Verdun: 21 February 2016

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Verdun’s storm of shellfire that obliterated 300,000 men (The Independent 14 May 2014)

Synonymous with futility and heroic defiance, it was the biggest battle the world had ever seen. John Lichfield on an inferno that marked the birth of the age of warfare by mass destruction

On 21 February 1916, a single German shell looped high over a wooded ridge in eastern France and fell on the town of Verdun. Over the next 10 months, but mostly in the next four months, the Verdun ridge was hacked and ploughed by 32 million shells. In places, it has been estimated, 10 shells fell on every square centimetre.

By the end of the battle – the longest single battle in human history – more than 300,000 French and German soldiers had been obliterated in an area of 50 square miles. Most are still there, pounded into the sand and chalk of western Lorraine.

When fighting ended in December 1916, the two armies stood a few hundred yards from where they had been. For the French, the name “Verdun” still symbolises the murderous futility and the impossible heroism of the 1914-1918 war. And yet Verdun was less destructive than the Somme. It was less costly to the French, month by month, than the foolish and largely forgotten offensive battles of 1915.

It has become lodged in French popular memory partly because, despite 170,000 French deaths, it was a French defensive “victory” in a war in which victories were scarce.

“All the regiments in the French army were rotated in and out of Verdun,” said the French historian Jean-Yves Le Naour. “It seemed as though the blood of the entire nation was coursing through one battlefield.” The slogan of defiance attributed to Marshal Pétain, “Ils ne passeront pas”, fuelled the heroic legend.

There is another reason why the name “Verdun” has been seared on the memory of mankind. “The logic of Hiroshima began at Verdun,” said Mr Le Naour. “It was at Verdun that the notion of industrialised mass destruction was pushed to its limit for the first time.”

At Verdun – and from 1 July that year on the Somme – the firepower, and the ingenuity behind it, exceeded even that seen in the murderous campaigns of 1914 and 1915. In both battles, artillery was assembled by the Germans, and later the French and British, on an unimagined scale. Flamethrowers (Verdun), tanks (the Somme) and more efficient forms of poisonous gas (both) joined the world’s arsenal of mass butchery.

A French soldier is shot during a counter attack (Alamy) A French soldier is shot during a counter attack (Alamy)
Richard Holmes, the great British historian of the Western Front, also points out that there was “something particularly dreadful” about the distilled horror of the tiny battlefield of Verdun. “The front was so narrow (less than 15 miles)… Men might be killed instantly but without apparent damage by concussion; blown to tatters by direct hits; cut up as if by some malicious butcher; crippled by flying fragments of their comrades’ bodies or shocked into babbling incoherence by a capricious hit which left them unscathed among the remnants of their friends.”

An anonymous French officer left an account of the first days of the fighting: “Thousands of projectiles are flying in all directions, some whistling, others howling, others moaning low, and all uniting in one infernal roar. From time to time, an aerial torpedo passes, making a noise like a gigantic motor car…

“Beyond, in the valley, dark masses are moving over the snow-covered ground. It is German infantry advancing in packed formation… They look like a big grey carpet being unrolled over the country…

“There is a whistle over our heads. It is our first shell. It falls right in the middle of the enemy infantry… Through glass we can see men maddened, men covered with earth and blood, falling one upon the other.

“When the first wave is decimated, the ground is dotted with corpses, but the second wave is already pressing on. Once more our shells carve awful gaps in their ranks… Then our heavy artillery bursts forth in fury. The whole valley is turned into a volcano, and its exit is stopped by the barrier of the slain.”

Another French officer, Lieutenant Henri Desagneaux, wrote: “Numb and dazed, without saying a word and with our hearts pounding, we await the shell that will destroy us… There’s death everywhere. At our feet, the wounded groan in a pool of blood. Two of them, more seriously hit, are breathing their last. One, a machine-gunner, has been blinded, with one eye hanging out of its socket and the other torn out: in addition he has lost a leg.

“The second has no face, an arm blown off and a horrible wound in the stomach. Moaning and suffering atrociously, one begs me: ‘Lieutenant, don’t let me die.’”

Devastation near Fort Souville, Verdun (Alamy) Devastation near Fort Souville, Verdun (Alamy)
Erich von Falkenhayn, the German Chief of the General Staff, claimed after the war that his aim had been not to break through at Verdun but to kill French soldiers, and “bleed the French army white”. This is now thought by many historians to have been a lie by von Falkenhayn to explain his defeat. His intention had been to break through, and to destabilise the Allies before the new Pals regiments of Kitchener’s British volunteer army could enter the war further west. The initial German assault captured a handful of forts and advanced about four miles. From April, the Germans were stopped, only to advance again, be pushed back, and advance once more, before eventually being repulsed.

It is sometimes forgotten that the battles of Verdun and the Somme overlapped between July and November 1916. The Germans were also heavily engaged in defeating a Russian offensive on the Eastern Front. It was an extraordinary – but hugely costly – achievement by the German army to fight these three great battles in one year. Berlin’s casualties in 1916 on the Western Front alone – at least 700,000 dead, wounded or captured; some say 900,000 – are part of the ghastly arithmetic of eventual German defeat.

But even those terrible losses fell short of persuading the Germans that they had lost. That took another two exterminatory years and American intervention.

Sinking of HMS Lynx – St Mary Bourne Casualty

Andover Advertiser September 1915

CASUALTY AT SEA – One would hardly believe that a brief Admiralty announcement like the following would carry any significance to little village like St Mary Bourne – “H.M.S. Lynx (destroyer) struck a mine in the North Sea and sank on August 9th  (Monday). Four officers and 22 men were saved.” But this vague statement brought suspense to at least one home here, and the following letter which reached Mrs Turnell of 4 Neasden Cottages, on August 12th, brought much sorrow, telling as it did of the death of a loving, kind and considerate husband, father and son :- “I regret to have to inform you that H.M.S. Lynx was sunk on the 9th inst, and that the name of George Turnell, rating A.B, official No. 206844, who is believed to have been on board, does not appear on the list of survivors received in this department. In these circumstances it is feared that in the absence of any evidence to the contrary he must be regarded as having lost his life.” Mr Turnell, who was 31 years of age, had put in 16 years service in the Navy and had never had a bad mark against him, so that it can be said in truth he bore an excellent character. Ever since the fateful August 4th  1914, his thoughts were always for those he had to leave behind as evidenced by the regularity of his letters to his wife, who had never to wait more than 11 days for news, and even this short stretch was a forced one owing to the letters being kept back. The King and Queen have expressed their sympathy with the relatives. We understand that the deceased always prophesied his death at sea. On Sunday evening a memorial service was conducted at St Peter’s Church by the Rev. P. E. Binns, when there was a large congregation. A similar recognition service took place at the Wesleyan Chapel, where Mr Gilbert Culley made sympathetic reference to the sad loss. Mr Leonard Gibbons sang the solo “Not now, some day we’ll understand.”


Roll of Honour Tally 100, 6 Killed

Andover Advertiser 21st May 1915

WITH THE SERVICES – Mr and Mrs Sellwood, of this village, have five sons serving their country.

THE ROLL OF HONOUR – The local roll of honour now contains 100 signatures. The tragic toned echoes of the great European war were wafted to this village for the sixth time on Monday, bringing with them the sad news of the death in action of James Pike, whose widowed mother resides at Lower Rank. This makes the sixth brave son who has laid down his life for those at home, the five preceding names being as below : Frederick Day, Sidney Gunnell, Harold Moorse, Edwin Pike, Walter Sims, from which one is reminded of the saying “It never rains but it pours,” for this casualty is the second one in the same home. The little village had previous to the war seven men on the reserve of the 1st Hampshire Regiment, and up to the time of writing only one remains unbeaten in the game of war. Private James Pike was killed on April 26th. A letter received by his bereaved mother dated April 19th said he was quite well, but was afraid that he would not be able to write so often owing to being shifted. On the 25th ult., or one day before his death, the usual official postcard also stated he was quite well. Like his other village comrades who have passed beyond the veil, Jim had seen service in South Africa, where he spent six years. On returning home he went to a Darlington factory to work, and had been there over two years. Here a good job was being kept open for him if he could have returned. He leaves a widow and a baby boy.


