Sunday, 16 November 2014

2nd Lieutenant Ray Dickinson.

A Company Officers behind their hut in the Spring of 1915.
Barwell Dickinson
Savill Jones Green

2nd Lieutenant Ray Dickinson, the son of Lady Dickinson, was well known to both John and Frances Baber, as he had been brought up at 6 Phillimore Gardens, very close to 9 Phillimore Gardens in Kensington where John's parents lived.  Ray had volunteered for the battalion during  the very first days of the war. 

John wrote in his diary on the 4th of August 1914,

"Ray enlisted, mobilised. British return ultimatum to Germany commences at Midnight."

On the  Friday 14th of August . John wrote "Morning route march.  RSD joined."

Perhaps they had not been able to process his enlistment on the 4th.

Ray Dickinson, a photo taken at Cheltenham,
 and kept by my grandmother to her death.

He was close to my grandmother and may have been her boyfriend.  She remained in contact with Ray's sisters long after Ray had been killed on the October 2nd 1915, by when he had become Captain in command of A Company. Ray was one of John's great friends in the battalion, and they planned to take their leaves together. He features in many of John's letters, as will become apparent in future posts.

In the run up to Christmas 1914, he found time to send the following card to my grandmother. It was to be his last Christmas.

Initially in B Company, under Captain Cox, when on embarkation, the battalion was changed to a four company structure he moved into No.1 Company, was then renamed A Company.

On the 16th of November 1914 this company was the first of the QWR to move up into support of 16th Infantry Brigade, and for the first time they came under fire as they carried trenching materials into the line.

He was killed on the 2nd of October 1915 near Verlorenhoek Road by shell fire as they were repairing trenches collapsed by the recent rainfall, near the aptly names Stink Houses.

He was remembered by Henriques for "His happy and cheery character, his fearlessness and his power of leadership, had made him implicitly trusted as well as beloved by his seniors and adored by his company."

Dickinson Raymond Scott, Captain London Regiment (Queen's Westminster Rifles) 02/10/1915, Age 22, W.6. Potijze Burial Ground Cemetery (Ieper) (West Vlaanderen Belgium. [1]

[1] I am indebted to Steve Hammond for this information.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Marching to the sound of the guns.

The Queen's Westminster Rifles had been told as recently as October that they would not be expected to go to France until the Spring of 1915.

The regular Army had been suffering appalling casualties ever since the initial action at Mons, but remained unwilling to accept that they must call on the Territorial Army units training in Great Britain.  By the middle of October 1914 the situation had become so bad, that at very short notice the first units were called out to France.  The sector around Armentieres was seen as a "quiet sector"  suitable for these untried units.

Lord French had however to accept that he must use Territorial units if he was to prevent the line from breaking. He decided that although the Queen's Westminsters and the 8th Royal Scots had only arrived on the 1st and 8th of November respectively, yet their condition was so good that they were able to be sent to the front immediately after the H.A.C.[1]

John Baber, in his final days at Cambridge in the dark suit and cap,
his mother Clara is in the centre in a dark outfit and hat,
Frances, John's elder sister, also in a dark outfit stands to the left. The photograph
was taken at during the May Week on Wednesday 10th June 1914 at the grandstand
for the Bumps Race. Later that month events in Sarajevo would wreck their World
along with all those others there.

John wrote very differently to his sister than he did to his parents. This is demonstrated by the following letter, written describing his thoughts as the order came in to go to the front for the very first time.  As he would continue to do throughout much of the war he wrote in a light hearted way for his sister.
The letter can only be dated from the postmark on the envelope.  The letter is written in indelible pencil as required by orders.  The letter has been signed by Colonel Shoolbred on the reverse to show that it has been censored.

Mother’s and Dad’s letters of the
4th have just arrived.  I was glad to get them.
The parcel has not turned up
As yet, but I expect it will
Do so shortly.
Please congratulate Harold Willcock’s [2] folk for me.
It is rather odd that I know
4 men who figure in that list.
News just come that
We are moving up to the trenches at 8AM tomorrow.
Poor old Pat [3] has been done
In the eye after all!  By the time this reaches you I shall
Probably have been
Fighting almost a week.
Isn’t it a splendid compliment
To the Regiment.
I suppose I ought not to say that.


