Friday, 27 May 2016

A Very British Romance, part 3: Bienvenue en Suisse

It has been a couple of months but we now catch back up with Connie Kirkup and E. Angus Leybourne, and there have been a few changes.  Margaret Eason continues their story.

Rossiniere station, taken from the train, Victoria Oxberry, 2008
Rossiniere station, taken from the train, Victoria Oxberry, 2008
Until this point, I had not seen any correspondence from Angus and there was no mention of his whereabouts in Connie's letters, as, of course, they would be censored. Imagining him possibly in the thick of it, I was totally unprepared when his first letter to Connie, which arrived for transcription, was written on the note paper of the following hotel: 
'Hotel Grand Chalet, Rossinieres, Vaud, (Suisse)
Veuve Haldi, Proprietaire.
Dated June 9. 1916.'

My first thought on seeing the address was, as yours no doubt will be, 'thank goodness Angus is safe', but how could this be possible, had he escaped captivity and managed to get to Switzerland?

Angus writes:
'My Dear Connie, 
Now for a letter, instead of being restricted to the usual postcard. You will no doubt have read in The Times of our arrival in Suisse, it certainly was a most extraordinary show. We only got about 12 hours’ notice to leave Gutersloh & proceeded on a long two days trip right through Germany, down the Rhine and on to Constance.'

Perhaps you will have heard of the safe haven that was created in Switzerland for the sick and wounded Prisoners of War of 'all the belligerent States': French, German, Belgium, British, Indian, Serbian, South American, American and Canadian, Russian, the list goes on, of sick and wounded Interned in Switzerland under the Guardianship of the Swiss Government, and organised through the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose headquarters are still in Geneva.

There is a famous quote from the film The Third Man, when Orson Welles's character derides the Swiss, asking what their '500 years of brotherly love and democracy' has produced? And of course, the famous answer he gives, as you will know is, 'the cuckoo clock.' But the clue to the first international humanitarian organisation the Swiss gave to the world, the International Committee of the Red Cross, which Orson, as I thought to his discredit he had failed to mention, is in fact there in the phrase, 'Brotherly Love'. 

Intrigued, I went off piste.

I found available on the Internet Archive, a report written by the Senior Officer in Charge of the British Interned in Switzerland, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Philip Picot, published in 1919. It gives his full account of this 'most extraordinary show', and I have given a detailed summary to add context to the letters.

How it was made possible is revealed in Lieutenant Colonel Picot's report. It gives a detailed account of the enormous efforts that were made to organise this major undertaking, the compiling of the 18 categories of disability to be assessed; who would carry out the assessments and where and how the Interned would be fed, clothed, accommodated and their medical needs addressed. One of the first questions asked was 'guardianship', specifically, how would the Internees be prevented from escaping. It was agreed by all the 'belligerent States' that any escapees would be returned to Switzerland. The initial agreement was between France and Germany, by the middle of February 1916, over 1000 French and German prisoners had arrived in Switzerland. When this agreement was finalised, the Swiss Government invited Britain and Germany to enter into the same arrangements and it became official in May 1916.

The date of Angus Leybourne’s letter, 9 June 1916, shows that he was put aboard the first train of British Prisoners of War to leave Germany in May 1916. Angus feels sure, in his letter, that Connie will have read the account of the train's arrival in Switzerland in The Times, so he doesn't describe for her the warm-hearted, cheering welcome of the Swiss people. Throughout their journey to Rossinieres, many gifts and flowers were passed through the throngs of people gathered at each station, bands played, and the children wore national dress. The wild cheers of the crowds, joined with the answering cheers of the men on board, echoed around the surrounding valley. Nor does he describe for her the sorry state of the men who had passed the final inspection at Constance before being allowed to proceed into Switzerland. The badly wounded and amputees, sick men, many in the terminal stages of tuberculosis; their tattered uniforms dirty and full of lice, starved and in a state of shock, unable to believe that they were safe at last. Many had heard and were worried that they would be returned to Germany when they had regained sufficient health, it was a rumour started by their guards in the camps, but it was quickly denied by Lieutenant Colonel Picot when he welcomed them at their destination, and told them they had seen the last of Germany. 

Those in the terminal stages of tuberculosis and the most severely wounded or 'grands blesses' were repatriated but many were too ill or injured to reach their homelands. Those who were deemed capable of recovery from sickness or injury the 'petits blesses' were interned. 'By December 31st. 1916 there were 1,879 British Internees out of a total of 28,082.'

Map showing Constance (Konstanz), the border town between Germany and Switzerland, where prisoners were assessed
Map showing Constance (Konstanz), the border town between Germany and Switzerland, where prisoners were assessed
Throughout the journey to Constance (a border town and a confusing clash of names), as Angus writes to Connie, 'we had the thought on our minds of possibly being rejected [returned to Germany] at Constance, and I can assure you it was certainly a most trying time. There were 4 officers & about 100 men who were rejected. What made it worse was the fact that we were kept over the weekend in blissful ignorance as to whether we had passed or not. I am not sufficiently eloquent to describe my feelings on reaching Suisse soil or I would. I think you with all your ready wit would have been able to have done it very well but I am of too practical a disposition.'

His reaction to the enthusiastic welcome they received shows admirable restraint;
'For your information I may say that I did not rush at the first or the second girl I saw & throw my arms round her neck, much as I would have liked to. And I can assure you there was ample opportunity.  Still I intend to keep you to your promise when I return!'

The fishing net is proving much more efficient than the rod. Angus is anxious for Connie to come out to visit him and have a little holiday of a month or two.

The Wives of Officers had started to arrive in Switzerland in anticipation of the first contingent of British Internees. Lieutenant Colonel Picot contacted the War Office in London to request that the wives of non-commissioned officers and men should also be allowed to visit for a duration of two weeks. Lord Northcliffe, owner of The Times newspaper and Director of Propaganda for the Government, appealed to the public for funds to finance these visits. 

In September 1916 the first group of about twenty wives arrived to an enthusiastic and noisy welcome from the men, who had requisitioned the peasants’ cattle bells from roundabout and every other noisy article they could find, and led the visitors in a torchlight procession to their hotel. When it was suggested to the wives on arrival that two weeks was a very short time, one woman replied "Yes, but I would have come if only for an hour", and another that, "The bairns think that I have gone to fetch their daddy home, I just let them think that." These visits proved of great benefit to the recovery of the Internees; a total of 600 wives and mothers and fiancĂ©es visited at a cost of £25.00 per person.

Angus suggests that Connie could travel with 'the Mater' and his sister Muriel at the end of July, but he does anticipate a little difficulty getting permission owing to 'a little more of our usual red-tape'. He had no notion of the struggle he would have with that red-tape over the coming months, in order to get permission for Connie to visit him in Switzerland. The record of his application and appeals are kept at The National Archives at Kew, transcribed copies are kept at Durham.

He is interned at Rossiniere, 3 miles from Chateau d'Oex, a popular winter sport resort, and he tells Connie if she comes in the summer she would get plenty of tennis. 'I do not think you would find it at all dull.' He suggests that she could come out 'on the plea that it was necessary to have a trainee nurse out here'. 

Having just arrived, Angus may not yet be aware that the Swiss Military Doctor in charge of the hospitalised internees, housed in the Hotel La Soldanelle, would not allow female nurses to attend the men. Lieutenant Colonel Picot in his report states that after strong opposition from the Swiss doctor in charge, his repeated insistence that an offer to supply Swiss Nursing Sisters at the expense of the British Legation of the Red Cross Organisation (BLRCO) was accepted with reluctance. Male orderlies, some untrained, were the rule, but Picot states that the surgeons attended to the dressings of their own patients.

In a final effort to entice Connie out, Angus tells her that he and another fellow called Saunders are going in for a small pony & trap to drive about the country in. He asks her to write soon and signs off, 'Love from E. Angus Leybourne'. In a corner, on the front page of his letter, he adds a postscript: 'Have read this through, please excuse disjointedness, but have hardly settled down yet. Think over what I said about a small holiday.'

