GM 1914

The First World War in Greater Manchester


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A Chaplain on the Somme

This blog post was written by Roger Ivens of Oldham Local Studies and Archives, and references a letter which was published in the Oldham Chronicle 100 years ago today, on 25 July 1916.

Godric Kean was born at Crook near Durham in 1866. He was ordained at Fribourg, Switzerland on 22 March 1896 and after serving at a number of churches in the Salford Diocese was appointed to St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Oldham in 1911. In April 1915 together with a number of other priests from the Salford Diocese he was appointed chaplain to the forces, joining the 12th Durham Light Infantry at their camp at Bramshott near Bordon in Hampshire. The Battalion was transferred to France in August 1915.

The 12th Durham Light Infantry entered the Battle of the Somme battle on 3 July and was involved in the capture of Contalmasion on 10 July. On 25 July 1916 the following letter was published in the Oldham Chronicle:

We have been in the thick of the battle. It was the lot of my brigade to take an early and important part in the great offensive – and a successful one too. I was attached to a field ambulance. What a time I had! What sights I saw! How brave our men in action, how patient in suffering, how cheerful at all times. One fine young officer was brought in, a splendid fellow, one of magnificent physique. His legs were shattered by shrapnel; the both had to be taken off. He never murmured. Recovering consciousness after the operation, he smiled and thanked the doctors for what they had done for him, and the poor fellow died a few hours afterwards. Some of the wounded in the broadest of Lancashire and Yorkshire dialect would create mirth even in the operating theatre, where their wounds were being dressed, by the recital of droll incidents either in connection with what they had gone through on the field of battle or by some witty remark regarding their prospective voyage to “Blighty” land. I have seen men in most excruciating pain acting as stoically as to manifest almost an imperviousness to sufferings.

What is the cause of this? How has it come about, for surely it is something superhuman. Is it that God gives a special aid in a special case – an auxiliary help to a particular vocation? But I must not go into metaphysical speculations, for all do not bear pain with the same Spartan-like temperament, and you are a much more advanced student of human nature than I am; you are profoundly  a thinker, I not.

Well, we are pushing on; not swiftly, but surely. Every inch of ground we take is drenched with blood. As we must advance, and as against the Germans, with their scientific warfare, their organisation, their courage, and their resource, the price to be paid for our progress must be blood; that blood has flowed freely, copiously, and, alas! From the youngest, the purest, and the strongest veins of the nation’s manhood.

Hundreds of German prisoners have passed through our quarter. Many have been attended to by our ambulance. I buried one; he was brought in in a dying state. From accounts given by them, and I interrogated dozens, their forces lost heavily. We had the Prussian Guards, Wurtemburgers, and Saxons up against us. Not one seemed to regret having been taken, with the single exception of a young probation officer. Their suffering had been great. Many had been without food for four days, they said. They were at once supplied with hot tea of coffee and bread, and so great is the kindheartedness of our soldiers that they would give the prisoners even their own cigarettes. The young officer whom I referred to was expecting his commission or promotion this month. He did not attempt to conceal his disappointment and disgust at having been taken. He had spent some time in England, probably as a spy, and was occupied in some engineering work in Birmingham. He had also passed some time in France. As I sat by his side I could easily perceive that in his being taken a proud bird had been captured, and one that would like to break the bayonet bars of his British cage. “A prisoner! A prisoner!” he muttered aloud, and then with an expression of satisfaction “Well, I have done my duty.” No doubt he had – by sending gas shells t poison those whom fair fight could not overcome.

Many of our poor fellows came in suffering from gas shells. I had as many as twenty three of the Munsters (Irish Regiment) lying around in the open-air at once, all poisoned.

We are just having a few days’ respite before returning to action again, so I take occasion to write to you. In spite of all I love the army life. If I ever return to civil life it will be with reluctance. I want to see the thing through – I am, thank God, I the best of health – and all here have bright hopes. We are cheerful, even joyful. What shall we be when victory crowns our efforts?


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A Lost Generation.

This blog post was written by Andrew Cannon, a research volunteer for GM1914 at Archives+.

The First World War not only changed the political and economic landscape of Europe but it destroyed the lives of millions of families across Britain. This post will tell the story of one particular family whose life was turned upside down within a few short months over 1915-1916. Sadly, many records have been destroyed in the aerial bombings that Britain endured during the Second World War, so piecing together the pieces of this families jigsaw was challenging, however, there is still surviving information that can help tell their story. Joseph and Mary Vickers had three sons together. Harry was the oldest, born in 1893, Percy was born in 1894 and the youngest of the three brothers was Louis who was born in 1897. They were a working class family who initially lived in Chester before moving to Seedley, which is located in Salford. Here is a picture of the three brothers that was posted in the Manchester Evening News.

