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Facts in an essays are like pepper in soup – the wonders of FutureLearn, the Paris Conference of 1919 and the birth of the League of Nations

From E-Learning V

Fig.1. Facts in an essays are like pepper in soup

How do you compare and mark a variety of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)?

We need to treat them like one of those challenges they do on Top Gear, where Jeremy Clarkson – ‎Richard Hammond – ‎James May set off to Lapland in a Reliant Robin or some such and then get marks across six or so criteria. Hardly scientific, but it splits the pack.

So, let’s say we take THREE MOOCs, what criteria should there be? 

  • Commitment. What percentage of participants signing up complete the course?
  • Comments. I use the word ‘vibrancy’ to judge the amount and nature of activity in the MOOC, so this is crudely reduced to the number of comments left.
  • Likes. Another form of vibrancy where comments left by the team and by participants are ‘liked’. It has to be a measure of participation, engagement and even enjoyment
  • Correct answers. Assuming, without any means to verify this, that participants don’t cheat, when tested are they getting the answers right. This is tricky as there ought to be a before and after test. Tricky to as how one is tested should relate directly to how one is taught. However, few MOOCs if any are designed as rote learning.

You could still end up, potentially, comparing a leaflet with an Encyclopaedia. Or as the Senior Tutor on something I have been on, a rhinoceros with a giraffe.

It helps to know your audience and play to a niche.

It helps to concentrate on the quality of content too, rather than more obviously pushing your faculty and university. Enthusiasm, desire to impart and share knowledge, wit, intelligence … And followers with many points of view, ideally from around the globe I’ve found as this will ‘keep the kettle bowling’. There is never a quiet moment, is there?

I did badly on a quiz in a FutureLearn Free Online Course (FOC). World War 1. Paris 1919. A new world order … 

I think I got half right. I chose not to cheat, not to go back or to do a Google search; what’s the point in that. I haven’t taken notes. I wanted to get a handle on how much is going in … or not. Actually, in this context, the quiz isn’t surely a test of what has been learnt, but a bit of fun. Learning facts and dates is, or used to be, what you did in formal education at 15 or 16. This course is about issues and ideas. A ‘test’ therefore, would be to respond to an essay title. And the only way to grade that, which I’ve seen successfully achieved in MOOCs, is for us lot to mark each others’ work. Just thinking out loud. In this instance the course team, understandably could not, nor did they try, to respond to some 7,000 comments. They could never read, assess, grade and give feedback to a thousand 4,000 word essays. Unless, as I have experienced, you pay a fee. I did a MOOC with Oxford Brookes and paid a fee, achieved a distinction and have a certificate on ‘First Steps in Teaching in Higher Education’.

As facts are like pins that secure larger chunks of knowledge I ought to study such a FutureLearn FOC with a notepad; just a few notes on salient facts would help so that’s what I’ll do next week and see how I get on. Not slavishly. I’ll use a pack of old envelopes or some such. For facts to stick, rather than ideas to develop, the platform would have needed to have had a lot of repetition built into it. Facts in an essays are like pepper in soup.

Armed with an entire module on research techniques for studying e-learning – H809: Practice-based research in educational technology – I ought to be able to go about this in a more academic, and less flippant fashion.


Are you interested in gaining an insight into the early days of air combat?

Fig.1. World War One: Aviation Comes of Age

This free, open, interactive and connected online course is about to start. It runs for only three weeks and will take a couple of hours a week to do, a little longer to take part in, and as long as you like to indulge.

From First World War

Fig. 2. Gustav Hammel – an early aeronaut who my grandfather saw fly in age 13

I’m doing it to refresh my knowledge from my late grandfather who say the very earliest aviators as a boy and then after 18 months as a machine gunner on the Western Front successfully transferred to the Royal Flying Corps to train as a pilot.

The course is led by a retired former senior RAF officer, Dr Peter Gray with whom I’ve already had a lecture courtesy of the MA in Military History, also with the University of Birmingham. His lecture was on how to read and review a book, and on how to write a competent essay. I’ve been respectively three, then one then ? marks shy of a distinction with my essays so he got me pointed in the right direction.

These courses are known as MOOCs for ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ because courtesy of the Internet they are global and can attract thousands of participants and ‘open’ because they are free to do and talk about … the other two are obvious. An off-putting acronym for a set of rich, multi-media webpages designed for learning? Lord Reith of the BBC, one of the founding fathers of the BBC, would have approved as these MOOCs from FutureLearn entertain, inform and educate.

Anyway, the course is about to start. It is open to anyone, and it is free. So see you there?

The stunning story of a First World War Tank crew

Fig. 1 Episode 3 of ‘Our World War’

There are many reasons to watch this 45 minute drama made by BBC Documentaries:

1) It is a gripping piece of entertainment that incorporates modern music to help evoke the feelings and tone.

2) The sense of what it meant to take part in this conflict to Britain then, and today, is palpable

3) For a piece of screen writing I can think of little that is so sharp, so succinct, so remarkable …

4) You don’t think of it as a documentary. This isn’t docu-drama, so much as drama that seamlessly includes a few animated maps and subtitles as does many a movie or TV series these days

5) You too will be recommending that people watch it.

6) The series so far is excellent, this episode stands out as brilliant – I was left weeping in sadness and joy, while reflecting the violent conflict, though not on this scale, is still very much a contemporary issue.

7) You have this week to watch it. (What seems to happen then is that towards the end of the series it will be offered as a DVD)

1914 Evening

 Fig.1 Screen grab from a news report style presentation on why Britain went to war 100 years ago / at midnight tonight.

I stumbled upon all of this by chance. Who’d imagine the BBC Parliamentary Channel would produce an evening of documentaries, talks and lectures. Former foreign secretaries reflect on the important role Edward Grey in 1914 took to keep Britain out of a continental conflict. I hope it’s all on the iPlayer as every word is worth sharing.

Did everyone used to speak English with a foreign accent in the past?

Fig.1. Images from my Google Pics gallery

We are collectively being tipped into a centenary marking of the First World War where all ‘foreigners’ speak english with an accent; we have German, Russian, French … we have Serbian and Austro-Hungarian ‘english’. We even have Americans voiced by English actors speaking … english with an American accent.

I remember my son asking if everything was ‘black and white’ in the olden days; that until recently people grew up in a black and white world. Will a young generation watching TV on the centenary of the First World War imagine that language difference is simply a matter of accent?

It’s all compromise and accommodation

It’s very much the BBC perspective: which as the ONLY public service broadcaster the world has tries so hard to represent everyone. I have my say here – Jonathan Vernon on Hastings 1918

WBC anyone?

The World or Globe or Earth or … whatever ‘Broadcasting Company’?

For all or any failings the effort, transparently at least, to strive for ‘truth’ based on evidence of what is going on.

The Open University has been, was and should take the lead. I wonder, with concern that the legacy of Michael Bean has been to trim back too hard and so diminish us to a voice from the corner of the empire.

I hope the next Vice Chancellor will be a global figure. Bill Clinton comes to mind.

‘Read in a subject until you can hear the people speak’.

E H Carr.

It has taken a forty years but I feel I have the voice of the soldier of the First World War – and the officer, and the girlfriends and mothers at home.

The First World War Story of Jack Wilson

Fig. 1. John Arthur ‘Jack’ Wilson MM (c 1926)

My grandfather served in the First World War as a machine-gunner and in 1918 trained as a fighter pilot with the Royal Air Force. This is his story. I have made it available to Life Stories, part of the First World War centenary commemorations.

John Arthur Wilson (20Th August 1896 to 16th December 1992)

Based on interviews recorded with John Arthur ‘Jack’ Wilson by his grandson Jonathan Vernon in Gosforth, Newcastle on Tyne, England  on 3rd July, 1989 and in February 1991. Jack added his own notes to the transcript  in 1992 and Jonathan has added footnotes since.


My father’s people were blacksmiths and wheelwrights in Cumberland. The old man (John Wilson b1827) was the local vet in Wigton; he wasn’t qualified but he did the job all the same. He had all these beautiful instruments.My mother’s side, the Nixons, were farmers at Bell Gate House Farm, Dalston, Cumberland. She was the eldest of six sisters. She went home to her mother’s to have me. I was born on the farm on 20th August 1896 and christened in Dalston Church. The farm was a real mixture. It had an orchard, pigs etc: It was rented from the estate. There was a market garden in Carlisle. Granny Nixon (Elizabeth) used to take a pony and tub trap into town once a week to sell eggs and butter at a stall.


We were living at Benfieldside, Shotley Bridge, Co. Durham. It was on the road which ran up to Blackhill on the way to Consett. It was eventually sold to the Consett Iron Company for £6,000 and became a students’ residence.

My father, Twentyman Wilson (b1865), was general factotum to the Murrays, who owned the North Eastern Breweries. He did everything. Before the motorcars he looked after the horses – they had two landaus. Everyone got around in carriages and pairs. They got a second groom when the cars came.

He was well in with them. He was part and parcel of the outfit. He used to look after the hunters and would go with J.G.and the Braes of Derwent Hounds. He called ‘J.G.’ the ‘Governor.’

My father was living in the lodge. The Murrays had a large house, Benfieldside House. As a boy, I used to come up the yard to fiddle on with the engines. There were great crates of dinner sets to unpack for the cook. There were two gamekeepers: Jack Bell, who lived at Elm Park and Frank Carruthers at Allensford, Blanchland. Jack Bell came into the office on a Saturday morning for the wages. There were single entry estate books for these two shops in Consett. A gardener, called Booth. A butler, called Fry. A housekeeper, called Mrs Kirkpatrick. A cook, called Mrs Woodburn. A housemaid. A laundry maid. And a governess for Miss Effne.

I had five brothers. Percy was born in 1893. Then me. (1896) Billy was born in 1899. Sydney was born in 1902, but died when he was four years old.  “Why don’t we have a sister?” We kept saying to father. I think he tried his hand but it didn’t come off. After Billy there was a thirteen-year gap. Spencer was born in 1909. Then Stuart in 1911. Percy went into a nursery as a gardener. He was a real gardener, not a half inch one. He trained with people called Kidd. He burst a blood vessel and died a few weeks later, that was 1920. Billy worked at the solicitors J Aynsley & Sons on Tailor Street, Consett as a clerk. He did copywriting. Billy joined the Royal Flying Corps. He was killed delivering mail over Belgium in June 1919. Spencer was more or less an unqualified architect working for Murrays, Hoyles and Aynsley’s before becoming a draughtsman in Billingham, then a manager to a concreting firm in Birmingham.

When Richard Murray died he left £60,000 to build the hospital behind the house. He’s buried in Black Hill Cemetery.My father told me he gave each of his sons £30,000. ‘J.G’ (John George) Murray left his legal practice at 42 Westgate Road to take over the business.

The first person to have a car in the area was Dr Ralph Renton. It was a chain- driven 8 HP Single Cylinder Rover. Everyone knew when he was coming because you could hear the engine. ‘Chug, chug chug, chug …. ” The solicitors to C.T. Mailings of Ford Potteries, Greenwood, Shotley Bridge were the next people to buy a motor car. It was a Lanchester, which had tiller steering, and bicycle pedals, I remember helping to unpack these great crates of dinner sets for the cook, which came from Ford Potteries.

The Murrays bought a 10 HP Coventry Humberfrom a firm in Middlesborough. The mechanic, a man called Geldart, came up from Middlesborough to teach my father how to drive it. As a boy my father used to take me up to the yard to fiddle on with the engines. They also bought a 30/40 Beston Humber. When old Dick Murray built Benfieldside House he had two massive stone pillars put up at the bottom of the drive. There was a little wicker gate into the lodge where we lived. J G. used to have a go with the Beston Humber. One day he missed the gate and ran into the pillar, which twisted round its base. How he didn’t knock it into our cottage I don’t know.

A second groom was taken on to help look after the horses and my father took on the new role of chauffeur. He used to drive J.G. all around the branches of the North Eastern Breweries, to the Moor Street Brewery in Sunderland, the Tower Brewery in Spennymore, the Weir Brewery in Stockton and the bottling plant at Blackhill.

There was a harness room, all in glass cases, saddles etc: Miss Effne (b1894) had a little Shetland pony with a cream tub trap.

There were so many lawns. If the weather was good on a Monday, Bell, the gamekeeper who lived on the other side of the railway came over to help cut the lawns. Bell pulled on a bit of cord and Booth pushed; it didn’t have an engine.

There were no swimming pools. We went down to the Paper Mill dam and used to swim under the sluice. The other place for swimming was Tiger’s below the Papermill. The Paper Mill was owned by Annandale’s who lived up at Snow’s Green.

I remember taking Billy up to the infants and him crying. That was at Benfieldside School at Highgateon the road to Blackhill and Consett. I left him and went back for him. It was a mile walk. There was no gas or electricity, just paraffin lamps.

The headmaster was Frank Allan and there was a teacher called Lubbock who was a bit of an amateur photographer. He took a photograph of Billy and me in 1903 or thereabouts. We wore these wide brimmed straw hats against the sun and I was carrying a cane and jam jar. We were off to fish for tiddlers in the Derwent by the Papermill.

Talk about winters. It went on for weeks, nothing like now.

The Spa was down by the river. It was noted for its waters, which came out of the rocks, by the swings; it was icy cold.

Every year there was a fair. There was a Toll Gate. You paid once and there were swings attached to these huge trees with heavy steel bars and hooks and roundabouts and a Flower Show. Carriages carrying twenty people would come in from Newcastle. I won First Prize for a handwriting competition and for my drawings. I remember going down to see the fire they lit to celebrate the Relief of Mafeking. The Spa was stopped eventually by a Quaker family who owned the land.

(August 1911, the Spa Fair still running, a Char-a-banc coming down from Blackhill to Shotley Bridge Spa grounds crashed. Date 26th August 1911. Those killed who belonged to the Consett Co-Operative Choir included John Joseph Person and Henrietta (Ettie) Stokoe age 31, the fiancée of John Joseph.)

There was Tatty Walton’s the Grocer’s and Addison’s the Newsagents. The pubs were the ‘Kings Head’ and ‘The Commercial’.

Canon Ross Lewin looked after the Church.

I noticed in the Homemaker section of the Journal a house for sale by the riverside for £330,000 with 12 stables and lodges and fishing rights. That was Louis Priestman’s House. There were three brothers, one of them lived up at Snow’s Green. There was a horse-trough where horses water on the way up from Newcastle.

In 1912, Uncle Billy Steel from Penrith took me to see Gustav Hemel doing a flying exhibition at Carlisle Racecourse. He paid half a crown. I remember him arriving in a chain-driven red two-seater Mercedes sports car. He put his flying gear on then did one circle and down. He flew the Channel – miraculous. The changes that have taken place.They thought he was a spy for the Germans. He was eventually lost over the North Sea.


One day my father comes up to me and says. “Mr Murray wants to see you up at the house at Six O’clock. There’s a vacancy in the office.” This was in May 1910. I was not 14 so I couldn’t leave school. I went up to the house. J.G. had me writing and one thing and another. He asked what class I was in.

“Standard Seven” I say, which was about as far as you could get.

“You’ll learn a lot more in the office.” He says.

I started work at the North Eastern Breweries in August 1910. I was fourteen years of age.  I was on Five Shillings per week and got an annual increment of Half a Crown. I was advised to take lessons in shorthand at Johnnie Nixon’s. He was a councillor at Shotley Bridge who taught Pitman’s. It cost a shilling a lesson. I only used the shorthand once or twice. I remember when I was down at Stockton George Lindsay was away on holiday and this urgent letter arrived for J.G. Some matter about a farmer’s land J.G. says, Take this down.” So I reeled it off, typed it up and he signed it.

We walked two miles to work, there were no buses. Bill Baron, who was the cashier lived down in Shotley Bridge, which was further away still. We lived up on the top, Bill used to go up to Shotley Bridge for his lunch.

It was a huge stone built hotel with five massive windows. The Royal Hotel’s still there. It was built for business; it’s all finished now. There was a station near by and next door the mart for all the Black Hill farmers round about Lanchester. There was a huge yard. The station took all the deliveries for the Paper Mill and Flour Mill in Shotley Bridge.

There were six in the office above the bar and taproom. J. G. had a private office across the passageway. I was the office boy. Joe Trones was on the sales ledger; Bill Barron was the principal ledger clerk (tenants, free trade). Tommy Morland was the cashier (bank cash book) and Ernie Caldwell, the estate agent and local brewery area manager. Mr Gardiner was the General Manager of the branch and stores.

Bill and I used to sneak next door to play bollards on the quite at lunchtime: we’d sneak the side door. We were doing ‘doing the columns’. We got to know Tom Brown who lived behind the Royal Hotel.

Ernie Caldwell used to count all the coins, it was all gold then. He had this desk next to a massive iron safe. When the figures didn’t add up he’d put it down to petty cash. When they came to move the safe they found all these coins stuck down the back.

Ernie Caldwell came to me one day. “John, I’ll show you how to work a pub stock out.” And he put this pub stock sheet in front of me.

One of my jobs was to take all the coins down to the bank. With it being the brewing trade a lot of them got sticky. I remember once the bank manger got fed up with getting sticky fingers and handed me the bag and told me to go and wash them. So from then on before I went to the bank I’d take the coins into the lavatory and wash them in the sink.

There were three joiners and two horse keepers for the twelve Cleveland Dray Horses. The pop factory was run by Tommy Blackburn.  There were six bottling girls and a bottler we called The Dummy.’ They bottled Bass, Guinness, Wheatley Hops and our own beers. Crossley Gas Engines ran the machines – there was no electricity. That factory was sold to the Venture Bus Company, now the Northern.

All the letters were hand written with copying ink. You put an oil sheet in; you damped the blotting paper, put your letter in and squeezed it to make a copy – that was before the typewriter. The cellars held two gallon jars of gin and Irish etc.: The cellarman had an office which had a speaking tube running up to the first floor; you had to whistle down it to get your attention. Wagons would come^983-age 66 in by these big double doors round the side. There were steps down in the cellars There was also a theatre. In those days there was nothing else, no cinema, just these theatres. I remember Gracie Fields was pelted with tomatoes at Stanley with the miners. The cinemas helped to black the music hall artists out.

J.G. used to build a theatre and a pub together. He had the Three Masons Arms’ and the ‘Globe’. The manager of the Globe would ring his beer order down and I’d run down to the phone in the corridor to take it down. I was just a boy and the man, a Cockney, asks for ‘‘Three barrels of oil.” I went back to the office and place the order and they all laughed. “Ale” they said, ‘‘He wants three barrels of ale.’

One day J.G. had my father carry this ‘Blick’ up from the car; it was a German typewriter. J.G. showed me how to use it. Then I did all the typing. We started doing the letters with carbon copies.

Bob Ritchie was the manager of the pub downstairs. It would be packed on Mondays, but the hotel itself was never busy. I had Bob Ritchie and his wife convinced the place was haunted. There was this telephone in a box, a bit like a phone box, down the passageway from the office. You could just get in and close the door and there was a bit of a ledge to write on. Originally it was probably put in to service all these bell-pull strings coming from the various rooms, but it seems everyone had forgotten about that. There was this piece of canvas with all these strings coming from all the rooms. I’d be in there waiting around for a phone call for someone to put their order in and I’d fiddle on with these strings. Bob Ritchie’s wife was so terrified by all these bells going off for some time and I never let on. I wasn’t aware I was doing anything. It would die down then muggins would be in the box waiting for someone to make a call and it would start up again.

Pubs in those days were open from 6 ’til 11 at night until the Gretna Crash in which the driver was found to have been drunk.

Down the lane there were the stables and the joinery. They had slats of mahogany used for wood storage. They made their own furniture.

I remember the Foreman Joiner, Jack Walton, getting his arm torn off in a crusher.He was a Cockney man, he always had to be right. This corn crusher had a steel roll and you put the corn in at the top and caught it out the bottom. It was driven by a belt from the pop factory, it got choked and Paddy Rafferty went to fetch Walton. He got on an empty crate, props it up to stand on so he can take a look to see what’s blocking the crusher and the crate collapses. His arm went straight through. He was left hanging there by his arm. They had to dismantle the crusher to get him out, the muscles were all tom. They took him down to the infirmary where they amputated the arm.

Bill Baron and I used to sneak next door to the Hotel to play billiards on the quiet from the branch office. There were two tables. We’d slide in and keep the door from the office locked. We’d sneak back as if we’d come back from the telephone. We got to know Tom Brown who worked for the Consett Iron Works. He used to play billiards when it was open.

There was also a spirit store and bottling factory.

