Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Lectures, Courses and Ken Burns by Imogen Robertson

Fake news, data scamming, trolls…. there are times when it seems the internet or those who control it are trying to nudge us off a cliff. We are distracted and confused, clicking away at our screens to chase away the monsters real, imagined or dressed up as personality quizzes. 

Obviously you fine people have chosen to read something sensible, so that’s ok, enjoy your time on The History Girls, but once you’re through reading our years of musings, where should you go next?

I’m a great fan of podcasts, and have recommended a few of my favourites here in the past, recently though I’ve come across a trove of content which is making me particularly happy. Waiting for you out there in the ether is an astonishing collection of lectures recorded as they were given to hordes of eager undergraduates at Yale, Oxford, Cambridge and dozens of other institutes of higher education. The sound quality is often a bit poor, sometimes the links to the handouts are broken, you might only have an audio version when someone is obviously pointing at a slide, but I'm not complaining. For the first time in history you can listen in to the great educators of your time without having to leave your room. For example, Dale B. Martin’s Introduction to New Testament History and Literature is available via Open Yale Courses and has made me very irritating at dinner parties, it also offers  interesting ways to think about the context and use of scripture in the first century and now. I listened to his lectures while playing Candy Crush on my phone for the whole 21st century undergraduate experience. 

Some tempting things from Coursera

Yale offers lecture series on economics, chemistry, geology, astronomy and more as well as history, so go enjoy and become wise while the world around us grows ever less so. Also, go look sooner rather than later. Many of the Yale courses are being moved over to Coursera. For many that will probably be a good thing. Coursera is slick and the content is broken down into shorter sections, supported with quizzes and peer-marked assessments. You can even pay for a certificate if you choose to do so. I tend to scramble away from sites which invite me to ‘introduce yourself to your fellow learners’ though, so I’ll be listening to the echoing halls and coughing undergrads for as long as I have that option.  

I have seen those adverts in LRB and Literary Review for The Great Courses for years, and am the sort of person who goes - yes, yes I think I would like to own a series of thirty lectures on how to play chess - luckily I’ve always just been a bit too poor to actually buy them. Now via Amazon video, I’ve signed up for their ‘signature collection’, which will probably cost me just as much in the long run but they take the money in small, relatively pain free bites so I hardly notice it. The ones I’ve watched so far all look like they were shot in 1985. Lecturers deliver a paragraph to camera one, then inhale, turn and deliver the next to camera two, then back to camera one again. Sometimes there are pictures, which is nice, even if the borders look my grandmother’s Red Room wallpaper. However that doesn’t matter too much if you are playing Candy Crush, so I just listen to the talking. History of Food has some valuable insights, Reading Biblical Literature is a personal take, but a honestly presented one and a sensitive literary reading, and I’m looking forward to the Cathedrals one. 

Or if you are a Netflix person and haven’t watched all of the Ken Burns work available, then do so, now. We’ll be here when you get back in a week or two. His histories of Jazz, The American Civil War, Prohibition, The Roosevelts and The West are beautifully produced - I put down my phone quite often - and offer a fascinating, intimate, illuminating and often harrowing history of the United States. I feel absorbing hours of his work has helped me understand where we are now with more empathy, and more subtlety than I would ever otherwise have done. Which is, after all, the larger point of history, don’t you think?

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Heavy industry on the River Meon: Bricks by Carolyn Hughes

As the second part of my post about industry on the River Meon, today I am looking at brick making, which, like iron working, was, for centuries, carried out principally around the lower reaches of the Meon, at Titchfield and a little further upstream at Funtley, but also in other locations along the valley.

Brick-making in England

The first brick-makers in Hampshire were the Romans, who used the local clay to make roof tiles, bricks and hollow tiles for their hypocaust central heating systems. Roman bricks were more like thick floor tiles, about 18 in. (45 cm) by 2 in. (5 cm).
Although the Romans were the first to make bricks in England, it seems that the craft died out once they left in the 5th century. Then, after the Normans came in the 11th century, bricks were imported from Flanders but, gradually, brick-making became established again in England, and by 1330 there were at least twenty makers. They were known as “wall-tylers”, and not generally “bryke makers” until about 1430. The “tyles” used for wall construction were typically rather thin bricks, similar to those Roman floor-tile style bricks.
Medieval craftsmen were of course obliged to join guilds, initially church guilds and later specific craft guilds, which controlled wages, apprenticeships and the quality of work. For tilers and brick-makers (who were also builders) the earliest such specific guild, the Worshipful Company of Tylers & Bricklayers, was founded in 1416, chartered by Elizabeth I in 1568 and, by 1600, was the country’s principal brick-makers’ guild. The company still survives.

