Friday, 23 December 2016

A nice slice of trench cake

If you've forgotten to make the Christmas cake, but still want to give something similar a go, why not try a First World War trench cake? Made by family members at home and sent to the loved ones serving abroad, it was a dense fruit cake, made to last and to withstand the journey from home to the front line.

Regular readers will already know about the First World Bake Off Competition we held at the Durham at War Volunteer Conference. We had sent out the recipe below, taken from The Telegraph, and I've now been in touch with a few of the participants about their cake-making experience.

1/2lb flour
4 oz margarine
1 teaspoon vinegar
1/4 pint of milk
3 oz brown sugar
3 oz cleaned currants
2 teaspoons cocoa
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
grated lemon rind


Grease a cake tin. Rub margarine into the flour in a basin. Add the dry ingredients. Mix well. Add the soda dissolved in vinegar and milk. Beat well. Turn into the tin. Bake in a moderate oven for about two hours.

Bake Off winner, Margaret Hedley, says she didn't tweak the recipe at all. However, she did do "a test bake beforehand and shared it with my history group."

Pigeon delivering the trench cake
Pigeon delivering the trench cake
Our balloon modelling volunteer, Margaret Eason, wrote this of her Bake Off experience:

"I confess I did use butter instead of margarine in the Trench Cake I made for the Bake Off but to no avail, it was still awful. It didn’t rise at all and if a similar effort had got to the trenches it would no doubt have been returned to sender with a pair of broken false teeth stuck in it. Many many congratulations to the winner, how she got her Trench Cake to rise with those ingredients is beyond me and I suspect beyond even Mary Berry!

With my cake surrendering to gravity, I decided to get it airborne by other means: it crossed my mind that pigeons had played a valiant part in the war effort and so had parcels. I decided to combine the two by making a pigeon out of balloons and attaching it to a Tupperware container wrapped in string and brown paper addressed to The Front. 

Parcels have a special meaning for me not only because I have sent many hundreds to my son who has lived abroad for more than 20 years, but also because I learned from the work I have done as a volunteer on the Durham at War project how important parcels were to the Prisoners of War in Germany. In May 1915 Mrs Grant Duff and the ladies of the British Legation Red Cross Organisation in Berne, Switzerland, sent the first Red Cross parcels to the prisoners of war. Bread was baked in Berne for 100,000 men. A loaf was sent to each prisoner and lasted 4-6 weeks, I was surprised to learn that undelivered parcels were returned to Berne from Germany when the addressee could not be traced. Sick and wounded prisoners of all the ‘belligerent’ states were interned in Switzerland. Colonel Picot, Commanding Officer of the British Internees in Switzerland, wrote in his report that the first train full of British POW’s, ‘battered remnants of humanity’ arrived in May 1916, ‘one carriage held 27 men with only 3 legs between them, but they were cheery, full of joy at their escape from captivity and very disinclined to speak of their past experiences.’ 

Recording the experiences of those who fought is very harrowing at times so getting together and having a Bake Off rallies the troops no end, so thank you to Jo and Victoria and congratulations again to the worthy winner."

And with that, we would like to wish all our readers a Happy Christmas from the Durham at War team.

Friday, 16 December 2016

An amazing turn up

This week, we have another post from John Sheen.

Having written several books on the Northumberland Fusiliers and the Durham Light Infantry, almost every week I get one or two requests for information about men who served in the units I have written about. I always try to reply and, if needed, do a little bit of research for the enquiry. However, in quite a few cases once the reply is sent, I never hear again from the person requesting the information, not even a thank you.

Recently though, I have had a real treat, and in some ways an eye opener. Many will be familiar with the story of the execution of the three members of 19th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry (Bantams), in 1917 (for those who aren’t, you can read their stories here:
Lance Corporal John McDonald, 19th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, photograph kindly provided by his family
Lance Corporal John McDonald, 19th Battalion Durham Light Infantry, photograph kindly provided by his family
I received a letter via my publishers from a couple who bought my book, ‘Durham Pals: 18th, 19th, and 22nd (Service) Battalions of the Durham Light Infantry’, as they were very interested in Lance Corporal John McDonald, one of three ‘shot at dawn’. This couple had a received a request from their cousin in Australia whose maiden name was McDonald and grew up in Hartley’s Buildings, Sunderland, to do some family research. Her daughter was coming to the UK and would be visiting Sunderland to see if she could find the buildings.

