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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The Battle of Cambrai – ‘Use tanks boldly, press success and demoralise the enemy’

A British Mark IV tank at Wailly. © IWM Q 6284

As the Third Battle of Ypres drew to a close in the Passchendaele mud, Sir Douglas Haig gave his approval for General Sir Julian Byng, Third Army, to prepare for an attack on Cambrai in late November 1917. This would be the first time that tanks were used successfully en masse to spearhead the attack. In this blog post, we examine the objectives and success of the attack, and share the testimony of a tank commander who survived.


  • Objectives and preparations

The objective was the town of Cambrai and beyond. Six infantry and five cavalry divisions, along with three tank brigades, would be used. Surprise and rapidity of action were of the utmost importance, as it was calculated that no large hostile reinforcements were likely to reach the scene of action for forty-eight hours after the commencement of the attack.


British Mark IV Female Tanks being loaded aboard flat-bed railway trucks in preparation for the Battle of Cambrai. © IWM Q 46933

Unlike the quagmire of Passchendaele, the ground at Cambrai was, on the whole, favourable for the employment of tanks which were to play an important part. Facilities also existed for the concealment of the necessary preparations for the attack. In efforts to transform stasis into movement, the tank was developed under rushed conditions with the hope of breaking the entrenched stalemate of the Western Front.

In order to preserve secrecy up to the moment of attack it was decided to dispense with previous artillery preparation and depend, instead, on tanks to cut lanes through the enemy’s wire for the advance of the infantry.


  • Into action

At the start of the battle forces were equally matched, with 250,000 German and British soldiers facing each other along a 6 mile front. The initial attack carried out by the tanks proved effective, and within three hours a line had been broken in the German defences.

Captain Joseph Gordon Hassell commanded the tank ‘Harrier’, one of 378 fighting tanks that took part in the battle. He wore a tank mask (pictured below), designed to protect the tank crew from ‘splash’ – flying metal splinters caused by the impact of bullets hitting the outer steel of the tank’s body.


In action if the tank was hit, slivers of hot steel began to fly – bullets hitting the armoured plates caused melting and the splash, as in steel factories, was dangerous to the eyes.

Anti-splinter tank crew face mask, belonging to Joseph Hassell.
© IWM EQU 1654

Hassell successfully advanced beyond the second Hindenburg line on to the village of Ribecourt and on to his final objective the third Hindenburg defence line; however, later that day ‘Harrier’ became one of 179 tanks that were put out of action by German artillery fire or mechanical failure.

Hassell described going into action:

‘I was in the second wave … we just managed to swing the tank through 90 degrees and start off downhill on our right, when the first shot took off my right… had we been broadside on, we should all have been done for.  We received three direct hits – tank completely put out of action. This was after we had reached all our final objectives… Apart from the scratches we had no casualties…

Whilst the Harrier crew emerged unscathed, there were many casualties on the first day of the battle – one of those who lost their lives on 20 November 1917 was Captain the Honourable Cecil Edwardes. His service history is interesting as he enlisted in December 1914 under the name of Thomas Lloyd, only confessing to this fabrication of identity in March 1917:

‘I, Cecil Edwardes, 3rd son of the 4th Lord Kensington, born May 31st 1876, do solemnly and sincerely declare that I was enlisted on the 28th day of December 1914, under the name of Thomas Lloyd, which name I now declare to be incorrect. The name of Cecil Edwardes, I now declare to be my true name, and I make this solemn declaration’

By way of explanation he wrote:

When war was declared I returned to England from South America but owing to financial matters I was unable to apply for a Commission and so enlisted in the 3rd Regiment of Scottish Horse in December 25th 1914… I was granted Special leave to forward to England to settle my affairs – which has now been done and I should now like to be known by my real name – now that I am in England, not bearing my real name is causing me a great deal of inconvenience.’

Edwardes was immensely popular and eight officers went up the day after his death, got his body out of the tank and carried him back for burial.

Hassell recalled that Edwardes ‘had a premonition of his death [at Cambrai]. He told us the day before the action of this – settled up all his affairs. He was immensely popular and eight officers went up the day after his death, got his body out of the tank and carried him back for burial. In the absence of a Padre, I conducted such a burial service as was practicable.’


