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Kenneth More appearing in “Reach for the Sky” got me thinking
In 1978, though suffering from Parkinson’s, Kenneth More was working on one of his last films ‘King Arthur and the Spaceman’ at Alnwick Castle. Separated from his wife of 10 years he asked my mother out to dinner. My dear late mum, then 47 years old, had a ‘steady boyfriend’ and had dubious thoughts about what might be expected if she dined with the elderly Kenneth. I think they would have enjoyed each others company. Kenneth went back to his wife (or she had him back). He died a few years later. I’m just reflecting. I was 16: it was not the start of any film career (though one assistant producer I became friends with did try to persuade me to run off to London to work on another film. I had A’ Levels and Oxbridge in my sights) Other aging actors on set included Ron Moody and John Le Mesurier.
I’m only dwelling on any of this because for the upteenth time (it would seem) I caught ‘Reach for the Sky’ on Channel 4 Films, or BBC Two, or Four, or somewhere, the other day. It’s dated, stilted and of its time. Badder has a closer relationship with his batman than his girlfriend. It is gosh and coy. Anyway, I like the few flying shots because it gives me an impression of what my grandfather must have experienced.
In 1918 my grandfather, then 22, was learning to fly with the RAF. He flew Avros and Bristol Fighters. My interest in Kenneth More’s film “Reach for the Sky” is that it features flying sequences using these planes (mostly from the Shuttleworth Collection), as well as planes of #WW2. So that’s what it was like? Just as I thought, a 2-stroke lawnmower with wings attached (and a Vicker’s machine gun).
So there you go. My daily drivel.
Rottingdean’s Great War
This morning I received a delightful surprise as glimpses of sun broke through the heavy winter grey and old Rottingdean revealed itself around its war memorial and pond. I parked next to the war memorial with its Roll of Honour to both wars, with Rudyard Kipling’s home of five years behind off the green – somewhere he abandoned as it became a popular destination for tourists seeking him out.
A short walk took me onto the South Downs behind Saltdean – a walk that could be greatly extended when doubling back you see to the sea, the iconic old windmill on the hill and in contrast the vastness of the massive Rampion Offshore Wind Farm on the Channel horizon.
The return through the edges of the town showed off the many bedroomed ‘executive homes’ of the last century with their Jags and Range-Rovers, as well as the apparently older properties along Tudor Close by the church and cemetery which turn out to be cottages created out of the 1920s Tudor Cottages Hotel. The Manor House dates back to the 15th century, the Black Horse pub to the 16th century whilst The Elms where Kipling lived is 18th century and the Grange and North End House (where Burn Jones lived and worked) are 19th century.
Much occurred in the late 19th century with Burn Jones and Rudyard Kipling residents and the boarding prep-school St.Aubyns which saw many of its students graduate to the likes of Eton.
My First World War interest saw me visit the exterior of the school (closed for five years and being developed into apartments and houses). Its abandoned and trashed interior can be seen online courtesy of an old boy who broke in a few years ago to take a look. The journalist, author and Scots Guards subaltern Wilfred Ewart was here 1900-1905 as was his friend George Wyndham.
My First World War interest also took me into the churchyard of the quirky St Margaret’s of Antioch with its nativity display still out in late January.
I spotted a dozen or so CWGC graves, mostly the class Portland stone, some private memorials. These include:
|Fireman H Bateman, died 20 May 1917 on the SS Tycho. Mercantile Marine. Steamer sunk by a U Boat off Beachy Head. Body recovered and buried here. (Initial detail from the headstone and the Roll of Honour compiled by Chris Comber).|
|267153 Pte William H Chatfield, Royal Sussex Regimentand 458331 Labour Corps died 14 February 1919 ‘of sickness’ (age 20) Son of Mr and Mrs Herbert Chatfield of 9, The High Street, Rottingdean. (Initial detail from the headstone and the Roll of Honour compiled by Chris Comber).|
|2nd Lieut. David Dennys Fowler, RFC |
Born 20 June 1897, Seawall, Glenelg, South Australia
Son of James Fowler of Dyxcroft, Rottingdean and and Mary Harriet (née Morgan), both were born in south Australia.
In 1898 David’s six year old brother died. At some point in the next year or so the family moved to England.
1901 Albert Gate, Knightsbridge with his parents. His father was a ‘merchant grocer’ (employer) from south Australia. In 1909 a younger brother James was born (the family was by then living in Surrey).
