Lives of the First World War is a site which aims to combine historical fact with an insight into the hearts and minds of those who served. Of particular interest are combatants like JR Ackerley and Siegfried Sassoon, whose pages seem to be pretty accurate, because – alas –  some of the ‘facts’ at this site are a bit dodgy, including getting Wilfred Owen’s middle names wrong.

As with any online resource, the information presented is only as good as that uploaded; even the Commonwealth War Graves site has the odd typographical error.  It’s always worth reporting these, as reputable sites are usually grateful to have such things flagged up and our LGBT ‘heroes’ deserve an accurate record to be kept.




We met first day at school.

Play time he knocked me down, so I knocked him down.

Both got the cane.

Best buttys ever since, through thick and thin.

Scrumping apples, knocking on doors and running off, climbing the wall to see the match for free, always together.

Because where Billy went I ‘ad to follow.


Shared our first cigarette, both of us puking up afterwards, back of the chapel.

‘ad our first working day at the same factory, the same time.

Our first pint at the Working Men’s. Together.

Our first kisses, with those awful Probyn sisters, down the Tanky Woods.

Whatever Billy did, I tagged along, and he didn’t mind.


We signed up, pals in the Pals’ Regiment, me hoping I wouldn’t get rejected if he was accepted.

Trained together, trying to outdo each other at drill, or spit and polish.

Stood in the same holding trench at Mametz, me behind him, the only one who could see behind his jokes and his games and spot the fear.

Said to him, “I’m here, Billy, it’ll be alright,” meaning, “I love you, butty, as a man loves a maid,” only I couldn’t have told him.


Woke up in hospital, half my leg shot away.

Couldn’t find out if Billy ‘ad gone where I couldn’t follow yet.

Next morning, he’s there at the bedside, arm and head bandaged up.

“I was wondering where you’d got to, you silly sod,” he said, meaning, “I love you Harry, but I can’t say it here.”

Only I didn’t find out that was what he meant until later, after; “Seeing as we’re two cripples, the sort a maid would never look at, just as well we’ve got each other isn’t it?” and, “Neither of us could look after ourselves so we’d best look after each other.”




WWI hero Sam Hines is used to wearing a face that isn’t his own. When he’s not in the trenches, he’s the most popular female impersonator on the front, but a mysterious note from an anonymous admirer leaves him worried. Everyone realizes—eventually—that Sam’s not a woman, but has somebody also worked out that he also prefers his lovers to be male?

When Sam meets—and falls for—fellow officer Johnny Browne after the war, he wonders whether he could be the man who wrote the note. If so, is he the answer to Sam’s dreams or just another predatory blackmailer, ready to profit from a love that dare not speak its name?


Sam couldn’t resist unfolding the note; he’d had these sorts of things before and they were always good for a laugh. The invitations would range from the innocent to the knowingly experienced, although nobody ever suggested something entirely obscene—Miss Madeleine gave an air of always being above such things. This would probably be the usual Might I buy you a drink? I know this little estaminet…

It wasn’t.

“I’m awfully glad you’re not a girl. J.”

Sam read it again, not trusting the evidence of his eyes, but they’d been right the first time. J? Which of the officers had that been? Jimmy, Jeffrey, Jonathan…Sam had forgotten their names already, even if he’d been told them.

But when had the note been written? After he’d taken his wig off and burst the little lieutenant’s bubble, he supposed, although if he had no memory of the thing being lodged in its hiding place, he equally had no recollection of somebody scribbling the thing—there’d been very little time for it, anyway. And how much more courage would it have taken to do such a thing in plain sight? It wasn’t the sort of note which could be easily explained away if discovered.

He closed his eyes, trying better to picture the scene. There’d been Corry, whom he’d known since he was a lad. Not him. Not his writing, anyway. And the ginger-haired officer hadn’t been anywhere near those pots. So it had to be the quiet, dark-haired chap or the tow-headed one. He wouldn’t have said no to either of those if they’d met in a certain bar in London. Decent-looking lads, a bit of life about them, and clearly with some spark of interest that was more than platonic. But which of them had written it? And how to find out?

Awfully Glad.

