Posts Tagged ‘centenary’


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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Shrewsbury International SchoolIn early November I spent a week working at Shrewsbury International School in Bangkok, Thailand helping explain many aspects of warfare on the Western Front from 1914-1918.  In particular, my task was to enhance and deepen students understanding of the war and the impact it had on individual soldiers, society and the implications for the wider world. I was also keen to show the importance of detailed historical study by using examples of my research. One special request was to hear of our archaeological and genealogical work at La Boisselle as an example of specific, detailed research. During a fascinating week I spoke to 800 students from the Year 6 Juniors through to A Level students in Years 11 and 12 (KS2 – KS6).

Talking to Year 6 students about my work

Talking to Year 6 students about my work

The majority of my time was spent working with students and staff in the History Department. Subjects ranged from my role as a historian through to elaborating on some of the archaeological projects I have been involved with over the past few years.  A recurrent topic was our archaeological project at La Boisselle. However, my main task was to provide a basic understanding of a ‘typical’ British soldier on the Western Front. Beginning with the enlistment process I was able to provide details on uniform and kit and training in the UK before deployment to France.  From the first experience of going into trenches I elaborated on daily trench routine, food, ration parties, medical arrangements and working parties.

“Our students are still buzzing and I’m hoping we see some of their enthusiasm convert into bigger numbers at AS and IGCSE level.” Stuart Howard, Head of History

Putting Wilfred Owen's time on the Western Front into context for Year 12 English students

Putting Wilfred Owen’s time on the Western Front into context for Year 12 English students

Whilst the majority of time was spent working with History students I also spoke with those studying English. The curriculum covers the works of Wilfred Owen and I was asked to put his experiences and poetry into some form of context within the war.  I was aided greatly with this by my work over the last year on an upcoming BBC Two television programme ‘Writers of the Somme’ which tells the story of the battle through the experiences and words of the poets and writers who took part.

The highlight of the working week was speaking on the theme of remembrance to 650 students in the Senior School assembly. During my week at Shrewsbury International School I was enormously impressed with the children’s enthusiasm, grasp of the subject and inquisitive nature and desire to find out more.

“We thoroughly enjoyed having you here and would love to plan another visit next year. The students and staff loved your talks and I think what worked so well was that you talked to and with the students, rather than at them. I felt that you pitched it all perfectly.” Kathy Wallace, Head of English

Giving the Senior School Remembrance Assembly

Giving the Senior School Remembrance Assembly

“During the week, Jeremy spoke to over 800 students ranging in age from 11 – 18 years old predominantly about aspects of the First World War needed for their studies. He was able to describe in detail the day to day routines of soldiers and their officers, the brutality of war and its legacy. His detailed knowledge of the topic and individual soldiers stories meant he was able to personalize the experiences of the men and their families. Jeremy also spoke in detail about the ongoing project at La Boisselle which was fascinating and incredibly moving.

His visit coincided with Remembrance Day and Jeremy took a Senior School assembly (650 students) focusing on 3 individual stories encapsulating the war. Students and staff were captivated as he shared the stories of a 16-year old boy soldier, 98-year old Lily Barron, whose father was killed on the Western Front when she was 5 years old and Hugh Dennis’s grandfather (BBC ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’)

Many of our students thought a First World War military historian would be old and boring. Jeremy certainly rapidly dispelled this idea by describing how he had worked in a number of jobs before following his passion of military history, how he researches for television companies and for families from all over the world with relatives that served in the war.

The interest created amongst staff and students alike was astonishing and testament to Jeremy’s deep subject knowledge, sensitive, professional delivery and approachability. His visit helped enthuse a new generation to the importance of history and how valuable and rewarding military research is. Our students undoubtedly gained a huge amount of knowledge and, most importantly, a deeper and more empathetic understanding of the First World War.

We cannot wait for his return in November 2014.” Sally Weston (Assistant Principal) Prep

After a week’s work at the school I spent the weekend based at Kanchanaburi on the Thailand-Burma Railway (Death Railway) visiting the war cemeteries, exploring cuttings in the jungle and looking into tragic events of another war. My ten days away was challenging, exhilarating and deeply moving. My sincere thanks to students and staff for their help with the week. I am already looking forward immensely to my return to Bangkok in the autumn.

I provide a variety of talks and workshops for schools. Please see my dedicated page for further details: http://jeremybanning.co.uk/schools-talks-and-battlefield-visits/.

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Earlier this autumn I spoke to the staff and volunteers at Dunham Massey Hall, a National Trust property in Cheshire. I had been approached some months before to help with their ambitious First World War project Sanctuary from the Trenches which will see the hall will open its doors on 1 March 2014 as Stamford Military Hospital, the convalescent hospital in which 281 soldiers were treated between April 1917 and January 1919. Lady Stamford’s original plan to turn the hall over for use as a hospital for officers was altered, perhaps due to the sheer number of wounded men, and when the doors opened in April 1917 the hospital cared solely for ‘Other Ranks’.

Dunham Massey. Image taken from www.nationaltrust.org.uk

Dunham Massey. Image taken from www.nationaltrust.org.uk

My role in this project was to interpret the wealth of material gathered by the team of volunteers, pick a representative sample of men from those chosen and use their stories in a lecture to not only explain the conduct of the war in 1917-18 but also elaborate on the daily routine of trench warfare, evacuation of sick and wounded and medical treatment received by the men. The information uncovered by volunteers was prodigious; there was no shortage of material related to the soldiers’ stay at Stamford Military Hospital. What was lacking was an appreciation of where those men had come from, in what actions they had fought and been wounded and what happened to them after their recuperation.

Bullecourt trench map extract. Two of the men who recuperated at Stamford Military Hospital were wounded here on 3 May 1917.

Bullecourt trench map extract. Two of the men who recuperated at Stamford Military Hospital were wounded here on 3 May 1917.

Casualties studied included a man of the 11th Rifle Brigade wounded near Havrincourt Wood in the push to the Hindenburg Line in early April 197, two men caught up in the Hindenburg Line itself at Bullecourt in May and a French Canadian wounded on Vimy Ridge.  I was also able to use descriptions from my research into the Battle of Arras to illustrate the actions at Fampoux and Roeux in which a soldier of the 2nd Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding) Regiment was badly injured. Moving northwards to Flanders I was able to look at the Battle of Messines (June 1917) with Private John Ditchburn, 9th Yorkshire Regiment, wounded close to Hill 60 on 7 June and two further casualties from the Third Battle of Ypres. Sources used included Medal Index Cards, Service Records (where available) and Census Returns. By scouring Brigade, Division and Corps files I was able to find appropriate maps to illustrate the exact area where the men had fought.

War Diary extract from 2nd Duke of Wellington's (West Riding Regiment) for October 1917. One of the men who had been wounded at Arras was killed in the Passchendaele offensive.

War Diary extract from 2nd Duke of Wellington’s (West Riding Regiment) for October 1917. One of the men who had been wounded at Arras, recuperated at Stamford Military Hospital, returned to the front and was killed in the Passchendaele offensive.

I was also keen to include soldiers wounded whilst not taking part in any major set-piece battle but in the daily business of merely ‘holding the line’. This offered a good opportunity to show the limitations of available documents. None of the men I researched were named in unit war diaries and so, in many cases, it was an educated guess as to the site of his wounding. Private William Johnstone, 1st Gordon Highlanders was hit by shrapnel in spring 1918 close to the city of Arras but from sources available I was unable to identity which day. His was a particularly sad story; after recuperating for over two months at Dunham Massey he was found to have shrapnel embedded deep in his head. Over time his condition deteriorated and he died of a cerebral abscess in hospital in Manchester. The final man I focussed on was even harder to research; Private Jenkins of the 1st Gloucestershire Regiment was wounded at some point during the autumn of 1918, the ‘Last Hundred Days’ of the war. His full identity remains unknown with neither christian name or regimental number noted in the records extant. I was keen to contrast this with some of the earlier soldiers I had researched where I had been able to provide highly detailed information.

Having prepared the research on these men I spoke at Dunham Massey Village Hall to two groups of volunteers on 18 September. I was heartened by the audience’s reaction, not only by the enthusiasm shown but also the interest in the men and the Sanctuary from the Trenches’ project. I look forward to returning to Dunham Massey to see how the information has been used and what the ornate saloon will look like with furniture replaced with stark hospital beds. I would like to thank Charlotte Smithson and all those who work and volunteer at Dunham Massey for their help and enthusiasm with this project.

Our forthcoming project Sanctuary from the Trenches; a Country House at War tells the story of how Dunham Massey Hall became the Stamford Military Hospital, caring for 281 soldiers. Our collection gives us some information about the soldiers that stayed at Dunham, but we wanted to know more about their lives before they were treated here. Using our archive and other resources, Jeremy pieced together their stories. Jeremy’s respect for those that fought during the First World War made for a heart-warming lecture. He talked us through what our soldiers had experienced and left us feeling fondly affectionate for the brave souls who were cared for here. Over 100 volunteers attended the lecture and it was a big hit with them all – they haven’t stopped talking about it since. It provided the background of information for our volunteers needed in order to contextualise the Stamford Military Hospital’s role in the First World War. We’ll be asking Jeremy back, without a doubt!
Charlotte Smithson, Volunteer Development Manager at Dunham Massey

An interview with me discussing my research is available to view below:

For those interested my lecture is available in full here: http://vimeo.com/75168130

A dedicated page on the National Trust’s website with further details is available here: Sanctuary from the Trenches http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/article-1355804816003/

Further testimonials:

‘Jeremy Banning’s knowledge of the First World War is second to none and he is as good a presenter as you could wish for. A star attraction, I would suggest. So to have him come to talk to us Volunteers was a real treat. The presentation was so revealing and full of fascinating tales of soldiers directly connected to our Property’.

‘I am still buzzing and it is down to Jeremy Banning! Such a wonderful talk – please pass on my thanks.’

‘I want to thank you for enabling me to have and enjoy the privilege of attending Jeremy Banning’s presentation this morning. The whole experience was informative, exciting, thought provoking, uplifting and at the same time humbling. Jeremy’s enthusiasm and knowledge, for me and I  am sure, all the other volunteers attending, made it a most memorable morning and I thank you, very sincerely, once again.’

‘A superb morning at Dunham Village Hall with Jeremy Banning – he really brought our soldiers to life, with such affection too. It was a privilege to attend’

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