Day 22: Ablain-St Nazaire/Contalmaison – in the footsteps of the fallen soldier.

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England.

The Soldier – Rupert Brooke

Just over 10 years ago, as I was rummaging through the attic of my parents’ house after my mother’s death, I had a strangely moving experience.

Rupert Brooke

In a trunk of family papers I came across a book. It was a second edition of the collected works of Rupert Brooke, published in 1915 shortly after his death on the Greek island of Skyros in April 1915. Inside the frontispiece was a book plate with the inscription: Ex Libris – Harry Dutton.

Rupert Brooke’s grave on Skyros

As I inspected the slim slightly mildewy tome, the significance of what I was holding in my hands slowly dawned on me. It was a collection of poetry that my grandfather had taken with him to the Ypres salient in 1915.

Ex Libris – Harry Dutton

The discovery of that book of poetry led me to start researching my grandfather’s life. During his entire life, my father had scarcely mentioned his name. Ironically though, every morning he had always brushed his hair with a pair of ivory hair brushes engraved with my grandfather’s initials – HSD.

1914 and other Poems

So who was Harry St John Dutton? Why was a book of Rupert Brooke’s poetry secreted in a trunk in the attic of the family house? Why had my father never mentioned his name? Had he had any siblings? What other family secrets were buried in the attic?

Later that same week as I sifted through my father’s voluminous collection of books, I came across a crimson leather bound  volume without any book cover or inscription on its spine. Intrigued, I opened it. It was a series of type written letter transcripts that my grandfather had written to my grandmother from Mesopotamia from 1917 – 1918.

My curiosity piqued, I began to dig deeper into my grandfather’s life before he had tragically died of flu in 1923 when my father had been just one year old.

It transpired that my grandfather had enlisted in 1914 shortly after the outbreak of war in August 1914. What came as even more of a surprise was that my grandfather had had a younger brother, Charles who had gone to Shrewsbury School and had enlisted in the Public School Battalion shortly after the outbreak of war. He had been killed during the first week of the Somme Offensive on 7 July 1916.

My grandfather had gone on to fight with General Allenby in Mesopotamia in 1917-1918 and had been part of the British force which had liberated Jerusalem in December 1917. But I discovered that he had been posted in the Ypres salient in 1916 and thus can’t have been too far away from his younger brother when he was killed at Contalmaison during the first week of the Somme Offensive in July 1916. So why had my father never mentioned his uncle’s name and why had there been no mention of him in my grandfather’s letters to my grandmother? It was a confounded mystery.

General Allenby liberating Jerusalem

And then everything became clearer. In a secret drawer in my father’s desk in his study, I came across a small parchment of yellowing paper. It was a newspaper clipping of my great uncle’s death on the Somme in 1916. As I read it, everything slowly began to fall into place.

Lieutenant Charles Dutton

At that point in time, traumatised as I was by my mother’s death having looked after her for 2 years, I determined, come what may, that some day I would pay a pilgrimage to the spot near Contalmaison in north west France where my great uncle had died. No longer would his name and deeds be expunged and airbrushed from history. Some day, I would pay my thanks for his untimely ultimate sacrifice all those years ago.

Pearl Alley, Contalmaison 7 July 1916

Staring across the stubble in the newly harvested field south of Contalmaison some 105 years after my great uncle died, it was difficult to make the connection with his sacrifice.

Contalmaison Chateau

The cemetery at Contalmaison Chateau was flanked by a couple of rusting bangers. A tawdry backdrop to a scene of supreme sacrifice.

Rusting bangers near Contalmaison Chateau

I read the regimental records of my great uncle’s last days before his death in Pearl Alley south of Contalmaison on 7 July 1916. They couldn’t really convey what he must have felt in the final hours before he went over the top on the 7 July. As I stood looking out over the field where he was shot 105 years ago, I struggled to make sense of his own untimely death and my own gilded life. What sense was there in any of it? I didn’t have the answers but I did have a deep sense of pride and thanks for somebody whom I had never known but in some strange vicarious way felt connected to as, on a sunny tranquil Sunday afternoon, I stared across the field where he had lost his life all those years ago.

Pearl Alley, Contalmaison

Earlier in the day we had visited the French necropolis at Ablain St Nazaire. There, in the memorial known as ‘The Ring’, were commemorated the names of nearly 300,000 British and Commonwealth troops who had lost their lives on the Somme from 1915-1918. One of these was my great uncle.

The French Necropolis at Ablain St Nazaire

As we entered the church at Ablain Saint Nazaire I noticed a memorial to Louise de Bettignies. Not 24 hours earlier I had been buying a birthday present for my godson George’s in a square in Lilles named in her honour. Who was she?

