March 29th 1917

It is now over a year since Lieut. Jack Gamlen (OBLI) last visited us. His witty poem, sent to the boys before their performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ earlier this term was much appreciated, and now he writes to sing the praises of our French allies. He is quite a Francophile!

Here he describes his experience of taking over a section of the trenches from the French:

“I think that none of our party shared my excitement and joy at meeting the French army in the field. In the British area it is difficult to feel that one is in France; even Amiens and Abbeville breathe a mixed (a very mixed) atmosphere. But here, below ground (in a dug-out), we were in France at last. We got to business at once and I began my duties as Brigade Interpreter. The French Brigadier impressed us all very much…

As it was now mid-day, the Colonel suggested that we should have lunch before we came to business. We agreed, and ate one of the best lunches I ever came across. There were five courses, there was red wine, there was champagne, yet everything was simple and the meal was short. At first everyone was shy and I had to do the talking for the English side. But as time went on, both sides thawed, and by the time we had coffee everyone was talking some sort of French.

After lunch we got to business at once. The Colonel was wonderful. He had every detail that we wanted at his finger tips and scarcely ever referred to his Adjutant. After an hour in looking at maps and discussing dispositions, he took us some way forward to an O.P, from which we had a wonderful view of the German front…

The next day I returned with the Brigade Major and again called upon the French Brigadier in order to arrange the final details of the forthcoming relief…

He spoke the most exquisite French and had the most exquisitely simple manners. I am sure that he is descended from one of those French Officers of the old days, who used to call out to their men ‘Messieurs les gendarmes de la maison du Roi, veuillez assurer vos chapeaux. Nous allons avoir l’honneur de charger…’

The French fighting man is a glorious creature and the sight of him should convince any armchair pessimist that nothing can ever kill France, however full her cemeteries may be (and they are terribly full round here)…

Let there be no misunderstanding about what France is. She is, and has been for a thousand years, the most civilized country in the world and her salvation is the first and greatest object of the war, for the presence of a single German soldier on French soil is an obscene thing.

My dear Dragons, educate yourselves to love France. Learn to read and speak French well, NOW, and, after the war, get your parents, whether they can afford it or not, to take you often to France…

There is nothing un-British or decadent in this love of France; and there is something very stupid and ugly in the want of it.  Every civilized being ought to write on his heart the fine old motto, ‘Chacun a deux pays: le sien et La France.’

Clearly we must have more French lessons!

December 27th 1916

Whilst it is to be very much hoped that everyone is enjoying their Christmas holiday, there is one task that the VIth Form must not forget to complete.

As is the tradition, they spent the second half of term getting to know a Shakespeare play – in this case ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’ The parts have been assigned and must be known absolutely pat. Boys should get their sisters etc to improve their acting during these holidays.

Normally, that most faithful of Old Dragons, Lieut. Jack Gamlen (OBLI), would attend a performance to review it, but he has written to say he is otherwise engaged on the Western Front and he tells us that he will instead, “dream mid-winter nights’ dreams” about us all.

The boys will enjoy this witty poem, written for them by Jack, whilst on active service in France:

TO THE CAST OF 'A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM.'
Dear Players, take from one who used,
Each year, to be your faithful critic - 
A task he'd never have refused,
Though deaf or blind, or paralytic -

A tribute to your former skill,
Good wishes for your next excursion
In plays which universal Will
Devised for his and your diversion.

I mind the day, in 'ninety-eight,
When I myself appeared as Theseus,
(At two days' notice, let me state,)
Expecting hisses loud as geese use.

And, I can tell you from my heart,
To have such memories to remember,
Helps me to play the harder part
Of fighting Germans in December.

          J.G., France, Dec., 1916

December 5th 1916

Lieut. Jack Gamlen (OBLI) was last in touch back in October, to tell us the story of his regiment’s involvement in the Somme battle in August. He said then that the Somme trenches were “very horrible.” His latest letter tells that, for the time being at least, he has escaped them:

23.11.16. “When you have been wet through for a week, have just come out of the trenches and are standing in the main street of a horrible and historic village, looking through glasses at the German lines, it is pleasant suddenly to have your elbow jogged by your Commanding Officer and to be told that you are to report forthwith at the Brigade Headquarters. Every so often a subaltern is detailed for attachment for instruction in staff duties…

As I approached Brigade Headquarters, I remembered that I had neither washed nor shaved for a week and felt very much ashamed of my appearance…

I was conducted into the presence of the Brigadier, a young and very handsome man with many medals. He was reading the ‘Times’ and told me to sit down and eat.

After a pause he put down his newspaper, looked long at me and in a mild, tired voice said, ‘Soaked through I suppose!’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And the men?’

‘Soaked through all the time, Sir.’

Then he gave a very refined groan and went on reading the paper.

It was not long before I learnt that this Brigadier was as ready to be soaked through as any of the men, but, at the time, he seemed an exquisite being, remote from war, and mud, and hardship.

I made myself presentable by lunch, when we were joined by the OC Machine Gun Company, no less a person than L Grundy OD. He is my junior by many years and we had never met before. Now we meet nearly every day, but have not yet found time to talk much about the School…

By night I was mostly at Headquarters, but by day I often went out with the Brigadier on his visits to the various Battalion Headquarters. We were frequently shelled and once or twice had quite narrow escapes, but the Brigadier’s personality is such that I think no shell would dare to come too close to him…

My chief job was to write the daily Brigade Intelligence Report, which goes on to the Division. To do so sometimes made me shiver at the cold-bloodedness of my task. It is one thing to put down, ‘The right-half Battalion sent out a patrol between 2 and 4 a.m. which did so and so,’ and a very different thing to go on patrol oneself. The same is true of ration-carrying parties. How well I know them! One must see the game oneself in order to realize how much hardship, danger and often heroism, is compressed into six cold lines of an Intelligence Report.”

 

October 3rd 1916

No regular reader of the newspapers and their lists of casualties can be in any doubt that the fighting on the Somme continues to be fierce and costly. (How grateful we are that we have suffered no fatalities since August).

Lieut. Jack Gamlen (OBLI), who joined the Push on August 13th, tells me that he “has no great tale to tell.” I beg to disagree, as his description of the advances made from Ovillers towards Thiepval is most illuminating.

somme-map-2

“We struck north for Ovillers… it was my first sight of the front and I shall never forget it. Less than three hours march had carried us from corn-fields and unruined villages to an obscure desert which looked like nothing but the surface of the moon. We marched through Ovillers, passing streams of wounded and weary men who were returning from the front line.

Then we turned sharp to the left up a narrow, freshly dug, communications trench. In it I felt quite safe, though enemy 5.9 shells began to fall pretty thickly round us. We went on and on very slowly, and with many halts for half-an-hour, and then at last turned into the third line trench, which we were to occupy as company in reserve.”

Here Jack and his men had to endure some fairly heavy shelling, but were pulled back the following day for a brief period.

“We returned three days afterwards, and this time my Company took over the front line. We were heavily shelled from the first. One man in my platoon was killed by a shell, within three yards of me, just as we had taken up our position.”

Again, the shelling was constant but there were no infantry attacks and Jack returned safely.

“A week later we were back again, further to the left, and in full sight of Thiepval, which looks so harmless and so near in the strong sunlight of a hot morning.

In all this part of the line, the trenches were really not trenches at all. They had been blown to bits weeks before and gave scarcely any shelter to my men, several of whom were under fire for the first time.

On the afternoon of our first day up (August 23rd), an attack was to be made by the Bucks battalion on our left against the enemy line some 200 yards in front. I was in charge of a bombing section, with orders to push on to the enemy trench at Point ***  as soon as the Bucks went over, and to join up with them.

From a shell-hole I watched our wonderful preliminary bombardment of the enemy’s lines. It was terrifying, but extraordinarily interesting. I say ‘terrifying,’ because some of our shells burst very close to us; far too close to be pleasant. Then the barrage suddenly stopped, and the Bucks went over, alas, only to come back (what was left of them) in a very few minutes, for they were mown down by machine-gun fire which started the moment our own barrage lifted.

I now sent back for further orders, and was told to push on to Point ***  if I could. So I organised my bombing party, and sent two men up the communicator, where I already held a ‘bomb-stop,’ (a barricade in the trench dividing Br/Ger troops) to see how near the enemy was. They came back at once and reported about 20 of the enemy behind the next traverse but one. I didn’t believe them, so went myself, and found about 10 of them behind the next traverse but two. We looked at each other and I came back quickly. The attitude of the enemy was expectant, but not very menacing.

I waited for about half an hour, in order to allow the Huns to recover from the sight of me, and then advanced with my whole party. We all expected death, but there was no time to think about it.

When we reached the point at which I had sighted the enemy, I found a German, three yards in front of me, who was just about to descend into a dug-out. His head was already out of sight. I had a beautiful revolver shot at him, and his body and legs followed his head. It was a good moment.

Immediately afterwards the enemy woke up, and there was bombing at close quarters. We conjugated the verb “to bomb” in all its moods and tenses, and my party had wonderful escapes and only two slight casualties. The enemy then retired round the corner of the communicator into their own trench, and as I did not feel equal to attacking their whole first line with one section, I ‘consolidated my position,’ and remained where I was until I was relieved…

This is all I will tell you this time. The Somme trenches are very horrible; shells are very horrible; and fighting is tiring beyond anything which can be conceived at home.

What most impresses me is the speed with which one forgets the horrors as soon as one leaves them behind.”

 

 

November 16th 1915

Mikado 10.1915

The school’s  recent performances of Gilbert & Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado’, could not go by without noting the pain we still feel at the loss of the two members of staff who have died in the War, Leslie Eastwood and Tom Higginson. Higgy it was who first brought G & S to the OPS stage.

How appropriate that we were joined in the audience by a number of wounded soldiers, who were most appreciative. As one of our reviewers said,

“How can one care to do anything so much as for these dear men who have gone out, simply, with a sort of bright eagerness and cheeriness, to lay down their lives and who, having nearly lost them, having seen death and hell and having suffered every torment and hardness, return with the same brightness and cheeriness in this dark world of loss and anxiety?”

The Friday audiences were cheered by many young soldiers, all longing to be out of the OTC and at the Front, and the mother of the School’s own VC, just home from seeing him in Egypt, and by some Dragons home from the Front in France, Russia and the Dardanelles.

2nd Lieut. Jack Gamlen (Ox & Bucks Light Infantry) attended the one of these performances.

“It was delightful to find this performance awaiting one as a treat after a cold and wet October in camp. We, too, when under canvas, had tried to warm ourselves by singing songs from the G & S operas.

Our greatest success was to rouse our Colonel in his pyjamas at 11 pm, by beating the big drum as an accompaniment to the Duke of Plaza-Toro’s  first song, and to be sent to bed. There were five of us, including a College Dean, two solicitors and a real wounded warrior from the Indian Army…”

When Jack came down from Balliol (to which he had won an exhibition from Rugby School) he trained as a solicitor and was practising here in Oxford in the firm of Morrell, Peel & Gamlen, when the war broke out. Much of his military training has been done locally and he likely to be sent to the Front before long.