The story behind a lone headstone

To a passer-by, the headstone situated in the middle of the field might seem out of place, particularly if they are not aware of the history of the local area. But there are very few passers-by, for this is not your usual churchyard or Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. There is no cross of sacrifice, no stone of remembrance, no visitors’ book; the headstone is in a field located down a track in a livery yard, largely hidden from public view.

The headstone just visible in the field

The headstone just visible in the field

The reason why the headstone is here? This area used to be in the grounds of what was Banstead Asylum, later Banstead Mental Hospital, and then simply Banstead Hospital until it was later demolished, or parts of it incorporated into the nearby prison. An inauspicious end for what was quite an imposing building.

Banstead Asylum

Banstead Asylum

The asylum was built in 1877 and at its peak catered for over 2,500 patients with various mental ailments. I cannot imagine that it was a particularly pleasant place to be, given society’s previous approaches to the treatment of these types of illnesses.

The headstone is that of Sapper Reginald Adolphus Moyse, 31227, Royal Engineers, who died on 28th April 1917 aged 37. He has no epitaph. (

© Copyright The Saunterer

© Copyright The Saunterer

Reginald was born in 1879 in Maidenhead and worked as a ‘Composite Typefounder’ in the printing industry. He married Edith Maud Downs in 1905 and their first son, also named Reginald, was born in 1906. A second son, Arthur, was born in 1909, followed by Horace in 1910 and Cyril in 1912. When war broke out Reginald was 35 years old and the family was living in Herne Hill, south east London. He volunteered at the Royal Engineers’ depot at Chatham on 11th December 1914 and became a sapper, enlisting for the duration of the war.

After training at home Reginald landed in France on 22nd August 1915 and was posted to the 9th Field Company. It appears from his surviving pension record that he served with several different companies of the Royal Engineers and was in and out of hospital.

Reginald was sent back to England on 2nd July 1916. A report of a Medical Board dated 15th September 1916 described his character as ‘very good’, and gave the following details about his case:

“Originated June 25th 1916, France. March 1916 he stated that he had been concussed and buried at Vermelles, since that time he has been weak and nervous.”

In March 1916 Reginald had been serving with the 69th Field Company, part of the 12th (Eastern) Division. Vermelles was near the site of the infamous Hohenzollern Redoubt, and during this period there had been a great deal of mining and counter-mining in a period known as the ‘Battle of the Craters.’ On 2nd March the 12th Division detonated four mines under the German lines, and both sides fought ferociously for the craters over the course of the month. For example, the divisional history records

“On the 18th of March, at 5pm, the Germans opened a violent bombardment on the craters, blew some mines and attacked. Vermelles was heavily shelled, and in two hours some 2,000 shells fell in it and in its vicinity.”

Craters at the Hohenzollern Redoubt

Craters at the Hohenzollern Redoubt

It was likely to be during this period that Reginald had been buried. Whatever he had experienced, it had clearly affected him profoundly over the following months. The Medical Board report continued:

“On June 25th 1916 he is described as amicable, simple-minded, as having no sense of responsibility. Following his concussion at Vermelles he was in 13th General Hospital for one month…He is in a facile, euphoric state. Memory is fairly well preserved, but he has no realisation of the serious nature of his illness. His face is smoothed out and expressionless…His speech is sticking and slurring. His knee jerks are diminished, gait is staggering and he has tremor of tongue.”

The Medical Board judged him as being permanently incapacitated and he was discharged as ‘Medically Unfit’ on 6th October 1916, the reason ‘General paralysis of the insane’. By mid-February 1917 he had been admitted to Banstead Asylum; less than three months later he was dead.

The isolated grave is in stark contrast to the endless rows of headstones at cemeteries such as Tyne Cot and Lijssenthoek. Reginald does not lie alongside his friends and comrades, yet in some ways his solitude is almost as striking. However, faded remembrance crosses at the base of the headstone show that Reginald Moyse has at least not been forgotten.

As a postscript it should be noted that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website records 2,288 sites which contain a single casualty from the First World War. In this respect Reginald Moyse is by no means unique. However the majority of these graves (86%) are located within churchyards.

Posted in 1916, CWGC, Loos, Remembrance, Research, WW1 | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

“The whole attack had been a most costly failure” – The 1st Queen’s 15th July 1916

The average shopper in Guildford may be forgiven for not paying a visit to the church of Holy Trinity at the top of the High Street. The attention of those who do venture down the path at the side of church will likely be drawn to a statue of a crusading angel, made more noticeable by the bright hue of the verdigris covering its surface.

The memorial at Holy Trinity church

The memorial at Holy Trinity church

The inscription on the front of the plinth reads:

‘In loving and grateful memory of Geoffrey Brooke Parnell, Major 1st Battn The Queen’s Regiment, and the officers and men of the battalion who fell at High Wood July 15th 1916 in the Battle of the Somme.’

The 1st Queen’s had suffered heavily at Gheluvelt on 31st October 1914 and had spent much of early 1915 being brought back up to fighting strength. Since then it had been stationed in the La Bassee sector. This was no ‘cushy’ posting, and the battalion was regularly engaged in trench raids, patrols, and mine warfare right up until it moved to the Somme on 9th July to relieve the 31st Division.

On 14th July a pre-dawn attack had proved successful, capturing Bazentin and advancing as far as High Wood, although the opportunity to capitalize on the gains and take the wood virtually unopposed had not been followed through. The 100th Brigade received orders to support the right flank of 21st Division in an attack on the German second line the following day. The Brigade’s objective was to capture the German ‘Switch Line’ that snaked north west from High Wood in front of the village of Martinpuich, with a secondary objective of taking Martinpuich itself.

Aerial photo of the area overlaid with a trench map showing the Switch line in red

Aerial photo of the area overlaid with a trench map showing the Switch line in red

Late on the 14th the 1st Queen’s moved into position along a sunken lane between Bazentin and the looming mass of High Wood. The 9th Highland Light Infantry on the battalion’s right was supposed to dig in along the boundary of High Wood to its north west corner as a jumping off position for the following day’s operations, but was unable to do so as the Germans still occupied much of the wood, contrary to reports being received from 7th Division to the right. Patrols sent out during the night by the 1st Queen’s reported that the Switch Line was occupied but not wired; this turned out to be inaccurate, as barbed wire up to 15 yards deep was encountered during the attack. It is likely that the patrols had in fact encountered a forward covering party of Germans thrown out in front of the actual Switch Line.

View towards High Wood along the lane where the 1st Queen's formed up

View towards High Wood along the lane where the 1st Queen’s formed up

On the day of the attack Major Parnell had assumed command of the battalion, as the commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Crofts was acting as understudy to Brigadier-General Baird, 100th Brigade. The strength of the 1st Queen’s before the action on 15th July was 25 officers and 697 other ranks.

The positions of the battlaions of 100th Brigade before the attack

The positions of the battalions of 100th Brigade before the attack

The position the battalion was occupying was open, flat and practically devoid of cover. Before dawn on the 15th the battalion had to put out a defensive flank in an old German trench owing to the enfilade fire coming from High Wood. Early in the morning the battalion received confirmation of its orders. It was to advance north on a front of 500 yards towards the German line 900 yards away. Whilst getting into their positions the Germans opened a heavy enfilade fire, causing several casualties including Captain Gurrey, officer commanding C Company. A bombardment of the north west corner of High Wood was requested, but few shells landed there. A heavy mist had covered the shallow valley at dawn, obscuring High Wood and Martinpuich, but lifted just before the attack began. Brigadier-General Baird recognised that the success of the attack depended on High Wood being taken first, but his request to delay the advance until the wood had been cleared was over-ruled.

An aerial photo of High Wood and Martinpuich © IWM (Q 61359)

An aerial photo of High Wood and Martinpuich, August 1916 © IWM (Q 61359)

The 1st Queen’s war diary recounts the details of the attack:

“8.55am Front wave started and almost at once came under fire from both flanks and the front and second wave came under similar conditions and 2nd Lieutenant Richards and many men were hit. Line pushed on till within about 200 yards of the German trench when they came under very heavy fire and started to come back. At this stage while the men were being rallied Major Parnell came up on the left, with Capt & Adjt Carslake and in the most gallant way started to lead forward the attack, but was almost immediately hit and killed & Capt Carslake soon afterwards was wounded and 2nd Lieut Crichton killed.

The enemy’s wire had not been cut by the artillery and when about 100 yards from it the line halted in the long grass and started to dig in. Two platoons from the support company were now sent forward but did not reach the firing line apparently turning off to the left.

At 9.25 Capt Foster A Coy sent back a message that he had reached a point about 100 yards from enemy’s trench, that wire was not cut and HLI had not come up, but message did not reach the support line.

10.05 Lieut Thrupp on left sent back that he was held up by wire and asking for bombardment to be resumed and for reinforcements. Message got thro’ and bombardment started about 12 noon but all shells were short, some pitching behind our own line.

The positions at 12 noon

The positions at 12 noon

12.30 No reinforcements coming up officers remaining held a conference and decided to withdraw as there was considerable danger of their being cut off from the right. Retirement was carried out in small parties to original position on road. This position was heavily shelled during the remainder of afternoon and evening and during the night of 15th-16th. During the night strong patrols were sent out to get information and bring in the wounded.”

At 4am on the 16th the battalion was relieved by the 5th Scottish Rifles and retired to an area near Mametz Wood. The failure of the artillery to cut the wire and the inability to clear High Wood prior to the attack meant that the attack had been unsuccessful.

Casualties were recorded in the 1st Queen’s war diary as five officers and 28 other ranks killed, 11 officers and 207 other ranks wounded, and 52 other ranks missing; a total of 303, or 42% of the battalion’s strength. The war diary recorded that casualties amongst NCOs in particular was very heavy, with 20 Sergeants and 58 other NCOs being among the casualties. The CWGC database records 71 deaths on the 15th.

Officer casualties during the attack were 64%. The officer casualties were:


Geoffrey Brooke Parnell

Major Geoffrey Brooke Parnell

Major Geoffrey Brooke Parnell. Parnell was a pre-war Regular soldier, who had been overseas with the battalion since November 1914. He was also the cousin of Henry Bligh Fortescue Parnell, 5th Baron Congleton, who had served with the Grenadier Guards until he was killed in November 1914.




Captain Roland Percival Slatter (commanding B Company), aged 28, from New Malden. He had served in the army for 10 years and had been the Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant in the 2nd Battalion prior to being commissioned.

Telegram sent to Roland Slatter's father, notifying him of his son's death

Telegram sent to Roland Slatter’s father, notifying him of his son’s death (reported incorrectly as occurring on 17th

2nd Lt Arthur James Crichton, MC

2nd Lt Arthur James Crichton, MC

Second Lieutenant Arthur James Crichton, MC (battalion Lewis Gun officer), aged 19, from Hampstead. Private Burt, C Company, stated that “…he saw 2nd Lieutenant Crichton hit by a rifle bullet. Informant was wounded just before his Officer was hit, and lay in a shell hole for about four hours, and he says Lieut Crichton was quite close to him, in fact only about 30 yards away. Informant says he lay out in the open, but he saw him crawl a little way, and then he did not move again, and he thinks he must have died.”


2nd Lt John Hector Rouquette

2nd Lt John Hector Rouquette

Second Lieutenant John Hector Rouquette (A Company), aged 22, from Ashtead. He had attended Berkhamsted School before working for the Bank of Montreal in London. He was transferred to Canada in June 1914 but returned shortly after the outbreak of war to enlist. He had been with the battalion since February 1916 and was reportedly “killed instantly by enemy fire while leading his platoon forward.”



2nd Lt Gerard Rimington Bower

2nd Lt Gerard Rimington Bower

Second Lieutenant Gerard Rimington Bower (C Company), aged 19, from Farnborough in Kent.





Wounded – Captain Gurrey (commanding C Company); Second Lieutenant Richards (B Company); Second Lieutenant Burrell (C Company); Second Lieutenant Barland; Second Lieutenant Bottomley (B Company); Second Lieutenant Robinson (B Company); Second Lieutenant Farwell (D Company); Second Lieutenant Fairlie (C Company); Second Lieutenant Foley (D Company); Captain & Adjutant Carslake; Lieutenant Brown (Signalling Officer)

Other ranks who were killed included two brothers, Emile and Marcel Renaud, who were from Cranleigh and who were both Sergeants.

Private Harry Capon

Private Harry Capon

Private Harry Capon of Coldharbour was acting as a stretcher bearer during the attack. After dark he went out to find his Platoon Sergeant, who he had seen wounded in the morning; he did not return. His Captain wrote “He will be a great loss to the battalion, and his mother will, I hope, find consolation in the noble conduct of a true soldier, which her son has displayed.”



The other attacking battalions from the 100th Brigade had suffered even more than The Queen’s. 192 men from the 9th HLI were killed, commemorated by a cairn made up of 192 stones situated at the south east corner of High Wood. The support battalion (16th King’s Royal Rifles Corps) had 112 men killed, and the reserve battalion (2nd Worcestershire Regiment) 28. The actual number of casualties for the Brigade is likely to be even higher due to those who succumbed to their wounds in the following days; in the fighting from 15th-22nd July a total figure of over 1,600 casualties is recorded.

The 33rd Division’s History records that “…the whole attack had been a most costly failure. General Baird wrote of his Brigade that it had behaved with the greatest gallantry. The slopes lying to the west of Martinpuich and High Wood were a grim slaughter house. Dead, dying, and wounded lay thickly upon the blood-stained turf.”

The majority of those from 1st Queen’s battalion who were killed during the attack have no known grave and are commemorated on Thiepval memorial to the missing.

The battalion was back in action at High Wood on 21st July, although it would be mid-September before the Germans were finally driven out of the wood and the Switch Line was captured.

Geoffrey Parnell's headstone in Flatiron Copse Cemtery, Mametz. Photo courtesy of Mark Banning

Geoffrey Parnell’s headstone in Flatiron Copse Cemtery, Mametz. Photo courtesy of Mark Banning

Posted in 1916, Centenary, Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment, Research, Somme, Surrey Regiments, WW1 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mapping Carshalton’s First World War casualties

Recently I have been ‘mapping’ the men named on Carshalton war memorial to show where they lived in the area. My research into the men has really focused on them as individuals rather than looking at how the community was impacted, so my reasoning behind this was to try and produce a visual representation of how the war affected the local area. The information to do this has come from a variety of sources including Commonwealth War Graves Commission entries; census information (1911 and in some cases 1901); Surrey Recruitment Registers; local newspaper reports; and obituaries and rolls of honour.

There are some difficulties when trying to identify the correct address. Firstly, the address used might not be the last one at which the man lived, for example if using information from the 1911 census it is plausible that he may have moved before the war. In addition when using addresses given in Commonwealth War Graves Commission entries, these may not be the soldier’s address but rather that of his parents or relatives. However you can only use the information available, but it should be borne in mind that it will not be a 100% accurate representation.

Another issue is that it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact location of an address, such as if only a house name rather than a number is given, or where streets have been renamed or indeed no longer exist. So the pins have been positioned on the correct road where possible but might not reflect the true location.

Despite having been researching and writing about these men for the last six years, seeing this information visually has highlighted a few interesting aspects.

At first glance it may appear that there are noticeable gaps where roads do not have any casualties. However, Carshalton during the First World War was much smaller than it is now, and less built up. With a population of approximately 13,000 (compared to c.45,000 at the 2001 census), the footprint of the village was much smaller. For example, much of the land north of the Wrythe was undeveloped, as was the land north of Westmead Road.

The visual impact of the pins shows how the war affected different areas of Carshalton. For example, the area of Carshalton known as ‘the Wrythe’ was greatly affected, with 35 casualties from just four roads. The impact on these families and neighbours as they learned of the deaths of their loved ones can only be imagined.

Perhaps unsurprisingly there are few officers who lived in the working class areas. In general these men came from the south side of Carshalton and the Carshalton Beeches / Carshalton Hill area; the more affluent areas in the locality, with large family homes that housed the middle classes, and generally it was the sons of these families who became ‘temporary gentlemen’, in other words the junior officers. The more densely-packed working class areas such as the Wrythe and Mill Lane provided the ‘ordinary’ soldiers as well as a large proportion of the non-commissioned officers.

In Carshalton we are lucky that a comprehensive record of those who served survives, with a copy held in the Local Studies Centre in Sutton library. This lists 1,900 individuals who served, split by road. Mapping these names would be quite an undertaking to say the least, but would show exactly how the community responded to the war and was impacted by the departure of its men and boys.

Nevertheless, I hope that the map will be interesting to those who live in Carshalton and will help the community commemorate those who lost their lives in the war. If it helps personalise the names inscribed on the memorial, all the better.

The map can be viewed in Google Maps here:

Posted in Carshalton, Research, Surrey Regiments, War memorials, WW1 | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Three East Surrey VCs – Hill 60

Hill 60 had been taken by the Germans in November 1914 during the Battle of First Ypres. Due to its height it provided an excellent vantage point over Ypres, Zillebeke and the surrounding area.

The British blew several mines under the area on 17th April, and captured it with very few casualties. However the Germans then commenced a series of counter-attacks to re-capture the position. The fierce fighting on 20th April resulted in the award of three Victoria Crosses to men of the 1st Battalion, East Surrey Regiment, in an action described in the regimental history as “…one of the hardest fights that the battalion has experienced.”

An artist's impression of the fighting at Hill 60 [The War Illustrated]

An artist’s impression of the fighting at Hill 60 [The War Illustrated]

The battalion’s war diary gives some indication of the how desperate the situation was:

“20th. A quiet time till 11am then heavy shelling of the hill, communication and support trenches commenced, with great effect, the Germans scoring many direct hits with heavy howitzers, trenches were blown in and many men killed and buried… During this time the Germans were crawling up their old communication trenches and flinging bombs in to fire trenches, but could make no headway owing to our hand grenades and rifle fire…About 3pm the Germans in front…attempted to assault that trench, but on rising from their trench were hurled back by hand grenades and rifle fire. In this action, Pte Dwyer, D Coy greatly distinguished himself by crawling up the parapet and flinging hand grenades at the enemy, he himself being under a perfect hail of enemy bombs…Now a most terrific bombardment of the position commenced, which lasted for two hours, the hill during this time being a mass of smoke flame and debris. The enemy employed shells giving off asphyxiating gases freely…By this time, every man from the support trenches had been sent to reinforce the fire trenches on the hill and still more men were wanted…reinforcements arrived about 6pm and…1st Bedfords took over…the hill position. The bombardment of front line lasted to about this hour and after this all their artillery fire was directed against reserve and support trenches and lines of approach: this continued well into the night, and abated somewhat about midnight. Throughout the night until 3am the enemy repeatedly assaulted our trenches on the hill with bombs, only once did they succeed in gaining a footing and then they were immediately driven out. Once during the night the enemy attempted to assault the trench held by B Coy but were immediately driven back by rifle fire…From 3 to 6am the situation was much quieter.”

The 1st Battalion's position at Hill 60

The 1st Battalion’s position at Hill 60

The battalion’s casualties were seven officers and 106 men killed, eight officers and 158 men wounded; 279 in total.

The three Victoria Crosses awarded to the men of the battalion for their actions that day were as follows:

DwyerPrivate Edward Dwyer, aged 19, from Fulham. His citation in the London Gazette reads “For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty at Hill 60 on the 20th April, 1915. When his trench was heavily attacked by German grenade throwers he climbed on to the parapet, and, although subjected to a hail of bombs at close quarters, succeeded in dispersing the enemy by the effective use of his hand grenades. Private Dwyer displayed great gallantry earlier on this day in leaving his trench, under heavy shell fire, to bandage his wounded comrades.”

Representation of Dwyer's actions [Deeds that Thrill the Empire]

Dwyer was, at the time, the youngest recipient of the VC. He was promoted to Corporal and became known as ‘The Little Corporal’. He was killed in action at Guillemont on 3rd September 1916 during the Somme campaign and is buried at Flatiron Copse cemetery. His Victoria Cross is held by the Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment Museum in Dover Castle.

220px-George_Roupell_VCLieutenant George Roupell, aged 23, from Tipperary. His citation reads “For most conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty, on the 20th April 1915, when he was commanding a company of his battalion in a front trench on Hill 60, which was subjected to a most severe bombardment throughout the day, though wounded in several places, he remained at his post and led his company in repelling a strong German assault. During a lull in the bombardment he had his wounds hurriedly dressed, and then insisted on returning to his trench, which was again being subjected to a severe bombardment.

Towards evening, his company being dangerously weakened, he went back to his battalion headquarters, represented the situation to his commanding officer, and brought up reinforcements, passing backwards and forwards over ground swept by heavy fire. With these reinforcements he held his position throughout the night, and until his battalion was relieved next morning.

The young officer was one of the few survivors of his company, and showed a magnificent example of courage, devotion and tenacity, which undoubtedly inspired his men to hold out till the end.”

Roupell served throughout the war and continued his army career in the interwar period. During the Second World War he was captured and hid in France for almost two years before making it back to Britain via Spain. He ended his career with the rank of Brigadier. His Victoria Cross is held privately.

055-GearySecond Lieutenant Benjamin Geary, aged 24, from Marylebone. His citation reads “For most conspicuous bravery and determination on Hill 60 near Ypres on 20th and 21stApril 1915, when he held the left crater with his platoon, some men of The Bedfordshire Regiment and a few reinforcements who came up during the evening and the night.

The crater was first exposed to a very heavy artillery fire, which broke down the defences and afterwards, throughout the night, to repeated bomb attacks which filled it with dead and wounded. Each attack, however, was repulsed, mainly owing to the splendid personal gallantry and example of Second Lieutenant Geary. At one time he used a rifle with great effect, at another threw hand grenades and exposed himself with entire disregard to danger, in order to see, by the light of flares, where the enemy were coming on. In the intervals between the attacks, he spent his whole time arranging for the ammunition supply and for reinforcements. He was severely wounded just before daybreak on 21stApril.”

Geary in action [Deeds that Thrill the Empire]

Geary in action [Deeds that Thrill the Empire]

Geary lost the sight of one eye as a result of his wounds. He served with the Royal Flying Corps and later rejoined the 1st Battalion East Surrey Regiment on active service, and was wounded again. After the war he took Holy Orders and later emigrated to Canada. His Victoria Cross is held by the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

The cratered landscape at Hill 60 today

The cratered landscape at Hill 60 today

Posted in 1915, Centenary, East Surrey Regiment, Gallantry, WW1, Ypres | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

The real-life Indiana Jones, the First World War, and the Natural History Museum

If you have ever visited the Natural History Museum in London you will no doubt have seen the statue of Charles Darwin on the main staircase in the Central Hall. You may however be forgiven for paying less attention to a large bronze bust mounted high on the wall to the left of Darwin.

Selous memorial

This is in fact a memorial to a First World War casualty; panels either side of the bust state ‘Captain Frederick C. Selous DSO, Hunter, Explorer & Naturalist, Born 1851, Killed in Action at Beho Beho, German East Africa, 4.1.1917’. Selous was a true Victorian explorer and reputedly the inspiration behind H. Rider Haggard’s adventurer Allan Quatermain, who in turn heavily influenced the character of Indiana Jones.

