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.

Gilbert Rogers (1881 – 1956) – British Artist

With thanks to Sally Enzer for use of her research material from 'Gilbert Rogers - A Life'.

Gilbert Rogers was born on 9th November 1881 in Freshfield, Lancashire, then a small
village some fourteen miles north of Liverpool. His father, William Rogers, was a watch
and clockmaker, whose family had migrated to Liverpool from North Wales in the 1840s.
Gilbert’s schooling began at the Liverpool Institute, a short distant from the family
home at 14 Falkner Street. Displaying early artistic talent he went on to study art at the
Liverpool City School of Art where he later became a tutor as well as working as a
professional portrait painter. He exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1909, 1910, 1912
and 1914.

He enlisted into the ranks of the Royal Army Medical Corps on 9th November 1915 (Army
No. 78529) for Home Service and was sent to Eastbourne for his military and medical
training. He eventually became an instructor at the RAMC officer training school at
Blackpool.

In 1918 he was called upon to manage a small group of RAMC soldier-artists who had
been commissioned by the Committee for the Medical History of the War to record the
war work of the military and civilian medical services (including the British Red Cross
Society & Order of St John of Jerusalem & the Voluntary Aid Detachment) both at home
and abroad. Rogers travelled to the Western Front in July 1918. The artists worked from
the Avenue Studios, located off Fulham Road in London, and were provided with art
materials, props and staff to assist them. In total they produced some six hundred pieces
of work which included paintings, models and bronzes. He was commissioned as a
Temporary Lieutenant for this role and received the Military MBE in the Peace Gazette of
June 1919. These artworks formed the Medical Section of the Great War Exhibition
which opened on the 9th June 1920 at the newly-established Imperial War Museum at
Crystal Palace, Sydenham Hill. The art works were later distributed to various military
establishments and can now be found at both the Imperial War Museum and the
Wellcome Collection in London.

After demobilisation in April 1920 Gilbert Rogers returned to Liverpool and became a
director of his younger brother’s furniture manufacturing and upholstery company, Guy
Rogers, Ltd. It was a popular local employer and the brothers were a respected and
successful partnership.

In 1922 Rogers became President of the Artists’ Club, a long-established gentlemen’s
business and social club, and maintained close links with the Liverpool artists community,
although there is no evidence that he continued his work as a portrait painter.

In 1924 he married Gertrude Jane Iceton in 1924, the former wife of his friend and art
school tutor, Arthur Baxter. The couple moved out of Liverpool and set up home on the
Wirral Peninsula, where Gilbert Rogers died on 20th May 1956 at their home in Oxton.

A number of Gilbert Rogers’ war-time oil paintings have been included in exhibitions
across the country to commemorate the centenary of the Great War, which has brought
renewed interest in this previously largely uncelebrated.

Sally Enzer <enzersally@gmail.com>

Book Review “Supplying the British Army in the First World War” Janet MacDonald (Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2019)

This is a remarkable and extremely important book.  I have read many books about WW1 over the years but this is the first time I have come across so much detail about the supplies and logistics involved that were vital to the success of the British and Allied armies involved in the conflict.

It is hard for those of us brought up with the Internet, satellite communication, mobile phones, apps, television and radio programes, global travel with roll-on roll-off ferry boats, jumbo jets and so on, to imagine what life was like in Europe in 1914 when none of those facilities existed. “Supplying the British Army in the First World War” is a real eye-opener and will definitely set you on the right track to a greater understanding of the problems encountered during the conflict.

The book highlights the problems involved in getting all manner of supplies to the British and Allied armies in the various theatres of The First World War - and what a headache that caused!   Information is clearly set out in two sections – I. The Western Front and II Beyond the Western Front.

The first section has 12 chapters dealing with Money, Control and Contracts; Supply Depots; Horses; Animal Transport; Mechanised Transport; Railways, Inland Water Transport and Docks; Munitions; Engineering; Food and Drink; Uniforms and Other Supplies; Medicine and Other Supply Activities.

Janet MacDonald’s painstaking and extensive research is truly amazing and there is so much detailed information in the book that it is extremely difficult to pick out just a few snippets for a review.  For instance, I never realised that horses were sent to Gallipoli or that supplies were transported separately to the transport of troops. It is incredible just how much building work had to be undertaken in France in order to unload, store and get all manner of supplies to the front lines.

