The Royal Artillery War Commemoration Book

A while ago I picked up a copy of ‘The Royal Artillery War Commemoration Book’ from a charity shop. At over 400 pages and weighing in at nearly 3.5kg, this is an impressive work setting out the contribution of the Royal Artillery during the war, a not insignificant task given the scale of its involvement. The book is beautifully illustrated with many contemporary drawings and paintings, and includes a roll of honour of officers who died as well as examples of members of its ranks who received gallantry awards.

Whilst flicking through the book, I came across a letter and a postcard placed between two of the pages. The letter was signed, but I could not decipher the scrawl. However, after appealing for help on Twitter, ‘W Noel Cornelius’ was suggested. This turned out to be correct, and from the medal index cards I identified him as William Noel Cornelius, who served as a Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery and was overseas from October 1917.

His service record exists at the National Archives in the WO 339 series. This shows that he was born in Australia in 1884, lived near Birkenhead, and in civilian life was a grain importer and broker. He had attested in December 1915, possibly under the Derby scheme, and was mobilised in in January 1917, being posted to the Royal Artillery presumably because of his prior experience in the artillery cadet corps at Malvern College. He was sent to the No.3 Royal Garrison Artillery Cadet School in Bournemouth as a gunner, and in August he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. He was presumably promoted to Lieutenant after going overseas, where he served with 280 Siege Battery until he was demobilised in 1919.

One of the illustrations in the book

In April 1918 he was awarded the Military Cross for an action that took place south east of Ypres on 23 October 1917, just a week after he had joined his unit. The citation reads: “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in extinguishing a fire caused by enemy shelling. In spite of the continuance of the enemy shelling and the explosion of some of the ammunition, by this action about eighty boxes of ammunition were directly saved, and the risk to several adjacent stacks removed.”

The contents of the letter found in the book are as follows:

5 Nov 32

Dear Billie,

Many thanks for loan of book. I have thoroughly enjoyed it. But I have one grouse. The photo opposite page 320 of 303 Battery may be all right. But they were not the first there. Our Battery 280 SB and more particularly my right section were the 1st. I enclose a photo which I sent home at the time (see back) and I have also checked it in my diary. You will notice being the first there we had the honour of taking the right hand side of the bridge.


W Noel Cornelius

The letter relates to a photo in the book captioned “No.1 gun of 303 Siege Battery, RGA, at Bonn December 12th, 1918. This was the first gun of the British Heavy Artillery to reach the Rhine.”

The ‘offending’ image from the book

The war diary for his battery does not confirm Cornelius’s assertion one way or the other, but it perhaps highlights that the official record of events may not always be correct. It seems that Cornelius was proud of his battery’s war record and felt a great wrong had been done! He died in Cheshire in 1968.

Cornelius’s own picture
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The 2nd Queen’s and the 1914 Christmas Truce

At this time of year posts inevitably crop up on social media mentioning the Christmas Truce of 1914. Sadly much of it is incorrect, with mass football games between British and German troops topping the naughty list of duff history. Thankfully there are some First World War stalwarts fighting the good fight and who seek to set the record straight. They include Simon Jones, who has written a blog about the truce, and Chris Baker, whose encyclopedic Long Long Trail site has a page dedicated to the truce. Over on Twitter Steve Smith can be seen trying to correct the mistruths.  

During the course of my research into The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) in the war, I have come across a few references to the truce. Whilst my research mainly focuses on the 1st Battalion, at Christmas 1914 it was still recovering from its losses at Gheluvelt at the end of October and had a quiet Christmas out of the line.

However, the other regular battalion of the regiment, the 2nd, was not so fortunate. December was spent in and out of the line. A raid was carried out on the night of 14 December and the battalions supported an attack by the 2nd Royal Warwickshire Regiment on the 18th. The CWGC database records 41 fatalities for the month.

At daybreak on 19 December the Germans initiated an armistice for collecting wounded and burying the dead from the action the previous day. However, it ended on a sour note when it was discovered that two officers (Second Lieutenants Rought and Walmisley) and seven stretcher bearers had been enticed into the German trenches and taken prisoner. Two photos from that day can be seen in the Surrey History Centre collection here.

The approximate area the 2nd Queen’s was located at Christmas 1914

Given the events of the 19th, it is therefore perhaps surprising that another truce was entered into on Christmas Day. The war diary contains a narrative of what happened, written by Major Leonard Markham Crofts, who went on to command 1st Battalion until being wounded in late-December 1917:

At 11.0 am an armistice began – It started opposite the left of the Wiltshire Regiment – the Regt on our right – Many Germans, officers and men, came out of their trenches to midway between the two lines – parties were sent out to collect and bury the dead who had been killed on the 18th – graves were dug in the centre between the lines.

71 bodies were collected chiefly Warwicks. The body of Lieut. Ramsay previously reported missing was found near the German trenches and taken back to the dressing station to be buried in the churchyard.

The Germans were nearly all belonging to the 55th Regt. Several staff officers also came over. These were quite a different class to the infantry officers, who were of a very low class. All professed themselves as confident as to their being able to end the war in their favour. They had no opinion of the Russians, who they considered already beaten. All gave the appearance, however, of being fed up with the war. Armistice concluded at 4.0 pm with agreement to resume it at 9.0 am following morning as dead were not all buried.

