On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the flow of streams,
Far I hear the steady drummer
Drumming like a noise in dreams.
Far and near and low and louder
On the roads of earth go by,
Dear to friends and food for powder,
Soldiers marching, all to die.
A E Houseman
It’s a sad fact that some questions that should have been asked only take form after the responses are no longer available. Answers to questions I would like to pose now were mine for the asking a long time ago, but lack of curiosity at the moment leads to the lonely vigil of later research. I suppose it should not be surprising that the facts provided by research often fly in the face of the memorized version handed down; after all, one has to allow for the passage of time since the event was witnessed or heard as well as for the long and general tradition of embellishing legend. It was entirely understandable therefore that I was unable to substantiate much of our family’s history passed down by way of mouth. I have been unable to locate among my ancestors a sea captain, although I did find that Able Seaman Stephen Mayne(1) was aboard the Neptune, anchored off Beachy Head when the census for 1861 was taken. I could find no evidence to support my mother’s claims that my maternal grandfather was part-owner of a restaurant in the City of London or that we were somehow associated with the Delaware-Morgans, purported grandees of Belgravia. However, I did substantiate one story my mother used to tell and that concerned the death of her uncle Harry.
Harry, she would tell me, died at the battle of Polygon Wood and this fact alone secured my interest as, from an early age, the Great War had held me spellbound. The roots of this interest lay on the shelves of my bedroom and in a black trunk that sat underneath the window. Among other treasures, the trunk contained a History of the Great War collected by my father in monthly installments in the 1930s and therefore available to be inspected piecemeal each night by torchlight under the blankets. On the shelves, among my sister’s hand-me-downs and my own books were some my father had when he was young and among those a novel of the Great War called “At His Country’s Call” by Albert Lee. Having long ago lost the original, I recently purchased a copy and was able to relive the adventures of Maurice Millard on the Western Front. My new copy is inscribed to Sidney Barron for good behaviour in Church.
Later there were to be more serious books about the Great War – “Goodbye to all That”, “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer”, “All Quiet on the Western Front” and more recently Pat Barker’s “Regeneration” trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ “Birdsong”. My knowledge of the Great War is therefore remembered more through these novels as well as through the poetry of Wilfred Owens and Siegfried Sassoon than through familiarity with its actual history. Those who watched Captain Blackadder will forever remember the war effort as an attempt to inch Army Chief Douglas Haigh’s cocktail cabinet a little nearer to Berlin. And who can forget the casualty statistics, posted up cheerfully as cricket scores, in Joan Littlewood’s 1963 stage musical “Oh, What a Lovely War”?
It was not until the early 1970s, when I was living in Paris, that I was able to make closer contact with the realities of the Great War. By chance one of my first audit clients was situated close to Armentieres (motto: “Pauvre mais fiere”(2)) a town everyone still remembers through the song, “Madameoiselle from Armentieres”. Originally “Madameoiselle from Bar le Duc”, a French army song of the 1830s resurrected during the war of 1870, it recounted the indiscretions of an innkeeper’s daughter with two German soldiers. It was adapted by British and Canadian soldiers in the early months of the Great War and was still popular in 1940 when Flanagan and Allen used the song as the title of their West End show.
My attention to the ancient killing fields was also drawn by Larry and Bonnie Orsini who had pitched their weekend caravan in a field near Vic sur Aisne. One weekend Larry and I combed through the caves at nearby Confrecourt, where stone quarries had been extended in the Great War to provide subterranean barracks for the French army.
In the early 1970s, stalls at the flea markets at Clignancourt and Bercy were still filled with fading sepia photographs of Poilus and Zouaves, rusting bayonets and lighters and ashtrays constructed from shell casings. Feeling about the war still remained strong, so much so that Stanley Kramer’s 1957 anti-war film “Paths of Glory” depicting the mutinies in the French army after the failed 1917 offensive under General Nivelle, was banned from French cinemas until 1975.
Finally, in 1972, I took a few days leave and went to find Uncle Harry. You don’t have to drive far out of Paris to encounter the battlefields of the Great War. In September of 1914 the Germans had pushed as far as the village of Claye Souilly, a mere taxi ride from Paris and it was in fact 600 taxi cabs, each carrying 5 soldier passengers and their weapons, that transported the Army of Paris to halt the German advance at the First Battle of the Marne. In June of 1918 the Germans were back, this time only 56 miles from Paris. But these actions were in the West and I was travelling North, through Senlis and Compiegne, through St Quentin and Cambrai, headed for Ypres.
