Saturday 06 Nov 2010 Article Rescued by Sixthswan
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
The war to end all wars?
In a wasteland of disrespect, vandalism, graffiti, violence and cynicism, it is remarkable that the British still treat Remembrance Sunday with such reverence. You must remember, for example, the outrage that engulfed the poor student who took a drunken leak up a war memorial?
Maybe this is because we still see ourselves as a ‘warrior nation’; proud of our military heritage and the millions of men who died to make it. And maybe it’s also because we seem to be perpetually at war. It’s easy to remember the two world wars and forget the soldiers who died in places like Korea, Malaya, Northern Ireland, Aden, Bosnia, the Falklands and so many other conflicts leading up to today and the desperate, blinded struggle in Afghanistan.
I guarantee there won’t be many countries in the world where you’ll fail to find the grave of a British serviceman or a single year in the last three hundred years in which one wasn’t killed in action.
To help the Roof in its own commemoration, this is a short piece about some of the experiences of the Leicestershire Regiment in the Great War of 1914-18.
I chose the Great War because that has come to be seen as not so much as the war to end all wars as the war that stands for all other wars, with the poppy as the universal image of remembrance.
I chose the Leicestershire Regiment because their origins and history echo so much about Leicester today.
It’s only weeks since the EDL demonstrated in Leicester. They picked out Leicester mainly because of our high Asian population. And this is where history starts to make fools of us.
The Leicestershire Regiment are known as ‘The Tigers’ because there’s a tiger in their badge. This originates from when the 17th Leicestershire Regiment of Foot (later to become the Leicestershire Regiment) served in India between 1804 and 1823.
A hundred years or so later the 2nd Battalion of the Leicester's fought at Neuve Chapelle in 1915 as part of the Garwhal Brigade of the 7th Meerut Division alongside battalions such as the 2nd Battalion 3rd Gurkha Rifles and the 39th Garwhal Rifles.
So our City’s military connection with the sub-continent actually began nearly two hundred years ago.
"The Germans were quite friends with us on those two days. They left their trenches and came over to our officers and shook hands with them as they came along the railway line, but we did not allow them in our trenches...It seemed a shame to start fighting them again after their give us cigars and cigarettes."
In yet another echo of modern history, the 2nd Battalion were sent in December 1915 to fight the Ottoman Empire in Basra in what was then Mesopotamia and what is now called Iraq.
Our batteries were in position at the ‘Pimple’. We rose, marched through a tornado of noise, right-turned, and went cross the muzzle of our own guns, also in full blast. In front I saw lines of Leicestershire's scaling the slope and melting into the mounds…We came suddenly upon Brother Tigris, basking in beautiful sunlight, becalmed in bays beneath lofty bluffs. In this dreadful land water meant everything…
Incidentally, if you think Mesopotamia was a sideshow to the main event in France and Belgium consider the 40,500 men commemorated on the Basra Memorial. They have no known graves and died in the Great War. Some sideshow.
For King and Country
At the start of the war the Leicestershire Regiment had 3 Regular battalions (around 800 men in each) and 2 Territorial battalions. The scale of the losses suffered in the first weeks led Lord Kitchener (but oddly few others) to realise that the war would not in fact be ‘all over by Christmas’ and that the British Army of 300,000 men was no match for the millions put into the field by the likes of Germany, Russia and France. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers were called for and duly came. The main recruiting office was in Humberstone Gate By the end of the war over 20 battalions had been formed and from them over 7000 men were killed.
New recruits would typically be sent to the depot of the Leicestershire Regiment at the barracks on Leicester Road, South Wigston (the Magazine on Oxford Street was the Regimental HQ). Some of the barrack buildings used in the Great War can still be seen.
One could hardly blame the cooks, for the capacity of the place was only about 350 in normal times, while now they had to contend with almost 3000. I Later saw some of the Wigston ‘Pontoon’ (stew which formed the staple portion of the ordinary army dinner)….the nearest approach to this infamous mixture in civilian life being cabbage water with lumps of boiled fat floating around in it.
In many cases ‘bosses and workers’ would enlist together. For example, Captain Leslie Corah, a member of the Leicester knitwear family was killed in action on 13 October 1915, no doubt alongside many former employees of the company.
From Wigston, the new recruits were sent on for further training in Aldershot. For the first day or so life was almost idyllic. One soldier said ‘the camp made a pretty picture, for the country round was beautiful and the grass was green…’
The idyll did not survive the arrival at the same camp of the 9th Battalion South Staffordshire Regiment who promptly helped themselves to the afternoon tea prepared for the Leicester's. When the Leicester's discovered the ‘tea-less’ mess tents, a full-scale brawl erupted.
‘There was a battle royal which only ceased when Captain Mignon arrived on the scene…and promised to get some more tea for the battalion…After a great deal of scrambling and fighting to get there first, loaves were given out one between four men…and another mashing of tea was made…The whole camp was in uproar and all through the evening odd fights between our men and those of the S.Staffs continued…’
The various battalions were then attached to other larger units in the British Army. Typically, this would be a Brigade that would then form part of a Division, a Corps and finally an Army. For example, the 1st Battalion was attached to the 16th Brigade of the 6th Division along with others including 1st Battalion, the Buffs, 1st Battalion, the King's Shropshire Light Infantry and the 2nd Battalion, the York & Lancaster Regt.
"We gave ‘em hell at Neuve Chapelle”
After the training came the real thing. It’s easy now to look at the jittery film of soldiers from the Great War of 1914-18 and think that they were not real people like you and me.
This photograph is of Dick Read of the 8th Battalion Leicestershire Regiment. Dick has one of those ‘timeless’ soldier’s faces. He could be in Camp Bastion today, Burma in 1944, Korea in 1951 or Borneo in 1960.
Dick, an engineering apprentice at Gimson’s at the time, enlisted in 1914.
He fought in the battle for Bazentin Ridge in July 1916. This may well have been the largest battle ever fought by the Leicestershire Regiment.
Four battalions, totalling three thousand men and making up the 110th (Leicestershire) Brigade, went ‘over the top’.
The attack was part of the Battle of the Somme - trumpeted beforehand as ‘The Big Push’ but in reality nothing more than a ‘bloody nudge’. The attack was ‘successful’ in the way that success was so callously defined on the Western Front – that is, even the Allied victors suffered enormous numbers of dead and wounded.
It was the Greek General Pyyrhus who once won a battle but lost half his army in the process. On being congratulated for his victory, he is said to have remarked - “Another victory like this, and we’re done for.”
Dick might have shared the same thought as he took shelter in a shell hole after the battle with his mate Jackie Johnson.
"Eventually Jackie broke the silence ... ‘Christ, there'll be hell to pay in Leicester and Loughborough... and Coalville...and Melton...and Uppingham...when they know about this. The Leicester Brigade, eh? Bloody well wiped out!’ and he trailed off into silence again, immersed in his thoughts."
On the Western Front, the front lines were largely static throughout the war and the weaponry used became gruesomely efficient at mass killing in such circumstances.
The machine gun has become the most recognisable weapon and yet it could only kill a man who was above ground. For a man in a trench or shell hole it was harmless and soldiers spent the vast majority of their lives in the front line below ground. However, during an attack, it could kill and wound at a ferocious pace. I remember reading about the Newfoundland Regiment attacking on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It’s said that the men had their chins tucked in like men do when they’re walking into a blizzard; such was the intensity of the machine gun fire.
Personally, Sir, I was extremely lucky, bullets pierced my clothing and equipment in six places and a bomb dropped at my feet but I jumped out of the way and caught a tiny bit in the cheek, the force knocked me over though.
Gas offered the most horrible of deaths since it was rarely instant and always agonising. But given due warning and a properly fitted mask it could be resisted.
Presently across the field came trudging a cocky little Tommy of the Leicestershire's with fixed bayonet following a dozen young German prisoners. He was munching a ration biscuit and was yellow with lyddite fumes.
Artillery was by far the greatest killer of all. There was nowhere that was safe from it. The largest shells could destroy the deepest dugout. It wasn’t just the blast from the explosion but the deadly shower of shrapnel and shell casings that followed. The large numbers of men killed with no known grave from the war is evidence of those who were simply blown to bits.
