Haus Publishing paperback, London, 2013
ISBN 978-1-908323-11-8, 216pp, illustrations
One of the less palatable aspects of Britain at war during 1914-18 was the treatment of enemy aliens, whether naturalised or not. There were at the outbreak of war a significant number of Germans domiciled in the country, and those who had not been naturalised were severely restricted in their movements and some even put in internment camps. Public suspicion also spread to those who had become British and were in the highest echelons of society. Thus, Earl Mountbatten's father, Prince Louis of Battenberg, a cousin of the King, was forced to relinquish his position as First Sea Lord. Another was the prominent banker Sir Edgar Speyer, well known in his day but now virtually unheard of. Thanks to Professor Antony Lentin, his case is now brought into the limelight once more.
The Speyers were one of the great German Jewish banking families and had establishments in Frankfurt, London and New York. That in London was run by Sir Edgar, who became a naturalised British citizen in 1894. Once of his greatest claims to fame was financing the electrification of the London Underground. He also did much to get the Proms established and was a noteworthy philanthropist. His contributions to his adopted country were recognised by a baronetcy and being made one of His Majesty's Privy Councillors. Yet, in spite of his standing, he became the subject of attack almost immediately after the outbreak of war, especially by Conservative politicians and newspapers.
His close friendship with Prime Minister Herbert Asquith protected him, to an extent, for a time, as did his own stoicism. But the sinking of Lusitania caused a further frenzy of anti-German feeling. Speyer felt forced to withdraw to the USA, where his pro-German brother was making no secret of his political sympathies. This did little for Speyer's cause back in Britain and neither did the fall of Asquith's Liberal government.
The Conservatives enjoyed increased political influence under Lloyd George and the immediate aftermath of the war brought about a mood of 'Hang the Kaiser' and renewed German hostility. A new Aliens Act was enacted and a committee of enquiry was established, to which Sir Edgar was subject. He came back to Britain to face it in person and was found guilty of treacherous behaviour. He lost his British citizenship and was stripped of his knighthood and Privy Councillorship, both of which he had earlier twice offered to surrender voluntarily. He returned to the USA never to set foot in Britain again.
Professor Lentin has researched deeply and produced a very lucid account of this sorry but very illuminating saga. He is careful not to make a final judgement, but there is no doubt as to where his sympathies lie.
Reviewed by Charles Messenger
Author: Melanie King
ISBN: 978 1 85124 260 3
Publisher: Bodleian Library, 2014, 102 pages
Maps are not included however the book is illustrated with 20 black and white cartoons. Spying is, however, complex and illustrations and diagrams would have been useful for the general reader.
For the Western Front specialist it should be noted that this book covers the Great War as a whole. It has large sections on, for example, the Eastern Front.
The work is thematically arranged with nine chapters covering the conflict, together with an introduction; a glossary; notes and references and a useful biographies section of the eight writers of the contemporary material upon which Ms King bases her book.
Use of sub-headings within chapters to allow rapid access to specific aspects of the subject and an index would have been useful additions.
In contrast to most aspects of conflict about which participants can comment freely after a war, espionage is an area where secrecy prevails. A writer is in effect precluded from revelations, which could endanger former colleagues or reveal to the high command of former enemies - or the high commands of former allies.
The anecdotes told in this book are all taken from eight memoirs, which are held in Oxford University's Bodleian Library. This book draws together these first-hand experiences of the inventive; ingenious and amusing methods of espionage used during the Great War. The effect is gripping and readable insight into the methods used for concealing secrets in the conflict and for spying on the enemies. The spies are from agents from Germany; Russia; America and from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Methods used by First World War spies
The agents use methods which range from exchanging messages concealed in clothing and the eponymous dead fish to sending messages by means of a toothpick. One of the best-known methods used by the USA was by use of trench telephones using speakers of indigenous American Indian languages. These included Navajo and Choctaw and Cherokee.
In Britain, agents used advertisements in The Times. The dull routine task of checking the numbers of train arrivals and departures was vital. When the Germans increasingly used trains to transport troops and war supplies this dull routine successfully and usefully forecast a planned attack.
Spies needed to contact each other anonymously. Henry Landau's octopus system was one of the methods successfully used, in which the body of the octopus represented a central mailbox for a group of agents represented by the tentacles.
Some of the methods seem surprisingly simple. Leaving a message in a newspaper, which was then picked up by the spy's contact must in fact have been dangerous for both parties. Using invisible ink messages on a train dining car tablecloth must have exposed both writer and reader who followed the writer at the same seat to major risk of detection.
