30 November 2012

A Murder of Crows

The Culture of Crows

I read today that Penn State University Campus is being plagued by hundreds ('if not thousands') of crows which have returned to roost this winter, attracted by the warmth of the site at night.  And "their homecoming again has created an unsightly and unsanitary problem here for those trying to dodge the droppings falling from the sky."  So action is being taken and noisy flare guns are going to be used to frighten the birds away.  "They were coming in from the east," emailed one eye-witness.  "The students were dodging strafing runs from Eisenhower Deck to Thomas to Ritenour. It was just like a scene from ‘The Birds.’ People looked up, but not for long; everyone was running.....”
And yeah, those Hitchcock birds sure did scare us.  Tippi Hedren gashed by flashing beaks, the evil eyes, the malicious intent.....  They were real birds, too, you know.  Not actors.

The poor crow has always had a bad press.  In the Book of Leviticus it is cited  as one of the things not fit to eat, which perhaps is why the Washington Post had this headline on November 28th: "No crow on Obama-Romney lunch menu," as eating crow is the US version of eating humble pie (where umbles = deer guts (so they say) ie not nice to eat.....) 

It is also a bird of fear, an omen bird.  Macbeth notes that:

"Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to the rooky wood;
Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,
Whiles night's black agents to their preys do rouse." 

And four centuries later Ted Hughes picked up the image of the haunting, dark-spirited being, and charged it with emotive danger.
"Where is the Black Beast?
Crow, like Owl, swivelled his head....."

You can see Ted Hughes explaining his choice of Crow for the poem sequence in a film clip from 1970 on Youtube, at:

Pretty bad press.  Poor bird.  'Birds Britannica' pulls no punches, stating that the corvids (while recognisiing that there are various species in the UK family, including the Magpie, the Jackdaw, the Jay, the Raven, as well as the Carrion Crow), "Remain the most unloved of British species...."  There are reasons:  crows are renowned for pecking out lambs' tongues and eyes, and even for eating human flesh.  Though, as survivors, should we begrudge them their survival?  We eat pretty much anything that moves or has roots.....

I find myself on the loving side.  On the side of John Clare, one of the biggest selling poets of the 1820s, who with his patient focus on the natural, especially feathered, world, saw what others never saw, and who loved the, "sooty crow.....  I love to see it sailing to and fro."  Clare spent most of his early life in the open, as a labourer, or simply lying in thickets waiting to see a particular bird (no binoculars).

"How peaceable it seems for lonely men
To see a crow fly in the thin blue sky
Over the woods and fealds..."

On my way to work, a lonely man seeking some peace, early in the dark, a moon falling out of the crisp night sky, I am watched by a murder of crows.  They have scoured their way across the common to a plane tree outside the Harpenden House Hotel.  They chatter and flapple, congregate and dissociate, enacting parliamentary divisions on the moments of the day.

I am struck by their diplomacy;  they carry no guns, no placards; have no aides, no PAs, no agendas.  Swirl, settle, chackachacka, swirl, fly.  There is no suggestion of evil, past the predictable blackness of their garb.  These are birds (pace Tippi and Alfred and the host of twine-pulling studio hands); they show us how individuals fit into groups (and have to); they show us thrift, imagination, community, conservation, and perhaps they show us a sense of making the best of things?  As Clare observes:

"And often flap their sooty wings
And sturt to neighboring tree 
And seems to try all ways to sing
And almost speaks in glee...."

Kevin McGowan, Cornell Lab of Ornithology associate and co-editor of the second New York State Breeding Bird Atlas, is an authority on the crow family and gave the following as an answer to the question, 'What is one thing you wish everyone knew about crows?'

"I wish people understood that the groups of crows they see are often families, not gangs. People attribute some sort of malicious intent to what crows do when they’re just trying to raise their kids like everybody else. It would be nice if people actually thought about it as mom and dad and the kids from last year who are still helping them raise young. It’s not a bunch of juvenile delinquents coming through and trying to cause trouble."

Standing under the cold, bare tree in the early commuter light, I get some subtly puzzled glances, but the birds don't mind.  With my iphone I shakily film these busy fellows for a few seconds.  There's nothing ominous about them; like the bipeds on their way to the station, these birds are up for earning a crust, as soon as it's light.


The way that crows are integral to our culture is not immediately obvious.  As a boy I lived in a house called Crowstone, and never thought about the etymology....  Later I listened to a band called 'Stone the Crows,' and never thought about the name.  I have been to Crowthorne, Crowhurst, Crowthorpe.....

