The Great Escape – from Sutton Bonington!

The Centre’s Principal Investigator, Professor John Beckett, uncovers the story of a daring escape from Sutton Bonington, today one of the University of Nottingham’s UK campuses. 

Main Building, Sutton Bonington

During the centenary commemorations of the First World War, The Times is running a daily column reprinting a war-related activity first covered one hundred years ago. On 26 September 2017 it reproduced a story from 26 September 1917 headed ‘Escape of 23 War Prisoners’. It was about the escape of German officers from the internment camp at Sutton Bonington.

The Times reported the story with a certain sardonic humour. The German POWs had dug a tunnel and collected supplies ready for the break out, but having escaped they then struggled to put much distance between themselves and the camp. Six of them were caught near Nottingham, two were found asleep in a wood ‘worn out by their walk’, and three were arrested when they aroused suspicion by asking the way to the nearest railway station. Captain Muller was caught when schoolchildren found him blackberrying in Tollerton woods, six miles from the camp. Two more were found in East Leake ‘playing at cards while crouching beneath a hedge’.

These two men do not seem to have been trying all that hard to make their way back home, and apparently confessed the whole story. The escapees had tunnelled a distance of 50 yards over a three months period. Having escaped they divided into groups of four and started out on different routes towards the coast ‘where they hoped to get away by tramp steamers’.

Eighteen of those who escaped had been recaptured by 28 September 1917, and four more were taken at Chesterfield by Derby police on 30 September.

The story is, of course, well known. The Midland Agricultural College had been preparing to move from its premises in Kingston on Soar to the main building and men’s hostel newly built at Sutton Bonington. That building had a date stone of 1915. Before the move could take place the buildings were taken over to house German officers, who were generally well treated when they were captured as prisoners of war. In 1915 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle complained that they were quartered well away from ordinary soldiers, often in country houses or in the officers’ quarters of barracks. These were comfortably furnished, and servants were found for them from among the soldiers held as POWs. One of the prisoners, named in The Times, Captain Muller, had been in command of the Emden, a German raiding cruiser which had bombarded Madras in September 1914, and was subsequently sunk off the Cocos Islands on 9 November.

 

Photograph, 3 German Officer prisoners, Sutton Bonington campus, c.1917-1918

When the Sutton Bonington escape was reported, special constables were called out ‘and every measure was taken to apprehend the escaped prisoners’. With night patrols and road blocks, as well as special constables at strategic points, the prisoners were prevented from making much headway.

Lieutenants J. Stadelfaauer and P. Bastgem were recaptured in Derby after a week on the run – perhaps an inappropriate term since they had travelled just twelve miles from Sutton Bonington. Three men caught in West Bridgford on 25 September 1917 had among their possessions sardines, milk, bacon, ham, cheese, prunes, sausages, biscuits and dried toast. They might not have got far in their search for a packet boat to take them to Germany, but they were not going to starve. In fact, in the course of the First World War, only one German officer made it back home.

Event review: The Sherwood Foresters in Dublin, Easter Week 1916

Event review: The Sherwood Foresters in Dublin, Easter Week 1916

Captain Christian “Freddie” Dietrichsen

The Sherwood Foresters in Dublin, Easter Week 1916

Nottingham Lakeside 7 October 2017

The Centre for Hidden Histories has provided financial support for a public engagement partnership examining the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 and, in particular, the role of the 7th and 8th Reserve Battalion Sherwood Foresters. The battalion was mainly made up of young working-class men from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.

The subject has been researched in some detail by Professor James Moran of the University of Nottingham’s School of English, and he has also forged the public engagement programme with Hall Park Academy, Eastwood. Jim Moran has worked on the project with Professor Fintan Cullen of the University’s Department of History of Art. Fintan is from Dublin.

The Sherwood Foresters who were sent to Dublin had little idea of what they were walking into, and the battalion suffered the greatest casualties of all the British regiments involved in the insurrection. The soldiers were also made to participate in the firing squads that executed the rebel leaders. Jim and Fintan have researched the story of what happened both during Easter week and immediately afterwards when they were moved to Galway. They used archival material to explore how, at the time of the rebellion, the Sherwood Foresters believed that they would be remembered.

Much of the research was embedded in a specially devised performance at Lakeside by year 10 students from Hall Park Academy in Eastwood. The intention was to recover the voices of the soldiers from Nottinghamshire, and the play used the words of the soldiers, their opponents, and Eastwood’s most celebrated son D.H. Lawrence who, the audience was reminded, was not a conscientious objector but was found (on three occasions) to be unfit to serve on the front line.

