“The fortunes of war”

One of the letters written by my soldier had the phrase “…such are the fortunes of war.” He was close to being demobbed, and had just discovered that had he enlisted a day earlier, his time for demobilisation would have been 4 to 7 weeks earlier. I wondered where the expression originated and discovered that it has been used frequently by various people – famous, infamous and the ‘ordinary’ citizen – over a very long period of time. Nowhere could I find any definitive explanation (or indeed any explanation at all!)  for where and how it came into common parlance. The earliest I could find dated back to Seneca the Younger (Lucius Annaeus Seneca) the Roman philosopher who said “The fortunes of war are always doubtful”. Food for thought!

If anyone can suggest any other origins of the phrase I’d love to hear.


Commemorating the end of WW1

Each year, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th Month,  a two minute silence is observed in the UK and elsewhere in Europe and in the Commonwealth to commemorate the end of the First World War and subsequent hostilities, and to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Traditionally, the ‘Last Post’ is played, the ‘exhortation’ is read followed by two minutes of silent reflection. Reveille is played signalling the end of the silence.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grown old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, We will remember them.”

Remembrance Day in France and Belgium is held on 11 November which is a National holiday; Memorial Day – Anzac Day – is held in April in Australia and New Zealand; in the Netherlands Dodenherdenking (Remembrance of the Dead) is held in May; in Germany Volkstrauertag (People’s Day of Mourning) is held on the 2nd Sunday before Advent. In Britain, on the Sunday nearest to 11 November (Armistice day), Remembrance services are held followed by the laying of wreaths at War Memorials. This year, the 11th November fell on a Sunday, and as with many other communities throughout our land, there was a special exhibition to mark 100 years since the end of that terrible war.

224 young men from our small farming community enlisted to fight in the war, 38 of them were killed. The exhibition features profiles of each of those 38 men, with a walk around the town centre showing where 16 of them lived in quite close proximity. These profiles are supported by memorabilia and by artwork by local people.

In Shropshire, 5286 lives were lost, and this is reflected in a poppy waterfall and flight of white doves of peace. Nearby, a selection of moving poems written during the war

One of the visitors to the exhibition yesterday brought a photograph of her great grandfather whose name is listed on the Roll of Honour as one of the 224 men who survived the war. She had a fascinating tale to tell – the name on the Roll of Honour is the name by which he became known, but which is not his ‘real’ name. His first name Herbert had, she thought, led to him being called Bert. He was later brought up by another family, whose surname he took, perhaps he was illegitimate she surmised. Later, someone in authority must have decided that ‘Bert’ was short for ‘Albert’ and so, by just a few short steps his name had changed. Speaking to one of the people who had researched the backgrounds of the 38 men whose lives had been lost, he told me of another similar tale, which in turn reminded me that in my own family, my aunt and my maternal grandmother were both known by names that bore no resemblance to the names on their birth and marriage certificates.

I commend the exhibition which continues until Saturday 24th November, 10am until 4pm each day. It is testament to the vision of the curator and the hard work of the researchers, contributors and artists that it truly honours those men and their loved ones.

Beware of ads

Reading a favourite blog today, which carries a number of adverts (part of the host’s package), I saw an advert for an all singing, all dancing anti-virus, anti-malware, etc programme. As always I asked my resident IT guru (aka my husband) if he’d heard of it. He hadn’t, so checked it out and found that it was a scam, which, had I have clicked on it, would have ‘infected’ my computer, as indeed it had done with other more trusting computer users. There have been complaints (to Microsoft I think) about how they permitted this advertisement to continue, but continue it does .

My rather basic blog doesn’t, as far as I am aware, carry advertisements, but my advice to readers of blogs that do carry such adverts is NEVER to click on the link, and ALWAYS double check that it is legitimate.

It’s a sad world where the unscrupulous resort to such activities.

Autumn leaves – or lack of them

I’ve just been reading a post by a favourite blogger, Anne Clare, the ‘naptime author’, in which she shows stunning photographs of Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state, USA.   Anne asked “Where do you love to go (or wish you could go!) when life becomes overwhelming?” and I thought of the contrast between her images and the view from our bedroom window, here in Shropshire UK. We live in an area designated an AONB, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and a day never goes by without reflecting just how blessed we feel to be living here.

