Posted in Event, History, Maritime History, World War One, World War Two

Beatrix Brice Miller & “The Old Contemptibles” – Stories From The Great War Part 5

Memorial plaque dedicated to 'The Old Contemptibles' who sailed from Southampton Docks in 1914.  Located at the crossroads of Platform Road and Central Road on the building to the right of Dock Gate 4, Southampton Docks. The plaque was unveiled on  Poem inscription is by British war poet Beatrix Brice-Miller (1877-1959) and is reprinted in full below. ©Come Step Back in Time.
Bronze memorial plaque dedicated to “The Old Contemptibles” who sailed from Southampton Docks in 1914. Located at the crossroads of Platform Road and Central Road on the building to the right of Dock Gate 4, Southampton Docks. The plaque was unveiled on 9th April, 1950. Poem inscription is by British war poet Beatrix Brice Miller (1877-1959) and is reprinted in full below. ©Come Step Back in Time.

Oh little mighty Force that stood for England !
That, with your bodies for a living shield,
Guarded her slow awaking, that defied
The sudden challenge of tremendous odds
And fought the rushing legions to a stand
Then stark in grim endurance held the line.
O little Force that in your agony
Stood fast while England girt her armour on,
Held high our honour in your wounded hands,
Carried our honour safe with bleeding feet
We have no glory great enough for you,
The very soul of Britain keeps your day !
Procession ? – Marches forth a Race in Arms ;
And, for the thunder of the crowd’s applause,
Crash upon crash the voice of monstrous guns,
Fed by the sweat, served by the life of England,
Shouting your battlecry across the world.

Oh, little mighty Force, your way is ours,
This land inviolate your monument.

‘To The Vanguard’ (1914) by Beatrix Brice Miller (1877-1959)

Regular readers will know my penchant for finding unusual historical objects. I recently came across the above bronze memorial whilst taking a Sunday stroll along Southampton’s waterside. I stood reading the poem inscription by Beatrix Brice Miller and was intrigued to find-out more about the plaque’s back-story.

I identified three questions which would need further investigation:

  1. Who were “The Old Contemptibles”?;
  2. Who was Beatrix Brice Miller?;
  3. Why was this memorial plaque commissioned in the first place?

Before embarking upon my research quest, I first needed to correctly identify the memorial. I consulted the War Memorials Archive (managed by the Imperial War Museums) which is easy to use and publicly available on-line.  Armed with dates, facts and figures, I then spent several months conducting further research which included visiting local archive collections. Finally, I had answers to all three questions. I am glad this object piqued my interest, the back-story is really rather fascinating.

Who Were “The Old Contemptibles”?

In August 1914, Southampton was designated No. 1 Military Embarkation Port under the command of Major General Charles Guinand Blackader (1869-1921) CB, DSO.  By the end of November 1914, Southampton had embarked 359,417 officers and men to the Western Front.

At midnight on 12th August, 1914, staff at the London General Headquarters of The British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) were requested to report to the Polygon Hotel, Southampton before embarking the following day for Le Havre. On August 13th, Lieutenant General Sir James Grierson (1859-1914) and Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig (1861-1928) arrived at Southampton’s Dolphin Hotel. Apparently, Haig’s sister, brother-in-law, Chief of Staff, John Gough and two aides-de-camp also arrived at the Dolphin the following morning and partook in a ‘sumptuous champagne lunch’. Later that evening the military men embarked on the Comrie Castle bound for Le Havre.  Southampton become an important gateway to the Western Front.

The Dolphin Hotel, Southampton. ©Come Step Back In Time.
The Dolphin Hotel, Southampton. ©Come Step Back In Time.

In 1914, the B.E.F. were made-up of seven divisions of British regular army and reserves. The B.E.F fought at the battles of Mons, Le Cateau, Aisne and Ypres. On 26th December, 1914 the B.E.F. were divided into First and Second Armies (further divisions were created later on in the war). B.E.F. remained the official name of the British Army in France and Flanders throughout World War One.

Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) is thought to have made a number of dismissive comments about the B.E.F. including the infamous Order, issued on 19th August, 1914 (the original of which has never been found), to: ‘..exterminate the treacherous English and walk over General French’s [Field Marshal John J. P. French – 1852-1925] contemptible little army.’ Survivors of the B.E.F. decided to call themselves and their post-war veterans’ association, “The Old Contemptibles”. For more information about the truth and myth behind this nickname, see the veterans’ website.