IMG_2052

The story of the three brothers starts before the outbreak of the First World War. Records show that Harry and Percy worked together on the railways, but in particular the Great Central railway. The youngest brother, Louis, worked in a shop as an errand boy presumably due to him not being old enough to work on the railways.

Percy was part of the 1/7th Battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers. Records show that he travelled through Egypt during March 1915 and by mid to late April, landed in the Balkan Theatre of War. More specifically, though, Percy Vickers and his fellow soldiers landed at Gallipoli. This campaign was intended to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the First World War by securing allied naval entry through the Dardanelles to capture Constantinople (Istanbul). Gallipoli, to most in the present day, is known for the the brave contributions led by Anzac (Australia and New Zealand Army Corps) troops, which is now celebrated in Australia and New Zealand on Anzac Day which is held on 25 April.  The attack, like many during the Great War led to an extraordinary loss of life of over 55,000 allied troops. It also led to the resignation of future Second World War Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Out of the 58,000 who died at Gallipoli, Percy was unfortunately one of them. On 20 December, Percy died.

The story of Harry Vickers is, unfortunately, a short one due to lack of records surrounding him. He was a soldier of the the 15th Lancashire Fusiliers. He landed in Boulogne on 22 November 1915. Whilst in France, his battalion served heroically in different assaults during the Battle of the Somme. Harry died, like so many others, on the first day of the Somme. Records show that they would go on to fight at the Battle of Albert, Battle of Bazentin Ridge and the Battle of Ancre. The latter was the final assault that the British made on the Somme in November 1916. If any readers of this post know of any further information to tell the story for Harry Vickers, please comment and I will edit accordingly.

Louis’ story is slightly different to this brothers. After enlisting in Salford, he changed regiments from the 2/5th battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers to the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1916. Louis, the youngest of the Vickers brothers, landed in France on 21 May 1916. The reasons to why he changed are not totally clear, but one can assume that due to low numbers, the War Office had to rearrange men to make up numbers at different points of the frontline where fighting was particularly heavy. This is supported by the War Diaries which is provided by “Ancestry” which states that the training of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment was

“Proceeding, but under great difficulty owing to low strength of battalion.”

Louis unfortunately died on the second day of the Battle of the Somme. My previous article examined, briefly, the Somme so for him to survive the horrific first day is something that should be commended. The War Diaries state on the second day that it was a “quiet day generally”. This arguably reflects the brutal nature of warfare and perhaps the outlook of commanders. It certainly supports sources and statements from soldiers that suggests some commanders did not care about lives of their men.

Records that track the movement of Joseph and Mary Vickers after the War have proved to be hard to find. With Joseph being 51 and Mary being 48 when their children died, it is highly unlikely they had any children after the war. Again, if a reader of this post knows any more information, please comment.

So within the space of a few short months, Joseph and Mary Vickers had lost all three of their sons during the First World War. They posted an obituary for their sons in the Manchester Evening News which shows their grief and sadness. Within this announcement was a poem dedicated to their fallen sons.

image1 (1)

One can only imagine the pain and sorrow that they both felt on hearing the news. This must have been the case for many, many families not just in Britain and Ireland but across the countries who fought in the Great War.

 

 

References:

Ancestry – War Diaries

 

 

 

 


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The Battle of the Somme: in Remembrance of Samuel Ravenscroft

This blog post was written and researched by Nicole Cleary, a volunteer at Archives+.

On 8 November 1915, a young twenty-two year old soldier in the Manchester Regiment named Samuel Ravenscroft departed for the First World War. He left behind his parents Joseph and Margaret Ravenscroft, and many, many siblings. Samuel’s parents had married on 7 February 1876 at the ages of twenty and eighteen, respectively. They had eleven children, ten of whom lived on past childhood.

Margaret was kept busy: she had her first child Margaret Ann in 1878, George in 1880, Lucy in 1882, Maud in c. 1884, Eliza in c. 1887, Bertha in 1889, Joseph in 1891, Samuel in 1893, and then twin boys, Stanley and Norman, in 1895.

By the time Samuel was born, his father seems to have settled firmly into the grocery business as a fruiterer, after working various stints as a hawker and an innkeeper. A look at the 1911 census paints a picture of a bustling family business led by the father Joseph: Margaret (now in her early fifties), her older daughters (in their twenties), and the teenaged twins, Stanley and Norman, worked as shop assistants. Joseph Jr., just a year older than Samuel, drove a van to deliver both furniture and fruit. Samuel, seemingly, was the only one who attempted to pursue a path outside the family fruit business. He had taken up a student teacher post at the age of eighteen. The elder children, Margaret Ann, George, and Lucy, had by this time left home.

