‘From Little Towns in a Far Land’

Photograph of Julian Cornelius Brook from the Auckland Grammar School chronicle. 1918, v.6, n.2. Courtesy of the Auckland War Memorial Museum

Julian Cornelius Brook was an aspiring young lawyer from the North Island of New Zealand, but now lies buried in the Adanac Military Cemetery, on the Somme battlefields of France. He is one of more than 18,000 New Zealanders killed in the First World War. In this guest blog post, Rob Kirk of Lochnagar Crater Today shares his poignant story.


  • Julian’s wartime experiences

Julian came from the little township of Waipu, just off State Highway 1 between Auckland and Waitangi. His father was Headmaster of the local school. Julian won prizes at Auckland Grammar and a scholarship to Auckland University College, where he was a keen sportsman and orator.

He enlisted with the Auckland Light Infantry, and was wounded twice at Gallipoli; he was mentioned in a national newspaper report when it was discovered he spent seven months on active service with a bullet in his head. Julian transferred to the New Zealand Rifle Brigade and died in France, in action near the Canal du Nord, on 2 September 1918. He was 28 years old.

Photograph of Julian’s grave, Adanac Military Cemetery, France. Courtesy of Auckland War Memorial Museum


  • Remembering Julian in his hometown

Scattered in the centre of Waipu, you find a series of information boards, dedicated to some of the people who joined the war effort. You read about their backgrounds, families, careers – and what happened to them in the war. Most poignantly, many of the boards are placed outside the buildings where these young Kiwis lived as children or when they joined up, or where they worked; Julian’s memorial is outside the house where he was born. It is an extraordinarily intimate commemoration in a little town which, according to one report, lost more men in the war per head of population than any other town in New Zealand.

The stories of [these] soldiers … allows us a form of connection with the trauma of those battlefields

Lieutenant Brook’s great-nephew, also named Julian, has reflected

“The photos and memorials recall people were just as we are today, with daily lives, intimate relationships and aspirations, before being cast headlong into what for so many was a mire of endurance so very far from the lives they left behind. We can never hear, smell or experience the pain of the battlefields, but the back stories of those soldiers who did, I think, allows us a form of connection with the trauma of those battlefields, and so many lives unfulfilled.”

  • National Remembrance

The First World War was a defining period in the New Zealand national story, and memorials of one kind or another are everywhere, throughout the country.

Oamaru war memorial. Photograph courtesy of Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 15 July 2013

One of them, in the centre of the town of Oamaru by the Pacific coast in the South Island, is inscribed with this evocative quotation from Rudyard Kipling:

From little towns in a far land we came,

To save our honour and a world aflame,

By little towns, in a far land we sleep,

And trust those things we won to you to keep.

On Lives of the First World War we pay tribute to the many thousands of men and women from New Zealand who, like Julian Brook, played their part in this global conflict.

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Every Plaque Tells a Story

Three of the plaques on the walkway at the Lochanagar Crater, on the Somme. Images courtesy of Rob Kirk

Pause as you view the Lochnagar Crater from the wooden walkway. Beneath your feet, you’ll find many small plaques bearing names. Each name was a husband, son, brother, father or uncle, or – in rare cases – a daughter, mother, wife, aunt or sister. And each one reaches across the generations.

In this guest blog post, Rob Kirk of Lochnagar Crater Today, shares his research into three neighbouring plaques found on the Somme battlefields.

  • Three names

Portrait photograph of Charles Hunt. Image courtesy of Peter Cook

One plaque is dedicated to Gunner Charles Hunt. He died during the Second Battle of Ypres, where he lies in the Ypres Town Cemetery Extension. He experienced the first use of gas by the Germans, and was killed by shellfire.

He came from Cheshire, but had married a Norfolk girl and lived in Great Yarmouth. He was 38 when he died.

The neighbouring plaque remembers Private John Balls, who also came from Great Yarmouth. In early 1916, according to research by Norfolk military historian, Dick Rayner, he was in the trenches in Sub-Sectors E2 and E3 at La Boisselle. From there, he sent one of the strangest requests to a newspaper:

“We have the good old Yarmouth Mercury sent out to us every week, and see other chums have luxuries sent out to them… I think a little gift like this would help us along, and also a real Yarmouth kipper would help a dry biscuit go down”.

John Balls with his wife and daughter. Image courtesy of Elizabeth Cook

Private Balls was killed when a dugout in a reserve line near Regina Trench was shelled. He was struck by a falling piece of timber. He was buried but the grave was lost in subsequent fighting, and he is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial. He was 28 years old and left behind a wife, Ada, and daughter, Jennie. His commanding officer told Ada,

He was a good comrade and a soldier who never shirked his duty and we shall miss him very much.

“He was a good comrade and a soldier who never shirked his duty and we shall miss him very much.”

The third plaque commemorates Private William Lively, who came from a small village called Clifford Chambers by the River Stour just outside Stratford-upon-Avon, where his father was parish clerk. He joined up in March 1915, and had been in France only three weeks before he was killed near High Wood.

William Lively’s name on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. Image courtesy of David Richardson

He too had a battlefield burial but the grave was lost, and his name is on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. He was 31 when he died.

Three men who did not know each other. Three deaths at different times and different places – so why are their names remembered on plaques side-by-side at Lochnagar Crater?

