"Star Shell Reflection 1916-18"
- Jim Maultsaid
This is Vol 2 of Jim’s memories and diaries from WW1 and takes us from 1916 just prior to the Battle of the Somme to 1918 and war’s end. It is a pity I missed Vol 1 as I am sure I would have enjoyed it as much as I did this one.
Maultsaid was an Irishman and Ulsterman to boot. At the outbreak of WW1 he joined 14th Battalion Royal Irish Rifles (YCV) . I was intrigued to see the initials after the Bn yet could not find an explanation for them, probably covered in Vol 1. Google came to my rescue and it stands for Young Citizen Volunteers, which was a supposedly non-sectarian group affiliated to the Ulster Volunteer Force, but in effect if you were not of the protestant faith then there is not much chance of acceptance or advancement within the battalion. This was quite ‘normal’ for Irish Regiments and nobody saw anything wrong with this arrangement. Indeed young Jim Maultsaid was very definitely an Orangeman. However, apart from that he was a soldier who joined up to fight for King and Country and his battalion was part of the 36th Ulster Division which took part on the Battle of the Somme on the first day doing very well, although suffering horrendous casualties. By the time the battle started Jim was a Platoon Sergeant.
Jim was also a talented sketch artist and this book consists of recollections from his diary and the sketches he made ranging from trench layouts to people he served with. Wounded at the Somme, he was medevaced to Britain with a recommendation for a commission. Once he had recovered he was sent on a short commissioning course at Oxford University then back to his Depot to train new recruits. Jim’s injuries were such that he was medically downgraded and not fit for front line service. He was therefore attached to the Chinese Labour Corps in France and spent the remainder of the war in command of a large platoon of Chinese labourers.
Maultsaid points out that some officers resented their charges and did not like the Chinese therefore did not have a very good working relationship with them. He on the other hand took the time to learn the ways of his men, their traditions, fears, superstitions and importantly he learned to speak their language, to an extent. He worked his men hard but treated them fairly. He enjoyed setting them tasks in competition with other platoons: load more ammunition or rations onto railway trucks or in most of the jobs they seemed to get, load more tins of petrol onto the trains. His men responded to this and being Chinese liked the competition. Lt Maultsaid liked his men and did all that he could to see that they were able to carry on with the traditions of Chinese life as far as possible. One area that caused problems though was the Chinese desire to gamble – on just about anything and so many of the men were just losing all their pay at this obsession. One gambling den was closed down following an armed raid by British officers and SNCOs which is well described in the book.
The book is lavishly adorned with sketches by Jim Maultsaid, the ones of the Chinese men working for him are among the best and the respect and admiration he had for these hard working men shines through. He is also very protective of his men and the Chinese Labour Corps as a whole and was proud to have served in that Corps doing a vital and difficult job. One of his men is caught and found guilty of murdering one of his fellow Chinese. There is talk of Secret Societies, taking revenge for something but the accused did not say anything or give any information against other Chinese. He was sentenced to death by firing squad where he asked for the blindfold to be removed so he could die like A British soldier. Although very obviously guilty, there is obviously a spark of respect in Maultsaid for the events surrounding this.
The final German push in 1918 saw the CLC being worked harder than ever to keep up with demand and the constant threat of the Germans breaking through; other British officers and SNCOs are sent to the line, but Jim is still unfit for frontline service so takes over command of his Company, meaning he had to leave his platoon but word of him being a ‘good officer’ proceeded him and he fitted in well.
1918 saw the war ending and the diaries themselves ending very abruptly as people go home or back to China for demob. This is a good, if somewhat quirky, book but certainly one that covers an area not usually mentioned – the Chinese Labour Corps; without whom the army would have been stripped of men from the fighting to carry out resupply duties and stevedoring duties at the docks. For those with a liking of WW1 history then this, and Volume One, should be on your shelves as they cover two huge issues. Firstly the Irish question with Ulster not wanting a break up of Ireland yet men still joining in their thousands to fight, and secondly the story, albeit of one small part, of the Chinese Labour Corps.
A worthwhile, interesting and enjoyable read.
4/5 Mr MRHs