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.


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.”


The arrival of the FH70 at Fort Nelson – another new acquisition!


Written by Phil Magrath, Curator at Fort Nelson, Portsmouth.

The Royal Armouries collection of artillery was recently enhanced with the addition of a Field Howitzer of 155mm calibre (FH-70). This system was originally a collaborative project between the UK, USA and Germany, all desirous to change older systems, which, in the case of the UK, was the 5.5-inch Medium Gun (also in the collection).

The FH-70 is able to fire NATO standard ammunition including those with extended range base bleed capabilities and rocket assistance and providing a range of up to 30,000 metres (18.6 miles). The detachment was comprised of eight men and the firing rate between 3 and 6 rounds per minute. It was accepted into British service in 1976 and used until 1999. Several countries worldwide still count it amongst their artillery capability. This gift comes courtesy of Hesco Bastion Ltd, a Leeds based company who manufacture modern gabions or collapsible wire mesh containers used for flood control or military fortifications.


The FH70 will be included in Fort Nelson’s astonishing collection of different artillery and guns ranging across centuries. Over 700 items of artillery from many countries and spanning 600 years are brought to life whilst sensitively telling the unique stories behind them.

FH70FH70 2

Built between 1860 and 1870, Fort Nelson, along with Fort Wallington, Fort Southwick, Fort Widley, and Fort Purbrook were one of the biggest defense projects ever undertaken in Britain, Fort Nelson and the other Portsdown forts were dedicated to provide the fire power to deter an enemy attack on Portsmouth from inland, although it never saw action against the French.

The Royal Armouries Museum was opened in 1984 for the first time, and today is one of the largest artillery museums in the UK.

guns_editedFN aerial 2007 aMain entrance Fort Nelson

Somme 100 – Huddersfield Drill Hall Commemoration

On the 1st July 2016 a commemoration was held by the Lord Lieutenant of West Yorkshire at Huddersfield Drill Hall to honour the Yorkshire Regiments that had been engaged in the Somme Offensive 100 years earlier.

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Somme 100 commemoration

After the presentation of the colours a traditional Drumhead service was held by Canon David Wilkes (Chaplain to the Yorkshire Regiment) and moving letters from the front were read by current members of the Yorkshire Regiment.

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Return of the Colours after the Drumhead Service

The band of the Yorkshire Regiment played the regimental marches and members of the Light Infantry Buglers Association performed a fanfare for the Colours, and later the Last Post. The commemoration ended with a poignant Volley Salute by two soldiers using Lee Enfield Mark III rifles; each shot marking the death of 2,000 soldiers on the Somme.

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Volley Salute using historic Lee Enfield rifles

The First World War Archives Project team from the Royal Armouries museum and partners from Bankfield Museum, Clifton Park Museum, Doncaster Museum and York Army Museum, were invited to present displays of archive material relating to the Somme offensive and to share upcoming events commemorating World War One. Reproductions of Battalion Orders, personal accounts, Battalion War Diaries, Trench Maps, recruiting material and other contemporary items were displayed to give a fuller picture of the ‘Big Push’. The displays and material provoked a great amount of interest, with many attendees sharing their own Somme connections.

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First World War Archives Project Display

Our thanks go to Angela Clare from Bankfield Museum, Lisa Broadest from Clifton Park Museum, Steve Tagg and Victoria Ryves from Doncaster Museum, and Major Graham Green and Hannah Rogers from York Army Museum for their hard work.

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Victoria Ryves with the Doncaster 1914-1918 Display Stand (Photo used courtesy of Doncaster 1914-1918).

New acquisition: the Missaglia Breastplate

On 29th June, at the Thomas Del Mar sale, the Royal Armouries purchased a rare breastplate by a famous family of armourers, the Missaglia family.

208-1The breastplate is stamped with the armourer’s mark of the Missaglia family: a Lombardic ‘M’ under a split cross on the right shoulder. The Missaglia’s were the foremost armourers of the Middle Ages, working from their famous workshop in Milan. This breastplate was made by Giovanni Angelo Missaglia (recorded 1504-1529), a third generation armourer of the Missaglia family. Giovanni was the eldest son and heir of Antonio Missaglia, who himself was the eldest son and heir of Tomasso Missaglia – who first adopted both the Missaglia name and mark.


This breastplate bears the same armourer’s mark as that on the great bacinet of the Royal Armouries’ Henry VIII Tonlet armour, which Henry wore at the Field of Cloth of Gold tournament in 1520. For the tournament, this great bacinet made by Giovanni Angelo was fitted onto a Greenwich cuirass for the king. Henry VIII had clearly ordered it sometime previously, and retained it in his private armoury. Find out more about this armour in the clip below (1 minute 21 seconds in).

The Missaglia  breastplate is key component of the history, development and use of arms and armour, and compliments many other Missaglia items in our collection – including a kettle hat and visor, a right and left pauldron, a lance rest, a sallet and an upper backplate dating from 15th to the early 16th century.



