The `Human Guinea Pigs’: Conscientious Objectors who volunteered for medical experiments.

An unassuming late-Victorian villa in a Sheffield suburb played host to a series of medical experiments performed upon a group of 34 conscientious objectors between 1940 and 1945. The group, all of whom had volunteered to take part in lieu of service in direct war work, were drawn mainly from the local area, but some arrived in Yorkshire from further afield.

24. 18 Oakholme Road
18 Oakholme Road, Broomhill, Sheffield (photo: John Broom)

The experiments, which variously saw the `guinea pigs’ undergo infection with Scabies, endure Vitamin-deficient diets and experience periods of water deprivation, were the brainchild of University of Sheffield academic Dr Kenneth Mellanby. Mellanby himself directed operations in the house, establishing a community of volunteers and sourcing furniture and bedding himself. Later, when Mellanby had received a commission in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Dr Hans Krebs, a German-Jewish refugee who had previously held a post at the University of Cambridge, assumed control of what became known as the Sorby Research Institute.

26. Hans Krebs
Hans Krebs, the second Director of the Sorby Research Institute (University of Sheffield Special Collections)

The experiments were authorised by the Medical Research Council, and many years later one of the volunteers, Norman Proctor, described the extreme discomfort of the Scabies experiment:

You could see the burrows under a microscope and a little lump were the eggs. It was extremely itchy. At night the men would get out of bed and walk around naked in the cold to stop the itching. The cure in the early days was awful. Another volunteer held you down in a very hot bath, then they rubbed you with sulphur ointment. It caused impetigo and other skin troubles. Later Dr Mellanby treated us with Benzyl Benzoate. My five mites had multiplied to 59 before they were cleared off. They were over my body. The results were published by the Medical Research Council. In those days many scientific things had still to be proven.

25. Norman Proctor Human Guinea Pig
Norman Proctor, pictured in the grounds of 18 Oakholme Road (Author’s Collection)

The information gleaned during the experiments was used to influence the diet and sanitation that members of the British, Canadian and American Armed Services experienced, the institute receiving many military medical visitors during its existence. However, concerns were raised by MPs who were opposed to the conduct of the war about the ethics of such experiments and the work of the institute came under the scrutiny of Cecil Wilson MP for Sheffield Attercliffe. Wilson challenged Ernest Brown, Minister of Health, in the House of Commons but later became supportive of Mellanby’s work after personally visiting the house and meeting the researchers and `guinea pigs’.

Mellanby paid tribute to the stoicism of the volunteers:

They have become more than simple passive guinea pigs…for they have taken an active part, co-operating with the work and this making possible experiments which have often been considered impracticable.

I myself am not a pacifist, but for three years I have lived and worked with these volunteers and I think it is possible for me to give a fairly detached view of them and of the contribution they have made to research and medicine. It will appear that the volunteers, except for their views on war, were a fairly normal selection with perhaps rather more virtues and rather less vices that the average members of the population, but for the most part they were in no way either saints or `cissies.’ Some were diligent, a few were bone idle. Most of them were of more than average intelligence. But in addition to their pacifist views (and these were by no means uniform) they had one thing in common throughout the long period through which they served as human guinea pigs. They co-ordinated the experimental work with complete trustworthiness and loyalty […] I think that this was a remarkable achievement on their part which deserves the highest praise.

A fuller account of the work of the Sorby Research Institute, much of it based on the papers of Kenneth Mellanby and Hans Krebs now held in the University of Sheffield Special Collections, can be found in my recent book Opposition to War: Conscience Resistance and Service in Britain, 1939-45

opposition to second world war book cover


Opposition to the Second World War: Conscience, Resistance and Service in Britain, 1939-45

As Europe lurched towards war during the 1930s, many people in Britain, with the memories of the horrors of the First World War painfully fresh, set out to build groups opposed to the idea of a future war. Despite current notions of the Second World War as being a time when Britons pulled together with a unity of purpose, many of these organisations continued their work in either campaigning against the conduct of the war, or to alleviate its more destructive effects. The people who went against the political and cultural climate of the time have been somewhat airbrushed from history.

Therefore last year I wrote a book  about the work of those who stood in opposition either to the execution of the war, or against the very notion of conflict itself.

opposition to second world war book cover

In the following weeks I shall be featuring some of their stories on this blog. I hope you discover something new or interesting here, and perhaps take a fresh look at this immensely troubled period in Britain’s history.

John Broom

April 2019.

King Albert’s Book, 1914: The Good Conduct Prize of Donald Sharpen

During a visit to the enormous antiques site at the former RAF Hemswell in Lincolnshire, I came across the thought-provoking and relentlessly pro-Belgian. King Albert’s Book.

Produced by the Daily Telegraph in 1914 to raise money for Belgian refugees forced from their homes by the advancing Imperial German Armies, it contains hundreds of dedications, poems, pieces of music, drawings and cartoons donated by the `great and the good’ of the time; politicians, church leaders, musicians, artists and men and women of letters. It struck me as being the First World War equivalent of the charity songs and celebrity-driven events such as Children in Need which we see in the C21th. The book offers a vision of hope of plucky little nations standing up to larger aggressors, hopes that were to be sorely dashed over the rest of the century.




Of particular interest in relation to the study of Christianity and twentieth century warfare were the contributions made by the church leaders of the day. William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, wrote a few lines which focused on God’s mercy and righteousness, and the love of one’s people.

