The First Day on the Somme

I’m about to embark on a tour of The Somme, taking with me this – a book by my postman’s uncle. Well, postwoman actually. And great-uncle, to be accurate.

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Martin Middlebrook is an icon among military historians, internationally renowned, award-winning and best-selling. He’s in his nineties now so the battlefield tours he once personally conducted no longer have him at the helm. But his mind is sharp and his interest in military history – and The Great War in particualar – is as sharp as ever.

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I have my postwoman to thank for all this information. A chance encounter on the doorstep as she delivered a letter, and an article in the local newspaper about my involvement in the CWGC Living Memory project led to one of those conversations you couldn’t, as an author, script for want of credibility.
‘Are you the same Tim Atkinson who was in the ‘paper last week,’ she began. I hadn’t actually seen the article myself and didn’t know it’d been published, but was aware that it was lined up. We had a brief conversation about the project, and about the local war graves, before she dropped the bombshell. ‘My uncle’s really keen on World War One,’ she said. ‘In fact, he’s written books about it.’

And that was that. The irony is that until relatively recently (six, seven years ago) Middlebrook actually lived in the same town as me (and the postie) – and a matter of a few hundred yards down the road, at that. He moved from the area to be nearer family, so the chance to meet the great man face-to-face never arose. Unless, of course, he comes to visit his great neice…

I’ll keep you post(i)ed!

ANZAC Day Centenary

100 years ago today the first ANZAC day was celebrated to honour the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZACs) who had the year before landed at Gallipoli at the start of the disastrous Dardanelles campaign – an attempt to capture Constantinople and force Turkey out of the war.

The landing and the bravery of the troops who fought there is sometimes said to have forged the national identity of both nations. ‘Australia was born on 25th April 1915’ may still be a common ANZAC myth.

Another is that of the ‘donkey man’, 202 Private John Simpson Kirkpatrick, a stretcher bearer with the 1st Australian Division. Following the landing at Anzac Cove Simpson commandeered a donkey – several, in fact – to help in the task of rescuing the wounded.

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He continued this odd journey under fire for over three weeks. until he himself was killed during the Third attack on Anzac Cove. His CO wrote that Simpson’s bravery under fire had been so frequent that it was ‘hard to pin down one act for which to award him the Vicoria Cross.’

So they didn’t bother.

A hero, nevertheless.

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The CWGC Living Memory Project

It can’t have escaped your notice that this year marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. That huge, wasteful diversionary tactic (the French were being ‘bled white’ at Verdun) which lasted 141 days and gained virtually nothing (unless, as Keegan says, you count the destroyed terrain which slowed the  German advance in Spring 1918) began 100 years ago this year.

Thousands of people will mark the occasion by going the the battlefields and visiting the cemeteries. There are plenty of them, on all sides. With over one million casualties, the Battle of the Somme has been called the bloodiest in human history.

But across the UK, in churchyards and municipal cemeteries, there are random war graves some of which are undoubtedly of men who fought – and in some cases were mortally wounded – on the Somme. There was no repatriation of bodies in World War One. These are the graves of the men who either survived that battle (lived to fight another day) or were wounded, invalided home and subsequently died of their injuries. Some, even, will be the tragic victims of the 1919 Influenza epidemic.

Who will visit their graves?

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is keen to make sure these men are not forgotten, as well as to gain wider recognition for all the UK’s war graves. They’re easy to identify. All servicemen (and women) who in military service who died between 4th August 1914 to 31st August 1921 were entitled (and their families strongly encouraged to accept) the iconic white Portland headstone.

Finding them can be a slightly harder proposition. They’re inevitably in the oldest, often overgrown, part of a large cemetery and unlike in France and Flanders (as well as further afield) they’re  not always grouped together. Here are a few I found in Boston Municipal Cemetery yesterday…

There are fifty-three first war graves in Boston cemetery. I have no idea whether any of them contains the remains of a Somme veteran. But with a little but of detective work, it should be possible to find out.

Watch this space!

Update

It’s just over two weeks since The Glorious Dead launched on Unbound. Since then, it’s made almost 10% of it’s funding target and attracted a huge amount of interest. But one question keeps recurring – what is crowdfunding and how does it work?

