A HERO OF THE GREAT WAR

 

This is the story of Major Harold Thomas Forster, DSO., MC.

1878-1918

 

 

Harold Thomas Forster was my grandfather and died before I was born. However he has always been a fascinating subject for my brother, sister and myself and was, I believe, a true hero. There were many heroes in the Great War and he was just one of many but hopefully his story will make interesting reading for you.

 

Harold Forster was born in Christchurch, Hampshire on 6th November 1878 and after leaving school served for a short time in the Royal Marines before purchasing a discharge. Then on 14th October 1899 at the age of 20 years and 11 months he signed on with the Royal Berkshire Regiment, initially for a period of 7 years with the colours and with a further 5 years in the reserves. Subsequently he extended this to 12 years with the colours.

 

He rose up through the ranks to become Regimental Sergeant Major in October 1913.

 

After periods of overseas duty in Gibraltar and Ireland (where his two eldest sons were born) he was sent to France on 12th August 1914 to become one of the “Old Contemptibles”. He fought in the battles of Mons, Ypres, the Somme, the Marne and the Aisne. There was a third son who was born a few months after he died but it is unclear as to whether or not he knew that he was going to be a father again. He was wounded on 30th October 1914 and returned to England for a short convalescence before returning to action.

 

Obviously his leadership powers in the arena of war were soon appreciated because he was commissioned in the field the day after returning from home leave in June 1915 and became a 2nd Lieutenant. This was followed in December 1915 by promotion to Lieutenant. Later in April 1918 he was seconded to the Northamptonshire Regiment where he was given the rank of Acting Major.

 

In July 1916 Harold Forster was awarded the Military Cross and then a Bar to the M.C. in September 1917. On the same date he was appointed to be a “Companion of the Distinguished Service Order”. This photograph shows him at Buckingham Palace when he received that D.S.O. from King George V. Later he was awarded the Bar to the D.S.O. in August 1918 but sadly by that time his luck had run out and he had been killed.

 

Harold Forster was also mentioned in dispatches on 5 occasions, the fourth being just 4 days before he died. I can only assume that the fifth occasion which was about 6 weeks after the war finished had something to do with the enquiries which were going on at that time regarding his whereabouts.

 

The details of Harold Forster’s death are something of a mystery although this is not surprising given the nature of the war. We know that a shell exploded beneath the horse which he was riding and that he suffered injuries to his chest and face (one report says that he lost an eye) but he was reported to be cheerful after being taken to a field dressing station and then been put in an ambulance to be taken to hospital. This was on the 27th May 1918.

 

Reports give the following story:

From Private E. Bradwell, 2nd Northants: “Major Forster was at Details, Bouvancourt. We had to retire from there and he continually went forward to see how things were going on during the retirement. As far as I can remember it was the third day of our retirement that he went up on horseback with his groom to the front line and was wounded and was brought back on horseback by his groom. After that the Germans came on very fast and we had to retire further, so that if he is still missing he may have been captured before he could get away to safety. The place was by an aerodrome on a hillside, this side of Vezilly. His groom was very severely wounded and is in hospital.”

From Private G. Blamire, 2nd Northants: “He came with me in a motor ambulance, as far as a French Dressing Station at Epernay, a shell had burst under his horse and he was very badly wounded in the body and face. I don’t know what happened to him after. He may have gone to Bar le Duc Meuse Hospital where I went to.”

From Alfred S. Mayne, rank unknown: “I helped put your husband Major H. T. Forster on to an ambulance at the first aid post at a village called Chainuzy {probably Chaumuzy} north of Epernay (about 25 kilometres) with the second in command of the 2nd Devon Regt. His name I cannot recall at the moment. From there I believe they went to a French C.C.S. near Epernay. The major of the second Devons eventually got home but from that day no one seems to have had any news of your husband. He was badly hit in the chest and face but the doctor said he thought he would be alright and he seemed very cheerful and quite conscious as we talked for some time. We had crowds of wounded with little or no transport as the Bosche had caught nearly half. He was shelling the village heavily but did not hit any of the ambulances. The next day we had to retire. As far as I could make out I was the last to see him in the 8th Division.”

According to the Hampshire cricket website this happened near Ventelay on Bouleuse Ridge. Bouleuse is actually quite close to Vezilly and to the village of Chaumuzy while Ventelay is about 25kms away close to Bouvancourt where he had been based prior to the withdrawal so I think it probably did all happen in the Vezilly, Bouleuse, Chaumuzy area which would have been the 25kms distance from Epernay which Alfred Mayne speaks of.

 

It has been assumed that the French Casualty Station was hit in the intense shelling which was in progress at the time and he died then or that he died of his original wounds which were more serious than had first been thought. Or he may have made it to a hospital which was then overrun by the Germans.

 

An article on the internet about the Battle of the Aisne gives some clue to what was happening on May 27th 1918. I repeat it below:

"The German attack was launched early on 27 May with a ferocious heavy artillery bombardment of 4,000 guns across a 40 km front, against four divisions of IX Corps. Owing to the heavy concentration of primarily British troops in front-line trenches, casualties from the bombardment were severe; IX Corps itself was virtually wiped out. The bombardment was accompanied by a gas attack, designed to disable defensive gun crews, after which 17 divisions of German infantry, under Crown Prince Wilheim, began their advance through a 40 km gap in the Allied line. 

With the Allied forces entirely taken by surprise, the rapid progress of the German troops was reminiscent of the more fluid war of movement of the opening months of the war.

Between Soissons and Reims the Germans broke through a further eight Allied divisions, four British, four French, reaching the Aisne in under six hours. By the end of the first day the Germans had gained 15 km of territory and had reached the River Vesle. By 30 May the Germans had managed to capture 50,000 Allied soldiers and 800 guns, arriving within 90 km of Paris by 3 June.

Once again a German victory seemed probable. However, as before, problems with supplies and reserves, and troop fatigue, in addition to prolonged Allied counter-attacks, halted the German advance at the Marne. By 6 June the German advance had run out of steam.
French casualties were heavy, with 98,000 losses; their British allies suffered 29,000 casualties"

This seems to confirm the statement of Private Bradwell about the Germans "coming on very fast".

 

Where Harold Forster was buried is unclear. After the war and following many enquiries somebody (unknown) thought that one grave at Epernay might be his and an exhumation took place. The findings stated that there was nothing found to suggest that it might not be Major Forster’s grave but then nothing was said to confirm that it was. Many years later many of those war graves were moved to Boulogne and there is now a grave there which bears his name. Whether it is his grave or not is irrelevant now as it is at very least a memorial.

 

Following the cessation of hostilities many enquires were made about Harold Forster’s fate and it was established that he was still alive on 29th May because of a card which he sent to my grandmother but then the trail dries up. It was thought that he might have been taken prisoner when the hospital he was in was overrun by the Germans. Certainly one hospital was. Some of the letters from his wife are very poignant with enquiries like “Now that our men are all returning home, is there any news of my husband?” Unfortunately there was none apart from the statements I have printed earlier. I like to think that if the hospital he was in was captured by the Germans then he had his hand gun with him and went down fighting; it would seem in character.

 

The amazing thing about the Army is that although they stopped my grandfather’s pay from 29th May (and even requested my grandmother send the card she had received as proof that he was alive then and hadn‘t died two days earlier when he was first wounded) and later sent my grandmother the “Death Penny” (left) which the families of all servicemen who died received; despite all that they would not issue a death certificate so that she was unable to claim on an insurance policy. It took several letters from a solicitor before the Army would issue a letter which they said would generally suffice for insurance purposes but even then it wasn’t a death certificate and none was ever issued.

 

The Red Cross were as usual as helpful as possible and two of the witness statements printed earlier came via them but they were unable to trace his final hours.

 

There was however another side to my grandfather’s life. He was an extremely good sportsman and the family has various medals he won for cricket, football, hockey and cross-country. It was at cricket that he excelled and in 1911 played 5 first class matches for Hampshire, the county of his birth. In his first match he took 9 wickets playing against the M.C.C. at Lords. Hampshire apparently wanted to buy him out of the Army but he didn’t want that. He also played for the Free Foresters and on one occasion took 6 wickets in an innings against the M.C.C. at Lords. He seemed to enjoy playing against the M.C.C. There was also an occasion when playing for Dublin Garrison where he was stationed at the time he took 5 wickets against the Free Foresters.

 

I quote from cricinfo.com.  “Born on November 14, 1878, at Winchester. Wisden failed to accord him an obituary, yet he was one of the most decorated of all cricketers, being awarded the DSO and bar and the MC and bar. He went to the Front at the beginning of the First World War as a CSM with the Royal Berkshire Regiment, attached to the Northamptonshire Regiment. When he was killed in action on May 29, 1918, near Ventalay, France, aged 39, he was a Major in command of a battalion. A left-arm medium slow bowler, he played in five games for Hampshire in 1911 and created a great impression on his debut when he took 9-92 in the match, but in his other four games he took just one more wicket.”

 

One should not think that he was a totally without fault because I have discovered a Regimental Conduct Sheet where he was severely reprimanded for “irregularity at annual inspection of signallers” (what was that I wonder?) and another for being absent from 6.30am roll call parade. It is nice to know he was human!

 

He was obviously a soldier through and through but also a very tender person I would think. Some of the letters to my grandmother from France and Belgium are very touching. They were written in pencil on grey paper which doesn’t photograph too well so I am reprinting one here where he was clearly thinking very much of home:

“My Own Darling Girl,

Just received your letter dear and was very pleased to get it.

The weather appears to have changed there as it has here.

Yes Kiddie, you must tell Gash (don’t know him) that he cannot have the ground after Xmas as we want it ourselves then next year we can plant nearly all of it with potatoes which should keep you going as the back garden does not appear to be any good. As you say he had a  cheek but I know him. He would soon collar the lot if he had a chance.

I do hope you won’t have bad weather when Percy (brother-in-law I believeis there, perhaps you would get him to put some winter cabbage plants in which will come in very handy to you.

I wish I could get home for a time and square up things a bit but if I do I don’t want anyone else staying there. I want you and the boys all to myself. If I am lucky enough to get leave soon I expect you will be on your own, all the visitors will have gone. As we shan’t be out of here till the 1st  I wonder if Joe will manage to come down or not..

We have the parson to tea in the trenches too but he is a jolly fine chap.

Now my darling girl I will close, kiss the boys with all my love to my darling girl.

I remain your loving husband

Harold Forster”

Another letter gives an idea of the conditions the soldiers had to put up with:

“My Darling Kid,

I was  looking forward to a letter today but there is no mail so we are all disappointed. Never mind perhaps we shall do better tomorrow.

It’s been raining nearly all the time since I wrote yesterday and the place is awful. We had a dugout fall in on three men this morning owing to the rain but we dug them out in time. The trenches are rotten today.

We have had some more good news today so altogether we are doing grand. Our new armoured cars are doing well evidently.

Well I have no news Kiddie dear.

Kiss Vic (my father) for me.

With all my love to you.

Your loving husband

Harry”

In another letter he refers to the dreadful conditions but says that "it is the men I feel sorry for". I imagine that he would have been a good officer to serve under, somebody who wouldn't ask anybody to do something he wouldn't do himself. I am only sorry that I was never able to meet him.

 

Alan Forster

For a look at a gallery of photographs click here