North America has a lot to answer for, not least its version of the ubiquitous corvid, but it also has the Crow (Apsáalooke) Tribe of Indians, with a membership of approximately 11,000, of whom 7,900 reside on the Crow Indian Reservation. Eighty-five percent of these speak Crow as their first language. The tribe was originally called "Apsáalooke," which means "children of the large-beaked bird."  White men later misinterpreted the word as "Crow."   Perhaps we have all misinterpreted the word 'Crow.' 

I stand below the ragged flapping coal black tattered flocks of life, grateful that diversity helps us put ourselves in perspective.....

"Who is stronger than death?

Me, evidently.

Pass, Crow."

For the final scene of Hitchock's "The Birds" see:

But please note it was the gulls that started it......

And here is Crows, the Movie.....

24 November 2012

The Battle of Blenheim

Landed.  Gentry?

Just left of centre, James, Marquess of Blandford, 1969

On August 13th, 1704, the English and Austrians, under the 1st Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene, beat the French and the Bavarian armies near the village of Blenheim, in Bavaria.  The home team lost 30,000 killed, wounded, and prisoners, while Marlborough only lost 11,000 men. The battle damaged the prestige of Louis XIV, and when Marlborough returned to England Queen Anne granted him and his heirs the 2,000-acre royal manor of Woodstock, and Parliament voted to provide funds to build on it a magnificent palace, on behalf of a grateful nation.  As something of an oversight, however, the “grateful nation” neglected to set a budget, and consequently the project ran into difficulty and, when this was complicated by a fall from favour, the family ended up having to foot much of the bill themselves.  Eventually, a decade or so after the Duke’s demise, with the grumpy help of architects Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor, the baroque fantasy was completed, with its 187 rooms covering seven acres under the roof, and its vast maintenance costs, which have necessitated many marriages for fortune (from the 9th Duke marrying Consuelo Vanderbilt, through an Onassis and W H Smiths, to the 86 year old 11th Duke’s fourth wife, Lily Mahtani, in 2008 – Lily is the daughter of Narinder Sahni, former executive of the Hinduja Group and the well-divorced ex-wife of Nigerian-based tycoon Ratan Mahtani).

Anyway, “The Battle of Blenheim” became the subject of a poem by Robert Southey, who was not in favour of the recruiting drive for anti-French troops in the early nineteenth century.  The poem has an old man, Kaspar, telling his grandchildren about “a famous victory” which was fought near his cottage when he was a child (and which nearly cost him his life as an infant).

"It was the English," Kaspar cried,
"Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for
I could not well make out;
But everybody said," quoth he,
"That 'twas a famous victory.

Kaspar cannot remember why it was fought or what good came of it. He only knew that it was a "great victory." The moral of the poem is that while the ruling classes fought for more power and glory; the peasants fled from burning homes, and the soldiers fell on the fields. The poem gives an idea of the real value to humanity of such famous victories as that of Blenheim.

 "And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win."
"But what good came of it at last?"
Quoth little Peterkin.
"Why, that I cannot tell," said he,
"But 'twas a famous victory."

Anyway, I was reminded of this when I caught a documentary on Channel 4 the other evening, entitled, “The Aristocrats” and there’s the 11th Duke and his wife and, lo and behold, there’s Jamie, his wayward son, and all of a sudden I recall the same upstart’s voice many years ago, and his cheeky leer, as he said, “I’ll clap you in irons, Sir!”  The circumstances of this energetic and well-meaning threat were that I was a Gap Student teacher at Perry House prep school and James, Marquess of Blandford, was attempting to get his Common Entrance. 

The school was at that time housed in Dunrobin Castle in Sutherland, as Gordon Perry had had the misfortune to fall out with his wife, who owned the lease on the building housing his school in Gloucestershire.  This coincided with the Countess of Sutherland wishing to have one of her son’s crammed through the necessary tests by Mr Perry.  When he explained he would love to help but had no home for his school, the Countess obligingly said, as one would, “No problem, you can come to my castle….”

And so, wearing his butler’s shoes, Jamie dispensed aristocratic threats to the likes of me, the lower classes.  He was, then, I admit, a likeable boy, with a carefree attitude to almost everything and something of a sense of humour.  I do not remember teaching him anything, exactly, but I fancy I read “Lord of the Flies” to his class, and it didn’t take much to fathom that he was more Jack than Ralph.

That was forty-three years ago, but seeing and hearing him on the television brought it back instantly.  I had not followed his career closely, though I had picked up his difficulties through the press – his blowing four grand in a week on cocaine, his broken marriage, the attempt by his father to disinherit him – and now we see the father and son back together, not exactly loving each other, but the old man prepared to give his prodigal a chance.

