Military buttons dating back to First World War found on Harpenden farm

PUBLISHED: 15:00 02 August 2016

A Queen's Royal Regiment cap badge, dating back to the First World War, was also found in a field at Cross Farm in Harpenden

A Queen's Royal Regiment cap badge, dating back to the First World War, was also found in a field at Cross Farm in Harpenden


There are not just barley crops emerging from the fertile soil of a Harpenden farm, the heart of a family-based agricultural business for six generations.

Military uniform buttons dating back to the First World War have been unearthed at Cross Farm, 100 years after the heroes who wore them were injured in battle.

The poignant reminders of the Great War have been discovered by chance at the 750-acre farm, which has been farmed for over 200 years by Will Dickinson’s family.

With commemorations for the centenary of the Battle of the Somme taking place from July 1 until November 18 this year, the Herts Advertiser visited the farm to see the buttons and family memorabilia dating back one century.

Will explained that a metal detector enthusiast he has permitted to examine the gravelly soil has discovered a multitude of buttons.

Will Dickinson at Cross Farm in HarpendenWill Dickinson at Cross Farm in Harpenden

When asked why they were put there in the first place, the farmer explained that during the First World War the damaged uniforms of soldiers injured in battle were composted and sent back to England, to be re-used as fertiliser on farms back home.

Buttons and badges were supposed to be removed before the soldiers’ camouflage gear, made from wool, was turned into compost.

But, Will pointed out, given the nature of some of the injuries, it would have been a gory job and thus some were left on the discarded uniforms.

The majority of those discovered by the metal detectorist have been sent to museums.

Items found include a badge from the Middlesex Regiment (Duke of Cambridge’s Own), a Queen’s Regiment badge, along with uniform buttons embossed with emblems, including one of a map of Australia and Royal artillery.

Will said: “They have all been found by metal detector. They are the buttons of men who were injured in the First World War. Their damaged uniforms were repatriated and used by farmers as fertiliser.

“I guess during the war they took a pragmatic decision about what they were going to do with all of those damaged uniforms – if you died during battle you were forever in a foreign field, but with this, it is nice that for those who were wounded, their uniforms were returned to the UK.

“I don’t know how many fields were used for the composted uniforms.”

His family - and the farm itself - was also affected by the war, as shown in a 100-year-old wage book detailing labourers working at Cross Farm at the time.

Will explained: “Back in 1913, you can see some of the old names, of locals who had been working here for most of their lives. Then by July 1916, it changes to include injured soldiers, three women and a deaf man on one page – they were here because the men had gone to war. There were also loads of boys working here.”

His Great-Aunt Dorothy kept a scrapbook full of newspaper clippings to enable her to chart the movements of her brother Eric Freeman, who was a Second Lieutenant in the West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own).

Unfortunately he was killed in the Battle of the Somme, at the age of 22.

Will said: “Eric was shot in 1916, and is buried at Puchevillers British Cemetery. A family member has a cigarette case which has a hole in it, from the bullet which killed him.

“I’ve got a stove he used when he was sitting in the trench, used to boil water to make a cup of tea. It’s fascinating to see such items.”

The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest battles of the war, with more than one million casualties.

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