Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s campaign for better armour on the Western Front: Part four

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the creator of the great detective Sherlock Holmes. However, Conan Doyle also used his fame to campaign on behalf of British soldiers during the First World War.

Conan Doyle’s conversations with the War Office, in which he suggests equipping the troops with better shields, helmets and body armour, form the subject of this blog series.

In this final post of the series – written by Philip Abbot, Archives and Records Manager at Royal Armouries – we learn more about the response from the British Army and the trials of shields and body armour commisioned by David Lloyd-George.

Part four: The Official Response

When Conan Doyle sent his ideas on body armour and shields to the Inventions Branch at the War Office, the responsibility for the production and supply of munitions was passing from the War Office to the Ministry of Munitions. Papers in the Parliamentary Archives show that the new Minister, David Lloyd-George, took an interest in Conan Doyle’s campaign from the outset.


The Right Hon David Lloyd-George. Image source: ‘Fighting Starvation in Belgium, 1918’ available on

The Ministry of Munitions reports on the use and effect of shields and body armour

Between August and November 1916, Lloyd-George asked Ernest Moir at the Munitions Inventions Department to report on the potential use and effectiveness of shields and body armour.

Moir concluded that it was doubtful if shields could be made within a practicable weight and that there would be difficulties manoeuvring them over uneven ground, through barbed wire, or over other obstructions [1, 2]. Similarly, the armours being sold by the Army and Navy Stores not only failed to provide protection, but also posed further risk of injuries being caused by the deformation of the bullet and by pieces of the armour being driven into the body [3].

In January 1916, Lloyd-George instructed Moir’s successor, Colonel Henry Edward Fane Goold Adams, to set up a sub-committee to look into the problem, stating that he was:

“very anxious in the prospects of securing an adequate body-shield which would at any rate reduce by a material percentage the casualties from rifles, machine guns and shells.” [4]

Sir Douglas Haig intervenes and testing begins

However, perhaps the most significant intervention came from Sir Douglas Haig, who had become Commander-in-Chief of the British Army in the Field on 10 December 1915. Haig was doubtful that a bullet-proof body armour could be developed, but asked the War Office to supply a portable shield that would resist enemy bullets at close range, and a light body shield that would provide men taking part in trench warfare protection against shell splinters and grenade fragments. [5].


Sir Douglas Haig, Commander in Chief of the British Army in the Field from 1915–1918

The personal intervention of the Minister of Munitions, combined with the Commander-in-Chief’s request, produced a flurry of activity. The Munitions Inventions Department conducted tests on the various materials to see which ones offered the best protection. These concluded that 18-gauge Firth, Whitworth, Hadfield or high quality steel should be used to make up a light body shield, that it should be covered in khaki cloth, and that it should be made in plates jointed on the same principle as the Dayfield Body Shield. Further tests were then made, which indicated that Hadfield’s water-cooled (H.W.C.) manganese steel provided the best protection

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Four shrapnel proof body shields were then produced for extended grenade-throwing tests on 23 February, which concluded that the extra protection offered by the two heaviest outweighed the slight drawback caused by their extra weight. Several changes were suggested which reduced the weight by about 2 pounds, and an order was placed for 5,000 of each type on 25 February 1916 for field trials in France along with 1,000 Dayfield Body Shields (Heavy Model).

Shields and body armour are issued to troops

By the time that Conan Doyle wrote to Lloyd George, now Secretary of State for War, in July 1916 the field trials had been completed. The Dayfields were rejected as being too heavy and cumbersome, but Haig asked for 400 modified sets of the MID body shields to be issued to every Division in France and Flanders.

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The MID body shields were used with some success by bombers, patrols and sentries, but in the event they proved too heavy and awkward to be used in major assaults, and in May 1917 Haig asked for 200 sets of a lighter design of body armour to be issued to every Division. This was the Experimental Ordnance Board (EOB) body armour, and appears to have been a development of the Type C armour previously tested. It consisted of front, back and abdomen plates, was made of 18-gauge manganese steel, padded and covered in tan coloured canvas. It weighed 9 ½ pounds, was secured with leather straps and buckles, and offered the wearer protection against pistol bullets, shrapnel and grenade fragments.

Almost 20,000 sets of body armour had been delivered by August 1918 when the deadlock on the Western Front was finally broken. Research continued right up to the end of the war, as did the evaluation of both commercially available body armour and ideas received from members of the public and serving officers.

Progress on the development of a portable or mobile shield was less spectacular. Various designs for mobile shields were examined to protect between 5 and 15 men, but these were invariably too heavy and too difficult to manoeuvre, even with a large crew. A mobile shield was tested in 1917, which was fitted with rifle slits to enable the crew of five to engage enemy targets, and the following year both the British and French used a large mobile shield akin to a three-sided metal box on wheels with a platform on which a soldier could lie with only his legs exposed. However, no satisfactory design was ever produced, and the development of the tank made such shields irrelevant.

Read more on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s First World War campaign in the following earlier posts:


1: Parliamentary archives, LG/D/10/4/1 Preliminary report on steel bullet-proof shields for use at the front to protect infantry and bombing parties, August 13, 1915;
2: Parliamentary archives, LG/D/10/4/2 Further report on steel bullet-proof shields for use at the front to protect infantry and bombing parties, August 19, 1915
3: Parliamentary archives, LG/D/10/3/25/1, Report on armour, November 16, 1915;
ditto, Report on armour, appended note, November 19, 1915
4: Parliamentary archives, LG/D/3/2/35, Memo, January 12, 1916
5: National Archives, MUN 4/2749, Letter to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, December 26, 1915

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s campaign for better armour on the Western Front: Part three


Part Three: Private Companies

Written by Philip Abbot  Archives and Records Manager for the Royal Armouries in Leeds.

At least eighteen designs for armour using steel plate, mail and even textiles were manufactured commercially in Britain during the First Word War, and no less than forty patents for helmets and armour were taken out in Britain between 1914 and 1918. It comes as no surprise therefore to learn that Conan Doyle also received letters from a number of private companies who were already producing armour for private purchase.

John Pullman, the retired owner of R. and J. Pullman Limited, leather-dressers of London, Godalming and Woodstock, sent Conan Doyle an improved version of his A1 Shield, which was on sale for 25 shillings at the Army and Navy Stores, Harrods and Selfridges.  Pullman’s shield was made of steel, “Government tested and found proof against shrapnel bullets at 700 feet per second velocity, and enemy service revolver at point-blank, and against bayonet or lance”, and weighed just less than 3 pounds. It provided protection to the chest and abdomen, and consisted of four overlapping steel plates, which were attached to one another by means of canvas webbing, and secured by adjustable straps at the neck and the waist. Each individual plate measured 12 inches by 5 inches, was curved to fit the contours of the body, and riveted to a stout canvas backing. When not being worn it folded up neatly into a canvas or leather case, which could be carried over the shoulder in the same manner as a haversack.

Credit: Royal Armouries. DOY 1-1A Pullman 1 and DOY1-1B Pullman 2.

