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 Shop😆?).

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.

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😎 Former scientist, now graduated to a life of leisure; Family man (which may surprise the family - it certainly surprises him); Likes cycling and old-fashioned B&W film photography; Dislikes greasy-pole-climbing 'yes men'; Thinks Afterlife (previously known as Thea Gilmore) should be much better known than she is; Values decency over achievement.

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