Wednesday, 28 October 2020

The Big Guns of Fort Ino / Fort Nikolaevsky - Russia (1906-1920)

A couple of years ago I was persuaded to take a road trip from St Petersburg to Helsinki looking at sights associated with the Winter War 1939/40 (not that I needed much persuasion!). It proved to be a fascinating journey and I was astonished to discover how much remains of the various conflicts which have been played out across the strategically important Karelian Isthmus. The Mannerheim Line is relatively well known to most Western based military history enthusiasts but the static defences built to protect St Petersburg, the old capital of Russia, are less well known.

Gun Emplacement - Fort Ino

One such site is Fort Ino (as it was known by the Finns) on the northern side of the Gulf of Finland, a key lynchpin of the shore and island based batteries covering the approaches to the important Russian naval base at Kronstadt. Now in Russia, during its brief operational life it was at various times in the hands of Finnish nationalists and the Finnish State - and in 1918 its fate was finally determined by German interests.

The location of the Fort (which is named after the nearby village of Ino) can be seen on the map illustrated here. Kronstadt, now linked to the mainland by the St Petersburg ring road which runs across the top of a giant barrage, can be seen bottom right. The city of St Petersburg (previously Leningrad) is just off the map to the east. To see the site on Google Maps click here.

The construction work on Fort Ino was started in 1909 and after the harbour and rail connections were completed in 1912, some 40 guns were installed including a truly massive 12 inch naval gun. At that time Finland was a nominally independent Grand Duchy - in actuality under the control of the Russian Czar. Fort Ino and Fort Krasnaya Gorka on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland were designed to protect the approaches to Kronstadt and St Petersburg beyond.

12 Inch Naval Gun - Schematic

Partially Wrecked Naval Gun - Nargen Island - 1918

As the Finnish Civil War drew to a close in March 1918, the fort was occupied by the Finnish Red Guards and was ceded to the Soviet Union shortly afterwards in exchange for the city of Petsamo. In May of that year the Finnish White Guards (on the winning side of the Finnish Civil War) laid siege to the fort and, faced with an impossible situation, the Soviet authorities withdrew support for the garrison - fearing that failure to do so would represent a breech of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. The troops manning the fort destroyed the facilities and withdrew to Kronstadt on the  Russian warship Respublika (Republic).  The pictures above show the scale of the main gun emplacement. The Nargen Island picture shows 'self designated' Soviet Republic sailors and builders protesting against the evacuation of an Estonian battery in similar circumstances - i.e. Soviet fear of provoking the Germans post Brest-Litovsk.

Exploring the Tunnels at Fort Ino

The destroyed Fort did not see service again - indeed during the Winter War (1939-40) and the Continuation War (1941-44) neither the Finns or the Red Army found any use for the smashed fortifications. The site was a forbidden zone until the late 1990s but is now accessible with care. 

First View of Fort Ino

The following extract from a local source gives a sense of the scale of the remaining structures, most of which can be explored relatively easily.

The forts armaments consisted of more than forty guns of various calibres. The fort had two coastal batteries for four 152mm Kane guns, two batteries of eight 254mm guns and eight 279mm howitzers, which fired a distance of 15 to 18km.

Around the positions lay a whole underground town of galleries, shelters and magazines. The casing was a two metre thick layer of concrete designed to withstand a direct hit from a heavy shell. In addition there were battery and group command posts with a three tiered control centre and rangefinder pavilions. Near the main shafts, concrete shelters were built for 76mm assault field guns which could be rolled out to specially prepared positions.

