WW1 Centenary

Great War Centenary 2014-2018 website by Paul Reed


Leave a comment

New WW1 Unit Histories from Pen & Sword

12866Cambridgeshire Kitcheners by Joana Costin
(Pen & Sword Books 2017, ISBN 978 1 47386 900 4, 320pp, illustrated, hardback, £25.00)

The 11th Battalion Suffolk Regiment was a Kitchener’s Army battalion formed in 1914 known as the Cambridgeshire Battalion. It went to France in 1916 as part of the 34th Division and was annihilated in the attack near La Boisselle on 1st July 1916. Rebuilt, it went on to fight at Arras and Ypres, and in the final battles of 1918.

This new book tells their story in an interesting and engaging way. It focusses heavily on the original battalion from their training to destruction, with a fascinating chapter on the men who became casualties on the first day of the Somme. It then takes up the later study and follows the battalion through to wars end. Throughout the book there are good illustrations with lots of portraits of men who served with the 11th Suffolks.

This is an excellent and worthwhile addition to our knowledge of a Pals battalion in the Great War and is highly recommended. It can be purchased from the Pen & Sword website.

13544The Manchester Bantams by Caroline Scott
(Pen & Sword Books 2017, ISBN 978 1 78346 389 3, 351pp, illustrated, hardback, £30.00)

One of the lesser known aspects of the British Army in the Great War are the raising of ‘Bantam’ Battalions comprised of men between 5ft and 5ft3 in height, well below the normal level acceptable for army enlistments. The 23rd Manchesters was one such unit in the 35th Division, comprised entirely of these Bantam Battalions.

The battalion fought in some of the toughest battles on the Western Front and the book uses source material well to weave a fascinating tale, well illustrated with contemporary images. It’s a very readable book, and a worthy memorial to these lads from Manchester. Again, highly recommended and another excellent volume in the unit histories currently being published by Pen & Sword.

The book is available from the Pen & Sword website.


Leave a comment

CWGC: Remember War Dead in the UK

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission have launched a new appeal to the British public to remember the dead buried in more than 12,000 locations across the United Kingdom during the 141 days of the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme. In doing so they have teamed up with British actor, Hugh Dennis, who has a personal interest in the Great War.

The CWGC state on their website:

The CWGC Living Memory Project aims to encourage UK community groups to discover, explore and remember the war grave heritage on their doorstep. The CWGC is looking for 141 UK groups, to hold 141 events, to mark the 141 days of the Somme offensive.

Hugh Dennis, Living Memory ambassador for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, said: “I have a very personal connection with the First World War as both my grandfathers fought at the Western Front. My great uncles also fought and one, my great uncle Frank, died and is commemorated by the CWGC in Gallipoli, Turkey.

“I’d urge everyone to get involved in this initiative so we never forget those who died during the Great War and are buried and commemorated so close to us on the home front.”

The idea is to encourage groups to research and find Somme casualties buried in UK cemeteries and remember them as part of the centenary. CWGC are offering help, resources and some funding as part of the project. Any community group interested in participating in the project can register now by emailing livingmemory@cwgc.org or visiting www.cwgc.org/livingmemory.

This is a really excellent idea and superb project from CWGC and I look forward to reading about some of the results of it during the Somme100 period.


Leave a comment

Book Review: Black Tommies

The story of Black Afro-Caribbean soldiers in the Great War is an often neglected aspect of the conflict: many people know about Walter Tull the professional footballer who became an officer in 1917, but Tull was one of thousands of Black men who served in Khaki.

