Dad’s Army: The Home Guard

Who do you think you are kidding, Mr. Hitler?
If you think we’re on the run?
We are the boys who will stop your little game,
We are the boys who will make you think again!

‘Cause who do you think you are kidding Mr. Hitler?
If you think old England’s done?

Mr. Brown goes off to town on the 8:21,
But he comes home each evenin’ and he’s ready with his gun!

So watch out Mr Hitler, you have met your match in us,
If you think you can crush us,
We’re afraid you’ve missed the bus

‘Cause who do you think you are kidding Mr. Hitler?
If you think we’re on the run,
We are the boys who will stop your little game,
We are the boys who will make you think again,

‘Cause who do you think are kidding Mr. Hitler?
If you think old England’s done!

Behold the original 1940s theme-song of the British Home Guard!

Okay, no, not really.

Who Do You Think You are Kidding Mr. Hitler‘ was the theme-song to the popular 1970s TV show “Dad’s Army”, that chronicled the activities of a fictional Home Guard unit during the Second World War. The song was actually written in 1968 and sung by famous music-hall veteran Bud Flanagan. Flanagan came out of retirement to record the theme-song as a special favour to the show’s creators, who were avid fans. They wanted the show’s theme-song to be sung by a real wartime singer (which Flanagan was), and they got lucky when he agreed. Really lucky! Flanagan died less than a year later!

“Dad’s Army” was one of the great television comedies of the 70s. But it’s scary to think that fiction mirrored reality in so many ways! A lot of the jokes in the show (weapons-shortages, no uniforms, poor training, old codgers thinking they could fight off the Luftwaffe) were actually real problems faced by the real Home Guard back in the 1940s! This is the true story of Britain’s citizen army – The Home Guard.

Local Defence Volunteers

With the fall of France, the British were terrified that the Germans might turn their sights on England and attempt to invade them sometime in 1940 or 1941. Fearing that they might not have enough fulltime soldiers to defend the British Isles, on the 14th of May, 1940, the British Government established the Local Defence Volunteers, a ‘citizen army’ who could fight off the Germans and secure the Isles until soldiers from other parts of the Empire could arrive to provide backup.

The L.D.V was expected to be made up of about 150,000 carefully-chosen men who would be Britain’s first line of defence against a German invasion. Within 24 hours of the original radio broadcast made by Anthony Eden, 250,000 men had signed up! To give you an idea of how many that is, the entire British Army was 250,000 men before the war started! By 1943, the Local Defence Volunteers numbered nearly two million (1.8 mil, precisely), and never fell below 1,000,000 for the rest of the war.

Dad’s Army – The Home Guard

The L.D.V. was renamed the “Home Guard” by order of Winston Churchill in August of 1940. It sounded better and was easier to write down. This proud fighting force of patriotic British men would stave off impending doom from a Nazi invasion of their treasured homeland!…or not. We’ll never know, because Britain was never invaded, but the British Government and Army were determined to be ready for any eventuality.

Signing up for Duty

The Home Guard officially recruited men and boys ranging from 17-65 years in age. Recruits were men who were too young to fight in the regular army, too old to fight in the regular army, who were excused from regular combat due to medical issues or who were excused from enlistment due to being in a ‘reserved occupation’ (having a job that was essential to the war-effort…like baking bread…and no, I’m not kidding. Bakers were exempt from joining the army).

In the flurry of activity to join the newly formed Home Guard, the rules were only loosely followed. Children as young as fifteen and sixteen joined the Home Guard and grown men as old as seventy joined up! The oldest guardsman was Alexander Taylor. He first bore arms for king and country back during the Mahdist War of 1881! When he signed up for the Home Guard, he was well over eighty years old!

Approximately 40% of the Home Guard were made up of former soldiers, most of them veterans of the Great War of 1914 (ahem, the First World War to you and me).

Because the majority of the guardsmen were of advanced age, the Home Guard was given the popular nickname: “Dad’s Army”.

Training the Guard

Training for the Home Guard was rudimentary. Because such a sizeable number of the men (as well as their commanding officers), were all veterans of former wars (the Great War, the Boer War, the Second Afghan War of the 1880s and so-on), they felt that they didn’t need any training. They were soldiers already! Or they were…once upon a time…and they were ready to do it again!

As noble and patriotic and romantic and well-meaning as all these sentiments were, they all overlooked the fact that many of these men fought back in the days of cannons, horse-cavalry charges, bayonets and single-shot rifles! Their training didn’t prepare them for a modern, 20th century war! So like it or not, they all had to be trained from the ground up…all over again. Some officers were allowed to keep the ranks that they’d earned during previous conflicts, however.

Arming the Guards! (The Bullet is not for firing!)

It’s just as well for the people of Britain that their homeland was never invaded. The Home Guard had nothing to fight with!

See, during the war, all the best weapons were required by the regular army. They got all the up-to-date machine-guns, mortars, knives, daggers, small-arms and rifles. The Home Guard had to make-do with whatever crap they could find that was left over! The wartime mantra of “Make do and Mend” was never more true!

The Home Guard was woefully under-equipped. They didn’t even have proper uniforms until halfway through the war! Just armbands that they wore on their sleeves. And weapons…oh boy.

