for circulation in the family. Turns out that the original letters had been passed to Professor O’Rahilly and never returned (they can be found in the Jesuit Archive in Dublin). I spent hours photographing those transcripts in order to type my own transcript. Some of the resulting photographs were too blurred to read in my haste to get all the pages done in the time available. As it happens, I ran out of time, and returned at a later date to finish the task, which also gave me the opportunity to clear up any queries.

Amongst the paperwork was a hand-written letter on notepaper embossed 16th (Irish) Division Headquarters, within an envelope stamped as approved by the censor, dated 18th  November 1917, from Major-General William Hickie to his friend Brigadier-General Horace Kays at Kildare Street Club, Dublin. The General’s letter starts with the words “Father Doyle …” and was obviously responding to a query from the Brigadier.

Hickie tells Kays that the priest was one of the bravest men who had worked out there; he informs Kays that he had supported the recommendation of the Victoria Cross to Fr Doyle, killed by the explosion of a shell in the front line whilst trying to get a wounded officer to safety, Battle of Langemarck, 16th August 1917. Superior authority had not granted the VC but Fr Doyle was to be mentioned in dispatches. Hickie also tells about his pride in the men of his division. It was just as well I had been left alone in the archive room, a little used back room in the house, as this discovery made me cry!

N.B. Interestingly, Hickie ends the letter “I suppose we are halfway through the war now” i.e. the opinion of a general at the end of 1917; the subject of the perceived timing of what would be the end of the war at the time has been covered by historians such as Peter Hart in his book The Last Battle.

What amazes me most about the discovery of this letter is the largely lukewarm reception I get whenever I have posted images of the letter and the envelope on social media, compared to the “Wows!” others get for their Great War discoveries. (Apologies to those who have actually said or indicated Wow!)

I’m posting here the four page letter from Hickie to Kays, preceded by a transcription.

Finally, Worshipper and Worshipped is so titled to reflect the fact that Fr Doyle worshipped his God and the men of his flock worshipped him. I intend to publish a shorter version of this biography next year, possibly under the title of Chaplain and Correspondent.

My dear Kays,

Father Doyle was one of the best priests I have ever met and one of the bravest men who have fought or worked out here. He did his duty (and more than his duty) most nobly and has left a memory and a name behind him that will never be forgotten. On the day of his death – August 16th – he had worked in the front line and even in front of that line and appeared to know no fatigue. (He never knew fear.) He was killed by a shell towards the close of the day and was buried on the Frezenberg Ridge. I hope to be allowed when things settle down and we can get a party there to do it, to move his remains to the Convent Garden at Locre and to put them in a grave beside that of Willie Redmond. 

He was recommended for the Victoria Cross by his C.O., by his Brigadier and by myself. Superior authority however has not granted it, and as no other posthumous award is given, his name will I believe be mentioned in the Commander in Chief’s despatch. If I had known his father’s address I would have written to him to congratulate him upon having had such a son, and in the name of the Division I would offer him my thanks for the work of the Priest, and in my own name as Commander I would offer my own for the spirit he infused into all he came into contact with – officers and men, and for his very glorious example. I can say without boasting that this is a Division of brave men – and even among them Father Doyle stood out. 

All goes well. I am prouder than ever of my commands. I suppose we are halfway through the war now.

Yours ever W.B.Hickie

The image of Fr Doyle is my photograph of a large photo portrait of Fr Doyle in his chaplain’s uniform situated in the archive room of his great nephew’s house


It’s a while since I published a blog. I’ve had some personal issues to deal with and also helping someone else with same (but different, if you know what I mean). I’ve missed two “On this Day” dates that I wanted to either blog or Twitter thread, or both, but could not get my head round. There’s always next year!

I am moved to write this blog after seeing some fierce, mostly courteous, debate on Twitter about diversity in military history.

The only elements of the diversity debate I am going to address are those of which I have experience i.e. gender and social class.  Having said that, I will touch on the age demographic i.e. the participation of children and young people, despite never having had children.

With regards to the latter, pre-Covid large coach loads of school children were a regular feature of the landscape on the former war-time 20th Century Western Front. I’m sure their teachers and guides will report that the vast majority of them were interested and engaged in the subject. Yet young people are rarely seen at military events or the military history community of social media. Indeed, a historian friend has tried to engage her two sons and two daughters in the subject with no success. The youngest (late teens) can be found on platforms such as Tik-Tok and Instagram and her interests are far removed from history of any description. 

It’s a bit like genealogy – how many middle-aged adults have rued the fact that they never talked to departed older generations about their family history? I put my hand up!

As a woman in her sixties, who grew up on a council estate, attended a comprehensive school and did not go to university, I have some experience, over decades, of inequality of employment opportunity and being marginalised. It is also the case that I do not have friends from my youth, no family members, no peers from other areas of life, who share my interest in military history. I can only conclude that there is something within me that drew me to military history of the Great War and, to a lesser extent Second World War, and did not draw them.  

Having arrived at this point, with the strong belief that there have been no barriers to a working class, white female acquiring an interest in military history, and that it is not unusual that this interest developed as a mature adult, what is my lived experience of that interest?

My first attendance at a military history meeting was by myself. The audience was overwhelmingly male and whilst I did not experience outright hostility, I was not made to feel welcome. Maybe if I had been male the experience would have been the same? This was twenty years ago, so please feel free to leave a comment if you have had the same, but more recent, experience.

I eventually went on to give occasional presentations at similar meetings, the last one just before the first lockdown, and whilst the talks did not faze me, I was always nervous of questions from a largely male audience. My experience was that some questioners seemed to want to catch me out (maybe they were the same with male speakers) and there were an awful lot of “this isn’t a question but a comment”, which largely had little or nothing to do with the subject of my talk but was designed to showcase the knowledge/experience of the “questioner”.  My observation, also, from regular attendance at such meetings, is that female speakers often garner smaller audiences.

Yet on social media there is a plethora of females tweeting, blogging and pod-casting history. Would my blogs garner a larger audience if I was male? Are my blogs and tweets too mundane? Someone recently told me that (despite interacting with me in other subjects on Twitter) he did not interact with my Great War tweets because my focus is personal stories, whereas his focus is every other aspect of military history except that. Would I have a larger Twitter and blog following if I was younger? Is being an older female a determinant in the level of engagement?

Perhaps if I had grown up with social media and established an online presence first for my interests and  research I might have acquired a confidence about tackling meetings, whether as an audience member (on my own) or as a speaker. I think confidence in any given situation is something you either have, or something with which you struggle no matter your background.

Following the recent diversity debate I have asked myself why is it that my history focus is so narrow? Is it because my school history curriculum centred on kings, queens and empires; British (white and male) inventors and explorers; British creatives and artists; British soldiers, generals and battles etc. and other aspects perceived as acceptable history where the Brits “done good” and their unsavoury history pushed to one side? Probably. 

It is my experience that certain communities of people dominate the history scene and it is not easy to break into the inner circle. Nevertheless, as a hobbyist please don’t condemn me for the fact that the history I want to research and study is that of the experiences of people like me and my family during two wars and that I wish to engage with like-minded people, most of whom happen to be white males. You can neither force people to like history nor the type of history with which they wish to engage, but I applaud initiatives to broaden historical participation, inclusion, debate, narratives and historiography.

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:

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:-

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

An internet search will also reveal other results.

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

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