The mystery of the WW1 soldier whose death in 1914 altered the course of WW2

The mystery of the WW1 soldier whose death in 1914 altered the course of WW2

Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery was Britain’s most famous Army General of World War 2, but history would have taken a different course if a soldier in his platoon hadn’t died saving Montgomery’s life when he was a young subaltern in the opening months of World War 1.  The identity of the soldier whose death altered history has never been revealed.

Montgomery was commissioned in the 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1908 and served in India until 1913.  When the First World War began in August 1914, Montgomery and his regiment was among the first to deploy to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force.

Montgomery in 1943
Montgomery in 1943

On 13 October 1914 Montgomery and his battalion were in action at Méteren, near the Belgian border.  Méteren was occupied by German forces and their entrenched positions covered the village.  The Allies succeeded in capturing Méteren, and for his gallantry in “turning the enemy out of their trenches with the bayonet” Montgomery was later awarded the Distinguished Service Order, a rare honour for a junior officer.

During a lull in the battle, Montgomery was inspecting his platoon’s defensive positions from No Man’s Land when he was shot through the right lung by a German sniper.  He later recalled in his memoirs:

My life was saved that day by a soldier of my platoon.  I had fallen in the open and lay still hoping to avoid further attention from the Germans.  But a soldier ran to me and began to put a field dressing on my wound; he was shot through the head by a sniper and collapsed on top of me.  The sniper continued to fire at us and I got a second wound in the knee; the soldier received many bullets intended for me.  No further attempt was made by my platoon to rescue us; indeed, it was presumed we were both dead.  When it was dark the stretcher-bearers came to carry us in; the soldier was dead and I was in a bad way.”

Montgomery was so badly injured that a grave was dug for him, as he was not expected to survive the night.  But he did recover and the rest, as they say, is history.

Except for the man who saved him, who has been completely forgotten.  Why did Montgomery never reveal who he was, either in his memoirs, or in his other numerous re-tellings of the story?  As his platoon commander, he must have known him?

Montgomery in 1915
Montgomery in 1915

To be fair, Montgomery was half dead when the unknown soldier ran to his aid.  He may not have been in a fit state to check who his saviour was.  If the soldier was a new recruit, he may not have known him very well.  In the fog of battle, in which half his battalion was destroyed, then over weeks of recuperation in hospital, maybe Montgomery just plain forgot his name.  There is no evidence in his later career to suggest that Montgomery was the type of commander who thought little of his troops.  While American generals like Eisenhower, and even Winston Churchill, found him a caustic and arrogant character to deal with (Churchill once summed him up as, “in defeat, unbeatable; in victory, unbearable“), Montgomery was adored by his troops and instilled their utter loyalty.

When his fame was at its height, during and after WW2, a number of WW1 veterans came forward as ‘the man who saved Monty’.  Montgomery seems to have treated all the claims cheerfully, probably because there was some truth in all of them.

In an article published in 1979, H W Jackson, a former private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, described how he and his company officer rescued the seriously wounded Montgomery by carrying him to a dressing station under cover of darkness on 13 October 1914:  “Little did I know that the officer we rescued was Field Marshal Lord Montgomery of Alamein, who many years later, by strange coincidence, confirmed he was the seriously wounded officer we brought in when he was Lieutenant Montgomery of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment…….

Private E Darlow of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment won the Distinguished Conduct Medal on 13 October 1914 for bringing in his wounded company commander, Major W C Christie, under fire.  Christie, who was Montgomery’s immediate superior that day, died of his wounds.  In a 1945 newspaper article, headed ‘The Private who helped to save Monty’, Darlow recalled:  “On October 13 1914 my battalion made a daylight bayonet charge at Méteren.  We had gone about 20 yards when we were enfiladed by machine gun and rifle fire.  I was ordered back to inform the succeeding wave.  When I returned I found our commanding officer, Major Christie badly wounded.  When dusk fell Private James and I placed Major Christie on a waterproof sheet and drew him to a point where he could receive first aid.  We were under fire all the time.  We went back to rescue others.  Most of the officers and men were badly wounded and unconscious. Lieutenant Montgomery was one of them and I recall placing him near the stretcher on which lay my dying commanding officer.  I have not seen Private James since Méteren.  We were decorated and afterwards went into action again.  I believe he was wounded at Ypres and lost an arm.

In 1947 the Barrier Miner newspaper reported that the ‘Soldier who saved Monty’ was living in Perth, Australia.  Stephen Bevan, a former private in the 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, claimed that he helped carry the critically wounded Montgomery on a stretcher from the battlefield to an advanced dressing station.  Bevan said that he next saw Montgomery in 1915, when Monty allegedly clasped him by the shoulder and said:  ”Bevan, I’ve got you to thank for being here.”  Bevan emigrated to Australia with his wife and family on his discharge from the Army in 1919, and in 1944 saw cinema newsreel featuring Montgomery in Italy.  Bevan said that he wrote to Montgomery that night, and received a personal reply a month later.  The story made the paper in 1947 as Montgomery was in Perth as guest of honour at a lunch given by the Old Contemptibles‘ Association; Mr Bevan was due to be given pride of place on the platform alongside him.

But the man who unwittingly shielded Montgomery from a hail of bullets could never enjoy any such acclaim.  Do any of Montgomery’s numerous biographers shed any light on his identity?

In ‘Alamein: War Without Hate‘, John Bierman and Colin Smith cover Montgomery’s WW1 service and state:  “As he lay bleeding in a muddy field, his platoon sergeant dashed out to apply first aid and was shot in the head.  This saved Montgomery’s life, for the sergeant collapsed on top of him.  All afternoon, until the light failed, the snipers kept firing.  Montgomery was hit once more in the right knee, but the dead man caught most of the bullets.”  Although the citing of the platoon sergeant appears to be unreferenced, it is repeated in other accounts of Montgomery’s wounding at Méteren.

If it is true, then the field narrows considerably; only 2 SNCOs from the 1st Bn, Royal Warwickshire Regt, appear to have been killed at Méteren on 13 October 1914.

Colour Sergeant Philip Thornton DCM
Colour Sergeant Philip Thornton DCM

The first was 33 year-old Colour Sergeant Philip Thornton.  Thornton was from London and had originally enlisted in the Army at the age of 16 in 1898.  He had served in the Boer War, gaining the Queen’s South Africa Medal with 5 clasps.  He served with the 1st Bn Royal Warwickshire Regt in India from 1906, and took part in the North West Frontier War in 1908.  He was very proficient in Indian languages and a skilled marksman, winning a double distinction at the Satara School of Musketry in 1912.

In other words, Thornton was a professional soldier who had served with Montgomery in India and France for at least 6 years, and was presumably very well known to him.  We can discount Thornton because he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for the action in which he was killed; his citation states that his DCM was awarded for “gallant conduct in endeavouring whilst wounded and accompanied by only a few men, to capture the enemy’s machine guns.  In this attempt he failed owing to there being no support at hand at the moment.”

The second is 26 year-old Sergeant Harry Charles Easey.  Harry Easey was born in Trimulgerry, India, in 1888, the son of a British soldier who had died in 1906.  Easey was unmarried when he was killed at Meteren and, strangely, his 1914 Star went unclaimed after the war.  Could this signify a soldier without kith and kin who was destined to be forgotten?

Harry Easey was one of 10 children who were all born in India, and several of his brothers and sisters appear to have made their way back to England at the outbreak of the war in 1914.  Harry’s older brother Arthur, who had already served in the Royal Field Artillery 1901-1913, rejoined his old regiment as a Sgt in Calcutta in December 1914, two months after Harry’s death.  When Arthur was posted to England in March 1915, he gave his next of kin as his cousin, Miss Nellie Easey, at an address in Aldershot.  He was then sent to Basra, Iraq, but was apparently not very good at writing letters home.  In April 1917, Nellie wrote to Arthur’s Commanding Officer saying she had not heard from her cousin for some considerable time.  No doubt spooked by Harry’s death in 1914, she wrote: “His sisters and I are very anxious, and should be grateful if you could give us any information concerning his safety.”  This suggests a close-knit family who would not be prepared to let the memory of one their brothers ‘go quietly into the night’.

The problem is, there seems to be little on record about Harry Easey’s service and the circumstances surrounding his death.  He does appear in the 1911 census in India, stationed near the Khyber Pass on the North West Frontier with the 1st Bn Royal Warwickshire Regt.  He is a 22 year-old Lance Corporal – one of the youngest in the battalion, but already marked for NCO status.  Perhaps, somebody with the courage and discipline under fire to dash out into No Man’s Land to attempt a rescue of his stricken platoon commander?  In the same 1911 census return are the records for the 29 year-old Sgt Phillip Thornton, and the 23 year-old Lt Bernard Montgomery.  Surely Monty would have known if the man who saved him was Sgt Easey?

If it wasn’t Sgt Easey, it could have been one of 41 other men of the 1st Bn Royal Warwickshire Regiment who were killed at Méteren on 13 October 1914.  Unless any further historical evidence emerges, we will probably never know the identity of the soldier who changed world history.

Earth's History in 1 Minute

Earth's History in 1 Minute - 4½ billion years in a 1 minute video

Posted by Abroad in the Yard on Friday, 14 August 2015