Friday, 30 September 2016

The Durham Light Infantry and The Somme 1916

One of our most exciting additions to the Durham at War website is ‘The Durham Light Infantry and The Somme 1916’ by John Bilcliffe, edited by Peter Nelson and Steve Shannon.
John Bilcliffe 1929-2014, Photo courtesy of Edward Bilcliffe
John Bilcliffe 1929-2014, Photo courtesy of Edward Bilcliffe
John had started writing this sometime in the 1990s with the intention of it becoming a book. He had already published ‘Well done the 68th’ concerning the Durham Light Infantry ancestor battalion in New Zealand. However, John stopped work on the book in 1998. He sadly passed away in 2014, after which his son Edward, found the manuscript. It was passed to the Friends of the DLI Museum where Peter Nelson started work on editing it.

Peter Nelson:

I saw the manuscript, together with DLI historian Harry Moses. It was an amazingly ambitious work telling, as John put it, the story of a regiment's involvement in the Somme campaign.

It has often been assumed that any man who died at the Front during that period was a Somme victim, something which John's work clarified. John's history identified the relevant engagements, the battalions of the DLI involved, maps of the actions, the individual soldiers killed, those who died of wounds and other causes as well as their final resting places and memorials. 

First study showed that the book was unfinished...John had, for instance, made notes of queries he wished to answer, doubts about the spelling of names and points he intended to work on.

After seven months of intensive work it became clear that the completion of the book planned by John was unachievable in the timescale we had hoped. Rather than miss having the core of his work available for the Somme Centenary Edward agreed to a release of the sections completed to date so that searches of battalion listings, honours and awards and all cemetery/memorial listings could to be made available to the public during the centenary. My hope was that the work could appear on the Durham at War website. The work of Steve Shannon and Gill Parkes has now made that a reality.

I believe John would have seen the Durham at War presentation as a fitting platform as it can, potentially, reach a far wider audience.

Steve Shannon:

I first met John Bilcliffe shortly after he had taken early retirement in 1984 from his managerial job in the steel industry. John already had a passion for all things DLI and was an avid collector of DLI medals, but his interest lay not simply in collecting for collecting’s sake but for researching “the man behind the medal”. 

I can’t now remember...when he volunteered to help me with the daunting task of researching every medal in the museum’s collection. But his work was invaluable, especially in tracing photographs of the men in the DLI’s archive for eventual display alongside the medals; and John was duly invited to attend the official opening of the new medal room by HRH Princess Alexandra in 1988.

Peter Nelson of the Friends took on the task of initially editing the book. After many months’ arduous work, Peter passed John’s typescript, together with his own additions and amendments, to Durham County Record Office, where I was to prepare the work for publication on the Durham at War website, as part of County Durham’s commemoration of the centennial of the Battle of the Somme.

My task has been to make John’s work accessible online by changing the formatting; removing inconsistencies; expanding abbreviations, e.g. Sgt to Sergeant; and adding footnotes. The spirit of John’s work, however, has not been altered and the wealth of details and analysis that fill every page remains.

The Durham at War team are very grateful to Edward Bilcliffe for allowing us to put the story on our website, and of course, we owe a debt of gratitude to his father, John, for taking on this massive endeavour to begin with.  You can read  here, (please note that edits are still being made): 

Friday, 23 September 2016

Nothing is too small or ordinary

Stories pinned to the map on Durham at War
Stories pinned to the map on Durham at War
‘That catastrophe [First World War] was so gigantic and so complex that it can only be reconstructed by a vast number of single accounts of individual and limited experiences, and we are only at the beginning of such a reconstruction. Nor should these accounts be limited to those by people who took an active part in fighting; one should know how all those countless millions we call the people lived - in France or Germany, England or Russia. The parents and children, the old people whose declining years were saddened, the very young whose whole future was changed. Nothing is too small or ordinary, for all connects up, is part of the great fresco.'
- Paul Cohen-Portheim

At the Voices of the Home Fronts Conference earlier this month, I attended a talk about the Lofthouse Internment Camp in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, which housed German civilians. One of the internees was a man named Paul Cohen-Portheim, an Austrian who was living in Paris. However, as a painter, he made regular trips to England and was on one of these when war was declared. He wrote a book about his time at Lofthouse Park titled 'Time Stood Still' which I recently borrowed from Durham Libraries.

On reading the preface, it struck me how his words, published in 1931, described what we are trying to do with Durham at War.