Conan Doyle also received an example of the Dayfield Body Shield, which was made by the Whitfield Manufacturing Company. The Dayfield was probably the most popular of all of the privately manufactured body armours, and was widely advertised in newspapers and magazines as “an invaluable gift to send to your soldier father, brother, husband, son or friend”, and claimed to be proof against bayonet, sword, lance, spent bullets, shrapnel, shell splinters and grenade fragments.

Dayfield Body Shield Heavy Model 1916

Credit: Royal Armouries. Dayfield Body Shield, Heavy Model, 1916.

Its advertisements and promotional literature certainly carried an impressive number of unsolicited testimonials. One Lieutenant Colonel recalled:

“When wounded on March 17th I consider that the Dayfield saved me from a very ugly wound in the back or right shoulder. I was going along a front line trench when an officer immediately behind me was killed outright and something hit me hard on the right, below the shoulder, knocking me on my knees. Some splinters from a bullet casing got in above the steel plate, causing small wounds.”

DOY 1-9B Dayfield 3

Credit: ROyal Armouries. DOY 1-9B Dayfield 3.

The original version of the Dayfield Body Shield was fairly simple, and consisted of a breastplate and a backplate, each composed of four steel plates, sewn into a canvas waistcoat with metal bands taped over the unprotected seams, but it was quickly modified so that the front plate was extended up to the shoulders and shaped at the neck. It could be purchased as either a single shield to protect the chest only (weighing 3 pounds) for 21 shillings, or a double shield to protect the front and back (weighing 5 pounds 8 ounces) for 52 shillings and 6 pence.

Credit: Royal Armouries. DOY 1-9A Dayfield 1 and 2.

Roneo Limited drew Conan Doyle’s attention to two designs for body shields that they had produced in association with the Miris Steel Company, which were then being tested in the field by 12th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Martin Archer Shee, MP. The first was a breastplate shaped to cover the left side of the body, which was more often exposed by an advancing soldier than the front, and provided protection to the heart and abdomen. The second was a large breastplate with shoulder straps and belt, which covered the whole of the chest. Both shields were made of Miris steel, a 1/3 inch (about 7.5mm) thick, which it was claimed would stop a Mauser rifle bullet at 40 yards, and were padded to help absorb the shock of impact.

DOY 1-8B Miris steel

Credit: Royal Armouries. Miris steel.

Conan Doyle was a keen rifleman, and tested the armour and shields he had been sent in his garden at Crowborough with his own service rifle. His younger sons, Denis and Adrian, were forbidden to come close, when their father was engaged in his experiments, but could hear the sounds of bullets being deflected or thudding into their target. He probably included a summary of the results of his experiments in his letter to Lloyd George on 8 August.


In the Archives: The Chilwell Crest

In May 2016, the First World War Archives project welcomed two students from Leeds University’s MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies Course. During their placement, Hanlun Ren and Yan Liu undertook a research project to digitise and research a small archive of material held by the Royal Armouries relating to Shell Filling Factory No.6 at Chilwell. They have been kind enough to write a bilingual blog for us based on an area of their research that particularly interested them – the Chilwell Crest.

This blog can be seen below, following a brief introduction the factory’s history.

A Short History of Shell Filling Factory No.6 – Chilwell

In 1915, the ‘Ministry of Munitions’ was created to deal with the rapidly worsening shell crisis. Godfrey John Boyle (8th Viscount Chetwynd) was appointed to set up a factory for making High Explosive Charges, and improving methods of producing and filling shells with Amatol. Chilwell in Nottinghamshire became the site of Shell Filling Factory No.6. Officially beginning to fill shells in March 1916, it had reached 7,000 shells per week by April. By September 1916 Chilwell had generated over a million shells, many of which were used at the Battle of the Somme, which ended on the 18th of November that year.

By 1918 the factory employed around 10,000 workers and was filling tens of thousands of shells a day. By this time a few small explosions had already occurred at Chilwell resulting in a low number of fatalities, but on 1st July 1918 the factory experienced a much larger explosion during the evening shift, damaging the factory and nearby buildings and killing 134 people.

The rebuild began the very next day and by end of shift on 3rd July over 27,000 shells had been filled despite the damage. By September 1918, Chilwell reached its highest ever productions figure, filling 275,000 shells in one week with the rebuild of the factory still ongoing. In total Chilwell produced over 19 million shells during World War One; a figure claimed to account for 60% of combined wartime production by the seven shell filling factories. This high production rate helped maintain the pressure on the German Armies, eventually breaching the Hindenburg Line and allowing the allies to move swiftly across Belgium and France to secure victory.

chilwell pic 1

Lord Chetwynd and senior production staff with the production figure for Chilwell 1915-1918. Credit: Royal Armouries

The History of the Chilwell Crest, researched by Hanlun Ren and Yan Liu

“切威尔之冠”(Chilwell Crest)的故事

The logo of National Shell Filling Factory No.6 (commonly known as ‘Chilwell’) is depicted as two crossed ‘Cs’ beneath a crown, and was known as the Chilwell Crest. As the pictures below show; at first sight, the logo bears a similarity to the logo of fashion brand Chanel, but they have very different histories.


pic 3 Chilwell.jpeg

The Chilwell Crest and the Logo of Chanel. (图为“切威尔之冠”的双“C”标志与“香奈儿”的品牌标志)

The crossed C’s of the Chilwell Crest are often taken to stand for Chetwynd of Chilwell. This is because the eighth Viscount Chetwynd, Godfrey John Boyle, founded and served as managing director of National Shell Filling Factory No.6. However, this is not the case. The real story was revealed by Eve Chetwynd, daughter of the eighth Viscount, who said that the crossed C’s dated back to the time of Charles II. King Charles gave peers whose family name began with the letter ‘C’ permission to have a crest with intertwined C’s in order to signify allegiance to the king. Above each crest was the individual family’s coronet.

在英国历史上,“切威尔之冠”中的双“C”通常被认为是是切威尔(Chilwell)的切特温德(Chetwynd)子爵的代表标志。这是因为第八切特温德子爵,约翰·博伊尔( John Boyle),创立并担任了英国国家弹药六厂的管理者。但是这并不是双“C”第一次作为切特温德家族的代表标志,据参与皇家军械博物馆第一次世界大战数字化项目的研究员刘岩考证,第八代切特温德子爵的女儿艾娃·切特温德(Eve Chetwynd)曾经对双“C”标志的起源做出过这样的表述:双“C”标志的历史可以追溯到英国历史上的查尔斯二世时代(Charles II,1630年5月29日-1685年2月6日),当时的英国国王查尔斯二世赐予一部分以字母“C”为姓氏开头的英国贵族在家族徽章上使用皇冠图案以及字母“C”的许可,以彰显他们效忠皇室的荣耀。在当时的贵族族徽设计中,在皇冠图案上方往往还会加入诸如动物形象等象征家族标志的图案。

The Chetwynd Family crest was based on a goat’s head emblem, but on succeeding to the title the Eighth Viscount took the crossed C’s as his personal badge. When he built the National Shell Filling Factory at Chilwell, he needed a distinctive badge for the senior members of his staff, which would give them unimpeded access to every part of the site. He adapted the crossed C’s by adding the Royal Crown to signify the association with the National Shell Filling Factory and thus the Chilwell Crest was born.


pic 4 chillwell.jpeg

Front Cover of a Photograph Album bearing the Chilwell Crest. Credit: Royal Armouries

Whether such an adaptation to the original concept of the crossed C’s was ever officially approved is not known. However, Eve Chetwynd, whilst conceding that her father was very good at by-passing bureaucracy, felt that in such a matter he would have been very correct.

