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.

 

 

December 19th 1917

2nd Lieut. Willie Wells-Cole (Lincs)

Willie went missing in an attack on the first day of the 3rd battle at Ypres (July 31st) and, it has to be said, we did fear the worst even if we did not want to give up hope.

Word has now came through to the family from an officer, 2nd Lieut. Timpson, who is a Prisoner of War in Heidelberg, that Willie “was cut off and all his men captured. He was shot through the head and instantly killed. There are men here who were with him, though I was not.”

This is consistent with what another officer from his regiment has written: “…our company was protecting the flank of the battalion on our left. His was the leading platoon, and going a little beyond their objective… the whole lot were cut off.” 

We share with the family the belief that this is the end of the matter. Sadly, however, this is not the view of the authorities, who want signed statements from eye witnesses before providing next of kin with an official notification.

It may be many months yet before the family can wind up Willie’s affairs.

 

November 11th 1917

2nd Lieut. Pat Campbell, having returned to the Ypres front following four days’ leave in Paris, has found himself back in the thick of this seemingly never-ending battle at Ypres, which has been going on since July 31st.

23/10/17 “The veterans of the brigade say – at least some of them do – that in all the long years they have been out here they have never seen such a country of absolute desolation, or such mud, and that they have never had the breeze up so badly as they have in the last few days…”

Pat was involved in an attack on October 22nd. As the Forward Observation Officer for his Brigade, he had to make his way forward with four signallers to a pill box close to the front line. Carrying heavy equipment and in bad conditions, this took them 3 hours.

His job was to keep in touch with the advance and send back information to the artillery. This was easier said than done, it seems:

“It is very difficult to tell what has happened in the early stages of a battle; some of the walking wounded who come dancing down the line are so pleased with themselves that they tell you that everything is going top hole, though they were probably hit before the thing began, while others who are rather worse and have lost some of their friends are equally despondent.”

He and another officer took turns to go forward:

“We went out alternately to various HQ and other less official sources to find out what news we could get and whether the infantry wanted any particular artillery support. On one of these little trips I got rather a nasty shock, which made me decide that I was not going out any more.

Usually you can hear a shell coming for at least a second or two and one learns to act promptly, but on this occasion it was a light velocity shell, which came right alongside us without any warning at all.”

This seems a strange point at which to leave this incident, but Pat does, so there it is. The Campbells deserve their luck. Pat’s brother Percy Campbell was killed in the first battle at Ypres almost three years ago to the day in 1914.

In his letter Pat asks, “I am wondering what the papers said about yesterday’s battle. It seems to have been a pretty decent show…”

This is a view shared at least by the Daily Telegraph:

Given the conditions Pat describes, it is difficult to imagine how a battle can be fought:

“It was very tiring walking about because at every step you lifted pounds of thick Belgian mud. I don’t think you could find a single square yard in that area that was not part of a shell hole, but even so, you can’t have any idea of what it looks like. It is simply indescribable.”

It is not that often that an artillery officer finds himself in the front line and Pat is quick to acknowledge the role of the infantry, who are there all the time:

“The more you see of them, the greater respect you have for them all, and I think the subalterns in particular. Such things as trenches have practically ceased to exist now, and they just live in shell holes and going forward to attack over ground like this, I really can’t understand how they do it. “

And so say all of us.

November 6th 1917

2nd Lieut. Gifford Turrell (OBLI)

This is the most distressing news that I have had to pass on during the course of this dreadful conflict. Indeed, the details are almost too painful for words, and I wondered if I should spare you them. However, I have come to the conclusion that I should not shy away from sharing what are the grim realities of war for our gallant Old Boys.

Yesterday Gifford Turrell was laid to rest in Oxford’s Holywell Cemetery, aged a mere 19 years.

He was severely wounded in the head in the attack made by the Ox & Bucks Light Infantry on August 22nd near St. Julien, the same engagement in which Lieut. Will Scott was killed and Walter Moberly won the DSO.

Gifford was brought back to St Thomas’ Hospital in London, where an operation was performed to remove fragments from the wound, leading to hope that he might make a recovery.

During his time in hospital however, Gifford was barely conscious and on Nov 1st he was assessed by a Medical Board. It noted that the brain had swollen to such an extent that it protruded through his skull and had become infected.

