December 31st 1916

With 1916 drawing to a close, we look back on the terrible loss of life we have endured and remember in particular the nine Old Dragons who were killed in the four and a half months that comprised the battle on the Somme:

July 1st.

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Geoffrey Clarke (2nd Lieut. Rifle Brigade). Aged 33.

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John Ruttledge (Capt. West Yorks Regiment). Aged 21.

July 6th

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Christopher Counsell (Lieut. Hampshire Regiment). Aged 26.

July 7th

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Robert Gibson (Lieut. South Staffs Regiment). Aged 21.

July 14th

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David Westcott Brown (Capt. Leicestershire Regiment). Aged 23.

July 27th

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Paddy Burton (Temporary Capt., 4th Bedfordshires). Aged 23.

August 22nd

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Frank Benham (Captain, RFA). Aged 30.

October 7th

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Oswald Blencowe (2nd Lieut., Ox & Bucks Light Infantry). Aged 26.

October 10th

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John Raikes (2nd Lieut. Essex Regiment). Aged 20.

All these families have suffered tragic losses and Claude Burton, Paddy’s father, a regular contributor of verse to the ‘Daily Mail’ under the pseudonym of ‘Touchstone,’ has put into words most poignantly the feelings of sacrifice and pain experienced by parents:

Killed in Action
The world seems full of you, now you are gone.
You were, of all these dear familiar things,
Part of our daily life that still drags on
And still around small, trivial objects clings
The sweet and subtle fragrance that is you,
Half balm, half torture to the stricken heart 
That knows high courage is a hero's due - 
That we, like you, must strive to bear our part.

Though the blood drip unseen from wounds within
That even length of years must leave unhealed - 
You bid us conquer pain that we may win
To that high goal your passing has revealed.
You gave your life, and if we too must give
Our very flesh and blood - a sacrifice
That that great cause that claimed you still might live;
Surely the gift is fitting in God's eyes.

Somewhere beyond the range of mortal sight
We know you strive as nobly as of yore,
A soldier still amidst the Hosts of Light;
Though we may see your well-loved face no more.
Oh! Pity us if from these realms unknown
Your eyes look down upon our mortal pain
And plead for us before your Captain's throne
That we may reach those heights you died to gain.

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.”

 

November 30th 1916

2nd Lieut. Maurice Jacks (KRRC) has returned wounded from the Front. He was involved in the attacks that took place around the River Ancre earlier this month.

jacks-ml3“The preliminary bombardment was in full swing, and our guns were giving the Germans beans; we were in the middle of them, so the noise was pretty terrific. The censor will not allow me to tell you how many there were, but I believe in this battle there were more than in any other of the Somme offensive.

It was the night of November 12th when we swam into our tents; we had to be up early the next morning ready to support the Division who were attacking. At 5.40 a.m. the guns loosed off ‘five minutes intense,’ and at 5.45 the infantry went over the top.

Shortly afterwards we moved up close behind them and halted in a valley to await orders. Bunches of ‘kamerads’ were coming in, many of them wounded and all more or less sullen; even our witticisms failed to cheer them up. Absurdly exaggerated reports of the success of the attack were current.

It was not until late in the afternoon that our orders arrived; and it was dark when, heavily laden with every conceivable form of tool and weapon, we went over the top. The guns showed amazing excitement, and their flashes were even more brilliant and alarming than Skipper’s lighting in ‘Macbeth.’

Our job was to clear out the first three German lines, which in their haste the attacking troops had not properly dealt with in the morning. There were any number of Huns, especially in the fourth line, where we finally settled down; all were reduced more or less to the Kamerad stage, with the exception of a few rash Prussians, and all night long we were coming across large dug-outs full of prisoners.

The trench was about one foot deep, having been battered out of recognition by our artillery. All the hours of darkness we had to spend in trying to make some cover, and when the foggy morning came we had it about four feet deep.

beaucourt-2We were not more than 70 yards from Beaucourt – or what was left of it; and at 7 a.m. we were to attack and take it. About 6.30 the Boches clearly ‘got the wind up,’ and bombarded us vigorously; a large chunk of shell hit me in the shoulder, but the wound was not bad; I was buried four times, and the fifth burial, which was complete, finally laid me out – leaving me with nine bits of shell in the head and face.

Somebody dug me out and bandaged me; and for the next half-hour I was busy digging out my Company Commander, who had been buried by the same shell, and tying up badly wounded men. Then feeling rather ‘groggy’ I decided to try to get out; by this time the trench had been nearly filled in, and the Germans were active with their M.G’s; so the journey was not altogether a safe one.

I came across a wounded Hun (a Prussian) hit in the foot and walking with difficulty; I gave him a hand – he was in a terrible funk, and full of ‘Kameradie’ (a very technical term), and altogether rather beastly! He thought that we would win the war but ‘would not need many ships to take our men home.’ This, I must say, is a very prevalent idea among the German privates.

On the way down, I met a man I knew escorting a bunch of prisoners, among whom were two officers; the latter, he said, had complained to him at being put under the escort of a private soldier – they expected English officers to escort them!

At the dressing-station I was patched up, and from there my progress to Blighty was slow and painful, but sure.”

Maurice arrived back in England on November 20th and has now been granted 8 weeks sick leave. Not surprisingly, he is still suffering from headaches. We wish him a speedy recovery.

