How Did He Die?

By David Norris

As we commemorate the centenary of the Armistice that effectively brought the First World War to an end and remember the casualties of that conflict, it may be worth reflecting on the experiences of the families of servicemen who lost their lives. This piece looks at just one Pembrokeshire family that lost two brothers. An Australian connection for each of them means that documents preserved in the Australian War Memorial collection give us an insight into the family’s efforts to learn more about their deaths.[1]

They could not be described as typical: the family belonged to the landed gentry; both brothers were, or had been, professional soldiers; both were officers; and both died in the first half of the war. The impact of the war on the wider community changed as the conflict went on. In the first year of the war, the casualties were regular soldiers and the losses were felt in the limited circle formed by service families; in the second year of war, casualties among Territorial Army units widened the impact. The Somme offensive that began on 1 July 1916 saw the first large scale commitment of the volunteers who made up the soldiers of Kitchener’s New Armies. By 1917, the introduction of conscription the previous year had left few parts of society without direct experience of losses in combat. Not withstanding these reservations, many of the features of this family’s case were common to members of the wider community.

John Arthur Higgon was born at Scolton Manor in the parish of Spittal, on 12 November 1873. He was educated at Tenby and Wellington College. In 1891, he went to Sandhurst to begin his training to become an army officer.[2] On 10 October 1894 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He served in Malta, Crete, Hong Kong, Wei-Hai-Wei and Ireland.[3] While serving in the Far East he met his wife, marrying Lurline May Moses, an Australian, in St John’s Cathedral, Hong Kong on 27 June 1900.[4] At the end of 1909, Captain Higgon retired from the army.[5] The following year he joined the Pembroke Yeomanry.[6]

Higgon

Paintings of Johnny and Lurline Higgon by Beatrice Bright. On display at Scolton Manor. Owned by the Higgon Family

and reproduced with the kind permission of Pembrokeshire Museum Service.

 

Lirline Higgon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

John’s brother, Archibald Bellairs Higgon, was born on 19 April 1880, also at Scolton. He was educated at Haverfordwest Grammar School and Wellington College.[7] He went to Woolwich to train as an artillery officer, following in the footsteps of his father who served with the Royal Artillery for nearly 20 years. Archibald served with the Royal Field Artillery in India, South Africa and Scotland.[8] He saw action during the Boer War and was awarded the Queen’s Medal with three clasps and the King’s Medal with two clasps (clasps were given for involvement in specific actions).[9] It is likely that while serving as adjutant to the 3rd Highland Howitzer Brigade in Greenock[10] Captain Higgon met his wife, marrying Isobel Jane Denroche-Smith at St Ninian’s Episcopal Church, Balhory, Perthshire in 1913.[11]

Archie Higgon

 

 

 

Pencil drawing of Archie Higgon from a photograph after his death.

Owned by the Marsh family and reproduced with the kind permission of Pembrokeshire Museum Service.

 

 

 

 

 

When war broke out in August 1914, Archibald Higgon was serving in Ireland. His unit, 80th Battery Royal Field Artilllery (RFA), was shipped from Dublin and landed in Le Havre on 18 August. Less than two weeks later he was heavily involved in the Battle of Le Cateau when General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s I Corps of the British Expeditionary Force fought a desperate action to delay the German advance from Belgium. The battle was fought on 26 August and by teatime Higgon was commanding officer of 15th Brigade RFA as all the senior officers were casualties.[12] He was mentioned in despatches by Field Marshal Sir John French, commander of the BEF, and later awarded the French Legion of Honour.[13] Early 1915 found Archibald, now promoted to major, serving as a gunnery instructor at a training camp in England.[14] In June 1915 he embarked for the Dardanelles as commanding officer of D battery 69 Howitzer Brigade RFA.

On 17 September 1915 The Alyth Guardian reported “On Wednesday evening a telegram conveyed the sad intelligence that Major AB Higgon, …, had been killed in action last Thursday”.[15] Thursday was 9 September.

During the war Mrs Isobel Higgon worked with the British Red Cross Enquiry Bureau which sought to provide families with more information about killed and missing servicemen than was set out in the War Office telegrams, often by collecting eyewitness statements from wounded servicemen convalescing in hospital. As Higgon’s battery had been serving with the Australian forces at Gallipolli, Mrs Higgon contacted the Australian Red Cross to ask for confirmation of and details about her husband’s death. The Australian Red Cross found four wounded artillerymen in hospitals in Cardiff, Malta and London who were able to provide short statements which were passed on to his widow. Three statements came from witnesses of his death and reported that at 6am on 10 September he was shot in the head by a sniper while visiting an observation post in the frontline trenches. The fourth statement comes from a witness to his burial but not his death and gives the date of death as 9 September. The statements record that he was buried near No.2 (or No.3, according to one statement) ANZAC outpost, later on the day that he died. One statement notes that a Church of England chaplain officiated at the burial and that a cross was erected over the grave. The statements were recorded in the October yet three give a different date of death (albeit just by a day). Two statements record that Higgon died at once.

