First World War

From Mons to the Marne: A Diary.

This Diary was written from memory a year after the events occurred, all notes etc. having been lost when I was hit.

So begins the war diary of Major Beauchamp Tudor St. John of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.

Major St. John was a professional soldier at the outbreak of the War, and quite well-connected. Nevertheless he records his incredulity at the thought of a great European conflict, even considering the intransigence of Serbia and the knowledge that Britain would indeed support France against Germany.

Shortly before war was declared, he was sent with a small detachment to guard Bedhampton water works from attack by foreign agents – a task he believed himself completely incapable of achieving considering the meagre resources at his disposal, not to mention the absence of most Staff Officers at the Goodwood Races. Then, following the general order to mobilise, it was discovered that the fighting efficiency of the regular army would be severely reduced by the massive influx of Reservists necessary to bring the numbers up to a respectable level for a continental expeditionary force. Finally, to crown this catalogue of errors, there was even a threat of strike action from the seamen of the Union Castle Line, which has been engaged to send the Regiment across to France. Once disembarked at Le Havre, the camp site was poorly chosen and supplies were unavailable. The war had not started auspiciously for Major St. John…

After just a few days the Colonel convened a council of war, and orders were issued to intercept the German advance in Belgium. The Battalion was to guard a section of the canal and railway west of Mons, which they quickly fortified before the Germans arrived. The ‘approach of the dreaded Uhlans’ was certainly met with some competent resistance by the British along Major St. John’s line of defence, but they were finally out-witted by a dastardly Hun ploy to release children onto the battlefield, creating a diversion which allowed them to cross the canal and flank the British positions. The inevitable consequence was an orderly retreat back beyond the town where trenches could be dug. In the morning, however, they discovered that their position had been compromised by a spy pretending to be drunk the previous evening, leaving their flanks dangerously exposed once again, precipitating yet another retreat. This action was quickly countermanded, sending the men back into the trenches, and then an hour later an official order arrived signaling a retreat once again. The Battalion then found itself trapped and exposed on a road behind a make-shift barricade in a village. Major St. John declares it was pure luck that they were not rushed and destroyed at once by the Germans, and that they saw an opportunity to leave their position and re-join the main retreat.

The Uhlans continued to chase them and, even as new trenches were dug,  it was decided to evacuate Belgium altogether. The retreat became progressively more chaotic, and the men’s feet were ruined by the rapid pace – Major St. John reports 62 miles in 48 hours. Shortly after this he was attacked by a nasty case of the runs and was sent off to see a doctor once the Battalion had crossed the Marne and passed through Meux. Near Le Maus, having escaped the hospital, Major St. John found a ‘luxurious life of eating and drinking, shooting and motoring’ at Chateau Chardonnieux for 10 days, before starting out on “Light Duty” at the base garrison in the town. During this time he noticed a brilliant example of German forward planning and thoroughness:

About Six or eight months before War broke out a commercial traveller came to Le Maus and proceeded to flood every sort of little shop with a patent boot polish called “Lion Noir”. This was planted on very advantageous terms to the middleman or retailer on condition that a sign, showing a black roaring lion on a yellow background with a tin of boot polish between its pads, was exhibited outside the shop… In some the head would be looking one way, in others the opposite way. Some had tails going straight, some had a twist in them, the legs of the beast were different in some to those of others and so on. The object of all this was a code for directing a rapid raiding party to every sort of place such as the Bank, the Cathedral, the Barracks, etc. I used to amuse myself following up the various clues to see where I got to.

It wasn’t until 13th of October that Major St. John was able to board a train the return to the front, by which time the general retreat had halted and skirmishing with the Germans had begun. After one final maneouver of the line trenches were dug and the Western Front as we know it best today began to take shape, albeit without the complex support trenches, dug-outs or reserve systems of later seasons. In just a week the Brigade lost 12,000 men.

On 1st November Major St. John was hit in the right arm and twice through the neck by machine gun fire as he tried to cross a short patch of open ground. Owing to a long series of lucky chances he was rescued, made it back to England, and made a full recovery, despite being given up for dead on a number of occasions. Like so many private unpublished diaries of the First World War, Major St. John’s is detailed, eloquent, astute and often brutally honest about the numbing horror of mechanised warfare. It is hard to say, though, quite how much store should be set by such a detailed account written entirely from memory a year after the events concerned – one might compare it with the questionable account written by T.E. Lawrence about his involvement in the Arab rising agaisnt the Ottoman administration in Damascus, which Lawrence famously left on a train just as it was ready for press.