To give you an idea of how ill-equipped the guardsmen were, they used to do rifle-drills with almost anything BUT a rifle. They used billiard-cues, broomsticks, walking-sticks, crutches, umbrellas, cricket-bats, pitchforks, hoes…anything!

What firearms they could find were usually what they brought from home. Their revolvers, their heirloom duelling-pistols, Uncle Jack’s hunting-rifle, double-barreled sawn-off shotguns, break-open long-barrel shotguns, handguns…they didn’t have a single rifle between them!

The shortage of arms for the Home Guard was so severe that they even broke into museums to find them! Cannons, muskets, blunderbusses, musketoons…even old cavalry swords! Everything was requisitioned by the Home Guard for the defence of the realm. And I don’t mean that they knocked on a museum door, spoke the curator, got him to sign a piece of paper and then helped themselves to the guns…I mean they literally broke in! Smashing glass display-cases and making off with the guns!

Winston Churchill recognised this shortage of firearms and he wrote a letter to the War Office in June of 1941 which read:

Every man must have a weapon of some kind, be it only a mace or a pike!

You can guess what happened next.

What Churchill REALLY meant was that the Home Guard should be equipped with whatever weapons were available and that every effort should be made to give them the best firearms that the British Army could spare!

Unfortunately for Churchill, the War Office took his message a little too literally. In 1942, they finally finished producing 250,000 pikes.



Long, pointy sticks that go stabby-poke.

Exactly what Churchill said when the War Office told him that his order of pikes was ready for dispersement, isn’t recorded. But it was probably an impressive array of profanities.

Needless to say, the ludicrous pikes were never used. Most of them were never even unpacked and removed from storage! The guardsmen refused to use them, anyway.

Eventually, the Home Guard did get proper rifles. They were the old Lee-Enfield rifles used during the Great War. This was probably beneficial to a certain extent. Nearly half the guardsmen were Great War veterans and would’ve been familiar with the rifles. The only problem was, these rifles were now over twenty years old!

Americans and Canadians tried to help out their British friends. They collected and donated all their old rifles that they didn’t use anymore, and sent them to England. So at least the Home Guard had proper rifles now…even if they were outdated vintage ones!

While they might have had rifles (and might have also had ammunition), the guardsmen didn’t have much else. They had to improvise most of their weapons, such as grenades. They learned how to make rudimentary firebomb-grenades out of old bottles, flammable liquids and old rags. These homemade grenades were copied from the originals invented by the Finnish in 1939. They were called “Molotov Cocktails”, and were named for Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister.

Grenades weren’t the only things that the guardsmen had to make for themselves. They even produced their own mortars! A particular model (called the Northover Projector) was essentially a rudimentary grenade-launcher/mortar that fired grenades into the air. Blackpowder (not used since the American Civil War of the 1860s!) was poured down the barrel, then a grenade was forced down the barrel after it.

The powder was ignited using a toy precussion-cap (those little things that you stick in children’s play-guns that go ‘Bang!’) and was operated by a two-man crew. The Northover Projector was cheap, easy to use…but hardly effective. Half the time it could misfire, or even worse, explode in the breech, blowing the thing apart and injuring the crew.

Although the Northover Projector was manufactured commercially, many people made their own, homemade versions. It was often called the “Drainpipe Mortar” because of its long, slim shape.

The Duties of the Guard

Because Britain was never invaded, it’s widely believed that the Home Guard didn’t do anything. This wasn’t exactly true.

The Guard was employed in various activities throughout the war. They patrolled harbours and ports, they guarded ammo-dumps and important military installations and storage facilities, and they manned anti-aircraft cannons during the Blitz. Over a thousand guardsmen died in combat during the war.

The guardsmen also arrested and rounded up downed German pilots, they helped the wounded, cleared rubble from air-raids and rescued the trapped who were stuck in their collapsed houses. In 1941, the Guard was even allowed to guard Buckingham Palace! Churchill proudly declared that if London was invaded, the Home Guard would fight a bloody war with the Germans for every single city block.

The End of the Home Guard

The Home Guard was stood down in late 1944, when it was pretty certain that the Germans wouldn’t be doing any fighting against the British on their home soil anytime soon. It was formally disbanded on the 31st of December, 1945.

Dad’s Army

70th Anniversary of the Home Guard


Quotes of Conflict – The Backgrounds of Famous Wartime Quotes

How many wars can you name? Two? Four? Eight? A dozen? How many battles could you name? Twelve? Twenty-four? Fifty?

The history of mankind is full of conflict. Conflict marked by dozens of wars and hundreds of battles. So many battles and wars, in fact, that many of these great plays of armour, and the acts that made them up, have passed into history and out of memory, and common knowledge. Most people only know of the Big Three: World War One. World War Two. Vietnam.

However, a select few of these hundreds of battles have survived in the public consciousness to this day; remembered not because they were famous and not because they were big. Not even, perhaps, because they were even won…or lost; but rather because someone said something that has remained with us ever since. This article looks at some of the most famous battle-quotes in history, and the battles and wars that made them famous.

