International Women’s Day

It’s got to be done!  As this is a Great War blog it is only fitting that on International Womens’s Day I give a shout out to all the women who stepped out of their comfort zone during the conflict to help keep the home front running and who rendered valuable service in the war zones.  

We all know about the legions of nurses and VADs who served at the front and female munitions workers at home.  But what about this lady who, not only rendered a community service, but also kept a family business going whilst her husband was away at the front.  It had to be done!

Mrs Kitchener, grave digger at Aley Green Cemetery, Luton, Imperial War Museum photo Q 31238.

Off the top of my head I offer two lesser well known roles: The Women’s Timber Corps and Voluntary Women’s (police) Patrols.

The main focus of this blog, however, is on two remarkable women, Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm.  In 1912 these two women, twelve years apart in age, from relatively affluent backgrounds, forged a friendship based on a passion for motor cycling.  When war broke out two years later they went to Belgium with a small, independent ambulance corps founded by a British doctor, Dr Hector Munro.

The older, Elsie Knocker, was a divorcee (but claimed to be a widow to fit with the social mores of the times) and had trained as a nurse.  She had been educated in Switzerland and was fluent in German and French.

Mairi Chisholm’s background was more affluent, but she could strip down and repair the motorcycle bought for her by her father, after she developed an interest following her older brother who competed in speed trials and rallies.  

On arrival in Belgium they were initially located at a base hospital in Ghent before moving to a field hospital at Furnes.  In November 1914 they decided to leave Dr Munro’s corps to move into the heart of the battle zone and they set up a dressing station in a cellar just a hundred yards from the trenches near Pervyse.  That town lies north of Ypres, between Nieuwport on the Belgian coast and Diksmuide.  Nearly all the inhabitants of the area had left.

They were not affiliated to the Red Cross and funded their work privately, which involved trips back to Britain for fund raising lectures etc.  Their living conditions were awful but as well as providing aid to the wounded, they shared their cocoa and soup with Belgian soldiers. They had to move twice when the structures from which they operated were shelled.  

They were awarded the Military Medal and the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Leopold II.  They were also made officers of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John Of Jerusalem.  In 1918 they were seriously injured in a gas attack and returned home for treatment.  Both survived the war and lived long lives, albeit they never sustained their friendship.

In 1916 a Geraldine Mitton worked with Elsie and Mairi to write a book from their letters and notes while still at the front: “The Cellar House at Prevyse” was published in September of that year.  

In her introductory notes Ms Mitton comments at the beginning:-

“Of all the things told of the Great War surely this is the most uncommon, that two women should have been at the front with the Belgian Army almost from the beginning.”

She ends her note:-

“The facts are so astounding that they need no dressing.  My part has been merely that of a recorder, running two parallel journals together and omitting repetitions and details too small to be of general interest.”

Reprints of this book are available and there is a recent biography by Dr Diane Atkinson entitled Elsie and Mairi Go to War

It’s not possible to do Elsie and Mairi’s story justice in a blog and for those who want to know more without purchasing a book, these are some links to look at (and of course there is always Wiki!) and also footage on BBC social media platforms.

www.thevintagent.com

www.sheroesofhistory.wordpress.com

www.pretendingtoknowstuff.wordpress.com

www.saltiresociety.org.uk

Divisional Diversion

My house is awash with books; most rooms contain between one and four bookcases and only one of those bookcases contain anything other than military history.  This is the bookcase housing all the Great War divisional histories, plus some histories of individual units.  All divisions numbered 1-75 for which there is a published history, plus Royal Naval Division and Fifth Australian Division.

According to the Order of Battle Of Divisions, eight didn’t leave the UK (64, 65, 67, 68, 69, 71,  72 and 73) and so there is no history and for some reason there was no 70th Division, period!   A divisional history was not written for another twenty-four, but each history that was published has individual characteristics; there was no set protocol for what should be included and what not, it was simply a case of who decided to write them.  Often it was middle-ranking officers.

Half a dozen divisions commissioned a professional writer to write their histories i.e. author and journalist Richard Everard Wyrall. Some divisions have two histories; the second of the 38th’s is exclusively devoted to the last five weeks of the war.

The 32nd Division’s history is only that of its Artillery and Trench Mortar, told through the eyes of the diaries and memories of personnel, including the Divisional Artillery Chaplain. 

Some histories are tiny, others very large or in two volumes.  The size of the 33rd Division’s  publication is too big for the bookcase, but compare the style, content and layout to the tiny history of the 49th Division at Lens.

The Great War Group decided to make a small dent in the unwritten histories by writing up the history of one of them, deciding upon the 14th Light Infantry Division.  It was determined that the first task would be to transcribe the individual unit war diaries for that division, which is obviously a mammoth undertaking.  The aim is to produce a good quality history; this will be a long term project!

In the Founders’ Note to the second Salient Points journal of the Great War Group, we discover that there are nearly 150 volunteers working on the transcription project, of which I am one, working at a far slower pace than many others, but I am sure I am not the only tortoise!  It can be frustrating at times when the handwriting of a diary entry is illegible and calls often go out to Twitter with accompanying screenshots asking for help in deciphering a single word or more.  It is also the fact that there are variations of the level of detail and scarcity of information can be annoying.

This is not a problem in the diary I am transcribing! Learning is all part of the process, even small minutiae e.g. I discovered there is such a thing as a two-wheeled horse drawn cart called a maltese after asking Twitterstorians.

Many of us are getting enormous satisfaction from the process and diversions are an occupational hazard!  For example, on 13th August 1915 Captain T.E.F. Penney, 6th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry recorded in the battalion war diary that another unit of their brigade, 6th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, had 40 men buried from the debris caused by a large shell which landed in the crypt of St. Martin’s Cathedral, Ypres in which they were located.  This caused me to download the 6th DCLI diary for more details – one of those rabbit holes down which researchers often disappear!

When 43rd Brigade relieved 42nd Brigade on 10th August 1915, the units were dispersed to various locations in Ypres. C & D Companies 6th DCLI, went into St Martin’s Cathedral, at the southern wing where the cloisters were almost untouched.  On 12th August 1915 just after 6 a.m. the enemy commenced shelling the vicinity of the cloisters, but the men inside thought they were safe and stayed put. Eventually the gunners got their range correct and a direct hit brought down most of the west end of the cloister ceiling, burying several men.  Shellfire continued for five hours.  Many of the men inside who escaped and went to rescue their comrades were, themselves, buried.  An officer and the adjutant were killed outside the cloisters just as they arrived to try to help.  The shellfire was from a German 17” gun in Houlthurst Forest nearly 10 miles away.

2 Officers killed, 2 wounded, 18 Other Ranks killed, 19 wounded, 5 men rescued from the rubble.

Amongst the Other Ranks killed was 20 year old Lance Corporal Fred Dubbins from Putney in south-west London and he was laid to rest in Ypres Reservoir Cemetery. I have been to visit his grave because his campaign medals are lodged close to me as part of a larger collection to the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.