Samuel’s older sister, Maud, would not leave home until several years after this census was taken: on 17 October 1915 at the (self-reported) age of twenty-seven she married a young engineer named James Whittaker Adams who at twenty-two was (supposedly) five years her junior. Maud seems to have lost a few years between the census and her wedding, however, as she is recorded in the 1901 census at the age of sixteen, and in 1911 at twenty-six. As she had been baptized in December of 1884, it seems likely that James’ new bride was closer to thirty-one than she was to twenty-seven, and the age gap closer to a decade. Nevertheless, Samuel acted as a witness to his older sister’s wedding. And less than a month later on 8 November he left for war.

Samuel first joined as a private in the Machine Gun Corps of the Cheshire Regiment before being promoted to lance corporal. He served for nearly eight months in the 16th battalion before being killed in action at the young age of twenty-three on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. He was one of almost 58,000 allied casualties of one of the largest battles Britain had ever fought.

He is fondly remembered here by his friend W.D. Lawson of the British Expeditionary Force.

WD Lawson

The records show a W.D. Lawson winning several medals as a Lieutenant in the Machine Gun Corps, as a Captain in the Royal Artillery, and as a Major in the Machine Gun Corps. It seems likely that he and Samuel either met at or entered into the Machine Gun Corps together and became close friends.

Samuel is also remembered here in a loving poetic tribute by his father, mother, and large family.

MEN Monday 2 July 1917

There are two entries found in the Register of Soldiers’ Final Effects revealing Samuel’s father receiving a war gratuity on Samuel’s behalf, totaling about 15 pounds 1 shilling and 1 pence. For his service Samuel was posthumously awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal on 3 September 1920. He was also awarded the 1914-1915 Star on 6 March 1920. Samuel is commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial in France along with 72,193 other officers and men who lost their lives in the Somme battle sector between 1916 and 1918.


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Elsie – In occupation Montauban

This blog post was written by Liam Hart from Tameside Archives and Local Studies.

Have now practically no ammunition left! More absolutely necessary at once otherwise guns out of action for want of ammunition”

Telegram from the 16th Battalion Manchester Regiment Signal Section to 16th Battalion Manchester Regiment Headquarters, 1st July 1916, 7.27pm

The 16th Battalion Manchester Regiment on the 1st July 1916

On the 1st July 1916, men of the 1st City Pals Battalion of the Manchester Regiment, the 16th Battalion were involved in their first battle of the war. However, this battalion like many other pals battalions was not made up from veteran soldiers like the first British soldiers sent to France in 1914. These men were volunteers, colleagues, friends and family.

Since the beginning of the war, the professional British Army had been through a great deal of changes. No longer exclusively consisting of career soldiers and part time territorials, the British Army was now encouraging volunteers to join its ranks. The call was answered in the thousands. Being the first battalion of pals raised in Manchester, the 16th Battalion was almost exclusively made up from volunteers.

Little over a month into the First World War a young Clerk from Barrow in Furness made a trip to Manchester. His name was Thomas Edward Pennington; he was 19 years old and 6 months. We do not know whether Thomas travelled to Manchester specifically to join the newly formed service battalions of the Manchester Regiment, or whether he was caught up in war fervour. But what is known for certain is that his decision to join the pal’s battalions would lead to me writing about his story exactly one hundred years later.

Rising through the ranks

Many thanks for great assistance at lateral communication last night”

Telegram from the 2nd Royal Scottish Fusiliers Signal Section to 16th Battalion Manchester Regiment Signal Section, 14th June 1916, 7.30pm

With the army rapidly expanding, men like Thomas were able to find greater responsibilities. In the case of Thomas, we find that he rises to the rank of Sergeant within his first year with the colours. In addition to his new rank, he gained a new billet as D Company Signal Sergeant; a very important position. In this position Sergeant Pennington was responsible for ensuring that communication throughout his company was maintained at all times. The men under his command were responsible for passing information to and from individual sections, up to him at the company level. He would then relay messages to the battalion headquarters which would eventually make it all the way to the 30th Division headquarters. Sergeant Pennington was a very important link in the important chain of command. Without signallers maintaining communication, a division would quickly lose command and control of their units and cease to function as an effective fighting force.