The programme, with a quotation about family difficulties from Tolstoy (who quit his deathbed to avoid his wife) as a headstone, made sycophantic enquiries of the octogenarian pluri-espoused Duke as to his intentions for the family pile, and daringly provocative demands of the newly restored Dauphin as to his reliability, and his holiday plans.  It was, as one would expect, a laugh a minute.  The big project covered by the documentary was the construction of a £2m block of loos for visitors:  the one thing the current Duke does not expose to his paying guests is his own loo….    If you missed it, please click on the video below and enjoy a two minute edited verison of the three hundred year long documentary (with subtitles for the hard of hearing).....

Fifty million pounds has apparently been spent on Blenheim since 1955.  The current Duke inherited it in 1972 and says that he could not  have made the palace pay without opening it to the public.  Nowadays some 500,000 people visit every year.

Alan Bennett’s latest play “People” is currently showing at the National Theatre, and causing something of a stir in the National Trust, which takes issue with Bennett over his apparent criticism it.  In an essay published on November 8th in the London Review of Books, Bennett has this to say:

I have never been entirely confident that the glimpses one is allowed in stately homes of the family’s ‘real life’ always ring true. Years ago I was filming at Penshurst Place, the home of Lord de L’Isle and Dudley, and I wrote in my diary:

‘Ah,’ one thinks, ‘a glimpse here of the private life.’ But is it? Is this really a private room or just a private room for public consumption? These drinks (and the bottle of vitamin pills beside them), have they been artfully arranged to suggest a private life? Is there somewhere else, another flat which is more private? And so on. The impression is confirmed by the hall table, on which are all the viscount’s hats: his green guards trilbies, his bowler, his lumberjack’s hat that was plainly presented to him on some sort of ceremonial visit. Surely, all this is meant to be seen?’

Bennett is rightly uncertain about the validity of some "cultural" tourism, though it is not for him or me to dictate what others should do with their leisure.  Some may enjoy inspecting the upstairs downstairs worlds of yesteryear just as some enjoy “Downton Abbey,” and others may enjoy running marathons, just as some like to visit stadia to follow their football team:  it is not for us to judge taste.

However, I have another train of thought.  My encounter with Jamie Blandford was enabled by Elizabeth Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, the 24th Countess of Sutherland, who benevolently lent Dunrobin Castle for the purposes of education (albeit private).  Like Alan Bennett I experience doubt when visiting stately homes; I do not wish to criticise work in conservation nor the benefits to all of allowing us to appreciate how others may have lived, etc, but there is a limit to the number of plastic chickens on silver platters I can face, and there are times when I seriously doubt the value of preserving corridors of third rate family portraits, leather suitcases and billiard rooms for less fortunate folk to touch their forelocks at.

I got the job with Perry House and Jamie Sunderland/Blandford on the back of a few weeks as a guide in Dunrobin Castle; I spent day after day guarding Canaletto paintings, Mortlake Tapestries and a view of gardens modelled on Versailles.  Garibaldi left a slipper in a glass case, and Alice, another guide, (coincidentally surnamed Sutherland - who had been a maid there in the days of the 5th Duke) could not help giggling nervously at any enquiry into the role she actually played in her youth when an employee of the family.  One day two middle aged couples from Yorkshire visited, and one of the group, a portly chap in corduroys, looked around, stretched his braces with his thumbs, and breathed in deeply.  “Eeeee,” he exhaled.  “The very atmosphere gives ee kulchur….”

Sorry, that’s a digression….  My train of thought is this.  If Elizabeth Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-Gower can turn her castle into a school, how much more could be made of the 200,000 square feet of buildings and 2,000 acres of Capability Brown landscaped parkland?  As it was originally a gift from a grateful nation, perhaps it is time for a dysfunctional family to return it to the nation, and not, I hasten to add, as a memorial to their way of life, nor a picture gallery of engineered marriages and unloved offspring, but as something really useful.  A hospital perhaps?  As in times of war when such 'homes' were requisitioned on behalf of the state; Jamie says in the documentary that the Marlboroughs are, “Good in times of war…. (the proper role of the Spencer-Churchills,)” and he also says of the palace that, “When you’ve got a monster like that, albeit a pretty monster, it’s like having a high maintenance wife….”  Well, perhaps we should take it off him, especially if that is how he feels about it?

Do we need to know whether he will be fit (he suffers from SAD syndrome, he laments) to manage the estate?  Even with a board of trustees, which include his younger brother?  Do we need to worry about the upkeep and future of such a place?  Why not turn it into something practical and beneficial? 

