Untold lives blog

48 posts categorized "World War One"

10 January 2017

Persia I will eat last

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The beginning of the First World War was a difficult time for Persia. With the country divided between Russian and British zones of influence, the Shah and his government were trying to maintain their sovereignty and to keep the country neutral. However, the war was fought on Persian territory on many fronts.


  Persia 1877

From Hippesley Cunliffe Marsh, A ride through Islam: being a journey through Persia and Afghanistan to India, viâ Meshed, Herat and Kandahar (London, 1877)


Documents from the India Office Records unveil British intrigues to maintain control over Persia. The British aimed to prevent the country from entering the war and supporting Turkey with a Muslim coalition - a jihad.

One of the propaganda efforts reported in the records is an alleged plunder by the Turks of jewels and money to the value of £2 million from the shrines of Nejef [Najaf, Iraq] and Karbala in January 1915.  This news was reported in the British press, discussed in Parliament, and recorded in the Political and Secret Department Records. But there is no evidence that this in fact ever happened.

Najaf and Karbala are the two holiest sites for Shia Muslims, and the value of the plunder would be over £300 million in today’s money. Such news would not have gone unnoticed among Arabic and Turkish sources, yet I could not find anything but a mention during a debate at the House of Commons.

The cautious wording chosen by Charles Henry Roberts, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for India at the time, when interrogated about the loot of Karbala is quite revealing:
'I should hesitate to say that the reports absolutely confirm the truth of the story; but they seem to render it considerably more probable'.

Did the looting ever happen? Maybe the British were exaggerating a story to convince the Persians to join them in the war against the Turks?

  IOR-L-PS-10-481 f.316
File 3516/1914 Pt 4 'German War: Persia', IOR/L/PS/10/481, f 316

Having read numerous files concerning the British occupation of Persia during World War One, I believe that this quote describes quite well the British approach towards Persia:

‘I fear that the only advantage which we can promise Persia is that which the Cyclops promised Odysseus
Οὖτιν ἐγὼ πύματον ἔδομαι μετὰ οἷς ἑτάροισιν’ (Noman will I eat last among his comrades…)

  Odysseus and Polyphemus the Cyclops

Odysseus and Polyphemus the Cyclops from Henri.Raison Du Cleuziou, La création de l'homme et les premiers âges de l'humanité  (Paris, 1887) BL flickr


Valentina Mirabella
Archive Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
File 3516/1914 Pt 4 'German War: Persia', IOR/L/PS/10/481
Odyssey 9.369 - Translation by A.T. Murray



11 November 2016

The British Legion’s Fundraising in the Age of Empire

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The British Legion was founded on 15 May 1921 with a mission, in its own words, ‘to care for those who had suffered as a result of service in the Armed Forces during the [First World] war, whether through their own service or through that of a husband, father or son.’  The first Poppy Day was held on this day, ninety-five years ago, on 11 November 1921.

British Legion 1

Detail of the British Legion’s letterhead in use in the 1930s. CC BY NC

Then, as now, poppies were made by war veterans, for sale to the general public in both Britain and across the British Empire (and later, the Commonwealth).  In its formative years, the Legion’s work was solely preoccupied with those that had served in the First World War.  Money raised by the sale of poppies was spent on a variety of programmes, including towards the relief of distress, the provision of employment and housing for ex-servicemen, tuberculosis treatment, pensions, and financial assistance toward the migration of ex-servicemen to Britain’s ‘dominions’.


  British Legion 2

Poppy Day supplies order form, 1934. IOR/R/15/2/1558, f 17. CC BY NC


A number of files in the India Office Records, held at the British Library and presently being digitised as part of the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership, give a flavour of the British Legion’s global reach and fundraising efforts between the First and Second World Wars. The records show how the organisation tapped into Britain’s network of colonial administrators to extend their activities to the furthest flung corners of Britain’s empire, including to the shores of the Persian Gulf. The Legion designated administrators such as the Political Agent at Bahrain as Organisers, who were responsible for coordinating the mail order and sale of poppy merchandising in areas under their jurisdiction.

