Category Archives: WWI

The significance of First World War Memorials in Britain

A guest post by Sol Solntze

First World War Memorial, Holborn, London

First World War Memorial, Holborn, London

In the UK, World War I memorials are all around us. They are so all around us, in fact, that it is easy to overlook them. I think that Micheal Gove certainly has, with his comments about how the emphasis on the tragedy of the First World War is a left wing conspiracy imposed on the narrative of the conflict by agenda driven historians long after the fact. On the centenary of the beginning of the World War I, perhaps it is time to think about what they can tell us about the attitudes the people who lived through the war and its aftermath had towards it.

Firstly, it is interesting to note that the Cenotaph wasn’t originally built to last. It was a temporary structure provided for the victory march to have something to salute at, the nod to those who didn’t come back intended to be just one part of the end of war celebrations. In actuality, however, it seems for the members of the public who attended the event, this acknowledgement of the glorious dead rather than of the glorious victory, of the anonymous unfortunate collective rather than the heroism of one or two great men was the highlight of the proceedings, and what kept them coming back to visit in large numbers after the parade was over. The temporary monument became permanent because of the reaction of people at the time to it.

The Cenotaph, London. <br/> By Adrian Pingstone (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Cenotaph, London.
By Adrian Pingstone (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It might be easy to pass this off as the natural result of the decision not to repatriate the bodies of those who fell abroad, which left the people at home needing something other than individual grave sites to focus their grief. But that’s the point. There were, the country clearly felt, so many people that needed to be mourned. This was considered to be the aspect of the war that needed to be remembered.

The subsequent explosion of memorial building all over the country was a grass roots movement conceived of, organised by and funded by the communities in which they were placed rather than by any central authority. There are the memorials which were linked to a civic administrative area, such as an urban borough or a village. There are memorials which remember those who belonged to a particular religious community. There are memorials which are dedicated to those who were attached to a particular school, workplace, or social activity. And there are memorials for those who fought in particular regiments or in particular battles.

There also seems, right from the beginning, to have been a deliberate avoidance of militaristic images. Again and again, figures of soldiers are depicted as standing at ease or in positions of mourning rather than marching or attacking with military purpose. An upturned gun was a particularly popular motif. The country was in no mood to glorify this war.

War Memorial, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire. <br/> © Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse

War Memorial, Down Ampney, Gloucestershire.
© Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse

But it is true that neither were they prepared to condemn it utterly. The dead themselves were very rarely portrayed directly, especially not in attitudes which bore any relation to death on the battlefield. In fact, the idealised forms of the figures of soldiers, along with an avoidance of the depiction of the realities of the fighting convey no sense of the horror of war. In addition, Christian symbolism, where it existed, showed the typical First World War soldier as a martyr, someone prepared to sacrifice himself for a just cause. Indeed, a new type of cross became widespread in expressing this idea, the Cross of Sacrifice – a cross with an upturned sword pointing downwards on its face, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield for the Imperial War Graves Commission.

This kind of thinking, and the idea, often expressed in unveiling speeches, that the sacrifices should not have been made in vain, meant that many of the memorials took a utilitarian form. They were intended to benefit the community in some way through the provision of charity to a section of community members (often war widows or children), or by providing or improving a local service or facility (projects ranged from a new ‘memorial’ hospital to a ‘memorial’ village hall to a ‘memorial’ park).

The "Sentry" War Memorial by Charles Sargeant Jagger, in Watts Warehouse, Manchester. Now the Britannia Hotel.  Cnbrb at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

The “Sentry” War Memorial by Charles Sargeant Jagger, in Watts Warehouse, Manchester. Now the Britannia Hotel.
Cnbrb at the English language Wikipedia from Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the reality of the post-war depression for many people was clearly not one of experiencing ‘the land fit for heroes’ the dead had supposedly sacrificed themselves to create. In fact, the image and rhetoric surrounding the war memorials and commemoration ceremonies provided an impetus for increasing numbers of people to take a critical view of the war, war memorials, and the impact it had had. Memorials were often the focal point for protests.

