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.

Kitchener’s Garden

lossy-page1-466px-Kitchener_poster_by_Alfred_Leete.tif_300dpi-2webIn the years before this famous recruiting poster image was thrust on the public at the start of the First World War, Lord Kitchener had been – among many other things – Commander in Chief in India from 1902-1909. Lord Frederic Hamilton, who seems to have known everybody who was anybody, recalls a conversation at the official residence.

I was once talking to Lord Kitchener at his official house in Fort William, Calcutta, when he asked me to come and have a look at the garden. He informed me that he was giving a garden-party to fifteen hundred guests in three days’ time, and wondered whether the space was sufficient for it. I told him that I was certain that it was not, and that I doubted whether half of that number could get in. “Very well,” said Lord Kitchener, “I shall have the whole of the Fort ditch turned into a garden tomorrow.” Next day he had eight hundred coolies at work. They levelled the rough sand, marked out with pegs walks of pounded bricks, which they flattened, sowed the sand with mustard and cress and watered it abundantly to conterfeit lawns, and finally brought cartloads of growing flowers, shrubs and palms, which they “plunged” in the mustard-and-cress lawns, and in thirty-six hours there was a garden apparently established for years. It is true that the mustard-and-cress lawns did not bear close inspection, but, on the other hand, you could eat them, which you cannot do with ours. Lord Kitchener was fond of saying that he had never been intended for a soldier, but for an architect and house-decorator. Certainly the additions made to his official house, which were all carried out from his own designs, were very effective and in excellent taste.

In a country like India, where so much takes place out of doors, wonderful effects can be produced, as Lord Kitchener said, with some rupees, some native boys, and a good many yards of insulated wire. The boys are sent climbing up the trees; they drop long pieces of twine to which the electric wires are attached; they haul them up, and proceed to wire the trees and to fix coloured bulbs up to their very tops. Night comes; a switch is pressed, and every tree in the garden is a blaze of ruby, saphire, or emerald, with the most admirable result.
‘Here, There and Everywhere’, Lord Frederic Hamilton, Hodder and Stoughton, London.

Calcutta

Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, at the time of British rule.

 

The Battle of Denmark Strait

Denmark Strait, North Atlantic, 24 May 1941.

Hood

H.M.S. Hood

In [H.M.S.] Prince of Wales, Bismarck and Prinz Eugen only a handful of men saw Hood’s end with their own eyes: the vast majority were below decks and to them the incredible news came on inter-com and by telephone, second hand. Some simply did not believe it. Prinz Eugen’s executive officer, Commander Stoos, on duty in the lower command post, hearing his captain’s voice announcing the news, said quietly, ‘Some poor fellow up there has gone off his head.’ In Bismarck’s after transmitting station Leading Seaman Eich heard Commander Schneider’s joyous shout, ‘She’s blowing up,’ and would remember the long drawn out ‘uuup’ for the rest of his life. In the after director tower Mullenheim-Rechberg heard it too, and despite orders to stick to the two [British] cruisers, couldn’t resist swinging round to see for himself. The smoke was clearing to show Hood with a broken back, in two pieces, bow and stern pointing towards the sky. As he watched, he saw the two forward turrets of Hood suddenly spit out a final salvo: it was an accident, the circuits must have been closed at the moment she was struck, but to her enemies it seemed like a last defiant and courageous gesture.

Now Prince of Wales, turning to port to obey Holland’s orders, had to go hard a-starboard to avoid the wreckage ahead, and Jasper*, through Prinz Eugen’s main rangefinder, saw on the far side of Prince of Wales a weird thing – the whole forward section of Hood, rearing up from the water like the spire of a cathedral, towering above the upper deck of Prince of Wales, as she steamed by. Inside this foresection were several hundred men, trapped topsy-turvey in the darkness of shell-room and magazine. Then Prince of Wales passed, both parts of Hood slid quickly beneath the waves, taking with them more than 1,400 men, leaving only a wreath of smoke on the surface. ‘Poor devils, poor devils!’ said Jasper aloud, echoing the thoughts of those around him; for as sailors they had just proved what sailors do not care to prove, that no ship, not even Hood, is unsinkable, and that went for Bismarck and Prinz Eugen too.
‘Pursuit, the chase and sinking of the Bismarck’, Ludovic Kennedy. Wm. Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1974.

*Lieut-Commander Paulus Jasper, First Artillery Officer, Prinz Eugen

Somewhere in the Pacific

American troops in the Pacific during WWII. Location and photographer unknown.

World War Two. Location and photographer unknown.

This is a snapshot size image I bought in an auction with no clues to its origin. It looks genuine but could be a contemporary copy of a larger print by a press photographer. After all, who else would have the time or inclination to take a snapshot in a situation like this?

The soldier in silhouette profile at right lifts it above the average and the scene reminded me of the work of W. Eugene Smith – although it doesn’t come close to his print quality, of course.

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.