The Darkness of Wartime

The autumn evenings seem to have become much darker recently. Spare a thought for those living a century ago, when black-out orders made the nights darker still.

As Londoners (and citizens across the south-east of England) approached the first winter of the Great War, the usual darkness of the season was accentuated by strict orders around the display of lights.

From early October, Lighting Orders restricted the display of lights outside. On 9 October, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police issued an “Official Warning” about lighting in London under section 7A of the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 (DORA – which gave the Government sweeping powers in wartime):

‘All external private lighting not needed to secure the safety of traffic should be discontinued.

‘Some businesses and other establishments are still maintaining interior lighting which is of too great intensity and illuminates the road way.

‘The Commissioner of Police is advised that such lighting represents, under certain circumstances, a source of danger to the particular neighbourhood and to the community at large.

‘The police have been given directions to take the actions necessary to ensure that the orders restricting lighting are carried out both in letter and in spirit.’

Hallie Eustace Miles described the scene of the city at night under these orders: ‘One hardly knows London at night now. Scarcely any street lights are allowed, and what lights there are have been painted with some dark stuff half-way down the glass to shade them, so that if there is a Zeppelin raid over London the raiders will not be able to distinguish the lists. London looks as if it was only lit by night-lights. It is, in a way, peaceful and dreamy looking, but very weird, and it is difficult for people to find their way about.’

One of those struggling to get about in the night was Liberal MP for Hoxton, Christopher Addison, who complained that he could not see the kerb in Westminster and had to search around for it with his foot.

Many people noted the contrast between the enforced darkness of houses and streets and the blaze of searchlights. In the wealth West End, Georgina Lee described the contrast in October: ‘In Onslow Square there is about one lamp left. All lamps in the streets have to be darkened at the top by shades, so as to be invisible from the sky. All shops have to reduce their lighting to a minimum. On the other hand powerful searchlights sweep above the city and precincts from all quarters, searching for airships.’

The contrast between the lighting regulations and the bright searchlights did not go without notice - wartime cartoon included in Georgina Lee's diary

The contrast between the lighting regulations and the bright searchlights did not go without notice – wartime cartoon included in Georgina Lee’s diary


The cartoonist's image was not an exagerratin: the front page of the Daily Mirror on 10 Sept 1915 showed London's searchlights (and Cleopatra's Needle) during an air raid

The cartoonist’s image was not an exaggeration: the front page of the Daily Mirror on 10 Sept 1915 showed London’s searchlights (and Cleopatra’s Needle) during an air raid


In November 1914, journalist Michael MacDonagh left the Lord Mayor’s banquet to find a city both dark and quiet: ‘Leaving Guildhall about ten o’clock, what a contrast was presented by its light and colour and warmth; the dresses and jewels of the ladies; the varied uniforms of the men, to the streets of the City – dark, empty, silent. Very few of the street lamps were burning, and these were so masked that their light fell only at their feet. As I walked through King Street and Queen Victoria Street to my office I could not catch even the faintest or most distant sound of traffic. The public-houses close at ten. The town clocks are silent and at night their dials are not lighted. Big Ben has ceased to sound the quarters and the hours since the middle of last month. So all the mighty heart of London was still. But the sky was being lit up and pierced by flashing searchlights. What a thought, amazing and affrighting, that if the period of war to life and property are ever to touch us they will fall from the sky!’

It was not all bleak and frightening, though, according to Mrs Miles: ‘Nearly all the lights in the shop windows are shaded with different colours, and these many coloured lights are reflected in the street and on to the pavements; when there is rain the puddles are turned into glorified iridescent pools, and the pavements and roads are like rainbows. The shop windows too, with the coloured lights cast down upon the goods displayed, look very mysterious and almost fairy-like. So we have our compensations.’

In January 1915, Addison remarked on the increasing darkness of London’s nights: ‘The streets in some parts of London are darker than ever. I heard an amusing story yesterday about some people in Kensington who were rather astonished that their streets were lighter than others. They were not comforted by the assurance that the authorities did not mind that they might perhaps provide an attraction or German aviators and so keep them clear of the Whitehall regions!’

