Behind the names on the Menin Gate
Jemadar Kapur Singh
57th Wilde’s Rifles - Panel 1ADuring the first of the many murderous battles for possession of the Messines Ridge during the Great War, the south-eastern approaches to the village (along the road to Bethleem Farm) were guarded by an isolated company of the 57th Wilde’s Rifles. This company was the Dogra Company – tribesmen from the remote hills between the Punjab and Kashmir, on India’s North-West Frontier. Lieutenant-General Sir George MacMunn, a pre-war expert on the Indian races, had characterised the Dogras as being ‘of good behaviour, courtly manners, high courage and physical endurance’.
The men of Wilde’s Rifles were about to have these estimable qualities put to the test. On the morning of 31 October 1914, the full fury of the German 26th Division was unleashed against the scattered units of the 2nd Cavalry Division and their Indian comrades. Out of the morning mist, three battalions of the 119th Grenadier Regiment bore down on the waiting Dogras, advancing at a jog-trot and making ‘raucous, guttural sounds’. Most of the British officers were killed in the ensuing hand-to-hand fighting, so that command eventually devolved upon the sole survivor, Lieutenant Molony. Molony withdrew the Rifles to a shallow trench along a hedge line and here they engaged the Germans in a ferocious fire fight lasting more than two hours. At around 6 a.m. Molony was badly wounded in the arm and his men decided to try to evacuate him while it was still dark. Before leaving, Molony gave strict instructions to the two surviving Indian officers that they should under no circumstances retire, unless the neighbouring units of British cavalry should do so first.
The concept of ‘death before dishonour’ is no longer a fashionable one (if it ever was). Yet while many may dispute the logic or even the point of Kapur Singh’s actions, nobody can deny his extraordinary courage and devotion to duty. Moreover, whatever adjective one chooses to apply to this remarkable deed, it cannot be denied that Kapur Singh’s death secured for him a place in the mythology of his village and of his regiment that still endures to this day. Perhaps, in the final analysis, this is what he most wanted. ‘To live on in the hearts of those we love is not to die ...’
Captain John Geddes, great-grand-uncle of the former British prime minister David Cameron
16th Battalion, Canadian Infantry (Canadian Scottish) - Panel 26
John Geddes was born on 6 November 1878, son of Alexander and Frances Geddes of Blairmore, Aberdeenshire, and nephew of Sir William Geddes, the principal of Aberdeen University. Following completion of his education at Rugby School, he left for the New World, finally settling in Canada, where he made a new life with his wife Helen and their three children. When war broke out in 1914, he was already 36 years old – approaching the maximum age for military service – but he was one of the first to volunteer: ‘If they have any use for me,’ he said, ‘I’m ready.’
His battalion landed in France in February 1915 and, following a brief initiation in the trenches at Bois Grenier and a period of training at Estaires, was sent north for its real baptism of fire in the Ypres Salient. They did not have to wait long. The Canadian Scottish went into the trenches at Poelkapelle on 16 April 1916, and less than a week later the Germans launched the gas attack that marked the opening of the Second Battle of Ypres. The 16th was just one of the many battalions, both British and Canadian, thrown piecemeal into the fray to try to plug the resulting gap in the Allied lines, and John Geddes and his comrades played a huge part in closing this gap with a heroic attack at Kitcheners Wood on the night of 22–23 April.
John was one of the few officers to survive this assault, but further heavy fighting was to come, as the Germans sought to press home their advantage on 24 April. It was on this day that John Geddes was killed, a victim of the furious succession of attacks and counter-attacks around the village of St Julien. One of his school friends wrote: ‘He was an absolutely fearless man… At school, he never knew what fear was, and his one idea was to do things in a way to bring credit to his house.’ His attitude on the field of battle was no different. A fellow officer recalled: ‘Even after he was hit, and while dying, he kept crawling onwards, calling: “Go on, boys, you’ll win, you’ll win.” He was a true-born Highland gentleman.’
This he most certainly was. He was also the great-grand-uncle of the former British prime minister, David Cameron.
Mr Cameron commented: ‘Captain Geddes is a powerful example of how when the chips were down, the stakes were high, and the cause just – we [the British people] stood together.’
Story created on June 16, 2015