Absent voters of 1918

Well dear reader you were warned – I might get random for the next couple of months and this is a random but, I think, interesting post. Having researched my local war memorial for the centenary of the Armistice I became fascinated in a village context with the men who fought and returned and who are today largely anonymous except, perhaps, within their own direct family line. The research went into a folder to be sorted out at a later date…which has now arrived.

One of the sources that can grant a snap shot of the men who had left their homes to fight in the Great War is the Absentee Voters’ List. In 1918 there was an election. It was held almost immediately after the war ended on 4th December. The Representation of the People Act was passed by Lloyd George’s Coalition Government to make provision for those who were serving in an official capacity away from their homes – this included the armed services and the merchant navy for example. These voters could either vote by post or by proxy. Lists of the eligible had to be drawn up and voting forms distributed – no mean feat.

There is no central list of absent voters- though the British Library does hold much of the information. The information I found relating to my polling district was held by my local records office. Not all lists of absentee voters are complete and there are errors – not surprising given the number of voters involved. It is also a snapshot of a relatively short period of time. However, it does identify and provide a more substantial insight into the number of people who were serving in some capacity. The full name of the absent voter, their usual place of residence followed by their service number and regiment is provided. Sadly two of the names on my list also feature on the war memorial.

The absentee voters should have filled in the voting forms themselves according to what I’ve read but I do find myself wondering about the logistics of sending forms of eligibility off to the far flung corners of the globe and the chances of them getting back to the correct location given that the Representation of the People Act was granted Royal Assent on 6th Feb 1918 – and then for the correct voting forms to reach the correct destination in late November. I am for instance not sure that the men facing the German counter attack of March 1918 would have necessarily been overly bothered by the thought of filling in their voting application forms or for that matter the chances of forms arriving at the right destination. It seems more likely that individual household supplied the information in the first instance – I shall continue reading to see what else I can find out about the process.

In any event Absentee Voters’ Lists are a very useful resource indeed to local historians and are also a very good example of the fact that even modern mass produced documents give pause for thought in terms of who wrote the material; is the information correct; which bits of the jigsaw does the primary source provide and which pieces might be wrong or missing.

The Representation of the People Act increased the number of people eligible to vote. Men over the age of twenty-one could now vote whether they owned land or not. Many of the men on the list I have would not have been eligible to vote before this point because of their status within society. The act also gave women over the age of thirty and who held property, or whose husbands’ held property with a rateable value of £5.00 or more the right to vote.

It would take another ten years before women were allowed to vote on the same terms as men. The election of 1929 was known as the Flapper Election because of the number of women voting. My grandmother voted for the first time in 1929 having been told by my grandfather prior to going to vote who she should vote for – I really do hope that once she was inside the voting booth that she voted for who she thought was the best candidate irrelevant of what she’d been told by her spouse half an hour previously.

Thankful villages and the men who came home but never really left the trenches

IMG_0876Thankful villages are the ones that sent men off to fight in the World Wars and all the men who enlisted survived. To be Doubly Thankful means that the village in question saw the return of all its men in both World War One and World War Two.  Survival is, of course, not the same as returning unscathed.    The first time the phrase was coined was by Arthur Mee in his King’s England series of guidebooks – something which I still use on a regular basis What I’m less sure about is how many there are in total.  Mee was only able to identify 24 for certain and a quick trawl of the net reveals that the Telegraph thinks there are 56 such villages. Even the number of doubly thankful villages is open to question with thirteen being the most common response but occasionally fourteen being mentioned.

For the men who did return life had changed.  Pugh makes the point that the Church had preached war and many vicars had encouraged their congregations to enlist.  Evidence suggests that church attendance began a steep decline from the end of the war onwards because for many people the clergy had become symbolic of the State and had told the lie that it was a great and able thing to die for your country. Faith was shaken and certainties tottered.  From 1917 onwards there was a wave of strikes.  In the years following the Great War concern was not so much for declining church attendance as for an upsurge in Communism and revolution.

