Hidden Voices

One of the unintended consequences of war is that it brings hitherto unconnected groups of people together, for good and for ill. During the First World War, the capture of prisoners of war enabled German anthropologists to study men from Britain, France and their empires. They made sound recordings to help them to understand language, recordings that now offer modern academics the opportunity to study language and dialect as it was a century ago. Natalie Braber looks at the legacy of these recordings.

Linguists Wilhelm Doegen (far right) and Alois Brandl (fourth from right) recording a POW, October 1916
Linguists Wilhelm Doegen (far right) and Alois Brandl (fourth from right) recording a POW, October 1916

The British Library holds recordings of many sound files and interviews. If you visit their ‘Sounds’ catalogues, you will see the different archives that you can access. Many of these archives and recordings I use every day for my work. One of the archives is from the Berliner Lautarchiv (the Berlin sound archives). They include recordings of interviews held with British prisoners-of-war in Germany during the years 1915-1918. The collection contains 162 dialect recordings of English speaking POWs from England, Ireland (from what are now Northern Ireland & the Republic of Ireland), Scotland, and Australia, as well as 63 recordings in Scots and one in Scottish Gaelic. Until recently these two collections of early sound recordings of British dialects were inaccessible to all but a handful of academics.

Those POWs recorded from England represent the English dialects and accents of roughly 20 English counties and regions covering the northern areas of Cumberland, Durham and Yorkshire, areas of central England such as Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire, as well as counties located further south including Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Kent.

Sound clip: Thomas Jackson (b. 1890, Carlisle)

 Sound clip: William Langridge (b. 1893, Sevenoaks)

 

The men are reading the ‘Parable of the Prodigal Son’ in their native dialect. This text was popular in linguistic surveys at the time and was used, for instance, in sound recordings made between 1913 and 1929 for Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India. Its academic value derives from the fact it permits a comparative analysis of several grammatical features across a variety of speakers. These recordings of British POWs represent some of the earliest known recordings of ‘ordinary’ speakers. There are also recordings made with POWs of colonial troops: A number of different language speakers from what was then known as British India were also recorded: languages recorded from this region include Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu, Hindustani, Garwhali, Bengali, Khasi, Nepali and Pashto. These recordings tend to focus on folk songs, poems, stories and reciting the alphabet in the speaker’s first language.

Recordings of other indigenous languages were also made and include speakers of African languages such as Yoruba, Hausa, Swahili, Fula, Kikuyu, Anyi, Kanuri, Mali, Wandala and Igbo. Other languages recorded include Afrikaans; Sinhalese; Tamil; Samoan; Malay; and Native American languages such as Arapaho, Cheyenne, Sioux and Iowa.

Why ‘Boche’?

It has been estimated that by late 1914 fifty-five different nationalities were represented at the Western Front, creating a melting pot of identity, experience and language. The Centre for Hidden Histories’ resident linguist Dr Natalie Braber examines some of the inventive terms that the soldiers used to describe their comrades and enemies.

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Proudly in khaki, the 33rd Punjabi Army, illustrated by A C Lovett

As a result of World War One, people came into contact with one another more than they otherwise would have and one of the effects of such contact is a change in language. This can be due to ‘invention’ of new words, or ‘borrowings’ from other languages. A very fruitful field for linguistic study is to examine how soldiers from countries are referred to. British soldiers were often referred to as ‘Tommy’ from Tommy Atkins, the name for the typical English soldier. This term dates back to 1815 and became immortalised in the Rudyard Kipling poem ‘Barrack Room Ballads’ published in 1892. This term was used throughout WW1 by both sides.

There were also names given to soldiers of other nationalities: Italians were referred to as ‘Macaroni’, Portuguese as ‘Pork and Cheese’, ‘Pork and Beans’ or ‘Tony’, Austrians as ‘Fritz’ and Turkish soldiers as ‘Jacko, Johnny Turk or Abdul’.

