Who was Ivor Gurney’s ‘The Silent One’? The night attack by the 2/5th Glosters on 6-7 April 1917

Vincent Faupier19698175Res

© Vincent Faupier.

In Ivor Gurney’s poem about his experiences in the First World War ‘The Silent One’, the musician and poet describes a failed night time attack in which a non-commissioned officer is killed and left hanging on the uncut barbed wire. With the attack held up, Gurney is politely asked by an officer to try to get through a possible gap in the wire but, with equal politeness, he declines.

The poem has been described by his biographer as ‘this most truthful report from the battlefield’.[1] Although he was writing in the 1920s, the preciseness of the details suggest that Gurney was recalling an actual event.  In 2010, while I was guiding a group on a literature-themed tour of the Western Front, we visited the place where Gurney was wounded during an attack on the night of 6th – 7th April 1917 and we realised that this was clearly the event that Gurney was describing in ‘The Silent One’.[2]  It was one of many minor attacks made by the British as they pursued the German withdrawal from the Somme battlefield to the Hindenburg Line. Typically the Germans held positions for a few days, inflicting casualties with machine guns, before pulling back. The British attack had been planned for two days earlier only to be cancelled. Every such attack required soldiers to prepare themselves mentally for death or wounds and Gurney described his feelings to his friend Marion Scott:

           My state of mind is — fed up to the eyes; fear of not living to write music for England; no fear at all of death.

He hoped a ‘Nice Blighty’ would come soon, by which he meant a wound serious enough to require treatment in the UK.[3]  A fortnight after the attack had taken place, Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott, explaining that he was indeed ‘wounded: but not badly; perhaps not badly enough’ for he did not have a Blighty wound but was in hospital in Rouen.

           It was during an attack on Good Friday night that a bullet hit me and went clean through the right arm just underneath the shoulder…[4]

Guney Rouen May 1917 Gloucestershire Archives

Ivor Gurney in Rouen while recovering from the wound in his right arm received during the attack of 6- 7 April 1917. (The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit); © The Ivor Gurney Archive, Gloucestershire Archives).

GBM-WO363-4-007407751-00204cropEnh

Part of Ivor Gurney’s service record showing the date of his wound on 7 April 1917, the abbreviation indicating ‘gunshot wound right arm’. (National Archives WO363 via Findmypast.com).

The attack was made by two battalions of Gurney’s Brigade. On the left was the 4th Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry while on the right was Gurney’s battalion, the 2/5th Gloucestershire Regiment.  The Glosters (as they were known) attacked with two companies, Gurney’s B Company was on the left and C Company on the right. The 59th Division was also supposed to attack to the left of the Ox and Bucks.

GE street Vadancourt Cem Gurney3crop

The right of the position along which the 2/5th Glosters deployed for the attack on the night of 6th April 1917, about 1,000 yards from the German positions. Neither the farm nor the cemetery were there at the time. (GoogleEarth).

The Germans held trenches along high ground, protected in front by belts of barbed wire which were concealed from British observation by a depression. The speed of the German retreat left the British without maps of the German positions and this lack of information contributed to the failure of the attack.[5]  On the night of 6th, Good Friday, the attackers moved forward to a position about 1,000 yards from the German positions. The night was wet and very dark with no moon. Their orders were to deploy by 11pm and they will have lain down and waited for the British guns to open up.  Gurney’s B Company occupied a line about a third of a mile in width. 

TM 62c SE 2A 30011917crop3annotLabelscropArrow1

British Trench Map with the attack of 6th-7th April 1917 marked. This map, corrected to 30th January 1917, did not show the German trenches or wire; woods are also incorrectly plotted. (Map: McMaster University Creative Commons).

At midnight, the artillery began a forty-minute bombardment of the German positions, building to an intense fire for the final five minutes. The Brigade commander afterwards stated that the British shells fell short but there were no reports of any British casualties from this cause.  At 12.40am two companies from each of the two battalions rushed forward and the British guns advanced their targets by 100 yards every four minutes: this formed a ‘creeping barrage’ that the attackers were supposed to follow.

