Wreath 31st July 2017
Portsmouth Naval Memorial Southsea
John F White (1896 - 1917)
Pte. Royal Army Medical Corps 461550
From a naval family based in the city since the 1870's, John Frederick White volunteered to serve but not in a combat role. As a member of the RAMC,he was a stretcher bearer, one of the most dangerous and courageous roles in the Great War. The RAMC retrieved and tended the wounded on the battlefield and in casualty clearing stations operating under fire and without the agreement that has protected medical staff in the conflicts since WW1.
An accomplished musician, he took his clarinet to war with him.
John Frederick died on the first day of Passchendale at Pilckem Ridge His body was never recovered and the Army Grave's Service was never able to trace his remains. He was posthumously awarded the Victory John Frederick in RAMC uniform and British War Medals and is commemorated on Panel 56 of the Menin Family archive Gate memorial and the Portsmouth WW1 memorial in Guildhall Square.
Portsmouth Poetry Passchendaele Big Screen Video
Includes interview with Lynda Ibbotson, niece of John Frederick White
I walk 'mid shambles, smear and stench,
The dead I mourn,
I bear the stretcher and I bend
O'er Fritz and Pierre and Jack to mend,
What shells have torn"
John Finley RAMC
By kind permission of the Imperial War Museum
© IWM (Q 2855)
Memorial to RAMC National Arboretum
Ellis Humphrey Evans was he eldest of eleven children born to Evan and Mary Evans in Trawsfynydd, Meririonydd in Wales. Despite only a basic education, he had composed his first poem at eleven, "Y Das Fawn" (the peat stack). Highly influenced by the Romantic poet Shelley, he took part in numerous competitions and local Eisteddfodau and won his first 'chair' in Bala in 1907. At the age of 20, he adopted the bardic name 'Hedd Wyn', Welsh for "blessed peace" a reference to the sun's rays penetrating the mists in the valleys of Meirionydd. Like Robert Burns, he was also known as the "shepherd poet".
Although he was a pacifist and agricultural work was a 'reserved occupation', the introduction of conscription required his family send one of its sons to war. Ellis enlisted rather than send his younger brother Robert. In June 1917, Hedd Wyn joined the 15th Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers and on July 31st they marched to Pilckem Ridge.
A fellow soldier, Simon Jones, recalled,
"We started over Canal Bank at Ypres and he was killed half way across Pilckem. I've heard many say that they were with Hedd Wyn and this and that, well I was with him... I saw him fall and I can say that it was a nosecap shell in his stomach that killed him. You could tell that... He was going in front of me, and I saw him fall on his knees and grab two fistfuls of dirt... He was dying, of course... There were stretcher bearers coming up behind us, you see. There was nothing – well, you'd be breaking the rules if you went to help someone who was injured when you were in an attack."
Hedd Wyn was carried to a first-aid post still conscious and died at about 11:00 a.m. He is buried in Artillery Wood Cemetery, near Boezinge, Belgium.
In September 1917, the National Eisteddfod, held in the company of Prime Minister David Lloyd George, announced that the winner of the bardic chair was an entry submitted under the pseudonym 'Fleur de Lys'. Trumpets were sounded three times for the author to identify themselves until the Archdruid Dyfed announced the winner had been killed in action six weeks
earlier. The empty chair was then draped in a black sheet. It was
delivered to Evans' parents in the same condition, The festival
is now referred to as "Eisteddfod y Gadair Ddu" ("The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair").
Francis Ledwidge, (1887 - 1917)
Francis Edward Ledwidge, like Hedd Wyn, was a farm labourer poet. Born in Janeville,
Slane, County Meath in Ireland, the eighth of nine children in a poverty-stricken family. Sometimes known as the
"poet of the blackbirds",
Leaving school at thirteen, he worked in various jobs. He was sacked for trade union activity as a member of the Meath Labour Union. He was both a Nationalist and Left-wing.
Strongly built, with striking brown eyes, he wrote where ever he could – sometimes even on gates or fence posts. From the age of fourteen his works were published in his local newspaper until he won the patronage of the writer, Lord Dunsany, who introduced him to W.B. Yeats.
The outbreak of the Great War split Irish Nationalists into those who supported the war and those who did not. Although instinctively one of the latter, Ledwidge enlisted (24 October 1914) in the 5th battalion Royal Inniskillin Fusiliers, Lord Dunsany's regiment, despite Dunsanay's opposition and offer of an income to support him. Some have speculated that he went to war because his sweetheart
Ellie Vaughey had found a new lover whom she later married, but
Ledwidge himself wrote forcefully, that he could not stand aside while
others sought to defend Ireland's freedom.
He fought in the Dardenelles and Serbia despite losing rank for being drunk after the failure of the Easter Rising in 1916.
31 July 1917, a group from Ledwidge's battalion of the Royal Inniskillin
Fusiliers were road-laying in preparation for an assault during the Third
Battle of Ypres, near the village of Boezinge, northwest of Ypres.
While Ledwidge was drinking tea in a mud hole with his comrades, a shell
exploded alongside, killing the poet and five others. A chaplain who knew him,
Father Devas, arrived soon after, and recorded "Ledwidge killed, blown to
Although the two never met, Ledwidge' remains were buried at Carrefour de Rose, and later re-interred in the nearby Artillery Wood Military Cemetery, Boezinge, where the Welsh poet Hedd Wyn is buried.
Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.
And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest.
So, Spring shall come and leave it seet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest
THIS LISTS THE MAIN ENGAGEMENTS AND EVENTS OF THE BATTLE. IT DOES NOT DETAIL THEM OR EXPLAIN THE COMPLEXITIES OF STRATEGY, OFFENSIVE AND COUNTER-OFFENSIVE FOR WHICH YOU SHOULD CONSULT THE MANY DETAILED HISTORIES OF WW1
Admiral John Jellicoe
August 2nd 2017 / 1917
The rains came today,
stout winds, unseasoned chill,
to wash away the vivid febrile summer.
hunched against the weather,
we run to home, relief
and shared complaint
from this barometric misfortune.
The rains came today,
By kind permission of the Imperial War Museum turning the ground to mire.
© IWM (Q 6053) We watched the dead rise up up through their blanket of clay,
horses and men drown.
Only the orders did not falter
Josh Brown only the ceaseless dying.
Many thousands more tried their luck and were turned away
Reasons probably include --
Newspaper article announcing Sidney Lewis's discharge from the army
The youngest known recruit was 12 !
Private Sidney Lewis served at the Somme when he was only twelve. George Maher, who was only 13 at the time,
claims Lewis was too short to see over the edge of the trench."The
youngest was 12 years old. A little nuggety bloke he was, too. We joked
that the other soldiers would have had to have lifted him up to see over
The youngest soldier to die was 14 !
Private 6322 John Condon is buried in Poelcapelle cemetery (Row F, Plot 56) Pte Condon, lied about his age to fight for his country, is recorded as the youngest soldier to die in the war. He was killed in the Second Battle of Ypres, less than 10 miles away, on May 24, 1915 in one of the worst massacres of the war when the Germans used poisonous chlorine gas for the first time. The boy soldier had claimed he was 18 when he enlisted in his home town of Waterford, Ireland. He was really a pre-pubescent 12-year-old, too young to shave. He was 14 when he was killed. Claims that he was actually 18 have been rejected by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Only the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey receives more visitors.
Fifteen-year-old Cyril Jose, a
tin-miner's son from Cornwall, joined for adventure and to escape crippling unemployment.
He wrote to his sister,
"Dearest Ivy, stand back. I've got my own rifle and bayonet. The bayonet's about 2ft long from hilt to end of point. Must feel a bit rummy to run into one of them in a charge. Not 'arf. Goodbye and God bless you, from your fit brother, Cyril."
Cyril survived the war and wounding at the Somme but the
bloodshed he witnessed in France turned him into a vehement opponent of
militarism for the rest of his life.
In one letter home he poured scorn on the British commander, Field Marshal Earl Haig.
"What brains Earl Douglas must have. Made me laugh when I read his dispatch. 'I attacked.' Old women in England picturing Sir Doug in front of the British waves brandishing his sword at Johnny in the trenches... attack Johnny from 100 miles back. I'll get a job like that in the next war."
Frederick W J Farr (1900 – 1967)
Pte. 14th Hants 20957
Pte. Bedfordshire Regiment 47006
Born in Frederick Street Landport to a family of greengrocers and boot and shoe makers who had lived in Portsmouth since the late 1700’s. Frederick was working at Brickwoods Brewery when he enlisted. Brickwoods was the first business to in Portsmouth to employ women to replace the men who had gone to war. He was still living in Frederick Street in 1939 and working as a greengrocer.
Frederick enlisted at the age of 16, his age was recorded as 19 and 7 months. He was classified as a First Class Signaler
Suffered a minor head injury on the first day of the Somme
On 17th April 1917 his mother wrote to the War Office stating that he had written to her wanting to come home and that he was only 16 years old. Frederick’s father was also serving, in India, and his mother was facing great hardship supporting her two children at home. She had sent Frederick’s birth certificate to his Commanding Officer four to six weeks previously and had not heard anything in reply.
He was eventually posted back to England on 20th May 1917.
A second letter from his mother dated 17th
September 1917 complained that Frederick still had not been discharged:
Frederick was finally discharged from the army on 11th October 1917.
Frederick’s regiment, the 14th Hampshire, did fight at Passchendaele. He would have again seen active service had his mother not interceded and secured his discharge.
Frederick was awarded the British War and Victory Medals.
Describing the training of a boy soldier in World War One.....
Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood;
Blue with all malice, like a madman's flash;
And thinly drawn with famishing for flesh.
Lend him to stroke these blind, blunt bullet-heads
Which long to muzzle in the hearts of lads.
Or give him cartridges of fine zinc teeth,
Sharp with the sharpness of grief and death.
Wilfred Owen 'Arms and the Boy'
The first Portsmouth Battalion march past the Town Hall (now the Guildhall) in 1914
Photo by kind permission of local historian John Sadden Portsmouth Grammar School
A prominent feature of the early months of volunteering was the formation of 'Pals Battalions' which allowed men who came from the same area, had worked or gone to school together, to join up, train and be allocated to the same units. The idea of General Sir Henry Rawlinson who suggested that men would be more inclined to enlist if they knew that they were going to serve alongside their friends. He appealed to London stockbrokers to raise a battalion leading 1600 men to enlist in the so-called "Stockbrokers' Battalion" and leading thousands more to follow their example across the country. The policy of drawing recruits from amongst the local population ensured that, when the Pals battalions suffered casualties, whole towns, villages, neighbourhoods and communities back in Britain were to suffer disproportionate losses. With the introduction of conscription in January 1916, no further Pals battalions were raised.
In August 1914 the Portsmouth Citizens Patriotic Recruiting Committee chaired by the Lord Mayor called on the men of the city to form a Pals Battalion if not engaged in essential war work. The city and surrounding areas quickly raised two battalions (the 1st and 2nd 'Pompey Pals' assisted by Portsmouth Foortball Club. These were the 14th& 15th (Portsmouth) Battalions Hampshire Regiment.
On 3 September 1914, the 1st Pompey Pals first action began
in a battle on the River Ancre. Having started with 587 men, at the end of the
day 440 casualties had been sustained. The 2nd Pompey Pals were in action for the first time on 15
September 1914. 12 Military Medals as well as a Conspicuous Service Medal were awarded. Of 557 men, 305 were either killed or
Serving with distinction in many of the famous battles on
the Western Front including the Somme and Passchendaele, over 6000 men
enlisted and 1425 never returned home. The "Pompey Pals" are
commemorated on a memorial at Fratton Park.
Their memory is kept alive by the Pompey Pals Project .
Visit their website at http://pompeypals.org.uk
Regiments Served In by Portsmouth Soldiers
The engagements soldiers fought in such as Passchendaele depended on the Regiments they served in
On enlisting, men could request the regiment they wished to serve in - Dudley Hugo Heynes (biography follows) asked initially to serve in the Artists Rifles the same regiment as Wilfred Owen. Siegfried Sassoon served in the Royal Welsh despite being a Londoner. The biographical research uncovered by Portsmouth Poetry in this project shows men from the city served in many regiments. However, in the main, men from Portsmouth will have joined 'local' regiments and battalions mainly the Hampshire, Sussex and Dorsetshire regiments
The battalion was the standard operational unit of all British infantry during the Great War. Each battalion belonged to a regiment.
Known as the "Hampshire Tigers" due to the tiger on the regimental badge,. Based in Hampshire and the IoW with many battalions, the Hampshire Regiment served across the Great War not only on the Western Front but in Gallipoli, India and the Middle East amongst other engagments.
The 'Pompey Pals' battlaions were 14th and 15th Battalions Hampshire Regiment
Details of the Hamshire Regiment and useful guidance on how to research soldiers from WW1 can be found on the "Long Long Trail" website
There is a Museum and Memorial Garden dedicated to the regiment in Winchester. Admission is free
At the start of the First World War, the
Dorsetshire Regiment had two Regular battalions, one Special Reserve
battalion and one battalion of Territorials (part-time volunteers).
They were expanded to nine battalions and a single
company serving within the 2nd Hampshire Regiment. The http://www.1914-1918.net/sussex.htm
For more information visit the Keep Military Museum website
The Sussex served on the Western Front as well as Gallipoli, India, the Middle East and Italy amongst others
Details can also be obtained on the 'Long Long trail' website
The 63rd (Royal Naval) Division
The enormous shortage of men serving when WW1 was declared was remedied by encouraging men to enlist until the introduction of conscription in 1916. A large number of men in the naval towns across the country were registered as naval reservists and volunteers. At the start of the war, it was decided to bring those men not required for naval service together to form military unit. This became the 63rd (Royal Navy) Divsion. The division fought at Antwerp in 1914 and at Gallipoli in 1915. In 1916, following many losses among the original naval volunteers, the division was transferred to the British Army to fight on the Western Front for the remainder of the war including the 2nd Battle of Passchendaele
For more information visit the 'Long Long Trail' website
Rupert Brooke in Portsmouth
Of the many talented poets writing in and during the First World War, the best known are Siegfried Sassoon, William Owen and Rupert Broke. Brooke’s poem “The Soldier” is one of the nations best known and most loved poems. Less well known, is that Brooke served some of his military career in Portsmouth.
Like many young men, Brooke joined up eagerly in 1914 swept up by a wave of patriotism and,possibly, his uncertainty about his sexuality. Having failed to become a war correspondent, he joined the Nelson Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, later reformed as the 63rd (Royal Naval) Division and in November 1914 was posted to Portsmouth.
Described by W B Yeats as ‘the handsomest young man in England’, he had won prizes for poetry whilst still at school, was part of the infamous Bloomsbury Group of writers and went “skinny dipping” with Virginia Wolfe when at Cambridge where he was also an active Fabian.
He described his training at Portsmouth in letters to Lady Eileen Wellesley. His ‘short spree’ in Portsmouth (as he described it to fellow poet Walter De La Mare) ended when the Division was posted on its Antwerp Expedition in October 1914. Brooke complained that he had only observed the fighting and of a ‘ghastly sort of apathy [and unwillingness to die] over half the country’.
Brooke was transferred to the Hood Battalion and after
further training put in charge of a 30-man platoon. In February 1915, they sailed
for Gallipoli with the British Mediterranean Expeditionary Force but he never
reached the Gallipoli bloodbath. He developed sepsis from an infected mosquito bite
and died on April 23, 1915. His famous poem was published a month later and
became well known following a quotation in the Times Literary Supplement in
1915. It fell out of favour as the death toll mounted.
Brooke got the wish he expressed, he was buried on the Greek Island of Skyros by his friends and fellow war poets Stanley Casson and Patrick Shaw-Stewart. He was later commemorated in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.
A detailed study of Brooke in Portsmouth has been published by local historian and archivist John Sadden
Portsmouth in the First World War
As the major base of the Royal Navy with a history gong back to Henry VIII and the Romans, it is easy to think of Portsmouth as 'the navy' and forget that it was also a military town. Portsmouth and Southampton played a major naval role (both Royal and Merchant) in WW1, were sizeable military bases, were significant for the influx of troops from the Empire and for the treatment and demobilisation of soldiers.
In addition to the vast RAMC Netley Hospital near Southampton, Haslar in Gosport and St James's Hospital in Portsmouth treated the wounded and men with 'shell shock' . The Dockyard had a vital role in maintaining supplies and many local women worked there during the Great War
including relatives of some of the men whose biographies form the Portsmouth Poetry Passchendaele Project.
BIOGRAPHY No. 3
John D Cherrett MM (1880 – 1950)
Pte. Royal Hampshire Regiments 14614
Pte. Royal Defense Corps Protection Company 81475
later became the landlord of the Ship and Castle at Rudmore Wharf.
John Cherrett married Portsmouth girl Mabel Millican in 1899, they had nine children.
In March 1918 John Cherrett was awarded the Military Medal for “gallant rescue work under heavy fire at Messines in November 1918”. He was discharge from the army 2nd March 1919. He died in Portsmouth in 1950.
John’s brother Frederick A Cherrett also fought in the
First World War. Having served with the
Scots Guards in the South Africa war he was sentenced to 84 days hard labour
for “drunkenness on duty” and forfeited his war decorations. He rejoined his regiment on 13th
September 1915 but was discharged 20.4.17 no longer fit for service. His medals were restored to him in 1923.
John’s cousin’s son Percy Cherrett was a professional footballer and played for Portsmouth from 1920 - 1923.
Field Marshal Douglas
1st Earl Haig, KT, GCB, OM, GCVO, KCIE
19 June 1861 – 29 January 1928
Haig commanded the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front from late 1915 until the end of the war commanding the Battle of the Somme, the 3rd Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele), the German Spring Offensive and the Hundred Days Offensive leading to the Armistice of November 1918.
Born in Edinburgh in 1861 his father ran the family business Haig & Haig Whisky. He was educated at minor public schools and studied Political Economy, Ancient History and French Literature at Oxford though much of his time was spent socialising (as a member of the Bullingdon Club) and in equestrian sports playing on the university polo team (he played for England in 1886 against the USA). He failed to complete his degree before entering Sandhurst Royal Military College passing with merit to a commission as Lieutenant in the 7th Hussars.
His military career was impressive. He served in the Sudan War in 1898 , the Boer war 1899-1902, was Inspector General of Cavalry in India, served in the War Office, as Chief of Staff in India and at Aldershot. Not hesitant in criticising superior offices (at least in private) he gained a reputation for good advice and for system reforms including the formation of the Territorial Army and an Expeditionary Force of 120,000 men which would be deployed to France in 1914.
Upon the outbreak of the war in August 1914, Haig helped organize the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), commanded by Field Marshal Sir John French. He quickly became critical of French and his criticism rapidly became more open and embittered until his appointment as Commander-in-Chief BEF was announced on 10 December 1915.
