John Arlott's house on Alderney

John Arlott's house on Alderney
The home of a great wordsmith - John Arlott

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

A glance back and an attempt to see ahead

Publishing Ordnance was something I really wanted. Writing it had taught me so much about a terrible period in our history, in particular about ordinary men and women who had done extraordinary 'ordinary things' for those they loved. I wanted more people to know the story. I gave four talks on the book and found audiences thoroughly engaged.
Lincoln Drill Hall is inextricably linked with the Great War; it was where the Lincolnshire Volunteers mustered before beginning their journey to France. It was wonderful to introduce the only BBC Prom outside London, the highly appropriate Soldier's Tale. It was a privilege to be part of the Commemoration of Lincoln in WW1. It was wonderful to welcome Michael Morpurgo's Private Peaceful and then Sir Michael himself as part of the Lincoln Book Festival.
With thanks to Phil Crow
War on Wheels and Ordnance were inspired by my father who fought in both world wars. It was thus both appropriate and wonderful that I was invited to the RAOC Officers Association dinner to mark the centenary of the founding of the Corps to which my father devoted his life. A few weeks later I was at the Chilwell War Memorial on the centenary of the Armistice where my maternal grandfather had worked as supervisor on the Shell Filling factory and where my father had founded the Army Centre of Mechanisation in 1935. Unforgettable occasions.
William Smith Williams comes from a different age and a different world. To have an article on my research of him accepted by Bronte Studies was a great compliment; to have completed a draft of his biography was an achievement of which I am proud. Let's hope a publisher agrees!

The year ends with another work in progress. I had been struck by the massive impact on people's lives of serving in two world wars. I saw them as a Blighted Generation. I had noted that many I had written about had died young. They hadn't been killed in the trenches, on the beaches or in the POW camps but they had worked under massive pressure for years on end and this had taken its toll. I am seeking to tell some of their stories.

So, that is the glance back; what of the year ahead?

I so hope I can publish William. I will complete a Blighted Generation and explore publication options. I think I will have some work for Story Terrace writing some family stories. Beyond all else I hope we can find a viable path forward to my beloved Drill Hall.
Lincoln Drill Hall

Thursday, 20 December 2018

The Class of '21 and the Ordnance supply success on D Day

This photograph has accompanied me all my life. I have always known who one of the young men was, my father then known as Bill Williams although he had been baptised Leslie. Of the others, I could recognise the Duke of York and the largest man in the front row, as a child, I named , ‘prawns’, I suppose because of magnificent moustache. 

When it was taken or where I didn’t know, any more than I knew the names of the other young and not so young men. All was partially revealed in 2015 when I found the same photograph in the archive of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps annotated with names. I say partially revealed because whilst the names were there, I still didn’t know who they were, whence they had come or whither they would go. 

The photograph was taken on 2 May 1922 at the then HQ of the RAOC at Hilsea and many of those in the picture were on the very first Ordnance officers course. That course, comprising two dozen men from the RAOC but also the RA and Indian and Canadian Ordnance, produced no fewer than five Major-Generals and eleven Brigadiers. 

I am now embarked on a quest and, just in case it may seem to the reader a rather pointless quest, I can reveal that from this group would emerge the small group who masterminded the Ordnance supply success of D Day.

This quest digs beneath many of the names that appear in my books, War on Wheels and Ordnance.

Monday, 3 December 2018


Norman Cherry, former Pro Vice -Chancellor at the University of Lincoln wrote:

Informative and accessible

Like Phil Hamlyn Williams' previous War on Wheels, this book offers genuinely interesting insights into the immensely detailed and often overlooked organisational aspects of fighting a successful war. His is a light but not lightweight approach to the subject, meticulously researched and well-referenced, and written in a very accessible style. If you have an interest in just how complex a business supplying the fighting services and their auxiliaries was during the First World War (and still must be in contemporary conflicts) this book will most definitely inform you and go a long way to explaining why wars are not just about the actual fighting.

Alex Lewczuk Editor, Siren FM and the University of Lincoln wrote:

Excellent, albeit challenging

An extraordinarily well researched and insightful overview of a period of history which recalls the George Santayana saying `Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it`. The level of scholarship present in this work is first class throughout and provides an impressive backdrop to the challengers faced by the country in the second decade of the twentieth century. Excellent, albeit challenging, reading.

Rob writes on Amazon

Long overdue

With a plethora of books recently published to commemorate and remember 1st World War, Phil Hamlyn Williams book on Ordnance tells the untold story of the organisation that basically enabled Britain and its Empire to fight the war. Well laid out and easy to read it is a book that I have recommended to many of my friends and colleagues.

Norman Penty, who found out so much about the man who discovered Charlotte Bronte wrote: 

I was delighted to receive your book Ordnance yesterday and spent a pleasant afternoon in the garden looking through it and needless to say I was most impressed by the publication and its whole presentation.   I only wish that I had had the same skills that you have clearly demonstrated - are you involved in the publications business or have you inherited your great-great uncle's genes or both?

Ken Weston, commenting on Facebook:

An excellent book.

Toby Neal has written in The Shropshire Star had the massive depot at Donnington in deepest Shropshire became the new "Woolwich' in WW2, with echoes of the old Woolwich in WW1 as told in Ordnance

Sunday, 2 December 2018

William Smith Williams - for Bronte Studies

The title of this post is my current working title for my biography of William Smith Williams, with the strap line: Friend and mentor to Charlotte Brontë and a host of Victorian writers and artists

The name, William Smith Williams, will strike a chord with readers of Bronte biographies. He was the reader at Smith Elder & Co who first spotted Charlotte’s genius. He then nurtured her talent, as is evident from the one hundred or so letters she wrote to him in the course of her short career.

But who was he? Whence had he come and whither did he go? A passage from a letter his brother in law, Robert Hill, wrote on his death urges exploration: ‘There were complementary notices of his death in nearly all the papers. Nobody could have been more universally beloved or respected than he was.’

I read the obituaries and they were indeed full of praise and affection for this quiet man. The Athenaeum wrote: ‘His literally taste was excellent, and he had great powers of discernment. His judgement and his opinion regarding the works was very highly valued, more especially by young authors.’ One sentence, in the Publishers Circular, in particular caught my attention: ‘The truth is that Mr Williams’ previous education had fitted him to be a judge of good work, and he was singularly fair and unbiased.’ I had to discover what this ‘previous education’ may have been.

I was helped in my search by the genealogical work carried out by Mr Norman Penty and written up in his booklet, The Discovery of Charlotte Brontë William Smith Williams 1800-1875 – a Genealogical Quest. In 2006 Mr Penty kindly contacted me and told me of the family tree that he had painstakingly researched. He contacted me because my name appears in the tree as the great grand son of WSW’s brother. The other huge source of help was from the late Margaret Smith’s edition of the letters of Charlotte Brontë. I visited the Brontë archive at Haworth, the Ruskin archive at Lancaster and the Smith Elder archive in Edinburgh, discovering in each place true gems. I have had access to some wonderful family letters.

My researches are bearing fruit and will appear in an article for Bronte Studies to be published in April 2019 and will be part of a biography which I am now seeking to publish.
William in old age

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

A longer perspective - Historical Association Lincoln 19 November

I have spent the last four years writing about how the army was supplied in the two world wars. It is now time to take a step back and look at the results of my research in a longer historical frame.

I could begin with bows and arrows, or with gunpowder and shot; I decided to take as my starting point the Crimea and the groundbreaking work by William Armstrong in the invention of the rifled heavy gun. I then follow the story of guns and ammunition through to the modern arms industry. If ever there was an example of the law of unintended consequences, surely this is it.

I look at three aspect of Ordnance supplies. So, in addition to the first, guns and ammunition, vehicles demand serious attention. It wasn't by chance that my book on WW2 was called War on Wheels. What I found was, to all intents and purposes, the history of the motor industry.

The third aspect is the nitty gritty: just how you get the right item to the right place at the right time and indeed in the right condition - far from simple. Apparently my father is still known for his attention to packaging. I shall tell why, amongst much else.

So, for those who have heard me before, this is a new talk!

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Reflections on Remembrance

I offer two reflections on Remembrance

Standing on a pavement trying to peer over the people pressed against the railing around the Tower of London, I wondered what we were doing.

We were expecting to hear the Last Post and I found myself wondering how many people now know what it is, and then whether that actually matters. We were expecting to see lights lit to represent the fallen of the Great War. What I came away with was a sense of peace.

I had asked myself what the boys who lives had been stolen would have thought, being remembered a century after they died; well, not actually remembered since no one knew any of them. I then recalled my researches that in 1921 the last of the Ordnance Factories, that had supplied the arms they used, had been closed because they were thought no longer to be needed. I remembered my initial reaction on reading that: how stupid! I now know how wrong I was and how sane that decision.

The tragedy that is the world wars of the twentieth century cost many millions of lives; it transformed the fortunes of nations; most sinisterly it nurtured a monster that we now know as the arms industry. If it didn’t create it, but it most certainly fed it and when the war ended the industry, hungry for work, found willing buyers wherever they could be found: a dreadful example of the law of unintended consequences.

This week we remember the dead and rightly so, but then let’s truly honour them by getting on with the job of living well the life that they never could.

A further reflection following the Service of Remembrance at Chilwell.

I wanted to attend this because my maternal grandfather had worked as a supervisor in the massive shell filling factory that had been built there in WW1 and where 130 men and women workers had been killed by an enormous explosion on 1 July 1918. My grandfather and his men and women had reported for work as usual the next day determined to do their bit for the war effort. The factory was one of those closed in 1921.

My other reason was that my father had founded there in 1934, on the site of the then derelict factory, the Army Centre For Mechanisation which would spearhead the introduction of vehicles of all types into the Army for WW2. It was there he met my mother; my grandfather was then running the large local building company that did much of the work on site.

At 10.45 on 11 November 2018 we gathered on the opposite side of the garrison road from the memorial to those killed in the factory explosion which is also the war memorial. There were people from outside the garrison, but more so wives and children from within together with soldiers not involved in the parade. First the soldiers marched up and took there place in front of us, and then the officers. Finally two military chaplains. The ceremony was simple, with wreathe laying and the saying of the time honoured words.

We then all walked over to one of the massive sheds which certainly date from WW2. it had been  set out with chairs and in front were two large screens showing images of the two world wars and later conflicts. The Chilwell Military Wives sang two very moving pieces, (including Remember from their 2018 album) essentially about losing their men. The chaplain ended with a poem unequivocally supportive the the soldiers in his care. He spoke of the bravery and loyalty of soldiers to their brothers in arms. This was tangible.

So I come away with strands of thought intertwining. The men and their love for each other; the women and their heart break at the loss of their men. But then the obscene loss, I might say theft, of young lives and the wholly unintended and awful legacy.

Earlier in the day on Radio 4 Michael Morpurgo offered his reflection and underlined the importance of continuing to tell the stories ‘of what thy have done’, to take words from the song from War Horse.

Women filling shells at Chilwell

Monday, 29 October 2018

The War of 1914-1945

The more I explore the story of how the Army was equipped, the more I am drawn to a single narrative covering both World Wars.

It most certainly was not intended. The war machine of the controlled establishments, created by Lloyd George in order to produce the arms to enable our men to fight, was dismantled by 1921. Men had been de-mobbed and my father, Bill Williams, was one of them. Many returned to their old jobs, and the women, who had been doing those jobs so well, had to return to their kitchens. During the war women had also played football in place of the men, both to great effect and to huge crowds - as many as 50,000. In 1921 the FA banned the women’s game. 

Life had returned to its peacetime normal. Missing, of course, were the 700,000 British men who had died. Many more of their wounded brothers needed nursing care and yet more carried their disabilities through life; there were no Invictus Games. 

In terms of equipment, the battle fields had been largely cleared of ammunition and arms. The last of the tanks had rolled into Woolwich to rust. The cavalry believed that they were back in business. The numbers in uniform dwindled. The army’s job was to go back to policing the Empire, the occupied territories and dependencies. 

Bill Williams had returned to his old office job only to find that those who had not been to war had been promoted above him. He told them ‘what they could do with their job’ and returned to what had recently been renamed the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and which would become his life. It wasn’t long before he was posted to Gibraltar as Ordnance officer to both the Army and the Navy, under Tom Leahy (well known to readers of Ordnance). There is then a photograph of the last Ordnance depot in Wiesbaden in Germany in 1928 when Bill was the last RAOC officer to leave. 

By the time the 1930’s came, thought was being given to Army mechanisation. Catterick, the large army camp on the Great North Road where Bill had then been posted, was gaining a reputation for its work with vehicles. As I record in War on Wheels, November 1934 was the date when Bill was sent to visit the derelict shell filling factory at Chilwell with a view to setting up the Army Centre for Mechanisation, but on a shoe string budget. From then on it was fight after fight to secure enough funding and then full speed ahead to drag the British Army into the mid 20th century. The pressure wouldn’t stop for another ten years.

It wasn’t only my father; there were a great many who worked with him and many others who had survived the First only to serve in the Second World War. There were others who had gone back to civilian life but remained in the Reserves and who came back to serve in 1939. There were those a little older who would see their sons and daughters leave for war as they had done in 1914. Antony Horowitz’s character, Christopher Foyle, in the much loved TV series, Foyle’s War, is an example. It was men born in the last two decades of the 19th century. 

I see them all as part of a Blighted Generation and my current project is to research their story.

Friday, 3 August 2018

A cornucopia of articles on Ordnance

My mind still boggles when I step back and contemplate just how the British Army came to be so well equipped in 1918.

In 1914 it was hopelessly ill-prepared as I wrote in my piece on Military History NowWoolwich Arsenal and the race to Modernise Britain's armaments industry for WW1.

In the course of the war Britain's engineering industry would pay a major role, not least in Lincoln whose engineers were born from the needs of our farmers and who used the technology learnt there to produce the tank. I tell more in my blog piece on The very first tank.

Under Lloyd George and The Ministry of Munitions, probably the greater part of British Industry became involved in the war effort. New factories were built, not least the massive shell filling factory at Chilwell near Nottingham, which came at great cost, as I tell in my piece for The History Press,  Disaster at Chilwell shell-filling factory.

All this materiel had to reach the troops at the right place and at the right time. This was both far from easy as I tell in another piece for The History PressFrom socks to scout cars, how to supply the army at war.

I will be talking about Ordnance at an event hosted by Lindum Books The Collection in Lincoln on 17 August 2018.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

National Army Museum book signing

I am thrilled to have been invited to do a Meet the Author Book Signing at the National Army Museum on 21 July from 11.00 until 13.00.

The story of Ordnance spans four years. It is one of hard work, frustration and astonishment inventiveness.

At one point the depot in Selonika ran out of ink and so a search was made for a chemist who could make some thus enabling orders to be written out.

Another time, local watchmakers had to be found to repair timepieces so that zero hour could be set.

The Lincolnshire Echo in the autumn of 1914, like many local newspapers around the land, contained a plea for saddles, binoculars and horse blankets.

In the Dardanelles, the troops ran short of grenades, so ordnance men had to fill empty food cans with explosives.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

D Day 6 June 1944 War on Wheels?

I try to imagine Brigadier Denniston and Colonel Cutforth in the early hours of 6 June unable to sleep, but equally unable to do anything more. Months of preparation and planning now had to stand or fall measured only by results.

I can more easy picture Colonel Cutforth since, as a child, I met him some years later when he had risen to the rank of Major General and had been Knighted. Sir Lancelot Cutforth, to a small boy, was all King Arthur and the Round Table and, from memory, Sir Lancelot did not disappoint. He was a tall dignified figure who, as a younger man, must have been the quintessential dashing army officer. His role though, with Brigadier Denniston, had been one of painstaking planning. The 21st Army Group which they supported comprised the British Second Army and the Canadian First Army each with their Ordnance units. Brigadier TH Clark and JAW Bennett were the respective Deputy Directors of Ordnance Services. Brigadier Clark had been on the disastrous Norway campaign with Colonel Cutforth and then had played a key role in North Africa.

I try also to imagine Bill Williams and Dickie Richards; Bill in particular who would carry the can if things did not go well. They too had done all they could. In the planning, the question of morale had ranked high and so Dickie’s Depots supplying camp and laundry equipment and especially clothing were in no sense less important than those supplying warlike stores. In any event all stores had to cross the channel and make it up the beaches.

The question to the fore of each of their minds was whether this time mechanisation would truly work.
Massive tank repair workshop at COD Bicester

On the back cover of War on Wheels, Max Hastings records the very positive verdict of the troops

Saturday, 2 June 2018


OK, I know it's not a best seller, but 45,000 out of 6 million in the Amazon ranking can't be too bad!

Monday, 28 May 2018

Ordnance Preview

Ordnance is a story of the men and women who equipped the British Army for the Great War. 

It follows my book, War on Wheels, about the mechanisation of the army in WW2.

In writing that book, many questions begged to be answered and that led to my researching and writing Ordnance. 

The books are not a glorification of war, but try to tell the story of the ordinary men and women, behind the lines and unsung, without whom the wars would never have been won. 

Ordnance is divided into nine chapters:

1 The British Expeditionary Force 
2 The Home Base and Supply of Warlike Stores under
the Master General of Ordnance 
3 Gallipoli, Salonika and East Africa 
4 The Shell Crisis and the Birth of the Ministry of Munitions 
5 Trench Warfare on the Western Front 
6 Vehicles and the Tank 
7 Other Theatres of War – Palestine, Mesopotamia, Italy and Russia 
8 The Role of the USA 
9 The End 

Here is the start of Chapter 1

In September 1939, Dickie Richards, who had command of the huge Ordnance Depot at Le Havre, played merry hell when tons of shelving that he had ordered from England failed to arrive. I just wonder whether he was haunted by the description of another huge depot in the same French town a quarter of a century earlier. Richards had served through the four horrific years of the Great War and, like his fellow Ordnance officers, must have been determined to ensure that costly mistakes were not repeated.   

Scattered about the gigantic Hangar au Coton and other sheds or wharves were some 20,000 tons of clothing, ammunition and stores of unknown quantities and more arriving daily. The articles were in miscellaneous heaps often buried under piles of forage; wagons had been dismantled for shipment, the bodies had not yet been erected on their wheels, machine guns had not been assembled with their mounts or cartridge belts, guns with their mechanisms, cases of horse shoes with those of nails. The very spaciousness of this immense shed tempted the Base Commandant to use it whenever he was in want of accommodation and, in spite of protests, horses were stabled among the stores and French and Belgian soldiers encamped there. The French were still removing barrels of oil and bales of cotton lying in the hangar when new arrived, and lorries belonging to the Army Service Corps depot, lodged under the same roof, thundered to and fro. Altogether the scene was one of great confusion.

This was the scene, recorded by Forbes, of the Army Ordnance Depot at Le Havre in early September 1914, just before its evacuation to escape the German advance.

I offer here some - low res - pages from the final proof which I hope will give a flavour:

Ordnance, and indeed War on Wheels, is available from all good bookshops, from my Amazon author page and from my publishers, The History Press.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Ordnance, the USA and WW1

The USA played a fundamental role in securing victory for the Entente as I fell in  my book Ordnance

It is rather like as essay question; and I have long since done with essay questions! I will though offer a few observations; my book Ordnance has a full chapter on the role of the USA and so goes into much more detail.

I guess that I had not realised the extent to which the UK was top dog in 1914, certainly in relation to finance and world trade: Stirling ruled supreme.

The attritional nature of trench warfare slaughtered many thousands of young men, it also consumed phenomenal quantities of Stirling. A massive army needed a massive number of guns, but trench warfare meant that the consumption of ammunition by those guns was exponentially greater: hundreds of millions of shells.

The greater part of the UK manufacturing sector was engaged in war work and all needed to be paid for. The funds came from taxation, from investments of War Loan (remember that?), but to a very large extend from dollar borrowings.

The New York bankers JP Morgan were appointed very early on to act for the Entente in purchasing from US companies, but also in raising the dollars needed to pay for it all. Hundreds of millions of dollars were raised. Vast quantities of food and much needed equipment was supplied by companies like Holt which made the caterpillar tractor.

All this happened before the US declared war. In a sense this changed everything. Britain sent Missions over to the US to explore the role the US might play. General Bridges who still had command of the 19th Division, Les Papillons, argued the case for standard equipment. Motor companies like Ford put their massive weight into the war effort. Many hundreds of thousands of US troops were equipped and made ready for the final months the war. Many young Americans lost their lives

The armistice brought an end to the slaughter, although for some months men continued to die. The armistice also saw the US Dollar knocking Stirling as the world's trading currency, with the UK heavily in debt. The war had been won, but at a price.
Model T Ford ambulances - image with thanks to Richard Pullen

Barely a quarter of a century later, it was all going to happen again. Perhaps in WW2, the role of the USA was even greater.