Kelly, Lt Richard Barrett Talbot

(1896 – 1971)

Forward Observation Dugout, Indian Village, Festubert, June 1915


Pencil drawing, 6 x 3 1/8 in. (15 x 8 cm.)

1 in stock


Private Collection

This is the Original Sketch for a water colour in the collection of The National Army Museum showing Kelly’s own Forward Observation Post Dugout at the Indian Village, Festubert, June 1915.

The Battle of Festubert (15–25 May 1915) was an attack by the British army in the Artois region of France on the western front during World War I. The offensive formed part of a series of attacks by the French Tenth Army and the British First Army in the Second Battle of Artois (3 May – 18 June 1915).

Talbot Kelly’s account of the FirstWorldWar is recorded in A Subaltern’s
Odyssey (1980).

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Kelly, Lt Richard Barrett Talbot

1896 – 1971

T.K., as he was known to his friends, was born in Birkenhead on the 20th August 1896. His grandfather, R. G. Kelly, and his father, R. G. Talbot Kelly, were both artists. At the age of 6, the family moved to London, where he attended the Hall Prep School in Hampstead, and then went to Public School at Rugby. From there, in November 1914, he entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich via the special entry scheme for boys from Public Schools, was commissioned on the 22nd April 1915, and joined the 52nd Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, in May. The Brigade was then serving in France as part of the Divisional Artillery of 9th (Scottish) Division – this was the first Territorial Division to go to France. He served with the 52nd Division for the next two and a quarter years during which time the 9th Division spent long periods in the trenches and Kelly found himself at the battles of Festubert, Loos, 2nd Ypres and the Somme in 1916. As a gunner subaltern, his job generally would take him to live up front with the infantry where he would observe the fire of his batteries on the German positions.

T.K. was fascinated by birds and was to become a famous painter of birds in the 20s and 30s. He had several books published: in 1937 – “The Way of Birds”, in 1945 – “Birds of the Sea”, in 1955 – “Bird Life and the Painter” and in 1966 – “A Bird Overhead.” He was known as the most imaginative and charming painter of birds in the country since Archibald Thorburn. He wrote a small article on wild life on the Western Front, saying “in a grey rolling downland, my most constant companion was the kestrel. They were everywhere, close up to the front trenches, in the ruined suburbs of the old city, beside our guns. During the bitter cold of early 1917, they hung like grey specks in the white mists above the snow-bound land. Wire pickets or a splintered crucifix were good perches for them. They worked hard for our health, keeping in check the ever increasing hordes of rats that war breeds.”

He was blown up on the 5th August during a bombardment and invalided home. His diary reads “Sunday 5th – fine day. Pioneers start work on new track. Go down to wagon line in afternoon via new position. 8 hours of gas shelling by Hun. Thompson gassed ! Feel rotten about mid-day and go to bed ?” In his memoirs, he recounts how he was talking to the Captain from a neighbouring battery, when a German shell burst beside them. It was so close that he found himself at the bottom of the crater it had made, and as he crawled up the side, slightly dazed, he saw some men running up with shovels either to dig him out or cover up his remains. For some hours he was alright, but the force of the explosion had severely concussed all his “insides” which then began to swell and pain him greatly. Next morning he was evacuated to the base hospital at Le TrŽ port, a converted hotel (where Crippen had spend his last nights in Europe before bolting to America). He was , for the first time in his life, and interesting medical case, and because no piece of shell had cut his skin and drawn blood he was officially unwounded. Yet he was on the danger list for some ten days before they dared ship him to England. The final paragraph in his memoirs – “A Subaltern’s Odyssey” says “One does not hear the shell that gets one. If the ground had not been a bog and as soft as it is, it is absolutely certain that I would have been blown to bits.”

Just a few words about his career after the war. After his recovery, he returned to France in March 1918 to study concealment techniques and then came back to England to become Specialist Instructor in Camouflage at the School of Artillery at Larkhill. His interest in flying was such that he applied to be trained as a pilot. He was posted to the Royal Flying School at Reading but the war ended just as he was about to join his training squadron. While the wartime army was being demobilised, Talbot Kelly returned to the Royal Artillery. He served for a time in India, returned to England in 1921 where he joined a special anti-aircraft unit in Aldershot and in 1929 he resigned his commission and went back to his old school, Rugby, as Director of Art. In 1939, he became Chief Instructor at the War Office Camouflage Development and Training Centre at Farnham. For his services there, he was made an M.B.E.

After this war, he returned to Rugby School again and taught there until his retirement in 1966. A book entitled “A Subultern’s Odyssey” – A Memoir of the Great War, 1915-1917 was published in 1980 based his own diaries. He was particularly gifted as a teacher, and generations of boys from Rugby School remember TK with gratitude. He died on the 30th March 1971.

We are grateful to David and Judith Cohen for the above note.


Lt Richard Barrett Talbot Kelly
An RE8 with a French Nieuport 27 fighter escort, circa 1916