Summer days off the beaten path

On a recent trip with a group in July we visited a number of CWGC cemeteries which, judging from the entries in the visitors’ books, attract relatively few people. Those who had been there recently appeared to have been visiting the grave of a relative or someone from their home town, area or regiment.

We were based in Mons throughout the trip and we were looking, primarily, at locations relating to the fighting that took place between Valenciennes and Le Cateau during the late autumn of 1918. The group was already familiar with the events of August 1914 as a result of last year’s trip when we had visited the canal bank at Mons, Landrecies and the battlefield at Le Cateau.

With regard to defensive actions along sections of canal, and by way of comparison with the 23rd August 1914 at Mons, I thought it would be interesting to visit Esquelmes War Cemetery on the banks of the Scheldt Canal, a location that was defended by British troops in May 1940. Although the two situations were in no way identical, the interesting question in such cases is always how long to carry on the fight before deciding when, or indeed whether to disengage, which is surely one of the supreme tests of leadership. One of the interesting graves there is that of Lieutenant Henry George Alan Percy, 9th Duke of Northumberland, who fell on the 21st May 1940 serving with the 3rd Grenadier Guards.

Another fine cemetery, and one very much connected with the Guards Division, is Villers-Pol Communal Cemetery Extension. All five regiments of Foot Guards are represented, in addition to one man from the Guards Machine Gun Regiment. All are casualties from the fighting around the village of the same name in early November 1918, just a week before the Armistice. Among those buried here are two officers with the Military Cross and one with the Distinguished Service Order, and all three medals were awarded for impressive feats of gallantry. The officers are:

2nd Lieutenant Geoffrey Simpson Lamont, DSO, 1st Grenadier Guards (D.1)

2nd Lieutenant Geoffrey Robert Gunther, MC, 3rd Grenadier Guards (E.1)

2nd Lieutenant Edward Patrick Aylett Moore, MC, 1st Coldstream Guards (G.1)

Buried with them is Serjeant Thomas James Wonnacott, DCM, 2nd Grenadier Guards. His DCM was won on the 6th November 1914 and gazetted in December that year. Having survived four years of fighting, his death on the 4th November 1918 is particularly poignant. (E.2)

The cemetery is set on top of an embankment above the road. It was our last stop on the first day as we made the final run into Mons. It was a blazing hot day, but fortunately there was a small bar in the heart of the village, complete with a small shaded garden. A cold beer was the perfect way to end the day’s visits before checking into the hotel, followed by dinner in the magnificent town square of Mons.

I had also done a trip to this area of Belgium and northern France with the same group around ten years ago, so we didn’t go back to sites such as Le Quesnoy, but we did visit a few more locations that none of us had been to before. One of those was Maubeuge Centre Cemetery, which is really a communal cemetery. The main reason for popping in there was to visit the grave of Flying Officer, Graham George Williams, GM, one of only eleven men buried or commemorated in France who hold the George Medal. His was won in June 1941 when he and another man, Aircraftman Kenneth Bland, removed ammunition from a burning aircraft at huge personal risk. As Williams was carrying the tank of ammunition away from the aircraft it exploded in his hands. Bland, who had climbed inside the aircraft to release the burning ammunition tank, was also awarded the George Medal. The CWGC records show sixty-eight George Medal holders worldwide.

Another place worth visiting is the small town of Caudry just west of Le Cateau. There are two CWGC cemeteries here, We visited Caudry British Cemetery first. Like me, many of my group were ex-Metropolitan Police Officers, so it seemed appropriate to bring them here to the grave of 2nd Lieutenant Harold William Wensley, 1st Lincolnshire Regiment, who died of influenza on the 15th November 1918, aged 19. (Plot I.D.30) His father, according to the CWGC register, was Chief Constable of Scotland Yard, which to anyone familiar with the organization makes no sense whatsoever. What the register should say is that Frederick Porter Wensley rose to become the Met’s senior detective at Scotland Yard. His rise to that position from police constable was the subject of his superb autobiography: “Forty Years of Scotland Yard -The Record of a Lifetime’s Service in the Criminal Investigation Department”. He began his career pounding the beat in Whitechapel at the time of the ‘Jack the Ripper’ murders, but his other claim to fame was as an inspector on the morning of the 3rd January 1911, when he and quite a number of other officers turned up at 100, Sydney Street in the hope of persuading the two occupants to give themselves up. What followed became the story of the famous Sydney Street siege. His other son, Frederick Martin Wensley, also fell in action on the 5th August 1916, aged 22, serving with the 10th Lincolnshire Regiment (Grimsby Chums).

Other individuals of interest buried at Caudry British Cemetery are:

Serjeant Robert Green, 2nd Royal Scots, who died on the 28th August 1914 at the age of 36 from wounds received two days earlier. He was a professional soldier who had served in India with the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders and who held the Long Service & Good Conduct Medal. He was therefore a very experienced soldier, as was his father who had served with the British Army in the Crimea and the Indian Mutiny. (Plot III.D.1) A little further along the same row (Plot III.D.9) is Lieutenant Keith James Trotter, 1st Gordon Highlanders, who was killed in action at Le Cateau on the 26th August 1914. He was the son of Major-General James Keith Trotter, KCB, CMG. Next to him is 2nd Lieutenant Ronald Campbell Ross who was also a casualty of the fighting by II Corps at Le Cateau. (Plot III.D.10) His father, Colonel Sir Ronald Ross, KCB, KCMG, won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1902 for his work on malaria. His father, General Sir Campbell Claye Grant Ross, (Robert’s grandfather) had served in the Indian Army. In the next plot is 2nd Lieutenant John Cyril Walker,  59th Squadron, Royal Air Force, who was killed in action on the 18th October 1918, aged 19. He was one of six brothers who served during the war, three of whom fell.   One of his brothers, Lieutenant Victor Walker, was killed in action on the 4th April 1918 serving with the 14th Gloucestershire Regiment, but attached to the 7th Royal West Kent Regiment. He is commemorated on the Pozieres Memorial on the Somme. The other, Skipper Henry Ellis Walker, served with the Royal Navy and died on the 26th October 1916, aged 47. He is commemorated on the Chatham Naval Memorial.

In the centre of the town is Caudry Old Communal Cemetery. Despite its location, this is primarily a 1916 cemetery. Seventy-seven of the ninety-nine identified casualties here are from that year of the war, forty-two of them from July. Thirteen of these are men of the Royal Irish Rifles who died of wounds here as prisoners of war following fighting on the Somme. Eight of them are almost certainly the remnants of those who managed to reach the area around Stuff Redoubt on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme and who were cut off and captured the following day. Given that a number of people in my group had an interest in the 36th (Ulster) Division, this was an ideal location to bring them.

Among several other CWGC cemeteries that we visited were Romeries Communal Cemetery Extension, chiefly for the grave of Corporal John McNamara, VC, 9th East Surrey Regiment, and Auberchicourt British Cemetery, again for a VC holder’ Sergeant Hugh Cairns, VC, DCM, who died of wounds on the 2nd November 1918. The circumstances of his death were particularly unfortunate. He and his men had captured a group of Germans near the steel works at Marly, in the suburbs of Valenciennes, when the officer commanding the enemy  detachment produced a revolver and shot Cairns, wounding him in the hand, arm and abdomen. His abdominal wound proved too much for the surgeons at No. 1 Canadian Casualty Clearing Station where he died. The plan for the capture of Valenciennes, and the execution of that plan, is an interesting one, though too detailed to be covered here. The purpose of visiting this cemetery was not only so that we could pay our respects to Sergeant Cairns and others, it also gave me the opportunity to talk about some of the aspects of the fighting in this area during those last few days of the war. General Currie, commanding the Canadian Corps, admitted that feelings were running high among many of his men and that the normal standards of behaviour towards prisoners had sometimes fallen short during this period of fighting. The German officer who had shot Cairns was dealt with summarily, possibly even justifiably.

As part of the trip we also visited the battlefield at Waterloo, an easy half an hour’s drive from Mons. This was something of a whistle-stop tour, but it was still worth doing. I had spent two days there about fifteen years ago, but it isn’t really my period of history. The battlefield is fairly well preserved, but it always seems to lack something, and I think it’s to do with the fact that there’s very little physical evidence to remind us that men fought and died there. Unlike the battlefields of the Great War, there are no cemeteries here to remind us of the human price of battle. Not that there’s any shortage of stories about the battle and those who fought in it, but I suppose the word I’m looking for here is ‘sanitized’. I’m so used to tripping over cemeteries on the Western Front that I miss the presence of them, or some sort of equivalent, whenever I find myself elsewhere. As good as it was to visit Waterloo again, I couldn’t wait to fast-forward a hundred years to more familiar ground!

Finally, a bizarre thing happened the following day, and not for the first time in my thirty-odd years of visiting the battlefields. By complete coincidence, I’m fairly certain that I accidentally stumbled across a close relative of my wife’s yoga teacher, and by extension a member of the same extended family as Lieutenant-Colonel ‘Fred’ Dennis, DSO & Bar, whom I featured on my website and who is buried at Ecoivres Military Cemetery. I do intend to research this for the family, though the trail may lead me to Italy.