Suddenly a gun barked…The frantic rats squeaked and scuttled past us: men shuddered…The barrage crept nearer. Now it was 30 yards, now 20 yards. The trench was crumbling slowly to pieces. One of my men suddenly sank to his knees. A piece of shell had torn at his middle and he sank down quietly to die a slow death…We crouched at the bottom of the trench, abject and trembling. I passed the rum bottle round and took a long swig myself…Now the worst had come. We were face down in the slime, with boot and finger and knee clutching and scraping for the veriest inch of cover
Finally, and for many soldiers the most terrifying of all, was the mine. In static warfare there was the time, opportunity and technology to tunnel beneath enemy lines and detonate huge amounts of explosives beneath them. Death would be instant except for those entombed in collapsed dugouts.
The Leicester's took their place in all the great battles and battlefields of the Great War including:
- The 2nd Battalion helped to stall the German advance in October 1914 at Armentieres.
- The 1st/4th Battalion and 1st/5th Battalion took part in the assault on the fearsome Hohenzollern Redoubt in March 1915.
- The 2nd Battalion fought in ‘The Battle for Samarra’ in Mesopotamia in April 1917
- The 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th Battalions (The Leicestershire Brigade) went over the top at 3.25 a.m. on July 14th 1916 in the attack on Bazentin wood on the Somme
- The 1st Battalion fought in the battle of St Quentin canal in 1918 as at last the war drew to a close.
"They were Leicester's who had always won and conquered, and did not know what defeat meant..."
I haven’t time or space here to do justice to what the men and women of our county went through in the Great War whether that was in the Leicester's, the Leicestershire Yeomanry or any other unit of the army, navy or Royal Flying Corps in which they served.
Real heroes can’t understand why they’re heroes.
All I hope is that I have given some of you an interest that wasn’t there before.
If I’ve been successful in that and you want to find out more then start by getting yourself down to the Newarke Houses Museum where they have an excellent historical exhibition about the Leicestershire Regiment – including a display of the regimental colours and a reconstruction of a Great War trench. It’s free and on your way round you can rub Daniel Lambert’s belly for luck and marvel at the size of his vast underpants. It’s on your way to the ground from the City centre (sort of) so you should be able to find time for it before the game.
“Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parley-voo?
Mademoiselle from Armentieres, Parley-voo?
She had four chins, her knees would knock,
And her face would stop a cuckoo clock,
Hinky, dinky, parley-voo.”
There are many excellent books about the Leicestershire Regiment and some that focus only on its role in the Great War. These are all freely available for purchase in the usual Internet places.
For starters, I’d recommend ‘The Tigers’ by Matthew Richardson (Pen & Sword Books) and also ‘Tigers Along the Tigris’ by E.J. Thompson (Leonaur).
If you want a more general view then start with the superb ‘Tommy’ by Richard Holmes (Harper Collins). You may have seen his series ‘War Walks’ on BBC some years ago or the news that he was recently awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Leicester.
You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' 'Chuck him out, the brute!'
But it's 'Saviour of 'is country' when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool - you bet that Tommy sees!
http://www.green-tiger.co.uk/id5.html has some interesting content.
If you want to take it even further then visit the battlefields themselves in France and Belgium. Go to Ypres if nothing else. Winston Churchill said of it that ‘ a more sacred place for the British race does not exist in the world’.
The Ypres Salient was the most dreadful of all the Great War killing grounds. Since 1928 the local fire brigade have played the Last Post beneath the majestic Menin Gate Memorial at 8:00 p.m. every night (apart from during the German occupation of the Second World War).
I’ve seen it many times and it never fails to move me.
If you do go, look up at the inscription on the memorial:
‘To the armies of the British Empire who stood here from 1914-1918…’
The word ‘stood’ is the word whose meaning resonates most strongly through the ages because that is what the soldiers did – they ‘stood’ in their miserable, rat-infested trenches and they took it, day after day after day.
Here are a few other books I’d recommend for those with a serious interest – beyond these are far more than you’ll ever have time to read.
‘1915 The Death of Innocence’ – Lyn Macdonald (Headline)
‘The Imperial war Museum Book of the Somme’ – Malcolm Brown (Sidgwick and Jackson)
‘Tigers Along the Tigris’ - E.J. Thompson (Leonaur)
’39 Months with the Tigers’ –D.V. Kelly (Naval and Military Press)
The last word goes to Wilfred Owen. He was killed on the 4th November 1918, just 7 days before the armistice. No war before or since has produced the quality of poetry that came out of the Great War from men such as Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke.
If I had to choose one poem to evoke the true experience of the war it would have to be the one below.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.