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Skara Brae, Orkney (i)

After settling in at Stromness for the night, the neolithic village of Skara Brae, on the shores of Skaill Bay (or Bay o’ Skaill,) was the first place we visited on Orkney. Ever since I heard about it Skara Brae was somewhere I always wanted to visit so I was delighted to be able to.

It was mobbed with people though, only to be expected I suppose.

Early houses:-

Skara Brae Early Houses 1

Skara Brae, Early Houses 2

Passage to a house entrance:-

House Entrance, Skara Brae, Orkney

An excavated house, Skara Brae Visitor Centre in left background, modern day Skaill House in right background:-

Neolithic House at Skara Brae,Orkney

Neolithic house with stone dresser:-

Neolithic House with Stone Dresser, Skara Brae, Orkney

Neolithic house entrance:-

House Entrance, Skara Brae

A passage between houses:-

Passage Between Houses, Skara Brae, Orkney

Kitchener Memorial, Marwick Head, Orkney

We were motoring more or less up the west coast of mainland Orkney after visiting Skara Brae and Skaill House (of which more later) when I saw an imposing tower on a hill top overlooking the sea. Then I spotted a brown (site of interest) signpost saying “Kitchener Memorial” pointing off the road towards it. I immediately turned onto the one-track road indicated.

Kitchener made his name at the Battle of Omdurman – machine guns against spears; not an equal contest – during the punitive expedition against the Mahdi after his followers (Dad’s Army‘s “fuzzy-wuzzies”) killed General Gordon at Khartoum. He later took over the conduct of the South African War (the Second Boer War) instituting the measures that made sure the Boers could not live off the land, by taking their supporters/suppliers into the original concentration camps, before becoming head of the army and featuring on the famous Great War recruiting poster.

I knew Kitchener had been drowned at sea when the ship carrying him on a mission to Russia, HMS Hampshire, hit a mine recently laid by a German submarine but hadn’t realised it had been so close to Orkney. I also hadn’t known the memorial was there so this was a serendipitous discovery.

We managed to squeeze into a space at the very small car park and contemplated the long walk up to the memorial. I discovered later that the memorial lies on Marwick Head, the westernmost point of mainland Orkney. This Vickers pattern 31b Recoil Mk 2 gun salvaged from the deck of HMS Hampshire lay at the beginning of the path:-

Deck Gun from HMS Hampshire

Memorial from path at top of cliff:-

Kitchener Memorial, Orkney From Path

Memorial close:-

Kitchener Memorial

Kitchener Memorial Plaque:-

Kitchener Memorial Inscription

Much more recently a memorial wall to those who died on HMS Hampshire has been erected on the site. This shows its proximity to the Kitchener Memorial:-

HMS Hampshire Memorial Wall

Unfortunately the memorialised names do not stand out well in this photo:-

HMS Hampshire Memorial Wall

The HMS Hampshire memorial wall also commemorates the HM Drifter Laurel Crown lost off Marwick Head in June 1916:-

HMS Hampshire + HMS Laurel Crown Memorial

The Ring of Brodgar

“The Ring of Brodgar is the finest known truly circular late Neolithic or early Bronze Age stone ring and a later expression of the spirit which gave rise to Maeshowe, Stenness and Skara Brae.”

Earlier this year a BBC TV series called Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney fronted by Neil Oliver argued convincingly that Orkney was an extremely important cultural centre in neolithic times and that the construction of stone circles originated in Orkney, spreading south from there – eventually to produce Stonehenge.

Unfortunately the path directly round the outside of the Ring was undergoing maintenance when we visited so it was not showing its best appearance. And as you can see we were not the only visitors:-

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney, From Path 1

I did try to get a photo without other people in it:-

Ring of Brodgar From Path 2

Ring of Brodgar from perimeter:-

Ring of Brodgar From Perimeter

You’re absolutely tripping over ancient man-made structures in the Stenness area. This mound, by the shores of the Loch of Stenness and not far from the Ring (from where this photo was taken) is called Salt Knowe. The hills in the background are on Hoy:-

Salt Knowe from Ring of Brodgar

Ring from perimeter path, Loch of Harray in the background:-

Ring of Brodgar

Single stone, with man to show scale, part of Loch of Harray behind. You can easily see wear to the grass around the stone, emphasising the need for maintenance:-

Ring of Brodgar, Single Stone

Looking Towards Ness of Brodgar and Maeshowe from Ring of Brodgar. Loch of Harray to left of Ness of Brodgar, Loch of Stenness to right, Maeshowe just to left of middle of photo:-

Looking Towards Ness of Brodgar and Maeshowe

Stromness

Stromness (the name is derived from the Norse Straumsnes [headland protruding into the tidal stream]) is Orkney’s second biggest town but that doesn’t mean it’s big. It has just under 2,200 residents.

It has a brilliant Art Gallery called the Pier Arts Centre with several works by Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Stanley Cursiter among others. Well worth a visit – and it’s free.

Stromness Museum does have an entry charge but the ticket gives you entry for a week. It is also interesting with exhibits covering Stromness’s sailing hostory and from the Grand Scuttle of 1919 but also many examples of stuffed animals etc that may nowadays be frowned upon.

Here’s a view I took of North Stromness from the hills above:-

North Stromness

In this one most of the town is hidden under the brow of the hill but part of the harbour can be seen with Scapa Flow in the background beyond:-

Stromness from North-east

Both in the previous photo and the one below of Stromness from the south the Northlink Ferries ship ferry Hamnavoe can be seen docked at the terminal. (The picture on the link is no longer accurate. The ferry company has a newer livery now.) Quite often when we walked down into the town along by the harbour the Hamnavoe would be there. Hamnavoe is an old name for Stromness, meaning peaceful harbour.

Stromness from South

Looking south from Stromness, Scapa Flow in left distance:-

Looking South from Stromness

The High Street and those leading off it are very narrow. High Street:-

High Street, Stromness

This one is quite cheekily named Khyber Pass:-

Khyber Pass, Stromness

More Barnhouse Village, Orkney

This is what the information board named as structure 8. Looking back towards Stones of Stenness with Hoy in distance to right:-

Barnhouse Village Structure 8

A neolithic house overlooking Loch of Harray:-

Barnhouse Village House

House 6 has very little left bar a few stones:-

Barnhouse Village House 6

Whether this is a standing stone or a remnant of a house I can’t say. Its surroundings don’t seem to have been excavated. Bottom of Loch of Harray behind with Maeshowe in distance above top of stone:-

Standing Stone, Barnhouse Village

View of Barnhouse Village looking south-wast, Stones of Stenness in background with Hoy in right distance:-

View of Barnhouse Village

Stitch of village from south-west. Loch of Harray and Ness of Brodgar behind:-

Barnhouse Village Stitch

Barnhouse Village, Orkney

Barnhouse Village is a neolithic settlement lying about one hundred and fifty metres or so from the Stones of Stenness in Orkney.

Structure in village, Loch of Harray behind:-

Barnhouse Village, Orkney

House with hearth, Ness of Brodgar behind over Loch of Harray:-

Barnhouse Village, Orkney, Showing Hearth

This is the entrance to what the information board called Structure 8:-

Barnhouse Village Structure 8 Entrance

Barnhouse village House:-

Barnhouse Village House

Another house, Loch of Harray behind:-

Barnhouse Village Structure

The board called this one House 2:-

Barnhouse Village House 2

Click on below to take you to video on my Flickr, first looking towards Loch of Harray and Ness of Brodgar then sweeping round to look back towards Stones of Stenness:-

Barnhouse Village Video

More Neolithic Orkney

The piece of land on which the Stones of Stenness lie contains other neolithic remnants.

One is the Watchstone (which used to have a companion Odin Stone which was destroyed in 1814 by the leaseholder of the land.)

The Watchstone from path round Stones of Stenness, Ness of Brodgar behind:-

Watchstone From Path Round Stones of Stenness

The Watchstone and Ness of Brodgar, Loch of Stenness to left, Loch of Harray to right:-

Watchstone and Ness of Brodgar

The Watchstone, looking over the Loch of Stenness, Hoy in distance:-

Watchstone, Hoy in Distance

Two hundred yards or so north east of the Stones of Stenness are the remains of a neolithic settlement called Barnhouse Village – of which more later. This photo taken from the edge of the village over the bottom of the Loch of Harray shows how close Maeshowe is (green mound just to right of centre of picture.)

Towards Maeshowe from Barnhouse Village

Looking northwest over the Loch of Harray from Barnhouse Village you can also easily see the Ring of Brodgar:-

Looking Towards Ring of Brodgar from Barnhouse Village

Closer view of Ring of Brodgar from Barnhouse Village:-

Ring of Brodgar over Loch of Harray from Barnhouse Village

Stones of Stenness, Orkney

A view of part of Orkney for your delectation.