There are many different terms used for German soldiers. Reports of the ruthlessness of the German army in China in 1900 refer to the use of ‘Hun’ by the German emperor as a symbolic ideal of military force and so this name came to be applied in 1914, in particular when discussing atrocities. The terms ‘Hun’ and ‘Boche’ were also in use throughout the war. Boche is said to have derived from a slang French word ‘caboche’ meaning ‘rascal’. Other suggest the term ‘cabochon’ relates to ‘head’ and especially a big thick, head. It seems to have been used in the Paris underworld from about 1860, with the meaning of a disagreeable, troublesome fellow. By 1916 the term ‘Jerry’ was in general use. The first time it was used in the Daily Express it was explained ‘The ‘official’ Irish designation of the enemy’. This term seems to carry more connotations of weariness and familiarity than hate.

'The Hun', as used in a British propaganda poster
‘The Hun’, as used in a British propaganda poster

As well as names for other soldiers, the men on the front were inventing new words due to contact with other soldiers from other nationalities as well as other parts of the United Kingdom. ‘Clink’, originally a London word for prison became widely adopted by men from around the country. A writer to The Times in January 1915 proposed that ‘the majority of colloquialisms used by soldiers have a Cockney origin’. Given the number of British personnel stationed on French territory it is unsurprising that many French terms were picked up and adapted. The increased use of ‘souvenir’ in place of ‘keepsake’, and ‘morale’ in place of ‘moral’ can be dated to this period. Perhaps the term most widely-used by British soldiers was ‘narpoo’, used to mean ‘finished’, ‘lost’ or ‘broken’, deriving from the French il n’y a plus meaning ‘all gone’. Terms were adopted and adapted from almost all languages that were in use in the combat zones. From Hindi came ‘blighty’ (meaning ‘foreign’ so applied to British soldiers, and thus signifying ‘Britain’) and ‘khaki’ from an Urdu word for ‘dust’. From Russian came ‘spassiba’ (thanks), from Arabic came ‘buckshee’ (free), and from German achtung came ‘ack-dum’ (look out).

 

Then & Now -an interactive journey

Modern tools can help to illuminate the impact of the war to twenty-first century eyes. Michael Noble is impressed by the latest effort

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The raid on Scarborough was used for recruitment and propaganda purposes

Here’s a rather beautiful thing. Housing website Rightmove have created ‘Then & Now – An interactive journey around World War 1 Britain’
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Blending archive photos with images fro m Google Street View, the site lets users merge the past with the present and examine how our streets have evolved from the days of the Great War.

Users simply use their mouse to “swipe” across the chosen Street View and reveal an insight into the past, as provided by the Imperial War Museum and other image resources. Clicking on the information icon reveals more about where and when the photo was taken.

In total, 13 photos from the duration of the conflict are used to help tell the story of the First World War on the home front.

Images include a house on Lonsdale Road in Scarborough, severely damaged by German naval shelling in December 1914 and a line of recruits outside Deptford town hall, who fade in and out of historu with a simple swipe of your mouse.

There’s a real sense of the uncanny in the images, they seem to make the war years at once distant and familiar. It’s also interesting to note how effective the repair work was on the shelled buildings. A 21st century pedestrian walking along these streets could be forgiven for his ignorance of the damgage that had been wrought in days gone by.

Then & Now can be found on the Rightmove website. It’s well worth a visit.

The Deptford recruits
The Deptford recruits

The Military Boots Project

A Nottinghamshire artist has found a unique way of remembering those who served, and those who continuTrent to Trenchese to do so. Michael Noble takes a look.

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Some of the completed cotton strips

Joy Pitts is a multiple award-winning contemporary artist based in Nottinghamshire. She works primarily with garments, which she sees as expressive of our individual identity and way of life. Her work assembles these individual identities into a shared whole that represents the collection of individualities that we call society.

This concept has a natural mirror in the idea of war memorials that place individual names in a shared space. One of Joy’s current projects reflects this by seeking to gather individually-sewn names of servicemen and women and present them as a single art work on canvas that will depict a pair of military boots. The Military Boots project is a collaborative effort being undertaken as part of Nottinghamshire’s Trent to Trenches programme.