40914_originalA new book by Ray Costillo helps bridge this gap in our knowledge: Black Tommies: British Soldiers of African Descent in the First World War (Liverpool University Press 2015, ISBN 978 1 78138 019 2, 216pp, paperback, £14.99). The book examines the general subject of Black soldiers in the British Army and the Black presence in Britain in 1914. It then moves on to look at the volunteers who joined in 1914, how conscription affected the Black community, and the wider aspect of the use of Black men in Commonwealth armies during the conflict. The book rightly states that Black soldiers in the British Army was nothing new: Black men had fought at the Battle of Waterloo for example, but it had been forgotten by 1914 and the soldiers who entered the army during WW1 faced a wide range of prejudice and misconception. Walter Tull features in the book but it rightly points out that despite popular belief he was far from the only Black officer, and not even the first. This is a well researched and written title on a forgotten part of the Great War and is highly recommended.


Leave a comment

New Arras Books From Pen & Sword

The Battle of Arras is among one of the more neglected Great War battles and campaigns; while the Somme and Flanders have been swamped with publications, the number of books about Arras can be counted on one hand, so it is good to see Pen & Sword release some new titles in the approach to the 2017 centenary.

11580Peter Hughes’ Visiting The Fallen: Arras South (Pen & Sword 2016, ISBN 978 1 47382 558 1, 335pp, hardback, £25.00) is the second volume in his study of the Great War cemeteries around Arras. This volume looks at the south-south-east area of the battlefield taking in the many small battlefield cemeteries in this area, many of which are well off the beaten track. For each cemetery there is normally some background to the burial ground then the author has selected a number of men buried there who are particularly interesting. Using their stories the book essentially retells the Battle of Arras through the men who fell there. It is a very useful book for visiting the ground and while it is more reference than a good read, it is well put together and superbly researched.

11845Peter Hughes’ latest work is to complete the two books on Arras North and South looking at the cemeteries, by devoting this one to the memorials to the missing that cover the area. Visiting The Fallen: Arras Memorials (Pen & Sword 2016, ISBN 978 1 47382 557 4, 262pp, hardback, £25.00) looks are four of the massive memorials to the missing: the Arras Memorial, the Arras Flying Services Memorial, the Vimy Memorial and the Vis-en-Artois Memorial. The background and history of each memorial is explained and then by regiment and corps particular soldiers of interest are listed with their stories. Again, an excellent piece of research with many fascinating stories told for the first time, but I was surprised that the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial was not included as this includes Australian dead from Bullecourt and the early advance to the Hindenburg Line; a curious omission but it does not spoil an otherwise excellent work.

12180It is not often that books on trains in the Great War are published, or indeed that I read them, but Martin J.B. & Joan S. Fairbrother’s Narrow Gauge In The Arras Sector (Pen & Sword 2015, ISBN 978 1 47382 118 2, 274pp, large format hardback, £30.00) is an excellent addition to our knowledge of the war at Arras. The Great War not just about bullets and bayonets, it was a war where the winner was the one who master logistics and the British use of trains was all part of the Allied Victory in 1918. The book looks in detail at the railway structure pre-1914 and then how it was expanded and adapted during the war. It is profusely illustrated with many rare images. The numerous excellent network maps show how extensive the use was by 1918. A fascinating ‘Things To See and Do Now’ chapter is also included which helps the battlefield visitor find some most unusual sites, not normally considered. A most unusual and superbly researched book for both the railway and Great War buff.


2 Comments

Lowther’s Lambs Go To War

11 Bn Witley 1916

A century ago this weekend the men of the 11th, 12th and 13th (South Downs) Battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment were on their way to France, finally about to begin their active service. They were part of the final wave of Kitchener’s Army making its way to the Western Front and for many men it had been a frustrating wait to do their ‘bit’ since enlisting in September 1914 in some cases. Raised by Lieutenant Claude Lowether MP they had been known locally in Sussex as ‘Lowther’s Lambs’ and were the Sussex equivalent of Pals battalions: the more than 3,000 men in the battalions represented almost every village and town in Sussex.

Lance Corporal Bob Short, of the 11th Battalion, recalled the reaction to being told that ‘this was it’:

“… Colonel Grisewood called the men on parade and told us we were going to France. Everyone cheered. This was it; we were finally at war!”

