A Look at the Half Shilling Curate.



The Half Shilling Curate is the personal story of an army Champlain during the First World War, this is my video in which I talk a little about it, and there’s even a word from the author. Do please check it out. It’s available right now on Amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/Half-Shilling-Curate-Personal-Account-1914-1918/dp/191109646X and at the publishers for a special discount. http://www.helion.co.uk/new-and-forthcoming-titles/the-half-shilling-curate-a-personal-account-of-war-faith-1914-1918.html


Book Review: The Truce by Chris Baker.


Hardcover: 176 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 Sept. 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1445634902


In the age of social media, Christmas is a time of year when WW1 Historians get asked a common question. What was the Christmas truce?
This legend is the focus of Chris Baker’s book, The truce. It’s one of a small group of small books dealing with December 1914 in the trenches, and this one does an excellent job of answering the question of what happened, and many more.

Tied up with the legend is the old story of opposing sides playing football, singing carols and meetings in no man’s land. Beginning with a thorough look at “Bloody December”, and the different units involved during the winter offensives in the western front, including the appearance of the Indian Corps, Baker dedicates half the book to combat.

Commonality is to be observed in all WW1 narratives, because no one can escape the appalling losses. Wether the writer is of the old school and focuses on the useless waste, or is of the newer mindset that admits the high casualties were an inevitable byproduct of old minds in a modern war, no one can deny the shocking scale of casualties had a numbing affect on those involved.

Midway through the book the tense changes from straight narrative, to a section called “In their words”. This ambitiously lists by Corps, division and brigade down to battalion, those units present on the frontline roughly from the 23rd to the 26th of December. Under their organisational headings are first hand reports, some from letters and diaries, some from official histories, that show quite clearly whether the soldiers present noticed a truce in their sector.

The picture that builds up left me in no doubt that the Christmas truce is no legend. Yet it was not the quiet Yuletide often imagined, where everyone just stopped fighting. Men died on parts of the frontline on Christmas Day. Some of the truces were merely excuses to bury the dead, a few of the accounts mention taking a good look at the enemy trenches.

However truces did occur, carols were exchanged across the darkness of no man’s land during Christmas Eve, football was played though wether it was with the Germans or not, is open to debate. Some had a try at starting a game but the officers couldn’t allow it. Indeed if it hadn’t been for some of the senior officers present it seems likely both sides would have had quite a party with each other, but there was a limit.

Small tokens were exchanged, some photographs were even snapped. Local field officers on both sides arranged unofficial ceasefires that lasted until the next day or the day after. There is no doubt about it, in a broad sense of the word a Christmas truce did occur. But sadly the Pope’s humane plea for a general ceasefire over the Christmas period went unheeded, apparently because the Russians wouldn’t agree. What that had to do with the Western front is anybody’s guess.

Reading through the accounts one is struck by a few commonalities. Motives were truces occurred were broadly the same, opposing sides both came away with a surprised realisation that the enemy were human. From the British camp comes many curious instances of finding Germans who had worked in Britain and who had family there. Often they reported that Saxons and Bavarians (who were the most friendly during the truces) were resentful of the Prussians for dragging them into the war and hoped for the end of hostilities soon.

How much of this is true? I ask. Was Germany really so divided about the war? Some say it was made up, others say there’s no reason to dismiss it totally. No answer is given here, because the book is really about letting the words of those who were present tell the story, and in that it does an excellent job.


A Eulogy to Quatre Bras Farm.

Saxe Weimar at Quatre Bras Farm.

Saxe Weimar at Quatre Bras Farm.

At 6.am on Friday the 16th of June 1815 a cavalcade of staff officers rode into the little village of les Quatre Bras, on the main road to Brussels. It was a small community of farms and coaching inns, serried along the chaussée and around the four branching arms of the crossroads from where the place derived its name. The four arms.

