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Tag Archives: World War One

  • Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War by Sally White

    Belgian refugees arriving in the Netherlands, 1914. (Courtesy LOC, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    One of the joys of being a museum curator is all the odd bits of information that come your way.  I worked in Worthing Museum for almost 20 years and relished the salmagundi of snippets that I picked up.  One day I was leafing through an album of old press cuttings when I spotted one from 1920 that reported Worthing’s decision to adopt a town in France under the auspices of the British League of Help for the Devastated Areas of France. Like most people, I had never heard of this organisation and had no idea what they did.  Information was very thin on the ground in those pre-internet days but I set out to investigate.

    My research regularly encroached on my holidays and when I was in France I did a detour to Richebourg l’Avoué, the town that Worthing adopted.  I called on the Mayor and was delighted to find that his wife was the granddaughter of the man who had been Mayor in 1920 and whose visit to Worthing had been reported in the local papers.  They whisked me off in their car to visit a nonagenarian clog maker, Monsieur Sénéchal, who was happy to share his memories of the adoption with me, mentioning a number of the gifts that had been sent over to help the local people rebuild their lives and their town. He also enthused about the height of the Bengal Lancers and seeing The Prince of Wales at the opening of a local war cemetery. I visited a number of other towns that been adopted and helped in the aftermath of the First World War.

    The sheer scale of the effort needed to care for the refugees is illustrated by this photograph of 600 refugee children being given tea at Earl's Court London. (c. Imperial War Museum, ref. HU88813, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    After a while I felt I had gone as far as I could with my research, wrote an article about the adoption scheme, presented a paper at a conference, and put it all aside.  Some years later I was made redundant and dug out my notes. I broadened my research to include other civilian-run schemes that helped people here and abroad during and just after the war.  I soon realised the enormous scale of the contribution made by civilians, often acting on their own initiative and with great bravery and imagination.

    In 1929 a journalist called Mrs C. S. Peel wrote that one day someone could write a book about all the work civilians did to support the war effort.  I was amazed to find that nobody had ever tackled this subject and that most books about the war limited their references to civilian volunteers to enthusing about the efforts of VADs on the Western Front and to disparaging the efforts of those who busily knitted socks and mufflers for soldiers. The further I went with my research the more determined I became to write a book giving readers an insight into what hundreds of thousands of civilians achieved here and abroad.

    Having got an excruciating job with the local council to pay the bills I had to research, write, and give talks in my ‘spare time’.  In practice this meant getting up at 5.30 am so that I could get an hour’s work in each day before starting my main job, carrying on in the evenings, heading off to archives or the university library at weekends and using much of my annual leave to visit archive offices and museums.  I loved it and it kept me sane when the day job was at its worst. New areas of interest kept opening up.

    I had been unaware that 250,000 Belgian refugees fled to Britain in the early weeks of the war and had to be welcomed fed, housed and generally cared for.  Many of them stayed for the duration of the war and the volunteers who looked after them soon struggled to collect enough money to support them. I spent months engrossed in reading about the refugees and how hosts in different areas looked after their guests.  The committee in Cambridge produced a very useful booklet for the refugees to help them find their feet in England.  However, I suspect that recipes for dishes that included Toad in the Hole and Shepherd’s Pie may have seemed bewildering.

    Weaving was one of the crafts that the Quakers established at Knockaloe Camp on the Isle of Man to help occupy the internees and enable them to earn a small income. (c. Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    Hospital units not only worked in France and Belgium but went off to Serbia and Russia where the volunteers battled extremes of weather, isolation, epidemics, being taken prisoner, working through the Russian Revolution and joining the Serbian Army on the Great Retreat over the mountains of Montenegro in the cruel depths of winter in addition to helping thousands of wounded soldiers in incredibly primitive conditions.

    The Quakers took on various roles that nobody else recognised.  During the war groups went out to France to help civilians living close to the Front.  They built simple wooden houses, provided furniture, clothes and other goods, ran a maternity hospital and an orphanage and helped on farms.  When the rebuilt villages were shelled the Quakers set about restoring them again.  They helped support refugees in camps in the Netherlands and set up feeding programmes to help starving people in Germany and Austria after the Armistice. Some of their workers were vilified when they realised that enemy aliens interned in camps on the Isle of Man and on mainland Britain were in desperate need of help.  They helped the internees’ families and set up craft workshops in the camps, reducing the incidence of mental health problems among the internees.

