Remembering the Fallen: on this day in 1916, Lieutenant Vere Harmsworth, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, was killed in action at the Battle of Ancre.
The second son of Lord Rothermere (co-founder of the Daily Mail), he was educated at Osborne and Dartmouth. He served in the Royal Navy, was captured during the bombardment of Antwerp in October of 1914 and interned, but managed to escape and went on to serve in Gallipoli. His hearing was irreparably damaged by naval gunfire so he was deemed unfit for service at sea – rather than take one of the many safe jobs he was offered, he volunteered to serve with the Royal Naval Division in order to return to the Western Front.
He wrote home constantly, asking his family and friends for a variety of things for his men: tobacco, fruit, biscuits, goggles, gloves, and also umbrellas and periscopes for those in the trenches. He wrote in detail of the horrors of war, and of his attitude to the top brass’ “remote, unthinking leadership”: “One’s loathing of staff increases out here where officers with red hats dash past infantry in motor cars — splashing them with mud. No staff job for me ever. I’m going through the mill with my men. They are little more than boys, most of them, and far too young to fight at all”. He had just turned twenty.
Before the Battle of Ancre, the final large British attack of the Somme, he wrote: “We came into the trenches this morning and go over the top tomorrow. It will be about dawn… Whether I am to emerge from this show, I do not know. Fate has definitely not informed me. Somehow I have never imagined myself as an old man…I firmly believe that no man can truthfully say he has done his share until he has made the supreme sacrifice. That is why I have refused all staff jobs and easy appointments. If one takes one of these jobs, one lowers oneself to the average slacker’s standard”. He and his men were ordered to climb out of the trenches before the attack began, forming up in the dark – but they were exposed and in the line of fire at dawn, and also unaware of a hidden German bunker close by. A few minutes later only twenty men remained out of 430, considered one of the worst casualty rates of the Somme. Their historian wrote: “Through the November mists, blinded by smoke, we saw the last of the Hawke Battalion as we had known it.”
Lieutenant Harmsworth was shot in the throat as he led the attack, but kept on going. He was shot again in the shoulder but continued to lead his men until he was cut down by artillery fire. He is buried in the Ancre British Cemetery, Beaumont-Hamel in France. In the same letter from the morning of his death he wrote: “I may have been born to live my 21 years and then fade away. It may have been my mission in life. If I fall, do not mourn but be glad and proud. It is not a life wasted but gloriously fulfilled. The crowning consolation is the knowledge that one will have done one’s utmost to leave the world better than one found it.”