The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior – a summary

On 11 November 1920, two years after the armistice that ended the First World War, the Unknown Warrior was buried in London’s Westminster Abbey in a deeply sombre ceremony that caught the mood of a nation, still reeling in grief following four years of war.

In 1916, the vicar of Margate in Kent, the Reverend David Railton, (a recipient of the Military Cross) was stationed as a padre on the Western Front near the French village of Armentières on the Belgian border when he noticed a temporary grave with the inscription, ‘An Unknown British Soldier’. Moved by this simple epitaph, he initially suggested the notion to the British wartime commander-in-chief, Sir Douglas Haig that one fallen man, unknown in name or rank, should represent all those who died during the war who had no known grave. In August 1920, having received no response from Haig, Railton muted the idea to Herbert Ryle, the Dean of Westminster, who, in turn, passed it onto Buckingham Palace.

George VInitially, the king, George V (pictured), was not enthusiastic about the proposal; not wanting to re-open the healing wound of national grief but was persuaded into the idea by the prime minister, David Lloyd-George.

On 7 November 1920, the remains of six (some sources state four) unidentified British soldiers were exhumed – one each from six different battlefields (Aisne, Arras, Cambrai, Marne, Somme and Ypres). The six corpses were transported to a chapel in the village of St Pol, near Ypres, where they were each laid out on a stretcher and covered by the Union flag. There, in the company of a padre (not Rev Railton), a blindfolded officer entered the chapel and touched one of the bodies.

The following morning, chaplains of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church and Non-Conformist churches held a service for the chosen soldier. Placed in a plain coffin, the Unknown Warrior was taken back on a train to England via Boulogne. At Boulogne, the coffin was kept overnight in the town’s castle, a guard of honour keeping vigil.

A British Warrior

On the morning of the 9 November, the coffin was placed in a larger casket made from wood, three inches thick, taken from an oak tree in the gardens of London’s Hampton Court Palace. Mounted on the side of the coffin, a 16th century sword from the collection at the Tower of London especially chosen by George V. Draped over the casket, the Union flag, which had been used by Rev Railton as an altar cloth during the war. (The flag, known as the Padre’s Flag, now hangs in St George’s Chapel within Westminster Abbey). The coffin plate bore the inscription: ‘A British Warrior who fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country’.

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Georges Clemenceau – a brief biography

Nicknamed the Tiger for his fiery temperament, Georges Clemenceau was not averse to settling personal feuds by duel. He was anti-monarchy, anti-socialist and anti-Catholic. His father, Benjamin, who himself had been imprisoned for his republican views, was a doctor and although Clemenceau completed his medical studies, he didn’t take up the profession, being drawn instead to politics.

A staunch republican and troublemaker, like his father, Georges Clemenceau was once imprisoned for 73 days (some sources state 77 days) by Napoleon III’s government for publishing a republican newspaper and trying to incite demonstrations against the monarchy. In 1865, fearing another arrest, and possible incarceration on Devil’s Island, Clemenceau fled to the US, arriving towards the end of the American Civil War. He lived first in New York, where he worked as a journalist, and then in Connecticut where he became a teacher in a private girls’ school. Clemenceau married one of his American students, Mary Plummer, and together they had three children before divorcing seven years later. (Of his son, Clemenceau, known for his wit, said, ‘If he had not become a Communist at 22, I would have disowned him. If he is still a Communist at 30, I will do it then.’)

Five days after his divorce, Clemenceau returned to France and briefly worked as a doctor before returning to politics. In 1871, he witnessed France’s defeat to Prussia in the Franco-Prussian War.

‘A soldier of democracy’

An intellectual, Georges Clemenceau was fascinated by Ancient Greek culture, supported the work of the French Impressionists, wrote a book on Jewish history, and translated into French the works of English philosopher, John Stuart Mill. Following France’s defeat during the Franco-Prussian War, Clemenceau opposed France’s colonial ambitions, arguing that the country needed to concentrate its efforts on extracting revenge on the Germans and recovering Alsace Lorraine, territory it had lost to the Germans as part of the French surrender.

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Mata Hari – a brief summary

She enticed audiences with her dancing, her exoticism and eroticism – and her bejewelled bra, but in 1917, Mata Hari, a Malayan term meaning ‘eye of the day’, was shot by firing squad.

Margaretha Zelle

Born 7 August 1876 to a wealthy Dutch family, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle responded to a newspaper advertisement from a Rudolf MacLeod, a Dutch army officer of Scottish descent, seeking a wife. The pair married within three months of meeting each other and in 1895 and moved to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) where they had two children.

The marriage was doomed from the beginning – 22 years older, MacLeod was an abusive husband and Zelle was never going to play the part of the dutiful wife. Their son died aged 2 from syphilis, reputably inherited from his father (their daughter would die a similar death, aged 21) and in 1902, on their return to the Netherlands, they separated.

Unable to find work and uncertain about her future, Zelle moved to Paris and there changed her name to Mata Hari, claiming she originated from India and was the daughter of a temple dancer. She started to earn a living by modelling and dancing, and found work in a cabaret. Exotically dressed, she became a huge success and was feted by the powerful and rich of Paris, taking on a number of influential lovers. She travelled numerous times between France and the Netherlands. But by now war had broken out and Mata Hari’s movements and high-ranking liaisons caused suspicion.


Arrested by the British, Hari was interrogated. She admitted to passing German information on to the French. In turn, the French discovered evidence, albeit of doubtful authenticity, that she was spying for the Germans under the codename ‘H21’. Hari had indeed been recruited by the Germans, given the name H21 and received 20,000 francs as a down payment. Never one to turn down money, she accepted it but did no spying in return nor ever felt obliged to.

Returning to Paris, Hari was then arrested by the French and accused of being a double agent. The evidence against her virtually non-existent, and the prosecution found not a single item or piece of information passed from Mata Hari to the Germans. The trial itself of dubious nature as her defence was prohibited from cross-examining witnesses. Her defence lawyer was a 74-year-old man, a former lover, and his association with Hari diminished his authority and the six-man jury had little hesitation in finding Mata Hari guilty.

And shot

At dawn on 15 October 1917, Mata Hari, wearing a three-cornered hat, was led out from her cell to face her death. She told an attendant nun, ‘Do not be afraid, sister, I know how to die.’ She refused to be tied to the stake or blindfolded, and waved at onlookers and blew kisses at the priest and her lawyer. She was shot by a 12-man firing squad, each wearing a red fez. The officer in charge ensured she was dead by firing a bullet into her head. She was 41.

Thirty years later, one of the prosecutors admitted that ‘there wasn’t enough evidence [against Mata Hari] to flog a cat.’

Rupert Colley.

The Battle of the Somme – a brief outline

Within the collective British and Commonwealth psyche, no battle epitomises the futility of war as much as the Battle of the Somme. Almost 20,000 men were killed on the first day, 1 July 1916, alone.

Battle of the SommeIt started with the usual preliminary bombardment. Lasting seven days, and involving 1,350 guns and 52,000 tonnes of explosives fired onto the German lines, British soldiers were assured that the 18-mile German frontline would be flattened – it would just be a matter of strolling across and taking possession of the German trenches.

The Battle of the Somme was designed to relieve the pressure on the French suffering at Verdun. The British army at the Somme consisted mainly of Kitchener recruits. Most had received only minimal training and many had still to grasp the skill of shooting accurately.

‘Dead men cannot move’

battle of the sommeAt 7.20 am on Saturday 1 July 1916, the first of seventeen mines was detonated; a huge explosion on the German lines at Hawthorn Ridge (pictured). The explosion was captured on film by official war photographer Geoffrey Malins and the Hawthorn Crater is still visible today.

The advance started ten minutes later, at 7.30 am. The massive explosions certainly alerted the German defenders to what was about to come.

To the south of the British, a smaller French force, transferred from Verdun. As ordered, the men advanced in rigid lines. The bombardment combined with heavy rain had ensured that the ground was akin to a sea of mud and many an advancing soldier, lumbered with almost 70 lbs of equipment, drowned.

Battle of the SommeFar from being decimated by the artillery, the German trenches ahead were brimming with guns pointing towards the advance. What followed went down as the worse day in British military history and perhaps in the history of modern warfare – 57,000 men fell on that first day alone, 19,240 of them dead. In return, the Germans suffered a ‘mere’ 8,000 casualties that first day. The Royal Newfoundland Regiment, for example, suffered ninety per cent casualties – of the 780 Newfoundlanders that advanced on 1 July, only 68 were available for duty the following day.

