Displacement activities are a problem for any writer. In my case they are a real challenge and the annual 5 or 6 weeks my sheep spend lambing are a particular problem and many things are truly ‘displaced’ particularly sleep – it is extremely hard to write when you sit down… open up the laptop… and immediately fall asleep…
But then to write you need to experience life.. and death… and the lambing season is all about that!
When I tell people I have Cotswold sheep often people (some of whom should know better as they are farmers) say to me is – ‘But why? Surely all sheep want to do is die.’ And it is true that often when you find a sheep ill in the field, it is very ill indeed and will often die. But people shouldn’t forget a sheep is a ‘prey animal’ and this means their instinct to keep up with the flock, and look fine, and therefore not a target for any passing predator is immensely strong – so when you find a sick sheep, it is past caring and probably indeed near death.
The Cotswold lamb on the left of the photo was the final of the triplets to arrive. She was unexpected as mum had been scanned for twins. She arrived in a birth sack of fluid and possibly took a breath of birth fluid before the ewe could get to her to lick her free. She developed pneumonia over the next day or so from the fluid on her lungs – and in spite of my efforts to save her with a hefty dose of antibiotics and feeding her milk through a tube into her stomach (not as horrid as it sounds) she lay under the lamp for a day, between her brother and sister, without moving. I was waiting for her to die. I made sure she was comfortable, but there was nothing else to be done. I kept checking her to see if she had breathed her last…
But she kept on going… one laboured breath after another… then in the evening I thought she had gone at last, and gently picked her up. At that moment she lifted her head and stared at me. She was fighting so hard to live; I gave her another feed, some more antibiotics and a painkiller. Half an hour later she was on her feet. And a day later she is feeding from her mum, and jumping round the pen like nothing was ever wrong with her. She might be small, but she really did fight for her life! She wanted to live – she is definitely a sheep, which has no intention of dying!
And so with lambing over, and a good night’s sleep beckoning, there are no excuses left and tomorrow it’s back to writing…
Anyone who has visited this site before may have been bored by the lack of activity recently. I must confess life has got in the way and I did not spend much of 2016 writing… 2017 is going to be different. Picking up a project is always hard, so I have spent some weeks re-engaging with some of the most important characters. It is not always easy to breathe life into the distant past – somehow books and newspaper archives, however intellectually interesting, don’t always have the magic; it takes something special to get the electric connection that brings the past so close you can hold out your hand and touch it.
For me, this time, it has been the Admiral’s Log, or as the book is actually titled Admiralty Orders 1809… . It stood forgotten and unopened on a family book shelf for decades – yet it’s a piece of living history. It is not beautiful. The pages are dog-eared and water-stained, the writing is hard to read and faded – but as I peer at the pages I can hear the wind in the rigging, the creaking of the masts as Captain Robert Mitford’s ship, the Espoir, cuts through the waves, and the shouts of the topmen as they trim the sails. I can smell the salt and the damp and the staleness of sailors who have been at sea for months. The pages detail the mundane; the way casks containing provisions should be protected from damage, how to prevent the seamen from falling victim to fraudsters when they make their wills, how to store the lemon juice that will protect the men from scurvy, and what precisely should be done in the event of the death of the Purser (a key man on board any naval vessel of the day). The pages also, of course, provide a record of where the Espoir has been, and the tasks undertaken. It may have collected live bullocks to provide fresh meat for a nearby squadron, carried boxes containing thousands of Spanish hard dollars from Gibraltar to Malta, or casks of Madeira wine to London. Other tasks included escorting convoys, seeking out enemy ships, and guarding French prisoners, most notably on the island of Cabrera.
As I fight to decipher the Log’s secrets I am hoping to find answers to specific questions, which no other source has yet answered. What exactly was Robert Mitford doing in Egypt, and when? Did he assist in the building of the Egyptian navy? And was he really offered Cleoptra’s needle, now standing on the Embankment in London, as his reward? To try and find the answers to these questions will keep me reading late into the night…
A few weeks ago there was a message on my answering machine. This was unusual as for once it wasn’t from someone trying to sell me green energy or trying ‘to assist me to reclaim mis-sold PPI’. It was from someone who had discovered my website following his own discovery in his mother’s attic following her death. When he and his wife were clearing out the attic, they had come across a picture which his parents had bought many years before.
