"But R.E.K., You Take the Piccalilli" - 2nd Lieut Raymond E Knight, Fifth Glosters - Kathryn's history blog

Sunday, 3 March 2019

"But R.E.K., You Take the Piccalilli" - 2nd Lieut Raymond E Knight, Fifth Glosters


In much of my research into my local t territorials, the Fifth Glosters, I have come across the name of Raymond E Knight, a soldier who rose from the ranks to be a Second Lieutenant. Not only was he a man local to me, coming from Gloucester, but he was also an alumnus of Pembroke College, Oxford, where I'm now studying.

Knight grew up in Haresfield, near Gloucester in a farming family and was educated at Crypt School, before going up to Oxford in 1906 on a Townsend scholarship, where he studied modern history. He was a keen sportsman, captaining both the school cricket and football teams before playing cricket for Pembroke and earning a full Blue for varsity cross country. It was later recalled that he 'distinguished himself in athletic sports and won many prizes for long distances'. His athleticism and sportsmanship would later benefit him in army life.

Despite his Oxford education, he began his war service in the ranks, with the 1/5th battalion Gloucestershire Regiment, a territorial unit. They arrived in France on 29th March 1915 and were first sent to a "nursery" sector at Ploegsteert where they could receive further training, before heading south to Hebuterne, at the northern end of the Somme front, where they were to spend much of the next year.

A lot of what is known about Knight comes his friend, the poet FW Harvey, with whom he served in C Company of the 5th Glosters. Harvey wrote at least three poems about, and dedicated to, his friend, as well as underlining both Knight and his own names in press clippings he compiled in scrapbooks after the war. These are now preserved in the FW Harvey archive at Gloucestershire Archives, along with a number of letters Knight wrote to Harvey.

The greatest gift of Harvey's poems is the insight they give into the character of Knight, his 'rash, warm-hearted friend' with whom he shared much laughter. In one comedic poem, Harvey described their entertainment at trying to acquire matting for a cricket match from a small French shop. The escapade began with the pair stealing bikes, which they rode the five miles behind the lines to where they saw some for sale in a shop window. Then began their hilarity of explaining to the French shokeeper what cricket was:

'We had the stuff rolled flat within a yard
Behind the shop. The shopman stood amazed.
I swung my bowling arm and K[night] hit hard
The loose invisible ball I bowled. "How's that!"
I shouted (oh but then he thought us crazed!)
And mine it was to weild ghostly bat.'

He recalled how they 'roared with laughter all', returning to the battalion with the matting, ready for a game of Officers vs. The Rest. Another favoured format of cricket was Gloucester XI vs. The Rest, with the Fifth Glosters Gazette recording that both Harvey and Knight played for the Gloucester side.
Cricket Match - source

Reading Harvey's poems and other writings, it is clear that the friends enjoyed their first year in France, despite the responsibilities of military life. In another poem, 'A True Tale of the Listening Post', Harvey built up the tension of a night where he and Knight were 'frozen and afraid to move, on listening patrol'. They spent four hours 'afraid to move or whisper, cough or sneeze' when Knight leant over to him:

'My comrade covering still the sound, said - this
This, whole the unknown stalked, and fear was chilly
Like ice around our hearts - "I say old chap"
(My laughter followed like a thunder-clap)
"Couldn't I do some beef and piccalilli."'

Such was their relationship that they always found the lighter side of what they were doing, leading Harvey to conclude:

'Men are quaint things world over, willy nilly.
But R.E.K. - you take the - piccalilli.'

Of course, these are poems written retrospectively, with Harvey no doubt altering the truth of what happened and enhancing the entertainment. Nonetheless, they are evident both of the fast friendship between the two comrades and of their attitude to war, which didn't take anything too seriously.

Knight and Harvey's service wasn't all play, however. They were also often among the parties to be involved in trench raids, with them telling the Gloucester Echo that they 'had a penchant' for such excursions into No Man's Land. Their most notable one came on the night of 3/4th August 1915 near Hebuterne when they went out to reconnoitre in the direction of a listening post. Upon approaching about 350 yards from the British line, they heard a cough and found that the post was occupied, with further German troops in a working party behind it. As the corporal, Knight was in charge and 'at once shot the enemy', while Harvey 'rushed the post, shooting two others'. As assistance arrived in the form of six other Glosters, 'the enemy fled', albeit minus the three killed. Their rifles and pistol were retrieved by the Glosters who received 'no loss'.

The quotations above are taken from the citation of Knight and Harvey's Distinguished Conduct Medals (DCM) which they were awarded in recognition of their bravery that night. Promotions soon followed, with them heading off to Officer Training School that Autumn. Upon their return to Gloucestershire, they were received as heroes, with much press coverge and a presentation from the Mayor of Gloucester.  A newspaper report recorded the Mayor's congratulations on behalf of the city council, as well as how Knight and Harvey, with their usual charm 'kept the members highly amused by relating a few of their many experiences'. They also gave an interview to the Gloucester Echo, recalling the raid. Despite the seriousness of the incident, the journalist noted that 'even a dramatic event like this fight in the dark was not without a touch of comedy almost farcical'. It seems Knight and Harvey really could laugh at anything, turning their comedic touch to all aspects of the war.

Back in Gloucestershire, they were placed with the 3/5th Glosters, a training unit stationed in Cheltenham. Despite greater responsibility as officers, this posting also gave them more time for entertainment, such as with the concert they organised for the battalion. They arranged for a band to play but also sang and performed themselves, with the newspaper review cheering that it was 'so hilarious at times that the men forgot to smoke'.

During the winter of 1915 Harvey and Knight were separated, with Knight returning to the site of his student days in Oxford. However, they kept in touch and were back in France with the Fifth Glosters by the following summer. This time Knight was posted to B Company, with whom he fought on the Somme in July 1916.  It was here, in the La Boisselle area, that he was killed on 22nd July 1916. The battalion's chaplain, GF Helm, wrote to Knight's mother that he died of wounds while 'being brought down on a stretcher'.

He is buried in Bapaume Post Cemetery just outside Albert, which I visited last September. Soon after his old friend FW Harvey was taken prisoner, living out the rest of the war in Germany. Their fun of the summer of 1915 was over, with their losses felt throughout their battalion. A fellow officer wrote of Knight's 'srong personality' coupled with his 'absolute fairness in everything' that meant 'a better companion I have never had'. Harvey lamented Knight's loss in his poem 'In Memoriam' which commemorated both his sporting prowess and sense of humour, as well as his caring personality.

'Swift-footed, fleeter yet
Of heart. Swift to forget
The petty spite of that life or men could show you;
Your last long race is won,
But beyond the sound of gun
You laugh and help men onward - if I know you.'

Harvey wrote tribute poems to many men in the unit, yet there remains something special about his relationship with Knight and their friendship forged both on the cricket pitch and at the listening post. In the Autumn of 1916, while Harvey was recorded missing, their mothers sought comfort in each other, brought together both by their sons' friendship and shared loss.

After the war, Knight was remembered on memorials in both Gloucester and at Pembroke, Oxford. His brother also donated electric lighting for the cloisters and chapter house of Gloucester Cathedral in his memory, with a plaque recording this gift. But his greatest tribute remains that of Harvey's poems, remembering his humour and spirit of adventure even in the harshness of war.

Kathryn

Sources:
http://jgrepshire.blogspot.com/2013/07/fw-harvey-cricket-and-nostalgia.html
http://blogs.exeter.ac.uk/fwharvey/
The Fifth Gloucester Gazette
FW Harvey archive, Gloucestershire Archives, D12912

No comments:

Post a Comment

Pages