For the past few months I’ve been working on material for an installation in an exhibition to commemorate the end of WW1, which is being held in our Church as part of a programme of such events, commemorating the lives of men from the Clun valley who served in that war, some of whom never came back. In a while I’ll be going over to the Church to continue setting up my installation, and will be reminded of the sacrifices they made. Before doing so, I thought I’d share my daily ‘fix’ – the ever changing view from our bedroom window, which answers Anne’s question.1605D559-C83C-4662-B0A4-9EF86640FADD

Now that it is autumn, the majestic oaks and other deciduous trees stand out in silhouette against the skyline, with some closer ones still hanging onto their now golden leaves. Soon they will fall, revealing once more their bare branches which will catch the winter snow later in the year.

But there is one particular tree, much nearer, which is somehow symbolic of the changing seasons.


Just recently it too was covered in golden leaves, which positively glowed in sunlight. Now with all the leaves gone it glows silver instead, contrasted against the background conifers.  Birds stop and take rest on it’s bare branches. Come Spring, it will begin to sprout fresh green buds, and the cycle of life begins once more.

I have so much to be thankful for.






Invictus Games, sportsmanship & mental health

DSCF8639This morning I watched the closing ceremony of the Invictus Games in Sydney on iPlayer, and was moved by what I consider to be true sportsmanship, encapsulated in the actions of Dutchman Edwin Vermetten, who plays tennis from his wheelchair,  when he came to the aid of his British team-mate Paul Guest whose struggle with PTSD was severely challenged when a helicopter flew overhead during their match. Together they sang ‘Let it go’ from the film Frozen which helped Paul to recover sufficiently to continue the match. In turn, Paul was there to applaud Edwin when he received an “above and beyond” award – exposing himself to personal risk yet again.

I was also moved by Prince Harry’s closing speech, in which he praised those whom he described as “ordinary people doing extra-ordinary things” and reminded us that no challenge is too difficult to overcome. He spoke at length about mental health – about mental ill health, and about his own experiences in the darkest of places. “…Asking for help is courageous” he said, “…it will improve your life and the lives of those around you immeasurably. In the moment you admit you are struggling, you take that first step towards a better future for you and your friends and your family. You allow those around you to show you the love and concern that is central to the cure….The secret to the success of these Games has been accepting that mental health is the real key to recovery. Our competitors have helped turn the issue of mental health from a sad story to an inspiring one….When you accept a challenge is real, you can have hope. When you understand your vulnerability, you can become strong. When you are brave enough to ask for help, you can be lifted up. You can start living, doing, feeling – not simply surviving…”

As someone who has experienced quite severe anxiety and depression 20+ years ago (which led to me needing to taking early retirement from a career I had loved), I have some understanding of how difficult it can be to accept our vulnerabilities, to acknowledge that we need help to restore mental health*, and to ask for that help. I also know what it feels like to come through the other side, feeling stronger for the experience, and that life can once again be fulfilling and meaningful.

Why have I shown a photograph of a rose in this post you might ask? It somehow symbolises regeneration and peace for me – when I walked round our garden today, I saw how the frost had damaged the petals of the last roses, but I know that next summer the bushes will once again delight with these wonderful blooms.

So, thank you Harry, and thank you to those courageous men and women, who not only put their lives on the line to help make the world a better place when they served in the armed forces, but who also came through unimaginable traumas in such a truly inspiring way.

In the UK, the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘All in the Mind’; BBC television programme ‘Minds Matter 1 in 4″ and the NHS ‘Every Mind Matters’ all offer information, strategies for overcoming periods of mental ill health, and support. If this affects you, I urge you not to be afraid to take that first step.








Rubber shoes, Bevin Boys and Ballotees

I have been writing about a time when the soldier in my book has returned from a period of leave in December 1945, and had written to his wife to say that he had left his ‘rubber shoes’ at his mother’s house, and had asked her to send them on to him in Germany. What were these particular ‘rubber shoes’ I pondered? Certainly not the ‘Crocs’ that I wear when I’m throwing a pot on the wheel (clay can be washed off them) nor the ones stocked in garden centres in lieu of wellington boots. Those crocs, which are resin not rubber anyway,  were originally developed as a boating shoe in 2002. A resource that I often turn to when I am researching material for my book is the British Newspaper Archive and so I entered ‘rubber shoes’ and checked the ‘Advertisements’ filter for the years spanning 1944-1945. There were regular miscellaneous advertisements in the newspapers for Rubber Shoes, which were quite often advertised in the context of sports including gymnasium training  and tennis. One advertisement was for ‘White poplin Dunlop rubber shoes’, another for ‘Black Suede Crepe rubber shoes.’ (shades of Elvis Presley?)