The effect of the black-out can be seen in this contemporary painting of the first Zeppelin sighted over Piccadilly Circus - before the war a place of bright lights (by AC Gow (c)IWM ART 5216)

The effect of the black-out can be seen in this contemporary painting of the first Zeppelin sighted over Piccadilly Circus – before the war a place of bright lights (by AC Gow (c)IWM ART 5216)

By late 1915, assisted by the reality of Zeppelin raids, Mrs Miles was more fearful of the darkness: ‘The shops now close at 6 p.m., and, as every private house shows no light, the blackness that envelopes London is a sort of nightmare. I get home as early as I can, for the darkness horrifies me. Some people are becoming accustomed to it now, and are like cats – about to see in the darkness!’

After a winter of people struggling to locate the kerb, the Commissioner for Police suggested painting the kerbs white. It was for councils to decide and some (including in St Marylebone, as their minutes record) felt that it was unnecessary as the days were getting longer anyway. When the suggestion came again in November 1915, St Marylebone had already begun work whitening the kerbs.

The black-out, of course, continued through the war. As we saw in an earlier blog post, MacDonagh described the Palace of Westminster in late 1917, which ‘instead of being ablaze with lights on the river-front’, presented itself as only ‘a vague, shadowy mass even in the moonlight’.

Another witness to the sight in the latter half of the war was American journalist Milton Valentine Synder. Writing to his wife in Paris in February 1918, he described his arrival in London:

‘The darkness of Paris holds more than a candle to the blackness of London; it is positively dazzling by comparison. The intense gloom into which we were precipitated on our arrival last night was more than depressing; it was stifling! Riding from Waterloo to the hotel in a wheezy taxi […] I got my first impression of London by night in wartime. So impenetrable was the darkness that I did not know when we were crossing Waterloo Bridge. Then the curious sensation that there were thousands of people near you, but invisible.

‘The Strand was crowded with a double row of pedestrians four to six abreast walking slowly, talking in low tones. The occasional coarse laugh of a girl or the raucous hail of a soldier to his mate revealed the presence of the crowd and its composition – even without the aid of frequent glimmers of light as the shaded doors of the “pubs” opened to admit or exude customers – for it was not yet 9.30 P.M. closing time. A few carefully hooded lights indicated the theatres, which formerly presented blazing façades. It was not till I got inside the inner lobby of the hotel that I saw light for the first time since reaching London.’

The restoration of the lights and sounds of the night made a welcome return after 11 November 1918, a reminder through people’s senses that the war was over. Mrs Miles again:

‘Everything seems like a sort of Symbol of Peace; we can hardly believe that it really is Peace. It is so strange and significant to hear the church clock chime and strike again, and to hear the boom of Big Ben wafted to us after the long silence; we now notice sounds that we used to hardly hear before the Great War. When I see lights burning brightly from uncurtained windows, I feel as if we ought to ring up the police station, as we used to in the Zeppelin days when spies and traitors let their lights glare out upon the darkness if a raid was expected.

‘There are still the notices, with fingers pointing to “Air-Raid Shelters,” reminding us of the “Terror by Night,” which is now gone for ever, we hope and believe.’

… ‘This sense of safety is such a new feeling. It is now full moon, and, instead of dreading it as our greatest danger and looking up at it with indignant eyes, we say, “What a glorious moonlight night it is!”.’


  • Gavin Roynson (ed), Home Fires Burning, the diaries of Georgina Lee
  • Michael MacDonagh, In London During the Great War
  • Hallie Eustace Miles, Untold Tales of War-time London
  • Alice Ziska Snyder and Milton Valentine Snyder, Paris Days and London Nights
  • Christopher Addison, Four and a Half Years
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Posted by on 23 October 2014 in Events


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Frank Thomas Rapps: heroism, chance and a bloody nose

Chance and luck had a big impact on whether those serving in or near the front lines survived the Great War. No matter whether someone was a hero, a coward or somewhere in-between, a chance occurrence could kill or injure them, or save them by taking them away from the front line. Frank Thomas Rapps was a war hero but suffered accidents that kept him away from the front for much of the war.

Frank Thomas Rapps was born in Bromley in 1890, the son of shop manager Thomas and his wife Nellie. By 1911, he was a clerk boarding with a family in Deptford. Like his brother, Percy, he was a clerk for the National Telephone Company (from 1912 he worked for the London Telephone Service). In 1914, he was living in Mitcham, Surrey, and he joined the army at the beginning of the war. Unlike Percy, who we met in a previous blog post and who was injured playing football, Frank Rapps was injured in more obviously military activities.

Corporal F.T. Rapps, Daily Mirror 24 June 1916

Corporal F.T. Rapps, Daily Mirror 24 June 1916

He joined the 15th Battalion of the London Regiment, the Civil Service Rifles, at Somerset House on 28 August 1914 and went out to France with them in March 1915, as part of the 47th (2nd London) Division. In November he transferred to the 140th Brigade’s Machine Gun Corps unit (i.e. part of 140th Brigade, the one that the Civil Service Rifles were in). By the summer of 1916, Frank Rapps was a Corporal.

On 8 August 1916, Rapps was awarded the Military Medal. At the end of June, The Daily Mirror reported on the forthcoming award and noted that “A few months before war broke out he played football on the fields on which he has since fought the Huns.” Clearly he and his brother shared a fondness for playing football. It’s not clear when or how he earned the medal. The brigade were involved in the battle at Vimy in May 1916, so it is most likely that he earned the medal (which was only awarded for battlefield bravery) there, in a battle that a modern history of the Civil Service Rifles describes as a ‘disaster’.

A few weeks later, on 25 August 1916, the machine-gunners were near Franvillers being trained in using hand grenades. After an hour of throwing dummy grenades (i.e. the metal casings without explosives), the instructor called a halt – at precisely the moment that Private Jim Rutledge threw a dummy grenade. Corporal Rapps looked round to see who had called out and, despite shouts of alarm from Rutledge and others, did not get out of the way of the dummy grenade, which hit him in the face, breaking his nose. He was immediately treated by medics of the 4th London Field Ambulance (attached to the 47th Division) and then sent on to No 34 (West Lancashire) Casualty Clearing station at Vecquemont. He was then sent back to the UK.

After recovering from his injuries and being posted to the depot battalion at Winchester, Rapp applied to become an officer in early 1917. After officer training at Bisley, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Machine Gun Corps in July and posted to their 62nd Battalion. He arrived back in France on 14 January 1918.

In February 1918, Rapps and his men were helping to fend off German raids at Gavrille/Gavrelle in the Arras sector. A medical board report picks up his story:

“while enemy was raiding [the British] trenches, this officer scratched the bridge of his nose with barbed wire. It was dressed the same day he did not go sick. The wound did not heal and on 8th March he was sent to hospital when he states incision was needed on bridge of nose and then he was transferred to England.”

He left Calais on 24 March, just as the German Spring Offensive was pushing British forces back over the land captured at great cost in 1916 and 1917. Back in England he was treated at Worsley Hall in Manchester and was operated on by a nasal specialist for a defective septum. By May, the wounds had healed and he was able to breathe through his nose as normal. He was graded at C1 level of fitness (not fit enough for overseas service). A later medical board heard that he suffered from “attacks of epistaxes” after blowing his nose hard: he suffered from bad nosebleeds. The May medical board awarded him three weeks’ leave and he was ordered to the MGC depot at Grantham. A series of medical boards assessed that he would be fit again within three months. By the end of 1918, he was serving at the RAF’s school of armament at Uxbridge and was a temporary Lieutenant. He was discharged from the army in 1920.

After the war, Rapps moved back to Mitcham and in April 1922 he rejoined the London Telephone Service as a clerk officer. He married a Marion Broughton Wright in Camberwell in late 1926. They lived in Surrey until at least 1945. By the time of his death in 1963, Rapps was living in Hampshire; Marion had died a few years earlier, so Frank’s estate went to David Wright, a commercial artist (and presumably a relative of Marion’s)

This brave Londoner somehow managed to be put out of action twice by accidental injuries to his nose. After being rewarded for his bravery in 1916, he was injured in training and missed the Battle of the Somme – and remained at home throughout the doomed Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. Back at the front and in action in February 1918, he was accidentally injured again and missed the whole of the rest of the war. Just one example of how chance and luck could play a major part in a soldier’s service and survival in 1914-1918.



  • Long, Long Trail
  • FT Rapps service record (National Archives)
  • Daily Mirror 24/6/1916
  • Jill Knight, The Civil Service Rifles in the Great War
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Posted by on 16 October 2014 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners


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London and the recruiting boom

Recruitment to the army is one of the defining images of 1914 in Britain and in London in particular – Kitchener’s call to arms and the queues outside recruiting offices. A week-by-week breakdown of recruiting rates reveals that the pattern of enlistment in London was not quite the same as across the UK as a whole.

"Is your home here? Defend it!" A poster depicting the recruiting districts in the UK (Library of Congress archive)

“Is your home here? Defend it!” A 1915 poster depicting the recruiting districts in the UK (Library of Congress archive)

September 1914 was the peak month for recruitment to the British Army during the Great War. Half a million men joined the army during the month, most of them during the first week and a half. On 11 September, the army increased its physical requirements of recruits. This (possibly coinciding with a natural end to the extreme levels seen after the news from Mons arrived at the end of August) resulted in a very rapid decline in recruiting. Over 190,000 men joined up nationwide in the first week of September, but only 40,000 did so in the week of the 15th to the 21st a fortnight later.

London’s recruiting pattern was basically the same as that of the UK as a whole, with the peak weeks of recruitment being the first two weeks of September, followed by a decline. An interesting facet of the figures, though, is that the peak was less pronounced in London than in the UK as a whole. One way to observe this is that the peak weeks (1-7 and 8-14 September) saw London’s recruits make up a smaller proportion of the UK-wide figure than in any other week in August or September (see graph below). Overall, just under 18% of August’s recruits came from London and just under 15% of those who joined up in September.

Weekly recruiting rates for London and that figure as a percentage of the UK enlistments that week, Aug-Sept 1914

Weekly recruiting rates for London and that figure as a percentage of the UK enlistments that week, Aug-Sept 1914

Another way, that tells a different aspect of the story is that of the men who enlisted across the UK in the period 4 August to 28 September, a third joined up in the first week of September. For London alone, the figure is 25%.

London’s peak of recruiting was very large, but it was less extreme compared to the weeks either side of it, when London provided proportionately more of the nation’s recruits. Historian David Silbey (in his book The British Working Classes and Enthusiasm for War in 1914-1916) describes the recruiting boom as behaving like a ripple coming out from London in August and early September, with London disproportionately affected in August.

The pattern after September was not even. In October, over 22% of all recruits came through the London recruiting district (which covered the Metropolitan area of Greater London, not just the county of London as it existed in 1914). The figure fell below 15% for the next three months, before settling around 18-23% for the rest of 1915. From the 1915 average of 20%, the proportion fell under conscription to around 14.5-16% in the remaining years of the war. The wartime average was 17%.

So, what does this tell us? First of all, it tells us that the pattern for recruitment was different in London to the UK as a whole, with more enlistments in the first weeks and less of a pronounced peak in early September. Second, it tells us that around 17% of recruits came through the London district, which is around what one would expect for a region (Greater London) housing around 7 million of the nation’s 44 million people.

Note on War Office recruiting figures: the figures for August and September do not tally exactly between the daily and monthly returns. The daily figures have been used here for August and September – allowing for a weekly breakdown – the monthly figures are quoted from October onwards. The proportions of recruits brought in through the London recruiting district were broadly the same though: 18.5% in August 1915 and 14.63% in September in the monthly return, compared with the above-quoted daily return figures of just under 18 and 15% respectively.


Posted by on 28 September 2014 in Recruitment



Signor Bellomo and the Bosche at breakfast

Over 90,000 German military personnel were held as internees or prisoners of war in Great Britain in 1914-18. One day in October 1917, one of them walked into a restaurant on Jermyn Street.

Paul Scheumann was a German army Lieutenant, held captive at Yatesbury airfield in Cherhill, Wiltshire, with over 700 other German servicemen. He was in charge of a working party of German prisoners of war (prisoners were used for manual labour near to their camps during the war) and, one day in October 1917, he crawled under the camp wire to retrieve a suit he had made out of army blankets and hidden near to the camp. He then went and bought a mackintosh Chippenham and got the train to London.

Lieutenant Scheumann arrived in London late on Tuesday 16 October. He went out and bought a kitbag, some boots and new clothes then went to the theatre, before checking into a hotel in the West End. He checked out the next day after lunch and moved to Bellomo’s private hotel at 102 Jermyn Street, Piccadilly.

Andrea Bellomo, the owner and proprietor, was an Italian citizen in his 40s who ran the hotel with his English wife, Nellie. When Scheumann checked in at 4pm, Bellomo was immediately suspicious: “I at once noticed”, he told reporters later, “that although he described himself as a British subject, his accent was distinctly that of an educated German” What’s more, when the new arrival gave his name and address he wrote it out as “Thomas Mann, Bristol, High Street 145”:

The suspicious hotel registration entry

The suspicious hotel registration entry 

Bellomo told reporters that “The ‘145’ being placed at the end of the name of the street aroused my suspicions, as all Germans write the number thus.” He also felt that the handwriting looked German (especially the ‘1’ in ‘145’). He allowed ‘Mr Mann’ to check in but kept an eye on him. That evening ‘Mann’ again went to the theatre, apparently to see ‘Trelawny of the Wells’ at the New Theatre.

At breakfast the next day, Scheumann/Mann “appeared somewhat anxious” and Bellomo consulted a British staff officer staying at the hotel who “had also noticed the man’s clothes were apparently ready-made, and he had a distinct German accent, and that he had the appearance of an officer.” Bellomo called the police and when a Sergeant Cole arrived and had been told of the suspicions, one of the waiters “ran up, saying ‘That man is a Bosche’.”

Cole and Bellomo spoke to Scheumann/Mann, who claimed to be Swiss. The English PC and the Italian hotelier did not believe this for a minute and the man was arrested “quite cheerfully” after being challenged. According to Bellomo, “I gave him some sandwiches, and said, ‘You’re lucky to be treated in this way. I hope you’ll tell your friends how well we treat German prisoners here.’ He [Scheumann] laughed, and went off with Sergeant Cole.”

Andrea Bellomo, the hero of the story

Andrea Bellomo, the hero of the story 

Andrea Bellomo applied successfully for British citizenship in 1919 but only lived until 1927, when he died in Cranbrook, Kent, where he and Mrs Bellomo had moved after the war. Nellie (Ellen Maria) Bellomo lived on in Cranbook until her death in 1963.

It is intriguing to think that a German officer was able to spend 36 hours at large in London, dressed in a home-made suit and speaking with a noticeable German accent. The vigilance of Bellomo and his guests and staff helped to send Scheumann back to his prisoner of war camp. He was, though, only one of many Germans at large at that time, as escapes were surprisingly common: newspaper reports of Scheumann’s capture also noted the details of two more escaped German prisoners of war.



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Posted by on 25 September 2014 in Ordinary Londoners


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DEG Quelch, far from Flanders

We are used to the image of British servicemen in the Great War trudging through the mud of Flanders. Not all served on the Western Front. Many served in the Middle East, the Balkans and Italy; others ended up in India and Burma. D.E.G. Quelch was one of a lucky few who ended up in a paradise far from the Flanders mud.

British soldiers, and those of the Empire and Dominions served all around the world during the Great War. In early 1918, there were 3.77 million British (as opopsed to imperial or dominion) soldiers in the army, of whom 2.3 million were serving overseas. Of that number 2.17 million – more than 90% – were serving in the theatres of war around the world: France and Flanders, Italy, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Salonika, Palestine and in East Africa. Another 17,237 were manning garrisons around the Empire and 98,645 were serving in India and Burma (along with 388,599 native Indian troops).

Among those in India and Burma were a number of London battalions. For example, the 25th London cyclists were based in India in 1916-18 – part of the battalion stayed on and were part of the garrison of Amritsar during the imposition of martial law by British forces there that culminated in the infamous massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh

Another London unit in Asia was the 18th (London) Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. One of their non-commissioned officers was Douglas Edwin Gerald Quelch, who was a married 42-year-old employee of the London County Council tramway department when he volunteered for the army in 1914. In late 1916, he wrote to the editor of the LCC’s staff magazine (published in Jan 1917), describing some elements of his war experience

Sir,-Before leaving Rangoon I received a copy of the Staff Gazette and read with much interest the doings and whereabouts of some of the staff. I thought it quite an excellent idea, which should help to bring old members into touch with one another. Since leaving England I’ve been in Malta, Egypt, India and Burmah, and now on special duty in charge of a detachment at Table Island, about 350 miles south-west of the Irrawaddy mouths and 150 miles north-east of Port Blair and the Andamans, in close proximity to the Cocos Islands (well known in connections with the Emden raids). The island, or rather islands (as Table is joined to Slipper at low tide) are uninhibited jungles, the only attempt at civilisation being the wireless station. Landing is only made by small boats owing to the dangerous nature of the coast.

We are quite out of touch with everything outside as we get no news or mails except when a steamer calls with fresh supplies, every two months or so.

Deer and other wild cattle are plentiful, also turtle, and fish of all sizes and colours. Unfortunately swimming is almost impossible owing to the large numbers of sharks. Cocoanuts and bananas are very plentiful. Companies of my battalion are at Rangoon and at the Andamans, but we fully expect to leave for Europe in January. I might mention that there [are] over one hundred L.C.C. employees in this battalion. Kind wishes to all old friends and a speedy return.-Yours faithfully,

D.E.G. Quelch,

Sergeant, Rifle Brigade

(Tramways Department)

Quite a contrast to his native Camberwell!

The islands Quelch described as in the Coco Island group, at the north of the Andaman Islands. The Wikipedia entry describes the islands in the group:

The Coco Islands consist of the main Great Coco Island and the smaller Little Coco Island, separated by the Alexandra Channel. Table Island, a third small island located near Great Coco Island, previously housed a lighthouse but is uninhabited. Slipper Island is an islet located off the NW point of Table Island.

The Cocos may have been known in 1917 in connection with the Emden, a German cruiser that marauded around the Bay of Bengal in 1914. Today, they are better known for the alleged use by (or sale to?) China.

Quelch’s unit do not appear to have made it to Europe in 1917-18. Twenty three men from the 18th Rifle Brigade are listed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as having died in Burma in 1916-1919, along with another eight commemorated in India. Like Quelch, these men were mainly over military age, being in their forties and even older when they died (one was 61). Many of them had originally joined other battalions (often in the London or Middlesex Regiments) as volunteers or from the National Reserve but were transferred to the 18th Rifle Brigade for this garrison duty in India and Burma. Almost all were Londoners.



Adamson and Hudson, London Town Miscellany vol 1

Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire.

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Posted by on 5 September 2014 in Ordinary Londoners


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A strange good-bye, Paddington Station 1914

British Tommies heading for the Western Front were not the only people to leave London by train in the Great War.  On 17 August 1914, the Austrian Ambassdor departed the capital from Paddington Station accompanied by a strange chorus.

When a nation declares war on another, they expel the other country’s ambassador. On 6 August, the German ambassador Prince Lichnowsky left his residence at 9 Carlton Terrace, watched by a small but quiet crowd of Londoners.  The Prince had been quite pro-Britain and was disappointed in his nation’s role in bringing about the war – as he set out in his book about his time in London.

After the United Kingdom declared war on Austria Hungary on 12 August, the Austrian Ambassador Albert, Count von Mensdorff-Pouilly-Dietrichstein also had to leave. Count Mensdorff too had tried to avert war. He had been ambassador since 1904, but had also been an attaché as far back as 1889. After 25 years in London, he had to go back to Vienna. He reportedly received a telegram from King George V saying that he would be welcome back in London in future.

Count Mensdorff by Philip Alexius de Lazlo (c)NPG

Count Mensdorff by Philip Alexius de Lazlo (c)NPG

On 17 August, the Count left the Embassy in Belgrave Square, watched by a crowd of people – mostly British but with a few Austrians. According to the Manchester Guardian’s account, one Englishman stepped forward to bid the ambassador ‘Good-bye’.

Count Mensdorff arrived at Paddington Station, where members of the public were not allowed onto the platform. However, a group of 30-40 Austrians and Germans had managed to get onto a neighbouring platform and began to sing their national anthem, which had the same tune as the more famous German anthem Deutschland uber Alles.

Journalist Michael McDonagh was there and wrote: “It was indeed a strange experience to hear the two enemy National Anthems sung together by enemy groups and filling a London railway station with the commingling strains.”

It really must have been a strange sight – and sound – to hear the two groups trying to outdo one another in singing the national anthems of nations on opposite sides of the Great War.


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Posted by on 17 August 2014 in Famous People, Places


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London’s first casualties in France, August 1914

The British Expeditionary Force arrived in France in mid-August 1914. Part of the force was the first overseas wartime contingent of the Royal Flying Corps. Sadly, two of London’s first Great War casualties were among these airmen: E.W.C. Perry and H.E. Parfitt. Their deaths on 16 August was later part of a major controversy over the attitude of the RFC to its pilots’ safety.

The Royal Flying Corps was established as the aviation arm of the British Army in 1912 (the Royal Air Force only came into existence in 1918, combining the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service). When the BEF set out to France, the RFC actually set out ahead of them, beginning their journey and assembly on 13 August. The serviceable aircraft of 2, 3, 4 and 5 Squadrons set out form the south of England – also not without incident as Lieutenant R.R. Skene and Air Mechanic R.K Barlow were killed taking off near Dover.

E.W.C. Perry, experienced aviator and the first British officer to die in France in August 1914 (image from his Aero Club certificate)

E.W.C. Perry, experienced aviator and the first British officer to die in France in August 1914 (image from his Aero Club certificate) 

The aircraft that did make it to France gathered at Amiens (which was to play a significant part in Britain’s war in later years). One of the pilots was 23 year-old Evelyn Walter Copland Perry; the only child of barrister Walter Copland and his wife Evelyn Emma Perry, he was born in London and – after attending Cambridge University – returned to his parents’ house at 29 Thurlow Square and began working at the Royal Aircraft Factory. While there, in 1911, he gained his Royal Aero Club certificate. He joined the Special Reserve of the Royal Flying Corps, from which he had been mobilised when Britain entered the Great War. After leaving the Royal Aircraft Company, Perry (or Mr Copland Perry as he is known in some sources) went to Brooklands to work with Tommy Sopwith on his aeroplanes, then flew an Avro aeroplane to Portugal and tested aircraft for the Portguese army. Returning to the UK, he began producing aeroplanes himself, with a Mr Beadle.

Perry wrote a letter home from Amiens in August 1914, “full of his extreme enjoyment” of the flights he had undertaken thus far in his war service (according to de Ruvigny’s roll of honour). Leaving Amiens, he was accompanied by another Londoner, Herbert Edward Parfitt. In 1911, Parfitt had been an engineering labourer, born in Battersea and living there with his parents William James Parfitt and Clara Jane Parfitt; William was a printer’s compositor.

Perry and Parfitt were among the last to take off from Amiens on 16 August. As they took off in their BE8 (number 625), the aeroplane stalled at about 150 feet from the ground – losing speed from climbing too quickly or with too little power. The aircraft turned over on its side and fell to the ground, where it caught fire. Both men were killed. They were the first British airmen ever to die in a theatre of war; Perry was also the first British officer fatality of the war (the majority of British servicemen who died before or on 16 August died in the UK). They had a full military funeral in Amiens with flag-draped coffins escorted by soldiers and senior officers, as well as members of the RFC. On 26 August, a memorial service was held for the two men at St Thomas Church, Orchard Street, Portland Square – possibly organised by Perry’s grieving parents (the church is no longer there; its site was roughly where the back of Selfridge’s is, now covered by the shop and Edwards Mews).

The BE8 in which Perry and Parfitt died (image from Mike O’Connor's book Airfields & Airmen: Somme)

The BE8 in which Perry and Parfitt died (image from Mike O’Connor’s book Airfields & Airmen: Somme) 

The sad deaths of these two young men came to a kind of prominence two years later when Noel Pemberton Billing, described by the Dictionary of National Biography as an “aviator and self-publicist”, used their case as an example to attack the Government. Billing had served in the RNAS early in the war, including in a raid on a Zeppelin base in 1914, but resigned his commission in order to publicly criticise the conduct of the air war. He fought and lost a by-election in Mile End in January 1916, but was elected in March in East Hertfordshire. That month he accused the authorities of ‘criminal negligence’ over a series of accidents and incidents that had caused the deaths of air crew. He was particularly critical of Royal Aircraft Company aeroplanes (of which the BE8 was one).

Among the cases cited by Billing in Parliament in March 1916 was that of Perry and Parfitt. He referred to the case only obliquely, referring to the tendency of the BE8 to side-slip and nose-dive, with fatal consequences. The Committee that investigated each case set out what happened to Perry and Parfitt  (quoted in Flight magazine):

“Mr Perry, on leaving Amiens, appears to have stalled his machine, i.e., to have attempted to climb too fast with the result that the machine lost speed, turned on its side, fell to the ground, caught fire, and Mr Perry was killed. Mr Perry was pleased with the performance of his machine on the flight to France, and spoke of it as the pick of the bunch. The aerodrome at Amiens is particularly large. Mr Perry was an experienced pilot. The type of machine has been abandoned. It was not successful and was somewhat under-engined, and was apt to lost speed quickly in the air. It was abandoned because it was not fast, and not sufficiently better than other machines then in use to justify its continuance at the Front. It is still used for training.

Conclusion.- There was no negligence in giving this type of machine to an experienced pilot, as Mr Perry was; although with the 80 h.p. Gnome engine with which it was then fitted it required careful handling, especially in climbing, to prevent its losing flying speed.

“In considering whether the use of a particular type of machine was or was not negligent, it is necessary to bear in mind the enormous progress that has been made during the war in the development of aeroplane engines by ourselves and by other nations engaged in the war, although even yet no absolutely reliable type has been evolved. The question of negligence in the use of a particular type of machine must always be determined with reference to the types of machines and engines available at the date when a given accident occurred. It might be quite proper to use in the early stages of the war and aeroplane whose use to-day would be wholly wrong.”

In other words, they thought that it looked bad in retrospect (in 1916), but stressed that it was not a bad aircraft by the standards of the day. The fact that it was soon replaced, and that training was notoriously dangerous (and this type was only used for that until 1916), suggests that the BE8 was not an effective aeroplane (it should not be confused with the RE8, which saw service throughout the war).

The account given in de Ruvigny’s roll of honour (presumably supplied by Perry’s parents) is that Perry was happy with the aeroplane in which he flew over to France, but had to give that one up before leaving Amiens. This change of aeroplanes is corroborated by Mike O’Connor’s book Airfields and Airmen: Somme, which says that another pilot flew BE8 number 625 to France. This contradicts the implication in the official account that Perry was previously perfectly happy with the BE8 in which he had his fatal crash, somewhat undermining the official account (note that the account says he was happy with the aeroplane he flew out in, without explicitly saying that it was number 625).

Whether it was negligence, a simple accident or pilot error, this death of two young airmen before they had even encountered the enemy was desperately sad. The Perrys lost their only child; on his gravestone is the inscription ‘First on the Roll of Honour; all glory to his name’.

The Parfitts lost their middle son of three (they also had three daughters). A few months later, Walter William Parfitt, Herbert’s older brother, also died. He had been in the navy before the war and was serving on HMS Bulwark when the ship exploded in the Thames near Sheerness at 7.50 am on 26 November 1914. An inquiry into the accident found that the ammunition had exploded, probably because it was stored badly and close to a boiler room. Staggeringly, the Parfitts lost two sons in the first four months of war in accidents unrelated to enemy action that were both the subject of official inquiries in the subsequent months and years.

In Amiens, on 16 August 2014, there was be a short remembrance ceremony for E.W.C. Perry (and, I hope, H.E. Parfitt). Perhaps people in London will also be remember these two young men who set out from this city to fight in the war but who died so prematurely on their way to the battlefield.


  • Flight magazine, 1916
  • The Times
  • Mike O’Connor, Airfields and Airmen: Somme
  • Joshua Levine, On a Wing and A Prayer
  • Long, Long Trail
  • CWGC
  • Ancestry service and census records
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Posted by on 17 August 2014 in Ordinary Londoners


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