Friday, 23 June 2017

An Incredible Coincidence

This week we have a story from Steve Shannon.

One day, whilst rummaging about in a music stool at his home in Bradford, David Wilson, then aged about 7 or 8 years old, found a telegram. It was from the War Office informing Constance Penrice that her husband, Second Lieutenant Gordon Penrice, had been killed in action. As David’s mother was called Constance, he asked her about this telegram and she explained that she had been married twice and that her first husband had been killed in the Great War. David later remembered that his mother had cried when she told him.

Years later, David’s mother came to live with her son in County Durham. After her death in 1986, he found a photograph of Gordon Penrice amongst her papers. In this photo, Gordon is wearing an officer’s uniform with the badges of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI).
Second Lieutenant William Gordon Penrice, 20th Battalion DLI (DCRO D/DLI 7/532/1)
D/DLI 7/532/1 Second Lieutenant William Gordon Penrice, 20th Battalion DLI
In 1993, David wrote to DLI Museum asking for help. In my reply, I was able to tell him that Second Lieutenant Gordon Penrice had been killed in action on 7 June 1917 during the Battle of Messines, whilst serving with the 20th (Wearside) Battalion DLI. Sadly, however, he had no known grave but was commemorated on the Menin Gate at Ypres. I also enclosed photocopies from a Regimental history describing 20 DLI’s role at Messines and suggested where David should go for more information, such as the National Archives, Imperial War Museum, and Commonwealth War Graves Commission. David then began his research in earnest. 

Then, David’s wife found an overlooked – and seemingly unimportant – war pensions form amongst Constance’s papers. Written in Constance’s hand across the top was “2nd Lieut. Gordon Penrice, D.L.I. Buried at Elkhof Farm, Voormezeele – S. of Ypres”. So was Gordon’s grave lost or not? Had his widow known where he had been buried? 

Soon after, I met David in the museum for the first time and we poured over original trench maps, we soon found Eikhof (not “Elkhof”) Farm near Voormezeele. We looked at the 20th Battalion’s original war diary, and discovered that Second Lieutenant Penrice had only joined the battalion on 31 May 1917. He was killed a week later on the first day of the Battle of Messines.
Drawing by Reverend JAG Birch, 5th Battalion DLI, of a map of Messines on 7 June 1917 (D/DLI 7/63/2(196))
D/DLI 7/63/2(196) Drawing by Reverend JAG Birch, 5th Battalion DLI, of a map of Messines on 7 June 1917
We then discussed the lost grave and I suggested that the grave had originally been marked in June 1917 but that the marker had been lost probably in 1918, when there had been more fighting around Eikhof Farm. 

During this meeting, I told David that George Thompson, a veteran of the 20th Battalion DLI [editor’s note: not the transport driver featured in Durham hymns], had been interviewed by the Imperial War Museum and that he still lived in Spennymoor. David ordered a copy of the tapes from the IWM and was amazed when he heard the old soldier remember what he had seen and done on 7 June 1917. 

David met George twice, first in December 1993, and again in February 1994. During these meetings, George, who died in September 1994 aged 97, explained that after the initial attack at Messines, he was with an officer and a few other soldiers, when they came across the body of a DLI officer. They buried the body in a shell hole near Eikhof Farm, removing all identification papers, and marked the grave with a rifle stuck in the ground muzzle side down.

Could this have been Gordon Penrice? George Thompson didn’t know but more research convinced David that it was. David knew that only two DLI officers had died at Messines on 7 June 1917. One had been identified and was buried in a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. So Gordon Penrice must have had been buried at Eikhof Farm. And someone must have told his widow. 

In May 1994, their research finished, David and his wife visited the modern t’Eikenhof farm in Belgium. Somewhere nearby on 7 June 1917 Gordon Penrice had been killed in action and then buried in a shell hole.

No comments:

Post a Comment