Arson, poison murder plot, secret agents and a hat pin.

Breadsall 1There may have been a  church on the site of  All Saints in Breadsall since Saxon times – certainly the stones at the bottom of the tower suggest as much.  The Normans rebuilt  and there were further changes in the thirteenth century to create a place of worship in the Early English style. Succeeding generations placed their mark on the building. It even boasted a set of chained medieval books and an Elizabethan altar until the night of 4th June 1914 when the whole lot went up in smoke.

At 11.30 pm the alarm was raised by Mr Hopkins who saw the light in the church from his cottage.  He alerted the verger who in turn summoned the rector and the church wardens.  Before long local inhabitants were through buckets of water on the fire with little or no effect.  Meanwhile the motorised fire engine in Derby needed permission before it could attend the fire so that by the time it arrived the Norman tower was an inferno.

Reverend Whitaker told journalists that suffragettes were responsible.  The aged cleric was adamant.  Witnesses spoke of an explosion suggesting arson.  The church had no electricity or gas to have caused the effect. His worst fears were confirmed when Alice Wheeldon confessed to having done so, though not to the police.

CRIwheeldonH2.jpgThe problem with this neat scenario is that aside from Alice’s confession (seated on the far left of the picture next to her two daughters and a prison warder) the only evidence of suffragette involvement were three letters which arrived after the event  and some graffiti on a wall a mile away – in other cases letters were left at the scene at the time of the arson rather than arriving afterwards. The only other evidence was a woman sized hole in a window and a hat pin which was found nearby.

Other suffragettes were available nearby (Nottingham) as were some members of the Boys Brigade (camping) -who might presumably  have fitted through a “woman-sized” hole  – though presumably they might not have required a hat pin to fix their headgear!  hough its not beyond the realms of possibility that the hat pin was simply an example of lost property.  In any event no one has ever been arrested for the destruction of All Saints.

Just when it couldn’t have got much stranger Alice was arrested on 30 January 1917,  with two of her daughters, and charged with conspiracy to murder both the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George and Labour Party Minister Arthur Henderson.

Alice was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was sent to Aylesbury Prison where she went on hunger strike.  From there she was sent to Holloway.  However, Lloyd George requested her release  from prison.  This happened, on licence, on 31 December 1917.  The family had always maintained that their arrests were the result of an elaborate set up, Alice was radical in her opposition to the war.  Alice, her health damaged by the hunger strike, died in 1919 but was cleared of the charges in 2013.

Meanwhile All Saints underwent restoration at a cost of £11,000.


drummers drumming and pipers piping

VIuwyMU.jpgPercussion has been used on the battle field for a very long time not only to control the marching pace of soldiers but also to pass commands and create fear in the opposing army. Apparently the  Europeans learned about drums as a military technique during the Crusades when Saladin used military bands. The crusaders found them somewhat off-putting and recorded as much in their chronicles.  The Ottomans are known to have continued the tradition.  Kettle drums found their way to Spain which was part of the Ottoman empire until the fifteenth century.

A look at the accounts reveals that Edward I and Edward III had drummers on their payrolls.  Not only did they use their drummers on the battle field but they used the drum to indicate that they were about to arrive – fanfare like.

The tabor was a medieval drum which is derived from the French word tambour.  It could be played one handed.  It’s modern equivalent is the snare drum.  By the eighteenth century the fife had entered the equation although we do still tend to think of the underage drummer boy. Ultimately the drum would be replaced by the bugle for passing commands. It should be added that the Saracens had used a form of bugle to signal the start of battle.  It was noted by chroniclers in 1191. However, the drum and ‘to follow the drum’ had become synonymous with the army.  Regimental drums were almost as important as their colours.

Meanwhile it turns out that bagpipes have long been classified as a weapon of war. Essentially in the aftermath of the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion James Reid declared that he had never borne arms for Bonnie Prince Charlie – he’d only played the bagpipes. At  which point the court sitting in York constituted the bagpipes a weapon of war and hanged Reid. The law was finally revoked in 1996 in a dispute over whether it was lawful to play the pipes on common land or not.

Rather than 12 pipers it seems appropriate to finish 2018 with reference to the 2500 pipers from Britain and the Commonwealth nations who served in the trenches during World War One.  These men received an extra penny a day to be the first over the top into no man’s land.  They were unarmed aside from their pipes. Half of them were killed as they strode into the mud, slaughter and machine gun fire.