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.

Warrior Treasures: Inspired by the Hoard


Jemma Churchill as Deb – and Deb Klemperer, New Vic Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent May 2015 ©Joshua Val Martin (Twitter)

At the Royal Armouries in Leeds, visitors can see our new temporary exhibition ‘Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold of the Staffordshire Hoard’, running from the 27th May until the 2nd October 2016. In parallel with the exhibition, the museum is running a blog series providing behind the scenes details on how these fascinating items were discovered, conserved, and prepared for the exhibition. In this post, Deb Klemperer, Principal Curator at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, (with the help of Paul Bailey, Cultural Development Officer, Stoke-on-Trent City Council) talks about how the Staffordshire Hoard has inspired a variety of artistic responses.


Paul Bailey (centre back), Nick Dodds Chief Operating Officer Cultural Olympiad London 2012 (back left) and artist Katharine Morling (centre front) Image © Jas Sansi, Flickr


Since the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard in July 2009, there has been an outpouring of artistic responses to the fabulously intricate seventh-century gold and silver weapon fittings and Christian regalia. Visitors to the Hoard exhibitions, craft-workers, jewellers, artists, poets, potters, re-enactors, sculptors and playwrights have all felt inspired to produce work, or have gained funding to develop their work. Some of this has happened spontaneously and some in collaboration with the Hoard’s owners, Stoke-on-Trent City Council (SOTCC), The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Birmingham City Council (BCC), and Birmingham Museums Trust.

It has been a really fascinating part of my work over the past seven years to see the many and varied responses to the Hoard. A small sample are highlighted here:

‘Wake the Warrior’  by Naseem Derby

“Wake the Warrior” is a very fine, hollow filigree work stitched from thousands of black threads. The artist adopted the Raven from the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf as her messenger to explore the mythology and culture of the Hoard. Internally lit on a plinth, her Raven symbolises death as a part of life. It is really moving and powerful.

New Vic Theatre Hoard Festival  

In the summer of 2015, the New Vic Theatre in Stoke-on-Trent, led by artistic director Theresa Heskins, and funded by Arts Council England, put on an ambitious programme of plays, playlets and storytelling all based on the Staffordshire Hoard. It was incredible to watch the process from afar– the research, the interviews, the call for playwrights, the rehearsals – which took place over 16 months of feverish activity. Theresa Heskins wrote a documentary play about the Hoard’s discovery, ‘Unearthed’ which was selected as one of the Guardian’s top ten shows of 2015


Jemma Churchill as Deb in ‘Unearthed’ © The Sentinel newspaper Stoke-on-Trent

One of the strangest things for me was to attend a launch evening at the New Vic, feel a tap on my shoulder, and turn to a smiling woman who said ‘Hello Deb Klemperer, I’m Deb Klemperer’ (see top photo, taken shortly after our meeting).

Some of my favourite work was to be found in the table plays – very short pieces performed at one’s table in the bar. The actress Suzanne Ahmed, dressed in a red and gold sari, talking emotionally of being torn away from her southern Indian homeland – and then the slow realisation that she was a garnet, describing her journey from a mine or quarry, to being inset into a piece of the Staffordshire Hoard – was really, really good (The Foreigner by Lydia Adetunji).




Images © Andrew Billington from New Vic’s Hoard Festival ‘Unearthed’ and ‘The Gift’

‘Morling and the Hoard’:

As part of the London 2012 Festival and Cultural Olympiad SOTCC commissioned Katharine Morling, an award-winning ceramic artist, to create a body of work in response to the Staffordshire Hoard. It was a pleasure to spend time with Katharine, and let her hold the treasure, and answer her many enthusiastic questions. Katharine’s large unglazed ceramic pieces explores the mystic world of animal enchantment and the magic and the power embedded in our ancient beliefs. They are displayed near the Hoard, and elsewhere in The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

The Last Dragon Hunter:

image8The Last Dragon Hunter’ is a short film commissioned by SOTCC for broadcast in The Potteries Museum & Art gallery’s ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia’ exhibition. Taking inspiration from the Staffordshire Hoard and Saxon myth and legend, the lively film is aimed at children and families. It was brought to life using a mix of live action filmed in the beautiful north Staffordshire countryside and animation by local filmmaker Chris Stone and BigRED Studios. The film tells the mythical story of the Staffordshire Saxon, a  bronze statue by Andy Edwards that stands in the foyer of the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery. It also explores why the hoard may have been buried in antiquity. image9


Clay, Fire and Gold is a book of poetry commissioned by SOTCC to reflect on the city centre. Staffordshire Poet Laureate Tom Wye wrote 11 poems excerpts from which have been engraved into the city centre pavements. The book will be launched at the Hot Air Stoke-on-Trent Literary Festival at the Emma Bridgewater factory in June 2016.

Quotations from ‘The Hoard’ appear in the pavement adjacent to The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery. It is a marvel to me how much this chance find in a Staffordshire field by a metal detectorist  has touched so many lives, inspired so many people:

“Steeped in mystery from beyond the mists.

