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Gardening for the Fallen: the Bicknell brothers and the War Graves Commission

Whether we are visiting the battlefields of the Great War or a cemetery near to home, it’s likely that the most visible reminder of the war will be the bright, neat headstones of the war dead or the tall Cross of Sacrifice – the work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The Commission’s archive catalogue is available online, with many items digitised and newly accessible to us all from home. Using those archives, this blog post tells the story of two ex-serviceman brothers from London who spent their post-war lives working for the Commission, helping to create and maintain the memorials to their fallen comrades.

The Imperial (since 1960 Commonwealth) War Graves Commission was established by Royal Charter in 1917, with the mission of caring for the graves of the fallen and memorials to the missing, following the earlier decision not to repatriate the bodies of those who died overseas during the war. It was a huge task, as their website says: “The Commission’s work began in earnest after the Armistice. Once land for cemeteries and memorials had been guaranteed, the enormous task of recording the details of the dead began. By 1918, some 587,000 graves had been identified and a further 559,000 casualties were registered as having no known grave.” The last of its Great War memorials was completed twenty years after the war’s end, only a year before a new war engulfed the continent.

Two of those who helped to create and maintain the war cemeteries we now see in France and Flanders were the Bicknell brothers from London.

Ernest Hugh Bicknell and his brother William George were born in Battersea, the sons of William George Bicknell, a butcher, and his wife Emily (née Self) who had married in 1897 at St George’s Church in Battersea. William junior was baptised in the same church the following year, although the family’s address by then was in Rawlings Street, Chelsea. Ernest was born in June 1899. The boys were therefore both under two years old when William George senior died in early 1900. In 1901, Emily and her two sons were living at 13 King’s Street, Chelsea (they were one of two families living in the property in what is now St Luke’s Street, close to the church).

It would have been very difficult for a working-class woman to raise a family alone at the start of the twentieth century and, by 1911, the two boys were living at the School of Handicrafts For Poor Boys in Chertsey. The Chertsey Museum Interactive website tells us that:

The School of Handicrafts in Eastworth Road, Chertsey, was founded in 1885 by Dr Thomas Hawksley, an East London doctor. It was established as a school for needy boys and its primary purpose was to give the boys a trade.

There were problems in the early years; children were taken home or ran away, staff resigned and there were complaints that the food and clothing were inadequate. It was not long, however, before the school gained a well-respected reputation.

The boys, who came from all over England, received a basic education until the age 14. Then for a further two years they trained in boot-making and repair, carpentry, farming or gardening. Boys who did not find employment straight away on completing this training could then work at the school in various capacities.

The lifestyle at the school was Spartan. The day beginning at 6:30 a.m. and the diet was described as “wholesome but plain”. Discipline was generally strict but many old-boys, however, look back on their days at the school with fond memories.

In keeping with this description, the 1911 census describes the younger boys (including the two Bicknells) simply as pupils, but those aged 15 and 16 were listed with trades such as tailor and gardener, with ‘pupil’ added in brackets. The census return lists 55 ‘elementary scholars’ and 44 of the older ‘trade pupils’.

By the time the Bicknell boys were in their late teens, following this education in Chertsey, Europe was at war.

William George Bicknell enlisted in the army in May 1916 at the age of 18 and three months. He lists his and Emily’s address as 31 St George’s Square, Pimlico SW1, and gave his employment as messenger. After six months training, he joined 398 Battery Royal Field Artillery in December 1916. A year later he joined a reserve battery, before moving to the Central Signalling Depot in Swanage in January 1918; the medal roll for the RFA lists him as a signaller.

Ernest Hugh Bicknell served for more than two years in the 2nd Battalion, Middlesex Regiment. The medal roll indicates that he served overseas – the battalion was in France and Flanders from 1914 to 1918 – but, as with his brother, it is hard to tell when and where he served.

EH Bicknell

Ernest Hugh Bicknell

At the end of April, Ernest applied for the job of garden labourer with the Imperial War Graves Commission. A few weeks later, on 20 May, he took up the role and went to France with a salary of £2 per week. His UK address is given as 51 Lupus Street, just up the road from the St George’s Square address in Pimlico. In 1922 he was appointed as a general clerk.

We have to assume that Ernest enjoyed working for the Commission, as six months later his older brother applied. Although William applied to be a clerk, he was also appointed as a garden labourer and went to France in November 1920, becoming a gardener in 1923.

WG Bicknell

William George Bicknell

When Ernest applied for his role in March 1920, the Commission had 721 staff in France and Belgium; by March 1921, there were 1,362 staff in the region, largely organised into five (soon to be eight) ‘camps’ covering different areas of the former battlefield. The Bicknells were among 876 gardeners employed at that point.

Even the dry words of the annual report tells us something of the difficulty of undertaking gardening work in the ravaged landscape of the Western Front:

Owing to difficulties of accommodation in some parts of France and Belgium, particularly in the devastated areas, it has been necessary to form travelling gardening parties. These parties are provided with tents, bedding and cooking utensils, and leave Area Headquarters each Monday morning, returning at the end of the week.

The annual report refers to 948 cemeteries having been ‘treated horticulturally’, of which 557 had been sown with grass seed; 15.5 miles of boundary hedges had been planted, along with 75 miles of flower borders and 195 acres of grass – a reminder effort that went to turning the battlefields and the wartime cemeteries into the tidy sites of mourning and pilgrimage we know today.

The Commission’s archive includes an excellent photo album from 1919/20 that provides an interesting contrast with the same sites once the Commission had completed their work.

Faubourg d Amiens Arras

Faubourg d’Amiens cemetery, Arras, Feb 1920 (Copyright CWGC)

Faubourg interwar

Faubourg d’Amiens cemetery before the Second World War (copyright CWGC)

Cite Bonjean Armentieres

Cite Bonjean cemetery, Armentières, Feb 1920 (Copyright CWGC)

Cite Bonjean Armentieres later

Cite Bonjean cemetery, Armentières, in 1978

Both Bicknell brothers spent the rest of their lives with the Commission, each becoming a Senior Clerk after the Second World War, although William reverted to his previous role of gardener caretaker before the end of the 1940s. In 1928, Ernest married a Marie Louise Angèle Becourt in her hometown of Beaumetz-lès-Loges, west of Arras; they had at least one daughter (mentioned on his staff card).