The Flowers of the Forest was written as a lament after the Battle of Flodden in 1513.  Its words remain appropriate to these brave men:

The Flowers of the Forest, that foucht aye the foremost,
The prime o’ our land are cauld in the clay.

We’ll hae nae mair lilting, at the yowe-milking,
Women and bairns are dowie and wae.
Sighing and moaning, on ilka green loaning,
The Flowers of the forest are all wede away.


Blades, James. Percussion Instruments and their history.

Poppy Festival

IMG_0876Who would have thought helping to put a poppy festival together could be so time consuming…or require so many poppies.  It was a humbling experience to consider that on average for each day of the Great War 1500 men from all sides of the conflict were killed.  It took much longer than that to make the 1500 poppies that decorated St Thomas’s.  Every one was involved from pre-school toddlers to, school children, to the scouts, the WI and the anonymous individuals who left  beautiful hand knitted and crocheted poppies on my doorstep and which now climb from floor to the top of the gallery at the back of the church.

Twelve men are named on the war memorial opposite the church.  It is sited in a spot that was once the corner of the garden where Private Joseph Brindley  played as a child before he turned seventeen and joined the marines.  I had the honour to read his diary and to see the hole in its pages that marked the track of the bullet that killed him at the beginning of September 1918.  I can only imagine the grief that his family must have suffered when they unwrapped the parcel that arrived containing his dress uniform, trench periscope and diary.

Tomorrow normal blogging will resume – today though, here are a few pictures of poppies:

Reuben Orr 1899-1916

1c414ed2-981e-4977-ac62-1bf03712a010.jpgToday’s post is slightly different from my usual fare. As the majority of readers will be aware today marks the one hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. I would like to take this opportunity to introduce you to Reuben Orr of the tenth battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, regimental number 21190. He’s the boy  in the middle of the photograph that no recruiting officer could possibly have believed to be of fighting age when he took the King’s shilling.


The Royal Inniskilling Regiment raised thirteen battalions during the First World War. At least three of those young recruits were Reuben and two of his siblings. His cousins may have joined up as well. It was something of a family tradition. His half-brother James Futter had enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Regiment at the age of eighteen in 1905.


The 10th (Service) Battalion (Derry) was formed in September 1914 at Omagh from the Derry Volunteers. The division left for France in July 1915 and the following year found itself on a battle field that would become known as The Somme.


The artillery began its final bombardment of enemy lines at 6.45am on the morning of July. The tenth battalion as part of the 109th Brigade left their trenches at 7.15 am. They began their advance across the no-mans land at 7.30 am on the sound of Drummer Jack Downs bugle call. Their task was to move up the Thiepval Ridge and take the Schwaben Redoubt by means of a direct frontal assault.  At their head was a drum and a flag bearing the name “Derrys.” They moved so swiftly that by 8.45am the German redoubt had been taken and the brigade advanced towards their next objective. However, they had become isolated as the units on either side of them were unable to take their objectives.

Of the 2,700 Inniskillings who took part that day 604 died. They are buried and commemorated at the memorial at Thiepval. One of them, the boy in the photograph at the beginning of this post has no known grave. He died on his seventeenth birthday. He’s my husband’s great-uncle.




The Schlieffen Plan

warmemorialponLord Palmerston managed to secure an international treaty guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality in 1839. Barbara Tuchman makes the point that Palmerston recognised that the neutrality of Belgium was essential for peace in Europe – if the Germans, French or Austro-Hungarian Empire laid hands upon the territory it would always be a source for conflict.

In 1892 France and Russia signed a military alliance.  This meant that if Germany went to war with either of these countries then they would face war on two fronts.  The Germans decided they needed a plan and that the best thing to do would be to neutralise France first because they considered the French to be weaker.  This would then leave the Germans free to concentrate their attention upon the Russians.  It also meant the the French had to be dealt with quickly before any Russian advance could gain the upper hand.

With this in mind Schlieffen, who was Germany’s Chief of General Staff, began to plan what Germany would do in the event of war.  He began work on his plan in 1897 and completed it in 1906.  It dictated the rate of the German advance and the speed at which victory must be achieved.  He allowed six weeks and seven eighths of German forces.  An admirer of Hannibal, Schlieffen’s plan was to outflank France and occupy enemy territory – ignoring the neutrality of any territories who happened to be in the way of the German advance.