Because, more than a hundred years after they died, they are linked together by their descendants.

  • Remembered by their relatives

John Balls’ grand-daughter, Elizabeth, married Charles Hunt’s grandson, Peter Cook, and the couple live at Framingham Earl near Norwich. And they have a dear friend, David Richardson, who lives in Norwich; David is William Lively’s great nephew.

Descendants of the three men; [L to R]: David Richardson, Elizabeth Cook and Peter Cook. Image courtesy of Rob Kirk

All three have explored the battlefields together, including Lochnagar Crater – within a few yards of where John Balls sent his plea for Yarmouth kippers. They have seen two of the names on the Thiepval Memorial, and Peter has visited his grandfather’s headstone in the cemetery at Ypres.

With the help of these plaques these brave men’s names will live on

Elizabeth says that it is poignant to see the names together on the walkway:

“For most of my life my grandfather was just a face on an old sepia photograph. My mother never knew her father and I guess the subject was too painful to talk about for my grandmother. However, we now have a fuller picture of my grandfather. I’ve been able to share his story with my sons, one of whom has already been to the Thiepval Memorial to find his great-grandfather’s name inscribed there.

Now on Remembrance Sunday each year I remember the man and not just his photograph, and with the help of these plaques these brave men’s names will live on”.


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Christmas Pantomimes – light in the dark

© IWM (Q 54736) Private Wilfred Steward Bramall 4619 as Dick’s mother and Private E. James as the cat while producing a pantomime for the troops in Salonika, 19 May 1917. They were both servicemen of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

If it was not the fear of being shot on the front it was the mind numbing boredom whilst on ‘rest’ behind the front lines; pantomimes offered much needed diversion for the men and women serving in the First World War. Soldiers of all classes and ranks would dress up and put on a show for the enjoyment of their fellow soldiers. To celebrate this festive season, in this guest blog Anna Hook examines how pantomimes brought light and laughter to the soldiers of the First World War in a time of darkness and danger.


  • From the West End to the Western Front.

At the start of the war approximately 800 professional actors had enlisted and joined the war effort, with countless more to follow after the introduction of conscription in 1916. They were joined by enthusiastic amateurs in putting together shows and concerts.

Pantomimes were so popular as a form of entertainment for the soldiers that one Royal Flying Corps pilot Frederick Powell, recollects how one of his officers, the actor and pilot Robert Loraine dismantled a Red Cross hut that appeared to be disused, and rebuilt it inside his aerodrome complete with a stage which was used to put on plays and shows for a capacity of 250.



  • ‘Female’ acts.

Naturally these pantomimes were lacking the actresses to fill the female rolls in these productions. However men were happy to perform for King and country as women – Joseph Napier told of how whilst in Mesopotamia his men were left a little stunned when they found out the ‘women’ they were watching perform were in fact men, as they had not seen a woman in some time. With this in mind it is clear to see by the picture below of  Edward Joseph Dillon (on the left) how the men could be fooled.


© IWM (Q 54731) Corporal Edward James Dillon 152 (dressed as “Alice”) and Private Frank Kenchington 126, both of the Royal Army Medical Corps, members of a concert party members of a concert party while producing a pantomime for the troops in Salonika, 19 May 1917. Private Kenchington was the author of the pantomime.

These men took these positions with pride and gave their all to entertain their fellow men at a time when happy times were few and far between.


  • Sound of music.

Pantomimes were not the only source of entertainment for soldiers, with no place to go soldiers would group together and sing.

in no man’s land soldiers would group together in a hut and give small concerts to fill the time

Private Walter Spencer explained how whilst out in no man’s land soldiers would group together in a hut and give small concerts to fill the time, all of this was done for the enjoyment of their fellow troops.


Captain Arthur Edward Drummond Bliss

Composer Arthur Bliss brought enjoyment to his fellow soldiers on the front, by playing piano for the troops after volunteering for service.


  • The show must go on.

Overall it is clear to see how despite the horrors surrounding these soldiers day after day, they still managed to find some light in the darkness by piecing together any materials and men they could find to put on a show for their fellow soldiers.

© IWM (Q 26328) The Allied Occupation of Austria, 1918-1919 ‘Sandbag the Sailor’ a pantomime performed by officers of the 2nd Battalion, Honourable Artillery Company in Imst, Austria, 31st December 1918. 



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Shrapnel Monday: The first Royal Artillery Victoria Cross of the Great War

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 13647)

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 13647)

The Victoria Cross is Britain’s highest award for gallantry. Of the 628 awarded to British and Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen during the Great War, 18 were won by men of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. The very first gunner VC of the war was earned at the Action of Elouges on the first day of the retreat from Mons, by Ernest Wright Alexander of the 119 Battery Royal Field Artillery. In his latest guest blog post, Paul Bourton shares this story.

  • The retreat begins

In my previous blog post, I described the circumstances which led to the decision to retreat from Mons from 24 August 1914. This day would become known as ‘Shrapnel Monday’ because of the ferocity of the shellfire, and 119 Battery would play a key role in the events.

