The Eleventh of the Eleventh 2021

War, maps, art

A few years ago I posted a blog about the life of my great uncle, Harold Whidby Speight, and his service in the First World War.

I had mentioned that, aged 21, he was mobilised to Belgium as a sergeant with the 50th Northumbrian Division, arriving just in time for the second battle of Ypres (with neither gas mask nor steel helmet). I also mentioned that he painted in watercolour and, recently, I have come across an undated work of his at the intersection of graphic design, cartography, history and personal experience.

It is an example of ‘map art’ and represents his account of the second battle of Ypres. It’s in a rather fragile state and was torn in two at some point, but I’ve photographed it and included it below. (You’ll need to zoom in to see the detail.)

The Second Battle of Ypres.

I think it’s rather impressive and worth restoring and preserving for the archives of the Durham Light Infantry (anyone know the number of TV’s The Repair ShopūüėÜ?).

My second post about Harold’s war time experience referenced his pay book and a poem that he’d copied into it in lieu of a short form will. The poem, The Steel of the DLI, was about the Division’s experience in early August 1915, a few months after the Second Battle of Ypres, when it fought to re-take the area around Hooge, and its costly heroics in holding Hooge Crater.

The Hooge Crater in 1915

Although Harold’s artwork pre-dates the latter event it does, nevertheless, contain one reference to the crater in the roll of honour at upper right. Most of those named died on May 24 1915 (the penultimate day of the Second Battle of Ypres), but one named officer, Lieutenant Gilbert Talbot, is recorded as having died at Hooge Crater on 30 July. That was the day when the German army first used flame throwers (flammenwerfers). It must have added hugely to the terror felt by the opposing infantry. Talbot died leading his men in a counter attack following the flame thrower offensive.

Talbot was not directly linked to Harold; however, there is a clear motivation to his inclusion in Harold’s artwork. Talbot’s elder brother was an army chaplain who, along with others in December 1915, established a rest and recreational centre named Talbot House in honour of Gilbert. This became known Toc H based on the house’s initials (TH was represented as Toc Aitch in the radiotelephony phonetic alphabet of the time¬† analogous to Tango Hotel in the modern International Radiotelephony Spelling Alphabet).

In 1920, Toc H developed into an international, inter-denominational Christian social service of which Harold was a member. One of its aims was to promote reconciliation, something that would have been close to Harold’s heart. (The organisation still exists as a voluntary movement.)

Postscript: The Hooge Crater was created by the detonation of a mine laid at the end of a 190-foot tunnel (dug by the 175 Tunnelling Company) on 19 July 1915 and was estimated to be 120 feet in diameter and 20 feet deep.

Worth another look…


I was apalled to see Nigel Farage wearing an over-sized poppy in the run-up to Rememberance Day. His were not the values that so many lost their lives for.

So, why not click on the headlines, below, for a reminder of the life of a man who served in two world wars, a peace-loving, true gentleman and internationalist; a man that was the polar opposite of those whom the Scottish actor Brian Cox has described as ‚ÄúThe opportunistic clowns of Brexit, Gove, Johnson and the little Englander Farage and the feudalist Rees-Mogg”.

The eleventh of the eleventh

The eleventh of the eleventh plus one

The eleventh of the eleventh plus one

The time of his life (addendum)

Following on from the previous post, I was intrigued by HWS’ Soldier’s Pay Book for use on Active Service.¬†The details of his daily pay on commencement of active service are illustrated below:

The pay book also includes a couple of pages that allowed the soldier to record a short form of will, presumably for individuals that had not drawn up a traditional last will and testament. HWS had completed the relevant page, but in writing that was so small that it was difficult to decipher (hence the delay in posting it here).

In fact, HWS had not written a will in his pay book. The text he had included comprised a poem: The Steel of the D.L.I¬†¬† A Tale of the White Gurkhas (author unknown to me) that had appeared in the Westminster Gazette in tribute to another of the DLI Battalions, the 2nd. Here it is in HWS’ hand writing:

A record of the poem can be found online in the Durham County Record Office:

(This image comprises one from a slide show Life and Death as a Soldier in the First World War (slide 22 of 27) produced by the Durham Records Office.)

HWS was not a warmonger, in fact I knew him as a peaceable, good-humoured gentleman who, like many, simply served his country in two world wars. I suspect he copied the poem into his pay book not in any glorification of the victory at Hooge, but to pay tribute to the courage of his colleagues in the DLI (and their fallen) in battles throughout the war.

I have transcribed the slide show image below (anyone paying close attention will see that HWS chose the spelling ‘enquire’ over the archived document’s spelling of ‘inquire’ – that’s my kind of pedantry – and, as in the Records Office version, the last verse appears to be the intentional concatenation of what otherwise appears to be two verses).

How the D.L.I. Fight
Magnificent Endurance and Spirit at Hooge

A tribute to the fighting qualities of the 2nd Battalion Durham Light Infantry is paid by a poem published in last night’s Westminster Gazette under the title “The Steel of the D.L.I.: A Tale of the White Gurkhas”. The following summary of the exploit prefaces the verses, which we take the liberty of reproducing. The 2nd Battalion Durham L.I. are known at the front as the White Gurkhas. At Hooge in the early part of August, as part of the Sixth Division, the D.L.I. had to attack a part of the German trenches. At dawn they lay in front of our trenches when the artillery lifted on to the German third line. One of our mines was exploded. The D.L.I.s were in and at them. Some sixty men held the crater for three days. They went in to section as a battalion and came out under 200 strong when relieved. When they marched out their bugle band met them in the communications trench and played them out under shell fire. As they went to the huts at Poperinge the troops lined the road and cheered them.

The Steel of the D.L.I.     A Tale of the White Gurkhas

Just ask them down at Armentieres,
At Arras, at Neuve Chapelle,
Inquire of the Germans at Ypres and Hooge
Inquire down below in Hell,
And ask where the shrapnel bursts and screams
And the whiz-bangs crack and fly –
You’ll find the Germans don’t forget
The steel of the D.L.I.;
Yes, especially well you’ll find in hell,
They remember the D.L.I.

But Hooge was the show where we got to grips,
And they didn’t have all the laugh,
We taught them some tricks in bayonet play,
And we showed them that two can strafe;
And we went all out and we went right thro;
And we hustled some off the map,
And we got us back just a bit cut-up
From out of that blood-red scrap,
Yet we mustered then barely seven-score men
At the end of that bloody scrap.

The night that followed we got relieved,
God knows we had earned a spell;
But we swore to show them just what we thought
Of their perishing shot and shell.
So we marched right out from before their lines,
What was left of us, grimed and sore,
And we swung away with our bugle band,
Playing us out before
Let them blaze and slam, not a farthing damn
Cared we more than we cared before.

We marched right out for them all to see,
To strafe if they thought they could;
To show them they never could get us beat,
That we’d come again strong and good,
And the band in front played us right away,
Like a pukka band we went.
And we marched away to the huts and sleep,
The sleep of the well-nigh spent.
So ask them down at Armentieres,
At Arras and Neuve Chapelle,
Inquire of those left of the men we met,
At Hooge, where we gave them hell,
Inquire of the dead that our bayonets left
To rot neath the August sky;
You’ll find that the foe has not forgot,
The steel of the D.L.I.,
And especially well you’ll find in hell,
They remember the D.L.I.

Postscript: More can be read about HWS’ battalion on the Durham at War website.

The eleventh of the eleventh

The time of his life …

The watch:

The “Erismus”. An open-face, top-wind pocket watch sold by Collingwood & Son Ltd of Hartlepool.

The movement:

An unsigned Swiss-made 17 jewel movement

The case:

Dennison Watch Case Company ‘Star’ model. Nine carat rolled gold on brass (guaranteed durable for 10 years).

The history:

The owner’s self-inscribed details: HWS Aug 30 1914 7 DLI

This antique pocket watch is worth about £30. It is at least 103 years old as that is when my great uncle inscribed it.

Here’s part of his story:

Harold Whidby Speight (b. 30 Aug 1893) seems to have inscribed the watch on his 21st birthday in August 1914 – perhaps it was his parents’ gift to him.

Having signed-up with the army reserve 22 months earlier, August 1914 comprised the month not only of his 21st birthday, but also that of his mobilisation with D company of the 7th Durham Light Infantry. In April 1915, he embarked for Belgium as a sergeant with the 50th Northumbrian Division, arriving just in time for the second battle of Ypres (with neither gas mask nor steel helmet). He earned three shillings (15 pence) a day of which two shillings was remitted to his parents in Sunderland, leaving him with one shilling a day for any local expenses at the front.

On 30 September 1915 he was sent to recce the enemy positions along with another sergeant. ¬†On reaching the German wire they made their observations and dropped off some copies of ‘John Bull’ before returning to their own front line. (‘John Bull’ was a popular English magazine of the time with its circulation in 1914 estimated to have been in excess of 750,000.)

Later, when looking over a parapet to show an officer where they had been, he was shot by a sniper. The bullet entered his right cheek and exited behind his left ear. After being hospitalised in France and England he joined the reserve battalion until being demobbed in early 1919.

(The wound left him half deaf with a slightly palsied face and permanently weeping eye.)

Twenty-five years later, in March 1944 the Royal Navy called for volunteers to man small craft in support of the D-Day invasion and so, in July 1944, he found himself serving in the Second World War, this time as a deck hand on an armed diesel trawler carrying shells and depth charges to the fleet as they returned from Normandy for more ammunition.

In civvy street, having joined the Sunderland office of the Institute of Weights and Measures in 1909, he qualified as an inspector in 1919 after demobilisation from the army and joined the Newcastle office, becoming chief inspector in 1936. He retired in 1953 as a Fellow of the Institute having also been its Chair for two years during the Second World War.

Thereafter he moved to Kendal where he volunteered for the local Red Cross in 1954, helping out into the 1970s. He also painted in watercolour, wrote poems, corresponded worldwide with other Esperanto enthusiasts, and cycled everywhere on an original Moulton F-frame bike. He even spent two months on holiday in Australia in 1977 at the grand old age of 84 (but without his bike).

While still getting over his injuries and the trauma he experienced during the First World War, he took a long sea voyage, working his passage to and from South America. During that trip he visited Peru and the hot and steamy port of Guayaquil in neighbouring Ecuador which, many years later, I visited a number of times in a professional capacity. I wonder what he thought of it РI hated the place Рbut compared to the trenches it must have felt like an oasis of calm to him!

HWS in 1961 – a dapper chap!