Yet many aspects of the memorials actively militated against a critical perspective. There is certainly a nationalistic emphasis to them. This war (and this sacrifice) had been about fighting for ‘the King, Empire and God’. For example, the Celtic cross was a particularly popular type of cross to erect, whereas crucifixes were often seen as the preserve of foreign, Roman Catholic, influences and avoided. Images of St George, or from the Arthurian legend of the Grail quest, were also widely used.

Nowhere, however, is the traditional bent more evident than the way the two minutes silence was fiercely kept, even at the height of the dissatisfaction of the 1930s. Enforcement was organised both by those in positions of authority, such as the policemen who ensured that traffic stopped at the appropriate time, and by ordinary participants themselves. There are examples of dissenters being harassed, and even beaten for refusing to conform.

War Memorial, S & J Watts, Manchester, now the Britannia Hotel

War Memorial, S & J Watts, Manchester, now the Britannia Hotel

To be honest, it is hard not to draw the conclusion that the way in which the Armistice Day commemorations took on an increasingly reverential tone is because to allow people to diss the Armistice Day ceremonials would be to admit that the deaths of loved ones had been futile. And the mere fact that war memorials were so widespread, so energetically pursued and the form which they should take often so fought over has a flavour of a nation protesting this point a little too strongly for it not to have been a subconscious niggle at the very least.
But whether you accept this or not, you cannot ignore the point that the deaths of those who took part in World War I were what contemporaries were most interested in remembering about it. That is what the British First World War memorials tell us.

Sol Solntze is a former history graduate who has a tendency to lecture her children on such fascinating topics as the history of agriculture given any provocation whatsoever. She blogs at

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Posted by on 28 June, '14 in About, WWI


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More photo restoration work

I am fascinated by the process and the results of the photo restoration work done by Sandara at Naked Eye in South Queensferry.

The photo below seemed worth working on because it is exactly 100 years old, dating from just before war broke out. It shows Fred Lumb (standing, a fellow officer in the Garhwal Rifles) with Ted (seated) in Lansdowne, the hill station in the Himalayas where the Garhwal Rifles were and still are based. The women are Alix Mankelow (the sister of another officer in the regiment) and probably Ted’s sister Ben, though it is hard to tell which of them is which.  I very much like the checked skirt with the tabbed buttons.

Fred Lumb, Ted, Alix Mankelow and Ben

Fred Lumb, Ted, Alix Mankelow and Ben

Capt Lumb, Ted, Ben? and Alix

Fred Lumb, Ted, Alix Mankelow and Ben

The photograph below is the only one of the whole family taken during the First World War. So again it seemed worth having some work done to restore it. Unfortunately it’s a poor photograph in the first place and then my copy is damaged and very washed out.

Whole Family 1915  - Original

Whole Family 1915 – Original

In the first attempt at restoration, Jim (second left at the back) looks like a ghost, an eerily unpleasant effect in the circumstances.

Whole Family 1915 - First Restoration

Whole Family 1915 – First Restoration

The second version is much better, especially once it’s been cropped to correct the composition. But now we can see just how bad the original photograph was: Topher is moving his arm (is he saluting the camera?) most of the family are over-exposed and out of focus, and half the girls seem to have their eyes shut.

However, as I said, it is the only photograph I have of the whole family during the war, and I am grateful to Sandra and to the unknown photographer. Now I need to work out which of the girls is which.

Whole Family 1915 - Final

Whole Family 1915 – Final

Back row, left to right: Ted, Jim, Paul, (Chris)Topher
Middle row, left to right: (Ethel)Dreda?, Richard, Gertrude (their mother), Jane?
Front row, left to right: Rosamund?, Ruth, Ben?

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Posted by on 14 April, '14 in About, WWI



The brothers’ voices come out very strongly from the letters.

This is the end of a letter from Ted of May 1917, the transcript of which runs to two full pages of A4 covering everything at home and in the field, including his imminent return to the fight, with humour and compassion and spirit of adventure.

There seems to be a lot of fighting going on in France nowadays, & especially in the air. Germany is evidently very anxious about the Western Front, & seems to be doing her utmost to keep us from breaking through. The slaughter must be appalling, but we simply must kill them off & so end the war quicker.

I see Prince Albert [later King George VI] has been appointed to the Malaya, [the ship that Paul was serving on] so she’s evidently a star turn in the fleet.

Much love to all
Yr loving son

The following letter is from Richard, just behind the front in France.

Dear Mother

Many thanks for the parcel porridge cake etc. Most welcome. Put some lux in next time. I am longing to use the Emergency rations. The tent has arrived & is lovely, keeps the rain out too, Topher & I put it up. The watch too has come, Thanks so much for all. I want a pair of Jaeger putties, would you send me some please. Thin sort if possible, don’t know if they make two weights.

I saw Nell’s brother the other day. [Nell was engaged to Ted] Fancy meeting him just on the road.

Oh I know what I want, a pair of grey riding breeches in the big black tin box in the lumber room. They are in with that red coat & things I did’nt take to India. They are the same stuff as that suit of mine.

I am sending you £5 to pay postage etc for all these things. I see the cake & porridge always cost ¼ to send.

Send us some penny packets of seeds, mustard & cress, radishes, carrots sweet peas & taters, lettuce, vegetable marrow eh? Scarlet runners.

Best love to all
Yr loving son

Send me John Bull every week will you?

In the original letter, Jaeger is underlined three times (only the best for Dashing Dick). This is typical of Richard; in other letters he asks his mother for arm-bands for his stretcher bearers, for clothes, for food, and – as he mentions here – a tent. When Ted was in France he too asked his mother to send him things, ranging from lanterns to home made cake, but Richard’s sense of entitlement is extraordinary because it isn’t cushioned by Ted’s thoughtful discussion of family news and current events.

In fairness, as a doctor serving on the Western Front, Richard was dealing with the worst horrors of the appalling slaughter Ted describes, horrors he would not have wanted to share with his mother. And if he was focused on the job in hand, then I can see why he would ask her for things that would help him do it. But even in India before the war began, his letters to her are opaque and reveal little of what he thinks. Maybe he felt suffocated by her adoration (he was the eldest and her favourite). Maybe he was just used to it and had no idea how spoiled he was.

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Posted by on 10 April, '14 in About, WWI



At the Imperial War Museum

We spent a couple of days last week at the Imperial War museum. I hadn’t realised that the archives and reading rooms are still open by appointment during the refurbishments. But we were able to visit the letters.

Although the letters are archived as two collections, they are in fact stored in five boxes.  Even seeing the five boxes was moving.

The Berryman Letters at the IWM

The Berryman Letters at the IWM

The room was small and at times very full. My sister and niece were there and Chris was there too checking some specific transcriptions.

There were some particular highlights for me. Being able to get reasonable photographs of some of my grandfather’s illustrations, such as this one of the cramped conditions in the trenches, for example:

Ted in the trenches - France 1914

Ted in the trenches – France 1914

I hadn’t seen the letters since the early 1980s when my mother was working on them for the book Socks, Cigarettes and Shipwrecks and I didn’t pay much attention then.

One thing I noticed this time was the palimpsest nature of the record – the photograph below shows a letter from Ted, the note that his mother Gertrude wrote on the envelope, the note that my mother wrote on another envelope and the folder the IWM stores them all in. And now I am publishing the letters online adding another layer to the record.

Ted, Gertrude and Felicite

Ted, Gertrude and Felicite

We found so many things that I am still absorbing it all. I am angered by the cruelty of the telegram that came on two sheets of paper the first one of which read:

Regret to inform you that your son Captain E.R.P Berryman 39 Garhwal Rifles officially reported admitted to no 3 London General Hospital Wandsworth common 10th May suffering from

Telegram - page 1

Telegram – page 1

But I was charmed by many of the letterheads such as this YMCA one saying “for God, for King, for Country”

Y M C A - for God, For King, For Country

Y M C A – for God, For King, For Country

I am endlessly grateful to the anonymous transcribers in the 1980s who typed the letters. without them, and without Chris, this project would be impossible.

It was too much to absorb at once, and in fact too much to photograph. (We found photographs, maps and postcards, cartoons, letterheads, news clippings: far too much for the time we had there). So I need to go back. This is frustrating because I live at the other end of the country. But at least I have a better idea what is there and what I want from the collection for the website.

The Imperial War Museum posted a request for haiku this weekend, and this was my response:

Grandfather’s letters
from trenches, ships and deserts
safe for the future

IWM Haiku

IWM Haiku


Posted by on 31 March, '14 in About, Imperial War Museum, WWI


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Ted and Topher at school

Ted as a schoolboy

Ted Berryman as a schoolboy

Ted and Topher went to Kings Canterbury, though they weren’t there at the same time because Topher was ten years younger than Ted.

I contacted all the boys’ schools a couple of months ago, and Peter Henderson who acts as the archivist at Kings sent me records about Ted and Topher from the school magazine and letters that they wrote to the school about their wartime service.

I particularly like the report from when Ted was in the school’s rugby First Fifteen in 1901 (see scan below).

Ted was

“A light forward, but works well, and is the best dribbler in the team, though rather slow.”

Do look out for his team-mates: Deane was a

“Good vigorous forward of a fighting tendency, who always did his share of honest shoving”

and Huyshe was a boy who

“rejoices in a muddy day”.

This is charming until one thinks of Passchendaele.  That thought made me wonder what happened to Huyshe, and it turns out he survived the war and was a cricketer and schoolmaster.

Report on Ted’s season in the school rugby 1st XV (1901)

Ted Berryman’s Rugby Report

The letter that Ted wrote to the school during the war was full news of other old boys and I’ll put it on the site when its centenary comes around, though I’ll quote a bit now.  An O.K.S, was an Old Kings Scholar.

Two days ago there occurred what must be one of the shortest O.K.S meetings on record. We were marching down the road when we met a battalion marching the other way. Who should accost me suddenly from the ranks but Captain G. C. Strahan and as Macear was marching with my company, we had a meeting — the three of us — lasting exactly 15 seconds, just while our respective companies were passing each other, and the of course we had to break up our meeting and rejoin our commands.

He ends the letter touchingly saying

Best of luck to your all and when there are re-unions and O.K.S meetings “after the war” — that vague and problematical period — may I be there to see.

When Topher wrote, he was tireder; his war-time experiences were more unrelenting than Ted’s and it shows:

On the whole we have not had such bad luck, but we certainly have had rotten times. I shall be very glad when the war is over. To me it seems that it will never end. Where we are now the trenches are in the same place as they were at the beginning of the war.

I am very grateful to Peter for sending me these things from the school’s archives, it’s lovely to have a glimpse of the two of them at school.

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Posted by on 10 March, '14 in About, WWI


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Listen to Ted’s Christmas Truce letter home

I’m feeling all choked up today. @HistoryNeedsYou contacted me recently with an offer to read one of the letters out loud.

The obvious one to choose was Ted’s letter about the Christmas Truce (written just after a stretch of 25 days and nights in the trenches, contradicting the “mythbusting” piece by @TheHistoryGuy that they were only in the trenches 3 days at a time).

Do listen to it – it’s all there: the strain and exhaustion of the trenches, the mud, the Christmas Truce, and the excitement of the prospect of going home for a week’s leave.

And if you need history brought to life, you need History Needs You.  They are good peeps.

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Posted by on 23 January, '14 in About, WWI


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Response to @thehistoryguy – Mythbusting WW1 with Primary Sources

The BBC published a hugely popular post recently by Dan Snow @thehistoryguy entitled “10 big myths about World War One debunked“.  Dan Snow then went on to create a few more of his own some of which seem to imply it wasn’t as bad as we think it was.

Myth 3 he says is that “Men lived in the trenches for years on end”

…  the British army rotated men in and out continuously. Between battles, a unit spent perhaps 10 days a month in the trench system, and of those, rarely more than three days right up on the front line. It was not unusual to be out of the line for a month.

During moments of crisis, such as big offensives, the British could occasionally spend up to seven days on the front line but were far more often rotated out after just a day or two.

I am curious to know what Dan Snow bases this on – the newspapers of the time or on letters, army records and other primary sources?

I am fortunate to have my grandfather’s letters from France in 1914 and 1915 and he wrote home during stints of 20 and 25 days at a stretch in the trenches, with the time between spent “in reserve”.  Ted Berryman was a Captain in the Indian Army and they were in their light tropical kit for the worst part of the winter of 1914, drenched to the skin and shivering in the mud and bombarded with shells.

Ted first went into the trenches on the 29th October 1914.  10 days later he says:

It is most awfully cold here my dear as you can imagine. And we are still in thin khaki drill;  … I don’t really think I’ve got enough on, but I cant get any more gear at present.

You see we came out to occupy the trenches on 29th Oct, & are still here; that makes 10 days. Not very long under some circs, but devilish long to be in cold damp trenches with only the kit you stand up in! … You see we have’nt a a thing off for the whole tirne, boots, clothes or anything, nor a wash nor anything like that. We are all filthy, black grimy hands & faces, but we are all the same so it does’nt matter.

He then writes about the sorts of newspaper stories that Dan Snow echoes in his piece:

I read a glowing account in the “Standard” a day or two ago of life in the trenches, but it was very misleading. First of all it talked about “spade hewn, straw-spread” trenches; true in a way, but all our digging has to be done at night, as it would be impossible to dig by day, as the enemy’s…. little advanced trenches, in which snipers sit & pick you off if you show a finger, are only about 150 yards; so the digging is’nt very grand, though I must say our men have done wonders, & have made the trenches quite comfy- And there is some straw, but it’s mostly trodden into the mud.

Again he says we do 3 days in the front trench, 3 days in the support, & 4 days rest. Divil a bit, this is our 10th day in the front trench, & no hope of relief yet awhile. Still it’s all part of the day’s work I suppose.

Ted and his troops finally came out of the trenches on the 17th November after 20 days. They were only out of the trenches for about 10 days and then on the 16th December his uniform turns up but he can’t get at it because the depot is too far from the front.

Ted’s second stint in December was even longer and more relentless as his first in October / November.

Since we first arrived here on 29th October we’ve had 35 days in trenches & only about 10 out, out of which were 5 in reserve and so we have only had 5 days’ so called rest, & were busy the whole of that. However it’s all part of the show.

On the 31st December he says:

We came out of those old trenches on the night of the 27th  [December], after doing 25 days & nights there, pretty long time was’nt it. We were glad to be relieved as you may imagine, the men were all absolutely doggo, as they had to work day & night to keep the trenches for from falling in, because the weather was so wet & beastly that the earthy all got sodden & soaked & had to be simply propped up, & our trenches were simply lined with boards & old doors & anything we could get hold of.

So when I read Dan Snow echoing the Standard’s assurances that troops were only in the trenches three days at a time I was furious on behalf of all those cold, wretched, verminous, sick, shot at and shell-shocked men who were in the mud in the dark for weeks on end.

Maybe things were generally better organised by 1915.  In January and February the three-part cycle of serving in the trenches themselves, in reserve and then in the rear is much more as Dan Snow described it.

Ted was on leave early in January. Late in January they were in the trenches for four days, in reserve for six, and then in February they seem to have settled into week long cycles into the trenches then back into reserve, itself no picnic.

 On the 27th February Ted tots it up saying:

We are being relieved tomorrow & go back for a short rest. We’ve done 6 weeks in reserve & trenches & have been hard at it more or less ever since I came out from leave, so I think we deserve a bit of a rest don’t you. But I don’t fancy it will be for long.

So Dan Snow is partly right and partly wrong.  I am leaving the last word with Ted though and the picture he drew  for his sister Jane on the 1st of January 1915:

We are out of the trenches now after 25 days on end, & the whole corps is now resting… I’ve got my uniform now & have had a bath – in an old dustbin – but still it was a bath, & I feel so clean & smart, you would’nt know me. Of course I grew a beard in the trenches, & did’nt shave for just a month, but it was’nt exactly a success, & it looked exactly as if I was’nt shaving & not as if I was trying to grow a beard!

