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WWI: Armistice and Aftermath

During the Great War, there were moments when the thunder of guns and explosions ripping across the Western Front were so intense the sound could be heard as far away as London. 

100 years ago, at 11am on Monday November 11th 1918, these hellish weapons finally fell silent when the Armistice (a word combined of two Latin phrases- ‘arma’ meaning weapons and ‘sistere’ for ‘to come to a stand’) which had been signed by the warring parties at Compiègne in France came into affect. 

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In London there were jubilant scenes as people took to the streets. 

King George V and Queen Mary appeared on the balcony at Buckingham Palace and, the following day, attended a service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral. 

The King and Queen en-route to St Paul’s Cathedral, November 12th 1918 (image: Illustrated London News)

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Once the celebrations had cooled, it was time to reflect upon the war’s devastating impact: overall, the four-year long conflict had claimed approximately 37,500,000 lives. 

Britain and the Empire nations- which included countless troops from Africa, Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, India and New Zealand- had seen 908,371 servicemen killed with many more missing or imprisoned. 

British and Indian troops from the 4th Punjab Infantry Regiment (image: British Library)

Practically every town and village in Britain had lost men.

The grim statistics worsened by the ‘Pals Battalions’; a system which had encouraged friends, neighbours and work colleagues to sign up and fight together. It did not take long for memorials to begin appearing across the nation. 

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Although the slaughter had ceased, it was not until the 28th June 1919 that the Great War officially concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles– a controversial document whose harsh treatment of Germany can be blamed in part for sowing the seeds of the Second World War. 

The war’s formal end was marked on the 19th July with a bank holiday dubbed Peace Day, marked in London with a victory parade in which over 15,000 troops marched (please click below to view footage):

On that day a number of wooden memorials were erected along the route, one of which was the first incarnation of the Cenotaph (click below to view): 

Meaning ‘Empty Tomb’ in Greek, the Cenotaph was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, the Kensington born architect whose work is most prominent in Delhi, India- including the grand India Gate, which itself serves as a war memorial to the 70,000 Indian troops who lost their lives between 1914-1918. 

India Gate, Delhi (image: Wikipedia)

Like the other structures that day, the Cenotaph- which, like today, stood on Whitehall– was fabricated from from wood and plaster and was intended to remain in place for just a short time.

Its solemn simplicity however proved immensely popular, with over one million people coming to visit and swathe the structure in wreathes. 

It was decided therefore that a permanent Cenotaph should be created and this was unveiled by King George V on November 11th 1920.

The permanent Cenotaph has provided the main focal point for Britain’s annual Remembrance Day ever since. 

The Cenotaph today

Built from Portland Stone, the Cenotaph features no religious symbology; a deliberate choice based on the fact that those who’d fought alongside each other in the British and Empire Forces came from all manner of backgrounds and creeds. 

Although it’s not immediately clear on first glance, every edge on the Cenotaph is subtly curved. If the trajectory of these lines were to be followed, the vertical edges would converge exactly 1,000 feet above ground whilst the horizontals would arc into a broad circle with its radius 900 feet below ground; a technique known as ‘entasis’. 

Where the Cenotaph’s edges lead

As well as enhancing the Cenotaph’s height and solidity, the invisible trajectories projected by these angles invite a broader interpretation; the connection of the earth to the heavens perhaps? 

On the 11th November 2018, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will take part in the annual remembrance service; the first time that a German statesperson has done so. 

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On the same day the permanent Cenotaph was inaugurated, so too was the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior. 

The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey (image: Wikipedia)

Such was the chaos and ferocity of the Great War that many of those who died were unidentified and as such could not be granted a named grave. 

The idea of laying one of these unfortunate souls to rest inside Westminster Abbey as a symbol of all those who’d suffered a similar fate was first suggested by Reverend David Railton who’d served on the Western Front as an army chaplain. 

David Railton

Reverend David’s idea was agreed upon and in early November 1920 six unnamed bodies, each taken from one of the six major battlefields (The Aisne, Arras, Cambrai, Marne, The Somme and Ypres) were carefully exhumed, draped in flags and placed in a chapel near Arras, France. 

Brigadier General L.J Wyatt then entered the chapel alone, closed his eyes and selected one of the bodies. The remains of the soldier selected were placed in a coffin- constructed from oak trees grown at Hampton Court Palace– and transported back to the UK with full military honours. 

