The Temple Files: Local historian Trevor Temple chronicles and remembers the individuals associated with the Londonderry area who lost their lives in the First World War.
Graham, Lance Sergeant John, 2057
Lance Sergeant John Graham, 1st Battalion Irish Guards, was born at Londonderry, resided at the market town of Boyle, County Roscommon, situated 9 miles north west of Carrick-on-Shannon, and enlisted at Belfast.
He was killed in action in France on September 1, 1914, and his name is recorded on the La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial, Seine-et-Marne, which records the names of almost 4,000 British soldiers killed at Mons, Le Cateau, the Aisne and the Marne, for whom there were no known graves. The violence of the fighting had destroyed their bodies beyond recognition. Strangely, his name is not listed on the Diamond War Memorial.
Lance Sergeant Graham almost certainly died at the thick forest of Villers-Cotterets, near the village of the same name, situated 14 miles south west of Soissons. It was a difficult engagement for the 4th Guards Brigade (Coldstreams, Grenadiers, and the Irish), the rearguard of the 2nd Division.
The retreat from Mons was not quite over, and early on the morning of September 1, 1914, the Germans came up against the Guards, and for some hours they kept up a ding-dong action in the woods, rifles cracking amid the trees. The Guards beat the Germans back, though not without considerable losses owing to the difficult nature of the terrain.
The 4th Brigade, commented the Great War historian, John Terraine, in his book ‘Mons, The Retreat to Victory,’ “lost over 300 officers and men, and the 6th Brigade, which covered its retirement, lost another 160. Public imagination is a strange thing: Villers Cotterets is practically forgotten, except by regimental historians, while Landrecies [the scene of a sharp engagement between the Germans and British on August 25, 1914, during the retreat from Mons] has become a legend, and yet the latter was, by comparison, a trifling affair.”
In his ‘forgotten masterpiece’ ‘The Irish Guards in the Great War, The First Battalion,’ edited and compiled from their diaries and papers, Rudyard Kipling described in more detail the actions of that battalion on the day Lance Sergeant Graham met his death.
“On the 1st September, the anniversary of Sedan [scene of the decisive battle of the Franco-Prussian War (1870), when the French were defeated with great loss by the Prussians], the Battalion was afoot at 2 a.m. and with the 2nd Coldstream Guards acted as rear-guard under the Commanding Officer, Colonel the Hon. G. Morris.
“There had been heavy dew in the night, followed at dawn by thin, miserable rain, when they breakfasted, among wet Lucerne and fields of stacked corn, on the edge of the deep Villers-Cotterets beech-forests.
“They fell back into them on a rumour of advancing Cavalry, who turned out to be troops of German infantry running from stack to stack and filtering into the forest on their either flank.
“Their first position was the Vivieres-Puiseux line, a little south-west of Soucy village: the Battalion to the right of the Soucy – Villers-Cotterets road, and the Coldstream to the left on a front of not more than a mile.
“Their second position, as far as can be made out, was the Rond de la Reine, a mile farther south, where the deep soft forest-roads from Soucy and Vivieres join on their way to Villers-Cotterets.
“The enemy ran in upon them from all sides, and the action resolved itself into blind fighting in the gloom of the woods, with occasional glimpses of men crossing the rides, or firing from behind tree-boles.
“The Germans were very cautious at first, because our fire-discipline, as we fell back, gave them the impression that the forest was filled with machine-guns instead of mere trained men firing together sustainedly.
“The morning wet cleared, and the day grew close and stifling. There was no possibility of keeping touch or conveying orders.
“Since the German advance-guard was, by comparison, an army, all that could be done was to hold back as long as possible the attacks on front and flank, and to retain some sense of direction in the bullet-torn woods, where, when a man dropped in the bracken and bramble, he disappeared.
“But throughout the fight, till the instant of his death, Lieut-Colonel the Hon. G. Morris, commanding the Battalion, rode from one point to another of an action that was all front, controlling, cheering and chaffing his men.
“And so that heathen battle, in half darkness, continued, with all units of the 4th Brigade confusedly engaged, till in the afternoon the Battalion, covered by the 2nd Coldstream, reformed, still in the woods, a mile north of the village of Pisseleux.
“Here the roll was called, and it was found that the following officers were missing: Lieut-Colonel the Hon. G. Morris, Major H.F. Crichton, Captain C.A. Tisdall, Lieutenant Lord Robert Innes-Ker, 2nd Lieutenant Viscount Castlerosse, Lieutenant the Hon. Aubrey Herbert, and Lieutenant Shields, R.A.M.C.
“Captain Lord Desmond FitzGerald, and Lieutenant Blacker-Douglass were wounded and left with the field-ambulance. Lieut-Colonel Morris, Major Crichton, and Captain Tisdall had been killed.
“The others had been wounded and captured by the Germans, who treated them with reasonable humanity at Villers-Cotterets till they were released on September 12 by the French advance following the first battle of the Marne.
“Colonel Morris’ body was afterwards identified and buried with that of Captain Tisdall; and one long rustic-fenced grave, perhaps the most beautiful of all resting places in France, on a slope of the forest off the dim road, near the Rond de la Reine, holds our dead in that action. It was made and has been religiously tended since by Dr Moufflers, the Mayor of the town, and his wife.