The Stones of Stenness are the remains of a ring of neolithic standing stones – possibly the oldest henge in the British Isles. They stand on a piece of land flanked on one side by the freshwater Loch of Harray and the sea water Loch of Stenness.

Stones of Stenness, Orkney

The taller ones are very tall indeed. I assume the ones no longer there were also as tall. Signs of modern life are visible though. You can just spot electricity poles if you look closely enough above.

Here’s a view from the other side of the stones back in the opposite direction. Note parked cars and people. Shortly after this a bus tour rolled up:-

Stones of Stenness, Orkney Again

What looks like a single stone to the left on the above is actually two stones:-

Stones of Stenness

If you look through the gap in the stones in the other direction then Maeshowe is directly between them in the distance. See sixth photo here.

On the same piece of land as the stones lie the remains of the neolithic Barnhouse village. The Ring of Brodgar is also visible from the site.

At the centre of the Stones of Stenness are the remnants of a hearth:-

Stones of Stenness, Orkney, Central Hearth

Stones of Stenness from site entrance. Unfortunately an electricity pole seems to sprout from the top of a stone in this one:-

Standing Stones on Orkney

The Great War Generals on the Western Front by Robin Neillands

Robinson, 1999, 557 p (including ii p Contents and List of Maps, iv p Acknowledgements and Dedication, 19 p Index, 4 p Select Bibliography,) plus 8 p Photographs.

 The Great War Generals on the Western Front cover

The common perception of British generalship in the Great War – as put forth in many depictions of the conflict from at least Oh, What a Lovely War! through “lions led by donkeys” to Blackadder Goes Fourth and beyond – is of cavalry officers with little knowledge of infantry tactics in charge, of widespread incompetence and callousness, of throwing men rather than competence at the enemy, of safely staying well behind the lines. In this book Neillands sets out the evidence for and against these assertions and as a result comes down in favour of the generals. In many respects for me he was pushing against an open door. It has always struck me that if the British generals were so incompetent and useless how come we didn’t lose the war? Add to that the fact that the British (and Empire) force was the only major Allied combatant (setting aside the short – but still bloody – sojourn of the US Expeditionary forces) that did not suffer a large mutiny or rout and the questions ought to be why, if their leaders were so useless, were British soldiers so steadfast? Why were they so willing to follow orders – and keep doing so?

Despite its all-encompassing sub-title the book is chiefly focused on the British generals on the Western Front, though French and German generals are of course dealt with as necessary. Overall, however, it is more of a complete history of the British sectors of the Western Front rather than a summary of the doings of the generals who directed the efforts there.

Neillands states that it is only British generals that have been subjected to such criticisms as a group. No such opprobrium has been heaped on the French or German generals as a whole despite similar propensities to life squandering, particularly the Germans at Langemarck and the French in Nivelle’s offensive. Plus there’s always Verdun.

For all sides this was a new kind of war (though slightly prefigured by aspects of the American Civil War and the Russo-Japanese War.) None of the European agonists had been subjected to industrial war of this kind before, though in terms of numbers the French and Germans were prepared for it, the latter also in terms of artillery. All expected a war of movement – and a quick resolution. As it was the trench system came about by accident; in the attempts of both sides to outflank each other in the “Race to the Sea.” And throughout defence held the upper hand.

Like all British armies at the start of a war the BEF was inadequate to the coming task in numbers and equipment; lacking in machine guns and especially artillery. Its astonishing proficiency in rifle fire could not make up for this. It would take time – years – to provide enough artillery ammunition, to recruit, to equip and to train not only the soldiers but also the staff officers necessary for the army to function efficiently (and of these the staff officers take much longer to train.) Until that came about the generals, like the soldiers, had to do the best with what they had, and to learn the techniques and tactics required to succeed. Plus they were fighting Germans; dogged professional soldiers who never gave in easily, the best army in the field – certainly until the end of 1916 (when the British perhaps took over the mantle.)

Among other beliefs Neillands describes as myths is that all British troops on the first day of the Battle of the Somme moved forward in line and at walking pace. There was in fact a large variation in tactics, the generals on the ground being largely responsible for their own formations’ procedures. The sentence attributed to Lieutenant-General Kiggell, after Passchendaele, “Good God, did we really send men to fight in that?” has no provenance and is likely to be apocryphal. Neillands finds it incredible that any general faced with all the reports from the front, aerial photos, requisitions etc could have been unaware of the conditions. Quite why Third Ypres was nevertheless persisted with is a question harder to avoid.

Some criticisms are easily dispatched. Much fewer than half of the British generals were originally from cavalry regiments while an average of one general a week was lost to enemy action, hardly indicative of distance from the front. They were not hidebound tactically but learned from earlier reverses. However, in response to British innovations in attack the Germans continually adopted new defensive tactics and provided new problems to solve.

Neillands contends that the difficulties of prosecuting such a war have not been sufficiently acknowledged by the critics. The generals were from the outset instructed by the British Government to co-operate closely with their French allies. This in many respects tied the hands of both British Commanders-in-Chief, Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig. Sometimes this necessary support, as at Loos, led to attacks the British generals did not favour. At the Somme and Third Ypres the necessity to divert German resources to relieve pressure on the French (from Verdun and the consequences of the French mutiny respectively) more or less demanded action.

The static nature of the trench system, the opportunities it gave the Germans to develop defence in depth (from Second Ypres in 1914 till their spring offensive in 1918 the Germans did not launch a major attack on the British Army anywhere along the line,) was a large factor in preventing a breakthrough. Allenby was not a notable success on the Western Front but in a war of movement in Palestine was able to show his capabilities more readily.

The main problem affecting the war’s conduct, though, was communications; which could not be relied on. Amid the smoke of battle, lines of sight were obscured; wireless technology was neither robust nor portable; telephone lines – even buried metres deep – were prone to severance by shellfire; carrier pigeons inadequate. The problem was never properly solved even by the war’s end.

Nor are any alternative strategies entirely obvious. Short of abandoning the war (so allowing Germany to keep its gains) – a course which the Allied Governments never contemplated – there was little option but to carry on.

Another factor affecting the generals was that Prime Minister Lloyd George never trusted them, Haig in particular. Neillands holds Lloyd George partly responsible for the British being forced to retreat by the German “Michael” offensive of March 1918 as he had held troops back in Britain rather than reinforcing the front. The overwhelming force of their initial attack would have caused problems in any case but even in its unstrengthened form the army, though it retreated, nevertheless did not break; the Germans were held.

In passing Neillands decries the “Pommie bashing” of latter day Australian and Canadian historians who variously claim the British “establishment” was biased against their own commanders and treated colonial troops as cannon fodder. While acknowledging the quality of these troops and the abilities of the Canadian General Currie and the Australian General Monash in particular, he shows most British divisions – and not a few generals – were equally effective.

Some criticisms are harder to defray. Typically there was a failure to exploit initial success quickly (in the case of Cambrai a disbelief in the extent of that success and a lack of preparedness for it) and an all too prevalent tendency to keep bashing away when an attack slowed down, in the belief that the Germans were weakening and “one more push” would prevail.

Yet the final victories – and they were victories, the Hindenburg line was breached, the British Army ended up as far advanced from the trench lines as Mons (where its participation in the war had started) – are not given nearly as much attention as the earlier “failures”. That is an indictment of those who give more weight to the generals’ shortcomings than to the achievements of the men under their direction. It was the war, and its continuation, plus the inability of the technology of attack to overcome that of defence that was the problem.

This is a book that, while not ignoring their faults, attests to the good faith of the British generals of the Great War, men doing their best amidst adverse circumstances.

Pedant’s corner:- “Field Marshal Sir William, Robertson’s father” (no comma,) “Seventy-eight British generals were lost their lives” (no “were”,) “led to the way it in which it was conducted (the way in which,) “over 9, 000,000” (there were frequent occurrences in the text of this extraneous space when a large number was cited and the practice wasn’t consistent,) a missing comma before a quote (x 5,) mache timetables (march timetables?) “we have go back” (have to go back,) “the infantry were mustered” (was mustered,) “Lieutenant-General Sir, Henry Grierson” (no comma,) “including the German and Soviet armies” (Soviet armies? Pre-1917?) ulster (Ulster,) “The force of France were already in trouble” (forces,) “and and” (only one required,) “in orders to denigrate” (in order,) “Readers are invited to look again at the message French sent to Smith-Dorrien again” (only one “again” needed,) “the true state of affairs were brought to the attention” (was brought,) General Franchet d’ Espery (d’Espery, x2,) “gave Haig time assess the situation” (to assess,) “just how grievously the Haig’s command had suffered (no “the”,) “the artillery … were…. their stocks of ammunition” (was…. its stocks,) Bellewaarde (Bellewaerde?) “the BEF were now set upon” (was set upon,) “smoke screen screen” (only one “screen” required,) to cut of the wire (off,) earlier in his book (this book,) any battalions fire plan (battalion’s,) “might wander of their axis” (off,) “that the Rawlinson’s attack” (no “the”,) a missing comma. “This family were not wealthy” (His family was not wealthy,) a missing full stop x 5, XV Corps’ (Corps’s,) with with (only on “with” needed,) “and the defences the Germans were building…… was like nothing seen before” (were like nothing seen before,) “four-battalions-to-a-brigade. Dominion division” (“four-battalions-to-a-brigade Dominion division”,) “the bombardment rose to a crescendo” (a crescendo is the rise, not its climax,) “First Army were …. Third Army were …. Fifth Army were …. (in each case “was”,) “to be launched to on” (no “to”,) “force their forces along the coast, either to withdraw eastwards” (no comma.) “Zero hour for was set” (Zero hour was set for.) “Given his a well-earned reputation” (no “a”,) “three years earlier. Currie had been” (no full stop,) Lieutenant General Sir Kavanagh (Lieutenant General Sir Charles Kavanagh.) “The cavalry were to be commanded” (was to be,) “Tuesday 20, November” (no comma,) Hidenburg Line (Hindenburg, elsewhere correct,) the Middlesex Regoment (Regiment,) General Cardona (Cadorna,) “the main theatre in this war the Western Front” (war was the Western Front,) “that the he had always wanted” (that he had,) “the enemy were preparing an attack” (was,) narrow-gange track (gauge,) “the German armies in west” (in the west,) “for the politicians understand” (politicians to understand,) the United State (States,) “to wait and attack, again in 1919” (no comma.) “This is not the say” (not to say,) Austrain (Austrian.) “The learning curve …. and only starting to rise” (started,) “against the Bolshevik” (Bolsheviks,) “he was named. Presidential Chief of Staff” (no full stop.)

Arnhem by Major-General R E Urquhart

Pan, British Battles Series, 1972, 221 p plus 8 p photographs. First published in 1958.

 Arnhem cover

In 1944 Urquhart was the Commander of the 1st Airborne Division which along with 1 Polish Parachute Brigade carried out the ‘Market’ part of the overall ‘Market Garden’ Operation to take the crossings over the Rivers Maas, Waal and Neder Rhine by aerial assault with a ground push intended to relieve them. As such he was therefore in command at Arnhem, location of the famous “Bridge Too Far.”

The book mainly covers Urquhart’s own experiences at Arnhem to the west of the town and bridge but it does broaden out at times to cover other aspects of the operation.

Perhaps a desperate adventure in the best of circumstances, the enterprise was totally compromised by the plans for the complete operation being found by the Germans on the body of a US officer. The German commander, Model, had in any case quickly assessed the likely focus of the attack and made his dispositions accordingly. In addition, from the outset there were problems with British communications, as radio sets failed to function properly. As a result subsequent air supply fell on the places designated before the operation started which were mostly back in German hands by the time the drops took place. Urquhart pays tribute to the dedication and bravery of the aircrews on these missions. They had to fly in a straight line for kilometres sometimes making several passes over the drop zone all in the teeth of German anti-aircraft fire. As a result many planes and lives were lost. So too with the fortitude of the defenders of the Allied positions at the bridge and in the pocket.

A strange circumstance seemed to take place with medical provision for casualties at one location where relatively lightly wounded of both sides were treated in the same building (under German guard) before returning to their respective positions.

Oddly, I felt that a history of the battle might have been better written by someone not so intimately involved with it. Urquhart was perhaps too close to the events to clarify them sufficiently for the general reader.

Pedant’s corner:- Horrocks’ (Horrocks’s,) none the worst (none the worse,) at the feet of a ten-feet-high brick wall (at the foot of,) 82nd Us Airborne Division (US.) “For a while we were enduring…” (For while we were enduring,) “but an forming close defence” (am forming,) XXX Corps’ (XXX Corps).

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