Any WWI connections with Palestine?

By Judith Phillips

I wonder how many people attending a Nativity play or listening to readings at Christmas services over the holiday season last year knew it was a hundred years since the capture of Turkish-held Jerusalem by Allied troops during the First World War? 

Jerusalem was a target for the Allied campaign in Palestine as it was the administrative capital of Turkish-rules Palestine and its capture would underline Allied dominance in the area.  For the British, it was also important in protecting their interests in Egypt and the Suez Canal, the main artery to India.  Reading about the Sinai and Palestine campaigns, the placenames are so familiar from the Bible and also because they are sometimes in the news these days – Beersheba, Gaza, Jericho, and, of course, Sinai and Jerusalem.  General Allenby led the Allied attack on Jerusalem including a cavalry assault in bitter icy winds and torrential rain.  The city fell on 9 December 1917 after more than 400 years of Turkish rule.  Allenby led his troops into the city on foot.

I know of at least one Teesdale man who was in Palestine.  Robert William Oliver from Staindrop joined the 905th Mechanical Transport Company of the Royal Army Service Corps in 1916 as a driver, No. M/303128.  On his voyage to Egypt in May 1917 his ship Transylvania was torpedoed twice near the Italian coast.  After some time frantically swimming, Driver Oliver was picked up by the Japanese destroyer Matsu, one of two destroyers sailing with the Transylvania.  Robert Oliver was one of the lucky ones – 421 men died.  You get more details about this incident on the internet.

I don’t know the details of his service after that but he could have been involved in the capture of Jerusalem as he had served in Palestine for over a year when he died from burns on 20 June 1918.  That information comes from the Teesdale Mercury of 24 July 1918 when the report of his death was published.  Robert is buried in the Jerusalem War Cemetery.

Do you know of anyone from Teesdale who was involved in the fighting in the Middle East?  What did they think about being in a land they would probably have known well from school, Sunday School and other church activities?  I am sure there will have been more than Driver Oliver.  We would love to hear from you if you can help us record the stories and copy the photographs of Teesdale people affected by the war. 

Knitting for Tommy and Jack

By Judith Phillips

As volunteers have worked through copies of the Teesdale Mercury for the war years, they have found many instances of local groups sending parcels to men on service abroad.  In many cases the parcels would have contained garments knitted by family and community members.  Not so many people knit these days but perhaps you do or know someone who does) and would be interested in helping us.

‘Knitting for Tommy: Keeping the Great War Soldier Warm’ by Lucinda Gosling is a fascinating book, showing how knitting came to be seen as a practical way in which people – especially but not exclusively women – could help the war effort.  There’s a copy of the book in the small (but growing) WWI-related collection of books we’ve accumulated for the project which are available for reference in the Museum’s Reading Room.  As a patriotic activity, knitting featured frequently in propaganda – posters, cartoons, stories.  It was an intimate way for family members to give practical support to their loved ones and also offered people with no direct connection to men (and nurses) on active service an opportunity to feel involved. 

Wool manufacturers weren’t slow to exploit these opportunities and Gosling includes several patterns produced to help the civilian population provide extra knitted comforts.  We’d like to hear from knitters (and crocheters) who’d be interested in trying out some of these patterns.  It’s many decades since I was taught to knit at school and by my grandmother – an inveterate sock-knitter – but I reckon I could still manage some plain knitting and, with a bit of practice, perhaps get to grips again with knitting on four needles.  Patterns include straightforward items such as scarves, body belts and mittens, as well as more complex items such as balaclava helmets, gloves and socks.  There’s even what looks like a rather complicated spencer – sort of a cardigan – for a nurse.

As well as knitters, I’d welcome suggestions about where we might source 4-ply and double knitting wool, particularly in khaki, navy, white and grey – preferably at very reasonable cost!

“Where Poppies Blow” – a reader’s response

A few months ago, this book was recommended to the WWI Bookgroup as giving an interesting perspective on life in trenches and the solace soldiers could find in gardening or just finding flowers in the garden of a ruined farmhouse.  Several members of the bookgroup have now read the whole book and, here, one of them offers her view.

By Jo Angell

“Where Poppies Blow” by John Lewis-Stempel is probably unique among the multitude of World War One books.  Its subtitle is “The British Soldier, Nature, The Great War”.  Through their poems, letters and recounting their activities away from the front line we learn much about those men.  It is striking how much closer to nature both officers and ordinary soldiers were in 1914 than most of us are today.

Stempel opens with a poem by John Masefield, “August 1914”:

How still this quiet cornfield is tonight!

By an intense glow the evening falls,

Bringing not darkness, but a deeper light;

Among the stocks a partridge calls.

Masefield was a Red Cross orderly during the war.

The book is full of poems written by men of all ranks who answered the call to serve and, though willingly in the army, often they remembered “Before” in their poems.

F.W. Harvey (Will), a farmer’s son, wrote:

 I hear the heart within me cry:

I’m homesick for my hills again –

My hills again!

(And his words were beautifully set to music by Ivor Gurney, himself a victim of the war.)