I am hoping for a personal eureka moment as transcription progresses. I am transcribing the diary for the unit my great uncle joined in September 1915, 6th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, but have only just finished August.  As a private he is unlikely to be mentioned, but you never know because, at this period anyway, the diary is being written by an officer who goes into a lot of detail and he often mentioned other ranks by name, usually casualties.  My great uncle, 23567 Private Alfred Ebdon, enlisted on 28th December 1914 and his Medal Index Card indicates that he went overseas on 3rd September 1915.  He became a casualty in 1917 and the War Badge Roll shows that he was discharged 4th June 1917 after receiving a gun shot wound to the left thigh.  Unfortunately, I neither have a photo of him nor know the whereabouts of his campaign medals and silver war badge.

So, onwards with #team14thDivision transcription!

N.B. Apologies for the quality of the images, but you get the general idea!

Rabbit Hole

Been down any rabbit holes lately? Research invariably leads to rabbit holes – those fascinating distractions that you think will involve a couple of minutes diversion but then take you on a long convoluted journey into the warren.  Why have I written this blog?  No reason other than it justifies the time I recently spent in a rabbit warren and someone might want to have a wander in it!

I’m increasingly dipping my toe into family research and having three great uncles that served in the Great War I often rue the fact that our family has no idea where their campaign medals are located. Were they discarded in a bin, are they in a stranger’s collection, who knows?  Thinking about this a few days ago I was reminded of messages I exchanged with an online acquaintance regarding the sale of medals of his distant relative. I can’t remember how the conversation came about and have since deleted my original Twitter account, which means the message exchange has gone too.  Anyway, in an idle moment, or rather a moment when I was fed up with the task in hand, I looked up the sale of the medals of Major Valentine Joseph Farrell, DSO, MC and Bar.

These medals, along with those of his brother Lieutenant Colonel John Arthur Joseph Farrell, DSO, both of the Leinster Regiment, had been sold twice.  

On 1st December 1993, Major V.J. Farrell’s medals were sold at auction.  Seven years later, the collection of Michael McGoona, who served with the Irish Defence Force between 1954 and 1995, was sold at auction on 28th June 2000.  Two hundred and fifty lots of medals to the Leinster Regiment collected by him, including those of the Farrell brothers (and also some campaign medals with no associated gallantry medals of private soldiers) went under the hammer.

I understand the motivation of the collector of medals, but I do wonder at that of the seller.  Needs must, I suppose, in a lot of gallantry medal cases when a meaningful price can be obtained.

The auctioneer’s description of the Farrell brothers’ medals refer to five of them having served with the Leinster Regiment – in fact it was four brothers, the fifth Farrell was an older relation – their uncle.  At the outbreak of the Great War the 5th Battalion The Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians) was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Edward Francis Farrell.  At the end of November 1916, following periods of ill-health that started with pneumonia in August 1914, he was placed on temporary retired pay.  Subsequently his name appeared on the Silver War Badge list.

References to one or the other of the four Farrell brothers appear in the history of the Leinsters twenty-eight times.  These, together with other sources such as Ancestry and the battalion war diaries, would enable me to write a mini history, but I will confine myself to the basic details so far discovered.

The Farrells were a Roman Catholic landowning family in Moynalty, Meath and the 1911 census shows that they had eight servants to run the household and a governess for the three youngest children.  Six out of eight Farrell siblings lived with their parents, 49 year old John Edward Joseph Farrell and 44 year old Harriett Susannah Farrell, originally from Kent.  The census indicates that five of their children were born in Australia (Tasmania), with the youngest, aged 5, born in Meath.  Two of the four brothers are not on this census return, but I did find one of them elsewhere.  Twenty-five year old Cecil Joseph Farrell (born in England) was a boarder at an address in a south Dublin suburb and was a student of law – presumably at Trinity College Dublin.  He was following in his father’s footsteps, who was listed as DL i.e. Deputy Lieutenant and JP i.e. Justice of the Peace.  Cecil Farrell subsequently served in the same battalion as his uncle, becoming a captain and his legal brain was obviously suited to the role of adjutant.  The 5th battalion was a depot/training unit and Captain (adjutant) Cecil Farrell does not appear to have served with any other unit overseas.

One of the brothers living at home in 1911 became a career soldier.  The census lists 21 year old John Arthur Joseph as a Lieutenant Special Reserve.  His wedding, with members of the 5th Leinsters present (including brass band), took place on 4th August 1914 just hours before the telegram ordering general mobilisation was received.  As it happened, his older brother (by a year) Valentine (previously a Mechanical Engineer) beat John into overseas service.  The medal index card for Valentine shows he arrived in France with 2nd Leinsters on 28th February 1915, whereas John’s MIC shows him arriving, also to 2nd Leinsters, on 9th October 1916.  Captain John Farrell was awarded the DSO for “fine work” (as per the history of the Leinsters) during the Battle of Messines with 7th Battalion Leinsters, after assuming command following heavy casualties at headquarters caused by a trench mortar.  He was already acting second-in-command and although severely shaken by the blast he at once took charge following the loss of the officer commanding.  During the German Spring Offensive of March 1918, Captain John Farrell was wounded, this being his second wound during his service.  By the time the Leinsters were disbanded in 1922, John was a major and was transferred to the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.  Major J. Farrell served in India and North West Frontier before retiring from the army in 1935.  In 1939 he was recalled as a staff officer with the RAF.  He was later a temporary lieutenant colonel serving in the Middle East.

The history of the Leinsters notes that during the Battle of Messines, 7th June 1917 (7th Battalion) and also during an attack on Hill 63 in the Ypres Salient in September 1918 (2nd Battalion) there were three Farrell brothers serving together.  Lieutenant Gerald Farrell was the battalion signalling officer during the Battle of Messines and was subsequently awarded a divisional (16th) parchment certificate for conspicuous ability in establishing a report centre in Petit Bois very early in the battle.  During the action on Hill 63, Ypres Salient, the now Captain Gerald Farrell was wounded and one of his brothers, Captain Valentine Farrell, gained the DSO for gallantry.

Captain Valentine Farrell had already been awarded the MC and Bar.  The award of the Military Cross was for actions during the Battle of Ginchy, 9th September 1916.  The history of the Leinsters describes the losses of the 7th battalion and how (then Lieutenant) Farrell (senior officers having been killed) withdrew the survivors to the Guillemont-Bapaume Road: “The difficult task of withdrawing the remnant of the Battalion was executed with great skill by the above officer; for this he was later awarded the Military Cross”.  The London Gazette entry for 14th November 1916 reads: “For conspicuous gallantry during operations. When the senior officers of two companies had become casualties in the firing line he took command, and by his fine example, kept his men together under intense fire.”

