Archive for the ‘World War One’ Tag

A Day to Remember

Things seem to have aligned for the centenary of the Great War Armistice. 11th November fell on a Sunday this year so the focus was not split between two days. The weather was sunny, autumnal, golden (in contrast to the rain in Paris). I began the day with reflections on the song Poppy Day.

Join-Hands siouxsie and the banshees guards memorial record cover LP album

A while later I went to the house of John Parr, the first British soldier killed in action in World War One. He lived down the road from me in North Finchley from 1909 until 1914. He was 17 when he gave his life. I set out from the front path of his family house to walk to the local annual Remembrance Ceremony at Tally Ho Corner (Siegfried Sassoon would have liked that name – Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man [1928]).

John Parr WW1 soldier plaque Finchley London N12

in front of John Parr’s family home

John Parr WW1 soldier family home Finchley London N12

John Parr’s family home at 52 Lodge Lane, North Finchley

What struck me about the ceremony was the diversity of the young cadets who were its focal point. Many girls, many non-white faces, all integrated into the small units of land, sea and air cadets, cub scouts and the marching band. In an age of donkey politicians, that’s where the hope lies.

Finchley War Memorial

Finchley War Memorial commemorating service personnel of the army, navy and nascent air force

Finchley War Memorial remembrance service 2018

Finchley War Memorial remembrance service 2018

Poppy red

Later in the afternoon I visited for the first time the Tree Cathedral in Whipsnade – perfect timing with the autumn golds. It was designed as a memorial for three friends by Edmund Blyth. Arthur Bailey and John Bennett were fellow infantrymen whose lost lives Blyth decided to memorialise in the form of trees laid out in the shape of a natural cathedral. Francis Holland was a third Tommy pal who died in 1930 prompting him to realise his arboreal vision.

The Tree Cathedral has the shape of a traditional medieval cathedral, but formed of trees. Although it contains beautiful areas, that is not its primary significance. It is managed to emphasise the vigour and balance of individual plants, in patterns that create an enclosure of worship and meditation, offering heightened awareness of God’s presence and transcendence. (Edmund Blyth 1940)

edmund blyth creator of tree cathedral whipsnade

Edmund Blyth

tree cathedral whipsnade

tree cathedral whipsnade

tree cathedral whipsnade

After my visit I sat on a bench at the end of the hornbeam avenue leading to the Cathedral entrance reading from my trusty old copy of The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry (first read at school, this copy from university days, with its familiar poppies against black background photographic cover) – Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen, John McCrae, Rupert Brooke and DH Lawrence (with whom I share a birthday).

the penguin book of first world war poetry cover

Poppies in the morning and at the going down of the sun. And to conclude, that local setting son, John Parr, more than merits a brief history of his brief life for the record…

the jam setting sons album LP record vinyl cover

Parr was a long way from the Eton Rifles

John Henry Parr was born on 19th July 1897 in Lichfield Grove, Finchley, son of a milkman, Edward Parr, and his wife Alice. He lived most of his short life at 52 Lodge Lane, North Finchley, London N12. He was the youngest of eleven children – just 5’3″ tall.

He left school and went straight to work, initially as a butcher’s boy, then as a caddie at North Middlesex Golf Club. In 1912 he joined the 4th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment – he was just 15 but claimed to be 18.

He was a Private and became a reconnaissance cyclist, riding ahead in search of useful intelligence to convey back with alacrity to senior officers. In August 1914 his battalion was shipped from Southampton to Boulogne-sur-Mer, and then on to a village, Bettignies, sited on the canal to Mons. On 21st August 1914, just 17 days after the Declaration of War, Parr and a fellow reconnaissance cyclist were dispatched to the village of Obourg, north-east of Mons, just over the Belgian border, on a mission to locate enemy forces. It is believed they ran into a cavalry patrol of the German First Army and Parr was killed in an exchange of fire.

With the British army retreating to the Marne after the first battle of Mons (on 23rd August), Parr’s body was left behind. In October 1914 his mother wrote to the War Office enquiring after him but they were unable to tell her anything certain, they may well have been unsure whether he had been captured or killed.

Parr is buried in St Symphorien Military Cemetery, south-east of Mons. The age on his gravestone is 20 (the army didn’t know he was actually 17).

By coincidence his grave is opposite George Edwin Ellison’s, the last British soldier killed during the First World War.

Private_John_Parr_grave_at_St_Symphorien_cemetery

Private John Parr’s grave

tree cathedral whipsnade

The entrance to the Tree Cathedral, Whipsnade

tree cathedral whipsnade

The going down of the sun on a resonant day

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

For The Fallen – Robert Binyon (September 1914)

 

 

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Join Hands 11.11.1918-11.11.2018

In 1979 I went to see Siouxsie & The Banshees playing at Hammersmith Odeon – it remains one of the best gigs of my life. Just before the tour half the band had gone AWOL so new musicians had to be drafted in including Budgie on drums (formerly the token man in The Slits, one of my favourite drummers – Stewart Copeland considers him one of the most interesting drummers for his “very economical and offbeat” playing, that offbeat being what I most like about him) and John McGeoch on guitar (formerly of Magazine). That tour marked the release of the LP ‘Join Hands’. The hands joining are those of four bronze WW1 Tommies on the war memorial between Horseguards Parade and St James’s Park (the Guards Memorial) – I passed it regularly when I was working at Channel 4 and it always brought me back to that music and excitement. The LP opens with the tolling bells of a 2-minute track called Poppy Day.

