Archive for the ‘Research’ Category


Back in May I spent an afternoon filming with Yellow Duck Productions for their hit BBC Wales genealogy series, ‘Coming Home’. The programme, which was shown on at 9pm on BBC One Wales on Wednesday 21 December was an hour-long special, looking at the family history of Hollywood actor Ioan Gruffud. Whilst it unlocked stories of Ioan’s royal connections it was his Great Great Uncle Rees (known as Rhys) Griffiths’ service in the Great War which I had been asked to research and explain.

Ioan Gruffud & I outside the church in Pontyberem

Ioan Gruffud & I outside the church in Pontyberem

Rhys was the son of David and Anne Griffiths, of Meilog, Pontyberem. A keen churchgoer, at the outbreak of war he was studying to enter the ministry. He enlisted at Carmarthen in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and was posted to 106 Field Ambulance, part of the 35th Division (made up of ‘Bantams’ who were all under the normal regulation minimum height of 5’ 3”). With his unit, he moved to France early in 1916, occupying positions in the trenches in French Flanders and Artois. Sadly, there is no surviving service record for Rhys and so his day-to-day movements can only be pieced together from his unit war diary.

63926 Pte Rhys Griffiths, 106 Field Ambulance RAMC

63926 Pte Rhys Griffiths, 106 Field Ambulance RAMC

The war diary for 106 Field Ambulance is often short and functional, describing the routine of the subsequent months with little elaboration but noting issues involving latrines, dung heaps, a lack of coal for hot baths and too few disinfectors to help prevent scabies and lice. At the end of May 1916 this period of relative calm ended abruptly.

On the night of 30 May 106 Field Ambulance are serving in the Rue du Bois sector between the villages of Neuve Chapelle and Festubert. At this time these villages, both heavily fought over in 1915, were considered a relatively ‘quiet’ sector.

At 7.20pm that night a heavy German bombardment falls on the frontline trenches around the salient around S10.5, destroying 250 yards of breastwork trenches. Further artillery fire falls on support positions, ‘bracketing’ the area and preventing British reinforcements getting through. Under this bombardment the infantry holding this sector, W Company of 15th Sherwood Foresters, suffer heavy casualties and it is reported three officers are wounded. One of these, Captain Ralph Ainsworth is wounded twice.

Trench map with S10.5 circled

Trench map with S10.5 circled

The barrage is a precursor to a highly successful raid by the enemy. By 8.40pm, with positions destroyed and most of the Sherwood Foresters wounded, German troops attack, penetrating the right flank of the position and taking a number of men prisoner. By 10.10pm men of the 14th Gloucesters and 18th Lancashire Fusiliers had re-established British control of the salient.

By then, Rhys had been killed. The exact circumstances surrounding his death are provided by a letter written by Frank Fairfax, the Chaplain of the Field Ambulance, to Rhys’ father which was later published in The Carmarthen Journal and South Wales Weekly Advertiser of 8 September 1916:

Dear Mr Griffiths, I have to break the sad news to you of the death of your son, Rhys, on the night of 30 May. In the bombardment of the trenches there were many wounded, and he and his friend, Dugdale, were together giving first-aid and carrying the wounded back to safety. As I understood it was while Rhys and Dugdale were attending the wounded officer that a shell burst which killed Rhys, but left Dugdale unharmed except for a severe shock. When he is well enough he will be writing to tell you about it. But there is no doubt that Rhys showed great bravery, and thought not of himself in his noble devotion to duty. I knew him and loved him. He was known to be a splendid comrade and a true Christian. Often he would sing to us his Welsh songs and hymns.

The German raid was very well planned and executed. Raids such as this were a common enough event, even in ‘quiet’ sectors. Their usual aims were to kill the enemy, gather intelligence on defences and, if possible, capture prisoners who could be interrogated for additional information.

A report written the following day by Lt Colonel RNS Gordon, 15th Sherwood Foresters details two Officers and thirty-four Other Ranks still unaccounted for. A subsequent report provides a detailed narrative of events and lists Officers and men who showed gallantry during the raid. First on the list is Captain Ainsworth (the twice wounded officer) who the report describes as ‘although wounded twice refused to be moved and stayed with his Company until the end. He displayed remarkable coolness and apparently only gave the orders to withdraw to the flanks as a last expedient.
He further took steps to see that all documents and the logbooks were sent to Headquarters on realizing the gravity of the situation.
He is, I regret, still missing.’

Nottingham Evening Post - Monday 22 April 1918

Nottingham Evening Post – Monday 22 April 1918

In fact, he stayed missing – at least to the British. Records show Captain Ainsworth was captured by the raiding party. He was held by the Germans in Officers’ Detention Camps at Crefeld and Holzminden until April 1918, when he was transferred to Holland, finally being repatriated in December of that year. Notification of his transfer to Holland reached the Nottingham press on 22 April (shown to the left). A Facebook page ‘Small Town, Great War. Hucknall 1914-1918’ gives more detail on Captain Ainsworth here.

As the chaplain’s letter describes Rhys and Dugdale attending a wounded officer when Rhys is killed, there is a good chance the officer was Ainwsworth. The letter also describes Rhys’ RAMC comrade, Private Robert Dugdale, being severely shocked. Dugdale’s pension record survives and confirms the chaplain’s description of events. He was admitted to the Field Ambulance as a casualty that night, suffering with neurasthenia. Dugdale makes a full recovery, serves through the Somme, Passchendaele and the 1918 battles, ultimately surviving the war. Having served nearly four years he was discharged in July 1919. Dugdale was awarded the Military Medal in January 1917, probably for good work during the Battle of the Somme.

Casualty Form from Robert Dugdale's Pension Record showing his admission to the Field Ambulance with neurasthenia

Casualty Form from Robert Dugdale’s Pension Record showing his admission to the Field Ambulance with neurasthenia

Rhys Griffiths was the first death suffered by 106 Field Ambulance since their arrival in France. The other two men known to be associated with his death, Private Robert Dugdale and Captain Ralph Ainsworth, both survived the war. Such is the way luck can play a part in surviving time in the trenches. Despite it being a tragic story, it was a satisfying experience to talk Ioan and his father Peter through Rhys’ all too brief period of time on the Western Front. Another family now aware of their link to the Great War.

Rhys is buried in St. Vaast Post Military Cemetery, Richebourg L’Avoué alongside the men of 14th Gloucesters and 15th Sherwood Foresters who also died on 30 May 1916. Remembering them all.

Grave of Pte Rhys Griffiths, 106 Field Ambulance RAMC at St. Vaast Post Military Cemetery, Richebourg L'Avoué

Grave of Pte Rhys Griffiths, 106 Field Ambulance RAMC at St. Vaast Post Military Cemetery, Richebourg L’Avoué

Link to BBC Wales ‘Coming Home’ page: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b086xl8v

The Somme 1916 - From Both Sides of the Wire TX Card

For the past 12-18 months I have been working as Historical Consultant on the three part BBC2 series, ‘The Somme 1916 – From Both Sides of the Wire’. Written and presented by my colleague Peter Barton, the series aims to show a previously neglected corroborative view of the battle, using material from the vast and mainly untapped German archives.
Programme website: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07lst9b

The first programme is tonight at 9pm on BBC2 with the other two at the same time on 25 July and 1 August.

Peter Barton - filming at Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel

Peter Barton – filming at Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel

Peter Barton – standing in the German lines in front of Montauban. Across these fields British soldiers and advanced and captured the village on 1 July 1916

Peter Barton – standing in the German lines in front of Montauban. Across these fields British soldiers and advanced and captured the village on 1 July 1916

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

Introduction

Few places on the Western Front held such a reputation as the Hohenzollern Redoubt. Attacked by the 9th (Scottish) Division at the start of the Battle of Loos on 25 September, the redoubt, jutting out into No Man’s Land was fiercely defended. It is perhaps most well known as the scene of the disastrous 46th (North Midland) Division’s attack on 13 October 1915. The losses to the 46th Division of 3,763 officers and men that day are greater than sustained in their failed attack at Gommecourt on the First Day of the Somme on 1 July 1916. Following the failure of this attack the line stabilised and the Hohenzollern Redoubt soon developed into a vicious mining sector as tunnelling operations reduced the landscape to a sea of huge mine craters.

Modern map showing the Loos battlefield. Auchy-les-Mines can be seen south of the La Bassée canal. The Hohenzollern Redoubt was not far from the road passing Cité Magdagascar running to Vermelles.

Modern map showing the Loos battlefield. Auchy-les-Mines can be seen south of the La Bassée canal. The Hohenzollern Redoubt was not far from the road passing Cité Magdagascar running to Vermelles.

The Battle of Loos

However, it is one event between the Scots’ initial attack and the 13 October endeavour that is the subject of this article. The Scots’ success in penetrating the German positions had been bought at a heavy price. Troops of the 26th Brigade had taken the Redoubt and pushed north to Fosse 8 and the Dump. German counter-attacks reversed these gain, pushing the Scots back to the eastern face of the Hohenzollern Redoubt by the end of following day. Severely depleted from their action, the Scots handed over their tenuous gains to the 28th Division, the positions being taken by units of the 85th Brigade.

Official History map showing 9th Division attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt

Official History map showing 9th Division attack on Hohenzollern Redoubt

Fierce fighting continued for the next three days with German counter-attacks slowly and painfully retaking trenches. At the end of 30 September the British occupied the West Face of the Redoubt and Big Willie Trench. The Germans controlled most of Little Willie Trench, threatening the north flank of the Redoubt. On the night of 30 September/1 October 84th Brigade relieved 85th Brigade. German observation of this relief from the heights of the Dump was total and the new British occupants were subjected immediately to strong bombing attacks. The British held on – but only just.

That night, they would attack to improve their hold on the German trenches. The plan was risky, involving no artillery bombardment. The attacking force captured parts of Little Willie Trench but could advance no further. German retaliation was swift; artillery subjected the Redoubt and Little Willie to regular and heavy trench mortar fire. A German bombing attack retook Little Willie Trench, followed by the loss of the Chord and West Face. Other than a small section of Big Willie Trench, the British were for the most part back in their original lines.  The blood-soaked redoubt would have to be assaulted again.

The 1st King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry into the line

The 1st Battalion, King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (83rd Brigade, 28th Division) had fought with great aplomb at Second Ypres. Prior to the Battle of Loos the battalion had been holding trenches on Messines Ridge. Their move south, via Bailleul and Outtersteene brought them to Noyelles les Vermelles on the afternoon of 27 September. The following afternoon they occupied reserve trenches on the Vermelles road as a bombardment was expected. After 90 minutes in position they returned to their billets in Noyelles.

On the morning of 29 September the Battalion moved forward. B & C Companies occupied Sussex Trench whilst Battalion HQ and the remainder of the unit stayed in the Lancashire lines. In the afternoon B & D moved up to the line, D Company in the firing line in BIG WILLIE trench with B Company in support. Later that afternoon, the remainder of the Battalion moved up to the reserve trenches.

Having taken twelve casualties the battalion were relieved the following day. They proceeded to the old British front line north of the Hulluch road, arriving there at 2.15am on 1 October. Three and a half hours later the Battalion were ordered to move up and occupy the old German front line trenches. Later that day they were relieved by 2nd Highland Light Infantry and proceeded to billets at Annequin. On the morning of 3 October the Battalion marched to Vermelles and then into trenches opposite the redoubt to relieve the 6th Welsh (84th Brigade).

Trench map showing Hohenzollern Redoubt, The Dump and Fosse 8. British lines in blue, German lines in red.

Trench map showing Hohenzollern Redoubt, The Dump and Fosse 8. British lines in blue, German lines in red.

Attack

That night the C.O., Lt-Colonel C.R.I. Brooke DSO and Major Mallinson DSO went to Brigade HQ. An attack was to be made at 4.45am on 4 October by three battalions; the 1st KOYLI and 2nd East Yorkshires would attack the redoubt frontally, leaving the 2nd King’s Own to capture and consolidate Big Willie Trench. The optimistic plan depended on darkness providing the assaulting parties with the necessary element of surprise. Even then, the British would be advancing into a tumbled maze of trenches. The assaulting troops had no idea what they would be facing; there had been no time to reconnoitre the position.

At 4.15am the first two waves of the 1st KOYLI were in position thirty yards in front of their trench. Fifteen minutes later a third wave followed. The 2nd East Yorkshires deployed similarly. Battalion war diaries mention a distinct lack of artillery fire. Whatever shelling there was had no discernible effect on the German trenches.  The Battalion War Diary for 4 October records the attack thus:

A & D Coys ordered to attack HOHENZOLLERN REDOUBT

4.45am – A & D attacked and were met with very heavy machine gun and rifle fire. There was no artillery bombardment. The distance to the German line was about 200 yards and the men got half way across. By then they were practically wiped out.

These few lines make grimly predictable reading. Traversing 200 yards of open ground swept by machine-gun fire proved impossible. The war diary records the following casualties:

2/Lt A.H. Martindale 1st KOYLI killed

2/Lt C.L. Pearson 1st KOYLI wounded

2/Lt F.W. Graham 4th DLI, attached 1st KOYLI missing

2/Lt P.J.C. Simpson 3rd KOYLI, attached 1st KOYLI missing

Other Ranks – killed 10, wounded 65, missing 101

It concludes by noting ‘There is no doubt that most of the missing were killed. A few wounded were got in during the night 4th/5th.’ Losses to the East Yorkshires and 2nd King’s Own were equally heavy. The attack stood no chance of success. Following their mauling the Battalion were relieved by the 1st Coldstream Guards the next day. This move signalled the relief of the 28th Division by the Guards Division. In a week the Division had suffered over 3,200 casualties. There is no after action report in the 1st KOYLI diary but the summary given by Lt-Colonel Blake, 2nd East Yorkshires whose men attacked alongside the 1st KOYLI is damning, attributing the failure of the attack to the following causes:

(i) No Artillery bombardment

(ii) Complete lack of element of surprise. The Germans were well prepared, and had not been in the slightest shaken by the desultory shelling that had taken place throughout the day.

(iii) The Germans had been digging in during the day previous, and had thoroughly improved their trenches.

(iv) The relief the day before did not finish until 7pm. Company officers had only very indistinct idea of the trenches they were occupying, and none at all of the positions they were to attack.

So, when next at Vermelles, Auchy and the site of the Hohenzollern Redoubt give some thought not only to the Scots who attacked on 25 September 1915 and the North Midlanders (with two divisional memorials – one at Vermelles and one close to the redoubt) who fell is such number on 13 October but also to the men of the neglected 28th Division.

Google Street View from Vermelles – Auchy road towards Quarry Cemetery and the Hohenzollern Redoubt

Google Street View from Vermelles – Auchy road towards Quarry Cemetery and the Hohenzollern Redoubt

Following their exploits at Loos the 28th Division was moved to the Salonika front, sailing from Marseilles on 26 October 1915.  Recommended reading includes Andrew Rawson’s ‘Loos 1915: The Northern Battle and Hohenzollern Redoubt (Battleground Europe)’

In memory of 21865 Private George William Williams, 1st KOYLI. Killed 4 October 1915, buried Arras Road Cemetery, Roclincourt.

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This brief article will look at the actions and casualties sustained by the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers (part of 10th Brigade, 4th Division) during the Second Battle of Ypres. One often feel when visiting the Ypres Salient that the sheer horror of the Third Battle (Passchendaele), fought during the summer and autumn of 1917, can overshadow earlier clashes. Many first-time visitors may be unaware of the horrendous casualties sustained by the British in earlier desperate defensive battles (First Ypres – Oct-Nov 1914) and Second Ypres (April-May 1915). The latter battle saw the advent of chemical warfare when the Germans released chlorine gas on a four mile frontage in the late afternoon of 22 April against two French divisions defending the north of the salient. Gas also drifted across Canadian positions holding the left flank of the British.  The initial success of this experimental weapon, which left a trail of dead and dying in its wake, enabled the Germans to advance from the fields around Poelcapelle and Langemarck to Steenstraat on the Yser Canal.  The stalwart defence of the untried 1st Canadian Division (my grandfather, a private in the 13th Battalion CEF, amongst them) and the rushing forward of British troops to plug the gap around Ypres is not the subject of this article. However, this defence must be appreciated to put the specific story of the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers into context. Not surprisingly, considering their initial success, the Germans used gas on a number of other occasions during the battle, culminating in the Battle of Bellewaarde Ridge on 24-25 May. A terrifically detailed description of the opening phase of Second Ypres can be found here: http://www.greatwar.co.uk/battles/second-ypres-1915/index.htm.

Into action

On 23 April 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers were told to stand by and be prepared to move at a half hours notice. The following day they marched via Vlamertinghe to the outskirts of Ypres and at midnight to St Jean where they deployed west of the Wieltje – St Jean road at 4am. The Battalion War Diary records they suffered heavy casualties digging in on a line a quarter of a mile from and facing St Julien. There follows a ‘quiet morning up to 11am’ until the Northumbrian Infantry Brigade attacked through their trenches. During this period Captain Banks was killed, his command being assumed by Captain Basil Maclear. The War Diary records ‘heavy shelling throughout the day, and intermittent musketry’. There follows a few days of relative quiet which is shattered on 2 May when, in a foretaste of future action, the enemy attacked under cover of gas. Men of the left hand company were most affected but the German attack failed to reach the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers trenches.

Official History map showing position occupied by 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 8 May 1915

Official History map showing position occupied by 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 8 May 1915

After relief on 4 May the Battalion bivouacked on the east bank of the Yser Canal, a half mile north west of La Brique. This period away from the front line was shortlived as the Germans made a concerted effort to break the British line. This attack, made against the 27th and 28th Divisions on 8 May, began what was named by the post-war Battles Nomenclature Committee, the Battle of Frezenberg Ridge. A violent German artillery bombardment caused terrible destruction to the British defences. Whilst avoiding this initial bombardment the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers were warned at noon to be prepared to move forward to support 81st Infantry Brigade. Ninety minutes later the battalion (in fighting order) left their bivouac and joined the 1st Royal Warwickshire Regiment outside Ypres, moving to the wood by Potijze Chateau. Heavy shell fire was recorded throughout the afternoon and evening. On three separate occasions the Battalion deployed beyond the British barbed wire to assault the German trenches North of Potijze Woods. Each time the attack was cancelled. However, the body of men in the open presented an easy target for German machine gunners; the War Diary records that ‘machine guns did considerable damage’. To compound the misery the rations failed to arrive.

That night the battalion occupied what was left of the GHQ Line, their left being 150 yards south east of Shell Trap Farm (later renamed Mouse Trap Farm), lying immediately north of the Wieltje – St Julien road. One company was held in reserve in trenches north of Potijze Wood. The War Diary describes 9 May as “One of the worst days shelling [the] Battalion experienced.” German machine gun and accurate sniper fire added to the difficulties. After a few days in these positions the Battalion was relieved, moving back to Vlamertinghe Chateau before returning to the trenches on 19 May. The War Diary records little of interest in the following few days other than intermittent shelling and sniping. The entry for 23 May records a “Quiet day and night”. The Dubliners were not know it but that quiet night was the calm before the storm.

Shell Trap Farm – 24 May 1915 gas attack (The Battle of Bellewaarde Ridge)

Official History map showing position occupied by 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers at Shell Trap Farm, 24 May 1915

Official History map showing position occupied by 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers at Shell Trap Farm, 24 May 1915

Detailed sketch map showing trench positions around Shell Trap Farm prior to 24 May gas attack. Image taken from 4th Division General Staff HQ May 1915 War Diay (NA Ref: WO95/1442) and is reproduced with permission from the National Archives.

Detailed sketch map showing trench positions around Shell Trap Farm prior to 24 May gas attack. Image taken from 4th Division General Staff HQ May 1915 War Diay (NA Ref: WO95/1442) and is reproduced with permission from the National Archives.

At 2.45am on 24 May the enemy attacked with gas. The area round Shell Trap Farm and to its immediate north west was most affected. A detailed report of the events of 24 May 1915 by Captain Thomas J Leahy (incorrectly transcribed as Linky in the report)  is attached to the Battalion War Diary. Leahy describes that their C.O., Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Loveband has suspected gas may be used when inspecting the trenches at Shell Trap Farm earlier that night.  He had personally warned all Company officers to be prepared whilst Major Russell (RAMC) had inspected all that Vermoral sprayers and warned each company about damping their respirators. Leahy’s report notes there were ten sprayers in working order that night, one with each machine gun and the remainder distributed along the trenches.

When seeing red lights thrown up from the German trenches (a signal for the gas release) Lt-Col Loveband shouted “Get your respirators boys, here comes the gas”. Leahy notes how little time they had; “we had only just time to get our respirators on before the gas was over us”. There was a gentle breeze, the gas cloud being very dense took about three quarters of an hour to pass over the Fusiliers’ position.  German parties advanced in small numbers at 4.30am, occupying the British line north and to left of the Battalion’s trenches. With these trenches occupied, the Battalion was now subjected to enfilade fire. Under heavy shellfire and aided by part of two companies of the 9th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders the Battalion held to their trenches to the end. The report makes harrowing reading, containing transcripts of signals sent by isolated parties within the farm complex. Even a hundred years after the event it is clear to sense the fear in 2nd Lieutenant Robert Kempston from B Company’s  message which simply stated “For God’s sake send us some help. We are nearly done”.  Kempston was killed later that day. Whilst speaking to officers outside his dugout Lt-Colonel Loveband was also killed when a bullet struck him through the heart.

Sketch map showing situation at 2.45am on 24 May 1915. Image taken from 4th Division General Staff HQ May 1915 War Diary (NA Ref: WO95/1442) and is reproduced with permission from the National Archives.

Sketch map showing situation at 2.45am on 24 May 1915. Image taken from 4th Division General Staff HQ May 1915 War Diary (NA Ref: WO95/1442) and is reproduced with permission from the National Archives.

The War Diary records “Germans advancing under cover of enfilade fire, in small parties, finally occupied Battalion line by 2.30pm. Shelling ceased but rifle and M.G. fire remained accurate and constant, whenever a target presented itself, until dusk.” In the face of such a breakthrough it was decided, that evening, to withdraw to a more defensible line. Exhausted by their staunch defence the Battalion was withdrawn at 9.30pm and bivouacked on the west bank of the canal.

Sketch map showing situation at 4pm on 24 May 1915 after German gas attack. Image taken from 4th Division General Staff HQ May 1915 War Diary (NA Ref: WO95/1442) and is reproduced with permission from the National Archives.

Sketch map showing situation at 4pm on 24 May 1915 after German gas attack. Image taken from 4th Division General Staff HQ May 1915 War Diary (NA Ref: WO95/1442) and is reproduced with permission from the National Archives.

Trench map of positions around Shell Trap Farm. Red lines show the trench positions prior to the 24 May gas attack whilst the blue lines correspond to final positions after the attack. Image taken from 4th Division General Staff HQ May 1915 War Diary (NA Ref: WO95/1442) and is reproduced with permission from the National Archives.

Trench map of positions around Shell Trap Farm. Red lines show the trench positions prior to the 24 May gas attack whilst the blue lines correspond to final positions after the attack. Image taken from 4th Division General Staff HQ May 1915 War Diary (NA Ref: WO95/1442) and is reproduced with permission from the National Archives.

The cost

The War Diary records the Battalion strength in trenches on the morning of 24 May was 17 officers & 651 other ranks. Such had been the ferocity of the fighting, the shellfire, rifle and machine gun fire with the addition of the night-time chlorine gas attack that, when relieved, only one officer and 20 other ranks crossed the canal. What remained of the Battalion (reinforced by a draft) moved back to Vlamertinghe Chateau the following day. The entire Battalion strength was only 2 officers and 190 other ranks.

Leahy’s report concludes with these words:

“When the wounded were sent away after dark there were no Dublins in front of Battalion Headquarters. From about 2.30pm there was no fighting in our trenches. Everyone held onto them to the last.  There was no surrender, no retirement and no quarter given or accepted.  They all died fighting at their posts.”