Deriving from a clerical occupation, Sergeant Pennington undoubtedly understood the necessity for effective communication and organisation. In fact, his foresight and organisational skills led him to collect a vast number of messages sent from the survivors of his signal section to him during the first day of the Battle of the Somme.[1] This collection of messages is now an invaluable historical record of how the 16th Battalion Manchester Regiment was successful in achieving their objectives on what would be the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army. Out of twelve infantry divisions, only two fully achieved their objectives; the 30th Division deriving from the North West was the most successful division on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

MR02794

Elsie, Montauban Alley

“Tonight’s the night! Tomorrow is ‘Der tag’… Tonight in the dark we assemble… There is a soldier’s song running through my head, I can’t put it away: ‘Are you the O’Reilly that keeps the hotel? Are you the O’Reilly they speak of so well? If you’re the O’Reilly they speak of so highly, gor’ blimey O’Reilly you are looking well’”.

2nd Lieutenant Kenneth Callan McArdle, 17th Battalion Manchester Regiment, personal diary[2]

On the 1st July 1916, Sergeant Pennington and the 16th Battalion were part of the second wave. In front of them, setting off at approximately 7.30 am was the 21st Brigade. Within the 21st Brigade was fellow Mancunian’s, the 19th Battalion. Their advance was so successful that they were at one point ahead of the timeframe set for them. Having captured their objective the 16th moved off at 8.30 am across 3000 yards of no man’s land and captured German trenches.[3] The 16th made their way through Brick Lane, Alt Trench and Train Alley, to the West of the Glatz Redoubt. Here they paused, took cover and waited for the British barrage to move onto Montauban, so that the 16th could advance on their primary objective.

So we lay down for forty minutes, under the constant hail of shells, waiting for 9.56 am, when we were to rush the village”.

2nd Lieutenant Kenneth Callan McArdle, 17th Battalion Manchester Regiment, personal diary[4]

Once the barrage ceased, the men left their cover and advanced to the pummelled town of Montauban. The Manchester’s advanced at a steady pace; however, they would become victims of their own success. As the Manchester Pal’s had advanced further than anyone else so far, they were now vulnerable to enemies on their flanks. Specifically their left flank where a German machine gun on the Pomier’s Redoubt was able to switch its attention from firing down on the unfortunate 18th Division to the Manchester’s advancing South of Montauban. Casualties were sustained here; however the men reached their objective which was now a “wreck and ruin, a monstrous heap of rubble stinking of death, brick dust and high explosive”.[5]
Eye witnesses describe the town as unintelligible and unrecognisable, which resulted in many becoming disorientated whilst passing through. Montauban was reached in accordance with the allotted time schedule of 10.30 am. At 10.45 am the first message collected by Sergeant Pennington reads but four words “Elsie in occupation Montauban”. Elsie meaning that the objective had been achieved in accordance with the schedule. It is believed at this point in time, the 16th Battalion along wish Sergeant Pennington, were inside a trench line known as Montauban Alley.

MR02795

A thin line of khaki

Enemy advanced against our front but was dispersed by our artillery and machine guns… Enemy shelling East part of village, some sniping activity”

Telegram 16th Battalion Manchester Regiment Signal Section to 16th Battalion Manchester Regiment Headquarters, 1st July 1916, 10.45pm

With the consolidation of the trench underway, Sergeant Pennington and the rest of the men of the 16th and 17th Battalions of the Manchester Regiment might have had a moment to reflect on their achievement. During the advance to Montauban Alley Trench, some men of the 16th Battalion were even able to advance down the northern slope of Montauban into the gun pits of two German 77mm artillery pieces. With the gunners fleeing over the horizon, the men looked to secure the guns. Unable to pull them to British lines, the men etched their names onto the guns and withdrew back to the safety of Montauban Alley.

Understanding that their lines had been smashed to the South, the German Army looked to counter attack. Around 1.45 pm an incessant artillery barrage would begin, its focus was the battered town of Montauban and the men from Manchester. From this point onwards, this line of trench would become the scene of constant counter attacks by the German Army.[6] These counter attacks were made difficult to repel due to the accuracy of the enemy shellfire. Prominent defensive positions overlooking positions of tactical value, like Caterpillar Valley, were impossible to occupy owing to this persistent shellfire. This left the 16th Battalion with a field of view of up to one hundred yards in some places.

As the day progressed, this interdiction was beginning to prevent supplies reaching the 16th Battalion’s position. Men like Sergeant Pennington were beginning to become dangerously short of water, some men had not been able to drink for some time now. Supplies such as mills bombs and ammunition had also not survived the journey to Montauban Alley. Therefore, the thin line of Manchester men had to hold with sheer tenacity and determination.

The first concerted push towards the 16th Battalion’s position began around 22.45; however, the 16th Battalion were ready as the enemy had been observed massing at 19.15. Shortly after this, a desperate plea was sent up the chain of command asking for more ammunition, things were becoming desperate: “Have now practically no ammunition left! More absolutely necessary at once otherwise guns out of action for want of ammunition”.[7]
Despite the lack of ammunition, the men continued to fight. The enemy continued to advance. The enemy would push again, this time the 16th Bavarian Regiment would try their look in the early hours of the 2nd July, between 3.00 and 4.00pm. By this point in time, many of the men would have been awake for over 36 hours.

MR02796

Enemy in Montauban Alley

Enemy in Montauban Alley on our left but we hold in our front… attacking with bombs on left”

Telegram 16th Battalion Manchester Regiment Signal Section to 16th Battalion Manchester Regiment Headquarters, 1st July 1916, 4.20am

Second Lieutenant Kenneth Callan-Macardle of the 17th Battalion Manchester Regiment observed the scenes: “The soon had many dead and wounded, they called for water, but there was none. Those badly wounded called pitiably for stretchers, but eight stretcher bearers had been killed and three of our four stretchers smashed. The Medical Officer was overwhelmed with work. It was impossible to spare a sound man to help along a broken one as we were standing-to for a counter attack. It came; it was repulsed and came again; and the regiment was crumbling away”.[8]


The advance of the 16th Bavarian Regiment must have been a spectacle to Sergeant Pennington and the rest of the men holding the line around Montauban. Closely packed blocks of grey moving into sight across the ridge in front of the 16th Battalion, they were sitting ducks. Despite this, the numbers of 16th and 17th Battalion men holding the line was dwindling, a SOS flare was signalled for a 15 minute relief barrage; it never came. Four waves of enemy infantry were broken up by accurate rifle and machine gun fire from the Manchester pals. Some enemy soldiers managed to get into an unoccupied section of Montauban Alley to the West of the line. Eventually, these were occupied areas were secured again with the use of what mills bombs the men had left.

Following Officers casualties: Captains Walker, Worthington, Lieut Morris, 2Lts Slack, Hook, Swain, Prestwich, Faux, Allen”

Telegram 16th Battalion Manchester Regiment Signal Section to 16th Battalion Manchester Regiment Headquarters, 1st July 1916, 1.25pm

This would be the last counter attack of the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The 16th Battalion including Sergeant Pennington would be relieved by two companies of the 2nd Battalion Wiltshire Regiment. Unfortunately for the 17th Battalion, their relief would not arrive for another 24 hours. During the first day of the battle, the 16th Battalion lost two officers killed, 13 wounded and 38 men killed, 257 wounded and 30 missing.

Continuing to fight

The first day of the Battle of the Somme, now is regarded as a catastrophic failure of the British Army. While the men of the 30th Division would have been immensely proud of their achievements, the attack on the whole was unsuccessful.[9] To the men of the Manchester Regiment, the first day of the Battle of the Somme would have been a bitter sweet experience.

The Battle of the Somme raged on until the 18th November 1916, and it is regarded as one of the largest battles of the entire war. Although initially unsuccessful, famously on the first day; eventually the British and French armies managed to begin to make gains on the German lines. While the Somme will forever be seen as a defeat to the British Army, it is without a doubt a turning point in the First World War and it can be seen as an important period where the British Army learned crucial tactics and strategies which would be crucial in winning the war two years later. By the end of the Battle of the Somme, nearly one million men had died on all sides.

Sergeant Pennington was eventually awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for “conspicuous gallantry in action. He established and maintained communications under very heavy fire, on several occasions himself repairing wires in the open”. He eventually rose through the ranks to Second Lieutenant, and he survived the war. Soldat Giersock’s fate is a mystery; it is likely he was taken prisoner after the Battle of Bazentin Wood. Despite his diary falling into the hands of Manchester Regiment soldiers, we still do not know of his fate.

MR00647

List of images:

Image 1: 2nd Lieutenant Harvey in Montauban Alley taken around 12.00pm on the first of July 1916 by Tony Nash (MR02794)

Image 2: Men of the 16th Battalion taking shelter in Montauban Alley after their successful assault (MR02795)

Image 3: Men of the 16th Battalion resting in Montauban Alley (MR02796)

Image 4: Lone soldier of the 16th Battalion on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (MR00647)

 

[1] Sergeant T. E. Pennington, 16th Battalion Manchester Regiment, book of signals, MR1/16/8.

[2] Second Lieutenant Kenneth Callan-Macardle, 17th Battalion Manchester Regiment, recollections, MR1/3/2/6.

[3] Sergeant T. E. Pennington, 16th Battalion Manchester Regiment, reccolections MR1/2/1/51

[4] Second Lieutenant Kenneth Callan-Macardle, 17th Battalion Manchester Regiment, recollections, MR1/3/2/6.

