On the anniversary of the Battle of Fromelles, a guest Blog by Anna Maguire talks about the the particular experience of William Barry, an Australian Prisoner of War during the Somme.
Anna Maguire is an AHRC funded doctoral student at King’s College London and Imperial War Museums, as part of the Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships programme. Her research on colonial encounters during the First World War looks at how the interactions of troops from the colonies, particularly New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies, with other people and places were represented in letters, diaries, memoirs and photographs. Her focus on encounters has allowed the collections of IWM to be read in a different frame, to better understand the colonial experience of the First World War.
In the summer of 1916, as the battle of the Somme raged on, subsidiary attacks were planned by the British Army to exploit German defensive weaknesses and consolidate progress made. One such attack was at Fromelles on 19 and 20 July 1916, where the 5th Australian Division of the Australian Imperial Force fought alongside the 61st (2nd South Midland) Division in XI Corps. Among the Australian men was William Barry. Suffering from a bad wound in his leg, Barry was captured and taken prisoner by the Germans.
Barry suffered greatly in the various prisoner of war camps where he was held. His false teeth were taken by his captors, and eventually his leg had to be amputated because of the severity of his injury. Yet along with the shared hardships the prisoner of war camps were a place for encounter and interaction for the men brought together in captivity. Barry encountered troops from across the British and Imperial Forces. Alongside other Australians and some Irish prisoners was a Hindu called Madan Akhan, known as ‘Rajah’, who had been captured in 1914. He shared stories of how the Germans had attempted to get other Indian prisoners to turn against the British. Barry also befriended a man from Sri Lanka who had travelled to Britain to enlist:
“While at this place I palled up with a lad by the name of Ronald Ondatji, a native from Ceylon. He and other young fellows had paid their passage to England and joined a Tommy Regiment, as there were no native troops sent from Ceylon. He was a well educated lad and was a prefect in the Holy Trinity College at Kandy and above all a great sport and a cricketer, having played against the M. A. Nobles Australian Eleven, during the English tour.”
Making links with other men brought together under the banner of the British Empire at war was an unanticipated consequence of the prisoner of war camps: what were their backgrounds and experiences of colonialism? After a year and a half in captivity, Barry was released as part of the prisoner of war exchange programme and travelled back to the United Kingdom, from where he would embark on the journey home to Australia.
A ‘composite copy’ of William Barry’s vivid war diaries is held at IWM London. Alongside his prisoner of war experience are accounts of swimming with Jamaican men in the Suez Canal in 1915 and having tea with Princess Beatrice at Windsor Castle in February 1918. While his extraordinary tales of adventure seem, on the surface, full of the charms of interactions between different colonial groups, understanding the challenging wartime and imperial contexts in which these encounters occurred is central. Recovering colonial experience of the First World War by reading diaries like William Barry’s is an essential activity for remembering and grasping the extent of this global and transnational conflict.
For more information on the AHRC Funded WW1 Engagement Centres please check the website.
This year marks the centenary of the introduction of a piece of wartime legislation that had significant ramifications for the war and the British public: compulsory military service.
The Military Service Acts of 1916 were particularly contentious not only because they brought an end to the British voluntarist tradition but because they offered the possibility for those with a conscientious objection to the war to refuse military service. These so-called ‘Conscientious Objectors’ (COs) were often the victims of public antagonism, and their relative prominence in society refocused the way that the anti-war movement was represented both by outsiders and themselves.
Before conscription, opposition to the war was framed very much as something specific to women. Indeed, anti-war publications often suggested that working for peace through opposition to the war was a task that was not only specifically suited to women but was the duty and responsibility of women. This type of argument was often underpinned by an understanding of women as naturally pacifistic, loving and nurturing which was primarily linked to their ability to become mothers. However in the aftermath of conscription the identification of peace as a feminine issue ended and instead male COs are framed as the leaders of the movement against war. The stance taken by COs was positioned as part of a specifically English struggle for liberty and freedom of conscience.