Inspecting the shattered remnants of the battalion on 28 May, General Sir William Pulteney commanding III Corps commented how sad it was to see so few remaining and emphasised the fact that the Battalion should console itself with the knowledge that those who had gone had “Done their job”.

Astonishingly, the Battalion (at full strength 1027 officers and men) suffered just under 1,500 casualties in one calendar month from 24 April – 24 May 1915. This figure clearly includes reinforcements who made up earlier losses. Most of these casualties were sustained during three distinct period in the line. I have copied the relevant dates from the summary given in full below:

  • 25 April: 7 officers killed, 8 wounded. Other ranks: 45 killed, 80 wounded, 371 missing
  • 9-10 May: 4 officers killed, 3 wounded. Other ranks: 37 killed, 60 wounded, 185 missing
  • 24 May: 9 officers killed, 1 wounded, 1 gassed, 1 missing, 1 POW. Other ranks: 14 killed, 35 wounded, 547 missing

For more information Thomas Stephen Burke’s ‘The 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Tragedy of Mouse Trap Farm: April and May 1915’ is well worth a read. Shell Trap Farm (renamed Mouse Trap Farm) stayed in German hands from May 1915 until its capture at the start of the Passchendaele offensive on 31 July 1917.

2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers casualties from 24 April - 24 May 1915. Image taken from 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers War Diary April 1915 - Nov 1916 (NA Ref: WO95/1481) and is reproduced with permission from the National Archives

2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers casualties from 24 April – 24 May 1915. Image taken from 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers War Diary (NA Ref: WO95/1481) and is reproduced with permission from the National Archives.

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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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In June I spent a day in Merthyr Tydfil filming with Yellow Duck Productions for their hit BBC Wales genealogy programme, ‘Coming Home’. Having worked with Yellow Duck on a previous series I was asked to research the wartime service of John Leslie Emanuel, grandfather to the fashion designer David Emanuel.

David Emanuel and Jeremy Banning - filming for BBC One's 'Coming Home'

David Emanuel and Jeremy Banning – filming for BBC One’s ‘Coming Home’

As was revealed in tonight’s broadcast, David never met grandfather who drowned in a tragic accident in December 1939. Whilst aware of his grandfather’s drowning, David had little knowledge of his wartime military service. We had a lucky start in that his grandfather’s service record survived. Using this and extant unit war diaries I was able to show David where his grandfather had served.

Trench map extract of the Roeux - Monchy area - positions occupied by 234 Machine Gun Company in summer 1917. Crump Trench runs just to the south of the railway line in the area west of the village of Roeux.

Trench map extract of the Roeux – Monchy area – positions occupied by 234 Machine Gun Company in summer 1917. Crump Trench runs just to the south of the railway line in the area west of the village of Roeux.

John Leslie Emanuel enlisted in February 1916 in the Sussex Yeomanry and proceeded to France in September of that year, joining the 10th Battalion Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). He soon transferred to 124 Machine Gun Company, spending six months on the Western Front, mostly in positions facing the enemy on the Messines Ridge. His active service was interrupted by his evacuation back to Britain, suffering from P.U.O. (pyrexia of unknown origin).

Four months later, having recovered, been promoted to Corporal and now serving with 234 Machine Gun Company, he again proceeded overseas. The unit war diary recorded the men swam in the sea off Le Havre (noting the water was warm!) before moving to the Arras sector. The Battle of Arras had ground to a bloody halt in mid May 1917 but isolated actions continued into the summer. The main British effort for summer 1917 was focused on endeavours in Flanders. However, this did not mean that 234 MGC had an easy time of it in Artois.

Extract from 234 Machine Gun Company War Diary 18 August 1917.  Held at National Archives, Kew under Ref: WO95/1472/2 and reproduced with their permission.

Extract from 234 Machine Gun Company War Diary 18 August 1917. Held at National Archives, Kew under Ref: WO95/1472/2 and reproduced with their permission.

The war diary is illustrative of the kind of routine and boredom of trench life but occasionally reveals periods of terror. 234 MGC was serving either side of the River Scarpe, providng support to the infantry occupying positions north of Monchy-le-Preux and in the village of Roeux, scene of bitter fighting in April and May. On 18 August an 8 inch German shell demolished a dug out near an anti-aircraft position in Crump Trench. Two of the occupants were killed outright but the machine gunners survived, despite being buried and badly shaken. A CWGC cemetery, named after Crump Trench now sits on the trench location.

Crump Trench British Cemetery. The A1 motorway to Paris runs just behind the cemetery.

Crump Trench British Cemetery. The A1 motorway to Paris runs just behind the cemetery.

A month later the company moved up to Flanders to take their part in the British offensive – the Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). What struck me when looking at David’s grandfather’s story is that he was sent to a Corps rest camp for the entire period 234 MGC was in action near Langemarck. It is possible this period of rest was astonishingly good luck on his part. However, with the unit having undergone a fortnight’s training prior to their deployment north, it seems a strange time for a Corporal to be given leave. Detailed records are missing but it may have been that, after the rigours of the Arras sector, he simply needed a break. Despite popular modern misconceptions there was an appreciation of mental fatigue and it was understood that often men needed a rest away from the guns to recover. Put simply, no man whose mind was in a fragile state would have been of any use in the artillery war that dominated the Flanders battles. This omission may well have saved his life as the company inevitably took casualties when engaged in battle. Upon leaving Flanders 234 MGC returned to the Arras sector. In mid-December 1917 John Leslie Emanuel was sent back to Britain as a candidate for a commission. He never saw active service again, being discharged before the armistice.

David Emanuel gave an interview to Wales Online about his participation in ‘Coming Home’: http://www.walesonline.co.uk/whats-on/film-news/david-emanuel-war-hero-granddad-8149943

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War-Of-Words-TX-card

I have recently received the TX card for the upcoming BBC Arts documentary ‘War of Words – Soldier Poets of the Somme’. It will be shown on BBC Two on Saturday 15 November at 9.45pm.

The 90 minute documentary which I worked on as historical consultant in 2013 follows literary figures who took part in the Battle of the Somme.

The documentary, presented by Peter Barton and directed by Sebastian Barfield, has its own dedicated page containing information, Director’s notes and preview clips: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04pw01r

BBC iPlayer has a dedicated page showing an anthology of animated poems using the work of Robert Graves, David Jones, Siegfried Sassoon, W.N. Hodgson and Isaac Rosenberg to relay the experiences of these poets during the battle. See http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p02b11yw/the-somme-in-seven-poems

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I spent much of 2013 working as historical consultant for the upcoming BBC Two documentary ‘War of Words – Soldier Poets of the Somme’. A special preview is being shown as part of Bristol 2014 at the Watershed at 1800 hrs on 5 November. The 90 minute film will be shown in its entirety followed by a short break and then what we hope will be a lively panel debate. Panellists are myself, Peter Barton, the film’s director Sebastian Barfield, Richard van Emden and Jean Moorcroft Wilson. The evening is now fully booked.

The film's presenter Peter Barton at Regina Trench on the Somme. It was here that J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit served in October 1916.

The film’s presenter Peter Barton at Regina Trench on the Somme. It was here that J.R.R. Tolkien, creator of Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit served in October 1916.

The film follows literary figures who took part in the Battle of the Somme. As the film’s description notes “More poets and writers took part in the battle of the Somme than any other battle in history, among them Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, David Jones, and JRR Tolkien. This new BBC film looks at how these men served in the same trenches, fought in the same attacks and wrote poetry and prose that has shaped the way people remember the Great War.”

Edit (4 November): I have now heard that broadcast date will be Saturday 15 November but have no TX Card or further details.  I will update my website and Twitter feed when I know this.

Links:

http://www.watershed.co.uk/whatson/6193/war-of-words-soldierpoets-of-the-somme/
http://www.ideasfestival.co.uk/2014/events/bbc-preview-war-of-words-soldier-poets-of-the-somme/
http://www.bristol2014.com/whats-on/film-bbc-preview-war-of-words-soldier-poets-of-the-somme.html#.VE90sFfvZ8E

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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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