Mrs Alice Whelan had thirteen children of whom nine survived to adulthood. Widowed before 1911 she and her one daughter described their occupations as ironers.
Thomas was her eldest child. She says of him in the War Graves Commission records that he had had 15 years military service. It is likely that this service had come to the end before the war and that he rejoined on the outbreak. He died of wounds in the hospital centre of St Sever on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Thomas was ‘the first to fall’. Two years later James Whelan, sixteen years younger than his older brother, died of wounds close to the front line on 26 June 1918.

Eight of my sons
Answered the call
You, dear Jim, were the second
To fall – sleep on

War Graves

The slaughter of World War I produced millions of corpses which had to be identified and buried. Out of this necessity arose the Commonwealth War Graves Commission whose tireless work for decades has led to the creation of mass battlefield cemeteries around the world and individual markers for as many dead as possible.

In 1917 Rudyard Kipling, whose son John had died 2 years earlier,  was appointed to the Imperial War Graves Commission as its literary advisor. Every word the Commission used was written, chosen or approved by him, including the dignified inscription on the headstone of the unidentified dead, ‘A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God’. This could be adapted to incorporate any scrap of information that could be discovered about the dead man: a Canadian soldier, a German soldier, a Corporal of the Black Watch, or, as in the case of John Kipling, an 18-year-old  Lieutenant in the Irish Guards.

Those who could be identified are honoured by a stone marker with name, age, and military unit, and an inscription chosen by the families they left behind. Some are sternly patriotic, some are trite, some are religious; all are moving.


An interesting dilemma

Death of a noble bigamist

Kitty Cannon was a pretty girl from the village of Thorpe in Essex. Her beauty led to her being courted by a number of young nobles but, none of these titled individuals condescended to breathe in her ear a single word about matrimony; so, when she was just twenty, she gave her hand, and (it is to be presumed) her heart also, to the rector of Thorpe, a Reverend Mr. Dough.

A quiet and remote parsonage, however, was not exactly suited to the taste of a young lady who had once sipped the cup of flattery from gentlemen who belonged to the clubs about St. James’s, and who moved in courtly circles. Accordingly, one evening when she was staying in London, being present at a ball in the neighborhood of the then fashionable district of Covent Garden, she managed to slip out, unobserved by her husband, and to run away with John, Lord Dalmeny, heir to vast estates and the title of the Earl of Rosbery, who was only a few years older than herself. She had no children, and doubtless his lordship was led to believe that she was a widow, and quite at her own disposal.

     The pair went abroad, and remained for two or three years traveling in the sunny south; but in the early summer of 1752 Kitty Cannon, or Kitty Gough, was taken seriously ill at Florence. Her illness turned into a galloping consumption, and in the May or June of that year she died. A few hours only before her death, she wrote upon a scrap of paper, ‘I am really the wife, of the Reverend Mr. Gough, vicar of Thorpe, near Colchester, Essex ; my maiden name was Kitty Cannon, and my family belong to the same parish.  Bury me there.’

Lord Dalmeny’s young wife, as he always thought her to be, was gone before he was able to realize the full meaning of the lines which she had written. At first he was disposed to reject them, as a creation of her sick brain; it was impossible for him to believe that the dear companion of his last few years was guilty of bigamy. But, whether true or false, he at once resolved, as she lay in her coffin at Florence, to give effect to her last wish, and he instantly prepared to carry her remains over to England.

The body of this lovely woman was embalmed, and secured in ‘a very fine oaken coffin’, decorated with six large silver plates, and it was then put into a strong outer case of common deal, which concealed the ominous shape of its contents. The jewelry and wardrobe of the lady were packed in other chests, and with this cumbersome baggage Lord Dalmeny set out upon his melancholy journey by land to the south of France. At Marseilles he was able to engage a vessel to carry him and his packages by sea round to Dover, under the assumed name of Mr. Williams, a merchant of Hamburg; and on landing at Dover he transferred his belongings to a small coaster, which he hired to carry him to Harwich, then a busy and bustling port, only a few miles distant from Thorpe. The vessel, however, was forced by contrary winds to make for Colchester instead, where the Custom House officers came down to the Hythe to examine the freight before they would allow it to be landed. They could not recognize in the elegant and polished gentleman, whom they saw dressed in the deepest of black and bowed down by grief, a common business man from Hamburg; and they very naturally thought, as only seven years had passed since the rebellion of 1745, that he was some emissary of ‘the Pretender.’ So their loyalty took the alarm.

It certainly was the plain duty of Custom House officials to see that no French tobacco, gloves, lace, or brocade was brought over in these large boxes without paying duty to King George. Accordingly, without giving any attention to the remonstrance’s of Mr. Williams, they were about to plunge their knives into the larger case, when the Hamburg merchant drew his sword and told them to desist. He at once made a clean breast of the affair, telling them that he was an Englishman, and, what was more, an English nobleman, and that the chest upon the wharf contained the body of his dead wife. But this explanation did not satisfy the officers, who were not sure that there was not a murder at the bottom of the transaction. They therefore at once broke the outer chest, tore open the coffin lid, and lifted the cere-cloths from the face of the embalmed corpse. Lord Dalmeny was taken, along with the coffin, to a church near at hand, where he was detained until he could prove the truth of his story.

