Monday, 30 July 2012

Lord Kitchener's letter to the troops

Every soldier leaving for the front during 1914-15 received a copy of Lord Kitchener's letter to the troops, it was a brief, soldierlike statement of the standard of conduct which England expected of her fighting men.

This letter was to be considered by each soldier as confidential, and it was to be kept in his Active Service Pay Book :-

“You are ordered abroad as a soldier of the King to help our French comrades against the invasion of a common enemy. You have to perform a task which will need your courage, your energy, your patience. Remember that the honor of the British Army depends upon your individual conduct. It will be your duty not only to set an example of discipline and perfect steadiness under fire, but also to maintain the most friendly relations with those whom you are helping in this struggle. The operations in which you are engaged will, for the most part, take place in a friendly country, and you can do your own country no better service than in showing yourself, in France and Belgium, in the true character of a British soldier.

Be invariably courteous, considerate, and kind. Never do anything likely to injure or destroy property, and always look upon looting as a disgraceful act. You are sure to meet with a welcome and to be trusted; and your conduct must justify that welcome and that trust. Your duty cannot be done unless your health is sound. So keep constantly on your guard against any excesses. In this new experience you may find temptations both in wine and women. You must entirely resist both temptations, and while treating all women with perfect courtesy, you should avoid any intimacy. “

Do your duty bravely.

Fear God.

Honour the King.


Saturday, 28 July 2012

The Battle of The Boots

During the war friendly rivalries emerged over different styles and equipment between the allies. Bean in his official ‘Australia in the First World War’ mentions about the ‘Battle of the Boots’ between the Australian and the British Army.

‘There was much controversy among experts as to whether the Australian service boot was inferior to the British boot. An English report confidently stated that the boot supplied to the British regiments was ‘the finest boot in the world.’

An equally confident Australian expert reported that ‘Australian boots are absolutely the most comfortable ever issued, and the men receive comfort and correct fit’ There was a real ‘Battle of the Boots’ between rival experts, whose reports upon the departmental file make amusing reading and testify to the conflicts which can rage even about plain matters of fact and experience among men who are undoubted authorities in their trade. Lieutenant-Colonel Leane was instructed to report upon the reports, especially in view of a complaint that had been made that 3,000 pairs of Australian boots were worn out after two marches.
A non-expert reading these reports with a view of determining what was the probable truth may conclude that the differences of opinion arose from making comparisons between boots that had not endured the same kind of service.

A pair of boots which had been several times saturated, and the wearer of which had to march in them several miles over rough cobble-stone roads, went to pieces. Thus, Colonel Leane found that the 3,000 pairs of which complaint was made were worn by the men of a division which had come out of a sector where their boots had become sodden; and, after they had marched from the Somme to the northern area, there was no repairing material available. Consequently, when a parade was ordered, 3,000 men were ineffective because they were without boots. But the same officer also inspected boots which had covered 250 miles and gave no evidence of undue wear. He compared them with boots which had been clump-soled with English leather over the original soles, and these showed the same conditions of wear.

The best judges were probably the infantry, and among them Australian boots were always at a high premium on account of their comfort. The owner of an English factory, who had repaired more than 60,000 pairs of Australian boots for the A.I.F., and many thousands of British boots, reported that in his opinion the sole leather of the former was more porous than that of the British army boot. But the design of the Australian boot was considered generally to be very good, particularly in respect to the pliability of the upper leather during the campaign in Sinai and Palestine there was never any complaint about the pattern or material. On the contrary, the boot was lighter in weight than the British service boot, and was perfectly adapted for hard wear in a dry climate.

The difference of opinion arose when the wet conditions of winter warfare in France imposed on footwear a strain which was extraordinarily destructive. The boot was probably too light at first, but the thickness of the sole leather was afterwards increased and the watertight tongue made higher. These improvements gave the Australian soldier a boot which satisfied the officers of the A.I.F. and more than satisfied their men.’

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Arrested For Carrying a Camera

This article appeared in the West Wimmera Mail, Australia on August 28, 1914. Early in the war there was a lot of fear and suspicion, spies were found everywhere.

