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Hippisley Hut: Wireless interception at the outbreak of World War One

By Elizabeth Bruton

Update on 23/03/15: Hippisley Hut is now available for sale via Bedfords & Co at http://www.bedfords.co.uk/SearchPropertyDetails.aspx?propid=35329_BUR130028 and in the meantime is available to rent as a holiday home at http://www.kettcountrycottages.co.uk/cottage/hippisley-hut/

Update on 29/07/14: Much thanks to Brian Austin for clarifying the details of Richard L. Hippisley and Richard John Bayntun Hippisley; the article has now been amended accordingly.

Hippisley Hut, Hunstanton, as it looks today.

Hippisley Hut, Hunstanton, as it looks today. Image courtesy of Sowerby’s.

Hippisley Hut in Hunstanton, Norfolk is now up for sale by Sowerby’s.  This ordinary wooden house near Hunstanton on the Norfolk coast is of historic interest being the birthplace of wireless interception during World War One.  So who was Hippisley and what was his role in development of wireless interception during World War One?  Why did he choose Hunstanton for his wireless interception “hut”?

Hippisley’s background and role in wireless interception at the outbreak of war

Richard John Bayntun Hippisley (1865-1956)

Richard John Bayntun Hippisley (1865-1956). Image from Mate’s County Series (1908) and available in the public domain.

Richard John Bayntun Hippisley (1865-1956) (known as Bayntun and referred to as such throughout this article) was born in Somerset in 1865 and was educated and trained in electrical and mechanical engineering: he was trained at Hammond College (later Faraday House), London and apprenticed at Thorn Engineering Company. In July 1888, Bayntun was gazetted as a 2nd Lieutenant in the North Somerset Yeomanry.

Bayntun Hippisley’s interest in science and technology was very much following in a family tradition. His grandfather, known as the “Old Squire”, was a member of many of Europe’s leading scientific societies and a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS), and Bayntun inherited this interest in science. Bayntun Hippisley’s specific interest in electrical engineering and telecommunications may have been sparked by the earlier work of a relative (a half-Uncle, by my reckoning), Richard Lionel (R.L.) Hippisley (1853-1936). R.L. Hippisley was a member of the Royal Engineers and served as Director of Telegraphs in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902).  In 1902, Colonel Hippisley returned to England and served as Chief Engineer (Scottish Command) of the Royal Engineers until 1910 when he retired.  In 1903, Colonel Hippisley wrote History of Telegraph Operations during the South African War, 1899 – 1902 and in 1903 and 1906 he served as one of the British representatives at the International Conferences on Wireless Telegraphy held in Berlin.

In 1908, Bayntun followed his elder relative’s path in the armed services, becoming an honorary Lieutenant Colonel of the North Somerset Yeomanry.  It was also around this time, and possibly due to his relative’s interest in wireless telegraphy, that Bayntun too began to develop an interest in wireless.  Soon Bayntun acquired a wireless license from the Post Office to operate his own wireless station, operating under the callsign HLX (later 2CW).  In 1912, he operated a wireless station in the Lizard, Cornwall and picked up messages from the Titanic.  In 1913, Hippisley was appointed a member of the War Office Committee on Wireless Telegraphy.

At the outbreak of war, many pre-war wireless amateurs including Bayntun approached the Admiralty about setting up a network of wireless stations to intercept enemy wireless traffic.  Lacking the resources and manpower to establish this network themselves, the Admiralty gladly accepted and many pre-war wireless amateurs became naval “voluntary interceptors”.

Two of these wireless amateurs who joined up had already been logging intercepts of German traffic at their amateur stations in London and Wales respectively, despite the official call to confiscate all privately-owned wireless receivers.  These two men were friends and wireless amateurs Edward Russell Clarke, (callsign THX) a barrister and automotive pioneer, and Bayntun Hippisley.

From their wireless stations in Wales and London respectively, Bayntun and Russell Clarke were receiving German naval signals from the German Navy on a lower wavelength than was currently being received by the existing Marconi stations.  They had isolated and reported a number of regular signals they believed to be from German naval wireless stations at Neumunster and Norddeich. Their report was passed onto the Admiralty’s Intelligence Division and so, along with many other such amateurs, they were sent to work for Naval Intelligence as ‘voluntary interceptors’ (VIs) and reported their signals intelligence back to Room 40. Bayntun was appointed Commander RNVR for service with the Naval Intelligence Division.

In late 1914, Bayntun and Russell Clarke were sent to Hunstanton on the Norfolk coast to setup a listening post in a former coastguard station in what became known as ‘Hippisley’s Hut’.  Hunstanton was chosen because it was the highest point nearest the German coast and was also home to an existing Marconi wireless station.

Marconi wireless station at Hunstanton

The Marconi wireless station at Hunstanton was established about 1909 and the former power station is still in place today.

"Empire Series": Lighthouse & Wireless Telegraph Station Hunstanton postcard, c. 1909.

“The Empire Series”: Lighthouse & Wireless Telegraph Station Hunstanton postcard, c. 1909. Image courtesy of Gavin Fuller.

"Empire Series": Lighthouse & Wireless Telegraph Station Hunstanton postcard, c. 1909.

“The Empire Series”: Lighthouse & Wireless Telegraph Station Hunstanton postcard, c. 1909.

Two of the contemporary images of the Marconi wireless station at Hunstanton come from the Empire series.  The “Empire Series” (or sometimes “E.S.”) was published by the Pictorial Post Card Company which operated from Red Lion Square, London between 1904 and 1909.  They also printed view-cards, novelty cards, actors and actresses, and comic cards by Donald McGill as well as the Empire Series postcards.

Wireless interception at Hunstanton

When Bayntun and Russell Clarke arrived at the coastguard station at Hunstanton in late 1914, they found a wooden mast with no aerial but they were soon intercepting signals. The station was very successful, intercepting German naval and airship wireless signals, and led to a series of 14 wireless intercept (Y stations) being setup along the British coast as well as station in Italy and Malta.

As a result of his wartime service and successes, Bayntun was awarded an OBE (military) in 1918; this was promoted to a CBE (civil) in 1937.

Wireless Direction-Finding Station on the cliffs near Hunstanton, c. 1915.

Wireless Direction-Finding Station on the cliffs near Hunstanton, c. 1915.
Image available in the public domain.

Hunstanton was also home, at least temporarily, to a wireless direction-finding station (B station) which was used to locate the position of German naval vessels and airships by triangulating their wireless signals.

Utilising this combination of signal interception and direction-finding, the resulting intelligence came to the fore in 1916 with notable successes during the First Blitz by Zeppelins and the Battle of Jutland. By 1917 a turning point had been reached with more U-boats sunk and Zeppelins downed than any previous years mostly in thanks to wireless interception and decryption. Wireless was also successfully employed with the clearing of the Western Approaches in late 1917, a development which was credit to Bayntun himself. By 1918 the Admiralty signals intelligence (or ‘SIGINT’) guaranteed complete control of the airwaves and during the first four months of the year four Zeppelins were shot down over England and twenty-four U-boats sunk.

After the war

After the war, Bayntun returned to his family’s estate Ston Easton in Somerset and resumed his pre-war life. In 1931 he was elected a County Alderman for Somerset, and appointed Traffic Commissioner for the Western Counties. He was awarded the CBE (Civil) in 1937. Bayntun died in April 1956 at the age of 90 and his life was remembered with an obituary in the Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers as well as letter in The Times from his friend Lieutenant-Colonel H.W. Kettlewell. Kettlewell’s letter in The Times praised Bayntun as “an almost unique personality … [who possessed] a most remarkable mechnical and scientific gift…” In particular, Kettlewell highlighted Bayntun’s contribution to the war effort during the First World War:

[Bayntun was] given carte blanche to select, organize and maintain throughout the war the wireless stations round these [British] isles; so secret and of such importance was his work that he could then only be communicated with through the Admiralty. Some 20 years or more I happened to meet a well-known admiral, who, when I mentioned Bayntun Hippisley as among my friends, remarked: “He was one of the men who really won the war.”

