Exclusive Interview: Blood in the Forest author Vincent Hunt

Which period of history and specific events does your book Blood in the Forest. The End of the Second World War in the Courland Pocket cover?

The Courland Pocket covered six battles between October 1944 and May 1945 in western Latvia, but my journey through its battlefields explains its context. The Pocket was a bloody endgame to the struggle between Fascism and Communism on Latvian soil in which both sides occupied the country and brutalized its population.

What motivated you to write about your chosen subject?

As a journalist interested in history, I felt there was a lack of a personal human account of that time, which reflected the twists and turns and agonizing episodes of Latvian history. My wife is Latvian and I found that through friends and family, I had access to stories I wasn’t hearing anywhere else. Once I began actively researching the Courland Pocket I discovered that virtually the whole nation had been affected by that period.

What research did you have to undertake, what sources did you utilise and over what time-frame?

It took me about two-and-a-half years and several trips across the region. I interviewed historians and archivists in all the towns and cities caught up in the Courland Pocket conflict and read and researched many books about the military movements – all the while looking for survivors who had been there. I found them through word of mouth and with the help of museum directors and history enthusiasts in the country towns and villages. It is a sensitive topic and memories are still very raw. Many families had parents or grandparents deported and most people I spoke to had family members who fought on one side or another.

The author travelled to Latvia several times to meet veterans from the Latvian Legion who fought in the Courland Pocket. Here he interviews two former soldiers and a former partisan living in the town of Kuldiga

Of all the military engagements in history, what is it about this particular one that excited your interest?

What happened in the Courland Pocket was on the same level and at the same intensity as what happened on the Western Front. The military onslaught and scale of force used is absolutely mind-blowing, yet there are very few books about this time.  The casualty figures for the Red Army are breathtaking – and heart-breaking. So many died for so little gain. Perhaps because Latvia was occupied by the Soviets for 50 years, the Courland Pocket itself has had little detailed research conducted into it on the ground. There are accounts of the military movements but all too often the overview is of ‘the Baltics’, whereas this is specifically a Latvian story, told by Latvians. There are still shell casings on the ground in some areas.

What is the biggest misconception your book challenges?

The biggest misconception about the Courland Pocket is that it didn’t matter. It very much mattered. An independent country was abandoned by Western politicians who didn’t want to stand up to Stalin.

What do you think will surprise people in Blood in the Forest?

That ‘Crocodile Dundee’ was actually one of three brothers who fought in these battles, from a village called Dundaga. He survived the war and escaped to Germany. Then he went to Australia where he started a new life hunting crocodiles. When that was banned, he opened a shop in an opal mine and turned it into a tourist attraction. His two brothers weren’t so lucky. One was killed and the other ended up in Siberia.

What will the casually interested reader take from it and what is there to excite academics?

For the casual reader, this is a travelogue through a country they may have never thought of visiting. It’s a journey in chronological order through beautiful countryside and charming villages that hide secrets from 70 years ago. The carnage that happened here was unbelievable, but the passing traveller would never know. There is much here for those interested in the final months of the war and for those interested in the heroes and specific engagements of this slight hiccup in the Red Army’s assault on Berlin.

For academics, there is much that is new here including accounts from survivors from these battles that have never been told before in English; archive material that was translated from Latvian into English for this book; and research into the stories of the dead in the Soviet cemeteries. There is an account of the Popervale Jewish concentration camp in Courland by Holocaust survivor Margers Vestermanis that has never been told before in English; also the story of his escape and survival in the forests as a partisan, which is new too.

What are your plans for the launch of your book?

I am planning to have a book launch in Latvia and to celebrate the men and women who told their stories for this book, as some will now be quite elderly. These are their stories. I would be happy to talk about my book and my research in the UK and elsewhere.

Tell us about previous books and papers you have written, or lectures you have given.

My first book Fire and Ice was a journalistic travelogue/eye witness account of the scorched earth destruction of Arctic Norway by the Nazis as they retreated from the Red Army in October 1944. I spoke at several literary festivals in the UK and to Norwegian and history groups, and also did a series of author talks along the East coast of the USA.

What are your longer-term plans going forward? Do you have another book in the pipeline or any other research projects?

Once the post-war partisan resistance was smashed by the Soviet regime, this period in Latvian history was followed by 50 years of occupation and the surveillance of the population by the KGB. I’m currently researching the significant role the KGB and its predecessors played in Latvian society and history.

Tell us about your academic background (where you studied and any qualifications gained).

I have been a journalist for many years and had a 25-year career with BBC Radio, making many award-winning programmes. I apply my journalistic story-telling, interviewing and research techniques to my writing – seeking to explain events but also to describe the process of story-telling, to bring the landscapes and the process of discovery to life for readers.

Blood in the Forest. The End of the Second World War in the Courland Pocket is available to pre-order here.