Lieutenant Brown, of the Ox and Bucks attacking to the left of Gurney’s Company, said that his men started ‘in quick time’; as they neared the German positions, they broke into a rush towards the wire and some were shouting. There were shouts heard also from the Germans and two or three were seen to climb out of their trenches and run away. But the attackers did not see the German wire until they were right on it: they found that the shelling had missed it, it was uncut, about ten yards deep and about five feet high.  The Germans at once targeted their wire with machine guns and grenades, in the darkness sparks flew where the bullets hit. Brown reported that his own light machine guns were unable to suppress the German fire; consulting with Gurney’s Glosters on his right, he found that they were also held up.

Gurney’s men too had found the wire uncut: Lieutenant Pakeman was reported in the Glosters’ War Diary to have:

rallied his men and made 3 efforts to get through, though himself wounded. He led his men up to the wire & cut a certain amount himself.

Pakeman was to be awarded the Military Cross for his part in the unsuccessful attack, the citation recording that:

He led his company in the most gallant manner and personally tried to cut gaps in the enemy’s wire. Later, although wounded, he remained at his post.

The War Diary also mentions that in C Company, Sergeant Davis ‘distinguished himself cutting a gap large enough for 5 men to get through. All of whom were killed.’ This man was Lance-Sergeant Frank Davis, awarded the Disguised Conduct Medal with the citation:

He led his platoon in the most gallant manner, and personally tried to cut a gap in the enemy’s wire. He was severely wounded.

GE street 11.50pm line towards German cem Gurney2

The area attacked by the Glosters. The German trenches were just beyond the crest line which is marked by trees on the right. The German wire was above and behind the area of trees in the middle ground (Cooker Quarry). The track is where the Glosters and Ox and Bucks withdrew before their second attempt to get through the wire. (GoogleEarth).

These attempts to get through the wire were fruitless and the two battalions withdrew to a partially sunken track to reorganise.[6] Brown again spoke to the commander of the Glosters’ B Company and they decided to make another attempt to get through the wire. Taking place at about 1.30am, this also failed and they withdrew to the track.  This withdrawal and failed second attempt is described by Gurney’s two final lines:

retreated and came on again,

Again retreated a second time, faced the screen.

Brown again conferred with the two Glosters company commanders and an officer of the 59th Division to his left: none had got through the wire and they decided to withdraw on the grounds that it appeared impossible.[7]

43849_3066_0-00665CropContr

2/5th Glosters War Diary entry for 7 April 1917. (National Archives, WO95/3066).

The 2/5th Glosters’ War Diary records that 15 men were killed from the battalion, and seven officers and 27 men wounded, including Lieutenant Pakeman. Six of the wounded were evacuated, one of whom will have been Gurney.[8]  The bodies of the dead, originally buried near to the German wire, were moved to Vadencourt British Cemetery in 1919.[9]

Vincent Faupier19698175Res

A German cemetery is now on the site of the German trenches attacked by the Glosters. This view looks back across the ground over which they advanced and shows the dead ground in front of the German positions which apparently prevented the artillery from bombarding the German wire. © Vincent Faupier.

The German resistance was part of a holding operation and when more British troops repeated the attack, on the night of the 8th – 9th April, the Germans were found to have withdrawn.  A study of this short battle suggests that Gurney’s recall of events was precise and accurate and that his capacity for intense self-examination provides valuable insights in respect of his admission of his refusal to attack and the way that this was apparently accepted by his superior officer. Such disobedience of an order in the face of the enemy could have resulted in Gurney receiving the death penalty. Instead, the incident appears to illustrate the circumstances whereby, in a heavily civilianised British army, officers preferred  to lead by example, rather than compelling their men to carry out a task that they themselves would not. It also suggests circumstances in which orders were a matter of negotiation where disobedience in certain situations would be accepted.

Two individuals are described in the poem. It is impossible definitely to identify the probable officer who unsuccessfully asks Gurney, with ‘the politest voice – a finicking accent’, whether he might find a way through but he may have been Lieutenant Pakeman, decorated for his part in the attack. In 1916, Sidney Arnold Pakeman was a history master at Marlborough College, having graduated from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. After the war he became Professor of History at the University of Ceylon and died in London in 1975.

It is possible to offer a more confident identification for the other soldier. The poet characterises him by his Buckinghamshire accent and his  non-commissioned officer’s stripes:

Silent One MS detail Gloucestershire Archives

The opening of ‘The Silent One’ from Gurney ‘Best Poems’ notebook. (The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit); © The Ivor Gurney Archive, Gloucestershire Archives).

