Review: Leeds Rifles: written in letters of gold

For all so much of my research has been about the Leeds Pals, I have a closer link to another of the Leeds battalions – the Rifles. My Great-Uncle William was a rifleman with the battalion and when Pen & Sword offered this book for review, I jumped at the chance to read it, in the hopes of finding out a little more about the men and indeed, the very experience, that my relative had. He left us with no diary or papers and all we have left of him are two photographs and a letter he wrote to his niece.

Andrew Kirk’s book Leeds Rifles: Written in Letters of Gold tells the story of the Rifles from their formation as a battalion in the mid 1800s to the last 100 days of the First World War and then beyond that to their legacy.

The whole book is extraordinarily detailed and draws on many different sources, from photographs to first hand accounts of the battles undertaken by the Rifles. Kirk does not neglect the less experienced reader of military history and he readily explains the makeup of the battalion early on, in a way that is clear and easy to understand. In the first half of the book, the way in which the Rifles were a key part of the peacetime Leeds community is accurately drawn. Kirk recounts the rugby matches played in Armley and the two weeks ‘holiday’ (annual camp) at Scarborough.

As war was declared, Kirk manages to give clear context and just about shoehorns all the myriad of reasons for the beginning of the war into a few paragraphs – not overly detailed, but then this is not a book about the reasons for the escalation of the July/August crisis of 1914. The change between peacetime volunteering for the Rifles and the apparent sudden slide to mobilisation is neatly handled – contrasting the vibrancy of the annual Scarborough camp with the sudden orders to return to Leeds. However, the Leeds Rifles first Christmas of the war was to be spent in York awaiting orders after the shelling of Scarborough coast earlier in December.

The book takes us along the journey with the Rifles to France from Folkestone and it is from here that the book truly gets into its stride with quotations from the Riflemen themselves, communicating everything from the joy of some working class men to be out of England for the first time in their lives to the sheer noise that accompanied the opening of the Aubers Ridge Battle.

The attention to detail continues through the whole book – movements are described in detail from the Corps to the Battalion. The fighting at the Ypres Salient is given colour with quotation from the battalion diary, describing the dire weather conditions, but the moments of reprieve are noted too – especially a visit to a small theatre behind the lines, considered by some of the men to be ‘an incredible luxury.’

Alongside quoting and referencing from the battalion diary, Kirk also uses the unofficial ‘other war diary’ kept by a succession of different officers wherein the roll call of officer casualties was kept. This makes for sobering reading and the short eulogies of the men bring them ever more to life, even beside the loss of their comrades.

Kirk places each of the movements of the Rifles in the wider context of the war, and when the clock turns to 1918 and the Battle of the Lys, he references Haig’s now famous ‘backs to the wall’ order. With this, and the additional information from the orders provided by the Major Generals, the movements and battles are placed within their key context and are thus clearer and easier to understand.

Overall, I’d definitely recommend this book if you have an interest in the Leeds Rifles and want to know more about their war and the people within the battalion!

(Thanks to Pen & Sword for my review copy of Leeds Rifles)


Review: Voices in Flight

I’m always one for a good book (if you hadn’t already guessed!) and this time, I’ve been reading one of the latest releases from Pen and Sword, Escaping Soldiers and Airmen of World War One. This book looks at the many different men who became POWs during the First World War, and is a really great read. It’s the first one I’ve dived into since I graduated this summer and it’s kept me hooked – which is a great achievement. 

It focuses primarily on the stories and lives of several different men of different nationalities, all of whom were taken captive as a POW during the war. The book also covers stories from the German side of the conflict which is exciting in itself as I for one find myself tending more towards the British and commonwealth experience when I choose my reading material. This book draws therefore on a broad range of experiences, making it all the richer for the reader. 

The whole book is incredibly detailed and absolutely packed full of interesting tidbits of information, alongside the necessary facts and figures. Still, this never detracts from the ultimately human stories at the centre of the book – there are so many layers to unpick. By  focusing on the men themselves and yet still retaining an astonishing level of detail, the book manages to really bring things to life, being atmospheric and at times almost exciting. It’s so easy to become swept up in the descriptions of flight, the camaraderie between men and the daring escapes (complete with tunnels, trapdoors and all manner of deceptions). Their daring can be encapsulated by a remark made by Hermann Tholens – “where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Bowman’s book also captures glimpses of life within the camps; how they operated and also how prisoners spent their time. He describes one Welsh camp for German prisoners wherein they were allowed to play cricket, and by some accounts they were also given cooked breakfasts, wine and cigars (though not all at once I expect!) understandably the locals were rather peeved at this idea!