Jim Moran introduced the play, in order to set the scene for the performance. The Second Battalion of the Notts and Derbyshire Regiment, better known as the ‘Sherwood Foresters’, were the last of the 1914-1918 war volunteers. They went to war to defeat the Germans but soon found themselves in combat on the streets of Dublin. The Foresters arrived in the Irish capital on 26 April 1916. They marched from Kingstown port (now Dun Laoghaire) into the city. The battalion was divided into two. Two thousand troops were sent into the city along the tree-lined Northumberland Road, cheered on by many of the citizens of Dublin – although some of the soldiers appear to have thought they were in France and were surprised to be greeted by cheering crowds speaking in English rather than French!

Far from having an easy ride against what they had been assured was an ill-disciplined and poorly trained rebel force, they found themselves up against well organised fighters, and within hours of their arrival more than 220 Foresters had been killed or wounded by just 17 men of the Irish Volunteers.

The Foresters had received just 12 weeks training, and they were ill-prepared for combat; indeed, some of the men had not even learned to fire a rifle. Their machine guns and hand grenades had been left on the dockside in Liverpool. The British military leaders believed that a show of force would be enough to end the uprising. It was a serious miscalculation.

The letter to Capt. Dietrichsen from his children

One of the officers leading the men was Nottingham barrister Christian “Freddie” Dietrichsen, a Captain in the regiment. Before the war, Dietrichsen – who was of Danish extraction, hence the surname – had married an Irish women, Beatrice Mitchell. They settled in Nottingham’s Park estate but with the outbreak of the war Freddie, fearing the possible impact of Zeppelin raids, sent his wife and children to Watford. Unbeknown to Freddie, Beatrice decided this was still too close to the action, and moved with her children to Dublin. They were among the crowd waving flags on Northumberland Avenue when Freddie marched past. He was surprised, because he thought they were in Watford, and they were surprised because they thought he was in France. The march into Dublin stopped briefly for Freddie to kiss his wife and children before carrying on. Shortly afterwards he was killed by a sniper’s bullet. In his jacket pocket were letters to him from his children, and a letter he had written but not sent, to his wife.

All of this was recounted in the Hall Park Academy’s performance at Lakeside, together with appropriate quotations from Lawrence. For the pupils, this was their first opportunity to perform on a public stage, for the parents it was an opportunity to be proud of their offspring, and for the Centre for Hidden Histories and Jim Moran it was an opportunity to find out more about a First World War event which the British army chose (presumably from embarrassment at having underestimated the Irish rebels) to play down. But, first and foremost, congratulations to the pupils of Hall Park Academy.

Review: Nottingham in the Great War

Review: Nottingham in the Great War

John Beckett reviews Nottingham in the Great War by Carol Lovejoy Edwards

NitGWOne of the more heartening aspects of the First World War commemorations is that they have not concentrated purely and simply on the Western Front. There are, without any doubt, plenty of reasons for remembering the great slaughter which took place in Belgium and France, particularly during the ‘trench’ period of the conflict, quite apart from the linked conflicts elsewhere in Europe and further afield . But there are also many reasons for remembering the home front, not least the fact that so many families lost members in the conflict and were often left simply to get on with life. Bodies were not repatriated, so the best they could hope for was a name on a war memorial, and perhaps a few personal possessions which might reach them many months after their relative died.

The publishers Pen & Sword have started a ‘Your towns and cities in the First World War’ series, in order to highlight just what those ‘at home’ had to handle. Carol Lovejoy Edwards has written the Nottingham volume, largely through sifting photographs from the Picture the Past Collection,[1] and then surrounding the images with an explanatory text divided into annual chapters 1914-1919.[2] It is written with a light touch, plenty of examples, many of which appear to be from newspapers although none are acknowledged, no great depth, and some occasional errors which suggest the author is not familiar with the city – where, for example, is or was the Southward Council School?

The home front was only partially involved with the actual day to day action on the Western Front because unlike the Second World War the threat from the air was as yet relatively limited. The problem for most families lay at home, not just in respect of sons and grandsons going to war, but also in terms of earning power, fund raising, work, and the occasional threat of a Zeppelin raid. At times food was also an issue, and some responses to war were distasteful in the extreme – notably the attitude to German-born people living peacefully (until August 1914) in the city. Other social changes included women moving into work, taking on roles such as tram conductresses, and shell filling – notably at the Chilwell depot which suffered a catastrophic explosion in July 1918.

What the book does not do is to offer any real depth of discussion. There is nothing on how families coped with separation, death and often serious injury to loved ones? And by stopping with the Armistice in November 1918, there is nothing on returning soldiers and the problems of reintegration, or of memorialisation, or of the impact of the war on the suffragette movement. Anyone who has been to the battlefields, or to the great memorials at Arras, Ypres, Verdun and elsewhere, knows that the war was a tragedy – a generation of young men wiped out, a whole society dreadfully aware of its loss, and a home front on which those left behind struggled to keep life going, and to respond to the call.