For other men there were physical injuries, the effects of gas and the disillusionment of a country that promised much for its returning soldiers but delivered little.  Many of the men remained silent about their experiences but one historian estimates that approximately 20% of returning soldiers suffered from shell shock.  The British Army dealt with 80000 cases during the war but for the majority of men the truth was that they just had to get on with it – the archetypal stiff upper lip was required.  There are interesting interviews from children who recalled their father’s return and the resulting lack of stability or financial security on file in the Imperial War Museum.

There were some socially unacceptable diseases that made their way to Blighty and the far flung reaches of the Commonwealth as well – a good proportion of the soldiery had contracted syphilis.

Roberts makes the point that it is unfair to blame the war for everything – a proportion of the men who returned home, self medicated with alcohol, fought and abused their womenfolk must have been rogues to start off with. Emsley’s article notes that newspapers were keen to promote the idea of violence resulting from character change during the war.  Indeed, Christie – as in the serial killer- claimed to have been one such having suffered from shell shock during the war but exploration of his past reveals that there were issues which pre-dated the war.  Even the Metropolitan Police were wary of men grown callas as a result of the war.

For others who returned there was restlessness that led to being unable to settle not to mention estrangement from family life and their pre-war lives.  Some of these men and their families finally recorded their experiences and these can be accessed in the Imperial War Museum or in private correspondence.  It would be interesting to know what proportion of men were so unable to settle that they eventually led a life of homelessness.

Other men were not able to hide their trauma.  In 1914 500 men were consigned to county lunatic asylums. By 1918 there were nearly 5,000 beds in War Mental Hospitals as it had been agreed that it was unfair to stigmatise citizen soldiers with lunacy as a result of their wartime experiences. These hospitals had been established by the Asylum War Hospital Scheme which ran from 1915 until 1919.  Under the scheme service men were required to be sent home to their families for care or sent to a war hospital rather than a county asylum.   The mental hospitals were known as war hospitals to avoid stigma.

In reality many of these hospitals were county asylums, renamed with their pre-war patients relocated to other asylums – resulting in the civilian population of mental health patients suffering lack of stability and familiar surroundings, overcrowding and an increase in patient mortality.

After the war ex-servicemen who could not return to civilian life due to mental health problems had to be dealt with differently. In some cases they were registered as private patients so spared the title lunatic. However by the 1920s the government was less keen to extend its pension provision to men who had been unable to emerge for the asylum or who had succumbed to the trauma of their experiences after the end of the conflict. It was decided by the State that genuine cases recovered – or bounced back to mental health- whilst malingers and those men who obviously had underlaying mental difficulties which had nothing to do with war continued to need care and thus came under the auspices of the county and the poor law – and could be labelled lunatic.

Not cheery – but I’ve got the information that I need!  Now all that’s required is to write the novel….


Barham, Peter. 2004 Forgotten Lunatics of the Great War. New Haven: Yale University Press

Emsley, Clive (2008). Violent crime in England in 1919: post-war anxieties and press narratives. Continuity and Change, 23(1) pp. 173–195.


Pugh, Martin. We Danced All Night


The Other War Dead: Asylum Patients during the First World War




Intelligence officers on the front line

IMG_0865At the beginning of World War One approximately fifty men received a telegram inviting them to join the newly formed Intelligence Corps. Amongst their number were officers from the Metropolitan Police.  Many of them worked behind enemy lines, others identified enemy agents and sabateurs. Some of the intelligence officers had motor bikes so that they could get to out of the way sites in order to find out what the enemy was doing.  They were particularly interested in maps and papers that might have been lost by the enemy.  As the war evolved they also questioned prisoners of war.  Initially this task might have fallen to the battalion intelligence officer but as the war progressed it became a more centralised role.


Other forms of intelligence gathering involved the battalion intelligence officer going into no man’s land and raiding enemy trenches in order to gather information – again this might involve finding maps but more usually it meant collecting a prisoner. This meant going into the darkness lightly armed with a small group of men who would be prepared for hand-to-hand combat.  Orders from further along the chain of command required a prisoner.  It was also regarded as important to know which regiments and battalions faced you on the other side of the battlefield.  Most ordinary soldiers, from first hand testimony kept in the Imperial War Museum, dreaded this kind of intelligence gathering not least because it was often seen as a waste of time and life.  Other testimony suggested that even if it didn’t gain the required information it was seen as a way of preventing ordinary soldiers from becoming trench bound and hardening them to the realities of No Man’s land – an eyebrow raising comment in these times.

