The Face of Madness

Shell shocked soldier in the trenches 1916

The First World War was a breeding ground for psychological trauma. Standing in what were effectively holes in the ground with artillery barrages raining down around them, even the toughest men could break under the strain.

This haunting image was taken in September 1916 at the Battle of Courcelette. The unidentified soldier has lost all perception of reality having retreated in to his own mind hence the maddened smile. Called “Shell shock” at the time, today it would be labelled as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and while it does gain wider recognition today it is still a major factor affecting forces personnel returning from combat duty.

The man in this image represents a very extreme case although “Shell shock” manifested itself in many ways.

(Image sourced from Historicalphotos.com)

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The First Sortie

BE2 RFC

Royal Flying Corps BE2 (RAF Museum)

In 2015 the British government voted to extend the Royal Air Force’s campaign against the so-called Islamic State terrorist group by bombing targets in Syria. The pilots of the Panavia Tornado GR.4s and Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4s probably had little thought to the fact that in doing so they were continuing a 101 year-long story of British forces using aeroplanes to conduct a war.

The story begins – as do so many stories of modern, mechanised warfare – in the First World War. On August 4th 1914 Great Britain declared war on Germany following the violation of Belgium neutrality by German troops in their attack on France. To help repel the Germans the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was raised which included four squadrons of the British Army’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) operating an assortment of aeroplanes. Three of the squadrons comprising around 60 aircraft crossed the English Channel on August 13th 1914; an impressive feat when you consider that it had barely been five years since Louis Blériot had made the first crossing by a heavier-than-air flying machine.

RFC Bleriot XI

RFC Bleriot Monoplanes (1418now)

Even before they left Britain the RFC was reminded how dangerous flying was in itself during those very early days to say nothing of encountering the enemy. An aircraft flying to Dover to join the rest of the RFC before attempting the crossing crashed killing both its pilot Lt. Robert R. Skene and Air Mechanic Ray Barlow. As the BEF began their march towards Maubeuge in north east France the RFC took off and arrived there almost two full days before the first British troops arrived. Their journey had been anything but uninteresting however as the French infantry in the area proved somewhat trigger-happy taking pot-shots at the unmarked British aircraft. Their lesson learned, the RFC squadrons quickly took to painting crude Union Jack flags on the underside of their wings which went some way to reducing the risk but didn’t eliminate it (it would be another year before roundels appeared on aircraft).

Despite the hazards posed by both hostile and friendly fire the RFC was set to fly its first operational sortie of the war on August 19th 1914. The mission had two separate objectives and would be flown by two aircraft departing together and then going about their own tasks upon reaching Nievelles. From No.3 Squadron RFC, Captain  would fly his Blériot Monoplane to Nievelles-Gnappe to report on the condition and disposition of Belgian forces in the area. In the early days of the war there was little information feeding back to the BEF in France about how well the Belgians were repelling the Germans. The second aircraft, a Royal Aircraft Factory BE2 flown by Lieutenant Gilbert Mappleback of No.4 Squadron RFC, was tasked to confirm the suspicion that German cavalry were operating in the vicinity of Gembloux in central Belgium.

Given the need to save weight and thus reduce the fuel consumption to increase range the decision was taken that both pilots should fly without observers; a rather contentious decision at the time within the squadrons. At 0930hrs the two aircraft bounced their way in to unfriendly looking skies that was blanketed with thick clouds. The two aircraft chugged their way through the skies together on their way to Nievelles where the plan was for them to separate on to their individual tasks. The reason for flying part of the mission together was so if one aircraft crashed or was shot down then the remaining pilot could report his position.

Lieutenant Gilbert  Mapplebeck

Lieutenant Gilbert Mappleback DSO

It was not to be however. The low cloud enveloped the two aircraft several times and before long the two RFC pilots realised that they had lost sight of one another. Nevertheless, they pressed on but keeping the BE2 flying and navigating by himself, Lieutenant Mappleback soon became lost and found himself flying over a very large town. He didn’t know it at the time but the town was actually Brussels. Tootling along for a short while longer he eventually found enough landmarks to ascertain his position and proceeded to his objective at Gembloux. Shortly after beginning his reconnoitre of the area he spotted a small pocket of enemy cavalry and recorded their position noting that they were moving south-east away from the allied lines; they were possibly returning from their own more traditional horseback reconnaissance mission.

Mappleback then turned his aircraft for Maubeuge but the cloud was getting lower and lower forcing him to eventually drop down to just 300ft in order to keep sight of his navigational markers. Eventually he reached the town of Namur and took to following the La Sambre river back to Maubeuge. He would become so intent on following the river that he actually flew passed Maubeuge and on to Le Cateau where he put the aircraft down in order to get his bearings fixed before attempting to fly back to Maubeurge. He arrived back at his base at close to midday to report the position of the enemy cavalry. His report was not the news the General staff were hoping for but his mission was at least a success.