In the trenches, however, nature comforted them.  Returning from the front line dragging these anguished limbs

But hark! Joy – joy – strange joy

Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks;

Music showering on our upturned, listening faces.

Death could drop from the dark

As easily as a song –

But song only dropped.

A hundred years ago before our cities became so large, folk knew the names of plants and birds that, in the battlefields, often nested on shattered trees and the soldiers felt compassion for them.  On one occasion, trudging back from the front line, a platoon found a dead pigeon.  In silent unanimity, they gently picked up the pigeon and buried it, railing his grave with little sticks and chains of sedge grass, and in his coverlet of pimpernels we erected a tiny, white cross.

The Western Front was the most bird-watched war zone in history.  Stempel has a section of nine poems that soldiers wrote celebrating the birds that were so close to them.

In that World War, warfare moved from the past to an industrialised war, but, in 1914, crucial to an army were horses, mules and donkeys.  By 16th August 1914, 25,000 horses, mules and donkeys had been taken into military service.  By the autumn of 1918, there were more than 475,000 animals from draught horses, officers’ chargers, the cavalry horses to the mules, the supreme drudges that dragged all that was needed from guns to food up to the front line.  Some were horrifically injured.  On average, the British army lost 15% – 484,000 – every year.  Horses were shot by bullets, shattered by shells, overcome by gas, consumed by disease.

The men loved these animals, donkeys often becoming their pets as well as their load-bearers in Gallipoli and Palestine: That the donkey, Christ’s animal, should be part of Allenby’s march on Jerusalem was not without poignance.

Gardening, too, was a solace, men planting multitudes of flowers even in the trenches and around the temporary graves of the fallen.  They also had their pets: cats and rabbits and dogs rescued from the debris of destroyed villages.  At Gallipoli, fearing disease, men were ordered to shoot stray dogs.  One soldier, in a moving poem, describes how he could not, for the dog came

As one who offers comradeship deserved,

An open ally of the human race

And sniffing at my prostrate form unnerved

He licked my face.

Even in POW and internment camps in Germany where British, taken by war, lived in some degree of comfort, receiving parcels from home, gardens flourished and there were pets to love.

At last came the Armistice and a few men managed to smuggle their pets home but many dogs had to be abandoned.  Some horses came home but others were food for starving civilians.

For the first time after a conflict, a War Graves Commission was set up and beautiful cemeteries were established with the headstones identical for man of all ranks.

Stempel thus enables the reader to experience the emotions – joy ad sorrows – of humanity as the degradation of war.  Through their poems, letters and accounts of activities behind the lines as well as the actual slaughter, we learn what enabled them to remain sane and human.

Book group report, December 2017

By Jane Wilson

What better way to start the New Year than with a look back at the reading selections from the final Book Group meeting of 2017.

‘Executed at Dawn’ by David Johnson is a non-judgemental account of the WW1 executions of British and Commonwealth soldiers, as seen by those involved, ranging from military police, medical staff, chaplains, senior officers, even comrades and friends chosen to be part of the firing squads. Executions took part against a backdrop of non-understanding of shellshock, as well as a military need to provide a deterrent against other soldiers overstepping military rules and orders.

A complete record of his experiences in WW1 gave T E Lawrence the material he needed to write ‘Revolt in the Desert’. First published in 1927, the book is an abridged version of his work ‘Seven Pillars of Wisdom’. Having volunteered for service on the outbreak of war, by 1916, he was working closely in liaison with Arab forces in the Arab Revolt. He participated in, and sometimes led military action against the Ottoman armed forces, and the book is his account of the key WW1 role he played in this part of the world.

One group member brought along a catalogue from the current Paul Nash exhibition at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle (running until 14th January 2018). While having admired all of Nash’s art works on display, she referred in particular to the pieces of art depicting scenes of WW1, and the extra information given in the catalogue. A copy of this catalogue is available to read in the Reference Library in the Reading Room at the Bowes Museum.

The 2017 Wainwright Book Prize was won by John Lewis Stempel’s ‘Where Poppies Blow’, and the competition website describes the book as a ‘unique story of the British soldiers of the Great War and their relationship with the animals and plants around them. This connection was of profound importance, because it goes a long way to explaining why they fought, and how they found the will to go on’.

The group member who recommended this book loved the inclusion of soldiers’ poetry in each chapter, as well as the wide range of aspects of nature written about, including birds, vermin and pests, army horses, soldiers attempts to create gardens in trenches and billets, as well as the lists of those that died and their connections to nature in jobs such as gardeners, botanists etc.

An illustrated WW1 diary forms the basis of the next book recommendation, ‘Drawing Fire; The Diary of a Great War Soldier and Artist’ by Len Smith. Having managed at the end of the war to smuggle home the scraps of paper on which he had kept journal entries during his war service, artist Len Smith wrote up his diary which is reproduced in book form along with many of his own illustrations, sketches and cartoons. So, while a war diary that represents the horror read about in other journals, his humour and excellent sketching ability bring a lightness to the book that makes it a pleasure to read, and the illustrations a joy to look at.