Poor Horace Woolmer arrested for carrying a camera near ‘fortifications’ on holiday. A bit silly, some would say, but it could have been a scene from the ’39 steps’.

“Mr. Horace WOOLMER, who is away on holidays, in a letter to his parents at Natimuk, says that when at Botany Bay, New South Wales, he was nearly being placed under arrest as a spy. He had his camera with him and was in the neighborhood of fortifications, when, being regarded with suspicion, he was accosted by a party of cadets.

Fortunately he was able to satisfy the authorities that he came from the peaceful little village of Natimuk, and that he had not the slightest intention of giving the internal arrangements of his country away. “

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Life Expectancy Of A Junior Officer

There has been a common legend that the life expectation of a junior Officer in a front line battalion was only 3 weeks. While it is true that battalions suffered severe losses, Martin Middlebrook in his book 'The Kaiser Battle' points out that the 3 week life expectation is an exaggeration.

He studied an Infantry bridage in the 17th Northern Division. The 10th West Yorks was the 1st Btn listed it served on the Western Front from Aug 1915 until the Armistice, taking part in all the major battles.

It was found that 174 officers joined the battalion as lieutenants or 2nd lieutenants. After the allowances for temporary absence had been made, it was found that the average subaltern spent not 3 weeks but 6-17 months of front line service with the battalion before becoming a casualty or leaving for some other reason. Only 1 in 5 of these subalterns was actually killed and almost half left the battalion unhurt.

Killed 37 (21.3%)
Wounded 48 (27.6%)
Prisoners 6 (3.4%)
Other Reasons 83 (47.7%)

The 'wounded' total does not include those slightly wounded who returned to the battalion. The 'other reasons' include transfer to other units usually trench-mortar, machine-gun, tank or flying units those officers returned to England for various reasons, and those still with the unit at the Armistice. The shortest stay was 2nd Lieutenant Banks who arrives at the battalion on 23 August 1918 and was killed 4 days later.

Although these figures debunk the '3 week theory' it should not be forgotten that the figure of 174 subalterns serving with the 10th West Yorks during a period of 38 months service on the Western Front shows that the battalion had to replace its original complement of junior offices 6 times.

In contrast no 56 squadron RFC which served on the Western Front April 1917 until the Armistice.A total of 109 pilots were included in the survey; a further small number, who were transferred to other squadrons almost as soon as they arrived or who returned home, presumably as unsuitable for front line duties. The average stay with the squadron worked out at 10 weeks. five days.

Killed 45 (41.3%)
Wounded 17 (15.6%)
Prisoners 31 (28.4%)
To home establishments 16 (14.7%)

It can be seen that comparing the 10th West Yorks to the 56 Squadron, being a pilot was far more hazardous that a front line junior officer.

A junior Officer could hope for a stay of 6-17 months, while you were lucky to last beyond 11 weeks as a pilot and if you were not killed, it was more that likely you would be captured.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

On the Verge of The First World War

Now Thames is long and winds its changing way
Through wooded reach to dusky ports and gray,
Till, wearily, it strikes the Flats of Leigh,
An old life, tidal with Eternity.

But Fal is short, full, deep, and very wide,
Nor old, nor sleepy, when it meets the tide;
Through hills and groves where birds and branches sing
It runs its course of sunny wandering,
And passes, careless that it soon shall be
Lost in the old, gray mists that hide the sea.

Ah, they were good, those up-stream reaches when
Ourselves were young and dreamed of being men,
But Fal! the tide had touched us even then!
One tribal God, we bow to, thou and we,
And praise Him, Who ordained our lives should be
So early tidal with Eternity.

This poem is from the book Tell
England, by Ernest Raymond written in July 1914 on the verge of the First World War.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Escaping London

In the middle of the 19th century, Arthur Gibbs gives a Victorian view of dream of escaping London.

London is becoming miserably hot and dusty; everybody who can get away is rushing off, north, south, east and west, some to the seaside, others to pleasant country houses. Who will fly with me westwards to the land of golden sunshine and silvery trout streams, the land of breezy uplands and valleys nestling under limestone hills, where the scream of the railway whistle is seldom heard and the smoke of the factory darkens not the long summer days?