To achieve a successful retreat and prevent isolation from its allies and inevitable destruction, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would have to conduct a series of rearguard actions carried out by certain of its units to buy time in which to allow the main body of the force to escape. Units that were freshest or least depleted by battle were given the task of protecting the retirement of those formations which had more recently been in the thick of it or which had sustained greater losses. The job of flank guard therefore was allocated to the four, as yet untested, infantry battalions of the 15 Brigade with cavalry support provided by the 9th Lancers and 4th Dragoon Guards of the Royal Horse Artillery’s ‘L’ Battery would supply artillery cover to the cavalry while the infantry battalions would rely on the six 18 Pounder field guns of the 119 Battery.

Map – Flank guard action at Elouges, 24 August 1914. IWM Q 17143


  • Elouges

On the extreme left, just north east of the village of Elouges, were 1 Battalion Norfolk Regiment and 1 Battalion Cheshire Regiment. Providing close artillery support for these two battalions and covering the withdrawal of the 5 Division, Major Ernest Wright Alexander and the men of 119 Battery under his command were ready for action.  One section of the Battery, consisting of two field guns under the leadership of Lieutenant Preston, was positioned to the right of the other two and detached from them by a distance of about five hundred yards.

As the main body of the 5 Division began to melt away from its line to join the exodus of soldiery heading south, the men of the Norfolks and Cheshires came under attack across the open fields between Elouges and Audregnies from four regiments of Germans advancing in close order. Despite fierce resistance from the British infantry and artillery over a period of some four hours of intense fighting, the massed German infantry managed to exploit the vacuum left by the retreating units of the Division and worked its way around the right of the position at Elouges. The detached section of 119 Battery suddenly found itself under attack from the rear and in danger of losing its pair of guns.

Meanwhile, the other two sections of the Battery five hundred yards away came under direct attack from two batteries of their German counterparts and were forced to turn their attentions and their 18 Pound shrapnel shells from the advancing German infantry and invest them in a kill-or-be-killed artillery duel. Despite neutralising one of the enemy batteries, the four 18 Pounders were losing men and horses and when a third German battery brought their guns to bear from the right flank and began to rain shells down upon them, the men of these gallant sections found themselves completely outgunned.

  • Courage Under Fire

Ernest Wright Alexander VC

Under intense shellfire and with the German infantry closing in on their position, enemy bullets now scored regular hits on flesh of both the human and equine variety and only a handful of gunners remained standing and able to man the guns which were now in imminent risk of capture. The guns had to be saved but all the horses had by this time been either killed or wounded and their position in a hollow in the ground peppered by shells and bullets meant that fresh mounts could not be brought in to evacuate them. The guns would have to be drawn away by hand. It was for his gallant actions in these circumstances that Ernest Wright Alexander earned the first artillery VC of the war. His citation reads:

the greatest gallantry and devotion to duty

For conspicuous bravery and great ability at Elouges on 24th August, 1914, when the flank guard was attacked by a German corps, in handling his battery against overwhelming odds with such conspicuous success that all his guns were saved, notwithstanding that they had to be withdrawn by hand by himself and three other men. This enabled the retirement of the 5th Division to be carried out without serious loss. Subsequently Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander (then Major) rescued a wounded man under a heavy fire, with the greatest gallantry and devotion to duty.


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

The citation is somewhat misleading. The majority of the 5 Division was indeed able to escape without serious loss, but for the men who facilitated their withdrawal, the losses were severe. The men of the 1st Cheshire Regiment lost 78% of its strength during the fighting that day. Its position was encircled and the Battalion was eventually overrun and virtually annihilated by the enemy. The sacrifice of the 119 Battery also resulted in the loss of many of its men.

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‘My toast – to the day of peace’ – remembering William Arthur Donald Kirk

William A D Kirk. Image courtesy of Rob Kirk.


In a letter to his sister Agnes in May 1917, Private William Arthur Donald Kirk of the Royal Fusiliers wrote:

I am optimistic enough to believe I shall see [home] again. So I will say ‘au revoir’. My toast – ‘To the day of peace’.”

But William was one of thousands of men from Britain who would not live to see the Armistice. In this guest blog post, Rob Kirk (Editor of Lochnagar Crater Today) tells us about his pilgrimage to remember William 100 years later.



  • An unknown First World War connection

In almost every respect, it was an ordinary country walk on a beautiful autumnal day, along field paths still damp from heavy overnight rain, through dreamy mixed woodland and by pastures grazed by docile cattle and sheep. This countryside, just south of the Menin Road on the eastern side of Ypres in Belgium, is gentle and undulating, unlike much of the intensively farmed flatlands of western Flanders.  We nodded ‘hellos’ to other booted walkers on Sunday morning rambles, but for us, this was a walk with a purpose. We were treading the path, as closely as we could, of a relative who died little more than a century ago, on the first day of the Third Battle of Ypres, known later as the Battle of Passchendaele.

Two months before, we had never heard of William Arthur Donald Kirk. But on 30 July 2017, as we watched the extraordinary live broadcast on TV from outside the Cloth Hall in Ypres marking the centenary of the battle, I had a message from a distant relative in Lowestoft, Steven Kirk, asking if I knew we shared a relative who died there. I didn’t.

Steven and I share a great great grandfather, William James Kirk, who fought in the Crimea War and became a Sergeant in the Norwich City police force. My great grandfather, Robert Arthur, and Steven’s great grandfather, William James, were among his sons; Robert Arthur’s son, Percy (my grandfather), had Steven’s grandfather Harry and William Arthur Donald among his cousins.

