Most Conspicuous Bravery

Pic 1. Boys of Eton’s Officer Training Corps at drill, 1915.
Boys of Eton’s Officer Training Corps at drill, 1915.

Yesterday, 11 November, was Armistice Day, which is commemorated every year to mark the cessation of hostilities between Germany and the World War I Allies on the Western Front. The Armistice took effect at eleven o’clock in the morning – the ‘eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month’ of 1918.

Tim Koch writes:

A rather crass summary of my recent post on the boys from Eton College’s 1914 Procession of Boats, who were killed in the First World War, is that, while 13 percent of those from all backgrounds who served in the conflict died, the figure was 20 percent for those who went to fee-paying schools, 37 percent for those that took part in Eton’s last Procession before the War and 66 percent for those Etonians who rowed in the 1914 3rd Eight.

In response to the Tweet about this post on @boatsing, Adam Pearson (@Jabwockker) put up the picture reproduced below taken during the 2015 Procession of Boats. It shows the 2015 3rd Eight in the boat Britannia with only three boys standing. Those seated represent the six members of the 1914 crew who were killed during the 1914-1918 War.

Pic 2. The 2015 3rd VIII pay tribute to their 1914 predecessors.
The 2015 3rd VIII pay tribute to their 1914 predecessors.

Following Adam’s post, I decided to look for more details on those six boys on the excellent Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) website. The brief details that the site gave put a human face to the percentages that I have given above.

Bow: Thomas Vicars Hunter, Captain, Royal Flying Corps. Died 5 December 1917, age 20. Buried: Carmignano di Brenta Communal Cemetary, Veneto, Italy. Son of Henry Charles Vicars Hunter, J.P. and the Hon. Mrs. Hunter, of Abermarlais Park, Llangadock, Carmarthenshire.

No. 2: George Clayton Armstrong, Second Lieutenant, Coldstream Guards. Died 20 January 1915, aged 18. No known grave, commemorated on Le Touret Memorial, France. Son of Commander Sir George Armstrong, Bart., R.N., and Lady Armstrong, of Winloed, Pangbourne, Berks.

Pic 3. A company of the Public Schools Battalion (16th Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment) prior to the Battle of the Somme, 1916.
A company of the Public Schools Battalion (16th Battalion, The Middlesex Regiment) prior to the Battle of the Somme, 1916.

No. 3: Julian Royds Gribble, Captain, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Died 25 November 1918, aged 21. Buried: Niederzwehren Cemetery, Kassel, Germany. Son of George James Gribble and Norah Gribble (née Royds), of Kingston Russell House, Dorset.

No. 5: Raymond Peake, Lieutenant, Coldstream Guards. Died 30 September 1916, aged 20. Buried: Grove Town Cemetary, Méaulte, Somme, France. Son of Major George Herbert and Evelyn Mary Peake, of The Hall, Bawtry, Doncaster.

Pic 4. Trench warfare: ‘Months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror’.
Trench warfare: ‘Months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror’.

No. 7: George Robert Marmaduke Stanbury Taylor, Lieutenant, Royal Field Artillery. Entered Trinity College, Cambridge, June 1914. Died in a gas attack at Passchendaele on 30 September 1917, aged 22. Buried: Mendinghem Military Cemetary, Flanders, Belgium. Son of Robert Wright Taylor and Clara Louisa Taylor, of Baysgarth Park, Barton-on-Humber, Hull.

Cox: Geoffrey Vesey Holt, Second Lieutenant, Royal Field Artillery. Died 2 September 1917, aged 19 at Passchendaele. Buried: Bard Cottage Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium. Son of Sir Vesey Holt, of Mount Mascal, Bexley, Kent.

Pic 5. Passchendaele (The Third Battle of Ypres).
Passchendaele (The Third Battle of Ypres).

Following my search on the CWGC site, I then looked on the Internet for more details on those six boys from Eton’s 1914 3rd Eight that did not survive the war. I found information on only two – but they are both very remarkable stories.

Pic 6. Thomas Vicars Hunter
Thomas Vicars Hunter

The bowman, Thomas Vicars Hunter, left Eton on the outbreak of the War in August 1914 to attend officer training and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade in December 1914. In January 1915, he broke his leg in a motorcycle accident, developed sepsis in hospital, and in July had to have his leg amputated above the knee. He was fitted with a prosthesis, from which he derived the nickname ‘Sticky’.

