On the way to war

This card was posted from Cape Town, South Africa, by a New Zealand soldier on 23rd February 1917.

CTparliament

Dear M.
Just a note. We have had a fine time here, and think it is a fine place. We have had the best part of a days leave and have made the best of it. The gardens are fine.
Frank Berg and I have had afternoon tea today in the Parliament Buildings. We were invited by a gentleman we met in the gardens, and who is interested in N. Zealanders. His name is Mr. Van de Reif M.P. Grahams Town.
I am sending two small ostrich feathers they are fairly cheap here. We had a good trip over and expect to leave here tomorrow.
I am doing A1. With love from Fred.

Without a second name, Fred’s identity must remain a mystery and I’ve been unable to trace a Grahamstown politician called Van de Reif so far. If you can help, please leave a comment. His generosity towards two young New Zealand soldiers must have been a real treat for them after weeks crammed into a troop ship; a last brief encounter with civilized life before the trenches of the Western Front.

Frank Berg was born in Devonport, Tasmania, on 26th August 1896 to parents Isaac and Elizabeth and moved with the family to Sheffield, west of Christchurch, New Zealand. At the time of his enlistment on 19th September 1916, he was working as a labourer at Greendale, south of the city. His father, a bootmaker, must have died soon afterwards because his estate notice appears in the Press in mid-October. There is no mention of compassionate leave in Frank’s army record.

Private Berg, Frank Lewis, 33679, was 5ft 6in tall, 140lbs., 32 inch chest, brown hair and eyes. The Mister Average of his generation, one of thousands like him who volunteered to fight in a European war under conditions they could never have imagined in their worst nightmares. After basic training, he and Fred and the 21st Reinforcements NZEF sailed from Wellington on the troop transport Ulimoroa, 21st January 1917.

TePapa_SS-Ulimaroa

The Ulimaroa leaving Wellington. Photo by J. Dickie. Te Papa collection.

They disembarked at Devonport (Plymouth), England, on 27th March and arrived at Sling Camp the same day. After more training to prepare them for what was to come, they left for France on 26th May. Frank’s record is silent for seven months until, on 26th December, he was sent to hospital suffering from enteritis and enemia. Disease was almost as deadly as the enemy in the Great War but Frank recovered quickly and was back with the 1st Battalion Canterbury Regiment by 12th January 1918, just in time to be sent to England on leave a week later.

Back with his unit by early February, Frank managed to keep his head down and was sent to a School of Instruction in late September. Where, and for what purpose, is not known. He returned to the Front on 15th October.

Frank Berg was reported killed in action on 23rd October 1918, just 19 days before the ceasefire.

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A Triple Tragedy

Aboukir_vThe image at left comes from a postcard by Raphael Tuck and Sons, published around 1908, and features the British armoured cruiser H. M. S. Aboukir. She was launched in 1900 by Fairfields of Govan, Scotland and, on completion two years later, had a short career in the Mediterranean before being withdrawn from service and laid up in reserve in 1912. The rapid development of warships at the time had made her, and the rest of the “Cressy” class to which she belonged, practically obsolete.

She was recommisioned on the outbreak of war in August 1914 and sent on patrol with the 7th Cruiser Squadron to guard the eastern approaches to the English Channel. On the morning of 22nd September, she was torpedoed by the German submarine U-9 and when Cressy and Hogue closed to rescue survivors, they were dispatched in the same way. Three cruisers and over 1400 men were lost in less than an hour. You can find the crew list here. Writer Antoine Vanner gives a thorough description of the disaster on his blog.

Aboukir

This image by artist, Norman Wilkinson, was printed in ‘Earl Kitchener and the Great War’ (1916). Captions in the book claim “one of the sailors described the last moment as follows: “The captain sings out an order just like on any ordinary occasion, ‘If any man wishes to leave the side of the ship he can do so, every man for himself,’ then we gave a cheer and in we went.”
and
“The horrors of modern warfare are illustrated by the notice issued after this disaster by the British Admiralty, which reads in part, ‘no act of humanity, whether to friend or foe, should lead to neglect of the proper precautions and dispositions of war, and no measure[s] can be taken to save life which prejudice the military situation.'”

Translated into plain language – in the event of this situation being repeated, commanders must put their own ships’ safety first and leave men in the water to their fate.

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.

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.