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EXITGilbert Waterhouse
Gilbert Waterhouse
Born August 22nd 1883 - Killed in Action 1st July 1916

    Gilbert Waterhouse was the eldest son of John Walter and Louisa Margaret Waterhouse of Thames Ditton, Surrey.

Gilbert had two older sisters Elsie and Irene and younger siblings - Muriel, Wilfred, Jack and Geoffrey. The family lived for some years in the Leytonstone area in Forest Drive, before moving to the Blackheath area of south London. Gilbert’s father John was a shipping broker at a time when the Port of London was at the centre of the massive network of the world’s merchant shipping routes and the shipyards of Scotland and the North East particularly were in full production.
Gilbert was a day boy at Bancrofts between 1894 and 1900 and had amongst his contemporaries Leslie Gordon Black and Ernest Mitchell Meredith.
As evidenced by the accounts of so many our number, the time was one in which poetry featured prominently as an expression of creativity, on occasions comedy and indeed plumbed the depths of contemplation for many. The educational standards were such that significant quantities of poetry and prose would be learned by rote but not necessarily with a mechanical labour but rather as a source of enjoyment. Poetry abounds amongst our old boys as these accounts have in part sought to evidence. Perhaps, though, of all it is Gilbert who is remembered today for his writing.

Gilbert left school and became a ship’s draughtsman, still living with the family in Forest Drive. He was then to qualify as an architect and member of the R.I.B.A during the years preceding war. Later came membership of the Town Planning Institute and then war broke out. Like so many others he wasted no time in enlisting on the 8th September 1914 in the 18th Battalion Royal Fusiliers. His soldier’s training begun, Gilbert immediately applied for a commission. Gilbert was duly granted his commission in May 1915 as a Second Lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion of the Essex Regiment. His training complete Gilbert was then posted as a junior officer reinforcement in the 2nd battalion one of two regular battalions of ‘the Pompadours’

Gilbert’s poem ‘Coming in Splendour through the Golden Gate’ was published in October 1915 in The English Review and at the time of its being written was perhaps influenced by his experience of basic training in the countryside around Harwich:

By 1915 news of the great losses in the war had firmly made its mark on the consciousness of those who were to follow. Gilbert followed arriving with his battalion in France on 25th July 1915. The battalion had had its pre-war base at Chatham where Gilbert had been born and had been in France since August 1914. For a new officer among regular soldiery thechallenges were perhaps even greater when it came to acceptance. Like all other volunteers of those early years Gilbert’s commission was officially ‘temporary’ in an army determined to preserve some of its pre-war distinction.

By the winter of 1915/1916 the battalion was concentrated in the Somme region north of Amiens with Gilbert joining it on 4th December 1915. In the February it occupied the lines between the River Ancre and the Serre area. It would not have been known to the troops then but facing them were the entrenchments and obstacles that in the sights of the Allied general staff represented the next bigobjective. It was here on the 22nd February that Gilbert received an injury to his left arm. The cause of this wound is not clear at this time. Shrapnel perhaps, there was plenty of opportunity in trenches periodically raked by shellfire. Just as likely could be an accidental wound. Trench systems and the billets and the workstations that lay behind presented a multiplicity of hazards to the unlucky in the form of miles of barbed wire, sharp blades, mattocks, corrugated iron and plenty besides. In an age where infected wounds could easily be a precursor to amputation or death Gilbert was hospitalised for a spell. It can be imagined that Gilbert’s poem ‘The Casualty Clearing Station’ represents in his work a more pleasurable experience in France than most: As spring broke, however, Gilbert was back in the line in ‘C’ Company. Here units were joined by the growing swell of new army recruits, bringing existing battalions back up to full strength or arriving in battalions entirely new to the conflict. As the 1st July approached Gilbert’s company occupied the lines to the south of the village of Serre in the vicinity of Bertrancourt. The strategic plan was for:
  1. The main thrust to be directed to the fortifications around Beaumont Hamel.

  2. To the north the troops including Gilbert facing Serre were to sweep up in an upper-cut movement seizing the lines of communication around the fortified hamlet of Serre.

  3. Meanwhile further north still the troops around Gommecourt including a number of Old Bancroftians such as John Sinclair Henwood, Samuel Westwood Benton, Frederick Reith Campbell Bradford and Douglas Hampden Beeching waited to be the southernmost arm of a pincer attack bent on seizing Gommecourt.

As dawn broke on the 1st July allied artillery pounded German positions all along the front. As with most of the Somme region the geology is chalk and contrary perhaps to the popular image of mud and blood that later battles in Belgian flatlands such as Passchendaele have branded into the public the chalk grasslands still showed amongst tussock grass and the grey-white uplifted spoil of man’s entrenchments. The barrage was so intense it could be heard on Hampstead Heath and all along the front eruption followed eruption as shells battered the German defences and German artillery pounded the allied Battalions assembling for an assault that everyone knew was coming. At 7.20 am the huge mine at Hawthorn Redoubt within the German defences before Beaumont Hamel was exploded as if to mark the crescendo of the tumult.
At Serre the Essex men were in the second wave to go in. On the one hand this meant that the advance troops would have acheived a further softening up of the German positions, however, it is just as true in this case that before the battalion exposed itself to fire there was no mistaking the losses that were already being incurred. The advancing troops were overlooked by enemy positions from the hamlet of Serre sitting on top of the slopes that faced the Essex men as well as other strongpoints. Their line of attack was by the right of Pendant Copse, taking the church spire at Miraumont as their marker, which lay in a hollow on the River Ancre beyond the ridge. The battalion suffered considerably from shell-fire and only a few were able to reach and reinforce comrades in the Rifle Brigade and Warwickshire Regiment who had in different locations negotiated the wire entanglements and made it through to take sections of the German entrenchments.
It is not clear entirely what befell Gilbert. By the end of the 1st July there were only two officers and 192 other ranks uninjured and many of the 400 or so difference were dead or lost.

Gilbert was lost. Today the letters in the National Archive poignantly reflect the pains of the not knowing within that word ‘Lost’.
The attacks upon Serre that day were beaten back and no advance achieved. No mans land and the trench systems were strewn with the bodies of many hundreds of men from both sides in the conflict. To the north of Serre on that line of approach hundreds of men of the north country Pals battalions were mown down, men from Durham, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Barnsley, Accrington and the like.
As all positions seized could not be held, back within the starting trenches hurried arrangements were made for fortifying the depleted lines and the Essex and other battalions in a state of dissarray.

Gilbert lay dead in no mans land. Ten days later a Private Adkins from his company and now wounded lying in a hospital bed in Etaples military hospital was asked for his account of his officer:

Still no proof and Gilbert’s father like hundreds of others in that battle and many others sought after information. The War Office in England was inundated with requests, with telegrams to be issued, with effects to be gathered, accounts to be verified, financial accounts to be settled. The heartfelt desperation of the families is as evident as the strain on the system to respond. Gilbert’s father tried to cut through the red tape and wrote letters widely. One in particular to the US Embassy (then still neutral) in Germany sought to pursue the hope that perhaps Gilbert had been captured and wounded or not was a prisoner of war. The letter referred back to the War Office was responded to from London advising the writer that any enquiries were to be directed to the War Office.

As with John Sinclair Henwood his fellow Old Bancroftian who that same morning assaulted Gommecourt a few miles to the north Gilbert was to lay where he fell. In the early Spring of 1917 the German army in a strategic withdrawal pulled back their own troops from Serre. There then followed a search for the ‘lost’ in what had been no mans land. It was not an easy task but one which was performed with great diligence and with reverence for fallen comrades.
Back home Gilbert remained ‘wounded and missing’ and an edition of his collected poems was published. A copy was presented to the school by fellow OB and his contemporary at the school George Black. Within the following twelve months both of George’s younger brothers OB’s Leslie Gordon and William Thomas Black would be killed at the front. Gilberts body was discovered in the summer of 1917 and today he lies in SERRE ROAD CEMETERY No.2. Here lie over 6,500 British and Commonwealth dead discovered on the ground before Serre and Beaumont Hamel in 1917. Almost 5,000 have no inscription other than Rudyard Kipling’s "Known unto God".


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