Friday, 28 April 2017

Arras: The battle resumed

This week we bring you an article that featured in the Stanley News about the ongoing Battle of Arras, which took place in April and May 1917.
British military band playing in a town square in Arras, 30 April 1917, © IWM (Q 6407), Non-Commercial Licence
Thursday, 26 April, 1917

The battle of Arras has been resumed, and the correspondents agree that the fighting is of a harder and more desperate character than any which has preceded it. Only those actually engaged are able to appreciate the significance of this, for all the fighting has long since reached a point where it becomes almost impossible for the pen of the most gifted writer to do anything more than convey a faint impression to the most attentive reader of what is actually taking place. On this occasion there can, of course, be no question of a surprise. Our intentions were disclosed by our first successful attack, and during the time taken in bringing up our heavy guns and the accomplishment of the stupendous task which the launching of an offensive now involves, the Germans have brought up their reserves, strengthened their artillery, and excercised to the full their ingenuity in the construction of defensive works, in which, as usual, the machine-gun forms a most important part. It is safe to say that the British troops, in the battles which are now proceeding, are meeting the enemy at the pinnacle of his strength, and, what is more, are beating him. 

There have been no spectacular victories such as that of the capture of Vimy Ridge, but the enemy has been driven back, and the reports from Headquarters show that the positions captured are maintained, despite the most desperate counter-attacks. When the great German retreat was in progress we were assured by Berlin that one object was to change the character of the fighting. British troops, the world was informed, had been trained for trench warfare only, in open fighting they would stand no chance against the enemy. But it is significant that the Germans have done nothing to avail themselves of the opportunities which have since been presented of putting their boast to the test. When driven from the dugouts, caves and concrete trenches, their only concern has been to get as quacking as possible to the next line of entrenchment.
18 pounder gun of the Royal Field Artillery in action. Near Arras, 29 April 1917, © IWM (Q 5811), Non-Commercial Licence
Berlin now attempts to dismiss the whole of the Anglo-French offensive as a matter of not the slightest importance. A characteristic message was that which declared that “in the Arras battle the renewed British attacks were without any success” and then added that in the sector between Berry au Bac and Auberive the Germans between the 16th and 19th April have captured 30 officers, 1,472 men, and 93 machine guns, conveying the implication that the prisoners had been taken since the attack has been renewed, whereas the figures represent the stage army which did duty on the occasion of the beginning of the British offensive. In fact, the military critics are having a bad time in Germany just at the present. The Franco-British Armies have, in their recent offensives, taken some 35,000 prisoners, 350 guns, and considerable quantities of war material. 

The Germans are not told of these losses, and they are assured that while their troops have been forced to “withdraw” from positions which were previously declared to be impregnable, it has been done for a purpose, and there are occasions when it is an advantage to yield. All of which may be perfectly true, but has little bearing on the real situation. The fall of St. Quentin is foreshadowed in a semi-official message from Berlin, which states that the entire population was transported to places in the rear. In the other districts the same authority states that the male and female population between the ages of 15 and 60 was deported. Mothers with children under 15 were allowed to remain. It is evident from this that it was not any concern for the lives of the inhabitants which prompted this deportation, which can be justified by no military expediency. No parallel for such inhuman conduct is to be found in modern history of warfare outside of that taking place between the most depraved of savage tribes. 

Describing a recent visit to the liberated regions in Northern France, Mr. Penfield, late Ambassador of the United States in Vienna, declared that he could not believe, despite all the descriptions that he had read, that a people claiming to be civilised could have descended to such a degree of barbarism. But surely the people who make war on hospital ships are capable of any iniquity. And, after all, what is to be seen in Northern France, horrible as it is, is as nothing compared with the lot of the unfortunate people in the power of the Huns, or the anguish of the “mothers with children under 15” who have been torn asunder from every other member of the family. Truly the world has an account to settle with a nation which thus deliberately and callously makes war upon old men, women, and children.

Friday, 21 April 2017

A Good Reputation Endures Forever

Members of the Chinese Labour Corps, WJ Hawkings Collection, courtesy of John de Lucy
Members of the Chinese Labour Corps, WJ Hawkings Collection, courtesy of John de Lucy
The Oriental Museum at Durham University recently unveiled a new exhibition, 'A Good Reputation Endures Forever: The Chinese Labour Corps on the Western Front'. It comprises a series of photographs from the WJ Hawkings Collection (courtesy of John de Lucy) of the Corps in France, and tells their little-known story. 

