Cecil Burnell Tubbs

CBT's audio memoirs illustrated

Grandfather's Army.

Cecil B. Tubbs (1896-1988) left two distinct sets of audio memoir. A private memoir was recorded by Elise Tubbs his second wife, of which my copies are probably incomplete and the sound quality is not very good but the content is priceless. An interview with a researcher from the Imperial War 's Oral History Department,is technically much better and consists of four half hour tapes (reference 8865/04). These are now available online at http://m.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80008659 and describe how he joined the Somerset Light Infantry (SLI) with great enthusiasm as a private soldier. Having learned the eye test chart he was finally deemed fit to join up, soon became commissioned into its 8th Battalion, learned informally about bombing, went to France, based near Armentieres, in August 1915 and was severely injured in November while recconoitring in No Man's Land. This was a novel activity in that area of the line though nearly a year into the agonising stalemate of trench warfare. Bombing here refers to small grenades such as home made IEDS, Mills bombs to be thrown or launched by catapult and, a little later, trench mortars aka Stokes Guns. Before returning to 8th Battalion in France in 1916 CBT took a formal course in bombing and was appointed Battalion Bombing Officer and Officer Commanding Headquarters Company and was engaged in the battle of the Ancre, the autumnal finale of the Somme campaign that had started on 2nd July 1916 with 20,000 allied soldiers killed on the first day. His old injury was already troubling him severely when he was required to liaise with other Companies under fire, an action for which he was awarded the MC, but was then invalided out of the front line again.

CBT became the battalion bombing officer having attended a bombing course and been involved with grenades and mortars since Loos

The Official History of the Somerset Light Infantry in WWI records the activity of the 8th Battalion of the SLI at the Battle of the Ancre on 18th November 1916 thus. At 2.30 p.m. The Battalion Bombing Officer (2/Lieut C.B. Tubbs) was sent to take command of A Company and explain the situation to B Company, the latter being still under heavy sniping fire. An hour later orders were ent out to the same officer to reoccupy the line of posts held in the early morning. The latter movement was carried out at dusk. At 7p.m. the 4th Middlesex began the relief of the Somersets in Puisieux and Ancre Trenches , while two companies of the York and Lancaster R. took over the line of posts. (Lce./Sergt. W. Hedley was awarded the D.C.M. for conspicuous gallantry on the night of 17/18th November, and for their gallantry on 18th November 2/Lieuts. F.H. Baker and C.B.Tubbs were awarded the M.C. and C.S.M. Henman the D.C.M.)

The inventor's full name was Frederick Wilfrid (possibly Wilfred) Stokes and he became head of Ransome and Rapier, engineers of Ipswich (later part of RHP the bearings concern of Newark, Nottinghamshire), Read no further if you are feeling squeamish. CBT in his memoirs reports that he was one of the first Regimental bombing officers in WWI. He graduated from making home-made bombs, nowadays known as IEDs - i.e. hand grendades propelled via a form of gigantic catapult, to the very much more sophisticated Stokes 3" trench mortar. I had spent ten years in quiet pursuit of a Stokes Mortar, having not found one in the Imperial War Museum or the Royal Armories at Leeds, though later and larger mortars have been displayed there. One finally turned up in the newly commercialised whizzo affair called Thinktank that used to be the Birmingham Industrial Museum, but very badly lit so the picture is not good. Stokes mortars were designed as a private venture and fully developed by Stokes before being deployed. Introduced in 1915, they were manufactured by the Birmingham Small Arms Company, it seems. Compare my picture with one of the production weapon.The Stokes gun was the Allies' answer to the Moaning Minnie. Its projectiles used a release mechanism similar to that of a Mills bomb. With a range between 150 and 1200 yards the bomb could be made to drop into an enemy trench, with forseeable consequences.

Since then I have photographed Stokes mortars both at the IWM who have displayed a sectioned example and at In Flanders Fields in Ieper where they also display a Stokes Gun with one round in its box

Routine liaison with other officers had threatened a dangerous amount of social drinking and CBT had become teetotal for the duration. He was posted to take charge of a large munitions dump on the racecourse at Dieppe. The website of the racecourse records only:-

En 1913, la Société des courses de Deauville se vit octroyer l’autorisation de courir dès le dernier jeudi du mois d’août. Malgré les protestations de Dieppe, elle dut s’incliner et le meeting de 1914 se déroula dans les mêmes conditions. Pendant les cinq années qui suivirent il ne fut plus question de courses… En 1919, l’hippodrome de Dieppe-Rouxmesnil put rouvrir ; mais la situation de concurrence avec Deauville n’était pas terminée. Deauville obtient de courir jusqu’au dernier dimanche d’Août et même deux jours supplémentaires pendant la semaine du meeting dieppois. Malgré la grande implication du conseil municipal de Dieppe et les multiples démarches de la Société des courses de Dieppe, la situation perdura. In other words a dispute with the races at Deauville weighed nearly as heavily against racing at Dieppe as the fact that it was occupied by a munitions dump with its own railway system. Nevertheless racing resumed in 1919. August has always been the time for horse racing in Dieppe, no doubt to coincide with the holiday influx from Paris. A star witness to the return of racing is no less than Water Richard Sickert, one time member of the Camden Town group heretoforementioned in these pages and an outside runner in the Who-was-Jack-the-Ripper stakes, a theory that is nowadays not taken seriously. He returned to live in Dieppe for a while after the war, having first painted there in the 1880s. To my mind this is one of his finest works and I was already struck by its magnificence before I realised the significance of its setting. The painting can be found at the Birmingham City Art Gallery. At my visit the painting was hanging in the same room as fine works by Churchill's chum Alfred Munnings, generally considered to be the best English painter of horses of the 20th century. I'd take the Sickert any day, though the image does not reproduce well.

Sickert's painting of the 1919 race meeting

The racecourse came off much worse during the 1939-45 war. It was mined, bombed and had blockhouses built on it. Racing did not resume until 1947.

CBT held the acting rank of Captain, which was confirmed as a permanent promotion only after he left the army. Online searches for this dump produce only reference to CBT's memoirs, though it had its own railway lines which ought ot have come to the notice of some military railway buff. He was subjected to attempted break-ins by his superiors testing CBT's security dispositions, which resulted in a successful request for the size of the company to be doubled to 250 and a reminder that his men had orders to shoot intruders on site. These were mostly outcasts from various different regiments. I surmise there would have been ROD (Railways Operating Department) staff and Ordnance workers in addition. Despite having the comforts of Dieppe within easy reach he remained teetotal until the end of the war, celebrating the Armistice on ginger ale and bitters.

Click to view studio portrait of Captain Tubbs

Here began an aspect of his army career that was most unusual, I think, for an officer of only very modest educational attainment. He was frequently required to attend courts martial, often prosecuting men for drunkenness, but much more surprisingly he gained a reputation for his ability to get men off from more serious charges. He mentions the most serious incident in which he was involved, in fact one of the greatest UK shipping disasters of the twentieth century in home waters, and according to an evidently incomplete list on Wikpedia it's in the top 20-30 of all time maritime disasters, but the details of how the unfortunate prisoner came to his attention are still not clear to me. It happened on 21st February 1917. SS Mendi, a steamer of 4230 tons, had been requisitioned as a troopship from the Elder Dempster line, which sounds like a genealogical offshoot of the Daily Mail Diary, but was a major shipping company. The Merchant Navy Class of locomotive celebrated shipping lines using the port of Southampton that was served by the Southern Railway. The locomotive Elder Dempster Line was scrapped in 1968 though 11 of the 30 in its class survive in one form or another, a very high rate of survival. Mendi was carrying a force of 800 or so black members of the South African Labour Corps and their white officers from South Africa, via Lagos and Plymouth to France. She was heading for Le Havre, escorted by the destroyer HMS Brisk, when she was struck by the SS Darro, an empty meat ship that was bound for Argentina.

The hero of the day is claimed to have been the padre on the trooper, Reverend Isaac Dyobha, who is said to have calmed the doomed men on the deck of the Mendi thus:- Be quiet and calm, my countrymen. What is happening now is what you came to do...you are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the death drill. I, a Xhosa, say you are my brothers...Swazis, Pondos, Basotho...so let us die like brothers. We are the sons of Africa. Raise your war-cries, brothers, for though they made us leave our assegais in the kraal, our voices are left with our bodies. - While this may be imaginary or embroidered it is surprising that it is not better known for its moral in the bitter South African struggle of the 20th century.

Sergeant Major Nichols, the defendant, must have been on the Mendi and appears to have escaped from the disaster in a rowing boat. He was charged with "Disgraceful conduct of a cruel kind" for fighting off other survivors trying to get into his boat. There were 24 witnesses for the prosecution and 23 for the defence. CBT had to conduct the defence himself. The first barrister briefed for the defence, named Ochs, had a breakdown caused by overwork just before the trial. Next in the cab rank was a man named Smith who succumbed to delirum tremens, leaving the teetotal Tubbs in charge.The trial lasted two and a half days and Nichols was acquitted. Apparently he showed no gratitude to CBT, despite celebrating his acquital most vigorously. Link to Audio memoir There is now a synopsis of the tapes on that site which is marred by some serious misprints, but there is reference to Court Martial.

The master of the Darro, Henry W Stump, had his licence suspended for a year at a separate hearing, and it remains a mystery why he did not got to the assistance of the Mendi, but there is speculation that racial prejudice may have been involved. 646 men died of whom 30 were British crew and the remainder almost all from the black community. Most of the survivors were picked up by the destroyer.

In 2017 the Centenary was marked at several locations and We die like Brothers was published by Historic England who look after the wreck, but there is no mention of the Court Martial in that book.

CBT's return to the consumption of alcohol may have been occasioned by the outbreak of influenza which in Western Europe followed closely on the Armistice. CBT caught the lethal strain of 'flu and was dosed with hot whisky by his batman, Sonny Jim Richardson, whose widow Leili I remember meeting in CBT's flat in Finchley around 1959-60. The 1918-1919 outbreak of 'flu is said to have killed 500 Million people worldwide. This version of the story differs from one that the whisky was applied to his leg wound, but my version is direct from CBT's memoir and is likely to be correct. CBT states only that iodine was applied to the wound. CBT mentions two other batmen in his memoirs, both with improbable names. Trigger, who appears to have been a loveable rogue from the private Walker school of retail therapy, was killed near Armentieres around the time of CBT's injury. His batman at the time of his second term in the trenches during the battle of the Ancre rejoiced in the name of Pike, but I am not supposed to have told you that!