Review – ‘Ring of Steel – Germany and Austria-Hungary at War 1918’ – Alexander Watson

Anyone familiar with Alex Watson’s book on morale, ‘Enduring the Great War’, will know that this book will be written to a high standard of scholarship. It is not a military history, rather an exploration of what motivated the Central Powers into War and what kept its armies and civilians going once they had embarked on that course. It is a particularly important correction to the Britocentric approach to the recognition of the centenary of the war, a period which is producing a particularly disappointing crop of books, many of which are less than worthwhile.

It is particularly interesting in its attention to Austria-Hungary. Indeed, in Watson’s slant on the outbreak of war, the Habsburg Empire was truly the key player, its need to go to war driven by its internal incoherence. Similarly of particular interest is the very clear account of Germany’s war aims, what happened in the East behind the front lines, and the examination of the collapse of German morale. If there was any ‘stab in the back’ it was the criminal incompetence of the Central Powers’ management of their own food supplies, a far more potent problem than the allied blockade. Watson draws clear pointers as to both the similarities of the techniques of the the military dominated German regime’s attitudes to the lands it conquered and those of the Nazi regime, but also the limitations of drawing such similarities.

A significant section of the book focuses on the food issue, and there is a danger of the reader disappearing under the sheer weight of facts. This is the section of a long book which is particularly lengthy. If one was to make any other criticism then it would be that the discussion of Austria-Hungary seems more rounded than that of Germany, but that may be an artefact of the issue that readers will be more familiar with the former than the latter. However, Watson is a fine and engaging writer, and the detail is  testimony to his mastery of areas of which many historians of the British Army remain in ignorance.


Review – Suzie Grogan “Shell Shocked Britain” (Pen & Sword History, 2014)

This is a disappointingly frustrating book. It is well-written and bounces along through a number of interesting topics in an engaging way, but it is misleading. The title is really the give-away. The author reassures us on one page that not everyone was traumatised by the experience of the First World War, yet gives the impression on another that indeed they were. Nowhere is this more clear than in her inclusion of the statement of Dr Peter Heinl: ‘Unless proof has been provided to the contrary, I regard anyone who has survived the war as having been traumatised in some way or another. Neither Heinl nor Grogan seemingly understand that it is inherent on the proposer to disprove the null hypothesis, not to presume it, without evidence, to be untrue until others prove it correct. Science isn’t done this way. Further, this statement denies those who experienced the Great War the dignity of having applied their coping skills and survived psychologically intact. As many did. The implied scorn of the attitudes of society of 100 years ago is based on 20-20 hindsight. You don’t do history like that.

There is heavy reliance on references from novels, the usual inclination towards the war poets whose supposed monopoly of truth is so rarely challenged, and psychoanalysis. Grogan’s style is notable for its absence of footnotes. Although there is a bibliography, there is little indication as to what statements are supported by what evidence. One suspects that a good proportion of that which is written is the author’s assertion rather than any research-based fact and goes through on the nod as a given based on the ‘fact’ that everyone nowadays knows that trauma is everywhere. Don’t they? As John Bourne and Bob Bushaway have noted:  ‘It is a modern conceit that soldiers must necessarily be traumatised by war’. (in G.R. Husbands, Joffrey’s War, p.20).

The book is also full of irritating errors. The British Army did not “identify and treat approximately 80,000 young men for shell-shock”.  That was the maximum total supposed in retrospect for all “nervous disorder” and we don’t know their ages. (Grogan never refers to Peter Leese’s conclusion that the true figure is 200,000 of over five million who served – the unspoken impression is that it is many more than that.). “Many”, it is asserted, had apparently “succumbed” to shell shock “within the first 12 months”. A contemporary report in fact suggested that by the end of 1914, 7 to 10 per cent of all officers and 3 to 4 per cent of other ranks had been sent home ‘suffering from the effects of nervous and mental shock, due to strain, stress and exhaustion’. (McPherson, ‘Medical Diseases of the War’ Vol Two p.9). The American Civil War ended in 1865, not 1875. Edmund Blunden’s surname is not spelled Blundon. The “bank balance hypothesis” of a finite amount of fortitude did not inspire forward psychiatry during the war – the notion first appears in the evidence of William Tyrrell in the 1922 “Shell-Shock” report. “50 per cent of all those killed had no grave”? No – 50% have a known grave, 25% of burials in graves are unknown, 25% were never recovered. One could go on.

