Avesnes-le-Comte Communal Cemetery Extension

From time to time I’ve written pieces for the website highlighting some of the CWGC cemeteries that lay just beyond the geographical scope of my books on Arras. One of those is the extension to the communal cemetery at Avesnes-le-Comte. This cemetery does have links to the fighting around Arras, not just during the Great War, but also in 1940 when part of the British Expeditionary Force was located around Arras.

On the 14th May 1940, a week before short but fierce fighting took place just east of Arras on the old 1917 battlefield, the Luftwaffe carried out a bombing raid on the town. One of the priority targets was the ‘Hotel de l’ Univers’. This building, which still exists today, served as an HQ to the B.E.F. in the town and also housed a number of British officers who lived and worked there. The railway station and sidings opposite the hotel were also a key target for the raid.

Among the General Staff staying at the hotel were Brigadier Mainwaring Revell Walsh, CB, CMG, MC, formerly of the Worcestershire Regiment, and Major William Scott, DSO, MC, also on the General List, who had fought with the Royal Irish Fusiliers during the Great War. The hotel was partially destroyed in the bombing raid and Walsh was removed from the rubble but died from his injuries the following day. Also killed during the raid were Scott and another officer staying there, 2nd Lieutenant John Robert Williamson Hobson, Royal Army Service Corps. Walsh was serving as King’s Messenger at the time of his death.

As well as the hotel, several nearby buildings were hit too. The war memorial directly opposite the hotel, in what is now the parking area outside the station, still carries the scars of that bombing raid. If you look up at the front of the hotel you can also see the emblem of the Imperial War Graves Commission. It was here that the commission first established its main office in France in the years following the Great War. Today, of course, that office is situated a few miles down the road at Beaurains.

Brigadier Walsh was 64 when he died and had served during the South African War. He had also been made a Chevalier of the Legion d’ Honneur for his services during the Great War. His grandfather, John Prendergast Walsh, who had served with the 95th Regiment of Foot, had lost his leg while serving as a junior officer at Waterloo. Despite amputation he continued to serve until 1829 when he retired. He then joined the clergy, but throughout the rest of his life he seems to have been dogged by money problems. There was even one episode when the Bishop of Exeter refused him a licence to practise as a minister on account of his army service, a decision that was subsequently overturned by the Church.

Scott was 45 years of age when he died, whilst Hobson, who had married in 1939, was considerably younger at 26. Scott’s DSO had been awarded in February 1918 and its citation was gazetted a few months later on the 18th July. As he and his battalion were making their way forward to an assembly position, they came across an enemy strongpoint that had still not been cleared. As his commanding officer was already wounded, Scott took command and led his men forward, capturing the position with great gallantry. The citation concludes that he showed coolness, courage and leadership at this critical moment.

Among the remainder of those buried in this cemetery the following may also be of interest should you ever happen to be passing:

Captain Herbert Henry Turk, MC, 11th Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, died on the 3rd November 1916, aged 27 (II.B.12) . He came from Queensland where he was taught to fly by Thomas McLeod, a barrister and keen aviator. Turk was one of several men who left Australia with a group known as the Queensland Volunteer Flying Civilians, all taught by McLeod and another aviator, Valdemar Rendle. (The other members of the group were Percy Snell, William Fraser, David R. Stitt, Eric Handley, Herbert Smith, and George Cherry).

Turk’s MC was gazetted on the 20th October 1916, just two weeks before his death, and was awarded after he and his observer, Lieutenant David Harden Scott, who was also awarded the MC, had attacked a formation of seven enemy aircraft. One of these was wrecked when it was brought down, but as they were turning to take on another of the enemy machines their rudder controls were shot away. When their machine went into a nose dive, spinning as it descended, Turk showed incredible skill. After falling 5,000 feet, and with their machine still spinning, Turk managed to regain sufficient control of it and eventually managed to land it safely. Although their machine was badly damaged, Turk and Scott were unharmed.

Major John Charles Xavier McKenna, 9th North Staffordshire Regiment, died from illness on the 20th April 1917, aged 44. (IV.C.12) His brother, Captain Edward Albert McKenna, served with the 7th Battalion, Australian Infantry, but fell in action at Gallipoli on the 25th April 1915, aged 37. He is buried at Lone Pine Cemetery. Before the war John had worked as a journalist with the “Daily Mirror”. His son went on to become a very experienced pilot, but was killed in a flying accident in the United Kingdom while testing a Mustang. In 1932 he had begun working at the Experimental Section of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. Awarded the Air Force Cross in 1939, he made his reputation as a display and test pilot. His death occurred on the 19th January 1945 and he is buried at Durrington in Wiltshire.

Captain Edmund McAuliffe Reidy, 11th Manchester Regiment, died of wounds on the 23rd July 1916, aged 29. Prior to serving on the Western Front he had served with his battalion at Gallipoli landing at Suvla Bay on the 6th August 1915 where they immediately came under heavy fire. (IV.A.12)

Second Lieutenant Karl Christian Horner, 12th Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, died on the 4th April 1917, aged 20. He is mentioned briefly on page 314 of my book, “Visiting the Fallen – Arras South”, in connection with Lieutenant Albert Emerson who was killed with him and who is buried at Warlincourt Halte British Cemetery, Saulty. Horner had been a pupil at Leeds Grammar School and had initially been commissioned in the West Yorkshire Regiment before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps. (IV.C.4)

Also worth a mention is Rifleman Charles Henry Newman-Norris, 3rd Company, 8th Rifle Brigade, who died on the 30th July 1916 after a bomb went off by accident at a bombing school (IV (A.27). The CWGC register points out that he had resigned a position in Tientsin in order to join up and was refused on five occasions, though no further information or explanation is given.

The Tientsin connection is, however, potentially interesting. It is quite possible that he was related to the notoriously colourful character, Charles Louis William Marie Norris-Newman, often referred to as ‘Noggs Norris’, and if so, was probably a nephew of his. ‘Noggs’ ended up living in Tientsin and died there in the early twenties. According to a shipping list, Rifleman-to-be, Charles Henry Newman-Norris, sailed to China in 1910, perhaps to join his uncle there.

Prior to that, ‘Noggs’ had worked for various newspapers in the role of special correspondent. He appears to have had a particular knack for being in the right place at the right time, witnessing the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War 1870-1871 and reporting on events at Isandlwhana.  He also met General Gordon in Egypt and was present throughout the campaigns in Matabeleland between 1894 and 1898. His travels in Southern Africa also took him to Basutoland, Madagascar and Zanzibar, but his entry in “Who’s Who in the Far East 1906-1907” shows him as an Intelligence Officer in the Imperial Russian Service. Officially, at least, it appears that he worked as an English Instructor at Port Arthur, attached to the Staff of the Imperial Russian Navy, and it was here that he witnessed Japanese naval attacks at the start of the Russo-Japanese War. His position enabled him to travel throughout Manchuria with the Russian forces and to report extensively on the campaign.

Although the double-barrelling of their surnames is reversed, the connection between the two men seems to hold good. In 2013, a group of Anglo-Zulu War enthusiasts were engaged in researching the life of ‘Noggs’ Norris-Newman, and as far as I know that research is still on-going. He certainly sounds like a fascinating character who led a very interesting life.

Second Lieutenant Godfrey Wigglesworth, 24th Squadron, 14th Wing, Royal Flying Corps, died at Avesnes-le-Comte on the 8th July 1916 following what was described as a flying accident ( Plot III.A.19). He was born at Sutton Manor, near St.Helens, in what was then part of South Lancashire, not far from where I was born. He was an only son whose father worked as a medical superintendent at Rainhill Asylum, a facility that still exists today for the care and treatment of persons suffering from mental illness, though its title has since changed to reflect modern times and attitudes. The CWGC register tells us that he had only been on active service for a fortnight before he was killed; in fact, records show that he was posted to his squadron at Bertangles on the 1st July, the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, having arrived in France at the very end of June. Educated initially at Hoylake on the Wirral, he moved to Clifton College, Bristol, then on to King’s College, Cambridge, where he studied Medicine. Owing to the war he never completed his studies there and died at the age of twenty-one. His squadron was commanded by the British flying ace, Major Lanoe Hawker, VC, DSO, who is commemorated on the Flying Services Memorial at Arras and whom I mention in “Visiting the Fallen – Arras Memorials”.

Captain Duncan Johnson Tuck, shown as 3rd Battalion, Oxford & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, died as a result of complications, possibly from infection, following the amputation of his right arm at casualty clearing facilities based here at Avesnes-le-Comte. He was wounded in the chest and right arm, and although his wounds were not thought to be life threatening at the time, he eventually died on the 3rd July 1916. His injuries had occurred a couple of weeks earlier on the 17th June while he was inspecting wire emplacements and tending to a fellow officer who had also been wounded. The night in question was described as one of bright moonlight, which was obviously not helpful, and which no doubt made the work even more hazardous. He was the son of a clergyman and was one of three sons. He was educated at Radley College, followed by Hertford College, Oxford, and it was from the university’s OTC that was commissioned in the Oxford & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in August 1914. He then went on to serve with the 2nd Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and was wounded on the 23rd April at the Second Battle of Ypres; indeed, his wounds were serious enough to warrant his removal back to England. “Officers Died in the Great War” shows him attached to the 6th Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, though other records indicate the 5th Battalion. (Plot III.A.11)

Captain William Francis George Willes, is shown serving with the Dorsetshire Regiment, but the regimental history notes that he was one of several members of the 1st Battalion kept back and posted to the 5th Battalion at the outbreak of war to assist with training and preparation for service overseas. He later transferred to the Army Cyclist Corps and is shown in regimental records as having been killed serving in that capacity ((IV.A.7).

