Friday, 3 April 2015

C is for Compiègne on 1 September 1914


Claude Norman Champion de Crespigny (1888–1914), oil painting in the collection of Kelmarsh Hall, image retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/claude-norman-champion-de-crespigny-18881914-49104
Claude Norman Champion de Crespigny (1888 - 1914) was the fifth son and the youngest of nine children of the fourth baronet, Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny (1847 - 1935), and his wife Georgiana née  McKerrell (1849-1935). The 4th baronet named all his sons Claude.

Sir Claude and his five sons pictured in the Black and White Budget of 19 May 1901 retrieved in 2012 from http://www.wartimesindex.co.uk/pubs/books/blackwhitevol3.htm (link now broken) Claude Norman sitting on his father's lap would have been 12 in 1901 but looks younger in the photo  which must have been taken in the early 1890s. The other sons are Claude (1873-1910), Claude Raul (1878-1941), Claude Philip (1880-1939), Claude Vierville (1882-1927)



Norman joined the 1st Dragoon Guards as a 2nd lieutenant in 1907. He was promoted to 1st lieutenant in 1908 and transferred to the 2nd Dragoon Guards (Queen's Bays) in 1910. He had been aide de camp to General Allenby in 1913.

On 1 September 1914 the Queen's Bays, were bivoucked with two other cavalry regiments and L Battery of the Royal Horse Artillery. There were about 550 men in each Cavalry regiment and 205 men with the artillery. There was thick fog; they were surprised by Germans.


Artist's impression of the last 18-pounder gun of "L" Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, in action at Néry, 1 September 1914. from The Times History of the War, Volume X, 1917 retrieved through Wikimedia Commons

The action at Néry near Compiègne was part of the Retreat from Mons, the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force from the Marne in August and September 1914. During the battle the role of the Queen’s Bays was to assist L Battery and to secure Néry 's sugar factory and the southeast of the village. Lieutenant de Crespigny of the Queen’s Bays led his troop in an assault on the Sugar Factory.   All the soldiers in the troop became casualties and de Crespigny was killed.
At around 9am, with the assistance of the 1st Middlesex, the Queen’s Bays captured the Sugar Factory and most of the Germans defending it were killed or taken prisoner. (http://www.britishbattles.com/firstww/battle-of-nery.htm)

From the diary of Captain Edward Stone - Queen's Bays (2nd Dragoon Guards) (retrieved from http://www.qdg.org.uk/diaries.php?dy=42 ):
1st September 1914
At Nery the Bays with 'L' Battery Royal Horse Artillery were caught in a valley by a German force and hammered with artillery fire. The epic three-VC action that followed is famous: "...absolute chaos for a minute or two every horse stampeded but I managed to collar my old mare and hand her over to Nye. We then went up into the firing line... Whilst in the firing line, and as soon as the mist cleared, we could see 12 German guns about 900 yds. Away on which we at once opened fire, and in the end captured 8 of them. I, Walker & Hall went down to protect our right flank which we were afraid of being turned. Whilst next to Ing and Cawley poor String got one in the hand and Cawley was killed. Poor 'L' Battery RHA have been practically blotted out as the Germans opened on them first whilst they were in bivouac and they did not have a chance... At about 10.45am the infantry came up and relieved the pressure... So for five and a half hours the regiment was under as hot a shell and rifle fire as one could wish for. When we looked around at about 11am the Regt. consisted of about 40 men and six officers. The rest have strayed or been wounded..." Eventually the BEF turned about and advanced to the Aisne, where the Germans made a stand.
Map of the battle drawn by John Fawkes retrieved from http://www.britishbattles.com/firstww/battle-of-nery.htm The sugar factory is at the bottom of the map.

The recollections of Private William Clarke - Queen's Bays (2nd Dragoon Guards) (retrieved from http://www.qdg.org.uk/diaries.php?dy=40 ):
1st September 1914
NERY 1st September 1914. I still remember that day because it was the first time, apart from some skirmishes during the withdrawal from Mons, that I participated in a real battle. I remember we were one of the last regiments to each Nery on the 31st August. There were a couple of other regiments there, one was the 5th Dragoon Guards. We were positioned on the west side of the village and our horses were in a field to the west of us. We had reached Nery on the 31st August from Verbier, where we had stopped to water our horses. We came to Nery because, I remember, other villages on our march had been occupied by French cavalry and we had to have somewhere to rest. The cavalry was needed in that area to protect the flank of the retreat from Mons. ‘L’ Battery Royal Horse Artillery was positioned in a field south of the village near the sunken road running to the sugar factory. I remember the morning as being very misty. We had earlier orders to saddle-up, but because of the mist we could not move, so we were dismissed and had breakfast and watered the horses. Suddenly we heard an explosion and then a barrage of shells, I am sure it was about 5am in the morning. We rushed to see what was happening and found that shells had burst amongst our horses, which belonged to ‘C’ Squadron. A lot of them were terribly injured and killed and many of them had stampeded off with fright. There were men trying to hang on to them but they couldn’t stop them bolting. We had no idea what was really happening, just that we had been shelled. Then it seemed that everybody got into action. Gunners dragged their guns into action, and Troopers improvised a firing line. By this time the horses of ‘B’, and ‘A’ Squadrons were stampeding after the other horses. Lieutenant Lamb, the machine gun officer got some of his men together and got a couple of guns going along the sunken road, helping other gunners with their guns. I think another enemy battery started firing on the village then the 5th D G’s engaged them. I was one of a small party of about 15 men who were ordered forward to try to stop the German advance towards the sugar factory. The Germans had occupied some buildings alongside it. Lieutenants de Crispigny, and Misca and a Sgt Major led the attack. We managed to stem the German advancing for a time but due to casualties we had to withdraw. The Germans were machine-gunning us from the sugar factory and I remember that the Germans were finally shelled out of the factory and outbuildings by ‘L’ Battery RHA. Our casualties were heavy, Lieutenant de Crispigny was killed, and so were two or three other men and the rest wounded. Lieutenant Misca, myself and one other man were the only ones to come back unwounded. I was incredibly lucky. From that day to this I cannot remember how long we were actually engaged during our attack on the sugar factory. Then cavalry reinforcements arrived, they had come across our stampeding horses, and they opened fire on the German guns. I remember one regiment was the Middlesex Regiment. ‘L’ Battery RHA were firing from higher ground. When the battle had ended, somewhere about 10am we helped to collect the wounded and cleared up, collecting bits and pieces of useful equipment. It was my first sight of multiple death in battle. Many men and horses, both German and English dead and abandoned guns. At the count I think the Queens Bays lost 150 horses, at least half of that amount killed the rest by stampeding. One officer and four men killed and perhaps 50 wounded. That’s not counting men and horses of other units such as ‘L’ Battery RHA the heroes of the day. Everything seemed to happen so quickly, events were out of control. I know that I felt frightened and excited at the same time. We were a very highly trained and efficient regiment and we did as we were trained to do, responding quickly to situation without question. And if you wanted to live you had to kill. I never saw my own horse again. She was called ‘Daisy’ and she was a lovely, docile, intelligent girl. I had a quick look for her but I suppose she had either been blown to bits or stampeded and ended up as someone else’s mount in another regiment. The next mount I had was a pretty nasty one, a fussy, groaning, moaning rather spiteful creature. I lost that one somewhere near Albert later on in the war. We learned about the tremendous, heroic stand made by ‘L’ Battery. Can’t tell you about that part because we were busy with our own part in the battle, but we saw the carnage after. I think our Colonel Wilberforce had spoken to Captain Bradbury RHA just before he died, both his legs had been shattered by fire. It’s a funny thing but very little was made of the Nery battle. For many years it was, you could say, made little of in official war histories, and now, so much later its significance has been recognized in the Battle of the Marne.
General Allenby wrote to Lady de Crespigny:
From the obituary of Lord Allenby A REMARKABLE CAREER. (1926, January 9). The Register (Adelaide, SA : 1901 - 1929), p. 7. Retrieved from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article64318737

 From a letter transcribed on the Great War Forum from The British Roll of Honour, - The Personal Tribute  (http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=7749):
Dear Madam,(The Lady Champion de Crespigny)
In answer to your letter, I will explain all that occurred on the 1st of September at Nery.The 1st Cavalry Brigade were surprised about 5.30 am.; our horses were picketed down and we were drawing rations when the Germans opened fire on the camp with 12 field guns and several Maxims.Your son was in charge of the Queen's Bays, who were told to hold an important position, which they did, mowing the advancing Germans down.Your son alone advanced from that position with revolver drawn with the fixed idea of getting behind the enemy's guns and shooting down the gunners, as they were playing havoc with our men and horses, but he fell hit by shrapnel.I saw him and another officer carried away into some houses nearby.I served under your son in India when in the 1st (Kings) Dragoon Guards, and knew him as a gentlemen and thorough sportsman, and if ever a VC was won he won it that morning. I think this is all I can say. Thanking you for all your kindness to me,
I am Madam,
Yours respectfully,
Cpl A. F. Wills
5th Dragoon Guards
Marriage

On 7 September 1913 Norman married Olivia Rose Gordon, a grand-niece of 'Chinese Gordon', General Gordon of  Khartoum. Olivia and Norman had no children. Olivia remarried in 1917 and died in 1927.

Burial

Norman was first buried at Néry with seventeen other men killed there. In November 1914 his body was exhumed and reburied in the family mausoleum in Essex. A full description of the funeral is in the article reproduced below. Repatriation of bodies was unusual. It was done at the family's expense and was expensive. As a result the bodies of only about 60 officers were repatriated. In March 1915 British Government policy put a stop to the practice in March 1915.

Norman's body was reburied in a family mausoleum in the grounds of Champion Lodge in Essex. The lodge was sold and the mausoleum no longer exists.  The grave of Norman and other members of the family is now in the churchyard of St Andrews at Hatfield Peverel, Essex.  Hatfield Peverel is about six miles north-west of Maldon where Champion Lodge and the family mausoleum was. The second reburial is said to have taken place in the 1950s. (According to the Oxford Dictionary of Biography entry for Sir Claude Champion de Crespigny)


Photograph of the mausoleum at Champion Lodge about 1913 from Essex historical biographical and pictorial edited by John Grant. page 156 retrieved from https://archive.org/stream/essexhistoricalb00gran#page/156/mode/2up "
A view of the beautiful dark grey granite Mausoleum, with 
oak door and carved cross thereon, in the park, standing on a 
quarter of an acre of ground, erected to the memory of that gallant 
officer, Captain Claude Champion de Crespigny, D.S.O., formerly 
of the 2nd Life Guards, who was born September 11th, 1873, and 
died May 18th, 1910. 

Planted with trees and roses, encircled with an iron railing, 
a flagged path leading up to it, with rock plants in between, the 
Mausoleum is constructed to hold eight coffins, so that this will be 
the last resting place of all that is mortal of Sir Claude and Lady 
Champion de Crespigny in time to come. "

Additional sources 
From the Essex County Chronicle Friday 13 November 1914 retrieved from FindMyPast.com.au (Image © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

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