William’s family home in Norwich. Image courtesy of Rob Kirk.

Inexplicably, I knew nothing of William Arthur Donald Kirk, even though – as I learned from Steven – his parents lived at 42, Waterloo Road in Norwich, very close to where I lived as a child. His name is on a memorial plaque in Christ Church, New Catton, where my sister Juliette and I sang in the choir, but neither of us knew its significance. It was, without doubt, time to catch up with Private William Arthur Donald Kirk.

  • Tracing family history

We knew from the 1901 census that the 14-year-old William lived in Long Row, Norwich, with his parents William and Harriet, sisters Ethel, Agnes and Alice, and brothers Sidney, Walter and Harry. With help from a geneaologist friend, Alan Hawkins, we traced him to Witney in Oxfordshire ten years later, where he lived with a family called Timms, and worked as an ‘elementary school teacher’ for the county council. In this, he followed his sister Agnes, who was two years older, and trained as a teacher in Norwich.

Agnes Kirk. Image courtesy of Rob Kirk.

He enlisted about seventeen months after the outbreak of the First World War, in January 1916, becoming Private William Kirk, 55040, Royal Fusiliers. He was to see action in France and Belgium. At some stage, he was injured. We don’t know where or when, but in a letter to his sister Agnes, sent during a brief period of leave in Norwich, he said

I can’t say I’m delighted at the idea of a second visit to France as it spells possible danger.

“I may be in France any day after getting back to my depot, but as I am not yet properly fit, I have to finish my training and hardening out at the base. It may be some time yet before I see the front line again”.

He also said:

“I can’t say I’m delighted at the idea of a second visit to France as it spells possible danger”.

The letter was written on 31 May 1917 – exactly two months before he died. The fact that it was carefully preserved suggests his sister thought it was particularly precious – perhaps the last she received.

Poignantly, Agnes wasn’t at home during his short leave; she was away at the seaside in Gorleston, visiting relatives. He reassured her:

“You need not censure yourself because you did not rush over here to see me, as personally I think it was not worth the money and the splitting-up of your holiday”. 

  • Third Battle of Ypres

War diaries held at the National Archives tell us that by late July 1917 the unit to which William was attached (12 Battalion, Royal Fusiliers) marched into Belgium in preparation for the massive offensive designed to take the Passchendaele Ridge overlooking Ypres.

Map to show William’s position on 31 July 1917. Courtesy of Rob Kirk.

Early in the morning of 31 July, the Battalion edged through a trench called Jeffrey Avenue, just to east of Sanctuary Wood, now one of the most-visited sites in the Ypres Salient, and just south of the infamous Menin Road. They were held up by what the War Diary called ‘strong points’. They took heavy casualties – the Battalion lost 52 killed, 169 wounded and 60 missing. Private William Arthur Donald Kirk was among the missing, and was assumed killed in action. He was 31.

  • Remembering William

William’s name now features amongst the 54,600 etched on the Menin Gate in Ypres, a memorial for the missing of the Ypres Salient. Hundreds of people gather beneath it each night at 8pm for the Last Post ceremony.

Memorial card for William. Image courtesy of Rob Kirk.

William’s sister Agnes visited Ypres in Belgium in August, 1937, twenty years after her brother died. Almost certainly, she would have attended the Last Post ceremony and seen his name on the Menin Gate memorial, which was completed a decade earlier. She might even have walked the fields where he went missing. She died in 1980.

Discover more stories like William’s, on Lives of the First World War


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Wilfred Owen – The truth of war


Wilfred E S Owen in officer’s uniform of Manchester Regiment.


11 November 1918; a day of jubilation for many, but a day of heartbreak for others. The mother of Wilfred Owen, one of the most prominent First World War poets, was not informed of his death until Armistice Day, when she thought he was finally coming home. He had been killed a week earlier, on 4 November 1918. In this guest post written to mark the centenary of the Armistice, Anna Hook takes a look at Wilfred Owen’s story – as an example of a young man who served King and Country, but like many others was taken too soon.


  •   Background

Born on 18 March 1893 in Oswestry in Shropshire, Wilfred was the eldest son of Thomas Owen and Harriett Susan Shaw. He discovered his poetic calling in his teenage years and began writing. In 1911 Wilfred worked as an assistant for the Vicar of Dunsden hoping this would lead to a scholarship to Oxford University, however in 1913 he told the Vicar that Christianity was contrary to science and poetry, after this encounter Wilfred went on to work as an English teacher in at the Berlitz School in Bordeaux, France in September 1913. Wilfred remained in France after the outbreak of the war in 1914.


Owen family.


  • The soldier

In October 1915, Wilfred returned to England and enlisted in the London Regiment, and was later commissioned into the Manchester Regiment 5th Battalion in June 1916. However, Wilfred did not leave for the continent until January 1917 where he joined the Manchesters as an Officer reinforcement. In spring 1917 a shell explosion sent Wilfred flying into the air, although his was reasonably physically fit, the incident left him with ‘shell-shock’.


Officers of 3/5th Manchester Regiment


Wilfred was sent back to Britain to recover in June 1917, he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh where he met distinguished war poet Siegfried Sassoon, who he admired. Sassoon became Wilfred’s mentor after discovering a common interest in using their poetry to tell the public of the true brutality of the war from a soldier’s perspective, it was around this time Wilfred wrote “Anthem for Doomed Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est“.


  • Dulce et Decorum Est

This was the last poem that Wilfred wrote – he died just a week before the Armistice, on the banks of the Sambre-Oise canal.

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.



Grave of Lieutenant Wilfred Edward Salter Owen M C. of the 5th Battalion Manchester Regiment.


  • Posthumous publication

Wilfred’s work was published in ‘Wheels’ anthology in 1919. Before his death Wilfred was creating a series of poems he wished to publish upon his return home, this would happen in 1920 when a book of Wilfred’s poems titled “Poems of Wilfred Owen” was published with an introduction by his friend and mentor Siegfried Sassoon.

100 years later we pay tribute to Wilfred and many millions of people who played their part in the First World War.

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A tragic case of mistaken identity

Crew of the submarine J6. Uploaded by Trevor Torkington, with permission from the family of Atholl Davaar Lamont

On 15 October 1918 HM Submarine J6 was sunk in October 1918 by ‘friendly fire’ when British Q ship Cymric mistook her for the German submarine U6. Sixteen of the crew of the J6 lost their lives. In this guest blog post, Trevor Torkington tells the story of this tragedy at sea.

  • Background

Q Ship Cymric was a merchant ship, with concealed weaponry, designed to lure enemy submarines to the surface where they could then be engaged in combat. The Commander of Cymric in October 1918 was Frederick Henry Peterson. Peterson was a Royal Naval Reserve officer who was commissioned as a Sub Lieutenant in December 1914 and promoted to Lieutenant in 1915. A highly decorated officer, he had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order, the Distinguished Service Cross and Bar, and also the French Croix de Guerre. In May 1917 he was wounded in action and hospitalised for 6 weeks, but by 29 September was back at sea where his record states that he was involved in sinking an enemy submarine by gunfire (the date suggests that this was submarine UC-55).

Q Ship Cymric. Image in the public domain


  • A costly mistake

On 15 October 1918, Peterson was on the bridge of the Cymric and had already that day spotted two submarines on the surface which had given him a wide berth. But at 3.40pm another submarine came into view on an opposite course to his own. ‘Action Stations’ was sounded but as Peterson thought the vessel might be friendly he told his crew to stand by. As the submarine came closer he was able to make out its letter and number – U6. He gave the order “action”, the White Ensign was raised and the Cymric’s guns exposed. Shortly thereafter the Cymric fired upon the submarine.

After about the 11th round had been fired Peterson spotted what he thought was black smoke signals, and near the stern of the boat a man waving a white object. He briefly called for the guns to cease fire but as the submarine continued its course and speed he believed it to be a ruse and ordered the guns to open fire again.

After chasing the ‘U-Boat’ into some haze, he saw signals for help from the submarine. He closed the Cymric and put out a boat to pick up survivors, and only then became aware of the submarine’s true identity. It was the British submarine J6. Sixteen men were killed, 7 of whom were believed to be in the after compartment, trapped when the water tight doors were closed in an effort to save the boat.

Amongst those who died aboard the J6 was Engine Room Artificer 3rd Class Athol Davaar Lamont. His son, also called Athol Davaar, was born several months after the sinking. He followed his father into the navy but was sadly killed while serving aboard HMS Daring in the Second World War. His ship was sunk by U-23 on 18 February 1940 while escorting Convoy HN12 from Norway.

  • Court of Enquiry

A Court of Enquiry was held on HMS Titania (the depot ship for the eleventh submarine flotilla) in Blythe the day after the incident. Peterson was the first to give evidence, followed by other members of the Cymric’s crew. All but one of the crew believed the submarine to be German but in his evidence, the Cymric’s Skipper, Elam James Taylor, stated that he recognised it as a British submarine before the guns fired but did not tell anyone. Strangely the Enquiry did not question him further on this.

Surviving crew of J6 gave their evidence last. Lieutenant Commander Geoffrey Warburton DSO, the submarine’s commanding officer, was in his bunk when the firing started. When he reached the coning tower the signalman was killed as he was about to fire recognition signals. Warburton took charge of the signal gun and ordered one of his subordinates, Lieutenant Robbins RNR to fall the hands in to the unengaged part of the submarine and also to take off his shirt and wave it at the Cymric. Having fired further recognition signals, Warburton went below, and realising, the submarine was lost he ordered his crew topside.

The Court of Enquiry strongly criticised Peterson for his over zealousness but proposed no further action be taken. There was some doubt as to whether he had access to the latest silhouettes to identify British submarines and it was thought that the Officer of the Watch of the J6 (who was sadly killed) had approached the Cymric “unduly close”. In reaching their decision they may have been swayed by Warburton’s evidence stating that both Peterson and his first officer, Lieutenant Charles Murray Mutch, dived into the sea fully clothed to help rescue drowning men (something that both officers did not mention in their own statements).

It is not proposed to submit that Lieutenant Peterson be tried by Court Martial; this officer has done excellent service and the fact that Officers and Men of HM Service have lost their lives through his action is sufficient punishment.

In his letter to the Admiralty summarising the outcome of the enquiry Admiral Beatty concluded that

It is not proposed to submit that Lieutenant Peterson be tried by Court Martial; this officer has done excellent service and the fact that Officers and Men of HM Service have lost their lives through his action is sufficient punishment.”

Sadly, HMS J6 wasn’t the only submarine to be lost due to friendly fire. HM Submarines H5, D3 and G9 were also sunk due to their being mistaken for U-Boats.

Portsmouth Naval Memorial, where some of those lost on HMS J6 are commemorated. Image licensed under Creative Commons.

  • Legacy

An order under the Official Secrets Act prohibited mention of this incident until 1969. The wreck of the J6 was discovered by divers off the Northumberland coast in November 2011. They returned several months later and placed a wreath on behalf of the families of the deceased. One hundred years after the sinking, we pay tribute to those who lost their lives by remembering them together in this Lives of the First World War Community.


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My Research – Wilfred Owen’s legacy a hundred years on


On National Poetry Day, and just weeks from the centenary of his death, it seems only fitting to reflect on the legacy of one of the most notable poets produced by the First World War: Wilfred Owen.  During her student summer placement at IWM London, Anna Moloney was tasked with researching his story, and in this guest blog post Anna reflects on how Owen’s memory has been shaped over the last hundred years.


  • Owen the soldier

A soldier and a poet, Wilfred Owen’s remarkability lies in his ability to see poetry through a soldier’s eye and war through a poet’s.

Owen was initially reluctant to join the army, justifying this with his belief that his poetry was of more value to England than his life. However, his stance soon changed and he decided that he could no longer ignore his duty as a poet to join the war effort. Owen was resolute that he was joining on his own terms – his decision to join the Artists Rifles when enlisting in the war in 1915 was no coincidence (he was later commissioned as an officer in the Manchester Regiment).

Wilfred Owen in uniform.       © IWM Q 79045

I must always remember it is my war … I am acting from my own volition … but others are not … perhaps I can speak for them …can my poetry do this?

In Wilfred’s own words, as recalled by his brother Harold,

“I must always remember it is my war…I am acting from my own volition…but others are not…perhaps I can speak for them…can my poetry do this?”

In this way, Owen saw himself as set apart from the common soldier. Though his poetry may portray the injustices of war, he never saw himself as an unfair victim of it. Rather, he emphasised that his entry into the war was a product of reasoned judgment rather than patriotic hysteria.


  • Owen the poet

Whilst he was moved deeply by losing his fellow comrades, Owen had a sort of premonition of his own early death and it struck him as somewhat of an inevitability; it was only the survival of his poetry which remained of paramount importance to him.  He was obsessed by his artistic idols who had also faced early deaths, John Keats being chief among these, and he seemed to consider suffering as crucial to the fostering of good art. As Harold Owen describes:

“… he was inclined when working well to fear it denoted early death; and when feeling robust and healthy to fear that this was a signal of lack of talent.”

Such a fate that Owen did later meet, dying only a week before Armistice Day aged twenty-five, the same age at which Keats met his death, thus seems to possess a poetic tragedy that Owen would have deemed fitting.

Wilfred Owen’s grave in Ors Communal Cemetery, France. Photograph supplied by The War Graves Photographic Project in association with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Furthermore, with Owen’s death came the birth of his poetic legacy. Thanks to the efforts of Owen’s good friend and fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon, Owen’s poems came to be some of the most well known and well loved of the war. Their refusal to glorify the war, and determination instead to expose the horrors of frontline experience, stood Owen’s poems apart from the bulk of First World War literature. Owen always sought to speak the gritty truth of war. Even his letters to his mother never played down his suffering, unlike those of most of his comrades who sought to hide the worst.


  • Misconceptions

As a hundred years of remembering Owen’s death and the end of the First World War approaches, his concern with truth prompts a reflection on the nature of his legacy. In particular, early impressions of Owen as a pious young man are undeniably the creation of his mother, who took charge in the cultivation of Owen’s early public image. This misrepresentation is most striking in her choice of inscription on Owen’s gravestone; her isolation of the lines ‘Shall life renew these bodies? Of a truth/All death will he annul’ from Owen’s poem ‘The End’ distorts their true meaning, as the poem actually goes onto refute this claim. Owen himself also had a part to play in moulding his own legacy, after instructing his mother to burn a sack of his papers in the event of his death. Harold’s editing of Wilfred’s letters shows a similar desire to make Wilfred’s reputation as respectable as possible. This has sometimes proven controversial and Harold has often been accused of trying to intentionally conceal Wilfred’s inferred homosexuality.


‘Preface’, written in Owen’s hand. Courtesy of The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford [The British Library / The Wilfred Owen Literary Estate]

However, the increase in scholarly interest in Owen and in particular the publishing of his letters in 1967 (despite their aforementioned censoring), has made it easier to gain a sense of the true Wilfred and to free his legacy from the tinting of his family’s gaze. Perhaps the most interesting misconception complicated by these letters is the belief that Owen was a pacifist, as many believe. On the contrary, Owen held deep contempt for those ‘shirkers’ who refused to fight in the war. He was not fundamentally opposed to war, he just passionately believed that people should know the truth of it. He stated his own purpose in one his most famous poems: to dispel ‘that old lie – dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ [it is sweet and honourable to die for your country]. For him, poetry was the only way that the truth could properly be revealed. His resolve that “to describe [the fate of comrades], I think I must go back and be with them” led Owen to his death, but it also introduced his poetry to the world and it is this that mattered to him.


