RCVS Archives Project: Next steps

As you will have gathered from the previous blog by our Archivist Lorna, the Archives Project here at RCVS Knowledge is well under way. Whilst Lorna is currently getting to grips with the collections (and Fred Smith’s handwriting) I have been recruited to work on the digital side of things.


My name is Adele and since the beginning of January I’ve been working on the project as Archive and Digitisation Assistant. My role is to carry out the digitisation of priority documents within the archive and historical book collection, this includes preparing the material with preservation and repackaging measures, creating the high resolution digital images, writing descriptions and relevant metadata for the scans and uploading them onto an online digital archive. Around this I will also be assisting Lorna with promotion of the project through social media, displays and outreach activities such as talks. Once awareness of our collections grows and the enquiries come flying in I look forward delving into the collections to answer some of these too.

Previously I’ve worked as Archive Trainee at Rambert Dance Company and as the Archive and Special Collections Assistant at University of the Arts, London. Though I’ve worked with digital images within archive collections before- as well as taking on ad hoc digitisation- this project is on a whole new scale for me. I’m so excited to get our online digital archive up and running, it’s great to work in a project with such defined goals and to join at this early stage allowing me to be part of the decision making process. There are certainly many decisions to be made!

The first aspect of my role I looked into was the scanning itself. The library had already purchased a professional high resolution scanner so I was able to get straight on with comparing different settings. We want these scans to be of high quality and available in years to come so we chose to scan into TIFF format as this is uncompressed; it means it is excellent quality and 100% of the data captured during scanning is retained. For our printed text based images we want to our users to be able to search the text within them, from a TIFF file we are able to create a PDF document that we can perform optical character recognition on in order for this to be possible. We were also concerned with how easy it would be to read our images on a screen. After some in house-testing, it was decided that scanning images in greyscale provided more contrast. As the real value in our historical books and journals is the information within them, we made a decision to scan this type of material in greyscale. For images and archive material we will likely be scanning in colour to better represent the unique material context of these documents.

Veterinarian greyscale 75

The Veterinarian scanned in greyscale. Easy to read and a much more efficient file size to store.

Smith letter colour 75

Letter to Frederick Smith. If this were scanned in greyscale would we see that the annotations were made at separate times?

[Edit: These images have been compressed and resized, and do not reflect the quality of the images to be displayed in the digital archive.]

Of course once I had decided how I was going to scan the material, I needed to know what to scan. A priority list has been made by Clare our Head of Library and Information Services in agreement with our funders The Alborada Trust. This was based on demand, what is already accessible online elsewhere and predicted research value. As Lorna is currently in the process of cataloguing the first archive collection, it made the most sense for me to start with our historical book and journal collection and so I am currently working on scanning volumes of The Veterinarian. The Veterinarian, published from 1828 to 1902, was one of the first veterinary journals to be launched and we hold a complete run of the periodical bound by volume. I’m currently digitising the third volume and I can see why it has been chosen as a priority- there are some really interesting case studies and comments on the profession at that time.

The Veterinarian shelves (2)

Volumes of The Veterinarian 1828-1902

Now we have some digitised pages to work with, Lorna and I are trialling some Digital Asset Management systems for the most important part of the process – making the images accessible to you online. We hope to be able to give you an update on this soon.

If you are interested in our collections then follow the hashtag #vetarchives on our twitter account @RCVSKnowledge for some updates, fun discoveries and more.

If you have any questions for the Archives Project team, please email us archives@rcvsknowledge.org


John Roalfe Cox – ‘a clever pen-and-ink draughtsman’

I have previously blogged about the almost 400 illustrations by Edward Mayhew that we have in our archives. We also have a number of other  smaller collections of illustrations, one of which is the illustrated notebooks belonging to John Roalfe Cox.cox compressed

John Roalfe Cox MRCS FRCVS (?-1903) graduated from London Veterinary School in 1849 after which he studied human medicine becoming a member of the Royal College of Surgeons.  Eventually he set up a veterinary practice near Grosvenor Square which rapidly expanded until, by 1870, it was one of the largest, and most lucrative in London.