Their work was, of course, interrupted by the Second World War in 1940, when the German army rapidly overran France and Belgium. The Commission managed to get 325 of their staff back to the UK ahead of the German advance, but another 212 did not make it out. The 1940-41 annual report says that of those who were not evacuated 158 were interned, 43 were believed to be at liberty, 5 had died and 6 were unaccounted for. Ernest Hugh Bicknell was one of those who got back to the UK; he was loaned out to the Air Ministry in Bloomsbury in 1943. No particular mention is made of the Second World War on William’s staff card; since other staff cards refer to periods of internment, I would assume that he too was able to get back to the UK.

In January 1945, the Commission began to re-employ people who had remained in France and Belgium during the occupation, or who had already been released from internment. By the end of March (5 weeks before the end of the war), 90 of the 540 who had worked for the Commission in the region in 1940 were back at work, another 266 were waiting in the UK to return to work and 32 were still detained by the Germans (the remaining 152 had resigned, retired or died); by the end of 1945, 245 were back at work. Both Bicknell brothers returned to work in France and Belgium.

William George Bicknell died while still employed by the Commission on 19 March 1955, and was buried in Albert Communal Cemetery in France. Sadly, he did not live to see his brother honoured for his work with the Commission: Ernest was awarded the MBE in the New Year’s Honours list in 1957 and presented with his insignia by the ambassador in Brussels later that year, with his family present.

At this point, Ernest Hugh Bicknell was senior clerk in the North West Europe Region, which covered Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland and Sweden (in the last of which there were 118 war graves). He retired from the Commission in 1964 aged 65 and died four years later, living in Amien.

These are sketched biographies of two brothers among the thousands of people who worked over the decades after 1918 to make the cemeteries and memorials on the Great War battlefields what they are today. I’m sure the CWGC archives holds many more stories that remain to be found and explored.


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Posted by on 7 June 2020 in Uncategorized


Parallels and echoes?

The coronavirus/covid-19 pandemic is not like the First World War. There are a whole host of ways in which they are different, but there are ways in which life over the last month or so has echoed features of life in Great Britain – and London in particular – in 1914-1918. I’ve already mentioned one in my previous post – the closure of major museums in London (which I covered in an earlier blog post). Let’s take a look at a few more:

Kensington Olympia used for stores

You may have seen a recent news story that the Olympia in Kensington has “been turned into a huge foodbank centre” in response to the coronavirus crisis.  The pictures accompanying the story (borrowed here from MyLondon) made me think of the images of the same space used a century ago as a storage space for the Army Clothing Depot:


Now: Hammersmith and Fulham council is using Olympia London to help Hammersmith and Fulham Foodbank step up the amount of food parcels it gives to residents from 160 a week to nearly 1,000. (Image from MyLondon story)


Then: Olympia in War Time: Royal Army Clothing Depot (Art.IWM ART 2919) The interior of Kensington Olympia, filled with enormous stacks of material bundled as cubes.

The foodbank story is also reminiscent of the efforts to help feed working people who might not be able to afford – or have time to prepare – full meals. Public kitchens were opened from 1917 onwards, and we widely known as ‘municipal’ or ‘national’ kitchens (not ‘communal’ kitchens for fear of suggesting a communist influence in the era of the Russian revolutions). At these kitchens, working people were able to buy a full hot meal at cost price, or cooked potatoes to take home as part of their meal there.

Sylvia Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union had opened similar kitchens in poor districts early in the war, but they did not catch on until 1917, when the Queen opened the first ‘national kitchen’ on Westminster Bridge Street. The kitchens enabled people to eat there or, more often, to take full meals – or significant portions – away to eat at home.

National Kitchen

Then: A long queue of children and women awaiting their turn to receive hot food at the public kitchen at 104 Westminster Bridge Road, London, opened by Queen Mary. Copyright: © IWM (Q 54564)


Supporting those on the front line

Speaking of food…many charitable efforts have been launched at a local and national level to provide for those on the frontline – particularly the doctors and nurses and other workers in the NHS – while restaurants and cafes are shut. The most prominent is probably the #FeedNHS campaign, supported by celebrities like Damian Lewis, Helen McCrory and Matt Lucas, but there have been a range of similar efforts across London and elsewhere across the UK to provide free or discounted meals (see more in this Evening Standard story).


Now: Damian Lewis and Helen McCrory are helping to raise money to feed NHS workers

A similar spirit drove the provision of free buffets at the major London terminal stations for service personnel travelling to and from the battlefields during the Great War. Following appeals in the papers for something to be done to greet those arriving on leave, groups of ladies volunteered to run free buffets. The first was set up at London Bridge in late 1914, followed in early 1915 by Victoria and Liverpool Street; soon there were buffets at all of the major termini.

These buffets supplied a hot drink and a meal to men as they arrived in London or waited for their train back to the front. They were also useful for the London Ambulance Column volunteers who met trains full of wounded and could end up spending the whole day or night either in the station or on the road. By the time it was closed in April 1920, the buffet at Waterloo (located in a pedestrian tunnel under the platforms, and commemorated there by a memorial plaque) had served meals and refreshments to eight million service personnel; at Victoria they had served 12 million.

Euston buffet

Then: British troops celebrating Christmas meal with staff at the free buffet on Euston station, probably 25 December 1917. Note a soldier pulling a Christmas cracker with a boy with a dog. Copyright: © IWM (Q 54274)


New and expanded hospital space

One of the major news stories of the current crisis has been the new Nightingale hospitals opened across the country, starting at the ExCel centre in London.