  • Reflections

A century later, Owen is perhaps able to speak to us more clearly than ever. In the Preface to a collection of poetry that he would not live to see published, he wrote

All the poet can do to-day is to warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful

“… these elegies are not to this generation, this is in no sense consolatory. They may be to the next. All the poet can do to-day is to warn. That is why the true Poets must be truthful.”

He himself stated that his poems were written for people in the future to be inspired and educated by. A hundred years on he can rest easy that he has achieved this.



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My Research – Spanish Flu: The Unseen Enemy

© 2006 Henry Nicholls, available for reuse under Creative Commons Attribution License

In the final year of the First World War, an unseen deadly killer was sweeping around the globe. The Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918-19 was one of the most deadly pandemics in human history. In a little over a year, it infected up to a third of the world’s population, and killed up to 100 million people. In this guest blog post, PhD student Hannah Mawdsley shares her research into the stories of people affected by this terrible illness.


  • Spread of disease 

The Spanish flu was not named ‘Spanish’ because it began in Spain, but because Spain was neutral during the First World War, and did not censor bad news like the belligerent countries.  The war was instrumental in helping to spread the virus, as crowded troopships helped convey the pandemic around the world; Leonard Holt, a boy telegraphist on board HMS Donegal, recalled how the flu became ‘rampant’ on troop ships his vessel escorted while on convoy duty.

The Spanish flu virus was unusual. Unlike normal seasonal flu, which affects mostly the very young and old, the Spanish flu hit young adults hardest – those between 20 and 40 years of age. This was exactly the age range already hit hardest by the war – soldiers, nurses, and young families at home.

© IWM Collections WWC H2-171

Nursing Sister Dorothea Crewdson (pictured above) was stationed at Etaples camp on the Western Front.

My ward is now an influenza department and I have thirteen ‘fluers’ filling the atmosphere with germs.

She recorded in her diary; ‘My ward is now an influenza department and I have thirteen ‘fluers’ filling the atmosphere with germs. I am wondering if I can escape by any means myself. I felt sure the complaint was attacking me this afternoon, but now I feel better again and there is still hope.’  Dorothea subsequently died in March 1919.


  • Symptoms

It could cause dramatic symptoms. One of the most striking was heliotrope cyanosis. As a victim’s lungs clogged with fluids, their bodies became starved of oxygen. As a result, cyanosis – a blueish-purple tinge – started to spread from their extremities, including their fingers, toes, nose, ears, and mouth. This was often a sign of impending death. After death, some bodies turned completely black.

With so many people dying, the bodies of those who had passed away were sometimes stacked on top of one another, in coffins or wrapped in cloth. Wood for coffins ran out, and gravediggers and undertakers could not keep up with demand. The dead were taken to the cemeteries by the lorry load. In some places, mass graves had to be used in order to bury the dead quickly enough.


  • Responses

Social and medical services were overwhelmed during the peaks of the virus. Doctors and nurses were scarce due to the war and to the scale of the pandemic. Nurses were especially susceptible to catching it from their patients, and as such were on the front line of the battle with pandemic influenza.

In some countries, including the United Kingdom and New Zealand, the peak of the mortality was in November 1918, in the midst of peace celebrations. Mass jubilation and cheering crowds also helped to spread the virus, and death tolls peaked in the days following the celebrations as the virus worked its course.   Nurse Rosamond Curteis – described as a loving, cheerful friend who had faithfully cared for the sick and wounded – died three days after Armistice in November 1918.

Memorial to Rosamond Curteis, who died on 14 November 1918. © Doug Ireland (WMR-4951)

Soldiers and nurses that survived the war and returned home sometimes found that the virus had decimated their families while they were away. Arthur Baxter, a private in the Machine Gun Corps, returned home in winter 1918. His brother had been killed by the flu and he described the impact of the  disease, recalling ‘the towns were full of dead’.

What should have been a time of celebration and relief for soldiers, nurses, and their families at having survived the war, was marred by the horror of this mysterious and deadly disease.


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Mons: The blooding of 27 Brigade Royal Field Artillery

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

In this guest blog post, Paul Bourton shares the latest instalment of his series revealing stories through the pre-war photograph pictured above. In this post, Paul details the Battle of Mons and its impact on 27 Brigade Royal Field Artillery (RFA).


  • Planning

On the morning of Sunday 23 August 1914, the French Fifth Army under General Lanrezac was already in retreat.  The two corps of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), stretched out along a twenty mile defensive line along the Mons-Conde canal, were left to face alone the might of the German First Army approaching the city of Mons from the north.

The British Commander, Sir John French, had decided to fight a holding action to buy time for the retreating French, and his troops were deployed and ready to meet the German onslaught.  The east of the line between Mons and Bray was held by I Corps under the command of Lieutenant-General Douglas Haig.  II Corps under Horace Smith-Dorrien held the line west of the city, and it was this Corps, which included the men of 27 Brigade Royal Field Artillery, that was to bear the brunt of the fighting that day.

