William Holmes Biography



I would like to compile a short account of my husband’s life, a long one – 92 years – and so varied, in four continents.


He was born in northern Bengal, India on September 8th 1877; Irish mother, Elizabeth (nee Daly, from Country Cork) and English father, a civil engineer. He was christened in the Cawnpore (Kanpur) Memorial Chapel, and given the names of John David William. His mother was eighteen having come to India as a bride of seventeen; that was only twenty years after her father had been wounded at the siege of Delhi during the Mutiny of 1857.


So – John David William was followed by two sisters, Rachel and Grace. When he was nine he was sent to England to live with a parson in Moulsford, near Wallingford, Oxfordshire, who tutored him, and evidently gave him a good grounding, especially in mathematics. He never mentioned to me any schooling of his sisters, so I imagine they stayed in India with their parents.


In those days it took several weeks by sea to England; how hard on parents who felt that the best education was in England, and for the children to be separated from home for years at a time. Letters would have taken the same time too, of course, and young William became a very good letter writer. He shared lessons with several other boys (it was a good way for poor parsons to increase their income) and apparently made plenty of friends.


He was very out-going, extrovert, although he said he had a “red-head’s” quick temper, and was always ready for a fight. His mother had a lovely voice, well trained, and arranged for him to have music lessons which he hated, and when he found out that they were an “extra” he asked if he could change them for bacon and eggs at breakfast; the music teacher was only too relieved to lose his tone-deaf pupil.


So he grew up in rural England. His parents planned for him to go to the Engineering College at Coopers Hill, but when he was 15 his father fell ill; as soon as his mother telegraphed the news he left for India and did indeed reach home just in time to see his father, in hospital in Calcutta.


Now that his mother was left a widow, not very well off, it seemed that William’s hopes of college were fading. However he was sent back to England and was being coached for entrance to the College, when about a year or more after his father’s death his mother wrote that she was going to marry again, an old friend of the family, John Nixon. William remembered him and liked him and was glad to see his mother happy once more. Soon he had a half-brother Gerald, who was killed on the Somme in 1916 at the age of 20, and a half-sister Mona, who died of pneumonia when she was 17, so his poor mother had a lot of sadness to face again.


By the time William was 18 he felt a great longing to go back to India and his mother thought she could get him a job on some tea plantation in Darjeeling belonging to friends of hers. However, this did not work out so it was decided that he should try to get into the Government of India Civil and Military Engineering College at Roorkee in the United Provinces. The Commander at the College was a senior Royal Engineer Officer, and had under him many distinguished men of science, mathematicians, etc., from English Universities. So William was coached hard for the next two years and passed in; after another year he took part in a competition for one of twenty vacancies in the Engineering Class of Roorkee College and managed to get in.


By this time he was almost 20 and was beginning to lead an independent life. With one of the other trainees he shared a bungalow and the servants who went with it, and started to enjoy life, according to his memories. He joined the North-West Provinces Light Horse and Rifle Corps, played tennis, cricket, football, racquets, but was best at swimming and riding.


One story from his non-drinking days: it must have been when training in India. At the Regimental Races, when quite a lot of money changed hands, William being fairly lightweight, was often in demand to ride heavier men’s horses. One day he rode for a very superior officer, and having won was invited to have a drink to celebrate. He refused, saying (a) he never drank really, and (b) that he had another race still to run that afternoon. But the “top brass” insisted and made him have a good whisky. Alas, in his next race he lost sight and control and parted company with his horse at the first bend. His first recollection was lying in an ambulance with a disapproving nurse saying “he smells of whisky”. It turned out to be only a broken collar-bone but his indignation lasted a long time!


At the end of his first year at Roorkee he was very dismayed to hear that he had failed in higher mathematics, but as he had done well in civil engineering, in Urdu (the Mohammedan script of Hindi), they offered him the chance to go back and do the first year again. Poor William’s pride was so hurt that he refused, in spite of his mother’s advice, and he persuaded his stepfather to get him a job with a survey party. His luck was in; he got a good job as assistant surveyor, and set out with the party for the wilder parts of Bengal (searching for coal deposits, I think).