Secret codes and the use of disguises seem to have been extensively used by the secret operatives featured in this book. False paper, including fake passports seem to have been readily available and presumably effectively fooled the enemy officials whose duty it was to check them.
High-tech spying developments at the time included the use of sound analysis to pin point the source of artillery fire and thus allow attempts to destroy it. Similarly the Germans developed a system called Muritz, which enabled them to listen in to British field telephones. Both sides attempted to use deception in their use of such devices.
The use of what we would subsequently call wire tapping also began in this period.
Both sides extensively used interviews with POWs. Fake deserters were put among genuine POWs to encourage revealing comments to be made. These interviews were usually made on an empty stomach and in the POW's own language.
My wife's family provided carrier pigeons and homing pigeons; large quantities were used successfully throughout the war. Refugees were also a widely used source of information. The German intelligence agencies used children to mix among refugees and spread disinformation. Unexploded German shells were studied to assess the state of production in German munitions factories.
Perhaps the most famous spy of the whole war was Marter Hari. She was a Dutch exotic dancer whose real name was Margaret Zeller. She has acquired a mystique that has attracted much fiction around her. The book devoted a whole chapter the female spies, Edith Cavell, who was shot as a British spy being one of them. Another who faced the firing squad was Gabrielle Petit. All three are said to have died "without a tremor".
A German spy operating as a fortuneteller and beauty parlour operator off Bond Street was said to tempt the wives and sweethearts of soldiers in the hope of gleaning information.
Women used as "illuminates" to befriend the wives and female companions of the spy's target were often well paid to obtain details which could be used to blackmail the target.
Some of the tools are well known to most WFA members. Master keys, which work in multiple locks and are sometimes called skeleton keys, were used by both sides. A human hair stretched across the opening of a document case to show by its removal that the case had been opened.
The hollowed out heal of a show – which was used recently in an attempted plane attack – or the hollowed button were both used. In the early part of the conflict a walking stick with the top removed; a section hollowed out and the top skillfully refitted worked, but this became known widely and was not much used afterwards.
Wigs; watches and garments all offered opportunities for the concealment of messages and other secret material. Similarly hats and neckties were used. Personal toiletries and even toothbrushes and tobacco pouches and pipes were all used. The last offered an opportunity to destroy the message by igniting and smoking the pipe and thus burning the incrementing material.
Perhaps the method which most affected the general public in all the combatant countries – and so is perhaps the best known of all spy details – is the reading and censoring of vast amounts of correspondence. Some of this was fruitful and intercepts and sometimes modifications to mislead the enemy were carried out.
The cigar seller who sent messages to his "head office" ordering different sizes of cigar was successful for some time. However it was eventually realised that the number of thousands of large cigars corresponded to the number of battleships in harbour. The other sizes gave similar information for different classes of ship.
A huge array of different kinds of invisible inks was used. These ranged from lemon juice (which can be red if heated to sophisticated chemical materials) saliva, dilute milk, sugar of lead, nitrite of nickel, bromide of copper and sulfuric acid all had their uses and produced different colours when they were revealed. (Original names have been kept for chemicals). Garments soaked in a solution of such chemicals were sent to spies to supply the invisible ink. The garments then had to be soaked in water to release the invisible ink.
Material was also supplied in perfume or medical packs to try to avoid detection.
Codes and ciphers
The work of Bletchley House is well known in the Second World War, but similar code-breaking activities were used in Word War One. One spy used to write to an address in Nederland talking of the number of birds in their area. The numbers actually told of the number of zeppelin raids which successfully reached London.
Newspaper ads or items in the Personal Columns serve similar purposes. Messages concealed under stamps were frequently tried and sometimes detected.
The book's title relates to messages inside dead fish being floated in streams across borders.
Windmill sails set at particular angles; fields ploughed in careful ways and even washing on lines could all carry secret messages, visible from aircraft.
This is a very readable little book which recalls spying in an age before our digital word of today.
Reviewed by Keith F Lainton
Pen & Sword, 2014
£25.00 hbk 328pp ISBN: 978-178340-052-2
On 16 June 1915, Allenby's 5th Corps of Plumer's Second Army carried out a one-day attack on the Bellewaarde Ridge, east of Ypres. The author believes that the attack demonstrated the strengths and weaknesses of the British Army of the time, and failed for two reasons: the total lack of communications from the attacking troops to and from their commanders, and the high number of officer casualties, both in the attack and in the preceding months, that led to problems of leadership and control in an army sent to a major war too small and ill-equipped. What was achieved was due to sound planning and the "tenacity and sheer bloody mindedness of the British soldier".