Joy would like to invite  you to contribute to this project by stitching the name of those in your family past or present who have served or are serving in the Armed Forces onto a strip of cotton tape for her to add to the art work. She will provide the materials, you just need to provide the names and a little bit of your time.

Joy says ‘during World War One it was common for both men and women to sew; repairing clothing at home and in the trenches, embroidering messages to send to loved ones and sewing bandages. This project recalls these activities and invites you to make your own hand made acknowledgement to those who serve.’

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Cotton strips in blue

If you are interested in taking part, you can contact Joy directly here to request a stitch pack.

A Nottingham Library Remembers: Bromley House Library and The First World War 1914-1918

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Jeff Buggs’s story of 9 Albert Avenue, Carlton

The Bromley House Library is holding a series of events to commemorate the war. Michael Noble takes a look at what’s on.

The Bromley House Library has served the people of Nottingham for almost two hundred years and is, at the start of the twenty-first century, one of the few remaining subscription libraries in the country. Its appeal lies partly in its collection of around 40,000 books and also in its pleasant atmosphere, described as ‘tranquil and unstuffy’ atmosphere. Founded in 1816, the library has been situated since 1822 in Bromley House, a Georgian townhouse that is now Grade II* listed. Access to the library is usually limited to paying subscribers but it is opening its doors this autumn and inviting the public to pay a visit to see a specially-commission exhibition of First World War artefacts and to hear a range of guest speakers.

The exhibition, which has been generously supported by the Lady Hind Trust, has been mounted as part of Nottingham’s Trent to Trenches programme. It consists of items that have been kindly loaned by the library’s members in an effort to tell the ‘stories’ behind their families’ experience of the Great War.This creates a natural focus on the war as it was experienced by Nottingham people. This personal element is made all the more poignant by the setting of cherished objects alongside beautiful photographic images of their owners, some of whom gave their lives in the conflict.  A modern interpretation of the war is provided by local artist Janet Wilmot, whose works have been displayed to accompany the historical material.

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BHL collections, images and one of the War Bond Posters
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Part of the installation by Janet Wilmot

The exhibition is displayed in the Bromley House Gallery and in the main reading rooms, and is open to the public every Wednesday from 10.30am – 4pm In addition, the library has a diverse programme of subjects and speakers for Saturday lectures (£5.00 pp) and Wednesday lunchtime talks. The talks on Wednesdays are free but tickets need to be reserved in advance.

 

 

 

For further information about the programme and reserving tickets please contact geraldine.gray@bromleyhouse.org, or phone 0115 9473134, visit www.bromleyhouse.org or just pop in!

 

 

Autumn Roadshows 2014

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A souvenir card from the First World War, displayed at our Leicester event

Michael Noble reports from the Hidden Histories Autumn Roadshow Programme

We’ve just completed our first round of roadshows, which took us to Nottingham, Leicester and Derby to share some of our work and ideas. We were very pleased to welcome members of community groups, interested individuals and staff from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the local councils who came along to listen and participate.

Our Principal Investigator, John Beckett outlined his idea of ‘Hidden Histories’ and explained that we were interested in examining the stories of people who took part in the First World War but who do not fit the conventional model of a Tommy. To illustrate his point he presented a picture of Wilfred Owen next to a similarly-posed portrait of a Daffadar (Sergeant) of the of the 14th Murray’s Jat Lancers of the Indian Army and asked the audience to name them. Many of the attendees could identify Owen, none could name the Daffadar. And neither could we. His, John pointed out, is a hidden history.