At the start of 1916 Haig appears to have bcome more religious seeing himself as God's servant and was keen to have clergymen sent out whose sermons would remind the men that the war dead were martyrs in a just cause. That year, he commanded the Battle of the Somme. Intended to hasten a victory for the Allies, it was the largest battle of WW1 on the Western Front. More than 3 million men fought and one million were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
The Somme altered perception of the Great War. Voluntary enlistment would have dropped had it not been replaced by conscription. It also helped to fuel the antagonism between Haig and Prime Minister David Lloyd George especially following the slaughter of Welsh troops at Mametz Wood.
Having been promoted to Field Marshal, Haig oversaw his plan to secure the Belgian coast by The Third Battle of Ypres (Passchendaele). Although the casualties were less and the battle contributed to the German defeat in 1918, the re-run of the slaughter helped to cement the image of Haig as “the Butcher of the Somme” or “Butcher Haig” making him a controversial and hated military leader.
His defenders such as Sir John Davidson have praised his leadership and the failure of critics to recognise the adoption of new tactics and technologies by forces under his command.
Why did Haig propose the 3rd Battle of Ypres less than a year after the tragedy of the Somme?
In 1916, Admiral Jellicoe (head of the Royal Navy) told Haig that shipping losses were so heavy that, were they to continue, Britain would lose the war by 1918. As an empire, Britain relied upon imported materials both to feed the army and the nation (there was rationing in WW1) and for essential military materials. Germany knew this and fought an aggressive and successful war at sea using submarine warfare for the first time from 1915, having declared the area around the British Isles a war zone, in which all merchant ships, including those from neutral countries, would be attacked.
Haig devised a plan for the army to break through the German line and progress to the north-east coast and incapacitate the submarine bases and gain control over vital German rail supply lines. The best location to do this was on the Ypres Salient close to the village of Passchendaele.
He proposed to launch this offensive in 1916 but the Somme took up both his attention and the necessary resources. The plan was shelved.
Haig presented his proposal to the War Policy Committee just months after the Somme. It was never going to be warmly received, the Somme had killed over half a million Allied men.
Haig had implacable opposition from Prime Minister David Lloyd George. The two despised each other. They came from different backgrounds - one middle class the other wealthy. One was non-conformist and now agnostic the other staunch Anglican. Their political views were opposed, one a radical Liberal the other right of centre Tory. Lloyd George was a product of a changing world, Haig a product of its Victorian past. And then there was Mametz Wood in which Welsh units, notably the 38th (Welsh) Division, had been slaughtered by the machine guns Haig thought “over-rated” and the belief that he blamed the lack of “push” on the Welsh.
In the end the offensive was reluctantly sanctioned because no alternative to curb the losses at sea was put forward. In addition, there had been mutiny amongst French troops in April/May and an attack on the Flanders front would distract German forces and give valuable relief to the French enabling them to restore morale and order.
Haig had backed his proposal with two powerful arguments:
That the Somme had damaged German morale guaranteeing rapid success. In truth, there had been no more decline in morale than there was amongst the BEF and it is likely that Haig had merely ‘assumed’ that it was inevitable. (Initial success in the 3rd Ypres may well have caused over confidence as a result)
Haig admitted there had been shortcomings in strategy at the Somme but argued that he and his fellow commanders had learned valuable lessons from them. He was correct but failed to recognise that similar improvements had been made in the tactics of the enemy.
These oversights and Haigs failure to foresee the heavy
rainfall would combine to turn 3rd Ypres into an indescribable hell.
Delays to the start of the battle caused by early morning mists that interupted the necessary reconnaissance also meant that by the time it did begin any element of surprise had been lost and the German army had taken measures to strengthen its position.
Battle of Pilckem Ridge. Pack mules passing a wrecked artillery limber and dead mules of the 36th Division on the road at Saint-Jean, 31 July 1917.
By kind permission of the Imperial War Museum
© IWM (Q 5773)
“I have said that Warrior never flinched from a shell….he would shy at nothing, but as we approached Ypres he shied so violently that I very nearly fell off. What had disturbed him was a party of some hundreds of Chinamen digging graves. I found it difficult to get him to go on, and he trembled all over”
Major General ‘Jack’ Seely CB, CMG, DSO
“Warrior: The Amazing Story of a Real War Horse”
With the kind permission of Racing Post Books
An inspiration for the novel “Warhorse”, Seely and Warrior ('the horse the Germans could not kill') fought in and survived every major engagement from 1914 to 1918 including the Somme & Passchendaele where Warrior had be rescued from the mud. Both man and horse came from the Isle of Wight.
Gas! GAS! Quick, Boys!
The First world War was the first to be fought with chemical weapons.
French army employed grenades filled with tear gas in August 1914. The small quantities of gas were not even detected by the Germans. In October the Germans fired fragmentation shells at the British filled with chemical irritant but the concentration was too small to be noticed. After a failed attempt at mass use against the Russians, the first chlorine gas attack by German forces took place in January 1915. Soon, the German Army had 168 tons of chlorine deployed north of Ypres and released a gray-green cloud that drifted across positions held by French Colonial troops from Martinique who broke ranks.
The Germans used gas three times against the 1st Canadian Division and the British in the 2nd Battle of Ypres. At Hill 60, British records state "90 men died from gas poisoning in the trenches or before they could be got to a dressing station; of the 207 brought to the nearest dressing stations, 46 died almost immediately and 12 after long suffering.”
The French and Germans began to produce masks for troops while in Britain the Daily Mail encouraged women to manufacture cotton pads. A million gas masks were produced in a day. Unfortunately, the design was useless when dry and caused suffocation when wet leading to the deaths of scores of men. By 6 July 1915, the entire British army was equipped with the far more effective "smoke helmet" designed by a British Major, Cluny MacPherson.
Though outraged by the "cowardly" use of poison gas at 2nd Ypres the British soon developed their own, first used at Loos in Spetember 1915.
Problems with chlorine gas led all sides to develop more toxic alternatives.
The most effective was 'mustard gas' (not actually made from mustard but similar in smell) introduced by Germany in July 1917
prior to Passchendaele.
Although it could be fatal, mustard gas was not a killer but was effective to harass, demoralise and disable and in the soil could pollute the battlefield for several days, weeks, or even months.The skin of victims blistered, eyes became sore, they began to vomit. Internal and external bleeding and damage to the bronchial tubes followed. Extremely painful, victims could take weeks to die of mustard gas exposure.
"I wish those people who talk about going on with this war whatever
it costs could see the soldiers suffering from mustard gas poisoning. Great
mustard-coloured blisters, blind eyes, all sticky and stuck together, always
fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are
closing and they know they will choke."
Increased production meant the Allies mounted more gas attacks than the Germans in 1917 and 1918 especially following the entry of the USA. Winds on the front created conditions more favourable to the Allies.
Dulce et Decorum EstWilfred Owen
Albert G Haskett (1883 – 1918) M.M.
Pte. Duke of Edinburgh’s (Wiltshire) Regiment 33475
Born in Portsmouth in 1883, the third of eight
children. His maternal family date back
to the mid-1700s and on his father’s came to Portsmouth between 1862 and 1864. Albert’s parents Charles and Sarah met and
married here and all their relatives were greengrocers selling off a horse and
Neighbours of Albert’s uncle William noticed he had been absent for several days and sent a young girl up a ladder to the bedroom window where she found him dead on the bed. That girl was May Ockendon who may have been a cousin of James Ockendon who was the first Portsmouth born soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the First World War in the Battle of Passchendaele.
Albert married Ethel Daniels in Portsmouth in 1915, and they lived at 9 Cobbett Road.
Albert enroled under the Derby scheme, and was called up in January 1917 and sent to France joining the 2nd Battalion Wiltshire Regiment. March 1917.
After the attack on the Hindenburg Line and a month in training they went to Passchendaele. On the 31st July they took part in the Battle of Pilkem Ridge and in late August relieved the Australians at the newly captured Messines Ridge. Remaining there for three months consolidating their position and taking part in many trench raids.
In October 1918 Albert was awarded the Military Medal for
conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty whilst carrying dispatches under
heavy shell fire. He was killed in
action east of Eth on 4th November 1918.
Albert Haskett was gassed whilst fighting at Passchendaele
Albert’s two brothers also served and his sister Emily was a Special War Worker as a female mechanic at the Hampshire Munition Factory Portsea and at Gun Wharf for 4 years.
A female munition worker operating machinery to move shells in a factory
at an undisclosed location
By kind permission of the Imperial War Museum
© IWM (Q 110233)
Several methods were used during WW1 to notify relatives of the death of a soldier. The most common were telegrams or an 'Army Form' posted to the name and address given by the soldier on enlisting. Relatives could be telephoned if an officer came from a family who owned a phone. A Letter of Condolence written by the immediate commanding officer or often the padre could be sent where a soldier was especially respected or had displayed valour. Information was sent back from the Front to London where the telegram or army form would be completed and sent out. Telegrams were brutally short and cold. Army forms were brutally formal and consisted of a pre-printed document into which individual details such as name, rank, regiment and date of death were copied.
Soldiers supplied a next of kin in their details when they joined up so it could a wife, parent, sibling or another relative. Most men gave their wife, their mother or their sister so the overwhelming majority of death notifications were received by women!
“There came a sudden loud clattering at the front door knocker that always meant a telegram.
For a moment I thought that my legs would not carry me, but they behaved quite normally as I got up and went to the door. I knew what was in the telegram - I had known for a week - but because the persistent hopefulness of the human heart refuses to allow intuitive certainty to persuade the reason of that which it knows, I opened and read it in a tearing anguish of suspense.