The book is very detailed, under-pinned by what must have been enormous research work by the author and by Martin Clift and his www.bellewaarde1915.co.uk website. Mrs McEntee-Taylor, author of other military histories, begins with separate chapters that take up just under half the book on the story in the preceding months and years of each of the individual British units and formations that played a substantial part in the battle. The account of the battle itself takes up around a fifth of the work, and after a 25 page summing up, 120 pages list in detail the individuals, British and German, who fell. The book is as much a memorial to all who fought in the battle as a history of it.
From the very start, the author combines vivid reporting using extensive quotation with convincing analysis. She introduces themes of the losses of trained officers and men and the shortage of shells early on. There are detailed if small biographies of the major commanders.
The account of the battle is richly detailed and quotes from many individual accounts of participants and of their units. This can make discerning the wood as opposed to the trees somewhat difficult, and is perhaps exacerbated by the placing and clarity of the numerous sketch maps provided.
This is an excellent memorial and work of reference that will be of use for a long time to come. The author's royalties are to go to The Bellewaarde 1915 Memorial Fund.
Reviewed by Peter Cox
Pen and Sword, 1994 (2014 reprint). Originally published in 1920 by Hutchinson
£12.99 pbk 212pp ISBN 978-1-78346-180-6
Hesketh Vernon Hesketh-Prichard, DSO, MC, was 37 years old when the Great War broke out. He was already a well-known author of travel books and novels, some subsequently turned into films or plays, cricketer (a bowler for Hampshire and the MCC), explorer, big-game hunter (writing vivid accounts of his adventures in national newspapers) and marksman (the best rifle shot in the world, said some).
Hesketh-Prichard obtained a commission on the outbreak of war as an assistant press officer at the War Office, and in 1915 was sent to the Front as an overseer of war correspondents. He soon became aware of the lamentable state of British sniping and of the poor equipment and protection used by the snipers. He became the sniping expert to Sir Charles Monro's Third Army and was chosen in 1916 to give structure to the training of snipers via the First Army School of Scouting, Observation and Sniping. He immediately set out to greatly improve the equipment in use.
Among his introductions were much improved rifle sights, heavier armour plates for his double loopholes, irregularly shaped parapet tops to disguise snipers and dummy heads, which when pierced by a German bullet could reveal the whereabouts of the enemy sniper. By late 1916 he was said to have reversed the ascendancy in sniping in favour of the British, and to have saved the lives of perhaps 3,500 British snipers by reducing their loss rate.
His book was published two years after the War and was written by a man well-used to writing as a journalist, in a very readable style, filled with anecdotes and fascinating detail. There are over 40 pages of detailed appendices on the training and use of snipers. Hesketh-Prichard covers his early days instructing XI Corps, and then later times at First Army. The book is aided by illustrations by Ernest Blaikley, "Artist's Rifles and lately a Sergeant-Instructor at the school", and has many instructive photographs.
Hesketh-Prichard fell ill in 1917 and never really recovered. He died in 1922 of blood poisoning, possibly the delayed result of bouts of malaria.
Reviewed by Peter Cox
Bodley Head, London, 2014
368 pages ISBN 9781847921659
There can be no one better qualified than Jerry White to write a 'biography' of London during the First World War. A former Chief Executive of Hackney Council he has written half a dozen books about the capital including a trilogy charting the history of the modern city from 1700 to 2000.
He makes use of a wide range of both primary and secondary sources and is particularly indebted to former Times journalist Michael Donagh's In London During the Great War a lively and informative account that surely merits a reprint of its own.
The title of the book comes from a fantasy novel written during the war by Violet Hunt and Ford Maddox Ford and the fear and reality of air raids features prominently. It seems extraordinary to us that until mid-1917 the government refused to allow any warning of air raids to be given as they thought they would cause unnecessary panic. The government's main advisor on this was Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Edward Henry, one of the least distinguished people to have fulfilled this role and whose ineptitude prompted his own force to strike in 1918 leading to his own resignation. The final death toll in air raids was 668 a figure that paled into insignificance compared with the 30,000 in World War Two but also with the autumn of 1918 when more than 1,000 Londoners a week were succumbing to the 'Spanish Flu'.
