Saturday, 31 August 2013

George Bone and the British Army 1889-1899

British Soldiers in Peace time uniforms 1870s or 1880s
On the 25th March 1889 in Gosport, George William Bone joined the Regular British Army as a Royal Engineer as he had a trade as a Wheelwright and having served in the South Hampshire Volunteers.

The Army was in a state of evolution and was far from its' completion. Indeed only lessons learnt during the Boer War and again on the bloody fields of France did they finally remove some of the notions and tactics that had been used so effectively against Napoleon a century before.

All Royal Engineers are trained as Infantry men and able to fire their Lee Metford (later Lee Enfield) rifles and cope under fire. They would also be given further training in their field of expertise as well as more general duties and skills.

The Uniforms had moved away from the traditional scarlet towards Khaki which was unofficially adopted in India in the 1950s but spread to General use after the battle of Gennis in 1885. A double breasted tunic was issued and was to be maintained by the soldier. Failure to do so would have led to disciplinary and pay stoppages for wear and tear.

For head gear the home regiments were issued helmets similar to the Prussian Pickelhaube in black with the regimental badge at the front. For active service in Africa and India the more practical Pith helmet was issued. However this was uniformly white and was obviously fairly visible over a distance and so soldiers were allowed to dye them. This was generally done with Tea but by the advent of the Boer War a cloth cover was provided for the helmet.

Gear was to be carried in pouches on belts and valise to distribute weight and allow soldiers to move more freely in combat with the pack as the standard kit carrier being relegated to marches and advances but not necessarily needed on the battlefield.

The Lee-Metford rifle was the standard rifle used by the British soldiers in the 1880s and was used up to and during the Second Boer War. The rifle used the Lee patterned rear locking bolt system which made clearing the breach easier than the predecessor the Henry-Martini as the bolt was above the trigger so the rifleman only had to move his hand a small way before pulling it to 60 degrees rather than the Mauser's 90. This should make the rifle more user friendly and up the rate of fire of the average infantryman. Indeed it had a rate of fire of 20 rounds a minute with the record being 38 aimed shots in a minute! This is despite having a magazine of 10 rounds and would require reloading the bullets which were either individually mounted or on strips of five .303 rounds.

This would have been the rifle George was trained with and used for most of his military career. It was, however being phased out by the time of the Boer war as it was still using black-powder loaded cartridges giving off smoke when fired. As the Metford could not be remodelled for cordite loaded cartridges without regular re-rifling and so an alternative was sought out.

The Lee Enfield rifle was basically the same pattern as the Lee Metford but with a squarer shaped rifling which had a greater durability with the increased heat and pressure of the cordite's reaction.

Both rifles were incredibly accurate over a range of 800 yards for the Lee-Metford and 550 for the Enfield and up to 1800 and 3000 respectively.

British troops were trained to volley fire in tight formation which could provide a deadly wall of fire. This had been standard drill for two centuries and had beaten many an advancing army. At the beginning of the First World War the German army believed that one British unit was solely armed with machine guns when in fact they were just well drilled rifle men armed with Enfields. Independent fire was not taught and soldiers were generally only allowed to fire when told to by their officers thus lowering the rapidity of shot. British officers were also prone to ordering their men to fix bayonets at the beginning of battles thus adding extra weight to the end of the barrel which severely affected their aims. Further to that they were trained to fight in close order infantry formations. These tactics worked against colonial armies at Omdurman where the enemy was lightly armed and would charge en-masse but the Boer would soon prove that an entrenched enemy with modern field guns and with trained marksmen would make short work of these formations.

Barracks life was fairly repetitive with early morning drill and inspection. As a wheelwright he would have been kept fairly busy with maintenance and training of young sappers in how to carry out the trade. As a Corporal he would have aided a Sargent in command of a squad.

Unfortunately, at the moment I know little of his military career beyond the Boer War and although it
Corporal Bone, Second from left, Second row
is possible he had served in India or Africa in any number of colonial conflicts I cannot say for certain.

I have been sent some pictures from his life, which I was exceptionally grateful for, including a picture of him in the Royal Engineer's champion tug of war (Catch weight?) team from Ireland 1897-8.

In 1898 he married Mary Ann Williams in St Mary's Church and together they moved to the Curragh Camp in County Kildare, Ireland where they would have lived in the married quarters or in the communal Engineers barracks. At the Curragh the divisions were hurriedly trained and amassed for the rising trouble in Africa.

As the tensions grew George found himself on a boat bound for South Africa as part of the defencive force to protect British interests.

This was a War that for the fighting man held little interest.Where as World War One would attract a jingoistic attitude, this was another Colonial bush fire to stamp out as far as they were concerned.

Whilst some were no doubt moved by the plight of the Uitlanders or that some of the younger lads were excited to see action I cannot help but think that George had an eye on the horizon and his wife and young son who was born in January 1899. Family myth says that he never saw his boy Albert born but at the moment but he did and didn't depart to South Africa until the summer of that year. It was a long cruise south taking several weeks in which they would carry out ship duties and have morning inspections and maintain their kit. I can't help but think that in the quite or boring times he may have had thoughts about what they would face in Africa, the war, the battles and duty mixed with feelings of regret at leaving Mary and his boy, that he barely knew behind in Ireland.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

SMS Emden and the shelling of Madras

SMS Emden
It was a normal September's evening in the harbour of Madras. Even though the First World War was already tearing Europe apart there were no Central Powers forces to worry about in the far east save for the SMS Emden which was out in the Indian ocean somewhere but her presence was not widely known and she was harrassing merchant shipping,  it was of no concern here.

At about 21.30 a four stacked light cruiser drifted in, her silhoutte looked like a Royal Navy Cruiser like HMS Yarmouth and she coasted lazily into the centre of the harbour.

Then the shooting started.

The German Light Cruiser SMS Emden was the last vessel of the German East Asia squadron in the theatre. Admiral Von Spee had taken the rest towards the Atlantic and the main German high seas fleet. Korvettenkapitan von Mueller had began raiding allied shipping to cause confusion and chaos. With a dummy smoke stack errected and the colours of the Royal Navy Emden looked like HMS Yarmouth, she would quickly swap colours, fire a warning shot and order them to "Stop engines, no wireless."

Now, in a daring move Kapitan von Mueller led his vessel into Madras harbour. Fire was concentrated on the Burmah oil companies storage tanks and after thrity well placed shells they burst into flames lighting up the night's sky.

The German raider's guns were turned on to the vessels in the harbour and the city itself. One vessel was sunk with the death of five crew and twenty six injured. Within half an hour of the attack commencing Emden, already coming under fire from the shore batteries, turned and left the port having expended 125 rounds of ammunition.

The material losses were not great but in her wake Emden left chaos.

Around 20,000 people fled the city [1] fearing that Emden may return with reinforcements, even the governor of Madras did not come to the city until 25th September (three days after the raid) after assurances the Germans had left and even then he did not linger.[2]

The British press did not want to admit that they had lost Emden and that she was still roaming the Indian Ocean unhindered. They also didn't want to publicise how easily a German warship had entered a British port and caused damage.

Their silence did nothing to belay fears of the populous and the exodus continued. Emden became synonymous with fear and cunning, mothers in Ceylon would tell naughty children that the Emden bogeyman would get them. Even today the word Emdena means someone who is crafty and sneaky.

The people of Madras always kept an eye on the horizon for the German's return and did not breathe a sigh of relief until news of her fate reached them on the 11th November 1914, but that is another story...

Friday, 9 August 2013

Who do you think you are?

George W. Bone's enlistment papers in 1889
Wednesday night I saw the episode of the BBCs Who do you think you are? featuring Minnie Driver.

It followed her attempts to find out more about her family and especially her father who had never spoken of his war service. He had, in fact been decorated for his conduct at the Battle of Heligoland Bight in 1939.

Family history is not always as fascinating.

Sometimes you will find generations of Agricultural labourers. There are some nuggets that really catch your eye - or someone who was involved with a major event. Unfortunately this is fairly rare.

Often all you will be able to gain is a snap shot of life from a census, get an idea of age, occupation, dates of birth/marriage/death etc. you can pad it out with some research into trades. For example my Second Great Grand Aunt Ada Williams was a machinist at Chatham Dockyard Ropery according to the 1911 census.

A visit to the site or reading up on the subject would give you a clearer idea of what life entailed for her.

As someone with a fascination for military history I find myself looking at the Soldiers and Sailors in the family - two of whom paid the ultimate price and died for their nation. My Great Great Grandfather George W. Bone who fell in the Boer War and my Great grand uncle Donald Homersham who was killed on the Somme in October 1916 three months after being awarded the military medal for bravery.

When reading around the subject of trench warfare and of the hot bloody fields of South Africa it is easy to draw comparisons to the lives of your family and wonder if they felt the same way or saw the same things.

Despite the frustratingly small amount that can be available for lower class families through history, there is a lot for you to find out, more than you would think. With all the genealogy websites out there it is really easy to get started and to map your family tree out.

As a starting tip I'd suggest you try and get as much starting information is possible such as your parents, grandparents and if possible great grand parents to give you as good a starting position as possible. As Censuses have a 100 year shelving period so the most recent you can get hold of is the 1911 and goes back as far as 1841. Beyond this you have to rely on Parish records for christenings, marriages and funerals which creates a sort of glass ceiling that only those with time and money to go in search of these records.

The other glass ceiling is the pay wall that plagues users. I've tried to do as much for free as possible but I'm hitting the pay wall and hitting it hard. There are a couple of documents that will clear up a lot of questions and the question of how George William Bone died during the Boer War. I do find it fairly frustrating but there it is.

It is something that is fascinating and is a worthwhile thing for at least one person in the family should undertake at some point. It is a sad fact that so much information about our ancestors are lost and anecdotes only last a few generations. 

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

History is all around us

Disused toilets near the Strand in Gillingham
History is a very important subject. It tells us where we've come from, where we have been and what we have done. In some circumstances it can even dictate where we are going.

History is the sum of human experience. If it is not learnt from then you are doomed to repeat it.

History is made by asking five questions; when, where, who, how and why?

Often we know four of the five but one is always a source of contention.

We know when the battle of little bighorn started, we know who led each side,  we know roughly where from the bodies discovered afterwards, we know why but we do not know how Custer's wing conducted itself or how it was defeated.

The truth will always be elusive and open to conjecture.

Local history is something that is all around us, you can't miss it. Not just the castles and cathedrals but also in other areas. The out houses behind the old Chatham Post office is clearly a stable for the stage coaches of old, plaques on houses with dates of construction, grave stones, blue plaques, missing houses in streets - it is all there.

Ever noticed that Gillingham high street has a road like layout with paving slabs on walkways along the side and a wide flat area in the centre? It is where the old tram lines used to run through the town.

You may think that nothing ever happens in the Medway towns but if you scratch the surface we have war, crime, pestilence, famine, death and a role in national and global history. There is something for everyone even if it is one thing that makes you go "huh!"

So how can you get involved or read more?

Well there are many good books in the local libraries any of the book shops in Rochester especially Baggins'.

There is also online resources both amateur and professional. You can check out Medway City ark, The kenthistoryforum and many more - just ask Google a question and the answer will present itself.

These are our towns, they are something to be proud of and generations of people have lived here and made a rich tapestry of events that is fascinating if you but take the time to look into it.

Not into Local stuff - why not take a look at your family? Lots of people get into it to see if they can replicate what they have seen on Who do you think you are? but are often disappointed. occasionally there is something really awesome that makes you think wow other times there is a lot of repetitiveness. It is worth looking into, even if you just go a few generations. There are plenty of Genealogy websites that will help you (for free to a point.) so why not?

History is not the reserve of dusty old professors who do not see the light beyond their libraries, it belongs to all of us and it is waiting for us to grab hold of it.