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.

Looking Ahead

Happy New Year! I hope you have all had very merry and happy holiday seasons. Mine was lovely, marred only by sickness which struck on Boxing Day and has affected one or other member of my household ever since. Still, sore throats notwithstanding, we KBO.

Today is my first back at work since the holidays, although given the silence in the corridors, most of my colleagues have decided that this half a week is a bit pointless and have sensibly stayed away. With only one day in the office, I have mainly been concentrating on clearing my desk in preparation for the new year and, having almost succeeded (there is one proposal still to draft that is proving so intractable that I think yet another cup of tea will be needed to crack it), I thought this would a good opportunity to take a look ahead at what 2013 has to offer.

Firstly we have a great line-up of speakers for the Legacies of War seminar series. Final confirmation of titles is pending (and the full list will be posted in a week or so), but Adrian Gregory and Santanu Das have both agreed to speak, on ‘Did God Survive the Somme’ (!) and on ‘India, Empire and the First World War’. Both should be fascinating.

Before then I will be heading off to London, to the Wellcome Library where I will be on the hunt for memories of and about medical orderlies. Having had my proposal on the experiences of orderlies accepted for the Social History Society’s annual conference in March (see here for details), I am now looking for material to support the conclusions I have been drawing from reading Ward Muir’s Observations of an Orderly.  There is at least one orderly memoir at the Wellcome, plus a long list of potential manuscript sources, so it will be a busy.  I am also hoping to attend the IHR conference on open access, The Finch Report, open access and the historical community while I am there (there is a waiting list).

Also coming up is a meeting at the Imperial War Museum North for academics across the North of England to discuss plans for the centenary commemorations and I will be taking the opportunity to go round the ‘Saving Lives’ exhibition while I am there.

There are also a couple of long term plans that are starting to take shape – workshop for the autumn on the history of medicine and warfare, a journal special issue that I have been putting together for years now that hopefully will find a suitable home this year, plans for a primary school class on First World War medicine that may or may not include an accurate reproduction of a stretcher and work with some of the All Our Stories projects relating to Leeds hospitals during the war that have received funding.

And in the interim there will be reading and writing – lots of both.  There is the article on voluntary medical services and their relation to the military that I have been trying to write for a couple of months now, and the stack of books on the Territorial Army sitting seductively on my desk which will, hopefully, inform it.  There is the aforementioned conference paper on medical orderlies and the related research.  There is a beautiful (literally – the cover image is gorgeous) book from Ashgate to review.  And there is the ever-growing reading list, not including the ten books sitting disconsolate on my ‘to read’ shelf awaiting my attention.

So all in all it looks as if this will be a very busy and hopefully productive year in the annals of Arms and the Medical Man.  I will, of course, keep you updated as I go along.  I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I think I will.

Men at work

Last Thursday, as well as being my birthday, was the date of the second in the Legacies of War seminar series.  Rob Thompson gave a fabulous talk on engineers at Third Ypres.

Superficially, this looked to be a relatively dull topic, but not the way Rob presented.  First of all, he is an excellent and highly engaging public speaker.  But more than that, he gave one of the best demonstrations I have seen of how cultural and military history can fruitfully be married to create a deep analysis of particular moments in the history of war.  He argued that by 1917 the culture of war had changed from a martial one fought by warriors to a civil one worked by civilian soldiers. He pointed out that most men serving in the BEF were predominantly labouring (building roads, digging trenches, mending things) rather than fighting (engaging with the enemy) and that the landscape was dominated as much by the roads, rails, trucks and trains of logistics (sights familiar from civil society) as the otherworldly eeriness of no-man’s-land.

Having outlined this cultural shift in the way war was being carried out, Rob went on to argue that the failure of British High Command to fully grasp the implications at an operational level led to ultimate failure at Third Ypres. The dominance of civil logistics was due to the rise of artillery, yet no provision was made at the front line for an increase in manpower to serve the needs of the engineers in building/rebuilding roads for the artillery to advance over the landscape it had decimated.  The result was poorly trained, exhausted soldiers doing this work badly with the result that the advance became bogged down in its own built-in inertia.

Rob’s arguments were highly seductive, particularly given his flair for dramatic and humorous narration.  The more I think about his arguments, the less convinced I am about the dominance of civilian work culture as that of the war.  There were other cultures at play as well, notably the domestic culture which Joanna Bourke and I have both discussed and which had links to the structures of the regimental system, as discussed by David French.  There is also an entire social group being ignored by an analysis that focuses on the work cultures of manual labourers, namely the aspirational lower middle classes, the clerks and shop keepers and service workers, men whose experiences of work would no more prepare them for the heavy labour of the front than it would for hand-to-hand combat with an enemy.  This is a not-insignificant group of men, yet there has been little discussion beyond that of domesticity, as to how they retained a sense of civil identity in wartime.

There was also a question of morale that I am not sure was fully addressed.  From my own work on diaries and memoirs, the aspect of warfare that men found most morale-sapping was repetitive heavy labour and the feeling of being a cog in the machine, both aspects of this civilian culture that Rob identified.  Yet morale was maintained, even at the pinch-point of 1917.  Why the British Army did not mutiny even at the height of the manpower crisis is something that clearly needs a lot more discussion in light of this analysis.

So there are many questions still to answer, not least, for me, the effect of the manpower crisis on the RAMC in 1917.  I am starting to wonder if I might not be able to challenge Mark Harrison’s assertions about the centrality of 1916 to the RAMC and its effectiveness, arguing that from a personnel, rather than organisational, stand-point 1917 is more significant.  It certainly has given me some useful ideas to work on.

And, as a bonus, the talk served as a useful reminder that engineers didn’t spend their entire time (or even most of it) digging tunnels.  It is always good to have a few assumptions demolished occasionally!