Remembering those who fought in the Great War.

Inverclyde’s War Blog

If anyone is interested - I thought I would give you an insight into a local museum WW1 project - keep you up to date on what we are doing for Inverclyde's Great War and let you see how the First World War can take over one's life. 

29th June 2015 - Proprietorial about the Territorials

Well I have been studying Gallipoli and the story of my local territorial battalion, the 5th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders for almost three years now and it is fair to say that I think of them, as a group, and as individuals, as friends and accomplices. I now know where they worked, who their families were, how they were injured, how they died and what happened to those that survived. A group of men of whom I am very proud. Like the proud parent I will hear nothing bad said about them, however, the issue is that I actually rarely hear anything said about them. My friend Elizabeth, who introduced me to their story told me that they are the forgotten battalion of the First World War and that there may well be reasons for that. Are they?
I get all uppity when Gallipoli is talked about and the Argylls or the 52nd Lowland Division are not mentioned. The recent official programme of the Gallipoli Centenary commemoration in London on ANZAC Day - 24th April -  has a timeline of all the battles on Gallipoli but misses out those at Achi Baba Nullah on 12th July 1915. A truly shocking omission. There is plenty of coverage of the ANZACs. I start to get quite annoyed by the difference in coverage in the UK for these men and the British troops, never mind the absence of the 5th Argylls, and reproach myself for being so churlish. This has got more to do with how the press works than anything else and we could be here forever if we want to talk about "Anzacery" and how we could be mistaken for thinking that no British, French or other Colonial troops were at the Dardanelles.
Several books by reputable historians have been published recently - yep - you guessed it no mention of the Argylls and the 12th July.Yet for example the eminently quotable Major Egerton, commander of the 52nd, is oft quoted for his outrageous comments e.g. saying that he wished Churchill to die of cancer. But the reason for his outrage wasn't a general rail against the military authorities for the mess that was Gallipoli, but rather it was, in my opinion, what he thought was the direct culpability of the Commanding Officers in sending an untried, unrehearsed Division into battle for no good reason other than as "Hunter Bunter" stated  -  to blood his young pups. I then start to think that perhaps it is an anti Scottish thing but that again reeks of paranoia. People just don't know the Argylls and the 52nd were at Gallipoli. How to correct this. I have been tweeting daily what the Argylls were doing one hundred years ago - prior to their date with destiny. Plenty of feedback but little to none from say an official organisation that exists to promote the story of the campaign? I don't know anyone else who is telling the story of a British Battalion at Gallipoli in this way.
This comes to the crux of the matter. There was no official history of the 5th Argylls at Gallipoli. No private papers as far as I can see. There was almost an omerta. Did something happen that day that couldn't be talked about? After the war many officers of the Division were forced to write to the Official Division Historian, a 5th Argyll Officer, RR Thompson, to complain that the official accounts were totally wrong in many respects. Wrong in that aspersions were cast on the bravery and conduct of the 157th Brigade. Compton MacKenzie wrote “I was much struck the other day when George Blake asked me indignantly why the Fifty-second Division was sent almost straight into action after landing, without a month’s preliminary training at Gallipoli.". So why are the Argylls and the 52nd Division not household names, in particular in their home town? These men wrote letters home saying that their deeds would be remembered in their home towns of Greenock, Gourock and Port Glasgow for ever. Is it because the whole campaign was discredited and people wanted to disassociate themselves from it? Was it perhaps the idea that it was extremely difficult to justify the deaths of the young men of this battalion in such a farce of a campaign - the truth being too hard to accept? Has the fact that there is no official story of the battalion hidden their story - was this deliberate? George Blake wrote the official history of the 52nd Division in the Second World War, yet he fought with the Argylls at Gallipoli and wrote an extremely cynical and war weary novel "The Path of Glory" in which the names were changed but it was most certainly autobiographical. By all accounts he was deeply distressed by his experiences but couldn't write an official account? This isn't a conspiracy theory but something completely, soul destroyingly, despairingly, awful happened to the 5th Argylls that somehow didn't allow any survivors to write down. Were they just so disillusioned or 'scunnered' as they say. Alternatively it could be something else.
Is there still a tendency to do down all things Territorial? These boys had to put up with this prior to the war and throughout the war. Kitchener, rather than using troops who at least knew which end of a gun was which, preferred to train up complete rookies rather than use Territorials. The 5th Argylls were sent to Gallipoli alongside their fellow Territorials, and Imperial troops, thinking they "would do" against the much inferior "Johnny Turk". This was further compounded with the complete lack of preparation. As the Argylls charged forward on the 12th July, for many it would have been the first time they had fired their rifles in anger. As they gathered in Dunfermline, Egerton almost apologised to the Argylls for their lack of training, due to garrison duties, but because they looked so smart and marched well, he was sure they would do just fine! As the 52nd arrived on the Western Front, they were extremely proud of the fact that they were an all Scottish Division that had marched across the Sinai, gaining revenge for Gallipoli and arguably being considered as one of the British Army's elite Divisions. Yet it was recorded that virtually no-one knew of their exploits. I definitely feel as if I am being quite paranoid here but it makes me think! One hundred years on, on addressing a group of "regular" veterans the 5th Argyll Territorials were jokingly referred to as fighting at 'Achi Baby or something' yet it is the 5th Argylls, and they alone, who gained the battle honours for Gallipoli and Palestine.
Finally there is the good old West of Scotland chestnut of religion and bigotry. In talking to school pupils I asked what was special about the 12th July? Not one said anything about "King Billy" - this is a great thing but unfortunately the teachers and helpers knew all about the 12th July. The Argylls were unfortunate to find themselves fighting and suffering over 350 casualties on that annual commemoration of the Battle of the Boyne. How can they compete with that in the fight to be remembered for deeds brave?
100 years on we will be commemorating that day, the day of standing in the glaring sun on a Gallipoli hillside, desperate for water and looking out on the fly ridden corpses of the 156th Brigade who had been destroyed that very morning, waiting for the call to charge over the parapet at 4.50 pm, with inadequate artillery bombardment, to gain a few hundred yards of ground. All as a diversion for events elsewhere. This could have waited, as reinforcements were on their way, but there seems to be a sense that it was their turn; their turn to follow the exact same pattern of other charges. To blindly follow the lead of their young officers, who knew no better than to do the gentlemanly thing, and lead their men bravely towards the enemy machine guns through shrapnel.
I feel a duty now to ensure these men aren't forgotten - to take up the fight against good old King William and indifference - for it is more likely indifference than anything deliberate. Spread the word - tell people about the boys of Greenock, Gourock and Port Glasgow who fought in the first place for their family, friends, colleagues and their home towns. Remind people that the 5th Argylls were indeed at Gallipoli. Remember the 12th July.

