Tuesday, 20 December 2016


Illustrated London News, 9 Jan 1915

This is a modified and expanded re-post of an item from 2014. I thought it would be good to revisit it, not least because I am now able to show the image that prompted it in the first place, which I had been asked not to use at the time, but also as a sort of historical sidelight on the "Brexit" débâcle.

In December of that year I had written a post about blog statistics in which I said that, in contrast to my own self-indulgent ramblings, my father's reminiscences of his experiences at Dunkirk, as well as in the Western Desert and Burma attract a lot of interest from military historians specialising in vox pop accounts of WW2, and have led to some interesting correspondence. Very remarkably, something similar then happened, on the very next day.

I never knew my paternal grandfather. He died at the age of 59 in 1953, the year before I was born. By all accounts, he was a lovely man; my mother clearly had a soft spot for him, and she would often invoke his memory whenever I had given her cause to feel proud of me. Which, sadly, was not as often as it might have been. My post about his service in WW1, and the Victoria Cross won by his friend and comrade-in-arms Frank Young (Remembrance Sunday) is one of my more frequently-visited posts. In it, I reproduced two postcard-sized photographs of the two of them that I have, both taken in France, one after the other, posed at attention with a Lee-Enfield rifle in front of a canvas backdrop. Fortunately, my grandmother had been an obsessive collector of family photos and I inherited her hoard. Not neatly arranged and labelled in an album, however, but entirely filling an old canvas holdall in tight-packed wads, like ransom money.

In 2014, that post was seen by a student researching the Hertfordshire Regiment in WW1 for his dissertation. Nothing remarkable there. But – and this is remarkable to the point of improbability – in the course of his researches he had previously seen some private family papers belonging to an officer of E Company of the 1st/1st Hertfordshire Regiment. That is to say, my grandfather's company, recruited from the men of Letchworth, Royston, Baldock, and Ashwell in North Hertfordshire. Among these papers were some photographs, showing men from E Company at work constructing defences at Rue-du-Bois near Neuve Chapelle in France, during December 1914. Incredibly, he was struck by the resemblance between the sergeant in one of these and the photograph of my grandfather he had seen in my blog post, and emailed me with an attached scan of the Rue-du-Bois image: did I think this might be Douglas William Chisholm?

"Herts Guards" F.E. Young VC and D.W. Chisholm

Unquestionably, it is. I was originally asked not to publish the image, as it is owned by the officer's family and the copyright situation was unclear, so I described it instead, as follows: six cheerful-looking men in uniform – boots, puttees, 1902-pattern field dress, and peaked caps – are sitting atop a fresh earthwork, taking a break from their labours, posing for the camera in a tight group. From their expressions, it looks like someone has just made a wisecrack. Seated front and centre is my grandfather – his face and prominent ears are unmistakable – legs planted wide apart with arms resting on his knees and hands hanging loosely in-between, with a pipe dangling roguishly from his mouth, beneath a small, military-style brush moustache. This photograph was used in an exhibition about the Hertfordshire Regiment in WW1 at the Hertford Museum earlier this year, and I'm able to use it publicly now. Here it is:

"Building a Redoubt on the Rue-du-Bois, December 1914"

For his time and social class, he was quite a big chap – five foot eleven inches – and the others are clustered around him in various relaxed seated postures. "These are my men!" declares the picture; he may be three months away from his 21st birthday, but exudes all the natural authority necessary in an infantry sergeant. Behind them stands another NCO – the quality of the photograph is not good enough to count his stripes – grinning broadly. He's either the regimental idiot, or the enemy is reasonably far away. The landscape behind them is not yet a waste of mud, wire, and water-filled shellholes, but looks the way agricultural fields look anywhere in northern Europe in December, divided by rows of leafless pollarded trees.