Well… it works by people pledging their support in advance – a bit like buying before the book gets written (in order to make sure it is). The great thing about this way of doing things is that readers get to choose what gets written, rather than wait and choose what someone else (usually the marketing department) has commissioned.

But what if it doesn’t get written, I hear you asking? Well, in that case you get your money back – but still have all the wonderful insights into the writing process and the inspiration and research via ‘The Shed’. But we’re not going to have defeatist talk like that. Oh no.

Unbound publishes the likes of Terry ‘He’s not the Messiah’ Jones and Raymond ‘Snowman’ Briggs (to name-drop but two) but I think it must be easier if you’ve already got an established public profile, like they have. Some books takes days to fund; others weeks and months. At the present rate, mine will be in the latter category, but hey – onwards and upwards!

The really great thing about crowdfunding from my point of view as an author is the opportunities it affords for interaction. I’ve already had some quite lengthy conversations (usually on Facebook) about the novel. People have been interested in my motivation, fascinated by the research, and amazed – as I was – that there has been so little written on this subject before.

Which brings us to the book. The Glorious Dead is the story of a group of soldiers who stay on after the Armistice, clearing the battlefields, burying the dead and slowly rebuilding their own lives. This is in fact what thousands of Allied troops did, not always voluntarily – although the Army did offer men an extra 2/6 a day to undertake such unpleasant duties.

Some men stayed on, after their demob, marrying local Belgian girls and establishing a small but significant English community in and around Ypres. Many of them were employed by the War Graves Commission, landscaping the cemeteries they themselves created and establishing the permanent memorials to the dead that today we know so well.

There are plenty of books on World War One. There are books on Ypres, The Somme, Gallipoli & Verdun but there has never been a war book quite like this one. With your support, this remarkable story can at last be written.

21 February 1916 – The Battle of Verdun begins

The longest single battle of the Great War began 100 years ago today, on February 21st 1916. The idea of the German Chief of Staff, General van Falkenheyn, the offensive was designed to ‘bleed France white’ by drawing more and more soldiers into the defence of a narrow range of forts regarded as being of supreme importance to French national pride and, hence, morale.

Verdun itself was part of a defensive network of supposedly impregnable forts built following the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. The narrow strip of land had been relatively quiet since the outbreak of hostilities. As a result, the first of the the forts to fall – the huge defensive pile of Douamont, considered to be among the largest in the world – was manned by just a small cadre of elderly retainers and soon succumbed to the enormous weight of the German attack.

But if that attack (the first to include the widespread use of flame throwers) did indeed lead to huge and barely sustainable French casualties, it also cost the Germans dearly. Three months into the campaign, at the end of April, French casualties stood at 133,000 – only slightly higher than the number of German dead which stood at 120,000.

But the battle still looked likely to destroy the French army, and in July – earlier, much earlier than Haig had wanted – the bloody and futile Battle of the Somme was launched further north as a diversionary tactic, with the aim of drawing German forces away from the increasingly static fighting around Verdun.

Ultimately, French resistance prevailed. Verdun did not fall, and the battle – which was ultimately to claim over half a million lives, petered out in December 1916.

Lest we forget.

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The Wipers Times

It’s 100 years almost to the day since the first issue of the now famous ‘Wipers Times’ came into being.

Amid the rubble and ruins on Ypres, Capt. Fred Roberts and Lt. Jack Pearson of the 12th Sherwood Foresters discovered a printing press. Their sergeant, a printer by trade, established that the press was working and the crazy idea of using it to produce a satirical trench newspaper was borne.

The organisation Visit Flanders has produced a series of films marking the centenary, the first of which features Capt Roberts grandson. Each film is introduced by Private Eye’s Ian HIslop and features extracts from an edition of the ‘paper.

You can watch the first film here:

Rifleman Valentine Joe Strudwick 5750

It’s 100 years ago this very day that perhaps one of the most poignant among the millions of Great War deaths occurred. Valentine Joe Strudwick was just 14 when he enlisted. He celebrated (secretly?) his fifteenth birthday whilst serving  and was killed on January 14th 1916, exactly a month before what would have been his sixteenth birthday.

His grave – marked with a cross and a stamped, tin inscription as it would still have been in 1919 – features in my novel, Known unto God. As the first battlefield tourists – and pilgrims – begin arriving, the men of the 5th Labour Company are given orders to escort a group of ex-VAD nurses round the Salient. It makes a change from digging graves, as one of them says.

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As the nurses pay their respects at Essex Farm cemetery they come across the grave of one of the youngest casualties of the war. And they can’t quite believe it:

Outside, the rest of the party has wandered back into the cemetery and is gathering round one of the larger, better built crosses.

‘The grave of Valentine Strudwick, ladies,’ Ocker is announcing. One of the nurses stares at the inscription, leaning closer to the tin plate on which the soldier’s details have been stamped:

5750 RIFLEMAN
V.J.STRUDWICK
8TH RIFLE BRIGADE
14 JANUARY 1916
AGE 15 

‘Surely this is a mistake?’ She steps back as if she’s just been stung.

‘No mistake, miss.’

‘But he was just…’

‘…a boy,’ someone else says softly.

‘I didn’t think that sort of thing…’

‘It was nae meant to,’ Mac says. ‘Especially not when there were some o’them old enough still at home and sucking at their mammy’s titties!’ Fuller looks down at the floor, and kicks a clod of earth.

‘But…’

‘Joined up when he was just a wee lad o’ fourteen. Had his last birthday out here in the Salient, before…’

The girls all bow their heads. Someone mouths a silent prayer. The French exhumation party walks past carrying a stretcher.

Strudwick enlisted in January 1915 in Lambeth, Surrey, shortly before his fifteenth birthday, having lied about his age. Assigned to the 8th Battalion Rifle Brigade (the Prince Consort´s Own) he landed in France on the 12th of August 1915. A little over a a year later he was dead, having been killed in action at Boezinge, not far from Ypres.

Today his grave is one of the most visited on the Western Front.

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Kipling and the CWGC

It’s not the first time in the short life of this blog that Kipling has merited a post. And it probably won’t be the last.

The story of Kipling’s war, the tragic loss of his son Jack and the family’s fruitless search for the boy’s body, is well known. Less well-known, perhaps, is Kipling’s tireless work for the fledgling Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission.

I confess, it was a story I wasn’t overly familiar with before researching my novel, Known unto God (in which Kipling makes a cameo appearance). I’d certainly not heard a broadcast from 2005, repeated recently on BBC Radio 4 Extra, in which Julian Barnes travels in France in Kipling’s post-war footsteps.

It’s a fascinating programme, the second of two. And they are both available now on BBC iPlayer for a further 28 days. Here’s a link to programme one: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0076vkh#play

And this is the link to the second programme: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0076vnz

Catch them while you can!

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First British Conscription Bill 1916

Britain had been fortunate, in most previous conflicts, to have relied on a relatively small, volunteer army. Together with the mighty British navy, this land force had been sufficient to conquer an empire. But by the end of 1914 after the First Battle of Ypres it had been virtually destroyed.

Volunteers, in the early stages of the war, were plentiful. But as the conflict dragged on, numbers dwindled. And casualties rose. It became obvious that drastic action was necessary, and so on January 5th 1916 the first British Conscription Bill was introduced in the House of Commons by the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith.

Initially the Act (which didn’t come into force until the following March) compelled all men between the ages of 18 and 41 to enlist, unless married, widowed with children, ministers of religion or occupied in any one of a range of industries deemed essential for the war effort. It was hoped that the measure would raise at least two million men.

But from the earliest days, conscription was opposed by pacifists and others who either refused to fight on principle or else rejected the notion of being forced to fight. In order to meet the army’s desperate need for manpower, two more conscription acts followed – one later in the same year adding married men to the draft, and a final one in 1918 extending the upper age limit to 51.

The right to appeal against the call up was enshrined in the Act, and local Military Service Tribunals heard objections from three quarters of a million men in the first six months alone. Many were granted an exemption, especially if their work was regarded as being vital to the war effort. 6,000 of those who objected on moral or religious grounds and who became known as conscientious objectors were jailed and a further 35 were sentenced to death for refusing to fight, although the punishments were immediately commuted to a 10 year prison sentence instead.

Britain’s centuries-ol tradition of voluntary service was at an end. The conscription acts of the Great War were only repealed in 1919. Twenty years later, at the outbreak of the Second World War, they were back in force and compulsory military service was to remain a part of British life until the 1960s.

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