Archive for December, 2019

Name recorded on Board of Trade Memorial: S. T. A. Ali
Born: About 1889
Date of Death: 1 October 1917
Age at death: 28
Service, Regiment, Corps, etc: Royal Engineers
Unit, Ship, etc: Depot Special Brigade
Rank: Pioneer (Service No. 209658)
Decorations: British War Medal and Victory Medal
War (and theatre): WW1 (France and Flanders)
Manner of Death: Killed by enemy aircraft while in hospital
Family Details: Son of Muhammad Hyder Abdul-Ali of England and husband of Daisy Marion Abdul-Ali (nee Payne) of 123 Brecknock Road, Tufnell Park, London
Home Department: Board of Trade – Establishments Department (Registry and Copying Division)
Civilian Rank: Second Division Clerk
Cemetery or Memorial: Longunesse (St Omer) Souvenir Cemetery; Board of Trade War Memorial (now located at 3 Whitehall Place, London)


The second name listed at the top of the Board of Trade War Memorial is a distinctive one – S. T. A. Ali –  that stands out ahead of its time amongst the likes of Andrews, Bell, Black, Hook, Smith, Williams and others. In my mind his name conjures flavours of the east and is mysterious and investigating Sijil’s life is certainly curious. He must have been an inspiring and intriguing colleague and friend.

So who was he?

His name was Sijil Theodore Arthur Abdul-Ali and as his name suggests he was of Anglo-Indian descent. Sijil was born in Bermondsey, London in about July 1899. His father was a book publisher and accountant (according to his wedding certificate) called Muhammad Hyder Abdul-Ali (1864 – 1941) who was originally from Bombay (now Mumbai), India. His mother was Beatrice Mary Bragg (1861 – 1914) and he also had a sister Leila Dorothy Grace Abdul-Ali (1888 – 1972)

Multi-racial families in Britain are not new, although now more than 1 in 10 people are in an mixed relationship which is something to celebrate for cultural, social and human reasons, but in pre-WW1 Britain, Sijil must have been more distinctive.

Sijil and his family are traceable in the census records and this gives us some insight into his life and background. In 1891, the family are living together at 6 Bedford Square, Brighton with Sijil aged only 3. In both 1901 and 1911 he is recorded living away from home as a ‘boarder’ along with his sister Leila. In 1911 he  is living at 30 Saltram Crescent, Maida Hill near Paddington, London. We also know that he married in December 1916 to a Daisy Marion Payne.

He joined the Board of Trade as a Second Division Clerk working in the Establishments Department (Registry and Copying Division).

The other fascinating aspect about Sijil, apart from his family background, is his expertise and interest in chemistry and in particular alchemy, which is an  ancient philosophy and study of how basic substances (such as metals) are changed into other substances and how such substances were related to magic, astrology. Alchemists believed that substances, the mind, philosophy, religion, magic and astrology were all related to each other and tried to find connections between them.

Prior to the war, we also know that outside of work he was actively involved in The Alchemical Society, serving as its Honorary Secretary. The Society was founded in London in November 1912 with the aim of studying “the works and theories of the alchemists in all their aspects, philosophical, historical and scientific, and all matters relating thereto”. The Society was short-lived, folding sometime in autumn 1915 and was not revived after the end of WW1.


Journal of the Alchemical Society – Sijil Theodore Arthur Abdul Ali was Honorary Secretary

As a member of the society, Sijil was the author of at least three papers published in the Journal of the Alchemical Society:

  • “Some notes on the doctrine of the first matter, with special reference to the works of Thomas Vaughan”
  • “An interpretation of Alchemy in relation to modern scientific thought” 1:3 (March 1913)
  • “A general view of magic in respect to certain primary modes of thought”

The journal was edited by the British chemist, Herbert Stanley Redgrove (1887 – 1943), who was a Fellow of the Institute of Chemists and author of books, “Alchemy: ancient and modern” (1911) and “Bygone beliefs being a series of excursions in the byways of thought” (1920).

Sijil was a key thinker in the society and was interested in finding ways in which alchemical concepts could be translated into modern science and in reinterpreting conversations about alchemy as science. His key position in the society is referenced in several academic books such as “The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse, 1900 -1939 by Egil Asprem (SUNY Press, 31 May 2018) and “Modern Alchemy: Occultism and the Emergence of Atomic Theory” by Mark Morrisson, Associate Professor of English (Oxford University Press, 19 April 2007).

It is also possible, given his close connections with men like Herbert Redgrove and his beliefs that he was a member of either the Golden Dawn (also known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn) which was a secret society which was focused on the study of the occult, the paranormal and metaphysics or one of its offshoot organisations such the ‘Stella Matutina’ or the ‘Alpha et Omega’ which were occult or magical orders which continued to spread the the teachings of the Golden Dawn.

Given his skills, experience and interest, it is no surprise that he enlisted to serve in the Royal Engineers as a Pioneer (Service No. 209658) in a “Depot Special Brigade”. This probably means that he worked with chemical weapons.


Chemical Warfare in WW1

According to The Long Long Trail website Royal Engineers’ special companies did not exist in the British army before 1914 but were established exclusively to develop a British response to German use of chemical weapons.

The first ever use of poison gas (chlorine) was recorded on 22 April 1915 on defenceless French troops in the Ypres Salient by German forces. The Germans released 180 tonnes of chlorine gas in 5 minutes. Chlorine is a powerful gas that irritates the lungs and mucous membranes. Prolonged exposure to chlorine is fatal. The use of the gas was unexpected, despite indications of German preparations, and was banned under the Hague Convention (1907).

