Armistice Day; An Epic Tale

Men of the 16th Bn HLI in 1914

It’s Armistice Day and I would like to share a tale with you. A tale so epic it is scarcely believable. It is a howling shame that this story is not more widely known for among the many moments in our proud history that men have done great deeds this surely merits a place in the collective history of our nation. It concerns an incident in the mud and blood of Flanders in the Great War, of very ordinary volunteers of Kitchener's Army; clerks, storemen, conductors, drivers, roadmen, milkmen, schoolboys and such. Men whose courage, tenacity and fighting spirit went beyond anything that was expected of them.

We’re all familiar with the concept of the ‘Pals,’ Battalions. One such was the 16th Battalion, Highland Light Infantry which was formed predominately by members and ex-members of the Boys Brigade in the City of Glasgow. The Battalion was formed very early in the war, on the 2nd September 1914, and in May 1915 moved to Shropshire where it joined the 97th Brigade of the 32nd Division HLI. In November 1915, the Battalion sailed for France.

The Battalion endured a rough time on the first day of the Somme at Thiepval. When the Battalion retired from the line on the 3rd July 1916 the casualty list ran to 20 officers and 534 other ranks. Having lost two thirds of its strength just four months later they were back and at the final battle at the Ancre in November casualties again were grievous.

16th Bn HLI Church Parade

On the 18th of November the Battalion, reinforced with soldiers from the Highland Cyclist Battalion, attacked at Beaumont-Hamel. The whistles blew at 06:10hrs and the men, laden with half a hundredweight of arms and equipment, launched themselves into No Mans Land. The 2nd Manchesters, 2nd KOYLI and 11th Borders to their left were counter attacked after initial success and were beaten back. Six to eight enemy machine guns on the Battalions half right pinned down A and B Companies. C and D Companies on the half left though penetrated the German front line, Munich Trench. While the rest cleared the trench, three platoons of D Company pushed on to the second objective under heavy shell and machine gun fire, Frankfurt Trench. The trench was taken and 50 prisoners sent back under escort. This group arrived back at Munich Trench in time to be attacked from three sides by the enemy in overwhelming numbers. The guards were killed as was the mopping up party clearing the trench. In fact, according to the Battalion war diary every man became a casualty. The attempted capture of the Beaumont Hamel spur had failed and the 16th alone had lost 13 officers and 390 other ranks.

While the Germans now held Munich Trench, three officers and 60 other ranks of D Company, with men from 11th Borders, still held Frankfurt Trench, cut off and deep in enemy territory.

By nightfall, some stragglers joined the men of D Company to leave them with a strength of 45 fighting men and a similar number of wounded. Two dugouts remained in the captured trench. One was allocated to the wounded with a Corporal in charge, the other to the fit men. There were four Lewis guns and the men handed over their own ammunition to supplement the Lewis guns and armed themselves with German weapons. The machine gun NCO, L/Cpl Veitch, was a tower of strength. A survivor of the Somme he was later recommended for a Victoria Cross. Grenades, food and water were all in short supply as were any medical supplies save for a few field dressings.

By the second day the trench had been revetted, Lewis guns placed at  vital points, The men were surrounded and in a state of siege. The senior NCO, Sergeant Lee, a Glasgow Corporation roads foreman before the war, encouraged and cheered his men throughout the day. Later described as ‘the heart and soul of the defence,’ he too, would later be recommended for a VC. As dawn broke on the third day the Germans, supported by trench mortars and bombs launched a determined attack. It was repulsed but left the HLI with more wounded than they had fit men. They shortened the line to make it easier to defend and that night a heavy British barrage fell around them but a relief effort failed. On the fourth day hopes rose when a signaller managed to attract the attention of British plane with a piece of torn shirt. More aircraft arrived and signalled that help was on the way and to hold out. Help though, which was attempted on the fifth day in another attack, was beaten back and the relief assault suffered 300 casualties. Conditions in the trench then deteriorated further as a result of heavy shelling.

New Munich Trench Cemetery, Beaumont-Hamel

Lack of sleep and food, gangrenous wounds and constant fire took its toll. On the sixth day the Germans again assaulted the trench under heavy shellfire. After brutal hand to hand fighting with the bayonet and entrenching tools the Germans were beaten back leaving eight prisoners. The exhausted defenders then suffered the loss of the indefatigable L/Cpl Veitch, killed by a sniper. On the seventh morning an Inniskilling Fusilier prisoner of war appeared with a German message, ‘Surrender and get good treatment or stay where you are and be killed.’

