Bertie

I’d always known that Bertie had been a Captain in the artillery and had been awarded the Military Cross. He was tragically killed during, as Grandpa called it, Passchendaele Ridge, that I now know as the Third Battle of Ypres. There was a story from my mum that had filtered through, that he’d swapped leave with another officer who’d needed to go home. Something about his wife – was she ill? I could tell that by the way he talked about him and the look in his eye that my Grandpa was very proud of him – and for a young boy enthralled by his photo –  he had the look of a hero.

Robert Parry Morris, like all his brothers was born in Colwyn Bay on 21st August 1892, the fourth son of Henry emlyn-grammar2Morris and Marjory Hunter Morris.

The brothers had been educated at the private Newcastle Emlyn Grammar School –  a single room, run by a the landlord of the Plough Inn. It was attended by 40 boys aged from 7-16 who came from all over Wales who lodged in the town. I have his 1906 Christmas present – “The Poetic Works of Robert Burns“. In the back written in pencil are page numbers for his favourites. “Lines written on a bank-note” looks to have caught his imagination.

After finishing school he was nearing his final exams as a trainee solicitor with his uncle’s firm, Nee & Gordon-Roberts, in Castle Street, Caernarfon. Local and regional newspapers had carried articles announcing his Intermediate “law exam success”. From what I’ve been able to find out, he seems more or less the perfect young man – being intelligent, a good footballer (in the North Wales Coast league), he could sing and was a Sunday School teacher at the Ebenezer chapel in the town. When growing up in the south west he’d valiantly defended himself and Charlie against the taunts of local boys while the Morrises carried out their family tradition of wearing a kilt on a Sunday. He was also a strong swimmer – unfazed by the hazardous currents of the Menai Straits to Anglesey.

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CR and RP Morris at the Brecon Boarding House

badge2On December 7th 1914 the two younger brothers went to Bangor Town Hall to enlist into the 16th RWF North Wales Battalion. They joined together with successive numbers: 18690 and 18691. Bertie went first while Charlie being two years underage must have stuck close by as they went through the enlistment process. They were signed up by a Pte John Daniel of the 13th RWF who luckily made it home after the war. I remember Grandpa laughing as he told me how they’d tried to join up earlier in the day but were told to come back later once they’d had time to revise Charlie’s story.

The February edition of  The Welsh Herald had the story headline “Nonconformists Army” providing a long list of men according to their particular chapel. In their case, the Ebenezer in Caernarfon.

It was by the end of January that the brothers were to be separated when Bertie’s long running request to join the artillery as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 2/1st Welsh (Carnarvonshire) Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery took place. An intriguing letter which reveals this had been going on since September 1914 requesting his release from the RWF was sent on the 2nd of January 1915.

“Sir, This association has been directed to raise a reserve battery for the Welsh Carnarvon RGA and the Officer Commanding has notified that on the 6th September last he recommended direct to War Office.. the appointment of Mr R Parry Morris.. and has now requested me to nominate the gentleman to the War Office as Officers are urgently requested.

I have the honour to be your obedient servant

Lord Lieutenant J.E.Greaves – HM’s Lieutenant, County Carnarvon”

I’ve been puzzled as to why he joined the infantry if he had already set his sights on the artillery. Possibly to show his commitment and even to support Charlie who was determined to join the ranks under age.

I can only speculate if this move was inspired by a desire to be close to his footballing pals and the belief that he would have more to offer as an officer. The battery was well established locally, going back to at least the 1880s and had strong sporting connections. One of my experts tells me his transfer would have involved a fair bit of string pulling as the RWF would have been reluctant to allow home grown officer material to leave. The London Gazette of the 29th January announced his transfer. The Carnarvon & Denbigh Herald also covered the story describing him as “grand-nephew of the late Colonel Cowper of Blairgowrie – Indian Army”. Not someone I’d ever heard of before – that’s for sure. The family had an interesting Scottish land owning and banking heritage with the odd Laird thrown in, however a Lloyd’s Names type financial disaster scattered them far and wide in search of other things to do.

England 1915

After 11 months training at Artillery School he is recorded in their official War Diary as joining the 1/1st Welsh Heavy Battery at Cambridge in December 1915. Extra “chargers” or horses are placed on order for the new officers. It’s funny to think that Grandpa and Bertie spent time in the same places, missing each other by a few months. I’ve also discovered that he and the 1/1st Welsh were inspected by George V on Parker’s Piece. A place I crossed daily during my art school days. They were both stationed at Bedford Barracks during the same year, but at the moment the timings are too sketchy to be certain that they crossed over. The battery at that time consisted of four 4.7 inch guns, left over from the Boer War, with 9 officers, 233 men and 139 horses to keep them on the move.

The Carnarvonshire battery had been in existence as a Territorial unit since before the war going on summer camps to practice horse and firing skills. Caernarfon men made up the left section and men from Bangor the right, with the ammunition column personnel coming from Llandudno. At the outbreak of war they had been sent to guard Pembroke Dock before moving to Northampton.

Interestingly, Bertie is reported in the Bedford paper as having taken part in “successful open air concert” at Mill Meadows where he, along with other men of the 1/1st, took turns to sing for the people of the town.

Seeing themselves overlooked in favour of lesser trained batteries, the men who were beginning to feel “over trained” could at last see signs that they were to posted overseas. Rumours had persisted that they remained behind for simply not being good enough. This prompted a fine piece of PR in the press pointing out that the 1/1st were the first Territorials in the Kingdom to report for duty at the outbreak of war. Their behaviour and relations with the local towns folk was also exemplary.

Unknown to them, the hold up was due to the Shell Crisis of 1915 which meant a chronic shortage of high explosive shells, and so little point in adding the Welsh to the already idle batteries in Flanders. This was addressed by with great success by new Minister for Munitions, David Lloyd George.

After the stint at Kempston, Bedford, there was firing practice at Larkhill, Wiltshere, followed mobilization to Woolwich and on to Southampton sailing on the French ship “Karnac”. It was a bitterly cold stormy night when they left, and as they passed the Needles, their ship received a message by flash light, from a British destroyer, telling them to return to safer waters as enemy submarines were known to by lying in wait off the Isle of Wight. Two days later at 9.00pm on March 2nd 1916 they finally set sail, arriving in France at 9.00am the following morning. Incidentally, the Karnac was sunk some time later by a U-Boat near the coast of Malta.

France 1916

From (Le) “Havre”, as it was known to the British, they boarded trains to the troops’ terminus atScreen shot 2015-02-10 at 13.26.10 Doullens and from there they route marched for five days through a succession of French villages until they arrived near Arras. Overnight camps at Sibiville, Bailleul-aux-Cornailles arriving in Savy Berlette where recorded in the diary, they opened fire on the enemy for the first time on March 14th. They were now getting used to the diet of the ubiquitous bully beef, jam and biscuits. On one occasion 57 men shared a cigarette between them – one puff each. At their position near Vimy Ridge, the battery was limited to only 40 rounds per week, or 10 rounds per gun. It was here that they experienced the vastly superior fire power of the enemy’s guns when during one day they were on the receiving end of 300 shells fired coming in their direction. Luckily the Welsh came off lightly while the 1/1 Essex HB, part of the same 23rd Brigade, bore the brunt of the attack with 19 casualties.

Without having to be told who was facing them, they soon learned to tell the differences in the behaviour of the alternating German artillery units opposite. The arrival of the Saxons made for a more “placid state of affairs” while the Bavarians meant they were in for a “lively 14 days”. This had been a recurring theme up and down the Front with the Saxons instrumental in the Christmas Truce of 1914. They’d even threatened the Prussians who vehemently opposed the cease fire.

They remained here until 7th June when they took up a new position between Colincamps and Mailly-Mallet on the Somme. Traveling by night to avoid detection, they found the roads to be choked showing all the signs that the largest British offensive ever seen was about to begin.

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Front row: Lt Dargie, Capt Brymer. 2nd Lt Morris

Close to Colincamps, they took part in the week long bombardment of enemy lines as the prelude to the opening day of the Battle of the Somme on the 1st July 1916. Before the whistles blew and the infantry went over on “Z” day at 7.30am, the Welsh opened fire at 6am expending 1000 shells by 4pm that afternoon. The insufficient use of high explosive shells to break through the enemy is defences is well documented, and there would be over 57000 British casualties by the end of the day.