"Regret to inform you Captain E.H. Brittain, MC, killed in action Italy June 15th"
"No answer," I told the boy mechanically, and handed the telegram to my father, who had followed me into the hall. As we went back into the dining-room I saw, as though I had never seen them before, the bowl of blue delphiniums on the table; their intense colour, vivid, ethereal, seemed too radiant for earthly flowers.”
'Testament Of Youth'
In an age of telegraphic communication, it took time for details to be written up, sent back to 'Blighty' and processed before being sent out to relatives. The time this took depended on the state of communications links; the distance (notices from Gallipoli or India for example took longer than from France and Belgium); and the state of the war. The more deaths that had occurred the more there were to be processed! On average, a death on the Western Front took around 2 weeks to reach home.
Wilfred Owen died exactly one week before the cease fire that ended WW1.
At 11.00 am on November 11th the church bells in Shrewsbury had just started to ring to announce the war had ended when there was a knock at the door of the Owen family home in Monkmoor Road. Mrs Owen answered, the postman handed her the telegram announcing Wilfred was dead. she fell to floor weeping.
Susan Owen c.1918
The double tragedy, obscene in its cruelty, experienced by Susan Owen on the day peace was declared was not unique. Many mothers, sisters and wives endured the same loss at the very time they thought their prayers had been answered! Our work and the research by the late Tim Backhouse has uncovered the following men from Portsmouth whose families suffered this same tragedy.
ARTHUR ROBERT NICHOLS 23rd October 1918 (2 weeks before the Armistice means notification of his death will either have reached his family after peace was declared or shortly before
ALBERT GEORGE HASKETT 4th or 6th November 1918 (either 7 days or 5 days before. His relatives will not have received the notification until after the Armistice was declared) Albert was one of the 12 Passchendaele Exhibition biographies
FREDERICK CHARLES THICK 9th November 1918 (2 days before means his family will have received the notification some days after the war ended)
ALFRED ERNEST TILLEY 11th November 1918 Armistice Day. When the Germans surrendered the British decided to make the actual cease fire 11.00 am on the 11th of November, the eleventh month of the year, for dramatic effect. Fighting continued until the very second. Many men died needlessly. Alfred Tilley died within a few hours of the end!
The lasting images of Passchendaele are of a hellish mire. Broken remnants of trees pointing out of a sea of slime. Men and horses struggling through a clinging morass. We remember the 3rd Battle of Ypres as ‘Passchendale’, to the men who endured it it was the “Battle of Mud”
Flanders is a flat landscape. Much farmland is reclaimed. The water table is very high. Even when the surface appears dry it can be sodden below; even a shallow dig reaches water. Farming the land required extensive drainage systems.
"When the clouds shake their hyssops, and the rain
Like holy water falls upon the plain,
'Tis sweet to gaze upon the springing grain
And see your harvest born."
The area has a history of heavy rain in late summer and autumn. The decision to launch a major offensive at that time may be questionable. Despite the evidence to the contrary, for many years Haig claimed that the BEF had little knowledge of this weather pattern.
On August the second, the 3rd day of Passchendaele (Pilckem Ridge), rains start that caused the battle to be halted for 8 days. August and October were the worst recorded precipitation in over 30 years. In August 1917, 127 mm of rain fell in Flanders, double the normal average for the month. In October 30 mm of rain fell in five days ( 4th to the 9th).
But rain alone was not the cause of the
hell that made Passchendaele infamous!
WW! trench warfare involved heavy preliminary bombardment before the battle proper commenced. This served several purposes.
It was meant to damage enemy emplacements and reduce numbers. 24 hour bombardment was to fatigue enemy troops (sleep was brief) and reduce morale. The resulting shell holes also provided important fox holes into which men going ‘over the top’ could seek shelter. But it damaged the Flanders topsoil exposing clay that soon became mire and it damaged the delicate drainage systems so the water remained where it had fallen. Shell craters became deep pools of stagnant water that men seeking shelter from machine gun fire could not escape. The wounded who might normally have survived suffocated in the liquid mud. Running across ‘no-mans land’ in a “push” was slower and more difficult leaving men vlunerable to sniper and machine gun. More men died of drowning than in any other battle in recorded history.
If that was not enough, heavy mist in the days before the battle (themselves an indicator of what was to come) made aerial reconnaissance impossible. The start of the battle was delayed for several days allowing the German army to prepare for an offensive and destroying any benefit of surprise.
September was mostly dry but not enough to begin to resolve the swamp the Ypres Salient had become. The three major pushes in the sector (Menin Road,Polygon Wood and Broodseinde) took place during this period helped by strong supporting artillery fire.
In an interview with war correspondents on 11 October Field Marshal Haig acknowledged the weather and terrain problems -‘It was simply the mud which defeated us …..The men did splendidly to get through it as they did. But the Flanders mud, as you know, is not a new invention” Despite this, Haig denied knowledge of the Flanders rain for many years after before finally admitting it was a fact his forces should (and could) have known.
If Haigs persistence in continuing the battle seems questionable, there were real dangers in halting the offensive. It would have been difficult and costly in lives to hold the position so there was some tactical necessity. Perhaps it can be argued that the final push to capture Passchendaele through the dreadful mud of October and November was a combination of this tactical necessity, However Haig’s inflexible desire to push on was also a cause.
For the Germany the rain was Heaven-sent. Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria, the Field Marshal in command noted in his diary (12 October 1917) – “Sudden change of weather. Most fortunate rain, our most effective ally”
David Craven (1898 – 1977)
Pte. 2nd Hampshire Regiment
The Craven family, house painters had lived in Portsea since 1740 and were still there in 1939. David was born in in 1 Cottage Lane in 1898 and still there when WW1 started.
In 1913 the Portsmouth Evening News reported that David (then
aged 15) had been charged with stealing jewellery from a house in Bramble Road
with an accomplice, Charles Jenkins. Placed on probation, he was charged with
another offence the following year and sentenced to two years in a Borstal
institution. Six months later he was in
LADS IN LODGINGS
David Craven enlisted with the 2nd Hampshire Regiment in January 1915, six months in to his two year sentence. It was common practice for young offenders to be recruited in exchange for their release on licence. His service records did not survive the Second World War and the only remaining history of his service in the National Roll of the Great War lists Loos, Ypres, the Somme, Arras, Passchendaele, the German Offensive and Allied Advance of 1918.
He was demobilised February 1919, and awarded the Victory and British War medals. He married Nellie Haswell in Portsmouth in 1929, but is the only person recorded as living at 3 Cottage Lane in the 1939 Census Register.
David Craven’s battalion fought at the front line of the first day of the Battle of Langemarck. The Battalion’s diary entry records
“Night very dark and ground very boggy. Some men had to be pulled out by ropes. Battn experienced some shelling on the march and suffered a few casualties. Men behaved very steadily and there was no noise.”
Battle of Langemarck. British troops moving forward over shell-torn ground near Pilckem, 16th August 1917.
By kind permission of the Imperial War Museum
© IWM (Q 2708)
John Henry Ficken (1880 – 1941)
B.Q.M.S. Royal Garrison Artillery 19343
John Ficken’s story is unusual because his father Johan was a German immigrant who moved to London before 1880.
He was already a soldier 1911 with the Royal Garrison Artillery on Spitbank Fort. He married Amy Ellis daughter of a gunner in the Royal Marine Artillery whose family can be traced to 1732. They had one daughter, Joan, and were living at 7 Hollam Road in 1939 . John worked for Southdown Motor Services.
A serving soldier when the war broke out. John’s Battery mobilised in August 1914 and went to Egypt and then France. The National Roll of the Great War records that he played a “distinguished part” in the Battles of Ypres II, Somme, Vimy Ridge, Messines, Passchendaele, the Retreat and Advance of 1918 and was still serving in 1920. He became Battery Quarter Master Sergeant.
Three of his brothers also served; Frederick a Leading Stoker in the RN, Albert a Sergeant of the Essex Regiment and Henry a Private of the London Regiment and Labour Corps. Frederick was killed in action at the Battle of Jutland, Albert at the Battle Somme in 1st July 1916. This moved John to request that Henry be allowed to transfer to his battalion. The request was granted but Henry had four cases of being AWOL and was finally tried for desertion and sentenced to two years detention in 1917. This was overturned in exchange for returning to the front line.
At Passchendaele John served in the 32nd Siege Battery; the siege battery’s responsibility was to bombard the enemy artillery with heavy explosives and target strongpoints behind enemy lines.
John Ficken died in Portsmouth on 26th December 1941.
A 15-inch Mark II howitzer of the Royal Garrison Artillery elevated and ready to fire, near Ypres, 27th September 1917, during the Battle of Polygon Wood part of the Battle of Passchendaele.
“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
from ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’
(Written between September & October 1917)
After several weeks you are given a few days off. You get to wash, wash and change your clothes, get drunk, enjoy some entertainment or educational programmes. You still cannot communicate. After these few days respite, you go back to stand in a field for another few weeks. This is your life. There is no foreseeable end and this may last for months or years!
A ditch has been dug several feet deep and you stand, sit and sleep in this ditch. There is no cover. If it rains the ditch fills with water. The water will contain human waste, it smells. There are rats. Every few days you will have to stay up all night to guard those who are sleeping.
Your ditch is four or five foot deep in parts and much deeper in others. About a hundred yards away is a huge, very loud, artillery cannon and it fires a shell every minute sometimes 24 hours a day non stop for several days even when you are trying to sleep. It can be so loud you cannot hear and proper sleep will be impossible. A few hundred yards away is another one but it’s pointed at you and firing shells back at your ditch. There are people like you in another ditch and you have to try and shoot at them with a manual rifle (it gets stuck easily) and they are trying to shoot you. In the parts of the ditch which are low you have to keep bent down so your head is not above the ground and you get shot. Where it’s high you have to climb up and try to shoot at the others while trying not to get hit. The people who die will lie in the ditch by you. They may stay there for a long time before anyone can come and take them away.
