Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog
Posted by on 14 July 2016 · Tags: , , · · comment »

This guest post is by Dr John Cleaver: Life Fellow, Archivist, and editor of ‘Fitzwilliam: the first 150 years of a Cambridge College’.

Remember 1 July 2016, a day on which so much was written and said about the centenary of the Battle of the Somme?  It’s a fortnight ago, so probably you have forgotten it already, particularly if you are preoccupied with the depressing events of the present day – but the men who took part did not have the luxury to forget: from a hundred years ago today, the battle still had about another seventeen weeks to run.

Ten Fitzwilliam men died in the Battle of the Somme – the first exactly a century ago on 14 July 1916, towards the end of the relatively active phase of the battle.  The other nine died in the area over the following four months, as the battle degenerated into an exercise in attrition.

The battle of the Somme put to a very substantial test the New Army introduced by Kitchener. Its establishment had been a remarkable experiment.  The mass army was improvised rapidly and, although there had been significant improvements to both Regular and Territorial forces in the period after the Boer War, there was rather little provision for expansion and a very small cadre of trained men as a basis.  Tactics reflected the limited competence that was expected from the recruits.

An illustration of the poor understanding of training requirements is given in a letter in May 1915 from a Fitzwilliam man, Second Lieutenant William Carter, to William Fiddian Reddaway – the Censor of Non-Collegiate Students, the principal officer of Fitzwilliam Hall – claiming of his rather basically trained recruits that

as discipline is now becoming more and more pronounced, by the time we have finished our musketry course we shall be just about ready for service in any part of the world.

It speaks volumes for the men that they still show considerable keenness in their work, when consideration is made for the fact that their training has been hindered by lack of equipment and material.  The routine here is rather monotonous but it is now and then varied by a few ceremonial parades.

Such provision, which was all that was practicable, could not meet the requirements for men who were to tackle well-prepared defensive positions.  The emphasis in training was to instil discipline rather than intelligent competence and, consistent with that, the new recruits spent a high proportion of their training time on close-order drill.  This was a particular failing of the British army, and contrasted strongly with what could be achieved in the German army (which had based its pre-war system on much higher quality conscript recruits: before the war the British army had recruited predominantly from the unemployed, and had to reject a high proportion as they failed to meet even basic physical standards).  The disregard for initiative was consistent with the belief that orders simply needed to be passed down and followed by the lower ranks, such control in turn necessitating a higher proportion of junior officers and non-commissioned officers to men than in the German army, and resulting in inactivity or severely-degraded performance when officers and NCOs were incapacitated.  Indeed, this did not apply solely to the management of private soldiers; at all levels amongst the officers there was an inflexible emphasis on top-down command without delegation of responsibility for decision-making, and grossly inadequate provision for the feedback either of long-term practical experience or of urgent information.

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme: its 56 engraved stone panels bear a total of 72,246 names.

The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme: its 56 engraved stone panels bear a total of 72,246 names.

William Carter – by that time Lieutenant Carter – was to be the first Fitzwilliam man to be killed in the battle of the Somme, on 14 July 1916.  He died without identifiable trace and, like so many others, is commemorated on Sir Edwin Lutyens’ great arch at Thiepval, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

The south-east section of the British sector on the Somme, showing the German trench system.  Mametz Wood and Bazentin-le-Petit Wood are at top centre.  Note the map scale: in peacetime, from Fricourt to Bazentin-le-Petit Wood via Contalmaison is a gentle half-hour stroll.

The south-east section of the British sector on the Somme, showing the German trench system. Mametz Wood and Bazentin-le-Petit Wood are at top centre. Note the map scale: in peacetime, from Fricourt to Bazentin-le-Petit Wood via Contalmaison is a gentle half-hour stroll.

Temporary Lieutenant Frederic Scott wrote to Reddaway with an account of other action on 14 July.  A week previously, on 8 July, he had

moved up to Contalmaison where we completed the capture of that place by surrounding and demolishing three houses at its northern end, capturing about 100 of the Prussian Guard.

After four days consolidating and holding on there, we were withdrawn to Fricourt , where our Brigade was concentrated.  There we were told that to us had been given the honour of making the first attack on the German second-line system.  The 13th was spent in preparing for our attack by carrying up bombs and ammunition to the northern edge of Mametz Wood, from which we were to debouch and attack.  Our task was to take Bazentin-le-Petit Wood and village, and hold a line north of them.

We attacked at dawn on the 14th, ‘France’s Day’, and by 8:00 am we had captured the wood, with five lines of trenches in it, every tree acting as a staple for barbed wire, and by 8:50 we had taken the village (and 600 prisoners) and reached our objective.  We had the supreme satisfaction of seeing the cavalry come through us into the open, and then we resisted five massed counter-attacks, in which the Huns suffered enormously.

I was hit about noon and left the fighting line about 4:00 pm, when we had lost about 75% of our strength.  However, our line held strong, until the night of the 15th when the remnant of the Leicestershire Brigade was relieved.  It was a great fight – hand to hand, mostly, and the enemy fought desperately. ‘Bazentin, c’est la gloire anglaise’ say the French, and my wound seems a trivial price to pay for the honour of having a hand in it.

Actually, his action was recognised more tangibly.  He was awarded a Military Cross, and the citation read

For conspicuous gallantry during an attack.  Although badly shaken by a bursting shell, he collected thirty men and dug himself in in a forward position, holding it under heavy fire for a day and night.  He was wounded, but refused attention until he had withdrawn his party.

Scott survived the Somme, but was to die in May 1918.

Overall, the Somme offensive achieved an advance of about 13 km on a 30 km front, with more than a quarter of that area captured in the first two-week period.