Durham at War's note:
On 29 and 30 May, St Peter’s Church at Chateau d’Oex is holding commemoration events on the 100th anniversary of the first prisoners of war arriving in the town.  One of these men was E. Angus Leybourne, and the Leybourne family, who have been kind enough to loan us these letters, have also given permission for some of the transcripts and copies of postcards to be used for the commemoration.

You can read more about the event, the men, and the town, and see some wonderful photographs on the St Peter’s website 

Friday, 20 May 2016

Durham Boy Sailors in the First World War

This week's blog post comes from volunteer David Donkin.
Navy poster for boys and men with image by Leonard Raven-Hill, IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Art.IWM PST 12137)
Navy poster for boys and men with image by Leonard Raven-Hill, IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Art.IWM PST 12137) 
Records show that a very sizeable proportion of sailors in the Royal Navy during the First World War were serving under the age of 18 years old. Unlike recruitment to the Army, where the legal combat age was 18, these boy sailors did not lie about their age in order to serve their country. While there was considerable publicity about the scandal of under age boys serving and losing their lives in the Army, there seemed to be a more general acceptance that boys would serve in the Navy. Research so far has found 22 boys in the Royal Navy or Merchant Marine during the First World War who were born in Durham and died before their 18th birthday. 

Francis Carney, a bus conductor from Gateshead, lied about his age to join the Northumberland Fusiliers on 29 July 1915. He claimed to be 19 years old when in fact he was only 15 years and two months old. When his deception was discovered he was discharged from the Army on 27 September 1915 for being under age. Francis joined the Navy on 6 April 1916 and was able to declare his true date of birth. On 9 July 1917 he was serving aboard HMS Vanguard at Scapa Flow, Scotland, when she suffered an explosion in one of her magazines. The ship sank almost immediately and Francis was one of 804 crew members who died. He was just over 17 years old when he died.

For boys from a privileged family background there was a well established route to an education that would prepare them for a career in the Royal Navy. First they spent two years at the Royal Naval College at Osborne on the Isle of Wight. This was followed by a further two years at the Britannia Naval College, Dartmouth, Devon. Cadets at these two colleges were not actually in the Navy but wore naval officers' uniforms and the colleges ran along naval lines with naval officers in command. The bulk of the teaching was the responsibility of a civilian headmaster and teachers and pupils' parents paid fees at the level of a good public school for this education. On completion of their education boys could be posted to sea as a midshipman, the lowest naval officer rank, and work their way up to the higher ranks.

Midshipman Ernest Geoffrey Cadle was born in 1898 and lived in Pimlico, Durham City. He was posted to HMS Formidable in August 1914 and appointed midshipman on 1 September 1914. HMS Formidable was part of the fleet that patrolled and protected the English Channel. On 1 January 1915, when Ernest was a few months from his 17th birthday, HMS Formidable was on exercise off the South Devon coast when the ship was struck by two torpedoes in a submarine attack. Survivors faced darkness and bad weather and over 500 crew members were lost. Ernest was amongst those lost along with five other cadets who had left Dartmouth with him at the start of the war and had also been commissioned as midshipmen.

Another Durham boy who served as a midshipman in the First World War was Nicholas Eden from Windlestone, Durham, who was the younger brother of Anthony Eden who became British Prime Minister. On 1 January 1916, at the age of 15, he became a midshipman on HMS Indefatigable a Royal Navy battlecruiser. Nicholas died aged 16 when his ship was sunk on 31 May 1916 during the Battle of Jutland in the first minutes of the opening phase of the battlecruiser action. Only two of the ship's crew of 1,019 survived.

Boys who wanted to join the Royal Navy as ratings could enter a training ship as a boy 2nd class between the ages of 15 and 17 years old. Such entry was conditional on a boy's adequate physical height, weight and medical fitness, and evidence of being of 'good character'. The boy's parents or guardians would sign a declaration that the boy would serve in the navy for a minimum period of 12 years on reaching his 18th birthday.

George Arthur Lucas from West Hartlepool joined the navy as a Boy 2nd class on 5 May 1915. He entered HMS Ganges II, a training ship and shore establishment on the Shotley peninsular south of Ipswich, Suffolk. Unfortunately George contacted cerebro-spinal meningitis shortly after his arrival. In under seven weeks he died aged 16 in Shotley Sick Quarters on 20 June 1915. He is buried in Shotley Churchyard, near Harwich, Suffolk.

A boy in the Navy aged 16 to 18 who had served as Boy 2nd class for at least six months, and who had shown sufficient proficiency in seamanship, and accumulated at least one good conduct badge could become a Boy 1st class. His rate of pay was increased on being promoted. At this rank he could be posted to a ship at sea.

Three Durham boys served as Boy 1st class aboard HMS Clan MacNaughton. They were Alfred Vincent Brown from Sunderland, and Robert Ersham Matthews and Charles Whitfield - both from Stockton on Tees. All three joined the ship on 11 December 1914. HMS Clan MacNaughton was a pre-war merchant ship requisitioned by the Royal Navy in November 1914. She was converted to a warship via the addition of guns on the deck, and sailed for patrol duties in the North Atlantic a few days before Christmas 1914. On the morning of 3 February 1915 she was in radio contact and reported terrible weather conditions off the north west coast of Scotland. Nothing more was ever heard from the ship and she was lost with all 281 members of her crew. Alfred and Robert were 16 years old when they died, while Charles was one year older at 17.
HMS Indefatigable, sunk during the Battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916, photo by Symonds & Co, IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Q 39216)
HMS Indefatigable, sunk during the Battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916, photo by Symonds & Co, IWM Non Commercial Licence © IWM (Q 39216)
The worst single day for losses was during the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916 when six Durham born lads died. They were Boy Telegrapher Wilfred Henry Smith (16), Midshipman Nicholas Eden (16) and four Boys 1st class; John Alfred Osguthorpe (17), Joseph Simpson (17), Robert Robinson Smyth (16) and John Hall Waters (17).

The youngest Durham born casualty identified to date was not in the Royal Navy but in the Merchant Marine. He was John Alfred Roch a 14 year old boy from Sunderland. He came from a tradition of service at sea on both sides of his family. On the 16th February 1917, SS Lady Ann, a British merchant ship built in 1882, was 3 miles east by south from Scarborough. It was on a voyage from Sunderland to Rochester carrying a cargo of coal. It is believed she was torpedoed without warning and sunk by German submarine UB-21 with the loss of 11 lives including John who was serving as a Deck Boy.

The majority of the 22 Durham boys who died in naval service under the age of 18 were killed in action or lost at sea when their ships foundered. However there were also deaths from disease, drowning and a gunshot wound. To honour their bravery in serving at such a young age a story will be added to the Durham at War pages for each of the boys identified so far.

Durham Born Boys Who died in Naval Service before the age of 18 years old.


Friday, 13 May 2016

The Tyneside Irish and the Somme part 4: Letters home

The fourth part in John Sheen's series following the Tyneside Irish Brigade of the Northumberland Fusiliers to the Somme.

26/474 Lance Corporal Thomas McKenna, from Cornsay Colliery, of D Company, 26th Battalion.  From Tyneside Irish by John Sheen
26/474 Lance Corporal Thomas McKenna, from Cornsay Colliery, of D Company, 26th Battalion.  From Tyneside Irish by John Sheen
We left the Tyneside Irish Brigade of the Northumberland Fusiliers [NF] in the line, where they were starting to suffer from “daily wastage”. This was a term the army used for the casualties that occurred daily from shelling and sniper fire and the accidental, and sometimes self-inflicted, wounds. They had been in France long enough now for men to carry out acts of gallantry and the first award of the Military Medal was to 26/474 Lance Corporal Thomas McKenna, of D Company of the 26th Battalion (3rd Tyneside Irish), for good patrol work between 20 February and 5 March 1916. Lamentably Lance Corporal McKenna, from Cornsay Colliery, was killed at 4:20am on 8 April, the day the award was announced.

