Following on from a post earlier this year, I came into a snippet of further information regarding John Neal, which I thought I’d share. He was a soldier in the 2nd Battalion Leicestershire Regiment during the Great War, being my great-uncle and brother to my paternal grandmother.
This extra information came in the form of a copy of his medal roll, demonstrating that he was entitled to the Victory Medal, the British War Medal and the 1914 Star. This trio of medals was commonly awarded to the early participants in the war and collectively were wryly known as “Pip, Squeak and Wilfred” (after a popular newspaper cartoon of the day).
The 1914 Star was a medal only awarded to men of the British and Indian Expeditionary Forces who had served in France or Belgium between Britain’s declaration of war on the 4th August 1914 and the end of the First Battle of Ypres, 23rd November 1914. This confirms that John Neal was not one of Kitchener’s new army of volunteers as I had speculated in the previous post. Instead, he was likely to have been one of the first troops in France, a member of the so-called ‘Old Contemptibles‘ (that is to say a man who was already a serving regular soldier with the BEF at the beginning of the war, or had joined up very early on). He was therefore likely to have been considered a well-trained veteran when he died in September 1915, not some green volunteer fresh out from basic training in England.
As part of the Garhwal Brigade in the Indian Corps, the 2nd Battalion of the Leicestershire Regiment had taken part in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. The battle was a costly success for the British army and a private from the 2 / Leicestershire won a Victoria Cross that day. Private William Buckingham enlisted in 1901 aged 15, serving in India and Egypt with the battalion, and was therefore a very experienced soldier at the inception of the war. Private Buckingham’s citation reads:
For conspicuous acts of bravery and devotion to duty in rescuing and rendering aid to the wounded whilst exposed to heavy fire, especially at Neuve-Chapelle on 10th and 12th March 1915.
He was wounded in the chest and convalesced back in Britain. Though he could have spent the remainder of the war recruiting and training new troops, he chose to return to the front and died in the later stages of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Being in the same battalion, it is entirely possible that my relative and Private Buckingham will have known each other.
Returning to my great-uncle John Neal’s medal document, it wrongly lists his rank as ‘Private’, instead of Lance Corporal. Under the remarks section, he is “presumed dead”. Yet, from the information listed on the re-interment form of the same year (1920), it shows that he was at last belatedly identified by means of the discovery of an identity disc. The British Army introduced these identity discs, replacing previous identity cards, in 1907. They were made out of aluminium with the soldier’s basic details being pressed into the thin metal one letter at a time.
The disc would have included his initial and surname, details of his regiment, and crucially his army number – 8666. John Neal was relatively fortunate in that regard; at least his body was identified via that identity disc. Of the 8500 soldiers killed on the first day of the Battle of Loos, incredibly barely 2000 have a known grave.
The writer and poet Robert Graves was one of those also present at the Battle of Loos, his first experience of battle which he called “a bloody balls up”!
In his book, Goodbye to All That, an appalled Graves tells the following anecdote of an officer advancing at Loos.
“When his platoon had run about twenty yards, he signalled them to lie down and open covering fire. The din was tremendous. He saw the platoon on the left flopping down too, so he whistled the advance again. Nobody seemed to hear. He jumped up from his shell-hole and waved and signalled ‘Forward.’ Nobody stirred.”
“He shouted, ‘you bloody cowards, are you leaving me to go alone?’ His platoon-sergeant, groaning with a broken shoulder, gasped out….
‘Not cowards, sir. Willing enough. But they’re all fucking dead!'”
Apart from John Neal, there was another notable death that day on the 25th September 1915 at Loos. The son of another famous writer, Rudyard Kipling. John Kipling was one of those who, like John Neal, was ‘presumed dead’ while missing in action. Unlike my great-uncle John, however, John Kipling was not found with his identity disc. However, many years later in 1992, the body of an unknown soldier was finally identified as being John following careful research, despite the continued absence of his metal disc. This caused his identity to be disputed by some historians until finally it was positively confirmed as bring John Kipling as late as 2016.
Rudyard Kipling was devastated at the loss of his only son, having been instrumental in securing his commission through his high-level personal contacts in the army, when severe short-sightedness had already prevented John from joining up in either the navy or the army. Kipling Senior later elected to be closely involved in the Imperial War Graves Commission, the body which had ultimately re-interred soldiers such as John Neal into newly established cemeteries. Many, many years later, it would also do the same for his son.
In his commission role, Kipling contributed to the liturgy of remembrance with his choice of biblical phrase “Their name liveth for evermore” on the stones of remembrance; the phrase “The Glorious Dead” which appears on the Cenotaph in London; and he even suggested the phrase “A Soldier of the Great War – Known unto God” which appears on the graves of unidentified servicemen – including, for many years and with great poignancy, that upon the headstone of his unidentified son.
Kipling also worked with Winston Churchill to ensure that all of the gravestones of the soldiers were the same shape and size, regardless of rank. Thanks to this, Lance Corporal Neal and Lieutenant Kipling, both casualties of the 25th September 1915, both belatedly identified, have gravestones which differ only in inscription.