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: 20 March 1915 “Foreman Buckingham: the Last Post” (part II)

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.

280415_Ffoulkes_Part 2


Battery Sergeant Major William Henry Noble Buckingham of the Royal Field Artillery was laid to rest with full military pomp and ceremony on the afternoon of Saturday 20th March 1915 in Ilford County Council Cemetery.  His death while training volunteers at Peterborough was not in the heat of battle as he may have imagined, but at home where he had been sent three weeks earlier to recover from a chill.  The fact that the official records give the cause of death as phthisis or tuberculosis suggests there may have been a pre- existing condition or that he had contracted the disease after re-enlisting at the outbreak of war in 1914.

The general consensus seems to have been that he was a good chap –both as Foreman of the Tower Armouries and as an Artilleryman – and his colleagues were warm in their praise of him. His death was announced locally – in the Ilford Recorder and The Stratford Express – and nationally in the Daily Telegraph.

The funeral attracted much local interest, and an enormous accompanying crowd. The Tower Curator Charles ffoulkes representing HM Office of Works had already written to Mrs Buckingham to say that he would be attending, and that he would walk with the military part of the procession (at the time he was a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, manning London’s air defences). His predecessor Lord Dillon also attended, as did a number of local military representatives. The procession was lead by mounted policemen and included a firing party of 22 men, while the band of the late Essex Volunteers provided musical accompaniment.  A dummy gun and carriage to carry the coffin had had to be hastily assembled as all functioning ordnance had been commandeered for active service, and ffoulkes had had to pull some strings with the War Office to overcome the deficiency.  It went on to do further service for other families requesting a military funeral.

Among the floral tributes were those from the Yeoman Body and Chief Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, and another from “his fellow workmen A.O Corps, Tower of London”.  His sisters Nellie and Louie had sent wreathes as had his mother Ellen.  His wife’s scrapbook had a picture of the grave taken three days later showing it buried under an impressive mountain of flowers including a wreath in the form of the Royal Artillery insignia– unfortunately we only have a rather faded and blurred photocopy of the original in the Armouries archives, but it is still spectacular.

Interment had been announced for 3.30 but had to be delayed as the cortege was so large that it was past 4.00 o’clock when it finally reached the cemetery.

Mrs Daisy Buckingham survived her husband and lived through another world war, dying in 1952. Today Buckingham’s memorial has lost its Celtic cross which originally rose out of the three step plinth and now lies in front of it, and some of the metal lettering has become detached. But viewed in the spring sunshine, sprigs of early white blossom above, it provides a tangible link with the First World War and the Tower Armouries of a century ago.  I hope that Buckingham would approve of our commemorative exhibition in the South West corner of the first floor of the White Tower which this year has showcased some of his memorabilia gifted to the museum in 1997.

280415_Ffoulkes_Part 2_TOW

Catch it while you can – it will be changing soon.  2015’s topic will be  “The Enemy Within”, with  material relating to Fernando Buschmann, the Brazilian convicted of spying and shot at the Tower in October 1915.


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.

In Love and War

In honour of this Saint Valentine’s Day, we’ve put together a special ‘loved up’ post from the Royal Armouries. We’ve chosen to highlight two special romantic items of our collection; the amorous armour of Henry VIII, currently at the Tower of London, and the heartfelt gifts of World War One soldiers at Fort Nelson.

Intertwined initials decorate the armour

love token 2

Amorous Armour

Did you know that Henry VIII declared by Royal Charter that all of England would celebrate February 14th specifically as “Saint Valentine’s Day”? In honour of this, we thought we should discuss his most amorous armour, which was made about 1515. Throughout its decoration there are constant symbolic representations of his happy marriage to Katherine of Aragon, who had been his Queen for 6 years (married 1509).


All-over the armour’s decorations are beautiful flowering Tudor roses and pomegranates of Aragon, to illustrate this happy union (for now anyway!) The wings of the poleyns (knee protection) bear the sheaf of arrows badge of Ferdinand II of Aragon, as well as the combined Tudor rose and Katherine’s pomegranate badge, while the toecaps of the sabatons have the castle badge of Castile and the Tudor portcullis.


Most noticeable is the decoration around the base of the Tonlet (skirt), where the initials of H and K are joined by true lovers’ knots in copper alloy.

di-2010-1309-1024x928This romantic representation of Henry and Katherine is continued on the accompanying horse armour.  At the rear of the crupper (back/rear protection) the initials H and K, with a rose, are supported by putti (cherubim’s). The side panels (flanchards) are decorated with winged mermen, holding shields with combined rose and pomegranate badges – flanked by portcullis and sheaf of arrows badges for the King and his Queen. The lower border of the horse armour (bard) is decorated with the King’s motto DIEU ET MON DROIT, interspersed with even more roses and pomegranates, just in case.

For more information about the armour and bard, take a look at this link:

Gifts from the Front

Donated to the Royal Armouries by local resident Mrs Shelia Borer, these heart shaped cushions show us a ‘softer side’ of the First World War.

love token 2

Heart shaped cushions dating from the First World War, donated to the Royal Armouries by local resident Mrs Shelia Borer

These Romantic heart shaped cushions were sent to the wives of two soldiers serving in France during the First World War. They were perhaps intended as love tokens for Valentine’s Day.

The velvet and silk cushions were most likely purchased in France by Frederik Branson of the Royal Artillery and Everett Freeman of the Oxford Light Infantry. They would then have personalised them and sent them home to their loved ones.

portrait image

Frederick Branson RA of the Royal Artillery

One has the Royal Artillery crest whilst the other has that of the Oxford Light Infantry. The latter has a poignant poem that reads:

“Think of me

When the Golden sun is shining

And your mind is care set free

When of others you are thinking

Will you some time

Think of me.”

close up of love token

Credits Phil Magrath



The Christmas Truce


Image: soldiers of the 12th Bn East Yorkshire regiment pass through a communications trench, 1918. © Imperial War Museum, Creative Commons

Preview post


Did you see the Sainsbury’s Christmas television advert featuring the legendary Christmas truce that happened at various locations along the Western Front in December 1914? Whether you saw it or not, you probably will have heard some of the controversy it aroused. The advert, and more importantly the discussion around it, provided a great case study for our first class examining the history and memory of the First World War and generated a lot of debate. Here are the links we used, with a couple more we didn’t have time for:

Do you think Sainsbury’s ‘went too far’ with this advert? Was it a fond, well-researched tribute to an important historical event, or a cynical, emotive ploy to boost flagging profits? Or something in between? And what does this advert, and the debate it generated, tell us about the way we remember the First World War one hundred years on?

They That Are Left: the Royal Armouries hosts a stunning Remembrance photographic exhibition


…They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them…”

from Laurence Binyon’s ‘The Fallen’ (first published in The Times, 21 September 1914)

Last week the Royal Armouries hosted the opening of photographer Brian David Stevens’ ‘They That Are Left’ exhibition, an inspiring ten-year project comprising of portrait photographs of war veterans, taken each Remembrance Sunday at the Cenotaph from 2002 to 2012. The project consists of 100 portraits, a selection of which is currently on display at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds until 1 February, as part of our First World War Centenary commemorations.

IMG_8474- TTAL - 111114

IMG_8483- TTAL - 111114

As with each passing year our war veterans do grow older, and age both wearies them and condemns their valuable memories, they are thus at risk of becoming unknown. With this in mind, Brian took inspiration from Binyon’s famous poem, saying “the viewer is given no information, just a portrait. These faces then are as of unknown soldiers; no cap badges, no ribbons of spooling medals, no insignia for military rank. They are faces only. Each deep-etched with who they are and what they did, that we might look, and think – and thank them.”

“As the years pass, the number of veterans from World War I has dwindled to nothing and the number from World War II is steadily reduced, but their places are taken by other veterans from newer conflicts, who are also included.”

They That Are Left

Below is a short interview with Brian at the Royal Armouries about his collection, currently showing until 1 February.

The exhibition – which forms part of Royal Armouries’ ‘Inspired by…’ programme – transfers in March to Fort Nelson, Portsmouth, home to the national collection of artillery. For more information about Brian David Stevens’ work, please see his website here; .


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’!

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

Pretty lucky wasn’t it?

This letter from the Royal Armouries archives contains an eyewitness account of the battle of Jutland fought between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet on 30May – 1 June 1916.

HMS Invincible sinking

HMS Invincible sinking

It was written by George Slade, a seaman aboard HMS Inflexible, to his mother ten days after the battle to reassure her that he was safe. HMS Inflexible came through the action without any casualties and undamaged, although Slade describes one dangerous moment when ‘four torpedoes were fired at us. One passing across our stern, another passed along our port side about 10 yds away + the fourth actually went under us!! Pretty lucky wasn’t it?

Wartime letters were normally censored, and Slade intended to give no more details of the action, but he was then allowed to write a fuller account (presumably as reports of the battle had been published in the press) which he does so in the form of a journal or log.

During the battle Slade was stationed in the foretop and on the bridge, and so he had an excellent view of the action. He records all of the major events, including the dramatic loss of HMS Invincible:

‘6.30 The Invincible was blown up. She went up in a tremendous cloud of yellow cordite smoke. She broke in half + her bows + stern were left floating but I saw no survivors. Apparently a salvo pitched amidships + blew up her P+Q magazine. Huge pieces of steel + iron were falling everywhere but none touched us. We have heard that six were picked up afterwards + I think were all part of the Fore Top’s crew. (52 4 N, 6 6 E)’

George Slade's letter

George Slade’s letter

His account is unusually precise and it is likely that Slade copied the main details from the log kept on the bridge of HMS Inflexible during the action, and then added his own personal observations. The result is a fascinating description of one of the great battles of the First World War.

Blogger: William Longmate, Student Work Placement – Archives Department

Collections Up Close – Remembrance Special

The Royal Armouries Archives contain a collection of letters between Jack and Gert Adam, written during the First World War. The letters poignantly show their loving and often humorous relationship, including letters from their three young children. However, in August 1918 Gert’s letters to Jack, posted overseas to France, began to be returned unopened and the remainder of the letters reveal Gert’s endeavours to find out exactly what happened her husband, who never returned. Official records of the war, photographs and War Office correspondence surrounding the events reveal the true impact of war on his wife and family back in Doncaster, an experience undoubtedly shared by thousands of families at this time.

Jack and Gert Adams

Jack and Gert Adams

The letters have their own remarkable story, after being purchased form a house sale by the Museum in 2006 they were written into a play performed at the Royal Armouries. One day an audience member recognised the names and it transpired the family were living in the area. Once in touch the family were relieved the letters had been found as they had been accidentally lost during a house move. Later, in 2009, the family found a further collection of letters between Jack and Gert and kindly donated them to the Museum to be kept with the rest of the collection.

A short film about these archives can be found here on YouTube, the film was previously shown by the BBC for Remembrance in Trafalgar Square.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher