Sunday, 11 August 2013

Investigating our First World War story

As part of my wider family research, I focused last summer on the First World War and my maternal grandfather, Charles. Soon, a shocking war story emerged from half-unreliable family tales : the tragic truth about four tanks not arriving in time to halt a massacre.  Its trigger was the publication of Marjorie’s War: Four Families in the Great War 1914-1918 by family military historians, Reginald and Charles Fair. My father noticed on one of the maps, the village my grandfather had talked about : Gouzeaucourt. Hence, while in France last summer, we programmed it into the satellite navigator. The rest was indeed 'history'.

I remember my tall, strong grandfather, Charles (1898-1970). He was a very amusing man, good with children, brimming over with jokes and stories. We would sit on his knee listening to him singing jaunty “Mademoiselle from Armen-tears, parlez-vous?” (‘Armentieres’). I now realise there was an heavy emphasis on 'tears' and I wonder whether his constant singing of war songs was a continuance of the silenced communal singing of The Welsh Guards into which he was drafted in 1917, as a Londoner. Were these songs his way of remembering and honouring them?

He retold his own battlefield story, not at all as a tragedy, but as a thrilling Boys Own yarn. There he was - walking across a field in France, one in a line of hundreds of disappearing guardsmen, shot through the hand and leg, falling into a shell hole, lying on top of corpses all night - and surviving. He enjoyed retelling it then scratching his head, with his two wounded and stiffened fingers. He wanted to pass on to us a pre-1914 view of the First World War, not the story of bungling, blight and blood. He spent a lifetime conveying a message of 'you-can-be-lucky', which may have strongly influenced his commando son, who fought (and died in 1945) in Italy.

My grandfather, husband and father in 1920, three years after being wounded at Gouzeaucourt
My grandfather never afterwards returned to Gouzeaucourt to salute his fallen comrades. This was possibly because such a small place does not appear on RAC or AA roadmaps. Its only importance was its proximity to the incredibly fortified Hindenberg Line.

Gouzeaucourt was on the Western front from around April 1917 to late 1918. Its roll of honour of thirty Frenchmen killed in the First World War shocks -  considering it is hardly more than a few streets. It also has the names of the civilians killed as their village swapped hands several times during 1917 and 1918.  A few hundred metres was won as huge cost of life in 1917, only to be won back later, with graves of the recently dead destroyed in the transfer. The last fierce battle at Gouzeaucourt was in September 1918, two months before the Armistice.

At Gouzeaucourt, on 1 December 1917, the 1st Welsh Guards were ordered to advance at a steady walking pace in daylight over an exposed ridge, to win back a few hundred metres of lost ground that it was not politically acceptable for the British to have lost it to the enemy. My grandfather told us that though the Welsh guardsmen had attached bayonets, they had no idea what to do if they reached the enemy guns. Nevertheless, they obediently walked forward, towards an Austrian firing squad hidden in a wood. Four British tanks, new then, an inspiration of Winston Churchill, had been ordered to support the advance, but none had turned up. There was no postponement of the attack. Their advance went ahead over a ridge between Gouzeaucourt and Gonnelieu, known as St Quintin Spur. Machine gunfire brought down two thirds of the advancing Welsh guardsmen.  Gunners apparently aimed at legs. If they had aimed higher, I would possibly not be retelling this.

The ‘Western front’ at Gouzeaucourt, in 1917 and 1918 with Gonnelieu, the village east of Gouzeaucourt in the far distance. The ridge between the villages, over which the 1st Welsh Guard advanced is the St Quintin spur level with second line of trees.
My grandfather was one of 369 Welsh Guardsmen who ascended St Quintin Spur. Within three minutes, 247 of them had fallen. 57 guardsmen were killed outright. He recalled these three minutes vividly, how he was filled with astonishment at seeing the next man either side getting steadily further and further away. He never mentioned 'fear' but he was hoping to be wounded, not killed, to get a 'wound that got one back to England, Old Blightey (hence the name the soldiers used for it, a 'Blightey'). Then, a single bullet hit him through the right hand and thigh. He managed to crawl into a shell hole. Ever practically-minded, he stemmed his own bleeding. That night, the wounded and dying Welsh softly sang to one another this hymn. It is about meeting again in Heaven. Thanks, I suppose, to Churchill and others, a single British tank finally arrived to knock out the machine guns and take the Austrians. At dawn, Charles moved the blanket on which he was lying to find a heap of enemy corpses. He was rescued in the morning light and taken to the military hospital at Etaples. He was shipped home and recuperated at Boscome Military Hospital where he enjoyed his convalescence so much that he eventually retired to Bournemouth area (Highcliffe). 

Gouzeaucourt town hall, with French war memorial and roll of honour, civilian and military

Entrance to Gouzeaucourt Commonwealth War Cemetery (Great War)
Last summer, approaching Gouzeaucourt from Rheims, we turned off the Rheims-Calais motorway about 15 kms south of Cambrai. Within minutes, we found Gouzeaucourt, an ordinary French village and its British and Commonwealth “New” War Cemetery.

Tears suddenly streamed down my cheeks, as I jumped out of the car, sensing deeply my grandfather's narrow escape from this place as well as the sheer beauty of a heavenly garden outside time ‘forever England’. Its Cross of Sacrifice declares that “Their name liveth for evermore” and commands the view over tragic-heroic St Quintin Spur.  Most of these men lie within a mile of where they fell.

Gouzeaucourt War Cemetery looking east towards the German front line 1917
Many graves bear the date September 1918 so I had difficulty finding many Welsh guardsmen killed in December 1917. I found one of my grandfather's officers, Lieutenant Webb, the model for Sir William Goscombe's statue “The Boy Scout” exhibited in 1910 at the Royal Academy. A nineteen year old, in an officer's  uniform, Basil Webb had walked over the St Quintin Spur, shouting encouragement to his men and was possibly shot in the back. The Austrians brought down all but one of the Welsh Guards officers - including Basil Webb.
Headstone of Welsh Guards officer, Basil Webb, aged 19, son of a Baronet and model for the statue "The Boy Scout"
Grandfather Charles was invalided out of the army, never able to fire a rifle or run again. My mother said his nerves were badly affected, but he had a good civil service career and was physically able to build a house. He was not sent back to the fierce British actions in 1918 which finally won the war. 

View of the rising ground at St Quentin Spur from outskirts of Gouzeaucourt separating Gouzeaucourt and Gonnelieu over which the 1st Welsh Guards advanced without tank support  (1 December 1917). My grandfather walked up this hill, rifle and bayonet, in hand. As one can see, there is no cover at all.

The road between Gouzeaucourt and Gonnelieu bisects this field on the Gonnelieu side of the St Quintin spur (two halves are seen above). My grandfather lay in a shell hole somewhere in this field, on top of enemy corpses. He was rescued at dawn on 2 December 1917.
Visitors still go to Gouzeaucourt. They sign the Book of Remembrance with comments like “Never forgotten” about their lost grandfathers and great uncles. Twenty groups signed the register between early June and late July 2013. Red roses bloom on many graves. There is no grave without flowers, even those never visited. The lawns are immaculate. Today, one could happily picnic on the once hellish Western Front, amid the fallen, like Basil Webb, whose promise was cut off, so young. 

This is me holding the Book of Remembrance for British and Commonwealth visitors to Gouzeaucourt
Further References
  • Marjorie’s War: Four Families in the Great War 1914-1918 - letters edited by Charles and Reginald Fair. Menin House, Brighton, 2012. 460 pages. £32.95 (hardback), £22.95 (paperback)
  • Second Lieutenant, Welsh Guards, Basil Webb. Basil Webb was educated at Winchester School. He had been the model for the Welsh sculptor Sir William Goscombe John RA for the bronze sculpture, "The Boy Scout" in 1910. At 12, Basil composed the Refectory Prayer for Chester Cathedral, which remains in use today.  In 1919, his father, baronet Sir Henry Webb bore the costs of renovating the crypt and altar of Chester Cathedral, where an inscription identifies the restoration work in memory of his "gallant son and his companions".
  • See the background story of the tragic shambles of this Gouzeaucourt advance on Basil Webb's entry on the Winchester College website
  • The Times Report on action on Welsh Guards on 2 December 1917 omits to mention  the Welsh Guards’ heavy casualties. Instead it focuses on number of PoWs taken when the tank finally arrived.
  • Relevant website setting out story of 1st Welsh Guards attack on Gonnelieu towards the end
  • Trench map for Gouzeaucourt 1914-1918

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