  • Counter-attack

This first day marked a decisive success for tank warfare, with five miles gained and 4,000 German soldiers taken prisoner – church bells were rung in Britain for the first time since the start of the war, to celebrate the advance. However, by 23 November , the tanks had lost their strength and the element of surprise. Haig had insisted that the woods were to be taken to enable a wider plan of attack. On November 27, the British attempted to take Fontaine, and the tanks were running into trouble in hemmed-in movements and technical malfunction. British war correspondent Philip Gibbs wrote: ‘no human being could stay alive there for a second after showing himself in the village.’ The British troops who had not entered Cambrai withdrew.

On 30 November the German Second Army counter-attacked, advancing almost three miles and capturing 6,000 British soldiers and 158 guns. Their combination of gas shells and close air support was as effective as the tanks had been for Britain at the start of the battle. On 2 December 1917 Haig instructed Byng to choose a secure winter line, withdraw and protect it – within a few days the battle drew to a close.

A Mark IV (Male) tank of H Battalion ditched in a German trench, 20 November 1917. © IWM Q 6433

  • Impact of the battle

Cambrai had failed to be the much hoped for turning point. The battle had resulted in 44,000 British and Canadian and 53,000 German casualties. However, the use of tank, infantry, artillery and cavalry in the Battle of Cambrai ultimately paved the way for combined arms operation of 1918. It was when these components – technology and man power – came together in tactical manoeuvres that success was finally achieved.

A century later, we pay tribute to all those who took part in the battle – share your stories with us on Lives of the First World War.


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Remembering Cecil Kinross: An Unconventional Hero

Private Cecil John Kinross VC. IWM VC 698

By October 1917, the Third Battle of Ypres had been raging for more than 2 months. The next target was the village of Passchendaele – which became the informal title given to the whole campaign. An ill-prepared attack in pouring rain was made on 12 October, and the attack was renewed on 26 October. In this guest blog post, Celine Nonde, who has been undertaking a student placement with us, remembers Canadian soldier Cecil John Kinross – he fought in the Second Battle of Passchendaele, and won the Victoria Cross for his bravery and quick-thinking. 


  • Life before the First World War

Born in Harefield, Middlesex in 1896, Cecil Kinross was the third child of Emily and James Kinross. Cecil had a relatively normal start to life, attending school at Coleshill Grammar School in Warwickshire.

Blue plaque on Cecil’s childhood home in Hillingdon, London. Image courtesy of Memorials to Valour website

However, with a father who as a teenager had worked as a Texan cowboy, it was clear that Cecil’s life would not remain typical for long. As such, in 1912, along with his four other siblings, the family moved to Canada. They settled in Lougheed, Alberta, a small but newly established village, and following in his father’s footsteps, Cecil worked as a farmer before enlisting.


  • Disregard for army rules

From relative rural obscurity, Cecil quickly became a notorious figure in the army. His attestation papers note his stature and at almost 6ft with blue eyes and brown hair, Cecil Kinross cut a handsome figure. Yet his appearance was of little importance to him, quickly becoming a sore spot with his senior officers. He was criticised for his untidiness on parade and branded a ‘disgrace to the platoon’. This troubled relationship with senior authority was to mark his army career.

However, probably much to the annoyance of senior staff, he was blessed with singular good luck. Whilst his numerous commanding officers were wiped out in the battlefield, Kinross remained unscathed. He returned only with the nickname ‘Hoodoo’, given for his apparent curse on his leaders.


  • Victoria Cross

His disregard for rules was the very attitude which led to the award of his Victoria Cross, for his actions on 30 October 1917. Trapped in a shell hole and under intense fire from a German machine gun, Cecil, now a private in 49 Battalion Edmonton Regiment, decided to take action. Leaving behind the rest of his Company as well as all his military equipment save his rifle and bandolier, Kinross charged the gun. Such extraordinary tactics paid off. Taking the German crew by surprise, Kinross successfully destroyed the machine gun which had been causing so many casualties.

His superb example and courage instilled the greatest confidence in his company

Even his VC citation seems impressed by the boldness of his solo mission which was undertaken in ‘the open ground in broad daylight’ (The London Gazette, 8 January 1918). Not only did he enable land to be gained, Cecil’s confidence inspired his company. Wounded the same day as his heroic actions, Kinross was gazetted for the VC on the 8th of January 1918. Finally, this rebellious private from the Canadian Expeditionary Force was rewarded for his recklessness.

Yet he remained followed by authority; even after leaving Buckingham Palace following his VC ceremony, he was arrested by police who believed he was falsely wearing the military medal.


  • Post-war life

Cecil’s original gravestone – now replaced with a Commonwealth War Graves Commission stone. Photo by Terry Macdonald, licensed under Creative Commons

He lived out the rest of his life in Canada, living in a hotel in Lougheed until his death in 1957. His life was marked by a unique spark which matched his contempt for the army’s regimentation. Yet his bravery in battle is clear. Today, the twin peaks of Mount Kinross in Alberta, stand as a natural testament to his actions. I chose to write about his story because it is not the traditional story of a war hero – the example of Cecil Kinross remains an inspiring testament to those soldiers who were anything but conventional.


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“The unwritten story of a great air fight” – William Reason Bishop and Douglas Fraser Mackintosh

William Bishop (left) and Douglas Fraser Mackintosh. Images courtesy of Richard Bishop

On 2 October 1917, William Reason Bishop and Douglas Fraser Mackintosh were killed when their aircraft crashed during a fight in the skies above Belgium. The German army buried them with full military honours, and their graves were tended by two local girls, Carola and Paula Vanderoughstraete. In this guest blog post, William’s great great nephew Richard Bishop tells us about his research into the story, ahead of a remembrance event to pay respects to these two brave airmen.  


  • Life before the war

William Reason Bishop was born in 1895, the youngest of six siblings. He grew up in Highbury, London and soon began to exhibit a remarkable talent for singing – as a soloist in Temple Church Choir he sang at the coronation of King George V in 1911. After leaving school, he worked as a clerk for Barclays Bank at its Pall Mall branch.

Douglas Fraser Mackintosh was born in 1890 in Thirsk, Yorkshire. He was the son of Ethel and the Reverend William Teesdale Mackintosh and by 1901 the family were living in Brighton. At some point before the war he moved to Australia, but little is known about this period in his life.

By 1914 the clouds of war were gathering, and both men would volunteer to serve in the armed forces.


  • Wartime service

After the outbreak of war, Douglas joined 1 Australian Contingent under the name ‘George Matthews’. He was seriously wounded during the Gallipoli campaign and was sent back to the UK. Once recovered was commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery, and later joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC).

William volunteered in December 1915 and enlisted into 1/6 Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment, a territorial cyclist battalion which was engaged in home defence for most of the war. In November 1916, he too was accepted into the Royal Flying Corps and spent much of 1917 in training – first at Christ Church College, Oxford and then RFC Doncaster, RFC Harlaxton and RFC Waddington.

William Bishop pictured in May 1917. Courtesy of Richard Bishop

William embarked for France on 14 September 1917 and was posted to 55 Squadron, a bomber unit based near St Omer. Much of the Squadron’s activity involved bombing German airfields in Belgium, targeting both enemy trenches and Zeppelin and aircraft bases used for attacks on Britain. William wrote home telling his family that he had “never had such an enjoyable time”, that his Squadron was “the finest in France” and that he was proud to belong to it. However, his flying career at the front was cut short after only seventeen days.


  • Their final flight together

The two appeared on the front Page of the Illustrated Sunday Herald, 17 February 1918. Courtesy of Richard Bishop

At 8:59 on 2 October 1917, a formation of 12 aircraft took off to bomb the airfield at Marcke where the German fighter squadron Jagdstaffel 10 was based. Jagdstaffel 10 was part of the famous ‘Flying Circus’ commanded by Manfred Von Richthofen, known as ‘the Red Baron’.

William was piloting a De Haviland DH4, with Douglas acting as his observer. The pair became separated from the rest of the squadron, probably because of poor visibility that morning, and their aircraft was last seen crossing the front line to the north of Ypres.

Local eyewitnesses reported that their aircraft was attacked by seven German fighters over the town of Meulebeke. A furious battle began; the lone British aircraft looping, diving and defying its attackers for 20 minutes. Inevitably, flames were seen and the DH4 crashed in the fields. Both William and Douglas were killed.

The German pilot who claimed the victory, Hans Klein, visited the crash site and was heard to say in broken French, “‘What a pity such heroes should have to die! They could have escaped, but preferred to fight to a finish. Never have I seen such gallant resistance before.”

Never have I seen such gallant resistance before

The two airmen were given a military funeral by the German army in Meulebeke, and are buried in Harlebeke New British Cemetery. Belgian girls Carola and Paula Vanderoughstraete looked after their graves and returned William and Douglas’ personal effects to their relatives after the war. They also hosted the families when they travelled to Belgium after the Armistice to visit the cemetery. 100 years on, members of the Bishop, Mackintosh and Vanderoughstraete families will meet at an event to pay their respects to the two brave airmen, and to remember the dedication shown by Carola and Paula.


  • Pay tribute to William and Douglas on Lives of the First World War
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‘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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