The Unknown Warrior’s coffin at Dover (image: The Military Times)

After crossing the Channel the coffin was transported by rail to London’s Victoria station where it arrived at platform 8 on the morning of the 10th November 1920.

A plaque at Victoria marks the site. 

Plaque marking the arrival point of the Unknown Warrior at Victoria Station

The Unknown Warrior was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey the following day, his tomb topped with a slab of black, Belgian marble. 

The memorial remains a profound site to this day.

The Unknown Warrior’s coffin in Westminster Abbey, November 1920

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Of those who’d survived the war, many had done so with appalling injuries, ranging from facial deformities to lost limbs and lungs ravaged by poisonous gas. 

In Roehampton, south-west London, men who’d had arms and legs blasted off were treated at Queen Mary’s Hospital which specialised in manufacturing prosthetics.

The hospital had been established in 1915 by Mary Eleanor Gwynne Holford who’d vowed to help the injured after meeting Private F.W Chapman; a young man who’d lost both his arms.

Mary Eleanor Gwynne Holford (image: Womenandwar.wales)

During the war, Queen Mary’s treated 11,000 patients and created so many false limbs that it came to be nicknamed the  Human Repair Factory.’

Following the Armistice the hospital continued its important work- by the end of 1918 it had a waiting list of over 4,000. 

As well as the prosthetics workshop, Queen Mary’s also had a gym and other facilities where patients were able to master control of their artificial body-parts, as well as undergoing training to help them secure future employment. 

Please click below to view footage of patients at Queen Mary’s Hospital in 1916:

Queen Mary’s Hosptial remains open today and has a small museum on its grounds dedicated to its history. 

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Other soldiers suffered devastating facial wounds which were often so awful it was a miracle they’d survived at all.

A number of these patients were treated by the artist, Francis Derwent Wood who crafted delicate masks to cover such deformities.

Francis Derwent Wood with a patient (image: Imperial War Museum)

A longer article I wrote a few years ago about Francis’ work can be read here. 

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Not all injuries of course were physical.

Throughout the war, around 80,000 soldiers were admitted to military hospitals with what was then dubbed ‘Shell Shock’ or ‘War Neurosis’.

Today of course we call this PTSD: ’Post Traumatic Stress Disorder’. 

In 1918 it was estimated a further 20,000 men were suffering shell shock- and many more would succumb to mental illness in later life as their memories of wartime returned to haunt them. 

Those suffering displayed all manner of distressing symptoms from severe facial ticks and night-terrors, to internal pain, an inability to walk or carry out other functions and, in some cases, a complete obliviousness to the world around them. 

A WWI soldier suffering from shell shock

Sadly attitudes at the time were largely unsympathetic to those suffering from these disturbing mental traumas. 

One exception however was Dr. Hugh Crichton Miller, a Scottish neurologist who’d pioneered treatment for mental illness by opening Bowden House; a nursing home for sufferers- the first of its kind in Britain- at Harrow on the Hill, north-west London in 1912.

Dr Hugh Crichton Miller

When the Great War broke out, Dr Hugh enlisted with the Royal Army Medical Corps and got to witness the severe affects of shell shock first hand. He quickly came to realise that pioneering new methods were required to treat such cases. One such technique involved having doctors treat patients whilst dressed in civilian clothes as opposed to traditional white coats; an idea which was revolutionary for the time.

After the war, in 1919, Dr Hugh along with a number of donors and supporters founded the Tavistock Clinic (orginally located at 51 Tavistock Square) to continue the work and offer support to civilians. 

The Tavistock remains open today and is now located on Belsize Lane, Hampstead. 

The Tavistock Clinic today (image: Google Streetview)

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Amongst the many national treasures held by the British Library on Euston Road is the personal notebook of the war poet, Wilfred Owen

Wilfred Owen

Wilfred enlisted in 1915 and suffered both physical injury and shell shock.

Despite these traumas he returned to the trenches and was killed in action on the 4th November 1918, just days before the war ended.

As his mother back in Shropshire received news of her son’s death, the church bells were ringing out in celebration of the Armistice.

I would like to leave you with Wilfred’s masterpiece- Dulce et Decorum Est, the words of which speak for themselves.

Dule et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue, deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

 

Gas! GAS! Quick boys!- An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime-

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

 

In all my dream before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

 

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues-

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. 

Poppies outside Westminster Abbey, November 2018

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The Crimes of Dennis Nilsen

Please note this article contains details which some readers may find disturbing. 

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In May 2018 one of Britain’s most notorious serial killers- Dennis Nilsen– died in prison after spending 35 years behind bars for a string of gruesome murders committed during the late 1970s and early 80s.

Dennis Nilsen shortly after his arrest in 1983

These crimes were intrinsically linked to two north London addresses, the second of which would grant the bespectacled killer his sinister nickname; ‘The Muswell Hill Murderer.’

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Nilsen was born on 23rd November 1945 in Fraserburgh, a remote Scottish fishing town located 40 miles north of Aberdeen.

Fraserburg Harbour 1958 (image Eileen Warren Creative Commons Geograph)

Nilsen’s father- Olav Magnus Moksheim- was a Norwegian soldier who’d travelled to Scotland during World War Two. Unfortunately he was also an alcoholic and soon abandoned the family, meaning the four year old Dennis looked towards his grandfather as a paternal figure.

Although Nilsen was still young when his beloved grandfather died, his mother insisted her son view the body before the funeral; an event which Nilsen would later claim made him develop a disturbing obsession with corpses.

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When he was 16 Nilsen signed up with the army where he trained to be a chef, mastering butchery skills which, as we’ll soon see, were later put to ghastly efficient use.

Dennis Nilsen during his army days

After serving in West Germany, Aden and Northern Ireland Nilsen left the military in the early 70s and headed to London where he enrolled with the Metropolitan Police Force, spending a brief period as an officer stationed at Willesden Green.

Dennis Nilsen as a young police recruit

He soon realised however that law enforcement wasn’t for him and so adopted a new role as a civil servant, working at a JobCentre on Denmark Street– a small road in the heart of London’s West End nicknamed ‘Tin Pan Alley‘ which has long been associated with the music industry. 

Footage of a JobCentre, 1980

The JobCentre in which Nilsen worked has since been transformed into a branch of the Fernadez and Wells cafe chain. 

Fernandez and Wells Cafe- site of the former Denmark Street JobCentre in which Dennis Nilsen was employed as a civil servant (image: Google Streetview)

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In the autumn of 1975 Nilsen intervened to rescue a young man named David Gallichan who was being threatened outside a pub.

He invited David back to his bedsit on Cricklewood’s Teignmouth Road and the pair quickly embarked upon a relationship. 

Teignmouth Road, Cricklewood today (image: Google Streetview)

However, after the couple moved a short distance to a larger flat at 195 Melrose Avenue, David- who Nilsen nicknamed ‘Twinkle‘- quickly came to realise that Nilsen was short-tempered and verbally abusive.

Dennis Nilsen’s abrasive attitude can be witnessed in a number of Cine Films which he and David shot during this period…click below to view.

After one particularly explosive argument in 1977, David decided to pack his bags and leave- a lucky escape in hindsight.

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Now alone, Nilsen began drinking heavily and it was whilst boozing in the Cricklewood Arms on the 30th December 1978 that he encountered his first victim; a 14 year old Irish youth named Stephen Holmes.

Stephen Holmes

Stephen had been to a concert in Willesden and was returning home to Kilburn when he decided to try his luck in the pub. When the youngster was refused service at the bar, Nilsen- who claimed he thought Stephen was 17- invited the lad back to Melrose Avenue for a drink.

Melrose Avenue today (image: Google Streetview)

Following a heavy session, he awoke at dawn to find Stephen still fast asleep.

I was afraid to awake him in case he left me” Nilsen would later state, adding “He was going to stay with me over the New Year whether he wanted to or not.

With this grim decision made, Nilsen strangled the sleeping youngster with a necktie before plunging his head into a bucket of water.

When interviewed about Stephen’s murder, Nilsen chillingly said, “I had started down the avenue of death and possession of a new kind of flat-mate.

Stephen’s body was stashed beneath the floorboards where it would remain for eight months until Nilsen decided to burn the remains in the back garden; a plot of land to which he conveniently had exclusive access.

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Nilsen’s second recorded victim was a 23 year old Canadian tourist named Kenneth Ockendon who he met during a lunchtime drinking session at the Princess Louise pub on Holborn in December 1979.

The Princess Louise today (image: Google Streetview)

As twilight set in and London’s Christmas lights began to sparkle, Nilsen gave Kenneth a guided tour of the city.

Trafalgar Square, Christmas late 1970s

He then invited the Canadian back to his flat for a nightcap and as the pair knocked back alcohol Nilsen suggested Kenneth should listen to some of his records- which were largely defined by experimental music such as Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and The Who’s rock-opera, Tommy.

As Kenneth donned a pair of headphones and zoned out, Nilsen slunk behind his chair, grabbed the headphone cord and used it to garrotte his guest.

Kenneth Ockendon

Once again, Nilsen hid his victim’s remains beneath the floorboards- although he would sometimes haul Kenneth’s corpse out on certain evenings and eerily rest it beside him whilst watching television.

​​A new decade was now on the horizon and with it would come many more murders…

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In his seemingly normal everyday life, Dennis Nilsen- or ‘Den’ as he was known to his colleagues at the Denmark Street Jobcentre where he worked- was a staunch trade unionist and in May 1980 he attended a union conference in Southport. 

After this sojourn he caught a train back to Euston station and it was at the bustling terminal he encountered his third victim: 16 year old Martyn Duffey.

Euston station 1980 (image: rmweb.co.uk)

Martyn was a troubled young man from Birkenhead who’d hitchhiked to London four days previously and was already sleeping rough.

Feigning a good Samaritan routine, Nilsen invited the youth back to Melrose Avenue with the offer of food and a clean bed.

Once his grateful guest was asleep, Nilsen crawled upon the sheets and pinned him down with his knees. He then twisted a custom made ligature around Martyn’s neck and throttled the youngster. Although Nilsen put all of his might into the attack he noticed Martyn was still breathing and so dragged his limp victim into the kitchen where he completed the evil deed by drowning the teen in the sink.

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As 1980 progressed Nilsen began to kill so often- and was always blind drunk when he did so- that he could recall fewer of his victims’ personal details.

He was however clear about dates and would later become infuriated with the press when they made mistakes regarding them.

London’s West End in the early 1980s

He knew his fourth victim was named Billy Sutherlanda male prostitute who he killed in August 1980, but of the murder itself he could remember nothing, simply stating he woke up to find “another dead body.

Billy Sutherland

The next slew of victims were men who’d existed on the fringes of society and as such their identities remain unknown to this day. 

In September there was an Irish labourer, of whom Nilsen could only recall he had rough hands.

In October there was a man who he believed to be either Mexican or Filipino who he met in the Salisbury pub. 

The Salisbury, Covent Garden

In November, a homeless man he’d discovered dossing in a doorway on Charing Cross Road– when strangled, Nilsen recalled that this victim kicked his legs in the air as if pedalling a bicycle. 

In December 1980 he murdered a “long haired hippy”.

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After killing each victim Nilsen would bathe the body before keeping it around the house for days on end as a bizarre form of company; chatting to the corpse when he returned home from work, sitting it beside him whilst watching television and, perhaps most disturbingly of all, even sharing his bed with it. 

Once decomposition set it Nilsen would use the butchery skills he’d mastered as an army chef to dissect the bodies and then hide the severed parts beneath the floorboards. As for the organs, he’d toss them into an alley for birds and foxes to pick at. 

On one occasion he stuffed entrails into a shopping bag which he absently dumped on the pavement whilst walking his beloved dog, Bleep. 

Dennis Nilsen’s dog, Bleep- who would always be shut out of the room before his master committed murder

This gruesome package was discovered by a member of the public who handed it into police- although the find led nowhere.

Unsurprisingly, the stench in Nilsen’s flat was appalling; so much so that the neighbours had cause to complain. They also noted how Nilsen kept his windows permanently open, even in the winter.

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By late 1980 the sheer number of body parts was becoming a real problem for Nilsen and so towards the end of the year he built a large bonfire in the garden which he used to cremate the remains, heaping old tyres on top of the pyre to disguise the smell.

But still the killing continued.

In January 1981 he met an “18 year old blue-eyed Scot” in the Golden Lion, Soho who he invited home for a drinking contest.

The Golden Lion today (image: TripAdvisor)

In February, there was a victim who Nilsen knew only as the “Belfast Boy” and in April a skinhead who he met in Leicester Square. 

This individual had a tattoo around his neck; a dashed line bearing the words ‘cut here’- an instruction which Nilsen took quite literally when carving up the body for disposal.

Again, the identities of these men murdered in Cricklewood remains a mystery…

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It is estimated Dennis Nilsen murdered 11 men at 195 Melrose Avenue, the last being 24 year old Malcolm Barlow who, on the 17th September 1981, had the misfortune to fall ill outside the notorious address.

Curiously, Nilsen didn’t take immediate advantage of Malcolm’s condition, choosing instead to help by phoning an ambulance.

Malcolm Barlow

The following day Nilsen discovered Malcolm- who’d come to thank the stranger for his kindness- perched on his doorstep. Nilsen asked the young man in for a drink but soon considered him a “nuisance” and proceeded to choke his guest to death.

Days later, the landlord requested Nilsen vacate the property as it was due a renovation. This prompted Nilsen to build another bonfire on which to cremate the remains of his most recent victims. 

Then, on the 5th October 1981, he moved to an attic flat at 23 Cranley Gardens, Muswell Hill. 

23 Cranley Gardens today (image: Google Streetview)

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With no garden and zero chance of hiding bodies beneath the floorboards, this was possibly a conscious choice by the serial killer who claimed he was desperate for his spree to cease.

But still he continued.

The first victim murdered at Cranley Gardens was 23 year old John Howlett who he met whilst drinking near Leicester Square. As usual, Nilsen invited him home where the pair drank until John passed out. Rudely awakened to find himself being strangled, John put up a ferocious fight and almost succeeded in killing Nilsen himself.

Then, in June 1982, Nilsen spotted 27 year old Graham Allen attempting to flag a taxi on Shaftesbury Avenue. 

Nilsen stepped in and the pair ended up sharing the cab back to Cranley Gardens. Of this murder, Nilsen recalled few details; simply that he’d cooked an omelette for Graham before murdering him and then kept his body in the bathtub for several days.

Nilsen’s final victim was Stephen Sinclair, a troubled young man who he encountered on January 26th 1983. 

Stephen Sinclair, Dennis Nilsen’s final victim (image: Daily Record)

As he’d done with previous victims, Nilsen invited Stephen to listen to records- his favourite at the time being ‘O Superman’; an eerie electronic song by Laurie Anderson.

As Stephen listened through headphones, Nilsen attacked from behind, strangling him with a ligature.

To dispose of these bodies Nilsen had to improvise, dissecting each corpse and boiling the parts in a large pot on the stove.

Once the flesh softened he’d cut it into small pieces which were unceremoniously flushed down the toilet.

Unsurprisingly a blockage soon ensued- which Nilsen himself complained about- and so, on February 8th 1983, Dyno-Rod employee Michael Cattran came to assess the problem.

It didn’t take long to discover the drains were clogged with a gunky mass of flesh and bone. As Michael worked, Nilsen popped down to see what was going on, gruesomely remarking, “It looks to me like someone has been flushing down their Kentucky Fried Chicken.”

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The next evening, Nilsen returned home from work to find Detective Chief Inspector Peter Jay and two other police officers stationed outside his door. 

Cranley Gardens, 1983

When informed that they’d come to discuss the matter of human remains, Nilsen feigned ignorance, exclaiming, “Good grief, how awful!” Dismissing this act- and having already noted the horrendous stench in the flat- Inspector Jay bluntly said, “Don’t mess about, where’s the rest of the body?

Dennis Nilsen’s kitchen, Cranley Gardens

Nilsen calmly replied it was in two plastic bags in the wardrobe, adding “It’s a long story… I’ll tell you everything. I want to get it off my chest.”

Arrested on suspicion of murder he was driven to Hornsey police station and, during the short ride, matter-of-factly hinted at the sheer number of people he’d killed. After being charged he was remanded in Brixton prison.

Dennis Nilsen being transported from prison

Dennis Nilsen was tried at the Old Bailey during autumn 1983 and, after considerable debate as to wether or not he was insane, was found guilty on six counts of murder. After describing the “unforgettable tales of horror” associated with the case, the judge sentenced Nilsen to a minimum of 25 years.

The clip below is a news report broadcast shortly after Nilsen’s imprisonment.

In 1994 Nilsen’s sentence was upped to a whole life tariff meaning he was condemned to remain behind bars for the rest of his life- which he did, dying at HMP Full Sutton, East Yorkshire on 12th May 2018 aged 72.

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Appearance in The Guardian

I recently contributed a short piece to The Guardian newspaper detailing my approach to focus and memory. The article is out today (Saturday 13th October) and can be read online here.