The Dragon’s Voice
In this edition, we have an article on Brigadier Gordon Shephard who was the most senior RFC/RAF officer to be killed in WWI, at the age of just 32. His story is of special interest as it is often ignored, or possibly suppressed, because of his Irish adventures with Erskine Childers, of which the CWGC record makes no mention. The article was originally written for the Irish Journal “Distant Thunder” edited by our good friend Gerry White. There is an HTML link below to the main article on our website.
We have two articles by Keith. The first is on his research into a soldier who is missing from the Brymbo war memorial. The second is on his musings about General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien of Le Cateau fame, and on Keith’s thoughts on the current situation and modern technology, amongst other issues. Trevor
Gordon Shephard – the man who never was?
My interest in Gordon Shephard stems largely from the fact that his Irish adventures are ignored by the British records1,2, and that he and his WWI adventures are ignored by the Irish, certainly those of a republican leaning – hence the title of this article, with apologies to Euan Montague for stealing the title of his WWII true story. But here is another true story which, if written as fiction, would be dismissed as being too far-fetched.
The aim of this article is to try to understand Shephard and, as it were, to get inside his head. To do that, we have to look at his pre-WWI adventures, especially his sailing and his learning to fly. The relationship with the Childers is important. Erskine Childers’ only novel The Riddle of the Sands plays a role in Shephard’s life, as indeed it also does, I would suggest, in the whole episode of the 1914 gun-running on Childers’ yacht Asgard.
What sources of information about Gordon Shephard are available? Well, he was killed during WWI in a flying accident on 19th January 1918 at Auchel airfield. At the time of his death he was a Brigadier-General in the RFC and was aged 32. He was the most senior RFC or RAF officer to be killed in WWI. People who are killed in a war do not leave behind memoires, though in Shephard’s case there is at least a book composed of his letters over the years and his sailing log, edited by old Etonian – Shane Leslie of Castle Leslie in County Monaghan3. The Leslie family still own Castle Leslie today. The book was privately published by Shephard’s parents in 1924 and is hard to find. However, indirect sources of information on him include books on Erskine Childers, the account of the Asgard voyage by Mary Ellen Spring-Rice in the National Library of Ireland, Sholto Douglas’ memoires of WWI, and the archives of the RAF. It is a question of putting together a patchwork of information on him. So, let’s start at the beginning.
To continue reading, do a click on the following link to go to full text on this website - Shephard article
Brymbo War Memorial
Edward Henry Davis (b 1889, d 11th March 1918)
Some time after my book on the names of the soldiers commemorated on the Brymbo War Memorial was produced, I was approached and was told there was a name missing off the memorial. His name is Edward Henry Davis and he was killed in WWI. Would I check and see if I could find any more information on him?
So I started my research. First port of call was www.cwgc.org. Sure enough, there he was - Pioneer EH Davis, s/n 161424, Royal Engineers, dod 11th March 1918, buried at Tincourt New British Cemetery France, Plot V.C 17. Tincourt New British Cemetery is situated 7 miles east of Peronne. It is a concentration cemetery with 1881 graves in it and a number of special memorials. Outside the main entrance is a World War Two Memorial to some American airmen who died near this site.
What surprised me was his unit 53rd Motor Airline Section, Royal Engineers. What did they do?
The section was responsible for the wires by which signals telephones etc were transmitted in the air not below ground. The installation and maintenance of overhead telegraph poles and wires. The unit consisted of:
- Telegraphist, office
- Permanent linesmen
- Air linesmen
- A Wheeler
- A Blacksmith
- A Fitter
- An instrument repairer
- Pioneers (for general duties)
The CWGC site states:
“The villages of Tincourt and Boucly were occupied by the British Troops in March 1917 during the German Retreat to the Hindenburg Line. From the following May until March 1918, Tincourt became a centre for Casualty Clearing Stations. On 23rd March 1918, the villages were evacuated and they were recovered, in a ruined state in September 1918.”
I also checked his Medal Card and fortunately for me his service records survived. On the 11th March 1918, Pioneer Edward Henry Davis was killed when an explosion occurred in the area he was working in. Among his service papers, which are somewhat difficult to read, there is a report of the incident:
53rd Motor Air Line Section, May 11th 1918.
“I beg to report that on March 10th while on construction work along with Spr's Dryburgh, Eat and pioneer Davis an explosion occurred amongst us causing injuries to the above mentioned men. It happened whilst we were laying out poles”
I am yours obedient
Spr J Park
In the records is an interesting form signed by the doctor at the number 5 Casualty Clearing Station stating that Edward Henry Davis was killed in action. The form was to check if there was any self-inflicted wounds.
Report of Accidental or Self Inflicted Wounds
Severe wounds of chest and abdomen, a penetrating wound from which the patient died
(Sgd) Edward Taylor, Major
C.O. 53 M A C section at this time since –
Killed in Action
This was his opinion
(Sgd) J J Arnold Lt, R E
Commanding 53 MAC
(Also a note from Lt J J Arnold stating that there was no inquiry as the forms and statements apparently lost by Number 5 CCS).
We now know what was happening during May and June of 1918 no wonder there was some confusion at this time.
A captain at the main base at Rouen reported that Pioneer EH Davis s/n161424 died of injuries sustained in an accident, so died of wounds is the official record.
Died of Wounds on the 11th March 1918
Buried Tincourt New British Cemetery Plot VC17
Treated at Number 5 Casualty Clearing Station based at Tincourt
Tincourt during WWI (Cemetery mark with a red flag)
What was happening at that time during the war? We know that Tincourt was behind the lines and a busy centre for camps, casualty clearing stations and a base for ammunition and stores. There was a railway line from Peronne through to Roisel which was enlarged during the war. It is now disused and is a cycle path.
On the 21st March, the Germans started Operation Michael (21st March - 5th April 1918). I wonder if the explosion that occurred was from the German shelling of the area in preparation for the forthcoming attack. Or, had the working party hit an old unexploded shell still in the ground from previous engagements? We will never know.
What we do know of Edward Henry Davis is that he was born in 1889 at Llangynog, Montgomeryshire. On the 1901 census we find him, age 12, living at Bank Street, Lodge, near Wrexham. His father had moved from rural Wales to find work in the steelworks.
Evon Davis head age 45, steelworker
Born Llangynog Montgomeryshire
Ellin Davis age 44
Thomas Davis son age18
Born Llangynog Montgomeryshire
Ellin J Davis daughter age 15, dressmaker’s apprentice
Born Brymbo Denbighshire
Edward Henry Davis son age 12,
Born Llangynog Montgomeryshire
Address, 28 Bank Street, Lodge, Nr Wrexham
By the 1911 census, the father had died and the family had moved to Clayton Road, Broughton. At this time, Edward Henry Davis was working in the steelworks as a general labourer.
Ellin Davis head age 53
Edward Henry Davis son age 22, general labourer
Born Llangynog Montgomeryshire
Address Caer Alun, Clayton Road, Broughton, near Wrexham
It was from Clayton Road that Edward Henry Davis left to join the army.
Enlisted: Southsea, near Wrexham, 10th February 1916
Age: 27 years 9 months
Trade: pump driver
Height: 5ft 3 inches
Weight: 8 ½ stone
Next of Kin: Ellin Davis, Mother
British War Medal, Victory Medal
On the 27th June 1918, Edward Henry Davis effects were returned to his mother, Ellin Davis, who was now living at 6, Mount Zion, Brymbo, near Wrexham.
Effects Army Form B104-126, Date 27-6-18
After the Brymbo Memorial Book was produced, it has come to my attention that there are now six names missing from the memorial. There were plans to install a new plaque with their names, but Covid-19 and the lock-down have delayed this.
The lock down will stop me going on my Summer Wanderings this year. So, I will sit at home musing with my books and photographs to remind me of some of the battlefield tours I have been on, and planning some trips which I would love to do in the future.
General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien (b 26th May 1858 - d 12th August 1930)
A couple of people have asked me about General Horace Smith-Dorrien's connection to South Africa, which I referred to in my last article, in the June newsletter. My son and his family live and work in South Africa. A few years ago, I was looking for a book “Smith-Dorrien” by Brigadier General C Ballard, which was published in 1931. Brigadier General C Ballard (b 20th July 1868, d 17th June 1941) had an interesting career in the army. He joined the Norfolk Regiment on the 11th February1888. In 1913, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. In World War One, he was Commanding Officer 1st Norfolk, later commanding 7th, 95th, and 14th infantry brigades between 1914 and 1916. He was wounded when he was commanding 57th Brigade at the battle of the Somme. After he recovered, he served as military attaché to Romania, from 1917 to 1918. He retired in 1923 and went on to write a number of military books.
Two copies came up on www.abebooks.com - one was in America, and the other in South Africa. I checked the bookseller in South Africa and his shop was in Durban, where my son lives. After a couple of e-mails, I asked my son to pick it up for me and I would collect it when I visited them. To my surprise the book was signed by the previous owner - Major K.P. Apthorp, that is Kendal Pretyman Apthorp (b1861- d1949). He was known as Kitty Apthorp. He met Horace Smith-Dorrien in India in the 1890s where he had a racing stable. He rode with Smith-Dorrien and Herbert Gough. In the Boer war (1899 - 1902) he fought at Slabberts Nek (15th July 1900), was captured and escaped from the Boers and was Mentioned in Dispatches. He was then made a District Commissioner of the Smithfield District Concentration Camps. The London Gazette stated “Retires on retired pay” 9th December 1903. He settled in South Africa.
When I visited my son, he told me the bookseller wanted to meet me as he was interested in military history. This was duly arranged for me to meet the bookseller and a member of the South African Guild of Battlefield guides who took us to see the house where General Horace Smith-Dorrien stayed on holiday after his retirement. The General was not a rich man; he was not bestowed with honours and money after the Great War. So a group of retired officers and retired soldiers including KP Apthorp formed the MOTHS who looked after him in South Africa when he was on holiday. An interesting little story from a simple signature!
The Group MOTHS “The Memorable Order of the Tin Hats” was founded in 1927. They are a group of retired officers and soldier who meet in clubs something like our Royal British Legion. The clubs are called “Shell Holes”. I believe there are fourteen branches of the MOTHS in the UK.
General Horace Smith-Dorrien was at the Zulu battle of Isandlwana (22nd January 1879) when the Zulu army beat the British army. Smith-Dorrien escaped because he was wearing a blue uniform. He was a transport officer. The Zulu warriors were told “kill the red coats” (as they were the soldiers and not to harm the civilians). He was also at the battle of Ulundi (4th July 1879) when the British army defeated the Zulu nation.
On books, you can find a number reprints of out of print books, like John French “ 1914 “, William Robertson “From Private to Field Marshal” and Geoffrey H Malins “How I filmed the War” at www.leonaur.com. Prices are reasonable and the text printing good, but as regards the maps and diagrams I have seen better.
First of all I must confess I do not own a mobile phone, tablet or a Sat-Nav. I do have a desk top computer and a land line phone. Also, a road map and a compass.
I remember when the government some time ago were discussing identity cards and I was thinking we have already got them with mobile phones and bank cards.
During this strange period of time we are living in, my son Philip has been working from home. My dining room has in it one tower, two monitors, one lap-top computer, one Smart-Phone and a printer, plus numerous drawings, as he is a building surveyor. He sits at the table having phone “Teams” meetings, talking to the other members of staff in Leeds, Manchester, Chester and Llandudno. Then, he will have Zoom meetings with his main office in Rutland. Strange people appear on the screens discussing drawings that need amending etc. He amends the drawings and sends them by e-mail. He tells me that a job which a few years ago would have taken a week to do, amend, print and post, is now done in minutes.
Then, my wife two evenings in the week and on Sunday morning has “Zoom” meeting with her church. Again people from all over North Wales invade and take over my living room.
I have to admit I do use the internet for research and news. A number of sites that I could not do without are www.nwwfa.org.uk, www.westernfrontassocation.com, www.abebooks.com, www.cwgc.org and www.scarletfinders.co.uk. Scarlet finders was set up by Sue Light who sadly passed away on the 15th July 2016. She was a great help with my research on the World War One nurses. I also love the radio and on that there has been a number of interesting pod-casts to listen too. At www.oldfrontline.co.uk there are a number of pod-casts by Paul Reed called “walking the old front line”.
I feel sometimes a little old-fashioned when I am sitting in my corner surrounded by my books watching my wife and son “Zooming “ and “Teaming “on their smart-phones and that maybe I should join the 21st century. Then again, maybe not.
There comes a time in your life when you are reminded of certain dates which make you realise how old you are getting. On May 28th of this year my wife informed me it was fifty five years to that date, May 28th 1965, when we went out on our first date. I took her to the cinema to see “None but the Brave” starring Clint Walker and Frank Sinatra. This is a world war two story of a group of American marines who crash-land on a remote island inhabited by Japanese soldiers. At the time it was seen as an anti-war film. No expense was spared: I paid 1/9p to go upstairs in the posh seats and bought her a box of wine gums which cost two shillings which she took home and gave them to her father who he said liked them. I have never forgiven her for that.
I have never been a fan of the cinema. I much preferred documentaries. Of course, I watched the classic WW2 films on the television: “The Dam Busters” 1955 starring Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave, “Sink the Bismarck” 1960 staring Kenneth More and Dana Wynter, “Battle of Britain” staring Susannah York, Michael Caine and Laurence Oliver. And one that was on every Christmas - “Zulu” starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker.
When I was working, a colleague told me I should go and see “Saving Private Ryan”, released in 1998 and starring Tom Hanks and Matt Damon, at the cinema. I told him I did not like the cinema, sitting on poor seats in the dark surrounded by people eating popcorn and rustling sweet papers. His reply was times have changed and the cinema is no longer a flea pit: they now have arm chair seats, with room to put your drink, and surround sound so you are fully engrossed in the film. He then told me that when he went to see “Titanic”, he felt as if he had got his feet wet. So, I went to see “Saving Private Ryan” which I thought was a really good film. Some of the scenes were breathtaking, the story line was a little bit thin. On a battlefield tour to Normandy, I was shown the graves of the brothers that the film was based on. The guide told us that Spielburg had used one paragraph from a book “D-Day” by Stephen Ambrose to make a two hour film. The last film I went to see in the cinema was “Dunkirk” in 2017, starring Harry Styles and Cillian Murrphy.
For modern technology, we now have dvds. I now have been given the Sam Mendes film “1917”.
The film was directed by Sam Mendes. Written by Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns, it is based on stories told to Sam Mendes by his grandfather Alfred Mendes who served with the 1st Battalion Kings Royal Rifle Corps in World War One and was awarded a Military Medal. The film stars George Mackay and Dean Charles Chapman.
Two soldiers are ordered to deliver across no man's land a message calling off an attack of the Devonshire Regiment, who believe the Germans are in retreat, but the Germans have made a strategic withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line and are waiting for the Devonshire's to attack.
I found the film slow moving with sudden bursts of action. The battlefield scenes are as realistic as one could imagine them. It is a very atmospheric film, there is some brilliant acting in it. One could feel and see the fear of the soldiers in the trenches waiting to go into battle.
I cannot say I enjoyed this film: it is not a joyous film but I was certainly enthralled by it. It is very powerful and thought provoking. I was very quiet and emotionally drained after the film had finished. I highly recommend it.
On a pure technical point. In one scene a soldier is dying and you could see his face going white. How do they do that?
My wife and I have been told by the government and the hospital we should carry on shielding until the middle of August. So it looks like I will spend some more time in my corner surrounded by my books and the Leger Battlefield Tours brochure. Planning for next year, or am I just day dreaming?