“A solitary grave in a grassy valley”

Henry Williamson, best known for his work, “Tarka the Otter”, was a controversial figure. Although his naive leanings towards Hitler and National Socialism turned many away from him, his reputation as an author seems to have endured. Another of Williamson’s works, ” The Wet Flanders Plain”, first published in revised format in 1929, then thankfully re-printed by Gliddon Books in 1987, makes for a good if shortish read.

In the mid 1920’s Williamson returned to the battlefields of France and Belgium, visiting old haunts and reflecting on the events of 1914-1918, including his own experiences on the Western Front. He served with the 1/5th Battalion, London Regiment, (London Rifle Brigade) as well as the Bedfordshire Regiment, the Middlesex Regiment and the Machine Gun Corps.

In one part of the book he recalls passing through the village of Ablainzevelle during the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917. There he came across a German cemetery that also contained the graves of several British soldiers who had died of wounds as prisoners of war. He notes how “equal care and thought had been given to friend and foe alike in death.” However, he also mentions finding a solitary grave nearby. It lay in the middle of a grassy valley and was covered with pansies, mignonette and violets, and he describes it as “one that we came upon with a strange wonder and silence.” It was the grave of an airman and had been railed off. On the propeller, which served for a headstone, the Germans had inscribed the words ‘Brave, unknown English  airman who fell in battle, July 14, 1916’.

A search of the CWGC records shows that only one British airman died on the 14th July 1916 and he happens to be buried in the United Kingdom. It also appears that no Canadian or Australian soldier lost his life that day serving with either the Royal Flying Corps or the Royal Naval Air Service. If we extend our search parameters – between the 12th and the 16th July 1916 – we arrive at three results. One man, who died on the 13th July, is buried at Bailleul Communal Cemetery Extension, well north of Ablaizevelle. Another man, 2nd Lieutenant John Laurie Reid, 22nd Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, died on the 16th July and is buried at Couin British Cemetery. The Royal Flying Corps Communiqué covering the period between the 12th and the 19th July 1916 tells us that Reid died of wounds after landing behind our own lines. Although the communiqué spells his surname as ‘Reed’, there is no doubt that it refers to the same man shown in the CWGC records as having died on the 16th July. This leaves just one other possible candidate.

Second Lieutenant Harold Winstone Butrerworth, 18th Squadron, Royal Flying Corps, is buried at Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery. He is shown in the CWGC register as having died on the 15th July 1916, though the commission’s original handwritten record shows his date of death as the 17th July 1916, later amended. We also know that his aircraft came down behind enemy lines because the man flying with him that day, Captain J.H. McEwan, was taken prisoner.

Back in 2016 I contacted the CWGC office in Maidenhead and asked whether they could tell me the site of Butterworth’s original grave. Their records confirmed that he had originally been buried in Carvin Communal Cemetery, German Extension. Carvin, of course, lies several miles north-east of Lens, a location not even remotely close to Ablaizevelle. Only after the war was his body removed to its current resting place. Clearly, the grave that Williamson came across in 1917 could not have been that of Butterworth.

From my time researching ‘Arras South’ I knew that Captain Sidney Edward Cowan, MC & 2 Bars, had fallen behind enemy lines and had been buried by the Germans in a small cemetery at Ablainzevelle. After the war he was re-buried at Cagnicourt British Cemetery, but his date of death was the 17th November 1916, not the 14th July 1916. We also know that the Germans placed a cross on his grave bearing the inscription, ‘In memory of a gallant English officer’, similar in some respects to the dedication found on the piece of propeller by Williamson. However, we know that Cowan’s grave was later identified by an old school friend, which strongly suggests that the Germans had also known who he was and had marked his grave accordingly. That being the case, they are unlikely to have marked the grave as that of an unknown English airman, nor would they have been mistaken with regards to the time of year, i.e November as opposed to July. On the face of it, the grave that Williamson stumbled across was probably not that of Captain Cowan.

Cowan met his fate when he crashed into another British airman, 2nd Lieutenant William Spencer Fitzrobert Saundby. The pair were diving to attack the same enemy machine when the impact occurred and both aircraft disintegrated in mid air. Whether Saundby’s body was ever recovered by the Germans I have no idea, but they may well have found him, and if so, probably not too far from where Cowan’s body was found. That begs the question of why both men were not buried within the cemetery at Ablainzevelle, but expediency or timing may have been the reason. Be that as it may, Saundby’s remains have never been identified, and if he did once have a grave it has since been lost. In any case, he is now commemorated on the Flying Services Memorial at Arras.

So, where does that leave us? None of the candidates seem to fit. Could it be that Williamson’s recollection of the date on the propeller was incorrect? Was the unknown grave that he came across in 1917 that of Saundby? It’s all a bit of a mystery. Whether that mystery will ever be resolved is anyone’s guess. It’s a puzzle I’ve been pondering for a long time, and although I’ve unable to pin it down, it’s a mystery that still intrigues me.

(Butterworth is featured in ‘Arras North’, Cowan in ‘Arras South’) Incidentally, contrary to Butterworth’s entry on page 101 of ‘Arras North’, he is recorded as missing in action in the Royal Flying Corps Communiqué covering the 12 – 16th July 1916.