这种带有皇家性质的标志设计在当时是否来源于官方的许可今天已经无从考证,但是据八代切特温德子爵的女儿艾娃·切特温德(Eve Chetwynd)的表述,他的父亲认为诸如在标志设计上未经许可加入皇室元素这样绕过政府的行为对他个人而言是率性而为的正确之举。

As time went on, there were several further changes to the composition of the Chilwell Crest. On 1st July 1918, a great explosion occurred in Chilwell National Shell Filling Factory. 134 people were killed and a further 250 were injured, with Lord Chetwynd claiming sabotage. Despite the explosion, the workers returned to work the next day and in a speech reported in The Times on 9 July 1918, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Munitions speculated that, as the French had apparently given an honour to the Citadel of Verdun perhaps the factory should be awarded the Victoria Cross. He described Chilwell Shell Filling Factory in a happy phrase as the ‘V.C.Factory’, and though no official medal was awarded, the name stuck.

随着时间的推移“切威尔之冠”在设计上发生了几次演变。1918年7月1日,英国国家弹药六厂发生了一次严重的爆炸事故,134人在爆炸中丧生,250人受伤。弹药厂的管理者切特温德子爵事后声称这场爆炸是一次有预谋的“破坏行为”。在爆炸发生的第二天弹药厂的工人便返回了工作岗位。据皇家军械博物馆第一次世界大战数字化项目研究员任汉伦的考证:在1918年7月9日的泰晤士报的报道中,当时英国军需部议会秘书在爆炸事故发生后的一次讲话中提到,就像法国向凡尔登要塞在一战中的贡献授予荣耀一样,英国国家弹药六厂也应获得英联邦中的最高级军事勋章“维多利亚十字勋章”(Victoria Cross)荣誉的奖赏,而英国国家弹药六厂也因此获得了“维多利亚十字勋章弹药厂”(V.C.Factory)的特殊别称。这一原本玩笑式的称谓也被正式用在了弹药厂的官方名称上。

pic 5 chillwell.jpeg

Credit: Royal Armouries

Above, see a workers tally disc from 1918 stamped with ‘The V.C. Factory’ and the Chilwell crest. Also featured is the the factories founding date, 1915, and the year of the explosion, 1918.


Part of the Factory after an explosion. Credit: Royal Armouries

After the end of the war in 1919, the shell factory became a Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) Depot and the Chilwell Crest was again adapted. The 1982 souvenir crest of the factory shows its amalgamation with the crest of the RAOC, displaying two Medieval French proverbs ‘Sua Tela Tonanti’ (literally ‘His missiles to the one who is Thundering’, but commonly translated as ‘To the Warrior his Arms’) and ‘Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense’ (‘Shame be to him who thinks evil of it’). The two C’s have been entwined and added on each side of the crest to represent Chilwell and its founder Viscount Chetwynd.

在1919年第一次世界大战结束之后,英国国家弹药六厂的原厂址成为了皇家陆军军械陆战队的一个兵站。在1982年关于英国国家弹药六厂的纪念标志上,我们看到了弹药厂标志的再一次变化:在设计上采用了代表弹药厂原始设计的“切威尔之冠”与皇家陆军军械陆战队的标志的结合,分别代表了弹药厂的两个特殊的历史阶段。标识上的两句铭文‘Sua Tela Tonanti’,‘Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense’分别代表了“他的导弹如雷霆万钧”、“为邪恶之人感到羞耻”。

pic 6 chillwell.jpeg

The RAOC crest (图为英国皇家陆军军械陆战队的标志)


The souvenir crest created by Captain Mike Haslam for ‘The Chilwell Story’ upon the factories closure in 1982 (图为1982年的“切威尔之冠”). Credit: Royal Armouries

The Chilwell crest and its origins were almost lost to history, however the founder of Chilwell is continually acknowledged in the area by ‘Chetwynd Road’ which remains today, and the crossed C’s in the Garrison crest, which will survive as the Chilwell station crest.

今天,“切威尔之冠”已经更多的被认为是家族的族徽,他原本的承载意义已经逐渐消逝在历史的长河之中。但是切特温德公爵的贡献并没有被人们所遗忘,直到今天在当地仍有一条公路以他的名字命名,而那曾经代表家族荣耀与英国国家弹药六厂历史的双“C”标志,也早已融入在了切威尔站“Chilwell station”的标志设计之中。(作者:任汉伦,刘岩,本文为二零一六年英国皇家军械博物馆第一次世界大战数字化项目的一部分)pic-8-chillwell.jpeg

A view of Chilwell Shell Filling Factory in November 1916

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s campaign for better armour on the Western Front: Part two: “Cranks and Lunatics”


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s campaign for better body armour on the Western Front, part two. (See previous post here.)

Written by Philip Abbott, Archives and Records Manager at the Royal Armouries.

DOY 1-7 Walker 1

Credit: Royal Armouries, DOY 1-7 Walker 1.

David Lloyd George noted in his wartime memoirs that when he became Minister of Munitions that he was deluged with letters from “cranks and lunatics” who had some new invention to propose. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own letters to The Times and The Observer resulted in a number of responses from private individuals who shared his concerns, many of whom had their own ideas on saving the lives of British soldiers.

George Seaborne, a former colliery owner from Hengoed in Glamorganshire, wrote to him recalling how during the South African War he had suggested to the War Office that British troops fashion shields made from old boilers in the gold mines to protect themselves from Boer rifle fire. He also observed how the Japanese had used shields with some success during the Russo-Japanese War, and wondered whether photographs showing their use in the attack on Port Arthur might help Conan Doyle in his endeavours.(See below).

DOY 1-16 Seaborne

Credit: Royal Armouries, DOY 1-16 Seaborne.

Miles Walker, Professor of Electrical Engineering at Manchester University, brought to Conan Doyle’s attention his idea for a large portable shield (see first image above and below), which he had tested the previous year with the aid of the Royal Engineers at Buxton, and then demonstrated in the presence of Major Richard Oakes, the Inspector of Iron Structures at the Department of Fortifications and Works with the help of the 90th Brigade at Manchester. Walker had already tried to persuade the Ministry of Munitions to conduct trials of his shield without success, and when in frustration he wrote to The Times on the subject his letter was “struck out by the censor” because it revealed information on experiments with military equipment. He hoped for better success by appealing to a number of MPs in the hope that they would bring pressure to bear on the Government to look into his ideas.