After the Great Fire of London of 1666, the king, Charles I, decreed that all new buildings in the city had to be built of fireproof materials. There was so much work to be done that the Tylers’ Guild did not have enough brick-makers in the London area to do it, and began to train people from the provinces. These new brick-makers eventually went back to their villages and set up hundreds of new brick-making businesses around the country. Nearly all brick-makers were itinerant, going to the construction sites to make the bricks using the local clay.

The Great Fire of London by an unknown painter, depicting the fire as it would have
appeared on the evening of Tuesday, 4 September 1666 from a boat in the vicinity of 
Tower Wharf

Improvements in transport, with canals and, later, railways, and then the development of steam power, in the first half of the 19th century, eventually brought mechanisation to brick-making. Machinery was developed to speed up the process, and permanent brickyards were established, producing thousands of bricks a day. By 1850 the majority of brick-makers were using mechanised brick production. But the small country businesses, unable to invest in machinery, were either bought out or closed, and itinerant brick-makers could not compete with the big factories.
By 1914 there were probably no more than fifty travelling brick makers in the British Isles. Prior to World War Two, this reduced to half a dozen and today there seems to be only one, Tony Mugridge in Shropshire ( Today, nearly all brick manufacture is carried out in permanent brickworks.

The process

For most of the period up to the middle of the 19th century, brick-makers were itinerant. Because bricks were heavy and roads were poor, it made sense to make the bricks close to the construction sites and the makers generally travelled to the sites and made bricks from whatever local clays were available.
Brick-making was also essentially a seasonal occupation. The clay was dug out during the autumn and left to weather over winter, to break it down into lumps. Then, in the spring, it could be cleaned of stones and other debris and the brick-making process began.
The method used was to immerse the clay in water, then beat it in some way to remove any air before shaping it into wooden moulds and leaving them to dry in the open air, perhaps for up to three months, depending on the weather and the time of year. The bricks were then stacked to form a simple kiln, a fire lit inside and the bricks “burnt”. After a few days’ firing, the kilns were allowed to cool naturally before being dismantled and the bricks were then stacked ready for use.
The beating of the clay seems to have been done either by treading (puddling) by barefoot labourers, or by hand throwing. It must have been a very physically demanding and tiring task, and one that was apparently sometimes done by children. Children were also employed in moving bricks around the site. It must have been horrifically hard work.
However, at some point in the 19th century, the pug mill was invented, a machine in which the clay was mixed with water mechanically and then beaten with paddles to produce the right consistency for making bricks.

The colour and texture of bricks depended largely on the composition of the local clay and the fuels and additives used to fire them. So, for example, the presence of iron oxide gave a red colour to a brick, whereas limestone or chalk gave a yellowish colour.
Historically, the size of bricks varied according to the moulds used by the travelling brick-makers. Initially, size didn't really matter, as many of these bricks were used in panels in timber-framed buildings. However, in 1784, the government introduced a "brick tax", initially 4s for a thousand bricks, used to help pay for George III's wars in America. To mitigate the effect of the tax, brick-makers began to increase the size of their bricks, but the government responded by introducing a maximum volume for a brick. One of the consequences was that some small brick-makers went out of business, forced to sell their stock to meet tax bills. But it also had an effect on house design with some areas returning to the use of timber and weatherboarding, or "brick tiles" to imitate brickwork on a timber-framed building. The level of taxation was increased three times before it was eventually abolished in 1850, when it was understood to be detrimental to industrial development.

Brick-making in the Meon Valley

Brickworks were of considerable importance in the Meon Valley during the medieval period and for centuries afterwards, especially in the Titchfield area. Traces of them can be seen in the brick kilns shown on the 1826 Greenwood map of the area, which shows “Brick Kilns” just south of the village of Funtley, and “Fareham Kilns” a little to the east.

On the Ordnance Survey Old Series map of Hampshire for this area, dated 1855, a “Brick Kiln” is also shown on the road between Fareham and Wickham. 