Valentine Farrell was awarded a Bar to his MC in September 1918.  He was also mentioned in dispatches in December 1918.  The MID stated that the Bar was for repeated acts of heroism during 1917-1918.  The citation for the second MC in the London Gazette 16 September 1918 states: “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. This officer led his company forward by night on the flank of a local attack, laid out and dug posts joining up the ground gained under heavy shell fire and very difficult conditions. He overcame all obstacles and completed his task, setting a splendid example of courage and leadership.”

At Hill 63, on 3 September 1918, the 2nd battalion was in front of what General Freyberg described as insurmountable wire. The battalion had lost 180 men, including the wounding of Captain Gerald Farrell,  but Captain Valentine Farrell managed to lead his company over the wire and through the obstacles. For this action at Hill 63 he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.  The citation for the DSO reads:-

D.S.O. London Gazette 11 January 1919. “For conspicuous gallantry and fine leadership in an attack. In command of a company in reserve, he rushed forward at a time when the advance was held up and cleared up several enemy machine gun positions on the flank, thereby enabling the whole line to move forward and reach the final objective. Afterwards he reorganised the whole line and sent back valuable information regarding the situation. He did splendid work.”

Following the Armistice, during the march towards Germany to occupy the Rhineland,  the 2nd Leinsters came to a halt at Braine-le-Château.  From there a party was sent to take part in the official entry of King Albert of the Belgians into Brussels, returning to the capital.  In his memoir Stand To Captain F.C. Hitchcock of the 2nd Leinsters gives a colourful account of the parade in which there were representatives of all the Allied Armies, including two Irish regiments – 1st Dublins and 2nd Leinsters.  The history of the Leinsters says:-

The party was made up by a contingent from each company, Major V.J. Farrell, D.S.O., M.C., being in command, the other officers being Lieutenant Hitchcock, M.C., Second-Lieutenant Mullins and Second Lieutenant Moran.  On the 22nd [November] marched through Brussels, got a wonderful reception, dense crowds, marched past Belgian royal family who were all mounted.”

This brings me back to the motivation, other than financial necessity, of selling gallantry medals.  Perhaps family members of the Farrell brothers, living in an independent Irish state, didn’t place any worth on medals awarded by the British?  If so, there is a certain irony in that a rallying call some of the most ardent Irish nationalists got behind at the beginning of the Great War was for the restoration of the invaded and oppressed “little” state of Belgium, and Valentine Farrell was a participant in the final playing out of that aspiration.  Three years into the war, the Roman Catholic Irish officer commanding 16th (Irish) Division, Major General W.B Hickie, issued an order of the day on Wednesday 6th June 1917 which made reference to the rallying call.  The day before the Battle of Messines during which three Farrell brothers were commended in the history of the Leinsters, Hickie’s order of the day ended:-

Let all do their best, as they have always done, continuing to show the same courage and devotion to duty which has characterised the 16th (Irish) Division since it landed in France, and it will be our proud privilege to restore to Little Belgium, the ‘White village,’ [Wytschaete] which has been in German hands for nearly three years.”

The four Farrell brothers survived the war, the eldest was just in his 30s when it ended.  But they did not return home to a waiting mother as Harriett had died aged just 49, a few months into the war in October 1914.  She had the first of her eight children (presumably there were no others that died in infancy) aged 17 and the last aged 39.  Valentine Farrell married Angela Curran in 1927 and there is more information on the Farrell siblings online.  However, I am now closing that rabbit hole.

While wandering in this warren, I was struck about the lack of discoverable photographs of the Farrell brothers (and the same applies to my great uncles).  The auctioneer didn’t even post photos of the medals for sale.  However, here is some eye candy for those who might be interested i.e. the recently auctioned County Meath Deputy Lieutenant Epaulettes of the Farrell family.

N.B. Thanks to David Ball, Hon. Secretary of the The Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians) Regimental Association for the photos of the Farrell brothers’ uncle Lieutenant Colonel Edward Francis Farrell.

Not the Christmas Truce

Every Christmas it’s the same; historians of the Great War have their annual battle against proponents of duff history relating to the 1914 Christmas truce.  It particularly irks me that the myth of a football match is perpetuated, and that there are entirely inappropriate monuments to it in Flanders, because it detracts from the wealth of evidence that football formed an important part of rest and recreation activities for troops behind the lines for a good part of the war. As a football fan it vexes me to think of the (actual and metaphorical) raised eyebrows when football is mentioned in connection with the Great War, such is the power of duff history to aggravate historians. (Photo of a Great War football for illustration purposes only – see credit at end.)

Of course, it could be a sweeping statement on my part that there is a wealth of evidence, so maybe I should qualify that by saying that there is such evidence from the sources relating to 16th (Irish) Division that I have consulted for the last decade and more.  I have read references to football matches and competitions (not just kick arounds) in primary sources (battalion war diaries and letters) and secondary sources (unit histories and memoirs) together with other recreational activities such as rugby, cross-country running, boxing and shooting competitions.

For example, continuing the Christmas theme, despite the winter of 1916/17 being cold in the extreme, a chaplain of 48th Infantry Brigade records, in a letter home, a football match at Locre on St. Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day) where his battalions were behind the lines.  The men had been relieved from frontline trenches in the Vierstraat sector (Ypres Salient) on 22nd December and went into Divisional reserve at Locre.  Six days later they would be back in the freezing front line trenches, but there was no question for some of them (or maybe their commanding officers) that they should be kept tucked up inside.

The pull of familiar rituals of home also manifested themselves in other ways for the Roman Catholics of 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers during that Christmas. The same padre, Fr Willie Doyle, describes:

“I got permission from General Hickie to have Midnight Mass for my men in the convent, a privilege which they showed their appreciation of by turning out in a way I never expected. The chapel is a fine large one; in ordinary times there are over 300 boarders and orphans in the convent.  At the end of the chapel is the refectory separated by folding doors, so that by opening these we had double the space. An hour before Mass every inch of space was filled, even inside the altar rails and in the corridor, while numbers had to remain outside in the open, for word had gone round about our Mass and men from other battalions came to join us, some walking several miles from another village …

 It was a Midnight Mass none of us will ever forget and will certainly live in our memories for many a year … A good 500 men came to Holy Communion, so that I was more than rewarded for my work …We were fortunate too in the weather, which had been very bad for months; however at Xmas it was beautifully fine and frosty, and Christmas a good day also, which helped to make things more pleasant… It was a strange Xmas.  Masses in the morning, a good dinner for the men in the afternoon, which they thoroughly enjoyed ….”

Although the battalion war diary does not confirm either the football match or the Midnight Mass, it does confirm the Christmas dinner for the men:-

“Xmas day. The men were given a holiday today and their Xmas dinner was eaten in a large marquee put up in the convent grounds.  The dinner went off very well and the men seemed to enjoy the day very much.  Major General W.B. Hickie and Brigadier General F.W. Ramsay visited the men at dinner.”