The 12 inch battery turret was an imposing concrete structure with two gun towers each. Inside these colossal buildings were casemates, magazines, barracks, an underground railway for moving ordnance and an electric lift. The building had steam and water heating - the pipes of which are still in situ. In addition to the main turret the fort had a 12-inch battery with four open single-gun mountings.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Steep Holm - Somerset's Fortress Island

A story about Steep Holm's military history should probably start with the island's third and final name change. The word 'holm' is Danish for 'river island' and the description 'Steep Holm' almost certainly came into use during the Viking era. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 914 AD a great force of ships commanded by two Danish Earls came into the area and conducted a series of raids. Historians generally agree that the islands in the Bristol Channel were used as refuges and raiding bases by the Vikings during this period. Prior to the arrival of the Danes, the island had been called Steopanreolice and earlier, in Celtic times, it was known as Ronech.

My interest in visiting Steep Holm related to a much later period however. In 1865, in the face of rising anxiety about the state of Britain's defences, the island was designated as a fortress and work began on a new landing platform on the south side, a circular military road on the plateau, a 49,000 gallon underground water tank, barracks, stores and six separate gun batteries (four of which would be doubles with ammunition stores underneath). 

The trip to the island from nearby Weston-super-Mare is something of an adventure. I travelled by rib on one of the regular excursions which are scheduled throughout the summer. There is no dock or harbour at Steep Holm and so the weather and tidal conditions have to be right. The island is uninhabited now but indications of prior habitation are everywhere. In particular the ruins of the Steep Holm Hotel are very evident on the main access path up to the plateau on top of the island.

As one walks up the path from the East Beach it is possible to see the remains of the narrow gauge railway system that was installed in 1941 by men of the 116 Pioneer Company  in order to allow heavy ordnance to be moved around the island quickly. Movement up the section running from the landing point to the edge of the plateau was enabled by a winching system, remnants of which can be seen. The railway tracks were repatriated from France where they had been laid to move supplies to and from the Western Front. 

The building work in the 1860s and early 1870s created quite an economy on the island and at that time there were a number of civilian inhabitants who were kept busy serving the needs of the military personnel. The installation of fourteen seven-inch muzzle loading cannons was a major logistical challenge. The initial complement of men was 68 as recorded in 1872 but this number began to dwindle as the threat of invasion by France diminished. By 1890 there were just five gunners on the island, under the command of Master Gunner Levi Collins. His wife, Jane, is one of only two women known to have given birth on the island - a boy named George born in 1890.

Steep Holm was one of four forts that deployed coastal artillery to stop enemy ships gaining access to the Severn Estuary and threatening places like Bristol and Gloucester. The batteries at Lavernock Point in Wales, Flat Holm, Steep Holm and Brean Down were carefully located so as to cover all of the approaches. Early in the 20th Century the Victorian guns were removed from Lavernock Point and Brean Down for scrap but removal from the islands was an expensive undertaking and so on Steep Holm nine of the original gun barrels remain in situ - mostly in the emplacements that originally housed them.

During the First World War the island was used as a lookout by the Coastguard and, after occupation by various colourful characters, contractors started to dismantling many of the military structures and buildings in the 1930s. Everything changed with the threat to Britain posed by Nazi Germany from 1939 onwards. In May 1941 plans were laid to refortify the island and in July of that year troops from the 930 Port Construction and Repair Company started work. Sadly, three men from the Company died when the Royal Navy tender New Roseland capsized in heavy seas. Sgt John Harwood, Cpl G. Bull and Sapper W. Moyse became the first and only known wartime casualties at Steep Holm (Sgt Harwood is buried under a CWGC headstone in Weston-super-Mare Cemetery).

Four emplacements were built for six-inch ex-Royal Navy guns and they can all be visited today - with care. At the time that they were installed the guns were already 40 years old and one had seen service on a merchant ship from 1939 to 1941. The four guns - in a dismantled state - were brought onto the island with help from Pioneers from the Royal Indian Army Service Corps. Tank Landing Craft were used and after being winched up the narrow gauge railway track they were hauled into position using mules.

The War Artist, Miss Ray Howard-Jones painted a picture of one of the guns in 1941 - 6' Naval Gun Emplacement, Gallipoli Gun, Steep Holm (IWM ART LD5325). There are clues as to who manned the batteries in some of the remaining buildings. 

