Vendresse Military Cemetery
Being born just after the Second World War, my childhood was influenced by images of that conflict, especially in the form of comics, cinema, and later on, books; childhood games included British vs Germans as well as Cowboys and Indians. But I was not to escape the shadow of the the First World War, the Great War, as it was still regularly referred to at that time. The reason for this was the close contact I had with many relatives who lived through it and for whom, Remembrance Day (as it was in those days) was a major event in their year.
My paternal grandfather happened to avoid the Great War as he was considered not suitable in 1914, owing to an injury he had received playing cricket (and later, when conscription was introduced and standards were eased for recruitment, because he was, by then, working in a reserved occupation). My paternal grandmother however, lost two brothers in the war and their deaths had a profound effect on all her family. My grandparents were married on September 26th 1914, which happened to be the exact day on which the eldest brother died (although they would not know this until later) and my father, their only child, was born on November 11th 1915 ensuring that after 1918, his birthday was never the occasion for any celebration, but rather a day of mourning and remembrance in the household.
I have written elsewhere short biographies of those of my and my wife’s relatives who were killed in the Great War, but I thought I might add a little additional information on them and also those relatives who survived. I shall mention first the Flexney family as my great aunts and uncles (as well, of course, as my grandparents) were a constant presence in my early years.
Frank and Leah Flexney c 1905
Frank and Leah Flexney had nine children, seven of whom lived to adulthood. There were two boys, Francis William (Frank) and Oliver Edward who both died in the war. In addition there were five sisters: Ellen, Mabel (my grandmother), Lily, Winifred and Gertrude. I have mentioned my grandparents experience, and my great-aunt Lily did not marry until she was in her 60s; she however was very close to her brothers and I remember her showing me Frank’s medals when I was in my early teens. The other three sisters all married men who had served in the war, and survived, although two of the weddings took place after the armistice and demobilisation.
Frank Flexney (1884-1914). I have given a summary of Frank’s life elsewhere (here) but I did visit the site of his death and possible grave in 1997. The map below (taken from the Official History of the South Wales Borderers) shows the area in which part of the final stages of the battle of the Asine took place.
Having crossed the river Aisne the allied forces were intent on capturing the high ridge running across the top of the map, named Chemin des Dames. The capture of this ridge would give them a commanding position over the land to the north and therefore force the German army back still further. From September 14th onwards the SWB were in the vanguard of attempts of the First Army Corps to take the ridge. The map shows how close they came, reaching positions just short of the top (where the ancient road after which it was named, ran); other regiments suceeded in crossing it, but the positions could not be held in isolation, and on the 21st, the army withdrew to a line along the Vendresse Ridge to the south.
The Borderers held the left of the line, stationed in some quarries on Mont Faucon at the tip of the ridge. They repulsed a German sally on the woods below them on the 24th, but on the 26th came a sudden surprise attack, helped by the fog that morning which had obscured the massing of German forces in the woods. The position of the SWB was precarious in the extreme, as the Germans reached the quarries and much hand-to-hand fighting took place, with the Borderers rushing up two reserve companies who had been sent to the rear after the redeployment of a few days before. It is reported that, taken by surprise the soldiers fought with anything that came to hand, one even using a table fork. In time (at around 7.15am) the Germans were repulsed, and as the fog lifted around 9.00am, the large numbers of the enemy could still be seen in the valley; machine gun and rifle fire were directed at them, and they were cleared from the Chivy valley with heavy losses. It was in this fight that Frank was killed, one of 116 men of the Borderers to die that day.
Visiting in 1997, I took the photograph, above, which shows the spur of Mont Faucon from the bottom of the valley. It is not a steep slope, but the topography is hidden by the vegetation changes over the years – there are still woods in the valley, although much reduced, and the hill top where the quarries lie is now wooded, whereas in 1914 it was bare. I spoke to the French farmer whose land it was and he told me that many visitors come to the spot to see where their family members fought and died, the majority being German. In the foregound of the photograph you can see poppies growing, one of which I picked and brought home for remembrance of Frank Flexney.
Just to the south-east of the ridge lies the village which gives it its name – Vendresse; outside the village, on the road to Troyon lies a small Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery which contains several headstones of the South Wales Borderers. Frank is not among those named; his name is inscribed on the memorial to those who died at the Marne and Aisne, and with no known grave, at La Ferte sous Jouarre.
There are, however, a few headstones to soldiers of the SWB with no name – “Known unto God” and it may well be that Frank is indeed buried here. The cemetery was created in the 1920s with bodies being brought from some surrounding parishes churchyards and communal cemeteries. By then, some identifications would have proved difficult.
Oliver Flexney (1893-1917). As with his brother Frank, I have previously given an outline of Oliver’s service career (here). From what I remember of my family’s reminiscences, Oliver was, in character, the complete opposite of his sibling. Quiet and unassuming, he was very much less adventurous and not at all tempted by a military career. I have little to add to what I have written elsewhere, but I did visit Oliver’s grave in October 1988 and took the photograph below. The headstone is mis-inscribed “A.E. Flexney.
We know that he died on November 2nd, but there are no clues in the War Diary of his machine gun company as to when he was injured. I have found some photographs of the Australian Casualty Clearing Station where he died. It was only a short distance away from the spot where Oliver now lies.
The deaths of her only two sons (Frank senior had died in 1912) must have been a hammer blow to Leah, and also to her daughters, three of whom were unmarried. The eldest, Ellen Maria (my great aunt “Nell”) had married in 1909, and her husband, George Pallent served throughout the war.
George Henry Pallent (1887-1959). George appears to have enlisted in the Wiltshire Regiment in November 1915 and served at home for well over a year before his battalion were transferred to the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force in July 1917. No details of any action are noted and he returned to Britain (via Bombay) in late 1918 before discharge in 1919.
Leah’s two youngest daughters both married ex-servicemen in 1919. Winifred married Walter Matthews who had served in the Royal Naval Division, and Gertrude married Reginald Amesbury.
Walter and Winifred Matthews with their eldest child, Ernest Oliver
Walter Henry Matthews (1894-1940). Walter’s military records have been lost, like so many others, following enemy action in the Second World War, but one document, listing his service does survive. He enlisted in the Royal Naval Division in November 1914; despite its name (given at its formation at the start of the war, as most of the members were Navy or Royal Marine reservists) this was an infantry regiment, and was among the first of the British Army to be in action, defending Antwerp in October 1914. The Division, including Walter, took part in the terrible Gallipoli campaign of 1915. Walter himself was admitted to hospital in September suffering from a septic hand, and again in November with enteritis and pyrexia (extreme high temperature). He was finally invalided back to Britain in late December, aboard the Mauretania.
He spent most of 1916 in England with reserve battalions, but in October he was transferred again and sent to the BEF in France. From January to March the Division took part in several actions on the river Ancre, and in one of these (on February 22nd) Walter received a gun shot wound to the head, noted in the records as severe, and complicated. Transferred back through the field hospital and base hospital system, he arrived in England the following month. On March 6th he was admitted to the Royal Naval Hospital at Gosport, where remained for a considerable time. In late August he was declared “unservicable” owing to the severity of his wounds, the record stating “the injury alone unfits this man for further service, in the Reserve or in any other rating”. He was award the Silver War Badge and discharged on August 31st. Walter remained in ill-health for the remainder of his life and died in 1940.
The youngest Flexney girl, Gertrude was also married in 1919, to Reginald Amesbury.
Reginald Charles Amesbury (1895-1975). Reginald enlisted in the Royal Engineers on August 9th 1914 and served in France until January 1916. His company (501st Wessex) participated in the second battle of Ypres among other actions. In February 1917 they were transferred to the Macedonia front, disembarking at Salonika on the 17th. Already, in France, Reginald had suffered from several bouts of diarrhea, spending time in the field hospitals there. Once in the eastern theatre he developed malaria and similarly spent periods in hospital or convalescence, twice in Corfu. He does not seem to have received any major injuries in the course of his service and finally returned to Britain in March 1919, being discharged the following month.
One member of my mother’s family also served briefly in the Great War:
Frederick Charles Gibbs (1900-1972). My great-uncle Fred enlisted in the 4th Battalion, the Gloucester Regiment in April 1915. He gave his age as 18 when in fact he hadn’t reached his 15th birthday. He was accepted, but his military record does not show any action overseas, and it seems he served in a reserve capacity in Britain. He was discharged on March 31st 1916 having given false information on his enlistment as regards his age.
Fred later became a regular soldier and was involved with the BEF of 1939/40, being one of many soldiers who escaped from Dunkirk.
From the left, George Pallent, unknown, my father, Reginald Amesbury, Frederick Gibbs, my mother, my grandfather c1941/2
Of my wife Fiona’s grandfather, John Williams, I have written elsewhere (here). In October 1988 we visited John’s grave at Hebuterne. His remains lie in a plot with three other casualties of that dreadful day, July 1st 1916.
Her other grandfather, Donald MacDonald was the only person connected to me who was a regular soldier at the start of the war.
Donald MacDonald (1885-c1960). Donald was the only son of John and Mary MacDonald of Dingwall in Rossshire. Mary died in1890 and Donald and several of his sisters were placed in the Highland Orphanage in Inverness. He may be the Donald McDonald who appears on the 1901 Census as a trumpeter with the Royal Engineers in Glasgow, but that is not certain. He definitely enlisted in the Scots Guards in March 1911 and served throughout the Great War and beyond. He was with the 2nd Battalion, stationed at the Tower of London when war was declared, and, as the battalion was not in the first British Corps to cross the Channel, he had time to marry Jamesina McLennan, with whom he had been in a long-time relationship, at the Kensington Register Office on August 30th. The battalion finally crossed on October 7th, landing at Zeebrugge and then advancing to Ghent, before joining up with the main British Army (which had just arrived fresh from the Battle of the Aisne) outside Ypres. The regiment, as a component of the Guards Brigade, played a full part in the First Battle of Ypres (October/November 1914) as well as many of the major engagements during the war. It would be too time consuming to list them all, but they included Neuve Chapelle, Loos, the Somme, Cambrai, Third Ypres (Passchendaele) and the final battles of the war in 1918.
Donald’s service record does not record any particular actions but it does report the two occasions on which he was wounded. On November 15th 1916 he received a gun shot wound to the right shoulder during the final phase of the Battle of the Somme but there is no indication of how long he was out-of-action. In July 1918 Donald was awarded the Military Medal, which was a recent innovation granted to other ranks for “gallantry or devotion to duty under fire”, but again there is no surviving citation to identify the particular reason for the award. Donald was wounded again on October 20th, just three weeks before the Armistice. On this occasion he received a gun shot wound in the left leg and, given the date, it is possible to pinpoint the action; the Guards Brigade had just crossed the river Selle and the 2nd Scots came under heavy machine gun fire. After clearing the enemy from its position, the Official History of the regiment noted that whilst on patrol, “2nd Lieutenant J H Fletcher was killed and his platoon sergeant wounded”. Donald had risen steadily through the ranks during the war, and was, by now, a sergeant so this may refer to him, or it may be that he was wounded in the earlier action.
One can assume that this was Donald’s final action in the war and he was discharged as “surplus to military requirements” on February 26th 1919. He must be amongst a very small number of soldiers who fought and survived the whole of the Great War and one might feel not only had he done his duty and beyond, but that he would have had enough of soldiering – not so, for on October 16th the same year he rejoined the regiment and served a further seven years and five more on reserve. Moreover at the outbreak of war in 1939 he offered his services as an instructor, if required, at the age of 54.
Donald MacDonald c1950