Twisting the Dragon’s Tail: The St George’s Day Raids on Zeebrugge and Ostend

The ‘Vindictive’ at Zeebrugge: The storming of Zeebrugge Mole. Art.IWM ART 871

On 23 April 1918 British forces attacked Zeebrugge and Ostend, the two German-held ports which provided them with crucial access to the sea from the inland docks at Bruges. Once through the Channel and out into the Atlantic German vessels could prove deadly to Allied merchant shipping, which this operation aimed to stop. To mark 100 years since these actions, Trevor Torkington shares the story of the raids and highlights the bravery of those who won a Victoria Cross for their contributions.


  • The raids

The aim of the attacks was to sink old, obsolete Royal Navy vessels as blockships thereby denying German destroyers, torpedo boats and U-boats access to the English Channel. The strategic success of the operation is disputed, because smaller German craft could still get through the blockade at Zeebrugge and for a variety of reasons the raid on Ostend was not successful – a second attempt was made in May 1918.  Nevertheless, the bravery of all those who took part was celebrated then as it is now. The British troops were all volunteers and had been told to expect heavy casualties before the raid, with some being told it was virtually a suicide mission. As expected, the fighting was ferocious with over 600 Allied casualties compared to just 24 reported by the Germans.


Aerial view of the blockships at Zeebrugge after the raid. IWM Q 20648B


  • Victoria Crosses

As a result of the raid eight Victoria Crosses were awarded, four of which were made for individual acts of heroism: Lieutenant Richard Douglas Sandford, Lieutenant Percy Thompson Dean, Lieutenant-Commander George Nicholson Bradford and Lieutenant-Commander Arthur Leyland Harrison (the awards for the latter two individuals were made posthumously).

The other four awards were all made under a special provision in the warrant which established the creation of the Victoria Cross: Clause 13. This clause allowed, in circumstances where ‘a gallant and daring act’ was performed by a large body of troops, for officers and men to select by ballot who they thought deserved the award. It was in these circumstances that Commander Alfred Francis Blakeney Carpenter; Captain Edward Bamford DSO; Sergeant Norman Augustus Finch; and Able Seaman Albert Edward McKenzie were awarded their VCs.

More information on these eight individuals is available on this Lives of the First World War Community. All the stories of the eight VCs deserve telling but one that particularly stands out for me is that of George Nicholson Bradford, who died on his 31st birthday.


Lieutenant Commander George Nicholson Bradford. IWM VC 117


  • George Nicholson Bradford

George Nicholson Bradford was born on 23 April 1887 in County Durham. The son of a colliery manager, he joined the Navy as a cadet around 1900 and was promoted to Sub Lieutenant in 1907. He was a keen boxer and was at one time the Navy’s welter-weight champion, his boxing prowess being noted on his service record in May 1916.  He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1909 as a result of his bravery in rescuing a boy from the trawler ‘Halcyon’ which had been rammed in the dark by HMS Doon. In charge of a rescue boat from HMS Chelmer he jumped aboard the trawler when it was discovered that someone was still missing. The trawler was close to sinking but he emerged from the hold carrying the unconscious boy with only minutes to spare.

By the time of the Zeebrugge raid he was a Lieutenant Commander in charge of naval storming party ‘D’ on HMS Iris II (a converted Mersey ferry). They were to storm gun emplacements on the Zeebrugge Mole, a massive breakwater protecting the harbour. The crew of the Iris had trouble placing parapet anchors to secure the ship so that scaling ladders could be used to disembark. Despite not being his job, George climbed up on a derrick which carried one of the anchors and jumped onto the Mole with it. He hooked it into position but almost immediately was hit by machine gun fire and fell into the sea.

 Without a moment’s hesitation he went to certain death

The end of his Victoria Cross citation states that his “action was one of absolute self-sacrifice; without a moment’s hesitation he went to certain death, recognising that in such an action lay the only possible chance of securing Iris II and enabling her storming parties to land”.

Roll of honour memorial plaque to the officers and men of the Iris, including George Bradford VC. IWM FEQ 91

George’s body was eventually recovered and buried at the Blankenberge Town Cemetery in Belgium. His mother went to collect the Victoria Cross from King George V in April 1919 – a trip she had made on more than one occasion, to collect medals for her other deceased sons. Four Bradford Brothers had fought in the war – only one survived – and the youngest, Roland, was also a recipient of the Victoria Cross.


  • Remembering Zeebrugge and Ostend

Today we pay tribute to all those involved in actions which, in the words of VC recipient Alfred Carpenter, gave “the dragon’s tail a damned good twist”. To commemorate the centenary of the raid, all eight Victoria Crosses from Zeebrugge, plus three VCs from the second Ostend operation, have been brought together for an exhibition at Bruges’ historic Provincial Hall.


Do you have a story from the Zeebrugge and Ostend raids to share on Lives of the First World War?

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“Our Gallant and Worthy Foe” – laying the Red Baron to rest

The remains of Manfred von Richthofen’s wrecked Fokker Triplane and his two Spandau machine-guns. Bertangles, 22 April 1918. Salved by No. 3 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps. IWM Q 10924

Our previous blog post looked at the career of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, and the stories of some of those who he shot down. The day after his death on 21 April 1918, he was buried with full military honours. In the final part of Trevor Torkington’s guest blog post, we focus on the men who played a part on the day.


Cross over the original grave of von Richthofen at Bertangles, made from the boss of a propeller and featuring a metal plate made by Harold Edwards.  IWM Q 8150


  • Preparing for the funeral

After being shot down, Von Richthofen’s body and wrecked plane (subsequently stripped by trophy hunters) were recovered from the field and transported to Poulainville, the base of 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps. Here, his body was cleaned, photographed and medically examined and then placed under guard until the funeral. One of the men detailed to guard the Baron was Air Mechanic 2nd Class Harold Edwards.

Harold had been keen to join up but his father was reluctant to let him go after Harold’s brother Benjamin was killed at Gallipoli. He eventually enlisted in the Australian Flying Corps and sailed for England on his 21st birthday.

As well as guarding the body, Harold, a watchmaker before the war, also made and engraved (in English and German) the plaque for von Richthofen’s cross. Harold Edwards lived until the age of 102, and was the last of the Australian Flying Corps who fought in the First World War.


RAF Chaplain George Herbert Marshall leads the funeral procession. IWM Q 10918


  • Conducting the service

In the late afternoon of 22 April 1918 von Richthofen’s body was placed on a Crossley Tender and taken to Bertangles Communal Cemetery. The procession was led by Chaplain to the Forces 4th Class George Herbert Marshall. Marshall was attached to 101 Squadron, stationed at Bertangles and as von Richthofen was a Protestant, Marshall was the nearest Church of England Chaplain who could officiate. After the ceremony, officers from 3 Squadron gave him a cylinder from von Richthofen’s engine as a souvenir which he kept in a tin box. When he returned to the army in the Second World War he had to leave his Vicarage, and donated the cylinder to the War Effort Scrap Drive.


Four of the six pallbearers L-R: Lieutenant Thomas Leigh Simpson, Second Lieutenant Malcolm Sheehan, Lieutenant Frank Jelly Mart, and Lieutenant George Pickering. IWM Q 10923


  • Fellow airmen as pallbearers

Six officers of 3 Squadron acted as pallbearers, two of whom were cousins – Lieutenant Thomas Leigh Simpson and Captain John Robertson Duigan. Duigan was a pioneer of Australian flight – he was the first Australian to design, build and fly an aeroplane. He was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in action when his RE8 (or ‘Harry Tate’ as they were known colloquially) fought off four German Fokker Triplanes in May 1918. His cousin, Simpson, had been in combat with von Richthofen the previous day, flying a photographic reconnaissance mission in a Royal Aircraft Factory RE8. He had managed to withstand the attack until Sopwith Camels from 209 Squadron came to his aid. When he returned to base he received the news that von Richthofen had been killed.

Simpson was later awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his reconnaissance work. All the pallbearers survived the war but one, Lieutenant George Pickering, was a victim of the flu pandemic and died on 21 November 1918. He is buried at the Cemetery of London, Manor Park in Essex.


  • Military salute

After the coffin had been placed in the ground by the pallbearers, an honour guard from 3 Squadron’s other ranks fired a salute over von Richthofen’s grave. The officer in charge of the guard was Sergeant Vincent ‘Vin Blanc’ Smith. Born in a Melbourne suburb in 1890, Smith joined the Australian Flying Corps in March 1916. He was quickly promoted to Sergeant and was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for rescuing a pilot from a blazing crash in which he himself was burned.


Australians firing a volley at the graveside. IWM Q 10921


As well as these incredible photographs, the funeral service was captured on film, which can be viewed on the IWM website. On 23 April 1918 a British pilot flew low over Richthofen’s base at Cappy and threw down a metal container attached to a streamer. Inside was a photograph of the funeral and a message:

To the German Flying Corps

Rittmeister Baron Manfred von Richthofen was killed in aerial combat on April 21, 1918. He was buried with full military honours.

From the British Royal Air Force


The von Richthofen family grave in the South Cemetery, Wiesbaden. Image by Richard Croft, licensed under Creative Commons


  • Final Resting Place

The Baron was not to be left in peace. After the funeral his grave was desecrated by French civilians who believed, mistakenly, that the Baron had carried out a night time bombing of the area shortly before his death. After the war, his body was moved to a large German cemetery at Fricourt and moved again, in 1925 at the request of the Baron’s mother. She wanted him buried at Schweidnitz alongside his father and brother but instead a formal state funeral was organised and his remains were buried in the Invalidenfriedhof cemetery in Berlin. When East Germany began to consolidate its border in 1976 his body was moved again to a family plot in Wiesbaden in Western Germany. He rests there now, the man who allied pilots called “our gallant and worthy foe”.