On other occasions the aim was not to raid the trench and take a captive, the sole aim of this was often to find out which troops were in the field but simply to cut the wire, in advance of an attack or to listen to what was being said by the enemy – so a German speaking intelligence officer was presumably a helpful addition to a battalion.

Fans of the of black and white Sherlock Holmes films may know that Basil Rathbone, who played Holmes, was a battalion intelligence officer during the First World War.  This meant that twice a week he led patrols into no man’s land and then had to report on what he had found.  The report which Rathbone talked about in his autobiography was often vague but the idea was that not only should he observe what was happening in enemy lines but talk to different patrols and snipers and record what they had seen.   It was his responsibility to know the lay of the land and it is recorded in some instances that the intelligence officer placed markers in No Man’s land before his battalion attacked the enemy. It was also his responsibility to know what was happening and feed it back up the line.

In some cases it appears to have been the Intelligence Officer who kept the war diary which was not his role at all.  Different intelligence officers seem also to have had different skills which were not necessarily limited to intelligence gathering but which would have been useful additional skills.  Some had links with scouting and patrols which makes sense.  There is also evidence to suggest that some officers were trained to deal with signals but these were different branches of the service and would not have been performed by one officer.

For those who are interested A. A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh was a signals officer during World War One as was JRR Tolkien.  Milne was eventually withdrawn from the front line due to illness and spent the rest of the war as a different kind of intelligence officer in Whitehall dealing with propaganda.

Ultimately Rathbone suggested that night time patrols were of limited value.  He suggested something more radical. He found himself sent out during the daylight hours dressed in camouflage.  This involved going into No Man’s land before dawn and then staying very still indeed.  Rathbone was eventually rewarded with a Military Cross.

Other forms of intelligence gathering involved listening posts and, of course, the air force. Beach’s study of General Haig’s intelligence considers the way in which the British perceived the German Army and why they thought that they were winning in 1916.  He reflects on the way that the growth of intelligence gathering influenced strategy.

Beach, Jim. (2015)  Haig’s intelligence : GHQ and the German Army, 1918  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Rathbone, Basil. In and Out of Character.



Insanity, the law and asylums

bedlam hogarthThe word Bedlam comes from the Priory of St Mary at Bethlehem which was founded in London during the thirteenth century.  By 1377 it had become home to people suffering from mental illness or as the inhabitants were described at the time – “distracted persons.”  The law meanwhile was concerned that landowners were of sound mind and indeed the law continued to be concerned about property throughout the centuries.  By 1735 Hogarth was using Bedlam to end his social moral fable of the Rake’s Progress and the conditions in which patients found themselves were horrendous.

Fans of Poldark will no doubt have noted that the care of George Warleggan in the eighteenth century has to date not been kind following the death of his wife Elizabeth – he’s been half drowned, starved, restrained and leeched within an inch of his life.  However, this is not a post about the eighteenth century or earlier.  I want to look in this post  at the development of the law during the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century with a view to understanding the process by which women could become confined to a county mental hospital during the Great War.  This post is not a definitive guide – its research for my own nefarious reasons.  It would have to be said that the terminology by which mental health was described throughout history gives very little thought to the patients or their families.

By the end of the nineteenth century more than 70,000 patients had passed through the doors of an insane asylum of some kind or other.  Nationally there were 120 asylums.   The 1800 Criminal Lunatic Act was particularly interested in securing those people who wanted to assassinate the monarch and the criminally insane.  The 1808 County Asylum Act dealt with fund raising methods that combined taxation with public subscription.  The idea was that the poor insane should be removed from workhouses and prisons. The wealthy insane were being paid for by their families and resided in private sanitariums or were locked up in various secluded attic rooms (see Jane Eyre and The Woman in White for literary examples.)  Almost inevitably lunacy became a condition in many counties as a method of differentiating between the deserving and undeserving poor.  There was also the fact that men and women who behaved in a socially unacceptable way could be deemed to be mad and shut away, often for the rest of their lives.  Records reveal that many people spent their lives locked in asylums having been sent there for reasons other than madness, including in one instance for excessive shopping in her husband’s opinion.

