Continuing stories from the family history of my friend, Heidi Mellings; this time, some short stories about loss in World War 1. I imagine more or less every family in the country suffered loss in World War 1 so these stories are not unusual, but that doesn’t make them any less poignant.
Douglas Charles Earle Marsh
Douglas was the nephew of Heidi’s great-great-grandmother, Mary Marsh. He was born on 19 May 1898 and educated at Lockers Park Prep School, then Winchester College from 1911 to 1916. On leaving school, with war having broken out, Douglas volunteered for the Army and enrolled at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst the month after leaving school, August 1916. He was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in the 6th Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers) on 30th April 1917.
Initially posted to the Reserve Cavalry base at Tidworth Barracks in Wiltshire, he was posted to France in February 1918, just prior to the German’s final throw of the dice to win the war on the Western Front with their massive Spring offensive.
The Germans launched their offensive on 21st March, devastating the Allied front and reserve lines with the biggest artillery barrage of the war, firing and astounding 1.1 million shells in 5 hours! The centre of the Allied position collapsed. They lost almost 20 thousand casualties on the first day and within two days were in full retreat. Desperately, the Allied commanders sought to stem the rout and threw every available unit they could find into the line to counter the German advance.
By the 31st March the German advance was slowing but the situation was still desperate. That day, Douglas’ cavalry regiment was pushed up into the line in front of Amiens, dismounted and acting as infantry, to try and counter-attack the German units in positions south east of the city.
I tracked down the Regimental Diary for the 6th Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers) and will let it take up the story…
“The dismounted portion of the regiment spent the night in position just south of the THIENNES-HOURGES road. The Gd (Guard) horses were taken back to Bois l’ABBE. At 5am orders were received that the 2nd Cav. Div. would attack and retake the wood (Moreuil Wood) 600 yards south of HOURGES and high ground on NE side of main ROYE road. The 3rd Hussars and Oxford Hussars were the first wave and captured the high ground. The 5th Bde (Brigade) were 2nd wave and captured the northern edge of the wood. The Canadian Bde were the 3rd wave and captured whole of wood and occupied the eastern edge. The Carabiniers were to move up when Canadian Bde had gained their objective and relieve them. The preliminary bombardment started at 8.52am and ceased 9am. The waves advanced as ordered and took all their objectives. The Carabiniers entered the wood at 11am and relieved the Canadian Bde. Owing to the thickness of the undergrowth it took some time to get all Squadrons into their…
…positions. By about 2pm the regiment was concentrated and holding the eastern edge of wood. About 2.30pm the enemy opened a heavy bombardment on the wood inflicting some casualties on the regiments. One squadron of the Oxford Hussars were on the left of regiment and the 6th Dragoons on the right. About 6.30pm one Squadron of the 7th Dragoon Guards relieved “A” Sqdn and later another Squadron relieved “B”
and “C” Sqdns who were pretty reduced in numbers. “C” Sqdn was withdrawn by orders of General Seely into reserve in HOURGES village. The remainder of the regiment moved over to the southern edge of the wood and relieved one Squadron of the Royal Scots Greys. Here it was much quieter and no casualties were suffered. The regiment remained in these positions until relieved by infantry tomorrow morning. Estimated casualties 60 all ranks. Strength of regiment in morning about 110 all ranks.”
Note: the official strength of the regiment was just under 500 officers and men, and by this date they were down to 110.
One of those casualties was 2nd Lt. Douglas Marsh. He was evacuated via the nearest Casualty Clearing Station to No.8 General Hospital at Rouen where a week later he died of his wounds on 8th April 1918, aged 19.
Hugh was a nephew of another of Heidi’s great-great-grandmothers, Eliza Pater. He was born on 28th April 1888, educated at Bow Durham prep school, Rossall public school, then the University of London and subsequently became a schoolmaster at Durham Cathedral Choir School.
A week after Kitchener’s famous appeal for volunteers just after the outbreak of war, Hugh volunteered and was enlisted into the Royal Fusiliers as a private on 3rd Sept. 1914. He joined one of the “Public Schools Battalions”, one of four battalions all recruited from former public school boys.
Following the dire losses in the British Army in 1914 and early 1915, “young gentlemen” from the Public Schools Battalions were encouraged to apply for commissions to fill the officer ranks. Hugh must have been one such because less than a year after joining up he was gazetted as 2nd Lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion Prince of Wales’ Own (West Yorkshire Regiment) on 15th June 1915. The 3rd Battalion of the West Yorkshires was a training battalion based in England and, for many, this would have been a most desirable “cushy” home posting, seeing out the rest of the war training those who were off to the Western Front. Evidently, this wasn’t what Hugh Pater wanted and a year later, August 1916, he put in for a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps, the air arm of the British Army.
Manned, powered flight had only been achieved by the Wright brothers for the first time in history less than 13 years earlier and the armies of Europe were already fighting in aircraft in the skies over the Western Front.
Hugh was sent for pilot training with 37 (Reserve) Squadron at Scampton Camp in Lincolnshire (later, in World War II, the home of the famous 617 Squadron, the Dam Busters). RFC training was often sketchy – inadequate training aircraft and too few solo flying hours allowed for recruits. With the demand for pilots on the Western Front increasing, corners were inevitably cut. On top of this, the aircraft technology was primitive and unreliable. More RFC casualties occurred in training through crashes than in battle on the Western Front and once a pilot qualified and joined an operational squadron the life expectancy for new pilots was less than six weeks.
However, on 14th April 1917 Hugh Pater qualified and received his pilot’s certificate. Tragically, however, Hugh would not make it to an operational squadron.
On 17th April 1917, just three days after obtaining his own pilot’s certificate, Hugh was acting as an observer in an RE8, piloted by 2nd Lt John Manley.
Forward visibility for the aircrew when the aircraft was on the ground was virtually nil due to the angle at which the machine sat. The mechanic assigned to the aircraft on take-off failed to inform the pilot that there was another aircraft, an Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8, crossing their path. Accelerating for take-off, Manley flew the RE8 straight into the FK8, destroying both aircraft and killing Hugh Pater. Manley was injured in the crash but the pilot of the other aircraft, Lt. George Clarke, escaped unhurt.
It was, a week before Hugh Pater’s 31st birthday.
As a footnote, Manley would be killed in France five months later. Clarke survived the war and was awarded the Air Force Cross.