Friday, 16 May 2014

Romney Marsh, the English Arcadia and Napoleonic War defenses

It is somewhere between late spring and an early summer and I am staying at an old coaching inn whose history dates back to the 14th century. It is situated just outside the ancient city walls of Canterbury whose magnificent medieval cathedral still dominates the summer skyline. The city walls or ramparts are still intact in many places around the city and my inn happens to be just outside the city walls and near the West Gate to the medieval city. The inn originally known as the White Hart is now known as the Falstaff Hotel named after the Shakespearian character. There is meant to be three ghosts but happily, as yet,  I have not seen them.

The Falstaff Inn

The West Gate and Tower
Before we start our journey to Romney Marsh and look at beach defenses of the early 19th century - a word more about  our starting point. The West Gate was built by Archbishop Simon Sudbury in 1380 and replaced an earlier structure that had been built as long ago as 1023.  It was at this earlier gate that William the Conqueror  stopped on his way from London to Normandy in 1067 to re-confer the ancients rights and privileges afforded to Men of Kent. "Men of Kent" being those who lived South and East of the River Medway. Those who lived in the west of the county were deemed to be "Kentish Men".  There is a suggestion that this ancient divide owes its origins to the fact,  that in the east the settlers were mainly Jutes and to the west mainly Saxons - these Germanic tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes had settled in England or should we say Engel-Land the land of the Engels or Angles as written today. It was said that the Men of Kent resisted the Conqueror more strongly than did the Kentish men, but that may not be very fair on the Angles and Saxons.

The White Hart Hotel as as it was then known was just outside the city walls. At night the gates to the medieval city were closed and pilgrims unable to reach the city before dark would stay at inns such as the White Hart. It was renamed the Falstaff in Elizabethan times. Sir John Falstaff appears as a corpulent knight in Shakespear's Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.

Queen Elabeth 1 was so taken by this character that Shakespear included him as a central character in the Merry Wives of Windsor. To an Elizabethan audience Falstaff would be instantly recognizable -  not so today.

Nonetheless the name has become an adjective. In it is described as one "having the qualities of Falstaff, especially his robust, bawdy humor, good natured rascality, and brazen braggadocio".

"An affable Irregular,
A heavily-built Falstaffian man,

Comes cracking jokes of civil war
As though to die by gunshot were
The finest play under the sun".    

(first stanza from "The Road at My Door" by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

As I start my journey to Romney Marsh through the English arcadia - I notice the buttercups seem more abundant than ever. 

Is there anything more cheerful than a buttercup.

Is there anything more cheerful than a butter cup
 Perhaps only a field full of buttercups !

Perhaps only a field of buttercups
 The prickly Hawthorn bush is alive with blossom like snow in summer.
The Hawthorn in full bloom 

Blossom like snow in summer
Romney Marsh is that low lying area of rich green grass and dykes and ditches that lies between the sea on the right,  and the Saxon shore line marked by the low line of hills that stretch from Hythe to the ragstone cliffs at Fairlight near Hastings. There's something magical and mysterious about the Marsh  - sometimes described as the fifth quarter of the globe. Richard Barham in "The Ingoldsby Legends" wrote "the world, according to the best geographers, is divided into Europe, Asia, Africa and Romney Marsh". Nonsense of course but there is something different about the Marsh. When you are on it you see more sky because of its low lying nature and when you look inland you can see the ancient coast line of Roman Britain. Towns like Rye and Winchelsea were once islands. Inland towns like New Romney were once ports. The days of buccaneers  and smugglers have gone but left their mark. The sea has retreated,  held back by the sea wall, and Norman churches stand on what were once little islets amongst the salt marches. There is an uneasy alliance between land, sea and sky.

We catch or first glimpse of Romney Marsh at Lympne - here I am standing on the sea-cliffs  of Roman Britain. There is a medieval castle and an ancient church and a few cottages nearby.  The castle is privately owned and said to be haunted. On a spring day it seemed more enchanted than haunted. In Roman times, ships sailed over the shallow waters of what is now Romney Marsh to the Roman port of Portus Lemanis from which the name Lympne is derived. The Roman port was lower down the hill near to where the remains of Stutfall castle lie today. These old stone walls were part of a Roman,  and later Saxon fort built on the shore line.

Lympe Caste and the remains (lower down the hill)  of Stutfall Castle  marking the Roman port of  Portus Lemanis

I wonder into the churchyard that lies adjacent to Lympne Castle.  Was there ever a more beautiful view of Romney Marsh than from this quiet spot - the Church is built on the crest of the hill and in one coup d'oeil you can see the Romney Marshes stretching out to Dungeness in the glimmering haze of the horizon.

