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. Share your stories with us this Remembrance Sunday.

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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.



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Charles Sidney Woplin: Family, War and Imperial War Museums

The staff of the Imperial War Museum taken at the Crystal Palace, 1920s. Charles Woplin is likely to be featured on this photograph, but cannot be identified. IWM Q 55178

In this guest blog post, Imperial War Museum (IWM) Intern Charlie Knight shares stories from his family history, with a special connection to the museum itself. Charlie’s ancestors the Woplin family were affected by both world wars and his great-great uncle Charles dedicated his life to educating people on the dangers of conflict, through his role at IWM.


  • First World War connections

Having been in the process of researching my own family tree over the past five years, I was aware that my Nan’s ‘Uncle Charlie’ was employed by IWM for the majority of his working life. It is now only since I have begun working here myself that it seems prudent to begin digging into Uncle Charlie’s story, the tragedy of his family in wartime, and his life at the museum.

Charles Sidney Woplin was born on 15 February 1891 in Thornton Heath, Surrey, to Edward Arthur Woplin, a farm labourer, and Mary Ann Vincent, a laundress. Charles was the second oldest of nine children, four of whom died as a result of war in the twentieth century. Charles’ father, Edward, died in July 1913.

Badge of the Rifle Brigade (Prince Consort’s Own). © IWM INS 7235

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Charles and his family were living at 69 Spa Road, Thornton Heath. Both Charles and his older brother Edward Jnr working as gardeners. Charles joined 3 Battalion (Prince Consort’s Own) Rifle Brigade and served in France for the entirety of the war, sustaining a bullet wound in the shoulder. Charles’ battalion fought in many key actions, including the Battle of Loos in 1915 and the Battle of Arras in 1917.  Whilst he went on to live a long life, his brothers that also served in the First World War were not as lucky.

William James Woplin served in the Royal Medical Corps in France from 1914 to 1915 and then in Egypt, where he was injured in 1917 and was sent to hospital in Manchester. He died on 27 February 1920 from his wounds. Edward Arthur Woplin Jnr served in the Royal Machine Gun Corps; in 1917 his left leg was amputated as a result of war wounds. He later died from pulmonary tuberculosis contracted in the trenches, on 29 October 1922.


  • Interwar period

Charles began his career at IWM after the war ended. He was appointed as a warden at the original site at Crystal Palace on 8 February 1920 – less than three weeks before William died – and later that year married my great-great aunt Maude Elizabeth Kirby in Croydon. Together Charles and Maude had a daughter, Evelyn (Eva), who was born in September 1922 – a month before Charles’ older brother died from his wounds.

The Army Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, Crystal Palace. © IWM Q 17030

At the museum, Charles worked in the Telephone Exchange before gradually working his way up to a supervisory role. His personnel file in the museum archive notes his dutiful and honest nature but that ‘… he has nothing of the butler or old-fashioned servant about him’. Charles may not have been a people-pleaser but gradually grew accustomed to life in public service.


  • Life in the Second World War

A barrage balloon is inflated in front of the Imperial War Museum at Lambeth Road, London. © IWM Q 64060

The Second World War would again affect Charles and his family significantly. Imperial War Museum, now based at its current home on Lambeth Road, was forced to close its doors to the public in 1939 due to the threat of air raids. During the war the museum was hit by bombs a total of 41 times and the building was not fully repaired until the 1950s. Charles did not serve in the armed forces but did undertake fireguard duties at the museum as part of his regular working week. He and Maude were bombed out during the Blitz over London a number of times, seeking refuge with family and friends.

Several members of Charles’ family lost their lives in the conflict. Two of his brothers, Albert and George served in the Royal Navy; Albert on HMS Acheron and George on HMS Barlight. Albert was on HMS Acheron when it hit a mine in the English Channel on 17 December 1940 – his body, along with many others, was never recovered. George was captured by the Japanese in Hong Kong and died from beriberi and malaria in 1942. His son, also called George, was a Volunteer Wireless Operator in the Royal Air Force, before serving as an Air Gunner with 102 Squadron. He died when the Halifax Bomber in which he was serving was shot down over Smaarlands Ocean on 24 April 1944. His body was found over two weeks later, and was buried in Svino Churchyard in Denmark.


  • Charles’ legacy

Charles with his stepson ‘Nobby’ Kirby, photograph believed to be taken in the 1940s.

Although he reached retirement age in 1956, Charles chose to continue working at the museum until the age of 70 – even accepting a pay cut and downgrade in responsibility. The museum Director Dr Frank Noble paid tribute to Charles:

‘His cheerfulness, understanding and advice, has been a great inspiration to all … he is an “Old Contemptible” and his many escapades have brought many a good laugh.”

His cheerfulness, understanding and advice, has been a great inspiration to all

On 22 June 1961, Charles was awarded the Imperial Service Medal for his long years of service to IWM. He died in March 1971, at the age of 80.

It is poignant to think that a man whose family life was engulfed by loss in war spent the entirety of his working life in an institution to educate people about conflict. He was faithful to his beloved museum, perhaps in tribute to the four brothers, nephew and brother-in-law who made the ultimate sacrifice.


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My research – a fellow University of Manchester Student


During her two week student placement at IWM North in July 2018, Bria Cotton was tasked with researching stories that linked to August 1918. From medics to conscientous objectors, and servicemen to victims of the influenza pandemic, she has brought together a Community of fascinating stories. In this guest blog post, Bria shares a story that she found especially interesting – James Stanley Carr who, like Bria, studied at the University of Manchester.


  • Before the War

James Stanley Carr was born on 12 January 1893 to a Quaker family in Settle, North Yorkshire. A year after broke out, Carr was 22 and a student at Victoria University of Manchester (also known then as Owens College). When the First World War broke out he registered himself a known conscientious objector due to his faith.

White Peace Poppy © IWM EPH 2284


  • Friends’ Ambulance Unit

Even though Carr as a conscientious objector and was thus not obligated to go to the front, he joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) and left England for Dunkirk, France on 23 April 1915. The Friends’ Ambulance Unit was a civilian volunteer medical service that was developed by a group of Quakers within the British Religious Society of Friends in 1914. Under the umbrella of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem, the FAU provided medical aid to wounded soldiers on the Western Front, and were based in London and Dunkirk.


  • A plea for normalcy

In the chaos of working in war hospitals, Carr found the time to pen a letter his former lecturer in medieval history, Professor Thomas Frederick Tout, on 23 August 1918. In this letter, Carr provides details of his struggle to get leave and go back to Owens College, Manchester in order to obtain his “War Degree”. Carr states that because he is a member of the FAU, he does not qualify for to obtain the standard British Forces “war degree”, as he is a civilian volunteer. It is further described that Carr would only be able to become eligible for a degree if he resigned from the FAU and appeared in front of a military tribunal. However, Carr is hesitant to resign from the FAU, because

even could I return to Owens and the War were to continue, I should want to come back again to France.

Carr’s reluctance to resign from the FAU shows a strong sense of national duty and responsibility, a trait that is made all the more admirable due to his service being entirely voluntary.

James Carr letter, held by The University of Manchester Library (TFT/1/167/9). Reproduced with the kind permission of the University of Manchester.

I do not know whether or not Carr was successful in his journey to obtain his “war degree”, but it is clear that Carr was determined to use any means necessary to ensure that his plight was recognised. He notes that the officials in the FAU were “very sympathetic” to his issue, and he enlisted the aid of Captain Tatham, his Commanding Officer, in order to write a separate letter to Professor Tout. Furthermore, Carr also writes at the bottom of Captain Tatham’s letter, his uncle is Sir Henry Alexander Miers, who at the time was Vice-Chancellor of Victoria University of Manchester. This certainly shows the lengths Carr was willing to reach towards in order to be exempt for the rulings against overseas civilian volunteers.