9th January 2015

Our plans for 2015. Top of the list is the publication of our Inverclyde's Great War book - which will be a recap of our 2014 Exhibition including the material loaned to us for the show by relatives of Inverclyde's servicemen. The book will also have the updated list of Inverclyde WW1 casualties which we have been working on for the last two years. We will carry on filling in these details on our website. We are currently trying to master the intricacies of PagePlus grin

We will be remembering those many Inverclyde Men who served in Gallipoli in 1915 with the 5th Argylls, Royal Naval Division, Lowland Field Ambulance and other battalions. We will do this by producing a play in July telling the story of the "Gallant 5th". We will also be placing a blue plaque on the site of the 5th Argyll's Drill Hall on Finnart St and hopefully there will be publication telling their war story through contemporary sources. Another publication is planned but this is in the early stages so far - we are very excited about this and will reveal more details as we go along.

So - it will be a busy time. This will be a very special year of remembrance for our Local Territorials - brave men and boys whose memory, shamefully, has faded somewhat. Let us reclaim the 12th July!

13th December 2014

The football truce and selling chocolate.

The football truce – the indescribable brutality and horror of war as seen through the prism of sentimentality? A tiny event in the massive history of the war but is the hook which has achieved a massive audience that wouldn’t normally engage? Football as the opium of the masses? It does seem that if you are not interested in football today there is something wrong with you. It is the hook which occupies countless millions and dominates the daily life of the majority - or so it would seem. It is a topic which attracts sponsors and therefore the money. Combine it with chocolate and charity - a winner.