One of Britain’s generals at the Battle of the Somme, Sir Beauvoir de Lisle, wrote, ‘It was a remarkable display of training and discipline, and the attack failed only because dead men cannot move on’. Despite the appalling losses, Britain’s commander-in-chief, Field Marshal Douglas Haig, decided to ‘press [the enemy] hard with the least possible delay’. Thus the attack was resumed the following day. And the day after that.

Cavalry and tanks

On 14 July, following a partially successful nighttime attack, the British sent in the cavalry – a rare sight on the Western Front of World War One and one that stirred the romantic notions in old timers such as Haig. But the horses became bogged down in the mud, the Germans opened fire and few survived, either horse or man.

On 15 September, Haig introduced the modern equivalent of the cavalry onto the battlefield – the tank. Originated in Britain, and championed by Winston Churchill, the term ‘tank’ was at first merely a codename to conceal its proper name – ‘landship’. Despite advice to wait for more testing, Haig had insisted on their use at the Somme. He got his way and the introduction of 32 tanks met with mixed results – many broke down but a few managed to penetrate German lines. But, as always, the Germans soon plugged the hole forged by the tanks. Nonetheless, Haig was impressed and immediately ordered a thousand more.

The Battle of the Somme ground on for a further two months. Nine Victoria Crosses were awarded on the first day alone; another 41 by the end of the battle. Soldiers from every part of the Empire were thrown into the melee – Australian, Canadian, New Zealanders, Indian and South African all took their part. The battle finally terminated on 18 November, after 140 days of fighting. 400,000 British and Commonwealth lives were lost, 200,000 French and 400,000 German. For this the Allies gained five miles. The Germans, having been pushed back, merely bolstered the already heavily-fortified second line, the Hindenburg Line.

As AJP Taylor put it in his First World War, first published in 1963, ‘Idealism perished at the Battle of the Somme. The enthusiastic volunteers were enthusiastic no longer’.

The Battle of the SommeRupert Colley.

For more, see Rupert’s new book, The Battle of the Somme.



Lord Kitchener – a brief biography

Field Marshal Lord Kitchener’s face and pointing finger proclaiming ‘Your country needs you’, often copied and mimicked, is one of the most recognizable posters of all time.

Born 24 June 1850 in County Kerry, Ireland, Horatio Kitchener first saw active service with the French army during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and, a decade later, with the British Army during the occupation of Egypt. He was part of the force that tried, unsuccessfully, to relieve General Charles Gordon, besieged in Khartoum in 1885. The death of Gordon, at the hands of Mahdist forces, caused great anguish in Britain. Thirteen years later, as commander-in-chief of the Egyptian army, Kitchener led the campaign of reprisal into the Sudan, defeating the Mahdists at the Battle of Omdurman and reoccupying Khartoum in 1898. Kitchener had restored Britain’s pride.

Boer War

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Contacting the First World War dead – Arthur Conan Doyle and Spiritualism

It is almost midnight. The only light emanates from a few candles placed around the room. In the middle of the drawing room is a round table adorned only with a pale linen cloth. Around it sits a couple and a companion. The man is in his fifties, barrel-chested with a long moustache. He holds his wife’s hands. The third person, a medium, rocks to and fro, her eyes tightly closed. She is mumbling in a high-pitched voice, groaning, breathing hard, but, frothing slightly from the mouth, her words are unintelligible. The couple watch her intently, waiting, hoping for a communication.

Suddenly it comes. Her tone changes.  ‘Jean, it is I,’ she says in the voice of a young man.
Instantly, the couple recognise the voice. The woman, Jean, gasps, ‘It is Kingsley.’
‘Is that you, boy?’ says the man, his hands tightening over his wife’s.
Lowering his voice to a whisper, Kingsley says, ‘Father, forgive me.’
The man’s heart lurches, ‘There was never anything to forgive. You were the best son a man ever had.’
He feels a hand on his head then a kiss just above his brow. It takes his breath away.
‘Are you happy?’ he cries.
There is a pause and then very gently, ‘Yes, I am so happy.’

‘Christianity is dead’

Contacting the dead was a popular pursuit post-First World War, when so many parents had lost loved ones in the killing fields of the Western Front, Gallipoli and further afield. The war was without precedent in terms of fatalities, and people, throughout Europe, haunted by a generation of slaughtered men, found themselves struggling for answers. The technology of warfare had defeated everything they previously held dear – and religion had failed to provide the answers. Instead, many turned to spiritualism as a means to contact their dead directly.