As an Organiser, the Bahrain Political Agent received regular correspondence from the British Legion throughout the 1930s, enclosing, amongst other things: gramophone records containing a personal appeal by the Legion’s then patron, the Prince of Wales; ‘talkie’ films featuring footage of the Cenotaph and war cemeteries in France; brochures; magazines; and mail order forms for leaflets, poppies, wreaths, badges, posters, and poppy ‘mascots’ for cars and motorcycles. The British Legion also sent forms to administrators requesting details of local towns and villages, and ‘any districts where a Poppy Day is not organised’, so that further British communities might be reached.


‘Poppy Day World Map’, 1947. IOR/R/15/2/1559, ff 78-79. CC BY NC


Correspondence between the British Legion and Britain’s Political Agent at Bahrain reveals that, prior to 1938, poppies were not sold on the islands, the Political Agent explaining that ‘their sale would not be appropriate in the circumstances in Bahrain.’ Collections were, however, raised amongst the islands’ expatriate community, which had grown in size significantly by the late 1930s, thanks to the large numbers of American and Indian employees working for the Bahrain Petroleum Company.


 British Legion 3
Haig Fund (British Legion) poppy wreaths for order, 1938. IOR/R/15/2/1558, f 98. CC BY NC


The start of the Second World War in 1939 marked the point at which the British Legion began to raise funds for those affected by present, as well as historic conflicts. As its letterheads in the first years of the new war made clear, ‘war increases our responsibilities.’ The ‘time is rapidly approaching’ wrote the Legion’s secretary in March 1940, ‘when the claims from this new category of Ex-Service man will assume serious proportions'.

 British Legion 4
Extract from a British Legion letter, dated December 1939. IOR/R/15/2/1558, f 132. CC BY NC


Mark Hobbs
Subject Specialist, Gulf History Project

British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
British Library, London, ‘File 16/48 I Corr. re: Earl Haig’s Appeal Fund (Poppy Day)’ (IOR/R/15/2/1558)
British Library, London, ‘File 16/48 II Correspondence regarding Earl Haig’s appeal fund (poppy day )’ (IOR/R/15/2/1559)
British Library, London, ‘File No 20/7 Ceremonials and Honours. Armistice day’ (IOR/R/15/2/1672)
James Fox “Poppy Politics: Remembrance of Things Present” in Constantine Sandis (ed) Cultural Heritage Ethics: Between Theory and Practice (Cambridge Open Book Publishers, 2014) Google Books



12 October 2016

Edith Cavell – 101 years on

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One hundred and one years ago today Edith Cavell was executed.  Last year, on the centenary of her death, her story was re-told in the press, the Royal Mint issued a commemorative £5 coin, and hundreds attended services to remember her.   In the years after 1915 she was not forgotten and people wrote poems and built memorials to her.  So it seems fitting not to let the 101st anniversary of her death pass by unnoticed, and to tell the story of the people who did not forget her.


Cavell 2 F60145-14

Daily Sketch, 23 October 1915  Images Online Noc


Edith Cavell was executed on 12 October for treason, having smuggled French and British troops out of German-occupied Belgium.  Immediately after her death the world was in shock and masses of ephemeral items were produced.  Several examples are held in the British Library in the volume at shelfmark Tab.11748.aa.2. which I have been working on.  (Fuller records for individual items within this volume will appear in Explore the British Library in due course.)

Many people used her death for propaganda purposes, as a rallying point to entice more men to join in the fight against the Central Powers.  E. H. Rowe, of South Shields, helped feed this propaganda, writing a poem that described German soldiers as ‘her relentless foe thirsting for her life’ and ending with the ominous line ‘God’s will be done. He will repay’.  Another particularly dramatic poem by John Streaks begins ‘She died a martyr in her country’s cause; we mourn to know how foully she was slain’.


