A PEN AND SWORD TITLE WITH AN EXCEPTIONALLY VIVID, FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT OF THE BATTLE OF ARRAS IS DESPATCH RIDER ON THE WESTERN FRONT 1915-18, THE DIARY OF SERGEANT ALBERT SIMPKIN MM, EDITED BY HIS GREAT NEPHEW, DAVID VENNER
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30 August 2017
A Manchester Motorcyclist Goes to War
“I do not think we rode more than 5 miles continuously without having to stop and help one rider or another. I am beginning to think that some of these fellows will never make riders. A man should understand his machine as well as be able to ride it.”
Author, David Venner, now aged 66 has fond memories of his time with his great uncle Albert (no, not THAT uncle Albert!), but David never heard Albert speak about his time as a Despatch Rider in the Great War and even more surprising, David was given a copy of Albert's cryptic diary entries from that period in history after his death in 1996 in Argentina. Albert had been sent to Buenos Aires in 1926 by his employer, Crossley Brothers of Manchester, who made marine diesel engines, to set up a branch of the firm there and he stayed for the rest of his life.
We caught up with David during a break in his busy schedule promoting a book based on the diary and asked him to tell us more about this intriguing story.
"The diary was basically cryptic notes Albert scribbled down during breaks between despatches. It was found by my mother (who was Albert’s niece) after his death and she gave it to me."
David continued "Obviously it was fascinating to decipher his notes and knowing him made it seem to come alive in a way I don't think would have happened if I hadn't known him."
Asked about Albert's background, David said "Albert was born in 1885 in Broughton near Salford, the eldest son of a printer. When he left school he became a draughtsman engineer. In 1911 he was living with two other lodgers at 9 Slade Hall Road, Longsight."
"He was a motorcycle enthusiast and travelled all over Britain on his Douglas Twin; by February 1919 he had travelled all over the Western Front as a despatch rider on his Army issue Triumph Model H."
As with all authors, before a single word is written, comes the time-consuming task of research. "The research and editing process took about 18 months, with a further 12 months before publication."
Unfortunately, with the Great War ending so long ago, David did not get the chance to meet any of Albert's comrades but thankfully, knowing Albert was enough.
Although not an owner of a vintage British motorcycle he has come to respect the skills and courage required to ride any machine "in the horrendous conditions of war" as he put it.
David was also kind enough to let us reproduce some extracts from Albert's diary and share some of his photographs from that time.
14th September 1914
“I have called at the Royal Field Artillery [RFA] recruiting office several times but they have no news when we shall be called up. The infantry are now taking men but I do not care for the infantry. I always hated walking! I do not think I ever walked five miles at a stretch; I have almost lived on wheels since I was twelve years old. I would cycle to the end of the road to post a letter and later I took to motorcycling as the natural sequel to push cycling. The infantry with its “foot-slogging” has no attraction to me. In the RFA I should ride a horse or have a seat on a limber or waggon, or at least that is what I thought. I put my name down for future units which might be formed and waited hopefully for several weeks. Some of my friends have gone to join the Manchester Pals Battalion and I am greatly tempted to follow them in sheer despair at not being able to get into the RFA.”
3rd March 1915 In training at Buxton
“We are now engaged in schemes in which the whole company takes part. Telegraph lines are laid across country to outlying villages where signal offices are set up, usually in a room of the village pub. The Despatch Riders [DRs] keep communication between these offices and HQ which is in Buxton. One of the offices is in Castleton, 10 miles away. There is great competition between the riders to set up the fastest time between the two places.”
4th May 1915 Moving to Signal Company’s HQ, Hitchin
“The DRs travelled down by road, the mechanic and me bringing up the rear to give aid in case of breakdowns. I do not think we rode more than 5 miles continuously without having to stop and help one rider or another. I am beginning to think that some of these fellows will never make riders. A man should understand his machine as well as be able to ride it.”
20th November 1916 Engelbelmer, on the Somme
“We are now wallowing in mud … on the road it varies in consistency from that of a thin watery soup to that of dough. The latter variety picks up on the tyres of the waggons and lorries like a snowball gathers snow and falls off in huge clods. Motorcycle mudguards get choked very quickly and bring the machine to a standstill. We have taken off our mudguards and the result can be imagined.”
10th October 1917, Zidote, near Ypres
“At ‘Jackson’s Dump’ I found a DR from another division trying to start a machine with a water-logged magneto, a hopeless job to remedy in the pouring rain. I gave him a lift on the carrier of my machine, against regulations but excusable on a night like this.”
7th June 1918, Cavillon, France
“We have lost one of our riders, Musto, who collided with a French staff car last night. His leg is badly smashed and he had other injuries; not much chance of him being a DR again. Quite a good sort but not much of a rider”
After the Armistice in November 1918, Albert reflected on his wartime experiences and how it had affected his outlook on life: “Whenever my thoughts turned to my return to civilian life, assuming I was lucky enough to get back, I always thought of starting my life again where I left off, but now my ideas have changed: I am a different person. Before the war most of my leisure time was spent in search of mildly dangerous sports: motor cycling, speed trials, hill climbing. I lived on a motorcycle mostly for business. All that is over, I have had enough excitement for a lifetime, all I want is the peace of the English countryside and the solitude of the hills, lying in heather listening to the gentle hissing of the wind.”
Albert Simpkin was one of the lucky ones to survive the war, returning to Crossley Brothers and becoming their Chief Engineer. He died in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1966, aged 80.
After graduating from Edinburgh University, David Venner had a career in countryside management. He is now a family history advisor in North Devon. He has written two previous books: The Venners of Somerset and Devon (privately published) and Information for a Rural Community (British Library). David is married with two grown-up children and three grandchildren.
The book was published in 2015, by Pen and Sword Books, to coincide with the centenary of WW1. David has been busy promoting it ever since and said that the book can be purchased from the publisher (www.pen-and-sword.co.uk), from Amazon, or through any good bookshop. The full title is 'Despatch Rider on the Western Front 1915-18, the diary of Sergeant Albert Simpkin, MM' ISBN 978 1 47382 740 0
David has donated a full typescript of the diary to the Imperial War Museum in London.
www.warfaremagazine.co.uk - Pen and Sword's online magazine. 5th April 2017
A PEN AND SWORD TITLE WITH AN EXCEPTIONALLY VIVID, FIRST-HAND ACCOUNT OF THE BATTLE OF ARRAS IS DESPATCH RIDER ON THE WESTERN FRONT 1915-18, THE DIARY OF SERGEANT ALBERT SIMPKIN MM, EDITED BY HIS GREAT NEPHEW, DAVID VENNER
Albert Simpkin was attached to the HQ of the 37th Division. As such he was in prime position to observe and record the actions of one of the Third Army divisions that played a key role in the Battle of Arras in April 1917, taking the ridge top village of Monchy-le-Preux.
The Allied offensive was planned to start on 9th April, Easter Monday. Whilst Canadian divisions were preparing to attack the strategically important Vimy Ridge to the north of Arras, Albert Simpkin’s 37th Division were encamped at Agnez Duisans, some 3 miles behind the city. The constant shelling of these back areas by the Germans in the build-up to the battle was very trying on the nerves. “Started around 02.00, one shell every 5 minutes with occasional intervals of 15 minutes, lasting 3 hours, a refined kind of torture” wrote Albert in his diary.
The meticulous preparations of the despatch riders were crucial to their success in the days ahead. They spent two days in March learning the run of the streets and the location of the dugouts – where signal offices and command posts were to be positioned - and reconnoitring the network of tunnels and cellars running under the town in all directions, continuing right up to the trenches. Albert’s attention to detail during this period and his volunteering for duties over and above those allocated to him in the heat of the battle, were to earn him a Military Medal ‘for gallantry at the battle of Arras’.
The poor weather conditions get frequent mentions in the diary: “intensely cold with occasional snow showers”; “very bad this past week, rain and sleet every day”. The effect of the weather on the animals could not escape his notice: “Horses and mules are dying like flies from exposure and exhaustion; the sides of the roads are littered with their carcases. I counted almost a hundred on the road into Arras.”
On the eve of the battle, Albert’s Division were waiting in the Arras tunnels. He managed a few hours’ sleep until awakened by an orderly at 03.50. Zero hour was 05.30 but Albert had to report with three other despatch riders to the General at 05.00. He notes in his diary:
“It was biting cold with a strong wind blowing. There was an uncanny silence. In a short time all Hell would break loose. At that moment thousands of guns were trained on their targets with the gunners standing by waiting for the order to fire, the greatest bombardment the World had ever seen. Tens of thousands of infantry in the trenches were counting the minutes waiting for the barrage to commence which would give the signal for them to go over the top. The dressing stations were working feverishly, getting ready for the deluge of shattered humanity which would shortly descend on them. Many then alive and well would, in a few minutes, be gasping their last breath. A greater number would be wounded, some to die, others to be patched up to feed the war machine again. Those whom the Fates allow to come through unscathed will be put through the fire again and again until they are finally expended. War has no mercy. These were my thoughts as I sat waiting for Zero.”
While Albert was waiting for his despatches, General Allenby of the Third Army and General Snow of the Corps arrived with their staffs. Albert called his group to attention and saluted. “General Allenby, clad in a big cavalry coat with the collar turned up, gave us a nod and a smile by way of a salute”. An ADC told them that the infantry had taken the first line and the Germans were evacuating their second line. The 37th Division’s task was to leapfrog this attacking division and push on to Monchy-le-Preux. Albert gives a detailed account of the action, including the disaster that befell the cavalry as it advanced in support of the attack:
“They were manoeuvring to enter the village when the Germans saw them and sent over a barrage of shrapnel and high explosive which almost wiped them out. Their brigadier was killed. The streets were choked with dead and dying horses. A second cavalry advance shared the fate of the first. A barrage hit them with deadly accuracy, men and horses fell like ninepins, many badly wounded, to stagger and fall.”
The village was eventually taken, with the aid of infantry reinforcements and tanks. Albert, an engineer by training, took a particular interest in the products of army mechanisation. “When the shelling stopped I walked over to one of our abandoned tanks. A shell had pierced its plating and set fire to the petrol. Fortunately only one man was killed, the others escaped by taking shelter under the tank. It was called ‘Lusitania’ – a name which seems to be unlucky.”
On the 13th April when his unit had returned to their base behind the lines he reflected: “Have had no more than 6 hours’ sleep in past five nights and have not taken off my clothes.” However, a week later he noted that the staff had been pleased with his work. The despatch riders certainly had put in the hours ‘beyond the call of duty’ – often in extremely dangerous situations. Albert, as sergeant of his section, seems to have been singled out for commendation with the award of the Military Medal.
Albert Simpkin's Military Medal, awarded for gallantry in the battle of Arras, was the focus of this article written for Medal News magazine. Using entries from Albert's diary as published in 'Despatch Rider' I describe the actions of Albert and his fellow despatch riders in and around Arras in April 1917, including his Division's successful capture of the ridgetop village of Monchy le Preux.
Martin Gegg and I explored some diaries of the First World War, including Albert Simpkin's, to reveal the personal stories of those who took motorcycles to warzones for the first time.
First World War Despatch Riders and Sergeant Albert Simpkin
By Elizabeth Foster
Arthur Marwick wrote in The Nature of History that ‘it is only through knowledge of its history that a society can have knowledge of itself’. With the recent centenary of World War One, it is more relevant than ever to look back on our Great War heritage. Cheshire’s contribution to the First World War went far beyond the Cheshire Regiment, and it is important to record and remember the experiences of the Cheshire residents before these stories are lost.
Diaries are an invaluable source, showing how real people experienced history as it happened. As they are not written for an audience, they often contain a more honest, personal account than some other sources. By the Second World War, the importance of keeping a diary had been recognised, and the Mass-Observation Project was set up in 1937 by Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson in order to provide a record for the future. It was for the Mass-Observation Project that the housewife Nella Last wrote her well known World War Two diary, providing insight into the lives of civilians, and the changing role of women during the war. Two decades before this initiative Albert Simpkin, from Manchester, kept a diary during his time as a Despatch Rider in the Great War, which has now been published by his great-nephew, David Venner (Despatch Rider on the Western Front 1915-18 – The Diary of Sergeant Albert Simpkin MM, Pen and Sword Books Ltd, 2015).
A Despatch Rider carried messages between Army, Corps and Divisional commanders at the rear to brigades and battalions at the front, and was often sent to find troops who had got lost in the war-torn French countryside, a job which could be difficult and dangerous. While trying to find a battalion – or sometimes a single soldier- in a foreign country where the landscape was altered almost daily by the ravages of war, a Despatch Rider was forced to dodge German shells, risk gas attacks and contend with dangerous road conditions. Their work was invaluable, but the part played by these men is often overlooked. The job was not easy, but Sgt Simpkin later wrote in the preface to his diary that ‘looking back, I am sure a Despatch Rider with a division had one of the most interesting jobs in the army.’
Albert Simpkin was born on 28th June 1885, in Salford near Manchester, and before the war he had been apprenticed as an engineer to Crossley Brothers. When the war broke out, his younger brother was called up from the territorials, but Albert was turned down. He was desperate to do his part for the war effort, but did not want to join the infantry, writing in his diary on 14th September 1914 that ‘I always hated walking!…I have almost lived on wheels since I was 12-years-old.’ Albert was a keen motorcyclist, and as a member of the Auto Cyclists Union he heard that the army was looking for experienced motorcyclists to carry despatches. He was sworn into the Royal Engineers, as one of the ten Despatch Riders with the 31st Signal Company. He trained at Buxton, Derbyshire, where two months later he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant.
Albert and the other Despatch Riders were issued with new Triumph motorcycles, and on the 28th July, 1915, he sailed for France with the 37th Division. His Division was involved in the Battle of Arras, the Battle of the Ancre, the 3rd Battle of Ypres and the Final Allied Offensive. Sgt Simpkin’s diary relates the perils he faced and the privations of life at the front, but also highlights other less obvious dangers. After the Battle of Arras, Sgt Simpkin wrote that for a Despatch Rider ‘his chief preoccupation is keeping from falling under the wheels of lorries and waggons, rather than running the gauntlet of ‘shot and shell’. It is easy to imagine that as a Despatch Rider Sgt Simpkin may not have shared the horrors of war experienced by those involved in the fighting, but his diaries testify otherwise. He writes of the enormous losses suffered by both sides, the suffering of wounded or captured men, and of running for his life from German snipers.
Despite the hardships he faced, Sgt Simpkin’s diary frequently dwells on the happier moments of his time in the army. While training at Buxton in January 1915 he recorded that ‘hockey on roller skates is the latest craze. Each signal company has a team and some fierce matches have been played, usually with casualties’. The published diaries of other World War One soldiers in France are often gloomy, focusing on the sorrows of the troops and the tragic effects the war had on the French civilians. Sgt Simpkin’s diary abounds with funny incidents, the high jinks of the men, and colourful descriptions of the French inhabitants he encounters.
Although Sgt Simpkin and his battalion experienced a great deal of danger and tragedy, it is the references to the men doing their best to stay cheerful even in the most difficult circumstances that stand out most in Sgt Simpkin’s diary. His reports of the Christmas dinners enjoyed by the Despatch Riders are particularly glowing. In December 1915 he reported that The D.R’s Christmas dinner was a great success. Soup, fish, goose, plum pudding and all the usual trimmings…After we had drunk every toast we could invent as an excuse for a glass we adjourned to the DRs’ billet for entertainment and refreshment. Everyone had to give a song, no excuses accepted, and so it went on until midnight.’
The men seem to have thoroughly enjoyed themselves that night, and Sgt Simpkin’s diary suggests that a spirit of camaraderie existed among the DR’s. Though Albert was a Sergeant, his diary frequently bemoans what he terms the ‘childish snobbery of the old army’, and he greatly enjoyed the company of his fellow DR’s, writing in December 1916 that: ‘I had an invitation from the sergeants’ mess though I would much preferred to have been with the DR’s. The company sergeants are all fine fellows but I missed the nimble wit and humour of the DRs’ mess’.
Sgt Simpkin survived World War One and returned home in 1919. He was one of the lucky ones; many Despatch Riders did not make it through the war. His diary repeatedly mentions accidents involving Despatch Riders, even during their training at Buxton. In 1918, at the Armistice, he wrote that ‘before the war most of my leisure time was spent in search of mildly dangerous sports…All that is over, I have had enough excitement for a lifetime’. After the war, Sgt Simpkin returned to Crossly Brothers, becoming Chief Engineer at the Openshaw works. At the Armistice, he wrote in his diary that ‘all I want is the peace of the English countryside and the solitude of the hills’, but his adventure was not yet over. He married in 1926, and soon after he was sent to Buenos Aires, where the company was hoping to expand. He and his wife remained in Buenos Aires, where he died in 1966 aged eighty.
Albert Simpkin’s contribution to the war effort is an example of the many varied roles carried out in the First World War. Although Despatch Riders were in the minority compared to other army personnel, they were just as vital to the success of the allies and laid their life on the line every day. For this they deserve recognition and their rightful place in the history of World War One.
***For more on Albert Simpkin, please visit David Venner’s website, http://www.diary-of-a-despatch-rider.co.uk/.
Broad, Richard & Suzie Fleming, ‘Editor’s preface’, in Nella Last’s War – A Mother’s Diary 1919-45 by Nella Last (London: Sphere Books Ltd, 1981) pp.vii-viii
E.H. Carter and R.A.F. Mears, A History of Britain – Section 5, 1688-1958, 3rd edn, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1960)
Marwick, Arthur, ‘Introduction’ in Total War and Social Change, ed. by Arthur Marwick (Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1988) pp.x-xix
Marwick, Arthur, The Nature of History (London: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1973)
Venner, David (ed), Despatch Rider on the Western Front, 1915-18 – The Diary of Sergeant Albert Simpkin MM, (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military, 2015)
An Engineer's Insights into the Mechanisation of
This article by David Venner is based
around Despatch Rider on the Western Front
1915-18, published by Pen and Sword Books Ltd.
In August 1914, Albert Simpkin had just turned 30 and was enjoying a settled and promising career as an engineer with Crossley Brothers, manufacturers of marine diesel engines in Manchester. He had joined Crossley Brothers as an apprentice straight from school. Albert was an early motorcycle enthusiast - he travelled all over Britain on business on his Douglas Twin machine.
As soon as war was declared Albert enlisted with the Royal Engineers and, after a few months’ training at Buxton and Tidworth, he went to France with the 31st Signals Company, attached to the HQ of the 37th Division, one of Lord Kitchener’s New Army divisions. In the autumn and winter of 1917 Albert was in the Ypres area and his diary records the dreadful weather and trench conditions that the troops had to endure at Passchendaele. But the most interesting parts of the Diary – for an engineer certainly, and perhaps for the general reader too – are those where he comments on the first tanks and aircraft that he saw, casting a critical eye on their design and effectiveness – or otherwise.
3 November 1916
I saw some tanks for the first time today. I was disappointed; I had imagined something entirely different, something more imposing. To me they look very crude affairs, something designed and manufactured in a hurry: larger than a motor lorry yet smaller than a cottage, but resembling neither. Some say they resemble a toad, I fail to see it. The nearest description I can give is they have the shape of an eye but the most extraordinary thing about them is a pair of wheels sticking about six feet from the back. I believe the object of these wheels is to guide the affair. Their movement is like a snake but when they strike rough ground they waddle like a duck. If ugliness is useful in warfare they may have some value, but a well-directed shell would put them out of action.
As the Division rested and regrouped following their involvement in the Battle of Arras, Albert recorded the different types of aircraft he saw and the way in which they were deployed:
27 April 1917
The most spectacular part of the war is the air fighting. The slow observation planes occupy the lower strata of the air, spotting for the artillery or watching the movements of the enemy, their path strewn with puffs of shrapnel smoke from the enemy’s anti-aircraft guns. Above them fly the two-seater fighters, whose duty is to guard the observation planes from enemy attacks. Higher still, with the heavens as their ceiling, the single-seater scouts range the blue skies like wolves seeking their prey. Occasionally the ‘wolves’ elude the vigilance of the two-seaters on ‘police duty’ and snatch a lone observation plane or, if the odds are favourable they may attack the ‘policemen’. Other times they can be seen engaged in a battle royal with their own kind. An aeroplane falling in flames is an ugly sight. Even in the brightest daylight the glare of the flames streaming behind show blood red as the plane dives, leaving a trail of black smoke to mark the path of its fall. The pilot’s death does not bear thinking about; it is neither swift nor merciful.
Later in the war – just two months before the Armistice, he observed the shooting down of one the giant Gotha aeroplanes. He took the opportunity of examining it closely on the ground the next day:
15 September 1918
Last night, as soon as the last traces of daylight had gone, the German bombing planes began to arrive - the roaring of the double-engined Gothas filled the skies. Our searchlights were waving their beams backward and forward searching for the raiders. Suddenly they caught one in the light and immediately several other searchlights fastened on to it, making the plane stand out like a huge white moth. In a moment the machine guns were chattering madly, their flaming bullets rising like a bead curtain, and the AA joined in, bursting shells twinkling like stars. The Gotha made a slow clumsy turn and made off towards the Line. In our excitement we forgot all about bombs, but we got a stunning reminder when he dropped half a dozen which exploded almost as one, shaking the ground like an earthquake. It was quite clear he had dropped his load and taken to his heels. There was an uncanny silence, even the artillery in the Line ceased fire to watch the spectacle.
Suddenly a stream of tracer bullets flew towards the Gotha, fired from a position high above his tail. It seemed to have no effect; he sailed on but was still held in the remorseless lights. Our plane was still on his track, flashing through the searchlights as he manoeuvred for position. A moment later another stream of fiery beads ripped across the blackness, a longer burst this time, the rattle of the machine gun faintly reaching our ears. ‘Missed again’ we thought, but a small flame began to show on one of the wings and in a few seconds the Gotha was a flaming torch lighting the sky a blood red. It seemed to stagger in its stride, and then began to dive, gently at first but getting steeper and steeper until it was falling vertically with a wake of roaring flame like a meteor. Up to that time we had been watching the Gotha fight for life in breathless silence but now a tremendous roar of cheering broke out, rolling around the countryside like a gigantic arena.
We heard afterwards that even the troops in the
trenches stood up and cheered. The Gotha hit the ground about half a mile away with a tremendous thud. The fire flared up for a short time and then died down and it was all over, the most thrilling
sight I have ever seen.
16 September 1918
This morning I went over to look at the wreck of the Gotha. Its size was amazing: it looked like the wreck of a Zeppelin, a mass of twisted tubes and wires. The tail, which was as large as an ordinary plane, had fallen two hundred yards away. It was one of their latest super Gothas, having a wing span of 124 feet and four engines. It carried a crew of eight. Among the wreckage was a small engine and dynamo for supplying the electricity for the wireless. The engine was a copy of that used in the Douglas motorcycles. I also noticed some fire extinguishers in the debris, which had availed them nothing.
After the war Albert Simpkin returned to Crossley Brothers and by the mid-1920s had become Chief Engineer. He was sent to Argentina to set up and manage a branch of the firm in Buenos Aires and died there in 1966, aged 80.
For more information on the life of Albert Simpkin and the book, visit www.diary-of-a-despatch-rider.co.uk.