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‘From Little Towns in a Far Land’

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

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


  • Julian’s wartime experiences

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

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

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


  • Remembering Julian in his hometown

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

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

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

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

  • National Remembrance

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

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

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

From little towns in a far land we came,

To save our honour and a world aflame,

By little towns, in a far land we sleep,

And trust those things we won to you to keep.

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

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Every Plaque Tells a Story

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

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

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

  • Three names

Portrait photograph of Charles Hunt. Image courtesy of Peter Cook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Remembered by their relatives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Christmas Pantomimes – light in the dark

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

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


  • From the West End to the Western Front.

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

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



  • ‘Female’ acts.

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


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

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


  • Sound of music.

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

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

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


Captain Arthur Edward Drummond Bliss

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


  • The show must go on.

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

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



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

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 13647)

© IWM (Art.IWM PST 13647)

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

  • The retreat begins

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

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

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


  • Elouges

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

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

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

  • Courage Under Fire

Ernest Wright Alexander VC

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

the greatest gallantry and devotion to duty

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


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

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

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

William A D Kirk. Image courtesy of Rob Kirk.


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

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

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



  • An unknown First World War connection

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

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

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

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

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

  • Tracing family history

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

Agnes Kirk. Image courtesy of Rob Kirk.

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

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

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

He also said:

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

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

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

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

  • Third Battle of Ypres

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

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

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

  • Remembering William

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

Memorial card for William. Image courtesy of Rob Kirk.

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

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


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Wilfred Owen – The truth of war


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


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


  •   Background

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


Owen family.


  • The soldier

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


Officers of 3/5th Manchester Regiment


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


  • Dulce et Decorum Est

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


  • Posthumous publication

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

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

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