Let us begin with one of the most famous…

“Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Who said It? Admiral David Farragut.
When was it Said? August, 1864.
Where was it Said? Battle of Mobile Bay, Mobile, Alabama, C.S.A.
Conflict? American Civil War (1861-1865).

This is one of the most famous quotes in history, often paraphrased and used as a show of defiance, pluck and determination. But what happened?

It is August, 1864. The South is on the losing end of the American Civil War. The Union Navy and Army are charged with taking the Confederate port of Mobile Bay, near Mobile, Alabama. In an attempt to starve the South into submission, the Union forces are ordered to attack, occupy and render defenceless, all of the South’s seaports and harbours, to prevent shipments of supplies and reinforcements. Mobile Bay is the last of these ports still held by the Confederacy. It is heavily defended by soldiers, gunners, sea-mines and powerful shore-batteries of cannons facing the mouth of the harbour.

By this later stage in the war, the South was running low on almost everything. Manpower. Food. Metal. Weapons. Clothing. Medicine. Ships. Gunpowder. And luck.

The Northern forces outnumbered the South to such an extent that victory was almost certain even before the battle started. The North had eighteen warships, compared to the four that the South had. And the North had nearly five times more men than the South.

Enter Union Admiral David Farragut. It was his job to force the harbour. With his heavily-armed and heavily-armoured ships, including the newfangled, steam-powered, plate-armoured ‘Monitor’ ships, he had to break through the Southern shore-defences, neutralise the shore-batteries (or get out of their range) and render the Southern ships a negligable force.

On the day of the battle (5th August, 1864), Farragut sent his ships in. Ironclad monitors on the outside to provide protection and to deal with the shore batteries, and the wooden ships inside, to deal with the Confederate naval ships once they’d made it beyond the harbour’s mouth.

Once they’d passed the shore-batteries and were out of their range, one ship, the USS Tecumseh (as in William Tecumseh Sherman, of ‘March to the Sea’ fame) struck a sea-mine. The mine exploded and the ship sank in less than five minutes. At the time, these maritime explosives were called ‘torpedoes’. The power of the explosion and the speed with which the Tecumseh sank caused other Union captains to panic and want to retreat! When Farragut yelled to his junior officers and captains what the holdup was, they replied “Torpedoes!”. On the very cusp of a war-changing victory, Farragut wasn’t about to let a few mines get in his way.

Exactly what Farragut said isn’t recorded. He issued a variety of orders to the captains under his command, all with the same gist: To ignore the torpedoes, speed up and capture the Confederate navy by surprise. Over time, the quotes were all melded together to the now familiar cry: “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”.

“Fire When Ready, Gridley!”

Who Said It? Admiral George Dewey.
When was it Said? 1st of May, 1898.
Where was it Said? Battle of Manila Bay, Manila Bay, The Philippines.
Conflict? Spanish-American War (April-August, 1898).

The Spanish-American War of 1898 was a short conflict that had been simmering for months, as America watched Spain and Cuba duke it out, as Cuba fought for independence from its Spanish masters. During this conflict, the American battleship, the USS Maine exploded and was sunk in Havana Harbour, Cuba. Although the likelihood that the Spanish were responsible for this was slim, it was one of the factors that pushed Spain and America to war.

The Battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish posessions in the Philippine islands, was one of the first major American victories in this short-lived war. It was also the first major action between the two countries after war was formally declared.

The point of the battle was to destroy the Spanish Pacific Fleet then at anchor in Manila Bay. When Dewey showed up with his captains and his ships, the situation was so perfect it was almost unbelievable.

The Spanish commanding officer, Admiral Montojo, had been given woefully outdated warships to patrol the Philippines and with which to defend the Bay. He also believed that the Bay had certain natural defences that meant that sailors unfamiliar with the area would not be able to attack it until morning, when there would be enough light to see the hazards lurking in the water. Comforted by this fact, Montojo took his time preparing for the coming of the American fleet.

The American fleet showed up on the 1st of May, 1898, just a few weeks after war had been declared. Unbeknown to Montojo, Admiral Dewey had been supplied with charts that told him how to navigate around the waters off of Manila Bay. And the U.S. Navy had more modern, more powerful warships. Instead of waiting for daybreak, Dewey decided to attack while it was still dark!

By the time Dewey reached the bay, it was about 5:15 in the morning. The Spanish shore-batteries that defended the Bay opened up with ranging-shots (shots fired to test the effective range of the gun, hence the name), and Spanish ships did the same. Dewey suddenly realised that the Spanish firepower was so outdated that they posed almost no threat at all! He ordered his ships to sail into formation and prepare for battle. The job was simple:

The ships would line up, bow-to-stern and sail in a zig-zag pattern, back and forth, turning at the end of each pass, a bit like that boring ‘Snake’ game you have on your old mobile-phone where you eat the seeds to make the snake grow longer. All the while, the American ships would be firing ceaselessly at the Spanish defences. With their faster, more powerful and better-equipped battleships, the Americans could shoot further and faster than the Spanish and were able to hit them well out of the range of the Spanish shore-batteries and cannons.