The fact is that the same issues were raised 100 years ago. It seemed abhorrent to some local letter writers that life continued as normal as men died abroad - football games continued to be played by professional clubs at home and the "Slackers" could enjoy themselves while others suffered. It seemed to be the ultimate insult and affront to their memories and effort. Yet football was indeed dominant. It dominated the conversations among those ordinary men at the Front and helped sell millions of newspapers. It was the ultimate diversion. Greenock Morton would send out footballs to the troops and local newspapers would have letters from soldiers asking for a football to be posted out. Battalion football teams would play for the honour of their regiment and home town. One Greenock soldier was evacuated from Gallipoli having broken his leg playing football! What do you think he said when he came home? Football was a working class sport. It was something that the working class could engage fully with and it wasn't the rugby union or cricket enjoyed by the middle and upper classes. Strangely enough - this is exactly the same discussion being had today - how football has moved away or become unaffordable for the working classes. History repeats itself etc..

Would it have spoiled the advert if it finished with the probable reality? A trench mortar exploding and killing/maiming half of the participants? A futile charge over no-man’s land through barbed wire? Too cynical?

The one constant in talking to families is that the men who came through this never ever talked about their experiences. It’s the code of the soldier – you didn’t talk about it to those who had never experienced it. This was for the company of fellow soldiers, or, for the erudite, a written memoir/ diary of experiences, or for the final years of your life. Those who hadn’t experienced it couldn’t possibly understand it. The sad fact is that unless it affects you personally people soon get bored. The many diaries/memoirs talk about the sense of unreality when they went home on leave. Life went on as normal and as much as people asked how things were at the Front – they didn’t really want to know. Often it was just impossible to describe. The war poets and memoir writers of the 1920’s were and have been criticised for their portrayal of the realities of war and the public had got sick of hearing about it. The story of the last 100 years has been the constant discussions as to why the war started, who started it, was it worth the sacrifice, did those who fought truly believe what they were fighting for and so on.

The realities have been made more palatable – rows and rows of neatly arranged white gravestones in perfectly manicured lawns surrounded by neat walls and hedgerows – impacting by volume and scale rather than actuality? Lists of names in brass and bronze on marble and stone, memorialised by dignitaries and politicians. My grandfather served with the Royal Artillery on the Western Front from mid-1917 till being injured by shrapnel in June 1918 and he never in his life went to a memorial service. He felt it was a sop to the conscience of the politicians and all those who hadn’t experienced a day of the realities. Of course it is said that there would never be another war if the politicians had to spend a day in the trenches but that brings us back to the big questions of war, nationhood and capitalism/empire building. Discussions for elsewhere but the sanitisation/romanticism of war is something we have to be aware of.

The sanctification of those who died is also an issue. We will remember them – we must remember them – but they had little choice. They would expect to have their names recalled for what they did but they would not consider themselves heroes. The action in which they were killed is often later portrayed as ‘the heroic charge’ or the ‘brave defence’ and so on but this is mostly for the benefit of others coming after them, the official histories, and the friends and families – a life not in vain and so on. In reality you fought because you had to and you did so because you were fighting beside your mates – fellow soldiers. You felt a responsibility, a sense of brotherhood and belonging - the very essence of the Territorial Battalions and indeed this is the basis of a fighting force/team – bands of brothers, platoons, companies – group cohesion and fighting spirit – for the big picture.

A cynical abuse of fundamental human relationships? This was encouraged during the war – there were lectures on group cohesion and fighting spirit/leadership which wouldn’t look out of place in a modern management training manual. Bernard Adams, in his book ‘Nothing of Importance’ talks about being so enthused about a lecture advocating leadership tips such as making sure your men are happy over and above anything else. Look after their needs – be it simply getting their tea and rum rations and asking how they are prior to getting your own tea. Simple leadership skills that are forgotten about today and were as relevant in the trenches then.

Anyway – enough. It is the role of the advertising executive to engage with your audience in order to get them to buy things. Equally it was the role of the Commanding Officers/politicians and others to instil a sense of purpose in a unit/country for the common good(?)

Next week – how years of studying WW1 can affect your mental health and make cynicism a default position grin

29th November 2014

It's that First World War/Pokemon moment - how far do you go to collect them all? What exactly is all?

