Frank Speaking:finishing the unfinished

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong place, wrong time

A topical photograph!

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

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

Second Lieutenant Frank Laird remembered:-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hazards of Spring

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

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

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

They had, on 23rd March 1918:-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

National Archives references:-

Frank Laird personal file WO 339/64735

Cecil Hazard personal file WO 339/10673

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

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

Appalled, terrified, horrified and stupefied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not “playing the game”!

The stuff you find in a war diary! At the end of the August 1915 war diary for 6th Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry there is a handwritten note from a different officer to that who wrote the main diary. Unfortunately, the identity of the officer deploring other units “not playing the game” is unknown, as his signature has not been scanned.

Lamenting latrine etiquette!

The transcription of the entry is:-

”6th Yorkshire L.I.

A much keener interest is being shown by this unit in sanitation generally. A genuine effort which has already met with much success has been made to comply with the sanitary requirements of the Corps.

Latrines are policed and kept clean, the faeces being buried. There are several urine pits with groups of tins close together in places and single tins. This is an excellent idea and obviates any fouling of the surrounding soil.

A brick incinerator had been built previous to the occupation of the camp. A man is put in charge and made responsible for its working, with excellent results.

Large baths with brick standings are used for ablutions, the water being pumped from a pond and dispersed of on prepared ground.

Eight urinals with brick standings are in use.

On receiving sudden orders to move into the Transport Camp of the 7th KRRC all latrine buckets etc were emptied and the whole camp left clean. It is very disappointing, therefore, to report that, on arriving at the new camp, the unit should find latrine buckets full and and urine bins overflowing and have to start scavenging the camp vacated by the 7th KRR’s transport. The latter unit has found the camp in a most untidy and insanitary condition on taking it over from another Division and had done much good work in putting it in order.

This does not excuse them, however, for neglecting to clean up thoroughly before departing themselves.

I also desire to put on record the fact that, while some units are careful to leave standing all sanitary appliances in use at the time of moving, others are not at all scrupulous in this respect. As a result the conscientious units suffer and are discouraged.

It is rather difficult to “play the game” as suggested in the Sanitary Circular of 8th July unless everyone concerned enters honestly into the spirit of the thing and observes the rules which have been made for the benefit of the units as a whole.

It has also been recorded that, while some units take trouble to procure tins etc suitable for latrine use, others make no effort in this direction. If one can succeed others can do so if they care to take the trouble”.

The image of latrines above is from IWM ref Q 29235 and is captioned Latrines, ANZAC Rest Station, Buire, 15/1/17. A Google search reveals many online photos that I decided might offend delicate sensibilities, but the cartoon gives you an idea of what the independent enquirer will expect to see!

Big Billy Lloyd

In most circumstances it’s a pretty forlorn hope that a battalion war diary will name anyone other than commissioned officers, but I have been pleasantly surprised when transcribing 6th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, including lists of Other Ranks casualties, for the Great War Group’s 14th Division history project.  I haven’t come across my great uncle Alfred Ebdon, but then I haven’t advanced to the date he was wounded whilst serving with the battalion!  Aside from that project, I’m looking at 2nd Battalion The Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) today for the Battle of Neuve Chapelle because Alfred’s brother, Walter, was serving with them, having landed at Havre  with the battalion on 5th November 1914.  Unfortunately the level of detail in the Rifles’ diary is not as extensive as the KOYLI, so I have no idea whether he was one of the 314 other ranks wounded during the operations 10-14th March 1915, but I do know he was not one of the 112 killed.  

Both brothers survived the war, albeit Alfred was invalided out in 4th June 1917 (gun shot wound left thigh) and Walter subsequently married the widow of a third brother, John, killed Ypres Salient 1st October 1917 serving with 9th York and Lancs.

There is something unusual, however, about the Rifles’ war diary, which is that someone filed (at the beginning) a six and a half page typed biography (multiple copies in fact) and photo of an officer killed early on during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.  

This appears to have been taken from Buchen’s History of the War Vol. VI., p 81 and relates to Major Hesperus David Watkiss Lloyd, a 42 year old, single, career soldier, military surveyor and administrator awarded Order of the Osmanieh 4th class (Turkey), Order of the Medjidieh, 3rd Class (Turkey), Sudan Medal, two clasps, 1899-1901, mentioned in dispatches September 1901 for operations in the Bahr el Ghazal.  At the end of 1908 he had completed ten years’ service in Egypt and had to choose between retirement from the army or rejoining his regiment.  He chose the latter and subsequently served in South Africa. 

When war broke out in 1914 he was stationed in Malta and wrote on 17th August 1914: “it is my cursed luck again to be out of the hunt.  I spent the South African War in the Sudan: now I shall spend my time here.  I feel it is 22 years of hard work – for I have worked hard, if not always to best effect – wasted”.  However, a month later he was in camp in Winchester waiting for the battalion’s departure to France.  A week after their arrival he wrote on 13th November 1914: “The weather is vile, but everyone is very fit, so far.  But the mud, which covers the paved roads, is very bad.  I remember visiting Waterloo and Wavre in the rain and, realising why Blucher was so late”.  After suffering from trench foot he had a week’s leave in January 1915 and on 23rd February he wrote home about conditions at La Flinque (about half a dozen miles from Neuve Chapelle) and the difficulties of constructing fire and communication trenches.  He was reported to be popular with the men under his command.

Private M Haskins is quoted, relating to the death of Major Lloyd during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle:-

On the morning of 10th March, at exactly five minutes past eight, we received orders to advance and take three lines of German trenches.  We took their first line very quickly, the distance being only 80 yards, and made for their second one right away. It was here that Colonel Bliss fell, between the first and second German trenches.  We got their second one alright and made for the third.  Major Lloyd left this trench at the front of his company, or all that was left of them, and I assure you that it was not a great many.  He only got about ten yards when he fell; that would be as near as I can judge the time, about 9 o’clock.  As regards his wounds, I cannot tell you for certain how many he had; when he was carried into the trench where I was, I noticed that he was wounded in the thigh by a bullet, but I think he was wounded somewhere about the body as well.  There was a very heavy machine gun fire just there.  I think that bowled over the Major.  I am certain he was not wounded by shell fire … He will be missed by many in the battalion, where he was familiarly called Big Billy Lloyd.”

Major Lloyd’s sister,  Eirene, added:-

He lay for half an hour or so in the open, in great pain, and suffering from thirst.  Harkins (sic – Haskins?), who was lying wounded in the trench, sent him his water bottle, and told a medical officer, who went to him and had him removed into the trench.  When the firing moderated he was carried away to the ambulance, a difficult operation owing to the narrowness and sloppiness of the trench.  He died just as they got him there.  He was not buried with the other officers, but in a grave by himself at Port Logy, half a mile west of Neuve Chapelle.  A cross was put up to him”.

Major Lloyd now rests under the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and headstone at Euston Post Cemetery, Laventie. I wonder if Walter Ebdon ever had dealings with Big Billy Lloyd?

Source other than Buchen mentioned and CWGC website – The National Archives file WO 95/1715/1 2nd Battalion Cameronians or 2nd Scottish Rifles depending on what page you look at!  Downloads of war diaries are still free, so you can read the biography if you so wish, plus war diary entries for the battle and maps.

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.