There is a Bofors gun still on the island and it is seated on one of six concrete mounts that may have been constructed for that purpose (see earlier picture). The gun that is installed is a post-war a relic and there is some dispute as to whether there were anti-aircraft guns on the island at all - a recently installed notice says there were six. There were Lewis Gunners present but there is no record of Anti-Aircraft units being based on Steep Holm. 

The big guns on the island were never used in anger. Gunners are reported as saying that they were frustrated when low flying German bombers skimming the waves could not be touched because the guns could not be sufficiently depressed. By the end of 1943 the batteries on Steep Holm were reduced to 'care and maintenance' status and at the end of hostilities German POWs were drafted in to dismantle the installations and remove the railway winches and trolleys. The wartime pier was demolished after the naval guns were taken away for scrap.

And what of the island now? Well it's been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is a haven for birds and other wildlife. Whilst I was there I walked out onto the pebble promenantry which is exposed at low tide and watched seals feeding in the surf. The island is now owned by The Kenneth Allsop Trust (a registered charity). For more information I recommend the book Steep Holm's Pioneers by Stan and Joan Rendell.

Thursday, 20 August 2020

The Pawlett Barrage Balloon Hanger (1940-45)

 The Pawlett Barrage Balloon Hanger must be one of the biggest enclosed spaces in Somerset, eclipsed only by the generator halls at the nearby Hinkley Point nuclear power station complex. I'd almost given up looking but an elderly local resident directed me down a narrow roadway leading down to the lower reaches of the River Parrett. Tucked away in a fold in the landscape, the site is is clearly well suited to discreet activities.

The Barrage Balloon Hanger at Pawlett

In 2011 The Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society undertook a survey covering The Defence of the Bristol Channel in the Second World War (ISBN 978 0 902152 23 6). An application to have the hanger listed was rejected in November 2001 so I was half expecting the structure to have been dismantled. It's still there though, and it's an impressive building.

The Pawlett Hams (as the area is known) was chosen as a suitable location for secret experiments by experts at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough. the first experiments were concerned with the breaking strain of German barrage balloon cables - an example had come loose of its tether and had drifted into the North Sea where it was picked up for analysis. 

The process of inflating, deflating and manoeuvering a barrage balloon was time consuming and manpower hungry so the hanger was built in 1940 to house a single fully inflated balloon which could be deployed quickly and efficiently. The hanger measures 100 x 70 x 80 feet high and it dwarfs the buildings around it.

The efficacy of the cables was tested by flying specially modified aircraft into them. These aircraft had strengthened wing edges and it strikes me that it would have taken a lot of guts for a pilot to deliberately fly an aircraft into wires tethering a huge balloon full of highly inflammable hydrogen gas. This hanger and several at Sutton Coldfield, were the only facilities of this type in the country. Sadly the ones in the West Midlands are long gone so Pawlett has the only surviving example.

In the cemetery at the St John the Baptist parish church there is a memorial to the crew of a Blenheim which crashed onto Pawlett Hams on 5th July 1942. The aircraft along with the bodies of Sgt James Anderson, Sgt Adam Hogg and Sgt Gilbert McBoyle was recovered by local enthusiasts in 2007. My initial reaction was that the aircraft may have been lost during one of the aforementioned experiments. However, in looking up the incident, it seems that the aircraft (Blenheim IV R3912) was lost on a cross country training flight having taken off from RAF Bicester on a cross-country training flight. The aircraft involved in the balloon experiments flew from RAF Exeter and later RAF Churchstanton on the Blackdown Hills.

The picture shows, from left to right, Sgt Hogg, Sgt Anderson and Sgt McBoyle. It would seem that the aircraft was practising dives over the nearby Pawlett Hames ranges, to the east of the hanger. The ranges were used for the initial trials of 500lb and 1000lb bombs and for testing the dispersion of incendiary bombs. Later they were the location for testing the aerodynamics of objects falling at high speeds. In 1945 both the range and the hanger were decommissioned.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

Totleben Fort, Kronstadt, Russia (1910-1950)

The COVID-19 pandemic has put paid to a number of battlefield walks this year, including an extended visit to Belarus to explore the 1944 Bagration battlefields. Time to sort out material from previous trips then - and this blog entry covers a boat trip to the fortified island of Totleben in the Gulf of Finland. Totleben Island was part of the seaward facing St Petersburg defensive ring of which the great Russian Navy base at Kronstadt formed the lynchpin.

The author in front of Totleben Fort in 2018

Tortleben Fort was built on a sandbank four km west of Sestroretsk and ten km from Kotlin Island. 
Construction was completed in 1910 and what was, until then, called 'Fort A' was renamed 'Totleben' after the Baltic German military engineer Eduard Totleben who at age 18, in 1836, joined the Imperial Russian Army with the rank of Captain. He never commanded a great army in the field but he was responsible for the construction of the formidable defences at Kronstadt and, later, around Sebastopol where he was appointed an Adjutant General. As an aside, my Great Great Grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Taylor whilst serving as a private soldier in the British 17th Regiment took part in an attack on Totleben's 'Great Redan' in the Crimea on 18th June 1855.

Totleben Island
In 1915 an inventory shows that the fort was fully armed and garrisoned with 800 men. It had a freshwater reservoir, a desalination plant, a church, a cinema, a telegraph office and other facilities. It saw no action during the First Worlds War, nor did it feature in the events of 1917. 

In 1923 the armament was upgraded with the installation of four 8-inch guns recovered from the Russian cruiser 'Rurik' which had been scuttled after performing well - but not without severe damage - at the Battle of Ulsan (14 August 1904) during the Russo-Japanese War. The fort was active during the Winter War of 1939-40, its guns had a range of 20km and were able to support the Red Army's offensive on the Karelian Isthmus.

203mm (8-inch) Gun Position - Totleben

Comparison - 203mm (8-inch) Gun 

We travelled to the island in a small boat from Kronstadt. The journey took a couple of hours and we passed a number of other fortified islands. Nowadays Kronstadt is linked to the mainland by the Saint Petersburg Dam which was built about fifteen years ago. We sailed underneath the only bridge which allows the passage of ships through the northern arm of the structure. The orbital motorway which traverses the dam was still under construction when I first visited St Petersburg almost twenty years ago and I remember locals driving around the barriers in order to take shortcuts along the road even though it's surface had not been put down and they were driving on gravel.

Our transport
The island is uninhabited and everything is accessible, so armed with maps, local expertise and head torches we explored the decaying rooms and corridors of the impressively large military complex. 

The main purpose of our visit was to better understand the role played by the Fort during the 1941-44 Siege of Leningrad. During this period the Fort was an active part of the northern defensive line facing the Finnish forces who were holding the encirclement lines at the foot of the Karelian Isthmus. The defenders were attached to the Soviet 23rd Army and initially played a purely defensive role in protecting the Sestroretsk area from Finnish attack - indeed, according to Russian sources an amphibious assault by Finnish forces was successfully repulsed in the early days of the siege (though I can't find a reference to this in David Glantz's pretty definitive history). 

The rear of Totleben Fort with Sestroretsk on the skyline

The panorama above shows the rear of one of the gun emplacements with Sestroretsk in the distance. The guns were active against Finnish positions on the Beloostrov to Terijoki axis during the Red Army's successful attack against the Finns in June 1944. After the Second World War, in the period 1950-54 the Fort was upgraded with new electrical and communication systems. Waterproofing work was undertaken in the vaults and an anti-chemical protected bunker was installed. 

Totleben Fort - Interior

Just one year after the Fort was upgraded, in 1955, the guns and ammunition were removed. In 1958 the military presence was stood down and after formal decommissioning contractors removed any remaining valuable metal components. In 1985 it was moved to the jurisdiction of the St Petersburg (then Leningrad) local authority. More recently the site has been listed by UNESCO.

