Tag Archives: English Journey

“There were no men left …” Bradford and the Somme

1 July 1916 was the first day of the Somme Offensive, which became known as the most terrible battle of the First World War, the battle of the Somme.

Two battalions of Bradford ‘Pals’ were among the troops of 93 Brigade crossing No-Man’s-Land at Serre, towards barbed wire and machine guns that were not supposed to be there: artillery had been bombarding the German lines for seven days, but in Serre bad weather had hampered efforts.  The advance went ahead anyway: ‘The Corps Commander was extremely optimistic, telling everybody that the wire had been blown away (we could see it standing strong and well), there were no German trenches and all we had to do was walk into Serre.’ Colonel Howard (93 Brigade Major).

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1st Bradford Pals battalion button-hole badge, IWM (full credit below).

The men did not stand a chance: among the shocking casualty figures of that first day alone, the worst day in the history of the British Army, we see that of 2000 Bradford men advancing at Serre, only 223 survived.

The Pals battalions had been set up during the early stages of the war, before conscription was introduced in 1916.  Allowing men to sign up and serve alongside their family, friends, colleagues etc made them more likely to join, and many such battalions formed around the country. The 1st Bradford Pals, (16th (Service) Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment), began recruiting in September 1914, enthusiastic patriotism ensuring that the battalion reached full strength within the month.  Recruitment for the 2nd Bradford Pals (18th (Service) Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment), which began in February 2015, was much slower as the first fervour gave way to the reality of industrial stalemate trench warfare.

The story of the Pals is particularly heart-breaking because the losses struck whole communities at once: the men joined together, fought together, and died together, leaving cities in mourning.  We should not forget of course that many other Bradford men served (and died) in other battalions participating in the Somme Offensive and throughout the war.

One such was Jack Priestley, the Bradford lad who would become J.B. the famous author, though he survived the war, escaping the Somme by a lucky chance.  He had joined up soon after war was declared, alone, travelling to Halifax on a tram, to sign up for the Duke of Wellington’s West Riding Regiment.  His friends joined Bradford’s Pals battalions en masse a little later on. One beautiful morning in June 1916, he was sorting out rations for his men in a small dugout which was hit by a massive trench mortar.  Jack spent the Somme summer convalescing in a country house in Rutland, not returning to the front line until 1918.

Jack (JB) Priestley with concert party at Hambleton Hall convalescent home, Summer 1916 (ref PRI/2/6)

Priestley (second from left) and concert party at Hambleton Hall convalescent home, 1916 (reference PRI/2/6)

Together with the impact of the war on the German community which had contributed so much to the city’s industrial growth, the loss of a generation of young men seriously diminished Bradford’s economy, culture and society.  Much later Jack Priestley bore witness to what he had seen, and who and what had been lost:

“… I should not be writing this book now if thousands of better men had not been killed; and if they had been alive still, it is certain that I should have been writing, if at all, about another and better England.  I have had playmates, I have had companions, but all, all are gone; and they were killed by greed and muddle and monstrous cross-purposes, by old men gobbling and roaring in clubs, by diplomats working underground like monocled moles, by journalists wanting a good story …”. English Journey.

Sources: these stories are richly documented online and in print, and I have drawn on much sources in writing this short account.

The title is from the report of Sergeant-Major Cussins in the ‘1st Pals’ War Diary of 1 July 1916, quoted on the Bradford Pals website.

Colonel Howard’s quotation is taken from the Western Front Association’s page about Serre.

The information about recruitment is from Bradford: remembering 1914-18 by Kathryn Hughes.

Priestley on the First World War: English Journey, Margin Released, key writings collected in Priestley’s Wars, and in my chapter in Bradford in the First World War (contact me if you can’t get hold of a copy).

Credit: badge copyright IWM, full details on this page.  Shared here under IWM non-commercial licence.

 

This Is Not A Dismal Place! J.B. Priestley’s North East Journey

Mr Priestley goes to the Tyne (and Tees)

In Autumn 1933, a famous young(ish) novelist visited the North East of England, full of cold and cold medicine and missing his home.  J.B. Priestley was travelling around England’s regions, making the observations that would become one of his most significant publications: English Journey.

PRI21_5_7LowResThe sections of English Journey on Newcastle, Middlesborough and the North East of England are among the most powerful parts of the book.  Priestley pointed unforgettably to the devastating impacts on landscape and people of “greedy, careless, cynical, barbaric” industry.  He also said bluntly what he thought of the locals (“I had never seen a crowd of men whose looks pleased me less”) and their accent, a “most barbarous, monotonous and irritating twang”.

A scrapbook of press cuttings (now part of the J.B. Priestley Archive)  shows how passionately people felt about Mr Priestley’s take on their region, which whatever its faults was theirs, not his, a prosperous, wellconnected man briefly visiting and criticising what he saw: “This is not a dismal place!” cried one Middlesborough newspaper.

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Eighty Years On

In 2014, academics and journalists and other readers, like ourselves, are revisiting the book, seeing it in context, examining its impact, see for instance J.B. Priestley Society’s recent conference.  In my talk at this conference I used the scrapbook to explore the marketing of English Journey and how it was received by its original readers.

The response to the 80th anniversary by local media in the North East has much in common with the reaction in the 1930s, picking out his strong criticisms of individuals as well as his social commentary.  Witness this article on the local BBC website and a piece on the local Look North (available online till 7pm on Friday 28 November 2014), both featuring the scrapbook and other contributions from Special Collections.

Chris Phipps, a local historian interviewed for these pieces, will go beyond the headlines about Priestley and English Journey in a talk at the Newcastle Lit and Phil on Saturday 29 November 2014.

Reflecting on English Journey and the North East

It’s possible to make too much of Priestley’s cold and bad mood and general prejudice against the Geordie accent etc.  He was a writer who tended to bring himself into his journalism and he often chose to play the grumpy Yorkshireman card.  What matters more is what he saw and the conclusions he drew about it, his call for a fairer society.  Not just in the North East but all over industrial and post-industrial England.   He knew himself that what he saw on his visit transcended his own discomforts and irritations:

“… remembering that I had a job to do, I climbed out of this morass of silliness and set about exploring the Tyneside.  I did explore the Tyneside and have not been genuinely sorry for myself since; though at times I have caught myself at the old drooping tricks and been ashamed.  There is, you see, something bracing about the Tyne.  After you have seen it, you realise it is not for the likes of us to be sorry for ourselves.”

Priestley was not the first or the last to write about poverty and social exclusion in the North East, but his contribution was certainly memorable and influential, his style at its absolute best, fuelled by his righteous anger.   For instance, this on Shotton,  a coal mining village, where he saw the “tip”, a huge “volcano” of coal dust and slag, breathing out ash and dangerous fumes:

“I stared at the monster, my head tilted back, and thought of all the fine things that had been conjured out of it in its time, the country houses and town houses, the drawing-rooms and dining-rooms, the carriages and pairs; the trips to Paris, the silks and the jewels, the peaches and iced puddings, the cigars and old brandies; I thought I saw them all tumbling and streaming out, hurrying away from Shotton – oh, a long way from Shotton – as fast as they could go”.

The Actual and the Real

The Actual and the Real is a conference exploring J.B. Priestley’s English Journey and its connections to the documentary movement and other literary and political threads of the 30s and 40s.  It takes place in Leeds on 25 October 2014.  Find out more on the Conference website, including details of the Call for Papers which ends on 14 June.

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Volume 10 of the J.B. Priestley Society Journal is just out.  It includes my article on the marketing campaign for the publication of English Journey in 1934, and how local newspapers and individuals responded to his candid comments about their towns.

This volume covers many aspects of Priestley’s varied literary work:

  • An early, unpublished story by Priestley, exploring a passionate love affair, transcribed and analysed by John Bennett.
  • Michael Nelson on a new DVD illustrating Priestley’s involvement with the British documentary film movement via two films: We live in two worlds, about the General Post Office, and Britain at Bay, WW2 morale boosting.
  • Alan Day on Priestley’s powerful anti-nuclear TV plays, Doomsday for Dyson (1958), and Level 7 (1966).  The latter, dramatising Mordecai Roshwald’s novel, is described as “harrowing in the extreme, truly awe-inspiring”.
  • Professor Kulkarni comparing Priestley to other writers on time.

This Journal is available free to members of the Society.  It is also available in a few libraries, including Special Collections at Bradford.

Faster than sound: EJ reimagined

J.B. Priestley’s re-published classic English Journey continues to inspire.  Now psycho-geographer Iain Sinclair, explorer of London’s mysteries, has joined visual artists and musicians to reimagine this work in the “Faster than Sound” project.  The first showing will be at Aldeburgh Music on Saturday 30 January 2010.  In this article in the Daily Telegraph of 26 January, Iain Sinclair reflects on the project and his views of English Journey, which he compares to a Patrick Hamilton novel in places:  “The pervasive boredom that hangs over it, a miasma of wet coats and pipe smoke …”

Autumn 2009 SC News

The Autumn 2009 issue of our e-newsletter Special Collections News is now available, including several stories first glimpsed on this blog.

  • JBP delights again.
  • Darwin in Bradford.
  • New Atlantis preserved: part 2.
  • Ephemera forever.
  • Dales icons.
  • 1930s PR for Priestley.

Excess Baggage

The English Journeying continues: Radio 4’s Excess Baggage on Saturday 26th included an interview with Tom Priestley about the new edition of  EJ.  Currently available on the BBC iplayer!