March 1918 – Sergeant James Hughes DCM, MM

The medals of Sergeant James Hughes DCM, MM

In March 1918, for the third time in 21 months, the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers in 108th Brigade, 36th (Ulster) Division was all but destroyed. Blacker’s Boys devotes a whole chapter to the actions fought in the week following the German attack south of the River Somme and the subsequent action against the German second phase attack south of Ypres.

In these actions, 36th (Ulster) Division suffered over 7,200 casualties, of which over 5,600 were missing, most of whom had been captured. This was the highest casualty rate of any division facing the German attack. The 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers lost 46 killed or died of wounds, 142 wounded and an estimated 334 captured. By this stage of the war the Battalion was nothing like that which had landed in France in October 1915. The majority of its men were those who had joined from 2nd North Irish Horse, there was also a fair number of Englishmen—from Yorkshire, Derbyshire and London—and Irish soldiers from all over Ireland, both Catholic and Protestant.

Many of the men killed in the actions fought in March 1918 were later described as falling in the period 21-29 March or on 29 March but neither of these descriptions is wholly accurate. Continue reading

21 March 1918 – Racecourse Redoubt

One hundred years ago, on 21 March 1918 on the first day of the German offensive that swept back the British Fifth Army, my great-uncle Robbie was captured in the ‘Line of Resistance’ at the very front of the defensive positions held by 15th Royal Irish Rifles in 107th Brigade in 36th (Ulster) Division. His story is here.

107th Brigade Forward Zone

Twice they got out on top and walked along it, clearing enemy out of it with rifle and rifle grenades.’

Farther back, ‘D’ Company held out in Racecourse Redoubt until that evening. During the attacks there in the morning, one of ‘D’ Company’s platoon commanders, Second Lieutenant Edmund De Wind, defended his position most gallantly and, assisted by Corporal Samuel Getgood and Lance Corporal Hubert Walker MM, repeatedly cleared the enemy from a trench at the west of the redoubt. Around midday De Wind was killed; Getgood and Walker were captured when the redoubt was surrendered that evening. For their gallantry De Wind was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross and Getgood and Walker were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Recently I was able to help a descendent of De Wind put together some of his story, in preparation for a commemorative event in Comber, Northern Ireland, De Wind’s home town prior to his emigration to Canada. It is with his permission that I can show these fabulous photographs of his Victoria Cross.

My Family at War – Part 7:

2097365 Leading Aircraftwoman Marie Tarrant Neill

Leading Aircraftwoman Miriam Neill

Miriam, as she was known all her life, was the third of the five daughters of my great-grandfather William Neill; she had an older brother who died in infancy whom she never met, and the family later adopted a son.[1] Marie Tarrant Neill was born on 16 August 1910 in the family home at James Street in Lurgan, to which they had recently moved.

The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was created on 28 June 1939 from the 48 companies of the Auxiliary Territorial Service supporting the Royal Air Force. Conscription of women began in 1941 and Miriam Neill was enrolled into the WAAF that year on 24 July. Having reported for training on 11 September 1941, she completed her basic training and was posted as a tailoress to RAF Box (later renamed RAF Rudloe Manor) in Wiltshire, the site of the Operations Centre of No. 10 Group RAF. She was billeted at Hartham Park, a Georgian manor house just north of Corsham. Continue reading

The Sinking of the SS Lisbon Maru

On 1 October 1942, the SS Lisbon Maru, a Japanese freighter transporting prisoners of war from Hong Kong to Japan, was sunk by the submarine USS Grouper.

Fifty Royal Signals soldiers died. This is their story and that of the most gallant Signalman Arnold Topliff.

SS Lisbon Maru


We Shall Suffer There by Tony Banham

 

I must acknowledge the help given by Tony Banham in the preparation of this story. His three books on the Battle for Hong Kong, the sinking of the SS Lisbon Maru, and  the fate of the prisoners of war are masterly and highly recommended.

See Hong Kong War Diary.

Discovering The North-West Passage

Discovering the North-West Passage: The Four-Year Arctic Odyssey of H.M.S. Investigator and the McClure ExpeditionDiscovering the North-West Passage: The Four-Year Arctic Odyssey of H.M.S. Investigator and the McClure Expedition by Glenn M. Stein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an outstanding piece of work. Ignoring for one moment the incredible story of the crew of HMS Investigator, this 19th Century tale of exploration is superbly researched and documented; as a reference work for the serious student of the history of exploration in the Arctic and Antarctic it is a ‘must read’. The bibliography is extensive, the notes on the primary sources lend much weight to the author’s conclusions and the tale itself is well told, without hyperbole or flights of imagination. I ordered this from a library in order to study Stein’s history of the Polar Medal. Before beginning the book I read the notes on the sources and I’m glad that I did so first.

Although there is room for a lighter telling of this tale (which I think would please some of the reviewers of this book elsewhere) some events in history require a serious and scholarly study to be worthy of the efforts of those whom it describes and to sit as the definitive historical record. This is such a work and I highly recommend it.