November 1st 1916

Our old friend ‘Fluff,’ Lieut. – Col. Stuart Taylor (West Yorks) has recovered from his wounds. He returned to command his battalion on September 16th and, although he cannot say as much, I think it highly likely he is somewhere in the region of the Somme.

We are most grateful that he has found the time to write to the boys:

Stuart Taylor 2“We are living in stirring times now and there is much doing. I wish I could tell you all about it, but the censor rules are very strict.

There are one or two things I hate in the trenches worse than the Boches – rats and cats.

The rats are enormous grey shiny looking things with great fat tails, and they come out in swarms at night and eat up all the horrid things they can.

You would think the cats would eat the rats, but they do not, I regret to say. They are kittens which have been born since the war, in the desolated and ruined villages and towns of Northern France, and they are rapidly forming a new species of wild cat, living in old disused trenches or holes in the ground and coming out at night.

There is so much to eat lying about that they do not kill the rats or mice.”

 

This is not the way of nature, but it is to be supposed that war is bound to have some sort of effect on all who partake in it – even cats and rats, it now seems.

 

October 19th 1916

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2nd Lieut. John Raikes (Essex Regiment)

One cannot guess at the number of shells that daily pour down on our troops on the Somme. I am very sorry to have to relate that John has been killed near Flers by one such shell on 10th October 1916.

Rev. Raikes, John’s father, has shared with us a letter he received from a brother officer, who witnessed the event:

“We had just come up by night to the support line and I had just started up with a working party. John had gone to his dug-out to get some rest; we were being heavily bombarded, and a high explosive shell burst right on the top, destroying the place and killing him instantaneously.

We buried him where he fell and have erected a temporary cross over his grave. ‘In memory of Lieut. Raikes, killed in action, Oct. 10th. 1916. RIP’”

John’s servant, also aged 20, was killed by the same shell. This lad, writing home to his mother a few days before, had said, ‘You needn’t worry about me. I am with a proper gentleman.’                                 

I remember Johnnie as a good-hearted, merry little fellow with a keen sense of humour. We went on several bicycle expeditions with the boys to his home and he always enjoyed showing us around the Zoological Gardens in the neighbourhood.

Although he failed to impress Winchester quite enough for them to offer him a place, he won a scholarship to Radley and thereafter a Mathematical Exhibition to Corpus Christi College Oxford – the first Radleian to have won a Mathematical distinction at the University for many years.

 

October 15th 1916

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2nd Lieut. Oswald Blencowe (Oxford & Bucks Light Infantry)

An eighth Old Dragon has laid down his life in the battle that has been raging on the Somme since July 1st. Oswald was killed on 7th October 1916 when temporarily attached to the Rifle Brigade.

It was the Brigade’s task to capture Rainbow and Cloudy Trenches, near Guedecourt. As soon as our barrage lifted the Riflemen (some of whom had been lying down in the open awaiting this moment) rose bravely to make the attack.  On reaching the crest of a hill about twenty yards from the German line they met with heavy machine-gun fire. All five officers of the two leading companies went down – four (including Oswald) were killed and a fifth severely wounded.

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It is of some small consolation that the reserve troops coming up behind them were able to take Rainbow Trench.

A brother officer recalls Oswald most fondly:

“In the line he was of immense value to us, and in the most trying hours, when things were as bad as shells and foul weather could make them, he showed that rare kind of cheerfulness which does not offend nor depress by its artificiality. He set a high value on music and poetry. He sang well, and was strongly heard in a dug-out – carols, songs, and choruses, old English songs, and Gilbert and Sullivan. One day he pulled out the books he always carried with him – Omar Khayyam, and two volumes of the hundred best poems and three of us lay awake reading aloud to one another…

He was hit by a shell in the head in front of his men about ten yards from the enemy’s line, but such details are needless and unsatisfying; we know what he was when alive and in what manner and with what spirit he must have died. The circumstantial details are useless trappings.” 

We are thankful for information from the Colonel, confirming Oswald was given a proper burial:

“He had been temporarily attached to this battalion and had only been with us three days. He went into action alongside his battalion and was killed during a successful attack in which he was with the leading company.

He was buried by our Chaplain near the place where he fell, between our and the old German line.”

The news of Oswald’s death did not reach his parents until October 13th, six days after the event.

blencowe-telegram

 

 

October 11th 1916

AG Clarke

Lieut. Geoff Clarke (Rifle Brigade) was killed on the first day of the battle on the Somme. Further to what we were able to post at the time, a Sergeant P. Blunt has most kindly written to the family with further details:

28/9/16 “Well, as you know, on July 1st our Battalion was told off to attack a certain  part of the German line.

Lieut. Clarke, who was then our Battalion Bombing Officer, had rather a tough job and it was while going over towards the 3rd German line that I came across him. He was then slightly wounded, but refused all assistance and would insist on keeping going. He was again wounded, rather badly this time, but still refused all help and insisted on us to get along.

That was the last I ever saw of him; he was then lying in a trench hole. During the fighting and excitement that followed, I lost touch with him, but was told by a man who has since been killed that he saw a shell pitch into the hole that Lieut. Clarke lay in and he saw a body blown into the air.

When we returned from the third line, I went and looked for him, but could not see him anywhere…”

This is most painful reading for all those of us who knew him so well.