Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Thomas Mottershead, VC, DCM (1892 – 1917) – British WW1 aviator hero

With thanks to Mr. S. Neal for permission to use his photograph of the grave of Thomas Mottershead in Bailleul Communal Cemetery, Bailleul, France, which he visited recently.

Thomas in Royal Flying Corps uniform with his wife and son
Thomas Mottershead was born on 17th January 1892. His parents were Thomas and Lucy Mottershead and they lived in Widnes in Lancashire, UK. Thomas and Lucy had six sons and three daughters. Thomas Junior was educated at Simms Cross School and Widnes Technical School.

Thomas studied engineering in his spare time while apprenticed to Widnes Alkali Works. On 10th February 1914, Thomas married Lilian M. Bree (known as Peggy) from Tranmere in Birkenhead, Wirral. They met when Thomas was working at the Cammel Laird Shipyard in Birkenhead. He had just started work in Portsmouth Naval Dockyard when the First World War began but he joined the Royal Flying Corps as a mechanic on 10th August 1914 and was posted to the Central Flying School in Upavon, Wiltshire. He was promoted to the rank of Sergeant on 1st April 1916. In May 1916, Thomas began training as a pilot.

In June 1916, he obtained his Flying Certificate and was posted to No. 25 Squadron at St Omer in France, flying the FE 2, on 6th July 1916. He saw action during the Somme Offensive.

The Distinguished Conduct Medal


Established in 1854 by Queen Victoria as a decoration for gallantry in the field by other ranks of the British Army. It is the oldest British award for gallantry and was a second level military decoration, ranking below the Victoria Cross, until its discontinuation in 1993, when it was replaced by the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross. The medal was also awarded to non-commissioned military personnel of other Commonwealth Dominions and Colonies.

One of Thomas’s first operations was a low-level bombing raid on a German anti-aircraft battery, which he successfully destroyed. On 22nd September, with 2/Lt C. Street as observer he bombed the railway station at Samain, destroying one ammunition train and strafing another. While climbing away from their target, their aircraft was attacked by a Fokker scout. Accounts of the engagement indicate that it was Thomas's skilful manoeuvring which enabled Street to shoot the enemy aircraft down. For this action and other displays of gallantry, Sergeant Thomas Mottershead was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and promoted to the rank of Flight Sergeant. He was then transferred to No.20 Squadron based at Clairmarais, Pas-de-Calais, France.

The Victoria Cross

The Victoria Cross (V.C.) is the highest and most prestigious award of the British honours system. It  is awarded for valour "in the presence of the enemy" to members of the British Armed Forces and was introduced on 29 January 1856 by Queen Victoria to honour acts of valour during the Crimean War.

On 7th January 1917, near Ploegsteert Wood in Belgium, Thomas was on patrol in FE-2d (serial number A39) with observer Lieutenant W E Gower, when he was engaged in combat by two Albatros D.III of Jasta 8. Lieutenant Gower managed to hit one plane and put it out of the action, but the
second Albatros, which was flown by German 'ace' Lieutenant Walter Göttsch (who had 20 victories to his name), hit the British aircraft, piercing the petrol tank and setting the aircraft on fire.

Enveloped in flames which his observer was unable to extinguish with a handheld fire extinguisher, Thomas was badly burned but nevertheless managed to take his aircraft back to the Allied lines and make a successful forced landing. The undercarriage collapsed on touching down however,
throwing the observer clear but pinning Thomas in his cockpit. He was subsequently rescued but died of his burns five days later.  Thomas was buried in Bailleul Communal Cemetery, Bailleul, France.
Grave of Thomas Mottershead, VC, DCM
Photo by Mr. S. Neal

Sergeant Thomas Mottershead was awarded the only Victoria Cross (V.C.) ever awarded to a non-commissioned RFC officer during the Great War. Thomas’s medal was presented to his widow by King George V in a ceremony in Hyde Park, London on 2nd June 1917.

A sum of nearly £1,000 was raised when an appeal was launched in 1917 – yet neither widow or son received a penny of the money collected. It was over 50 years later that a civil servant found the records of the fund and the money. It was then used to endow the Mottershead Scholarship at Widnes Technical College.

There is a memorial to the memory of Thomas Mottershead, VC in Victoria Park, Widnes, which was unveiled in April 2018.

The VC Citation

"For most conspicuous bravery, endurance and skill, when attacked at an altitude of 9,000 feet; the petrol tank was pierced and the machine set on fire. Enveloped in flames, which his Observer, Lt. Gower was unable to subdue, this very gallant soldier succeeded in bringing his aeroplane back to our lines, and though he made a successful landing, the machine collapsed on touching the ground, pinning him beneath wreckage from which he was subsequently rescued. Though suffering extreme torture from burns, Sgt. Mottershead showed the most conspicuous presence of mind in the careful selection of a landing place, and his wonderful endurance and fortitude undoubtedly saved the life of his Observer. He has since succumbed to his injuries."

On Wednesday, 11th April 1917, the Mayor of Widnes held a concert in the Premier Picture House for the "Memorial Fund to the late Sergeant Thomas Mottershead V.C, D.C.M"

The flyer for that concert included a 'TRIBUTE TO "A VERY GALLANT SOLDIER"', by Amanda Bebbington, also published in the "Weekly News" on 16 February 1917.

TRIBUTE TO "A VERY GALLANT SOLDIER"

If I strove to tell this story as such story should be told,
I should write in jewel letters on a leaf of shining gold;
With a diamond pen to shrine each word as crystal as a tear,
And a blood-red fire of rubies to flash the record clear.

Oh! I cannot tell this story, for the flame is in my heart,
And my soul's afire with a vision of the mighty hero-part;
And I spill the diamonds, in tears, that blind my mortal eyes
As I dream the horror of that flight through the unpitying skies.

Oh! A nation's heart beats quicker with a proud exultant glow;
For such deeds as these can thrill her through her agony of woe.
And the England that doth render him her amplest meed of fame
Counts richest jewel in her crown her brave son's honoured name.

I leave the story all untold - too feeble are my words.
The ocean's diapason and the storm wind's thundering chords,
The very stars that strew the heavens, the suns that ceaseless roll
Shall sing and blaze the brighter since they keep that hero-soul.

Written by a lady called Amanda Bebbington, published in the "Weekly News", 16th February 1917. The 1911 Census lists an Amanda Bebbington married to Joseph Henry Bebbington and living in Belvoir Road Widnes, Widnes, Lancashire & Cheshire, England.  They had a daughter called Stella who was born in 1911.   Research from Debbie Cameron regarding Amanda found this: she was born Harriet Elizabeth Amanda Gittings in 1880 in Wednesbury, Staffordshire. She married Joseph Henry Bebbington, an engineer, in 1902. Amanda died in 1927.

Sources: Find my Past, Free BMD and www.mottersheadstatueappeal.co.uk/themen
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victoria_Park,_Widnes
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Mottershead
And Historian Debbie Cameron

Statue to Thomas Mottershead in Victoria Park, Widnes


Saturday, 18 January 2020

Philippe De Lacy - American child movie star rescued during WW1

Philippe De Lacy was born in July 1917.  He was rescued when a British lady called Edith De Lacy heard cries coming from the ruins of a bombed house in Lorraine.  Edith was working with the American Women's Overseas Hospital which was based at that time in Nancy.

When the war ended, Edith adopted Philippe and took him to America, where he began a career as a child model.   He was discovered by a Hollywood talent scout and appeared in his first film when he was four years old.

After appearing in 36 films, many of which were for Paramount Studios, Philippe decided to concentrate on producing and directing films, rather than acting in them.   During the 1950s he also managed a Hollywood TV station and directed films for television.

Philippe died on 29th July 1995 at the age of 78.

The story was told to me by Leigh Bennett from The Wirral who is related to Edith.

Sources:  Leigh Bennett and Wikipedia

Photo of Philippe:  Wiki Images


UPDATE

Through a mutual friend, Barry Allen sent me the following up-date: "Lucy has the basic facts about Philippe correct. IMDB has him in 38 films and lists them. The number you quoted is proably beause he was not crditited for some films and some were shorts and may have not been counted.

Philippe had a very long career with J. Walter Thompson’s advertising agency. He has a listing for two WWII documentaries – “Yorktown” and “The Fighting Lad” -  as an editorial assistant. His childhood story was the subject of a fictional children's book “LITTLE PHILIPPE OF BELGIUM”, by Madeline Brandeis as part of her "Children of the World " series."

Thank you Stephen and Barry.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Book Review: “Children at War 1914 – 1918” by Vivian Newman (Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2019)

Each year, as we near Remembrance Sunday and 11th November, we hear a great deal about the soldiers of WW1 and, occasionally, about the women who also served but I don’t remember hearing anything about the experiences of those who were children at that time, so this book is a very welcome addition to my WW1 collection.

I grew up knowing quite a bit about WW1 because my mother was four years old when her father, a professional soldier, marched away to Belgium in August 1914.  Among other things, Mother, who lived with her Mother and baby brother in south London, remembered seeing a Zeppelin burn and the aftermath of the Silvertown Munitions Factory explosion. She often spoke about her experiences during the First World War, which left a lasting impression on her. Apart from Grandmother’s struggles to keep things together with two young children, two of Mother’s Uncles lost their lives and, although Grandfather returned home, life was never the same.

Through my research for an exhibition of poetry written by schoolchildren, I knew about French and Belgian children who were orphaned during WW1 - the film “Hugo” highlights that rather well.  I also knew of the involvement of British children in the war effort and about the children of Upper North Street School in Poplar, London who were killed during a German Gotha bombing raid on 13th June 1917. However I did not realise the extent to which children from other countries were involved in WW1 until I began reading Dr. Newman’s book.

Drawing on an impressive list of resources, much of which she translated herself, Newman explores how the first global conflict affected children and young people, many of whom left diaries and accounts of what they experienced.  I did not realise there were so many children and young people on board the British Royal Mail and passenger liner  “Lusitania” when she was torpedoed and sunk.  Those accounts are particularly heart-breaking, as are the accounts of those who were killed, badly injured and/or rendered homeless during the devastating explosion that took place at the munitions factory in Silvertown.

I found a great deal in this book about which I was unaware – I was particularly interested to read accounts written by German children of what life was like for them.  All in all this is an excellent book which should be required reading in schools.

“Children at War 1914 – 1918” by Vivian Newman (Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2019)

Dr Newman has written several other fantastic WW1-themed books – you can find out more about them on the Pen & Sword website: https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Book Review “In the Trenches: Those who were there” by Rabel Bilton (Pen & Sword Military, 2016)

“…you have got to go there…”  Jeremy Bowen, BBC War Correspondent

Having read Bachel Bilton’s excellent book “Prisoners & Escape: Those who were there”, I was really looking forward to reading “In the Trenches” by the same author. As far as I’m concerned, it is vital to read reports written by people who experienced the conflict at first hand and in this book, Bilton has compiled seventeen extremely interesting accounts that cover the war on the Western Front, Mesopotamia and Salonika. 

The first excerpt in the book, “General for a Day”, is an account by professional soldier A.P.G. Vivian of his adventures in Flanders in the early days of WW1.  Describing his Blighty treatment after being wounded, Vivian mentions Lady Astor: ”One of the most indefatigable workers in the cause of our comfort was Lady Astor, who was affectionately known among us as ‘Nancy’ and to whom I now record my thanks.” (p.18).

I am interested in the poetry of the First World War, so I was pleased to see pieces by two soldier poets/writers included – Herbert Read and Ralph Hale Mottram – both of whom served on the Western Front.

I must admit that although I enjoyed this book, I was disappointed with certain aspects. Like me, academics and purists would probably lament the absence of some sort of formal Bibliography and even the most casual reader might well appreciate a reading list, in case they wanted to read more of the various memoires from which these excerpts were originally taken.

While Bilton has included brief biographies of some of the authors, I could not help wondering why these were left out – Anthony R. Hossack, Mark Severn (who has two excerpts included), Herbert Read and F. Mitchell.   I would also like to have known the original sources of the fantastic photographs included in the centre pages of the book.

In her biography of Charles Douie (“The Authors”, p. ix), Bilton tells us that “After service on the Somme and in Flanders, he was detached from his Battalion and was in Italy when the war finished”.  As the Italian Front was my inspiration for researching the Artists of the First World War*, this has inspired me to try and read Douie’s account of his service on that Front.   I’m researching Africa in WW1 as well as the Eastern Front and Russia – other often forgotten theatres of the conflict –  and the four writers Bilton omitted from her biographies.

“In the Trenches: Those who were there” by Rabel Bilton (Pen & Sword Military, 2016) available from Amazon and all good book stores.  Further information from https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/

The arrival of the first guns on the Carso Front
painted by Guy Lipscombe

* On the Western Front, the French victory at the Battle of Malmaison (23rd – 27th October, 1917), gave the Allies hope and control of Le Chemin des Dames.  However, as explained in the book “Our Italian Front”, “…it was a rude shock and bitter disappointment to learn of the Caporetto disaster in Italy. The collapse of the Italian second army had left a great gap in the Allies' line, and through it the Austrians, aided by a number of German divisions, were pouring down from the mountains to the plain.” (Chapter One “Our Italian Front” commentary by Warner Allen, illustrated by Martin Hardie.)

Reinforcements were therefore urgently despatched from the Western Front to the Italian Front. The enemy attack was renewed on 15th June 1918 with Austro-Hungarians troops engaging the Allies during the Battle of Piave. After fierce fighting, Austria asked for an armistice on 29th October 1918 and an armistice was signed on 3rd November at Villa Giusti, near Padua.




Monday, 19 August 2019

Book Review: Jim Smithson “A Taste of Success. The First Battle of the Scarpe, Th Opening Phase of the Battle of Arras 9 – 14 April 1917” (Helion & Co., Solihull, 2017 )

In loving memory of my Great Uncle James, who was killed on the first day of the Battle of Arras, Easter Monday, 9th April 1917, I have recently completed an exhibition about some of the soldier poets who were killed on that day. Great Uncle James, from Northfleet, Kent, UK, has no known grave but is commemorated on the Arras Memorial in France, so anything I can find out about the initial stages of the Battle of Arras is of great interest to me. 

I was, therefore, particularly interested in reading Jim Smithson’s book “A Taste of Success. The First Battle of the Scarpe, The Opening Phase of the Battle of Arras, 9  – 14 April 1917”, which has recently been published by Helion & Company of Solihull, West Midlands, UK. 

From first sight the book is wonderful and it is not easy to do justice to it in a brief review. No expense has been spared in the production of the book which compliments the time, meticulous research and dedication of the author. It is beautifully presented with colour photographs and a hard, coloured cover with a photograph of a tank.  I had no idea tanks were in use in WW1 before the Battle of Cambrai but now have a greater understanding of the first use of these weapons.

The Foreword has been contributed by a writer who has already written about the Battle of Arras - Jonathan Nicholls.  Written on Remembrance Sunday 2016, the Foreword sets the tone of the book.  Nicholls’ book was published during the 1980s when many of the WW1 survivors from both sides were still alive and he was able to interview then and walk the battlefields with them.

The Preface begins with a quotation from a poem by Siegfried Sassoon. Chapters 1 to 9 begin with quotations from poems by Edward Thomas, who was one of the poets killed on 9th April 1917 during the Battle of Arras.  Jim Smithson starts by explaining in detail the background to the Battle of Arras in 1917, going right back to the early stages of the conflict before the trenches were dug.  Detailed maps are included, as well as photographs of some of those who took part.   I was particularly interested to read the accounts of the German and French regiments involved, for instance the Moroccans in May 1915 and the New Zealand Tunnelling Company who were involved in the preparation of the tunnels made when the Allies built upon the quarries and caves underneath Arras.

I was also interested to read about the German use of bobby traps when withdrawing from areas.

On page 95 is a very comprehensive guide to the different first aid posts and hospitals to which the wounded were taken.

Smithson also goes into detail about the difficulties encountered by the British due to the sharing of the command with the French and the logistical problems of transporting and supplying the British Army’s 1.4 million troops who were based in France by 1917.  Also explained are the political arguments behind the army commanders, such as the Rome Conference in early 1917. The final chapter, “Epilogue and Conclusions” is particularly revealing.

In the Appendices you will find copies of official documents, reports and memoranda, copious notes on Sources, Bibliography and detailed lists of all the units involved in the preparations beforehand and in the Battle itself.

This compelling book is essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the history of the First World War.

“A Taste of Success - The First Battle of the Scarpe - The Opening Phase of the Battle of Arras, 9  – 14 April 1917” by Jim Smithson is published by Helion & Company of Solihull, West Midlands, UK. On sale at £29.95, the book is available from Amazon, from Foyles Bookshop in London and fromThiepval Visitor Centre and Arras Tourist Centre.

Lucy London

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Book Review: “Peterborough in the Great War (Your Towns and Cities in the Great War)” by Abigail Hamilton-Thompson (Pen and Sword, Barnsley, 2018)

Having been born and brought up in Peterborough, I suppose I am – like many other people – somewhat blasé about the various monuments, buildings and other areas of historical importance around my home town. “OK, it’s the cathedral… so that’s Norman Cross… well, that’s the Butter Cross…”.  I was therefore very pleased with my copy of “Peterborough in the Great War” which has told me a huge amount about the place that I lived in for a great many years and I have been astonished to discover many facts that were completely new to me.

The main shopping street in Peterborough was widened and re-built in the 1930s with many new buildings being constructed, so it is quite difficult to imagine what that area of the City had been like during the First World War.  Cathedral Square has been pedestrianised and no longer houses the produce and cattle markets as it did in the old days but many of the buildings remain and can be easily recognised in the wonderful photographs that are reproduced in the book.

I worked for the big City engineering company Baker Perkins at its Westwood works plant for some ten years and, while I was aware of its role in producing armaments during the Second World War, from stories related by the old timers who were still working there when I was there, I was completely ignorant of the fact that Baker Perkins also produced arms during the First World War – although as the whole country turned itself to producing munitions, it should not really have come as any great surprise.

One fact that completely astonished me,  however, was that at the start of the First World War, the company was actually called Werner Pfeiderer and Perkins and – like the British Royal Family – was forced to change its name due to anti-German feeling.

Although I knew vaguely about “bicycle battalions”, I never really appreciated the relevance of them.  However, bearing in mind the fact that motorised transportation was still comparatively rare in the run up to the First World War, and beyond the reach of many for cost reasons, it makes perfect sense that the use of a bicycle to travel around was a huge advantage over “Shank’s Pony” and therefore these local bicycle battalions would have been a very useful mobile unit to have.

While obviously concentrating on the City of Peterborough itself, the book also covers the outlying areas which once again a local lad might not necessarily have given much thought to – particularly bearing in mind that back in 1914 – 1918 the “Great North Road” would have been a much lesser road than the high-speed dual carriageway that it is today and as such places such as Wansford, Nassington and Stilton would have been comparatively far-flung locations compared to today when they take only a few minutes in the car to reach.

Edith Cavell – the famous British nursing heroine – was very well acknowledged in Peterborough when I was growing up and she had a new hospital named after her, as well as a floor in the Queensgate Shopping Centre’s multy storey car park.  Abigail Hamilton Thompson’s book goes into more detail about Cavell’s life and I was pleased to learn more about her time in Peterborough than I previously knew.  In her similarly fascinating pre-war prologue in the book, she also mentions Florence Saunders, who was the Dean of Peterborough Cathedral and did great humanitarian works around Victorian Peterborough.

For anybody interested in the First World War, this series of “Your Towns and Cities in the Great War” by Pen and Sword will be of great interest, as they cover many places that don’t get much of a mention in more generalised history.  I have discovered many things about my home town that I honestly did not know and the “Peterborough in the Great War” book has also helped me to look upon places and things that I did know about in a whole new light.  I would heartily recommend this book and the others in the series.

Paul Breeze, August 2019

Thursday, 15 August 2019

Frederick Bertram Bagshaw (1878 - 1966) - British-born Canadian writer, lawyer, politician and soldier


With thanks to Paul Breeze for this post

Merseyside-born Canadian lawyer, writer, politician and soldier Frederick Bertram Bagshaw was born on 15th August 1878 in Southport, Lancashire (Merseyside) to parents John and Mary Elizabeth Bagshaw, and was christened at Holy Trinity Church, Southport on 16th November 1878.

We don’t know what happened to his family but Frederick spent all of his childhood living at the children’s home at Edgeworth near Bolton and is listed on Census records as living there in 1881 (aged 2) and 1891 (aged 12). He appears to have crossed the Atlantic several times, probably due to his contacts at the Edgeworth Home, where the emphasis was on teaching the children useful skills and trades, then helping them find jobs and new lives in the developing countries of the British Empire.

In 1901, Frederick was living as a boarder in the house of Francis J. Bell in Macdonald, Portage la Prairie, Manitoba (Manitoba Census 1901) and from there somehow ended up in Regina, Saskatchewan as a barrister with the firm Anderson, Bagshaw, McNiven & Fraser, Barristers and Solicitors, located in the McCallum-Hill Building, Regina - as listed in the 1914 edition of “Who’s Who in Canada” (International Press Limited, 1914).

https://www.findmypast.co.uk/transcript?id=CAN/CENSUS/1901/00278575

Frederick was already a member of the 16th Light Horse Militia Regiment before the war.  When war broke out, the 16th Light Horse travelled to Camp Valcartier in Quebec, where Frederick was posted into the Canadian Expeditionary Force on 18th September 1914, now a member of the “Fighting Fifth” Battalion.   At the time of his enlistment, he gave his next of kin as Nellie Smith, Aunt, of Littlebourne Road, Southport, England.  Frederick served in France and Belgium and was wounded twice.

In 1915, he collaborated with two other Canadian soldiers and put together a publication called “A Christmas Garland From the Front – Fifth Battalion, First Canadian BEF, France and Belgium” published by G. Pulman & Sons, London.  This was a 96-page book of stories, poems and cartoons – initially published anonymously  - by members of the 5th Battalion that was sent home to family and friends as a type of Christmas and New Year’s greeting

Frederick wrote articles about the actions of the battalion over the course of the year and also included many of his own photos of people and places.

Another Regina man – William Maunsell Scanlan, who had been City Editor of the Regina Morning Leader newspaper before the war - contributed poems and Robert McGavin Eassie from Ontario produced jokes and parodies of well-known rhymes.

In 1917, Frederick was one of three men voted by the Saskatchewan soldiers serving in Belgium to represent them in the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly for a four-year term and he was allowed breaks from the Front to take up his seat.

After the war, Frederick became a prominent public figure in Saskatchewan.  From 1941 to 1945, he was enforcement counsel for the Wartime Prices and Trade Board. 

Frederick also worked with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and the Great War Veterans' Association. He was named to the Regina Library Board in 1941 and served for 21 years. He was a Police Magistrate from 1952 until 1958, when he retired.   Frederick was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE), and Bagshaw Place in Regina and a lake in northern Saskatchewan were named in his honour. Frederick Bertram Bagshaw died on 19th June 1966.

With thanks to Will Chabun for his help with this biography.  Long-time Regina journalist Will Chabun is a member of the Board of Directors of the Saskatchewan War Memorial.

Researched and written by Paul Breeze.