ERNEST CLEGG & JOHN McCRAE – Part 3
This third & final post seeks to examine Ernest Clegg’s own wartime experiences in the trenches during World War One as an officer in the 7th (Service) Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment, the Shiny 7th, set against the backdrop of the series of moving watercolour designs by Clegg incorporating stanzas of McCrae’s poem from William E Rudge’s special limited edition printing of In Flanders Fields .
One 1922 US reviewer claimed that this view depicted distant Cassel Hill near Ypres, though it seems more likely that it could be the much-fought-over & strategically important spoil heap known simply as “Hill 60”. The landmarks of the Ypres Salient would probably have been well-known to Ernest Clegg as his unit, the 7th Bedfordshires, were involved in an attack on Glencorse Wood, 2 miles east of Ypres, in early August 1917, though it is not clear if Clegg himself actually took part in this action
Interviewed in the summer of 1938, now over 60 years old and a US resident for the previous two decades, Ernest Clegg reflected on his fateful decision to re-join the British army at the outbreak of war in 1914:
In the fatal month of August 1914, I was a painter and designer living in New York. The War which had broken out on the other side of the Atlantic seemed far away, but I could not let it go at that. For I was a British subject and I had seen service as a cavalryman in the Boer War. Any veteran would be useful and I did not need to be told by the posters : “Your King and Country Need You”. I reached England in September and four days later was given a lieutenant’s commission in the army….
Clegg would join the 7th (Service) Battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment as a junior officer in their C Company. He is probably the same Ernest Clegg whose temporary Lieutenant’s commission dated 6th October 1914 is announced in London Gazette of 26th October 1914. A further announcement in the London Gazette of Jan 26th 1915 confirmed the value of having an experienced army veteran in the new Battalion’s officer corps, as Clegg gains rapid promotion from the rank of temporary Lieutenant to temporary Captain (notice dated Nov 1st 1914).
The 7th (Service) Battalion was one of the newly formed Kitchener Battalions, one of three raised by the Bedfordshire Regiment (the 6th, 7th & 8th). First formed in Bedford in September 1914, it was initially attached to the 15th Division at Aldershot.
Basking in the reflected glory of their nickname, the Shiny 7th, supposedly due to their smart appearance, the Biggleswade Chronicle of 15th January 1915 published the following report from one of the local “Bedfordshire boys” during this initial period:
They are doing very well as regards the making of a soldier. They are getting highest of praise not only from Liphook but also from Aldershot, where we were previously stationed…The Regiment consists of 4 Companies: A, B, C and D, roughly speaking about 350 in each Company. The food is not so bad considering the tremendous amount of recruits joined since the outbreak of war, but only those who are not in billets get army rations. The ones in billets get on decidedly better and of course there is a general feeling of envy between them. The recent weather has made things more difficult, in consequence there are a lot of fellows laid up, which is not to be wondered at. I think in a very brief space of time, the 7th Bedfords will be in first-rate form for active service.
In early 1915, the 7th Bedfordshire Battalion were transferred to the 54th Infantry Brigade, part of the newly formed 18th (Eastern) Division, where it would remain until reduced to a training cadre in May 1918. The 18th Division was based at Colchester, moving to Salisbury Plain in May 1915 for final training before deployment in Northern France in the summer of that year.
The Battalion, with a nominal roll of 820 men and 30 officers, including Clegg, departed Codford St.Mary in Wiltshire on July 25th 1915 arriving at Folkestone the following day, and crossing the Channel to Boulogne onboard the SS Onward.
It was almost exactly two months to the day after the end of the Second Battle of Ypres. Four weeks of the fiercest fighting – John McCrae’s “nightmare” – had cost the lives of over 100,000 soldiers on both sides of the conflict, with Allied casualty numbers almost exactly double those of the Germans.
Throughout the ensuing 12 months, the 7th Battalion with other units of the 54th Brigade & 18th Division would be deployed in the trenches of the Somme, principally in the areas around Méaulte, Fricourt, Bray-sur-Somme and Carnoy.
In August and early September, the 7th Bedfordshires underwent training, initially in the Corbie area, followed by instructional tours of the line, with these fresh Battalions of the Brigade attached to units that had already served their apprenticeships on the front line. In early September, the 54th Brigade took over a sector of the Somme front line, opposite Fricourt. Divided into two sectors, D1 on the left and D2 on the right, until November the 10th Royal Fusiliers and 6th Northamptonshire Regiment were deployed on the left (D1) and the 7th Bedfordshires and 12th Middlesex on the right (D2). This arrangement was reversed in early December, each of the two Battalions taking front line and support duties in turn, usually on an eight day tour of duty. In November Clegg managed a week of well-earned leave.
Throughout this period up to Christmas 1915, along the entire Fricourt sector, the Germans engaged in constant heavy artillery & mortar bombardments (euphemisticaly known as “hates”). These were accompanied by much underground tunnelling activities & the frequent detonation of mines to degrade the British trenches. In December the Germans switched to periodic gas attacks which were combined with numerous trench raiding parties across No Man’s Land.
The British response, from the artillery at least, was decidedly muted, not least because there was a parlous shortage of shells. It was said to be a standing joke up to the end of 1915 that one round per week would be sent up to the 54th Brigade’s forward batteries in a mess cart, and that the munitions officer’s boots and the casing of the individual shell itself would be polished up to the brightest of sheens in special honour of the occasion!
