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The Armouries at war

To mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, Bridget Clifford, Keeper of Tower Armouries, uncovers an extraordinary object, found in the tower stores. This oak board was commissioned to commemorate the Armouries’ staff’s contribution to the war effort, and is currently on display at the White Tower as part of a four year commemorative exhibition.

On 11 July 1917, the Tower Armouries’ Curator Charles ffoulkes wrote to Mr Carpenter, the Tower carpenter, requesting:

“a rough sketch for the Board of frame of oak for the Armouries. I enclose details which should be painted in letters about half an inch caps, and a quarter of an inch small letters. Space should be left for four or five names at the bottom”.

He attached a list of seven names, C ffoulkes, W H Buckingham, T H Williams, D Nash, G Shaw, G Taylor and WA Harwood. Later, changes were made to the board’s original brief. Three extra names were added (T Garnett, J W Griffin and W Heath), as well as ffoulkes’ promotion to Major, Royal Marines, August 1918.

A celebration of contribution

64 years later, in 1981, I came across the Board in store but paid it scant attention. Great War memorials were an established part of the landscape and the celebration of Armistice Day declining. The First World War poets were an integral part of adolescence and 1914 marked the end of history according to my A level syllabus. Most families still had elderly relatives who had taken part in the conflict.

As the centenary of the outbreak of war loomed times had changed. The last surviving combatant died in 2012. Nationwide plans were in hand to commemorate the event. In the White Tower, a rolling 4-year exhibit was underway. The board was the obvious choice for 2018 and I sought it out again to properly assess it.

My assumption that this was a memorial board proved wrong – it celebrates the Armouries’ staff’s contribution to the war effort and its creation was very much in line with ffoulkes concern that insufficient work was being done to preserve a record of this great conflict. So who were these men?

Charles ffoulkes

black and white archive image of a man sat behind his desk, surrounded by arms and armour

ffoulkes in his office in the Flamsteed Turret, 1916

Charles ffoulkes volunteered for London’s Air Defence, becoming a Lieutenant Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as a the service came under the Admiralty’s wing. His active involvement secured a unique trophy of a spent German incendiary device and shell cases from the guns returning fire during the first Zeppelin raid on the City of London, 8 September 1915.

In March 1917 ffoulkes accepted the job of Curator and Secretary of the National War Museum (today’s Imperial War Museum). Fortunately the Tower Armouries post was “a rather unusual appointment with a nominal salary, no age limit and no fixed hours of duty”, allowing him to continue in the role on Saturday afternoons and any other spare time.

W.H. Buckingham

Black and white portrait photograph of a man holding a helmet

W.H. Buckingham at the Armouries

Buckingham is one of the two fatalities recorded in the conflict, indicated by a small cross. He is also one of the few Armouries staff of this era we can put a face to. A West Ham lad, Buckingham completed his carpenter’s apprenticeship and joined the Tower in the late 1880s  . Promoted to Armouries’ foreman in the mid -1890s, he also served as a Volunteer Artilleryman spending 1900 on active service in South Africa. He was 44 when he and Williams joined their Regiments in September 1914. Battery Sergeant Major Buckingham, R.F.A served King and Country drilling recruits in Peterborough. Sent home on 3 weeks sick leave he died 15 March 1915 of phthisis (tuberculosis). His funeral in Ilford five days later attracted an enormous crowd and the cortege including ffoulkes was so large it delayed his burial by an hour.

an old black and white photograph of men hoisting a wooden horse into the White Tower

A rare photograph of an Armouries work party in action. May 1913: Foreman Buckingham supervises Henry VIII’s new wooden horse hoisting into the White Tower.

D. Nash

Buckingham’s successor Foreman Nash joined the Armouries in 1892. Enlisting in October 1916 he became attached to the War Trophies section of GHQ France collecting “souvenir” material. He resumed his position as Armouries Foreman in March 1919 finally retiring as Armouries Supervisor 30 October 1942.

Men of mystery

The others named on the Board remain shadowy figures. Able Seaman W.A Harwood served on HMS Pembroke and died Sunday 14 January 1917. He is buried in Paddington Old Cemetery, Kilburn.

Shaw’s appointment is recorded on 3 August 1916, as is his joining the colours four days later. Taylor’s absence in noted on 19 December 1916, the same day A White was appointed to replace Harwood. The 1918 Minute book records Griffin’s January arrival, Thompson and Garnett’s in July; Garnett was dismissed October 1923 – his misdemeanour unspecified.

The board makes no mention of Acting Foreman Bishop, Nash’s substitute. Called up for service 18 December 1916, there is reference to extended service exemption a year later. The Minute Book notes he sounded the all clear at the Tower’s Armistice Parade at 11am on 11.11.1918 explaining he was a bugler (late 1st Hants Regiment). He moved aside on Nash’s return in 1919. It appears Bishop sustained an injury in 1922 which may explain his resignation in February 1925.

The ending of the “war to end all wars” was a defining point in world history and the lives of all those involved would be changed forever. Fighting on the Western Front officially ended at 11.00am on 11 November 1918 – securing peace took longer. ffoulkes organised a gun- crew to join Hyde Park’s gun-salutes celebrating the signing of the Treaty of Versailles (28 June 1919) and finally Lausanne(24 July 1923). He was also involved with a number of war commemorations including the Whitehall Cenotaph, Westminster Abbey’s Tomb of the Unknown Warrior and Tower Hill’s Mercantile Marine Memorial.

Though we may know little about the men on the board itself, we honour their sacrifice so we might live in freedom today.

The Board is currently displayed on the first floor of the White Tower as the centrepiece of “Armstice 11.11.18”

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