The first element of the plan involved a German force attacking the French where they expected to be attacked- in the east – where they had strengthen their borders in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.  The French would hurry to defend their border but in the meantime the real strength of the German Army would be elsewhere waiting to pounce.


The plan to invade Belgium, east of the Meuse was formulated in 1899.  Moving into France through Switzerland was discounted not because of Swiss neutrality but because moving armies through mountains isn’t terribly easy.  By contrast both Belgium and Holland – although neutral- were nice and flat by comparison.  The Schlieffen Plan required violation of both these territories.  A treaty was after all, “just a piece of paper.”  The General wanted a wide sweep for the German Armies.  Famously he said, “when you march into France, let the last man on the right brush the Channel with his sleeve.”


The Kaiser did ask King Leopold II if it would be alright for his army to pop through Belgium when Leopold made a  state visit in 1898.  Leopold who had not had an enjoyable visit to Germany gave the Kaiser a long hard stare and said, “Non!” He made sure that the British Government knew what the Kaiser had asked of him when he returned home.


As war drew ever closer the Germans tried to persuade Leopold’s successor, his nephew King Albert, to allow them free passage.  As August 1914 got underway the German Ambassador in Belgium received a note from home.  It contained a message for Albert saying that the French were about to violate his country’s neutrality and in view of this news the Germans demanded the right to cross his territory. On the 6th August (four days after receiving the note) the German Ambassador received instructions to pass the message to King Albert.

At 7 a.m. the Belgians returned their answer to the German demand.  It was an unqualified – ‘Non!‘  They reminded the Germans that not only were they a neutral country but that Germany had signed the treaty which promised to uphold that neutrality…a response which was a tad inconvenient to the Germans and which threatened to involve Britain which had also guaranteed Belgian neutrality.


The original plan was that once the bulk of the German Army had traversed Belgium and Holland it would move eastwards in a wheel like motion (think of an anti-clockwise spiral going down the plug hole – or one of those lively looking weather systems that swirl around on the weather forecast to get the general idea of what Schlieffen envisaged – I’m sure that there’s a military term for it that describes it better than out-flanking.)  In any event, once the French Army was outflanked it could be surrounded and neutralised.

Planning is all well and good.  The problem is that people and nations don’t always do what is predicted of them.  The Germans expected the French to violate Belgian neutrality as soon as their own incursion became known.  Furthermore the Germans did not expect the Belgians to put up a fight which given Leopold’s response in 1898 seems a bit optimistic of them.

Changes were also made to the Schlieffen Plan by General von Moltke the Chief of General Staff in 1914.  He reserved 15 percent of Germany’s forces because he thought that the Russians could mobilise more quickly than Schlieffen had given them credit for.  Moltke also believed that while the British would definitely go to war if both Belgium and Holland were invaded that they might not be so aggrieved if just Belgium was invaded.  This meant that the war had to take place on a much narrower front.  It also meant that the Germans had to overcome Liege which was heavily fortified.

In order for the plan to succeed the Germans needed speed.  The Belgians put up stiff resistance to the German invasion resulting in delay for the Germans at Liege where twelve well defended forts halted their advance. It was only on the 10th August that the first of the forts fell to the Germans following a pounding by howitzers under the command of General von Bulow.  On the 16th Liege finally surrendered.  The Germans advanced towards the Meuse but the Belgians destroyed the bridge as they retired.  On the 18th August, King Albert ordered the Belgian Army  to retreat to Antwerp.  They arrived there by the 20th.  This meant that the Germans had to deploy some of their army to keep the Belgians in Antwerp – which wasn’t part of the Schlieffen Plan at all.

As their plan began to unravel the Germans became more determined to cow the Belgian population into behaving itself.  Roughly translated Shrecklichkeit means frightfulness. War is always frightful but on the morning of the 19th August the Germans shot 150 Belgian civilians at Aerschot for no reason other than they were there and because the policy of Shrecklichkeit was to be enforced.

The image of Gallant Little Belgium was embedded in British minds along with the nastiness of the Germans.  Schlieffen’s plan was not so neat on the ground as it had been on paper.

The image in this blog is of a French soldier on the war memorial in Pon.  I am also starting to organise my timeline of history for the twentieth century.