Category Archives: Family and Social History

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

John Adams – Letters From The Front

Letters From The Front tells the story of one of the men of the 9th Royal Irish FusiliersJohn Adamswho 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 longhave a listen!

Sergeant John Adams MM



Letters From The Front, Podcast January 2017

Letters From The Front, Podcast February 2017

Christmas Cards of the Great War

The interior of the 36th (Ulster) Division card for 1917

The interior of the 36th (Ulster) Division card for 1917

As we approach Christmas, I thought I would share a selection of the First World War Christmas cards that have been sent to me, for one reason or another, over the years.

These cards are of two types—those commissioned with an appropriate theme for a unit or formation, and those produced locally for soldiers to buy. The locally produced cards were made to a very high standard and were not confined to Christmas greetings. Made year-round as general souvenirs and to commemorate specific events, many were embroidered in rich colours with patriotic designs. Early in the war the embroidery, on silk organza or similar fine material, was done by women as piecework for companies who then mounted the embroidery on cards with printed messages. Later, the popularity of the cards resulted in machine embroidered cards assembled in factories. It is commonly estimated that as many as 10 million such cards were produced during the war, mainly in France. Continue reading

My Family at War – Part 6: Moses Neill

2739 Private Moses Neill

Bugler Moses Neill in India

Bugler Moses Neill in India

Moses Neill—known as ‘Mosey’—was the older brother of my great-grandfather William Neill. He served with The Royal Irish Rifles from 1890 for 12 years, including during the South African War, and a further two years with the Royal Garrison Regiment. Continue reading

My Family at War

My great-grandfather William Neill was the influence behind my exploration of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers that led to Blacker’s Boys. Since writing the book I have discovered other relatives who served during the First World War, and some who served during the Boer War and the Second World War. Each has a very different story (those without a link are yet to be written): Continue reading

The Somme – Thomas Bunting, killed in action on 1 July 1916

Like many families from Ireland we had relatives who took part in the attack on 1 July 1916. Luckily, my great-grandfather Sergeant William Neill, the Transport Sergeant of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, did not ‘go over the top’ that morning and survived the attack. Less fortunate was his nephew—my first cousin, twice removed—Lance Corporal Thomas Bunting. He was serving in 8 Platoon, ‘B’ Company, 9th Royal Irish Rifles in 107th Brigade and was reported as wounded and missing in that battalion’s follow-up to the main attack by 36th (Ulster) Division. He was 19 years old.

His family did not know his fate for many months. About a month after he was declared missing his father wrote to the Red Cross hoping that he was a prisoner of war. On 25 August 1916 the Red Cross replied—there was no record of him. Sometime in mid-1917 Thomas Bunting’s family were informed that his death was presumed to have occurred on or after 1/2 July 1916. He has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. He is also commemorated on the memorial at Dollingstown in County Down.

Lance Corporal Thomas Bunting

Lance Corporal Thomas Bunting, 8 Platoon, ‘B’ Company, 9th (Service) Battalion, The Royal Irish Rifles (West Belfast), killed in action 1 July 1916. Commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

Read more about my family in the First World War.


Blacker’s Letters – May 1916

The letters written by Lieutenant Colonel Blacker in May 1916 have now been published and you can read them all on the project’s website. The 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers is just about to move out of the line with the other battalions of 108th and 109th Brigades, 36th (Ulster) Division, to train and prepare for the forthcoming attack. The letters that will follow in June are hopeful of success…

Blacker's Letters

Blacker’s Letters

Nurses in the Great War

Three nurses and two wounded men

Three nurses and two wounded men

Many will be familiar with the Great War biographical memoire of Vera Brittain—Testament of Youth—in which she recounts her experiences as a VAD in England, Malta and France. The image of the doughty VAD from a well-to-do family, doing her bit—Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey—is how most people see the nurses of the Great War. This caricature was certainly my view for a long time, although I was aware of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, and the Royal Navy’s equivalent, Queen Alexandra’s Royal Naval Nursing Service.

No-one has done more to enlighten me about the reality of nursing in the Great War than Sue Light, a nurse who has spent many years studying her profession, in particular military nursing in the late 19th and early 20th Century. Her work is extensive, thorough, detailed and fascinating.

The first of her three on-line information depositories is Scarlet Finders, which provides a wealth of information on British military nurses. Particularly interesting is the transcribed war diary of the Matron-in-Chief, British Expeditionary Force, France And Flanders. Continue reading

The Sergeant Brothers

The Sergeant Brothers

The Sergeant Brothers

In the Saturday edition of the Lurgan Mail on 25 November 1916 there was a page dedicated to ‘Patriotic Familes’—those families from the town with more than three members serving with the British Army, the Royal Navy and the Canadian Expeditionary Force. The page, the large format page rarely seen in newspapers today, had three columns of names and listed 88 families. Four families had six sons serving, one had a father and his five sons in the Army and Royal Navy, and 16 families had five sons at war. Two years into the conflict, the number of families recording multiple men killed, wounded and missing was considerable.

This degree of commitment was not unique to Lurgan nor, indeed, the United Kingdom—Mrs Charlotte Wood, an English born Canadian, saw eleven of her sons enlist, of whom five were killed in action and two severely wounded.

The Sergeant household from Gilford in County Down was another whose sons contributed much. Continue reading

My Family at War – Part 5: John Palmer Bowes

504226 Private John Palmer Bowes

Private John Palmer Bowes. 2nd Canadian Division Mechanical Transport Company, Canadian Army Service Corps.

Private John Palmer Bowes. 2nd Canadian Division Mechanical Transport Company, Canadian Army Service Corps.

John Palmer Bowes was my wife’s maternal great-grandfather. He was born at Oakwood in the township of Mariposa[1] in Ontario, Canada on 29 March 1869, the second youngest of the five children of Emmanuel and Elizabeth Bowes.[2] The family moved to Kansas City, Missouri in 1890, where Emmanuel re-established his business as a grocer. John later moved to St Louis and became a motor mechanic. In 1901 he married Emma Leming (née Young), a widow with three children from her first marriage.[3] Their son, Emanuel Adrian, was born at their home at 4120 Blair Avenue, St Louis on 12 December 1906. Continue reading