Moreover, the representation of objectors had to respond to substantial and widespread criticism and ridicule in a way that was not necessarily true for that of anti-war women. The intensity of this derision, which often specifically targeted the masculinity of COs, and the subsequent response of the anti-war movement to this, highlight the contemporary assumption that peace and opposition to war were not the preserve of men. In order to counter attacks on their masculinity, COs and their supporters frequently mirrored many of the qualities that were associated with the volunteer soldier who, during the war, was considered to be the pinnacle of masculinity. Sacrifice, duty, and patriotism all became significant themes in the representation of COs and demonstrate how particular wartime masculine qualities directly impacted upon the self-representation of the anti-war movement.
Accordingly, the introduction of conscription can be seen as having great significance not only due to its break with English tradition and impact of the waging of war itself but also because of its considerable implications for those who opposed the war. By examining the way that representations of the anti-war movement changed during the war, we can thus see how particular developments directly impact on those who opposed the war.
For more information about the AHRC’s WW1 Engagement Centres, please visit the website.
During 2016, the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme is being commemorated. The First World War Centenary partnership, of which AHRC is a member, is remembering the lives of those who lived, fought and died in WW1. Co-ordinated by the IWM (Imperial War Museum), events and activities are published, and many of these are also featured on the AHRC Website.
During July additional Blog posts will be featured by Collaborative Doctoral Awards (CDA) Students from the IWM, who have been funded via the AHRC.
Those from outside Wales who are interested in the history of the First World War and its aftermath may be surprised to discover how one relatively minor battle on the Western Front has such resonance in certain Welsh circles. The Battle of Mametz Wood, fought from 7 to 12 July 1916, was part of the early Somme campaign. The losses, of around four thousand killed and wounded on the British side, though heart-rending are much smaller that the numbers lost on just the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Translation of text:
For the Honour and Glory of God and in sacred memory of Lieut. H. K. Brock BA. Neuf Berquin Pte. J. I. B. Brock Ypres Pte. W. H. Hughes Poperinghe Pte. D. Jones Ypres Pte. O. Jones Gaza Pte. T. Jones Ypres Lc. Cpl. E. Lloyd Morris Givenchy Pte. J. Owen Warnemunde Pte. Elias Pritchard Bailleul Pte. H. R. Williams Mametz Wood Cpl. L. J. Williams Ypres Boys of this church who fell in the War 1914-1918. “For Freedom they lost their blood”
Its significance for Wales is that this was the first battle fought by the troops of the 38th (Welsh) Division, also known with some justification as ‘Lloyd George’s Army’. These were the men who volunteered in droves to be part of the ‘Welsh Army Corps’ that Lloyd George and his acolytes sought to raise from September 1914 onwards: men who were drawn by Lloyd George’s rhetoric about putting the first ‘Welsh army in the field’ since the days of Owain Glyndŵr. (See this blog – http://historyclassics.wordpress.com/2014/10/06/a-welsh-army-in-the-field-lloyd-george-and-the-queens-hall-speech-of-19-september-1914/ – for a consideration of Lloyd George’s famous speech in London’s Queen’s Hall on 19 September 1914). The ideal of the ‘Welsh Army Corps’ became the reality of the 38th (Welsh Division).
Translation of text: “Their graves are far from Wales” In affectionate memory of the brave boys of this church who sacrificed their lives on the field of blood. David Griffith Williams in “Mametz Woods” July 10th 1916. William Ballard in “Contalmaeson”, July 20th 1916. James Morgan in “Ypres”, August 5th 1917. “May they not be forgotten”
Having been trained for the most part in Wales, these recruits were posted to the Western Front in late 1915 and gained experience of trench warfare in quiet sectors for some months. Six days after the opening of the Somme offensive, this division was given the task of clearing Mametz Wood, a dense wood that had been heavily fortified by the Germans who had held it for two years, and was now defended by the elite Lehr regiment of Prussian Guards.
However, after the mission was successfully completed, as Colin Hughes wrote in his 1982 book about the battle, ‘neither glory nor distinction was noticeably bestowed’ upon the Welsh soldiers, but they were ‘bundled unceremoniously away to a quiet sector of the front’. The official response of the upper echelons is summarized in General Haig’s comments on the action on 7 July: ‘The 38th Welsh Division … had not advanced with determination to the attack’.
