And now for something completely different

The following post, by Christopher Phillips, a postgraduate student in the School of History at the University of Leeds and member of the Legacies of War project, is the second the occasional series of guest posts to this blog. One the surface, a biographical sketch of the coordinator of canal transportation for the British armed forces in France during the First World War may appear to have little relation to the medical research interests of this blog.  Yet Chris touches upon a number of key issues that I am currently exploring in both my book and related articles, including the key role of transport logistics and the relationship of the Regular Army and its officers to the range of support services that total war required.  I hope to explore some of these issues myself in future posts.  In the meantime, I leave you to enjoy Chris’s story of a man who exemplified war service in ways that go far beyond popular cliché.

The grave of Brigadier-General Gerald E. Holland lies in the Catholic cemetery in Holyhead, where he had lived and worked prior to the outbreak of the First World War. Holland died on 26 June 1917, at St Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex, from a sickness contracted whilst on active service in France. Alongside 888,245 of his colleagues from within the British Empire, Holland’s death was represented by a ceramic poppy planted outside the Tower of London as part of the commemorative activities linked to the centenary of 1914. Holland’s war service, however, was far from the popular stereotype of the First World War soldiers’ experience, whilst Holland himself was a distant cry from the stylised image of those who died on the battlefield.

Gerald Holland was born in Dublin in October 1860. At the age of 20, he joined the Royal Indian Marine, seeing service in Burma prior to a posting as a Naval Transport officer during the South African War. In 1905, at the age of 45 and with the rank of Commander, Holland retired from the navy and returned to Britain. He re-entered civilian life in the employ of the London and North-Western Railway, occupying the post of Marine Superintendent for the railway company, first at Fleetwood and later at Holyhead. In this role, Holland was responsible for the operations of the port, ensuring that goods traffic between the mainland and Ireland was handled efficiently. In August 1914 Holland was just two months shy of his 54th birthday. Despite his age, and his retirement from martial service almost ten years previously, Holland was able to apply his skills and abilities to the prosecution of the war in Europe.

In the opening month of hostilities, Holland approached the War Office with an idea to take advantage of the highly-developed system of inland waterways in France and Belgium to provide supplies to the army and to relieve pressure on the railway network behind the front line. As the position of that front line stabilized in the latter months of 1914, creating the conditions of trench warfare which have become synonymous with the conflict on the Western Front, Holland was offered the opportunity to put his ideas into practice. On 30 December 1914, the newly-appointed Lieutenant-Colonel Holland reported for duty at GHQ in France, and took over responsibility for the provision of canal transport to the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.

At first sight, Holland’s task seemed formidable. At the beginning of 1915, the Department of Inland Water Transport consisted of two officers (Holland and his assistant, another former naval officer), one tug hired from the French, and thirty-four barges. A meeting with the French Army’s canal expert also revealed that Holland would be unable to obtain much assistance from the locals, French canals having largely been plied by entire families who lived on their barges and chose not to follow military orders. With the British Army possessing no expertise in canal operations, the only alternative for Holland was to enlist personnel from Britain with the requisite skills to man the barges and provide the technical and administrative support necessary to maintain an efficient service. Whilst the War Office were able to provide officers for clerical support, the majority of the men, unsurprisingly, were chosen for their experience of the shipping industry (such as Horace Pitman, for ten years a yachtsman, or the fifty-two year old George Tagg, who came from a boat-building family and knew the French canal system well), whilst Holland’s pre-war employer also supplied fifty men from the Marine Department at Holyhead. An active campaign of enlistment at various ports in Britain accounted for the lightermen, watermen, seamen, engineers and other assorted trades required to ensure the department’s ability to fulfil its duties. By February, Holland had created a self-sufficient unit that had already begun to transport bulk commodities such as road stone and coal inland. By the end of June, just six months after Holland had arrived in France, inland water transport had moved: 19,142 tons of supplies; 27,421 tons of road stone; and had evacuated over 600 men from the battle zone by ambulance barge. As the war continued to grow in scale, Holland worked tirelessly to ensure his department’s ability not only to keep pace with demands, but to create new services.

By the middle of 1916, Holland controlled a fleet comprising almost 600 vehicles, with a capacity of over 70,000 tons. He had overseen the creation of a bespoke depot for inland water transport at a site which became known as Zeneghem, and had successfully argued for the creation of a cross-Channel barge service to eliminate the need for landing ships at the overstretched French ports. Arrangements were also already in place to commence a barge service for the evacuation of wounded horses to complement the ambulance barge service which continued to expand its operations. In October 1916, Holland’s department was, along with the army’s other transportation methods, placed under the control of Sir Eric Geddes as part of a widespread reorganization of the force’s logistics in the wake of the Battle of the Somme. Whilst those responsible for the provision of railway transport and the operations at the docks were ultimately replaced, such was Geddes’ appreciation of Holland’s work that he retained his position in the reshuffle (and gained a promotion to Brigadier-General), and both men looked forward to the continued expansion of waterborne traffic in 1917.

Unfortunately, it was not an expansion that Holland would live to see. As part of their coordinated withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line over the winter and early spring of 1917, the retreating German Army devastated the land and destroyed the canals in the surrendered territory. Days of inspecting the damage in freezing temperatures took their toll on the fifty-six year old, and Holland fell ill in April 1917. He was evacuated back to Britain but never recovered. His assistant, Cyril Luck, another former Royal Indian Marine commander, took over operations in France and retained his position until the armistice. The provision of canal transport on the Western Front, therefore, was at no point under the direct supervision of a regular officer of the British Army.

By discussing Holland’s service in more detail, a richer, more nuanced image of the diverse range of wartime experiences emerges. It reminds us again of the ‘totality’ of the First World War, and of the myriad relationships that developed during the tumultuous progress of the conflict, as armies, states and societies grappled with the unprecedented challenges of understanding, influencing and coping with the dislocation and shock brought about by the war.

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One thought on “And now for something completely different

  1. Pingback: Logistics and Support « Great War Fiction

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