Much of my narrative comes from a truly remarkable find. It is the memoir of one of Bertie’s men – thought to be battery clerk, Corporal Llewelyn Edwards and kept on file at the IWM. They are emotive and beautifully written and have been truly invaluable in fuelling my interest to find out what happened to Bertie and the men of the 1/1st. He describes the tragedy unfold that fateful day.

“I saw from my post the first wave of troops scrambling out their trenches in the early morning sun. I saw them advancing rapidly led by an officer. I saw the officer reach a hillock holding his sword on high in the sunlight. He wavered and sagged to the ground, His men undaunted swept up the mound to be mowed down on reaching the skyline like autumn corn before the cutter”

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At 5.50am on the morning of 3rd September the battery were targeting Beaucort Redoubt and then switched to “counter battery” work where they would engage the enemy in a duel to blow each other off the map. Throughout this period the officers of the battery were Major Nugent, Capt George Brymer, local footballing hero Lt Arnold Dargie and Bertie amongst the 2nd Lieutenants. Nugent would be wounded later with George Brymer, another Caernarfon man, assuming command.

60 pounder guns

The London Gazette of January 1917 listed that Bertie had been promoted to temporary Lieutenant the previous September. The battery would continue its work shelling Serre, Beaumont Hamel and Courcelette.

They were also joined by 2nd Lieut Herbert Parker, a regular who’d transferred from the 80th Siege Battery RGA. The Welsh were now under command of the 17th Heavy Artillery Group often sharing duties the 1/1st Highland Artillery Battery firing on such targets as Munich Trench and Ten Tree Alley. I’ve been boggled at the detail of press coverage, especially finding such nuggets as this from the 1st January 1917 The Carnarvon & Denbigh Herald reporting:

“Lt Bert Morris of the RGA was home from France”

It must have been at the previous Christmas of 1916 that he was given a silver cigarette case, that I have now. It was IMG_9853_2inscribed by what looks to have been his girlfriend – “Rob, with love from Kiddie 25/12/16” which he kept with him to the end of his life. His parents were now living at Talgwynedd, a grand house at Dwyran on Anglesey, which can still be seen from the ramparts of Caernarfon Castle. The new address was written on the will that he’d written himself through his uncle’s law firm. I found out in old newspapers that the house had been used to shelter Belgian refugees earlier in the war.

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Talgwynedd – Anglesey

He was wounded on the 31st January ’17.  The story even made the Liverpool Daily while his local paper reported that he “has been wounded by a shell and in hospital in France” The official unit war diary, hand written by Major Brymer, would go on to say that he was “gassed and slightly wounded”. I can only speculate, but seeing that he was the only one injured that day I’ve wondered if he’d been out in a forward Observation Post (OP). This could be from a high vantage point or even hidden out in No Man’s Land. Instructions would be sent by telephone to guide in the shellfire.

Bertie with Military Cross

Lieut Robert Parry Morris MC – June 1917

The Somme offensive ground to a halt during a bitterly cold November with both sides worn out. As the Germans pulled back, leaving no enemy immediately in front of them, the Welsh were instructed to fire 1000 long range gas shells in 4 hours. By midnight the work was done.

Edwards records: “The exhausting nature of the work nearly overcame our men.”  Owing to the German retreat the battery advanced and taking up a new position between Serre and Beaumont Hamel and took delivery of 4 new guns.

Their last position on the Somme was at Pendant Copse, again over the original German line, where they remained until March 1917. They felt as if they’d been been parted from “old friends” when their guns were taken away. The old 4.7s had fired 49000 shells since they’d arrived in France.

After 3 months recovery in hospital Bertie returned on the 21st of April just in time to face a 450 shell barrage by enemy 4.2 and 5.9 guns near Grenay and Cité Calonne. Several of the men were killed and wounded at this time.