You will be in this hell when its baking hot or freezing cold, when it pours with rain and when it snows.
Finally, when you turn away from the people trying to shoot you, in many parts of the line not far behind you are loads of graves. Some already have people buried in them, some of whom would have been your friends or even close relatives. The rest are open waiting for the people who get killed, one of whom might be you! Very heavy rain may wash away the soil on the graves exposing the dead. The dead and the body parts in your trench and on the ground around it encourage the rats which, being well fed, grow to the size of a large cat. The rats often nibble at your ears or nose when you are asleep. You will have lice that bring disease leading to “Trench Fever”. The water in the ditch causes your feet to rot leading to “Trench Foot” which can result in amputation or gangrene.
Frequently, the enemy will release poison gas or you will release gas on them which often blows back onto you if the wind changes. The gas is choking, acidic and causes breathing problems and blisters on the skin.
Then sometimes your cannons will stop. A person in charge will blow a whistle and you have to climb up out of your ditch and run toward the other ditch to try and take it while they shoot at you with machine guns aimed across each other so you will have to run through two lines of constant machine gun bullets. If you are wounded there is no certainty stretcher bearers will reach you. There is no immunity for them. At Passchendaele you are likely to drown in the deep slimy mud even if your injuries are slight. The only places to hide from the bullets are shell holes and they are full of stagnant water.
This is a rough description of life in the trenches, a hellish mixture of boredom, illness, fear, death and horror
Wilfred Owen described the combination of fear and boredom and the double threat of death from the enemy and from the elements in a poem "Exposure" finished just days before his death
Pale flakes with lingering stealth come feeling for our faces--
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
Is it that we are dying?
Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors all closed: on us the doors are closed--
We turn back to our dying.
Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God's invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
For love of God seems dying.
To-night, His frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in their shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
But nothing happens.
BIOGRAPHY No. 7
Harry R Squires (1888 – 1917)
Pte. Hampshire Regiment 34163
Born in Portsmouth, the fifth of 11 children; five boys and
six girls. His parents, John and Ellen
Squires, were also born in Portsmouth. In 1901 they are living at 88 Lower
Church Path, Fratton.
Harry Squires married Daisy Smith in Portsmouth in 1910,they had two children, Dorothea and Violet. Harry’s army service records have not survived the National Roll has two entries for him, giving some contradictory information and his enlistment as November 1916 and January 1917.
His brothers Albert and Charles also enlisted in 1916; Harry and Albert to the Hampshire Regiment and Charles to the 4th Worcestershire Regiment. Albert, the eldest a Rifleman, was killed in action in the second Battle of Gaza on 19th April 1917. He had been a soldier for six months.
Harry and Charles were both drafted to the Western Front early 1917. Harry Squires was fighting with the 2nd Battalion Hampshire Regiment acting as an unpaid Lance Corporal.
The Battalion’s War Dairy of 24th August records:
Early morning quiet. Some enemy aeroplanes flying low over our lines, his artillery was not so active as usual … 6 killed, 9 wounded, 1 wounded (at duty)
Harry was one of the six killed. He was posthumously awarded the Military Medal for “acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire”.
After Harry’s death Daisy remarried to Walter Gellender who, along with his brother Alexander, also served in the First World War. Walter Gellender was discharged as medically unfit but his brother Alexander was severely wounded in the Battle of Passchendaele which resulted in the amputation of his foot. Walter went on to become the Secretary of Portsmouth Disabled Ex-Servicemen’s Association.
BIOGRAPHY No. 8
Dudley Hugo Heynes (1885 – 1918)
Pte. Artists Rifles Regiment 8032
2nd Lt. Royal Field Artillery 20126
Dudley Heynes was born in Bolton where his father was a Baptist minister. He moved to Portsmouth with his wife Helen either late 1914 or early 1915 after graduating as a Solicitor to work for Pink and Marston Solicitors in Hampshire Terrace making their home in 83 Winter Road, Southsea.
Newspaper articles report some of Heynes’ court cases. During the war, Pink and Marston were regular contributors to the War Relief Fund, an act that Dudley refers to with admiration in one of his letters to his wife.
Dudley and Helen had two children, Morris (b. 1915) and Lynette (b. 1917). He spent little time with them, but Helen regularly sent him photos. The 1939 register shows Helen and Morris still living at 83 Winter Road and that Morris has followed his father into practicing law.
In June 1916 Dudley enlisted in the Artists Rifles, a selective regiment whose members included war artist Paul Nash and poet Wilfred Owen. He was gazetted as a 2nd Lieut. with the Royal Field Artillery in December and served in the field from 12th February 1917. His battery was attached to the Royal Horse Artillery, and letters home refer to his horse “good old Polly”.
As an officer Dudley held his soldiers in extremely high esteem. Dudley wrote and received letters frequently. They evidence is love for his family, his admiration and respect for all British soldiers and his anger at the ‘Boche’.
He took hardship in his stride:
“I have not slept away from the various gun positions since Jun 24th [21 days] – longer than any other officer in the whole Brigade, and I only had one night in rest where the others had three weeks. It couldn’t be helped…” (extract of a letter to Helen dated 15th August 1917).
Dudley Heynes‘ battalion was in the field throughout the Battle of Passchendaele. On 27th August he suffered a gunshot wound to his head. His diary entry records:
Dudley was sent home for a short period to recuperate, and then returned to the front. His letters became less frequent and not until 6th November, the day the Canadians took Passchendaele does he admit to being ill having stood “in the rain peering through field glasses and taking compass bearings) coupled with the new Boche gas which attacks throat and voice, left me in a pretty rotten condition.”
His last letter to his wife was written the day he was killed in action by a bomb dropped from an enemy
aircraft. He wrote that he hoped “be home while it is still warm enough for [her] to wear” her new summer dresses.
Photograph from Obituary of 2nd Lt D H Heynes
Extract from a letter to his wife from Dudley Heynes 24th August 1917, Passchendaele
…”I think the first thing I want to do is to send you a copy of some verses one of our own signallers composed and dedicated to his wife and child. It is a sacred matter, but I was so struck with the beauty of the poetry when I was censoring letters that I could not resist copying them. I wish I could have written them, and I trust I may be forgiven this breach of privilege in repeating them. They are so good I make it my excuse. Don’t make use of them, I can’t very well ask the writer’s permission.!
Though we have reached the Parting Ways,
And hands no longer meet,
Yet we are near in thoughts sincere
To keep old memories sweet.
At night and morn my prayer ascends
To Him who guides our way
That he will keep the Love Link strong
Until our Meeting Day.
Though I may sigh and long for you
Love keeps sweet memory green,
I will wait the meeting time
While God keeps watch between.
The archive of Dudley Heynes’ personal papers, letters to his wife, diary entries and notes made in training is held by Portsmouth Records Office, Museum Road, Portsmouth, PO1 2
Portsmouth Poetry wishes to thank the records Office for their assistance in researching Dudley Heynes
Dudley Hugo Heynes -- Missing Memorial, Frome
In the process of researching Dudley Heynes, we discovered that there was a memorial plaque commemorating him in the Memorial Theatre Frome.
Opened in 1925 as a memorial hall in memory of those who fell in the 1st World War, it became a theatre and cinema in the 1930's with the installation of seating and traded as "The Grand". The plaque was originally located in Sheppards Barton Baptist Church in the town and was relocated to the Memorial Theatre when the church closed.
However, an enquiry at the theatre on our behalf failed to trace the plaque. If you have any information regarding this important memorial we would love to hear from you.
Memorials Online website https://www.warmemorialsonline.org.uk/memorial/148165
Memorial Theatre website http://www.fmt.website
Why did WW1 produce such an outpouring of poetry?
A remarkable fact of the first world war was the extraordinary number of poets it involved. Numerous collections of WW1 poetry have been published. The term ‘war poet’ is almost exclusively used to refer to world war one. Around 50 talented and published poets wrote during the Great War, all but a few fought in it.
Even more remarkable, is the evidence that countless others wrote down their experiences in poetry; men and women who are not ‘recognised’ as poets. Many of them wrote powerful and moving verse suitable for publication.
One possibility is that there was a particular flowering of poetic talent in the late C19th and early C20th Centuries whose lives just happened to coincide with and, in many cases end with the war.
But the real explanation evidenced by those who wrote but were not intent on becoming published authors is more inspiring. That even in the most vile of situations surrounded by death and carnage people craved beauty and inspiration and that they were able to find it is testament to the redemptive power of poetry.
The following list includes some of the recognised (published) WW1 poets. Those who died during the war are indicated with *
Hilaire Belloc, Vera Brittain, Rupert Brooke, May Wedderburn Cannan,
Eric Thirkell Cooper, Leslie Coulson *, John Crommelin-Brown, Jeffery Day*, Geoffrey Deamer, Eva Dobell, Eleanor Farjeon, Geoffrey Faber, Gilbert Frankau, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Julian Grenfell*, Robert Graves, Ivor Gurney,
Thomas Hardy, F W Harvey, Hedd Wyn*, W N Hodgson* Dyneley Hussey,
Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, Anna Gordon Keown, Tom Kettle*, Rudyard Kipling, Francis Ledwidge*, Roland Leighton, PHB Lyon, John McCrae*, Bernard Moore, Henry Newbolt, Robert Nichols, John P O'Donnell*, Wilfred Owen,
John Oxenham, Vivian de Sola Pinto, Jessie Pope, Herbert Read,
Isaac Rosenberg*, Lady Margaret Sackville, Siegfried Sassoon, Owen Seaman, Alan Seeger*, Charles Sorley*, Patrick Houston Shaw-Stewart*, Will Streets*, Muriel Stuart, Edward Thomas*, Katherine Tynan, Arthur Graeme West*,
T. P. Cameron Wilson*
John H Fletcher (1881 – 1917)
Pte. 6th Battalion Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry 260127
John Fletcher was the fourth of five children born to James and Ellen Fletcher who moved to Portsmouth between 1881 and 1885. In 1891 the family lived at 99 Belgrave Square. James, a mineral water manufacturer had a brushes with the law until his death in 1897. Ellen took over the business, before advertising in the Portsmouth Evening News for a partner. She married Robert Fletcher, a man 21 years her junior, something John was not happy with and which led to a couple of court appearances. Ellen and Robert later separated and she suffered bankruptcy in 1902.
John married Portsmouth girl Harriett Croomer in 1901 and they moved to 58 Lancaster Road. By the 1911 census they had moved again to 7 Warwick Street, John’s occupation is recorded as carman and they have four children.
John Fletcher enlisted with the Royal Navy in 1906, he later he deserted. In October 1916 John enlisted with the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry, and was posted to the Western Front.
At Passchendaele John’s battalion (6th) was in training until they were sent to relieve the 7th Battalion K.R.R.C. in the trenches. They fought in the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge, where John Fletcher lost his life. He is commemorated at Tyne Cot Memorial in Belgium.
Men taking a rest break Battle of Menin Road Ridge: "Clapham Junction"By kind permission of the Imperial War Museumm
John’s wife Harriett remarried in 1920 and she is recorded in the 1939 Register living at 8 Warwick Road, her and John’s address during the war
Patriotic Postcard sent from Portsmouth on June 30th at 8.30pm (Year unknown)
The rucksack opens to access a paper strip of photos of Portsmouth and Southsea
The letter reads --
"Dear Gwen, Just a card to say I have got my discharge shall be home sometime Thursday but not till late I expect so don't write to this address again. Goodbye hoping to see you the weekend Love Jack"
An addition reads - "Got a week sick leave pending my discharge"
George R Stebbens (1897 – 1961)
Pioneer and Sapper Royal Engineers 126425
A first generation Portsmouth boy, third of four children, his parents had moved to Portsmouth between 1893 and 1897. Father Charles was a shipwright in Portsmouth Dockyard living at 6 Northumberland Road. In 1901 and 4 Eton Road, Southsea in 1911.
George Stebbens secured an appointment in Horsham in 1913 as a telegraphist moving to Sutton in 1914 and from there to Faversham as an SC&T – Sorting Clerk and Telegraphist.
George was called up in September 1916, to the
Royal Engineers Signal Depot as a Wireless Operator and he joined the BEF on 13th
March 1917, transferred to the 50th Divisional Signal Company on 25th August 1917 four weeks in to the Battle of
Passchendaele. Their role was to keep all lines of communication open, from
wireless to visual to pigeon, and report on and immobilize German cables
In May 1918 George was at the enemy attack on the Chemin des Dames. The 50th Divisional Signals Company War Diary records:
“The bombardment opened at 1am and is reported to have been the heaviest on record.” Having received warning of the attack the night before, the Divisional Signal Office was moved to a dugout under Chateau Hanotaux. The Signal division had to attempt to keep lines of communication open as effectively as possible whilst being bombarded with enemy shells. The barrage was brutal and devastating:
“All wireless personnel and equipment are missing.”
George Stebbens was one of 134 missing or wounded having been taken prisoner. His family was informed but given very little despite the efforst of his sister Dorothy. George was eventually repatriated
My thought shall never be that you are dead:
Who laughed so lately in this quiet place.
The dear and deep-eyed humour of that face
Held something ever-living, in Death’s stead.
Scornfull I hear the flat things they have said
And all their piteous platitudes of pain.
I laugh! I laugh! – For you will come again –
This heart would never beat if you were dead.
The world’s adrowse in twilight hushfulness,
There’s purple lilac in your little room,
And somewhere out beyond the evening gloom
Small boys are culling summer watercress.
Of these familiar things I have no dread
Being so very sure you are not dead.
Anna Gordon Keown
Charles W Greentree (1887 – 1950)
Driver/Saddler 4th Canadian Division Ammunition Column 183692
Charles Greentree was one of three brothers, 2nd generation
Portsmouth boys with three sisters. Both sets of grandparents had moved to
Portsea in the 1850s. By the 1891 census they were living in Hope Street
without their father.
The brothers (Charles, George and Frederick), with thousands of other children, were taken by Dr Barnardos to start new lives in Canada where they became farm workers
The oldest of the brothers, Charles joined up in November 1915 and sailed for England in September 1916 before being sent to the front on 21st August 1917. He stayed in Portsmouth his 'home' town (the naval port had a major role in troop movement) and married Violet Freeman there in December 1916.
Brother George had joined in 1914 a day after youngest
brother Frederick. Sent to the Western
Front in May 1915; he was blown out of a wagon and suffered shell shock, and
was discharged as medically unfit.
Frederick was also sent to the Western Front in 1915, and taken prisoner . He was released on 8th January 1919 after four years as a POW dying of meningitis attributed to his war service 18 months later.
as a whole, the fighting during this tour was some of the heaviest that has
been encountered in the
4th Canadian Division War Diary August 1917
Charles was granted special leave of absence to England for 14 days on the 29th December and returned to the Front 12th January 1918. His son Roy Charles was born the following September. After the war he returned to Canada with his wife and son and became a Game Warden.
Percy Eastland (1898 – 1970)
Pte. 1st Hampshire Regiment 15128
Born in Portsmouth, the third of four children; Charles, Albert, Percy and Mabel. His father Albert, a naval armourer, moved the family to Portsmouth from Surrey between 1893 and 1896 when he was posted to HMS Excellent in March 1895. In 1901 the family was living at 32 George Street. The address was still in the family in 1939 though Percy is living in Fareham with his wife Annie, they married in1934.
Percy joined the1st Hampshire Regiment 1915 and was posted to the Western Front. He was wounded in the Battle of the Somme, recovered and returned to active service fighting at Passchendaele and the 1918 retreat where he was seriously wounded and subsequently lost his leg.
Percy’s brothers and his father also served in the war;
brothers Charles and Albert in the Hampshire Regiment and father Albert back in
the navy where he was in Battle of Jutland before being put on shore duties.
Albert junior was a 1st Class Signaller and suffered a gunshot wound to his left
shoulder in 1917 and was discharged in 1918. Charles also
fought on the Western Front in the Battles of Arras and Messines. He was wounded and taken prisoner of war in
1918 and held at Darmstadt POW camp until 1919.
A British soldier stands besides Army carpenter making
the grave of a comrade near crosses for war graves, 1
Pilckem 22nd August 1917 18 August 1917
Passchendaele lasted 103 days
Over half a million men died
Historian AJP Taylor claimed that figures were officially
altered to reduce casualties numbers. Although he challenged Taylor, military historian John Terraine quoted "normal wastage" as averaging 35,000 per month in the "quiet periods". The Total average for Passchendaele is 5000-6000 per day or 90,000 British and Allied casulaties per month!
Men and horses drowned in the mud. More men died from drowning (not enemy fire) than in any other recorded battle in history
Thousands were wounded or suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Few survivors ever talked about their experiences
"When the war ended, I don't know if I was more relieved that we'd won or that I didn't have to go back. Passchendaele was a disastrous battle – thousands and thousands of young lives were lost. It makes me angry. Earlier this year, I went back to Ypres to shake the hand of Charles Kuentz, Germany's only surviving veteran from the war. It was emotional. He is 107. We've had 87 years to think what war is. To me, it's a licence to go out and murder. Why should the British government call me up and take me out to a battlefield to shoot a man I never knew, whose language I couldn't speak? All those lives lost for a war finished over a table. Now what is the sense in that?"— Harry Patch
Buttes New British Cemetery in Zonnebeke, Flanders
We wish to thank the Free Software Foundation for use of this photograph under © GNU Free Documentation License
There are many cemeteries around the Ypres Salient, including the mass graves witnessed by Jack Seely
The Buttes New British Cemetery in Zonnebeke. Zonnebeke, West Flanders, Belgium seen here is one of the smaller burial grounds resulting from Passchendaele. It contains 2093 dead of whom 1600 (76%) are unidentified
dead remained where they fell or were absorbed into the mud. In 1919, when the battlefield clearances began, the bodies of 25,000
Commonwealth soldiers were found in the area north, south and east of
Passchendaele. More than 70% were
unidentifiable. Of the 11,954 men honoured at Tyne Cot 8367 (70%) are unidentified dead.Their graves are marked with the words "Known Unto God"
Some 42,000 bodies have never been recovered. These include John Frederick White RAMC of Portsmouth
Having taken Passchendaele, Haig chose not to advance to the submarine bases that had been his objective.
German General Staff documents state Germany had been brought near to certain destruction (sicheren Untergang) by the battle. Had it been continued for two more weeks it is possible the war might have ended in 1917 not 1918
The nomclementure applied to General Haig as the “Butcher of the Somme” continues to be debated, his responsibility in Passchendaele is often overlooked
Sassoon was different.