They went off with bullock carts to haul the tents and tools, and tongas pulled by small ponies. There must have been quite a lot of them and most of them had their own servants, of a sort. William seems to have been interpreting between his chief and the head man of the gang. The operation took nearly a year, and he learned to live in tents out in the jungle country all day, in heat or cold and rain – quite an adventure in itself!


It must have been at this point that he came down with malaria, and after the worst was over the doctor advised a sea-voyage. The only way he found to finance that was by taking a job on a coastal steamer going from Calcutta slowly round to Bombay and back. He signed on as part of the crew and in return for his berth he took care of the ship’s manifests. The whole trip took about two months, by which time he was well and fit again, and ready to look for a better job. This time he heard of a surveying expedition to China and through a family friend was offered the chance to join it. He was evidently full of self-confidence, though in later years he called it ignorance and cockiness; anyway he was delighted at the prospect.


However, at this point in his life, the Boer War broke out and he thought it would be more interesting and certainly more exciting to go to South Africa. But how to manage it? There was a wealthy Scotsman named Lumsden who had large tea plantations in Assam and he proposed to the Government of India (a British Government you understand) raising a regiment drawn from the many young Englishmen, tea or coffee or indigo planters. William read about this in the Calcutta newspapers, and his mother saw how keen he was, so once again her old friend Dr. Bathe offered to talk to Colonel Lumsden. But he told Mrs. Nixon there were over 1000 applications and only 75 vacancies left. Still, soon he got William the chance for an interview with Colonel Lumsden, and he set off for it, fingers crossed. To his intense joy he was accepted and told to present himself and bring his own horse with him. It was a young country bred dun-coloured gelding for which he had paid £40, not a bad price but a lot of money in those days, sound in wind and limb, but not trained for war. In the end it was one of only eight who survived the march to Pretoria with Lord Roberts.


William was thrown in with a mixed lot; a man of twice his age from the Egyptian police (in those days the British helped police the world!), a judge, a doctor, a schoolmaster, a brewery owner’s son and a farmer. He and one other were the “infants” of the group and managed to learn a lot from the more experienced, that is when they were not too “cock-a-hoop” with themselves. They learned to look after their horses, their rifles and themselves, in that order, and William looked back at those years as some of his happiest.


Once when four of them were sent as scouts ahead of the rest, they took it in turns to forage and cook, living off the land; and when it was William’s turn to cook the others got a chicken somehow, and he supposed the best way was to boil it over the camp fire. But he didn’t think of plucking it or drawing it, with the result that they never let him cook again which suited him well. They had whisky among their rations, and as he hardly drank in those days he would exchange his ration for other’s jam or sugar.


At one point in South Africa his group was all set to capture the Boer Commander, Kruger, when to their disgust orders came that they were to turn round and make for Pretoria to effect the rescue of Winston Churchill who had been taken prisoner. Their disgust deepened when they got there to find that he had already escaped.


Still, there was plenty of fighting before the war ended in 1902, by which time he was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant. He decided to stay on in South Africa and joined the Johannesburg Mounted Police who had also taken part in the war, though I cannot make out if they still came under the command of Colonel Lumsden. [Note: JDWH joined the Johannesburg Mounted Police for twelve months at the end of 1900 as a trooper, or private soldier, and then joined the regular Army as a Second Lieutenant in the Army Service Corps in November 1901. Lumsden and the rest of Lumsden’s Horse had returned to India, arriving on 31st December 1900 – Editor]


He stayed on there about a year, then went to England for a good holiday followed by job-hunting.

I think that his mother and stepfather had left India by then and retired to England. John Nixon would have been in his late fifties, time to retire from the tropics.


In London, William met a Robert Stuart, who was manager of British Railways in the Argentine, and who offered William the post of chief engineer based in Buenos Aires. So off he went again, to a new world and a new life. While in B.A. he met and married Barbara Harper, who was visiting her sister Mia Bright. His work took him west to Mendoza at the foot of the Andes, where they had a nice house, garden and vineyard. A daughter, Ruth, was born there in 1908, then a son Richard, born in England, then another son Patrick in the Argentine. Pat was never able to return there once he had reached the age of 18, as he would have been arrested as a “traitor” for not doing his military service. (In any case, by the time he was of age the family was settled in England).