Bertie's Military Cross

As part of the King’s birthday honours, Bertie was awarded the Military Cross on June 7th 1917 – the first member of the battery to receive the honour. The citation read that it was for “conspicuous services in the field”.  I imagine these conspicuous activities were his good conduct backed up by the injuries that had led to his hospitalisation. The North Wales Chronicle covered the story under the heading “Anglesey Officer awarded Military Cross”. It was during the same month of June 1917 that they faced a 10 minute bombardment, with salvoes of 4-6 shells falling every five seconds. While the onslaught was taking place the men started their own bombardment which had been timed for 9.15pm. The next morning eighty eight shell holes were counted around the Welsh guns, and with no serious casualties. On 29th July the Welsh battery joined the 17th Heavy Artillery Group.

“All ranks showed perfect coolness and disregard of danger” Colonel FM Close – Official report

bethNow they were to become a six 60 pounder gun battery with 83 English and Scots boosting their number close to 250 men. With Major Brymer in command, the guns moved to a new position on Vimy Ridge close to the village of Bully Grenay. Opening fire on the 9th March they were quick to discover the superiority of the new equipment. Whereas the old guns had to be re-sighted after each round, the new ones with powerful springs remained unaltered. The 60 pounders weighed five tons and were near the limit of horse drawn capability requiring eight heavy horses to pull them. They also had a range of nearly 8 miles. Moving forward to Lieven they lost 2 men in the Battle of Lens during continuous anti battery work. All this was taking a toll on the gunners who had been in the thick of it for 18 months without a break. Nightly gas shells made bringing up ammunition hazardous work while the drivers, unable to see in the dark, relied on their terrified horses to pull the ordnance. Battery Clerk, Cpl Edwards recalled his admiration for the skilled transport men.

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At last they had 10 days rest in Bethune while hundreds of local people turned out to listen to the men singing Welsh airs from the steps of Bethune Cathedral. Following this they were placed in a quiet sector near Vermelles so that the men could recuperate. Here they could fraternize with local people and buy chocolates from children who made their way up to the guns.

adThe relative calm was broken when they were shelled for 5 hours with unnerving accuracy. Seventy five percent of the 300 German shells fell within a small radius – much to the admiration of the Welsh boys. Again the bravery of the battery was singled out for praise by the Corps HQ and “circulated throughout the Artillery of the Corps.”

News came through on September 18th 1917 that Arnold Dargie, now a Major with the 137th Heavy Battery had been killed. The next day officers and men from the 1/1st attended his funeral at Bully Grenay and sang  Beth sydd i mi yn y byd, a Welsh hymn at his grave side. He was clearly an extraordinary young fellow and from reading his obituary – brave and much loved by all who served with him. A Gunner and close friend used his leave to return Arnold’s dog to his family. I’ve read that the Welsh used their language to side step the formalities of class and rank, all too prevalent among the English, so it’s easy to imagine the men being able to mix more freely and establish a closer bond.

In its 21st September 1917 edition, The North Wales Chronicle carried a few lines to say:

“A report has come to hand that Captain R Parry Morris of the RGA, son of Mr Henry Morris of Talgwynedd, Anglesey has been gassed.”

Belgium 1917

The battery was now ordered to leave their guns behind and use those of the 110th Heavy Battery at Ypres. From recollections I’ve heard through other people with connections to the Welsh battery, Ypres felt like a very different proposition. Although the Somme had been relentless and exhausting for the men, Ypres seemed to fatalistically represent, as Edwards describes it: “the graveyard of British hopes“. They arrived at a makeshift camp on the Dickebusch road near “Cafe Belge” at midnight, the horses up to their knees in mud, everyone cold, hungry and extremely apprehensive. Tea, biscuits and saturated ground sheets got them through their first night. The next day they were to proceed to a position in Zillebeke village to make their contribution to the 3rd Battle of Ypres, more widely known as Passchendaele.

The landscape was a shattered mess of mud and shell holes. The well recognised photograph by Frank Hurley was taken two days after Bertie was killed at Chateau Wood close to Zillebeke. It gives the best idea yet to understand the scene that welcomed the Welshmen and explains the gloom that hung over their new home.

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Cpl Llewelyn Edwards

Although I already knew what happened to Bertie on Saturday 27th October 1917, I was desperate to see their Unit War Diary to see how the event was recorded. An RGA expert kindly photographed every page at The NA and let me see a copy. Working my way through the 60 odd pages I reached the end of September to find the crucial October 1917  page was quite extraordinarily missing. Perhaps even lost in the mud, or possibly hit by a shell on its way back to safe keeping behind the lines.