The NCOs had a separate dinner and the officers of the battalion also dined together in the dining room of Locre Convent on St Stephen’s Day.  Twenty-one of the officers present signed their names on the reverse of the menu card, including second-in-command of the battalion, Major A.C. Thompson, his brother, Captain F.S. Thompson, MC and the padre, Fr Willie Doyle, SJ, MC.  

Whether the following incident occurred pre or post dinner Fr Doyle does not say:-

Dec: 26th.  The only thing of interest to chronicle today is a gallant but unsuccessful attempt to get a couple of months’ vacation by means of a ‘Blighty.’  I was riding on my bicycle past a waggon when the machine slipped, throwing me between the front and back wheels of the limber. Fortunately the horses were going very slowly and I was able, how I cannot tell, to roll out before the wheel went over my legs.  I have no luck, you see, else I should be home now with a couple of broken legs, not to speak of a crushed head.  The only commiseration I received was the remark of some passing officers that ‘the Christmas champagne must have been very strong.’”

He also wrote:-

“Up at the Front Line all was quiet.  The Germans hung white flags all along their barbed wire and did not fire a shot all day, neither did we, so there was a slight attempt at least at ‘peace on earth to all men.”

One of 48th Infantry Brigade’s fellow brigades, 49th, had its 7th Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in the front line on Christmas Day. Its history records:-

“At the time we all cursed heartily that it should be our bad luck to be holding the front line on Christmas Day … during the morning the Divisional Commander paid a visit to the battalion, and wished everyone the compliments of the season. The G.O.C. sympathised with our lot, but wished us the very best of luck in the New Year.  Certainly, the General looked after his ‘boys’ wherever they were, and had the knack of cheering everyone with whom he came into contact.  We learnt afterwards that he visited every unit in the Division that day … Practically, no hostile action took place all day – in fact, it was so quiet as to be uncanny.  About dusk the Divisional Artillery fired a few salvoes over, but the enemy did not reply.  The remainder of the evening was very quiet.  It was not for two days that either side began to liven up, and then the overture came from our side.”

Confirmation, as explained in The Remarkable Story of the Christmas Truce (see link) that low scale Christmas truces did take place after 1914, but nothing like those that took place the first Christmas of the war. However the only organised football matches, as opposed to kick-abouts, that the fighting men of the Great War ever participated in were ones between their comrades.

Finally, I don’t know who Reg was (see below), but if he was in a unit of 16th (Irish) Division that was behind the lines on Christmas Day 1916 he struck lucky; equally if was in a unit that was in the front line it seems things weren’t too onerous anyway and he had a break at New Year to look forward to, if the account of the 7th Inniskillings is anything to go by:-

“A few days later we were relieved on the 30th inst., and went back to the ‘Shelters’ where it was decided to make up for the loss of Christmas by giving the men a really good feed.  On the 31stDecember the officers held a dinner in Kemmel chateau.”

Sources/credits:-

My photo of the football held in Queen’s Museum Dover Castle belonging to 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment, B Company, 6th Platoon (nothing to do with this blog, maybe a blog for another time), but it is a (famous) football from the Western Front.

Quotations from letters written by Fr Willie Doyle, SJ, MC, held in the family archive.

Photo of Locre Convent by Fr Frank Browne, SJ, MC & Bar, which had previously been in general circulation, taken from Father Browne’s First World War, E.E. O’Donnell, SJ, Messenger Publications, 2014.

My photos of the 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers’ officers’ 1916 Christmas menu card held in the aforementioned family archive.

The Book of the Seventh Service Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, by G.A. Cooper Walker, Brindley & Son, Dublin, 1920.

My photos of inside and outer cover of a 16th (Irish) Division 1916 Christmas card.

History Hit documentary on YouTube via the link with my historian friends Taff Gillingham and Peter Hart addressing the duff history of the 1914 Christmas Truce.

Evacuation

I’m a bit late publishing this as I have been rather poorly, not that there is any set timetable for blogs.  This is a review of Peter Hart’s new publication and in the circumstances of the delayed timing of my review, there is a certain irony in the title of the book.  Evacuation – ‘nuff said!

Despite the grimness of war, a Peter Hart book is always a pleasure to read and this one is no different.  Evacuation showcases his easily accessible style of writing, which also incorporates lots of first hand testimony and primary evidence.  If I said it was a comprehensive assessment of the evacuation of the allied forces from the Dardanelles peninsular there would probably be someone who would contradict me, but it’s more than detailed enough for me to grasp the narrative.  

I believe that this book could be a stand alone read for someone who had no real previous knowledge of the five acts of the Gallipoli tragedy before the sixth – the evacuation.  Hart briefly reminds us of those five previous acts: conception, the abortive naval operations, the botched 25th April 1915 landings, the Helles battles and the Anzac breakout accompanied by new Suvla landings.

Turning to the evacuation itself, Hart explains how this also took place in stages over a period of two months, December 1915 into January 1916, and we get an initial flavour of this in the Preface. However, the following chapters take us through the journey of why an evacuation became necessary and how, after lots of to and fro, it became a reality.  We read of the conflicting opinions as to whether it was actually necessary and of the inevitable prevarication, hubris, jockeying, but also informed assessment, of those in authority responsible for the decision making and the process.  Hart explains how some of those people involved, from the humblest infantryman upwards, were reluctant to be seen to run away or leave behind chums consigned to the soil of the peninsula.  We learn how certain naval commanders were convinced that another naval operation could be launched and the straits forced.  However, having initially indulged in a fit of petulance when overruled, they fully committed to getting the evacuation done.

Having got to the point where a definite decision was made we learn about the nitty-gritty of how it was accomplished; subsequent chapters inform on the differences of opinion on how to do it followed those of the actual need to do it!  We learn about the challenges of the winter weather, sea conditions and difficulties of logistics; all three to be influenced by luck, good or bad, as much as anything else.  However, the best possible staff work was undertaken to try and mitigate all contingencies.  The biggest challenge faced by the allies was keeping plans and movements secret from the Turks because even perfect conditions would not be much good if the Turks had knowledge of an evacuation.

Hart draws us into the practicalities of the operations; the fine balance of keeping enough stores and animals until evacuation took place and destruction of anything that could not be evacuated but would be useful to the enemy; the sad inevitableness of the destruction of many horses and mules; the ingenious strategies and new gadgets invented to fool the Turks into thinking trenches remained full of their enemy’s soldiers; blunders, mishaps and improvisations galore along the way.

We learn about the conditions the men had to endure in the final days and hours; there is also an account of continuing unpleasantness after leaving the beaches, being transported by crowded lighters.

Hart explains all this using accounts from all groups of participants, in terms of rank, branch of service, military, naval, political and nationality (including Turks).  As always, he incorporates humour where appropriate; camaraderie and humour being a big factor in how men got through what is put in front of them to try and  overcome.