In the Argentine, one of William’s biggest tasks was to build the railway tunnel through the Andes between Argentina and Chile. It was at a height of 11,000 feet, and William lived there for two years, often going up to 14,000 ft. He used skis for getting about in the winter, and when the snows melted in the warmer months, there came the finding of men frozen to death. They were workers on the railway, mostly Italians, who had got lost after “pay-day drinking”, and then William had to deal with the burials and notifying the poor families. It must have been all so different from South Africa or India – the climate, the people.


After Pat was born in 1911 they moved to Paraguay, where William also worked for the British Railway Co. there, though again in a very different climate.


Then came 1914 and the First World War. He fretted about it for some months; having a family to support he could not afford to dash off to war, but in 1915 came a request from the War Office in London, for him to come “home” with the rank of Captain, and sufficient pay to bring his family over and settle them in England.


He spent the first winter in the trenches in Northern France and Belgium. He was wounded in 1916, a piece of shrapnel in his arm, and had a bit of a rest in hospital, then back to the Front. In 1917 he was awarded the Military Cross [Note: not till 1918, due to the oversight of the officers who recommended him for the award – Editor], but he never told me about it; I very much regret not asking more questions. [The commendation by an American General can be found with these records.]


After the Armistice in November 1918, he was sent to Germany with the British Army of Occupation of the Rhineland. After that he went back to India, still with the British Army, and from the rank of Major he became Lieutenant-Colonel. As he embarked at Bombay an Indian came forward and declared that he would be William’s bearer; he was the son of an old servant who had been with William’s mother, and word had got round that Col. Holmes was coming back. There was no question of refusing the man – he took on the job of looking after “young Master” and that was that!


War had broken out between Afghanistan and India, and he was sent up to the North-West Frontier. This he found quite enjoyable (!) after the rather wretched years in France.


When the little war (little by comparison with the Great War) was over, he was posted to Calcutta as Acting Commander for a year. That again, was extremely enjoyable and he was in a position to indulge in polo, which he loved. In fact all his life he was happiest when on a horse. After the year was up, he realised that he would not be given his red tabs (i.e. made a full Colonel) for some time and his children were of school age which meant many more expenses, so he left the Army and became General Manager of the Indian Light Railways, with headquarters in Delhi. There he continued his habit of riding before breakfast – in India it was the coolest hour, but he kept the habit till after the Second World War.


In 1923, William left Delhi by the night train to Calcutta. Before he went to bed the train pulled up somewhere between stations. So he got down to see what the trouble was and found that a goods train had been derailed and was blocking the line in front. Scores of coolies were working hard with lamps and torches to clear the way and William noticed among them a young man of obviously higher caste heaving and tugging with the others – an unusual thing for an Indian. So he called the man over and asked his name and why he was joining in with the workmen.


The young man said that he had been offered a good post in Calcutta and had to present himself there the next day, otherwise he was afraid he would lose the opportunity, so he was trying to help to get the train moving. William thought this showed good sense and said so. Soon it was all done and they were on their way again. He had always kept a small diary with brief notes of the day in it so before going to bed he jotted down their little encounter.


Months passed and he had forgotten the incident. Then he received a letter from a Magistrate somewhere up country asking if he could possibly remember a young man on the Calcutta train on the night of such and such a date. It seemed that the man in question was accused of murder committed in another State that night and he swore that he had been on a train to Calcutta that same night and the only witness he could think of was this Colonel Holmes who had talked to him.


William looked up his diary and found the young man’s name – then instead of writing he went himself to the court and produced the diary. As he told the Judge he couldn’t remember the young man’s face but if he was of that name then indeed he had seen him on that night. They had proof that he was who he said he was; the Judge accepted William’s word of course and had the accusers arrested for perjury. It seemed that they had wanted to frame the young Indian for the murder they themselves had committed. The young man, now free, couldn’t thank William enough.