In response, the British prepared defensive and retaliatory measures. Under the Royal Engineers, special companies of technically skilled men were formed to handle chemical weapons and the British themselves used chlorine gas as a weapon at the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915.

The War Office set up an expanded force of special companies which included

  • four special battalions to handle gas discharge from cylinder and smoke from candles
  • four special Companies to handle gas shells fired from 4-inch Stokes mortars. Each Company had 48 such weapons.
  • four Special Sections to handle flame projectors (throwers)
  • a Headquarters and Depot

It is in this last depot unit that Sijil Abdul-Ali is most likely to have served.

The Special Brigade forces of the Royal Engineers regiment were commanded by Colonel C. Foulkes who was designated Assistant Director of Gas Services. He reported to Brigadier-General Thuillier, Director of Gas Services and Lieutenant-Colonel S. Cummins, RAMC was Director of Anti-Gas Measures.


“Gas! The Story of the Special Brigade” by Colonel Foulkes

Colonel Foulkes survived the war and later in  1934, he wrote a book “Gas! The story of the Special Brigade“.

Foulkes was a complete novice in the use of gas in war and didn’t have the benefit of time to create and train new units. Volunteers with chemical knowledge were sought from universities and colleges as well as from ranks in the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) with immediate promotion to the rank of Chemist Corporal. The headquarters and depot of the unit was at Helfaut, a village about five miles south of St Omer.

St Omer itself was the General Headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from November 1914 to March 1916. It also housed a large number of military hospitals, being the base for the 4th, 10th, 7th Canadian, 9th Canadian and New Zealand Stationary Hospitals, the 7th, 58th (Scottish) and 59th (Northern) General Hospitals, and the 17th, 18th and 1st and 2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Stations all stationed there at some time during the war. The town also suffered a series of air raids from late autumn 1917 until May 1918 including one specific air raid incident which took place on the night of 30 September 1917/1 October 1917 which resulted in Sijil’s death aged only 28. At this time Sijil was recuperating in the 58th Scottish General Hospital in St Omer.

The precise nature of the attack was reported in the hospital’s War Diary as follows:

“During a hostile air raid on the night of 30/9/17 – 1/10/17, three bombs were dropped in the camp at 10.40 pm, ( 2 on Marquees for patients and 1 in the nurses compound). Of the 2 bombs which dropped on the marquees, 1 struck a marquee which was, fortunately unoccupied, the other struck a marquee occupied by patients and 2 nurses, who were on duty. The bomb which fell in the nurses compound struck a bell tent, which was unoccupied as the 2 nurses who sleep in the tent were on night duty. The casualties which have resulted are :- Nurses killed 3, wounded 3 ( 1 dangerously). Other ranks :- killed 16, wounded 60. Total killed 19, wounded 63. Of the other ranks wounded, 14 were transferred to other hospitals and one of these has since died. There has been much damage to canvas and equipment. 54 marquees (hospital, large) have been damaged (2 have been absolutely demolished, while the damage to the others varies from almost complete destruction to mere riddling). 21 bell tents have been damaged ( 1 was completely destroyed by a bomb and 20 have been riddled). Many pieces of iron pierced the new corrugated iron sleeping hut for sisters. 1 piece pierced iron and 3 pieces of asbestos boarding. Numerous panes of glass have been broken in the permanent buildings. One of the ablution houses has been damaged.

Surgeon General MacPherson, the ADMS and the Matron in Chief called today and it was arranged for the transfer of all lying cases to other hospitals so that at night the walking cases left in hospital might go to the cave in the public garden and sleep there. In the evening patients and unit moved to the cave in the public garden and only the police and a few orderlies were left in the camp. The 3 wounded nurses were transferred today to No 10 Stationary Hospital.

2/10/17 The 3 nurses (Sister Climie, Nurse Thompson and Nurse Coles) and the 16 other ranks killed by hostile aircraft on the night of 30/9/17-1/10/17 were buried today at 4:00 pm in the Souvenir Cemetery Longuenesse. Sister Milne, who was dangerously injured in the same air-raid died last night in No 10 Stationary Hospital. 2 other ranks who were wounded have died today, so that the statistics as a result of the raid are, to date :-  Dead, nurses 4, other ranks 18. Wounded :- nurses 2, other ranks 58. Totals Dead 22, Wounded 60.”

Another soldier, Sergeant Alfred Quinton Barton (1889 – 1956) was a registered pharmicist and serving in the Royal Medical Corps at the time and witness to the events of the night of 30 September/1 October 1917. Alfred had  set up the dispensary at the St Omer Hospital and his diaries describe the horror of the bombing which he remembers as “HELL – DANTE’S DEEPEST” and “God curse the brains who invented & put into practice this type of warfare”


Drawing of St Omer Hospital in 1916

Sijil is buried in the Commonwealth War Grave Commission Longunesse (St Omer) Souvenir Cemetery, Pas-de-Calais, France, where there 2,874 other WW1 Commonwealth burials.

Sijil’s death was a massive loss for thinking in chemical and alchemy circles. The personal inscription chosen by his family to adorn his grave sums up his character, his contribution to society in life and the tragedy of his death aged 28, in the prime of his life. It simply says “He Followed Truth“. That is an aim we can learn from and aspire to in our own modern lives.




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