Bayntun Hippisley’s vital role in World War One was further highlighted in a 1995 article in The Times by William Rees-Mogg, “Tradition and the innovate talent”:

In Somerset we believe that Bayntun Hippisley personally won the First World War. He came from a family with an engineering and scientific talent; his grandfather had been a Fellow of the Royal Society. Bayntun was an early pioneer of radio research; in 1913 he was appointed a member of the Parliamentary Commission of Wireless for the Army . When war broke out in 1914 he joined Naval Intelligence and was made a commander. He was the man who solved the problem of listening to U-boats when they were talking to each on the radio by devising a double-tuning device which simultaneously identified the waveband and precise wavelength. That, it is said, was essential to clearing the Western Approaches in late 1917, when American troops were coming over. Bayntun Hippisley sat in Goonhilly listening to the U-boat captains as they chatted happily to each other in clear German; he told the destroyers where to find them; the food and the Americans got through.

Sources and further information

A Brief History of the Hippisley Family by Mike Matthews

Auto Biography & History Michael John Hippisley Born 18th July 1934

Grace’s Guide: Baynton_Hippisley

h2g2: Richard John Bayntun Hippisley (1865-1956)

JHRB, Obituary: Richard John Bayntun Hippisley in Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, Vol 3 No 26 (1957), 111.

Kettlewell, Lieutenant-Colonel H.W. Cmdr. R. J. B. Hippisley. The Times, 11 April 1956, p13.

Rees-Mogg, William. Tradition and the innovative talent. The Times, 5 June 1995, p5.

West, Nigel. GCHQ: The Secret Wireless War, 1900-86. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986, 33, 54.

About the author: Dr Elizabeth Bruton is postdoctoral researcher for “Innovating in Combat”.  See her Academia.edu profile for further details.

Guest post by David Barlow: Wireless announces the outbreak of war

By David Barlow, Lizard Wireless Museum

Message sent from the Marconi long-distance wireless station at Poldhu on 5 August 1914 using the callsign ZZ for communicating with ships and received by merhcant vessel SS Calgarian, later HMS Calgarian.

Message sent from the Marconi long-distance wireless station at Poldhu on 5 August 1914 using the callsign ZZ for communicating with ships and received by merhcant vessel SS Calgarian, later HMS Calgarian.

Early on the morning of 5 August, a wireless message was sent by the powerful long-distance Marconi wireless station at Poldhu (callsign ZZ) on behalf of the Admiralty to all British merchant vessels. The message was the first public announcement of war and warned British merchant vessels not to go to German ports.

On the previous day, 4 August 1914, the German Army had crossed the Belgian border on their way to France and hence ignored Belgian neutrality. As guarantors of Belgian neutrality, Britain was obliged to declare war upon Germany and her allies. Reports differ as to the actual time that the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith declared war against Germany as it was a Bank Holiday. The following morning, newspapers varied in their times between 7pm and 11pm with the official time of declaration of war between Britain and Germany was probably midnight.

As well as warning British merchant vessels, the Admiralty had to, of course, advise ships of the Royal Navy that war had been declared as soon as it was announced. This would have been done both by landline and using its network of shore stations to advise ships at sea. Merchant ships also had to be advised both of the outbreak of war and not to go to German ports. This was done by not only sending the message to the Post Office run coast stations which were in contact with merchant and passenger ships but to ensure it was received out in the Atlantic it was sent to the high powered station at Poldhu in Cornwall.

Marconi wireless station at Poldhu, c.1910.

The Marconi wireless station at Poldhu, c.1910, taken from from Salmon, Arthur L. The Cornwall
Coast (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1910), 137. Photograph by Gibson & Sons. Image available in the public domain via Wikimedia.

The connection between the Admiralty and the Marconi Company – first established as the Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company in 1897 and later renamed Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company in 1900 – dated back to 1896 when Marconi gave early demonstrations of his wireless system to officers from the Royal Navy including one Captain Henry Jackson. Jackson had been experimenting with wireless telegraphy himself and was probably the first person to signal from ship-to-ship using wireless telegraphy. Jackson advised Marconi on adapting his wireless system to make it more suitable for maritime use and supported the integration of Marconi’s wireless system into the Royal Navy, in parallel with the development of his own system.

The Marconi Company sent wireless telegraphy apparatus out to South Africa for use by the British Army in the Second Boer War (1899-1902). Atmospheric and geographical conditions as well as the relatively experimental nature of the wireless apparatus meant they were unsuitable for use on land but the wireless apparatus was adapted by the Royal Navy for use at sea and was used to support the naval blockade of Delagoa Bay. This was the first use of wireless telegraphy under wartime conditions.

In part as a result of these successes, in 1901 the Admiralty signed an agreement with the Marconi Company to supply wireless telegraphy apparatus for Royal Navy ships and to set up coast stations to receive signals from the ships. This contract was further extended in 1903 and in 1904 the Royal Navy began to use the Marconi wireless system exclusively. By 1908, the importance of Admiralty wireless messages was acknowledged in the “Handbook for Wireless Operators” which noted that distress calls had priority followed by Admiralty messages and then safety messages, also known as danger messages, which were preceded by the Morse code signal TTT.

Meanwhile, coastal wireless shore stations selected included “Telegraph Tower” on the Isles of Scilly as well as Culver Cliff, Dover, Portland, Spurn Head and Languard in England, St. Anne’s Head in Wales and Roche’s Point and Bere Island in Ireland. The Admiralty also had hub stations in major locations such as Gibraltar & Malta with a central station in London called “Whitehall Wireless.” In 1911, the central Admiralty wireless station in London was moved to the Admiralty buildings in Whitehall and this was probably used as the communications and receiving centre for “Room 40”, the Admiralty’s centre for naval intelligence including signals intelligence during World War One.

To mark the centenary of the outbreak of World War One and to highlight the role of wireless in alerting the world especially shipping to the outbreak of war, a special callsign GB100ZZ has been allocated to a wireless station at Poldhu, near to the former site of the Marconi long-distance wireless station. GB100 callsigns are rare and are only given to mark centenary national events.

GB100ZZ Station Details

Active from Poldhu home of GB2GM from 3-30 August 2014.

QTH – Poldhu site where declaration of war was transmitted on night of 4 August 1914.
Station organised by the Radio Officers’ Association to honour the Wireless Operators who gave their lives in the Great War on both sides of the conflict.  This event will be run by the Poldhu Amateur Radio Club from the site of the Marconi Centre.

QSL – e-qsl ONLY (unless a sponsor can be found).

Locator io70ia

For full details, see www.500kcs.org

British Pathe wireless films from World War One

The entire British Pathe archive of over 85,000 films is now available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/user/britishpathe

This collection includes some wonderful wireless-related films, see https://www.youtube.com/user/britishpathe/search?query=wireless

Two particular films of interest are:

Arriving For Instructions In Wireless – Telegraphy At Marconi House (1919) which opens with a scene of army wireless operators arriving at Marconi House in London for training

Wireless Installation On Train (1914-1918) which shows a wireless mast being installed on top of a stopped train.

It was the latter of film which was of particular interest – the description below the video stated that the location of events was unknown and that the nationality of the soldiers were not absolutely certain but might be Belgian.

Screenshot of wireless mast being put up from British Pathe film, Wireless Installation On Train (1914-1918).

Screenshot of wireless mast being put up from British Pathe film, Wireless Installation On Train (1914-1918).

An answer came via one of our subscribers and Len Blasiol on the Modern Conflict Archaeology Facebook group that the soldiers were definitely French officers and men:

The helmets look a bit like those of Poilu although it’s difficult to tell with certainty whether they have the metal ridge. However, there are two officers in the scene. One leans out of the railroad car at two points, and the other walks up near the end. Both of them have a quatrefoil on the top of their kepi.

Screenshot of group of soldiers beside the train from British Pathe film, Wireless Installation On Train (1914-1918).

Screenshot of group of soldiers beside the train from British Pathe film, Wireless Installation On Train (1914-1918).

So this rather begs the question: why and how were they using a wireless system on a stopped train and where and when might this film be from?

Please answer in our comments below!