Lieutenant Colonel Leonard Markham Crofts. © IWM.

Boxing Day: armistice recommenced as arranged at 9.0 am. A large number of staff officers appeared during the day – all were immaculately dressed without a speck of mud on them, mostly in fur lined coats. They furnished us with a list of officers lately taken prisoner and asked that their relatives might be informed. They also promised to try and obtain the release of 2nd Lieuts Rought and Walmisley, who had been taken prisoners during the armistice on 19th inst.

Owing to frost the ground was very hard and the graves were not completed till 1.0 pm when the chaplain read the burial service in the presence of the digging party, some officers of the Queen’s and 8 or 10 German officers. The body of 2nd Lieut. Bernard, Royal Warwicks, was found and buried. In addition to the 55th Regt, men of the 7th, 15th and 22nd Regiments were noticed. Armistice concluded at 3.30pm.

Another account of the truce appeared in the West Surrey Times on 16 January 1915. Private S Brookes wrote:

‘On Christmas Eve’ he said ‘the Germans shouted out they wanted to play us the ‘English football’ on Christmas Day – but the match did not come off. They started to come out of their trenches about 8.30 on Christmas Day, waving a white flag and shouting “Inglee! Come on Inglee.” They also waved their hands, but we shouted back “No.” The Germans then said “We come half-way and you come half-way.” Then some of English troops got out of the trenches and went towards them. They met in the centre and exchanged cigarettes and chocolates, and coat buttons and ammunition as souvenirs. I had some cigarettes and chocolate from a Prussian Guard, and cut a button of my coat in exchange for a round of ammunition which I gave to the orderly in the Anglo-American Hospital at Boulogne.’

A final account, written by James Bertram Coates, at the time a Second Lieutenant but later a Colonel in the regiment, was published in the regimental journal in 1972. In it Coates recalled:

‘There has been adverse criticism of that “Armistice”, and it may have been justified. My recollection is that ours was very properly conducted. I do not remember exactly how it started. Some on both sides started to move out of the trenches in daylight and drag back wounded, I think. I am pretty certain that the Germans moved out first as many of the dead and wounded were in front of their wire. I remember being told to use the opportunity to learn the lie of the land against going out on night patrol later. This I did and it was very useful when I was sent out one night soon afterwards. I do remember:

  • Wondering how we were going to start fighting again when we were out there at the grave and talking to the Germans!
  • That suddenly, when the dead were buried, with a short service to the best of my recollection, both sides went straight back to their trenches and things went on as before.’

There may well be other accounts from men of the 2nd Battalion out there. As it stands Crofts’ recollection is probably the most accurate, written close to the event and untainted by the accounts that would begin to appear soon after Christmas, and that filtered their way into the press and popular memory.

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Analysis of a War Diary

My latest lockdown activity, continuing my research into the 1st Battalion The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment), arose from a simple question – just how did the battalion spend the war? The answer involved going through the battalion war diary day by day. I started recording what it was doing, but this quickly evolved to capture more data – where did it start and end the day, was it in action, were there any casualties, and how many men transferred in and out? This has provided a rich set of data, and some of the initial findings are presented below.

From initial mobilisation (4 August 1914) until the Armistice was declared was a period of 1,561 days. The battalion arrived in France on 13 August 1914, thus spending 1,552 days on active service overseas. Of this period 20% was spent in Belgium and 80% in France.

Day-by-day categorisation of the battalion’s war diary was used to build up a picture of the battalion’s activities for the duration of the war. The predominant activity of the day was recorded and the war diary descriptions consolidated to give a summary view (for example route marches have been recorded as ‘training’).

The breakdown of how the battalion’s time was spent is as follows:

ActivityNumber of days%
Training / general routine67443%
In the line31320%
On the move17211%
Working parties1308%
Cleaning & refitting / rest916%
Parade / inspection574%
In support302%
In reserve292%

The bulk of the battalion’s time was spent either on general routine or training. Twenty percent of the war was spent ‘in the line’, and just over 10% moving around between locations. Working parties accounted for 130 days, or 8%. The remainder of the time was spent either carrying out relief/being relieved, resting and refitting, on parades and inspections, or in support or reserve (this figure is probably higher as ‘in the line’ is not always denoted as front/support/reserve).

The battalion participated in the Retreat from Mons, the Aisne, First Ypres, Loos, the Somme, Arras, Passchendaele, the Battle of the Lys, and the final 100 days advance. Yet in terms of being in ‘action’ (for this purpose defined as active engagement with the enemy, i.e. conducting an attack or raid, or being subjected to the same), perhaps surprisingly this only accounts for 63 days of the war, or 4% of the battalion’s time overseas. However, that is not to say that casualties were not incurred even when the battalion was not in action, for example through shelling, illness, or accidents. The battalion suffered casualties (defined as killed, wounded, or missing) on 239 days of the war, which equates to 15%. Its longest spell without casualties (according to the war diary) was a period of 89 days, commencing in February 1915 and ending in May 1915 when it went back into the line near Bethune.

The war diary also regularly detailed the number of reinforcements the battalion received. This shows that on top of the original 1,000 men who embarked with the battalion in August 1914, another 5,000 men served in the battalion, equating to a battalion’s strength several times over. This is a figure I certainly wasn’t expecting. Coupled with the fact that at the end of the war just 17 of the battalion’s original members were still serving in its ranks, it serves to highlight the change that the battalion went through and raises further questions about its identity both as a Regular battalion and a Surrey battalion. However the diary also shows that nearly a quarter of the men transferred out of the battalion during the war.

The casualty figures provided in the war diary were also recorded. This poses a number of problems, for example in some cases (such as after Gheluvelt), only a total figure rather than a breakdown of killed, wounded, or missing is given.

The diary gives a total of 4,867 men killed, wounded or missing during the war – equating to 77% of the men who passed through the battalion. Even discounting those listed as missing (1,185 men) on the assumption that at least some of them would have turned up safe, somewhere in the region of 45%-60% of the men who served with the battalion were either killed or wounded. Of course ‘wounded’ covers a broad spectrum and could include anything from minor injuries or ailments requiring only brief treatment, to more serious battle injuries necessitating evacuation. Perhaps understandably the war diary seems to understate the number of men killed (621 – excluding days where killed, wounded and missing are lumped together), with some of those who died being listed as wounded or missing at the time the figures were recorded.

Using the casualties listed on the CWGC database (1,561) as a proportion of the men who served gives a casualty figure of 25%, i.e. a quarter of men who served with the battalion were killed/died.

Some of the battalion’s casualties listed on the Menin Gate

This exercise has produced some interesting results. Given the battalion’s service and battle honours I had expected it to be ‘in action’ for a higher number of days than it was. I was also surprised by just how many men passed through the ranks of the battalion during the war. There is further work to be done to understand how the composition of the battalion changed and how effective it was as a fighting unit.

As a standalone piece the numbers provide some interesting insights into the war experience of one battalion – ultimately it would be interesting to see how the figures compare to other Regular, Territorial and New Army battalions. If anyone is aware of a similar exercise carried out on other battalions, or has any thoughts on the results, please feel free to leave a comment.

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1st Queen’s Epitaphs

Recently I’ve been doing some more research into the 1st Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). The battalion had a chapter in the regimental history, published in the early 1920s, but other than that little has been written about its experiences during the war. I am therefore attempting to write an updated history using the plethora of sources that are now available. The battalion took part in the Retreat from Mons, fought on the Aisne, was virtually annihilated at First Ypres, then was involved in Loos, the Somme, Arras, Third Ypres, the German Spring Offensive, and the final 100 Days Offensive. In total approximately 1,563 men from the battalion lost their lives. It is certainly an experience that deserves telling.

With such a rich array of source material I keep finding myself distracted from the actual writing and disappearing down rabbit holes of side-research. One aspect of this was looking at the 1914 medal roll for the battalion and what it can tell us; another the POW and ICRC records.

As part of my research I have been photographing the casualties’ headstones during my trips to the western front, visiting many of the well-known cemeteries as well as some of the lesser-visited ones, ones that I probably would not have been to otherwise. As part of this I started to record the epitaphs, where present. However the epitaphs are now easily available on the casualty records on the CWGC website. So my latest distraction has been collating the epitaphs for the entire casualty list.

As mentioned, the battalion suffered approximately 1,563 casualties; approximately because there will always be some doubt as to the actual figure. I have come across men listed under the battalion who were actually attached to other units at the time of their death, and vice versa. There is even one man listed under the battalion on the CWGC website but who is buried under a headstone inscribed ‘East Surrey Regiment.’ The exact total number may therefore never be known.

Of these 1,563 casualties 853 (55%) have no known grave and are commemorated on the memorials to the missing. Of the 710 who do have a grave, 414 (58%) do not have an epitaph. I was surprised at how high this number was; I perhaps expected that more men would have had an inscription chosen by their families. Perhaps the cost put them off, or perhaps there was no relatives left to mourn them. Of these 414, 259 have no additional information recorded on the CWGC website, suggesting that maybe there was no one to provide the information, they were not able to contact the relatives, or perhaps even in some cases the relatives did not want to provide any further details .

That leaves 296 men who do have an epitaph recorded on their headstone. The inscriptions are quite diverse, but there were clearly some popular choices:



GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN – 14 [but with another 10 that have a variation/addition to this]



These top five account for nearly one quarter of all the inscriptions.

In total there are 101 inscriptions which appear on more than one grave; that leaves 195 unique inscriptions, although some are variations or very similar. There are 11 headstones, for example, which have an inscription on the theme of ‘GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN…’. Religious inscriptions are the most prevalent – 40 (14%) make explicit mention of God/Lord/Jesus whilst many others feature religious inscriptions or are religious in nature.