And here is my master plan….  With its ideal location, splendid buildings, and magnificent, fairly level park, is it not the perfect place for an airport?  You could check in in the ball room, browse the picture gallery while having a coffee, then take off across the lake…..  The loos are new, so no problem there, and there’s plenty of room for cars and buses.  Job done!  And the people of Putney and Uxbridge could sleep at last.  Oh, and the Duke and his newly functional family would have no need to move out; they could plane spot just like the Windsors.  In fact there would even be a role for Jamie after all, something really valuable, like Chief Customs Officer….  “I’ll clap you in irons, Sir.”

James Spencer-Churchill, aka Jamie, Marquess of Blandford (on the left above in 1969, and below as he is now), was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but in memory of the 41,000 men who lost their lives at the Battle of Blenheim, perhaps this particular set of cutlery should be gifted back to the nation now?

Landed.  Just landed:  The English Gentry......

18 November 2012

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity

The Lesson for Today

It is not often, I do confess, that I take down my bible, but it is there to hand, and is a part of my culture.  Certain lessons, certain passages, certain quotations, lie in my mind as part of the accumulation of experience and language that make up whatever it is that I am.  This is not to do with faith or belief; somehow within the soup of my cortex there are sediments of sayings and sightings that inform and rehearse without determined reason.  When it comes to faith I am little more than a goldfish staring through the glass of my bowl, aware that I float in some medium, but more preoccupied by currents and appetites than what may have caused me to exist.  "For in much wisdom is much grief....."

But with or without certain convictions, I find there are times when the words of the Preacher come to mind.  Perhaps they are simple, but where's the harm in that?  I attended a funeral last week, paying respect to the mother of an old friend.  "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh....."  It was a beautiful day, for a funeral, and the eulogies by her sons brought to mind a full and purposeful life, and we sang 'Abide with me,' and remembered that, "To every thing there is a season..... A time to be born, and a time to die."

It's something of a dance step from the Preacher to the Tree (of Life) but as in Piero della Francesca's 'Resurrection' the seasonality of deciduous trees as symbol for the cycle of birth-death-rebirth is well-known, and my vain tree shedding its leaves to feign death as winter stealthily darkens the world stands as an example to us all.  In pre-Galilean times the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem, would not have known orbital facts, nor have understood the axial variations that make us change our clocks, but the emotional intelligence was similar.  He knew there was nothing new under the sun, and asked, "who can tell a man what shall be after him?"

Modern day Preachers, such as Bob Dylan, two thousand years too late to qualify for inclusion in the bible, but none-the-less users of poetry to express views on plain truths, help us understand ourselves, help us face the void outside the goldfish bowl, for example:

"Don't have the inclination to look back on any mistake,
Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break.
In the fury of the moment I can see the Master's hand
In every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand."

Or, to be more profane, thinking of my tree, its leaves stripped and blown,:

"...even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have
To stand naked."

17 November 2012

After Claude

Landscapes with Trees

The Orange Street entrance to the National Gallery in London takes you (almost) straight to Middelharnis.  Meindert Hobbema's painting of "The Avenue of Middelharnis, 1689" is one of the picures I most like to inhabit, walking down the unpaved road, past the man trimming the saplings in his plot, toward the rusty collection of brick and tile buildings in the distance.  There is a calm there that is a relief from the busy world outside, where Nelson dominates Trafalgar Square and traffic perfumes the air.

But nearby hang some other trees, where Claude Gellee (better known as Claude Lorrain) plays with the effects of light on leaves, delicately idealising landscapes from the Villa Madama in Rome, for example, infusing it with dawn or dusk and creating pastoral scenes from Virgil's poetic world.  His trees form the background to Narcissus and Echo, or shade Psyche outside the Palace of Cupid, or frame a Goatherd and Goats.  The subjects, painted three and a half centuries ago, are curiously quaint to us now, but the shapes of the trees, the exquisite detail of individual leaves and the impression of soughing boughs and fluttering light, sometimes with the sun quite in the viewer's face, are as fresh as if they grew this year.

I rest in the peace of these rooms, not much frequented compared with the buzzing enclosures of the Impressionists, and drink in the greens and golds, bathing my city dirty eyes.

Then, wandering towards the darkening skies of London, I pause to admire Jean Baptiste Camille Corot's "The Four Times of Day," where four canvases depict the same scene at Morning, Noon, Evening and Night.  The dash of the 19th Century, as opposed to the care and craft of the 17th, is apparent here, but there is still a beauty about the trees, the way they reach up toward the light, and drift down toward the night.

