Saturday, 22 March 2014

Shades of the Great War are all around us (3): Major Reginald Elliott (1874-1914)

Exmouth War Memorial, where Reginald Elliott's name is listed

There was clearly a strong military tradition in the Elliott family. Of Reginald's two brothers, Thomas Gosselin, four years older than him, had joined the South Cork Light Infantry Militia. Another brother, Charles Allen Elliott (1871-1919), seen below, would end a distinguished career in the Royal Engineers with the rank of Brigadier-General and be awarded the CMG and DSO. 


For some time, according to his death notice in the London Gazette,  Charles Allen Elliott had lived with his father at Alexandra Terrace in Exmouth.  However he spent much of his military career in the East, serving as a Field Engineer in the Tibet Expedition of 1903-4. This was when British Indian forces under the command of Brigadier-General James Macdonald, invaded the country, supposedly to counter Russian ambitions in the area.  Both Gurkha and Sikh soldiers were involved in the expedition, capturing the massive fortress of Gyantse and finally marching on Lhasa, the Tibetan capital.  A total of 107 officers received the Tibet Medal with clasp for Gyantse, including the young Captain Charles Elliott.

The Conquest of Tibet: British officers discuss terms with Tibetans
Illustration from the Petit Journal newspaper of 14 February 1904

But it was an unhappy episode in British military history, with poorly armed Tibetan troops being mown down by superior firepower. The encounter between the two sides, on 31 March 1904, became known as the massacre of Chumik Shenko. It left between 600 and 700 Tibetans dead and 168 wounded. "I got so sick of the slaughter that I ceased fire, though the general’s order was to make as big a bag as possible," wrote a fellow-officer, Lieutenant Arthur Hadow, commander of the Maxim guns detachment. "I hope I shall never again have to shoot down men walking away."

A dozen years later, as Lieutenant-Colonel Hadow, Commanding Officer of the Newfoundland Regiment, he would witness a similar massacre. On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the Regiment was wiped out by enemy fire. Of its 780 men who went forward only about 110 survived unscathed - a casualty rate of approximately 90 percent.

Brigadier-General Elliott’s widow seems to have remained in India after her husband’s death in 1919. Their only child, Sidney Mary Elliott, married another army officer, Henry Gordon Strange Lumsden (d. 1969), of the Royal Scots.  Her husband, known as Harry, was the son of Henry Richmond William Lumsden, a Colonel in the Bengal Staff Corps.

The couple’s engagement was announced in The Times of 14 July 1932, and the wedding took place at Quetta.  Their son, David Lumsden, born the following year, was a well-known figure in Scottish Jacobite circles; described variously as a castle restorer, businessman and herald, he was the last of the family to hold the title of Baron of Cushnie. He died on 30 August 2008.


Crossed kukris: a feature of Gurkha regimental badges

Reginald Elliott followed his brothers into the military, joining a Gurkha regiment. Almost all his career was spent in India - 21 years in total.

Gurkha soldiers from the Kingdom of Nepal had fought for the British since the early 19th century. During the Indian Mutiny of 1857, Gurkhas fought on the British side, and became part of the British Indian Army on its formation.

Gurkha soldiers in 1896

Reginald’s career with the regiment coincided with an increase in numbers when fresh battalions were raised for the British Indian Army. Between 1901 and 1906, the Gurkha regiments were renumbered from the 1st to the 10th and re-designated as the Gurkha Rifles, a rifle regiment of two regular battalions.The Brigade of Gurkhas, as the regiments came to be collectively known, was expanded to twenty battalions within the ten regiments.

The 7th Gurkha Rifles came into being in 1907, after a complicated process of reorganisation. The Regiment had the distinction of being one of only two out of the ten Gurkha regiments to recruit its soldiers from the towns and villages which lie along the rugged foothills of the Himalayas east of Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. Gurkha officers and soldiers have come predominantly from the Rai and Limbu clans but the roll records many names from the smaller Sunwar, Tamang and eastern Gurung clans as well as men from the Sherpa families of mountaineering fame.