While Mappleback was hunting German cavalry at Gembloux, Joubert in his Blériot Monoplane was having an extremely difficult time navigating to Nievelles-Gnappe. With such heavy cloud constantly causing him to lose sight of the ground Joubert found his position on the map through a break in the cloud and resorted to flying primarily by his compass. The lightweight frame of the Blériot saw Joubert being blown off course and after two hours of wandering around the Belgian countryside he eventually landed near the Belgian Army barracks at Tournai. The Commandant of the barracks, fascinated with the English flier, proceeded to invite him to dine with his men where they made polite conversation but Joubert learned little of the Belgian disposition from him as was his objective.

Having finished dining, Joubert took off at around midday and once again got lost. After another two hours of trying to find his way in the low cloud and poor weather he spotted the medieval Belgian city of Courtrai where he again landed hoping to secure some petrol for his Blériot. The local Gendarmerie (police) were suspicious of the flier however and attempted to arrest him until he was able to convince them he was an RFC pilot. The local population helped with gathering enough fuel for his aircraft to take off again and the Gendarmerie pointed him in the direction of the Belgian Flying Corps headquarters at Louvain, east of Brussels. This was too far away for him to contemplate flying and therefore he elected to return to Maubeuge via La Cateau. He and his aircraft arrived rather sullenly at 1730hrs.

It was hardly a successful first day. Nevertheless, it laid the groundwork for more successful future operations and before long the aircraft would become an integral part of the battlefield adding a third dimension to military planning. The importance of the aircraft would finally be fully recognised on April 1st 1918 when the RFC became absorbed in to the Royal Air Force, the world’s first air arm independent of both Army and Royal Navy.

Philip Joubert de la Ferté would survive the war and remain in the RAF eventually rising to the rank of Air Marshall leading Coastal Command during World War II and receiving a knighthood. Lieutenant Gilbert Mappleback would later be awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for carrying out an attack on a German convoy of vehicles by hurling small hand held bombs on top of them. He returned to Britain in April 1915 and assisted in testing at Farnborough. On August 25th 1915 he was killed when the Morane Saulinier Type N “Bullet” he was flying crashed.

 

Defence of the Realm – Army

The British Army

In 1707 the regiments that made up the Army and Navy of Scotland were absorbed in to their English counterparts and the British Army was formed. The full-time element of the British Army is referred to as the Regular Army and has been since the creation of the reservist Territorial Force in 1908. Throughout its history, the British Army has seen action in a number of major wars involving the world’s great powers, including the Seven Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimean War, the First World War and Second World War.


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The Christmas Truce 1914

trucecutting

The Christmas Truce

by Carol Ann Duffy

Christmas Eve in the trenches of France, the guns were quiet.
The dead lay still in No Man’s Land –
Freddie, Franz, Friedrich, Frank . . .
The moon, like a medal, hung in the clear, cold sky.

Silver frost on barbed wire, strange tinsel, sparkled and winked.
A boy from Stroud stared at a star
to meet his mother’s eyesight there.
An owl swooped on a rat on the glove of a corpse.

In a copse of trees behind the lines, a lone bird sang.
A soldier-poet noted it down – a robin holding his winter ground –
then silence spread and touched each man like a hand.

Somebody kissed the gold of his ring;
a few lit pipes;
most, in their greatcoats, huddled,
waiting for sleep.
The liquid mud had hardened at last in the freeze.

But it was Christmas Eve; believe; belief thrilled the night air,
where glittering rime on unburied sons
treasured their stiff hair.
The sharp, clean, midwinter smell held memory.

On watch, a rifleman scoured the terrain –
no sign of life,
no shadows, shots from snipers, nowt to note or report.
The frozen, foreign fields were acres of pain.

Then flickering flames from the other side danced in his eyes,
as Christmas Trees in their dozens shone, candlelit on the parapets,
and they started to sing, all down the German lines.

Men who would drown in mud, be gassed, or shot, or vaporised
by falling shells, or live to tell, heard for the first time then –
Stille Nacht. Heilige Nacht. Alles schläft, einsam wacht …

Cariad, the song was a sudden bridge from man to man;
a gift to the heart from home,
or childhood, some place shared …
When it was done, the British soldiers cheered.

A Scotsman started to bawl The First Noel
and all joined in,
till the Germans stood, seeing
across the divide,
the sprawled, mute shapes of those who had died.

All night, along the Western Front, they sang, the enemies –
carols, hymns, folk songs, anthems, in German, English, French;
each battalion choired in its grim trench.

So Christmas dawned, wrapped in mist, to open itself
and offer the day like a gift
for Harry, Hugo, Hermann, Henry, Heinz …
with whistles, waves, cheers, shouts, laughs.

Frohe Weinachten, Tommy! Merry Christmas, Fritz!
A young Berliner, brandishing schnapps,
was the first from his ditch to climb.
A Shropshire lad ran at him like a rhyme.

Then it was up and over, every man, to shake the hand
of a foe as a friend,
or slap his back like a brother would;
exchanging gifts of biscuits, tea, Maconochie’s stew,

Tickler’s jam … for cognac, sausages, cigars,
beer, sauerkraut;
or chase six hares, who jumped
from a cabbage-patch, or find a ball
and make of a battleground a football pitch.

I showed him a picture of my wife. Ich zeigte ihm
ein Foto meiner Frau.
Sie sei schön, sagte er.
He thought her beautiful, he said.

They buried the dead then, hacked spades into hard earth
again and again, till a score of men
were at rest, identified, blessed.
Der Herr ist mein Hirt … my shepherd, I shall not want.

And all that marvellous, festive day and night, they came and went,
the officers, the rank and file, their fallen comrades side by side
beneath the makeshift crosses of midwinter graves…

… beneath the shivering, shy stars
and the pinned moon
and the yawn of History;
the high, bright bullets
which each man later only aimed at the sky.

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The two men who murdered Fusilier Lee Rigby in a political and ideologically motivated attack have lost their appeal to have their sentences reduced. The news comes amid fresh inquiries over just how much did British security services know of these two men, their activities and the level of danger they presented before their brutal attack on the off duty soldier 18 months ago.

Past & Future Collide

Biplane Military Exercise 1914

A fascinating photograph taken in early 1914 during a military exercise on Salisbury Plain. The mounted cavalry officers look on as a biplane of the Rpyal Flying Corps, the precursor to the RAF, growls overhead. The Royal Flying Corps was founded on April 13th 1912, just 9 years after the Wright Brother’s first flight. The most destructive war in history would break out just two years later but to these cavalry officers and indeed the British Army at large just what the future for these contraptions would be was something of a mystery. Almost certainly these officers looking on with curiosity must have thought their future was still certain.

After all, what could an airplane really do?

Longest Tank Kill In History

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One thing that is undeniably “British” is the love of a good underdog story and British military history is filled with examples of just that. The Harrier in the Falklands. The Swordfish bomber attack on Taranto harbour. The evacuation of Dunkirk. That’s to name but a few. In 1991 on the eve of the ground war to liberate Kuwait and destroy Iraq’s mighty army one of the underdogs was certainly the British Challenger tank.

221 Challenger tanks were eventually deployed to Saudia Arabia to liberate Kuwait and operated under the guise of the 1st (UK) Armoured Division supporting the US Army’s VII Corps. As the tanks deployed there were worried muffles in the Ministry of Defence and amongst military analysts about how well they would perform especially in the face of Iraqi armoured forces who were superior in number and had extensive tank vs tank combat experience following the Iran-Iraq War.

The reason for this is that the Challenger had developed quite an unenviable reputation at the start of the 1990s. In service it had displayed very poor reliability and this was the source of much frustration amongst crews and commanders. Even worse however was the stigma of having finished last in the prestigious Canadian Army Trophy tank competition held in West Germany in 1987 against tanks and crews from all over NATO. Despite the MoD highlighting several key factors for this poor performance the stigma remained and so when the Challenger deployed to the Gulf it had a lot to prove.

chall88

Prove itself it did. During the course of the 100 hour ground war the Challenger had completely reversed its reliability problems and achieved an enviable serviceability record; a testament to the hard work and dedication of the support crews who keep these vehicles going. In combat it was the superior of anything it came up against and by the end of the three day offensive Challengers accounted for some 200 Iraqi tanks destroyed or captured along with numerous armoured and ‘soft’ vehicles.

During the offensive one Challenger finally laid to rest the doubts anyone had over the capability of the type with a single shot. That shot was made over a staggering range of 5,100m (3 miles) with a Depleted Uranium (DU) round – the longest confirmed tank kill in history!

The Minister of State for the Armed Forces, Ian Stewart, said after the poor showing of the Challenger at the Canadian Army Trophy in 1987;

I do not believe that the performance of tanks in the artificial circumstances of a competition, such as the recent Canadian Army Trophy, is a proper indication of their capability in war.

Less than four years later he was proven right.