Translation of text: In affectionate memory of the brothers who fell in the Great European War 1914-1918 Faithful members of this church James Davies, Penstar Wounded 22 June, he died 10 July 1916 in Rouen, France, aged 22 And Robert Jones, Myrddin Cottage, who died 10 July 1916 in Mametz Woods, France, aged 22. Therefore be ye also ready
In contrast to the dismissive attitude of the Army’s High Command, the reaction in Wales was to laud the courage and tenacity of the Welsh troops. Newspapers printed letters carrying first-person accounts of the fighting within eight days of the action, describing in some detail the horrendous difficulties of fighting a well-armed and determined enemy in strongly defended positions. A ‘Soldier from Bargoed’ wrote to the Western Mail of how ‘The Welsh boys fought like very demons through a wood which was well-nigh impregnable’. In conclusion he declared ‘The whole of the Welsh boys, however, fought with great bravery and proved themselves to be splendid fighters’.
Partially, this movement to commemorate the valour of the Welsh troops at Mametz Wood was driven by the soldiers themselves. The pride in their achievements is clear in the doggerel of Sgt. Jarman (‘For the hardest task we went through that morn / That’s been done by British sons’) and Driver Davies (‘My God! What a charge we made / The observers who were behind us / Said ’twas better than being on parade’). There is an interesting report – http://cymru1914.org/en/view/newspaper/4015748/6/ART75/ – of Welsh soldiers serving in France chanting that it was the Welsh who cleared the Germans from Mametz Wood.
Further impetus to commemorate this as a Welsh battle came from the top. When Lloyd George visited Welsh recruits in August 1916 training in the enormous camp in Kinmel Park, near Rhyl, he inspired them with a speech which focused on the achievements of their brothers-in-arms.
The local newspaper [ http://cymru1914.org/en/view/newspaper/4243526/2/ART24/ ] reports that he declared: ‘The attack on Mametz Wood was one of the most difficult enterprises which ever fell to any division. It was left to the Welsh Division, and they swept the enemy out of it (cheers)’.
Indeed, there was a debate in some Welsh newspapers in the spring of 1918 – before the outcome of the War was decided – as to which encounter should be commemorated as ‘the’ Welsh battle of the War: the choice being Mametz Wood or Pilckem Ridge (31 July 1917). In the euphoria that greeted the ‘victory’ in 1918, there were numerous poems written about Welsh valour in the battlefield, many of which took Mametz Wood as their theme.
Thus it is not surprising that as interest in the First World War grew in the 1980s as the number of veterans of the conflict grew fewer, the focus on the experiences of the Welsh in this one battle became more intense. Following a campaign by the Western Front Association, a challenging and beautiful memorial was raised to the 38th Welsh Division at Mametz. Designed by sculptor/ blacksmith David Petersen, the memorial was unveiled in 1987: three documentaries were broadcast on Welsh television to accompany the event.
At a local level, the name of Mametz resonated long in various communities throughout Wales.
A ward at the Cardiff Royal Infirmary was designated the ‘Mametz Ward’. The 15th Welsh Regiment (Carmarthenshire Battalion) designated their reunion the ‘Mametz Wood dinner’. A wounded soldier in Llanrug renamed his home ‘Mametz Cottage’.
A project I am currently managing, Welsh Memorials to the Great War – http://war-memorials.swan.ac.uk/ – funded by Living Legacies 1914-18 – http://www.livinglegacies1914-18.ac.uk/ – has uncovered further examples of how the name of Mametz remained engrained within some Welsh communities. The project has collected information on well over two hundred WW1 memorials in Wales (with hundreds more to be gathered) and one interesting aspect that comes over in many of them is the geographical range that is incorporated in the local commemorations. The men who are remembered served all over the globe: a large number of Welsh soldiers who served with Canadian or Australian units are commemorated in their home villages.
Many of the memorials to those who died state where the men met their fate, although most of the time the details are non-specific, stating simply ‘France’, ‘Gallipoli’ or ‘Mesopotamia’. However, a few are more precise. There are twelve names in the memorial at Tregarth church, Caernarfonshire. The last line carved on this memorial – ‘Tros ryddid collasant eu gwaed’ [‘For Freedom they lost their blood’] comes from the Welsh National Anthem. Four died at Ypres and one at Gaza – both names that appear with tragic regularity on several more Welsh memorials. One, Pte. H R Williams, died at Mametz Wood.
Other memorials in Welsh chapels have an explicit reference to Mametz Wood. Three soldiers are commemorated in the memorial at Capel y Cwm, Pentrechwyth, Swansea: one of them was David Griffith Williams, who was killed in the battle.
The memorial in Hermon chapel, Pembrey, has two names, including Robert Jones, another who was killed at Mametz Wood.
One more chapel memorial deserves particular attention – although the only photograph I have obtained of it is rather poor. The chapel, Berea, Cricieth (Caernarfonshire) closed a few years ago after its membership fell to single figures. The significance of this place of worship is that it was Lloyd George’s family’s chapel: for many years his highly respected uncle, Richard Lloyd had been its leading light. Two brothers, Hugh and Hywel Williams, who were family friends of Lloyd George’s family, died within six weeks of one another in 1916. Both had been active in the recruiting campaign, trying to persuade young Welshmen to answer the call put out by their politician friend. Captain Hywel Williams was killed at Mametz Wood.
Dr Gethin Matthews, Dept. of History, Swansea University
At 4.30 a.m. on July 1st 1916, after a sleepless night in the trenches of the Somme, Major J.L. Jack breakfasted rather meagrely on tea, bread and butter, ‘the more solid of our mess rations having been lost during shelling on the way up the previous night’ – it doesn’t seem much to prepare the stomach or the spirit for the assault that was to follow. Traditionally, soldiers in the British army expected a heartier meal before an attack, rum and bacon being the preferred combination, although the appearance of ‘extras’ always bore with it the unappetising concern that something dangerous was on the horizon. Lieutenant W.J. White was grateful for the bacon he consumed in the his battalion HQ dug-out on the same morning, even if he did have to fry it over a candle and Lance Corporal W. Disney enjoyed the hot coffee laced with rum that found its way to his trench, despite it being flavoured with the petrol from the can in which it had been transported.
In the main, officers ate better than their men: they were less reliant on army rations because of their greater income and mobility. An officer also had the service of a batman one of whose duties was to ensure the appearance of regular meals, something that could require considerable time and effort. The sparse breakfast available to Jack on 1st July is demonstrative of the priorities of an army on active service; the movement of artillery and ammunition always took precedence and the forage for the mules and horses that hauled the material also ranked above the men’s rations.
The provisioning systems of the British army on the Western Front worked relatively successfully throughout the First World War. The static nature of the conflict allowed for the establishment of reliable supply systems which, after the Retreat from Mons in the late summer of 1914, only really broke down again during the German army’s Spring Offensives in 1918. There were always parts of the line that were less accessible to ration parties than others, the Ypres Salient for example, which meant that the overall positivity of the picture tended to conceal relatively small yet persistent supply problems at the front which were never wholly resolved.
The regular supply of the rations didn’t necessarily satisfy the soldiers, however, because the army’s main focus was on the calorific value of the food delivered and that often meant a diet of relentless monotony: bully beef and hardtack biscuit everyday. The level of c4,000 calories a day set for frontline troops is close to that used by the current British army, but there’s little similarity in the calculation of the optimum diet to provide the energy required to perform military duties.
The development of nutritional understanding over the century has resulted in a far more complex approach to feeding which recognises the digestive difficulties inherent in a high protein diet and the psychological factors associated with eating. The modern term ‘menu fatigue’ is not one that would have been recognised in the First World War, but the soldiers certainly experienced it and in their boredom, longed for the familiar foods of civilian life. The huge logistical issues of feeding hundreds of thousands of men meant that the more easily stored and transported hardtack and bully was, for the army command, always preferable to fresh bread and meat even though the latter had a far higher morale dividend.
Supplying the men on the Somme was difficult as the munitions for the hungry guns clogged the trenches. Jack’s diary recorded that ‘only snatches of food’ were available during the first few days of the fighting. Of course, battle acted as an appetite suppressant for many, but his reflections emphasised the importance of the restorative powers of food once in reserve when he wrote on July 7th ‘healthy young soldiers recover with remarkable rapidity from the most gruelling experiences when they have a good sleep and a square meal’.
 John Terraine (ed.), General Jack’s Diary: War on the Western Front 1914-1918 (London, 2003), p. 144.
 Martin Middlebrook, The First Day of the Somme (London, 1971), p. 113.