White is exemplary in documenting the social, political and economic changes that four years of war brought to London and the book is peppered with fascinating titbits such as the fact that cinema attendances tripled during the war and that its manufacturing economy moved westwards. His conclusions are that the war was something of a watershed if not, in Arthur Marwick's phrase, a 'deluge'. It changed the lives of millions of Londoners: women who no longer saw domestic service as their only choice of work; paupers for whom a more enlightened poor-law authority rejected the workhouse and workers who joined trades unions and the Labour Party.
One of the most obvious changes was the influx of women into jobs previously the sole preserve of men. The South Metropolitan Gas Company employed 2,000 women with housewives reportedly very pleased with the result as the women were 'neater, quieter and quicker than the men.' Though many such jobs were relinquished with the coming of peace in others, office work in the City for example, these were long-term changes to a feminized work force.
White is unstinting in revealing the less savoury aspects of wartime nationalism such as the morally dubious aspects of DORA (the Defence of the Realm Act) and attacks on German families and businesses which sowed the seeds of racially motivated discontent that lasted through the 1930s to the 1970s and beyond.
But there were many positive impacts as well, brought on chiefly by the dramatic falls in unemployment and short-time working and rises in wages for those at the bottom end of society. 'The Salvation Army night hostels for homeless men and women emptied as if by sorcery' and between 1913 and 1918 the proportion of 'poorly nourished' schoolchildren halved. For those who doubt the link between poverty and crime, the prison population fell by 63 percent. As such White's book is a rebuttal to those who view the war as a disaster for Britain. Nothing can redeem the immense grief at the loss of 750,000 combatants but life on the home front was not entirely grim as, for example, suggested in van Emden and Humphries All Quiet on the Home Front. Though diminishing food supplies caused a rash of queuing the introduction of rationing 'proved an astonishing success' and 'overnight the queues began dramatically to disappear'. As White points out, for many, the war was a time of greater prosperity and 'most munitionettes seem to have had the time of their lives.'
White's careful research also corrects other distortions such as the idea that conscientious objectors were dealt with with maximum hostility and minimum understanding. Instead the picture was far more varied and 'war dissenters received a measured if rarely sympathetic hearing' with efforts made to find alternative employment for all but the 'die hard' absolutists.
There are inevitably a few errors or misconceptions. In drawing attention to the criticism levelled at football for not ceasing league matches and comparing their reaction to that of rugby and hockey he fails to note that the former was a professional sport and the clubs had legally binding contracts with their players in contrast to purely amateur games. White underestimates the numbers of Belgian Refugees by relying solely on contemporary figures and, though the Bill to extended conscription to Ireland was passed in April 1918, it was never enforced.
These are, however, minor quibbles. Overall Zeppelin Nights is an outstanding contribution to the literature of the war and is likely to remain the definitive account of the London of 1914-18 for some considerable time.
Reviewed by Peter Grant
New Island, Dublin, 2014, £9.99, photos, 164pp.
This is an interesting book which I would buy with my own money and it would not break the bank. It deals with events of March 1914 in the midst of the Home Rule crisis in Ireland and can easily be read in an afternoon. The subject matter is British army officers stationed at the Curragh camp who refused to obey potential orders to march against Unionists who were primarily, but not exclusively, in Ulster. It was to all intents and purposes an army mutiny, though it is now often described rather effetely as an "incident". Surely the British army refusing to obey orders a mere five months before Mons is a bit more than a mere "incident"!
The author explains the context, and how the whole issue arose from a bungling War Office and the crass behaviour of Generals Paget and Fergusson, who were in charge of the army in Ireland. More intelligent man management of their subordinates, and better communication and understanding all round would have headed off the whole problem. Churchill's "solution" was to deploy the Royal Navy to the Scottish coast and to offer to have "Belfast in flames in 24 hours". Thankfully, Prime Minister Asquith overruled him when he heard about it.
The author raises the interesting issue of whether the Curragh mutiny, and the distrust arising between the army and the politicians from it, damaged the performance of the army in WWI. He does not seem to provide a definitive answer, so in the absence of evidence to the contrary the answer must presumably be "no", but it is a fascinating matter to raise.
The attempts to solve the mutiny were as bizarre as the incident itself. These included Seely, the secretary of state for the War Office, even altering the compromise document without referring it back to the cabinet, which resulted in him being forced to resign at the end of March 1914. A similar fate befell Sir John French because of his involvement with that document, though of course he made a comeback, as it were, to lead the BEF in August.
