The Somme

Aerial view of Thiepval memorial image courtesy of
Aerial view of Thiepval memorial
image courtesy of

The plan had been drawn up months before. The Allied forces in their first joint effort battle would attack the German front lines along a 24 miles long stretch of France bordering the River Somme. The plan had originally been to attack German-held strongpoints in this area of France, around the Thiepval/Albert area. In February 1916 the Germans launched their own initiative at Verdun against the French forces, a week before the Allied assault was scheduled. Instead it came to be that the Somme offensive was used as a diversionary tactic to divide the German forces between the two areas, and thus give the exhausted and over-powered French a bit of breathing space.

Tunnels had been painstakingly dug at various points along the front line. One in particular, the Lochnagar mine was dug at the rate of just 18 inches a day using modified bayonets, by barefoot engineers sitting on sandbags, catching all the soil in sacks in order to maintain absolute silence, when it was complete the tunnel was 1030 feet long and branched into two separate chambers around 60 feet apart and 52 feet deep. These two chambers and a gallery that ran down the German front line were laid with 60 thousands of pounds of explosives. A second large mine was dug similarly at the other end of the German position, named Y Cap. A similar series of mines, both large and small were positioned along the German front lines in other areas of offense. Counter mining was evident as the enemy tried to discover what exactly was happening and sabotage it.

The last week of June was dedicated to continuous bombardment of the German frontlines with 1.6 million British artillery shells. Many Pals battalions, large bodies of men who had grown up together from the same streets of cities across Britain, and joined local regiments en masse were transferred to the area, and the British Cavalry were primed and ready. Other Allied units also joined the area, each given their own sector to defend. In particular Canada, and the Anzac forces, fresh from the failed Gallipoli campaign of 1915.

At 7.28am on July 1st, two minutes before zero hour, the two large mines near the village of La Boiselle were simultaneously detonated. As Lochnagar mine exploded, it sent a shower of earth so high, it was seen by British observer planes flying over the front lines to assist artillery. Legend has it that the explosion was heard on the shores of Dover. The resulting crater was 70 feet deep and 400 feet across. Unfortunately, the night before, as they were leaving the tunnels, one man used the unsafe telephone line to call his friend, a company commander in the trenches above, and wish him good luck for morning. That call was overheard by a Moritz device….

Lochnagar Crater, during one of the remembrance ceremonies, during which visitors are encouraged to join hands around the lip of the crater.
Lochnagar Crater, during one of the remembrance ceremonies, during which visitors are encouraged to join hands around the lip of the crater.

The British military commanders had poured all their tactical knowledge into the plan. The German barbed wire would be blown to pieces by the persistent shelling, the forces would be so taken by surprise by the mines that any survivors would be few and unresisting when the Allied soldiers came strolling across No Man’s Land, as “British gentlemen soldiers do not run”, backed up by an impressive cavalry charge, and victory would be quick and easy.

Unfortunately, they didn’t realise that many of the British artillery shells failed to detonate. That the German barbed wire defences were forty feet thick. That the Germans would be tucked safely out of the way in their reinforced concrete bunkers, thirty feet underground. And that when things went quiet, they would come back out and take their places behind their many machine guns, trained on No Man’s land and cut the advancing Tommies down like shooting fish in a barrel.

Of course, that is exactly what happened……. And thus began the five long hard gruesome months of the Battle of the Somme.


The Order of the White Feather

Image of the receipt of a white feather published in the 'Union Jack' on Boxing Day 1914
Image of the receipt of a white feather published in the ‘Union Jack’ on Boxing Day 1914

During the Great War, several incidences of young ladies presenting a white feather to young men not in uniform, to denote their presumed cowardice, occurred. The romanticised outcome being that the man in question would be publicly shamed into dashing off to the nearest recruitment office to enlist. So what prompted these acts? Was it a random idea that gained momentum as the initial rush to do ones bit subsided? If we dig a little deeper we find that there is much more to the story than a simple shaming gesture.

Popular theory has is stated that the white feather became associated with cowardice as the result of perhaps what could be termed a superstition, backed up by scant evidence in the world of game-fighting. Pure-bred fighting cocks were said to be devoid of any white feathers; when a bird was produced that had white plumage in its tail, it reputedly was a poor fighter, exhibiting signs of cowardice. How much truth there was within the theory is another matter entirely.
Other cultures have different meanings for the emblem of a white feather. In some, it is considered a sign of peace, often associated with a white dove, and therefore pacifism. If we examine certain spiritual beliefs, the white feather is often denoted as a sign of love, many newly-weds incorporate the release of white doves – there they are again – into their wedding service, and it can also represent guardianship, particularly associated with angels, and the visitation of loved ones from the hereafter.

In the USA it is considered a sign of extraordinary bravery and excellent marksmanship. It hasn’t always been considered a sign of cowardice in England either. If we look into the History books, we see anecdotal stories of Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales following the Battle of Crecy 1346, plucking three white ostrich feathers from the dead body of the blind King John of Bohemia and incorporating them into his arms. And they were both arguably anything but cowardly. The likely truth is a little less exciting, the symbol of three feathers was a common theme in the arms of the Hainault’s, his mother Philippa’s line, with several members of the family using it in different ways. Whatever the story, three white ostrich feathers is, as a result commonly associated with the Prince of Wales.

The symbolism of a white feather denoting cowardice appears to have its origins in the British and colonial forces going back to around the 18th Century. A plethora of anecdotal evidence is available although one is never too sure whether the introduction of such a practice has its roots in fact or myth, with the inevitable ensuing examples gathering speed as the story takes hold. In 1902 the concept was lent considerable weight when woven into the fabric of A.E.W. Mason’s popular novel, ‘The Four Feathers’ later adapted into seven versions of the film, the most recent starring the late Heath Ledger in the lead role (2002).

Prince of Wales feathers
Prince of Wales feathers

Following the outbreak of war in 1914, there was an immense patriotic rush by Britain’s youth to enlist and join in the nation’s fight. In the opening days over 100,000 of these young men were to fill recruitment centres to add their name and take the ‘King’s shilling’. Others weren’t in such a rush. Conscription was two years away, and many of them were incorporated into the war effort in other roles on the Home Front. Reserved occupations were as important to the smooth running of the war machine, as the need for thousands of fighting Tommies. Unfortunately there were members of society who failed to recognise that important fact.

In late August 1914, Admiral Charles Penrose-Fitzgerald, founded The Order of the White Feather with considerable support from novelist Mary Ward, aka Mrs Humphrey Ward. Fitzgerald was a retired Naval officer whose 47 year career had been spent mainly captaining iron-clads in the Channel Fleet, and whose active service doesn’t appear to have involved much by way of enemy action other than a dabble in the China Station, around the time of the second Opium War of the late 1850’s to early 1860’s and a brief liaison in the Crimean War where his vessel was part of the Baltic fleet, and later the Black Sea patrol. During his later career, and continuing into his retirement, Fitzgerald maintained an active vocal role in naval matters. He was given the task of writing an article for the Deutsche review into British Naval policy. Later claiming the translation was grossly exaggerated, it was his statement that Britain and Germany should go to war sooner rather than later due to concerns over the increase in German Naval resources, that arguably led to the Germans increasing their fleet further. Following the publication of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Danger! Being the log of Captain John Sirius” in the strand in July of 1914, which alluded to Fitzgerald’s perceived threat of German Naval superiority and embellished it with a plot that had Britain in war being starved into submission by an enemy submarine blockade, Fitzgerald famously said “I do not myself think that any civilized nation will torpedo unarmed and defenceless merchant ships.” Hmmmm, and we all know how that turned out.

But anyway, back to those feathers. At the end of August, Fitzgerald recruited 30 young women in Folkestone to shame men in civilian clothing into enlisting by the public distribution of white feathers. The mission quickly gathered momentum, when seen as a spot of patriotic fun by the naïve young ladies of the time. Supported by prominent members of the Women’s Suffrage movement, particularly Emmeline and Cristabel Pankhurst, who had sworn to put aside their bid for women’s voting rights and associated suffrage, for the duration, in order to offer their full support for the war effort, which they graciously and publicly declared to be the Nation’s Priority, the distributors of the feathers were given active encouragement to use their femininity and sexuality to promote the war effort, by humiliating unpatriotic young men to do their bit. Modern feminists and indeed anti-feminists argue that the practice of handing out white feathers had its roots in feminism.

Several leading figures of the day gave added weight to the project, although many chose to stop short of the white feather aspect, denoting it as a shameful, disgusting act of young women with loose morals, for them to openly approach men and be so publicly lewd. Instead they felt the pressure should be offered by way of the ‘with-holding of affections’ for any man who wasn’t prepared to honour his girl by fighting to protect her, while other young men did.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that as a result of numerous cases of these ladies handing white feathers to soldiers, home on leave from the front, wounded casualties recovering from injuries, and members of reserved occupations, led to a public outcry regarding the practice. Famous stories include several concerning amputees, after suffering the horrors of war, and losing a limb, being home going about their lives as best as they can being approached and publicly denounced as a coward before a white feather is forcefully pressed upon them by a self-righteous young female, only to be confronted by the inevitable demonstration of the missing limb.

There are at least two incidents to my knowledge involving Victoria Cross recipients being home to be awarded their decoration for the ultimate in valour, by the King himself, being presented with the feather, one of which took place in Hyde Park when the gentleman concerned was on his way home from Buckingham Palace after his presentation and stopped for a smoke. He was later said to have been rather amused by the incident and chose to tuck the feather into the clasp of his Cross. He returned to the front, and was killed in action a week later.

As public opinion swayed alarmingly against the White Feather Brigade, as they were known, particularly following conscription in 1916, the practice seemed to continue, with the targeting of those in uniforms that were considered too neat and tidy to have been worn in combat, and therefore it was assumed, often incorrectly, that the wearer had recently joined up because he was forced to, and was therefore still a coward, worthy of shame. Generally the neatness of the uniform represented the battle the soldier’s poor wife had recently undertaken with repeated washing and ironing of the kit in an effort to remove lice.

An anonymous card received by an American living in England at the outbreak of war.
An anonymous card received by an American living in England at the outbreak of war.

As workers in reserved occupations were increasingly targeted, often leading to the subject to dash off to join up, with often horrifying consequences. There were also alarming examples of men who had been approached, and feeling such humiliation had gone off and taken their own lives. As a result the Government became forced to issue “for King and Country” badges for those reserved fellows to wear, and similar “wounded in action” badges for recuperating injured soldiers, and discharged disabled men to wear. These, however, were often overlooked, ignored or simply unrecognised by the eager young idiots. It seems the key to the receipt of a feather was the wearing of civilian clothing, whatever your particular circumstances. Exemption was not even offered to those who had tried to enlist and been turned down for a number of valid reasons, particularly bad eyesight or some other health issue, even underage youths were targeted.

One incident of this involved a young man who had joined up at just fifteen years of age, fooling the recruiting sergeant, passing his training and serving on the Western front, until he was wounded in action. During his time in hospital recovering from quite substantial injuries, his true age was discovered and he was shipped home to recover, and await discharge. Following his recovery, still aged only 16, he was approached by a large group of females who berated him loudly in front of many passers-by. He argued that not only was he underage, AND had already done his bit, AND been wounded and discharged, this wasn’t enough for the pack of girls, who demanded he re-enlist immediately. He ran for the recruitment office, but luckily was recognised by the sergeant on duty, who escorted him tearfully home.

The practice continued almost until the end of the war, however with less support from the public, who began to see more incidents of mistaken identity than genuine cowardice. Socially the perpetrators were frowned upon, viewed as distasteful and immoral. Many leading figures in the subsequent years have played down the practice, even denying its existence as anecdotal. Virginia Woolf was one such person who Historian Nicolette Gullas claims believed that ‘the white feather campaign was more a product of male hysteria than of actual female practice’ and that as a result, and lack of solid basis in fact this may be why the feminist movement have striven to keep the association from history.

Despite its distasteful presence in the Great War, there were several attempts to revitalise the practice during the Second World War, which met with considerably less enthusiasm, quite possibly as a result of the harsh lessons learned from the Great War, both in terms of those committing the deed, who may have matured and recognised the huge shame in their actions, or indeed become mothers of young men themselves who faced the same treatment as they used to mete out, and those who were wiser to the horrors of war, and not as enthusiastic for young men to rush off to suffer the same. The practice is now considered by the majority, who have a greater awareness of bravery in terms of social context as well as acts of valour, to be distasteful and abhorrent and a period of history that should be left to quietly die in the shadow of its own shame.


Lanoe George Hawker VC

Lanoe Hawker VC
Lanoe Hawker VC

Born in Hampshire on December 30th, 1890 into a well-know and respected military family, Lanoe George Hawker attended first Stubbington House School, and then from the age of eleven, Dartmouth’s Royal Navy College. Despite being an intelligent boy and a keen sportsman, his academic grades proved disappointing as a career in the Navy seemed unlikely. Instead Hawker enrolled at Woolwich Royal Military Academy before enlisting as an officer cadet in the Royal Engineers.

After seeing a film about the Wright Flyer in 1910, Hawker, a keen inventor and dabbler in all thing engineering, developed an interest in aviation, and after gaining his flying certificate at his own expense in 1913, asked for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps which was granted following his promotion to 1st Lieutenant with 33rd Fortress.

On 1st August 1914 just three days prior to Britain’s joining the outbreak of the Great War, Hawker entered the Central Flying School at Upavon. Two months later, Hawker found himself with the rank of Captain in France with 6 squadron RFC in an Henri Farman. Shortly afterwards, his squadron converted to the BE 2c, Hawker flew successful reconnaissance missions over German lines into 1915. On one such flight, Hawker was shot at and wounded by ground level gunfire, however not seriously enough to ground him for long.

In April 1915, Hawker flew in at low level and attacked a German Zeppelin shed, by dropping hang grenades from his cockpit, using a tethered airship as cover, being awarded the DSO for his actions. A few weeks later, Hawker took part in an airborne attack during the 2nd Battle of Ypres, being wounded quite badly in the foot again from ground fire. He refused to be grounded for the injury to be addressed until the battle was over, instead being carried to and from his aircraft.
Following treatment in hospital for his injury, Hawker returned to 6 Squadron and was transferred to a Bristol Scout which with help from a fellow engineer and later ace-pilot, Ernest Elton managed to fit and modify a Lewis gun mount to the aircraft which allowed him to shoot clear of the propellers. Further work from Hawker enabled several alternative mounts to be designed and built.
On July 25th 1915, Hawker flying over Passchendaele took on three German aircraft, putting a full drum of bullets into one until it spun to the ground, drove another into the ground and attacked a third at a height of 10000 feet causing it to burst into flames and crash. Two German crew were killed in this action.

Lanoe's aircraft Bristol Scout 1611
Lanoe’s aircraft Bristol Scout 1611

For his actions, Hawker was awarded the Victoria Cross, only the third military aviator to achieve the medal, following in the wake of William Rhodes-Moorhouse, VC, 2 squadron RFC (April 1915 – Posthumously) and Reginald Warneford VC, 1 squadron, RNAS (June 1915). It was later argued that his achievement was overshadowed by other arguably more notable actions of valour, more befitting the award, however in the context of aircraft of the day and their capabilities, his action is easily upheld as over and above the normal.
Lanoe Hawker went on to achieve seven overall aircraft “Kills” earning him the title of Ace. He was also instrumental in the design and implementation of a variety of modifications enabling Lewis guns to be fitted to evolving early aircraft. Hawker’s designs were not limited to mounts, however, he also designed fur lined thigh boots for pilots, the Prideaux disintegrating link machine-gun belt feed and fabric protective tips for wooden propellers amongst other things.

In 1916, Hawker was promoted to the rank of Major, and given command of 24 squadron. Stationed at Hounslow Heath. The squadron were given the Airco DH2, a dubious single seater aircraft which had already claimed two fatalities and a reputation for spinning. Hawker took the aircraft up over the airfield and demonstrated a series of spins to his watching command, before exiting each safely. After landing he talked his airmen through exactly how to exit each spin. His squadron then received their orders to return to the Front near to the Somme.
On November 23rd 1916, following an RFC policy banning flight commanders from operational sorties, which Hawker somewhat disregarded, he took off after lunch with ‘A’ flight, led by Captain J O Andrews, when they encountered two enemy aircraft and launched an attack. Suddenly spotting above a larger flight of German aircraft, Andrews made the decision to disengage, but then spotted Hawker engaging an enemy Albatross. Attempting to reach Hawker, Andrews drew fire from their support which put his engine out of action, and was forced to retreat using his wing, Lt. Saundby as cover.

Hawker, now isolated from the rest of his Flight, continued his dog-fight, but the German Albatross outmanoeuvred and outgunned the DH2. Hawker realising he was losing this engagement, and running low on fuel, made the decision to break off and head for Allied lines. The German pilot hit his guns and let a volley of several rounds fly towards the retreating British pilot, until his gun jammed. A bullet from the last burst found its target and hit Hawker in the back of the head, killing him instantly, his aircraft spun and crashed just 50 yards short of the British line near Bapaume.

German grenadiers on the ground later buried Hawkers body close to the spot where he crashed, 230 metres away from Luisenhof Farm at the side of the road. His grave was subsequently lost. Hawker is named on the Arras Flying Services Memorial for airmen with no known grave, the German pilot who claimed the kill as his 11th, Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, took Hawker’s Lewis gun as a souvenir.

On a sad note, Hawker’s family living in France at the outbreak of World War 2 were forced to leave behind their possessions after the 1940 fall of France in their escape. When they returned after the war, they found all their belongings had been stolen, including Hawker’s VC. It was later re-issued in 1960 and is on display at the RAF Museum, Hendon. In recent years a permanent memorial has been built close to the crash site of Lanoe Hawker, in the vicinity of his lost grave.