Letters at the Front

A number of small personal archives from the York and Lancaster Regiment were recently digitised by the First World War Archives Project. Joe Williams, a remote volunteer for the project, explores the importance of soldier’s mail in light of these.

Cartoon from the Friendship Book of J Smalley © Rotherham Heritage Services: York and Lancaster Archive (Collection 578-K/8/2/412)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP

Cartoon from the Friendship Book of J Smalley © Rotherham Heritage Services: York and Lancaster Archive (Collection 578-K/8/2/412)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP

Life on the Western Front could be deadly, but it could also be dead boring. Waiting around for orders, marching to new locations, digging trenches :- when the fighting ceased, there was little to do. Moreover, it was an isolated life: men were separated from their families and jobs for long periods. Consequently, morale could be low. Soldiers coped with this by engaging in a variety of activities but letter writing was perhaps the principal way of staying “in the pink”, as can be seen from the sheer volume of surviving letters sent and received by certain soldiers of the York and Lancaster Regiment. As Allan Simpson put it in his letter to his mother, “It’s a soldiers privilege to grumble.”

Extract from the Personal Papers of Allan Simpson © Rotherham Heritage Services: York and Lancaster Archive (Collection 578-K/8/2/402)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP

Extract from the Personal Papers of Allan Simpson © Rotherham Heritage Services: York and Lancaster Archive (Collection 578-K/8/2/402)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP

Military officials were obviously aware of this. A cursory glance at the dates of letters to and from soldiers indicates, perhaps surprisingly, a rough delivery time of four to five days. Despite a significant disruption to traffic across the English Channel, the quick processing of mail was prioritised to ensure soldiers never felt cut off from their home lives.

Surrounded by battalions of other men, correspondence, in essence, was a means of keeping in touch with and reassuring loved ones they were “still alive and kicking” (Allan Simpson to his mother). Simpson derived great enjoyment making light of his seemingly dire circumstances in observations to his mother, while Charles Spurr sent home gifts to his children in letters from “Your Dada”.

Letter from the Personal Papers of Charles Edward Spurr © Rotherham Heritage Services: York and Lancaster Archive (Collection 578-K/8/2/426)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP

Letter from the Personal Papers of Charles Edward Spurr © Rotherham Heritage Services: York and Lancaster Archive (Collection 578-K/8/2/426)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP

Indeed, the idea of persons “waiting” was a major theme of soldiers’ correspondence, particularly in letters received. Mail sent by wives and girlfriends reminded soldiers of who exactly was “waiting” for them. One postcard sent to JE White is subtitled “To my dear Soldier Boy…”. Letters could therefore be a comforting reminder that, in spite of the boredom and destruction, men still had a stake in their families.

Postcard from the Personal Papers of JE White © Rotherham Heritage Services: York and Lancaster Archive (Collection 578-K/8/2/840)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP

Postcard from the Personal Papers of JE White © Rotherham Heritage Services: York and Lancaster Archive (Collection 578-K/8/2/840)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP

As livelihoods were put on hold, letter writing also allowed soldiers to maintain a semblance of involvement in their professions. As a village mechanic, Fred Bluck’s correspondence with his sister allowed him to make important business decisions in absentia. Similarly, information pertaining to “the pit” was frequently relayed to Bluck. As normal life was so profoundly disturbed by war, these letters provided soldiers with a reassuring alternative reality. The sending and receiving of “things” was a further boost to trench morale. Fred Bluck sent washing regularly while at training camp in England and in return was the recipient of money, mended equipment and birthday presents (a signet ring on one occasion). Others received consumables in scarce supply in France and Belgium, such as cigarettes and cakes. Without these items, soldiers’ only possessions were their indistinguishable military provisions and their only income their meagre army wage. With them, however, they could not only live a little more comfortably, but also feel somewhat more individual, and thus happier.

Letter from the Personal Papers of Fred Bluck © Rotherham Heritage Services: York and Lancaster Archive (Collection 578-K/8/2/40)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP

Letter from the Personal Papers of Fred Bluck © Rotherham Heritage Services: York and Lancaster Archive (Collection 578-K/8/2/40)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP

Written correspondence was not merely a means of passing the time. It created a bridge with a real past and a possible future which made their military existence a fraction more tolerable.



The proposed attack of the ‘Easter bunnies’ was clearly intended – though very well thought out and well planned – as an April Fool. Making this a 100 year old joke!

The Letter was sent to the War Office and was opened by a Major C.P Deedes of the Kings Own Light Infantry, who was working as a General Staff Officer (Grade 3) at the time. Major Deedes wrote in his diary in response to the letter:

Rabbits - Diary Entry

Major Deedes clearly saw the funny side of this correspondence, indeed the letter was found within a collection of his belongings, meaning he had kept it ever since.

General CP Deedes_RabbitsGeneral C.P Deedes, as the Major later became, was a respected figure of his regiment. During the war he was awarded a D.S.O (Distinguished Service Order), mentioned in Dispatches on multiple occasions, and made a ‘Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of Saint Michael and Saint George.’

For more information about the papers and life of General C.P Deedes contact the Museum and Archives of the King’s Own Light Infantry. Their Website can be found here.

The Curator @ War: “Bah Humbug – stripping the Armouries decorations for Christmas” December 1914

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.

In 1914, as the rest of the country prepared for the festive period and the realisation began to dawn that the war would not be over by Christmas, ffoulkes continued on his mission to modernise the White Tower displays, following on from the work started by Dillon. Having judiciously pruned some of the more exotic elements of the collection in November, despatching Oriental, Classical and Prehistoric material to the British Museum, and with the prospect of the small arms stores being removed from the Entrance floor of the White Tower, he began to clear the decks – literally.

bahumbug blog

The photographs below give an impression of the ebullient displays from the later 1880s after the demolition of the New Horse Armoury. They come from The Photographic View Album of the Tower of London published by Valentine and Sons of Dundee but sadly undated.  This specific copy was annotated by ffoulkes and presented to HMS Tower 27th April 1917. Built by Swan Hunter and launched 5th April 1917, HMS Tower was an R class destroyer and is probably most famous for having the first modern ship’s badge, co-designed by Mr George Richardson, director of the shipyard, and Major Charles ffoulkes. The badge consisted of the White Tower and motto “God Save King George and his Tower” within a rope border, topped with a naval crown and with the ship’s name beneath.


This is the Council Chamber (today more prosaically titled second floor west gallery) before the removal of the sword railings (1913) and the filling in of the light wells in the floor. Perhaps the lights installed in 1884 were somewhat unsubtle – in his autobiography ffoulkes described them as “great arc lights like a modern railway station” (p.64) – and obviously space was at a premium as the exhibits crowded together in their new home.

At the Northern end Queen Elizabeth I and her page found temporary refuge before moving back to the crypt and thence to pastures new. Both look resigned to their lot – perhaps recognising worse was yet to come after their move to the Museum of London. Today the only survivor of this tableau is Queen Elizabeth’s head.  The rest were consigned to a museum store room in the 1930s where they remain immured (if not shattered) by enemy action during the Second World War.


However it was the Banqueting Hall (today’s first floor) that ffoulkes was targeting in December 1914. Finally he could be rid of the “elaborate trophies ….. and geometrical patterns of composed of tortured swords, bayonets and gun-locks bent and twisted in the Ordnance forges to conform with the lines of required designs. These were produced by Mr Stacy, Armoury Keeper, as a feeble imitation of the wonders produced by one Harris in the Storehouse which was burnt in 1841”. A little harsh on Mr Stacy, but ffoulkes had very determined views on the subject regarding “these typical products of nineteenth-century military art”  as “symptomatic of a period which could not produce simple railings without designing them as cast-iron spears with iron tassels”.


So the scrolling motifs of re-formed gun-locks around the light wells, pendant bayonets and other trophies of arms attached to the ceilings were removed, and the great flower heads (a little something for the lady visitor?) seen here flanking the opening in the North face of the White Tower were swept away.  A few decorations lingered on in more inaccessible places, but ffoulkes had placed his finger on the continuing dilemma of how best to display the interior of the White Tower? As he put it “Firstly it is a magnificent specimen of eleventh-century architecture, and secondly it houses a collection of arms and armour, many pieces having been exhibited here since the sixteenth century, if not earlier.”   Finding a satisfactory balance continues to exercise the minds of curators and architectural historians to this day, as these two aspects can at times be mutually exclusive.

(A footnote for the pedants among us – this view is of the first floor east leading to the Chapel of St John, while traditionally the Banqueting Hall refers to the west side of the floor. Even ffoulkes had to think twice – but it is clear from the new Guide Book produced in 1916 when the whole of the White Tower was given over to Armouries displays that the Sword floor was on the east side , with the Weapons room on the west. Happy Christmas!)

Something to get your teeth into…

The Royal Armouries has just acquired a very unusual piece – a vampire killing kit that was recently put up for auction in North Yorkshire.

Vampire Slaying Kit - a mahogany casket with pistol, crucifix, rosary beads, three glass bottles, mallet and four wooden stakes

The complete Vampire Slaying Kit, recently acquired by Royal Armouries, Leeds comprises a mahogany casket complete with pistol and bullet mould, crucifix, prayer book, rosary beads, glass bottles labelled holy water and holy earth, a mallet and four wooden stakes

This intriguing kit comprises a mahogany casket, packed with everything a vampire hunter might need. The box is split into two tiers. The top layer contains a percussion cap pistol with an octagonal barrel – for firing silver bullets and a bullet mould. The lid holds a crucifix and rosary beads, to ward off ‘evil spirits’.

Other compartments contain three glass bottles, two of which are labelled ‘holy water’ and another ‘holy earth’. As a last resort there’s a mallet and four wooden stakes, plus The Book of Common Prayer, dated 1857.

The Book of Common Prayer opened to the title page, and a wooden crucifix

The Book of Common Prayer from the Vampire Slaying Kit, dated 1857

A handwritten extract from the Bible, quoting Luke 19:27, reads, ‘But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.’

I’m really pleased to be able to add this fascinating object to our world-class collections, which as well as conventional arms & armour, also contains a number of unusual objects. One category within our collections is known as ‘Firearms Curiosa’ – unusual and quirky pieces sometimes made to test new technology and ideas, sometimes to deceive, and sometimes just for fun! This kit definitely falls into this category.

Although often claimed to either be made for genuine vampire slayers, or as novelties for travellers to Eastern Europe, this is probably not the case with this piece. I’ve been researching vampire-killing kits for five years, and there is no evidence of their existence prior to 1972, around the time of the famous ‘Hammer’ horror movies. For some people, this makes them ‘fakes’, but is it possible to have a fake if there is no original to copy?

I argue that they are instead ‘invented artefacts’ – movie props without a film. We will be subjecting our kit to some sensitive scientific analysis to see if we can find out more about it, but chances are that it was made relatively recently. This is not a bad thing – museums today collect far more widely than just traditional art and historical pieces, and the level of interest generated by this kit shows how culturally important it is. It’s hard evidence of the undying love people have for supernatural fiction, from Dracula to Twilight and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. It also reflects centuries of folklore relating to vampires and the best ways to dispose of them, which for some people, even in the 21st century, remains a frightening reality.

We hope to put the kit on display by Halloween. In the meantime it will be available for researchers to examine by appointment.

Take a look at my article in issue 288 of the Fortean Times – ‘To Kill a Vampire’ for further details.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms, Royal Armouries, Leeds

Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree…

One of the most popular symbols of the festive season is the Christmas tree, with its familiar fir-tree shape. Interestingly, the blades of three 16th-century Italian partizans in the Armouries’ collection all have a design in pointillé decoration which distinctly resembles this same recognisable outline of a fir tree. There is no evidence that this is what the design was actually intended to represent, but the similarity is striking. The outline of the staggered branches is depicted in small punched dots around the medial ridges of the blades.

Christmas tree partizan close up

Christmas tree partizan close up

Partizans were amongst a variety of European two-handed staff weapons that developed and experienced widespread usage in the 15th and 16th centuries. During this time, foot soldiers became increasingly important on the battlefield, and infantry militias from Switzerland, Italy and the Netherlands successfully fought against armies of mounted knights. These three partizans were part of the group of staff weapons that were imported from Italy by King Henry VIII, and formed part of his arsenal. Their long ‘ox-tongue’ type blades have a spear point and projecting, upturned lugs at the base. They are mounted on wooden shafts which are approximately nine feet (nearly three metres) long.

Christmas tree partizan

Christmas tree partizan

By the 17th century, the manufacture of partizans and their practical use as battlefield weapons was declining, but they continued to have a role as ceremonial weapons associated with military rank. For this purpose the blades were often shortened and highly ornamented. In this guise they came to be known as ‘spontons’ or ‘spontoons’.

The decoration on these particular partizans is not especially elaborate though, which may suggest that they were intended to be more functional than ornamental. The design on the blades seems immediately familiar to contemporary audiences as the outline of a fir tree, but why it was used is an intriguing question to which we cannot yet provide an answer. Was it simply a popular decorative motif for this type of weapon, or did it possess a greater symbolic meaning than we realise? It is unlikely to be a reference to a Christmas tree as we would understand it, because when these partizans were made in the 16th century, the custom of the Christmas tree was not well established outside Northern Germany; the rest of Europe only embraced the tradition a few centuries later.

Blogger: Natasha Roberts, Curatorial Assistant

Becoming Florence

One of the most popular workshops with younger visitors to our education centre at Fort Nelson is the session about Florence Nightingale during which pupils investigate the life and times of the pioneering nurse. Our wrap-around service provides teachers with pre- and post-visit resources to enhance the time the children spend exploring our authentic Victorian fort.

In order to really bring history to life our Education Manager Eileen Clegg is regularly transformed into Florence Nightingale.

In order to really bring history to life our Education Manager Eileen Clegg regularly transforms into Florence Nightingale.

As part of their visit to Fort Nelson children get their hands on history through our special handling collection, they can explore the Victorian hospital ward and listen to the story of the ‘The lady with the lamp’ in the Fort’s atmospheric tunnels.

Blogger: Nicole Heard, Education Assistant

Christmas Box

At Christmas 1914, the teenage Princess Mary, daughter of King George V and Queen Mary, wanted to send a ‘gift from the Nation’ to all who were away from home for Christmas, fighting for our freedom. An advertisement in the national press invited contributions for a ‘Sailors & Soldiers Christmas Fund’.  Following a generous response from the public, the money was used to produce an embossed brass box, with various contents for the recipients.

The standard contents were 1oz of tobacco and 20 cigarettes, with a separate pipe and lighter. Non-smokers were alternatively offered a bullet pencil, writing paper and sweets.  Spices and sweets were provided for Indian troops, and chocolate for nurses. Most boxes also contained a Christmas card and a small photograph of Princess Mary.

The fund stayed open until 1920, and over 2.5 million boxes were delivered. Many of these survive, including one on display on the War gallery mezzanine, on loan from ex-senior curator of firearms at the Royal Armouries, Martin Pegler.

The Christmas Box on display in the War Gallery

The Christmas Box on display in the War Gallery

Martin writes:

In the 1980’s my wife and I were interviewing WW1 veterans. [We were given the tin by] Albert Edward Lee, though he was universally known as ‘Nick.’ He had been in the Machine Gun Corps in 1915, then was transferred to the Tank Corps in 1916. I don’t recall what regiment he served in prior to 1915, but do recall him saying that then he was a non-smoker and teetotal, so he never used the tin, and sent it home as a souvenir. Oddly, he became a confirmed pipe-smoker later in life, and always had a pipe puffing away when we visited him.

Nick Lee

Nick Lee

He won the Military Medal in 1916 with the tanks, was badly gassed in 1917, invalided out of the war, and told he had two years to live. So he became a medical experiment and lived in the open for three years, in his parents back garden in a sort of garden shed with only three walls. His lungs began to heal, and when we met him he was a robust 80-ish, and laughed at having outlived all the doctors who said he’d never survive!

The Christmas boxes for troops were revived in 2004 by the charity ‘uk4u thanks’! http://www.uk4u.org/charity

Trench biscuit

Trench biscuit

Very nearby in the gallery can also be seen a hardtack biscuit also on loan from Martin Pegler, inscribed ‘SOLDIER’S TRENCH biscuit, 1915, FRANCE, European WAR’. Renowned for being tooth-breakingly hard, in almost 100 years no one was desperate enough to eat it!

Blogger: Victoria Adams, Curatorial Assistant