February 23rd 1917

west-n-2

Capt. Nevile West (Royal Berkshire Regiment)

Another Old Dragon has joined our Roll of Honour. Nevile West has been killed. He had already had one lucky excape. You may recall that he sent us an account of his experiences in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915.  He described how his camera was hit by a bullet that would otherwise have killed him.

Nevile’s bravery was recognised in the award of the MC ‘for conspicuous bravery‘ when he was twice wounded in an attack not long after the above incident.

It is understood that Nevile met his death on the night of January 16th when, in preparation for an attack, he and his company moved into position, where they experienced severe shelling. This bombardment claimed the lives of Nevile and one of his men, whilst five others were wounded.

Letters from fellow officers are always appreciated by family and friends alike, and it is inspiring to hear when one of our Old Boys is given such respect as Nevile was:

“His disposition was always bright and cheery, in fact he was the life of the mess, a good musician and a very fair artist, and up to the time of his death appeared to have led an almost charmed life, for he knew no fear or hesitation where duty called him and his one thought was the comfort and safety of his men.”

Nevile was somewhat reserved and diffident as a boy, as I recall, but had plenty of energy and ‘go’ and was much beloved by all who knew him at all intimately.

December 9th 1916

By a strange coincidence, on the same day Lieut. Jack Gamlen (OBLI) wrote to us of meeting Capt. Leslie Grundy (late of York & Lancaster Reg., now with 90th Machine Gun Corps), Leslie also wrote to us of an incident that had occurred the previous evening, when he was sitting in a small cellar of a largely demolished house.

grundy-glo25.11.16 “I heard the swish of a shell and heard a loud detonation. I went up the cellar steps to ask how far off it had fallen and was told that it had fallen about 200 yards away and that only a few splinters had come our way.

I had got to the top step of the cellar when I found a man in my way at the top. I had just touched him and was going to tell him to move aside when we all heard a shell coming. We all ducked instinctively, the man on the top step falling on me. I had lost my balance, but before my feet had left the step I was on, there was a brilliant flash and a terrific explosion.

I scrambled out from under the fellow who was on top of me and found myself at the bottom of the steps with the place full of dust. There were some cries coming from above. I lit a candle and found that the centre part of the roof of the cellar had fallen in and had smashed the table, but had missed the officer and the two servants who were in there and that they were only a bit dazed.

I then went up above and found men lying all over the place. I flashed my torch around and saw that five were obviously dead and that about six more were lying about groaning. Another man and myself got the two worst cases into the cellar and started bandaging them up.

I went up with another fellow and we got the third man down. As we were going down the stairs, another shell came and burst about 20 yards to the flank and, I found afterwards, smashed in half another cellar on top of three men, also killing three of the limber horses and wounding the fourth…

The shelling stopped and we went up to count the damage.

Right on top of the cellar was a huge crater, 6 ft. across and going right through the 3 ft. of bricks on top of the roof. It was not 6 ft. from where my head had been. Two small beams had apparently saved me. They were riddled with splinters, but apparently the force of the shell had gone in another direction.

Five men were lying round the entrance dead. Three of them were in my company and two belonged to the other company. One of my best sergeants and two of my best men. The two others were guides.

We took the personal effects of the five to send to their homes and put them in a shell hole not far away. We buried them this morning. The three horses are still lying across the road. Two of my wounded have since died in the dressing station. In all I lost about ten men killed and wounded, and the other company about seven.

Incidents like this are happening every day on all parts of the front and they happen pretty frequently around here, but you seldom hear about these small details, so I thought I would tell you about one of them – not so much for the morbid interest of the thing as to give you some idea of what war is like…

I am very fit at present with the exception of slight deafness and headache caused by the explosion.”

Certainly, such details are not to be found in our newspapers or, from what Jack Gamlen told us, Brigade Intelligence Reports either.

 

 

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.”

 

August 26th 1916

 

Benham, Frank

Captain Frank Benham (RFA)

Frank has died in Queen Alexandra’s Hospital, Millbank, London.

He received wounds to the right side of the head, the neck and shoulder on August 5th. He was able to write three short communications to his wife on arrival at the No. 2 Stationary Hospital at Abbeville on the 8th and it was thought that he was being transferred to England on August 11th.

There was considerable confusion as to his whereabouts, until he sent a telegram to his wife saying he had arrived in Southampton on August 2oth. The following day he was transferred to Queen Alexandra’s.

He had in fact spent the week following the 11th at the No.2 General Hospital at Havre, it having been decided that he was too exhausted to continue to England. On the 14th he suffered a minor haemorrhage from the neck wound. It stopped quite quickly, although the cause of it remained unexplained.

On August 22nd, Frank suffered another haemorrhage and underwent an unsuccessful operation to save him.

His wife was at his side when he died.

August 13th 1916

Edmund GayCaptain Edmund Gay (Norfolk Regiment) was declared missing a year ago.

The Daily Telegraph reported about ten days ago that our Government understands that there are only nineteen officers and 359 other ranks known still to be in Turkish hands as Prisoners of War.

With regards the 290 officers (amongst whom Edmund is numbered) and 9,700 other ranks still missing, they feel that there are no longer any grounds for hoping they might be prisoners,

“and therefore it was consequently decided that the missing officers and men not accounted for must be officially accepted as dead. Effect is being given to this decision after due consideration of the circumstances of each individual case.”

There has still been no official confirmation of his death given to the family however, and until such time we will continue to list him as “missing.”

* * * * * * *

Benham, FrankCaptain Frank Benham (RFA) was wounded by a German shell hitting his dug-out on August 5th. At the time he was in charge of a battery at Mametz Wood on the Somme.

On August 8th he was strong enough to be able to write to inform his wife of his situation and the matron on his ward has also written to say she hopes he will be strong enough to return to England shortly.

 

July 29th 1916

 

DW Brown

Capt. David Westcott Brown (Leicestershire Regiment)

It has now been confirmed that David was killed in the fighting for Bazentin le Petit on July 14th. Although his body has not been found, a Sergeant reported seeing it.

Like many, David realised in the spring that the summer months ahead would see the launching of a new offensive. Foreseeing the high number of casualties amongst officers, he felt the need to prepare himself – and his family. He wrote to his cousin Lillian in May:

“…. I am writing like this because summer is here, and I don’t think our present peacefulness can go on much longer. People at home are beginning to wonder what they pay us for; and I think Death must come to many of us, if not to most (I am talking of officers now) before very long: and, if it does come to me, I don’t want you to feel it as a shock, and I don’t want you or anyone to grieve.

You know it is rather an honour to die now, to die for all that we hold precious, for our country, to die that we may live, and to die with so many better men.

I don’t want to die. I want to live and tell how I was in the War, how I was a fighter in it, not merely a server; but, if I do get killed, I want you and everyone to know that I knew of the possibility, that I was ready for it, and facing it, and not shirking and dodging the thought of it. It seems to me that for a man who is, if not ready or willing to die, at least aware of the presence of death, and looking it in the face not caring or wondering what lies beyond, Death has lost its power. When you cease to fear Death you have conquered it, and Death has become only a gate, no harder to pass through than the door of a room.

Am I just being morbid? I hope not; because I feel somewhat that should the worst happen it may help Mother and Dad to know that I was not caught by surprise, not realising what I was in for…”

David also wrote a poem around this time, when still behind the lines:

Two Voices
“The roads are all torn” ; “but the sun’s in the sky,”
“The houses are waste” ; “but the day is all fair,”
“There’s death in the air” ; “and the larks are on high,”
“Though we die – ” ; “it is spring-time, what do we care?”
“The gardens are rank” ; “but the grass is still green,”
“The orchards are shot-torn” ; “there’s a bloom on the trees,”
“There’s war all around” ; “yet is nature serene,”
“There’s danger” ; “we’ll bear it, fanned by the breeze.”
“Some are wounded” ; “they rest, and their glory is known,”
“Some are killed” ; “there’s peace for them under the sod,”
“Men’s homes are in peril” ; “their souls are their own,”
“The bullets are near us” ; “not nearer than God.”

David was a cousin of Percy Campbell (one of the first OPS casualties) and the godfather of a current young Dragon, Per Mallalieu.

He won a scholarship to Marlborough and then went to Balliol to read ‘Greats’, when war broke out and he joined up.

July 27th 1916

Whilst we have learnt much from the newspapers about the ‘Big Push’ on the Somme, it is not the same as hearing from someone in the thick of things. Capt. Leslie Grundy (late of York & Lancaster Regiment, now serving with 90th Machine Gun Company) has found the time to provide us with a first-hand account of the events of July 1st.

He was involved in the attack on Montauban at the southern end of the battlefield. (Here the preliminary bombardment was clearly more effective than further north and casualties considerably fewer).

grundy-glo“We had done all the practising for the last fortnight and were now waiting in the assembly trenches. For us, these consisted of a few small trenches cut in a hollow between two woods about 700 yards behind our front line. We had arrived in these trenches late the night before, and had passed a very cold night indeed. Consequently we were all awake when dawn broke.

The guns had been keeping up a pretty heavy bombardment throughout the night, increasing in intensity every minute. The fringe of the wood behind us (curiously enough called ‘Oxford Copse’) was lined with 18-pounders, who were firing over our heads. As they were only 150 yards away, the noise was deafening.

Although we had not been given the time for ‘Zero,’ we judged it was near enough for us to issue the rum, so an issue of two jars among 150 men was made at 5 o’clock. We got word from Brigade Headquarters that Zero was to be at 7.30.

About this time a heavy ground mist appeared and for some time it looked as if the attack would have to be postponed. As it was near to 7.30 the Company Commander and I went over to a small piece of rising ground that was in front of us to watch the first wave go over the top. Over it went at 7.30 exactly, and as far as we could see there was only one casualty and it did not sound as if there was very much hostile rifle fire…

At 8.30 I went forward with my servant, and the two other sections followed 50 yards behind, interval 100 yards, but owing to the weight of our loads we fell behind our appointed place and found ourselves mixed up with some engineers. This ground was made up later on, while waiting for our artillery to lift.

When about 100 yards off our original front line, we saw that the enemy was putting up a barrage in No-man’s-land and a lot of our infantry were knocked out going through. When we got right up to this barrage we made a dash and, as far as I could make out, lost very few men. One of the section officers, however, was wounded rather badly in the back.

We found the Boche wire, when we got up to it, had been blown to pieces by our artillery fire and the trenches themselves had suffered so terribly that it was difficult to tell in what direction they ran. I had my first rest here; it was a hot day, and the packs were beginning to tell on us.

As it looked as if the Boches were shortening their range, we thought it best not to make too long a stay at this spot and therefore pushed on as far as the Glatz Redoubt. In a few minutes No. 2 section came up; so far they had only lost three men.

At this point a party of about 30 Boche prisoners were marched past; all of them apparently in great fear of their lives! They had all, seemingly, been very much shaken by our bombardment, and in the trench we were occupying there were many of them lying badly wounded. After a few minutes we mounted our guns and opened fire on the Boches to the left of Montauban, as the Brigade there did not seem to have attained its objective.

All this time our heavy artillery had been keeping up an intense bombardment on Montauban, and we could see our infantry waiting in the open in long line, ready to go in when the artillery fire lifted. Later there seemed to be some slackening of the fire and our troops immediately went forward. The whole thing was done as if on parade. They went over at a steady walk, keeping their dressing all the time. As far as we could see, there was no hostile rifle fire from Montauban at all and, as yet, no shell fire was falling on them.

I then decided that this would be the time to get our machine-guns into Montauban, so we went forward…

The whole place was literally blown to pieces, and it was with great difficulty we discovered where the roads had been. However, somehow or other, we managed to get both sections to A. Keep, where we found some men already busily consolidating. We had only been there a few minutes when a Boche machine-gun started traversing the village…

Just before dusk there seemed to be a small attack, but it was easily dispersed by rifle and machine-gun fire. All that night we fired at all small parties of Boches who could be plainly seen, and as it grew light we heard the sound of bombs exploding and found the Boches were bombing Montauban Alley from the other end.

About 7 o’clock the bursting bombs seemed to be very close to one another and… about 30 of our men jumped out of the trench and started to retire towards us in Montauban. Immediately on seeing this, the Boches jumped out of their trenches and started firing on them. We turned two machine-guns on the Boches and wiped the party completely out, but not before they had accounted for all our men.

The wounded in our trench were coming into the dug-out at an alarming rate and soon it became evident that the only people holding the keep were the machine gunners, and we had only two men per gun. As the bombing attack seemed to be developing, the Company Commander sent a message back for an artillery barrage. In a short space of time our shells started to come over, bursting in the valley in front of Montauban…

After this, the attack seemed to fizzle out. Several Boche snipers however, had managed to get into position in the diagonal trench leading from Montauban Alley to Montauban. They managed to cover all the exits from C Keep and they got a number of our walking wounded, who were trying to get back.

The shelling was fairly heavy throughout the day, but there were no more infantry attacks…”

That evening Leslie and his men were relieved and here at least undoubted success was achieved.