The couple did so, and they discovered that the John McDonald who was ‘shot at dawn’, was their cousin’s father, and the visiting daughter’s grandfather. The information came as a shock as ‘no one in the family in Australia knew anything about this and hardly anything about the family in general.’ They go on to say that ‘a very poignant fact in this story, as you will maybe have realised … John McDonald’s daughter is still alive at the age of 102 and lives in Fremantle, Western Australia.’ Luckily, they found this information before the end of John’s granddaughter’s visit, and they were able to take a trip to France to visit his grave. 

I have been able to tell the family that the three Bantams are commemorated still in County Durham and in particular on the Durham at War website. I received this email in reply, ‘Thank you very much for the information on John McDonald. The family in Australia are more than pleased with the outcome so far. We shall keep trying to find out more about him, mainly for his 102 year old daughter in Australia. No one in the Family in Australia can hardly remember his name being mentioned since they emigrated in 1928. Perhaps this is understandable. It is very nice to know that the three men ‘shot at dawn’ are still remembered in Durham.’  The family in Australia were able to find a photograph of John and emailed a copy for inclusion on Durham at War. 

At about the same time, I received another request, this time from David, an active reservist with the Gendarmerie in France who is researching Commonwealth soldiers who fought in the First and Second World Wars. Six years ago, he found some First World War medals being sold by a dealer and started researching the recipient. This was Company Quarter Master Sergeant (CQMS) Gawin Wild of 26th Battalion (Tyneside Irish), Northumberland Fusiliers, he features in my collection of Tyneside Irish photographs and is one of the soldiers researched on Durham at War. 
The medals of CQMS Gawin Wild, photograph kindly provided by David Devigne
The medals of CQMS Gawin Wild, photograph kindly provided by David Devigne
David, and his colleague Al, have supplied further information on Gawin, including that he went on to work for the diplomatic corps. He was made vice Consul in Bordeaux in the early part of the Second World War, once Paris had fallen to the Nazi’s in 1940, the French government moved to Bordeaux, thus increasing the importance of this role. In 1942, he was posted to Algiers in the same role. In 1919, Gawin had married a French girl, and they retired back to France in 1952. Gawin died in 1957 and is buried in Saint Seurin de Cadourne. David’s email read:

‘I wish that this man be honoured by the UK’s civil and military authorities in this Centenary of WW1. Gawin Wild was at first a miner, deserving soldier and member of the UK’s diplomatic corps and he rest in a place where he is not honoured as he should be. 

There are no plaques over his grave site describing his service to the Land of Hope and Glory.  There is no mention of that proud and hard fighting regiment he fought with in WW1 and its 52 Battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers.

I am in contact with the Mayor where he and his wife rest in peace, and their resting place has not been flowered for years. I also explained to the Mayor who he was and the Mayor now understands the significance and the honour that his town has of having such a great man buried here.’

We have exchanged many emails and the Regimental Headquarters of the Fusiliers are now involved, it is hoped that something may be done to remember CQMS Wild. Al’s last reply included the following:

''From miner and soldier to Vice Consul' what a story, what a life lived with gusto. Be also aware that the secretary of the mayor said ... "if the Mayor had known that such a gentleman and soldier was buried here he would have had a ceremony over his grave every November 11."'

So the work of remembering the men of County Durham does not slow down, indeed it appears to get faster by the day.

