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.
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.”
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 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.
The letters written by Lieutenant Colonel Blacker in August 1916 have now been published and you can read them all on the project’s website. There is a familiarity to the tone of the letters; the Battalion is engaged in much the same work that it was in the Somme region prior to the attack on 1 July. The difference being the weather, the flies and the poor billets out of the line.
Cloth Hall, Ypres
Warrant Officer Class 2, Company Serjeant Major, George Mayer Symons, The Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment), attached to the British Military Mission, died during the influenza epidemic at Camp Lee, Virginia on 8 October 1918. He was buried in Poplar Grove National Cemetery near Petersburg. Unfortunately, his grave marker was incorrectly inscribed. On Saturday 27 August I was privileged to attend the dedication ceremony for the new headstone. You can read about the ceremony here.
The new gravestone for George Symons, August 2016
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