This was a nice, but not particularly exciting oil painting of Bury St Edmunds Cathedral. It had long ago lost its frame and had been left forgotten in the attic for numerous years.
However on the reverse there was a surprise – they discovered this beautifully illustrated ‘Address’ which must have been presented to my grandfather to mark his 21st birthday, which was only shortly after he had joined the Grenadier Guards. It is ‘signed’ by all the workers on the Didlington Estate and is a wonderful and rather unusual piece of family history.
It is perhaps interesting to see just how many Carters were working on the estate at that time – exactly how they were related to Howard Carter is currently unknown.
Also exactly how the Address found its way to that Suffolk attic and how it ended up as the back of an oil painting of Bury St Edmunds Cathedral is a mystery – one guess regarding the painting is that during the shortages of WW2 someone wanted to paint the picture and the only piece of board available was the reverse of the ‘Address’. It is a miracle it survived undamaged, and it is a miracle that it has come home!
That it has, is entirely due to the internet alerting one kind person that I might be interested in it – I owe them a huge debt of gratitude for their persistence in tracking me down… thank you!
With just four Cotswold ewes still to lamb the last few weeks have been pretty busy. Lambing is always a time of late nights and little sleep. There are always life and death dramas and every year some new challenge arises. This year has been no exception.
But when it all goes well it is just the best time in the world at Queenford. Seeing a well-fed contented lamb curled up beside its mother is so satisfying. Seeing healthy lambs racing and leaping round the field is fantastic and makes those late nights all worthwhile.
The bond between a ewe and her lambs is incredibly strong and each year I find myself amazed by it afresh. That is not to say that there aren’t some scatty ewes out there who seem to forget they have ever had a lamb – but in Cotswolds that is rare! They are generally excellent milky mums which keep their lambs safe!
I thought any visitors to this site might like to see a few photos of this year’s new arrivals….
Yesterday it was reported that Isis had destroyed much of the site of Nimrud near Mosul and had moved on to begin bulldozing the site of Hatra. Previously they had proudly published photos of the destruction of historically priceless artefacts held in the Mosul Museum. Of course the members of Isis have committed appalling and unspeakably brutal crimes against fellow human beings, so why should any of us be surprised that such people who have no respect for the living, should have any respect for their history?
We should all be horrified that one group of blinkered fanatics should be able to destroy the heritage that belongs to all of us. We are all the poorer because of their wanton vandalism. I have never visited the ruins of Nimrud or Hatra and now I never will. How dare they take the possibility of visiting the birth place of civilisation away from me, from you, from any of us.
I find that these particular acts of vandalism seem almost personal. Firstly because the museum and library at Didlington Hall held many Assyrian artefacts, though it was the Babylonian stone tablets that William Tyssen-Amherst particularly valued. He was fascinated by the history of the written word and thus these ancient tablets with their ancient texts held particular importance for him. He would have been appalled by the deliberate destruction in Assyria.
His interest could only have been heightened by the fact that it had been a cousin of his father-in-law, Admiral Robert Mitford, who had travelled with Austen Henry Layard when he first visited the long forgotten historical sites of Assyria.
While most people will not have heard of Edward Ledwich Mitford, he was one time companion to one of the most famous archaeologists of the nineteenth century. Layard was of course, the excavator of the great ancient Assyrian civilisations of Nineveh and Nimrud. His discoveries in Assyria caught the imagination of the Victorians. He was the Howard Carter of the Victorian age, and Nineveh, the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Mitford was there in 1839 when Layard took his first steps on the path to his great discoveries when they visited Nineveh, Nimrud, Hatra, Babylon and many more sites of great historic importance. When Mitford eventually got round to publishing the story of his travels in the snappily entitled A Land March from England to Ceylon: Forty Years Ago’ in 1884, the Tyssen-Amhersts were one of the first to order his newly published book. Layard too wrote of his travels and described his memories of the start of the great adventure when in 1894 he published his own version of his Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia:
In 1839, Edward Ledwich Mitford,’ wrote Layard, ‘a young Englishman who had been connected with a mercantile house at Mogador in Morocco, and who had made some interesting excursions through little known parts of that dangerous country, desired to establish himself in Ceylon as a coffee planter. Like myself he wished to leave England as soon as possible; but being of an adventurous disposition and dreading the sea, he had formed a plan of going by land through Europe, Central Asia and India. He proposed to me that we should do the journey together.’
