Friday, 20 February 2015

A Tank Named Deborah

This summer some of us will once again be enjoying a War Poets' Tour guided by the omniscient Vivien Whelpton and the indefatigable Clive Harris, this time to the Cambrai region of France, forever associated in many people's minds with the first major use of tanks in battle during the First World War.

Siegfried Sassoon does not seem to have been a fan of tanks, if his poem "Blighters" is anything to go by.  What he actually seems to have objected to is the response of the non-combatant British public to the success of the new weapon.  His use of the word "Blighters" is a pun on the term "Blighty" to refer to his home country, where these people sit comfortably ensconced in a cinema, watching a propaganda film that was to cause a sensation.

Although I don't particularly love tanks in themselves, I am looking forward to Cambrai for a particular reason.  A couple of years back, while surfing the web in search of further information about Edward Horner (see Philip Guest’s article in Siegfried's Journal vol 21 for details of the man whose equestrian statue adorns the parish church at Mells where Siegfried Sassoon is buried), I came across a snippet that intrigued me.  

A gentleman named Philippe Gorcynski had, it seemed, excavated a tank that had been abandoned during World War I near the village of Flesquieres, and was hoping to make it the centrepiece of a new museum.  Horner himself was killed in the Battle of Cambrai (20-21 November 1917), aged 28. I have heard him referred to as "the real-life 'Downton Abbey' WWI hero", whatever that may mean.

“Deborah” (or, more prosaically, D51), was excavated in 1998 by a team of archaeologists from Arras, and now resides in a barn awaiting promotion to future glory.  There it stands on a base constructed of granite cobbles from the streets of the old town of Cambrai.  The tank itself - or herself, if you like – has been designated a Historical French Monument.  During the battle, Deborah was attached to No. 12 Section of the 12th Company, commanded by Captain G Nixon.  Three months before the battle, the tank had already been damaged during an action in Flanders and subsequently repaired.  

As the troops entered Flesquieres, they were forced back by sniper and machine-gun fire, and Deborah was put out of action by field guns.  2/Lt Frank Heap of the 4th [D] Btn. Tank Corps, leading the tank crew, received the MC for his efforts on that day; five of his eight-man crew were killed.  The following day, when it was discovered by Scottish infantry, four of the men were buried next to the tank, the other some distance away (the bodies were later interred at Flesquieres Hill British Cemetery).

Some time after the battle, Deborah was pulled 900 yards from her resting-place by other British tanks, and was buried in a hole dug by the Germans before the battle.  The tank was then used as a shelter until the Germans re-took the village in March 1918. For more details of the research behind the discovery and restoration of the tank, it is well worth having a look at the website of the museum project: 

My husband has been a great tank enthusiast since his youth, so I felt obliged to appraise him of my findings.  His comment: “How can I fail to go and visit a tank called Deborah?  It combines the two great loves of my life.”

If you would like to join us, you may still be able to get a place on the tour:  Hope to see you there!

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Road to Wrexham

Trying to plan the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship's annual conference is always a challenge.  Unlike most other societies, the SSF does not have a permanent “base”.  This is great from the point of view of attracting new members and giving everyone the opportunity to attend events.   It’s a boon for those who don’t live in London and the South-East of England.  However, it does lead to a certain unpredictability in terms of attendances, which in itself leads to difficulty in setting prices, choosing a venue, ordering catering, finding accommodation, and all the other little things that have to be borne in mind at conference time.  I often have cause to be grateful that our annual conference is essentially only a one-day event (though, over the years, it has grown into a fun weekend for those involved, with plenty of opportunity for social contact and visits to places of interest).

Wrexham, although fairly central in geographical terms, is considered by many to be out in the wilds, simply because it is not located at a motorway junction and the rail journey from London requires a change of train.  Those who think the journey is too much trouble might do well to recall that Siegfried Sassoon loved to travel up there to see his friends Bobbie and Dorothy Hanmer.   Of course, the rail service in the UK was at that time far superior to what it became after Dr Beeching got his hands on it; nevertheless, it would have been a long journey for Siegfried, and not a particularly comfortable one.

Bobbie and Dorothy's family, the Hanmers, are a great name in the history of Wales.  One of them was actually - albeit briefly - Princess of Wales, if you accept that Margaret Hanmer's husband, Owain Glyndwr, had a right to the title he assumed around 1400.   The Hanmers, although English, were well integrated into the border community, as much at home in Flintshire as they were in Shropshire; the village of Hanmer lies within the present County Borough of Wrexham.  A baronetcy was created in 1620 and survives to this day.  That Siegfried knew the area is confirmed by his decision to call his regiment "The Flintshire Fusiliers" in his fictionalised autobiography.

The Hanmers are not, however, the main reason for choosing Wrexham as our next conference venue.  The fact is that Wrexham is the location of the Royal Welch Fusiliers' regimental archive, and this year is the centenary of Sassoon joining the regiment.   Although Siegfried chose the RWF partly because Bobbie Hanmer had already enlisted in it, he did not see much of him afterwards; a Carmarthenshire clergyman's son, David Thomas, quickly took Bobbie's place in his affections, and you can learn more about David's background in an article that will feature in the forthcoming edition of Siegfried's Journal.  The regiment also brought Sassoon into contact with another younger man who would make a significant impact on his life and work - Robert Graves.

Like Sassoon, Graves was English, but he had closer links with Wales, where his family had settled.  Although very different in temperament, Sassoon and Graves were brought together, initially by a love of literature, and compared notes on their approach to writing verse on the subject of war, with the already battle-hardened Graves telling Sassoon he would soon change his mind and abandon his conventional patriotic stance.  It was Sassoon's humility in admitting he had been wrong that eventually enabled him to become a more effective war poet than Graves.

You will have noted that Sassoon did not join the Fusiliers until the spring of 1915.  Those unfamiliar with his life story may be wondering what he was doing in the meantime.  He had spent the period between the outbreak of war the previous year and the receipt of his commission in the RWF as a trooper in the Sussex Yeomanry, a role that had at first appealed to him because of his love of horses and riding.  It turned out to be a bad move because the Yeomanry did not get called to the Front.  While exercising his officer's horse in October 1914, Siegfried fell and broke his arm, and it was while laid up that he made the decision to seek a commission in a regiment that was already actively involved in the war.

It has often been commented on that the Royal Welch Fusiliers could boast among its officers and men a disproportionate number of notable writers, the best-known (apart from Graves and Sassoon) being David Jones, Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, Frank Richards (not the creator of Billy Bunter) and the Welsh-language poet Ellis Humphrey Evans, better known by his bardic name of "Hedd Wyn".  Finally, there was the medical officer J. C. Dunn, whose memoir, The War The Infantry Knew, is considered a minor masterpiece of its kind.

At the time of writing, I cannot say exactly which aspects of Sassoon's career in the RWF are going to be most strongly highlighted at the conference, except that Sassoon's relationship with Graves will definitely be featured, as will the topic of Great War fiction.  For those who are interested in the military side of things, there will certainly be something to learn, and at the same time I can assure those who are not remotely interested in the technicalities of war that there will be plenty of literary talk to keep you awake!