'The Hero of the Rope': Cpl Gordon Seeley, 2nd KRRC - Kathryn's history blog

Sunday, 12 May 2019

'The Hero of the Rope': Cpl Gordon Seeley, 2nd KRRC


Gordon John Seeley was, in 1914, an ordinary clerk, working in a small legal office of a rural town. In 1918 he returned to home to Dursley a war hero, with a parade in his honour and his actions celebrated in the national press.

At the outbreak of the First World War, Seeley remained working at Vizard and Wenden Solicitors of Long Street, Dursley, in Gloucestershire, his work being considered important enough to exempt him from military service. However, after the passing of conscription in 1916 his case was reconsidered and the local tribunal dismissed his claim to remain home. Unmarried and aged 22, he was a prime candidate for military service. 

He duly joined up and set off for training, leaving behind his parents Robert and Elizabeth who ran the Carpenters Arms pub on the Uley Road. They would certainly have been worried about his departure: a few months previously their elder son, Stanley, had been killed at Suvla Bay in Gallipoli. Their loss was, of course, far from unique, yet there must have been a certain anguish, if also accompanied by an inevitability, of their younger son Gordon heading off for war, having already lost Stanley.

Seeley was posted to 2nd battalion, Kings Royal Rifle Corps and arrived in France in early 1917, where the unit as part of 2nd Brigade of 1st Division were preparing defenses around the channel ports between Dunkirk and Nieuport (now spelled Nieuwpoort). 
The waterways of Nieuwpoort as they are today
The Division were here as part of the preparation for 'Operation Hush', an assault planned for the Summer of 1917 which, it was hoped, would drive the German forces away from Nieuport and the Yser river by means of an amphibious attack. Such a daring plan needed specialist training and 1st Division were tasked with this, undergoing practice run-throughs of the proposed battle at a camp near Dunkirk.

With the British relieving the French around Nieuport, the Germans sensed that a plan was afoot and launched a defensive artillery barrage on 6th July. On 10th July German Marines attacked the line held by the British 1st Division in what became known as the Battle of the Dunes. Seeley's unit, the 2nd KRRC, alongside the 1st battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment took the brunt of the assault, being almost surrounded.

Crucially, the bridges over the River Yser behind 1st Division had been destroyed in the barrage, meaning the only possible means of retreat was to swim. Seeley, despite only being a corporal, was instrumental in rescuing a number of his comrades. He had been sheltering in a dug-out while the bombardment went on overhead, but it was blown in and Seeley, along with another man, had to clear the entrance and make for the river, leading a number of other men towards safety.

A number of these men could not swim and so Seeley took it upon himself to swim across with a rope which he affixed to either bank to allow the men to pull themselves across and avoid being taken prisoner. For this action, Lloyd's Weekly Register lauded him the 'Hero of the Rope' and his 'gallant deed' was also reported in the Daily Mail, albeit without his name being mentioned.

Such was his bravery that he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions. His citation explained how, after tying the rope, Seeley and another man had 'crossed and recrossed the river' until 'the whole party was safely got across.' If it hadn't been for their 'courageous and resourceful action', 'their comrades would not have escaped'.

The news of his bravery and subsequent award was quickly celebrated back home in Dursley, where the Conservative and Unionist Club, to which Seeley belonged, launched a public subscription for a reward and raised £70 for a war-savings bond to be given to Seeley as a prize. 
Dursley, c. 1920s (via Kim Wilkins)
A special ceremony was then arranged for him to be presented with the bond, upon his return to the town in February 1918. Despite the typically rainy day, the Dursley Gazette reported that he was met with a huge crowd who had turned out to congratulate him. Such was the scale of the event that too many people were expected to be able to hold it at the town hall and instead a platform was erected outside Eagle House in Long Street (now Lloyd's bank, opposite the war memorial gates). There was a procession of the Church Lads’ Brigade, Boy Scouts, Volunteer Reserve troops and Conservative members, accompanied by a band. They paraded to collect Seeley from his parents' pub, the Carpenter’s Arms, then down into town where the presentation was made.

The Dursley Gazette report of the day recorded how speeches were made by local dignitaries before Seeley thrilled the crowd with his story of the Battle of the Dunes. He was then celebrated with renditions of 'For He's a Jolly Good Fellow' and 'See the Conquering Hero Comes!' by the assembled masses, before a smoking concert at the Castle Hotel was later held in his honour.

Seeley remained in the Army until he was demobbed in 1919, when he took another clerk role, this time with the town council. While he did move to Kent in the 1920s, he soon returned to Dursley where he lived until his death in 1978, aged 80. He is still remembered as a kind and friendly gentleman by some in the town.
  

It is unfortunate that I have been unable to locate a high quality photo of Seeley. These two versions of the same photo are taken from the Dursley Gazette and a republishing in David Evans' book. What is wonderful about this image, even in such low quality, is his cheeky smile, showing his cheery personality that complimented the bravery he demonstrated as a clerk-turned-corporal.

Kathryn

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