Sunday, 2 April 2017

6477 Rfm Samuel Morter Smith, Rifle Brigade

Here's a great photograph of a boxing and wrestling champion who served with the Rifle Brigade between February 1899 and November 1911. The write-up that accompanies this photograph in the Rifle Brigade Chronicle for 1908 notes that Samuel was born on the 13th March 1881 and served with the 4th Battalion Mounted Infantry during the Boer War. He was later posted to the 2nd Battalion in India and won several boxing and wrestling tournaments. The final paragraph of the shirt editorial reads:

"He frequently displays feats of strength, both in the barrack room and on the stage of entertainments, one of which is to make a bridge of himself, and in this position supporting seven men (equivalent to 1,087 lbs). He is entirely self trained and is popularly known as "Sandow Smith".

As well as notching up various wins in the ring, Samuel also amassed quite a good collection of tattoos. His original attestation papers survive in WO 97 and the distinctive marks' section on page two simply mentions "scar on left eye-brow" and a "patch of hard skin, back of left hand". 

We can be certain therefore, that all of the tattoos on display here were acquired after he joined the army. The tiger and palm trees on his chest was presumably inked some time after his arrival in India in February 1906.  There is what appears to be rifle on his upper right arm, above the crossed swords motif commonly rendered as a badge for army gymnastics instructors. On his left arm there are two flags, possibly Rifle Brigade standards, and other motifs which are unclear. Who knows what was rendered on his back.

Samuel Smith remained in India until 1911 but returned home in November and was discharged "free after 12 years' service" this, despite having re-engaged at Fort William, Calcutta in February 1911 to complete 21 years.

If he served in the First World War, I have yet to find evidence of this. He certainly worked as a policeman, however, and on the 1939 Register is listed as a retired police constable, married to Rosie L Smith (born 20th July 1894). There are also four probable children noted, as well as three closed records:

When the 1939 Register was taken, Samuel and his family were living at Broad Street, Depwade Rural District, Norfolk. I have not yet identified when and where he died.

Friday, 24 March 2017

The Ambulance Drivers - Hemingway & Dos Passos

Most English literature students in this country will be familiar with the work of Ernest Hemingway, less so with the work of John Dos Passos. It was nearly a hundred years ago, that the two budding authors embarked for Europe from America to do their bit in the Great World War. This new book by James McGrath Morris charts the two men's journeys - both in the literal sense, as they travelled across France, Italy and later, Spain; and in the developmental sense as they launched successful careers as authors.

The Ambulance Drivers (both men served in this capacity in the First World War) charts the development of the two authors and, later, their falling out. 

This is a good re-telling of two stories, with a particular focus on the years 1918 to 1937. Unhappily, and ironically given their First World War roles as ambulance drivers, both men had unlucky - and in John Dos Passos's case, tragic - relationships with motorised vehicles. In 1930 Hemingway ran his car off the road, with Dos Passos in it, and 17 years later, Dos Passos, temporarily dazzled by the sun, crashed his car into parked truck, killing his wife instantly and blinding himself in his right eye. Nevertheless, these incidents do not dominate the narrative which instead, and rightly so, focuses on the men's early years, their relationships with those around them, and their relationship with each other.

As well as a compelling narrative, there are some great photos in this book: the handsome lady-killer looks of Ernest Hemingway contrasting with the more geeky John Dos Passos.

This is a well-researched book made all the more helpful by copious notes and a good bibliography. For Hemingway and Dos Passos fans, this will be a must-read. For others, like me, who knew little (or nothing in the case of Dos Passos) about these two men, the book is a compelling examination of an at-times frail, turbulent and broken friendship.

The Ambulance Drivers is published by Da Capo Press at $27 or less. Read more here on the Da Capo Press website and order here from Amazon.

Monday, 20 March 2017

The Last Queen's Guard - January 1901

The photograph above originally appeared in the Rifle Brigade Chronicle for 1901. It shows one officer and thirty-one NCOs and men of the Royal Rifle Reserve Regiment who formed the Queen's Guard at Parkhurst in December 1900 and January 1901. Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, died on the 22nd January 1901 and these men were therefore part of the last Queen's Guard.

The Royal Rifle Reserve Regiment, then quartered at Parkhurst, was one of several reserve regiments formed in 1900 of time-expired soldiers. In the case of this last Royal Guard - a complete contingent of two officers and forty-four NCOs and men - all men with the exception of Lieutenant Okeover who had served with the militia, had originally served with the Rifle Brigade.

The following men are all named in The Rifle Brigade Chronicle as having formed part of the last Guard of Honour, all of these men being awarded the Royal Victorian Medal (above, courtesy Science & Society) which had been instituted by Queen Victoria in 1896. Their regimental numbers are those of the Royal Rifle Reserve Regiment and date to March 1900.

Surviving Rifle Reserve Regiment records are few and far between and, where they do survive, are not generally held with the man's earlier papers. Nevertheless I did find records in WO 97 for some of the men in the list below, most of whom had left the Rifle Brigade by the early 1890s and were therefore old soldiers in the true sense of the word. Where I have uncovered additional information, I have expanded the man's forename and also added in his previous Rifle Brigade regimental number and years of service.

932 Colour Sergeant T Lewis
203 Sergeant H Gilbert
978 Sergeant G Blackman
933 Corporal Ernest Martindale; formerly 5571; 1883-1895
1275 Corporal G Taylor
123 Corporal J Clark
407 Acting Corporal B Wells
529 Acting Corporal R Gilmour
1013 Acting Corporal J Rhodes
422 Acting Corporal T Kilshaw

404 Bugler E Mallet (presumably the man above)
532 Rifleman J Ballard
424 Rifleman G Charles
539 Rifleman J Currall
389 Rifleman A Day
419 Rifleman G Fisher
538 Rifleman J Foster
988 Rifleman Joseph Gartshore; formerly 8274; 1886-1898
997 Rifleman J Logan
996 Rifleman Thomas Lynch; formerly 5970; 1883-unknown
999 Rifleman John Pitchford; formerly 6104; 1883-1895 
410 Rifleman T Naylor
846 Rifleman J Edmonds
394 Rifleman M Richards
391 Rifleman J Smith
527 Rifleman C Street
1003 Rifleman T Sweeting
411 Rifleman J Tiff
434 Rifleman William Tiffin; formerly 4188; 1880-1892
400 Rifleman Thomas Wagerfield; formerly 1861; 1877-1889
534 Rifleman J Waller
814 Rifleman J Woodward
1556 Rifleman R Fidoe
499 Rifleman J Fishlock; formerly 6348; 1883-1895
674 Rifleman A Piket

Some of the men listed above with common names may also have surviving service records in WO 97 but it would be impossible to pick them out, particularly as their Royal Rifle Reserve service is almost certainly not indicated on their original papers. That's one of the reasons that published lists such as this, even though it is small, is so important. For some of the men listed above, this single listing in a half-forgotten Chronicle published by the Rifle Brigade over 100 years ago may be the only surviving evidence of their army service.

Apart from the Royal Victorian Medal, five men wear the India General Service Medal 1854-1895. Clasps are visible on some of these medals and these are almost certainly the clasps for Burma 1885-7 and Burma 1887-89, as illustrated below. The corporal sitting on the ground on the left wears the Sudan Medal and Khedive's Star, evidence of campaigning between 1882 and 1889.

Ernest Martindale is one of the India General Service Medal holders although he was only entitled to the clasp for Burma 1887-89. He later re-enlisted in the Rifle Brigade in 1914 at the age of 48 and saw service in the UK with the 15th Battalion before being discharged in 1915. John Pitchford served in Gibraltar, Egypt, South Africa and India during his original stint with the Rifle Brigade but still came away with no campaign medals; a case of being in the wrong location at the wrong time. 

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Sunday, 19 March 2017

A final family portrait

I bought this postcard of a Gordon Highlander and his family the other week. Unfortunately, there is nothing on the card to identify who the soldier and his family are, but his name will undoubtedly appear in Commonwealth War Graves records somewhere, and probably on Soldiers Died in The Great War. His wife probably received a widow's pension, and there is probably a record recording both the husband's and wife's name in the Soldiers' Effects Register.

Because the sad fact of the matter is that this is a sitting assembled after death. It doesn't require much close examination to see that the sitters have all been cut and pasted into a family grouping. The little girl on the right may have originally appeared in a solo portrait, and her father's photo may have been taken in a studio close to where he was camped or billeted in the UK; it could even have been taken in France and posted back home. In a pre-digital age it would have been difficult to get the perspective right, which is why the soldier appears, ironically, a little larger than life.

This photo, quite possibly, was the only group photo that ever existed of this family. Depending on when the father was sent overseas and when he was killed, the infant on his wife's lap may have never seen her father - and he may never have seen his bairn. All the more reason then to re-construct a family sitting, and a reminder for the children in years to come that their father had been a soldier, and died for his King and Country.

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Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Colchester in the Great War - Review

Colchester in The Great War
Pen & Sword Books
£12.99 (or less)

Colchester in the Great War, by local author Andrew Phillips, is certainly one of the better books in this particular Pen & Sword series. For a start, having already published eight books about Colchester and its history, the author knows his stuff and has almost certainly drawn on those earlier accounts in this new publication. He also tells a good story and writes engagingly and informatively about the town. I lived in Colchester for a while and have family who still live there, but the vast majority of what Andrew Phillips writes about was certainly news to me, and fascinating news at that.

Above all though, Mr Phillips never loses sight of the town; how the town was situated before the war, the effect the war had on ordinary lives, and the aftermath. At least 1250 local men died during the conflict and whilst the author pays tribute to them, this book is not essentially about the players but rather the stage from where they sprung, and to where the survivors limped back home afterwards.

As is customary with the books in this series, Colchester in the Great war is well illustrated and even includes a photograph, I was interested to note, that I owned some years ago; a photo of the unveiling of the impressive war memorial outside the equally impressive castle. 

This is a good read and a nice addition to books on Essex generally and Colchester specifically. As a former and current garrison town it is also almost certainly long-overdue.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Welsh Yeomanry at War

The 24th (Pembroke & Glamorgan) Yeomanry Battalion, Welsh Regiment came into being in February 1917 with the merger of two very distinct Yeomanry regiments, the 1/1st Pembroke (Castlemartin) Yeomanry and the 1/1st Glamorgan Yeomanry. This new title from Pen & Sword Books picks up the story at this point and sheds new light on an aspect of the war - the war in Palestine - that has been largely neglected. Not that the men serving with this regiment did not also get a taste of the horrors of trench warfare either, for that matter; in May 1918 the regiment embarked for France with the rest of the 74th Division and took part in the final 100-day offensive against the German Army.

For anyone with an interest in this particular unit this will be essential reading. There is a roll call of regimental dead, potted biographies of officers, and details of honours and awards. This, in addition to the main narrative, follows the well-worn pattern of regimental histories published in the 1920s and 30s. In addition though, and as exemplified here, today's historian has access to far more resources: newspapers, personal archives, service records published online by Ancestry and Findympast, not to mention the willing assistance of archivists and others. In this particular case that all comes together very well in this long overdue history of the 24th Welsh Regiment.

Cambridgeshire Kitcheners

Joanna Costin is to be congratulated for her labours both in writing this book and also in remembering these same men of the 11th Suffolk Regiment on the Lives of the First World War site. This is another impressive title to add to the unit library built up by Pen & Sword over the years, and should be essential reading for anyone with an interest in this particular Kitchener battalion. The so-called 'pals' in this battalion; different in character from the better-known pals of northern industrial towns nevertheless had one thing in common with many of their compatriots: 1st July 1916. One hundred and eighty-seven 11th Suffolk men lost their lives on this day and many more were wounded. Photos of some of these men appear in this well-illustrated book, most taken from contemporary newspaper reports.

Long overdue, this new title documents the war journeys of the men from this East Anglian Kitchener battalion and the all too familiar fate that befell many of them.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Joseph Miller writes home

It's always a bonus when a postcard includes details of the sender. Writing to Mrs H Limpkin of Heath House, Linton, near Burton-on-Trent, 11895 Rfn Joseph Miller of the King's Royal Rifle Corps wrote, "Just a line to let you no [sic] I arrived safe at Winchester. I don't no [sic] how long I shall be stationed here for my arm is not better yeat and I expect I shall go under opertaion with it. I think that is all this time..." He gave his address as 3 Coy, KRR, The Huts, Winchester.

Jospeh Miller, according to surviving papers, attested on the 27th August 1914 and served overseas from the 29th November 1914 with the 1st and latterly the 16th Battalion, King's Royal Rifle Corps. He appeared in a list of 1st Battalion wounded published on the 9th June 1915 and again on the 13th April 1917 when he was recorded as suffering from shell shock. He was discharged on the 5th February 1919 aged 22.  

Unpicking the information above, my guess would be that Joseph sent the postcard aftre he had been wounded (in the arm) whilst serving with the 1st Battalion. I think he recovered from this wound, was posted to the 16th Battalion and served in France and Belgium where he was subsequently invalided with shell shock, later being invalided out of the army as a result of this.

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Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Love is in the Air (and on Land and Sea)

There are over 27 million military records on Findmypast, and with that many names, it is perhaps hardly surprising that there are some men and women whose names strike a particular chord today, 14th February.

6762 individuals have the surname LOVE whilst there are 659 TRUELOVEs, 496 DEARLOVEs, 102 FREELOVEs, 98 MANLOVEs, 28 CATCHLOVEs, 5 FOLLYLOVEs  but only one BIGLOVE

There are 9,023 military records where VALENTINE is the first name, and 132 records for VALENTINE DAY.

40 records return results for the surname CUPID whilst there are 13 men who, allegedly, have the surname ROMANCE (although closer inspection reveals that the majority, were actually called ROMANES). As for Cupid's armoury, there are 207 results for the surname ARROW (and 10 ARROWS).

Finally, there are nearly 24,000 results for the surname ROSE, 187 BOUQUETs but not a single FERRERO ROCHER. Strange, that. Happy Valentine's Day.

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Monday, 13 February 2017

Victoria Crosses on the Western Front 1917 to Third Ypres

Victoria Crosses on the Western Front 1917 to Third Ypres
Paul Oldfield, £30

Paul Oldfield's latest tome weighs in at a hefty 556 pages and covers the period 27th January to 27th July 1917. That so many pages should be needed to cover such a short period is testimony not only to the courage exhibited, but also to the bitter fighting.

Once again, this volume can be read in two parts: the actions, which take care of the first 208 pages; and the biographies of the VC winners which take up the rest of the book.  

The beauty of the books in this series is that they are well-researched and contain many useful maps and photographs. I wouldn't want to lu8gg this book across a battlefield because it weighs a ton. However, I could quite easily see myself investing in the Kindle edition and referring to the detailed trench maps and modern day panoramas. 

These are not books that will, for the most part, be thoroughly pored over, cover to cover, but as reference they are extremely useful and so much more interesting to read than the often dry and dusty official histories. In the meantime though, I need to find another couple of inches of shelf space to accommodate this latest volume.