Bill had a brother who was a good footballer. A couple of years older than Bill. Just before the War he got a message to say his brother had been killed in a fall of stone in the mine at Busty Pit, Medomsley. He was broken hearted. In those days all the mines were going: Hunter, Busty and Derwent interlinked with their own railway with iron ore from Spain.

Tom Young was in my class; he went into the steel works as a clerk, the Consett Iron Company. And a girl, and one called Ripley, who made a fortune, he was a foreman at the works.


There were no wireless or crystal sets, you just read what was in the paper. It only cost a penny. A crystal set had a bit of shiny coal with a coil and earphones. There was a cat’s whisker in a holder with a variometer.

We learnt about the ‘Fourteen Eighteen’ War through one of these huge posters which were put up all over the place in the summer of 1915 with Kitchener pointing his finger and saying. “Your Country Needs You.”

Ernie Caldwell and Tom Brown joined early on. They were in the Royal Garrison Artillery. Tom’s brother got his leg shot in Amsterdam early on. I bumped into Tom Brown in Passchendaele two years on.

One lunchtime Bill Baron and I went down to the medical recruiting centre. Bill and I took it all in a jovial way. “Fancy going up to the recruiting office in Consett one lunch time?” I was 19 then.

Consett was the recruiting office for the area. It wasn’t far from the office, only about a quarter mile. Up Blackhill by the bank. Bill failed the medical on account of a groin rupture. I passed and within a few weeks was called up. I got a letter at home to say report to a certain place so I had time to say cheerio. We were all issued with free tickets and took the train down to Gateshead.

They brought two girls in at the office. Ernie Caldwell, the area manager brought a girl in called Lily Amiss to assist. When I left for the army Bill Baron brought his brother’s daughter in as an office girl, Ella. There were more changes after that.

They put five bob in the kitty for me. When I got back I got about £80 bonus. I had to work for six months before collecting it. I spent it on a motorbike. It was a 41/4 B.S.A. Cost me £105. Percy, my elder brother, was a bit lame, so they wouldn’t take him. He had a crippled knee. They made him work on forestry work during the war. He was foreman of a group called Bowes-Whitfield in the forests during the war. Billy volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps. He became a bomber pilot. There were twenty odd from Consett. We had had free tickets down to Gateshead.


The medical was a disgrace – the way it was arranged in these schools. There were no cubicles or anything. You just took your clothes off and threw them on the floor and went to a doctor in the nude. People could look in the window and see you, they were wide open, there were no curtains – it was absolutely crude.

From there we put on our clothes and marched from Gateshead across the Tyne Bridge up to Fenham Barracks where we were issued with the kit. It was absolutely terrible, neither touched, nor fitted. Things hardly fit, tunics were thrown at you, you weren’t even shown how to put a puttee on. The Corporal tried to show us. It was touch and go. What a right lot we were. The boots had me crippled. They were made from great heavy raw leather. It was thick with no flexibility in them at all. The Sergeant said I’d get them changed at Shields. They gave me a pair of second hand boots and I changed the tunic. They didn’t even give you paper or string to wrap your suit up to send it home. You had to go to the canteen and buy a sheet of brown paper and some string to wrap your goods up in for 4d and send them home. You got a label to fill in and they delivered your bundle to your home for free.

We then walked from Fenham down to the Central Station. From the station we took the train down to South Shields to Mortimer Road Schools which were commandeered. We slept in one of the main halls on palliases with a single blanket. The first thing we were taught was how to put puttees on. I was given a pair of second hand boots and changed my tunic, which was too big. We slept in one of the main halls on palliases with a couple of blankets.

We used to train in the schoolyard. They had some trenches dug in a park somewhere. They used to take us up to these trenches for a bit of mimic warfare. It was absolutely ridiculous. It didn’t apply to the real thing at all. It was absolutely stupid. They’d take us up at night passing messages up from the back in a whisper, as if you were going to do that in the middle of a battle! Stupid.


We were put on parade one Saturday morning in early 1916, which was unusual and the next thing I know the officer’s running up and down the line with the Red Cap picking out people’s names.

Afterwards I asked the Sergeant what it was all about.

“What’s this?” I ask.

“You’re going to the suicide squad,” he replies. “You’re off to Grantham on Monday.”

That’s how I was transferred to the Machine Gun Corps. I had no choice in the matter. They were picking suitable looking fellows. They were copying the Germans and went around all the infantry companies looking for suitable men. It was a heavy gun.

They took about twenty from the Durham Light Infantry. 7th Division. A Geordie regiment. Billy Wrangham, George Toward, the Sergeant-Major Barwick, Tommy Collinson from Askew Road and Billy Soulsby are some of the names I remember. The rest of the company was made up from North Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumberland, Birmingham and Northumberland. Sergeant Barwick was a funny one. If he felt happy he’d would get up and have a little jig and sing song.


Grantham was a goods yard . There were no paths so you were always stepping into the mud just to reach your hut. This was the end of January or early February 1916.

It was a camp for transport and Machine Gun Companies of which there were twelve. There were mules and officers’ horses and the limbers and all the rest of the transport.

The food was ‘B.A.’

The porridge was dreadful. You’d leave it and you got the same stuff back the next morning.

Everyone was issued with these red plastic identity discs with your name and number on them. I went and found a Jeweller’s and had one made up in silver to hand around my wrist.

It read:

‘J A Wilson 13203 C of E

104 M.G.C.’


The Vicker’s Gun was marvellous if you were mechanically minded.

There were generally four stoppages: a bullish cartridge, a broken firing pin, a faulty cartridge or a damp belt. You could tell from the position of the crankshaft what was wrong. A good gunner could correct it more or less straight away. The belt jammed if it got wet. It came out of this bean hopper with the ammo. With a faulty cartridge you could adjust the spring two or three notches.

I got a few day’s leave from Granthambefore we left for France and then I didn’t get any leave whatsoever while I was out there through the Somme and Passchendaele – about two and a half years of it. It was only when I came back to join the R.F.C. that I got any leave.


We set off at midnight in March or early April 1916. There were twelve machine gun companies. There were mules and officer’s horses and the limbers and all the rest of it to transport. It took two trainloads.

We travelled down to Southampton arriving at about 4 or 5 p.m.

Then onto a troop ship, or something to take us over to Le Havre. Spent all night on the ship. They were watching out for submarines. I had a walk about on the deck. We had to wait around all day on account of enemy submarines in the Channel. I managed. We got a cup of tea and a bun. It was packed. The following afternoon we landed at Le Havreaccompanied by a destroyer. It was a beautiful hot sunny day. I remember the cobblestones. We just got out and fell asleep; we were dead-beat.

Eventually we were loaded into cattle trucks, not carriages. We crawled up to the railhead at Bethune. We passed a farm, an orchard, the thing was travelling so slow the lads would jump off and pinch apples then get back on the train.

I was in four places:

Ville Chapelle, Arras, The Somme (Caix and Peronne, then Albert, Bapaume and Combles, Peronne followed by Cambrai). We moved about there. We were gradually taking parts of the line over from the French in the south. The last bit was half a mile to Caix. These companies took a lot of moving … no railway … it all depended on how you got knocked about. It all depended you might take a week out.

And Passchendaele.


When we got to the railhead we were as near as possible to the front line at Neuve Chapelle.

When we first landed at Neuve-Chapelle, when we going into the fine there’s a bloke fastened to a cartwheel – legs and arms out in the sun. It was a punishment for something – insubordination to an officer. They were just making a mug of the lad. Showing you that you were not to be a naughty boy. He was fastened to a limber wheel.

There were notices up about these fellows who were executed for desertion.

There was no real action when I was there; no one went over. There was sporadic shelling, otherwise it was quiet. They were getting ready for the Somme do, which started on the first of July. All the guns and everything were being massed down there.

We were rookies.

The staff aren’t going to put untried soldiers into a spot that’s on fire. There was a Sap and sandbags and a machine gun and you sat and watched them. Perhaps a few shells came over – a few trench mortars, that sort of thing. They wanted to soften us up a bit.

Our first casualty was one someone got kicked in the jaw by a milking cow – it was making such a noise and this lad went over.


Our first fatality was a young officer called Spanky. He was shot through the head. In spite of all the warnings he stuck his head up and got a bullet through it.

There’s a muzzle cup on the end of the Vicker’s gun. Spanky was fiddling on with the muzzle cup in this Sap. Instead of pulling the gun down to it he got up to it – crack he got a bullet through the head.


JUNE 1916

After Neuve Chapelle we went down to Arras.

You were able to buy white wine at an estimanet . We had these billets. We got messing on with this

old car and had it running. I was billeted with the C.O. – Parker.

I was asked if I wanted to transfer to the tanks. I said no.

They were cruel you know.

There were notices up about these fellows who were executed for desertion.

They ran away, poor devils, we had one on one of our guns but luckily our C.O. didn’t report it. He would have been shot. He was an old sweat. I can see the bloke – Peake. It was gas shells or something. He got terrified and ran away during a bombardment. He was found miles behind the lines with the transport. He should have been shot. If anyone else had done that. But never mind. That was the punishment for desertion. Somebody was shot.


JULY 1916

You couldn’t move for the wounded on the Somme.


As a machine gunner you went in to hold a position once they had secured it. There’s a post up and that’s your firing line, otherwise you guessed the range. You’re blasting away, not continuous, just give it a burst. The alternative was if you saw Jerry coming at you then it was up to you to do your best.

We were warned about that at International Corner. JULY 1916

I was in this Brick Factory on the Somme at Trones Wood There was this huge crater. This is 1916. I was trying to boil some water. I was boiling it on a dead body. The smell was dreadful. A had a couple of bricks on the mud and had some wood shavings going to heat the canteen. There was a body burning! The smell… I pushed a bayonet into it …14S


There were these Communication Trenches (Somme). I want one of those German helmets, a Pickelhaube. They had them when they started the war, with a brass peak, with some leather. We collected souvenirs. I saw the spike sticking out of the side of this communications trench. I got my bayonet out and dug the earth away to get a hold of it. My fingers came away with skin and hair and all the rest of it… it was a dead German.


There was a spot called International Corner, that was up in the Poelcapelle area.

We were out on reserve at the time. We used to get a daily paper. It was in the Daily Mail that an attack by the enemy on our trenches at this spot had been frustrated – or words to that effect. ‘Enemy driven back with heavy casualties.’ It was all lies. We knew because we just happened to know what had happened.


With these trenches and dugouts the war was static; there were sentries here and there. Jerry had come over in the dark. He’d cut the barbed wire, crawled in and killed the sentry at one spot. It was fatal to have trenches running straight along, so they were zigzagged. So, Jerry got into these trenches and grabbed all these lads who were in the dugout quite unprepared. This young officer and a Sergeant were doing a bit of a round. They came along this trench and were suddenly confronted with Jerries. Before the officer could do anything he was downed and the Sergeant ran away. What would you have done? That Sergeant was shot.

I would have done the same. [He that runs away lives to fight another day.’

At his trial this Sergeant said he could do nothing about it. The officer was walking in front. He just ran back, along the trench.

I think it was a Lancashire regiment that was in there.

The report in the Daily Mail was that the Scots had gone over and more or less repaid the debt and gone over and knocked hell out of Jerry, but as far as I could gather it was just bunk to keep the moral of the troops up.

18m JANUARY 1917

That Sergeant was shot for cowardice.

The officer in charge must go up and make sure, to see you are dead and put a bullet through you. That officer lived in Stockton and worked for a firm of Foster-Brothertons at Thornaby. The incident was brought up in Parliament years later. All this came out. He should never have been shot. It was a disgrace to the British Army; he just had to do his job. Shooting people, that’s brutal. You could understand lads, I had them – they were terrified, damn you. I’m sitting here. God believe me I said my prayers many times when we were being shelled and I think he heard me.

There was a boy, 15 years old, called Connolly. He shot himself in the foot handling a German rifle. I last heard of him on the Somme.



Years after the Second World War, Norman Taylor, my brother-in-law, who lived at Ryton, bought an autobiography of Montgomery … there was a picture of Montgomery, a skinny little fellow. He was a Major with other officers in Arras. We were in Arras for a few weeks. I’m sure he was our brigade machine gun officer or director of guns, from seeing that picture at Arras in early 1916, before we moved onto the Somme – 104 Brigade, 35th Division. He got two of us reprimanded for a broken lock, damaged lock or something in the gun. The conditions were absolutely serious, almost unbearable, and still there was a lance corporal in charge of a gun he was reprimanded for a dirty lock. It was an early winter morning. You had to watch the gun that it didn’t freeze. Every so often you give it a burst. It was water cooled and covered with sandbags and one thing and another. Covering it as you did the gun would get dirt on it… he didn’t seem to allow for that this brigade machine gun officer, who I take was Montgomery. And they never came round to look at your guns or anything unless it was damned quiet or thick fog! They took good care that they weren’t seen parading around your guns. This Lance Corporal, Wannop. He was a farmer’s son from a Cumbrian regiment. He was in charge of the gun.

It would appear that during the night when they’d given the gun a try, given it a few bursts to see that it wasn’t frozen, it jammed. He couldn’t get it going. So in the dark he changed the lock. Now you have a spare lock in the case. It’s a square and a striking pin in it and its worked by a crank inside.162 You lift the cover on the gun, ease it back, pull the crankshaft back, the leaver is here. You ease the gun out and lift the lockout. So he did that, all in the dark, and transferred a new lock, tried the gun. OK. Covered it up. When it’s breaking daylight the bald lad, I’m sure it’s him, and one or two more prowling round. They came to the gun and had a chat with the corporal.

“Let me have a look at your spares.” He says.

He had a case, with spares, locks, tools … and lo and behold there’s mud and dirt, which they’d been fiddling on with in the dark. He was reprimanded for a dirty lock. Not only was he reprimanded, but so was I because I was responsible for the two guns. Captain Williams was damn well annoyed about it.

We didn’t lose any pay or anything … this Lance Corporal says.


“Jack, they can keep the stocking leg and put it where the monkey puts his nuts.”


I told him, this officer, that when it broke daylight we were going to examine it and see what the fault was and clean it. Another “B,” that wouldn’t listen … and it was him alright. He was just a weed of a man … skinny legs there, but no doubt it he was clever with the Eighth Army. It was a quagmire. Not like trenches. No communication. And you could only walk about in the dark.

JULY 1916

There was another occasion on the Somme in 1916 I went behind a hedge to run-off, make water. An officer came up to me and reprimanded me.

“There’s a latrine up the road” he says. “I’ve got a good mind to report you.”

I didn’t know there was a latrine up the road half a mile. There was a ruddy war raging there. I was behind what was left of a hedgerow. The officers were tripe, hopeless. Absolutely hopeless. No faith in them whatsoever. Absolutely hopeless. How we won that war I don’t know.I can tell you now, look you, the times that I’ve gone into that line with a gun and never got an instruction. You’d have thought you’d have been bunged in there and told what to do and what to watch …. no. It was up to yourself, either point blank or you’ve had it. It’s up to yourself, other than a set point with a gun where it’s static and the gun was just set on a line.

Bates … entire team missing. Years after at Dukers. Bottom of Westgate Road. This was when the trams were running. This tram inspector – it was Sergeant Bates. He had been told to go forward. He was badly hurt. Repatriated by the Red Cross, as so badly hurt and ended up in Newcastle. He had to sign a declaration that he’d take no further part in the war. He’d married one of the nurses who lived in Walker. There was another one, Sergeant Bushmeil from Birmingham. It was on St Andrews Street, he worked for Fife Bananas. He survived and had been demobbed. He’d tried to find me. Apparently I’d been very popular with the company. It was the top of Northumberland Street, Ridley Place, outside a Jewish tailors. I got a tap on the back.

“Hello Jack. I’ve tried my damndest to find you… I’ve asked managers in Green Market, Whitley Bay, Leadgate …I’d said I was looking for Jack Wilson.”



I’ll tell you a story about the cook, he was a rough and ready one you know, the cook… they must have given us some terrible stuff, they wouldn’t care … pork and beans gooor… Have you ever tasted horsemeat? You know its alright you could get it in the cafe in Belgium with chips. Inclined to be sweet.

This was in the Passchendaele area … they used mules to carry shells into these 18 pounders. They were a shell, you know, with the charge and shell all in one … they used to carry about ten on each side. And of course they used the mules for the limbers. Kitchen cook, pinch from anywhere … fish, couldn’t catch them, couldn’t hit them with a revolver… we tried to shoot them with a gun. Never got any. Some would throw in a Mills Bomb – a pineapple. When it started you would not have thought a worm could live. There was this part where Jerry had it well taped, in Passchendaele. It was hell of a spot trying to get past it… and the repaired it, put sleepers and all sorts down it and next thing you’d know he’d blown it to bits, but it was essential. It was part of this country lane into the line and frequently these mules were being killed with shellfire.

Our cook, he went and made the lads a good meal with luscious rump steak from these mules. We all had rump steaks one day. And then the kitchen cook … they were thieves as well, they used to steal anything for the lads, they were funny these cooks…

This was over the canal bank at Ypres.

I think the bridge and that had all been wrecked. This was an improvised bridge. They were using it to bring ammunition up in the dark. There was the bridge and we were billeted in the bank side. This train was coming up with a truckload of shells.

Our C.O. Williams, he was billeted in the bankside as well, near the bridge. Williamscame out with a torch as there’s some trouble with the engine on the bridge … so we went with him. It was partly on the bridge. There was like a barrier to prevent you falling in, it was a long drop into the canal. You had to be darned careful because it was only improvised.

Williams got his torch out and here’s this fellow jammed between the wheel of the engine and the frame. He was wedged underneath. The cook’s pal was standing on the side. He’d given the alarm shouting his head off. They were drunk. They’d this rum from some store and had been drinking. They had been walking along the railway, drunk, when this engine came along. Somehow this crank had got a hold of his clothes and dragged him up underneath.

The driver said, “Just leave it to me.”

All those trucks loaded with shells as well… he pushed that thing back, just a gentle as could be. Clever… and the cook’s body dropped out. He was still alive, but his legs were broken. And that’s the last I heard of the company cook.180


There was a jar of rum they’d pinched there, you know. His pal would probably get into trouble over it… he had shouted and raised the alarm.



Three or four days then straight in again, covered a mile … until the whole caboodle was moved. Only once on the Somme do I ever remember having a bit leave and I think it was for a day or something and it was to Amiens.181 We were on the Somme, well back … we got a good hiding. I think everyone was pretty well exhausted.

That’s the only time I ever had any leave in France, at all. When you were out of the line for a bit rest you could always bet your boots on a good Salvation Army tent, writing paper and all the rest of it. You couldn’t write letters without them being checked…. don’t know what we would have done without them.  Excellent


I remember once up at International Corner, wintry weather…. offices gave us a treat. They’d bought some frozen rabbits from Australia for a Christmas lunch. They were cooked in the open in a tin shack with a couple of iron bars and Dixie’s … just corned beef and stew and pork and beans. Beans – raw with a nasty chunk of fat in it. Warm the cans on a fire. One night we came out on a compass bearing, otherwise you could walk into Jerry’s line. Into the mud, carrying a tripod. Jack Walsh carrying the gun and a leather case with the spare … hurrying along and Jack shouts.

“I’ve lost the case with the spares in the mud”

I went back and here he is probing in the mud for the leather case.

“Come on, leave the darn thing.” I says.

We had another casualty, a Birmingham lad was in charge of that gun. The engineers would rig up a bit of a dug out on a dry spot and make a bit of shelter with corrugated sheeting. They’d been trench mortared. This Birmingham lad had been hit in the shoulder with a trench mortar fragment. They brought him to my gun. My gun had a duckboard track leading from it, other than that you were walking through the mud. I kept him there until late. Blair got him taken away. These ambulance men put him on the back.

“You’ll be going back to Blighty.” I says.

It was a fatal wound. He died.




Incidentally, at Houthulst Forest, Dick Piper and Corporal Gartenfeld(the gunner) and Jack Walsh, Lancashire Fusilier, were killed. There’d been this attack. I got there at 5 or 6 in the morning to relieve them.

“How are things?” I asked Dick.

“Pull my legs up, Jack.” He said, “Pull my legs up.”

So I put a sandbag under his legs to stop his guts spilling out. You had a bandage and a tube of iodine fixed into the tunic. Never much use. We were in and out all day.

This time I got the Military Medal. Blair, the section officer, had made a request for us to take over from Gartenfeld and Piper.  I was in at about 4.00 a.m. It was along this country lane towards Houthulst Forest, then a mile on duck tracks. The pillbox, Egypt House, was just by the Steinbeck at the end of the duckboards. This pillbox we took over was another 200-300 yards down the lane on a dogleg in the track. You could see down this path right into the forest.

We were trying to push through to Langemark Village.