In addition to the 'pity', his poems often castigate those who sent men to their deaths and criticise military leadership. These include journalists, women at home, local dignitaries (who often played a key role in recruitment as in Portsmouth) and military leaders.
Right hand arch of the Menin Gate Memorial. The missing of the Army Service Corps are inscribed on
Panel 56, just visible to the right inside the doorway including John Frederick White
"Victory will belong to the side that holds out the longest. There is no other course open but to fight it out. Every position must be held to the last man. There must be no retirement. With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end."
Haig, Order of the Day (11 April 1918)
"He was a painstaking professional soldier with a sound intelligence of secondary quality. He had the courage and stubbornness of his race. But he did not possess the necessary breadth of vision or imagination to plan a great campaign against some of the ablest generals of the war. I never met a man in a high position who seemed to me so utterly devoid of imagination."
Lloyd George, War Memoirs (1928)
AJP Taylor, The First World War (1963)
"As an executive commander there has hardly been a finer defensive general; in contrast, among those who have gained fame as offensive generals none perhaps have made worse errors… His mind was dominated by the instinct of method, where he failed was in the instinct of surprise – originality of conception, fertility of resource, receptivity in ideas. In his qualities and defects he was the very embodiment of the national character and the army tradition."
This quote from the close of the war demonstrates that, despite the Somme and Passchendaele, Haig's Victorian view that 'resolve' would win ignoring the cost in lives was unshaken!
Haig's response to Churchill was that French pressure which forced him to keep fighting on the Western Front in 1916–1917, and wrote about the battle of Passchendaele in 1917:
"It is impossible for Winston to know how the possibility of the French army breaking up in 1917 compelled me to go on attacking. Pétain pressed me not to leave the Germans alone for a week, on account of the awful state of the French troops."
A J P Taylor's account of WW1 at its 50th anniversary was a major addition to the critical view of British military leadership. It manages to be both damning and give a grudging defence!
Perhaps the most reasoned assessment comes from Liddell Hart, that Haig was both accomplished and inept leading to some catastrophic decisions. A military man of his era in both the best and the worst aspects!!
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD
Canadian poet, teacher of English and Mathematics, pathologist, physician, author, artist and both a soldier and a surgeon during WWI
Although he later visited the Cambrai battlefield, Field Marshall Haig did not visit Passchendaele either while his troops were dying there or after the battle had ended. He remained committed to the belief that resolve could overcome any obstacle, even the mud and the machine guns he said were ’over-rated’!
When Passchendaele was over his Chief of Staff , Sir Launcelot Kiggell, visited the area for the first time. He said to have broken into tears at the sight
of the muddy wasteland and said, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?”. His driver is said to have given the laconic response "It's worse over that ridge, Sir!"
The men who suffered and died at Passchendaele and the other battles of the ‘Great War’ (the “war to end all wars”) are our recent relatives
“Have you forgotten yet?
Look up and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget”
Copyright Siegfried Sassoon by kind permission of the Estate of George Sassoon
"As a small boy in Southsea, I saw streets disfigured by ragged, unwanted ex-soldiers, medalled but ill, blind, maimed, selling matches, bootlaces, notepaper, trundling barrel-organs or standing with a melancholy dog or monkey beside a decrepit hurdy-gurdy. Whether they were pleading or abusive, resigned or menacing, they appalled me. Their wretchedness suggested that, in overthrowing Germany, they had earned some monstrous penalty now being inexorably exacted."
Voices from the Great War Pimlico Books
[Copyright Note -- this is the only item (quotation or image) for which permission to use has not been sought and given where copyright exists. In preparing for the exhibition, permission was sought from the publishers Random House who own/owned Pimlico but without success as the book is no longer in print. All attempts to track down Vansittart's widow who inherited his literary estate both in the UK and abroad failed despite contacting his solicitor who drew up and executed his will. UK copyright law allows non-profit use of limited quotations where every reasonable effort has been made to secure permission from the estate of an author. With regret, the quotation was not used in the exhibition but is included here as it is such a succinct and well written description of the fate of so many WW1 combatants. If you have information which would allow us to contact the current owner of Peter Vansittart's estate please contact us.
The Victoria Cross is the highest British award for valour in battle. During Passchendaele, several of the men in our biographies were awarded the Military Medal, the award immediately below the VC.
Three Victoria Crosses were awarded to Portsmouth men or men commanding soldiers from the city. They were not included in the Portsmouth Poetry Passchendaele Project only because their details are already well documented.
14th Battalion Hampshire Regiment (the 1st ‘Pompey Pals’). VC won at St Julien on the 1st day of Passchendaele (31st July 1917). Having joined the regiment in 1917 as a 2nd Lieutenant after leaving Winchester College he found himself in charge of a company at 19! Hewitt organised his men despite being badly wounded at Pilckem Ridge and led them to the next objective line which was secured. Hewitt died in a hail of machine gun fire. He has no known grave and is remembered at Tyne Cot. The VC was awarded posthumously.
15th Battalion Hampshire Regiment (the 2nd ‘Pompey Pals’). Joined the Hampshires after Sandhurst. Joined Passchendaele after removering from wounding at Messines Ridge. Led an attack on 20 October suffering heavy losses and then shelled by British artillery the following day. Moore and 10 surviving men sheltered for a day and night until they could return to British lines in the morning mist. They had been in ‘no man’s land’ for 48 hours. Moore died in Kenya in 1966.
1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers. After fighting and being wounded at Gallipoli, he was awarded the Military Medal in France in 1917 before being sent to Passchendaele. As an acting Sergeant-Major, on 4th October at Langemark, he saw that his company were held up by machine gun fire, rushed the gun and captured it. Then he led his company into an attack despite heavy fire forcing a garison to surrender. Born and brought up in Landport, he survived the war and returned to Portsmouth to work in the dockyard. Crowds chered him on his return home. He died in 1966. The City Council named Ockenden Close in his honour. His family still live in the city. There is a memorial to James Ockenden in the Fratton British Legion and a family bench in Burgoyne Gardens Southsea. James Ockenden was also awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre. A pavement memorial was laid on October 4th 2017 to mark the centenary of his heroism.
James Ockenden VC Memorial Bench Burgoyne Gardens Southsea Seafront
For an account of Ockenden's war visit:
Additional Sites providing information and biographies of Portsmouth men at Passchendaele
Portsmouth Grammar School Book of Remembrance
131 ex-PGS pupils fought in WW1 and the fallen were commemorated in a school project in 2014. They include four men who fought at Passchendaele
Cecil Harte Barry
Lieytenant 17th Battalion Royal Irish Regiment and 57th Squadron Royal Flying Corps. Killed in action 21st August 1917. Listed at Tyne Cot
Cyril Alfred Spencer Buck
2nd Lieutenant 18th Battalion London Regiment (London Irish Rifles) and attached to 2nd/3rd Battalion London Regiment (Royal Fusiliers). Killed in action 26th October 1917. Listed at Tyne Cot.
Arthur Graham Cook
Private 1st Portsmouth Battalion 14th Hampshire Regiment (1st Pompey Pals). Died of wounds 17th September 1917. Buried in Reninghelst Cemetery
Lionel Ernest Schloss
2nd Lieutenant 44th Company Machine Gun Corps. Killed in action on the 1st day of Passchendaele 31st July 1917. Listed at the Menin Gate Memorial
Details of these men can be found on the Portsmouth Grammar School website at
History In Portsmouth
The excellent local history website of the late Tim Backhouse details the largest number of biographies of men from Portsmouth who died in WW1. This is the most detailed and comprehensive research yet published about men from the city in the Great War. Backhouse took the names of the WW1 dead from the Portsmouth Cenotaph and researched them and their families. He also discovered a number of men missing from the memorial roll. Among these are the following names of 47 men who fought (or may have fought) at Passchendaele.
Henry Thomas Allen
Reginald Egbert Batchelor
Reginald Harold Chamberlain
Clarence Harold Churchill
Reginald Arthur Clarke
Cecil Herbert Mowlam Collingwood
Henry George Couzins
Clarance W Cox
Charles Edward Crockford
Charles Walter Dangerfield
Allen James Day
William Garnett Daysh
Charles David Dollery
Frederick Alexander Drackett
Arthur Boyett Earle
Alfred Stewart Earwicker
William John Edney
Hugh Bernard German
John George Giles
Henry Cecil Hall
George Joseph Hankin
Frank James Henley
Ernest Harold Hoff
Albert Edward Hooker
Alfred William Horn
Henry Pembroke Innes
Abel Cain Ivery
George Bensly Iveson
George Stinton James
Sydney John Jenkins
William Wallace McCrerie
George Edwin Harold Parks
Albert Edward Roles
Edgar Thomas Smith
Charles Leonard Stokes
Willian Edward Stone
John Charles Dodsworth Tetley
Frederick George Thomas
Stanley Benjamin Tidy
Alfred Ernest Tilley
William Thomas Wills
Portsmouth Poetry is a non-profit voluntary body launched during the 2016 Portsmouth Festivities which was set up to promote mixed-arts events and activities in the city. Its mission is to work in partnership with other venues and organisations in art, theatre, music and education to provide performances and community and educational projects based upon poetry drawing on a broad spectrum of expertise.
The Project arose out of discussions with Portsmouth Cathedral to promote poetry based events in the Cathedral in keeping with the ethical and humanitarian concerns that are shared by poets and faiths. More than four years into the centenary commemoration we were concerned that Passchendaele being less well known than other WW1 engagements and overshadowed by the Somme might not receive the remembrance it deserved. We decided to produce an exhibition, performance and educational activities to highlight not
only the tragedy of Passchendaele but the contribution to it from the city of Portsmouth. The exhibition and performance were located in St Thomas's Cathedral as part of the 2017 Portsmouth Festivities
The HLF funded project comprised
Heritage Lottery Fund ‘First World War then and now’
The Heritage Lottery Fund ‘First World War then and now’ programme seeks to encourage and fund local events and projects which identify and highlight the involvement and contribution of local communities.