I then removed the ‘advertisements’ filter, and found more fascinating material relating to ‘rubber shoes’

I discovered a reference to them in an article about landladies welcoming 600 Merseyside youths who were the first of a batch of ‘Ballotees’ to be trained to work down the coal mines in January 1944.

Miner volunteers, including ballotees from Merseyside, who reported for training at Swindon F.C. football ground yesterday, leaving a colliery pit head after receiving instructions in underground work.

Liverpool Daily Post Tuesday 18 January 1944 page 1

When war was declared against Germany in September 1939, although mining was a reserved occupation, many experienced miners were called upon to serve in the Armed Forces, and by mid-1943 there was a serious shortage of coal miners, leaving Britain with less than a month’s worth of coal to meet its needs. It was a vital source of power and heat on the domestic front as well as in industry, the railways and shipping. In addition to its use in solid form – such as was used to generate steam on railway engines – it was used to manufacture ‘Town Gas’, stored in gigantic gas holders.  In December 1943, as a last resort to recruiting sufficient men to work in the coal mines to meet the needs of the nation, young men between the ages of 18 and 25 were conscripted by ballot to work underground in the mines.  They became known as the Ballotees, joining other Bevin Boys who had earlier opted to serve in the mining industry (Optants and Volunteers). As well as protective clothing, they were issued with “…blue trunks, white vest, and rubber shoes….” These were for “preliminary gymnasium training”, physical exercising being necessary “for conditioning purposes.” .[1] Their training was to be in two parts, and when they started the second part they would be issued with 30 additional clothing coupons “…from which six are deducted to cover the boots which are a gift from the Mines Department.” Some gift! The average wage was three pounds ten shillings a week, equivalent to around £127 in 2017 [https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/monetary-policy/inflation/inflation-calculator] They were either accommodated in a purpose-built miner’s hostel or billeted in private homes, and around a third of this wage was deducted for accommodation .  [http://www.theforgottenconscript.co.uk/who-were-the-bevin-boys]

By September 1944 there was a shortage of ‘rubber shoes’ for school gymnasiums, and rope-soled shoes were made. In November 1944, in Lanarkshire, Scotland “Dunky Wright has made it known that rubber shoes, of which there has been a tremendous scarcity, will be available at the open relay race, Gartocher Road, Shettleston, on Saturday sizes 6, 7, and 8, at 3s6d per pair. Money must be accompanied by coupons, and no person may secure more than one pair. Dunky Wright wishes specially to accommodate members of the Marathon Club, of which he is President.” [Daily Record Wednesday 29 November 1944 page 7] I learned that the Marathon Club was, unsurprisingly, a runners club and Duncan McLeod (Dunky) Wright was “one of the most successful marathon runners that Britain, never mind Scotland, has ever produced” [www.scottishdistancerunninghistory.scot]

In March 1945, lawn tennis players were said to be “…in for another very difficult season..” because not only were rubber shoes scarce, so also were tennis balls at a premium.

Then in July 1945, a feature headed ‘RUBBER SHOES COMING’ announced that “Large shipments of rubber shoes for children and adults and a greatly increased flow of other much-needed goods are on the way to Britain in exchange for exports to Canada…”[1]

None of the above quite answered my original question – what did the ‘rubber shoes’ in my soldier’s letter look like, what had he used them for when he was home on leave, and what did he need them for back on active service?

As has so often been the case when I have been researching a seemingly ‘simple’ question, I have encountered far more than I need, and have frequently been seduced into exploring totally irrelevant, but nevertheless fascinating avenues. I finally decided to end my search when I came across the following tantalising piece:-

In December 1945, a 21 year old man was remanded in custody for ‘…loitering…with intent to commit a felony and with being in possession of housebreaking implements by night…” The police constable who had arrested him “… noticed that the lower part of [his]  trousers was bulky and found that he had a rubber shoe attached to each leg by a rubber band. He also had two keys, two files, a pair of tweezers, an electric torch and gloves…”[2]

Any suggestions as to why he attached rubber shoes to his legs, and indeed which part of his legs? Hopefully, my soldier had not required his for any nefarious purpose!