By this time, Reginald was a father, his son Robert Allen Elliott having been born the previous year in 1906. It was in the 7th Gurkha Rifles Regiment that Captain Elliott’s promotion to Major was announced by the London Gazette with effect from 28 January 1911.  He may then have served in the Middle East: the 1st Battalion 7th Gurkha Rifles was posted around this time to Quetta and Robat, on the Persian frontier.


 A contemporary painting depicting—rather sensationally—the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie

Image credit:

The assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914 is famous as the event which precipitated the outbreak of the Great War. It was that fateful year that Reginald and May had chosen to return to England on 12 months’ leave from India.

Following Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on 4 August 1914, the first members of the British Expeditionary Force landed in France.  The Battle of the Marne (5-12 September) resulted in a victory for French and British forces, halting the German advance on Paris and forcing the enemy to retreat north-east.  The Allies’ pursuit ended at the indecisive First Battle of the Aisne (13-28 September). A further stalemate occurred in what became known as the Race to the Sea, a series of reciprocal attacks between 17 September and 19 October.  Both sides were beginning to dig in to defensive positions. The weather, meanwhile, had turned unusually wet, making conditions intolerably difficult.


'India’s fighting men in action  A Gurkha charge which the Germans could not face' is the caption for this illustration in The Graphic of 5 December 1914.  It's described as drawn by J.Dodworth from the description by an Officer of the 2nd Gurkhas

The importance of securing the English Channel ports of Calais and Boulogne led to the first battle of Ypres in Western Belgium, which took place between 19 October and 22 November.  Although the result was a victory for the allied forces of France, Belgium and Britain, losses on both sides were heavy.
The fighting spirit of the Gurkhas was undiminished. There’s clearly a propaganda element in this 1914 depiction by The Graphic magazine However the words of one of their officers are worth quoting. “The men were eager to get to close quarters. They were hard to restrain”, wrote Sabidar Khurk Sing Rana, hinting at the way in which his men were looking forward to using their kukris.

“We charged at nine o’clock in the morning and the enemy came out of their trenches to meet us.  But we never reached them. We came to about twenty yards of them when they turned and ran. Many died. They were shot in the back. We were disappointed.” 

On the other hand the Germans were quick to use the presence of Gurkhas to their advantage.  “Difficulty in ascertaining which trenches were occupied by enemy as enemy called out 'We are Gurkhas' & it was impossible to see in the dark,” noted a Bedford Regiment diarist for 30-31 October. 

In many areas the enemy was fighting hard.  At the end of October reinforcements were ordered to reinforce Indian troops east of the village of Festubert, eight kilometres east of Bethune. Reginald was attached to the 8th Gurkhas whose trenches had been partly occupied by the enemy after being driven out.

Indian troops in general were prominent in the action. Darwan Singh Negi was among the earliest Indian recipients of the Victoria Cross.  A Naik - equivalent of a Corporal - in the 1st Battalion, 39th Garhwal Rifles, he was noted “for conspicuous bravery” as described by the London Gazette of 4 December, 1914. The citation read: “For great gallantry on the night of the 23rd-24th November, near Festubert, France, when the regiment was engaged in retaking and clearing the enemy out of our trenches, and, although wounded in two places in the head, and also in the arm, being one of the first to push round each successive traverse, in the face of severe fire from bombs and rifles at the closest range.”


Image credit: Commonwealth War Graves Commission

It was during the engagement known as the Defence of Festubert, on 23 November, that Reginald lost his life. He is buried in the Town Cemetery at Bethune, in the Pas de Calais area of France. The Cemetery, shown above, contains 3,004 Commonwealth burials of the First World War,11 being unidentified. 


Photo credit: Irish War Memorials website
Reginald Elliott is also remembered in Ireland.  His full name is given on the Great War Memorial in Leighlinbridge Memorial Garden in Co. Carlow.  Inside the memorial structure are stone panels on which the names of the fallen are carved.


