Monday, 23 October 2017

Remembering the Great War at the Parish Hall

I nearly missed this one - I'm so glad I found out about it at the last minute!
The British Legion organised the afternoon event - 2pm at the Parish Hall. It was wet and blustery weather, but even so there were two men in First World War uniform, with their Lee Enfields over their shoulders, guarding the gate in proper military style. Their kit was excellent in every detail.
Inside, there were exhibits around the hall - at the back, a cavalry officer's kit, including cavalry sabre and saddle, with a smart second lieutenant. At the front, a gramophone, helmets, shells and other memorabilia - and two dresses of the period, a black mourning dress and a white lawn dress with a higher hemline. Further along, a doctor's instruments were laid out, next to a stretcher, and at the far wall there was a display about Lance Corporal Allan Leonard Lewis, who won the VC.

The talks were fascinating. First up was Chris Coode from the Great War Society, who started the proceedings off by playing a bit of Dolly Gray on the gramophone. He said he didn't call himself a re-enactor, because he didn't fight in battles - he felt it was disrespectful to the dead of the First World War. Instead, he did Living History - and he did it very well. He said that he often went into schools to talk about the Great War, and would do some research before he went. He tried to take the children to the local war memorial, where he could point out the names of the children's relatives to them - an important part of connecting children with their heritage and local history. The Great War Society also does film work, because they have such good kit - so they are seen as extras in the background.

He showed the different parts of his uniform, and described how much ammunition he would be carrying (about 150 rounds) as well as field dressings, a couple of Mills bombs (or grenades, if you're French), dry socks (very important in the trenches, where trench foot was a terrible problem), and a water bottle and iron rations. He was wearing a peaked cap, with the markings of the Welsh Regiment (including a red dragon on black on his arm), and showed the influence of the British Army in India as he was wearing puttees on his lower legs (Hindustani for bandages) and his uniform was khaki (Hindustani for dusty). At the beginning of the Great War, the French and Belgians were going into battle in bright red and blue uniforms, and their officers wore white gloves! Everything he wore was designed to be easy to use, and that went for the weapons too. He demonstrated how fast his rifle could be re-loaded from the rounds he was carrying in little pouches on his uniform, and how quickly he could work the bolt of the rifle to keep shooting. The Germans were using the Mauser rifle, where the bolt had to be moved in front of the soldier's face to put the round into the breech, which meant he had to take his eye off the target and slowed him down.

Later, he took off the cap and replaced it with the familiar tin hat. In 1916, this was the response to the numbers of soldiers who were dying of head injuries - and almost immediately, the number of head injuries went up dramatically. This was because the wounds were treatable, instead of killing the soldiers outright as they had before.
And the weapon which was causing all those injuries was the shell, filled with lead balls (shrapnel), which exploded in the air, showering the area with the shrapnel and also the casing, which broke into two parts. He passed some of these round the audience.
He also demonstrated the bayonet, originally devised so that an infantryman could attack someone on horseback. At the beginning of the War, the generals were expecting a fast moving war with cavalry charges and a lot of movement. They were not prepared for trench warfare.

After a short break (tea, coffee and excellent cakes provided by the Co-op), Roger Morgan took over. He started by describing his uniform as well - with a tie (tucked in so it didn't dangle on the patients) and jodhpurs with tall boots, because he was an officer and theoretically would be travelling around on a horse. He described what happened to a wounded soldier, and some of the medical techniques that were used on them - and some of the problems with the dosage of anaesthetics, a branch of medicine which was in its infancy. I was quite surprised to learn that X-ray machines were used at the Front, so soon after X-rays had been discovered.
There was the difficulty of getting a stretcher along a narrow trench with sharp corners, for instance (the German trenches were more sinuous), which led to webbing being designed with hand holds, so a strong stretcher bearer could carry a man out on his back, with the wounded man hanging on. They also carried wounded men in blankets, a technique developed during the Boer War.
He talked about the vast number of volunteers who went out to the Western Front, including women doctors who were turned down for duty by the British, but welcomed by the French and Belgians. There were nurses, some of whom came out on their own - like Elsie Knocker, who was forbidden to go by her father, but rode out there on her own motorbike, along with her friend Mairi Chisolm, and joined up with Hector Munro's Flying Ambulance service. She ended the War as a Baroness, as she married a Belgian Count who came to the hospital where she was working!

There was also a lady dressed as a FANY in the audience, who later got up and spoke about what they did. The FANYs were young women who could ride horses, because at the beginning of the War they were expecting a fast-moving, mobile war, and later became ambulance drivers (it stands for First Aid Nursing Yeomanry), set up hospitals, and ran canteens and soup kitchens.

And finally Dawn Lewis got up to speak. She is the great-niece of Lance Corporal Lewis, and was wearing his medals - the VC, and "Pip, Squeak and Wilfred" the campaign medals (nicknamed for popular children's characters). She had known for some time that memorials are being planned for the men who won VCs - a memorial slab close to where they had come from, so when she was contacted she was pleased that one would be installed in Hereford - but L/Cpl Lewis was the only VC recipient to come from Herefordshire during the Great War, so she wanted something more. She wanted a bronze statue. She's had a lot of support with this idea, and now they need to raise £60,000. The statue will be of L/Cpl Lewis in uniform, but without any weapons - there's a photo of him which will be the basis for this, and it will be put up somewhere in the Old Market Shopping Centre in Hereford. The sculptor who did the statue of Elgar leaning on his bicycle, Jemma Pearson, will do the work.
I read the citation later, to find out what he did to be awarded the VC - he attacked two German machine guns which were pinning down his battalion, and took the gun crews prisoner. Three days later, he was involved in another battle, and that time he was shot dead.
Online, the appeal for the statue has a JustGiving page at AL LEWIS VC MEMORIAL FUND and cheques can also be sent to 38 The Meadows, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, HR3 5LF, made out to AL Lewish VC Memorial Fund.

It was a fascinating afternoon, and it generated a lot of interest among the audience - Mary Morgan, for instance, remembered that her grandfather had organised women locally to do knitting for the troops, and she still had a lot of memorabilia about that at home - just the sort of thing the Great War Society would be interested in.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What an interesting event! I wish I could have been there. Great write-up Lesley.