The village called Funtley (from the Anglo-Saxon, “Funtaleg”, meaning “Springs”), also spelt as Fontley, was first mentioned in the Domesday Book. It’s a couple of miles north of Titchfield and is where the iron-making that I discussed in my previous post was also carried out.
Funtley grew from the development of a clay quarry, the clay being used to make chimney pots and bricks. The Fontley Brick and Tile Works was, at one time, the most important in the district. Handmade bricks from here (“Fareham Reds”, a well-known red-tinged clay brick) were used in the building of Ravenswood House at Knowle Hospital (previously known as Hampshire County Lunatic Asylum) and, more famously, in the construction of the Royal Albert Hall in London. The works at Fareham also supplied bricks for the forts being built around Portsmouth and Gosport and the docks at Portsmouth and Southampton in the 19th century. Fort Widley on Portsdown Hill, finished in 1868, is one of the forts above Portsmouth, built for the city’s defence from the land side and called “the best self-contained castles to be built in England”. Large amounts of brickwork were used in the fortifications and in the large dry moats. The high walls were flint faced but the corners, parapets and other defensive buildings were built of Fareham red bricks.
The Funtley company produced hand-made bricks from the mid-19th century up to 1923, when they moved over to mechanised production. The works closed in 1967, and the clay quarry is now a fishing lake. But even though the pit is worked out, the different colours of the clay strata can be seen: the lower bed of the Bracklesham and the top layer of the Reading Beds were used for brick and tiles. The London Clay, generally dark blue in colour, containing significant quantities of iron pyrite or marcasite, was used for making blue bricks (“Funtley Blues”, mainly used for paving).
The clay was also used to produce art pottery of a standard high enough to be presented to Queen Victoria. At one time the works was producing red bricks, blue bricks, roofing tiles, floor tiles, terracotta objects, art pottery, copings, channelling and drain pipes.
But it was hard work for some! A man who worked as a “clay digger” at Funtley after the Second World War, with his mate, dug twenty tons of clay a week and got £4 a week in wages… (
Another important brickworks, quite close to Titchfield and Funtley, was at Bursledon. It was founded in 1897 by the Ashby family, where abundant clay was known at the site and very good transport links by both rail and river were available. The clay was originally dug by hand in pits close to the buildings. The clay pits were deep – nearly 40ft – and very extensive. The clay was brought back to the factory using narrow gauge railway wagons, but eventually the pits were too far away for this to be practical. Mechanised digging started in the 1930s. Eventually the local clay was worked out, and the site closed in 1974. Now, the lakes form a nature reserve, and the buildings are a museum of the brick-making industry. 
Brick-making also took place in other villages in the Meon Valley. In Soberton, for example, ten miles north of Funtley, clay from the southern part of the village was used for making bricks for centuries. In 1741, a brick kiln was recorded in a house in Soberton, when a certain John Pafford occupied a house with a kiln in his garden. A century later, his descendant, William, who lived in an area of Soberton called Charleswood, was described as a brick-maker on both the 1841 and 1851 censuses. In 1678 and 1701, the Gisby brothers, William and John, were referred to as brick-makers as well as farmers. Names of locations in the village – Kiln Hill, Clamp Farm and Clamp Kiln Farm – also indicate areas of brick-making, and there is evidence from trade directories of brick-making in the village right up until the mid-20th century.
Brick-making has not been a huge industry in the Meon Valley, but certainly one of significance, and how fascinating it is once again to follow the clues left by the past to learn how our forebears made their living.

Monday, 19 March 2018

How Not to Besiege a Town by L.J. Trafford

The fortress of Masada.
The Roman war machine: All powering, all conquering. A huge force of highly trained soldiers who created and maintained an empire the likes of which the world had never before seen.
It wasn’t just the sheer number of recruits that made Rome a power to reckon with. It was also their innovation in battle, and particularly in sieges.
Roman history is rich with some truly impressive examples of siege warfare. There was Veii in the 4th century BC where, after years of stalemate, the Roman forces dug a tunnel underneath the walls and conquered the town from within.
The siege of Carthage in the 2nd century BC lasted three whole years. It was finally broken when Scipio  Aemilianus  ordered a series of massive siege walls to be built outside the town. These were used to relentlessly attack, and ultimately conquer Carthage.

In 70 AD to gain access to the Judaean Fortress of Masada, which sat on top of a hard to navigate rock, the Romans built an alternative route up the cliff that they could haul their siege towers up. They also built a seven km siege wall in an impressive 3 days.

Battering rams, siege towers, ballista and archers were often used in besieging fortresses and towns.

The story I am about to tell is not of an impressive victory . It is not a story of Roman ingenuity and cunning. Nor is it a tale of the type of patience and persistence that felled Carthage. It’s the story of an unsuccessful siege. A gloriously unsuccessful siege; the siege(s) of Placentia.

A Bit of Background
The year is 69AD. On 15th January Marcus Salvius Otho enacted a coup against emperor Galba in one singular day of bloodshed. The emperor and his associates were decapitated in the Forum whilst all around was bloody mayhem.
By sunset the Senate had no choice but to declare Otho emperor. Escorted up to the palace the new emperor soon realised he had made a horrible, horrible mistake. For amongst Galba’s papers was a horrifying revelation: There was another emperor .

Otho hadn’t known, couldn’t have known when he staged his coup, that two weeks earlier on the banks of the Rhine the German legions had declared their Governor, Vitellius emperor. Vitellius‘ two generals, Valens and Caecina, were on the road marching a force of  nearly 70,000 men to Rome.
The Rhine legions were the toughest of the Roman legionaries. Otho had nowhere near the same number of men at his disposal. Realising he was hopelessly outmatched, he tried everything to turn them back. Vitellius was promised money beyond his wildest dreams, influence and a quiet spot to retire in. This didn't move Vitellius and so assassins were sent to Germania. Though evidently not terribly good assassins for Vitellius continued to breathe and the German legions marched onward.

There could be only one emperor and there could be only one way to decide who that should be: War.

The Othonians
Emperor Otho
The town of Placentia was situated in the north of Italy between modern day Milan and Bologna. In the spring of 69AD this was where Caecina was marching his half of Vitellius' forces, some 30,000 men, straight towards.

Charged with holding Placentia for Otho was a pragmatic general named Spurinna. At his command he had three cohorts of Praetorians (the emperor's private bodyguard, and cause of much of Rome's current instability), 1000 infantry and a small gang of cavalry. At most this was 4000 men. 4000 men versus 30,000. Even worse Spurinna's forces were untrained novices, they'd no experience of battle. Neither had the Praetorian Guard who mostly spent their days in the capital enacting crowd control on the locals and thinking up plots. Marching ever closer to these keen amateurs were Caecina's highly experienced, battle scarred German legions

Spurinna was a sensible and practical man. He knew his troops had absolutely no hope against the Germans in an open battle. Every last one of them would be slaughtered within hours. So he ordered that the gates of the town be closed and that they should prepare for a siege.
It was by far the most sensible of decisions. However, Spurinna's men disagreed. Eager for battle they insisted they could take on the German legions. That insistence grew throughout the day until Spurinna realised he was facing a mutiny
Fine, the general demurred, if they wanted to fight, what were they waiting for?

So off they all marched, Spurinna included, to intercept Caecina's army. 20 miles into this march it was decided to set up camp for the night. The Roman way was to construct a camp from scratch, it's what Caecina's forces had been largely doing the whole long march from Germany. But these were new recruits and Praetorians (whose own camp was already nicely built for them on top of the Viminal Hill in Rome). Neither was prepared for such hard labour. Spurinna we can assume watched their efforts with dry amusement. This hard graft broke their mutinous spirits and when someone suggested that Caecina's forces might stumble upon them at any moment, panic ensued. Which was when Spurinna stepped forward and calmly suggested that maybe they'd be better off safe within the fortified walls of Placentia. Lots of eager nodding and then back they marched the way they'd come.
Back behind the walls of Placentia they set to building up ramparts, adding parapets and collecting up anything and everything of any use.

Then they waited for the German legions.

The Vitellians.
Emperor Number 2, Vitellius

The famously critical Tacitus describes Caecina as "Young good-looking, tall and upstanding." From which we may deduce that he was six foot plus of man hunk. Tacitus also grudgingly accepts he had superficial charm. So let us put him firmly in the fanciable and charismatic camp. Even more strikingly, despite having only been stationed in Germania a few years, Caecina had gone full native and habitually wore Germanic trousers, tunic and plaid cloak.

This trousered giant of manhood had marched 30,000 of Rome's meanest, toughest soldiers thousands of miles across country and mountainside. Though they'd fallen foul of a local Gallic tribe on route, the soldiers were itching to meet a real enemy. One that would challenge them. The town of Placentia was firmly in their sights.

The First Siege Of Placentia
It should have been a foregone conclusion. 30,000 hardened fighters against a small force of boys and Praetorians grown soft by too much hanging around the palace. And yet Caecina's Germans failed to conquer the town. Why?
Fear not this is not going to be a dissection of battle techniques, an exhaustive examination of tactics. There will be no little diagrams with arrows pointing all over the place to denote troop movements. There will be no pictures of the battlefield terrain from every perceivable angle.

The reason Caecina's soldiers failed to penetrate the walls of Placentia can be explained in four words: they showed up drunk.
Actually make that very drunk. Very, very drunk. They were so drunk that they turned up to besiege the town without bringing any siege equipment with them. Tacitus tells us they advanced without cover. One can only imagine Spurinna's expression as 30,000 German troops ran at his walls, presumably hoping that they would just fall down spontaneously. Though Placentia got off dent free from this attack, the amphitheatre next to the town mysteriously burnt down. Which shows someone's aim was decidedly off.