And the leading proponent for spiritualism was none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. His greatest invention, the straight-laced Sherlock Holmes, would have thoroughly disapproved of his creator’s conversion to séances, Ouija boards and mediums. But the great writer had lost his son, Kingsley, in October 1918, and like so many grief-struck parents, he was desperate to commune with his dead son from beyond the grave. ‘Christianity is dead,’ he once declared, ‘How else could ten million young men have marched out to slaughter? Did any moral force stop that war? No. Christianity is dead – dead!’

Kingsley Conan Doyle had been wounded in the neck on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. 20,000 British soldiers were killed that day, plus another 40,000 wounded – the worst, single day in Britain’s military history. Two years later, however, Kingsley was recovering. But in the summer of 1918, the whole world was swept by Spanish Flu, the most devastating pandemic in modern times, which claimed at least 50 million lives. Among them, on 28 October, was 25-year-old Kingsley, his resistance compromised by his battlefield injury.

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John French – a brief biography

John French spent much of his early military career, like many of his contemporaries, in Africa and India. He was part of the failed 1884/5 mission to relieve General Gordon in the Sudan; and from 1891 served in India.

John FrenchIn India French first met his future rival, Douglas Haig, then a captain. Indeed, Haig later lent French a large sum of money to help the latter stave off bankruptcy. While in India, French had an affair with the wife of a fellow officer. The scandal almost ended his career.  He survived and went on to serve with distinction as a cavalry officer during the Boer War where, most notably, in 1900, under the stewardship of Frederick Roberts, he lead the force that relieved the British garrison besieged in the town of Kimberley.

French was appointed Britain’s army chief-of-staff in 1911 and given command of the British Expeditionary Force, the BEF. In 1913, French was promoted to the rank of field marshal.


With the outbreak of war in 1914, the BEF crossed the Channel, landing on the continent on 7 August. (Consisting of little more than 90,000 men, only half of whom were regular soldiers; the other half being reservists, the BEF had famously, and allegedly, been dismissed by the Kaiser, Wilhelm II, who, on 19 August, ordered his army to ‘exterminate the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little army.’ Hence British soldiers took pride in calling themselves the ‘Old Contemptibles’.) French’s orders, from Horatio Kitchener, minister for war, were to work alongside the French but not to take orders from them. The BEF first saw action during the Battle of Mons, 23 August 1914, Britain’s first battle in Western Europe since Waterloo ninety-nine years before.

Following the Allies’ Retreat from Mons and with the Germans advancing on Paris, Joseph Joffre, the French commander-in-chief, decided to counterattack, aided by the British. But French, concerned for his exhausted men, even at the cost of French soldiers, instead contemplated a complete withdrawal. On 1 September French received a visit in person from Kitchener who ordered him to obey Joffre’s commands. Continue reading

The first British soldier executed during World War One – Thomas Highgate

On 5 September 1914, the first day of the Battle of Marne, Thomas Highgate, a 19-year-old British private, was found hiding in a barn dressed in civilian clothes. Highgate was tried by court martial, convicted of desertion and, in the early hours of 8 September, was executed by firing squad. His was the first of 306 executions carried out by the British during the First World War.

Thomas Highgate was born in Shoreham in Kent on 13 May 1895. In February 1913, aged 17, he joined the Royal West Kent Regiment. Within months, Highgate fell foul of the military authorities – in 1913, he was upbraided for being late for Tattoo, and ‘exchanging duties without permission’. In early 1914, he was reprimanded for having a rusty rifle and deserting for which he received the punishment of forty-eight days detention.

First Battle of the Marne

On 5 September, the first day of the Battle of the Marne and the 35th day of the war, Private Highgate’s nerves got the better of him and he fled the battlefield. He hid in a barn in the village of Tournan, a few miles south of the river, and was discovered wearing civilian clothes by a gamekeeper who happened to be English and an ex-soldier. Quite where Highgate obtained his civilian clothes is not recorded but the gamekeeper spotted his uniform lying in a heap nearby. Highgate confessed, ‘I have had enough of it, I want to get out of it and this is how I am going to do it’.

Having been turned in, Highgate was tried by a court martial for desertion. The trial, presided over by three officers, was brief. Highgate did not speak and was not represented. He was found guilty. At 6.20 on the morning of 8 September, Highgate was informed that he would be executed. The execution was carried out fifty minutes later – at 7.07, he was shot by firing squad.

Highgate’s name is shown on the British memorial to the missing at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre on the south bank of the River Marne. The memorial features the names of over 3,000 British soldiers with no known grave.


By the time the war had ended, Highgate’s parents had moved away from Shoreham, settling in Crayford in south-east London. Highgate had four brothers, two of whom were also killed during the war. Their names, including that of Thomas, appear on the Sidcup war memorial.

In 2000, the parish council in Highgate’s home village of Shoreham replaced its war memorial plaque bearing the names of those who had fallen during the war of 1914-1918 as the original had become worn. The original did not include Highgate’s name simply because, as mentioned, the family had moved away. Nonetheless, in 2000, after some debate, the council voted not to include Highgate’s name on the replacement plaque. However, a space was left should, at some point in the future, the people of Shoreham want his name added.

In November 2006, the UK government pardoned all 306 servicemen executed in the First World War but, to this day, the name Thomas Highgate still does not feature on Shoreham’s war memorial.

This Time TomorrowRupert Colley.

Rupert Colley’s gripping novel, set during World War One, This Time Tomorrow, is now available.


The Sinking of the Lusitania – a brief summary

On the 7 May 1915, a German U-boat sunk the British luxury liner, the RMS Lusitania. 1,198 people lost their lives, including 128 Americans. Its sinking caused moral outrage both in Britain and in the US and led, ultimately, to the USA declaring war against Germany.

LusitaniaThe ‘Great War’ was still less than a year old. On 18 February 1915, in response to Great Britain’s blockade of Germany, the Germans announced that it would, in future, be operating a policy of ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’. In other words, German U-boats would actively seek out and attack enemy shipping within the war zone of British waters. Even ships displaying a neutral flag, they announced, would be at risk – the Germans being aware of the British habit of sailing under a neutral flag.

The Lusitania was certainly not the first victim of Germany’s new policy – on 28 March 1915, the British ship RMS Falaba was torpedoed and sunk by German U-boat off the coast of southern Ireland. 104 people were killed, including one American.

Liable to destructionLusitania warning

Wealthy passengers boarding the Lusitania, a 32,000-ton luxury Cunard liner, in New York saw an advertisement issued by the US German embassy warning them of the risk:

Vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk. 

Yet any concern passengers may have harboured were brushed aside in the belief that the Germans would surely not target a civilian cruise liner. And also, with a top speed of 21 knots-per-hour, far higher than any other ship at the time, the Lusitania could easily outpace a German U-boat with a top speed of a paltry 13 knots.

Captain TurnerCarrying 1,959 people (1,257 passengers and 702 crew), the Lusitania left New York on its 202nd Atlantic crossing on 1 May 1915. The British, knowing of the potential danger as the ship approached the Ireland, gave the captain, William Thomas Turner (pictured), specific instructions. He was told that as he approached the coast he should sail at top speed and in a zigzag fashion, hence making it far more difficult for a U-boat to score a direct hit. But with thick fog and poor visibility, and wanting to save fuel, Captain Turner sailed at only 15 knots per hour and, fatefully, in a straight line. He was also told to avoid Ireland’s jutting coastline. Yet here he was, on the 7 May, within eleven miles off the coast of southern Ireland, within sight of the Old Head of Kinsale Lighthouse.

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Gavrilo Princip – a brief biography

In the annals of notoriety, the name Gavrilo Princip should perhaps rank higher than it does. For this 19-year-old Serb committed a crime that, without overestimating the fact, set the agenda for the whole of the twentieth century. Princip was the man who shot and killed the heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand.

Exactly one month after the assassination, Europe was at war, a war that quickly spread and became the Great War, or, as we know it, the First World War. And from the post-war seeds of discontent came the rise of Nazism and the road to the Second World War.

Born to an impoverished family in Bosnia on 25 July 1894, Gavrilo Princip was one of nine children, six of whom died during infancy. Suffering from tuberculosis, the frail and slight Princip learnt to read, the first in his family to do so, and devoured the histories of the Serbs and their oppression at the hands of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires.

The Black Hand

In 1911, a friend of Gavrilo Princip’s, Bogdan Zerajic, had tried to assassinate the Austrian-Hungarian governor of Bosnia. He failed and ended up shooting himself. But it provided the young Princip with an inspiration. He tried to enlist in various terrorist groups but was turned down due to his short stature

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