Cox was elected as a Vice-President of the RCVS in 1872 and remained on Council until 1887, serving as President from 1885-6.

His obituary (Veterinary Record 16 (785) pp53-54 records that:

“For many years [he] kept note-books in which he entered very fully the history and treatment of all his most interesting cases … He was a clever pen-and-ink draughtsman, with a neat turn for caricature.”

We are fortunate to have four books which show Cox’s artistic skill in our collection. One case-book and three notebooks containing sketches

The case-book labelled ‘Horses in accident and disease – notes on special cases’ gives detailed accounts of a number of these special cases including a case of ‘coup–de-soleil’ which Cox encountered in the ‘exceedingly hot summer of July 1858’.

He reports his attempts to soothe the horse through the application of cold compresses, at first these appeared to be beneficial but the horse got worse ‘frequently pitching forward’ and ’falling over again as soon as he got on his legs’. Cox ends his account thus:

“I felt no doubt of it being a case of sun-stroke…he had to be destroyed the following day.”

The notes are accompanied by the following illustration.


Two of the notebooks contain sketches of cases with brief descriptions – interestingly one of these books labelled ‘Clinical sketches of horses in accident and disease’ appears to be the manuscript original for his only published work of the same title

Sketches include:

A case of strangulated intestine

A case of strangulated intestine

Vomiting in a case half an hour before death

Vomiting in a case half an hour before death



Stomach staggers

Stomach staggers

Appearance of a horse with fractured pastern

Appearance of a horse with fractured pastern

Posture of a horse with broken back

Posture of a horse with broken back

The fourth notebook contains some of Cox’s caricatures which show a variety of rural scenes with captions which reveal his sense of humour.

Hold hard!!

Hold hard!! Tally ho back!

Confusion of purpose

Confusion of purpose

Drawing blank

Drawing blank. Impatient foreigner “vi for so long to begin ze hunt”

A dilemma

A dilemma

Cataloguing Fred Smith Part 1: Asking questions

What are they

Annotation by Fred Smith in a notebook

Now that over seven months have passed since I started this project – it is time for another update!

Most of my time so far has involved looking closely at all of the archive material relating to Major General Sir Frederick Smith, which is the first stage of cataloguing the collection. I needed to look through all 49 boxes of the papers so that I could get a broad idea of the type of content, the recurring themes, and any existing structure in the collection.

Files in cupboard

The Smith papers had been kept in loose piles in several cupboards here at the RCVS

I created a spreadsheet to record this information, one file at a time, making notes to summarise the contents. This early stage of recording information is very important, as I will rely on this spreadsheet to help me make decisions about how to organise the files, as it would be impractical to get all the actual files out at once to compare them.

The decisions I needed to make relate to the following questions: what does this material record? Why did Smith create this? What aspects of Smith’s life and work does this relate to? When did Smith create this? Does it relate to the items before and after it? Do these items belong together, according to Smith’s original order, or did he mean to keep them separate?


Screen cap of my spreadsheet of data

Whilst I recorded the answers to these questions, I needed to try and think like Smith and also think like a potential researcher using these collections. It is impossible for me to inhabit the mind of a long dead Army veterinarian, and it is impossible for me to predict the specific research interests of every future archive user. Therefore I needed to ensure I was two things – conscientious and consistent.

Being conscientious means I accurately record the condition and situation in which I found the material.  There are ‘clues’ that Smith left for me: changes in his handwriting; evidence of papers that were stapled or glued together, but separated over time. However, I must not automatically assume material is connected. Sometimes I made note that two items might be connected, but it is impossible to be sure. If I wrongly grouped things together, a researcher may infer a shared context between the items. For example, a photograph of a battlefield stored between a letter from an ex-comrade of Smith’s, and undated manuscript notes about the Boer War. It is either possible that the photograph was sent to Smith by his friend, or that he used the photograph to inform his notes. Or neither. Or both! I cannot know, but if I maintain the photograph’s proximity to the other documents, a future researcher can make that decision for themselves. Similarly, I made sure I kept together things that definitely relate to each other, as a loose photograph of an anonymous battlefield loses its context once separated from the letter and notes.