Other stories from our 2018 'Winter War' Tour. 

The Fight for Vyborg 1944 - Here
The Continuation War (1941- 44): Finland's Dilemma - Here
Owl Mountain / Gora Filina (Finnish / Soviet) Base - Here
The Amphibious Attack at Losevo (Winter War / 1940) - Here
The Anatomy of a Soviet Bunker (1941-44) - Here
The Lemitti Pocket / Motti (Jan - Feb 1940) - Here
The Fight for Sortavala and the Northern Shore of Lake Ladoga - Here
The Transit Camp at Hanko, Finland (1941-44) - Here

Friday, 17 April 2020

Clevedon's Victorian Gun Battery

In the late 1850s a wave of anxiety swept through the British military establishment. The letters page of the London Times was awash with concerns about Britain's vulnerability to foreign invasion. The letter writers had a point - the British Army and the Royal Navy were sorely stretched in defending the Empire and were engaged in a series of colonial and foreign wars. Indeed in a single decade the British had taken on Czarist Russia, an Indian insurgency and most notably the Qing Emperor in China, a country with a population of 500 million. 

Clevedon Volunteer Artillery (Source Unknown)

Ironically, the concerns were centred on France who were, of course, Britain's coalition partner throughout this period. Some sixty years earlier the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had changed European geo-politics for ever. Those with very long memories recalled the last French invasion of Britain in 1797 (the invasion battlefield at Fishguard is the subject of one of my earlier posts). Much later, the coup d'├ętat by Louis Napoleon in 1852 induced a particularly acute bout of invasion panic and in the ensuing years a number of steps were taken to strengthen Britain's costal defences and raise a local militia who would backfill gaps in home defence.

Clevedon Pill - 1878 (Rob Campbell Collection)

The volunteer movement got underway in 1859 and the Clevedon Artillery Volunteers (initially known as the 1st Somerset Artillery Corps) were formally adopted into the 1st Artillery Volunteer Corps (Portishead and Clevedon) on 18th June 1860. At its' inception the Corps mustered nearly 45 men and almost a year later The Weston-super-Mare Gazette was reporting a roll of over 50. The unit was commanded by various members of the Elton and Trestrail families up until the point of its disbandment in 1908. 

Clevedon No. 9 Battery - May 1888 (Elton Archive)
Captain Sir Edmund H. Elton
 (middle seated row - 6th from the left)

The Clevedon Volunteers went through a number of iterations the most controversial one being their incorporation into the Gloucester Artillery Volunteer Corps as Battery No.9 in 1880. According to some secondary sources there was a strong local preference for the unit to be brigaded with any of the southern counties. Certainly in 1908 (18th March) the Western Daily Press reported that it had been hoped that the Clevedon Artillery would be united with Weston-super-Mare as a Somerset Corps and then made into the Horse Artillery or something useful. 

The Wain's Hill Battery - Recently Restored

The Clevedon Volunteers' gun battery overlooked The Pill, an area of coastline characterised by small creeks suitable for supporting an amphibious landing (the topography has changed since a pumping station was built in modern times). It was formally inaugurated on the 14th August 1860 when the Corps' two guns (landed from the Juverna) were put in position - one on the battery site and the other in the 'Drill Shed'. The Volunteer Service Gazette and Military Dispatch described the day as one of the gayest ever witnessed in Clevedon with flags flying from every church tower. Clevedon formed just a small part of the Bristol Channel picture. 

Clevedon Artillery Volunteers - Clevedon Pier - 1893

Around the same time a series of batteries were strung across the channel from Brean Down to Lavernock Point in Wales with two heavily fortified islands in between - Steep & Flat Holm. Since 2016 a local volunteer group - The Friends of Poets' Walk - have put in hundreds of hours of hard work into clearing the battery site near Wain's Hill (referred to as Battery Hill in a press report of 1878) - along with the adjacent 2nd World War era Home Guard depot. The Clevedon Civic Society generously donated resources and expertise in order to stabilise the remaining structures.

'Big Bertha' 1932 (Derek Lilly Collection)

What about the guns? I haven't examined many primary sources but by a process of deduction it is possible to work out the basic story. An edition of the Weston-super-Mare Gazette on 17th September 1864 tells us that the Clevedon Artillery Corps was originally equipped with two eighteen-pounders and these are referenced in press reports from the opening of the battery - as quoted above. In his book Clevedon: Places and Faces the late Rob Campbell mentions a  '64 pounder'. Indeed contemporary press reports reveal a 64 pounder was used in Heavy Artillery competitions between (at least) 1882 and 1889 at Wain's Hill. The original guns had in fact been replaced (or perhaps augmented) by the aforementioned RML (rifled muzzle loading) 64 pounder and a 40 Pounder RBL (rifled breech loader). In 1899 the two guns were, in turn, replaced by 40 pounder RBL's adapted with a side loading action. There are a number of photographs of at least one decommissioned 40 pounder RBL with side closing, still in situ at the battery but with the breech and vent piece removed. 

Clevedon Battery - Two 40 Pounder RBLs - (Ted Caple) 
The Left Hand Cannon - Close Up (Jane Lilly Collection)

The two side loading 40 pounder RBLs latterly deployed at Clevedon was the 'Land Service' version of the RBL 40-pounder Armstrong Gun. The naval version was mounted on an iron traversing carriage but the picture above shows the Land Service block trail carriage variant. 226 of these guns were issued to Volunteer Artillery Batteries in 1888-89. Clearly the remaining guns were rendered inoperable - and became tourist attractions - when the battery was decommissioned in 1908. In 1916 the Western Daily Press was reporting that influential residents had asked for the removal of the obsolete guns from Dial Hill (sic). It doesn't look like they were removed at that time but according to a Council Road Committee report they were 'dismantled' (probably deactivated). In June 1924 Clevedon Council approved the payment of 6d per annum to the Clevedon Court Estate so that the two obsolete guns could remain in situ - this despite 'other members' saying the guns were neither useful or ornamental. Rob Campbell has the guns being disposed of in 1940 so as to avoid the unwanted attention of the Luftwaffe. Local historian Jane Lilly says that one of the guns was offered to Sir Ambrose Elton as a decorative piece for his lawn and this is borne about by a 1924 report in the Western Daily Press which said that the two guns and the German howitzer mentioned below should be offered to the Lord of the Manor

First World War German Howitzer at Pier Copse (Rob Campbell)
Pier Copes - April 2020

In 1919 a First World War era German howitzer (with carriage) was placed in Pier Copse overlooking the entrance to the Pier. The gun had been allocated to Clevedon by the A.S.C. Transport Officer based in Exeter.The current whereabouts of that gun is unknown although at least one local person remembers playing on it as a child. So what happened to the three guns in the end? Well, thanks to Mike Taylor on Twitter, we now know that the two old guns (erroneously described as Crimean War relics) were put up for sale in 1938 having been moved and hidden during the Great War. The article discovered by Mike - Wells Journal, September 1938 - says that a relic of the last war, a captured Austrian howitzer, has already been moved from Pier Copse. (Clearly the point about the two older guns being 'hidden' prior to 1919 is contradicted by the Clevedon Council minutes for 1924 quoted above so there remains some doubt as to exactly when they were moved away from the old battery).

The artillery competitions at Wain's hill left a legacy though -  a popular local pastime in the 1950s and 60s was cannon balling. At low tide local teenagers would wade out onto the mudflats and retrieve bullets, cannon balls and other items of ordnance from the area in front of the old battery. In the 1960s the remains of an old target looking like a burst barrel was a prominent feature on the foreshore.

Cannon Ballers on The Pill in the 1960s (Derek Lilly Collection)

As with many topics, the snippets of information included in this blog post pose more questions than answers. 

