On Active Service

The Belgian village of Watou, on the border with France, lay behind Allied lines during the Great War (WWI) and escaped destruction.

Vintage postcard of a street scene in Watou, Belgium. Message dated 1915.

One soldier was able to send this postcard from there while he was being rested from the front. It is marked “On active service” and was sent from Field Post Office D. 49 to a Miss M. W. “Dalzell” in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Many thanks for letter. All continues to go well. Much rain lately. Have spelt your name wrong as usual! Pardonnez!! Best wishes to all for 1916. May its early days see Britannia gloriously triumphant and the war a thing of the past.
Am still very well.
Best Rgds, A. J.

The message is dated 3rd November 1915. A. J. would have to wait another three years and eight days before his wish came true. We have to wonder if he lived to see it.

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of a three-month nightmare called Passchendaele that left over half a million men from both sides of the wire dead, wounded or missing.

Pilots of the R. F. C.

RFC

Officers and Men of the Royal Flying Corps with Their Machines

On the right is a sergeant of the R. F. C., wearing the new badge of a propeller on his arm. He is saluting two aviation officers, one dressed for flying, the other wearing the flying certificate badge. On the right is an army B. E. biplane, with its four-bladed propeller and two seats for pilot and observer. This type, it is stated, is becoming more and more the standard pattern of machine for use by the R. F. C. On the left is a Bleriot monoplane and in the air a Henri Farman biplane.
‘Earl Kitchener and the Great War’, 1916.

One of the first honours of 1916, if not the very first, was the Military Cross awarded to Captain W. D. S. Sanday, who went out on January 1 in a very high wind to observe the fire of a battery near Hulluch, and owing to the clouds was forced to fly at a height of no more than between 800 and 900 feet. Nothing daunted by the heavy rifle-fire to which he was continually subjected, he did not return until he had enabled our battery to score several direct hits.

One of the youngest heroes of the Buffs, Second-Lieutenant Frank Hudson, attached to the Royal Flying Corps, was similarly decorated in the early months of this year for skill and gallantry on several occasions. “This young officer”, to quote from the Gazette, “is only eighteen years of age, but has many times driven off enemy machines and twice forced them to the ground.” Once he was severely wounded in the head, but successfully completed his aerial reconnaissance, although after recrossing our line and landing at an aerodrome he at once lost consciousness.

More dramatic still was the magnificent feat of Lieutenant M. Henderson, of the Seaforth Highlanders and Royal Flying Corps, who was struck by a shell from a German anti-aircraft gun [21 Feb 1916]. The shell passed through the nacelle of Lieutenant Henderson’s machine and took off his left leg just below the knee; but in spite of this he succeeded in descending from a height of 7000 feet and landing 3000 yards behind our line, thus saving his aeroplane and the life of his observer as well. For this he received the D.S.O.
‘The Great World War Vol. V.’ The Gresham Publishing Company Ltd, London. c. 1917

The Gallipoli Invasion

River Clyde

An artist’s impression of troops landing from the s.s. River Clyde at V Beach, Gallipoli Peninsula, 25th April 1915. It was a disastrous beginning to a disastrous campaign.

Apparently we have to go back to the Walcheren Expedition [1809] to find a parallel to the circumstances in which the Dardanelles campaign was conceived. For, though the Crimean War [1853-1856] was sadly muddled, the mistakes there do not seem to have been so serious as were those which the British, Australasian, and Indian troops were asked to retrieve along the gateway between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

Sir Ian Hamilton was a commander of experience, and he was admirably served by subordinate officers like Generals Sir W. R. Birdwood and Hunter-Weston, of whom it is sufficient to say that they were worthy of the men they led into action. The heroism of the troops was marvelous, and solely by their indominatable tenacity they won a narrow footing along the cliffs below the mountain fortresses, from which the Germans and Turks continued to sweep every landing-place with shell fire.

But after a footing had been won below Krithia and north of Gaba Tepe, the attacking forces could make no further progress of importance. There mustered at first scarcely two army corps of them, including the 29th Division, the Australian and New Zealand Expeditionary Force, the Naval Division, an Indian Brigade, and a French division composed of Zouaves, African troops, and some white battalions. After the losses of the landing battles, Sir Ian Hamilton must have had less than 35,000 bayonets immediately at hand for the desperate work of a thrusting attack at the seat of power of the Ottoman Empire, which could draw upon half a million or more men for the defense of the road to Constantinople.
‘Earl Kitchener and the Great War’, Captain Logan Howard-Smith. The John C. Winston Co., Limited, Toronto, Canada. 1916.

Keep Calm and Carry On

National Relief Fund postcard of Admiral John jellicoe.This postcard featuring Admiral Sir John Jellicoe is one of many fund-raising cards published in Britain at the outbreak of World War One. You can read all about them, and more, at Tony Allen’s absorbing and informative site. You might think that two months after the outbreak of hostilities, when this card was used, the message on the back would be full of doom and gloom. Not so. The conflict is alluded to in passing before the writer gets on with the important stuff of family news and gossip.

21 October 1914
Dear Albert

These troublous times we like to have more letters than usual. I believe your last was dated 17th August, so I hope there will soon be another. Do you get Lloyd’s regularly.
Today is Trafalgar Day, Uncle Arthur’s birthday, and Paula’s wedding day.
They seem to be having a lively time with French people at The Arcade.
I took Hilde and Peggy O—- (?) to Bognor for a week-end. When she got back Hilde had a lot to say of the “Gardener” – Father of course! He was sawing trees.
Aunt’s new lodger owes her three out of five weeks rent, so is not an acquisition. His mother and brother live near. I advise her to give him notice.
Love from ——-[?]

This underlines the difference between how we feel about the outbreak of WWI, with the benefit of hindsight, and what it was like for people at the time. The general public, at this early stage, thought it would be a short war – “all over by Christmas”. They couldn’t see what lay ahead, as we can, and the generals, admirals and politicians who knew better were not about to demoralize them with facts.

The line about “French people at the Arcade” is a mystery. If you can shed light on it, please leave a comment.

A choice of legs

From ‘For Ever England’, J.E.B. Seeley, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd, 1932.

I have named Bron Herbert as one of my most intimate friends. He had a leg shot off in the South African War but that did not prevent him from raising and commanding a troop of Yeomanry, formed from the men of the New Forest, where he had a house and spent much of his time. During this period he succeeded to an old title and became Lord Lucas [1905].

I happened to be in command of the Regiment during the whole period that Bron was with his New Forest men. He would come to me of a morning, when we were at our annual training, and say to me : “I want to ask you a very confidential question. At to-day’s manoeuvres, had I better wear my walking leg or my riding leg? Because, as you know, I cannot walk with my riding leg and I cannot ride with my walking leg.” Then I would tell him, so far as I could foretell, which leg he would want. If I had guessed wrong, and told him the wrong leg, he would be hopelessly crippled, and suffer great pain, but this never stopped him going on with the manoeuvre. I have often begged him to get on his pony and ride home, when he found himself commanding a dismounted troop, with his riding leg, but always he steadfastly refused. The only real row we ever had in all these years of friendship was when I tried to insist, on one of these occasions.

Meantime, he was immersed in political work as a Liberal…..

When the World War broke out he tried by every means to get accepted for some combatant force, but of course no doctor would pass a one-legged man. So, when Asquith invited him to join his Cabinet as Minister for Agriculture, he accepted. Thus the crown seemed to be set on his political career, and one would have expected him to decide to devote his whole energies in that direction. Not so Bron in time of war.

He was doing very well in his post, but all the time he was learning to fly. One day he came to the Prime Minister and astonished him by saying that he had qualified as a pilot, and had reason to believe that he would be accepted for service in the Flying Corps at the Eastern theatre of war. He therefore tended his resignation, and off to war he went.

Herbert later transferred to the Western Front, having acquired a “flying leg…. a further addition to his equipment”, and on 3rd November 1916 was shot down and killed.

The French Connection

In 1918 Britain was the strongest Power in the air. That position was not won easily or quickly. We had a rough road to travel. In August, 1914, our air strength was less than that of France or of Germany. The four squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps which took the field in August, 1914, were a patchwork body. Two of them were equipped with British machines – B.E.2’s. The others had to depend in whole or in part upon French machines – Bleriots and Henri Farmans. Moreover, not a single one of them all had a British engine. Every machine in our squadrons had a French engine installed in it, mainly the Gnome rotary of 80 horse power. The British aircraft industry was almost non-existent. It was wholly unable to meet even the modest needs of the tiny expeditionary force of the air which left these shores in the first month of the last war.

A reproduction WW1 B.E.2c biplane by the Vintage Aviator, New Zealand.

A reproduction B.E.2c

Steadily we built up a mighty structure of air strength. We owed much to France in the early days. Indeed, for a substantial part of the war we relied upon France for aero-engines and to a less extent for airframes also. Many thousands of French engines had to be obtained for installation in our machines during 1915 and 1916. Aircraft, too, were supplied in considerable quantities from the same source. The Nieuport fighters helped us out of a tight corner more than once. Our total purchases of foreign aircraft, however, amounted to only a little more than 3,000 machines in the four years of the war, as compared with 17,000 engines purchased abroad. It was only in the last year or so of the war that we became wholly independent of France for aeronautical equipment. Seeing how we started in 1914, one can only feel amazement that we should have ended the war with the magnificently equipped air force which we then possessed, predominant in quality as well as in quantity. It was a wonderful effort when all is said and done.

Nieuport 11

A replica Nieuport 11 in Italian livery

When the war began we had on charge in the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service 218 land aeroplanes, 52 seaplanes and 7 airships, but less than 100 of the aeroplanes were in a condition to take the air. There were 276 officers and 1,797 other ranks in the two Services.
The Sky’s the Limit, J.M. Spaight, Hodder and Stoughton, 1940.

The aircraft illustrated above are owned and operated by the Vintage Aviator, New Zealand.