Others are more patriotic –

HIS COUNTRY CALLED HE ANSWERED (Sergeant Frederick Norman Flower, 21/09/1918, Meath Cemetery)

Arthur Long

HE DIED FOR HIS COUNTRY BUT LIVES IN THE LOVING MEMORY OF HIS PARENTS AND THREE BROTHERS  (Second Lieutenant Arthur William Emmanuel Long, 24/08/1916, London Cemetery & Extension)

HE ANSWERED HIS COUNTRY’S CALL (Private Frederick John Hardcastle, 21/09/1918, Pigeon Ravine Cemetery)

It is interesting to note that two of the above are casualties from very late in the war, but the inscriptions still reflect duty and patriotism, even after four years of war.

George Wallis

Captain George Herbert Wallis’s epitaph reads IN LOVING MEMORY A SOLDIER WHO PUT HIS REGIMENT BEFORE ALL ELSE THY WILL BE DONE. R.I.P. Wallis had been one of original members of the battalion to go to France on 13 August 1914 and died of wounds received from a shell on 20 September 1918. He is buried in Thilloy Road Cemetery, Beaulencourt. Age 48 when he died, he was one of the oldest casualties from the battalion.

Finally some of the epitaphs provide an indication of the impact of the death of the soldier –

NO ONE KNOWS HOW MUCH WE MISS HIM NONE BUT ACHING HEARTS CAN TELL (Private Cecil Adrian Hall MM, 29/05/1918, Brandhoek New Military Cemetery No.3)

SADLY MISSED BY HIS SORROWING WIFE LIZZIE (Private George Bain, 03/11/1916, Grove Town Cemetery)

IN LOVING MEMORY OF A DEAR HUSBAND & FATHER (Private Thomas Henry Peters, 26/09/1915, Phalempin Communal Cemetery)

GOD TOOK HIM FROM OUR HOME BUT NEVER FROM OUR HEARTS MOTHER, DAD SISTERS, BROTHERS (Private Frederick Howard Currell, 17/07/1917, Boulogne Eastern Cemetery)

Grave of Lance Corporal Henry Moorley

LOVE FROM MOTHER (Lance Corporal Henry Perkins Moorley, 13/04/1918, Outtersteene Commuanl Cemetery Extension)

DEAR SON & A LOVING BROTHER (Private William Thomas Moates, 21/09/1918, Villers Hill British Cemetery)

OUR BELOVED BROTHER (Private Thomas William Miatt, 14/04/1918, Meteren Military Cemetery)

I am not sure how worthwhile an exercise it has been, and whether the results would be similar on a wider basis. What it has done however is open a window onto the grief of the families and loved ones these men left behind. For me it is part of building up a comprehensive picture of the battalion and its men, and as such it has helped to bring these names back to life.

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For England and Alice

In 1915 an interesting story appeared in several newspapers, concerning L/8863 Sergeant Cecil Robert Newman of the 2nd Battalion The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). Cecil was born in Twickenham but lived in Mitcham. He was a pre-war Regular soldier who had enlisted in The Queen’s at Guildford in 1906, aged 18, for a period of nine years with the colours and three with the reserve. His service record survives and notes his height at 5ft 4ins. He was promoted to sergeant in 1913, his service record stating that he was “A thoroughly honest, trustworthy , clean, hard working, respectable man. Very intelligent and willing. A very good clerk, with a particularly neat hand. Has a good knowledge of type writing. A strict teetotaller.”

Cecil served with the 2nd Battalion and had been posted to Gibraltar and South Africa, where the battalion was located on the outbreak of war. It was recalled and sent to Belgium, landing at Zeebrugge on 7 October. The battalion reached Ypres on 14 October and experienced its first taste of action on the 18th near Dadizeele, east of Ypres. By the 21st it had withdrawn to the Langemarck-Zonnebeke road where it came under a heavy German attack, suffering 18 men killed, 123 wounded, and 37 missing. One of those missing was Cecil Newman. A Surrey newspaper takes up the story:

Metal Disc’s Strange Adventures

“For England and Alice.” That is what Sergeant C.E. Newman, of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, fought and died for on the battlefield of France.

These were the last words that he scratched with his penknife on his metal identification disc while he lay wounded in a farm building near Zonnebeke.

This last message home was entrusted to another wounded comrade, Private R. Cotton, who lay wounded on a mattress in the same shed just before the gallant sergeant died.

The strange vicissitudes of this touching message which closed the brief life epic of Sergeant Newman and the remarkable manner in which it was given to the hero’s family this week were told to a ‘Lloyd’s News’ representative yesterday by Private Cotton, who is now in a London hospital.

“We were retiring from our positions last October,” he said, “near to Zonnebeke, when I was wounded in the leg. I managed to get to a farm shed, where I was taken prisoner by the Germans. There was another man along with me, and the next morning Sergeant Newman, also of our regiment, staggered up to the place badly wounded and lay alongside me.

Altogether we were there three days, but on the second day the sergeant was very ill and got so weak that he passed peacefully away. Our wounds had received no dressing except what we could give them ourselves, and all we had to eat were a few biscuits that we had in our pockets. The sergeant was evidently hit whilst we were firing, for he was wounded in the neck and in several places.

On the third day the position was retaken by the French, who liberated us, and as I had been entrusted with the belongings of Sergeant Newman, I took them with me to Boulogne hospital, where I remained until I came over to England. The pay-book and letter which was inside I handed over to an English officer, but the disc I retained to give to the sergeant’s family.