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Mike Heffernan presents his research to the audience at Leicester

We had the privilege of hearing from community representatives who wanted to share their ideas for commemorative projects. In Nottingham, Dr Irfan Malik presented the story of the Dulmial Gun (which we blogged about here) and described its importance to his family. Local artist Joy Pitts gave us an insight into her work and her ongoing Military Boots project and Eric Pemberton of the African and Caribbean organisation Banyan presented his painstakingly researched calendar, which he also brought along to the Leicester event. He was joined at Leicester by the Ramgarhia Social Sisters who have recently returned from a visit to the Empire, Faith and War exhibition and who have been inspired to create a tapestry work to tell the stories of the Sikh soldiers in the First World War. Also at Leicester was Roy Hathaway, who has amassed a collection of around a quarter of a million vintage cigarette cards, many of which feature soldiers and imagery from the war. Roy was kind enough to display some of his collection at the event. In Derby, we were joined by Daljit Singh Ahluwalia MBE and his wife Parkash, who are planning to develop a local exhibition of the Sikh contribution.

All three events featured a short talk given by one of our Co-Investigators. In Nottingham and Derby, Natalie Braber presented her work and answered the question of what a linguist has got to do with the First World War. In Leicester, Mike Heffernan gave a talk on the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission and the effort to memorialise the dead in an appropriate and fair manner.

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Some of Roy’s collection, displayed at Leicester

We were encouraged by the enthusiasm shown by the attendees and will be pleased to work alongside them as they develop their projects. If you were unable to come to any of the roadshows, but would like to get involved, please contact us for a friendly discussion.

 

The Dulmial Gun

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The gun at Dulmial

 

A nineteenth century cannon sits at the entrance of a Pakistani village. Michael Noble takes a look at the story of the Dulmial Gun.

Dulmial is a village approximately a hundred miles south of Islamabad in Pakistan. A century ago, the area was part of British India, which meant that its inhabitants were drawn into the Great War on the side of the Allies. A settlement steeped in military history, Dulmial sent 460 of its men to fight in the British Army, the largest single participation of any village in Asia. Nine gave their lives. In recognition of this service and sacrifice, in 1925 the British government offered Dulmial an award of their choosing.

The man in charge of this choosing was Captain Ghulam Mohammad Malik, the highest ranking and most decorated soldier in the village. The Captain was a man of great experience, having commenced his military life in the Derajat Mountain Battery and participated in Lord Roberts’ march from Kabul to Kandahar in 1880. A career soldier, he eschewed the British offers of land, money and water facilities, choosing instead to have Dulmial’s contribution recognised with the presentation of a cannon.

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Officers of Dulmial pose with the gun

The British agreed to this selection and provided Dulmial with a twelve pounder. Agreeing was the easy part. Getting the thing to Dulmial would be quite a different matter. The gun was to be collected from the First Punjab Regimental Centre in Jhelum, from where it could be carried by train to Chakwal. There, the gun was dismounted and loaded in a cart to be pulled by three pairs of oxen for the remaining 28 kilometres. The roads were semi-mountainous and passage was difficult. It would take the ox carts two weeks to cover the distances. From five kilometres out, at Choa Saiden Shah, the route became more difficult still and Dulmial had to despatch five additional pairs of oxen to relieve the initial six and complete the gun’s journey.

Safely in Dulmial, the gun was placed at the main entrance to the village and a photograph taken with the local commissioned officers. It remains there today, a reminder of the contribution that Dulmial made in the First World War.

Dulmial Plaque
The plaque attached to the base of the monument

Dulmial is now known within Pakistan as the ‘village with the gun’, but it is rather less well known in the UK. ‘This is because very little has been written or published about the the village in English’, says Dr Irfan Malik, a Nottingham man whose family originates in Dulmial. ‘I have visited Dulmial many times over the years’, he continues ‘and I have made it my aim to research the World War One history of the village as it played such an impressive part during the time’. It is Irfan’s intention to bring this hidden history to a wider audience and help to share the reasons of just what a nineteenth century Scottish cannon is doing in the mountains of Pakistan.

 

Where did the headstones for the First World War cemeteries come from?

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Headstone of 2nd Lt J.H. Bellamy, the Sherwood Foresters

Anyone who has visited the war graves will have felt a sense of awe at their sheer number. Making headstones in that volume took a lot of effort and a lot of stone. Nigel Hunt explains the East Midlands origins of the headstones.

With over a million deaths across the UK and the Dominions, and with nearly all the dead being buried on the battlefield, there was a huge demand for high quality headstones at the end of the war, along with stone for the monuments that are dotted around the battlefields, such as the Lutjens’ Thiepval memorial and Blomfield’s Menin Gate memorial, which together commemorate over 100,000 of the missing of the Somme and Ypres respectively. In total, nearly 1.3 million names are engraved either on individual headstones or on memorials to those who have no known grave.

By 1921, over 1,000 cemeteries had been established, and 4,000 headstones were shipped to France every week. Most cemetery construction was complete by 1927.

Most people think that the headstones are all made of Portland stone, derived from Portland on the south coast. Indeed, most headstones did come from there, but the demand was so high other sources had to be found, and the other main source of headstones was in Derbyshire, from Hopton Wood quarry near Middleton-by-Wirksworth. In all, 120,000 headstones were made from Hopton Wood limestone.

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Middleton Mine

The name Hopton Wood quarry is a bit misleading. While the original Hopton Wood quarry was situated in Hopton Wood, near the village of Hopton, the main quarry is to the west of Middleton, linked to another quarry in Middleton itself. The quarry closed in 2006, but it had a long history. It is a source of extremely high quality limestone, examples of which can be found in many country houses and public buildings around the country. Examples include Westminster Abbey, Birmingham Cathedral, Chatsworth House, Oscar Wilde’s tomb and the Houses of Parliament. It has been on many occasions mistaken for marble, because it can be finely polished. It is also relatively easy to carve, and is relatively hard-wearing. The main quarry is underground. There are over 25 miles of large passageways underneath the moors to the west of Middleton. The entrance can be seen from a nearby footpath.

Aerial view of Hopton Wood quarry - tunnel entrance hidden by white area, right middle
Aerial view of Hopton Wood quarry – tunnel entrance hidden by white area, right middle

There are remnants of broken headstones in the walls in the area, particularly near to the Middleton quarry in the village, but there are few other traces of what was a very busy time for the quarry.

University College Nottingham and the First World War

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Officers and Cadets of the OTC, Nottingham

The First World War had an impact on many large institutions and the University College, Nottingham was no different. John Beckett looks at the role played by the college in preparing young men for warfare.

The impact of the First World War on University College, Nottingham, was profound. By its very nature, an institution concerned with higher education was likely to have a large number of young men on its books, both as students and staff, in the appropriate age range to join the armed forces. In addition, the formation of the Officer Training Corps (OTC) had encouraged the notion even in peace time, that educated young men should be considered as potential military leaders in the event of war.

In 1906 Lord Haldane, the Secretary of State for War, appointed a committee to look into the problems caused by shortages of officers in the military reserve The committee recommended the formation of what became known as the OTC with a senior division in the universities, and a junior division, now the Combined Cadet Force, in public schools. University College Nottingham OTC was formed on 27 April 1909, following a petition signed by 27 students who were no doubt imbued with the patriotic ethos which underpinned the OTC. The Commanding Officer, from the beginning and throughout the war, was Captain Samuel R.T. Trotman, M.A., F.R.I.C.

The war broke out in the middle of the College’s summer break, but within a few days it was announced that it would provide facilities for the training of a limited number of young men in the theoretical and practical subjects required by the syllabus of the OTC examination. Applications were sought from those who intended to apply for commissions in the Special Reserve or the Territorial Force. In other words the College would adapt to provide the training required by potential officers.

All male students were eligible to volunteer. They enrolled in the O.T.C. as cadets and undertook theoretical and practical military training alongside their college studies. The training involved instructional parades, exercises and field operations, musketry, annual training at camp, lessons in tactics, map reading and military engineering. Student Cadets who passed an examination were entitled to a commission in the Reserves, or Territorial Force. Trotman rapidly built up the numbers and by 1913 he had 106 cadets. We know from his remarks at the November 1912 prize giving that he was a firm believer in preparing for war. As the historian Robert Mellors noted of Trotman,

‘he had travelled in Germany, and seen the preparations, and arrived at the conclusion that War was intended; he thereupon resolved that he would do all that one man could towards saving his country, and he did it’.

Trotman, born at Frome, Somerset, in 1869, had been Science master at the Nottingham Boys High School, where he had trained the Cadet Corps. From 1893 he was Nottingham City and Public Analyst, and having agreed to take on the OTC he found himself with two demanding tasks when the war broke out. To do them both, he rose at 4 a.m. to spend three hours in his laboratory before breakfast, he then went to Bulwell Hall to train recruits from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and frequently returned to his laboratory in the evening.

Initially the corps had its emergency headquarters at Trotman’s house in Lucknow Drive, Mapperley. This was then moved for a time to Bilbie Street, and each day the contingent marched out to Bulwell Common for training. Eventually Nottingham Corporation placed Bulwell Hall at its disposal, and those cadets who did not live in the vicinity were billeted there, under the personal supervision of Trotman and his wife who for some time lived in the hall and cared for their adopted family. Fortunately, Trotman’s wife appears to have been as committed to the cause as he was, and provided ‘motherly aid’ to the boys living at Bulwell Hall.

In total 103 Nottingham cadets had been gazetted to commissions by November 1914. Many of them, Trotman recalled, had enlisted ‘and in most cases obtained commissions very quickly’. By then one staff member, Captain Frederick Forster, and four senior officers with attachments to the unit, Major Charles Pack-Beresford, Major William Christie, Major Nigel Lysons and Lt Col Walter Loring, had fallen. On 24 November 1914 it was agreed to place a Roll of Honour in a prominent place for members of staff and students who had joined up.

These arrangements were formalised in December 1914 when a Department of Military Science was set up to teach the skills that officers would need in the war. Trotman was commissioned to prepare a course of study for students suitable to those studying for degrees and those seeking commissions. He told Council in December 1914 that Military Science would occupy three hours of lectures each week for map reading, military engineering, and practical work such as the ability to handle a company of infantry, advanced military science, special courses to meet national emergencies, and courses for those unable to undertake military duties. Trotman was given the position of Honorary Director of the department. Certificates of proficiency were granted, and special advantages were conferred upon the holders of the certificates. Various facilities were provided for shooting practice, including Miniature Ranges – Carrington Range (open air) 25 and 50 yards, and the High School Range 25 Yards – and the full range at Trent College:

‘A qualified Sergeant-Instructor is appointed, and every facility is offered to a cadet to become efficient. Uniform, equipment and ammunition are provided, so that membership entails no expense. All enquiries should be addressed to Capt S.R. Trotman, University College, Nottingham.’

Within a year ninety students had enrolled for the course, and by the end of 1915 365 students were attending classes in the Department of Military Science.

Special courses of lectures were delivered to officers, NCOs, and men of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Regiment and the RFA, stationed in Nottingham. Miss Hutchinson lectured on ‘The Health of the Soldier and Care of the Wounded’. Professor Kipping gave lectures on ‘Map Reading’, Mr A.H. Simpson on ‘Aids to Military Night Work’, Mr A Levi on ’The Care of the Horse’, and Professor Robinson on ‘The Motor Car in Battle’ – an indication of the overlap between old and new which marked the war.By the end of 1915, 748 former students and members of the OTC had joined the armed forces. Military Science was open to all students able to handle a company of infantry, and courses were on offer for those unable to undertake military duties, and by the end of 1915 special classes had been introduced for men wishing to obtain speedy commissions in the army and attended by 365 students.

In September 1915 members of the Citizens’ Army requested to be allowed to attend the evening classes on military science, but it was left to Trotman to decide whether or not this was feasible. The result was that lectures and practical instruction for officers of the Citizen Army were available from here until the end of the war. Lectures offered to members of the Citizen Army included Captain Trotman on ‘Tactics’, Professor Kipping on ‘Musketry’, and 2nd Lieut Mee on ‘Map Reading’.

