November 23rd 1916

Most of our reports from the battlefield of the Somme have concerned the infantry thus far. 2nd Lieut. Humphrey Arden (RGA) writes to redress the balance.

arden18/11/16. “I expect you have received a thousand and one letters descriptive of the Push during these last few months, but perhaps the gunners’ point of view is not so well known.

We have been on this front practically from the beginning of the show and so far have had no rest – as a unit – night or day. The “crowded hour” of going over, with, perhaps, rest or withdrawal afterwards is not for us. Infantry may come, field artillery may go, but we, the heavies, go on for ever…

Do you know, I haven’t seen a civilian for three months, nor been inside a standing house for four. Mud walls, sand bag roofs – et voila tout.

…It is a very different sitting in your own O.P with the battery under your thumb at the other end of the wire. Then one tells the guns what to do – which is so much better than being told by a total stranger what he (often wrongly) imagines they are doing. Besides, it cheers one up to see the cautious Hun duck and run for his life, and to pursue him remorselessly till he reaches his dug-out or gets out of sight. It is better still to catch him unawares and see the bits fly – as I did yesterday.

That sort of thing makes him peevish and he looses off blindly. His blind shooting is not, and never in my experience has been, good. Of course he is bound to hit something sometimes.

He put a good round eight-inch through the roof of a neighbouring battery’s officers’ mess some weeks ago. The shell happened to be a dud and landed on its nose between the major’s knees. ‘Dear me,’ said the latter, ‘how convenient,’ and he struck a match on the base and lit his pipe. A good tall yarn? Nevertheless it happened.

…Well, we expect to go on living in this blasted heath and with the help of the wheezy old tanks and their butterfly existence, and the incomparable infantry, be they Australian or Canadians or better still, old English regiments – for they all have their turn down here, we will blast out the wily Hun foot by foot till his moral sickness is greater than he can bear.”

Before the war, Humphrey was for a short time a master at Eagle House Preparatory School. He was due to go to Cuddesdon College to prepare for Holy Orders.

October 19th 1916

raikes-jf-2

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

blencowe-oc

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.

guedecourt-map

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

 

 

August 26th 1916

 

Benham, Frank

Captain Frank Benham (RFA)

Frank has died in Queen Alexandra’s Hospital, Millbank, London.

He received wounds to the right side of the head, the neck and shoulder on August 5th. He was able to write three short communications to his wife on arrival at the No. 2 Stationary Hospital at Abbeville on the 8th and it was thought that he was being transferred to England on August 11th.

There was considerable confusion as to his whereabouts, until he sent a telegram to his wife saying he had arrived in Southampton on August 2oth. The following day he was transferred to Queen Alexandra’s.

He had in fact spent the week following the 11th at the No.2 General Hospital at Havre, it having been decided that he was too exhausted to continue to England. On the 14th he suffered a minor haemorrhage from the neck wound. It stopped quite quickly, although the cause of it remained unexplained.

On August 22nd, Frank suffered another haemorrhage and underwent an unsuccessful operation to save him.

His wife was at his side when he died.

August 5th 1916

 

Paddy Burton

Captain Paddy Burton (4th Bedfordshires)

Alongside the notification of the death of Robert Gibson, The Times yesterday also listed the death of Paddy Burton.

On July 27th, Paddy led an attack on Longueval by the 1st Bedfordshires (to whom he had been attached since May 1915). This was a success, but there were isolated pockets of resistance. He and another officer discussed how they could dislodge the Germans from a house, where a machine-gun was sweeping over the British position. Paddy decided on an attack with hand grenades, during which he fell wounded in the leg.

Company Sgt Major Afford went to his assistance, dressing his wound before attempting to carry him to a place of safety. During this, Paddy received a second wound, which proved to be fatal, a bullet having come through the lip of the shell hole, penetrated the lower part of his head.

Afford reported that Paddy “…remained conscious for a few hours, during which time I stayed with him and comforted him. His last words were to me, requesting me to carry on with the task he had so nobly set out to do…

At day-break I supervised his body being laid to rest close by the spot where he met his end.”

The day before he was killed, Paddy Burton reconnoitred the approaches to the village of Longueval together with another officer, who recalled:

“It was a very trying job, as our guide lost himself and we sent him back. We were under incessant shell-fire and we knew that a great part of the ground was exposed to snipers, and we had to find out absolutely everything for ourselves. I don’t think I could have done it without Paddy … He must have been at least as tired and depressed as I was, but he wouldn’t allow it to show.”

Paddy was one of those boys who make life ceaselessly interesting to a schoolmaster. It may be said that he was a strange compound of liberal and conservative, but what characterized him most was his independence of judgement and his pluck.

He was to have been married during his next leave.

July 29th 1916

 

DW Brown

Capt. David Westcott Brown (Leicestershire Regiment)

It has now been confirmed that David was killed in the fighting for Bazentin le Petit on July 14th. Although his body has not been found, a Sergeant reported seeing it.

