The Diary of Private Holden: Part Two – The Remount Depot (24th May – 1st July 1915)

As part of the museums’ ongoing First World War Archives Project, we have been looking into the fascinating diary of Private Wilfred Holden In our last post, Holden described the journey to France and has now crossed the channel.

Now arriving at Rouen, the soldiers faced a 4 mile hike to Base Depot Number 5 where Private Holden was to stay for nearly 6 Weeks. The base at Rouen consisted of different camps, largely firing Infantry, and was the primary hospital centre for the British Expeditionary Forces, in addition to housing the Cavalry Remount Depot. Private Holden describes it:

“like a big canvas city, & the distance round it, would be somewhere about, six miles, so you can form from that the amount of space taken, & very little space was wasted. In our camp alone we had over 50 stables, each one having over a hundred stalls, & about half a dozen lines, & at times these had over a hundred horses on each one”

Example of a British Army Camp ©Duke of Wellington’s Regimental Archive/ Royal Armouries FWWA

Though entranced by the appearance of the ‘canvas city’, the reality of accommodation at the base seems to have left something to be desired.

“The first few weeks, we had three tents between us, but we did not have them long, & we had two between twenty of us, it was so hot …. .after that we spent most of our nights outside, with the stars for a roof. Wet nights we looked for an empty tent.”

During the day the soldiers worked at the Remount Depot. Private Holden describes a typical day:

  • 6 am               Fall in and report to designated stable to groom and take to                                        water about one hundred horses per man
  • 7:30 am          Breakfast
  • 8:30 am          Back to the stables to groom and exercise the horses
  • 12 Noon         Rest period
  • 2:00 pm          (if on Cavalry Depot duty) Saddle horses ready to move out
  • 4:00 pm          Grooming, watering and feeding the horses
  • 6:00 pm          Released from duty

Evenings at the base were typically spent in the YMCA hut writing, playing cards or watching one of the nightly concerts or performances. Private Holden was lucky enough to be at the base when it hosted one of Lena Ashwell’s famous Concert Parties. Lena Ashwell was an actress and theatre manager who organised concert parties for troops as far afield as Egypt during the war, receiving an OBE for her work in 1917.

Interior of a YMCA hut at Rouen © IWM (Q5457)

Interior of a YMCA hut at Rouen © IWM (Q5457)

When not attending camp entertainments soldiers could request a pass to go into Rouen during their free time. Private Holden seems to have been very taken with the city, describing its churches, roads and cafes, and even going as far as to comment:

“I must say that most of their public buildings are much better looking than ours in England, the churches, were all very pretty buildings, the carving being the chief thing”

On 25th June, after 5 weeks at the base, Private Holden and 12 others were warned to prepare to travel to the front, and on 1st July they finally moved out.

“this time we were on the last stage of the road to the fighting line, we again left friends”

The Diary of Private Holden: Part One, a journey to France

As part of the museums’ ongoing First World War Archives Project, we have been looking into the fascinating diary of Private Wilfred Holden

Unlike those who joined the army to become career soldiers, Private Holden was part of the Special Cavalry Reserve. Volunteers or conscripts who enlisted after the start of the war served with the reserve regiments in England, undergoing basic training before being sent overseas to supply drafts to their affiliated regiments.

Though it has not been possible to locate him in the surviving WW1 records, Private Holden most likely belonged to the 4th Reserve Regiment, based at Tidworth, which was the regiment that supplied drafts to the 7th Dragoon Guards until 1917.

Private Holden does not seem to have taken naturally to soldiering and his diary has few place names or dates and very little mention of enemy action. It does however give a wonderful picture of his everyday worries and wishes and the various mishaps that befell him.

The Journey out (22-23 May 1915)

 “It was on May the 20th, when, along with ten more men, I was warned for France, but it was not until two days later, that we were told the day for leaving. On the evening of the 22nd we got orders to parade at 8 A.M the following morning, when, I should say, about forty eight men & two NCO’s turned out, we marched down to the station, but unlike all other drafts we had no band, at the time they were on leave. At the station we were given a good send off, by our own men & also the 9th Lancers and the 18th Hussars, they were also sending men away and we were all on the same train, & we steamed out of Tidworth station, which to most people, was a thing to be remembered, the two bands of the 9th and the 18th were playing , & the chaps wishing us all good luck, & a few wondering if they would ever see their chums again, then all was left behind and the future talked about”

Cavalry Troops at southampton docks

P.269/2 Cavalry Troops at Southampton Docks ©Southampton Archives


Arriving at Southampton Docks, Private Holden had to wait for the troop ship to be prepared for embarkation and spent his time watching the boats come in.

“During the time we were waiting for the order to fall in, we saw a few hospital ships come in dock, then the question how long should we be out before we should stop one, as it is called. About 4:30 we got the welcome order fall in, then we marched on the boat, the name I have forgotten, it was some Irish name, & was an old cargo boat, & was fitted up for cattle, we all marched on, & three hundred horses were taken on. At 5:30 the boat steamed out, but, unlike the pictures of a ‘departure of a troopship’, all was quiet, no cheering and goodbyes. No one was on the dock, only workmen, & a few soldiers, & many looked longingly at old England’s shores as we went slowly down the channel”

Private Holden Diary Entry

Newsreel films of the departures of troop ships from Britain and Overseas were common during the early years of the war and presumably it is one such film that Private Holden refers to within his diary. Examples of such films can be viewed in the British Pathé online Archive, including this film of Russian Relief troops departing from London.

Many of the ships used to carry British and colonial troops during the war had been requisitioned and were fitted up as best they could be for the process of carrying large numbers of men and horses across the sea. Horses were often winched onto the ships and confined in small quarters for the voyage, with many dying from disease and injury.

Even the short journey across the channel was dangerous for both man and beast, with submarines targeting the troop ships. Only a month after Private Holden’s voyage, in June 1915 the SS Armenian was torpedoed off the British coastline and 1,400 mules and horses were left to perish while the remaining men abandoned ship.

Conditions on the troop ship were cramped and most of the soldiers took the welcome chance to sleep while they could but Private Holden stayed on deck watching the sunset.

 Seasick Soldiers on SS Euripides  ©Sea Power Centre, Australia

Seasick Soldiers on SS Euripides ©Sea Power Centre, Australia

I smile often when I think of the crowd, & picking your way over them was a very difficult task, for with the swaying of the boat, & the different positions of the men, you had a hard task, & more than one man had a rude awakening, through someone falling on the top of him.”

Seasick Soldiers on SS Euripides  ©Sea Power Centre, Australia

Passing Le Havre signalled the completion of the channel crossing and the ship turned to sail down the river towards Rouen.

“We passed several villages on the river side, some of the people seemed to be just getting out of bed, but the noise made on the boat, was enough to awake the dead, & before we reach Rouen, half the chaps could not shout, the people cheered us all the way down, but when nearing Rouen, we had to cease shouting, to give the sailors a chance to hear the orders given from the bridge.”


The Curator @ War: 15 March 1915 “Foreman Buckingham: the Last Post” (part I)

Keeper of the Tower Armouries, Bridget Clifford, continues her posts on Charles John Ffoulkes, who was Curator of the Armouries from 1913-1938 – during which he took part in the World War I civil defence of London, completed the first and last complete modern printed catalogue of the Tower collection, and created a museum infrastructure within The Tower. After his retirement, he was awarded an OBE in 1925 and a CBE in 1934 in recognition of his work on the Imperial War Museum.

170415_Ffoulkes Buckingham part 1.jpeg

Buckingham’s departure for war had been recorded in the Minute Book entry of 5th September 1914.  Technically he had retired from the Territorial Army in April 1912, but on the outbreak of war he re-enlisted aged 45 and his eighteen years experience as a Volunteer Artilleryman – including a year’s active service in South Africa in 1900 – were to be put to good use training volunteers. Bidding farewell to his wife of 3 years, Buckingham set off to serve King and Country in Peterborough.  As Dillon commented in his appreciation of Buckingham published in the Ilford Recorder of 26th April 1915 “He was a most enthusiastic soldier and devoted much time to the making of soldiers”.

Buckingham fell sick in February 1915 and was given 3 weeks home leave. He died on the “very hour” he should have returned to duty according to one newspaper account. Cause of death? Phthisis – for keen scrabble players a useful archaic term for tuberculosis (apparently pronounced Tie-sis for those of us not fluent in classical Greek).

Dillon, Curator of the Tower Armouries from 1892 to 1913, was fulsome in his praise of his former colleague. “As a servant of the Government he was essentially one of the “Queen’s good bargains”, and his place will not easily be filled up” Dillon told the press. “As Foreman of the Armouries he displayed much zeal, and his intelligent and tireless work materially assisted in the classification and instructive arrangement of the treasures of the national collection.  He became a good judge of the genuineness or otherwise of objects in his charge and was a most willing pupil of those who could instruct him”.   Above all else he was innately a “gentleman”. The latter judgement was re-enforced in Dillon’s letter of 29 May 1915 to Buckingham’s widow, Daisy (formerly Miss Clarke) where he assured her “I knew your husband for some 20 years and always had the warmest regard and respect for him” adding “I’m sure that anyone whom he married would be of the same high standard as himself” – not perhaps a judgement one would expect to find openly expressed today.

Ffoulkes in his autobiography Arms and the Tower (John Murray, 1939) ascribed Buckingham’s death to “a chill caught in drilling Territorial Artillery”, and provided practical help when the family made enquiries as to the arrangements for a military funeral. It transpired that there were no suitable guns left in London to bear the coffin – all serviceable ordnance was in action on the Continent. However ffoulkes pulled some strings, and although he was vague as to which department of the War Office obliged “with commendable speed a dummy gun and carriage were made” which went on to be frequently used for funerals in the early war years.

Buckingham’s funeral was set for Saturday 20th March 1915, arrangements with Messrs Dyer & Sons of Forest Gate and Ilford, with the interment announced for 3.30 pm. Look out for part two of this post – coming next week – to learn more of the event, which according to the local press aroused much interest and attracted an enormous crowd of spectators.

Battle of Mons, 1914 – a Personal Account

The First World War erupted in August 1914, as German troops drove across Belgium meeting the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) based around Mons on the 23rd. The battle raged for several days as British and French forces were initially driven back until they held the Germans in early September and regained some lost territory.

The cover of the diary; ‘In case of accidents please forward to: - Mrs. E. Stone, 4 Lansdowne Place, Blackheath, London’.

The cover of the diary; ‘In case of accidents please forward to: - Mrs. E. Stone, 4 Lansdowne Place, Blackheath, London’.

Housed in the Royal Armouries archive’s collection in Leeds is the diary of Captain Edward Stone. Captain Stone began the war as second-in-command of B Company 2nd Dragoon Guards one of the cavalry regiments that were part of the BEF, but soon rose to commanding officer. His diary covers the period of 14 August – 28 October 1914 and vividly portrays the fast-paced action of the early weeks of the war.

A page from the diary of Captain Edward Stone

A page from the diary of Captain Edward Stone

The German army drove French troops to the right of the BEF into retreat and the British were forced to withdraw to ensure they were not outflanked as the Germans advanced. Stone coveys the confusion of the withdrawal as the BEF pulled back from the enemy:

‘On arriving at Le Cateau the place was swarming with infantry and artillery and cavalry, and there was absolute chaos. Finally we pulled off the road and camped in another wet turnip field; the horses and men were just about done in and wet through…’

Stone goes on to describe the British counter-attack at Le Cateau, and following actions at Nery, Aisnes and Messines as the German advance was gradually halted and the battle front stabilised into the lines of trenches that remained in place until 1918; the Western Front was born.

Officers of the 2nd Dragoon Guards, Captain Stone is on the front row, third from the left. This picture was taken in August 1914, only a few days before the Regiment went into action.

Officers of the 2nd Dragoon Guards, Captain Stone is on the front row, third from the left. This picture was taken in August 1914, only a few days before the Regiment went into action.

Edward Stone survived the horrors of the First World War. He was promoted to Major in 1917 and after a long career retired in 1926.

Blogger: Stuart Ivinson, Library Assistant