Friday, 13 July 2012

Great War separation

Family life was to be severely challenged by the Great War. With mass recruitment in the early parts of the war came the possibility of the loss of husbands, fathers, and sons. Though the Edwardian Era that preceded the war is seen as a more progressive society that that which had come before, family values were still strongly stratified, with relatively few women working, men the primary breadwinners. Despite their responsibilities, many joined in the first months of war believing in its just cause; many others would be persuaded, and still more emotionally blackmailed. Such peer pressures saw many a man join the colours without due regard to the inevitable consequences for his family if he should be killed, maimed, or otherwise incapable of work.
The Government recognised that married men of recruiting age might need financial inducement to leave their families: separation allowances for an average married private were paid at a weekly rate of 12s 6d for a wife alone, 17s 6d for a wife and one child, 21s for a wife and two children, and so on; but this took into account a compulsory ‘allotment’ of money from the soldier’s own wages – of 6d a day (half the basic shilling a day earned by privates without other enhancements). Those soldiers with other ‘dependants’, that is, ‘any person who is found as a fact to have been dependant on the soldier…to whom the soldier is bound by some natural tie…’ would also need help.  In such cases, the Government pledged to make up the amount lost to the dependant by the soldier having joined the army – after the appropriate deductions, of course. How important these factors where in influencing soldiers to join up is a moot point. For many middle class men, further enticement might be the opportunity to return to a good job with a decent employer after the war. Some employers went out of their way to support their employee recruits; not only would their positions be held open, but they would also receive other benefits such as support of the family in some way, or the periodic sending of ‘comforts’ to the frontline. For those injured by the war, and for the wives of soldiers killed in the war, there would be pensions. These would not be generous. Some 2,414,000 men were to be entitled to a war pension, the maximum they could hope to receive being twenty-five shillings a week. Not much for such staggering commitment. 

Peter Doyle's Book First World War Britain, published by Shire Publications, is out now, and is available here

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Tommy: the individualist

The British Army has a venerable history. At its heart is the regiment, and with it the distinctive ceremonials, regimental colours, mottos and mascots intended to propagate espirit de corps, marrying the British Soldier to his parent unit, thereby creating loyalty in battle. While much of the mechanics of espirit de corps is intangible, pervading the ether of regimental depots, or is unapproachable, reverential, like the colours laid up in churches and cathedrals up and down the country, there remain those small metallic reminders of centuries of proud history, regimental cap badges.
Drawing on a badge tradition that stretches back to the identifying devices of the mediaeval feudal system, and springing from a long line of eighteenth and nineteenth century military fashions, the cap badge represents a distillation of the military history of the regiment or corps. In the age of uniform khaki, the language of the cap badge was there to be read by recruit and civilian alike; it remains today as one of the most potent symbols of military engagement through the centuries. 

Yet soldiers are also individualists; and while the cap badge was there to show a sense of inclusion in a wider group, it was also there to be polished, bent, modified and added to. This soldier from the Royal Field Artillery, his cap fashionable moulded has done just that; his distinctive artillery gun badge has been shaped to his taste, and displays just that little bit of swagger. Let us hope he survived.

Peter Doyle has written two book on British Army Cap Badges with Chris Foster. Both are available on Amazon, for the First World War (here) or Second World War (here). Both have been critically acclaimed.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Recruiting for Kitchener’s Army

The object of this game is to recruit as many able bodies as possible from the major cities of the United Kingdom (which included the whole of Ireland at the time). In its way, the existence of this game added to the pressure on the civilian to join, chiming with another popular Parliamentary Recruiting Committee poster ‘Daddy, What did you do in the Great War?’ by Savile Lumley, in which a middle-aged man is asked this potent question by his daughter – the implication being that he had not played his part in the conflict. This game, played at home, would be a reminder to father to play his part in the conflict. Based on the principle of the traditional game of ‘snakes and ladders’, each player, having ‘signed the pledge’ would advance around the UK, picking up recruits from its major cities – the snakes in this case being a variety of defects: ‘under-development’, ‘drink’, ‘defective teeth’, and ‘smoker’s heart’. The player with the highest number of counters – recruits – wins the game. 

Peter Doyle's book cover a wide variety of aspects of the British involvement in the First World War; see his Amazon page (here).

Friday, 24 February 2012

Tommy's French

Thrown into a new country, Tommy quickly picked up enough French to get by, just as he had in India as a pre-war regular. A variety of pidgin French was soon developed, despite the efforts of the authorities to encourage proficiency. ‘Napoo’ was a particular favourite, meaning no more, finished, broken, worn out, or useless – it was derived from il n’y en a plus (there is no more). ‘No compree’ – derived from compris – which meant that there was no understanding on either side, was also common. For centuries, British soldiers serving abroad had appropriated words from the local language to fill in or supplement their own vocabulary (which, not surprisingly, was also liberally sprinkled with strong, Anglo-Saxon-derived, swear words). The languages of the Indian subcontinent provided many of the common examples, in official parlance – khaki, puttee; or in soldier speak – blighty (for home), bundook (for rifle). Adoption of pidgin French was therefore inevitable; there is evidence to suggest that some of the locals adopted this way of speaking in order to extract the most from their visitors – children asking for souvenirs ..

Numerous French language handbooks and pamphlets – even packet inserts like that provided with Black Cat cigarettes like that illustrated – were issued to temp the soldiery away from their army slang, albeit with limited success.

Peter Doyle's book Tommy's War (Crowood, available here) covers all aspects of the British soldier's life in the Great War.

Friday, 10 February 2012

The Silence

How much were the conditions at the conditions at the front discussed at home? In the postwar discourse of disenchantment; in the great outpouring of literary books by Sassoon, Blunden, Graves and a host of others in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the 'mud, blood and rats as big as cats' was laid on with a trowel. But just how much did the average Tommy talk about his experiences, even with loved ones? And how much was left unsaid, in an attempt, perhaps, to protect families from the most difficult aspects, but also to avoid thinking about what was left behind.  This amounts to a Silence. With leave granted only rarely - perhaps just once a year for the average Tommy – it is not surprising that gaining a 'Blighty wound' was a hoped for occurrence. 

Photographs like this one, of an anonymous happy wartime family, are also silent. With the standing wife smiling for the camera, the two daughters are more pensive. The proud father, wearing his best service dress uniform is relaxed (his legs without the constraining puttees of the frontline). But his left arm tells a tale that is otherwise lost; that he was wounded twice (the two vertical 'wounding' stripes), and that he has a record of at least two-year's good conduct to his credit. How and where he gained his wounds, under what conditions the stretcher bearers struggled back with their human load, and what terrors he might have seen in the chain of hospitals are all untold. Hopefully, this photograph illustrates the end of the long journey of this soldier; but it tells all about 'The Silence'.

Peter Doyle's book about life in wartime Britain will be published next year, by Shire. Further details can be obtained here

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Tommy: from Service Dress to Battledress

During the First World War the soldier had worn a Service Dress suit of khaki serge in the field and at home. Though intended to be warm and serviceable, by the late 1930s it was deemed to be unsuitable for modern mechanised warfare, restrictive of movement during active service. Though Service Dress was worn by the BEF in France, it was to be supplanted by the uniform known as battledress. ‘Battledress’ was to define the profile of the British Soldier throughout the Second World War and well into the postwar period. It was an innovative design that was to be copied to a certain extent by both the German and American armies later in the war. Officially designated as ‘Battledress, serge’, it comprised a suit of khaki serge cut as a short jacket and voluminous high-waisted trousers. The jacket had a closed collar, but would be worn open at the collar by officers with shirt and tie. Complex to tailor, with its concealed buttons, this pattern was to be supplanted the simplified ‘1940 pattern’, which had its plastic buttons exposed on the blouse front, and other simplified features. This pattern was to be the work-a-day dress of the British soldier in the later part of the war.

 This soldier of the Royal Army Service Corps (successor to the Army Service Corps in the Great War, named Royal for its services in that war) wears 1940 pattern battledress. He also carries insignia that demonstrate that he belonged to the British 'Liberation Army' of the 21st Army Group in the Low Countries of the Netherlands and Belgium. He wears the beret-like General Service cap that came in at the close of the war, and the chocolate-brown plastic cap badge, introduced for economy.  In all ways, he is illustrative of the new army of 1944–45, his uniform and insignia largely unrecognisable to those men liberated from POW camps across Europe.

Peter Doyle's new book British Army Cap Badges of the Second World War (Shire), written with Chris Foster, is now available from Shire (here).

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Battlefield tourism

The rise of personal visitors to the battlefields of the Great War in the post-war world is a phenomenon of mass tourism; with numerous visitors to the Ypres Salient, French Flanders and the downland of Artois and Picardy, easily accessible by steamer and road or rail from Britain. Ex-soldiers advertised their services as guides, and larger companies, such as Thomas Cook and America Express ran tours. It was not long before specialist guidebooks started to appear, those produced by the Michelin Company being most celebrated. Contemporary Ward Lock, Baedecker and Blue guides all make reference to the battlefields, with pointers of where to stay and what to see. Maps and guides to the ‘Western battlefields’ like the one illustrated proliferated; many were carried by the families of those who fell. Each one has a poignant tale, no doubt.

Peter Doyle is an author and military historian; details of some of his work can be found on his website Peter Doyle Military History.