I heartily recommend this book for an extremely detailed, nuanced look at the prisoner of war experience, for both British and German captives and too, for some extraordinary tales of ingenuity and cunning!

Many thanks to the lovely people at Pen & Sword who sent me a copy of this amazing book – it can be purchased on their website here !

remembrance of women

the souls of the faithful are in the hands of God.

I am used to seeing men on war memorials, on the cenotaphs that stand in the centre of towns, the neat white headstones of the CWGC, memorial tablets that hang in churches as they commemorate the sons and fathers of the parish. I often seek them out in new places that I visit, wondering about the men whose names grace the walls of a church, where their service led them and who it was they left behind.

What I do not often see however, is the names of women on these memorials, be they from the First World War, or the Second. They are curiously absent from places where one might assume they be. After all, women served as nurses close to the front lines, they were employed as munitions workers and some died. I am aware of women who have gravestones which are maintained by the CWGC, but I have never been able to see any of them myself.

Perhaps it has changed now, but I also found them absent in the curriculum in which I was taught. The war, to me at the age of twelve, was simply men and mud and trenches (as I am sure I have mentioned before) – there was no mention of the women and the part they played in the war effort. Of course, this was different when it came to being taught about the Second World War – perhaps because the home front was more of a component.

I was therefore extremely pleased to find a war memorial with women on it. The memorial stands in Ripley square, a small town about ten minutes out of Harrogate. It’s a stone obelisk on which are two panels, one for the First World War, and one for the second. At the top are the names of those who lost their lives, and below this are the names of all from the town who served. It is a wealth of information, as after each name comes the regiment in which they served, as well as their theatre of war – another thing which I do not often see.

The names of the three women are on the side of the memorial which is dedicated to the Second World War – Pvt. Amy Barrow (ATS, Home Service), Army Sister Maude Doris Mankin (QAINS, West Africa) and Sgt. Dorothy Clark (ATS).

Perhaps sometime I’ll research these ladies and their service and I’ll most certainly keep an eye out for any women within the spaces for remembrance of the First World War.

(I am currently reading: The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War – Peter Englund)

a post about nothing in particular

catsFirst of all, today is the 100th Anniversay of the Battle of Jutland -a battle I knew very little about until recently. It is something which I hope to do a post on at a later date, so please excuse my posting ‘schedule’ in not being quite as timely as one might wish at the present moment.

May has been a very, very quiet month for blogging for me, and I’m not entirely sure why – other things (namely real life) rather got in the way of regular posting and then I seemed to be without very much to say. I do have a couple of posts coming up; one a review of a conference I attended at the Wellcome Trust in London and another.. well, that’s a surprise!

I’m also pleased to say that ~my exhibition (still feels a little odd saying that) is currently on display at a local primary school! There is a longer blog post about it here, if that takes your fancy, though I did blather on about it rather a lot.

Further to this, for my final year at University, I’ll be taking a module entitled Europe in an Age of Total Warfare, led by Dr. Holger Afflerbach – so  that’s something else I’ll doubtless be posting about when I have the time. It covers the First World War from outbreak to post-war feeling and then from there onto the outbreak of the Second World War until its close and the resulting representation in post-war culture. I’m also planning on completing my dissertation on something related to WW1 – an idea I’ve been vaguely floating around is one on the Unknown Soldier and the general post-war attitudes to death, grieving and remembrance and how they differ to ours today; or if they differ at all. It might not be feasible to do an entire 12,000 word dissertation on that, but there are plenty of other aspects of WW1 to go at.

I am also currently reading a book by Juliet Nicolson, The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Britain in the Shadow of the Great War. This book looks at post-war Britain and it’s collective progress through the stages of grief along with several other chapters up until the silence of 11th November 1920. It is incredibly interesting to read about the silence that permeated the country in the days and weeks after the armistice. There is also an incredibly detailed chapter on facial reconstruction.

Within one of the first chapters, there is the testimony of Maude Onions (someone who I first came across whilst studying a-level literature..). As a young woman during the war, she was a signaller with the WAAC. Maude was the lady who typed out the fateful message of ‘Hostilities will cease at 11am. November 11th. Troops will stand fast at the line reached at that hour which will be reported to Army HQ. Defensive precautions will be maintained. There will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy.’ This message was sent at 8am and Maude recalls that ‘3 hours later, [I] took an involuntary glance at the clock’ and she saw that the moment the world had been waiting for had finally happened, yet all there was around her was silence, a world too exhausted to rejoice. Maude looked upon it as though ‘France had just heaved a vast sigh of relief.’

The Great Silence really is a fascinating book and I am only halfway through it myself (though my opinion may change!) It can be purchased here.

The War the Officers Knew

JE RC*Please note: this post contains some spoilers for Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff

The original title of Journey’s End was originally set to be Waiting, or Suspense; but Journey’s End is what R.C. Sherriff eventually settled on. The play contains both things – the end of a journey and the suspense of waiting. Set during the run up to Operation Michael towards the end of the war, the tedium of waiting is palatable in this play. It drags. The men smoke. One of them drinks. They read from novels and talk about their wives and sweethearts. But most of all, they wait.

Normally, for a play to drag would be a bad thing. I saw it performed and found myself fidgeting slightly, casting a glance or two at my companions. It was a very quiet play when I saw it – terribly quiet – but for the rumble of guns, set up so that it felt as though they were going off around the audience. I flinched more than once, until I got used to it and the sound faded to a dull rumble in the background – until the final crescendo as the lights flickered out and the play ended. The slowness of the play echoes the experience of many soldiers – hours upon hours of waiting before the attack.

It’s a very human play, a play about waiting (though not to the extreme of Beckett’s). The men talk about meat cutlets and the lack of pepper for their dinner; they talk of their lives before the war. Some, like Raleigh who is the new boy in the trenches, are public schoolboys who all played ‘rugger’ together and thought it marvellous. 2nd lieutenant Trotter hates the war, the food and he counts down each hour he has in the trenches by drawing circles on a piece of paper and carefully colouring them in. It is one aspect of the painful passage of time in this play – watching a man colour circles in on a sheet of paper, methodically and carefully because there is little other way of marking the slow inexorable journey to the definitive end, both of the play and of the war. For us, it is the same ending, but for the characters onstage, it is not.

The relationships in this play are interesting ones – they need to be. The most interesting is that of Jimmy Raleigh and Captain Dennis Stanhope. It is referenced, by Raleigh himself, that the two knew each other before the war – they were at school together and Stanhope embarked on a courtship of Raleigh’s sister. Raleigh asked to be placed in Stanhope’s Company, he looked up to him at school with a sort of hero-worship that becomes more and more painfully evident as the play goes on, not least for the fact that Stanhope himself terms it as such.

Stanhope is first seen through the eyes of Raleigh and we register the shock in his response. The man who walks down the dug-out steps is not the same man that Raleigh left behind in cricketing whites. Instead, Stanhope is plainly exhausted, perilously close to shattering point and he reacts with irritation – not joy – when it becomes clear that his sweetheart’s brother specifically asked to be in his company. Stanhope is not the man Raleigh knew, and nor is he the man  whom Raleigh’s sister is in love with. Instead, he is a man who has been steadily ground down by the reality of warfare which has continued on for four years.

We see the dependency that Stanhope has developed on alcohol as the play goes on. He drinks more often than those around him and he drinks a good deal more quickly too. Osbourne – a man who was once a schoolmaster – puts a drunk Stanhope to bed and Hardy comments on Stanhope’s alcoholism at the start of the play. The only response to the accusation is that Stanhope is the best commander they’ve ever had. This is the first we hear of him – this is the first that we know – the Captain is an alcoholic, but he is wonderful at his job. It is interesting then that we form our first opinions on Stanhope not through his actions, but through what other characters say of him.

During the play, Raleigh writes a letter to his sister and Stanhope – terrified that the letter contains note of his rampant alcoholism – takes it from the boy to be censored. Instead, he finds the letter full of nothing but praise for him and his actions – there is no malice in the letter and it is not what he expects. The love that all the men – schoolmaster Osbourne, even Trotter the perennial complainer – have for Stanhope is abundant, despite his rudeness and we see it in their actions and the way they speak of him.

There is one character however, who does not share the same love for Stanhope and that is Hibbert. Stanhope views him as a ‘worm..trying to wriggle back home.’ In short, he sees Hibbert’s neuralgia as a ruse, a con – the actions of a man wanting only to be away from the fighting. To Stanhope, Hibbert does not care about his duty – and yet duty is the linchpin that is barely holding the Captain together. This is the cause for their explosive confrontation that comes halfway through the play.