Page 2,

We have all been
Ordered by all sorts of officers of
Senior rank to keep our heads,
Down, so will take no risks.
Am to hungry to write more.
Love to all


Ray [4] is fit as a fiddle
& in fine form.

Later  Parcel just come
Thanks most awfully
Only just in time.

Officers from A Company.

Barwell, Dickinson
Savill Jones and Green.
The photograph is taken outside one of the huts built at Houplines into the mud and timber barricades built over the low lying valley between Houplines and the German lines.

2nd Lieutenant Ray Dickinson, the son of Lady Dickinson, mentioned in the letter above was well known to both John and Frances Baber, as he had been brought up at 6 Phillimore Gardens, very near to 9 Phillimore Gardens where John's parents lived in Kensington.  Ray had volunteered for the battalion in the very first days of the war.  He was close to my grandmother and may have been her boyfriend.  She remained in contact with Ray's sisters long after Ray had been killed on the October 2nd 1915, by when he had become Captain in command of the Company. Ray was one of John's great friends in the battalion, and they planned to take their leaves together. He features in many of John's letters.

Lieutenant RS Savill would remain with the regiment for many years, becoming the Commanding Officer and returning the final Cadre to Regimental Headquarters on June 2nd 1919.  He commanded the regiment until 1922, and died in May 1967.  He was the only one of the officers in the photo to have survived the war.

2nd Lieutenant J. A. Green must have joined the QWR after October 31st 1914 but before they went up to the front on November 16th 1914, when he is listed with the others in Henriques account.

2nd Lieutenant F Barwell remained with the battalion into May 1916, after which he transferred into the Royal Flying Corps.  He met his death on April 26th 1917 over Beaumont Hamel in a dog fight where he was overwhelmed by about six enemy aircraft.

[1] Honourable Artillery Company. The oldest artillery unit in the British Army dating back to the days of Henry VIII. My grandfather Reginald Hancock served in the HAC in 1911 and 1912 while he trained at the Royal Veterinary College, at one point becoming a Lance Bombardier (unpaid.) He was to serve as a Veterinary Officer throughout World War I.
[2] John's mother added a note to the effect that Willcock had been awarded Chevalier of the Croix d'honneur. I have no further details about Harold Willcock and would be pleased to learn more if you are aware of any further information about him.
[3] Patterson Barton, John’s uncle a regular in the Indian Army, who shortly arrived in France with his battery on the 6th of November, but of course John was not at this point aware of it.
John had not been accepted for the Regulars when he had applied in about 1912, and this had upset him, so it was one up for him that he had beaten his uncle into action.
[4] Ray Dickinson.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

The General, a Lion, not a Donkey...

Figure 1. Major-General W.N. Congreve, V.C. and Major Paley,
Brigade Major, 18th Brigade in the Trenches at Houplines, Spring 1915.
It is General at the back of the photo. 

Throughout most of the later 20th Century it has become almost standard practice for most military historian's to accuse the British Armies First World War General's of living remotely from their men in chateau's far behind the lines and of having little idea of what their men were going through.

If that was ever indeed the case, the Queen's Westminster Rifles were extraordinarily lucky in having as their Brigadier, and then Divisional Commander, Walter Norris Congreve.  It is quite clear from the surviving accounts from the QWR that they did not regard Congreve as being in the slightest bit remote. And nobody could accuse him of never visiting the trenches.

The photograph above shows the general looking for all the world like an elderly batman standing in front of the parapet at Houplines in the Spring of 1915.

Major Henriques would write of him..

"General Congreve possessed that charateristic quality of a leader which makes each individual under him feel a personal link between himself and his commander.  Such a feeling begets trust, and General Congreve possessed the trust of his troops to a welcome degree.  His frequent visits to the trenches were welcomed, by company commanders and junior officers, as those of a helpful friend rather than a critic; and his advice, especially in the early days, and the manner in which it was given, created a spirit of confidence that was of the very greatest help to Territorial officers, who both realised their inexperience and felt their responsibilities.  Who will forget his cheery "good morning" to the men as he passed down the muddy trenches, or his habitual greeting "and how are the Westminsters this morning?"

"On one occasion, in January [1915], he narrowly escaped being shot by an enemy sniper, when visiting the trenches held by the Battalion, one of the sentries being shot through the head and killed instantly while pointing out to him some of the danger spots in the German lines." [1]

On the 29th April 1915 Major-General W.N. Congreve would be promoted to command the 6th Division.

During the Boer War Congreve had been awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in rescuing the guns at the Battle of Colenso. With several other men he had crossed over 500 yards of bullet swept flat ground with a scratch team of horses and a limber in an attempt to retrieve several field guns who had opened fire too close to the Boer lines. Within a very short time the crews were all dead or wounded. Congreve was a subaltern with the Rifle Brigade. Amongst the other men to go forward was the son of Lord Roberts. Roberts was shot and wounded. Seeing Roberts lying in the line of fire Congreve went out into the direct sight of the Boers and managed to retrieve Roberts. Whilst making his dash forwards Congreve was shot through the leg and foot, and several other Boer bullets passed close enough to his body to tear holes in his uniform.
Congreve would later go on to command the XIII Corps and to mount one of the very few successful attacks during the Battle of the Somme when the 18th and 30th Divisions were the only ones to take all their objectives on 1 July.  Congreve soon added to his reputation through his advocacy of a night advance and dawn assault.  This tactic, which returned surprise to the operational agenda, was successfully carried out on 14 July at Delville Wood.  Congreve congratulated himself in his diary:

Haig came to see me and was very complimentary and grateful for our success yesterday, and indeed it was a good operation.  I do not think so great a force was ever before got into position within 300 yards of an active enemy for a dawn attack, and our losses before the advance were very small.  Our advance was over 1,400 yards of open ground.  The arrangements of the Brigade staffs, the discipline of the battalions and the effectiveness of our artillery are the causes of our success.  I think it will be a text book operation.  I am told it is the most successful of the war and I planned it![2]

The Battle of Delville Wood is remembered today for the appalling losses suffered by the South African troops involved in attacks later in the day. However the initial attack had been well planned, but as was to be the case until the Battle of Amiens in 1918 the Germans were able to move up reinforcements faster than the British could exploit the breakthrough that Congreve and his men had made.

In many ways Congreve's tactics are the precede the very similar tactics developed later so successfully by the Australia and Canadian Generals.

His son Major William La Touche ‘Billy’ Congreve, was killed on the Somme on 20 July 1916 leading from the front and then going out into No Man's Land to bring his wounded men in.  William joined his father in winning a VC.  However for the General the strain was to become almost unbearable and in August 1916 he caught cholera.

Eventually Congreve's habit of visiting the Front would catch up with him.  During June 1917, he had his left hand  blown off by a German 5.9” shell near Vimy Ridge.  He was the only corps commander to be wounded during the war.

Congreve was an asthmatic who suffered from bronchitis. Although he did return to command during the March 1918 retreat, he had by that time become exhausted and his troops suffered very badly from his decision to try to hold the line.

After the war he would be made Governor of Malta where he died in 1927.

Figure 2.  The Monument to Major-General W.N. Congreve on Malta.

Something of his care for his men comes over in the following quotation from a letter he wrote to his son.

‘I don’t feel I can ever make a general,’ he wrote to his son on 5 April 1916, ‘for I cannot face having men killed in the ruthless way generals must do ...’[3]

[1] Henriques, Major J.Q. The War History of the First Battalion Queen's Westminster Rifles, 1914-1918. Page 50 and 51.
[2] From the Centre for First World War Studies "Lions Led by Donkeys " by John Bourne
This article is a very good one about Congreve and goes into a great deal about his early career. I thoroughly recommend it to you if you are interested in Congreves life.
[3] John Bourne Centre for First World War Studies.