Hunter was passed ‘fit for home service’ in September 1916, but he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in February 1917. He was the first known disabled person to qualify as a military pilot and fly in combat. He was posted to No. 66 Squadron RFC for front-line service in France in June 1917 and gained five aerial victories in the five months to November 1917. No. 66 Squadron was then reassigned to the Italian Front. On 5 December 1917 Hunter took a flight out on its first combat patrol, collided with one of the other aircraft during a turn and was killed in the subsequent crash. Following his amputation, he could have quite legitimately remained safety in Britain for the duration of the war – but he chose not to.

Pic 7. Julian Royds Gribble
Julian Royds Gribble

The ‘3’ man in the 1914 3rd Eight, Julian Royds Gribble, was to become one of the thirteen Etonians who, between 1914 and 1918, was awarded Britain’s highest award for valour in the face of the enemy, the Victoria Cross, he ‘for most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty’. The action for which he won it was at Beaumetz in France on the 23 March 1918, during the colossal German Spring Offensive launched two days earlier. It initially resulted in spectacular German successes but failed to achieve the outright breakthrough, partly because they were slowed by the innumerable defiant actions of outnumbered British army troops. Gribble led one of these actions.

My writing on Julian Gribble relies heavily on two sources. One is extracts from “One Soldier’s Story” by John Medland posted on the Burton Bradstock Online website, and originally printed in the Isle of Wight’s “Newport Beacon”. The other is “Last Man Standing” by Roger C. Coleman posted on the website of the Wessex Branch of the Western Front Association.

Julian Royds Gribble was born into a wealthy and privileged family in London in 1897. He was enrolled at Eton at the age of 13 and grew into a ‘tall, graceful and popular boy, interested in art and music’ who ‘took advantage of every sporting opportunity’. His brother, Philip, remembered that ‘he was a good all-rounder with endless friends’. His mother claimed that he enjoyed the company of ‘any sort of man who had led any sort of real life’. Like Thomas Hunter and many others, Gribble left school on the outbreak of the War in August 1914 for officer training at Sandhurst. In early 1915, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in The Royal Warwickshire Regiment. In April 1916, Gribble was sent to France, survived the Battle of the Somme in July, but in October was sent home with ‘trench fever’, a disease transmitted by body lice. He was back in France by 1917, writing that in the winter, he was always ‘wet up to the middle and never warm or dry’. By now, the 23-year-old was already a battle hardened veteran.

Pic 8. German troops pass an overrun British position during the initially successful phase of their 1918 Spring Offensive, largely an attempt to capture the Channel Ports before the Americans could effectively enter the war. 3455/18
German troops pass an overrun British position during the initially successful phase of their 1918 Spring Offensive, largely an attempt to capture the Channel Ports before the Americans could effectively enter the war.

When the German Spring Offensive began in March 1918, Gribble’s battalion was given orders to hold a strategic ridge at all costs. As the Germans attacked, conflicting orders from a crumbling British command structure resulted in units on Gribble’s flanks undertaking a ‘fighting retreat’. The citation conferring his award of the Victoria Cross takes up the story:

Capt. Gribble was in command of the right company of the battalion when the enemy attacked, and his orders were to ‘hold on to the last.’ His company was eventually entirely isolated, though he could easily have withdrawn them at one period when the rest of the battalion on his left were driven back to a secondary position…..  [He] intimated his determination to hold on until other orders were received from battalion headquarters – and this he inspired his command to accomplish…… By his splendid example of grit, Capt. Gribble was materially instrumental in preventing for some hours the enemy obtaining a complete mastery of the crest of ridge, and by his magnificent self-sacrifice he enabled the remainder of his own brigade to be withdrawn, as well as another garrison and three batteries of field artillery.

Pic 9. The Victoria Cross. Since 1856, 1,355 have been awarded for ‘... most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy’.
The Victoria Cross. Since 1856, 1,355 have been awarded for ‘… most conspicuous bravery, or some daring or pre-eminent act of valour or self-sacrifice, or extreme devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy’.

When only his Company remained holding the top of the ridge and he was the only officer left, Gribble allowed his soldiers to withdraw – but he and six men stayed behind. They became isolated and Gribble was wounded by a bullet to his head and collapsed unconscious. When the Germans finally had control of the ridge, they took the near-dead Captain prisoner.

From “One Soldier’s Story”:

He began to make a good recovery in hospital in Germany but found himself on the losing side in the terrible final months of the war. The Allied blockade of Germany was so effective that the whole country was in a state of starvation. When Julian arrived at the new officer’s prison at Mainz…… he and his fellow inmates suffered six weeks of extreme privation before the first Red Cross parcels arrived. In May, Julian heard that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross……The other officers ….. carried the embarrassed invalid about the barrack square on their shoulders. (He celebrated ‘The Fourth of June’) with four other Etonians ‘with a soup made of a few scraps of lettuce’.

Eight days before the 11 November Armistice, the already weakened Gribble fell ill with ‘Spanish Influenza’, the pandemic that killed more people worldwide than did the war. “One Soldier’s Story” again:

On the morning of November 24th, his fellow prisoners were released and boarded the train home. Julian was left alone in the castle hospital. He died shortly after midnight… The following day the French Army arrived with food and medicine.

Pic 10. In 1923, Julian Gribble’s sister, Vivien, designed this stained glass window in St. Martin’s Church, Preston, Hertfordshire, depicting her brother’s face on a representation of St Martin. The Saint has what appears to be a Victoria Cross on his chest.
In 1923, Julian Gribble’s sister, Vivien, designed this stained glass window in St. Martin’s Church, Preston, Hertfordshire, depicting her brother’s face on a representation of St Martin. The Saint has what appears to be a Victoria Cross on his chest.

Philip Gribble, Julian’s brother, later wrote:

I took my mother to Germany to view my brother’s grave early in 1919……  The ground was covered in snow when we arrived at the cemetery, and my poor mother kneeled at the grave and wept. She scraped away the snow with her bare hands and kissed the ground, gathering earth and leaves in her fingers as if these were part of her son…….

Just before he left the reserve lines to defend the ridge at Beaumetz in March 1918, Julian Gribble had dashed off a letter home. Consciously or not, he wrote his own epitaph:

All I pray to God is to give me strength to lead D Company well – as they deserve. I know mother that in any case you will not grudge to England your youngest son. We have always been cheery so let’s go on being so – thanks to you and Father I have had a happy time in this world as possible, almost.

5 comments

  1. This is a really fascinating article. It perhaps ,if possible ,should be sent to the descendants/families of the Eton crew . I assume Eton School could help find them.
    Tracing them all could be quite difficult.

  2. Thank you for compiling this background on these young men from the VIII who gave their lives in the First World War. They are great examples for our young people of today.

    As someone lucky enough to be a parent of boys in the 2015 procession of boats I have to say this year’s marking of the centenary of the war was the most moving memorial I have ever seen to those who lost their lives in wars. To see those boats, with our sons in them, drifting past with only some of the boys standing, brought home to me very clearly what a loss my predecessors of 100 years before endured.

    It’s was an incredibly moving sight.

    Adam Pearson,

  3. Dear Tim,

    I thought you might be interested to know that one of the men mentioned above, George Robert Marmaduke ‘Stanbury’ Taylor, is still remembered in a museum situated in Baysgarth House Museum, which used to be his family’s summer retreat. The house was given to the people of Barton upon Humber in 1930, and after being used for a variety of purposes became a museum in the 1980s.

    I am the curator at the museum, and as such have access to Stanbury’s letters to his family from the front; next year will see a centenary exhibition to mark 100 years since his death and since the Battle of Passchendaele. As well as looking at Stanbury’s experiences in the War, this exhibition will also examine the family’s home life during peacetime and the children’s upbringing. I’m therefore very grateful to you for bringing the Stanbury’s place in the 1914 3rd Eight to my attention.

    Kindest Regards,

    Philippa Wood
    Heritage Development Officer
    Baysgarth House Museum
    Baysgarth Park
    Barton upon Humber

    • Thank you Philippa. If you come across any references or pictures relating to George’s rowing, perhaps you would share them with Hear The Boat Sing ?

      Best wishes,

      Tim.

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