  • Reflections

I am a student pursuing a degree in Politics and Modern History at the University of Manchester, and researching the lives of those who served, died, and were former students has led me to reflect on my experience as a student during peacetime in the 21st century. James S Carr went to the front as part of the Friends’ Ambulance Unit when he was only 22 years old and still pursuing his degree. He, and like thousands of other students, went to the frontlines because they believed it was their national duty. Although we are not living in a time of war, I believe that students across the nation are redefining what it means to act in the name of national duty. From protests to petition, the students of today are continually striving towards a better future.

Generations of school children have grown up with the shadow of remembrance for the First World War and Second World War. We have continually expressed sentiments of sacrifice, loss, and horror at the destruction caused by war. We are taking the lessons learned from the events of the World Wars and turning them into a driving force to push for peaceful resolutions to domestic and international tensions.


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Gassed: creativity out of destruction

Gassed by John Singer Sergeant. © IWM ART 1460

John Singer Sargent’s painting Gassed is amongst the most well known in the Imperial War Museums’ art collection. Measuring over 2 x 6 metres (7 ft x 20 ft), this vast artwork depicts the horrific effects of mustard gas on the body, which often caused severe burns and blindness. From 27 July 2018 to 24 February 2019 Gassed will be on display in the Lest We Forget? Exhibition at IWM North, Manchester, and in this blog post we explore the story behind this iconic image.


  • Early works

John Singer Sargent was born Florence, Italy in 1856, and spent much of his youth travelling and painting in Europe and America. Known largely as a portrait and landscape artist before the war, his work was exhibited in galleries around the world.

Portrait photograph of John Singer Sargent. IWM HU 56114

Sargent was commissioned by the British Ministry of Information in 1918 to depict scenes of ‘Anglo-American co-operation’ on the Western Front. He joined other commissioned artists such as William Orpen and Muirhead Bone, whose works would perform a dual role: firstly, to promote the values of British liberal democracy; and secondly to commemorate the conflict for both current and future generations.


  • To the Western Front

In July 1918, 62-year-old Sargent travelled to France with fellow artist Henry Tonks. He made sketches of life at the front with British and American troops, which formed the basis for ten paintings that he completed back in Britain. He reflected on the challenges that he faced as an artist, trying to capture the human experiences of the war:


“The further forward one goes, the more scattered and meagre everything is. The nearer to danger, the fewer and more hidden the men – the more dramatic the situation, the more it becomes an empty landscape.”


However, a particular scene that he came across in August 1918 inspired him to produce a series of striking pencil drawings. His companion Henry Tonks later described what they saw:


After tea we heard that on the Doullens Road at the Corps dressing station at le Bac-du-sud there were a good many gassed cases, so we went there. The dressing station was situated on the road and consisted of a number of huts and a few tents. Gassed cases kept coming in, led along in parties of about six just as Sargent has depicted them, by an orderly. They sat or lay down on the grass, there must have been several hundred, evidently suffering a great deal, chiefly I fancy from their eyes which were covered up by a piece of lint… Sargent was very struck by the scene and immediately made a lot of notes.


Gassed cases kept coming in, led along in parties of about six … their eyes were covered up by a piece of lint 

Study for ‘Gassed’, showing a medical
orderly helping wounded men.
© Art.IWM ART 16162 6

Mustard gas was an indiscriminate weapon causing widespread injury and burns, as well as affecting the eyes. In his sketches, Sargent draws the viewer into the tactile relationships between the blinded men, and the care shown by the medical orderlies. It was these drawings that Sargent presented to the War Memorials Committee, who clearly saw the potential for them to become an evocative painting.


  • Reception at home

Gassed was first put on public display in December 1919 in the Royal Academy, London. You can imagine the response of the public seeing it for the first time, many of whom would have experienced war or knew someone who had. Whilst some early reviewers said that the artwork was too painful to look at, others were inspired by the depiction of comradeship and humanity in times of conflict.