Now: The Nightingale Hospital in the Excel Centre (from Bloomberg news)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Great War saw an enormous increase in London’s hospital capacity. From only seven thousand before the war, the number of military hospital beds in the UK rose to 364,113 by the time of the Armistice. London housed 36,664 of these beds, slightly over ten percent. This included beds in five ‘General Hospitals’, mainly in South London.

These were made up of existing hospital buildings, other public buildings, new temporary huts and other local buildings given over to the war effort. For example the 2nd London General Hospital in Chelsea (with over 1,500 beds) was made up of St Mark’s College, an LCC Secondary School and beds in four civil hospitals (Central London, Freemasons’, Great Northern, St Andrew’s). The others were in Camberwell, Wandsworth, Denmark Hill and Lambeth.

Wandsworth hospital

Then: 3rd London General Hospital, Wandsworth Common. Officers’ Ward seen from the Water Tank. Copyright: © IWM (Q 49602)

Twelve thousand more beds were provided in fourteen hospitals housed in poor law buildings, infirmaries and workhouses. Five more hospitals were housed in pre-war hospital buildings, including the Maudsley in Denmark Hill and fever hospitals in Woolwich and Tooting.

A range of private hospitals, paid for by charities and individuals, housed more men, especially convalescents. Many wealthy individuals turned their London houses over to become hospitals and convalescent homes, particularly in the wealthy areas of Central and West London, where residents had rooms (or whole houses) spare to cater for recuperating patients. 

Station closures

In March, TfL announced the closure of 40 tube stations that were not intersections between lines.


Covent Garden station, one of 40 shut during the lockdown – Picture copyright BBC

During the First World War, it was overground train stations that were closed. Wikipedia lists over 30 stations that were closed during the war years, many of them never to reopen – including a station south of Shepherd’s Bush Green, and a whole branch line from Nunhead to Greenwich Park (the latter station having now disappeared without trace). Some did reopen, however, including Honor Oak, Brentford and Shadwell & St George’s East.

The main reason for closing all of these stations was the lack of passengers using them – the rather haphazard growth of the railways in the nineteenth century meant that there were many lines with few users. There don’t appear to have been any closures of tube stations, although a planned extension of the Central Line to Richmond was cancelled, having been postponed by the war.

The crisis can reach any family, even in No 10

There was a real sense of shock a few weeks ago, when the Prime Minister was admitted to hospital suffering from covid-19. Combined with the earlier news that the Prince of Wales had had the disease, it demonstrated that it could strike anyone (even if it is not evenly distributed among the population) .

Similarly, wartime Prime Minister H.H. Asquith suffered the anguish shared by many of his contemporaries when his son Raymond was killed in action serving in the Grenadier Guards at Ginchy on 15 September 1916, at the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.


Then: Start of the report of Lt Raymond Asquith’s death in the Birmingham Mail, 19 Sept 1916 (Copyright British Newspaper Archive)

And finally…The food queue

One of the words to gain prominence during the Great War were ‘queue’ and ‘queuing’. Although they pre-dated the war, they were not previously common parlance. Just as we have become newly accustomed to talk of PPE and people being immuno-compromised, our ancestors came to talk of queues, no-man’s land and a host of other new terms.

The Walthamstow Gazette published a poem by “A.B.F.” about queues in early 1918, when the food queues were at their peak:

Q stands for Quest of a Quarrelling Queue,

Things are unequal for me and for you.

Q for the Quarter of butter or “marge,”

Also for Quantity little or large.

Q for the Question on which all agree,

Have they butter or margarine, sugar or tea?

Q for the Queue-ite (or should it be Queue-er?),

Quietly waiting while Queue-ers grow fewer.

Quotidian Queues must Quickly be Quashed!

Curiously Question “the great unwashed” –

“Queenie” and “Quartos” have lined up as well,

‘Tis “Queer Street” for children – the Queue we MUST Quell.

Cute their Cupidity for getting the Cue,

Quarters and half-pounds they buy not a few.

The “powers that be” no one can excuse

For letting the “multiples” encourage Queues.

Multiples was the word in that era for chain shops – by contrast to individual shops that were the norm. As was the case when certain foods seemed to run short in March 2020, the problem as more one of distribution than of supply. ‘Multiples’ were blamed for the queues, presumably because they were where the queues formed, which was because they actually had stocks of the food people wanted – their supply chains being more resilient than individual butchers’ or dairies’ were.

One weekend in January 1918, over a thousand people queued outside a multiple shop in New Bond Street for margarine and around 3,000 in Walworth, a thousand of the latter going away empty-handed. By the end of the month, an an estimated half million people were queuing for food across London. In many places at this point, local councils commandeered supplies being delivered to multiples (particularly the Maypole Dairy) and distributed them around their area to disperse the queues. In the end it was rationing – first in London and the Home Counties at the end of February, then across the country – that quelled the queues.


Then: The Food Queue by CRW Nevinson, 1918. Copyright: © IWM (Art.IWM ART 840)

With our social distancing, our queues now look rather different of course:


Now: customers queue outside Waitrose (image from the Guardian)


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Posted by on 24 April 2020 in Uncategorized


Resumption of business

While we are all cooped up at home, I am planning to resume this blog. I can’t promise a huge amount of new content, but I plan to post a few new articles and update some old ones. So watch this space.

For the time being, here is a reminder that this is not the first time that London’s museums have closed to the public:

BM Assyrian

“The British Museum : Removing sandbags in the Assyrian Saloon” by Sir Henry Rushby, 1918 ( (c) IWM)

Read more in a 2012 blog post here.


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Posted by on 6 April 2020 in Uncategorized


Heroism and bloodshed behind the lines

As they do today, local newspapers during the Great War liked to run stories of bravery by local people. In 1916, the Middlesex Chronicle told the story of Charles William Jordan’s bravery under fire when he rescued comrade Frederick Moles.

Moles and Jordan were both young men who had joined their local Territorial battalion – the 8th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment – in the years before the war. They were called up on 5 August 1914. The battalion proceeded to France in September. Both men saw action in 1915, were wounded and sent back to the UK. By early 1916 they were both back with the battalion, serving in “B” Company, which the press describe was the Brentford Company.