View all my reviews

The East Coast Floods, 1953

As I work on my book about Royal Signals gallantry awards, the news is dominated by accounts of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Katia and the massive earthquake in Mexico. By coincidence, the section that I am writing is about the East Coast Floods of 1953.

Canvey Island, 1953

On 31 January 1953, an extremely heavy storm coupled with a high spring tide led to a devastating natural disaster in the low-lying areas around the North Sea. Sea defences were breached, coastal areas were flooded and ships were lost. Over 2,500 people were killed—1,836 in the Netherlands, 307 in England, 19 in Scotland and 28 in Belgium; 361 people were killed at sea, including 133 on the Larne-Stranraer ferry m.v. Princess Victoria. This was one of the worst natural disasters to hit the region; the rescue work took many days and recovery took many months.

There were numerous acts of gallantry recorded over the period and British awards were made to civilians and military personal, including honorary awards to men of the United States Air Force stationed in East Anglia. These and the meritorious service awards that followed the rescue effort were spread over several editions of the London Gazette, including the Coronation Honours list; the honorary awards were not published. There were more British awards made in the aftermath of this disaster than for any other single, non-warlike event in British history. Continue reading

The Boche had beaten us, and the slaughter terrific.

The graves of Lieutenant Colonel S J Somerville, the Commanding Officer, and Captain R D Miles, C Company, Brandhoek New Military Cemetery No. 3

Few of the 154 officers and men of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers who were killed immediatley prior to or during the attack on 16 August 1917 lie in marked graves—three-quarters are commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial, a substantially higher proportion that those killed on 1 July 1916 who are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. There are four primary reasons for this: firstly, very few bodies could be recovered immediately after the action from the area over which the Battalion had attacked; secondly, the area was subjected to continued severe shelling and was not captured until over a month later, by which time many of the bodies were destroyed; thirdly, in early 1918 a narrow gauge railway was built over the area from which the attack was launched, and, fourthly—in consequence—few of the bodies were identified by name in the post-war battlefield clearance.

When the heavy rain began on 31 July 1917, the men of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers were at Watou, seven miles west of Ypres preparing for the forthcoming offensive. On 2 August, the Battalion was ordered forward with 13th Royal Irish Rifles and two battalions from 109th Brigade to take over a reserve position in the trenches from which 55th (West Lancashire) Division had attacked on the first day of the battle. This period in the line was short but exhausting, spent in muddy, partially destroyed and crowded trenches and, in the last few hours as the men began the move back west of Ypres, under gas attack. Miraculously, casualties were few but two men, James Greer from Rathfriland and Isaac Hague from Nottingham, would die of their injuries some days later.[1]

Continue reading

Army Women 100

Dedicated to the women with whom I have had the privilege to serve, particularly those who have demonstrated their courage and endurance on operations in Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Sierra Leone, and Iraq. This is my contribution to #ArmyWomen100.

In January 1917, Lieutenant General Henry Lawson[1] submitted a report that recommended the recruitment of women to fill administrative jobs in France, releasing men for employment farther forward.[2] The Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps was formally instituted by Army Council Instruction No. 1069 on 7 July 1917.[3] The WAAC became Queen Mary’s Auxiliary Army Corps on 9 April 1918. At the end of the war its personnel were demobilised and the Corps was finally disbanded on 30 April 1920, although a small detachment remained attached to the Graves Registrations Commission in France until September 1921.[4]

On 25 March 1916, the Military Medal had been instituted for non-commissioned officers and men of the Army for ‘acts of bravery’.[5] Three months later, in a supplementary Royal Warrant of 21 June, the award was extended to women (British and foreign) for ‘bravery and devotion under fire’.[6] The first awards soon followed—to Lady Dorothie Feilding for her gallantry as an ambulance driver in Belgium (she had previously been awarded the French Croix de Guerre and would later be awarded the Belgian Ordre de Léopold II for her services) and to five nurses for their gallantry during the bombing of 33rd Casualty Clearing Station at Bethune, France on 7 August 1916.[7] Continue reading

The George Cross

Why has there been so little reaction to the recent award of the George Cross to Dominic Troulan?

The George Cross (Photo Dix Noonan Web)

Given the circumstances, it is not surprising that news coverage of the recent gallantry awards list has been dominated largely by those of the George Medal to Bernard Kenny and PC Keith Palmer for their gallantry and sacrifice in incidents at home in the United Kingdom. It is somewhat disappointing, however, that so little has been made of the astonishing and prolonged courage that earned Dominic Troulan the nation’s highest award for gallantry; particularly given the rarity of this prestigious decoration for ‘acts of the greatest heroism or of the most conspicuous courage in circumstances of extreme danger.’[1]

Additionally, both the emphasis on the George Cross being a ‘civilian award’ and commentary about Troulan’s award being the first civilian award for 41 years ignore the reality behind the awards of the George Cross, George Medal and Queen’s Gallantry Medal. Continue reading