On a visit to the TNA some years ago I found a “Field Service” document. It reports the “Death of an Officer to forwarded to the War Office with the least possible delay” and is signed by Officer Commanding 14th Field Ambulance.

I’d been alerted to the Edward’s account by one of the very kind Welshmen who’s shared his research and encyclopaedic knowledge with me, however nothing could prepare me for what I was about to read here. I’ve shown this to a few close friends and it has to be said that stiff upper lips were severely tested when trying to read it aloud. If one considers the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who fought, then to come across a man who actually knew Bertie – and then wrote down his memories is nothing short of miraculous. When you’ve been desperate for any information or insight – it really is the most extraordinarily moving passage to read about your own relative.

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Although this astonishing personal account gives details I could never have imagined knowing there is of course some elements that are still very intriguing around the routes taken by Bertie and the battery men. What had appeared fairly straightforward has been thrown into the air by the discovery of Herbert’s original recorded burial site. Not appearing to be “at the side of the road”, details place him above Zillebeke Lake casting doubt about the Manor Road route. If correct, it gives an accurate set of coordinates marking the spot where the two men were killed.

As very little was spoken outwardly in the years after his death, I’d assumed that the family can’t have known what had happened, however on the discovery that an epic amount of letter writing went on during the war, I’ve come to realise that actually, they must have known rather a lot. Major Brymer would have written a letter of condolence to my great-grandparents and others from friends would likely have followed. I’d already been sent a link to the fairly astonishing cutting (below) from the local paper.

It’s sad that no letters survive from a family that did pass down quite a few possessions through the generations. I’m left to presume that in a very masculine Victorian household that grief and emotions were kept well below the surface. Keeping the letters would have only prolonged the pain of losing the two youngest sons and brothers.

I can’t remember what made me think to look, but knowing the press’s appetite for the minutiae of the comings and goings of men at the Front, I looked to see if I could find out why Major Brymer had gone home. In the same edition as Bertie’s death I found it.

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Newspaper reports of Bertie’s death and George Brymer’s wedding. Chapel memorial tablet photo © Steven John

George had gone home to marry Bertha Farr, who he must have met while stationed at Bedford Barracks. It at last confirmed the story of why he went home for personal reasons and perhaps proved that the Morris family really did know what had happened at that time. It’s just the passing of the years and a reticence in sharing the full horror of what they had to overcome that has contributed to the distortion of events.

Having read many accounts of the feelings of “guilt” felt by the survivors I can only imagine that Major Brymer would have dwelt on this for a long time to come having lost his two close friends. By chance I stumbled across the wall tablet above on a website dedicated to Welsh war memorials. It’s in the Bethel Chapel in Newcastle Emlyn, the town where the Morris family had spent their formative years. Not only was this yet another real find, but it also gives unique details as to where the war ended for both brothers. “Manor Road” was the name given to what is now known as Blauwepoortstraat – the road that leads into Zillebeke and Hellblast Corner. It again proves how much the family knew.

rp-graveIn the 1990s I’d written to the CWGC and received a reply telling me he was buried in Bedford House Cemetery. Assuming I must be the first family member to know this, we made a detour there one year, scouring the graveyard until we found him. Online CWGC records recently available show the words his parents had chosen for his grave stone.

Mab Godidog gwyn ei fyd ie gwyn ei fyd

Another of my much valued Welsh historian/archivists emailed me a translation:

“the epitaph on his grave uses the phrase “Gwyn ei fyd” which is found in the New testament, e.g. the Beatitudes (Sermon on the Mount) as in “Blessed are those who…” The literal words mean “White/pure be his world” but they aren’t used or translated in that literal way – the whole epitaph actually translates as

“(An) Excellent son. Blessed be he, yes blessed be he.”