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Will Crooks MP in aid of the British Women's Hospital

The British Nursing Journal on 11th March 1916, published this wonderful little story of  a patriotic speech made  in aid of the war effort.


Mr. Will Crooks, M.P., spoke at the concert held at the Alhambra, in aid of the British Women’s Hospital, Star and Garter, Richmond, and showed us our duty to the splendid men fighting and dying for us in this War.

Referring to a conversation he had in France with a wounded soldier, Mr. Crooks said :-

I gathered my feelings up, as it were, and, kneeling down beside the stretcher, I said,   ‘How  do you feel, son ?’

‘All right,’ replied the soldier, ‘I think I’ll be all right, don’t you ?’

‘I am sure you will be all right,’ I said. ‘How long is it since you were hurt ?’

 ‘Four days,’ he replied. ‘But I’ll be better when I get my clothes off, won’t I?’

I turned round. I couldn’t look the man in the face. I said to myself:  ‘What have I done that he should give all that life is worth to fight for me?’

Is bread a little dearer, are taxes a little higher, tea a little dearer, and trade a little worse?

My God, you can never repay these men for what they have done for  us..

Thursday, 19 July 2012

A Gift for Nothing

The Eastbourne Gazette on 19th September 1916 ran this story as this promotion gave away free gifts.

A Gift for Nothing

Readers of “The Visitor” who wish to obtain a gift for nothing should carry a copy of that paper in their hand. Every Saturday morning a representative of “The Visitor” is on look-out for readers of that paper; and those who are found with a copy in their hands will be presented with a ticket entitling them to a gift which may be selected at the shop of Mr. Dover Williams, Terminus Road, or Messers. Metcalfe’s, Grove Road.

“The Visitor” is to be obtained at all local newsagents on Saturday’s price one penny.

The Visitors’ Special Paper

A special paper for visitors at Eastbourne has been provided in “THE VISITOR” which contains a view of all the weeks entertainments and other events, all excursions by steamer, motor-boat, motor-coach and char-a-bang; a description of country walks, railway time-tables (with fares), motor bus; many pictures, programmes of dances and much more interesting matter.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

You can't depend on Automobiles

At the turn of the century many of the London cab-drivers were not convinced by the new motorised ‘horse-less’ new-fangled contraptions:

 In his diary on 15th October 1901, journalist R.D. Blumenfeld recalls a conversation with a cab-driver.

My hansom cab-driver who calls for me every morning at two o’clock after we have sent the paper to press informed me that his brother, who is also a cabman is taking lessons in automobile driving in the hope that some day he will be able to drive a horseless cab. I told him it would be a good idea if he, too, took lessons, but he shouted through the opening at the top that he wasn’t going to waste his money on such foolishness,

“Them automobiles,” he said, “are all right as playthings, but you can’t depend on ‘em. Besides, they are dangerous, and you can’t guarantee getting you’re fare to the place  he wants to reach. You’ll never beat my old ‘orse.”

I wonder if he is right.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Enormous Expenditure on Drink

This report was in the Eastbourne Gazette on 23rd September 1916. During the war there were a large number of people in favour of prohibition, this ‘public meeting’ on the Seafront calls for action to be taken.

300 Millions

Enormous Expenditure on Drink

"In presiding over an outdoor meeting held near the Royal Parade bandstand on Saturday evening Dr. Horatio Matthews spoke as a medical man in favour of total abstinence as conductive to the health of the nation. Mr. Alexander Thomson (United Kingdom Alliance) stated that in the first twenty-one months of the war about 2,200,000 tons of barley, maize and rice, and 3,000,000 tons of sugar were wasted in the manufacture of drink. During the same period the nation had spent on intoxication £300,000,000, a sum which represents £500,000 a day. The only remedy was the prohibition of the liquor traffic during the remainder of the war and for six months after the declaration of peace. A memorial in favour of such a measure had been signed by two millions of people. The Rev. A. Butcher also spoke.

On Sunday evening, Mr. Thomson addressed a large gathering near the Grand Parade bandstand. Mr. Walker presided, and the choir of the Baptist Forward Mission attended to leading the singing."