Note – by Mike Willoughby? – James Pike born March 1884 Whitchurch H 2c 207 son of Albert and Ann Pike nee Gibbons. (they married December 1872 Whitchurch H.2c 426) Brother Herbert five years his senior and Edwin two years his senior. James married Hilda Harrison March 1913 Darlington 10a 24, they had a son Herbert born March 1914 Darlington 10a 65. According to his medal card James arrived in France on 23rd August 1914.

Gerald Holbrooke Killed In Flanders May 19

ANOTHER CASUALTY – The deepest sympathy will be felt with Mrs Holbrooke, of Stoke, whose youngest surviving son, Gerald, was killed in action in Flanders on May 19th. Gerald Howard Holbrooke had led a most adventurous life. He was born in 1879 and educated at the Rev. J. G. Gresson’s Preparatory School, Worthing, and at the Queen’s Service House, Portsmouth. Failing to pass into Sandhurst, he went to South Africa and was farming there when the war broke out. He at once enlisted in the Natal Mounted Police and was present at all the engagements leading up to the Relief of Ladysmith. At Colenso, where he was galloper to General Clery, he had his horse shot under him, and he was wounded at Pieter’s Hill. After the war he went to Madagascar, East Africa and India, wherever adventure was to be found. Later on he went to Canada and after serving in the North West Frontier Police, he bought land and settled down. On the outbreak of the present war he was one of the first to offer his services. He was offered a commission in the 2nd Canadian Contingent, but wanting to get to the front as soon as possible he enlisted as a private in the 18th Canadian Scottish and was present at all the severe fighting around Ypres, when the Canadians so distinguished themselves. He came of a military family which has been connected with the British Army for more  than 150 years. His great grandfather Captain Bernard Holbrooke helped raise the old 97th Foot in 1759 (now the 2nd Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment) and with them served on the Continent in the Seven Years War, and was present at, and wrote an account of the Siege of Velle Isle in 1761. His grandfather Captain Frederick Holbrooke, served with the 13th Foot (now the Somerset Light Infantry) in Sir Ralph Abercrombie’s campaign in Egypt in 1801, and was present at the battles. He afterwards exchanged into the 14th Light Dragoons, now the 14th King’s Hussars. His father the late Rev. F.G. Holbrooke of Kimpton, served for some years in the old Gloucester Militia, and was just starting for the Crimea when peace was declared. Both Mrs Holbrooke’s other sons are now at the front, Major Bernard Holbrooke, 129th  Baluchis, who was recently wounded at Ypres, and Major P. L. Holbrooke, D.S.C. R.G.A. who won his decoration a few weeks ago in France. Her youngest son Captain Cecil Holbrooke, R. A. M. C. died in India in 1900. Both Mrs Holbrooke’s grandsons are also at the front. Lieut. Austin Williams, 38th  Lancers, Indian Army, and 2nd Lieutenant Leonard Williams, Army Service Corps.



The Village Celebrates the Grand National

GN1915What a day it had been! Eleanor Black-Hawkins allowed herself a fortifying whisky and soda as she recalled her the Ladies Committee’s success…

It had been a miserable winter, which seemed to go on and on. The war, which was supposed to have been over by Christmas, seemed stuck in the trenches of France and Flanders but showed no signs of ending any time soon. Casualties from the village were beginning to mount up. Money seemed short, and every family missed the strong arms and backs of their young men now at the front.