DOY 1-7 Walker 2

Credit: Royal Armouries, DOY 1-7 Walker 2.

Conan Doyle had discovered that at least one design for a large mobile shield developed by Lieutenant Cyril Aldin Smith of the Royal Naval Armoured Car Service had been tested in France, and Mr. A. Middleton of East Grinstead in Sussex wrote to him with a similar idea. It consisted of two armour plates fixed together at an angle, and mounted on a frame with a single wheel to enable it to be turned in any direction, and “easily trundled over rough ground” (see below).

DOY 1-14 Middleton

Credit: Royal Armouries museum, DOY 1-14 Middleton.

One of the more unusual ideas came from Mr. J. B. Forster, a shipping broker from Sunderland. He suggested that a steel net (presumably made of interlinked metal rings in the same way as medieval mail armour) might be fitted to a lightweight steel frame and attached to the end of a service rifle. The net would be mounted on springs in such a manner that it would give slightly on being struck by a bullet, reducing its velocity and preventing any ricochets from wounding neighbouring troops. It would be fine enough to enable the soldier to see through it, and have a small hole in the centre to allow him to fire his weapon. Forster was evidently no rifleman. One of the features of modern military rifles is a heavy, floating barrel, which increases the accuracy of the weapon by allowing it to vibrate freely and consistently. The floating barrel is able to expand and contract without contacting the stock and interfering with the alignment of the barrel and the sights.

Conan Doyle also received a number of letters following up his suggestions for armour. George Wakeman of Sparkhill in Birmingham wrote enclosing not only a detailed design for armour, consisting of breastplate, backplate, abdomen plate, arm and leg defences, which he described his armour as “simple, light, effective & cheap” (see first image below), but also a projectile for destroying barbed wire entanglements (second image below). Wakeman admitted that his suggestions, “did not take root in the official mind”, but noted that a sergeant in the trenches had “heartily approved” of his ideas for armour, and an experienced gunner had commented favourably on his suggestions for a wire entanglement destroyer.

DOY 1-13A Wakeman 1

Wakeman’s concepts for steel armour sent to Conan Doyle. Credit: Royal Armouries, DOY 1-13A Wakeman 1.

DOY 1-13B Wakeman 2

Credit: Royal Armouries, DOY 1-13B Wakeman 2.

It was not just in Britain where well-meaning ideas to reduce the casualties being suffered on the Western Front were being frustrated. Arthur Rotsaert, a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Belgian Engineers, wrote to Conan Doyle claiming that he had, “made a type of shield giving full and effective protection against the German rifle bullet and shrapnel splinters to the chest and abdomen of the soldiers when they are marching upright and covering them completely when lying flat”. Rotsaert’s armour was made of 7mm thick steel and weighed less than 17 pounds. The Belgian Board of Inventions had spurned his suggestions, declaring that his armour was too heavy, but he remained convinced that the special circumstances of trench warfare made this criticism irrelevant. He argued that they need only be carried during an assault, and if the troops had to march any great distance, they could simply be left behind and picked up by the rear echelons. He offered to send his armour to Conan Doyle, but asked him not to publicise his name or rank in the Belgian Army as this might lead to trouble.

Mademoiselle Marthe Durand of Paris had also read Conan Doyle’s article in The Times, and contacted him regarding the bullet-proof armour she had developed, which had saved the lives of two members of her family, one of whom had been hit in the chest, and the other in near the heart. The armour weighed only three kilograms (six pounds ten ounces), but although she had sent samples to the French Army, she had not yet received a reply. She offered to send Conan Doyle one of her armours to see if he could persuade the British Army to try it out.

Many of Conan Doyle’s correspondents recognised the problem of the weight of bullet proof armour, and looked for alternative solutions to the use of steel. Ms Janet Peck, who lived in fashionable Mayfair in London, another writer appalled by “the sickening obstinacy with which every obvious necessity is met in the War Office” had an interesting idea. She sent Conan Doyle a sample of vulcanite, a hardened rubber made by the vulcanisation of natural rubber with sulphur, which she had come across during her investigations into the use of waterproof paper to make smocks for Indian and Canadian troops before they were issued with great coats. She thought that, “a shield could be made of this composition still hardened by greater pressure”.

Conan Doyle himself investigated the use of different materials in association with the inventor, industrialist and entrepreneur, Herbert Frood. His company, Ferodo, based in Chapel en le Frith in Derbyshire, specialised in the design and manufacture of friction products, and made brake linings for armoured cars, motor vehicles and tanks during the war. A surviving minute book in the Derbyshire Record Office reveals that on the 9 August he produced a bullet proof fabric for Conan Doyle, that was made of asbestos die pressed from 1/4 to 3/16 of an inch, and boiled in black wax with a 20% carnauba palm wax content (

Conan Doyle also received letters from a number of private companies who were already producing armour for private purchase… find out more about this in part three of our series.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s campaign for better armour on the Western Front: Part one

Part One, Conan Doyle’s letters to The Times

Written by Philip Abbott, Archives and Records Manager at the Royal Armouries.

Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle Collection, Lancelyn Green Bequest, Portsmouth City Council

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known as the creator of the great detective Sherlock Holmes, although he received his knighthood not for his contribution to English literature, but for defending Britain’s conduct of the Boer War (1899-1902). When the First World War broke out he was one of a number of famous authors who were secretly recruited by the War Propaganda Bureau to write in support of the Government’s view of the war, and to promote Britain’s interests at home and abroad. However, Conan Doyle also used his fame to campaign on behalf of British soldiers who were “fighting for the freedom of the world”.

In the first half of 1915 the British Army suffered 65,250 casualties during the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April – 25 May), and a further 27,809 in the Second Battle of Artois (9 May – 18 June). Conan Doyle wrote to The Times suggesting that either the generals change their tactics, or the troops be supplied with helmets and armour to reduce the number of casualties. He reminded readers of the Australian outlaw, Ned Kelly, who had used homemade armour to resist arrest, and the numerous instances where a bullet had become lodged in a watch, cigarette case or bible carried in a breast pocket, and so had saved a man’s life. He also proposed that on those occasions where troops were asked to attack a heavily defended positions, large shields made of armour plate and mounted on wheels could be used, linked together in a manner similar to a Roman testudo, to provide a large body of troops with complete protection from enemy fire.

conan doyle Jul 27 1915

Credit: The Times, published 27th July 1915.

Conan Doyle’s received a number of responses to his letter, and after making a summary of the ideas he had received, he forwarded them to the War Office. He eventually received a reply from Ernest Moir, (see below) Comptroller of the Munitions Inventions Department (MID) at the new Ministry of Munitions. Moir explained some of the difficulties of producing bullet proof armour, and the additional burden that infantrymen would have to carry on top of their existing weapons and equipment. However, he was not entirely unsympathetic to Conan Doyle’s concerns, and asked his views on the usefulness of light shrapnel proof armour, which was then “under consideration”. Conan Doyle was evidently willing to engage in an exchange of ideas, but the next letter he received from the MID this time from Colonel Henry Goold Adams was less than cordial. Goold Adams calculated that the weight of armour required to protect a man completely would be 300 pounds, and concluded rather brusquely, “it is obvious that such a weight would be prohibitive”.

Moir 1

Credit: Royal Armouries, Conan Doyle Papers DOY 1/3.

Moir 2

Credit: Royal Armouries, Conan Doyle Papers, DOY 1/3.

A lesser man might have been persuaded to drop the matter, but Conan Doyle’s concern was not entirely impersonal. His wife’s brother, Captain Malcolm Leckie, Royal Army Medical Corps, had died of wounds during the retreat from Mons in 1914; his nephew, Lieutenant Oscar Hornburg, Essex Regiment, was killed on 6 July 1915 when the trench he was sheltering in was struck by a shell, and his brother-in-law, L.W.S. Oldham, Royal Engineers, was shot by a sniper a few days later.

When his son, Kingsley, was seriously wounded twice in the neck by shrapnel, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, he wrote again to The Times and The Observer reviving his ideas. This letter, seen below, was published one hundred years ago today on the 28th July 1916. Conan Doyle pointed out that the adoption of the steel helmet had already significantly reduced instances of head wounds from shrapnel, and maintained that armour, either in the form of a large heavy plate covering the body from the neck to the thigh, or a smaller plate covering just the heart, would have a similar impact in minimising casualties from rifle and machine gun fire. He further developed his ideas about infantry attacking heavily defended positions, and argued that the assault troops should be equipped with either armour or shields, and armed with grenades and automatic pistols, which they would use to suppress the enemy’s fire; the follow-up wave being armed with rifles to capture the trench.

conan doyle Jul 28 1916

Credit: The Times, published 28th July 1916.

Conan Doyle also wrote personally to David Lloyd George and at the end of July he received a brief letter from the Secretary of State for War, assuring him that, “I am at the moment paying special attention to the subject of Shields”, and adding, “If you have any ideas on this subject I shall be very grateful if you will let me have them, and you may depend upon it that they shall receive careful consideration”.

Lloyd George 0

Credit: Royal Armouries, Conan Doyle Papers, DOY 1/1.

At the beginning of September he received a lengthier response from Lloyd George (see below) informing him that serious efforts were being made to develop armour and assuring Conan Doyle that he would not lose sight of the matter, promising to discuss it with Sir Douglas Haig when he visited France in the next few days. Lloyd George noted that, “strange to say, our great difficulty is to get the soldiers at the Front to take [body armour] into use”, and had to admit that the production of bullet proof armour remained difficult, “without throwing an impossible weight on the soldier”.

Lloyd George 1

Credit: Royal Armouries, Conan Doyle Papers, DOY 1/2.

Lloyd George 2

Credit: Royal Armouries, Conan Doyle Papers, DOY 1/2.

Conan Doyle had one further opportunity to press his case when he was invited to have breakfast with Lloyd George, now Prime Minister, in April 1917. It was an informal affair, and while the premier poured out the tea, he helped himself to bacon and eggs, and then dished up the same for Lloyd George. They discussed a number of subjects, including the use of armour, and as he was leaving Downing Street, Conan Doyle sat down in one of the hall chairs, much to the surprise of the butler, and wrote out a few notes on the subject, which he asked to be delivered to the Prime Minister. It was his last contribution to the campaign he had begun two years previously.

His concern over the heavy casualties being suffered on the Western Front were prompted by Conan Doyle’s humanitarian nature and personal loss, and his ideas on body armour and shields were a thoughtful response to the unusual circumstances brought about by trench warfare. However, the nature of warfare had already begun to change with the appearance of the first tanks on the battlefield at Flers-Courcelette on 15 September 1916. His interest was not forgotten, and in June 1917 he was invited to a secret meeting with Sir Albert Stern, who briefed him on their development. The following year, during a visit to the Front, he witnessed an attack by the Australian and Canadian Divisions, “with the tanks leading the British line, as Boadicea’s chariots did of old.”


Yorkshire Regiments on the Somme: 1 July 1916

“… two years in the making and ten minutes in the destroying.”

The Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest encounters of the First World War. It is chiefly remembered for the 57,470 casualties suffered by the British Army on the first day.


Soldiers go over the top at the Battle of the Somme

The battle, which raged for four and a half months, was fought to relieve pressure on the French forces, who were engaged in the fierce struggle for Verdun, and to reduce by attrition the German army’s ability to fight.

The British Army that fought on the Somme lacked experience. There were only a handful of Regular battalions that had crossed the Channel with the British Expeditionary Force in 1914, and a few more Territorials that had already seen action in 1915. The majority of the troops were volunteers of Kitchener’s New Armies: ordinary men from all walks of life, who were enthusiastic but poorly trained. For many of the men who had volunteered to serve in the ‘Pals’ and ‘Chums’ battalions, it was their first experience of war.

In the 7 days before the battle, the British artillery fired 1,508,652 shells against the first German defensive position. A further 230,000 shells were fired in the hour before the attack, and when the attacking troops rose from their trenches ten huge mines were exploded. The aim was to cut the barbed wire, destroy the trenches and dugouts, and silence the enemy’s gun batteries.

In the south, where the bombardment was effective, the Allies advanced rapidly and captured the villages of Montauban and Mametz. In the north, however, German defences were largely undamaged, and the attacking infantry suffered heavy casualties. Some troops managed to reach their objectives, but others were unable to cross No Man’s Land in the face of heavy machine gun fire.

The volunteers of the New Armies advanced into battle in long, close-formed lines, presenting a perfect target to the German machine gunners. The Yorkshire regiments who took part in the attack on the first day lost 9,000 men killed, wounded and missing, more than any other region in the UK. The worst casualties were suffered by:

Regiment Casualties
10th West Yorkshire (Prince of Wales’ Own) 22 officers, 688 men
8th York and Lancaster 21 officers, 576 men
8th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry 21 officers, 528 men
15th West Yorkshire (Prince of Wales’ Own)

(Leeds Pals)

24 officers, 504 men
16th West Yorkshire (Prince of Wales’ Own)

(1st Barnsley Pals)

22 officers, 493 men
12th York and Lancaster (Sheffield City Battalion) 17 officers, 495 men
1st East Yorkshire 21 officers, 478 men
10th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry 21 officers, 428 men
2nd West Yorkshire (Prince of Wales’ Own)   8 officers, 421 men
9th York and Lancaster 14 officers, 409 men
9th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry 21 officers, 383 men

Over the next few days, a series of smaller attacks developed. The British captured La Boiselle, Contalmaison and Mametz Wood, and a night attack on 13/14 July broke through the second German defensive position at Bazentin. There followed weeks of bitter fighting at Pozieres, High Wood, Delville Wood, Guillemont and Ginchy before the third position was breached.

In mid-September, the Allies resumed their general offensive. Tanks were used for the first time at Flers-Courcelette, but they were few in numbers and mechanically unreliable. Thiepval was finally captured, and in October the British attacked the high ground overlooking Le Transloy and the River Ancre. On 13 November, they launched their last attack across the Ancre. They captured Beaumont-Hamel, but failed to take the village of Serre. When winter brought the offensive to a halt, the Allies had advanced about 6 miles. The British lost 419,634 men, the French 204,253 and the Germans an estimated 415,000.


A soldier and his horse struggle through the mud at the battle.

To find out more, book a place on our ‘Yorkshire Regiments on the Somme’ study day at the Royal Armouries in Leeds on Saturday 2 July 2016.

Conservation in action: The German 25 cm trench mortar (Minenwerfer ) 1917

In 2004 a former member of the Royal Armouries staff collected this German 25 cm trench mortar from a Farm in Norfolk, where for a number of years it had been exposed to the elements and was in need of some tender loving care.



On site at Royal Armouries Fort Nelson in Portsmouth, the trench mortar remained in the Artillery Hall, where it continued to suffer from the adverse conditions until Mick Cooper (Fort Nelson Technician)  began the lengthy conservation process last year. Mick jumped at the opportunity to restore the rare object, and was not deterred by its level of degeneration.

On initial inspection, due to the extensive level of corrosion, the mortar had completely seized.  To aid in the dismantling process, a releasing agent was used. The Mortar was dismantled into three main sections: the gun, the chassis and the wheels. PH neutral chemicals and sensitive abrasive cleaning techniques were primarily utilised to remove the corrosion, however due to the extent of the decay, grit blasting was applied to larger areas. The chassis had deteriorated extensively, both the rear end and the middle section were missing. New rear chassis sections were reconstructed out of fiberglass.

The wheels comprised of different sections and materials, including a metal tyre and wheel hub, and wooden spokes and fellies. Once removed from the metal tyre, the wooden spokes were initially rubbed down and put in the freezer for a minimum of one month to kill all bugs and termites.

Mick sourced wood to manufacture the five fellies and two spokes which had rotted and obtained a high level of satisfaction in applying his previously learnt wheelwright carpentry skills into practice.  The metal tyre and wheel hub were fortunately intact. Sensitive abrasive techniques were used to remove any traces of corrosion.

When all areas had been successfully stripped back and restored where appropriate, a zinc phosphate primer and authentic paint was carefully applied to all metal and wood surfaces.conservation5


Now, fully reconstructed, the 25 cm Minenwerfer looks robust. It is carefully positioned in the Voice of the Guns to prevent future risk of corrosion.

25 cm trench mortar (Minenwerfer )

25 cm trench mortar (Minenwerfer )



The Battle of Jutland: an eyewitness account of the largest sea battle in history

The 31 May/1 June marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. It was the only major First World War fleet action fought between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet, and the largest sea battle in history.

Our Archives and Records Manager, Philip Abbot, uncovers some of the details of this important battle through the journals of Gerald Slade, midshipman on HMS Inflexible.

Gerald Slade was born in Hong Kong in 1899, and entered the Royal Naval College, Osborne, Isle of Wight, as a cadet shortly before his thirteenth birthday. After completing his education and training he joined the battlecruiser, HMS Inflexible, as a midshipman on 8 September 1915.

HMS Inflexible

HMS Inflexible. Source: US Library of Congress. Public Domain.

During the Battle of Jutland he was stationed on the ship’s fighting top high up on the main mast, where he had an excellent view of the action. He left a personal account of his experiences in the form of a journal:


May 30th 1916

Proceeded from Scapa Flow ahead of Battle Fleet at 8.15.

May 31st 1916

3.0 PM closed up at action stations.

4.0 PM were given half an hour for tea. Heard that the “Lion” was engaging the enemy. The 5th B.S. Sqn Queen Elizabeth was with them. We were now proceeding at full speed (about 27 kts). It was 3.50 when the “Lion” reported that she was engaging the enemy.

5.29 heard the sound of firing right ahead + a short time later saw numerous gun flashes.

5.40 sighted enemy light cruisers and destroyers. These were all concentrating on the “Chester” + she was having a very hot time of it.

5.55 opened fire on enemy light cruisers + succeeded in sinking at least one. She blew up in a dense cloud of steam.

On the evening of 30 May 1916, the Third Battle Cruiser Squadron under the command of Rear Admiral Hood (flagship HMS Invincible) sailed from Scapa Flow, and steamed south westwards at high speed, followed at intervals by the rest of the British Grand Fleet.

The opening phase of the action was fought between the German battlecruisers under the command of Admiral Hipper (flagship SMS Lutzow) and their British counterparts under Admiral Beatty (flagship HMS Lion), supported by the 5th Battle Ship Squadron, consisting of the Queen Elizabeth class battleships (the most modern and powerful ships in either fleet). Two of the British battlecruisers, HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary, blew up with heavy loss of life, and a number of the German ships were badly damaged.

Shortly after 4.00 PM, Admiral Jellicoe (flagship HMS Iron Duke), in command of the Grand Fleet, ordered the 3rd Battle Cruiser Squadron to increase speed and join Beatty’s hard-pressed forces. HMS Chester, scouting ahead of the squadron, was engaged by four German light cruisers, and badly damaged. When the battlecruisers opened fire, the German light cruiser, SMS Wiesbaden, was quickly disabled, but despite Slade’s claim she remained afloat.

Additional entries in Slade’s journal describe the battle:

6.0 check fire. A Torpedo passed under our stern.

6.15 we are to starboard in order to avoid a Torpedo which passed about 10 yds away along out port side. We watched it from the Fore Top + could even see the propellers moving. The Torpedo Lieut was afraid that the Gyro would fail + she might turn + bump us.

6.20 openned fire on a Battleship of the “Kaiser” class. We landed one salvo on her fore turret + appeared to have flatenned it out.

6.35 the Grand Fleet openned fire on the enemy. It was a fine sight to see them. They were so formed as to be able to bring every gun to bear. Indom. [HMS Indomitable] and Inflex. [HMS Inflexible] formed astern of the B.C.s.

6.30 the “Invincible” was blown up. She went up in a tremendous cloud of yellow cordite smoke. She broke in half + bows and 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 after + I think were all part …

Several torpedos were fired at the British battlecruisers, but they managed to dodge them all. As the main body of the High Seas Fleet under the command of Admiral Scheer (flagship SMS Fredrich der Grosse) were enemy’s observed ahead, Hood ordered his ships to alter course to port, and opened fire at a range of about 8,000 to 9,000 yards. Inflexible’s Gunnery Officer later reported that the first salvo hit the target. The battlecruisers themselves came under heavy fire, and although Inflexible was not hit, Slade later admitted in a letter to his mother that “we had a good many shells bursting pretty close to us & we got a few splinters from one. Invincible was sunk with the loss of all but six of her crew of 1,032 officers and men. The Inflexible had to alter course to avoid the wreckage.


HMS Invincible exploding at the Battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916. Source: Fighting at Jutland: The personal experiences of forty five officers and men of the British Fleet, (London: Hutchinson and Co, Ltd, 1921). Image is available online at Internet Archive.

Battlecruisers were large ships designed to scout ahead of the main battle fleet and find the enemy, to protect the battleships from torpedo armed cruisers and destroyers, and to pursue the enemy fleet and use their guns to damage or slow opposing ships. They were armed with heavy guns (similar to those of the battleships) but were forced to compromise protection in favour of speed. The vulnerability of the battlecruisers combined with the practice of storing shells in gun turrets, ammunition hoists and other working areas to increase the rate of fire poor shell resulted in the loss of three battlecruisers at Jutland.


The Inflexible and Indomitable formed astern of the Beatty’s ships as the main body of the Grand Fleet finally appeared and engaged the enemy. Jellicoe ordered his squadrons to alter course in an attempt to bring all guns to bear (in a manoeuvre known as Crossing the ‘T’), and the High Seas Fleet was forced to turn away. Outnumbered and outgunned Scheer decided to break off the action.

… of their Fore Top’s crew (52 4 N, 6 6 E).

7.25 opened fire on a flotilla of German destroyers which were probably going to attack with Torpedoes. They were successfully driven off. Light cruisers + destroyers were now ordered to proceed at full speed + attack with Torpedoes.

7.45 a Torpedo passed 150 yds astern.

8.20 opened fire on Enemy Battle Cruisers + a Battleship of the “Kaiser” class. I think we made a few hits but the light was so bad + the mist so thick that it was extremely hard to see any fall of shot. As it was we were only firing at the flashes. We were not firing for very long. But the Indomitable carried on firing at something for about another 10 salvoes.

8.30 check fire. 3 ships appeared to be firing at “Inflexible”.

8.35 a Torpedo missed out bow by about 50 yds.

8.40 there was a violent shock felt under the ship.

8.45 a submarine broke surface? about 100 yds on the starboard beam. She may have been struck by the ship or the ship may have run on some submerged wreckage.

9.30 A/C south.

Was in the Fore Top until 10.15 then on the Bridge…

As the High Seas Fleet headed south at high speed under cover of a smoke screen the German light forces mounted a torpedo attack. The Inflexible had to alter course sharply to avoid being hit, and Slade admitted to his mother that they were “pretty lucky”. The British battlecruisers caught up with their German counterparts at dusk, and opened fire at 6,000 yards.

HMS Inflexible carried eight 12-inch guns mounted in four twin turrets, one forward (A), one aft (X), and two amidships on either side of the ship (P and Q). The guns fired shells weighing 850 pounds at a maximum muzzle velocity of 2,725 feet per second. They could be elevated to an angle of 13.5 degrees, which enabled a maximum range of 18,850 yards. The control of the guns was centralised under the ship’s Gunnery Officer in the Director Tower.



The 12-inch guns on HMS Indomitable. Source: US Library of Congress Bain Collection. Public Domain.

Powerful optical systems (9-foot coincidence range-finding equipment supplied by Barr and Stroud) were used to establish the range and bearing to the target. The results were then fed into a fire-control table (Dreyer table Mark I), a form of mechanical computer, which combined the Inflexible’s and the target’s courses, bearing and speeds, and presented a firing solution. The guns were then trained and elevated on the target, and fired together in a salvo.



Barr and Stroud Range Finder

9-foot Barr and Stroud Range Finder.

The fall of shot was observed (the shells caused huge splashes) and corrections made in the firing solution until the target was straddled. It was a complicated process, and made more difficult in action by poor visibility, rough seas, the ship’s own violent manouveres, and by the enemy’s fire. The Grand Fleet’s gunnery was much criticised after the battle.


… until 12.0. Managed to get 1/12 hours sleep + then closed up at action stations at 2.15 AM.

June 1st

3.15 AM Sighted a Zeppelin on the starboard quarter about 17-18000 yds away. The “Indomitable” fired two rounds of shrapnel at her but they did not burst anywhere near her. She then turned away + very nearly went out of sight but again turned + came towards us. A light cruiser squadron opened fire on her. Most of the shells were short except about two which burst just ahead of her. By the she was going full speed away.

11.45 passed the wreck of a big shop on the starboard side, Name unknown.

2.24 PM Passed a boat of German design marked “V29” (she is on of their latest destroyers).

2-30 – 2.50 passed through a large area of dead bodies (all German I think). Some of them had their part of the watch bade on their shoulders. All had cork life belts on. One lief buoy we passed had the letters S.M.S ____ pn it but a body was lying acorss the name of the ship.

2.45 passed the wreck of the Invincible again + a destroyer was sent to sink it.

3.15 we passed through a large track of oil which was probably from the Invincible + a large amount of wreckage probably from a destroyer.

Jellicoe was unwilling to risk a night action, and ordered his fleet to steer a course that would intercept the High Seas Fleet at dawn. However Scheer altered course during the night to cross the wake of the Grand Fleet, and although the British light forces made a series of torpedo attacks throughout the night, they failed to receive support from the main body. By daylight the High Seas Fleet had escaped.

Both sides claimed victory after the battle, but the result was inconclusive. The Imperial German Navy had hoped to surprise and destroy a portion of the British fleet, but although it inflicted heavier losses in both men and ships, Scheer was forced to withdraw. The Royal Navy had hoped for a decisive battle, but Jellicoe was unable to prevent the enemy from breaking off the engagement, and lost contact with the enemy during the night.

The Inflexible sustained no damage or casualties during the battle, other than a small indentation in the ship’s out skin cause by the collision with the underwater wreckage (Slade’s report of a submarine is not confirmed), and a crack in the right gun of “Q” turret, which had been caused during the gun’s calibration and was enlarged.

Gerald Slade continued to serve aboard the Inflexible until March 1918 when he volunteered for the submarine service. He served in submarines until 1935, when he became the Fleet Photographic Officer in the first the Mediterranean and then with the Home Fleet. He retired in 1944 with the rank of Commander.

‘Der Tag’ – The Day the German High Seas Fleet Surrendered

A Photograph Album held in the Archives of the Royal Armouries holds a fascinating glimpse of a surrender often forgotten in the wake of the armistice. Alina Morosanu, a placement student for the First World War Archives Project, tells us more about this album and the strange naval events it chronicles.

On the 21st November 1918, 10 days after the Armistice had been declared, the German High Seas Fleet surrendered to the Allies at the Firth of Forth. The anchorage at the Firth of Forth was merely the first stop for the fleet to ensure complete disarmament; the fleet would subsequently be interned around the Scapa Flow a few days later. Nearly one hundred years ago today the crews of the British ships sent to escort the fleet would have observed the historic sight of the diminutive H.M.S Cardiff leading a convoy of 70 magnificent German battle cruisers and destroyers into Internment around the Scottish Isles.

H.M.S Cardiff leading German battle-cruisers into Rosyth ©IWM Q19288

H.M.S Cardiff leading German battle-cruisers into Rosyth ©IWM Q19288

A Bit of Historical Insight

While the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914 was the strike that lit the match and ignited the Great War, the increasing rivalry between the great powers of Europe at the time was also a contributor to the outbreak of the wide-scale conflict. One such rivalry was the Anglo-German naval arms race, provoked by the massive expansion of the German navy during the 1900’s. The intense German naval expansion programme was a threat to British defence policy which held that the British navy should be at least the size of the next two largest navies. 1914 found Britain with forty nine battleships, compared to Germany’s twenty nine, and despite the latter’s efforts; Britain continued to maintain naval supremacy throughout the duration of the war. The battle of Jutland (or Skaggerak) in 1916 was the only full-scale clash of the British and German fleets during the war and resulted in both sides claiming victory. Despite increasing German U-boat raids from 1916 to 1917, the German Navy’s hope of defeating the British by June 1917 failed. There would be no other contact between the two fleets until the signing of the Armistice and the subsequent German surrender on 21st of November, 1918.

Photograph Album of Lieutenant-Commander Wright

The Surrender of the German High Seas Fleet is immortalized in Lieutenant-Commander Geoffrey Thomas Wright’s photograph album, held in the Archives of the Royal Armouries. G.T. Wright was born on 24th of July, 1886 in Hellifield, Yorkshire. He joined the navy in 1901 and subsequently worked his way up to the rank of Lieutenant-Commander on 31st of December, 1916. The album holds a number of photos of the German Ships entering the Firth of Forth, many of which are captioned as having been taken from the British ship H.M.S Seymour. At the time of the surrender, Wright was serving on H.M.S Ajax so it is unclear whether he is the photographer or just a collector of these images, some of which match official photographs. A correspondent from The Times was also aboard H.M.S Seymour and described the sight of the German Ships being led into the Firth of Forth by the H.M.S. Cardiff as ‘a school of leviathans led by a minnow’.

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Photograph Album of Lieutenant Commander G.T. Wright

“Paragraph Eleven. Confirm.”

After months of internment at Scapa Flow, during which the German sailors were banned from going ashore, the situation changed dramatically. On 21st of June 1919, Rear-Admiral Ludwig von Reuter issued the secret code word ordering all German ships at Scapa Flow to scuttle themselves. The decision taken by von Reuter led to the world’s largest naval suicide, but with growing concern that the allies would divide the fleet between themselves without ratification by the German Government; it was the only option left. The British were aware that the possibility of a scuttle was high but by the time the ships began to visibly list and start to sink, it was almost impossible to stop the events, with only a handful of the ships being successfully beached and fifty two sinking to the bottom of the ocean.

Two remarkable sets of newsreel footage survive in the Pathe archive picturing both the surrender and the scuttling of the German fleet.

The upper-works of the German battle-cruiser Hindenburg after it was scuttled ©IWM SP 1635

The upper-works of the German battle-cruiser Hindenburg after it was scuttled ©IWM SP 1635

Over the next few decades many of the ships were salvaged from the sea bottom but there remain remnants of the High Seas Fleet even today, laying on the seabed at Scapa Flow. Scapa Flow has now been designated a historic wreck site and divers can admire the engine room of the SS Konig which still has most of its component parts (

Thus, November marks not only the remembrance of the Armistice in 1918, but for naval enthusiasts, it also marks the beginning of one of the grandest naval defeats in history. After all, not many Admirals consider the deliberate sinking of their own fleet as a “great performance!” as von Reuter exclaims in his book ‘Scapa Flow – Das Grab der Deutscher Flotte’.

The Curator @ War: 19 October 1915 “Bananas & Battleships”

Entry for the execution of Fernando Buschmann in the Tower of London Prison Log.

Entry for the execution of Fernando Buschmann in the Tower of London Prison Log. It reads “19: Brazilian spy shot”.

Fernando Buschmann was the seventh of 11 spies shot at the Tower between November 1914 and April 1916, and at 25 years old the second youngest. A Brazilian, with German father and Danish mother, he was educated in Europe.  The failure of his French aviation enterprise saw him back in Brazil. From 1912 he returned to Europe working in partnership with Marcelino Bello in a business importing food from Germany and England and exporting Brazilian bananas and potatoes. He met a Dresden girl, married her in London and all looked set for a rosy future.

Photograph of Fernando Buschmann

Photograph of Fernando Buschmann

In 1913 the Hamburg office of Buschmann and Bello opened, and Fernando travelled between Brazil and Europe. Success was short-lived – by September 1914 the German office had closed and Buschmann’s name was removed from the firm’s title as it was perceived to be bad for business. Leaving his family in Dresden, he travelled throughout Europe and arrived in London in April 1915. With spy fear and anti-German sentiment at their height, this was to prove fatal.

Buschmann’s commercial interests had widened to include boots, mules, and guns for the French government. Despite this, he was perennially short of money, and it was his begging telegrams to a Dutch contact Flores that alerted British Counter-Intelligence. Buschmann claimed that he had no idea that Flores was in fact a German spymaster, but having attracted the attention of the authorities his business activities were closely monitored. In June 1915 he was arrested. During questioning he claimed his business in England was to sell picric acid (an explosive), rifles and cloth. He admitted to formerly selling flour and potatoes “but not cigars” – a number of the other spies captured at the time had been involved with the latter, and the use of tobacco products as code words was suspected. In Buschmann’s case, fruit fell under suspicion as Major Drake commented in his review of the evidence:

“…should we be far out in suggesting that bananas and battle-ships are interchangeable terms?”

Buschmann was cautioned in both French and English and faced 4 charges under Section 48 of the Defence of the Realm (Consolidation) Regulations 1914 – in other words he was accused of espionage: a capital crime.


The first page of Buschmann’s censored charge sheet – sensitive information has been cut out.

The first page of Buschmann’s censored charge sheet – sensitive information has been cut out.

Court martialled in September and unable to satisfactorily explain his dealings with known German agents, as well as his woeful business record, his trips to Southampton and Portsmouth and the presence of invisible ink in his record books, he was found guilty. In his defence, he argued:

“I was never a soldier or a sailor, and I am absolutely ignorant of all military matters.  I am not a good businessman as I am more wrapped up in my music than business.”

Buschmann was sentenced to death by firing squad and transferred to the Tower on 18th October. He was permitted the solace of his violin which he played throughout the night.

Sentence was carried out at 7:00am on the 19th October at the Tower Rifle Range.

Fernando Buschmann's death certificate

Fernando Buschmann’s death certificate

The medical officer officiating at Buschmann’s execution was Francis Woodcock Goodbody (1870- 1938). In civilian life he was a researcher in chemistry and medicine at University College, London. During the 1914-18 war, he was commissioned Captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

To learn more, have a listen to Daniel Hope’s radio documentary “A fiddler in the tower” about Fernando Buschman.