In the same way that Punk (especially The Clash) introduced me to reggae, through this track it introduced me to the First World War poetry of John McCrae, a typical example of the less known poets who emerged in the Great War, the one-hit wonders and offbeats. McCrae was a high-ranking Canadian army doctor serving on the Western front. In Poppy Day the resonant bells give way to the distinctive driving guitar wailing of The Banshees and then just a few short lines, delivered in a distorted Siouxsie voice:

In Flanders fields
The poppies grow
Between the crosses
Row on row
That mark our place
We are the dead…

I don’t think McCrae is credited for the lyrics which are very close to the opening of his In Flanders Fields, in fact every word is derived from the poem:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Siouxsie & The Banshees filtered out the patriotic and the warmongering/cheerleading to open their record with the zombie or heroic or haunting dead, we don’t know which. What we do know, two years after the Silver Jubilee and the Pistols’ God Save the Queen (the Fascist regime), with rubbish piling up in the streets of strike-bound London, is that these dead were neither glorious nor patriotic in the establishment way.

The band were inspired not only by the chaos and crapitude of the late 70s Home Front but also by conflict witnessed on their suburban Kent TVs, particularly in Iran. (Plus ça change).

siouxsie and the banshees join hands vinyl record album LP cover design

Siouxsie_and_the_banshees_Join_Hands_war guards memorial

The LP cover was extracted from this shot – L to R Steve Severin (bass), John McKay (guitar), Siouxsie Sioux (vocals), Kenny Morris (drums) – before McKay and Morris went AWOL

Banshee stalwart, bassist Steven Severin in the wake of watching the two minutes of silence in memory of the war dead on TV on Sunday 12th November 1978 explained about Poppy Day: “We wanted to write a song that would fittingly fill that gap”. On the inner sleeve of the record (which sits still in the room just below me, alongside its vinyl sisters The Scream, Kaleidoscope, Juju and A Kiss in the Dreamhouse) beside the lyrics of the song is specified (with echoes of John Cage): “2 minutes of silence”.

So here we are on Sunday 11th November 2018, 40 years after Severin watched that broadcast, 100 years after the world watched that bloodbath, that futile wiping out of a generation, and we are still all struggling to join hands. The irony of The Banshees brooding in the studio while recording this masterpiece of an LP and splitting up in its aftermath is as nothing to the irony that we mark this centenary at a time when the world’s international institutions are being deliberately dismantled, Europe re-fracturing and the zombie voices of patriotism, nationalism and fascism wailing more discordantly than John McKay’s guitar. We are the Dead. We are turning in our graves row on row between the poppies.

siouxsie and the banshees paris 1980

Reinforcements arrive: L to R John McGeoch (guitar), Budgie (drums), Siouxsie & Steve – Paris (1980) where 70 world leaders are arriving this morning to mark the centenary of the Armistice including Macron (accordion), Merkel (tuba), Trump (mouth organ) and Putin (triangle)

 

Irish Stew in the Name of the Law

I’ve just come across something I wrote for a website called Lost Generation which I commissioned here at Channel 4 in 2005 in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum/National Inventory of War Memorials. I’d just read Sebastian Barry’s novel A Long Long Way and felt inspired to dig a bit deeper into that neglected and murky area of WWI history. I’m bunging it here for my archives (i.e. so I don’t lose it again).

Lost Generation masthead

Design for one of revolving mastheads from Lost Generation (2005)

Irish Stew in the Name of the Law

20.ix.05

Ninety years on and the chickens are coming home to roost. Except they weren’t chickens. They were shell-shocked. They were mentally ill. They were country lads completely out of their depth. At the end of 2004 a report commissioned by the Irish government was handed over to its British counterpart.  In it was revealed damning evidence of the anti-Irish racism and fundamental injustice of British ‘field general courts martial’ during the First World War. These were military courts in the proximity of the front line speedily dispensing exemplary ‘justice’ including death sentences.

The report contains a close examination of the cases of 26 Irish soldiers executed by firing squad. It asserts that, based on the evidence in the surviving files (the team had access to all but one), all the cases could have been successfully appealed had a normal set of legal standards been applied, including the need for sufficient proof and the proper consideration of medical evidence. The courts martial files were kept secret for 75 years by the British authorities, only being released in 1990.

If you were Irish, whether Protestant or Catholic, Ulsterman or Dubliner, whether fighting out of loyalty to the Union or for the promise of Home Rule, you were five times more likely to be shot by firing squad. In the rest of the British army one in every 3,000 troops was sentenced to execution in this way. Among the Irish soldiers the figure is one in less than 600.

Making an Example

The report makes a revealing comparison between the Irish and the New Zealand regiments, which were known for their harsh discipline. The recruitment figures for both countries were similar and yet there were ten times as many death sentences in the Irish regiments.

The indications of the 26 cases of execution – 23 for desertion, one for disobedience, one for quitting his post and one for striking an officer –  are that death sentences were imposed as a form of exemplary discipline. The report describes the behaviour towards the Irish involved in these cases as “capricious”, “inconsistent” and “shocking”. It also condemns subsequent attempts by the British Ministry of Defence to justify this military justice in the field as “fundamentally flawed”.

In eleven of the cases the death sentence was clearly linked to bad discipline in the units and a perceived need to set an example. The report concludes:  “Soldiers were effectively condemned to be shot because of both the behaviour of others and the opinion of others as to their fighting potential. …  Executing a soldier simply to deter their colleagues from contemplating a similar crime, or because their attitude in the face of the gravest of dangers was not what was expected – in some cases after only a matter of weeks of basic training – must be seen as unjust, and not deserving of the ultimate penalty.”

Not the whole truth

Of the 26 cases, the legal papers showed that presiding officers failed to consider medical evidence in almost half of them. Four cases involved significant extenuating circumstances. The report says: “In a number of cases there is clear evidence of ignoring medical conditions and personal circumstances that may have accounted for the actions of the accused and could have been interpreted as mitigating factors.”

Private Joseph Carey from Dublin served with the Royal Irish Fusiliers (who fought at the Somme) until his execution in September 1916. He was charged with desertion after going missing for a day. Clemency was recommended on the grounds of defective intelligence. It was drawn to the attention of the court that he had mental health issues in the wake of his father’s and brother’s suicides. The report singles this out as “a particularly shocking case” as Private Carey had been on the receiving end of an extremely heavy bombardment which added shellshock to his burden of mental illness. The clemency recommendation was ignored and he was shot evidently as a disciplinary example.

Private George Hanna served in the same regiment as Carey but hailed from Belfast. He was executed in November 1917. At his court martial for desertion it came to light he had not been home on leave for three years. During that time he had lost three brothers in the war. He was trying to get back to Belfast after having received news of his sister’s illness. The report concludes grimly that there was nothing to indicate that the military authorities “thought twice about taking a fourth son from the family”.

The report also highlighted a distinct class bias which it sees as “incompatible with an impartial system of justice”.

The Fighting Irish

The upshot of the report is a call for full pardons for the men to “grant them the dignity in death they were denied in life”. There is no demand for compensation payment attached to this call.

“We continue to press the British government to restore the good names of these men,” said Dermot Ahern, the Irish Foreign Minister. “Nothing less will do the Irish government and their families.” He summed up the report as “very tragic reading” and confirmed “no-one could not be moved by the simple stories of brave, often poorly educated young men who were shot after perfunctory courts martial. The Irish government believes this was wrong. These Irish people died needlessly.”

There is now a campaign for the pardons co-ordinated by Peter Mulvany – the Shot at Dawn Campaign. It was launched in 2002 in Dublin and has support from various TDs (Teachta Dála – members of the Irish parliament, Dáil Éireann), MPs and politicians across the spectrum from Rev. Ian Paisley to John Hume, as well as church leaders both Catholic and Protestant. You can find out more about the campaign here <link to Shot at Dawn Campaign http://www.irishseamensrelativesassociation.org/SADIRL.htm  >

The tragic experiences of Irish soldiers in the British army during the First World War have been brought to the attention of the British public recently by the short-listing of Sebastian Barry’s moving novel ‘A Long Long Way’ for the 2005 Man Booker Prize. It tells the story of a Dubliner who volunteers but finds himself, as the war goes on, in an increasingly incomprehensible position, ultimately belonging nowhere. At one point, just weeks before the Somme, he finds himself in his British uniform firing on his fellow Dubliners as the Easter Rising erupts and the Republic of Ireland is born.

Design for World of Mud from Lost Generation (2005)

Get Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way  <link>

Further Reading

Ireland’s Unknown Soldiers – Terence Denman (Irish Academic Press, 1992)

A Lonely Grave – Terence Denman (Irish Academic Press, 1995)

Irish Men or English Soldiers – Thomas Dooley (Liverpool University Press, 1995)

Irish Voices from the Great War – Miles Dungan (Irish Academic Press, 1995)

They Shall Grow Not Old – Miles Dungan (Four Courts Press, 1997)

Far from the Short Grass – James Durney (publisher James Durney, 1999)

Ireland and the Great War – ed. Adrian Gregory & Senia Paseta (Manchester University Press, 2002)

Dividing Ireland – Thomas Hennessey (Routledge, 1998)

Ireland and the Great War – Keith Jeffrey (Cambridge, 2000)

Orange, Green and Khaki – Tom Johnstone(Gill & Macmillan, 1992)

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