Selous was born in London on 31st December 1851. After attending Rugby School he never really settled in England and in 1871 went to South Africa where he became a big game hunter and ivory trader. He was often commissioned to secure trophies for dealers and museums, including many specimens held by the Natural History Museum, hence the reason for his memorial there.

Selous wrote about his experiences in the 1881 book A Hunter’s Wanderings in Africa, and the 1893 book Travel and Adventure in South-East Africa amongst others. In 1893 he was involved in the First Matabele War, acting as a guide in the expedition organised by Cecil Rhodes. He could also count American President Theodore Roosevelt among his friends.

When war broke out in 1914 Selous was 62; he repeatedly tried to enlist but was denied due to his age. However he was eventually successful in gaining a commission with the25th Royal Fusiliers (the Legion of Frontiersmen). He was promoted to Lieutenant in February 1915 and Captain in August of the same year.

Given his experience it is hardly surprising that he ended up taking part in the campaign in German East Africa, led by General Smuts. He was Mentioned in Despatches on 30th June 1916 and awarded the DSO on 26th September 1916, the citation reading “For conspicuous gallantry, resource and endurance. He has set a magnificent example to all ranks, and the value of his services with the battalion cannot be overestimated.”

One of his last letters home was written to his wife on Christmas Day 1916: “We are on the eve on an attack on the Germans out here. Their lines here are quite close to ours, our forces are gathering, and we shall now attack their lines in several places simultaneously in a few days. Our forces are terribly depleted principally from sickness. The German forces are sure to be entrenching, and as they still have a number of machine guns, it may be no child’s play attacking their positions, and we may meet with heavy losses.”


Frederick Courtenay Selous, DSO

Selous was killed in action whilst leading his company in an attack on Beho Beho on 4th January 1917. He had just turned 65. A corporal from Selous’ battalion gave an account of his death: “He was not killed instantaneously, as I fought over him for fully ten minutes. He was shot in the head, but this wound was not the cause of his death; this wound was caused by a splinter some half an hour previous to the action fought on the hills outside the village of Beho Beho, and when Captain Selous was asked if he was wounded he stated that it was nothing very much and insisted on going on. He went over the ridges at Beho Beho and was kneeling near a small tree, and was seen after the action had been in progress for about 15 minutes to drop his rifle. I immediately went over to him and stayed with him for fully ten minutes before he received his fatal wound, and then I carried or dragged him to the rear of a small hill and there he died.” Corporal B. Davis, 32667, 25th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers.

Selous was buried in Tanganyika, in the game park that is now known as the Selous Game Reserve. He is also commemorated on Pirbright war memorial, along with his son Captain Frederick Hatherley Bruce Selous, Royal Flying Corps, who was killed in action on 4th January 1918 – the anniversary of his father’s death.

The plaque to Selous is not the only war memorial in the Natural History Museum…but that’s maybe a subject for another blog post.

You can download the ‘Life of Frederick Courtenay Selous DSO’ free here.

Posted in 1917, East Africa, WW1 | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Searching for William MacDuff – what can be learnt from new records?

Last week I attended the book launch for Michael LoCicero’s new book, ‘A Moonlight Massacre: The night operation on the Passchendaele Ridge, 2 December 1917.’ The book describes the action in which my Great Great Uncle William MacDuff was killed, on this day 97 years ago, an action which led to over 1,600 men killed, wounded, or missing.

Regular readers of my blog will know that it was my quest to find out more about William’s life, and death, that set me down the path of researching the First World War (for a recap see here and here). Over the last few years my research has focused on the men from my local area who are commemorated on the war memorial. Yet along the way I have still maintained my interest in William’s story, picking up small nuggets of information from various sources and eagerly awaiting the publication of Michael’s book.

Since I wrote the original blog posts I have, for instance, discovered that William is also commemorated on the Dunfermline High School war memorial. I have also returned to the site of the battle where he died. Visiting this time in August the landscape, covered in crops, looked very different to my last visit on a cold February day, making it difficult to get an impression of the land the men attacked over, and providing a stark contrast to the cratered landscape they would have seen.

I have also visited William’s name on Tyne Cot memorial on each occasion I have returned, always at the back of my mind wondering if his body still lays out there.

William's name on Tyne Cot memorial

William’s name on Tyne Cot memorial

At the book launch I had the pleasure of meeting the family of another officer who died that day, Second Lieutenant William Ridgway. Leafing through Michael’s book on the train home, my thoughts again turned to the fate of these men. I knew that about 100 men from the battalion died during that attack, yet only 14 have a known grave.

Scanning through the casualty list, it appears that five of these were men who died of wounds; buried at Mendinghem, Dudhallow ADS (Advanced Dressing Station), and Nine Elms. The remaining nine are buried in Tyne Cot, Poelcappelle, and Passchendale New British cemeteries.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission recently updated their website to include documents related to burials and headstones. I looked at the CWGC entries for the nine men buried in these cemeteries. In each case, their bodies had been found after the war, identified by a piece of equipment with the man’s service number stamped on it, an identity disc, or in one case from the name on a cigarette case found with the body. The CWGC documents contain multiple entries on a page, and examining them in more detail I found another 11 unidentified men from the Border Regiment buried at these three cemeteries. So at least 11 of the 85 men commemorated on Tyne Cot do have a grave (it could even be more – the full set of concentration documents for each cemetery would need to be consulted to ascertain if this is the case).

Whilst examining these documents, at the back of my mind lurked the thought, could one of these men be my Great Great Uncle? But all of these graves had had been marked as an Unidentified British Soldier rather than an officer.  Then looking at the documents for Poelcapelle, two entries stood out: one an ‘Unknown British Officer, Border Regiment’ and another ‘Unidentified British Officer, Second Lieutenant’…could one of those graves be William’s?

