Whiz-Bangs Krumps and Coalboxes

16th October 1916 Monday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

The week before reporting back on duty for the start of the Battle of the Somme, Douglas Page, after sampling the delights of London had spent the week at home in Edinburgh visiting his family.

Close family friends at the time were the Sturrocks of Leith. John and Annie M.M. Lloyd Sturrock had a proud young son Thomas Gibbs Gordon, known as Gordon. Gordon had a younger sister Elizabeth Mary, known as Elma, who was about five years younger than her brother. Whilst at home Douglas had enjoyed a long motor car joy ride with Mrs Sturrock, young Elma and his Mother. We haven’t as yet learned how they became betrothed, but in just over three years Douglas and Elma were to be married.

Meanwhile, like most young men of the time, Gordon Sturrock had enlisted to defend King and Country as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Scots, 17th Battalion. He was gazetted as a temporary second lieutenant on the 1st July 1915. The 17th Battalion Royal Scots was raised as part of Kitchener’s new army following the setbacks of 1914.

It was a Bantams Battalion, for men that were perfectly able but lacked the minimum height requirements of the regular army, but officers of the Bantam regiments were usually of normal height.

The fledgling airborne service the Royal Flying Corps was busily recruiting men. This would come from two sources, from fresh recruits as they signed on for military service and from within the existing military, with men volunteering to join the new flying service. As the war progressed most recruits into the R.F.C. were recruited directly. Gordon however, was seconded to the R.F.C. from the Royal Scots and as 2nd Lieutenant became an observer officer.

Royal Flying Corps recruiting poster

RFC recruiting poster

In the late afternoon of Monday 16th October 1916, Gordon and his pilot 2nd Lieutenant Charles Moore Kelly prepared their Morane Saulnier BB, serial number A137 for a mission. This was a French built bi-plane with a crew of two and would fly to around 13,000 ft. Many were fitted with a front facing Lewis machine gun and could be used as a fighter as well as reconnaissance aircraft. The observers’ duties would be to navigate and to direct gunfire on the ground by observing the fall of artillery fire and redirecting as needed. They would also be responsible for the photographs that would prove invaluable in providing the information in planning battles etc.

Charles’ and Gordon’s Morane had been delivered at the end of April 1916 and was one of the type fitted with the more powerful Le Rhône 9J 110 hp engine. Many had to make do with a less powerful 80 hp version due to the wartime shortages.

Along with four other aircraft, they were to take part in escorting a reconnaissance mission to fly from Bailleul in what is now the Nord region of French Flanders, across to near the Belgian border, north of Lille, behind the German lines.

The group took off from their base in Bailleul and headed east toward the front line. The leader was to make the reconnaissance and the four other aircraft flying to the side and the rear were the protective escort. Writing in March 1918, 2nd Lieutenant Kelly tells us the story from there:

“On our return journey, I discovered mine was the only machine returning with the leader. I was in my position to the side and somewhat to the rear of the leader when I believe a hostile machine dived in on me from behind and wounded me with his first burst of fire, the same burst I think killed my observer. I could not get the hostile machine off my tail and I was hit again. I was wounded in four places, one or two of the shots shattering my right fibula. The petrol tank was evidently pierced in several places as the petrol was pouring over my legs in a large quantity. In this disabled state I descended and crashed in enemy territory.

A short time before I was attacked, my observer pointed out to me a machine which was between a mile and half a mile to the rear and above me, this machine looked just like one of ours and I thought it was one of our formation trying to catch up, (we were flying Morane bi-planes). I think this must have been the hostile machine that got me by long shooting, with its first burst of fire.”

The plane whilst losing so much fuel and clearly losing power, came down near the village of Linselles. Pilot Charles Kelly was captured alive and made a prisoner of war. Poor Gordon Sturrock it seems was dead from gunshot before the plane crashed. After being taken to hospital, where he was declared dead, he was buried in a communal cemetery in Linselles where he now remains in a plot maintained by the CWGC. A newspaper report of the incident suggests that Sturrock in fact died in hospital. Did he die on the way, was he dead on arrival, or a bit later on? We can’t without further investigation say for sure.

sturrock_newspaper_report

The crashed aircraft A137 at Linselles, surrounded by German officers

The crashed aircraft A137 at Linselles, surrounded by German officers

Le Rhône 9J 110 hp engine as in Sturrocks plane

Le Rhône 9J 110 hp engine as in Sturrock’s plane

T.G.Gordon Sturrock (wearing the kilt) pictured in Scotland with his mother, c.1916.

T.G.Gordon Sturrock (wearing the kilt) pictured in Scotland with his mother, c.1916

The possible flightpath of A137

The possible flightpath of A137

statement_2nd_lieutenant_kelly_pg2Statement of 2nd Lieutenant Kelly

2nd Lieutenant Charles Moore Kelly Medical Report

2nd_lieutenant_charles_moore_kelly_medical_report

2nd_lieutenant_charles_moore_kelly_medical_report2

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

October 1916 (unspecified date)

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

“I spent one day at a nice little place called Wormhoudt.  Capt. Ffoulkes was in charge of the Officers’ Corps Rest Station there, and I went to relieve him for the day. It was a nice run in the ambulance car via Watou, Houtkerque and Herzeele. The Rest Station was in a big chateau with lovely grounds, and I enjoyed my day there very much.

Our Concert Party had rehearsals two or three times a week and turned out to be quite a decent show. We gave humorous concerts at the various casualty clearing stations, and in neighbouring villages to other units. We were always very well received.

The Dominoes Concert Party (130th Field Ambulance) Dr Page marked "x" (bottom right)

The Dominoes Concert Party (130th Field Ambulance) Dr Page marked “x” (bottom right)

Trips into Poperinghe to replenish our mess stores helped to make life more pleasant. Usually we rode in on horse-back, and Elliot was my usual companion. Tea and dinner at the Club – in Skindles, was the usual programme and a visit to the cinema too helped to brighten up our young lives!”

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

30th September 1916 Saturday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

“Saturday Sept 30th was a great day – our Ambulance Sports. I was on the Sports’ Committee, and we had many hectic days beforehand getting everything in order. The field had to be roped off, and marked out for the various races. We had it nicely decorated with Allied flags. Handicapping the entries was another trickish job. The men were very keen, and training went on far into the night for weeks beforehand! The Sports were a great success, and a big crowd from a wide area was present. The tug-of-war contest was most exciting, and the obstacle race provided a laugh for the onlookers.

130th Field Ambulance Winning Tug of War Team

The Winning Team at the Field Ambulance Sports held at Proven, Belgium, September 1916
Lt. Col. J.G.H.Davies D.S.O. on left & R.S.M. Stroud on right.

During the afternoon a Hun aeroplane attacked and set fire to a Belgian captive balloon not far off. The balloon came down in flames. One of the occupants escaped safely via parachute, but the other was burned to death. A dud anti-aircraft shell fell close to the sports’ field, and put the wind up everybody. It was funny to see so many people all ducking and waiting for the shell to explode – which it did not do, of course!

At night our Concert Party gave a very successful show. I appeared in Scottish items and got a fine reception.

Routine work went on all this time in the Ambulance. We generally had from 150 to 200 patients in hospital suffering from all sorts of ailments from slight wounds and septic fingers to pleurisy and influenza. We took it in turns to be orderly officer for the day, which meant that we couldn’t leave the premises, and had to attend to all sick of the unit, and new cases coming into hospital.”

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

22nd September 1916 Friday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

“On Sept 22nd I left Proven for a course of instruction at the Army Gas School at Cassels. I left at 8.30am by motor ambulance, and had to pick up representatives from the 129th and 131st Field Ambulances en route. However, on arriving at 129 Headquarters, Col. Edwardes told me that the trip was cancelled. On the way back to Proven the Huns were shelling Poperinghe with nasty heavy stuff, and we raced through the town in great style with the wind vertical! The town was deserted, and the inhabitants were fleeing out into the country.   It was a pitiful sight to see old women and men struggling along carrying heavy loads – all that they could possibly salve of their belongings. Two Hun aeroplanes overhead were directing the shooting, but some of our battleplanes came on the scene, and soon chased the Huns off.”

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

18th September 1916 Monday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

“On 18th September I had to give evidence at a Field General Court Martial on a “Tommy” who quitted his post in the front line. My evidence only took about 15 minutes but I believe it got the man “off”. The 13th RWF were in the Chateau Trois Tours where the Court sat.”

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

Little Willie Leads to Big Cock-up

The idea of a mobile armoured vehicle capable of carrying a crew and fighting soldiers was dismissed by the Army powers that be as being impracticable.

However, in February 1915 Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, formed a “Landships Committee”. Its purpose was to develop an armoured fighting vehicle to convey mass numbers of troops, with a capability of breaking the deadlock that had emerged on the Western front as both sides “dug in” heralding the stalemate conditions of trench warfare. This effort was to result in a prototype vehicle being produced by the autumn of 1915 which became known as “Little Willie”, produced by William Foster & Company of Lincoln. The term “Little Willie”, possibly being an insult to the Kaiser.

Development was taking place in the utmost secrecy, even the name “Tank” was used to fool the enemy into thinking they were making water carriers to convey fresh water to the front line.

Little Willie

Little Willie

The first prototype led to the production of another grander more powerful machine named “Big Willie” which in turn led to the Mark 1 tank.

During February 1916 Churchill had contacted General Haig to convince him of the worth of these landships. They were to be used as an infantry aid and any instructions were to be given and commanded in conjunction with an infantry unit. Haig though was a cavalry officer and thought like a cavalry officer. Some have said that Haig was slow to take on new technology and relied too heavily on the use of the horse. An unfair assessment in many ways as he had set up a training school in St. Vernant to train officers in the use of rapidly developing weaponry such as new trench mortars. So he was quite susceptible to the use of new equipment.

Forty nine Mark 1 tanks were eventually delivered to France. Untried and untested, they were sent for evaluation and training in preparation for unleashing a terrifying secret weapon upon the Germans.

Haig though, was under increasing political pressure at the lack of a breakthrough during the Battle of the Somme with the enormous humanitarian cost. Losses of approaching 60,000 on the first day alone followed by continuously mounting casualties and the battle now descended into a war of attrition. This present of a brand new weapon was too much of a temptation. He ordered the tanks to be deployed at a new phase of the battle to begin in the middle of September.

The Battle of Flers-Courcelette began on Friday 15th September 1916. The untried tanks were to be a central part of the operation. The great lumbering beasts, a development of an agricultural tractor with a top speed of around 4mph, powered by an engine around twelve times the size of a modern car engine and carrying a crew of eight, rumbled into the front line for the first time.

A short movie explaining the development of the tank can be seen here.

Out of the number of tanks delivered to France only about 32 made it to the assembly points. Out of these 7 failed to start and only 9 were still serviceable at the end.

As battle commenced the initial effect on the Germans was one of shock and terror. Nothing like these gigantic monsters had ever been imagined in the history of warfare, but soon the tanks’ early vulnerability became apparent. Crews had no training of any kind, they were unfamiliar with anything these machines were capable of, or the terrain they were to be introduced to. Developed in England where they were able to easily cope with ploughed fields and open farmland, they were then thrown onto the moonscape of the Western Front and found the challenge too demanding. The crews not only had to withstand the searing heat of the interior but leaking exhaust fumes filled the tank causing choking and poisoning. The enclosed space of these landships, pitching violently and crashing over the rough terrain, caused seasickness in the crews. The machine gun bullets although not penetrating the armour caused white hot metal to fly off the point of impact on the inside which would stick to the skin of the occupants. There was a lot to learn.

See the Mk1 in action here.

Replica First World War tank used in the 2011 film War Horse on display at Horseguards today 15 September 2016

Replica First World War tank used in the 2011 film War Horse on display at Horseguards, London,  today 15 September 2016. It normally resides in Bovington Tank Museum, Dorset

Despite having some initial success, they also failed to cause any great lasting victories and would not be used in earnest again until the Battle of Cambrai in 1917. Nevertheless, Haig was sufficiently impressed with their ability to immediately order a thousand to be delivered a.s.a.p.

Winston Churchill was less than impressed with Haig’s desperate use of the prototypes and wrote angrily. “ My poor Land Battleships have been let off prematurely on a petty scale… This priceless conception containing, if used in its integrity and on a sufficient scale, the certainty of a great and brilliant victory, was revealed to the Germans for the price of a few ruined villages.”

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

13th September 1916 Wednesday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

“Capt Hadly relieved me on 13th Sept 1916, when I returned to the 130th Field Ambulance at Proven where we ran a hospital in tents and the local school. I got a billet in a clean house, and had a real comfortable bed again.”

"A view in Proven, Belgium. Note the dog transport."

“A view in Proven, Belgium. Note the dog transport.”

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

6th September 1916 Wednesday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

We were relieved at 10pm on the 6th September, and went into the Brigade Rest Camp huts in a wood near Trois Tours Chateau – for a period of rest from the trenches.

Here I was kept busy with sick-parades, etc, and also put the whole battalion through a hut filled with tear gas in order to test their new respirators. All went well.

Some of us had a good dinner one night at Skindles in Poperinghe, and I had tea with our Brigadier – Price Davies, VC, DSO, &c – one day. “

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

5th September 1916 Tuesday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

“Capt Stokes visited me on September 5th to ask me to catch a live rat for him! He is investigating Weil’s Disease, or, Epidemic Jaundice, a disease which has been attacking troops on the canal bank, and which is thought to be spread by rats. (Stokes proved this to be correct. I caught one old diseased rat for him. It was full of tuberculosis and also had the germs of Weil’s Disease in it.)”

Back on 16th March 1916, Young Douglas Page described how in a lull in activity he was able to bathe the men’s feet, many suffering from trench foot, in the la Bassee Canal. I mentioned at the time of the possibility of Weil’s disease in the water. Today’s post reveals something remarkable. I had no idea of the significance back in March, having forgotten the detail in today’s posting of what seemed like a typically nonchalant entry in the diary. A fact that might indeed have had more significance to Douglas in later life than it did at the time of his diary entry.

Captain Stokes’ request that Douglas find him a live rat to experiment on was to result in conclusive evidence of Weil’s disease being spread by rats, the germs being present in the internal organs and being dissipated in the rat’s urine finding its way into the canal water.

Stokes had in fact been studying Weil’s disease for some time and was to quote a study by researchers in Japan that had produced a paper on it. The discovery was a key factor in diagnosing the illness that had affected hundreds of troops at the time on the Western Front, particularly those by the Yser Canal in the Ypres area.

rats

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here

4th September 1916 Monday

All material produced or reproduced here and throughout this work is the sole copyright of the author and the family of Doctor D.C.M. Page MC.

“On September 4th, with an officer and three NCOs of the Battalion, I journeyed to the Divisional Gas School for instruction in the use of the new British issue gas helmet – small box respirator. We walked to Vlamertinghe, when we boarded a London  motor bus, which took us to Divisional Headquarters. There we were put through drill with the new helmet, and also into a room full of tear gas, and another room filled with chlorine gas. None of us were affected by the gases, and all seemed to enjoy the experience.”

A B type London bus converted for war use

A B type London bus converted for war use

Find out about our connection with Dr Page and an introduction to his diary here