Once the ships had started in formation and began moving slowly towards the Spanish lines, Dewey told his second-in-command, Capt. Charles Vernon Gridley: “You may fire when ready, Gridley”.

And Gridley did. And the rest is history.

As the American ships drew closer and closer and their long-range guns became even more and more accurate with every passing tack, the Spanish defences were obliterated. The Spanish defences were being blown to pieces and even if they managed to engage the Americans, they knew that they were hopelessly outnumbered.

Gridley appeared to have taken Dewey’s order to ‘fire when ready’ exceedingly to heart. By 7:45am (a little over two hours after the battle started), Gridley had exhausted almost all of their ammunition. Dewey ordered a general retreat (he told his men that this was so that they could eat breakfast!).

The battle ended shortly after midday, when the Spanish ran up a white flag and lowered their colours, admitting total defeat. American losses? Seven wounded and two seriously injured. Number of deaths? One. From a heart-attack!

“Forward the Light Brigade!”

Who Said It? Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
When was it Said? 9th December, 1854.
Where was it Said? Tennyson’s famous poem about the Crimean War.
Conflict? Battle of Balaclava, the Crimea. Crimean War (1853-1856).

The most that the average person knows about the Crimean War is what they learned about in English class, studying poetry as a child, specifically, the poem written in 1854 by Alfred, Lord Tennyson titled ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’. It is one of the most famous and iconic poems in the world. But what was the Charge of the Light Brigade? And what happened to it?

The Crimean War was fought between the Russian Empire on one side, and the French Empire, British Empire, Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia (part of modern Italy, today), on the other. It took place in the Crimean Peninsula, which sticks out off the coast of the Ukraine and is surrounded on three sides by the Black Sea (which is northeast of the Mediteranean Sea).

The Crimean War started when the Russian Empire began threatening the Ottoman Empire over control of the Holy Lands (the Crimea and Turkey being extremely close to the lands of Palestine, Persia and Arabia, the birthplaces of Islam, Christianity and Judaism). When Russia forced itself into Ottoman affairs, the French and British Empires came to the Ottoman defense to drive the Russians out of Ottoman territory. And so began the war.

The famous Charge of the Light Brigade took place during the Battle of Balaclava (25th October, 1854). So what happened?

The British, French and Ottomans were trying to take the city of Sevastopol, an important Russian fortress and naval port. To do this, they laid siege to the city. In an attempt to end or shorten the siege, the Russians attacked the siege-lines the north of the city of Balaclava. During the battle, the Ottomans were overrun and were forced to abandon their frontmost line of defence. They retreated to their second line, which was held by both British and Ottoman soldiers. The combined strength of both forces held the Russians at bay, but left the guns which the Ottomans had previously been manning in the hands of the Russians (the cannons being too heavy for the Ottomans to wheel away during their retreat).

A daring cavalry charge by the British sent the Russians into retreat. As they fell back, they decided to help themselves to the cannons that the Ottomans had abandoned earlier. Commander of the British forces, Lord Raglan, saw the Russians’ plans and sent a message to the commanding officer of the Light Brigade to stop the Russians from stealing the guns! Unfortunately for the other guy, Lord Lucan, Raglan’s orders were so ambiguous that they were impossible to understand! Don’t believe me? Here are the texts of the original orders:

1. “Cavalry to advance and take advantage of any opportunity to recover the Heights. They will be supported by infantry which have been ordered. Advance on two fronts“.

If you read this carefully, you’ll see what the problem is. You’re standing on an enormous battlefield in a huge valley with heights, ridges and hills all around you. There is no indication in the above order as to which direction the Light Brigade was expected to move, how far they were supposed to move and what amount of infantry was supposed to be providing them with backup! There’s no mention of compass directions or which of the ‘heights’ the cavalry is meant to try and capture. Remember that there are hills all around you. Lucan stayed where he was, twiddling his thumbs and waiting for clarification. A few minutes later, the second order from Lord Raglan showed up:

2. “Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns – Troop Horse Artillery may accompany – French cavalry is on your left.”

Again, this order did nothing but confuse Lucan and his officers. The Russian soldiers who were stealing the guns were on the southern heights (called the ‘Causeway Heights’), far removed from Lord Lucan’s line of sight. He simply couldn’t see them from his position in the valley. The only guns he could see were the Russian cannons that were lined up at the far end of the valley, just a few miles to the east, creating a corridor of death on three sides. He assumed that Lord Raglan meant those guns! Charging them with cavalry would be suicide, but Raglan had ordered him to attack the enemy (the Russians) with the guns!…So he did!

“‘…Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!’ he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred…”

The problem was that Lord Raglan, who was issuing these orders, was high on the hilltop. He could see the entire battlefield and he could see the cannons that the Russians had captured to the south, and were trying to make off with. Lord Lucan and his subordinate, Capt. Nolan, stuck in the valley between the heights where Raglan was stationed, and the northern and southern heights on either side, could not. To try and uncomplicate matters, Capt. Nolan went to Lord Raglan himself to ask what the orders were. He was told to attack the enemy with the guns! But then, in warfare, every enemy has guns…woops!