Friday, 9 December 2016

A Butte de Warlencourt Commemoration

This week’s blog post is by Kevin Richardson of the Fallen Servicemen of South West Durham project. Some of the text has already appeared on the website, with more information about the action:

A view of the Warlencourt Cemetery and the Butte, taken by Kevin Richardson
A view of the Warlencourt British Cemetery and the Butte, taken by Kevin Richardson
5 November 1916: It has been estimated that there were the following casualties:
1st/6th DLI
11 officers killed, wounded or missing
34 other ranks dead
114 wounded
111 missing

1st/8th DLI
9 officers killed, wounded or missing
38 other ranks dead
100 wounded
83 missing

1st/9th DLI
17 officers killed, wounded or missing
30 other ranks dead
250 wounded
111 missing

151st Machine Gun Company
3 dead
20 wounded
8 missing

There are 10 officers and 264 other ranks of the above DLI Battalions with 5 November 1916 recorded as their date of death (from Officers and Soldiers Died in the Great War). With almost 1000 casualties, misery was brought to many Durham homes including the following south west Durham men (information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission).

1672 Private Alfred Brown 1/6 DLI from Staindrop, buried at Warlencourt British Cemetery grave reference VIII.B.7.

2211 Corporal Ralph Hebdon, 1/6 DLI from Tindale Crescent, buried at Warlencourt British Cemetery grave reference VIII.B.6.

3429 Private Fred Brunskill, 1/6 DLI from High Etherley, buried at Warlencourt British Cemetery, grave ref, VIII.B.11.

3472 Corporal George Thomas Cox, 1/6 DLI from Evenwood, he has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.

2264 Corporal George H. Smith, 1/6 DLI from Barnard Castle, he has no known grave and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. 

3124 Private Robert Wilson, 1/6 DLI from West Auckland, he has no known grave and commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial. 

7421 Private Charles Russell, 1/9 DLI from Cockfield who died of wounds 8 November 1916 and is buried at Douchy-les-Ayette British Cemetery grave reference III.E.6. His body was re-interred having been brought in from an isolated burial or small cemetery. 
Warlencourt British Cemetery with the Butte in the background, taken by Kevin Richardson
Warlencourt British Cemetery with the Butte in the background, taken by Kevin Richardson
So had the Durhams failed? Perhaps Brigadier General Hugh Tudor and Lieutenant Colonel Roland Bradford had an answer:

“The attack is fixed for tomorrow, in spite of the weather. It seems rather hopeless expecting infantry to attack with any success in this mud. The trench mortars have only their muzzles showing above it. Yesterday we had two barrages by brigades. They seemed fairly good but I should like more guns. To be effective, a barrage should be an 18-pounder to every seven yards of enemy front and the guns should be capable of firing four rounds a minute at least to start with, without the recuperator springs giving out.”
Brigadier General Hugh Tudor, Commander Royal Artillery, 9th Division

"There were many reasons why the 9th DLI was unable to hold its ground. The failure of the troops on the right to reach their objectives and the fact that the division on our left was not attacking caused both flanks of the battalion to be in the air. The positions to be held were very much exposed and the Germans could see all our trenches and control their fire accordingly. It was a local attack and the enemy was able to concentrate his guns onto a small portion of our line. The ground was a sea of mud and it was almost impossible to consolidate our posts. The terribly intense German barrages and the difficult nature of the ground prevented reinforcements from being sent up to help the 9th DLI. Four hundred yards north of the Butte the enemy had a steep bank behind which they were able to assemble without being molested. The terrain was very favourable to a German counter-attack.”
Lieutenant Colonel Roland Bradford, 1/9 DLI

Clearly, the contention was that they had not failed.  Rather, they had no chance of success given the shortcomings of the British artillery barrage, a narrow fronted attack against superior forces and appalling weather conditions. With the benefit of hindsight, it is generally agreed that the possession of the Butte was not a major asset to the enemy and from the British trenches it was possible to prevent the Germans from using it as an observation point. In any case, the Butte would have been of little use as an observation point. Roland Bradford also wrote:

“The Butte de Warlencourt had become an obsession. Everybody wanted it. It loomed large in the minds of the soldiers in the forward area and they attributed many of their misfortunes to it. Newspaper correspondents talked about ‘that miniature Gibraltar’. It seems that the attack was one of those tempting and, unfortunately, frequent local operations which are so costly and which are rarely worthwhile.”

