A short article from Andy Steel, one of the Bespoke guide team:

The Political Editor of the Guardian/Observer, Toby Helm, wrote an article about his grandfather, Cyril Helm, which appeared in the Observer Magazine dated the 3rd November 2013.

Cyril was a Doctor with the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War and, as such, treated and cared for wounded soldiers throughout that period. He was awarded the Military Cross in 1915 and the Distinguished Service Order in 1917.

In the report Toby Helm referred to an entry in his grandfather’s diary that had always stuck in his mind. Dated the 27th October 1914, whilst he was in an aid post at a farm just outside the village of Richebourg-l’Avoue. It reads;

“A most pathetic thing happened that afternoon. A young gunner subaltern was on his way to observe a machine-gun position. Just as he got outside my door a shrapnel shell burst full in front of him. The poor fellow was brought into me absolutely riddled. He lay in my arms until he died, shrieking in agony and said he hoped I would excuse him for making such a noise as he really could not help it. Pitiful, as nothing could be done for him except an injection of morphia. I always will remember that incident, particularly as he was such a fine looking boy, certainly not more than 19”.

 This was a poignant and memorable event for Cyril and latterly, for his grandson Toby.

I was intrigued and made enquiries to see if I could trace the young subaltern mentioned in the diaries. The diary is quite specific about the date and location and referred to the young man as a ‘gunner subaltern’. The war was only two and a half months old when the event occurred and artillery had really not developed to the numbers it was to reach in 1916 and beyond. In this case the young subaltern, (an officer of the rank of Second or First Lieutenant) had left his unit and moved closer to the front line in order to observe an enemy machine-gun, presumably to identify the location in order to direct artillery fire onto the position; as a consequence there would have been very few ‘gunner subaltern’s’ in that immediate area.

When all the factors are considered there is only one young man that meets the criteria. He was a young gunner subaltern who died on the 27th October 1914 and is recorded on the Le Touret Memorial, two miles away from the village of Richebourg-l’Avoue;

Owen William Eugene HERBERT, aged 21 years, of the 23rd Brigade, Royal Field Artillery 

There are no other artillery subalterns who died on that day recorded in that area.

It is likely that he was buried and the grave marker was lost or disturbed during the following four years of warfare.

Andy Steel

Bespoke Western Front Battlefield Tours