At the crux of the junction, fitting neatly into the northeast segment stood a typical Belgian walled farm. The adjoining buildings were constructed around a central courtyard that just about formed a rough quadrangle. Entrance to wheeled vehicles was through a box like gate right opening onto the road.
Mounted by this gate was a group of officers wearing the blue uniforms of King William’s Netherlands troops and the green of the Nassau Usingen contingent. The newly arrived riders drew rein and an exchange of bows and hat doffing ensued. Four men, two young and two old were soon in earnest conversation. The Young Prince of Orange, booted and braided with a cocked hat and a lavish hussar pelisse listened to his stern old chief of staff, Constant Rebecque, the baby faced Prince Saxe Weimar and severe old Baron Perponcher as they outlined their dispositions.
In the silent, softly undulating fields around the similarly walled farm of Gemioncourt 1,500 yards south of the crossroads waited the Dutch-Belgian troops of Perponcher’s Division. Covered by some artillery to their rear, and in the gloom of the Bois de Bossu, which stretched out from the west side of the main road was Saxe Weimer’s Nassau brigade. It was the calm before the storm.
As the Prince and his now enlarged staff toured the outposts French troops were on the march to take the crossroads before Wellington’s overextended forces could concentrate. The fate of the 1815 campaign was hanging in the balance.

The Battle of Quatre Bras raged all day, thousands were killed and injured in the chaotic and confused fighting that boiled at times up to the very verge of the farm where the Prince of Orange had met his senior officers that morning. The Nivelles-Namur road was held by the steady veterans of the British 5th Division, it’s right flank, in sight of the farm, being held by the 92nd (Gordon) Highlanders, whose commanding officer was to fall within a stone’s throw of the gate. The Duke of Wellington was often to be seen in this critical area, as more and more troops arrived to bolster the defence, passing the unobtrusive gate in their thousands. One was the Duke of Brunswick, who would lead his men bravely until mortally wounded in the fields around La Bergerie, within sight of Quatre Bras.
With uncontested superiority in cavalry for the entire battle French lancers, Chasseurs and Cuirassiers were repeatedly seen to briefly overrun the crossroads. At one point chasing Wellington into the square of the 92nd. With daylight fading and thus hiding the horrors of the battlefield in shadow, the large collection of buildings around the four arms of the junction became one big hospital. The farm buildings at Quatre Bras were soon choked with wounded men, the courtyard filled up with casualties waiting for surgery. A steady stream of patients and dead crossed each other at the main gate.

Near contemporary sketches of the crossroads and the farm, prominent onnthe right. See link below for details.

Near contemporary sketches of the crossroads and the farm, prominent onnthe right. See link below for details.

There aren’t many buildings left that were present at battle, slowly they have been remodelled or left to decay. Gemioncourt alone now remains as the most untouched remnant. The monuments that came in the years that followed are markers rather than witnesses, and represent something very different to a site that was seen by people two centuries gone. As of 200 years later one of these landmarks, a neglected, crumbling and vandalised but yet somehow dignified farm complex remained at the crossroads. It should have stood as a testament to the passage of time, and the sacrifice of he soldiers who died around it in June 1815. Sadly it was not to be. Whereas the Chateau Hougoumont at Mont St Jean, on the battlefield of Waterloo has been carefully repaired and restored, there was no Project Quatre Bras to save one of the last pieces of what could have been the last battle of the 1815 campaign. After 8 years of gallant resistance to repeated attacks by commercial developers a proposal was slipped past the defenders. Despite the best efforts of heritage conservator Dominique Timmermans, the local Government accepted the new proposal before any impetuous could be gathered by the international historical community. On the 26th of October 2016 the last walls were photographed as nothing more than a pile of dismembered bricks.

Satellite image of the Former position of Quatre Bras Farm.

Satellite image of the Former position of Quatre Bras Farm.

