Tag Archives: First World War

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’


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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Thomas Harper: propaganda speaker

I was pleased, during this blog’s hiatus, to hear from Sean Creighton, who was able to provide me with Thomas Harper’s full name and some interesting additional information about him.  Here is the original blog post from October 2012, followed by an update:


For black history month, I am highlighting a few different aspects of black history in London in the Great War. Black and ‘coloured’ men could find themselves in different roles: soldiers, sailors, workers, and even propagandists, like Thomas Harper.

In 1917 semi-official National War Aims Committee was set it. The NWAC published propaganda material and, through its branches in the nation’s parliamentary constituencies (often organised by local political party agents), set up meetings and speeches to promote the nation’s war aims.  These are generally targeted at areas where low morale was suspected, particularly in urban areas.

One location that was used for several meetings in West Ham was outside the Boleyn pub (meetings were generally held out of doors). A pair of speakers set up their stage there in July 1918 to tell the crowd about the nation’s cause and the need for continued effort to win the war: Mr E. Smith and Mr. Thomas G. Harper. Two of the meetings were abandoned because of rain, but two went ahead on Monday 22 and Tuesday 23 July.

Mr Smith’s report of the 22 July 1918 meeting at the Boleyn (National Archive T 102/25)

After a successful session on the still-rainy evening of 22 July, Smith and Harper wrote out their reports to send to NWAC headquarters. Smith noted the size of the crowd, around 250-275; on the reverse, he commented on how the meeting went and the performance of his colleague (before having a change of heart and crossing part of it out):

A very good meeting. A few Pacifists present, but only one interrupted, who demanded questions. It had been raining heavily, but audience stood, and rather a good meeting ended about 9.25 with some applause. Strength and fortitude is required just here by speakers, as audience is at times very rough, and the least sign of weakness is immediately detected by the audience. It was rather funny for my colleague to apologise for the colour of his skin (he being a coloured man)

Smith’s report of the meeting

The report is fairly standard for the period: we were well received, but people are not automatically supportive. His comment about Harper is intriguing though.

I haven’t been able to find out more about Harper.  He gave his address as Statheim (an interesting house-name during a war against Germany), Graham Road, Mitcham. But at this point the trail goes cold.  He was presumably an effective speaker to have been invited to speak in West Ham, which had been a tough place to speak at times in 1917.

Who was Thomas G Harper? How had a ‘coloured man’ come to be an NWAC speaker in East London/South Essex in 1918?


Update: May 2020:

Well, I now have more information on Thomas Harper, thanks to Sean.

Thomas Greathead Harper was a preacher, speaker and writer born in British Guiana (now Guyana) in around 1859. He and his African-American wife Ella Louisa moved to the UK in 1891 and had two children in England: Albert Stanley Eugene Harper, born in Oxford in 1892, and George Donald Harper, born around 1897. By 1901, however, the couple had separated.  Ella appealed for maintenance support and they appeared in court in Stratford in November, with Thomas described rather condescendingly by The Barking, East Ham & Ilford Advertiser as “a respectably-dressed man of color”. That year’s Census lists Ella in Leyton with the two sons, and Thomas boarding in a house in Stoke Newington. In court, they disputed their relative financial situations, Thomas revealing that Ella’s family owned property in America. The court did not make a maintenance order.

The 1902 Post Office directory lists him as a commission agent based at Lonsdale Chambers, Chancery Lane. In the 1911 Census, Thomas described himself as a lecturer and author; by then he was living at 16 Southcroft Rd, Tooting, with a Suffolk-born woman, Ada Cunningham, who is described as a secretary.

Thomas Harper wrote at least two books: Christ in Evolution in 1908, and Contemporary Evolution of the Negro Race in 1910. This second book appears to have been based on lectures he had been giving in the USA over the previous decade, including at the Sixth Annual Meeting of the American Negro Academy, in Washington DC inDecember 1902. He was also an experienced speaker and preacher; he appears to have been a priest in New Jersey in the 1880s, and various records appear of him speaking in the UK and the USA, including another appearance during the war – speaking on land issues in late 1917.

As we have seen, by 1918 he had moved to Mitcham. Thomas and Ada then lived at 103 Carshalton Park Road after the war until his death in 1937. Ada subsequently married a Yorkshireman named Harry Brook, who made masks for people with facial disfigurements, with whom she lived at number 103 until her death in 1948.

Thomas and Ella Harper’s son Albert was a music-hall performer prior to the First World War. During the war, he first worked in a munitions factory in Newcastle and then, sometime in 1917 or 1918, joined the Northumberland Fusiliers; his entry in their medal roll tells us he served in the 1/5th (Territorial) Battalion and the 14th (Pioneers). Sadly, like his parents’, Albert’s marriage in 1914 did not last; a newspaper report in 1916 paints a picture of a brief and acrimonious marriage in Chesterfield, prior to his moving to Newcastle. His brother George Donald Harper served in the Merchant Navy. There is a record of a George Donald Harper travelling to the USA in 1913 and back to the UK in 1915, giving an address in Durham – possibly Ella and her sons had moved there, prompting Albert to join the local regiment.

So there are some brief details of this British West Indian speaker who spoke to two hundred people outside the Boleyn pub in West Ham in 1918, and his two sons who served in the war. As ever, I would be happy to hear from anyone else with more information about Harper and his life during, before or after the Great War.

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Posted by on 20 October 2012 in Ordinary Londoners, Places


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A submarine in the Thames

Submarines were a potent symbol of German ‘frightfulness’ in the Great War. They were tools in the Kaiser’s attempt to starve out the British population by blockade in 1915 and again in 1917.  In 1916, one of these monstrous machines appeared in London for the public to visit.

In 1915, the German Government declared that from 1915 the waters around the UK were to be subject to unrestricted submarine warfare – that no warning would be given to ships before they were attacked. The fact that this was in response to the British blockade of Germany was either ignored or deemed irrelevant by Britons, who saw German submarine attacks (along with Zeppelin raids) as barbarous acts reinforcing the righeousness of Britain’s part in the war.

One of the submarines (the phrase ‘U-boat’ was more common in the Second World War than the First) in the German fleet in 1915 was UC5 launched in 1915, under the command of Oberleutenant Herbert Pustkuchen. Led by Pustkuchen and his successor Ulrich Mohrbutter, UC5 sunk 30 ships and damaged 7 more before running aground on sandbanks off the Suffolk coast in April 1916. It was captured by the British and towed to Harwich for repairs.

Submarine UC5 in British hands

Soon afterwards, the submarine was moved to London for public display.  Moored in the Thames – at Temple Pier – it became a tourist attraction.

On 1 August 1916, Major-General Sir Sam Hughes – the Canadian minister for Militia and Defence – paid a visit to the submarine and was greeted by cheering crowds.

“I only wish we had a thousand of them” – Maj-Gen Hughes climbing out of UC5 (Daily Mirror, 2/8/16)

Maj-Gen Hughes at Temple Pier, with UC5 visible in the background. (Daily Mirror 2/8/16)

Hughes was enthusiastic about the use of captured enemy submarines to promote the good work of the Royal Navy. “I think that whenever and wherever practicable the public should be given such first-hand opportunities as this for appreciating the wonderful work of Britain’s silent sentinels on the seas.”

The submarine was later sent on to the USA and was displayed in Central Park as an advert for Liberty Bonds.

UC5 on display in Central Park, New York City


Daily Mirror, 2/8/16 – from pages on the ship and this article


Posted by on 27 August 2012 in Events, Famous People, People, Places


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Edie Bennett: love and worry

The history of women in the Great War tends to be told in terms of nursing, munitions work and other new directions for young women. Many, like Edie Bennett of Walthamstow, had a war that largely goes untold: getting by and waiting for her husband’s return. The story of her war, her love and her pining for her husband seems fitting for Valentine’s day

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Posted by on 14 February 2012 in Ordinary Londoners, Women


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