The Committee had wondered from the beginning whether there was some way they could lighten the load of their fellow villagers, without being patronising Lady Bountifuls. It had been her idea to organise a sweepstake for the Grand National on Friday 26 March, with prizes for everyone who had a horse.

The details had been discussed endlessly as various possibilities were considered at length before being dismissed as impracticable. Finally, it had been agreed that the prizes would be in the form of hampers.

Lady Portsmouth was the obvious first person to approach. She had been very generous, as always, but was a little uneasy about the link to gambling. She therefore decided not to grace us with her presence on the day, but had written the committee a very large cheque. This had enabled us to buy the contents from the village shops, and the big farms had given chits to be exchanged for a pig in due course.

The idea was that the tickets were to be given away – obviously the last thing we wanted was for people to spend money that was scarce and then not get anything in return. Charitable giving is certainly a complicated business! They had roped in Albert White of Barford, who loved to get his teeth into this sort of problem, the job of giving everyone in the village one ticket and no more.  It had been slightly trickier to persuade the Ladies Committee that they themselves should not have tickets (think how embarrassing it would have been if one of us had won a hamper!) . FHB was the rule of the day.

A radio with loudspeaker had been rigged up at the ‘refreshment rooms’ at Fourways and on the morning of the race everyone gathered in the Summerhaugh. All the tickets, with names written on the back, were put into a large copper and drawn out one by one, using the starting prices from the newspaper as a guide to the likely outcome:

6/1 Irish Mail
7/1 Lord Marcus
9/1 Silver Top
10/1 Balscadden
10/1 Father Confessor
100/9 Bachelor’s Flight
100/8 Ally Sloper
100/7 Bullawarra
25/1 Distaff
25/1 Alfred Noble
25/1 Jacobus
33/1 Denis Auburn
33/1 Ilston
33/1 Thowl Pin
40/1 Hackler’s Bey

There was great excitement as the race got under way:

Ally Sloper took off too early at the second fence, landed on top of the obstacle and all but unseated Anthony who, amazingly, was hauled back into the saddle by his brother Ivor, riding alongside him. The horse made another serious blunder at the first Canal Turn , but regained his feet and continued progressing steadily until the last fence where Anthony pulled him out for an effort that saw him fight past the leader Jacobus and score a two-length victory, with Father Confessor a further eight lengths back in third. Appropriately, in the era of the suffragette movement, Lady Nelson became the first female to lead in the winner.

Pos. Horse Jockey Owner
1 ALLY SLOPER Mr J R Anthony Lady Nelson
2 JACOBUS A Newey Mr C Bower Ismay
3 FATHER CONFESSOR A Aylin Lord Suffolk
4 ALFRED NOBLE T Hulme Mr T H Barnard
also BALSCADDEN F Lyall Mr C Bower Ismay
also THOWL PIN W J Smith Mr F Bibby
also BLOW PIPE W Smith Mr A Shepherd
also HACKER’S BEY Mr H S Harrison Sir T R Dewar
also SILVER TOP S Walkington Mr A Browne
also IRISH MAIL Mr L Brabazon Mr Eric Platt
also BULLAWARRA C Hawkins Mr J M Niall
also BALLYHACKLE S Avila Mr K F Malcolmson
also ILSTON I Anthony Sir G Bullough
also DISTAFF E Piggot Sir G Bullough
also LORD MARCUS G Parfrement Lord Lonsdale
also THE BABE R Chadwick Mr F Bibby
also St MATHURIN II T Dunn Mr Adam Scott
also DENIS AUBURN J Reardon Sir G Bullough
also BACHELOR’S FLIGHT H Harty Mr F Barbour
also BAHADUR Mr P Roberts Mr W Gore Lambarde

It had all worked out better than she dared hope. Of course, there were some disappointed faces, but the tea and buns which had been laid on meant that everyone (even the Ladies Committee!) got something out of the day.

Next year, Eleanor thought she might find herself in London…

Note on sources:

I do not know whether there was any attempt to celebrate the Grand National as a village.

se non è vero, è ben trovato?

Harold Moorse and Walter Allen

St Mary Bourne men killed - Moorse

Andover Advertiser 26th March 1915

News has been received that Private Walter Allen, of this village, is at present in hospital at Chelsea suffering from wounds received near the Aisne. We are pleased to note that the wounds are not dangerous.

THE ROLL OF HONOUR – The village has now to lament the loss of the fifth of its brave sons who has sacrificed his life for his country. Mr W. C. Moorse received the saddest news of his life, that his son Harold, 2nd Lieutenant of the York and Lancaster Regiment, was killed in action on the 18th inst. The deceased was originally a schoolmaster with the rank of sergeant in the Hampshire Regiment in India. A short time ago it was reported that he had received a commission and was transferred to the regiment in which he met his death. He had been with the colours just over seven years, and was 25 years of age, so that it can be said that his tasks on earth had been rewarded according to the merits of a real soldier and man. Mr Moorse has three other sons in the Army. Two of these left for the Dardanelles (perhaps we had better not say when) while the other is at Netley Hospital. A telegram couched in the following terms has been received by the father of these military sons from Buckingham Palace :- “The King and Queen deeply regret the loss you and the Army have sustained by the death of your son in the service of his country. Their Majesties truly sympathise with you in your sorrow. -Private Secretary.” – On behalf of the large number of readers who hold the bereaved family in such esteem, we also feel it a privilege to offer our deepest sympathies. – On Sunday evening after evensong at the parish church, a short memorial service was held. The Rev. P. E. Binns spoke from the text 1 Thess. Iv. 13



Bertie George King Is Killed At Neuve Chapelle: by Win Bourne

bertie 001

Killed in Action  aged 27 at Neuve Chapelle.
Listed on Panel 44 at La Touret Memorial, France

Bertie was born in 1890, the only son of Alfred G King and his wife Elizabeth (known as Kate) nee Aslett. They had a daughter Dorothy who was just a year old when Bertie made his appearance. The family lived in Newbury Street, Whitchurch and his Dad was a bricklayer. Kate gave birth to two more   daughters, Ethel in 1892 and Alice Daisy in 1893.

Sadly, within the following few years, baby Ethel perished and then both parents passed away, so the three children were separated and raised by various family members in Whitchurch.

Eleven-year-old Bertie lived with his paternal grandmother of 72, Emma King (who was a laundress), and his Uncle John, a bricklayer’s labourer, in Newbury Street. Both 13-year-old Dorothy (known as Dolly) and sister Alice Daisy (aged 7) were looked after by their maternal grandparents, George and Mary Aslett in London Street, along with their cousin Albert Edward Aslett, who was also 7 years old. So the siblings at least remained within easy walking distance of each other.

Ern + Emily King (RHS) at cress beds

Ernest and Emily King at watercress beds in 1920s, from SMB history CD

Granddad George worked on the watercress beds in what came to be a family tradition.As they grew up, the girls continued to live and work in Whitchurch, while Bertie began working at the watercress beds in Hurstbourne Priors, lodging with the Redman family in rooms, part of the house called Crystal Abbey, on the opposite side of the road in the 1911 census. (Was the name a joking reference to the Crystal Palace?)

Crystal Abbey

Extract from 1936 sale map of part of the Portsmouth Estate. Courtesy Hampshire Record Office 15M84/3/1/4/6

At the onset of war Bertie went to Winchester where he enlisted as a rifleman in the 2nd Battalion. Rifle Brigade. His regiment took part in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle which began on the 10th March 1915 when he sustained fatal injuries.

His sisters looked in disbelief at the cold facts of his listed possessions, the last bit of paper summoning up the way officialdom looked at him:

Personal effects Bertie George King




2015 is the hundredth anniversary of one of the most important, yet little remembered, years in the history of Britain and her armed forces. Often overshadowed by the rush to war in 1914 and the momentous offensive on the Somme in 1916, the battles that the British Expeditionary Force fought on the Western Front in 1915 (as well as the tragic Gallipoli campaign in the Mediterranean), were a key stage in the development of modern warfare.

In France and Belgium, the British fought in a variety of offensive and defensive actions throughout the year, most notably at Neuve Chapelle (10-12 March), Aubers Ridge (9 May), Second Ypres (22 April – 25 May), Festubert (15-27 May) and Loos (25 September – 13 October). Of these, the battle of Loos was the biggest. When it was fought it was the largest land battle in British military history, witnessing…

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St Mary Bourne School – A new term in 1915: Win Bourne

1882 school

Headmaster Evans looked out of the classroom window pensively. He wondered just how many children would arrive at the school gate this miserable, cold January morning. He wouldn’t blame the young ones if they stayed at home in the warm. But then he knew that, in some cases, they would be warmer in school than they would in their homes, so he had ignited the fires in the classrooms very early that day in an effort to remove the chill.

He knew from previous years that the numbers would be lower than they should be as some children may have no coats, some no boots- some lacking in both, poor little souls. Even in the finer weather the older children were often missing from class, the girls being kept at home to look after their younger siblings while their parents were both working in the fields or farms, and the boys working alongside their parents – all to earn a few more shillings.

According to the law, if children did not attend school for any reason bar illness, he was supposed to inform the attendance officer, Mr John Page. But he knew in his heart that he wouldn’t do that – times were so difficult for families in the valley at the moment he had no intention of causing them more problems.

John Henry Evans had been teaching at the St Mary Bourne elementary school since 1896 when, at the tender age of 33, he arrived with his widowed mother Anne. He had been born in Bridgend, Glamorgan to Anne and her husband David, a blacksmith in the town.

In October 1905 he had married his wife Victoria in Pontypridd, Glamorgan, and brought her to live at the school house. She was a Somerset lass 7 years younger than him and in 1910 they had a lovely son called Owen.

As he stood at the classroom window, John reflected on his past years at the school, remembering some of the pupil’s faces as they had first appeared. The Sellwoods, the Randalls, the Bunces, the Allens and many many more – all had sat cross-legged in rows on the classroom floor- some in the old school across the road – singing their alphabets and chanting their times tables.

As the terms progressed the children had grown in stature, as well as in their knowledge. Some had thrilled him with their academic capabilities, or their musicality, while others were totally non-academic and couldn’t wait to attain the age that they could leave school and start earning a living.

Years later – he remembered with a smile – he had been walking along the street towards St Peter’s Church with his wife and son, when a confident young man, driving a horse and cart, greeted him with a huge smile and said “Morning Sir, Ma’am” as he tipped his cap to them and he had recognised the lad as being one of his old pupils.

He remembered standing at Summerhaugh and listening to the Salvation Army band playing. The young girls among the crowd were singing along with the band, while the lads stayed self-consciously yet nonchalantly at the back by the George Inn. As the boys tapped their toes to the songs, he recognised that they were similar to the tunes that he had taught most of them himself at the Sunday school when they were small.

Still in a reflective mood, he reminisced another, more recent occasion, when, once again at Summerhaugh, he had observed Lt Col Cooper speechifying to the lads, encouraging them to “Take the King’s shilling and answer the call to arms”.

Suddenly, coming to his senses and the reality of this cold January morning, he realised that the classroom was filling up with steaming, thawing, small children. He looked at his watch and said to himself “Oh well, I’d better get outside and ring the school bell or some of the stragglers will be late for assembly”

“No Mr Page,” he thought to himself ” you can stay in the warm behind your shop counter – you’ll get no call from me this morning.”