Sunday, 15 July 2012

ANZAC Biscuit

Over at the excellent Australian War Memorial Blog  this article gives a great insight into the Australian tradition of baking ANZAC biscuit’s and what the soldier’s actually were given.

“The biscuit that most of us know as the ANZAC biscuit is a sweet biscuit made from rolled oats and golden syrup. These must not be confused with that staple of soldiers’ and sailors’ rations for centuries, the hardtack biscuit.

To deal with these rather unpalatable objects first, hardtack biscuits are a nutritional substitute for bread, but unlike bread they do not go mouldy. And also unlike bread, they are very, very hard.

On Gallipoli, where the supply of fresh food and water was often difficult to maintain, hardtack biscuits became notorious. So closely have they been identified with the whole Gallipoli experience that they are sometimes known ANZAC tiles or ANZAC wafer biscuits. Hence the confusion with the sweet biscuit.

There is actually nothing wafer-like about hardtack biscuits. Soldiers often devised ingenious methods to make them easier to eat. A kind of porridge could be made by grating them and adding water. Or biscuits could be soaked in water and, with jam added, baked over a fire into “jam tarts”. Not at all like Mum used to make, but better than nothing.

Strange as it seems, the Australian War Memorial holds in its collection a range of hardtack biscuits from the First World War. So durable are they that soldiers used them not just for food, but for creative, non-culinary purposes. The texture and hardness of the biscuits enabled soldiers to write messages on them and send them long distances to family, friends, and loved ones.

Soldiers also used the biscuits as paint canvases and even as photo frames. One such biscuit features the use of wool and bullets to create a picture frame. Another was used as a “Christmas card” and had a tropical scene painted on it.”

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Soldier's Jam, Cheese and Tea

This is an article from the Times dated 15th October 1917 about supplying the Army with the essentials of Jam, Cheese and Tea.

The amounts that are quoted are gigantic but these reports did keep the public informed what was required whilst they felt the ‘tight belt’ of rationing.



Although at present housekeepers at home are finding some difficulty in getting supplies of such articles of food as bacon. Butter, margarine, sugar and tea, they will have no other feeling but one of pleasure that our soldiers at the front have never fared better that they are doing to-day.

From an authoritative source we learn that the soldier’s rations made up of about two dozen articles of food. Meat and bread are the chief items but the are supplemented by cheese, bacon, jam and many other things not leaving out rum, the value of which as an antidote to damp and cold, first learned by our experience in the Crimea, has been confirmed by three winters in France and Flanders.

In supplying the Armies with food whole industries have had to reorganized, business methods drastically revised, and the resources of the Empire mobilized in a remarkable manner. In the case of jam the manufactures, who are working in cooperation, are supplied by sugar by the Government and the Government also pays the actual cost of packing and delivery to and from the works and of the fruit. The fruit id bought by the manufactures jointly after mutual agreement as to the prices offered. The manufacturer realizes his profit on a fixed rate paid per 100lb.


Packing has been a difficulty. At first tins were used, but tin is scare and the jam is now packed in ‘papier mache’ containers. Nearly two million ponds of jam are sent to France every week and in April this year the contacts department of the War Office had ordered 260,000,000 lb. Twelve kinds are issued, among which strawberry now preponderates.

A daily cheese ration of 3 oz. had meant, up to the beginning of this year, the purchase of 167,000,000 and between one and two million pounds of chesses are being sent every week to the Army in France alone. With the exception of Dutch cheese, this is chiefly obtained from the Board of Trade’s purchases in Canada and New Zealand.

The supply of the soldier’s tea, of which the daily ration is just over half an ounce, is remarkable for the extent to which the army has been called on to take the business of the tea merchant into its own hands. Originally the Contracts branch bought tea blended and packed ready for issue to the troops. At a later stage the tea was brought where it lay, collected by Army transport and blended under a centralized system. This arrangement prevailed until recently, when a further rise in freights induced the War Office to import their own tea, placing orders directly with the growers in India and Ceylon and arranging for transport with the Admiralty. In this way the War Office has assumed the whole of the function of the tea-merchant. More than half a million pounds of tea are sent weekly to the Army in France. Before the War Office became its own tea merchant, single orders for a million pounds were no uncommon thing. The demand has grown with the growth of the Armies and the War Office has modified or changed its methods as developments required.”