Nervous system

Files of loose papers with no obvious order were kept as they were found whenever possible

Consistency is also key – both in terms of what I decided a document is about, and the words I used to describe it. Future researchers can then trust my catalogue to point them to everything they want, and only what they want. For example, there are letters in which Smith states his views on how veterinary surgeons are perceived compared to medical doctors. In my spreadsheet, I used words and phrases that describe the subject, e.g. “status of veterinary profession”, and continued to use that exact phrase when Smith writes about it again. Ideal words and phrases are broad enough to be conceivably used by a researcher as a search term in the catalogue. However, if they are too broad, e.g “medicine” they will apply to so many items they will be effectively useless at narrowing down results. Fortunately, Smith had already organised his papers, and annotated many notes and articles with a clear subject title, and so I was able to use his own terminology whenever appropriate.

Put with physiology files

“Put with Physiology files” – Smith made annotations on his papers, which helped him organise his files, and also left instructions for a future biographer to find

Once I had finished my spreadsheet of 299 files of papers, I was ready to move onto the next stage – arrangement into a hierarchy – which I will discuss in my next blog post.

Boxes in cupboard

The papers have been re-housed in acid free archive boxes, to prevent any further damage

William Moss: one man’s journey through the Somme and Beyond

1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, is a day remembered as one of the worst in British military history. The attack commenced at 7.30am; by the end of the day, 19,240 British soldiers had been killed and three times that number injured. The battle lasted 140 days, and amongst the thousands who took part was at least one future member of the veterinary profession.

WP Moss 1914

William Moss 1914

At the outbreak of war, Lieutenant William P. ‘Willy’ Moss was an 18 year old art student, noted to have a talent for capturing ‘the essence of animals.’ In October 1914 he joined up and was commissioned into the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Rifles. He was sent to France in October 1915, and was injured by both a gas attack and mortar fire in early 1916. His battalion was held in reserve at the opening of the Battle of the Somme, but early on 7 July they relieved the men of the Cheshire Regiment in the British trenches. Ordered to penetrate a breach in the German line at 09.50am Moss lead his men into ‘no-man’s land.’ Due to the heavy rain the previous night the men soon sank to their knees in the mud and were met by an onslaught of machine gun fire.

Moss was hit in the leg, fell and lay helpless and unable to move. After several hours, his batman managed to carry him over 100 yards to the British trenches. The ferocity of the action that morning was described as like ‘hell let loose.’ During the encounter 30 men of the battalion were killed and 120 wounded. Moss was evacuated to hospital with a gunshot wound to his left tibia. He was sent home for treatment, which took many months, and left him with a permanent deformity of his leg. For his actions he was awarded the Military Cross in 1917, he did not return to France.

Lieutenant WP Moss 1917

Lieutenant WP Moss 1917

Following demobilisation from the Army Moss was unsure of his future and applied for a place at the Royal Veterinary College in Ireland. Commencing his studies in Ireland in 1919, he did his final year at the Royal Veterinary College, London and qualified MRCVS in 1923. Initially he worked as a Veterinary Inspector for the Ministry of Agriculture, in the control of foot and mouth disease. Four years later he established a veterinary practice in Woking, Surrey and at the same time joined the RAVC as a territorial officer. At Woking, he was able to rekindle his love of art, joining the Woking Art Club.

With the outbreak of war in 1939, Moss again served his country, one of several veterinary officers dispatched to Palestine with the 1st Cavalry Division. He arrived in Palestine in December 1939 and three months later was posted as Veterinary Officer to the Cheshire Yeomanry. Over the next year he combined his veterinary work with his skill as an artist, drawing many scenes of the cavalry in Palestine.

In June 1941 plans were laid to capture Lebanon and Syria, with the Cheshire Yeomanry set to play a crucial role securing the River Litani, in southern Lebanon. As the men and horses moved into position one observer recorded that they were like ‘trespassers about to partake in a picnic on forbidden ground, rather than an invading force going to war. Everyone was excited.’ Advancing across the river the yeomen came under heavy machine gun fire, six horses were killed and several injured. Moss found that evacuation of injured animals was extremely difficult due to the nature of the terrain. Eventually they started to make their way north arriving in Damascus after five weeks, where the armistice parade included the men and horses of the Cheshire Yeomanry. The battle of the River Litani was to be the last occasion when British troops went into battle on horses.