One incident in particular demonstrates the very close relationships that clearly developed between officers and some of the rank & file soldiers of the Battalion as a result of their common experiences in the trenches.
On 2oth September, a 7th Bedfordshire raiding party led by Lt Shirley Angus Egerton Hine, alongside his batman, Private Arthur Strange (20), was surprised by a group of German snipers half way across No Man’s Land. Lt Hine was hit in the side, Pte Strange in the head as he came to Hine’s aid. As the officer recounted in his letter to Private Strange’s family, reported in The Luton Times of October 1st:
He was still living then, so I started to get him back to our trenches, but on the way he died in my arms….I think it was the most desolate moment of my life when I found myself out in the dark night, wounded, alone, with the dead body of the boy I would have died to save…He was loved by all his comrades and respected by everyone. Personally to me he was like a son or little brother…I feel I shall never get over his loss.
As Hine further noted, with an outpouring of genuine grief-stricken emotion that seems particularly honest & completely unrestrained:
I loved the boy like a son, he was my personal servant for nine months and I never once had to find fault with him. Many times we have shared the same food, and often, including the night he was killed, slept side by side.
As the Luton Times concluded with equally patriotic emotion:
While England can boast such sons as these, where lives the traitorous doubter who dares say that her sun is setting! Today it is in full meridian!
Conditions in the line in mid-September are described by Drummer Frank Evans, 7th Bedfordshires, of Shefford, Bedfordshire, in a letter printed in the Bigglesewade Chronicle of 1st October:
The Shiny 7th are busy digging trenches. We do not get much sleep at nights, but in the day time you would not think there is a war on. We are about 350 yards from the German line and in places nearer than that. There was a big bombardment along our lines last night. The Northants blew a mine up, and it was a sight to behold, but I do not know if anyone was killed or not. It is very clean in the trenches right now. I am writing this in my little dugout, which is nice and comfortable. We have been in the trenches 13 days, and we do not know when we are coming out, but I hope it will not be long – we soon get fed up with it, because we have not got any amusement.
7th Bedfordshire casualties were nonetheless relatively light in this initial phase of their deployment in the Fricourt sector, probably the worst incident taking place during a German bombardment of billets adjacent to the rear support trenches on 7th October opposite Fricourt, which were repeatedly hit as buried men of the Ox & Bucks (on instructional attachment to the Battalion) were being recovered. The Ox & Bucks lost 6 men killed and 20 wounded, the 7th Bedfordshire suffered 7 wounded.
By early November, conditions had deteriorated considerably, with wet weather making a quagmire of the trenches. Sergeant F C Blakeman, a well-known Bedford athlete and amateur footballer (who survived the war, despite being twice wounded, and died in 1940) describes the situation in a letter printed in the Bedford Times of 12th November & with a measure of typical patriotic insouciance & British understatement:
I have had two or three narrow escapes but you know what they say “The best always goes first” so I have always got a chance. What do you say? We have had plenty of rain here lately, and it’s a bit rough getting about the trenches up to your neck in mud and slush and wet through too, but there you are, you are expected to rough it, which I can do with a good heart. It begins to get cold out here now and I bet in another month or two we shall be having it properly. I cannot tell you where we are or what we are doing, all I can say is that we are doing our best to uphold the good name our old county Regiment has made and there’s not a doubt but that we shall succeed, as they are some of the best of boys and don’t care for anything.
As winter did indeed close in, the Mayor of Bedford, Mr F R Hockliffe, and local residents of the town & county appealed for increasing comforts to be collected from amongst the local population for distribution to the three Bedfordshire Service Battalions. In December it was felt that the 6th & 7th Battalions had been somewhat overlooked in these efforts and so an urgent new appeal was put out, which by Christmas Eve had elicited ten substantial bales of woollen goods – socks, mittens, muffles, woollen caps & helmets and scarves knitted by local school girls and ladies around the town & county – together with a melodeon (accordion) – the gift of Mrs A L Field – all of which were to be carried back with Sgt H Hassall, of the 7th Battalion’s O Company, then on home leave.
Major Mills, standing in for Colonel Price (also on leave), the 7th Bedfordshire’s Commanding Officer, and writing to the Mayor of Bedford, in a letter published in The Bedford Times on Christmas Eve 1915, noted somewhat critically:
We have received at odd intervals, gifts of tobacco from newspaper funds etc. As regards comforts from Bedford Regiment Fund, I would suggest that socks are far and away the most useful form; gloves and pipes are also acceptable…
The 7th Bedfordshires were relieved of front line duties by 12th Middlesex on Christmas Eve 1915, celebrating Christmas Day in billets in the village of Méaulte.
A village of some 1000 inhabitants, Méaulte was particularly unusual in that, very soon after Christmas, in February 1916, after rumours of the planned Somme offensive began to surface, the mayor and curé, already reeling from successive harvest failures and the effects of the community’s proximity of the frontline, and aware of the British control of this sector, took the unusual step of petitioned King George V to forestall the anticipated evacuation of the local population later in the summer, as usually expected with French communities in this situation.
As the Mayor noted in his letter to the King:
For a year and a half we have given up our homes and our barns for the billeting of officers and men, retaining but one living and one bedroom for our own use. All our chattels, implements, carts, harnesses, horses were utilised by the army for defence purposes and in the bad old days we personally drove the wounded from the trenches to the base hospitals….We are fighting for our homes, which will be wrecked if we abandon them….