We know the multiple evacuations were a success, nevertheless Hart builds a tension throughout to hold the reader’s attention and I always wanted to keep on reading.  Indeed, it is a book I will return to.

For those of us who aspire to be excellent authors it is a small comfort to record that even those that are produce typos.  There were two that I spotted; one being too insignificant to mention; one of major significance and too embarrassing to mention!  I believe the latter has been corrected for later print runs, but maybe you’d like to buy the book and try and spot it yourself.  But hey!  There are plenty of good reasons for reading this excellent account of the allies’ only success in the Gallipoli campaign – the Evacuation.  I commend Peter Hart’s book to you.

White Feather

As I creep towards the end of Peter Hart’s excellent book about the evacuation of Gallipoli, I reflect on the thoughts of Lance Corporal Edgar Rule, 14th (Victoria) Battalion, 4th Brigade, New Zealand and Australian Division, who was heavy-hearted at the mates left behind in the cemeteries.  He and his chums worried about whether the graves would be treated with respect; they needn’t have.

We all know that the ANZACs were a cog in a bigger machine of nationalities who fought at Gallipoli and this blog is about one of those “others”.  Charles Frederick Ball, an Englishman who served with an Irish regiment, lies in LaLa Baba cemetery, a cemetery I have visited on all three occasions that I have been to Gallipoli with Peter Hart Battlefield Tours.  However, I have only recently learnt Fred’s story, so it seems I will have to visit again!

By the time the winter evacuation of Gallipoli took place, the 10th (Irish) Division had already left the peninsular in the autumn to take up a new fight in Salonica.  Many of their fallen comrades left behind had no known graves and are commemorated on the memorial to the missing at Helles.  Of those that have a known grave, the story of Private Charles Frederick Ball, D Company, 7th Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, killed on 13th September 1915, buried plot II.A.8., LaLa Baba cemetery, is intriguing.

Fred Ball was born in Loughborough, Leicestershire in 1879 to Mary and Alfred Ball and was educated at Loughborough Grammar School.  Rather than follow in the footsteps of his father, who was a chemist, Fred opted for botany, starting work in a nursery and then getting a position at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in 1900. In 1906 he became a sub-foreman and a few months after that, on the recommendation of the curator of Kew, he transferred to Dublin to become principal assistant to the Head Keeper at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin.  In 1911 he and a colleague went on a mission to Bulgaria, to collect plants from the Balkan mountains and inspect a famous rose garden. They were the personal guests of King Ferdinand, shortly to become an ally of the enemy whose forces Fred’s Irish chums were to fight in Salonica.  Although of a studious nature, Fred was reputed to be a fine cricketer and golfer, whose romance with Alice Lane was progressing nicely, along with his career, which also included being editor of the publication Irish Gardening.  Fred married Alice in December 1914 and their home was at 15 Percy Place, Dublin off the Grand Canal; she was to become a war widow before the dawn of the following Autumn.

Thirty-five year old Fred, in common with a comrade of the same age, who was to become a good pal, did not immediately volunteer on the outbreak of war.  It is said that the catalyst prompting Fred to enlist was the receipt of white feather (a sign of cowardice) at his place of employment which was reported in the Irish Times

Fred enlisted as a private into D Company, 7thRoyal Dublin Fusiliers, who found fame as the Pals at Suvla Bay, by Henry Hanna.  By the time of its publication in October 1916, Fred had been killed at Gallipoli and his chum, Frank Laird, was wounded there but recovered and about to be gazetted Second Lieutenant.

Frank Laird’s memoir gives a detailed account of his experience of Gallipoli.  The D Company Pals landed at Suvla Bay on 7thAugust and their objective was Chocolate Hill.  They marched with other units along the shoreline, skirted the Salt Lake and extended into open order over open country, except for a few trees and scrubby bushes.  Frank remembered that:-

“I spent the day with Ball, my friend, according to our agreement on the trawler as we steamed over, to stick together, and with a few other chaps of our section.  For most of the time we knew and saw little outside our small fellowship.  We dived into our ditch together when the section leader gave the order, and rose and rushed on when he gave it again.  We tried to recollect our home training, and to resist the impulse to crowd together in the safer looking spots, or to make for the false security of trees or outstanding bushes.  Occasionally one of us tripped and fell on the sun-baked earth, but immediately relieved the feelings of his friends by jumping up and running on.  At one spot a shrapnel shell burst low over our line, and one of us was missing at the next stop.”

The war diary for 7th Royal Dublin Fusiliers (WO 95/4296) reported the action for Saturday 7th August 1917 and ended as follows:-

“The HILL was captured about 8pm by parts of “A” and “D” Coys., and details of other Regiments the whole led by MAJOR R.S.M. HARRISON.  CASUALTIES: 3 officers, 109 other ranks.”

Unfortunately, the momentum of Saturday’s success was not carried on during Sunday, when rest and regrouping was the order of the day.  The following day, Monday 9th August 1915, Pte Frank Laird was assigned to an ammunition carrying party to go out to the 6th Royal Dublin Fusiliers in an advanced position. He was wounded while trying to return to his company, shot through the right shoulder and lung and he fractured three ribs. 

“I fainted again for a few minutes, and when I came to found I was bandaged up.  I asked the D Company man to take my glasses to my friend Ball, from whom I had been separated that morning for the first time, and requested some stretcher bearers who were there to take me down.”  

Pte Laird went into the medical evacuation chain; Pte Ball remained to fight further days and suffered an ignominious death a month later.  On 4th September 7th Royal Dublin Fusiliers were relieved from support trenches two miles from LaLa Baba and dug in around Chocolate Hill.  From there they moved back to “rest” camp on the beach at Lala Baba on 9th September and over the next four days they were subject to shell fire resulting in thirty casualties, one of which was the death of Fred Ball.  During those four days Fred continued to take advantage of opportunities to examine the peninsula’s flora, as he had done, whenever he could, since his arrival.  He is reported to have been sheltering behind a rock digging up weeds with his bayonet when he was killed on 13th September 1915.  

The report Frank Laird received a few weeks later, while in hospital in Birmingham, of his chum’s death was different:-

As the days went by I began to hear of many of my friends who had gone under.  My old Company was severely mauled after I left it, and among others my chief friend Ball was reported killed.  While waiting on the beach with other sick (he was ill with dysentery) a shell fell near him and wounded one of his comrades.  True to his nature he waited to help in the wounded man instead of rushing to cover.  A second shell followed the first and he was struck in the back.  In his weak condition he had not vitality to make a fight for life and died some hours later.  He was buried by the sea.  Thus very soon was fulfilled a presentiment he mentioned to me one day in Basingstoke, that he would not live to be very old, at which I then laughed.  A silent and reserved Englishman, it did not take a long acquaintance to find the kindliness that lay behind his modest bearing, and the strength that made him a man not to be trifled with.  It took longer to discover that he had already made a name for himself, and would have gone far in his calling had he not found a glorious end in Gallipoli.  He was a friend on whom one might count for a lifetime.”