We called the pillbox Columbia House. Dick Piper was dead. I left him a bit ‘til he stiffened up. I got his pay book and credentials, then I dragged him out. I covered him up with whatever I could find. Dick Piper – 45 years old. He shouldn’t have been there. He was from the Lancashire Fusiliers. Two days was the limit in there; I was in for a week.198 You only went in with two day’s rations. It was so bad, the conditions, they couldn’t get anyone out… the shelling, the conditions …199. Your rations were mainly corned beef and a few dog biscuits, and when I say dog biscuits they were dog biscuits, they were like bricks. No bread.  Your tea and sugar was tied into a corner of a sandbag, no milk. There might be two or three tins of beans and some jam. And you took your water in a two-gallon petrol can. We finished up there filtering shell hole water through handkerchief. We were in seven days’ Me and one man were sent in, not a real gunner, a man from Lancashire Fusiliers, a man called Walsh. He was an ammunition carrier.

There was a concrete floor. No beds – we just lay on the floor.

We cleared it up a bit. Pulled out the broken timber and tried to get rid of some of the water. Day one. A quiet start, then it erupted with an attack made on the forest. Day two. The attack kept going for a week. The barrel casing split so I filled it with clay. There were these twenty or so guard behind this wall by the pillbox. I had to pull the bodies away at the request of the others. We ended up filtering water through hankies for drinking. Day seven. It was pouring with rain.

I was relieved by a young section officer and two crew. It was pitch dark. This battery was on a dry spot on the right, four guns, great long barrels, beautiful. It was swampy ground; we were on these duckboards. There was an ammunition dump on the other side. We were going into the line, in the dark, single file … rifle, sandbag, can of water. You were safer in the line than being near these batteries; they didn’t half send some things over. It was changeover at dusk. There was this great big fellow. Bumped into me and dropped his ration in the mud. He cursed. Only to recognise Tom Brown. I couldn’t stop. You had to keep on the move. You couldn’t waste time going in.

“I’ll see you when you get out ” He said.

When I came out the whole battery had been blown to bits. You’ve never seen so much carnage. Jerry had got the range. That was 1917. I didn’t know what had happened.

I met Tom Brown on the corner of Wyngrove Avenue. He was a policeman. That was before the Second World War. I was with Duker’s.

“What happened to you?” I said.

They’d lost forty odd men, but he escaped.

Blair sent me to take over this gun. That was when I heard this kid in the dung heap by the stream shouting for his mother. He’d been hit or fallen in. There was a bit of an embankment When it rained it was like a river. The remnants of the Belgian army were nearby. There had been this attack to try to get this forest,. Doomed to failure from the start. Near this pillbox, after that attack … twenty or thirty wounded behind this wall. They were there all the time I was there – seven days. I couldn’t do anything for them. They were just round the corner – dying. This corporal stops me. The duckboards were blown up. He asks, “Where’s Teddy?” He had a chest like a watering can – it was frothing. He died. Within ten minutes I dug a hole and buried him. We lost the spares on the way back; that was during shelling. We followed the limbers to these round Nissen huts that had a stove. We had a meal and a clean up. We got a couple of blankets, but no mattress. Stew to eat. A few weeks later I was presented the Military Medal by Brigadier Sandilands. I’d been in the Somme the summer of 1916, the following year they started this offensive at Passchendaele hoping to get to the coast. An utter failure. Guns sticking out of the mud, shell-holes full of dead men. Another gruesome one. There were these guardsmen, eight or nine, lying in the shell-hole as though they were asleep … gas. Get a dose of that and your lungs were ruined, when the wind was in his favour … not like an ordinary shell. All you heard as a ‘blup’ and as it was heavier than air it just settled …. just take it off! There was this shell-hole, made by a Jack Johnson. You could put a house in it. A clod could kill you.


When you went in you had no paraffin or anything you had a billy can … how did you heat the water? You couldn’t make a fire. When this Jerry stuck his head in the dug-out I just pulled the gun to one side. Dolan was having forty winks. You did two hours on, two hours off. This man lifted the oil sheet and started talking away in Jerry. Dolanhad just come off duty and here’s muggins with a couple of bricks and a billy can cutting some shavings so that there was no smoke. Without hesitation I just jumped on him. I was fighting fit then mind. I got him down. Poor little devil. I gave Dolan a kick.

“Get up man?” I says.

“What’s the matter?”

“Get outside and see if there’s any more. See if we’re surrounded! I says.

That was near Noble’s Farm, not far from Poelcapelle Village. There were four pillboxes in that area. I was in an out of them all.





These pillboxes were different sizes, with nicknames. There was one down the road called the ‘Pig and Whistle’; another called ‘Columbia House’ and ‘Courage Post.’ They were oblong, about 10ft long, with a bit of a table. There were two beds made with wire netting, a bit of a dip and a step down to it. I had it all sandbagged up. The gun was here on its SOS feet. It was partly snowing at the time.

The door was covered with an oil sheet against gas. I dragged it around the pillbox ready for point blank then I went back inside. I was standing at the table when suddenly ‘Manoose’ put his head around the door and I grabbed him. We had him with us ail day. He had some tea. I patted him on the back.

I said, “La Guerra Fini.”

I can still see him and he’s only a little chap as well. They used to have those long coats on with pockets. He had a picture in here – his wife and kiddies. He showed me it and cried. Just human like anyone else. Forced to do something he didn’t want to do. He had this Mausser. He could have just pulled it out. It was fully loaded. I can see him now being marched down the duck boards to Brigade Headquarters and the next day all hell let loose. They didn’t half blast the ruddy farm in front, there was a machine gunner there, which he said there was. He said, “Mitrieuse” and pointed. “Angle “he was saying, “Blessie, Berist”221

He’d walked the wrong way in the dark. We knocked hell out of this farm. Egypt House was a tremendous pillbox despite all the bombardment. In front of it was this huge forest. Just what was left, just tree stumps. It had three compartments. We were occupying this top compartment, some infantrymen were in this one, our section officer was in that one. There was a passageway along here. So that you couldn’t shoot into those compartments. It had two doorways, one there and one there. It was facing the wood where Jerry was. There was no barbed wire. It was all shell holes and mud. Behind us was what left of an old country lane. This is the lane, which ran up to the forest where these two lads were killed and the ditch was that side of it. The lad was shouting for his mother… the lane must have ran way over to Poelcapelle village, which was half a mile away. The duckboard track ran up … it finished about quarter of a mile away … so swampy, you stepped off it… just posts. We had a run on the corner, I went to see Blair (C.O), came out, into the passageway, got to the archway out, then you more or less had to keep down to watch out for the snipers. I’d seen Blair. I was taking the usual care. I got to the first doorway from the wood. He was chancing his arm. I stood there and he hit the doorway with one of these whizz-bangs while I was standing in the middle ready to go. It almost blinded me with the bits of concrete. I waited until the smoke had cleared, then ran across and in.

One of the lads says, “Are you alright Jack?”

“Yes.” I says … but I was bleeding. It was superficial. Just scratches. I had a piece of concrete the size of a pea stuck in one of my brass buttons.


Poelcappelle, Passchendaele … this pillbox. It had a direct hit. It was completely broken, but there was another small one in front of the side facing us with a hole. It must have been an officer’s Morse-code place. Not occupied. No one wanted to be bothered with it. Concrete. Bodies. Montgomery must have given instructions to have it cleared after a visit for a gun. We had to clear it out, get the concrete and all the bits lying inside out. The smell from the bodies was dreadful; you had to put your gas mask on. We got some ropes and pulled the bodies out through this great big hole and threw them into a shell hole. There were three of them, German officers. We bunged the doorway up with sandbags and used the other side to go in and out.

I was decorated, the Military Medal. I kept the gun in action, other than the barrel casing being damaged which I plugged with some clay. It was pelting down, terrible. Off the duckboard, tracks with posts, once a rope, that got pulled down. We used to wrap out legs with sandbags right up to the knees. There were no rubber boots or anything then, it was boots and puttees. We got to this country lane with these limbers. This Corporal of the transports came and hugged me. A small company like that you all knew each other.

“Thought you were a goner.” He said. A lad from Castleside wrote a letter home to my mother. He told her that I’d been lost. We’d been put down as missing. Mother showed me the letter when I got home. I got this letter from Billy to ask why I didn’t join the RFC. I saw the C.O., Captain Williams.

“Why didn’t you join the RFC from the start?” He said.

He read Billy’s letter. Apparently before an application as a fighter pilot you must have been made a corporal. Williams immediately made me a Corporal and sent the form in. I was interviewed by the Company Sergeant Major and Brigadier Sandilands. I was sent to Cassel for an eye test. He was an American. I was taken by Company car. I was taken again to another lot of specialists before I was allowed to transfer. A couple of weeks later I was in this dugout on a railway embankment.

One night another Corporal came up.

“Jack, your papers have come through. You’re off back to England.’

I had a drink with various officers the night before I left.

That was at the end of 1917. Must have been December 16th or so. And that’s the last I saw of the line. I walked most of the way to the railhead at Bethune From there I got a troop train to Abbeville. Eventually I got back to London.




Hampstead Heath (the noise), walk along a line with an egg, these Naval Offices. ‘‘How many cigarettes do you smoke?” “Well smoke half, stop it!”

I started the R.F.C. in early 1918. I was demobilised in early 1919. I had stayed on to help demob. I returned to the brewery in February or March 1919. I had an interview there with the big boys at the Ministry. There was a queue outside of lads who’d come straight from school, young fellas with their parents waiting at the Hotel Cecil, which had been commandeered by the Air Ministry. There were five officers sitting behind this table. One of them says “Well done, good show! What part of the line are you from?” “Passchendaele, sir: I said. ‘‘Well, Corporal, your biggest problem there would be the mud ”

“You’re right Sir,” I said. ‘The mud was the biggest bogie, different entirely from the Somme.”

Then another asks, ‘Can you name the six northern counties of England?” (They were trying to catch you out.) “Yes. “I said. “Northumberland, Durham, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cumberland…” “Right, right, right… “

I stayed overnight in London at the YMCA.244 The R.F.C. medical was up at Hampstead in a big house there. It started on the ground floor. It was do or die this medical. It was either ‘Fit for Pilot’,  or if you weren’t fit as pilot, ‘Fit as Observer,’ or ‘unfit under any capacity’ – R.T.U. – return to unit. There was this elderly man sitting in the comer by an open window.

“Go into that corner.” He says.

“Plug one ear and repeat after me. Hippopotamus… repeat after me.”

“Hippopotamus.” I said.

“Plug the other ear, ” he said.

“South Africa.” He said.

There was this sound, like a blown exhaust, it was kicking up such a racket.

“South Africa.” I said.

“Just a minute.” He said to me.

And he shouted from the window.

“Take that blood thing away. You’re interrupting me!”

He said, then he came back to me.

“Not fair on you.1′ He said, “Not fair on you.”

These three naval medical men didn’t half test you. One of them said something, I think he’d found fault but the other two disagreed. Then they tested me again and it was 2 to 1 on my ticker. What it was I didn’t know. After that it was up to the top room. There was this elderly man. He looked at the report, looked me up and down and we shook hands. He wished me all the best and I went downstairs to await the result. The officer downstairs gave me a certificate. Half of them failed, some were just forward as observers.

When I got mine I saw ‘Fit as pilot.”

And I thought, ‘Lovely!’

Just one thing, there was a red rubber stamp along the bottom ‘Requires Dental Treatment.’

I had a couple of week’s leave.

The first leave I’d had after two and a half years in France.




Then I went down to Grantham. I was stopped there for a couple of weeks as there was a ‘flu epidemic in Hastings. I remember them bringing in all these rookie conscripts The Sergeant Major asked me to help out one morning when they were all being given breakfast. There must have been a hundred or so in the main marquee and twenty or more in this other tent he asked me to take responsibility for. He came in after a while.

“There’s something wrong here” he said.

I’m 20 or 30 short. Could you come through and see if there’s anyone you recognise?”

It so happened that four or five of them I found at this table had been causing trouble in my tent earlier grabbing at the food. The food was rationed out it wasn’t meant for you to grab. They were marched off to the guardhouse.248

February/March/April 1918


Then I went to Hastings. We were billeted in a big hote. The Queen’s on the main front opposite the swimming pool. Two girls from an accounting office from London came down looking for me. I went outside to speak without this cap on.


He was a right brute this C.O. He was an Army Captain. He’d lost his arm. They’d put him in charge of the hotel and I think he bore a grudge. I was marched in. He didn’t even give me a chance to open my mouth.


“Week’s C.B251. Out!”

When I tried to explain, you know, to say it was my sister or something such like, he says, “Look Corporal, if you’d been a rookie I could have understood it, but you should have known differentout!”

And here I was with these three medals and the service stripes.

My brother Billy got a week’s C.B. there for a dirty button. They were right buggers.Talk about strict. All my time in the army and I never came across anything like it compared to Cadet School at Hastings. The slightest thing and they would get you. You could hardly put your hand on a girl. We got general military training at Hastings. We used to go on the front and take the whole squadron drilling them. At these schools you were in charge of a squad. You marched them to various lectures in front of all the holidaymakers.



You got topography, sort of local map reading, and Morse Code. The R.F.C. took over the entire university and Clifton College. We learnt about engines, aeroplane construction, aerial photography, cameras the lot. We used to go down onto the university rugby field and practice swinging the engine on the aeroplanes.

“Switches off… petrol on … suck in, sir!”

It was just a slide arrangement.

Contact; sir!”

You’d rev it up and warm the engine.

Everything, ok?”

Stick to the rules and no one will caught by the propeller. We practiced artillery observation at Clifton College. There was this big hall with a gallery around and the ground was set out like French towns, with haystacks, the lot. There’d be a flash from an electric bulb and you’d look at your map. You had to find the spot and flash the co-ordinates down to your artillery in Morse Code. You could send messages, but not receive them. You had an aerial, a piece of copper wire about 20 or 30 foot long which you dropped over the side of the plane with a plumb weight attached. It couldn’t be much longer than that or you could get it caught in a tree or a building.  The artillery battery had this white Venetian blind affair, like the Navy. The idea was to spot the artillery fire and send your message on the way in. You’d look down to the ground and you’d get these messages back. There were messages like ‘Got your message’ or ‘on battery’ or ‘on target.’

We were also taught how to drop bombs. They had some terrible bombs you know, filthy things they were. There were mustard gas, and the others with special markings, which we had to learn. There was one, which was a canister full of heavy steel darts to drop over advancing troops. Bombing training meant sitting as though you were in a cockpit of an aeroplane. The ground below revolved, it was about 40 foot by 30 ft. size.

You had a map; the idea was to bomb certain targets and if you hit the target the flash showed up down below. There was this bombsight. Before you left you had to set it.

In the beginning it had been simply a matter of lining up three nails knocked into the side of the fuselage, the diagonal formed the foresight and the one behind was the backsight. When you had the two in front in line with the target you dropped your bomb, which should hit the target when the tip of the nail is lined up with the back-sight below. By 1918 we had a proper bombsight. Before you left you had to have the wind direction and force and set that, the height and speed. Then, if you kept flying in a straight line when your bomb hit the target you’d be flying directly overhead.  The Lewis gun fired through the propeller; they’d found that out from the Germans. It used a piston affair, which used a paraffin and oil mixture to fire off round between the propeller blades. With photography you had to create a mosaic. My brother Billy had photographs of all these attacks he’d made on goods yards and railways in Belgium. He also had one of a German plane going down which he’d hit. The bombers had these cameras with them, the fighters didn’t.



We had a marvellous time at Crail. You talk about a cosmopolitan crowd. They were from all walks of like: painters, journalists, lads from school, infantry and others who had been in service.

There were all these different uniforms from the Navy, the old R.F.C. matron tunics, not forgetting the M.G.C. uniforms. They were grand fellows. There must have been forty of us. Marvellous people, but I would say a bit wild. They got up to some stupid things like dancing on top of a grand piano in the officer’s mess.

They didn’t appreciate good music. There was this pianist, bit of a quiet lad, used to keep himself to himself. They picked on him. It finished up in the end that he wouldn’t play for them at all. He got permission to go into the mess with candles when everyone was shut up for the night. Occasionally we’d get permission to take a Crossley Tender. It was covered in car, which carried twelve or so. Someone could have to go and ask Tweedy the transport manager. We were all sitting at this mess table together, twelve of us, and someone would say. “Who’s going to go and ask Tweedy for a Crossley Tender?” He’d generally give us the O.K. but we had to find a driver who might refuse to take us. We used to take it up to St. Andrews. There was a restaurant there we used to go to, they knew us all. There was a Juke box, which put pennies in for a tune. This chap had a penny on a string. It made us laugh. He used to pop it in for a tune and pull it out again. He had to stop that because the owners were getting no return on it. You had this control stick between your knees in the plane, which I called a ‘joystick’ in front of the instructor. I got told off for that.

“It’s not a joystick,” he says. “It’ s a control stick.”

I did about 30 hours flying; half of it was solo. I could do quite a few tricks. I could loop the loop; roll spins and all the rest of it. I had a good instructor, Captain Dean.

These instructors were all pilots from France. They got the wind up and had been sent home. They couldn’t take any more of it. He was a real ‘B’ this Captain Dean. He used to swear and curse at you. He’d been shot down in No Man’s land and had been rescued.  The way he shouted at you on this dual control machine. If you did anything silly he’d shout.

“What the hell are you doing, you’ll kill your blood self!’ I remember one day we were on the aerodrome. There was quite a lot of action with learners until they got the idea of landing properly. There’s this learner who instead of letting the plane down to a reasonable height and gliding tried to land from a hundred feet.  “Look at the silly bugger.” The plane flattened out too soon, right in front of us. Instead of gliding in he went straight down and the plane crumpled up. If he’d been a bit higher up he’d have gone into a spin and he’d have been killed. Another morning we were sitting and having breakfast. This plane nose-dived into the ground right outside the window, it was a Bristol Fighter. The plane I was being trained to fly. There were both killed outright. A Lieutenant Munday, the instructor and a Flight Sergeant. I’ve got a picture of that. They’re both buried in Crail cemetery. There are a few of our lads there. It was unavoidable, the aeroplanes were frail. They were just wood, fabric, cellulose. We had people who’d done all the training as I had done but when it came to flying they were terrified, they’d rather go and hide than go up. I’d had fifteen hours or so going up with Captain Dean by then. This morning we’d been up and down a few times before breakfast.He climbs out of the pilot’s seat and turns to me. “You’re off on your own.” He talked to me like a father. ‘‘Twenty minutes to half an hour.’ He said. “I’ll wait for you here and then we’ll go and get some breakfast.” So I went up and flew around a bit. I had a terrible landing, bouncing up and down … in the end it was a piece of pie, easy as a wink. We did some aerial photography at Crail. I remember the first photographs I ever took of a haystack. You were supposed to imagine there was a machine gun hidden in it somewhere. I learnt how to loop the loop in Crail in 1918. You got maximum revs, full speed, nose down. When you reached maximum speed you pulled the joystick into your belly. Once you’re over the top, engine off and throttle back. You used to worry sometimes what would happen if the wings disintegrated. There was one occasion when Captain Dean had gone to Edinburgh. I went onto the aerodrome begging for a machine. I went up to this Lieutenant Stewart and said.

“Look, Captain Dean’s away and I’m at a loose end. I’d like to get up, have you a machine I can have

“Yes Governor;” he says. “You can have this one here that’s coming in. Take it after the Flight Sergeant’s checked it over and filled her up. ”

After an aeroplane’s done so many hours flying the Flight Sergeant has a record of whether it’s running well or not. On the Avro’s there was a pressure pump for the petrol, there was no carburettor on them. They were fed oil and petrol through a hollow crankshaft. The petrol went in under force through a jet. There was a pump in the cockpit and a dial with a red mark. You had to keep the dial up to the red mark to ensure that there was enough pressure.

It appears that the machine I was about to take out had an underpowered 80 HP Monosoupape engine against the more usual higher powered 180 HP Clerget.

If this other engine didn’t need pressure why on earth did the mechanics connect it up? That’s what got me over this.

“Don’t try any antics with it,” advised the Flight Sergeant. This machine’s a bit underpowered.”

I set off nose into wind. Crail village is a mile away. The aerodrome buildings were on one side and a farmhouse with a potato field on the other. I thought I’d have a trip up to St. Andrew’s. I’d just taken off, about 500 ft. up, when I notice the dial on the pressure gauge is right down.

“Blime me!” I thought.

I started pumping like mad. Up went the dial, the engine …

“Phat! Phat! Phat!”