In the event, the request was forwarded by one of the King’s secretaries to Sir Douglas Haig, who agreed that the residents could remain in situ and indeed some 700 of the local population did continue to reside in the village for throughout the rest of the war, though, when July 1st finally arrived (the first day of the Somme) the villagers were told by the British High Command that they would not be allowed to leave their homes for 3 days.
A letter from Pte W F Hodge of the Battalion’s B Company described Christmas week in Méaulte in a letter to the Hertford Mercury of 5th February 1916, under the headline 7th Bedfords going strong:
During Christmas week the Battalion, being luckily out of the trenches, held a platoon football competition, the semi-finals being as follows: Seven Platoon v Snipers; and Eight Platoon v Twelve Platoon (C Company). Results: Seven Platoon 6, Snipers 0; Eight Platoon 3, Twelve Platoon 0. The final was thus fought out between Seven and Eight Platoon, both of B Company. Eight Platoon proving successful after a close & interesting game by 1 to nil. A subscription was got up among the officers of the Battalion for the winners and runners up.
It was decided by the Captains of both teams (who by the way are brothers, from Bristol) to hold a supper, which was held this time out of the trenches, followed by a concert (which took place at 4.30pm on Chrstmas Day, per the War Diary), the whole turn out being thoroughly enjoyed.
By the way, football practice is rather difficult here, as teams have to wait their turns for the ball, there being only two balls in the Battalion. If any reader could send us a football, it would be appreciated by all of B Company.
Boxing Day, Clegg’s 29th Birthday, was, according to the Battalion diary, dedicated to Battalion bathing, no doubt greatly enjoyed after recent frontline duties and especially so as the weather remained unseasonably fine.
The 54th Brigade War Diary describes that same 1915 Christmastide in the Fricourt sector:
Christmas Day: Very quiet. Enemy showed no signs of wishing to fraternize. If they do, troops have orders to fire at once. Our men in billets had special Christmas dinners, etc.
Boxing Day: Our artillery carried out a fairly extensive bombardment of enemy front-line trenches and houses in south end of Fricourt. We withdrew men from left half of front trenches during bombardment. The occasion was the first appearance of some heavier guns on our part of the line. The staff from all neighbouring formations [perhaps including Clegg] gathered to witness a strafe, which resulted, at the end of an hour, in Fricourt boasting one or two houses less—but only, as we were to find to our cost, at the expenditure of the whole of the next week’s supply of ammunition.
Not all of the men of the 7th Beds were happy however, one disgruntled Private, writing to the Bedford Times on December 28th (& published on 7th Jan 1916) complained vocifereously about the lack of good times over the Christmas period. Unlike almost all other units in the Division, the 7th Beds had not even been allowed to enter a canteen, nor did the 7th Beds even own such a place…
Why is that? Don’t we deserve it? Surely we have done our bit and hope to do it again? I think the people at home ought to wake up and realize the position we are in at present. Surely we deserve a little comfort?…
….he raged. Sjt Hassall’s long-awaited woollen comforts, freshly delivered from Bedford, and a good Christmas dinner, had clearly not been enough to sweeten some men of the Shiny 7th!
The Battalion returned to front line duties on New Year’s Eve to face a New Year and new front line challenges – German trench raids (the first of which had captured nineteen 6th Nothants men in the D2 sector on Dec 29th) preceded by heavy tear gas (lachrymatory shell) bombardments, the Brigade’s first experience of these new German tactics.
Clegg is unfortunately a somewhat mercurial figure, of whom we catch only the most fleeting glimpses within the pages of the 7th Bedfordshires’ War Diary. Its 1916 pages perhaps reveal most, in what would prove to be a challenging year for both Clegg, the 7th Bedfordshires and the British Army on the Somme.
January witnessed continued German mining activities and daily artillery, mortar and rifle grenade bombardments all along the D1 Sector. One such attack with trench mortars on the evening of January 21st struck a C Company dugout (according to the War Diary in Trench 77) in which four men were sheltering, instantly killing two of those inside.
One of them was Sergeant Harry Pestell, aged 29, a long-term resident of Luton, Bedfordshire who had just returned from Christmas week on home leave in England visiting his beloved fiancée, Miss Cissie Allen, and her parents at their Luton home. By a terrible twist of fate, the news of Pestell’s death would arrive on Miss Allen’s birthday. He was clearly an extremely gregarious & popular man. According to his C Company pal, Sgt William Percy Cooper (who would himself be killed on the 1st day of the Battle of the Somme, 1st July 1916) and who wrote to Miss Allen with his own personal condolences, Pestell was “loved by all ranks”. We are fortunate that a copy of another letter which his commanding officer, Captain Ernest Clegg, wrote to the family was transcribed & published in several Bedfordshire papers in early February, under the headline: “An Example of Devotion & Duty”.
Dated 23rd January 1916, it reads:
It is with great sorrow that I have to inform you that your son, Sgt H Pestell, was killed in action on 21st Jan inst. I am in command of C Company and in the death of Sgt Pestell we have lost a brave and excellent Sgt, one who has been an example of devotion and duty, cheerful and uncomplaining, even under trying circumstances. Men of his stamp are hard to find, and, I personally, am very grieved at his death. It may be some comfort to know that his death was practically instantaneous.
With sincerest sympathy,
Yours very truly
Ernest Clegg, Capt.
A hand-copied transcript of that letter, presumably preserved by Pestell’s family, along with his photograph and remnants of two of those 1916 newspaper announcements, can currently be viewed on the Western Front Association website
Pestell’s grave now lies in the CWGC Cemetery at Méaulte.
One wonders how many similar letters Clegg must have written, how many times he must have sought to convey his own sense of personal grief and sorrow, perhaps not so effusively as his fellow officer Lt Hine, but nonetheless each time probably dying a little more inside, in recounting the loss of yet another young man under his command, comrades in arms whose lives had been so randomly, unfairly and prematurely cut short. And perhaps he felt that nagging sense of guilt at still surviving himself and also in being the bearer of news that would inevitably unleash so many scenes of personal grief and private devastation, repeatedly played out in English homes and hearths and in the subsequent lives of parents and loved ones across the counties of Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, whence so many of the Shiny 7th‘s wartime recruits were drawn.
In February, the Battalion retired to La Houssoye, near Corbie, for rest and recreation, after what Sjt Hassall of O Company, described as one of the most trying times since landing in France, adding somewhat fatalistically that there are some of us still think ourselves lucky in still being in the land of the living, for what with cannisters, whiz-bangs and bullets one never knows when the end may come…(letter to Bedford Times, 3rd March 1916)
In La Houssoye, football seems to have been the order of the day, every day, with the afore-mentioned Bedford amateur, Sgt Fred Blakeman leading the “Bedfords” in the Brigade needle match against the “Northants” in a famous 7-2 win. Matches continued every afternoon for a week.
“After a turn of six months in the trenches, thick with mud & water”, soccer was the “ideal recreation to liven the boys up a bit” noted Hassall enthusiastically.
In early March the Battalion moved to Corbie and thence to the Bray & Carnoy sector, where it took up positions initially in the A1 sector and then the A2 sector, again interchanging front line duties with the 6th Northants, 10th Royal Fusiliers and 12th Middlesex. April saw a series of tit-for-tat raids of front line trenches across No Man’s land, the most significant of which involved the 7th Bedfordshires D Company led by 2nd Lt Harry Driver (with 2NCOs & 30 men) on the night of April 26/27th. The raiders spread lachyrmatory fluid along the German parapet to create a gas barrage and during their half hour in the German front trenches exploded 368 Mills bombs in some fifteen German dugouts, causing numerous casualties and extensive damage.
Brigadier-General Shoubridge, now Commander of 54th Brigade, noted that: the success of the raid greatly improved the general morale.
No men were lost, though one officer (2nd Lt Driver) and 13 men were wounded, Lt Driver subsequently being awarded the DSO and Sgt Mills the DCM.
Most unusually the raid was widely celebrated in the Press with Sir Douglas Haig reporting it in his daily communiqué:
Last night a successful raid was carried out by men of the Bedfordshire Regiment, who entered the enemy’s trenches near Carnoy, and, after fierce hand-to-hand fighting, forced them down into their dug-outs and bombed them there, inflicting heavy casualties. Only a few of our men were wounded, and the whole party successfully returned to our lines.
Conditions in the frontline trenches at Carnoy trenches were described by Corporal J Partridge, of the 7th Beds Signal Section, in April 1916 (in a letter published in The Bedford Times of 21st April 1916) describing swarms of wretched rats:
The other night I got the fair pip & creeps with them running all about me, so I covered my head up with my only blanket. I couldn’t bear the ugly brutes in my face. I looked like a frightened nipper hiding from ghosts, I guess. Anyhow to breathe I left my nose exposed, and I’m blessed if in the middle of the night, one of the saucy bounders didn’t pin my nose. I woke up with a start you can guess, and they flew all roads round the dugout. I put my hand up to my nose and it was covered in blood. I didn’t get to bed again that night (I said bed, but it’s only wire netting and a blanket). I saw the doctor to see if I was likely to be poisoned. He put some stuff on…My officer ordered wire netting (very small mesh) to be put all round the dugout to keep them out, so things will not be so bad. I tell you they were beginning to get on my nerves
The rat in question may well have been Simon the Man-Eater, a grey faced giant who proved particular speedy & agile along the duckboards. Or his companion Tom the Tunneller, two veteran monsters who, according to the 18th Division History, were familiar figures in the Bedfordshires trenches and evaded all attempts at capture. It became the unofficial duty of the orderly officer of the day to effect a daily rat cull. The highest total was 70, attained by Clegg’s fellow A Company officer, Captain (later Lt Col) A E Perceval.
Secret preparations were now increasingly in hand, at Brigade & Divisional level, for a major Summer offensive on the Somme.
In early May the Battalion was billeted in Bray and Froissy, the Battalion HQ first being located close to the Church, at No.4 rue Gambetta (seemingly the property lying just beyond the corner café on right):
and then relocated, at the end of the month, to the rue Philippe-Auguste:
C Company billets were also located in the rue Philippe-Auguste.
In early May, Clegg was himself sent off to Brigade training school at Oissy, and later in the month assumed temporary command of the Battalion, during the leave of the then commanding Officer, Major G P Mills. Thereby Clegg was himself also officially promoted to the rank of (temporary) Major, as announced in the London Gazette of May 17th.
It is at this point that Clegg has surely one of the strangest experiences of any British Army officer then in service on the Western Front. Having a deep-seated love of the sea and of all things maritime, a passion which he had fostered since his early childhood and with a week’s home leave due at the end of May, Clegg decided to have a complete change of scene by applying to make a special visit to the British Naval Fleet in home waters, such as had frequently taken place between officers of the two Armed Services in pre-war days.
