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
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.
The Victoria Cross of Second Lieutenant Edmund De Wind
De Wind Victoria Cross, Obverse
De Wind Victoria Cross, Reverse
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.
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 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.
The Canadian Book of Remembrance showing the entry for Private Lawrence Manning
Three new biographies have been added to the Sacrifice project website:
Private Chester Covell Buck served briefly in England with 202nd (Sportsman’s) Battalion before being sent back to Canada unfit for further duty. He died in Ponoka Asylum Hospital, Alberta, on 7 December 1917 and was buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Plymouth, Indiana.
Private Lawrence Eugene Manning served in France with 72nd Canadian Infantry Battalion (Seaforth Highlanders of Canada). Greatly affected by his experiences, he took his own life on 9 November 1919 and is buried in Salt Lake City Cemetery, Salt Lake City, Utah.
Second Lieutenant George Albert Ruffridge and Cadet Hugh Barker O’Leary of No. 80 Canadian Training Squadron were killed in a flying accident at Camp Bordon in Canada on 6 May 1918. Ruffridge was buried in Rosedale Cemetery, Montclair, New Jersey.
Private Chester Buck
Second Lieutenant Albert Ruffridge
Geoffrey Cather’s Victoria Cross
One hundred years ago today at Buckingham Palace, King George V presented the Victoria Cross to the families of five recipients who had either died in the act or been killed since. Amongst them was Margaret Cather, the widowed mother of Lieutenant Geoffrey St. George Shillington Cather VC, the Adjutant of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, who had so gallantly died on 2 July 1916 while out rescuing men who had fallen in the attack at Hamel the previous day. When she died in 1939 her effects were left to her other son, Dermot, who later presented the Victoria Cross to the Royal Irish Fusiliers museum, where it resides today.
When the last commanding officer of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers signed off the final page of the Battalion’s war diary on 9 June 1919 he did so with a Gallic flourish – ‘Finis’. That is the word that most readily comes to mind as I write this.
After 444 letters recording the thoughts and comments of Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Blacker, the identification of nearly 300 men and women to whom he referred, and many footnotes to explain events, the Blacker’s Letters project has ended. The project was made freely available to read via the project’s website and on social media.
Blacker’s Letters also contributed to the BBC project Voices 16, and I am very pleased that it has been web-archived by the National Library of Ireland and will be added to the web archive of the Public Records Office of Northern Ireland.
Letters From The Front tells the story of one of the men of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers—John Adams—who twice earned the Military Medal and was twice wounded. In a series of podcasts his letters are read by his family 100 years after they were written. The podcasts for January and February 1917/2017 also feature a piece by me about how I came to write Blacker’s Boys. Each is only about 10 minutes long—have a listen!
Sergeant John Adams MM
Letters From The Front, Podcast January 2017
Letters From The Front, Podcast February 2017
Distinguished Service Order
Lieutenant Colonel Blacker was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in the New Year Honours and when he returned from leave at the beginning of January 1917 he assumed temporary command of 108th Brigade. Nonetheless, he still found time to visit and comment about the activities of the Battalion. His letters home written in January have now been published and they can be read on the project’s website.