By the time of his death, Fred had sent seeds back to the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin for cultivation, including some Gallipoli Oak acorns.  A cultivar of the South American shrub Escallonia is named C.F. Ball in his memory, a beautiful shrub with dark green leaves and bright red flowers which is excellent for bees.  

Fred Ball’s personal file would be on my list to look up when I eventually return to the National Archives, Kew, just along the road from Fred’s first employment as a botanist, but unfortunately there is no record on the website, only a Medal Index Card reference.

While researching Fred I came across this blog/website, from which I took the photo of LaLa Baba cemetery as it is better than mine:-

https://worldwarzoogardener1939.wordpress.com/2015/09/13/remembering-c-f-ball-of-kew-glasnevin-killed-gallipoli-13-september-1915/

The blog contains an obituary printed in The Garden magazine dated 16th October 1915.

My blog, next week, will be a review of Peter Hart’s book The Gallipoli Evacuation.

N.B. The White Feather is from a personal collection, it is not the one given to Fred Ball.

Eureka!

A little over ten years ago I was sitting in an archive when I had a “Eureka” moment.  Rewind 103 years to this day in 1917 when an envelope was despatched from France, postmarked Field Post Office D7, 19 No 17, stamped “Passed by Censor” with the signature Wm. Hickie underneath.  The writer of the letter inside was also Wm. Hickie and it was private correspondence to a friend.

The discovery of this letter was the cause of my moment of euphoria.  I had always known of the claimed existence of something like its contents, although I did not know its precise nature, and here it was in front of me.

The letter was written the day before, 18th November 1917, by Major General William Hickie on notepaper embossed Headquarters, 16th (Irish) Division and was sent to a senior army officer on home duty in Ireland.  The recipient was Brigadier General Horace Kays and from the way the letter commences it seems that Kays had made a specific enquiry to Hickie.  The letter starts, with no preamble:-

“Father Doyle was one of the best priests I have ever met and one of the bravest men who have fought or works out here.”

Later in the letter Hickie says of Father Doyle:-

“He was recommended for the Victoria Cross by his C.O. by his Brigadier and by myself.  Superior authority however has not granted it …”

Hickie was the Divisional Commander and one assumes that the recommendation for the VC stopped at either Corps level or above; my own pet theory being at Army level i.e. Fifth Army commander General Sir Hubert Gough.

I was reminded of all this when I saw the recent tweet from @GreatWarGroup about the Victoria Cross, which posed the question: “who have you come across who perhaps was overlooked”.  In my biography of Fr Doyle, published in 2013, I said that if retrospective awards could be made for cases overlooked at the time, a good case could be made for the padre. I also sat on the fence regarding whether retrospective awards per se are desirable or not; I said that is another matter.  My wider engagement with military history in the intervening seven years leads me to definitely conclude that retrospective awards are not desirable.  Nevertheless, it is fascinating to consider the rationale for Major General Hickie’s recommendation – and I am not the first person to have done so.

Fr Willie Doyle’s story features in the historiography (especially Irish) of the Great War.  He was killed during Battle of Langemarck, 16th August 1917, trying to retrieve a wounded officer of 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers from the heat of the battlefield.  This was around 3pm, after having marched with the battalion to assemble at the front line in the early hours of the morning for Zero at 4.45 a.m. He then helped, except for a short break, the medics in the Regimental Aid Post situated in shallow gun pits some five hundred yards in front of that assembly line.  It was reported that he made forays outside of the RAP to reach the wounded and that, indeed, was how he met his death. The short break was when he and the Medical Officer were ordered to leave the RAP because of the progress of a German counter-attack.  However, Fr Doyle returned to the RAP; the M.O. did not. 

For the two weeks prior to Zero hour the chaplain had been continuously in front line trenches, declining to leave with the 8th Dubs when they were relieved by 9th Dubs because the 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers no longer had a padre.  Fr Frank Browne (another brave and decorated chaplain, MC and Bar) had been sent back to the Irish Guards and there was no immediate replacement for him.

The day before Fr Doyle died, Fr Frank Browne wrote about his colleague – snippets as follows:-

“Father Doyle is a marvel … I went the other day to see the old Dubs, as I heard they were having – we’ll say, a taste of the war.  No one yet has been appointed to take my place and Fr. D has done double work.  So unpleasant are the conditions the men had to be relieved frequently. Fr D had no one to relieve him and so he stuck to the mud and the shells, the gas and the terror … The men couldn’t stick it half so well if he weren’t there …the conditions of the ground and air and discomfort surpass anything that I ever dreamt of in the worst days of the Somme.”

The day before that, 14th August 1917, Lieutenant Daniel Galvin of 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers wrote home with another telling comment:-

“If ever a man earned the VC in this war, it is Father Doyle. He is simply splendid. He comes up every night under heavy shell-fire, burying the dead and binding the wounded and cheering the men. I wish to heavens we had a few doctors like him.”

The Irish writer Myles Dungan quotes a Sergeant Flynn’s letter to the Irish News after Fr Doyle’s death in which he said: “Everybody says that he has earned the VC many times over, and I can vouch for it myself from what I have seen him do many a time”.

There were many other tributes, including this from Lieutenant Colonel H.R. Stirke the Officer Commanding 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers prior to the Battle of Langemarck, wounded the week previously:-

“He was one of the finest fellows I ever met, utterly fearless … ever ready to go out and attend the wounded and dying under the heaviest fire … rare pluck and devotion to duty … I know that he had been sent back by the O.C. of one of the regiments, together with some other non-combatants, as the fighting was very severe … He only remained behind a few hours and then returned to the fighting line, like the brave man he was.”

Dungan said, but with no reference to the source: “In fact Doyle was recommended for the VC but it was not granted, an omission which reflected no credit whatsoever on those responsible for the decision”. 

The subject also exercised Gordon Corrigan in his Mud, Blood and Poppycock book published in 2003, a couple of years before I became interested in Fr Doyle.  Major Corrigan indicates how Fr Doyle operated in the front lines, how he had been awarded the Military Cross for actions in 1916 and describes:-

 “A quite remarkable man of the cloth was Chaplain Willie Doyle, padre to 8th Battalion the Royal Dublin Fusiliers … a charismatic leader and would probably have been as much at home commanding the battalion as being its spiritual mentor … highly respected and admired by all, whether of his faith or otherwise.”