Cecil Newman’s ID disc

Five months passed by, and I was still ill, having been under several operations; and all this time I did not know that Sergeant Newman had been placed on the missing list, and inquiries made for him through all sorts of agencies.

I was thinking of giving up his disc to the War Officer when one day last week a lady called on me, as she had heard there were a number of comrades of the same regiment as her son in hospital.

So after all I was able to give her the details of how her brave son had met his death.

When I went to the locker by my bedside, and took the identification disc out we were surprised to notice a message scratched on it – ‘For England and for Alice,’ and some initials underneath, which were only noticed then for the first time.”

The disc, which is numbered 8863, has the message scratched on the reverse side, and the four initial under the wording to Mrs. Alice Newman, the sergeant’s wife, are: “G,” “M,” “A,” “I,” for Gwendolyn, Muriel, Alice and Ivy, the dead man’s four little girls. He was only married five years ago, and has had a very promising career on service abroad.

One extraordinary feature of the affair is that some months ago Mrs. Alice Newman dreamed that her husband was standing outside a farm building wounded, and when she saw Cotton and told him of this experience it was found that there were many points of resemblance between the dream and the reality.

Although his service record reports him missing on 21st October 1914, Cecil’s date of death is recorded as the 22nd which ties in with Private Cotton’s account. Cecil was not to know but one of his daughters, Gwendolyn, had died shortly after arriving back in England after contracting measles on the voyage back from South Africa.

His widow re-married almost exactly two years later in Sutton, to a Frederick Charles Stannard. It may just be a coincidence but interestingly a man of that name also served in the 2nd Battalion of The Queen’s (Private L/7953).

Cecil is commemorated on the Menin Gate in Ypres but does not appear to be commemorated on any of the memorials you may expect to find his name on in England.

Cecil Newman’s name on the Menin Gate
Posted in 1914, First Ypres, Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment, Remembrance, Research, Surrey Regiments, WW1, Ypres | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Tragedy of War

My research into the men named on Carshalton war memorial uncovered some sad stories, but one particularly tragic one in my eyes is that of Frederick Baldwin.

Frederick was born in Carshalton and lived with his parents on Stanley Road. In 1911 he was working as a trainee carpenter, and later became an architect’s draughtsman. After war broke out he enlisted on 24th October 1914 with his friend George Harrison, and was posted to the 8th Battalion of The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment), one of the Kitchener battalions.

Frederick Baldwin

The battalion was part of the 24th Division and landed in France on 31st August 1915. They had been hurriedly rushed to the front for the Loos offensive but did not get there in time for the first day’s attack on 25th September. They were held in reserve, being sent in the following day to attack the German lines near Hulluch; it was their first, and for many their last, action.

The war diary for the 8th Battalion The Queen’s records that:

The battalion advanced under heavy machine gun and shrapnel fire in lines of platoons in extended order. As the advance continued over the Lens-La Bassee road, the machine gun fire from the flanks was very heavy. On reaching the enemy trenches it was found to be protected by barbed wire, which had not been cut and it being impossible to get through it, the brigade retired. There appeared to be no panic and the men walked back still under machine gun and shrapnel fire.

This brief description of events belies the chaos and carnage the battalion must have faced – 11 officers and 409 other ranks were casualties, including other men from Carshalton.

After the attack at Loos Frederick was reported missing; in fact he had received a gunshot wound to the chest and was taken prisoner. Initially sent to a prisoner of war camp at Limburg, at the end of May 1916 he was sent to Chateau d’Oex, a small mountain town in Switzerland, under a scheme to repatriate British and German soldiers too seriously wounded to return to fighting. Fred stayed with Samuel and Elise Etter, a couple who operated a ‘Pension’ and who took in a number of British soldiers during the war. He formed an attachment to their daughter Mariette, and in August 1917 their engagement was announced. Sadly the marriage never took place; Fred was repatriated on 11th September 1917 and discharged from the army in November.

Having survived being wounded and his time as a prisoner, unfortunately, weakened by his war experience, Frederick died in the influenza pandemic of 1918. His 14 year old sister had died two days previously from the same cause.

Frederick’s grave in Carshalton

Frederick is buried in Carshalton All Saints churchyard and commemorated on Carshalton war memorial and the memorial chapel in in St. Barnabas church.

Posted in 1915, Carshalton, CWGC, Loos, Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment, Remembrance, Research, Surrey Regiments, War memorials, WW1 | Leave a comment

The Longest Epitaph?

Wandering around Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension Nord last year, a particular headstone caught my eye. It is hard to miss; situated at the end of a row, it stands out because almost the entire headstone is taken up by the epitaph. It is certainly the longest one I have seen first-hand in my travels.

The headstone is that of Lieutenant Alfred James Lawrence Evans, who served with the 3rd Battalion Canadian Infantry was who died on 7 December 1915, aged 26.

His epitaph reads:

In loving memory of Lieutenant Alfred James Lawrence Evans. B.Sc. McGill. 1st Canadian Division 7th December 1915. Aged 26 years. Born at Quebec. Died of wounds received on 23rd November 1915 while in command of 1st Bde Mining Sec. 3rd Btn. front line trenches, Belgium. Mentioned in despatches for gallant and distinguished conduct in the field. “The brave die never, being deathless they but change their country’s arms for more, their country’s heart.”

