Great War

Zeebrugge: Per Mare Per Terram

Zeebrugge: Per Mare Per Terram

St George’s Day marks the centenary of a First World War raid that’s largely forgotten, but not by the Royal Marines.

I know there are a lot of things happening in the news on St George’s Day and I know there are a lot of First World War centenaries kicking about right now, but take a moment to remember this forgotten raid on Zeebrugge from 1918.

When the collective consciousness of the First World War centres on the Western Front and Tommies in trenches, this raid stands out as being something different.

This is intended to be a very brief account, but will give you a flavour of what happened that night.

Zeebrugge? Where? Why?

The raid on Zeebrugge was conceived to combat the threat of German submarines on cross-channel traffic. As everything from Britain to the Western Front had to cross the channel, they were a real problem. That submarine threat came from a triangle of canals that centred on Bruges in Belgium, so a plan was hatched to hinder them by blocking the Bruges Canal where it emerged into the sea at Zeebrugge.

The only issue was that, in order to get to the mouth of the canal, the block ships would need to get past the guns on the fortified mole, or harbour wall.

The job of occupying those guns fell to the Royal Marines and sailors from the Royal Naval Division.


The plan was very simple: that the troops would load up on HMS Vindictive, Iris and Daffodil (the latter two being more commonly known as the Mersey ferries), disembark at the outer end of the mole and keep the defenders’ attention long enough that the block ships could be sunk in the mouth of the canal.

Simple plans ever turn out that way. Vindictive “went to Zeebrugge ungainly and odd-looking, and returned a twisted mass of metal and debris.” According to S. M. Holloway.

Vindictive Bridge

Vindictive Bridge

No plan survives contact with the enemy

The plan had been to arrive under cover of darkness and smoke. According to Captain Arthur Chater RMLI: “Star Shell started coming over us and I realised how well we were concealed by our smoke. Then the wind changed, and the smoke suddenly drifted away…A moment later there was a burst of shell fire and shells came whistling round us.”

Sergeant Harry Wright RMLI noted that: “The slaughter was terrible, Col. Elliot and Maj Cordner was both killed with the same shell…while waiting to give the order to ‘Advance’.”

Added to this, the fire coming from the mole destroyed 12 of the 14 gangways or “brows” that were fitted to Vindictive for the Marines to get on the mole.

Private Bill Scorey RMLI remembered that “…our section was the first to land, what was left of us, and we were lucky too, for no sooner were we on top of the wall, than the German machine gunners had the range, and were playing hell with us,”

Sgt Wright’s No. 10 Platoon wasn’t quite so lucky: “Our casualties were so great before landing that out of a platoon of 45 men only 12 landed. No. 9 Platoon, led by Lt Lamplough, had also about the same number.”

Up close and personal

It turned out that Vindictive had come up against the mole about 120 yards from its intended position, which threw many of plans up in the air. In some cases, this only became apparent to the Marines, such as Lt Lamplough, as they landed: “On arrival at the brows I realized for the first time that the ship was berthed in the wrong position and we were…close to my objective.”

Private William Hodgson was part of No. 12 Platoon’s Lewis Gun section and explained what he carried ashore: “Loaded as I was with full equipment, small arms, ammunition, rifle and two panniers, each with four trays of Lewis gun bullets, it was not easy but somehow I scrambled over and dropped off the parapet wall.”

Private James Feeney RMLI was focussed on the task in hand: “in the anxiety to keep balance on the see-saw of the gangway, I forgot about the rain of lead, and really felt comfortable when I put my foot on the concrete.”

Once ashore, the Marines set about causing trouble wherever they could. Pte Feeney threw bombs at defenders of a dump-house in preparation for blowing it up. Pte Scorey and his No. 5 Platoon attempted to board a German Destroyer “but she sent oil fumes at us, and we replied with liquid fire.” Lieutenant Charles Lamplough also attempted to harass a destroyer and “dealt with a few Germans who came down the mole…as if in attempt to interfere with our scaling ladders.”

You will note that none of these things are what they went ashore to accomplish.

Vindictive Foretop

Vindictive Foretop

Home Again, Home Again

By 12:30 am thoughts were beginning to turn to withdrawal. Lt Lamplough was not relishing the return to the Vindicitve: “The whole time we were there German coast defence guns bombarded the Vindictive and Mole and a considerable number of shells burst at the base of the wall alongside the ship, not and encouraging prospect for our retirement.” Private Feeney was of a similar mind: “I felt rotten to hear the rattle of shells striking the funnels [of Vindictive], and could do nothing just then.”