Lieutenant Jack Fleming of the 25th Battalion (2nd Tyneside Irish) wrote to his friend, Captain Robert ‘Bob’ Falkous (then serving at home with the 30th (Reserve) Battalion, NF), on 21 April to tell him what happened:
'Did you know McKenna of D company, a fine big-hearted chap. He was one of the best men and did some excellent patrol work - so excellent that he received the Military Medal the first man in the Army to gain the distinction. The news came too late as poor McKenna got caught by a sniper's bullet while sitting in a fire bay, a most extraordinary thing. How the hell it got him I don't know, but it did.'
The first Military Cross awarded to the Tyneside Irish Brigade, was given to the bombing officer of the 27th Battalion (4th Tyneside Irish), Lieutenant John Woodall Marshall of South Shields. At great personal risk, he crossed No Man’s Land to where a non-commissioned officer (NCO), 27/53 Sergeant James Burk of West Hartlepool, was trapped, badly wounded on the German wire. Lieutenant Marshall carried the wounded NCO back to the British lines under very hot and heavy hostile firing but this brave act was in vain, for Sergeant Burke died shortly afterwards at the battalion aid post.

On 3 April, Lieutenant-Colonel Kennedy Beresford left the 25th Battalion going sick, and did not rejoin. Command of the Battalion passed to Major John Henry Morris Arden DSO of the
Worcestershire Regiment, who was on the staff of HQ 103 Brigade. 

The 26th Battalion Medical Officer, Captain Robert Reid Pirrie, Royal Army Medical Corps, was wounded the same day that Lance Corporal McKenna died, and again Jack Fleming wrote to Bob Falkous:
'That day Doc Pirrie called up. He was not supposed to come to the fire trenches but like the dear old chap he was he did. So I went round with him, we passed an "unknown" near "Jock's Joy" and Doc stopped and said, "It was about here my boy was killed". We strolled along the duckboards chatting amiably when the Hun sent a few over. I was leading and half turned to Doc and said, "These devils are starting again", when poor Doc gave a grunt and fell with a chunk of shrapnel as big as an orange near his kidney. I helped the poor fellow all I knew and went with him on the stretcher to the Field
Ambulance from where he was taken away.'
Lieutenant Jack Fleming who wrote many letters to Bob Falkous.  Fleming was promoted to Captain and attached to the 25th Batallion (2nd Tyneside Irish) but was killed in action at Passchendaele in October 1917. From Tyneside Irish by John Sheen
Lieutenant Jack Fleming who wrote many letters to Bob Falkous.  Fleming was promoted to Captain and attached to the 25th Batallion (2nd Tyneside Irish) but was killed in action at Passchendaele in October 1917. From Tyneside Irish by John Sheen
Holy Mass, led by Father George McBrearty, was a frequent occurrence for those of the Catholic faith and where possible the local French church was used, but often a makeshift altar was set up in a barn. Lance Corporal Ted Colpitts of the 25th Battalion recorded going to Mass and many other incidents in his small diary, where one of the most poignant entries was for 6 April, 'I helped carry Peter Docherty out - Hit in the head - he died in the dressing station later. God rest his soul.'

Lance Corporal Peter Docherty of Wallsend was buried the following day in Brewery Orchard Cemetery, along with Private Robert Mundy of D Company, also the 25th Battalion.

Three Germans approached the front line of the 24th Battalion on 7 April 1916. Two of these escaped, but the other, a 21 year old Prussian, of the 230th Regiment, was captured by 24/1151 Private John Connolly, of Milburngate in Durham, assisted by other Durham men of D Company. He was the first prisoner taken by the battalion, and the brigade, and word of this must have spread through the Brigade quickly for it is entered in Ted Colpitts’ diary. The event was also recorded by Captain George Swinburn in his diary.