What about the men of the Corps? Who were they and what happened to them? Well that story will have to wait for another day.

Wednesday, 8 April 2020

What the Centenary of the 1918 Armistice meant for Clevedon, North Somerset

At 11:00am on Sunday, 11th November 2018 a maroon was fired from the end of Clevedon Pier as part of a moving service of remembrance.  This has been an annual event (with some breaks) since 1918 when Captain Rowles – the piermaster at the time - fired two rockets upon hearing news of the signing of the Armistice on the morning of the 11 November 1918.

In 2018 it was 100 years since Marshall Ferdinand Foch (for the Allies) and Matthias Erzberger (for Germany) agreed to end what is now known as the First World War at the end of a hurried negotiation conducted in a railway carriage deep in the Forest of Compi├Ęgne, France.

'There But Not There' on Clevedon Pier

Over the course of the previous four years the Great War had hugely impacted Clevedon. Aside from the thousand or so men who served in various capacities, many local women had devoted their time to looking after wounded soldiers at the Oaklands Red Cross Auxiliary Hospital (Elton Road) and supplying garments to the fighting troops. Others helped in the Prisoners of War Food Depot in Hill Road and elsewhere. Young and old were involved – this was a community effort. For example; a few dozen fourteen year old girls were kept busy learning practical skills at the Clevedon Girls’ Patriotic Club in Old Street. There was even a series of events for the RSPCA Fund for Sick and Wounded Horses.

Despite local men leaving the town to enlist in the Somerset Light Infantry, The Gloucestershire Regiment, the South Wales Borderers and other units, in 1915 the town’s population swelled from 6,000 to 9,000 with the arrival of the 56th Infantry Brigade of Kitchener’s Army. These men – predominantly from Lancashire - were billeted in the large Victorian houses around Marine Hill, Princes Road, Chapel Hill and Linden Road at a cost of 2/6d per man per day.

Men of the 56th Infantry Brigade - The Triangle, Clevedon

We should of course remember the 208 Clevedonians who gave their lives for their Country in the First World War. Indeed, on Clevedon Pier  every one of these brave individuals was commemorated over a 100 day period through sensitively placed There But Not There silhouettes. Reading through these names one is struck by the scale of the overall loss and the variety of capacities and theatres in which the men served. Many of the names on Clevedon’s four main First World War memorials (All Saints, St Johns, British School and St Andrews) are recognisable even today as they belong to families with long local associations. 

For the ninety per cent of serving men who returned to Clevedon from the frontlines at the end of the war each had a unique story to tell – everyone had their own motivation, experience and memories. For some the return was incredibly painful for themselves and their loved ones because their lives were blighted by physical disability or mental illness. Others - perhaps the majority - quickly re-integrated into civilian life and played a part in making the town what it is today.

Armistice Day - The Triangle, Clevedon - 1969

Many historians had hoped that the centenary of the Armistice would encourage a broader public discourse about the legacy of the First World War. Sadly however the notion of ‘pointless sacrifice’ based on a perception that those who went to war were naive ‘victims’ lead by incompetent generals with the cynical support of conniving politicians has endured.

It is surely time to take a more nuanced view of the First World War’s legacy. A generation of young men whose life experience was shaped by their experiences in the trenches, on the high seas and in the air were instrumental in reshaping our society in later years.  For those at home, many would retain a pride in what they had contributed – and for women the forced involvement in work away from the confines of domestic drudgery had an emancipatory effect which certainly transformed society for the better.

Therefore, on the 11th November 2018, as people gathered in various locations around the town to mark the 100th anniversary, it was a time for all to reflect on the Clevedonians who were involved in the First World War and remember, with pride, their enduring legacy.

Note: With thanks to the late Rob Campbell whose book ‘Clevedon’s Own’ was a valuable source of information and to whom this article is dedicated. Pictures from the Jane Lilly collection.