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Breaking the Seal: Military records: Witnesses to history

Updated Monday 28th February 2000

Military records have historical value - and not just to those interested in wars and armies...

A recreation of an English Civil War battle Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: BBC

Bettany Hughes
Believe it or not 400 years ago Elizabeth I travelled down this lane, to this field in west Tilbury close to the Thames estuary. Here she gave her rousing speech to her troops before the Spanish Armada. "I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman", she said, "but I have the heart and stomach of a king". The year was 1588. Philip II's Spanish fleet was approaching. Elizabeth resolved to "live or die amongst you all, to lay down for my God, my Kingdom and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust". The remarkable thing about records like these is that they reveal the relationship. Elizabeth I knew her people and her words, even now, can help us to understand how men and women have been persuaded to fight and to die for their country.

There are so many military records and so many different kinds that all I can hope to do is look at a small selection. I thought I'd start with an event we all know about. If you visit any English town or village you will always be reminded of the first world war. There isn't a corner of the country that doesn't have a memorial to the men who went away to fight - and never came back. And its not just a handful of names either. There are often scores and scores of them.

This was a war fought on a scale unimaginable before and the effect it had on these small communities must have been devastating. So how did the State manage to recruit the largest army it had ever fielded, and why did so many men join up voluntarily?

Sir Michael Howard
Initially the most popular war that Britain's ever been involved in, there was wild enthusiasm, which historians now find a little difficult to understand, but its important to realise that the image of what the war was going to be like was very different from what it actually turned out to be.

People thought it was going to be pretty quick. Also a genuine patriotic enthusiasm, the feeling this was a just war. The possibility of getting out from one's rather boring life and having a brief, glorious adventure did bring people to the colours in very large numbers, again on the assumptions they would probably be home, if not by Christmas, certainly within a year. And as a result of that it was possible to raise, entirely by voluntary means, over a million men.

Bettany
In Glasgow, they raised a battalion of volunteers in 16 hours. So I thought I'd start my journey around the military archives in Scotland. The volunteer battalions were the backbone of the 1914 British Expeditionary Force. And they were raised locally, by local organisations who then supplied them with everything from uniforms to bacon and eggs.

At Glasgow's old drill hall I caught up with military historian Ken Gibb. Ken showed me round the hall, still looking as it did when soldiers slept here during their first weeks of training, and he explained to me how volunteers were recruited.

Posters are what everybody associates with the recruitment drive.Ken
This here poster was for the 16th HLI, the 3 battalions that were raised were designated 15th, 16th, 17th HLI.

Bettany
Which is Highland Light Infantry.

Ken
Highland Light Infantry, yes. It was Glasgow's own regiment. Now the 15th was recruited from members of the tramways departments. The 16th was from ex-members of the Boys' Brigade and the 17th was raised by the Chamber of Commerce.

Bettany
And that photo is extraordinary, I mean this is a group of people who are not hiding their light under a bushel are they?

Ken
No, that's an incredible photograph. That I would say was taken in Bath Street, it's in the Headquarters of Glasgow Tramways Department, and their Chairman, James Dalrimpole, was the great recruiter in Glasgow. And he went as far as trying to raise 3000 Bantams, as you can see down here.

Bettany
What's a Bantam?

Ken
Well a Bantam is an interesting case, this poster up here gives an idea of what they are but I have the most incredible photo to show you.

Bettany
They're tiny!

Ken
They are tiny. These were Bantams in September/October 1914. When the losses started to mount up the War Office decided to drop the height regulations, and this was the result.

Bettany
And there were enough people to fill it?

Ken
There were. You must remember in those days, in big industrial cities like Glasgow, Liverpool, London, because of poor diets and because of the poor air conditions, people's growth was stunted. And there were a lot of people short in stature. They were joining because they wanted to be part of it, before the famous war finished at Christmas. Trench warfare hadn't taken place, the poison gas hadn't been invented, all the horrors were still to come.

 

 

 

Bettany
There were obvious difficulties creating and preserving records during World War I, but despite them, the documents are extensive and detailed - and I don't just mean the lists of recruited men and their supplies. We can piece together the story of individual battles from these records and that's why I have come to see William Spencer at the Public Record Office. He is a Falklands veteran himself, but he is also interested in the soldiers of the 16th Highland light Infantry and their attack on two German trenches in November 1916.

William
We have the infantry brigade war diary, which in this case has a map which shows us where the individual units were meant to be. We have the position of the 16th Highland Light Infantry here, the 11th battalion border regiments here, and their objectives - the German first line, Munich trench, here and the German second line, Frankfurt trench, further on.

