Last year I wrote an article on the Royal Marines in the Battle of the Ancre. Typically, a week after I had it published I received a phone call from a man replying to my advert for medals to men of the RMLI. The conversation swung round to his great uncle who served with the RMLI in Gallipoli and was killed at Beaumont Hamel on 13th November 1916. The man who rang me was John Morcombe and his great uncle was Pte John Clegg. John Morcombe went on to tell me about a chest which had been passed down to him, inside were all the letters and papers sent by Clegg, a real treasure trove the like of which I'd never seen. John was fortunate, his ancestor had put all his thoughts, feelings and observations onto paper and enlightened us into his life which was snuffed out on the misty November morning in France. The papers and assorted documents are shortly to be published in a book, but here is a potted history of John Clegg. It is a rare thing to see a man's thoughts. I have come to know John Clegg through these writings even though he died 80 years ago aged 20. He is typical of a generation who in 1913 would not have seen themselves in uniform but died in the first war which involved the common man. I hope these few words stand as a suitable epitaph. - Kyle Tallett
Pte. John Clegg
|John Clegg (known as Jack) was born on 20th February 1896 at Dodworth in Barnsley, Yorkshire into a working class family. When the war broke out Jack was 18 and decided to join the Royal Marine Light Infantry at Manchester on 10th November 1914. Curiously he elected to become a professional; he signed on for 12 years which was the norm for the Royal Marines. A friend who enlisted on the same day joined as a short serviceman i.e. duration only, a scheme brought in especially for the war. Jack was sent to the Marine depot at Deal in Kent for his basic training. For a regular marine the training was a year long and included artillery training for sea service and infantry training for land service, they had to be 'a soldier and sailor too'. The training was shortened slightly due to the war. In his first letter Jack states the conditions he was in:|
"I have got into a barrack room as you will see by my address. We are overcrowded. The room is supposed to hold 18 fellows. There are 41 in it now all sleeping on the floor."
he states what their diet was:
"Our diet is bread + tea with either butter or corned beef + potatoes + meat for dinner."
He also gives an insight into the state of mind on the south coast in those early days :
"I can tell you the fear of invasion is felt more acutely down here than anyone in Yorkshire would think. I was on the cliffs on Sunday + watching the sailors dig trenches + mount maxims. It wasn't just for practice either."
The physical drill was quite strenuous as the instructors were given a free hand in trying to whip the recruits into shape and Jack commented on the "incessant scrambling and fighting for food." It was November and the weather was worsening and Jack described a storm in which a ship was holed and ran aground outside the barracks at Walmer and the trips by the lifeboat to get the men off. He also stated that there were now extensive trenches from Dover to Deal. Jack grew a moustache and the marines refused to let him shave it off, it was common practice for facial hair to be permitted and marines with beards in France etc. were a common sight This was prohibited in the army, although I read somewhere that in 1914 moustaches were compulsory under Kings regulations!! Jack was progressing now, he was learning infantry work, he had been in six weeks and he heard from a friend that he was due for the front in another six weeks as the short service men only learnt infantry skills and had a 12 week training!! The routine at Deal seemed to run on a ship's routine including coaling which was dreaded, basically filling the barracks with coal as Jack put it , "Running up three flights of stairs to the top deck with a bunee of coal between two chaps."
On April 23rd 1915 Jack was sent to his divisional depot at Chatham. Here he was awaiting his posting :
"I don't know where I'm going to be shoved yet. Ship most likely although I've put my name in for the Battalion. They have the non-swimmers there though."
It was the Royal Naval Division that John was posted too, to the RM Cyclist Company for dispatch riding. Late July he was sent to Plymouth for the trip to Gallipoli. He describes the chaos at Chatham for the party leaving :
"I have seen a few battalions leave Chatham but none got a send off like we did. The General bid us goodbye & we were provided with flags & directly we moved everybody in the barracks cheered like the dickens & the guard turned out & blew us a general salute. We had the band to the station."
He goes on to say that their badges and buttons were taken, one man even lost his rifle !! Early August Jack left for Gallipoli on the "Royal George." By mid-August John was in the firing line and had seen a pal. He comments that the only food you could buy was eggs and he had only used his bike to ride down to the beach for a swim which apparently was compulsory. Already Jack was feeling the effects of active service:
"I'll bet you'd find a difference in the smart, tidy marine who came home & the chap with a dirty & torn uniform & about a fortnights beard on."
He was also losing weight rapidly and had swapped socks for some chocolate. On 19th September Jack was evacuated from Gallipoli to Cairo with dysentery. He was weakened, he said that he was the 9th cyclist out of 10 evacuated. It only highlights how the MEF had to fight disease as well as the Turks.