Here are some of the latest stories on Durham at War:
South Shields woman played football for Armstrong Munitionettes

Darlington butcher, son of German immigrants

Seaham Harbour man served with the Australian Imperial Force killed near Amiens

Cinema hall screened The Battle of the Somme film in 1916

Friday, 16 September 2016

Voices of the Home Fronts

Victoria and Jo presenting at The National Archives, photograph courtesy of Fionnuala Walsh and the Everyday Lives in War Centre
Victoria and Jo presenting at The National Archives, photograph courtesy of Fionnuala Walsh and the Everyday Lives in War Centre
Last week, Jo and I were at The National Archives in London for the Voices of the Home Fronts Conference, organised by The National Archives and the World War One Engagement Centres. The ‘s’ on the end of Front is important, as the conference concerned itself with home fronts around the world, not just Britain. Talks addressed life during the war in Germany and Australia to name just two.
Part of the pop-up display telling the story of the submarine bombardment of Seaham
Part of the pop-up display telling the story of the submarine bombardment of Seaham
We did a presentation on the Seaham Submarine workshop developed for schools and the literally pop-up display. We decided to present this as the workshop and display took a different approach to that which we often do. Our audience at the conference were certainly surprised to find themselves playing ‘Spot the submarine’ first thing on a Friday morning, but they certainly seemed to enjoy the change up from a powerpoint display. This in itself, showed how good it can be to change things up a bit. A former history teacher told us she would have given her ‘eye-teeth for something like this’ when she was teaching.  
Jo and Victoria enjoying the rest of the conference, photograph courtesy of Fionnuala Walsh and the Everyday Lives in War Centre
Jo and Victoria enjoying the rest of the conference, photograph courtesy of Fionnuala Walsh and the Everyday Lives in War Centre
There were many other interesting talks on topics such as bread (maybe it depends on how you feel about bread, but we found this fascinating), Australian schools, German war brides, and Thailand

One of the keynote speeches was a personal one by Michael Roper of the University of Essex who is originally from Australia. He talked about how as a student he did some oral history interviews with his grandfather who had served in Gallipoli and Palestine during the First World War (and showed a fantastic picture of his grandfather on a camel as part of the Camel Corps). Michael identified this as the starting point of his interests that have grown into his career. 

The conference also provided a really good opportunity for us to talk to other archivists, researchers, and academics who were interested in what we were doing and vice versa. 

If any teachers want to know more about the workshop and display, you can follow the link here:

Friday, 9 September 2016

A Very British Romance, part 4: Faint heart never won fair lady

Here is the fourth part of Margaret Eason's series, A Very British Romance, in which the story, and the relationship, progresses.

Postmark from a postcard from Angus to Connie
Postmark from a postcard from Angus to Connie

Throughout the summer months Connie has not been able to accept Angus's invitation to visit him at Chateau d'Oex; and consequently on 4 September 1916 we find him chewing his pen in an effort to compose a letter to Connie that is 'by no means the first attempt,' he has made.

He is hoping that this one will get as far as the letter box.  'You will be thinking I am an awful rotter for not writing sooner, but like you I have thought a lot lately and also heard from mother about you.'  He feels that perhaps the telegram 'was rather stupid', because, 'of course under the circumstances it would be a little awkward for you to have come out, but I don't know, these conventionalities to a prisoner of war seem a little frivolous'.  He tells Connie that she was rather funny in her last letter 'about breaking it gently'.

'Well! I don't know how to do it I'm sure. The fact is I am labouring under rather difficult circumstances in writing this letter.'  His object had been to get Connie to come out as a friend of the family, 'as some have done here but unfortunately that did not happen'.  Before the war, 'not having my ticket it was necessary for me to (what should I say, one can only express it in slang)... keep off the grass.'  He doesn't know if Connie agrees but he feels that this war alters things somewhat.  'But what I am really getting at (and you can understand my reluctance in writing as I am not sure exactly of your feelings on the subject) is this, will you come out to Suisse as my fiancee?'

Angus is at last hooked.

Angus would have much preferred asking Connie that question in person after...'having gauged your feelings on the matter, but "faint heart never won fair lady" so I am making the plunge and I can only trust that you do not think me too presumptuous as regards your affections.'

'We have known each other a fair time now and personally I am quite sure about myself, more especially after you being such a brick to me during the whole of my imprisonment.'

At the end of page two he stops swimming in circles and lays it on the slab; 'The fact is you have jolly well to come out here.  The question remains, will you?'

