Friday, March 12, 2021

Hammy is dead

‘As bad a thing happened this morning as ever could happen. Hammy is dead, and we lose a splendid soldier and I a very good friend. [. . .] One bullet hit him in the forehead, and he died almost immediately. He never spoke or opened his eyes.’ This is from the war diary kept by young Billy Congreve, born 130 years ago today. He quickly rose to the rank of brigade-major, was Mentioned in Dispatches, earned a DSO but was then killed in action aged by 25. So bravely had he fought, though, that he was soon awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.

William La Touche ‘Billy’ Congreve was born on 12 March 1891 at Burton Hall, Cheshire. He went to Summerfelds School in Oxford and then Eton, before attending a crammer in London and, finally, joining the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in 1909. In 1911, he obtained a commission in the 2nd Light Rifle Brigade and, in the same year, was posted to the 3rd Battalion of the Rifle Brigade in Tipperary where he spent three years. By early 1913 he had been promoted to lieutenant. With the outbreak of the war, his battalion was sent to France where he was appointed to the staff position of Aide de Camp to major-general Hubert Hamilton. In the summer of 1915, he was made a captain.

That autumn, Congreve’s 3rd Division was involved in the huge operation around Hooge which failed badly and resulted in great loss of life. Nevertheless, for his actions, he was awarded the Military Cross. Further promotion followed, to brigade-major to the 76th Brigade, and further honours. In February 1916, he was awarded the Legion of Honour Croix de Chevalier, in May the DSO, and in June he was Mentioned in Despatches. Also in June, he returned to Britain on leave and married his long-time girlfriend Pamela Cynthia Maude before returning to the front line. A few weeks later, in July, he was killed by a sniper. But for his many acts of gallantry he was awarded the highest honour of all, a (posthumous) Victoria Cross. Further information is available at Wikipedia, Nestonpast and VC online.

Congreve kept a detailed diary for much of his war service, though in the months before his death the entries had become rather scanty. It was edited by Terry Norman and first published by William Kimber in 1982 as Armageddon Road: A VC’s Diary, 1914-1916. More recently, in 2014, it was republished by Pen & Sword Military with a foreword by Nigel Cave. Several pages can be previewed at Googlebooks or Amazon.

In his foreword Cave provides this overview: ‘The diary provides a fascinating mixture of material, revealing his close and affectionate family life, his heart felt reaction to the loss of friends, his almost forensic analysis of many of the actions in which he was involved - accompanied, in many cases, by very fine sketch maps, critiques of some of the commanders, battalions and formations, his sense of humour and an insight into a young officer who in rather less than two years served as an ADC to several divisional commanders, was a G Ops staff officer and finally, the job that he prized above all the others, that of a brigade major. He provides a useful commentary from one who was more “in the know” than most other officers, supplemented by close contact with his father who was, in the same time period, General Officer Commanding a brigade.’

Here are several extracts from the first months of the war.

4 September 1914
‘Still waiting. A week ago tomorrow we were shifted from Cambridge to here - Newmarket - as being a better camping place and where we eventually entrain if we ever do.

Much has happened on the Continent; the result being that the Germans are within thirty miles of Paris. We heard from the 1st Battalion that they have had a bad time of it. They were hurried up to the front (near Mons), slept the night in a wet cornfield and, at 6 p.m., were engaged. All morning they were marching, countermarching and fighting and, at 5 p.m., found themselves divided into two halves. One half of the battalion took up a position in a sunken road under heavy shrapnel and machine-gun fire. At 5.30 there was a council of war held by Sam Rickman to all officers and company sergeants. There were three possible things they could do: 1. To surrender; 2. To die where they were; 3. To try and get back.

They naturally decided on the latter course. Leaving everything but rifles and swords, they went across three-quarters of a mile of fire-swept ground, but lost heavily. Sam is believed to have a mortal stomach wound. Coryton, Lane and de Moleyns were also hit - of course none of them knew where the other half of the battalion had got to. So far we have no other news of them and nothing has come out in the newspapers.

Cis, John and Maggie turned up at Cambridge for the weekend and good it was to see them. Cis is off on Red Cross work to Belgium this week. I have kept John and he is living in my bivouac - as happy as the day is long. He comes out with ‘Wumps’ on our field days. Godders takes him on the machine-gun limber, and everyone spoils him.’

13 September 1914
‘We were kept on board till yesterday morning, when we went in and disembarked, a longish job, as the quay was a long way below us. I and others made several journeys into town and laid in vast stores of eatables. Many times was I asked for my silver cap badge as a souvenir. There were a lot of our wounded in the town. I saw Musters of the 60th who was hit in the chest by a shrapnel bullet. Luckily for him, it hit a bone and glanced off. He was in the retreat and never saw a German the whole time. The marching, he said, was awful: twenty-five miles a day and in very hot weather. About 4.30 we started to entrain in pouring rain.

I managed to sleep all right last night, and about 6 a.m. we reached Tours where we had breakfast. I ran up and got some boiling water out of the engine and made some chocolate for Godders and I - jolly good it was. All day we have been rolling along. About 5.30 this evening, we passed Paris.

All the way up we have seen French soldiers in their blue coats and red trousers, and at the halts we had great talks with them. They seem very intelligent fellows and I take it were all reserves of some type. It was amusing to see the scramble for the train when it suddenly started. Luckily it was so cumbersome a show that one could let it go for a hundred yards and still catch it. Everywhere we were given apples and cigarettes by the people. The country was pretty at first and it was hard to believe war even existed, except that one saw sentries everywhere guarding the line. There was a constant demand for souvenirs and a lot of men are now minus their cap badges.’

1 October 1914
‘What might have been a rather serious accident took place yesterday afternoon. The Norwegian minister in Paris got leave from GHQ to come over here and to be shown round. Instead of coming to us to ask his way, he must needs go off on his own, apparently thinking that he could drive his car right up to the trenches. He went up through Brenelle to carry out this plan and set off across the plateau towards the river. He was half-way over when the Germans spotted the car and opened on it with ‘crumps’.

The first shell made the chauffeur pull up! They began to try to turn the car, and that was as far as they got, for ‘crumps’ began to arrive in quantities and they fled to the shelter of some neighbouring haystacks, leaving the car to its fate. They saw the chauffeur get hit as he was getting out of the car; whether he was killed or not they did not know. Eventually and with great good fortune they got back to General Wing’s HQ unhurt, but covered with mud and dust and bits of haystack. The Royal Artillery sent them on down here and the Duke of Marlborough (who is doing King’s Messenger) happening to be with us, took them back in his car.

The minister, a fat middle-aged gentleman, was awfully pleased with himself, but was scared lest it should get into the papers, in which case the Germans would say that Norway had broken her neutrality! We calmed his fears, picked straw and mud out of his hair, and sent him off to GHQ with his two ADC’s and the Duke, after we had given them tea.

I then took a car and two chauffeurs up to see what I could do to their car, expecting to find it smashed to pieces. We waited till dusk and then walked out to it. The car was intact, but the chauffeur dead, and every piece of glass in the car was smashed to atoms - big, strong plate glass. It was a lovely brand-new Panhard limousine, and beyond the glass, a few bits off the paint and a small hole in the petrol tank, there was no great damage which, considering the number of ‘crump’ holes around it, was a marvel. Inside the car was a good mixture of glass and mud which we cleared out and, while the hole in the tank was being mended, I finished off the old boy’s luncheon basket - chicken there was, and great fat pears, also a huge supply of cigarettes and tobacco for the men in the trenches! There were also heaps of matches. Before he left, the ‘minister’ said that I might keep all this ‘pour les braves soldats’, so I did so, and sent the car on to GHQ under the second chauffeur, who shed tears.’

14 October 1914
‘As bad a thing happened this morning as ever could happen. Hammy is dead, and we lose a splendid soldier and I a very good friend. He and Thorpe were out to the north of Vieille Chapelle; he had gone to see personally why our left wing was hung up. They were dismounted and standing on the road when a salvo of shrapnel burst right over them. One bullet hit him in the forehead, and he died almost immediately. He never spoke or opened his eyes. There were several other officers there besides Thorpe, yet nobody else was hit.

We brought his body back here tonight in a motor ambulance. We had to wait till night, as the road was still being shelled. During the day I had a rough coffin made and a grave dug under the walls of the old church here. At 7.15 p.m., when the ambulance arrived, we put him into it just as he was, wrapped in a blanket. I had to take the spurs off his poor feet though, as they would not fit, and then we nailed on the lid. I then put a guard around him with fixed bayonets and left him.

At 8.30 we all assembled. There was a representative from each unit and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien turned up also. Poor Lindsay, Hammy’s servant, kept breaking down. It was a pitch-dark night and had been raining hard all day, so there was mud everywhere and a cold wet ‘feel’ in the air. The rifle and machine-gun fire was very heavy, and it sounded but a few yards away, so loud was it and so still the night. Stray bullets now and then knocked up against the church and gravestones, but somehow nobody bothered about them.

Just before the chaplain arrived the firing almost ceased, but while the short service was being read it commenced again, louder and nearer than ever, so loud indeed that the chaplain’s voice could hardly be heard.

The scene was the strangest and most beautiful I have ever seen. The poor church battered by shells, the rough wooden coffin with a pewter plate nailed on the lid on which we had stamped his name, a rough cross of flowers made by the men, the small guard with fixed bayonets and the group of twenty or thirty bareheaded officers and men. Above all, the incessant noise, so close, sometimes dying down only to seem to redouble itself a few minutes later. A ghastly sort of light was given by a couple of acetylene lamps from a car. It was soon over, and then each officer and man stood for a moment by the grave, saluted, and went back to his work. 

Sir Horace, in that rather wonderful voice of his, said: ‘Indeed, a true soldier’s grave. God rest his soul.’ Nobody else spoke. I wanted to cry. I stayed and saw the filling in of the grave, and now I must see to putting up a cross.’

No comments: