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Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Royal Naval Division memorial

In the corner of Horse Guards Parade, partly hidden behind the Admiralty Citadel is a memorial to an unusual Great War fighting force: the Royal Naval Division. These naval men served as infantry at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.

The Royal Naval Division memorial

The Royal Naval Division (RND) was an odd hybrid unit, seamen serving as and alongside footsoldiers. It was both a category of naval personnel and a fighting unit of the British Army, although the two were not for long the same thing. The history and the make-up of the Division told well elsewhere, but a brief summary is that Winston Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, formed the Division from surplus naval troops (mainly reservists) as the Germans rapidly invaded Belgium in 1914. The Division first saw action in the (unsuccessful) defence of Antwerp in October – many of the RND escaped over the border to the neutral Netherlands and were interned there.

Recruiting poster for the RND

Reconstituted, and following further training, the Division was sent to Egypt in 1915 and landed on the Gallipoli peninsula on 25 April in the first landing of British troops there. They served throughout the campaign there before being sent back to the Western Front in 1916, where the Division served out the rest of the war, fighting in most of the major battles.

The RND at Gallipoli – full page photo in page 1 of the Daily Mirror (15/7/15)

During this time, though, the battalions that made up the Division were – as in other Divisions of the British Expeditionary Force – moved around and the RND as a fighting unit became less naval in its make-up (the memorial remembers those from the army units that served in the RND as well as the naval personnel). Its original battalions bore names evocative of British naval history: Nelson, Hawke, Drake, Collingwood, Benbow, Hood, Howe and Anson.

In 1925, a decade after the landing at Gallipoli, Winston Churchill unveiled a memorial to the officers and men of the Division who died during the war, alongside him was Sir Ian Hamilton – the commander of the Gallipoli campaign.

Churchill and Hamilton at the unveiling ceremony (Daily Mirror 27/5/25)

The memorial was constructed at the corner of Horse Guards Parade, at the back of the Admiralty building. Its inscription lists the places that the RND served and bears the words of a sonnet by Rupert Brooke – the Division’s most famous casualty.

BLOW OUT YOU BUGLES, OVER THE RICH DEAD / THERE’S NONE OF THESE SO LONELY AND POOR OF OLD / BUT, DYING HAS MADE US RARER GIFTS THAN GOLD / THESE LAID THE WORLD AWAY: POURED OUT THE RED / SWEET WINE OF YOUTH; GAVE UP THE YEARS TO BE. / OF WORK AND JOY, AND THAT UNHOPED SERENE / THAT MEN CALL AGE: AND THOSE WHO WOULD HAVE BEEN / THEIR SONS, THEY GAVE THEIR IMMORTALITY

The view of the memorial in 1925, looking towards the Mall (Daily Mirror 27/4/25)

The same view today, blocked by the citadel.

The memorial under construction (Times 6/4/25)

Two South Londoners served as naval soldiers with the RND and had very different war stories:

Able Seaman H. Hardcastle, from Vauxhall, was a serving naval rating in 1914, but was drafted into the RND for the fighting on the Western Front.  He later rejoined his ship and saw action at the Battle of Heligoland Bight, where (according the National Roll of the Great War) the ship was sunk and Hardcastle was taken prisoner.  After a second attempt to escape, he was recaptured and moved to a punishment camp. Eventually he was sent to Holland and repatriated in England in November 1918.

Unlike Hardcastle, virtually all of Able Seaman Alexander Frederick Smith‘s war service was in the RND.  He was a surveyor from Catford and enlisted in the Public Schools Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment.  After Antwerp, most of the original Hawke Battalion, RND, had been killed, captured or interned, and the battalion was reformed incorporating men from the Public Schools Battalion in its D Company. Hardcastle served in Gallipoli throughout the fighting there and then as an anti-aircraft gunner on the Island of Imbros. After a few months in the UK from July 1916, he was sent out to France and Flanders in December and was killed in action on 18 February 1917, at Miraumont during the battle of the Ancre. He is commemorated on the Theipval memorial to the missing in France, and on the war memorial in St George’s Church, Catford.

The Royal Naval Division memorial has had an odd history since 1925.  It was removed from Horse Guards Parade in 1939, when the Admiralty Citadel was built between Horse Guards Parade and the Mall, and only re-erected in Greenwich in 1951. Forty years later it was moved back to Westminster and restored to its original location – albeit dwarfed by the citadel.

Sources:

UK National Inventory of War Memorials

Page on the RND on a site about Jack Clegg, one of its number

And (as ever) the Long Long Trail webpage on the RND

 
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Posted by on 29 November 2012 in Ordinary Londoners, War Dead, War memorials

 

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Reggie Schwarz

It sometimes seems like the England cricket team is full of South Africans. It is worth remembering that this was not always the case and indeed it was an Englishman – a Londoner – who helped put South African cricket on the map: Reggie Schwarz. As Major R.O. Schwarz MC, he also served with great skill in the Great War.

Reginald Oscar Schwarz born was born in Lee in 1875 and educated at St Paul’s, where he played for the first eleven at cricket for four years. At Cambridge he continued to play cricket, but never got his ‘blue’ – although he did get one in rugby. In the years after he left university he played cricket for Oxfordshire, and then first-class for Middlesex, as well as gaining three international rugby caps for England as a half-back. At the turn of the century he moved to South Africa, where he worked on the Johannesburg railway and became a member of the stock exchange there. He also became an increasingly effective cricketer.

Reggie returned to England as a member of the touring South African team; he also returned as a leading exponent of the ‘googly’, which he had learned from its inventor (Bernard Bosanquet) and passed on to his team-mates. On another tour of England in 1907, he took 137 wickets (in Tests and against counties and other teams) for an impressive average of 11.7 runs conceded per wicket taken. In 1908 he was Wisden’s cricketer of the year.

He retired from cricket before the war and returned to the London Stock Exchange.

Schwarz bowling to Surrey’s M.C. Bird at the Oval in 1912. And a closer view of Schwarz bowling (Daily Mirror 11/5/12)

At the start of the war, he was appointed as a staff officer in the South African army and served in German South-West Africa before arriving on the Western Front in March 1916 as Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General (DAQMG) for the 47th(London) Division. He served with the division for a year and was awarded the Military Cross for his good work.

He then served in a number of posts commanding labour companies and, suffering from poor health, was transferred to the salvage corps in early 1918. Just days after the Armistice was signed, he died on 18 November 1918 at Etaples in France.

By all accounts, Reggie Schwarz was a cheerful and popular man, an impressive cricketer (for his bowling at least) and an efficient officer.

One of his Commanding Officers wrote (quoted on the Roll of Honour page for the MCC): “Combined with far more than his share of good looks, and the lithe figure of the trained athlete, he possessed the most supreme modesty and self-effacement. Tremendously cheerful, bubbling over with fun and good spirits, and possessing a real sense of humour, it was small wonder that he owned such a host of friends. If one were asked to sum him up in a sentence, one would say that it is inconceivable that he could ever have had an enemy.”

The 47thDivision’s official history also noted that “In the year during which he served on the Divisional Staff — from March, 1916, to March, 1917 — ” Reggie ” Schwarz made many friends in the Division, and his unfailing cheerfulness and winning personality was a considerable asset to the hard- worked ” Q” staff.”

His importance as a cricketer is summed up in the opening lines of his obituary in Wisden: “Major Schwarz, as every one knows, was famous as a slow bowler. Few men did so much to establish the reputation of South African cricket.”

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Sources:

Cricinfo profile – including Wisden obituary

MCC war memorial on roll-of-honour.com

 
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Posted by on 26 November 2012 in Award-winners, Famous People

 

Sadie Bonnell: bravery in the field

Women were restricted from serving on the front line – even as medics – but some still performed great acts of bravery. Sadie Bonnell and her comrades did just that in May 1918, rescuing the wounded amid the danger and confusion of a burning ammunition dump.