Frederick Moles was born in Chiswick in 1894, the son of Eliza Moles and her farm labourer husband Edward. He was the eldest of the couple’s eight surviving children – they had four more sons and three daughters. In May 1913, 18 year old Frederick – working as a van boy in Ealing – joined the 8th Middlesex as a private. After returning to the front after being wounded in 1915, he got into trouble in his unit, being punished with 3 days of Field Punishment No 2 (and 5 days suspension of pay) in June and 10 days of Field Punishment No 1 (the infamous ‘crucifixion’) in mid-November, both the offence of ‘misconduct’.

Charles William Jordan was born in Brentford in 1893, son of Thames lighterman Thomas Jordan and his second wife Mary. Charles was their eldest child and became a doctor’s assistant, his elder half-brother John followed their father as a lighterman. In November 1912, he joined the 8th Battalion. Although the available records don’t say so, it is fair to assume that he also went to France with the battalion in September 1914. In early 1915, he was hit in the head by both a bullet and a piece of shrapnel, after which he spent several months in hospital. He then returned to the front and was promoted to Corporal.

Jordan’s exploits in January 1916 were also recounted in the pages of the Middlesex Chronicle:

“The 1/8th [Battalion] were in Brigade Reserve during the greater past of January… During the last week of their stay, it was a daily occurrence to turn out of the headquarters billet and stand on the safest side, while the enemy’s shells, directed on an object immediately in the rear, missed the building by a few feet each time. The shelling usually commenced as the men were sitting down to a meal, and they got so used to it that it soon seemed to be in the day’s work. On the afternoon of January 22nd the enemy’s shells were dropping all round “B” Company’s billet, and four when right into it.”

Some of the shells hit a nearby house, killing an 18 year old girl and setting fire to the roof – which some of the Middlesex men extinguished. A letter written by Jordan on January 24th picks up the story about the shells that hit the Brentford Company’s billet:

“It was on Saturday last that the Germans started shelling the farm in which we were billeted. The first shell burst in front of the barn; the next one in the doorway, and as soon as this one had burst one of our chaps (Fred Moles of Isleworth) cried out ‘Charlie, I’m hit.’ I ran over to him and managed to get him outside when a shell plonked clean through the roof. I got Fred on to my back and carried him to a safe place, where his wounds were dressed. In the evening, when the shelling had ceased, our officer had the company on parade and told them what I had done. He then called for three cheers for me, and while the boys were giving them I was blushing like a girl.”

Unfortunately, we can’t know who the poor civilian girl was. But we do know what happened to Private Moles and Corporal Jordan. At the end of his letter, Jordan comments that he had been recommended for a medal for his bravery on the 22nd and on other occasions. Presumably this for the Distinguished Conduct Medal, since he comments “As I daresay you know, Sergt. Titcombe has just got his D.C.M. after waiting nine months for it. I hope I don’t have to wait as long for mine.” He was subsequently given a commendation from the commander of 8 Division (which the 8th Middlesex before joining the London Division in February 1916), which was then sent home and displayed in the window of the Globe Portrait Company in Brentford High Street.” Photographic studios often had displays of war-related photos and ephemera, as did some newspaper offices. Jordan did not get the DCM he appears to have expected, but he was promoted to Sergeant and was awarded the Military Medal later in the year (presumably for his actions on and around 22 January, but possibly for later actions). He was later transferred to the Essex Regiment and left the army in 1919. He died in Brentford in 1934.

Sadly, things did not go well for the man he saved in January 1916, who had a severe shrapnel wound in his buttock. Moles was sent to 26th Field Ambulance (attached to 8th Division) and then on to No 2 Casualty Clearing Station at Bailleul. On 28 January, he was operated on at an Australian Hospital at Boulogne (probably No 2 Australian General Hospital) – doctors removed two pieces of shrapnel from his wound. On 9 February, he arrived at No 1 Reading War Hospital, based in then aptly named Battle Hospital.


A ward at No 2 Australian General Hospital at Wimereux. Image (c) Australian War Memorial

On 6 March, he suffered from a secondary haemorrhage from his gluteal artery, which was ended by medical staff applying pressure to his wound. A month later more ‘foreign bodies’ were removed from his wounds. On 12 April, he suffered another haemorrhage, which was temporarily kept at bay but recurred two days later, after which staff gave him stimulants, a saline infusion and transfusion, but to no avail – Frederick Moles died at the age of 22. He was buried soon afterwards in South Ealing cemetery.


Report of death from Fred Moles’s service record

Such stories of bravery and of young lives cruelly ended abound in wartime. Sadly, Charles William Jordan’s bravery in January 1916 did not ultimately save the life of his comrade Fred Moles; nor could the skills of nurses and doctors at the Reading War Hospital.


  • Middlesex Chronicle, 5 February, 1 April and 1 July 1916
  • Long, Long Trail
  • Service records, census and silver war badge record
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Posted by on 1 May 2016 in Uncategorized


Shrapnel helmets: an iconic London design

The way that soldiers on the Western Front looked changed dramatically during the war. The Germans ditched their pickelhaube, the French cavalry decided that cuirasses were no longer appropriate. The British Tommy, too, changed in appearance – and the Spring and Summer of 1916 marked a significant part of that change as they moved from wearing caps to wearing steel helmets.

In his diary, Frank Hawkings of Queen Victoria’s Rifles (otherwise the 9th Battalion London Regiment), records April as a month of training for the newly formed 56th (1st London) Division at Houvin-Houvigneul in France.

His diary entry for 6 April reads:

Met my friend Murray from the 7th Middlesex [another unit in the 56th Division] and we had a jolly evening together at the Hotel d’Amiens at Frevent.

Shrapnel helmets or ‘tin hats’ (as they were immediately christened) have been issued. They are made of steel and weigh five pounds.

These helmets were the new ‘Brodie‘ steel hemets that became the iconic headwear for British Tommies through the First World War.

Men of Loyal North Lancashire Regiment showing of their new Brodie helmets, 1916

Men of Loyal North Lancashire Regiment showing of their new Brodie helmets, 1916

Until early 1916, British soldiers fought wearing their cloth caps or other warmer headwear. The number of head injuries was alarming – particularly given the large use of shrapnel and the fact that most of the men’s bodies were protected by trenches, while their heads would have been particularly susceptible to injury. All nations involved in the war on the Western Front searched for protection. The French got there first with the Casque Adrian, the Germans ended up with the Stahlhelm (the pickelhaube, the spiked helmet of 1914 was more a decorative than a protective helmet).

John Leopold Brodie invented the Britsh steel helmet, a cheaper design that is basically just an inverted steel bowl with lining and a chin-strap.  Brodie, born Leopold Janno Braude in Riga in 1873, was an inventor who spent the years prior to 1914 in the UK and the USA, accumulating a number of bankruptcies along the way. Resident in Cheshire in 1914, he and his wife moved to London at the start of the Great War. He patented his steel helmet in August 1915 and the British Army started to issue it towards the end of 1915.

On the Imperial War Museum catalogue entry for a Brodie helmet, it states that

By March 1916, some 140,000 helmets…had been issued to troops serving on the Western Front, but being as they were regarded as “trench stores” [i.e. equipment issued when troops went into the trenches] issue was very limited and there were not enough to enable soldiers to claim their own personal issue.

Presumably Queen Victoria’s Rifles were among the first troops to be issued them as personal equipment, since they were not about to go into the front line in April 1916. (Two weeks later, Hawkings notes that the division was in no state to go into the firing line as it had no medical or army service corps units attached for some reason).

Brodie’s DNB entry tells of its development in early 1916:

Experience in the field led to minor improvements from May 1916 including a folded rim to the edge of the helmet, revised liner, and a roughened exterior texture to what was now known as the ‘Mark 1’ helmet. While the helmet clearly covered less of the head than its German counterpart the munitions design committee would nevertheless express satisfaction that ‘our helmet steel probably gives better results, weight for weight’…That the new British helmet was useful can be judged both from increased numbers of men surviving head wounds, and from complaints that it was not issued quickly enough

The helmets were widespread by the summer, when the British Army launched its largest ever offensive in the Somme region. They were also sold to, and later produced in, the USA when the Americans entered the war.

As the DNB entry relates:

By the end of the conflict, the shallow inverted ‘soup bowl’, ‘tin hat’, or ‘battle bowler’ had become an iconic object, later adorning both British commemorative statuary, and American war cemeteries. Though there were further modifications, the basic design remained current until 1942 in the USA, and 1943 in the UK.

Brodie himself moved to Buffalo, New York, in 1921, became a US citizen and died there in 1945. He outlived production of his famous helmet by just a few days.



Posted by on 6 April 2016 in Uncategorized


A wartime blow to world Esperanto

In the communal cemetery at Forges-les-Eaux in France there are 18 Commonwealth War Grave Commission headstones, five of them dating from the Great War. Under the name of British officer Captain H.B. Mudie, one of them bears the unique inscription “Filantropo Prezidanto De Brita Kaj Universala Asocioj De Esperanto”*.

Harold Bolingbroke Mudie (from wikipedia)

Harold Bolingbroke Mudie (from wikipedia)

The man in question is Harold Bolingbroke Mudie, who was born in London in 1880. He was the son of Alfred and Annie Elizabeth Mudie; they were part of the family of Mudies who ran Mudie’s Circulating Library in the 19th Century. Young H. Bolingbroke Mudie (as he appears to have been known) was educated at Folkestone and at University College School (in north London); he then studied at London University before going to work in the Stock Exchange.

The Stock Exchange Memorial Book (transcribed here on describes his real interest:

“Speaking several languages he added the International one in 1902, and single-handed founded and edited the “Esperantist” [a journal of the language] in 1903. He organized and controlled the famous International Congress at Cambridge in 1907, where only Esperanto was spoken. He published the New Testament in Esperanto through the British and Foreign Bible Society. Professor Mayor, of Cambridge, in eulogizing Mudie, said: “It is not only his talent—we have plenty of that here—but wisdom, which is very rare in so young a man.” ”

In 1910, he became the president of the British Esperanto Association. He was also an advocate of Esperanto around the world and became the first president of the Universal (or World) Esperanto Association, based in Geneva, in 1908.

In 1914, war came to Europe and Mudie went to war. According to the Stock Exchange Memorial Book,

“When war broke out he immediately gave his services. He acted first as recruiter, lecturer, journalist. Then he conveyed horses to the Belgian Government: and of his report, containing “Suggestions for Transport of Horses,” General Sir W. H. Birkbeck, K.C.B., C.M.G., Director of Remounts, wrote: “It was a gem in its way; and he was given a commission at the earliest opportunity.””

Mudie was commissioned into the Army Service Corps in October 1914 and set up a Remount Depot near Forges-les-Eaux in France. According to a notice about him in The Times, he was fluent in French, German and Flemish, which was useful for a man in his role – providing horses for the army. Presumably his Esperanto was rather less useful at this point.

Mudie returned home on leave over Christmas 1915 and went back to the Western Front on New Year’s Eve. On 6 January, he and another officer were being driven in a motorcar at night reached a level crossing on the line between Rouen and Serquex. The car was hit by an express train, which destroyed it, injuring the other officer and killing both the French driver and Captain Mudie outright (for some reason the Daily Mirror’s coverage of the accident calls him ‘Captain Mudge-Mudie’).

The remnants of Mudie's car by the railway tracks, Daily Mirror 14 Feb 1916

The remnants of Mudie’s car by the railway tracks, Daily Mirror 14 Feb 1916

Mudie was buried with honour in the town of Forges-les-Eaux.

Captain Mudie's funeral, from Daily Mirror 14 Feb 1916

Captain Mudie’s funeral, from Daily Mirror 14 Feb 1916

On his gravestone are those wordsr “Filantropo/ Prezidanto De Brita Kaj/ Universala Asocioj De/ Esperanto”, which google tells me means “Philanthropist/president of British and /universal associations of/ Esperanto”. It took until after the war, three years later, for the Univeral Esperanto Association to appoint a successor as president.

Mudie’s story tells us something of the variety of things that people did in the military during the war – and the variety of ways in which they could be killed or wounded. It is interesting to note that such a committed internationalist was also so keen to be involved in his nation’s war effort. With his death, the British Army lost a useful linguist and logistics officer, and the cause of Esperanto lost one of its leading figures.



*The War Graves Commission allowed the next of kin to write a short message under the regimental emblem or cross on their otherwise standardised headstones. The CWGC website has a record of these in the additional documents recently made available on the page for each casualty the Commission commemorates.


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Posted by on 6 January 2016 in Uncategorized


Cambrai and the bells of St Paul’s

On 23 November 1917, the bells of St Paul’s Cathedral rang out – for the first time in years – at the news of a great British victory. The advances of the previous week gave people a real sense that the British Armies were making progress on the Western Front. That feeling was short-lived.

The crowd on the steps of St Paul's, 23 November 1917 (from Daily Mirror 24/11/1917)

The crowd on the steps of St Paul’s, 23 November 1917 (from Daily Mirror 24/11/1917)

The joybells of the London churches to-day gave voice to the popular rejoicing at a great victory on the Western Front. It is the first time the peals have been rung since the outbreak of War. The victory was the success of the Third Army under General Sir Julian Byng in breaking through the Hindenburg Line to a length of ten miles and a depth of four or five near Cambrai. It is the best news we have had for a long time.

That was Michael MacDonagh’s description of the event. He went on:

I went up Ludgate Hill to hear St. Paul’s carillon starting the City chimes at noon. This carillon is rarely rung. It has not been heard since it celebrated the declaration of Peace after the South African War. There was a big crowd on the Cathedral steps and in the forecourt. After the clock had struck twelve, the big bell known as “Great Paul” – the bell that tolls for prayers – first boomed out, and was followed by the full peal of bells, twelve in number, which were a gift from the City Companies. The people cheered and cheered, exchanging greetings and smiles. The bells of the other churches, joining in with St. Paul’s, helped to swell the wings of sound carrying the joyful news to offices, shops and warehouses.

Thanks to the black out and other precautions against air raids had silenced Britain’s church bells at night. In Westminster, Big Ben had been silent since 1914.

(from Daily Mirror 24/11/1917)

(from Daily Mirror 24/11/1917)

There really was a sense that victory was on the way. Georgina Lee, a solicitor’s wife in West London, wrote in her diary “Today I had my Union Flag flying for the first time to celebrate this Cambrai victory…For the first time, too, since the war began, the bells of St Paul’s and some other big churches rang a joyful carillon at midday, in honour of this first victory.”

The bells we not only rung in London, but across the country. In Essex, the church bells at Stondon Massey were rung for half an hour, while in Broomfield (near Chelmsford) a local man set off a wad of gun-cotton in celebration, making locals fear an air raid was in progress.

Men of the 11th Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers, with German prisoners near Havrincourt, 20 November 1917. © IWM (Q 3186)

Men of the 11th Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers, with German prisoners near Havrincourt, 20 November 1917. © IWM (Q 3186)

The attack was launched on the morning of 20 November, with 378 fighting tanks and their accompanying infantry advancing across trenches that the Germans had thought were impregnable. The attack on that day was enormously successful, breaching what the British called the ‘Hindenburg Line’ – to which the Germans had retreated to form stronger defences earlier in 1917 – for the first time.

It was a limited success, though. Further advances were much harder and (as throughout 1916 and 1917) the hoped-for breakthrough failed to materialise.  In the end the British army was left with a salient sticking out into German-held territory without an obvious defensive position.

On 30 November, the Germans launched their counter-attack. By the time the fighting had ended, they had recaptured virtually all the land lost over the previous ten days, at great cost to the British and Imperial troops. In the end the two sides ended up virtually where they had started, each with a successful attack, a failure to make a breakthrough and losses of around 45,000 men to show for it.

British tanks salvaged by the German Army after the Battle of Cambrai are prepared for transportation to repair shops in the German rear area. © IWM (Q 29882)

British tanks salvaged by the German Army after the Battle of Cambrai are prepared for transportation to repair shops in the German rear area. © IWM (Q 29882)

By 12 December, it had become clear in London that the great victory of late November had been reversed by the German counter-attack. Michael MacDonagh again:

London lies to-day under a cloud of despondency. We are told that the advance of our troops on the Western Front, over which we were rejoicing the other day, has been turned by the enemy into a retreat. Most of the ground gained is lost; thousands of our men have been killed or maimed and thousands made prisoners. What makes the news the more staggering is that it has for gloomy background the picture of one Ally, Italy, with a broken arm, and another, Russia, disappearing into the darkness of a Communist revolution. Yes, history does repeat itself. The words used by Horace Walpole in the eighteenth century have a direct application in the twentieth. “They are ringing their bells to-day; very soon they will be wringing their hands.”

1917 had been proclaimed as the ‘year of victory’. The reverse at Cambrai finally showed that it was not going to be, and indeed that it did not appear to be bringing peace any closer (despite the arrival of the USA in the war). Georgina Lee wrote in her diary as early as 2 December “the war seems farther from its end than it did three years ago.”

At Talbot House, in Poperinge, the annual debate on whether the war would end by the end of the coming year had registered a strong ‘yes’ vote in 1916 and 1917; held again in early 1918, the vote produced a tie – with only the chair’s casting vote producing an overall affirmative resolution that the war would end in 1918.


  • Michael MacDonagh, ‘In London during the Great War’
  • Georgina Lee, ‘Home Fires Burning’
  • Trevor Wilson, ‘The Myriad Faces of war’
  • R.B. Clayton, ‘Tales of Talbot House’
  • Daily Mirror

Thanks to David Underdown for the correction about the silent bells.


Posted by on 23 November 2014 in Uncategorized


Kathleen Passfield and the end of the Zeppelin menace

Women in the Great War could not play an active role in fighting the Germans, but they could be important in supporting the war effort. The most direct way was in munitions factories, making ammunition to help the armed forces win the war. Kathleen Passfield worked in a factory with a more immediate war purpose – to bring down the Zeppelins spreading terror across London.

Zeppelin-inspired recruiting poster, 1915

Zeppelin-inspired recruiting poster, 1915

Kathleen Hamilton Devonald was born in 1897 in New Cross (also known as Hatcham New Cross), the eldest of five children of crane driver William James Passfield and his wife Ellen. The family lived in Edmonton, with William’s mother Sophia; in 1911 they were living at 6 Exeter Road.

In May 1915, the German aerial campaign against Britain began with Zeppelins dropping bombs with apparent impunity. Londoners suffered air raids for more than a year without seeing one of these huge cigar-shaped raiders destroyed (although one was brought down in the Channel in March 1916). Forty-six people had been killed in the raid on 13/14 October that later led to the suicide of J.N. Petre, the landlord of the Old Bell Pub. In the summer of 1916, they returned in force. A raid on 24-25 August saw 44 bombs dropped on the Isle of Dogs and south-east London killing nine and injuring 45.

The breakthrough came on the night of 2-3 September 1916, as one witness described it:

“Never shall I forget…hearing an odd chunkety, chunkety noise. It sounded as if a train with rusty wheels were travelling through the sky. I ran out on to the balcony and saw something which looked like a large silver cigar away to my left, and I realized that it was a Zeppelin. Almost immediately it burst into flames and the sky turned red. Then came the sound of cheering. It seemed as if the whole of a rather far-away London was cheering, and almost unconsciously I began to cry ‘Hooray! hooray!’ too. But suddenly I stopped. We were cheering whilst men who were after all very bravely doing what they thought it their duty to do were being burned to death.” (Quoted in Mrs Peel, How We Lived Then)

Zeppelin SL11 had been destroyed by Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson, a 21-year-old pilot with 39 Squadron flying a BE2c.

As he wrote in his report of the action (from wikipedia):
“At about 1.50 a.m. I noticed a red glow in the N.E. of London. Taking it to be an outbreak of fire, I went in that direction. At 2.05 a Zeppelin was picked up by the searchlights over N.N.E. London (as far as I could judge).
“Remembering my last failure, I sacrificed height (I was at about 12,900 feet) for speed and nosed down in the direction of the Zeppelin. I saw shells bursting and night tracers flying around it.
“…I flew about 800 feet below it from bow to stem and distributed one drum among it (alternate New Brock and Pomeroy). It seemed to have no effect;
“I therefore moved to one side and gave them another drum along the side – also without effect. I then got behind it and by this time I was very close – 500 feet or less below, and concentrated one drum on one part (underneath rear). I was then at a height of 11,500 feet when attacking the Zeppelin.
“I had hardly finished the drum before I saw the part fired at, glow. In a few seconds the whole rear part was blazing. When the third drum was fired, there were no searchlights on the Zeppelin, and no anti-aircraft was firing.
“I quickly got out of the way of the falling, blazing Zeppelin and, being very excited, fired off a few red Very lights and dropped a parachute flare.”

The destruction of Zeppelin SL21, viewed from Hampstead Heath (artist's impression, from Flight Magazine 7 Sept 1916)

The destruction of Zeppelin SL11, viewed from Hampstead Heath (artist’s impression, from Flight Magazine 7 Sept 1916)


Key to the victory was having the right ammunition. Lt Leefe Robinson’s report notes the mixture of Pomeroy (exploding) and Brock (incendiary) ammunition, which he fired into a particular gas drum in the Zeppelin to set it alight.

John Pomeroy, the New Zealander who invented the explosive bullet had had a long fight to get it adopted for attacking Zeppelins. After an initial rejection by the War Office, he came back to London in 1916. He and his wife apparently made the first 5,000 rounds of this ammunition in a room at the top of Adastral House (the headquarters of the Air Ministry at No 1 Kingsway). The ammunition was adopted and went into full production in August 1916. According to a 1924 newspaper article, Mrs Pomeroy and 500 ‘girls’ worked on this ammunition order in Edmonton.

One of the women who worked at the Pomeroy factory in Edmonton was Kathleen Devonald, who married Private J.H. Passfield in Essex in late 1916. Kathleen became a superintendent at the factory. Through their work, the Pomeroys, Kathleen and their colleagues helped in a very direct way to end the Zeppelin raids, which died out over the winter of 1916/17. In 1919, Kathleen Passfield was awarded the Medal of the Order of the British Empire for her work at Pomeroy’s factory: ‘for great courage in continuously exposing herself to serious personal risk in the court of the manufacture of munitions of a peculiarly dangerous character’.

Kathleen’s husband James Harold Passfield had joined the Middlesex Regiment in 1915 and served with them – and later the 6th Highland Light Infantry – at Ypres, the Somme and Cambrai. He was wounded twice and suffered from shell shock. Her brother Ernest also served on the Western Front and in Egypt in 1917-1918, first in the Queen’s Regiment (West Surrey) and later in the Machine Gun Corps. Both men survived the war. After the war, James and Kathleen lived first on Durley Road in Stamford Hill and later on Grays Inn Road



National Roll of the Great War

Dictionary of Australian Biography on John Pomeroy

A War Narrative, Northern Advocate , 22 January 1924;

Anti-Zeppelin Bullet, New Zealand Herald, 14 February 1919




Victoria Cross, the London connection

The Victoria Cross is the UK’s highest award for gallantry, established in 1856 and awarded 1356 times since then. The decoration has a special London link, with every one being made by New Bond Street jewellers Hancock and Co.

The Victoria Cross (VC) was awarded 628 times during the First World War, almost half of all the awards made since 1856. One of the 627 men who earned it, Noel Chavasse, was awarded the medal twice  during the war; all earned it for acts of extreme gallantry in the face of the enemy. Another nine earned it in Russia and Waziristan in the next three years.

