Did friendly fire rob the Confederacy of its best chance of victory?

Jackson
General ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s so called ‘Chancellorsville’ portrait, taken less than two weeks before his mortal wounding at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Some one hundred and fifty three years ago, on 2 May 1863, one of the most well known friendly fire incidents in history took place.  Its consequences have caused debate and discussion ever since and it is often argued that it had a profound impact on the outcome of the American Civil War.  The incident was the shooting of Confederate commander, Lieutenant General Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson by Confederate troops during the Battle of Chancellorsville.

On 27 April 1863 Union troops under Joseph Hooker began crossing the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers above the town of Fredericksburg, where General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had been encamped since the latter part of 1862. Hooker concentrated his forces in the area of Chancellorsville, and Lee decided he needed to act. Leaving a small force in Fredericksburg he marched the rest of his Army west to meet Hooker.  As Lee approached, Hooker entrenched his force around Chancellorsville.  On finding out about the Union defensive position, Lee and Jackson came up with a daring and aggressive plan.

At 0730hrs on 2 May 1863 Jackson set off on one of the boldest flanking actions in military history.  He would take with him two thirds of the Confederate Army, an Army that only numbered some 43,000 compared to the Union Army of about 70,000, leaving Lee to pin the Union Army with the remaining third.  He would then lead this force on a twelve mile march that would, at 1530hrs that day, place the head of the column in battle positions on the right flank of the Union lines.

It would take almost two more hours before enough of the force was in place and ready to launch its attack.  The fighting was ferocious and confused with the two armies fighting in very close wooded terrain with thick undergrowth that slowed down the attack.  Whilst the assault was successful, the terrain and the added friction of dealing with increasing numbers of Union prisoners, who had to be chaperoned to the rear, began slowing things down.  By about 2030hrs darkness was falling over the battlefield and the attack was petering out.  Jackson ordered a halt to reorganise and await AP Hill’s division, which was still marching.  But assessing the situation, Jackson decided he needed to keep the momentum and that this would only be a pause because if he stopped the attack at this point he would be ceding the advantage to the Union forces. In order to understand what was in front of his position Jackson took a small group of his staff forward to conduct a reconnaissance.

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Jackson’s Flank March at the Battle of Chancellorsville, 2 May 1863, and showing where Jackson was wounded.  Map by Hal Jespersen, www.cwmaps.com

Riding out from the main Confederate position through the lines of the 18th North Carolina Infantry, the small party proceeded two hundred yards further stopping just behind a picket line that had been deployed ahead of the main Confederate line.  Here they listened for the Union forces, themselves barely a quarter of a mile away. In the distance Jackson could hear the sound of axes felling trees and shovels scraping the earth. The Union troops were putting up defensive positions, so he realised he would have to act quickly, and turned the party around to return to the Confederate lines.

At much the same time, a little further south, some Union troops had blundered into the Confederate line and been captured.  This had the effect of making the Confederates worried that other Union troops were approaching their lines.  As a result the men in the frontline began to get jumpy.  One Confederate soldier fired at a shadow and this in turn caused another to do likewise, and in seconds a wave of fire erupted from the Confederate position rolling northwards up the line just as Jackson and his reconnaissance party approached.

A volley of shots ripped into Jackson’s party.  Jackson himself was hit three times, once in the right hand and twice in his left arm.  One of his staff, his brother-in-law Joseph Morrison, called out for the troops to stop firing as they were shooting at their own men.  However, the 18th North Carolina were a seasoned unit and had heard that Union troops used such ruses, so continued to fire!  When they eventually did stop firing one member of the party was dead, and Jackson and another were both seriously wounded.  Members of his staff helped him from his horse and carried him to the rear where he was placed on a litter and evacuated.  The rearward journey itself was traumatic as he was thrown from the litter at least once, causing further injury!

the-stonewall-jackson-memorial
The Stonewall Jackson Memorial at Chancellorsville.  Dedicated in 1888, it commemorates Jackson’s wounding ©Civil War Trust

He was eventually taken to his doctor and the following day his left arm was amputated. For a few days it looked as though he would recover but then caught pneumonia, and on 10 May 1863 he died.  His body was taken to his hometown of Lexington, Virginia where his funeral was conducted and he was buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery, now known as the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery.