This diary, and many other very special books relating the the First World War, will be available in our Summer Great War Catalogue.

James Murray, 08/04/16

Beyond the Great War

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The Great War in Europe was not the only prelonged conflict in the early twentieth century. War had been endemic between Mexico and the United States for decades, and in 1916, before the US officially joined the European war, it was very much business as usual.

In March 1916 the rebel Mexican General Francisco ‘Pancho’ Villa attacked the US army near Columbus, destroying the border town in the process. President Woodrow Wilson sent out an expeditionary force to apprehend the General, which nearly led to another war between the two countries. Later known as the Pancho Villa Expedition, this was in many ways a pivotal moment in the Great War as well, since a full-blown conflict with Mexico would have prevented the much-needed influx of US troops on the Western Front in 1917. Indeed, the now infamous Zimmerman Telegram of January 1917 actually proposed an alliance between Germany and Mexico, designed to keep the US out of the war in return for generous financial support for a Mexican reconquest of territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

In our up-coming Great War catalogue, due to be released in the summer, we have an intriguing scrapbook made by the family of one of the National Guardsmen sent out on this expedition.

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The brilliantly named ‘Hunk’ Hevenor left his family home in Albany, NY, in June 1916. Aged just 21, he was given a few weeks of basic training before being sent down to New Mexico to take part in the expedition. At this point his family appears to have started a scrapbook about the conflict and his part in it. There is a map of Mexico and a number of newspaper articles relating to the activities of ‘B Troop’ pasted in at the beginning, along with some photographs of Hunk and other soldiers in the troop. Later, letters and postcards sent home by Hunk appear, addressed to his sisters Edna and Margaret and his father, ‘Benj’.

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‘Hunk’ Hevenor

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Trench warfare in Mexico

Having survived the Mexican Border War unscathed, Hunk was called up once more with the 6th Division to fight in France in July 1917. By October the Division had been reorganised as the 27th Infantry Division under John F. O’Ryan, who leant his name to the design of the new shoulder insignia (see below). Hunk’s has been cut out and inserted into the scrapbook, along with his Private’s chevron.

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The 27th Infantry Division’s shoulder insignia, featuring the Orion Constellation.

Strangely, there are just two letters home from this period featured in the book – one from 1917 and another from 1918. Whether there were more letters which have now been lost, we shall never know. What is most interesting is that the Hevenor family clearly considered the Pancho Villa Expedition a far more significant event than the distant war in Europe.

Hunk’s discharge papers are here too, dated 2nd May 1921. He is listed as being wounded in July 1918 during an air-raid, but left the army in good health, returning to his regular employment as an advertising writer.

In sum, the scrapbook tells a compelling personal story from the Great War period, consising mainly of letters back home not from Northern France, but from the Mexican border, where the stakes were just as high.

James Murray, 05/02/15

Letterhead of the Greek Lodge,  © James Murray 2015

Masonic Lodges in Constantinople (not Istanbul)

Working with rare and valuable books has a tendency to make the extraordinary seem rather ordinary. You start to wonder how certain agglomerations of leather, cloth, paper and ink can be worth so much. These doubts are cast aside, however, when confronted with something which makes a personal connection with you. The truth is that books, letters and diaries provide the most direct links between individuals from the past and those living in the present. Although it is the messages they transmit which are invaluable, surely paper and ink are no less valuable as tangible markers of history than art or architecture?

It is with these thoughts in mind that I encounter a fascinating letter, pulled from a mass of mouldering legal documents. It is a personal missive, possibly wrapped up in a bundle of paperwork by accident, and now in my hands entirely by chance.

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The Letter in Question, © James Murray 2015

Dated 30th April 1921, the paper is blind-stamped with the Royal Arms and carries the stamp of the Office of the British Captain of the Port, Constantinople, to the top right. This context alone makes the letter an important historical document, having been sent during the Allied occupation of the Ottoman Capital following the defeat of the Empire in the First World War. It also belies the fact that the modern city of Istanbul has only been so-called since the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Before that date, and since the city’s re-foundation on 11th May 330, it was known as Konstantinoupolis, ‘The City of Constantine’, by the Greeks, and then Konstantiniyye by the Ottomans.

When the British, French and Italians summarily occupied the city in 1918, much as the Allies occupied Berlin after the Second World War, it was quietly assumed that Constantinople would once again pass under Greek sovereignty. Indeed, at the time the letter was written Greek armies were at the very gates of Ankara, and had occupied most of Western Anatolia, where hundreds of thousands of Greeks then lived.