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The last flight of the Red Baron

Baron von Richthofen lands his Fokker DR 1 triplane after a patrol. IWM Q 58047

On 21st April 1918, Baron Manfred von Richhofen – known as the Red Baron due to the garish colour of his aircraft – was shot down and killed. He is credited with 80 ‘kills’ (shooting down 80 planes) during the First World War – these were both single and double seaters and so approximately 84 men were killed, 19 wounded and 22 unhurt. All told, an estimated 125 men (some of the names are in dispute) were shot down by von Richthofen.

In the first part of a guest blog post, Lives of the First World War volunteer Trevor Torkington explores the stories of some of the men who were shot down by one of the war’s greatest air aces.


  • His first ‘kills’

Originally a cavalry officer, von Richthofen became bored with the duties he was assigned, and joined the flying service at the end of May 1915. He started training as a pilot in October and by March 1916 he’d been assigned to a bomber squadron (Kampfgeschwader 2). It was with this squadron that he shot down his first plane on 26 April, believed to be a French Nieuport 11 of Escadrille n.23, piloted by Maréchal des Logis Jean Casale. Casale would be the only French pilot shot down by von Richthofen.


Lieutenant Tom Rees. Image in the public domain


On 1 September 1916, von Richthofen joined Jagstaffel (Jasta) 2 – a fighter squadron under the leadership of the air ace, Oswald Boelcke. Sixteen days later he claimed his first official victory by shooting down an FE2B of 11 Squadron piloted by Second Lieutenant Lionel Bertram Frank Morris with his observer Captain Tom Rees (he was promoted to Captain that day). Von Richthofen reported that Morris was an experienced pilot and did his best to prevent the Baron from getting behind him, but eventually the FE2B’s engine was hit and the propeller stopped. As the plane glided to the ground, Rees continued to fire his machine gun until he was shot and killed. Badly wounded, Morris managed to land the plane at Fesquireres but he too died later the same day. Von Richthofen celebrated his success by purchasing a silver cup engraved with the date and type of aircraft he had shot down, a tradition he would continue up to his 60th victim when silver became scarce due to the British blockade.


  • Lucky escapes

Not every one shot down by the Red Baron was killed. One pilot to survive a crash was the Baron’s 31st victim. Lieutenant Christopher Guy Gilbert was tasked to act as an escort on a reconnaissance mission. He crash-landed in enemy territory following the Baron’s attack and was pulled from the wreckage by what must have been slightly bemused German troops. As it was an early morning ‘short’ mission, Gilbert hadn’t got dressed so was taken prisoner in his pyjamas!

The Baron’s 80th and final victim on 20 April 1918 was a Sopwith Camel flown by Second Lieutenant David Greswolde Lewis. Lewis’ plane was in flames by the time it hit the ground, but he managed to escape from the wreckage and spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp. Lewis was from Bulawayo in what was then Rhodesia, and returned to Africa after the war. During the Rhodesian War of Independence he had another lucky escape when his car was ambushed and riddled with bullets. Despite this he managed to walk away unharmed. He died in 1978.


Piece of fabric from the red Fokker triplane in which Manfred von Richthofen was killed on 21 April 1918. IWM EPH 9001

  • The last flight of the Red Baron

Von Richthofen’s last flight was on 21 April 1918. At around 10.40am his squadron attacked a pair of RE8 reconnaissance planes. The allied pilots successfully defended themselves and were subsequently joined by Sopwith Camels from 209 Squadron. Shortly thereafter, whilst in pursuit of a Sopwith Camel piloted by Second Lieutenant Wilfred Reid May, the Baron was hit by gunfire. The question of who shot the Red Baron is still a matter of debate.  The Royal Air Force claimed that Captain Arthur “Roy” Brown of 209 Squadron was responsible for shooting him down (and this was subsequently immortalised on the squadron badge which has an emblem of a red eagle falling). However, others claim that an anti-aircraft gunner with the Australian 24th Machine Gun Company, Sergeant Cedric Bassett Popkin, was the person most likely to have killed the Baron.

Whatever the case, the Baron’s plane made a relatively smooth descent and landed in a beet field where the undercarriage collapsed. The Baron’s body was recovered by Australian troops and transferred to Poulainville airfield where it would remain overnight, under guard.


  • Read part two of Trevor’s blog post, which focuses on those who were involved in Manfred von Richhofen’s funeral
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100 years since the beginning of the German Spring Offensives

The German Spring Offensive: Troops of 101 Siege Battery RGA attaching nose caps to 6-inch howitzer shells, Merville. IWM Collections Q 354

The German Spring Offensives, which began on 21 March 1918, represented a calculated gamble for Germany in trying to tip the balance on the Western Front once and for all. British and Allied troops were met with a huge concentration of German artillery, gas, smoke and infantry. The German Army initially achieved unprecedented gains, but by August the tide had turned against them.