The Passchendaele Project was recognised by a £10,000 award as making an important contribution to local heritage by helping the city to recognise and understand its recent history and the part it and its people played.
The Portsmouth Poetry Passchendaele Centenary research project was an enormous success. The diligence and expertise of our archivist Donna Bish produced a depth of detail and information rarely achieved in investigating the Great War and for each of the 12 biographies in our exhibition included not only detail of the experience at Passchendaele but the war service, their lives and family details (particularly rare). The end result is some of the most informative research into WW1 and Portsmouth.
Researching WW1 is very difficult. To obtain information, three things are needed-
1 informative data has to have been properly collected
2 the data needs to have been recorded effectively
3 this information needs to be safely archived so as to be accessible to subsequent generations.
If any one of these is inadequate, securing reliable information will be difficult and obscured. In the case of the first world war, all three are faulted!
The British armed forces kept only the briefest of information on its men. By contrast, better recording was made by our allies such as the Canadians and he best records were kept by the Germany evidenced, for example, in the Wikipaedia entry on Passchendaele which gives detailed German casualty figures and none for the BEF. In addition, slightly better records were kept of officers than the rank and file though still minimal in content and rigorous censorship at the time limited the content of letters home, war diary entries and the scenes permitted in photography. Much of our understanding of the true horror of 3rd Ypres has come from German and French forces where these restrictions were less vigorous.
Subsequent storage and archiving is a problem. The records of officers were kept in a rural location and have survived. Those of ‘ranks’ were stored in London and 60% were lost in a direct hit during the WW2 ‘blitz’. Military records, where they have survived, have no connection with other records such as the national census so that to complete a full account of the lives of WW1 servicemen requires accessing data from unconnected sources. A number of online ‘ancestry’ sites now exist but are still far from complete, unconnected and expensive to access. Researching our recent past is costly, very time consuming and requires a good understanding of how conduct such investigation. The best outcome of the WW1 Centenary would have been to coordinate these sources.
“Every time an old person dies, it’s like a library burning down.” Alex Haley
The universal response of those men who did survive the war. Symptomatic of PTSD, they buried the horror internally and never spoke about it. All but a few, took their story to the grave. In the 1960’s the BBC attempted a documentary for the 50th anniversary in which veterans would talk of their experiences. Over a thousand veterans were approached but only 15 would agree to do so and most of these reluctantly. The famous Harry Patch did not talk of his experiences until the very end of his long life.
Not only do these problems hamper the investigation of WW1, they fuel controversy and disagreement over what happened. Even obtaining an agreed figure on the number of men who died during Passchendaele is impossible!
By kind permission of the Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 2978)
To access details of the research and how it was completed, the full biographies of the 12 Portsmouth men featured here and in our Exhibition and the identifying information on over 400 Portsmouth WW1 soldiers, CLICK ON THE BUTTON "RESEARCH" BELOW TO DOWNLOAD IN PDF
The exhibition consisted of 30 printed plates mounted on 5 display boards hung from the windows of the Ambulatory of Portsmouth Cathedral. A display banner at the start and end of the displays explained the project purpose and provided information about the Battle of Passchendaele and concluding information about the battle and the people and organisations who had assisted the production of the exhibition.
In addition to the biographies there were illustrative images and quotations used to narrate the exhibition
The exhibition opened on June 16th and closed July 14th 2017
Written and Choreographed by Liz Weston and Donna Bish, "The Angels Cry" incorporated drama, dance, music, singing, film and images to tell the story of World War 1 as it was experienced by the women left behind - mothers, wives, lovers and sisters, the people most frequently given as next of kin when men enlisted drawing parallels with more recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Women who worked in the factories to supply the war, endured the hardship of raising families alone and suffered grief when their men died. The title is taken from "Passchendaele" by Iron Maiden
Heritage Lottery Fund
Donna Bish Archivist
Professor Brad Beavan & Dr Karl Bell
Gateways to the first world war at
University of Portsmouth
Pompey Pals Project
Portsmouth Grammar School
Portsmouth WW1 Research
Racing Post Books
The Estate of George Sassoon
Imperial War Museum
Portsmouth Records Office
By kind permission of the Imperial War Museum
© IWM (Q 3014A)
The intention of the Passchendaele Project was to raise awareness and understanding of WW1 and to engage local people with their heritage. How can we judge the extent to which this has been achieved? Numbers, where possible, tell us how many have accessed the information but not its impact. Oral and written responses tell us more. Here is my own experience.
For 10 months, Passchendaele took over my life. Most days were spent working on some aspect of the project. Initially, I was dispassionate about the battle and those who endured it. It was history. But slowly, the men and women who lived through this terrible period, the poets who chronicled its pain and bravery became ‘real’. No longer names from a distant past, they became people, neighbours and relatives whose stories were deeply moving.
As the project progressed I became more personally and emotionally engaged. Passchendaele is not just a piece of history it is part of our own identity which we have a personal duty to protect. On more than one occasion it brought me to tears!
How can you not be sad reading the letters of Dudley Heynes to his beautiful young wife; the death of the talented young Frederick White while saving others, the bravery of the priest who rescued Percy Eastland or the unfathomable tragedy of Albert Haskett who survived Passchendaele only to die three days before the war ended? How can you not be moved reading the poems and memories of those who endured and died? Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge whose talent would have made them famous C20th poets had they not died on the same afternoon. Vera Brittain’s numbed misery on receiving the death notification of her brother. Harry Patch’s incomprehension at the futility of the Great War. Siegfried Sassoon’s rage against its injustice and incompetence.
Slowly, I began to reconnect with my own father and grandfather. I was very young when Taid (Welsh for Granddad) died. He was a miner turned brilliant carpenter; well read, warm and generous but (so I was told) prone to dark moods and hypochondria. I started to remember some of his letters to my mother in the 1950’s and family reminiscences and identify the dark spectre of PTSD they had failed or refused to recognise. I thought more and more of the little I knew of my fathers WW2 experiences at D Day and in the months after and the magnitude of what he had been through and how he and my father in law both refused to talk of the war keeping it forever locked deep inside, an unspoken past. I felt and still feel a profound sorrow that it was only after their passing that I recognised the scale of what these close relatives had lived through and survived.
Throughout, there were unbelievable, improbable coincidences.
My birthday was a few days after I purchased the postcard sent from Portsmouth that featured in the exhibition under the title “Some Came Home”. Late that evening Matthew, my eldest stepson, suddenly said, “You bought a world war one postcard this week”. Surprised, I asked him how he knew to which he replied “You bought it from my father!” A hospice had been given the postcard collection of a lady they had cared for and Matt’s father had volunteered to sell them on Ebay to raise funds. The likelihood of the purchaser being someone he knew is more than remote.
My wife knows little of the history of her Irish family, Dublin Quakers. I came late from the Cathedral after setting up the exhibition to join her and her uncle Henry, the youngest of her late mother’s siblings. Explaining the project and exhibition I mentioned John Frederick White who died on the first day of Passchendaele working as a stretcher bearer in the RAMC. On hearing this, Henry said “Of course, Dad was a stretcher bearer at Passchendaele” It was something we did not know. As an Irishman, fighting in WW1 was uncertain especially as a Quaker. Had the visit been on another day this information might never have surfaced. Knowing the fate of John Frederick White and the conditions under which RAMC operated meant we understood just how heroic it was.
My grandfather served throughout WW1. He joined the 4th Batt Royal Welsh Fusilliers when war was declared, a few months before my mother was born and finished when the war ended. He fought on the Western Front in France and Flanders including the Somme and Passchendaele. He came home but managed to escape returning to the pit unlike every one of my uncles and male cousins. He brought home three brass shell cases, three of the millions fired. These he turned into vases each decorated with ‘Cymru Am Byth’ and listing every single engagement he had fought in.
After his death, my aunts and cousins coveted these vases but Nain (Welsh for Nanny) would not contemplate parting with them. Until that is my mother, sister and I visited when I was 11. On the day of our departure, I expressed a liking for them and without hesitation Nain handed me the largest of the three saying “Then you have this Cariad!”
Only years later did I learn that this had caused a dreadful family row! Not only had Nain refused to discuss parting with them before, not only had she given them to a child who could not begin to understand their importance, she had separated the three breaking the list that recorded Taids war! Of course they were right. I often wondered about the other two. Then came this project and a much greater understanding of what that record of combat truly meant.
The vases haunt me and now I have begun a possibly fruitless search for my relatives in a thin hope that I may be able to right the injustice my naïve 11 year old self imposed on my distant family.
Remembrance takes many forms.
‘Mae hen wlad fy nhadau ' [Welsh National Anthem]
The land of my fathers is dear unto me, a land where the minstrels are honoured and free, Its warring defenders, so gallant and brave, For freedom their life's blood they gave
Josh Brown October 2017
Portsmouth Poetry is a project to promote mixed-arts events and activities in the city. A non-proift voluntary organisation, its Mission is to work in partnership with other venues and organisations in art, theatre, music and education to provide performances and community & educational projects the city drawing on a broad spectrum of expertise. “From A Borrowed Biro” reflects the way in which we all ‘use’ the words of poets at key points in our lives and is adapted from a lyric by the poet, author and broadcaster Clive James who has endorsed its use.