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Archive for February, 2014

St Margaret's Curch, Bodelwyddan. Photo from Wiki

St Margaret’s Church (and Canadian Graves) Bodelwyddan. Photo from Wiki

“Someday, sometime, we will understand”

I had always assumed that when the First World War ended the troops quickly returned to their homes and families and began the difficult process of re-building their lives and relationships. That’s certainly the picture you get from TV dramas like “Downton Abbey.” In fact, at the end of the war thousands of troops went straight into demobilisation camps and stayed there for months or even years. They had been promised an immediate return to civilian life, but the rules for demobilisation depended on them being able to prove that they had a job, and they also needed their commanding officer’s agreement  to leave the army. Naturally, the longer a man had served, the less likely they would have a job to return to, and the proof of having a job was mired in a bureaucratic nightmare of form-filling and Ministry of Labour approvals.

The reason for keeping them in the army it seems, was that many senior politicians in the British Government, even in 1919, did not consider that the war was really over. Many wanted to maintain a large standing army. Some wanted to send troops to Russia to fight the Bolshevic Revolution, to Ireland to suppress Nationalism, to the Rhineland as an army of occupation. Others were concerned at growing dissatifaction and unrest in the country and the potential need to suppress any signs of rebellion. So the promises of homes fit for heroes and rapid demobilisation were quickly forgotten.

The demobilisation camps where the troops were kept were not pleasant places. They were over-crowded, poorly supplied and subject to rigorous discipline. No one knew from one day to the next where they might be sent, or when they might be able to return to their families. The men were “kept busy” with meaningless drills and exercises. After years of suffering in the trenches, and watching their friends die, this was what they had come home to. To many it must have felt like prison – scant reward for the sacrifices they had been asked to make.

On January 3rd 1919 rumours were rife among the British troops that men were to be sent back to France. The troops in Folkestone picketed the docks. They were joined by others on their way to France and “Colonial” troops on their way home. 10,000 troops marched through the city supported by the people of Folkestone. At the same time, 4,000 troops demonstrated in Dover and 1500 members of the Army Service Corps seized lorries and drove them into Whitehall. In the next few days there were mutinies in several places including Bristol, Kempton Park, and Aldershot.

On February 8th 1919 three thousand troops who were being sent back to France after returning from leave, refused to board their ships. A few hours later they marched into Whitehall. They were surrounded by a reserve battalion of Grenadiers and two troops of the Household Cavalry with bayonets drawn and machine guns trained on the demonstrators. Fearing a blood-bath the protestors eventually surrendered.

No incident is perhaps more tragic though, than the mutiny at Kinmel Park in North Wales where 14,000 canadian troops were stationed. No monument is more fitting to the way the way the heroes of the First World War were treated, than the graveyard at St Margaret’s Church in Bodelwyddan (pictured above). In that churchyard are the graves of 80  soldiers who died – after the war was over. Altogether 208 Canadian soldiers died in the Kinmel Bay camp. The majority died in the influenza epidemic of 1919, weakened by the cramped and insanitary conditions in the camp, the terrible winter weather and the poor rations they were fed.

Hearing the rumour that ships due to take them home had been re-allocated to the repatriation of American soldiers, proved the final straw and a thousand Canadian troops rioted in the camp. During the suppression of the rebellion five soldiers were killed and 28 wounded – 51 were later brought before a court martial and 27 were convicted and sentenced to terms between 3 months and 10 years.

Four of those who were killed in the Kinmel Park Riots are buried in St Margaret’s churchyard. The inscription on the gravestone of Corporal Joseph Young simply says –

“Someday, sometime, we will understand”

It’s years since I first saw the churchyard in North Wales. I was driving to a meeting on a beautiful sunny day and the sight of the rows of white graves, lit by the sun, took me by surprise. The image stayed with me, yet it wasn’t until years later that I began looking online to find out who they were. Many never fought in the War. I don’t know if that makes their deaths any less tragic or heroic. What did emerge from looking into their deaths was the disgraceful way that the troops were treated – not just in the war – but afterwards.

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“War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise.”

These were the words of the Home Secretary, George Cave (Conservative) in introducing the “Representation of the People Act” in 1918. Millions of those who had fought and died during the First World War did not have the right to vote for the government that had sent them to fight – neither did any of the women who had kept the country running for the last four years, while mourning lost loves, husbands, brothers and sons. This Act, at last, gave the vote to all men over the age of 21, though only to women aged over 30.

