A Family in Conflict
Without knowing it when I began researching the history of the Corr family, it was military records that were to prove a constant source of verifiable data. As I was to discover, there is an unbroken thread of army service of which I had previously been unaware, including myself, my father, my grandfather, my great grandfather, second-great grandfather as far back as my third-great grandfather who fought at the Battle of Waterloo. By modern expectations this seems an unlikely thread of service to the Crown given my family’s status as Irish adherents to the Roman Catholic faith. Unlikely or not, it provided the information from which to create a picture of who they were and how world events affected them. However, this comes with some disappointment as the military thread relates largely to the men only, and very little is known of the lives of the women and children.
Accordingly this history, which begins with my third-great grandfather and ends with my grandparents generation, is very much the tale of a family in a series of conflicts.
The Scum of the Earth
France 1791 – Radicals revolted against the monarchy and their cause swept across the country with alarming rapidity and consequences. Monarchies of other European nations observed in alarm, fearing that news of a successful republican uprising in France may invoke similar aspirations in their own peasant populations. What they feared most was the potential for Louis XVI to be deposed and the dismantlement of royalty to be complete.
The tidal wave of French antiroyalism led to that very conclusion in August 1792.
Worse still for anxious European royalty was the news that on 21 January 1793, having been convicted of high treason by a convention of the Republic, Louis was taken to the Place de la Revolution in Paris and executed. Executioner Charles Henri Sanson hauled the rope of the guillotine and raised the blade to its uppermost position in the runners. The King of France was led to the device where in a last act of defiance he proclaimed his innocence to the crowd and expressed his concern for the future of the nation. He was fastened to the bascule, his head placed over the stocks, neck resting in the crook of the lunette. Sanson released the rope, the angular weighted blade shot earthwards cleanly decapitating the fallen monarch. As blood poured from his severed neck and splashed to the ground, onlookers rushed forward to dip handkerchiefs in the coagulating sang rouge.
While the blood of the slain king dried in the dust of Paris’s grandest square, the parents of a young Catholic boy continued the struggle to raise him in an impoverished Ireland. The boy was John Corr, my third-great grandfather. His specific place and date of birth remain unknown and we only know the name of his father, also John, but he begins this trail of exploration through the lives of the Corr family.
Despite British oppression of their beleaguered land, it was not unusual for young sons of Ireland, even those of the especially despised Catholic community, to seek service, clothing, accommodation, and full bellies in the arms of the British Army. Military service offered Irish poor that which they could not obtain at home, if they lived long enough to benefit from it.
By 1803 the designs of Republican France stretched beyond its own borders at the reins of a brilliant commander, Napoleon Bonaparte. The French were no longer a menace only to themselves. The Wars of the Coalition evolved from the first, to second and so forth until the sixth, as varying alliances of neighbouring European monarchic nations sought to bring the French republic to its knees, to restore order and monarchy to the rebel nation, and in doing so quash any aspiration of European peasantry to follow suit.
It required the sixth coalition of European power before Bonaparte’s expansionist agenda was defeated in 1814. He was beaten. French monarchy was restored. The belligerent commander was banished to imprisonment at the Mediterranean island of Elba off the coast of Tuscany. After years of bloodshed and economically crippling warfare the victors withdrew, and the status quo was restored.
Peace was not to last. Bonaparte escaped from Elba and stepped back on French soil at Cannes on 1 March 1815. The country flared to his return. That day is acknowledged as the beginning of the Hundred Days War, effectively terminated when the combined forces of the Duke of Wellington’s British Army reinforced by those of the Netherlands and several German states, defeated Napoleon’s French at the notorious and bloody Battle of Waterloo.
Private John Corr of the 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment of Foot, one of an estimated 8,500 Irishmen in Wellington’s army, fought, and survived, in what is recorded as the bloodiest warfare of its era.
It is impossible to know specifically what my third-great grandfathers’ exploits were during a battle that featured over 200,000 combatants. Unlike today there were no means by which the peasant class could contact their loved ones overseas. Lack of literacy was the least of the issue. Much was written, but contemporary accounts focussed almost exclusively on the sons of wealthy landowners and aristocrats that bought commissions as officers.
The closest we can come to appreciating the battle through the eyes of Pte. John Corr is by reference to Historical Records of the 32nd (Cornwall) Light Infantry (Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, and Kent. London, 1893), compiled by Colonel G.C. Swiney, which, to be fair, makes a surprising number of references to the regiments ORs (other ranks – i.e. those below that of commissioned officer).
Depiction of the Battle of Waterloo, produced by William Sadler II (Irish landscape painter), in June 1815.
Page 115 begins with an extract from a lengthy letter, written by an unnamed officer of the 32nd dated 25 June – one week after the battle. He begins by explaining that he had just climbed into bed in Brussels on the night of 15 June, when he heard the bugle sounding in every quarter of the town. I put on my clothes and found it was an order for the army to advance. Pte. Corr would have been roused by the same bugle.
By 02:00 hours the army were fit to march and march they did, continuously until 15:00 the next afternoon at which point they encountered the forces of France. Under Wellington’s command the 32nd took position at the centre of the field as the opposing armies, adopting that peculiarly formal method of warfare, stood upright up in pristine rows, forming blocks of infantry, cavalry, and artillery. Clad in a tight fitting coatee dyed Rose madder red, John Corr would have stood erect, defiant, and no doubt a good deal more apprehensive than his deportment suggested. The Pattern 1800 Baker Rifle he would have readied with a measure of powder, a greased patch of leather or calico and ball forced down the barrel. The flintlock would be primed to fire. He was expected to load and fire two shots per minute, and if he was good he may have managed three. After ten or twelve rounds had been fired it was recommended to wash the barrel with water to prevent sludging of residual powder. Contemporary advice circulated at the time suggested, ‘It may happen that water, at such times, cannot be got; if the man can make urine, and apply it in the same kind of way, it will have the same effect’.
The bearing of the immaculately ordered troops on either side of the gentle incline was soon to alter dramatically. A little before four, the action commenced on the side of the French. We lay down in the cornfield till they came within forty yards of us, when a shout from our right caused us to rise. We fired a volley and charged them down to the ditch (which bisected the facing armies) in getting over which they lost numbers. When we got down the bugle sounded for us to return and form in line upon the colours, which we did. The French were undeterred by the losses of their first wave and pursued the returning 32nd up the rising terrain. We charged them a second time… the ground was covered with dead and wounded bodies.
A shell burst right on the colours, took away the silk of the regimental colour and the whole of the right section of the fifth company. Among the dead was a captain, a favoured friend of the anonymous author. This was not a moment for grief or much reflection, as the command of the company devolved on me. We fought from 4 o’clock until half past 6, when we were relieved.
We retired to the road in the rear, and our regiment, which mustered 600 men going into the field, came away with only 160; we had between 50 and 60 killed, and the remainder wounded. John Corr and his fellow riflemen seized the opportunity to clean their rifles. With weapons in order a man could turn to his own needs of food, and water. Bread and meat if he were lucky, if not biscuit, dried peas, perhaps some cheese or butter and a large swallow of beer or wine.
Despite their appalling casualty rate, at 21:00 the shattered one-hundred and sixty of the 32nd were again called up to assist the 28th in taking a village on the edge of the wood. We were advancing in open column of division when I was hit by a musket ball in the cap of the knee; in falling to the ground, I had a very narrow escape that I did not lose my eye, as a poor fellow who was standing by me received a mortal wound, and in falling back – we both fell together – the point of his bayonet stuck under my right eye.
Amid the brutality of the matters described above, and apparently not seen by the anonymous writer, the Colours of the 32nd were briefly apprehended by a French officer. The regimental history remarks on the immediate aftermath of the precocious act – he was instantly run through the body by a sergeant’s pike (Sergeant Switzer), as well as by the sword of Ensign John Birtwhistle, who carried the regimental colour until severely wounded.
By the time the final French resistance was cut forlornly to the ground, the 32nd had been further reduced to 130 men. Remarked favourably in the regimental history is that the regiment had not a single absentee – a distinction to be proud of in an age when battlefield desertions were common.
John Corr survived the battle, indicating he was either one of those 130 men able to stand at its end, or among the 170 wounded who recovered from their injuries and re-joined the regiment in late July.
It is a tragic indictment of record keeping of the era that much is known of the battles these men fought and the campaigns of which they were a part, but nothing has been unearthed to enlighten us of home, family nor the woman with whom John produced a son.
In 1816 the Waterloo Medal was struck and for the first time it was not issued solely to the officers but also the ordinary soldiers. Private John Corr would have been entitled to a medal. Whether or not he received it and what became of it remains a mystery.
Background information concerning John Corr has been located the UK Regimental Registers of Service 1756-1900.
John attested to the British Army at Belfast on 5 May 1812. Standing 5’ 3 ½” he sported fair hair, grey eyes and possessed a pale oval face. His birthplace has been annotated as Arabo, Tyrone. As no such place as Arabo has been discovered it’s almost certain that his birthplace was Ardboe (‘hill of the cow’), a small village and parish on the banks of Lough Neagh which today has a population of a little over two thousand.
At the time of his attestation John was a 17-year-old weaver. He agreed to service of an unlimited duration. The date of his eventual discharge is unknown. When his son Patrick married in 1858, John was annotated in the marriage certificate as in employment as a slater.
He died at Aghaloo on 9 December 1883 indicating that he was in his 88th year, a remarkable age for an Irishman of the period, particularly one exposed to the ravages of the most savage fighting of the century.
Our army is composed of the scum of the earth – the mere scum of the earth.
Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington
The Millars of Camp T
Patrick Corr, son of John, was born in the parish of Aghaloo in County Tyrone in 1839.
For at least part of Patrick’s life, he worked as a plasterer and at other times worked alongside his father as a slater. He married Margaret McGee (or McGhee), daughter of Tyrone labourer James McGee, in Caledon on 11 March 1858 at which time his home address was in Aughnacloy, also in County Tyrone very close to the border with County Monaghan (todays border between Northern Ireland the Republic of Ireland). Patrick died in Belfast; 19 June 1902 aged 63. Information about Patrick is sparse other than what is included in this paragraph. He and Margaret’s fourth born child was James Corr, my great grandfather.
We shall return to James Corr later, but for now this quest diverts to India where at Kamptee on 9 May 1879 Jane Millar was born to her mother Mary Ann and father Alexander.
Mary and Alexander are my second-great grandparents due to Jane’s subsequent marriage to James Corr. Her background could not have differed more to that of James. Her birthplace and home until the age of 16 was India.
When Margaret McGee was born British administration was still reeling from the bloody Indian rebellion of 1857. In the aftermath the fate of the eastern empire was wrestled from the inglorious yet infamously successful East India Company and firmly placed in the hands of the Crown by the Government of India Act 1858.
Kamptee is today a bustling suburb of Nagpur city in the Indian state of Maharashtra with a population of 87,000 (2001). By 1879 it had been a cantonment of British forces for 58 years and was originally given the perfunctory title Camp T.
Indigenous locals adopted pronunciation of the cantonment into their language, their mapping and geography and it remains pronounced as titled in 1821, sometimes appearing in publications as Camp T, Kampt, or Kamptee. In the wake of Indian partition and independence from Britain in 1947, Kamptee was favoured to remain a bastion of military excellence. Since then the site of the original cantonment has housed the Officer Training Academy for the National Cadets Corps of the Indian armed forces, in addition to several other military bodies.
Jane Millar’s father Alexander Millar was a Scotsman, born in Whitburn, Linlithgowshire, about 1846. Unsurprisingly his reason for being at Kamptee was in the service of the Crown, specifically with the 33rd (Duke of Wellington’s) Regiment. We can assume that typically, Alexander would have recruited into the army by 1866, if not before.
Alexander Millar was the son of William, who in turn was the son of Daniel Millar and Sarah (nee Johnstone), all were firmly rooted in the Scottish region of Lanarkshire in Scotland’s central lowlands. Alexander was the ninth of eleven children, having nine sisters and one brother.
In October 1867, Pte. Millar and the 33rd were part of an expedition to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) to free European hostages held captive by the self-appointed King Emperor Tewodros.
Arriving at Annesley Bay on 4 December, the troops spent three sickening days stuck on ships at the mercy of the waves due to chaos on shore. Having finally achieved terra firma the troops spent two months advancing across testing terrain to reach their objective, descending 3,900 feet to Bashilo River on the approach to Magdala. As they nearer their objective, one thousand feet above, heavy guns poured fire on the British forces and 3,500 Abyssinian warriors of the Emperors garrison poured out of the gates of the fortress of Magdala. The warriors were armed with little more than spears, but it was the suddenness of the attack that British commander Robert Napier, veteran of the Sikh Wars, the Indian Rebellion and Second Opium War, had not anticipated.
For the first time the 33rd, and other contingents of the British forces, were clad in khaki drill jackets and cloth covered cork helmets – topis (commonly referred to as Pith helmets). This early attempt at a form of camouflage, as opposed to glaringly obvious redcoats, did little to deter the zeal of the charging warriors. However, the 33rd were equipped with new Snider-Enfield rifles, enabling a significant increase in the rate of fire from three rounds per minute to ten.
The Abyssinian assault may have been one of surprise, but the result was not. British rifles tore the warriors to shreds with the loss of only twenty killed or wounded. During the 90-minute rout, an advance guard unit of the 33rd climbed the steep terrain, overpowered the Abyssinian artillerymen, and captured their guns. Below them on the battlefield the surviving warriors fled back to the fortress and the vast gates were slammed shut.
The turn of events compelled Tewodros to release two of the hostages. The offer proved insufficient, Napier insisted that all were released and that Tewodros unconditionally surrendered. The Emperor refused surrender but released all the European hostages in the hope this would assuage the expeditionary commander and see the British forces turnabout and depart. As for the non-Europeans prisoners their fate was horrific – having their hands and feet cleaved from their limbs before being launched over the precipice.
Napier’s response comprised a sustained fusillade of mortars, rockets, guns, and the fire of infantry rifles to cover the advance of Royal Engineers who schemed to blow open the gates. The plan failed when it became apparent that the Engineers had incomprehensibly risked all while omitting to take the powder kegs needed to create the explosion.
An illustration showing the men of the 33rd approaching the imposing position of the fortress at Magdala.
It fell to two men of the 33rd, one a private the other a drummer, to seek and force a way through the thorny defences high up the rock, leading to a fierce fight that allowed others of the British Expeditionary force to follow in their wake. When Emperor Tewodros ended his own life with a shot from a pistol ironically gifted to him by Queen Victoria, his warrior’s fervour was diffused, and the battle closed with a decisive British victory.
Where Alexander’s soldiering took him after the Battle of Magdala is hard to know without the knowledge of his specific battalion. The period in question evidence that units of the 33rd visited Bermuda, Nova Scotia, and the West Indies. What is for sure is that by 1879 he was in India at Kamptee with his wife celebrating the arrival of their daughter Jane. Histories of the 33rd Regiment that I’ve accessed don’t refer to a deployment to India, however Jane’s birth, recorded in the Regimental Birth Indices 1761-1924, clearly states that she was born at Kamptee and that her father served with the 33rd.
By 1895 Alexander had retired from the army and returned to Britain, but not his native Scotland. His last known residence was in Aldershot’s North Camp as an army pensioner. He died about 1908. What became of Mary Ann is not known.
'Likely to become an efficient soldier'
James Corr, circa 1930.
When and where James Corr was born was shrouded in mystery, not from lack of records. Quite the contrary. It was due to discrepancies between records, both military and civil, created over a period of thirty years.
Those documents rendered it impossible to be sure whether he was born in Armagh or Dublin (separated by 85 road miles) and at what date between 1862 to 1867. However, the assistance of a passionately helpful local historian of Family Ulster in Belfast, leads me to trust the original handwritten parish records he unearthed stating that James was born at Caledon, Tyrone, on 20 October 1866. However, this does not answer the question – why his records differ so greatly (and all have been cross-referenced by Family Ulster and me to ensure their validity)?
Caledon was, and remains, a small village with a 2001 Census population of 387, although it was double that number at the time of James’ birth. It is the handwritten records of St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church of Caledon that provided the definitive evidence of his birth and that of his siblings John (b.1860), Mary Jane (1862), Margaret (1864), Patrick (1868), Alice (1870) and Elizabeth (1872).
Today Caledon is a conservation area seven miles from Armagh in the Clogher Valley abutting the banks of the River Blackwater. It sits within the parish of Aghaloo, where Patrick Corr’s birth was recorded. Lush green rolling hills surround the village that hugs the Armagh-Omagh highway running parallel to the river on either side of which dwell the glistening fishing lakes of Emy Lough and Creeve Lough.
What lives the Corr’s lived in Caledon during the 1860s and 1870s has proven difficult to define but by the mid-1880s James decided to abandon the trade of butcher and opted for the military life.
In 1881 the Childers Reforms of the British Army enforced the 83rd (County of Dublin) Regiment and 86th (Royal County Down) Regiment to merge and form the Royal Irish Rifles. In early August 1885 James Corr travelled to Victoria Barracks, Belfast and signed up for service with the Royal Irish Rifles.
Original documentation states a declared age of 18 years. He stood 5’ 4 ½” sporting blue eyes, brown hair, a fresh complexion, a scar on his left buttock and two blue tattooed dots at the root of his left thumb.
Blue dot tattoos are commonly associated with the serving of prison sentences, although most cases are historically linked to the borstal system established much later in 1902. In any case many pre-1902 references to blue dot tattoos are likewise associated with roguish backgrounds. Whether or not James Corr was a rogue is hard to prove and impossible to judge from the context of our comfortable modern lives because, without a doubt, life for a Catholic youth in 1880’s Ireland would have been anything but easy.
The Approving Medical Officer declared James fit for service on 4 August and on the following day a Recruiting Officer declared that James had passed the Certificate of Primary Military Examination. Later the same day, the Approving Field Officer, cited on the document as Commanding 83rd Regimental District signed on the appropriate line and from then on James was Pte. Corr 1342 of the Royal Irish Rifles.
In the attestation document one of the above-mentioned officers added – likely to become an efficient soldier.
Official and regimental histories give a glossy account of the comings and goings at Victoria Barracks. Perhaps the best down-to-earth account is a gem of a book written by a young man recruited into the same regiment at the same barracks as James. The young man was a Dubliner who, with his brother, travelled north to attest in Belfast declaring himself as in unemployment and the need of food. No greater motivation was asked of the average recruit in late-Victorian military.
Reporting at the gate the brothers were escorted to the reception room by a guard bearing side-arms. It was cold and dark when we arrived, and the reception-room was dimly illuminated by two naked gas-jets. The flickering light showed up a floor scrubbed white as the deck of a ship, and along the walls on either side of the length of the room rows of uninviting, black-painted iron beds.
The recruits first impression invoked melancholy – We felt homesick and cold and our gaze shifted on to the occupants of the room; four young men grouped round a low-burning fire. They were sharp-featured and clothed in rags and were all four fine specimens of corner boys. We approached them and exchanged information. Two of them hailed from Dublin and two from Belfast. The Belfast men called it ‘Bilfaust’. We found it difficult to understand any of the four.
A veteran soldier entered the room and told the brothers to report to the orderly sergeant beyond a door at the far end. The barrack room door was closed, and we knocked. A young soldier in shirt and trousers opened it and stood abashed at our polite inquiry as to the whereabouts of the orderly sergeant. We stood outside waiting to be asked in, and became the butt of all in the room, thus learning that one did not knock at barrack-room doors, nor wait outside, nor did one say: ‘Please would you tell me?’
‘Who are those two diseased idiots?’ roared a voice from beyond the threshold. The brothers had located the Corporal. Following the discouraging remark the non-commissioned officer reverted to a comforting tone, asking about the comfort of the brother’s journey and how their families were, until, to the barely stifled amusement of the adjacent private, he made it abundantly clear that he could not have cared less for their feelings in either affair.
Confused and mildly alarmed by the hostility of their welcome the brothers managed to secure an iron bunk each where they slept soundly until woken by bugle at dawn reinforced by the hollering of the older soldier ‘Show a leg!’ After washing under miserably cold running taps, they returned to the reception room to be shown how to stow their beds and linen by the wizened veteran. Coffee like dishwater and a single biscuit was breakfasted before scrubbing the floors with brushes, soft soap and caustic soda that burned into the young men’s hands. Things improved when a substantial second breakfast was served after the scrubbing – tea, porridge, liver, and bacon.
A thickly moustachioed elderly Commanding Officer was next on the agenda to meet the recruits, as a person who finally approved of us and made us real soldiers with army numbers. He handed matters back to the Corporal who hollered some more and marched them to the quartermaster’s stores. Two of most items were loaded into their arms – green, khaki, and white suiting’s, boots, canvas shoes, grey socks, shirts, suspenders, hats, badges, blankets, kitbag, jack-knife, knife fork and spoon, razor, comb, holdall, brushes for teeth, hair, clothes, shaving and boot blacking, towels, buttons, soap and Blanco.
The sense of carelessness emanating from the storeman, who appeared to be rapidly throwing stuff away in all directions, created an atmosphere of abandon about me. I reflected and was caught again asleep from the army point of view. The corporal addressed me rudely. I obeyed him and lifting a bulging blanket full of articles of kit which I had no time to memorise, I staggered away in the wake of the other recruits to a soldier who stamped our kit with the army numbers we had received that day.
The young soldier noted in his memoire - the slum adjective for fornication preceded every noun they uttered. We too acquired the habit of colouring our speech a trifle, just for the sake of being understood.
Six months later Pte. Lucy and his brother had completed their recruit training. By his own confession, the hated physical training and welcome substantial diet had hardened their bodies. He was strong and prepared. His mental attitude had adapted too – being among a group scoffing at the sight of a newly arrived recruit who had been sent out with a brush and can with an order to whitewash the Last Post!
The fascinating reflection of Victorian army life continues with the young soldier being despatched for service both at home and overseas. It can be assumed that Pte. James Corr’s recruitment experience differed little. When his basic training was complete, he was sent to the 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles.
Seven years of Home service followed – tasks and deployments that did not require James to depart the British Isles. In 1887 he was made temporary Lance Corporal; the rank became substantive two years later. Promotion to full Corporal followed in 1890 and in 1892 he got his first taste of overseas service in the Mediterranean with a posting to Malta.
Records of the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles evidence that they arrived at Malta from Egypt, but James Corr’s Military History Sheet includes no refence to Egypt between the entries Home and Malta. He may have been deployed on more specific detail elsewhere in Britain as in 1889 his records evidence attendance at a course of Military Engineering.
The History of the Royal Irish Rifles reflects that the bulk of the 2nd Battalion had endured four difficult years in Egypt, losing several men in various conflicts to shore up the outpost of Empire and ensure the integrity of the strategic Suez Canal.
The Canal, a vast man-made waterway largely regarded as the border between Africa and Asia, was constructed between 1859-1869. Its purpose, to create an improved shipping route from Asia to Europe was, and remains, phenomenally successful. Its ability to cut the journey from the Arabian Sea to London by 5,500 miles was vital to Britain, who robustly opposed any threat to its continued access through the Canal. So too did it ensure the integrity of its vessels passing through the Mediterranean, leading to the establishment of other strategic military points along the route in Cyprus, Malta, and Gibraltar. The British Empire is recorded by many historians as a reprehensible and greedy organisation that cast doom in many nations of the world – yet it was inarguably the most progressive modern power that exuded an organisational capacity never seen before, and perhaps even since.
The 2nd Battalion departed Egypt from the port of Alexandria on 21 March 1891, stopped briefly at Cyprus before proceeding to Malta, arriving on the 27th. Four companies, with headquarters, marched to Pembroke Camp, whilst four companies were sent to the neighbouring island of Gozo. In all, twenty-two officers and 822 of all other ranks came from Egypt. Battalion headquarters were relocated to Isola Gate Barracks on 7 March 1892 and it was here that Corporal James Corr re-joined the battalion on 18 October.
James spent 2 years and 37 days in Malta. During that time, he may have remained at Pembroke, or joined a company at one of the other establishments dotted about the islands – Fort Manoel, Fort St Angelo, or Marsamxetto Barracks. Researching the period during which Corporal Corr was stationed on the sun-drenched archipelago suggests that it was a peaceful period of army service. The next entry in James’s personal records tie in perfectly with the official records of the battalion – departing Malta aboard a hired transport ship Victoria on 18 November 1894, headed for Bombay. By this time James’s tunic sleeve bore the triple-chevrons of a Sergeant for a little over a year.
The strength embarked was twenty-six officers and 799 other ranks – states the official history – The battalion was stationed at Bombay, with detachments at Ahmedabad, Deesa, and Deolali. Deolali retains a special place in English slang. The term Doolally, generally considered as going around the bend, originates from soldiers of Empire stationed at Deolali who regarded the posting as spectacularly boring.
There is nothing to suggest that militarily the posting to India was anything but dull, but for a young man raised in a modest settlement in rural Ireland to have seen and experienced such diverse corners of the world the experience must have been remarkable. Today we can, through the internet, see almost every aspect of any place in the world, but to Sergeant James Corr every corner he turned would have delivered a fresh view of life in all its glories and depravities.
James’s posting to India lasted one year and sixty-six days. He was detached from the battalion who remained in India when he embarked for home on 22 January 1896 for the purpose of transferring to the 1st Battalion.
In the meantime, Alexander Millar had returned from India to Aldershot with his wife and daughter, retired from the army and remained resident in the garrison town. His daughter Jane, a British subject by birth right, was aged 16 in 1895. Having spent her life in India, her first experience of England would have been in contrast to that which James had been experiencing.
Sergeant Corr arrived in England in March 1896. This coincided with a detachment of 1 RIR mounted infantry being sent to South Africa where the notoriously botched Jameson Raid had flared tensions in the country – a fact that was to impact on James and Corr family history substantially in the coming years. For now, James was on home soil, relatively speaking, and travelled with the battalion by rail to Lydd for the annual course of musketry on 1 May.
Lydd Ranges was, in the 1890s, a recent acquisition of the British military. It is a place with which I was highly familiar one hundred years later and by all accounts geographically it has not changed. I rate it as one of the most barren views in southern England. Miles of flint shingle spread as far as the eye can see in all directions but one, the English Channel. The firing range itself, accessed through the Lydd Camp gate at the southern end of the village, encapsulates an area approximately 10km by 4km where the water below mean sea level is marked on mapping as a Danger Area. East Anglia is generally considered the flattest part of the United Kingdom, but the district of Lydd in Kent, whilst nominal in size compared to Norfolk and Suffolk, is surely flatter. It appears that one strong wave from the Channel would be sufficient to wipe the entire district off the map.
In the 1990’s the ranges included a narrow-gauge railway about which trundled two-dimensional cut-outs of Russian armour at which my colleagues and I would attempt to direct the wildly haphazard M72 LAW – a 66mm shoulder launched antitank rocket that had a propensity for unpredictable flight and wild inaccuracy – no wonder that that part of the English Channel is considered a danger area. Such modern innovation, accurate or not, would not have formed the lot of Sergeant Corr’s training, but other than the railway mentioned above, observation of the few photographs taken in the late Victorian era suggest little has changed.
Following the target shooting at Lydd – various exercises were carried out until the 13th of June, when the headquarters of the battalion marched back to Brighton. The distance marched was twenty-two miles, and the heat was very great. Serjeant Bannister, provost-serjeant of the battalion, died from heat apoplexy on this march. Moving to Aldershot by train on the 25th September, the battalion took over Ramillies Barracks.
Although James could not have known it at the time, his posting to Aldershot was to be curtailed with a deployment to South Africa in the following April, just seven months later. In that short period his life changed markedly when he met and fell in love with the daughter of retired soldier Alexander Millar. When they met James would have been approaching his 30th birthday while Jane was only 17, but clearly their relationship blossomed and probably, given James military service and achievements, to the satisfaction of Jane’s father.
The official history of the battalion details the beginning of the next phase in their lives – the Jameson Raid in South Africa took place, and the authorities considered that it was necessary to increase the British Forces in South Africa, as much ill-feeling was naturally engendered between the Transvaal and the British Government by this absurd and most unjustifiable filibustering expedition. The 1st Battalion was one of those selected to proceed to South Africa…
It is interesting to note that Lieut.-Colonel Brenton Laurie, author of the RIR history, has denounced the operation carried out by Leander Starr Jameson and troops of the British South Africa Company, as filibustering, as it formed a strategic, if poorly conducted, element of British policy in South Africa.
The British South Africa Company was led by Cecil Rhodes, an ardent British imperialist whose statue in Oxford has recently been the subject of controversy following the Black Lives Matter movements desire to have it torn down. Rhodes successfully meddled in international affairs to the benefit of the British Empire. Ostensibly he was the sickly child of a Bishops Stortford vicar, despatched to South Africa aged 17 in the hope that the climate would improve his health. He never lived to reach his fiftieth birthday and if South Africa never improved his health it exponentially improved his wealth, becoming a diamond magnate, who once stated the Anglo-Saxon race is the first in the world and the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race – later adding – if the whites maintain their position as the supreme race, the day may come when we shall all be thankful that we have the natives in their proper place – little wonder BLM protestors have targeted his memory.
It is strangely ironic that it was British policy towards the abolition of slavery, and the passing of laws guaranteeing equal rights and protections regardless of race, that are at the root of a long period of tension between the two colonising influences in South Africa – that of Britain and those that originated from the Netherlands – the Boers (Boer - a member of the Dutch and Huguenot population which settled in southern Africa in the late 17th century. The Boers' present-day descendants are the Afrikaners).
Britain and the Boers had gone to war twenty years before, with the latter victorious, over the fight to pre-eminence in a country rooted in contrary attitudes to the indigenous people. After the first conflict, in 1884, gold was discovered in the Transvaal, a Boer colony, and the stakes were raised even higher. At the time Britain controlled the world’s greatest economy, but world power ultimately rested on gold and as the Transvaalers unearthed an increasing amount of the ore, those with British interests at heart in South Africa, chiefly Cecil Rhodes, predicted that the day would come when the Boers would become the controlling and unstoppable power in the region and possibly beyond.
British policy was to gain control of the gold by controlling South Africa.
The Transvaal gold reefs were so deep that conventional open mining was impractical. Vast bore holes had to be dug and mining conducted underground. Such a technical and widescale operation required more manpower than the Boers could suffice from their own numbers. From around the world, including Britain, those seeking to make their fortune from gold mining arrived in Transvaal. Immigrant workers were welcomed as they were needed to keep the gold flowing out of the mountains and the profits bulging in the Boer banks.
When the Boers realised that the number of immigrants, who they termed Uitlanders, was coming perilously close to their own population, they feared the consequences. Control of immigrants and the power offered to them was prohibited by the enactment of a policy that allowed only immigrants who had resided for 14 years in the Transvaal to vote in elections. This, coupled to other matters deleterious to foreign miners with ambitions beyond gold, was seized upon by the British as cause to open renewed hostilities whilst ensuring the Boers were represented as the agitators.
The British plot was for the Uitlanders to rise and cause chaos in the Transvaal. Anticipating that the Boers would scramble to form a response, a nominal force of troops of the British South Africa Company, led by Jameson, would ride in under the premise of restoring order and at the same time take possession of the gold fields. The plan required the wholehearted support of the Uitlanders – but this was where it failed. The uprising failed to materialise; Jameson’s force stormed into an anticlimactic fiasco at the termination of which Jameson was compelled to surrender. The aftermath, of huge embarrassment to the Government in London, was to propel Cecil Rhodes out of his governorship and served only to strengthen the resolve of the Boers to resist all British attempts to seize power by seeking strength in collaboration with their fellow Boers of the Orange Free State.
Those taken prisoner by the Boers were handed over to London for trial and punishment in part of Westminster’s act to appear ignorant to the plan and objectionable to its happening. Jameson, branded a renegade, was imprisoned at Holloway and the British South Africa Company paid $1 million in compensation to the Transvaal government. Newspapers at home used the opportunity to whip up anti-Boer sentiments. Such emotions multiplied when it was discovered that Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, Queen Victoria’s eldest grandchild, had sent Paul Kruger, President of the Boer South African Republic, a telegram congratulating him on his defeat of the raiders and offering German support.
In 1897 the potency of South African Boers was strengthened further when the Transvaal and Orange Free State formalised their co-dependence by the signing of a military pact. While the Boers prepared for a war they did not want, the British schemed to create sufficient anti-Boer resentment throughout the Empire, espousing opinion as far afield as Australia, to justify military action. It was into this environment that the 1st Royal Irish Rifles were being deployed.
Sergeant James Corr was to prepare to embark the troopship Dunera at Southampton on 24 April for transportation to South Africa.
Colonel Knox, shortly after his retirement, with the senior non-commissioned officers of the 1st Royal Irish Rifles photographed in early 1897 before the departure to South Africa. Sgt. James Corr is in this photo but unfortunately I cannot be certain which one he is.
For the young lovers James and Jane, the possibility of lengthy separation was not to be countenanced. Both, from separate experiences, knew the reality of the duration of an overseas posting coming with no guarantee of an immediate return to Britain at its end.
Having received the permission of Alexander Millar, and of his Commanding Officer (permission to marry being an army requirement) James proposed to Jane. They were married at St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, Queens Road, Aldershot, on 29 March 1897. The marriage, conducted by the habitually unpunctual Father Edward Riordan, was witnessed by two persons going by the name Gallagher, possibly married friends attached to the 1st. As the wife of Sergeant James Corr, Jane could travel with her husband as part of the battalion.
James and Jane arrived in South Africa on 25 May 1897, one month and one day since embarkation.
Many British troops that arrived in country throughout the preceding years disembarked at Cape Town. The Royal Irish party were bound for Ladysmith, Natal, necessitating a 900-mile overland rail journey. Preferentially they were brought ashore at the east coast port of Durban, a comparatively minor 155 miles from Ladysmith, garrisoned so robustly it was colloquially known as the Aldershot of South Africa.
‘Ladysmith, as a position for purposes of defence, is very badly situated’. Wrote Louis Creswicke in his six-volume series South Africa and the Transvaal War (T.C. & E.C. Jack, Edinburgh, 1900).
Creswicke continued – It lies in the cup of hills, and stony eminences command it almost in a circle. Towards the north is Pepworth’s Ridge, a flat-headed hill fringed at the base with mimosa bushes. North-east is Lombard’s Kop, which is flanked by a family of smaller kopjes. South of this hill and east of Ladysmith is a table-headed hill called Umbulwana. South of this eminence runs the railway through the smaller stations of Nelthorpe and Pieters towards Colenso. To the west of Pepworth’s Ridge is Surprise Hill, and other irregular hills which rise from four to five hundred feet on all sides. The place is watered by the Klip River, which enters the valley between the hills on the west, twists gracefully in front of the town, and turns away among the eastern hills before making its way south. The position, commanded as it was on every hand, was not an enviable one…
1 RIR’s time in Ladysmith from May 1897 to when the bulk of the battalion departed for India in March 1899 appears to have been peaceful and largely undisturbed. The History of the Royal Irish Rifles, produced by Lieut.-Colonel George Brenton Laurie, published in 1914, is considered the defining reference of the regiment. Within its more than 500 pages, scant mention is made of the battalions’ activities at Ladysmith from 1897-1899.
During the time that the 1st Battalion served in Ladysmith they furnished one company of mounted infantry, commanded by Captain Noblett. It was formed on the 7th of July, 1897, and disbanded on the 18th of March, 1899, when the company handed over their 119 ponies to the 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment at Mooi River. The ponies had suffered much from horse sickness during that time, and the battalion, just before leaving Ladysmith, went through an epidemic of enteric fever, which necessitated the other battalions in camp being sent out from Ladysmith. The Royal Irish Rifles suffered, on the whole, less than the other troops stationed with them, and they remained in Ladysmith despite the outbreak.
Brenton Laurie’s summary somewhat glosses over the tragic reality of the lives of the soldiers and their families. To this day an elaborate stone memorial in Ladysmith Old Cemetery stands where the departing men of the 1st Battalion set it in 1899 in remembrance of 24 of their colleagues, plus one army wife and nine of their children who died of enteric fever (typhoid).
Prior to the deathly sweep of the fever, James and Jane Corr suffered heartache of their own.