Churchyard with a view

As I look a these ancient graves I am minded of Gray's Elegy written in a country churchyard:

"Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
         Where heaves the turf in many a mould'ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
         The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
         The swallow twitt'ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
         No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
         Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
         Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
         Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
         How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
         Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
         The short and simple annals of the poor.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
         The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
         And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
         Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

(Thomas Gray  - Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard)

General Woolf who took Quebec by extraordinary feat of arms was reputed to have said of this poem (shown in part above) :

"Gentlemen, I would rather have written those lines  than take Quebec tomorrow". 

But lets us move on to military defenses which was our aim before digressing into poetry and the English pastoral arcadia.

I walked past Lympe Castle through wooded glades:

Catching glimpses of the land below:

At the bottom of the scarp I come across the Royal Military Canal - it stretches along the foot of the low line of hills that mark the old coastline of Roman Britain.  It was built in 1804 as part of the defenses against the feared invasion of Britain by the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte who had assembled an Army on the Channel Coast as long ago as 1798.  In 1803 L'Armee d'Angleterre was assembled at Boulogne and a flotilla of invasion barges was prepared. Napoleon was master of Europe, if only he could cross this narrow strip of water he could conquer and subdue the old enemy.  Unfortunately for Napoleon the Royal Navy impeded this by their blockade of French ports and their mastery of the seas. However back at this time there was serious concern given to the threat of invasion. In preparation for which not only was the Royal Military Canal built but a 100 forts known as Martello Towers were built along the coast

The construction of the Royal Military Canal was commenced in 1804 with the approval of then Prime Minister - William Pitt the Younger. It ran for 28 Miles from Hythe to Rye.  The northern or inland bank of the canal was built up to form a parapet from the excavated soil and a military road was constructed beside it. Gun batteries were built at intervals and positioned to provide enfilading fire. It was finally finished in 1809  by which time the Battle of Tafalgar had been won and the French fleet defeated and  the threat of invasion had been lifted. Admiral John Jervis was reported to have said of the French invasion army: 

" I do not say they cannot come - I only say they cannot come by sea".

 The Royal Military Canal today is a peaceful and pretty waterway that runs along the edge of Romney Marsh.

At the time of its construction it was regarded as a "white elephant" created at enormous expense and critics like William Corbett argued, how we could have expected "those armies who had so often crossed the Rhine and the Danube to be kept back by a canal 30 ft wide at most" !

Other than the Royal Military Canal and Redoubts built at intervals along the coast a hundred Martello Towers were built along the coast of South east England. These were round towers that housed an officer and detachment of soldiers who manned a cannon that could traverse 360 degrees.  Many of these forts still remain today like the one in the car park at Dymchurch shown below.

But my favourite  Martello Tower on Romney Marsh has to be the one in ruins at Rye Harbour also known as Frenchman's Creek.

The British Navy had come across such towers at Mortella in Corsica and one such tower had held of two British warships in 1794. They were formidable defenses. They stood 40 feet high with walls that were 8 feet thick. Narrow slit windows provided loopholes for musket fire. Most towers had one cannon that could traverse 360 degrees. Typically manned by one officer and 24 men. 

Now its time to begin my journey back and leave the marsh and from my car you can see the old coastline of Roman and Saxon Britain and some of the flat land that makes up the Romney Marsh with it's ditches and dykes  - you can see a lot of sky as always on the Marsh - and finally the canal lies glittering in the late afternoon sun and the Martello Towers tell their story of long ago.


Wednesday, 7 May 2014

The Battle of Waterloo (1815) and the 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots in Hong Kong (1941)

The 2nd Bn Royal Scots arrived in Hong Kong from India on 27 January 1938 under the command of Lt-Col Hall. Later that year Hall was posted to a new command in UK and the battalion came under the command of Lt-Col D.J. McDougall, MC. He had fought in WW1 and had been wounded at Ypres, and won the Military Cross whilst serving with the 1st Battalion in Macedonia. In 1941 he was posted as Commandant of the Officer Cadet Training School at Maymyo, Burma and Lt-Col Simon White became the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion in Hong Kong on the eve of battle. He too had won the Military Cross in WW1.
   The Royal Scots have a long history established in 1633 they were known as the Royal Regiment, or as the First of Foot. They were the oldest infantry regiment in the British Army.  They have a host of Battle Honours that are listed on their Regimental Colours. The 3rd Battalion Royal Scots had fought under Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington, in the Peninsular War, and they had the distinction of being the first British Army unit to cross the border from Spain into France in pursuit of Napoleon's retreating army. They also fought at Waterloo in 1815.