Sneinton in Nottingham was the first asylum founded by a mixture of subscription and taxation. The county had not offered care of any kind for poor people suffering from mental health difficulties before that date.  The West Riding’s asylum opened in Wakefield in 1818 though its minutes date from 1814.  Further parliamentary acts defined lunacy, attempted to regulate private asylums and sought to monitor the health care provided – good practice and well meaning concern was mixed with what modern eyes would define as barbaric practice.

In 1828 an act required all pauper lunatics to be documented and certificated.  This in turn would mean that commissioners would be able to inspect institutions and people incorrectly placed in asylums would be released (in theory) and care could be monitored – gradually more humane treatment became more the norm although restraint remained common practice for a very long time as did incarcerating people not for mental health problems but for their socially unacceptable behaviour or for having the misfortune to be born with learning difficulties.

In 1845 county asylums became a legal obligation and the Lunacy Commissioners were appointed to oversee the running of asylums. It was only in 1890 with the passage of another act that county asylums began to move away from their pauper associations to begin their evolution to hospitals caring for all walks of life.

Interestingly Wakefield was one of the first asylums to employ therapeutic employment, though this was thanks to the enlightened attitude of Dr William Ellis who moved from Wakefield to Hanwell in 1832. Ellis was a believer in the benefits of outdoor work rather than the brutality espoused by earlier “mad doctors.”  It is perhaps for this reason that many of the Victorian asylums were set in beautiful grounds.  Hanwell is also an example of changing attitudes in terms of names.  It opened as an asylum in 1832 but became a hospital  in 1926 and was then completely renamed in a bid to dissociate itself from past stigma. Not that this has ever been successful as group memory lasts longer than a name change – The Garlands in Carlisle was guaranteed to make my mother-in-law concerned for the mental well being of anyone sent there irrelevant of the fact that it had long since been renamed and re-purposed.  Many hospitals were not only renamed but shut and then demolished during the later half of the twentieth century and early twenty-first century.  For example,  Derby’s mental hospital remains a building site although the twin brick entrances remain – architecturally it is helpfully described by Kelly’s Directory.

The Lunacy Act of 1890 covered admission to private asylums but did not change the 1845 Lunacy Act and 1853 Act for pauper lunatics – by which it meant anyone unable to earn the money to pay for their care – on the grounds they were confined or without sufficient wealth to fund their care as averse to the destitute. The Lunacy Act of 1845, required  two medical certificates signed by qualified medical doctors for admission to lunatic asylums. The qualified medical doctor could incidentally be a pharmacist.  In theory a JP or official should have organised the doctor to examine the person to be admitted but it seems as though this happened prior to the jp being involved. In practice it would appear that one doctor and a vicar would be enough to certify a poor person in some locations.   The 1890 Act required an additional “summary reception order” particularly in the case of private admissions. This was also known as  “legal certification.” The 1890 law stated, as an additional safeguard against wrongful committal, that a justice of the peace specially appointed, a county court judge, or a magistrate could issue legal certification for privately admitted patients.  There was a £50 fine for any institution that was found not to have followed the correct procedure. The 1890 act also applied a time limit to the the duration of a stay in a private asylum.  The 1890 act also ensured that a policy of licensing developed that would help to bring about the demise of private asylums.

The act of 1890 reflects the increasing opposition to private asylums following examples of wrongful confinement relating to inheritance and unhappy marriage etc but as is the way of these things people still wanted to get rid of difficult, embarrassing or inconvenient relations so there was a flurry of illegal nursing homes prosecutions during the period that followed. The problem still existed after the passage of the 1927 act pertaining to the care of people with mental health disorders.