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It’s my turn to blog as part of the Hop For Visibility, Awareness and Equality and I’m sharing a sad but strange story.HAPHOBIAUMBRELLA2016.png

The honourable Gerald William Clegg Hill was born on 26th August 1932, the second son of Gerald Rowland Clegg-Hill, 7th Viscount Hill of Hawkestone and of Hardwicke and his wife, Elizabeth Flora Garthwaite, nee Smyth-Osbourne. Their first child, the Hon Anthony Rowland Clegg-Hill, succeeded to the title. Gerald William (known as Billy) was christened at St Mary’s, Edstaston, Shropshire, with four godparents including a member of the Welsh Guards. He was educated at Kelly College, Tavistock, and at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. He served in the Royal Tank regiment, being made Captain on 6th February 1959.

So far, so good. Distinguished family, even if it was one which had fallen from its absolute heights, prospects of a great army career, but things took a horrible turn for the worse.

Billy was arrested in 1962, possibly in a police swoop on gay men in Southampton. He is said to have been tried at Somerset assizes, in Wells, found guilty of homosexual practices and sentenced to compulsory aversion therapy at Netley Military Hospital. He may have been offered the alternative of going to prison. (You can find many references to Captain Clegg-Hill online although many of them are just not very accurate reproductions of earlier articles, so the exact events and where they happened are not clear. One of the best sources is Peter Tatchell’s site.)

Billy’s therapy might have been carried out in P wing of Netley Hospital, the building near D block. Wherever it happened, it went disastrously wrong and he was taken seriously ill. He died from coma and convulsions resulting from injections of apomorphine, a potent vomit-inducing drug he’d been administered as part of his aversion treatment. At the time, the coroner listed the death as being due to ‘natural causes’ perhaps an allergic reaction to the drugs; this was only revealed as untrue thirty years later. A BBC documentary was aired in 1996 detailing his story and alleging medical negligence; Billy didn’t receive prompt enough treatment when he was taken ill and may have suffered a stroke brought on by dehydration.

He died on 12th July 1962, aged 29, at Southampton General Hospital; the national probate register gives his address as Rushgrove House, Woolwich and he left his estate of £10778 6s 4d to his mother. His funeral was held at St John’s church on Thursday July 19th 1962 and I’ve been told that Billy’s parents used to sit in the churchyard while they were waiting to visit their son.

There’s a strange twist to the tale. A few years back, an appeal went out for people to adopt one of the four war graves in Rownhams churchyard. I resisted, being too busy. The appeal went out again and I succumbed. I asked for the WWI grave but that was already taken, so I was given Billy’s. I had no idea at that point of any of the background to this young soldier.


I found it quite extraordinary that, of all the graves I could have ended up looking after, I have this one; some may call it coincidence, I call it the hand of God. Whatever it is, I regard it as a privilege.


I came across a book in a second hand shop and picked it up simply because I rather liked the title and the plain cover. It proved to be a collection of chapters from the longer work “A Student in Arms” – combining observations on a soldier’s life during WWI with reflections upon faith and religion.  Hankey’s an interesting person, whose words are very much of his time. And some of his musings are distinctly slashy.

The first chapter describes an officer, Ronald Hardy, in glowing terms that verge on hero worship. The bit about Hardy’s smile, “It was something worth living for and worth working for”, reminds me of The Charioteer, where Laurie remembers Ralph Lanyon at school, and how boys competed fiercely and tacitly to earn one of his smiles.

Then there’s the chapter “Some who were lost and found”, which is full of stuff reflecting a wonderfully open heart towards some of the soldiers he met. “If they did fly in the face of the conventions, well, we sometimes felt that the conventions deserved it.” One line intrigues me. He’s talking about the men and their relationships with women. “They had their code, and though God forbid that it should ever be ours, it did somehow seem to be a natural set off to the somewhat sordidly prudent morality of the marriage market.”

I really can’t work out what Hankey means by that little dig at marriage, apart from the obvious implication that he didn’t himself want to be married. For whatever reason. You see, it’s really hard at times to understand the words of the past when the only filter we have is our modern ears and eyes.