The quote is from the poem ‘Festus’ by Philip James Bailey (1816–1902). In total the epitaph is 455 characters (including spaces) – somewhat longer than the 66 characters that was allowed!

Lieutenant Alfred Evans’ grave

Alfred was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Lorenzo Evans, of 65, St. Ursule St., Quebec, Canada. He was born in Quebec in 1889 and after graduating from McGill University he worked as a mining engineer. He enlisted September 1914 as a Sapper in the Engineers, went to France in October 1914, and was promoted in August 1915. He was Mentioned in Desptaches in the London Gazette of 22 June 1915.

On 23 November Alfred was in trenches in the vicinity of Dranoutre. He and Lieutenant Chevalier (officer commanding 3rd Battalion Mining Section) were wounded by a rifle grenade, Alfred suffering wounds to his head, chest and arm. He was taken by No.2 Canadian Field Ambulance roughly four miles to No. 2 Casualty Clearing Station at Bailleul and died there two weeks later.

Lieutenant Alfred Evans (MacGill University)

Unfortunately the CWGC ‘headstone’ document attached to his casualty record on the website does not shed any light as to why such a long epitaph was permitted, as it refers to a separate schedule. Perhaps the answer lies in the CWGC archive.

So was Alfred’s epitaph the longest? The closest I have been able to find is that of Captain Guy Charles Boileau Willock who was killed at Loos on 25 September 1915 and is buried at Dud Corner Cemetery; his epitaph at 257 characters, whilst still impressive, is still 200 characters shorter.


A couple of other longer than standard epitaphs have been pointed out to me:

Private Edward RustSeriously wounded while advancing with his regiment in the fighting near St. Julien Sat. April 24. 1915 he was taken to the field hospital but was so eager to uphold the honour of his regiment and to serve his country that he returned next day to the firing line and remained with his comrades until they were relieved and died on April 30th courageous to the end and beloved by all who knew him (395 characters. With thanks to Mark Banning).

Lieutenant Robert William Sterling – Scholar of Pembroke College Oxford author of Newdigate prize poem 1914 killed in action at Ypres and in memory of his brother Second Lieutenant John Lockhart Sterling Royal Scots Fusiliers killed in action at Loos 28th September 1915 (233 characters. With thanks to Paul Hilferink).

Lieutenant Eliot BurtHe was an inspiration of radiant brightness and greatly beloved In proud memory of the above and also of A. Gordon Burt passed away at sea 4th Sept. 1919 after much suffering from wounds received while serving in France now glorified (233 characters. With thanks to Michelle Young).

If you know of a longer one please comment below or contact me on Twitter @ww1geek_andy

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Meteren isolated grave

I’ve written previously about a single First World War grave located near to where I live, but they do occur on the continent as well. ‘Meteren isolated grave’ is the description on the CWGC website of the lone grave of Lieutenant Anthony George Atwood Morris. Located just off the D642 south west of Meteren, I suspect he receives few visitors due to the location – certainly fewer than the average CWGC site. However how he came to be here is an interesting story.

The location of Morris’s grave south west of Meteren

Morris was originally from Rugby. He was educated at Winchester and went on to enlist in the Royal Lancaster Regiment prior to the war. On 17 September 1914 he went to France where he joined the 1st Battalion King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment), which was at that time on the Aisne. A few weeks later the battalion entrained for Hazebrouck, which it reached on 12 October – part of the move by the BEF to support the French and try and outflank the Germans.

Anthony Morris

On 13 October reports were received that the Germans were holding Meteren, and the battalion was ordered to attack. The war diary contains a brief description of events:

“Brigade attacked this village – 400x each side of R. Croix Les Ormes Meteren road. King’s Own and Essex Regt in front line Lan. Fusiliers and Inniskillings in second line. King’s Own allotted front of 400x on right of road.

Reached outskirts of Meteren about 2pm. Heavy machine and rifle fire opened on us from village. Enemy had excellent field of fire. About 4pm we were shelled at close range by guns just south of village. There was a large gap between our right and VI Division. Lan Fus were sent to fill in gap but at nightfall they had not reached position.

After dark King’s Own Regt started to entrench and at 9pm Lan Fus marched into village from right and found enemy had evacuated it. King’s Own stayed in trenches all night.”

A sketch of the action on 13 October 1914

The regimental history provides a bit more detail about the attack and the fate of Lieutenant Morris:

“The companies were to advance with Major Jackson’s ‘D’ Company on the right of the front line and Joiner’s ‘C’ Company on the left. Keith’s ‘B’ Company followed ‘D’ and Hodgson’s ‘A’ Company followed ‘C’. Morris was to follow ‘B’ Company with his machine-gun section. The companies deployed in artillery formation and the advance began at about noon. The fog developed into a Scotch mist and in the enclosed country Meteren was no longer visible. The dividing line between the two leading companies was a track which enabled them to keep direction, but although 6th Division was supposed to be on the right, ‘D’ Company was never in touch with it and as the advance continued the gap became wider. On the other hand, even from his excellent observation post on the top of Meteren church tower the enemy was unable to see through the haze.