Unable to break into the town without equipment and under heavy missile fire from Spurinna's troops, Caecina and his men were forced into a humiliating retreat.
As Tacitus drily notes; "The first day's action was marked by a vigorous offensive rather than by the skilled techniques of a seasoned army."

Which is polite a way as ever committed to papyri of describing a total cock up.

The Second Siege of Placentia
I think it is safe to say that the Germans had been a little over confident in their abilities. A little bit cocky and reliant on their scary reputation. I think we are right to suspect that their trouser wearing hunky general may have given an over rousing speech to them prior to the disaster.

Celtic trousers the like of which Caecina might have worn
But the fact that they all on mass happily believed they could bring Placentia down by sheer force whilst highly intoxicated, does show they were a cohesive army.
They were bruised, they were no doubt suffering horrendous hangovers, but they were not out. Pride needed to be restored. Caecina set them to work overnight constructing the siege equipment they so casually forgot the first time round.

At first light the plains outside the town began to fill with men. Bare chested men. They'd opted to fight the traditional German way: Nipples alfresco.

The soldiers battered and smashed their shields together, singing traditional German war songs. These were soldiers of Rome, yes, but there wasn’t much of Rome about them.

Such was how it must have looked to Spurinna’s young troops as they saw the semi naked troops commanded by a trouser wearing giant line up outside their town. It must have been horrifyingly clear quite how outnumbered they were.
The Germans advanced under cover of the towers they'd spent the night building and set to the gates with crowbars. Others dug down trying to undermine the foundations of the town. An earthen siege mound was constructed. These were proper Roman techniques.
Above them the Othonians rained down javelins at them. Slingshotters and archers bombarded the Vitellians. But by far the deadliest weapon was one Spurinna's men had gathered together overnight from the town; huge millstones. These the praetorians rolled down from certain parts of the wall directly onto the Vitellians beneath. Tacitus tells us the injuries were drastic, men were crushed to pieces beneath the pounding weight. To others seeing their comrades so destroyed, panic set in when further millstones were pushed forward.

Under such a barrage Caecina ordered a retreat. The plucky underdogs had held onto the town!

The Aftermath
There was no third siege of Placentia. The epic patience witnessed in those sieges of old was not present in this army. This army, and more particularly their young commander, were itching for a victory.

In the grand scheme of things Placentia was not so important. Or so Caecina no doubt told himself. The best thing was to plough on and face down Otho’s main forces. One highly suspects that Caecina’s eagerness was linked to the fact that Valens was now only a few days march away with his army. Caecina did not want to share any of the glory with his colleague.

Caecina however did not get his great victory. The Othonians had no intention yet of facing the Rhine legions in battle. Instead they sent a small force of gladiators (which gives you some idea as to how hard up Otho was for troops) on ambush missions. Through these skirmishes Caecina lost most of his auxiliary soldiers.

In the end Caecina had to wait until Valens arrived with his own fresh forces to achieve his much desired victory. The Othonians were finally overwhelmed by their enemy's greater numbers. Vitellius was sole emperor.

L.J. Trafford's latest book, Otho's Regret, covers the strange siege of Placentia and other notable failures of the handsome Caecina.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them” by Rowena House

At the start of the centenary of the 1914-18 war I had a notion that we would by now, as a nation, have found some sort of collective closure on the individual suffering of the dead of the Great War, and be ready to move on, to toss their bones in the air as it were, and free the spirits of the fallen to join with our distant ancestors.

As a writer, I agreed with Pat Barker’s comment that World War I had “come to stand in for other wars … it’s come to stand for the pain of all wars.” Our stories might be about that particular conflict, but the larger subject was war itself.

"Voie Sacrée" supply line to the militarized French region of Verdun
Researching and writing my own First World War novel, The Goose Road, dented that conviction. Wherever I looked, the power of individual suffering endured and the personal stories were endlessly shocking, intimate and enthralling.

I fell under their spell time and again while listening to the first-hand accounts of veterans of the Western Front, their scratchy voices forever locked in a sound archive, or when reading a collection of letters home, or interviews granted to earlier researchers. I’d suddenly be caught unawares by a moment of humanity or courage, or dark gallows’ humour.

