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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The Second Ostend Raid

Wrecked HMS Vindictive in the Ostend Harbour, May 1918. IWM Q 24030

On 9-10 May 1918 the Royal Navy attacked the German held port of Ostend for the second time in less than a month. In his previous blog post, Lives of the First World War Volunteer Trevor Torkington explained why the first attack on Ostend and Zeebrugge, on 23 April 1918, had been a failure. Here, he looks at the events of the second raid, and focuses on the role played by one of the craft taking part that day.


  • A second attempt

The aim of both raids was to block the entrance to the port in order to prevent German U-Boats, destroyers and torpedo boats from entering the Channel. Within the Admiralty, the need for a second attack was questioned, but that wasn’t the case for the officers of the two British blockships, HM ships Brilliant  and Sirius. These ships were grounded outside the harbour wall, yet they immediately volunteered to try again.

Poor weather delayed the second attack until 9 May when the attack force set sail. As it had been badly damaged in the earlier raid on Zeebrugge, the cruiser HMS Vindictive  was chosen as a blockship along with the ageing cruiser HMS Sappho. However, disaster struck just before midnight when one of the boilers on the Sappho blew, and she was no longer able to make way. Vindictive would be on her own.

The second raid fared only slightly better than the first. Thick fog obscured the harbour and when Vindictive finally found the channel mouth it was the target for German guns which exacerbated the damage sustained from the earlier raid. In particular, the port propeller was unable to turn which limited the ship’s ability to manoeuvre. She hit the eastern pier of the harbour where she settled, but she hadn’t blocked the harbour.

Wreck of HMS Vindictive laying in the entrance to Ostend harbour where she was scuttled. IWM Q 90091

  • Gallantry awards

Although the raid failed to meet its objective it was still hailed as a success and three officers were awarded the Victoria Cross: Lieutenants Geoffrey Heneage Drummond and Rowland Richard Louis Bourke were in command of Motor Launches, and Lieutenant Victor Alexander Charles Crutchley took command of HMS Vindictive when her captain, Commander Alfred Godsal, was killed.

In remembering the events of that day, I’d like to take a look at one of the craft that played a vital role in evacuating the crew of the blockship.


  • Geoffrey Drummond and ML 254

Geoffrey Drummond was born in London in 1886, the son of Algernon Heneage Drummond. He was somewhat a sickly child growing up as he fell down the stairs at a young age seriously damaging his neck. Nonetheless he was determined to ‘do his bit’ when war broke out and following treatment by a Swedish doctor was able to pass the fitness test for the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR) in 1915. In doing so he joined his younger brother Jocelyn who had joined the Royal Navy in 1905 and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1917 for his services in minelaying operations. Two other brothers had followed in their father’s footsteps and joined the army where sadly, the eldest, Spencer, was killed in action in 1915.

Geoffrey Drummond. IWM Q 79805

Geoffrey volunteered to command Motor Launch 254 for the Ostend Raid. Its role was to act as a rescue craft and take off the crew of the Vindictive once they had reached their objective. As ML 254 entered the harbour it was hit by shellfire, killing Geoffrey’s second in command, a Canadian, Lieutenant Gordon Fraser Ross, and also an eighteen year old deck hand, John Owen Thomas. Geoffrey himself was severely injured, with his thigh shattered. Ignoring his wound, Geoffrey placed ML 254 next to the Vindictive so that the crew could be evacuated. Now an easy target for the enemy, ML 254 was raked with machine gun fire with Geoffrey being wounded twice more. He stayed at his post until the evacuation was complete and then withdrew. His Victoria Cross citation notes “when informed that there was no one alive left on board he backed his vessel out clear of the piers before sinking exhausted from his wounds”.

ML 254 had rescued 2 officers and 37 men from Vindictive but was on fire and slowly sinking. Lieutenant Victor Crutchley from the Vindictive took over command from the badly-wounded Geoffrey and they were eventually picked up by HMS Warwick before the Motor Launch sank.


  • Life after the war

Despite his injuries sustained in the raid, Geoffrey was determined to ‘do his bit’ again in the Second World War. He was however, deemed too old and too unfit to join the RNVR and so entered service with the  River Emergency Service on the River Thames and in 1940 transferred to the Royal Naval Patrol Service, with the equivalent rank of an Able Seaman.

He was a man of great charm and humour and he had a great many friends. He had a strong religious belief and a strict sense of honour and duty to his country and his family. He never hesitated to do what he felt was right.

Sadly, the injuries he received during the raid had taken its toll. While on duty with the Patrol Service his weakened leg gave way while he was carrying a heavy bag of coal, and as he fell he hit his head and suffered severe concussion. He died in St Olave’s Hospital, Rotherhithe on April 21 1941.

Geoffrey’s son, Mortimer, described him as “a man of great charm and humour and he had a great many friends. He had a strong religious belief and a strict sense of honour and duty to his country and his family. He never hesitated to do what he felt was right.”


100 years on, we pay tribute to Geoffrey and all those who took part in the second Ostend raid. Find out more about these individuals, on Lives of the First World War.

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Behind Every Photograph Lies a Story: The Rogue and the Mystery Man

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

In this guest blog post, Paul Bourton of the Unknown Soldier Military Archive & Soldier Research Service shares the latest instalment of his series revealing the stories behind a pre-war photograph of thirteen men of 119 Battery Royal Field Artillery. He focuses on the stories of Stanley Baker and F Thomas – the former has been traced, while the wartime exploits of the other remain a mystery.


  • The Rogue

To anyone who has ever watched the 1964 film epic ‘Zulu’, the name Stanley Baker is synonymous with heroism and military glory.  In the film, Baker portrayed Lieutenant John Chard of the Royal Engineers; the man who led the gallant defence at Rorke’s Drift during the Zulu War of 1879 and who won one of the eleven Victoria Crosses awarded for that action.

The Stanley Baker who enlisted into the ranks of the Royal Artillery in October 1910 did not enjoy the celebrated military career of the man portrayed by his namesake.  In fact, if he could be compared to any of the characters depicted in the film, it is surely that of Private Henry Hook who was portrayed as a Cockney rogue, a drunk and a ne-er-do-well.  Although this depiction was erroneous (Hook, a native of Gloucestershire, was a model soldier, a teetotaler and a devout Christian) it certainly fits with the man sitting in the front row of the photograph, second from the left and holding the football.


Stanley Baker

Stanley Baker was born in Maryport in Cumberland around April 1890.  Nothing is known about his life before joining the Army, but he was working as a General Labourer when he enlisted into the Royal Artillery at Carlisle on 24 October 1910 aged 20.  He signed up for a term of three years of service with the Colours and nine years with the Army Reserve.

He was sent for his basic training at the Number 2 Artillery Training Depot at Athlone in Ireland.  Stanley Baker had a problem with authority and a poor disciplinary record and whilst training spent long periods in military detention.

On 7 February 1911, Gunner 62587 Baker was finally posted to the 119th Battery RFA in Ballincollig in County Cork.  The proximity of his birthplace and age to that of his football teammate Frank Bramwell may have meant that the men were close friends.  But the two men appear to have been polar opposites in terms of conduct.

In July, Baker was found guilty of sleeping whilst on stable duty and was sentenced to fourteen days in custody.  The severity of the sentence reflects the value the Army put on its horses and the consequences of dereliction of duty in regard to their care and security.  In October, the wayward Gunner contracted gonorrhoea and was hospitalised for several days.  His conduct sheet continued to catalogue a string of misdemeanours.  In May 1912, he was fined and confined to barracks for being drunk and creating a disturbance in the barracks.  The following April he was sentenced to a week in the cells for disorderly conduct in the local theatre in Ballincollig and then breaking away from the military escort that arrested him.

His bad behaviour notwithstanding, he was selected for the Battery football team that won the 27th Brigade RFA Shield in the 1911/12 season and retained it in 1912/13.  Shortly after my photograph was taken Stanley Baker got married.  He wed a Ballincollig girl called Annie McDonnell on 13 September.  The following month Stanley left the army on completion of his three years of service and was transferred to the Army Reserve.  He settled for a while in Ballincollig.  Meanwhile, the 119 Battery moved with the 27 Brigade RFA to its new quarters at Newbridge in County Kildare to join the 5th Division.

The following year Stanley and his wife Annie were expecting the arrival of their first child.  He was not to be around to witness the birth of his daughter though.  A daughter called Doris was born on 9 September.  On the outbreak of war in August he was recalled to the Army from the Reserve.  He reported to the 14 Brigade Royal Field Artillery at Woolwich on the same day his old Battery was mobilised for war at Newbridge.  Gunner Baker was posted to the Divisional Ammunition Column of the 4th Division and he landed in France on 23 August 1914, the very day that his former comrades saw their first action at the Battle of Mons.


  • The Mystery Man

Driver F Thomas stands in the back row and second from the right in the photograph and, despite a thorough search to uncover his story, his departure from the unit prior to its mobilisation in August 1914, makes him the only man in the photograph of whom nothing is known except his rank, surname and first initial.

Unknown member of 119 Battery

The most likely explanation for his departure is that he either transferred to another unit or was discharged from the Army prior to the outbreak of war.  If the latter was true, and providing the reasons for his discharge were not medical or related to his fitness to serve, then he would have been recalled to the Colours on the outbreak of the war as a reservist.

Working on the assumption that he would have been assigned to an artillery unit on transfer or call-up from the reserves, an assumption based on his previous army experience and training as a driver, a detailed search of soldiers of that name who served with the Royal Artillery in the Great War has revealed several possible candidates but, so far, nothing has been found to link any of them to the man in the picture.

Enquiries into the particulars of Driver F Thomas will be ongoing but enthusiasm and hope will be tempered with a degree of pragmatism; one of the most sobering lessons I have learned in my career as a researcher is that, no matter where or how hard or for how long one searches, there are instances where a particular soldier will always remain ‘unknown’.


In the next instalment of the blog I will cover the 119 Battery’s baptism of fire at the Battle of Mons and the subsequent retreat.  I will introduce more of the eleven men from the photograph who served with the Battery in these opening phases of the war and explain how the 119th won honour, glory and even the highest award for valour – but at great cost.


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

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

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


  • The raids

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


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


  • Victoria Crosses

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

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

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


Lieutenant Commander George Nicholson Bradford. IWM VC 117


  • George Nicholson Bradford

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

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

 Without a moment’s hesitation he went to certain death

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

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

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


  • Remembering Zeebrugge and Ostend

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


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

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

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

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


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


  • Preparing for the funeral

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

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

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


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


  • Conducting the service

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


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


  • Fellow airmen as pallbearers

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

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


  • Military salute

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


Australians firing a volley at the graveside. IWM Q 10921


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

To the German Flying Corps

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

From the British Royal Air Force


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


  • Final Resting Place

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


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The last flight of the Red Baron

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

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

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


  • His first ‘kills’

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


Lieutenant Tom Rees. Image in the public domain


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


  • Lucky escapes

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

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


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

  • The last flight of the Red Baron

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

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


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

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

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

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


  • Early life

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

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

Thomas Harold Burton. IWM Collections HU 93371

  • Serving overseas

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

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

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

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

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


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


  • Remembering Thomas

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


  • Discovery

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

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

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


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


  • Advent of war

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

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


  • Researching using Lives of the First World War

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


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Marking 100 years since political change

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

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

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


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

  • The Duckworths

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

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


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

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

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


  • The Representation of the People Act

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

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

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


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

  • Limitations of the Act

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

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


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

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