 About a mile short of Meteren as the country became more open and the mist lifted slightly it became possible to check the position. In front of ‘D’ Company was a farm in some enclosures running across the line of the advance; on its south side was a lane about a thousand yards from the southern outskirts of Meteren; about two hundred yards further east another road ran in a northerly direction into the eastern outskirts of the village. There was still no serious opposition, only a few odd shots from small arms, and the battalion steadily advanced in extended order, four paces between each man. The officers wore their swords, and the first casualty was Lieutenant A. Waterhouse, who had joined ‘A’ Company only two days before and was killed by a bullet as he walked over the quiet fields. It smashed his sword and entered his body. When the first shots were fired the men doubled forwards to take cover in the lane short of the farm. On the right a small German party was seen near the road into Meteren, but it was soon dispersed by rapid fire. Morris took his machine guns into the enclosures to cover the right flank.

Between this lane and the outskirts of the village there was first a field to cross, on the far side of which was a wire fence and a ditch which, while dry on the left, was full of water on the right. Beyond this fence the ground was open to the southern outskirts of the village; the enemy was posted in the houses with an excellent field of fire, but on the right there was a hopfield which afforded some cover. As soon as the battalion emerged from the lane it came under machine-gun and rifle fire, but there was no hesitation and the men continued to advance in perfect order by the orthodox method of the time, in short rushes. The plan was for the machine guns to cover the advance by engaging with fire the enemy on the southern outskirts of the village, but no sooner did Morris emerge from the farm enclosures than he was seen from the church tower. He took up a position behind a scanty hedge, where he and his team were later found in a tidy row of eight, all dead and their gun out of action.”

 Morris’s body was originally buried in Meteren churchyard; however his family reportedly travelled to France after the war, exhumed his body and tried to repatriate it, only to be stopped at Calais. The family then received special dispensation from the Secretary of State for Defence to re-bury his body close to where he fell in action. The plot of land where he is now buried was purchased by the family and the structure above his grave built, incorporating a Derby-made clock from the stables of their house.

Lieutenant Anthony George Atwood Morris’s grave

The stables clock above the grave

Anthony Morris is also commemorated on Pailton war memorial, Warwickshire, Winchester College war memorial and Elford war memorial, Staffs.

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Some day, some time we’ll understand

On my recent trip to the battlefields of France and Flanders, I spent some time visiting the graves of men who were killed alongside my Great Great Uncle during a night attack on 2nd December 1917. One hundred men from his battalion, the 11th Border Regiment, lost their lives in the attack; just 15 have a known grave with the remainder commemorated on Tyne Cot memorial.

One of those who does has a known grave is Private Alfred Merryweather, buried at Tyne Cot, plot XXXIX.C.10.

Alfred’s headstone

Alfred’s body was found at map reference V.23.d.7.2 (just to the right of the 11th Border Regiment’s frontage for the attack) in August 1920. Initially the body was not identified, and Alfred was due to be commemorated alongside his fallen comrades on Tyne Cot memorial. However the boots on the body were marked with a service number and text; 50022 MHN (possibly MAN). This was in fact Alfred’s previous service number, as he had initially enlisted with the 4th Manchesters.

The location where Alfred’s body was found

Alfred’s headstone caught my attention with the epitaph “Some day, some time we’ll understand.” I often get asked what it is about the First World War that interests me, and it is something that I sometimes struggle to explain. Yet this epitaph, with its few short words, perhaps best articulates that reason.

There are a number of First World War headstones that feature this epitaph, but there does not appear to be a readily identifiable source for it. One can see its appeal to a grieving family, struggling to come to terms with the loss a loved one. In Alfred Merryweather’s case its choice perhaps becomes clearer with the realisation that his elder brother Charles also lost his life, less than two months earlier. His body was never recovered, or at least not identified, which gives the epitaph even more resonance as the parents maybe channelled the loss of both sons into the inscription on Alfred’s headstone.

Although separated by death, the brothers remain close, for although Charles has no known grave he is commemorated on Tyne Cot memorial, panel 58, just a few hundred feet from Alfred’s resting place. The brothers’ names are also both inscribed on their parents’ headstone in Philips Park Cemetery, Manchester.

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In the Footsteps of the 1st Queen’s

At the end of May I ventured once more to the battlefields of Flanders. There was no specific reason for my trip, more a desire to return after nearly nine months away, for what might be my only visit this year. However I planned an itinerary for the 2.5 days and managed to squeeze a lot in.

Part of the trip was spent following the actions of the 1st Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment). It is a battalion I have been researching for a number of years now, and I wanted to trace some of its movements from 1914, 1917, and 1918.

1914 – Langemarck

First stop was Langemarck, where the battalion had been in action from 21-24 October 1914 during First Ypres. The men had been involved in heavy fighting in the Battle of the Aisne. On 15 October they had entrained for Flanders, reaching the salient on 20 October. The following day they marched to Langemarck, acting as advance guard of 3rd Brigade.