Posted in Author interviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Amid tales of Courland slaughter, one who survived – Crocodile Dundee

By Vincent Hunt

Blood in the Forest is the story of the Courland Pocket – a series of apocalyptic battles between the Red Army and German and Latvian forces in the final stages of the Second World War.

The author crosses modern Courland – western Latvia – gathering eye-witness accounts of each of the six battles. Many of these stories have never been told before in English. Holocaust survivor Margers Vestermanis describes life and death in the rarely-known Popervale Jewish concentration camp and machine gunners who won Iron Crosses describe the slaughter they witnessed.

An elderly historian produces handwritten papers detailing atrocities committed against civilians and a young girl who fled Riga clinging to the last truck out of the city describes how she later returned as President.

The German and Latvian forces retreating from the Eastern Front were cut off in Courland in September 1944; the Pocket proper began with the first battle in October. Red Army artillery, aircraft and tanks pounded the defences as Nazi troops fought to keep escape routes open through the Baltic port of Liepāja.

The Latvians in Courland were fighting for the survival of their nation, and to prevent the Red Army returning after the deportations and deaths of the Soviet occupation in 1940-41, which they called ‘The Terrible Year’. But there were Latvians in the Red Army too; some willingly, others pressed into service as the Soviets freed the east of the country.

The fighting was savage. Red Army soldiers ordered to attack by pistol-brandishing NKVD officers were mown down by machine guns until the piles of dead lay so deep the gunners had to find new positions. In the Christmas Battles of 1944 Latvians were in the frontlines on either side. Sometimes brother fought brother: the episode has scarred the nation ever since.

This is a journalistic travelogue through an area and a history the casual reader may have never thought of visiting, which sheds new light on one of the final frontiers of the Second World War.

In the forests the author visits a ghost village bombed into oblivion and its inhabitants deported to Siberia. The graveyard was used for target practice by Soviet pilots for decades after the war. Now villagers have erected a sign at its entrance which reads: ‘Sorry we could not protect you.’

The place where this hellish struggle, and the Second World War came to an end is marked by a slate plaque (pictured above) at a ruined church in the middle of nowhere.

It reads:

‘In this place in May 1945 the victorious Soviet Army accepted the capitulation of the defeated Fascist troops’.

Below that is a quote from Latvian poet Eizhen Veveris:

‘Only the memory of victory remains. Too much blood was shed for it.’

There were few celebrations on the Latvian side when the war ended. It was just the beginning of another period of suffering. Those who couldn’t escape were either deported to Siberia or had an alien peace imposed upon them. They weren’t free to grieve: enormous statues to their liberators were erected (sometimes over monuments to their own dead).

One of those who did escape (first to Germany, then to Australia) was the real-life Crocodile Dundee – former Legionnaire Arvīds Blūmentāls from the Courland village of Dundaga. A statue commemorates him today – a symbol of the diaspora, disruption and distress caused by the war.

Even 70 years later, the war is not over for some. The brave officers of the Latvian Army bomb squad are still clearing up the munitions. Teams of volunteer ‘diggers’ track down and recover the fallen from their battlefield graves and the descendants of those who died there are still trying to find answers to their questions.

Blood in the Forest is a journey in chronological battle order through beautiful countryside and charming villages that hide secrets from 70 years ago in a nation still not completely at ease with its own history. The carnage that happened here was unbelievable, but the passing traveller would never know.

Blood in the Forest. The End of the Second World War in the Courland Pocket is available to pre-order here.

Posted in Books, Publishing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

War in the Age of Victoria, 19th Century South African Campaigns: Remember Majuba!

By John Laband

The victory of Boer irregulars over regular British troops at Majuba Hill in South Africa on 27 February 1881 had repercussions far greater than the scale of the battle itself.

Majuba did more than validate Boer mobile mounted infantry tactics. It became the potent and enduring symbol of Afrikaner resistance against British imperialism in South Africa – giving them the ‘David and Goliath’ courage to take on the British Empire again in the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.

For the British, the ignominious rout of British troops at Majuba and the death of their commander, Major General Sir George Pomeroy-Colley, was the conclusive debacle in the uniformly disastrous Transvaal campaign of 1880-1881, fought against the Boers who were rebelling against the British annexation of their republic in 1877. The British government consequently restored the Boers their independence and – for the time being – gave up their plans for wider control over South Africa.

General Colley on Majuba attempting to rally his men moments before he was shot. Melton Prior’s pencil sketch was based on eye-witness accounts. [Collection of Ian Knight].

Yet Majuba and the Transvaal Campaign were not entirely negative for the late Victorian British army. They gave it its first staggering experience of modern warfare and signalled the need for it to reassess its training and tactics. It was also a defeat to be avenged. At the Battle of Elandslaagte on 21 October 1899 (the opening engagement of the Anglo-Boer War) Ian Hamilton, a survivor of Colley’s disaster, urged on his men with the cry: “Remember Majuba!”

The Battle of Majuba was thus undeniably of considerable significance, but I had not always grasped that. As a child, when we drove on holiday from Johannesburg to the seaside at Durban, the old road then passed below the hulking bulk of Majuba, on what had been in 1881 the border between the Transvaal and Natal. My parents vaguely told me of a battle once fought there, but the tale made little impression. Later in the 1970s, when I was undertaking considerable field work for the first of my series of books on aspects of the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, I often passed by Majuba but I took little notice of it since it was associated with the ‘wrong’ war. In time, though, I came to appreciate how closely the Transvaal Rebellion was tied into a series of wars the British waged in southern Africa between 1877 and 1879, in order to bring about the confederation of the subcontinent under the Crown. I recently wrote about that in Zulu Warriors: The Battle for the South African Frontier (Yale University Press, 2014).

Moreover, my interest in Majuba was earlier piqued when in 1996 the post-apartheid government appointed me the Chairperson of the Voortrekker Museum in Pietermaritzburg which, until 2000, administered the Majuba battlefield. My responsibilities entailed visits to the site and a growing familiarity with its environs. In more recent years I have been conscious that – despite its significance – the battle of Majuba is being written out of the national narrative of the ‘new’ South Africa and that there is now a real need to ‘remember Majuba’.

I was extremely pleased, therefore, when I was invited to contribute a book on the Battle of Majuba to Helion’s new Warfare in the Age of Victoria series under the editorship of Christopher Brice. Not only does this give me the opportunity to explain why Majuba should not be forgotten, but it also allows me to explore further my interest in the disparate records of British commanders in South Africa at that time.

Some, like Sir Garnet Wolseley, were successful in 1879 during the latter stages of the Anglo-Zulu War and the Second Anglo-Pedi War. Others, like Sir Arthur Cunynghame in the Ninth Cape Frontier War of 1877–1878, were mediocre at best. Lord Chelmsford’s forces suffered some catastrophic defeats in the Anglo-Zulu War – only partially redeemed by his later victories. During the Transvaal Rebellion, Sir George Colley led his unfortunate troops to three successive defeats and ultimately paid for these fiascos with his life.

Basing my investigation on both British and Boer contemporary sources, such as newspapers, articles and books; on original sources in various archives in South Africa and in Britain; and on the handful of later histories of the war in both English and Afrikaans, I see it as my main challenge to explain why Colley so singularly failed in his command.

I argue that it was partly on account of the military culture in which he operated. I have addressed the contrasting military organizations and cultures of the two sides so as to clarify how a Boer citizen militia with no formal training, but that handled modern small arms with lethal effect and expertly employed fire and movement tactics, had the advantage over professional – but hidebound – British soldiers.

But there is more to it than that. I have also had to take into account the closely interlocked operational and political contexts of the Transvaal campaign. Thus a British field commander such as Colley – already mired in the period’s poisonously factional politics of military command – also found his conduct of military operations subject to the close supervision and the interference of his superiors in London at the other end of the telegraph wire. His strategic objective was to break through the Boer positions holding the passes between Natal and the Transvaal and to relieve the scattered British garrisons blockaded by the Boers. However, when he failed to do so, his alarmed government instructed him to cease operations and open peace negotiations with the Boers.

To explain what happened next, I had to try and understand Colley himself. A highly talented staff officer holding his first independent command, he was determined to retrieve his tattered military reputation with a dramatic stroke. He side-stepped his orders and – in an attempt to outflank the Boer positions and open the way to the Transvaal – seized the summit Majuba with disastrous consequences, both for him and his troops, and for the British cause in the Transvaal.

The Battle of Majuba Hill. The Transvaal Campaign, 1880-81 (part of the Warfare in the Age of Victoria series) is available to pre-order here.

Posted in Books, War in the Age of Victoria | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Great War: The Battle of Arras – the Overlooked Campaign

By Jim Smithson

Having spent many years visiting the Great War battlefields and being fascinated by the subject, I was always puzzled by the apparent lack of material on the Battle of Arras in April and May 1917.  Whilst still working in Germany with British Forces’ schools, I began some research into the battles (the campaign is split into several separate smaller elements) around that city. When the opportunity arose to take early retirement from my post as Deputy Headteacher, I decided the time was ripe for an additional work on the subject and ‘A Taste of Success’ was born.

It soon became apparent that as well as a dearth of material on the subject, much of the early work on the period had faults and had perpetuated myths that carried down into the present century. I also began to perceive a reason for the battles being less studied than those it was sandwiched between – namely The Somme and 3rd Ypres (Passchendaele). The general line of argument was that after a highly successful first day (including the longest advance in a single day of any unit since trench warfare had begun), mud and bad weather stopped the attack and it turned into the typical slog seen in 1916. Thus, it was not perceived as a particularly ‘interesting’ campaign to those that mattered at the time and this view has persisted.