Trotman’s work altered when in 1916 the government introduced conscription. A part-time military science course for boys under military age was introduced, together with a full-time military science course for boys approaching military age, and numerous other courses. Trotman later recalled: ‘we trained large numbers of “attested recruits” until their turn came to join up’, in other words they trained potential officers who enlisted when they were old enough: ‘We held classes for this purpose also in Mansfield both on weekdays and Sundays.’ He added that ‘for a considerable time the only rifles in Nottingham were those belonging to the O.T.C. and the rifle instructor which we were always willing to give to the Citizen Army and others was much appreciated’. Students of the Elementary Training Department who had joined the army under conscription were to have their entrance fee returned to them and advised that should they wish to return after the war they would be admitted for a further two terms without payment.

The form of education on offer changed again in 1917 when a new scheme was introduced allowing students wishing to train for commissions to attend instruction in the department of Military Science every morning, and Monday and Thursday afternoons additionally, and special classes on the other three afternoons. In October 1917 students doing Military Science were expected to attend Bulwell Hall on a Thursday and Saturday, and to wear uniform.

By 1918, 1,632 cadets had passed into the Army through the University College. They won five DSOs, 91 MCs, fourteen with bars, and several Croix de Guerre and other decorations, besides nearly 50 mentions in dispatches. More than 500 were wounded and 229 died. Some outstanding young officers graduated through the Nottingham OTC. Philip Johnson ‘personally brought back six machine guns’, while his sister Winifred left elementary school teaching in Nottingham to nurse on the Western Front. Frank Hind (19) died attempting the rescue of a comrade under heavy fire. Eustace Cattle ‘led a bombing attack under very difficult circumstances … crossing in the open to do so under close and heavy fire from enemy snipers’. William McClelland was described as ‘one of the bravest men in the line; Harry Beedham led a bayonet charge at Cambrai; Charles Vigors ‘showed great course and determination’ in repulsing an enemy attack in Salonika.

When, eventually, the war ended, there were numerous pieces to pick up: students who returned to complete their studies, frequently mixing with young men and women who had not played any direct role in the war; and new challenges in terms of the curriculum, arising from concerns which had arisen about Britain’s overall educational attainment.

 

Beyond Walter Tull

Walter Tull
The Walter Tull Commemorative Coin

The story of Walter Tull is one that resonates strongly today, but was he really the British Army’s first black officer? Michael Noble looks at a curious hidden history.

It was announced this week that Walter Tull, widely regarded as the British Army’s first black officer, is to be commemorated on a special £5 coin, part of a set of six that the Royal Mint will be producing as part of the First World  War centenary. This follows the announcement in June that a new road in his home town of Folkestone is to be named Walter Tull way in his honour. Meanwhile, a campaign is underway to make him a posthumous award of the Military Cross that was denied to him while he was alive.

The demand to award Tull the medal is no post hoc rewriting of history, or even a simple response to his fame as a professional footballer. The honour is entirely deserved and its denial a miscarriage of justice. On New Year’s Day 1918 Tull, then a 2nd Lieutenant on the Italian Front, led a mission across the icy-cold River Piave that runs from the Alps to the Adriatic. He returned without a single casualty and was cited by his commanding officer for ‘gallantry and coolness under fire’. The CO recommended that this be followed by a medal. None was forthcoming.

Wars are confusing, challenging situations and many things can go wrong. Still, it’s difficult to shake the conviction that the denial of Tull’s medal was entirely a question of race. The MC was a medal that had been created for junior officers below the rank of Captain and, gallant or otherwise, Walter Tull shouldn’t have been an officer at all. In some eyes, it was bad enough that he was in uniform at all, never mind being given a position of leadership.