Victoria Cross, British War Medal and Victory Medal awarded to Jack Cornwell from East Ham (c)IWM Until 1918, Naval VCs had blue ribbons

Victoria Cross, British War Medal and Victory Medal awarded to Jack Cornwell from East Ham (c)IWM
Until 1918, Naval VCs had blue ribbons

Hancock and Co have been the makers of the VC since it was created. The medals are said to be made from the metal of Chinese guns captured from the Russians in the Crimean War (the first conflict for which the medal was awarded).  According to research by John Glanfield, it seems that the metal used for the medals changed in December 1914, but the medals made during the rest of the war were all made from the same ingot. You can visit Hancocks (as they are now called) in Burlington Arcade.

In 1916, the Illustrated War News carried a series of photos of the production of the medal. They described how the ingot of bronze was sent by the War Office to the jewellers each time a medal or medals were to be made (the metal is still kept securely by the MOD today). “No dies are used; each Cross is produced separately. A wax model was made for the first, from which the pattern was cast. From it moulds are made in special sand, and smoothed with plumbago. The bronze is melted at about 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Then the case has to be filed, drilled, and chased.”

The making of a VC 1 - The arrival of the ingot; 2 - the ingot; 3 - casting; 4 - filing  (Illustrated War News, ?? 1917)

The making of a VC 1 – The arrival of the ingot; 2 – the ingot; 3 – casting; 4 – filing
(Illustrated War News, 12.1.1916)

Once the blank medal was complete, it was sent to the War Office for inspection. It was then returned to Hancock and Co for the name, rank and date to be engraved.

Engraving the name, rank and date on the back of a VC (Illustrated War News, ?? 1916)

Engraving the name, rank and date on the back of a VC
(Illustrated War News, 12.1.1916)

Part of the current UK Government’s Great War commemoration plan is to lay a paving stone in honour of every British Victoria Cross winner. According to their list (on the government website), eighty of those who earned the Victoria Cross had London connections, including those in the bits of Essex and Kent that are now in London.

Those eighty include two Londoners that we have met before: Noel Mellish, the gallant curate from Deptford, and George Jarratt, whose wife was presented with his medal by the King in 1917. The investiture, like many others for the VC and other medals, was held at Buckingham Palace.

Gertrude and Joyce Jarratt receiving George's medal from King (Illustrated London news, 28.7.17)

Gertrude and Joyce Jarratt receiving George’s medal from King George V (Illustrated London news, 28.7.17)

Another London winner was Edward Dwyer from Fulham. He earned the VC at Hill 60 in May 1915, when he helped wounded comrades and then dispersed a German attack with hand grenades. He was killed in action at Guillemont in 1916. Remarkably there is an audio recording online of him (here) talking about the campaign in 1914, and singing. There is also a British Pathe video (here) of a parade held in his honour, probably in London.

Private Train of the London Scottish earned his VC in 1917 in Palestine, when he rushed an enemy machine gun team that was holding up his unit.

Sgt CW Train being awarded his VC by the King © IWM (Q 9222)

Sgt CW Train being awarded his VC by the King
© IWM (Q 9222)

The Victoria Cross was the most prestigious gallantry medal awarded to soldiers, sailors and airmen of the British Empire in the Great War. The Imperial capital, London, had a special connection with the medal, which was produced and often presented in the city.


Posted by on 4 January 2014 in Uncategorized


Some of the Missing of the Somme

The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval is one of the most memorial memorials on the Western Front battlefields of the Great War. But what did it mean to be missing?

Those ‘missing’ during and after the war were separate but overlapping groups. After the war, those commemorated were the men whose bodies had never been found, or were found and could not be identified (either because they were so badly damaged or because their ID discs were missing), or those who whose graves had been lost in subsequent fighting.

During the war, the ‘missing’ were the men about whom there was no certain information. They might have been killed, severely wounded, or taken prisoner. Not knowing what had happened to them caused anguish to  these men’s families.

The large overlap between these two categories during major battles is shown by the group of ‘missing’ published in the Daily Sketch in August 1916:

An appeal for information in the Daily Sketch, 4/8/1916 (thanks to Historic Newspapers for sending me this paper)

These men’s families were desperate for information. Their photos and details were published along with the addresses of those seeking information – two of the six addresses here were in Clapham, one from Seven Kings, and the others elsewhere in the UK.

All six were killed on 1st July 1916, at the start of the Battle of the Somme, meaning that these pictures were published over a month later. If there was no firm news, it would be months later that they were officially assumed to have been killed.

  • 2nd Lt Aubrey White from Dublin – 1 July 1916 aged 20 – Lonsdale Cemetery, Authuille
  • 2nd Lt William Henry Ratcliffe from Nottingham – 1 July 1916 aged 19 – Dantzig Alley cemetery, Mametz
  • Cpl Thomas Edward Dicks from Clapham (59 Leppoc Road) – 1 July 1916 aged 21 – Thiepval Memorial
  • Rfm James Britten from Clapham (4 Bewick Road) – 1 July 1916 – Serre Road Cemetery
  • Sgt Lionel Robert Last from Clacton, Essex – 1 July 1916 aged 20 – Thiepval Memorial
  • Rfm Clifford Hugh Butcher from Leyton (about whom V.W. Parrish in Seven Kings sought information) – 1 July 1916 aged 18 – Thiepval Memorial

All of these men were aged between 18 and 21 (I think Britten was 19, but am not certain). In Clapham, Seven Kings, Clacton, Nottingham and Dublin, there were men and women hoping that they had survived, or at least that they had died painlessly.

Three of them were buried in cemeteries, so one would hope that news of this burial reached home before too long. The other three remained ‘missing’ for ever, commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing.

Unveiling the Menin Gate in 1927 (the equivalent monument for Ypres), General Plumer attempted to assuage the grief of the families of the missing:

“Now it can be said of each one in whose honour we are assembled here today: ‘He is not missing; he is here’.”