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Douglas Hampden BeechingBorn 1897 - Died 1st July 1916
Douglas Hampden Beeching, was the youngest son of Walter and Clara Maude Beeching, of "Home", Connaught Avenue, Chingford. Walter, his father, was an office manager in a law firm and one of the founders of the Chingford Congregationalist church while the family living at 'Home', Connaught Avenue, Chingford comprised in order of age Nora Grace, Howard Walter Beeching, and Edith Minnie. In 1914 Howard was working as a warehouseman and Douglas 18 years of age had just left school.
Then in July 1914 the war began. As far as can be told from their service numbers, for no other records survive, it appears both Beeching boys joined up within the same week, perhaps even on the same day in November 1915. By late 1915 the heady days of the 1914 rush to the colours were long past. War was conducted on an industrial scale and the machinery of recruitment and training well established. Both boys chose, or perhaps had chosen for them different regiments. Howard the Rangers and young Donald, in tribute to his parent's Scottish ancestry perhaps, the London Scottish.
We can imagine them perhaps showing off their uniforms; the tam and the kilt of the London Scottish and the peaked cap of the Rangers. Alternatively, perhaps the mood at home was more dour, one of submitting oneself to unavoidable duty. By 1915 there were few illusions as to the deadly horror of the Great War. The London Scottish had been one of the first of the territorial regiments to experience combat around Ypres in 1914 but the grim reality was that the Beeching boys would be making up for the losses of hundreds that had gone before. With Douglas in the London Scottish were the likes of Norman Lindsay Mackie a former head boy of the school and with previous territorial service soon to be promoted to Captain, while his brother Howard in the Rangers followed the path of old boys and in some cases schoolboy contemporaries such as Richard Edwin Chardin, Harry Markby, Frederick Lionel Nash and John Sinclair Henwood.
Though less readily recognisable as such in the popular imagination, many of the battalions of the London Regiment took on an appearance and make-up similar to that of those 'Pal's battalions' that feature in many historical accounts of the Great War and which drew their recruits from other established enclaves and communities within British society.
We cannot be sure exactly when Douglas arrived in France but, with the requirement for training following his enlistment, it is likely to have been in the late Spring of 1916. Everything he encountered we can imagine was new and unfamiliar. Friendships were forged with boys and men equally unprepared for the commitment they were making. Veterans of the Ypres conflict within the regiment provided a seasoning of experience and wisdom amongst a sea of new recruits.
That commitment as far as the London Regiments were concerned saw them destined for an hitherto relatively quiet part of the western front around the chalkland villages of Hebertune and Gommecourt. Here at the far northernly end of the Somme battlefront they were to play their part in the long-awaited Great Push.
For weeks prior to the battle deliberate efforts had been made by allied command to present an image at Gommecourt of an overwhelming build-up of men and munitions. The ruse worked with additional artillery and men moved in to oppose them in the dug-outs and trenches circling Gommecourt.
Weather delayed the attack and so it was that it was on the 1st July 1916 that Douglas with his comrades found themselves, together with the Rangers, in the first line assault trenches facing Gommecourt. As they assembled in the hastily prepared forward trenches around 0625 hours the final bombardment of 18,000 shells were unleashed on the German army positions. Always designed as a feint attack that would draw German army reserves north from the sectors around Albert, no-one for miles around was in any doubt that the London Scottish were coming.
Shortly before 0730 hours smoke grenades and candles were used to mask their exit from their own trenches and progress across No Man's Land. The wind, however, on what was otherwise a bright summer's morning, saw the smoke cling in thick palls around the allied lines. As a consequence disorientated sections of the London Scottish strayed south of their intended course till they became trapped on uncut wire, while others emerging from the smoke when only a third of the way across No Man's Land came under increasingly accurate fire. Their faces lit by the rising sun a hail of machine gun fire descended upon the ranks of the Rangers and the London Scottish as they advanced.
Pockets of London Scottish made it to the enemy lines and struggled to set up defensive perimeters in preparation for the arrival of subsequent waves of allied infantry and to repel the counter-attack by German bombing parties down the warren of connecting trenchworks. Reinforcements in the shape of the Kensingtons however never arrived. Shattered by shell fire in their assembly trenches the Kensington's efforts to dig a trench linking up with the forward positions across No Man's land resulted in heavy losses, while German artillery peppered No Man's Land allowing few reinforcements through to fortify the tenuous grip of those London Scottish units whose ammunition was running dangerously low.
Moreover to the north the Midland Divisions assault had fared even worse, negating the pincer effect that the whole assault relied upon. Within an hour of the attack beginning the situation for all the London Regiments had become desparate and almost half of the boys of the London Scottish had been killed or wounded. By the afternoon those who could retreat did so, their commanding officer himself only achieving this by the expedient of taking shelter overnight in a shell-hole
The casualty roll of the London Scottish at Gommecourt suggest 223 men of the regiment died before Gommecourt. What happened to Douglas we will never know. He could have been killed as soon as he left the front-line trench or even without even leaving it. He may have been killed on the wire to the south, in No Man's land or in defending the pockets of advance in the German lines. He may have survived it all only to be killed in the final retreat. We simply do not know. The wariness bred of experience undoubtedly presented some defence to the reaping of lives on the western front, but in the lottery of conflict in an exposed No Man's land or enemy trenches it counted for little; the bullets, grenades shells not discriminating between COs, experienced NCO's and private soldiers.
We know he disappeared that day with hundreds of others. We know that those who fell lay out in No Man's Land for many months thereafter, their bodies subject of the elements and continual churn of intermittent conflict. A year later, the German army's retreat to the Hindenburg line strategically 'tidied up' the small salient that was Gommecourt. Tidied up too were the remains of some of those that had fallen. Fellow OB Jack Henwood, who had fallen for the Rangers that morning of 1st July, was one of those few identified but Douglas' remains if gathered were never unidentified. Today the fields of Gommecourt are once more at peace. Cats sleep on the village green, tractors pass with harvests of wheat, and butterflies gad about the chalkland flora. With the exception of the odd hundred-year old .303 round dropped by a young man petrified in the hailstorm of murderous fire surrounding them little remains to tell the horrendous story of 1st July 1916.
Along a quiet chalk lane poppies fringe the verges surrounding the small graveyard of Gommecourt No.2 cemetery bearing the remains of 675 casualties of the Great War, 30 of whom served with Douglas in the London Scottish. All had their stories and fate has determined that some are better known than others. Douglas' brother Howard served too and his father told his story (right):
In our researches as to the OBs killed in Great War, Douglas is not unusual. We do not know what he looked like, what he thought, loved, feltů we can only imagine. His death today is commemorated with so many thousands of others at Thiepval on that part of the battlefront whose fighting was meant to have been made easier by the London Regiments' sacrifice at Gommecourt.
Of course on the 1st July 1916 the assault on Gommecourt did not make any part of the fighting easier. We remember Douglas whose loss, unwittingly perhaps, stands testament that fighting never did make anything easier.
No Man's Land: the German lines skirt Gommecourt wood