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 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.

 

February 8th 1918

Lieut. Martin Collier (RN)

We now have further news regarding the death of Martin Collier. He received orders to take his submarine, H 10, with a crew of 26, on dangerous secret service. He sailed from Harwich into the North Sea, never to return. It is thought that perhaps the submarine hit a mine.  Martin had left a noble letter to be delivered to his family in case he did not return.

Further tributes have been forthcoming, this from Sidney Herbert, a fellow officer:

“Martin Collier was captain of one of those of our submarines which go out and are no more heard of, and had I any official knowledge of how they were lost I might not reveal it.”

Sidney remembers stories of Martin when they were at RNC Osborne, roaming the island “sometimes within bounds, sometimes with long chases that brought him in contact with authorities in a way which made the less daring among us hold our breath.”

From Osborne Martin went on to Dartmouth, where his sport flourished. Martin was a talented rugby player. He played for the United Services and he was described as “the hardest working forward in perhaps the best club pack in England.”

In 1913/14 he played for the South and could well have gone on to make the England team.  He was also a boxer of note, winning the Navy & Marines’ middle-weight boxing championship of 1910.

I am most grateful to Martin’s father, Lieut.-Col. Collier, for forwarding me the letter he received from the chaplain of HMS Alecto, written immediately after H 10 had failed to return:

“… I knew your son very well indeed and without any hesitation I can say that he was one of the very finest characters it has ever been my privilege to meet. He was a real, clean, upright Christian gentleman. I personally shall miss him more than I can say.

He was a great help to me here, and the example he set of simple manly religion greatly impressed the officers and men, not only of his own crew, but of the whole depot. He always read the lesson at our parade services when he was in harbour, and was a very regular communicant…

He was most sympathetic and understanding and we all loved him. His crew, whom I knew well, were devoted to him. I saw his coxswain’s wife yesterday, and she told me that she tried to persuade her husband to report sick and miss this last trip, as he had a bad cold. But the coxswain said he couldn’t think of letting Mr Collier go without him.

This spirit animated the whole crew, and proves what we who knew him always recognised, that your son was a born leader of men – but he was more than that, he was a very perfect and courageous gentleman…

He has fought the good fight, he has finished his course, he has kept the faith…”

Coincidentally, today’s ‘Roll of Honour’ in the Daily Telegraph not only recorded Martin’s death, but also listed 2nd Lieut. William Sheepshanks (KRRC) as “Previously reported missing, now reported killed.”

We posted as much on December 27th (Bill having been “missing” since July 10th 1917). It has taken until now for the authorities finally to make this official.

 

 

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.”

December 27th 1917

2nd Lieut. William Sheepshanks (KRRC)

It has been some five months since Bill was reported as “missing.” Just before Christmas, the family received from the Red Cross what they take to be confirmation that Bill died of his wounds on July 11th. The information came from KRRC men now in German prisoner of war camps.

Letter from the International Red Cross

19/12/17. “We beg to enclose, as a result of our enquiries in different camps in Germany, the statements of Capt. Hugh Ward, interned at Freiburg and 2nd Lieut. Rowland Madeley of the same unit, prisoner at Clausthal, Germany.”

Captain Ward’s statement accompanying this was, “I saw him carried out of the German dressing station in a moribund condition on the evening… He could not have lived more than half-an-hour. He was unconscious.”

 

The family have also heard this from Bill’s servant:

“… I was your son’s servant from the time he joined the battalion until the time he was taken prisoner along with the other officers, NCOs and men who were lucky enough to be spared on that most memorable day, July 10th, when the KRRC and the Northants made a great stand at Nieuport, Belgium.

The Germans started their terrible bombardment at 8 o’clock in the morning, and your son was very badly wounded at 9.30 a.m. and the Captain and two stretcher-bearers tried to get him to the dressing station, but owing to the heavy shell-fire it was impossible to get to him and a few of his platoon. At 7.30 in the evening the Germans attacked and took our positions, as we were surrounded and cut off…

On the morning of 11th July, I was told he had died at the German Field Dressing Station.”

The letter from the Red Cross concludes, “We deeply regret it should be our duty to convey such sad news to you, but we want to draw your attention to the fact that this statement is unofficial and cannot in any way be considered as an absolute certainty…”

It seems rather cruel to suggest there is a chance Bill could be still alive in the face of this evidence. Surely it will be enough to convince the Army Council to authorise publication of Bill’s name on the official casualty lists?

 

There are few boys who have captured our hearts so entirely as Bill Sheepshanks did. There was an individuality about him, a fearless independence, and at the same time a most fascinating and chivalrous courtesy which impressed us all. A powerful and active brain, coupled with a calm and always cheerful demeanour and a winning smile, were rare gifts which would have carried him far.

July 28th 1917

We return today, inevitably, to the War and news of three of our Old Dragons.

On July 21st, the papers reported a number of officers of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps as missing in action. One of them is 2nd Lieut. William Sheepshanks (KRRC).

His mother received a telegram to this effect on the 19th, informing her that Bill has been unaccounted for since July 10th, but that he may still be alive. We must resign ourselves, once again, to a period of painful uncertainty.

The regiment was stationed right on the coastline near Nieuport – at the end of the trench system which stretches from there to Switzerland, and was under severe bombardment. In an account in the Daily Telegraph giving the German view, it was stated by their authorities that they had taken 1,250 prisoners, 27 of whom were officers. That gives us hope.

Bill has been such a close friend of the OPS and he never missed any Old Boys’ dinner or cricket match if he could help it.

* * * * * * *

We were startled and sorry to hear that Lieut. Lindsay Wallace (OBLI) has suffered considerable injury in France, due to unusual causes.  Whilst on a training course behind the front, Pug sleep walked out of an upper floor window. He had a nasty time for a day or two, but is now safely back in Oxford at Somerville College, having been escorted from France by his Engineer-Lieutenant brother Moray Wallace. He will not be short of visitors – if we can get past Sister Wilkinson!

* * * * * * *

We can end with one piece of good news, which has been a fearfully long time coming. It has been confirmed that Capt. Aubrey de Selincourt (RFC), having been “missing” since he was shot down on May 28th, is in fact a Prisoner of War. He joins his fellow OD aviators, Captain William Leefe Robinson VC and Lieut. Peter Warren in captivity.

 

May 24th 1917

Every day I open the morning newspaper to read on the ‘Roll of Honour’ of large numbers of officers killed and wounded, always in fear that I shall see the name of one of our Old Boys.

I am also confronted by an increasing number of those who are pronounced as ‘Missing’. This gives hope, but the families of these men are condemned to months of uncertainty as to whether their loved ones are dead, wounded or captured. In the case of the family of Capt. Edmund Gay (Norfolk Regiment) it has been nearly two years; he has been missing since August 1915.

Now two more of our Old Dragons have joined this list.

On May 20th, Mr Herbertson received a telegram stating that his grandson, Lieut. Hunter Herbertson (King’s Royal Rifle Corps) was reported as missing, but he understands that this does not necessarily mean that he is either wounded or killed.

On the night of May 16th he went out on a patrol with two others near Cherisy (at the southern end of the Arras battlefield). None of them returned. Enquiries will be made in the hope that he was captured and is a prisoner of war.

Hunter had done two years at Balliol (reading History) when war was declared. He joined up, but whilst training he suffered a double tragedy. His father (Oxford’s first Professor of Geography) died in July 1915, followed two weeks later by his mother. Both are buried in the Holywell Cemetery.

 

Mr & Mrs Dowson have also been informed that their son, Captain John Dowson (Royal Berkshire Regiment) has been notified as “missing.”

Like Morice Thompson, he was involved in the attacks that took place on May 3rd in the Arras district, but as yet we have no further information as to the circumstances of his disappearance.

John has been a regular visitor to the school in recent times. When home on leave he was always about, ready to take a form or a game.

It is at times like this that you are glad to have a photograph that captures happier times and places to have in front of you. This is John, as the boys will remember him, and hopefully he will return to us in the fullness of time.

 

Better news was to be found on a list headed ‘Previously reported missing, now reported prisoners of war in German hands.’ Included on it was the name of 2nd Lieut. Peter Warren, whose fate has been unknown these past seven weeks.

His squadron was returning to their base on April 2nd when they were set upon by German squadron. It seems that Peter’s plane was singled one and forced to ditch behind enemy lines.