2 January 2012
5942061 RQMS John William Beeby Gale, 2nd Bedfordshire Regiment
Medals: 1914 Star (with clasp) Trio, Army LSGC.
A few weeks before Christmas I was delighted to acquire the medals of a man I had first come across in 1981. The image above appeared in an autograph album kept by a Broomfield-born VAD nurse, Edith Oliver. She had moved to Chailey in Sussex before the First World War and worked as a Lady's Companion to Margaret Blencowe in the village. She joined the local VAD detachment - Sussex 54 VAD - and between 1914 and 1918 she nursed at two auxiliary hospitals: Hickwells in Chailey and Beechlands (or Beechlands House) at the neighbouring village of Newick. John Gale was one of many men - albeit probably one of the most senior NCOs - who she cared for during her time with the VAD detachment. This is John Gale's story.
He was born at Ellington, Huntingdonshire in September 1877, the son of Angelina Gale (nee Smith) and Charles Gale who had married at Huntingdon in 1871. On 23rd October 1905 he enlisted with the Bedfordshire Regiment aged 18 years and one month. He gave his trade as farm labourer and became 8355 Pte John W B Gale.
In all probability, John Gale's military career would have begun with 10 weeks' drill at the regimental depot at Bedford followed by two years' service in the UK. This would then have been followed by service overseas and by 1907 the 2nd Battalion was in Gibraltar, would move to Bermuda in 1910, followed by South Africa in 1912. In that year, Lance-Corporal Gale, serving with A Company, is recorded in the regimental magazine The Wasp as a contributor to the 2nd Battalion benevolent fund.
When war was declared with Germany in August 1914 the 2nd Battalion was stationed at Robert's Heights, Pretoria. It was mobilised on the 10th August and Gale and the rest of the battalion set sail for England aboard HMT Kenilworth on the 27th of that month. After a brief stop at the island of St Helena, the battalion arrived at Southampton on the 19th September where it was assigned to the 21st Infantry Brigade in the 7th Division. The battalion sailed on two ships, SS Cornishman and SS Winefredian, arriving at Zeebrugge on the 6th October.
John Gale's medal index card shows that he landed overseas as a lance-sergeant and records held at Bedfordshire County Record Office note that he was overseas until the 2nd November 1914 when, according to his own autograph entry in Nurse Oliver's album, he was wounded. Records at the Bedfordshire archives note that his wound was a GSW (gunshot wound) to the chest. It seems likely that he was wounded on the 31st October, this from the 2nd Battalion War Diary (transcribed and augmented by Steve Fuller):
31 Oct 1914
Near Inverness Copse. Early in the morning about 2.30 A.M. orders were received to occupy a small fir wood about 250 yards in front of our line which was then held by L.North Lancs.R. Captain Lemon [Arthur Buche LEMON] & 2 platoons of C Company were ordered to hold this position. This wood had been subjected to heavy shell fire from two sides during the previous day. Shell fire started as soon as it was light. It soon became evident that the enemy were advancing in force on the left of the wood held by Captain Lemon [Arthur Buche LEMON] & also on the right. The Adjutant went to report the situation to Brigade H.Q.& almost immediately on his return to Battalion H.Q. 2 orderlies arrived with an order from the Brigadier to retire fighting towards MENIN-YPRES Road. Part of the Battalion moved back in compliance of this order. An order was sent to Captain Lemon [Arthur Buche LEMON] to retire from the fir wood upon the Battalion. Part of the Battalion remained in the trenches till late in the afternoon about 4.30 p.m. when they were brought back & established a line which they held till relieved on Nov.5/6. The losses were very severe on this day. The C.O. Major J.M.Traill [John Murray TRAILL] & 2nd in Command Major R.P.Stares [Robert Percy STARES] remained in the trenches & were shot at short range. Lieut.Paterson [John Agar PATERSON] was killed in the fir wood. Lieut.Gott [Gilbert Ewart GOTT] was wounded in the Fir wood. Captain A.B.Lemon [Arthur Buche LEMON] was twice wounded in the fir wood & captured. Captain C.S.Garnet Botfield [Charles Sidney GARNETT-BOTFIELD] was severely wounded. 2/Lieut.W.Dixon [William DIXON] wounded. Captain E.H.Lyddon [Ernest Hugh LYDDON] missing [Comment; later assumed KIA]. Lieut.Anderson [Wilfred Cruttenden ANDERSON] missing. The Battalion strength on night October 31st-1st November was 4 officers, 350-400 other ranks. 4 officers were Captain & Adjutant C.C.Foss [Charles Calverley FOSS, VC, DSO], 2/Lieut.B.H.Waddy [Bentley Herbert WADDY, MC], Lieut.S.D.Mills [Stephen Douglas MILLS, MC], Transport Officer, Captain & Quarter Master H.Cressingham [Hugh CRESSINGHAM]. [Comment; also killed was Lieutenant Donald Godrid Campbell THOMSON] A short line was taken up and entrenched.