Nottingham had its military tribunals from 1916 with the introduction of conscription, and even a handful of conscientious objectors, but in general this was a war which the British accepted as a necessary response to German Imperialism. This book is too lightweight to do real justice to the way in which the people of Nottingham handled a conflict in which they were caught up, and which they felt, for the most part, compelled to accept for the greater good of the state and the Empire. Their job was to act as support for the war, and in general they did a remarkably good job.

[1] www.picturethepast.org.uk

[2] Carol Lovejoy Edwards, Nottingham in the Great War (Pen & Sword, 2015)

Ayette Indian and Chinese Cemetery 1917-1918

Ayette Indian and Chinese Cemetery 1917-1918

In this post, Professor John Beckett outlines the hidden history preserved in a small corner of Northern France

A few miles south of Arras, along a road tucked in behind the village of Ayette, one of those familiar dark green Commonwealth War Graves Commission signposts appears to direct you

Ayette Indian and Chinese Cemetery
Ayette Indian and Chinese Cemetery

to turn left into a hedge. In fact, on closer inspection it turns out to be an unmade lane or track. Being wise after the event, I recommend walking down the track – either that or being prepared for a long reverse since there is nowhere to turn a car around! Two hundred yards or so along the track you reach the Ayette ‘Indian and Chinese Cemetery, 1917-1918’. What on earth, I wondered, was this small cemetery doing in this remote location, and why was it dedicated to Indian and Chinese casualties? Indian we can guess since we know that many troops came to Europe to be part of the Imperial war machine. We may not know as much about them as about the white British lads who we expect to find memorialised on the gravestones of the cemeteries maintained by the CWGC, but we know about their military role, notably in 1915.

But China? Why should any Chinese people have been tied up in this war? World War it may have been, but I do not recall China being lined up on either side of the Imperial divide? Unlike India, it was not part of the British Empire.

So what is the story? As is well known, between 1914 and 1916 the British army grew rapidly in line with the recruitment policy instigated in August 1914 by Lord Kitchener as soon as he was appointed Secretary of State for War. By the eve of the Battle of the Somme the relatively tiny band of regulars and territorials who had been mobilised in 1914 had been transformed into a fighting force of more than one million men occupying almost 200 km of trenches along the Western Front. As it had grown in size and activities, front-line units had been supported with food, ammunition and war materials, largely as a result of the work of the British labour corps and pioneer battalions or combat troops resting from the trenches. These men also built camps, salvaged weapons and munitions from the battlefields, and carried out repairs to roads, railways and airfields. As such, the vastly inflated army was underpinned in order to maintain its pursuit of trench warfare.

All this changed when the Battle of the Somme commenced on 1 July 1916. The casualty rates were such that with a few months there was a severe labour shortage on the Western Front. Every able-bodied serviceman was needed at the front, and the British were increasingly desperate to find fresh sources of manpower. At home this was largely achieved by the introduction of conscription, but in addition to extra soldiers they also needed labourers. Where we these to be found?

Ayette Indian and Chinese Cemetery
Ayette Indian and Chinese Cemetery

In October 1916 the War Office approached the Chinese government, which was then officially neutral. It came up with a plan which led to the formation of the Chinese Labour Corps (CLC). Public proclamations, often promoted by local missionaries, encouraged Chinese men to join the Corps, which was non-combatant but under British military control and discipline. For poor Chinese peasants, particularly those in the cold northern provinces of Shantung and Chihli, pledging themselves to three years of service in return for pay which was far better than they could hope for at home, seemed like a winner. The first transport of Chinese labourers made its way to Europe via Canada at the beginning of 1917. By the end of 1917 there were 54,000 Chinese labourers attached to the Commonwealth forces in France and Belgium. This figure doubled by November 1918.

Meantime, and partly because the British were uncertain about the likely response in China, preparations had been made to expand the existing Indian Labour Corps. Labour battalions of men serving with the Indian Corps had been used on the Western Front since September 1915 but it was only in 1916 that steps were taken towards forming a separate Indian Labour Corps. The civil authorities in the various Indian provinces were asked to start recruitment campaigns and the first Indian labourers arrived in Marseilles in June 1917. By the end of August 1917 over 20,000 workers had arrived in France. At the Armistice the Chinese Labour Corps numbered nearly 96,000 and even in May 1919, 80,000 were at work in Europe.

Ayette Indian and Chinese Cemetery
Ayette Indian and Chinese Cemetery

In the course of 1917 and 1918 men from the Indian and Chinese labour corps undertook transport, maintenance; salvage and construction work on the Western Front and as such made a significant contribution to the Allied war effort. They were mostly deployed beyond the range of enemy guns, and managed by officers of European extraction, many of whom were former civil servants or missionaries who were able to communicate with the workers but had little or no military background. Even so, many of the Chinese and Indian Labour Corps died as the result of long-range shelling, air raids, and enemy action during the German Spring Offensive in 1918. Others fell victim to illness, particularly Spanish flu through the winter of 1918-19. In total around 2,000 Chinese and 1,500 Indian labourers died while serving on the Western Front.

The Indian and Chinese cemetery at Ayette was set up by British troops in September 1917 and used until April 1918. However, Ayette was the scene of heavy fighting in March 1918, and the village was captured by German troops during the offensive. If was retaken by the 32nd Division on 3 April 1918 and remained in Allied hands thereafter. Interments at Ayette resumed in autumn 1918, and although the cemetery claims on its perimeter wall to have burials from 1917-18 it contains a number of later burials from 1919. The cemetery has a lovely little pagoda. It holds 109 members of the Indian Army, 42 men of the Indian labour corps, 33 men of the Chinese labour corps, and one German interment (Heinrich Vodische). It has the full range of inscriptions the Imperial War Graves Commission agreed with the Chinese for their graves, including ‘A Noble Duty Bravely Done’, and ‘A Good Reputation Endures Forever’. The gravestones are a mixture of English and Chinese or Indian script.[1]

Ayette Indian and Chinese Cemetery
Ayette Indian and Chinese Cemetery

Some labour corps units remained in France after the Armistice to help with the clearing of the battlefields, which largely meant the exhumation and re-interment of thousands of Commonwealth soldiers in nominated cemeteries. How many of the Chinese Labour Corps subsequently made their way home is unclear. Apart from those who died, it seems likely that many remained in Europe.

 

 

[1] Rose E.B. Coombs, Before Endeavours Fade (2010), 100

Thomas Porteous Black, a Nottingham man at Gallipoli

The cap badge of the Sherwood Foresters, Black's regiment.
The cap badge of the Sherwood Foresters, Black’s regiment.

John Beckett recounts the story of Thomas Porteous Black, the Registrar of University College Nottingham, who fought at Gallipoli.

 

The commemoration on 25 April 2015 of the centenary of Gallipoli, reminds us that white British casualties were found in places other than the trenches of the Western Front. The conflict itself is often viewed as being about the Australian and New Zealand troops, who went into action in Europe for the first time. ‘The ordeal of courageous Anzac troops under the command of bungling British generals has become the stuff of legend’ according to The Times (25 April 2015). By contrast, Britain has not made a great deal of the campaign, which was seen as botched, primarily by Winston Churchill, who had seen it as a way of opening a new front in the Eastern Mediterranean. Britain sent a 75,000 strong Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, which included British, Irish, French, Australian, New Zealand and Indian troops. By August 1915 the situation was dire, with troops pinned down in a bloody stalemate, having failed to move further than three or four miles inland.

Among the casualties was Thomas Porteous Black. A native of Aberdeen, but brought up in Darlington, Black was killed at Suvla Bay on 9 August 1915, as the 9th Sherwood Foresters were ordered forward against Turkish lines near Hetman Char in the Dardanelles.

Black’s death had a particular impact on Nottingham University College because he held the position of Registrar, at that time the senior administrator of the institution. He had joined the College as a lecturer in Physics, and had been appointed Registrar in 1911. As an officer in the OTC (Officer Training Corps), he quickly became involved in the war effort, and when the war started he joined up as a Sherwood Forester. As with all of the young men who died, and who had some form of association with the College, his loss was reported to both Senate and Council and, as ever, letters of condolence were sent to his family. He is also named on the university’s war memorial in the Trent Building.

The memorial to the fallen of the OTC, Nottingham
The memorial to the fallen of the OTC, Nottingham

In Black’s case the College decided to go further and to create a scholarship fund ‘to be awarded for research and to bear his name’. A circular letter dated 20 November 1915 and signed by the College vice principal Frank Granger and by E Lawrence Manning, described as honorary secretaries and treasurers for the Black memorial award, recalled how, as registrar, he had ‘carried out duties of special responsibility with an energy, foresight and tact, which was of great value to the numerous students who entered the College during his term of office.’

The letter continued: ‘It is hoped to raise a sum of £300 with a view to establishing a scholarship to be awarded for research and to bear his name.’ More than £50 had already been donated, including £10 10s from Principal Heaton, and £5 5s from his wife. A concert was held on 25 March 1916 to raise money towards the Black Memorial Fund.

By that time the ill-fated campaign in the Dardanelles was over. The Commander-in-Chief, General Ian Hamilton was recalled in October, and an evacuation began in December, which ended on 9 January 1916.