Confused as ever, Nolan headed back into the valley and relayed his lordship’s orders to the officer in charge, Lord Lucan. The following heated exchange took place:

Nolan: “Attack, sir!”
Lucan: “Attack WHAT? What guns, sir!?”
Nolan: “There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!”

Nolan gestured wildly to the east to indicate the guns. What he should have done was pointed to the south where the Russians had captured the British cannons. What he had actually pointed at was the valley which the Russians had surrounded with cannons! Time was running out and Raglan obviously wanted the light cavalry to move quickly, so Lucan decided to act.

He passed the order to his second-in-command, Lord Cardigan. Cardigan and Nolan charged off into the valley, followed by 670 cavalry.

“…Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred…”

The cavalry charge was a complete disaster. Outgunned on three sides, Cardigan and Nolan and all their horsemen were fighting a losing battle. Of roughly 670 men who went in, only about half managed to come out in one piece. Nolan was killed in the advancing charge, his body blown apart by cannonfire.

Cardigan survived the charge and lived to the respectable age of 70. He is remembered today from the fuzzy, knitted garment that bears his name…the cardigan! Another fuzzy, knitted garment came out of the Crimean War as well…the Balaclava, named for the fuzzy, full-face masks that the soldiers wore to keep them warm during the freezing Crimean winters. Every bankrobber in the world should thank the British for this ingenious invention.

“They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist—-“

Who Said It? Major General John Sedgwick.
When was it Said? 9th of May, 1864.
Where was it Said? Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia, C.S.A.
Conflict? American Civil War (1861-1865).

The Battle of Spotsylvania (yes, such a place actually exists) Courthouse was a battle during the American Civil War. Union general, Ulysses S. Grant was trying to fight Confederate general Robert E. Lee in such a way that would give Grant the advantage (Lee having thusfar proved to be too hard a nut to crack).

During the battle, Confederate sharpshooters kept the Union troops hiding behind walls and down in their trenches. Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick couldn’t believe what a bunch of sissies his men were! He told them off for being cowards and hiding from a few stray bullets! He insisted that they stand up and fight and shoot back at the enemy like real men! To prove his point, Sedgwick stood up so that the top of his body was exposed to enemy fire. To try and inspire his men, he told them that “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance!”; ‘they’ being the Confederate soldiers.

Unfortunately for Sedgwick, he wasn’t an elephant. A couple of seconds after he started speaking, he was shot in the face by a sniper’s rife and fell to the ground…stone dead. Depending on the sources you read, Sedgwick didn’t even finish saying the word ‘distance’ before he was killed outright.

“Shoot straight, you bastards!”

Who Said It? Harry ‘Breaker’ Morant.
When was it Said? 27th of February, 1902.
Where was it Said? Pretoria, South African Republic (Transvaal Republic).
Conflict? Second Boer War (1899-1902).

Harry Harbord ‘Breaker’ Morant and his comrades, Peter Handcock and George Witton were three Australian soldiers who were arrested and court-martialed during the Second Boer War. After their commanding officer, Captain Hunt, was killed, the three soldiers killed a number of Boer P.O.Ws and a priest who was witness to these killings, in reprisal for their comrade’s death.

It was for these actions that the three men were court-martialed. For their crimes against the Boer prisoners, all three soldiers were sentenced to death by firing squad. Witton’s sentence was later changed to Imprisonment for Life (and later still, he received a pardon); Morant and Handcock, however, were both condemned to death.

On the morning of their execution, the men were led to the chairs on which they would be seated while they were executed. They sat down and were offered blindfolds. Both men refused. The executing soldiers raised their rifles, ready to fire. It was at this time that Morant said his famous last words:

“Shoot straight, you bastards! Don’t make a mess of it!”

The execution of Morant and Handcock remained controversial for decades. Witton, the one soldier who escaped execution, wrote a book in 1907 about the experience. He titled it “Scapegoats of the Empire”.

The effect of the execution on both Witton and Major James Francis Thomas (the lawyer sent to provide their defence) was significant. Thomas’s life collapsed after the failure of the court-martial and he died a broken man in November of 1942. Witton had died a few months earlier in August.

“Kiss me, Hardy”.

Who Said It? Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.
When was it Said?  21st of October, 1805.
Where was it Said?  Battle of Trafalgar, H.M.S. Victory.
Conflict? The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815).

Horatio Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar is one of the most famous maritime battles in history. But the price of victory was steep. The admiral was struck by a sniper’s bullet while he stood on the quarterdeck of his flagship, the H.M.S. Victory. The bullet hit the admiral in the right shoulder, passing down through his body to lodge at the base of his spine. He was carried below to the ship’s surgeon, Dr. William Beatty.

Beatty, already busy amputating shattered arms and legs and extracting musket-balls and splinters from other injured sailors, took some time to come to Nelson’s aid. When he did, he determined that the admiral’s wound was inoperable. The musketball had lodged in such an inaccessible part of the admiral’s body that it would be impossible to remove it without almost certainly killing or permanently paralysing Nelson. Early 19th century surgery didn’t leave Dr. Beatty many options.