Like many, David realised in the spring that the summer months ahead would see the launching of a new offensive. Foreseeing the high number of casualties amongst officers, he felt the need to prepare himself – and his family. He wrote to his cousin Lillian in May:

“…. I am writing like this because summer is here, and I don’t think our present peacefulness can go on much longer. People at home are beginning to wonder what they pay us for; and I think Death must come to many of us, if not to most (I am talking of officers now) before very long: and, if it does come to me, I don’t want you to feel it as a shock, and I don’t want you or anyone to grieve.

You know it is rather an honour to die now, to die for all that we hold precious, for our country, to die that we may live, and to die with so many better men.

I don’t want to die. I want to live and tell how I was in the War, how I was a fighter in it, not merely a server; but, if I do get killed, I want you and everyone to know that I knew of the possibility, that I was ready for it, and facing it, and not shirking and dodging the thought of it. It seems to me that for a man who is, if not ready or willing to die, at least aware of the presence of death, and looking it in the face not caring or wondering what lies beyond, Death has lost its power. When you cease to fear Death you have conquered it, and Death has become only a gate, no harder to pass through than the door of a room.

Am I just being morbid? I hope not; because I feel somewhat that should the worst happen it may help Mother and Dad to know that I was not caught by surprise, not realising what I was in for…”

David also wrote a poem around this time, when still behind the lines:

Two Voices
“The roads are all torn” ; “but the sun’s in the sky,”
“The houses are waste” ; “but the day is all fair,”
“There’s death in the air” ; “and the larks are on high,”
“Though we die – ” ; “it is spring-time, what do we care?”
“The gardens are rank” ; “but the grass is still green,”
“The orchards are shot-torn” ; “there’s a bloom on the trees,”
“There’s war all around” ; “yet is nature serene,”
“There’s danger” ; “we’ll bear it, fanned by the breeze.”
“Some are wounded” ; “they rest, and their glory is known,”
“Some are killed” ; “there’s peace for them under the sod,”
“Men’s homes are in peril” ; “their souls are their own,”
“The bullets are near us” ; “not nearer than God.”

David was a cousin of Percy Campbell (one of the first OPS casualties) and the godfather of a current young Dragon, Per Mallalieu.

He won a scholarship to Marlborough and then went to Balliol to read ‘Greats’, when war broke out and he joined up.

July 18th 1916

 

Lt Robert Gibson

Lieut. Robert Gibson (South Staffs Regiment attached to 2nd Bedfords)

The letter dear Robert wrote to us at the end of June warned us that the ‘Big Push’ was imminent and that he was going to be part of it.

It was clear from all he wrote that he understood that, not withstanding all the planning and practising for the ‘Push,’  much of what happens in battle is a matter of chance:

“It lies in the lap of the gods.”

He has become the fourth Old Boy to have been killed in the last two weeks.

Lieut. Col. HS Poyntz, the commanding officer of the Bedfordshires, has kindly written to the family with his condolences and to give an account of the attack in which Robert was killed:

“On July 11th at 3.27 a.m. we were ordered to attack Trones Wood where very heavy fighting has been going on. It had been taken by us and re-taken by the Germans, so we were ordered to re-take it again.”

A fellow officer, 2nd Lieut. Primrose-Wells, was close by when Robert and his platoon attacked a position that, as the gods would have it, had not been destroyed by our bombardment:

“We estimate that there were 300 Huns in the wood when we attacked. Your son was on my left and he and his platoon were to enter the wood a little way up on the west side. The Germans had a trench all down the west side of the wood, which we did not know about and just where your son wanted to enter was one of their strong points.

He and his platoon opened fire and he fired several shots himself with his revolver, but the Huns had the advantage from the trenches, besides being excellent shots. Your son was shot and died instantaneously, not making a sound.

I had to advance over the same ground and tried twice to get his body in, but lost men both times, so we left it until we could finally get the whole wood. We were relieved after 48 hours of very hard fighting – hand-to-hand – and very nerve-wracking.

Two days after, when the wood was finally taken by the British, I asked the Colonel if I might go up again and get your son’s body and bury it, but he refused to let me go and our Chaplain with four volunteers went up and found the body and buried him in Maricourt Cemetery.” 

 

Robert had a very successful school career, winning scholarships to Winchester and New College Oxford. A teacher who knew him at Winchester said that, during an experience lasting over twenty years, he had never come into contact with a mind so naturally gifted for classical scholarship as Robert Gibson’s.

The following tribute has been written by a great friend of his, both at the OPS and afterwards at Winchester.

“… When he came to Oxford, he looked round for some kind of service into which he might throw himself, and so discover something about a stratum of society widely separated from that which he knew. This he found in the boys’ club which had lately been started by New College in St. Ebbe’s; and if he was anything like as successful in winning the confidence of his men as he was with these boys, he must have been one of the most popular officers that ever entered the army.”

His Headmaster at Winchester has written a capital letter to Robert’s father:

“Your one consolation will be that he takes a very white soul to the other world, that he lived a keen, joyous, wholesome, and honourable life, very free from any sort of stain.” 

No tribute could be higher, and it comes from one who loved him, and knew him through and through.