The writer, however, does not seem especially concerned with the political situation. Signing himself off as ‘Claude’, he addresses ‘Dear Uncle Paul’ – a Partner at Whitelock & Storr Solicitors, then based in Bloomsbury, London. Uncle Paul, it transpires, was also a senior Freemason at the centre of a web of contacts in business and government. Claude indicates that with the letter he also sent a manuscript copy of the ‘History of the Turkish-Greek Masonic movement’, written by a Greek brother in French, which he hoped Uncle Paul would be able to translate and send on to ‘Headquarters’.

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Looking over Galata Bridge from Büyük Valide Sultan Han, © James Murray 2012

Claude was employed in the administration of the British sector (the north of the city, including Galata, Pera and Şişli), working a ‘very strenuous’ seven hour day in the office, as well as overseeing the harbour and occasionally supervising the dawn opening of the Galata Bridge, which spanned the Golden Horn, linking the most important districts of the city. He goes on to explain that he misses his wife, ‘Uncle Paul’s’ niece, Iris, and that he hopes the authorities will grant her a free passage to join him before too long.

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Istanbul, from Caroline Finkel’s ‘Osman’s Dream’, John Murray 2005.

Besides this rather perfunctory note, there is another scrap of paper. It is a form produced by a Greek Masonic lodge, probably based in the French-controlled central district of the city, Constantinople proper. Although Greeks, Jews and Armenians lived all over the city at this time, making up about one third of the total population, the Greek community was strongest in the Phanar district (now Fener), where the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Greek Church can still be found today. This location is all the more likely given that the paper states that the lodge was ‘In the name of, and under the protection of Greater France and Greece’, while the motto of the French Republic, ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, is reproduced in Greek.

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Looking over modern Balat and Fener from the Greek Patriarchal School, © James Murray 2012

The form has scrawled onto the back of it a ‘confidential’ note for Uncle Paul, in which Claude describes his initiation at this Greek Masonic Lodge. Having been taken to a black room covered in Skull and Crossbone symbols, surrounded by brothers wielding swords, the unsuspecting Claude was compelled to drink vinegar, among other rituals, before being treated to a formal dinner including fawning toasts in French to Merry England and the Mother Lodge.

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Letterhead of the Greek Lodge, © James Murray 2015

Despite a history of repression in the Ottoman capital, Masonry had clearly firmly established itself in Istanbul by this time, since Claude also expresses his intention to visit other lodges, namely the English and Armenian, on future occasions. Occasional Masonic symbols dotted around the city, as well as the unmistakable Masonic architecture of the Sapuncakis Köşkü on the island of Büyükade (built 1904), are testament to the fact that the movement had a strong underground following well before the Allied occupation of the city.

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Sapuncakis Köşkü, © James Murray 2012

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Masonic symbols? In Fener, © James Murray 2014

With evidence of British, French, Greek and Armenian friendship and collaboration via Masonry, it is perhaps unsurprising that Masonry was again suppressed when Istanbul was returned to Turkish sovereignty. Whether or not the influence of the movement was instrumental, Greeks, Jews and Armenians had managed to win concessions at the expense of the predominantly Muslim population from the Allied authorities, thereby destabilising the delicate politics of the heterogeneous city. Over the next forty years these very significant and wealthy minority populations would be subjected to intimidation, seizure of property, and even organised pogroms, leaving the city almost exclusively Turkish and Muslim by the late 1960’s.

Claude’s letter, then, was sent from a city on one of the most significant thresholds of its 2500-year history. From Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire –  still neatly defined by the great walls built in the early fifth century by Anthemios, city prefect of Emperor Theodosios II, and home to Christians, Jews and merchant communities from all over the world – it could have become the New Rome of its Byzantine past, capital once more of the Greek diaspora.
In the event the city was retained by Turkey, and it has since grown into the largest city in Europe, fuelled mainly by mass migration from the poor Eastern regions of the country. It is also one of, if not the most vibrant, prosperous and culturally rich cities in the Muslim world, where East really can be said to meet West.

James Murray, 30/11/15

Bibliography:

Clark, Bruce, Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey, London, Granta Books, 2006.

Cornucopia Magazine, issue 53, 2015.

Finkel, Caroline, Osman’s Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire 1300-1923, London, John Murray, 2005.

Layiktez, Celil, The History of Freemasonry in Turkey, 2001. http://www.freemasons-freemasonry.com/layiktez.html