Getting back on the boats as almost as difficult as getting off them, Pte Feeney RMLI: “we retired in twos to the ladders; it was running the gauntlet over that fire-swept zone…The gangways were heaving up and down now, the hail of shell was awful. Then for the first time it occurred to me that I might get hurt if I hung around any longer, so I was getting careful at last.” He described himself “getting nervous and funky from looking at the dead and listening to the dying.”

Pte Scorey’s No. 5 Platoon met more immediate resistance: “One fired point blank with his revolver at one of our lads, but he paid dearly for it, for our Captain [Bamford] crowned him with his loaded stick…we had to climb up the wall by ladders, which was about 15 to 20 feet high so it was no easy job. No sooner were we at the top than a shrapnel shell came and scattered us…I went in the water myself, but managed to get on board by a rope that was flung to me, she pushed off then leaving some men behind. I think I was the last man aboard.”

Worse was to fall to Harry Wright: “we took it for the signal to retire and commenced doing so when …the order was passed to return to our posts. W obeyed the order, and very shortly afterwards had the horrible ordeal of watching our only means of escape move slowly away.” Harry and his mates spent the rest of the war in German prison camps.

Was it worth it?

Pte Feeney summed up the scene as Vindictive sailed away: “one thing was evident- it cost a great deal of blood. I shall never forget the sight of the mess decks; dead and dying lying on the decks and tables where, but a few hours before, they ate, drank and played cards. In the light of day it was a shambles.”

The feeling on the way home seems to be one of failure. Understandably, as the message that the attack was diversionary appears not to have made it down to Lieutenants, according to Cpt Chater: “I discussed the operation with Bamford. We had failed to gain any of our objectives…We felt that our part in the operation had been a complete failure. We had lost many good men…We felt extremely despondent. We did not know then that…the attack on the mole had created the necessary diversion to enable the blockships to enter the canal.”

Edward Bamford RMLI VC

Edward Bamford RMLI VC

It seems that, for all the feelings of failure, that the raid on Zeebrugge had been successful and the returning Marines were greeted as heroes. Captain Bamford and Sergeant Norman Finch were awarded the Victoria Cross for their deeds. Of those whose voices I’ve used here Captain Arthur Chater was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Lieutenant Charles Lamplough to Distinguished Service Cross and Sergeant Harry Wright the Distinguished Service Medal. Harry Wright had to wait until his repatriation at the end of the war for his medal.

Norman Finch RMA VC

Norman Finch RMA VC

Any discussion of the value of an operation in the First World War is open to interpretation, I teach a school session on it. So I am not going to pass judgement, merely to pause for a moment and remember those who went to Zeebrugge a hundred years ago, especially those who did not come home.

I will leave the last word to Private James Feeney RMLI: “There were some deeds done that night that make words seem light and not able to touch on the thought you wish to express.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments
Puttees for everyone!

Puttees for everyone!

I’ve just booked to visit a school in my First World War guise. We’ll be learning to tie puttees together.

Time to get some revision in, I think:

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session reports, 0 comments
Making the traumatic insignificant: the power of the Somme

Making the traumatic insignificant: the power of the Somme

July 1st marks one hundred years since the whistles blew on the offensive that would start the battle that would later become known as the Battle of the Somme.

This campaign has become indelibly etched on the consciousness of the country. The Somme has come to stand for the horrors of trench warfare, for the Sheer awfulness of the Western Front and for the First World War as a whole.

In fact, so large is the shadow of the Somme, you could be forgiven for believing it was the only thing that happened in the entire war.

Sadly, for all the unimaginable scale of the Somme and everything it entailed, this is not the case. Service personnel were in harm’s way and paying the ultimate price long before July 1st 1916 and long after November 18th.

In spite of banging the drum for widening consciousness of the war beyond the Somme, its shadow is just too big not to commemorate.

A single person losing their life is tragic enough, fifty-seven thousand casualties is beyond imagining.

Fifty-seven thousand men killed or injured.

In one day.

And then the campaign went on for four and a half months.

Adding to the clamour

Much has been said on the horror of the Somme. Writers, poets and commentators far more eloquent than I have created a huge canon of judgements, commentaries and moving tributes about the battle and its impact.

I will not muddy the waters.

Instead, as I have done before, I will clear the stage and move aside to let someone else have the spotlight. Allow me to introduce you to William Charles Brown RMLI.

William Charles Brown

William Brown Joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry in November 1914. In April 1915 he was given a sun hat shipped out for Gallipoli.

No words can describe it. The conditions were horrible, lack of water, disease, stench, heat and most horrible of all: the flies and lice!


He was a man who very quickly became used to the discomforts of the field. Then, on the second Sunday in July he was

Up to the line once more trench digging. I was carrying a pick…and I was hit by a shrapnel bullet through my right thumb, it didn’t break or remove it…


He was offered medical leave but chose to remain to look after an old friend who had contracted dysentery. Eventually the wound became infected and he was invalided to Egypt.