Photo credit: De Ruvigny's Roll of Honour
Another casualty on the same day was Lieutenant Duncan Macpherson, seen above. A fellow-officer in the same regiment as Reginald, he had been attached to the 8th Gurkha Rifles and was noted as killed in action “when commanding the advanced company in a successful counter-attack for the recovery of trenches which had been lost.” Aged 25 he was the only child of  Brigadier-General William Macpherson of the Army Medical Service Staff, an Advisor attached to the Indian Corps. His father had apparently spoken with him only a few hours previously. The death was described by a friend as the greatest sorrow of William Macpherson's life. “He would not discuss the issue ever afterwards.”


This photograph of the ruined battlefield near Festubert was taken in the spring of 1919. The Canadians fought at Festubert in May 1915, but no official photographers accompanied them to the front. The ground in the photo still shows the scars from the heavy fighting, four years after the battle.
Photo credit: Canadian War Museum


The Defence of Festubert, not to be confused with the 1915 action,  is notable for being one of the first actions in the war in which an attack was made against a prepared defensive position, thus foreshadowing the years of trench warfare which were to come. 

Reginald’s father Nicholas Gosselin Elliott would die two years later. The news of his son’s death must have come as a bitter blow.  As for Reginald’s wife, May, she was left a widow at the age of 35 with their eight-year-old son Robert to bring up on her own.  In 1915 she became a Matron at Lambrook Prep School, then an all boys’ boarding school in the Berkshire countryside.  She remained in this post for eight years.

By the time she moved to our house in Budleigh Salterton, in 1932, Robert - known to the family as Bob -  was a young man.  He had followed in his father’s footsteps, first by going to school at Cheltenham College, but as a boarder, before embarking on an army career. After training at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich,  he served with the Royal Artillery.   In 1932 he was in Jullundur in the NW Indian state of Punjab, followed by a spell in Lahore - in modern-day Pakistan -  until 1936.

In that year he strengthened the family’s Devon connections by marrying Beryl Mary Tanqueray (1910-1995) in St Giles’ Church, Sidbury. His bride's great-grandfather Charles Tanqueray (1810-1868) had founded the gin company. 

East Budleigh's All Saints' Church

 Both her parents were associated with East Budleigh. Her father Charles Henry Drought Tanqueray (1875-1928) was born in the village and had married Stella Mary Green (1877-1963), daughter of the vicar of All Saints' Church, the Rev William Frederick Green.  

Bob went on to have a distinguished military career, reaching the rank of Brigadier. He died in 1962.  As for Beryl, she started the Otterton wolf cub and scout pack, and continued to own a flat in Budleigh Salterton until the 1990s.  She is buried in East Budleigh churchyard, in the grave that you see here, alongside her parents and her brother Henry Aubrey Tanqueray 

So there's a strong link to the Lower Otter Valley after all!


May Elliott never remarried. On 24 May 1945 she sold the lease on our house and moved. Where, I wonder. Possibly not far, for the announcement of her death on 9 May 1969 in the London Gazette lists her as a widow, living at Lyncroft, the house shown above at 3 Knowle Village, just a few minutes' walk from where we live.

I see that the house is now called Karacroft and is on the market with estate agents Palmers, Whitton and Laing

It’s been a longish and rather roundabout route from Southern Ireland to this corner of Devon, via battlefields from Tibet and the Indian sub-continent to Northern France. My research has taken up more time than I’d anticipated. Somehow this little tribute seems only right when I think of the footsteps and the voices of those people from the past who lived within our walls, and who suffered during those terrible times of war, in a way that we and our own children never will - we hope.  

‘The Great War at Fairlynch’ 2015 exhibition at Budleigh Salterton’s very special museum! Reviews included: “Wonderful display on WW1, informative, bright and relevant. Well done!! 

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