Cavell 4 kh222813

Illustration from a French journal © Coll.Dixmier/Kharbine-Tapabor/British Library Images Online


Some poems were printed and sold for charity.  The British Library holds a design for a memorial cross, adorned with a picture of her dressed in her nurse’s uniform and inscribed with the message ‘Nestling here the spirit of love ever watcheth and slumbering sleepeth not’.  The artist produced a small copy of this design with an explanation on the back, describing how he had chosen roses, maple leaves, thistles, shamrocks and oak leaves.  He wrote that by adding lamps to the composition a ‘sacramental feeling’ is produced, that makes one want to pause and remember.  He created a larger version of this image for sale, and hoped that a good proportion of the profits would go to ‘Homes of Rest for Nurses’.  The Daily Mirror (alongside the Daily Telegraph) raised money for an Edith Cavell Memorial Fund, which had poets composing sheets to be sold in order to raise money.  Her death was a rallying point for all Allied troops.  Even in Canada memorial sheets were sold to collect money for the Canadian Red Cross and Canadian Patriotic Funds.

Multiple poems were written about her legacy.  One printed pamphlet has a large drawing of her face inside a laurel wreath with the caption ‘A tribute written to the air of “Queen of the Earth” in memory of a woman, whose name will live in history, and whose fame will be as imperishable as that of either Florence Nightingale or Grace Darling’.  Nowadays the propaganda purpose of such items is well known, and historians are beginning to understand Edith Cavell as an individual, complicating the view of Nurse Cavell-as-martyr that is suggested by this ephemera.

Ann-Marie Foster
PhD placement student Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
The items cited are all from the guard volume at shelfmark Tab.11748.aa.2. except for the larger design for a memorial cross at shelfmark: 1820.h.8.(104.)
Edith Louisa Cavell
World War One atrocity propaganda
Diana Souhami, Edith Cavell (London, 2010)



20 September 2016

Letters from Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, September 1916

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In September 1916, the Battle of the Somme was still raging violently. By that point in the First World War, the Indian infantry regiments had been transferred from France to fight in the Mesopotamian campaign, but the cavalry regiments remained on the Western Front.  The Censor of the Indian Mails reported that the mail for the past week, ending 23 September, had been very light owing to the Indian Cavalry being very much on the move.  One division was still encamped in a “somewhat unhealthy spot” just behind the firing line.  He admitted that the moves had caused unsettled feelings among the Indian troops.

Indian Cavalry 74408520.2

First World War Official Photographs: Indian Cavalry Western Front World War I Shelfmark X.34023. Images Online


This can be seen in an extract from a letter from Jemadar Indar Singh to a family member in Ludhiana, India, originally written in Urdu, and dated 15 September 1916:

“I am off for a Cavalry attack on the enemy on the 15th September.  It is quite impossible that I should return alive because a Cavalry charge is a very terrible affair and therefore I want to clear up several things which are weighing on my heart at present.  Firstly, the sharp things you have written to me have not annoyed me.  Don’t be grieved at my death because I shall die arms in hand wearing the warrior’s clothes.  This is the most happy death that anyone can die.  I am very sorry that I have not been able to discharge my obligations towards my family because God has called me already.  Well, never mind you must forgive me.  I have abandoned to you all my worldly possessions which you must make use of without hesitation.  Don’t worry your grandparents after I am gone.  Give my love to my parents and tell them not to grieve as we must all die some day. Indeed this day of death is an occasion for rejoicing”.

In his report, the Censor was rather unimpressed by this letter, commenting that the writer “…is certainly a pessimist of the deepest dye and obviously mistook his vocation when he entered the Indian Cavalry”.

The anxious mood among the Indian Cavalry was also reflected in an extract from a letter by Bawat Singh, a Risaldar in the Poona Horse, writing on 20 September 1916:

“The fighting has been very violently lately and it is hoped that it will bring matters to an end.  I constantly pray God that I may speedily be removed from all these calamities and taken home.  Without God nothing can be achieved and we do not know when it will please him to finish the war.  At the present time the whole world is like a field of carrots and turnips which is being rooted up on all sides.  The day that God wishes it to be so, the war will cease, and the troubles and trials of the people of the world will be removed”.

The reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France, including extracts from soldiers’ letters, are held in the India Office Records and can be found online.
John O’Brien
India Office Records

Further Reading:
Reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France, Aug-Oct 1916 [IOR/L/MIL/5/826/7, folios 1166, 1171 and 1178] online



30 August 2016

A British First World War hero with roots in India

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The India Office Records are able to shed some light on the sadly short life of a World War One military hero.