At hospital he was offered a medical discharge but thought he had recovered enough and opted instead to return to active service

Probably the biggest regret and mistake of my whole life.


He was instead sent to the Western Front to join the Royal Naval Division.


And we finished up on the Somme.

By Autumn 1916 he was in the Somme as a Vickers machine-gunner in the Royal Naval Division. He seems relatively sanguine about the conditions:

Autumn had set in and we had a lot of rain and the trenches and land had become a quagmire. To make matters worse it had turned bitterly cold. From now on we were invariably soaked to the skin and often up to our waist in mud and water. Its most amazing that anyone could possibly survive such conditions.


This is without the enemy even getting a mention.

His moment came with the Battle of Ancre, at the end of the Somme.

We took up our positions and waited for zero hour at 5.45am. The Res had mined …Jerry’s trenches and these mines were being sprung at zero…Bang on the dot up went the mines and every machine gun along the front opened up, the attack was under way.
From the brow of the hill…was a quagmire and unoccupied….I shared a shell hole with 2 or 3 mates. We had suffered pretty heavily by this time but the attack was going very well all along the line.
When we got the order to advance I heaved my gun up on to my shoulder and climbed out of the shell hole pulling myself up with my right hand. As I put my hand on the rim to get to the top I had a bullet through it. I stopped and looked at it; then had a good mutter as it didn’t look like enough to go back with yet it would be damned inconvenient to carry on with.


This seems bad enough but then he had a proper look at it:

The bullet had gone through my knuckles in front of my little finger and it appeared to have split my thumb.


Bear that in mind when he decided to carry on rather than getting it seen to. However pretty soon it seemed he had underestimated it.

…so I had another look at my hand. The two middle fingers were hanging down there was a gaping hole through the palm. I could have poke four fingers through, and instead of the thumb being split it was gone. And when I lifted it up for a better view the two fingers hung down the back of my wrist and a slab of meat flopped down the front of my wrist from where my thumb had been.


Ouch. So he carried out a little first aid on the wound.

I lifted the fingers back up and over into the palm, and slipped my fingers under the slab back over the stump and held it in place.


It was all up for him so he handed off his gun to a member of the Honourable Artillery Company called Beresford and set off for the field station. Just then a shell exploded right behind him.

When the smoke cleared both Beresford and the gun had vanished.


He then began a long and fruitless quest for a dressing station. When he eventually found one..

I poked my head round the entrance, saw a table and a form so I sat on the form and promptly passed out.


William Brown’s involvement in the offensive had lasted about two and a half hours.

The tale of his treatment and recovery is one for another day, but he lived until March 1971.

The numbers game

I know this is a graphic account but there is a reason. William Brown sustained a relatively minor injury. This graphic tale was repeated nearly half a million times over the course of the Somme. Half a million tales, all as bloody as this one. Half a million men, each of whom had to experience the kind of injury and pain that, thankfully, few of us have to face now.

When I think about the Somme, it’s not the numbers that get me. It’s the fact that even a single one is too tragic to bear. It’s too tragic and yet, in the scheme of the war, insignificant.

That’s the power of the Somme: to make something as traumatic as this insignificant.


Posted by Past Participants Andy in Thoughts, 0 comments

The power of human stories

I shared this short clip on Facebook the other day because it was important. It’s important because it’s a human story that needs to be told.

Francine Christope-One amazing ladyWOW!!!!!!!! Seriously, stop what you are doing right now and watch this video. It’s not often that I post really serious stuff, but this woman is just amazing. Watch and share this, I promise you – totally worth it 🙂 ~ QC

Posted by I Do Not Need Anger Management, You Just Need to Shut Up on Saturday, 24 October 2015

I’m not going to blow the story by telling you what it’s all about: just spend a couple of minutes watching it. It comes from a film called Human. It is the story of a Nazi holocaust survivor. It’s a story that is well known and well-trodden. Then it changes and becomes human.

It’s also important because it chimes with what I’ve been trying to do with the history sessions at Past participants. I am talking about the power of the story of the individual. A story that has the potential to illuminate world-changing events, making them real, on a human scale, intelligible. These stories are often lost in the sheer scale of these cataclysms.

The First World War is just such an event. It’s too huge to truly comprehend, even for someone like me whose job is to understand and elucidate it. There are simply too many people, in too many places, having too many awful things happen to them to get your head round. This is why we have ended up with what I’ve called the “Tommyfication” of the conflict. The reduction of the entire war to the story of Tommies in muddy trenches on the Western Front, told through the lens of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen (or even Blackadder). There is nothing wrong with this picture in itself. It’s when we extrapolate this simple picture to the entire war that we run into problems. Think about it for a moment: at the battle of Passchendaele (or third Battle of Ypres) alone there were 50 British and 6 French Divisions. That’s just over a million men on the allied side, of whom between 200,00 and 400,000 ended up as casualties. Think about that for a moment. To presume that their experiences were broadly similar doesn’t really make a lot of sense, even if you assume that they were all riflemen and ignore all the engineers, artillerists, messengers, signallers, medical staff and other assorted specialisations. The reason for it is simple enough: it’s easier to get your head round it if you’re dealing with multiples of similar stories, ie numbers.

Sgt Will Meatyard

Sgt Will Meatyard

When I set up Past Participants I wanted to approach the story from a different angle. I wanted children to encounter individuals, real people and their real stories. Sometimes those stories align with the recognised narrative and sometimes they run counter to it, but that’s because they were real people. I wanted children to encounter these individuals unencumbered by the numbers and statistics. I wanted them to feel that they had a handle on who these people were and what they were doing on the battlefield. I wanted these people to have a name and a face to go with their story. These stories are often more interesting in their wrinkles than the “barbed wire and machine guns” narrative. This is why I’ve had year 6 children ask, 2 years after they last saw me, “are we going to find out about Andrew Turnbull again?”. That is the impact of the individual when the class feels a sense of ownership.

Pte Andrew Turnbull RM

Pte Andrew Turnbull RM

I’ve found that, once they know how much detail there is in two stories, then suddenly children see that 200,00 stories is no longer a number, it’s a sense of scale. They realise that we could zoom in on any of these individuals and find something the same and yet different. This is the jaw-drop moment, the light bulb moment when suddenly the size of what we’re talking about makes sense. Seeing that moment makes it all worthwhile. It’s why I keep doing this.

This premise is the basis for my First World War history sessions. I deconstruct the “Saving Private Ryan” narrative in the same way when I do my D Day sessions, using the actual memories of those who were there to similar effect. Have a look at them.


Posted by Past Participants Andy in Session design, Thoughts, Uncategorised, 0 comments
“Serge cloth is an amazing material”

“Serge cloth is an amazing material”

I never used to get tired of this spiel when working at the museum.

Day in, day out I’d tell children how amazing serge cloth is. It’s all coming back to haunt me now as I sit here typing wearing a uniform made of serge cloth.

To begin at the beginning, serge is a kind of woollen twill cloth commonly used in military uniforms until cotton took over in the latter part of the 20th century. In particular British uniforms of the two world wars were made of serge, but you don’t see it much any more. Which is why I talk about it a lot in classes: it’s a real tactile representation of how different things are now. I believe it’s also a really great way to engage with the difficulties of life as a soldier.

I say serge is amazing with more than a hint of sarcasm but there is a lot to recommend it. It’s hard-wearing and robust: the uniform I use for myself in D Day school sessions is over seventy years old and going strong. It’s remarkably insulating being made of wool. It also looks the business. In fact, it’s the perfect natural material for making military uniforms out of.

It is, however, not without its drawbacks.

Anecdotally, it will absorb several times its own weight in water. So I’m not keen to be standing in the rain for too long wearing it as I know how long it’ll take to dry out. I have absolutely no desire to be taking part in an amphibious landing wearing it. Oh, and it gets really cold when it’s wet too. Double the fun.

The real clincher is that it’s itchy. It’s off the scale tickly next to the skin. Imagine the most tickly of woollen jumpers and you’re in the right ballpark. That’s annoying when you have to put it on in a classroom for five minutes or so, but imagine what it’s like at the end of a long day.

One thing I learned very quickly about living in serge is that your choice of base layer is crucial. Get it right and all the positives of serge come to the fore. Get it wrong and you’re heading for a world of misery. Just look at my face in the main picture: how convinced do I look?

Serge trousers
The old days, with a cotton t shirt underneath. The fireman look?

Which is why, right now, I am putting careful thought into sourcing exactly the right new woollen undershirts for my uniforms. It’s vital for my future comfort that I get this right.

In the Great War that undershirt would be blue/grey flannel, which can be quite nice. In the Second World War it’s a woollen undershirt, so under my D Day woollen uniform I’ll have a woollen shirt. There’s no wonder Tommies looked at the American T shirt with envy. I know I would. It also explains why I used to wear a cotton T shirt under my uniform.

So, when you see me in my uniform in school, spare a thought for how amazing serge cloth is and remember why we don’t use it in the field any more.

Posted by Past Participants Andy in Thoughts, Uniforms, 0 comments