Update: Chris Phillips from the University of Leeds, an expert on the logistical administration, in particular trains, of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front from 1914 to 1918, suggested that this might be an advance headquarters.  For example, Haig had a train advanced headquarters but Chris was unable to comment on how common this might have been in the French Army.

Might anyone be able to provide any further information?

Guest post by Andreas Marklund: Female Censors at the Danish State Telegraph during World War One

Two young telegraphers at the Main Telegraph Station in Copenhagen c.1915

Two young telegraphers at the Main Telegraph Station in Copenhagen, Miss Galschiøtt and Mr. Henriksen, aiding a secret military intelligence unit called Kystcentralen, circa 1915. Post & Tele Museum, Copenhagen.

On June 1, 1918, ten “ladies” with “excellent language skills” had their first day of work as telegram censors at the Danish state telegraph. They had all been tested in foreign languages – German, French and English – by a professor at the University of Copenhagen, and all of them were quite literally daughters of the elite. The first two names on the list of employees are illuminating: “Miss INGER GRAM, daughter of the Supreme Court President, Dr. Jur. R.S. Gram”, followed by “Miss ASTRID HERTZ, daughter of the Medical Officer, Dr. Med. Poul Hertz.”

Inger Gram and Astrid Hertz, and their eight, equally unmarried colleagues, were employed by the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs but their office was located at the Main Telegraph Station in Copenhagen. Here, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had a unit for cable censorship, which had been in operation since November 1916. In fact, the system of censorship and secret monitoring had been up and running since August 1, 1914, when the Telegraph Directory decreed that no telegrams transmitted from Denmark should contain “sensational and false messages about Danish conditions and popular moods“. However, the system was loosely organized in the beginning of the war, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was anything but satisfied with the practical handling of censorship issues, which initially sorted under the Telegraph Directory and the so-called Ministry for Public Works. Accordingly, after a harsh debate in the Danish parliament, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs took charge of the surveillance system and established its own Censorship Office at the Main Telegraph Station, which was staffed by four external censors who had no previous connections to the Danish State Telegraph.

Yet the system remained inefficient and defective. The Ministry of Foreign Affair’s censorship director, Marinus Yde, complained in a memo to his superiors that merely 500-600 telegrams, out of the approximately 7 000 telegrams that the Danish State Telegraph transmitted on a daily basis, were handed over to his censors. Thus, there was clear lack of cooperation between the censors and the ordinary telegraph staff. In another memo, dated to 29 April 1918, Mr. Yde bemoaned this glitch in the system in a rather candid tone:

The whole mountain of telegram correspondence is thus being processed without any other control than that which is carried out by the (often very young) telegraph operators, while they are transmitting and charging the telegrams. This kind of control is of no value at all.

This is where Miss Inger Gram and her nine female colleagues entered the picture. They were definitely not the first women within the Danish telecommunications sector. The first female telegraph operator in the country, the famous author and feminist Mathilde Fibiger, had entered service as early as in 1863, and there had been women working for the Censorship Office before the summer of 1918, for instance as stenographers and record keepers. Yet the idea of employing women as cable censors was a novelty of World War One – and its origin was seemingly Swedish. In the above-mentioned 1918 memo, Mr Yde wrote about an excursion to the Main Telegraph Station in Stockholm, where female censor clerks functioned as a kind of basic control filter, by “sifting” the “whole mountain” of incoming and outgoing telegrams. And whenever they discovered a suspicious message, it was forwarded to senior (male) censors in a neighboring office.

Mr. Yde was greatly impressed by this model and recommended it with enthusiasm to his superiors. The gender aspect was explicitly highlighted: “The main work could definitely be carried out by female employees, who would be provided by the State Telegraph, thereby keeping the expenses at a minimum.” As the quotation makes clear, there was a financial dimension to the employment of female censors: qualified women with the necessary language skills were far less expensive to keep on the pay-roll than equally qualified men.

Electric transporter, anno 1917, carrying telegrams between the departments at the Main Telegraph Station in Copenhagen

Electric transporter, anno 1917, carrying telegrams between the departments at the Main Telegraph Station in Copenhagen. In the background, busy female operators are typing on their Morse apparatuses. Post & Tele Museum, Copenhagen.

So, the Censorship Office was re-organized yet again and it assumed a bicameral structure. The original censorship unit at the Main Telegraph Station was supplemented with an extra department called the Control Office, where the staff was made up by the ten language-skilled “ladies” (damer) and one man: a young PhD in philosophy named Kort Kristian Kortsen, who was affiliated with the University of Copenhagen. As in the case of the Swedish surveillance system, the mission of this office was to “carry out the preliminary, crude assessment of the massive load of telegrams, and put all those telegrams aside, that calls for a closer inspection by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ current censors.” This kind of surveillance work was labelled “control” (kontrol), whereas the senior office dealt with something called “prohibitive censorship” (prohibitiv censur).

Both offices were managed by an Official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs named Lauritz Larsen, who was considered to be equipped with “exactly that interest for general patterns and small details, which is necessary for the perfect overall result.” To speed up the process and reduce the number of customer complaints, the offices were connected through a logistical device called an “electric transporter”: a cart that ran on rails in the ceiling with telegrams, censorship minutes and other kinds of messages. Yet the friction between the censors and the cable station staff remained an unresolved issue, and the system continued to be haunted by delays, misunderstandings and direct conflicts, but that is another story for another day.

Andreas Marklund is Researcher and Research Coordinator at Post & Tele Museum in Copenhagen, Denmark.

World War One online resources, February 2014

I came across a few World War One online resources which were worth sharing.  These have all been added to our updated links page too.

The Centenary of the First World War: commemorating the centenary of the Great War of 1914-18
A website provided by The Western Front Association to record items of interest during the course of the Centenary of the Great War 1914-18. The aim of the site is also to include a comprehensive calendar of Great War Centenary events provided not only by the WFA itself but by many others in the UK and internationally.

David Doughty
Australian website about all things World War One with a particular focus on the ANZAC experience.

the Online Book Page: World War, 1914-1918
A regularly updated list of digitised books on the subject of World War One, sub-divided by subject

World War One propaganda posters
Assorted propaganda posters from all participants in World War One

IWM Putting Art on the Map
A collection of First World War artworks from Imperial War Museums has been added to Historypin for you to explore, curate and update with comments, suggestions and stories. The site features the work of artists including John Singer Sargent, Paul Nash and Eric Kennington.

Putting Art on the Map at the BPMA: Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps Signallers, Base Hill, Rouen. Telephones. Forewoman Milnes and Captain Pope.

By Elizabeth Bruton

On Monday 10 February 2014, I attended the Historypin and Putting Art on the Map event at the British Postal Museum and Archive at Mount Pleasant in London. The aim of the event was to “crowdsource” expertise and knowledge in order to improve catalogue information about First World War art held by the Imperial War Museum, London. The particular theme of the event was Postal communications and Telecommunications in the First World War and further information about the event is available on the HistoryPin blog as well as the British Postal Museum & Archive blog.

All of the participants were given physical and online copies of a selection of art relating to World War One telecommunication and postal communications from the IWM collection and asked to discuss and contribute further details.  While it was possible to contribute research and knowledge to multiple images (and this was something which happened more in the discussion at the tail end of the event), I choose to research a single image: Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps Signallers, Base Hill, Rouen : Telephones. Forewoman Milnes and Captain Pope.

Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps Signallers, Base Hill, Rouen : Telephones. Forewoman Milnes and Captain Pope.

Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps Signallers, Base Hill, Rouen : Telephones. Forewoman Milnes and Captain Pope. Art.IWM ART 2900. Copyright IWM.

The existing information in the catalogue was the title (above); the name of the painter, Beatrice Lithiby (OBE); and the description: view of a military telephone exchange, with four women operators seated at their telephone sets, a seated male officer and a soldier using a handset.

I began with the location, Rouen, France, and was able to discover the following information:

Rouen was one of the major Infantry Base Depots (IBD) and was in use for the duration of the war. Rouen in particular was a supply base and also home to a number of hospitals. As a result, it is home to a number of World War One cemeteries for the soldiers who died at the nearby hospitals. An IBD was one of the British Army holding camps which were situated within easy distance of one the Channel ports. IBDs received men on arrival from England and kept them in training while they awaiting posting to a unit at the front; they were also used supply bases.
Source: The Long, Long Tail: The British Army in the Great War of 1914-1918 – The Infantry Base Depots.

Information about Rouen base is available via the War Diaries held by the National Archives, in particular WO 95/4043 – Rouen Base: Commandant, August 1914 to December 1918. Unfortunately, none of these diaries have been digitised as of now (February 2014) in the National Archives Unit War Diaries.
Update from David Underdown at National Archives: At present [February 2014] only war diaries of divisions and subordinate formations have been digitised. GHQ, Army, Corps and Lines of Communication units have not yet been done (and nothing outside France and Flanders).

Next, I moved onto information about the artist, Beatrice Ethel Lithiby.

Beatrice Ethel Lithiby (1889-1966) Lithiby was a painter and designer born in Richmond, Surrey in 1889, the daughter of a barrister. She studied at the Royal Academy Schools and served as a war artist in World War One. On the death of her father set up her studio at Wantage.
Source: Suffolk Painters: LITHIBY, Beatrice Ethel (1889 – 1966).

Five of her paintings (none from World War One) are available at BBC Your Paintings: Beatrice Ethel Lithiby Lithiby also served in World War Two, in the Auxiliary Territorial Service and was awarded an OBE/MBE in 1944.

Next, I moved onto information about Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps.

Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps (QMAAC) was the successor (renamed) to the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC) and was given this title in April 1918 although it took a while for the title to be put to use. If the title is correct, then this painting is from late in the war, mid-1918 or afterwards. After a German air raid in September 1940, most of the service records of the QMAAC were destroyed. Surviving records have recently been digitised by the National Archives and are searchable online via the National Archives

From National Archives War Office: Women’s (later Queen Mary’s) Army Auxiliary Corps: Service Records, First World War (Microfilm Copies):

The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was formed following Lieutenant General H M Lawson’s report of 16 January 1917 which recommended employing women in the army in France. Mrs Chalmers Watson became Chief Controller of the new organisation and recruiting began in March 1917, although the Army Council Instruction no 1069 of 1917 which formally established the WAAC was not issued until 7 July 1917.

Although it was a uniformed service, there were no military ranks in the WAAC; instead of officers and other ranks, it was made up of ‘officials’ and ‘members’. Officials were divided into ‘controllers’ and ‘administrators’, members were ‘subordinate officials’, ‘forewomen’ and ‘workers’. The WAAC was organised in four sections: Cookery, Mechanical, Clerical and Miscellaneous; nursing services were discharged by the separate Voluntary Aid Detachments, although eventually an auxiliary corps of the Royal Army Medical Corps was set up to provide medical services for the WAAC.

In appreciation of its good services, it was announced on 9 April 1918 that the WAAC was to be re-named ‘Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps’ (QMAAC), with Her Majesty as Commander-in-Chief of the Corps. At its height in November 1918, the strength of the QMAAC was more than 40,000 women, although nearly 10,000 women employed on Royal Flying Corps air stations had transferred to the Women’s Royal Air Force on its formation in April 1918. Approximately, a total of 57,000 women served with the WAAC and QMAAC during the First World War. Demobilisation commenced following the Armistice in November 1918 and on 1 May 1920 the QMAAC ceased to exist, although a small unit remained with the Graves Registrations Commission at St Pol until September 1921.

Further information on the WAAC can be found in Arthur Marwick, Women at War, 1914-1918 (London, 1977).

From The Long, Long Tail: The British Army of 1914-1918 – for family historians: Women’s organisations and the service of women in the British army of 1914-1918:

The first WAACs moved to France on 31 March 1917. By early 1918, some 6,000 WAACs were there. It was officially renamed the QMAAC in April 1918 but this title was not generally adopted and the WAACs stayed WAACs. The organisation of the WAAC mirrored the military model: their officers (called Controllers and Administrators rather than Commissioned Officers, titles jealously protected) messed separately from the other ranks. The WAAC equivalent of an NCO was a Forewoman, the private a Worker. The women were largely employed on unglamorous tasks on the lines of communication: cooking and catering, storekeeping, clerical work, telephony and administration, printing, motor vehicle maintenance. A large detachment of WAACs worked for the American Expeditionary Force and was an independent body under their own Chief Controller. WAAC/QMAAC was formally under the control of the War Office and was a part of the British Army.

'W.A.A.C. Every Fit Woman Can Release a Fit Man', 1918 (c).

‘W.A.A.C. Every Fit Woman Can Release a Fit Man’, 1918 (c). Image courtesy of National Army Museum.

Based on recruitment posters depicting the uniforms of the WAAC and the QMAAC, it would appear that the uniform did not change when the corps name changed – see National Army Museum: ‘W.A.A.C. Every Fit Woman Can Release a Fit Man’, 1918 for an image of the WAAC and Art.IWM PST 13167: Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps, June 1918 for an image of the QMAAC uniform (thank you, Helen Glew!). Independent of the fact that this artwork does not show the front of the women’s uniforms, this lack of difference in uniform means confirming whether this artwork depicts the WAAC or the QMAAC is challenging.

Last and most definitely not least, I moved onto the image itself and was even to trace the details of one of the women depicted, Forewoman (Evelyn) Milnes.

Members of QMAAC served with Royal Engineers Signals and Postal Units and this is what this image appears to show.

The women are wearing the white and blue signallers armbands and are working as telephone operators. In civilian life up to and including World War One, most telephone operators were female. However, military telephone operators especially those in France, were generally men and Royal Engineers. For example, see the photograph below (which is also used in our header image).

Signallers working at the headquarters of R.E.S.S. in France, during World War I

Signallers working at the headquarters of R.E.S.S. in France, during World War I. Image courtesy of the National Library of Scotland.

The photographic image above entitled “Signallers working at the headquarters of the Royal Engineers Signal Service (RESS) in France during World War I” closely matches the setup and apparatus of this painting. This would suggest that military telephone exchange apparatus did not change significantly during the war, assuming the dates I have attributed are correct. Although undated, I would date the RESS HQ photograph image to c.1916 and assuming the artwork title is correct and this does depict the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps then this art can be dated to mid- to late-1918. The close match of apparatus and setup, even down to the lampshades and headsets used, also suggests that the war artist was realistically and faithfully depicting the telephone exchange and indeed may have based it on sketches taken in situ.

Later in the war, the gender of military telephone operators began to change and safer locations such as the telephone exchange at Rouen depot began to be operated by female operators. The US Army also used female telephone operators, in particular bilingual operators fluent in English and French, towards the later stages of the war. These were known, as they had been referred to at home, as “hello girls”.

The image shows Forewoman Milnes (WAAC/QMAAC equivalent of NCO), the lead female telephone operator (on the right of the image) and Captain Pope (the seated military officer). An additional second male soldier operating a telephone handset is unidentified.

Forewoman Evelyn Milnes

According to her military record held by the National Archives, Forewoman Milnes was Evelyn Milnes, born in Sheffield on 24 August 1881 and served in the WAAC and later QMAAC from 1917 to 1920. Evelyn Milnes had five years worth of experience in telephony when she joined the WAAC in 1917 having joined the Post Office as a telephonist in Sheffield in 1912. See Post Office: Staff nomination and appointment, 1831-1969. British Postal Museum and Archive POST 58 reference number 109, accessed via Ancestry.co.uk. Milnes’ appointment is referred to in Minute E23103.

Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find information on Captain Pope (most probably Royal Engineers).

Further information about the telephone switchboards was provided by David Hay of BT Archives:

The telephone switchboards, or at least the cabinets, appear very similar to those used by the National Telephone Company seen at http://www.allposters.co.uk/-sp/The-Switchboard-of-the-National-Telephone-Company-United-Kingdom-Posters_i1874235_.htm, which is interesting as the NTC was nationalised in 1912 which would make these fairly old, presumably sourced by Royal Signals some years before. Post Office switchboards at this time were less decorative.

All in all, it was a wonderful, collaborative day and I look forward to contributing further information to the IWM art collection catalogue.

Dr Elizabeth Bruton is postdoctoral researcher for “Innovating in Combat”.  See her Academia.edu profile for further details.

JRR Tolkien, World War One Signals Officer

By Elizabeth Bruton

Tolkien's Webley Mk VI service revolver, now on display at the Imperial War Museum, North. Photograph: Imperial War Museum

Tolkien’s Webley Mk VI service revolver, now on display at the Imperial War Museum, North. Photograph: Imperial War Museum

JRR Tolkien’s First World War revolver used during his time as a Signal Officer on the Western Front is now on public display at IWM North, part of Imperial War Museum, in Manchester. The revolver has been put on display ahead of the opening of IWM North’s major exhibition ‘From Street To Trench: A War That Shaped a Region’ in April 2014 to mark the First World War Centenary.

Tolkien is probably known for his authorship of the fantasy novels The Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954-1955) and The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937). This novel and series of novels have been (or are in the process of) being converted into successful cinematic adaptations with the most recent example being the first in a trilogy of films based on The Hobbit which was released in UK cinemas in December 2013. Many commenters have drawn parallels between Tolkien’s experiences in World War Two and his novels, in particular the popular The Lord of the Rings published just under a decade after the war had ended.

However, Tolkien himself suggested that a more ready parallel lay with World War One:

One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.
Foreword to the Second Edition, The Fellowship of the Ring: Being the First Part of The Lord of the Rings

J. R. R. Tolkien (aged 24) in army uniform, photograph taken in 1916.

J. R. R. Tolkien (aged 24) in army uniform, photograph taken in 1916.
Image available in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

So what were Tolkein’s wartime experiences and how did they shape his later fictional works?

Tolkien choose not to join up when war broke out in August 1914. but instead joined the Officer Training Corps at Oxford and thus deferred his enlistment until he completed his degree in July 1915.  Upon graduating from Oxford with a first-class degree in English Language and Literature in July 1915, Tolkien was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers as part of Kitchener’s “New Army”, the volunteer army which had succeeded Britain’s small professional army. The small professional army which had been part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in August 1914 and beyond had suffered an extremely high casualty rate early in the war and was gradually replaced by the “New Army” of which Tolkien was a member. Tolkien then trained in Staffordshire for eleven months before begin transferred to the 11th (Service) Battalion with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

In March 1916, Tolkien was granted leave and on 22 March 1916 he married his childhood sweetheart Edith Bratt. When Tolkien was sent abroad, Edith was deeply concerned about her husband’s whereabouts and safety. In order to circumvent the British Army’s postal censorship, Tolkien and his wife developed a secret code which Tolkien used in his letters home to indicate his movements on the Western Front.

In early June 1916, Tolkien’s battalion was sent abroad to France. Tolkien receiver three weeks’ training as a signals officer at the British Army camp at Étaples. Tolkien was appointed Battalion Signal Officer and was responsible for maintaining communication between officers on the frontline and more senior Army officers directing the battle from Battalion Headquarters behind the frontlines. Tolkien learned how to use field telephones, flares, signal lamps, Morse code buzzers, carrier pigeons, and runners to keep the lines of communication open. In July 1916, the 11th Battalion was sent to the Somme to join the joint British-French attack to break through the German lines, later known as the Battle of the Somme.

Fortunately for Tolkien, his battalion was assigned to the reserves at the beginning of the battle and did not take part in the initial attack. Instead Tolkien and his battalion were sent to the trenches a week later and took part in the protracted and unsuccessful attacks that continued the Battle of the Somme into the autumn of 1916. Tolkien and his battalion occupied front-line trenches at Beaumont-Hamel, Serre and the Leipzig Salient. Tolkien’s revolver now on display at the Imperial War Museum, a Webley Mk VI, was the standard issue gun for British servicemen at the outbreak of the war and dated from Tolkien’s time in the trenches.

Frontline conditions made signalling and Tolkien’s role especially challenging: chaotic conditions with damaged apparatus, broken telephone lines and mud everywhere made communication unreliable and impractical. Furthermore, the Germans were successfully intercepting British and French frontline communications during this period meaning telephone and Morse code buzzers were insecure. Thus with the practical introduction of the Fullerphone being a few months’ away, signallers were forced to rely on more traditional modes of communication including runners, visual signalling, and carrier pigeons.

In October 1916, Tolkien contracted “trench fever” which was a disease common in the basic frontline conditions and was carried by lice. In early November 1916, Tolkien was sent back to Birmingham to recover. Shortly after Tolkien’s arrival back in Britain, his battalion was almost completely wiped out. Tolkien never saw frontline service again and a physically weakened Tolkien spent the remainder of the war alternating between hospitals and garrison duties. Tolkien remained in hospital recovering from trench fever until early 1917 when he was deemed medically unfit for general service and was posted to garrison duties in camps in England until the end of the war.

After the war, Tolkien worked at the Oxford English Dictionary and the University of Leeds, amongst others, while he also began writing. In 1925, he was appointed a Fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford where he began to write the Hobbit as well as the first two volumes of the Fellowship of the Rings.

Further information

John Garth. Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (2003).

JRR Tolkien and World War I – Nancy Marie Ott

First World War Centenary News: JRR Tolkien’s First World War revolver to go on display at IWM North

The Guardian: JRR Tolkien’s wartime gun goes on display in Manchester

About the author: Dr Elizabeth Bruton is postdoctoral researcher for “Innovating in Combat”.  See her Academia.edu profile for further details.

Guest post by David Underdown: Lt J W Russell MC DCM MM RE, Dorking

This is a guest post by David Underdown and is a revised and updated version of an article which first appeared in The Ringing World on 19 October 2012, pp1102–1104, 1106–1107.

Surrey Association of Church Bell Ringers First World War Roll of Honour – Lt J W Russell MC DCM MM RE, Dorking

Peal band at Farnham, 25 May 1910, muffled peal of Bob Major to mark the funeral of King Edward VII that day.  Russell is in the doorway at the back of the group.

Peal band at Farnham, 25 May 1910, muffled peal of Bob Major to mark the funeral of King Edward VII that day. Russell is in the doorway at the back of the group.

A couple of years ago I begin to research the 152 men named on the Surrey Association’s roll of honour for the First World War.  Of these, 24 died during the course of the war, the rest survived.  The roll contains the names of a number of high profile ringers, but also many lesser known.  A few names continue to defy all attempts to identify them in censuses, army records etc, but I’ve uncovered a number of interesting stories.  In terms of his war service, perhaps the most interesting of them is the man who appears on the roll as J Russel of Dorking, but various clues soon led me to realise that he was in fact John William Russell.  A simple gardener before the war: he would end it a lieutenant and holding one of the nation’s second highest awards for gallantry, the Distinguished Conduct Medal; two of the third highest decorations, both the Military Cross and the Military Medal; and was also Mentioned in Despatches.  He served throughout with the Signal Service of the Royal Engineers.

John William Russell was born at Mickleham, Surrey, on 10 August 1887.  The family must have moved to Ewhurst quite soon after, by 1891 they were living there, at Coneyhurst Lodge, and the census lists his 2-year-old sister, Catherine Annie as having been born in Ewhurst.  His parents were John (28 – a gardener, born Tydd St Mary, Lincs) and Catherine (29, born Elgin, Scotland), John William often appears in ringing records as W Russell, suggesting he may have been known as William, so Catherine Annie may likewise have been known as Annie.  He was educated at Ewhurst National School, but by the time of the 1901 census, he was 13 and working as a garden boy.  By then the family had grown further, to include Ruth (9), Caroline Jane (7), Charlie (6) and Jessie (5).

It’s not clear exactly when Russell learned to ring, but he seems to have been elected to the Winchester Diocesan Guild in 1905, first appearing in the 1906 Annual Report as W Russell, Ewhurst, Guildford District.  He is listed again as a Ewhurst ringer in 1907.  He’s first mentioned in the ringing press in connection with ringing for the visit of the Bishop of Dorking to Ewhurst on 15 December 1907.

The next item to appear in Bell News didn’t mention Russell directly, but had considerable influence on his life and ringing.  On 18 January 1908 the paper carried an advert by Charles Edwards for two men to work in his plant nursery at Frensham Hill, Surrey.  Edwards was a Herefordshire man, but had moved to Surrey in 1905, and seems to have quickly started shaking up ringing in Farnham and the surrounding area.  He was also particularly associated with Frensham: the bells there had been augmented to six for Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, but it was only when ropeguides were fitted around 1907, and he began teaching some of the locals, that it became a strong band.

The advert which appeared in Bell News, 18 January 1908, p 519

The advert which appeared in Bell News, 18 January 1908, p 519

It appears that the first journeyman position was taken by Frederick Walter Elliott (standing to Russell’s left in the photo at the head of the article).  He rang a farewell peal at Little Munden, Hertfordshire, on 30 January, with a footnote saying he was moving to Frensham.  His later Central Council biography matches this, and gives his occupation as gardener (also confirmed by the 1911 census).  Edwards wrote to Bell News to thank those who had applied, and subsequently only the second part of the ad appeared.  Russell rang at Frensham at the start of February 1908, and possibly this was also in the nature of a job interview.  The ad reveals something of a large hurdle in his obtaining the job though – Edwards was looking for a man of 25-30 and Russell was just 20.  However, I initially had trouble finding Russell in the 1911 census as he was listed as being two years older than his actual age, this gives a possible reason for that discrepancy, and it’s also instructive to compare his appearance in the 1910 photo with that of George Upshall, the only one of the men without a moustache, and actually two years Russell’s senior!

Russell is first mentioned ringing at Farnham at the beginning of March – though the 1908 WDG Annual Report still lists him as a Ewhurst ringer.  He rang his first peal, of Bob Minor, at Frensham on 21 March, the first peal on the bells.  The pages of Bell News show a large amount of activity for the rest of 1908: at Farnham and Frensham, and trips to other local towers.

1909 began with another peal at Frensham.  This and the previous year’s peal are recorded on a fine peal board at in the tower there.

Frensham peal board

Frensham peal board

The rest of the year also followed a fairly similar course to 1908: various ringing at Farnham and Frensham, and trips elsewhere in the local district.  His recorded ringing in 1909 concludes in October, when it appears he made a visit home, attending practice at Ewhurst on 15 October.

1910 saw a distinct drop in Russell’s recorded activity.  In the first half of the year he rang in two half-muffled peals at Farnham, the first, of Grandsire Triples on 19 February, in memory of the well-known ringing cleric theRevd F E Robinson.  The second, that of Bob Major on 25 May for the late King, following which the peal band was photographed for posterity.  This was noted as being the first peal of major by an entirely local band since 1806, and was accorded a fine entry in the tower peal book.  This is his last recorded ringing at Farnham.

Farnham Peal Book entry

Farnham Peal Book entry

The Winchester DG Annual Reports for 1910-12 note Russell as a compounding (i.e. non-resident) member, living at Standen, Sussex. On 6 November 1910 he rang a peal for the Sussex County Association at Crawley, having been elected to the association before the start of the peal.  The 1911 census (taken at the start of April) shows him as the head of the household, living at Stone Farm Lodge, Standen, with two other gardeners.  As mentioned earlier, his age is shown as two years older than his actual age, and since he was the head of the household we can be reasonably sure he completed the form himself – the writing also appears similar to later army forms.  Stone Farm was one of three farms purchased by James Samuel Beale in 1890 to form a country estate he named Standen, now a National Trust property.  Beale’s wife, Margaret, was a keen gardener.

It appears that Russell moved back to Surrey sometime in 1912, probably to work in Abinger.  One of the referees on his application for a wartime commission was Lady Mirrielees, who lived at Pasture Wood, Abinger.  The membership records of the Ancient Society of College Youths record that John William Russell of Abinger was elected a member in 1912 (http://www.ascy.org.uk/mem1900-1924.htm).  He visited old haunts at the end of August, finally scoring a peal at Bentley.  On 6 November he rang in a College Youths’ peal of Stedman Triples at Ashtead, Surrey (his first of Stedman); on 19 December he rang a peal of Grandsire Triples at Dorking, this commemorated the laying of the foundation stone for a new chapel.  This chapel seems to have proceeded rapidly; on 14 March 1913 there was another peal of Grandsire Triples to celebrate its dedication.  This is the last record I have found of Russell as an active ringer, though a letter of his published in The Ringing World during the war suggests he had continued involvement in ringing until going overseas.

Russell joined the Royal Engineers at Aldershot on 11 September 1914, just over a month after the outbreak of war.  He had been medically examined two days previously, reverting to his correct age, given as 27 years and 1 month.  The medical officer described him as being 5’8¼” – relatively tall for the time, having a 36” chest (with 2” expansion) and weighing 156 lbs, with dark hair, a fresh complexion and blue eyes.  When signing up, he described himself as a fitter, rather than a gardener, but this seems to have been another attempt to improve his chances, there is no sign in his papers that he was given a trade test, and he was given the rank of pioneer initially, indicating that the army did not view him as a skilled tradesman (who were ranked as sapper).  In his subsequent application for a commission, he once more describes himself as a gardener.

Official records do not give much information as to Russell’s initial training, however, The Ringing World published regular updates on ringers serving with the forces, and the issue of 9 October 1914, p199, listed “J. W. Russell of Ewhurst, Surrey, Royal Engineers, now at Chatham” – Chatham has been the home of the Royal Engineers for centuries.  After his training, he was transferred to 24th Divisional Signal Company (signals had not yet been established as a separate corps, and were an RE responsibility) on 22 October 1914.  24th Division was one of the divisions of Lord Kitchener’s New Army – virtually all the men and officers had to be trained from scratch.  The bulk of the infantry battalions making up the division were recruited from the South East and East Anglia, men Russell would have felt at home with.  The signal company was divided into four sections, one with divisional HQ, and one each which of the three brigades it comprised.  Russell was in the section attached to 72 Infantry Brigade (72IB), the other two brigades were 71 IB and 73 IB.  Russell himself seems to have taken full advantage of the opportunities this situation gave to hard-working men: he was appointed lance corporal on 21 November 1914, then promoted second corporal on 10 December, corporal on 6 January 1915 and serjeant on 2 March.  Page 143 of the 15 March 1915 issue of Ringing World tells us “J. W. Russell, of Abinger, Surrey, and formerly of Farnham, has had rapid promotion, and has now gained the rank of sergeant.”  The division had initially been based along the south coast, principally at Worthing and Shoreham, but in June 1915 they moved to the Aldershot area – familiar territory for Russell.

His personal life was also about to undergo a big change, sometime during this period (presumably) he met Rosetta Pickard, and they married in her home church of St Michael, Tilehurst, near Reading on 19 August 1915.  The same day, most of the division was being inspected by Lord Kitchener at Chobham, and formal orders for France were received from the War Office.  King George V carried out another inspection the following day.  On 30 August, the signal section boarded a train at Farnborough for Southampton, and thence Le Havre, and he was in France on the following day.  By this time, planning for a major British offensive around the northern French mining town of Loos was well under way: despite the fact the British high command were aware that they were short of men, heavy artillery and shells; the politics of the alliance with France made it imperative that a “Big Push” was launched.  24th Division was in reserve for the opening of the offensive on 25 September, having spent several days marching up from positions behind the lines.  From the early hours of 26 September, they made their way up to the front lines, and were committed to action around 8am.  By now German forces were already preparing major counter-attacks.  The fighting dragged on until 18 October, but in reality – after some missed chances on the opening day – the British were never going to reach their objectives.  The four infantry battalions in 72nd Brigade:  8th Royal West Kents, 8th Buffs (East Kents), 9th East Surreys, and 8th Queen’s (Royal West Surreys) had casualties (killed, wounded and missing) of respectively: 556 other ranks, 24 officers; 534 other ranks and 24 officers; 455 other ranks, and 22 officers; and 427 other ranks and 12 officers; each having committed around 670 men and just under 30 officers.  In all, 50 battalions lost over 300 men, and 23 more between 200 and 300.  In the midst of this baptism of fire, Russell had a vital role to play in attempting to keep communications flowing from 72nd Brigade up to the Divisional HQ (and vice-versa).  He described a little of his own experiences in the battle in a letter which formed part of an article in The Ringing World of 15 November 1915, p 219:


Writing from “somewhere in Belgium,” Sergt. J. W. Russell, Signal Section 721 B [sic – should be 72 IB], formerly of Dorking, and a member of the Winchester Guild, says, in a letter to Mr. F. E. Dawe [presumably Francis Edward Dawe of Woking, a Past Master of the College Youths, and first Hon Sec of the Central Council, and conductor of Russell’s College youths’ peal in 1912], that since he left England on August 31st he has spent a lot of his time in travelling up and down the western front. “My first action,” he continues, “was what is known in the papers as the ‘great advance,’ and since that we have been in a different part of the front altogether. Of course you must understand that we do not spend the whole of our time in the trenches. Personally, I have only spent two whole nights in them during the whole time, although some of my men are in the trenches throughout the period we are ‘up,’ as it is called. I spend more of my time, nights especially, at headquarters, although even there we are often in the danger zone, especially if the enemy gets ‘jumpy ‘ enough to let loose his heavy artillery- then the safest place is a dug-out.

“It is difficult to describe the amount of damage done to t he country by heavy gun fire. In some places whole villages are practically levelled to the ground, just a base wall standing here or there, but no semblance of a house, and of course the ground around it is nothing but a series of holes that may be anything from 2ft. to 30ft. in diameter and up to 10ft. in depth. Undoubtedly the enemy’s guns are capable of doing an enormous amount of damage, although I think that now we have just about got their measure in that respect, and can hold our own easily.

“How is ringing progressing? I suppose it is as quiet, as ever. One thing I am pretty certain of and that is that a good many of the good bands will never meet again. I am afraid I am getting quite, an outsider now, for I haven’t seen a. ‘Ringing World ‘ since coming out.

“We had his Majesty the King to visit us one day recently. I was lucky enough to be in the guard of honour. I thought he was looking very well indeed, considering the weight he has to carry just now. The Prince of Wales is making good out here.”

He had evidently done his job well, as it was in Field Marshal French’s despatch covering this action that he received his first gallantry award, a Mention in Despatches, which appeared in the London Gazette on 1 January 1916.  This may have been the reason he was chosen to form part of the King’s guard of honour.  The ceremonial inspection took place at Reningelst, Belgium (approximately 5km SSE of Poperinge and 10km WSW of Ieper/Ypres) at 11:30am on 27 October.  They had been pulled out of the Loos area on 27 September and sent north to Belgium to refit.  71 Infantry Brigade was replaced by the regular army 17 Infantry Brigade (though of course by this time few of the pre-war regulars remained), and one battalion each of 72 and 73 Infantry Brigades was then exchanged for a regular battalion from 17 IB.

He continued in the same vein, receiving the DCM in the King’s Birthday Honours gazetted on 3 June 1916, though the citation was not published until 21 June: “For conspicuous and consistent good work on his system of telephone lines.  He has shown tireless energy and resource, besides great gallantry, under fire.”  In addition, though he received no further promotions, signallers could obtain increased pay by improving their skill in their designated trade, Russell’s record shows he was rated “proficient” on 20 September 1915, “skilled” on 20 March 1916 (and would ultimately be rated “superior” on 20 September 1916).  The division had spent this entire period in Belgium, much of it around the Ypres Salient.  Though there were no major battles, there was constant shellfire, and some fairly serious poison gas attacks by the Germans.  Telephone and other communication cables were frequently broken and had to be repaired quickly, even if the shelling hadn’t stopped.

In mid-July the division returned to France, ordered to the Somme to relieve the units which had begun the battle there on 1 July.  They fought in the Battle of Delville Wood, and the last German forces there fell back on 3 September after a long fight, and 72 IB was involved to the very end.  The Division then took part in the subsequent Battle of Guillemont which helped to stabilise the British hold on the area.

Russell was hospitalised from 23 February-6 March 1917, no reason is given in his records – the company war diary shows 13 men were admitted to hospital in February 1917, and four were still there at the end of the month; most of the month was spent in training, so it is unlikely it had anything to do with enemy action.  After returning to his unit, Russell was granted home leave from 16-26 March – this was presumably the first time he had seen his wife in 18 months.  By now, planning was well under way for another major offensive in the Arras area.  The task of taking the strategically important Vimy Ridge had been allocated to the Canadian Corps who had been training for months, and under the ground was a maze of tunnels.  The attack was due to be launched on Easter Day, 8 April 1917, but in the event was delayed by a day at the request of the French, who were to launch another attack further south, one purpose of the British attack being to draw in German reinforcements and thus weaken the defences in the area the French were to attack.  On 9 April, 24 Division was holding the trenches from which the Canadians launched their attack, and so suffered badly in the German counter-bombardment.  The initial few days of the offensive were a great success, but momentum gradually slowed.  By 13 April the division was slightly further north, almost on the same ground as they had fought over at Loos on their first arrival in France.  At 2.55pm on 13 April, Divisional HQ signalled to 72 Infantry Brigade that the Germans seemed to be making a full-scale withdrawal.  Over the next few days, the division moved forward to take over the old German trenches.

It was probably for actions at Arras that Russell recommended for the Military Medal, which was gazetted on 21 July.  No citations were published for these awards, and unfortunately the company war diary never mentions any of Russell’s awards while he was a serjeant, though some awards to other men are mentioned, so it’s impossible to be sure, but the rule of thumb among WWI researchers is that medals followed around three months after the action concerned. By then the division was back in Belgium and had fought in the Battle of Messines from 7-14 June, preparations for this action had begun over a year earlier with major mining operations, the attack opened with one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history, when explosives packed into the tunnels were set off immediately under the German frontlines. Early in July, Russell’s company commander recommended him for a commission.  Russell was interviewed by the Deputy Director of Signals, Second Army (a full colonel) on 10 July, who approved the application.  On 31 July the Third Battle of Ypres began (better known by the name of one of its sub-phases, Passchendaele).  The division was involved in the Battle of Pilkem from 31 July to 2 August, and then the Battle of Langemarck from 16 to 18 August.

Inevitably there was a fair amount of paperwork to sort out before the commission became official.  Applicants were also expected to give two character references, in this case Lady M Mirrielees of Pasture Wood, Dorking (the family also owned Goddard’s at Abinger Common) and the Revd A E Clark-Kennedy, the Vicar of Ewhurst.  Formalities complete, he was commissioned as a temporary second lieutenant on 2 September 1917, continuing to serve with 24th Divisional Signal Company.  The division’s final major action of the year was at the end of November, defending against German counter-attacks in the Battle of Cambrai.

Officers are generally named more frequently in unit war diaries, but Russell still rarely appears.  However, we can be reasonably sure that the actions for which he won his final decoration, the Military Cross, took place during the German Spring Offensive, launched in March 1918.  The British Army went into full retreat, and nearly broke, leading to Haig’s “Backs to the wall” order, but in the end the line was stabilised – though significant territory was lost to the Germans.  The MC was not gazetted until 16 September 1918, the citation read: “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during operations lasting for several days, when he was continuously out laying telephone lines from divisional advance headquarters to brigade headquarters, frequently under heavy fire. On one occasion, when one of the brigades was nearly surrounded, he, although under heavy machine-gun and shell fire, succeeded in keeping through telephonic communication to the brigade, which greatly contributed to the ultimate success of the operation.

24 Division played a heroic part in the defence, particularly in and around the town of Le Verguier (about 20km west of Péronne) on the opening day of the German offensive, 21 March, here there is a street named after the division, Rue de la 24éme division Britannique.  Even more unusually, the division is named on the town’s own war memorial.

That was the German’s last attempt to win the war, begun in the knowledge that US forces were building up in earnest, and that they had to try and strike a decisive blow before the strategic advantage changed hands.  Soon the momentum was with the Allies who begin a steady advance during the “100 days” which finished the war with the coming into effect of the Armistice at 11:00am on 11 November 1918.  This did not bring Russell’s service to an immediate close, as 24th Division formed part of the Army of Occupation which was sent into Germany and remained there until the end of May 1919.  Even then, Russell continued to serve at home, perhaps he actually considered taking a permanent commission, but it seems that ultimately he either found peacetime soldiering dull, or there simply wasn’t the requirement for a ranker officer in the reduced army.  On 12 May 1922 he relinquished his commission.  His discharge documents show he gave his permanent address as Coneyhurst, and despite calling himself a “fitter” when he originally joined up, here he states his occupation as “Landscape Gardener”.  His final posting had been with a signals unit of Southern Command at Portsmouth, he remained a Royal Engineer, but was attached to the brand new Royal Corps of Signals on its formation.  Another possible reason for his deciding to leave the army was the birth of a daughter, Olive Betty, whose birth was registered in Portsmouth in the third quarter of 1921.

Russell’s contact with the War Office had not quite ended.  He was entitled to a war gratuity for the period he served in the ranks, but owing to his late demobilisation, and confusion with another J W Russell he had to fight to receive it, the Royal British Legion having to step in on his behalf.  The correspondence in his service file relating to this shows that by 1923 he was living in Ringwood, Hampshire.  It appears his wife died in late 1926, aged just 41, in the Bournemouth area.  I have not been able to much information about his life in Hampshire:  he does not re-appear in the membership lists of the Winchester DG prior to the Second World War, so he probably did not return to ringing at this time.  Local directories from 1930, 1934 and 1945 give his address as Grange Estate, St Leonard’s (the first of this actually states Mrs J W Russell, presumably a typo).  Local ringing records do show a J Russell ringing the tenor to a touch of Stedman Doubles on 19 March 1946.  It seems likely this is the same man, but there is no definite proof. Russell died, sadly, on Christmas Day 1946, aged 59.  The causes of death are given as (a) cerebral embolism and (b) mitral disease [of the heart].  Olive was present at the death, which took place at Grange Estate, St Leonard’s and St Ives Rural District (near Ringwood).  His occupation is recorded as “Contractors’ Foreman (Engineer)”.  He was buried at Ringwood Cemetery on 28 December 1946 in grave D/D 249.  The burial records describe him as “Clerk of Works, retired”.

Probate was granted in London on 4 June 1947, to his executor, Douglas George Oliver, a market gardener.  He left an estate of £990 6s 6d (equivalent to around £134,000 today, as a share of GDP).  His will, drawn up in 1938 makes prominent mention of Daisy Elizabeth Dymott, given her choice of ornaments and furniture, a joint share of the house with Olive (unless they decide to sell it, in which case Olive would get all the proceeds), and to act as Olive’s guardian had Olive still been under-age.  Daisy appears never to have married, also born in 1881, the 1911 census records her living with her parents in Southampton and employed as a geological examiner.  She probably simply helped to look after Olive after Rosetta’s early death.

Olive seems to have married Ernest C White (a civil servant) in 1953 and lived in Wimborne Minster until her own death in 1960 aged just 39, even younger than her mother.  A Rosemary A White, with a mother’s maiden name of Russell, was born in the Poole registration district (which then included Wimborne) in 1957.

The four gallantry awards he received make him comfortably the most decorated member of the Surrey Association to have served during the First World War.  He may well be the most decorated ringer of the war – one ringer, Serjeant William Johnson of Worksop Priory, is known to have been awarded the Victoria Cross, and a few others received the DCM or MM and Lt-Col Charles Frederick Jerram, Royal Marines Light Infantry was Mentioned in Despatches five times, awarded the DSO and appointed CMG (and awarded the French Croix de Guerre), largely for staff work, but I have not seen any other with so many gallantry decorations.  I was able to photograph Russell’s service record, the images can be seen at http://flic.kr/s/aHsjuG8kwe.

I am grateful to the librarians of the Winchester DG and Sussex County Association, Bruce Purvis and Stella Bianco, for checking annual reports; Alan Baldock the Sussex peal secretary for details of Russell’s one peal in Sussex; Paul Whewell and David Munro of Farnham and Frensham respectively (and the other ringers there) for providing photos of peal records, and the photo of the man himself; and Christine Wright of Ringwood for information from local directories, tower records, and the burial records.  Apologies if I have omitted anyone who provided me with information.

“Making Telecommunications in the First World War”, Oxford, 24 January 2014

Online registration for our “Making Telecommunications in the First World War” conference on Friday 24 January 2014 is now closed.  The one-day conference will take place at the University Club, Oxford on Friday 24 January 2014 from 9.15 to 5.30pm.

A map and directions for the University Club are available at http://www.club.ox.ac.uk/contact-a-information/61-how-to-find-us The University Club has plenty of bicycle parking but limited on-site car parking, this being reserved for the use of disabled visitors. Pay and display on-street car parking is available on Mansfield Road in front of the club and surrounding roads, although most of it is not suitable for long term stays. For full details of parking, see http://www.club.ox.ac.uk/contact-a-information/28-parking

The final programme for the conference including abstracts is available here.

The conference will be preceded by an evening lecture “Patriotism and Profit during World War One” given by Elizabeth Bruton and Graeme Gooday at the Museum of the History of Science, Oxford on Thursday 23 January at 7pm.

The lecture is free to attend and doors open at 6.30pm.  The lecture will be followed by a reception at the museum from 8-9pm.  Directions to the Museum are available here.

If you have any further questions, please email Elizabeth Bruton at E.M.Bruton@leeds.ac.uk.

October and November update

Upcoming “Innovating in Combat” conference: “Making Telecommunications in the Great War”, Oxford, 24 January 2014.

“Innovating in Combat” are pleased to announce that we will be holding a conference “Making Telecommunications in the Great War” in Oxford on 24 January 2014. The CFP is available at http://blogs.mhs.ox.ac.uk/innovatingincombat/cfp-making-telecomms-wwi and the deadline for abstracts is 4 December 2013. All enquiries about the conference should be sent to Elizabeth Bruton at E.M.Bruton@leeds.ac.uk.

Recent news

“Innovating in Combat” have a busy and exciting October and early November and delivered four public lectures delivered in the UK and the US.

First up was ““Sacrifice of a Genius”: Henry Moseley’s role as a Signals Officer in World War One”, a lunchtime lecture delivered by our postdoctoral researcher Dr Elizabeth Bruton at the Royal Society, London on Friday 11 October. A video of the lecture consisting of the PowerPoint slides and an audio recording of the lecture is available on the Royal Society’s website at http://royalsociety.org/events/2013/henry-moseley/

The following day, Elizabeth travelled to Horwood House near Milton Keynes to deliver a talk on radio amateurs in World War One at the Radio Society of Great Britain (RSGB) Centenary Convention. The talk, which was delivered twice, was well attended and was followed by engaging questions from the audience. For further details of the convention and the programme for the weekend, see http://rsgb.org/main/about-us/rsgb-centenary-convention/

Between 14 October and 28 October, Elizabeth travelled to New Jersey where she visisted the Edison papers at Rutgers University and AT&T archives in Warren, New Jersey – more on this at a later date. As part of this research visit and supported by the IEEE History Center, Elizabeth gave the inaugural public history lecture at Rutgers University. An audio recording of the lecture is available at https://soundcloud.com/elizabeth-bruton/innovating-in-combat-lecture, courtesy of Bill Zukowski, a member of the New Jersey Antique Radio Club, member of the AWA (Antique Wireless Association), and holder of radio amateur call N2YEG.

Last and more definitely not least on Saturday 2 November, Graeme Gooday and Elizabeth Bruton delivered a joint lecture at the Science Museum entitled “Patriotism and Profit during World War One”. We also wrote a short blog post on the subject in advance of the lecture and this was published on the Guardian‘s H-Word history of science blog at http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/oct/28/science-technology-profits-first-world-war The lecture was well attended and an audio recording of the lecture will be available soon on our events page at http://blogs.mhs.ox.ac.uk/innovatingincombat/events/

See our project website at http://blogs.mhs.ox.ac.uk/innovatingincombat for further details of our project and events listings.