Book reviews, Spring/Summer 2015
WATERLOO BATTLEFIELD GUIDE
Pen and Sword 2014. PB £15.99 ISBN 78 1 78303 513 7
Last year and this, there have been a large number of organised visits to the battlefields of the First World War, but to my knowledge, none has been organised to visit the site of the Battle of Waterloo. This year sees the 200th anniversary of Waterloo and an avalanche of books has been published to commemorate the anniversary. Most concentrate on the history of the battles on the day. However, this book by local author David Buttery is a guide to the battlefield sites and is essential reading for anyone wishing to go to the area. Waterloo was a milestone in the defeat of Napoleon and, indeed, was a turning point in world history. The battle was complex, and cannot be fully understood without a detailed, on-the-ground study of the landscape in which it was fought. David Buttery's guide makes use of contemporary accounts and a most detailed knowledge of the terrain as it is today. There is a focus on the various parts of the overall battle, including the day-long struggle for the chateau at Hougoumont, the fall of La Haye Sainte and the fighting in the village of Plancenoit. Three farmhouses - Gemioncourt, Piraumont and Grand Pierrepoint - played a part in the delaying of the French advance. Gemioncourt was (and is) a particularly well-built farmhouse and French losses were very heavy before they managed to capture it. Later in the day the farmhouse was recaptured by a combined force of British, Brunswick and Hanoverian light infantry. There is a memorial on the farm's gatehouse, placed there by the Association for the Conservation of Napoleonic Memorials which states (in French) 'In memory of the soldiers of the Grande Armee who fell before these walls on 18 June 1815'.
The book has many eyewitness accounts of the battle, one being in extracts from the diary of Sergeant William Wheeler of the 51st regiment. He sent letters home to his family in Somerset, recounting his experiences. He had an enduring faith in the Duke of Wellington, at one point writing 'If England should require the service of her army again, and I should be with it, let me have 'Old Nosey' in command...'
There are numerous high-quality maps showing the positions of the various units in the attacks, and pen-portraits of commanders. One of these is of Lieutenant-Colonel Sir James MacDonell, the son of Clan Chief Duncan MacDonell of Glengarry. Sir James led the defence of Hougoumont and was given an award for his bravery in the action. The loopholes in the garden wall of Hougoumont, made to allow muskets to be fired by the defenders, are still visible. The book is even-handed and includes pen-portraits of members of the Napoleonic army, such as General Count Philibert Guillaume Duhesme. Duhesme had a dubious past, with accusations of corruption, but succeeded in being given command of the Young Guard at Waterloo. He was shot in the head towards the end of the defence of the village of Plancenoit and died from his wounds.
The book ends with a detailed chronology of the battle and advice to visitors to the battlefield. There is a detailed index and a useful bibliography. Altogether this is an excellent book which can certainly be recommended for anyone interested in Waterloo, and is an indispensable guide for those intending to visit the area.
HARRY'S STORY: THE MEMOIRS OF HARRY CAST
Barbara Cast ed.
Obtainable from The Bookcase, Lowdham; Five Leaves Books, Long Row, Nottingham; or direct from firstname.lastname@example.org. ISBN 978-0-9931612-0-9. £8.
Harry Cast was born in Sneinton, Nottingham, in 1898 and his Memoirs record his early life down to the end of World War 1 in 1918. He came from a working class background but won a scholarship to Mundella School (which he had to give up after a year or so because of his parents' need for an increased family income). He was evidently possessed of a phenomenal memory as his memoirs were written in 1977-78 without recourse to any original diaries. He appears to have total recall of events - and even conversations - from his childhood and teenage years, often to the exact year and month.
The book is subtitled Memoirs of a Nottingham Childhood, of Life as a Young Miner and of the Privations and Horrors of the Great War, which neatly summarises its three dominant themes. The first records his deprived upbringing in a large family of seven children. His first homes were back-to-backs, one near Huntingdon Street surrounded by the all-pervading odours of a slaughterhouse, tripe manufactory, several stables, pig sties, and numerous middens which were cleared twice a week by the nightly 'muck-majors.' However all was not gloom as he mentions childrens' games, schoolboy pranks and cinema visits.
The descriptions of coal mining record the total disregard for health and safety and the often cynical brutality of mine officials. Harry's family moved to Redhill when he was 14 and he began working in Bestwood Pit as an underground pony-driver. The work involved extreme heat, constant danger, and back-breaking physical labour if the half-ton coal wagons became derailed. He vividly describes a tragic accident when a fellow 14-year old pony-driver was killed by a roof fall and the bullying overseer tried to force the miners to continue working.
It is, however, the descriptions of Harry's experiences whilst serving in the Great War which will be of most current interest. Many local historians all over the country are painstakingly attempting to research the army careers of their local servicemen, hampered by the barest of official records, the official censorship of the true horrors of the trenches, and the understandable reluctance of those who returned to talk about their experiences. The fact that Harry was writing so long after the events enabled him to describe his memories in a largely dispassionate and objective manner, revealing less of the bitterness which he evidently felt after enduring such unspeakable atrocities. As the editor remarks, this 'makes the anger which breaks through from time to time even more telling'.
His account of his army career clearly sets out each stage of the process that the ordinary soldier went through from enlistment to training to his periods of service in the front lines. It highlights the everyday hardships of life in the trenches, e.g. the itching lice which were constantly present in the uniforms, the flies and the maggots, the stench of dead bodies of men and horses, the rats, the rain and the mud, the constant noise and the 'shell shock', etc. Astonishingly he survived the chaotic slaughter of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 when his battalion of nearly 700 men was reduced to a mere 146. The numbers were shortly 'made up to strength' again by raw new recruits who had no inkling of what was to follow. His only relief from the fighting was when he was twice wounded and invalided back to British hospitals.
This review can only give a brief flavour of the detail contained in the Memoirs - a compelling narrative which vividly evokes the events, sights, sounds and smells experienced by many young Nottingham men of that era.
TOLLERTON: A VILLAGE HISTORY
Tollerton Village History Group
Barny books: ISBN 978.1.906542.75.7: £10.00 from Barny Books (www.barnybooks.co.uk)
Barny Books is a business of publishing advisors which helps authors to self-publish under the Barny Books name. One of the Tollerton Village History Group members is a partner in the business.
This book was launched on 9 May 2015 in the church at Tollerton. It is 19x25.5 cms in size, perfect bound, has 160 pages and many monochrome and colour images. It is nicely presented and written in a clear and easily read style.
However, the borders around the printed area are narrow and so make for difficulty in reading the inner print due to the curl of the perfect binding and this detracts from the enjoyment of reading the book. Why this wasn't considered at the lay-out stage is surprising because part of the pleasure of a book is its presentation and ease of handling.
Whilst the sources used are mentioned throughout the text, a bibliography section would have been useful.
I also feel that the use of sources has been restricted to those easily available; no use, as far as I can see, has been made of the facilities at Kew (National Archives) or at Lambeth Palace (Anglican Archives) and there is great reliance placed upon the Rev. Potter'sHistory of Tollerton written in 1929. As all historians know, there is great danger in using secondary sources without checking their accuracy. The same comment applies to the use of the internet. Perhaps taking a little longer to do the research and delving deeper into the sources - mention is made of the catalogue at Nottinghamshire Archives but whether the actual documents were all accessed is unclear. If not, one wonders why not. Explanations of events are given in a brief way but some need greater comment. For example, mention is made of enclosure but not what that involved.
Having said all this, the book is aimed at the general reader, not an academic historian, and so perhaps doesn't need the depth of explanation and research that a more scholarly work would require. It certainly serves as a starting point for further research into the history of Tollerton. I am sure the general reader in the village and further afield will find the book interesting, especially the direct quotes from people who have been contacted and who have given of their time to find letters and delve into memories.
The more recent history of the village is covered in much more detail than the history beyond living memory but that is the nature of such works of local history.
The many photographs, some in colour, add greatly to the understanding of the story told in the book and the reader will learn a great deal about Tollerton. The book is well worth the cost and for anyone interested in the South Nottinghamshire villages it is highly recommended.
With this publication and that for Normanton-on-the-Wolds published quite recently, we are seeing the story of the South Nottinghamshire Wolds villages come to life. Perhaps someone will be stimulated to write the story of Wysall and, maybe, Keyworth's history could be written in a single book on the lines of this one about Tollerton - using the quite extensive research and writings on aspects of the village already published by Keyworth & District Local History Society - which would be a very useful introduction for new people coming to live in the area as well as being, perhaps, more accessible to the general reader than some of the existing publications. Food for thought indeed, stimulated by the work of the Tollerton History Group.
(The Rev. Sidney Pell Potter's book on the History of Tollerton is available in reprint form from Reprint, Loughborough (www.reprintuk.com) at £6.00)
NOTTINGHAM RISING - THE GREAT CHEESE RIOT OF 1766 AND THE 1831 REFORM RIOTS
Loaf on a Stick Press, 2014 ISBN 9780956913951
£6 from Five Leaves Bookshop, Long Row, and Waterstones and from the publishers at peopleshistreh.wordpress.com
This interesting book deals with themes of rebellion, topical in light of the proposed focus for Nottingham Castle's transformation. It brings together, and updates two pamphlets, "To the Castle!" and "Damn his Charity", published by People's Histreh, Nottingham and Notts Radical History Group, in 2010 and 2011. It deals with the riot sparked by food shortages and which happened during Goose Fair in 1766, including the famous story of the cheese rolling which reputedly took the Mayor off his feet. The other main area of the book relates to the 1831 Reform Act riots which saw, amongst other acts of violence by the enraged populace, the burning down of the Duke of Newcastle's mansion at Nottingham Castle, the owner being a noted opponent of the Reform Act.
Well worth reading for the additional detail of unrest and of living and working conditions in 18th and 19th century Nottingham.