The M&S Wimereux French Biscuits Tin and the Great War

I am rather partial to a good tin. I collect the things, hoard them, they are all over the house. Tins full of sixpenny pieces, tins of threepenny bits, half-crowns, buttons, old stamps, Large tins full of old photographs and letters, Big tins with small tins inside them. Tins of snuff, tins of tablets I’m a sort of tinalholic. I even have some old army tins including my rifle cleaning kit tin and an olive green oblong tin given to me by an army Chaplin which he used to use to carry communion wafers into the front line. A sort of Holy Grail of tins.  And I keep my barrister’s wig in a black oval tin bought from a car boot sale and marked “Handle with care, Sceintific Instrument”, which seems quite appropriate.
Scotland is an especially good place for tin collectors.  It’s all that shortbread. I have bought countless tins in the Edinburgh Charity shops for they know a good tin do those Edinburghers. And as it happens there are more charity shops in Edinburgh than there are in any other UK city , – hence more tins. Of course a lot of them are tartan/highland kitsch but you can still find outstanding quality tins tucked away on top shelves of the charity shops. More than once it has crossed my mind that while searching the Edinburgh world of tins that if Cornwall had ever invented shortbread thy would probably still have a tin mining industry.
Marks and Spencer’s, dear old Marks and Spencer’s are true connoisseurs of the tin. They constantly market their shortbread, their biscuits, their boiled sweets and their teas in the most wonderful range of tins of all shapes and sizes, often nicely embosses with fine art images. I have a bassets liquorice allsorts tin from M&S, and a harry potter tin with a small model of harry potter mounted on the lid, and a very fine earl grey tea tin. I am surprised they don’t market other goods in tins and stick only to food products. They could easily sell their knickers in a tin. What could be nicer than buying your wife or girlfriend or partner, or even your mother, a tin of Marks and Spencer’s knickers? But I digress, and am distracted by thinking what embossed image they would put on a tin of M&S knickers.
20150531_123258This month they have on sale a really wonderful tin box of French butter biscuits marketed under the name of Wimereux. It features a pretty French girl, pre 1914 I would think, on the Wimereux sands with a bright red umbrella to shade her from the sunshine. If I am an anorak of tins, a tinaholic, then the other great interest I follow is the history of the Great War. Wimereux is a somewhat sacred place in the history of World War 1
Wimereux is a small French seaside resort, a sort of French Brighton but with very good restaurants. It is sited about four miles north of Boulogne, or as it says on the tin, 9 minutes from Boulogne. In 1914 it was chosen as the site for a major Australian voluntary base hospital to receive seriously wounded soldiers form the trenches across Northern France.
Initially the hospital was located in a series of specially built huts, with wards, operating theatres and all the kit and equipment of a major hospital. wimereux_archStaff were under canvas. It was staffed by Australian Nurses and Doctors including a number of very distinguished women doctors. Eventually the hospital would lose its exclusively Australian identity, becoming a major British army hospital and taking over most of the hotels and villas  along the seafront, including the hotel pictured on the Wimereux Tin, which is, I think, the Hotel (Chateau) Mauricien, a hotel with a splendid sunken Roman baths that was converted by the military into an operating theatre.
The Hospital would receive the wounded being fed back to the base hospital through the causality clearing stations immediately behind the front lines. They would be operated on in the Wimereux theatres and if they were fit enough sent back to the network of hospitals and rehabilitation centres in England from the Wimereux docks. They might spend a little time in the seaside town resting and regaining their strength, strolling along the sea-front or sitting quietly on the beach. At a later stage in the war Wimereux became the headquarters of the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps and was used to treat and rehabilitate many of the nurses serving closer to the front lines and who suffered considerable trauma and illness from their experiences of war.,
The Hospital took casualties from all nations, including enemy casualties. Perhaps its most notable patient was not a war causality at all, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, was a Canadian physician in the Canadian Royal Army Medical Corps and commander of No: 3 Canadian General Hospital in nearby Bologne, He died of pneumonia with extensive pneumococcus meningitis. It was he who wrote the most famous poem of the war “In Flanders Fields” and gave to us the powerful symbol of the poppy by which we remember still, the fallen.Mccrae
Another, less well known casualty was Frederick Norway Hamilton. I have written of him before and you may read his story here. It is particularly nice to know that in his dying days he was cared for by Australian nurses and doctors, for although he, and all his family, were English, they hailed from Cornwall, his younger brother Neville Shute, subsequently emigrated to Australia and became one of the great Australian literary figures writing “On the Beach” and “A Town like Alice”
So for me, and I expect for many others the M & S Wimereux tin is set to become a classic of tin collectors. Rush out and buy a tin before they sell out altogether. I shall use mine to keep within it my grandfather’s Medal Index Card, he was killed in the great war, my father’s medals, he fought in North Africa and Italy, my own medals from my fierce service in Borneo and in Northern Ireland, together with those enamel poppies I bought last year and of course, a copy of McCrae’s poem. But my first duty, having now bought three of the Wimereux tins, is to eat the contents. Someone has to do it.