It is a revealing moment for Stanhope; he lays himself bare to Hibbert, however briefly this may be. He threatens to shoot the other man; Hibbert has first made it clear he intends to desert and second, he has struck his commanding officer – but he does not. Instead, the conversation results in Stanhope admitting that he feels the way Hibbert does. That he wants to go up and over the top about as much as his subordinate does. That there have been moments when he felt he could:

‘just lie down on this bed and pretend I was paralysed or something – and couldn’t move and I’d just like there till I died or was dragged away.’

A rare moment in the play when Stanhope voices his innermost thoughts and feelings but as an audience, one gains not just an insight into Stanhope’s mind, but an insight into the cost of his duty. In acknowledging that he feels the same as Hibbert, he is also making it clear how much he must hide. There is no-one to whom Stanhope can speak to – if he shows that he does not want to fight, then his men would more than likely follow suit. A commanding officer was a source of morale, of encouragement, courage and bravery. If they could not be that, then they were not doing their jobs. It is suggested that the rate of shell shock in officers was much higher than the rate of psychological stress on other ranks. Stanhope cannot speak to his men, he cannot write letters home which tell the truth. Instead, he is reduced to finding solace in a whiskey bottle.

I loved this play when I studied it, and I still love it today. For me, it is a melancholy portrait of a young Captain – but it is not sugarcoated. It shows a little of what happened to some men during the First World War – and it was not pretty. What happened young men – just out of school-  who would more than likely have become part of the landed classes of England, had they lived, had they survived and had they remained unbroken by the extraordinary pressure of war. Instead, they took command of groups of men, some who were older than they, and they had to look after them, to lead them and to never, ever let slip what they truly felt about the situation they were in.

For more information about the Captains experience of the First World War, I heartily recommend Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War by John Lewis-Stempel


Home Front Legacies.

First off, it’s been a long while since I’ve had the time to post to this blog on a regular basis; but I’m hoping that now I’ll have more of a chance to post and keep abreast of what is happening with regards to the centenary.
Secondly, I start tomorrow as a curator’s assistant at Leeds Museums and Galleries; which is something I’ve been looking forward to for quite a while now. The curator I’m working with is in charge of the First World War projects that will be happening throughout the centenary. This brings me to my next point – I will most certainly have a lot more to post about that is topically relevant rather than simply my own musings (though there will be plenty of those!).

Something which is coming up at the end of this week is an event which I have been looking forward to for a while; a workshop at the Humanities Research Institute in Sheffield. Now, I’m not normally one who is terribly over-enthused about workshops, perhaps a legacy from school of disliking group projects. This one however, is something different, the Council for British Archaeology and Historic England are working together on a project named Home Front Legacy: WWI (more information can be found here). For me, this is not something I have ever considered – the lasting remainders of the first world war being, not on the Western or Eastern fronts, but at home, a good deal closer than one might anticipate. Whilst I was in high school I was taught about the Western Front and that was all. There was little, if any information given about the Eastern front and the same with the home front.

This is partly the reason why I’m so excited about this project. The idea is to get groups of people (and individuals – so if you’re not part of a group or organisation, there’s most certainly nothing wrong with giving it a go!) to record the remains of the first world war across England. This could be the remains of a training ground or a POW camp – like there is at Colsterdale where the Leeds Pals once trained. Apparently however, this project will not be including war memorials or cenotaphs at this time as there is a separate database for these. These records of the landscape are then plotted on a map and also recorded in local archaeological records. They will go on to be used to inform local planning decisions and keep these things alive for the later generations so that they too will appreciate the fact that the war did not just affect the landscape of some far away country.

If you want to get involved; go here! It sounds like an amazing project and I can’t wait to start.

Radio silence.

And not due to a communication failure!

First of all, I must apologise for the fact that the last time I updated this blog was almost six months ago. University took over my life and left very little time for blogging. I never finished the post I intended to publish about my trip to France, which is almost a year ago now (how time flies). It is something which I do still intend to do at some juncture, so stay tuned for that!

My hopes for this blog are that I will manage to keep up with it a little better as, drum-roll please, I have secured an internship at Leeds Museums and Galleries, working as a curator’s assistant to the First World War project leader!

So I thank those who have stayed with this blog and I hope to post a lot more in the future.