Exploring the Grenadiers’ Regimental Archives

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!

The 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards leaving Chelsea Barracks for war. 12th August 1914
The 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards leaving Chelsea Barracks for war (12th August 1914).

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 Cawdor Castle was 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.

The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War.

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!


Rescuing the Archaeology of Western Aswan

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.Study Day Poster

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.Cecil Tombs

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…!!!

The Admiral & the Egyptian Notebook

'The Sphinx taken on the spot, 1811' 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!!

Sir Henry Cecil and Echoes of the Past

Last week the world of horse racing lost one of its greatest stars with the death of Henry Cecil. The papers were full of comments describing him as ‘a genius’, ‘the toast of Epsom and Royal Ascot’  and ‘one of the most influential and successful racehorse trainers of all times’. And it did make me think about how horses run in the Amherst Cecil blood. I remembered coming across this photo amongst Billy’s letters. Billy grew up to be an excellent rider, and particularly passionate about his hunting. How proud Billy would have been of his grandson Henry. In fact a passion for horses and racing runs further back in the family as May, Billy’s mother was renowned as an excellent horsewoman. Didlington Hall even  possessed its own racecourse on which, Phosphorus winner of the 1837 Derby had trained.

Billy on Horseback
Billy on Horseback

Henry did indeed have an extraordinary career which included  winning The Derby four times and The Oaks eight times. His was a life full of brilliance, mixed with despair – and maybe it was this mix that made him so popular with the masses of race goers. The death of his twin brother David, and his own fight against cancer must have provided some of the darkest moments, while the arrival of Frankel, ‘star of stars’, must have been one of the brightest.

When I heard of Henry’s death last week I couldn’t help thinking how immensely sad it was that not only did Henry never know his grandfather, he never knew his father either.

History can strangely repetitive. When Billy was killed on the Aisne in 1914, at the age of twenty eight, he left behind my father, William who was two years old and, Henry who was just six months. For both boys being fatherless must have been very hard, but for Henry it seems it was a tragedy. He was completely charming, immensely popular, and totally wild. Always after excitement, he was quick to join the newly formed Parachute Regiment. He was fatally wounded in 1942 in the Battle of Oudna in North Africa. He, like Billy, was twenty eight years old when he died. He left behind him four young sons, Strongbow (known as Bow), James and the twins, David and Henry. The twins were in fact not even born until a few days after the news of his death had reached their mother, Rohays.

I am extremely sad that Henry can’t be with us when we visit Billy’s grave next year to commemorate the centenary of his death. But there is no doubt that he will be there in our thoughts.




I realise how remiss I’ve been with this Blog – it’s like nothing has happened for months – which isn’t true. Lambing is long since over and some of the lambs are looking pretty huge already – like the ewe lamb below. As for Mum – it appears she might not be able to see where she’s going – however – weather permitting the shearer will be here tomorrow, and so that particular problem will be solved! Not that the shearer will remove her forelock – that is not allowed – a Cotswold must keep their fringes at all times – even if it does mean that after shearing they look like goats with mops on their heads! But shearing is a good time for me to give her forelock a tidying trim!


I have at last managed to get The Nile Cat to a state where I feel I can start looking for a publisher. This is quite daunting  and only time will tell how it all goes – however I am at last getting better at writing a synopsis – at least I hope so.

The real challenge is now to switch off from The Nile Cat for a while and focus on Billy – it is such a different project, and the deadline while self-imposed is tight – but not impossible – so it is back to WWI for me!

Sheep Thoughts

'Mum says this tastes okay - what do you think?'
‘Mum says this tastes okay – what do you think?’

Lambing means not much sleep and  a good deal of stress. It’s all that responsibility I guess. Anyway I thought I’d put up some photos of some of those cute moments that make it all worthwhile!

I never planned on being a midwife! Or a nurse. So finding myself in both roles, even if my patients are sheep, is pretty strange.

Over the last few weeks as I filled water buckets, freshened the pens with clean straw, brought in the food buckets, hand-fed a ewe who had survived a particularly traumatic delivery of her lambs (by the vet, not me in this case!!!) and wielded syringes of pain killers and antibiotics to other ewes who had had to have some lambing assistance, I couldn’t help wondering how any ‘real’ nurses, could ever be as completely blind to their patients’ needs as has recently been reported in the press – after all my patients can’t tell me what they need,  but I work it out. Their patients could talk – but those nurses weren’t even pretending to listen!!! Of course, I know the vast majority of nurses are dedicated, caring and immensely hard-working.

'Mum makes the best bed!'
‘Mum makes the best bed!’

But I have other roles to play too – ‘adoption facilitator’ for one – this was down to a ewe called Francesca. Francesca is a rather beautiful ewe, with fantastic wool and not so fantastic ‘attitude’! This year she had two lambs, a nice largish ewe lamb and a smaller ram lamb. She fell immediately in love with both her lambs, and was a brilliant mother for at least two hours.

Then something happened – I don’t know what! But all of a sudden she decided that the ewe lamb was hers, and the ram lamb was… well, not! And there was nothing I could do to persuade her otherwise. I tried everything – spraying both lambs with delicious vanilla scented musk so they smelt the same, and even tying her up so she couldn’t sniff either lamb, on the basis she would forget which lamb she had decided wasn’t hers.

'Those are the strangest looking lambs!'
‘Those are the strangest looking lambs!’

Francesca is many things – but forgetful she is not. In the end she fed the ram lamb, but only under sufferance. I knew the moment I put her out in the field  she would turn on him. So another solution had to be found – and by this time he had a name – Milo.

I could bottle feed Milo, but a single bottle-fed lamb is a very lonely lamb, and it is SO much better if they have a mother to keep them fed, warm and away from danger, in our case the river. So the only real answer would be adoption. But for that I needed a ewe which had been scanned as carrying just a single lamb to give birth within two or three days, for the adoption to have a chance to work.

'I wonder what's out there?'
‘I wonder what’s out there?’

So one day passed, then another, and another – by the fifth day I had almost given up hope as Milo would soon be too old for adoption – he wouldn’t bond with his new mother. Currently he was surviving, his mother hadn’t actually killed him, but she ignored his bleats, and would lie nuzzling her ewe lamb, leaving Milo on his own in the corner of the pen.

Then at last an older ewe, Genevieve, scanned as carrying a single lamb,  was in the process of lambing. There was no time to waste – as timing in these matters is everything! I had to get Milo wet with Genevieve’s birth fluids and place him in front of her, before her own lamb was born. I also had to tie his legs (gently but firmly) as the fact that Milo at a week old was as agile as an olympic athlete might give the game away! Luckily Genevieve is a maternal sort of ewe, and although I could swear she gave me a knowing look when I plopped Milo in front of her, she obligingly began to lick him dry. When her own ewe lamb arrived a few seconds later she licked both, and never looked back.  Genevieve is a brilliant mother to both lambs and Milo is thriving.  Adoption is truly wonderful when it works!!!

Lamb in a basket with a difference!
Lamb in a basket with a difference!

Lambing is a time when writing creatively seems impossible – tiredness does not lead to imaginative thought – rather I sit down at my computer, open a document and… unsurprisingly, fall asleep. So not a great time for getting on with a writing project.

Yet I think this raw contact with life and death does feed the creative brain. And there is always drama in the lambing barn – whether it’s clearing a lamb’s mouth and nose so it can take its first breath,  watching an exhausted ewe licking her lamb dry, or supervising an adoption, like Milo’s. But I’m quite glad it is ten and a half months before it all starts again. Now I’m off to bed for an uninterrupted night’s sleep!

Admiral Mitford and Madeira

I have this week discovered yet again what an amazing research tool the internet is! Through the Amherst website I have met a distant, but most distinguished, cousin as Hugh is the 37th Squire of Mitford. A remarkable family that held the estate of Mitford in Northumberland for nearly a 1000 years – and the main branch of the family that gave rise to the notorious ‘Mitford girls’, among many other rather splendid characters.

The Shearwater off Madeira
The Shearwater off Madeira

Unfortunately the Northumberland lot were not very good at producing heirs when they were needed, so the lines of inheritance got rather convoluted leading in the end to the family’s down turn in fortune and the sad sale of the last acres of the surviving estate in the 90’s.

Anyway, Hugh is as deeply involved with researching his ancestors, as I am mine – and as our researches both include Admiral Robert Mitford (my great, great, great grandfather) he very kindly sent me the following entry in an auction catalogue of a few years ago: 

A BOX of decanters and glasses which once belonged to one of Castle Morpeth’s most famous seafaring men is to go under the hammer in Newcastle on March 12. Dating to the early 19th century and contained in a rustic metal-bound oak case, the drinking set owned by Admiral Robert Mitford, of Mitford Castle, is to be sold by auctioneers Anderson & Garland …’

The entry goes on to explain that the Admiral was supposed to have been detailed by Queen Victoria to collect a consignment of Madeira, (from Madeira!!!) and then sail it home to England via the Equator – anyone with any sense of direction might think that this was not the most direct route – but apparently shaking and heating the madeira wine ‘improved it’ – so what could be more sensible than loading up a ship with wine and sending it down to the equator for plenty of natural heating and shaking!

This piece of information sent me back to check out the Admiral’s sketchbook – he was an immensely talented artist – and while the sketchbook is not in great condition, the paintings are good to superb!!! And I came across this little drawing captioned  ‘A Shearwater shot off the back of a turtle off Madeira‘ – who knows if this was painted on the trip described above – but it is really nice to conjecture that it was!!!

While I do feel rather bad at the sad demise of the shearwater and hope the turtle didn’t end up as soup  (I’m not confident of that!) – pre photos, the only way you could get a creature to stay still long enough to record it properly, was to kill it, skin it, and preserve it till you got home – then you could stuff it and draw it. Apparently the Admiral’s daughter was a renowned taxidermist – she was obviously taught by an expert!!





Last week we spent the night in Soissons. We were trying out the hotel we might stay in for the family visit to Billy’s grave in 2014. It felt incredibly strange to be there looking out of our hotel room across the roofs to the hills that rise on the other side of the Aisne.

A view from Soissons across the Aisne
A view over Soissons to the hills beyond the Aisne

The town was extraordinarily  quiet – it was that time between Christmas and New Year when nothing seems to happen – everyone is waiting for the main event I suppose – in this case the arrival of 2013.

But I found I was wondering how unbelievably different it must have felt to be there in the dying days of summer in 1914. There was no wind and the air was stiflingly hot. Soisson must have been a cauldron of fear as the Soissonaise looked at the tattered remains of the BEF gathering in the streets and boulevards of the town, and then looked up at the wooded hills that form the northern bank of the Aisne. They must have wondered just how long it would be before the flood of German soldiers began pouring out of them.

Billy arrived in Soissons at around noon on 30th August. The Grenadiers had been marching for days in the dust and intense heat. The men had apparently been grumbling about their sore feet and the endless marching in ‘the wrong direction’ but the 2nd Battalion was immensely proud that not one man had fallen out.  The Grenadiers were then ordered to retrace their footsteps back across the Aisne to the village of Pasley, which lies 2 miles north of Soissons, where they dug in and spent what remained of the night watching out for the approaching Germans. There was some hope that perhaps the BEF might make a stand at the Aisne and that the Retreat would be over.

 The Cathedral, Soissons, and the Pl. Fernand Marquigny
The Cathedral, Soissons, and the Pl. Fernand Marquigny

But the 31st just brought yet more orders to continue the Retreat, and so Billy would have returned to Soissons and then headed on south west towards Villars- Cotteret where the Grenadiers would have to face one of their toughest challenges so far.

It was market day when we were in Soissons last week. As we wandered amongst the stalls and inspected the wonderful displays of vegetables, bread, cheeses, etc., it was almost impossible to believe life there could ever have been so very different. When Billy was in Soissons, it was so early in the war, the town would have looked in parts, much as it does today – but later of course, being on the front line a good deal of it was reduced to rubble – it is really extraordinary how mankind does rebuild after such terrible events – but when we looked carefully at the buildings, the bullet holes, and shrapnel scars were easy enough to spot!

I imagine that by the time Billy reached Soissons his world must have shrunk to encompass little more than his own and his men’s survival. Home, Gladys, the boys, and his whole previous existence must have seemed like they belonged to someone else in another life.


Welcome to My Blog

Welcome to my first blog from this brand new website – which I might say has given me a few headaches trying to build. I was told Word Press is easy… well it is… once you get the hang of it – but getting the hang can be quite painful!

It is great that you have taken the time and trouble to find me, and I hope you will enjoy your visit. There are the opening chapters of The Nile Cat here to give you a taste of the novel which will be published shortly as an ebook.

You will also be able to see how the biography of my grandfather develops – it is based on his letters from his very first letter written at the age of five, through to his death at the age of 28 during the first battle of the Aisne in September 1914. His story begins in a world of great wealth and privilege, and ends on the edge of a forest in France. The journey from one to the other has all the necessary ingredients of a great drama… adventure, tragedy, courage, and above all love.