On Sunday 26 June 1898, in tented army quarters at Ladysmith, James and Jane welcomed into the world their newly born daughter Gertrude Elizabeth Corr, their first born. Why or how is not known, but on the following Saturday, just six days old, she died. Her last resting place is most probably within the old cemetery, but searches of cemetery databases has proven fruitless.
Gertrude’s tragically short life is summarily recorded in Army Returns – Births 1896-1900 and Army Returns – Deaths of the same period.
Duty prevailed. Sergeant Corr would have been responsible for ensuring that his riflemen were able to load and fire the recently arrived brand new Maxim guns. The new weapon, originally designed in 1884, is regarded by renowned historian Martin Gilbert as the weapon most associated with imperial conquest. As if firing rifles at natives armed with spears was not sufficient advantage, the Maxim, one of the earliest mass-produced heavy machine guns, mounted either on wheels or tripod, fired body splitting rounds at the rate of 550-600 per minute with a velocity of 744 metres per second. In one horrifically notable action, British Maxim gunners slaughtered 1,600 attacking Matabele tribesmen with the loss of just four personnel. The Maxim gun soon became a weapon of psychological warfare as much as device for the mass butchery of foe.
The Maxim Gun, regarded as the world's first truly automatic heavy machine gun.
The Royal Irish Rifles received their first consignment at Ladysmith in August 1898, one month after Gertrude’s death. Numbers of the Riflemen were selected for training as Maxim gun teams. The weapon itself could be fired by a lone soldier but it was common for a Maxim gun to be serviced by a team of four or in some cases six soldiers. This included the reloader, target spotter, ammunition carrier and water carrier (the weapon was water-cooled). Sergeant James Corr’s army records show that in both 1897 and 1898 he attained marksmanship status at the annual Ladysmith rifle shoot, but no doubt he would have had to learn and oversee training and possibly even the operational use of these fearsome new guns.
While James and his brothers in arms were showering the range with lead, Jane would have been left to recover from the inconceivable loss of a cruelly cheated motherhood. The death of a child was not uncommon in the 1890’s, but this would hardly have mitigated the personal loss of each one.
1899 opened with the news that the 1st Battalion would soon be departing Ladysmith heading for Calcutta. Around the same time the 2nd Battalion, who had been serving in India, were preparing for a return to Southampton. As the late winter merged into spring Jane would no doubt have recognised the tell-tale signs that she was pregnant.
Given her condition it may have come as a relief to discover that James was among 91 members of the battalion, all of them ORs (other ranks), who were being left behind at Ladysmith. 56 of them were left suffering the enteric, the purpose of leaving the other 35 is unknown, but James was among them.
The 1st Battalion Leicestershire Regiment had been stationed elsewhere in South Africa for some years when it was decided they were to take over from the Royal Irish Rifles at Ladysmith. Pending their move to the vacating RIR positions the Leicestershire’s moved by rail to set up encampment at Mooi River, some 65 miles from Ladysmith, on 18 March. Seven days later 1 RIR, notwithstanding the 91 left behind, embussed the train and headed for Durban and the ultimate ocean crossing to Calcutta.
As 1 RIR left no commissioned officers behind by default the senior non-commissioned officers were in command – of 56 sick men and a handful of others. As James Corr was a sergeant, not suffering enteric and by then in his fourteenth year of service, it is likely that he had a significant role to play while unofficered, while also tending to the welfare of his wife through her advancing pregnancy.
The 1st Leicestershire’s spent some time engaged in field manoeuvres around Mooi River before setting off for Ladysmith on foot, covering the 65 miles in a series of three marches, arriving at the end of May. One of their first tasks was to oversee the welfare and command of the men left behind by the Royal Irish Rifles, including Sergeant James Corr, whose rank and experience they willingly attached to their battalion strength.
By October that year conflict with the Boers was imminent. The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles, having arrived in England from India earlier in the year, were redeployed to South Africa. Despite the arrival of his former battalion, Sergeant Corr remained with the 1st Leicestershire’s for the next six months, a half-year of personal and historical significance.
Before that, on Tuesday 26 September 1899, in tented quarters at Ladysmith, Jane gave birth to a boy, Robert James Corr.
Robert, or Uncle Bob as I knew him as an elderly man during my childhood, was born within the army on the cusp of war and perhaps this dictated his life as he would spend almost four decades of his adulthood in its service. In late 1899 he was a vulnerable baby in an increasingly perilous setting.
As Jane Corr shuffled awkwardly through the final stages of pregnancy in tented battalion lines, an attempt to reach a negotiated peace between Britain and Boer was rapidly collapsing. Although Britain’s primary objective remained the indiscriminate theft of Boer diamond and gold mines, an air of philanthropy existed regarding the Boers treatment of indigenous blacks. So strong was the feeling that even Roger Casement, an avowed Irish nationalist who later led the Easter Rising against the British in Ireland, felt sufficiently influenced by the humanitarian plight of black South Africans to gather intelligence to the benefit of his fundamental enemy – the British Empire.
President Steyn, the equitable Boer leader of the Orange Free State, invited Britain’s Cape Colony Governor Sir Alfred Milner and South African Republic president Paul Kruger to attend a peace seeking conference at Bloemfontein. Despite the generally brusque and immovable Kruger offering concessions the talks collapsed from the British perspective. Matters worsened in the same month Robert Corr was born when British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain sent an ultimatum to Kruger demanding full equality for British citizens in Transvaal – the voting rights they had so far been denied. Kruger’s counter demand literally crossed Chamberlains in transit. He gave Britain 48 hours to withdraw its mass of troops from the Transvaal border. If they did not, Transvaal, allied with the Orange Free State, would declare war.
News of Kruger’s ultimatum arrived in London on the day it expired. It was largely met with derision by those who considered the Boers incapable of offering the British Army anything but a token resistance. The Times reported the ultimatum to be an extravagant farce. The Daily Telegraph, from the safety of its London offices, published - of course there can only be one answer to this grotesque challenge. Kruger has asked for war and war he must have!'
Those with a greater grasp of the situation, including Government and senior Army staff, believed the long-delayed reformation of the armed forces rendered Britain vulnerable. In reporting the news to Queen Victoria, Prime Minister Lord Salisbury uttered - We have no army capable of meeting even a second-class Continental Power.
James Corr was one of a total 13,000 British troops available in South Africa when war was declared on 11 October. The Boers were capable of fielding 33,000. However, there were distinct differences in the organisation of the opposing armies. The Boers were not a conventional army in any sense. The only materially and organisationally conventional element of their forces was that of the Staatsartillerie (States Artillery). The remainder of their force comprised locally raised Kommandos (from where the modern ‘commando’ is derived) raised by citizens from among the provincial population. A full-time official known as a Veldkornet was nominal commander of sorts but had no disciplinary authority over the actions of his Kommandos. Most of the Boer fighters were men of the land, well-practised in the art of accurate sustained rifle shooting from the saddle and as such represented a frighteningly accomplished mounted infantry. In addition, they had invested in a hundred of the latest Krupp field guns and Le Creusot ‘Long Tom’ siege guns – significant pieces of battlefield artillery, courtesy of Germany and France.
When war was declared the 1st Leicestershire’s, with several other units, had already redeployed approximately 40 miles north-east to Dundee. Ostensibly the British force had been sent to secure the strategically vital coal mining town, vital to supply the fuel that kept British locomotives active.
According to the dates in the Leicestershire’s official record, written by Lieut.-Colonel E.A.H. Webb in 1912, they arrived at Dundee two days before Robert Corr was born – suggesting that James was not present for the arrival of his son. Here we encounter ambiguity regarding James’s actual service during the following six months.
What happened at Dundee on 20 October was the opening shots of the war – the Battle of Talana Hill. Soldiers present during the battle were, in the aftermath of the eventual victory almost three years later, entitled to bear the ‘Talana’ clasp on the ribbon of their South African war medal. My Dad’s cousin Jim Corr, who resides in Ireland, advised me that he has James Corr’s original Queens South Africa War Medal – the only clasp it bears is that of ‘Natal’.
For many years, the connection to Ladysmith had driven my research. The collecting and avid reading of almost a dozen first edition publications, all of which describe in detail the siege of the town, some of which were written and published while the war was ongoing, sparked an enthusiasm in me and an awe for those that endured and survived that terrible onslaught – imagining that James, Jane, and baby Robert were among them. Cousin Jim’s reference to the medal ribbon being bare of the clasp bearing Talana, Defence of Ladysmith, and all other decorations corresponding to the actions of the 1st Leicestershire’s, left me disappointed and an unrecorded four-month void in their lives.
Enter Gavin Glass MBE, curator of the Royal Ulster Rifles museum, Waring Street, Belfast. Having previously poked around in the museum archives on my behalf and sourced some interesting information relating to other members of the family, he suddenly and unintentionally reignited my interest and the family connection to Ladysmith. He urged me to take a read of page 332 of Lieut.-Colonel Brenton Laurie’s History of the Royal Irish Rifles.
Here I spotted the following referring to March 1900 when the 1st Royal Irish Rifles were still in India – A small draft of one serjeant and four riflemen now arrived from South Africa to re-join the 1st Battalion. These men had been left behind when the Royal Irish Rifles had left Ladysmith, and, being there when the Boer War broke out, they had the good fortune to serve through the siege of that town, under command of General Sir George White, V.C.
Gavin, a retired career soldier, advised me that James Corr was that one serjeant. Wanting to believe it, as it fits perfectly with James’s personal records evidencing the date of his transport to re-join 1 RIR in India, I remained sceptical as James’s medal ribbon bears only the Natal clasp. Gavin assured me that James Corr was the remaining serjeant and that he had served in Ladysmith throughout the siege. Replying to my question regarding the lack of appropriate clasps on the medal ribbon, he stated that in his experience as curator and researcher he had encountered countless examples of a soldier, detached from his parent unit to another for a short duration, whose records were not adequately maintained, after all they were handwritten in the field. In the case of the Second Boer War, he stated that the issuing of the Natal clasp to James Corr would have been an expedient case of wrapping up the affair by issuing the clasp that encapsulated active service anywhere in the region. There are a total of 26 differing clasps that a soldier may have been due for service in South Africa, all but three of them were issued in connection with specific battles.
Gavin estimated that if the 1st Leicestershire’s Adjutant had been unsure of the actions at which temporary detachments were present, an all-encompassing clasp such as that of Natal would have been a convenient solution.
Gavin is assured that James was due the Defence of Ladysmith clasp in the least and being attached to the 1st Leicestershire’s he must have been at Talana and several other interesting and challenging elements of the first six months of the Boer War for which he remained specifically unawarded, but generically sufficed by the issue of the Natal clasp.
Accordingly, it is the records of the 1st Leicestershire’s that provides direction for James Corr’s whereabouts and experiences during the period September 1899 to March 1900. This knowledge indicates that James was not at Ladysmith when Jane gave birth to baby Robert. Having lost six-day-old Gertrude so suddenly fifteen months before, it cannot have been easy for either of them to have been separated by the duties the army required in the prelude to an inevitable war.
The record states – At midnight on the 24th September, the 1st Battalion proceeded by rail to Glencoe en route to Dundee… On arrival at Glencoe at 6 a.m. 25th, the battalion marched to the bivouac ground, five miles from the station. On the 27th, the battalion was encamped about two miles from Dundee, to await developments, with a mixed force consisting of the 18th Hussars, three batteries R.F.A., 1st King’s Royal Rifles, 2nd Royal Irish Fusiliers, and the mounted infantry of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers…
The British force, including 1st Leicestershire’s, remained in post when war was declared at tea-time on 11 October. The force adapted to a war footing with the four infantry battalions rotated to provide an outpost to provide early warning of a Boer invasion from the Transvaal border. Each morning stand-to was observed at 04:30.
Stand-to is a state of preparedness that had long been observed by the British army of 1899 and remained a standard operational procedure during my service one-hundred years later. An army in an operational theatre needs to remain alert to danger 24-hours a day, however it is not feasible for every man involved in the operation to continue to operate on that basis indefinitely.
During the hours of darkness, most of the force can be allowed to sleep (fully clothed, booted and rifle secured) while a skeleton number of the force mount a guard. The guard is rotated, the duration of wakefulness will vary dependent on the size of the force and the scope of the threat – geographically and militarily. I have personally experienced these duties in one-, two- or four-hour stints. The task has been known for time immemorial as stag – which is an abbreviation of Standing Tall at Gate, which derives from duties at the depot where there is a formal gatehouse, and a guard is mounted. In an operational theatre standing tall would be highly inadvisable – belly down in the dirt as low as practically possible whilst able to observe your given arc is the preference in the modern army.
Stag ends when stand-to begins. Stand-to begins approximately one-hour before dawn as it has been evidenced through many centuries of warfare that a favoured time to attack a static enemy is during that last period of snooze just before the sun creeps over the horizon. It is the duty of the man on stag at that time to wake everyone for this purpose – including the officers, which allows a private soldier rare flexibility to address a sleepy headed Rupert (army slang for an officer) in a manner he probably will not recall when fully alert! On being woken the entire force quietly and carefully pack away anything they have been using for sleep, which in 1899 would have comprised a rough blanket, before slipping into a position of cover, rifle loaded and ready. Finally, a senior NCO, such as Sergeant James Corr, would stealthily make his way along the line whispering ‘stand-to’.
Typical British troops of the period. With redcoats consigned to the past, the khaki uniforms and pithe helmets were rapidly becoming the norm for troops serving in far flung corners of the world.
All will remain alert and static until there is sufficient light in the sky to prevent the enemy getting too close without being seen, at which point stand-down will be called. Stand-to is also observed at dusk, beginning one-hour before darkness, and ending when the entire position is enveloped in the black of night, when stag commences.
By rotation, the four infantry battalions near Dundee, including the 1st Leicestershire’s, took forward positions and observed the daily routine of stag, stand-to, stand-down, daytime duties, stand-to, stand-down, and a return to stag, from the evening of 11 October until 05:30 on the morning of 20 October when stand-down was called.
Fifteen minutes later quick-firing 75mm Boer guns thundered from Talana Hill. From a range of 4,000 yards the first shot killed a trumpeter. The 1st Leicestershire’s who were preparing to make breakfast, were ordered to take a position defending the 67th Battery Royal Field Artillery on the right flank and part of the camps rear where it was observed that Boer troops had taken possession of the railway station north of Glencoe – effectively cutting off the British line of supply and reinforcement. The Boers audacious night-time manoeuvres had outwitted the British.
Reply from the British artillery was delayed as the horses had been taken to water. Once the horses had been gathered, harnessed and the guns rushed to open ground, the weight and accuracy of the RFAs return fire from several 15-pounders soon silenced the outnumbered Boer gunners. Major General Sir William Penn Symons intended to seize the initiative created by his gunners and force an infantry assault up Talana. Three of the infantry battalions were assigned, the Leicestershire’s remained behind to guard the camp. Those advancing reached the foot of the hill and negotiated thick woodland. Emerging from the other side they were pinned down by tenacious Boer rifle fire from above. The General stormed to the front to encourage his men to drive the attack home, but was shot in the stomach, withdrew, remounted his horse, and returned to the camp where he died.
Brigadier General James Yule assumed command. The Artillery sustained a fierce and accurate fire on the hilltop affecting Boer ability to defend their position. Yule, accompanied by the Dublin Fusiliers, ascended the slopes under withering fire and reached the top – losing several men in the process to British artillery fire – poor observation and communications prevented British gunners receiving the command to cease fire when their comrades entered the target area. As the Fusiliers stormed over the hilltop, the Boers fled, mounted their steeds, and made their getaway. A pursuing horde of British Hussars attempted to cut them down in retreat but was surrounded by fresh Boer forces – 200 of them were captured and surrendered. Fortunately for the British another strong force of Boer guns and infantry positioned to the west on Impati Hill played no part in the battle as they were shrouded in thick fog.
As the British had pushed the Boers off their hilltop prominence the battle could rightly be concluded a British victory, but it had come at an alarmingly high cost of 41 dead, 175 wounded and 220 captured or missing. With its nominal force thinly strung across the colony the British could not afford such a high rate of attrition against a numerically superior foe. In the knowledge of the Boer force on Impati Hill balanced against the losses at Talana, Yule decided to withdraw to the comparative safety in numbers of the Ladysmith garrison.
Above - an iconic image of the Leicestershire's miserable rain sodden withdrawal to Ladysmith after the Battle of Talana Hill.
The Leicestershire’s official history states – The battalion, together with the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and 1st King’s Royal Rifles, bivouacked for the night on a small kopje (hill) in the rear of the position and out of range of the enemy’s guns. With a mixed force, on the 22nd October, it then commenced its march to Ladysmith, which was reached on the 26th after some trying marches, and in torrents of rain throughout.
For the infantrymen the protracted foot slog through the glutinous mud for four days beneath relentless rainfall must have been the most miserable of affairs and would have reflected nothing on their prowess at unhinging the Boers at Talana. The victory had led to a retreat. In such conditions, even in a force numbering many hundred, each man withdraws involuntarily into his own thoughts placing one mud-laden boot before the other, eyes down, packs and rifle straps cutting into shoulders, pinching the nape of the neck, ignorant to the suffering of those around him. No doubt Sergeant Corr, having been mentally swamped by the field of battle at Talana, would have allowed his mind to stray to thoughts closer to the heart. How was Jane? Had the baby arrived? Was it a boy or a girl? Was it healthy… did it live? One boot in front of the other. And the next, and so on.
The description provided by Louis Creswicke, published less than a year later in 1900, describes it with more authenticity than I – The movement was fraught with many discomforts. Rain fell in torrents, making the roads a mass of slush and enveloping everything in a thick mist, while provisions, which had been hastily gathered together, were scarce. The advance column, after passing through Dundee, where it was joined by transport, and rear-guard, proceeded along the Helpmakaar road on the way to Ladysmith. On Monday afternoon the first halt was called, but the rest was of short duration, for at ten the column was again plodding along through the miry roads in hourly dread lest the whole scheme should be spoilt, and the Boers suddenly arrest the course of the two-mile column.
And they had indeed good reason for alarm. They were forced to plod through a narrow pass in the Biggarsberg range of mountains, so narrow indeed that a hundred Boers might have effectually barred their way. Here, through this perilous black cylinder of the hills, they marched at dead of night. It took them between the hours of half-past eleven and three, stumbling and squelching in the mire, and knowing that should the enemy appear, should they but shoot one of the oxen of the leading waggon of the convoy, and thus block the cramped defile, all chance of getting safely through to Ladysmith would be at an end.
This was by no means a happy reflection to fill men’s minds in the dripping, almost palpable, darkness of the night, and the resolute spirit of the gallant fellows who unmurmuringly stowed away all personal wretchedness and stuck manfully to their grim duty is for ever to be marvelled at and admired.
The sodden column reached the comparative safety of Sunday’s River on the Wednesday where they were met by an escort of the 5th Lancers, despatched from Ladysmith by General Sir George White as a protection force for the fatigued troops. These to the great joy of the worn-out travellers, appeared on Wednesday afternoon. On that evening the column again started off for a last long wearisome tramp, the men, who had not been out of their clothes for a week, being now ready to drop from sleeplessness and exhaustion. But valiantly they held on. Not a word, not a grumble. Torrents of rain fell, making the night into one vast immensity of slough and pool, but the stumbling, straining left, right, left, right, of the retreating men continued ceaselessly through the weary hours.
On Thursday morning, the 26th, to their intense relief, they found themselves at last in the long-looked-for camp at Ladysmith. The excitement of the arrival was almost too much for the exhausted, fainting troops, but the cheers that went up from a thousand throats brought light to their sleep-starved eyes and warmth to their chilled frames. There was rest at last – rest and safety, food, and warm covering.
The retreat from Dundee is barely remembered today but it bears more than a striking similarity to that of the retreat to Dunkirk of forty years later for its drama, its human cost, and its impact upon those involved or affected.
Fulfilling his final duties of the march, James Corr would have fallen out and staggered off to Tin Hut City, the corrugated shanties to which the 1st Leicestershire’s had been relocated, to fall into the arms of Jane and meet, for the first time, his first son Robert James Corr. The juxtaposition of joy and fatigue are impossible to picture.
While the 1st Leicestershire’s with their detached RIR sergeant had repelled the Boers at Talana but retreated to Ladysmith, a similar occurrence followed a tactical victory at Elandslaagte. British troops began to mass at Ladysmith seeking safety in numbers. All were on high alert as the Boers began to close in from the north, east and west.
Two novelties accompany this period of military history. The conflict holds its dubious place in history as the first of its kind to be captured in moving images. Intrepid pioneering cinematographers including the already famed W.K.L. Dickson ventured across the African veldt with crew and equipment. Owing to encumbrance of the bulky equipment, the motor for Dickson’s camera weighed 1,200lbs, the movies that were rapidly transported home for exhibiting to eager audiences in picture houses around the nation, do not capture battlefield conflict (although some were convincingly ‘recreated’ after the event) but there is footage aplenty capturing the spirit and the environment in which the war was fought, both good and bad.
A technical innovation deployed by the British was the use of balloons. The Royal Engineer 2nd Balloon Section arrived in Ladysmith on 27 October and immediately began setting up their post. The devices had first been used by the British fourteen years earlier as a method of providing spotting for artillery fire. In Ladysmith, sat in a dry dusty plain surrounded by a horseshoe of high ground over which nothing could be seen, the balloon played a vital part in confirming the approach of Boer forces. This served to add fact to rumour that Ladysmith was indeed on the brink of becoming surrounded. A mass of Boer forces covering an encampment four miles wide was spotted at Dewdrop Farm with some gatherings less than four miles from Ladysmith, hidden by the hills, observable only by the balloonists. To add to the unease was the rumour, often proven true, that the camp had been infiltrated by Boer spies.
The prospect was far from cheering – wrote Creswicke – particularly as Sir George White was well aware that his field-guns were ineffective against the powerful guns of position which the enemy were handling with unpleasant dexterity.
Towards the end of the month with the soldiers and their families existing in a growing atmosphere of tense anticipation and waiting eagerly for the daily report from the balloonists, it became apparent that the Boers had strung out in crescent formation and were approaching the high ground from three points of the compass.
Sir George White, Commanding Officer of the approximate 10,000 troops at Ladysmith, decided that positive action had to be taken to protect his vital and sole line of communication and reinforcement to the south – the railway that terminated at Durban.
The 1st Leicestershire’s were part of a massed force of British units deployed to what became known as the Battle of Lombard’s Kop, just three days after the exhausting four-day retreat from Dundee. Lombard’s Kop (kop – small hill) was located east of Ladysmith. Taking and securing the position would prevent the Boers wrapping the town in a circle of guns and keep open the route to the south. The 1st Leicestershire’s made up a multi-battalion right wing of the force under Colonel Grimwood. The task of the right flank was to push in and wrap-around to the left, forcing Boer troops into the centre where they would make clustered targets for the British field gunners. Alas the pure weight of numbers of Boer riflemen prevented the plans success and as the attack faltered a messenger arrived from Ladysmith with orders from Sir George White to retire. In the town there was panic. In the far distance to the north observers had seen the mighty barrel of a Long Tom gun emerge into position on Pepworth Hill. The gun may have been a little over five miles away but was well within the range at which it could casually lob eighty-four-pound shells into the settlement.
It marked the beginning of one of the bleakest and tragic periods in the history of the British Empire and its army and the James, Jane, and Robert Corr were caught in the middle of it.
Accounts of military endeavours, written by army officers or the mass of Press correspondents pouring into the region, are many and all give similar accounts with minor differences regarding the battles, the movements, and leading characters of the wars progression. Very few publications describe the conditions under which the civilians and families of servicemen endured.
One exception is the diary of 33-year-old unmarried Ladysmith resident Bella Craw, daughter of the district Assistant Registrar of Deeds, whose parents emigrated to South Africa from Yorkshire in 1849. Thanks to the assistance of a member of the Ladysmith Historical Society, I received a copy of her diary in 2015.
Bella Craw’s recollection of the day of defeat at Lombard’s Kop reveals something from the perspective of a civilian – What an awful day we have had, we none of us shall ever forget it. The Artillery and troops began to move out at 2 o’clock this morning. At precisely ten minutes past five we heard the first shell. We laid still for about five minutes, then they went on hot and strong. We got dressed, then strolled up the street. At every gate groups of men, women and children were standing talking over the latest rumours.
We gathered at the corner by the Church… While we were talking and the boom of cannon going every few seconds, another shell from “Big Tom” as we call it, burst not far away. After breakfast the shells were coming thick and fast from this one bug gun, most of them not bursting though, although whenever one whizzed past we dodged, thinking it was going to hit us.
We remained as long as we could or thought it safe, but when they began to shell the old camp and we heard the rifle firing as well, quite near, we thought discretion the better part of valour and retired. When we got home we found there had been a panic at this end of the town. All the women and children had fled to the shelter of the hill and banks of the river.
By 1 November Bella and her mother had chosen to join the exodus seeking safety – This morning after breakfast we went down to choose a place, or rather a nook to hide in on the bank of the river. Bert and Uncle William put a canvas awning up and it looks very comfortable, but I hope we won’t have to resort to it. Everyone is so gloomy and hopeless. They seem to think we are going to have an awful time. I still feel hopeful and put great trust in “Tommy” to help us through.
The Tommies in who Bella placed her trust were the 20,000 reinforcing troops that one Captain Adams had told her were heading to Ladysmith to break the Boer lines. Little did she know that this force had not yet departed England and were not to engage in battle until the middle of the December, and even then, their initial encounters comprised a series of humiliating defeats reported in the Press at home under the strapline Black Week.
Damage inflicted on Ladysmith Town Hall by Boer artillery.
For those that remained in Ladysmith the follow-up to the defeat at Lombard’s Kop only worsened the feeling in the town. Another force sent on a similar foray was dependent on its long train of mules for provisions, ammunition, and water. The troops contoured a steep incline, the truth has never been identified – but the fact remains that whether planned and executed by the Boers or by pure fate, something caused a torrent of tumbling rocks to cascade down the hillside. The mules panicked, either being struck by rock and dumping their burden or running in wild fear, scattering the contents of their packs for miles around. This bizarre occurrence left Lieut.-Colonel Carleton and his force severely hampered, vulnerable, and many miles from safety.
Rather than take what in hindsight may be considered the preferable option, to break from the mission and return to Ladysmith while still able, Carleton pressed on and rallied his shaken force on top of Tchrengula Hill. At dawn, a strong force of Boers opened fire on the ad-hoc and hastily prepared British defences. The Boers were not professional trained soldiers, but they were wily and knew the land, barely exposing enough for the British riflemen to pick a target whilst maintaining a fearsome fire. As the near invisible Boers pressed closer the British lines were split and in chaos. Captain Duncan of the Gloucestershire’s raised the white flag without receiving an order to do so from Carleton. As Carleton saw Boers strolling uphill in acceptance of the surrender, he felt compelled to acquiesce much to the rage of the Royal Irish Fusiliers who were willing to fight to the death.
Father Matthews, chaplain of the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, who accompanied the battalion at Tchrengula Hill, recollected - We had one hour's sleep. Firing began just after daylight. It was slack for some time, but the Boers crept round. Then the firing became furious. Our men made a breastwork of stones. After 12 o'clock there was a general cry of 'Cease fire' in that direction. Our fellows would not stop firing. Major Adye came up and confirmed the order to cease fire. Then the bugle sounded 'Cease fire.' In our sangar there was a rumour that the white flag was raised by a young officer who thought his batch of ten men were the sole survivors.
We were 900 alive, having started perhaps 1000. I think that many of the battery men escaped. Our men and officers were furious at surrendering. The Boers did not seem to be in great numbers on the spot, but I heard that the main body had galloped off. The men had to give up their arms. The officers then ordered the men to fall in. The officers were taken away from the men and sent to General Joubert.
I think that the surrender was a great blunder and was caused by a misunderstanding. Major Adye was much put out. The white flag was not hoisted by the Irish Fusiliers.
A correspondent of The Times, who also accompanied the troops, wrote in his despatch to London - the order “Faugh-a-Ballaghs - fix your bayonets and die like men” was passed as the Faughs began to run out of ammunition.
Faugh a ballaghs means ‘clear the way’. The Faughs was also the nickname of the Royal Irish Fusiliers.
This event remains one of the British Army’s major humiliations. Approximately one thousand professional soldiers of the army of Empire were taken captive by a lesser number of Boer farmers. As the sun climbed in the sky, the British troops, reluctantly laying down their arms on the dusty hilltop, could see Ladysmith in the distance. Effectively this was the end, the Battle of Ladysmith was lost. The Siege of Ladysmith was about to begin.
According to Creswicke, following the defeat at Lombard’s Kop and the disaster at Nicholson’s Nek, a proclamation was made in Ladysmith recommending that all civilians take the option of leaving the town via the barely open southern railway within twenty-four hours. Creswicke wrote that many did, but an equal number elected to stay.
Into which group Jane and baby Robert fell is impossible to prove. Would James have insisted they take the train and seek safety at Pietermaritzburg, the capital of Natal and a robust position that the Boers were not to threaten during the entire war? If I place myself in James’s position, I think I would have. He had recently experienced the fighting at Talana Hill, and Lombard’s Kop and he knew as well as any that the Boers had been dangerously underestimated by those at the helm of the Empire. Would any man, knowing the town in which his wife and baby were residing was about to come under heavy sustained artillery fire insist on their remaining when a last hope of safety existed? I think not.
The last train to depart Ladysmith before entire Boer encirclement steamed south on 2 November. In all likelihood Jane and Robert had already gone or were on that final departure following an emotional farewell from a father who had barely enjoyed a peaceful moment to bond with his child.
The story of the Siege of Ladysmith is protracted, fascinating, horrible, and inspiring, and ended when, finally, the relieving army forced a route into the town on 28 February 1900.
Had things worked out differently this branch of the Corr tree could have ended in Ladysmith’s shell strewn hot dusty bowl, but it did not. James, Jane, and Robert were reunited at some point in March 1900. James, his family, and four private soldiers left behind when the 1st Royal Irish Rifles departed for India one very long year before, embarked at Durban on 19 March and headed east. There would have been five but one of them, Rifleman Clydesdale, was killed shortly before the planned departure from Ladysmith when a shell exploded in a house opposite the Post Office where Clydesdale was on guard duty. He was killed by blasted fragments.
Ladysmith railway station.
The Second Boer War was to continue without Sergeant James Corr for another two years.
Soon after re-joining the 1st RIR James was promoted to Colour Sergeant, possibly in reflection of the war experience he gained while the remainder of the battalion enjoyed less stressful pursuits in India.
India is a large country, and the British Army of the period were posted across a broad spray of its environs. A hint as to where the Corrs were stationed is provided in documents recording the arrival of Sidney Alexander Corr, my grandfather.
Sidney was born on 21 February 1902. The baptismal record, created on the day of his baptism on 9 March were completed by the reverend of St Patrick’s Chapel, the Roman Catholic chapel of Fort William in Kolkata, or as we know it Calcutta.
The history of Fort William goes back to the early days of the British East India Company of 1696 and named after King William III. When the old fort was attacked in 1756 it was decided to strengthen the position. Work was completed on the new fort in 1781 and remained largely unaltered when Sidney was born in 1902.
According to Brenton-Laurie’s official history of the battalion, the 1st RIR moved 570 miles from Calcultta to Fyzabad on 3 February. This is at odds with the baptismal record. Even the official Army Returns – Births 1901-1905 acknowledges Sidney’s birthplace as Calcutta. James may have again been detached from the battalion in preparation for a return to England. His army records evidence that the family departed India on 22 April.
James’s army records do not define exactly where he was posted but state that he was with the 3rd Battalion as permanent staff instructor. The 3rd was a reserve battalion based in Ireland, most probably Newtownards, as such James would have returned to the country of his birth for the first time in many years and oversaw drilling and training of the reserve soldiers. He remained at that post for 2 years 131 days. That ended when James left the army, a note in his Military History Sheet stating – At his own request after 18 years’ service with a view to a pension under the Royal Warrant for pay.
The family were due to reside, according to Army Form B.268 Proceedings on Discharge, at 32 Halcombe Street, Belfast, where James would be returning to his trade as a butcher. Today Halcombe Street features properties that appear to have been built in the past forty years, giving us no idea of how it looked in the early 20th century. However, a period image of Belmont Street, just a few minutes away and within the same electoral ward of Woodstock, gives some idea of the regimented utilitarian method of providing housing for the working class of the time. For four-year-old Robert and two-year old Sidney, born in South Africa and India respectively, the difference between the only environments and climates they had known and that of a city of Ulster must have been stark.
The Census of 1911 evidence that the family had at some stage moved home to 20 Mount Street, at the opposite side of the same block of houses from Halcombe Street. Before then James and Jane experienced both joy and tragedy. With the memory of Gertrude not forgotten but her last resting a place inaccessibly on the other side of the world, they were blessed with the arrival of Elizabeth in 1905. Tragically she was to contract tuberculosis and meningitis and died at another address, 53 Mount Street, with her parents at her side (according to associated documents) on 16 February 1906.
James Corr in later life, circa 1930.
Mount Street, Belfast, year unknown.
Later the same year another son arrived, Patrick Joseph, followed by William Christopher in 1908, and finally a healthy daughter Agnes Mary in 1910 who was healthy and lived until 2008. Three years later, now residing at 37 Mount Street, their third address in the same street in seven years, John Samuel was born. At 18-months old he died on 3 December 1914 of scarlet fever in Jane’s arms.
Tragically this occurred at 51 Lisburn Road, where a lot of deaths were recorded around the same time. The address was that of the Belfast Union Workhouse and Hospital – a place where the poor went to work for food and shelter, or to die.
James and Jane were to have no more children until the arrival of Francis John in 1920, but a lot of water was to pass under the bridge before then as John Samuel’s death had been preceded by the opening of the First World War.
Father and sons – born in the army, lived for the army
In the early 1980’s my Nan (Hilda May Corr) and Uncle Bill (William Christopher Corr) moved from the long-established Isle of Wight branch of the Corr family home at 36 Orchard Street, Newport, to the British Legion flats at Carisbrooke. Uncle Bill died in the late 80’s and when I moved back to the Island not long after, paying visits to Nan was a regular feature of reintegrating into the Island life that I lamented we’d ever left.
During one of those visits to Nan I was telling her of an upcoming tour overseas with the 1st Princess of Wales Royal Regiment and Nan remarked on the subject, something along the lines of ‘you men need time together to be men’ and made a brief reference to Pappy’s service (Sidney Alexander Corr – her husband, my grandfather). It was the one and only reference to Pappy’s service in the army that she had ever made to me, and at the time I knew next to nothing of its extent, or that of his father James Corr and his brothers, Robert, and William.
As described above and with more to come below, James served a lengthy period but even his extensive service was to be equalled by three of his sons, all of whom I knew as elderly gentlemen but could never have appreciated their part in the events that marked the twentieth century.
Uncle Bob and Auntie Wyn in later life.
When I was less than 10 years old, sometime in the mid-1970’s, Mum announced that she and I were going to visit Uncle Bob and Auntie Wyn (his wife). They lived in a spacious and quite grand apartment at Cluntagh House, Corbett Road, Ryde. In preparing me for the visit Mum told me not to laugh if Uncle Bob said something or did anything odd. I remember receiving this instruction and being utterly confused by its necessity. Around the same time, I recall hearing the grown-ups talking about Uncle Bob. I will never forget hearing a remark about Uncle Bob having hidden behind the settee and apprehending Auntie Wyn when she returned home from shopping as he thought she was a German. To the child in me this all sounded jolly and exciting. On reflection with wisdom and experience I wonder if Uncle Bob was suffering dementia, or post-traumatic stress as we know it today, or a touch of both. I remember that visit well for one so young. The ageing couple met us with warm smiles. I can only remember Uncle Bob with a cheery face. As they talked grown-up stuff, I sipped on a glass of squash and could not take my eyes off the rifle displayed above the fireplace.
Robert James Corr (Uncle Bob) attended a recruitment office in Belfast, possibly Victoria Barracks, and signed up on 16 April 1915. Aged just 15 years, he was tasked as a telegraph messenger when he agreed to the 12-year commitment, 9 in the regulars and 3 with the reserves. Despite his age, and his honesty in declaring it, he was welcomed. In Section 15 of the attestation document, in answer to the question ‘For what Corps are you willing to be enlisted’ – he unsurprisingly entered ‘Royal Irish Rifles’ and was subsequently despatched to the 3rd battalion.