The defenders were then subjected to the heaviest bombardment yet. Sgt Lee was killed by shrapnel. The promised German attack came in force and from all directions on the morning of the eighth day. The men fought but were overwhelmed. The killing was only stopped by the screaming of the German POW’s. The last stand of D Company, 16th HLI was at an end with only fifteen men left unwounded. Exhausted, they stumbled into captivity. The remainder were roughly removed on stretchers or buried where they lay. Two men died on the way to captivity and a third was shot for accepting a piece of bread from a Frenchwoman.  

In 1919, General Sir Hubert Gough wrote, in a letter sponsoring awards for valour, ‘I consider that these men deserve great recognition for the magnificent example of soldierly qualities they displayed.’ It seems likely that every survivor was decorated because the 16th received one DSO, two MC’s, 11 DCM’s, and 22 MM’s; the highest number of awards by a margin to any one battalion. This was unusual, not least because gallantry awards were rarely given to prisoners of war. The two NCO’s recommended for a VC each received a Mention in Despatches.

This is an extract of a speech given by the chaplain of the regiment, Rev A.H. Gray, during a memorial service in Glasgow in July 1917.

"From a hundred lonely graves in that foreign field - from the spots where they fell, and which now are sacred spots for us - our dead men are asking us when we mean to erect that monument From trench and shell hole where death found them, their voices call - young, musical voices, the voices of boys still in their teens, the voices of martyrs on life's threshold. Scarce a wind can blow that will not waft to these voices. And they ask a better Britain as their monument. They ask it of you and me. Shall we not go from this place resolved to build it?".

Not Forgotten.

Lost Elegance

While all engaged in social work in military centres agree that there has been an improvement in the last two or three months, complaints are still received from some parts of the trouble caused by the thoughtless conduct of numbers of young girls whose open admiration for the recruits has been finding expression in undesirable ways.

The Times, January 29th 1915

I wish I'd written that. It has an understated elegance that perhaps is lost forever.

A Thundering Good Read

The 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War and the recent annual remembrance parades have touched us all and each in our own way.

The casualty lists are desperately sobering though with up to 5,000 names appearing on some days.

The casualty lists are desperately sobering though with up to 5,000 names appearing on some days.

I’ll admit to a life-long interest in the conflict and like to think I’m fairly well and broadly read on the subject. I’ve taken though, to following the war  in a slightly different way. I subscribe to both digital versions of the Times and the Telegraph. The Times though has a simply awesome archive of past papers and it is through these that day by day, I’m following the war a hundred years on.

True, some of the reporting may obviously be sanitised but I can tell you it’s massively more comprehensive than anything we’ve been fed in recent decades from Iraq and Afghanistan. I find it interesting on multiple levels, not least that the war is reported from all fronts and naval actions too are very well covered.

 

Typical obituary notice in the Times; Lt Arthur Collins, 628 not out at Clifton when 13

Typical obituary notice in the Times; Lt Arthur Collins, 628 not out at Clifton when 13

Major H G Powell, the fifth CO of the 1st Loyals since the outbreak of war; "With a hail of shells and bullets falling around him he directed the operations of his detachment from the chair in which he sat until he was wounded."

Major H G Powell, the fifth CO of the 1st Loyals since the outbreak of war; "With a hail of shells and bullets falling around him he directed the operations of his detachment from the chair in which he sat until he was wounded."

Short obituaries of some officers are listed every day and the vast majority are regular officers, most having seen service throughout the Empire with names such as Omdurman, Ladysmith and Mafeking often recurring. That will change as we move into 1915, mostly because there wasn’t much of the pre war regular army left. Each though has a story such as young Lt Arthur Collins above who scored a remarkable 628 not out as a 13 year old schoolboy at Clifton and the commanding officers of the 1st Loyals below that.

The articulate and colourful 1914 equivalent of being dumped by text

The articulate and colourful 1914 equivalent of being dumped by text

We'll never know if she made his day.

We'll never know if she made his day.

Anyone looking for the opening line of a novel need look no further

Anyone looking for the opening line of a novel need look no further

The paper exudes social history. I’m finding the personal notices both desperately sad with parents making public enquiries about the well-being of their sons at the front, “may be a prisoner of war,” and entertaining with romantic notices, “meet me under the clock…” There are too a great many notices in French, reflecting the wave of refugees in London, (not unlike today you might think!), and as the war goes on, a growing number of “disengaged,” servants seeking work, houses and flats for rent or sale and auctions of possessions. I expect all of these will clearly grow as the war goes on.