The news soon spread about, and crowds of the neighboring villagers came to see the fair lady’s face as she lay in her coffin. Many of these identified her features as those of the Kitty Cannon who had spent her childhood at Thorpe, and who had disappeared soon after her marriage with the vicar of that parish.

But here was a further difficulty for his lordship; for, though the rest of his story was transparently true, it was clear that the lady was not really his lawful wife. A communication was at once forwarded to the vicar, who lost no time in coming over to the Hythe and recognizing the corpse as that of his vanished partner. But what a mystery the whole affair was to him as well as to Lord Dalmeny, to whom at first, as may be supposed, he entertained and expressed no very friendly feelings. But he was soon pacified. Possibly he had preached but lately a sermon enforcing forgiveness of even intended wrongs, and here was a wrong which clearly was not intended. Accordingly as soon as he was able to contemplate the matter in all its bearings—the deception which had been practiced on the poor young nobleman, and the passionate constancy which had borne him up through his toilsome journey by land and voyage by sea in order to gratify his supposed wife’s last prayer, and the faithfulness with which, like a dog, he watched beside her coffin in the church—he felt that he could not refuse to forgive the wrong, and he consented to meet Lord Dalmeny on a friendly footing.

The interview between the two rival husbands is said in a family record to have been very moving, and no doubt must have been touching in the extreme; the only wonder is that it has not been taken by play-writers to work out as a plot for the stage. Lord Dalmeny assured the husband of his entire innocence of fraud, and of the honest intentions with which he had acted throughout. Even the discovery of his long-lost Kitty’s deceit and guilt did not put his love to shame, or shake his determination to follow her to her last resting-place. And the same was the feeling of his lordship. The next day, as soon as the magistrates were satisfied that the law had not been broken, both husbands accompanied the loved remains to Thorpe Church, where the poor frail lady was buried with all the pomp and show which could have been accorded to a real peeress. Which of the two paid the undertaker’s bill is not stated; but I have every reason to believe that the cost was paid by Lord Dalmeny, or amicably settled between them. It is said that the funeral cortege was stopped for a few minutes at the gates of the vicarage, and that the young nobleman walked into the house, from which he presently came forth arm-in-arm with Mr. Gough, who was clothed in mourning as deep as his own, and with scarf and headband to match. This happened on July 9, 1752 and seems to be the first time an Englishwoman had two husbands attend her funeral at the same time.

Battle of Amiens, 1918


One hundred years ago, a Canadian army helped defeat the Imperial German army and forced the enemy high command to consider the war lost.

Eleven divisions — 3 British, 4 Canadian, and 4 Australian — 75,000 men, more than 500 tanks and nearly 2,000 planes attacked the Germans who had not dug in, as they expected to continue their own offensive.

The keys to the victory were surprise — troops and equipment were moved only at night and at the last minute — the use of Canadians and Australians as shock troops, and coordination of tanks, guns, and aircraft.

By noon the Canadians had taken over 5,000 prisoners and 161 guns at a cost of 3,500 casualties; the Australians had taken nearly 8,000 prisoners and 173 guns, and their losses were less than 3,000. The total German losses for the day, on their own estimate, were between 26,000 and 27,000. Their official account says:

As the sun set on the 8th August on the battlefield the greatest defeat which the German Army had suffered since the beginning of the war was an accomplished fact.

The Simele Massacre

Once much of central and western Asia was populated by Christians of the Church of the East, descendants of the Nestorians who fled persecution by seeking refuge beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. The Church was largely wiped out by the Mongols of Timur but pockets survived in mountainous places.

One such remnant was the Assyrian Church living in what is now Turkey, Syria and Iraq. During the First World War the same wave of mass murders that the Turks perpetrated on their Armenian Christian minority engulfed many Assyrians.

In August, 1933 a new wave of massacres was aimed at the Assyrians, as Kurds and Arab nationalists carried out a number of massacres. A British observer described the scene at the village of Simele which was attacked on August 7:

A cold blooded and methodical massacre of all the men in the village then followed, a massacre which for the black treachery in which it was conceived and the callousness with which it was carried out, was as foul a crime as any in the blood stained annals of the Middle East. The Assyrians had no fight left in them, partly because of the state of mind to which the events of the past week had reduced them, largely because they were disarmed. Had they been armed it seems certain that Ismail Abawi Tohalla and his bravos would have hesitated to take them on in fair fight. Having disarmed them, they proceeded with the massacre according to plan. This took some time. Not that there was any hurry, for the troops had the whole day ahead of them. Their opponents were helpless and there was no chance of any interference from any quarter whatsoever. Machine gunners set up their guns outside the windows of the houses in which the Assyrians had taken refuge, and having trained them on the terror stricken wretches in the crowded rooms, fired among them until not a man was left standing in the shambles. In some other instance the blood lust of the troops took a slightly more active form, and men were dragged out and shot or bludgeoned to death and their bodies thrown on a pile of dead.

These actions led to the coining of the word “genocide”. The symbol above in Syriac commemorates the date August 7

Operation Valkyrie Fails

Today is the 74th anniversary of the failed plot to kill Hitler by exploding a bomb in his Wolf’s Lair.
A conspiracy involving a number of high-ranking army officers planned to deliver a bomb to the conference room in which Hitler would be briefed on the conflict on the Eastern Front. It was a chemical explosive that was improperly primed because of the maimed hands of the officer planting it, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, and the bomb was accidentally nudged under a thick oak table that prevented it from achieving its intended destruction.

Inital reports indicated that the explosion had killed Hitler, leading to army units acting in Berlin on this wrong information. When it was discovered that der Fuehrer had only been wounded, the plot collapsed. Some officers were shot immediately, some committed suicide, and some were tried and hideously executed.
Even had it succeeded in eliminating Hitler, it is highly unlikely that the new German government could have negotiated a separate peace with the Western allies that would
allow the war to continue against the Soviet Union.

St Elizabeth Romanova

Speaking of murdered Russian princesses, we must not forget one of the most admirable of the species, Elizabeth of Hesse: known to her friends as Ella, and to the Orthodox Church as the Holy Martyr Elizabeth Romanova.
Reputedly the most beautiful princess of her generation, she had royal suitors lined up around the block, including the future German Kaiser Wilhelm II. She chose the shy Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, uncle of the future Tsar Nicholas II. Later, as Governor of Moscow, Sergei gained the reputation of an oppressive administrator. 
When Sergei was murdered in 1905, Elizabeth pleaded for the life of his terrorist assassin and went to his cell to forgive him. She sold all her jewels including her wedding ring and became a nun, founding an order of sisters that operated a hospital, pharmacy and orphanage for the poor.
During the Russian civil war, Elizabeth was arrested by the Bolshevik secret police, beaten, and thrown down a mineshaft with other prisoners. She survived the fall and the grenades that were thrown in after her. She was singing hymns and tending to the wounded when she died of suffocation from burning fuel poured on top of her. Lenin applauded Elisabeth’s death, remarking that “virtue with the crown on it is a greater enemy to the revolution than a hundred tyrant tsars”.
Her body was recovered by White forces and her remains were buried in Jerusalem. She was canonized by the Orthodox Church and, after the fall of Communism, her order was revived to continue the charitable work she had begun.
The statue illustrated is of her as one of the Martyrs of the 20th Century erected in Westminster Abbey.
Elizabeth grew up speaking English: she was the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria and the great-aunt of Prince Philip, the husband of Elizabeth II.

Bastille Day

The French Revolution had begun. The king Louis XVI had summoned the nation’s political classes to meet at Versailles in the form of the antique Estates-General (which had not met since 1610). There, the Third Estate, representing all Frenchmen not in either the clergy or the nobility, had declared itself the true national assembly and compelled the other two estates to join them. The possibility of true reform had Paris in a frenzy of excitement but the king’s dismissal of the Finance Minister Jacques Necker was seen as a conservative counter-coup. Rumours of the use of mercenary troops to crush the new Assembly were rife. Camille Desmoulins, a young radical lawyer, pistol in hand, declared to a crowd: “Citizens, there is no time to lose; the dismissal of Necker is the knell of a Saint Bartholomew for patriots! This very night all the Swiss and German battalions will leave the  Champs de Mars to massacre us all; one resource is left; to take arms!” 

(Desmoulins, the false-news firebrand, rose high in the councils of the insurgents but eventually fell foul of the inevitable social law which states “Revolutions eat their own children.” He was sent to the guillotine by those even more ruthless than he.)

On July 13, various Parisian mobs broke into royal armouries and seized weapons; local militias now had muskets and cannons at their disposal. The next day the target was the Bastille, the medieval prison which dominated central Paris. The fortress had a grim reputation; it often housed those enemies of the crown who had been whisked away behind its walls never to be seen again. On July 14, however, its inmates only numbered seven: 4 forgers, two lunatics and the Comte de Lorges, an aristocrat accused of incest, but who may have been sent there by relatives as part of a property dispute. The expenses of the latter three were all paid by their families. The real target of the rebels was probably the gunpowder housed in the fortress.

The siege of the Bastille lasted all afternoon. The defending troops resisted the attackers, killing 98 of them for the loss of one of their own, but having no supplies to endure a long conflict, the governor, the Marquis de Launay, surrendered at 5:30 pm. He and five of his men were lynched by the mob and their heads paraded about on pikes by capering rebels. The seven released inmates were also paraded about for a time and made much of, until it was realized just what kind of men they were. The forgers were soon returned to prison, the madmen were found asylums, and the aristocrat alone was allowed to go free.

Quite why the French should treat this bizarre incident as the occasion for annual national rejoicing remains a mystery.