His records evidence that he stood 5’ 2” tall with a fresh complexion and fair hair.
Within less than a year, two more Corrs joined the RIR.
On 6 March 1916, my grandfather Sidney Alexander Corr went through the same process and also attested to the Royal Irish Rifles for 12-years. At 14 years old he was sent direct to the depot of the 1st battalion as a boy messenger – he was still in school at the time he signed up.
The brothers had volunteered their services. Military conscription became enforceable the same month that Sidney joined but would not have applied to him as he was below the lower age limit. Another person to whom no requirement for service of any kind would have applied was their father James, who, in his 49th year with 19 years’ previous service behind him, did the most incredible thing by re-joining one month before Sidney, on 10 February, twelve years after ending his previous service.
James’s attestation was for ‘Short Service’ limited ‘For the duration of the war’. That morning in February 1916 he was immediately taken on the strength of the 3rd battalion as a private soldier. Later the same day his records were appended to show that he was reinstated at his previous rank, last used twelve years before, as Acting Colour Sergeant which later still on the same day was made substantive.
During 1916 Robert and Sidney worked towards obtaining the various levels of Army Certificates of Education, while their father James was redeployed to ‘A’ Company of the 5th battalion as part of the permanent staff. His documents suggest he trained young soldiers and later fulfilled the role of CQMS (Company Quarter Master Sergeant) in charge of supplies at Palace Barracks, Holywood. It is clear in the records that James’s return to the Colours was much appreciated and valued but given his age the regiment were reluctant to send him overseas to the front line. A snippet of evidence in the burnt records regarding his job at Holywood survives to this day in the form of a handwritten witness statement regarding an investigation into the mysteriously lost equipment, and absenteeism, of one Private Dempsey on 30 October 1917.
In the meantime, Robert turned eighteen, and was eligible to be sent to the front but for the moment remained at home with the 3rd battalion at Larkhill, Wiltshire, and was appointed unpaid Lance Corporal on 12 December 1917. His appointment became substantive and fully paid in April 1918. In the same month Sidney was moved to the 4th battalion.
Later that April, on the 18th, James was medically discharged with neurasthenia, a term generally applied when one suffers physical and or mental exhaustion. In completing his discharge forms, his Commanding Officer wrote of Colour Sergeant James Corr 5627 that he had served for 2 years 68 days and in a sheet clearly prepared to be used as a future reference, that he was – A very good man, who attained the rank of Colour Sergeant, served his country well and suffered in health as a consequence of ordinary military service. Desires to obtain clerical work and employers are urged to give him preferential treatment for a post in recognition of voluntarily offering his services for the war.
In accordance with instructions James Corr was to receive a Silver War Badge. The purpose of the badge was to mark a man as having done his bit and been discharged with honour. As the war progressed substantial numbers of servicemen who had been discharged from His Majesty's Forces with sickness or wounds rendering them unfit for war service, but which were not obvious from their outward appearance, found themselves being harassed in public as service dodgers. The Silver War Badge, to be worn on the right breast while in civilian dress, was a means of discouraging such incidents being directed at those who had done their duty.
Robert’s war was about to alter dramatically. His army records, obtained from the archives in Glasgow, comprised a substantial bundle. Attempting to decipher some of the handwritten entries littered with a myriad of army abbreviations and references that I did not understand, some I still don’t, has made it hard to pinpoint precise elements of his service.
However, it can be identified that by late May or early June 1918, he was in France after crossing the English Channel on a troopship from Folkestone to Boulogne, travelling by land from there to Le Havre. Within a fortnight he was suffering severe influenza and admitted to hospital but was back in the field by the end of June.
A return to the hospital in August was processed with less compassion by the authorities as his condition owed more to fraternisation with diseased French maidens than it did fighting the Germans. When considering whether to include that fact in this page I felt some discomfort in the assuredness that Uncle Bob would be turning in his grave at the knowledge of its inclusion (or indeed or my knowing it). However, I do not judge. Robert was an 18-year-old on his first trip overseas in a theatre of the most savage of wars. I consider it would be less likely to find a man who didn’t indulge in the pleasures available in the reserve lines than those who did. For his pains Robert was subject to a 27-day pay stoppage and forfeited all rights to former rates of proficiency pay, a substantial punishment.
In early September he returned to the 1st Royal Irish Rifles field depot at Le Havre and went with them as part of the 36th Ulster Division into the line on 16 September. When he was diagnosed with gonorrhoea five days later, he was probably as unpopular as the infection itself. Further hospitalisation, pay stoppage, and forfeit of rights followed.
During one of his hospital detainments at Le Havre it’s possible he met with his brother Sidney. Although the younger sibling was only 16 years old, he was by then displaying musical skill and was appointed a member of the RIR band that arrived at the Seine-Maritime commune that summer. For band purposes he was appointed as provisional lance corporal.
It may appear from the above references to Robert’s service that he was having something of a jolly time, albeit interspersed with some awkward discomfort. But the Royal Irish, as with all regiments of the line, existed in a turbulent world of rotation between the fear and horror of the front line and squalid rest in the reserve. His records suggest membership of ‘C’ Company, which, during the period in question were positioned a short distance behind the trenches as Counterattack Company, poised and ready to repel any German attack that threatened to puncture the front. Adjacent to their position was L.Special Company Royal Engineers, who were busy projecting gas shells towards the German lines when the wind direction suited, and notably got it wrong on occasion when the wind did not!
Shortly after re-joining the unit following hospital, Robert moved with ‘C’ Company to a location named Hermitage Farm which was heavily gas-shelled at the end of the August.
Shortly after this a drive spearheaded by the Royal Irish Fusiliers was supported by the Rifles, and successes were gained, advancing the front line to the Haagedoorne-Dranoutre road. Written with such simplicity, as are many of the official histories, nothing is captured of the horror and agony that must have accompanied every single clash of the opposing armies. The First World War was fought at a point in history where military mechanisation had evolved more quickly than the wits of officers commanding the armies, and men were mown down, blasted, and maimed on both sides in equally ghastly numbers. To emphasise the technical advances, this attack was the first in world military history to receive ammunition resupply by air, two boxes of live rounds being tossed to the troops below from an Avro Biplane.
Robert experienced the final eight weeks of the war in the front line with the 1stBattalion. ‘C’ Company settled into the front-right of the lines around Worthington Farm, their advance had cost the battalion 2 officers killed, 4 wounded, 2 missing with 24 deaths of other ranks, 115 wounded and 34 missing. Replacements, urgently pressed forward, were woefully short comprising 2 officers and 31 men.
On the 14th October, the 1st RIR were a small but integral part of II Corps’ massive push to the east. As referenced in The 1st Royal Irish Rifles in the Great War by James Taylor (2002) – The attack commenced at 5.35 a.m.… very few casualties had been caused by the German counter-bombardment as the troop assembly took place in positions that were seldom shelled. It was a fine morning with a heavy ground mist. Prisoners taken by 1st RIR were identified as being from 1st Bavarian Reserve Division and they stated that the attack was not expected. Moorseele was entered at 9.45 a.m., consolidation began and 1st RIR started to take over the lead. At 10.35 a.m., the battalion passed through 15th RIR east of Moorseele and attacked Gulleghem without artillery support. All went well at first and a mile of ground was gained but they were held up by three belts of barbed wire and heavy machine gun fire about 500 yards west of the village. At 5 p.m. they attacked again, attempting an outflanking movement, but only progressed about 200 yards.
This attack cost the lives of a further 23 dead and 92 wounded of Robert’s colleagues, plus a handful of officers. The 1st RIR and the 36th Ulster Division were engaged with the enemy continuously from 28th September until the cessation of the Gulleghem operation. After a short period of digging in to hold the line the battalion were relieved by the 109th Infantry Brigade and moved into billets at Desselghem. Although they didn’t know it at the time, they had fought their last battle of the war.
A few days later, 11 November 1918, the Armistice was received from Germany, the battalion war diary merely stated – The Buglers of the battalion sounded the Cease Fire. The battalion remained around Mouscron for the rest of its service with the British Expeditionary Force and attended a thanksgiving service on 17 November. Still holding the same position, now in peace, Christmas Day was celebrated with a special dinner for all ranks and New Years Eve comprised a special parade for a visit of the Prince of Wales.
The recorded history describes the RIR’s comparatively blissful occupation in early 1919 – From early February a bus service was provided for the benefit of officers and men who wished to visit Lille. Another attraction was the shows given by Miss Lena Ashwell’s Concert party.
The history suggests several movements of personnel to and from home and mainland Europe in addition to fresh postings as the victorious Allies prepared for the spoils and the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) was set in motion – effectively a post-war army of occupation.
Wounded British soldiers begin arriving in the town of Gulleghem, watched by Belgian women.
By June 1919 both Robert and Sidney had been despatched to Britain and were processed at Prees Heath Dispersal Centre. The Centre, near Whitchurch in Shropshire, was more commonly associated with the returning of war weary soldiers to civilian life. For the Corr brothers a return to civvy street was not on the cards.
In October, Sidney, who had briefly re-joined 1 RIR at Larkhill, began an extensive course of military music at Kneller Hall, the Royal Military School of Music (close to Twickenham Stadium). Despite accruing a less than impressive military record so far, unaided by not reporting for afternoon roll call on 10 November, Robert also took a musical direction being appointed to the 1 RIR band. For reasons unknown this appointment was relinquished on 14 April 1920 and he returned to the battalion’s depot, which at that time was Parkhurst, Isle of Wight (the site of today’s prison complex).
Sidney departed from Kneller Hall for his first arrival at the Isle of Wight depot on 29 October having achieved his desired qualification and having good on clarinet annotated in his records.
In the opening chapter of the third volume of the regimental history, written by Charles Graves, published in 1950, it records a peculiar yet singularly poignant event at which I know for certain my grandfather Sidney Alexander Corr was present as my Mum, Christina Nova Corr, recalled him telling her of it many years later.
Above and below - the last resting place of the Royal Irish Rifles.
Graves wrote concerning the period shortly after the battalion took up residence at Parkhurst in 1920 – At this time, neither the 2nd, nor the 1st Battalion, which was still stationed at the Isle of Wight, had the slightest idea that the name of the regiment was about to be altered from the Royal Irish Rifles to the present style of Royal Ulster Rifles.
When the news leaked out, every possible action was taken by the Regiment to prevent the change, but when Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, then Chief of the Imperial General Staff and himself Colonel of the Regiment, announced privately that even he was unable to intervene successfully, there was nothing to be done about it.
In England the 1st Battalion accepted the situation with the best grace that it could muster. But this did not prevent a curious ceremony taking place on New Year’s Day, 1921. A mysteriously worded invitation to witness “an important ceremonial parade” was issued. Interested spectators saw a funeral procession in which the whole Battalion took part, headed by the regimental band playing Chopin’s march.
Behind the band came two strangely attired parsons, wearing dark glasses, top hats and flowing white surplices. Each had his hands clasped over a book with his head bowed. Immediately behind them came a coffin borne by N.C.O.’s. It was draped with the Union Jack. Behind them, in turn, came a firing party with arms reversed. Gradually the procession made its way to a spot in the recreation field behind the Orderly Room where it halted beside a small newly-dug grave.
By this time it was clear that the Battalion was burying its old regimental name.
The “ashes” were enclosed in an orange box. One of the two “parsons” pronounced the committal sentence: “For as much as it has pleased the almighty War House of its great wisdom to take upon itself the name of our dear regiment here departed, we therefore commit its ashes to the grave without the slightest hope of resurrection.” The orange box was then placed in the grave. But the rain had filled the hole with water and it refused to sink.
A senior Warrant Officer tried to push it over with his foot, over-balanced and fell over into the grave. The roars of laughter increased in volume and the dripping Sergeant-Major yelled “Begob! The Irish Rifles will never die,” as he stumbled from the grave.
Decorum was duly established. Three volleys were fired and the Last Post sounded. A few shovelfuls of earth were put on the coffin and a tin hat hung over the top. Three loud cheers for the Old and three for the New concluded the extraordinary parade. The wooden cross itself bore the inscription “Sacred to the memory of the Royal Irish Rifles. Departed this life on 1st January, 1921, after a brief but glorious existence, aged forty years – R.I.R., R.I.P., R.U.R.” A small gravestone bearing this inscription was afterwards erected on the spot and is there to this day.
Graves wrote this in 1949/50. When the site was eventually turned over by the military to Her Majesty’s Prison Service, the grave was removed and the gravestone now resides at the regimental museum in Belfast.
Brothers in arms
Intelligent, honest, reliable, sober and a very good worker. Excellent in charge of men; keeps them in good order and gets good work out of them. A real “live wire”. Good bugler.
The above was written by Robert James Corr’s commanding officer and entered in one of the many Annual Report and Employment Sheet’s included in his substantial army records. Robert and his younger brother Sidney, both serving in the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles, their father’s regiment in all but the re-naming, were to follow a very similar direction for most of the decade following the end of the First World War.
Sidney had almost certainly not seen combat in the war, not having turned eighteen until February 1920, but he had already accrued the 3rd and 2nd Class Certificate of Education and by June 1918, when still recorded as a ‘boy’ soldier at the age of 16, was appointed to the regimental band. Three months later he was granted the rank of Provisional Lance Corporal.
Robert, who blotted his copy book with awkward indiscretions leading to medical interventions when first serving in France, did little better in the immediate post-war return to Blighty. The Regimental Conduct Sheet of 10 November 1919 first reveals that he was already in trouble as he was listed as a defaulter – a person guilty of carrying out a military offence. To make matters worse at 14:00 that wintry afternoon he failed to attend the defaulters roll call. When searching Parkhurst barracks proved fruitless it was becoming increasingly likely to all involved that he had absconded and gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave). When he was eventually located in his billet at 22:00, it is unlikely that his claim to have been there all the time stood in his favour. In the following spring of 1920, he was admitted to the Royal Victoria Hospital, Netley, for reasons not recorded, and re-joined the battalion on 13 May.
In the meantime, Sidney had spent five months at the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall. He re-joined the battalion on 29 February 1920 having qualified and been noted for his expertise on the clarinet. When I read this in his army record it made me smile. As a young boy in the early 1970’s I was one of few people that Sidney, or Pappy to me, would allow to hold his pride and joy – the clarinet that he kept in a wooden box in the cupboard under the stairs. Many members of the family have remarked to me over the years the wonderful music he could play on that instrument, and I am proud that it is now in my possession, in addition to a saxophone of his – but I would hand it back to him in a heartbeat if I could only hear him play it. Sidney’s records show that on 25 February 1921 he was formally elevated from the status of ‘boy’ to ‘bandsman’.
One month earlier, Robert, despite a patchy opening to his army service, committed to the force by extending his term of service for a further twelve years. Four days later Sidney was appointed a bandsman, Robert, being one step behind his younger brother on this occasion, arrived at Kneller Hall. The desire of both brothers to bring the music of the military into their lives suggests that life at home in Belfast may have been accompanied by music, but no evidence has been unearthed to support this theory.
Compared to Sidney’s five months, Robert remained a student at the Royal Military School of Music for twenty-two months, re-joining the 1st RUR at Parkhurst on 25 November 1922.
How the brothers and the rest of their colleagues at Parkhurst, Ulstermen through and through, felt about the Irish War of Independence, fought between January 1919 and summer 1921 is impossible to estimate. Like all matters of human conflict, the Irish revolt is a complex matter that cannot be adequately described in few lines. However, a generalisation can be made – that many of the rebels were Catholic Republicans fighting for a united Ireland and they faced both the might of the British forces based in the Emerald Isle in addition to the home-grown opposition formed from the ranks of the Protestant community.
All wars are horror. Wars of insurgency tend to bring the horror to the doorstep of civilians as battles are fought on small scale with frightening intensity in the streets where even those unwilling to participate are nevertheless targets for one faction or another and sometimes becomes its casualties and its fatalities. It’s very easy for rebels to be represented as the aggressors in any such situation, both in contemporary accounts and historical reflection, but it should be remembered that the British, including soldiers of the regiments and corps present in the nation, used the burning of civilian homes as reprisals – with impunity.
The war was fought to a standstill, there was no victor. Accordingly, the truce, established in the summer of 1921 to enable peace negotiations to begin, was extremely fragile. That fragility was brought home to the Corr’s in April 1922.
The Belfast Newsletter of Thursday 20 April includes a column in Page 5 headlined – East Belfast Turmoil – Five Persons Killed – Fierce shooting at Short Strand. Short Strand was (and is) an inner-city area of Belfast largely inhabited by Catholic families. It is a few minutes’ walk from Mount Street where, at that time, James, and Jane Corr remained in residence at number 37. Referring to the events of the previous day, the reporter wrote – Mrs Corr, of 37 Mount Street, was shot in the head by two men who called at her house about four o’clock. She was removed to Templemore Avenue Hospital for treatment, and detained.
The report in the Northern Whig and Belfast Post, published the same day, states – Mrs Corr, of 37, Mount Street, was shot by two men who entered her house at four o’clock. Fortunately, she escaped with a bullet wound to her hand.
Whichever of the reports is accurate, and I am advised by family members that it is the latter, no matter where the bullet struck it is a horrific event in family history that emphasises the plight of the Irish in their twisted fight against both each other and British rule.
Jane Corr with an unidentified baby.
The lasting effect of the period was the creation of a divided land which we have known ever since as the Republic of Ireland ‘free Ireland’, and Northern Ireland, under British rule. Casting politics to one side it is a tragic conclusion for an Island nation that has brought, and continues to bring, much joy and happiness to the world through its eager willingness to share a culture of music, comicry, and a universally appealing stout.
Nothing exists in the brother’s military records to suggest that either of them travelled home during this traumatic time for their family. At the time Patrick Joseph would have been 16, William Christopher 14, Agnes 12, and Francis just 2, suggesting that one or more of the younger siblings were at home when the inexplicable gun attack occurred. How do we explain the attack? I am in no position to make accurate perceptions, but it does strike me that as a Catholic family living in a Catholic community during a torrid time when Irish political separation resulted in fighting, shootings, and killing as a weekly occurrence throughout Belfast, that to have two Catholic sons serving in the British Army may have been exceptional. No doubt it would have been known locally, as surely as the knowledge that James Corr’s second stint of service with the British Army finally expired only four years earlier.
Was the attack some sort of reprisal or sinister message from armed republicans to the Corr family? Had Jane been caught in crossfire the event may appear less disturbing, but both press publications agree that the gunmen entered the family home in Mount Street before the shot was fired. Was the shooting of her hand a deliberate act of menace, or had she instinctively raised an arm in self-defence as the weapon was levelled at her? This came only a few weeks after the notorious McMahon family shootings a short distance from Mount Street across the River Lagan. Five members of the family and an employee were shot in their beds and a female member of the family seriously assaulted. The two survivors swore that the attackers were members of the Ulster Special Constabulary!
Shortly after re-joining the 1st RUR at Parkhurst Robert was appointed Unpaid Lance Corporal. The status was elevated to the fully paid position less than a month later, 14 December 1922. The brothers travelled with the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles, arriving in Cologne, Germany, on 23 February 1923 where the battalion formed part of the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR).
Historically there have been two BAORs. Both were established in the aftermath of world wars. The first was established in March 1919 and continued until 1929. The second was established in 1945 and retitled British Forces Germany (BFG) in 1994.
BAOR of the 1920’s was posted in defeated Germany for two principal reasons; to provide security to France from threat of a repeat invasion, and to enforce the harsh reparations placed upon Germany in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles. The Treaty, the formal closing of the First World War, cornered the shattered remains of German authority into accepting the blame for the war and to make substantial, and ultimately crippling, payments in cash and kind to the Allied nations that had defeated them. In hindsight it was the unyielding desire to make an entire country pay for its leaderships ineffectiveness that substantially contributed to the rise of Hitler and his Nazis and the reasons for the Second World War. In terms of international diplomacy, it stands as an abject failure.
Historians have written that the extent of operations in and around Cologne, which was the headquarters of BAOR, were so great that it comprised a virtual part-colonisation of Germany by Britain. Among matters of concern both to the authorities and local populace, were the number of both official and unofficial liaisons and eventual marriages of British soldiers to German girls. General Officer Commanding BAOR, General Sir William Robertson, refuted the claim and stated that liaisons between soldiers and ladies were limited to that of prostitution. He described Cologne as – a cosmopolitan city which with the occupation commenced to attract the worst elements of scum in Europe.
The 2nd Cameron Highlanders, who arrived in Cologne one month after the 1st RUR, were of particular concern.
Battalion adjutant Captain Douglas Wimberly wrote in his diary – Venereal disease is a perfect curse here. We have had over ten cases already (after just one-month in post). Why the Jocks have not more sense I cannot imagine. We have tried everything we can to keep it down, loss of pay, punishments, precautions, etc., but it seems no use.
The tragedy of the German population of the era was that reparations caused incomparable financial hardship and consequently shortages of food. Ladies who would never have considered prostitution were driven by hunger to rethink, and in some cases were compelled to do so – a father was arrested after repeatedly luring soldiers from bars to his home with the promise of intimacy with his unwilling daughter in order to feed the family.
Robert’s record of repeated visits to hospital for infections of the kind while in France did not resurface in Germany and it appears that the brother’s interest for the opposite sex sought more meaningful terms.
Three months after the posting to Germany Sidney was allowed permission to return home and marry Hilda May Hall (my Nan) whom he must have met and fallen in love with while stationed at Parkhurst. Hilda was born in Newport on 4 March 1906 to her parents Henry (1863) and Alice Frances (nee Spragg) (1869). Hilda’s parents were 43 and 37 respectively when she was born and had married in the previous October (indicating that Alice was pregnant at the time). I have discovered no evidence of any other children of the couple or that they were married previously. The 1901 Census proves that Henry was single and boarding at Abrahams Court, a slum mews demolished in the 1940’s to make way for Newport Fire Station.
Subsequent to unearthing the official record of who Hilda’s parents were, I discovered in 2022, through the family, that in fact Alice was not her biological mother. As a child I well remember a lady that I knew as Aunty Ethel. She regularly furnished me with sweets and copies of the War Cry. As far officialdom was concerned, she was my Nan’s (Hilda) elder sister. The reality is that she was her mother. Presumably Henry was the father and he and Alice raised Hilda as their own.
Henry’s father, Henry senior, earned a basic living as a general labourer. The 1911 Census evidence that Henry junior (my great grandfather) was, at that time, a butcher’s assistant. Little more is known of his life except for the basic details in the hastily taken 1939 Register which evidences that he still worked as a butcher at the age of 76. I clearly recall my Nan made a brief reference to her father’s work many years ago, describing to me that Scarrots Lane was awash with the blood running from the many slaughterhouses, and this explains the blood gutter which still runs down one side of the lane today.
Hilda May Hall, later Corr, wife of Sidney.
Aunty Ethel, as I always knew her, only to discover in 2022 that she was actually my great grandmother.
Sidney and Hilda married on 26 December 1923 in Newport, the arrival of their first child Eileen followed a few months later. Robert married Agneta Cora Eckford one month later 25 January 1924. By then his entire outlook to life in the army seems to have shifted for the better. His Commanding Officer wrote on 12 November 1923 of the Lance Corporal – Is a clean, sober, intelligent soldier. A good musician. Has the making of a good N.C.O.
Inexplicably the couple were married at Kensington Registry Office, London. The fact that Agneta was born in Ryde seems nothing but coincidence to Robert’s time serving on the Island with the RUR. The 1911 Census evidence that Agneta and her family were living in London. Her father John was a Scottish born laundry owner with his wife, Agneta’s mother, Dora on the payroll. Given the family address of 126 Cornwall Road, Bayswater, it seems likely that his business was in profit.
After the weddings, the brothers were returned to Germany with BAOR. No evidence exists to suggest their wives went with them and in the case of my Nan, Hilda May, I am sure it would have been mentioned in my presence if she had.
If they had, they may have been surprised, according to the official regimental history – Never before had the married members of the Battalion had such quarters provided for them. Rows and blocks of houses were built by the Germans for the Army of Occupation, furnished and equipped with the latest labour-saving devices and accommodation on a really generous scale.
A few months later the battalion moved to less salubrious accommodation at Wiesbaden until returning to the United Kingdom in November 1926 with a posting to Talavera Barracks, Aldershot. How the brothers had existed in anything like a marital state cannot be imagined, particularly given that in the meantime Eileen Agnes Corr (my Dad’s sister) was born to Hilda May Corr in 1924 when Sidney was still in Germany.
Being a father perhaps compelled Sidney to reconsider his choice of career. On 3 March 1928 he was discharged on termination of engagement and left the army at his choice, and the brothers lives suddenly took widely differing directions. To the best of my knowledge, I believe Sidney gained employment as a council labourer.
For Robert, who remained childless (then and forever) no such emotional pull impacted on his consciousness. In June 1925 he had been appointed Corporal and his Commanding Officer wrote of him in September – Has performed the duties of a conductor to 2nd band with credit and very good results – which suggests that if he was conducting the band of the 2nd Battalion, he had transferred from the 1st. By January 1926 he was elevated to the position of Lance Sergeant – a position awarded to a corporal who fulfils a role normally given to a sergeant. While in Germany he re-engaged with the army for a period of 21 years. This means 21 years from when he first attested in 1915, extending his commitment to the service until 1936.
In February 1928 Robert attended a course of instruction at the Small Arms School, Hythe, and came away qualified in the use of the Lewis Gun. It was not until 1 July that year that his records show that he and Agneta were admitted onto the battalions’ married establishment. This suggests that other than for periods of home leave, they had not lived as a married couple in the four years since their marriage. In the same month Robert was promoted to sergeant and it was with this rank that by September he was elevated to the esteemed position in the band of Bugle Major, the ceremonial leader of the band. Bugle Major is not a rank, and should not be confused with Major, which is a rank given to a commissioned officer, but within military bandsmen’s circles being a Bugle Major marks you out as one of the best. His subsequent annual record for 1928, completed by his CO on 30 September, states – Very excellent N.C.O. Plenty of drive. Very intelligent and should make a C.S.M. (C.S.M. - Company Sergeant Major).
While Robert’s career was climbing skywards, the earthbound Sidney found life as a civilian lacking the thrill of soldiering. In a move that I can fully and personally appreciate, on 27 May 1929 he attested to service with the Territorial Army, making the best of both world’s as a citizen soldier.
Robert James Corr, year unknown.
Cap badge of the Isle of Wight Rifles, I still have my grandfather Sidney's badge.
He joined the locally iconic unit the Isle of Wight Rifles, by then going by the full title of 8th Hampshire Regiment, Princess Beatrice’s Isle of Wight Rifles, and was immediately appointed to the band. In the early 1990’s I first served in a unit descended from this same lineage, but by then we were just a platoon, 9 Princess Beatrice’s Platoon, far short of the heady days when the Isle of Wight could field an entire battalion.
Sidney originally committed to just four years territorial service, but in fact served for much longer. On 11 August Sidney attended Bulford Camp on Salisbury Plain, the annual feature of a territorial’s service, and continued to do so until the last in 1939, attending camps at Lulworth, Seaford, Bulford on multiple occasions and two camps held on the Island at Sandown and Nunwell. Just before his final annual camp that began on 5 June 1939, Sidney re-engaged for a further four years.
In 1937, the Isle of Wight Rifles had converted from an infantry unit to artillery and existed under the grand title Princess Beatrice's Isle of Wight Rifles, Heavy Regiment, Royal Artillery, which I read some time ago is believed to be the longest unit title in the history of the British Army. Much to the satisfaction of the men and local populace the unit was permitted to retain not only its cap badge but also its black buttons and black and green ceremonial dress, the only unit in the Royal Artillery permitted this distinction, earning them the nickname of the Green Gunners. The title was elongated further in 1940 to 530th (The Princess Beatrice's Isle of Wight Rifles) Coast Regiment, Royal Artillery.
11 August 1935 the IW Rifles commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the Suvla Bay landings during the First World War, where many Island riflemen lost their lives, with a drumhead service at Northwood. As a member of the band Sidney would have featured in the events described – Among the distinguished company present, were Her Royal Highness Princess Beatrice, Princess Alice, the Earl of Athlone, and Lord Mottistone. The battalion paraded in the car park and marched through the park to Northwood House, headed by the bugle band. On behalf of Princess Beatrice, the Earl of Athlone briefly addressed the parade and on the call of Lord Mottistone, cheers were given for the King and Princess Beatrice. After the service, the parade was marched back to the Drill Hall, where it was dismissed.
The role of the battalion on conversion from riflemen to artillerymen is summed up in the statement made by General Sir Richard Haking when he announced it to Sidney and colleagues, who were strangely requested to attend in civilian clothing, at the Newport Drill Hall on 1 April 1937 – The 8th Battalion Hampshire Regiment, Princess Beatrice’s Isle of Wight Rifles, is to be converted to a brigade of heavy artillery, charged with the important duty of manning some of the Isle of Wight batteries which are part of the outer defences of Portsmouth and Southampton.
Between musical renditions by the band, the General continued – The War Office has written very sympathetically on the matter, pointing out that they considered the change a necessity as part of the re-organisation of the defences of Portsmouth and Southampton. They wanted more artillery in the Isle of Wight and felt that the only people who could supply that need were the gallant officers and men of the Isle of Wight Rifles.
Contemporary reports state – Thus, on the first of April, 1937, the Isle of Wight Rifles became a heavy brigade of Royal Artillery, they had to learn the highly technical but deeply interesting science of coastal defence gunnery. The Rifles thus had a definite role to perform on mobilisation…
Mobilisation came sooner than expected.
On 26 September 1938, the Rifles were brought to a war footing. Hitler’s menacing threat in Germany had snubbed international accords by annexing a portion of Czechoslovakia known as Sudentenland, effectively a largely peaceful invasion. Tensions heightened throughout Europe and the world. In Britain, military forces were brought to arms in expectation of a new war.
The Isle of Wight County Press described the local atmosphere on that Monday – orders came for the manning of their war stations by Island Territorials and for putting into operation the Air Raid Precautions measures. Territorial soldiers with their uniforms hurriedly donned, and carrying kitbags on their shoulders, making their way to their drill halls, requisitioned lorries bearing them away during the night to their points of duty while they cheerfully sang popular ditties.
The summons to action was circulated in various ways, by telephone calls to the men’s places of employment, by early arrivals being sent out as messengers to others, and by calls by police at the men’s homes.
How the news reached Corporal Sidney Corr at 36 Orchard Street, Newport, is not known. If the door was firmly knocked it may have woken a baby as by that time the family, Sidney, Hilda, and Eileen, had expanded with the birth of my father, Terence Patrick Corr on 9 October 1937. How long they had lived at the address that I remember so well from my childhood is not known, but they shared the modest abode with Hilda’s parents Henry and Alice.
Sudenten Germans welcoming German troops, 1938.
Attempts at international diplomacy to avert the likelihood of war were set in motion. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain attended a conference with Hitler in Munich on 29-30 September during the period generally termed the Munich Crisis. When Chamberlain returned to Britain, landing at Heston Aerodrome waving a piece of paper he proclaimed to the massed press reporters - The settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem, which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine. Some of you, perhaps, have already heard what it contains but I would just like to read it to you ... We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval Agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.
Chamberlain had appeased Hitler’s every demand and in doing so hoped, and seemed to believe, that further German expansionism and hostility had been averted. Returning to Downing Street later the same day, he added - My good friends, for the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.
The phrase peace for our time was to be thrown back in Chamberlain’s face a year later and his attempts to appease Hitler’s aggression by allowing German annexation of Sudentenland without tangible objection has since been regarded with tragedy. The weakness of Chamberlain’s position is today considered to have given Hitler the green light to continue with his aggressive plans in the belief that his potential foe was not up for the fight.
My great grandmother Jane, with her son Sidney, my grandfather.
By the time the County Press published its lengthy article in the edition of Saturday 1 October, including instructions of how to recognise different air raid signals, the matter was over for now, and the Isle of Wight Rifles stood down and returned to their civilian lives.
While Sidney provided his services throughout the 1930’s as a territorial soldier, Robert was every bit the career regular. Sergeant Robert James Corr achieved promotion to Warrant Officer Class II on 4 October 1931 – Company Sergeant Major, and in the following year travelled with the 1st Royal Ulster Rifles to Egypt.
In preparation the battalion were issued with uniforms and helmets in both brown and green shades, with brown puggarees and helmet bags in varying shades of blue, compelling the regiments official historian to record – It seemed, in fact, that Joseph’s coat of many colours would be nothing compared with the appearance of the Rifles when they finally arrived. Actually, the movement from Belfast to Cairo was not unpleasant, though the sea was rough, and many faces were consequently as green as many of the helmets.
The battalion briefly took up residence at Cairo Citadel, which according to the same historian they found to their distaste. The stay was short and relocation to Jerusalem required the force to be split. One company was sent to Sarafand, and a single platoon to Nablus while the remainder stayed behind.
British troops were staged in the region, then known as Mandatory Palestine, in support of the post-First World War resolution of the League of Nations to grant a mandate for British administration of the territories of Palestine and Transjordan conceded by the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) at the end of the war.
The mandate was far from universally popular and by the 1930’s had broken into sporadic but worrying violence from some quarters which developed into the Arab Revolt of 1936. While stationed there in 1933 Robert was awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct medal, and a gratuity of five pounds (around £230 today).
Both Robert’s records and the official history suggest several movements of contingencies of the 1st RUR between Palestine and Egypt over the next few years, but little mention is made of active operations. On 5 December 1935 he headed for Hong Kong. The official history states – The voyage in the “Neuralia” was somewhat unpleasant owing to a typhoon which appeared on the scene before most of the troops had digested their Christmas dinner. On arrival it was found that one of the drawbacks to Hong Kong was the distribution of the Battalion in three different barracks. One of them, Mount Austin, at the top of the peak, necessitated a separate mess. But from the point of view of sport, Hong Kong proved to be most enlivening and the Battalion had to enter three teams in various football leagues. In addition, there was hockey, water polo, basketball, billiards, cricket, rowing, running, sailing and other competitions.
The leisure-filled bliss of the Hong Kong posting wasn’t to last, as remarked in the formal history of the regiment – August 1937 found the 1st Battalion being moved at twenty-four hours’ notice from Hong Kong to Shanghai on emergency duty connected with the Chinese-Japanese war. On arrival the International Settlement it was discovered that this was divided into four sectors, one held by the Japanese, another by the Shanghai Volunteer Corps, the third by the 4th United States Marine Corps, and the fourth by the British.
The battalion were transferred from troop ship to Royal Navy destroyers and proceeded upstream – they found several Japanese warships busily shelling the Chinese positions. Ludicrously enough, the crews stopped action as the British ships passed and saluted them.
At their new base – there was much to be done, posts had to be redesigned and in some cases entirely reconstructed, and new wire fences erected. In addition, refugees had to be controlled and the internal security of the sector maintained. The perimeter wall was well outside the Settlement boundary and the area between was policed by Chinese responsible only to their own Government. These men carried rifles, automatics and bombs and killed two Japanese civilians. In consequence they had to be disarmed by a platoon of Royal Ulster Rifles.
One night a Japanese shell put all the telephones out of order, one of which ran through to the local zoo. All the animals had been removed to safe quarters except two grizzly bears which were too ferocious to be moved. Thus, at the dead of night, as the Line Party was effecting repairs, it saw two figures approaching them. It allowed them to get quite close before challenging, but the only answer was a noise which might equally have been Chinese, Japanese, or just evidence of drunkenness. A signalling torch was flashed on to them and, sure enough, it was the two grizzly bears whose cage had apparently been opened by the explosion of the shells. The Line Party up-staked and ran in all directions. The Sergeant, ably defending himself with a crook stick, disappeared in the direction of barracks. Two more members of the party took refuge in a small island on an ornamental lake in the park. Higher authority referred the matter to the Zoo authorities, who said the only thing to do was to shoot them. This message was received in distorted form and so a party was collected and, armed with mattocks, ordered to “shoo” them back. At the first combined “shoo” the bears ambled back into their cages where they were promptly secured.
During the difficult events in Shanghai a small but significant number of RUR soldiers lost their lives, mainly through random shelling in situations where the British appear not to have been the intended target.
The posting was followed by a battalion move to Rawalpindi, India and after an intense period of mountain warfare training moved to the North-West Frontier. Transport was provided on broad gauge and narrow gauge railways followed by mules over rocky country where little boys encountered on route threatened the Rifles by making hand signals indicating they were to have their throats cut.
Bands of savage fighters acting under the instructions of the Fakir of Ipi, the Pashtun leader, roamed the mountainous frontier region in their bid to establish an independent state of Pashtunistan. As the battalion advanced from relative safety to the region of Waziristan they spent their first night on the frontier under sporadic sniper fire.
Uncle Bob, Robert James Corr, in RUR formal tropical dress, 1930's.
The challenging insurgency operations continued along dirty lines, opposing an enemy reluctant to reveal itself in conventional combat satisfied to snipe from safety. Robert served on the frontier for 1 year and 79 days before the battalion was returned to Ireland in the awareness of heightening tensions in Europe. By now the RUR had been moved from the only home depot it had ever known, Victoria Barracks in Belfast, to the newly appointed St Patrick’s Barracks in Ballymena.
Among those moving to Ballymena one was missing off the married establishment. Army records evidence that while Robert was serving overseas, on 20 January 1936 his wife Agneta was struck off the strength of the married quarters. Precisely why, whether it was at her own volition or not, is not known, but this may mark the beginning of the breakdown of their marriage – most of which was spent in separation due to Robert’s duties. For sure they had divorced by 1943 as he remarried. It appears that Agneta didn’t as she died still bearing the Corr name at Sunbury (near the former home ground of London Irish rugby club) on 7 December 1982.
On 6 February 1939 Robert was struck off the strength of the 1st Battalion and sent to the Army Technical School in Arborfield, Berkshire on 15 May – just four months before the opening of the Second World War.
On 1 September 1939, two days before war was declared, the Times and Weekly News published the following description of Arborfield - Stretches of reinforced concrete roads, rows of galvanised iron buildings and continuous building activity almost as far as the eye can see – is one’s first impression of the Army Technical School at Arborfield – the boy’s camp.
The first started and now complete, this school is the last word in comfort. Electric light, central heating, sprung beds – the boys’ first experience of Army life is probably vastly different from what they expected. Most of the lads are between 14 – 18 and at present there are 500 of them under training. It is understood that the full complement is 1,000 and it is expected this number will be there by the end of October.
Gymnasiums, billiard tables, football, rugby, and cricket pitches – these boys have plenty to amuse them when their work is done. In course of erection is a huge building which is to be a dance hall and cinema and will seat 1,000. Every facility for instruction is provided – the workshops and machine shops being the last word in modern efficiency. As yet there is no band at this camp and Band Marches are relayed to the large parade ground from gramophone records amplified through loudspeakers. Education facilities are provided by the War Office and a well-equipped hospital attends to any minor accident or illness.
At present the A. A. Militia, comprising 1,100 men and Reservists in 4 Batteries, have not been afforded the comfort of built quarters and they are under canvas. There is however, feverish activity on the part of the contractors in erecting and completing the wooden buildings that will very shortly "house" these men, it is to be hoped before the winter arrives. Nearing completion too are the married quarters which closely resemble a vast housing estate. Officers' quarters are rapidly being built and before very long the entire camp should be completely finished and it is understood will comprise over 20,000 people.
From this, and other statements in Robert’s record, it appears that having served for 24 years, massing experience, and achieving the position of Company Sergeant Major, his next career step is in the education and training of a new generation of soldiers.
Serving overseas for so long Robert would likely have picked up on the mood in the home country. Fears of a second war with Germany, part mitigated by Chamberlain’s deal of appeasement with Hitler in 1938, were growing. Having gone week by week, page by page, through the Isle of Wight County Press archives of 1939 the tension is unmistakable.
Robert and Sidney were among the nation’s service personnel mobilised for active service when Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939. This date represents the true start of the Second World War, but Britain did not enter hostilities immediately.
Even at this late-stage Prime Minister Chamberlain, whose Munich agreement had proven utterly futile, expressed British disapproval of the invasion and attempted to once again pacify the situation.
A despatch was sent to Hitler requesting that he cease military operations in Poland and withdraw his invading forces. Chamberlain did so fully aware that the terms of the Anglo-Polish Agreement, ratified in April that year, compelled Britain, and France to come to the aid of the Polish if they were attacked by Germany.
When Germany failed to respond within the time stated by Chamberlain, the inevitable became reality. Shortly after 11:00 in the morning of Sunday 3 September 1939, the voice of the BBC, Alvar Lidell, announced by radio to a strained nation of pensive listeners - At 11.15, that is, in about two minutes, the Prime Minister will broadcast to the nation. Please stand by.
The radio, and the nation, fell silent for those protracted two minutes.
The silence was broken by Chamberlain’s educated parlance - This morning the British ambassador in Berlin handed the German government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11 o'clock that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us. I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.
In an almost insulting manner given that the failure of politicians, principally himself, was to again throw the nation into a war in which millions of common people would die, he added - You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed.
Just over one year into the war Robert James Corr’s military records evidence that he was discharged from the army. Why did it appear that he left the army at the very point experienced men were needed more than ever?
The fact is that his discharge from the army was an administrative necessity, as he had achieved the incredible feat of gaining the Kings Commission. The Commission is a formal document approved by and signed by the monarch which proclaims the terms by which the beholder is appointed an officer of His (or Her) Majesty’s armed forces. What happened to Robert’s original document is sadly unknown. Regardless of the loss of the original, the fact remains that of the family’s long association with the British Army, beginning with John Corr at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 through to my own service which ended in 1996, Robert is the only one of us who has achieved the distinction of being commissioned as an officer. Administratively he had to be discharged as one of the collectively termed OR’s (Other Ranks) to be re-engaged as an officer.
Even today it is not common for a soldier from the ranks to rise and gain a commission. In 1939, when officers were largely those who came from privileged backgrounds and attended Eton and Harrow, it was extremely rare.
Had Sidney happened across his brother in service from that day on, he would have been compelled to have saluted him and address him as Sir.
Robert James Corr in tropical field wear.
An aside to Robert’s feat is that he evolved his personality to suit his new position. From childhood memories of the 1970’s I clearly recall there being some sarcasm surrounding Robert’s dialect – he lost the Belfast brogue he’d shared with his family for most of his life and began to speak the Queens English – in other words posh. It is easy to laugh and call him a snob but how can we judge? What was it like for him as a former telegraph messenger raised in the streets of Catholic Belfast to stroll into an officer’s mess and not stick out like a sore thumb without adapting to fit the environment? The fact that he achieved a commission in an era when possessing old pals from the nations finest public schools was a prerequisite mark him out as an accomplished soldier and an articulate and intelligent man. I have nothing but respect for his achievement and personally I would rather be led by a man commissioned from the ranks than one whose qualification owed more to who his father was and where he was educated.
I remember my Dad (Terence Patrick Corr) telling me a related tale when he was conscripted into the army for National Service in 1958. As he had proven sufficiently intelligent to have been given a place at grammar school, the army considered he may have the makings of an officer. Accordingly, he was invited to an interview to examine his suitability.
He was asked two questions. What does your father do for a living? Do you have a bank account?
Dad’s answers – council labourer, and no, signalled the end of the interview. Dad’s proven intelligence had nothing to do with his suitability for officership, it all hung on social status; and that was twenty years after Robert broke the bounds of convention and received a commission.
One week after declaration of war, Lance Sergeant Sidney Alexander Corr was posted to Blythe Battery, Tyne and Wear to serve with 510 Tynemouth Heavy Artillery. Why he was sent hundreds of miles from home to do the same coastal artillery task he had been doing on the Isle of Wight is inexplicable. In any event it did not last long, by 11 November he was back on the Island with 189 Battery of the Green Gunners posted to Freshwater.
In June 1940 he was appointed War Sergeant. The rank was awarded to suitable men for the duration of the war only. With that rank he attended the Coastal Gunnery School at Llandudno, Wales, from late December until 25 January 1941 on a course of counter-bombardment. Through the course of the war, he was mainly stationed on the Island but interspersed with brief postings to Bournemouth for further specialist training, and active service with 551 Coastal Battery (location unknown), 428 and 520 Coastal Batteries, both at Dover, and in August 1944 received a second award of long service and good conduct earning a pay enhancement and the granting of a bar to add to the medal of his original LSGC medal ribbon.
In the aftermath of Victory in Europe in May 1945, Sidney’s impending discharge from the army was formalised in the Notification of Impending Release form in which the Commanding Officer of 519 Coastal Regiment wrote at Dover on 16 July that his conduct was exemplary and that – Sgt. Corr is a very good instructor. He has been a regular soldier and in the Territorial Army. He has good knowledge of electric lights. He is also a musician, playing the clarinet.
By 12 September Sidney’s 30-year association with the military finally came to an end. He was held as Class Z reserve until his 45th birthday in February 1947, but was never recalled to the Colours.
Robert turned 40 years of age just a few weeks following the declaration of war and as such did not see active service overseas. His army records show that post-commission he attended various courses of instruction and was appointed Captain on 24 September 1943 six weeks after receiving a Certificate of Merit from General Sir Bernard Paget, Commander in Chief of Home Forces. CIC certificates were usually issued to a man for meritorious service that fell short of a higher medalled award but were sufficiently notable to be formally acclaimed. Sadly, Robert’s original certificate has been lost in time, but the award of it remains permanently recorded in army records.
On 1 October 1943 he was returned to Northern Ireland to an infantry training depot but crossed the Irish Sea once again to arrive in London in time to marry Winifred Farr at Epping, Essex, on 28 October. Little is known of Winifred’s history other than the few entries found in the 1939 Register. This evidences that she lived with her elder sister Gladys in a flat at 123d Whipps Cross Road, Leytonstone in East London. Winifred was born on 16 April 1912, making her 14 years younger than her new husband. She may have been employed by or with Gladys as her sister was a Gown/dress designer – own business and Winifred is listed as a lady’s hat designer. In 1939 they shared the flat with an unmarried 42-year-old electrical engineer and former soldier Victor Honeyman who appears to have had no formal connection to the sisters.
I recall Winifred, Auntie Wyn, very well. When I returned to live on the Island in the late 1980’s she was residing in one of the same British Legion flats where my Nan and Uncle Bill lived in Carisbrooke.
Uncle Bob and Auntie Wyn in later life, probably photographed at their home, Cluntagh House, Ryde, in the late 1960's or 1970's.
Often after visiting the latter I would knock on Auntie Wyn’s door and say a quick hello. Naturally, she would insist that I came in for a cup of tea, always served in the finest bone china with a saucer in the traditional fashion. I didn’t care much for the Earl Grey flavour but suffered it quietly. We generally chit-chatted about everyday things and I only wish I had asked her more about her life and that of Uncle Bob’s when I had the chance. However, one minor event will always stick in my mind.
As we were sipping tea one day, I looked across the room to a framed black and white photograph of a young lady riding a horse. To say the subject of the photograph was attractive would be an understatement. I asked Auntie Wyn who that beautiful young woman was – when she replied a little bashfully that it was her in the 1930s, I caught a glint in her eye. The Auntie Wyn I knew was a very tidy, well presented, and mannered elderly lady. Unfortunately, she was one of those among the older generation that was cursed by an unwelcome crop of facial hair.
RUR blazer badge and medals of Major Robert James Corr, 1899-1981.
Lessons learned at times like those, observing an image of her captured fifty years before the day I sat drinking tea in her flat, are important ones to never take for granted what you think you are seeing when an old person steps in your way or holds you up fumbling with their change at the till.
Time turns us into a crumbling wreckage of our former selves – but everyone is young, exuberant, and full of life at one time and it is this person who remains alive behind the grey hair and wrinkled skin. If you say the right thing, they’ll reveal the glint in the eye that lets you know they are still in there and burning with the same passion for life.
In 1944 Robert was appointed a Major of the British Army, a foremost achievement in the Corr history of military service. When the war was won, he was one of few men to serve in the post-WW2 British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) who had also done so 25 years earlier after the First World War – but then he was a private soldier, in 1945 he was a Major who for different spells commanded elements of the 7/9 Royal Scots and 6th Cameronians. The Allied victors had learned the hard way the lesson of the poor treatment of the German nation in the wake of the first war. The post-WW2 BAOR, their mission and the terms of the German surrender imposed no punishments on the entire nation, and instead focussed on the trial, imprisonment and in many cases execution, of those responsible for the long and appalling list of Nazi atrocities.
Robert finally relinquished his commission and departed from the army on 16 April 1954 after 39 years of dedicated service in which he had travelled the world. But his travels were not over. With Winifred by his side, it is evidenced that they enjoyed tours to both Canada and Australia before settling in retirement at 37 Shide Road, Newport, and from there to Flat 7, Cluntagh House, Ryde, where I visited them with my Mum in the 1970s.
It seems that Robert and Winifred had no children.
I barely recall Uncle Bob’s death on 8 May 1981. By then we were living in Suffolk, and I do not recall returning to the Island for the funeral at the crematorium. Although I had returned to life on the Isle of Wight when Auntie Wyn died on 29 September 1995 I was in Africa with the army and did not return home until a few days before Christmas and heard little about it.
Many years later my cousin Carole felt it right to pass to me, as the sole male Corr living on the Isle of Wight, Uncle Bob’s half-dozen medals which she had had beautifully framed for display. It was the receipt of these medals that first invoked in me a desire to begin researching family history.
The mysterious life of Uncle Bill
Uncle Bill and me, early 1970's.
In undertaking family research Uncle Bill emerged as something of a man of mystery. Yet what I personally experienced of him in my life he was no mystery at all, being a softly spoken, open hearted, kind, and generous Irish gentleman.
To me William Christopher Corr was always Uncle Bill, being my grandad Sidney Alexander Corr’s younger brother. William, the sixth child of James and Jane Corr, was born in Belfast on 17 June 1908 (although some records suggest the 18th but I have preferred the 17th based on the information he personally submitted when joining the army).
I know absolutely nothing about his young life except for a single photograph in which he shoulders arms alongside an unknown individual at an unknown location. When he joined the army in 1939, he was 30 years old and stated that he had no previous armed forces service – suggesting that in the photograph he was an army cadet, which tallies with his youthful appearance.
It comes as no surprise to see in the 1939 attestation that he was a joiner by trade. His woodwork was legendary in the family. In the 1970’s I think every Corr family home, and probably many others, was blessed with one of Uncle Bill’s meticulously constructed coffee tables, lovingly created from many small neatly cut and re-joined sections of timber featuring beautiful grains paired to his visual satisfaction. What was more remarkable is that his perfectly matched edges and joints were all cut and joined using manual tools. He was a very skilful man.
Before revealing what I now know about Uncle Bill’s life, it is worth revealing the elements of mystery as I originally found them.
When I was a boy my grandad, Sidney Alexander Corr, Pappy, shared his home, 36 Orchard Street, Newport, with his wife Hilda May Corr and his brother William. To visit number 36 was to visit all three and as a child it never struck me odd that William appeared to have no wife or children of his own.
When Pappy died the day after my sixth birthday in 1973, this left Nan (Hilda) and William (Uncle Bill) at number 36 plus Ringo their very special Border Collie. In 1979 my parents and I moved to Suffolk and my contact with them reverted from a weekly visit on a Saturday afternoon to an annual trip at Easter. In 1981 they finally departed the address that had been the Corr family home, and that of Nan’s parents the Hall’s, since at least 1939.
Moving to the British Legion flats in Carisbrooke, now operated by a housing association and renamed Evans Williams Court, they exchanged a house for a flat with a single bedroom. Even at 14 years old the implications of this sailed over my head until one day at home in Suffolk Mum and Dad were discussing a phone call they’d received from Uncle Bill.
Ringo, Nan and Uncle Bill's Border Collie, one of my greatest childhood friends who began my lifelong attachment to dogs.
William Christopher Corr (left) as a teenage Army Cadet.
Although my parents elected to not keep me in the picture on any such matter (sometimes with embarrassing results) I overheard enough to gain the knowledge that Uncle Bill and Nan were in love and would be living at the flat as a couple.
When Uncle Bill died in 1988, it was during the few days that we came back to the Island to attend his funeral that I found work and returned to live on the Island two weeks later.
Returning to the Island as an adult various family began to share with me rumours connecting Uncle Bill and my Dad. It became apparent that many members of the family were aware that Uncle Bill had been in love with Nan for a very long time – an extension of the rumour suggested that the reason my Dad looked more like Uncle Bill than his father Sidney was because he was in fact his son. I didn't anticipate ever proving or disproving the rumour.
When I told my Mum that I had embarked on the family history research she was inspired to ask me to keep an eye out for a marriage record for Uncle Bill, as rumour suggested he had once been married.
When Uncle Bill attested to the British Army on 3 May 1939 he was not living in Belfast. The home address he provided was 36 Orchard Street – he was already living with his brother and sister-in-law, and her parents. In section 6 of the Territorial Army attestation after the question Are you married, widower or single? he answered – single. Later this was lined through and alongside was noted ‘Married (declared 30/11/29)’. He had lied. He had in fact married Anna Rita Cregan in the stunning Church of St Mary, Buncrana, County Donegal, on Thursday 29 August 1929. Whatever became of her I do not know.
At the time of his marriage Uncle Bill was a cabinet maker living at 1 Amcomri Street, Belfast. Viewing Google Earth imagery of the street today reveals a display of Irish republican flags suspended from many houses. Across the road at number 6 there is a black plaque attached to the wall, remembering the life of Irish Republican Army volunteer Tom Williams who was hanged in 1942 for murdering a policeman. This suggests that Uncle Bill’s years as a young man were set amid the nationalist community of Belfast in stark contrast to his two elder brothers service in the British Army.
I know nothing more of Uncle Bill until 3 May 1939, when he attested to a Royal Engineers unit of the Territorial Army at East Cowes. The unit he joined was 392 Battery (East Cowes) of the 48th Hampshire Searchlight Regiment, Royal Engineers.
Forming a part of the vital defensive line of searchlights and guns in protection of the vital ports of Southampton and Portsmouth, the posting appears at first impression to have been a relatively comfortable one for a territorial soldier. For reasons unknown he and his unit were brought to full-time stations on 18 June but stood down just under a month later. His territorial status altered permanently to full-time when 392 Battery were mobilised in anticipation of the beginning of the Second World War on 24 August.
As described above, his elder brothers Robert and Sidney were to serve in the army for a combined total of 68 years, but it is William’s seven years of service until being released to reserve status on 13 January 1946, that are remarkable for enduring some of the most arduous fighting of the era.
I know this from obtaining copies of his military records from the archives in Glasgow. Prior to that only two things existed to tie him to the army. Among a few items that somehow got mixed up in my Dad’s stuff, and passed on to me when he died, was a Royal Artillery Association membership card evidencing that Uncle Bill was a fully paid-up member when living at the flat in Carisbrooke, i.e., post-1981. Additionally, I once heard my Dad remark that Uncle Bill always gave generously to the Salvation Army for the way the charity cared so well for soldiers that had fought in Burma. These two matters combined to give an impression of an artilleryman who had served in Burma and turned out to be entirely accurate.
The truth behind Uncle Bill’s marriage of 1929 was evidently unearthed on 30 November 1939, and from then on, his records list him as a married man, albeit irreversibly separated from his wife. Having lied when attesting one would consider a punishment was meted. His records evidence no such thing. With the war in only its third month I anticipate that the authorities had more important matters than the personal life of an individual soldier. It certainly did not count against him as on 1 May 1940, just under a year since signing up, he was promoted to Lance Corporal.
Three months later, 1 August 1940, his rank amended to Lance Bombardier when his unit was converted from that of Royal Engineers to Royal Artillery. Some bright spark in Whitehall had clearly identified that as the searchlights and anti-aircraft guns operated in harmony it was sensible for them to belong to the same corps. The unit was from then known as 49th (Hampshire) Searchlight Regiment, Royal Artillery and at that stage he remained with 392 Battery at East Cowes.
In October William was promoted again, to Bombardier, the Royal Artillery equivalent of Corporal and shortly after New Year 1941 was elevated to Lance Sergeant. In March 1941 he attended the Army Gas School at the aptly named Winterbourne Gunner in Wiltshire and qualified as an anti-gas instructor. On 14 July he continued a meteoric first two years of armed service by achieving the rank of sergeant. Whatever he did with a searchlight he was certainly good at it.
In November he was transferred to 394 Battery at Northwood which was the 48th’s Isle of Wight headquarters. Although recruitment of territorial batteries was generally associated with their town or location of origin, such as 392 being East Cowes, it was normal practice for them to relocate every three weeks. Hilton Kemp, a young member of 392, recalled that 392 were posted at differing times to the Needles Battery, Arreton, Godshill, Botley (in Hampshire), Northwood headquarters and a farm on the military road, in addition to East Cowes.
Hilton passed away just shy of his 100th birthday in 2020 but before he died, he recited his story to a local author who published the account in ‘Along the Way’. By complete coincidence Hilton also served in Burma later in the war, but concerning his time on the Island with 392, when he would have known and served alongside William, he recalled.
Uncle Bob (left) and Uncle Bill, outside 36 Orchard Street, Newport.
Our searchlight company was stationed on the Island at first which was fortunate for us when it came to going on leave… Our army, the British Expeditionary Force, or B.E.F., as it was called, was fighting in France, and of course it took priority on stores, so that at first we used to go on guard armed with only a pickaxe handle and five rounds of ammunition! We used to say “What are we supposed to do with the five rounds? Throw it at them?”
Gradually things improved and we began to receive our arms. Searchlights were apt to be sighted on high ground, giving a clear field of vision and often overlooking the sea as well, so that they could be used for coastal defence, as well as anti-aircraft, so that they were draughty places catching the wind.
First off we slept in bell tents on the ground, about 10 men or more to a tent, together with all our equipment. We were issued with bedding boards and a palisade. We had a ground sheet which could be converted into a cape and 2 or 3 blankets, plus of course our great coats on top in the winter. We mounted a guard or air sentry as he was called, constantly all round the clock, which usually meant 2 hours on and four off for those on guard duty, our slang word for this duty was going Stag, of course this went on in all weather’s day and night. We used to go in batches to headquarters by lorry for lectures, square bashing or to go sick and we always sang our heads off going along.
Being young we were carefree and light-hearted and laughed a lot, we thought that we were invulnerable if we thought about our fate at all. The same old jokes still caused a chuckle, like “Halt who goes there?” “Army chaplain!” “Advance Charlie Chaplin and be recognised!”
Hilton recalled an amusing incident during a training exercise – On one occasion our officer Captain Dell, nicknamed Dinky, announced that he intended to go to the top of the hill, a mile or so away, and we had to stalk and capture him having taken him by surprise. Our approach was to be invisible to him. This was taking place on the Island and he wasn’t an Island man, but out sergeant patrol leader was. He happened to know the farmer whose land the hill was on and he asked the despatch rider to nip over to the farmer, mention the sergeant’s name, tell him what was happening and ask him if he could distract the officer’s attention at 12 noon. Off went the despatch rider on his motorbike before Dinky had left in the staff car. We had to travel on foot which would give Dinky plenty of time to get there.
We knew that the ration lorry was due soon so we waited for it and piled in under the canvas cover. The sergeant asked the driver to drop us off by a roundabout route near our destination, stopping in a wood to get off unseen. We were then able to kill time while the sergeant reconnoitred. At about the appointed time we skirmished through the gorse bushes and sure enough there was Dinky surrounded by several farm labourers laughing, chatting and smoking. They ‘happened’ to be going rabbiting and stopped for a chat keeping him in conversation while we crept up on him and took him by surprise. Not a sign of recognition passed between the men and their mate the sergeant so well did they play their part, but they must have been bursting with laughter at the officer’s expense.
As the war progressed, the life of 392 Battery turned to more serious matters – The air raids started in earnest and we were very much in action both night and day. Swarms of enemy bombers and fighters flew right across the Island to bomb Portsmouth and Southampton. There were barrage balloons like miniature airships made of fabric and filled with gas floating above the cities in the hope of preventing the planes from flying too low, or that they might collide with the cables, these were easily shot down by the fighters.
Hilton and William parted company in November 1941 when William was sent to 5th Anti-Aircraft Divisional School in Storrington, Sussex (probably the camp at Barns Farm Lane, Sullington). In February 1942 he was posted to the recently formed 123rd (City of London) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment (not to be confused with a totally separate unit known as the 123rd Light Anti-Aircraft Battery). With the 123rd William converted from searchlight operations to anti-air gunnery by provision of four batteries of 40mm Bofors guns. As no further references appear in William’s records until 1943 it can be assumed he remained in service with the 123rd throughout 1942.
Although the infamous London Blitz ended in 1941, anti-air gunners of London in 1942 would have been every bit as alert and ready to respond to the intermittent but heavy formations that raided the city from then on. However, William’s war was to take a radical change and entirely of his own choosing.
In preparation for an upscaling of the war in the East against the tenacious and bloodthirsty Japanese forces, volunteers were required to serve as commissioned officers and senior NCO’s with the forces of West Africa. These colonial troops, collectively known as the West African Frontier Force, were drawn from the British colonies of Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Gold Coast and Gambia.
Assembling the force comprised of native African volunteers separated by hundreds of miles and a myriad of different tribal languages and customs, was a remarkable logistical achievement. However, the Colonial Office, who at that stage had responsibility for the force rather than the War Office, wanted British officers and NCO’s to staff the force and establish the English language as the common form of communication to mitigate the many languages used among the troops. Many of the African soldiers had served as colonial troops for many years, but more were new and had to rapidly learn not only the skills of soldiering but also the new language. What developed was a pidgin-English that allowed basic but vital speech between the mixed tribesmen and white soldiers of Britain, Poland and Czechoslovakia. The history of the British Army in the East has largely overlooked the story of the West African’s who the Japanese were to later consider some of the toughest opponents they faced in the jungle of Burma. History also overlooks that in the days before racial discrimination was driven as a societal issue the Force of mixed-race soldiers worked effectively and communicatively as the most racially diverse formation in the history of world armies, and among them was Sergeant William Corr.
William was one of the senior NCO’s who responded to the appeal for volunteers to work with the colonial forces in West Africa. His records suggest that he departed from the United Kingdom in mid-January 1943 and disembarked at Freetown for a short stay at a transit camp at Sierra Leone on 7 February. Freetown earned its name as the most popular destination for repatriated former African slaves freed in the wake of Britain’s Slave Trade Act of 1807 which began the process of eradicating slavery worldwide.
He stayed at the Freetown camp for about a week, not a particularly long spell according to another soldier who arrived there around the same time - This camp was notorious for the time you could spend there. It was said that there were skeletons there of men who were still waiting for a ship! In the event I was there 33 days.
Where in Ghana he disembarked I do not know, but three days later, 27 February, he reported for duty at the Gold Coast Area School of Artillery. Two months later he was posted to another artillery school of the West African Frontier Force. These postings were annotated as being ‘Field’ postings – in other words serving in an operational area, although I have discovered no evidence of fighting in West Africa during this period and given the status of operations to the north and east of the continent it seems very unlikely.
In October 1943 he was moved again, this time from that of instructor to that of active sergeant in the 2nd Light Anti-Aircraft Anti-Tank Regiment. This reflects the recognition that the development of superior anti-aircraft weapons was found to be perfectly suited to knocking out German and Italian tanks when the barrels were lowered to a suitable trajectory.
The relevant pages of William’s Service and Casualty Form from there on are difficult to decipher, handwriting, much of it illegible, is crammed into every space in Column C where the most important facts are entered. A few select and vital elements can be deduced – the first evidencing that he embarked with an illegible force of West Africans on 28 May 1944 and arrived in India on 10 July where he was T.O.S. India Command (‘taken on the strength’) of the India Command, the commanding element of the British Army in the East, headquartered in Delhi. Being taken on the strength by a command indicates that the command accepts liability for your food, accommodation, pay, and welfare and that you are, by definition, a permanent member of that command from there on.
William did not leave India until thirteen months later, so what was he doing there?
Uncle Bill, wearing what appears to be a tropical issue shirt bearing a rip near the second button from top.
By cross-referencing the dates of William’s movement from Africa to India with those of British units of the war it seems likely that whichever unit he was with at that stage, it formed part of the 82nd (West Africa) Division.
The 82nd was formed under the inspiration of General George Giffard who had formerly served in command of Britain’s West Africa Command. Giffard was eager for his troops to play an active part in the war. When he was subsequently appointed to command India Command’s Eastern Army, facing the Japanese army on the frontier between India and Burma, Giffard requested that two divisions being organised in West Africa for use in the Burma Campaign.
The 82nd began arriving in Ceylon (today Sri Lanka) in May 1944. By 20 July, the division was on the Island at full strength. After additional preparatory training, the division, including of hundreds of non-fighting porters tasked with carrying equipment in the jungles they were to operate in, crossed the Bay of Bengal heading to Burma to serve in the Third Arakan Campaign. As the titles suggests, there had been two previous unsuccessful campaigns to dislodge the dogged Japanese army from the 400-mile strip of coastal mountainous jungle.
The preparations, resources and drama of the landings were every bit as momentous as those of Operation Overlord, the invasion of Northern France, in June 1944, but received negligible coverage then or now. It is for reasons such as this that the Allied troops fighting in East Asia are collectively known as the Forgotten Army.
The story of the landings, the battle to secure the mainland footholds and the inland fighting to push the retreating Japanese further inland to be intercepted by other British divisions moving in from both north and south, is a long and complex matter.
Suffice it to say that fighting in conditions of extreme heat, humidity, mountainous incline, and thick jungle represented the most arduous war fighting of all the theatres in which Allied troops faced the enemy. Having personally engaged in mountainous jungle battle training in the considerably less hostile slopes of Kathendini in Africa, I have a modest concept of what these men, including Sergeant William Corr, endured daily.
Ultimately the Third Arakan Campaign proved successful, but at the cost of many lives, mostly killed in the fighting and a considerable number of others that succumbed to the harsh jungle, its diseases, and infections.
The war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945, but the 82nd West Africans carried on the fight against Japan alongside the rest of the Forgotten Army. As ghastly as it was that it took the Americans to terrorise Japan into surrender by the dropping of atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the 6th and 9th August, it did at least ensure that the land offensive, which would have undoubtedly cost the lives of hundreds more Allied servicemen, ceased when Emperor Hirohito formally surrendered his shellshocked nation on the 15th.
Sergeant William Corr’s Notification of Impending Release from the army was date stamped two months later to the day. He had already departed East Asia on 24 September, homeward bound with his final report stating his military conduct to have been exemplary and in the words of Captain Abbot of 102 Light Regiment, West Africa Frontier Force – Sgt. Corr has been with the Regt. for the past twenty-seven months, of which the last eight have been spent in action. He has given every satisfaction during the whole period being a hard worker and efficient in all his duties.
He was formally released from regular service to the reserves on 13 January 1946. His permanent address, 6 Donaldson Road, Kilburn, London, has been crossed out and replaced with 36 Orchard Street, Newport, Isle of Wight – he was returning to the home of his brother and sister-in-law.
The William I knew, Uncle Bill, was the kindest most thoughtful man I have ever met. Even today if I need to consider my reaction to a difficult situation it will often cross my mind - what would Uncle Bill do?
He passed away at Whitecroft Hospital on 10 January 1988 suffering a cerebral tumour. Five days later we arrived on the Island for his funeral. I recall it very well. Many of the Irish side of the family attended too and the wake at The Waverley in Carisbrooke was a night I shall never forget. Cousin Jim had us in stitches backed up with the humour of his brothers Liam and Francis. It was the way such things should be done. The pub has probably never sold so much Guinness in one session!
Although I have been able to reveal much of Uncle Bill’s life and mitigated some of the ambiguities, mystery surrounding Uncle Bill re-emerged following my Mum’s death. Mum had kept documents, receipts, and all manner of ephemera diligently from many decades before. There was even a receipt for a coat purchased by someone in Newport in 1936, three years before she was born! Among the more eye-catching items was Uncle Bill’s Soldiers Service Book, generally known as the Pay Book as without it you could not claim your wages.
Inside at first glance there is the usual detail, showing that the book was issued when he arrived in West Africa, his rank, service number and a couple of passport sized photographs. To protect the book Uncle Bill had applied a form of animal hide cover and within a pouch created on the inside of this there are several small photographs. Most are identifiable, one shows Uncle Bill in smart civilian attire, most men kept a photo of their sweetheart in their Pay Book and it came as no surprise to find a portrait image of my Nan, his sister-in-law Hilda. She also features in three other photos with her parents Henry and Alice Hall and some other children. But the final two images have me stumped. These both feature a blond-haired boy of approximately eight-years-old. At first, I wondered if these were my Dad but images I’ve seen of him when a child show his distinctive dark wavy hair. Who is this boy, it could even be two different boys with similar features? Did Uncle Bill have a son or sons with his estranged wife Anna?
The first four pages of Uncle Bill's Army Pay Book.
My Nan, Hilda May Corr
Two pictures of the same boy, or two boys, which cannot be identified.
Above, some of the most interesting aspects of Uncle Bill's Army Pay Book, and three poignant photographs.
In December 2022, out of the blue, I received information that opened up a new mystery of Uncle Bill’s life whilst assisting the conclusion of another.
Via the Ancestry website, where I have been building the family tree, I received a message from another member who was not known to me and who I shall not name. She stated that she was searching for information about William Corr - as he was her grandfather. Given the existing mysteries of Uncle Bill’s life this didn’t come as a complete surprise. What I expected to be told was this person’s mother was Uncle Bill’s wife of 1929 and that she had a brother, who would turn out to be the boy in the Pay Book photographs. I was wrong. Rather than conclude that mystery, a new one emerged.
She told me that her grandmother met and engaged in a relationship with Uncle Bill where she lived, on the Isle of Wight. In 1941 she gave birth to their daughter, the mother of the person who contacted me. For decades her grandmother led her family to believe that she had been married to William Corr, had his child, and that tragically he had been killed on active service. She had even changed her surname to Corr and registered the birth of her child under the same name. What is all the more remarkable is that they remained resident on the Island, unknown to the rest of the Corr’s (or possibly not?), until the daughter was old enough to attend secondary school when they moved to the mainland. A few years later, when the daughter left home to attend university, Mrs Corr returned to the Isle of Wight where she spent the remainder of her life until passing away in the 1980’s.
Some elements of this are questionable as I can find no record, official or otherwise, of any Corr on the Isle of Wight during the period described other than those I already know. However, it is evident that there is a DNA connection between the inquirer and the Corr family.
In an attempt to arrive at an answer, I asked questions within the family. Most chose not to reply. Perhaps for some the past should not be unearthed. I respect that decision as much as I recognise my own need to seek truth. Of those that did reply, the arrival of a potential new relative was a surprise, but in the course of discussion they revealed a new factor and concluded something I’d suspected for a long time.
As mentioned above, this person told me that my grandmother Hilda’s mother was not Alice but the woman I’d known as Auntie Ethel, that as a child I was told was Hilda’s elder sister. Quite a revelation. They also confirmed a series of events leading up to Hilda’s death in the mid-1990’s that confirmed Uncle Bill had been my father’s father, not his uncle, and was therefore my grandfather. This probably accounts for the fact that when my Dad passed out with the army in 1958, it was Uncle Bill, not my grandfather Sidney, that attended the parade.
Knowing the truth behind these forgotten shenanigans makes no emotional difference to me at all. They were all wonderful people from my past no matter what role they masqueraded. However, I can’t help but wonder at the menage-a-trois of 36 Orchard Street. It wasn’t a large house by any means – did Uncle Bill and Nan Hilda really share both a home and a relationship from at least 1939 without Sidney, who died in 1973, knowing anything about it? I suspect not, and my only hope is that whatever the situation, they were happy in their lives. It is notable that in nearly all of the black and white photos I have of them socialising over the decades following the war, the three of them are smiling together. They seem as happy in the photos as they always did when I walked into number 36 as a child. I hope they were.
Above - on the left Uncle Bill (William Corr - my grandfather), in the centre my Hilda, my Nan (grandmother) and on the right, bearing the badge of the Royal Irish Rifles on his blazer is my grandfather Sidney Corr (my great uncle), photographed in the back yard of 36 Orchard Street.