Here is the regiment's War Diary for that period (as edited and annotated by Steven Fuller):
17-11-14. We were shelled in the morning and had to leave the farm shortly after had one man killed and two severely wounded. In the evening we went into the trenches again & took over from the 1st Royal Dragoons and 10th Hussars 1 mile S.E. of ZILLEBEKE. Had 4 Companies in the trenches, 1 in support, 1 in reserve, remaining 2 at KILO 3.
18-11-14. Remained in trenches. Corporal Boardman [2270 Ernest Arthur BOARDMAN] killed and one man missing. [Comment: Missing man was Private 2238 Frederick James DARLOW of Royston who was found to have been killed in action]
19-11-14. E Company was heavily shelled and lost 3 men killed, 19 wounded, 2.Lieut C.M. Down [Charles M. DOWN] wounded. In the evening we were relieved by the 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards and marched back to our own former bivouacs. Slight fall of snow. [Comment: Killed in action today - Privates 2504 William BUTTS, 2747 George Haslear CATLIN, 2518 George Edward ELLIS, 2426 Walter William FLANDERS, 2428 Joseph William JOHNSON, 1911 Frank PULLEY, 2636 Phillip James ROBINSON, 2746 Henry WEST]
20-11-14. Marched at 11pm to METEREN, about 18-20 miles. Had tea at OUDERDAM. A very cold night. Joined our Brigade 4th (Guards) Brigade for the first time.
21-11-14. Arrived at METEREN and went into billets.
22-11-14 to 21-12-14. Bn remained at METEREN refitting and training. [Comment: Private 2598 Walter George WALKER of Hertford died in England from his wounds today]
22-12-14. Brigade marched from METEREN to BETHUNE and billeted there the night.
23-12-14. The Brigade marched to LES LACONS FARM and spent the day there. In the evening the Bn moved forward to Cross Roads - RUE DE BOIS and RUE L'EPINETTE in support of 2 ½ battalions of the Brigade in the trenches.
24-12-14. The Bn moved back to LES LACONS FARM and in the evening went into the trenches south of RUE DE BOIS taking over from 6th GHATS. 6 Companies in the trenches, 2 in support close to Headquarters.
25-12-14. L.Sgt Gregory [2301 Thomas Edward GREGORY] and Private Huggins [2701 Percy Henry HUGGINS] killed.
27-12-14. One Company was removed from the fire trenches to support. Each Company had 36 hours in support in rotation. 
So it would seem that they'd had a rough, cold time of it during November and December, being marched around Northern France, being deployed in and out of the front line, and periodically shelled. They arrived in Rue-du-Bois, the location of the photograph, on 23rd December, just before Christmas 100 years ago. As one of the few territorial regiments in the British Expeditionary Force of 1914, the Herts were keen to make an impression, surrounded as they were by regular soldiers, mainly elite guards regiments. By 1915 they had managed to distinguish themselves, and earned the honorary nickname, "The Herts Guards".

Photographs of men on active service during WW1 are very rare. Cameras were officially banned from the front line in 1915. That's why the same few images pop up again and again in documentaries. So, that one should have survived in which I have a direct personal interest; that a researcher should be sharp-eyed enough to spot a resemblance between one grainy image in an archive and another published on my blog; that he should be sufficiently motivated to contact me about it...  This was an astonishing thing. Not least because it created a fresh link between grandfather and grandson, exactly 100 years apart in the run-up to Christmas: you might say this was the ultimate Christmas card.

Now, an intriguing question-mark hangs over this story. Although the centenary commemorations have moved on to the Somme this year, in 2014 a lot of attention was focussed on the so-called "Christmas Truce" of 1914, and the fraternisation and games of football that did or did not take place in No Man's Land between the newly-established lines of opposing trenches. At Christmas 1914 the Great-War-to-be was still a very different kind of conflict to what it would soon become. The ground was still firm. Even the idea of cavalry charges was still lively in the minds of High Command. The men of the BEF were all professionals or volunteers, and many of the latter – like my grandfather – had served before the War as "territorials", fully-trained weekend soldiers. It had not yet become the cynical war of attrition of popular imagination, with the mass mechanical slaughter of conscripted cannon-fodder, floundering in muddy trenches.

So, might there have been a kickabout in the frozen fields somewhere between Neuve Chapelle and Fleurbaix on Christmas Day 1914? Certainly, if anyone would have been up for a game, it would have been sergeant Douglas William Chisholm of Letchworth, bookbinder, conceived in Edinburgh and born in the Elephant & Castle in London, pioneer Bermondsey Boy Scout, and keen all-round sportsman and athlete. It's a nice, romantic idea, isn't it?

Wot, no snow?

Sadly, it is highly unlikely to be true. The War Diary is silent on the matter – not surprising, as "fraternisation with the enemy" is a serious military offence – and does not indicate which companies had moved back into support, and which were in the fire-trenches. However, it does record that two men of the regiment were killed on Christmas Day. If there had been a temporary truce on that part of the Western Front, it can't have lasted very long, and if there was a football match, it clearly got out of hand. No: this article, and this one, which I have since discovered and which describe the death by sniper-fire of two men from D Company, suggest that any seasonal shows of goodwill, unfortunately, didn't quite make it to that part of the Front Line. The cheerless "professional discipline" of the guards regiments seems to have been a major factor, so it seems that the "Herts Guards" moniker was bought at a price.

This, of course, is the self-same Christmas that has subsequently become synonymous with self-deluding political and military optimism. "It'll all be over by Christmas!" Oh, no it won't. But, despite those ensuing four years of misery and senseless slaughter, there's a deeper truth lying beneath what happened in France that frosty late December, isn't there? An uncynical truth – a Christmas truth, perhaps – of hope and faith in humanity. Those British, French, German, and Austrian men who took the risk of stepping out into No Man's Land, disobeying every military statute and command and the very instinct of self-preservation, created a myth worth celebrating, re-telling, and passing down the generations in Europe, didn't they?

It's hard not to feel that we in Britain have let them down, this year, with our foolish rejection of what did eventually grow from the spirit that produced those spontaneous and courageous leaps of faith. It seems that we have decided to join the others; the ones on both sides who skulked in the cold safety of their dugouts, either out of discipline, or fear, or actual contempt for the "enemy", even taking the occasional deadly potshot at each other on Christmas Day. Well, I bet most of them came to wish they had taken that leap of faith towards international brotherhood, not least when their own sons were made to put on uniforms and pick up the same rifles twenty-four years later. Though perhaps never quite as much as those who did take it will have regretted that they ever put the football and the brandy away, shaken hands one last time, and retreated back into those bloody trenches. It could all have been over by Christmas, couldn't it?

Well, no, not really. A few hundred, perhaps a few thousand defiantly disobedient men at the sharp end of the massive, unfeeling wedge that is an army, could never have withstood the courts-martial, the exemplary executions, the tabloid outrage, the white feathers, the whole orchestrated shit-storm of shaming that keeps even the most sensitive, sensible men quiet and compliant in the face of the suicidal insanity of warfare. Armies know well enough how to deal with mutiny, and have been doing so since Roman times; consider the origins of that much-misunderstood word "decimation".

Resistance always finds a way, however. Of all the many recent works about WW1, the best, in my opinion, is the BBC TV play written by the editor of Private Eye, Ian Hislop, about the subversively funny trench newspaper The Wipers Times. * I won't describe it, just recommend it to you. It's brilliantly witty, funny, moving, and best of all completely true. A more British-yet-universal story about the power of the pen versus the power of the sword (or, in Wipers Times argot, the wallop of the whizz-bang) would be hard to find.

So, look on the bright side. The forces of darkness may be gathering, and the bad guys may be winning, but that surely also means we're about to enter a golden age of satire. Cheers!

from The Wipers Times

* It's available on UK Netflix, and may be elsewhere on the Web. It can also be bought as a BBC DVD. Maybe a last-minute present for someone with a sense of humour and a sense of history?


seany said...

Thank you Mike for that great piece of what is a very personal part of your family's history, one has to feel a deep debt of gratitude to these men/women for the sacrifices they made for humanity in both wars 1st and 2nd.We who were fortunate enough to be born into a period without wars can count ourselves truly lucky and hope that the foolishness we are now witnessing will not lead to a repetition of past horrors.

Mike C. said...


Absolutely. Although I should say that, although I have a fascination for military matters (like so many of us born before 1960, I was raised with the expectation that military service would inevitably figure in my life at some point), I am more than slightly allergic to the deference to "service" that colours discussion, especially in the USA. I suppose I'm allergic to deference, full stop.


Omer said...

It must be sublime to discover family history this way.

I think your aversion to deference of "service" is healthy, as it questions authority. Well, I hope that's right as I too am averse to deference. Unfortunately we may be entering a time of fatuous patriotism engineered by cynical and venal usurpers.

Zouk Delors said...

Unfortunately, not the last time "back by Christmas" was heard. Ever again?

Mike C. said...


I think anything promised "by Christmas" (except Christmas, obvs) has come pre-loaded with cynicism since 1914...

btw, a word to the wise: if you embed unexplained links in comments (a) Blogger will probably reject them as spam, and (b) no-one will follow them, anyway, not knowing where they are going.

All the best for 2017!