I hear the sirens calling
As the rain is gently falling

William Ellis (4th Middlesex Regiment)

Today is Remembrance Day and I’m posting this picture in remembrance of my great-grandfather William Ellis. William was a private in the 4th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment and died at Bagthorpe Military Hospital in Nottingham as a result of gunshot wounds sustained in action near Ypres in Belgium in 1915. He is buried in his home village of Somersham in Huntingdonshire.

For more information about William Ellis, please read my earlier post Along the Menin Road.

Have you news of my boy Jack?

British troops from the 47th Divison (2nd London) advance towards the German trenches through a cloud of mustard gas on the first day of the Battle of Loos (25 September 1915). The gas had been released by the British themselves, but most of it blew back into their own lines. The event is described in detail by the poet Robert Graves in his war memoir, Goodbye To All That.

The Battle of Loos dragged on until mid-October, with neither side able to claim any sort of victory. The casualties included Rudyard Kipling’s son John, whose body was not found for many years, prompting one of Kipling’s most famous poems, “My Boy Jack”. My great-grandfather, William Ellis, was wounded in a diversionary action north of the main battle site on 4 October and died of his wounds in a military hospital in Nottingham almost three months later.

Life in 1960

The Trieste in Life magazine, 1960Marlon Brando in Life magazine, 1960Democratic National Convention in Life magazine, 1960I was an avid reader of Life as a teenager. There was always a pile of old copies of Life in my school library, which was weird given that it was an American magazine and my school was in a little market town in rural England. I’ve no idea how they came to be in the library. This was in the late 1970s and most of the magazines were from the 1960s, so I guess somebody must have left them there years earlier. They were far from pristine – pages torn, pages missing, spunking cocks drawn over people’s faces – but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for them. Spending study periods flicking through dog-eared copies of Life was one of the things that first made me want to become a magazine journalist.

The three covers above are all from the year 1960. Click on the link to go to the original article at Google Books.

The Trieste bathyscaphe – US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh writes about his remarkable journey in the Trieste bathyscaphe with Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard. They took Trieste to the bottom of the Mariana Trench (near the island of Guam), which is the deepest point of the world’s oceans, reaching a depth of 36,000 feet (roughly seven miles down). The feat had never been repeated until just last month, when film director James Cameron (“The Terminator”, “Aliens” and “Titanic”) made the Jules Verne-esque trip in the Deepsea Challenger.

Marlon Brando – Interviewed on the set of “One-Eyed Jacks”, the only movie Brando directed. “I have no respect for acting,” he harrumphs. “Acting, by and large, is the expression of neurotic impulse. Acting is a bum’s life. You get paid for doing nothing and it means nothing.”

The 1960 Democratic National Convention – The Democratic Party select John F Kennedy as its candidate in the 1960 presidential election. “To nominate its youngest candidate, the party elbowed its elder statesmen, broke several taboos and cut loose from a large part of its past,” read the magazine’s editorial that week. “It now invites the country to do the same.”

Witchy doings (continued)

Perry Harris has sent me this drawing of the Amazing Metal Vomiting Serving Girl I wrote about a couple of days ago. Click the picture to view a bigger version and scroll down to read the tale of the said Amazing Metal Vomiting Serving Girl. And when you’ve done that, get yourself across to Perry’s website, where you’ll find a phantasmagoria of cartoons, drawings and other visual delights, all rich in detail and brimming with lopsided humour. There’s tons of stuff to explore, so grab a beer or a cuppa before you dive in.

Perry was one of the founders of Vague, which started in 1979 as a post-punk fanzine and continues today as a series of pop psychogeography publications, and the Vague Rants site is worth a look too. Again, expect to be gone for some time.

Witchy doings

I have read a lot about the history of witchcraft in Europe – a pet subject of mine since I saw Vincent Price in the lead role of the 1960s hammy horror movie “Witchfinder General” when I was a kid – and I’m excited to learn that Cornell University Library in New York has put part of its esteemed and extensive Witchcraft Collection online. The collection features more than 3,000 rare books and manuscripts documenting the cruel persecution of the unfortunate women (and some men) accused of being witches over the centuries, and around 100 of these can now be viewed, free of charge, on your very own computer screen. Among the digitised items is a book written in 1691 by Richard Baxter, which includes a mighty strange case from the village of Beckington in Somerset. That’s where I live, that is.

Richard Baxter’s book has the snappy title, The Certainty of the Worlds of Spirits, Fully evinced by the unquestionable Histories of Apparitions and Witchcrafts, Operations, Voices, &c, Proving the Immortality of Souls, the Malice and Miseries of the Devils and the Damned, and the Blessedness of the Justified. Phew. Click on the image to view the front page in its full 17th century, slightly odd English, Bible-quoting glory. The Beckington case centred on an 18-year-old serving girl named Mary Hill who, “having lived very much in the Neglect of her Duty to God”, was “seized by violent Fits [and] began to Vomit up about two hundred crooked Pins”. During the course of the next few months, Mary also threw up “nails, pieces of nails, pieces of brass, handles of spoons [and] pieces of glass”. Richard Baxter describes the nails as being “three or four inches long” and the pieces of brass as “an inch broad and two or three inches long, with crooked edges”. On several occasions, Mary’s bizarre fits were witnessed by the church minister of Beckington, who told Baxter that “to prevent the supposition of a cheat, I caused her to be brought to a window, and having lookt in her mouth, I searched it with my finger”, but he found nothing to suggest this was a trick.

As word spread and more and more people came to Beckington to see the Amazing Metal Vomiting Serving Girl (they didn’t actually call her that, you understand, that’s just something I’ve made up), Mary Hill claimed that every time she had one of these episodes “she saw against the wall of the room wherein she lay, an old woman named Elizabeth Carrier”. Elizabeth was duly accused of witchcraft and dragged off to the county prison. When this didn’t stop her fits, Mary named two other women, Margery Coombs and Ann More, who were also arrested. Poor Margery died in prison soon after, but Elizabeth and Ann were sent for trial by jury at Taunton Assizes. Luckily for them, despite hearing sworn oaths from several witnesses and being shown many of the metal objects produced during Mary’s convulsions, the jury decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence to convict Elizabeth and Ann of witchcraft, and they were acquitted.

Mary Hill’s vomiting fits continued after Elizabeth and Ann’s acquittal. But then one day, the village minister says “she swelled to an extraordinary bigness” and threw up “several pieces of bread and butter, besmeared with a poysonous matter”, which the minister judged to be “white mercury”, and her mysterious convulsions stopped a short time later. More than 300 years on, it’s difficult to know what on earth was going on with Mary Hill, the 17th century metal guru, but one thing is for sure. If she’d been around today, she’d have got herself on “Britain’s Got Talent” pretty damn sharpish. Piers Morgan would have loved her.

William Ellis (4th Middlesex Regiment)

It’s Remembrance Day – a special one at that, today’s date being 11 November 2011 (11/11/11) – and I am remembering my great-grandfather William Ellis. William served as a private in the 4th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment and died of wounds received in action near Ypres in 1915. He is buried at Somersham in Huntingdonshire.

For more information about William Ellis, please read my earlier post Along the Menin Road.

Along the Menin Road

I’ve just spent a couple of days poking around some of the World War One battle sites in Flanders with my old mates Adam Donovan and Dave Lombardi from The Jetsonics. Check these guys out if you’re into noisy guitar pop, because they’re actually quite good. I did a similar trip with Dave a while back, when we visited several places associated with the Battle of the Somme. This time we headed further north, to the Belgian town of Ypres near the Belgian-French border.

The so-called Ypres Salient was a bulge in the Western Front, a small area that was fought over for pretty much the entire four-and-a-bit years of the war. It was the scene of some of the bloodiest and most intense trench warfare of the conflict, as the front line shifted back and forth across the same ground over and over again, and it was here that the first gas attacks took place. There are more than 130 military cemeteries in the Salient – you can’t stand in one without seeing another close by – including Tyne Cot, the biggest British Commonwealth military cemetery in the world.

An astonishing 90,000 of the British and Commonwealth soldiers buried in the Ypres Salient have never been identified, their gravestones inscribed with the simple words “A soldier of the Great War”, and the names of many of these men are etched into the Menin Gate, a majestic memorial arch on the Menin Road east out of Ypres. A commemorative ceremony takes place at the Menin Gate every evening, at which buglers from the local fire brigade play “The Last Post” and someone reads “The Ode of Remembrance” (“They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old”). There was a crowd of at least 500 people on each of the two nights I attended with the Jetsonics boys.

This trip had a special meaning for me because my great-grandfather, Herbert William Ellis, usually called William Ellis, served in the Ypres Salient as a private in the 4th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. His army records show that he enlisted in late August 1914, three weeks after the war started, and joined his battalion at Ypres in the November. Like thousands of other men, William would have marched eastwards out of the town in a khaki column, snaking past the continually shelled junction known as Hellfire Corner and into the apocalyptic landscape depicted in The Menin Road by war artist Paul Nash. That’s the painting at the top of this post.

The 4th Middlesex took part in several actions along the Menin Road in 1915, most notably leading a successful assault on the German front line at Hooge in mid-July. The battalion sustained 300 casualties in a single day – almost a third of its total number. The fighting at Hooge went on deep into August, and it was up close and personal, with the British and German trenches in this sector just 15 yards apart in some places. In late September, the 4th Middlesex was also involved in an attack on the nearby Bellewaarde Ridge, where one of the battalion’s officers, Second Lieutenant Rupert Price Hallowes, won the Victoria Cross. He was killed on 30 September. Four days later, on 4 October, my great-grandfather William Ellis was wounded. I don’t know the circumstances, but the Casualty Report says he was shot in both legs and his left arm. He was also gassed.

After a brief spell in a field hospital in Flanders, William was evacuated back to England and sent to Bagthorpe Military Hospital in Nottingham. The doctors were especially concerned about his badly fractured right leg – “The bone is exposed for a length of four inches” says the Treatment Form – and at the end of November the leg was amputated “at the middle of the thigh”. As a result of the surgery, however, William developed septicemia (blood poisoning). The Treatment Form ends with the words, “Became worse & was treated by vaccines. Still became worse & died on Dec 19”.

William Ellis is buried in the churchyard of St John the Baptist in his home village of Somersham in Huntingdonshire. His name appears on the large stained glass window – the Memorial Window – above the altar in the church. William has a military headstone provided by the Commonwealth War Grave Commission and I can’t help thinking it seems out of place in the context of an English churchyard. But I guess it’s good that, in the final reckoning, he made it back to his home village.

The Menin Road by Paul Nash, oil on canvas, IWM ART 2242, Imperial War Museum

The grandaddy of British undersea power

I’ve been reading how some of the lyrics from British Sea Power’s “Carrion” have been painted on the walls of a new wing of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich in London. I like BSP, I like BSP’s lyrics, I like the National Martime Museum, and I like text as a graphic element, so this seems a perfectly splendid idea to me.

Thinking about this led me to thinking about John Philip Holland, the fella with the natty bowler and the magnificent walrus moustache pictured here. Holland was the brains behind Britain’s first submarine, the artfully named Holland 1, which was launched in great secrecy in 1901. The head of the Royal Navy at the time, Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, was not impressed and described the boat as “underhand, unfair and damned un-English”, but it remained in service for several years. It was decommissioned in 1913 and sank while being towed to the scrapyard. I’ve been imagining the crew giving a rousing chorus of BSP’s “Carrion” – “Oh the heavy water, how it enfolds – as the submarine settled upon the seabed in a thick cloud of silt and shells and old fish bones. Never mind that there wasn’t actually anybody on board when it went down.

Holland 1 remained at the bottom of the English Channel until it was salvaged in the 1980s, since when it has been on display at the Royal Navy’s Submarine Museum in Gosport, Hampshire. Earlier this year, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers gave it the Engineering Heritage Award, which promotes artefacts and locations of engineering importance that have altered or enhanced the way we live. Previous winners include George Stephenson’s Locomotion Number 1, the Rolls Royce RB211 engine and the Thames Barrier.

Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, incidentally, was born in my home town of Swaffham in Norfolk. That’s Nelson’s county, that is.