In our latest blog post, we look at the story of one gunner who was caught up in the events of 21 March 1918 – Thomas Harold Burton. Thomas’ father wrote to the newly-formed Imperial War Museum in 1918 to share his son’s experiences.


  • Early life

Thomas Harold Burton was born on 14 July 1895 in Nottingham, to Thomas and Fanny. He had two older sisters, and was educated at Southwark Street Council School, Basford. After leaving school he became a farm merchant’s assistant.

As Thomas’ father recounted, “at the call of his Country’s need in the Great War, he volunteered in the Royal Field Artillery and was made a gunner.”

Thomas Harold Burton. IWM Collections HU 93371

  • Serving overseas

Thomas completed around 9 month’s training at Deep Cut, Hampshire before being sent to France on 5 June 1916. His father told IWM that,

“During his leave home in November 1917 he marked on our Daily Mail map many places where he had stayed being 7 months during the time at Nœux-les-Mines. He had several narrow escapes during the falling back from Cambrai, about October of 1917.”

After a brief period of leave at the end of February 1918, Thomas returned to France. When the German Spring Offensive began just weeks later, he was injured whilst acting as runner:

“His left leg was shattered and he would have been left behind to fall into the hands of the enemy, who were advancing rapidly, had not 2 of his comrades volunteered to fetch him at great risk.”

Tragically, Thomas later succumbed to his wounds, and died on the morning of 25 March 1918. He was buried in Bac-du-Sud British Cemetery near Arras, which was the location of field ambulances at the time. According to his father, Thomas’ friends made a special cross for him. Today, Thomas has a Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstone bearing the inscription ‘Until the day breaks’. His father described him as “one of the best of God Fearing Sons a Father and Mother could have”.


Bac-du-Sud British Cemetery. Image taken by Jérémy Bourdon, licensed under Creative Commons.


  • Remembering Thomas

In July 1918, the Imperial War Museum made an appeal in the Daily Express newspaper for families to send in photographs and biographies of loved ones who had died in the war. To accompany his son’s photograph, Thomas Burton wrote a heartfelt letter which not only tells us a great deal about Thomas’ wartime service, but also evokes the immense grief which he and his wife felt.

Our loss is irreparable and he was our only son. Such is the Supreme Price we are compelled to pay for this Terrible War.

Thomas is just one of more than half a million Allied casualties of the German Spring Offensive. Lives of the First World War pays tribute to him on the hundredth anniversary of his death, and remembers all those who took part in this battle – both those who lost their lives, as well as the men and women who survived the war.


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Behind Every Photograph Lies a Story: ‘Where Right and Glory Lead’

119 Battery Royal Field Artillery – Winners of the 27 Brigade RFA Shield 1912-13

Lives of the First World War features thousands of photographs which help to enrich the stories of those who made a contribution to the war effort. From formal portraits and group photos to family snaps, images help us to reflect upon what people’s lives were like before, during and in many cases after the war.

In the first of this guest blog post series, Paul Bourton of the Unknown Soldier Military Archive & Soldier Research Service introduces his study of the stories revealed through a photograph taken shortly before the First World War.


  • Discovery

I recently purchased a group photograph (above). I found it while rummaging through the contents of one of the darker and less explored recesses at the back of an antiques shop in the Gloucestershire town of Lechlade – the sort of recess where gems are hidden.

A small brass plaque at the bottom of the frame bears an inscription which points to the fact that the photograph once belonged to one of the men in the picture. The sepia image, held in a stout but beautifully gilded wooden frame, captures the pose of thirteen men arranged in a typically military formation of three ranks; unsurprising really, given that the men in the photograph are all soldiers.

The men are unsmiling at the instant the camera records a moment of the year 1913 for posterity. Instead of smiles they wear expressions of pride in achievement and of quiet satisfaction in a job well done.  Placed on the ground in front of the men is the source of that pride and the purpose for the photograph; a shield contested on the playing fields of Ireland by the men of 27 Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery and won in the 1912/13 season by these thirteen men of 119 Battery.


Cap badge of the Royal Field Artillery, featuring the motto Quo Fas et Gloria Ducunt – ‘Where Right and Glory Lead’. IWM Collections INS 16500


  • Advent of war

One year later, the men pictured in sepia would exchange the playing fields of Ireland for the battlefields of Flanders

One year later, the men pictured in sepia would exchange the playing fields of Ireland for the battlefields of Flanders as they marched off to war with the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914. Upon those fields they would face the ultimate test of their sporting prowess, athleticism and team spirit. 119 Battery Royal Field Artillery would enter the crucible of war at Mons where it was centre-stage in one of the most conspicuous acts to be played out during that epic battle.  From that baptism of fire, the crucible would forge the Battery into a battle-hardened unit that was in the thick of the action throughout many of the major campaigns and actions of the war.


  • Researching using Lives of the First World War

Over the next few months, the results of my research into the role of 119 Battery RFA in the First World War and the thirteen men of the photograph will reveal stories of courage, dedication and honours gained by ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances.  These were men at their best and in the prime of their lives who were touched by the hand of war and whose achievements were tempered by tragedy, loss and sacrifice.


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Marking 100 years since political change

1918 Election poster. IWM (Art.IWM PST 12177)

6 February 2018 marks 100 years since the Representation of the People Act was passed, which extended the right to vote to all men over 21 and those over the age of 19 serving in the armed forces. For the first time, women over the age of 30 who met specific criteria could vote – this enfranchised 8.5 million women, although many more would have to wait until the Equal Franchise Act of 1928.

In this blog post, we look at the stories of mother and daughter Mary and Kathleen Duckworth – both of them worked as nurses during the war but only one of them received the right to vote in 1918.


Mary Elizabeth (left) and Kathleen Duckworth. IWM Documents.15144

  • The Duckworths

Mother and daughter Mary and Kathleen Duckworth lived in the mill town of Heywood, Lancashire. At the start of the war, Mary was aged 38 and Kathleen just 13 years old – they would both go on to make valuable contributions to their local war effort.

In 1916, Mary and her husband Walter set up the Heywood Auxiliary Hospital in a church hall. Mary oversaw the day-to-day running of the hospital, which cared for wounded servicemen.


Photograph of hospital beds in Heywood Auxiliary Hospital. IWM Documents.15144

The hospital facilities included an operating theatre, ward, dining room and snooker room. Whilst the medical wellbeing of the patients was the priority, the hospital staff and local community also found time to put on plays and entertainment for the convalescing troops.

From 1918, Kathleen also worked at the hospital as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse. Records show that she worked almost 2,000 hours at the hospital until it closed in April 1919.


  • The Representation of the People Act

After a long campaign to extend the right to vote to women, the 1918 Representation of the People Act was an important milestone on the road to full democracy. However, in order to be eligible to join the electorate, women had to meet these criteria:

  1. Aged 30 and over
  2. Owners (or the wife of a man who were owners) of land or property worth £5 or more OR graduates of British universities

Although 8.5 million women met this criteria, this only represented 40 per cent of the total population of women in the UK. Within the Duckworth family, Mary was granted the right to vote and appears on the 1921 Electoral Register – however, under these rules 17 year old Kathleen would not even be considered for inclusion for another 13 years.


A crowd of women listening to a speech by another woman, who is likely a suffragette or women’s rights activist. IWM Q 107105

  • Limitations of the Act

Case studies such as these challenge the notion that women were granted the right to vote in recognition for their role in the First World War – indeed, many young women such as Kathleen had ‘done their bit’ but were excluded. There are different theories as to why this may have been the case. It was felt that that women over 30 were more likely to be traditional in their political views – many would be married with children, and so would most likely vote in the same way as their husband.  Research on voting patterns in the 1920s does indicate that women tended to vote for the Conservatives. Furthermore, many pre-war suffragettes may have met the age criterion but did not necessarily meet the property requirements, and so this Act may have been intended to curb radical political views.

Nevertheless, this Act was a significant moment in the history of British politics. In December 1919, Lady Astor became the first woman to take a seat in Parliament. In 1928 women over 21 were finally granted political equality to men – Kathleen Duckworth appears on the 1929 electoral roll under her married name, Kathleen Hollinrake.


100 years on, we pay tribute to the men and women who made a contribution during the First World War – share your stories with us on Lives of the First World War.

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Chairs that Stand Empty: The men behind the names on the Hulme Hall First World War Memorial

Hulme Hall is a Hall of Residence for students at The University of Manchester. Founded in 1870, the Hall has changed constantly over the past 148 years to meet the changing landscape of university life. Over 250 current and former students fought during the First World War. 40 were to lose their lives, with 33 remembered on the Hulme Hall War Memorial.

After research taken over a period of seven years, former resident James Hern has pieced together the lives of the 40 men who lost their lives between 1914 and 1919. In this guest blog post, James tells us about the research that led to the publication of his book Chairs that Stand Empty: The men behind the names on the Hulme Hall First World War Memorial

  • Stories behind the names

Names that once would have stirred memories of friendship, academic success or endeavours on sports pitches had become simply another unknown name on a memorial plaque.

It took me three minutes to read the names of the 33 names of men on the Hulme Hall War Memorial during the 2002 and 2003 Remembrance Services. Names that once would have stirred memories of friendship, academic success or endeavours on sports pitches had become simply another unknown name on a memorial plaque. Lives remembered for a fleeting moment.

James Henderson won the MC in 1915 for holding off waves of enemy attacks during the Battle of Frezenberg. He was wounded twice before being killed in August 1916. Photo: The Manchester University Magazine, held at the University of Manchester Library

In 2010, during an unscheduled brief visit to the Somme, I decided to look into the stories of the men on the memorial, my primary purpose being to help me understand the narrative of the First World War and what made the undulating and barren landscape of this part of France worth the lives of hundred of thousands of men.

I certainly was fortunate. The Hulme Hall archives provided a rich source of information, with photographs, obituaries, administration records, magazines and yearly reports by the Warden. Through cross-referencing the administration records against the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, I identified a further seven men who died but were not listed on the Hulme Hall War Memorial. The reasons for their omission haven’t been confirmed.

With the majority of the men receiving a commission at some point, their service records held at the National Archives at Kew provided a key glimpse into their army life. Howard Harker wrote passionately to the War Office, requesting the opportunity to join the Royal Flying Corps. His work in the experimental department of the Royal Aircraft Factory was considered a reserved occupation. Receiving a commission in 1916, he became a gifted fighter pilot, fighting against Manfred von Richthofen’s squadron during the Battle of Arras in 1917.

Image of George Hebblethwaite, taken in 1912/1913 when he was an Arts Student at Manchester University. Image added to Lives of the First World War by George’s relative

  • Family stories and memories

Whilst the archives at Kew and Manchester provided an insight into the lives of the men, it was making contact with families and discovering letters that brought the research to life and changed it from a personal project to one where I felt I had an obligation to publish the stories I had uncovered. Photographs of the men provided an insight into their character and lives; from family gatherings, weddings, school photographs and in active service.

Harland Watts was studying History at the outbreak of War. He married Sarah Johnson
shortly before leaving for France with the South Lancashire Regiment. Photo: Michael Watts

Of the letters written by the men, the most powerful were those written by Robert Bedford, Harry Pickles, William Wildblood and Harland Watts to their History tutor at Manchester, Professor Tout.

Robert Bedford fought in Gallipoli, Sinai and the Western Front between 1915 and 1918. He wrote eight letters to Professor Tout through this time; his emotions clearly displaced from the horrors of seeing his friend’s bodies lying out in no-man’s land after failed attacks in Gallipoli in 1915, to the boredom of life in the Sinai desert the following year whilst fighting raged in France.

Robert’s humour shines through as he describes dealing with newly qualified junior officers, his men berating their mates who received ‘Blighty’ wounds and the cynicism of the British press reporting on the progress of the War.

Arriving in France in 1917, Robert was subsequently wounded on two occasions; the first during a gas attack that led to him being temporarily blinded for a week and the second when being struck on the foot by shrapnel. In March 1918 he was killed during a German offensive on the Somme.

  • Remembering the men 100 years on

Some day the war will be over and we shall meet again – or we shall meet if we can bear to face the chairs that will stand empty – Reverend J H Hopkinson, Hulme Hall Warden

The lives of the 40 men from Hulme Hall captured unique stories that cover most aspects of the War, from the sea, land and air; Gallipoli, France, Belgium, Greece and Africa. It is my hope that future generations of Hulme Hall students will pause and remember the men behind the names in future years.

Discover the stories of men from the Hulme Hall Memorial, in this Lives of the First World War Community

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Coming up in 2018

Happy New Year to all our Supporters, Members and Friends! Thank you for all your wonderful contributions to Lives of the First World War in 2017, and for helping us to remember the toil and sacrifice of men and women from across the British Empire and Commonwealth.

We need your help this year to build the permanent digital memorial even further, so please continue to share your stories and images with us. Amongst others, we will be marking 100 years since key moments and events of 1918, which include the following:


January – March

A Ministry of Food ration book dating from 1918, including an advertisement for the Imperial War Museum on the reverse of some of the coupons. IWM Documents.8012


April – June

Air Mechanics of the Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) working on the fuselage of an Avro 504 aircraft. IWM Q 27255


July – September

The Doiran Front Seen from Sal Grec de Popovo, by William T Wood. Art.IWM ART 2244


October – December

  • Armistice
  • Surrender of the German High Fleet
  • Allied troops enter Germany

The Armistice 1918: Crowds waving and smiling around the Victoria Memorial outside Buckingham Palace in London. IWM Q 47894


What’s your amazing discovery on Lives of the First World War? Share your stories with us on Facebook and Twitter.

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“Cruiser Afire!” – The loss of HMS Natal

HMS Natal. IWM Q 39678

Cruiser Afire!” Commander Gregory Gonville Cuff Wood-Martin was crossing just in front of the X turret of the Battleship, HMS Superb, when he heard the boat signalman’s shout. He immediately rushed to the port rail and could see two columns of smoke and fire rising from HMS Natal. The Superb’s boats were hoisted out to help but all too quickly Wood-Martin heard the cry, “She’s gone”.

30 December 2017 marks 102 years since this incident, in which many hundreds of people lost their lives. In this guest blog post, Lives of the First World War Volunteer Trevor Torkington tells the story of HMS Natal and those who were caught up in the tragedy.