Friday, 13 July 2012

That Ration Fatigue

This excellent little article comes from the great book “Bullets & Billets" By Bruce Bairnsfather.

Here he describes the trenches in Belgium and at the undesirable job of being on a ‘Ration Party’.


They seemed to me long, dark, dismal days, those days spent in the Douve trenches; longer, darker and more dismal than the Plugstreet ones. Night after night I crossed the dreary mud flat, passed the same old wretched farms, and went on with the same old trench routine. We all considered the trenches a pretty rotten outfit; but every one was fully prepared to accept far rottener things than that. There was never the least sign of flagging determination in any man there, and I am sure you could say the same of the whole front.

And, really, some jobs on some nights wanted a lot of beating for undesirability. Take the ration party's job, for instance. Think of the rottenest, wettest, windiest winter's night you can remember, and add to it this bleak, muddy, war-worn plain with its ruined farms and shell-torn lonely road. Then think of men, leaving the trenches at dusk, going back about a mile and a half, and bringing sundry large and heavy boxes up to the trenches, pausing now and again for a rest, and ignoring the intermittent crackling of rifle fire in the darkness, and the sharp "phit" of bullets hitting the mud all around. Think of that as your portion each night and every night. When you have finished this job, the rest you get consists of coiling yourself up in a damp dug-out. Night after night, week after week, month after month, this job is done by thousands.

As one sits in a brilliantly illuminated, comfortable, warm theatre, having just come from a cosy and luxurious restaurant, just think of some poor devil half-way along those corduroy boards struggling with a crate of biscuits; the ration "dump" behind, the trenches on in front. When he has finished he will step down into the muddy slush of a trench, and take his place with the rest, who, if need be, will go on doing that job for another ten years, without thinking of an alternative. The Germans made a vast mistake when they thought they had gauged the English temperament.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Ryan Adams and Music is like making a Pizza

Singer songwriter Ryan Adams in an interview with the New Zealand’s Volume Anthonie Tonnon lets us into his the secret of his dong writing genius. It turns out like everything in life it can be explained with food.

"What I love about Adams is that while most people will be drawn first to his mainstream fa├žade, there are further worlds to delve into. The PAX-AM website is an arcade game-themed site where messages are signed off by Bongo the Snowman. On Twitter, Adams more often than not talks about obscure metal bands, and recently recorded a cover 'Round and Round' by '80s hair metal band RATT for NPR. What I wanted to know was how these diverse versions of Ryan Adams fed into each other. To make a strong traditional album like Ashes and Fire, did it take letting you record a metal album? But Adams wasn't impressed.

"The best way I can explain this is this - wouldn't it be odd if you were interviewing a new interesting chef making French food, but if you talked to the guy and said, 'Have you ever cut up a potato and made French fries or have you ever made a pizza?'"

Well, at least I prompted him to turn a metaphor.

"Part of the joy of music is listening to lots of different kinds of music and learning from it. Specifically for me, I like writing songs that move me, and what moves me are beautiful songs on the piano or the guitar and really, really heavy music."

In a good interview, like a good conversation, you usually have to abandon the script and let things go where they will. Perhaps if we'd kept talking about The Strokes I wouldn't be hanging up the phone in a cold sweat. But would that be a real Ryan Adams interview? I'm not sure it would."

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Bono and Sixties Influences

U2’s Bono recalls his early childhood influences in conversation with Michka Assayas. 
Do you remember the first time you heard music that really hit you hard?

Oh yeah, I can remember that. Those memories are very clear to me. I mean, very much .now that you mention it. I’m probably getting lots of these things back now, because I remember very clearly hearing the Beatles “I want to hold your hand” on the radio. That would have been probably ’63, would it? At three or four years old.

Are there any images that come to mind?