A constant thought for humanity is the concept of what the world will be like when we are gone. In two generations who will remember if we don’t take steps to memorialise and preserve where we walked and why we walked there? The soldiers of Quatre Bras were there for a day and then moved onto become soldiers of Waterloo, leaving in the earth behind them men who would remain soldiers of Quatre Bras forever. Now a precious physical link that connected the present with the past has been removed from this old, mostly forgotten field. Reality has been disembodied from memory and a place that the soldiers of 1815; from Wellington and Napoleon down to the lowliest private or camp follower saw, touched and in some cases were taken to die, has gone forever. After 201 years, the old farm has fallen foul to the march of the great enemies of history; Generals Ignorance, Profit an their ally Marshal Progress. And I cannot help but wonder what will fall next?

An old and not topographically brilliant map of the action at Quatre Bras, but at 1, is the farm of Quatre Bras,

An old and not topographically brilliant map of the action at Quatre Bras, but at 1, is the farm of Quatre Bras, 2 is the sheep farm of La Bergerie, 3 is Gemioncourt and 4 is Pierrepont.

It is so ironic that this should happen a year after the bicentenary of the 1815 campaign. When for an entire year there was nothing but big talk about commemoration and conservation. People proudly proclaimed the triumph of restoring Hougoumont, the raising of new monuments and the opening of the new visitor centre at Mont St Jean. There was nothing but praise for the giant reenactment to honour the sacrifice of the fallen and the trials of the survivors. One might be forgiven for bitterly reflecting on how well the mound of rubble symbolises how much all of that was worth in the end. How so many of those high ideals are now reflected in the pile of bricks that now adorn the roadside.
Perhaps some people reading this don’t care about Quatre Bras as a moment in history. Perhaps it is the fate of lesser fields of slaughter to fade like the old soldiers who walked away from them. But today it is a piece of 1815 heritage that has been lost, tomorrow maybe it will be one from 1915, or 1945. Perhaps at the very least we can think on that and guard against future heritage losses, heaven knows there’s little else to be done.



Book Review: Through Spain With Wellington.


Hardcover: 272 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 Feb. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1445654563


I cannot begin this review without expressing my deepest condolences to the parents and family of the editor, Adrian Greenwood, who was found early this year, stabbed to death in his Oxford home. By his untimely demise, the Historical community has been denied a new and individual voice, that promised much, and a family has lost a valued and beloved member. For this reason reading and reviewing this book has been a little poignant.

This is a slim hardback, with a nice choice of images, and the letters are interspersed with short narrative sections by the author to provide flow. It is a standard format for a compilation of letters, without frills.

No book that can be found is ever really lost. Only those that have been destroyed are beyond hope of ever being discovered one day. But some books are forgotten about, this is especially the case with collections of letters. When Adrian Greenwood tracked down Peter Mesurier’s writings from the Napoleonic Wars, he had uncovered a gem. Peninsular War letters are not common things and are always welcomed with great excitement by the small band who study the conflict in Spain, Portugal and southern France from 1808 to 1814.

How much money did a subaltern live on when on campaign? Did you know Spanish carts had squeaky wheels to warn pedestrians at night? What about the fact that officers in the 19th century had to be careful what they wrote home?
A gift for researchers and Reenactors who want an authentic campaign look, the letters of Peter Mesurier are an excellent boots on the ground perspective on the Peninsular War.

What this God fearing, intelligent, rather naive soldier was doing in a rough and ready outfit like the 9th is beyond me. He appeared to be at least an earnest soldier, in a slightly comical sort of way. Attempting to be a good officer by being generally fit, carrying his equipment, and during the Walcheron expedition practicing leaping ditches so as to be able to cross difficult terrain. More often than not his early letters convey little except a habit of constantly running into old aquaintences, being shocked at the behaviour of his fellow officers and barely making ends meet. A certain dithering nature is apparent in his quandary over becoming a lieutenant. Putting his name forwards, then withdrawing it after asking advice, then going ahead again. Yet his appealing habit of making do, and not caring if his hat was too battered or that he preferred old clothes on his back, should have made him a popular officer, except he noted that the rank and file in the 9th didn’t respect their officers. He marched habitually carrying a full haversack, greatcoat, sword and canteen over his shoulder.
Like many young officers though he yearned for action, he might have found regimental duty trying, as he vegetated in Gibraltar, fretting about having too much baggage and losing 10lbs, he hoped fervently to be transferred to the 1at battalion in Portugal. Interesting is the fact that from 1809-10 despite serving on two major campaigns, once Escorting army pay in the form of bullion during the Corunna Campaign, after which he felt ashamed of his appearance to come ashore in England, he had yet to see a shot fired in anger.

Due to ill health he spent the rest of 1810 and a chunk of 1811 in England, missing Barossa and Busaco. His long convalescence saw him stationed in the depot as acting adjutant and quartermaster, recruiting volunteers who he found tiresome to train, all of which gives a fascinating glimpse of how battalions were kept up to strength. His efforts to become a better officer continued in his acquiring a Spanish master to augment his French ability, something that was not always considered necessary. At last he was sent back to Portugal with a reinforcements detachments as the book progresses into 1812. The letters begin to show a certain detachment from his previous little woes, his affecting determination to march with the men, instead of buying a horse remaining a high mark to his credit. His first actual battle was at Salamanca, his regiment forming part of Leith’s 5th Division, but by then he had seen the face of battle, arriving just after Ciudad Rordrigo, the 9th being part of the force sent in to restore order, and at the infamous sack of Badajoz. In both instances officers were in grave danger from their own drunk soldiers. Yet Mesurier, quartered in a house sheltering 20 female inhabitants. Apparently with a Portuguese soldier, (as a guard perhaps?) he successfully defended this post from the looters apparently at the cost of giving up his shoes.

The book is notable for showing that officers might not see action for many years, despite the impression fiction presents as each soldier getting in at least one battle a year. The author apparently edited some of the more mundane passages that he felt were not specific to the subject. I personally prefer unabridged letters, but I understood the motive behind the decision. This is an excellent compilation of mid to late war campaign letters, with their own uniqueness, from that much neglected breed, a junior line officer.



Book Review: The Vikings.


Authors René Chartrande, Keith Durham, Ian Heath and Mark Harrison are the names behind this nifty little glimpse into the world of the Vikings. It’s a small, well illustrated compilation of other Osprey’s dealing with the Vikings, condensing the varying subjects to some good bottom lines while, much like the recent Samurai offering, creating a nice if not coffee table sized addition to a library, a definite one for a side table.

Really the common conception of the Vikings, especially to the British, shows how long a memory a culture can have. They are still seen as ravaging bloodthirsty pirates, and whenever the revisionist interpretation of “They were also farmers” people tend to roll their eyes. Which is totally understandable, before the rise of Normandy the Vikings were the most fearsome and professional warriors in Europe.

The Warriors of the Scandinavian kingdoms were adventurers, explores, soldiers and colonisers. Norse influence spread out, East and west, as far as North America and Turkey. The nation of Russia owes its origins to Viking mercenaries, Iceland and Greenland as well, traces of this lineage is to be seen throughout the England, Ireland and Scotland. The Scandinavians colonised barren Atlantic islands, traveled as mercenaries to Moscow and Constantinople, tried to settle in North America and created kingdoms in Britain, some even becoming kings of England.

Because of this reputation the Vikings are a legacy that the British view with mingled admiration and revulsion. Like all the successful invaders of the island, the sting of what they achieved has not been removed nearly 950 years after the “Viking age” ended. They are a dangerous, pagan throwback to a wilder time, wilder than even the Saxons, the Vikings showed the world how unsafe they were. Not even William the Conquerer could defeat them, he like most bought them off,

This book gives a good overview of why these warriors made such an impact on history. Detailing all aspects of their legendary, saga like record so that one is again left in a sort of awe at what they achieved and how little credit, as conqourers, cultural exporters, explorers what have you, they are given.


Book Review: Scramble by Tom Neil.


Paperback: 640 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 Oct. 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1445660334


This book was just sheer excitement. It was Biggles for real. When Scramble was offered to me I thought it was the war in the air from a historian’s point of view but I soon discovered it was written by one of Britain’s last Ace’s.

As a young man Tom Neil was one of those, good looking, smiling, clean cut patriotic lads. The industrious kids who were proud of Britain for reasons apart from being good at athletics. He thought the King and Queen were smashing, he was proud of the Empire and didn’t flinch at putting country before himself.

To Neil the thought of an objector was abhorrent, and he had no qualms about backing up his convictions by going into action to fight the vile “Hun”. This chap was hardly 19 when the Battle of Britain began, yet like so many others there was hardly any reserve. Like a character from WE John’s creation or the like, Neil longed for action, and a crack at the enemy.

When the first casualties started coming in during the early days of the war, his ardour was heightened rather than dampened, though he grieved for lost friends one gets the impression there wasn’t much time to indulge in such a luxury, not when you were likely to be flying on average 3-4 sorties a day. Doubts about death or the morality of killing ones fellow man didn’t come into it. Sleeping, eating and scrambling was what kept pilots occupied in mid 1940.

Scramble is a compilation of 3 books, so it’s quite long, but Neil’s style is an engaging one. Part classic memoir, in which there is humour, a touch of drama and anecdote, and part action novel, in which the reader seems to be with Neil in the cockpit of his Hurricane, thinking his thoughts and feeling his reactions.

It begins with his early life in Manchester, his introduction to flight and obsession with joining the RAF. The obstacles thrown in his way to get there. Whether it be his parents, or the snobbish officers at his first interview who took dislike to him because he came from Manchester and took the train because he had no car.

Back in the pre war days the recruitment process was apparently more selective. Joining as a volunteer got him in the air, and away from his home to Scotland where with the phoney war in full swing, he finished his training and got a little instruction in some of the more worldly aspects of being a fighting man as well.

The book follows his career, in which he scored enough kills to be considered an ace several times over and is now the highest scoring fighter pilot left, through the Battle of Britain into the defence of Malta. Reading this book I just couldn’t shake the feeling that this generation was indeed truly remarkable for their ability to look death in the face, trouser their hands and smile.

Neil’s remembrances are sharp, not always kind, but usually gracious. For instance he has an affecting way of handling profanity as well, which is refreshing when you chat usually step into a high street anymore without hearing what Neil would call a “Holy word”. Not that the account is sanitised, these are just the many ways by which we can hear a very personal voice. And alongside his combat experiences are nuggets of his personal life which allow for contrast.

The passages are as one would expect littered with casualties, no sooner is a man introduced than Neil will observe heavily that “poor” this or that, he was killed later, or afterwards we found out he had been shot down. As the casualties mount such sentences become more frequent yet, in the thick of it there was only the briefest of gaps to toast a missing face in the mess.

The recollections of action, air warfare before the jet, are fascinating. I like detail, even if I don’t know about the subject, and I’m not a pilot, I like to know that I’m in the hands of an expert. The phraseology Neil uses to describe aircraft leaves one in no doubt that this man saw it with his own eyes. Searching for the enemy in the tinder boxes called Hurricanes, the first sign of them as they climbed to altitude was the garden of brown flak blossoms bursting. Beyond which, as they got closer, emerged the fly like dots of fighters and the droning slug like shapes of bombers.

As an experienced combat pilot Neil has some firm ideas about how things should be done. And fans of the good old Spitfires and Hurricanes will be put out to hear the veteran remark at the excellence of the Me 109, which could climb, fly and dive much faster than the British machines, and according to Tom Neil that’s all a good pilot needs

Dogfights are fast and furious, your not even sure what’s going on, sometimes the fight ends so arbitrarily it beggars belief. The act of shooting down an enemy plane seemed to come slowly to Neil, but it wasn’t out of disinclination. And there is a distinctly impersonal nature to air warfare, as if the pilots found it easier to fight because they could shoot at machines, and forget about the people in them.

There is some merit to the idea that you should read general histories before hitting primary sources, but when it’s a book like Scramble I’d suggest you do just that, scramble and get a hold of it.