    A poster advertising the need for recruits to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment. (Courtesy LOC, Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    Groups set out onto the midge infested moors of Britain to collect sphagnum moss to be made into highly absorbent dressings and the Prince of Wales set up a centre for this work on Dartmoor. John Penoyre collected cricket sweaters from his friends and colleagues, which he dyed khaki and sent out to troops, when uniforms were in short supply.  Lady Smith-Dorrien recruited women to make thousands of cotton bags to hold the personal belongings of men in hospital. Other volunteers made unimaginable numbers of sandbags, knitted, sewed, rolled bandages, invented appliances to help amputees and men with other wounds, collected unwanted silver to raise money to buy ambulances, collected eggs and cigarettes for the sick and wounded, sent parcels to prisoners of war and were available to apply their ingenuity and adaptability to any other area where they could be of use.

    Many of the women who volunteered to work overseas were brave, indomitable mavericks who longed for adventure and who relished many of their experiences.  Over time stress took its toll on them. Some died, either through illness or injury. Some came home when they could no longer cope. It is no wonder that many of them found adapting to normal life difficult after the end of the war and a number stayed away, working in hospitals and orphanages in the countries they had come to love.

    Like many writers I could have gone on researching indefinitely but had to recognise when the time had come to start writing.  It is a strange feeling when you are no longer immersed in a particular subject and I am happy to be able to give talks about various aspects of the work these civilians did.  Now I have to turn to the subject for my next book.

    Sally White's new book Ordinary Heroes: The Story of Civilian Volunteers in the First World War is available for purchase now.

  • Northumberland and Tyneside's War by Neil R. Storey and Fiona Kay

    Both Fiona and I have been captivated by and collected the stories, photographs and memorabilia of our local men and women who ‘did their bit’ since we were kids when we first heard some tales of the Great War from the veterans we knew back then. They would say with some pride that they ‘did their bit’ and would share some stories, usually tales that would bring a laugh or remember their comrades but they very rarely spoke of their own experiences in the conflict. They were men and women of a very different generation that have inspired a lifetime of research. Over the decades since, it is been proved again and again that one strand of research often leads to another and this is certainly true of Northumberland and Tyneside’s War.

    Northumberland and Tyneside's War 1 Cadre of recuperated soldiers ready to return to front line service with the Northumberland Fusiliers c. 1917. (c. Northumberland and Tyneside's War: Voice of the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    When researching our previous book ‘Newcastle Battalions on the Somme’ (Tyne Bridge) for the centenary of the Battle of the Somme in 2016 we found literally hundreds more first-hand accounts written home in letters from local servicemen and women serving their country between the years 1914 and 1918. The stories we discovered had been published in local newspapers, parish magazines and Regimental journals a hundred years ago, but have not been seen in print since. The public exhibitions and special commemoration events we helped to stage brought forward descendents who shared their family memorabilia and our research at the Fusiliers Museum of Northumberland, libraries and archive collections around the county brought more letters, manuscripts and ephemera to light.

    This remarkable body of first–hand material contained so many stories that were so evocative and powerful they had to be shared, not just because they contain accounts of battles, life in the trenches and significant moments in the First World War from a soldier’s point of view but because they also reflect so much of the character, courage, stoicism, modesty and humour unique to true Northern lads. From joining up and through training there was a spirit that never left them through the hell of war. The authentic ‘voice’ of the Geordie can also be found in the wealth of verse and songs they wrote. Some of these letters and verses are particularly poignant because they were written home on the eve of battle and proved to be the very last letters home for some of these men.

    Northumberland and Tyneside's War 2 One of the Zeppelin bomb craters at Bedlington with a fine turnout of curious locals on the morning of 14 April 1915. (c. Northumberland and Tyneside's War: Voice of the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    Our book also includes accounts from the home front such as eye-witness reports of the first Zeppelin raid on Northumberland and stories of the local war hospitals that cared for thousands of returned wounded soldiers throughout the war.  The sterling work of a diverse array of local wartime organisations is also recorded, from the YMCA hostels and huts to ladies committees set up to supply comforts to the troops, hospitals, prisoners of war and the crews of minesweepers. Even the volunteers of the Elswick and Scotswood Bandage Party are not forgotten for they made and despatched 70,523 bandages to hospitals both at home and abroad between January 1916 and January 1919.

