Friday, 15 December 2017

Christmas post

First World War embroidered postcard c.1915 (D/DLI 13/2/209)
D/DLI 13/2/209 First World War embroidered postcard c.1915
It’s that time of year when we rush to write our Christmas cards before the final posting date, and wonder what has happened to the parcel we were expecting to be delivered last week. In December 2016, Royal Mail handled 138 million parcels (Annual Report and Financial Statement 2016-17). On 27 December 1915, The Newcastle Daily Journal published a Press Association report on Christmas deliveries to the trenches, a massive feat of organisation at any time, but at Christmas, even more so. The following are extracts from the article:

It is scarcely necessary to dwell upon the greatly enhanced difficulty of dealing with an abnormal volume of mails amid the incessant dislocation of conditions in the field, as compared with the organised resources of permanent offices at home. Imagine that the whole of the inhabitants of Manchester suddenly spread themselves over the entire surrounding country without a word of warning, and then proceeded to carry on a sort of daily kaleidoscopic shuffling of groups, and you will have an idea of the problem which never permits the field post offices to become really dull places.

This Christmas the staff [of the Royal Engineers postal section] stands at 43 officers and 1500 men, temporarily supplemented by about 750 men.

During Christmas week the heaviest daily mail consisted of 18,500 bags of letters and parcels. By a conservative estimate the army postal authorities reckon this to have represented about three million letters and half a million parcels. There has been a good deal of grumbling at home concerning the non-delivery of letters and parcels… [but] all the mails for the troops are sorted and sealed in England, and the bags are delivered to the units to which they are addressed without the seals being touched. Therefore, it seems but reasonable to say that if a parcel or a letter goes amissing it is not during the time the postal service is responsible for it.

One of the most serious problems with which the army post office organisation has been confronted is the treatment of undeliverable correspondence that is similarly returned because an addressee has been killed or is missing or known to have been taken prisoner.

A considerable amount of correspondence is left in the hands of the field post office through insufficient and incorrect address. The assistant director confesses to regarding this as an inevitable condition, considering the character of many of the soldiers’ correspondents, and the difficulties which the civilian finds in comprehending the distinction between platoon, squads, sections, echelons and the like.
Christmas card from 21st Division (14th and 15th DLI), 1917 (D/DLI 2/15/14)
D/DLI 2/15/14 Christmas card from 21st Division (14th and 15th DLI), 1917
By dint of a steady perfection of organisation, the average time of transit between posting in London and delivering in the trenches has now been reduced to 36 hours. This of course, is under normal conditions, but many causes, over which the postal authorities have no control whatever, may occasion delay.

The army postal service views with secret consternation such delays, because they involve the dealing with a double delivery of mails without any possible expansion of the means of distribution. When it is stated that no boat in the cross-Channel service will carry more than 5000 bags of mails, and the biggest army motor lorries will only stack 90 bags, the difficulties of the task which the postal authorities have been confronted with during the past few days may be more readily realised.

Although the method of distribution by which the mails are passed on with such admirable promptitude have been already described yet in view of the latest improvements in organisation, a few words on this point may not be without interest. There are two base post offices for letters and one for parcels. The system is divided into divisional posts, and the mails are first dispatched to the field post offices by supply trains. They then go on to various railheads, at all of which permanent offices are now established. Thence the supply column of motor transport carries the bags to the different corps’ headquarters field post offices. The next stage is the refilling point or dump of the different divisional trains to which the units send for their bags. These then reach the divisional headquarters post office, where they are picked up by horse transport train and carried to the brigade headquarters. Regimental postmen then collect them and carry them to their units to be sorted.

The next stage is the delivery in the trenches. It may be added that the offices and men of the Army Postal Service are frequently under shell fire during the course of their work, and the toll of a considerable casualty list has already been exacted.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Determination and gallantry - another VC

Captain Arthur Moore Lascelles, Durham Light Infantry c.1918 (D/DLI 7/388/2)
D/DLI 7/388/2 Captain Arthur Moore Lascelles, Durham Light Infantry c.1918
Arthur Moore Lascelles was born on 12 October 1880 in Nightingale Lane, Streatham. In 1902 he emigrated to South Africa, abandoning his studies in medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He fought in South West Africa with the Cape Mounted Rifles at the beginning of the First World War. In October 1915, Lascelles returned to England with his wife and young son. He received a commission with 3rd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (DLI), a reserve battalion, but after training was attached to 14 DLI and went to France in July 1916 and fought on the Somme. 

The battalion was part of the 18th Brigade, but on 2 December 1917, during the Battle of Cambrai, they were placed under orders of 16th Brigade, ready for an attack the next morning. The battalion’s war diary features a report on the action of 3 December 1917 at Masnieres, written by the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel John Brenchley Rosher. 

In the early morning, 14 DLI took over trenches from the Inniskilling Fusiliers, there were three companies in the front line, two the left and one to the right, and the fourth company in support. Lascelles was now a captain and in charge of the company on the right. Around 10am, the Germans opened a very heavy barrage on all the trenches, and attacked the right company who only had a shallow trench. Shortly after requesting artillery support, the lines of communication to the brigade were severed by shelling.

10-10:30am the report says:
‘Our Right Company was driven out of its trenches, but Captain AM Lascelles with the remainder of his company (about 12 men) immediately counter-attacked and drove the enemy (about 60 strong) back, causing them severe casualties’. 

At 11:30am:
‘A very heavy barrage was opened out on all trenches, causing severe casualties. The enemy again attacked and was driven back by the Left Companies, but drove the Right Company right out, capturing Captain Lascelles…’ 
Section of map sheet 57B: Cambrai and Le Cateau, December 1917 (D/DLI 7/179/5)
D/DLI 7/179/5 Section of map sheet 57B: Cambrai and Le Cateau, December 1917
The reserve company counter-attacked the Germans and drove them out, with heavy casualties on both sides. At 12:15 and 12:45 the enemy attacked again. The battalion was ‘practically surrounded’, but made it to the reserve trench. A battalion of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, to 14 DLI’s left, had also been driven out and their line broken. The two commanding officers decided that the ‘position was untenable as there were no signs of support’. The remainder of 14 DLI, 80-100 men, evacuated to the Sunken Road where they re-organised. 

Colonel Rosher found the 88th Brigade Headquarters and reported to the General Officer Commanding. 88th Brigade had been successful in their attack, and 14 DLI carried on with the 88th Brigade, until 1:10am [4 December] when they received orders to withdraw. Of the day, Colonel Rosher reported:
‘Officers and men fought splendidly throughout the day. Had it not been for the manner in which they stood the bombardment with little cover, and the readiness with which they responded to all calls for counter-attack, the whole force north of the canal must have been captured, as the enemy forces used against us were very heavy…’

In this report, the last we hear of Arthur Lascelles is that he had been captured by the enemy. So what did happen to him? In the earlier attack, Captain Lascelles was wounded in the head. He refused to have it dressed and continued to help his unit repel the enemy. In the next attack, weakened by blood loss, he was captured by the Germans, but in the confusion of another attack, he was able to escape and re-join his battalion. For his ‘remarkable determination’ and gallantry’, Lascelles was awarded the Victoria Cross.

While recuperating from his injury, on 23 March 1918, Captain Lascelles went to Buckingham Palace and received his Victoria Cross from King George V. On 27 October 1918, he returned to France, this time joining 15 DLI. They fought their final battle on 7 November. During the fighting at Limont-Fontaine, Captain Lascelles was killed, eleven days after his return to France, and sadly, only four days before the end of the war. 
Laying of VC paving stones at Wandsworth Town Hall, with kind permission of Councillor Peter Carpenter
Laying of VC paving stones at Wandsworth Town Hall, with kind permission of Councillor Peter Carpenter
As Arthur Moore Lascelles was not from County Durham, his Victoria Cross commemorative paving stone will not be laid in this county (although his VC is in the DLI Collection). On 22 April 2017, Wandsworth Council held a ceremony for the laying of his paving stone in the Town Hall’s Garden of Remembrance, alongside those of two other VC stones. Furthermore, new council housing being built in the Balham area will bear the names of these three men. Lascelles House is due for completion in 2018.

Friday, 1 December 2017

The Youngest General

On 10 November 1917, the 186th Infantry Brigade war diary reads ‘Training continued. Brigadier General RB Bradford VC MC took over command of the 18th Infantry Brigade from Brigadier General FF Hill CB CMG DSO who retires on account of age restrictions'. Roland Bradford did not have to worry about age restrictions, as he was only 25 years old.
Roland Bradford as a captain, France, c.1915 (D/DLI 7/87/2(20))
D/DLI 7/87/2(20) Roland Bradford as a captain, France, c.1915
Ten days into his new command, on 20 November, the 186th Brigade took part in the big attack that saw the start of the Battle of Cambrai (see Zero hour was 6:20am. The war diary states ‘The whole of the objectives allotted to this brigade were captured before dusk…numerous prisoners and guns have been taken…’

The brigade continued its attack on 21 November and were relieved at 6:30pm. The next several days were spent in support. On 26 November, orders were received for the brigade to resume attack the next day. At 1am, 186th Brigade Headquarters was established in old German dugouts. Zero hour was again 6:20am. At 2:40pm, the war diary reports: ‘The brigade now holds all its objectives. Fighting has been very fierce and the brigade has suffered heavy casualties. The enemy has repeatedly attempted to counterattack, but his efforts have been frustrated by our heavy artillery fire, together with machine gun and rifle fire’. Further counter attacks that afternoon led to part of the brigade line being pushed back. Their left flank was also in a dangerous position as 187th Brigade had not achieved some of their objectives.

The Brigade was relieved by 141st Brigade on the night of 28 November. The next day was spent re-organising and re-equipping. On the morning of 30 November, the Germans mounted a large scale counterattack along most of the front line. 186th Brigade was ordered to be prepared to move at a moment’s notice. The report of this day goes on to read: ‘At about 10am, Brigadier General RB Bradford VC MC, left Brigade Headquarters dug out, which was being heavily shelled, and was not again seen alive. At about 2pm it was ascertained that General Bradford had been killed by a shell, and Lieutenant Colonel HEP Nash, 2/4th Duke of Wellington Regiment took command of the brigade’.

Roland Bradford’s body was found about 2pm, a piece of shrapnel had pierced his spine. In spite of this loss, the brigade had to continue to carry out its duties. At 3pm, they were placed at the disposal of 2nd Division, though were not involved in any action that day. On 1 December, the brigade moved into support of 5th Infantry Brigade. At 1:30pm on 3 December, Brigadier General JLG Burnett DSO of the 2nd Battalion, Gordon Highlanders, took over command of 186th Infantry Brigade.

While the brigade carried on, Roland Bradford was not forgotten. He was the youngest General in the British Army. He was a Victoria Cross winner. He was one of four brothers fighting in the war, sadly he was the second of three to be killed. He is the pride of Witton Park, and of County Durham.

On 11 March this year, the Victoria Cross commemorative paving stone for Roland Bradford was laid at a new memorial garden at Witton Park.

Max Dutton of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has made a video about Roland Bradford:

Other news:
Opening next week, the new exhibition from Durham County Council and The Trustees of the DLI, When the Bugle Calls, explores the role of the regimental band in the British Army.

This free exhibition will open in Bishop Auckland Town Hall on Wednesday 6 December 2017 before touring to other venues across the county.