Corrigan addresses two theories about why this Dubliner, a Jesuit priest, was not awarded the VC, neither of which relate to the actual actions by Fr Doyle in the field. Corrigan points out that Major General Hickie would either have to reject or support a citation for gallantry and, after considering all the available evidence, Corrigan concludes that:-

 “Although we may never know for sureit seems that Father Doyle was never recommended for the Victoria Cross … simply because the criteria for an award were incredibly high”.

Yet, six years after publication of Corrigan’s book, I had in front of me the evidence about the recommendation.  

The reason Corrigan, Dungan, and others had either not known about the evidence, or not been able to reference a source for it, is because the letter had been quoted by a Doyle family friend, Alfred O’Reilly, in his biography, but it  had never been in the public domain.  It is in a family archive.  

Hickie said Fr Doyle’s Commanding Officer made the recommendation, but who was the C.O.?  Although not an attacking battalion of 31st July 1917 (the start of Third Ypres) the 8th Royal Dublin Fusiliers had suffered extensive losses since then owing to its workload, providing burial and working parties and holding the new line of trenches.  They were not unique in this, but their losses from wounds, gassing and illness meant that on 16th August, when they were in support, with some men attached to other units, their attacking strength was a little over 80 men.  The C.O. of this composite battalion was a newly promoted captain (because of losses), Major George Cowley.  

An unknown C.O. (see quote above) ordered the Chaplain and the Medical Officer to return to Headquarters and, shortly afterwards, Major Cowley and his cohort of 8th Dubs moved forward in support of their 48th Infantry Brigade colleagues in the first wave of the attack.  Major Cowley was not around when Fr Doyle returned to the Aid Post, neither were any other officers.  The witnesses to Fr Doyle’s actions were Corporal Rait holding the Aid Post and other ranks out under fire.  Unfortunately, the testimony of NCOs and ORs was not a consideration for the award of a VC, despite it being good enough for the Brigadier and the Divisional Commander.

Did Fr Doyle’s actions on 16th August 1917 conform to the Royal Warrant of 23rd April 1858 that the VC should be for: “conspicuous bravery or devotion to the country in the presence of the enemy”. Some would argue not only, yes, but that his actions during the two weeks prior to that also qualified him, in which case witnesses of the appropriate rank would be able to provide first hand evidence to add weight to the testimony of 16th August.  

In 1918 the already decorated (DSO, MC) Rev Fr Theodore Bayley Hardy was awarded the VC for cumulative actions over a period of time in April (5th and 25th/26th of the month).  The London Gazette entry of 11the July 1918 commences: “For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty on many occasions”.

When Field Marshal Haig visited Fifth Army HQ on 17th August 1917, General Gough told him that he was displeased with the two Irish Divisions of XIX Corps i.e. their part in the disappointing Battle of Langemarck.

There was a Victoria Cross awarded to 16th (Irish) Division for that battle – acting Lance Corporal Frederick Room, a stretcher-bearer of 2nd Royal Irish Regiment, 49th Infantry Brigade.  He was from Bristol.

I have drawn my own conclusions about the contents (based on other evidence, obviously) of those last two sentences.

Fr W.J. Doyle has no known grave and is commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing at Tyne Cot, panel 160, Royal Army Chaplains’ Dept.  The identity of the officer he was trying to get to safety is one of two young Second Lieutenants, either Charles Marlow or Arthur Green.  Both are commemorated on the panel for the Royal Dublin Fusiliers at Tyne Cot.

Note to self: advise Commonwealth War Graves Commission of evidence supporting an amendment to their record of the deaths of Fr Doyle and Second Lieutenants Marlow and Green from 17th August to 16th August 1917.  Also, advise Gordon Corrigan and the fact that Fr Doyle’s personal file is at National Archives (it could not be located at the time of his research, but does not reveal anything about the VC issue, although there is other fascinating stuff).

An updated, but scaled back (and that’s not a contradiction of terms) of my biography of Fr Willie Doyle will be published in 2021.

References:-

Irish Voices From The Great War, Myles Dungan, Irish Academic Press, 1995, pages 171-173

Mud, Blood and Poppycock, Gordon Corrigan, Cassell, 2003, pages 101-103

The National Archives T333/1 Victoria Cross including warrants

The National Archives WO 339/123587 personal file of Fr William Doyle, SJ, MC.

Worshipper and Worshipped, Carole Hope, Reveille Press, 2013, various pages!

Transcription of letter:-

Nov 18th 1917

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 works out here.  He did his duty (and more than his duty) most nobly and has left a memory and a name behind 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 I believe will 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 in 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 these Father Doyle stood out.

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

Yours ever W.B. Hickie

N.B. My “Eureka!” moment was the first, and possibly the only, time a researcher has had access to the Hickie letter and is a good example of how persistence and good old fashioned letter writing, as well as online methods, can produce results.

Unknown Warrior

I had not planned to publish a blog this week; I was intending to do so next week.  However, the news that people of some influence are backing calls for the award of the Victoria Cross to the Unknown Warrior resting in Westminster Abbey has brought out the keyboard warrior in me.

I am astounded to read in a newspaper article circulating on social media that the Chair of an association, which has claimed the torch of remembrance for four decades, is quoted as backing the idea.  My astonishment is compounded by a quote attributed to him that: “There is a groundswell of support among our members that this injustice should be rectified”.

What groundswell, what injustice?

One can only hope he has been misquoted, but I don’t see how that is possible.

I can’t even tell you what expletives I would use in relation to the “groundswell” claim.

Bear with me a minute, I haven’t lost my marbles in going on a short diversion.  I draw to your attention a similar, claimed, groundswell of support of which the former (not long resigned) Chair of that association was aware.  Back in 2014 a local authority applied for (and received) a grant from a national funder for a scheme which involved closing a popular sport facility used by said Chair.  It was claimed in the application form that “Consultation overwhelmingly concluded in favour of …” and “Our proposals … have the support of the majority of the community”.  Freedom of Information requests revealed that this groundswell of support was based on survey returns of 175 people from two London boroughs, that option categories of the returns had been amalgamated to enhance the impression of support, that some claims regarding outreach were fabricated, that there had been no meaningful consultation with users and that the powers-that-be made a unilateral decision.  Yer man wasn’t happy!

It’s a pity one cannot make an FOI to the Western Front Association.  

My partner is a member of the association (and former branch chair) and his views on the award of the VC to the Unknown Warrior have not been canvassed.  I see a similar *groundswell* of comments posted on Twitter from members, branch chairs and ex-members.  I resigned from the WFA a few months ago, but I note from the special edition of Stand To! recently received by ‘imindoors that it is dedicated to The Unknown Warrior with multiple articles.  I cannot locate anywhere within this publication the suggestion that the views of members have been canvassed, or will be canvassed, on the subject of the VC.  In any case, are we really to believe that, even if they were broadly in agreement with the idea, the views of 6,000 people should influence and overturn a decision taken, after much deliberation and reflection, at the time and largely endorsed by the Great War generation?  That decision being that the Unknown Warrior was “Everyman”.