As he has said before, 'the pity is that you could not have come out here, then we could have judged each other as we now are. Personally I do not think I have changed in any way and I am quite certain in my own mind that you are the girl I wish to become my wife.'  His difficulty comes in knowing whether Connie likes him sufficiently well to accept his proposal.  'It's rather a strange letter but it's all dead earnest.'  'I am sure you will understand the difficulty I am in in putting those sentiments down on paper.  Still here they are and I am now anxiously awaiting your reply.  So do say you will come.'  Angus is writing to Connie's father 'on this subject' and he hopes that 'he will look at it in the same light as I do.'  

I think Connie's dad may need to take the letter to the parlour window to shed a little more light on this subject than Angus has provided.

Troth duly plighted Angus signs off to Connie:

'Heaps of love
from your affectionate friend,
E. Angus Leybourne.'

A very British proposal and of its time, I think; not perhaps how Cyrano de Bergerac would have worded it but all the better for that.

17 September 1916. Connie has received the letter (and a wire from Angus); her eagerly awaited reply is 'a letter that she finds very hard to write.'  Angus's letter has come as a 'bolt from the blue' and 'was a little bit of a shock'. But she admits that, 'somehow in the back of my mind I had kept wondering if you had meant anything by that telegram, but being "only a girl", I could not do anything about it.'

Not having heard from Angus for so long after his mother and Muriel had arrived she was beginning to think that he didn't care, that he was happy now that 'his own' were out and not to imply a criticism, she adds 'quite right too'. She also began to think that the other people out there must be nice and fascinating too.  '"What a cat Con is" you will think, still you had better know the worst about me (that is by no means the worst) you'll find it out by degrees, and will need a rare stock of patience.'

What Angus is making of this answer to his, by now undoubted proposal of marriage to her, is not difficult to imagine. A whole page before she hints that there will be a future together for them. But as she says 'Well old man if I knew more about such like letters I suppose I ought to formally thank you etc. but no one has proposed to me by letter before...still I do thank you and now let me try to put things down on paper'.

On page two, and she tries to explain her feelings and why she felt unable to go out to visit him when he first suggested it. This was because of her concern for her parents, who were so anxious about her brother Phil, and how could she go to his mother and say ‘I'm going out with you’, she would have thought, 'forward hussy'.  Angus has told her he doesn't think he is changed.  However, from Lieutenant Colonel Picot's observations, many of the interned prisoners of war were so shattered in mind and body that it was as if they had 'seen the face of God'.  

Connie doesn't think she has changed a tiny bit, but is so afraid he will think she has, she tells him;

'if you are willing to risk it I am and you are absolutely the only boy I have ever felt the slightest affection for, oh bother I can't put things down on paper.'  Having read this far Angus must be feeling more confident, but there is another hurdle, Connie's Dad hasn't made up his mind what to say about her coming out to see him, but he is favourably inclined towards Angus, apparently you never could hurry him, 'dear old Dad'.  In the meantime, Connie is going to amuse herself making travel enquiries at Thomas Cook's in Newcastle and finishes on an encouraging note, 'if we are engaged I shall feel I can write any “Tommy rot” I like to you and you to me and we will grow to understand and love one another more and more, so let us be...Yours as before, Con.'

By 24 September 1916 barely a week after Connie's last letter to him, Angus has his answer and writes back to her, 'Dear Connie, Well well! You are "a brick"’.  He tells her he understands her having difficulty replying to his letter, but he writes, 'I hope you realize how difficult it was for me not only to write the letter to you and your Par but also to summon up courage to actually send it off. I tried to write a letter to you at night and then put it in a drawer till the morning. Knowing that when you are in difficulties a good nights sleep is the very best thing in the world! However, courage has been rewarded. Oh it's simply great.'

Angus describes how when her letter arrived he was standing on the steps of the Chalet, having just returned from Church, he slipped away from the crowd to go the veranda on the tennis court to read it in peace. 'That is certainly the most exciting letter it has been my lot to receive.'  He admits to not knowing 'which way the wind was blowing until he got well into the letter,' but he supposes they are 'what is called "engaged" now', i.e. if her Dad agrees.  ‘These are stirring times'. 

Obviously excited and impatient for Connie to visit, Angus urges her to get the Thomas Cook's business fixed up right away; he assures her that she will have 'absolutely no difficulty in getting out’, and expects she will arrive in October. Angus also tells her that she is rather humorous about the telegram and being only a girl. 'That's always the way girls sit tight and say they do nothing when all the time they are running the whole show.'

Obviously Angus has sussed Connie and is more than willing to be her pet fish.