The most extraordinary and satisfying twist came when I was contacted out of the blue by the nephew of 2nd Lt Herbert Parker who’d spotted one of my posts online. I’d often wondered about Herbert and whether there was a family out there that knew anything about him. I’d also wondered if other people had the same officer group photo or had stories to tell about these men. Bob had engaged the services of a professional researcher who was able to give him some unique details. He’d been a career soldier, serving in India, who had risen through the ranks to become an officer. He was also a fairly small chap too and without a picture we’ve had to speculate whether he is in fact the short man standing in the second row. He’s also recorded as having a blemish on the side of his nose. Whether it’s wishful thinking or not, we both feel that this is him. I’ve been able to date the photo by matching the insignia of the front row officers to promotion dates in the War Diary. Bertie, who is seen with a wound stripe above his left cuff, returned from hospital on 21.4.17 while Dargie left the battery on 7.6.17. Many officers came and went however Herbert Parker was one of the most consistent – although impossible to prove, there has to be a very good chance that this is him.

He left behind a widow, Florence, and as with Bertie he’d also finalised his affairs just before the move up to Ypres. Bob told me that when he was born, his father had insisted he should be named Herbert in honour of his dead uncle. He’s eternally grateful that his mother put her foot down and refused! He also very kindly put an In Memoriam notice in the Telegraph on Armistice Day 2014 to remember the two officers and friends. Coincidentally we’d both visited the site of their gun battery position in Zillebeke and their respective graves.

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A Belgian man I’ve been in contact with has pretty much photographed every British CWGC headstone in the country. He’s then able to email pictures to anyone who asks for them – free of charge. Finding that he didn’t yet have a copy of Herbert’s grave he headed straight out into the snow to take the photograph.

Again, one of my chaps told me that Bertie’s name was on the Ebenezer Chapel in Caernarfon where he must have taught, and also on the RGA Memorial in Bangor. On there are the names of other men who’s descendents I’ve come into contact with. One of the names on there is John Bracegirdle. It was him who sent the news through to his wife about Bertie’s death which then made its way to the newspaper. I believe John died from the flu epidemic in 1919 and is buried only a few feet away from Charlie in the Llanbeblig Cemetery.

Only recently, it’s dawned on me that Bertie had in fact written his own will. On close examination it’s clear that it’s in his own handwriting and particularly poignant is that is was completed just a week before he was killed. He left £277 with £100 going to my Grandpa, £25 to Charlie and the rest to his father. A War Gratuity of £5 was also sent to his father.

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I was sent this photo of the survivors of the 1/1st Welsh HB, taken in 1919, by a descendant of one of the men. There is another picture of a much larger group, but I wonder if this smaller group are the “original” Welshmen who’d made it through the whole campaign. Incredibly, their names are written on the back so it was an absolute revelation to find Cpl Llewellyn Edwards, the man who’s words have meant so much.

For me there’s a real tristesse about this picture, as sitting in the middle without Dargie, Morris, Parker et al is Major George Brymer, the only survivor of the original Welsh officers. In the larger group photo he is joined by Capt Anderson – the man who must have replaced Bertie. Brymer had one son, also named George, and went on to become the Sheriff of Caernarfon 1947. The Daily Mail of the same year reports him greeting the King and Queen on Royal visit to North Wales.

With yet another and unexpected twist – it’s been a real pleasure to have made contact with his two grandsons, sharing our common interest and to discover that the Major lived to the great age of 99.

In the same week, Bob and I were contacted by a couple who, by chance had bought Herbert’s medals from a collectors shop inside Bromley Station, a station I’ve used many many times. They’re now keen to research his past and share our discoveries.

Llewelyn Arvon Edwards returned to Bangor and married Jane Hughes in 1922 and later died in 1956 at the age of 64. His exceptional words have breathed life and emotion into this story where otherwise it would have been merely a list of chronological facts.

I’ve also been told that circa 1960 a small group of the battery survivors held a reunion and picnic on the banks of Lyn Crafnant.

On lighter note, the curious looking ‘mascot’ dog seen on the montage further up the page seems to have miraculously survived, although I’d doubt its hearing would have ever been the same again.

I’ll continue to dig further and visit the places where Bertie went when I can. I never could have dreamed that I’d have such an insight and knowledge of what he went through and of the sort of man he was. How a young chap of 26, from a quiet provincial background, who like so many others, could have had so much courage – leading 250 men, in such a terrible war.

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2nd Lt RP Morris at Artillery School in 1915