It was the beginning of the most extraordinary journey. The two men had numerous adventures and escaped almost certain death on many occasions. Their visit to the ruined city of Hatra was just one more adventure as an extract from the Amherst Chronicles illustrates…
‘While they were in Mosul, Layard and Mitford were told of some spectacular ruins that they should visit at Hatra, some sixty or seventy miles to the south. They were warned that the Arabs of the region would be hostile and previous parties attempting to visit the ruins had been attacked. Layard and Mitford were not to be easily deterred. Mitford writes ‘not withstanding this [advice], and the assurance of the natives that it was impossible, and that we should never escape to return, we weighed all the objections at their real value, and resolved on persevering in our design; it will be generally found that when there is resolution, nothing is impossible.’
They set off into the lawless hills in a small party of five, with four guns, plenty of ammunition, cloaks, which would act as their beds if necessary, and no provisions except a bag of biscuits. Mitford explains they were ‘trusting to our guns for any addition to our frugal meals.’
Their first day’s journey was a delightful ride over sloping hills of gypsum covered with flowers, soft ranunculus, pink stocks and white Star of Bethlehem along the banks of the Tigris, which was ‘varied with broad green islands,’ and the weather was beautiful. However things were less wonderful once they had descended into the cultivated plains and arrived at Hammam Ali, a village of mud huts some 18 miles south of Mosul, where they would stop for the night. The village was almost deserted, its residents having blocked their doors with barriers of mud and stones while they followed their flocks across the ‘grass-clad plains’. The huts seemed likely to provide the perfect shelter for the travellers who broke down a few doors ‘but were repulsed by the myriads of fleas that issued from them.’ Mitford explains that ‘in this climate when a hut or a room is shut up and uninhabited for a short time the fleas multiply to such an extent as to blacken the walls; and the clothes of anyone who ventures in are immediately covered with these sharp-set pests.’
The night was spent in the shelter of an open stable. But while the night might not have been comfortable, the view was memorable, for Layard in particular. Across the Tigris they could see a marvellous sight. Layard wrote years later:
‘As the sun went down, I saw for the first time the great conical mound of Nimrud rising against the clear evening sky. It was on the opposite side of the river and not very distant, and the impression that it made upon me was one never to be forgotten. After my visit to Küyünjik and Nebi Yunus, opposite Mosul, and the distant view of Nimrud, my thought ran constantly upon the possibility of thoroughly exploring, with the spade, those great ruins.’
The ruins of Hatra were extensive. Mitford described their visit…
‘This is a remarkable Babylonian ruin, composed of a mass of artificial mounds, on the bank of the river; the circumference of the ruins is 4685 yards, about 2 2/3 miles; and the highest part, which has probably been a citadel, rises about 140 feet above the plain.’
The party spent two days exploring, measuring, conjecturing and wondering about the ruins and the people who once inhabited them. They also found time for some game shooting, which meant they ate well that night.
Thanks to the outrageous behaviour of a group of ill-educated fanatics, these wonderful ruins will never provide the same pleasure and fascination for future generations. Answers to questions about our past will never now be answered. We are all diminished by this destruction, but none more so than than the men who perpetrated this crime against humanity, and who will doubtless move onto commit further acts of devastation. The Mitfords and the Amhersts will surely be turning in their graves, but they will not be alone!
As November draws to a close, I realise just what an extraordinary month it has been. There have been so many acts of Remembrance and some of them have been truly thought provoking. I wanted to go to see the poppies at the Tower of London but failed dismally.
I console myself with the thought that I don’t feel that I have neglected the past this autumn. Two years ago I sat in church on Remembrance Sunday and realised I had never visited my grandfather’s grave. As anyone who has been interested
enough to spend time on this website previously may already know, he died on the Aisne in 1914. It was then that the plan formed to get as many of Billy’s descendants to his grave on the centenary of his death as I could. In the end there were 23 family and friends in Soupir Communal Cemetery in September this year.