I was in the back garden. There were trees at the back, at that time, but they were cutting them down. I used to love hiding in the trees, I climbed up to the top of them and enjoyed hearing my mother shout my name when she was looking for me. I just remember the transistor radio was on, and everybody was talking about this group – they were such a phenomenon.  I loved the Beatles. I only realised recently, like last month, that “Beatles” was a bad pun, as in “beat”. I remember Christmas, getting up with my brother, watching them on Stephen’s Day, the day after Christmas. On the morning. A Hard Day’ Night was being put on, and then Help! And then Yellow Submarine. So their music made a real impact. And later, as I got a bit older, Elvis.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Buffalo Springfield and Sixties TV

Buffalo Springfield was formed after a chance meeting on Sunset Boulevard in 1966.  Neil Young in the book “Shakey” recalls their bid for stardom and the subsequent fall out as they were pushed into the world of sixties commercial TV.

“It was all over when Buffalo Springfield wanted to do the Johnny Carson show. What were we doin’ the Johnny Carson show for? That was just another of Stephen Stills things, and he was right – if the Springfield was gonna make it, people had to see them – but I didn’t wanna be seen doin’ that. I didn’t wanna do it that way.

Once the Buffalo Springfield were doin’ this light-hearted afternoon TV show –hosted by Woody Woodbury. We were trying to get exposure, the managers wanted us to do it. So we’re doin’ this stupid show, and we played a song, and we were gonna be back later to play another song. We were sittin’ in the back – all the other guests are in the front, and we were supposed to sit in the row behind em’ because they didn’t really want to talk to us other than say “hello” and “who are ya,” that sorta thing.

So Rona Barrett comes out, she’s on the panel there and they’re talkin’ back and forth. She’s talkin’ about this person and that person and their private lives – and I said “Now wait a minute. Just a minute here. Is it true that what you do – what you do – is expose other people’s private lives.? And try to unearth their own personal secrets  and try to share them with everybody else – that’s how you make a living, right?”

That was a dark moment for TV. We weren’t invited back.”

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Personal Hygiene

The Daily Express – Enquire Within publication of 1934, gives the reader all useful and helpful information on every day issues.

When it comes to Personal Hygiene it has some valuable advice:

Personal Hygiene

A Physicians Ten Commandments

  1. Keep a clean mind in a clean body.
  2. Keep regular hours for meals, sleep, work and play.
  3. Keep your temper, and avoid all excesses.
  4. Don’t coddle your body, but clothe it loosely, lightly and warmly.
  5. Drink water and milk, but see they are pure,
  6. Eat of the fruits of the earth, ripened by the sun.
  7. Take care of your teeth and visit the dentist regularly.
  8. If your eyes trouble you see an oculist at once.
  9. Get to know your body thoroughly and never over tax it.
  10. Take daily exercise in the open air and breathe deeply.

Friday, 6 July 2012

The Comprehensiveness of the Gunpowder Plot

George Carlton, James 1st bishop of Chichester, explained the diabolical comprehensiveness of the Gunpowder plotters:-

“Their hellish device was at one blow to root out religion, to destroy the state, the father of our country, the mother of our country, the olive branches the hopeful succession of our king, the reverend clergy, the honourable nobility, the faithful councillors, the grave judges, the greatest part of our knights and gentry, the choicest burgesses, the officers of the crown, council, signets, seals and other seats of judgement, the learned lawyers, with an infinite number of common people, the hall of justice, the houses of parliament, the church used for the coronation of our kings, the monuments of our former princes, all records of parliament, and of every particular man’s right, with great number of charters, and other things of this nature, all these things had the devil by his agents devised at one secret blow to destroy.”

Thursday, 5 July 2012


Gunpowder became known in the West about the middle of the thirteenth century. The Franciscan scientist Roger Bacon mentioned it as something already widely known; this is his description of a firecracker:

“There is a child’s toy of sound and fire made in various parts of the world with powder of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal of Hazelwood. This powder is enclosed in an instrument of parchment the size of a finger, and this can make such a noise that it seriously distresses the ears of men, especially if one is taken unawares, and the terrible flash is also alarming; if an instrument of a large size were used, no one could stand the terror of the noise and flash. If the instrument were made of sold material, the violence of the explosion would be much greater.”