Another review says that this book is a “perfect introduction to the subject” of shell shock. This reviewer does not believe it is. The area is complex – it requires a grasp of psychology, psychiatry, sociology, and military and social history to truly do justice to such a broad topic. Go read Peter Leese “Shell Shock”, or Edgar Jones and Simon Wessely “Shell Shock to PTSD”.

The Lauries – A Military Family

Browsing in the church of St Mary, Northiam, I came across a stained glass window.

Laurie Window

The first question was why was it there. Captain (John) Hallibuton Laurie died fighting for a Canadian Regiment – The King’s Own Rifles of Canada – and both he and Lt-Col George (Brenton) Laurie had no known association with Northiam. No information concerning the church could shed light. The answer comes from the stained glass window that was the Laurie inscription window’s twin. This celebrated Lt-Col Charles Bradford-Brown, died 1909. He, it transpires, had married Helen Laurie, the daughter of John Laurie (1797-1864), a saddler and sometime MP for Barnstaple. Helen’s brother was John Wimburn Laurie, the father of the men in the window. Helen was thus honouring her nephews.

Investigating the Lauries throws up the issue of military families in the British Army. George Brenton Laurie rose to be CO 1st Royal Irish Rifles, and 23% of colonels during this period came from a military background. George’s father, John Wimburn (1835-1912), served in the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, seeing action in the Crimea, the Indian Mutiny, the First Boer War (1881) the North West Frontier Campaign of 1885. In 1861 he was one of 5000 troops posted to Canada, Nova Scotia in his case, to protect Canada in event of war with America. He saw service in the Fenian raids of 1866 and 1870. He became Inspecting Field Officer of the Nova Scotia Militia and a member of the Canadian and British Parliaments (the latter on return to the UK for Pembroke & Haverfordwest). He became a Lieutenant-General in 1887, being the highest-ranking officer in Canada.


John Wimburn Laurie is seen here with his three military sons. John Halliburton Laurie (standing centre) was killed in action at Philippolis, South Africa on 12 April 1901, aged 38, rescuing a wounded patrol. The son standing right is currently unidentified. George Brenton Laurie is seen standing left. He graduated from RMC, Kingston, Canada, and was commissioned in the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, then stationed in Halifax. He went with them to Gibraltar in 1886, and on to Egypt in 1888. He took part in the Nile Campaign in 1889, but, contracting smallpox at Assouan, he was sent home to recover, and spent two years at the Depot at Belfast,
rejoining his battalion in Malta. He was promoted Captain in 1893, and when the Rifles came back to home service he obtained an Adjutancy of Volunteers in Devonshire in October 1896 until  March, 1901 when he was appointed a special service officer, including the command of a mounted infantry battalion for the South African War. He was present at operations in the Transvaal, Orange River
Colony, and Cape Colony, between April, 1901, and May, 1902, having been Mentioned in Despatches for his services (London Gazette, July 29th, 1902). He then served in Ireland, and in October, 1904, obtained his majority. Afterwards he served in England till, becoming Lt-Colonel in 1912, he went out to India to take command of the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Rifles. He wrote the History of his Regiment, having previously written a history of ” The French in Morocco,” compiled from many sources during his years in the Mediterranean. His battalion was in Aden in August 1914, arriving in France in November.

GB Laurie

On March 10th, 1915, his unit took part in the attack on Neuve Chapelle. 
A sergeant-major wrote : " Our Colonel was every where, encouraging his men, and seeming to bear a charmed life. He knew no fear, and walked quietly in front of us as if no bombardment were going on." On Friday evening, March 12th, a fresh 
assault was ordered. Laurie rallied his exhausted men, and, calling out 
"Follow me! I will lead you!" he sprang over the parapet, revolver in hand. A 
moment later he fell shot through the head.

It is difficult to imagine that George Laurie would not have progressed to brigade 
command if he had not been one of the 40 out of 157 regular infantry COs of 
August 1914 killed in action or died of wounds.

William Colsey Millward – Cricketer, football and tennis player, Private to Brigadier-General

I visited the grave of Lt-Col William Colsey Millward yesterday, at St Nicholas, Pevensey.

MIllward grave

William Colsey Millward was  born on 6 November 1886 in Kidderminster, son of Arthur Millward, a carpet weaver. His grave states he was a Lieutenant-Colonel, but he had in fact been promoted Brigadier-General. He was one of three citizens of August 1914 to reach this rank, the other two being George Gater (see elsewhere on this blog) and Spencer Weston, a stock exchange clerk.

Millward was a considerable sportsman, and had played cricket for the Worcestershire second XI and Sussex, (his father Arthur apparently played with W.G. Grace on a number of occasions, and became a first-class umpire who stood in two tests). He was also a keen footballer, playing for Dulwich Hamlet including an all-England Amateur Cup Final. He and his cousin even entered the men’s doubles at Wimbledon and reached the quarterfinal. He was a clerk in August 1914 working on the Argentine railways, having been in Argentina since 1909 (playing football for River Plate, and cricket for Southern Suburbs in their match against the MCC) and being home on leave enlisted in 11th Sussex on 9 September 1914, (“Lowther’s Lamb”s, his father being a recruiter). He was commissioned two months later on 1 November. He was promoted captain commanding a company in August 1915, entering France on 16 March 1916 and major second-in-command in July 1916, taking command of the battalion he had joined as a private two and a half years earlier on 31 March 1917.


He was awarded the DSO as commanding officer, showing ‘splendid leadership and ability’ in launching an attack and holding the captured position for two days, displaying ‘great coolness, courage and determination’. He was  buried on three occasions by shellfire  and on one of those occasions was the only man to be dug out alive. He was promoted brigadier-general in March 1918 with 116 Brigade but 11 days later (29 March) whilst shaving outside his tent at Ignaucourt, south of the River Somme, suffered wounds to his left leg from a shell which, after five days, resulted in amputation. He spent months in hospital at Rouen. Millward was clearly a man of exceptional ability. It says much of the British Army’s pragmatic approach that two clerks reached the rank of Brigadier-General. Post-war he became a Davies Cup Umpire.

The Embankment Fellowship Centre Memorial, Tidebrook, East Sussex


I was wandering in Tidebrook churchyard, East Sussex, and came upon this memorial stone bearing 17 brass plaques. The inscription reads: “The Embankment Fellowship Centre in memory of those who served in the Great War 1914-1918 who lived and died at Downgate and are buried here”.

The EFC (now Veteran’s Aid) was formed in 1932 to assist ex-servicemen and ex-merchant seamen “of all classes over the age of 45 and who are in distress by providing food, accommodation, and clothing. The Centre also helps finding employment”. Downgate was a rehabilitation centre accommodating 40 men, and the charity also ran a permanent home, Hollenden House at Bexhill and a hostel in London, at 59 Belvedere Road, SE1.

The 17 men on the memorial are:

Charles T. Bartlett, KRRC, died 14/01/1948, aged 70

Patrick Campbell, RE, died 01/06/1951, aged 77

John Clifton, 7th London, died 08/03/1951, aged 62

Soloman Cowan, RAMC, died 11/05/1948, aged 72

George Fry, Middlesex Regiment, died 18/10/1945, aged 74

Jeremiah Hennessey, RE, died 13/07/1940, aged 67

Robert G. Hough, Rifle Brigade, died 10/11/1947, aged 67

Robert A. Innes, RFA, died 29/09/1948, aged 69

Albert J. Kingwell, Middlesex Regiment, died 08/03/1951, aged 58

Thomas Major, CD, died 07/11/1953, aged 90

Frederick S. McManus, Sussex Regiment, died 20/04/1943, aged 65

George Russell, South Wales Borderers, died 26/03/1946, aged 70

Alfred H. Searle, RASC, died 11/12/1939, aged 63

James Smith, RFA, died 04/05/1944, aged 60

Samuel Soar, Grenadier Guards, died 24/01/1944, aged 73

John Symons, died 29/01/1944, aged 65

Alfred G. Vere, Royal Marines, died 31/01/1945, aged 51