Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The youngest subaltern? Henry Gage Morris, 23 April 1915

Henry Gage Morris, killed in action aged 17

The average life expectancy of a subaltern during the trench war of the 1914-18 conflict was about six weeks.

Many of these young subalterns - the most junior commissioned officers who led platoons of 50 men - had gone almost directly to the Western Front from their school classrooms. Some were themselves the children of senior officers with a long family tradition of military service.


Such a young officer was Second Lieutenant Henry Gage Morris, who was killed in action on 23 April 1915. He was the only child of Colonel Henry Gage Morris and his wife Mary, and is listed on the memorial in St Peter’s Church, Budleigh Salterton as well as on the town’s war memorial. 

He was born at Bodmin, Cornwall, but his parents were living at ‘Marengo’ in Budleigh at the time of his death. He was educated at The Hoe Preparatory School in Plymouth before going on to Marlborough College in Wiltshire, and then the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.  He was gazetted Second Lieutenant on 13 January 1915.

Henry Gage Morris has been justifiably cited by a commentator in an online World War One forum  as possibly “one of the youngest subalterns to die in WW1”, killed as he was at the very young age of 17.   

He arrived in France on 15 February 1915 with the 2nd Battalion, the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry.   


'The Second Battle of Ypres, 22 April to May 1915' by Richard Jack (1866–1952). 
Image credit: Canadian War Museum 

At around 5.00 pm on 22 April, poison gas was used to horrific effect for the first time in the Great War by the German 2nd Army.  This marked the start of the Second Battle of Ypres, with the Channel ports being threatened by the enemy. A series of battles took place between the Yser Canal and the village of St Julien in an effort to stem the German advance. It was during these counter-attacks in which his Battalion was involved that Henry Gage Morris was killed in action.

The young man’s death seems to have deeply affected those who knew him.  His commanding officer recalled the last sighting of him: “He came past me with a very cheerful face, and laughing, under a very heavy cross-fire from machine guns, and sang out to me, ‘Shall I push on?’ and I answered ‘Go on, laddie, as hard as you can.’ Poor lad, I did not see him again, but heard he was shot in the head, but he would not let anyone stay with him. He was such a good boy, always cheerful and always ready to do anything that was wanted. He was very popular with everyone - officers and men.”

His batman, Private W. Board, echoed such feelings. “The men in the platoon loved him and would do anything for him,” he wrote. “I was not with him when he got hit, but I heard he wanted to go on, and refused to be bandaged, as he said there were men who were hit more badly than himself. He always thought of others before himself.” 

Image credit:

Henry Gage Morris’ name is listed on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres. 

 ‘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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