As mentioned yesterday, I have been reading a couple of war memoirs by officers serving with Irish regiments of the British army, written a hundred years apart. Yesterday I wrote up Charles Crowe’s memories of serving in the Peninsular War with my 3xgreat-uncle, Thomas Whyte; today it’s the memoirs of Noel Drury about his service with Thomas Whyte’s great-nephew, my grandfather, William Henry “Bill” Whyte.
Second paragraph of third chapter (Grayson’s introduction):
On 9 August, the 6th Royal Dublin Fusiliers finally got orders to take part in an advance from Hill 50 towards All Bey Chesme. This was Drury’s first real action and he recalled, ‘The firing was worse than I imagined it would be and I felt very scared’, with snipers hidden in trees a particular problem. The attack failed and Drury attributed that to ‘the failure by the staff to work out any proper scheme at the beginning while there was a chance of our getting there without much opposition’ and also ‘the extraordinarily bad behaviour of the 11th (Northern) Division troops and some of the 53rd’.6 Casualties for the 6th Royal Dublin Fusiliers were heavy: 11 officers and 259 other ranks, with 6 of the officers turning out to be dead, which necessitated some reorganisation of the battalion.7 The battalion spent the next few days digging in, struggling to find water but on 12 August were reattached to their own 30th Brigade and sent to a ‘rest camp’.8 Drury felt there was a ‘subtle wit’ at work in naming this a rest camp, noting ‘Anything less like a Rest Camp you couldn’t imagine. It was a bare slope, cleared in the scrub and having tracks of a “hay” crop of hard wiry burnt grass. The sun was beating down with a heat such I have never felt before. There was no shade.”9
6 Diary entry, 9 Aug 1915.
7 Diary entries, 9 and 11 Aug 1915.
8 Diary entry, 12 Aug 1915.
9 Diary entry, 13 Aug 1915.
Second paragraph of third chapter (Drury’s diary):
So we started off for the great adventure. I felt very nervous, as I am sure the others did, about how I would get on when real fighting started, and I think the responsibility of leading the men well, weighed on us.
I was put onto this by browsing around after reading a disappointing book on the 10th (Irish) Division in the First World War. Noel Drury was born in 1883; his family owned the busiest (and at one stage the only) paper mill in Ireland. He had two brothers, one of whom stayed at home to run the mill during the war (and then died in the influenza pandemic) and the other a doctor who joined the RAMC. He left four volumes of war diaries to the National War Museum; Richard Grayson, who I have known for thirty years, has now edited them down by about half and presents them for us here.
My main interest is that Drury served with the 6th Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and one of his closest colleagues, who gets more mentions than anyone except the battallion’s original commander Colonel P.G.A. “Paddy” Cox, was my grandfather, William Henry “Bill” Whyte, who fought alongside him and succeeded Cox as the battalion’s commanding officer. I never knew my grandfather, who died in 1949, long before I was born, so for me this is a unique insight into the man who contributed a quarter of my DNA.
Bill Whyte was born in 1880, the seventh son (of nine) and eleventh child (of fourteen) of my great-grandfather John Joseph Whyte (1826-1916). He had been a soldier since 1901 when he signed up for the Boer War. He appears on the very first page of Drury’s diary, welcoming Drury to the battalion in December 1914. Months of training then follow before they are sent to the eastern Mediterranean, arriving at Alexandria in July 1915, where Bill Whyte already knows the city, having been there on a previous military mission, and shows Drury around.
Their first (and as it turns out worst) day of actual combat is 9 August 1915, two days after their landing in Suvla Bay as part of the Gallipoli campaign, with no maps and no orders. They are ordered forward to capture a couple of hills, but in the confusion of war nothing seems to go right. Bill Whyte shuttles back and forth from the front line to Colonel Cox to try and sort things out. They manage to hold a ridge for a week, but are finally forced to withdraw to a prepared defensive position by the Turkish army, and Bill Whyte is injured in the neck/shoulder as they retreat. By the end of the Gallipoli campaign, half of the battalion’s men have been killed or wounded, or fallen ill, including 22 of the 26 officers.
The 6th Battalion spends the next month dug in on the Gallipoli front. Bill Whyte comes back from hospital on 21 September, five weeks after he was shot, and the soldiers move out at the end of the month to Thessalonica in Greece, where they spend October. They spend the whole of November preparing to defend the Allied positions just across the Serbian (now Macedonian) border. Eventually, without too much actual combat, it becomes clear that the position cannot be held against the incoming Bulgarian army, and Bill Whyte organises the retreat from the Battle of Kosturino on 8 December.
I knew some of this part of the story, having read up on the Macedonia campaign and actually explored the battlefield a few years ago. But I had not realised that the Allied troops had spent more than a month dug into the freezing Macedonian hills before being forced to withdraw. My grandfather was awarded the Order of the White Eagle by Serbia as a reward for his part in the campaign, unsuccessful as it was.
I was startled, when I visited the Imperial War Museum (North) in Manchester a year ago, to find a vivid depiction of the battlefield, “Land Heals, Memories Remain”, a 2018 painting by Jen Gash, at the entrance to the main exhibition hall.
The Battalion falls back to Thessalonica, and settles down to defending the lines and preparing for the next offensive. Meanwhile Drury goes down with malaria in July 1916 and is invalided home, returning only in July 1917 after a year away, to find that the front line in Macedonia has barely moved in the meantime.
In September 1917 there are two significant developments. First, the battalion is sent to Egypt as part of the Palestine campaign. Second, there is a new commanding officer. Colonel Cox is ordered home on 1 September, and Drury notes, “I wonder who will get Command – I’m afraid Bill Whyte won’t, as his deafness was a bar in the past.” (I was well aware of my grandfather’s deafness, supposedly due to overdosing on quinine during a bout with malaria.) But on 17 September he writes:
Great news. Major WH Whyte was in Orders today as Lieutenant Colonel and to command the Battalion. I am so glad as he is a damn fine fellow and a white man [sic]. He breathes the spirit of the Regiment and loves it better than anything. He knows the whole history of it and is always instilling it into the men. One malefactor when brought up at Orderly Room found himself sentenced to learn all the Battle Honours and their dates by heart.
And the next day:
Bill Whyte turned up at Orderly Room today with his crown and star on, amid hearty congratulations from everyone. It’s a huge relief that we haven’t had a dago sent to command.
(Presumably “dago” here means an officer from another regiment; or possibly just a non-Irishman.)
The battalion is held in reserve for the Third Battle of Gaza and the capture of Jerusalem, and has a brief skirmish with a failed Turkish counteroffensive at the very end of the year. In January, Bill Whyte wrote a letter to the former chaplain of the Battalion; when I first came across this I had no idea who the people in question were, but thanks to Drury’s diaries I now can identify all of them. This is from our family papers, not part of Drury’s book.
13 January 1918
Dear Padré [Father Murphy, the former Catholic chaplain],
This is to wish you all of the best for 1918 and also to ask why the divil we never hear from you? The boys do be going strong and as you probably have read we have had three successful stunts so we are all wagging our tails hard.
Has been hard work on little food and less drink; absolutely no whiskey! Stuffer [R.C. Byrne, the battalion quartermaster] is perforce a teetotaler and aging rapidly.
John Luke [another of the senior officers], sitting beside me much wishes he was where he last saw you. I gather you fed him nobly with drink in proportion!
Well, here we are in the Holy Land and as [probably mythical] Pat Murphy said “It’s no wonder Abraham was always wandering; sure he would be looking for a better spot.”
I got as far as Jerusalem just for a look at it. As a city most disappointing, incredibly dirty and smelly with a loathsome population. The interest of course is in the association with Biblical and Christian incidents. I saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Via Dolorosa, Garden of Gethsemane Mount of Olives etc etc. Had only time for a glimpse at each, and also one or two of the Moslem places. The Mosque of Omar built on the site of Solomon’s temple is far and away the finest thing in Jerusalem or out of it. The whole of this country is full of interest also. We bivouaced under the hill where Christ is supposed to have appeared to the three disciples after his resurrection [meaning the appearance on the road to Emmaus, which was to two disciples, not three]. There is a Latin Monastery there ran by Franciscans. – French and Italian [the monastery at Al-Qubaibeh, which had been founded only in 1902].
Got some bread and oranges out of them when they learnt we were all R.Cs. The Turk had left them pretty bare. The O.C. Monks breakfasted with me next day and was very interesting. They are evidently very industrious people, have transformed the top of a bare and bleak mountain into quite a charming spot. Trees planted, gardens flourishing with vines, oranges, pepper trees, etc. to say nothing of flowers and vegetables. Chapel is very fine and the Monastery and Hospice are very large; all buildings cut stone. We were using Hospice as a hospital. By the way it was here our padre first failed us. Being a holy man I sent him out foraging to the Monastery, as we were short of food, and expected him to return with all sorts of luxuries. However all he got out of the Monks was permission to pray in their Chapel! Not much use to hungry men! I think you or the Canon would not have come away empty handed.
The padre is one of your recruits Fr O’Carroll by name a good lad, but a bit young for the “brutal soldiery”. Next day I took in the job of foraging myself.
Another day we had a small scrap in the same place where Joshua hunted the 4 kings (I think) [actually five kings; the valley of Ajalon, a skirmish also described by Drury as taking place on 1 December 1917]. As far as I remember a terrific hail storm put the wind up them. We were assisted by a fog and sneaked up to the Turk and put the wind up him.
As regards fighting generally we have had a walk over as compared with the Gallipoli days. My company on 9th August lost more in 3 hours than the battalion has lost in all this campaign. Thank God for it. Our last stunt, when we counter attacked during Turks attempt to recapture Jerusalem, was I think our best effort. Anyhow the old Division was let loose as a whole and we fairly wiped everybody else’s eye. Our share of the pick up
was morekilled, wounded, prisoners, guns, M.Gs. etc. was more than three times as large as all the other divisions put together. [27-29 December, around Deir Ibzia]
It was hard work though. Xmas day was the divil raining like hell and New Years Day if possible worse. All the time we were on bully & biscuit and not enough of either. Indeed to look back now over the country we put the Turk out of it is astonishing an army was ever able to cross it. We went up 4 mountains all nearly 3000 feet high to say nothing of dozens of lower eminences. Men of course were marvelous, so happy and cheery under most adverse conditions and mad keen to get at the Turk. The other day a patrol came back grousing, saying the officer in charge was no good as he couldn’t find them any Turks to kill! With me still or rejoined lately are John Luke and Shadforth (both have done awfully well) also old Dovey Loveband and of course the Stuffer. Wodehouse also here sticking it out well in spite of rheumatism. [John Luke already mentioned; Captain H.A. “Tony” Shadforth; ]Guy Yerburgh Loveband; Stuffer Byrne already mentioned; Arthur Hugh Wodehouse, who had only recently joined the 6th Battalion from the 5th.]
Lots of the “old hands” here also “getting their own back”.
Col Cox [the previous commanding officer] writes he met you in Ireland so he will have given you all recent news. –
We have had no mail for weeks. In this country and under present weather conditions it takes a lot of doing to keep us fed and supplied with lead as a gift to the Turk. –
What is going on in Ireland? Is the convention [the Irish Convention, chaired by Horace Plunkett, in a well-meaning but doomed (and now largely forgotten) attempt to get a constitutional settlement in Ireland before Sinn Fein’s rise became unstoppable] going to put things right or are the Germans going to fool the Irishman into another rebellion? Meantime we are sighing for fresh blood to help us carry on. Only yesterday I had 2 men hit for the 4th time and another hit for the sixth! They will still carry on whilst thousands of able bodied men at home waste time doing nothing but talk rot.
Nothing else matters, except to beat the Hun. When that is done there will be no particular harm in people returning to their petty parish politics. –
Well! Well! God save Ireland anyway!
Have you done any racing lately? And if so I hope you gave Miss May Grehan VAD. better tips than you ever gave me! Give her my kindest regards. [May Grehan’s sister Magda was married to Bill Whyte’s brother George; they were second cousins once removed; May and Magda Grehan had two other sisters, who both married first cousins of the Whytes on the Ryan side; May eventually married an unrelated Englishman in 1922] Also to The Canon [the former Protestant chaplain of the battalion, R.A. MacClean, rector of Rathkeale in Limerick] when next you see him, and the two of you can drink to the health of yours v sincerely
W. H. Whyte
In March the Battalion take part in the Battle of Tell ‘Asur, but the Turkish troops withdraw pretty quickly (as usual at that stage of the war). The battle of Tell ‘Asur brings a particular difficulty as John Luke, one of the most senior officers who was very close to both Drury and Whyte, disobeying a direct order (possibly due to drunkenness) and consequently being court-martialled. (He was ultimately acquitted. Before the war he had resigned from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers after an incident of drunkenness, before rejoining in the war and he was fined for public drunkenness in 1922.)
After that things are fairly quiet, though Bill Whyte has the usual problems of leadership to address, and the soldiers go back and forth to Cairo fairly freely. On one of these train journeys, Drury has an interesting encounter:
When we got to Zagazig, I noticed a peculiarly shabby-looking fellow mouching along in an officer’s tunic but without badges or regimental buttons, unshaved and with long hair. He looked such a disgrace that I was on the point of speaking to him when one of the 10th Divison staff with whom I was sitting said to me ‘Don’t you think you might think first before blazing at him, and don’t you know who it is?’ I said I didn’t and he replied ‘That’s Colonel Lawrence.’ He was probably just back from one of his wonderful stunts with the Arabs and had picked up any old gear to take him to Cairo.
I had wondered if my grandfather ever encountered Lawrence of Arabia. I still don’t know the exact answer but I am satisfied with what I have.
The battalion is sent to France, and then in early September 1918 Bill Whyte is unexpectedly sent for “a rest for a while at home” (I have no idea what was really going on there; was it connected with John Luke’s court-martial?) and replaced with a new CO, Colonel Little, who Drury immediately dislikes. After four years, the war in France is finally going well, and the battalion starts to make major progress against the Germans (the first time that they had actually fought the Germans – previously it was the Turks and the Bulgarians). Then on 11 November everything changes.
About 09.00, Colonel Little came along and after saying ‘Good morning’, casually remarked ‘Well, we stop today’, so I replied ‘Thank the Lord, we could do with a spell of a few days’. So he smiled and said ‘Oh, but we stop altogether, the old war’s finished’. I thought he was pulling my leg so I asked him was I to tell that to the men? He said ‘Yes, certainly, an Armistice has been signed and all fighting will cease at 11.00 exactly’. He then handed me the official order, — ‘OC B Coy 6th Royal Dublin Fusiliers. Hostilities will cease at 11.00 hours today, Nov. 11th. Troops will stand fast on the line reached at that hour which will be reported by wire to Advanced Army Headquarters. Defensive precautions will be maintained. There will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy until receipt of instructions from Army headquarters. Further instructions follow’ — 16th Corps HQ, 07.00, 11th November 1918.
I can hardly believe it. I don’t know what I feel, but somehow it’s like when one heard the death of a friend — a sort of forlorn feeling.
I went along and read out the order to the men, but they just stared at me and showed no enthusiasm at all. One or two just muttered ‘We were just getting a bit of our own back.’ They all had the look of hounds whipped off just as they were about to kill.
It’s extraordinary and yet somehow understandable that despite the horrors of years of war, Drury and some of his colleagues would have preferred to press on than to stop fighting; a sort of Stockholm syndrome.
My grandfather lived to 1949, dropping dead in church at the age of 68 with my father, then 20, standing beside him. Noel Drury died in 1975 shortly before his 92nd birthday, leaving most of his estate to a cousin who had been living with him; he never married. He had sold the family paper mill to the Irish state many decades earlier.
So, a few things jumped out at me, partly also as a result of having read Charles Crowe’s diary of the Peninsular War and his association with my grandfather’s great-uncle Thomas Whyte alongside Drury’s memoir. The First World War was a lot more static than the Peninsular War. The soldiers spent a lot of time stuck in one place, sometimes in trenches, sometimes in pleasant Mediterranean cities. Fighting seems to have taken up less than 10% of the time of the campaign – two weeks at Gallipoli, another couple of weeks in France at the end (which my grandfather missed), a few days in Macedonia and Palestine. The Peninsular War was a lot more fluid, though I think the proportion of the time spent fighting was a little higher.
The other striking difference is that women are much less visible. Drury stays in touch with his brother’s girlfriend, who is a nurse and often overlaps with him. He organises a concert for about 50 nurses and other British women in Thessalonica, and helps out a couple of lost Englishwomen in Normandy, but otherwise the first world war army is much more male than the army of the Napoleonic era.
Drury’s descriptions of people and places are vivid, if bigoted. It’s all very clearly presented. Richard Grayson has done a great job of breaking the story up into chapters and clarifying what was going on. And I’ve learned something more about my grandfather. As with Glover’s edition of Crowe’s diary, I wish there had been some maps, but apart from that I recommend it as a nice example of presenting primary source material. You can get it here.