13 December 2017
A speech by VW Bro Graham Redman, Deputy Grand Secretary, and VW Bro John Hamill, Deputy Grand Chancellor
GFR: MW Pro Grand Master and Brethren, after a two-year break, I propose to jump-start this presentation by harking back to the Act of Union between the Antients’ and the Moderns’ Grand Lodges, Article III of which provided:
There shall be the most perfect unity of obligation, of discipline, of working the Lodges, of making, passing and raising, instructing and clothing Brothers; so that but one pure unsullied system, according to the genuine landmarks, laws and traditions of the Craft, shall be maintained, upheld and practised, throughout the Masonic World, from the day and date of the said union until time shall be no more.
In order to effect this, the Act provided for the setting up of a Lodge of Reconciliation, consisting of nine worthy Brethren from each of the former Grand Lodges, who were charged initially with settling obligations and subsequently with settling the forms of the openings and closings and the ceremonies, of the three Degrees of Craft Masonry.
At a Special Communication of the Grand Lodge at Freemasons’ Hall on Monday 20 June 1816,
The MW Grand Master stated that he had convened this special Grand Lodge that the Lodge of Reconciliation might exhibit and explain to the Brethren the result of their arrangement. That it was not His Royal Highness’s intention that any discussion should this day take place as to those arrangements; but that at the Quarterly Communication on the 5th of next month he should submit them for the opinion and sanction of the Grand Lodge, so that the Brethren might in the interim have an opportunity of giving them due consideration.
The Officers and Members of the Lodge of Reconciliation then opened a lodge in the first, second and third degrees successively and exhibited the ceremonies of initiating, passing and raising a Mason as proposed by them for general adoption and practice in the Craft.
At the June Quarterly Communication just over two weeks later,
The minutes of the Grand Lodge on the 20th of May last, when the ceremonies and practices recommended by the Lodge of Reconciliation were exhibited and explained, were read, and alterations on two points, the third degree, having been resolved upon. The several ceremonies recommended were approved and confirmed.
I have to admit that I am much taken by the opening words of the Report of the Board of General Purposes:
The Board of General Purposes have to report that during the present quarter there has scarcely arisen anything of importance for them to report upon to the Grand Lodge. (Happy days)
JMH: MW Pro Grand Master and Brethren, like many special Masonic Committees before and after it, the Lodge of Reconciliation went a great deal further than its original brief of settling the form of the obligations and openings and closings. Before the Union, in both Grand Lodges, the actual ceremonies were very brief: in essence the candidate was introduced, took an obligation and had the signs, words and token of the degree conferred upon him. The manner of instructing him in the principles, tenets, history and symbolism of the Craft was by means of catechetical lectures, normally worked at table. The Lodge of Reconciliation greatly extended the simple ceremonies by including material from the catechetical lectures which, sadly, gradually dropped out of use excerpt in the Emulation Lodge of Improvement where sections of them are worked every Friday evening during the Masonic season. I say sadly because the lectures contain a wealth of information which provides answers to many of the questions that brethren regularly raise about our ritual and practices.
The original aim of establishing perfect unanimity of working was never achieved, for the simple reason that Grand Lodge would not allow the revised ritual to be written down or printed in any form. The Lodge of Reconciliation, once its work was agreed, was continued in being to provide weekly demonstrations of the new system, to which lodges were invited to send representatives. You can imagine, brethren, what happened. The only means of transport to London in those days was by foot, horse, carriage or water. Brethren from the North, the West and Wales would travel for days to get to London, see the ceremonies demonstrated perhaps twice and then irritated the heck out of their companions in the coach travelling home muttering under their breaths to try and remember what they had seen and heard! Arriving home they would call together their brethren and demonstrate to them what they thought they had seen in London. This method of promulgation combined with an unwillingness to give up cherished local traditions has resulted in the richness and variety of working under our constitution, which makes visiting all the more interesting for us.
GFR: At the September Quarterly Communication, RW Bro William Williams, the Provincial Grand Master for Dorset addressed the Grand Lodge and stated that he had been informed that at the meeting of the General Committee held on the 21st of August last (at which he was not present) a Brother whom he now saw in the Grand Lodge had there made against him a charge of the most grave and serious nature, and of which charge if he were guilty he declared that he felt himself unworthy of the name of a Mason and that he ought never to be permitted again to enter within the walls of a Lodge, but feeling himself properly innocent of the crime charged against him, he called upon that Brother now to state it, and he implored the Grand Lodge to allow a Special Committee to be immediately appointed for the purpose of enquiring into its truth or falsehood.
W Bro Charles Bonner then rose and stated that he had at the General Committee mentioned his intention of preferring a charge against the Provincial Grand Master for Dorset for violating his obligation as a Master Mason and which charge he was ready to prove before any Committee the Grand Lodge might think proper to appoint; Whereupon after much discussion as to the necessity and propriety of appointing a Special Committee,
It was resolved that a Special Committee consisting of the actual Masters of the 15 senior lodges now present be nominated to investigate such charge to be preferred by Brother Bonner against Brother Williams.
JMH: William Williams was one of the leading members of the small group of Masonic advisers working with the Grand Master, HRH The Duke of Sussex, to ensure that the Union of the two Grand Lodges succeeded and to manage the necessary changes it brought about. A man of integrity in response to Bonner’s call for an enquiry he “solicited a Special Committee, because being himself a member of the Board of General Purposes he was unwilling that they should investigate the charge lest it might be imagined from his being a member there should exist even the slightest tendency to look partially towards him; he knew there could not be any fair ground for such an opinion, but he was still anxious to avoid any thing that could give even a colour for such a thought”. Those with long memories will remember our having referred to Brother Bonner on a previous occasion when he fomented unnecessary problems within Grand Lodge!
GFR: At a Special meeting in October the Committee reported to Grand Lodge. It gave Bro Williams a clean bill of health, feeling it appropriate not to let the matter go “without subjoining to their report a few observations.” The observations start:
When your Committee assert that not a shadow of proof was adduced in support of one of the most serious charges that was ever preferred by one mason against another and that the proceedings which they had the pain of witnessing exhibited so far as Brother Bonnor was concerned in them nothing short of a disgusting mockery of the forms of justice the Grand Lodge will judge with what mixed feelings of astonishment, regret and indignation your Committee were impressed when they found themselves compelled by a general conviction of the futility of the charge to impute it solely to a base attempt of the part of Brother Bonnor to assail in the tenderist point the fair character of a Brother mason.
They didn’t mince their words in those days – and it would be greedy of me not to leave to my colleague the opportunity to regale you with some more of their remarks.
JMH: Plain speaking it certainly was! The Committee went on to question the sanity of Bonner adding “unfortunately, however, for Brother Bonner his poisoned shafts have recoiled upon himself” adding that “the only effect of his charge has been to manifest in his own conduct clear and abundant proof of the commission of the very crime which he has in vain imputed to another”. They then drew Grand Lodge’s attention to Bonner’s previous behaviour stating that “They should have hoped that Brother Bonner’s recollection of his own prior and recorded delinquencies and a grateful sense of the indulgence of the Grand Lodge in restoring him to the participation of those privileges which he had so justly forfeited by his misconduct would have operated as a salutary check upon the un-masonic feelings the indulgence of which has a second time led to his disgrace …”.
GFR: At the December Quarterly Communication, Bro Bonner was “introduced between two Grand Stewards”, made a long statement disclaiming any intention to injure the character of Bro William Williams, coupled with an apology to the Grand Master and Grand Lodge, and withdrew while the matter was debated. Nevertheless, it was resolved
That the original offence of Brother Bonner remains unanswered, but that in consideration of his having publicly acknowledged his error, and made an ample apology to the MW Grand Master to the Provincial GM for Dorset and to the Brethren at large, the Grand Lodge do not feel inclined to visit his misconduct with the sentence of expulsion; in order however to mark their displeasure and also their solicitude for the dignity and tranquillity of the Craft do deprive him of his insignia as a Grand Officer, and of all rights derived therefrom, allowing him to remain in possession of his masonic privileges.
That the preceding resolution respecting Brother Bonner be communicated to the Grand Lodges of Scotland and Ireland.
JMH: When the Minutes of the December meeting were put for confirmation on 5th March 1817 they were passed with the exception of the sentences passed on Bonner. It was agreed not to report the matter to Ireland and Scotland but his being deprived of his Grand Rank, after a paper from him had been read out, was again put to the vote and “passed in the affirmative by a very large majority”.
GFR: At the Quarterly Communication of 1 March 1916, after the re-election of the Grand Master, the Deputy Grand Master announced three special appointments to Grand Rank. One was the representative of another Grand Lodge at the United Grand Lodge of England, but the other two were Brethren at that time interned respectively in Holland and Germany.
The full justification for the latter two appointments was made clear in the Report of the Board of General Purposes. W Bro Commodore Wilfred Henderson, RN, appointed a Past Senior Grand Deacon, had been instrumental in the formation of a Lodge under the Grand East of the Netherlands for naval officers and men interned at Gröningen. W Bro Percy Hull, appointed Past Deputy Grand Organist, had rendered great service to the English Brethren interned in the civilian camp at Rühleben, Spandau.
JMH: Despite its horrors, the First World War has sometimes been characterised as the last “gentleman’s war” because of the way in which it was conducted and the honourable treatment accorded to prisoners of war, be they service personnel or civilians. As we reported on a previous occasion 112 Masonic civilian prisoners of war interned at Ruheleben had sent Christmas greetings to Grand Lodge in 1914. They were suffering privations in 1916 and 1917 due to food rationing in Germany and were sustained by parcels funded by brethren in England and delivered through diplomatic channels and by the Red Cross. As we shall hear in a moment despite those privations they did not forget the bi-centenary celebrations of Grand Lodge in 1917. The Lodge for whose formation Commodore Henderson was honoured was the Gastvrijheid Lodge consecrated in May 1915 by the Grand East of the Netherlands amongst members of the Royal Naval Division interned at Groningen. It was to be joined in 1918 by a second Lodge, the Willem van Oranje Lodge, again consecrated amongst interned British service personnel by the Grand East of the Netherlands. After the end of the war both lodges transferred to England and became Nos. 3970 and 3976 on the register of Grand Lodge.
GFR: The violent anti-German sentiments expressed in December 1915, by W Bro Col. Charles Cassal, PDepGSwdB, resurfaced at this meeting. The Board of General Purposes had considered Col. Cassal’s proposals put forward at the previous Communication, and had produced a more moderate form of words to deal with the relationship between English Masons and those under Grand Lodges in Germany and its allies, both during and after the War. The Colonel, however, took exception to a part of the Board’s statement and – such was the feeling in Grand Lodge – succeeded in having that part referred back to the Board. Nevertheless the Board substantially got its way over the resolution that arose from its report.
After the rather ill-natured atmosphere and debate in March, the June Communication was altogether more amicable. After the adoption of the Minutes, the Deputy Grand Master delivered a statement:
I am desired by the MW Grand Master to state that, having regard to the unprecedented character of the present War and the intense feelings it has aroused, which show no sign of abatement, the Grand Master has decided that, during its progress and until such time after the treaty of peace has been signed as in the future he may determine, there shall be no intercourse or exchange of representatives between the United Grand Lodge of England and Grand Lodges in enemy Countries. and that such Grand Lodges shall be omitted during that period from the list of bodies in the "Masonic Year Book" recognised as in association with this Grand Lodge.
This appears to have spiked the guns of Bro Cassal, because after the adoption of the Board’s Report had been moved a few minutes later, but before the vote had been taken, he rose to address Grand Lodge – at his usual length – to say, among other things:
I came here… intending, and I informed the General Committee of Grand Lodge of my intention, to move an amendment in the shape of a refere; but, having heard the gracious message of the MW Grand Master, I consider that the position of affairs is entirely altered, and… it is not necessary for me to take up the time of Grand Lodge in criticising the Report of the Board of General Purposes as I had intended to do with a good deal of severity.
JMH: Despite his promise, Brother Cassal, like Brother Bonner one hundred years before him, did take up Grand Lodge’s time with another windy speech which, happily made no difference when the resolution was put. The atmosphere at the March Communication, in which the debate was not only ill-natured but at times un-masonic, was symptomatic of the great wave of anti – German feeling then sweeping the nation at that time, which ultimately led even to HM King George V, in 1917, changing his dynasty’s name to Windsor and other members of the family dropping their German titles and accepting English peerages.
One possible reason for the more subdued meeting in June was the fact that news had reached England that Field Marshal Earl Kitchener, KG, on a mission to Russia, had perished with his staff officers and the Captain and crew of HMS Hampshire when it was torpedoed by the Germans two days before the Quarterly Communication. Kitchener had been a very active Freemason holding office successively as District Grand Master for Egypt and the Sudan and for the Punjab.
GFR: It was at this meeting that amendments to the Book of Constitutions were brought forward to ensure the representation of Provincial Brethren on the Board of General Purposes.
JMH: The lack of Provincial representation “in the counsels of the Craft” had become a very sore point. Whilst there might have been some justification in the past for selecting only London Past Masters, because of their ability to attend Board meetings, the coming of the railway network had made London much more accessible to Provincial Brethren. The new Board was to consist of ex officio members, 8 members appointed by the Grand Master, 12 elected by London and 12 elected by the Provinces.
GFR: In September much of the time of Grand Lodge was taken up with discussion of the new Entertainments tax, which had come like “a bolt from the blue” in the Finance (New Duties) Act 1916. The Board’s Report states:
The Commissioners [of Customs] hold that the duty can be claimed in all cases where musical or other entertainments, other than the making of speeches, follow Masonic dinners, though no specific or separate charge is made for admission, and no fee paid to the entertainers. Concerning the basis on which the duty would be assessed with the least inconvenience, the Commissioners have not yet communicated their intentions; and the Board expresses the hope that they will draw up a form of return to enable Secretaries of Lodges to give the information required for the assessment of the duty.
and the President by way of amplification said:
I was strongly in the belief, and even more strongly in the hope, that the claim would prove unsubstantial, and would break down when fairly examined. I think I have at least as intimate an acquaintance with the ordinary everyday opinion of Parliament as any Brother present, and I knew, and I am still of the same opinion, that not a single Member of the House of Commons dreamed that this enactment could possibly apply to such gatherings as ours. I think, moreover, that…. the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and even the Commissioners of Customs themselves, had no idea when this clause was originally drafted that it would have so wide a sweep. But the Commissioners of Customs – and Brethren, the way of the tax-gatherer is hard, especially for those who have to pay him – the Commissioners discovered in the Act something that went far beyond what Parliament intended, but which it is submitted went no farther than Parliament enacted….
I regret to say that the opinion of … distinguished Counsel upon the case laid before them, and after considering the Act of Parliament, was directly adverse to our hope that we did not come within the tax. One point they suggested… that we should have an interview on the matter with the Commissioners of Customs before taking any further steps. That interview was held with the Commissioners, who were extremely polite, but all the same they made it perfectly clear that they intended to have the money.
JMH: In December the President of the Board of General Purposes was able to report that further discussions had been had with the Commissioners of Customs and Excise and agreement had been reached that provided any entertainment at a festive board was impromptu and not pre-arranged it would not be taxable. The Entertainment Tax remained operable until it was withdrawn in 1960 and Grand Lodge had from time to time to remind brethren of its existence.
GFR: The Quarterly Communication in December was notable for a visit, after Grand Lodge had opened, from the Grand Master, His Royal Highness The Duke of Connaught, newly returned from the Dominion of Canada. After he had delivered a short speech and invested the President of the Board of Benevolence, the first verse of the National Anthem was sung and the Grand Master retired in procession.
The Board’s Report contained a paragraph about the introduction of musical items into the ceremonies. And after the Report had been adopted the President moved the following resolution:
That Grand Lodge is of opinion that the introduction of instrumental or vocal music during Masonic Ceremonies is not per se objectionable, but that, in regard to the latter, it is essential that the words are strictly in accord with Masonic principles, practices and procedure; that they are not identified with an exclusive form of religious worship; and that they are submitted before use to the Grand Secretary for approval by the Grand Master…. in order to secure that these conditions, preventing an innovation in the Body of Masonry, are strictly adhered to.
Before the resolution could be seconded, Bro George Rankin, PAGDC, rose to propose an amendment
That Grand Lodge is of opinion that the introduction of instrumental music during Masonic ceremonies is not per se objectionable, but it still adheres to its historic desire for more rather than less uniformity in the ritual of Freemasonry. Grand Lodge cannot therefore consent to the insertion of hymns or anthems or other foreign matter into the body of the ceremonies.
As I have a remote connection with Bro Rankin, I will leave it to my colleague to add his comment on this matter.
JMH: Brother Rankin as well as being a member of the Board of General Purposes was also the Senior Member of the Committee of the Emulation Lodge of Improvement. In addition to ambushing the President of the Board by proposing an amendment without notice, he appears to have got the wrong end of the stick! The motion before Grand Lodge was to control the type of hymns and anthems used during ceremonies so that the universality of the Craft would not be endangered. Rankin seems to have believed that the Board was innovating in matters of ritual and trying to introduce new matters into the ceremonies. His amendment was put to the vote and lost.
GFR: The same meeting was also notable for a motion to transfer the hearing of appeals in disciplinary matters from Grand Lodge to a “Judicial Committee of Grand Lodge”; and for a motion by W Bro Freke Palmer (a Metropolitan magistrate) to amend the Book of Constitutions to limit the number of candidates for any one degree to two on any one occasion.
JMH: Both propositions were held over for future discussions resulting in much of Grand Lodge’s time being consumed with the hearing in great details of appeals against decisions by higher authority. In the debate on limiting the number of candidates for any one degree the Provincial Grand Master for Devonshire gave some incredible statistics, stating of one Lodge in his Province “at one meeting there were 2 initiations, 11 passings and 8 raisings; at the next meeting there were 3 initiations, 11 passings and 8 raisings; and at the next meeting 4 initiations, 9 passings and 9 raisings.”
GFR: In March 1917 Bro Freke Palmer returned to the adjourned motion. Much debate ensued, in the course of which amendments were proposed by several Brethren, including our old friend Col. Cassal, but in the end Bro Palmer’s motion was successful and the Book of Constitutions was amended. the Rule surviving, except for its final sentence, to the present day in the form of Rule 168.
JMH: No doubt the passing of the motion was assisted by comments from the President of the Board who stated that one Lodge which he described as having an ordinary membership of 120 in 1916 performed 83 initiations, 86 passings and 82 raisings.
The motion to remove the appeals procedure from Grand Lodge to a Committee was effectively kicked into touch and was not finally achieved until 1963.
GFR: In June, the Pro Grand Master, Lord Ampthill, making his first appearance in Grand Lodge for several years, was received with cheers, when he rose at the beginning of the meeting to address the Brethren:
I am extremely fortunate in having this opportunity of visiting Grand Lodge, and I feel that I am doubly and trebly fortunate in being able to carry away with me as I shall, the recollection of your more than kind and generous greeting. Believe me, it is not without considerable diffidence that I have come here…. But I want to thank you with all my heart for having continued to me that friendship and goodwill and kindness to which I owe so much. My resignation was in the hands of the MW Grand Master after the first few months of the war, and I fully expected that the Grand Master would accept it. But he has been pleased to re-appoint me now on three occasions, and that he has done so can only be due to the fact that it is believed to be your wish that I should continue. (Cheers).
Before the Report of the Board of General Purposes was taken, Lord Ampthill congratulated its President on the knighthood he had recently received.
The Board’s Report itself may fairly be said to be packed full of goodies:
After a general exhortation to the Craft to exercise due economy and even abstinence in those troubled times, there was a tribute to the Grand Secretary, Sir Edward Letchworth – the first of the great Grand Secretaries – who had just completed a quarter of a century’s service in that office.
The Report also signalled several changes to the Book of Constitutions which still survive today: the placing of a positive duty on the Master of a Lodge to exercise a casting vote on any equality of voting in a Lodge; the introduction of a Rule prohibiting a Lodge from passing or raising a Brother from another Lodge except at the written request of that Lodge; and the conferment on the Grand Master of the power to form Lodges abroad not under Districts into Groups under what are now known as Grand Inspectors.
JMH: The President of the Board of General Purposes, Brother Alfred Robins, was a major figure in the world of journalism and had received his knighthood for services to the press. As a young Past Master he had regularly raised questions in Grand Lodge, leading to his being elected to the Board of General Purposes. He worked untiringly for Grand Lodge both at home and overseas and did much to publicise the Craft and to build good relations with the press. It was due to his persistence that we are meeting here today as he skilfully managed both the financing and the construction of the present Freemasons’ Hall.
My co-presenter rightly characterises Sir Edward Letchworth as the first of the great Grand Secretaries. A solicitor by profession, though he practised only for a short time having private means, he had been very involved in the growing militia movement, which brought him to the attention of the then Prince of Wales and other courtiers. He also encountered the Prince of Wales in Freemasonry and it was on the latter’s suggestion that he was offered the Grand Secretaryship in 1892 when Col Shadwell Clerke unexpectedly died. Although approaching 60 when appointed he took to the office with relish and quickly established a reputation for his Masonic knowledge and his diplomatic skills. As Grand Secretary he was responsible for the administration of London Freemasonry, then expanding greatly. Were there a Guinness Book of Masonic records he would have earned a place as during his 25 years in office he consecrated nearly 500 lodges and chapters. Much respected and held in affection by the many he came into contact with, he died a few short months after his retirement in 1917 to universal regret.
GFR: Grand Lodge assembled for an Especial Meeting at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday 23 June to celebrate the Bi-Centenary of the first Grand Lodge. After Grand Lodge had been opened in due form by the Deputy Grand Master, the Grand Master was received, and after he had been saluted he announced an exchange of telegrams with his Majesty King George V:
Eight thousand Masons are assembling in the Albert Hall this day to celebrate the 200th Anniversary of British Freemasonry in England. I desire on their behalf to take this opportunity of renewing our expressions of loyalty and devotion to your Throne and Person, and to wish you long life and happiness. We pray that victory may crown your arms, and that a just and lasting peace may be the result (Signed) Arthur, Grand Master.
The King had replied:
I have received with much satisfaction the message which you, as Grand Master, have conveyed to me from 8,000 Freemasons, who to day celebrate the 200th Anniversary of British Freemasonry in England. Please thank them most heartily in my name. The traditional loyalty of British Freemasons is a force upon which the Sovereign of this country has ever reckoned, and has been to me a proud memory during the anxious years through which we are passing. (Signed) George, R. & I.
The following morning a service was held in the same venue, with the Lessons being read by the Deputy Grand Master and the Grand Secretary, and an Address by the Bishop of Birmingham, Grand Chaplain. At the conclusion the National Anthem was sung in full.
JMH: With no fire regulations and no health and safety committees over 8,000 Brethren were able to attend the celebration of the Bi-centenary of Grand Lodge at the Royal Albert Hall, how different from modern times! In addition to representatives from the Grand Lodges of Ireland and Scotland the attendance included senior representatives from Grand Lodges in the Empire and the United States of America, many of them being serving officers passing through London on their way to the front. Fortunately the Grand Master, HRH The Duke of Connaught, who was serving as Commander in Chief in Canada was in London for an Imperial Council and was able to preside at both the special Grand Lodge and the service on the following day.
To mark the anniversary and the part played by the remaining three of the four Lodges who came together to form the Grand Lodge in 1717 the Grand Master announced that in future the collars of their officers would be distinguished by the addition of a central Garter blue stripe. The three Masters were called up and were invested by the Grand Master with their new collars.
Amongst the many greetings and congratulations which had been received was a beautifully illuminated address from the Brethren still held in the prisoner of war camp in Ruhleben, now preserved in the Grand Lodge archives, which the Grand Secretary read out and was met with cheers from the assembled brethren.
Had war not broken out in 1914 it had been the intention to have what the Grand Master described as “a great imperial celebration in London” to mark the bi-centenary of Grand Lodge. Many of those who spoke at the Royal Albert Hall lamented the fact that the war had prevented representatives from overseas, from both our own lodges and from sister Grand Lodges, from taking part in what should have been the largest representative gathering of Freemasons from around the world. It was to be another hundred years before that dream was achieved with our recent celebration of the tercentenary of the formation of Grand Lodge at which almost 150 sister Grand Lodges were represented. But that, as they say, is a story to be told on a future occasion, no doubt by Graham’s and my successors in December 2117!
Not for parades
A model of ruthless efficiency, the Machine Gun Corps was only in existence for seven years. Paul Hooley charts its beginnings, endings and the creation of a masonic lodge
As the First World War began, the tactical use of the machine gun was largely unappreciated. There was no coordinated training, and infantry and cavalry units were allocated two guns each. This was added to in November 1914 by the formation of the Motor Machine Gun Service, administered by the Royal Artillery, which consisted of motorcycle-mounted machine-gun batteries.
However, a year of warfare on the Western Front highlighted the need for larger machine gun units crewed by specially selected and trained men. After much debate, this led to the formation of the Machine Gun Corps in October 1915.
From the start, it was perceived as being an elite corps that drew many of the best men from infantry and cavalry regiments. This frequently aroused jealousy and resentment at all levels within the army. While machine gunners always attracted admiration, they were also viewed as being mavericks who, out of necessity, showed an independence of thought and action. Tony Ashworth in Trench Warfare, 1914-18: The Live and Let Live System references ‘a lance corporal in charge of a gun in action who became detached from his superiors, would be the sole judge as to the best position for his gun, and when and where it should be fired’. Collectively known as the ‘Suicide Club’, they were always first in and last out of every action, as the moment a gun started up it became the target of every enemy weapon within range.
Following its formation, brigade machine gun sections were transferred to the Machine Gun Corps, while its headquarters, together with a depot and training centre, were established at Belton Park near Grantham, Lincolnshire. It was from here that all new machine-gun companies were raised.
‘The lodge was named Maguncor after the telegraphic code word used for “machine gun corps” during the First World War’
Initially there were three branches to the corps – Infantry, Cavalry and Motor. In early 1916 a Heavy Section (renamed Heavy Branch that same year) was added, and the men of that branch crewed the first tanks at the Battle of the Somme. In 1917, the Heavy Branch separated from the Machine Gun Corps to become the Tank Corps – although some of the men continued to display the Machine Gun Corps insignia.
The corps gained a reputation as a frontline force. Some 170,500 officers and others served with the corps, of whom 62,049 became casualties. Among those who died manning their guns in the Battle of Arras in May 1917 were my grandfather, Richard Foot, and his brother, Roland. They and a third brother, John, had joined the corps in late 1916, where they were issued with consecutive numbers, and they did their training at Grantham before being sent to the Western Front.
While my grandfather and great uncles were undergoing their intensive training at Grantham, a group of officers were in discussions with Brigadier-General Henry Cecil de la Montague Hill concerning the possibility of establishing a masonic lodge dedicated to the corps. The idea was approved, and this led to the formation and consecration of Maguncor Lodge, No. 3806, at the Guildhall, Grantham on 20 September 1917, with the brigadier general himself becoming the first Senior Warden.
The lodge was named Maguncor after the telegraphic code word used for ‘machine gun corps’ during the First World War. Before the lodge was formed, 10 meetings were held in 1917 under the aegis of Grantham’s long-established Doric Lodge. The Consecration ceremony was conducted by the Provincial Grand Master of Lincolnshire, the Earl of Yarborough. By the end of the lodge’s first year, 72 candidates had been initiated and a further 48 officers had become joining members, raising the membership to 132.
In August 1918, a large number of Maguncor members were moved to Alnwick in Northumberland to form a Machine Gun Corps sub-depot. Because they were unable to attend meetings in Grantham, the Alnwick Lodge allowed members to meet at its premises. Then in early 1919, the Machine Gun Corps was moved to Shorncliffe in Kent. Again, this would have proved difficult for some to attend meetings, so with the help of Castle Lodge, which offered its premises, meetings were held at nearby Sandgate from October 1919 until January 1921.
In early 1921, with the Machine Gun Corps being absorbed into various other corps, a decision was made to apply to the United Grand Lodge of England for Maguncor to become a London lodge. This was granted, and in August, the 45th Regular meeting was held in the old Freemasons’ Hall on Great Queen Street. After the building of the current Freemasons’ Hall on Great Queen Street, Maguncor Lodge meetings were held there until 2007, when the lodge moved to its present home: Mark Masons’ Hall on St James’s Street.
Thirteen members of Maguncor Lodge were killed during the war, and three more during the Second World War. The lodge annually lays a wreath of poppies at the Machine Gun Corps Memorial at London’s Hyde Park Corner, where the inscription on the main column reads: ‘Erected to commemorate the glorious heroes of the Machine Gun Corps who fell in the Great War.’ And then below, a quotation from the Book of Samuel: ‘Saul hath slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands’.
OPEN TO CIVILIANS
Membership of Maguncor was originally restricted to Machine Gun Corps officers. After it disbanded in 1922, this was extended to serving officers of any army units, followed by ex-serving officers, officers of other armed services and later to other ranks. Membership was opened to civilians in the 1960s.
Maguncor Lodge is proud to have had two Victoria Cross-holders – Captain William Allison White and Major James Palmer Huffam – as members. Another of Maguncor’s members, Col William Musson, was awarded the George Medal for his bravery as a civilian in the Second World War.
Lodge members of the Machine Gun Corps would have been unable to fire machine guns while wearing gloves, and this resulted in brethren of Maguncor Lodge not wearing gloves during their ceremonies. There are a number of other subtle differences in its ceremonies, including the use of the sword of the aforementioned Captain White, VC and the apron of Brigadier-General Noble Fleming Jenkins, seventh Master of the lodge, who died in 1927 after trying to save a woman from drowning at St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex. A solid-silver model of a Vickers gun is also displayed at each Festive Board.
The Machine Gun Corps was disbanded in 1922 as a cost-cutting measure after just seven years. All of its operational records, its establishments and regimental orders were destroyed in a fire at its last headquarters at Shorncliffe in 1920. Not a single sheet of paper survived the fire, and even the partly written history of the corps was lost.
In his book With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, machine-gunner George Coppard wrote of the corps: ‘No military pomp attended its birth or decease. It was not a famous regiment with glamour and whatnot, but a great fighting corps, born for war only and not for parades.’
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR - NO. 41 SPRING 2018
Matter of record
Concerning my article about the Machine Gun Corps that appeared in the Winter 2017 edition of the magazine, a number of readers have asked why so few records of the Corps exist today. The answer is simple: the vast majority were lost in a fire that occurred in a store at Somerset Barracks, Shorncliffe, near Folkestone, the then headquarters of the Corps, during the early hours of Thursday 18 June 1920.
It took 20 men from two fire stations, together with military fire pickets, three hours to get the blaze under control. The cost of the damage was estimated to be £4,000 (£175,000 today) and the cause of the fire was recorded as being ‘unknown’.
As was explained in the article, the Machine Gun Corps had been considered to be an elite corps and machine gunners were often seen as being mavericks who could decide themselves where they would position their guns and who and what they fired at. This frequently aroused jealousy and outrage at all levels within the army.
The Corps was disbanded soon after the Great War and it has been suggested that the army establishment wanted to quickly forget it had ever existed – for it had taken away from the long-established infantry regiments some of the very best and cleverest officers and the line regiments had been combed for recruits, taking the fittest and the best to meet demands for evermore intelligent young men to man the guns.
Little wonder therefore that its demise was looked upon with satisfaction in some quarters and with suspicion in others, for the entire contents of the store were destroyed – not a single sheet of paper survived and even the partly written history of the Corps was lost.
Paul Hooley, Pitzhanger Lodge, No. 5465, London