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Henry V Guns

Henry V’s force of 1415 was the first English army to use real artillery, though siege guns played no part at Agincourt. They had pet names as ‘London’ and the ‘Kings daughter ‘, and were served by German “gun-master,” 

Ten years later the Regent, Bedford took a powerful artillery train to France and introduced something like field-guns, small “hand-cannon” firing stone shot of two pounds’ weight.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

A night on Hill 60

I was reading Norman Gladden's  book 'YPRES 1917' when i came across his account of his dealings with the Australian's on Hill 60. Although the account is not specifically about tunneling, i found it fascinating of how one night on 5th June 1917 was spent assisting them.

"The next morning, immediately after I had drawn my fried bacon, I was unfortunate enough to be detailed to assist the Australian Tunneling Company, who had been carrying out mining operations towards the enemy positions for months on end, working day and night in six-hour shifts. This had been a war of wits. At times the Germans counter-mining had brought the enemy so close to the saps that galleries had been blown. There had been hand-to-hand fighting underground, and new galleries had had to be made, each side striving to get beneath the other. We had retained the ascendancy and a vast mine was now approaching completion. Immense quantities of ammonal had been buried and arrangements were already in hand for blowing the charge by electric ignition from behind the line. One job on this particular morning was to help with the construction of sandbagged barriers to tamp the charge and prevent blow-back along the galleries.

We were conducted by the free-and-easy Australian sergeant through a wonderful labyrinth of passages until we reached an opening into a sort of calm cul-de-sac outside the hill, where the air was fresh and the light seemed brilliant after being so long below ground. A high and considerable breastwork of sandbags zigzagged away to our right. The ground beyond rose to a low ridge in the middle distance. There was nothing the least ominous about the desolate scene: nothing moved and there was unusually little noise. We were pleased to be enjoying the sweet spring air even in such a setting. The working party spread out round a bend in the breastwork, forming tamping operation.

As it happened I was the end man in the chain and was standing at the corner of a traverse where the breastwork turned abruptly leftwards and quickly petered out in the waste. We worked with a will, for the task was a light one and the fresh air filled us with new vigour. We were pleased, too, by the novelty of the work and the friendly attitude of the N.C.O in charge. For once we quite forgot to grumble.

Indeed, there was poised just above the horizon the black speck of an observation balloon, though our sense of direction gave us no indication whether it was friend or foe. It was a characteristic of the Salient that one could never be certain.

A little later an enemy battery began firing and shells burst along the ridge, not much more than a hundred yards away. Another salvo passed over and crashed on to the hill behind us. In the shelter of the breastwork we felt secure and it certainly did not occur to us that we might be the real target. We seemed to harbour a trustful feeling that we should not have been brought out there had there been any special danger. Against all experience and reason, we continued to have childlike trust in the omniscience of those in command, and on this occasion everything had so clearly been well planned that no question had entered our minds. By this time the work had progressed so well that the sergeant decided to lengthen the chain. Three of us moved round the corner.

Suddenly the battery began firing again and there was something in the approaching scream that marked us as the target.

I cringed low as the first shell burst somewhere near the corner. Then we all began running like frightened rabbits back to the burrow, which now seemed so far away. As I turned the last bend a man a few yards ahead crashed to the ground. I recognized him as one of the youngsters of the recent draft and the very man who had just taken my place at the corner I had vacated. Aided by the man ahead, I attempted to lift our stricken comrade, but he was too stiff and heavy and we were now out there alone, some fifty yards or so from the sap entrance. A second salvo left the guns and terror took control of my senses. The next thing I knew I was leaning breathlessly against the timbers of the opening, panting and frightened. The rest of the party bunched undecidedly in the entrance. Shells were now lashing the breastwork but a little way from the opening which, however, was out of the line of fire. Here was safety; out there, but a few yards away, pain and sudden death. Our Australian N.C.O decided to report back to his headquarters for instructions.

Corporal Bell of our company, a quietly-spoken Londoner and commercial clerk in civil life, now appeared on the scene, elbowing his way through the indecisive crowd. On learning what had happened, which was not an easy matter for we were all talking at once, he demanded why we had not brought the casualty in. Our assertion that he was dead did not satisfy the corporal. “Come on, one of you men,” he said; “we must bring him in.” No one budged. I felt ashamed, but had no intention of going out there again unless I was directly ordered. Why shouldn’t someone else go?

