‘Shot at dawn’ – the story of Herbert Morris

Memorial to military executions carried out in Poperinghe, Belgium. Photograph taken by Charlotte Czyzyk, September 2016

During the First World War, more than 300 men serving with British forces were executed for offences including desertion, disobedience and violence. Those punished for cowardice or desertion received a posthumous pardon from the UK government in 2006, yet the subject of those ‘shot at dawn’ remains controversial and highly sensitive. In this blog post we look at the story of 17 year old Herbert Morris, who was executed 100 years ago for desertion.


Herbert was born in Jamaica in 1900, to Ophelia and William Morris. We know very little about his early life, but it is possible that he was employed on fruit or sugar cane farms like many people living in the area.

In 1915 Britain’s War Office, which had initially opposed recruitment of West Indian troops, created the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR), which served in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The formation of the BWIR did not give black soldiers from the West Indies the opportunity to fight as equals alongside white soldiers. Instead, the War Office largely limited their participation to ‘labour’ duties.

West Indian troops stacking 8 inch shells in Ypres, October 1917. © IWM E(AUS) 2078

Herbert joined 6 Battalion British West Indies Regiment sometime in late 1916 or early 1917, meaning that like many other young men at that time he enlisted underage. After a long sea voyage in which many troops died from illness, the unit arrived in France on 17 April 1917.


  • Service in France

BWIR troops were engaged in numerous support roles on the Western Front, including digging trenches, building roads and gun emplacements, acting as stretcher bearers, loading ships and trains, and working in ammunition dumps. This dangerous work was often carried out within range of German artillery and snipers. Indeed, Herbert reported to the army doctor that ‘I am troubled with my head. I cannot stand the sound of the guns.’

This testimony suggests that Herbert may have suffered from war-related trauma, known at the time as shell shock. He was fined for fighting in his billet on 3 June 1917, and received punishment for being absent without leave on 16 July. On 20 August, he again left his post without permission and was arrested the next day in Boulogne.


  • Court Martial and execution

Herbert faced a court martial on 7 September 1917.

The accused has never given me any trouble. He is well behaved – Lieutenant Andrews

His commanding officers gave a good account of his behaviour and work ethic, but unfortunately the blemishes on his record counted against him and he was sentenced to death.

Although around 3,000 men were given the death penalty during the war, the vast majority of them had their sentences commuted to imprisonment or forced labour. However, because of mutinies amongst the Allies and in light of the continuing offensive in autumn 1917, Herbert’s sentence was carried out in order to deter other potential deserters.


Herbert Morris’ grave in Poperinghe New Military Cemetery. Photograph taken by Charlotte Czyzyk, September 2016

He was shot in the courtyard behind Poperinghe Town Hall at 6.10am on 20 September 1917, and buried nearby. Today, he lies in Poperinghe New Military Cemetery alongside more than 670 other men, 16 of whom who were also ‘shot at dawn’. Herbert’s headstone does not reveal the circumstances behind his death, reflecting the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s principle of equality amongst the dead.


  • Legacy

Herbert’s plaque at the ‘Shot at Dawn’ Memorial, National Memorial Arboretum. Photograph taken by Charlotte Czyzyk, November 2016

The 2006 Armed Forces Act pardoned Herbert Morris as “one of the many victims of the First World War … execution was not a fate he deserved.” He is remembered at the ‘Shot at Dawn’ memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, and is united with other men who shared his fate in this Lives of the First World War Community.


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Society hostess and social reformer: Remembering Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland

Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, the Duchess of Sutherland, with wounded soldiers at No.9 Red Cross Hospital (Millicent Sutherland Ambulance) at Calais, July 1917. IWM Q 2606

Many women seized the opportunity to do ‘their bit’ during the First World War. Women provided support in numerous ways, including telephone operating, war industries, military auxiliaries, agriculture and medical care. Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-Gower was one such motivated individual, setting up a Red Cross Hospital on the Western Front. 20 August 2017 marks 62 years since her death, and in this blog post Catherine Long shares her fascinating story.


  • Life before the war

Millicent was born on 20 October 1867 at Dysart House in Fife, Scotland. Her parents were Robert, 4th Earl Rosslyn, and Blanche St. Clair-Erskine.

Millicent married Duke Cromartie Leveson-Gower in 1884, aged 17, becoming the Duchess of Sutherland. They had four children, Victoria (b. 1885), George (b. 1888), Alistair (b. 1890) and Rosemary (b. 1893). The Duke died in 1913, at that time owning 1,500,000 acres.


  • Experiences during the conflict

When war was declared Millicent travelled to Paris to join the French Red Cross, but she was told that she would need a permit from the Minister of War to serve in a French military hospital. In a memoir entitled ‘Six Weeks at the War’, she wrote that the Minister of War ‘broke every regulation in my favour, gave me a permit, and expressed devoted gratitude for my services!’

The Duchess set up Number 9 Red Cross Hospital in Namur, Belgium, at the Convent of Les Soeurs de Notre Dame. By 17 August 1914 Millicent had installed an ambulance with eight trained nurses and a surgeon, Mr Oswald Morgan of Guys’ Hospital, in the hospital.

In ‘Six Weeks at the War’, she wrote about not only her experience at the hospital, but also her perception of Germans and the war as ‘a ghastly psychological study.’ Millicent wrote about her determination toward ‘Germany’s deliverance’, criticism of the Prussians and perception that ‘the millions of soldiers at war must not be so sternly blamed as the [Prussian] machine that drives them.’

What I thought would be for me an impossible task became absolutely natural

Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-Gower’s early contribution to the war was encapsulated in her own words: ‘What I thought would be for me an impossible task became absolutely natural: to wash wounds, to drag off rags and clothing soaked in blood, to hold basins equally full of blood, to soothe a soldier’s groans… these actions seemed suddenly to become an insistent duty, perfectly easy to carry out.’

Whilst at Namur she experienced shelling, German occupation of the town, and also had to turn in French and Belgian patients as German prisoners of war. Extracts about these experiences can be read on her Life Story page.

Millicent with her staff of nurses and VADs at No.9 Red Cross Hospital (Millicent Sutherland Ambulance) at Calais, July 1917. IWM Q 2615

Millicent re-married in October 1914, to Percy FitzGerald, who was serving as Brigade Major in the Hussars. She returned to France shortly after their wedding, and served with the Red Cross in France for the remainder of the war. She worked as Commandant, Organiser and Director of the hospital. During the war the hospital moved location from Namur to Malo-les-Bains, Dunkirk, to Bourbourg, to Calais, then Longueness near St. Omer. In 1917 King George V and Queen Mary visited her hospital at Calais at the end of their royal tour of the French battlefields. IWM hold a series of photographs of her at her hospital in Calais, which can be seen on Lives of the First World War.


  • Post-war life

Millicent (third from left) with British and French Staff Officers and sisters in the courtyard of the Civil Hospital at Hazebrouck after the investiture with decorations. IWM Q 109515

For her contribution she was decorated with the Royal Red Cross, Croix de Guerre and the Order of the Belgian Red Cross. Millicent married for a third time in 1919, to George Hawes, divorcing in 1925. Millicent lived in France after the war. She died in Orriule Pyrénées-Atlantiques in France on 20 August 1955. Her ashes were buried in the Sutherland private cemetery at Dunrobin in Scotland.

The Duchess of Sutherland is remembered as one of the great English beauties and a successful society hostess. She was also an advocate for social reform and an author.

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Remembering John Kendrick Skinner


John Skinner VC (Image from Wikipedia, in the public domain)


31 July 2017 marks 100 years since the Third Battle of Ypres, known as  Passchendaele, began. The fighting continued until 10 November 1917 and although Field Marshal Douglas Haig claimed the offensive to be a success, Passchendaele has become infamous for its great number of casualties and for its muddy battlefields. In this guest blog post, Becky Taylor, who has been doing a student placement with us, remembers John Kendrick Skinner, who fought at the Battle of Passchendaele and won the Victoria Cross for his bravery and leadership. 


  • Life before the First World War

John was born in Glasgow in 1883 and was the third son of Walter and Mary Skinner. He attended Allan Glen’s Secondary School and after he left school he worked in a factory making pumps and valves. He didn’t enjoy school or factory work, instead he seemed to have his heart set on joining the army. On one occasion he ran away from home and joined the Hamilton Militia, giving a false age. Although his father bought him out the first time, when he enlisted in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers on Boxing Day 1899, John got his wish and he served in the Boer War.


Assault on Passchendaele. IWM E(AUS) 1233


  • Victoria Cross

John established himself as a great soldier early on in the First World War. On 12 October 1914, he led a bold investigation near Cuinchy, France, of enemy positions which led to the award of a Distinguished Conduct Medal. However, it was on 18 August 1917 that he finally won his Victoria Cross, during the Third Battle of Ypres. He won his VC for capturing ‘60 prisoners, 3 machine guns and 2 trench mortars’, despite being wounded in the head (From the London Gazette, 14 September 1917). John received his VC from King George V on the forecourt of Buckingham Palace on 26 September 1917. It was a time of celebration, as three days later he married Annie Lee in Glasgow. Whilst on leave, despite his record and fame as one of the greatest front line soldiers of the war, he was handed a white feather while at home, branding him a coward.


White feathers – some women tried to shame men into enlisting by giving them white feathers, a symbol of cowardice. On display at IWMN.


  • Returning to the front

It was felt by many that John had fulfilled his duty, having been wounded five times since the start of the war. As a result, once he returned from leave, he was posted to the Reserve Battalion in Edinburgh. However, John was determined to return to his men on the front line and he boarded a ship heading to France, risking a court martial. This decision proved to be fatal as, on 17 March 1918, John was killed in action. He died heroically, trying to rescue a wounded man from No-Man’s-Land. Ignoring the rule that said the dead were to be buried near the trenches, John’s friends carried his body 17 miles to Vlamertinghe, where they conducted his funeral; six other VC winners acted as pallbearers. John Skinner was remembered by his fellow soldiers as a brave and great man.

‘The bravest man I met in a war won by brave men.’ – Sir Beauvoir de Lisle


I chose this life story to write about because I was struck by his sheer determination to, one, join the army and, two, return to his men on the front line. He displayed non-stop bravery throughout the war and was a great comrade to the other men, demonstrated by his remarkable funeral.



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Remembering the first daylight air raid

The damaged facade of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, following the daylight raid on 13 June 1917. IWM HO 33

13 June 1917 marks the centenary of the first daytime air raid on London. On this day, 20 Gotha bombers dropped more than 100 bombs on the capital, killing 162 people. This was the highest death toll from a single raid on the UK during the First World War. Notable buildings damaged during the raid include the Royal Hospital Chelsea, pictured above, and the workshops of the Royal Mint. 

In this guest blog post, Chris Kolonko from the Home Front Legacy project looks at the places attacked during the raid, and explains how you can record the stories of individuals and sites affected.


  • The Raid

A formation of Gotha bombers approached London from the East on the morning of 13 June 1917, having made landfall at the mouth of the River Crouch in Essex. The first salvo of bombs landed on East Ham and the Royal Albert Docks.

The bombers continued on their journey west, where a second round of bombs was jettisoned. A bomb hit the area around Liverpool Street Station at 11.40am, with three bombs hitting the station itself. One bomb failed to explode, the second landed on Platform 9 and the third bomb hit a passenger train about to depart the station. This Lives of the First World War Community commemorates those that were killed in the raid at Liverpool Street Station.

By 11.42am a total of 72 bombs had been dropped on the capital.  The Gotha formation now split in two, with one section heading north and the other south of the city. The section of aircraft heading south crossed the Thames at Tower Bridge and proceeded to drop bombs on Bermondsey and Tooley Street, while the Northern section attacked Dolston, Saffron Hill, Stepney and Poplar.


  • “Schoolmates in Life, in Death they were not divided”

By far the most tragic event of the day occurred at Upper North Street School in Poplar (now Mayflower Primary School). Eighteen children were killed when a bomb hit the school, and 30 were wounded – they are united in this Community with their teachers who bravely helped during the raid.


Teachers of Upper North Street School, Poplar(L-R) Emma Watkins, Gertrude Middleton and Annie Allum. These women were decorated for their courage during the raid. IWM WWC D8-8-372; WWC D8-8-874 and WWC D8-8-388


A commemorative card was produced at the time, dedicated to “The Poor Victims … Schoolmates in Life, in Death they were not divided”. Today, a monument can be found in the East London Cemetery where most of the children are buried; the official memorial is located on the site of the school and there is another in Poplar Recreation Ground.


  • Fighting back

Although anti-aircraft defences around London had been enhanced and co-ordinated as a result of the earlier Zeppelin raids, it proved difficult to intercept the high-flying Gothas and no bombers were shot down during the raid. Home Defence squadron aircraft scrambled to intercept the raiders but were also unable to destroy any of the bombers.

According to an account in Captain Joseph Morris’ 1925 book German Air Raids on Great Britain 1914-1918 there was at least one fatality among the Home Defence squadrons that attempted to engage the raiders. Captain Cole-Hamilton and Captain Keevil of No 35 Training Squadron, based at Northolt, took off to intercept the Gothas. They pressed home their attack against 3 of the bombers above Ilford, where Captain Keevil was killed by return fire.

The raiders headed back to the coast, leaving 162 people dead and a further 432 injured.


The interior of the mechanics’ workshop at the Royal Mint, damaged on 13 June 1917. IWM HO 31


  • Legacies

Researching personal stories for Lives of the First World War may reveal Home Front sites that you can record through Home Front Legacy 1914-18. Home Front Legacy 1914-18 is a UK-wide recording project coordinated by the Council for British Archaeology with funding and support from Historic England.

The project enables individuals, community groups, schools and youth groups to record  local sites linked to the First World War Home Front. The locations mentioned in this blog post will be recorded on the project’s ‘Map of Sites’. The stories of people connected with these sites can also be recorded to build up a picture of life on the Home Front.

Find out more about the Home Front Legacy project here 


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‘Exceptional courage, determination and skill’: remembering Albert Ball VC

Captain Albert Ball VC. IWM Q 69593

7 May 2017 marks the centenary of the death of Albert Ball, one of Britain’s greatest air aces of the First World War. He shot down 44 German aircraft and received the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order with two bars and the Military Cross. In this blog post, we celebrate Albert’s achievements and remember his sacrifice.


  • Life before the war

Albert was born in 1896 in Lenton, Nottinghamshire, to Sir Albert and Harriett Ball. He attended Lenton Church School, Grantham Grammar School, Nottingham High School, and finally Trent College, where he undertook officer training. At the age of 17 he started up in business with the Universal Engineering Works before joining the army a month after the outbreak of war, in September 1914.


  • Experiences in the army

Albert joined 7 Battalion Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment, known as the Robin Hood Battalion. Because of his experiences with the Officer Training Corps at Trent College, Albert was quickly promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant.  He was based in Britain, with the task of recruiting other soldiers. During this time at home Albert also took the opportunity to take flying lessons, which began a new phase in his military career.


Captain Albert Ball VC, sitting in his SE 5 aircraft. IWM Q 56140


  • Transfer to the Royal Flying Corps

Albert was accepted as a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) on 26 January 1916, and by 18 February that year he was flying in France.  He quickly established himself as one of the RFC’s outstanding fighter pilots, winning the Military Cross in June. By October he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and Bar and was credited with 30 victories. Already a national hero, he was awarded a second Bar to his DSO in November 1916, making him the first triple DSO in the British Army. Albert joined 56 Squadron as a flight commander on 7 April 1917, soon increasing his official score to 44 victories.

Just one month later Albert was killed after his plane crashed to the ground, possibly following a German attack – the exact circumstances surrounding his death have never been established. Albert was buried by his German counterparts near to where he fell, and his funeral was attended by senior German officers, local officials and several Allied prisoners of war. He rests in Annoeullin Communal Cemetery in France.


The funeral of Albert Ball VC, 9 May 1917. IWM HU 70273


  • Legacy

After his death, Albert was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur and the Russian Order of St George, 4th Class. He also received a posthumous Victoria Cross for the following actions:

Capt. Ball has destroyed forty-three German aeroplanes and one balloon, and has always displayed most exceptional courage, determination and skill.

For most conspicuous and consistent bravery from 25  April to 6 May 1917, during which period Capt. Ball took part in twenty-six combats in the air and destroyed eleven hostile aeroplanes, drove down two out of control, and forced several others to land.

In these combats Capt. Ball, flying alone, on one occasion fought six hostile machines, twice he fought five and once four. When leading two other British aeroplanes he attacked an enemy formation of eight. On each of these occasions he brought down at least one enemy.

Several times his aeroplane was badly damaged, once so seriously that but for the most delicate handling his machine would have collapsed, as nearly all the control wires had been shot away. On returning with a damaged machine he had always to be restrained from immediately going out on another.

In all, Capt. Ball has destroyed forty-three German aeroplanes and one balloon, and has always displayed most exceptional courage, determination and skill.

(From the London Gazette, 8 June 1917)

Albert Ball’s jacket, Service Dress (Maternity pattern): Captain, RFC (UNI 11617)

Albert’s family donated some of his belongings to Imperial War Museums – his flying jacket is currently on display at IWM North in Manchester.

One hundred years after his death, pay tribute to Albert on Lives of the First World War.


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Remembering Arras and Vimy Ridge

British infantry supports going up from freshly-dug assembly trenches, 9 April 1917. IWM Collections Q 5120

April 2017 marks 100 years since the start of the Battle of Arras, where British and Commonwealth troops successfully seized German-held ground in northern France – including the famous capture of Vimy Ridge by Canadians. Fighting continued until mid-May, with heavy casualties.

In this blog post, we share the Life Stories of just three of the thousands of people who took part in the battle.


Tribute to Fred Swaine in The Barnsley Chronicle, 26 May 1917. Courtesy of Barnsley Archives

The British and French planned a spring offensive to begin with a British attack near Arras in early April.  The Allies made solid preparations – including subjecting the German defences to a lengthy bombardment – before the attack began on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917.

One of the British soldiers who took part in the battle was Fred Swaine. Before joining the Northumberland Fusiliers, Fred worked at a glassworks in Barnsley, Yorkshire. He joined the army in February 1915, leaving behind his wife Clara and two young children, Annie and Leonard. He last wrote home to Clara on Good Friday – 6 April 1917 – just before the Battle of Arras began.

Fred was killed on the opening day of the offensive, aged 28. He is buried in Roclincourt Valley Cemetery in northern France.


Jay Batiste Moyer. Image from The Canadian Letters and Images Project

The four Canadian divisions fought together for the first time at Vimy Ridge, a German stronghold. The successful capture of this objective became a defining moment in Canada’s history.

One of the Canadian troops who took part in this attack was Jacob Batiste Moyer, known as Jay. He was born in Toronto in 1897 and enlisted into the army on 26 October 1915. He served overseas with the Western Ontario Regiment.

The Canadian Letters and Images Project holds over seventy letters written to and from Jay during his service.

I am certainly a very lucky boy to have such a lovely mother to send me all the nice things from home.

The final letter in the collection was written to him on 1 May 1917, but tragically he had been killed weeks earlier. Jay died on 9 April 1917 during the attack on Vimy Ridge, and is remembered on the Canadian Memorial on the ridge. The memorial commemorates all the Canadians who took part in the war including the 60,000 people who died in France, and Jay is named as one of the 11,000 men who have no known grave.


William Avery Bishop VC. IWM Collections Q 68089

During the Battle of Arras, men of the Royal Flying Corps fought for control of the skies. The heavy losses that they sustained led to this period becoming known as ‘Bloody April’.

One of the brave pilots was William Avery Bishop, known as Billy. Born in Ontario, Canada he enlisted in March 1915 with Canadian cavalry regiments. After a month in the trenches on the Western Front, Billy transferred to the Royal Flying Corps as an observer. He was accepted for pilot training the following year and in March 1917 joined No 60 Squadron RFC on the Western Front, where his success in shooting down enemy aircraft soon gained recognition.

He earned the Victoria Cross in June 1917 after displaying courage and skill during a solo mission behind enemy lines. Billy lived through the war, and was highly decorated for his achievements. He died in 1956.


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100 years of Imperial War Museums

The staff of the Imperial War Museum at the Crystal Palace, 1920s. IWM Q 55178

IWM was founded on 5 March 1917 while the First World War was still being fought. The museum was formed not as a monument to military glory, but as a record of the toil and sacrifice of those who had served in uniform or worked on the home front. A group of dedicated individuals worked hard to acquire material and to ensure that a wide range of people and experiences were represented in the collections.

This blog post shares the stories of some of the men and women who helped to shape the content and remit of the museum.


Sir Alfred Mond, Chairman of the Committee of the Imperial War Museum. IWM Q 23486

Alfred Mond was born near Prescot, Lancashire in 1868 to Dr. Ludwig and Freda Mond. His father set up the chemical company Brunner, Mond and Co., which Alfred took over in 1895.  He also served as a Member of Parliament from 1906.

Every individual, man or woman, soldier, sailor, airman or civilian…may be able to find in these galleries an example or an illustration of the sacrifice he made or the work he did – Sir Alfred Mond

In 1917, Alfred submitted a proposal to the War Cabinet for a museum to be founded to record the events of the war. For the first time in Britain, a national museum would be dedicated to a specific conflict and would set out to record the contribution made by all sections of society. Alfred was a driving force for the creation of IWM, becoming the first Chairman in 1920. He also played a role in commissioning Edwin Lutyens to design a national war memorial – the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London.

Alfred Mond died in Chelsea in 1930, aged 62.


William Martin Conway, the first Director General of the Imperial War Museum. IWM Q 31293

Baron Sir William Martin Conway (known as Sir Martin) was born in Kent in 1856 to Elizabeth Martin and Reverend William Conway. He studied mathematics and history at Trinity College, University of Cambridge. After his studies he travelled widely and was a keen climber and explorer, for which he was knighted.

Sir Martin was chosen to become the first director general of the newly-formed National War Museum in 1917 – he remained in this post until his death. His ambition was that anyone who had taken part in the war effort could visit the museum, point to an exhibit and say, ‘This thing I did’. Sir Martin travelled to France to collect exhibits, even whilst the fighting was still going on.

He was also a Member of Parliament and represented the Combined English Universities from 1918 until 1931, when he became Baron Conway of Allington.

Sir Martin died in 1937, aged 81.


Honorary Secretary Agnes Ethel Conway MBE, Imperial War Museum. IWM WWC Z-30

Agnes was the daughter of Sir William Martin Conway and his wife Katrina, born on 2 May 1885 in London. She studied history at Newnham College, University of Cambridge but after hearing a lecture by Jane Ellen Harrison became fascinated by archaeology. After leaving university, Agnes studied at the British School in Athens and travelled in Greece and the Balkans.

On 4 April 1917, Agnes invited by Alfred Mond to join the newly-formed Women’s Work Subcommittee of the National War Museum and, as its honorary secretary, by 15 April she had drafted a suitable collection policy for the section. The Women’s Work Subcommittee’s first meeting took place on 26 April 1917. Over the following years, Agnes helped to collect thousands of items which would be displayed in the museum after it opened in 1920. She was awarded an MBE for her services.

In the late 1920s, Agnes pursued her love of archaeology and became involved in digs in Jordan. She met fellow explorer George Horsfield, who she married in 1932.

Agnes died in 1950, aged 65.


Charles John ffoulkes, first Curator and Secretary of IWM. IWM HU122543

Charles was born on 26 June 1869 to Anne and Edmund Salisbury ffoulkes. In August 1914 he was the Duty Officer in the Gresham Sub-Control, Anti-Aircraft Gun Station, Gresham College, London. On 8 September 1915, the Gresham unit fired the first shot in the defence of London when a Zeppelin airship was spotted over Holborn at 10.37pm. The gun opened fire at 10.44pm and fired a total of 11 rounds, and was ordered to “Cease Fire” at 10.56pm.

Anti-aircraft gun fired by Charles ffoulkes on 8 September 1915, now in IWM Collections. IWM ORD 98

After the creation of the museum, Charles became its first Curator and Secretary and served until his retirement in 1933. He continued to be involved with IWM as a trustee.

He died in 1947, aged 78.

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“The only boy I love” – a poignant story for Valentine’s Day

William James Martin and Emily Chitticks. From IWM Documents.2554

William James Martin and Emily Chitticks. From IWM Documents.2554

During the First World War, letter writing was the main form of communication between soldiers and their loved ones, helping to ease the pain of separation. The British Army Postal Service delivered around 2 billion letters during the war. In this blog post we share the moving story of William James Martin and Emily Ellen Chitticks, two sweethearts brought together and then separated by war.


  • William and Emily

William (known as Will) was born in 1897 in Cornwall, and worked as a farm hand. He joined the Royal Devon Yeomanry soon after the outbreak of war in 1914, and embarked on military training in Essex.

It was here that he met Emily Chitticks, who was the same age and was working as a servant in Suffolk House, Herongate. According to Emily’s carefully written notes, the couple met on 9 August 1916.

Father says he will be only too pleased to welcome you as his future son-in-law

After Will was moved on to a training camp in Norfolk, they began to write letters to each other. They enjoyed a whirlwind romance and became engaged just weeks later on 27 October.

Despite initially hoping to spend Christmas together in Cornwall, Will volunteered to go to Devonport and left for France on 5 December 1916 with 8 Battalion Devonshire Regiment.


  •  Off to the front

If only this war was over, dear, and we were together again

Will arrived on the Western Front in the winter of 1916-17 and he and Emily continued their correspondence. Their letters beautifully illustrate their growing love and affection, and their desire to be reunited.

Will wrote his last letter to Emily on 24 March 1917. Three days later, he was killed by a sniper. Unaware of his death, Emily wrote to him the following day – her letter was returned, with the envelope marked ‘Killed in action’.

Envelope and letter returned to Emily after Will's death. From IWM Documents.2554

Envelope and letter returned to Emily after Will’s death. From IWM Documents.2554


  • Remembrance

Emily never married, declaring ‘my heart and love are buried in his grave in France’.

Sacred to the memory of my darling sweetheart Will, the only boy I love

She died in 1974 and her treasured letters were donated to Imperial War Museums.



  • Remember William James Martin on his Life Story page
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The Forgotten Disaster – The Greatest Explosion in London

The Venesta factory lies in ruins following the detonation of 83 tonnes of TNT at the Brunner Mond explosives factory in Silvertown. IWM Q 15364A

The Venesta factory lies in ruins following the detonation of 83 tonnes of TNT at the Brunner Mond explosives factory in Silvertown. IWM Q 15364A

On 19 January 1917 at precisely 6:52pm, the horrors of war were abruptly inflicted upon an unsuspecting East London neighbourhood. In a matter of moments, the previously tranquil area was transformed into a mirror of the Western Front, featuring chaotic scenes of panic and death. The sky was lit up with fire, people ran for their lives amidst falling debris, some were praying in the streets, while others stood as paralyzed, breathlessly beholding the disaster that was taking place in front of them.

In this guest blog post, journalism student Torbjørn Jørstad shares his research into the disastrous event that took place at the Brunner Mond chemical works in Silvertown, 100 years ago.


  • The Silvertown Factory

Following the Shell Crisis of 1915, the newly established Ministry of Munitions sought out Brunner Mond & Co to assist in the time of need. Their Silvertown factory had produced caustic soda up until 1912, and needed few tweaks to become suitable for its new purpose as an explosives factory.  Silvertown was a densely populated area, with around 3,000 residents living within a quarter of a mile of the factory, but the potential dangers to the local population were deemed “worth the risk” by the Ministry.


Damage caused by the explosion. IWM Q 15364

Damage caused by the explosion. IWM Q 15364


  • The explosion

19 January 1917 began as any other day in the factory – indeed, “nothing unusual was noted”. Later that day the youngest worker on shift, 16 year old James Arnell, was sweeping spilt TNT by centrifuges when he noticed “red drops” dripping from the floor above. Quickly realizing the top floor was on fire, the boy ran through the works shouting a warning.

Some hundred yards away, outside the local fire station, fireman Tom Betts noticed “a huge red glow in the sky coming from the munitions plant”. He swiftly warned the seven others on duty, and the crew immediately despatched the fire engine and heroically charged across the road towards the site.

A huge red glow in the sky … from the munitions plant

Tom’s uncle James, also a fireman, knew of the hazardous contents of what was known as the ‘Danger Building’, and warned his wife and 12 year old son to flee. Upon entering the site, the firemen were met by people fleeing, among them assistant chemist Frederick Blevins who warned them of the imminent explosion.

The effects of the explosion hindered the rescue work in the immediate aftermath. The fire station itself was totally decimated, water pipes had been destroyed, telephone wires were cut, and the second nearest fire station in Canning Town had its main door jammed shut by debris.

When the catastrophe ensued on that cold winter evening in January, the effects were disastrous: 73 people were killed and more than 400 injured. An estimated 60-70,000 buildings were damaged, and thousands of people were left homeless.


Mourning Card for victims of the Silvertown Explosion. IWM Documents.10686

Mourning Card for victims of the Silvertown Explosion. IWM Documents.10686

  • Legacy

The Silvertown Explosion stands as a testimony of how “a self-inflicted wound on the home front” brought the horrors of war to the London streets. The nature of war had been for ever changed by rapid technological advancements, and the two giant craters left at the site of the explosion would for years serve as a painful reminder to residents in that area.

However, the “biggest disaster since the Great Fire of London” was largely forgotten by those outside the West Ham area – perhaps suppressed by the longer lasting imprints of the Blitz some 20 years later. Now, using Lives of the First World War, we can pay tribute to all those affected by this tragic episode – this Community reunites them 100 years on.


  • Explore the Silvertown Community here
  • Can you help us to add information and images to Life Stories?
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Looking ahead to 2017

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all our Supporters, Members and Friends! Thank you for all your wonderful contributions to Lives of the First World War over the past year, 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 in 2017 to build the permanent digital memorial even further, so please continue to share your stories and images with us. Next year is the UK-India Year of Culture and we are keen to highlight First World War stories of Indian servicemen and women and civilians. In addition we will be marking 100 years since key moments and events of 1917, which include the following:


January – March

Women's Land Army poster. Art.IWM PST 5996

Women’s Land Army poster.
Art.IWM PST 5996

April – June

Mourning card for those who died in a bombing raid on 13 June 1917.  IWM EPH 1280

Mourning card for those who died in a bombing raid on 13 June 1917.
IWM EPH 1280

July – September

Third Battle of Ypres.  IWM Q 5938

Third Battle of Ypres.
IWM Q 5938

October – December

  • End of the Third Battle of Ypres
  • Battle of Cambrai
  • Women’s Royal Naval Service created
Training for the Battle of Cambrai, October 1917. IWM Q 6297

Training for the Battle of Cambrai, October 1917.
IWM Q 6297

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