At the 1911 Census, Dennys, age 13, as he is known, was at school, Wavetree House, Furze Hill, Hove, Brighton, the census sheet showing 20 boys ages 12 to 13, of whom two were born in India, and Dennys in Australia. He then went to Harrow, was part of the OTC, leaving in December 1914. Although war had broken out to he took up at place at Trinity College, Cambridge. He had only just matriculated when his mother died on 14 November 1915 in Wimbledon. On 13 January 1916 he applied to become a flying officer. He gained his Aero Certificate in a Maurice Farman Biplane 29 May 1916 at Military School, Catterick Bridge.
Second Lieutenant David Dennys Fowler reported from England and posted to No. 1 Squadron, A.F.C. (Australian Flying Corps), at Heliopolis on 4th September, 1916.
Fowler was wounded on 5 October when his BE2c was hit by anti-aircraft fire while on reconnaissance with 2Lt J Hutchins as his observer, who escaped unhurt, but Fowler was sent to hospital in Tigne, Malta on 5 October 1916 with gsw to left foot. In December 1916 he was invalided back to England and attached to No. 78 Squadron, R.F.C.
Text supplied by Chas Schaedel and the South Australian Aviation Museum History Group
On the night of 17 March 1917 he was flying a B.E.2s Serial number 7181 on a Zeppelin patrol after an air raid. He was turning too near to the ground, causing the left wing tip to touch and the plane crashed about one and a half miles from Telscombe Cliffs Aerodrome and was killed.
He was buried in St.Margaret’s of Antioch Church, Rottingdean on 20 March 1917.
Grave inscription: In His Twentieth Year With Every Promise Of Happiness Before Him He Gave His Life To His Country
Sources: Australian Birth Index; UK, Soldiers Died in the Great War, 1914-1919; British World War I Medal Records. Died in Salonika; England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858-1995; Great Britain, Royal Aero Club Aviators’ Certificates, 1910-1950; 1901 England Census; The Street of Brighton and Hove; Virtual War Memorial, Australia.
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|67450 Pte Reginald W King, The Labour Corps formerly formerly G/3064 with Royal Sussex Regiment died at home 3 November 1918 (age 32) Son of Henry and Lottie King of 29, Quebec Street, Brighton. Husband of Mrs Daisy King of 2, Rifle Butt Road, Rottingdean.|
|Lieut. William Oliver Redman-King (special list) Born in Brighton. Died of pneumonia at home 28 February 1919. Son of Dr. J. B. and Mrs Annie Louise Redman–King of Weetwood Hall, Leeds, Yorkshire. (Initial detail from the headstone and the Roll of Honour compiled by Chris Comber).|
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|Serg.Maj. J H Rose, RFC, died 28 January 1916|
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|Maj. Cuthbert R Rowden RAF/Worcestershire Regiment 78th Sqdn. Formerly with the 5th Worcesters. Died at home 20 April 1918 (age 21) Son of Arthur Roger and Blanche Mary Rowden of Eastnor, Ledbury, Herefordshire. Husband of Mrs Frances Rowden of ‘Halcyon’, Redhill, Surrey. (Initial detail from the headstone and the Roll of Honour compiled by Chris Comber).|
|Fire Engineer J Short, Mercantile Marine S S Tycho died 20 May 1917. When the steamer was sunk by a U-boat off Beachy Head. Body recovered and buried here. (Initial detail from the headstone and the Roll of Honour compiled by Chris Comber).|
A ninth unnamed WWI Mercantile Marine is also remembered here.
I’ll return to Rottingdean to seek out the graves I failed to spot this time round. I will also slowly complete short profiles for each man who served and died. My starting place will be the Roll of honour for the Rottingdean War Memorial produced by Chris Comber in 2004. Where I can find a photograph of the person being remembered and a Pension Card and further family and service details I will feature these in a commemorative post to the ‘Remember on this Day’ pages of The Western Front Association.
“When I was fighting fit, mind.”
This is a line my late grandfather used all his life. He had many sayings – all from the First World War. Another one was “your teeth are your pearls” and “you can shove it where the monkey puts its nuts.” He was active into his mid-90s, attending the 75th anniversary commemoration of Third Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele in July 1992; he was 96. He only stopped driving when he was told his poor eyesight had gone beyond correction age 93. And until late 1992 he walked a couple of miles back and forth to his daughter’s house to mow the lawn, clear the leaves from the drive and gutters … or change the oil in her car.
A passing curiosity about how they got the men fit during the First World War and blow me I find a book came out on it last year … and there’s even a museum all about it. The ‘Royal Army Physical Training Museum’ in Aldershot, England.
I suppose the next step would be to give some of the training ago in my local gym: boxercise might be the closest it gets. I can’t see there being bayonet training allowed. What did soldier’s say about training at the time? Some hated it? Some loved it? My grandfather likened his Sergeant Major to Oliver Hardy of ‘Laurel and Hardy’ – said he was a jovial character who used to bring some of his children down to the parade ground and the soldiers would give them rides on their shoulders! That’s not the image of physical training in the army you usually get on films about soldiering.
How an image of the where and how my grandfather fought during the First World War has changed over 45 years
Fig. 1. How the six-eight year old me thought a farmhouse in the Ypres Salient looked like during the First World War in October 1917
For 45 years I have dwelt on how the images in my head associated with stories my grandfather told me about the First World War changed from those of a six year old, to an eleven year old, through my thirties and forties … my childhood conception of the imagined world depended on the little I had personally seen and experienced. When my grandfather spoke of keeping his machine gun in a pillbox pointing at a farmhouse held by ‘Jerry’ For three days I at first pictured an intact farm building, the kind I often saw in a rolling and lush Northumbrian landscape, with the heavy stone walls and full deciduous trees I knew from being driven down bouncy country lanes north east of Alnwick heading for Chathill and our fisherman’s holiday cottage in Beadnell.
The pillbox in my imagination would have had to been like those left from the Second World War on the beach that my brother and I played in – and used as a urinal.
Fig.2. The reality of life on the Front Line
Age eleven a few ghastly black and white pictures from the First World War and the title sequence from the BBC Series ‘The Great War’ coloured my imagination: it added a soundtrack, skulls and broken trees, but not the scale, nor the mud, not the rain, the cold, thirst and hunger. Although he could mimmick every shell the sound effects my grandfather made could never get close to the terrifying sound os something large and dangerous approaching and then the almighty bang that followed.
In my twenties I got to the Ypres Salient in summer: it was dry, a new autoroute split and the noise of traffic created a barrier. Several TV efforts at recreating the war failed, not least as my thoughts expended to take in the thoughts of a what it meant to be a young man in those conditions, that you were in and out for a bout of two or three days. The rest of the time if not on fatigues or carrying parties you were looking for things to do.
Fig. 3. The reality. A ‘camouflaged’ pillbox, recently taken while a couple of hundred yards beyond that low, light grey strip is a similar pillbox still in enemy hands.
‘Not a worm could live.” My grandfather would say. He lived, as did the German who in error entered my grandfather’s pillbox and got clobbered for his trouble.
Only now, thoroughly immersed in hundreds of curated photographs and having looked on destroyed, wet massively scarred landscapes from open mining, having smelt rotting flesh – not human, but a dead sheep several days gone, am I starting to develop a true image. With teenage children of my own it is too easy to imagine the horror of sending them to war. Images of what happens to a body when hit by shrapnel or bullets, or blown apart by shells are readily available.
Fig 4. As it was. The dead behind a stone wall. The very same image my grandfather had while he sat it out in the remains of a recently captured ‘Jerry’ strongpoint.
There is little left for my imagination to do, other than to see another drama reconstruction and feel that nothing has done it better than ‘All Quiet on the Western Front.’ It looks dated, somehow caught in the early 1970s when it was finally made, but ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ leaves you with the desired sense of hopelessness, horror and despair that one ought to have.
Fig.5. Returning to ‘Courage Post’ to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. Corporal John Arthur Wilson MM recalls too friends who died at his side and that he buried in the rubble never to be found.
75 years after leaving that pillbox with two friends buried my 96 year old grandfather broke down: telling his stories as stories had been his escape from it, but back on the same soil, at the very spot with the light and low landscape just as it had been it once again had become horribly real. He withered away after that as if the reality of the war brought home to him made him whither from the inside out.
I know this part of the world well enough to walk it, step by step from the bivouacs outside Poperinghe, over the Yser Canal, through Langermarck and along the light rail track, then used to move men and matériel, now a cycle path. On towards Houthulst forest and the exact location of his machine gun company’s HQ at ‘Egypt House’ (a three roomed concrete strongpoint built into a farm building) and on another 300 yards to ‘Courage Post’ a pillbox on the edge of the road into the ‘forest’ – then ten thousand shards of broken tree trunks, now, buried in its midst, where they handled, until very recently, and destroyed old munitions from the extensive battlefield.