Another thing I never thought much about was how getting private letters and parcels to the fighting troops was organised: “In the first week of October 1914 1,616 bags of letters, 8,249 registered letters and 8,249 parcels were sent to the Western Front.  Four years later, in the first week of October 1918, those numbers were 44,648 bags of letters, 118,121 registered letters and 479,667 parcels.  By the first week of April 1919 there were still 30,816 bags of letters, 36,268 registered letters and 202,951 parcels.” (p. 116)

Section Two has chapters on supplying Gallipoli, Salonika, Egypt, Palestine, Mesopotamia, East Africa, Italy and Russia - the other theatres of conflict during The First World War.  There is a section containing photographs, a Glossary, an Appendix with information about Weights and Measures, a Bibliography and a comprehensive index.

I would suggest that anyone studying WW1, as well as anyone with an interest in the conflict, really needs to read this book because, otherwise, it is impossible to understand the problems encountered by those in the front line.   If Janet MacDonald has not received an award for this book, to my mind, that should be put right at once.

"Supplying the British Army in the First World War” Janet MacDonald (Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2019). For further information please visit the Pen & Sword website https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/


Lucy London, August 2019

Monday, 24 June 2019

Erskine Childers, DSC (1870 – 1922) – British writer, soldier, RNAS/RAF

Best remembered for his novel “The Riddle of the Sands” (1903), Robert Erskine Childers was born on 25th June 1870 in Mayfiar in London, UK.   His parents were Robert Caesar Childers, the Oriental scholar and civil servant, and his wife, Anna Mary Henrietta Childers, nee Barton, who was Irish from Wicklow.  Erskine’s cousin, Hugh Childers, was a member of the British government who advocated home rule for Ireland.

Educate4d at Hailebury College, Hertfordshire, which was founded to train boys for Colonial service in India, Erskine went on to study classics and law at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he also played rubgy and rowed.    Erskine was slightly injured while hill walking and from then on he walked with a limp and this led to him taking up sailing.

When the Second Boer War broke out, Erskine joined the City of London Imperial Volunteers, an Artillery Regiment, which was funded by institutions of the City of London.  Erskine’s unit sailed for South Africa in February 1900.  That August, suffering from Trench Foot, he was sent to hospital in Pretoria, during which time he came into contact with some wounded infantry soldiers from Ireland and was impressed by their loyalty to Britain. 

During an exchange visit of the Honourable Artillery Company of London to the Ancient and Honourable Artillery Company of Massachusetts in Boston in America, Erskine hired a motorbike to explore.  While there, he broke down and by chance met Mary Aiden Osgood, known as “Molly”, daughter of Dr. Hamilton Osgood, a Boston doctor.  Erskine and Molly were married on 5th January 1904 in Trinity Church, Boston.  On their return to London, the couple lived in Chelsea.

In July 1914, Erskine helped to smuggle guns from Germany to Irish Nationalists.

In August 1914, Erskine volunteered for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and was granted a temporary commission as a Second Lieutenant.  He was posted to “HMS Engadine”, a seaplane carrier, and flew as a navigator and observer.   Erskine took part in a raid on Cuxhaven airship base on Christmas Day 1914 and was Mentioned in Despatches.

In 1915, he was posted to  “HMS Ben-myChree” and served during the Gallipoli Campaign and in the Mediterranean.   For bravery during these Campaigns, Erskine was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Erskine returned to Britain in April 1916 and worked at the Admiralty, allocating seaplanes to ships.  He then began training for a new coastal motor boat squadron for service in the English Channel.   In July 1917, he was assigned to the Secretariat of Lloyd George’s Home Rule Convention, based in Dublin.

Appointed as Director of Publicity for the first Irish Parliament in 1919, Erskine wrote and published “Military Rule in Ireland” attacking the British government’s Irish policy.   He stood as a Sinn Fein candidate in the June 1922 general election in Ireland.   He was arrested in November 1922 and court martialled on a charge of posssessing a semi automatic pistol in violation of the Emergency Powers Resolution.  Erskine was tried, found guilty and executed by firing squad on 24th November 1922.  He was buried Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin, Ireland.


Sources:  “In the Ranks of the C.I.V.” (Smith, Elder, London 1900) and various Internet sources.