We had spent the previous few days following the route of the Grenadier Guards as they retreated from Mons with Sir Douglas Haig’s I Corps south towards the Marne. There were several notable moments directly related to Billy. One was at Landrecies, south west of the vast Mormal Forest which the British thought was impenetrable – but the Germans marched straight through!!! So the town was not quite so protected by the forest as had been thought… the ‘Landrecies Affair’ was indeed quite an affair!
Following a 28 mile march in blistering heat the Grenadier and Coldstream guards arrived in Landrecies hoping for nothing more than a decent billet and a quiet night. However as it turned out the Germans had had the same idea and were also heading for Landrecies for a decent billet and a quiet night. Needless to say a fierce fight developed and it was not long before the Coldstream’s machine guns were being overrun.
At this point Billy, as the Grenadiers’ Machine Gun Officer, was ordered up to assist the Coldstream. The official history The Grenadier Guards in the Great War – Volume I describes what happened – ‘The machine-guns of the Grenadiers were moved up to help the Coldstream and came into action at a very critical moment. They were largely instrumental in repelling the enemy’s attack, and were well handled by Lieutenant the Hon W. Cecil, who was slightly wounded.’ Colonel Fielding (Coldstream) was more effusive, describing Billy’s handling of his guns as ‘magnificent’. Colonel Fielding continued saying ‘During all the assaults he stood up under heavy fire from high explosive shells and directed the fire as if on manoeuvres. He was wounded in the knee but continued fighting…’
I suppose one of the things I wanted to try and discover on our journey through France was an answer to the question – why was he so careless of his own safety? In the ‘Great War’ the attrition rate amongst junior officers was proportionately higher than for any other rank. Trained ‘to play the game’ on the sports fields of English public schools, and inspired by the adventures of their warrior heroes of ancient Greece and Rome, they seemed determined to show no fear, and to lead from the front – and time after time they paid the ultimate price for doing so. Billy was lucky in Landrecies – but it seems almost inevitable that his luck would run out.
However, while we were following Billy and his Grenadiers, we were also uncovering the stories of several other soldiers connected with our group. There was Lieutenant John Lee-Steere (Grenadier Guards) who died at the hands of a sniper at Klein Zillebeke on 17th November 1914. He was just 19 and a dearly loved, only son. He is one of just a few soldiers to have a different style of headstone, paid for by his parents. John was buried in the village of Zillebeke in what has come to be known as the ‘Aristocrats Cemetery.’
It was a particularly poignant part of our journey when we visited not just the cemeteries but the places where ‘our’ soldiers fought fell. The cemetery at Zillebeke was moving enough, but standing in the field where the Grenadiers had been dug in a hundred years earlier, and looking up at the woods…
so peaceful now, but then in the freezing mud and cold of the trenches, with the barrels of German guns blazing at him, it must have been a terrifying place for, the far too young, John.
Another soldier whose grave we visited was Captain Stuart Keppel Reid. He had seen service in Gallipoli, Gaza, Egypt and Palestine, survived numerous battles, and had been awarded the M.C. It was 1918 when the Royal Sussex crossed the Mediterranean and having landed in Marseille they soon found themselves entrained and heading north to the Western Front and Ypres. Home and safety must have seemed almost within touching distance when they arrived in Belgium. Maybe Stuart had some leave, maybe he even dared hope the war would be over and he would survive – after all he has survived so much already. Unfortunately the Germans broke through near Soissons in July 1918. Stuart soon found himself on another train heading south to help push the Germans back. On 29th July 1918, however Stuart died, having been wounded a few days earlier.
While I am, of course, sad that Billy did not survive the war, to have fought for four years and then to die when the war is edging to a close, seems even more cruel. Stuart was buried in Vauxbuin Cemetery.