The Allies withdrew from their positions on the Gallipoli peninsular in April 1916. By early 1919, however, they had returned to try to identify graves and establish formal cemeteries. Isobel Higgon contacted the Australian Red Cross once again in March 1919 to seek assistance in locating her husband’s grave. She had sought help from the British equivalent but had not had a response. The initial response was encouraging: although all the crosses marking graves had been removed the cemetery was small, so it was hoped that it would be possible to identify individual graves. Mrs Higgon replied asking that a photograph of her husband’s grave could be sent to her. There is no further correspondence in the Australian War Memorial file. Higgon’s grave was never found and a memorial erected in the cemetery states simply that he is believed to be buried there.

 

In 1917 moves began that resulted in the founding of the Imperial War Museum. In January 1918 Isobel Higgon responded to a request published in The Scotsman newspaper asking for photographs of officers who received decorations and been killed during the war. The photograph she sent is now held in the IWM archives.[16]

Isobel Higgon

Isobel in mourning

 Owned by the Marsh family and reproduced with the kind permission of Pembrokeshire Museum Service.

 

The Pembroke Yeomanry were mobilised in August 1914. The same month saw John Higgon promoted to major.[17] As part of the Territorial Force, the Yeomanry were not obliged to serve overseas (although most did volunteer to do so). The Pembroke Yeomanry were sent to Norfolk to form part of the forces mustered to counter a possible German invasion. In March 1916, the Pembroke Yeomanry sailed for Egypt on the transport ship SS Arcadian. By this time, they had given up their horses and become an infantry unit.

On 8 June 1916 Higgon transferred to 32nd Battalion Australian Imperial Force (AIF).[18] He believed it would improve his chances of seeing action. As a former regular officer he would have had the opportunity to transfer earlier to command one of the many new British Army battalions raised by Kitchener. However, it appears that he felt his place was with his fellow Yeomanry. He left Egypt for France the same month on the transport SS Transylvania.[19] Higgon was given command of A Company. He was fortunate to get this transfer as the AIF were not keen on British officers by this stage of the war.[20] His arrival in France brought him close to where his brother Hugh was serving. They appear to have met and spent an afternoon together on 11 July.[21] His unit took part in the Battle of Fromelles, part of the Somme offensive. The battalion war diary records that they went “over the top” at 5.53 pm on 19 July 1916.  The entry for the following day notes that Higgon had been killed in action.[22]

Mrs Isobel Higgon contacted the Australian Red Cross in August 1916 on behalf of her sister-in-law. The family had heard a report that Higgon had been seen writing in his note book after he had been hit and, as his body had not been brought in for burial, this raised the possibility that he had not died. The Red Cross initiated an inquiry to see if he had been taken prisoner by the Germans. Not until October 1919 was information received confirming that he was not a prisoner. By this stage, however, there was no doubt that he was dead.

As with his brother, the Red Cross collected eyewitness accounts from others who fought alongside John Higgon. The Australian War Memorial files include eight statements recorded between 24 August 1916 and 22 March 1917. The first was passed on to Mrs Isobel Higgon on 1 September. Details of further statements were sent to Mrs Lurline May Higgon on 7 and 16 September. The last three statements were collected after this date and do not appear to have been forwarded, presumably as they added nothing to those already sent.

Higgon was shot between the eyes around 6pm on 19 July soon after leading his men out of their trenches to attack the enemy. He was killed instantly. One of the Red Cross statements came from Higgon’s signaller, Private Kelly. He was standing next to him when he was shot. He described Higgon as a fine soldier and a good officer. He expressed a wish to meet with Higgon’s relatives. His widow quickly made arrangements to visit him in Fulham Military Hospital, travelling up from Devizes in Devon where she was living at the time.

On 16 August 1916 the Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Telegraph published a piece regarding Higgon’s death. It included some biographical details and also two letters sent to his widow by fellow officers. It is worth quoting both letters verbatim.

The first was probably from his commanding officer:

“I hope it may be of some consolation to you to know that your husband was the life and soul of the attack in which he fell and that all ranks from his Divisional General down to the rank and file speak most enthusiastically of the way in which he led all troops which were near him. He set a most conspicuous example of coolness and gallantry and everybody says that the success of the attack in that part of the field where his battalion was, was entirely due to him. Had he survived he would have been appointed to command a battalion the next day, and although he had been such a short time with us, it was long enough to make us all realise that we have lost in him one of the very best officers that have served with the Anzac Forces and who cannot be replaced. With very deepest sympathy.”

Another fellow officer wrote:

“With sincere regret I must inform you of the death of your husband, Major J A Higgon of this regiment. He was killed in action on the night of 19-20 July while leading his men against the German trenches during the attack. Although he was with us for a comparatively short period he was loved and admired by officers and men alike of this regiment to such a degree that his loss is keenly felt by all. All that are left of our lads wish to express their deepest sympathies for the loss of such a true gentleman and fine soldier. On the night of 19th-20th July our regiment in conjunction with others of this brigade received orders to attack the German defences. To do this an open space of 100 yards of No Man’s Land had to be crossed under a heavy fire from rifles, machine guns and artillery. At 6pm the Major moved out of our trenches with his men in the front line of the attack. This he did in such a gallant manner that it evoked the admiration of all who witnessed the assault. They were only a few yards from the German trenches when he was hit by a machine gun and killed. His company did excellent work but very few lads got back. He asked me to write to you in the event of his not getting through, and as I happened to escape with a whole skin I have done as requested.”[23]

The first letter notes that Higgon would have been promoted to command a battalion had he survived. If this battalion was a part of the AIF this would have been a signal achievement, given the Australian attitude to British officers noted earlier.

The claims for the success of the attack merit closer examination. One of the Red Cross testimonies notes that the Australians took their objectives but were forced to retire after twelve hours as they had run out of ammunition. The Australian War Memorial records that Fromelles was the first major battle fought by Higgon’s battalion. It had entered the trenches only three days beforehand. The battalion suffered 718 casualties, almost 75% of its total strength. For many years, and even today, Australian historians have held up this battle as an example of the sacrifice of Australian soldiers by incompetent British generals. More recent work has painted a more nuanced picture.[24]

Higgon’s body was recovered for burial. His grave is in Ration Farm Military Cemetery, La Chappelle d’Armentieres. The site of his grave suggests that his body was not recovered soon after the battle or that it was re-interred at a later date.

Reflecting on these two cases, examples of all too many, one is struck by the desire or, indeed, the need to know more about the circumstances in which loved ones died. The War Office notifications of death provided little or no detail of the circumstances in which men died. Local newspapers of the time often included appeals by relatives for information on those reported missing or killed in action. The efficiency of the Australian Red Cross in tracking down eyewitnesses and getting their feedback to relatives is noteworthy. Their communications would have relied on the wartime postal services, yet Archibald Higgon’s wife had this information in the month following his death in Turkey.

The publication of letters of condolence, in addition to biographical information, in local newspapers might appear strange to modern sensibilities but this was a very common practice (for example, the issue announcing Higgon’s death also included a similar letter on the death of Corporal Willie Adams). Reading such letters, one notes the writers’ efforts to console by emphasising factors such as the deceased’s qualities as a soldier; his role in making the particular attack in which he fell a success; or that he died instantly without suffering. (In John Higgon’s case his qualities as an officer are also mentioned in the statements collected by the Australian Red Cross which do not come from fellow officers but rather from the rank and file, suggesting that in Higgon’s case it was more than just an attempt to console). Our modern perspective on the First World War might make such statements seem a little shallow but they clearly meant something more to the recipients at the time.

Knowledge of the circumstances of a relative’s death in action seems to have been an important part of the grieving process, as does the location of their grave. Fellow servicemen and the Red Cross were key to providing these much sought after details.

Notes

[1] Australian War Memorial, awm.gov.au

[2] Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Telegraph, 16 August 1916, National Library of Wales, newspapers.library.wales

[3] Hart’s Army List, National Library of Scotland, digital.nls.uk

[4] The Sydney Mail, 28 July 1900, National Library of Australia, nla.gov.au

[5] The London Gazette, 3 December 1909

[6] The London Gazette, 27 May 1910

[7] Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Telegraph, 21 October 1914, National Library of Wales, newspapers.library.wales

[8] Hart’s Army List, National Library of Scotland, digital.nls.uk

[9] Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Telegraph, 21 October 1914, National Library of Wales, newspapers.library.wales

[10] Hart’s Army List, National Library of Scotland, digital.nls.uk

[11] West Wales War Memorial Project, Spittal War Memorial, wwwmp.co.uk

[12] Lt Col M Watson, History of 37 Howitzer Battery RFA August 1914, Bristol, 2014.com/assets/files/articles/150224-Manuscript-V113-LOW.pdf

[13] Field Marshal Sir John French’s Despatch of 8 October 1914 published in The London Gazette, 9 December 1914

[14] Supplement to The London Gazette, 24 March 1915

[15] Inverclydeww1.org

[16] See iwm.org.uk, for both her letter and his picture

[17] The London Gazette, 25 August 1914

[18] War diary of 32 Battalion AIF, AWM4/23/49/11,awm.gov.au

[19] Steven John, Welsh Yeomanry at War,  Barnsley, 2016

[20] Higgon acknowledged this explicitly in a letter written to his mother on 1July 1916. Pembrokeshire     Museum Service

[21] See a note exchanged between the pair on 10 July 1916. Pembrokeshire Museum Service

[22] AWM4/23/49/12, awm.gov.au

[23] Haverfordwest and Milford Haven Telegraph, 16 August 1916, National Library of Wales, newspapers.library.wales

[24] See, for example, Robert Stevenson, The Centenary History of Australia and the Great War, Volume 3, Melbourne, 2015, and Roger Lee, British Battle Planning in 1916 and The Battle of Fromelles, Farnham, 2015. Lee argues that poor Australian staff work also contributed to the failure of the attack.