Buried through years on a scarred field,

Reborn is the Staffordshire Hoard.”

To find out more about the Royal Armouries exhibition ‘Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold of the Staffordshire Hoard’ please visit our exhibition microsite

Images not credited are ©Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Warrior Treasures: ‘Look beyond the gold!’ meet Chris Fern, Lead Specialist.

IMG_1010At the Royal Armouries in Leeds, visitors can see our new temporary exhibition ‘Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold of the Staffordshire Hoard’, running from the 27th May until the 2nd October 2016. In parallel with the exhibition, the museum is running a blog series providing behind the scenes details on how these fascinating items were discovered, conserved, and prepared for the exhibition. In this post,  Anglo-Saxon specialist Chris Fern, lead researcher on the Staffordshire Hoard, encourages to ‘look beyond the gold’ of this Saxon treasures… 

The Staffordshire hoard is an extraordinary treasure of the 7th century, found in 2009, that is providing a new window on England’s early history in a time of forming kingdoms and changing beliefs.  In the period, the eastern half of the country was split into numerous Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, many in regions still recognised today, including East Anglia, Northumbria, Kent and Mercia. These kingdoms fought each other frequently, and also campaigned against British kingdoms in the west. The competition was for territory and resources, but casual raiding for livestock and in pursuit of slaves was probably also commonplace. Above all gold was the prize most desired, and at this period, when coinage was still rare in England, the metal was transformed into beautiful objects. Kings used these treasures to reward loyal warriors, creating bonds of fealty which underpinned political power.

Gold — noblest of metals, bright and incorruptible – is the instantly defining attribute of the hoard. Similarly it is woven through the fabric of the famous Anglo-Saxon poem, Beowulf. Not since the great kingly treasure of Sutton Hoo was discovered in 1939 has a single find so captured the imagination of Anglo-Saxon scholars and the public alike. Each of the finds of the hoard would ordinarily be a rare prize. Yet, the find from a field in Staffordshire makes clear as never before that the warrior ranks of early England were bedecked with golden weapons, transformed by expert artisans into beautiful works of art. The glittering blood-red garnets inlaid on many of the objects were also well suited to the business of the battlefield (Fig. 1).

K284_K327_scale 2_1_CF edit

Figure 1. Pommel no. 52 (K284, K327) in gold and garnet cloisonné. One end was found torn off. © Birmingham Museums Trust.

Quite literally the ‘devil’ is in the detail. To see this one must look beyond the gold of the objects. By closely examining them, deeper messages are revealed, wrought in the metal. The art of the hoard was not simply decoration, but conceals in many cases creatures and other symbols that relate to the traditional pre-Christian ‘pagan’ and new Christian beliefs of the warriors. In many periods in the past, soldiers have worn or carried symbols of belief, to give divine protection on the battlefield. The objects of the hoard served the armies of kingdoms in a time of great change, with the coming of Christianity to pagan England, that challenged long-held beliefs.  In some cases, sword pommels and other objects bear motifs from both traditions, depictions of battling beasts that relate to paganism, as well as crosses. Pommel no. 52 is one example (Fig. 2). In these cases the individuals who owned the weapons may have been seeking protection from the gods of both faiths. Paganism was not an exclusive doctrinal faith like Christianity and there is one famous account of an Anglo-Saxon ruler setting up altars to pagan ‘devils’ and Christ (Bede HE II.15).

The manufacture of the objects is also incredible to behold, though a magnifying glass is often a necessary aid to appreciating this. The gold wires used in the filigree decoration were handmade to as little as 0.2mm, and each garnet stone was individually shaped. Some of the garnets may have come from as far away as India. We know little of the craftsmen who made the objects. The famous legend of Weland, tells of a smith hamstrung and forced to work on an island by a king. It is possible the smiths who made the hoard objects were also bondsmen in royal service, tasked with creating kingdom styles.


Figure 2. Pommel no. 52 (K284, K327) showing the combining of religious beliefs. One side has a geometric pattern of rounded and triangular arches, evoking classical architecture, and at the ends are Christian crosses; the other side shows a motif of a pair of embattled beasts, with disembodied bird beaks at the ends, and probably had pagan meaning. © Drawing Chris Fern/Barbican Research Associates.

As the lead specialist working on the collection, it has been my privilege to work on unlocking the secrets of the hundreds of objects, a process that will long continue.

Remember to look beyond the gold!

To find out more about the Royal Armouries exhibition ‘Warrior Treasures: Saxon Gold of the Staffordshire Hoard’ please visit our exhibition microsite

Join our Warrior Treasures exhibition conference Saturday 11th June to hear from leading experts in the field, who will explore the many aspects of this remarkable Anglo-Saxon find and explain how it is adding to our understanding of the people that made, used and buried this magnificent hoard. Please see full details and purchase tickets via the Royal Armouries website.