Friday, 20 April 2018

Absolute self-sacrifice: George Bradford VC

St George’s Day, 23 April, is a significant date for George Nicholson Bradford. Born on that day in 1887, George was the second of the four Bradford brothers who served in the First World War. On the same day in 1918, George, a Lieutenant Commander in Royal Navy, was killed in action off the coast of Zeebrugge, Belgium. For his actions on St George’s Day 1918, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross (VC).This is County Durham’s only First World War naval VC.
A view of the wreck of HMS Intrepid taken at Zeebrugge, April 1920 (D/DLI 7/602/8(16))
A view of the wreck of HMS Intrepid taken at Zeebrugge, April 1920 (D/DLI 7/602/8(16))
In April 1918, a plan was formed to raid the port of Zeebrugge and block the canal to Bruges, in order to prevent German vessels from leaving.

The plan was audacious and dependent on taking the heavy enemy defences completely by surprise. Three block ships were to be sailed into the mouth of the canal connecting Zeebrugge and Bruges and sunk. To allow the block ships to sail into position unobserved, a raiding force of Marine Light Infantry and 200 Royal Naval Blue Jackets would land on the mole to create a diversion. Other diversions included two submarines ramming and destroying a bridge on the mole [massive stone breakwater], naval bombardment from the sea, and air attacks on the town of Zeebrugge.

George Bradford was selected to lead the Blue Jacket contingent, taking command of a requisitioned Mersey ferry, HMS Iris II. After two delayed starts, the weather and tide was in their favour, until the last moment, as the raiders neared the coast. The wind changed direction and blew the smoke screen out to sea, revealing their positions to the enemy. In the scramble, under fire from the enemy, to get the ships into position, the sailing conditions became difficult. 
A view of the Zeebrugge mole, April 1920 (D/DLI 7/602/8(14))
A view of the Zeebrugge mole, April 1920 (D/DLI 7/602/8(14))
George Bradford’s Victoria Cross citation details his actions:

“Though securing the ship was not part of his duties, Lieutenant Commander Bradford climbed up the derrick, which carried a large parapet anchor and was rigged out over the port side; during this climb the ship was surging up and down and the derrick crashing on the Mole; waiting his opportunity he jumped with the parapet anchor on to the Mole and placed it in position. Immediately after hooking on the parapet anchor Lieutenant Commander Bradford was riddled with bullets from machine guns and fell into the sea between the Mole and the ship. Attempts to recover his body failed. Lieutenant Commander Bradford’s action was one of absolute self-sacrifice; without a moment’s hesitation he went to certain death, recognising that in such action lay the only possible chance of securing ‘Iris II’ and enabling her storming parties to land.” 
Commemorative paving stone for George Bradford. © John Attle
Commemorative paving stone for George Bradford. © John Attle

At 11am on Saturday, 21 April 2018, George will be honoured at Witton Park, County Durham, his place of birth. Here, his VC paving stone will be laid in the memorial garden, alongside that of his brother, Roland Boys Bradford (whose stone was laid in March 2017). The stone will be unveiled by the Lord Lieutenant Sue Snowdon, and the ceremony will be attended by members of the family, and representatives of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines. The service will be jointly led by the chaplains of the Durham Light Infantry, and of the Royal Navy. 

A commemoration of the raid will take place in Zeebrugge on the 21 April 2018, and will be attended by military personnel from Britain, Germany, and Belgium. At the end of the ceremony that day, there will be the dedication of a memorial to George Bradford.

You can read more about George Bradford and his full citation on Durham at War:

Friday, 13 April 2018

Truth is generally the best vindication

"Truth is generally the best vindication against slander."
Abraham Lincoln

In early 1918, the Minister for Labour, George Henry Roberts, and Lord Derby, appointed a commission to investigate rumours regarding the moral conduct of members of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps [WAAC] in France. The Minister stated in the February that he believed “the rumours to have their origin in pro-German quarters” (Daily Mirror, 12 February 1918), and that those guilty of the slander should be imprisoned. 

The commission was made up of Miss Violet Markham [a writer and social reformer], Mrs Lucy Deane Streatfeild [civil servant, on the executive committee of the Women's Land Army], Miss Mary Carlin of the Dock and General Workers’ Union, Miss Julia Varley of the Workers’ Union, and Miss Muriel Ritson of the Women's Friendly Society of Scotland. They were accompanied to France by Mrs Florence Burleigh Leach, Chief Controller of the WAAC.
Fitters of the WAAC at work on a car at Etaples, 7 July 1918, IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Q 9047)
Fitters of the WAAC at work on a car at Etaples, 7 July 1918, IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Q 9047)
The commission produced a report which found that there was no evidence supporting the allegations. Released in April 1918, and quoted in detail in the Falkirk Herald of 24 April, the report stated that “these charges are disproved in the first place by the official figures quoted in the report, and the personal observations of the Commission of the conditions under which the girls were living and working in no sense indicated a troublesome or undesirable state of affairs”.

The figures referred to are:
“The strength of the corps in France on 12 March 1918 was stated to us as 6023 women. We have examined the medical records both in England and France, and find that of this number, 21 pregnancy cases (or about 3 percent) have been reported since the arrival of the corps in France, and 12 cases of venereal disease (or about 2 percent). As regards the first category, two were married women, and it appears that the bulk of the cases were pregnant before coming to France. As regards the second category, it appears that several cases were of old standing. In addition to the above, 19 women have been returned to England on disciplinary grounds, and 10 for inefficiency. Fifty-nine women have been discharged on medical grounds, including the 12 cases above, and 21 on compassionate grounds, ie family reasons”.
Members of the WAAC in their dormitory at Rouen, 24 July 1917, IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Q 5757)
Members of the WAAC in their dormitory at Rouen, 24 July 1917, IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Q 5757)
The report goes on to say:
“Dismissal, apart from medical grounds, is reserved for inefficiency or grave cases of misconduct… We feel that conditions in France are so difficult and the moral background of many localities often so disquieting that women whose conduct, though far short of being immoral, has a tendency to be loose or unsatisfactory should be removed to a more suitable scene of work. The authorities have dealt very leniently up to the present with unsatisfactory cases of this type, and have been anxious to give the girls every chance to improve. We feel, however, that under the circumstances, the welfare of the corps as a whole should be considered before the needs of the individual, and the hands of the administrators should be strengthened in every possible way as regards dealing with unsuitable personalities in their units”.

It concludes:
“We brought away the impression of a body of hard working women, conscious of their position as links in the great chain of the nation’s purpose, and zealous in its service. We consider that the women have played their part admirably in helping to fulfil the objects for which the corps was started, and we also consider that as regards the British Army today, the nation has as much right to be proud of its women in the Auxiliary Force as of its men”. 
WAACs and convalescent soldiers playing grass hockey at Etaples, 1 May 1918, IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Q 8760)
WAACs and convalescent soldiers playing grass hockey at Etaples, 1 May 1918, IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Q 8760)
On 16 April 1918, the Leeds Mercury, among other newspapers, reported on the case of the Reverend RH Quick, a Primitive Methodist minister of Congleton, Cheshire. He wrote a letter to Mrs Attlee, of Birmingham, the secretary of the Purity League asking if they were aware of “a Government Order in relation to the WAAC, one of whose clauses is as follows:- if any of these girls give birth to a child, and the girl is single, the Government will pay £15 and take custody of the child, and keep the same? This, to my mind, is putting a premium of horrible vice…” The counsel said the allegations were entirely unfounded. The defendant claimed that he was merely enquiring as to whether it was true, but the court found him guilty of slander against the WAAC and fined him £40.

You can read a local story about false allegations made against women workers on Durham at War:
Sunderland Echo 22 August 1916 “Munitions tribunal hearing regarding women's claimant of unfair dismissal”

The commission:

Friday, 6 April 2018

The Battle of Estaires

The second phase of Germany's spring offensive in 1918, became known as the Battle of the Lys, itself made up of a series of smaller battles. The first of these was the Battle of Estaires, in which territorial battalions of the Durham Light Infantry were involved. 

All quotes, and maps, are taken from The Fifth Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry, 1914-1918, by Major AL Raimes, DSO, TD, published in 1931 (Record Office reference: C 213).

On 8 April 1918, 5th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (5 DLI), marched to Estaires, between Bethune and Armentieres, in northern France, under command of Colonel GO Spence. The 151st Brigade was in reserve, ‘…in the event of an attack taking place [they were] responsible for the defence of the crossings of the Rivers Lys and Lawe, both above and below Estaires’.
Map showing the Lys and Lawe running through Estaires, from Raimes, ref: C 213
‘Estaires at that time had hardly been touched by shell-fire, and was a thriving little town. There were plenty of shops and estaminets, and the men had a very happy evening, little thinking that in a few short hours it would be the scene of hard and bitter fighting’.

At 4:00am, the Germans began heavy shelling all along the line from Bethune to Armentieres, bombarding Estaires. Each company of 5 DLI quickly made their way to their battle positions ‘while the Regimental Band cheered them by playing the old familiar marching tunes’. 6 DLI who were also at Estaires, were extremely unlucky, one of the shells hit a convent where many of the battalion’s officers were billeted and several were killed. They moved out with only five officers. 

“According to the general scheme of defence, the 6th Durham Light Infantry held an advanced line of fortified farms and posts some two miles south-east of Estaires, the 8th Durham Light Infantry held the bridges over the River Lawe near Lestrem, with some detached posts in front, and the 5th Durham Light Infantry held the bridges at La Gorgue and the two bridges at Estaires…” 

All but one of the bridges (the one at La Gorgue) held by 5 DLI were attacked on 9 April. Some bridges were taken by the Germans but recaptured by the DLI and their support. Many were driven back to the opposite bank. The battalion suffered many losses but there was a tremendous show of bravery by some of the men and officers which did not pass without notice. 

The circumstances at the bridge, Pont Levis, seemed dire, but two privates, T Tweddle, and E Dean were not finished, they volunteered to rush the position to retake the bridge again. They inspired others to help in the attack and, up against strong resistance, they succeeded. Both privates were wounded, but they also earned the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

The enemy continued to shell the area over night, and in the morning (10 April) re-intensified their attempt to take Estaires. Again, all the battalion, except those at La Gorgue, were involved in fighting during the day. In the evening, orders received to vacate the town, and 5 DLI and others retreated during the night of 10/11 April.
Map showing the area around Estaires, and how far the British line was pushed back by the Germans, from Raimes, ref: C 213
The fighting was not over. The battalion’s new position was an old line from the Estaires-Neuf Berquin Road to a bend in the Lys. C Company, that had a surprisingly quiet time so far, found themselves under direct fire. They were then almost surrounded when a group of Germans found their way through a gap between 5 and 6 DLI, and into a wood behind C Company’s position. The fighting was taking place at close quarters and the company was forced back. 

The Germans continued to push the allied army back. By the evening, 5 DLI were on the western outskirts of Neuf Berquin. “Probably a complete disaster was only prevented by the oncoming darkness, and by the fact that the Germans were also weary of with their tremendous efforts”. 

The remainder of 5 DLI were relieved by a company from 3rd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards. They joined what was left of 6 and 8 DLI west of Merville and formed a new line of defence along the River Bourre. A fresh attack by the Germans began on the morning of 12 April and the whole of 151st Brigade was pushed back. By the end of the day, 5 DLI was on the outskirts of the Forest of Nieppe.

The Germans had paid a cost for their advances, the British having inflicted heavy losses on them, but they too had suffered many casualties. 151st Brigade was relieved early on 13 April, and were looking forward to a good breakfast which was being made when they arrived at La Motte au Bois. Unfortunately, this camp was not far enough back, and was shelled just as breakfast was nearly ready, inflicting further casualties on the depleted brigade. The whole of 50th Northumbrian Division was moved further west by a few miles. 5 DLI remained near Pipote for several days.