The Prebendary of St. Paul’s Cathedral was one of many contributors who mentioned Belgium’s status as a small nation being overrun by a larger one, with allusion to the Biblical story of David and Goliath.


Randall Davidson, Archbishop of Canterbury, referred to the `high-handed wrong’ done to Belgium.


Various portraits of a classical style were included, but perhaps the most poignant piece of propaganda was this cartoon of a Belgian refugee child, drawn by Charles Dana Gibson, the American illustrator.


Wessex man of letters Thomas Hardy wrote a special poem bemoaning the fate of Belgium, commenting on the silencing of the carillon bells of the picturesque towns in the nation.


Of extra interest was the fact that the book had been awarded to a young scholar at Norwich High School for Boys in the winter of 1914.

Donald H. Sharpen was the son of a Cromer veterinarian, aged 12 when he was given the book in recognition of his Good Conduct. A search on revealed that Donald died in 1993, aged 91. If anyone can provide further information about Mr Sharpen, I would be pleased to hear from them at


So all in all, £2 well spent with a wealth of political, religious and artistic propaganda, and a personal story behind the owner which merits further investigation…


If you would like to explore more about the links between Christianity and warfare, there are 20 case studies of individuals from various denominations who experienced the two world wars from a wide range of perspectives. Email for further details on how to get a signed copy. £20 inc P+P for one book, £35 for two.

Rev. John Short: From London to Australia and then the Death Railway

John Harold Short was the uncle and godfather that retired Anglican vicar Helen Wheeler would never know. He would know her for all to brief a period between 1939 and 1941, before being posted to Malaya and his eventual demise on the death railway aged just 35. John’s story is one of persistence and a never-say-die attitude to fulfil his calling to be an Anglican priest. That calling would see him return to England after nearly fourteen years in Australia to enrol as an army chaplain and see his duty through to death.

Born in Wood Green, now a suburb of London, but in 1908 a settlement on the north-eastern edge of the metropolis, John struggled academically at school, being the only one of his six siblings not to pass the 11 plus examination, and in 1925, aged 17, he set sail from England to make his mark in Australia. His passage paid for by the Bush Brotherhood, the organisation which had supported Fred Sams, the WW1 Fighting Parson. Eventually he decided on becoming an Anglican minister.

John Short

Rev John Harold Short, courtesy of Helen Wheeler

A series of precious letters survive in family hands, detailing John’s struggles to pass the examination needed to become ordained. They also speak of his experiences out in the New South Wales bushland, ministering to flocks hundreds of miles apart. These form the basis of the account of his life in the bestselling book Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War.

John displayed a sense of humour in some of his letters:

Initiation of the freshers is next Friday night and we have mapped out quite a good programme for them. We start at midnight by removing them violently from their beds and after leading them round the quad a few times and through a few fences during which they are blindfolded, they are taken to the common room and subjected to all sorts of things. They are baptised with water, soot and flour and made to kiss the goat.

However John still struggled with the academic demands of his course, even apologising in one letter to his sister for

bad spelling, bad grammar, bad writing, bad language etc etc etc etc etc.

Following disappointment in one set of examinations, John took a trip to Sydney, being astounded by the enormity of the bridge. He spent a day at the test match, one of the infamous `Bodyline’ series which nearly caused a rupture in diplomatic relations between England and Australia.

John was what was termed a very High Anglican, displaying his dislike of any form of worship which deviated from the highly ceremonial practice of his youth in Wood Green. He expressed disquiet at the quality of one service, `as the churchmanship was appalling. I can stand Mass without vestments or candles, but celebrating from the north end with ordinary crumbly bread & no reverence…I cannot stand.’

Eventually in October 1935 John was ordained a deacon, but still had to wait a year before being able to be a fully-qualified priest

I am longing for the time now when I shall be a priest and be able to carry out all the priestly duties specifically that of saying Mass. There are times too, when I have been sorry I was not in the position to hear Confessions. People have poured out their inmost secrets to get them off their minds and have told me because for some reason or another they have not wanted to go to the Archdeacon…

But after only two years as an ordained minister, and with war in Europe threatening, John took the decision to bring his time in Australia to a close, and on 25 May 1939, set sail on the P&O liner SS Strathnaver, returning to England in the summer of that year.

By August John had been granted a licence by Cosmo Lang, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to act as a priest in that archdiocese, and on 22 April 1940 he was appointed assistant curate at All Saints Church, Fulham, on a salary of £250 pa.

On 23 July 1940, perhaps stirred by the British Army’s reverses at Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain which raged over southern England during that summer, John took the fateful step of joining the Royal Army Chaplains’ Department. Appointed as a 4th class chaplain, equivalent to the rank of captain, as were most new recruits to the department, John was attached to the Royal Leicestershire Regiment.

He was sent out to the Far East in 1941, and was part of the general surrender of British Forces in Singapore on 15th February 1942. He was taken to Changi camp, the same place which initially housed Dr Bill Frankland, Stanley Warren and Rev Eric Cordingly .

A number of chapels were established in the camp. John was in charge of the Chapel of St Barbara, Patron Saint of the Gunners. Later he was moved to the River Valley Road Camp, then on to the Thai-Burma `Death Railway’.