According to the veterans’ website, the qualifying criteria for calling oneself a member of “The Old Contemptibles“, is:

To qualify as an “Old Contemptible” the soldier would have to have seen active service actually in France and Flanders between 5 August and 22 November 1914. For this he would qualify for the medal known as the 1914 Star. This medal was introduced in 1917. In 1919 a clasp bearing the qualifying dates was authorised and given to soldiers who had actually been under fire between those dates. It was also known as the “Mons Star”.

At the very top of Southampton’s memorial plaque, there is a relief detail depicting the “1914 Star”/”Mons Star”, identifiable by its distinctive colours of red, white and blue.

Who was Beatrix Brice Miller?

Beatrix was born in Chile, South America in 1877. Her mother was Kent-born Mary Louise Brice Miller (née Walker). Beatrix enjoyed all the trappings of a privileged upbringing, including a private education. When her father died, she moved back to England where she lived in Goring-on-Thames.

When World War One broke-out Beatrix, who was now in her late thirties, travelled to France alongside her mother to serve with the B.E.F. The women became Red Cross VAD ‘Lady Helpers’.  They were amongst some of the first women to arrive in France at the start of the War. They would have had to obtain special permission from the War Office to make such a journey. Travelling to France was a dangerous experience, even in the early days of the War. Brice Miller and her mother sailed across the Channel and continued their journey by motorcar. Women who undertook these self-funded trips, were usually from very wealthy and influential backgrounds. The experience had a profound effect on Beatrix and when the War ended she dedicated herself to supporting “The Old Contemptibles”.

Brice Miller was a prolific writer and highly regarded poet. Her first poem, ‘To the Vanguard’ was published in The Times on 2nd November, 1916. The poem was written to remember the first soldiers who went to fight in France in 1914. This is the poem that features on the Southampton memorial plaque. Brice Miller also organised a commemorative event at the Royal Albert Hall in 1917 with General Sir William Pulteney (1861-1941) GCVO, KCB, KCMG, DSO to honour the B.E.F.

In August 1939, the BBC broadcast a documentary that Brice Miller had worked on several years earlier. The programme explored B.E.F’s involvement in World War One, particularly in relation to the fighting which took place from Mons to Ypres. Brice Miller died on the 25th May, 1959, aged 82, 9 years after the unveiling of “The Old Contemptibles” memorial plaque.

Printed below are some of Brice Miller’s poems which were published in the slim anthology (date unknown), To The Vanguard and Other Songs To The Seven Divisions . She dedicates the publication: ‘To The Fallen, the Disabled, the Prisoners, and those still Fighting.’

‘Army of August’

Five score thousand men at arms marching in
the van.
Bare your heads and stand aside !
See them in their tragic pride
Swinging grandly down the way.
Bandaged feet that never stay ;
Aching eyes that may not sleep
Watch and ward unceasing keep ;
Fighting to the blood-choked breath,
Fighting through the gates of death
See, beyond your praise or tears,
Leading ever down the years,
Salute the men who died.

Where e’er we march they lead the way,
We follow on the beat,
The drum beat of a marching host
Re-echoes from the farthest post.
The endless tramp that calls beyond
Till throbbing heart, and will respond.
Oh, follow, follow, none may stay,
They blazed for us the scarlet way
To track their unseen feet.

Where e’er we fight they fight ahead,
We feel their ghostly shield,
The force that never knows defeat
Is with us where the Armies meet
And men go up to battle, then

We know our strength, the Souls of men.
We see them fighting swift and strong,
We hear them cheering us along,
On every shell swept field.

Five score thousand men at arms marching in
the van.
Bare your heads, and stand aside!
Immortal, though for you they died.
England, our Land, awake at last,
Across thy heart they’re marching past.
Living, they suffered all for thee,
Dying, they led thy sons to thee,
Thine everlasting pride.

‘Guns of Le Gateau’

Guns of the Fifth Division on you depend this day
The destinies of Europe, you cover here the way,
If you go, then the army goes,
And Paris lies before her foes.

WE have fought since early morning
And the end is drawing near;
They knew we had no warning
Of the odds that face us here.
We have fought since early morning,
They knew we had no warning
Of the trap before us yawning,
But we’ve pulled the army clear.

We have fought the fires of hell,
My guns, O my guns !
Fought together what befell,
My guns, O my guns !
We have fought the fires of hell,
Fought together what befell,
And you served our need right well,
My guns, O my guns !

The glorious Line are fighting
Like tigers all the day;
And the gunners firing, sighting,
Steady to be slain or slay.
The glorious Line are fighting,
With the gunners firing, sighting,
And we’ve stunned that host afrighting,
And we’ve saved the Force to-day.

For our men don’t know defeat,
My guns, O my guns !
And they’ll give you glory meet,
My guns, O my guns !
For our men don’t know defeat,
And they’ll give you glory meet,
For you’ve covered the retreat,
My guns, O my guns !

There’s a zone of death around,
Where the hail of shrapnel streams ;
And behind they’ve trenched the ground
So we can’t get up the teams.
There’s a zone of death around,
Where the lydite blasts the ground,
So there’s no way to be found,
To break through and bring the teams.

But there’s not a round to fire,
My guns, O my guns !
And the dead are piling higher,
My guns, O my guns !
But there’s not a round to fire
And the dead are piling higher,
And the orders to retire.
My guns, O my guns !

You are battered, smashed and shaken,
And the foe will profit naught,
All your sights and breech-blocks taken
Left, the havoc they have wrought.
You are battered, smashed and shaken,
All that we can carry taken,
And we leave you here forsaken,
By the dead with whom you fought.

But I swear by God’s own name,
My guns, O my guns !
I will bring you back again,
My guns, O my guns !
From Berlin, across the slain
Every yard of fire and pain,
I will bring you back again,
My guns, O my guns !

‘Their Job’

When Regulars went on their regular job
To fight in the regular way,
When every munition of war was short
And a laggard land at bay.

When every Platoon did Battalion’s work,
While Officers fought till they fell,
Fought through the day but to fight all night
The fresh flung horde of hell.

Fought when the guns were overwhelmed
In number, size, and power,
Fought while the column dealt out shells
Reckoned in sums per hour.

Fought while they marched the nightmare leagues,
Or crawled when their feet were done,
Fought while they scraped a shallow trench
They fought and by God they won !

Now Divisions hold what Battalions held
With an army in strong support,
And cover is found in a world underground,
In the land where the vanguard fought.

For every gun that speaks from the East,
A giant shouts it dumb,
For every shell that rips our ranks,
Tenfold revenge doth come.

Why was this memorial plaque commissioned in the first place?

An Epic That Will Never Die – Great day at docks or Old Contemptibles.

Nearly 36 years ago, the men described by the Kaiser as a “contemptible little army” marched through the gateway of Southampton Docks on their way to France. Many who had not set foot in the town since then came back to the Docks yesterday afternoon to revive old memories, when a commemorative tablet was unveiled to recall the sailing in 1914 of the Old Contemptibles.

(Southern Daily Echo, 10.4. 50)

“The Old Contemptibles” memorial plaque was unveiled on Sunday the 9th April, 1950 on the side of the former Docks’ Post Office and Telegraph building, Southampton Docks. It is mounted on the front of the building which stands at the entrance to Dock Gate 4 (the same location where the Titanic sailed from in 1912). It is through this Dock Gate that “The Old Contemptibles” marched in August 1914, en-route to the Western Front.

The suggestion to erect this memorial was first made before World War Two by Hector Young, O.B.E., J.P. Young was patron of the Southampton branch of “The Old Contemptibles”. The last remaining survivor of the 1914 Christmas truce and an “Old Contemptible”,  Alfred Anderson, died aged 109 in 2005.

In April 1950, over six hundred veterans from the association were in attendance at the ceremony and the plaque was unveiled by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Algernon Willis, G.C.B, K.B.E, D.S.O, R.N. (1889–1976). The association paid for two-thirds of the plaque and one-third was paid for by Ms Beatrix Brice Miller. Brice Miller was also part of the unveiling ceremony. It must have been a proud and poignant moment for her to be able to witness such an occasion.

Thirty-six years ago they were the officers and men of the B.E.F. on their way to France and Belgium, to take their place on the flank of the Allied battle-front. They covered themselves with glory in the late summer and autumn of 1914, and played a decisive part in checking the advance of the German hordes. In particular, the B.E.F. saved the Channel ports. Had those ports fallen into enemy hands the threat of invasion would have been very real.

(Southern Daily Echo, 10.4. 50)

The former Southampton Docks' Post Office and Telegraph building, south side of Platform Road, Dock Gate 4. The memorial is located on the side of the building. ©Come Step Back In Time.
The former Southampton Docks’ Post Office and Telegraph building, south side of Platform Road, Dock Gate 4. The memorial is located on the front of the building. ©Come Step Back In Time.