I only came across the Chinese Labour Corps for the first time last year, whilst cataloguing the letters of Hubert Morant. In a letter to his wife, dated 8 April 1918, he mentions a friend who is in charge of a ‘Labour Group which consists of about 10 companies of 500 each, most of them Chinese and all sorts of other.’ This piqued my interest and I discovered the Chinese Labour Corps, but was unable to find a Durham connection for our project.
Extract from a letter by Hubert Morant, 8 April 1918 (D/DLI 7/1230/113)
D/DLI 7/1230/113 Extract from a letter by Hubert Morant, 8 April 1918
I was most interested when I saw a listing for the then upcoming exhibition on The photographs are remarkable and are put into context by information panels in both English and Chinese. They are supported by a small selection of objects including trench art made by the Chinese men. These mostly take the form of brass shell casings with the tops hammered out and the sides beautifully etched with dragons and other traditional imagery. 
Lieutenant Leadbitter Smith, 4th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, at a camp at Whitley Bay, 1904 (D/DLI 7/602/16(223))
D/DLI 7/602/16(223) Lieutenant Leadbitter Smith, 4th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, at a camp at Whitley Bay, 1904
I was able to chat with Dr Craig Barclay, head of the Oriental Museum, and he told me that in their research, they had found an officer from Durham who had was involved with the Chinese Labour Corps. Supplied with the name of Nicholas Leadbitter, I got to work researching him. 

This got off to a surprisingly quick and easy start as my initial search of the Record Office catalogue came up with some photographs and basic information. Nicholas Augustine Graham Leadbitter (sometimes Leadbitter-Smith) had been an officer in 4th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry in the early 1900s, serving with them in South Africa in 1902. During the First World War, he was seconded to the general staff then transferred in 1917 to the Chinese Labour Corps. In 1920 he was awarded the Order of the Striped Tiger (4th Class). You can find out more about Nicholas Leadbitter on Durham at War:

The information about the Chinese Labour Corps has been mostly sourced from two sites.  The first is the Ensuring We Remember campaign, who were involved in the exhibition

The second is Pad Kumlertsakul’s blog post for The National Archives, using records held there More in depth information, including about the political repercussions for China, can be found on both those pages.

'A Good Reputation Endures Forever: The Chinese Labour Corps on the Western Front' is on at the Oriental Museum, Elvet Hill, Durham, until 24 September 1917

A video report of the exhibition appears on the Forces Network:

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Easter in the war

D/DLI 7/913/320 Italian Easter postcard sent by Private Fred Lucas to his son
D/DLI 7/913/320 Italian Easter postcard sent by Private Fred Lucas to his son
This week we have two different Easter experiences.  

Firstly, we have a letter from a letter written by Cuthbert Headlam to his wife. Headlam worked as a clerk at the House of Lords before and after the war, with a desire to go into politics himself. He was the member of parliament for Barnard Castle 1924-1929, and 1931-1935. He also served on Durham County Council 1931-39. During the war, he was a General Staff Officer, rising to become a Lieutenant Colonel.

This extract is from a letter dated 19 April 1916 (D/He 149/9):

It is difficult to realize that tomorrow is Good Friday – we were at Stansted last year weren't we? What a happy time we had there and what lucky people we were to have it! 

You see I am in rather a Christian mood today which I know will please you – but, darling, I must confess that I have not been to church all through Lent and have denied myself nothing that I could get! I look upon being separated from you and leading la vie militaire as quite enough penance for one lonely man – besides, you seem to be doing enough church for two ordinary people!

D/DLI 7/63/2(199) Map of the Arras and Vimy area drawn by Reverend Birch
D/DLI 7/63/2(199) Map of the Arras and Vimy area drawn by Reverend Birch
Secondly we have the memoir of Private David Brown who served with 10th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, and later 15th Battalion. Prior to the war he worked as a shop assistant and enlisted at the end of 1915. He was discharged shortly before the end of the war, as no longer physically fit for war service.

This extract is from April 1917, and the beginning of the Battle of Arras:

My first turn came on the Easter Monday morning in the great fight of Vimy Ridge in which the Bosche was driven out of his great Hindenburg Line. We had been working for a few nights digging the assembly trenches in front of the first line bringing us nearer to Fritz. We were taken to these on the Sunday night. It started raining and kept on all night. Everyone soaked to the skin and trenches flooded with water. We were timed to go over at 7.23 am. But about 5.30am we could hear the barrage commence 30 miles away. Just one long rumble which came nearer and nearer, until our turn came. Some shells I can tell you. Just like clouds in front with the explosions. Everyone all nerves until you get over, then it all seems to leave you. All you think about is to get at the Huns. 