My destination was the cemetery at Polygon Wood but I was in no hurry and meandered through Flanders, stopping for bed and breakfast, lingering over the Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel with its beds of yellow St John’s Wort and magnificent statue of a caribou both in remembrance of the sacrifice made by the Newfoundland Regiment on July 1st 1916(3). The whole of Flanders has a seductive melancholy to it, from the raw brick hamlets to the rows of sodden beet, from the multitude of grim memorials to the songs of Jacques Brel. In the late afternoon of my second day, I arrived at Polygon Wood cemetery. Situated 8 kilometers east of Ypres, it was a beautifully manicured walled garden of green and white. I felt I was going into church as I lifted the latch on the gate and moved amongst the hundred or so graves. Harry was nowhere to be found. His name was not in the register kept in the gate so I walked to the nearby Buttes New British cemetery but Harry’s was not among the 2,109 graves. But on the way to Ypres, where I had decided to spend the night, I stopped to inspect the Menin Gate and there, inscribed on the walls among the 54,896 names of Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies had never been found, was Sergeant Harold Mayne of the 7th Battalion of the Lincolnshire Regiment.
I went back to the Menin Gate, this time in the evening to hear the Last Post played, as it still is, every night. The next day after a visit to the museum I returned home. It was not until thirty years later that I realized I still had not found the right Harry Mayne.
The Harry Mayne my mother talked about was 27 when he took the King’s shilling from the Recruiting Sergeant of the 9th County of London Regiment, Queen Victoria’s Rifles(4), at 56 Davies Street, Mayfair(5). The 1st Battalion was at full complement within 48 hours of war being declared on 4 August 1914 and the 2nd Battalion, to which Harry was assigned, only days later. For the first two weeks the 1,065 men of the 2nd Battalion assembled and were kitted out at Davies Street and then divided, according to social rules of the time, into 3 groups: Public School men, civilians with no knowledge of soldiering and men who had previously served with the 1st Battalion. Harry, a warehouseman, would have belonged to the second group. In the next weeks there was drilling in Richmond and other suburban London parks and, when leave was available, Harry would have been able to see his family at 10 May Place, Peckham(6). On 23rd November the 2/9th set out for St John’s Hill Camp near Crowborough where it underwent strenuous training until the spring of 1915. According to regimental records, the people of Crowborough “set apart recreation rooms for them, allowed them the use of their bathrooms and in a hundred and one ways showed their gratitude to the boys who had come forth to fight in defence of King and country.”(7) Ninety years later, the Station Commander of RAF Wittering would ban Air Force personnel from wearing their uniforms in the town of Peterborough following abuse by sections of the community, while students at University College, London would refuse the military permission to set up recruitment stalls on the College campus.
Among constant but unfulfilled hopes of active service, from the spring of 1915 the 2/9th QVRs marched from Ipswich to Bromeswell Heath, near Woodbridge, back to Ipswich where they stayed in billets until Easter of 1916 and then back again to live under canvas at Bromeswell Heath. Home guard duties were not what the men had hoped for and their marching song, to the tune of “Onward Christian Soldiers” is full of bitter disappointment.
Onward, Queen Victorias
Guarding the railway line
Is this foreign service?
Ain’t it jolly fine?
No we’re not downhearted
Won’t the Huns be sick?
When they meet us over there,
All looking span and spick,
Hope on, Queen Victorias,
Don’t forget the fray,
We shall do our duty
For a bob a day.
Perhaps they were singing this as they later marched to the coast at Alderton on the Suffolk coast, placing outposts in the same Martello towers that were built during the Napoleonic Wars to repel an invasion by Britain’s current allies. One company, according to the CSM, “put barbed wire between the breakwaters, but was careful not to interfere with the bathing parades.” A company commander gave orders to dig trenches in the sea wall, but next day the local authorities objected and the holes had to be filled in again. In July the brigade was moved to hutments at Longbridge Deverill on Salisbury Plain where it completed its musketry course and waited… and waited. Finally, on Saturday 3rd February 1917 Harry and his mates embarked on the SS La Margarita, and with “smooth sea and a lovely moonlight night” crossed the Channel under an escort of two destroyers disembarking at Le Havre in the early hours of Sunday morning. It was not a warm welcome with 25 degrees of frost freezing the bolts in the soldiers’ rifles. The men were also dismayed to witness the long lines of wounded being transferred from Red Cross train to hospital ship as they assembled on the dockside and set off, in marching order, for the rest camp some five miles distant. On 7th February the battalion was moved in a north-easterly direction by rail through Abbeville to Auxi Le Chateau and then marched 17 miles due west to Sus St Leger where they were billeted in barns to their first sound of gunfire. There was now a week of comparative ease, the men sleeping on straw and enjoying warm meals of mutton stew and boiled chestnuts and the occasional comforting Woodbine before, on February 13th, they were bussed to within 4 or 5 miles of the trenches in front of Berles-au-Bois and Bienvillers, which they were to occupy with two battalions of the Staffords. It was bitterly cold with 3 inches of snow on the ground and the men were made to rub whale oil into their feet before marching the last few miles to the trenches. After six relatively quiet days in the line the battalion marched to Grenas. The snow had melted and the rain set in so the men slogged along in a sea of mud. Apart from a rest from the trenches, Grenas also provided the men with their first bath since arriving in France. Over the next weeks Harry and his mates marched to Gaudiempre to Baillement to Wailly until on March 1st they occupied trenches opposite Blairville, relieving the 1/5 West Riding Regiment and suffered their first casualties.