This whole incident should be viewed in the light of British policy in Ireland of the era, which managed to go from inept to appalling, by the end of the decade. The book reminds us that the Germans supplied weapons to both the Unionists and the Nationalists, not least to create a diversion for the British from their problems in continental Europe both before WWI and during it. The author does deal effectively with the German connection, as it was in 1914 (and which later reached its peak with their practical support for the Easter rising in 1916).
The chapters at the start and end of the book deal with some background on the politics of Ireland, and also the aftermath of the incident. These are the less successful aspects of the book. To my mind, they should either not be there at all, or be more comprehensive and more balanced. Without wishing to walk on anyone's toes, these chapters are somewhat slanted toward an Irish Nationalist viewpoint, and so lack the balance achieved by the writings on Irish political history of authors such as ATQ Stewart or Keith Jeffrey. By way of example, yes, there were atrocities against northern Catholics in the early 20s, but there were also murders of Protestants especially in county Cork, resulting in an appeal from the protestant church leaders in southern Ireland to the then president, Arthur Griffith. Why mention one but not the other? Anyway, what relevance do events of the 20s have to the Curragh incident? And why is there a chapter on the murder of Sir Henry Wilson in London in 1922 at all? At least in dealing with period of the Curragh mutiny the book is thankfully clear that Wilson was a southern Irish protestant, a fact which seems to elude English writers on WWI, dare I say it, who forever refer to him as an Ulster Unionist. There were also southern Irish unionists and he was one of them!
It is an interesting book.
Reviewed by Trevor Adams
£14.99, 309 pp, ill, sources, bibliog, index
ISBN Number 978 1 78346 174 5
his work by historian Ian R Whitehead highlights an area of the Great War that has been obvious to any student of the war, but not analysed and explored in detail until now. He has researched a vast number of official sources and non-official in an effort to ensure that those who served in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) can have their contribution to the Great War laid out in a fascinating timeline. Such was the demand for medical assistance that by 1918 he explains that 1 in 2 registered doctors, some 18,000 doctors, were on active service. This meant that half of all British medical doctors were serving mainly in France and Flanders and thus unable to provide the nation with medical care due to military service. He shows the impact this had on both the nation and the military.
The book is not a history of the RAMC and does not cover any impact this shortage of doctors had on civilian health. It covers the change that the war had on those qualified, registered medical practitioners who were taken from towns and cities across the nation and sent to deal with medical emergencies that so few had actually seen before. Moving from the quiet backwaters of medical practice in a town to the horror and devastation of the Western Front was a challenge for the medical men in so many ways.
The book takes us, from the background of military medical service from 1854, to 1914 when a step-change of incredible proportions took place. The military medical service up until then had been very poorly provided for and medical officers were seen as low status personnel and not being "fellow officers"; as such they lacked the authority and had no support mechanism to collect wounded men. As a result of the low status their pay was below that of other officers and many expenses had to be met by the doctor out of his own pocket. Such conditions dampened enthusiasm for medical recruits. Even Florence Nightingale had warned of the dire consequences the training, pay and conditions were having, and would have, on doctors but no one took heed. Doctors were seen as just doctors and not men who needed to understand military tactics.
Principal medical schools began to boycott the Army Medical Services and in 1898 the War Office reluctantly gave them equality of rank in a unified corps. One of the first tests of the new service was the Boer War and even then the British Medical Journal (BMJ) wanted to see an increase in medical officers.
When the Great War began, the medical military service was unprepared for the number and severity and wide-ranging injuries. Medical men in civilian practice began to volunteer. Retired doctors were brought back to take over civilian practices while the owner was away on medical services. War Emergency Committees were set up to help mobilization and to determine if a doctor who had attested to serve in the war should go. The Military Service Act of 1916 treated doctors as a separate case to others and the War Emergency Committees still considered if it was best for a doctor to leave his practice and go to war. Ultimately the end result was that neither the military or civilian service had an ideal result.
Medical students are discussed and the importance of ensuring they completed their studies in order to maintain an adequate supply of doctors in the future. One big change of the war also highlights the fact that the war caused many medical schools to open up their doors to females for the first time. Yet the army failed to appreciate the benefits that female medical doctors could provide them. The War Office was eventually forced to reconsider women in the RAMC.
For doctors who joined the RAMC they had to accept that their ethical code was in need of change. Loyalty to the need of the state took precedence over the needs of an individual, something that some found hard to achieve.
It was only by 1918 that the Army recognised that it needed to reconsider the training of Medical Officers. The process of evacuation of casualties is examined in detail, as is the advances in war surgery. It looks at the advances in preventing wound infection, so vital in the Casualty Clearing Stations. Medical Officers were paramount in maintaining heath and morale of the men. The RAMC was able to contribute significantly to treating and preventing traditional epidemical diseases while dealing with new diseases of the war such as Trench Fever and Trench Foot. The book points out that inoculation was still not compulsory and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases were conditions in which non-medical opinions were allowed to reign. Overall the Army Medical Services did a amazing job during the Great War.
The British government was forced to consider the contribution that the RAMC had contributed to the victory. The RAMC had to adapt and improvise medicine to face the new forms of injury that came in for treatment. Bullet and shell wounds, gas injuries, all horrific in their nature and so far divorced from what a medical man might see in civilian practice. The RAMC also made huge inroads into disease prevention, something the Army had to accept needed to be dealt with.
The book is a fascinating collection of facts about what took place in 1914-18. Today I work for Public Health, so was particularly keen to read this book. I was pleased to review and verify the facts of the story of the Doctors in the Great War. It is a book that has an easy-to-read style with sufficient detail to explain the various stages in the medical services during the war. It does paint a very clear picture of the challenges and victories won by the hard-pressed medical profession to change the way medical services were utilised then, and to provide a fit for purpose legacy for future combatants. I have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone with an interest in the medical services and the Great War. The book is referenced in detail and contains excellent photographs to illustrate the changing face of the medical services during the war.
Reviewed by Peter Garwood
Duration 96 minutes (additional CD ROM folder over an hour)
Published April 2007
Although this film and CD Rom of additional graphics was first released in time for the 90th Anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge in April 2007, the content has not lost much of its dramatic impact. The graphics may today seem a little simplistic, but this helps the viewer understand the complex subject matter and keep up with events as they unfold.
The actual subject matter is two tunnels in the Vimy sector, originally dug by British Sappers in 1916. The research at the National Archives, uncovering diaries, maps, plans and photographs, eventually led to initial exploration as early as 1996 until finally excavation began in earnest in 2005. The film focuses on the work in one tunnel to determine whether a camouflet had prevented the explosives being detonated. The chalky tunnel is eventually broken through to, and a cornucopia of items is found – sacks of black crumbly ammonal, still in good condition, rubber air tubes, detonators, and even graffiti (the three dimension 'T' for tunnelers being especially poignant) including names and Army numbers of those who found themselves in the chthonic world, where every sense was heightened to detect the merest implication of the enemy nearby.
Some of the issues or problems encountered are covered – such as the further into the filled in tunnel the larger the pieces of chalk, which meant the portable conveyor belts began to struggle – until a solution in the form of sandbags was introduced. Also, to provide air to those working some ten plus metres below ground (a bore hole which was hooked up to a motor driven air supply along with a telephone cable). As the mine had not exploded in 1917, the group decided to neutralise the decaying explosive by "one man risk" protocol – in summary one man defusing the charges on his own. Tense minutes indeed.
The narration is clear, succinct and balances providing information with allowing the viewer to take in the amount of information (visually and audibly). Fittingly, the whole film is dedicated to the memory of Lieutenant Colonel Mike Watkins, who was killed attempting to create an entrance to the tunnels in 1998.
Reviewed by Richard Pursehouse
£9.99 268 pp ill sources bibliog index
ISBN Number 978 0 7524 7668 1
This work by historian Gerald Gliddon builds on his previous works by devoting a single volume to fill the gaps in books about the men who won their Victoria Crosses from February to June in 1916 prior to the battle of the Somme and to cover the period August to December 1917 at the Battle of Cambrai. This is his twelfth book and concludes his coverage of the Western Front. Cambrai was famous for the use of tanks in large numbers with much ground gained only to be lost later. One can imagine the raised hopes of the men who fought here only to have them dashed as the Germans fought back.
He relates the lives of 43 men, 16 of whom were awarded their Victoria Crosses posthumously, in a vivid and detailed narrative. In his decade of research for this revised book, Gerald Gliddon has accessed every and reviewed every source imaginable to provide a wealth of new information for the reader and student of the conflict.
This book gives incredible detail on the man, from birth, their military service (for some into WWII) and post-war. As a result we can see the serviceman in his social setting, as well as his military setting. As you read this work you realise that these were men from all kinds of social classes, and men who worked in all sorts of trades and professions. When action was needed they did not flinch even when to continue was highly likely to cost them their life. It is this expression of the true grit shown by these men that Gliddon demonstrates with some unforgettable facts.
Taking as an example Corporal W R Cotter of the Buffs who won his VC in March 1915 near Hohenzollern Redoubt. This man was unique in that he must be the only VC winner to have a glass eye. He lost his eye in a pub fight but continued to serve in the army. His activities were mainly scouting and sniping even with one eye. He was involved in a bombing fight and one of his legs was blown off, and both arms were wounded. Despite this he continued throwing bombs and controlling the supply of bombs and SAA. He was only evacuated after 14 hours in the trenches. Following an operation for amputation he haemorrhaged and died. It takes great presence of mind to behave so calm and collected under such a withering attack of bombs and carry on with a counter-attack, despite such serious injuries.
Captain Richard Wain was in command of a three tank section of No1 Company, the 1st Tank Battalion at Marcoing, France. On 20 November 1917 they progressed to the Hindenberg Support Line and were held up by enemy trench mortar fire. One by one each of the three tanks was hit by mortar fire and knocked out of the action. Wain was wounded but jumped out grabbed a Lewis gun and fired at the enemy as he advanced covering the 50 yards to the trenches. He then captured the position and took some prisoners and put out of action four trench mortars and two machine guns. Despite bleeding profusely and being offered attention by stretcher bearers he grabbed a rifle and began firing at the retreating Germans only to be hit fatally in the head by a German sniper. His action saved the lives of many of the advancing infantry who were coming along behind him. This was the second VC to be won in the Tank Corps. Such unflinching attitude in continuing to attack the enemy by any means at his disposal even if his life was at risk is just another example in this book of the extraordinary bravery of the men.
These are ordinary men who did unbelievable things at moments when, in the minds of many, all was about to be lost. Their actions described in vivid detail give you a much greater insight into the bravery and courage these men were able to summon up just when it was needed.
It is a pleasure to read such a well written and detailed book which describes vividly the actions for which the Victoria Cross was awarded, and it makes you realise that a medal citation is a simplified and much shortened version of what took place. Behind every citation is a very interesting but longer story which Gliddon has uncovered. This is a book of 286 pages, illustrated with maps and relevant pictures as well as a picture of each man. It is a book that should be on the shelf of any serious student of the Battle of Cambrai or of the Victoria Cross.
Gliddon has clearly reviewed every reference in detail and has corrected a number of errors that had come to be accepted as fact.
Reviewed by Peter Garwood.
Pen and Sword Military 2013
ISBN 978-1-84884-777-4, hardback 296pp, illustrations & maps. £25:00
This book deals with the experiences of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of the British Army on the Western Front from the outbreak of war until the end of 1914. Perceptions of such events are informed by the material presented to the viewer or reader. For many, based on the photographs and monochrome films of the time, the Great War is a silent black and white world. This perception is reinforced by the repetitive use of the same stock images by modern film and television programmes. Thus, images of steel helmeted soldiers in muddy trenches are used to portray the war in western Europe from its outbreak in August 1914 to the end of fighting in November 1918. To counteract this, the lodestone for the historian is to find and use sources that are as contemporaneous as possible, not created with posterity in mind or with other ulterior motives such as propaganda. This book uses contemporary letters, diaries, official 'after action' reports, articles using the experiences of the participants published soon after the events, regimental and official histories. Importantly, it uses sources from the German participants to give depth to the narrative. The wide range of sources indicates how the book benefits from the author having been Assistant Keeper of the Liddle Collection at the University of Leeds. Many sources are not well known to the wider public.
The book concentrates on the narrative. It does not attempt to analyse in depth the events and actions of the opposing forces. However, as well as the more well-known battles, such as Mons, Le Cateau and Ypres, it illuminates little known episodes, such as the actions of the Royal Naval Division at Antwerp, including Commander Samson's armoured car detachment, and arrival of the Indian Corps and the BEF'.
The book is well illustrated by photographs of places mentioned in the text and of the participants. There are also very useful sketch maps showing the location of the participants at the time of the events they described. The book is worth purchasing because it illuminates the opening phases of what, with hindsight, we now know would run for a further four long terrible years.
Reviewed by Dr A M Thomas