For all this ‘Jerry’ to me is still a black cartoon cat and the ‘Hun’ something barbaric from the fall of the Romans as a drawing in a Ladybird book. We are our own film directors when it comes to reading; an author is a catalyst to our thoughts that can conjure up anything – which, in part, is the fun of it. We inhabit a world of our own in the orchestra of our minds, the author the composer, as readers we conduct, as listeners or viewers the director injects a piece of their own mind.
Parts of ‘Lord of the Rings’ is more evocative of the conflict of two massive armies than much that I have seen or read – and I have seen and read most of it, including now one divisional history after another, and long out of print obscure autobiographies. It has created an image in my head. Of a screwball world where the daily job was to plan and execute slaughter against the enemy on a massive scale – slaughter than in those days treated men like so many bullets, shells or mules to expend, the only fear being whether or not they could be replaced.
WW1 Aviation Comes of Age. A MOOC about British aviation 1911-1951
World War 1: Aviation Comes of Age: University of Birmingham [Three Weeks]
Both more, and less than advertised. Far from sticking to the First World War the course flew away on a gust of enthusiasm in various directions that stretched beyond the Second World War … without really taking off.
|From Jack Wilson MM|
Fig.1 My late grandfather – the period I thought we’d cover was his experience of flight. 1911-1919
100% Coming out of the MA in British Military History with a Postgraduate Certificate and 60 credits after one year shows that I am still passionate about the subject of the First World War, but not how it is taught in a traditional ‘Saturday School’ format: I felt that I was back in the ‘C’ set of my lower-sixth History A’ level. The course tried hard to understand the affordances of learning online in a MOOC and will surely make many changes before it is presented again in the New Year. It rather failed to understand who its audience were: more niche, specialists and some extraordinarily well informed. The WW1 tag drifted rapidly into events between the wars, into WW2 and beyond with very little of the development of aviation offered or explored, except by us students, often in great depth. Its saving grace. It was too much an effort at shoehorning a lacklustre campus-based course of lectures, talks and books with long lists of qualifying but unreadable lists of references attached. The quizzes in particular were awful. Put in with no understand of their purpose or the considerable level expertise required to get these right.
From time to time I am faced with finding the most obscure of articles
|From First World War|
Fig.1 Motorbike Ambulance of the First World War
I came across something about the Ambulance Service using motorbikes during the First World War. I then saw a photograph of a motorbike with a sidecar with a set of platforms that would carry two stretchers. The arguments for the use of a motorcycle are made: lighter, quicker, tighter turning circle, use less fuel …
A article is cited. The British Medical Journal, January 1915. A few minutes later via the Open University Online Library I locate and download the article.
It is the speed at which quality research can be fulfilled that thrills me. This article is satisfying in its own right, but glancing at the dozen or more articles on medical practices and lessons from the Front Line are remarkable. We are constantly saved from the detail of that conflict, the stories and issues regurgitated and revisited as historians read what previous historians said without going back to the original source.
This is how a new generation can come up with a fresh perspective on the First World War – instead of a handful of specialist academics burrowing in the paper archives now thousands, even tens of thousands can drill right down to the most pertinent, untampered with content.
|From First World War|
The pleasures of the FutureLearn MOOC: World War 1 Trauma and Memory
Should I return, each time I’ll be happier to stand back and let others find their way. I will have read more, seen more, thought more and written more. If I can help nudge others towards finding their own ‘truth’ I will have done something useful.
Inevitably over the next five years many of us will become imbued with a unique sensibility on the subject. I think my perceptions shift on walks, or in the middle of the night.
TV is a mixed bag, and I’m reluctant to recommend much of it, however I am currently watching ad watching again the brilliantly smart, moving, visualised, engaging ‘War of Word’ Soldier Poets of the Somme which is far broader than the title may suggest – this goes well beyond the obvious to paint a vivid sense of how impressions of violent conflict alter and sicken.
Several of these poets are now forgotten, but celebrated here, as we come to understand how they transitioned from glorification and patriotism on joining up to the ghastly reality. War of Words: Soldier-Poets of the Somme must have been shown on BBC2 in the last week or so – available for a month I think. Very worth while. Expertly done. A variety of approaches. Never dull. Often surprising and some stunning sequences of animations to support readings of short extracts from the poems. And it even tells the story of British Military advances during the period running up to, through and after the Battle of the Somme.