  • HMS Natal

HMS Natal was a Warrior-class armoured cruiser and on that fateful day was at anchor in the Cromarty Firth. Her Captain, Eric Percy Coventry Back, had allowed a number of the ship’s crew to take shore leave – many of them to watch, and play, in an inter-ship football match.

For some of his officers however, Captain Back had invited them and their wives to a film show on board. He had also invited a family friend, John Henry Dods – a former Scottish International rugby player – his wife Annie and their children Dorothy, Marcus and John.  Captain Back’s wife (their own children were ill) and three nurses from the nearby hospital ship HMS Drina (including Caroline Maud Edwards, pictured below), completed the party.

IWM WWC H21-32-1

At around 3.20 pm the Natal was rocked by an explosion, followed by a further three blasts in short succession. Flames shot throughout the ship but the true seriousness of the situation wasn’t fully appreciated, with injured seaman were being sent to sickbay to have their burns dressed. Orders to flood the magazines couldn’t be carried out and although hoses were rigged no water was obtainable through the fire main system. Within three minutes of the first explosion the ship started to list heavily to port and after another two minutes, she had completely settled down with the forward end of the starboard bilge keel clear of the water.

422 men, women and children lost their lives in this disaster – this Lives of the First World War Community pays tribute to them.


Obituary in Kent Messenger, 29 January 1916. Photograph uploaded by Stephen Morris


  • Notifying Next of Kin

The loss of the ship was soon announced to the press. Various photographs of the Natal, her crew and the ship’s cat (with the caption “Rudolph, it is feared, was on board at the time”) appeared on the front page of the Daily Sketch two days running. And although they attempted to notify next of kin as quickly as possible, the Admiralty was inundated with letters from family members of the crew, desperate for news. One such example was from Mrs Bush of Latham Road, East Ham who sought information about her nephew:

The suspense is making me ill so if you could possibly give me any information I should be very thankful

“Will it be asking you too much for information about Wilfred Albert Trim Roberts… I am his aunt I took him when 3 years of age when his mother died so of course feel anxious…… the suspense is making me ill so if you could possibly give me any information I should be very thankful…..Trusting I am not giving you too much trouble

Sadly, Wilfred, a Boy Servant, was not among the survivors. He was seventeen when he died.

There were also cases of next of kin being told about deaths incorrectly. Mrs Nelson of Belfast was just one who later received a telegram stating that her son was in fact safe along with the sentiment that “any distress which the receipt of the official intimation that he was lost may have caused you is regretted”. Mrs Nelson responded:

“I received your letters alright and I assure you they caused me no anxiety whatever, my son sent me a telegram to say he was alright on Friday last and he has just arrived home”


  • Court Martial

Although not immediately ruled out, the idea of a submarine attack was soon dismissed. In order to carry out a torpedo attack, a U-boat would have needed to have passed two other ships: another cruiser and an even more tempting target – the battleship Emperor of India. Having talked to survivors personally, and from divers reports, Vice-Admiral Jellicoe was of the opinion that the foundering of the Natal was due to an internal explosion.

As was traditional in the loss of a Royal Navy ship, a Court Martial into the loss of the Natal was held at Chatham between 18th and 20th January 1916. As the highest surviving officer, Lieutenant Commander John Spencer Tyndall was the first to give evidence. He was in the Mail Office under the after shelter deck at the time of the explosion, and in the immediate aftermath directed the crew to rig fire hoses. His testimony, along with that of others, in particular the divers William Russell and Charles Lambert, confirmed the opinion that the loss of Natal was due to an internal explosion caused by faulty ammunition. (The divers reported that the explosion had blown both sides of the ship bodily outwards). A similar conclusion was found for the loss of HMS Bulwark in 1914 and would again be the conclusion for the loss of HMS Vanguard in 1917. The Court Martial confirmed that the loss was not due to the design, carelessness or the negligence of officers and men.


  • Alternative Theory

Because of his severe injuries, only written evidence was taken from the Officer of the Watch at the time, Lieutenant Denis Quintin Fildes, son of the artist and illustrator Sir Luke Fildes.

According to the account given in ‘They Called it Accident’ by A. Cecil Hampshire, lying in his hospital bed Fildes had some anxiety about an incident which occurred on the afternoon of the accident. He’d heard a strange sound emanating from a ventilator shaft and had sent one of the crew to investigate. Fildes began to wonder whether the noise he had heard was in fact caused by a fire in the magazine. After the sinking Fildes became more inclined that the explosion had been caused by an incendiary device. He was more convinced this was the case when he attended a book tour by a former German officer Kapitan Lieutenant Franz von Rintelen who gave a lecture on the various acts of sabotage he had carried out, including sinking ships through the means of incendiaries.