“The death of Colonel Morris, an officer beloved and a man noticeably brave among brave men, was a heavy loss to the Battalion he commanded, and whose temper he knew so well. In the thick of the fight during a lull in the firing, when some blind shell-fire opened, he called to the men: ‘D’you hear that? They’re doing that to frighten you.’ To which some one replied with simple truth: ‘If that’s what they’re after, they might as well stop. They succeeded with me hours ago.’
“As a matter of fact, the men behaved serenely, as may be proved by this tale. They were working their way, well under rifle-fire, across an opening in the forest, when some of them stopped to pick blackberries that attracted their attention.
“To these their sergeant, very deliberately, said: ‘I shouldn’t mind them berries, lads. There’s may be worrums in ’em.’ It was a speech worthy of a hero of Dumas, whose town Villers-Cotterets is, by right of birth. Yet once, during their further retirement towards Pisseleux, they were badly disconcerted.
“A curious private prodded a hornets’ nest on a branch with his bayonet, and the inhabitants came out in force. Then there was real confusion: not restored by the sight of bald-headed reservists frantically slapping with their caps at one hornet while others stung them on their defenceless scalps. So they passed out of the darkness and the greenery of the forest, which, four years later, was to hide a great French Army, and launch it forth to turn the tide of 1918.
“Their march continued until 11 p.m. that night, when the Battalion arrived in Betz, where the First and Second Army Corps rejoined each other once more. No supplies were received that night nor the following day (September 2), when the Battalion reached Esbly…”
Pollock, Private Walter Ernest, 10575
Eighteen-year-old, Private Walter Ernest Pollock, ‘A’ Company, 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was killed in action on September 13, 1914.
His name is inscribed on St Columb’s Cathedral (Church of Ireland) Memorial to the men connected with that cathedral who died during the 1914-18 War.
“It is also recorded on the La Ferte Sous Jouarre Memorial, Seine et Marne, France, and on the Diamond War Memorial.
Walter Ernest Pollock joined the Inniskillings before the First World War, and went out to France with the regiment at the commencement of that conflict. He died at the beginning of the Battle of the Aisne, which was an effort by the Allies to cross the river Aisne and complete the defeat of the Germans recently driven back at the Battle of the Marne. It was fought on a vast front of 100 miles from Compiegne to Tahure, east of Reims.
Describing the Aisne battle, in his book The First World War, the historian John Keegan wrote: “The Aisne had now become the critical front and there, between 13 and 27 September, both sides mounted a succession of attacks, as troops became available, the Allies in the hope of pressing their pursuit further, the Germans with that of holding their line or even going over again to the offensive.
“The Allies began in optimistic mood. Wilson, British Deputy Chief of Staff, had discussed with Berthelot, his French equivalent, during the advance to the Aisne how soon their armies would be on the Belgian frontier with Germany.
“He thought a month, Berthelot three weeks. They were shortly to discover that the days of ‘open warfare’ were over.
“The Aisne is a deep, wide river, passable only by bridging. At the outset of the battle not all the bridges had been destroyed, while others were improvised; none was safe while within range of German artillery fire.
“Beyond the Aisne the ground rises some 500 feet above the valley to form a long massif, indented by re-entrants between bluffs and in places heavily wooded.
“The feature, some twenty-five miles long, affords excellent points of observation and dominating fire positions, while the road that traverses it, the Chemin des Dames, laid out for the daughters of Louis XV, provides easy lateral communication from left to right.
“A British formation, the 11th Infantry Brigade, was the first to attempt an assault. It had found an unbroken bridge at Venizel and managed to establish itself on the crest on 12 September, after a thirty-mile approach march in pouring rain.”
In the advance to the Aisne, the part assigned to the 2nd Inniskillings was to cross the river at Venizel in the face of the Germans, who were holding a strong position on the high ground north of the river.
They succeeded in preventing the Germans from blowing all the charges at Venizel Bridge on September 13, and reached the village of St Marguerite at nightfall, but suffered severe casualties.
Walter Ernest Pollock was the son of William and Mary Jane Pollock, 26, Lower Bennett Street, Londonderry. At the time of his son’s death, Private Walter Pollock’s father received from Lord Kitchener an expression of their Majesties’ condolences. In the same period, Walter Pollock’s three brothers – Sergeant Tom Pollock, chief clerk to the Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster General, and Privates William and Fred Pollock of the Royal Army Medical Corps – were serving at the Front. Sergeant Tom Pollock, who was attached to the staff of the 4th Army Corps, went out to the Front with that corps after the withdrawal of the Naval Division from Antwerp.
Another brother, Francis James (Frank), a ship’s carpenter in the Mercantile Marine, died on board the R.M.S.P. Alcala on September 16, 1913, at the age of 28. Frank Pollock was a shipwright in the employment of the North West of Ireland Shipbuilding Company until about three months prior to his death, when he was advised to take a sea trip for the benefit of his health.
On the outward journey to Buenos Aires the vessel on which he was sailing had the misfortune to go ashore at Porto Rico, and this mishap had a bad effect on young Frank Pollock, who was subsequently invalided home on the Alcala.
Though the medical officer and other officials bestowed every care on the patient, he gradually sank, and expired when the vessel was off Lisbon. The remains were afterwards interred at sea.
Private Walter Pollock’s father, William Pollock, was engaged in the shoemaking business all his life, having been employed with Messrs. Gill, formerly of the Diamond, Londonderry, and later with Messrs. McCutcheon. He belonged to the Faughan Valley district, but spent most of his life in the city of Londonderry. William Pollock died on Sunday, February 16, 1936, and was interred two days later in Londonderry City Cemetery.