With the onset of the monsoon weather in October 1943, cholera joined with malaria, jaundice and tropical ulcers to kill many hundreds of men. The railway was officially completed on 17 October 1943. Eight days later John was dead. Today his body lies in Kanchanaburi war cemetery. It reads:


John Short’s spiritual journey had taken him from London to New South Wales, back to London and thence to Thailand.

His determination to fulfil his calling and his duty led him across the globe three times; as a young man in search of a mission in life, as an ordained priest returning to his home country in its hour of need, and finally as an army chaplain to meet the needs of men in combat. He was a man of vigour, joy, courage and devotion to others, whose work touched the lives of many across the globe.

A full account of John’s life can be found in my book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War available for the discounted rate of £16 plus £4 p+p as a signed and personally dedicated version. Email to secure your copy.

Fight the Good Fight2



William Glynne Charles Gladstone MP

 It is not the length of existence that counts, but what is achieved during that existence, however short.

William Charles Glynne Gladstone, 1885-1915

 Just yards away from the imposing tomb of his grandfather, the four-times Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, a marble plaque sits on the wall opposite the pulpit in St. Deniol’s Church at Hawarden, Flintshire.  It is dedicated to William Glynne Charles Gladstone, himself a Liberal MP from 1911 to 1915, and Lord Lieutenant of Flintshire. I had the pleasure of staying at the Gladstone library in 2015, researching the life of W.G.C. Gladstone, and paid another visit at Easter 1916 whilst in the area.

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Memorial plaque to W.G.C. Gladstone (c) Dawn Broom 2016

Whilst it is relatively unusual for sitting MPs to have served in the Armed Forces in recent Parliaments, Dan Jarvis and Johnny Mercer being two notable exceptions, in January 1915 184 out of 690 sitting MPs were on active service. In line with the overall casualty rate of around 10%, 17 were never to return to their constituencies alive. William Glynne Charles Gladstone was one of these men.

Much of what we know about William Gladstone jr comes from a book written by his uncle, Herbert Gladstone, in 1918, available online here.

Born on 14 July 1885, William was the only son of William Ewart Gladstone’s eldest son, William Henry, who died of a brain tumour when William jr. was five years old. His mother Gertrude, to whom he wrote regular letters while he was serving in France, was the youngest daughter of the 12th Lord Blantyre. He inherited his grandfather’s devout Christian faith and sense of public duty. Herbert wrote of William’s quiet Christianity after his death:

When he was nine he asked for a Bible. His mother, thinking it best for a beginning,  gave him a New Testament. Will was not at all satisfied, so the Bible was given to him. The Bible was in singular degree the foundation of his character. He read it regularly, marking the passages which struck him. It was his constant companion. No one, not even his mother, knew what it was to him throughout his life. It is rare, indeed, to find a boy who in complete privacy reads and studies the Bible. The Psalms had a special hold on him, and in scarcely less degree Job, Proverbs, Isaiah, some of the shorter Epistles and the Revelation.

All the leading passages on purity, peace, rectitude, fortitude, self-sacrifice, quietness, justice, mercy, faithfulness, personal conduct and duty to God, are marked….He re-read carefully, pencilling out his own marks if a passage did not seem to convey a sufficient lesson.

The Bible is the key to his character…moral truths and a never-wavering belief in God held him from the first, and guided him from day-to-day.

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William Glynne Charles Gladstone, with his grandfather Prime Minister.

Educated at Eton and at New College, Oxford, William developed his debating skills as president of the Oxford Union, and gained a second class honours in History. In 1906 he took over the management of the family estate at Hawarden, Flintshire. However before committing himself to becoming the fourth generation of his family to serve as an MP, he decided that he needed a wider experience of the world, and visited Ireland, India, Japan and the USA.

Returning to the UK in 1911, William was successful in a by-election at Kilmarnock Burghs. He was described as

The death of the sitting Liberal MP caused a by-election in the Kilmarnock Burghs in September 1911, for which Gladstone was asked to stand. He was elected with an unexpectedly large majority. One Scottish observer praised his abilities as a speaker, noting that:

He has a ready wit, a caustic humour, and, like his great namesake, deep, silent convictions that make him, on occasion, blaze into righteous indignation.

In 1912 he spoke in support of the Home Rule for Ireland Bill, a cause to which his grandfather had been committed.

When war broke out in 1914, he used his position as Lord Lieutenant of Flintshire to campaign for recruits for the armed services. Despite admitting to his uncle that ‘far from having the least inclination for military service, I dread it and dislike it intensely’, he led by example and enlisted himself.

WGC Gladstone Uniform

Second Lieutenant W.G.C. Gladstone, Royal Welsh Fusiliers

Although he initially considered joining as a private, as he did not consider himself a natural soldier, he was persuaded to seek a commission, and became a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. After completing his training in Wrexham, William left for France for the front on 15th March 1915.

He wrote back home to his mother of his first experience of trench life:

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On 11th April he moved up to the front line near Laventle. He began to write a letter to his mother, describing the `whistle of stray bullets’ above the trenches and being awoken at 4am for the stand to, ready for a dawn attack.

Tragically these were the final words William wrote. Two days later one of those snipers’ bullets entered his head. Having lain wounded, but apparently painless, for two hours, his life slipped away.

The unfinished letter was returned to his mother.

Having initially been buried in France, special permission was granted by King George V for his body to be brought back to the United Kingdom. Nine days after his death, his body was disinterred and re-buried in the churchyard of St Deniol’s at Hawarden, Wales. The village came to a standstill as thousands came out to pay their respects.

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W.G.C. Gladstones Funeral

William Gladstone’s case prompted Fabian Ware to set up the Imperial War Graves Commission, realising the impossibility of repatriated all of the growing number of war dead, that all should be equal in death and be buried near to where they fell in the publicly managed war cemeteries which evoke such emotions today.

Herbert Gladstone’s book concludes:

WGC Gladstone last words (2)

I am led to reflect that we live in a generation of a political class which does not always appear to have the same commitment to public service as shown by William Glynne Charles Gladstone and dozens of his colleagues. Furthermore, for many that commitment to the service of others was to a large degree fuelled by a Christian faith. Two notable members of the generation which saw action in the First World War, Winston Churchill about whose relationship with Christianity I have blogged here and Clement Attlee, would marshal that sense of Christendom as Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister twenty years later. Once again, to fully appreciate the culture of the generation which went to war in 1914, and the succeeding generation which fought a reprise from 1939 onwards, an acknowledgement of the pervasiveness of Christianity needs to be made.

If you would like to find out more about the different ways in which Christianity could be interpreted across the political and faith spectrum, you may be interested in my book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War. It contains a foreword by the aforementioned Dan Jarvis MP, Labour’s spokesman on war commemoration. For a signed copy priced at £16 plus £4 p+p please email me at


Fight the Good Fight

Lieutenant Fred Sams, `The Fighting Parson’

The parish church at Emberton, Buckinghamshire was a rich source of First World War related stories. As well as the Dead Man’s Penny for Pte Reginald West to be found in the graveyard, the parishioners had done a marvellous job of researching and recording the war records of the men from Emberton who fought in the war.

The story of one of them, Fred Sams, the `Fighting Parson’ is one tinged with excitement and tragedy.

Born in November 1881, Frederick Hulton Sams was the eldest son of Rev G.F. and Mrs Beatrice Sams of Emberton Rectory.

He was educated at Harrow School and then Trinity College, Cambridge, where he won the University featherweight boxing competitions in 1901, 1902 and 1904, also representing the university in successful competitions against Oxford.

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Fred Sams (right) during his university days

On leaving Cambridge, Fred was ordained into the Church of England, and acted as curate in Balsall Heath, Birmingham, for three years. However Fred sought further adventure and in 1908 he travelled out to Australia to join the Bush Brotherhood in Queensland. According to local legend, Fred would ride out to conduct services in remote areas, then following his sermon, would strip off to the waist and challenge any of his parishioners to a bout.

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Rev Fred Hulton Sams

The Bucks Standard of 7th August 1915 reported:

 At the outbreak of war he was unable to obtain an army chaplaincy, and so immediately enlisted in the 3rd Bedfordshires, being soon promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal. In November he received a commission in the 6th Battalion, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, and, having gone to the front in the last week of May, it was at Hooge that he fell on July 31st, his Major writing of him; “he was at the time commanding his Company and doing splendidly, and he has caused a gap that can never be filled.”

The news of his death was received with great regret in Emberton, for as ‘Mr, Fred,’ as he was affectionately known, his kindly interest in the welfare of the villagers endeared him to all. As for his work with the Bush Brotherhood, in the words of his Bishop; “they gave proof of their affection for him as a man and their appreciation of him as a priest by their numerous gifts to him and the manner of their farewells. He gave them of his best for five and a half years, and they have shown the Brothers what they have felt in return. The Church misses his personality in every way. His ever-abiding cheerfulness, his constant unselfishness, his love for men and women because they were men and women will ever be to us a memory. He touched men that other Brothers failed to reach, and brought the Church with its message of the Gospel to those who in the past have stood aloof. He was a man amongst men and “his heart was right there.”

In an edition of the Sporting Life, his association with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry would be alluded to as follows;

He was the leading sporting spirit in that battalion and whether it was football, running, swimming, or boxing, he was always ready to help in providing sport for the men in their few hours of leisure. He showed that he had not lost his skill at boxing by winning the battalion championship, and captained the cross-country team which gained third place in the Divisional Championship, showing them the way to pack and forfeiting his chance of gaining the officers’ medal – for which he was only just beaten by Lieut. R.S. Clarke – in order to keep them together.

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In a later correspondence, in a letter from France a nurse would write that in her ward was a sergeant of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, who saw Lt. Sams fall, and said that “He died like a soldier and a gentleman.”

A memorial service was held at Emberton church on Sunday afternoon, August 8th, with the Union Jack at half mast on the west tower, and the church bells muffled. Every household in the village was represented in the congregation.

Miss Sams, the sister of the deceased, presided at the organ and in his address, the Reverend W. Brooke Richards, rector of Tyringham-cum-Filgrave, paid an eloquent tribute, during which, remembering also the other men from the parish who had fallen, he said of Lieutenant Sams that as A soldier-priest, he has given his life in the most glorious of all causes, for God, for King, and for country: he has died as he had lived, a fine type not only of a British officer but of a Christian man …

The Bucks Standard of 15th August carried a reference to a report in the Sporting Life


“He was the leading sporting spirit in that battalion and whether it was football, running, swimming, or boxing, he was always ready to help in providing sport for the men in their few hours of leisure. He showed that he had not lost his skill at boxing by winning the battalion championship, and captained the cross-country team which gained third place in the Divisional Championship, showing them the way to pack and forfeiting his chance of gaining the officers’ medal – for which he was only just beaten by Lieut. R.S. Clarke – in order to keep them together.”