In 1910 there were slightly more than a thousand criminal lunatics, approximately 10,500 private patients and a staggering 118,901 pauper lunatics.  The numbers would steadily rise until the 1950s.  The State was concerned about the growth of insanity in the poorer classes.  Amongst this number were people suffering from senility and dementia, epilepsy, melancholia, learning difficulties, moral insanity and congenital insanity.  The causes were variously listed as heredity, excessive drinking, syphilis, influenza apparently caused madness in 2.8% of cases, starvation and mental stress.  It was also recognised that the onset of puberty could trigger some mental illness. 53% of female private cases were because of childbirth.  Essentially the first six weeks of motherhood left rich women at risk of insanity but only 7.5 % of pauper women.

The Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 identified four categories of young person who might need to be managed and cared for – these included the feeble-minded and the moral imbecile. This rather effectively ruled out the requirement for medical certification as a parent or guardian just needed to petition for the person to be placed in an institution.

Feeble minded:  that is to say, persons in whose case there exists from birth or from an early age’ mental defectiveness not amounting to imbecility, yet  so pronounced that they require care, supervision, and control for their own protection or for the protection, of others, or, in the case of children,’ that they by reason of such defectiveness appear to be permanently incapable of receiving proper benefit from the instruction in ordinary schools.

Moral imbeciles: that is to say, persons who from an early age display some permanent mental defect coupled with strong viciously criminal propensities on which punishment has had little or no deterrent effect.
One of the identifiers for moral imbecility was to be in receipt of poor relief, unmarried and pregnant. In addition to two medical certificates testifying to lunacy the master of the asylum was also required to determine the sanity of the person being admitted.The chances of you being committed were much higher if you were a woman – hysteria covered a multitude of criteria as did “female disease.”
Have I got what I wanted? Yes – a woman without private means during the early years of the twentieth century could be detained as a pauper lunatic.  All that would be required would be a medical certificate signed by a doctor or a pharmacist stating that she had been examined at some point during the previous week and was deemed by them to be insane.  An order from a JP, vicar or poor law relief officer was also needed.  Once admitted there was no appeal.  Following the passage of the 1913 act even this became much easier to implement if a young woman was deemed to be a moral imbecile. She did not have to be under twenty-one.  If her behaviour was deemed morally imbecilic in that she demonstrated an inability to exercise self control she could be given a guardian who could arrange for her to be admitted to an institution based not on the word of a doctor but on the person appointed her guardian (I think I’ve understood it right but am more than happy to be corrected.)  Of course this was not to punish the woman but to provide a safeguard for society!  As mental hospitals closed down during the 1970s there were newspaper articles about women who had spent most of their adult lives in mental hospitals based on the fact that they had a child out of wedlock. 

Not immediately related but of a similar vein it is interesting to note that following World War One there is evidence of the State regulating women’s behaviour in terms of widows’ pensions which was a natural follow on from the separation allowances granted to military wives during the war. In theory the wife of an agricultural labourer could be financially more secure with the separation allowance than she had been before her husband became a soldier.  However, if she misbehaved herself this was removed.  Taken together with the concept of moral imbecility it is apparent that women were required to tow the line or that the State would step in to regulate their behaviour.  This would, of course, have depended on the people managing the system in a given area.
As I said at the start of this post – I’m looking for evidence to use elsewhere so it is one sided rather than balanced – and having found it I shall now go away and plot!




Victorian Era Lunatic Asylums

“Lunacy In England And Wales.” The British Medical Journal, vol. 2, no. 2605, 1910, pp. 429–431. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25284642.
“Moral Imbecility And The Mental Deficiency Act.” The British Medical Journal, vol. 1, no. 2789, 1914, pp. 1316–1317. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25310285.

Showalter,  Elaine. (1987) The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 London: Virago.

Takabyashi, Akinobu.  “Surviving the Lunacy Act of 1890: English Psychiatrists and Professional Development during the Early Twentieth Century” . 2017 Apr; 61(2): 246–269 accessed from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5426304/


Arson, poison murder plot, secret agents and a hat pin.

Breadsall 1There may have been a  church on the site of  All Saints in Breadsall since Saxon times – certainly the stones at the bottom of the tower suggest as much.  The Normans rebuilt  and there were further changes in the thirteenth century to create a place of worship in the Early English style. Succeeding generations placed their mark on the building. It even boasted a set of chained medieval books and an Elizabethan altar until the night of 4th June 1914 when the whole lot went up in smoke.