Chatham Naval Memorial. Photograph uploaded by Vincent Stuart

  • Legacy

Today, a buoy marks the spot where Natal sank – the remains of the wreck designated under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. Many of those who died are remembered on the naval memorials at Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth. Of the bodies recovered only 17 were identified and were buried in the local cemeteries of Cromarty and Rosskeen. More than 100 years later her memory lives on in the local community, with a garden created in her honour at Invergordan, museums in Cromarty and Invergordan remembering the sinking and a memorial in Durban erected in 1927.


  • Share your stories with us on Lives of the First World War
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The Half‐Shilling Curate – the story of the Rev. Herbert Butler Cowl C.F. M.C.

Herbert with his sister Muriel who helped nurse him back to good health. Courtesy of Sarah Reay

On Christmas Eve 1914, Reverend Herbert Butler Cowl began his service with the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department. He became the only known Army Chaplain during the Great War to be awarded the Military Cross medal for exemplary gallantry on a ship. In this guest blog post Herbert’s granddaughter Sarah Reay shares his story with us, which she has published under the title The Half-Shilling Curate, A personal account of war & faith 1914-1918

  • The role of the Army Chaplain

The Army Chaplains not only provided spiritual guidance and sustenance to the men, but they became major contributors to general morale. They also gave invaluable assistance in the Field Ambulances at the frontline, helping medical staff, from doctors to stretcherbearers. Army Chaplains worked in the Army Camps and the Garrisons too, helping to prepare men for what they had to face at the front in battle and also supporting the wounded and sick who returned home.

A British Chaplain and army medic bringing back a wounded man from the Somme. IWM Q 721

Most of the Army Chaplains had no experience of working with soldiers before the First World War. This conflict was considered to be a righteous war and the churches responded with a supply of suitable candidates. Suitability ranged from being physically fit, to the ability to preach ‘extempore’ (‘off the cuff’), an ability to ride a horse and to speak a foreign language. Herbert Cowl was one of the youngest Wesleyan Army Chaplains in 1914 ‐ despite being in his 20’s, he had all of the qualities that the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department were looking for.

  • ‘The Half-Shilling Curate’

Born in 1886 in Leeds, Herbert finished his training to become a Methodist minister in 1910. He was affectionately known by his family as ‘The Half‐Shilling Curate’ – his lack of experience led him to feel he was “not the full shilling”. Herbert’s descriptive account of his experiences as a young Army Chaplain, from his own personal letters and writings, illustrated the value of faith during the war ‐ the balance between serving God and carrying out his duties as a captain in the British Army.

Rev Herbert Cowl. Courtesy of Sarah Reay

Sometimes as I cross a bit of rising ground between here and Headquarters, where the country is open, and the road only lined by an endless avenue of huge polled witch‐elms, I stand in the darkness; watch the probing searchlights flicker on to the clouds and hear those grim far off voices speaking death. It is a new sound; it is another world; and it calls to unprecedented scenes and experiences. God grant as we march into it all, that there may arise a man in me that is sufficient to this new occasion!

(Extract from a letter written to in France to Herbert’s parents in 1915)

  • Comforting the sick

No man wanted to be forgotten and left behind in the mud of Flanders. It was comforting for the soldiers to know, and be re‐assured, that if the worst fate should come to them, the padre, a good man would inter them and send them to Heaven with the full blessing of God.

One of the most important duties for an Army Chaplain was to comfort those who had been injured or fallen ill during their service.

For all their … ghastly wounds, they were the gayest company I remember meeting.

One evening I entered that room for some week night meeting and there covering the floor and propped up against the walls, packed from end to end, side to side were wounded men just unloaded from the Western Front. They were the heroes of the hour and very well they knew it, but for all their pathetic disfigurements and their ghastly wounds, they were the gayest company I remember meeting.

(Observations from Rev Cowl whilst at Portsmouth Garrison in 1917)


  • The dangerous reality of war

Herbert was severely wounded on the frontline in November 1915 and was sent home to Britain on board the hospital ship ‘Anglia’. Unfortunately, she became the first Red Cross ship to be lost due to enemy action in the war off the South East coast of England. Herbert handed his life belt to someone who he thought needed it more than himself, for which he was awarded the Military Cross.


The sinking of HMHS Anglia. Courtesy of Sarah Reay

My initial memory of my ‘Grandad’ when I was about 5 years of age: He was a very old man of average height with a fine bronze-coloured weather-beaten complexion and a full head of thick snow white hair. His spoken words were delivered in a very mellow peaceful manner. His voice was soft, husky and vibrant with almost an air of magic – I had never heard anyone speak so distinctively before. I learnt later in life that this was due to a piece of German shrapnel that had slashed through his jaw and voice box during a war that had taken place many years before I was born.

The Rev. Herbert B. Cowl C.F. M.C. considered himself no hero, but this is his story –one of many stories that had never been told before. The Army Chaplains who served so gallantly during the Great War have been largely over looked. However, let us hope now that their selfless courage is never forgotten.


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