Occasionally an old soldier would admit to cruelty. More often they shared memories of the drudgery of the trenches, punctuated by terror. To walk those trenches – or at least one of the few fragments that remain, in Beaumont Hamel, say, zig-zagging through a meadow – is to walk in a haunted place.
Near Verdun, there’s a hill called Mort Homme. The name isn’t connected to the 1914-18 war, although the WW1 artillery battles fought there between the French and the Germans were so fierce that engineers found afterward that meters of the entire hilltop had been blown off. Local farmers still aren’t allowed to plough its soil because of the human remains.
The French memorial to the fallen of Mort Homme: “They did not pass”
When researching closer to home I found that WW1 objects as well as places had the power to take my breath away. Once I was in the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich Arsenal, investigating a particular week in October 1916 and a specific section of the Western Front near the occupied French town of Peronne. The archivist bought me out a trolley laden with original material from that time and that place, on top of which was a small moleskin notebook, written in pencil by an English major, the pages still stained with the mud of the Somme. I sat and stared at it for ages, feeling as if the battle itself was within touching distance.

Poppies and cornflowers planted by the local council on the road to Pozières in remembrance of Australian, Allied and German troops who died during fighting in the immediate area
Just before I returned for the second of four research visits to France, my mother died unexpectedly. It was a release: she’d been ill for a long time. Among the heirlooms she left to me was a forget-me-not locket with a photograph of her father, Frederick Clarke, in his WW1 uniform. A stern old lady stares out of the locket’s other frame – my great-grandmother, Selena, I believe.

My great-grandmother (I think) and her younger son, Frederick
Mum also left me a heart-shaped locket, which I think must have belonged to Selena as it contained the pictures of two uniformed soldiers, her sons. One is Frederick, who served in the 10th (Irish) Division as a medical clerk and stretcher bearer in the Dardanelles in 1916 and later in Salonika. The other is Frederick’s older brother, Thomas Clarke, a private in the 19th King’s Liverpool Regiment, killed in action on the Somme, on July 30th, 1916.
I’d never seen Thomas Clarke’s picture before I inherited this locket. Mum thought he’d died near Ypres, and as far as I know, until my husband tracked down his regiment’s military records, no one in the family knew the details of his last day. The official War Diary and Intelligence Summary of that engagement is chilling:

“29/7/16 battle position in the MALTZ HORN TRENCH.
30/7/16 BATTLE began. Zero hour 4.45 am. The Battalion reached its objective, but suffered heavy losses, and had to evacuate its position owing to no reinforcements. At 12 noon the roll call was 7 officers and 43 men.
Total casualties were: Lieutenant-Colonel G. Rollo wounded.
KILLED. [Six officers named]
WOUNDED. [One officer named.]
WOUNDED AND MISSING. [Three officers named.]
Total casualties in Other Ranks: 425, of which 76 were killed, 172 wounded, 177 missing.”
Barry Cuttell’s account of that morning in 148 Days on the Somme is more detailed: “Morning mist prevented communication by visual signals, and almost all underground cables had been damaged. The only way of relaying messages to divisional headquarters was by runner, which would be a dangerous task once the fog had lifted as the runners had to cross the open ground between Guillemont and Trone’s Wood, over which German machine guns … enjoyed an excellent field of fire.
“While waiting for zero hour, 19/King’s Liverpool were subject to High Explosives and gas (shelling) … The 19/King’s in the centre was also badly hit by enemy fire, only a few men reaching the road. A little further north, a company of the 19/King’s succeeded in getting forward towards the south-eastern entry to Guillemont.” But later that morning, “Under the impression they were cut off, the 19/King’s withdrew from the edge of Guillemont.”
Thus out of 486 soldiers of the 19th King’s Liverpool Regiment who advanced at dawn on that summer’s morning, north and east from the Maltz Horn Trench towards the German artillery and machine guns, only fifty remained standing seven hours later. The rest were wounded, dead or “missing”, that is, their bodies were either too badly mutilated for individual identification or otherwise unrecoverable from the battlefield.
The rolling fields where Thomas Clarke fell were bronzed with ripening wheat when I saw them, flanked by the once devastated trees of Trone’s Wood. My husband, a former Royal Marine, returned there on July 30th, 2016, to pay our respects, both on the battlefield and at his graveside in the Bernafay Wood cemetery. Perhaps his locket – the brother to the forget-me-not one I inherited – is buried there with him.
Bernafay Wood cemetery
Rowena House’s debut novel, The Goose Road, a coming-of-age quest set in France in 1916, will be published by Walker Books on April 5th. Website:

Thanks, Rowena, for your timely post. (Celia Rees will be back on 18th April)

Saturday, 17 March 2018

LANDSCAPES AND LOOKING: Reflections on Eric & James Ravilious. by Penny Dolan

This week, I am sorting through the too-many books here at home. I am culling some, and collecting others into “families”: shelves of books inspired by the same theme.

