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.
It is always a great pleasure to help someone out with research and then be contacted sometime later to be told that their project has come to successful fruition. A new book—Names Carved in Stone—tells the story of 69 men from The Mall Presbyterian Church in Armagh, Northern Ireland who served during the Great War. It is an excellent, small community, commemorative work that has been produced to the very highest standards. The layout and illustrations are beautifully done by Jason McFarland at ArtworkArmy. I’m very pleased to host this piece by the author, Fiona Berry, who describes the inspiration behind the project and a little bit about the men it commemorates.
The Memorial Tablets in The Mall Presbyterian Church, Armagh
The book began with the more modest ambition of an article for the Church magazine, profiling the story of one of the soldiers named on the War Memorial. In many projects like this the inspiration often comes from a family story. I had grown up hearing of three great-great uncles who fought in the First World War—William, Joseph and John Johnston of Disraeli Street, on the Crumlin Road. Joseph’s death at Gallipoli in August 1915 was a devastating loss for the family. The next generation of the family were to suffer again during the Belfast Blitz of 1941 when their house in Duncairn Gardens suffered a direct hit and was completely destroyed. Our family left Belfast for Newtownards and the connection with their Belfast community was broken. Continue reading
The letters written by Lieutenant Colonel Blacker in November 1916 have now been published and they can be read on the project’s website. The letters cover a wealth of subjects from equipment and clothing, to promotion and the award of medals, and, of course, the weather. In a few days Lieutenant Colonel Blacker will go home on leave and we won’t hear from him again until early January 1917/2017.
The Thornton Trench Coat – “New Thornton coat and long gum boots kept me quite dry in spite of rain and flood.”
In memory of:
Naval Airman 1st Class Kenneth Admiral Brown, Royal Navy
Died, 22 April 1940
Acting Sub-Lieutenant (Air Branch) Arthur Stephen Griffith, Royal Navy
Killed in action, 18 January 1941
Leading Airman Alfred Samuel Rush, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve
Sub-Lieutenant (Air Branch) Philip Donald Julian Sparke DSC**, Royal Navy
Killed in action, 11 May 1941
Twice a year I specifically write a story about Remembrance—for Memorial Day here in the United States and for Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. A few days ago, I saw seemingly unconnected lines of research come together that led me to a story of wartime gallantry and sacrifice 75 years ago. I was researching a group of Royal Signals soldiers awarded a King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct when I noticed an award to a Maltese Sapper, who had rescued an airman from the sea. Curious (I grew up in Malta), I searched for his story and, in doing so, identified the man that he rescued, his link with three other airmen who died in 1940 and 1941, and discovered a related painting by the renowned Maltese artist Edwin Galea, the father of one of my childhood friends. The story that pulls together these threads is worth telling on this Remembrance Day.
HMS Illustrious at Malta 1941 by Edwin Galea
The tiny island of Malta in the central Mediterranean had a strategic importance out of all proportion to its size during the early years of the Second World War. Bombing of the island began immediately after Mussolini’s declaration of war on 10 June 1940 and, besieged by Axis forces in Sicily, the island suffered a gruelling fight for survival that lasted until November 1942. Continue reading