Personal stories from the Battle of the Somme

A black and white photograph of staff at the back of Polesden Lacey in 1915

On the 1 July 2016, it was 100 years since the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. Beginning at 7:30am, the battle would last for 141 days, and would become one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War. On the first day alone there were over 57,470 British casualties. This week, Assistant House Steward Tracey explores Polesden's connection to some of the men who died at this tragic moment in history.

Here at Polesden Lacey, Mrs Greville, like many other country house owners, opened her doors to the wounded returning from war who needed a place to convalesce. Many of the officers who convalesced here were treated at Edward VII Hospital in London before coming to recover in these beautiful surroundings.
 
The first officers started arriving at Polesden Lacey in June 1915.  Many of the men who signed their name in the visitors' book and stayed here would certainly have fought in the Somme offensive over the Summer of 1916.  
 
These men had experienced the horrors of war and had been subjected to gas attacks, shrapnel wounds and severe trauma. The greenery and calm of Polesden Lacey's estate would have provided a stark contrast and all too brief respite to the terrors experienced on the Western Front. 
 
To the young men who spent time here as convalescing officers, it was a nostalgic glimpse at the privileged world that they had inhabited before the war. Many who spent time here returned to the front after recovering sufficiently and Polesden become a distant memory.
Black and white photographs of nurses at Polesden Lacey
Black and white photographs of nurses at Polesden Lacey

Commemorating the Battle of the Somme

 
Polesden's role in the First World War has been commemorated by our exhibition, 'Society's Soldiers', over the past year and I have been privileged to meet with and interview some of the descendants of these officers.
 
Alongside our exhibition, I was delighted to be involved in setting up tours to commemorate the use of Polesden Lacey as a convalescent hospital.  By focussing on the 100 years of the Somme, we aim to keep these officers' memories alive.
 
We have a great team of volunteer tour guides here who help highlight an important part in British and Polesden’s history whilst bringing alive the stories of these officers who convalesced here in 1915-1916. 
 

Tours with a personal touch

 
Polesden's experience of the War plays just a small part in the story of World War One and three of the guides are able to add more to the visitors' experiences by providing a personal touch. These three guides all have ancestors who fought in WWI and are able to highlight their own family members' stories to our visitors.
 
Providing a tangible link to World War One, tour guides Gill, Penny and Alan have kindly agreed for their ancestors' stories to be shared in this blog. 
 

Corporal James Mitchell - Volunteer Gill's Granfather

 
Corporal James Mitchell, Northumberland Fusiliers, enlisted in 1914 when Gill's father was a child. Her research into his story took her to the National Archives at Kew. She found out that on the first day of the Somme offensive, a staggering 539 out of 800 men in Mitchell's battalion were killed or wounded.
 
Tragically, Gill's grandfather was one of the men who never returned. His body was never recovered, and his name, along with more than 73,000 others, is commemorated on the Theipval Monument in Northern France.
 
Gill's Grandfather Corporal James Mitchell
Black and white image of a WWI soldier in uniform
 
Commanding officer, General Ingouville-Williams, said of Mitchell's division "[They] did glorious deeds. Never have I seen men go through such a barrage of artillery.  They advanced as on parade and never flinched. I cannot speak too highly of them”
 

Gunner Leslie James Dunbar - Volunteer Penny's Great Uncle

 
Gunner Leslie James Dunbar of the Royal Field Artillery was tragically killed in action on 27 May 1915. On the death of her father, Penny’s mother discovered a box of possessions that contained a collection of documents, letters and photographs relating to his uncle.
 
These included Leslie’s pay book, the official letter advising his parents of his death, and the letters of condolence they received from friends and neighbours.  Among the photos was one of a  simple grave.
 
They discovered his name was on the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, which is dedicated to those who fell during the war.  It appeared that his initial grave had been bombed the following day and therefore no remains to be reburied.  None of the correspondence was sent to Leslie’s parents to spare them this tragic news. 
 
Penny's Great Uncle - Leslie James Dunbar
Black and White image of a WWI Soldier
 
Penny found photographs on the Brigade's website, including one of her uncle from a newspaper cutting. This was a wonderful moment for Penny who had only ever seen him as a small boy in family photographs.
 
Penny visited Ypres in July 2015 and found Leslie’s name on the Menin Gate and took part in the daily ceremony, which takes place every evening at 8pm when a group of buglers sound The Last Post.  
 

Private James Henry Walsh - Volunteer Alan's Grandfather

 
Private James Henry Walsh of the Middlesex Regiment was known to friends as Jim. While taking part in the Somme offensive over the Summer of 1916, Jim remembers going out into No Man's Land and pushing a wounded officer back to British lines whilst under fire.
 
Upon reaching the British trenches he pushed the officer to safety, but was struck on the side of the head by a German bullet, knocked unconcious and came to to find himself in a German trench.  
 
He was taken prisoner before escaping a few weeks later.  He was able to escape as it was the same camp that he had helped build for the British, several weeks prior, for German prisoners.  Knowing his way around the camp intimately, he managed to walk out before the Germans missed him.  For his bravery and conduct he was awarded the Military Medal.
 
Jim survived the war and had two children, Lillian and William (Alan's father). Years later Jim was diagnosed with a brain tumour in exactly the spot where the bullet had hit.
 
Surgeons removed a third of his skull and replaced it with a steel plate.  Amazingly he suffered no discernible brain damage and lived a long life, dying peacefully at the age of 80.
 

The priviledge of storytelling 

 
These are three very different accounts which we are privileged to be able to hear and recount.
 
We shall never forget these men who went forth and fought for God and the right. Why not come along to one of our Society's Soldiers tours weekdays here at Polesden Lacey, share their stories and help keep these brave soldiers’ memories alive.
 
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