            The Silent One

Who died on the wires, and hung there, one of two  –

Who for his hours of life had chattered through

Infinite lovely chatter of Bucks accent:

Yet faced unbroken wires; stepped over, and went

A noble fool, faithful to his stripes  – and ended.

In April 1917 Gurney’s battalion still had a strong Gloucestershire identity and, of the fifteen killed in the attack, all but four were born or enlisted in the county or in Bristol.[10] None was strictly from Buckinghamshire but one, a corporal, was born in Long Marston, Hertfordshire, in an area closely enclosed on three sides by the boundary of Buckinghamshire. It was in the Bucks Herald newspaper that the parents of a dairy worker, Corporal James Chappin, placed two announcements on 26th April 1917:Bucks Herald April 28, 1917aCropEnh2cl

Bucks Herald April 28, 1917cropenh

The Bucks Herald, 26th April 1917 (via FindMyPast.co.uk).

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The grave of James Chappin in Vadancourt British Cemetery with the inscription chosen by his next of kin.

Text © Simon Jones.  See below for Notes.


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Notes.

[1] Michael Hurd, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, (Oxford, 1984), p. 203.

[2] My thanks to Mrs. Joyce Kendell for pointing out the resemblance.

[3] R. K. R. Thornton (ed.), Ivor Gurney War Letters, (London, 1984), pp. 152.

[4] Letter postmarked 14/4/1917, Ivor Gurney War Letters, op. cit., p. 154.

[5] The latest map found is Sheet 62cS.E. Edition 2A Trenches, corrected to 30/1/1917. Later maps (2nd February 1918) shows a series of fire trenches on the crest and forward slope which, if German, would have been there on Good Friday 1917. The positions of small woods are shown incorrectly on the earlier maps.

[6] Brown discovered that the 59th Division on his left had not attacked and its troops were crowding into his sector. See note below.

[7] A report by 184th Brigade states that a third attempt was also held up before the withdrawal was made. ‘Report on attack on German trenches on night 6/7th April, 1917′; ‘Report on Operations carried out by 184th Infantry Brigade from the time of taking over from 183rd Infantry Brigade to the time of relief by 35th Division’; Lieutenant K. E. Brown, (commanding A Company, 4th Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Infantry) ‘Report on attack on German trenches on 6/7th April 1917′, War Diary GS 184 Infantry Brigade, National Archives WO95/3063.

[8] War Diary, 2/5 Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, National Archives, WO95/3066.

[9] CWGC Burial Return via CWGC.org.

[10] Soldiers Died in the Great War, (HMSO, 1921) digitised version searched via Ancestry.co.uk.

Photograph of Ivor Gurney in uniform and detail of ‘The Silent One’ ms are from the First World War Poetry Digital Archive, accessed April 3, 2017, http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/item/6942, http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/item/6931.


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Where did Vera Brittain serve in France during the First World War?

Vera Brittain when a VAD nurse.

Vera Brittain when a VAD nurse. (Literary Executors for the Vera Brittain Estate, 1970 &The Vera Brittain Fonds, McMaster University Library)

From early August 1917 until the end of April 1918 Vera Brittain served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse at No 24 General Hospital, Étaples. She wrote about this experience in her acclaimed and powerful memoir Testament of Youth in the chapter entitled ‘Between the Sandhills and the Sea’.  Étaples is a fishing port fifteen miles from Boulogne, and just to the north the British established a large infantry training camp and a complex of nine major hospitals, almost entirely comprised of huts and tents.

A plan of the Étaples Base Bamp and hospital complex with No 24 General Hospital marked.

A plan of the Étaples Base Camp and hospital complex with No 24 General Hospital marked.

The area of the Étaples Base Camp and hospital complex today. The area occupied by No 24 General Hospital is now covered by housing.

The area of the Étaples Base Camp and hospital complex today. The area occupied by No 24 General Hospital is now covered by housing.

She was first assigned to the ward for acute German cases and then treated mustard gas cases suffering severe skin blistering and temporary or sometimes permanent blindness.

A Canadian victim of mustard gas at No.7 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, c. 1917 (Library and Archives Canada/ Wikimedia).

A Canadian victim of mustard gas at No.7 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, c. 1917 (Library and Archives Canada/ Wikimedia).

