Archive for the ‘Miscellany’ Category



Last week I gave a talk on behalf of Haslams Estate Agents and Reading Football Club in Haslams’ flagship office in Friar Street, Reading. The talk was part of a fundraising evening for ABF The Soldiers’ Charity and was attended by over 80 people.
The evening started with drinks and canapés (based on wartime fare which included such things as spam fritters and Maconochie’s steak pies) before 25 minutes from me discussing Reading in the Great War.

Canapés were based on a wartime theme

Most of the audience had little knowledge of this period of history and I was able to explain some of the more interesting stories I had found in my research. These included the story of Max Seeberg, a former Reading FC player from the 1912–13 season who, by the time was declared in August 1914, had retired and was working as a publican. Despite being a well-known and liked member of Reading’s community his German ancestry ensured he was locked up for the duration of the war. Remarkably, he seemed to bear no malice to Britain, becoming a naturalised British subject in 1920.

Talking about Max Seeburg, a former Reading FC player who was locked up for the duration of the war due to his German nationality

I also spoke about Ronnie Poulton Palmer, the England rugby player, Trooper Fred Potts VC and the tragic case of the Sutton family (of Sutton Seeds) whose five boys went off to war. By the end of March 1918 four of them had been killed, leaving Leonard Sutton (a wartime mayor of Reading) with his sole remaining son, Noel who survived the conflict despite being torpedoed mid-channel by a German U-Boat.

After a break for more drinks and canapés an auction and raffle was held. A weekend on the battlefield with me was auctioned off by local resident, Chris Tarrant. Over £3,000 was raised for ABF The Soldiers’ Charity.

Chris Tarrant auctions a weekend on the battlefield with me to raise funds for ABF The Soldiers’ Charity

An extract from the Reading Mercury of 12 August 1916 listing players associated with Reading Football Club serving in the forces

The second half of my talk focused on telling the story of a number of Reading FC players and their wartime service. Nine former players died in the conflict whilst others such as Joe ‘Bubbles’ Bailey achieved remarkable success as a fighting officer. In Joe’s case this resulted in the award of the DSO and three Military Crosses, all in a period of just seven months in 1918!

Speaking about Joe Dickenson, ‘the Footballing Grenadier’ who served in the 2nd Grenadier Guards and was killed at the Battle of Festubert in May 1915

My thanks to BBC Radio Berkshire’s Graham McKechnie, military historian Jon Cooksey and Reading FC historian Alan Sedunary who conducted a great deal of research on these players back in 2014.

The entire evening was a great success and I look forward to working with Haslams and Reading FC again in the future.

A selection of images from the evening (courtesy of Ben Hoskins http://www.bhoskins.com/) are shown below.

With Steve Woodford of Haslams, Brigadier Peter Walker of ABF The Soldiers Charity and serving soldiers

Pre-talk drinks and canapés

The audience seemed to enjoy the talk

More audience shots

Second Lieutenant Hardy Falconer Parsons VC, 14th Gloucestershire Regiment. Image courtesy Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum, Ref GLRRM:04750.6

Today saw the unveiling of a Bristol Civic Society blue plaque at the former Bristol home of my local Victoria Cross recipient, 2/Lt Hardy Falconer Parsons VC, 14th Gloucestershire Regiment. He lived a fifteen minute walk from my house and I have known his story for the past fourteen years that I have lived in the city.

My colleague Clive Burlton and I were determined to see Hardy’s strong association with Bristol and the West Country recognised. As his Government funded VC commemorative stone was unveiled in Rishton, Lancashire back in August we have spent the last year working on honouring Hardy’s local connections with a Bristol Civic Society blue plaque.

The plaque was unveiled by the Archie Smith and Grace Tyrrell, Head Boy and Head Girl of Kingswood School along with the Lord Mayor of Bristol, Cllr Lesley Alexander. The ceremony was attended by members of the Bristol Civic Society; the former Gloucestershire Regiment; the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum; the Bristol University Officer Training Corps; Kingswood School, Bath, Redland Green School and Dolphin Schools in Bristol; bandsmen from the Salamanca Band of the Rifles Regiment; members of the Western Front Association and the Bristol Great War network and representatives of the Kingswood Association, whose generous donation enabled the plaque to be made and installed. Also attending were the Deputy Lord-Lieutenant for the County and City of Bristol, Colonel Andrew Flint and the Dean of Bristol, the Very Rev Dr David Hoyle. In total, around 100 people were in attendance for the ceremony. Afterwards a sizeable number of us were invited back to the Artillery Grounds on Whiteladies Road for light refreshments as guests of Bristol University Officer Training Corps.

Images of the unveiling ceremony can found below, followed by the culmination of much detailed research into Hardy’s life by Clive Burlton and myself. I can only hope that the people of Bristol and Bath embrace his memory. He deserves that.

Blue plaque for Hardy Falconer Parsons VC at 54, Salisbury Road, Redland, Bristol

Clive Burlton gives the opening address

Jeremy Banning providing the historical background to the life of Hardy Falconer Parsons VC

The Lord Mayor of Bristol with members of Bristol University Officer Training Corps and bandsmen from the Salamanca Band of the Rifles

A delighted Jeremy Banning and Clive Burlton with Hardy’s new blue plaque

The ceremony was well attended by the military

After the ceremony many of those attended were able to mingle and discuss Hardy’s life

Bristol 24/7 have also covered the story: https://www.bristol247.com/news-and-features/news/pictures-blue-plaque-revealed-wwi-soldier-redland/ as have BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-41918314. Our BBC Points West interview is available for a week from 16 minutes in here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09bzw5f/points-west-evening-news-08112017

The life of Hardy Falconer Parsons VC, 14th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment

Hardy Falconer Parsons was born on 30 June 1897 at Rishton, near Blackburn, Lancashire, the first of three boys. His father, the Rev James Ash Parsons, was a Wesleyan Minister whilst his mother Henrietta (known as Rita) was the daughter of a railway inspector from York. Hardy’s rather unusual middle name came from Rita – Falconer was her maiden name.

The Rev James Ash Parsons had spent eleven years in total in the slums of East London as superintendent of the Methodist Leysian Mission. Ill health forced him and Rita to St Anne’s on Sea, south of Blackpool and it was whilst living here that Hardy was born. There followed three years at Arnside immediately south of the Lake District. Clearly, the ethos of duty and service to others, so well practiced by his parents, was a huge part of Hardy’s upbringing.

Hardy’s first school was King Edward VII School at Lytham St Annes. From the paper work we have found it appears the family moved to Bristol in 1912 when the Rev James Ash Parsons became pastor at the Old King Street Wesleyan Chapel (sadly, now demolished). The family moved to 54 Salisbury Road in Redland and Hardy attended Kingswood School in Bath until April 1915.

Extract from attestation papers of Hardy Falconer Parsons (National Archives: WO339/73298)

After school Hardy Parsons became a Medical Student at Bristol University with the aim of becoming a medical missionary. At the end of November 1915, during his first year at the University he signalled his wish to volunteer for service by attesting when aged just 18 years & 5 months but was immediately placed on the Army Reserve.

He had previously declined a safe post in a Government munitions laboratory, feeling that he ought not to withhold himself from the fullest sacrifice. He hated war, but recognised that the making of munitions was just as much war work as was the actual taking of life.

He joined the University’s Officer Training Corps in May 1916, a month shy of his 19th birthday, and then passed his first Bachelor of Medicine degree. His attestation papers make interesting reading – recording that he was a tall man, especially for that time, standing at 6ft ¾ inch tall. In early October 1916 he was posted to 6th Officer Cadet Battalion at Balliol College, Oxford and, on 25 January 1917, was appointed to the Gloucestershire Regiment as a Second Lieutenant.

He eventually joined the 14th Battalion in March, a unit which had previously been a ‘Bantam’ battalion – with men of 5ft 3 inches and less serving in its ranks. By the time the nearly 6ft 1 inch Hardy joined the battalion this unique distinction had been very much diluted. In February 1917 the battalion war diary records 475 ‘normal size men’ joining the battalion.

Trench map extract of The Knoll – captured by 105 Infantry Brigade on 19 August 1917

On 21 August 1917 near the village of Vendhuile in the eastern part of the Somme, Hardy’s battalion were holding recently captured trenches at a position known as The Knoll in the Hindenburg Line outpost zone. Their relief of the units who had captured the Knoll some two days before was completed by 1.30am that night.

Modern view of The Knoll, photographed October 2017. Vendhuile, the Hindenburg Line and St Quentin Canal are out of view in the valley.

It was a critical position which afforded observation over the Hindenburg Line and St Quentin canal a mile away – observation the British wanted and the Germans wanted to prevent. In fact, men from Bristol’s 1/4th and 1/6th Territorial battalions had fought for the same view in this same position four months previously.

The loss of such critical terrain forced the Germans into a devastating counter-attack. As recorded in the Brigade war diary, at 3.51am the Germans struck. Militarily, it was a brilliantly executed counter-attack by the Germans – The Knoll being attacked at four points simultaneously. German infantry were accompanied by special detachments using portable flamethrowers. These forced Hardy Parsons’ men back. However, he alone stuck to his bombing post and held his position, throwing bombs (hand grenades) at approaching Germans until a British counter-attack could be launched. The counter-attack was successful – the Germans were repulsed from the trenches around The Knoll and within 40 minutes this bloody action was over. Much of this success is due to Hardy’s refusal to yield ground.

Telegram sent to the Rev James Ash Parsons informing him of Hardy’s death

During his heroic sole defence of The Knoll Hardy had been severely burnt by liquid fire. Writing these words over a hundred years later I cannot begin to imagine the sense of duty that compelled him to stay at his post, or the pain he would have endured during and after sustaining such horrific burns. Unsurprisingly, the nature of his wounds proved too severe and he succumbed later that day, dying at the age of just 20 years and two months. Hardy Falconer Parsons is buried in the immaculate CWGC cemetery at Villers-Faucon.

Grave of Hardy Falconer Parsons VC at Villers Faucon Communal Cemetery

His effects, consisting of just a wrist ID disc and two wrist watches were sent by registered post to his father within the month.

105 Infantry Brigade war diary describing the events of 21 August 1917

The Brigade diary describes Hardy’s gallantry, commenting that he ‘was afterwards recommended for the VC for his action’. During the war many acts of bravery were put forward for the VC but subsequently rejected. However, in Hardy’s case, approval was given. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross – personally presented to his father by King George V at a ceremony on Durdham Down (Bristol) on 8 November 1917. Hardy’s father also attended the Colston Hall event on 15 February 1919 when he was presented, on his dead son’s behalf, with an illuminated address and gold watch by Lord Mayor Twiggs. The address included Hardy’s full Victoria Cross citation:

“For most conspicuous bravery during a night attack by a strong party of the enemy on a bombing post held by his command. The bombers holding the block were forced back, but Second Lieutenant Parsons remained at his post, and, single-handed, and although severely scorched and burnt by liquid fire, he continued to hold up the enemy with bombs until severely wounded. This very gallant act of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty undoubtedly delayed the enemy long enough to allow the organisation of a bombing party, which succeeded in driving back the enemy before they could enter any portion of the trenches. This gallant officer succumbed to his wounds.”

Hardy Parsons was only the second member of the Gloucestershire Regiment to receive a VC during the First World War.

Hardy Falconer Parsons VC Chapel Memorial, Kingswood School, Bath

On 23 July 1923, a tablet in his memory was unveiled in the chapel of Kingswood School in Bath and his Victoria Cross and campaign medals are held by the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum, having been presented to the Gloucestershire Regiment at a ceremony in 1970 in front of what is now City Hall, attended by the Lord Mayor, Cllr Bert Wilcox.

Victor comic, 11 July 1970 – the story of Hardy Falconer Parsons VC

The collection also includes a portrait photograph of Hardy in uniform; the bronze memorial plaque sent, popularly known as the “Dead Man’s Penny” to his parents after the war and his Gloucestershire Regiment collar badge. Engraved on the back of the badge are the words “Irene Randall 10 Newfoundland St., Bristol 1917”. Who she was, and why he had that, we will probably never know….

Victor comic, 11 July 1970 – the story of Hardy Falconer Parsons VC

On 11 July 1970, the Victor Comic ran a cartoon story with 10 sketches on its front and back pages, recounting the story of the 14th Gloucesters action at The Knoll and to the deeds of Hardy Falconer Parsons – bringing his heroic actions to the attention of a younger audience.

Ewart Moulton Parsons

And as for the Parsons family, despite Hardy’s death, the war had not finished with them. Hardy had two younger brothers; Ewart Moulton and Lyall Ash. Lyall was born too late to serve but Ewart, born the year after Hardy, was working as an apprentice engineer at Bristol company, Brecknell Munro and Rogers in summer 1916.

Page from memorial booklet for Hardy and Ewart Parsons

He joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1917 and by 17 July 1918, was a 19 year old Lieutenant and pilot in No.50 Training Depot Station at Eastbourne, flying his Sopwith F1 Camel fighter high above the Seaplane Station. What happened next is still unclear but his plane went into a spin and plummeted to the ground from 3000ft. Unsurprisingly, Ewart was killed instantly.

Grave of Ewart Parsons in Canford Cemetery, Bristol

His body was brought back to Bristol and his funeral held at the Old King Street Wesleyan Chapel where his father was the pastor. The coffin was borne by six RAF officers and taken on a gun carriage to Canford Cemetery, where the internment took place followed by the sounding of the Last Post.

So, in the space of eleven months James Ash and Rita Parsons had lost two of their three boys. On the base of the stone cross marking Ewart’s grave at Canford Cemetery the family also commemorated his brother, Hardy. Like so many families across the world, the Parsons’ suffered grievously in the war.

Detail on Ewart Parsons’ grave in Canford Cemetery

But, as this research is primarily based on Hardy I would like to end with a description of him, provided by his father which, when considered alongside his Victoria Cross action, shows him to have been a truly remarkable young man, a perfect example of the loss of the best of that generation:

“Hardy lived all of his life from early childhood on the same high plane of self-forgetfulness and sacrifice in his thought for and service of others”

Hardy Falconer Parsons VC (30 June 1897 – 21 August 1917)

Sources of information consulted for this article include:

Service record of Hardy Falconer Parsons VC (National Archives: WO339/73298)
105 Infantry Brigade War Diary (National Archives: WO95/2486)
14 Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment War Diary (National Archives: WO95/2486)
RAF service record of Ewart Moulton Parsons
Census returns (1901 & 1911)
Material from the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum http://www.soldiersofglos.com/
Victor Comic, 11 July 1970
London Gazette – various dates
The Kingswood Magazine, Vol. XX, No.10, December 1917
North Devon Journal, 27 August 1931
North Devon Journal, 10 November 1949
Gliddon, Gerald, VCs of the First World War: Cambrai 1917, Stroud, 2004

Second Lieutenant Hardy Falconer Parsons VC, 14th Gloucestershire Regiment. Image courtesy Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum, Ref GLRRM:04750.6

On 8 November 2017 a Bristol Civic Society Blue Plaque for Hardy Falconer Parsons VC, 14th Gloucestershire Regiment (my local Victoria Cross recipient) will be unveiled at 54 Salisbury Road, Redland, Bristol. The date is 100 years to the day after King George V personally presented Hardy’s VC to his father, Rev James Ash Parsons at a ceremony on Durdham Downs.

Between 2014 and 2019 the Government is funding the production and placing of a commemorative stone for each and every Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War. Although Hardy Falconer Parsons lived at 54 Salisbury Road, he was not born in Bristol. So in August the government-funded commemorative stone relating to Hardy Parsons, was laid in Rishton, Lancashire.

Local historian and author Clive Burlton and I were determined to see Hardy’s strong association with Bristol and the West Country recognised. If we couldn’t have the government-funded stone in Bristol, the next best thing was to have a Bristol Blue plaque unveiled in his honour.

The grave of Hardy Falconer Parsons VC at Villers-Faucon Communal Cemetery

So, during the past year we have organised for the creation of the plaque. Wednesday’s ceremony, starting at 11am, will have representatives from the Bristol Civic Society; the former Gloucestershire Regiment; the Soldiers of Gloucestershire Museum; the Bristol University Officer Training Corps; Kingswood School, Bath, Redland Green School and Dolphin Schools in Bristol; bandsmen from the Salamanca Band of the Rifles Regiment; the Western Front Association; members of the Bristol Great War network and representatives of the Kingswood Association, whose generous donation enabled the plaque to be made and installed. Also attending are the Lord Mayor of Bristol, Cllr Lesley Alexander; the Deputy Lord-Lieutenant for the County and City of Bristol, Colonel Andrew Flint and the Dean of Bristol, the Very Rev Dr David Hoyle.

The event is open to the public so please do come along and attend if you can. I will be posting the results of my research on Hardy Parsons along with photos of Wednesday’s ceremony on my website later this week. In the meantime, it is worth reading Hardy’s VC citation to have an idea of his valour:

“For most conspicuous bravery during a night attack by a strong party of the enemy on a bombing post held by his command. The bombers holding the block were forced back, but Second Lieutenant Parsons remained at his post, and, single-handed, and although severely scorched and burnt by liquid fire, he continued to hold up the enemy with bombs until severely wounded. This very gallant act of self-sacrifice and devotion to duty undoubtedly delayed the enemy long enough to allow the organisation of a bombing party, which succeeded in driving back the enemy before they could enter any portion of the trenches. This gallant officer succumbed to his wounds.”

There should be a short film on Hardy’s action on Wednesday evening’s Points West (BBC1) from 6.30pm.

I have been working with the schoolchildren from a local Bristol school, Fishponds Church of England Academy, for the past couple of  years as part of my work with Historic England’s ‘Heritage Schools’ scheme. This has involved taking them on First World War themed heritage walks around the local area, including visits to the nearby local war memorial and the Glenside Campus of University of West of England (UWE), the former mental asylum which, in its wartime guise at Beaufort War Hospital, had over 30,000 wounded service personnel pass through its gates.

Fishponds War Memorial, Bristol

Fishponds War Memorial, Bristol

During this period it was discovered that the striking Fishponds War Memorial was not ‘listed’ by Historic England.  The idea was formed to engage the local schoolchildren to work on getting their memorial listed. If successful, it would be the first time schoolchildren would play such an active role in this process.  Furthermore, it would be a wonderful way for local children to engage in their community. The project began with high hopes as Historic England has pledged to protect 2,500 war memorials by 2018 to mark the centenary of the First World War.

In November 2015 I accompanied Michael Gorely, who manages the ‘Heritage Schools’ programme for Historic England, and a number of Year 6 children to the war memorial. The task was to carry out a condition survey; recording factual details such as the memorial’s physical appearance, what materials it was made from, its shape, size, setting and any changes from its original design. Also noted were details of plaques and additional inscriptions. The children also researched its history and wrote persuasive letters asking the memorial be listed to the Designation Department at Historic England. It was the department’s  decision whether to grant listed status with the final ratification made by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. A selection of comments from the children’s letters can be found below.

“When we went to see the site, everybody had a fantastic time learning about it.”
“It is a great piece of history and most people would agree that it should be listed.”
“People would be devastated if anything happened to this historical memorial.”
“This amazing piece of history means something to everybody even if their family did not go to war…”
“Our memorial is a unique statue with lots of names carved down on it.”
“It is a part of the local community and we want to remember those who died for us.”

Children from Fishponds CofE Academy with members of the local RBL at Fishponds War Memorial, March 2016

Children from Fishponds CofE Academy with members of the local RBL at Fishponds War Memorial, March 2016

In March we heard the news their appeal had been successful; they are the first school in the country to achieve this! I was invited into the school on 22 March for a special assembly followed by a small wreath laying service at the memorial attended by standard bearers from the local Royal British Legion. The story made the Bristol Evening Post and we gave some interviews for BBC Radio Bristol’s breakfast show. The newspaper article can be read here: https://twitter.com/heritagemikeg/status/713032323537707011

The original memorial had been designed with a bayonet on the end of the soldier’s rifle but had been repeatedly vandalised. As a consequence the bayonet was eventually removed. The children and staff at the school are now working on getting a replacement bayonet added. Ironically, this is much harder now due to the memorial’s listed status!

The children holding hands, forming a protective ring around Fishponds War Memorial, March 2016

The children holding hands, forming a protective ring around Fishponds War Memorial, March 2016

A small number of Fishponds Church of England Academy children will be visiting the Houses of Parliament next week to speak to an All-Party Group about their success.

I have also recently heard that I heard yesterday that Historic England’s ‘Heritage Schools’ scheme has won the European Union Prize for Cultural Heritage at the Europa Nostra Awards 2016. Press release: http://www.europanostra.org/awards/209/

Everyone who has been involved with this scheme has played a part in ensuring that pupils can learn about, connect with and enjoy their local heritage. So, let’s hope it continues and more children reap the benefits. And a huge congratulations from me to all of the children involved.

Further details: https://historicengland.org.uk/news-and-features/news/school-children-help-list-bristol-war-memorial

In January I was invited to speak to a group of ex-service personnel who were working with the Military Veterans’ Service. Offering psychological therapy the Military Veterans’ Service provides help to veterans across the North West.

The Fresh Air Hut

The Fresh Air Hut

Dunham Massey National Trust’s successful Sanctuary from the Trenches; a Country House at War has recreated the Stamford Military Hospital in the state rooms in Dunham Massey. A doubling of visitor numbers has shown the general public’s interest in the subject. However, for 2015 the staff are keen to showcase further aspects of the medical treatment offered from 1917-19. Sister Bennett, the Hospital’s Matron was a keen advocate of outdoor healing practises. A pivoting wooden hut was situated in the garden at Dunham Massey, which provided sheltered outdoor space for soldiers. A picture in the archive shows wrapped-up patients out in the hut in the snow, receiving ‘fresh air’ and ‘sun bath’ treatments.

Artwork on display in The Fresh Air Hut

Artwork on display in The Fresh Air Hut

Dunham Massey’s ‘The Fresh Air Hut Project’ was designed to involve a team of volunteers working with the Military Veterans’ Service to create an interpretive visitor experience in an authentic replica of the pivoting timber hut.  By using art therapy, the ex-service personnel could draw inspiration from their unique training opportunity and reflection upon their own personal experiences of military life.

I spent a wonderful day with the veterans in early January, speaking about many of the stories of soldiers who had recuperated at Stamford Military Hospital. We were then treated to a tour of the house and able to watch recreations of soldier’s stories; the parts of soldiers and nurses being played by actors. With the information I provided the veterans were able to use parts of the stories in their art workshops.  The result of their endeavours, the replica hut filled with artwork, was in situ when the house reopened in mid-February. I visited on the first day, 14 February, and was struck not only by the skill and variety of the artwork but the sense of calmness and solitude the hut offered. Tucked away from view, it felt as if one had stumbled across the hut. Windows etched with the names of soldier patients added to the overall feeling. My congratulations to the veterans who produced such brilliant work and thanks to the personnel who planned and worked with them on this.

Dunham Massey details via the National Trust website: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/dunham-massey/

Windows etched with the names of soldier patients

Windows etched with the names of soldier patients

Soldiers photos and words on one window pane

Soldiers’ photos and words on a window pane

The Fresh Air Hut - tucked away from the main house

The Fresh Air Hut – tucked away from the main house

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I recently spent the day giving a First World War workshop to Year 6 pupils at Orchid Vale Primary School in Swindon. During the morning I spoke about my job and the variety of roles I perform.  After that brief introduction I spoke at length about the wartime life of a typical British soldier, kit, food and the daily routine of trench warfare. Having brought along some German barbed wire found last year when walking on the Somme, I was able to show them the length of the barbs.

“We had a fabulous day on the Friday you came in. Without a doubt, the children found your visit inspirational – so much so that many now want to be historians! You helped bring to life some of the things they had started to read about and helped to give them an understanding of concepts that are hard for children in Britain today to imagine, in a way that was engaging.” Fran Randall, Year 6 teacher, Orchid Vale Primary School

We then spent some time talking about local Swindon men who went off to war. Having used Mark Sutton’s excellent ‘Tell Them Of Us’ book all about Swindon’s war dead, I had identified a number of characters that I knew would interest the children.

Arthur William Loveday DCM & Bar, 1st Wiltshire Regiment

Arthur William Loveday DCM & Bar, 1st Wiltshire Regiment

One of these men was Second Lieutenant Frederick Wheatcroft, a Swindon town footballer who was killed at Bourlon Wood during the Battle of Cambrai in November 1917. Another was a former GWR employee, Arthur William Loveday who had won the first of his two Distinguished Conduct Medals in a daring raid on the German trenches at Ploegsteert Wood in December 1915. We also looked at Swindon men who had gone to Canada before war started as so fought in the Candian Army.

The afternoon was spent visiting Swindon’s main war memorial. On arriving at the Cenotaph at Regent Place the children all had a good look at the memorial,  reading John McCrae’s famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’. We then headed inside to the former Town Hall, now occupied by a dance studio.

Swindon War Memorial - hidden from public view behind curtains in a dance studio

Swindon War Memorial – hidden from public view behind curtains in a dance studio

Hidden behind curtains is the hugely impressive wooden war memorial, listing over 900 of Swindon’s men who were killed during the war. The children were very keen to look up the names of the men that we had discussed earlier. They also found names that were familiar to them and we looked up their details in Mark Sutton’s book. Our visit concluded with the singing of wartime songs beefier we headed back to the school.

We all agreed it was a great shame that the memorial was hidden from public view. Fran Randall, the teacher who had invited me to Orchid Vale is Swindon born and bred and yet had no idea about the memorial. Ironically, the memorial was paid for by public subscription but is not available for the public to view. For more information about Swindon in the Great War follow @SwindonGreatWar on Twitter.

I had a wonderful day at Orchid Vale, spent with inquisitive children and friendly staff. I hope their interest in the war continues, in particular their efforts to help the campaign to find a more suitable place for the town’s magnificent war memorial to be displayed.

Below are some extracts from pupil’s thank you letters:

“I have turned over a new leaf in history! It used to be a little bit boring to me, now I love it All thanks to you.”

“Finding out about your job inspired me to become historian myself. You obviously have lots of fun being a historian because you get to do lots of incredible things such as working for the BBC.”

“I used to think history was boring but now have a different perspective on it.”

“My class and I really enjoyed your visit, especially the trip to the memorial showing us who passed away and how special they were. What inspired me was learning about your job and your presentation about the war.”

“Before going on the trip I was not that interested in history, listening to the facts about the First World War and all about your life is inspired me to learn more. I found it fascinating to learn all about how people lived in the past.”

“Your visit I believe, pulled a history trigger in all of us and I’ve noticed that history seems more interesting when you know about it.”

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This week has seen the much awaited launch of the National Archives First World War diaries online from series WO95. For those of us who spend their time at Kew it is a welcome relief to have these documents available at the click of a mouse. With many documents out of circulation in order to be scanned over the past couple of years I have had a number of frustrating trips to Kew so I was pleased to hear the news. However, our wait is not over yet as it is only the three cavalry and seven infantry divisions which made up the original BEF from August 1914 which are online. Previously scanned diaries (many in black and white) have been removed. Revised full colour versions will be released online in the spring with the entire collection available by the end of the year.

First World War 100 at National ArchivesStrangely, the media confused these important operational unit war diaries with personal accounts.  A small number of personal diaries can be found amongst the official records but there are not that many. Despite this, the BBC in particular, focused on relaying ‘newly released’ personal accounts. This missed the point and, to my mind, trivialised the importance of the announcement. I wonder quite what staff at the Imperial War Museum with their magnificent collection of diaries, memoirs and letters in the Department of Documents thought of this?

On Tuesday I gave an interview for BBC Radio 5live Drive in which I was asked to comment on a couple of readings from personal diaries that have been found amongst the newly digitised tranche. Each subsequent question focussed on what soldiers had to endure and, it being 5live, the importance of sport for soldiers. Only at the end of the conversation could I suggest I was asked about operational diaries and why they are so critical, not only to historians but also the general public and family members interested in finding more out about their forebears’ wartime service.  It seems inexplicable that this confusion occurred.

I also gave an interview for Russian World Service which can be accessed below. During this I was asked what I thought would be the most important developments over the centenary period. Whilst having British war diaries available at the click of a mouse is wonderful, I firmly believe that it is only by using extant German primary source material that our understanding can grow. I sincerely hope the next four years sees a growing interest, not only in British records, but in a wider appreciation that much of the history written over the last hundred years has been done so using limited sources.  As historians we want to find the truth, not a slanted or biased version of events.

AUDIO FILE: Interview with Voice of Russia’s Scott Craig on the commemoration of the Great War, National Archives’ digitisation of unit war diaries and the pressing need to use German sources

Released alongside the British war diaries was an ambitious crowdsourcing project “Operation War Diary” which, it is claimed, will help us to unlock the data in our war diaries. Further details are available from a dedicated website: http://www.operationwardiary.org/. If it works and the data is fed back into the National Archives’ Discovery search facility it should be a great help.  It will be interesting to see if the initial momentum is maintained over the centenary period. Hats off to the National Archives who should be congratulated on the digitisation process – 1.5 million pages is a lot of scanning. Now all we need is to get Germans interested in crowdsourcing and transcribing the millions of untouched pages of material in Munich, Stuttgart and Ingolstadt….

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This morning I was invited to speak on BBC Radio Bristol on the subject of the new £2 coin to be issued by the Royal Mint. This coin depicts Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, from his famous ‘Call to Arms’ poster from 1914 – ‘Your Country Needs You’.  The Green Party are calling for Kitchener’s image to be removed in preference to one denoting peace. Their argument is that the use of this image glorifies war. See http://www.westernmorningnews.co.uk/Kitchener-2-coin-face-glorifies-war-say-Greens/story-20415940-detail/story.html

The new design featuring Lord Kitchener's Call to Arms on one of the commemorative £2 coins

The new design featuring Lord Kitchener’s Call to Arms on one of the commemorative £2 coins

Removing Kitchener in preference to a design honouring peace would be a strange decision at this time. It is worth remembering the coin is one of five to be created in the period 2014 – 2018. It is hard to think of a more appropriate design to remember the events of one hundred years ago than this iconic image. Kitchener’s links to our colonial nineteenth century past are undeniable. However, it is not those events the coin is recognising. Neither is it celebrating the man himself, even though he did much to raise an army and organise sufficient munitions to prosecute the war effort. The design is a clear symbol of 1914 and the beginning of the war. I am sure that by 2018 the calls to have a design denoting peace will be strong but that time is not now.

The poster, one of the most iconic of the twentieth century, symbolises the Call to Arms in which men enlisted in the hundreds of thousands into what became the ‘New Army’ or ‘Kitchener’s Army’. That those men went off to various theatres of war to fight is undeniable; inevitably a proportion were killed or wounded in action.  However, that is the reality of fighting a modern industrial war. It is a bloody, vicious, all encompassing process which the entire country is part of. As such, large scale casualties are inevitable.  Men’s enthusiasm to enlist (for a myriad of reasons and not simply patriotism) and duty ensured the British, for so long reliant on the Royal Navy, could form an army of sufficient size to fight the Germans in continental Europe.

I have read suggestions that an image of Harry Patch be used on the coin as an alternative. Harry was the ‘Last Fighting Tommy’ and won a place in the hearts of many around the world due to his passionate advocacy for peace. I was lucky enough to know him well, looking after him on his pilgrimages back to Flanders. However, whilst he was the last survivor of the trenches, the question remains, was he symbolic of the way that all old soldiers thought? Not at all. As hard as it may be for us to stomach, many of those who went to war enjoyed it, revelling in the experience; the camaraderie, regular food, exercise and the chance to escape their humdrum or dangerous industrial civilian life. These men would never live their life in the same way, never living on the edge again. It would be wrong to say that all soldiers thought like this but, neither did all men who fought share Harry’s views. With millions of service personnel it is inevitable there were many different views. So, would it be a good idea to have Harry on a coin? Only if his views mirror those of every serviceman and woman who did ‘their bit’. Clearly, they do not.

What we are talking about here is a coin – one of five to be created over the next five years. Does it remind me of ‘jingoism’ and the dark days of British colonial expansion? No. It brings to mind 1914 and the mass enlistment of a new army. The irony is that in many ways I am ambivalent to it. It is a coin, that is all. I doubt many could say what image adorns the loose change rattling in their pockets or purses. However, unless a brilliant new design is pushed through that strikes a particular chord then I’ll be happy to go with Lord K and his Call to Arms. If I ever get to see one in my change then my first reaction will probably be to think of that wasted morning I spent talking and writing about it. Which brings me on neatly to my next point….

Like many who spend their life researching and learning about the First World War, either guiding on the battlefields, researching in archives or speaking to schoolchildren I am increasingly disheartened by the events of the first week of 2014 which has seen an ugly war of words between various political parties. I am not alone in finding these arguments, started by Michael Gove in his Daily Mail article, unedifying. Clearly, the centenary offers a perfect opportunity for political parties of every persuasion to have their say on upcoming events, using it for their own political benefit. Making cheap political capital out of this period is opportunistic but, sadly, unsurprising.  With the social and economic injustices in this country haven’t we more pressing issues in this country for politicians to deal with?

For many of us with a deep-seated and long-standing interest in the war the focus will remain the men who served, their families who remained at home and that legacy – that is what is important, not political jousting and ‘what if’ history. It is sad to say but after just ten days of the new calendar year I am already looking forward to 2018 and the lessening of media and political interest. At this rate, it cannot come too soon.

The discussion on the Steve Le Fevre BBC Radio Bristol Breakfast Show can be heard via iPlayer for another seven days HERE. The piece starts from 1:49.20 in.

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Fred's annotated map showing mining areas along the British Front. 251TC's area around Cuinchy is circled.

Fred’s annotated map showing mining areas along the British Front. 251TC’s area around Cuinchy is circled.

In May 1915 Fred Brown enlisted as a private soldier in the 18th Battalion Royal Fusiliers at the age of 17 years, 10 months. After training at Clipstone Camp, Nottinghamshire and Tidworth Camp the Battalion sailed for France in November 1915 as part of 98th Brigade, 33rd Division, soon transferring to 19th Brigade in the same Division.  After a  short time the Battalion entered trenches near Festubert north of the La Bassée Canal.

Following a hard winter spent in and out of the trenches and in hope of a six week break away from the front in Rouen Fred volunteered for a course of engineering. Sadly for Fred and his fellow volunteers the course was far from what was envisaged – they were now temporarily attached for fatigue duties to 251 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers, billeted in nearby Béthune.  Their role was to acts as ‘beasts of burden’, working underground removing spoil excavated from the face by more experienced miners. After a few weeks Fred applied for a transfer and was accepted into the Royal Engineers as 256302, Sapper Fred Brown.  He served with 251 Tunnelling Company for the remainder of the war. Toward the end of his life Fred recorded his wartime experiences in typed form and by tape recorder.  These were left with his second wife’s family who have been kind enough to pass them on to me. My thanks to Mary Burgess for her kindness. The photographs used in the Audioboo links are of a dapper looking Fred in later life. The recordings are not brilliant quality, being taken from old D90 cassette tapes. Over the next few weeks I will post as many of Fred’s audio recordings as possible.

1. Hear Fred describe the start of a typical working shift on the Western Front as he moves from Béthune to Cuinchy

IGN Map extract showing the area between Bethune and Cuinchy. Reproduced from http://www.geoportail.gouv.fr/accueil

IGN Map extract showing the area between Bethune and Cuinchy. Reproduced from http://www.geoportail.fr/

2. Hear Fred describe the descent into 251TC’s labyrinthine tunnels at Cuinchy and how the work of spoil removal took place underground

British trench map extract from December 1915 showing line around Cuinchy and Auchy.

British trench map extract from December 1915 showing trench lines around Cuinchy and Auchy.

3. Fred describes his shift in a lone listening post spent listening for the sound of German miners

Mine workings and tunnel plans - craters on the Cuinchy Front. Fred's handwritten annotations show his daily journey to work.

Mine workings and tunnel plans – craters on the Cuinchy Front. Fred’s handwritten annotations show his daily journey to work from Béthune.

Recommended reading on military mining and the underground war

  • Beneath Flanders Fields by Peter Barton, Peter Doyle and Johan Vandewalleeter Barton, Peter Doyle and Johan VandewalleBeneath Flanders Fields: The Tunnellers War 1914-1918 by Peter Barton, Peter Doyle & Johan Vandewalle
  • Underground Warfare 1914-1918 by Simon JonesUnderground Warfare 1914-1918 by Simon Jones
  •  Tunnellers - Captain W. Grant Grieve and Bernard NewmanTunnellers by Captain W. Grant Grieve & Bernard Newman
  • War Underground by Alexander BarrieWar Underground: The Tunnellers of the Great War by Alexander Barrie

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It has been another busy year on the battlefields. The year started with the BBC’s broadcast of Sebastian Faulks’ WW1 novel, Birdsong which acted as a catalyst for generating people’s interest in tunnelling and underground warfare. Back in June 2011, prior to filming we had taken actors, Eddie Redmayne and Joseph Mawle underground at La Boisselle to show them the real environment of a WW1 tunneller. Most of the year has been spent in organising and running our current archaeological project at La Boisselle. In total we worked five weeks on site, ranging from a few days in March to an entire fortnight of work in May and October.  Details of the work can be found on http://www.laboisselleproject.com/ and our BBC Four documentary will be broadcast sometime in January.  A personal highlight was our time filming underground in October. Descending a 50ft shaft down to the labyrinthine galleries at the 80ft level and exploring 700ft of tunnels, the first people to do so in over 96 years, was an incredible privilege and one which I will certainly never forget.

We opened the site from 30 June – 2 July, welcoming over a thousand visitors who were on the Somme for the 1 July commemorations. In the past I had always kept away from the Somme for this period and so had not experienced the crowds but found it hugely satisfying to see the public reaction.  Best of all was the opportunity to fly over the battlefield in a friend’s helicopter which was infinitely safer than the microlight I had been up in during May’s dig!

July's helicopter flight gave the opportunity to see the battlefield from an entirely different perspective - here is Caterpillar Valley Cemetery looking east to Longueval and Guillemont

I have spoken to many groups about La Boisselle this year; at schools, various WFA branches, Great War societies, private dinners and at Eastbourne Redoubt (as part of their Great War lecture series). Most recently, it was a thrill to speak in the Officer’s Mess at Sandhurst to ninety guests who had joined us for a fundraising dinner.  However, my hardest lecture to give was in Arras in April, almost ninety five years to the day that battle had commenced, when I spoke about the April- May 1917 offensive for an hour….in French.

As a result of these other commitments I spent little time on the rest of the battlefields, taking only a few guided tours – trips to Arras and the Somme in the spring and autumn were a particular highlight.  In October I spoke on BBC News and the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2 on the Government’s First World War Centenary plans for 2014-18. Over £50m has been allocated to commemorate the centenary but as much of this is designated for the IWM’s revised WW1 Gallery, financially it really is a drop in the ocean. It will be interesting to see the effect of this governmental effort on battlefield visitors and a greater understanding of the war, both at home and abroad.

My work with schools continues to grow and the autumn saw me providing talks and workshops for a number of classes. I am now part of Bristol’s ‘Heritage Schools’ programme provided by English Heritage and have a number of workshops already booked for the coming year.

Filming with Hugh Dennis at Neuville Vitasse Road Cemetery for ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’

In January I spent three days filming with actor and comedian Hugh Dennis for the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, following Hugh’s grandfather from Arras up to Ypres and Wytschaete. The resulting episode was broadcast in September. The following month I worked with Yellow Duck Productions on their BBC Wales’ ‘Coming Home’ programme with actor Robert Glenister, explaining his relative’s service in the AIF and part in the disastrous attack at Fromelles in July 1916. I was also interviewed for a programme on gas and flamethrowers for History Channel USA to be broadcast in 2014.

The coming year is already looking busy with a number of bespoke battlefield trips booked, plenty of research projects agreed for clients, and research work beginning on a new BBC television commission.  I am also planning on spending time over the winter months on recces and battlefield walking and, as ever, will post images and updates on my Twitter account. Please check out 2012’s blog entries for more information on some of the events mentioned.

Serre Road Cemetery No.2 in autumnal sunshine from October's battlefield trip with writers

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