Knowing that he would in all likelihood, die before the end of the battle, Nelson allowed himself to be made comfortable in the corner of the surgeon’s quarters. His officers made constant reports to their ailing commander, feeding him news of the progress of the battle. Nelson was dying from blood-loss and internal bleeding. He watched Beatty working on other men, men that the doctor actually had a chance of saving. As Nelson lay on the floor, he instructed his officers: “Fan fan, rub rub, drink drink” as they fanned him and fed him lemonade and watered-down wine to keep him cool and hydrated. As Nelson became weaker and weaker, he told one of his officers, Sir Thomas Hardy, “Kiss me, Hardy”.

And Hardy did! Twice, in fact.

It’s widely believed that ‘Kiss me, Hardy’ were Nelson’s last words. In fact, his final words, as recorded by the ship’s chaplain, were “God and my country”. Nelson died at 4:30pm on the afternoon of the 21st of October, 1805.


Behind Closed Doors – Upstairs and Downstairs

There’s always a lot of costume dramas and historical TV shows on the air. The new series of “Upstairs, Downstairs”, the immensely popular “Downton Abbey” and of course, older series such as the original “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “Jeeves and Wooster” and “Lord Peter Wimsey”. Add to this movies such as “Gosford Park” and so-forth, and it seems that film and television producers can never get enough of the “good old days” of servants, bells, starched collars and telegrams delivered on silver trays.

The natural habitat of such shows always alternates between the English country manor-house and the terraced London townhouse, both locales with plenty of space to accomodate the goings-on both above and below stairs. But given that a lot of these shows take place in a time-period almost out of living memory, what were all the rooms that were central to this way of life? Of masters and servants? What were their functions? And why did you have so many rooms?

Here are some of the more well-known rooms that you might come across when watching a period costume drama set in a large house or an aflluent townhouse in the Victorian era or in the first half of the 20th Century. This posting will cover some of the more obscure rooms that you might find mentioned in movies, TV shows or old books. They’re are not presented in any specific order, so don’t try to find any! The more common (and obvious) rooms aren’t included.

The Drawing Room

No costume drama would be without its drawing room. It’s unthinkable! But what is a drawing room?

Despite the name, it is not a chamber meant for painting, writing, drawing or any other kind of artistic pursuit.

The drawing room comes from the word ‘Withdrawing’. In large, formal households, the drawing room is where people would withdraw to, after dinner or other substantial meal, for quiet conversation or relaxation. In most houses, the drawing room did double-duty as the general living-room for entertaining or receiving guests and visitors. On formal occasions, parties might be held in the drawing room.

The Morning Room

The morning room is the chamber in a house with multiple rooms, which was typically used during the early hours of the day (hence the name ‘Morning Room’). It was any reception-room built with the windows facing east, so as to make the most use of the morning sun. The room most commonly shown in the TV series ‘Upstairs Downstairs‘, is the morning room.

The Library

What a library is, is rather obvious. It’s where books are stored. In times past, books were significantly more expensive than they are today. Don’t forget that it was only until after the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s that books could be mass-produced by steam-powered printing and binding-presses. Prior to this, books were laboriously printed, cut and bound by hand, making them significantly more expensive than they are today. Any house with a significant collection of books would store them in their own room, the library, where they could be read in comfort and returned once reading was finished, to prevent them being lost. In some libraries, books were locked in glass-fronted bookcases to prevent damage and theft. The library might do double-duty as the study or office of the house because of easy access to reference materials and information. Particularly large libraries might come equipped with a specially-made set of library stairs.

Library stairs ranged from simple folding stepladders (that might or might not also double as stools), to long ladders on casters, affixed at the top to a rail that ran along the top of the bookcases, or they might literally be a set of movable stairs on caster-wheels:

A set of antique library stairs, with casters for moving them around the library and accessing high shelves

The Long Gallery

The gallery was the long passageway inside many large houses that date back to the medieval era. It would be the main corridor that would connect one or more wings of the house and was often brightly illuminated by large windows on one side (and possibly, on either end). Because Long Galleries could be rather boring if all they were, were connecting passages, some rich folks tried to dress them up a bit by hanging pictures on the walls. This gave us the modern “Art Gallery”.

The Larder

Ah, the larder! It’s where Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Bridges put all their food. It’s the place where the kids in the Famous Five and the Secret Seven go to pinch all the choicest leftovers before going off on their adventures. It’s the magical room which kids (and if Jeeves and Wooster is to be believed, Tuppy Glossop) go to steal food from after midnight for a little nibble.

But what is a larder?

First off, a larder is not a pantry.

A pantry is a room or a large store-cupboard where bread and baked goods are stored. It’s cool and dry and free of vermin.

A larder takes this one step further. In essence, a larder is a cold-store. A specially-designed, specially-constructed room (or in some cases, building), which is made to be as cold as possible. Larders are built of stone to keep in the cold. Good circulation to keep out the heat. And with shelves and ceiling-beams with hooks to keep the food away from the vermin.

Before the days of effective, electrically-powered home-refrigerators, the larder was where you stored all your perishable foods such as dairy-products (milk, cream, cheese etc) and meat and poultry, such as sausages, meat, fish, steaks and any leftover food from dinner.

Although the residential icebox did exist at the same time, you have to consider that ice wasn’t accessible in every part of the world, all-year-round. Or even in every part of a particular country all year round. So homes without ice-based refrigeration (or for homes for which such refrigeration was impossible or too impractical and expensive), the larder was their fridge. Effective electric fridges of the kind we have today didn’t show up until the 1930s.

The Scullery

The Scullery is the domain of the scullery maid. Said maiden being the lowest-ranking of the female servants in a wealthy household. The scullery is the washroom. In larger houses, the scullery and laundry might be two different rooms (one for dishes, one for clothes and linen), but in smaller houses, the scullery did double-duty as the wash-up room for the silverware, glassware, China, kettles, pots and pans, and as the laundry for towels, bedsheets, clothes and undergarments.

The Butler’s Pantry

A ‘pantry’ is the room in which bread is stored. Originally, it was the domain of the ‘pantler’ or the servant in charge of bread (from the Latin ‘Pannus’; ‘Bread’). The butler’s pantry has nothing to do with bread. Or food.

The Butler’s Pantry was the domain of the butler. The head of the servants. In the pantry were stored such things as the family silverware and silver-cleaning implements and chemicals. Just understand, please, that the family ‘silver’ was a lot more than just knives and forks. Silverware could include ANYTHING made of silver. Candlesticks. Trays. Serving-trolleys. Tureens. Platters. Jugs. Cups. Saucers. Cake-servers. Cake-stands. Gravy-boats. ladles. Chocolate and coffee-pots. Milk-jugs. Cream jugs. A wealthy family might have a small fortune of silver stored away down in the servants’ quarters. And all of it had to be locked in the Butler’s Pantry, under the watchful eye of the Butler. Every single piece that went out had to be accounted for, and every single piece that went back had to be checked. If so much as a single teaspoon went missing, then the ENTIRE house would be searched for it. And the servants would be locked outside while the search happened!

So the pantry would house the silver-cupboard, the butler’s bedroom and private quarters, as well as important keys and important documents such as account-books, the silver-book and the wine-book, all of which had to be checked and updated regularly.

The Servants’ Hall

The servants’ hall is the main room for domestic servants in a wealthy household. You see it in ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, in ‘Downton Abbey’, ‘Gosford Park’, and it’s mentioned in other TV shows such as ‘Jeeves and Wooster’. It must be a pretty important room. But what is it?

The servants’ hall is the break-room. It’s the room where servants would eat their meals and spend leisure-time. It’s the room where most of the work was carried out as well. In some houses, the servants’ hall was a separate chamber. In smaller houses, the kitchen might double as the servants’ hall.

The servants’ hall was the domain of the unfortunate Hallboy. The hallboy was the lowest-ranking male servant. He had the unenviable task s of doing all the heavy labour. Carrying coal. Firewood. Cleaning the servants’ hall and doing just as much housework as any of the female staff. Because he was the lowest of the low in the male servantry, the hallboy might not even have a bedroom. If he didn’t, he’d sleep in the hall as well!

The main panel of servants’ bells (which connected through wires and cables to the bell-pulls in the rooms upstairs), might be located in the servants’ hall or in the kitchen, where there would always be at least one person to keep an eye on the bells.

The Ballroom

The ballroom was the chamber reserved (in the largest of houses) for formal dance and parties (balls). In smaller houses, the drawing-room might double as the ballroom. Specially-built ballrooms came with their own dancefloors and musician’s galleries, where orchestras or bands could perform to project the music around the room, but keep out of the way of the party-guests.

The Parlour

The parlour is a reception-room in a house with multiple reception-rooms. Often, it was near the front of the house and was the room in which visitors would be shown into when they arrived. It comes from the French word ‘Parler‘ (‘to speak’). So it was quite literally the ‘speaking room’, or the room where you could engage in friendly discussions and conversations.

The function of the parlour changed a lot over time. These days, the parlour is a bit like the sitting-room or living-room in a modern house. In older times, when doctors still did housecalls, the parlour was also the room where funerals were held if there was a death in the household. This gave rise to the term ‘funeral parlour’.

The Nursery

The Nursery was the domain of the Nurse and her assistant (if she had one), the nursery-maid. The nursery was the room where young children and babies were looked after. In wealthy households, the lady of the house would hire a professional child-rearing nurse to take care of her newborn children if the mother couldn’t do it herself. For the sake of safety, the nurse and/or the nursery-maid would sleep in the nursery (or in a room next door) at nights to attend to the babies if they cried or woke up at odd hours.

The Gun Room

It’s pretty obvious what’s stored in here.

Found in large country manors where the masters of the house enjoyed hunting and hosting shooting-parties, the gun-room was the chamber which contained all the household’s firearms. It was a large, secure, vault-like room which was kept locked for obvious safety reasons. Firearms like shotguns, rifles, and their ammunition, accessories and cleaning-materials were stored here. As firearms could be extremely expensive, the gun-room was kept under lock and key to prevent theft just as much as to prevent injuries and death.

The Billiard Room

Billiards, Pool, Snooker and 9-Ball were all very popular during the Victorian era. And in a number of great country houses, an essential chamber for the gentlemen to retire to after dinner was the billiard-room. These rooms were of necessity, large chambers with plenty of space to move around the billiard-table. Apart from the table, the room would have the snooker scoreboard, a list of rules, a rack for the cues and cabinets and cases for the balls, the racks, the blocks of cue-chalk and possibly, spaces and cabinets for storing and playing other games. Traditionally, billiard-balls were made of elephant-tusk ivory. This made billiards almost exclusively, a game for the wealthy. It wasn’t until the invention of the first plastics in the early 1900s that billiards and pool started being played by the middle and lower classes.

The Smokehouse

Depending on the people who lived there and location of the estate, a large manor house might have a smokehouse on the premises. In larger estates where the land might be used for farming and the rearing of cattle and sheep, the smokehouse was essential.

In the days before modern food preservation, the smokehouse was where joints of meat, poultry, fish and even cheese, would be smoked. The food to be smoked would be placed in a special container or rack (called a smoker) and a fire would be lit underneath it. The smoke rising from the fire would dry, flavour and preserve the food above it. Different woods are used to provide different tastes to the food.

Once smoked, dried and possibly, salted, food might be stored in the smokehouse for a couple of weeks or even up to a year or more, before it would have to be either eaten, or thrown out.


Things You Didn’t Know About…Winston Churchill

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill. One of the most famous people in history. You might know that…

– He was the leader of the United Kingdom for most of the Second World War.

– He was a great orator famous for his morale-boosting speeches.

– He was famous for popularising the “V for Victory” sign.

– He lived in a country house with his family. It was called ‘Chartwell’.

But here are some things about Churchill you probably didn’t know. The things that the history books in school don’t tell you about, because these things ‘aren’t important’. But things which are nonetheless interesting to know. For example. Did you know that…

– Churchill once appeared naked in front of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt?

It’s true.

During a trip to the United States shortly after the Attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Churchill was finishing his bath while talking to Roosevelt at the same time. During their conversation, Churchill’s towel accidently fell off, leaving him in a state of total undress while in the president’s company. Without skipping a beat, Churchill promptly declared: “You see, Mr. President? I have nothing to hide!”

– Churchill suffered a heart-attack during the War.

During the same trip to America, Churchill suffered a mild heart-attack. Due to the serious complications that would arise if the whole world knew that Churchill had a heart-attack, the issue was hushed up. Except by Churchill’s bodyguard and doctor, who recorded the incident privately in their records.

– Churchill liked playing Bezique.

Never heard of Bezique? Neither have I. Bezique is a card-game which is probably totally forgotten today, surpassed by Poker, Gin-Rummy, Blackjack, Snap, Bullshit and other more popular games. It was invented in France in the 1600s and was a popular card-game up until the late Victorian period. It died off quickly during the 20th century. But Churchill loved playing it with his wife whenever they had a spare moment alone.

– Churchill had a pet cat.

Yes he did! Or to be more precise, he had SEVERAL cats. The PM’s fondness of moggies isn’t widely known, but it’s true. Churchill’s most famous pet cat was called Nelson (as in Admiral Nelson). Churchill once declared that Nelson was doing his own bit for the war effort. Yes he was! Nelson saved on heating-costs and valuable coal by sleeping with Churchill and doubling as his hot-water bottle on cold nights! Despite the strict rationing that was enforced throughout Britain during the War, Churchill used to sneak Nelson slices of salmon when he thought Mrs. C. wasn’t looking. The last cat that he owned was given to him as a birthday present on his 88th birthday. The cat’s name was ‘Jock’.

A cat named Jock has been at permanent residence at Churchill’s country house of Chartwell ever since 1975 (when the original Jock died). The current cat of the household is Jock IV.

– In case any ship he was sailing in was attacked and captured or sunk, Churchill never used his own name while on a journey during the War. Instead, he was called ‘Colonel Warden’ to protect his identity.

– Churchill was a prolific drinker and smoker, consuming up to two bottles of champagne a day.

– Churchill’s nakedness wasn’t just limited to the bathroom where it might be expected. While he dictated speeches, or was busy sounding out new ones, he would sometimes get so distracted by his work that it wasn’t unknown for him to wander around Chartwell completely naked and forget that he wasn’t wearing any clothes! This fact was gleamed from the director’s commentary of ‘The Gathering Storm’, if anyone wants to know. 

– Churchill was a fan of Gilbert and Sullivan.

– When Nazi leader Rudolph Hess landed in England in an attempt to broker a peace-deal with the British, upon being told of Hess’s arrival, Churchill famously declared: “Hess or no Hess, I’m off to see the Marx Brothers!”

– Churchill suffered from Depression.

Probably not surprising, considering what he went through in life! Churchill and his doctor called his melancholia his ‘Black Dog’. The Black Dog Institute (an organisation that deals with people suffering from Depression) is named after Churchill.

– Churchill didn’t die until he was 90 years old! He died on the 24th of January, 1965. His father also died on the 24th of january…1895! And his father died at the age of 45. Churchill lived to twice his father’s age and died on the same day!

– Churchill was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom TWICE. Once from 1940-1945 (his most famous term), and again from 1951-1955.