Lieutenant Norman Clark Wood, MC, 17th Battalion,Tank Corps, was gazetted to the Machine Gun Corps (Heavy Branch) at the end of November 1916, just a couple of months after tanks had first appeared on the battlefield during the Battle of the Somme. Prior to that he had served as a private in the Canadian Infantry. His MC, or at least the citation for it, was gazetted on the 2nd December 1918, recording that it was awarded for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during an attack. His section led the battalion into the enemy’s territory clearing trees and debris from a wood under heavy fire. It goes on to say that it was largely as a result of his efforts and skill that the cars were able to get into the enemy’s lines. Later when two cars had their wheels broken by shell fire, he rendered great assistance in getting them back to the lines showing coolness and resource. The citation concludes that the accurate fire of his cars accounted for many of the enemy. (II.D.8) The word ‘cars’ is, of course, a reference to armoured cars.

Major Evelyn Paget Graves, commanding 60th Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, was killed in action on the 6th March 1917, aged 26. (I.C.1) By the time of his death he had already crashed several times during his flying career, and on one occasion, while at the Central Flying School, an injury to his left leg resulted in permanent lameness. On that occasion, when he also injured his right arm, he remarked that the experience was “not really disagreeable”, adding, “it was like walking out of one room and into another”.

Graves had joined the Royal Flying Corps in the summer of 1914, qualifying as a pilot a few months later. In 1910, after attending Lancing College, followed by a period of private tutelage in Freiburg, Germany, he entered the Royal Military College at Woolwich. From there he was commissioned in the Royal Field Artillery and was then posted to India until his return to England just before the outbreak of war when he joined the Royal Flying Corps. On the day he was killed he was leading a patrol above Beaumetz (Beaumetz-lès-Loges rather than Beaumetz-lès-Cambrai) when he noticed a formation of enemy aircraft attacking some of ours. He immediately led his machines into action, but was hit, caught fire and plummeted to earth, crashing behind our own lines just west of Wailly. When his body was removed from the wreckage he was found to have been shot through the head. Among the many tributes paid to him a fellow officer commented that “he died as he had lived, helping someone else who was in trouble.” His paternal great-great-grandfather was Rear Admiral Thomas Graves, First Lord Graves, Baron of Gravesend, who had fought in the American War of Independence.

Captain Leslie Oakes Crowther, 12th Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, a former pupil at Malvern College, was commissioned in the Queen’s Own (Royal West Kent Regiment) in September 1914. He then transferred to the Royal Flying Corps in December 1915 and had therefore been flying for around a year before his death. He died from his injuries on the 6th December 1916 during a period of poor flying weather. The story of his death is told in one of the “Airfields and Airmen” series of books. The man with him when he crashed was 2nd Lieutenant Albert Baird Fanstone. Fanstone had hitched a lift to see an old schoolfriend who had been posted to another squadron. Later, finding himself stranded and needing to get back to his own airfield, Fanstone rang his Flight Commander, Crowther, who went to pick him up. The squadron had just received a new type of aircraft, the BE2d. For the return journey Crowther invited Fanstone to fly the machine, but it was a journey that didn’t end well. As they were approaching Avesnes-le-Comte Crowther resumed control of the aircraft, which was fitted with dual controls, but the control mechanism became detached and their machine came down out of control over the airfield there. Fanstone, who survived the crash with relatively minor injuries, continued to fly throughout the war and towards the end was posted to England on home defence duties. (II.B.22)

Serjeant Alexander Caldwell, DCM, MM, 9th Durham Light Infantry, died of his wounds on the 14th June 1917 and the award of his DCM appeared in the “London Gazette” four weeks later. It was awarded for gallantry after he had gone forward and captured an enemy machine gun and eleven prisoners. The citation concludes that in doing so he cleared a very serious obstacle for his platoon. (I.D.15)

Lieutenant Chalenor McCrae Caffyn, 60th Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, died on the 28th March 1917, aged 24. ( III.C.24) His brother, Captain Harold Hunt Caffyn, was killed in action on the 22nd March 1915 while serving with the 1st North Staffordshire Regiment and is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial. Both boys were born in Australia, but were educated here after the family returned to England. Chalenor was educated at Cheltenham College, then at the University of Zurich whilst Harold went to Rugby and later Sandhurst. Their cousin, Joseph, who served with the Royal Garrison Artillery, died in hospital of pneumonia in Great Yarmouth and is buried in Caversham Cemetery in Berkshire.

For most visitors to the Arras battlefield this cemetery will not be on their itinerary, but if arriving from the direction of St.Pol on the D939 it’s worth making a small detour to reach it. If so, do take the time to visit Aubigny Communal Cemetery Extension at Aubigny-en-Artois and Duisans British Cemetery at Etrun, both of which are well worth visiting. Both these cemeteries are covered in great detail in my book, ‘Arras North’, whilst Habarcq Communal Cemetery Extension, which is situated close by, also has some interesting burials and is featured in ‘Arras South’.