I read a lot of literature written either side of 1900, and while people haven’t changed, society and conventions have. In the days of “Three Men in a Boat”, men staying in a hotel would have shared a bed if need be with no implications other than necessity. And lines like, “I never saw two men do more with one-and-twopence worth of butter in my whole life than they did.” could be written in complete innocence of any double entendre. (They accidentally smeared it all over the stuff they were packing, in case you’re wondering.)

Writers would use the word “love” in a wider context, too. Ronnie Poulton Palmer was a stunning pre-WWI rugby player, the sort of three-quarter who could slice through defences like a knife through butter. His last words are said to be, “I shall never play at Twickenham again” although that’s likely to be apocryphal as it seems he was shot and died instantaneously. I can, however, imagine a player saying just that sort of thing ironically.

Poulton seems to have inspired a great deal of affection from his friends and extracts from letters such as this from Keith Rae to Poulton are very evocative: “I believe very firmly that there will be a Bright beyond after this war…My Love to you and God bless you, always your affectionate friend, Keith Rae.” Army Chaplain Dick Dugdale wrote home after Poulton’s death to say “You know I loved him {Poulton} more than anyone else,” and “Each passing year means one year less to wait for Ronald”. *

Deep friendships? The sort of love that dare not speak its name? The sort of love which couldn’t speak its name because it didn’t understand that it was more than friendship?

Wilfred Owen, in one of the few surviving bits of correspondence between himself and Siegfried Sassoon certainly seems to have gone beyond friendship.

“Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile.
What’s that mathematically? In effect it is this: that I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least.” **

Poor Wilfred, so much in awe of Sassoon and unlikely ever to have that love requited in the way he seemed to want. At least with some of Owen’s extant poetry the homo-erotic elements are obvious. No slash goggles needed when reading “Page Eglantine”, “Who is the God of Canongate”, the unfinished “Lines to a Beauty seen in Limehouse” or “I am the Ghost of Shadwell stair”. (The last one apparently is a play on words between ghost and infantryman, with a suggestion that Owen himself is the ghost who visits a male prostitute.)

Of course, you could probably get away with more in the veiled language of poetry or the private language of letters than you could in plain prose.

* The Greater Game – Sporting icons who fell in the Great War

**Wilfred Owen a new biography

war graves







It comes as a shock to many people (it did to me) that AA Milne wrote a murder mystery. Just the one, published in 1922, but it was enough to earn him admission to the inner sanctum of crime writers.
Is “The Red House Mystery” a good book? I’d say it’s fair enough, and very much in the style of its time, which is fine if you appreciate the Golden Age of crime. It certainly has many of the classic elements – the country house, the house party, the locked room, the wastrel brother who reappears from abroad and, of course, the amateur sleuth, with his slightly dim sidekick. If the denouement draws on a plot line which is peppered throughout those Golden Age mysteries, it’s none the worse for that.
Of course, it’s a whole other discussion about whether the detective’s sidekick only really exists to fulfil the main purpose of allowing the sleuth to show off his or her genius and give fulsome explanations regarding his or her thought processes. In the case of Red House’s Bill, he appears to be at the dimmer end of the bell curve of intelligence and certainly hero worships his friend Tony, the man who solves the case.
Tony’s a really interesting character, a man of independent means, who takes on various jobs just for fun. He’d have been well served by further crimes to solve with his sidekick. I could envisage a whole series of cases in which our two heroes pop up at house parties and the like, solving crimes, causing chaos and generally having a whale of a time. Alas, those books were never written.
Somebody even suggested that Bill reminded him of Piglet, but Tony and Bill makes me think of Raffles and Bunny, not least because of the “slash”. I usually say if you’re not sure what slash is, get your mother to explain when you get home. This time I’ll give a definition, straight from Wikipedia. “Slash fiction is a genre of fan fiction that focuses on interpersonal attraction and sexual relationships between fictional characters of the same sex.”
Milne himself objected to love stories getting in the way of the detection, so he takes Bill’s love interest “offscreen” pretty rapidly, then – ironically – proceeds to give us an almost love story between his two leading men. If you picked up this book without knowing the author or context, you might think you were reading a romantic mystery, with a gay bloke (Tony) who pursues, and then is all over, another man.
From the moment Tony serves Bill, first in a shop and then in a restaurant, “Something about [him], his youth and freshness, perhaps, attracted Tony”. He arranges a proper introduction to Bill and they quickly become “intimate”. Yes, that word clearly didn’t mean quite the same in 1922! As the story proper gets going, Bill is flattered, delighted and proud to be liked (and needed in the cause of investigation) by Tony, who soon after tells Bill he’s wonderful for describing someone so well, at which Bill is happily embarrassed.
Should I mention how often Anthony takes Bill’s arm when they’re walking? I know that this practice was not uncommon between men in the early twentieth century, and nobody batted an eyelid, but they seem to be at it all the time. Then there’s the hand holding; Tony tells Bill he’s the most perfect “Watson” before taking Bill’s hand in both of his to say, “There is nothing that you and I could not accomplish together…” (That’s the sort of thing he says a lot.) Bill responds by calling him a silly old ass, and Anthony replies with “That’s what you always say when I’m being serious” which is very similar to a tense, flirtatious interchange between Laurie and Andrew in Mary Renault’s “The Charioteer”.
They even end up sharing a bed, although strictly in the way the characters share a bed in “Three Men in a Boat”. That’s another element which is hard to interpret innocently with modern eyes, although those of us who were brought up on “Morecambe and Wise” know that Eric and Ernie weren’t “at it” when the lights went off.
So what the heck was going on in “The Red House Mystery”? It’s terribly easy for us to look back at books written so long ago with our “slash goggles” firmly in place and see things which the author didn’t intend. Perhaps we see things which aren’t there at all. You only have to look at the volume of Holmes and Watson romances that have sprung up to find people interpreting old stories in a very present-day fashion. But gay men did exist in the 1920s (or at any point in history) and gay or lesbian characters can be found, thinly veiled, in classic books such as “A Murder is Announced”.
Maybe Milne was just being observational in his writing, basing Tony on somebody he had known, weaving in elements of conversations he had heard, as so many of us do. I have little doubt that he had no intention of giving us that romantic storyline, but he did so, nonetheless.

This is Tom’s mother from Promises Made Under Fire. Very different kettle of fish from Mrs. S.

Mother met me at the station, full of smiles and news. Father’s back playing up, her head much better, thank you, scandal about the neighbour’s son, who’d somehow mysteriously moved to Ireland.

“And your friend Ben—he asked me to apologise for his not being here to meet you but the silly boy’s gone and got mumps.” She slipped her arm in mine. “So he’s strictly persona non grata.”

She didn’t need to add why—any of my platoon could have told you the risk to a man’s wedding tackle. What the hell had I done to get such a run of luck?

“Have you any plans? Apart from rattling around at home?” Mother squeezed my arm, her hand seeming so tiny against my uniform coat. I patted it.

“I’ve a commission to fulfil. No, don’t worry.” I patted her hand again. “It’s not the army. You remember Foden?”

Of course she did, the way she paled at the mention of the name and gripped my arm tighter. She’d have remembered my tears, too. I hailed a cab and carried on. “He left a letter asking me to make some visits on his behalf. Least I can do.”

“You always were a good lad,” Mother said as we bundled into the cab and gave the driver our address.

Good lad I might be, but I wasn’t looking forward to doing this particular duty. “He wanted me to visit his mother,” I said, looking out of the window, unseeing. “Do you think I should write to her and make an initial introduction, rather than just turn up on her doorstep?”

“It would depend on her character. If it were to bring her distress rather than comfort, she might prefer one dose of it.”

Only one dose of discomfort for me, too; I’d forgotten how wise Mother was. “I have no idea. She’s a cook, up in London.”

“A cook?” A brief look—surprise tinged with quickly hidden disdain—crossed her face.

“It will have hurt her as much to lose her son as it would the lady of the household.” The anger I felt shocked me.

“I’m sorry. You’re quite right. You’ve always said that bullets don’t make any social distinctions.” She suddenly produced a mischievous smile. “And since the ‘to do’ with the lad next door, even Father says you can’t tell how brave someone is from the school he went to. He’s very proud of you, you know.”