Sargent’s painting was also accepted for inclusion into a proposed Hall of Remembrance. This space, which unfortunately was never built, would be devoted to ‘fighting subjects, home subjects and the war at sea and in the air’. Nevertheless this group of paintings formed a key part of the newly-formed Imperial War Museums’ collection, under whose custodianship it has remained ever since.


John Singer Sargent’s grave in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey. Image taken by Jack1956, licensed under Creative Commons

  • After the war

Sargent continued to paint after the war, and co-founded New York City’s Grand Central Art Galleries. He returned to England, where he died in 1925 and is buried in Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey.

Sargent’s legacy to the art world is vast, completing more than 2,000 pieces in his lifetime. One hundred years after the first sketches were completed, Gassed continues to provoke an emotional response in those that encounter it.


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The Big Stunt – escape in the First World War

Escape equipment belonging to a POW at Holzminden Camp, Germany. IWM EPH 810

A German prisoner of war camp. A tunnel. A plan for a mass breakout. If you think this is a familiar story you’d be right – but this isn’t the ‘Great Escape’. This was the Big Stunt, when 10 Allied Officers made a ‘home run’ after escaping from Holzminden prisoner of war (POW) camp on the night of 23/24 July 1918. In this article, Lives of the First World War Volunteer Trevor Torkington takes a look at the camp and the stories of those who escaped.


  • The Camp

Holzminden is located in northern Germany on the River Weser, approximately 150km from the Dutch border. A POW camp for British officers was established there in 1917 and was quickly placed under the command of Hauptmann Karl Niemeyer who, along with his twin brother Heinrich in charge of the nearby camp at Clausthal, would make life a living hell for the prisoners.  Lieutenant Leonard Pearson had been in six camps while in captivity and expressed the view that Holzminden was the worst, with the very worst commandant.

Portrait of Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson VC. IWM Q 66470

German troops were encouraged to use their bayonets to encourage discipline, and Niemeyer frequently ordered his troops to fire on prisoners leaning out of windows. One prisoner who Niemeyer took deliberate delight in punishing was Captain William Leefe Robinson who had received the Victoria Cross for shooting down a Zeppelin in September 1916. When Robinson was shot down himself in April 1917 he was eventually transferred to Holzminden where, after a failed escape attempt, he was kept in solitary confinement (known to the POWs as “the chamber of horrors”) almost continually. He was subjected to sleep deprivation and only permitted meagre rations. On one occasion he was whipped to the point of collapse for disobeying an order.

It was under these harsh conditions that prisoners began to forge a plan for escape, and the construction of a tunnel began in autumn 1917 near to the camp’s perimeter fence.


  • The tunnel

As the work progressed many of the original tunnellers were transferred out of the camp (possibly on the suspicion that something was going on), and a number of others were interned in Holland until the end of the war as part of a prisoner exchange programme. This could have led to abandonment of the plan but for the transfer to the camp of three friends and serial escapees: Captain David ‘Munshi’ Gray; Lieutenant Cecil Blain; and Lieutenant Caspar Kennard.

They were willingly recruited and eventually a tunnelling team of thirteen officers was formed. As tunnelling progressed a supplementary team was formed where support activities, such as smuggling in escape equipment, could be managed. Some of the methods of obtaining equipment may have followed the novel approach taken by Captain Thomas George Mapplebeck, who acquired an Army and Navy Stores catalogue and ordered a number of useful items such as compasses and civilian clothing.

Panama hat for use as a civilian disguise. IWM EPH 3682

Most of this was hidden before the Germans discovered it, but for refusing to reveal where he was hiding six hats (which had already been confiscated once, and recovered) he was sentenced to six months’ solitary confinement.


  • The Escape

By the time the tunnel was ready in summer 1918, eighty six men were eager to escape. Twenty-nine prisoners actually got out of the tunnel on the evening of 23/24 July, before it caved in. Some of the escapees travelled alone but the others were in pairs and threes all aiming for the Dutch border, crossing the Weser on the way.

Portrait photograph of Captain E W Leggatt. IWM HU 124039

Some of those fluent in German decided to take the train which, in the case of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Rathborne, meant he was able to cross the border just five days after his escape. He was followed a few days later by travelling companions Lieutenants John Keith Bousfield and Leonard James Bennett, and also Captain Edward Wilmer Leggatt. Over the course of the next few days they were joined by six more of their comrades. One of the last to arrive was Second Lieutenant Peter (Pierre) Campbell-Martin – he went on to serve in the Second World War and was sadly killed in a bombing mission in October 1941.

In total ten escapees made it to freedom, with the rest being captured a few days or weeks after escaping.

In total ten escapees made it to freedom, with the rest being captured a few days or weeks after escaping. Perhaps the unluckiest was Lieutenant Alan Thomas Shipwright, who was caught just a few hundred yards from the Dutch border.


  • Aftermath

All the recaptured officers were sent back to Holzminden. They were kept in solitary confinement for up to eight weeks living on bread and water. Niemeyer ordered reprisals against the prisoners, confiscating goods from home and randomly arresting prisoners for no reason.

Despite this, work on a new tunnel began within two weeks of the Big Stunt. Where escape attempts failed, the consequences were severe. Second Lieutentant Alexander Couston was shot in the arm and the jaw as he tried to surrender upon recapture – although he survived, he required treatment at Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup once repatriated.

That didn’t deter other would-be escapers, however, such Canadian Lieutenant William Samuel Stephenson who escaped in October 1918. Interestingly, in the Second World War Stepehenson was recruited for UK-US intelligence activity, and it is believed by many that he was the inspiration for James Bond.


  • Legacy

A film about the escape entitled ‘Who Goes Next?’ was released in 1938, and there was a reunion later that year to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the escape in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub in Fleet Street, London. The pub, a listed building, still exists and I have every intention of raising a pint (or two) to the twenty nine men who made it through the tunnel one hundred years ago, and to the ten who made it home.

Discover more stories of men who were imprisoned in Holzminden, in this Lives of the First World War Community


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Over the Silver Sea: 119 Battery Royal Field Artillery in the First World War

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 mobilisation of the 119 Battery and its arrival at Mons with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).


  • Parallel Journeys

In late July 1815, HMS Bellerophon, a 74 gun Royal Navy ship of the line and veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar, made passage from France to England with a precious human cargo.  That single unremarkable voyage marked the end of a conflict that had raged for over two decades; a truly global conflict that, in terms of chronology, history could easily have dubbed the ‘First World War’.  The man held personally responsible for the greater part of that conflict had stepped aboard the vessel on 15 July and formally surrendered himself to the ship’s captain, Frederick Maitland.  He was now being transported to England to await his fate; a fate that was to be decided by a government fearful of his influence if he be allowed to set foot on British shores.

The surrender was the culmination of Napoleon Bonaparte’s flight from the field at Waterloo the previous month.  The peace that followed meant that the epic battle was the last action fought on European soil by British troops for very nearly a century.

HMS Bellerophon, 1914 battleship shared the same name as 1815 ocean-going liner predecessor. Image in the public domain.

Almost exactly a century after the Bellerophon’s historic voyage and following the outbreak of what would become the next great global conflict, three ships made the crossing from Ireland to Napoleon’s former homeland carrying more human cargo.  The SS Courtfield and the SS Chinese Prince were two of the ships conveying the Brigade to French soil, where it was to assemble with the other units of the British Expeditionary Force that made up the 5th Division.  Somewhat ironically, the third vessel in the convoy bore the name of the ship that had been the harbinger of the peace that ended the Napoleonic Wars and brought stability and security to Europe.  The SS Bellerophon now conveyed British troops to fight on European soil once more.


  • Heading to war

The 27 Brigade Royal Field Artillery was based in County Kildare on the outbreak of war and its home since its move from Ballincollig in County Cork in late 1913 had been the town of Newbridge on the banks of the River Liffey.  The three batteries that formed the Brigade were the 119th, 120th and 121st.  The Brigade had mobilised with the 5th Division on 5 August and set sail for France shortly after.

QF 18 pounder gun in action. © IWM Q 4065

As well as the men from the three field gun batteries aboard, there were also the men of the headquarters staff and the brigade ammunition column that made up a field artillery brigade in 1914.  The weapons and equipment on board included the Brigade’s eighteen Ordnance QF 18 Pounder field guns, which were the stock-in-trade of the Royal Field Artillery at that time,  limbers to transport them, ammunition, wagons and requisite equipage for war.  There were also the myriad horses vital to the role of the field artillery in wartime.

The 27 Brigade was to fire some of the first rounds by British artillery on European soil in ninety-nine years.

The ships landed in France on 18 August and disgorged their cargoes at Le Havre. Only two men did not sail to France with the 119 Battery from its trophy-winning football team of 1913: Gunner Stanley Baker and Driver F. Thomas who appeared in the previous instalment.  The remaining eleven men were to take part in the momentous events which marked the opening of hostilities for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) just days after landing in France.  The 27 Brigade was to fire some of the first rounds by British artillery on European soil in ninety-nine years.


  • Preparing for battle

Between 11 and 17 August 1914 the various parts of the British Expeditionary Force were concentrating at Mauberg about ten miles south of the Belgian city of Mons.  In a plan arranged with the French years before the war, the British forces were to form up on the left flank of the French Army and prevent the right arm of any advancing German Army from entering France, while the main body the French Army would thrust forward in an all-out attack to the east.  This was the long-standing French contingency to meet the threat of attack known as Plan 17.

The gallant but outdated and ultimately catastrophic tactics of headlong attacks requisite of Plan 17 saw wave after wave of infantry and cavalry impaled on the spikes of massed German artillery and machine gun fire.  The French were driven back and their supreme commander, General Joseph Joffre, changed his priorities.  Recognising that he was making no headway, and seeing the threat from the German right arm swinging its way towards France from Belgium, he engaged his Fifth Army under General Charles Lanrezac alongside the BEF to move north into Belgium to meet the Germans head-on.

The main body of the BEF was formed of two Corps each of two infantry divisions.  I Corps, commanded by Lieutenant General Douglas Haig, comprised the 1st and 2nd Divisions and II Corps, made up of the 3rd and 5th Divisions, was led by Lieutenant General Horace Smith-Dorien.  He replaced the original commander, Sir James Grierson, who died suddenly on the train to the front on 17 August.  There was also a cavalry division under the command of General Edmund Allenby, plus support and line of communication troops.  In overall command of the BEF was General Sir John French.

Horses gathered in a field during the Mons campaign, August 1914. © IWM Q 109607

By the evening of the 22 August 1914 the two Corps of the BEF were stretched out along a twenty mile front along the Mons-Conde Canal just to the north of the city.  The I Corps was on the right of the British line and II Corps on the left.  Sir John French had agreed to hold the German advance for twenty four hours to protect the exposed left flank of the French Fifth Army.  The battalions dug in along the canal with the artillery batteries of the various divisions in positions just to their rear.  The BEF was facing the might of the German First Army under General von Kluck and it was to be II Corps, among its number the men of the 119 Battery Royal Field Artillery, that bore the brunt of a German attack.  The attack began on the morning of the following day, the 23 August, when the Battle of Mons began.


The aftermath of the action at Mons saw the 119 Battery win the highest award for valour but lose a number of its men, including two men from the photograph of 1913.  The details will appear in the next instalment as my research continues to uncover the stories of the men in the picture.

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