Other nations might have a different take on their “Unknown”, but the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey is “Everyman”.  Everyman includes the valorous, the less so and the villains.  Heroes all, they were not.   Everyman includes those who were killed before they had even once set foot in a front line trench, those who had been in the front line but were killed by shellfire at “rest” in camps, as well as those that fell in battle – and died in other circumstances too.

Thinking about my great uncle, killed 1st October 1917 in the Ypres Salient, I know 1) where he was killed 2) the likely circumstance of his death 3) that he has no known grave and 4) he was not awarded the VC.  Could he be the Unknown Warrior?  Possibly, according to 1 -3, definitely not on the count of 4.  Was he valorous?  Who knows? 

I wonder what the current Chair of the association thinks should be the citation for the award of the VC to the Unknown Warrior?  Or perhaps that protocol would be dispensed with too?

“Imindoors, who is not on Twitter, is in agreement with those WFA members tweeting their opposition to this idea.  But they are only a small sample of the membership.  Their opposition is not a “groundswell” but what is the basis for the claim that there is a “groundswell” in support and that some kind of injustice has been perpetrated on Everyman?  An Unknown Warrior accorded the highest of honours of being buried amongst royalty in Westminster Abbey.

Image from Westminster Abbey website.

Remember, remember the 11th of November

As is sometimes the case, this is not entirely the piece I intended to write – I was distracted by fireworks!

Remembrance is a theme prompting many commentators at this time of year and I am always interested to read the thoughtful contributions that come my way via social media.  One recurring theme is the debate around the symbol of the Royal British Legion’s annual Poppy Appeal.  I’d like to think that most detractors of the poppy symbol don’t actually have an issue with the fund raising and the uses to which it is put (albeit administration costs versus frontline investment is a whole different debate to be had about many charities).

One thing that intrigues me about detractors (for varied reasons) of the poppy symbol is that I wonder how many of them are also critical of our annual love affair with fireworks and the long ago events that sparked the 5th November tradition?  I’m pretty sure that most people who, like me, own pets such as dogs and cats, plus services veterans suffering from PTSD, would be more than happy to see the tradition quickly die off, or at least return to one annual day.  Indeed I see proof of that every year on my social media feeds.  Equally there are many others (we hear the evidence for weeks on end every Autumn) who will say – yah, boo! Spoilsports!  

The custom of “Penny for the Guy” has faded away and I wonder how many people who continue to ‘ooh and ahh’ at fireworks are even aware of the long ago historic events which underpin the lighting of sparklers, Catherine wheels (the latter also having connotations other than Guy Fawkes) and rockets?  If, as a society, we insist on clinging, largely unthinkingly, to the tradition of loudly marking Guy Fawkes’ night(s), why is there so much angst over the humble poppy?

Yes, the poppy has become commercialised, but its commercialisation is non-threatening; it may offend some sensibilities in certain instances, but it doesn’t terrify animals or people in normal usage, nor can it be used as an offensive weapon.  (Having said that, don’t get me started on soldier silhouettes!)

Food for thought, but now my ramblings turn to a tradition which I cling to at this time of year and rudely interrupted by C19; Armistice commemorations.  Last Wednesday, the day before lockdown, I luckily had an appointment at the hairdresser.  It was specifically timed for just prior to my usual trip to Ypres which, unluckily, had to be cancelled.  The demographic of the Great War community, with whom I have contact, largely ‘remembers’ every day, but for many of us the 11th November has a special focus about which only a few curmudgeons might take issue.   For many of the nineteen years I have  been visiting Ypres at Armistice, I have been the partner of someone who has an intimate involvement in the Armistice Day Poppy Parade in Ypres, prior to the Last Post Association’s 11 a.m. commemoration under the Menin Gate.  

Andy Tonge follows on from Tony Noyes and Lieutenant-Colonel (retired) Graham Parker in overseeing the Poppy Parade, in collaboration with Ypres town authorities, Last Post Association and a team of volunteers, prior to the morning commemoration.  It was former battlefield guide Graham’s idea (fondly referred to as “Daddy Parker” by some of his clients) and he was the first co-ordinator and bowler-hatted leader of the parade.  (Graham is on the right as you look, clutching his bowler hat and umbrella, I guess some time late 1990s.)

Andy’s co-ordination takes the form of fielding emails for up to a year in advance; a couple of face to face planning meetings in Ypres during the year and on 9th November; a briefing for marshals the night before the parade; an early start in the Vandenpeereboomplein in front of St Martin’s Cathedral on the morning and overseeing the forming up and marching of the standard bearers, bands and uniform groups, including youths.  Then their orderly dispersal after the service and, at some point later, a de-brief meeting.  A team of marshals briefed by Andy direct the general public, together with his number two Fiona Payne. 

 Genevra Charsley and Natasja Feliers have distributed and collected the crepe poppy petals that later float from the roundels in the roof of the Menin Gate, to the strains of O Valiant Hearts, for longer than I have been in attendance.

Meanwhile, where am I in all this?  Generally speaking I’m part of the general public, having tried my hand at marshalling and failed miserably.  No one takes any notice of a short-legged (polite version) old gal like me!  I have even been viewed with suspicion and asked to move on under the Menin Gate by a man wearing the same marshal’s identity badge as me.  If I can get a ticket for the service at St George’s Chapel I will, just to sing (badly) O Valiant Hearts and hear the Last Post sounded inside, as well as later under the Menin Gate.  And an Armistice without hearing at least one rendition of Highland Cathedral some time somewhere in the town would be a disappointment.

Some might regard all this on my part as trite, but memory is sensory, often prompted by music, vistas, aromas and tastes.  The sights and sounds, the flavours and atmospherics, the memories and chums of Armistice in Ypres reinforce ‘remembrance’ for me and will be sorely missed this year.  Does one need a haircut, a poppy (or poppies in some cases), smart clothes (my choice), ceremony, music and socialising with like-minded pals to remember the sacrifice of the Great War generation – of course not!  But I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument that a little bit of frivolity and pageantry undermines it.

The plus side to the cancellation of my usual plans is that I will be with my dog on his birthday on 9th November for the first time ever.  Not that Luca knows that I have not been around for his previous sixteen birthdays!

As you are here – by the by ….

I am publishing this blog today, 7th November, in case you don’t know about the initiative of Natasja and Genevra this year to place poppy crosses in the Ypres Salient, on request, for which this is the deadline day to advise them.  Details on the social media/website of the Ariane Hotel and Flanders Battlefield Tours.

Great War Grumble!

Is it just me? Writing is so much easier than trying to set up a blog on this website! I’m currently rocking a Ken Dodd impression pulling my hair out trying to work out how it operates. I think I now have the basics, but we shall see. I’m here because I’m here and my bio on the About page gives an indication of what’s to come. Excuse me while I go and brush my hair. See you soon!