Category Archives: WW1

RNVR Group Photograph

This week’s photograph is a splendid image of a group of Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve seaman, taken at around the time of the Great War:SKM_C284e18041711450 - Copy (4)The men can be identified as RNVR by their cap tallies which read R.N. (Anchor) V.R.:SKM_C284e18041711450 - Copy (5) - CopyThe RNVR was a reserve made up of men who were not sailors in civilian life, the RNR by contrast had its ranks filled by fishermen, tug boat crews etc and were consequently natural seaman who needed different training to the more ‘amateur’ RNVR. The men in this photograph where the white cotton duck working uniform:SKM_C284e18041711450 - Copy (4) - CopyAlthough it looks like a tropical uniform, this particular design was used on the UK as a heavy duty uniform for use during tasks that would damage the traditional dark blue serge uniform. And all seem to have the high laced anklets typical of the RN at this period:SKM_C284e18041711450 - Copy (6) - CopyMore information on these anklets can be found here. It is interesting to note that in the photograph above at least one man clearly has hobnails in his boots. At the time hobnails were not routinely fixed to RN boots unless the sailor was undergoing instruction or based ashore. Hobnails would have been dangerous on board a ship where they would make it very easy to slip on a wet deck. Ashore they were essential to help prevent the boots form wearing out very quickly.

The men are stood in front of a mast, the top of which can be seen above their heads, one rating holding the halyard to steady himself:SKM_C284e18041711450 - Copy (7) - CopyThese men are probably on a training course ashore, either as part of their annual training commitment or if the photograph was taken in wartime then before being deployed to a ship for service.


WW1 Internee Made Royal Naval Brigade Jewellery Box

In 1914 1,500 Royal Naval sailors of the 1st Royal Naval Brigade marched into Holland and internment rather than be captured by the Germans. The Dutch set up a large internment camp at Groningen with barrack huts, recreation facilities and a parade ground in accordance with international law. These men were to spend the rest of the war on neutral territory as effective prisoners and was quickly nicknamed ‘HMS Timbertown’ by the sailors imprisoned there. To help keep off boredom various activities and schemes of work were set up for the men including language lessons, theatre shows and sports. Even with all this there was a need for more distraction and various forms of paid employment were offered, earning the men between 10 and 50 extra cents a day. One of the most popular was carpentry and eighty men were involved in making small trinkets such as photo frames and jewellery boxes. These were sold in the UK to raise funds for books, instruments and other goods for the internment camp with many being retailed through large department stores. It is one of these jewellery boxes, made by internees at Groningen that we are looking at tonight:imageThe box is made from a honey coloured wood and despite suffering damage over the last hundred years was clearly very competently made, with neat dovetails at each corner as one would expect from something that was to be sold in a posh department store like Selfridges:imageThe inside of the box has a green padded silk liner:imageWhat is of particular interest though is the markings on the top of the box:imageAs well as the initials ‘AB’ in one corner, there is a large naval crest with the legend ‘1st Royal Naval Brigade’ in the centre of the lid:imageOriginally the box would have had a paper label pasted to the bottom indicating it had been made by an internee at Groningen, sadly this has become lost over the years so my thanks go to Nathan Phillip and Taff Gillingham for identifying the origins of this fascinating piece.

The British internees were to spend the rest of the war in Holland and although it was often boring, they probably got off lightly compared to the horrors suffered by many during the conflict as the Dutch treated them extremely well and they were afforded a lot of freedom despite their internee status- even being allowed to visit the local pub and marry local Dutch girls.

Mk V .303 Blank

Happy Empire Day! If you have not already checked out our sister site ‘British Empire Uniforms’ on Facebook please, take a look. There are plenty of period photographs and reconstructions of uniforms from around the Empire in the Interwar and Second World War periods.

Like all countries, the British made extensive use of blank ammunition in training. The .303 round had a number of different types of blank ammunition before settling on the Mk V. in 1894 when cordite was introduced. This round was to remain in service 1957 when the Mk 9 blank was introduced that had a nitrocellulose propellant. Tonight we are taking a closer look at the ubiquitous Mk V cordite blank and we have two different examples:imageThe round on the right is, I believe, a WW1 blank as it came from a WW1 charger of WW1 dated spent rounds so it seems logical to assume it is of that vintage. The round on the left has a 1942 date stamp so is most likely a WW2 blank round. The reason I am being cautious with the dates is that these blanks were often made form cartridge cases that were rejected as not being suitable for ball ammunition, but were still good enough to be converted to blanks. This means the head stamps do not necessarily correspond to the blank itself as they would have been added before the case was relegated to use as a blank. The case heads of these two examples therefore may only tell us when the case itself was manufactured, not when it was converted into a blank:imageThe round on the right is dated 1942 and was manufactured for a Mk VII ball round by Radway Green, that on the left has the ‘K’ for Kynoch. These rounds are Berdan primed rather than having the earlier Boxer primers and the blank itself used 10 grains of sliced cordite. The neck of the case was closed with a rosette crimp:imageBlanks were used extensively for training, and rounds that had been dropped by accident provided great, if dangerous, fun to local children as recalled by Raymond McElvenney:

During the war, these old building were used by the army for training purposes. To make the exercises more realistic, they fired blanks from their guns and there was much banging from large firework things called ‘thunder flashes’…

After the soldiers had gone, we went around the building collecting the spent cartridges up. We also found a number of unfired bullets, so we put them in a crack in the wall. We found a piece of wood with a nail in it; we placed the nail against the bottom of the bullet and hit it with a brick causing the bullet to explode. We thought this was great fun.

In this instance I think the boys actually found unfired blanks, despite the author’s reference to bullets!

Till the Boys Come Home Book Review

If you have been reading this blog for any length of time you will have realised that I rather like World War One postcards, and they are a regular item on our Sunday night image slot. The number of postcards produced during World War One is quite staggering and they range from the very common to some really rare cards that were produced in tiny numbers. I am an incidental collector of these postcards, I pick them up if I come across them but I am not actively seeking them out. Despite this, reference books are always useful to have and so I was pleased to recently pick up a copy of ‘Til the Boys Come Home, The First World War through its Picture Postcards’ by Tonie and Valmai Holt.51BQbVDQx6LThis book was first published back in 1977, but a revised edition was released in 2014 by Pen and Sword and it is this copy I have. The book is surprisingly weighty for its size and this is due to the high quality paper used in its printing, this being a necessity in a book with over 700 reproductions of postcards in full colour inside. The quality of reproduction is superb and the selection of images excellent with many rare and unusual cards included from all the belligerent nations of World War One. These images are accompanied by captions for each one and a traditional body text that approaches the Great War thematically. The authors look at topics such as the machines of war, humour, women and the home front and that great love of the era, sentiment. Splitting the book thematically makes a great deal of sense and one of the things that struck me was the similarities and differences between the various nations approach to topics. This is perhaps most apparent in humour with the British publishing self-deprecating humorous cards reflecting on the conditions in the front such as the illustrations by Bruce Bairnsfather and the adaptation of many seaside comic characters to the wartime situation (the large and overbearing wife, the hen pecked husband etc.). By contrast German humorous cards seemed to have a love of toilet humour, bare bottoms and chamber pots!imageFor me however the main problem I had with this book is the dated nature of much of the supporting text. Originally written in the 1970s the book perpetuates the ‘Lions led by Donkeys’ and ‘Mud, blood and Poppycock’ portrayal of World War One. The historiography of the conflict has moved on since then and historians have been increasingly challenging this view of the war with research showing that actually junior officers led their men well and suffered disproportionate casualties as a result whilst Generals were far more innovative and open to new ideas (even if the execution of them was limited) than had been previously believed. If the book was a direct reprint of the original I could accept this far more readily, but the authors make a point of saying that the book has been revised and updated for the Twenty First century and I found some of the supporting text quite jarring.imageThis criticism aside, the book is a wonderful coffee table book that is packed full of illustrations and background information and I have no hesitation in recommending it to collectors of wartime postcards or just those who are interested in how the war was portrayed through one of the most popular mediums of its day. I have certainly learnt a lot from this book and it is currently available from Naval and Military Press for just £4.99, instead of the cover price of £24.99 here.image

Soldier’s Table Card for use in Army Schools

The army introduced formal certificates of education in 1861 and by the end of the nineteenth century promotion and pay were linked to the successful completion of army certificates. Education played an essential role in the army, not only did it help provide more educated and competent troops for the military, but it helped instill pride and a sense of purpose amongst the soldiers of the rank and file. There were three classes of certification and in the 1930s these consisted of:

Third Class

Arithmetic Vulgar Fractions
Elementary Geometry
Practical Measurement
Applications of Money

Second Class

More Advanced Maths
Essay writing
Questions on a set book
Written and practical map reading
Paper on the Army and Empire

This paper was now compulsory for all soldiers and they had to attend school until they passed it. Without the Second Class Certificate no promotion was possible or proficiency pay paid.

First Class

Covered everything in the Second Class Certificate but at a higher level, and including Geography. Still essential for higher promotion above the rank of Sergeant.

To help soldiers studying for their certificates the army allowed men three hours a week for training and military publishers produced handbooks and crib sheets to help men learn the information they would need to pass. Tonight we have a small folding card that I suspect dates from the First World War, published by Gale and Polden:SKM_C284e18042411320The price of just one penny ensured that even the lowliest private would have been able to afford one of these cards. Inside are a variety of tables of weight, measures, distances, etc. Some guidance on the writing of formal letters and a list of military words the candidate was expected to know:SKM_C284e18042411320 - CopySKM_C284e18042411330SKM_C284e18042411330 - CopySKM_C284e18042411330 - Copy (2)The back of the card has some typical symbols used in map reading and topic areas of dictation that a soldier might expect to be given:SKM_C284e18042411320 - Copy (2)Ronald Stevens who joined the RASC just before World War Two recalls the Army Certificate:

Educational training — this continued our schooling for we had to sit the Army Certificate of Education Second Class, which I passed in December 1939. Then I started to study for my First Class Certificate of Education and passed Geography towards it….Besides periods of drill and physical training we apprentices were required to attend school lessons in map reading and general subjects. In due course, most of the boys passed the Army second class certificate of Education examination and some even went on for their First Class.

Female Pierrot with Machine Gun Corps Cap

This week’s image is rather unusual and depicts a young lady in what appears to be the dress of a pierrot, wearing an army cap:SKM_C284e18041711450The cap has the badge of the Machine Gun Corps:SKM_C284e18041711450 - Copy (5)Whilst the dress has distinctive pom-poms on it, typical of the costumes worn by pierrots:SKM_C284e18041711450 - Copy (6)The pierrot show was hugely popular in the United Kingdom throughout the first half of the twentieth century. The concept had been taken from the French pierrot shows and brought to this country in 1891 by the singer and banjoist Clifford Essex. The character of pierrot came from French pantomime and wore baggy clothes in black or white, with contrasting pom-poms sewn on. English pierrot troupes consisted of a number of men who dressed up in distinctive costumes and then put on concert parties with singing, dancing, jokes and juggling amongst their repertoires. They became synonymous with shows on the piers of the country’s seaside towns and throughout World War One soldiers set up their own pierrot troupes as part of concert parties put on to amuse the troops. The popularity of these shows was such, that even the Australians copied the concept creating their own ‘Digger pierrot’ troupes. This young lady would probably not have been one of these troupes operating near the front line, although there were women in YMCA concert parties in France during the war, it is more likely for her to have belonged to a group back in the United kingdom putting on shows for either convalescent troops or even just the general public. Her costume is clearly inspired by the traditional male pierrot costume, but made as a dress rather than as baggy trousers and a jacket.

Happily someone has written on the date, 1917, to the photograph so we can date it:SKM_C284e18041711450 - Copy (7)The girl in the photograph may just be larking around with some props in the photographer’s studio, however I do not feel that is the case and I suspect she was genuinely involved in entertainment as a pierrot of some sort. These photographs are very intriguing, but often throw up far more questions than can easily be answered.

Letter from the Kaiser Propaganda Postcard

Tonight we have a propaganda postcard from the Great War that takes the form of a supposed letter from the Kaiser to his cousin George V. The piece is written in a joke English to make the stereotypical sounds of a German trying to speak English and takes the form of a comic list of things the Kaiser is alleged to want from Great Britain:SKM_C284e17120515440 - Copy (8)The propaganda starts in the first paragraph with the Kaiser asking for the ships of the Royal Navy to be removed so he can come to the UK:SKM_C284e17120515440 - Copy (8) - CopyThis, not very subtly, implies that Britain is safe because of her navy and the Germans are too frightened of it to make a move against the country. Further on the piece explains that the Kaiser wants the Bank of England, suggesting that his main interest in the country is in her wealth:SKM_C284e17120515440 - Copy (9) - CopyThe third paragraph hints at Germany’s imperial ambitions, which certainly existed, and that the Kaiser wants the British Empire to give to his children:SKM_C284e17120515440 - Copy (10) - CopyThe final paragraph is rather interesting in that it acknowledges the ongoing problems with Irish Independence movements at the time, as the Kaiser says he is not interested in taking on that country!SKM_C284e17120515440 - Copy (11) - CopyThis is clearly a propaganda piece and the text is played for laughs, although it reflects many of the thoughts and feelings of people in 1914 and how they perceived Germany’s war aims and ambitions as well as the reliance Great Britain placed on her navy to keep her safe. This card is just one example of many hundreds of propaganda designs postcard manufacturers produced throughout the war. Popular topics were poking fun at the Kaiser and his military and the cards range from the broadly humorous like this one, to much darker topics such as alleged atrocities in Belgium. The cards seem to have been popular, but it is hard to say how much this sort of propaganda influenced public opinion and how much it was just a reflection of people’s existing beliefs and ideas.