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Nevil Shute and Easter Week in Dublin

Arthur Hamilton Norway

Arthur Hamilton Norway

In 1911, Arthur Hamilton Norway, a senior British career civil servant, and father of Nevil Shute, was appointed General Secretary of the Irish Postal Service and was sent to Dublin where his principal office was located in the stone built General Post Office on Sackville Street. He was not overly happy with his new appointment. It was not a promotion and came without any increase in his civil service salary. Dublin was considered a bit of backwater for an ambitious, talented senior civil servant of the calibre of Arthur Hamilton Norway. And there was a degree of resentment in the Irish civil service that such a senior post had gone to an Englishman.

South Hill, Blackrock, Dublin

South Hill, Blackrock, Dublin

But there were compensations. The first must have been the enormous and grand Georgian property he was able move into as his new family home. So much more elegant, so much finer and bigger than the modest London dwelling in Putney that the family had been accustomed to. And in Ireland he was able to afford servants, three to help in the house as well as a full time gardener and an assistant gardener.
The house, known as South Hill House, came with thirteen acres of walled grounds. It was located in Blackrock, a few miles south of the city, at that time deep in the countryside. And it was close to the sea with sweeping sea views. The grand house, after all these years, still stands, divided now into very upmarket apartments with Blackrock having become an integral part of the densely populated urban sprawl of Greater Dublin. The gardens and grounds have long gone to the developers and South Hill is now just another upmarket property albeit in a most desirable and superior suburb of the city.
Nevil Shute recalled the house with great affection in his autobiography “Slide Rule”. There was hay to harvest; a pony to ride or to set into a trap and trot around the country lanes. He recalled his elder brother Frederick, having a .22 seven chamber pistol with which they would take pot-shots at the weather vane on the chimneys of the house, as boys would. Frederick he recalled was having a tough time boarding at his English public school. Rugby – which given Shute’s penchant for understatement probably means a very very tough time indeed, for English public schools of that pre-war era enjoyed a fairly brutal reputation. Nevil too had a rather difficult time at his own public school, Shrewsbury, mostly on account of his stammer.
His father took Frederick out of Rugby School and brought him home to the new house at South Hill. He was enrolled, at 16 years of age, into Trinity College and was still at Trinity a few years later when the Great War broke out. Frederick immediately joined the army, taking a commission in the Duke of Cornwall’s light Infantry. Cornwall being the family’s home county. Nevil recalls going with his father and mother to visit Frederick at his regiment’s barracks in Falmouth and admiring Frederick in his new uniform with his polished Sam Browne belt and “large Webley revolver.” He was deeply in awe of his elder brother and was anxious himself to be able take a commission and join the war before it was all over. By now Nevil was in the schools Officer Training Corps and much time at school was spent training, with the senior boys all going off to commissions as they came of age. Public Schools of that time became little more than officer factories for the front and Nevil was anxious to play his part.
The Norway’s were still residing at South Hill, in 1915 when the newly commissioned Frederick was mortally wounded in the trenches of France.

Frederick Hamilton Norway

Frederick Hamilton Norway

The young subaltern, aged just 19, had only been with his regiment a matter of months. They were occupying trenches beneath which German soldiers had tunnelled their way under the English lines and packed the tunnels with high explosive. On detonation some 27 soldiers of the regiment were buried in and beneath the cratered trenches. Frederick had escaped the blast. But such detonations were inevitably followed by calibrated artillery barrages designed to catch survivors and rescuers, and they were routinely followed by infantry assaults. Frederick was caught in the open by German shelling as he desperately sought to dig survivors from the mud and earth of the destroyed trenches. He suffered serious wounds and was taken to Wimereux, on the French coast where there was a military hospital.
His parents traveled from South Hill to be with him at Wimereux and were beside his bed when he died of the wounds.  They buried him in the local cemetery with full military honours, his grave stone, like those of his comrades who also died in the hospital, lying flat upon the earth rather than standing in rows, made necessary because of the sandy coastal soil of the area.  They took home to South Hill his blood stained uniform, his Sam Browne belt, his Webley revolver and his books and letters, together with a lock of his fair hair.
South Hill now became a place of sadness and was redolent with painful memories of their dear Frederick. There was no joy in living there and soon after returning from France they gave up the lease and moved to live in a suite of rooms at the Royal Hibernian Hotel on Dawson Street in the very centre of Dublin. Some of their furniture and possessions, including the treasured memorials of Frederick were moved into the GPO where Arthur Hamilton had a set of rooms as Secretary to the Irish Postal Service.
They were living at the Royal Hibernian when Nevil came home from his English Public School at Shrewsbury for the Easter Holidays in 1916. He was now 17 year of age.
Easter Monday 1916 was a working day at the GPO and his so his father went off to his office in the early morning. He arranged for Nevil and his mother to come up to the GPO and collect him for lunch, for what could be nicer than Easter lunch with their only son, in a fine Dublin Hotel.
During his mornings work at the GPO  Arthur Hamilton Norway was summoned to attend an urgent meeting at Dublin Castle. He was to meet with the Irish Under Secretary, Sir Matthew Nathan and with the head of the Royal Irish Constabulary Intelligence, Major Ivor Price. They were to discuss the security situation in the light of the arrest of Roger Casement, who had landed in County Kerry from a German submarine. Casement was being moved across Ireland en-route to the Tower of London and it was important to secure communications so that his journey remained secret. So urgent was the meeting that he failed to telephone his wife to cancel their planned lunch.
So when Nevil and his mother strolled down to the GPO to meet for lunch they would not have known he was up at the castle.
They walked into Irish History, they walked into the Irish Rebellion.
They witnessed, Nevil and his mother the Sinn Fieners taking military control of the Post Office and declaring it the headquarter of a free provisional government of Ireland. They saw young volunteer rebels firing revolvers into the air. Mrs. Hamilton Norway was outraged and knocked on the door of the General Post Office and demanded to see her husband who she feared was been held captive. She was assured by a rebel officer, possibly Pearce himself, that he was not there and even taken up to his rooms so she could see for herself and receive the rebel assurances that they would not damage their property while the GPO was held for Ireland. An assurance of some importance as in the rooms was all the family jewellery in the wall safe, and more importantly, in a cabinet, the precious mementos brought back from France, of dear Frederick.