Battle of the Scarpe. British cavalry resting alongside the Arras-Cambrai road, April 1917. [Imperial War Museum]

My research within primary material from British, Canadian and German sources gave me a detailed look at the first six days of the Battle of Arras (the period I wished to concentrate upon). Comprehensive planning for the first day (9th April 1917) led to many successes; the best known being the almost complete taking of Vimy Ridge by mainly Canadian forces on the first day.

Elsewhere, one British division, the 4th, successfully passed through another, the 9th, in a hitherto unknown manoeuvre – leading to that famous longest advance. That said, things began to go wrong even on that first day and the 10th of April was a fiasco; much of which was put down to not being able to get artillery and supplies forward. On closer examination, I found that this view arose because of reports that had filtered down from higher level commanders both at the time and in post war analyses, which in many ways hid the truth of what had happened. Poor weather certainly played its part but so did the ineptitude of some senior leaders and their staff in their handling of events after the first day.

I have attempted to give the book a dual role. On the one hand, it gives a background to the Battle of Arras from early French battles around the city, the political context, lessons that had been learned from the battles on the Somme and the planning and narrative of the first part of the battle itself. On the other hand, by careful and critical analysis of some of the command decisions, it tries to show that serious errors of judgement were made. Many of these errors were either not recognised at the time or simply hidden in reports of difficulties due to not being able to get artillery forward or similar logistical problems.

The Official History volume dedicated mainly to the Battle of Arras even goes as far as to put the blame on the troops and junior leaders in their inability to cope when speedy decisions were required. I feel I have thoroughly discredited this analysis in my book – demonstrating instead that those men performed admirably when given the conditions to do so. This is not a ‘lions led by donkeys’ approach, however. Problems in command are discussed in the context of the phenomenal growth of the British Army and consequently, the problems of finding suitable commanders and staff officers in the required numbers.

I hope that the publication of ‘A Taste of Success’ will lead to more interest in this pivotal battle in the development of the British Army of the Great War. Work has already begun on a comprehensive guide to the battles around Arras throughout the whole war to be published in 2018 – adding to the meagre offerings available at present for the battlefield visitor to the area.

A Taste of Success. The First Battle of the Scarpe, April 1914-17 can be pre-ordered here.

Posted in Books, Publishing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

English Civil War: Researching ‘Cromwell’s Buffoon’, Regicide Thomas Pride

By Robert Hodkinson

Detail of a facsimile of Charles I’s death warrant, showing Pride’s signature and seal. [State Library Victoria]

Colonel Thomas Pride is a paradox among prominent English Civil War figures. As the driving force behind ‘Pride’s Purge’, he was responsible for the forcible exclusion of moderate MPs from parliament in December 1648, which led directly to the trial and execution of King Charles I (whose death warrant Colonel Pride signed).


It was a pivotal moment in British history; because of it Pride’s name appears in nearly all general histories of the Civil War. Yet despite his presence at this and other key events of the period – and here comes the paradox – very little is known of this man’s personal history. It was that lack of factual information about one of Charles I’s most forceful Regicides that Cromwell’s Buffoon set out to remedy.

Pride caricatured as an illiterate labourer, from a pack of Restoration playing cards. [Guildhall Library]

Where or how to begin researching a relatively unknown historical figure was problematic. Many modern historians take their cue from the brief biographies that littered the latter seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, wherein Pride is ridiculed as “an ignorant, illiterate fellow” and derided for being Cromwell’s obedient dogsbody: “a useful man to Cromwell in all his projects . . .a buffoon to him”.

The opinion of Regicides was never favourable in the years following the Restoration (it is a truism that history is written by the victors). Yet even the most cursory view of Civil War military history reveals that Colonel Pride was at the forefront of many actions – the only Parliamentarian officer to command a foot regiment at both Naseby and Dunbar. Using references in Ian Gentles’ entry for Pride in the Dictionary of National Biography, I pieced together scraps of information about Pride, which slowly evolved into a life story.

Detail of a plan of the Battle of Naseby, showing Pride’s command [National Army Museum]

Fifteen years ago, reconstructing the biography of a man in this way – almost from scratch – would have been a great deal more difficult. Many of the sources used to research Cromwell’s Buffoon are now readily accessible online or can be located through online databases. Digitised parish registers, searchable through Ancestry.co.uk, were invaluable in retracing Pride’s family tree, which allowed me to unravel its numerous strands and confirm the dynastic links between Pride’s family and those of other dominant figures of the period: by marrying his children to the nieces and nephews of Oliver Cromwell and General Monck, Pride was able to consolidate his place in the Protectorate establishment.

PhD theses were also a resource that would not have been so easily available a few years ago. Digitised and published online by various universities, their areas of study ranged from the London Militia (in which Pride served his military apprenticeship) to the rising influence of religious nonconformity and the examination of Royalist and Restoration satires that did much to defame Pride’s character following his death. Access to such varied and closely-examined subjects provided a closer perspective on many aspects of Pride’s life than had been possible before.