No 24 General Hospital was not in the ‘front line’, as the fighting was never less than fifty miles from Étaples, nor was it a Casualty Clearing Station but it was bombed several times in 1918. The hospitals were hit by bombs because they were built alongside the Boulogne to Paris railway and were adjacent to the major complex of training camps, both of which were targeted. Vera experienced over a month of night-time air raids which left her exhausted and ‘more frightened than I had ever been in my life’. She left Étaples before the worst bombing raids of May, June and August 1918 when patients and nurses were killed in No 24 General and neighbouring hospitals.

A First Aid Nursing Yeomanry driver with an unexploded German aerial bomb at a British hospital in Calais, 1918.

A First Aid Nursing Yeomanry driver with an unexploded German aerial bomb at a British hospital in Calais, 1917.


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Why the poet Isaac Rosenberg is not shown in First World War archive footage

A story in the Observer newspaper states that the poet Isaac Rosenberg has been identified in archive footage in which a stretcher bearer in the front right of the frame is ‘staring out at the camera with a haunted look’ (photo below). The article states that the date and location of the film are yet to be identified.

The soldier in the bottom righthand corner is believed to be first world war poet Isaac RosenbergHowever I recognised the still as showing the same scene as a photograph by the British official photographer J. Warwick Brooke (Q 5732) (below) which enables the footage to be identified as having been taken on 31 July 1917 at Pilckem, on the opening day of the Third Battle of Ypres.

Q 5732

Furthermore, the photograph caption identifies a wounded man being treated as an officer of the Irish Guards. The ‘Rosenberg’ figure is not in the Brooke photograph but another stretcher bearer is clearly recognisable (identified by the ‘S B’ armband) standing on the right. This man can also be seen to be wearing a distinctive cloth ‘Irish Guards’ badge on his shoulder and this badge can also just be discerned on the ‘Rosenberg’ figure. Rosenberg served with the King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment (attached for a time to the Royal Engineers) rather than the Irish Guards and whilst, on occasion, he did duty carrying wounded there is no evidence that he was a regimental stretcher bearer. On the day that the photograph was taken the 40th Division, in which Rosenberg was serving at the time, was about 60 miles to the south and did not take part in the Third Battle of Ypres.


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‘Anon.’ no longer: the author of ‘Man at Arms’ revealed.

Over the past fifteen years, an anonymous poem has grown in popularity, especially with battlefield visitors who find that its sentiments strike a chord with them as they attend the evening sounding of the Last Post at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium.  The memorial, unveiled in 1927, bears the names of more than 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient who have no known grave.

Menin Gate at midnight (1927) by Will Longstaff (Australian War Memorial/ Wikipedia commons)

Menin Gate at midnight (1927) by Will Longstaff (Australian War Memorial/ Wikimedia commons)

The poem appears to have been inspired by the Australian artist Will Longstaff’s painting  of 1927 ‘Menin Gate at Midnight’ which shows the ghosts of the dead filling the battlefield around the newly built memorial. Entitled ‘Man at Arms’, the poem is always described as by an anonymous author. The writer addresses a soldier who tells how, just as in the painting, the dead will rise at midnight and march to the Menin Gate.

            Man at Arms
What are you guarding, Man-at-Arms?
Why do you watch and wait?
‘I guard the graves, said the Man-at-Arms,
I guard the graves by Flanders farms
Where the dead will rise at my call to arms,
And march to the Menin gate’.

‘When do they march then, Man-at-Arms?
Cold is the hour – and late’
‘They march tonight’ said the Man-at-Arms,
With the moon on the Menin gate.
They march when the midnight bids them go.
With their rifles slung and their pipes aglow,
Along the roads, the roads they know,
The roads to the Menin gate.

‘What are they singing, Man-at-Arms,
As they march to the Menin gate?’
‘The Marching songs’, said the Man-at-Arms,
That let them laugh at fate.
No more will the night be cold for them,
For the last tattoo has rolled for them,
And their souls will sing as of old for them,
As they march to the Menin gate.

Popular as it has become, I have never included it in my literature and art battlefield tours because I had no evidence that it was the authentic testimony of someone who had experienced the war. Curiosity as to its origins however led to research its authorship.  Jeffrey Richards in  Imperialism and Music: Britain 1876-1953 (2001) quotes the opening lines as being from a song The Menin Gate by Bowen.  This proves to have been by Lauri or Lori Bowen, published in 1930 by Boosey & Hawkes, with words by Eric Haydon.  A recording performed by Peter Dawson was released by His Master’s Voice in 1930. Following on from the success of Longstaff’s painting, the song achieved particular popularity in Australia. A first clue as to who Eric Haydon was comes from a brief article in an Australian newspaper, the Perth Daily News of  28 January 1936, which describes him as an English novelist and lyric writer, en route for Victoria on the liner Moldavia. Mr Haydon, the article notes, wrote ‘The Menin Gate’ lyrics.

The Daily News (Perth, WA), Tuesday 28 January 1936, page 5

The Perth Daily News, 28th January 1936, announcing the arrival of Eric Haydon.

The passenger list of the Moldavia includes Eric Haydon, age 42, en route for Melbourne, having previously lived at an address in London NW3.  Census returns and a 1939 militia attestation form show that he was born in Kensington, London, on 7 July 1895, the son of a cheesemonger’s assistant.  By 1911, age 16, he worked as a cashier’s clerk for a publisher and lived in Stoke Newington. In the 1930s, Haydon began to have some success as a song lyricist and novelist. In September 1939, when he enlisted in the Australian Militia, he lived at 30 Tivoli Road, South Yarra. Success however brought mixed blessings as the award for the best radio play in Australia of 1947 unfortunately seems to have drawn his financial affairs to the attention of tax officials who the following year fined him £70 for having failed to declare income from the play. He died in Parkville, Victoria, in 1971 at the age of 76.

There remains the question as to whether Eric Haydon’s experiences during the First World War might have inspired the lyrics to ‘The Menin Gate’.  Luckily, a service record survives enabling his military career to be reconstructed.  In February 1915 Haydon enlisted as a Private in the London Scottish, number 4359, and was posted to the 2nd Battalion with which he served for the whole war.

Eric Haydon Attestation form WO363

Eric Haydon’s attestation form showing his enlistment in the London Scottish on 4th February 1915. (National Archives WO363)

This battalion was to have a remarkably varied experience, being posted from Salisbury Plain to Ireland in April 1916 in the wake of the Easter Rising, then to the Western Front where it spent time on Vimy Ridge.  After five months in France, it was sent to Salonika (Thessaloniki) in Greece, then seven months later, in July 1917, to Egypt.  It was at this point that the one misdemeanour contained on Haydon’s crime sheet occurs, when he was found guilty of disobedience to a lawful command and insubordination resulting in a sentenced of seven days Field Punishment No. 1, the infamous tying of a soldier to a fixed object for several hours each day in place of detention in the guardroom.  The 2nd London Scottish spent ten months in Palestine, where it took part in the capture of Jerusalem in December.

Eric Haydon Crime Sheet WO363

Eric Haydon’s Crime sheet showing the award of 7 Days Field Punishment Number One in July 1917 and his mention for gallantry in October 1918. (National Archives WO363)

The German attacks in the Spring of 1918 led to Haydon’s battalion being sent to the Western Front in June: it is at this time that he would have first seen the future site of the Menin Gate at the eastern exit through the Ypres ramparts on the route taken by troops to the front line.  At the end of September his battalion retook Messines, then participated in a final advance, the forgotten ‘5th battle of Ypres’, to push the Germans back from Ypres and which by mid-October 1918 resulted in the Battle of Courtrai. During this fighting he was mentioned in a Brigade Order for Gallantry in the Field.  This resulted in the award of the Distinguished Conduct Medal, announced in the London Gazette of March 1919. It wasn’t until December 1919 that the citation was additionally published which reveals an astonishing action which in the earlier years of the war would have gained him the Victoria Cross:

Eric Haydon DCM Citation London Gazette 2Dec1919

Eric Haydon’s citation for the Distinguish Conduct Medal, published in the London Gazette, 2nd December 1919.

Private Eric Haydon was discharged in February 1919 unscathed physically by enemy action with a total of four years and 20 days service.

I can now include his poem in my tours as an authentic testimony by one who saw Ypres in its most devastated state, and who played a remarkable part in the fighting in the last days of the war.


Note: Since researching Eric Haydon, I’ve discovered that Major & Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Guide to Ypres Salient and Passchendaele (Pen & Sword, 2011 Ed.) also credits him as the author and acknowledges Martin Passande as the source of the information.


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