The report concluded: “He appears to be totally blind, and consciousness is very feeble. Pupils dilated & inactive, no motor paralysis. Sensation cannot be determined. In the last two days, there has been fever & meningitis has set in with a fit. Recovery is improbable & he is failing rapidly.”

Gifford died the following day – 72 days after he had been wounded. One can only hope that he was in such a state as to have been spared any pain. His passing must be seen as a merciful release for him and his family.

His body was brought back to Oxford so that his funeral could be at his old college (Queen’s).

May he finally rest in peace.

 

September 24th 1917

Much as one would like to have enjoyed the celebration of the school’s 40th anniversary this past week, all possible pleasure has been overwhelmed by the sadness we are all feeling at the loss of Hugh Sidgwick. I have no hesitation in saying that he was the ablest boy that ever came to the school, and withal one of the most lovable.

The circumstances of his death (which it pains me greatly to write about) are that on September 16th, Hugh was getting into a car to go to HQ when a German aeroplane dropped a bomb, wounding him and several others.

He was taken straight to the Casualty Clearing Station and underwent an operation. However, there was internal bleeding and he lost consciousness and died in the early hours of the 17th. We are reassured to hear that he was in no pain and slipped away quietly.

By the time his mother received this telegram notifying them that Hugh had been wounded, he was in fact already dead.

Regret to inform you that No 46 Casualty Clearing Station reports September sixteenth Captain AH Sidgwick RGA 157 Siege Btty with bomb wound buttock and right knee. Condition dangerous…    Regret permission to visit cannot be granted.

By the time they received a second telegram the following day telling them of his death, he had been buried in the Mendinghem British Cemetery.

All so quick. One moment he is the vibrant human being we have all loved so much, the next…  all this.

 

September 19th 1917

Capt. Hugh Sidgwick (RGA)

Today I should have been concentrating on the start of a new school year, but the most calamitous news came to me from Mrs Sidgwick. Hugh has been killed.

At this time, I feel able only to share with you my response to his mother:

My dear Mrs Sidgwick,

No words can express my sorrow and feeling of personal loss – it is too too cruel a fate – such a glorious intellect & so noble a character, with so splendid a future before him.

There must be some future reunion with these noble souls – or we all are in the hands of a fiendish force which drives us & jibes at our hopes – I have just told the boys of the severest loss we have yet suffered. With the exception of Frank (& that possibly because I have seen more of him) Hugh was of all my old boys the best beloved and most proudly looked upon by me – and this does not express

my very deep feeling of sympathy with you & Frank & his sisters. His father is I hope spared the full knowledge of the loss he has suffered, but I do mourn with you all and sympathise most deeply.

Yours ever,

His old Skipper

 

 

 

Hugh’s father’s illness renders it unlikely that the family will share this news with him.

 

September 3rd 1917

Lieut. William Scott (Ox & Bucks Light Infantry)

This has been a distressing few weeks – these pages in quick succession have had to record the deaths of five Old Dragons, with Willie Wells-Cole also missing in action – all in the Flanders offensive around Ypres.

Will is now the sixth and, as with many of these brave young men, he was leading his men forward when he was killed in an attack on August 22nd.

His colonel has written consoling words to the family: “Your brave boy died leading his men to victory, and it was by his example that the victory was gained, as he was hit twice, once severely, but still refused to quit, and it was at the head of his company that he was hit for the third time, but still thinking of duty before himself he continued to give orders up to the last.”

His Company Commander Capt. Geoffrey Rose, also an Old Dragon, wrote most warmly to Will’s parents:

“No mere words of mine could suffice to describe the pride and grief which is felt in the Battalion and most especially in this Company at his death. Your son is famous for acts of the greatest bravery and devotion to duty that are unequalled in the records of this Battalion…”

Will was twice wounded last year as well as suffering from trench fever.

From Rugby School, Will went to McGill University in Montreal in 1910. Thereafter Will embarked on a promising career, engaged by the Canadian Government to determine latitudes and longitudes in the Rocky Mountains.

When the war came, failing to gain admission to a Canadian contingent due to his short sightedness, he returned to England to join the OBLI. As the Times obituary noted, in this he was following family tradition, “his grandfather and his great-grandfather had both served in that regiment, the former at Waterloo.”