First to board their ship were the 11th Battalion, on S.S. ‘Viper’, and Lance Corporal Bob Short remembered being handed some tea in his Dixie as he mounted the steps up onto the ship. Meanwhile, the 13th Battalion were kept hanging around as Private Albert Banfield, from Hove, recalled:

“  The train ran right up to the quay. We got into  a large shed, where [there] was a canteen; here we could obtain hot coffee… and as we did not have to embark until 5.30pm we were at liberty to walk about the Docks.

There were two large Union Castle liners in the Dock, converted into Red Cross ships, having large red crosses painted on the sides and funnels. We also saw an armed merchantman, with several big guns.

About 5.30pm, we marched aboard and were taken down into the hold, which was low pitched, having fixed tables and forms. I did not stay there long – it seemed rather stuffy, so went on deck and had my last look at England. It was rather misty in the dusk, and I naturally wondered when and under what conditions I shall see it again.”

Researching the South Downs battalions have occupied more than thirty years of my time now; back in the 1980s I interviewed the last remaining veterans, Bob Short and Bert Banfield quoted here for example, and spent thousands of hours in archives and on the battlefields following their long war.

This year is not only the centenary of their active service but also their destruction at Richebourg on 30th June 1916 and on the Somme; thirty years ago in 1986 I self-published a little booklet about them, now long out of print, and for the centenary will be doing the digital version and release an e-book entitled ‘From Sussex to the Somme’. More details of this soon.


1 Comment

Book Review: Flo of the Somme

51Lz9TSXRXL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_Flo of the Somme

by Hilary Robinson & Martin Impey (Strauss House 2015, ISBN 978 0 9571245 7 8)

This is the third children’s book with a Great War theme produced by Hilary Robinson and Martin Impey. It follows the story of stretcher bearer Ray and his dog Flo, who along with a little donkey go out to seek wounded on the High Wood battlefield during the Somme campaign in July 1916. That the book is set in a real framework, in a real time and space, makes it all the more engaging and remarkable.

Flo of the Somme is an absolutely stunning book: beautiful illustrations and a moving story told in a simple, meaningful way. The history of children’s literature tells us that young people are fascinated by stories of animals: and through the pages of this new book they will see the First World War in a very different way. I hope one day that it might inspire them to stand at Crucifix Corner, depicted in the book, look towards the dark mass of High Wood and imagine Flo there with them, and remember the millions of animals who were there because ‘they had no choice’.

Essential reading for young and old; and it will be the old, like me, who will no doubt shed a few tears over its pages.

The book is available from the publisher’s website.


Leave a comment

Book Review: The Leeds Pals

11548Leeds Pals by Laurie Milner

(Pen & Sword 2015, ISBN 9781473841819, 410pp, profusely illustrated, hardback, £30,00)

The Leeds Pals were the 15th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment. Raised in Leeds in September 1914 their long war first took then to Egypt to defend the Suez Canal and from there to the Western Front. On 1st July 1916, the first day of the Somme, they were annihilated in the attack on Serre. But despite these heavy losses, they later served at Arras in 1917 and in the German offensives of early 1918, ending their war in Flanders. By the end of the war the battalion had suffered over 3,300 casualties.

This superb book was first published in 1991 in the then large format ‘Pals’ series by the Barnsley Chronicle. This new edition is a substantial hardback but still retains the profusion of excellent illustrations as well as a sound, and easily readable text. There are also useful appendices with a nominal roll, casualty lists, names of those taken prisoner and information on gallantry awards. As such it will be of great interest to family historians as well as those fascinated by the story of the Pals in the Great War.

Laurie Milner’s book is a classic account of the men from Yorkshire whose war was two years in the making and ten minutes in the destruction at Serre on that terrible day in 1916, and it also gives us a wider understanding of how a battalion formed like this managed to sustain the whole war. Highly recommended.

The book can be purchased from the Pen & Sword website.