Sunday, January 12, 2014

Management of Digital Music. Part 2: Hardware

Here's Part 2 in the series. Part 1 dealt with the modern history of musical replay and the transition from analogue storage (vinyl LPs, cassette tapes, etc) to digital files managed by a computer of some type. In this article I'll go through the basics of the hardware required to set up a genuine hi-fi system. Let me stress that this is a not a guide for the audiophile  -it's intended for (i) individuals who've been collecting digital music libraries and want to know how to manage them better and get better sound quality than their desktop sound dock or (ii) people like me who grew up playing LPs and CDs on decent hi-fis but are uncertain as to the best way to integrate these formats. Anyway let's get into it...

The replay of digitally encoded music in hi-fidelity form requires three basic components:
  1. A sound source (in this case a computer hard drive)
  2. A pair of speakers
  3. An amplifier
I'll deal with these items in reverse order. Needless to say an amplifier and speakers are universal for any system and I'll try not to labour over their descriptions. The set of the sound source is tricky and quite a bit more complicated than in the day when we just chucked an LP on a turntable and let it play.

Amplifier

My own amp is an Italian made Unison Simply Two integrated amplifier.  For the techies, it's 10w per channel of pure class A current. Really all you need to know is that it looks and sounds wonderful

An amplifier's job is to, errr, amplify the signal from the sound source to the speakers. It's necessary because an iPod/iPad/computer doesn't put out enough of an electronic audio signal to power a pair of speakers; they'll drive a pair of ear buds but that's about it.  Even modest bookshelf speakers require quite a lot of power to get the speaker cone flapping and moving air (which is what sound is all about).  Crudely, it makes the sound louder. A powerful amplifier can amplify the signal in a very lazy way and introduces very little distortion into the music.  There are lots of types available and a discussion of pre-amps and power amps is beyonds the scope of this article: suffice to say that an amp that integrates the pre and power stages (logically described and an "integrated amplifier")  is more than sufficient for most purposes.  The same goes for solid state electronics vs valves. As a rule-of-thumb, amps using old school "valves" or "tubes" usually sound warmer than their solid state cousins. In my humble opinion they have a retro-cool look but that's a matter of individual taste. Electrically they are pretty inefficient and tend to run hot (as in temperature). Decent amplifiers cost anything from 100 dollars/pounds/euro to something that looks like a NASA budget.


Speakers

Speakers: this is where the sound comes out. They come in all shapes and sizes and should be selected for the room size, listening habits and musical taste. Don't confuse these with self-amplified computer speakers; they need an amplifier to drive them -this is a source of confusion with many young people brought up with sound docks and computer speakers. They also need to be connected to the amplifier with high quality cables (sound quality out of Bluetooth-connected wireless speakers is usually poor).  Speakers shown are my own British made Rega RS-5s.

Speakers are what the sound comes out of.  Generally the higher the quality the better the sound. The same rule applies to their cost as amplifiers i.e. anything from 100 units of currency to "how much?  -you're having a laugh!".  Quality and price are not necessarily correlated. Bigger and lazier usually sounds better (lower distortion) but requires a more powerful amplifier. Pick the size to suit your room and your budget. Space them correctly (the listener and the speakers should ideally form an isosceles triangle) and don't use them as plant stands (it looks naff and ruins the sound).

Sound Source (the important part)

Some Notes on Terminology
Now we are getting to the nitty gritty of the system. Before I start off on technical details, I think it's worth dealing with some commonly encountered terminology which can be quite confusing (it was for me when I started on the digital music pathway and I'm a technophile) or even a deterrent for anyone considering a digitally managed hi-fi. Here are some of the confounding terms:

"Home Entertainment System" A fuzzy term that reminds of the integrated music centers of the 70s and 80s. Essentially a computer box controls the TV for multiple functions including broadcast programs, streamed movies, DVDs, CDs, games, internet access etc and in addition can act as storage for music and games. The Xbox is marketed as such a device. Like the music centers of old, it's a convenient concept but the Jack-of-all-Trades approach means that nothing is done particularly well (particularly in terms of high fidelity playback) and component failure brings down the whole system.

"Home Theatre"  This is exactly what it says, namely an audio visual center for the home and usually comprises a large plasma or LED screen TV connected to a large amplifier and 5-7 surround speakers.  A home theatre can be a home entertainment system. Such systems are great for providing dramatic soundtracks for movies but most are not that good for hi-fi even though many have inputs for iPod-resident music. My advice is to keep hi-fi and television systems separate (more about this below).

"Music Server" A slightly pretentious way of describing the computer which stores and plays your music. In the context of true high fidelity replay, music servers should be dedicated devices.

"Network Attached Storage (NAS)" This means any music library that is connected to your wi-fi network and visible to other computers. A NAS is usually a hard drive on or attached to your music server and used for the purpose of storing your music library.

"Streaming" Nothing to do with plumbing although it's a wretchedly vague and confusing term. Essentially it means that music resident on one device is visible to, and can be played on, another device via some kind of wireless network, usually wi-fi although it can include Bluetooth. For example music from a master library on, say, a desktop computer can be played on  a laptop if both are on the same wi-fi network and sharing is enabled on iTunes.  In other contexts, streaming can mean playing internet radios such as Pandora or Spotify (i.e. music is streamed rather than broadcast) or movies are streamed from sources such as Netflix. With the exception of internet radio, I'm going to advise against streaming on genuine hi-fi system as sharing music over a wi-fi network invariably leads to sonic degradation (movies are ok streamed but just put them on a separate system).

A Computer or iPod?

My music server components (clockwise from top left): 246Gb solid state drive, Mac Mini with CD/DVD slot (c2010), 1 Tb Seagate disk drive, Cambridge Audio DACMagic 100 DAC, bluetooth mouse, bluetooth keyboard, 2 x 4Gb RAM chips

There are several ways to store digital music files. After quite a bit of thought, I opted to put them on a computer hard drive rather than an iPod for the following reasons (i) the user interface on an iPod is fiddly and limiting (ii) I'd be restricted to using iTunes as a music player which has multiple disadvantages in itself (I'll describe these in detail in Part 3 of the series), (iii) storage space: the iPod with the largest amount of space available is 160 Gb on the "classic" model -this sounds like a lot but actually is very easy to fill when using lossless files (again more detail on this in Part 3) and finally (iv) to get music onto an iPod, first it has to be resident on a computer.

All things considered, a computer seems by far the most logical choice as a base for one's music library. Any reasonably well-powered laptop or desktop can be used but I suggest that lower powered notebooks be avoided as their limitations will eventually cause problems. The selection is largely a mix of aesthetics and what computer you might have lying around.  The operating system (Mac OS or Windows) is optional: both will  support iTunes, which is hard to get away from, as well as other music players (see Part 3). I don't know about the suitability of Linux or Android operating systems in terms of their compatibility with iTunes. Just about anything can be made to sync with anything else these days but my five cents worth of advice is to stay mainstream in order to reduce compatibility issues.

Computer Hardware
First, I bought a used Mac Mini on eBay. It came with a wireless mouse and keyboard (necessary). I picked the mid-2010 model of this computer because it was the last one that came with a built in CD/DVD slot. An external drive would be ok but aesthetically it's not a clean a solution. I'm aware that the system is not future proof and at some point I'll have to upgrade the computer but as its primary task is just to replay music, it should be good for quite awhile. I expect at least 5 years. The processing power is more than up to the task and the solid state hard drive I've fitted (see below) really speeds things up and should increase reliability.

I made two physical upgrades to the Mac Mini: I increased the RAM memory from 2Mb to 8Mb (I purchased two 4Gb RAM chips from Crucial Technologies) and I changed the original electro-mechanical hard disk drive to a solid state 256Gb flash memory drive (again from Crucial). The purpose of the solid state drive was to make the computer's primary function as fast and as electronically and acoustically quiet as possible. As a side note, the flash drive also speeds up the computers speed amazingly  -a reboot takes seconds instead of a minute or more and apps launch almost instantly.  The increase RAM also helps prevent any lag in the computer's function.

I then attached to the Mac, a one Terabyte (Tb) external Seagate hard drive (thanks again, Crucial). This is the primary storage for the music library or NAS. Now before you ask why didn't I use a solid state drive, the answer is that 1 Tb drives are not yet available, at least at consumer-affordable prices. However the picture is changing fast and when they are offered at a reasonable price the old whirring hard drive will be replaced.

The final box I added to the system was a Digital to Analogue Converter (DAC), specifically a DAC Magic100 from Cambridge Audio. A DAC, as the name suggests, converts the digital output of a music player (this can be music files played with iTunes or the signal from a CD player) into an analogue form for the amplifier. Most CD players contain a DAC of reasonable quality but computers and iPods have a very limited sound card that performs this function. The DAC magic connects to to the Mac Mini by an (audio quality) USB cable and intercepts the digital signal before it is processed by the computer's sound card. The increase in audio quality is striking.

A HD computer screen completes the hardware list. My apologies for the flash glare but these things are difficult to photograph without the use of flash

Then just to enable me to see what I was doing I added an LED high definition computer screen. It's a nothing special brand from Amazon but was very inexpensive and had great reviews.

Finally, I'll pre-empt the question "why don't you just buy a music streamer?". The reason is that the technology is still evolving. Many streamers perform a variety of home entertainment functions and are neither fish nor fowl. As mentioned above, the Xbox is a good example. There are certainly some excellent music-dedicated systems on the market but they tend to be very expensive and don't have the flexibility of a computer hard drive. If for example I want to upgrade the Mac Mini I can always use it for another purpose such as a back-up drive or photo storage. This would not be possible with a high end dedicated streamer, many of which will become expensive doorstops after a few years. Also I didn't buy a streamer because I reasoned that many people would have a spare PC/Mac lying around that could be gainfully employed to storing a music library.

In summary, I've described here the equipment needed to replay digital music at a high level of fidelity. It's intended as a guide for the perplexed and shows one way to go about building a dedicated music server. For audiophiles roaming the internet I should say that this article is not for you. I certainly don't want to be told by Absolute Sound readers that because I haven't spent $2000 on a DAC (easily done) or that I'm not using interconnects made of solid iridium that the system is only fit to be used as a car stereo.

The final part in the series will deal with music file formats and player software.

To be continued...

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Management of Digital Music. Part 1: The Good Old Days

Vinyl long playing (LP) records: remember them? These are just a few that survived from my  collection of the 60s, 70s and early 80s

Once upon a time, music replay was easy.  All that was needed was a record turntable, a simple stereo amplifier and a pair of speakers.  Even half-decent budget equipment gave an excellent performance. In my youth I acquired such a system and then endlessly played vinyl LPs by the likes of Jethro Tull, Curved Air, Fairport Convention, Deep Purple, Quintessence and Blodwyn Pig in my undergraduate digs.  Roland Kirk, John Coltrane and Django Reinhardt also found they way into the mix and on occasions I would roll out Bach, Beethoven, Handel and even Stravinsky albums to demonstrate that I was a well-rounded and cultured fellow.  Despite its modest budget, my system was more than just a stereo, it replayed genuine high fidelity music. Not exactly audiophile level but pretty good quality by any standards.  Most of my friends owned similar setups and as a peer group we became used to a relatively high standard of music reproduction. Just for the record (pun intended -sorry!) my own rig comprised a 20W per channel Leak amplifier, a pair of Sykes & Hirsch speakers and the ubiquitous Garrard Sp25 MkII turntable. The latter were so common it seemed like they were issued to the entire (mostly) male population of the UK in the 18-25 age range.

My first Hi-Fi: a Garrard SP25 Mk2 turntable (with Goldring cartridge, I think), Leak Delta 30 15w per channel stereo amplifier and a pair of Sykes & Hirsch spherical speakers (almost a cliche of sixties design). Pics all borrowed from the internet

Well unedergaduate and postgraduate days flew by.  My hi-fi system was upgraded and my vinyl collection expanded considerably. I was quite content with this arrangement and also proud of my LP collection which by now occupied several shelves and had a 'cultured' appearance. Then came the 1980s. Sony and Philips collaborated (conspired?) on one of the best confidence trick known to Western Civilization: they convinced us that digitally encoded music on the newly introduced Compact Disc was so superior to the old analogue vinyl record (not to mention, audio cassettes, 8 tracks and reel-to-reel tapes) that we should replace our LP collections with their glitzy technology. And we did. I went along with this piece of genius marketing like everyone else. No more clicks and pops. Scratched records were a thing of the past. Music was bright, clear and flawless (well it wasn't actually, but that's a story for another occasion).   To facilitate playback of these nice mirror plastic circles, I added a CD player to the array of boxes on my music sideboard.  Once again I was more or less content with the status quo.

The New Millennium saw the emergence of a hitherto upstart computer company, Apple Computer, into the music business. In January 2001 they introduced the now ubiquitous iTunes music management software and then on 23rd October of the same year they launched the iPod: a digital Walkman that could hold hundreds, even thousands of tunes. This was the beginning of yet another chapter in the Music Format Wars. The MP3 digital music files used by Apple were already quite popular: portable personally players were quite common but digitized music had been brought into common awareness with the peer-to-peer  music sharing system, Napster. Napster was wildly popular  and music encoded as MP3 files were exchanged across the globe. It didn't take long for the moguls of the music industry to shut down Napster but by then we were all pretty familiar with MP3 files. The rise of the MP3 file was helped immensely by the availability of instant downloads: iTunes and the iTunes store made everything so convenient.

Convenience became the watchword and throughout the "oughties", CD based music libraries were gradually replaced by iPod or computer-resident music. Hi-fi systems were invariably exchanged for sound docks and self-powers speakers. We started to carry huge libraries of songs, sometimes numbering 10,000 or more, in our pockets. Almost any track could be downloaded in moments and elaborate, long customized playlists could be cobbled together with ease. Fantastic!

However a downside started to become apparent, especially to the old fogeys brought up with analog systems. When the music was played back through anything other than ear bud type headphones it sounded lacklustre and highlighted the limitations of this approach. First of all MP3 files and their AAC cousins, are highly compressed (to facilitate ease of downloading and reduce storage space) and are missing detailed information. Typically an MP3 song is a tenth of the size of its counterpart on a CD. Needless to say sonic quality suffers: high frequencies are lost, bass responses become muddy and there is overall distortion in the sound. Ian Corbett has written a detailed technical discussion of the limitations of MP3 files here. The problem is compounded by the fact that sound docks and computer speakers are of vastly inferior quality to the "stereos" of yesteryear, but as the millennial generation had no points of reference (mostly they wouldn't be seen dead playing an unfashionable CD) and acceptance of mediocre quality music became the norm.

Sadly, and as someone who should know better, I found myself falling into the same trap, particularly with regard to instant downloads. Then one day I played CD and MP3/AAC tracks of the same song through my old Hi-Fi and the difference was amazing  -or shocking, depending on whether or not you're a glass half-full/empty kind of person. So I decided to build a system that would accommodate modern digital music yet retain sonic fidelity.  Despite being quite familiar with music technology I found this task quite difficult to do: in my next post I'll describe the equipment I put together and my reasoning behind my choices. Hopefully it may serve as a useful guide to anyone else contemplating such a project.  I'll post it up in a week or so...until then please be patient.

To be continued...

King of Kung Fu

As a lifetime devotee of martial arts movies (the sillier the better) I was saddened to read of the passing of film producer, Sir Run Run Shaw in Hong Kong, aged 107 (wow!).  He pioneered the kung fu movie genre and arguably did more to popularize Asian martial arts than anyone else on the planet. Back in the early 70s I watched "King Boxer" ("Five Fingers of Death" in the USA) with rapt attention and have pretty much devoured all fu-flicks ever since. His early offerings, pre-special effects graphics, were cheesey and stylized by today's standards but nevertheless immensely entertaining.  This video clip from King Boxer features some awesome badassery that remains to be equalled.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

War Stories: The Bristol Beaufighter -Déjà Vu All Over Again

One of the last surviving Bristol Beaufighters, a TF X model, sits moodily in its display hangar at the Royal Air Force Museum, London

On occasions, the business of blogging comes up with surprises and highly gratifying rewards. Following my post earlier in the year about the WW2 Bristol Beaufighter that crashed at Gusano in the Po Valley, Italy, I received a couple of very interesting emails. The first was from Ewan McArthur at Warbird Restoration Services, near Melbourne, Australia. Ewan was able to provide me with a lot of technical information regarding the parts that were recovered from the crash site and we were able to confirm that aircraft was indeed a Beau. The second was from Mr Eryl Powell, a resident of the greater Birmingham area of the UK. Eryl had stumbled across my articles about this crash and had made a connection: his Dad, Allen, a spry nonagenarian living in Criccieth, North Wales, was the regular pilot for John "Jock" Watson who was lost at Gusano.  Back in the summer of 1944, Allen and Jock had become separated while on different missions. Allen realised that his friend had probably been killed but he didn't know any of the circumstances. He was very excited to learn of my blog post and I was equally enthusiastic to be in contact with a WW2 combat aviator. As fate would have it I was due to make a trip from the Pacific Northwest to the UK and so at the beginning of the month I found myself making my way to the Gwynedd area of Wales to meet with this venerable warrior. Here's the story...

Flight Sergeant Allen Powell, c21 years old in 1944. It seems astonishing that such young men were not only tasked with flying complicated and physically demanding aircraft all around the world but were also given the responsibility of discharging awesome payloads of lethal ordnance. At the same age I think I was just about capable of buying a bus ticket to the Students' Union!
Warrant Officer John "Jock" C. Watson, c1944.  Probably taken at the Alghero airbase, Sardinia. Young, handsome and with an intelligent face: Jock was one of the two aircrew recovered from the Beaufighter that crashed at Gusano on 6th September, 1944
Allen Powell (formerly Flight Sergeant Allen Powell, RAFVR) is a super cool gentleman. He's 93, fit-as-a fiddle and remembers everything. He has a calm, unflappable, demeanour that reminds me of my uncle, also a WW2 aviator: I'm pretty sure these pilots were selected for such qualities. For my visit he pulled out a pile of memorabilia and regaled me with stories for several hours. They were frequently hilarious and self-deprecating.  I can't possible repeat them all here but I'll simply document a little factoid  to underscore what an absolute beast of a war machine the Beaufighter was.  Its armament in terms of guns comprised four Hispano-Suiza 20mm cannon and six Browning .303 machine guns making it the most heavily armed Allied fighter of WW2.  Allen told me that when all these guns were fired together, the recoil slowed the aircraft by 30mph (something the pilot would have to take into an account when making an attack): a great practical example of Isaac Newton's third law of motion!

Allen's pilot's log book (see below) documents multiple enemy engagements: ground attacks, shipping strikes and dogfights, however he talked very little about actual combat and I suspect the memories still haunt him.  When I asked him what thoughts ran through his mind when going on a mission he replied "I just wanted to be at home".  Humility and honesty are certainly characteristics of true greatness!

With regard to the loss of Jock Watson, Allen explained that back in the late summer of 1944,  he and Jock were the reserve flight for a mission. They were in good spirits as they had virtually finished their tour of thirty missions and had not only developed a close working relationship but had become good friends. At that time they were due to be sent back to Britain for some rest and recreation. Specifically they were planning to visit Jock's home in Jordanhill, near Glasgow (and I guess doing some serious partying).  However it was not to be.  Jock was co-opted to fly for another pilot whose own navigator had been taken sick.  Sadly he flew off and was not seen again and reported "missing".  Allen waited around for a couple of days but when Jock didn't return, his Commanding Officer cut  his tour slightly short as there was no chance of finding him a navigator for the one or two missions remaining.  He was then instructed to fly to Cairo and then on to Cape Town (an epic flight in itself) where he was shipped home.

Allen never did find out about Jock's fate although decades later he noted Jock's death when it was published in the Commonwealth War records. He was certainly deeply affected by the loss of his friend.  Fast forwarding a few more decades, the details of the Gusano crash were released and as a result I spent a pleasant Saturday in June investigating the site and wrote up my visit as a quite casual account on this blog. I never expected it to have such positive consequences and I hope I've been able to bring Allen a little closure on this tragic incident.

Instruction manual for the Bristol Beaufighter and issued to  Flight Sergeant Allen Powell back in 1944 
Allen's original escape map. The RAF issued these silk-printed maps to all active aircrew. The could be folded into a small square and placed inside a flying boot. Apart from occupying very little space they were also waterproof
Allen's original pilot's log book. His records are meticulously detailed and in elegant handwriting
Beaufighters on patrol. In this picture, taken from Allen's aircraft, Beaufighters skim across the surface of the Mediterranean at a height of 50'.  Photo taken by Flight Sgt Jock Watson and used with the permission of Allen Powell
Aftermath of a raid: this photo was also taken from the navigator's observation dome on the dorsal surface of the fuselage and is looking towards the rear. On the left side above the horizon is a column of smoke rising from an enemy radar station at Cape Camarat, France, that Allen and Jock have just destroyed. Photo taken by Flight Sgt Jock Watson and used with the permission of Allen Powell
Pilot's log entry dated 18th may 1944. The attack on the radar station at Cape Camarat is described and its destruction documented. In Allen's own words it was "pranged"
Allen has his original RAF Irvin flying jacket.  It still fits him and has a beautiful patination -no fake "distressed" leather here!
The back of the jacket bears 272 squadron's motto "On! On!". Allen, with his usual wry humour, says that the jacket is best viewed upside down...!

Concluding Comments and Appreciation
I'm still amazed that my almost accidental trip to take a look at the Beaufighter crash site and my rather casual posting about it on this blog has been so consequential. Not only have I indulged my boyhood interests in old military warbirds and learned a lot about the technical specifications of Bristol aircraft, but I've met (some face to face, some online) a number of very nice people around the world. Apart from Gusano, Italy, I've also been reacquainted with the stark splendour of North Wales (I haven't even mentioned my side visits to Criccieth Castle or  the delightful Portmeirion Village) and spent almost a day poking around the RAF Museum at Hendon where I took so many photos I exhausted the battery in my camera and my phone. I'd like to think my correspondence with Ewan McArthur re-kindled his own interest in the Beaufighter and caused him and his colleagues to turn over the engines of the one resident in the Australian National Aviation Museum at Moorabbin (and maybe even consider its restoration). I've also had the had the privilege of meeting and talking to a real Beaufighter pilot and hero...(Allen, this has hardly ever happened to me but I actually felt slightly starstruck in your presence).  Finally I've been reminded of the horror and personal tragedy of war.

Again I'd like to express my appreciation to Signor Pierlino Bergonzi, Professor Agostino Alberti and their colleagues of the Aircrash Po and Grupo Ricercatori Aerei Caduti teams and the Muzeo Della Resistenza, Sperongia, for making my original visit possible. My thanks also go to Ewan McArthur for not only contributing his knowledge of the Beaufighter but also giving us the thrill of seeing the engines of one of these great planes being turned over for the first time in decades (even if just briefly and on YouTube).  A big "diolch yn fawr" goes to Eryl Powell for putting me in touch with his Dad, Allen, who has my immense gratitude and respect for his service as well as putting up with my questions for a couple of hours and making available a veritable treasure trove of photos and other memorabilia.  Diolch should also be said Anwyl Cooper-Willis who acted as my taxi driver and scribe on this trip. As per my other posts on this topic I'm dedicating this article to the memories of Flight Sergeant John Horsford, DFM and Warrant Officer John "Jock" Crockatt Watson as well as all the brave airmen, regardless of allegiance or nationality, who gave their lives in the terrible conflict of WW2.

P.S. Some unanswered questions about the Gusano crash remain. I haven't dwelt on them here. Suffice to say I'll write of any updates as they occur.

P.P.S. I would very much like to establish contact with the families of Officers Watson and Horsford: if any reader can help me with this I'd be most grateful (just write me a note in the comments section  -I do read them)

P.P.P.S. January 27th, 2014. This might be worth a separate post and I'll maybe do it sometime in the future (for now I'm trying to preserve the continuity of my ramblings on digital music) but Mr Powell's son, Eryl has scanned all his Dad's RAF memorabilia and put the files on a dedicated, open access site -see here.  It's a glimpse back into the dark days of WW2 and makes fascinating reading.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

War Stories: North American B-25J Mitchell Bomber


I've got several new articles in the works but I'm on the road and internet access is maddeningly inconsistent. So please be patient while I trundle along. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. In the meantime here's a nice picture of a Mitchell B25 bomber (think "The Doolittle Raid") that I snapped at the Flying Heritage Collection a month or so back...

Monday, November 11, 2013

War Stories: John Thomas Bloor and the Battle of Hill 70

The commemorative plaque for John Thomas Bloor 

Private John Thomas Bloor is buried in the Pas-de-Calais, France  -just one of the 9.5 million Entente or Allied forces killed in World War I.  Six weeks ago I knew nothing about him but then he inadvertently dropped into my life and a gripping story unfurled.  Interesting timing now that we find ourselves on the Centennial eve of "The Great War".  Let me explain...

About five years ago a colleague gave me a commemorative plaque that he'd acquired at an antiques fair. He said it was British and that it was more appropriate for me (with my Anglo/Irish roots) to assume the role of its curator. I accepted the item quite willingly but did nothing with it other than place it on a bookshelf in my study where it had remained, semi-forgotten, ever since. Or at least until sometime last month when, thanks to my recent penchant for writing about war stories, I picked it up, put on my deerstalker hat and started doing some detective work.

My first task was to identify the medallion itself. That was quite easy -it turned out to be a so called "Death Penny".  These 5" diameter memorial plaques were made of bronze and issued to the next-of-kin of British and Empire service personnel who were killed in World War I; more than 1.3 million were issued. The name embossed on this particular plaque was  quite worn, probably as a result of vigorous polishing, but with some effort I made it out to be John Thomas Bloor.  Now my next task was to find out more about this fallen warrior.  My first stop was the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Initially I drew a blank as no such name was registered among British troops. However when I broadened my search to include Commonwealth countries, I was rewarded with a hit: Private JT Bloor (463016) was a member of the 29th Battalion, Canadian Infantry and killed on 21st August, 1917. He was 31 years old and is buried at the imposing Vimy Memorial.

From the Commonwealth War Graves site I learned of Mr Bloor's military rank (and that although born in the UK served with the Canadian infantry) the date he died, the names of his parents and his burial place
From the Canadian Library and Archives I discovered his birthday (he was 31 years old at the time of his passing), the cause of his death was unknown and that he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Vernon, British Columbia
Now my curiosity was piqued. Was there more information available about John Bloor?  Indeed there was. From the Canadian Library and Archives I found his Attestation Papers, signed on the 23rd July 1916, in Vernon, British Columbia, for his induction into Canadian Expeditionary force. Here I learned that his birthday was 6th May, 1886 (a Taurus), his profession was listed as "seaman" and he was unmarried. The induction papers also revealed that he was born in Staffordshire, UK, to Mrs Sarah Taylor (formerly Bloor) of 18 Bond Street, Burton-on-Trent.  The Canadian Veterans Affairs website lists his father as the late John Thomas Bloor. 

John Thomas Bloor's attestation papers. Here we can observe his handwriting (notably regressive) and also learn that his profession was "seaman"
From his medical certificate a physical picture of a tall, slim, fair haired, blue eyed individual with good vision (presumably he didn't wear glasses) and general good health emerges. His religion was Church of England (protestant)

His handwriting slopes backwards quite markedly -perhaps indicating an introvert personality. His medical certificate states that he was 5' 11" tall, had blues eyes and fair hair with a fair complexion. His chest was 39" full expanded: all in all he was quite tall and slim. He had a mole in his right armpit  cited as a "distinguishing mark".  A quite clear physical image had emerged. 

And what of his upbringing?  At the time of his enlistment, John's mother's married name was Sarah Taylor. According to the BMD database for England and Wales, JTB Senior passed away in 1898 (when JTB Jr was just 12 years of age). Sarah's maiden name was Howarth, so presumably she had remarried by the time her son enlisted.  A quick look at Mrs Taylor's address (Bond St) via Google Street View shows the remains of a row of Victorian terraced houses: was this the street where young John was brought up or did Sarah move there after she remarried?  In anycase I think it can be reasonably assumed that John grew up in modest but respectable circumstances (in British sociological terms Working Class or Lower Middle Class).

Bond Street, Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England: at the time of his enlistment, Private Bloor's mother lived here (at #18, unfortunately now bulldozed to make way for a car park) in a modest Victorian terraced house. He was certainly brought up here or in the vicinity -a solid lower middle class neighbourhood. Picture from Google Street View.

Then we have a gap. I'm not quite sure how Mr Bloor found his way to Canada but the catchment area for Vernon, BC, includes the spectacular seaport of Vancouver. It's easy to imagine, given his occupation of seaman, how he could have ended up in in that city. Even a century ago it was a vibrant, attractive, prosperous place full of New World vigour and a refreshing change from the dreary British midlands. So if his travels brought him there, it wouldn't have been a difficult decision to stay.

Photograph of Vancouver, British Columbia, c1910. By the turn of the 20th century it was a bustling, prosperous seaport set in a jewel of a location. It's easy to understand why young Mr Bloor would have wanted to settle here after his upbringing in the drab Victorian English midlands
Patriotic fervour was common in the Canadian New World: many new immigrants felt it was their duty to serve their newly adopted country. Approximately 60% of serving Canadian troops in WWI were born in the UK
And so John Thomas Bloor, by now a Canadian resident, enlisted for the Canadian Expeditionary Force and was inducted at Vernon, British Columbia, a somewhat desolate training camp, 250 miles east of Vancouver on the 21st August 1915. There he was attached to the 29th (Vancouver) Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, also known as "Tobin's Tigers" after the commanding officer,  Lt.-Col Henry Seymour Tobin.   Tobin mustered the 29th in the first instance by amalgamating the 11th regiment of the Irish Fusiliers of Canada and the Duke of Connaught's Own Rifles.  The 29th itself was subordinated to the Canadian 6th Brigade, 2nd Division. It's not clear when he reached the Western Front in France. Basic training took 12 weeks and usually some additional training (for bombardiers, heavy weapons specialists and the like) followed.  In any event it's unlikely that he departed for Europe until some time in 1916. The first tranche of the 29th sailed from Halifax to Devonport, UK in May 1915, on the troopship, RMS Missanabie. As it happens, the Missanabie is an interesting story in itself. After four years of intrepid service, it was torpedoed and sunk off Daunt's Rock, Co. Cork, Ireland, by UB87 on 18th September 1918, with the loss of 45 crew.  But I digress. So it's likely that Private Bloor made landfall in England, probably in Plymouth, in the winter or spring of 1916. From Devon he would have likely been transferred to one of the several CEF camps in East Sussex where he would have undergone additional training. 

Aerial view of the CEF training camp, Vernon, British Columbia. Located approximately 250 miles east of Vancouver, the small town was dominated by the military presence
Life under canvas at the CEF training camp, Vernon, British Columbia. Traditionally, each battalion marked its entrance in the manner above -unfortunately I couldn't find a photo of the 29th's tents but it was formed from elements of the Duke of Connaught's Own Rifles seen here
Cap badge (L) and uniform patch (R) of the 29th (Vancouver) battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, also known as "Tobin's Tigers"
The RMS Missanabie owned by the Canadian Pacific Line, was used as a troopship by the Canadian government  throughout the war. Records indicate that it mostly sailed to Liverpool although the first contingent of the 29th travelled on it and made landfall in Plymouth, Devon.  Halifax, Nova Scotia was the Canadian port most commonly used as an embarcation point although ships did sail from Vancouver. The Missanabie was torpedoed by a German submarine and sank off the coast of Ireland in 1918 with the loss of 45 crew. These individuals (43 men, 2 women) are commemorated at the Tower Hill Memorial.

I think it's reasonable to assume that Private Bloor would have crossed the English Channel to France around the summer of 1916.  Here would have spent time in the rear echelons while acclimating to (the atrocious) field conditions and undergoing further training. Typically troops would be moved towards the front line when their commanding officers saw them as battle fit. Canadian troops were considered exceptionally well-trained: this was largely because of the influence of their Commander-in-Chief, Sir Julian Byng, an enlightened, unassuming and well-liked Englishmen endowed with fine leadership skills.  Unlike many of his peers, Byng was relaxed about military formalities but was a meticulous planner and superb field commander.  The 29th Battalion were further helped by their own Commander, Lt-Col Henry Seymour Tobin. Tobin forged his troops into a formidable fighting force, mainly through advanced tactics and endless training. 

Lt-General Sir Julian Byng commanded the Canadian Corps on the Western Front from 1916-1917 and was instrumental in forging his troops into an elite fighting force. He was much liked by his men
Lt Col Henry Seymour Tobin.  It's perhaps a sign of the times that "Tobin's Tigers" now have an entry on YouTube and their own page on FaceBook. Photo from British Columbia Archives collections
If Private Bloor and his elements of the 29th saw action in the late summer/autumn of 1916 they would have been engaged in some ferocious engagements. It is highly likely that they were thrown into the Battle of the Somme that raged through the summer and autumn of 1916. Other fights occurred at Courcelette, Pozieres Ridge, Thiepval Ridge, Ancre Heights, Regina Trench, Desire Trench and then in April 1917, the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917. Vimy was a remarkable victory for Sir Julian Byng and his men. They trained intensively and employed several new gunnery tactics, including the "creeping barrage" in which the infantry advanced 100 metres behind a curtain of exploding artillery shells. Tanks were also used. A detailed account can be found here. 3,600 Canadian troops were killed and 7000 wounded -a heavy price but the victory was a defining moment for the Canadian military. Private Bloor was almost certainly involved in this battle.

Canadian troops fix bayonets and prepare to go "over the top" on one of the battles of the Somme in 1916                          
A camouflaged MkII "female" tank advances at Vimy Ridge. They were crude, unreliable and  vulnerable to relatively light field weapons such as mortars. However they did protect the crews against rifle and machine gun fire and initially terrified the German troops.
The next major engagement in which Private Bloor and the 29th were involved was the Battle of Hill 70. Unfortunately it was to be his last along with 1,505 of his comrades; another 4000 or so were wounded or suffered poison gas injuries. Nevertheless it was another fantastic victory for the Canadians. The purpose of the battle was to control the hill (Hill 70) which dominated the town of Lens.  Taking this position would prevent the Germans reinforcing their positions at Passchendaele. By this time the Canadians had a new commander, Sir Arthur William Currie. General Currie, like Byng and Tobin, was also a superb field commander, and not surprisingly found himself in disagreement with the Allies' Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshall Haig. Currie was also noted for his meticulous planning and made extensive use of the Royal Flying Corps for both both intelligence gathering and close air support.  The battle started in earnest on 15th August 1917 and was hard fought. Both sides used gas, especially the blistering agent, gaseous sulphur mustard,  delivered in cannister artillery shells. The Germans also introduced a terrifying new weapon, the M.16 flammenwerfer or flamethrower.

It's amazing what you can find on the intent. The entire War Diaries of the 29th Battalion have been scanned and are available for downloading
The War Diaries reveal that initially the 29th battalion was held back in support of the 5th Brigade. Things were relatively quiet although there was action at the Cinnabar Trench in Lens (other sources report that the 29th lost 85 men and 250 were wounded)
The battle peaked on 21st August: Hill 70 was taken and all counter attacks were repelled. John Bloor, having survived bloodier battles, was somewhat unlucky to meet his end here as casualties were relatively light: 7 officers were killed, 183 "other ranks" were wounded and 50 ORs were listed as missing (presumptively killed or captured)
The battle starts here  -on the 14th/15th August 1917. This operation was meticulously planned and prepared by Sir Arthur Currie

Map of Hill 70 and the town of Lens showing the target objectives for each of the Canadian battalions. The capture of Hill 70 was necessary to hold the town
While Hill 70 was stormed, a diversionary attack was made on the town of Lens. This map  shows the tactical plan for harassing fire
General Currie made extensive use of the Royal Flying Corps for intelligence gathering as well as supporting his troops in battle
Troops advance across No Man's Land towards Hill 70.  In this battle the Canadians introduced the concept  of the "creeping barrage" whereby the soldiers move forward 100 yards behind an advancing curtain of artillery fire
Canadians soldiers occupy a captured German trench on Hill 70. Photograph: Canadian War Museum                                       
Both sides made extensive use of gas in attack and counter-attack. The blistering agent, sulphur mustard, delivered by artillery canister shells  was particularly nasty
German WW1 gas artillery shells . Number 5 (blue with red cross) contains mustard gas otherwise knowns as nitrogen sulphur or "Yperite".  Its purpose was to cause blistering injuries to the skin and lungs

A machine gun crew equipped with PH-Helmet (phenate-hexamine) type gas masks. These were complex chemical hoods and were only partially effective. Vision was restricted and it was difficult to aim weapons while being worn
The battle for Hill 70 saw the Germans introduce the terrifying flammenwerfer or flame thrower: they were effective against trenches and were also used against tanks
Sir Arthur Currie had studied the German tactics well. He observed that if they lost ground to the Allies, their usual behavior was to rapidly counter-attack. Currie's plan was to take the objective (Hill 70 in this case) and then counter the counter-attack. To do this, he got his troops to consolidate their position very quickly and then installed a large number of machine guns to defend the hill
German shells bursting close to a camouflaged Canadian gun position (foreground) at Lens. Photo: Canadian War Museum    
Sir Arthur Currie's planning and preparation paid off.  The Canadians took the Hill quickly and with relatively few casualties (by the standards of the day). They then fought off no fewer than 21 counter attacks. The battle raged for six days. During this time the Germans were met with massive firepower and suffered huge losses. Hill 70 remained in the hands of the Allies for the rest of the war. During the battle, the Canadians had held off five German divisions (approximately 50,000 men), inflicted 20,000 casualties and taken 1000 prisoners. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded including one to Irish-Canadian, Sgt. Major Robert Hanna of the 29th. All in all the victory at Hill 70 was not only important strategically but it confirmed the reputation of the Canadians as clever, tenacious, warriors and indeed an elite fighting force. My account of the battle has been, by necessity, quite brief: much more detailed descriptions can be found here, herehere and here. Furthermore the official history of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, can be downloaded here.  More information about the 29th as well as other Canadian battalions can be found at the Matrix Project. Maps of the engagement can be found here.

Sadly, John Bloor did not survive the battle. He died on the 21st August 1917: the second anniversary of his enlistment. The cause of death has not been documented. Whether he died of wounds occurring earlier in the battle, or through shell, machine gun or small arms fire we'll never know. One pleasant surprise did come at the end of my investigations, however. On looking at the inscription of his name on a gorgeously elaborate memorial tribute to fallen servicemen in his hometown of Burton-on-Trent, I noticed his rank was "Corporal".  I have no doubt that this modest promotion was richly deserved.

In the Library and Archives of Canada, the circumstances (or lack, thereof) of John Bloor's death can be found. This tersely worded certificate states "Previously reported Missing, now for official purposes presumed to have died".  My thanks to Niall of Coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada, for unearthing this piece of information.
A distant view of the magnificent Vimy Memorial. It was built on the vantage point of Hill 145, the highest point on Vimy Ridge: it is dedicated to the memory of all members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force who lost their lives during the war
John Thomas Bloor's name inscribed on one of the walls of the Vimy memorial. Thank you for your service  -it was an honor to become acquainted with you in this unusual way 96 years after your earthly existence. I really did feel I knew you at by the end of this article. RIP, Sir!
The imposing Vimy memorial in the Pas-de-Calais. It was designed by Walter Seymour Allward and unveiled by King Edward  VIII on 26th July, 1936
Back to the beginning! The town hall, Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire, UK (contemporary photograph).  John Bloor's sacrifice is recorded here

The war memorial wall in John Bloor's hometown of Burton-on-Trent. Listed are the townsfolk who lost their lives in the 1st and 2nd World Wars. JT Bloor is of course listed here and at the end of the story there was a pleasant surprise. Somewhere along the way, the valiant Private Bloor was promoted to Corporal. I have no doubt this advancement was richly deserved. Photographs of the Vimy Memorial and the Burton-on-Trent Memorial are from the War Graves Photographic Project
A facsimile of the Letter from King George V that accompanied the Memorial Plaque  "Death Penny" at the top of the page. Replication service by Eddie Fatharly, the "Trench Detective"

Coda
In nearly a decade of blogging, this is by far the longest post I've written  -arguably with the least starting material. It's taken six weeks of research and fact checking to put it together and during this time the article acquired a life of its own.  I've learned a lot about the WW1 conflict (even though I thought I was quite well informed beforehand) as well as the training, weapons that were employed, the personalities involved and the zeitgeist of the era. I've also been reminded about the unrelenting, horror, misery and human suffering that is part and parcel of war. But  most of all I became acquainted with a heroic young man whose physical appearance and personality developed as I continued with my quest for information. At times I felt I was marching along with him and now my research is almost finished, I'm going to miss him: I certainly felt some reluctance to describe his final battle as I knew his fate in advance.

If anyone spots a factual error in my essay or can provide me with additional information on John T Bloor or the events in his life, please let me know.  Finally, if any reader has a legitimate and verifiable genealogical link to John Bloor or his greater family please get in touch with me via the comments section below: I have something that should be returned to its rightful owner...

Acknowledgements
I would like to thank Mr Eddie Fatharly of South Ockendon, Essex, UK, "The Trench Detective" (Ebay: "efatharl") for providing me with a facsimile of Cpl. Bloor's honour letter from King George V as well as battlefield maps and some 27th battalion battle diaries; an excellent service. Christopher Shortland (Ebay: "theessenceofcool") provided detailed WW1 battle maps on CD. I have acknowledged all other sources in the text.  Lastly I must thank Clint Schmidt, PhD, for allowing me to be the bearer of Cpl. Bloor's memorial plaque for a few years; I hope I have discharged my duty satisfactorily.

P.S. Since publishing this article, I have been in touch with Dr Ian K Bloor of the Bloor Society: Ian kindly circulated the details of this story and subsequently I've been contacted by Ms Janice Macphee a resident of British Columbia, Canada.  She is a bona fide cousin (twice removed) of Mr Bloor.  Janice, I can't tell you how happy I am to have heard from you. Hopefully we can meet up in the not too distant future and I will be able to return JTB's memorial plaque to its rightful place with a family member.

This post was uploaded at 11 minutes past 11 (AM, European Continental time) on 11th November, 2013. Armistice Day (Veterans' Day). Exactly 95 years after the guns fell silent.