The Germans, unaware of the proximity of the BEF, and continuing their seemingly inexorable advance south through Belgium, somewhat stumbled into the defences along the canal.  At 9.00am the first German artillery rounds began to rain down upon the British troops along the canal and the Battle of Mons had begun.  An hour later the German infantry began its advance.


  • Advance

The British infantry opened up a withering and deadly rifle fire on the closely formed columns of the approaching enemy and the Germans were cut down in their hundreds.  The German advance was temporarily halted and, after regrouping and organising themselves into wider formations, the attack resumed with close artillery support.  Despite fierce resistance from the heavily outnumbered defenders of 3 Division, the Germans crossed the canal bridge at Obourg at noon and captured the two adjacent bridges.  Meanwhile, the men of 4 Battalion Royal Fusiliers gallantly held on to the railway bridge a little further west at Nimy.  This defence was to earn the Battalion two Victoria Crosses; the first of the war, awarded to Maurice Dease and Sidney Godley.

The 5th Division was positioned to the west of its sister division and formed the left of the II Corps line.  At the bridge just east of St. Ghislain, the infantrymen of the Royal West Kent and King’s Own Scottish Borderers regiments of 13 Brigade held back the famous Brandenburg Grenadiers with a tremendous hail of rifle fire supported by sustained and lethally accurate artillery from the gunners of 120 Battery Royal Field Artillery.  In a deadly duel with the guns of the enemy artillery, however, the Battery was to lose two of its six guns and its commanding officer, Charles Stewart Holland, who was killed in the heat of the battle.


Positions of 2 Division and others, Mons. From Volume: 1 Subject: Great Britain. Army. Division, 2nd; World War, 1914-1918 (London : Thomas Nelson and Sons 1921) –  copyright expired


Further west along the canal at Les Herbieres, the troops of 14 Brigade, supported by 121 Battery RFA, held their positions throughout the afternoon.  The 27th Brigade Royal Field Artillery was being blooded and it was a baptism of fire in every sense.


  • Retreat

By the afternoon, the overwhelming German pressure on his line and the threat of being encircled from his exposed right flank forced Sir John French to withdraw his troops from the canal.  The British withdrawal was executed, not as one movement, but as a series of independent actions.  The men of 3 Division began their piecemeal withdrawal in the middle of the afternoon and this was followed by the battalions of 5 Division falling back, battalion by battalion, from the line of the canal.  The Germans launched a frontal attack on the remaining positions of 3 Division along the Mons-Harmignies road and were stopped in their tracks by the men of the Gordon Highlanders and Royal Scots who had been held in reserve.  Hundreds of attackers were killed in a few minutes by volleys of British rifle bullets, causing the German commanders to re-evaluate their opinion of the ‘contemptible little army’ from Britain and to cease the advance temporarily.

As the battle raged and unfolded, the majority of the day for eleven of the men of the photograph and their comrades in 119 Battery was spent waiting in the divisional reserve with 15 Brigade. The headquarters of 5 Division was located at the railway station at Dour, some three miles south of St. Ghislain and the Mons-Conde canal, while 15 Brigade itself was entrenched in a reserve line between the villages of Boussu and Wasmes, about halfway between the Divisional HQ and the front line.  The ground here was far from ideal for defence and was broken up with slag heaps and detritus from the local mining industry.  It meant that a continual line of defence with an uninterrupted field of fire was impossible for both infantry and artillery alike.  It was along this broken reserve line that 119 Battery RFA spent the day of 23 August desperately searching for suitable locations for gun emplacements with the sounds of the battle all around them.

119 Battery RFA spent the day of 23 August desperately searching for suitable locations for gun emplacements with the sounds of the battle all around them.

The 15th Brigade commander, Brigadier Edward Gleichen, hurried to and fro along the line between the mining villages and settlements, busily organising his defences.  He reported later in his memoirs observing the men of 119 Battery, ‘disconsolately wending their way through the narrow streets, and with their reconnoitring officers out in all directions looking for positions; but they found none and the artillery did but little in the way of shooting that night.’ A little further south of 15 Brigade positions, between Boussu-Bois and Wasmes, was 27 Brigade headquarters at a place called Champ des Arts.


British soldiers crouched around a gun emplacement during the retreat from Mons. © IWM Q 109611


The BEF withdrew some three miles south of the Mons-Conde canal to its reserve lines that evening.  Early the following morning, with the intention of facing and holding the Germans on those lines later that day, the exhausted troops began to dig in to these new positions to await the arrival of the renewed German advance.  The 5th Division, having fought a tactical withdrawal to its reserve line, dug in between Wasmes to the east and some distance beyond Dour to the west.

Meanwhile, with news having reached Sir John French that Lanzerac was in full retreat with his Fifth Army to the south, the decision was taken to withdraw the BEF completely and maintain contact with the French to avoid being isolated and ultimately engulfed by the German advance.  So it was that on the morning of Monday 24 August, the retreat from Mons began.  If the men of 119 Battery had enjoyed a relatively quiet and untroubled Sunday in comparison to their two sister batteries from 27 Brigade RFA, then Monday was going to prove to be very different indeed.  It would become known as ‘Shrapnel Monday’ and the men in the photograph were going to be in the very thick of it.


  • Look out for future Lives of the First World War blog posts by Paul


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