Despite having such a lot to say that somehow will not come, Angus declares, 'for the present, the main thing is that you have not said No and that there is every possibilty of your Father saying Yes.'  He says this is a step he thought he should take all the time he was in Germany and the latter months in Switzerland, but he will tell her all about that when she comes out.  He has a request, 'In your next letter let me hear some of your real "tommy rot"', and signs off 'with heaps of love from your old friend, Angus.’

You can see photographs and postcards of some of the internees at Chateau d'oex and other locations on the Swiss commemoration site:

Friday, 2 September 2016

Pork Butcher Descendants' Reunion part 3: A journey of reflection

This is the third part of Andrea and Carol's trip to the Great Pork Butcher Descendants' Reunion in Hohenlohe, Germany. Parts 1 and 2 can be found here:

In a manner similar to a group of suspects flung together in an Agatha Christie murder mystery, we slowly said goodbye to new-found friends one by one. Some left the train we caught from Schwabisch Hall back to Stuttgart, departing at stations along the way. Part of our journey was an end to theirs. Along with a couple of others, we eventually travelled into Stuttgart city centre - overground then underground, wombling free with our luggage in tow.
Schawbisch Hall, photo by Carol and Andrea
Schawbisch Hall, photo by Carol and Andrea
Determined not to experience late night hunger of our first night, we went to the ominously named but absolutely tiptop Graaf Zeppelin restaurant where we encountered a lovely waitress from Nigeria, who provided excellent service and several laughs along the way. She too had her tale of economic migration to tell: she had relocated to Stuttgart, met her German husband and settled down there. For once we were able to get a relatively early night and had plenty of time to prepare for our return to the UK.

We were well in time to catch the train to Paris. Unfortunately, the SNCF transit system was not ready for us, as for some reason many of the trains were delayed or cancelled altogether. Frustrating though it was, we passed the time till the next Paris train window shopping, chatting over coffee and iced water, and even shared a currywurst in a baguette – German/French fusion fast food, no less!

We established quickly that our missed Eurostar train was no problem, and after being allocated new seat bookings (albeit by the distinctly non-tech method of a green post-it note stapled to our original tickets) we went through passport and customs checks. I was asked if I had in my bags a variety of potentially dangerous items including First World War shell cases. Fortunately no-one asked us whether we were up to any pig-foolery, the time had come for us to do a little livestock smuggling.

Sir Scratch-a-lot and Sir Scoff-a-lot were sitting in Carol’s tote bag, as quiet as could be. We had told them that any grunting, however quiet or even essential, was strictly verboten (fortunately, their understanding of Dinglish was growing by the hour). Once we were on our way we got them out for a feast of chocolates and other sweets, and a frothy latte each.
Pigging out, photo by Carol and Andrea
Pigging out, photo by Carol and Andrea
On our first full day back, we had sad news from Kunzelsau by means of a text message from Gertrude. Frau Franz Bolzinger, a distant relative of ours by marriage, had died the previous day. She was 93 and for our German cousins and friends was one of the last links to the past – someone who had known our great grandfather, albeit when she was a small child. While we were there, we had visited her in Kunzelsau, and sat for a while chatting in Dinglish through Gerti and Frau F-B’s daughter-in-law. Now years of smoking had caught up with her, and she was suffering badly with breathing problems. Nevertheless, she was alert, offered us brandy and chocolate, and showed us some of the fabulous mementos she had collected over the years.

As a young woman, Frau F-B had never wanted to join her father’s business as a trained pharmaceutical dispenser, and had hoped that one of her siblings would do, and allow her to go her own way. However, she was chosen by the Nazis to join the Lebensborn programme, a means of potentially providing Third Reich Germany with an Aryan future – she still had the German Certificate of Aryan Descent which qualified her for this role. Horrified with the prospect of marriage to a Party member and a brood of Aryan children, she chose to study as an apothecary, and so avoided Lebensborn. As we left, she held our hands and said, ‘give my love to Britain’. Her grandmother had been born in Bradford.

She was a link to a diminishing past – but during our trip we had realised this applies to us and the other extended members of our family, not equally but in in a very similar way. By visiting the place from where our mother’s family originally came, by making contact with distant relatives and setting down a marker with them and with other pork butcher descendants, we understood more about ourselves and have become part of the story, two generations further on. Newspaper articles have been written, friendships made, and connections forged that will always be an important part of each of our lives. Living proof that, despite all that happened in the world wars, despite the inevitable animosity between economic migrants and an indigenous population, life not only goes on but flourishes.