2014 was the centenary of the beginning of World War I and was rightfully commemorated. Yet we were told by a Government Cabinet Minister, Michael Gove that:-

“Our understanding of the war has been overlaid by misunderstandings, and misrepresentations which reflect, at best, an ambiguous attitude to this country  and, at worst, an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage … Historians have skilfully demonstrated how those who fought were not dupes but conscious believers in king and country, committed to defending the western liberal order.”

I can’t think of anyone who doubts for a moment that these men and women fought, and worked, and died for “king and country,” nor that they demonstrated “patriotism, honour and courage.” Mr. Gove says they were fighting for a “Noble Cause” and that “the conflict has, for many been seen through the fictional prism of dramas such as Oh, What a Lovely War, The Monocled Mutineer, and Blackadder as a misbegotten shambles – a series of catastrophic mistakes perpetrated by an out-of-touch elite.”

Yet there is every reason to believe that the ruling “elite” were out-of-touch. We need only to remember the historic context, the words of the Home Secretary (above) – the “freedom” that people had fought for was a freedom they did not enjoy in their own country. The “western liberal order” had seen fit to withhold from them for generations the right to elect their own government. It had resisted at every turn the struggle for what we now take as basic human rights. Every movement, every rebellion, every attempt at uniting to seek universal suffrage, or better living and working conditions had been ruthlessly suppressed by the “western liberal order” in Great Britain – The Luddites, the Chartists, the Suffragettes – all ignored and victimised.

We are so quick to honour the handful of politicians who swam against the tide and helped secure universal suffrage, rights to basic sanitation, education and healthcare; yet we seem to forget that the vast majority of politicians (of all parties) had opposed such progress at every step. We extol those good old “Victorian Values,” and the age of innovation, while forgetting its dependence on the use of child-labour, the disempowerment of women, the terrible slums, and the dangerous working conditions that the majority of people endured for much of the 19th century. We remember the names of those who fought for the abolition of the slave trade, but forget the names of those whose wealth was built upon it, and who were compensated for its loss, or the many who treated their employees, “free” or not, as slaves.

Our democracy is something to be proud of, something to cherish. Many of the rights we may often take for granted are denied to millions around the world. Yet those freedoms were not a gift from enlightened politicians, but were hard-won by generations of “ordinary” people in the face of often bloody resistance from governments they had no part in electing. To my mind it’s that “honour and courage” we should remember – It’s that history we should be proud of. As George Orwell said,

“The most effective way to destroy a people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”

Don’t let the politicians change our history, it’s part of who we are – Lest we forget.

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“JAMES CARSE is indicted, for that he, not having the fear of God before his eyes, but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil, on the 2nd day of December1787, in and upon Sarah Hayes , single woman, in the peace of God and our Lord the King, feloniously did make an assault, and with a certain clasp knife, of the value of 2 pennies… did wilfully and maliciously strike and thrust, giving her one mortal wound of the length of eight inches, and of the depth of two inches, of which she instantly died.”

Indictments for murder in the 19th century did not mince their words. They were emotional in tone and  gory in their description of the alleged crime and must have put the defendant at a disadvantage from the outset. The phrases “not having the fear of god,” and “seduced by the instigation of the devil,” were commonly used, perhaps to convey the sense that anyone committing murder cannot be of sound mind or soul? Perhaps in this case though they also serve to emphasise the beginnings of of what was to become a continuing struggle  to understand the mind of a murderer.

Up until 30th November 1787 James Carse had been a sailor on the frigate, “Boreas” having served for four years, mainly in the West Indies, under the captainship of the young Horatio Nelson. When he was signed off he was paid 50 guineas, a considerable amount of money at the time.

On December 2nd 1787, Carse went drinking with a group of friends, in a public house in Wapping called the “Ship in Distress.” Here he met a girl called Mary Mills, a “woman of the town.” Carse shared his drink (three pennyworth of rum and water) with Mary and asked if he could “go home” with her. She agreed and took him back to a room she shared with Sarah Hayes. Carse gave Sarah a shilling for the use of the bed and sent her out with half a crown to fetch him a pot of brandy. She came back with the drink and change of eighteen pence.

Carse and Mary started to get undressed while Sarah smoked a pipe in the chimney corner. Later, at the trial, Mary commented on the strange way Carse rolled his trousers into a bundle, “like a doll” and laid them at his side on the bed. He lay there for a while before sending Sarah out for more drink. She returned with the drink and food for him, insisting that he eat something. Suddenly, Carse jumped out of the bed, wearing only a shirt, and produced a knife. He grabbed Sarah by the throat and shouted “I will, I must, I must, I must” and stabbed the girl.

There was, and is, little doubt as to the guilt of James Carse. He was arrested at the scene, covered in blood and the knife still in his hand. He also later confessed to the murder. Nor is there any doubt as to the sheer brutality of his crime, in killing a woman who had shown him nothing but kindness and who had offered no provocation. Yet there do seem to be some grounds for questioning his soundness of mind. Carse said little in his own defence at the trial, other than, “I was threatened my life at the same time.” When asked who had threatened his life, he said, “This woman, and the woman that I killed.” Pressed further he added, “There were people round the house at the same time.

This hardly amounts to a credible defence, and the proceedings of the Old Bailey do not give an account of the impression he gave, standing in the dock. Yet while James Carse said little in his own defence two factors probably saved his life. His defence barrister was the renowned William Garrow (as depicted recently in the TV series – “Garrow’s Law“) and the witness who spoke up for his character was the Captain Horatio Nelson, not yet an Admiral and the victor of Trafalgar, but even then a respected and commanding presence.

First Garrow produced two witnesses who said that Carse had told them that he was being pursued by a gang of sixteen men who were after his money when he had left his ship; that he had paid them off once, but that they were still after him. They said he seemed obsessed with the idea that people were after his money and would kill him for it. (Hence the importance of Carse’s statement that he believed “There were people round the at the same time.“) Several witnesses also attested that Carse’s character had changed since he had returned from the Indies. (Nowadays he might have been described as suffering from paranoid delusions.) Then Garrow questioned Captain Horatio Nelson.

William Garrow: “Had you an opportunity of knowing the character of this man, as far as humanity and good-nature were concerned?

Horatio Nelson: “Perfectly; …when I heard of this affair, I said, if it is true, he must be insane, for I should as soon suspect myself, and sooner, because I know I am hasty; he is so quiet a man, and never committed a fault during the time I knew him; seamen, I know perfectly, when they come home, the landlords will furnish them with raw liquors; I saw myself thirty or forty people from that ship, that were made as mad as if they were at Bedlam, and did not know what they did: I know, that when seamen are furnished with British spirits, it turns the brain.”

Garrow: “Can you fairly say, that this man, under the pressure of a good deal of liquor, did appear to you to be insane?”

Horatio Nelson: “He was a cooper on board; and at the island of Antigua, I think it was, he was struck with the sun, after which time he appeared melancholy; I have been affected with it; I have been out of my senses; it hurts the brain.”

Garrow: Is he a man, from your knowledge of him, likely to commit a deliberate foul murder?

Horatio Nelson: I should as soon suspect myself, because I am hasty, he is not.

After retiring for some time, the jury found Carse guilty of murder, but recommended, “that an enquiry should be made into the state of the man’s mind before execution“. The judge agreed and respited execution pending the Royal prerogative.

As far as I can ascertain Carse was later pardoned on condition that he re-join the navy. Perhaps a combination of William Garrow and Horatio Nelson had saved the life of James Carse, as an 18th century legal system struggled with the definition of sanity and the concept of “being of sound mind”? It also raises questions as to whether “celebrity” played a role in the outcome. Was justice done, perhaps we will never know. What is certain is that a young woman needlessly and innocently lost her life in a particularly brutal way.

The case is also interesting for what it tells us about the skill of Garrow as an investigator, and of the young Nelson and his relationship with those who served under him – the fact that he knew the members of his crew (Carse was not an officer and held a fairly lowly place in the ship’s hierarchy) and that he was was willing to speak out for them even in circumstances such as this.  Nelson’s testimony was also very frank and self-critical – “I should as soon suspect myself, because I am hasty, he is not.” 

One other detail of interest from the indictment is the reference to “and with a certain clasp knife, of the value of 2 pennies.” It appears from examining reports of other murder cases in the Old Bailey archives that it was common practice to to record the price of the murder weapon, be it a pistol valued at five shillings or a piece of wood with a value of a penny. This probably has a precedent in law, but perhaps it was a way of commenting on the fragility or cheapness of life?

Further details of this case, as recorded at the time, can be found in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey.

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