The impact of the loss of Jackson was immediate.  The day after he died, Lee issued the following General Order:

“Headquarters, Army of Northern Virginia,

11 May 1863

General Order No 61

With deep grief the commanding general announces to the army the death of Lieutenant-General T. J. Jackson, who expired on the 10th instant, at quarter past three P. M. The daring, skill & energy of this great & good soldier, by the decree of an all-wise Providence, are now lost to us. But while we mourn his death, we feel that his spirit still lives, & will inspire the whole army with his indomitable courage & unshaken confidence in God, as our hope & strength. Let his name be a watchword to his Corps, who have followed him to victory on so many fields. Let officers & soldiers emulate his invincible determination to do everything in the defense of our beloved Country.

R. E.  Lee

General”

His loss was both personal and professional to Lee.  Over the ten months they had worked together they had developed a personal and professional relationship that was very close and very effective.  Each knew how the other thought and behaved, and each trusted the other to play their respective parts on the prosecution of Confederate strategy.  They were exemplary exponents of what today is known as Mission Command.  The current US Army Mission Command Doctrine (ADRP 6-0 Mission Command) states:

“Mission command is the exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders in the conduct of unified land operations.”

What does this mean? Well in means trusting a subordinate to act under their own initiative to carry out an order and meet the intent the commander wants delivered.  This is exactly how Jackson and Lee operated.  In an age before radio, telephone and instantaneous communication this meant Lee giving some fairly broad brush orders, but with a clear outcome in mind.  This in turn allowed Jackson to be out of contact, sometimes for weeks at a time, but with Lee always confident that he would deliver, and by and large he did. The same US Army manual lists the principles that underpin Mission Command, the top two of which are:

– Build cohesive teams through mutual trust.
– Create shared understanding.

Even from a quick examination of the Lee/Jackson relationship it is clear that these principles ran through their relationship, like letters through a stick of rock. They trusted each other implicitly and had a clear shared understanding, resulting in Jackson knowing exactly what was needed, even as the tactical circumstances changed, without seeking additional orders from Lee.

So with the death of Jackson, Lee had lost a key lieutenant right at the time when he needed one the most.  Less than two months later his Army was engaged in the biggest battle of the American Civil War, Gettysburg, where it became clear that other subordinates were less able to act within a Mission Command framework and deliver Lee’s intent. For example on the first day of the battle, Richard Ewell commanding one of Lee’s three corps, was sent a discretionary order by Lee to take Cemetery Hill “if practicable.”  Many historians have postulated that had Jackson been the corps commander at that point he would undoubtedly have found it “practicable” and would have taken the initiative.  Its highly likely that such an action could have finished Gettysburg with a Confederate victory by the end of that first day of the battle.  In the same vein the following day Lee struggled with another Corps commander, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, whose somewhat sluggish deployment probably lost Lee the initiative he sought that day.  In short neither Ewell nor Longstreet, or for that matter Lee’s other subordinates of that period, were Jackson and they did not act with the intuition Lee had come to expect.

It is certainly possible that Jackson’s presence at Gettysburg, and later battles, could have brought about Confederate victories. The American military historian James I. Robertson, in his comprehensive biography of Jackson, sums up the impact of his loss very well:

“Jackson’s passing marked a line of demarcation in the annals of the Army of Northern Virginia.  In the ten months that Lee and Jackson were together, delegation of authority had been so lenient – orders permitting a wide latitude in execution so regular – as to create one of history’s great military partnerships.  Thereafter, starting at Gettysburg, the system failed Lee.  He had no executive officer of first-rate ability.  He tried to do it all himself.  It did not work.” (Stonewall Jackson, James I. Robertson, Macmillan, 1997)

Jackson and Lee
‘Tactics and Strategy’, Jackson and Lee at Chancellorsville, by Mort Kunstler. ©www.mortkunstler.com

Perhaps the best comment on the impact of the loss of Jackson comes from Lee himself who, on hearing of the amputation of Jackson’s arm, is reported to have said:

“Give General Jackson my affectionate regards, and say to him: he has lost his left arm but I my right.”

The implications of this statement are very clear.  Lee as the commander relied on Jackson.  As commander and subordinate they were ‘in each others minds’.  His loss deprived Lee of someone he could trust implicitly at a crucial time for the Confederacy, with the Confederate’s armies on the ascendancy. Had Jackson not been killed there is every indication that this duo could have led the Army of Northern Virginia to continued military success through Gettysburg and beyond, and perhaps even victory in the War.

Review: Redlegs

Redlegs
The front cover of this new edition of John P. Langellier’s ‘Redlegs’.

This book is a re-issue of a title that first appeared in 1998, and is part of Pen & Sword’s G.I. series about the American soldier, his uniforms and equipment.  The blurb for this book is as follows:

“This volume examines a much-neglected aspect of American military history – the U.S Army artillerymen, named redlegs after the red stripe on their trousers. Artillery was a vital arm and proved its worth in diverse theatres of war. The photographs, most of them rarely seen in other sources, range from the Civil War and the campaigns against the American Indians through to the Spanish-American War.”

The first thing to say is that despite the typo on the front cover which states the period covered by the book to be 1861-1869, it does in fact cover the period 1861-1898!  Second this is a book about the U.S. Army’s artillerymen and not about their weapons. If one is after a detailed exposition on ordnance and ammunition, then this is not the book to consult. The development of the weaponry and its employment is covered in a brief four page overview at the start of this book which really just sets the scene and explains what the U.S. Army’s artillery was doing during the period concerned.  The bulk of the book is actually about the soldiers themselves and is profusely illustrated with a fascinating range of pictures and photographs, both colour and black and white, which show the soldiers in their uniforms and some detailed illustrations of particular items.  The book is very well produced and does justice to the subject matter.

As the blurb rightly suggests some of these illustrations appear to be quite rare and give an interesting insight into how the uniforms and personal equipment of this branch of the U.S. Army developed.  It also reminds us how the business of the U.S. Army changed over this short thirty seven year period, as a direct reflection of the process of nation building that was going on in the United States.  At the start of the period the United States was on the brink of tearing itself apart in a bloody civil war, the outcome of which had the galvanising effect of creating the strong nation we now know.  By the end of the period we see a country that is flexing its muscle and creating its own sphere of influence both in its immediate vicinity in the Caribbean and across the Pacific in the Philippines.  The illustrations in this book tracks the impact of this change on the U.S .Army, as the uniforms and equipment developed from those appropriate to fighting the rather Napoleonic battles of the American Civil War to the much more ‘modern’ battle tactics used in the Spanish-American War.  The latter brought the need to dress and equip the troops in an expeditionary force to work in the somewhat different climatic conditions and environments of the Caribbean and the Philippines, and this is also well-illustrated.

In short this is an interesting book that covers its subject matter well. Its appeal, like most of Pen & Sword’s titles, will be to a specialist audience, who like me have an interest in this period of history and/or military uniforms of the time.

Paperback
Pages: 72
Pen & Sword Military
Published: 4 February 2016

 

 

The battle that began the shaping of modern Europe

Danish 8th Brigade at the Battle of Dybbøl 1864 V2
The Danish 8th Brigade about to charge at the Battle of Dybbøl 18 April 1864 by Vilhelm Rosenstand

One hundred and fifty two years ago this week a battle was fought that brought to an end a month-long siege, and ultimately led to the end of a short and brutal war, the consequences of which were to have a profound impact on the future of Europe.  Indeed it could be argued that consequences of this little war were still being felt a hundred years later at the height of the Cold War.  The war in question was the Second Schleswig War (or Danish-Prussian War) of 1864, and the siege that of Dybbøl (2 – 18 April 1864).

I only became aware of this little war and the siege of Dybbøl a couple of years ago when I was researching the Austro-Prussian War and the Battle of Koniggratz (3 July 1866) ahead of a visit to the Czech Republic. I read Quintin Barry’s excellent book The Road to Koniggratz: Helmuth Von Moltke and the Austro-Prussian War 1866 in which he covers both the Second Schleswig War and the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 in great detail. For a variety of reasons including the comparisons between these wars and my favourite period of military history, the American Civil War, I delved deeper and the more I looked the more I was intrigued.

The Second Schleswig War was the first of the three wars of German Unification, the others being the Austro-Prussian (or Seven Weeks War) of 1866 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. These together led to the formation of a strong and unified Germany in 1871.  A Germany which would then arguably become the central and dominant force in the shaping of modern Europe.

When the Second Schleswig War began in late 1863 to many it was just the latest episode in an ongoing issue known as the ‘Schleswig Holstein Question’. In his 1921 book Queen Victoria the British biographer Lytton Strachey referred to the situation as:

“…the dreadful Schleswig-Holstein question—the most complex in the whole diplomatic history of Europe…”

Whilst the great British statesman Lord Palmerston is alleged to have said:

“The Schleswig-Holstein question is so complicated, only three men in Europe have ever understood it. One was Prince Albert, who is dead. The second was a German professor who became mad. I am the third and I have forgotten all about it.”

Jutland_Peninsula_map
The Jutland Peninsula showing the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein, the Danevirke and Dybbøl. – commons.wikipedia.org

The spark for this episode came just after the accession of King Christian IX to the throne of Denmark and, as was custom, his simultaneously becoming Duke of Schleswig and Holstein. Shortly after acceding to the throne he was persuaded by the Danish Parliament to sign a new Danish constitution (the so called November Constitution) that stated that the Duchy of Schleswig was part of Denmark.  This put Denmark squarely in conflict with the German Confederation who saw this as a breach of the London Protocol of 1852 that decreed that the Kingdom of Denmark and the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein would remain separate entities. Despite diplomatic efforts to reverse the constitutional changes no progress was made and on the instructions of Prussian Minister President, Otto von Bismarck, a combined Prussian and Austrian force crossed the border into Schleswig on 1 February 1864 with the intent of occupying the duchy and restoring its separation from Denmark.

Ahead of the invasion the Danish Army had taken up defensive positions along an ancient earthwork called the Danevirke.

Danevirke
A period view of the Danevirke drawn in 1863 – ©Rigsarkivet – Danish National Archives

But this position was untenable and therefore on 5 February 1864, just before they were about to be outflanked by the German forces, the Danes withdraw to new positions further north.  The army split into two smaller forces with one deploying to the northern end of the Jutland, whilst the other was ordered east to occupy the defensive forts on the peninsula opposite Sønderborg in the area of Dybbøl. The withdrawal was a miserable affair conducted through February blizzards, but in four days the larger part of the Danish Army was in its new defensive line at Dybbøl.

09_ny_strategi
The Danish withdrawal from the Danevirke. ©1864.dk

It is worth highlighting at this point that the German Confederation Forces had a significant technological advantage.  The Prussian forces, but not the Austrians, had adopted the next generation of rifle.  The Dreyse needle gun, one of the first breech loading bolt-action rifles to be used in combat, was introduced to the Prussian Army from 1848. The rifle allowed a soldier to fire five or more shots a minute from the prone position and not have to stand up to reload, therefore reducing the exposure to enemy fire.  In contrast the Danes were armed with muzzle-loading rifle that had to be reloaded in a vulnerable standing position and could probably only manage two shots a minute.  The Prussian were also superior to the Danes in artillery.  The Danes used old smooth bore cannon, whilst the Prussians had rifled artillery capable of much greater range.  

On arriving in the Dybbøl positions, work was immediately undertaken to reinforce the existing fortifications which, as can be seen from the map below, were extensive and effectively sealed off the peninsula opposite Sønderborg.  Fortunately for the Danes their surprise withdrawal had caught the Prussians off-guard and their follow up was somewhat tardy. But by mid-March the Prussians had decided that the Dybbøl position was to be their main effort and siege artillery was moved forward to start the bombardment of the Danish positions. At the same time they started to invest the position by digging their own entrenchments.  At the end of March an ambitious amphibious operation was planned and prepared, with the aim of taking the Danish fortifications from the rear, but this was called off at the last moment due to storms. Instead at the start of April the Prussians began to use their superiority in artillery to bombard the Danish positions, and at the same time began to dig forward from their own lines towards the Danish forts.

Dybbol Large
The Battle of Dybbøl 18 April 1864 ©Rigsarkivet – Danish National Archives

This parallel set of activities continued for over two weeks until the Prussian trenches were as close as possible to the Danish lines and the Danish troops had been worn down by an almost constant bombardment, during which it is estimated that about 65,000 shells were fired at the fortifications.  On 16 April 1864 the Prussians had almost 40,000 troops in the lines opposite the Danish positions and 10,000 were readied to be the first assault wave of an attack scheduled for 18 April.

At about 4am on 18 April 1864 a massive and intense bombardment of the Danish forts was launched which lasted for six hours.  Then at 10am the bombardment ceased and assault troops who had been moved forward t0 the Prussian front line trenches charged towards the Danish lines, in an attack that presaged the First World War some fifty years later.