Back in the countryside near home, a sunlit afternoon entices me out, and almost in play I place my iphone on the dashboard of my car, some Bach playing on the radio, and I experiment with the light on the autumn trees, some still holding their glorious leaves, some now bare sticks in the sky.  The effect, though uneven and crude is pleasing to the eye, as the treescape slips past the open lens, and an unusual perspective unfolds in the replay.  It's nothing like the scenes created on canvas, but perhaps there is some connection in our delight in woodland, sadly depleted in the modern world, and seemingly undervalued by the bullingdon philistines who sought to sell the remaining arboreal dells for profit.

11 November 2012





On Sunday 25th November, 1917, Lance Corporal Thomas Henry Gibbs (241730), then on active service with the ‘Gloster’ Regiment in India, recorded in his diary, “Date of wound, 1916.”

On Wednesday 5th December 1917, he wrote at the top of the page in his diary, “Left France for England 1916.”

In the heat and dust of India, the memory of those eleven days in France the year before must have been extraordinarily vivid for him to have so headed these two pages.

It is not certain where in France the injury occurred.  The 1917 diary is the only evidence now, but the Gloucester Regiment, which he had joined on March 4th 1916 (although it seems that he may have enlisted as 4909 Private Gibbs on December 10th 1915, under the Derby Scheme), was at the Battle of the Somme, which ran from July 1st until November 18th, and he had been transported from Southampton to France on August 13th 1916, so possibly he was one of the last, and perhaps one of the luckiest, soldiers to be wounded there, even though the battle was “officially” over?

According to the surviving records provided by the Soldiers of Gloucester Museum (T H Gibbs’s service record was destroyed in the Blitz during WWII) “H” Company, 4th Reserve Battalion, The Gloucester Regiment, were behind the lines in bivouac at Bouzincourt and received a draft of Other Ranks on 21st August 1916, which probably included Tom.  The battalion was then moved into front line trenches at Donnet Post on August 25th. 

Later entries record November being very wet with  snow.  Private William Woods recorded in his diary for November 21st, “The sodden troops cooled their heels in Middle Wood Camp.  The campo consisted of dozens of tumble-down shacks with perforated roofs, scattered over the face of a mud swamp on a bit of a hill.”  The Battalion War Diary records 23rd November 1916, for Middle Wood Camp, “In camp.  Working party.  Casualties Other Ranks: 1 died of wounds and 5 wounded.”  For 24th November: “Rain.  Working parties.”  And for November 25th: “In camp.  Rain.”  Perhaps Tom misremembered the date and he was one of the five wounded on November 23rd? 

It is impossible to recreate what happened, but, almost 100 years later, I can imagine something of what it might have been like.  T H Gibbs (who was my paternal grandfather) was born on the 26th September 1885, and so he would have been 30 years old in 1916.  His diary tells us that he was 5 feet 10½ inches tall and weighed 10 stone 11½ pounds.  His glove size was 8; his collar size 15; he wore size 7 hats and size 7.4 boots (that’s what it says!).  He was married to Dora Emily Snelling on June 5th, 1916, and died on July 1st, 1972.  At his death he still had a piece of shrapnel in his left humerus – I saw the dimpled scar which covered it.


I imagine it like this:  November would have been cold, and wet.  Records tell us it was raining.  There was standing water and mud in the trenches; the rats and rots were torrid.  The continued noise of barrages, from both sides, would have been intolerable up until the end of the Battle of the Somme, and the friction of being under fire and surrounded by death and injury would have been very very hard.  Although the Battle then ended, men were scurrying about, transporting supplies, and I imagine that at some sudden point, and we do not know exactly when (he may even have got the date wrong himself), but at some sudden point an explosive device landed near him.  The blast wave would have been like opening the door to a thousand ovens all at once, blistering gases from a blast furnace.  Then the suction of the airlessness, a vacuum pulling urgently at the lungs as the oxygen was sucked back to feed the greedy fireball.  Then, though then is the wrong word as all this would have happened instantly, the cutting through the flesh, the shapeless molten metal knifing shard embedding itself in the bone, cutting flesh and blood and nerve and forcing the body down in a splatter of mud and heat and cold and smoke and noise.

And then the lying there, ripped sleeve soaking up blood, nausea and blindness and a rushing cantering heat in the ears, the mud seeping cold through the clothes, the blood seeping warm into the rank pool of muddy sewage he was lying in.

Then, a seeming age later, a stretcher party, and shouting and lifting and bumping and jolting and running to the dressing station, where all manner of wounds were uncovered and covered and splashed with disinfectant and staunched and tourniqueted and bound and wrapped and blessed and cut and probed and bandaged and tied.

Then, perhaps a juddering cart ride to behind the lines, an age of waiting in some hallway or room with others groaning, crying, screaming.

Then, eleven days later eleven days, cold infection prone, uncomfortable, miserable days later…. the eventual transport back across the heaving channel to some kind of quiet.

My grandfather was a lucky one.  Despite the pain and anxiety, he had bought a Blighty one, and, he was soon able to return to the home of his father, Lieutenant J R Gibbs RN, of Dunsmoor, Knowsley Road, Cosham, to recuperate in peace.  Luck?  Many died in the lottery of the Blighty ones.  Millions could legitimately say it was not fair.  Their loved ones died, mangled, blasted, withered, disgorged in the mud and gore of the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge, and many more.  But it was not fair.  And Thomas Henry Gibbs did not choose his Blighty one.  He was near thirty when he enlisted.  In the 1901 census he was an apprentice cobbler (and one of his possessions at his death was a cobbler’s last) but by 1914 he was a schoolmaster, trained in Southampton and practising in Copthorne, Sussex.  Conscription was introduced on January 27th 1916, but he would have been older than the average, and may have volunteered to take his place in the rank and file of men prepared to die. 

Our contact now with him is limited, but we have his diary for the Year 1917, with an entry for every day of that year.  On the afternoon of January 1st 1917 he bought a prayer book for Dora, his wife, then played cards in the evening when his sister visited.  The next day, he took the 2.00pm train from Cosham to Three Bridges (arrived 4.12pm) drove to Akehurst Farm, Copthorne, where Dora lived with her parents, played whist and went to bed at 9.30pm.

The next day he received a warrant for his return to Cheltenham and on Monday 8th January he returned to H Company.  He faced medical inspections over the next two days and then after breakfast at 5.30am on Thursday January 11th he travelled north to Catterick Bridge.

The next few weeks were filled with parades and training – musketry, bayonet fighting, bombing, gas helmet drill, fatigues, lectures, platoon drill, escort duties, filling sand bags, and so on.  For relief there were concerts, and walks to Richmond (several miles each way) where there was a cinema, church on Sundays, books, and letters, letters, letters. 

On March 8th there was great excitement in the camp as the men were given embarkation leave, so on the 9th Tom travelled to Horley via Darlington and London to be reunited with his wife.  He then visited his parents before returning to Catterick on the overnight train from King’s Cross on March 14th.  It was bitterly cold, and they paraded in snowstorms over the next week, filling in time cleaning equipment and practising bayonet fighting and musketry.  On March 29th he “went bombing in the afternoon and threw live bombs.  Had been told that we were to leave for Mesopotamia on Saturday, therefore wrote to Dora, Mom, Ce, Auntie C, Mrs Harker and the Vicar…..”  They didn’t leave on Saturday.  On Sunday, after, “Church parade at 7.30am in blinding snowstorm,” the first part of the Mesopotamia draft left. 

Then on Monday April 2nd Tom’s company, “left Hipswell Camp at 6.30pm, marched to Catterick Bridge,” which they left at 8.45pm en route for Andover.  “Snow nearly all day so wore overcoats on the march and were quite fagged out.”  They arrived at Southampton at 8.30am and then had to wait until 3.30pm before embarking for Havre.  “Left at 6pm and had an awful passage across – frequent snow storms.  Majority of fellows on board were ill.  Felt jolly rotten and was not able to leave the upper deck.”

They arrived at Havre at 2.30am but were not allowed to land until 7am (French time).  They then, “had an awful march to the rest camp – wearing full pack and carrying rifles and kit bags.”  The next day they went by train from Havre to Marseilles, passing the snow covered Cevennes on Friday 6th and moving slowly down the Rhone.  They arrived at Marseilles at 2.30am on Sunday 8th April, but were not allowed out of the train until 5.30am.  They then marched to the docks and at about 8.00am they boarded the Cameronia, and Tom was detailed to B floor mess No.6.  They ship did not leave immediately, however, and on Tuesday 10th the men had to make route march through the streets of Marseilles.  Tom records that there were hundreds of folk about, “apparently quite interested in the 2000 odd men marching with rifles!”  On Thursday 12th their escort ships arrived during the evening and hopes were raised as to their departure; at 5.45am on Friday 13th he woke to find they were well on their way from Marseilles. 

Saturday 14th was, “a miserable morning and nothing but Sea – Sea – Sea (sick)….. “  On Sunday 15th they passed through the Straits of Messina.  Then, at about 5.30pm, Tom went to draw blankets for the mess when he, “heard a tremendous thud and was given to understand that [they] had been struck.”  Tom, “hunted around for a lifebelt as mine had been taken then went up on deck to find everything in confusion.  Everybody dashing for boats or jumping into the sea.  Fortunately I felt very calm and returned to mess to get my tunic then returned to promenade deck to wait arrival of escort alongside.  When she came I jumped into the same and felt safe.  A large percentage of men were taken on board then we patrolled round picking up others….. Submarine sighted, fired at and apparently sunk.  Arrived on scene of wreckage until help arrived from Malta – two other destroyers and a Japanese boat.  About 1.00am started on our way for Malta, hoping to arrive at about 8am.  Wind began to blow and at 6am we were on a very heavy sea…..Reached Malta soon after 11am and truly thankful for the same after our experience.”

6pm April 15th 1917, taken from the Escort Ship

They stayed in Valetta for ten days, with little to do and some excellent weather.  On Thursday 26th April they boarded HMS Saxon at 5.30pm, and left twenty-four hours later, with good weather and an escort of two Japanese destroyers.  They arrived at Alexandria at 11am on Monday 30th and were transferred by train to the Mesopotamia Details Base at 4.45pm.  It was very hot, “and the sand very trying.”  On Thursday 3rd May, with it still being exceptionally hot, Tom drew a pith helmet..  The next day he drew khaki drills etc in the morning. 

Over the next few days there were parades and route marches, but little to report until on Sunday 13th when he was knocked down by the French Consul’s car.  He had a badly bruised arm, hip and leg, and had to go to hospital to have the wounds dressed. With his arm still painful he visited the Consul’s house on the 17th and left a note to say he had called. 

On the 18th he was delighted to receive a letter from the Consul himself, but by then they were on their way to Port Suez, where they embarked at 6am, departing twenty-four hours later.

They reached Aden just before midday on Sunday 27th.  After coaling was completed they put out from the harbour at 3pm on Monday 28th, with various rumours about their destination.  On Tuesday 29th his entry reads: “Spent a very strenuous day lying about on hatchway, reading and playing cards. Almost cool today.  Bound for Bombay.”

And on June 5th, his wedding anniversary, they anchored off Bombay, after an uncomfortable and slow voyage across the swelling Arabian Gulf.  The next day they disembarked at noon and left by train to cross the Western Ghats to Belgaum, five hundred kilometres away and 750 metres above sea level. 

Gibbs, Bishop, Brees, Sims

The weather was bad, as the monsoon rains seemed to have poured down almost every day, forcing the cancellation of parades and marches.  Tom reported sick on June 10th and was unwell, with dysentery, for some weeks.  When fit enough, he was trained in the use of the Lewis gun, and occasionally there were inspections, fatigues, physical drills and lectures.  Life seems to have been slow, with many days being, “Parades etc as usual, otherwise nothing to note….” Or, “Another very wet day.  Parades curtailed in conclusion….” but a high point was reached on Saturday August 18th when he spoke for the opposition in a debate on the subject, “Are Cinemas an influence for moral evil?”  The opposition won by an overwhelming majority, and by 9.00pm at that!

On his 32nd birthday, September 26th, all he recorded was, “Church History Class at Chaplain’s Bungalow at 6.30pm,” although his entry for October 3rd, “Morning spent digging drains around tents for C Coy’s draft,” is subscribed, “Transfer to Wed 26th ult.” so it seems that the emptiness of days may have been confusing him.

On October 27th they left Belgaum for Poona, which was an overnight journey away.  The style of entry changes, and life seems a little jauntier, with instruction and examinations, then visits to the bazaar, pictures at the Empire, and tea at the Italian Café, even returning to camp at 12.15 am on November 10th.  But then they returned to Belgaum on November 20th, which was where he was on Sunday 25th when he wrote, “Date of wound 1916,” and where he still was on December 3rd when he recorded that he, “Left France for England 1916.”  On that particular day he also recorded “Field operations today.  Parade at 5.30a.m.  No further parades.”  What was he thinking?  Was it relief to be in the heat and rain of India, far from the firing line?  Or was it guilt that he had escaped worse injury or death when so many of his comrades had fallen? 

Intermittently throughout the diary there are entries about snippets of news, such as June 1st, “Message came through of the sinking of hospital ship in the Mediterranean (Dover Castle?)” and June 7th, “Heard of torpedoing of HMS Transylvania.” What did they know of France?  What were they doing in Belgaum?  The British Raj had had a base there for very many years, and it was known in some circles as the Cradle of the Infantry, but it was perhaps ironic that while 15,000 British Troops were stationed in India during the First World War, about 800,000 Indian men took part in the battles in Europe, where they were particularly badly prepared for trench warfare in winter.

Tom's Shadow - Beautifully Preserved

It is probable that the declaration of post-war policy presented to the House of Commons on August 20th 1917 by the Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, lay behind the deployment of troops in the sub-continent (though it is also a fact that the Mesopotamian Campaign was run from India).  This speech referred to the, “gradual development of self-governing institutions, with a view to the progressive realization of responsible government in India as an integral part of the Empire.”   With problems in Ireland after the Easter Rising, difficulties in the Middle East with the British taking control of Baghdad on March 11th, and the capture of Jerusalem on December 11th (after the Balfour Declaration in November which proposed the settlement of Jews within Palestine), the British administration in India had a sense that without a significant presence all could have gone awry.  There had been Home Rule agitation in 1916, and the Lucknow Pact between Hindus and Muslims the same year warned that political unrest was not far below the surface.  General Dyer’s spectacular blunder at Jallianwala Bagh was still some way off, but Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was, quite literally, girding his loins, having left his suit in South Africa in 1915.

It is a platitude that the world was changing beyond recognition.  But it was, despite the truism, a point of no return.  The Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, had abdicated on March 8th of that year, and the Bolsheviks overthrew the Russian provisional government on November 7th. The Americans had declared war on Germany on April 6th and their first troops had arrived in France on June 25th.  On July 17th the British Royal Family had changed its name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, to Windsor. On July 31st the Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele) had begun.  The Battle of the Somme had seen the first use of tanks in warfare, zeppelin raids had become commonplace over London, and on January 31st 1917 Germany had announced unrestricted submarine warfare, as witnessed by my grandfather in the Mediterranean. 

Anyway, Thomas Henry Gibbs, then acting Corporal in the Gloucester Regiment, stationed in Belgaum, was doing his duty.  On Christmas Day 1917 he attended Holy Communion at 7.00am, then went for a walk with three friends.  He “Slept during afternoon – feeling very poorly,” and “went to bed soon after 6.00pm.”  On Monday 31st 1917 they had Parade at 6.00am, then “Marched to Race Course where we practised for Review which takes place on Jan 1st 1918.”  He received letters from Dora and others in the afternoon, then his last entry for 1917 reads, “Evening parade after which went to Gardens.” 

And there the diary ends, apart from a list of ‘books read’ on two pages with the printed heading “Notes for 1918.”  The last book listed was “Whirligigs” (O’Henry) and he has noted that it was “v.poor.”  The first sentence of that book is: “A favourite dodge to get your story read by the public is to assert that it is true, and then add that Truth is stranger than Fiction.”  We have had my grandfather’s diary in the family since it was written in 1917, and do not question its authenticity, but so much is unsaid that the picture is indeed in some ways stranger than fiction. 

However, Thomas Henry Gibbs was real, and lived to die a grand old man at the age of 86 on July 1st 1972, survived then by his wife of over fifty years, a son, a daughter and six grandchildren.  After Belgaum he moved to Bangalore and though we have no further written diary, he has left us a photo album with affectionate snaps of his mates (Dobbs and Smudger, Bish, “Floss,” Steve and Freddie et al), churches and temples, transport workers, Dhobies, Christian Girls at Drill, and Armistice Reminiscences, Nov 11th 1918.

He stayed on there until 1919, then came home, returning to be organist and choirmaster at the Parish Church of St James, West End, Southampton, which post he had held since 1907.  He remained there until 1923, when he was appointed Head Master of the Church of England Schools at Northchurch, Hertfordshire, where he was also organist and choirmaster of St Mary’s, until his retirement in 1945.

Thomas Henry Gibbs’s service in the First World War was unremarkable, perhaps, and, perhaps, he had good fortune in comparison with the millions who suffered terrible injuries and death, but his records in his diary for 1917 and photographs of 1918 bring that distant world to life and stand as a tribute to the way so many lived through those years.  The repetition, the dullness, the separation from loved ones, the sensation of being moved about the face of the earth like a piece on a game board, all come across very clearly, but at no time did my grandfather complain.  He did what he had to do, and despite the boredom, the illness and the discomfort he shows the sense of humour I knew well.  The Personal Memoranda on the cover of the diary bear this out:  Season Ticket No. χ; Stores Ticket No. π; Bicycle No. β; Bank Pass Book No. θ; Telephone No. Δ.

In his life, Tom remembered those who died, and now, in remembering him, and through him those who gave their lives, I hope it is not inappropriate to quote from the inscription on the marble slab covering the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, composed by Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster:


The boys in Bangalore recovering
November 12th 1918

Thomas Henry Gibbs
Headmaster of Northchurch C of E School