The final soldier whose grave we visited was Captain Cecil ‘Johnnie’ Ker 1st Battalion Bedfordshire regiment. He was killed at Missy, on the Aisne on 15th September, just the day before Billy. The Bedfordshire War Dairy describes the action that day as a FIASCO in capital letters! It seems however that Johnnie Ker wasn’t killed in the fiasco… a diarist of the day reported… ‘I went up to the front to see what was doing in an interval and was quite close to Johnnie Ker who was sitting on a bank. He got up and stretched himself and yawned saying that he was tired of it all and wanted a good sleep when a sniper shot him through the head and he died at once. Almost at the same time, if not with the same bullet, H. Courtenay was hit in the eye but not killed. It was an awful blow losing poor little Johnnie’.
Such an unnecessary death due to a moment of carelessness shows the strain the past few weeks had put on the British. Weeks of retreat, marching, fighting, then marching again… followed by some hope that the war had turned at last only to find themselves halted in front of the wooded hills of the Aisne valley, had taken their toll. The men were exhausted, and Johnnie got careless and for that he paid with his life. Vendresse Cemetery where he is buried, is one of the most beautiful we visited, so I can only hope he is at peace there now.
Our journey from Ypres to Soupir is one I will never forget. It was memorable for so many reasons, and just the fun of spending time with family and friends that do not spend enough time together, was a joy. It made it even more special that we travelled with a purpose. There were lives that deserved to be remembered, and we took great pleasure, mixed with sadness of course, in the remembering.
I don’t know that I have yet discovered what drove these men to ‘do their duty’ with such flair and bravery. They all had huge courage, but no doubt they had tremendous fear too. I am just proud to have got to know more about all of them. And as for Billy – I suppose I just wish he had survived, so many things in our family would have been different if he had. Losing him was losing a vital link in the chain that bound the Amhersts together. I also wish he had survived, because I would have loved to have known him… Strangely though through his letters, and through May’s journals I feel I do know him, really quite well – perhaps better than I know many people who are alive today.
When worlds collide it can be spine tingling… Today I had just such a moment. As anyone who has even glanced at this blog before will know I have sheep. Cotswold sheep… from the Cotswolds. A historic and rare breed they may be and one that I happened to take on because their wool, their upturned mouths which make them look like they are smiling, their crazy forelocks, placid nature and their ridiculous hippo like size, well, just appealed to me. When I am not involved with sheep, or fiddling with Nile Cat I try to get on with my family biography. Cotswold Sheep and Biography are two completely different worlds… at least so I thought until today.
It was only when I went to collect some sheep in Hampshire and got chatting about the history of the Cotswold Sheep Society and I asked ‘Why Cotswolds?’ that the owner explained his great grandfather had been a member of the CSS and it had seemed right to keep them in the family. He showed me a page from the 1915 Flock Book and commented there were quite a few members of Council who came from Norfolk. We had discussed earlier that I’d been brought up there, so I was asked if any of the names meant anything to me…. I looked and there it was in black and white… ‘Captain C. A. Fountaine, Narford Hall, Swaffham, Norfolk. Elected 1915 – To Retire 1917‘.
It really was the strangest feeling reading that, indeed even heart stopping… Mary Fountaine was William Amhurst Tyssen-Amherst’s mother, and William (my great great grandfather) was born at Narford Hall. Narford Hall was just some sixteen miles from Didlington and for many years the two families were closely entwined. Sadly, when financial ruin hit the Amhersts in 1906, a large chunk of Fountaine money went too. There was a court case and I don’t imagine the cousins saw much of each other after that.
But it does feel weird to know that there were Cotswold Sheep at Narford Hall in deepest, darkest Norfolk, and that a cousin of mine was a member of the Society of which I am currently Chairman, and that he too served his time on Council as I do nearly a hundred years later. Why did I choose Cotswolds… maybe it was just coincidence or maybe there is indeed more in heaven and earth than most of us can possibly dream of…?!
Anyway there is now a whole new field (!) of research for me to explore… and one question particularly intrigues me… what were all these Cotswold sheep doing in East Anglia? There were flocks near Bury St Edmunds, Fakenham, two near Swaffham, Thetford, and Norwich. In fact in 1915 there were more members on Council from Norfolk and Suffolk than there were from Gloucestershire. If any reader of this blog can shed any light on this – I would love to hear from you!
We are now in early February and I have no idea where the last few months have gone – and soon we begin lambing. The deadline for Billy’s biography is July – so I think I’d better get a move on!