Much as children get to bring toys and games to school on the last day of term before Christmas, some of our group took the opportunity of the pre-Christmas meeting to bring along some non-WW1 books and share with each other some of the reading material we enjoy when not immersed in Great War reading.

One choice was ‘King David’s Report’ by Stefan Heym, the pseudonym of the German-born writer Helmut Flieg. The book, first published in 1972, is a modern day re-telling of a biblical story, where King Solomon commissions Ethan the Scribe to write an official biography of King David. Charged with creating an accurate and truthful book about King David, Ethan finds conflicting information about King David’s life and has a dilemma about which life to document. Heym uses the device of writing about a society in the past to be able to make comments on current society, and he uses satire when describing the workings of politics within history.

Another linked book choice was Orhan Pamuk’s book ‘The Museum of Innocence’, set in Istanbul and following Kemal, a young man from a rich and well-connected family, and the deep love he feels for a poorer, distant relative, Fusun. The reader follows Kemal’s eight-year deep pursuit of Fusun, as well as his obsessive habit of collecting objects that chart his long-term love affair. The author, Pamuk has also established an actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, with many wooden cabinets housing the objects and mementoes that the books characters owned, wore, collected and dreamt of. A book about the museum shows photos of each cabinet, some of which were on display at a London exhibition at Somerset House in 2016. If two books were ever meant to partner each other, this is the perfect match.

The last two pre-Christmas choices were both non-WW1 fiction, firstly the ‘Complete Short Stories of Saki’ by Hector Hugh Munro. Published posthumously after his death in 1916 in the Battle of the Ancre, the collection of stories is an excellent satirical commentary on upper class Edwardian society. When describing his stories, many reviewers use terms such as sinister, bizarre, humorous, macabre, eccentric, unconventional – all inviting the reader to delve into a thoroughly enjoyable and satirical look into Edwardian life.

Our second fiction recommendation was from Jerome K Jerome, ‘Three Men on the Bummel’, published in 1900, and a sequel to ‘Three Men in a Boat’. The three Edwardian friends meet up again on a bicycle tour of the German Black Forest, and as well as following them on their travels, the story reveals small, humorous snippets that relate to the German way of life, and their desire to follow instruction, have a structured life and their reverence of authority. We discussed this satirical look at German life and culture, and how the three English friends highlight the differences between the German and English society.

Now that 2018 is here, and a whole twelve months-worth of book group meetings lay ahead, why not join us at the Bowes Museum for our first meeting on January 16th at 2.30pm.

Staindrop WWI group success

By Judith Phillips

Congratulations to Staindrop Remembers WWI Group who have recently been awarded a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to continue an earlier project which told the stories of the forty local men who died while serving during the war or from the effects of the war and are named on the war memorial in St. Mary’s Church, Staindrop.

The group now aims to research and produce individual biographies of the men and women who came home.  Stories will include where people lived and worked, their family connections and details of their service records.

Volunteer researchers will visit and explore a range of archives and collections and study the close connections with the Raby Estate.  They will receive training in archival research from Durham Record Office staff.  Local people will be encouraged to come forward with their own family stories, artefacts, photographs and memorabilia to be recorded.

Sessions about Staindrop and the First World War will be delivered in local school and to some uniformed organisations to help young people understand the impact of the war on the village.  A community event will be held to rededicate the Scarth Hall’s 1920 extension, built by public subscription in memory of the fallen.  An illuminated plaque, listing the names of the fallen, will be commissioned for this area and a smaller plaque sited on the Hall’s exterior will highlight the presence of the Memorial Room in the building. 

The research results will be made permanently available in a Book of Remembrance and online through the project’s website.  The digital data will also be shared with the Durham Record Office, Staindrop Local History Society and The Bowes Museum’s First World War Commemorative Project.  We very much look forward to working with the Staindrop group.

Apologies for absence

By Judith Phillips

As you know, I work on the WWI project for one day a week and I have usually managed to make that a day working in the museum building, usually during the Reading Room opening hours. It is likely that I will not be working in the museum in person for the next few weeks. I am sorry that I will miss seeing volunteers and people offering information in person but I know my colleagues at the museum will help out and I can still be contacted by email:

Probably until mid-February at the earliest, I will be spending a lot of time in Wiltshire helping to look after and support my daughter, son-in-law and grandsons. Abi broke her ankle just before Christmas and is likely to be in plaster for 6-8 weeks. With both my grandsons under the age of five, I will be needed to help out with childcare, housework and general management.

Thank goodness for emails! At least I can keep in contact even when not physically present in Barnard Castle. And I will still be doing project-related work in between school runs, shopping, hospital appointments and entertaining a lively two and a half year old. In fact, I will probably look forward to delving into WWI even more eagerly to give me a bit of a rest!

I am really looking forward to working through the last complete year of the project as there are lots of ideas about highlighting the last year of the fighting in the war and the amazing progress the project has made.

One of the things I can do while away is organise material to appear in the project’s e-newsletter. So I’d be very happy to receive notice of any WWI-related event you think people would be interested in knowing about, or reports on WWI events you have attended and, of course, anything you have written (or would like us to write up) about your family members during WWI. Just keep them coming!