On the way down to the Loos battlefield we took in a number of other cemeteries, one of which was La Gorgue Communal Cemetery. I first came across the story of 2nd Lieutenant Vincent Sladen Wing (III.A.10) while thumbing through my copy of the “University of London OTC – Roll of War Service 1914-1919”. His entry tells us that he was killed by a shell on the 10th August 1917 while helping to rescue wounded Portuguese soldiers from a burning barn at Croix Barbée after it was struck by a German shell. At his funeral his coffin was draped with both the Portuguese flag and the Union Jack. Clearly, there’s a story here.
Portuguese troops began arriving in France during the early part of 1917, their country having entered the war in 1916. Although the Portuguese contingent amounted to a division, it was deficient in terms of artillery, which was how Vincent’s gun battery came to be supporting our allies in the sector around Estaires at the time of the above incident.
On the 10th August, during an inspection visit by a Portuguese colonel, the area around Vincent’s battery position came under enemy shell fire. One of the first shells struck a barn where a number of Portuguese soldiers were billeted. The barn caught fire, and hearing the commotion that ensued, Vincent ran over to it and set about rescuing the wounded. That particular day he had been excused routine duties by his medical officer owing to a minor complaint and had been in bed resting when the barn was hit.
Having removed a number of men from the burning building, he assisted further by tending the wounded. He was soon joined in this task by a number of other men from his battery. As they were working away another enemy shell landed in a gun pit close to where Vincent and his comrades were busy. Sadly, Vincent was hit by fragments and collapsed, mortally wounded, as were five of his men.
At his funeral Vincent’s body was draped with both national flags. According to the story, Colonel Hippolyto, who had witnessed events at first hand, insisted that Vincent be buried in his own personal cloak as a further mark of respect. Furthermore, during his next visit to London, the colonel paid a visit to Vincent’s parents and presented them with the Portuguese national flag that had been used at their son’s funeral. The family lived at Cheyne Gardens, then as now, a smart and fashionable area of London.
Second Lieutenant Vincent Sladen WING, 65th Battery, 28th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, was 19 years old when he died. The only son of John Sladen Wing and Evelyn Beatrix Dundas, he had been educated at Hildersham House, Broadstairs, then at Rugby. From there he won an Exhibition to Clare College, Cambridge, but was unable to take it up on account of the war. Instead, he joined London University’s OTC, was gazetted as a subaltern on the 27th March 1917, and went to France on the 10th May 1917 where he joined his battery attached to the Portuguese Army.
The men from his battery who were killed or died of wounds assisting him are also buried at La Gorgue Communal Cemetery. They are:
Gunner Frederick Charles SMITH (III.A.17)
GUNNER Frederick PALMER (III.A.11)
GUNNER William HUTCHINSON (III.A.19)
GUNNER PETER GLASS (III.A.13)
DRIVER Thomas L. JONES (III.A.12)
Despite a large difference in age, Wing was a cousin of Major-General Frederick Drummond Vincent Wing, CB, who was killed alongside his ADC, Lieutenant Christopher Cecil Tower, Essex Yeomanry, on 2nd October 1915 while commanding the 12th (Eastern) Division. Both men are buried at Noeux-les-Mines Communal Cemetery (I.K.15 and 16). Christopher’s brother, Captain Hugh Christopher Tower, also killed during the war serving with the Royal Flying Corps, is commemorated on the Flying Services Memorial at Arras. Hugh and his brother, together with Major General Wing, are mentioned in ’Arras Memorials’ – Pages 145 and 146.
In my introduction to the Arras books I make the point that I am naturally curious and that curiosity often pays off, sometimes spectacularly. Let’s take the case of Major-General Frederick Drummond Vincent Wing, for example. His maternal grandfather was Sir Francis Fletcher-Vane, 3rd Bart, who had three children:
Sir Henry Ralph Fletcher-Vane, 4th Bart.
Major Frederick Fletcher-Vane
Gertrude Elizabeth Fletcher-Vane
Gertrude Elizabeth Fletcher-Vane married Major Vincent WING on the 29th April 1857. They went on to have two children:
Evelyn Diana Wing
Major-General Frederick Drummond Vincent Wing
Major-General Frederick Drummond Vincent Wing went on to marry Mary Fitzclarence. She was the daughter of Captain the Honourable George Fitzclarence and Lady Maria Henrietta Scott who had six children, one of whom was Brigadier-General Charles Fitzclarence, VC. Charles Fitzclarence and Frederick Drummond Vincent Wing were therefore brothers-in-law. Anyone who has read anything about the First Battle of Ypres will need no introduction to Fitzclarence. He, of course, is commemorated on the Menin Gate.
However, we can stretch the ‘Wing’ connection even further. If we follow the Fletcher-Vane line we come to Sir Francis Patrick Fletcher-Vane, 5th Bart. He was an officer in the British Army who also became involved in the international Scout movement following service with Lord Baden-Powell in South Africa. Born in Dublin to an Irish mother and an English father, he attended Charterhouse School followed by the Military College in Oxford. In 1902, and still in South Africa, he was appointed as a magistrate but was soon dismissed for showing too much leniency towards many of the Boers brought before him. To make matters worse, he published a work the following year entitled, “The War and One Year After”. In it he was very critical of the manner in which the British had conducted the war in South Africa, and particularly of the way in which many Boers had been treated. Such views endeared him to few within the British military establishment and, not surprisingly, he soon found himself ‘retired’ from army life.
However, in the Great War he returned to military service with the rank of major, but only as a recruiting officer and nominally attached to the Royal Munster Fusiliers. At the time of the Easter Uprising in 1916 he found himself based at Portobello Barracks in Dublin, which at that time was also home to a detachment of Belfast-based Royal Irish Rifles, all of them committed Loyalists. These Ulstermen were under the command of Captain John Bowen-Colthurst. What happened next is as extraordinary as it is shocking.
Francis Sheehy-Skeffington was a well known nationalist who had frequently spoken out against the recruitment of Irish nationals into the British army, in fact he had already been imprisoned for this. As the uprising was quashed, he was rounded up, along with many other rebel sympathisers, and detained at Portobello Barracks. When Bowen-Colthurst took his patrol out, he took Sheehy-Skeffington with him, informing him in no uncertain terms that he would be shot if the patrol came under fire.
At some point the patrol came across a young man, James Joseph Coade, in company with another teenager, Laurence Byrne. Both were in breach of a general curfew that had been imposed. When Coade began to walk away, Bowen-Colthurst ordered one of his men to stop him. Coade was duly stopped in his tracks by a rifle butt to the jaw, Without further ado, Bowen-Colthurst then shot him and took him back to the barracks where he died the next day.
Bowen-Colthurst had actually been looking for another man, a Dublin alderman named James Kelly, who owned a tobacconist shop. However, a man with the same name, also the owner of a tobacconist shop, was mistakenly targeted by the patrol. Bowen-Colthurst’s men entered the shop after hurling a grenade through the window causing injury to a member of staff. Two other men inside the shop, Tom Dickson and Patrick McIntyre, were immediately arrested. A further two men were detained but soon released.
According to later testimony by a doctor present at the barracks, Bowen-Colthurst was late to bed that night as he sat up reading his bible. In particular, he appeared to have seized upon a passage that read: “And these, my enemies …….bring them forth and slay them.” The next morning at around 10 a.m. he had Sheehy-Skeffington, McIntyre and Dickson brought to a yard inside the barracks where a firing squad made up of his own men were waiting for them. The three prisoners were then put up against a wall and summarily executed.
McIntyre and Dickson happened to be respectable journalists who wrote for newspapers opposed to the hard line nationalist movement, a fact that Bowen-Colthurst chose to ignore, or of which he was completely ignorant. Later, Bowen-Colthurst took his men to search Sheehy-Skeffington’s home in an attempt to find evidence to support his execution.
During another patrol Bowen-Colthurst came across Richard O’Carroll, yet another local alderman, who was also a known rebel sympathiser. During this encounter O’Carrol openly expressed his continued support for the uprising, whereupon Bowen-Colthurst took out his revolver and shot him dead in the street. Shortly after that, he stopped and questioned another teenager. When the young man refused to answer him, Bowen-Colthurst forced him to his knees and shot him dead too.
Meanwhile, Sheehy-Skeffington’s wife, Hannah, had already been to the barracks to enquire about her husband’s whereabouts, but she was sent packing amid denials over rumours of his fate. Hannah, however, was no shrinking violet, in fact she was a suffragette who had founded the Irish Women’s Workers’ Union. As a resilient and capable campaigner, and having learned of her husband’s demise, she pressed the British government for answers.
Back at the barracks, Fletcher-Vane was horrified and tried to raise the issue with his superiors in Ireland, but he was sent back to England instead, away from the controversy. Once back in London, he immediately took up the matter with Lord Kitchener, as well as Maurice Bonham-Carter, Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister. Within a week of doing so, Bowen-Colthurst was arrested and subsequently charged with murder. At his court martial he was found guilty but was deemed to have acted out of temporary insanity. However, the search of Sheehy-Skeffington’s house after his execution strongly suggests that Bowen-Colthurst was in full possession of his mental faculties.
He was committed to Broadmoor but only served a year there, after which time he was released having apparently made a full recovery. He moved, or was perhaps re-located, to the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia where he lived happily until his death in 1965. Towards the end of his life he spoke publicly about his dismissal from the army, claiming that he had been the subject of a miscarriage of justice and had been badly treated throughout the affair. He continued to maintain that documentary evidence that could have exonerated him had been deliberately withheld.
Bowen-Colthurst had previously served in the Boer War, India and Tibet. He had been part of the original BEF (Royal Irish Rifles) but had been sent home under a cloud. He had resented the British retreat from Mons, and on one occasion had even turned his men around threatening to advance on the enemy rather than retire. A few weeks later, he was suspected of carrying out an attack on a German position despite being ordered not to do so; an attack in which he was wounded and which also resulted in other casualties. In the light of such intemperate and erratic behaviour he was considered too much of a liability and was sent home.
As for Fletcher-Vane, he was dismissed from the army after Sir John Maxwell filed an adverse report on him. From there he slipped out of public life and into obscurity. Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington continued to press for a public inquiry, and at one point she was offered financial compensation for her husband’s death, an offer she flatly refused. Eventually, a commission of inquiry was convened, but it lasted just six days and left many questions unanswered. In 1920 Bowen-Colthurst’s family home in Ireland was burnt to the ground. Republican militants swore to hunt him down and kill him, though they never managed to carry out that threat.
Today, a brick containing a compacted bullet is held by the National Museum of Ireland. The bullet is said to have been one that killed Francis Sheehy-Skeffington and the brick is said to be one of several that were dug out and replaced as part of the attempted cover up following the execution of the three men. The story goes that a bricklayer employed to replace it managed to smuggle it out of the barracks and gave it to Hannah.
Finally, Bowen-Colthurst’s brother, Captain Robert Macgregor Bowen-Colthurst was killed in action on the 15th March 1915 serving with the 1st Leinster Regiment, aged 31. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate. So ends an amazing roller-coaster of a tale. One of the things I really enjoyed about researching and writing my books on Arras was the way in which I was sometimes able to weave individuals and their stories together. This particular tale, although unrelated to Arras, is a great example of that. As I say, curiosity often pays off, sometimes spectacularly.