I did manage some research a few weeks ago and took a trip to the Grenadiers’ Regimental Archives in Wellington Barracks. I spent a fascinating hour or two inspecting some wonderful photo albums and reading a selection of diaries. I was made extremely welcome and afterwards felt I had got to know another side of Billy’s life a great deal better. I am so grateful to the Grenadiers for allowing me to use some of these photos in the biography. The one I have included in this post I find particularly moving. What was going through the Grenadiers’ minds as they marched so smartly off the parade ground towards the station where they would ‘entrain’ for Southampton, where the SS CawdorCastlewas waiting to transport them to France?
They were professional soldiers, either currently serving or reservists. They were all well-trained, if not all ‘battle’ fit (the reservists could have left the army up to nine years earlier). They believed it was their duty to fight for their country, and the general feeling was that the war would be a short-lived affair and over by Christmas. What none of them would would have imagined was that by the beginning of December 1914, as the the First Battle of Ypres (October/November) drew to a close, only 140 men and 4 officers of the 2nd Battalion would still be alive.
One thing I have learned recently through my research is the stupidity of the often repeated comment that the British infantry in WWI were ‘lions led by donkeys’ -particularly if it is applied to junior officers – as it is in ‘Black Adder Goes Forth’.
‘Six Weeks’ by John Lewis-Stempel is an immensely moving book. It shows clearly how these young officers cared for their men and worked tirelessly for them. They led from the front. This is why the average length of survival for one of these young subalterns was indeed six weeks, while many of their men would survive up to three months!
All these statistics are deeply shocking – why did any of them have to die? One answer was that they knew there was no choice. If they didn’t fight- then what would have stopped the German Army marching into London? They were certain no treaty with Germany would be worth the paper it was written on. If Germany could tear up the treaty proclaiming Belgium’s neutrality it could tear up any other treaty too!
All very thought provoking – but time is pressing ever onwards and I guess I’d better get back to work!
It is so strange when past and present come together and you find yourself doing something you never expected to do, because of something that happened over a 100 years ago! In this particular case it is the tragedy that is now engulfing Egypt, which was the catalyst for me being asked to give a short talk about my great-grandmother’s excavations in West Aswan, in Horsham yesterday.
With the country in turmoil, few tourists are making their way to Egypt; a country which relies on the tourist industry. The population is now either angry, or desperate. Museums have been looted and artefacts stolen or destroyed. Tombs have been illegally excavated and emptied of anything of value.
The sadness is not just the loss of fascinating and unique objects, and all they can tell us about the past, but the Egyptians are destroying their own future. The tourists will not come back if there is nothing to see, and the magic that was Egypt has been destroyed.
The destruction of heritage is happening throughout Egypt. Western Aswan is no exception. The tombs that May and Billy excavated in 1901 and 1903/04, but which are now lost, (hopefully only temporarily – May was great at excavating and drawing plans of the individual tombs – even taking photos – but she never published a map as to where the tombs actually were!) could soon suffer the same fate. So it seemed right that I should do something to try and preserve the Egypt they loved!
And it was fun too – the Sussex Egyptian Society made me very welcome – and were polite enough to say they enjoyed my talk – so altogether a special day…!!!
It is very strange how things suddenly slot into place when you are undertaking research. Ever since I began this project I have known that the Admiral must have spent time in Egypt while he was Captain of HMS Espoir. I have his ship’s log which has just one entry written in Alexandria. And research has thrown up no official connection to Egypt. Yet family history has told me he became good friends with Muhammad Ali, Khedive of Egypt and undertook the job of supervising the building of the Egyptian navy’s first corvette in or around 1810/11. Indeed the Khedive was supposed to have been so pleased with Captain Mitford that he rewarded him by giving him ‘Cleopatra’s needle’ (I think he gave it to many people, safe in the knowledge that none of them would actually be able to take it away!) It was however eventually removed, of course (not by the Admiral!) and ‘our’ needle now stands on the Embankment in London!
But today proof arrived miraculously through the post, along with some other papers. It is just a tiny notebook, but you can imagine how thrilled I was to see this image which shows quite clearly that the Admiral was in Egypt at just the right time!!
Writer of Biography, Short Stories and Young Adult Fiction