January 12th 1918

Lieut. Arthur Huson (RGA) has sent in this heart-felt appreciation of his, and our great friend, Bill Sheepshanks, whose death was confirmed recently.

2nd Lieut. William Sheepshanks (KRRC)

“Well, Sheepers, they have given me a difficult job this time, old thing, to try to do justice to your memory, but I should be a poor sort of pal if I did not make the attempt.

I remember you first when I arrived at the School House, very small and very frightened,  long time ago now, and you helped to make an easy path for me, a new boy in a new world.

It did not take long to grow to like you, and not long for that liking to develop into something deeper, for there have been few things in your short life that we have not done together…

It was always you that led the way and I never knew you chuck your hand in over any single thing you tried, and you wouldn’t let me do it either. The very thought of giving in never seemed to occur to you…

Do you remember the joys of the Varsity rugger, or the Eights, or lunch in a punt on the Cher on Sundays? We tried and shared them all. And how we crept out of our beds and waited together to get seats for the Mikado, for how we blessed Josias Conybeare and his car for taking us to an ‘International’ in Town?

And how faithful you were to the Skipper and his School. Not that it was a hard job, but ask GC (Mr GC Vassall, esteemed editor of the ‘Draconian‘) how many dinners or cricket matches you missed at the OPS. How we looked forward to those games. They were the only ones you were allowed to keep wicket or I to bowl, and with what joy we encompassed the fall of Pug Wallace – when we did.

Well those days are over, Sheepers, except in memory, and I don’t think I realised it properly until that Winchester meeting at Amiens the other day when you were not sitting next to me to talk about old times, as you surely would have been.

But your end was true to your life, old thing, and you have left behind you a memory as clean and happy as the life that bred it. Here’s luck to you on the other side, Sheepers. God knows you need no wishes of mine, but you shall have them nonetheless, for a cleaner, straighter, truer pal man never had.”

January 5th 1918

The battle at Cambrai, which was launched on November 20th 1917 with over 400 tanks, was reported in our newspapers as a great success.

The role of the cavalry has been a small one in this war, but it was hoped that they might have played a significant part if a breakthrough could be achieved. Capt. Reggie Carr-White (Indian Army), who was in reserve with Hodson’s Horse, found himself in the thick of the action when on November 30th there was a German counter-attack, his breakfast being rudely interrupted:

“An orderly came in with a message telling us to ‘stand to.’ Our horses were out at exercise, and we didn’t know where they had gone to… Meanwhile another message came in, telling us to move at once. . So we all hustled about and packed our things; in the meantime the horses came in and we moved off within the hour…

Nobody knew why we were being moved – the optimists, like myself, thought that we had broken the German line; and the pessimists thought the opposite had happened.”

The closer they got to the action, the clearer it became that the pessimists were right.

“We trotted about another six miles and then halted again, and watched a fine but very sad spectacle. We were in a valley, and about 500 yards in front of us was a low ridge. Along the top of this a British Cavalry regiment was galloping, with German crumps bursting in amongst them. Many of the troops got direct hits on them, and one could see a troop galloping along and suddenly it would practically disappear as a shell burst in it, then a second or two later one would see a few of them straggling forward and a small mound left behind. It made me feel a bit sick. But not a man checked, and all galloped steadily on…

My squadron was the rear squadron of the regiment, and I was about 100 yards behind B squadron, whom I saw trotting along quietly through a gap in the wire in front, and disappearing over the ridge. As I came to the gap and topped the ridge, an extraordinary sight met my eyes: galloping horses everywhere, many of them riderless, and there were many dead horses and men on the ground. Into this medley the Germans were putting crump after crump. B squadron was retiring at a slow gallop and in perfect formation…”

Reggie was told to retire with his squadron and find another way round, to avoid the artillery fire. It was a very confused situation, under shell fire, with people from numerous regiments and “tanks barging about.

They came back to a British-held trench. Reggie was possibly understating it when he said,

“It must have surprised them to have two squadrons of cavalry jumping over their heads.”

An alternative route was taken and they eventually found their way to the top of a low ridge where the rest of the regiment were digging in, alongside the Guards who successfully attacked and took Gouzancourt.

Digging in meant it was time to send the horses back and for the cavalry to become infantry, ready for another German attack.  There were still some British tanks involved in the action, although being a cavalry man, Reggie clearly has mixed feelings about this new form of combat.

“Just then several of our tanks rolled up and seemed uncertain where they were. It was pathetic how perplexed those tanks looked, nosing about liked puzzled rhinoceroses and they made us feel quite sorry for them… They then seemed to become inspired and waddled off, one after the other, towards the Germans.”

But there is no doubt in his mind that those who operate these tanks are brave men.

“One may make jokes about them, but in my opinion the fellows inside are the bravest fellows on earth. Shell after shell burst all round them, and finally of course, several got direct hits on them, and before long four of them were burning like great bonfires. Later in the day I met one of the officers, who had been in one. He told me all the crew in his had been killed and he was very cut about himself.

The Guards and a regiment of Indian cavalry attacked Gauche Wood, dismounted; they followed behind the tanks and took the wood fairly easily. In places they got in with the bayonet.”

From the map it is clear that the German counter-attack had made deep inroads, before being repulsed by our troops to the line shown, just west of Villers-Guislain.

 

January 1st 1918

As we move into a New Year, I look back with a mixture of pride and extreme sadness at the achievements and sacrifice made by so many in 1917.

Since July, 13 Old Boys have been wounded, one has received the DSO, three the Military Cross, one a special promotion, one a Croix de Guerre, one an Egyptian distinction, one a Belgian, one an Italian and one a Royal Red Cross award. There have been 13 ‘Mentions in Despatches’ (Bat Price for the 5th, Tyrrell Brooks the 4th and Jocelyn Pickard the 3rd time).

The Roll of Old Boys that have fallen includes some of my best, and best-loved, friends. Their lives cannot and must not have been given in vain: and the thought that has come down the ages, that the souls of the brave and righteous still live on, cannot lie.

None do we mourn more greatly than Hugh Sidgwick. His family has passed to me this tribute from his old employer, Sir Amherst Selby-Bigge, Permanent Secretary to the Board of Education, reflecting on Hugh’s abilities:

“He was not only a perfect Private Secretary, but a very dear friend who could be trusted with anything. His loyalty, sincerity and candour were perfect and I never found in him the slightest touch of vanity or self-seeking…

His mind was singularly cool and well balanced and his exposition of intricate problems admirably clear and logical. His knowledge of Mathematics and power of handling figures were invaluable…

He had the gift of writing straight ahead in good proportion and with clear expression and articulation of argument, almost as quickly as another man could dictate…

When he was in doubt about coherence and lucidity of an important paper for publication he used to test it by turning it into Greek, and I have in my possession an admirable Greek version of a letter addressed by the President of the Board (HAL Fisher) to teachers, concerning their duties in regard to military service…”

Hugh was one of 18 Old Dragons to perish in 1917, 9 of whom were involved with the third and grimmest of struggles at Ypres. The fates of Edmund Gay,  John Dowson and Hunter Herbertson remain unknown.

          Capt. E Gay            Capt. OJ Dowson     Lieut. H Herbertson

Is it too much to expect, or even suggest, that 1918 might see the end of this terrible conflict?