The Machine-gun Section: Cheshire Yeomanry, going into action in Syria © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 5742)

The Machine-gun Section: Cheshire Yeomanry, going into action in Syria © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 5742)

Mechanisation of the Cheshire Yeomanry in December 1941 meant Moss’ veterinary services were no longer required. He took command of a Druze Cavalry Regiment where he encountered an official War Artist, Anthony Gross who described meeting a ‘wonderful Irishman, the vet, called Moss; a real scream.’ On seeing Moss’ art work Gross advised him to write to the War Artist’s Advisory Committee (WAAC) in London. They were impressed by the portfolio, especially the black and white sketches, and Moss was awarded a ‘Category C’ contract. Other artists in this category included Stanley Spencer, Jacob Epstein and L. S. Lowry. Moss was the only veterinary or medical officer to receive a contract from the WAAC.

Farrier Sergeant Faris el Beini © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 3085)

Farrier Sergeant Faris el Beini © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 3085)

Moss continued to serve in the Middle East until early 1945, when he returned home. He did not return to veterinary practice, but instead pursued farming as well as his interest in art. A number of his original works are held by the Imperial War Museum. We are fortunate to have, in our Collections, a number of the sketches he made of the veterinary profession to illustrate articles on the ‘Modern Veterinary Surgeon’ published in Sport & Country in 1946.  William Moss, MC, MRCVS died in 1980.

At the London Clinic: resetting a broken leg of a dog

At the London Clinic: resetting a broken leg of a dog

Acknowledgements I would like to thank Dr Paul Watkins MRCVS for his help in compiling this post.

Image credits

The Machine-gun Section : Cheshire Yeomanry, going into action in Syria by W P Moss © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 5742) reproduced under the IWM Non-commercial Licence

Farrier Sergeant Faris el Beini by W P Moss © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 3085) reproduced under the IWM Non-commercial Licence

The two photographs of Moss are from a private collection and are reproduced with permission.

Bracy Clark’s hoof – an update

I am delighted to say that thanks to the generosity of members of the Central Veterinary Society we have been able to have some conservation work carried out on Bracy Clark’s pasteboard model hoof.  At the same time the surface dirt was removed which means that you can now read the labels much more clearly as you can see in the photographs below.

We are also very grateful to colleagues at the Royal Veterinary College who have kindly produced this 3D model – we hope you enjoy exploring the hoof as much as we do.

Bracy Clark hoof - the wall


Bracy Clark hoof _underside

Bracy Clark hoof - the wall

Bracy Clark hoof - curtain

Bracy Clark hoof

Bracy Clark hoof - frog band

Bracy Clark hoof

Cataloguing Fred Smith Part 2: Order from chaos

In my previous blog post about cataloguing Fred Smith, I had got as far as a huge database of information about all of the papers in the collection. In this post I will describe the next stage of the process – archival arrangement.

An archivist’s job, when making historic material more accessible to researchers, is to provide information about the documents which they have gained from looking at the collection as a whole. Whilst going through the material with such close attention, I learned a great deal about Smith’s life, working habits, and the subjects that particularly interested him. This has helped to inform my ideas about the best way to organise his papers, in a way that accurately reflects how Smith worked. I began to think about some possible divisions I could make, judging from Smith’s filing. For example, he kept separate files of articles, manuscript notes and newspaper cuttings about each system of the equine body. These are most likely related to his book Veterinary Physiology, but were probably also consulted and added to as he wrote numerous articles about more specific physiological subjects. Therefore I decided that all research notes for physiological matters should be kept together.

When thinking about all this material together, it is much easier to work with physical pieces of paper. So I printed out my database and cut apart each row to represent a file.

Pile of slips

My database of information printed out, with each slip representing a separate file of papers.

Laying out the slips

The slips filled a table in one of our meeting rooms – 299 in total!

Adele and I then divided my slips up into piles for each of my initial divisions.

Chair for each series

Dividing the slips into separate ‘series’ of related content.

Anything that didn’t obviously fit into one of these piles, I looked at again to get a better idea. I often find that it is necessary to make initial decisions and then see how they fit the material, and then make new decisions as a result. It is often not until you have an idea in mind, and you try to apply that in practice, either successfully or not, that you can move forward.

Once I was happy with my first collection of seven separate piles, I set about sub-dividing the largest ones. I was then heading towards proper archival arrangement.

Whiteboard arrangement

Subdividing the groups of files, to show more specific themes.

Archival arrangement is a method of organising archive documents so that a researcher can understand from the catalogue how each item relates to other items, the historical context in which it was created, and which specific items are relevant to their interests. Usually this arrangement is structured in a hierarchy, with a level representing the whole collection at the top, and then divided down into lower levels which represent smaller subdivisions, until at the bottom you have a level with single items, such as one letter or notebook. When this hierarchy is put into a catalogue, the archivist writes descriptions at each level, providing information with the appropriate amount of detail i.e. from the general to the specific.

CALM Tree structure

Screen-cap of the hierarchical ‘tree’ demonstrating the structure of the collection.

In the above example, the whole collection is about Frederick Smith, so at the top level I will describe what the collection contains as a whole, e.g. papers relating to Smith’s working life, in the Army Veterinary Service and as a published author, and his interaction with the veterinary profession. I have now decided to divide the collection into three discrete parts: research notes Smith accumulated for his various published books and articles; papers which were created in the course of Smith’s career as a veterinarian and as part of the Armed services; and correspondence between Smith and various other individuals. These are all divided further, e.g. within the research notes section, the papers are divided again into five ‘series’, which relate to broad subject areas Smith researched, such as military history. This series has been divided again into two ‘sub-series’: one relating to the work of army veterinarians, and the other relating to all other aspects of military activities. Within these sub-series there are multiple separate files, which were kept as files by Smith himself, and so will not be broken up. I will describe each file in detail on the catalogue, using the keywords I entered in the database. This will enable researchers to quickly find any files relevant to their interests, but from the hierarchy they can see that this file is one of several on a broader topic, and so they may want to browse through the related files. Likewise, a researcher may use a broad term for their searching, and their results may find ‘series’ level records. They will then be able to see that within the series, there are many more specific files, and being able to eliminate some files will save them valuable time. Also, if a researcher does not have to look through files unrelated to their project, it means the fragile documents are not unnecessarily handled, which also ensures better long term preservation of the material.

Now that I have created my hierarchy structure, my next few months will be spent describing the files in detail, and adding this information to the catalogue. I will talk about archival description in a third blog post in the near future.

In the mean time, if you would like to know more about Frederick Smith’s papers, please do not hesitate to contact us here at RCVS Knowledge.

Cataloguing Fred Smith Part 3: Say what you see

After completing the listing and arranging of the Frederick Smith collection, I now move onto the nitty gritty of archive work – writing descriptions. You can see the descriptions I’ve completed so far on our newly launched archive catalogue, and I have linked to specific records on the catalogue as examples below.


Homepage of our online archive catalogue

This stage essentially involves describing the material to an appropriate level of detail, in order to best inform researchers what the items are before they are fished out of storage for them to see.

As with the previous two stages, there is no one correct way of describing archives – but there are rules to follow. The international standard for archival description has been drawn up to promote consistency when searching across multiple collections around the world. However, many archive repositories also have their own house rules to better suit their unique collections.

The essential rule is to describe from the general to the specific. If something is true for every item of the collection, then that should be mentioned at the highest level of the hierarchy (Fonds), if something is only true for one batch of files within a series, it should be mentioned at series level. If some sections of material are comprised of very varied files, then the description of the section would probably be brief (e.g. FS/2), and more detail added as you described smaller batches within it (e.g. FS/2/2/2). You should avoid repeating information unnecessarily, but as most catalogues are now accessed online, you do not know that a researcher who finds a description of a specific file will necessarily read the descriptions at higher levels of the hierarchy. Therefore some repetition of essential contextual information can be helpful.


The Smith collection in a hierarchy structure

It is important to be concise in description, as the researchers really want to spend as much of their time as possible reading the actual material, rather than just descriptions of it. An archivist should also avoid copying the content of the material (unless you want to include a formal transcription of the text). This may sound obvious, but it can be a challenge to summarise a letter rather than copy it. For example, when trying to find the best way to phrase an argument put forth in a letter, it will often seem easier and quicker to directly quote the author! This is also the case for lists of names or places etc.


FS/3/1/4/58 “I now have to deal with the following:- Moses of Palermo…” Smith lists future research subjects.

It is useful to include as many names of individuals as possible, to make it more likely that your material is found in an online search. However, you do not want to mislead researchers into thinking the papers include a wealth of information on Joe Bloggs, when actually his name is one of many on a list drawn up by one correspondent to another, as a suggestion of potentially interesting authors to read! Another example is this draft letter [FS/3/1/13/50], in which Smith is asking about the existence of any portrait of Bracy Clark. It seems that Smith never successfully found one, and so any person searching online for a long lost Clark portrait would be misled by a description of this letter as discussing ‘a portrait of Bracy Clark’. Instead I have tried to make it clear that Smith himself is struggling to find one. People can travel a long way to visit archive repositories, and so you do not want someone to have flown from Australia to the UK in vain!

Another simple rule, but sometimes very difficult to follow, is to not use qualitative language to describe the material. You may find a beautiful sketch on the back of a letter, or a hilarious account of a meeting in a diary, but you should not use words such as ‘beautiful’ or ‘hilarious’. Even seemingly harmless words such as ‘interesting’ or ‘simple’ are too subjective. Archivists should stick to the facts in the catalogue, and use outlets such as Twitter or blogs to highlight material they think is particularly wonderful. However, it is useful to describe quantities if possible – again to avoid misleading a researcher into thinking a file is stuffed full of notes on a subject, when actually there are only brief mentions in  one or two letters. [e.g. FS/2/2/2/1/8]


FS/2/2/2/1/1 These paintings of the liver from Smith’s case notes are, in my opinion, beautiful. But that’s definitely not something everyone would agree with!

As the title of this blog post suggests, a simple rule of thumb is to say what you see – no more, no less. However, sometimes the archivist needs to do a bit of speculation in order to better describe the material. For example, this letter [FS/3/1/3/11], which has been dated by Smith as 24th March 1911. Judging by the content of the letter, it seems to make more sense amongst letters from March 1912, and so I assume Smith accidentally wrote the wrong year. (It happens to the best of us!)

I have also tried to include the modern names of locations, if they have changed since the time the material was created. For example, Smith worked in Bengaluru, India in the 1880s, but at the time it was referred to by the British forces as ‘Bangalore’. It is possible that a researcher would use either name when searching, so both are included in records such this [FS/2/2/2/1/1].

Whilst cataloguing Smith’s correspondence, I noticed that he referred to consulting very old manuscripts at the British Museum. Of course, since Smith’s time, the British Library has been established, and much of the historical manuscript collection has moved there. I mention in the catalogue that these sources are in a new location, in order to hopefully prevent someone searching for material in the wrong place! [FS/3/1/2]


FS/3/1/2/2 Reader request slip from a research visit to the British Museum in 1911 – this book is now at the British Library

Finally, I add comments if I notice that something is obviously missing, or badly damaged, so that some unfortunate researcher doesn’t get the blame for it at a later date.

The wonderful thing about cataloguing online is that it is never set in stone. As I continue to explore the collections here at RCVS, and speak to the people who will use them, I’ll learn new things about Smith’s work, and the veterinary profession as a whole. I can add this further information to the catalogue at any time, and continue to improve the descriptions.

So please take a look at the catalogue, and let me know what you think!

A Norwegian White Christmas

This month marks the 75th anniversary of an important military operation which paved the way for true ‘combined operations’ involving the Royal Navy, RAF and Army; an operation in which two members of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons took part.

In 1941 Vaagso, a coastal town in Southern Norway, lying between Trondheim and Bergen, was an important part of the German defences of the Norwegian coast. It also housed numerous fish oil refineries, producing oil that was used in the manufacture of explosives. In late December a seaborne raid was launched, attacking the town and destroying defences and the refineries. The troops were from the still ‘embryonic units’ of Army Commandos. They were led by Colonel John Durnford Slater, whose signals officer was Captain Charles Head, MRCVS.

Charles Head MRCVS

Charles Head MRCVS

Charlie Head graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in 1933, and immediately joined his father Alfred (who had served with the Army Veterinary Corps in both the Boer War and World War 1) in practice in Helston, Cornwall. At the outbreak of war, already a member of the Territorial Army, he joined the Commandos. In March 1941 he took part in the commando raid on the Lofoten Islands, off the coast of Norway, which resulted in the destruction of a number of enemy facilities and the capture of valuable information relating to the German enigma coding machine.

The flotilla bound for Vaagso departed from Scapa Flow on Christmas Eve. Just over 550 troops landed at Vaagso at 9am on 27 December, they soon met fierce opposition. No. 3 Troop was quickly engaged in fierce house-to-house fighting and their commanding officer was killed, along with three soldiers. One of those was Private Peter Keast MRCVS.

Born and raised in south London, Peter Keast entered the Royal Veterinary College, London in 1933, but in July 1936, was suspended, having ‘failed or been referred in one examination three times.’  Still wishing to qualify as a veterinary surgeon, he secured a place the Royal Veterinary College in Ireland, Dublin, and graduated MRCVS in December 1939.  With Britain at war, he returned to London, where he soon became frustrated with the reservation of the veterinary profession which precluded men like him from serving out-with their professional role. With no real opportunities to serve in his professional capacity he finally managed to enlist as a soldier, and subsequently applied successfully to join the Commandos.

Headstone of Peter Keast MRCVS

Headstone of Peter Keast MRCVS

Keast’s actions at Vaagso were reported in The Daily Telegraph of 5 January 1942, under the heading ‘Commando’s Vain Sacrifice. Vaagso Raid’; it described how

 ‘a 25 year old commando, Peter Keast, a veterinary surgeon of Tooting, London lost his life in a vain  attempt to  save a sergeant on the road at  Vaagso.’

The account had been sent to his father by an officer who saw him die. That officer had just seen his own brother killed when Keast was hit:

‘He got it trying to save the section sergeant, Povey, who was also killed. Thank heaven it was instant.’ ‘“Doc” as the chaps called Keast, was one of the best men in the troop, always cheery and helpful.’

Peter Keast is buried in Trondheim (Stavne) Cemetery  where his headstone has the inscription ‘He gave up his career. A volunteer to fight for a Christian way of life.’

At the time that Keast was mortally wounded, Charlie Head was accompanying his commanding officer as they continued to engage the enemy. Quite fortuitously they arrested a Norwegian man barricaded in a house; he turned out to be a high ranking member of the local, Nasjonal Samling (The Norwegian Fascist Party, established by Vidkun Quisling) and one of the men identified as being of high priority for capture. With his commanding officer, Charlie Head was the last to re-embark on the landing craft, some 5 hours after coming ashore. He received a Mention in Despatches, the citation reading:

‘The task facing Head was complicated but he never allowed a quickly changing position to confuse him or prevent a continuous flow of information. He proved most steady and reliable at all times and was of the greatest assistance to his Commanding Officer.’

Charles Head with wife and family in1953

Charles Head with wife and family in1953

Charlie Head was soon back in action at the ill-fated Dieppe Raid in 1942 and then at the landings on Sicily in 1943. Here he was badly wounded, and his gallantry was recognised by the award of the Military Cross. He landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in June 1944, with his injured leg in a calliper, determined to play his part in the liberation of Europe. When the war was over, he returned to veterinary practice in Helston. A son, born in 1947, and also a graduate of the Royal Veterinary College, continued the family veterinary tradition.

Acknowledgements I would like to thank Dr Paul Watkins MRCVS for his help in compiling this post. 

Image credits

Thanks to John Head MRCVS for kind permission to use pictures of his late father, Charles Head, MC, MRCVS