Sara Bonnell – known as ‘Sadie’ – was born in January 1888, daughter of American dental surgeon Bentley Jay Bonnell and his English wife Harriet. The family lived in Kensington and young Sara was educated at Bedales.

Sadie Bommell MM

Sadie learned to drive in 1915 in the hope of being of service during the Zeppelin raids on London that began that year. She was told that this was not something a woman should be doing. From June 1917 she managed to get a role as a driver for the Canadian Army Service Corps, driving an ambulance car in London.

By the end of the year, she had joined the the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY) and was out at the front and driving field kitchens, mobile baths for troops, and supply lorries.  This soon developed into an ambulance-driving role. This was a difficult job, driving a vehicle with little suspension and unreliable engines over bumpy roads, often carrying severely wounded men whose moans could be heard by the driver.

On the night of 18/19 May 1918, she was serving near St Omer when a German air raid caused an explosion at an ammunition dump at Arque. The bombing had destroyed the only ambulance at the site, so three extra ambulances were called for, driven and staffed by five FANY women, who – as the London Gazette (8/7/1918) described it:

despite the danger arising from various explosions, succeeded in removing all the wounded. Their conduct throughout was splendid.

This dangerous work took five hours and resulted in 18 Military Medals being awarded – included Bonnell’s. The diary of the Matron in Chief in France and Flanders records the incident, from the point of view of number 10 stationary hospital at St Omer, is glowing in its praise of the women:

Great credit is due to the FANY Convoy for it was their night on duty and these girls worked continually bringing in the wounded and dead from whatever place they were instructed to go.

Bonnell’s account of it was much more self-deprecating: ‘It wasn’t courage; I was there to do something useful. There was a job we had to get done.’

Motor-drivers awarded Military Medals by General Plumer. (Daily Mirror, 23/7/1918)

She and the other heroines of the incident (Evelyn Gordon-Brown, Aileen Maude Faulkner,Evelyn Faulder, and Nellie Dewhurst) were awarded their Military Medals by General Plumer, along with other female motor-drivers. Bonnell was then given he actual medal by the King at Buckingham Palace in 1919.

In 1919, Sadie Bommell returned to the UK and married Major Herbert Marriott, a Railway Transport Officer who had been gassed during the war and awarded the OBE.  Sadly, he died – possibly weakened by his war wounds – in the influenza epidemic in 1921.

Sadie remained a keen driver after the war. In the words of her entry in the Oxford dictionary of national biography:

“She was described as a tomboy who loved sport and who seized the opportunities offered by the war to break out of the conventional Edwardian mould. She loved fast cars and between the two world wars drove a six-cylinder AC, similar to the model which became the first British car to win the Monte Carlo rally in 1926. Her car had a red fish mascot on the bonnet, a reminder of a senior British army officer’s description of the FANYs in France: ‘Neither fish, flesh nor fowl but damned good red herring’.”

She remarried in 1948, to Charles Leslie Talbot. Talbot died in 1967 but Sadie lived to be a centenarian and died in 1993.

Sadie Bonnell was clearly a brave woman, driving an ambulance seems to have been both a duty and an opportunity for her.  She summed up her feelings as a driver in an succinctly: ‘I was not frightened during those drives’, she said. ‘I did not think about it. I enjoyed being out in France and, if it was dangerous, that did not seem to matter at the time’

Sources:

Times obituary

Oxford DNB entry

Historical Roll of women of the British Empire to whom the Military Medal has been awarded… (part IV)

 
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Posted by on 24 November 2012 in Award-winners, Women

 

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The Eagle Hut

Today is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. One thing that US troops – like their British comrades – could be thankful for in the Great War was the Young Men’s Christian Association,  the YMCA. The presence of American servicemen and their YMCA in London is marked by a plaque on Aldwych – the site of the ‘Eagle Hut’.

The YMCA supplied British servicemen away from home in the UK and overseas with a place to eat, drink, relax, and write letters home. As American troops arrived in large numbers, the organisation committed to supplying a home from home for them in England’s capital.

Operating from mid-August 1917, the YMCA’s Eagle Hut was officially opened on 3 September by US ambassador W.H. Page (as seen in this Pathe film).The Eagle Hut was established by four American businessmen based in London: E.C. Carter, Robert Grant, Grant Forbes and Francis E Powell. It stood at the point where the Indian High Commission and some of Bush House now stand, slightly west of the bottom of Kingsway on the north side of Aldwych.

The Eagle Hut, Aldwych by Sir Henry Rushby [(c) IWM]

The hut served around two million meals in the two years it operated – from August 1917 to August 1919. It was said to serve 3,000 per day, 4-5,000 on busy days. American pancakes were the most popular items offered, with 1,000 sold every day, as well as 13-15,000 ice creams per week during the summer.

The hut was run by 800 of volunteers – most of them women – and included 410 beds for servicemen staying overnight. It also had a billiard room, and other games were played – including a Kaiser-bashing game:

Sport at the Eagle Hut (Daily Mirror 4/7/1918)

That day, the King and Queen also paid a visit. 7,662 meals were sold – while the King tried out one of those American pancakes.

The King and Queen visiting the Eagle Hut for Independence Day, 1918 (Daily Graphic 6/7/1918)

As well as sports, food, and accomodation, the Hut also provided information for the troops. The YMCA also organised theatre trips and sight-seeing trips for them, to places like Kew, Windsor, St Paul’s, the Tower of London and the Old Cheshire Cheese pub.

Inside the Eagle Hut, by Sir Henry Rushby [(c) IWM]

In August 1919, the hut finally closed its doors. A dance was held to mark the occasion. A decade later, the then US amassador, A.B. Houghton, unveiled a plaque to be placed in the wall of the buildings on the site of the Eagle Hut, paid for by the ‘Eagle Hutters’, a group of American businessmen who had volunteered at the Hut during the war.

The plaque marking the location of the Eagle Hut

Links to information and pictures:

London Daily Photo

Photos of the hut: here, here and here; and two here.

Times 26/8/1919 and 7/10/1927

 
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Posted by on 21 November 2012 in Ordinary Londoners, Places

 

CLR Falcy: disgrace, heroism and honour

Heroes come in a variety of forms. People may be recognised and honoured as heroic in one aspect of their lives but condemned by contemporaries for their actions in others. One such man was an RFC officer, C.R.L. Falcy, who was cashiered in 1916 but bounced back to become a decorated war hero.

Cecil Roy Leonard Falcy (known as Roy) was born in Thanet, Kent, in 1893; he the eldest son of naturalised Swiss-born auditor Gustave Leon Falcy and his English wife Elizabeth. By 1911, he was working as a banker’s clerk in London, living in a large boarding house at 34-38 Cartwright Gardens near Euston.

Falcy had volunteered for the Territorial Force before the war, gaining a commission in a Territorial battalion of the Berkshire Regiment. In 1915, Gustave died, but his eldest son married (to Eleanor Ryan in Epping) and advanced in his army career. His medal entitlement shows that he served in France in 1915, but later in the year he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. Falcy qualified as a pilot in October, and was posted to No 5 Reserve Aero Squadron.

C L R Falcy in his uniform as an officer in the Berkshire Regiment

C.R.L. Falcy in his uniform as an officer in the Berkshire Regiment

In the new year, 1916, though, Falcy’s promising army career collapsed when he faced a court martial, accused of committing ‘gross indecency’ with other men in London in December 1915. Interestingly, he was then cashiered for the lesser offence of ‘indecency’, presumably because the court lacked confidence in the allegations but felt that there must have been some ‘wrongdoing’.

The allegations, which included reference to locations in the Edgware Road, Marylebone and Oxford Street areas of London, seem to have come after Falcy reported a young Russian to the police for attempted blackmail. The Russian was Maurice Rothfarb, also known as J.M. Rothwell. On January 3rd, a notice appeared in the Times that:

Morris Rothfarb, aged 16, a waiter of Russian nationality, was remanded at Marlborough-street Police Court on Saturday on a charge of demanding money with menaces of Lieutenant C.R.L. Falcy, Royal Flying Corps.

Precisely what happened is not clear, but perhaps Rothfarb knew that Falcy was an officer and threatened him with an accusation that would cause his dismissal as a British Army Officer. With male homosexuality illegal in the UK until the 1960s (and in the armed forces until 2000), blackmail accusing men of homosexuality was a particular avenue used by extortionists. According to Angus McLaren, in Sexual Blackmail: a Modern History  (Harvard University Press 2002), most blackmail victims simply paid up in this situation. Homosexual blackmailers frequently operated in gangs, which made it difficult and risky to challenge their accusations. However, it seems that Falcy did exactly that by reporting Rothfarb immediately to the police. While the London police tended to give credence to men who challenged blackmailers and claimed innocence, almost 90% of courts martial during the Great War returned guilty verdicts (Gordon Corrigan, Mud, Blood & Poppycock, 2002, page 225). We cannot now know the details of what occurred in London that December, but the result was that Falcy was cashiered and stripped of his officer status on 14 March.

This is far from being the end of Roy Falcy’s story, though. After his conviction and ejection from the officer corps, he was able to rejoin the RFC in the ranks in January 1917. He became 54267 Serjeant C.R.L. Falcy.

Falcy's medal index card, showing his reduction from officer to sergeant.

Falcy’s medal index card, showing his reduction from officer to sergeant.

In his new ‘other ranks’ guise, Falcy became a fully-fledged war hero. After training as a military pilot early in 1917, he joined 22 Squadron. He arrived with the Squadron in France on 10 May and served at the front until September as a reconnaissance pilot, primarily flying an FE2b with the serial number A848. One aspect of these missions that Falcy’s log books do not record is the frequent presence of Jimmie, a devoted mongrel puppy that he often smuggled on board inside his flying jacket.

FE2b, the type of aircraft flown by Falcy on operations in 1917 and 1918. The gunner sat in the front cockpit, with one machine-gun firing forward and able to swing round to fire to the sides, and another gun to fire back over the pilot's head.

FE2b, the type of aircraft flown by Falcy on operations in 1917 and 1918. The gunner sat in the front cockpit, with one machine-gun firing forward and able to swing round to fire to the sides, and another gun to fire back over the pilot’s head.

One particular mission stands out in this period. Following a preliminary photographic mission on 12 June 1917, Falcy and his observer Roy Oswald Campbell, set out on 16 June in FE2b number A848 on what his log-book refers to as a ‘special mission’. The exact purpose of it is not clear, but it was a photographic mission aimed at countering German Kite Balloons. These were gas-filled balloons used to direct artillery fire, a vital and deadly role in the war on the Western Front where vantage points over enemy positions on the ground were few and hotly contested. They were extremely dangerous to attack, being heavily defended by aircraft and anti-aircraft guns.

Falcy’s log-book records the results succinctly: “Shot down: controls cut. Campbell climbed out on plane. Both got DCM.”

Falcy's log-book notes of his mission on 16 June 1917

Falcy’s log-book note of his mission on 16 June 1917

The full citation for his award (dated 16 August 1917) gives more details:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. Whilst acting as pilot to another N.C.O. he and his comrade performed a most daring a successful photographic reconnaissance in order to confirm information previously gained as to the working of hostile kite balloons. During operations they were heavily fired upon, and their machine completely out of control, but thanks to their great coolness and presence of mind and to a feat of great daring performed by his comrade in order to right the machine Sjt. Falcy regained control and brought the machine back in safety to our lines.

Campbell’s citation (same date as Falcy’s) gives an added hair-raising detail about his part in their ‘cool’ response to so nearly being shot down out of control: “…with wonderful coolness and presence of mind they righted the machine, Serjt. Campbell climbing on to the extreme tip of the wing in order to do so.”

In 1918, Falcy served in No 38 Squadron, still flying the rather out-dated FE2b bombers, this time on night raids from their base in Dunkirk. He served with the squadron throughout its active service from May 1918 to the end of the war. Falcy’s log-book shows 24 successful missions and two unsuccessful between June and October. On the last date in that log-book he wrote “Hit in head on first show”, but still managed to fly in a second mission that night! He was mentioned in despatches for his good work on 1 January 1919 and in October that year was awarded the French Medaille Militaire. By the end of 1919, Falcy was a twice-decorated hero of the Royal Air Force, quite a turn-around after his disgrace four years earlier.

Roy Campbell as an officer in 1918. (Thanks to Jim Kelly for sending me the photo)

Roy Campbell as an officer in 1918. (Thanks to Jim Kelly for sending me the photo)

Campbell also went on to be honoured by a foreign power. As a 27-year-old ‘machinist and traveller’ with previous military experience, he had enlisted in September 1914 in his native Canada. After serving in the artillery, he joined the RFC. In 1917 he was also awarded the Belgian Ordre de la Couronne and in early 1918 he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the RFC. On 27 September 1918, though, he was killed in action – after four years and two days of military service and less than two months before the Armistice. He was posthumously awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre and lies buried in the Harlebeke New British Cemetery in Flanders.

Falcy’s brother Humphrey Ned Falcy, an officer in the Tyneside Scottish (the 23rd Northumberland Fusiliers) was also honoured for his bravery during the war, earning a Military Cross that was gazetted in December 1916. His citation describes him leading a raid on the enemy “with great courage and skill” and then carrying a wounded man across no-man’s land when the raiding party withdrew. A month before his citation was published, H.N. Falcy was killed in action in France.

In the post-war years, Roy Falcy went on to obtain honours degrees in Law and English Literature at Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he was elected president of the college athletics club and won the prestigious Chancellor’s Gold Medal for English Verse for his poem ‘Death of Napoleon’ in 1921.

After the death of his first wife, he married again and he and his wife spent much of their lives overseas. In World War II he served in the Royal Indian Navy Volunteer Reserve, thus becoming one of the few people to have served in all three branches of the armed forces, He died in 1958 at the age of 65, and his surviving children remember him as an inspirational and loving father.

Note: This post was edited and re-posted on 24 September 2013 to include additional details and more information about Falcy’s life and his extraordinary flying career. I am grateful to those who supplied this information.

 
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Posted by on 17 November 2012 in Award-winners, Ordinary Londoners

 

Get a haircut!

One feature of army life has always been the change in appearance of the recruit. Apart from the obvious adoption of a uniform and often an improvement in physique, there was – of course – the matter of haircuts.  This was not only on joining the army: a severe haircut was often part of going to the front.

Archibald, Evans, Hudson, Chell, Ridley. ‘C’ Company officers, 10th Essex, before embarking for active service.

The officers of C Company, 10th Essex (a mixed Essex and London battaltion in its personnel) had their photo taken after getting their hair cut very short prior to going out to France.

The group includes Randolph Chell, a Londoner (although Essex-born), who ended up with a DSO and an MC and co-wrote the battalion’s biography With the 10th Essex In France – a classic of the genre. On the left is James Duncan Archibald, another Londoner having grown up in Edmonton, but sadly one who died during the war – killed during the Battle of the Somme in July 1916.

Another group who were shorn was Len Smith and his mates in the ‘shiny seventh’ – the 7th battalion of the London Regiment. Private Smith, a Walthamstow lad, wrote up his war experiences from his diary with excellent illustrations (published recently as Drawing Fire – and online here). At one point he shows two of his comrades and himself before and after their haircuts out in France in 1915:

Len Smith and friends, before and after their haircuts.

The chap with the moustache is referred to only as Tom, with the others being Jack and Len himself. I think Len is the one on the right.

Another Essex-born Londoner whose appearance was changed by a wartime haircut was Frederic Hillersdon Keeling, whom we have met before. Company Sergeant-Major ‘Ben’ Keeling served with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry; he was killed in action at Delville Wood 1916 and posthumously awarded the Military Medal.

FH Keeling as a civilian and as a soldier (Sgt, DCLI)

 
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Posted by on 15 November 2012 in Ordinary Londoners

 

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Hitler’s wreath at the Cenotaph

The central public site for national commemoration of the Great War is the Cenotaph in Whitehall. It represents the war dead of Britain and the Empire (irrespective of race, colour and creed). As such it meant a lot to those who served and those whose friends, comrades and relatives were killed in the war. In 1933, it was the site of protest against Herr Hitler, the new Chancellor of Germany.

Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933 (he only became “Führer of Germany” after also becoming President in 1934). On 10 May 1933, his emissary Dr Alfred Rosenberg laid a wreath from the Chancellor at the Cenotaph on behalf of Hitler. It was not welcomed.

On the 11th, it was snatched and thrown in the river. Newspaper accounts differ, but it appears that early that morning a man stepped from a car and slashed off the swastika that was displayed in the centre of the wreath. Later that morning, another man (or possibly the same one) got out of a car and snatched the wreath – taking it off with him in the car and throwing it into the Thames.

People inspecting the damaged wreath (D Mirror 13/5/33), presumably before it was thrown into the Thames

The man who did this (or at least certainly took the wreath away) was James Edmonds Sears, a 57-year-old British Legion member and owner of a Norfolk building firm, who was also the prospective Labour candidate for the St Pancras South West constituency in the next election. Sears had served in the Great War as an officer in the Royal Army Service Corps, arriving in France in November 1915.

James Edmonds Sears

Sears’s medal index card

Appearing in Bow Street magistrate’s court on 11 May, Sears stated that:

I removed the wreath from the Cenotaph as a deliberate national protest against the desecration of our national war memorial by the placing on it of a wreath by Hitler’s emissary, especially in view of the fact that Hitler’s Government at the present moment are contriving to do those things and foster the feeling that occurred in Germany before the war in which so many of our fellows suffered and lost their lives.

Sears was cleared of a charge of theft but ordered to pay 40 shillings for willful damage, being told that whatever his personal views it was an ill-mannered thing to do. The general public feeling, though, seems to have been supportive of Sears. In Germany, the regime was furious. One German newspaper stated that England’s reputation for treating its guests well had been dealt a severe blow.

An American ex-serviceman also added his voice to the protests, laying a single lily beside the cenotaph with a card reading:

If the Unknown Soldier could speak to this unknown American, he might voice his preference for this single flower to the wreath of a murderous dictator which now desecrates this memorial.

A policeman removed the card, but left the flower.

The eventual fate of Hitler’s wreath, is neatly summed up by the Yorkshire Post:

It appears that when a wreath has been placed on the Cenotaph, it becomes, ipso facto, the property of the Office of Works. When this one had been rescued from the river, Scotland Yard inquired what the First Commissioner of Works wished to have done with it. A representative inspected the wreath and reported that it had suffered so severely from immersion as to be of no further value. So Hitler’s tribute has now been consigned to the rubbish heap with the approval and blessing of Whitehall.

This was not the only time that the Cenotaph has been at the centre of protest. The event also has resonance with unease people feel today about the British National Party laying wreaths at war memorials – including one group removing a wreath in Lancashire in 2010.

It was also not the last time that a swastika-bearing wreath was laid at the Cenotaph in 1936, as Nazi ex-servicemen laid a similar wreath there as guests of the British Legion.

German ex-servicemen in Whitehall, 1936 (from nickelinthemachine.com)

German ex-servicemen giving a nazi salute after laying their wreath at the Cenotaph (Yorkshire Post, 21/1/36)

Postcript: James Edmonds Sears did stand as Labour candidate in St Pancras SW in the 1935 General Election, but he was defeated by the Conservative incumbent Mr G G Matheson.

Further reading:

Interesting blog post from Nickelinthemachine.com about the Hitler wreath, the other anti-Nazi protests and the Cenotaph.

 

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