We started off with the idea of listing all those from the Inverclyde area who had been killed in the War. Simple plan. How does one go about this? There are the local war memorials - there is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and in our case there was a book printed in 1922 listing the men of Greenock who died in the war.(this was in lieu of their names being inscribed on the war memorial - as there were too many names). So we made a list and started filling in their details, referring where possible to their records on Ancestry, and Scottish National War Memorial. All well and good but we then started coming across names that were listed on Ancestry but not noted locally. We came across names listed locally but not noted on Ancestry. We came across names in the local cemeteries that weren't noted locally elsewhere. Added to this were the newspapers where names of casualties were listed - again not listed elsewhere. This could be because they were men who had emigrated earlier and were serving in the American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand etc.. forces or men who were working in the area but not from here. Lots of Irish men, who had come here to work in the shipyards. Do these men belong on our list? Absolutely! There were names listed on church memorials and Rolls of Honour - obviously of men who worked here and worshipped in the local churches but weren't born here? There were deaths of men based here training with the Royal Scots Fusiliers, men from navy/merchant ships who died while here or men who were on garrison duty here? Should they be listed? We then realised that search engines on sites like Ancestry, Findmypast, livesofthefirstworldwar, etc.. all seemed to work slightly differently - only last week we found one more local death - so either they have been working on the database in the meantime or it just didn't work as well previously. We could be cynical and suggest that although these sites are mostly owned by the same people they prefer to have people take out 3 subscriptions rather than combine or use the same ways of searching. Ok so that's the dead - they lived in the area, were born in the area, worked in the area or had some connection with the area. Justifiably included? What about those men of the local Territorial units who joined the battalions later on in the war to make up numbers but weren't from the area? But they were an integral part of the story of a local battalion of local men. The 5th Argylls had a unique identity with Inverclyde but at least 15 men who were killed in Palestine were recruited from Service Battalions and Regular Battlion ranks. But if we don't include them will they be excluded from the Argylls unique experiences? 

And of course what about those who came back? We tend to glorify the memory of those killed - always young - always remembered - never forgotten. The men who came back had suffered and would suffer for the rest of their lives - either physically or mentally' They deserve to be remembered - they deserve to have their story told but how to do this? They are the story of a community - they are the ones who went through the Great Depression, another World War and the decline of their communities. So let's make an appeal to people to come forward with the story of their fathers, grandfathers, mothers, grandmothers etc The stories revealed are incredibly valuable and are often illustrated to a greater extent than those who were killed. My grandfather was recorded in the 1970's and we now have his reminiscences of being a gunner on the 21st March 1918 when the Germans overran the British lines. He fired at the enemy 400 yards away over open sites. Over the course of the last year we have received unique material from these families. So again - trawl through Ancestry, and other sites for any reference to Greenock, Gourock, Port Glasgow, Inverkip, Wemyss Bay and Kilmacolm and add these names to our database. Try and find out what these people did and illustrate their stories. The local newspapers refer to countless men who aren't mentioned on these websites - records were lost/destroyed in WW2 but we can't for definite identify them or the units the belonged to. Men with common names are probably never going to be identified unless official records confirm their local connections. So now we're up to 7500 names and there doesn't seem to be any end to the names appearing. Is it worth while continuing these lists? Unfortunately or fortunately this appeals to a basic human need it would seem - or is it a male need? We like collecting, we like being completist - it fulfills a mental need. The story of museums and collections is the story of classification. Get one of everything - name it and describe it and then move on. And this is why Pokemon becomes relevant - throughout modern social history we have been encouraged to collect by people trying to sell us things - be it football cards or indeed Pokemon. Is listing and detailing all these people just the same thing? Does it serve a purpose? There are countless millions of lives that aren't recorded - why those who fought in the First World War?

25th November 2014

Our Exhibition is over - it was a fantastic and trully humbling experience and best of all, proved to be the most popular exhibition we have ever put on. Getting to present stories of ordinary men doing extraordinary things to a new audience as well as to families who knew some details, but not all, of their ancestors, was very gratifying.

We are now in the process of returning material loaned to the museum, adding information to the website and preparing for Gallipoli 2015. Today I gave an interview to a Media student about the experience of putting the exhibition together; added some material to our website on the Post Office War Memorials in Greenock and the memorials in Ardgowan Parish Church  One of the most important things we have done is to clip all of our local newspapers for war stories - these clips are now being tagged by Gillian and are proving to be a fantastic resource. Men mentioned in the papers are being added to our database by our friendly(relatively) Somerset intern Abbie.

A great article about ANZAC Day in Australia and how it is important not to forgot who else fought there - in our case it's the Royal Naval Division and the 5th Argyll's. It has become a mission of ours to tell their story and the story of the 52nd Lowland Division

We're off to Aileymill Primary on Friday to talk to P7 about their WW1 project. Hopefully it will be as good as our recent visit to Wemyss Bay Primary.

Current reading list - "Nothing of Importance" by Bernard Adams and "The Territorial Force at War 1914-16" by KW Mitchinson