Some of the above was taken from Peter Hart's book 'The Somme', he goes on to say "Actions like the attack of the 151st Brigade on the Butte de Warlencourt on 5 November had no real importance within the context of the huge Somme offensive.  However, they surely contained a seed of truth within them, this kind of attack was achieving nothing but swollen casualty lists."  Detailed accounts of the action can also be found in Harry Moses' books on the 6th and 9th Battalions, and EH Veitch’s history of 8th Battalion.

A Commemoration
The Western Front Association placed a memorial on the Butte some years ago.  This followed the principle made by the officers of the DLI who placed wooden crosses on the Butte. For commemoration of the action, these crosses were brought together in Durham Cathedral.  
Warlencourt-Eaucourt Village Remembrance Committee poster, photo by Kevin Richardson
Warlencourt-Eaucourt Village Remembrance Committee poster, photo by Kevin Richardson
The residents of the village of Warlencourt-Eaucourt which is overlooked by the Butte decided to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the tragic event.  

Paul Simpson and I have been committed to visit the Butte on the 5 November 2016 for some time. Our friends, the Bell family, asked us to place a wreath at the Butte and a cross at the Thiepval Memorial in honour of their uncle and great-uncle, Corporal George Thomas 'Dode' Cox who met his death on that day. We were honoured to do so. We also did this for another uncle and great uncle, Lance Corporal John William Arkless, 2/5th Battalion, Lincolnshire Regiment who was killed in action 11 April 1917
The Butte de Warlencourt: the Western Front Association Memorial, Kevin & Paul with Charles & Blanch Crossan, photo supplied by Kevin Richardson
The Butte de Warlencourt: the Western Front Association Memorial, Kevin & Paul with Charles & Blanch Crossan, photo supplied by Kevin Richardson
Together with Neil Milburn and Alan Goldsmith we visited the Butte, placed the wreath and “walked the walk” around the mound. We spoke to other groups of descendants with the same intentions at the Butte or in Warlencourt Cemetery. We met Charles and Blanche Crossan, residents of Warlencourt-Eaucourt, and other members of the organising committee at the Butte and the village hall. The ‘official’ village commemoration took place the following day, Sunday 6 November, but we had to be away to catch a train home. Blanche described it as follows:
“The ceremony on the Butte on the Sunday was simple and dignified but the crowd was such that the Somme Battlefield Pipeband could not get a place on the Butte but had to remain below. However the piper had pride of place beside the memorial. Our mayor was the master of ceremonies and wreaths were laid by him, the local MP who also is the Mayor of Bapaume and a representative of the Souvenir Fran├žais followed by the National Anthems of Britain, France and Germany being played. It was quite poignant.”

Friday, 2 December 2016

Conference 2016

Well. What a great day we had at the Durham at War Conference last Saturday (26 November). Thank you to everyone involved, nothing went wrong, there were lots of interesting talks and lots (and lots) of food, from the lovely buffet to the First World War Bake Off entries.

Most of the Durham at War volunteers work remotely so don’t get to see each other, or see how the project is going as a whole. Indeed, there were some people we were only meeting for the first time.

We had a variety of stalls from projects we had partnered with to local history groups, the Record Office itself, and the Friends of Durham Record Office running one of their always fantastic tombolas.

The Chairman of the Council, Eddie Bell, opened the proceedings before we had a video from Zelda at the Heritage Lottery Fund.

John Sheen was the first speaker of the day, telling us how his interest in the First World War began, running through to where he is today. regular readers will know that John has written several blog posts for us, as well as books, and he is now writing essays for a Masters degree. He is also sharing some of his vast collection of militaria with the Durham at War website.
Prizes for the First World War Bake Off (Photo by Durham at War team)
Prizes for the First World War Bake Off (Photo by Durham at War team)
Then it was time for the First World War Bake Off, with several trench cakes, some parkin, and a variety of Anzac biscuits. Attendees voted and the winners were announced just before lunch. First prize of the golden wooden rolling pin went to Margaret Hedley of Wheatley Hill History Group. There was a tie for second place between John Sheen and Kevin Richardson of the Fallen Men of South West Durham. John conceded his position, and Kevin accepted the golden wooden spoon on behalf of his wife who actually did the baking. We also discovered that another of our volunteers, Margaret, does balloon modelling, when she delivered her Bake Off entry by pigeon post! 
Pigeon post! (Photo by Durham at War team)
Pigeon post! (Photo by Durham at War team)
Our keynote speech was given by Anthea Lang and Dr Malcolm Grady about their ongoing research into German pork butchers in the North East, and the different triggers for the anti-German sentiment they faced. This talk was complemented by Carol Hunt and Andrea McIver-Hunt talking about their great-grandfather, Theodor Fiedler, who was a German pork butcher in Shadforth. Readers may remember their account of their visit to The German Pork Butchers’ Descendants’ Reunion. The pigs, Sir Scoff-a-lot and Sir Scratch-a-lot, were in attendance at the conference.

Next up was the winner of ‘furthest distance travelled’, Jim Busby, who flew in all the way from Winnipeg in Canada. Jim talked about his own First World War research, and how he, without any prior Durham connection got involved in the project. He is connected to the county now with the help he is giving us, and volunteer Jean, in researching the men of County Durham who emigrated to Canada.
People enjoying the conference (Photo by DCC Media Officer)
People enjoying the conference (Photo by DCC Media Officer)
After lunch, Dr Sarah Price, from Durham University, gave us a run down on the collaboration between the University Library at Palace Green and the DLI Collection at Sevenhills to help continue access to these unique objects.

The last of the official speakers was Peter Welsh from the Wessington U3A War Memorials Project who wowed us with a rendition of the Lambton Worm by way of introduction. He went on to speak about the films, and other work, the group have done, and showed an excerpt from their latest, ‘Wear at War’. Copies of this are available to buy here in Durham County Record Office for £3, or two for £5, and comes with a choice of cover.

The day was rounded off with people able to informally say a few words about their contribution to the project. 

We are really pleased with how the day went and have had some lovely feedback. The only thing is, everyone enjoyed it so much they want another one next year, and I think we have set a high bar for ourselves!

On a final note, Jo thought it would be a good idea to ask each other questions about the day. See below for our Q&A.

Jo’s questions to Victoria 
What was the highlight of the day? 

Balloon pigeons 
Getting to meet volunteers I’d previously only been in email contact with 
Seeing the volunteers mingling and chatting with each other 
Not panicking over talking to everyone in the Council Chamber 

Conversely, was there a low point? What should we do differently next time? 

Check that the sound is working earlier than 10 minutes before we were due to start. 

How many sausage rolls did you eat? 
Only two (but three on Monday, including as I was writing this) 

If the conference was a Marvel character, which one would it be? 

Captain America. He stands for honour, he stands up for the ‘little guy’; we’re trying to highlight the stories of the everyday people and honour them. That’s probably more the project than the conference specifically.

Victoria’s questions to Jo
Did you learn anything new at the conference?

I learnt that even if you have two technical run-throughs everything can go pear-shaped 10 minutes before everything is due to start when the sound doesn’t work on the audio-visual system. 

What have you taken away from the day (aside from leftover food)?

Well, the food is a given! Never knowingly under-catered! For me, the day was a great chance to meet old friends, new faces and some new faces that instantly became old friends. I was also just amazingly impressed by the range of work that the volunteers do for us and how we have, somehow, managed to assemble this fantastic array of individuals, groups and supporters from within the county, throughout the country and across the world.

How many pieces of trench cake did you eat?

Not sure. I lost count! My favourite was the parkin; that’s what got my vote. And, to be honest, after all that talk of Pork Butchers, I was hanging for a sausage roll.

If the conference was a cake, which one would it be?

Mmmm, cake. I might have to say trench cake. It wasn’t particularly fancy, it had some unusual things in it but all the ingredients worked together to create something that was genuine and that hopefully people will appreciate for some time to come.