Carrying on from yesterday, which I though was an excellent post (trumpet blowing is fair enough, as I make up about 50% of this blog’s readership), we’re going to look at Frank’s skills. Apart from ladies and beer, of course.
The photograph above shows Frank outside a stable with a bunch of artillery men. I’ve always assumed these other men were Dorsets too. I’ve looked at this photos many times but my non-military mind completely failed to spot their cap badges were different. Their cap badges link them to the Royal Artillery. It’s hard to narrow this down to the Royal Field Artillery, Royal Horse Artillery or Royal Garrison Artillery. However, much discussion is to be found here as to whether or not the men have ball buttons (Royal Horse Artillery) or plain buttons (Royal Field Artillery).
The photograph was taken between January 1912, when Frank was made a Lance Corporal (the single stripe on his left arm), and the beginning of the war. It’s more likely that this is when he’s in Aldershot as Royal Artillery units were stationed there in 1912. The Dorsets left for Belfast on 9th January 1913.
If you look closely at his left hand sleeve, towards the cuff, there’s another badge there in the form of a pair of crossed rifles. This is the marksman “skill-at-arms” badge, awarded when a soldier had scored 130 points or more in an annual “musketry” test. 50 rounds were fired at targets from different positions. 4 points were scored for a bull, 3 for an inner and 2 for an outer, making the maximum score 200 points. Impressive stuff, but the badge was not as uncommon as you would think. Many regiments really went to town on musketry training so a quite a few of their men had these badges. If you like statistics then fill your boots with this thread on the Great War Forum.
The Dorsets’ diary reports a quiet day and night, with only the occasional high explosive shell passing over them into Sermoise across the Aisne. The weather had cheered up a bit and the Dorsets were beginning to enjoy something approaching a frontline routine.
According to the Dorsets’ diary, the German shelling continued again at 9am until “our guns firing, it died away”. High explosive shells bothered the village occasionally. Gleichen confirms this with:
In this the two howitzer batteries, especially Wilson’s 61st, were splendid, and spotted and knocked out gun after gun of the enemy. He had an observing station halfway up the hill above Ste Marguerite, to which I went occasionally, with a grand view up to Vregny and Chivres; but even here, although the O.P. was beautifully concealed, one had to be careful not to show a finger or a cap, for the German snipers in the wood below were excellent shots, and there were some narrow escapes.
Sniping was causing many casualties all along the line. The Germans were hidden in amongst the trees shrouding the base of the Chivre spur. This gave them excellent cover from which to pick off careless enemy troops. It even allowed them to target British snipers with ruthless efficiency. Gleichen writes that on the 27th “a Bedford sniper, an excellent shot, one Sergeant Hunt, unfortunately got a bullet through two fingers of his right hand.”
The Germans entered the war with excellent equipment and great skills as hunters and marksmen. Their general purpose rifle was the 7.92 mm Mauser Gewehr 98. It was an excellent weapon, accurate, reliable and efficient, let down only by its slower rate of fire and small magazine. It could also take a fitted telescopic scope out of the box. While the British Army prided itself upon its soldiers’ rate of fire, the German Army fixated on accuracy, and if an optical sight helped them then all the better.
It’s often claimed that the British thought that aiming aids were somehow dishonourable or unfair. The mounting casualties were often pooh-poohed as flukes. In his article “The British ‘School Of Sniping’ On The Western Front“, Dr David Payne states that the ” ‘unaccountable’ British firearm victims that did occur were usually put down to ‘lucky shots’ or ‘stray bullets’.” I’m not sure about this claim. Firstly he doesn’t cite his primary sources, and secondly, the diaries and letters home at the time are full of the word sniper. The British Army certainly knew that the enemy were deliberately targeting them.
The Germans had both equipment and techniques that helped them establish total superiority over the British when it came to sniping. They would often hunt in pairs, with a spotter using high powered glasses calling out targets to a marksman wearing camouflage, shooting from behind a sniping plate, a steel loophole thick enough to withstand a British .303 rifle round.
The British troops became so paranoid about snipers in late 1914 (and especially in early 1915), that they were often paralysed even by the very thought that one was operating in their section. The phrase “putting the wind up” was used a lot to describe this feeling of panic. They had no way of responding to this constant and deadly threat. At least not yet.
The British may have left the field in South Africa victorious but they were very much beaten in musketry by the Mauser-wielding Boers. As a result the search was made for a new rifle with a higher rate of velocity and range. Sadly the outbreak of war ended that search competition and although the replacement Short Magazine Lee-Enfield Mark III (SMLE or “Smelly” ) was an excellent infantry rifle, it was not a rifle suited to sniping. The main problem with it was the fact that its bolt action meant that most optical sights made for it were mounted to the left of the barrel.
The other problem was that Britain’s optical glass was far inferior to German manufactured optics. By the end of 1914 the Germans had about 20,000 optical sights in action. The British had just over 2000. And many of those just didn’t work, They were not calibrated properly and were often supplied without fitting instructions. As a result some hunting-mad officers brought their personal rifles and sights to the frontline.
For the benefit of the untechnical reader it will be well here to remark that if a telescopic sight set upon a 4-inch base is one-hundredth of an inch out of its true alignment, it will shoot incorrectly to the extent of 9 inches at 100 yards, and, of course, 18 inches at 200 yards, and 54 inches at 600 yards. The sights had been issued without instruction, were often handed over as trench-stores, and were served out by quartermaster-sergeants who very often looked on them as egregious fads.
Hesketh-Prichard also noted that, in many cases, using open sights (the metal guides along the gun barrel) was often more accurate than using existing optical sights. He used this argument to change British views on sniping and help establish a “school” of scouting and sniping. He certainly saved many lives in doing so.
The Dorsets’ war diary records that the shelling continued the next morning at 9:45am and carried on throughout the day, although “not nearly as heavily as yesterday.”
The diary also notes the work of Major and Quartermaster J Kearney at this time. He ensured that the battalion received supplies in their forward position. Every night during this period, the transport vehicles crossed the bridge at Venizel and actually drove across the face of the enemy frontline into Missy. I cannot find anything more about J Kearney, not even his first name, other than the fact that he was one of the longest serving officers with the Dorsets, having been with them since at least 1898.
I’ve had a lovely time at my parents’ this weekend and I spoke to my mother about her family. Frank is from her side of the family. We talked about her memories of her grandmother Mabel, Frank’s sister. We also spoke about the importance of sharing memories of family life. Record or write down their thoughts if you can. I would dearly love to speak once more to my grandfather, but that chance has gone and it will, sadly, never return.
If you’ve been reading this blog since the outbreak of the war, you’ll notice that we’ve recently entered a period of trench-digging. This was to become the standard routine for a British Solider on the Western Front until 1918. Periods spent in the line and periods resting in reserve. Long days and even longer nights with little happening apart from the odd shell and burst of small arms fire.
But the British soldier in September 1914 was not versed in the arts of trench warfare. In their eyes, this was a temporary hold up. The leaders on both sides had the same thoughts. As in a boxing match, the two opponents had come together like bulls and fought to a standstill. Now, exhausted, they leant on each other, panting and gathering strength. But the next bout was coming. As both sides tensed themselves for the next round of onslaught, it was easy to panic and spread pandemonium. Gleichen writes:
On one day, the 27th, we had a false alarm, for the enemy was reported as crossing the Condé bridge at 4 A.M. in large numbers, and everybody was at once on the qui vive*, the Cheshires, who were in bivouac behind Rolt’s farm, being sent back (by Sir C. Fergusson’s orders) to Rupreux, the other side of the river. We rather doubted the news from the start, as the Condé bridge had, we knew, been blown up, and there was only one girder left, by which a few men at a time could conceivably have crossed; but the information was so circumstantial that it sounded possible.
The BEF was not prepared for this type of static warfare and it’s often said that the ever-resourceful Germans were ahead of the game. They certainly had better-suited equipment with digging tools, periscopes, grenades (hand and rifle) and heavy siege guns; designed to attack the huge Belgian and French forts and now free to use on a more mobile enemy. Lieutenant-Colonel Bols’ determination to make of fortress of Missy counters this claim to some extent. He and the Royal Engineers rendered Missy really secure, even under severe bombardment.
And severe bombardment is exactly what happened throughout the rest of the day. The false alarms sent the Germans into a similar state of panic and they responded with an artillery barrage. Gleichen again:
Missy was shelled particularly heavily that day from 10 to 6, and it was painful to watch great bouquets of 8-in. H.E. shells exploding in the village, and whole houses coming down with a crash; it seemed as though there must be frightfully heavy casualties, and I trembled in anticipation of the casualty return that night.
The Dorsets diary reports “very heavy shelling which continued until dark – both shrapnel and high explosive”, adding “Casualties. Nil – not withstanding heavy shelling”. This is either a cocky boast or an early reference to the stress and psychological damage a heavy bombardment inflicted on troops.
* Qui vive. At Prep School we used a term “KV” or “Cavey” to alert fellow pupils when a master was approaching. I always thought it was Latin but I wonder if it comes from this phrase which has its origins in a French sentry alert; a kind of “who goes there”.
The Dorsets continued digging in, deepening existing trenches and connecting them with communication trenches.
They were assisted by sappers from the 17th Company Royal Engineers, led by C.E.R. Pottinger, who appears to have been a character out of a steam punk novel. Gleichen describes him; “young Pottinger, a most plucky and capable youth wearing the weirdest of clothes—a short and filthy mackintosh, ragged coat and breeches, and a huge revolver.”
Charles Evan Roderick Pottinger was born in Ahmednuggor, India in 1890. In the 1911 census he’s a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Engineers, 21 and living in Gillingham, Kent. This is the location for the headquarters to the Royal School of Military Engineering which is now the Royal Engineers Museum, Library & Archive.
Gleichen annotates Pottinger’s name with this sad comment: “I grieve very much to see that he was fatally wounded outside Ypres (15th May 1916).” He actually died of wounds a year earlier than that, on 11th May 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres. He also appears in the Irish list of Casualties of World War One, so I wonder if he was from Irish lineage? He lived at “Glenshee”, Cambridge Park, Twickenham, which is my old stomping ground, but I haven’t been able to unearth any more information about him at this time, not even a photograph.
He left an awful lot of money (£14,105 – the equivalent of about £1 million today) to Arthur Godfrey James who, in 1911, is living in bijoux Kensington with his wife Helen and a raft of domestic servants. James’ son’s first name is Evan. I wonder if there’s a family connection here? A little more digging around and it appears that the (very posh) Twickenham address was owned by Sir Henry Evan Murchison James. He’s another Evan. I’ve written to one of his descendants and am still waiting to hear back. I’ll update this post if I learn anything new.