After attacking the Munich trench, they moved on to Frankfurt trench but because of various failures to mop up, ie to clear out the Germans from Munich trench, certain members of the 16th HLI became isolated here in Frankfurt trench. The Germans were still here in Munich trench, so the isolated party were attacked from the Germans still in their front line, the Munich trench, and also from the south, from the north and again coming over from the east. An individual from the 11th battalion border regiment, one other rank, managed to break out of Frankfurt trench and get back to the British lines and he reported that the trench, Frankfurt trench, was being held by 3 officers and 60 other ranks each of the 11th battalion border regiments and the 16th HLI. So there you have 126 men, probably the majority of them wounded, defending a position surrounded by several hundred Germans.

Bettany
More than 500 men made the assault on Munich trench. At the end of the battle, no more than 50 came out of Frankfurt trench alive.

Eton College. This school has been through a lot of wars. Founded in 1440, when boys started coming here the battle of Agincourt was recent history and England was about to be torn apart by the Wars of the Roses. But the reason I'm here is World War I. Two of the senior boys, Dominic Ruck Keene and Rupert Stone, are interested in finding out more about one of Eton's war heroes.

Rupert
His name is Vere Bennet Stanford and he was at Eton from 1907 to 1911.

Dominic
It's a family story that he was gassed because he gave his gas mask to his sergeant. And that this brought on his death, but he died of TB, I think something like 1922. So what we are going to try and do is see if we can find out some more about this story of the gassing. And you know, more about his war generally.

Bettany
Etonians who were old enough to fight flocked to France at the beginning of the war. They had no idea they would face machine guns, barbed wire, mud, rain and gas. Eton's MacNaughten Library is a memorial to them.

So all these books are to do with the First World War?

Dominic
This is the book of the House, book of photos, and this is 1909, so a few years before he left. We are not entirely sure which one he is yet, but its probable he is one of these as they are the more senior boys.

Bettany
Right, so he would have been what?

Dominic
Fifteen.

Bettany
A few days later Rupert and Dominic got an afternoon off and travelled down to Norton Bavant in Wiltshire. They had heard that this was where the Bennett Stanfords were buried. They found a memorial to Vere which made it very clear that the family thought Vere's military Cross was for saving his sergeant's life.

Dominic
"By his heroic action during an attack in the Great War in France, in giving up his gas mask to his sergeant, he contracted the illness from which he died, for which act he was awarded the Military Cross."

Bettany
So is this a family legend? The fantasy of a family struggling to come to terms with their loss. Or was there some truth in it? Dominic and Rupert are off to Brighton, where Vere's grandmother lived. We'll catch up with them later.

Today, we take the army for granted. Its part of the establishment. If there's fighting to be done we assume we have an army to do it. But this wasn't always so. What about the early Middle Ages, when wars were fought by kings and knights and their tenants? No money exchanged hands, and it would take centuries to develop conscription, so what was the deal? This is the 12th century Red Book of the Exchequer and the arrangement seems to have revolved around land.

Dr David Carpenter
The great barons held their land from the King in return for performing the service of so many knights. They had to bring along so many knights of the kings army, the Earl of Ferrers here had to bring along the service of 60 knights. And how did he actually perform that service? Well he granted, or his ancestors were granted, land to tenants and they'd said you tenants must come whenever the King summons with the service of so many knights. So you see them all listed there.

Bettany
But how well did this system work in practice?

David
Well we can answer that best when we get to the early 13th century when we have got real information about armies and who was in them. And this document is an amazing close roll for 1220-1221, but what its got is virtually all the government orders written out in chronological sequence.

Bettany
Only six years earlier King John had signed the Magna Carta, granting extensive new rights to the barons of England. By 1221 King Henry III faced a changing world. The barons no longer regarded their land as being on loan from the Crown and a lord with his own small army could garrison a castle and refuse to fight for the King.

David
What this covers here is the Revolt of the Count of Omale because in 1220 he stormed out of the court in the middle of the night. The reason was he had been ordered to surrender the castle at Bizon. So what you've got here, which really begins the story, is you've got an order to the Count of Omale to have faith in what Robert de Rupont and Jeffrey de Nevill tell him, on the part of the king. Basically they are trying to begin negotiations with him, they are trying to reel him in, say "There-there, come on, its not as bad, you've got to give up Bizon but you know there will be compensation". He makes a big stand or his garrison makes a big stand at the castle and what we've got here is an actual letter to our old friend, or to his grandson, William de Ferrers, Earl of Derby, summoning him to come to the army. This is the actual letter sent by the king. First of all is a tremendous sort of angst about the behaviour of the Count of Omale, it says for his "mulitplicase and manifestoc excessor", his greater manifest excesses, we are "vehementer perterbarma", we are very disturbed. And then it says, and this is what's so interesting, it doesn't say "come with your 60 knights, come with your feudal military service", all it says is "come with all the force you have with you".

 

Bettany
So Earl Ferrers took his knights to proceed by them. The castle remains are now on private land but David and I got permission to visit them to get a feel for the siege.

David
The key thing to remember about the siege is that the garrison was so small, it was only 13 knights and I don't think they would have been able to put up a great resistance for very long. In particular they wouldn't have been able to defend that outer line of walls. So I suspect those outer walls of the moat were crossed very quickly and so here, very very early on, you would have got established great siege engines, huge trebuchets which hurled great stones and boulders at the castle. So I think the 13 knights holed up in the keep on the top of that mott there must have had a hell of a time, rafters and walls crashing down on top of them, so I'm not surprised they gave up after a week.

Bettany
What happened to them when they were defeated?

David
Well that's very interesting. They were actually more or less let off - the garrison wasn't hung and that was, in a sense, a bad precedence in that it meant that rebellion could possibly take place without punishment. A lot of people in the government thought that and the old crusty Bishop of Bath said that if the garrison at Bizon had lost their heads, we would never have had the siege of Bedford castle three years later. So it's swings and roundabouts.

Bettany
And the castle itself?

David
Ah well, the siege did for it and that's all that's left.

Bettany
Preston Manor in Brighton is now council run and open to the public. But it once belonged to the Bennet Stanford family. Dominic and Rupert are discovering that although he wasn't strong physically, Vere was brave, possibly to the point of madness. He used to dodge shells. Just for the hell of it. In April 1916 however he experienced his first gas.

Rupert
It says "we were all recovered from our slight gassing". It was really bad, his helmet broke as he put it on so he would unravel his other one. "I also had very bad headaches for the rest of the week", so he was obviously affected by them. It also says that this gassing put his lungs into the condition fit to pick up the TB germ.

Dominic
We haven't any mention this incident with the gas mask. It's possible that either of those two can be explained because he was writing to his parents.

Rupert
Perhaps he had taken a great wound, he'll say that you know …. Its only a scratch.. and perhaps a slight gassing is a serious attack.

Dominic
Yeah I know … just one thing in here … "We are dreadfully busy at the present and things are at bit hard" , he says. But I mean to say you know he might have been trying to cover up even being badly gassed or that to give your gas mask to your sergeant is possibly not the action of being a good officer, because if you put yourself in mortal danger then you can't lead your men and so on.

Rupert
Exactly - its throwing away responsibility and playing with it.

Bettany
So is it likely that a respected officer, Captained 1916, acting Major in 1917, would have risked his life in this way? Dominic and Rupert are going to look up his file at the Public Record Office.

Army recruitment maybe friendly in the market square in Aylesbury, but the truth is we haven't always liked our army. The brutality of Cromwell's forces had quite a lot to do with that. Hostility became so great that in 1689 the Mutiny Act made it illegal for anyone, including the King, to raise an army in peace time without parliamentary consent.

Sir Michael
There was the perception that if the monarch was able to raise and maintain a standing army, this was going to be a threat to the liberties of England, and the kind of parliamentary representative government which was beginning to emerge then. So, there was as very sound reason why the King should be mistrusted and not allowed to raise an army. Given that England was an island, it obviously did have a perfected navy and that's another story, but there was no need for a standing army and the suspicion of a standing army remained absolutely basic to the English mind set.

Bettany
One alternative to a standing army was the militia

Bettany
I'm off to Yorkshire, Wakefield to be precise, to see some recruitment records for the militia. The militia was responsible for defending the country at home. It was only called upon in times of crisis. Joining the militia could be a bit of a lottery. Not quite conscription, but hardly voluntary either.

What would have been the first point of contact with the general public?

John Spencer
The first thing was the militia census form. Now this is effectively an early form of census paper that was delivered to the head of each household for him to list, quite simply, all residents in his house. Typical form filling style, he'd begun to fill in the wrong section first and had to cross it out and go back.

Bettany
And there's a whole entry completely scribbled out here. What would that have been?

John
That was actually the head of the household, John, who actually wrote his own name in under the 'liable to serve' section, despite of the fact that he was 53 and actually exempt from service.

Bettany
So once you know that you are eligible, as most of these names are, then your name will go into a ballot.

John
That's right and we have a surviving set of ballot papers here which quite simply are the names of all the eligible persons written on slips of paper, to be drawn by the parish constable.

Bettany
It's extraordinary that these have survived because they are such flimsy little things.

John
Yes. I presume they were recycled. This ballot was held every few years so I suppose once you've written the names it makes sense to keep them. So once you were chosen by ballot, the time would come when this was delivered to you, if you're an officer, or the summons would go round to the other ranks.

Bettany
"All men enrolled to serve in the local militia" - you had to have evening dress.

John
Officers only. Officers will turn up with their light grey pantaloons and half boots which, at the bottom, tells you exactly where to buy your half boots - from Mr Metcalf's shop, who will sell them to you for the mere price of 13 shillings a pair, obviously a bargain.

Bettany
Fantastic document. However, in war time, armies were reluctantly accepted as a necessity. It would drag men together to fight a campaign and only survivors were discharged at the end. Men joined up as volunteers. That was the system. And it had always been difficult persuading them.

In the 1700s and 1800s it was a familiar sight to see the recruiting officer in the market square, cajoling local youths with promises of drink, adventure and the king's shilling. Haphazard as this was, by the Napoleonic wars, the army had become both more professional and surprisingly more literate. For the first time there were personal and unofficial records of battles, some of which proved extremely useful to a man called William Sidebourne, when he set about constructing a model of Waterloo.

So would the public have got to see depictions of battles like these?

Julian Humphrys
Well they would. This was the sort of thing that people went to go and see in those days, you know its like Star Wars of the time. They'd even make a special journey to come and look at things like this. Actually there should be 150,000 figures, but even Sidebourne couldn't run to that so what he did was he did it on a 1:2 scale. That made the figures twice as big as they should be so they occupy the right amount of space, although obviously they are a bit high.

Bettany
And who was this Sidebourne character?

Julian
Well, he was a soldier himself. He doesn't seem to have seen any active service as such but he came from a military family.

Bettany
And how did he gather the information?

Julian
He got permission from Lord Hill to send a circular letter out to surviving officers, asking a certain number of questions. It's a printed letter - in this case a chap called Murray who had been in the 18th Hussars, living in Wimbledon I think at the time. The key question is: What was the particular formation of (in this case it's the 18th Hussars) at the moment, about 7pm? He says to Sidebourne, considering the smoke, noise, excitement, all absorbing performance of duty, and ever varying instance of battle, those engaged can give by no means a lucid account of what it is.

Bettany
Are there any details on here of actual action that took place?

Julian
Where he can be, he's quite precise about what happened. His answer here: The formation of the 18th Hussars was three squadrons in line (a squadron was a sub unit of the whole regiment). Its left to the road, its right to the 10th Hussars. I think it shows you that there was a lot more space on these battlefields than you would perhaps first suspect. It's quite a lot of marching, marching, to and fro. But it's also evidence of the huge interest that Waterloo provoked at the time, the impact it had on society.

Bettany
Dominic and Rupert arrive at the Public Record Office. Having looked through Vere's personal family records, they want to see his official papers. Of particular interest if his medical file, revealing Vere's problems with a persistent cough, both in France and later in Turkey. The doctor clearly thought that the TB was all due to the war.

Dominic
It says "I consider his present condition attributable to active service", presumably in France, although that possibly could refer to his time in Turkey as well.

Bettany
William Spencer offers his help. He has brought the citation for Vere's military cross.

William
"He showed the greatest courage and response under heavy shell fire. At great personal risk he went out to the assistance of an officer who had been wounded and also a wounded man."

Dominic
It doesn't specifically say that he gave his gas mask to his sergeant.

Bettany
But could the wounded man have been his sergeant. William explains that citations don't always record all the information received.

William
They selected parts of it, what they thought were the most salient parts to put into the public domain. To say this is what this individual officer did and we are giving him a military cross for it.

Dominic
Given that, its possible that he did do it and its just not mentioned.

William
Quite possibly.

Dominic
So its not particularly historical but I think it happened. You just sort of get the impression from what you read of this man that he might have done.

Bettany
Perhaps Vere did do it, or was the loss so great, particularly when Vere had survived the full horror of the war, that his family needed to make him into a tragic hero. He was after all the last of the Bennet Stanfords, the boy who had shown so much promise, now dead at 28.

World War I took the lives of more British soldiers in battle than any war in history. By November 1918, three quarters of a million men, one tenth of the British Expeditionary Force, lay dead. When there weren't enough volunteers, men had to be forced to fight. The National Registration Act of 1916 was a survey of all those eligible to serve, and two million men were subsequently conscripted. It was the end of old style recruitment.

In the future though we probably won't need conscription. With advanced military technology, modern warfare requires small numbers of highly trained professionals, rather than cannon fodder. And with the development of communication technology we know a lot more about war. Faxes can be sent to us from the thick of the fighting.

The truth is there will always be different accounts, differing memories. Wars in the 21st century will provide an embarrassment of riches for historians, and a mass of papers and videos and disks. It's a reminder of Wellington's belief that there never can be an official version of warfare on which everyone agrees.

This is a full transcript from the Breaking The Seal programme on military records

 

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