The Manual of Military Law of the time stated that ‘Troops formed of coloured tribes and barbarous races should not be employed in war between civilised states’, meaning that sending a man like Tull to fight Germans was anathema to the mindset of the age. Of course, British men of African origin volunteered like any others but according to Tull’s biographer Phil Vasili, ploys were used to ensure that they failed the medical on spurious grounds. This trick, of course, could hardly be deployed against a professional footballer who continued to turn out for Northampton Town throughout the recruitment process and consequently, on completion of the 1914-15 season, Tull attended basic training and was deployed in France that autumn.  His abilities were quickly noted and he was made an NCO, attaining the rank of lance sergeant. It would not be the last recognition of his leadership skills, nor would it be the last time he surmounted the institutionalised and statutory racism of the day.

On being recommended for a commission in November 1916, Tull’s commanding officer had to complete a form to begin the process. The document survives and is kept in the National Archives. One of the questions asks if the candidate is of ‘pure European descent’, by which it means white. Tull’s form naturally shows the handwritten response ‘no’. For some reason, Tull’s fame, his exceptional character, the need for men of proven ability, the question was skimmed over by the board and Tull was given his commission in May 1917 whereupon he commenced officer training.

It is curious that the question was even asked. If it was axiomatic that men of non-European backgrounds were inappropriate to serve as officers is seems odd that officers in the British Army would need reminding. But then, not everything in a vast bureaucracy like the modern military is so clear cut. Which brings us to the story of George Edward Kingsley Bermand.

George Bermand was an old boy of Dulwich College, a former engineering student at University College London and, it was said, ‘a cheery soul, always inclined for a joke’. He joined the Officer Training Corps in October 1914, applied for a commission early in 1915 and obtained one with relative ease. He was also black.

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George Bermand

The Great War London blog contains some excellent research on Bermand’s life and career. He was born in Jamaica in 1892 and travelled to  Britain in 1908. Like Walter Tull, George Bermand was actually of mixed heritage and had some white British ancestry. Still, in accordance with the sensibilities of the time, he and his family were recorded as simply ‘African’ in the form that they completed on the USA leg of their journey to Europe.

The interpretation of such questions is important. When asked if he was of ‘pure European descent’, Walter Tull (or whoever processed his application) answered ‘no’. When George Bermand was asked the very same question, he answered ‘yes’. Bermand’s commission was sponsored by a Brigadier-General Anthony Abdy, who commanded the 30th (County Palatine) Divisional Artillery to which Bermand made his application. ‘I am willing to take him’, noted the Brigadier-General on the form and this seemed sufficient to ensure that Bermand got his commission. It is entirely possible that it was Abdy’s personal intervention that made the question of European descent an irrelevance in Bermand’s case. The bold ‘yes’ merely met a cold bureaucratic requirement leaving the actual business of recruiting a promising young officer to the pleasure of the man who would command him.

bemand-app-form
George Bermand’s Commission Application. Note his answer to question 4

Neither Tull nor Bermand survived the war. Bermand was killed by an artillery shell near Bethune on Boxing Day 1916. Tull was cut down by a German soldier during the Spring Offensive of 1918. They were aged 24 and 30 years old respectively.

The recent flurry of activity aimed at commemorating Walter Tull is admirable. His achievements in overcoming unimaginable prejudice on both the field of play and the field of battle are an indication of his strength of character and confirm his as a story worth telling and worth remembering. But there are other stories, other Hidden Histories that show that Tull may not have been alone. Although he was a fine cricketer at Dulwich, George Bermand lacked Walter Tull’s outstanding sporting ability and consequent popular fame. His elevation to officer rank came via the traditional method of patronage while Tull’s was the gift of the newer power of celebrity. Still, that either young man required any assistance to take an officer’s rank remains an indictment of the times in which they lived. In an age that was desperate for healthy young men to answer the country’s call, that any capable candidate would need a nod and a wink to get through the recruitment process seems absurd. But get through they did, and they showed that their places were not mere gifts -they had been earned. Just as Walter Tull earned his Military Cross.