Rex Warneford was commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Air Service in February 1915. After the obligatory period of training, late on 6 June 1915 he took off from an Allied air base at Dunkirk to attack Zeppelin sheds outside Brussels. Becoming separated from the rest of his squadron, through the darkness he made out the forbidding shape of an enemy craft, Zeppelin LZ-37. Shots from his rifle and pistol did no damage, so he tracked it for more than an hour before steering his plane above and taking the opportunity to drop six twenty pound bombs. Most of the crew were killed in the ensuing explosion.  Unfortunately a number of Belgian civilians died on the ground when the vessel crashed to earth.


Warneford 902_05_1855287

Flight Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Alexander John Warneford VC (1891-1915) bombs and destroys a Zeppelin airship 1915 - from
The War Illustrated Album (London, 1916) Images Online  Noc


Running low on fuel, Warneford was forced to make an emergency landing miles behind enemy lines before taking off again and landing safely mid-morning on 7 June. He was the first British pilot to destroy a Zeppelin single-handed. Recognition was swift, and his award of the Victoria Cross was gazetted on 11 June.  It was announced that he would also receive the French Legion d’honneur.

Tragically, only six days later Rex was killed in a flying accident on his way from Paris back to Dunkirk. He was buried in Brompton Cemetery on 21 June.

Although he spent his boyhood in Stratford-on-Avon and Exmouth, Devon, Warneford was actually born on 15 October 1891 in Cooch Behar, Bengal.  He was the son of Reginald and Alexandra Warneford, his father being a civil engineer (our ref. IOR/N/1/218/32). ‘Rex’ is a conflation of his two Christian names, ‘Reginald’ and ‘Alexander’.   His parents married in Darjeeling on 3 September 1890 (IOR/N/1/213/220), when his mother was seventeen years old. The archive also contains an entry for the burial of his father in 1904 (IOR/N/3/92/102) and the re-marriage of his mother in October 1908 (IOR/N/1/356/12).

Belgium has honoured him with ‘Reginald Warnefordstreet’ in Sint Amandsberg, Ghent.

Hedley Sutton
Asian & African Studies Reference Services  Cc-by     

Further reading:
Deeds that thrill the Empire, (London, 1917), 2 volumes  shelfmark 9081.ff.17.


16 August 2016

Mud, Blood, and Vegetables

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During the First World War soldiers needed entertainment; a distraction, something to brighten up their time away from the front line. There were journals to write, plays to perform, even a moving cinema. There was also gardening to do. In places that had extra land, and were in a (reasonably) secure location, soldiers grew anything from turnips to tomatoes.

On 5 May 1917 the British Expeditionary Force, Base 1, situated in Le Havre, in recognition of this, sent word to all units permanently stationed in the region ‘to cultivate all vacant land for the production of vegetables, and to encourage the continuity of this work, the Base Commandant proposes to hold a “vegetable show”’.

The type of troops that were stationed in Le Havre supported soldiers who were in the thick of it. There were Convalescent Camps, a Rest Camp, and the Army Service Corps Base Depot. There was an international flavour to the Base, as the Canadian Veterinary Hospital, the Australian General Base Depot and the Chinese Labour Corps were also stationed there.

All units were encouraged to enter the show, as were the Belgian military and French civilians (French troops were excluded). Those wanting to enter could choose to display nearly any vegetable, lists of categories were sent around beforehand and included potatoes, radishes, and kale. There were also general categories, such as flower arranging, or an award for the best garden.

The show was held on the 14, 15 and 16 August in a local garden (Jardin St Roch). Regimental bands provided musical entertainment each day and the event was advertised in a local newspaper (the Havre Éclair). On the last day of the show prizes and medallions were awarded to the best in each category in an awards ceremony.


  1917 Cert [1]

A letter from Captain P.H. Browne informs us that this certificate for the 1917 show was engraved by a soldier who in his civilian life was a clerk at a gas company.


In spite of ‘deplorable weather’ 9,000 people visited over the three days. Officers had donated money to pay for the show and prizes, to allow all profit to be given to the needy. The money raised amounted to 3,000 francs, which was donated half to the British Red Cross, and half to the French Oeuvres de Guerre.

In the second year of the show 11,000 people visited, and nearly 4,000 francs were raised. This year an extra competition was announced, to see who could produce the most vegetables per acre throughout the year. A Depot Company of German Prisoners of War won, with an average of 26 tons of vegetables produced per acre (compared to the 2 tons produced by the lowest ranking units).


1918 Cert

This 1918 certificate shows the inclusion of poultry and rabbits into the competition.


The shows could become rather competitive. Miss J M Wilson, a volunteer with the YMCA in Le Havre during the war wrote in her memoirs about a garden she cultivated. She described one vegetable that reached an ‘enormous size’ which they hoped to compete with in the show, but it was stolen, and there was a rumour that the thief exhibited it as his own.

The British Library has a collection of letters and ephemera about these shows, all donated at the time by senior ranking officers, and now in a guard book volume at shelfmark Tab.11748.aa.4.(88-117), which is where the information for this blog originated. They also donated copies of the victory medallions which are currently on display in the First World War gallery at the Imperial War Museum.

Ann-Marie Foster
PhD placement student Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Aunt J: Jessie Millar Watson MBE: Wartime Memories of a Lady YMCA Volunteer in France 1915-1918, edited by Joan E. Duncan (Privately Published, 1999) British Library shelfmark: YC.2000.a.1675.
Information about the medallions awarded 1918 now held at the Imperial War Museum.


21 July 2016

Harry Michie - With the Roughriders in the Mediterranean

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Earlier this month, we remembered Charles Robert Dunt, a museum clerk who became the first member of the library departments of the British Museum to die in the First World War. On 21 July the Museum also lost Sergeant Harry Michie, a clerk in the Department of Printed Books, Maps, Charts, and Plans. Sergeant Michie served in the 1st City of London Yeomanry, a territorial cavalry regiment known as the "Roughriders".


Memorial Michie

City of London Yeomanry war memorial in Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, London - picture courtesy of author


The City of London Yeomanry spent most of the opening years of the war in the Mediterranean.  They operated in Egypt as part of the force defending the Suez Canal. From mid-August 1915 the regiment took part in the Gallipoli Campaign, suffering severe casualities in the Battle of Scimitar Hill. Returning to Egypt in November, the regiment had to deal with high-rates of sickness in the extreme heat of the Sinai Desert. By June 1916, the regiment had almost 100 "ineffectives”, 20 of whom were in hospital.

The regimental history records the death of two of those that had been admitted to hospital: Sergeant Harry Michie and Private William James Pitt. Michie died in the 17th General Hospital in Alexandria from enteric fever (typhoid). He is buried in the Alexandria (Hadra) War Memorial Cemetery.

Harry Michie was born at Stratford, Essex in 1886, the second youngest of the ten children of Duncan and Lucretia Michie. His mother Lucretia Joy was born in Kent in 1844, the daughter of Charles and Harriet of Charlton, near Dover.  His father Duncan Michie was born at Lochlee in Angus in 1844 or 1845, the son of a gamekeeper. At the time of the 1861 Census, Duncan was working as a footman at Brechin Castle. He married Lucretia in Kent in 1865. By 1871, the couple were living at Stratford, Essex, while Duncan was working as a railway porter. He joined the British Museum in 1874, working first as a 2nd Class Attendant in the Zoological Department, before moving to the Department of Oriental Antiquities (presumably after the zoological collections moved to the new museum at Kensington).   Duncan died in 1898 aged 54, by which time the family had moved to Leytonstone, where the widowed Lucretia and her remaining children were still living in 1911. Lucretia died in 1922, aged 77.

Harry Michie followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the British Museum as a boy attendant in the Department of Printed Books on 5 March 1900. He became part of the adult staff on 25 September 1905. Unfortunately Michie's army service records do not seem to have survived, so we do not know the exact date he enlisted at Stratford for the City of London Yeomanry.