Time seemed to stand still. The corporal lost patience: a last appeal and he started off alone. He doesn’t know what it was like, I thought. Then something stirred to override my fears. He couldn’t possibly be allowed to go alone. Against all reason I followed him. We raced along the breastwork. All was again quiet. We bent to raise the prostrate figure, but death had rendered the task of moving such a rigid corpse beyond our united strength, weakened no doubt by the stress and excitement of the moment. Shelling recommenced, scattering bags from the breastwork all around us. “Run!” shouted Corporal Bell, and with my remaining energies I ran as I never run before, as a tornado of bursts smashed down the breastworks under the shadow of which we had just been stooping. The enemy had really found the target and we two were lucky to survive.

Later on it was reported that the stretcher-bearers, who eventually retrieved the body, were of the opinion that the dead man had been immediately, for he had shrapnel in his brain and in his heart. Yet I knew that he had run a number of yards before he fell!

We were relieved to hear that the outside work had been abandoned and we completed our spell moving the accumulated bags along the galleries in trolleys. As the shift ended at 2 p.m. the Australians issued us with a tot of rum, so large compared with our normal issue that I dropped into deep sleep as soon as I reached the dug-out."

Later on in the book Norman Gladden gives this explaination:

"The mine under Hill 60 mentioned in the text was the most northerly of the nineteen, but there was a second nearby on the other side of the Railway Cutting. Although by no means the largest of the mines, this was a considerable detonation, containing a charge of some 35,000 lb. of high explosive, mainly ammonal. The other mine just mentioned (of which the author was not at the time aware, although it was comparatively near) had a charge of 70,000 lb."

Monday, 2 July 2012

Medieval 'Listeners'

Henry of Lancaster, Earl of Derby, may be called one of the earliest great English military engineers, for in 1345, the year before Crecy, he first taught the troops under his command how to set about fortified towns during the French campaigns, using saps and tunnels and mines to approach and blow up walls.

At this period young boys were often employed by these army engineers as “Listeners”. This was most dangerous and unpleasant task, for it meant that when a tunnel had been dug under or near to the enemy’s position, one of these lads was posted at the end of the sap to listen for knocking or other sounds which might show that miners of the opposite side were also working underground and likely to take the besieging force by surprise.

Besides the likelihood of being discovered or blown up by enemy mines, there was always the chance that a tunnel-roof would collapse upon the unfortunate listener. This happened one night when the English were besieging a town in France, but the boy who had been posted to listen to the end of the sap managed to scramble clear of the ruins and found himself in the cellar of a house inside the besieging town. Stealing out into the street, he discovered a postern gate which could be opened from within and through this he admitted the besiegers.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Night Flying

In his book ‘Tiger moths to Typhoons’ F/Lt Peter Watson lets us into the world of the Second World War night flying school.

“There were one or two consolations about the night-flying course. One was that we used to have a ‘night-flying breakfast’ about five o’clock in the morning, which consisted of eggs and bacon and coffee. Then we had the most beautiful sleep. We had very comfortable double-roomed billets which were centrally-heated. I shared mine with ‘Tosh’ Kitchen. He was a nice sort of chap, but just a little eccentric, shall we say.

What we used to do, even if we hadn’t been night-flying, was to hang up a little notice outside the door saying, “DO NOT DISTURB – NIGHT-FLYING.” This meant that we could sort of hibernate in peace during the ghastly weather and we would take it in turns to stagger over to the canteen to fetch either some food or cups of tea. All quite civilised really.

The only thing was that, as I soon discovered, Tosh had rather a strange habit. In the middle of the night, he would get out of bed and instead of going to the toilet (he insisted this happened in his sleep) he would urinate into a flying boot, but he never used to urinate in his own, always mine. I got a bit fed up with this in the end, so, before he went to sleep every night, I used to make sure that he went to the toilet. I took the opportunity, while he was out of the room, to hide my boots – usually under my bed. However, that was his only bad habit and apart from that he was an awfully nice chap."
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