In 1915 a book appeared, published in Longreach, Queensland, written by Theo. F. Barker, titled:

 Frederick Hulton-Sams, the Fighting Parson: Impressions of his Five Years’ Ministry in the Queensland Bush, Recorded by Some Who Knew and Loved Him.  

In it is quoted an  “Extract from a private letter dated 2nd August, 1915”:–

He died a glorious death, that is a British officer and a gentleman – commanding a company in an important position, and above all, sticking it where others might have failed.
“The circumstances were these.
“We were hauled out of our billets at 2 a.m. on the 30th, and had to hurry up in fighting order to where another Brigade had been driven out of their trenches with liquid fire.
“We had to go up to a part in a counter-attack.
“The counter-attack ended at the edge of a wood called Zouvave Wood.
“C Company was left with your brother [ Frederick Edward Barwick Hulton-Sams ] in command, all other officers being killed or wounded.
“We were hanging on to the edge of this wood for all we were fit, and the Germans were trying to shell us out of it.
“C Company were splendid. We all knew they would be, for they would d anything for your brother.
“All the afternoon of the 30th they were there, and all night.
“That night the Germans attacked us again, bombs and liquid fire.
“C Company still stuck to it and through that terrific shelling they never flinched, although they lost heavily.
“They were there at 10 a.m., and I crawled to and talked to your brother several times. He was magnificent and cheerful.
“His last words to me before he was hit were ‘Well, old boy, this a bit thick, but we’ll see it through, never fear.’
“I left him then to go somewhere else, and I didn’t see him again.
“His Company Sergeant (a man called Fuller) told me that about 10 a.m. your brother crawled away to see if he could get any water for the men – many of whom were wounded and very thirsty.
“He was hit by a piece of shell in the thigh and side, and killed instantly – or at any rate never regained consciousness.
“He can have suffered no pain, and he died doing a thing which makes us feel proud to have known him.
“He was a fine officer, a fine friend, and worshipped by his men.
“That is all I can tell you about him. We were relieved the night following, and we got his body and buried at the graveyard in the rear of the fighting line at Hooge.”

Canon Garland, the architect of the ANZAC Day Commemoration, referred to Fred in his address in April 1921:

Who can ever forget the story of Hulton-Sams, especially those from Queensland’s west, who looked upon him as their ideal of religion:

Moreover as God’s priest he stood – 
Preached in rude camps Thy message free,
Gave of Thy Body and Thy Blood
Into rough hands held out for Thee.

And the ideal of the highest sacrifice which he thus proclaimed in administering Holy Communion he fulfilled in his own death.

The men with whom he had shared the fighting lay wounded out in No Man’s Land. They were dying and craving for water.

He brought them water; he had to crawl on his face to do so, and, taking to them the cup of cold water in Christ’s name, like Him, whose priest and soldier he was, he was wounded in the side and died.


Today Fred Sams is commemorated with a brass plaque in the church where his father served as Rector, and his name appears on the striking church war memorial, carved in the style of the angel which sits on top of the Royal Albert Hall.


(c) Dawn Broom 2016

The inscription reads:



(c) Dawn Broom 2016

In addition, a fine clock tower memorial sits in the village square, containing the names of those who fell in both world wars, including Fred.

Frederick Hulton-Sams strikes me as a larger than life character who was driven by a duty to his men, but also to the faith with which he had been brought up, and which led him to his tragic fate.

If you are interested in further exploration the links between warfare and Christianity, my two books can be ordered from the publisher, or directly from me signed and personally inscribed, making a lovely gift. The cost is £20 including p+p for one book, or £32 including p+p for two. Email for further details

Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War

Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War

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Private Reginald West, and the unusual Dead Man’s Penny

Whilst approaching the parish church of Emberton, Buckinghamshire, my eye was caught by a very unusual sight; that of a `Dead Man’s Penny’ used as a grave memorial.

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The bronze plaques, about 5 inches in diameter, were issued at the end of the war to the relatives of those who had made the ultimate sacrifice. In all over 1.3 million were cast, and issued right up to the 1930s as men continued to die of wounds caused by their war service.

To my knowledge, and that of the very well-informed lady who was on duty at the church, this was the only example of the medal being used as a grave memento. However subsequent feedback on social media has revealed examples in Alton, Anglesey and Stirling. I would been keen to know of others. Unfortunately some have been stolen, an act akin to  the decapitation of the memorial of Pte George Jackson, about which I have previously posted.

Private Reginald West had enlisted at Northampton, his occupation being recorded as a farm labourer, and was killed on 12th May 1917 whilst serving with the 8th Battalion, King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment).

His body was never recovered and he is commemorated on the Arras Memorial, as well as the village memorial in nearby Clifton Baynes. This plot is said to be the family grave, although no other inscription could be found.

If you would like to find out more about the links between warfare and religion in the twentieth century, you may be interested in my books:

Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War

Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War

Fight the Good FightFight the Good Fight2

Hugh Dormer, SOE Agent, Irish Guardsman and Catholic Martyr

`He who would save his life must lose it. That I think is one of the great truths of the world’

Hugh Dormer

Captain Hugh Dormer 1919-1944

So wrote Hugh Dormer, in his posthumously published diaries. Dormer was one of the most intense, devout and engaging characters I came across in the research for my book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War. Using his diaries, his SOE Personnel File, which had remained top secret until 2006, and eye-witness accounts, the short yet brilliant life of this remarkable young man can be told.

