Friday, 29 April 2016

'The people hated us for bringing such misery upon them'

First World War centenaries are coming thick and fast! Looming this summer is 'the big one', the Battle of the Somme, which was the first offensive of the war during which the British relied on its volunteer soldiers rather than regular troops. Just before the Somme, at the end of May, we'll be remembering the Battle of Jutland, the only major sea battle of the conflict. And this time last year we were paying tribute those who fought and died in the fighting at Gallipoli in 1915.

British troops on the banks of the River Tigris
during the siege of Kut in early 1916
But while these 'landmarks' of the Great War are still remembered, there are plenty more that have faded from public memory, among them the surrender of British and Indian troops at Kut-al-Amara in Mesopotamia. This humiliating capitulation by 8,000 men was the largest British surrender of WW1 and came at the end of a debilitating five-month siege by the Ottoman Army.

Having been forced to retreat while advancing towards Baghdad, the Anglo-Indian force had taken refuge in the Arab town of Kut-al-Amara, on the River Tigris, in early December 1915. There they remained, under siege, until 29 April 1916, when they were forced to by surrender by the threat of starvation and disease that had reached epidemic proportions.

Captain Warren Sandes
The terrible conditions inside Kut-al-Amara were recorded by Captain Warren Sandes, an officer of the Royal Engineers whose grim story is told in my book Letters from the Trenches. Among his most shocking revelations was the effect the dreadful episode had upon the innocent Arab townspeople of Kut, not only during the siege but afterwards at the hands of the Turks, who viewed them as enemy collaborators. This is how Captain Sandes described the dramatic entry into Kut of a Turkish colonel on horseback:

‘Nizam Bey was a tall and pompous individual, very stiff and erect and typically German in appearance except that he wore the Turkish head-dress. He demanded in an arrogant manner to be taken at once to our headquarters … Some of the Arabs met the procession as it entered the town and rushed forward to kiss the Turkish officer’s boots. He kicked them in the face.’

Sandes goes on to describe the distress of Arab townspeople who dreaded the punishment they faced for 'collaborating' with the British:

‘Confusion and fear reigned in the now crowded streets. The old Sheikh was distracted at the prospect of surrender. Torture and death awaited him and his sons ... An Arab contractor who had sold supplies to our Mess had committed suicide rather than await the arrival of the Turks. It was pitiful to have to witness such scenes of terror and despair. The Arab women wailed and wept. The men eyed each other with suspicion, never knowing who would denounce them when the Turks marched in. Kut became a nest of Arab spies and traitors. The people hated us for bringing such misery upon them and dreaded the Turks whose ways they knew only too well.'

While we pay tribute to the trials of our fellow countrymen during the Great War, we should not forget those who were dragged into the conflict through no choice or fault of their own, and paid a dreadful price as a result.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

A month full of Zeppelin raids, torpedo-testing, and sleepy Anzacs

Madge Sneyd Kynnersley
A pocket diary may seem far too small to record fully the momentous events of history, but it's amazing how capacious some can be when you open them up. Take Madge Sneyd Kinnersley's, for example. Her pocket diaries from the Great War years cover every significant event you can think of, despite there being only a few lines per day to write on. She also wrote some wonderfully succinct descriptions about ordinary life in the early 1900s.

Madge was living in Weymouth with her widowed mother and three sisters when war broke out. She kept a diary every day, and her notes proved invaluable when I was writing my WW1 books. In Letters from the Trenches Madge's ascerbic comments on life as a Red Cross nurse were particularly amusing, and in Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War her diary forms a colourful thread which runs through the book, illustrating the social history of the time.

The extracts below show what a lively writer Madge was. She talks about 'the Range' where she worked as a clerk - this was the Royal Navy's torpedo testing range on the edge of Portland Harbour. She mentions friends and family, including her sisters Kitty and Sylvy. She also refers to the wounded Anzac soldiers who were sent to convalesce in Weymouth; the devastating raids by German Zeppelin airships; and to the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. Where necessary, explanations are given in italics.

APRIL 1916


1 April, Saturday - Range till 1.45pm. Glorious day, sat in garden and went to tea at Pav [Weymouth Pavilion] with V Bragge and Miss Anderson ... Zep raid last night on eastern counties and zeps shot down and crew taken by us, off Thames.

Weymouth Pavilion often crops up in Madge's diary as a recreational venue. The Edwardian original, pictured left, was built to enhance the town's reputation as a first-class holiday resort and opened in 1908. Sadly, however, it burnt down during refurbishment in 1954 thanks to an accident involving a blow-torch. Work began on a replacement theatre and ballroom four years later.

4 April, Tuesday - Zep raids 3 nights running!

6 April, Thursday - Theatre to see 'Fanny's First Play' with mother at 6pm. By Bernard Shaw - good. Baked beans for lunch and meringues for tea

This popular play premiered in 1911, when George Bernard Shaw was 56. The playwright courted unpopularity during the First World War by denouncing both sides.

Madge's sister Rosie
8 April, Saturday - Kitty had wire from Devonshire House [Red Cross HQ in London ] asking her to go to Military Hospital at Cardiff but she has just signed on at Exeter for 6 months.

Madge and her three other sisters - including Rosie, pictured left - all worked as Red Cross nurses at some time during the war.

11 April, Tuesday - Sylvy and I went to vulgar but funny revue at Pavilion 'Fine Feathers'. Sleepy Anzac behind me collapsing on my shoulder.

16 April, Sunday - Spencer [the serving naval officer whom Madge was courting] has got a brand new destroyer, the Munster!!

18 April, Tuesday - Range. Code came from Gosport and we stayed till  6.45pm trying to decode it and at last I was the one to find the clue. Sylvy wired for by army pay for next week.

Madge's sister Sylvy had applied to work at the army pay office in Exeter.

21 April, Good Friday - Lovely day. Lay on beach all morning. Attended last half of 3-hrs [church] service at Westham. Long walk over Lodmore with Sylvy in evening.

22 April, Saturday - Holiday. Town and shopped.

23 April, Easter Sunday - Trinity [Church] at 11am in green and tweed as dark blue at cleaners!

24 April, Easter Monday - Sylvy went to Exeter to try army pay for a bit.

26 April, Wednesday - Range, we torpedoed WD motor boat Vulture, hole right thought her!!

27 April, Thursday - Range, no work. Sat on balcony and walked on beach at lunch. Very sore throat. Sinn Fein rebellion in Ireland. Rebels take GPO and many parts of Dublin, also other parts of Ireland. Sir Roger Casement taken prisoner and sent to Tower trying to land ammunition in Ireland.

Sir Roger Casement was later hanged by the British for his part in working with Germany and the Irish nationalists in planning the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916.

30 April, Sunday - Fall of Kut. General Townsend after being besieged since December had to surrender to Turks, all attempts at relief having failed and relief ship gone aground. Lovely day.

The humiliating British surrender at Kut-al-Amara, a town on the Tigris in Mesopotamia, came after a five-month siege by the Turks.

You can read more from Madge's marvellous diaries in my books Letters from the Trenches and Weymouth, Dorchester and Portland in the Great War .

Saturday, 16 April 2016

'With God on our side, we'll fight the good fight!'

Author John Broom
The work rate of my fellow Pen & Sword author John Broom never ceases to amaze me. A busy man at the best of times (PhD candidate, specialist autism teacher, runner - and that's just for starters!) he's also just had his second book published in the space of six months.

Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War follows on neatly from his first, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War which came out at the end of last year (you can read my review here) and is another thoroughly enjoyable read which provides the reader with much food for thought...

It's not often that you see God or faith mentioned in accounts about the 20th century world wars. Such matters are largely overlooked as we examine things from our own, modern perspective. As a result, writes John Broom, religion is often reduced to "an incidental footnote amongst the bombs, tanks, prison camps, ships, aircraft, rationing, evacuation..."

So in Fight the Good fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War, Broom seeks to redress the balance by allowing those who experienced the conflict "to explain their war as they perceived it".

Faith played an influential part in the everyday lives of those who lived through the Second World War. In Britain, for example, a 1943 Gallup survey revealed that only 4 per cent did not identify with a Christian denomination, and 68 per cent claimed to be regular or occasional churchgoers. The influence of religion is powerfully reflected in the book's 20 stories of people who used their belief to cope with the war as it affected them. And each story provides not only an insight into the individual, but a fascinating glimpse at the war from a different angle.

The cast list is wonderfully varied. Included is a Dutch woman, Corrie ten Boom, who becomes part of the Resistance when her country is occupied by the Nazis, and whose selflessness and courage shine like a beacon from the book. Equally inspiring is the tale of army chaplain Eric Cordingly, whose ministry among Japanese prisoners of war in the Far East turns their brutal experience into what, at times, is almost a blessing: "No priest could wish for a happier 'parish' or sphere of work," wrote Cordingly. "Work unfettered by what are sometimes tiresome parish organisations. We seem somehow to have got back to fundamentals and simple wholesome worship, and we all feel the need for religion."

Man of letters: John Broom Snr,
Others whose stories are told include Michael Benn - brother of MP Tony - a young RAF pilot who was killed in action in 1944; and the author's own father, John Broom, who served with the 'Desert Rats' in Africa, and whose letters (170 of them, written between 1940 and 1946) sparked his interest in religion and modern warfare.

This book is not only well-written and very readable, it ensures that the part played by faith in our ancestors' wars is not forgotten.

Fight the Good fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War is published by Pen and Sword Books.