Last week I concentrated on two main tasks. The first was to produce a press release about ‘The Chieftain’ which, with the help and advice of some good friends and the marketing section of The History Press, I sent out by email yesterday to about 30 regional and national media contacts I had selected. I received one immediate response and an enthusiastic telephone call with a reporter from a regional newspaper in the area where George Clarke (aka ‘The Chieftain’) was born. Should get a good report in one or more papers in the company’s group, which is an encouraging start (see http://www.cambridge-news.co.uk/Royston/On-the-trail-of-an-infamous-Victorian-sleuth-01122011.htm).
My second task last week was to spend two days in London, doing research for my next book, always a pleasurable experience. I spent last Tuesday at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) going through some soldiers’ recollections of their involvement in battles where my grandfather also participated. The IWM is a wonderful museum both for the general visitor and for those with more specific interests like myself. On Wednesday I moved across London to the National Archives at Kew where I wanted to concentrate on some Battalion War Diaries. I was particularly keen to find out more about my grandfather’s brother-in-law Mike, who was frequently mentioned in my grandfather’s letters home. Mike was in the Machine Gun Corps and was sent home, wounded, in May 1917 and never returned to the Western Front. Fortuitously, Mike’s records have survived (unlike about 70-75% of WW1 British soldier’s records which were destroyed during a German bombing raid in WW2). Those records indicated that Mike had, between May 4-6 1917, been shot in the knee by a bullet from his own revolver, while he was cleaning it, and there remained a question whether the self-inflicted injury was accidental or deliberate. I decided that I wanted to find out more about the events occurring at the approximate time that Mike was injured.
Thanks to the tremendous archival resources at Kew, I tracked Mike down to 193 Machine Gun Company, serving with 56th Division. At full strength, the company had 10 officers and 177 ‘other ranks’. Their war diary contained more information than I was expecting to find. I discovered that in early May 1917, they were taking part in an attack near Wancourt as part of the late stages of the Battle of Arras…a battle in which the final casualties exceeded those of the more notorious Battle of the Somme. On 3 May, 56th Division attacked. That day, 193 Machine Gun Company lost 5 men killed and 12 wounded (i.e. about 10% of the full complement). The following day (4 May 1917) the war diary recorded that none were killed, but 8 other ranks were wounded including “1 accidentally self-inflicted”. Sadly, the war diaries rarely record ‘other ranks’ by name, but I can be pretty sure that the latter reference is specifically to Mike, and it is interesting that on the day it happened he was given the benefit of any doubt judging by the writer’s use of the word “accidentally”. On the same day, the war diary reported that a Second-Lieutenant in the Company “was admitted to hospital suffering from severe nervous shock”, what we would now call ‘shell shock’. This conveys a further glimpse of the horrors these men had to face in the heat of battle.
So I returned from the archives with a much better picture of Mike’s service in the Army. His convalescence was a long one but he recovered sufficiently to become a member of the Army Service Corps working at Woolwich Arsenal until he was demobbed and returned to his trade as a plasterer and builder. As a small boy I met him a few times, and recall a rather taciturn chain-smoking individual (like many of his generation), who nonetheless had a dry sense of humour, probably an essential feature for all survivors of that ghastly war.