[5] Ibid, page 4

[6] The German soldiers which were stationed South of Montauban originally were men of the 6th Bavarian, Reserve Infantry Regiment. These men were drawn from soldiers with prior service in the German Army, and volunteers. Generally these soldiers were older, but due to war fervour there was a large number of young volunteers amongst the ranks of the German reserves. Behind them in reserve was the 3rd Upper Silesian Regiment. As the Manchester’s punched through the 6th RIR trophies were taken from the German lines. One of these trophies still exists to this day in the Manchester Regiment Archives, a captured German diary belonging to Reserve Infantryman, Soldat Giersock.[6] The view of the battlefield would have been very different for Giersock. Due to the bombardment prior to the 1st July, Giersock would have spent much time underground sheltering. With the 30th Division advancing on his position, it appears that Giersock withdrew to fight another day, which cannot be said for many of his comrades.

[7] Sergeant T. E. Pennington, 16th Battalion Manchester Regiment, book of signals, MR1/16/8.

[8] Second Lieutenant Kenneth Callan-Macardle, 17th Battalion Manchester Regiment, recollections, MR1/3/2/6.

[9] Also successful on the first day were the 32nd Division and the 36th Ulster Division.


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A First-hand account of the Somme from the Greater Manchester Sound Archive

I am the Digital Archives Trainee at Wigan Archives and Manchester Archives+ and the webmaster for GM1914. This blog was originally published on the Archives+ blog but has been updated and modified for GM1914.

As part of my role at Archives+ I have been working with the Greater Manchester Sound Archive Collection helping to digitise oral histories which are about the First World War. One of the recordings I have been dealing with is an interview with Richard Hart, born 1892 in Standish, Greater Manchester, who fought at the Somme and was also part of the British force in Ireland following the Easter Rising in 1916. It is really amazing to hear first-hand accounts of events that happened exactly 100 years ago.

The first thing I noticed about the recording was that there is a very loud clock ticking in the background throughout the interview. While this was almost certainly unintentional it really adds an atmosphere of foreboding while the horrors of war are described. Background noise is a quirk of many of the recordings I have worked with and can completely change a recording for better or worse depending on what the background noise is ranging from a door slamming to the ice cream van going past.

The interview which was recorded in 1981 starts with Richard describing his memories of men being recruited for the Boer War while playing marbles which is a really interesting story and goes to show just how far back oral histories can take the listener.

Richard then talks about joining the army as soon as war breaks out and actually being turned away on the first day because there were apparently too many men trying to sign up! He was able to join the next week though and ended up joining the Royal Engineers having studied Engineering at school.

Richard describes a posting of his as part of the Royal Engineers which was in Ireland after the Easter Rising of 1916. He speaks at length about how the Irish people were positive towards him and his fellow soldiers and would tell him that their problem was with the police rather than the army.

Richard also enlightens us about how much he was paid while remaining as a Sapper throughout the First World War. This gives a really interesting insight into the life of a soldier and whether they would have been fairly compensated for the great sacrifices they were forced to make if that could ever be possible.

Richard goes on to talk about the Somme which started 100 years ago this year on the 1st July and Manchester hosted the national commemoration earlier this month-http://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/news/greater-manchester-news/battle-of-somme-centenary-manchester-11552350. He describes in detail his experience of the Somme and listening to the clip you find yourself able to picture the horror and chaos of war much clearer than by just reading a book which shows the real power of oral history. He concludes that what he remembers most about the battle is the piles of bodies which is a very poignant ending.

Overall, it is a fascinating interview that helps the listener to gain a real sense of what it was like to be a soldier in the First World War. For anyone who wants to listen to the whole interview with Richard, which includes memories from his schooling and later life working in the pits then you can do so on the link below.

You can also follow Archives+ on soundcloud by heading over here

 

Look out for more blogs on GM1914 using oral histories soon.

Cpt Charles May


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“My darling, au revoir.” – War diaries of Captain Charles May

The 1st of July 2016 marks the centenary of the start of one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, one which has come to symbolise the conflict: The Somme offensive of 1916.

The numbers alone are truly staggering. Over the course of a series of battles lasting from July to November, preceded by a seven day bombardment of over 1.5 million shells, and at the cost of over 50,000 British troops killed or wounded on the first day alone, the British and French managed to advance just 6 miles over a 20 mile stretch – and were still short of some of their objectives.

Important though it is to remember the scale of the sacrifice – on both sides – in doing so we can easily forget that behind every number was an individual: with their own life, family, hopes, dreams, and potential.