There was no shenanigan on with it. I couldn’t turn nose into wind, I hadn’t the height, nor would I make it over the aerodrome buildings. I’d have to make for this potato field. It meant a steep dive to keep flying speed. If I’d tried a gentle glide I’d have just flopped and finished in the sea. The further I go the faster the damned thing went what with the wind behind me and the steepness of the descent. As I got closer to this potato field this brick wall comes rushing up at me.

When anything like that happened, a plane was in difficulty, the ambulance tore after you; it was there to meet me at the brick wall.I pulled the joystick back at the last moment. The plane bounced about a bit. As it came to a halt it swung round on one wing. I got out alright. There was no damage to the plane. On the wing tip of an Avro there was a cane skid. That must have saved the wing. Petrol was squirting out of the fuel pipe I’d pumped it so much. He knew he’d made a bloomer, this Flight Sergeant. He pats me on the back and says, “Well done; you’ve done very well”

“My fault.” He says. “My faultthat plane. It didn’t need pressure.’’

“How was it your fault if the mechanic’s coupled it up?’’ I said.

With that engine gravity was sufficient for it to feed from the tank. So I didn’t get my solo flight after all. I ruddy well may have been killed. I told Dean about it when he got back from Edinburgh.

He laughed. “Experience!” he said.

I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to get on with the job. If it hadn’t been for the weather I would have been finished. I would have enjoyed a dose of France.


Why did Britain go to war in 1914? (In 65 words)

Britain went to war in 1914 because a handful of belligerent political leaders in Berlin exploited the murder of the Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand to pursue Germany’s long-held desire to be a world power: their machinations, deviousness, obfuscations and at times ineptitude and delusions, led Britain’s leaders after considerable efforts at mediation, to go to war with Germany, after they had invaded neutral Belgium.

Why did Britain go to war in August 1914?


Britain was a global empire content to rule the waves and trade with her dominions and colonies, not least with the subcontinent of India. Where a choice needed to be made it was better to have Russia and France on friendly terms, especially as Germany post-Bismarck under kaiser Wilhelm II was seeking its ‘place in the sun’ – as a world power, dominant in Europe with a vast swathe of central Africa too. There was no need for the murder of archduke Franz Ferdinand to escalate however Germany, through the kaiser and Reich Chancellor pushed Austria-Hungary into what they at first hoped could remain a localised war, or at least one against Russia, or maybe against France to, but ideally not with Britain as well. Despite Germany’s lies and misjudgments, Sir Edward Grey did his utmost to bring the conflicting parties to conference: neither Austria-Hungary or Germany was having anything of it – they wanted war, Germany to resolve once and for all its fears on encirclement and Austria-Hungary to prove to all minority groups in its fragmented empire that it would stand up to anyone seeking national self-government. Britain did not have a cabinet agreement to enter the war until after Germany had invaded Belgium, however close talks and agreements were with both France and Germany. Nor in the British Expeditionary Force did it have a continental army – though it could and did very quickly draw from the dominions and colonies, as well as from volunteers.


Britain went to war, reluctantly, in 1914 in response, once all efforts at mediation had failed, to the belligerent machinations of specific people in the Berlin leadership who exploited the murder of the Austro-Hungarian heir, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, no matter the risk of turning a local conflict into a world war, to challenge the status quo and so earn through conquest a position as a World Power.

Britain was reluctant, as were France and Russia, even Serbia to an armed conflict. Britain, expected or at least hoped to play a neutral role by Germany, through its Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey and guided by the cabinet of a coalition Government of Conservatives and Liberals, did its utmost to mediate, through proposals for conferences and through direct and indirect diplomatic channels, in particular through briefing the German Ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowsky. Such efforts at mediation were delayed, ignored, obfuscated and stonewalled by the likes or the Reich’s Chancellor Bethman Hollweg, and Jagow, spurred on by the albeit oscillating and sentimental diplomatically inept German monarch, kaiser Wilhelm II. Documents identified for the purposes of explaining the actions, decisions and feelings of the participants in the lead up to what became a world war by Immanuel Giess in 1965 and Annika Mombauer some fifty years later, clearly show that Germany was inclined to try its hand, an apt metaphor that indicates the gamble they took, to escape the impasse, let alone the containment or encirclement which certain German leaders felt was keeping Germany back from its rightful place on the world stage.

Understanding why Britain went to war in 1914 necessitates understanding why Germany left Britain with little choice – the Cuckoo in the European nest wanted to dictate to all on the continent and would have happily left England on the other side of the Channel. There are three parts to this understanding: Germany’s rapid rise and maturity as an industrial nation contrasting with an immaturity or at best a splenetic political form of government; the position, character and demands of a handful of German leaders who dreamt of, planned and then willed continental if not world war and the efforts, and the ramifications of the ultimatum presented to Serbia by Austria-Hungary at Germany’s behest which led to diplomatic and Diplomatic efforts by Britain to prevent the localised war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia that would lead, the politicians knew, to a far wider conflagration.


Britain went to war, reluctantly, in 1914 in response, once all efforts at mediation had failed, to the belligerent machinations of specific people in the Berlin leadership who exploited the murder of the Austro-Hungarian heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand, no matter the risk of turning a local conflict into a world war, to challenge the status quo and so earn through conquest a position as a World Power.

Britain was reluctant, as were France and Russia, even Serbia to take part in an armed conflict. Britain, expected or at least hoped to play a neutral role by Germany, through its Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey and guided by the cabinet of a coalition Government of Conservatives and Liberals, did its utmost to mediate, through proposals for conferences and through direct and indirect diplomatic channels, in particular through briefing the German Ambassador in London, Prince Lichnowsky. Such efforts at mediation were delayed, ignored, obfuscated and stonewalled by the likes or the Reich’s Chancellor Bethman Hollweg, and  Jagow, spurred on by the albeit oscillating and sentimental diplomatically inept German monarch, kaiser Wilhelm II. Documents identified for the purposes of explaining the actions, decisions and feelings of the participants in the lead up to what became a world war by Immanuel Giess in 1965 and Annika Mombauer some fifty years later, clearly show that Germany was inclined to try its hand, an apt metaphor that indicates the gamble they took, to escape the impasse, let alone the containment or encirclement which certain German leaders felt was keeping Germany back from its rightful position on the world stage.

Understanding why Britain went to war in 1914 necessitates understanding why Germany left Britain with little choice – this Cuckoo in the European nest wanted to dictate to all on the continent and would have happily left England on the other side of the Channel. Britain had historically always acted against a single power dominating continental Europe so a pressure point, if not conflict formed as Wilhelmine Weltpolitik moved from being an idea to a modus operandi.

There are three parts to this understanding: Germany’s rapid rise and maturity as an industrial nation contrasting with an immaturity or at best a splenetic political form of government; the position, character and demands of a handful of German leaders who dreamt of, planned and then willed continental if not world war and the efforts, and the ramifications of the ultimatum presented to Serbia by Austria-Hungary at Germany’s behest which led to considerable diplomatic and Diplomatic efforts by Britain to prevent the localised war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia that would lead, the politicians knew, to a far wider conflagration.

Germany, in contrast to its agrarian neighbours Austria-Hungary and France, was an industrial force with a rapidly expanding population; its leadership felt it needed room to grow into. Unified under the Prussian Bismark only 40 years earlier, by the turn of the century, as Hans Deltbruck put it in November 1899, ‘we want to be a world power’ which achieved ‘with England means peace; against England means – through war’. Britain, in this respect went to war because Germany dared to try aggression to achieve its aims once bungled efforts to secure Britain’s neutrality in 1924 failed.

Kaiser Wilhelm II felt Germany deserved and required the status of a Great Power too. Although a constitutional monarchy, like Britain, in Germany the kaiser wielded power with few checks. In the case of the kaiser this was unfortunate as this wilful man wished upon himself the role of a great Prince of Peace and a great warlord. (Geiss, 1965). His oscillations between the two could be tipped in favour of war as the Reich Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg managed, for example not allowing the kaiser to apply the brakes in the final moments before the outbreak of war. () Whilst according to Michael Freund, Franz Fisher’s made Bethman Hollweg out as being like Hitler is somewhat extreme, it is nonetheless the case that it was The Reich Chancellor’s will and actions, in his own words the ‘house of cards’ that he constructed, that built a position against which Britain had to act, in the final analysis when Germany breached Belgium neutrality, though it was to support France that Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Minister, with the agreement of a split Conservative/Liberal Cabinet, presented Britain’s ultimatum to Germany. Bethmann Hollweg did not act alone, the machinations of both Jagow and Moltke significantly drove Germany’s aims to force Austria-Hungary into a local war with Serbia, even though, indeed because, this would bring Russia into the fray and in turn initiate the Schlieffen plan that required the massive and equipped German army to attack France through Belgium. Such behaviour had been in the air since the end of the previous century () and on the cards since 1907 (). It was born out of Germany’s fear of encirclement and of Russia’s burgeoning might (). Fears felt by those in power in a Reich that lacked any constitutional provision for formal deliberation of such problems and now devoid of Bismarkian ‘Realpolitik’ (), the ‘politics of sentiment’ () the way the kaiser’s rule is described. Lichnowsky described to Bethmann Hollweg Jagow’s ‘misguided’ belief that Russia would stay out of the war for a few years yet – but it was lack of guidance, or the ability or means to listen to and act on advice that allowed a handful of people in Germany’s Ministry’s to believe the outcome of their actions and the subsequent war would be an mighty Germany at the centre of Europe and of Africa.

The Sarajevo Crisis brought about by the murder of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire should have no more brought Britain into armed conflict in continental Europe than the First and Second Balkan Wars. () Here, at the edge of Europe, with the desire for national self-determination being achieved at a cost to the Ottoman Empire () the very same movement threatened Austria-Hungary, itself ruled by a monarchy that clung to its dynasty with its threadbare grasp on its multivarious peoples and allied to the second most conservative nation after Czarist Russia, namely Germany. The murders of FF and SC gave Moltke the ‘slogan for a great war’: the excuse to flex considerable muscle. Britain, with the Foreign Minister Grey pivotal, could not have known or believed how duplicitous Germany could be, though expert insight and analysis had been and would be provided by Sir Eyre Crowe: Germany had ambitions and the means for aggrandisement both in Europe and Africa. ‘Either Germany is definitely aiming at a general political hegemony and maritime ascendancy’, Crowe advised in 1907, ‘threatening the independence of her neighbours and ultimately the existence of England, or … is seeking to promote her foreign commerce, spread the benefits of German culture’. Here Crowe elucidates the dichotomy that was this fledgling cuckoo at the beginning of the 20th century: on the one hand a 20th century commercial and cultural powerhouse on the other a 19th even an 18th poltical entity where the likes of Bethmann Hollweg, according to Erdman () could dream up an ‘eighteenth century cabinet war’. Repeatedly Grey took the initiative to see if the issues could be resolved, the most important proposal on 26th July for a four power conference in London between those countries which were not directly involved: England, France, Italy and Germany (g93,94). Germany refused thinking of it as tantamount to an ‘Aeropagus before which Austria would be held’ (g90) With delay only likely to play into the hands of the mediators gp. 270 Moltke took things into his own hands and informed Lt. Colonel Biernarch the Austrian-Hungary Military attaché in Berlin to mobilise immediately.