On March 16th the German army began a strategic withdrawal and the QVRs occupied the enemy line enjoying the superior comforts of the enemy’s trenches, which were 15 feet deep, paved and drained. At the end of March they were at Agny near Arras and in April at Miraumont and then at Achiet le Petit under canvas, continually moving up and down the line, working on roads, training, digging trenches.
In May the battalion was in the front line at Bullecourt suffering 123 casualties from shelling and winning four Military Medals before being relieved by the 2/10th London. Harry and his mates retired to Ecoust St Mein where they were accommodated in an extensive network of tunnels and caves beneath the church, a welcome legacy arising from the persecution of the Huguenots in the eighteenth century during the reign of Louis XV. In June they were in Mory, where a large draft awaited to replenish those battalions decimated by casualties.
On July 22nd the 2/9th finally had their own show near Havrincourt Wood, south west of Cambrai, with orders to raid an enemy position at Mow Cop “creeping forward as a formation until discovered, then rushing with bayonet to overpower any resistance.” Nine enemy were killed, ten wounded and two prisoners were taken; Rifleman Lewthwaite of the 2/9th was shot through the lungs and died a few hours after he was carried back to the trenches. Five others were wounded, one severely. A letter from the Brigade Major congratulated the QVR’s Colonel and the men on the success of the raid.
On July 27th the battalion was transported by light rail to Dainville near Arras, where it underwent extensive training until August 24th when it entrained for the Salient, arriving at Brake Camp (or “Dirty Bucket Camp” as it was known) just outside Ypres. Later they moved into dug-outs(8) on the Yser-Ypres canal bank losing 6 killed and 8 wounded on September 5th to a single shell burst. The QVRs had now been drawn into the Third Battle of Ypres, which had begun on July 31st with the Battles of Pilckem and Langemarck; it would end on November 6th with the capture of the village of Passchendaele and cost the lives of over 300,000 Commonwealth soldiers.
On September 8th, two companies were ordered to capture and hold Jury Farm and establish the line along the Winnipeg-Cemetery-Springfield Road. Things went badly from the outset when12 men of C Company were gassed by a misdirected shell from their own artillery and their commander, Lieutenant Wightwick, and his sergeant were killed in the first minutes of the attack. B Company now came under fire from the mebus (or pill-box) that C Company failed to take and so was forced to retire. The official report contained the usual ghastly balance sheet: 2 officers and 14 other ranks killed (9 by our own gas), 22 wounded. 13 prisoners were taken and 2 enemy killed. Lieutenants McAdam and Spenser-Pryse were both awarded the Military Cross.
Harry’s death warrant came in the form of Order No1 of 24th September signed by the Battalion Adjutant, Captain Harrington, instructing the 2/9th to capture and hold a section of the enemy line located about two and half miles north of Polygon Wood, from which the battle was to take its name. A brigade of the 59th Division would attack on the QVR’s right; the left was to be protected by a demonstration with dummy figures to draw the enemy’s fire. Each man was to carry 48 hours rations (1lb of biscuit, a tin of bully, a bottle of water and a bottle of tea). Harry was almost certainly armed with a Lee Enfield .303 rifle and18inch bayonet. He would be carrying a couple of Mills bombs and gas mask in his haversack and a bandolier with 170 rounds of ammunition over his shoulder. Around each man’s neck would be 2 metal identity discs, one green the other red, both stamped with the bearer’ name, regimental number, unit and religion. A grim addendum to Order No 1, posted on 25th September and marked “Warning” announced that the word “Retire” was not to be used on any account and that “anyone using this word will be treated as an enemy and shot.”
At 10pm on the 25th the battalion, consisting of approximately 400 men and 14 officers, left its dug-outs in the canal bank at Boesinghe where they had been since the 21st and moved up through Essex Farm and Buffs Road to St Julien. At 5.50 am on the 26th, after a biscuit and a spoonful of rum, the troops moved off from the start line, a tape dotted with numbered luminous discs marking the position of each platoon, pushing forward into a thick mist made worse by the clouds of dust and smoke sent up by the creeping artillery barrage. Orders called for a distance of 100 yards between platoons, 200 yards between companies. The QVR’s objectives were the German lines, which traversed Vale House, Clifton House and Aviatek Farm. Let us not imagine that Harry would be crossing fields of ripening wheat or running through orchards towards enemy defended farmhouses. The farms with their coded names were no more than map references, sections of the enemy’s line to be attacked and taken. The towns, villages, fields and woods of the salient had been pounded into a brown porridge of mud studded with bomb craters and littered with the awful detritus of war. Polygon Wood, as a wood, no longer existed; all that was left of the farmhouses were a few bricks screening enemy pill-boxes. Order was impossible in these conditions and communications difficult. Out of telephone, lamps, flags, pigeons, dogs and runner, the last named was still considered by Lieut. Spenser-Pryse to be “the most reliable (form of communication) since the battle of Marathon in 490BC. On the 26th our dogs simply ran round in circles or failed to start; the pigeons were not bad but would not fly after dark.” The attack, met with heavy machine gun and sniper fire, soon bogged down in shell holes short of the enemy line and the QVRs began to take heavy casualties(9). “At 6am, Lieut. John Marshall disappeared into the fog at the head of his platoon. Two platoons of D Company also vanished into the mist and were not seen again”.
Harry may have been in one of those lost platoons; in any event his body was never found. He is remembered on Panel 151 at Tyne Cot(10) cemetery along with the other 34,927 Commonwealth soldiers with no known grave. Harry died at a time when our families (the Lynns, the Maynes and the Roberts) were closer than they would ever be again; my mother, thirteen at the time, was probably very affected by her elder cousin’s death.
Rifleman No 393345 Harry William Mayne of Queen Victoria’s Rifles, killed in action 27th September 1917.
- Harry’s grandfather
- The first day of the Battle of the Somme. 801 men of the Newfoundland Regiment left the trenches; the next day only 69 answered roll call
- This is really the story of the 2/9th Queen Victoria’s Rifles. Harry originally enlisted as Rifleman No 5244 (date unknown) in the 11th London Regiment (“Finsbury Rifles”) and was later transferred to the QVRs probably in June when the QVRs were at Mory
- Davies Street runs from Oxford Street to Berkeley Square. No 56 is situated on the corner of St Anselm’s Place
- May Place, Peckham no longer exists
- All quotations from “History and Records of Queen Victoria’s Rifles 1792-1922” A C Keeson
- “Cubby Holes” in soldiers parlance; still used in our family in the 1950s to describe storage space under the stairs at our house in Petts Wood
- 5 out of the 14 officers and 73 out of the 400 other ranks were killed in the battle. The number of wounded is not recorded
- Tyne Cot so called after the Northumberland Fusiliers compared enemy pill-boxes to Tyneside workers cottages. The cemetery also contains the graves of 11,908 Commonwealth soldiers of which 70% are unknown. It is the largest war cemetery in the world
- Harry’s younger brothers George (17 years old in 1914) and Fred (21years old in 1914) both enlisted and returned safely from the war
One thought on “AT HIS COUNTRY’S CALL”
Like all your other articles, I thoroughly enjoyed reading AT HIS COUNTRY’S CALL and am amazed at how well you researched and pieced together your uncle’s history in the 1st W.W.
Just by coincidence I happen to be reading “THE GREAT WAR and Modern Memory” by Paul Fussell and can’t agree with you more about how sad it is in hindsight that we didn’t pose the right questions and show more curiosity when the responses were so easily available to us.
On the other hand it must be extremely difficult for those who have fought and lived through the traumatic experiences of war to articulate and share their feelings with those who weren’t there fighting alongside them. I think I can understand now why my father was so reluctant to talk about his 4 years in the 2nd W.W. fighting in the desert and in Italy but I thank my lucky stars he did, otherwise he wouldn’t have met and married a lovely Italian woman and I wouldn’t be living in Italy married to a lovely Italian man or have met you and Cristina!
Keep them coming, John…..your writing gives us a lot to think about and much pleasure.
love, Diana & Sergio