The battalion was tasked with taking Poelcapelle station and the main road running from the station to Poelcapelle itself. The battalion spread out both sides of the railway line to Poelcapelle and began to advance north east. However, it soon came under heavy fire from the direction of the station, as well as from German troops to the north, and was forced to withdraw.

Looking north east along the old railway line, from the approximate position of the battalion on 21/10/1914

Picture taken from this approximate location

The following day the battalion was located immediately west of the Steenbeek – better known now as the location of the Harry Patch memorial, and suffered only a few casualties. On 23 October the battalion was sent north west of Langemarck and assaulted the Kortekeer Cabaret, an inn that had been taken by the Germans. This was a successful operation in which 60 Cameron Highlanders taken prisoner by the Germans were freed. During the subsequent fighting that day Captain Stanley-Creek’s company was cut off by the Germans, but under the cover of darkness he managed to extricate them in the confusion. For his actions that day he was awarded the DSO.

Looking south towards the Kortekeer Cabaret

The same view today

1914 – Gheluvelt

By 29 October the battalion had moved to the vicinity of Gheluvelt to counter the German attack there, but it was 31 October that was to prove a pivotal point in the battalion’s history.

I have visited the scene of the Queen’s stand at Gheluvelt on 31 October 1914 previously, but it is still an action that fascinates me (see my blog post here). The battalion held the most forward part of the British line that day, yet managed to cling to its positions as the battalions around it withdrew. This stand cost the battalion dearly, a famous photograph purporting to show just 32 survivors after the battle.

Map of the battle based on a sketch by Major Watson

It isn’t until you visit the area that you get a true appreciation of the battalion’s position and how the landscape would have impacted on the events that day. The key point for me is that when the companies were dug in, due to the nature of the terrain they would have had limited sight of the companies either side, and therefore limited appreciation of the events unfolding around them.

Gheluvelt in 1915

Gheluvelt today

1917 – Menin Road

A now innocuous-looking residential road off the Menin Road was the battalion’s front line on 25 September 1917, during the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge; only a short distance from where the battalion had been in action at Gheluvelt three years previously. The morning was misty and at 7.30 a.m. battalion HQ (situated in Herenthage Wood, near the chateau) was informed that the Germans had broken through. A few confused hours of fighting followed, in which most of the battalion’s officers were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, but the following day the original line was retaken. The battalion’s casualties totalled just over 400.

On 25/09/1915 the battalion was holding the line along this road, facing the Germans attacking from the right

Photo taken from position marked X

1918 – Meteren

The following day I drove south west from Ypres across the border into France and to the site of a few days’ heavy fighting for the battalion in April 1918. As the Germans tried to push north west during the Battle of the Lys (part of Operation Georgette), the 33rd Division was rushed in to try and plug the gap. On 12 April the battalion took up a position south of Meteren, around the Hoegenacker windmill.

Looking south east from the approximate site of the windmill

This position gave an excellent view towards the advancing Germans; an officer who was present recalled the action: ‘Presently over the ridge came a battalion of Germans marching in column of fours with company officers mounted. There was an officer in front – probably the Commanding Officer – on a grey horse. Undoubtedly, the Germans thought they had only now to walk through to the coast. British infantry had never had a better target – every Lewis gun, every rifle was trained on that slow-moving body – not a shot rang out yet; it would be murder when we did fire, we could not miss them…The whole line vomited out a blaze of fire; ahead of us Germans reeled and fell, the grey horse reared up on its hind legs and horse and rider fell in a heap. The whole column broke and fled helter-skelter, but still the hail of bullets ceaselessly sped from Lewis gun and rifle, and bigger and bigger grew the heaps of corpses in front.’

Visiting the fallen

In addition to following the battalion’s actions, I also tried to visit as many of the graves of the men as I could, to pay my respects. Many of the cemeteries were first time visits for me, from the small CWGC plot at Winnizeele, well behind the lines (resting place of Private Bell, killed during a trench mortar demonstration), to the nine graves located in Perth (China Wall) Cemetery. At Messines Ridge cemetery lay four soldiers from the battalion, all captured at Gheluvelt but who subsequently died from their wounds.

The graves of Private Mates and Private Shute at Messines Ridge cemetery. Both were taken prisoner at Gheluvelt

I also visited sites I’ve been to many times before; Ypres Reservoir Cemetery, where the battalion’s CO Lieutenant Colonel St Barbe Russell Sladen is buried, killed by a shell on 12 March 1918 whilst inspecting the battalion’s positions, and Tyne Cot, where Private Dilks lies directly behind the Cross of Sacrifice, one of the original burials in the cemetery.

The grave of Lieutenant Colonel St. Barbe Russell Sladen in Ypres Reservoir cemetery

In total I visited the graves of 70 soldiers from the battalion across 20 cemeteries, 15 of which I had not previously been to, as well as paying my respects to the 353 men of the battalion commemorated on the Menin Gate, Tyne Cot memorial, and Ploegsteert memorial.

It seemed fitting that the last stop on my trip was Nine Elms cemetery; ten men from the battalion are buried here, including Private James Nicholls who is commemorated on my local war memorial. His epitaph poignantly reads ‘In loving memory of our dear son never forgotten by father mother and all at home’.

Private James Nicholls headstone at Nine Elms cemetery

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