The Prussians outnumbered the Danish troops in the frontline trenches and redoubts by two to one, and by 10.22am the forts were captured.  British Special Correspondent Edward Dicey who was covering the war for the Daily Telegraph was in a position to watch the Prussians force the Danes out of the fortifications and in his book on the war he reported:

‘I took my post of observation on a ridge commanding a full view of Dybbøl Hill. The facts that I have mentioned were not known to me then. All I could tell was that things were going badly for the besieged. The brow of the hill was lined with dark masses of troops too close and too serried to belong to the Danes. With my fieldglass I could see the Prussian flag waving gaily from the heights; and it was clear, from the crowds of soldiers standing on the bastions of Fort No. 4, that there, at least, the fighting had ceased. Along the broad, bare, shelter less roads, leading from the brow of the hill to the bridges, dark lines of infantry were retreating hastily, and their columns were raked constantly by shells thrown from the field batteries, which the Prussians were bringing up with all speed to the line of Dybbøl . It looked to me, standing there, as if their own guns had been turned against the Danes, but this I believe was not the case, as very few of those guns were left in a state to fire at all, and those few were spiked before the Prussians could enter. Meanwhile, the scene itself, apart from the interest of the struggle, had about it a strange beauty.’ [Edward Dicey, The Schleswig Holstein War, London, 1864]

Sturm_auf_die_Düppeler_Schanze_1864
A German wood cut illustration of Prussian troops storming the fortifications at Dybbøl.

In a vain attempt to retake the position the Danish reserve, the 8th Brigade, was launched in a counter attack at about 10.30am but this was to no avail and a full scale Danish retreat ensued.  The demoralised Danes streamed east to bridges over the Alsen Sound and back into Sønderborg.  At the end of this short and sharp battle the Prussian casualties amounted to 257 killed and about 950 wounded, whilst Danish casualties were 671 dead, 987 wounded and 3,131 prisoners.  This was a decisive victory for the Austro-Prussian forces.  

The war continued on until July 1864 during which time the Prussians and Austrians eventually gained control over the whole of the Jutland peninsula.  At the same time a peace conference was convened in London and managed to broker a short-lived ceasefire in May 1864. Ultimately once the German Confederation troops occupied all of Jutland the Danes were forced to come back to the negotiating table.  The final outcome of the war was a clear victory for the combined armies of Prussia and Austria. The prize for the two countries was control of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein which was agreed in the Treaty of Vienna, signed on 30 October 1864.

The details of how this war led inexorably to the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 is a story for another day.  Suffice to say that the occupation of the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein by Prussian and Austrian forces was not a comfortable arrangement and enabled the arch manipulator, Bismarck, to engineer the second of the Wars of German Unification, and put in place the next step in the unification process.

For many years this little battle at Dybbøl, and indeed this small war, had been largely overlooked in the military history of Europe.  However, I suspect that the publication in 2015 of an English translation of Tom Buk-Swienty’s excellent book ‘1864: The forgotten war that shaped modern Europe‘ has gone some way renew interest in the subject. In addition the associated, and well produced, 2014 television series ‘1864’, which tells the story of the war through the eyes of some of its participants has also helped to make the story accessible to a wider audience.  I thoroughly recommend both the book and the series, and a trailer for this series is included below.

Today the forts are preserved and a museum has been built in one to tell the story of the  war and its battles.  I have to admit that I have not yet been able to visit but hope to do so at some point.  If there are any readers who have, perhaps you would like to comment below.

Düppeler_schanze_center
Dybbøl Museum and Memorial – ©Arne List

The Siege of Dybbøl, and the final battle to take it, are small in scale when compared to many other battles that dominate the military history of Europe.  However, as the crucial point in the Second Schleswig War, a war which started the process of German Unification and inexorably led to Germany playing a central position in the 20th Century’s bloody history, it deserves to be better known than it is.

The Men Who Made the Cemeteries

GRU Cpl
A Corporal from a Graves Registration Unit with an exhumed body. ©Jeremy Gordon-Smith, via IWM

I am sure that for anyone who has visited the battlefields of the First World War, in particular those of the Western Front in France and Belgium, one of the most vivid memories will be the war cemeteries.  These are looked after and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and serve as a permanent and powerful reminder of the death and suffering that the Great War brought. But I suspect that fewer visitors really think about how the cemeteries came about and how they were developed.

The story starts soon after the start of the First World War and, in large part, is down to the work of one man, Fabian Ware.  He arrived in France in September 1914, too old to serve in the Army, instead he commanded a mobile Red Cross unit.  He soon identified that there was no official process for documenting or marking the location of the graves of those who had been killed.  To fill this void he and his mobile unit undertook the task.  Ware’s work was quickly given official recognition and the unit was transferred to the British Army as the Graves Registration Commission in 1915.  As the work of grave registration became known to the public at home, the Commission began receiving letters and requests from relatives for photographs of graves, which it duly began to provide.  As a result, in 1916, the Graves Registration Commission was renamed the Directorate of Graves Registration and Enquiries. Its remit was also extended beyond the Western Front and into other theatres of war including Greece, Egypt and Mesopotamia.  As the war progressed Ware and others became concerned about the future of the graves after the war, which led to the formation of the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1917 (updated to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in the 1960s).

The work continued through to the end of the war and on into the 1920s with the recovery of bodies, concentration of some of the smaller cemeteries into larger ones and the building of large permanent memorials such as the ones at Thiepval on the Somme and the Menin Gate in Ypres.

Graves Resistration Unit
A Graves Registration Unit in France or Belgium, probably after the end of the First World War ©Jeremy Gordon-Smith, via the IWM

This work was crucial in helping the grieving process for those hundreds of thousands of families who had lost loved ones.  Some years ago I came across a grave in Tyne Cot Cemetery in the Ypres Salient.  Unlike so many in that cemetery, this one had a name on it, Private James Weir, 31st Battalion, Australian Infantry, AIF.  It also had an intriguing epitaph ‘The Lord Gave And The Lord Hath Taken Away’.  So out of interest I decided to trace Private Weir and to see if I could find out more about him.  In doing so I uncovered a tragic tale, but one that probably mirrored many thousands more.

Private Weir was killed on 27 September 1917, during the bloody Third Battle of Ypres, and was buried in a battlefield cemetery somewhere in the area of Polygon Wood. However, the grave appears to have been lost and even as late as the summer of 1921 the family, in Australia, were writing to the authorities to find to where the grave was. Eventually the grave was located, the body exhumed and concentrated with many others in Tyne Cot Cemetery, and in October 1921 the family were sent photographs of the grave. Nonetheless it is hard in these days of instant communication and rapid travel to imagine the anguish his family went through for four years, not knowing where he was buried.

Weir Grave Register
The Graves Registration Unit’s notification that Private James Weir’s body had been exhumed and reburied in Tyne Cot Cemetery. ©National Archives of Australia.

This week I came across Lincolnshire resident and author Tim Atkinson who is writing a book about the men who stayed behind after the Armistice as part of the Graves Registration Units to search for and recover bodies on the battlefields. Entitled ‘The Glorious Dead‘ the marketing blurb for the book states the following:

‘The book promises to reveal what happened when the Great War ended and the guns fell silent, to tell the story of the battlefield clearances and creation of iconic war cemeteries and to explain why so many men who served – and survived – remained in Flanders amid the ruins of the war they’d fought.

The story follows one of these men – Jack Patterson – as he busies himself doing the Empire’s dirty work. Jack seems not to mind getting his hands dirty, digging graves, living among the death of devastation of the war he and others have just fought. But there’s a secret keeping Jack in Flanders – a secret that only emerges when a visitor to the cemeteries comes searching…. for Jack’s own grave!’

Intrigued by Tim’s (TA) approach I (HM) caught up with him and we had a chat.

HM:  “Tell me a bit about yourself.”

TA:  “I was a teacher for twenty years and then decided to give up full-time work to look after my youngest child, and at the same time start writing,  Since doing so I have had a number  of books published, and my latest venture is ‘The Glorious Dead’.”

HM: “I have read the blurb, but tell me more about the book.” 

TA:  “Well it’s been five years in the making and is the story of Jack Patterson and his comrades who stay behind on the Western Front after the end of the First World War to complete the harrowing and unpleasant task of recovering bodies from the battlefields for burial. The story covers the important years just after the end of the Great War when thousands of troops remained behind to complete this task. It also touches on those who eventually married local girls and became part of Anglo-Belgium and Anglo-French communities looking after the cemeteries through the inter-war period.”  

HM: “Why did you choose to address this subject through the medium of historical fiction rather than a factual narrative?”  

TA:  “The book is principally about the people involved with this undertaking rather than the process.  There are a number of good non-fiction books already published on the subject, including Philip Longworth’s The Unending Vigil and David Crane’s Empires of the Dead.  And I’m not an historian so didn’t want to cover the same ground less-well.  What I wanted to do was to understand the psychology of these men.  To understand what motivated them to stay behind and complete this task.  In the case of my chief protagonist there is a personal reason and a mystery about him that eventually comes to light but I won’t spoil the story. But the historical fiction approach gave me more scope to do this.”

Serre No3
Serre Road Cemetery Number 3, a battlefield cemetery on the Somme, on an atmospherically overcast day.

HM: “These cemeteries always have a profound effect on people visiting them.  Why do you think that is?”     

TA:  “From Tyne Cot, the largest cemetery, to the smallest battlefield cemetery on the Somme their design is consistent and perfect.  This was an inspired period, from the work of Fabian Ware to establish the Imperial War Graves Commission through to that of the architects such as Blomfield and Lutyens to establish the monuments.  I have been to many of the cemeteries on the Western Front and standing in them I think the overriding impression is of the simplicity of the design and the serenity of the places.  And I think it is this contrast with the horror of the battlefields that really has an impact on people.”

HM: “Your book is being published through Unbound. Why have you chosen this route?”

TA: “Well first it is a very successful model which has had some notable successes.  The one that immediately springs to mind is Philip Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which made it on to the Man Booker long list in 2014.  Secondly I enjoy the interaction with potential readers that this form of publishing allows.  Once subscribers have pledged their support they are given access to ‘the Shed’ an interactive area where they can receive updates from the author and leave comments and thoughts. As a writer it is unusual to connect with readers while engaged in the process of writing.  Unbound offers a great opportunity to open a dialogue with your readers and allow them to help shape your book.”

HM: “Tim, thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.  Good luck with completing the book and your quest for support.”      

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries of the Western Front, and elsewhere in the world, are an iconic and important part of the Remembrance of all wars that have involved military and civilian personnel from across the Commonwealth since 1914.  As we move through the Centenary commemorations of the First World War their power to connect us with that War does not seem to diminish, indeed in many respects they are even more powerful today than they ever have been.

Tyne Cot
Tyne Cot Cemetery today.

What I hope I have done in this blog post, and what Tim Atkinson is attempting to do in his book, is to highlight the effort made to ensure the memory and sacrifice of those who died in the First World War was not forgotten.  Initially this was through the efforts of Fabian Ware to institutionalise the burial and commemoration of the dead.  Then later through the physically hard and traumatic work of men, like Tim’s character Jack, to scour the battlefields searching for bodies, and hopefully help to close a chapter for many families such as those of Private James Weir.  As we remember the dead and the wounded throughout the Centenary of the First World War, we should also take our hats off to the men who completed the grisly, but very important, task of making the cemeteries.


You can subscribe to Tim Atkinson’s book ‘The Glorious Dead’ at https://unbound.co.uk/books/the-glorious-dead

 

Rediscovering Richard III

Statue
This iconic statue of Richard III originally stood in the Castle Gardens in Leicester. It was commissioned in 1980 by the Richard III Society, but was moved in 2014 to stand in front of the Richard III Visitor Centre.

As someone who works in heritage but also loves to visit and enjoy it, my time off often has the feel of a busman’s holiday. This Easter was no exception.  As well as visiting a local museum and a National Trust property, I also took a trip to Leicester to visit the Richard III Visitor Centre and to see his new tomb in Leicester Cathedral.

Until the public announcement of the discovery of Richard’s body in early 2013, I had little knowledge or interest in him as an individual. Like many people I suspect my view of him was coloured by Shakespeare’s characterisation in his eponymous play, and particularly by Laurence Olivier’s somewhat odious, although absolutely brilliant, portrayal in the 1955 film of the play, a clip from which is below.

With an interest in battles and battlefields I had visited Bosworth (22 August 1485) and seen where Richard fought his final battle. Although the exact location of the battle is now a matter of dispute, so perhaps not – but I digress!  Nonetheless whilst being interested in the battle that led to his demise, my knowledge of him as a person was limited. However, the 2012 project to search for, and ultimately discover, his remains piqued my interest, and in April 2013 I made a trip to Leicester to visit the temporary visitor centre that had been created, very enterprisingly, to pick up on the excitement around the discovery.  This small display was well executed, particularly as it had been put together at short notice, and I came away feeling that there was more to Richard and his story than I first thought.

In 2015 I watched his re-interment in Leicester Cathedral with the splendid pomp and ceremony that accompanied it, and was surprised by the levels of public interest that the whole process seemed to attract. As a result I undertook to re-visit Leicester and the expanded, and permanent, visitor centre that had been opened in July 2014 ahead of the reburial.

This new visitor centre is located in the old Alderman Newton’s School, a Victorian building, which itself sits on the site of the old Grey Friars Church, in which Richard III’s body had laid buried for over 500 years. The entrance is an impressive new glass construction with a large portrait of Richard to welcome you, and friendly and helpful staff to greet you on arrival.

The visitor journey begins with a short overview film that sets Richard’s life in context. One then enters the museum proper, which is divided into two distinct parts.  The first, on the ground floor, introduces Richard the man, his rise to power and his crowning in July 1483.  At this point the rehabilitation of his reputation begins as the positive aspects of his reign are highlighted, which included legal reforms, the banning of restrictions on the printing and sale of books, and, on his orders, translation of the written Laws and Statutes from the traditional French into English.  At this point one is being persuaded that he wasn’t really all that bad!  The museum also addresses one of the more controversial issues surrounding him, the infamous deaths of the ‘Princes in the Tower’ and offers some plausible explanations. This part of the museum then includes coverage of the Wars of the Roses, a section on the Battle of Bosworth and the death of Richard in combat.  Finally it concludes with his, first, burial in Leicester.

Striking
One of a range of striking visual elements to the galleries.

The museum displays then continue on the upper floor of the building with a two part exhibition.  The first area looks at how Richard has been portrayed, particularly in popular culture, and especially how Shakespeare helped to shape his, rather poor, reputation.  The second half of this floor looks at the archaeological project that was started in September 2012 to discover and uncover the body.  This section is particularly impressive as it highlights the various stages and techniques involved in carrying out the search, the dig itself, the discovery and recovery of the body, and the identification and investigation of how he was killed.  Further displays look at how DNA fingerprinting was used to prove the skeleton was Richard III and how CT scans were used to help build a 3D facial reconstruction of Richard, which is now housed in the exhibition.   This part of the museum is fascinating and has content that appeals to a wide-ranging audience, both young and old, expert and amateur.

King's Armour
A copy of Richard III’s armour annotated with the various blows it received in battle, which correspond to injuries discovered on his skeleton.

The visit concludes back on the lower floor again where the actual grave site in which the skeleton was found can be seen under a glass floor. In all the story of both Richard himself and the discovery project are very well told, with understandable and engaging interpretation.  The content strikes a good balance between accessibility and detail, and there is a nice range of interactive elements both physical and digital.  And like any good modern museum, the centre has a cafe and a small, but well-stocked, shop.

Concluding the visit to the Visitor Centre does not however have to be the end to a Richard III themed trip to Leicester. A minute’s walk away across the road one can enter Leicester Cathedral and visit the tomb of Richard where he was re-interred on 26 March 2015.  As can be seen in the picture below, the tomb is very impressive.  The top is made from a single piece of Swaledale limestone from Yorkshire, whilst the base is Kilkenny marble and bears his coat of arms.

Richard III Tomb
Richard III’s new tomb in Leicester Cathedral.

But a visit to the cathedral is also not the end and there is more to see in the city. A Richard III walking trail has been developed to guide visitors around Leicester city centre, and to highlight a number of relevant sites such as the location of the famous Blue Boar Inn where it is said Richard stayed the night before the Battle of Bosworth.  The City of Leicester has clearly identified that this discovery has captured the public imagination and has done an excellent job of integrating the wider city into the overall Richard III experience.

So having visited this museum, and the city of Leicester, has my view of Richard III changed?  Well I think it has. I am afraid I can’t now accept at face value the Shakespeare (or Olivier) portrayal of Richard.  I am sure that he was no angel, but to be a ruler in the late Middle Ages must have required a high degree of ruthlessness and determination. On the other hand it is clear me that in his short reign he did make some efforts at reform, and had a genuine desire to improve the governance of England.  I would therefore encourage people to visit Leicester to draw their own conclusions about Richard.  Although I have to conclude by saying that for me, on the matter of ‘Princes in the Tower’, my jury’s still out!