In the later attritional phase nine more Fitzwilliam men were to die – identifiable remains of four of them were never recovered so, like Carter, they are commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial:  Allan Alford, Cyril Allison, George Stout, and John Swallow.  The bodies of the other five men – Alec Boucher, Bernard Downman, Oswald Elliott, Eric Player, and William Shaw – were recovered and buried in various cemeteries in the area.

Captain Eric Player and Second Lieutenant Oswald Elliott are both buried at Bécourt Military Cemetery, 2½ km east of Albert.

Captain Eric Player and Second Lieutenant Oswald Elliott are both buried at Bécourt Military Cemetery, 2½km east of Albert.

The Somme deaths between July and November 1916 represent about a quarter of the Fitzwilliam deaths in the Great War.  During the war a total of forty-four men died, out of about 300 from the Hall who served abroad – about 230 of them as combatants, and about 13 as members of the Royal Army Medical Corps. There were also about 46 chaplains, and about 14 provided welfare for troops through the YMCA.

Posted in Guest posts · Master's blog

This guest post is by Dr John Cleaver, Life Fellow and editor of ‘Fitzwilliam: The First 150 Years of a Cambridge College’.

Wilfrid Bertram Hirst

Wilfrid Bertram Hirst


On this day, 22 April 2015, we commemorate the centenary of the death of Wilfrid Bertram Hirst, the first member of Fitzwilliam Hall to be killed in the Great War.

Hirst was a typical member of Fitzwilliam Hall in the period immediately before the Great War. He came up to Fitzwilliam from Rotherham Grammar School, where he had been School Captain, in 1911 – his father was Mayor of the town. His aspiration also was typical: he strongly desired to seek Ordination; and after leaving school he became an assistant master at the Lincoln Choir School.

At that time, Fitzwilliam was not a college but provided an economical route into Cambridge for non-collegiate students: Fitzwilliam Hall was situated in Trumpington Street opposite the Fitzwilliam Museum. The Censor, its principal officer, had from 1907 been William Fiddian Reddaway – he transformed Fitzwilliam, drawing the non-collegiate students into a corporate structure, albeit one that placed very heavy emphasis on the clubs and their activities, and he fought unrelentingly on its behalf.

A letter to Reddaway in August 1911 demonstrated Hirst’s determination and character:

I feel very strongly that I should not be doing myself justice if I do not read for Honours; of course I do not lay any sudden claim to brilliancy, but in my own mind I feel that perseverance and determination to fit myself as well as possible for the work in the Church will pull me through.’

Hirst was heavily and successfully involved in athletics – putting the weight, throwing the hammer, hurdling and high jump – and in team sports: he captained both the Football Club and the Hockey Club. The photograph shows the cricket team in the summer of 1913, with Hirst at top left; all but one would see active service, and three were to die.

The cricket team

The cricket team 1913














The academic side was not totally neglected, although for him it was perhaps for duty rather than for delight; Reddaway wrote later that: ‘above all things a man of action, he won two Firsts in the History Special, surprising those who had not penetrated the depth of his resolve to do his duty, however unattractive. His occasional excursions into coaching or secretarial work were always admirably carried through. The renunciation of a postgraduate year at Cambridge formed another fine triumph of self-discipline. He was preparing for Ordination at Lincoln when war was declared.’

At the onset of war Hirst spent six weeks in the ranks of the local Territorials, which he found a ‘most invaluable experience, if a little rough’ and was highly regarded. One Captain indicated that ‘his steadiness of principle was one of the things that struck me most, for so light-hearted an exterior’. After the frustration of waiting for a commission, he joined the Lincolnshire Regiment as Second Lieutenant. Hirst was delighted when he learned that he was to be posted to the Western Front, finding it ‘supremely gratifying; of all the most horrible things I can think of, a trip to Egypt, or India, with one’s Regiment at such a time would be the worst. Fitzwilliam Hall for the firing line, just as it ought to be.’

His Battalion remained in England until the very beginning of March 1915 when it was shipped to Flanders, and for the last week in March it was billeted at Ploegsteert, training and providing working parties for the Royal Engineers. This was the culmination he sought, and he wrote on 31 March to his mother: ‘A man who probably called himself a sniper had a few pot-shots at us, but was very wide … .’

In early April, he was billeted in the Flemish village of Dranouter, and then on 9 April went into the front line for the first time; for three nights all was quiet, but they were shelled on 13 April. After three nights back at Dranouter, they moved up again on 18 April. Thus began Hirst’s final period in the front line, as the entry for 21 April in the War Diary of the 1st/4th Lincolnshires tells: ‘In the trenches. Lt W.B. HIRST killed. Quiet day and night’. Wilfrid Hirst was brought into a casualty-clearing station unconscious from a bullet in the head, and died two hours later.




















Hirst had survived only twelve days performing duties in, or near, the front line. He was buried in Dranouter; his grave is the second in the single row of graves parallel to the nave of the church, almost overwhelmed by the polished granite of the civilian memorials.


For Fitzwilliam, the story of Wilfrid Hirst did not end with his death in Flanders – it continues to the present day. Fitzwilliam students are supported by a fund established in his memory and that of Eric Noel Player, his contemporary and close friend, who was killed in 1916 on the Somme.

About £400 was collected in their memories, and a house in Fitzwilliam Street was purchased to generate rental income for a Bursary; it yielded £28 p.a. The house was sold in 1959, prior to the move of Fitzwilliam to new buildings on Huntingdon Road. The current value of the Hirst Player Fund is around £125,000 and its income provides bursaries and studentships for men or women, preferably Ordinands, reading for a Degree or a Diploma in Theology.

At any time, one or two graduate students are in receipt of Hirst Player Studentships. So the spirit of the original scheme to commemorate Hirst and Player lives on, and contributes to the support of their successors a century later.