The French Necropolis at Ablain St Nazaire

During the war, she was called Alice Dubois . An all-purpose pseudonym, ideal for this Lille native who had to keep a low profile on a daily basis. Behind her air of a young girl from a good family, “Alice Dubois” was a spy in the pay of the British intelligence services. Her real name ? Louise de Bettignies . Her nickname ? “The Joan of Arc of the North”.

Louise de Bettignies

Born July 15, 1880 in Saint-Amand-les-Eaux , on the border with Belgium, Louise grew up in a family of old Walloon nobility. Religion occupied a very important place in her life: her education took place with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Valenciennes, then with the Ursulines in England, where she went to boarding school. It was there that she learned English, a language that would be of great help to her during the First World War. At 23, Louise de Bettignies began a career as a tutor to Austrian and Milanese families and subsequently mastered Italian and German. When the conflict broke out, she became a nurse in a hospital and looked after the wounded, including enemy soldiers.

Monument to Louise de Bettignies

In October 1914, when the Germans seized Lille, Louise decided to join Free France forces in Saint-Omer where her mother lived. The only way to get there was to travel through Belgium, Holland and England. 

Upon arriving in Folkestone , Louise was questioned by law enforcement officers which proved a formality for her – Louise amazed her interlocutors with her impeccable English and the number of details she could provide about the Germans. Her job allowed her to question the wounded in several languages. In addition, it turned out that where she wanted to travel in France, was the headquarters of the British Allied forces. She was promptly offered the role of a a spy in the pay of the English. She was responsible not only for passing intelligence from Lille to Folkestone, but also for running a spy network codenamed Ramble, which brought together individuals from all sides, responsible for monitoring the movement of enemy troops and reporting details and information to the British …

Louise de Bettignies

The “Alice Network” of a hundred people, mostly in forty kilometers of the front to the west and east of Lille, was so effective that she was nicknamed by her English superiors “the queen of spies”. She smuggled men to England, provided valuable information to the Intelligence Service, and prepared for her superiors in London a grid map of the region around Lille. When the German army installed a new battery of artillery, even camouflaged, this position was bombed by the Royal Flying Corps within eight days.

Another opportunity allowed her to report the date and time of passage of the imperial train carrying the Kaiser on a secret visit to the front at Lille. During the approach to Lille, two British aircraft bombed the train and emerged, but missed their target. The German command did not understand the unique situation of these forty kilometers of “cursed” front (held by the British) out of nearly seven hundred miles of front. One of her last messages announced the preparation of a massive German attack on Verdun in early 1916. The information was relayed to the French commander who refused to believe it.

Arrested by the Germans on 20 October 1915 near Tournai, she was sentenced to forced labor for life on 16 March 1916 in Brussels. After being held for three years, she died on 27 September 1918 as a result of pleural abscesses.

Reading her story, I couldn’t but be struck with the parallels and differences to the life of Edith Cavell, my wife Olivia’s cousin who was shot by the Germans for treason in October 1915.

Edith Cavell
Edith Cavell memorial in London

Like Edith, Louise had been a nurse, helping to repatriate allied troops across German lines. However, unlike Edith, Louise had been recruited by the British secret service to run a network of spies. So why, after being apprehended by the Germans, hadn’t she suffered a similar fate? Could it be, I pondered, that Louise had been the beneficiary of Edith’s sacrifice some 6 months earlier and the backlash that it prompted across the British Empire? It was certainly an interesting thought.

The backlash to Edith Cavell’s murder
Edith Cavell’s barbaric murder

As I waved Claude and Georges farewell on their way back to Brussels, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for the simple things in life that my great uncle probably missed in the weeks that led up to his death in July 1916. A loving wife, good friends, 3 meals a day and a sound night’s sleep. Simple stuff maybe, but worth more than their weight in gold.

Charles Dutton in the Shrewsbury School register:

Second Lieutenant Charles Dutton, 10th Bn. Lancashire Fusiliers.
Bennett’s (now Severn Hill), left in 1907. Gazetted to his Commission in September 1914, he spent a year on the Ypres Salient.
Killed in action in France 7th July 1916 aged 26
Remembered on Thiepval Memorial, France. Pier and Face 3 C and 3 D.

1 thought on “Day 22: Ablain-St Nazaire/Contalmaison – in the footsteps of the fallen soldier.

  1. TMPL - Marcus

    Now back in Nepal; your two recent posts have been deeply moving. The years roll ever onwards yet we all have links to that supreme grotesque sacrifice made in the Great War and we all are beneficiaries of those enormously hard fought freedoms we enjoy today. Let us all redouble our efforts to ensure the memory is handed down the generations.

    Thank you.




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