So reads the epitaph on the grave of Second Lieutenant Alfred Claude Gant, 2nd Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps, who was killed less than a month before the war ended, aged 21. He lies in Busingy communal cemetery, about 15 miles south east of Cambrai.
A while ago I picked up two photographs of his grave. There is nothing particularly special about them; they are small prints that have obviously been taken from an album. One shows presumably his father standing behind his grave. The man stands almost expressionless, not looking at the camera. To me it is a powerful image of a father’s grief. The pictures were probably taken in the late-1920s, perhaps on a pilgrimage, perhaps the first or maybe the only time his parents visited their son’s grave; his mother died in 1933 and his father in 1946.
Alfred was born in Nottinghamshire in 1895, the son of William, a farrier, and Annie. He was educated at Sneinton Church Higher Grade School and became a grocer’s assistant. He enlisted in the 13th King’s Royal Rifle Corps in March 1915 and went to France in July of that year. One of four children, two of his brothers also served.
In May 1917 he was appointed Lance Corporal and in July applied for a commission. At the end of that month he was gassed. He re-joined his battalion in October and was promoted to the rank of Corporal in November. Later that month he returned to England to carry out officer training. His report states: ‘Education, average; Military Knowledge, good; Power of Command and Leadership, good. Better in the field than on paper. Has worked hard and shown satisfactory progress throughout the course. Should make a satisfactory officer.’
He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 2nd KRRC on 26 June 1918, and joined the battalion towards the end of September. It was a baptism of fire for the new subaltern, as the British and Commonwealth forces sought to break through the Hindenburg Line. The KRRC Chronicle reported that ‘On the evening of the 23rd the Battalion moved up to the line again to attack on the 24th. The enemy apparently suspected the attack, because they were shelling all the roads and valleys and likely forming-up positions very heavily with gas. The Royal Sussex were attacking on our left and the 3rd Infantry Brigade on our right. Their objectives were two hills about two miles from the assembly position, and the Battalion’s task was to clear the valley running in between, and the final objective was known as Le Due Trench, about 400 yards south of Pontruet [about six miles north west of St. Quentin]. The attack progressed very well, and all objectives were gained except on our right, where a party of about 200 of the enemy held out in a trench redoubt till dusk, when we captured the positions. A further advance was made at dusk by A and C Companies, and a sunken road on an important ridge in front was captured. This attack had to be arranged and carried out at very short notice, and was most successful. About 2pm the next day, the 25th, the enemy attempted to counter attack, after heavy artillery preparations. They were heavily repulsed by our rifle and Lewis gun fire and the excellent barrage from our own guns. Enemy shelling remained very heavy all day, but no further counter-attack was attempted.’
The attack had cost the battalion 22 killed, 69 wounded (including the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Edward St. Aubyn), and 3 missing.
After a period of rest and training during the first half of October, on 16 October the battalion moved to Becquignette Farm, to the east of Bohain, and prepared for an attack the following day. This was the Battle of the Selle, as the armies advanced north east over the River Selle towards Valenciennes.
The KRRC Chronicle recounts the details: ‘Early on October 17th, at 1.30 a.m., we went to our assembly positions in the Bois de Busigny. The plan of attack was the 2nd Battalion, working in conjunction with the 1st Northamptons on our right and an American battalion on our left, was to follow close behind the attack of the 6th Division, and, when the latter had gained their objective, leap-frog through and carry on with the attack. The morning mist, together with the smoke barrage, made direction difficult to follow, and the Companies were for the moment disconnected. They, however, all got in touch again before we were due to pass through the 6th Division, and we continued to push forward in section artillery formation, A Company on the left, B on the right, D in support, and C in reserve. When the moment came to pass through the 6th Division we found that they were digging in some 800-1000 yards short of their objective. At first little opposition was met with, but the shelling was fairly heavy. The day went well until the enclosed country north of La Vallee Mulatre was reached. It was here that the enemy had a great number of well-concealed nests of machine-guns in hedges, etc., which kept up a big volume of fire. One of D Company’s platoons, working well, succeeded in out-flanking two of these guns, but the remainder held up the attack. Consequently B and C Companies were ordered to work right round the left flank. While carrying out this movement they had to deal with a sunken road to their left rear, which was still strongly held by the Germans, as the Americans were a little late in dealing with this obstacle. However, the obstacle was overcome, thirty prisoners taken, and later these two Companies, together with one platoon of Americans, successfully rushed the enemy machine-guns, which were firing from a railway embankment. Gallant as was this little affair, it did not ease the situation on the right. Accordingly A and D Companies made another attempt to move forward, with the help of three “whippet” tanks. This was again frustrated, partly by the enfilade fire, which was still very galling, and partly because the “whippets” were also soon placed hors de combat by anti-tank guns. Thus, unable to make progress, we held on to the ground already won and consolidated. It was very satisfactory that we had got further than any other battalion in the Division. During the night the 2nd Battalion Royal Scots pushed through us, but they too found that they could make but little headway their flanks being in the air. An extremely interesting point about this fight was that we were engaged against the same enemy division that the Battalion had met at Nieuport in July, 1917, and we actually took an officer prisoner who had been present at the battle of Nieuport. Time had gone full circle: the debt was paid. We took 100 prisoners, fourteen guns, twelve trench mortars, and many machine-guns. Our losses in the fight were: Officers killed 2nd Lieut. J.M. Hunter, A.C. Gant, W.S. Gibbs. Died of Wounds. 2nd Lieut. A.J. Stephens. Wounded. Capt. J.R.P. Maxwell, Lieut. B.V. Cherry, 2nd Lieut. T.C.S. White, T. Scatter, F. Tun, MM.’
Alfred’s body was recovered in May 1920 from a farm at map reference 57b.w.18.c.7.4, along with several of the other casualties from his battalion that day. The farm is located about 3/4 of a mile north east of La Vallee Mulatre, referred to in the KRRC Chronicle account of the action.
He is now buried in Busigny Communal Cemetery Extension, Plot V Row A Grave 23, and lies between two Lance Corporals from his battalion who were also killed in the attack. He is also commemorated on the Sneinton St. Stephen war memorial.