The wound was severe enough to keep John Gale in England for almost a year. He returned to The Western Front on the 19th October 1915 (having fortuitously missed the Battle of Loos) and rejoined the 2nd Bedfordshire Regiment at Bourecq.
In December 1915 he 7th Division’s 21st Brigade was assigned to the 30th Division, its four battalions of regular soldiers being mixed in with the newly created (and inexperienced) Pals battalions. The Bedfordshire’s new brigade was the 89th and they shared it with Kitchener volunteers from the 17th, 19th and 20th King’s Liverpool Regiment.
The 2nd Bedfords played a supporting role on 1st July 1916, following the 17th and 20th King’s as they moved through cut barbed wire to take their objectives as planned. The other brigades had also enjoyed similar successes and by the end of the day the division had taken all of its objectives and could claim the distinction of having captured the first three field guns of the battle as well as Montauban, the first village to fall.
On 10th July, orders were received that the 2nd Bedfords would attack Trones Wood the following day. Having taken Bernafay Wood almost without a struggle, Trones Wood was proving a much tougher nut to crack. Initial attacks on 8th July by battalions from the 21st Brigade had successfully established a foothold on the south eastern edge of the wood, but subsequent attacks had either failed or been met by stubborn resistance in a see-saw series of engagements which saw portions of Trones Wood switch from German to English control and then back to German. By the time John Gale and The Bedfords moved up to play their part in the action, the wood was still largely in German hands.
Despite the intensity of artillery and machine gun fire concentrated in the area over the previous three days, Trones Wood was still thick with undergrowth that made it difficult to see more than four yards in front. Into this tangle, the Bedfords had advanced at 3:10am, getting to within 400 yards of the south eastern edge of the wood before being spotted by German machine gunners. Thirty five minutes later they had managed to reach the southern end but not without sustaining many casualties on the way in. Two decades later, in a letter published in The Great War I Was There, Private E G Robinson, also of A Company, wrote:
“The first thing that greeted me was a pair of legs, but no body, cut off as clean as with a knife. Farther in, the dead lay in heaps, you couldn’t move without stepping on them… The wood was very dense so we could not see far ahead. We struck off towards the edge of the wood and we came to a clearing where we could see a trench and it was lousy with Germans. At this point we lost touch with the officer and never found what happened to him so we returned to the main body and reported… The branches of trees were flying about as bad as shells and bullets. We were troubled quite a lot by snipers who were up in the trees at the far end of the wood. Captain Tyler said we had better try to drive them out, so he took our platoon forward with that idea. But Jerry had other ideas, and promptly let loose hell: we dived from one tree to another, and the bullets were cutting the leaves and bark round our ears… Eventually we got back to our funk holes with the remainder of the Company. There was no rest of any sort, what with bombing, sniping, machine guns, shells, wounded and dying screaming, the stink of dead bodies, it was Bedlam.”
The remainder of the day followed the now familiar pattern of attack and counter attack, the Bedfords, supported by two companies of the 17th King’s managing to hold on to the southern portion of Trones Wood until relieved on the morning of the 13th by a battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment. The operation cost the Bedfords 244 casualties including John Gale who had been hit before even getting as far as the wood. He gets a mention in the battalion war diary entry for the 11th July:
"Whilst the men were digging in, strong patrols worked the interior of the wood collecting stragglers and bombing the enemy in their Trenches and Dug-outs, and accounted for a great number. "A" & "B" Companies were leading Companies in the Advance at 3.10 a.m. and were particularly unfortunate in losing many N.C.Os on entering the wood, including the C.S.M. of "A" Company (C.S.M.GALE)."
Bedfordshire archives records note that John Gale received a shell wound to his right knee. He must have remained in hospitals overseas for a couple of weeks as records show that he returned to the UK on the 26th July.
Back in England, John Gale would presumably have been sent to the 2nd Eastern General Hospital in Brighton before being sent to Beechlands in Newick, and his rendezvous with Nurse Oliver. He almost certainly would have met some of the men below, posing for Nurse Oliver's camera at Beechlands in 1916.
In the October quarter of 1916, John Gale married Emily Jane Warman at The St George's Hanover Square district. He spent the remainder of the war in England and, on the face of it at least, appears to have been untroubled by his wounds in his subsequent military career. He gets a number of mentions in The Wasp; playing football in 1922, winning the Spoon Shoot in July 1924 and a whist drive in 1924.
RQMS John Gale was discharged at Bedford on the 22nd October 1927 on the termination of his engagement. His conduct was recorded as exemplary and his address on discharge given as Kempston Baracks, Bedford. He was awarded a pension of 56d a day for life and had already been awarded the LSGC with gratuity in April 1924.
John Gale died on the 6th March 1943 aged 52. He is buried in Flitwick churchyard in Bedfordshire.