At 11.30 pm the alarm was raised by Mr Hopkins who saw the light in the church from his cottage.  He alerted the verger who in turn summoned the rector and the church wardens.  Before long local inhabitants were through buckets of water on the fire with little or no effect.  Meanwhile the motorised fire engine in Derby needed permission before it could attend the fire so that by the time it arrived the Norman tower was an inferno.

Reverend Whitaker told journalists that suffragettes were responsible.  The aged cleric was adamant.  Witnesses spoke of an explosion suggesting arson.  The church had no electricity or gas to have caused the effect. His worst fears were confirmed when Alice Wheeldon confessed to having done so, though not to the police.

CRIwheeldonH2.jpgThe problem with this neat scenario is that aside from Alice’s confession (seated on the far left of the picture next to her two daughters and a prison warder) the only evidence of suffragette involvement were three letters which arrived after the event  and some graffiti on a wall a mile away – in other cases letters were left at the scene at the time of the arson rather than arriving afterwards. The only other evidence was a woman sized hole in a window and a hat pin which was found nearby.

Other suffragettes were available nearby (Nottingham) as were some members of the Boys Brigade (camping) -who might presumably  have fitted through a “woman-sized” hole  – though presumably they might not have required a hat pin to fix their headgear!  hough its not beyond the realms of possibility that the hat pin was simply an example of lost property.  In any event no one has ever been arrested for the destruction of All Saints.

Just when it couldn’t have got much stranger Alice was arrested on 30 January 1917,  with two of her daughters, and charged with conspiracy to murder both the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George and Labour Party Minister Arthur Henderson.

Alice was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was sent to Aylesbury Prison where she went on hunger strike.  From there she was sent to Holloway.  However, Lloyd George requested her release  from prison.  This happened, on licence, on 31 December 1917.  The family had always maintained that their arrests were the result of an elaborate set up, Alice was radical in her opposition to the war.  Alice, her health damaged by the hunger strike, died in 1919 but was cleared of the charges in 2013.

Meanwhile All Saints underwent restoration at a cost of £11,000.



drummers drumming and pipers piping

VIuwyMU.jpgPercussion has been used on the battle field for a very long time not only to control the marching pace of soldiers but also to pass commands and create fear in the opposing army. Apparently the  Europeans learned about drums as a military technique during the Crusades when Saladin used military bands. The crusaders found them somewhat off-putting and recorded as much in their chronicles.  The Ottomans are known to have continued the tradition.  Kettle drums found their way to Spain which was part of the Ottoman empire until the fifteenth century.

A look at the accounts reveals that Edward I and Edward III had drummers on their payrolls.  Not only did they use their drummers on the battle field but they used the drum to indicate that they were about to arrive – fanfare like.

The tabor was a medieval drum which is derived from the French word tambour.  It could be played one handed.  It’s modern equivalent is the snare drum.  By the eighteenth century the fife had entered the equation although we do still tend to think of the underage drummer boy. Ultimately the drum would be replaced by the bugle for passing commands. It should be added that the Saracens had used a form of bugle to signal the start of battle.  It was noted by chroniclers in 1191. However, the drum and ‘to follow the drum’ had become synonymous with the army.  Regimental drums were almost as important as their colours.

Meanwhile it turns out that bagpipes have long been classified as a weapon of war. Essentially in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion James Reid declared that he had never borne arms for Bonnie Prince Charlie – he’d only played the bagpipes. At  which point the court sitting in York constituted the bagpipes a weapon of war and hanged Reid. The law was finally revoked in 1996 in a dispute over whether it was lawful to play the pipes on common land or not.

Rather than 12 pipers it seems appropriate to finish 2018 with reference to the 2500 pipers from Britain and the Commonwealth nations who served in the trenches during World War One.  These men received an extra penny a day to be the first over the top into no man’s land.  They were unarmed aside from their pipes. Half of them were killed as they strode into the mud, slaughter and machine gun fire.

The Flowers of the Forest was written as a lament after the Battle of Flodden in 1513.  Its words remain appropriate to these brave men:

The Flowers of the Forest, that foucht aye the foremost,
The prime o’ our land are cauld in the clay.

We’ll hae nae mair lilting, at the yowe-milking,
Women and bairns are dowie and wae.
Sighing and moaning, on ilka green loaning,
The Flowers of the forest are all wede away.


Blades, James. Percussion Instruments and their history.

Poppy Festival

IMG_0876Who would have thought helping to put a poppy festival together could be so time consuming…or require so many poppies.  It was a humbling experience to consider that on average for each day of the Great War 1500 men from all sides of the conflict were killed.  It took much longer than that to make the 1500 poppies that decorated St Thomas’s.  Every one was involved from pre-school toddlers to, school children, to the scouts, the WI and the anonymous individuals who left  beautiful hand knitted and crocheted poppies on my doorstep and which now climb from floor to the top of the gallery at the back of the church.

Twelve men are named on the war memorial opposite the church.  It is sited in a spot that was once the corner of the garden where Private Joseph Brindley  played as a child before he turned seventeen and joined the marines.  I had the honour to read his diary and to see the hole in its pages that marked the track of the bullet that killed him at the beginning of September 1918.  I can only imagine the grief that his family must have suffered when they unwrapped the parcel that arrived containing his dress uniform, trench periscope and diary.

Tomorrow normal blogging will resume – today though, here are a few pictures of poppies:

Reuben Orr 1899-1916

1c414ed2-981e-4977-ac62-1bf03712a010.jpgToday’s post is slightly different from my usual fare. As the majority of readers will be aware today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. I would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to Reuben Orr of the tenth battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, regimental number 21190. He’s the boy  in the middle of the photograph that no recruiting officer could possibly have believed to be of fighting age when he took the King’s shilling.


The Royal Inniskilling Regiment raised thirteen battalions during the First World War. At least three of those young recruits were Reuben and two of his siblings. His cousins may have joined up as well. It was something of a family tradition. His half-brother James Futter had enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Regiment at the age of eighteen in 1905.


The 10th (Service) Battalion (Derry) was formed in September 1914 at Omagh from the Derry Volunteers. The division left for France in July 1915 and the following year found itself on a battle field that would become known as The Somme.


The artillery began its final bombardment of enemy lines at 6.45am on the morning of July. The tenth battalion as part of the 109th Brigade left their trenches at 7.15 am. They began their advance across the no-mans land at 7.30 am on the sound of Drummer Jack Downs bugle call. Their task was to move up the Thiepval Ridge and take the Schwaben Redoubt by means of a direct frontal assault.  At their head was a drum and a flag bearing the name “Derrys.” They moved so swiftly that by 8.45am the German redoubt had been taken and the brigade advanced towards their next objective. However, they had become isolated as the units on either side of them were unable to take their objectives.

Of the 2,700 Inniskillings who took part that day 604 died. They are buried and commemorated at the memorial at Thiepval. One of them, the boy in the photograph at the beginning of this post has no known grave. He died on his seventeenth birthday. He’s my husband’s great-uncle.




The Schlieffen Plan

warmemorialponLord Palmerston managed to secure an international treaty guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality in 1839. Barbara Tuchman makes the point that Palmerston recognised that the neutrality of Belgium was essential for peace in Europe – if the Germans, French or Austro-Hungarian Empire laid hands upon the territory it would always be a source for conflict.

In 1892 France and Russia signed a military alliance.  This meant that if Germany went to war with either of these countries then they would face war on two fronts.  The Germans decided they needed a plan and that the best thing to do would be to neutralise France first because they considered the French to be weaker.  This would then leave the Germans free to concentrate their attention upon the Russians.  It also meant the the French had to be dealt with quickly before any Russian advance could gain the upper hand.

With this in mind Schlieffen, who was Germany’s Chief of General Staff, began to plan what Germany would do in the event of war.  He began work on his plan in 1897 and completed it in 1906.  It dictated the rate of the German advance and the speed at which victory must be achieved.  He allowed six weeks and seven eighths of German forces.  An admirer of Hannibal, Schlieffen’s plan was to outflank France and occupy enemy territory – ignoring the neutrality of any territories who happened to be in the way of the German advance.

The first element of the plan involved a German force attacking the French where they expected to be attacked- in the east – where they had strengthen their borders in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.  The French would hurry to defend their border but in the meantime the real strength of the German Army would be elsewhere waiting to pounce.


The plan to invade Belgium, east of the Meuse was formulated in 1899.  Moving into France through Switzerland was discounted not because of Swiss neutrality but because moving armies through mountains isn’t terribly easy.  By contrast both Belgium and Holland – although neutral- were nice and flat by comparison.  The Schlieffen Plan required violation of both these territories.  A treaty was after all, “just a piece of paper.”  The General wanted a wide sweep for the German Armies.  Famously he said, “when you march into France, let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve.”


The Kaiser did ask King Leopold II if it would be alright for his army to pop through Belgium when Leopold made a  state visit in 1898.  Leopold who had not had an enjoyable visit to Germany gave the Kaiser a long hard stare and said, “Non!” He made sure that the British Government knew what the Kaiser had asked of him when he returned home.


As war drew ever closer the Germans tried to persuade Leopold’s successor, his nephew King Albert, to allow them free passage.  As August 1914 got underway the German Ambassador in Belgium received a note from home.  It contained a message for Albert saying that the French were about to violate his country’s neutrality and in view of this news the Germans demanded the right to cross his territory. On the 6th August (four days after receiving the note) the German Ambassador received instructions to pass the message to King Albert.

At 7 a.m. the Belgians returned their answer to the German demand.  It was an unqualified – ‘Non!‘  They reminded the Germans that not only were they a neutral country but that Germany had signed the treaty which promised to uphold that neutrality…a response which was a tad inconvenient to the Germans and which threatened to involve Britain which had also guaranteed Belgian neutrality.


The original plan was that once the bulk of the German Army had traversed Belgium and Holland it would move eastwards in a wheel like motion (think of an anti-clockwise spiral going down the plug hole – or one of those lively looking weather systems that swirl around on the weather forecast to get the general idea of what Schlieffen envisaged – I’m sure that there’s a military term for it that describes it better than out-flanking.)  In any event, once the French Army was outflanked it could be surrounded and neutralised.

Planning is all well and good.  The problem is that people and nations don’t always do what is predicted of them.  The Germans expected the French to violate Belgian neutrality as soon as their own incursion became known.  Furthermore the Germans did not expect the Belgians to put up a fight which given Leopold’s response in 1898 seems a bit optimistic of them.

Changes were also made to the Schlieffen Plan by General von Moltke the Chief of General Staff in 1914.  He reserved 15 percent of Germany’s forces because he thought that the Russians could mobilise more quickly than Schlieffen had given them credit for.  Moltke also believed that while the British would definitely go to war if both Belgium and Holland were invaded that they might not be so aggrieved if just Belgium was invaded.  This meant that the war had to take place on a much narrower front.  It also meant that the Germans had to overcome Liege which was heavily fortified.

In order for the plan to succeed the Germans needed speed.  The Belgians put up stiff resistance to the German invasion resulting in delay for the Germans at Liege where twelve well defended forts halted their advance. It was only on the 10th August that the first of the forts fell to the Germans following a pounding by howitzers under the command of General von Bulow.  On the 16th Liege finally surrendered.  The Germans advanced towards the Meuse but the Belgians destroyed the bridge as they retired.  On the 18th August, King Albert ordered the Belgian Army  to retreat to Antwerp.  They arrived there by the 20th.  This meant that the Germans had to deploy some of their army to keep the Belgians in Antwerp – which wasn’t part of the Schlieffen Plan at all.

As their plan began to unravel the Germans became more determined to cow the Belgian population into behaving itself.  Roughly translated Shrecklichkeit means frightfulness. War is always frightful but on the morning of the 19th August the Germans shot 150 Belgian civilians at Aerschot for no reason other than they were there and because the policy of Shrecklichkeit was to be enforced.

The image of Gallant Little Belgium was embedded in British minds along with the nastiness of the Germans.  Schlieffen’s plan was not so neat on the ground as it had been on paper.

The image in this blog is of a French soldier on the war memorial in Pon.  I am also starting to organise my timeline of history for the twentieth century.