In about half an hour our battalion had taken three lines of trenches. Then we were all hard at work consolidating the line, making fire steps, so that we could be ready if the enemy should counter attack. We thought we would have been relieved that night after doing our bit, but such was not the case. The Battalion which had to go ahead of us had not taken their objective. “The Somersets” were nearly wiped out. So we were kept standing to all night and next morning we received orders that we were to advance with the rest of the Brigade to clear out the enemy. 

There was to be no barrage this time. It looked like being a surprise stunt, we managed to get right up to the wire defences. But could not get through owing to the awfully heavy machine gun fire. So every man had to get down anywhere he could in shell holes for shelter and wait our opportunity. But luck was with us, it started snowing very hard, completely stopping Fritz from seeing us. Then the fun started, every man was upcutting the wire, and it wasn’t very long before we were through. We put the wind up old Fritz when [we] got near him. I think we were all like a lot of mad men shouting and yelling. We cleared them out of their dugouts with the good old Mills bombs. We did not give any chances. We took over 400 prisoners. We were relieved almost at once by another Brigade after taken all objectives.

Friday, 7 April 2017

What did you do in the war, Dada?

This week, Jo tells us of a surprising connection.
Banner poster for the current run of Tom Stoppard's Travesties
Banner poster for the current run of Tom Stoppard's Travesties

The reader of a play whose principal characters include Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara may not realize that the figure of Henry Carr is likewise taken from history. But this is so.

This is how Tom Stoppard introduces the text of his play, Travesties, which was first performed in London in 1974. The play came to the attention of Durham at War when a member of the public, who preferred to remain anonymous, submitted an update to the site pointing out that the lead character was one of the Canadian soldiers we have on our website.

A historical training instils a healthy scepticism and, to be honest, I thought that Tom Stoppard writing a play about a man from Sunderland seemed unlikely. I thought that the man on our website might have had the same name but it couldn’t actually be based on him, could it? A little digging on the internet proved me wrong.

Henry Wilfred Carr, born in Houghton-le-Spring, was the “hero” of Stoppard’s play which has been staged twice by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is currently running in the West End, (at the time of writing, Tom Hollander, who plays Carr, is awaiting to find out whether he will win an Olivier award for his portrayal). In the introduction to Travesties, Stoppard explains that he used some of the actual events of Carr’s life as a basis for the play and that after it first ran, Carr’s wife contacted him and filled in some of the rest of Henry’s story.
Poster producing to encourage recruitment,Imperial War Museum, Non-commercial Licence, © IWM (Art.IWM PST 0311)
Poster producing to encourage recruitment,Imperial War Museum, Non-commercial Licence, © IWM (Art.IWM PST 0311) 
It seems that Henry was in Switzerland during the First World War because he was injured during the Second Battle of Ypres whilst serving with the 13th Battalion of Royal Highland Regiment of Canada, he was then taken as a prisoner of war. Firstly he was interned in Germany and then transferred to Switzerland for treatment (see also Angus Leybourne and Very British Romance). While there, he worked in a minor role for the British Consul who was approached by James Joyce’s theatre company to try and find actors to fill the cast of a production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Apparently Carr was tall, handsome, and had a little experience of acting and so was cast as Algernon. 

The story goes that Carr threw himself into the part, to the extent that he bought trousers especially for the role, and was something of a popular success, but that he didn’t get on with Joyce. At the end of the run, Carr felt that his expenses were handed to him in a rather high-handed manner, complaining that it felt like Joyce had been doling out a tip. The pair fell out so much that the matter ended up in court; Carr claimed financial recompense for the trousers, and Joyce alleged that Carr had sold tickets and pocketed the proceeds. Ultimately, Joyce got his revenge by creating a bit-part character named Carr in his masterwork Ulysses. Joyce’s Carr is a drunken foul-mouthed private soldier who attacks Stephen Dedalus, who is often interpreted as being Joyce’s literary alter-ego.

So, Stoppard’s play was the second work of art to immortalise Henry Wilfred Carr. In Travesties, Henry Carr is an old man reminiscing about the staging of Wilde’s play. As well as James Joyce, Stoppard throws in the “characters” of Lenin and Tristan Tzara, a Dadaist poet. Although all three historical personages were in Zurich during the First World War, they were not present in the city at the same time. The bending of historical reality is something of a theme of the play; as the action unfolds it becomes obvious that Carr’s memory is unreliable.

You can read more about Henry Wilfred Carr here on Durham at War: