Jack Parham - solider, artist, inventor

on Friday, 10 June 2016. Posted in Archives, Military

This year is one of commemorations, significant anniversaries and celebrations. Many people will have celebrated the Queen’s 90th birthday but last month it was the monarch who was leading the birthday celebrations for another long-lived institution – the Royal Artillery which marked its 300th anniversary on 26 May with a royal visit, parade and displays at Larkhill.

A rather more sombre commemoration this year will be the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme – a battle that dominates Britain’s collective memory of the First World War in the same way the Battle of Verdun occupies French history or Gallipoli tends to define Australian and New Zealand participation in the Great War.
All these landmark events have come together as I work my way through a single archive – a treasure-trove of sketchbooks, diaries, letters and photographs that belonged to Hetman Jack Parham.

Jack Parham at Doiran, Salonika 1917

Jack Parham was born on 27 July, 1895 at Norrington near Alvediston in Wiltshire. He was raised on the family farm, educated at Sherborne School, and pursued a long and successful career in the Army. He retired a Major General and went to live in Suffolk – at Hintlesham near Ipswich – where he died in 1974. He lived the Royal Artillery’s Latin motto – Ubique – Everywhere.

I never knew the man. I was eight when he died and it would be another 22 years before I found myself living and working in Ipswich and sailing the River Orwell just as Jack, a keen sailor, had done.

But that is the beauty of archives – I have been able to get to know something of Jack’s remarkable story. This collection of drawings, photos and letters has taken me on an amazing journey through the early years of manned flight and Jack’s passion for aeroplanes; transported me to the battlefields of the First World War; and given me a brief insight into the thoughts of a senior military commander on D-Day 1944.

That journey began 13 months ago with a single sketchbook that had been identified by a researcher back in 2013/14 among a whole host of First World War resources. When I joined the History Centre in May 2015 I embarked on a number of centenary projects and was directed to the ‘Parham sketchbook’ from 1915-17 as a great resource. And what a resource.

Parham Archive (collection ref 3112)

Young people involved in the Dancing Back to 1914 project visited the History Centre to gain an understanding of Wiltshire 100 years ago. They were captivated by the detailed sketches that somehow closed the yawning chasm of the century separating them from the young men and women who experienced the Great War.

I was just as fascinated. Each sketch had been annotated at the time of drawing, while further notes were added (by Jack) at a later date to clarify a location or situation. I wanted to know more and periodically have been able to dip back into the Parham archive. Opening up each box has offered up something new and amazing.

WWI photos

I feel privileged to have such a wonderful job but the reality is that everyone has access to these archives: these archives are public and we all have the opportunity to make such discoveries.

It turned out there weren’t just one or two sketchbooks, there was a whole box-full that charted Jack’s career from a young subaltern in the Royal Artillery at the outbreak of the Great War to his most senior command postings as a Major General at the end of the Second World War.

The sketches are beautiful. They are also packed full of information, a detailed record of the fighting landscape of two world wars and an insight into an artillery officer’s mind.
As a ‘Gunner’ Jack Parham needed to know the lie of the land and his sketches reflected this. The 1915-17 sketchbook shows his artillery unit’s positions on the Somme, including Mailly Maillet, in 1915 and later on in Macedonia, on the Salonika front around Doiran.

Mailly Maillet Somme 1915

A close inspection of the Mailly Maillet sketch reveals not just a pretty picture of a French country road but a record of a unit of howitzers hidden amongst the trees and bushes on the left-hand side of the road. In the middle distance is a road block with a soldier on sentry duty.

Further investigation of the “sketchbook box” revealed a book from 1911/12 filled with drawings of a new-fangled machine – the aeroplane. The drawings and annotations are a fascinating record of early manned flight and the anticipation that aeroplanes could have a military role. The young Jack – he was still at school when he began these drawings – notes the name of each machine, engine size, maximum speed, and the names of the pioneering pilots.

Aeroplanes 1911 and 1917

It is clear that Jack was fascinated by flight and as a young soldier realised that aerial reconnaissance could support the work of the artillery. He developed those ideas during the Second World War, championing aerial observation.

I keep returning to the Parham archive, wondering what I will find next. There are a half dozen boxes to explore: envelops full of early photographs of Norrington – the Parham family home – plus Jack’s drawings of experimental sails and accounts of his own flying career having gained his pilot’s licence in 1933.

World War II D-Day Diary
World War II Silk Map

My most recent discoveries are related to the Second World War – a pristine example of a military-issue map printed on silk and two enticing bundles of pocket diaries. On the 72nd anniversary of the D-Day landings I untied the archive tape and opened the diary to June 1944. Jack’s entry for 6 June was edged in red pencil and written above were the words: THE SHOW IS ON!!

Ruth Butler, Heritage Education Officer


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