[1]Aberdeen Press and Journal Wednesday 11 July 1945 page 1

[2]Yorkshire Evening Post Saturday 22 December 1945


[1]Liverpool Daily Post Tuesday 18 January 1944 page 1

The Mary Rose

We went from one extreme to the other on our recent trip to Hampshire. After spending time aboard HMS Medusa one day (which I wrote about in an earlier post, focusing on her rôle in the D-Day landings and other aspects of WW2), on another day we saw a different vessel that had also served in a time of war. We had booked our tickets for the Mary Rose museum at HM Naval Base in Portsmouth in advance.  In common with Medusa, the Mary Rose was also timber built, but any comparisons between the two have to be set against comparisons of scale. Medusa survived the war and then continued to operate with only relatively short periods of inaction to allow repairs following damage and much more recently complete restoration. By contrast, the Mary Rose, which was built for war in 1511, sank 34 years later, beginning a process of disintegration on one hand and preservation on the other. Henry VIII, who had ascended to the throne in 1509, aged 17, quickly commissioned two warships which became known as the Mary Rose and the Peter Pomegranate. By the time the Mary Rose sank, he had a fleet of 58 ships.

This blog is not intended in any way to be a history lesson – others have written extensively about Henry and this period in British and European history, and I am more interested in what the ‘ordinary’ men and women were doing. The museum exceeded my expectations in this respect.

Where the Medusa normally had a crew of 7, the crew of the Mary Rose had been on a much larger scale. One telling sentence from the Mary Rose Trust book ‘Exposed’ (which I thoroughly recommend – see below) is that “…the Mary Rose sank with 500 men, in full view of the King…”. On another page, it tells of futile attempts to pull her upright and refloat her, and that “…Salvaging of accessible large objects continued for several years. Although a blow to the Tudor navy, their loss was to be our gain…” It was then nearly 300 years before divers discovered the wreck, and began a process of recovering artefacts, at one point using spades and later explosives to penetrate the silt that had accumulated around the wreck. The artefacts were sold to fund the project, which was abandoned four years later when the cost outweighed income. Around one hundred and thirty years later, some enthusiastic divers and archaeologists began the process again, this time working rather more methodically and using modern equipment to locate not only artefacts, but the wooden structure of the ship. The Mary Rose, or what was left of her starboard side, was raised in 1978. The silts which had hidden her had also protected her, preserving a wealth of material (over 19,000 objects) including personal possessions of crew members that has contributed so much to our understanding of life on a Tudor warship. Extensive measures to restore and preserve everything for posterity continued, and a museum was constructed over and around the ship.


The stories of a carpenter, master gunner, officer, purser, an archer and archer royal, a gentleman, the cook and the ship’s dog ‘Hatch’ are told through artefacts, through supporting text and through a programme of images projected into various parts of the ship.  Everything on display was found on the ship, and much of it is displayed in three galleries running parallel with the wreck, representing the lower decks, main deck and upper decks, with many objects displayed opposite where they were found on the wreck.  Other artefacts are displayed at each end. Where parts of an object were missing (by erosion in most cases) a modern frosted plastic-type material was used to indicate the complete item, such as with the knife below, the missing part of a wooden platter and the legs on a bench.

I was amazed, and moved, by the number and quality of personal objects, including shoes and combs. The level of craftsmanship is astounding – the object numbered 7 above is a personal grooming kit, not unlike the Swiss Army Knives of today, and below is a leather case for a sundial.


None of this would, of course, have been possible without the dedication and expertise of archaeologists and museologists. So much of their work goes on ‘behind the scenes’ to bring history to life again, but I know from conversations with archaeologists and from reading in the press, that their future (ie archaeologists) is by no means secure. “British archaeology is in a fight for survival” was reported in June 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/jun/20/trouble-brewing-british-archaeology

The figures for visitors to the Mary Rose museum suggest that archaeology and museology must survive, “…for the education and benefit of the nation..”. A year ago the Mary Rose Museum welcomed its 10millionth visitor – enough said?

Exposed ISBN 978-0-9544029-8-3

Mary Rose website: http://www.maryrose.org