    Tyneside and Northumberland’s contribution to the war effort was truly outstanding. The mines of the North East provided the coal to power battleships all over the world and the shipyards along the Tyne built many of those battleships. Thousands of men marched out from those same pits and shipyards to answer their county’s call, indeed volunteers came from all walks of life and no other British city outside London raised more battalions of soldiers for Kitchener’s Army than Newcastle. There were 19 service battalions raised for the Northumberland Fusiliers between the years 1914-15 all bar one of them was raised in Newcastle. The exception was 17th (Service) Battalion (N.E.R. Pioneers) raised by the North Eastern Railway Company in Hull but it should not be forgotten that this battalion also included many men from Tyneside and Northumberland. The Northumberland Fusiliers had a remarkable 52 battalions during the First World War, twenty-nine of which served overseas. This made them the second largest line infantry regiment in the British Army, with only the eighty-eight battalions of the London Regiment to surpass them in greater number.

    Northumberland and Tyneside's War 3 A fine group of Necastle Munitionettes in their overalls, 1916. (c. Northumberland and Tyneside's War: Voice of the First World War, Amberley Publishing)

    Among the locally raised ‘New Army’ battalions were the ‘Newcastle Commercials,’ Tyneside Scottish and Tyneside Irish, who faced the hurricane of machine gun fire on the First Day of the Somme in 1916.  No Regiment lost more men than the Northumberland Fusiliers on that fateful day. What is still more remarkable is the fact that just about every active service battalion in the British Army, every Corps, every branch of the Royal Navy (notably the Royal Naval Division) and Royal Marines could find Geordies within its ranks.  Indeed numerous English, Irish and Scottish Regiments can all be found actively recruiting men from Tyneside and Northumberland during the First World War and some of them ended up with Tyneside Companies of their own.

    The soldiers of the North have a long history and reputation for being good fighting men and their county regiment in 1914 was the embodiment of that spirit. The Northumberland Fusiliers finds its roots back in 1674 and was granted the seniority of the Fifth Regiment of Foot in the British Army, a seniority they were always proud of. They richly earned and upheld the Regiment’s traditions and nick-names of the ‘Fighting Fifth’ and the ‘Old and Bold.’ In 1914 Lord Kitchener himself said of them ‘I have often had occasion to thank Heaven that I had the Northumberland Fusiliers at my back. Tell them from me that I have often relied upon the Northumberland Fusiliers in the past and I know that I may need to do so in the future’ and Lieut-General Sir Brian Horrocks did not mince words in his introduction to history of the Regiment in the Famous Regiments series when he wrote of men from the Northern collieries ‘whom I have always regarded as making the finest infantry in the world.’

    We hope this book will add something original to the canon of works on the county of Northumberland, Tyneside and its people both at home and fighting abroad in the First World War and that the authentic voices of the lads and lasses published herein will speak to our readers with the same resonance that they spoke to us and leave with them the same legacy - they deserve to be Remembered.

    9781445669427

    Neil R. Storey and Fiona Kay's new book Northumberland and Tyneside's War: Voice of the First World War is available for purchase now.

  • Jutland – the most Decisive Battle of the First World War by Phil Carradice

    The Battle of Jutland, fought on 31 May 1916, has long been regarded as an indecisive stalemate with neither side willing to risk the safety of its capital ships. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

    Jutland 1 The Grand Fleet at sea, led by Admiral Jellicoe in the battleship Iron Duke - in Churchill's words, Jellicoe was 'the only man who could have lost the war in a single afternoon'. It was a responsibility that weighed heavily on the admiral's mind.

    Jutland was actually the most significant action fought during the four long years of war, either on land or on the ocean. It was a battle where both sides claimed victory. The British lost more ships and men but the German vessels suffered more crippling and long-lasting damage. The German High Seas Fleet managed to escape total destruction at the hands of Jellicoe’s battleships, leaving the scene of the action in the gloom of evening. However, the only question needing to be asked is: ‘Who retained control of the field at the end of the battle?’

    Jutland 3 Admiral Reinhard Scheer, mastermind of the German plan and commander-in-chief of the High Seas.

    The answer is simple – the British. After the battle Admiral Scheer retired to port and, with the exception of one tentative venture that ended without action or contact between the fleets, the next time the High Seas Fleet left port was to surrender in 1918.

    After 31 May 1916 the Royal Navy retained control of the North Sea, effectively bottling up the German capital ships and allowing them to play no further part in the war. It meant that the naval blockade of Germany became increasingly effective, so much so that by the spring and summer of 1918 there was starvation and destitution in many German cities.

    If the British blockade of Germany was a major factor in the Allied victory, Germany also nearly pulled off a similar coup. Following the failure of its surface fleet to destroy the Royal Navy, Germany turned in ever greater desperation to its submarine fleet. Not only did the sinking of Allied and Neutral cargo ships almost bring Britain to her knees in 1917 and 1918, the indiscriminate use of U-boats effectively brought the USA into the war.

    Once America entered the conflict it became essential to cripple Britain before supplies, weapons and troops from the New World began to arrive in huge numbers. This, of course, meant more submarine sinkings and a degree of terror on the Atlantic that was only really ended by the adoption of the convoy system. Arguably, the success of the U-boats in 1917 and 1918 spawned the creation of Dönitz’s U-boat fleet in the Second World War.

    Jutland 4 Admiral Beatty - hero or villain of Jutland, depending on your source.

    None of this would have come about had Admirals Scheer and Hipper managed to destroy the Grand Fleet at Jutland. They certainly had a good go at it, aided by the criminal laxity of Admiral Beatty, commander of the British battlecruiser squadron.

    Beatty and his commanders were obsessed with the concept of rapid fire. The battlecruisers were notoriously inaccurate with their gunnery – only a few weeks before Jutland the captain of the Tiger had been reprimanded for poor returns during gunnery practise. Consequently Beatty felt that the weight and quantity of shells fired in action would be a good alternative to accuracy.

    Jutland 5 At dawn on 1 June Admiral Jellicoe found his fleet spread out across the North Sea. But of the German High Seas Fleet, there was no sign. He had won the day and, with the threat of submarine attack growing more likely by the hour, he ordered a return to Scapa Flow and Rosyth.

    In order to facilitate this quick firing, cordite was removed from its protective casings before action began and unprotected charges were stacked on mess decks and in gun turrets all across the ships. In addition, the doors to the magazines were left permanently open so that charges and shells could be moved more quickly. What that meant was that the British battlecruisers were little more than floating bombs, waiting to go off once accurate German fire hit home.

    Two battlecruisers exploded and sank in the early stages of the battle, one more just before the end, causing Beatty to make his famous remark, ‘There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.’ There was – it was Admiral David Beatty and his captains. Interestingly, the commander of the battlecruiser Princess Royal refused to have anything to do with the shoddy practise of the other ships. The Princess Royal was hit by dozens of German shells but the closed magazine doors saved lives and his ship.

    Jutland 6 The High Seas Fleet had lost fewer ships (eleven German compared to fourteen British) and with 2,545 men killed, compared to 6,097 British, they claimed a victory. However, their ships had sustained considerably more damage and several of them never sailed again. This shows the damage to Hipper's flagship Seydlitz.

    In the wake of the battle an enquiry, headed by Admiral Tudor, was held to determine the cause of the British losses. Tudor’s report was condemnatory of the ‘open doors’ policy employed on the battlecruisers but the Navy chose to suppress the report and blame, instead, the poor deck armour of the ships. Admiral Tudor was even forced to write a letter of apology to Beatty and was subsequently posted to the backwater of the China Fleet.

    Despite the higher British losses (6,097 men compared to just 2,545 German sailors) Jutland was a hugely decisive and effective battle, particularly for the Royal Navy. At the end of the day, as the High Seas Fleet retreated to its base, the war had been effectively won by the British. The conflict might drag on for another two years but naval commanders, planners and politicians on both sides were supremely aware that the outcome of the war was decided on 31 May 1916.

    031589 1916 at Sea CVR.indd

    Phil Carradice's book 1916 The First World War at Sea in Photographs, along with the rest in the series, is available now.

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