Going into the trenches.... coming out

These extracts are from more than 600 letters written by Ted and his brothers to their mother during WW1. Each letter will be published here at 100 years after the day on which it was written.

Like Family Letters on Facebook page and follow @familyletters on Twitter for updates.


Posted by on 20 January, '14 in About, WWI


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Look and feel

I spent a while looking for an appropriate look and feel for the site. It’s a WordPress site, and I am not proud, so I’m happy to use out of the box wordpress themes. I settled on Runu, which I like because it looks like a notepad and the font is era-appropriate being times-new-romanish.  You are probably reading this post in this theme right now, but in case you aren’t, this is what it looks like – click on the image below for a larger version.

Runo Theme

But recently I saw another theme which I also like and which also looks a little like letters, but letters written in leather note cases.

Choco for Post

I think I prefer the second one, but I’d like some other thoughts from other people. What do you think?


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Posted by on 3 January, '14 in About, WWI


Facing up to Facebook

I’ve started down the Facebook Rabbit Hole this week, and have purchased $30 of advertising to people in the UK interested in History, WW1, the Indian Army and the Christmas Truce and also to the friends and family of people who’ve liked the page.  Hopefully it won’t be too intrusive, but just intrusive enough.

This is the first time I’ve bought advertising on Facebook, despite being actively involved in social and campaigning groups using Facebook for a while.  It’s not the first time I’ve tried to buy advertising, but it’s the first time I’ve sat down and worked the grim process through to the bitter end. Blimey, but it’s complex.  All part of their cunning plan, I suspect.

On the subject of Facebook, old school ties and old boys’ networks, I also need to get in touch with other groups that might be interested, the schools they were at, since the Public Schools were such a major part of WW1 (Jim was even in the Public Schools Battalion for a while).  Also, the relevant regimental and naval organisations.  As an individual, I can’t hook up with the Imperial War Museum, which is annoying, I would like to benefit from their click-love.

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Posted by on 2 January, '14 in About, Imperial War Museum, WWI


About this Project: Remind me again why I thought it was a good idea

I’m feeling daunted by the scale of the task. I’m also enjoying finding out who my grandfather and his siblings were, by reading their letters, and I am planning trips to raid the family photo albums.

I think I mentioned that there are 1000 pages of typescript; that’s two reams of paper.  I’ve managed to “teach” the OCR software better character recognition, but it still confuses hs and bs so every letter must be corrected by hand. And I rather foolishly decided to tag each letter with the names of people and places mentioned in it; this is already very fiddly.

I think it takes about 20 minutes to do each letter on average. I don’t know how many there are altogether, but I estimate 700. I’ve listed the 1914 letters on a spreadsheet (a task and a half in itself) and from July to December 1914 there are 82 of them. If my estimate’s right, and there are 700 or so, then just posting them is about 233 hours’ work.  On the other hand, if I can manage three letters every day, I can get them all loaded this year and ready to go.  I hope.

I've made a spreadsheet

I’ve made a spreadsheet

I am enjoying it though; you can hear each of their voices coming through the letter. Ted’s letters show how much he misses the rest of the family, Richard’s are full of replies to letters from their mother (she pickled 400 walnuts in the summer of 1914, he mentions them in at least three of his letters to her), and Benedicta’s are one long stream of gossippy consciousness. They all mention a visit their mother made to her family home in the late summer, and interestingly they all mention how she is likely to leave the property in her will.

It’s good to see the letters building up in the admin pages of the website:

Post List Screenshot

Here’s some I posted earlier

I am going to get in touch with my sister and the remaining relatives of my mother’s generation, and ask if I can raid their boxes and photograph albums. It would be good to get more pictures up on the site. The trip should be fun, and I’ll enjoy working on the project but not sitting at a laptop.

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Posted by on 31 December, '12 in About, WWI