One bookcase is now home to a family of books about aspects of the English landscape, from Alison Utley’s A Country Childhood through to Oliver Rackham’s books about trees to George Ewart Evans Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay and more. Some we bought and some were given as gifts. Others, often the hardest to discard, were inherited.

Standing within the waves of scattered volumes, I start wondering what other titles should join this family: those by Robert Macfarlane, perhaps, or Roger Deakin? Or large-format books about landscape art or painting or photography? Where does the family of "landscape" end?

All at once I remember landscapes by a favourite artist: Eric Ravilious, painter, wood-engraver and designer. I went to the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s retrospective Ravilious exhibition in 2015, and in the video below you can see James Russell, the curator, talking about Ravilious and his pictures and the “scratch” technique that gives the artists pieces such luminosity.

Entry was for strictly limited periods but, once inside, I avoided the exit. I wove my way up and back though the exhibition, living with the Ravilious paintings throughout a wonderful afternoon. His work seems full of rolling downs, of chalk cliffs overlooking the sea and of lanes winding through peaceful fields: an essentially English rural landscape. 
For some time, Eric Ravilious and Tirzah Garwood (also an artist and wood engraver) were part of an influential group of figurative artists living around Great Bardfield in Essex, although the landscapes of the South Downs dominate many of his most popular images.

In 1939, Eric Ravilious signed up as a war artist with the Royal Marines, moving from one posting to another. He painted on land and from the moving decks of warships, watching the planes overhead. Ravilious brought the same sense of enigmatic light to all these harsher subjects: the airfields, the waiting planes and broken machinery, the men walking across wet sand to defuse a beached mine. 

He learned to fly and was sent to Iceland. On the first day of September 1942, he joined one of three planes sent out to search for a lost aircraft. Ravilious’s aircraft never returned and, four days later, he and the crew were reported lost at sea.

I am often intrigued by how the making of art can run in families, both through what could be called the genes and also through the family culture: those families where the possibility of making art is acknowledged and celebrated. So, very recently, hearing the same surname again, I was immediately interested.  

This “new” name was James Ravilious, Eric’s middle child. Born in 1939, James's only memory of Eric was running down the lane to hug his father as he left for war, and being given a threepenny coin from father's coat pocket. Sadly, after Eric's death, Tirzah’s already poor health worsened. She died, leaving her children orphans. James was only eleven. Growing up, he studied at St Martin’s School of Art, and afterwards taught painting and drawing in London. He fell in love and married a kindred spirit, Robin, in 1970. She was the daughter of the glass engraver and poet Laurence Whistler, and she also shared a sorrowful childhood.

During 1972, James and Robin left London for the countryside, and around that same time, James abandoned drawing and painting and took up photography. They settled by the village of Beaford, in what was then a largely unspoilt area of North Devon. James started taking photographs to record the landscape, the seasons, community, customs and people, but what began as a short project grew into a seventeen-year archive covering the changing rural life of the area. James added to it as well, copying earlier photographs of the same area. All the collected images now form the Beaford historical archive, whose images have been exhibited around the world.

Whether James’ talent was inherited though the genes, or learned through the artistic culture of his parents and family friends, one thing stands out for me. James Ravilious’s black and white photographs seem to share the same quality of quiet observation and love of the light visible in his father’s work. They both seem filled with a quiet but real passion for the English landscape.

James Ravilious died too, in 1999, but his wife Robin has published an account of his life in 2017.  Here, also is a clip about an influential film that James Ravilious made about photography:

So how does this post link with History Girls and writing? 
James Ravilious met the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and was very influenced by him, adopting Cartier-Bresson's approach in his own photography, even down to using the same model of camera, a LeicaM3. James followed Cartier Bresson’s approach, including the rule about never posing a subject or cropping an image, so his subjects display a natural grace.

Additionally, James also took to heart Cartier-Bresson’s most fervent mantra:
There is such a thing as The Moment. 
It is mysterious, but if you look at several shots of the one scene, 
there is one that has it – as if there were a little poem there.

Today, revising a piece of fiction, I paused and pondered about this concept of that one essential mysterious “Moment”. Although painting and photography are visual art forms, I think that writers, too, try to choose that one specific “Moment”, try to write the one specific, telling scene, try to capture that one perfectly imagined visualisation in the hope that the magic (and poetry) will make the words live?

Oh, and then the scene after? And then the scene after that . . .?

I’m going back to sorting out my book families: it’s easier than art.

Penny Dolan

ps. A travelling exhibition, “Ravilious and Co”, about Eric and his contemporaries opens at Compton Verney Gallery, Warwickshire, in March 2018.

Friday, 16 March 2018

A big apple, and Europe on six floors - Sue Purkiss

I quite often go to Brussels, because I have family living there. While there a couple of weeks ago, I visited two museums that were new to me. The first, the House of European History, I'd never heard of before: I'd read about it in the free magazine they give you on the Eurostar, and it sounded interesting, so my son and I went off to visit it, knowing next to nothing about it.

The House of European History

It's in what's known as the Eastman Building, in the complex which also houses the European Parliament. An icy wind howled around our ears and numbed our fingers, and we were relieved to find the entrance - it took some doing: then a little startled to go through airport-style security. We realised straight away we hadn't allowed enough time to visit it; it covers six floors. Less than a year old, it's the most modern museum I've ever been to: there is nothing so old-fashioned as a label on any of the displays - you are given a tablet, and you have to use that to find out what you're looking at. It's fine when you get used to it, and of course it has the advantage that you can set it to any one of a number of languages - but I couldn't help feeling a little wistful for the simplicity of a label.


The museum focuses on the history of Europe since 1789. It doesn't do it country by country, but focuses on different strands, or significant events. But at the moment there is a temporary exhibition downstairs (which actually looked pretty permanent) of Europe's earlier history - which was interesting and had helpful audio recordings, to familiarise you with, for instance, the Thirty Years War, or the way that banking developed. This exhibition did have labels - though it was almost too dark to read them. I sound a little carping, but I don't mean too; the exhibits are imaginatively displayed, and it's intriguing to see history presented from different viewpoints. A concrete example of this was a display of maps in the permanent exhibition; one was a Chinese map, so naturally it showed China at the centre - and Europe, with all its multiplicity of countries, suddenly looked strangely small. Another was an upside-down view of the world, which showed the southern hemisphere at the top and the northern at the bottom. That was odd.

Shell cases from the First World War. I found it utterly bizarre that they were so beautifully decorated.

There were exhibition areas devoted to the First and Second World Wars, and one to the Shoah. There was a display about the legend of Europa, the nymph abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull. I'm really not sure what that choice of names signifies.

And that's really all we had time for - but I will certainly go back. I know now (thanks, Wikipedia) that the museum cost vast sums of money, and is therefore the subject of controversy. I expect they said the same about the Louvre and the Prado, and I'm not sure where I stand on that. But I love the idea of a museum which looks at the story of Europe as a whole, and I'm impressed by the innovative design. As it happens, we heard just afterwards that my grandson is going there with his school, and the children have been asked to take along a story of immigration from their own family - and I like that too: that the museum is not merely a means of recording the past, but that it also reflects on and celebrates the disparate origins of the city's present inhabitants.

I hadn't intended to go to the second museum. This was the Magritte Museum. I'd planned to go to the Fine Art Museum - but I'd forgotten that most galleries etc are closed on Mondays; for some reason Magritte's doors were open. He must be one of Belgium's most famous artists, but I'm not much of a fan of surrealism, so I'd never bothered to go before. You'll be familiar with some of his paintings: a man with a bowler hat and an apple in front of his face, for instance. I still don't really understand surrealism - I suspect Magritte might say that's fine: you don't need to understand - just look. And that's all I did - all I could do, as I'd stupidly failed to spot the audio-guides at the entrance.

And as I walked round, I became more and more intrigued. I saw that he is incredibly skilled at the actual craft of painting: that apple, for instance, is exquisitely painted. He rarely uses texture: the surface is usually satin smooth. His portraits may have strange things going on, but they usually give a crystal-clear impression of the person who's his subject. Most of all, I liked the paintings he did not long before he died, which feature trees, the moon, and often a house. But the moon, impossibly, is in front of the foliage; and the sky is blue and sunny - but the house and garden are in darkness, lit perhaps by a lamp. They're beautiful, but eerie and a little unsettling: rather like the maps in the House of European History, they make the familiar seem strange - they make you see things differently.

'The Dominion of Light'. You can't see from this small image, but it is exquisitely painted: the reflections in the water are quite beautiful.
I was still thinking about Magritte as I travelled home the next day. I tried to take a picture of the Belgian countryside as it flew past, and when I looked at the image, I saw it contained reflections from the carriage and even the view from the windows opposite. Aha, I thought. There's a touch of Magritte there. It's good to find your perceptions have shifted.