The charge of the Royal Scots Greys at Waterloo -  Scotland forever
The famous painting by Lady Butler will always be associated in my mind's eye with that battle. Reputed to have yelled "Scotland Forever" as they rode down on the French ranks. When reading about the Battle Waterloo, one is minded of those formidable red squares where men stood firm, and faced the onslaught of cavalry - but yet held their ranks and their ground and saved the day.

The thin red line holding firm - deployed in squares to fend off the charge of the French Cuirassiers
I  have always liked that poem by Lord George Byron entitled "The Eve of Waterloo".

There was a sound of revelry by night,
And Belgium's capital had gathered then
Her beauty and her chivalry, and bright
The Lamps shone o'er fair women and brave men.
A thousand hearts beat happily, and when
Music arose with its voluptuous swell,
Soft eyes looked love to eyes which spake again,
And all went well as a marriage bell;
But hush! Hark! A deep sound strikes like a rising knell!
………Arm! Arm! it is -- it is -- the cannon's opening roar!

It was the eve of battle, and the officers took their leave from their hostess at the  Duchess of Richmond's ball and went off to their battle positions, but what you may ask is all this to do with the Royal Scots. The Royal Scots Greys, of course, had no connection to the Royal Scots,  the former being cavalry and the latter being infantry. However, the 3rd Battalion Royal Scots fought at the Battle of Quatre Bras (literally meaning Four Arms or Cross Roads) and at Waterloo.  The bravery of one young officer of the 3rd Bn by the name of Ensign James Grant Kennedy who died carrying the Colours is depicted in the Royal Scots Regimental Museum in Edinburgh.
A Sergeant picks up the wounded young officer still holding the Colours
Ensign Kennedy was carrying the Colours in advance of the battalion, he was shot in the arm but carried on until he was shot again and this time fatally wounded. A sergeant went forward to retrieve the Colours, but the  Ensign was holding the Colours so tightly that he could not break his grip. The Sergeant then picked up the young Royal Scots Ensign, carrying him over his shoulder whilst the young officer was still holding the Colours. The French on seeing this withheld their fire. It was a moment of gallantry on the field of honour. Ensign James Kennedy died while carrying the Colours aged only 16, he was the third son of Doctor William Kennedy of Inverness.
   The battle commenced around Noon as Napoleon waited for the ground to dry. Wellington's Army held firm despite repeated attacks by the French. In the late afternoon, Napoleon deployed his famous Imperial Guard made up of hardened veterans who never gave ground. As they approached the low ridge they came across the massed ranks of British and Allied infantry. Disciplined musketry and flank fire halted the attack and then the extraordinary happened the Guard broke ranks and retreated mostly in a disorderly withdrawal.

Up Guards and at 'em again 
At about the same time the Imperial Guard retreated, Field Marshal Von Blucher arrived with the Prussian army and attacked the French on their right flank. The French Army was being pushed back,  and Wellington, with a toff of his hat, ordered a general advance on all fronts.
General advance! 
After the battle, thousands of men lay dead or dying, and the Duke of Wellington is attributed to have said that "nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won". The Duke of Wellington lived to a ripe old age and served twice as Prime Minister. His London home Apsley House had that most exceptional of addresses: "No 1, London".

No 1 London - the London home of the Duke of Wellington

The Iron Duke
The epithet of Iron Duke has been reflected in Royal Navy ships carrying the name HMS Iron Duke over the years, although the name is said to have been given in a disparaging manner following the erection of iron shutters at Apsley House to prevent rioters from breaking the windows with stones during popular unrest in London in 1832. Whatever the origins like Margaret Thatcher's "Iron Lady" - the "Iron Duke" was taken as a compliment if not originally intended.
I was recently wondering around the Kent coast and stopped to visit Walmer Castle near Deal.

Walmer Castle - one time home of the Duke of Wellington
The Duke had been given the post of Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports in 1828 and with this came the official residence of Walmer Castle. He spent a good deal of time in this old castle on the Kent Coast enjoying the walks along the seafront. I had not realised that the Iron Duke had died here in September 1852 aged 83 years. On the day I went there, there was nobody around, I had the castle to myself. I entered the room where he had died and could almost feel his presence. The room had been left pretty much as it was in 1852 - his campaign bed and the armchair in which he died.

