on Wednesday, 27 December 2017.
Posted in Military
Guest blog by John Boaler - originally published in the Wiltshire Local History Forum Newsletter
2017 marks the centenary of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres. After catastrophic losses at Verdun and the Somme, it is hard to comprehend how the politicians and generals at the time were again willing to expend the lives hundreds of thousands of soldiers in another such assault on the Western Front.
But the one senior politician did speak up against this military ‘strategy’, calling for a negotiated peace, was Lord Lansdowne (1845–1927), the fifth Marquess and a great-grandson of Lord Shelburne, one of George III's prime ministers.
He had succeeded his father, upon his sudden death in 1866, taking his seat on the Liberal benches in the House of Lords. Lansdowne was appointed a junior whip in Gladstone's first government (1869); was promoted to Under-Secretary for War three years later; and was made Under-Secretary for India at the start of Gladstone's second government (1880). However his opposition to the Irish Land Act soon caused him to resign from the Liberal Party.
In 1883 he was appointed Governor-general of Canada; and from 1888 to 1894 was Viceroy of India. Back in London he was made War Secretary (1895-1900) and then Foreign Secretary (1900 – 1905). He was Leader of the Unionist peers from 1903- 1916.
The First World War
Lord Lansdowne was a member of the Shadow Cabinet in 1914 and strongly supported the decision for war in August. Though Lansdowne's second son was killed in France in October he remained committed to the war. In May 1915 he took office as minister without portfolio in Asquith's coalition, and in Government he supported conscription.
He began to have doubts about the capacity of the allies to score a decisive victory after the disastrous Somme offensive of June 1916. Asquith as Prime Minister invited his cabinet colleagues to submit their views on the course of the war. Lansdowne concluded that while there was no question of defeat, outright victory was unlikely. He argued for a restatement of war aims that might open the way to a negotiated settlement. But Asquith was about to be replaced by Lloyd George, and Lansdowne left office at the same time.
Letter to The Daily Telegraph
In 1917, as deaths quickly mounted in the Battle of Passchendaele, Lansdowne again put the case for a negotiated peace. This time he went public, with a letter printed in the Daily Telegraph on 29 November 1917. His views were well known in senior government circles yet had made no impact. The letter caused a sensation:
"We are not going to lose this war, but its prolongation will spell ruin for the civilised world, and an infinite addition to the load of human suffering which already weighs upon it...We do not desire the annihilation of Germany as a great power ... We do not seek to impose upon her people any form of government other than that of their own choice... We have no desire to deny Germany her place among the great commercial communities of the world.”
He was strongly denounced by the Northcliffe press (then publishers of the Daily Mail & Daily Mirror) and ostracised by the Unionist leadership. But his move attracted a lot of support. He received a large mailbag of which ‘The prevailing note is, “you have had the courage to say what we have been thinking for ever so long”’, he told his daughter.
President Wilson's ‘fourteen points’ were widely seen to be on Lansdowne lines, and he pressed on with further letters in March and July, supplemented by Lord’s speeches, calling for a careful restatement of war aims.
When we think of the Second World War, we often think of the Home Front or the front lines, Dunkirk and D-Day. It’s much less often that we think of those who spent their time behind enemy lines as prisoners of war. As I was looking through the archive catalogue recently I came across an entry for Trooper George Sweetman, of the Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, whose diary recounts his time as a PoW. As we get close to Christmas and begin to think of spending time with our family and friends, I thought about what life must have been like for men like George at this time of year as prisoners of a hostile nation so far from home. George’s diary gives us a fascinating insight into the lives and emotions of captured British soldiers, how their morale ebbed and flowed with the course of the war, and how important Christmas was to their wellbeing.
On 2 November 1942 George’s unit went into action in North Africa, as part of Operation Supercharge, part of the Second Battle of El Alamein. The Royal Wiltshire Yeomanry, operating within the 9th Armoured Brigade, lost a large number of tanks during the action, partly as a result of a counterattack led by the 21st Panzer Division. In his diary, George recorded the action: “Went into action at dawn. B Sqd. first in, one shot up A.T.G [anti-tank guns], lorries & tanks, & then Jerries’ main armoured force came & a big fight started”, and his unit took heavy casualties.“We lost B Sqd., lost all our tanks, we got wiped out.” George was taken Prisoner of War (PoW) during this action, and was to spend the rest of the war in a PoW camp.
From El Alamein George was taken through Egypt to Libya and from there he and other PoWs were shipped to Greece and onwards to Italy, arriving in southern Italy on 22 November 1942. The prisoners’ journey was far from easy. The day after his capture George’s convoy was attacked by the RAF: “coming up the Mersa road from Darla we got bombed and machine gunned to hell with our own planes. Several of our mates got wounded & one got blown to bits. A hell of a day that was”. Relative to what was to come in the last years of the war conditions in the Italian camps were fairly good, though life there was apparently rather boring. The prisoners’ main complaint was about the quantity and quality of the food, which came to a head in George’s first Christmas behind the wire.
As you might expect for men held prisoner in a foreign, enemy, country there wasn’t much in the way of a build up to Christmas in the camp. In fact even Christmas cards were a luxury: there weren’t enough available for each man to send one home, and the prisoners had to draw lots to see who would be given a card. Luckily for George he won one, and sent it home on the 8th of December. Post to and from the camps during the war was slow, and George would not receive his first letter from home until March 1943. Apart from this there do not seem to have been any Christmas activities in the camp until Christmas Eve which was, for George and the others, a disappointment: after sports in the morning and afternoon, “we had a meat meal in evening. We had a concert in our hut in the evening it was very good, finished with a blind boxing match so that ended Xmas eve, of course we missed the beer and food. Just went to bed”.
If anything, Christmas Day was an even greater disappointment. Throughout the war the Red Cross distributed parcels to PoWs containing food, tobacco and hygiene items. The parcels were meant to supplement the rations that PoWs received in the camps which were usually insufficient in terms of both calories and nutrients. The parcels often came infrequently due to the circumstances of the war, but when they did arrive they were the highlight of the men’s week. Even more than these deliveries, though, the men hoped for one particular parcel. Every year at Christmas the Red Cross delivered Christmas dinner in a parcel to the PoWs, including everything from Christmas pudding to chocolate and sweets. Unfortunately for George and the other prisoners, in December 1942 their Christmas parcel never arrived.
On Christmas Day the men woke early and made a cup of tea, allowing themselves a ration of 2 or 3 biscuits from their remaining ordinary Red Cross parcel. After finishing this the day continued much as any other, with a parade and count of the prisoners, followed by a church service at 9 o’clock and the standard lunch ration “just the same as any other day”. In his usual understated style George simply recorded in his diary “The Red Cross Xmas parcel which we expected never turned up, a great disappointment”. In the afternoon the men received a small Christmas gift from their Italian captors: one orange for each prisoner. Later, it started to rain. At 4pm the men had their ordinary hot meal, with no Christmas extras. After a “sing song” in the evening their Christmas ended. George’s diary reveals his bitter disappointment: “and so to bed hungry & that was how we spent Christmas Day 1942 in our P.O.W. camp. I thought of home, all the good food. That’s all we think about hear [sic] is food”. Morale in the camps was often low, a consequence of having little to do but sit and think, and the missing Christmas parcel crushed the men’s spirits. This continued into Boxing Day – it rained constantly, and the men were forced to sit in their huts all day, with the same standard food ration that they had on any other day. George simply recorded in his diary “and so to bed, that was Boxing Day and Christmas once again over. Wonder where we shall be next Christmas”.
Over the next week life went on as normal until, in the New Year, a rumour ran round the camp that the Christmas parcels had arrived. On Monday 3 January George recorded in his diary “the tale was true – some Xmas parcels had come in but not enough for one each, so we are keeping them till Wednesday in case some more come in … Roll on Wednesday”. By Wednesday the missing parcels had still not come in, so the men had to share one between two. George copied the contents of his parcel into his diary:
Quite a feast for men used to one hot meal a day, which was often a ‘soup’ of a small amount of vegetables in water; by April 1945, when George was imprisoned in Germany, it was a distant luxury. In 1943, though, the men made sure to savour their good fortune. “We had our Xmas pudding hot”, George wrote in his diary, with “jam & Nestlé’s milk after it”, with an apple given to them by the Italians to mark Epiphany. Compared to his mood on Christmas Day, George was ecstatic: “this is my happiest day since P.O.W. the best food I had … a good day”. The next day the men finished off the remainder of their Christmas parcel, eating their cake, marmalade, butter, and beef & tomato pudding.
One of the documents in the Wiltshire Constabulary archives held here at the History Centre includes the Wartime Police Control Room Log (F5/270/2) which was used during 1944 and 1945. The Wiltshire Police Control Room was based at Devizes Headquarters and was and still is the central hub of communications for the force. At that time, the Devizes police station was in Bath Road. The new police HQ was built in 1964 and was a considerably larger building.
The log book not only registered downed aircraft, but firing practices, air raid warnings, evacuee arrivals and other war related incidences.
I have looked at two individual incidents which were logged in March and April 1944. Both incidents involved crashed German aircraft, I’ve added extra detail which I have found archived elsewhere. The first incident happened on March 14th 1944.
14/3/1944 2345 hours; initial reports of a plane crash about halfway between Alton Barnes and Devizes reported to Marlborough Police by an Orderly Sergeant at RAF Alton Barnes.
2355 Inspector Shears is dispatched to All Cannings as crash believed to be in vicinity.
15/03/1944 0100 confirmed that a plane, believed to be a German aircraft had crashed in a field adjacent to the canal at All Cannings. The plane had burnt out and bombs were in the field. They were unable to say if occupants were trapped. The RAF was guarding the scene and an Ambulance was en route from Devizes.
0120 Confirmation received that the aircraft was a German one with twin engines, model unknown at this stage. There was no trace of any crew ‘but feared from odour and fierceness of conflagration they have been trapped inside.’
0420 aircraft was identified by flight Lieutenant Rickitto as a J.U.88. (This aircraft a Junkers 88 no. 141152 was part of the Luftwaffe which had blitzed London that night. The crew had had specific orders to bomb Buckingham Palace and Whitehall. The plane had been pursued westerly out of London and experienced engine failure as it reached Wiltshire.)
0710 Major Hailey US forces at Tidworth reported that he had a German airman in custody. The prisoner had supplied descriptions of three other crewmen who had bailed out at the same time. RAF Lieutenant Ricketts (Interrogation Officer) requested that the prisoner be brought to Devizes Police Station for interrogation.
Two other German crew members were detained; one in Patney and the other in Bulford. Both were taken into custody in Devizes.
16/3/1944 1745 the body of the missing airman, the last of the crew, was found in a field in Patney, about 1 and a half miles from the crash scene. A parachute was attached to the body. (German Officer Unteroffizier Hans Schonleitner was buried at Haycombe Cemetery in Bath- local schoolchildren had found his body with a partially opened parachute).
There is a full narrative of that fateful flight on http://indianamilitary.org/ by the surviving tailgunner on board, Gerhard Grunewald (he was subsequently interred as a POW in America).
The final piece of the Arctic Convoy project has just been completed – and what a resounding success.
The History Centre joined forces with writer and arts facilitator Dawn Gorman to work with a group of young people on a creative writing project using the Second World War Arctic Convoy oral histories as source material. We approached St Laurence School in Bradford on Avon and the Chippenham Air Scouts to recruit youngsters to the project.
We were knocking on an open door at St Laurence as we had worked with the school in 2016 on the Iron Duke project and we knew there would be students eager to hone their creative writing skills. Four students signed up to the poetry workshops being run by Dawn.
To be fair the Scouts were a slightly trickier audience, even with the promise of earning another badge if they took part. Dawn and I attended one of their meetings and spoke with around 20 youngsters, mostly aged 11-13 and mostly boys, about the stories of the Arctic Convoy veterans and the idea that anyone and everyone can enjoy creative writing!
I had brought with me Second World War magazines, a selection of photographs of veterans interviewed by the History Centre in the first part of the project, and a medal presented by Russia to British sailors who had served on the convoy ships.
This brief session prompted two of the Scouts to share with the group that their great grandfathers had been sailors on Royal Navy ships escorting the merchant ships carrying supplies to Russia. In the end we had four Scouts signed up to the workshops and they were joined by a member of Corsham Sea Scouts.
The starting point for the creative writing was to listen to the stories told by some of the Wiltshire veterans of the convoys. These oral histories and their transcripts can be accessed at the History Centre. On our website we have uploaded a series of short films with abridged versions of the oral histories and it was these recordings that were used in this project.
Dawn worked in school with the Year 10 and 11 students on poems inspired by these men’s stories while the Scouts took part in a more structured series of workshops held at the History Centre.
The boys created both poetry and storyboards based on the Arctic Convoys. Dawn worked with them on “found poetry” – creating poems from pre-existing text – the five senses and creating a hero profile and story.
I was recently cataloguing an early 20th century postcard for our Historic Photograph & Print Collection which was quite unusual; it was commemorating the death of two gunners called Harrild and Murray. Included on the front of the postcard were photographs of each of them. I really wanted to find out more. What happened to these men and what were their full names? Even a location for the event wasn’t clear, so I needed help!
After a timely tweet, Trowbridge Museum came up trumps and confirmed that the men had been stationed at Trowbridge Barracks and had been involved in an accident with the funeral being held on 30th July 1909.
My next port of call was to a local newspaper, the Wiltshire Times, where on Saturday 24th July 1909 the inquest was reported. The two gunners were Sidney Harrild (age 19) and Richard Murray (age 26), and another, Gunner Wells, who was seriously injured. It appears that the gunners were removing primers from shells although there was a debate around whether the powder was also being removed. The powder in seven of the cartridges exploded, with “terrible results”. The funeral was also reported, occurring slightly earlier than we thought, on 27th July.
“With full military honours, the remains of Gunners Murray and Harrild were laid to rest on Tuesday afternoon, the awfulness of the tragedy and the solemn progress through the streets of the soldiers with their dead comrades combining to make this occasion one that will not soon be forgotten.”
I’ve been producing documents for the public from the archives for 21 years, during which time I’ve come to know the collections quite well. There are several extremely interesting collections that are very under used. One particular collection is the Parish War Books (WSRO F2/851/3/1 – F2/851/4/52) which are a very interesting piece of local history.
The Wiltshire Parish War Books have their origins with the Napoleonic Wars when there was a real threat of invasion from the French. In 1798 a plan was drawn up to make provisions in the event of this happening. Titled “Rendering The Body Of The People Instrumental In The General Defence” it laid out three plans. The first was to cut off the food supply to the French by moving all the live stock away from the enemy advancing. Another measure was “Breaking the upper millstone and the crown of the oven are deemed the most effectual and least expensive modes of derangement”. Second, was to supply the number of wagons, carts and horses with drivers and conductors that could be made available to help supply the British Army with provisions. Lastly, a plan for insuring the regular supply of bread to the army with instructions for bakers to bake loaves of three pounds or four and a half. A hard crust all the way around was needed otherwise they would not keep in hot weather.
Copyright Imperial War Museum
Fast forward 143 years and the risk of invasion was once again upon us. By mid 1940 German forces had invaded France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. “Operation Sea Lion” was the code name for Nazi Germany’s invasion plan of the U.K. during the Battle of Britain. In preparation, invasion committees were set up around the country.