Memorial Michie 2

Michie's name on City of London Yeomanry war memorial in Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield, London - picture courtesy of author


Harry Michie's name can be found on the City of London Yeomanry memorial in the Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, as well as on the British Museum war memorial at Bloomsbury and the memorial for British Librarians at the British Library at St Pancras. His name also features on the British Museum's roll of honour, which is at the Natural History Museum in Kensington.


Memorial Michie 3

British Museum's roll of honour at the Natural History Museum, Kensington, London - picture courtesy of author


Michael Day
Digital Preservation Manager Cc-by

Further reading:
A. S. Hamilton, The City of London Yeomanry (Roughriders) (London: Hamilton Press, 1936).
Stuart Latham, Roughriders: the City of London Yeomanry during the First World War (Swindon: S&T Sales and Marketing, 2012).


01 July 2016

A Museum Clerk at the Battle of the Somme

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On a pilaster close to the South Portico entrance to the British Museum is a memorial to members of museum staff who died in the two World Wars.  The memorial was designed and carved by Eric Gill, (the 1939-45 parts are by W. H. Sharpington), and incorporates a stanza from Lawrence Binyon's poem "For the Fallen", familiar from its regular use at remembrance ceremonies.  The memorial contains the name of eleven members of staff who died in the First World War.  Of these, six worked in the departments that later became part of the British Library.

The first of these six to die was Charles Robert Dunt, a Museum Clerk in the Department of Manuscripts.  He died 100 years ago today, on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, while serving with the 1/13th London Regiment, the Kensingtons.


Kensingtons at Laventie IWM

The Kensingtons at Laventie © IWM (Art.IWM ART 15661)


Charles joined the staff of the British Museum as a Boy Attendant on 21 July 1902, joining the adult staff on 7 September 1908.  I have been able to discover very little about his personal life, except what can be reconstructed from the census and other official records.  He was born at Kensington in 1888, the eldest son of Charles and Alice Emily Dunt.  Both of his parents came from rural East Anglia.  Charles senior had been born at Shotesham All Saints, Norfolk; Alice Emily Smee at Ridgewell, Essex.  They were married at Kensington in 1887, and by 1891 the elder Charles was working in London as a harness maker.  Charles Robert was their eldest son, and he was followed by Lewis Cyril (born 1890) and Florence May (born 1894).  In 1891, the family were living at Bravington Road, Paddington, although by 1911 they had moved to nearby Third Avenue, in the Queen's Park Estate.  By then, all three of the children seem to be in fairly stable employment: Charles at the British Museum, his younger siblings working respectively as a railway clerk for the Great Western Railway and as a shop assistant in a ladies' outfitters.  By contrast, their 47-year old father was still working in his old trade as a horse collar maker for a railway company.

Charles Robert Dunt's service records do not seem to have survived, but documents in the British Library's own corporate archives state that he enlisted in March 1915.  By the time he died, he was serving with the 13th (County of London) Princess Louise's Kensington Battalion, a territorial force unit of the London Regiment.  On  1 July 1916, the Kensingtons were part of a diversionary attack at Gommecourt, which was a mile or so to the north of the main Somme front.  The operation was a costly failure.  A report attached to the battalion war diary recorded that 16 officers and 310 men had become casualties that day, out of a total strength of 24 officers and 500 men.



Hébuterne Add MS 88882/9/24 ©From the Garvin archive


Amongst the many that died that day was Charles Robert Dunt, who was killed in action, aged 28.  His grave can be found in Hébuterne Military Cemetery.  Dunt's name also appears on the British Museum's Roll of Honour at the Natural History Museum and the British Librarians’ memorial at the British Library.

Michael Day
Digital Preservation Manager Cc-by

Further reading:
Frederic G. Kenyon, The British Museum in war time (Glasgow : Jackson : Wylie and Co., 1934)
O. F. Bailey and H. M. Hollier, The Kensingtons: 13th London Regiment (London: Regimental Old Comrade's Association, 1936)
Nigel Cave, Gommecourt (Barnsley: Leo Cooper, 1998)
Alan MacDonald, Pro patria mori: the 56th (1st London) Division at Gommecourt, 1st July 1916, rev. ed. (Iona, 2008)
Alan MacDonald, Gommecourt, 1st July 1916