A Terrible Beauty?

Easter has come a little early this year. One hundred years ago the Easter weekend culminated on Monday 24 April 1916. In Dublin on the steps of the GPO building, Padraig Pearse read out a proclamation of the Irish Republic and the end of British rule in Ireland, heralding what we now know as the Easter Rising. It lasted a week until the rebels surrendered to overwhelming British military force assisted by a battleship in the Liffey. Hundreds were subjected to Field General Courts Martial, most were jailed, the leaders were executed, while some supporters and civilian sympathisers in the streets around were despatched under a ‘shoot to kill’ order.

At the same time, the men of 11 DLI were stationed near Oodezeele on the Ypres Front in Belgium. There had been church parades the day before but on Monday it was back to work, mostly behind the lines on roads and constructing new billets. The added attraction was a visit from top brass from 20th Divisional HQ come to inspect the Pioneers at their work. Otherwise the week that followed was a period of general rest and recuperation, interspersed with training and sports activities. 

So what is the connection between these two coterminous sets of events? It has to do with the reasons for fighting. The men of 11 DLI, along with the rest of the Army including several battalions of Irish volunteers, were ostensibly on the Western Front in defence of smaller nations such as ‘plucky little Belgium’ against imperialist German militarism. The personal reasons for the men involved could have been very complex, though this might well have been a part of their motivation.

The rebels of Sinn Fein were also asserting the rights of smaller nations in the face of (British) imperialism and military might. They were a little clearer as individuals, as they were following the clearly stated aims of the Proclamation: that the Republic would guarantee “religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities of all its citizens” and it would resolve “to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and all its parts, cherishing all children of the national equally”.

In terms of the wider context of the Great War, all parts of the British armed forces, wherever they were stationed (at sea, in western Europe, in the Balkans, in the Middle East, in India, in Africa) including Ireland, they were in practice defending and maintaining the integrity of the British Empire and that would become even more clear three years later at Versailles. That was as true of the Irish divisions as 20th Light Division.

In the end the ordinary men did not, in either case, get what they might have thought was their due. When it came, Home Rule in Ireland fell a long way short of the ideals of the Proclamation. The miners and labourers of 11 DLI who survived what was to follow went home to face years of continued exploitation and, indeed, military repression when they struck to stop wage reductions.

Meanwhile, just two months on from Easter 1916, tens of thousands on all sides of the front met their deaths in the slaughter of the Somme.  While the poet WB Yeats could classify the Easter Rising as ‘a terrible beauty’, no such description has ever been applied to that.

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Anywhere but Home for Xmas

The one thing always on a soldier’s mind when he is away from home is his next leave. It is never more true than in the approach to Christmas. It was on the mind of Private Robert Bennett in training at Woking in 1914: “I am saving my money to come home at Xmas, it costs 22/9 for us to Durham and the fare to Shotton will amount to about 25 shillings return.” He promised is little sister Kitty that he would bring her something special for writing to him. Instead they moved from Inkerman Barracks to Pirbright Camp, swapping huts for canvas. He was in “the last batch to go away but one” and had to content himself with the rumour that “we are going to get a good dinner on Xmas day”. In fact he would have to wait several more weeks.

It was even worse when the Battalion went overseas. Long before Xmas 1915 Robert was predicting that it would be at least three months before he got home leave. Writing again just before Xmas he was still predicting 9 or 12 weeks and intimating that the lads had been told the last posting day for Xmas was 17 December. On 1 Jan 1916 he returned his Xmas cards for the family to keep but “we had a good time at Xmas. We got tons of bacca and tabs sent out to us and a lot of Xmas pudding.” He never did make it home and he was dead before the next Xmas.

Two more men from 11 DLI were the occasion of domestic mourning around the 1915 festive season. Private 12115 John James Surrey was killed aged 24 just before New Year’s Eve and Lance Corporal 13797 John Henderson died of wounds on 19 December – no doubt the occasion of a badly timed letter from the War Office to his family. John Henderson was the husband of Julia and father of William and John, a hewer from Dudley in Northumberland. Ironically he had been on Xmas leave in 1914 and lost a day’s pay for arriving back at camp in Pirbright a day late. That was his last Xmas at home.

What will ‘the lads (and lasses)’ be doing this year?

The Quick and the Dead

When I finished ‘11th Durham Light Infantry: In Their Own Names’ back in 2011, I swore I would never buy another book on the First World War. Indeed I sold two thirds of my collection. I broke that vow a few weeks ago when I spotted a bargain book: ‘The Quick and the Dead’ by Richard van Emden. It was the sub-title that caught my attention: ‘Fallen Soldiers and their Families in the Great War’. When I looked inside I found he had published it almost at the same time as my own book, which did almost the same thing but concentrated on one battalion.

