Friday, 12 August 2011

Sidney Alfred Holder, The Wall and the Unknown Soldier

Earlier this week, this writer was lucky enough to be invited to the unveiling ceremony of the latest memorial plaque to be erected by the charity 'Firemen Remembered' which does so much excellent work in preserving and honouring the memory of the firefighters of the Second World War, those 'Heroes with Grimy Faces' as they were memorably described by Winston Churchill.

This particular plaque is located at Shoe Lane, London EC4 and honours an incident that was immortalised on canvas by the artist Leonard Rosoman R.A., a firefighter in the Auxilary Fire Service who witnessed the event at first hand and although traumatised by what he had seen, created a powerful image, which Rosoman himself at first thought was too raw for public consumption, showing as it did, the imminent deaths of two firefighters and colleagues but which is today recognised as one of the iconic pieces of the war artists' work that it truly is. The image originally entitled 'The Falling Wall' by the artist but for some reason re-titled by the Imperial War Museum 'A House Collapsing on two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London EC4' is reproduced below, courtesy of the IWM, which is today the home of the original painting.

This incident occurred during the great fire raid on the City of London on the night of 29th/30th December 1940, which is sometimes known as The Second Great Fire of London, such was the intensity of the fires started by the German incendiaries and the vast swathes of the Square Mile that were laid waste.

As part of the ceremony, the redoubtable Stephanie Maltman, one of the leading figures behind the charity, explained what to the best of our knowledge today, had happened on this night in Shoe Lane and how Auxiliary Fireman Sidney Alfred Holder and a now unknown helper who had simply been passing by had come to perish beneath fifteen feet of white hot bricks and masonry.

Sidney Holder, Leonard Rosoman and the future writer and novelist William Sansom were part of an AFS squad detailed to fight a major fire in Shoe Lane, just off Fleet Street. Rosoman, Sansom and Holder were controlling a branch directing water onto the blazing building and although it looked a hopeless task, stuck bravely at their task. Amazingly, but not uncommonly during a major raid, there were still passers by going about their business and the firefighters were joined by an off duty soldier and an RAF aircraftsman, who offered to help. Again, this was not an uncommon occurence. During the course of their toils, a more senior AFS Officer appeared on the scene and instructed Rosoman to leave the branch to the others and accompany him on a recce from an adjacent building to see if they could find another spot from which to direct their branches at the by now out of control fire. As they surveyed the scene, Rosoman heard the ominous crack of the wall crumbling under the heat and collapsing onto the men below, one of whom was Rosoman's close friend, William Sansom.

Incredibly, Sansom and the Aircraftsman survived the incident by dint of good fortune; the wall had collapsed almost as a solid slab of masonry and they had the luck to be standing more or less on the spot where a window frame hit the ground and although showered with masonry, they were not seriously buried and were quickly able to free themselves and rushed to where Holder and the soldier had been directing their branch. The two men tore at the white hot bricks with their bare hands, severely burning themselves at the same time. They were quickly relieved by a Rescue Squad and it was only when they were taken aside, that Sansom and his colleague realised the extent of the injuries to their hands.

The rescuers eventually reached the two buried men; the soldier was dead when they found him. His steel helmet had been crushed almost flat. Although the details are sketchy, history tells us that Sidney Alfred Holder was alive when pulled from the rubble; the Commonwealth War Graves Commission tells us that he died 'near to St Bartholomew's Hospital' which suggests that he died in an ambulance on his way to that place.

Sidney Alfred Holder was 49 years old at the time of his death and came from Hendon in North London. Despite fairly extensive research by Stephanie and her colleagues at Firemen Remembered, the identity of the soldier who heroically offered to help on that fateful night has never been established and he remains 'known unto God' but to us mere mortals, one of the many 'unknown soldiers.'

It is thanks to the likes of Sidney Alfred Holder, his colleagues in the Fire Service and Civil Defence Services and the now anonymous helpers like the unknown soldier, that the London we know and love today still stands, with 'honourable scars' but unbowed by tyranny.

Published Sources:

Fireman Flower - William Sansom, Hogarth Press 1944

The London Blitz: A Fireman's Tale - Cyril Demarne OBE, After The Battle 1991


  1. Hi, Steve. Thanks for the article. Just one point, which no one involved with the preservation of Blitz history seems to catch. The title of Leonard Rosoman's iconic Blitz painting is, "The Falling Wall". That's what he called it. For some unknown reason, the Imperial War Museum retitled it, "A House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London EC4". This error has been standing for at least a decade and has spread all over the net. I think it's time some authority related to the history of the Blitz had this corrected. It's wrong to change the artist's title of a work, especially one that has become so famous. Thanks for your thoughts. Bill Baldwin

    1. Hi Bill. Apologies for the slow reply but have been somewhat busy lately. I didn't know that the IWM had re-titled the work and cannot think why they would have done this. I have corrected my piece accordingly to show the author's favoured title. Thanks for your contribution. Steve

    2. Hi, Steve. I keep adding long replies here and they keep vanishing (twice) when I press "publish". So one more time, and with a quarter of the detail.
      As of 22 June, 2017, the official IWMuseum entry for Rosoman's painting will add the "alternative" title, "The Falling Wall". I have the details and email from IWM confirming same.

    3. Thanks for the update Bill.
      Kind Regards