Saturday, 23 August 2014

One of the first to fall: John Pepys, 23 August 1914

One hundred years ago today, 23 August, the first young officer from the Lower Otter Valley - possibly the first British serviceman from the area - lost his life in the Great War.


John Pepys as seen in The roll of honour. A biographical record of all members of His Majesty's naval and military forces who have fallen in the war (1916) edited by The Marquis de Ruvigny    Image credit:

It would have been used to add colour to an officer’s face so that he wouldn’t have looked pale and scared before leading his men out of the trenches.

That was Jeremy Paxman’s explanation given in BBC One’s documentary ‘Britain’s Great War’, broadcast earlier this year, about a pot of rouge.  The TV presenter and journalist had discovered the item while going through the effects of Captain the Honourable 'Tommy' Agar-Robartes MP, the eldest son and heir of the sixth Viscount Clifden, killed by a German sniper on 30 September 1915.

Paxman’s explanation was ridiculed at the time. It was a pot of jewellers’ rouge that he'd found, pointed out the experts, more likely to have been used for polishing brass.

Yet it’s tempting to imagine the understandable fear felt by young, largely public school-educated members of Britain’s landed gentry as they led their men ‘over the top.’ The likelihood of being mown down by enemy machine-gun fire was one heart-thumping prospect that they faced. Perhaps just as terrifying was the possibility of last-minute nerves, of cowardice in front of their men, of failure to defend family honour.

It’s been long accepted that the young officers of Britain’s elite fought bravely and suffered disproportionately heavy losses during the Great War. It’s no surprise to learn that one of its first victims from the Lower Otter Valley to be killed in action came from this class. 





Second Lieutenant John Pepys was the eldest of four children born to Captain Arthur Pepys and his wife Margaret, née Lomax. His father was a Captain in the King’s Royal Rifles - nicknamed the 60th Rifles - and is recorded in the 1887 census as living in London. By 1891 the parents had moved to Devon, his father having retired from the military. John was born on 7 May 1890, and was brought up at the family home of Knowle House on Dalditch Lane, seen above.




John Pepys in his final school year at Charterhouse.  Photo reproduced by kind permission of the Headmaster and Governors of Charterhouse
He entered Charterhouse School in Surrey in 1904.  Archive records suggest that he was not outstanding at school in either sporting prowess or academic work, and that he was rather overshadowed by his younger brother Francis when it came to sport.  John was certainly an enthusiastic sportsman: he played for the School Cricket 3rd XI, the Hodgsonites House Cricket team and for ‘Maniacs’ (a team that played against local village teams); he also played for the Harpies Football and Cricket teams (the eleven Houses were split between four teams, one of which was Harpies, giving more opportunities for matches) and for his House in the annual inter-house competitions. His recreations were later listed as hunting, steeple-chasing, shooting, fishing, skiing. cricket, and golf. Francis, however, was a better cricketer and had already reached the 1st XI Cricket team before his elder brother John left the School. 

John Pepys, sitting, far left, with the Hodgsonites Cricket Team of 1908.
Photo reproduced by kind permission of the Headmaster and Governors of Charterhouse 

John was placed in the ‘Modern’ or ‘C Forms’ throughout his time at Charterhouse (as was Francis),  which were classes designed for those intended for careers in the Army or business, rather than university,  so there was more emphasis on Maths and Modern Languages and less on Classics to prepare boys for the Sandhurst and Woolwich entrance exams.  On arrival at the School, John was placed in the Upper IV C Form for two terms, but then was moved down a form to Middle IV C for one term before being returned to the Upper IV.  He was promoted to the Remove Modern Form a year later and then to the Under V Modern for his final year.  His annual summer exam results were not spectacular, but he duly gained his place at Sandhurst in autumn 1909.

All three Pepys brothers chose to join the School Rifle Corps - forerunner of the Officers Training Corps (OTC) and the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) and here John excelled, reaching the dizzy rank of Sergeant, whereas his brothers remained as ordinary cadets. He left in 1908 to go on to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and  joined the Second Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry in November 1910. 


A British Vickers machine gun crew photographed by Lt Ernest Brooks
From the collections of the Imperial War Museums © IWM (Q 2864)

As war approached, the young officer, still a bachelor, completed a course at the Army’s School of Musketry in Hythe, Sussex. This quaintly-named establishment had been set up in the 1850s; by 1883 it was carrying out tests on the first manually operated machine guns.  On the Western Front, units of the regular British Army’s Expeditionary Force had began to arrive in France from 7 August.  

This unusual image is from a Belgian postcard published in 1919 showing a group of men most likely from the 5th Division marching up alongside the Mons-Conde canal through the village of Jemappes, which would be the scene of heavy fighting the following day, when John Pepys was killed
Image credit: Paul Reed

John Pepys was sent to France on 14 August 1914, in charge of the machine guns of his battalion. 


"A" Company of the 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, resting in the town square at Mons before entering the line prior to the Battle of Mons.    Image credit:

A total of four divisions of the BEF, commanded by Sir John French, attempted to hold the line of the 60-foot wide Mons–Condé Canal against the advancing German 1st Army.  



The Retreat from Mons, a photo from the collections of the Imperial War Museums   Image credit: © IWM (Q 51484)

The British could muster only 80,000 men and 300 guns as against the German First Army’s 160,000 men and 600 guns. They inflicted heavy casualties, but were eventually forced to yield, during a retreat generally noted for its good order, which lasted for two weeks. It was seen as an important moral victory for the British, such was the uncertainty as to how the army would perform against superior odds. 


 'Spotting the Enemy Sniper'
 This image is taken from Sniping in France, by Major Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard, published in 1920. The original artist was Ernest Blaikley

In one important area at the start of the Great War the Germans were recognised as superior by British troops. Their snipers were much feared. Not only were they better trained than the British equivalent, but they were better equipped. Their rifles were fitted with telescopic sights using high-quality lenses. British military advisors, it appears, supposed that the telescopic sights attached to sniper rifles were too easily damaged and thus not well suited for military use.  By August 1915, however, stung by German boasts of the success of their sniper teams, the British military authorities gave the go-ahead to the founding of a School of Sniping in the Pas-de-Calais region of France by the big-game hunter and explorer Major Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard.

John Pepys was shot by German snipers on 23 August 1914, nine days after leaving England and three hours after going into action at Mons.  He was 24 years old.

The cemetery at Hautrage  
 Image credit: Commonwealth War Graves Commission

He is buried  in the military cemetery of Hautrage, 15 kilometres west of Mons, along with 235 Commonwealth burials and commemorations of the First World War. The cemetery also contains 537 German war graves.

His brother Francis would die a few months later, killed in action on 12 November. Both men are remembered on the war memorial in All Saints Church, East Budleigh, and on the village war memorial. 

I am much indebted to Catherine Smith, Archivist at Charterhouse School, for information that she kindly supplied.

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




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