Nearly a year passed and one day William’s bearer came to say that an old man was outside and wanted to see him, and would not go away. So William went out on to the verandah and an old man came forward, fell on his knees and tried to kiss William’s feet. William helped him up and asked what the trouble was. The old man said he came from the Northwest near the Afghanistan border and had travelled, mostly on foot, to come and see for himself and thank the man who had saved his son’s life. You must be mistaken, said William … but the old man insisted and recalled the murder trial of his son. Then he poured out his gratitude, and taking a bundle of embroidered cloths from under his rags, he begged William to accept them, saying that his grandfather had come from Persia and brought them with him and now he wanted to give them to his son’s saviour. William touched the gifts to show that he acknowledged them and gave them back but the old man insisted that he keep them. So William saw that he was given food and a rail ticket to go home more comfortably.


That is how we came by the three pieces of embroidered cloth. Alas, one was stolen from our verandah at Cuernavaca, one got torn by use; then I decided to save the third from destruction by hanging it on the staircase wall at Highclere. While in Delhi many of his friends were burgled and he laughingly said he would probably be the next victim. But his friends assured him it would never happen to him as his chief servant was the head of the burglars!


I suppose that William would have continued to live in India but for an accident in 1924. He was on what is called a “platform car” on the railway, going on an inspection tour, when round a bend they hit a tree trunk placed across the line, and of course the platform car was derailed and fell down the embankment. William was thrown off but as the car fell it caught him on the side, breaking his pelvis bone. Dozens of peasant women rushed up from nowhere and tried to help him. Fortunately he did not lose consciousness and persuaded them not to touch his wounds with their filthy rags, but to go for help. This done he was taken to hospital. He overheard the doctors saying that he probably would not last the night.


But his strong constitution and the fact that he kept himself so fit helped him to survive. Then he was told that he would never walk again without crutches, but after three months he managed with two sticks, then one stick, and after six months he threw that away too. He got back to normal and lived to ride again, swim, play tennis etc. However, after the accident, he had to resign his position, having been so long in hospital. While there, his Indian friends came and told him how the tree trunk had been placed on the line to kill someone else coming along by train later, and that they were so angry at nearly losing their Manager, that they took away the tree trunk and put it on an old ruined rooftop so that the white ants would eat it – burning was too good for it!


After convalescence he came back to England, but his farewell from Delhi was very moving. When he was escorted to the train he found his compartment deep in flowers, also hampers of provisions for the journey, including whisky. So, by ship back to England, where his mother and stepfather, now retired, were living near Aldershot.


Now, of course, he had to start looking for another job. His sister, Rachel was married to Sir Edward Manville, who was on several boards of directors, and well placed to help William find something. As he had experience of railways, Ted Manville put him in touch with a Mr Yorke, who offered him the post of General Manager of the Cuban Railways, British owned at that time. The previous manager had just been shot, so the post was vacant, and William accepted it thankfully. However, a week after his interview with the board Vincent Yorke got in touch again to say that the same sort of position was open in Mexico City; the salary would be less but the climate better. So William opted for Mexico, and he and Vincent Yorke travelled out together in March 1926, by ship to New York, then another ship down to Vera Cruz. He took up his post then in Mexico City as General Manager (President in American parlance) of the Mexican Railway and of Vera Cruz Terminal Company, all owned by Whitehall Securities.


He took a great liking to Mexico and soon made a lot of friends, Mexican, English, American, French. He was asked to join the board of the Bank of Mexico and told me how at each monthly meeting there was a gold coin at each member’s place. Most of them were sold over the years but the last one we kept and gave to Marisa at her christening.


In 1933, sadly he was divorced, and two years later I arrived in Mexico to live with my sister, and married William in August 1935, with the permission and blessing of the Catholic Church.


He worked on through the war; his son Dick was in the Royal Berkshire Regiment, and was killed in 1944 near Rimini, Italy, shot by a German sniper. His younger son, Pat, having escaped from Singapore in 1942, got to India and joined the Indian Engineers there, and fortunately came through the rest of the war safely.