As with anything by Richard van Emden, it is a thoroughly good read – well researched, well written and humane. He takes the reader through each stage of the War, using family stories and memories to illustrate how the various key events impacted on how people thought and, more importantly, how people felt and reacted. In principle he has done precisely what I did, but not restricted so tightly to the resources at my disposal for one battalion out of hundreds. Able to call on a wider selection of sources, especially interviews with surviving family members, he has been able to cover more ground and provide greater depth than I could possibly have done. But everything he describes confirms and provides context to what I wrote and to what I have found out since from new family stories that have come my way.

If you enjoyed what I tried to do in my book (or even if you didn’t), I unreservedly recommend ‘The Quick and the Dead’. It underlines in so many ways what I was trying to convey about the importance of understanding the impact on families across the generations and how that was the case. Especially during the long series of centenary commemorations, when much of the focus will once again turn to the events and the battles, this is the reminder you need as to why it is important to understand the Great War in its totality. It still haunts families today. It still haunts global events. It is still in the consciousness of the fourth and fifth generations.

A war to end all wars?

A war to end all wars? Or so they said when it was all over in 1918. I don’t know what my grandfather would have been thinking 100 years ago in early June 1915, when he was in the later stages of training at Rugeley in Staffordshire with 16th DLI. Corporal Thomas Bashforth probably knew by then that he would shortly be going out to France. He would pop home for a short period of embarkation leave to see his wife, daughter and new born son, also called Thomas. A few weeks later he would be with 11th DLI at Laventie.

Probably the last thing on his mind would have been the thought that exactly 25 years later his son Tom would be out in the North Atlantic with the Royal Navy on convoy protection duty and that he would later be part of the life line to Russia through the Arctic Ocean. He would not have imagined that another son yet to be born, Signalman Ray Bashforth, would have been on the beaches at Dunkirk. Even if at that stage in WW1 it was not being claimed to be the ‘war to end all wars’, Tommy Bashforth would not have expected his own children to go through another war so soon.

Sergeant Thomas Bashforth did not finally make it home, dead on the battlefield at Arvillers in March 1918. His widow re-married and after 1939 saw five sons in all go off to war before 1945. As luck would have it they all returned safely home, but how many scares did she have? How many times did she fear for her eldest on the high seas? What was she thinking as she read the news in late May and early June 1940 knowing that her second son was somewhere in the thick of the BEF retreat in northern France? What did she feel when, in 1942, the 8th Army was in retreat across the North African desert, with Ray again in the thick of it as well as her third son Edwin serving with the RAF? Above all, what did she feel when that note arrived from the War Office saying Ray was ‘missing’, just like the one she had got 24 years earlier about her first husband? What a relief when Ray was able to write courtesy of the Vatican to say he was safe in a POW camp in Italy – not that that was quite the end of that story! He went missing again in the mountains of the Abruzzo in September 1943, making it home in January 1944.

Those in the thick of it often say that they just get on with the job in hand, whatever circumstances may throw at them. It is those at home who live with the uncertainty and anxiety and then have to cope with the news, good or bad. They don’t get any medals and nobody builds monuments in their name.

Perhaps now in the 21st century we need to look more closely at what passes for ‘war’ in these days. Since Thomas Bashforth sat down at the end of a day’s training in June 1915, would he have imagined that war 100 years later would be conducted with civilians as its primary targets.

A war to end all wars? Perhaps during these centenary years for WW1 and the 75 year commemorations for WW2, we need to stop simply remembering, commemorating and memorialising. Perhaps we need to start thinking a bit harder than that.

The Last Post?

Having just posted up the last entry covering the 11th DLI Battalion War Diary, it might be thought that that was the end of the story. Not quite. It is time now to shift the emphasis away from recording the events of 100 years ago. In future posts I want to look at the way 11th DLI, the men and their families and communities were and still are remembered. Some of this will cover official commemoration, but mostly it will be about personal and family memories.

Perhaps it is best to start closest to home with myself. As a child I was aware that my grandfather had died in the First World War. I was very young when my sisters took me to the parade and ceremony at Darlington Memorial Hospital on Remembrance Sunday one year. It was all a bit confusing. I was lifted up to look at what I thought was his name in a book – but having visited the Memorial Hall more recently I now know that what I was looking at was the Memorial Book for the Second World War and the name was my sisters’ father, Joe Hinnigan, killed in the first week of WW2 in a freak accident. Our family is complicated by a number of early parental deaths. My grandfather’s name, Thomas Bashforth, was on one of the walls round the hall – wall after wall after wall. Most of all I remember the parade, the bands and all the people in uniforms with medals. That’s what boys tend to like.

More importantly I remember that while I was growing up neither of my parents ever bought or wore a remembrance poppy, though they never really explained why. My father had never seen his own father. My mother had lost her first husband. Both had reasons to be angry, rather than to share in some ‘one size fits all’ official form of remembrance of ‘our glorious dead’. It wasn’t that they were disrespectful – my Dad lost friends in WW2 and had a rough time himself escaping from Dunkirk in 1940 and Italy in 1943. Later in life they relented somewhat and watched the national march past on television every year – at least Mam did, while Dad was down the yard in his shed where he kept his own private mementoes (as I found out after he died).

Their reluctance to wear the poppy, I inherited. At school in my teens however I was not given the choice of whether or not to wear one. It was compulsory, as was the annual remembrance day service in the school hall. As a protest the rebels among us took to wearing a CND badge in the middle of the poppy replacing the plastic centre with its reference to the Haig Fund and the man we considered the butcher of the killing fields of France and Flanders. What I did not realize then was that, up at the top of the school hall behind the platform, on the massive wall plaques listing the ‘Old Boys’, were two men who had served as officers alongside my grandfather and may even have known him personally.

My attitudes changed later in life, largely as a result of researching the book and corresponding with other descendants of 11th DLI men. I can remember being challenged once for not buying a poppy and replying that my family had given enough already. I would not do that now, though I still cannot abide the formal parades and the pomp and ceremony. Now I tend to think of the private grief of my Gran when she got the news her beloved husband was dead, and her brother-in-law on the same day at another part of the line. I think of how she would have nursed that grief for years afterwards. I think of all the other widows and fatherless children, then and since. I wear the poppy, but keep my own counsel. There are too many hypocritical politicians out there only too pleased to dress themselves up as ‘great war leaders’. There are better things to spend tax payers’ money on than nuclear bombs to make politicians feel important on the international stage.

So, this will not be the last post. The Last Post on the last war has not yet sounded. May it be soon.

Larks Ascending April 1917

Thank you to the descendants of Pte Charles Oddy (died 21 April 1917) for a copy of his final letter home, dated 14 April. Although Charles is listed as 11 DLI on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, he may have only spent a short time with them before being transferred to 14 DLI, since he is commemorated on the Loos Memorial where they were serving at the time. He originally signed up with the West Yorkshire Regiment in Leeds in 1915.

This is what Charles wrote, which I think says all that is necessary and much more than the various celebrities who have been asked to ‘write letters to the unknown soldier’ as part of the rapidly multiplying WW1 commemoration events. I have kept the original spelling and grammar to be faithful to Charles’s style – he was by trade a Letter Press operator.

April 14 Sat. [1917]

Dear Wife

I am pleased to hear from you that you are all well at home, also to tell you that I am well only longing for this war to finish to be able to get home again to my dear ones. The parcels you have sent me are allright and they have been very nice. We have had a rather hard time but we have to keep smiling, that is all we can do. Pleased are Eveline is well again and you must do your best to keep smiling till i come home. You taught about Easter you been all alone, well I did not hardly know it was Easter if it had not been for the letter from you. It was a very nice day here, was Easter, the Larks was singing at 5 o’clock in the morning. You would be surprised at the number of larks that sings between us and the germans then it make me thing what fools we are to be at war, when we have such a beautifull world. Then after Sunday we have had snow and rain, winter again. I was sorry to hear about our John been ill but I think he is better again. I have received a letter from the shop with 2/6 enclosed so I enclosed the letter to you. I have had little time to write love and I know you have asked me questions and I have forgot to

them, so I leave it all for you to do your best with. Well I shall have to close as I have to do duty.

I am

Your

Charles

XXX

Best love to you all XXX

 

The road from Erches

The photograph on the title banner of this website was taken in September 1999. It provides an idea of what the landscape might have looked like for the men of 11 DLI on 27 March 1918. Behind the viewfinder is the village of Arvillers while the road ahead leads towards the village of Erches. Off to the right, somewhere in that field, were the roughly dug, shallow trenches and funk holes made by 11 DLI.

On that Spring morning it was probably foggy and cold, as it had been for the past week. There would have been explosions from artillery, the sound of machine gun fire and rifle shots. The land is flat, with little or no cover. What cover there was happened to the advantage of any approaching enemy – a line of trees up ahead, an ominous dip on the right towards the River Avre containing who knew what.

In September 1999, it was afternoon, silent and sunny. Across the field to our right were two or three farm workers deep in conversation. We were thinking of my grandfather, just as I am as I write this piece on the anniversary of his death. In the pit of the stomach, we experienced the strange sensation – there was no place to hide. It was the end of the road.