I had to take a step back and think about it rationally. Although I can pinpoint the location the bodies were recovered using the CWGC documents, both graves still pose a problem. Six officers from the battalion lost their lives in the attack, three Second Lieutenants, and three Captains. The body identified as a Second Lieutenant could be an officer from another battalion (although the body was recovered from the Border Regiment’s frontage – see the red ‘x’ on the below map). The body identified as that of an officer of the Border Regiment was found in an area that fell under the frontage of the battalion to the left (see the orange ‘x’), and could equally be one of the Captains or one of the other two Second Lieutenants.

Map showing the objective of the 11th Border Regiment (No.3 battalion)

Map showing the objective of the 11th Border Regiment (No.3 battalion)

Ultimately, although I would like to know whose bodies lie beneath these headstones, it is likely that it will remain a mystery. However it is another piece of the puzzle in my quest to find out more about William, for now I can visit not only these graves, but the graves of the others identified from the CWGC documents, knowing that here lie the bodies of men killed in the attack who may have known William or fought alongside him. I look forward to my next trip so I can pay my respects to all of these men.

William MacDuff, killed in action 2nd December 1917

William MacDuff, killed in action 2nd December 1917

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The 7th East Surreys at Cambrai

Postcards were produced in abundance during the First World War and can provide a fascinating insight into the men who served. Many were studio pictures of individuals or groups of soldiers, and capture a brief moment of their lives; for many perhaps the only photograph of them that exists. Yet too often on these postcards there is little or no identifying information about the men, and we are left wondering who they were, what they experienced, and ultimately what their fate was.

7th ES, Nov 1917, C Coy, 9 Pl v1

This picture of a group of men from the East Surrey Regiment is typical of many of the surviving postcards, although it was clearly not taken in a studio. The postcard is of men from the East Surrey Regiment, in the front row a Second Lieutenant flanked by three Sergeants and a Corporal, with 25 men behind them. Other than this there is little other identifying information; some good conduct stripes and a drummer’s badge are visible but other than this the only notable thing about the picture is the mixture of belt (P08 & P14) and cap types.

So here we have a photograph of 30 men, with the regiment known and the different ranks visible. This could be the end of the story for this particular postcard, however on the reverse is scrawled “7th Battalion East Surrey Regt; C Company; 9 Platoon. Taken at ‘Bonniers’ France, November 1917.”

The 7th Battalion of the East Surreys was a K1 new army battalion and had gone to France at the beginning of June 1915. Part of the 37th Brigade in the 12th (Eastern) Division, they had participated in actions at Loos and on the Somme.

Bonniers is small village approximately 25 miles west of Arras, and from the battalion war diary we can see that the battalion spent time here from 28th October -15th November 1917.

On 20th November C Company led an attack with tanks near Gonnelieu (ten miles south of Cambrai) as part of the opening day of the Cambrai offensive. The 12th Division were on the right flank of the attack under III Corps, Third Army (Byng). The war diary records:

At 6.20am the Zero barrage opened and tanks could be seen crawling over the ridge in the half light. There was no enemy retaliation at the spot where the Brigade was, as we were only 1800 yards from the German line, luck was with us.

At 6.50am the Battalion moved off by platoon round the road encircling Gonnelieu to the north. Enemy shrapnel was bursting on the road exit from the village. The front line lies almost on the edge of Gonnelieu and in a very short time the leading platoon were in no man’s land.

The hostile barrage was fairly heavy all about this area, especially on the sunken road La Vacquerie Road. This road was therefore avoided. The Battalion gradually shook out into Artillery Formation after leaving the village, and in company with tanks and enemy bullets and shells, moved on towards the Blue Line. Two companies either side of the main Bonavis-Goudeacourt Road. German machine guns and snipers were still firing from Sonnet Farm, although the troops who were taking the first system were well beyond. This was the case throughout the attack and was due to the difficulty of clearing or mopping up in time to keep pace with the advancing troops.

Captain D.F. Roberts was unfortunately killed near Sonnet Farm, by a bullet through the head. The two companies on the left slightly lost direction owing to their following the line of a valley and losing sight of the main road which was our line of advance.

On arrival at the Blue Line some houses on the right which should have been taken, were still holding out and our right two section of tanks were a little late.

cambrai v1

The battalion suffered 16 men killed and 100 wounded in the attack. The war diary records that the C Company officers who took part in the attack were Second Lieutenant E. Jordan and Second Lieutenant H.W. Binstead. Is one of them the officer on the postcard? Binstead survived the war and returned home to Wallington; Jordan was killed on 9th April 1918.

The successes of the opening day of the offensive were short lived and on 30th November the Germans counter-attacked. The battalion was again in action, and the war diary records one officer killed, three wounded, and nine missing (including the battalion’s commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel RH Baldwin, who was wounded and taken prisoner). Five other ranks are listed as killed, 11 wounded, and 260 missing.

Further analysis of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database for this period shows 19 casualties on 20th November; eight between the 20th and 30th; and 64 for 30th November. Only one of these has a known grave; the remainder are commemorated on Cambrai memorial.

Ultimately one is left wondering how many of the 30 men in the postcard were wounded or killed in the Cambrai offensive, in the weeks after the picture was taken.

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Carshalton War Memorial – Book out now!

Their Name Liveth for EvermoreI am proud to announce that my book about the men commemorated on Carshalton war memorial, Their Name Liveth for Evermore: Carshalton’s First World War Roll of Honour, is published today by The History Press.

In the words of the blurb on the back: “Carshalton in Surrey was deeply affected by the First World War: over 1,900 local men enlisted to fight. Of those men, 243 lost their lives and are commemorated on the war memorial. As we find ourselves commemorating the centenary of the war, it is more important than ever that these men are not forgotten. Drawing on over six years of research, this book brings together the stories of the lives – and deaths – of these men. Utilising a wide variety of sources and complemented by many previously unseen photographs, their stories are told here, from the fourteen sets of brothers who were killed to the devastating effect of the Somme campaign in which 19 local men lost their lives on the opening day alone.”

It has been an incredible and often moving journey researching the men and their stories over the last few years. If you do read the book, I hope you enjoy it and think it is a fitting tribute to the men.

Now the book is finished I am mulling over the possibility of arranging a local trip to the First World War battlefields to follow in the footsteps of some of the men. It would probably be a day trip to Ypres, or a two-day trip to the Somme, leaving from the Carshalton/Sutton area. Cost would depend on how many people were interested and would probably take place next spring. If you are interested, please let me know by email – no obligation at this stage –

The book is available from Waterstones (Sutton & Croydon), Honeywood museum, and the following online outlets:

The History Press



WH Smith


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Sutton war memorial

The war memorials in the London Borough of Sutton have recently benefited from a deep clean in preparation for the centenary. Sutton’s memorial in particular was in dire need of attention, its location overlooking the busy A232 making it a magnet for pollution. I must say, the results are fantastic, and full credit to Sutton Council for organising it and the contractors Stonewest for doing a great job. With the start of the centenary years it seems a timely opportunity to write a little about the memorial and some of the people named on it.

The memorial before and after cleaning

The memorial before and after cleaning

The memorial sits in Manor Park, towards the top of Sutton High Street, and was unveiled in June 1921. It takes the form of a cross of sacrifice atop a large plinth. The four corners of the plinth are adorned with carved angels; three of the sides of the plinth display symbols representing the army, navy, and air force. The inscription on the memorial reads ‘This sign of the great sacrifice is raised in honour of our heroic dead who gave their lives for England in the Great War. Their Name Liveth For Evermore.’ A further plaque records that ‘The people of Sutton erected this monument and dedicated the four acres of ground surrounding it to the use of the public for ever’.

The memorial shortly after it was unveiled in June 1921

The memorial shortly after it was unveiled in June 1921

527 names are inscribed on the memorial’s 12 plaques; over double the number on Carshalton’s memorial. Although I have not gone into anywhere near the depth of research I have with Carshalton’s memorial, I have so far managed to positively identify 489 of those named. The rank of each man is inscribed on the memorial, which in some cases has made it easier to identify the correct individual.

William Barnett

William Barnett

I have covered the story of William Barnett, one of Sutton’s first casualties of the war, in a previous blog post here.

The highest ranking name on the memorial is that of Colonel Robert Burns-Begg. Related to the poet Robert Burns, Burns-Begg was a member of the Scottish Bar and had seen service during the South African war in Kitchener’s Horse, after which he acted as legal adviser to the Transvaal government. In the First World War he was the town commandant of Folkestone. He died whilst on leave in Edinburgh on 9th January 1918 aged 45 and is also commemorated on a plaque in the parish church in Kinross.

No less than 17 of those commemorated were awarded medals for gallantry or were mentioned in despatches. Captain John Charles Mann served as Adjutant with the 2nd Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers. He had joined up on 7th August 1914 and went to France in November. He was awarded the Military Cross in January 1917 and was posthumously mentioned in despatches in December 1917, having been killed at ‘Black Watch Corner’ near Ypres on 26th September 1917 during Third Ypres. He has no known grave and is commemorated on Tyne Cot memorial. The 2nd Battalion RWF are notable as being the battalion that the writers Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves served with, and Mann features in both of their wartime memoirs.

Whilst the majority of Sutton’s casualties were incurred on the western front, a handful died elsewhere.  Captain Wallace Hillbrook died of meningitis in July 1916 whilst serving with the Uganda Medical Service, and is buried in Nairobi South cemetery, a reminder that the war spread far beyond the France and Flanders.

Seven of the names on the memorial do not have a rank inscribed next to them, and I believe they are civilians who were killed whilst carrying out war work. There is at least one woman commemorated on the memorial – Eliza Bailey, who was killed in an explosion at Brocks munitions factory on Gander Green Lane, around late 1916. She was 22. It is possible the other six names were killed in the same incident.

The memorial at Sutton Grammar School

The memorial at Sutton Grammar School

Several other memorials exist in Sutton, including one at the Royal Mail sorting office, a memorial to the old boys of Sutton Grammar School, and naturally several in the local churches. Thirty six of the men are also commemorated on Carshalton war memorial.

I will write more about those named on Sutton war memorial in future blog posts.















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Reflections of a Rifleman – Part 5

How much could be written about trench life, revelation in human endurance, and sublime heroism, lit by flashes of humour, but grim tragedy predominating – full to the brim, pressed down, and overflowing. Surely no dwelling ever held such a mixed assembly as gathered beneath the sand bagged-roof of a dugout, adversity indeed bringing strange bedfellows. Here all barriers of caste and calling were broken down, and common danger had brought common fellowship. Your solicitor’s clerk rubbed shoulders with a brewer’s drayman, and the commercial traveller found an excellent comrade in a coster. “Cook’s son, duke’s son, son of a belted earl” had once again met in a glorious comradeship.

There was J—-, whose nature was steeped in poetry, who brought refinement and romance into an atmosphere too often sordid and whose ideals were undimmed by the grim horrors of war. There was little B—-, inclined to be a pessimist and often given furiously to grumble, yet in his merry moments the best of companions. There was Patrick, the rebel, lacking suavity but staunch and true, who denounced the Saxon to the Saxon’s unending delight. Then Chris, philosopher and man of action, whose inventive genius added to the comfort and convenience of dugout or hut.  Also Peter, the man of moods, difficult to understand, admitted sensualist, unorthodox in everything yet found his soul’s expression in song. The hearts he moved to tears or turned to laughter with his glorious singing will ever regard his memory with affection. Then T—-, who carried Gibbon in his haversack, and was learned in literary lore. Resting one night by the roadside, on a journey up the line that to him was momentous, for its brought him a “Blighty”, he told me with impassioned eloquence how he hated the mechanism of war. Yet love of liberty had called him to the colours. The God of Battles protect them all!

Winter severity proved to us how terrible an enemy climatic conditions can be. Often as I stood vigil on the firestep for my hour of sentry, knocking my feet together to excite warmth, or paced to and fro on the duckboards, have I recalled that terribly realistic picture drawn by Tolstoy of the sufferings of the men in the trenches of Sebastopol. I am not for a moment, of course, comparing our modern conditions to the terrible rigours of the Crimea, but when it is remembered that the Russian soldiers were seasoned troops, while ours are drawn from civil life, whose calling in most cases ill prepares them for hardships, we must marvel at the endurance of the khaki-clad legions. No man’s land looked strangely romantic and full of mystery when covered in snow. On these occasions those going out on patrol wore white smocks with cowls, the more easily to escape observation, and it was weird to see them depart like a file of Carthusian monks.

At length winter drew to a close, and one experienced that indefinable feeling of spring in the air that makes the blood course through the veins, and makes one feel glad to be alive. On one sector poppies and daisies grew on parapets and parados, and between our front and support trenches was an orchard with trees of apple blossom. Often during a “strafe”, with death-dealing shells dropping perilously near, I have gazed fixedly at these evidences of life and beauty and realised as never before how dear life was, and prayed the God of Infinite Mercy to spare me to enjoy it another decade. At all moments though the dainty colouring of flowers and the refreshing green leaves were a joy and an inspiration. It reminded one of Omar’s lines:-

I sometimes think that never grows so red
The rose as where some buried Caesar bled.

Spring brought other things besides flowers – “offensives”, “increased activities”, and suchlike! Raids were the order of the day, freely indulged in by both sides along the wide spread battle front. Eventually our battalion had one all to itself. It was elaborately thought out, and for some weeks rehearsed daily. Eastertide was the time chosen, and accordingly on Good Friday night we entered the line at a given sector. The following day was spent in resting and making final preparations. The Lewis gunners and the bombers knew their place in the scheme of things, and every man knew his job. Bombs, ammunition, spikes, sacks and scaling ladders were issued out, and distinguishing badges pinned to the back of every man. Zero was at 8 o’clock in the evening, and as the day advanced one felt a strange excitement in the blood and a nervous tension in the atmosphere which manifested itself in the faces of one’s comrades. About a quarter to eight men were brought up from support and reserve trenches, and soon the front line was full, the men leaning motionless against the parapet to avoid being observed by aircraft, which are generally active in the between lights of a day’s close.

It was a unique a moment for a study of human expression. One saw men mad with fear, or impervious to it. The dread possibilities of the moment had touched chords that responded to the whole gamut of human emotions. I shall never forget the faces of those who stood beside me, with a grim look of determination, clutching their rifles. Some were young, others long past the fighting age, all bound by the strongest of human ties to some home, and some loved one. Oh, the pity, and yet the grandeur of it all!  I noticed C—-, a refined intellectual young man, frail in body but strong in purpose. In features he was wonderfully like the famous “Portrait of Cardinal Newman at the age of 19”. He was looking at a glorious sunset behind our lines, and on my questioning him as to his thoughts he quietly answered, “I was wondering if I should witness tomorrow’s.”

While active, man has renewed nerve and energy, but inactivity paralyses, and the tedium was becoming insupportable. With dramatic suddenness our bombardment began, heralded by signals of golden rain fountains, and pillars of white smoke on the flanks of the battalion front. The earth trembled, and the skies seemed to belch forth fire. The noise was terrific, and the air was full of the odour of cordite and noxious gases. The trench rocked with the concussion of the exploding shells, and splinters of shrapnel were hurtling through space. The traverse of machine gun bullets swept the parapets that in a moment would be mounted by the waiting men below. At last the barrage lifted from the German front line, and the order came galvanising the lines of hidden men into life. “Up and over!” And they climbed over, dashing with a sublime heroism into the veritable hell I have attempted so feebly to describe.

If any faltered it was but for a moment. The example of their fellows restored their courage, and with a wild cry they followed into the grim uncertainties of no man’s land. They followed on in the wake of our barrage, penetrating to the third and fourth German line. Having gained their objective, they remained nearly an hour capturing prisoners and gaining valuable information, after which “all that was left of them” returned to our lines. The leadership and courage of our officers that night were magnificent. Within two hours the raid was over, and silence reigned in no man’s land, broken only by the cries of the wounded.

I remember as I stood in our trench after the raid wondering if the people at home could ever dimly realise all we were enduring. London at that moment was flocking into the theatres and cafes, more interested probably in the latest society scandal than the war. It is horrible to reflect, yet very human, I suppose, seeing the battles are served up twice daily. Other interests have almost obscured the war. People think of casualties as if they were runs at cricket or figures in a game book. We know them as synonymous for poor shattered humanity, broken for life, or in its death agonies calling upon its Maker. In the early hours of Easter day we plodded from the line, along the tortuous, shell ridden roads, back to the camp. Many of us felt the influence of reaction, all of us were weary.

Since that memorable Easter I have gone from sensation to sensation and taken a humble part in the series of advances that began with the great battle of Messines and continues to the present moment, engagements besides which our raid pales into insignificance. At some future date I may records these experiences, but for the present I conclude my narrative. I have written sufficient to give those at home at least a slight glimpse into the life of Tommy on “Active Service”, and the thoughts that occupy his mind. I have taken no fiendish pleasure in sickening the reader with an orgy of blood lust, but I have given sufficient detail to make him realise the ferocity of war, and how unutterably loathsome it is. I have impressed upon him also the debt he owes to the khaki-clad legion who hold the front line, keeping vigil through long days and in the lonely watches of the night, standing between him and the horror and desolation that have laid waste the plains of France and Belgium. Upon the sacrifices of these heroes will be built the victory that ultimately will assuredly be ours. And victory once over, let us work for the permanent peace of the world, enriching it with the rewards of industry and enterprise, that when our children’s children visits the plains now ravaged and desolate they may be able to say with R.L.S.:

We travelled in the print of olden wars,
Yet all the land was green,
And love we found and peace,
Where fire and war had been.
They pass and smile, the children of the sword;
No more the sword they wield.
And, oh, how deep the corn
Along the battlefield!


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