May 28th 1918

Although it was clear to his family and friends nearly six months ago that 2nd Lieut. Willie Wells-Cole (Lincs) had been killed, the official notification has only this last week been published in the newspapers:

This delay (since we published our notification of his death on December 19th) is explained by the fact that the authorities required official statements from the two eye witnesses, who are both prisoners of war. These have now been secured and Willie’s uncle (and next-of-kin) has finally received this confirmation on May 10th:

“In the view of the statements by these Non-Commissioned Officers the Council are now constrained to conclude that 2ndLieut. Wells-Cole was killed in action on 31stJuly, 1917. I am to express their sympathy with the relatives in their loss and to add that publication will be made in the official casualty list.”

This now enables Willie’s uncle to wind up his nephew’s affairs.

 

 

May 19th 1918

M A Y    1 8 t h    –    V C   D A Y

 

In honour of Capt. Jack Smyth (Sikhs, Indian Army) winning the Victoria Cross on this day in 1915, we have enjoyed a day off, and what a perfect day it turned out to be.

There was a great river picnic on the Upper River, with lunch and tea at the point where Wytham Wood comes nearest the river, just below Eynsham Bridge. The School House maids drove out and joined the party for tea and changed places with some of the juniors for the journey home.

The racing, the blisters, the bathe (Chell’s especially), the sun (Percival), the fruit salad, the big spoon (2 members of Staff), the walk home (Cecil and A.N. Other) and the frequent attempts to drown her crew (another member of the Staff) will long live in the memory.

Unfortunately, I had to attend a meeting in London and missed all the fun!

It has been some time since we last heard from Jack. As far as we know, he is doing a staff job in Bombay – safely away from the Western Front at least.

May 17th 1918

Capt. Philip Frere (KRRC), who visited us last term, was caught up in the Spring Offensive launched by the Boche on March 21st. His record of events, which we have now received, makes the most gripping reading and shows how desperately hard pressed our troops were at that time:

28/3/18. “It all started on the 22nd, as far as we were concerned. We were in Corps Reserve, and had been standing by to move at an hour’s notice.

We were just drinking our port after an early dinner, when we were interrupted by a burst of M.G. fire from about 500 yards, sweeping the village. It was a patrol that had pushed right through. Of course, this was rather sudden when we thought we were six miles at least from the battle. We turned out at once, got the Companies into a trench outside the village and kept off the Boche. We managed to get in touch with the people on the right and left and to form some sort of line…

On the morning of the 23rd, we started scrapping; eventually we saw that the Boche had got right through on our right and were coming round, so we had to hook it, and jolly quick too. He shelled us very heavily with whizz-bangs at point blank range for a time. Our guns behaved as at a military tournament, coming into action at a gallop. We left a platoon to cover our retirement, and then got back as best we could to a line facing South instead of East.

We had a horrid time there; I have never been under such heavy fire in my life. The Boche was streaming over the ridge opposite and we fired as much as we could, husbanding our ammunition; his advance was covered with M.G. fire most awfully well directed, and eventually the people on the left went and we had to swing back N.W…

The first two days I had nothing but a cup of cocoa and a slice of biscuit and marmalade which we found; but then food doesn’t matter and I was hardly hungry. The awful part was thirst, and it was not until the eve of the 24th that we came upon a water point and managed to fill up just before the Boche arrived. I did not know what thirst was till then.

But even this was not so bad as the fatigue and awful depression. What was happening? When would it all end? How long were we to continue this unending fighting? We had not the least idea where the rest of our Brigade and Division were, we had no orders what to do, and were left to gloomy speculation how on earth we were going to subsist.

At Ytres on the 23rd, we managed to hold on till about 4 p.m. when we found that the Boche had crossed the canal, so we fixed up a line behind with the people on our right and retired to it.

Soon after we got into position the Boche started to shell us with a H.V. gun (11”). How on earth he got them up I do not know, there must have been about six of them. I then spent the most unpleasant two hours I have known. We cowered down in the bottom of a shallow trench with these huge shells falling all about the place and four German aeroplanes flying round and round fifty feet above us; not one of ours was to be seen, and we had no ammunition left to fire at them…

Next morning, the 24th, at dawn, we found that we were at the point of the salient about three miles deep and about a mile across at the base. I never thought that we should extricate ourselves, but we did.

All that day the same thing went on, the men were absolutely done, parched with thirst, and with no spirit left at all. That evening we reached Le Sars and dropped where we stood; however, we had fallen on our feet, for we found the Transport and got food and water. That night I got a little sleep, but the cold was ghastly.

Next morning, the 25th, we started with a very heavy action in front of Le Sars; my Assistant Adjutant was killed and the second in command saved me by stopping a bullet in front of me. That day we fought three actions and came to rest in the evening near Beaucourt.

The night was better, the Boche did not molest us and we managed to get hot food from the Transport; I found a tarpaulin which kept me moderately warm, though I was too tired to sleep.”

It is difficult to find a good map on which one can place such events, but this one from the newspapers is the best I can do. Philip’s line of retreat is just south of Bertincourt (Ytres) going due west to Le Sars.

Whilst we have read a lot about the German casualties being enormous, this account, along with the never ending lists of fallen officers in the newspapers, show that our losses have been very considerable as well:

“You could put what is left of the Battalion into a drawing room. I have had a great piece of luck coming through it and I don’t know how I managed it.”

Philip’s sang-froid is truly remarkable; he and his troops must have been driven right to the very limits of their powers of endurance. I fear that the horror of it all will live with them for quite some time.

So much for this. It is an episode about which one could easily write a book, but I have neither the time nor the inclination. I hope to be able to sleep tonight. Last night I had nothing but nightmares.”

 

May 13th 1918

Capt. Geoffrey Carpenter (Uganda Medical Service) writes from the Victoria Falls Hotel in Southern Rhodesia, where he is on leave, having been up country in Singida district of Tanganyika dealing with an outbreak of the plague.

16/4/18. “The inhabitants of this district, known as Wanyaturu, were having rather a poor time, for beside the plague there was smallpox in the country, and they had no grain, all their reserves having been used, and the crops not yet having come on, so they were living on grass seeds, meat and the blood of their cattle, which they obtain and drink after the custom of their northern neighbours, the Masai. 

The jugular vein of an ox is made to stand out prominently by pressure, and then a little arrow is shot into it from a few yards away. This is the time honoured procedure – but one wonders why such a round-about method is used instead of the knife! The warm blood is drunk fresh; though I am a medicine man myself, I could never bring myself to face this procedure, though my curiosity longed to be satisfied!

I am taking advantage of this leave to see one of the world’s wonders… viz., the Victoria Falls on the Zambezi, near Livingstone… 

Firstly, get it into your heads that the renowned Niagara falls are not in it with the Zambezi falls! The latter are twice as broad and two and a half times as high as the Niagara, but perhaps the word deep describes it better than high, seeing that the water drops into an immense chasm, for the level of the country is the same above as below the falls. The river, a mile and a quarter broad, suddenly falls over into a fissure deep set at right angles to its course, and very narrow, in some places less than 400 feet across…

The spray produced by the terrific impact of water at the bottom of the chasm rises high into the air above the surrounding country for some hundreds of feet, forming a white column which is visible from 25 miles away…

I also send one of the railway’s printed maps and a set of picture cards which I should like to be put up on the walls of the Museum, so that the falls may be somewhat more than an empty name on the map.”

May 9th 1918

Lieut. Hunter Herbertson (KRRC)

Having been on the missing list since May 1917, Hunter’s death has finally been confirmed –  after a very trying period of uncertainty for family and friends.

On the night of May 16th 1917 Hunter had gone out on a patrol with two others near Cherisy (at the southern end of the Arras battlefield). None of them returned.

It was nearly a year ago that, on May 20th1917, his grandfather received a telegram stating that Hunter was missing, but noting that “this does not necessarily mean that he is either wounded or killed.”

Having heard nothing further, Mr Herbertson wrote on July 12th for news. Three days later a reply informed him that Hunter was on the list of missing officers sent to the Netherland Legation for circulation throughout German POW camps and hospitals.

There followed a further period of waiting. Then the Red Cross forwarded (on January 29th1918) a statement from a POW, Rifleman Woods, saying that Hunter had been “Killed, on patrol duty, near Reincourt.”  The Red Cross added that “this statement is unofficial and cannot in any way be considered as an absolute certainty.”

Finally, on April 12th 1918, the War Office wrote to Hunter’s grandfather to say that they had come to the conclusion that Hunter had been killed, and agreed to add his name to the official casualty lists. This duly appeared in the newspaper yesterday:

With this letter was Rifleman Woods’ full statement:

“Whilst on patrol Lieut. Herbertson attempted to return, but was caught in the barbed wire entanglement where he was killed. I was accompanying this officer. I am quite positive that this officer was killed.”

The strange thing is that this statement is dated August 30th 1917, so either the authorities had overlooked this information, or it had taken seven and a half months to reach them. Either way, an agony of waiting for the family.

The ‘Oxford Magazine’, in their tribute to Hunter, has described him as “a quiet, studious, rather reserved man, though kindly and high-minded, he was the last person one would have expected to make the keen and effective soldier he did…”

We have vivid recollections of his complete indifference to the chance of punishment, his aptitude for getting into and out of scrapes, his quick brain and obvious gift of commanding a following, and we have not been at all surprised at his successful career as a soldier.

It was what we would have expected.

 

May 4th 1918

We still have no definite news of Capt. John Dowson (Royal Berks), who went missing in action exactly a year ago. However, the family has now posted this notice in the ‘In Memoriam’ column of the Times:

We have also received this touching tribute from Mr HC Bradby, his old housemaster at Rugby School:

‘Ingenui vultus puer, ingenuique pudoris.’

“Sometimes the oldest and stalest quotation revives with a new vigour and meaning in the mind, and no one who knew John Dowson could fail to find a new and unexpected freshness in that hackneyed line.

For the quality that most stood out in him was delightful ingeniousness, which sprang from a complete absence of vanity and self-consciousness and a readiness to respond to all that was friendly or beautiful or amazing in the world.

His intellectual abilities were curiously uneven. He was backward at most of the work which is done at schools and he became the ‘doyen’ of the Lower Middles. It was always a toss up in his Latin exercises whether Caesar would mount his horse or the horse mount Caesar, but when Shakespeare’s Caesar went out to his death on the Ides of March, no one could be more keenly alive than John to the situation; for he was a born actor, and was never so much himself as when imitating somebody else.

He was in short no reasoner, but an artist with a real love of beauty: and he showed it in his writing, for he could write with freshness and humour, as the pages of the ‘Draconian’ can testify; in his music too, for he was a most promising cellist, and sang as a boy with admirable taste; more recently he had shown it as well in some models for statuettes, which are remarkable for their suggestiveness and originality.

How far he could have gone as a musician or sculptor no one can say: undoubtedly there was in him a touch of genius struggling all the time for expression, and with more and more success.”

John was one of our most faithful and loving and beloved of Old Boys. It cheered us up to see his fine face and gloriously radiant smile, and indeed few boys have been so much loved by his comrades and masters and all who had dealings with him.

He was indeed ‘A boy of noble appearance and of a noble sense of honour.’