For many of those going to war the recruiting slogan ‘It will all be over by Christmas’ was accepted as fact. Written by Rev Paul Wilcock, University of Huddersfield
By the time the initial engagements of the conflict took place, it had become increasingly evident that it would not be the ‘walk in the park’ that many believed.
As the units were armed and prepared for battle, not only were weapons made ready but other iconic regimental equipment was prepared for departure. Among these, the 2nd Battalion, The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, like so many other units, issued its drums.
For them, one drum in particular has become a symbol of that initial phase in the conflict and a reminder of one of its most famous commanding officers, Lt. Colonel James Alec Charles (JAC) Gibbs CB.
It now takes pride of place as part of the World War I exhibition in the Regimental Museum in Halifax, simply titled, ‘The Mons Drum’.
The drum originally carried not only the regimental insignia, but also the battle honours and, like the colours, serves as a reminder of the heritage and accomplishments of the regiment.
Because of this, while not perhaps as significant as the colours, it was an important artefact and not to be allowed to fall into enemy hands.
War was declared on August 4, 1914 and the British Expeditionary Force began to embark for France. The BEF was a small army comprising 80,000 men initially formed into two Corps.
The 2nd Battalion the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment formed part of the 13th Brigade arriving in France on August 16 and crossed the Belgian frontier to deploy in St. Ghislain six days later. The Battle of Mons was the first engagement of the war with the BEF., outnumbered three to one attempting, as it transpired successfully, to halt the German advance long enough to prevent the French Fifth Army from being outflanked.
The 2nd Battalion played a significant role in the initial phase of the encounter at Mons and they paid a high price.
The action is recorded in vivid detail in the diary of Lt Colonel J.A.C.Gibbs, who was wounded and taken prisoner. Lt Col Gibbs was born in 1866, making him 47 years old in 1914 when he commanded the 2nd Battalion at the outbreak of the First World War.
He was a veteran soldier, joining the 2nd Battalion in 1887, serving in Africa where he was twice wounded, and becoming Lt Col in 1912. After the war, in 1920, he was awarded the CB. While his diary is brief — lasting only until November 16, 1914 — it gives a colourful account of those first few months of the war.
On the morning of the August 23,1914 Gibbs records: “A lovely morning broke and we hoped for a peaceful day.”
He could not have been more wrong. By mid-morning he could hear gun fire, by 1pm his men were able to see German soldiers in the hedgerows only 400 yards away and by 3pm Private Shellabear had been killed, recorded as the first to die in the Regiment. By now shrapnel was bursting overhead and the 1st Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment had suffered heavy losses. At 21.55 Gibbs received orders from Brigade to retire to positions at Wasmes.
The firefight proceeded and in the darkness, Gibbs withdrew his troops as best he could. He records that by 11.30 the following morning the enemy fire was increasing and the capacity for the British artillery to reply was diminishing. A few minutes later Lt Col Gibbs’ active part in the war came to an abrupt end. It is best described in his own words:
“The fire although hellish had up to date done practically no damage to the Reserve company thanks to the concealed position of the trenches etc, but at 12.15 pm three shells burst in quick succession — the first getting into the advanced trench on the east side of ‘Bosquet’ killing and wounding several; the second burst close to where Strafford and I were talking. He fell dead with a piece of shrapnel through his temple and at the same I got three pieces in my left side and a small piece through my left wrist. A small trench in front of us had several casualties also …… Taylor who was near me, tied me up and with the help of another man got me into the shade behind a trench from where I could more or less see what was going on. I sent word back to Macleod I was hit and to carry on.”
Gibbs dragged himself through a nearby garden and was eventually helped to an ambulance by the Belgian Red Cross. The remainder of his diary describes his time in hospital, poignantly detailing the deaths of fellow officers and men as the German onslaught continued.
And so, what of the Mons Drum? Now facing an increasingly ferocious onslaught from the German forces there was a distinct risk that the drum may be lost to the enemy.
At this point the combination of fact and regimental legend becomes interwoven. One of the aspects upon which all accounts agree was that the drum was being carried by Drummer William Mellish. It had been made by Henry Potter & Co. in 1885, and was itself a veteran seeing action in South Africa.
The regimental legend tells of the drum being left in St Ghislain as the Battalion withdrew and for safety, being buried by a Belgian woman to prevent it falling into the hands of the Germans. The drum was recorded as having been returned to the Regiment after the war, however from 1936 onwards there are various insights recorded in editions of the regimental journal, ‘The Iron Duke’.
The first account was furnished by Mr O Ramsbottom, ex RQMS, in 1936. He describes the events of August 23 with the Battalion being rapidly deployed from their billets to join the West Kents who were under severe pressure.
He accounts for the drum being left unattended by the fact that the men were deployed in “battle order without packs”, meaning that while the drummers may have taken bugles, the drums were left behind. The Battalion subsequently withdrew to Wasmes and never returned to those billets.
In 1937, a letter was received at Regimental HQ from Col Goldthorpe, late of the 4th Battalion. It transpired that he was billeted in St Ghislain in 1919. While there, he notes that the local Belgian population were engaged in ‘digging up’ valued articles they had buried to save them from falling into German hands.
One of Goldthorpe’s officers was billeted with a woman who, while he was present, dug up a drum and gave it to him. The initial assumption was that it belonged to the West Kents, but on closer examination was recognised as belonging to the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, at which point, it was returned to the 2nd Battalion who were billeted in a nearby town.
One mystery is of course, the name of the lady who saved this artefact. Colonel Goldthorpe is clear in his letter in 1937 that the name of the woman who buried and recovered it, and an account of its story was passed to the Regiment, however no record of this can be found.
In the 1958 edition of The Iron Duke, further detail is revealed in an article entitled ‘The 2nd Battalion Drum’. This appears to conflict with the account of the drum simply being left in the billet. According to this account, which adds further detail to Col Goldthorpe’s recollections, the lady came across a British soldier “haring” down the road towards her who thrust the drum into her hands and ran on. The soldier is thought to have been Drummer Mellish. It seems that when confronted by advancing Germans the lady is alleged to have stood effectively in the drum concealing it in her long skirts.
The drum having been buried was exhumed and the identity of its original owner revealed.
The penultimate reference appears in 1964 where most details remain the same with the exception of the fact that in this account, it is suggested that Mellish was billeted at the lady’s house and asked her the night before to look after the drum until the unit returned, which of course it did not.
According to Col Goldthorpe’s account, Mellish was invalided home during the war, however this was later discovered not to be the case.
The final account appears briefly in ‘The Iron Duke’ 2008 celebrating the reopening of the ‘Duke’s’ museum where the drum is pictured with a later model, but still bearing the scars of its remarkable experiences of war.
Obviously none of the participants in this account are still alive to reveal the secrets of the drum. Drummer Mellish, according to Colonel Goldthorpe’s letter, died soon after the war. In fact Mellish never returned home. Born in 1896 in Deptford he was captured in August 1914 and was interned in the Dyrotz Prisoner of War Camp in Brandenburg throughout the war. Regimental records note that he died on December 16, 1918, though the cause of death is not recorded. He is buried in Berlin South Western Cemetery.
Lt Col Gibbs served the Regiment valiantly and retired, having been awarded the CB for his services, dying in 1930 aged 63.
His obituary in ‘The Iron Duke’ states that he died suddenly from peritonitis, believed at the time to have been caused by the wounds he had sustained many years earlier. He leaves a fascinating personal account, all be it brief, of his experiences. His sword has been preserved and was placed in a wooden glazed case as a permanent memory of his service.
During the engagement of August 24 and later the following year during the bloody encounter at Hill 60, many officers and men of the Battalion gave their lives. Some of them are now commemorated in the Regimental museum — their names listed on the Reninghelst Cross. This once commemorated the fallen of the Battalion in Reninghelst churchyard and is now displayed with a group photograph of the Battalion’s officers, taken in Dublin in 1914.
Of the 26 men in the photograph, 16 were killed or wounded.
In the same attack in which Gibbs was wounded, Major Strafford died as he was talking with Gibbs. Captain Denman-Jubb and Lieutenant Russell were also killed. Major Townshend, Captain Taylor, Lieutenants Thompson and Ozanne, along with Second Lieutenants Oliphant and Young were wounded.
Today, the drum is barely recognisable as that of 2nd Battalion. The trained eye can still pick out the regimental insignia and some remnants of the battle honours, but its experiences since being parted from Drummer Mellish have taken their toll.
Visitors to the museum may choose to spend a few quiet moments in the room commemorating the Regiment’s valour in that war that everyone believed would be over by Christmas.
The room is now home to the Reninghelst Cross and the Mons Drum, standing beside the picture of Lt Col Gibbs and his officers before they went to war. Now of course all are long gone, some valiantly fighting and dying for their country, some, in later life thankful that they had been spared.
Peacefully and in quiet contemplation the Mons Drum still reminds us of that day in August 1914, and it now silently sounds a beat that echoes in the hearts of all those who take time to remember the fallen.