Engraving of Westminster, after Wenceslaus Hollar, showing St. James’s Palace where Pride’s regiment was quartered during 1649/50. [Government Art Collection]

Online resources – such as those available through the University of London’s British History Online website – allow a much more thorough study of historical documents than a few hours in a reading room would have once permitted. These sources provided details of Pride’s political role in the late 1640s and 50s, and helped uncover details missing from previous accounts of Pride’s career: his role in choreographing Cromwell’s inauguration as Protector, for example, or that St. James’ palace was converted into a barracks for his regiment – not long after they had helped bring about Charles I’s execution.

The wealth of primary sources held at the National Archives provided a good deal of research material, without which Colonel Pride’s personal history would have been far less complete. Details of his military career, as well as information on many of those who fought alongside him, can be traced through Army pay records in the Exchequer Papers. Records of Court of Chancery Papers provide a narrative of a family’s decline after the death of Pride and the fall of the Protectorate.

The scarcity of facts about Colonel Pride’s life (the church registers that recorded his baptism are lost and there is no record of his burial place) necessitated reconstructing his life from disparate sources. The process of extracting the colonel’s life story from the historical record inadvertently helped shed light on other aspects on mid-seventeenth century warfare. A closer inspection of his regiment’s role in conflicts of the mid-1650s, for example, has shown that the men under his command were engaged in the Glencairn uprising in Scotland (itself a little-known campaign) while at the same time manning warships in the First Dutch War – effectively fighting on two fronts some 600 miles apart. Knowing of Pride’s role as a hospital governor during the Dutch War prompted research into the Savoy Hospital in London, where I discovered references of post-traumatic stress among the soldiers who were being treated there.

Researching Cromwell’s Buffoon demanded a breadth of sources and has revealed Colonel Pride to be a more nuanced figure than hitherto thought. His youth as an apprentice among the London puritans and, later, his consolidation of power in the Protectorate, convinced me that here was a historical figure that was able to draw together different strands of Civil War history. Cromwell’s Buffoon is a political and social history as well as a military biography.

The research process was exciting and a pleasure to undertake and it is a joy to be able to bring to a modern reader the story of a man and soldier whose life had – to a great extent –  largely disappeared from history.

Cromwell’s Buffoon. The Life and Career of the Regicide Thomas Pride (part of the Century of the Soldier series) is available to purchase here.

Posted in Books, Century of the Soldier | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The War in the North Sea. The Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy 1914-1918

By Quintin Barry

This book (as its title suggests) is a history of the crucially important naval campaign in the North Sea during the First World War.

The most well-known event there during the war was of course the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Known in Germany as the Battle of the Skagerrak, it was by far the largest engagement between surface vessels in the history of naval warfare. It is a subject about which I have always wanted to write. I was deterred from doing so by the huge volume of books on the topic (in 1992 American historian Professor Eugene Rasor listed 527 works dealing with the battle. There have been many more published since). Instead, I planned a book about the period that followed… When I came to write it, however, I found that I could not avoid dealing with Jutland, so I broadened the book to cover the whole of the war.

The British Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet fought the Battle of Jutland under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe

I have looked at the war in the North Sea from the point of view of the decision-makers on both sides – the admirals and the politicians responsible for the conduct of the naval war. The most striking feature about the relationship between these key groups is their mutual dislike and distrust; again, this is true of both sides, as became apparent from an extensive study of both the contemporary documents and the later memoirs of the individuals concerned.

Before the war, British and German naval officers had each expected that there would be a major and conclusive battle early on between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet. When it finally came, it did not produce the decisive result that had been anticipated.

Reinhard Scheer, Leader of the German Fleet at the Battle of Jutland

Ever since the battle, the reasons for this have been minutely examined; the controversies – not only over who won the battle but also with regard to the actions and decisions of the participants – have continued to rage. In particular, the performance of the commanding admirals, Jellicoe and Scheer, and their immediate subordinates, has come under intensive scrutiny. My own view is that it certainly cannot be regarded as a British victory, though in this respect I am at odds with many British historians.

When the book was launched at an event in Shoreham in November 2016, I had an opportunity to talk about it to many of the audience personally. I was struck by the number who came to tell me of members of their families who had fought at the battle of Jutland and for whom it remained an important event.

This was my first book of naval history; my previous books have been largely concerned with nineteenth century military history. For my next book, however, due to be published in the Spring, I have returned to the war at sea – this time during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of 1793-1815. Called Far Distant Ships, it is a study of the Royal Navy’s blockade of Brest throughout the war and has been based on a close study of the contemporary correspondence relating to the conduct of the war.

The War in the North Sea. The Royal Navy and the Imperial German Navy 1914-1918 can be purchased here.


Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The fighting clergyman who won the Victoria Cross

The author of The Christian Soldier introduces his new biography:

During my Great War research into the local Territorial Battalion, the 6th Sherwood Foresters (fondly known as ‘the Wild Men of the Peak’), I was taken aback to learn that their commanding officer in the later part of the conflict was an ordained clergyman of the Church of England. Not only that, but this holder of the Military Cross and Bar had gone on to win the Victoria Cross at the Battle of Bellenglise on 29 September 1918. In the extraordinary victory, the 46th North Midland Division stormed across the St Quentin Canal and breached the Hindenburg Line – capturing 40 guns and 4,000 prisoners. It was perhaps the greatest success of any Territorial formation in the war.

Who was this remarkable parson who decided to take up arms?  His name was The Rev Bernard William Vann. There were a few details about him readily available, much of which subsequently turned out to be untrue (e.g. he never played football for Southampton, he was never awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and he had never been a school headmaster). A misinterpretation of the medical term ‘neuritis’ once led to a writer to declare that he had experienced a nervous breakdown.  Everything had to be checked.  Even his Victoria Cross citation was wrong!

The more I dug the more I found. His grandson, Michael Vann, and other members of the family were enthusiastic about the project and gave me access to the limited information they held.

The details of Bernard’s life as schoolmaster, county hockey player, a Cambridge blue, undergraduate, school chaplain and inspired infantry officer are chronicled in The Christian Soldier. Bernard had strong links with his family and with his fellow undergraduates and officers in the Sherwood Foresters. I thought it was important to include these details in the book to give a deeper understanding and appreciation of his life and achievements.

It was abundantly clear that it was not a case of swapping the Bible for the sword. As a fighting soldier, he continued to attend to his clerical duties when he could – standing in for the chaplain at church parades, administering Holy Communion and reading the burial service on occasions in no man’s land when bodies could not be recovered.

Bernard Vann (front row centre) with the officers of 6th Sherwood Foresters at Fouquières Chateau in November 1917.

As I chased potential sources of information about Bernard around the country, I decided to look for details of other clergymen of all denominations who served in the war in the British and Imperial armies other than as chaplains. Many ministers volunteered for service in the non-combatant ranks of the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) where they often performed the most menial of tasks.

In the case of Anglicans, I have traced more than 300 to-date who served as combatants – mostly in the infantry and artillery, but they were also present in other units such as the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), the Cavalry and the Engineers. At least 43 died in the conflict; 66 – through individual merit – reached the rank of Captain or above. Apart from Bernard, I found two other Church of England priests who commanded infantry battalions on the Western Front. In the concluding chapter, I have sought to give an overview of this little-known part of the Anglican clergy’s contribution to the war effort. It is an ongoing and painstaking exercise.  So much to research, so little time!

The Cambridge University Hockey Team 1910. Bernard is second from the right on the back row.

Apart from by his family and the dwindling numbers of Sherwood Foresters who had known him, Bernard’s Vann’s memory and achievements were largely forgotten after the initial round of memorial events, until he was rediscovered by local historians as interest in the First World War gathered pace in the 1970s. In 2006, the Rushden Historical Society erected a blue plaque on the house where he was born. Eight years later, Derby County commissioned a wall memorial to honour him and the other club players who fell during the war. The Cambridge University Hockey Alumni Club renamed itself the Vann Club.

The Rushden branch of the British Legion managed to lobby successfully for a new residential development to include a Bernard Vann Close so that his name would be perpetuated in the town.  In Ashby-de-la-Zouch (where Bernard had been an Assistant Master at the Grammar School before going up to Jesus College, Cambridge) the council also named a road in a new development ‘Bernard Vann Crescent’.

The most recent initiative has been by Durham University which, in October 2016, announced that it was planning to establish a postdoctoral Fellowship dedicated to the study of the relationship between Christianity and the military. Supported by Lord Dannatt, the Church of England hierarchy, the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department and private benefactors, it will be named after Bernard and be known as The Vann Fellowship.

The original crosses marking the graves of James Grice, Frederick Wystan Hipkins and Bernard Vann in the British Cemetery at Bellenglise.

I feel privileged to have helped the memory of Bernard Vann emerge out of the shadows and hope that the life and achievements of this fine soldier and Man of God will now be appreciated more widely by current and future generations.

Click here to purchase The Christian Soldier. The Life of Lt. Col. Bernard William Vann V.C., M.C. and Bar, Croix de Guerre avec palme.

Posted in General | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Chinese official histories, Jesuit missionaries and Western Mongol literature by Carl Fredrik Sverdrup

the-mongol-conquestsThe Mongols of Genghis Khan and his successors conquered much of the known world, creating the largest empire the world had ever seen. It was very much a military achievement with the Mongols prevailing again and again against a long list of differing opponents. The Mongols even made an appearance in Central Europe in 1241, operating 8,000 km away from their homeland. Naturally, the Mongols have attracted much interest in the West, but study of the subject faces some challenges.

In China, it became tradition for the succeeding dynasty to compile an official history of the dynasty it replaced. When the Qing (1644-1912) finalized the history of the Ming (1368-1644) in 1774, there were in total 24 official histories. The Jin (1115-1234), Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties – making up three of the 24 – are relevant for the era of Genghis Khan. They are important sources, reporting in great detail many of the Mongol military operations.

During the 18th century, French Jesuit missionaries living in Beijing made summarized translations of the dynastic histories. Joseph-Anne-Marie de Moyriac de Mailla covered the whole sweep of Chinese history in Histoire générale de la Chine (1708). Antoine Gaubil focused more narrowly on Genghis Khan and the Mongols in Histoire De Gentchiscan Et De Toute La Dinastie Des Mongous Ses Successeurs Conquerans De La Chine: Tirée De L’histoire Chinoise (1739). The French aristocrat Charles de Harlez made a summarized translation of the Jin dynastic history a century and a half later, Histoire de l’empire de Kin ou empire d’or : Aisin Gurun-I Suduri Bithe (1887). Also a Jesuit, de Harlez opted on an academic career in a more modern sense. He was professor at a European university where he taught Asian languages.

Genghis Khan as portrayed in a 14th-century Yuan era album.

Genghis Khan as portrayed in a 14th-century Yuan era album.

None of these early translations were complete. Further, names, titles, and geographic locations are very different from the standards of modern translation conventions. The works provide, however, the foundation for the Western historians who wrote about the Mongols and their military successes. For that reason, there are many mistakes and often lack of detail – in particular for events in China. The body of secondary mainstream literature published during the first half of the 20th century was used as a source for subsequent authors. Scholars able to read and use the Chinese material have tended to have a specific focus and have not offered a broad based military narrative.

The Jin dynastic history in particular offers a lot of rich detail on Mongol military operations. Modern accounts will always laud the Mongols for their skill at taking places by siege. However, the sources do not always support this view. Take the example of the siege of Guide in 1232:

Temutai [= Doqolqu Cerbi], senior general of the Great Mongol Army, attacked [Guide]… The Great Mongol Army attacked the city day and night. They camped outside the southern suburb of the city, a place with a higher ground … Somebody in the Great Mongol Army advised them to breach the river, and the commander accepted the idea. Once the river was breached, the water flew downwards from the north-west to the south-west of the city and then entered the original watercourse of Suishui River. The city, however, became more secure because of the water. [The Mongol commander] tried to find the adviser and kill him, but they could find him nowhere.

In my book The Mongols Conquests. The Military Operations of Genghis Khan and Sübe’etei, I make use of the Chinese primary sources to describe military events in as much detail as possible. This will help readers to understand how Mongolia with a population of a million or two could conquer the Chinese world with 80 million people and also make extensive conquests in the Near East and Europe.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

How Mount Piana inspired a new history of The Italian Folgore Parachute Division

War memorial on Mount Piana commemorating the soldiers that lost their life during the Great War

War memorial on Mount Piana commemorating the Great War soldiers that lost their life

By Paolo Morisi – I hail from northern Italy and – in the summer – I spend a lot of time in the mountains along the Austrian-Italian border, the Alto Adige and Veneto regions of Italy. In the 1980s you could still find artefacts and residues of the Great War all over the mountain ranges. 

I recall that the first time I visited frontline positions on Mount Piana (which has now been turned into an open-air museum of the Great War), I was astonished to see and walk through trenches, gun pits, observation posts, artillery emplacements, underground caverns dug deep into the rock, barbed wire, coats of arms of the Kaiserjäger and the Alpini fixed to the entrances of tunnels, etc.

At the small mountain hut on the Piana, I purchased a book by Austrian officer Walther Schaumann (RIP) – a historical guide to tour all the major mountain paths and peak positions of the Dolomites that had been touched by the Great War. After reading the book and the tour of Mount Piana, I was hooked and there began a life-long fascination with both the beautiful mountain scenery and the Great War.

Photo taken on Mount Piana showing a frontline trench position dug into the mountain which now comprises the World War One open air museum

Photo taken on Mount Piana showing a frontline trench position dug into the mountain, which now comprises the Great War open-air museum

Every summer  I  would spend a month or more hiking these mountains in the day and enjoying a nice dinner with local lager at a stube/rifugio in the evening. There’s more to the story… several family members recounted their time during the Second World War and especially their experiences in the Greek Mountains and in the North African campaign. The Battle of El Alamein was another example of military history that captivated me. I always wanted to write something on the Battle, but was conscious that it has been covered in every angle by military historians. One of the topics of my research   has been the role played by special forces such as the sturmtruppen, the commandos and the paratroopers during the war, and their efforts to introduce tactical innovation on the battlefield.

In Italy, the history of El Alamein is closely connected to the special unit Folgore   parachute Division, which defended the southern flank of  the Axis line during the great battle. I the-italian-folgore-parachute-divisiondid some research and found that almost nothing had been written from a scientific and historical perspective on this special elite unit. I thought: ‘I might have something here, an idea that I could pitch’. I approached Duncan Rogers of Helion and Company and, from the onset, he was very enthusiastic and supportive about the idea.

After badgering Duncan with countless questions, I finally began my research, which took me first to Rome to the military archives of the Italian military, and then to the Imperial War Museum in London. While conducting the research, I was not only able to interview surviving members of the Folgore, but also to listen to very moving historical recordings of British soldiers that fought against the paratroopers. The reminisces by both sides told a story of extreme hardship in the desert, of brutal combat and of the overwhelming impact – especially upon foot soldiers – of mechanized warfare, led by steel hulks such as tanks, armoured vehicles and heavy mobile guns mounted on lorries.

Photo taken from an Austro-Hungarian trench position from World War One with a view of the Three Peaks of Lavaredo

Photo taken from an Austro-Hungarian trench position from World War One with a view of the Three Peaks of Lavaredo

In the spirit of European unity and reconciliation, I reconstructed the history of this unit at El Alamein. By drawing from archival sources from both sides, I hope to have furnished a more complete and balanced perspective on a critical juncture in the war, such as the Battle of El Alamein. An extensive collection of detailed maps and black and white photos are also part of the book to give the reader a multi-disciplinary perspective on the north African campaign.

For those visiting Italy, I highly recommend a hiking trip to Mount Piana with beautiful views over the Three Peaks of Lavaredo – probably the most fascinating mountains of the Dolomites.

Purchase your copy of The Italian Folgore Parachute Division, Operations in North Africa 1940-43 by Paolo Morisi here.

Posted in Books, General | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stefanie Linden: They Called It Shell Shock. Combat Stress in the First World War

they-called-it-shell-shockAbout one year ago I was honoured to receive the Edmonds Prize for my book proposal on shell shock (full story here). Now I am very pleased to see the final product – They Called It Shell Shock – appear in the Wolverhampton Military Studies series.  During the last year, I spent a great deal of time liaising with archives, museums, libraries and private collectors about images that would illustrate the experience of the traumatised soldiers on both sides of the trenches of the Great War – and was pleased to see 75 of them included in the final manuscript. I also researched the wider context of the patient files – those from London in the UK and Berlin and Jena in Germany – that form the backbone of my book. This resulted in a detailed survey of the disposal system for shell shock cases, and the responses of the medical and military apparatus to this unprecedented challenge.

At the core of They Called It Shell Shock are the individual case histories of the traumatised soldiers, which provide harrowing accounts of the experience of trench warfare. The records allow us to enter a world which – since the last veterans of the Great War have passed away – is now inaccessible through living memory.

British Pathe footage – Seale Hayne Military Hospital, Devon, UK – 1918

The nature of modern industrialised warfare – with its new weapons, bigger armies, increasing casualty figures and anonymity of fighting – had considerably increased the stresses imposed on the individual soldier. Static or trench warfare, as opposed to mobile warfare, often forced the soldier to remain in one position for days – sometimes barely able to move, because any twitch turned him into an easy target for enemy snipers. Boredom and monotony, passivity and a lack of distraction were the result; the soldier was left alone with his thoughts and fears. There was also the sight of destruction, of mutilated bodies and of corpses; the relentless shelling – sometimes going on for hours and hours, day on day. Men exposed to these stresses were under continuous pressure. The case records provide unique access to their memories and experiences, both at the frontline and during their odyssey through the military hospital system.

I have organised the analysis of the case records along themes that mark their interest to wider military history: suicide, desertion, rank and class, treatment and scientific progress and, last but not least, the comparison between the British and German medical, military and legal systems. Although other books have documented the contemporaneous medical debates on shell shock, none has analysed comprehensive sets of case records from both sides. With my background – as a German-born doctor and scholar who has lived in Wales for the last 12 years – I was particularly intrigued by this European perspective.

In February 2016 I had the opportunity to present my work at an international workshop at the monastery of Bad Irsee in Southern Germany, which was attended by colleagues from Austria, Italy, Belgium, France and Germany who had looked at records of shell shock patients from their own countries. Our discussions revealed striking differences in the reaction to combat stress in the different countries – even between countries that fought on the same side. This pointed to an influence of cultural factors that is still very relevant to the understanding of mental disorder today. I also learnt that, although there is a great amount of interest in the experiences of shell shock amongst European historians, none of the records analysed so far are as detailed as ours from London and Germany.

In addition to such international scientific debates I also had the equally rewarding opportunity of presenting my work to local and military historians in the UK – for example to the Glamorgan Family History Society. Clearly, people are fascinated by the experience of shell shock for a wide variety of reasons – for example, because their ancestors fought in the Great War, or because they are interested in the history of individual military units, or because they want to find out more about the relationship between shell shock and present-day post-traumatic stress disorder. And just to mention that my research is ongoing – I am always interested in contact with other researchers working in the area or with groups of local historians or with museums planning to set up exhibitions on shell shock.

They Called It Shell Shock. Combat Stress in the First World War is available to pre-order here.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment