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Trench Mortar Batteries- a dump for useless soldiers?


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#1 IRC Kevin

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Posted 02 May 2012 - 09:23 AM

I've read in books, such as Richard Holmes' 'Tommy' that posting men to a trench mortar battery was a way to get rid of useless soldiers. I have to confess to being somewhat dubious about this being general practise, bearing mind the important role played by these batteries and scope for putting the goons into other, less strategic positions within the battalion or at Brigade. Can anyone point me towards a primary source which gives this view, as it's something I've yet to come across?

#2 Old Tom

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Posted 02 May 2012 - 04:25 PM

May I take exception to your first phrase? It seems to imply that that there are lots of books like Richard Holmes' 'Tommy'. I would suggest that that is far from the case. It is a while since I read and enjoyed it, but an index search did not lead me to change my initial thought that Richard Holmes was unlikely to have made such a statement.

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#3 Simon Mills

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Posted 02 May 2012 - 04:39 PM

It may be worth reading post no. 5 in this thread: http://1914-1918.inv...1

It seems to suggest that a posting to a trench mortar wasn't exactly sought after.

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#4 battiscombe

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Posted 02 May 2012 - 07:34 PM

I cannot think this is an evidence-based statement. That 'posting' of one form or another was always a way of getting rid of 'undesirables' would seem to be universal trope across the centuries (and not restricted to soldiering, in my experience). On the other hand some at least of the first TMBs (manned by artillery) were formed of volunteers (I think the first banned married men as it was regarded as too dangerous ..). In 1916 many others were formed by drafts from Ammunition Columns being broken up/reorganised. The well decorated nature of TMB men (this is an impression I have rather than statistically proven ..) and often very high casualty rates also speaks of their quality, I rather think.

I have certainly encountered the service records of several real 'undesirables' amongst gunners continually being posted from unit to unit (when not in prison or doing FP No.1) for all sorts of misdeeds, but they never landed up in a TM Battery. In a very dangerous role, one might think their NCOs would swiftly want to post them on as a liability to their colleagues, working as they were in small and quite close-knit teams. Of many TMB mens records I have seen I have yet to see any hints that any were 'substandard' or unwanted ...

#5 IRC Kevin

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Posted 02 May 2012 - 09:00 PM

May I take exception to your first phrase? It seems to imply that that there are lots of books like Richard Holmes' 'Tommy'. I would suggest that that is far from the case. It is a while since I read and enjoyed it, but an index search did not lead me to change my initial thought that Richard Holmes was unlikely to have made such a statement.

Old Tom


Perhaps I should have phrased that better-seen in at least two books, one of which I can't remember, but probably got his information from Tommy. The other may be found on page 370 of Tommy. "...but light and and medium weapons were entrusted to infantry trench-mortar companies, still badged to their parent regiments and often composed of men a sergeant-major was happiest to lose."

Please do not take this as an attack on Richard Holmes, an historian for whom I have the utmost respect and after having had the pleasure of spending a few hours in his company at a publisher's jolly in the mid-90's, an all-round nice chap (wicked sense of humour though!). A great loss to the World.

#6 Tom Tulloch-Marshall

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Posted 02 May 2012 - 09:28 PM

I’m surprised by this claim.

Given the technical expertise required to operate this kind of equipment effectively, and the strategic importance of TMB operations (albeit at “local” level), I’d think it extremely unlikely that second rate soldiers were employed.

Maybe the statement being attributed to Holmes is being misinterpreted – maybe he meant men who had a bit of gumption and get up & go in them, whom a senior NCO might find troublesome because they “thought too much” ?

I have never seen any primary source document which would support such a claim as the statement being attributed to Holmes ref second rate men.

Tom

#7 old owl

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Posted 02 May 2012 - 09:46 PM

The other may be found on page 370 of Tommy. "...but light and and medium weapons were entrusted to infantry trench-mortar companies, still badged to their parent regiments and often composed of men a sergeant-major was happiest to lose."


TMBs were a prime target for enemy retaliation and were not the place for 'useless soldiers' as has been suggested.

I rather suspect that Richard Holmes would have had good reason for making such a statement and would have been upset to see it interpreted in this way, after all I can think of a number of different reasons why a Sgt. Major would like to see the back of certain men, other than the fact of them being 'useless'.

#8 regimentalrogue

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Posted 03 May 2012 - 03:01 AM

I'm going to take a different tack than some others. I have an officer's court martial transcript which includes the following among the witness statements"

I saw the accused, who spoke to Mr. XXX as we entered, saying that he had been kicked out of the [unit] as the worst subaltern in the regiment. He had been transferred to the T.M. Battery and the inference that I drew was that he had ...


(The latter sentence had been struck through in the transcript.)

Also, in the modern era I have been a mortar officer, and have personal experience with the readiness of some rifle company staffs to volunteer their less than sterling soldiers for courses that would make them eligible for transfer to the support weapon platoons. It's human nature to want to keep your best men and volunteer more problematic soldiers for any job you could send them on to.

Training a soldier to be a member of a weapon crew also doesn't take higher technical skill. More aptitude may be required for the detachments "Number 1's", but the other members of the crew are under continuous supervision by NCOs and the detachment Number 1. I suspect the main work of many of the men in a Great War Trench Mortar Battery was the carrying of weapons and ammunition and the preparation of the firing positions, more physically demanding labours than they were intellectually challenging.

Does this mean that some men in the Mortar Batteries didn't prove themselves to be above average, not at all, as the awards of MMs, etc., would attest. In fact, I would suggest that some of those very "undesireable" men probably found a home among similar fellows in such units and thrived there.







#9 nigelfe

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Posted 03 May 2012 - 08:31 AM

Any call for volunteers or postings to a new type of unit will get mostly men who want to get out of where they are, or those who the BSM/CSM/SSM wants to get rid of for whatever reason (good, bad, indifferent). The importance of the role they are going matters not a jot, new trench mortar units needing talent, ha ha, 'another staff joke thought the CSM, we need all the good guys we can get'. As has been pointed out 'twas ever thus, it is very naive and wishfull thinking to consider otherwise. CSMs etc are paid to look after the best interests of their own units, particularly in a regimental system like the British Army.

Of course sometimes the staff outwit the CSM/BSM/SSM union, eg in 1980 when RA wanted to raise a small regular unit for the same SF type role as the HAC. Knowing the way of the world the artillery commander ordered units to each provide a minimum number of volunteers, the gotcha to the union was that the numbers would only be those who passed a fairly rigorous selection course involving chaps in sand coloured berets. Checkmated the BSMs' union produced an excellant quality of volunteer. Somehow I don't think this happened for mortars in WW1, call me cynical but I've been around and know the score.

#10 Rayessex

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Posted 03 May 2012 - 09:02 AM

eg in 1980 when RA wanted to raise a small regular unit for the same SF type role as the HAC.


Remember it well Nigal. Also remember a certain BSM posting a young Soldier with rather a long double barrel name. Reason? The Soldiers name was too big for the Nominal Roll, and made it look untidy. Just shows reasons for getting rid of a Soldier are many and varied.

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#11 Tom Tulloch-Marshall

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Posted 03 May 2012 - 11:48 AM

... In a very dangerous role, one might think their NCOs would swiftly want to post them on as a liability to their colleagues, working as they were in small and quite close-knit teams. ...


Quite. This whole idea of TMBs being used as “dumping grounds” is entirely dependent upon the premise that these small specialist units would accept such men in the first place, or put up with them for any length of time. TMBs were far too dangerous a place to be at the best of times, without having your life further endangered by having to work with numpties.

The issue of men being required for labour seems to have largely been an infantry function (with regards to the final movement of TMB ammunition up to the firing positions) and the firing positions themselves seem (from war diary references which I have seen) to have largely been constructed as part of the normal infantry entrenching duties, or built by Royal Engineers (incl tunneling companies) employed at the front for dug-out construction etc.

Would the proposition that small specialist units such as this were used as dumping grounds for the intellectually challenged be claimed to be a general principal ? – “Tanks” spring to mind ! :huh:

Tom

#12 regimentalrogue

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Posted 03 May 2012 - 12:21 PM

Would the proposition that small specialist units such as this were used as dumping grounds for the intellectually challenged be claimed to be a general principal ? – "Tanks" spring to mind ! :huh:



The reasons why a soldier might be volunteered to join a draft to the brigade mortar battery is certainly not limited to "intellectually challenged", there are many reasons why his name might be offered up by his chain of command. Soldiers can be very intelligent, very capable, and still be a thorn in the side of a platoon sergeant or sergeant major for any number of reasons. Suggesting that the sole (or main) reason any man was moved on was because of limited intelligence is a straw man argument that only serves to trivialize the issue under discussion. Conversely, the early tank units sought out men with the technical skills to learn to operate heavy machinery ... quite different than the way battalions would have been required to produce men for their brigade's mortar battery. Since the brigade mortar batteries were formed primarily from soldiers from the infantry battalions, can you provide anything to show that there was any sort of a selection process or that they were even considered a "specialist unit" in terms of individual technical requirements or intelligence?

#13 Tom Tulloch-Marshall

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Posted 03 May 2012 - 12:59 PM

... can you provide anything to show that there was any sort of a selection process or that they were even considered a "specialist unit" in terms of individual technical requirements or intelligence?


Common sense :whistle:

Tom

#14 regimentalrogue

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Posted 03 May 2012 - 07:08 PM

Common sense :whistle:

Tom



So, just your opinion then?

Do you have any experience with infantry mortars, training on them and firing them (with obsolete or modern weapons)?

#15 Tom Tulloch-Marshall

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Posted 03 May 2012 - 09:57 PM

Like I said, common sense. Empirical proof is sometimes all that is available.

I have never served in a mortar unit (uh ! :blink: )

Have you ever worked in Macdonald's ?

Tom

#16 regimentalrogue

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Posted 03 May 2012 - 10:31 PM

We're not talking about McDonalds, and attempts to insert frivolous comments only detract from reasoned debate.

I do have mortar experience, ranging from being qualified as a mortarmen as a soldier to instructing on the weapon system as an NCO to commanding a mortar platoon and afterwards instructing advanced courses at the Canadian School of Infantry. I would suggest that the L16 81mm mortar is a little more complex in all aspects of its training, operation, control of fire and tactical considerations than the 3" Stokes mortar of 1914-1918, and I can certainly attest that there's no modern system of choosing the best soldiers to serve in mortar platoons our of their parent infantry units (or, currently, artillery units in the Canadian Army since their reallocation). But, since my personal experience in either infantry service or in mortars appears to bear no weight against your "common sense" biases, please feel free to ignore and belittle this too.

#17 Tom Tulloch-Marshall

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Posted 03 May 2012 - 11:09 PM

... my personal experience ...


In which conflict(s) ?

Tom

#18 regimentalrogue

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Posted 04 May 2012 - 03:40 AM

In which conflict(s) ?

Tom



For the record, I have not fired them in anger, but my experience with them does still appear to be greater than yours. Whether or not I have fired mortars in any conflict has nothing to do with the discussion at hand and is only one more more attempt to misdirect the discussion with another unnecessary tangent and infer that my experience-based opinion (on which you offer no discussion) has no validity. Shall we ignore any opinion here if the poster has not employed the equivalent weapon, tactic or item on an active battlefield, how limiting would that be for your opinions?

I thought we were talking about the level of technical expertise required to operate mortars, of which you admitted no personal knowledge or experience. Following that contention was your assumption that it then required specially selected soldiers, for which you offer no proof, only your claim that it was "common sense." Obviously you have no desire to consider the validity of your personal opinion, and are apparently unwilling to even discuss the information presented.

I shall await any proof, of any sort, that supports your contention.

#19 nigelfe

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Posted 04 May 2012 - 07:56 AM

Mortars are a lot simpler than guns, even if they do both use indirect fire.

Getting appropriate volunteers for something new in WW1 (and there was lots of military novelty in that war) was relatvely easy providing there were some civilian skills you could relate it to as criteria. Tanks are a good example - mechanical skills. RE meteorologists were found from college science lecturers, flash spotters from guys like artists who were used to observing. Finding something civilian and vaguely related to mortars is a bit more challenging, I look forward to reading suggestions.

But I'm still laughing over the thought of the CSMs union offering up the pick of their guys to go to mortars. That's not pigs flying its hippopotomus.

#20 IRC Kevin

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Posted 04 May 2012 - 08:59 AM

Gentlemen- I think we need to stand at ease for a while!

I thank you all for your posts and think we have got a number of points from them. I believe that Richard Holmes knew exactly what he was doing when he wrote that sentence and used the phrase deliberately to encompass all forms of what senior ranks viewed as inappropriate in a soldier, be it poor discipline, poor infantry skills etc. He clearly states that this happened, the fact he mentions it at all suggests that it was not uncommon. Post #8 gives the only documentary proof provided so far that this attitude existed and the fact that it had been crossed out suggests that there was an understanding that authority was aware of this attitude and keen not to promulgate it further. I think it's probably fair to say that some units saw the TMB as a way of getting rid of their undesirables and others didn't. Officialdom undoubtably recognised this happened, but in the absence of any sources from the time, ref quality of men sent to TMB, one has to conclude that either they had more important things to bother about, or it was done by word of mouth. I'm sure that in later years, when the TMB was recognised as such an important tool in supporting an attack, that units themselves saw that good TMB=lower casualties and posted men accordingly. I have over 900 service records for one particular battalion and also a list of those attached to TMB. Over the coming weeks, I'll try to look at ages, occupations and discipline records of those attached and see if anything interesting comes out.

#21 jon_armstrong

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Posted 04 May 2012 - 10:18 AM

An officer I have researched reached his unit in France in (from memory) April 1915. The very day he arrived he was sent for trench mortar training, and when he came back the war diary details he and his men experimenting with it in the front line.

His battalion didn't know him from Adam so could have had no idea if he would be a good, bad or indifferent choice.

I'd suspected it was mostly a case of being told by their brigade or division that they had to send someone, and if it wasn't something they were particularly interested in, the least hassle and line of least resistance option is to send the new bloke.

#22 Old Tom

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Posted 04 May 2012 - 04:55 PM

IRC Kevin - Thanks for post 5. My father served in a RFA Trench Mortar battery, as a gunner, having transfered from one of the division's 18 pr batteries in, I think, 1916. I recall he said that one day he and a mate decided that a swim, possibly in the Somme, was a better use of the afternoon than cleaning harness. It may be, it makes a story, that his Battery Commander said 'will you accept my punishment or will you join the TM Battery'

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#23 Tom Tulloch-Marshall

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Posted 05 May 2012 - 12:40 AM

For the record, I have not fired them in anger, but my experience with them does still appear to be greater than yours. ...


Correct – I have never fired a trench mortar round. I’ve seen one explode (Stokes); but never fired one :innocent:

I had just wanted to ascertain whether your possible experience of accepting men into, or rejecting them from, TMB units was based on service during peacetime conditions, or combat conditions. Thank you for clarifying the situation. It puts things into context.

Tom

#24 regimentalrogue

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Posted 05 May 2012 - 02:52 AM

Thank you Tom, I expected you would find some way to convince yourself that my contribution had no usefulness. Regardless, I am certain that when others find this thread they too can draw their own conclusions on the subject from the variety of opinions expressed.

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Posted 05 May 2012 - 09:14 AM

I've read in books, such as Richard Holmes' 'Tommy' that posting men to a trench mortar battery was a way to get rid of useless soldiers. I have to confess to being somewhat dubious about this being general practise, bearing mind the important role played by these batteries and scope for putting the goons into other, less strategic positions within the battalion or at Brigade. Can anyone point me towards a primary source which gives this view, as it's something I've yet to come across?


Kevin

I suspect when this order came out the role and the strategic positioning probably was not even defined or recognised.

Richard Holmes was not only an eminent military historian, bur served as a Territorial, including battalion command. He had experience of the military system to my mind this is reflectedin his writings of which this is an example;

"...but light and and medium weapons were entrusted to infantry trench-mortar companies, still badged to their parent regiments and often composed of men a sergeant-major was happiest to lose."

As Nigel says


"Any call for volunteers or postings to a new type of unit will get mostly men who want to get out of where they are, or those who the BSM/CSM/SSM wants to get rid of for whatever reason (good, bad, indifferent)."

The names would have have probably been well know to BSM/CSM/SSM, just awaiting an opportunity, and would not be a surprise to any OC when actioning their posting.