Metaphors on the one hand help with ‘meaning making’ and are used to help explain the complex even though they evoke the bias of their authors. Even a phrase as seemingly innocuous as ‘Britain goes to war’ suggests something far less troubled, debated over and contested – war, especially on the scale and for the duration expected – requiring millions of men and many years rather than a few months to resolve, was the last thing that Britain, let alone France, Russia or even Serbia desired. In this respect Britain did not so much go to war, as have war thrust in her face with the fait accompli the German leadership, Jagow in particular, pulled off by getting Austria-Hungary to get on with what her belligerent partner wanted and open the conflict with Serbia by bombarding Belgrade. Buchanan suggested to Grey that Britain would be ‘dragged’ into war, a century later the historian Christopher Clark (2011) describes how the countries ‘sleepwalked’; reading the original documents however you see that Britain and the other leading nations made a ‘conscious decision’, Geiss’s phrase (1965) and that in Britain’s case this was to make a stand with France against an aggressive Germany that felt that duplicity rather than diplomacy, and conflict rather than conference, was the way to achieve the aims of a nation’s leadership. Britain took a reasoned, and for the times the only course of action possible, when every conceivable effort to prevent war had failed; ‘going to war’ was the consequence of failing to postpone the ‘local’ war and get the parties to mediate – an impossible task given that only Germany had the means to start, delay or avert this ‘localised’ war between Austria-Hungary and Serbia.

Britain could act, having the immediate means to do so with the Fleet and the British Expeditionary Force and having, only with German’s breach of Belgian neutrality, Cabinet support, not without resignations and abstentions, to do so.

What Grey did, by committing, was to refuse to remain neutral as Germany had hoped, and so to remove one of the cards that would cause Bethmann Hollweg’s ‘House of Cards’ to collapse (g340) – the neutrality of the British Empire. Moltke would get the ‘showdown’ he had desired, to use another metaphor that places Britain and Germany like a couple of barefist fighters in the ring, a metaphor that puts at arm’s length the reality, brutality, and totality of what the players knew would be calamitous. The usually misquoted HGWells’ phrase, ‘the war that will end all war’ – the title to a pamphlet he wrote in November 1914, expresses what all the leaders of the combatants understood – that this would be a war on a scale like none that had gone before, a risk the German leadership wanted to take, opening a Pandora’s Box () that a century later remains ajar. Although it was the invasion of aliens that HGWells wrote about in his fiction, several other authors had written about a fictional invasion of Britain by Germany, something that initially the Cabinet and British Military leadership planned for and what was seen as an eventuality should Germany have been successful at conquering France and Russia on the continent. In its position as the dominant and established World Power, it was the British Empire that felt it had to meet the obligation to support France, not leadt because consideration had been given to alternative outcomes: France and Russia defeating Germany leaving the defensive alliance in tatters and other parts of the British Empire vulnerable. Ultimately Britain alone did not ‘go to war’, but rather the British Empire, with Kitchener as its military leader, a stalwart of successful colonial rule in India and of battles in Sudan and Southern Africa, with dominion and colonial forces to call upon, blocked Germany’s way to Paris. Having paved the way for seeking common ground on fireign policy in 1904 gp. 274 Paul Cambon now asked Grey to reconsider their correspondence in 1912 (g148) and Poincare attempted to make it clear to Bertie that only an unequivocal of England’s support could save the peace.

With Britain’s own issue of internal national self-determination to manage, the question of Irish Home Rule and the Protestant counties of the north, postponed and with parliament’s and the cabinet’s support to do so, Germany was presented with the British ultimatum, ironically after all the prevarications of this issue when it came to Austria-Hungary and Serbia, with a short timescale – not that there could possibly have been any further reason to hope for or expect mediation.

Britain had not declared her position too late, rather she had, in hindsight naively, left the door open for as long as possible for mediation – the extent to which German leaders, Bethmann Hollweg and Jagow purposely lied about Germany’s role and actions in relation to chivying Austro-Hungary into war with Serbia and deliberately stymied British efforts to bring the Powers to conference has only subsequently been fully realised (). Though the evidence was lacking, advice and insights from the likes of Buchanan, Rumbold, Nicholson and Crowe from Britain, as well as from Poincare and Sazanov from France and Russia respectively, must have come close to confirming Grey’s fears regarding Germany’s desire to be and to prove that it was a World Power.

The theatre of war in which the male audience do the dying

Weird ways to learn

Bit by bit I am consuming the hefty 2013 tome – ‘The Origins of the First World War: Diplomatic and military documents. Edited and translated by Annika Mombauer.

This is while away from home on a ‘reading week’ – ehem, impromptu exploitation of amazing snow conditions in the French Alps. From 9h30 to 17h00 I ski – guided by the Ski Club of Great Britian. Shattered and exhilerated and needing nothing more to eat after food ‘on the piste’ I start to read.

Old School, appropriate for a hardback book, I mark passages with a Postit; when these run out – I came with 16 or so in the book, I stop, take out a pack of Rolledex cards and write these up. The book comprises an introduction, then a set of documents, in chronological order, leading to the various declarations of war. Reading the infamous notes that Kaiser Wilhelm II left on the despatches he received is revealing, as are the multitude of exchanges between the Foreign Ministers of the key players: Austria-Hungary, Serbia, Russia, Great Britain and France and their respective ambassadors, and national leaders: Prime Ministers, Presidents, Kaisers and Tzars. My interest is our Foreign Minister Sir Edward Grey, the cabinet and his plenapetentiaries, and his direct dealings with key ambassadors. These documents cut through and explain or reveal the obfuscation and spin that started in 1914 and continued for many decades afterwards.

A ‘country’ cannot be blamed – a geographical space is inanimate and its people too disenfranchised and indifferent; we can however blame specific people for aggitating for war and then failing to prevent its outbreak – where I adopt this approach I mean in each case one, two or a handful of people in that country who held, managed or influenced the decision making and therefore had a lot or a modicum of power. Britain was a cabinet with Grey the key player; France was an array of people in the Foreign Ministry and the President; Germany had to be the Kaiser and military rather than civil leaders, Austria-Hungary not the Emperor, but ministers and military, Russia the Foreign Ministes, ambassadors and military with the Tszar largely acting to please while Serbia, most democratic of all (?) was the President Pasic who at this time was distracted by election campaigning. Christopher Clark is wrong to suggest that the leaders of the six major players were ‘sleepwalkers’ : Great Britain was dragged, Russia mobilized, Serbia froze and crossed its finger, Austria-Hungary was up for it and being egged on by Germany. This is at the micro-level: telegrams and conversations. At the macro-level Imperialism in its differing manifestations and geographical locations is collapsing (Ottoman Empire in the Balkans and beyond into the Middle East), the British Empire as an established, civil-service and military managed Goliath with a constitutional monarch and influential cabinet, while France and the USA (not yet featuring in the world affairs of 1914) were still in the business of acquistion – Germany also, but with billigerant military leaders and a kaiser who held power who was determined that he should be front of stage in world affairs whether as a great peacemaker or a great warlord. At the macro-level the equally powerful force of nacent nationhood inside or at the edges of these empires is causing multiple fractures under techtonic plates that are already sliding: emerging from the first and second Balkan Wars, Serbia is the catalyst by 1914 that brings in first one, then another ‘Great Power’ – Russia ostensibly to defend slav brothers, and Germany to back an ally Austria-Hungary that didn’t know which way to move for certain until given a few shoves by a couple of people in Germany.

Why did war break-out in 1914? The hawks in various camps tore at diplomacy with gusto while the doves cooed and at no time could or would the right hawks and doves meet. In this respect one of the Kaiser’s marginalia was tellingly accurate when he cried off any kind of conference – committees play into the hands of the most timid. The conferences proposed by Sir Edward Grey may well have prevented war, or delayed and localised the conflict. But for how long? And should such speculation be used in any historical arguement anyway?

We can narrow it down: had Wilhelm II been of firmer and more consitent mind rather than tipping from war to peace his words would have left Austria-Hungary to deal with events on its troubled borders. It wasn’t for Grey to either keep his hand close to his chest visave acting with France and Russia or declaring it – an absolute commitment to act would have goaded a paranoid and largelly prepared Germany sooner while neutrality far from pasifying Germany would have told them that the field was theirs. Grey was caught between a rock and a hard place and in the privileged position of sitting at the top of the decision making tree in an established, stable and still sucessfully expanding empire.

I fall asleep at 18h30 and wake two or three hours later my dreamworld infested by these characters, these players in a Shakespearesn tragedy that instead of seeing the blood on the stage, decimates and maims a sizeable part of the audience that like the Globe on a summer’s evening is made up of people not from six countries, but from 36. The bloodbath is in the yard not in the gallery.


Who wants to commemorate the First World War?

We should use the ‘connectedness’ of Web 2.0 to buddy up with six other people each from, for example, Germany, Russia, France, Serbia, Turkey, South Africa, Newfoundland, Belgium, Australia, Portugal, Japan, Italy … and more, to take in the 37 countries that threw their people at the artillery, machine gun fire, gas and barbed wire between 1914 and 1918 and then reflect on whether we are doing enough in 2014 to prevent violent conflict on any scale, anywhere. But we should not dictate, or tut tut if the response in Germany is different to ours. This has been the problem of the 20th century in families as in politics – expecting everyone to be like you, instead of recognising that we are each so different it makes me feel lonely to think about it.


Join me by making the commemoration ‘for the people, by the people’ – commemorate an ancestor or pick a name from a war memorial or from the records, and research their story. Post your content online then generate a Quick Response code and wear this. When people ask what it is say who you want to remember and how they can find out more … and even do the same themselves.

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