Mrs Hamilton Norway hurried back to the Royal Hibernian as armed rebellion and panic began to grip the streets of Dublin. Nevil stayed on in Sackville Street to watch events unfold and witnessed a British cavalry unit of lancers trot up Sackville Street and come under sustained fire from the GPO, horses and men falling in the unexpected violence. Sackville Street was wet with English blood. On his return to the Hibernian hotel he volunteered to work on the ambulances being organised by the Royal Automobile Club and spent the next six days, aged just 17, traveling the streets of the rebel city picking up wounded civilians, soldiers and rebel volunteers, taking them to local hospitals and first aid posts. And collecting the bodies of the dead.
He was back at Shrewsbury school by early May where he was to write up his adventures in rebel Dublin, possibly his first venture into published writing. He wrote a piece entitled “Easter Week in Dublin” for the May edition of the school magazine, the Salopian.1430213199273  In it he claimed to have witnessed soldiers carrying out a summary execution (effectively a murder) of a postman caught smuggling ammunition. The story has never been verified and does not appear in any other accounts of the Rising and may perhaps be the young stammering seventeen year old seeking to impress the Shrewsbury boys. You may read his Salopian essay here.
He never wrote of it in any detail ever again and although it is mentioned in his autobiography “The Slide Rule” it is but a brief and passing mention. Even more surprisingly he fails to mention in the autobiography the book on the Rising written and published by his mother “The Sinn Fein Rising as I saw it” a book considered by most historians of the Rising to be an important contemporary account of what was happening in Rebellion locked Dublin during those historic days. One may reasonably have thought he might have been quite proud of his mother’s book.
The assurances that his mother had received from the rebels occupying the GPO were not possible to keep. Recorded in the Military Bureau of History archives are statements by two rebel volunteers, Patrick Colgan and Joseph O’Duffy, who were directed to search the rooms of the General Secretary to the Post Office for any materials to add to the barricading of the building and for any weapons they might find. They discovered the blood stained English uniform of Frederick Hamilton Norway. His Webley revolver was taken by volunteer O’Duffy and used in the ferocious fighting against the Crown forces besieging the GPO. The revolver was never recovered and the uniform tunic and the other treasured memorials of 2nd lt. Fredrick Hamilton Norway would have been consumed in the great fires which followed the British shelling of the GPO with incendiary ammunition which reduced the temporary headquarters of the provisional Irish Republic, to a shattered burnt out shell
In the days that followed the end of the Rising the burnt remains within the GPO were carefully excavated. Frederick graveSome silver spoons and a fork, together with a number of broaches and jewellery from the untouched safe were recovered but no traces of Frederick’s tunic, his letters from the front, his lock of hair or his other possessions were ever found.  All that remains of him is his grave at Wimereux.
Nevil, searching the ruined shell of the GPO picked up a bomb and part of a Morse apparatus from the ashes of the rebellion. He donated the items to his School museum and their existence, kindly brought to my attention by Dr. Robin Brooke Smith, the School’s librarian and archivist, is quite unknown and quite important.
1430234688844It is really quite remarkable. One of the principal reason the rebels chose to occupy the GPO as their temporary headquarters was the existence, on the top floor of the building of the “instrument room” which was effectively the centre of Ireland’s communications with the outside world. Today they would probably occupy a radio or TV station but in 1916 it was the GPO that became their target. A message was transmitted from the captured instrument room, in Morse, telling the world how the Rising was in place and a free Ireland declared.
Nothing was left of the instrument room after the British bombardment, or of its equipment and it is poignant that the son of the General Secretary of the Post Office should rescue from the ashes, this piece of Morse apparatus. Might it be part of the machine that signalled to the world the start of the Irish Rebellion?

Easter Week – From the Salopian School Magazine, May 1916, by Nevil Shute

1430212978924Before setting out to comply with the request of the editors to send them an article on the rebellion in Ireland it is essential to say a few introductory words.  Such an article is in the circumstances bound to be based largely on personal experiences and it is an extraordinarily difficult and endless task to decide which of the thousands of different and in a great many cases contradictory rumours are to contribute to the material of such an essy.

The class of the rebels varied between poets and cornerboys, but the vast majority of the men were men who were in government pay or other good positions.  This may perhaps make it easier to understand why the rebellion was so formidable while it lasted.   It was not numbers, which could not have exceeded 4000 men, that produced the stubborn resistance, but the fact that all the principal buildings throughout the town were betrayed by their own inmates into the hands of the rebels.  To some it may seem extraordinary that the insurrection was so formidable for a week and then came to a a sudden collapse.  The reaso9n for this was that against the rebels in their strongholds rifles were no use, and even machine guns were very little use.  It naturally took some days to get artillery over from Liverpool or up from Athlone, and this only arrived twords the end of the week.  It was after a short taste of big guns that the rebel leaders realised that all was up and that they had been out-gut trumped.

 

During the first few days, life in Dublin was one of the most striking sights I have ever seen .  Up till the middle of the firs week the population were allowed about without passports and the oblivion which seemed to reign in one street when men were being picked off every five minutes in the next street was extraordinary.  A great many people were sucked as it were, by whirl-pool into places of extreme danger by an indomitable spirit of curiosity and excitement.  Except for a fact that they had to convey their own food home in baskets or other receptacles, house-keepers were behaving as though nothing had happened.  Old ladies were exercising their dogs in the squares on whcihc they lived, blind men were being led about for their daily walks, street Arabs were playing marbles on the pavements, steam-rollers were still to be seen at work.  The  only uncommon sight was  that there were no wheeled vehicles about> the familiar sound of the electric trams was conspicuous by  its absence .  It is perhaps  incorrect to say no wheeled vehicles> ther4e were motor ambulances, milk carts and bread-carts but no others, bring a few bicycles.  It almost transformed the city streets into suburban terraces to see one’s neighbours all on their doorsteps in deck-chairs doing needlework, smoking and inter changing rumours.  Some of these rumours were of course true, but it is beyond doubt that a very great many were false.  For example it w3as believed in country town, about 11 miles south of Dublin, that a whale had escaped from the Dublin Zoological Gardens, had swum down the River Liffey and was devouring the inhabitants of the city.

During the first half of Easter week one might see bread carts and milk-carts, standing in the road with a crowd of hungry urchins and mothers all round them waving pennies and sixpences at the miserable drivers.   I once saw no less than 8 bread-carts and three milk –carts at the same time in one street barely 150 yards long.  After the barricades had been put up0 however the poor could no longer do this and excellent photographs were afforded of crowds of poop people behind barricades waving jus and money at the soldiers who had commandeered the carts and w3re serving the sufferers across an excellent counter of sandbags and kitchen tables and sofas.

Such as thes were the common sights in the quitter side of civil life, but it must not be forgotten that all this time there was the danger of being hit by a stray bullet or a ricochet, through only in some cases by a direct hit.   It is with this subject that the remainder of this arcticle must deal.

Two remarks I should like to make before starting this second half of my narrative.  Firstly, I am writing everything exactly as  I saw it or heard of it and I am giving the editor a free hand with anything that may be too morbid, so that with him the blame for such must lie.   Secondly if such experiences seem tame or pointless it will be because they have been censored as giving too much information.  They are mainly a disconnected collection which I am not attempting to make into a continuous whole.

On Monday afternoon I saw a great friend of my father’s drive up to his hall-door in a motorcar.  H His two sons got out and went indoors and he was about to drive off again when a man came up to him and putting a revolver to his head said “I must ask you to step out. We want your car”

“And who are you, might I ask?”

“I am an officer in the Irish Republican Army”

My friend refused, and the man pulled the trigger.  It was a miss-fire and my friend laid him flat on his back in the road and drove off.   The revolver fell open and he had forgotten to load it.

I was going out to buy a sack of flour for a hospital one morning and as I was passing a bridge, I saw a postman being stopped and asked for his passport.   He had note.  He was suspected and searched.  The military found the whold of his coat and waistcoat and other clothes simply padded with ammunition of all sorts.  He was shot on the spot.

A frend of mine at another bridge saw a similar scene.  A milk-cart driven by two women was driving along towards one of the rebel strongholds.  A sergeant major signalled to it to stop, whereupon the driver stood up and whipped up the horses into a gallop.  She whipped the sergeant major also but he was too late to do anything.  An officer then jumped forward and caught the horse by the reins and stopped the cart in thsp0ite of a hail of blows from the whip.   The men then came to the rescue but not in time to save the office4r being stunned.  They took down the women who turned out to be men and found the cart full of ammunit8on.  The two were shot there and then.

I witnessed another instance of men disguised as women in a different spot.  There was a barricade under fire at the top of one of the streets joining Mount Street, a name that may be familiar.  Three women wanted to pass this barricade and were told to do so a the double.   They were not so good at disguising themselves a s to be able to remember that they were women at the moment of danger.   They scuttled past the lane at an unmistakeably manly run and their men’s clothes underneath were sadly betrayed by the rising of their skirts when they were in a hurry.

A friend of mine was riding his motor-bicycle alone one day when it got clogged somewhere.   He got off and started settling it and while doing so stared to smoke; he also gave a cigarette to a passing Tommy, who was sympathetic.  He was then accosted by a man in mufti wh asked for a cigarette.  He replied that he hand not one.  Upon this the other man put his hand into his breast pocket and my friend saw a knife appear.  When he saw the handle he did not wait for the blade but hopped on his bicycle and rode off.  He looked back to see the man holding the dagger open, which had so nearly been the end of him..  This story is told more as an example of the way in which the rough element  in the city took advantage of the rebellion, (as the police were confidned to barracks), than in connection with the actual Sinn Feiners.  (incidentally this name is pronounced Shin Fnaers, as a good many do not seem to realise.)

So far these incidents have been such as are exclusive of bloodshed other than bloodshed in execution.  There are many more like them which might be told were it not for lack of space.   Similarly the following ar only a selection from the many instances that might be told of wounded and dead men.

I was standing in a window of our house dressing one morning, and I was looking towards a military barricade at the corner of the square.  There were several soldiers passing along behind it, and the word was being passed from one to another to keep low as the barricade was under fire.  One poor fellow just beginning to speak to the man behind when he dropped.  A doctor from a house at the corner ran out barefooted with nothing but his trousers and medical coat on and picked the fellow up in his arms and carried him single-handed to the hospital that was next door.   On examination he was found to  have been hit between his left eye and the bonde just to the left of that.  The bullet had gone on in underneath the bone and had come out at his ear which was in ribbons.  It was one of the closest shaves I have seen but he is doing well.

A friend of mine was walking along and saw an old man walk out of a lane with a barrow.  He had gone very few yard when he was hit in the knee.   He sank to the ground and my friend was just endeavouring to pick him up when another bullent went clean through his heart and took off the top of my friend’s little finger on the other side.

Another civilian was walking along and came to a military barricade.  He was halted but lost his head.  He started to turn and run away and, was naturally fired on.   He dropped.  The stretcher bearers went out and got him in and we took him into the theatre of the hospital.  There was only one surgeon present and he was unfortunately not a general practitioner but a nose, throat and ear specialist.  He found the man had been hit in three places in the abdomen.  It was a horrible sight.  As he lay on his back he spouted blood like a fountain.  It was impossible case and the poor fellow died very shortly.  Up till the very last he was in agony, calling for his sister and asking to bree shot.  With the exception of men who had been shot dead this was the most grisly case I saw.

 

Another poor fellow that we carried in was shot by a sniper.  He was walking quietly along in a street hitherto quiet under the impression that there was no danger.  A muzzle however pointed out from some area railings and shot him in the ankle.  He had to have his foot amputated.

One poor servant girl that had to be seen too, had just opened a top story window and had barely put her head out when the whole top of her head was taken almost off by what must have been a machine gun or more probably a Lewis gun as the military had more of them and were using tnem more in the neighbourhood.  She was found exactly where she was standing leaning on the window with the top half of her head hanging off and the window sash bespattered with her brains.  Death must have been instantaneous.

Several men were shot dead, and of course had to be brought in whenever an opportunity occurred but in as muxh as the soldiers were sitting on our door-step to fire and to be fired at, it was foolhardy to look after any but the wounded men till after dark, when things grew calmer.  And indeed it only too easy to distinguish between the dead and the wounded.  Having seen death one would almost prefer to feel it tha ever to see it again.