In 1948, the Mexican Government wanted to take over the railways, but William argued and battled and negotiated for two years, and finally managed to sell it to them. The Board of Directors in London were delighted that he obtained cash and not mere “promises to pay later”. He received a pension which he took in a lump sum and invested it, and it has kept us going ever since.


After giving up the Railway he had plenty of other interests; he was on the board of the Banco Nacional until he left. He always kept a horse, rode regularly, and we had a very pleasant life there.


Only when he had to give up riding and our daughter, Stella married in England, he decided it was time to “come home”.


So back we came to Highclere which you know, until he died here in August 1970. He was buried in the little cemetery in Highclere Castle grounds.


So – 1877 until 1970 – a full and eventful life in four continents.


I have tried to think what he would best be remembered for and I know it must be LOYALTY.



Jane Holmes






U.S. A.P.O.702 A.E.F.

December 14th, 1918.


From Brigadier General C.H. McKinstry.


To Major J.D.W. Holmes,

Royal Engineers,

Argentine Club,

1 Hamilton Place,


London, England.


My dear Major Holmes,

Up to May of this year I had taken for granted that a report like the attached had been made by General Langfitt. Only great press of work could have driven this matter from his mind. In May I learned that no report had been made and since then I too have been pretty busy. Better late than never and it will give me great pleasure if the attached aids in getting you the reward which, from the day of the affair, I have felt you deserved.


Very sincerely yours,

(Sd) C.H. McKinstry.







U.S. A.P.O.702 A.E.F.

December 14th, 1918.

From Brig.-Gen’l C.H. McKinstry, U.S.A.

TO C in C American E.F.

Subject: Act of gallantry on part of Major J.D.W. Holmes, Royal Engineers.


1. On October 8. 1917 I witnessed an act of gallantry on the part of Major J.D.W. Holmes, Royal Engineers, which I now report with a view to its being brought to the attention of the proper British authorities if this course commends itself to the C in C.


2. The circumstances were: Four American officers were making an inspection of the British Light Railway System near Ypres under conduct of Major Holmes, then A.D.L.R. 3rd (?) British Army. On the afternoon of October 8. 1917 these five officers and two British and one American enlisted men were proceeding in a railway (soixante) inspection train of one car and locomotive and had-reached a point near the Yser-Ypres Canal, about five kilometres North of Ypres, when shells (probably 77’s) began falling in the immediate neighbourhood of the car. The party, except one man, took refuge in a near-by trench. Looking from the trench Major Holmes discovered one of the British soldiers lying, badly wounded, on the railway track, about 75 yards away. It transpired later that about the time the party left the train, a shell had burst just back of the car cutting the line and wounding this man severely and the other British soldier slightly. Major Holmes immediately left the trench, went to the fallen man, examined his wound, and then went back along the track to a Stretcher Station and got a stretcher. Entering the trench to which, in the meantime, the wounded man had been conveyed, Major Holmes assisted in carrying him to the stretcher and on the stretcher to a near-by field hospital. From the time the party left the car until Major Holmes returned to the trench the fire was “violent”. It may have been directed at the near-by standard gauge station, or at the Dixmude-Ypres road, then crowded with traffic in connection with a push set for the following day, or even at the inspection train. In any event shells fell at the rate of six or eight a minute close to the track and to the trench. While the man was being carried to the rear the fire continued, but was less violent.


3. In brief, on October 8th, 1917, near Ypres, Major Holmes observing a severely wounded man lying in the open, left the shelter of a trench proceeded to the man and then to a Stretcher Station and brought up a stretcher all through a violent bombardment and later still, under fire, caused the wounded man to be taken to a place of safety. Major Holmes’ conduct in this affair was characterised by good judgement, quickness and an entire disregard of personal danger.


4. The other commissioned witnesses were Brigadier General (now Major General) W.C. Langfitt and Lieut. (now Captain) S.M. Felton Jr. and Lieut. R.M.F. Townsend, both of the Corps of Engineers.


(Sd) C.H. McKinstry,

Brigadier General, U.S.A.