Just occasionally we are gifted with a source which opens a window on to the personal experiences of the men involved, invaluable for recovering the human experience of conflict at the Somme. One of these sources is the diaries of Captain Charles May, of the 22nd Battalion Manchester Regiment, held by the Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre, and published by his great grand-nephew Gerry Harrison in the book To Fight alongside Friends.

Cpt Charles May

Captain Charles May

Born in New Zealand to an English family in 1888, Charles and his family came to Britain in 1902. In 1912, he met his wife, Maude, and moved with her to Manchester to take up a job as a journalist with the Manchester Evening News.

Charles May joined the army in 1915, and became a member of ‘B’ company in the 22nd Battalion of the Manchester Regiment. Promoted to Captain in February 1915, upon arriving in France he secretly documented what he saw in his diary, (risking court-martial in the process).

His entries for June 1916 give us an insight into his thoughts on the preparations and build up to the Somme offensive, and offer an extremely human view of events at the time.

Charles May's diaries

Captain May’s diaries

In the entry for June 10th, for instance, Charles tells us:

“Troops are moving up again in numbers. The district is fast filling to its utmost capacity. It makes one think the push is near. I trust it is and, also, that the army is not weakening the Ypres salient in our favour. That, it seems to me, is one of the chief dangers in this type of warfare.”

Then on June 13th he details a meeting he had with his commanding officers to organise work-parties, with further references made to “the push”:

“The colonel [Col. Bonham-Carter] told me that all work was most urgent. That everything was to be pushed to the utmost, the C-in-C [Commander in Chief] being anxious to have all ready for the push at the earliest date possible.”

By June 16th preparations for the assault were well underway, with Captain May recording the extent of the build-up, as well as a view from the German perspective:

“The face of the earth is changed up there [at the front line]…it is now honeycombed with gun emplacements. Guns are everywhere. Guns of all calibres…all sorts and conditions there all bristling out of the ground ready to belch forth a regular tornado of fire.

As Worthy said when he saw it, “Fritz, you’re for it!” It is a sentiment I quite agree with. Ammunition is pouring up, that for the heavies…that for the lighter fry… It is marvellous, this marshalling of power. The concentrated effort of our great nation put forward to the end of destroying our foe. The greatest battle in the world is on the eve of breaking. Please God it may terminate successfully for us.

Fritz I think knows all about it. At any rate a day or two ago he put the following notice on his wire opposite 4th division. ‘When your bombardment starts we are going to b____r back five miles. Kitchener is b______d. Asquith is b______d. You’re b______ds. We’re b______ds. Let’s all b______r off home.’

It is vulgar, as his humour invariably is, but the sentiments are so imminently those of Tommy Atkins [the British soldier] that it must certainly have been a man with good knowledge of England and the English who wrote this message”.

June 17th saw a poignant note in Captain May’s diary, addressed to his wife and baby daughter Pauline, (born in 1914).

“I must not allow myself to dwell on the personal – there is no room for it here. Also it is demoralising. But I do not want to die. Not that I mind for myself. If it be that I am to go, I am ready. But the thought that I may never see you or our darling baby again turns my bowels to water.

…My one consolation is the happiness that has been ours. Also my conscience is clear that I have always tried to make life a joy for you. I know that if I go you will not want [May had an estate worth £852 by this time]. That is something.

But it is the thought that we may be cut off from each other which is so terrible and that our babe may grow up without my knowing her and without her knowing me. It is difficult to face. And I know your life without me would be a dull blank.

Yet you must never let it become wholly so, for you will be left with the greatest challenge in all the world; the upbringing of our baby. God bless that child, she is the hope of life to me.

My darling, au revoir. It may well be that you will only have to read these lines as ones of passing interest. On the other hand, they may well be my last message to you. If they are, know through all your life that I loved you and baby with all my heart and soul, that you two sweet things were just all the world to me. I pray God I may do my duty, for I know, whatever that may entail, you would not have it otherwise.”

& his widow Maude & daughter Pauline

Charlie’s wife Maude, and their daughter Pauline

Over the next few days Charles records the increasing crescendo of British gunfire onto the German lines, saying on June 25th that:

“The shooting was magnificent. Time and time again the explosions occurred right in the Hun trenches.

…It must be awfully rotten for the Huns holding the line, yet one feels no sympathy for them. Too long have they been able to strafe our devoted infantry like this, and without hindrance or answer from us.”

By June 28th British troops were taking up their final positions in preparation for the attack, with Captain May recording his anxiety in those final days before the battle:

“[We]…were all ready and anxious to get away, to get up and moving and down with the waiting. Waiting is rotten. I think it tries the nerves more than the actual movement of assault. Then one has action, movement, a hundred things to strive for and occupy one’s attention. But, in waiting, there is nothing but anxiety and fruitless speculation on every phase conceivable.”

July 1st, the first day of the Somme, saw one final diary entry from Captain Charles May:

“It was a glorious morning and is now broad daylight. We go over in two hours’ time. It seems a long time to wait and I think, whatever happens, we shall all feel relieved once the line is launched. No man’s land is a tangled desert. Unless one could see it one cannot imagine what a terrible state of disorder it is in. Our gunnery has wrecked that and his front line trenches all right. But we do not yet seem to have stopped his machine guns. These are pooping off all along our parapet as I write. I trust they will not claim too many of our lads before the day is over.”

Just two hours after writing those words Captain May went over the top with his men, wearing an Alexandra Rose given to him by his wife Maude only days before. Within ten minutes he and his men had reached the first enemy trench, when Charles was hit by a German shell.

His batman and friend, Pvt. Arthur Bunting, records that May had given him orders to pass along the line, and that he had run only three yards before the shell fell and he heard his Captain call out to him. Bunting stayed with Captain May for three hours trying to bandage his wounds, before eventually managing to drag him back to the British lines for treatment.

Charles May, however, was sadly was unable to recover from his wounds and died. He was just one of the 379 men of the Manchester Regiment killed or wounded on July 1st, who were themselves only a small fraction of the 50,000 or so British troops who were similarly killed or wounded on the first day of the Somme.

Captain May’s story, however, does not end here. His belongings were found and gathered up by Pvt. Bunting, and arranged to be shipped to his wife another of Charles’ Friends: fellow Captain Frank Earles. May had asked Earlies to look after his wife Maude in the event of his death, and Earles, following the war, stayed in close contact with Maude before eventually marrying her and becoming a stepfather to Pauline in 1919.

Though of course Captain May is just one example of the many thousands of soldiers who gave their lives that day, his story is a poignant reminder of the human element at the heart of one the most costly and bloody conflicts of World War One.

Lest we forget.

Charles May & Family

Captain May and his family

This blog post was researched and written by Isaac Boothroyd, a volunteer at Archives+.

References & Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the staff of the Tameside Local Studies and Archives Centre for their help with accessing the resources used in this post, as well as draw attention to the following sources used within it:

  • /MR/17/296 – War diaries of Captain Charles May
  • Harrison, G. (ed.) To fight alongside friends: The First World War diaries of Charlie May, (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2014)

 

 


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A Last Letter Before The Somme ‘Big Push’

This blog post was written by Lois Dean, a volunteer at Bolton History Centre.img-505163229-0001
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Bolton medic Dr John Johnston was based at Queen Mary’s Military Hospital near Whalley during the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 and he writes movingly in his diary of the injured soldiers who were brought in by convoy trains.

He is recognized by young soldiers from Bolton and relays their conversations in his diary pages as the men describe the horror of the ‘Big Push’.

Particularly poignant is a copy of a letter written on the eve of battle by Private George Priestley Townend, who Dr Johnston delivered in Bolton in 1893, sent to him by George’s parents, Alfred and Annie (Hannah).

It reads:

27th June 1916
My Dear Father,

Probably this will be my last letter to you. If so, by the time you receive this, you will have read in the papers of the great advance the British are making. We are taking part in this…in fact our platoon is the second over the parapet. You will know full well what this means. I need say no more.

If by any chance the worst comes to the worst, do not worry, dear Father. Many men have gone under in the cause for which we are all fighting…many men who were far better than myself.

I am not in the least afraid, and if I do go under, make it as easy as possible for Mother. I know you will both feel it, buy Mother needs cheering up, you know; and always remember it will be anything but a disgraceful ending.

I know I am your only child, but there are many, many others; and always remember I tried to do my Duty to my Country.

At first you will feel the loss, but trust in God, dear Father, and He will pull you through.

The whole thing is one gigantic gamble, and I am and always have been ready for a gamble. I really think I shall come through, and I hope you never receive this. However, I am taking full precautions. We are all going into it with light hearts, and full of confidence in our powers to squash the ‘Hun’.

You in England have, I know, been waiting for this great advance. It comes tomorrow (28th inst) Your Birthday. Let us pray this is a good omen. We hope and think this will end the War, and I am one of the many who is content to do my Bit for the Old Country. Buck up the Mater, Dearest Father. At the same time I pray that this will not be necessary.

With much love to Mother and yourself…and keep smiling.

Always your loving son,

George.
George Priestley Townend of the 15th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment was killed in action on 1st July 1916. He is buried in Serre Road Cemetery no. 1, Pas de Calais, France.
Reference:

Copy of letter inserted in Dr Johnston’s diary (ZJO 1/37), Bolton Archives.

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