Personal notices placed in respect of the "football" debate.

Personal notices placed in respect of the "football" debate.

The letters page also reflected the "football," debate.

The letters page also reflected the "football," debate.

There are a few running debates in the paper with one of the most strident surrounding the decision of the Football Association to continue with professional matches. This attracts lively criticism with complaints about the lack of volunteers stepping forward to enlist at league matches. There are some who defend the game asking what separates the football players and fans from those who go to the theatre, horse racing or other sports and activities.

It’s a heart tugging journey each day punctuated only by the odd uplifting piece. It’s going to be a long four years but I’m nonetheless finding it rewarding and look forward to sharing the odd piece with you.

Having discussed the Great War I should end by mentioning the publication today by the Telegraph of a "virtual memorial" to our 453 dead from the conflict in Afghanistan from 2001-2014. Their average age was 22. The obituaries from family, friends and comrades for each of the 450 men and three women are warm and friendly as befits the changed times but actually, you feel the pain in the reading. God bless them all. We will remember, always.

Come On Down Anne Lundon!

The songs and interviews you will hear were recorded with the 1st World War ex-servicemen at Flanders House in Glasgow just under 30 years ago. 

With the current plethora of Great War documentaries on television it would be easy to become a Great War Grief Groupie, cheek set firmly over to one shoulder and immersed in a constant slaughter / innocents / sad / epoch, social changing loop of evocative “wave the boys goodbye,” nostalgic and theatrical emotional for a lost generation that none of us ever knew but one that we choose to believe we know so well, as if the average Pals Regiment recruit came from next door. It’s true that not a family in the land was left untouched by the Great War and actually, it’s just fantastic to witness the resurgence in interest across all ages in matters historical pertaining to the conflict.

I’ve enjoyed a lifelong interest in the subject and all its geopolitical and social derivatives. The more I learn, the less I realise I really understand.  Just for now though, I would like to share just one wee small part of the massive canvas that is the Great War that utterly fascinates me. That is, the way people talked.

In a time when people could identify one another, their backgrounds, exactly where they came from, (by village, not just general region), by their accents, intonations and slang the sheer richness and depth of speech to me is an utter wonder. What might it have been like to be at Waterloo station as the trains departed for France with the general hubbub all-around of impenetrable fast Buckie voices, deep Hampshire burrs, fast witted cockney, lazy drawling Norfolk………….?  For us, the fantastic diversity of our counties has long been homogenised into approximate North East / North West / South West etc regional groups and as each year passes we lose more of our spoken heritage.

One of the wonders for me then, in watching the Great War documentaries, is to listen to the real voices of Edwardian days. We can though, do better than snatches in a television documentary.

In 1916, an Austrian academic called Alois Brandl made recordings of British prisoners-of-war and their regional accents. By a miracle, they survived the bombing of Berlin in the Second World War while being stored at the Humbolt University and were ultimately tracked down by a linguistics academic called John Adams. Well played John. Treat yourself and take a peek into history by listening to some of these magical recordings.

In fact, the British Library website has literally, a door into another world with various projects such as the Millennium Memory Bank and their survey of English Dialects.

So what can we do? We’re hardly going to adopt an “accent of the week,” and pretend to be Devonshire farmhands from 1912 are we? No we’re not. The BBC are utterly rubbish. Their idea of diversification in being a national broadcaster is to grab the three nearest northerners hanging around their shiny new headquarters in Salford and stick them on the telly but its not really exploiting the breadth that we’re looking for in our wonderful country. ITV though are even worse. They give us bloody Downton Abbey which very much sounds to me as if its cast comes straight from inner-circle-middle-class Fulham in 2014............... well, that's actually what they are but aren't they supposed to be acting as other people? Idle script, idle direction and idle acting. I'd rather spend an hour kissing someone with the Ebola virus than I would watching that drivel.

Crumble then, is here to help.

You can’t get more diverse than the beautifully soft and  melodic accent from Stornaway and that is exactly the sort of thing we need to hear more of to calm us after a stressful day at the office and the bloody awful commute home. Fortunately Anne Lundon, who at present is criminally wasted on BBC Scotland and urgently needs to be brought to the attention of the nation, is waiting for the head honcho’s at the Beep to hear the clarion call from the people.

Let’s celebrate the who and what we are as a country. Come on down Anne, West Sussex is calling.