The Duke of Wellington's bedroom at Walmer Castle - he died in the armchair
 I then walked into the next room where his uniform was on display

Also on display was a bronze death mask - an old soldier who had fought well and found solace by the sea.

The Battle of Quatre Bras in which Ensign Kennedy laid down his life while carrying the Colours, was fought two days before the Battle of Waterloo.  The Colours were used as a rallying point when a soldier carrying the Colours fell another would pick them up. Some units would have colour guards of handpicked men to defend the Colours. During the action at Quatre Bras and Waterloo, the Royal Scots lost four officers and one Sergeant Major whilst carrying the Colours.  The men would follow the Colours, and held high they could be clearly seen on the battlefield. The present-day ceremony of Trooping the Colour on the Queen's Birthday Parade has a long history, the Colours escorted by the Colour Guard, were carried through the ranks at the slow march so that each soldier would know and recognise his regimental Colours.

The Battle of Quatre Bras - defending the Colours 
The Regimental Colours of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Scots in Hong Kong had been presented to the Battalion by King George V in 1911. In 1939 on the outbreak of war the Colours were sent to Singapore for safekeeping.  Hong Kong fell in December 1941 and Singapore in February 1942. However, after the Japanese surrender, they were spotted in a street market and bought for a dollar and returned to the Royal Scots. The Colours show the battles fought (which can be those lost as well as those won) these are known as battle honours. Oliver Lindsay in his book "The Battle for Hong Kong 1941 - 1945" questions why only the Middlesex Regiment and not the Royal Scots should be awarded  the battle honour  for "Hong Kong."
   In my opinion the Middlesex probably fought better than any other unit in Hong Kong in 1941 - they seldom withdrew, and then only when they had to, for example in their tenacious defence of Leighton Hill.  They were well led, well disciplined and well trained. Like the Royal Scots, they had a long history and had earned the epithet "the Die Hards" in the Peninsular War. Admired by other units in Hong Kong the "Middies" thoroughly deserved the battle honour.
   What about the Royal Scots - well I think they deserve it too - although their record was more mixed as I will endeavour to show. They certainly fought hard and well on the Island and 'D' Coy led by Captain Pinkerton fought outstandingly both on the Mainland and on the Island. A large number of Royal Scots gave up their lives in the battle for Hong Kong and in subsequent captivity.
   I suppose the reason why they did not get the battle honour was because the General Officer in Command  Christopher Maltby and the Brigadier  in charge of the Mainland Brigade Cedric Wallis blamed them for weakness in 'A' Coy positions around the Shing Mun Redoubt and for the hasty withdrawal on their left flank especially on Castle Peak Road forward of the Pencil Factory (situated at the junction of Castle Peak Road and Tai Po Road).
   Major General Maltby was critical of 'A' Coy who were commanded by Capt Cyril "Potato" Jones whose company was responsible for the Shingmun Redoubt a series of Pill Boxes and linked fixed defences on the left flank of the Gin Drinkers Line. This critical position was taken by surprise,  although it must be said that it was inadequately defended by just one platoon. It needed at least a company to properly garrison the redoubt and conduct adequate patrolling. The GOC felt that there had been a lack of adequate patrolling.
   In Major General Maltby's Report on Operations published in January 1948 after some modifications he writes:
"It was unfortunate that the enemy captured by surprise the most important Shingmun Redoubt and occupied the Golden Hill position. These two incidents were the direct cause of the rather hasty withdrawal to the (Island).  The gallant action  of their 'D' Coy (Captain Pinkerton)  on the extreme right flank of the Golden Hill position, the later gallant efforts of the whole battalion to recapture  the Wong Nei Chung Gap, and their stubborn fighting in the Mount Nicholson and Mount Cameron areas accomplished much to retrieve their prestige."
On the left flank of the Royal Scots, Major Stanford Burn, 2 i/c of the Battalion, was struggling to lead his men and properly deploy his men. Col Newnham General Staff Officer 1  (GSO-1) from China Command ended up deploying Major Burns troops. In his report on events in Castle Peak Road on the morning of 11th December he writes:

"At about 1000 hours 11 Dec I visited Kowloon Infantry Brigade HQ in Waterloo Road. Here a very bleak situation was painted to me i.e.  that the Japanese had broken through on the Castle Peak Road and would arrive in Kowloon at any minute.
I telephoned to Kai Tak  for the Bren Carriers which were attached to No 1 Coy HKVDC  and left orders for Capt Penn to send all carriers and men he could get to the junction of Prince Edward and  Waterloo Roads. I then proceeded to the R.V. and after some 20 minutes three carriers arrived  I organised the column including the small car I had with me and set off.

When passing Rear Bn HQ  2/RS at the junction of Taipo and Castle Peak Roads I was surprised to see some men of 2/RS  standing about,  but being in a hurry proceeded direct up to the World Pencil Factory. Here I found some more 2/RS but was unable to get a clear picture of the situation from them but all stated none of their  own troops were in front of them.
I saw an armoured car which I approached and from Sgt Walker HKVDC could obtain no information. I ordered him forward on recce up Castle Peak Road and then returned to the World Pencil Factory where I met Major Burn.  Major Burn was very excited so I took him aside and tried to calm him down. I emphasized the present danger and also the very urgent necessity of holding  present positions in our neighbourhood.
Major Burn had the greatest difficulty in getting any man to obey him and I had again to speak to him and warn him that unless he could give calm orders the men could not possibly work for him. I then went with Major Burn up a path and helped him to start off the occupation of the spur. I put another Sgt of 2/RS with field glasses in the shadow of a hut close by with orders to watch hill 149  very carefully and to report at once if any Japanese arrived there. I saw the platoon move off slowly  up to the spur  and then I returned to World Pencil Factory and gave orders to the carriers.
I again spoke to Major Burn who was a little quieter and again stressed the urgency of the situation saying “now I put you in command here……... there must be no going back  from this locality under any circumstances”.  I repeated these orders to the Volunteers.
I next visited the Armoured Car which I could see had returned to its former place. Sgt Walker reported that he had patrolled as far as Lai Chi Kok Prison where there was a road block and about 8 men of 2/RS in a field. I told him that was not much of a recce, that he must go back, get the men to remove the road block so as to allow the armoured car to pass through  and to go towards Castle Peak Road for at least one mile definitely to draw the enemy’s fire  and to get information. He was to report results to Major Burn.
I then came back to the Pencil Factory stopped to say I was on my way to the right flank and I would guarantee its security from the high ground and would ensure the position of the Canadians for this special purpose. I went to just short of the Canadians position and at about 1145 hrs shouted up the hillside for a Canadian Officer, Captain Bowman came and I explained the situation on the whole front to him and the important part he was now called upon to play. His first platoon came tumbling down the hill before I left. He seemed to have no tactical idea at all so I recommended to him to push one platoon forward to the reservoir and one platoon down the spur towards Hill 149  and his third platoon to hold the road bend covering the filter beds.
I returned to Mainland  Brigade HQ at Waterloo Road. Then I found the situation better because information was to hand and the line, in general, was stabilized. I reported personally by telephone to the GOC and recommended withdrawal that night in view of the precarious situation on the left flank and the consequent risk of losing guns, and the very disquieting state of 2/RS".
A couple of days later Major Burn took his own life by shooting himself with his service revolver. A rather sad end for an officer who I suppose in some way failed to live up to the expectations of a commander on the battlefield. He had difficulty rallying the troops from 'B' and 'C' Coy on the left flank, both of which had withdrawn except one platoon from 'B' Coy which maintained their forward position astride Castle Peak Road. These two depleted companies, both of which had lost their company commanders, had to face the Japanese onslaught which came in overwhelming numbers accompanied by heavy and very accurate mortar fire.  

 Oliver Lindsay  writes in The Battle for Hong Kong 1941-1945:
"Finally, we come to the controversy that only the Middlesex Regiment should have the Battle Honour 'Hong Kong', which was denied to the Royal Scots. It is invidious  to compare the fighting ability of each Battalion, but I believe  a grave injustice was done to the Royal Scots. The best part of a Japanese brigade swept down upon their new, malarial, three-mile front. No unit could have held such an enemy on such unfavourable ground for long. On the Island , the counter attacks  fought by the decimated Royal Scots  against two Japanese battalions at the Wong Nei Chung Gap  are what legends are made of. Twenty seven of their 35 officers became casualties, 12 being killed: there was no lack of determined leadership………….a campaign  should be launched in Scotland to get them the Battle Honour they so definitely deserve".


Events on Castle Peak Road  - Morning 11th December 1941 by Col L.A. Newnham  Appendix C Hong Kong Despatches.  National Archives

The Battle for Hong Kong 1941-1945   (2005)  Oliver Lindsay

General Maltby's War Diary/Report published in The London Gazette January 1948 

Royal Scots Regimental Museum - Web Site.

Walmer Castle & Gardens - English Heritage Guidebook