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Hugh was born into a prominent Catholic family, one of whose members had served as an MP during the turbulent reigns of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, and had appeared on a list of those who favoured the accession of Mary, Queen of Scots to the English throne.

After an education at Ampleforth College, North Yorkshire, Hugh went up to Christ Church College, Oxford, to read History and was commissioned into the Irish Guards in November 1939. However three years on home front duties left Hugh feeling increasingly frustrated, and he was invited for interview with the (F) French section of the recently formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) and recruited in December 1942.

Hugh took part in dangerous and gripping operations deep in German-held French territory, aiming to destroy an oil refinery and a canal and escaping via a secret network via Paris and into neutral Spain.

During preparations for one of these raids, Hugh spoke of, `how much better it was to die young and voluntarily for a cause that was worth the martyrdom’, demonstrating the influence his Catholic roots and upbringing had had on him. He continued

As always when faced with death, cold and premeditated, I feel a strong sense of exhilaration and goodness, and remember always the last words of Nurse Cavell the night before she faced a German firing squad: `As I stand now before God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.’ For it has always seemed that the conception of these expeditions embodies fully the Elizabethan qualities of daring and resource, and that same combination of love of adventure and love of one’s country, which I have come lately to appreciate so well.

After these raids, for which he was later awarded the DSO, Hugh rejoined his Irish Guards battalion, to prepare for the Normandy campaign. Walking in the North Yorkshire countryside near Ampleforth with his friend, Julian Stonor, a Benedictine monk who was serving as chaplain to the regiment, they articulated their own personal sense of what the war meant:

One morning Julian and I walked down the valley to Rievaulx [Abbey], whose ruined arches framed the blue sky, sleeping eternally in that quiet place. On my last night we drove over together to Ampleforth and dined in the silence of the monks’ refectory and listened to the plain chant of Vespers and later to the carefree laughter of boys. I realized then better than ever how much I was fighting for.


This was in contrast to the Nazis, who were not just as the enemies of the British state, but`destroyers of everything European and Christian and embody the very forces of evil.’ Turning again to the notion of the war as being religiously inspired, he wrote, `God knows we in this country are far from perfect, but this war is far more of a Crusade than the Crusades themselves ever were…

Hugh’s diary began to take an increasingly fatalistic tone by March 1944:

…there are worse things than death, would men only realize it; and if ever a man, faced with the bitter and deliberate alternatives, chooses safety above honour he will regret that decision to his dying day and be powerless to make it again. He who would save his life must lose it.  That I think is one of the great truths of the world…

…to die for God and one’s country and one’s fellow men would be the greatest blessing of all.  Those who fall in battle, and are thereby privileged with the opportunity to make that supreme act of self-sacrifice, are the truly fortunate and those who return to the humdrum world have the hardest part to bear

Before he left for Normandy, Hugh sent his diaries to his mother, with the message:

…my final journey will have begun. God knows no man ever set out more happily or gladly before…God grant me the courage not to let the guardsmen down…I ask only that He do with my life as He wills – if I should be privileged to give it on the field of battle, then indeed would the cup be full. There are times when I feel the tide of happiness so mounting in my soul as though the flood-gates might burst and the frail body and its bonds break asunder. My soul is exhilarated like a bird that would sing for ever till its lungs burst. 

No man ever went out to meet his fate more joyfully than I

That fate was to meet him on 1st August 1944 in a field in northern France…

Hugh Dormer graveDormer grave

Hugh Dormer’s story is one of twenty individuals who experienced the varied aspects of the Second World War in Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War. A personally signed and dedicated copy would make a lovely gift, and can be obtained at a cost of £18 including p+p by contacting me at



The Bewicke-Copley Brothers, Sprotbrough, Doncaster

The parish church of St Mary the Virgin at Sprotbrough, near Doncaster, is one of those warm, welcoming and perpetually open churches which can tell the visitor a wealth of information about the life of the community.

One striking part of Sprotbrough’s story is found in a beautiful stained glass window in the St. Thomas chapel, designed by the noted artist and sculptor Sir Ninian Comper.

It is dedicated to two brothers-in-law, one of whom,  Redvers Lionel Calverley Bewicke-Copley, is the initial subject of this post.


Redvers Bewicke-Copley2

Redvers Bewicke-Copley

Born in London on 17 Sept. 1890, but brought up at Sprotbrough Hall, Redvers was descended on his mother’s side from Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s Chief Minister. He was educated at Eton College and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst. In 1910 he was gazetted as 2nd Lieutenant, promoted to Lieutenant in 1913 and Captain in July 1915.

Redvers was one of the `Old Contemptibles’, a nickname given to the British Expeditionary Force to France and Flanders in the autumn of 1914, on account of the Kaiser describing Britain as having a `contemptible little army.’

He was wounded 23 Oct. 1914 while helping a wounded comrade & sent home to England on sick leave;

A brother officer wrote: “On 14 Sept, on the first day of the Battle of the Aisne, isolated parties had made their way up to the edge of the wood on the northern slope & had been driven in. Thinking the wood had been made good, I took a machine-gun section up to the edge of it. Here I found D.L., Bewicke-Copley & a Coldstream Sergeant with a bunch of some 25 German prisoners. As soon as I mounted my guns, a heavy fire from snipers started & D.L. & the sergeant were killed, but Copley covered the prisoners with his revolver & ordered them to shout to their friends to cease-fire or to be killed themselves. Copley came in under cover when the sniping diminished. He then said he was not going to leave the prisoners & was going back for them. It seemed certain death & I told him so, but he went out and brought them in quite calmly. I think it was about the most cold-blooded piece of daring I have seen in the war.”

Having spent nearly two years convalescing in Britain, Redvers returned to the front in late 1916. However whilst leading a party repairing trench wiring at Sailly, France, he was shot clean through the head by a sniper within 20 yards of the German line and killed outright on 21st December 1916. He was Buried at Combles.

Sprotbrough war window.jpg

The magnificent war memorial window in St Mary the Virgin, Sprotbrough

Left to right, the panels are  Martin, a Roman soldier who cut his cloak in two, and gave half to a beggar. The next panel shows St Michael with the Devil at his feet, as referred to in the Book of Revelation, chapter 12, v7-9

Then war broke out in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back.  But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.

The third panel depicts St  George with a dragon at his feet.  The final panel with the figure holding his sword upwards, in a sign of peace, is believed to be Christ

As a footnote, a sword believed to be Redvers’ regimental souvenir, was listed for auction in 2015 with a guide price of £200-400

Redvers Bewicke-Copley sword

 Redvers Bewicke-Copley graveRedvers Bewicke-Copley’s grave at Combles, France

However the story of the Bewicke-Copleys and twentieth century warfare was not to end there. Redvers’ younger brother, Robert Godfrey Wolsley Copley, had also served in the First World War.

NPG x166873; Robert Godfrey Wolseley Bewicke-Copley, 5th Baron Cromwell by Walter Stoneman

Educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge, Robert was commissioned in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and first saw action out in France and Flanders with the 3rd Battalion in the period May-November 1915. He then departed for the Mediterranean theatre of war, transferred to the Machine Gun Corps in May 1916 and was awarded the Military Cross. He was also mentioned in despatches and received the Italian Al Valore Militare in bronze. He was also wounded. Having then witnessed further active service in Russia 1918-19, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers.

Following the war, he succeeded to the title of Lord Cromwell, and gained the rank of Colonel in the service of the Royal Army Reserve of Officers.

Robert assumed command of ‘D’ Company, 2nd Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps. In 1939 he was recalled to active service army and led the defence of Calais in May 1940.  Robert was wounded in both of his arms and his head. Despite this he remained in command at his barricade and taken as a POW by the Germans. For this action he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

An account of Robert’s bravery on this occasion was left by Airey Neave, whom some might remember was killed by a terrorist car bomb at the Houses of Parliament in 1979.

‘The situation of the 60th was desperate. A death-struggle at the bridges. Barricades of   burned-out lorries and trucks off the Rue Edison and Place Richelieu were manned by the surviving officers and riflemen. Houses in the area had long been devastated by the flames and blown by shellfire into heaps of rubble behind which the defenders fired on the Germans. The mortar bombs came in an endless stream exploding dead on the road-blocks. The 60th, lying without cover in the streets, had little protection from the Stukas. No one who experienced the attack on the morning of the 26th is ever likely to forget it. A hundred aircraft attacked the Citadel and the old town in waves. They dived in threes, with a prolonged scream, dropping one high explosive and three or four incendiaries. They machine-gunned the streets and dropped a few heavy bombs between the 60th H.Q. in the Rue des Marechaux and the docks. The first effects on the defence were paralysing but, as others had experienced with Stukas, the damage was moral rather than physical. Within a few minutes, the riflemen eagerly fired Bren guns and engaged the Stukas, one of which was brought down on the seashore … ’ Neave continues: ‘At the Place Richelieu, Lord Cromwell, firing a Bren gun, was three times wounded that morning. He had already shown all those qualities that add up to real leadership in war. He was hit by bullets in both arms and in the head, the sight of one eye being badly affected. And yet he remained in command when all the men at his barricade, save himself and two riflemen were dead. At 11.30 a.m. he was compelled to fall back to the line of the Rue des Marechaux.’

Robert was repatriated in 1943 due to his injuries and continued to be active in public life, serving as  Lord-Lieutenant of Leicestershire between 1949 and 1966.He was invested as a Knight, Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem (K.St.J.).

In 2012 Robert’s medals came up for auction and fetched £8,200. However the value of the contribution of two generations of men in the wars of the twentieth century cannot be valued in monetary terms.

Robert Bewicke-Copley Medals.jpg

Robert Bewicke-Copley’s medals, from the 1914-15 star through to the Order of St John of Jerusalem

Once again, familiar themes demonstrate themselves in the instance of the Bewicke-Copley brothers:-

1. The memorialisation of war death in a parish church, as using Christian motifs. This reminds us that the an appreciation of the importance of Christianity in the minds of our ancestors is an essential prerequisite for a fully-rounded understanding of twentieth century warfare.
2. The sense of duty held by most of the ruling class of the time that led to such high casualty rates amongst junior officers such as Redvers.
3. The importance of the Church of England, as the guardian of so much of our shared history, of making that history as accessible as possible as was originally intended, rather than shutting out the visitor with a locked-door / Sundays only policy.
Sprotbrough church
The wonderful St Mary the Virgin, Sprotbrough. Well worth a visit.
The theme of Christianity in twentieth century warfare is explored in detail in my two books:
Fight the Good FightFight the Good Fight2

Major Lanoe George Hawker VC, DSO, RFC


Nearing the end of a long day’s driving, we came across the village of Longparish, Hampshire. Remarking that we had not seen a war memorial window for quite some time, we eventually found the picturesque church of St Nicholas. On entering, I noticed a striking window at the far end of the north wall, and our patience was more than rewarded.


Depicting St Michael looking down in triumph from the heavens, with representations of two airmen gazing at their hangars, it is dedicated to Major Lanoe George Hawker VC, DSO, RFC. It sits amongst a series of memorials to members of the Hawker family, many with military connections stretching back to the eighteenth century. The airfield shown is that at Bertangles, from which Hawker flew.

Hawker 1Detail from the Hawker window

Hawker 2

Lanoe Hawker was one of the early flying `aces’ of the First World War. Serving in France from 1914 onwards, he was instrumental in the development of many mechanical improvements in the operation of aircraft in warfare. He also introduced the idea of thigh-length sheepskin boots to protect pilots from frostbite whilst in the air.

Lanoe Hawker

Major Lanoe Hawker, VC, DSO

In April 1915, Hawker was awarded the DSO for an engagement with a German Zeppelin. His citation, reported in the London Gazette of 8th May 1915, read:

For conspicuous gallantry on 19 April 1915, when he succeeded in dropping bombs on the German airship shed at Gontrode from a height of only 200 feet under circumstances of the greatest risk. Lieutenant Hawker displayed remarkable ingenuity in utilizing an unoccupied German captive balloon to shield him from fire while maneuvering to drop the bombs.

On 25th July 1915, he became the first fighter pilot to be awarded the Victoria Cross. The London Gazette of 24th August 1915 reported:

For most conspicuous bravery and very great ability on 25 July 1915. When flying alone he attacked three enemy aeroplanes in succession. The first managed eventually to escape, the second was driven to the ground damaged, and the third, which he attacked at the height of about 10,000 feet, was driven to earth in our lines, the pilot and observer being killed. The personal bravery shown by this officer was of the very highest order, as the enemy’s aircraft were armed with machine guns, and all carried a passenger as well as a pilot.

Eventually Hawker’s luck ran out, and he was shot down and killed by the `Red Baron’, Manfred von Richtofen on 23rd November 1916. Von Richtofen gave an account of this engagement in his autobiography, Red Air Fighter (1917)

In view of the character of our fight it was clear to me that I had been tackling a flying champion. One day I was blithely flying to give chase when I noticed three Englishmen who also had apparently gone a-hunting. I noticed that they were watching me and as I felt much inclination to have a fight I did not want to disappoint them.

I was flying at a lower altitude. Consequently I had to wait until one of my English friends tried to drop on me. After a short while one of the three came sailing along and attempted to tackle me in the rear. After firing five shots he had to stop for I had swerved in a sharp curve.

The Englishman tried to catch me up in the rear while I tried to get behind him. So we circled round and round like madmen after one another at an altitude of about 10,000 feet.

First we circled twenty times to the left, and then thirty times to the right. Each tried to get behind and above the other. Soon I discovered that I was not meeting a beginner. He had not the slightest intention of breaking off the fight. He was traveling in a machine which turned beautifully. However, my own was better at rising than his, and I succeeded at last in getting above and beyond my English waltzing partner.

When we had got down to about 6,000 feet without having achieved anything in particular, my opponent ought to have discovered that it was time for him to take his leave. The wind was favorable to me for it drove us more and more towards the German position. At last we were above Bapaume, about half a mile behind the German front. The impertinent fellow was full of cheek and when we had got down to about 3,000 feet he merrily waved to me as if he would say, “Well, how do you do?”

The circles which we made around one another were so narrow that their diameter was probably no more than 250 or 300 feet. I had time to take a good look at my opponent. I looked down into his carriage and could see every movement of his head. If he had not had his cap on I would have noticed what kind of a face he was making.

My Englishmen was a good sportsman, but by and by the thing became a little too hot for him. He had to decide whether he would land on German ground or whether he would fly back to the English lines. Of course he tried the latter, after having endeavored in vain to escape me by loopings and such like tricks. At that time his first bullets were flying around me, for hitherto neither of us had been able to do any shooting.

When he had come down to about three hundred feet he tried to escape by flying in a zig-zag course during which, as is well known, it is difficult for an observer to shoot. That was my most favorable moment. I followed him at an altitude of from two hundred and fifty feet to one hundred and fifty feet, firing all the time. The Englishman could not help falling. But the jamming of my gun nearly robbed me of my success.

My opponent fell, shot through the head, one hundred and fifty feet behind our line

Hawker’s machine gun was removed from the wreckage of his aircraft and von Richthofen kept it as a trophy at his family’s castle. The body was buried by German infantry soldiers and precisely recorded as 250 yards (230 metres) east of Luisenhof Farm along the roadside. However as the land was fought over many times in the subsequent two years, the exact location was lost, and Lanoe Hawker is officially commemorated on the Arras Flying Services Memorial.

Therefore the memorial window, designed by Francis Skeete and installed in 1968, is a striking and fitting memorial to an individual who played an important role in the development of aerial combat. In addition, his is one of many memorials which places the nature of his sacrifice within the wider context of that of his family and community, an aspect of war which can be found in many parish churches across the country.

John Broom is the author of Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War and Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War

Fight the Good FightFight the Good Fight2