Seventy-six years ago, on the evening of 29 December 1940, a German bombing raid caused what become known as the ‘Second Great Fire of London’. Taken in the aftermath of this raid, the iconic photograph of St Paul’s Cathedral in the blitz came to symbolise London’s defiance. The attack on 29 December targeted the City of London where the high explosive and incendiary bombs started a firestorm that swept all before it. The area destroyed was more than that devastated by the Great Fire of 1666. It cost the lives of over 160 civilians and 14 firemen.
St Paul’s Cathedral, 29 December 1940
The attack and the response to it by the emergency services and the people of London is explored in detail by Margaret Gaskin in her excellent book Blitz: The Story of 29th December 1940—a most thorough description of the night’s events told largely through the memories of those who were there. Although Gaskin describes in some detail the bravery of those responding to the fires, she only alludes to the gallantry awards that were made in consequence of those acts. In all, the fierce bombing raid and firestorm of 29 December resulted in 44 gallantry awards—one MBE, eight George Medals, 22 British Empire Medals and 13 Commendations for Brave Conduct—more than for any other single event during the blitz. Continue reading
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
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
Lieutenant Colonel S W W Blacker DSO
Lieutenant Colonel Blacker’s letters home in October 1916 are all now published and you can read them all on the project’s website. His comments about the weather are reminiscent of those written the year before; this time, however, the Battalion must contend with the nearby River Douve, which regularly breaks its banks flooding the trenches. These letters reflect the routine of life for many in the line south west of Ypres—cold and boring in the most part with occasional flurries of activity and noise, described by Blacker as ‘hideous’.
The Corps of Signals was established by Royal Warrant on 28 June 1920.
Six weeks later, the title ‘Royal Corps of Signals’ was conferred by King George V.
From its earliest days soldiers of the Royal Corps of Signals were engaged in operations across the Empire, most notably in Mesopotamia and on the North West Frontier, and they were duly recognised for their gallantry and valuable service. The majority of awards were made during the course of the Second World War but since then the officers and soldiers of the Corps have been decorated for their gallantry in most of the conflicts in which the British Army has been engaged. Continue reading
The letters written by Lieutenant Colonel Blacker in September 1916 have now been published and you can read them all on the project’s website. The Battalion continues to settle into its new routine in increasingly wet weather.
The River Douve, which ran near the Battalion’s trenches, flooding them when it burst its banks.
The stories of the seven men commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Connecticut are finished and may be read here. Most were United States citizens but one was a British officer working as a small-arms inspector with Winchester and Remington, which were contracted to manufacture the P14 rifle.
The P14 Rifle
The ‘Rifle, .303 Pattern 1914’, known as the P14, was a new rifle, based on the design of the Pattern 1913 Enfield (the P13), an experimental rifle designed to fire a new .276 Enfield rimless cartridge, which had been developed as a result of experience during the Boer War. The outbreak of the First World War made the adoption of this new cartridge impracticable and, in essence, the P14 was the P13, built to accept the standard British .303 cartridge. 1,235,293 rifles would be manufactured by Winchester and Remington (and one of Remington’s subsidiaries). Initially issued in some numbers, the P14 was replaced in front-line service in 1916 by the ubiquitous Short Magazine Lee Enfield No.1 Mk3*, which was by then being produced in the United Kingdom in sufficient quantity. The P14 was then used primarily as a sniper rifle and was highly regarded for its accuracy.
In researching the essay about my great-great-uncle Moses Neill, I came across reference to the Royal Garrison Regiment, into which he enlisted in 1902. A search for information about the Regiment revealed little and the information that was easily found has proven to be wrong or inaccurate. A number of sources conflate the Royal Garrison Regiment with the earlier Royal Reserve Regiments; while it is true that the men of the latter were recruited for the former, these two organisations were raised at different times and for very different purposes. In the sections below, hyperlinks will lead to a transcription or copy of the relevant Royal Warrant or Army Order.
The Royal Reserve Regiments
Officers of the Royal Irish Fusiliers Reserve Regiment, 1900