After getting better Jack was transferred to Mustapha barracks at Alexandria to await drafting back to Gallipoli. He describes on rumour that they were to go back soon. He drew money he was owed and blew it on a posh dinner and carriage rides, doing things in style which was a real treat for someone of his background. I wonder if this was a type of fatalism - have a good bash before going back to the rigors of Gallipoli? Jack had also adopted the Navy tradition of smoking a pipe rather than the cigarettes he was used to. So in late October Jack was back on Gallipoli. He was now navvying, curiously all returned dysentery patients we put onto digging duties. It was getting cold and thigh boots and mackintoshes were being issued. Food was also a topic, parcels from home were significant and Jack asked for them to be packed in a tin to avoid splitting. He asked for Curry powder and cocoa so he could vary his diet. Early November and the weather was changing:
"It's dinner time & just beginning to rain. I hope it will clear up before night. I've only one waterproof sheet & I had a night out last week. My dugout was flooded & my blankets wet through."
The food though was apparently good:
"We're allowed 1/3 of a two pound loaf of bread per day, which means about two ordinary slices. A rasher of bacon in the morning & Jam at tea time. However we can always get biscuits-which by the way are as hard as a bunker plate."
With this letter he also sent some heather back:
"I'm enclosing you a sprig of Peninsular heather. Where we are now reminds me of the Yorkshire moors. I wouldn't mind being on them again."
Nothing more was heard until an RND Christmas card arrived , Jack was now out of Gallipoli and at Mudros on the island of Lemnos with the rest of the RND. The morale was getting low at this point especially on the subject of leave:
"They've offered us fourteen days at Malta & everyone has refused it. Proper thing too".
He went on to comment that in his opinion the Marines had taken the burden of all the bad jobs and now had to garrison this area. The situation described appeared to be common in most RND battalions - Hood battalion blew raspberries at General Paris when he announced leave to Malta. What compounded it was officers were sent on leave in the UK. By the end of February the situation on Mudros appeared rather tense. Jack was chastised for putting in a letter that they were practically starving. The discipline appeared to get tightened, and this was causing some disquiet. Jack managed to get a letter out, brought home by a friend on leave therefore avoiding the censor. The contents state that a man was court-martialled for putting in a letter that he would mutiny if he didn't get leave soon, the leave issue was causing many problems. Intriguingly Jack comments on a unit that was already at this state and had had their ammunition taken away. Jack was in goodish spirits but was annoyed at the inconsistency of the discipline; on landing on the peninsular he was in trouble for having dirty boots, yet;
"I've thrown more bits away since I've been out here than would have rigged a regiment.- When I was in the line I've knocked rifles and bayonets into the wall of my dugout for pegs to tie my water proofs on."
Jack stayed on Mudros when many of the marines had been sent to Salonica and embarked on a signalling course. He was enjoying life and the scenery again, the cyclist company had been disbanded and he was sent to the 1st Marine battalion. The future of the RND at that point was uncertain and Jack had the impression that on break-up he would be sent to sea service, as at this point many professional marines were being withdrawn from the RND for sea service. It was France that Jack went to. He landed mid may with the rest of his battalion and was retained at base depot at Marseilles. He still hadn't had any leave. At the end of August Jack was posted to 12 platoon C company 1st RM Battalion. His letters did not give much information away except that the battalion was out of the line, he was all right for food but asked for candles and handkerchiefs.
It was the end of October now and the RND were being groomed for their assault on the Ancre - leave still hadn't been granted;
"Apparently the powers that be don't consider us entitled There are fellows in my Battalion who have been out for a year and eight months so they come before me. It is hardly calculated to give the troops good heart for scrapping is it?"
|Jack never did get his leave, for the Battle for Beaumont Hamel began on 13th November and Jack was initially reported wounded,. Hot on the heels of that telegram was one stating he was wounded and missing. His mother tried to find out what happened to him and through the red cross, a marine in the same unit reported seeing Jack hit in the legs with shrapnel and being picked up by stretcher bearers. It was unlikely that he was a prisoner as he wasn't far from his front line (most of the 1RM casualties occurred between the British front and German first lines). Another marine based at a field hospital reported that Jack had died at the dressing station. No more was heard and the admiralty assumed he was dead. No body was ever found and the name of John Clegg was entered on the Thiepval memorial. My own personal opinion is that he died of wounds at a dressing station, the fact that he was seen being taken away and posted as wounded means his name was taken at a dressing station. But the station would have been full to capacity with wounded and those that died would have been left. It was probable that he died and the paperwork got mixed up as several were reported wounded and missing. I feel that John Clegg is one of the unknown Marines buried at The Ancre British cemetery at Beaucourt, a cemetery where all the local isolated cemeteries were concentrated.||
(I am grateful to John Morcombe for allowing me to relate this story of his ancestor, all of the contents are to be considered copyright of John Morcombe.
Copyright © Kyle Tallett, June, 1997.
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