Another Durham man, 24/398 Private John Carroll serving with A Company, 24th Battalion, wrote to the 'Durham Advertiser' with news of the Durham City men at the front:
'I write to let you know that my comrades and myself are still in the land of the living, although I have been somewhat poorly. It is very wet and cold out here and we are up to our boot tops in water. Recently we had a very narrow escape, the Hun sent over a "coalbox" and caught eight out of ten of us, but only one was killed, that was good luck on our part. We could do with a few gamekeepers out here to thin out, not rabbits, but rats. There are millions of rats, some of which we have tamed. We cannot get a razor out here as the place has been ruined by shellfire. Every night at "stand to" the Huns shout over to us that the war will be finished in two months. Then the fun starts, it is rat tat tat all night long. I will close now wishing you and all the boys of the city the best of good luck'.
Captain Robert ‘Bob’ Falkous, born in Witton Gilbert.  From Tyneside Irish by John Sheen
Captain Robert ‘Bob’ Falkous, born in Witton Gilbert.  From Tyneside Irish by John Sheen
Reinforcements started to come out from the reserve battalions in England. After landing, they went up to the 31st Infantry Base Depot [IBD] at Etaples, where they received further training prior to joining the battalions up the line. One of these men was Captain Bob Falkous, who was posted to France in June 1916. He joined D Company of the 27th Battalion (4th Tyneside Irish) as Second in Command. Writing to his mother at Low Fell on the 25th of May, he described the IBD ‘a jolly fine place, heaps of good cafes etc.’ Later the same day he wrote:
'…the night operations turned out to be a gathering of about 600 men and officers under a mob of yellow-backed instructors. We were treated to quite a good lecture and then set off on what sounded like a fearfully exacting stunt. I found myself allocated to a group of New Zealanders. However, the whole business was, as usual, a wash out, and we got back to camp at midnight, feeling not much improved by the experience.'
After handing over to the Australians, the Brigade spent the last days of April and the beginning of May practising their upcoming assault at the training area near Moulle. On 4 May, the battalions entrained at St Omer and Wizernes for Amiens, then marched to St Gratien, where they arrived at 11pm and billeted for the night. This was a long, hot, trying march and several men fell out on the way. Lance Corporal Michael Manley recalled the journey:
'We travelled a whole day in this train, shunting about with all these ammunition trains coming up all the time. Eventually we ended up at a place called Amiens. We had to march about 20 miles to get to the front; we were all tired and when we fell out I remember this officer calling over to us, "If you carry on like this you'll miss the big Push!" Some hope.'
26/1064 Lance Corporal Michael Manley from Lucy Street Stanley, was the last known original enlistment to the Tyneside Irish Brigade to die at the age of 104. From Tyneside Irish by John Sheen
26/1064 Lance Corporal Michael Manley from Lucy Street Stanley, was the last known original enlistment to the Tyneside Irish Brigade to die at the age of 104. From Tyneside Irish by John Sheen

Friday, 6 May 2016

“Polish Germans” or “German Poles”: Polish German soldiers in POW camps

The list of German soldiers who died of Spanish flu at Harperley prisoner of war camp caught the eye of one of my Record Office colleagues. Gabriel asked if he could write a blog post about why he was so interested.

Looking at the surnames of the 27 men who died, it is notable that some of their names look very Polish, for example: Walkowiak and Wloczyk. It is not commonly known that some of the so called “German prisoners” were in fact Polish, as many Polish men were conscripted into the German army during the First World War. 

In the German military records on Ancestry, it says that Felix Wloczyk was from Kattowitz, which is now known as Katowice and is in Poland, and served in either a Prussian or Wurttemberg Infantry regiment.
Felix Wloczyk, listed in the German casualty lists 1914-1917, available on Ancestry
Felix Wloczyk, listed as missing in the German casualty lists 1914-1917, available on Ancestry 
Poland was invaded and partitioned in 1795 between three great European powers at the time: Prussia, Russia and Austria-Hungary. As a result Poles were forced to serve in foreign armies and fight against each other until their independence was regained in 1918.

Poles never accepted having to be called Germans or Russians and they always believed that their nation never ceased to exist despite the fact that Poland was no longer recognised under international law. There are many examples of Poles trying to desert the ranks of the foreign armies and abandon the hated uniforms in order to join the Allies and fight Germans. 

We did not have to look far to find one. Among the records of the Edleston family of Gainford (ref. D/Ed), are letters written by a Pole, Pawel Zbawca Riedelski (also known as Paul Salvator Riedelski Piast), who came to the UK and wanted to join the British army to fight against Germans after the war broke out. In his letters he complains to Robert Edleston that the British authorities refused his application every time, as for them - and according to the law - he was a German subject. 

For many Poles it was a time of personal turmoil not to be able to fight for the country they loved. It is estimated that over 3 million Poles were conscripted into the armies of the three aggressors and over a million died fighting for a cause that was not theirs.