As he takes up in his 1938 recollections:
Finally my leave came through after all in the last week of May, 1916 and I left for England, warned that no excuses would be accepted for overstaying [in deep secrecy, preparations were being made for the Battle of the Somme]…I was sure that my chances of surviving the big battle ahead were small. In all probability this was my last leave and I would never see my wife again. So I avoided even mentioning the Fleet to her. It was she who spoke of it after three days…Generously she insisted on my original purpose, declaring that she was anxious for a trip to Scotland and that I might drop her off in Inverness and go on to the Fleet. There was nothing that I could do but acquiesce. I made the application, obtained a two day extension of leave and ultimately found myself at Scapa Flow…
Clegg arrived on May 30th, where he was warmly welcomed on board the battleship Revenge by Commander R M Colvin and Captain Edward B Kiddle.
HMS Revenge was a brand new Royal Sovereign class 15-gun battleship, displacing nearly 26000 tons, laid down in December 1913 and launched exactly a year earlier on May 29th 1915. She had been commissioned into the Royal Navy just four months previously:
Clegg’s arrival came just in time to be told that the entire British fleet at Scapa Flow were being ordered to sea immediately to intercept the German High Seas Fleet. And so it was that Clegg attained the unique distinction of being the only serving British army officer to witness the ensuing Battle of Jutland (May 31st -June 1st 1916) in the mouth of the Skaggerak, off the west coast of Denmark.
Behind the strange almost ghostly presence of a wooden barque with all sails set which, according to Clegg, glided serenely through the midst of the blazing conflict and disappeared again into the North Seas mists, the billowing black plooms of smoke hide the British battlecruiser, HMS Queen Mary, struck by multiple German salvoes from SMS Seydlitz & Derfflinger, over 8 miles away. One of these last salvoes detonated her forward magazine, causing a massive explosion which split her in two. She sank soon afterwards with the loss of all but 20 of her 1266 crew.
Sinking of the British cruiser, HMS Queen Mary, on 31st May 1916 at 4.26 pm
Clegg would later pull off a remarkable double coup by also witnessing the surrender of that same High Seas Fleet from the decks of the Revenge in November 1918.
Clegg’s photographs, sketches and diagrams produced during the course of the Battle of Jutland (and later at the surrender of the German Fleet in 1918) would serve him well in his future life, not least in a series of post war lectures (the first at New York’s Columbia University in May 1921) and interviews that he made, and in the many fine watercolours of these events, and of the participating British and German vessels, that he would subsequently paint & exhibit. His finely executed series of illustrated diagrams of the battle would also grace one of the many critical post-war studies of the battle, The Riddle of Jutland, authored by Langhorne Gibson & Vice Admiral J T Harper RN and first published in New York in 1934. (We hope to take a closer look at Clegg’s experiences at Jutland and at the surrender of the German High Seas Fleet in a forthcoming post)
Clegg eventually returned to his Battalion two days later than his allocated leave, on June 6th, amid a group of several dozen fresh Battalion reinforcements. He defused the potentially awkward issue of his late return by offering the Battalion C/O, Lt Colonel Price, a detailed account of his recent experiences at Jutland over dinner that same evening. The following day came the announcement of Lord Kitchener’s strange & tragic death (drowned at sea off the Orkneys) which, according to the War Diary, caused considerable consternation and depression amongst the men.
Within days, Battalion HQ and A & C Companies had moved to Picquigny. In the previous few days other Brigade units had been preparing a series of mock trenches in the fields near Picquigny, replicating from aerial reconnaissance photographs, the exact outline and layout of the German frontline and support trenches & defensive redoubts of the Carnoy Sector. The 7th Bedfordshires now used these to train, preparing & familiarizing themselves in readiness for the forthcoming assault.
For Clegg, it was a dramatic return to duty, heightened shortly afterwards by the tragic suicide of one of the latest reinforcements, 26 year old Private John Griffin, who had just been allocated to Clegg’s C Company.
An official Military Court of Inquiry was convened at Picquigny Town Hall on June 21st with Clegg taking a presiding role.
Lieutenant Henry Cartwright, who had only joined the Battalion’s A Company a few weeks earlier, and who had known Griffin during earlier training at Colchester, testified as to Griffin’s “lack of mental balance”. Griffin’s grave now lies in the CWGC St.Pierre Cemetery at Amiens.
Just two days later, Clegg and the Battalion moved to Grovetown Camp before then moving up to front line duties in the trenches at Carnoy in the A2 Sector of the 54th Brigade’s battle front. They stood waiting in readiness for the opening of the Somme offensive on July 1st.
Overshadowed by the remains of the clocktower, scaffolding poles prop up the walls of the ruined Medieval Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle) at Ypres in Clegg’s final watercolour from “In Flanders Field”. He probably used the above photograph as his model. The scene conveys a profound sense of enduring defiance, resilience & continuity amid the devastation & destruction of war, giving added weight to the sentiments so movingly expressed in McCrae’s final stanza
Heavy German artillery bombardments now began on a daily basis with increasing accuracy and effect. On the evening of June 26th as the officers of C Company gathered for dinner in their Mess at a busy intersection known as Piccadilly Circus, the Mess dugout suffered a direct hit from a German shell, exploding in the doorway and causing the roof to cave-in, burying all of the men who were sheltering inside.
Captain Richard Lionel Vere Doake [1890-1962], one of the survivors (illustrated here)
Courtesy of Dix Noonan Webb
recounted the events in the official War History of the 54th Brigade (p.34):
On June 26th ‘C’ company, in support, had a bad time from enemy bursts of fire. The officers’ mess in a dug-out in Piccadilly got a direct hit, while all the officers were having supper, about 9 p.m. All became casualties, as well as some eight servants and other ranks who took refuge. A 42 howitzer shell struck the entrance and burst inside. The doorway was filled up, and the smoke and fumes almost suffocated the survivors. Luckily a passing man saw my arm, which had been pushed through a hole, and after a little labour Major (then Captain) Clegg and I were got out. But Lieutenants Baden and Hasler were killed, and Lieutenant Johnson died of wounds. The companies suffered severely that day from bursts of fire, which were very well directed and quite thorough.
In 1938, Clegg himself ruefully recalled that terrifying experience:
The Battle of the Somme? I was back in plenty of time for it. With eleven others I was taking cover in a dugout from a German bombardment when a shell pierced the roof and exploded. Two of us came out alive, both badly wounded. I nearly bled to death from a severed arm artery. Decidedly I prefer to remember my experiences at Jutland.
Both Doake and Clegg almost certainly owed their survival to the prompt actions and gallant efforts of Private Herbert Fish:
As the 54th Brigade history continues:
The rescue of the buried officers was carried out by Private H. W. Fish. He at once began to dig, and, although the air was thick with gas and he was nearly choked, he refused to be relieved till the job was finished. This same man did some gallant work before Pommiers Redoubt on July 1st, crawling up and bombing a machine gun that was holding up our advance. For these actions he was awarded the D.C.M.
Here is his gallantry citation for the DCM, as published in the Supplement to the London Gazette (Issue 29793) of 20th October 1916, p10201:
Fish would also receive the Russian Medal of St. George (3rd Class) in further recognition of his outstanding bravery, as announced in the Supplement to the London Gazette of 15th Feb 1917, p1602, having by then transferred to the 1st Bedfordshire Battalion.
The explosion would have a massive effect on the Battalion in general and on C Company in particular, taking out almost all of its officers at both Company and Platoon level just days before the opening of the Somme offensive on July 1st, an attack in which Clegg himself was, according to the Operational Orders, already slated in to lead his Company over the top on the left flank of the Battalion’s advance towards their ultimate objective: the Pommiers Redoubt, a strongpoint of heavily wired German trenches, mounted with machine guns and manned by two companies of German infantry, well-protected from British artillery by dugouts sunk to a depth of over 5o feet.
The shell explosion in Clegg’s Mess dugout also killed several NCOs, leaving the Company equally depleted further down the chain of command at Platoon level.
The stalling of the advance of the Battalion’s left flank, on the right of the 54th Brigade’s advance in that 1st July attack, as recounted by the Battalion C/O, Lt Colonel Price in his official Report of the battle, was almost certainly due in large measure to the loss of so many C Company officers and NCOs in the earlier June 26th explosion, notwithstanding the further casualties on the day itself.
On July 1st, by the time they had reached the Germans’ Emden Trench, C Company was advancing under the command of a lowly Sergeant. That advance became increasingly disorganized and ragged as the men came under heavy flanking sniper & machine gun fire as they struggled onward towards the Pommiers Redoubt. Once the Redoubt had been reached, the actions of Private Fish in destroying one of the German machine guns proved all the more vital in sustaining the continued momentum of the attack.
According to Price, the Battalion sutained terrible losses: 2 officers killed and 13 wounded, 79 ORs killed, 212 ORs wounded and 6 ORs missing. Of these, C Company suffered 25 ORs killed (of whom 4 Sergeants & 5 other NCOs), 3 died of wounds and 30 wounded (of whom 2 Sergeants & 6 other NCOs).
The death of one of those C Company Sergeants, William Percy Cooper, aged 30, from Kempston, Bedfordshire, friend of Sgt Harry Pestell who, as we have seen, had been killed six months earlier, was announced in the Bedford Times of August 8th. A letter to his parents from the then Commanding Officer of C Company was also published, detailing the tragic circumstances of his death:
Your son was killed during the attack on the morning of July 1st, with four other NCOs and two officers of this Battalion. All were within a few yards in front of the German second or third line [and were] killed by a maxim gun. Sergt Cooper’s death at the head of his men is a great loss to the Company as he was a splendid fellow and a good example to the men under his command.
Only two Company officers apparently survived the attack unscathed, Captain (later Lt Col) A E Perceval and 2nd Lieutenant W J W Colley. According to Lt Cartwright, whose A Company was held in reserve on July 1st, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, Lt Colonel Price forbade any more officers to go out into the battlefield in search of the missing & wounded remnants of the Battalion. “His nerves seemed badly shattered”, notes Cartwright’s diary ruefully.
The Cemetery at Carnoy, where most of the June 26th dugout casualties are now buried, lists 11 men who died during the period between 25th and 28th June. 2 further men also killed during this period (per the CWGC records) and whose graves are now lost, have their names inscribed on the Thiepval Memorial. There is no direct mention of any further casualties in the Battalion War Diary during this period, so it seems probable that most if not all of these fatalities were a direct result of this tragic German artillery strike. According to the War Diary 2nd Lt Hasler had only joined the Battalion four weeks earlier, on 27th May. A further officer, Second Lieutenant Evelyn Johnson, was pulled alive from the wreckage of the dugout but was fatally wounded and, according to the CWGC records, died several weeks later in hospital. His grave now lies in the St.Sever Cemetery in Rouen. The full list of the above 14 casualties is:
Carnoy Military Cemetery
- Sergeant Albert Edward HAYNES
- Lance Corporal Arthur James BLOOMFIELD
- Lance Corporal J E ILES
- Private F J EVANS
- Private J PAVEY
- Private J PEPPER
- Private C STOKES
- Private R E BALDOCK
- Private A WILLIAMSON
St Sever Cemetery, Rouen
The deaths of Sergeants Bunce & Tyers, both from Watford, were announced in the Hertford Mercury & Reformer of July 15th 1916, p.6 (where they are, in fact, listed as Privates).
The deaths of Baden and Hasler and the wounding of Clegg, Doake & Johnson were first reported in the national press on July 4th.
An what of Doake & Clegg?
It is not known when Doake finally returned to front line duty with the Battalion, most probably in late 1916, but he certainly went on to serve with considerable bravery, honour and distinction, winning both the DSO and MC, principally as Clegg’s replacement as Commanding officer of C Company. His DSO award actually took place whilst he was on attachment to the 2nd Bedfordshires in the final week of the War.
Doake’s DSO citation from the London Gazette of 4th October 1919 reads:
During the attack on Preux-au-Bois on 4 November 1918, he was in command of one of the leading companies of the assault. He led his company forward when the companies on either flank were held up, and, after killing several enemy himself, reached his final objective. He then sent parties out to either flank to help the other companies forward. This was completely successful and the whole objective was captured. He showed most marked gallantry and ability.
Lt Colonel A E Perceval would also highlight further aspects of the attack on Preux-au-Bois in his own account:
Some excellent shooting by Bedfordshire officers is recorded during the attack. In one case Captain Doake, commanding ‘C’ Company, was moving through the orchards towards the village, accompanied by his batman, when he saw through a hedge a party of four Bosches with a machine-gun not more than 20 yards away. He and his batman opened fire, and he claims to have brought down all the four Bosches with four rounds.
Doake’s M.C. citation, from the London Gazette of 16 September 1918, which relates to his actions during an attack at Gentelles in early April 1918, reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He put up a most stubborn resistance with his company and remained with them after being wounded in the head. By his fine example he greatly encouraged his men.
Doake was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre in June 1919.
Doake, who originally hailed from Co.Down, married in 1920 & subsequently entered the legal profession. He died in 1962.
And what of Clegg? We know he was severely injured, suffering a severed artery in the arm and multiple shrapnel injuries, mainly to his legs. We have not yet been able to trace the hospitals in which he may have been treated in France. Like the fatally wounded Johnson, he was very likely brought back down the line from one of the Somme Field Hospitals to a Base Hospital in Rouen or Boulogne, perhaps even the very one in which John McCrae was himself serving on the site of the former Jesuit College in Boulogne, where many of the casualties of the Somme were certainly treated:
No.3 (McGill) Canadian Hospital, Boulogne, c1915-16 – Courtesy of McGill News
His recovery and recuperation appears to have been a long and difficult one. Having been so close to the blast, it seems likely he may also have suffered the effects of shell-shock.
The Battalion War Diary records his eventual return to duty on the 15th April 1917 – nearly 10 months later – at Steenbecque, to the west of Ypres and south of St Omer. Since the end of March the Battalion had been enjoying a period of rest here, out of the front line, and with much focus on competitive sport, drill and physical training.
During the intervening period, Clegg had missed the 7th Bedfordshires’ costly assault & capture of the village of Thiepval and the ensuing attack on the Schwaben Redoubt the following day, September 27th-28th 1916, in which the Battalion gained its first VC, awarded to 2nd Lt Thomas Edwin Adlam, who had joined Clegg’s C Company just two months earlier on 17th July.
Adlam’s VC citation was listed in the Supplement to London Gazette of November 25th 1916 (11525 & 11526 ). Clegg would also miss the action at Achiet-le-Grand in March 1917 where a second VC was won by Private Christopher Augustus Cox, a 7th Beds stretcher bearer.
At the end of April 1917, the Battalion was re-deployed back into the line, initially in reserve near Neuville-Vitasse, south of Arras, and then into the front line near Chérisy, where an attack by 18th Division forces took place on 2nd May. Clegg was the Battalion liaison officer with 54 Brigade HQ working with 2 runners and with C Company forming the attack Company reserve. The assault on Chérisy by A & D Companies ultimately proved abortive, due to heavy German opposition and inpenetratable swathes of uncut wire along the Fontaine Trench, the enemy’s front line.
After Chérisy, Clegg’s name disappears completely from the 7th Beds War Diary.
His Army file (WO339/11470) suggests ongoing medical and psychological issues (including insomnia) following his injuries in June 1916. Although somewhat incomplete they do indicate that he was repeatedly classified as Unfit “A” for service, and seemingly on a recurring 3 month cycle, probably through the latter months of 1917 and certainly through most of 1918.
By early 1918, when the Battalion reverted to its role as a training cadre, Clegg appears to take up a staff posting under the Ministry of Labour with the OTTC in Cambridge (when he appears to have been billeted within the luxurious confines of King’s College!). By the time of the final Armistice, his own war has come to an end, somewhat curiously, with a special posting to the National Machine Gun Factory at Branston, Burton-on-Trent.
1918 Office Block of the Former National Machine Gun Factory at Branston
The Branston Factory was built by local builder Thomas Lowe & Sons and was started in 1917 but had not been not fully finished before the War ended in November 1918. Gun making machinery, much of it of US origin, was installed on the site but it was never used in production, only in the reconditioning of some 1000 weapons. The buildings at Branston comprised an office block (completed in 1918), canteen, surgery and social centre serving both male & female munitions workers. The name is of course now closely associated with the famous savoury pickle, as the site was subsequently acquired by Crosse & Blackwell in 1920.
One possible explanation of Clegg’s somewhat curious posting here is that he may have been the commanding officer of the Army contingent guarding the 1000 or so German prisoners of war who, due to major labour shortages on the home front, were employed in much of the factory construction work, including the high perimeter wall beside the main Burton Road. The German POWs were billeted in the Maltings in Anglesey Road, Burton-on-Trent and everyday were marched through the town to Branston to work.
It is perhaps the ultimate irony of Clegg’s own First World War story that it should close here, on home soil, probably supervising German POWs & at a factory reconditioning used machine guns.
As an epilogue to the story, still greatly troubled by the injuries he had sustained in June 1916, in the second half of 1925, Clegg, resident once more in New York, consulted the Canadian war veteran and former CAMC colleague of John McCrae, Dr Frederick McKelvey Bell, who was now on the staff of the New York Stuyvesant Polyclinic Hospital (see our previous post: Part 1).
Lt Col Frederick [Frank] McKelvey Bell [1878-1931]
Bell took detailed x-rays of Clegg’s leg which revealed 3 residual pieces of German shrapnel. An operation in December 1925 removed the largest & most troublesome piece but the two others were located in too dangerous a position to be safely extracted. The cost of the operation was a not insignificant sum of $100, x-rays and hospital fees adding a further $100. In Feb 1926 Clegg wrote to the British Army in the hope that they might have funding available to recoup these costs, a hope that not unsurprisingly proved entirely fruitless.
So exactly five years after the publication of William Edwin Rudge’s In Flanders Field, Clegg himself had good cause to be eternally thankful dedication and skill of the Canadian medical profession, so selflessly personified in McCrae.
The parallel lives of Ernest Clegg and John McCrae throw up a number of strange coincidences and unusual connections which must all have facilitated Clegg’s decision to take up William Edwin Rudge’s commission for this new edition of In Flanders Fields.
They were both men united by the experience of war and of similar age and outlook. These were men for whom, as professionally trained soldiers, the idea of service for one’s country was a given (as indeed Clegg would demonstrate for the third time in World War Two (more anon…)) and as was manifest in their exemplary sense of private & professional devotion and duty throughout their respective lives.
For McCrae it ended in January 1918 in a Boulogne Army hospital overlooking the English Channel:
Clegg’s watercolour showing the burial of John McCrae at Wimereux Cemetery, against the backdrop of the waters of the English Channel, on January 29th 1918 and on what was, according to witnesses, an upliftlingly warm, bright & sunny Spring day. Note Clegg’s nod to the Senior Service, the British Navy, whose ships sit in respectful silent witness offshore, as the burial proceeds with full military honours
For Clegg it would finally end some 36 years later, by then a somewhat impoverished, widowed old soldier, a native-born Englishman who had returned home for the final time after many long & eventful years in New York working as an artist, designer and mapmaker, now eking out his final days in a small Army retirement home – Huntly at Bishopsteignton – on the Devonshire coast. Its principal blessing was the sweeping views of the beautiful Teign estuary and those self-same waters of the English Channel, which, as an experienced yachtsman & sailor, he probably never tired of seeing.
One can almost imagine Clegg surveying that beautiful south Devon scene as he regaled fellow residents (amongst whom doubtless a goodly number of crusty fellow veterans of Flanders fields) with his still vivid recollections of those dim & distant days of late May & early June 1916:
…..the rolling decks of HMS Revenge as she slices through the storm grey waters of the North Sea, ears stuffed with cotton & muffled against the repeated salvoes of the big guns, field glasses trained on the misty horizon, as one of the greatest naval engagements of the First World War unfolds around him…
In a final curious querk of history, Clegg passed away in a nearby Paignton nursing home on December 9th, 1954, 61 years ago yesterday. It was also exactly 39 years (plus one day) since McCrae’s poem had first appeared in print in the 8th Dec 1915 edition of Punch. Again almost to the day, it was 33 years since those two hundred and sixty five copies of William Edwin Rudge’s beautiful designed edition of McCrae’s In Flanders Fields, in which Clegg had played such an important part, had finally rolled off the Mount Vernon NYC presses, just in time for distribution as Christmas gifts amongst Rudge’s closest friends. One wonders if Clegg may also have received a special presentation copy from Rudge himself – a combined Christmas & birthday present to celebrate his 45th birthday on Boxing Day of that year. In any event, it is surely a gift that deserves to be as richly cherished today as it was by those first two hundred and sixty five recipients in 1921.
- G M Deacon (ed): The Shiny Seventh – The 7th (Service) Battalion Bedfordshire Regiment at War, 1915-18 [Bedfordshire Historical Record Society / Boydell Press, 2004]
- E. R: The 54th Infantry Brigade 1914-1918 – Some Records of Battle and Laughter in France
[Printed for private circulation, Gale & Polden, Aldershot, 1919]
- Capt G F H Nicholls (“Quex”): The 18th Division in the Great War [Wm Blackwood & Sons, Edinburgh & London, 1922]
- Ernest Clegg: A Guest at Jutland – article in: The American Legion Magazine [August 1938]