Paris in the 1890s was, in the words of Roger Shattuck in his book The Banquet Years, ‘the Cultural capital of the world’ which set the fashion in ‘the arts and the pleasures of life.’ Known as La Belle Epoque, they were the years of ‘bright, almost blatant colour.’ Alfred and Ruby Wilson Barrett were magazine publishers living in Paris, and in April 1896 their only son ADRIAN HAMILTON SILVERTON BARRETT was born.
The Barretts absorbed the innovation in popular literature and illustration, the wider use of photography, and the exciting and radical developments in creative presentation. Mass circulation magazines set new standards, and they both influenced and responded to the social and political changes in those years. So when they returned to England and moved to St. Gregory’s Road in Stratford-upon- Avon, they established a publishing house in Victoria Street in London where they enjoyed success producing what was called ‘the most fascinating magazine in the world’ – The New Shilling Monthly.
In 1906, Adrian Barrett joined King Edward VI School, where the Headmaster, the Rev. Cornwell Robertson thought well of him. He enjoyed running, and as a junior won the five mile Steeplechase in 41 minutes. By tradition it ‘goes up Cross o’ the Hill and turns to the right at the Clifford Road. It then follows the road to Clifford Mill where it turns to the left, and goes up by the side of Clifford House, on to the tram line and thus home, ’ wrote The Stratfordian. On Sports Day he ‘ran and won well’ both the 100 yards and 220 yards handicap, with his friend Victor Hyatt coming second in both races.
When Baden-Powell formed the Boy Scouts, publishing Scouting for Boys, Adrian joined the Stratford Patrol when he was 13, and threw himself into the activities with great enthusiasm. It was reported that he acquired ‘every badge for which he could qualify.’
When he left School, Adrian joined the family business, and it was during a period in Perth that he enlisted, on January 14 1915, as a Private in the 8 (Service Battalion) of The Black Watch (Royal Highlanders). Formed on August 21 1914 as part of Lord Kitchener’s First New Army, it was at once attached to 26 Brigade in 9 Scottish Division. On May 10, Barrett was posted to the British Expeditionary Force and crossed to France on SS Mount Temple. He remained a little over two weeks. By the beginning of June he was ‘discharged to a commission in the field’ and transferred as a Second Lieutenant to 13 Battalion (1st North Wales) Royal Welsh Fusiliers for duty at Llandudno, attached to 14 Battalion. The Battalion commander was Lt. Colonel Oswald Flower, a member of the Stratford brewing family.
14 (Service) Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers had been raised in Llandudno on November 2 1914, a unit of 128 Brigade in 43 Division, by the Welsh National Executive Committee, a body that had been appointed to form a Welsh Corps. On April 29 1915, this was renumbered as 113 Brigade in 38 Division. Four months later it moved to Winchester and then in December 1915 to France, crossing from Southampton to Le Havre on SS Empress Queen and SS Blackwell.
The battalion made a bad start, with an extremely rough crossing followed by their guide getting lost and turning a five mile march to the Belgian town of Rebecq into fifteen miles, only to arrive to find that its billets were of a very poor standard.
However they were in good hands for their initiation into life on the Western Front, when companies were attached to the Guards regiments. That first month near Laventie – although two men were wounded, one seriously, and one killed in a collapsed trench -was a gentle introduction. Mindful of the unofficial ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914, the Battalion war diary records: ‘Attempts at fraternisation by Germans and British, on our side more especially on the part of the Coldstream Guards; severe measures were however taken to stop this state of affairs and disciplinary action taken.’
Those early months of 1916 were fairly quiet for the Battalion, as they were for many units on the Western Front. The routine was a familiar one to all infantrymen, a succession of short periods in the front line, in support and in reserve. There were intensive artillery bombardments on both sides which accounted for a very high proportion of casualties, snipers were constantly active and patrols went out into no-man’s-land, usually either to report on the state of the enemy’s defences and his alertness, or to raid the opposing trenches and kill as many of the enemy as possible, or to bring back further intelligence and possibly prisoners for interrogation.
Time behind the lines was spent training and providing working parties for all the physical labour that supported trench warfare: setting up and repairing barbed wire defences; improving trenches and strong points; building roads and railways; drainage; bringing up supplies. Leisure activities included sporting competitions, bathing, comedy films, and visits to the local Follies. At the end of March, the recorded casualties for the first three months in France were ‘27 killed, died of wounds or disappeared, 73 wounded and returned sick to England.’
By late May, ever larger working parties were involved in the construction of dummy German trenches behind the lines, and throughout June training increased for attacks on trenches, surmounting barbed wire obstacles and fitness through PT. In the front line, patrol activity increased dramatically. An officer was killed on patrol. A strong raiding party of three officers and sixty men entered the German front lines and found them almost deserted, but ran into trouble when they reached the support lines – one officer and two men were killed, five men went missing, and two officers and twenty-four men were wounded.
When July 1 brought the opening day of the Battle of the Somme, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers were not involved, but their turn was to come and they moved up to the line in front of Mametz Wood on July 5. The village of Mametz, close to Albert to its west, had fallen to 7 Division on July 1, but the wood was a major obstacle, heavily fortified and hiding considerable defences and machine gun posts. 14 Battalion passed two nights in bivouacs, their assault delayed by twenty-four hours, but at 4:12am on July 10 they moved up behind 16 Battalion on the left and pressed forward. In spite of bunching and crossing lines, they were able to press on, but as they came to two hundred yards from the wood the Battalion met heavy rifle and machine gun fire, and suffered very heavy casualties, particularly in officers and senior NCOs. It was at this point that both Adrian Barrett and Oswald Flower were killed. The attack continued and the wood was penetrated, leading to ferocious hand-to-hand fighting. The trees in the wood included hornbeams, limes, oaks and a few beeches, and the undergrowth was very wild and thick with bramble and hazel. This was vividly captured in a painting, Battle of Mametz Wood, by Christopher Williams in 1918.
Gliddon considered that ‘maybe it is because of its literary associations that Mametz Wood has become so well known.’ Siegfried Sassoon, Wyn Griffith and Robert Graves all wrote about it, and the text of David Jones’ In Parenthesis has the poets involvement in the wood as its central theme. Gerald Brenan of the 48 Division wrote: ‘Its trees were torn and shattered, its leaves had turned brown, and there was a shell hole every three yards. This was a place where something almost unheard of had taken place. What seemed extraordinary was that all the dead bodies there lay just as they had fallen in their original places as though they were being kept as an exhibit for a war museum.’ Gliddon included a graphic but not gratuitous description of the aftermath of the fighting in Mamatz Wood: ‘There were other horrors, not just dead soldiers but bits of soldiers, mutilated trunks, detached heads and splashes of blood on the green leaves. It was these sort of horrible sights that were to give the wood its sinister reputation.’
In a subsequent enquiry, L/Cpl W.G. Jones of 13 Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers Regiment at Lochee Red Cross Hospital reported: ‘At Mametz, Lt Barrett was shot through the heart about 8 o’clock in the morning. He was there the next day when I passed wounded at 3 o’clock. We had advanced.’ After the subsequent fighting and shelling his body was never found.
In 1920, Adrian’s mother visited Mametz Wood. ‘I have seen it in my dreams. I have thought of the spot and pictured it myself – the spot where my son fell and where my son is buried. I wanted to see the French wood, the scenery last looked upon by the blue eyes of an English boy – and that boy, my son. I have seen it all, and truly it is wonderful, it is grand. Nature has done her best to soften the hard marks the war has made. The undergrowth has grown up in some parts quite high: there still remain the stumps and burnt trees all bare and ghostly, that shell-fire had spoilt. But this lovely, fresh, green undergrowth is what pleased me most – young May bushes, golden broom, wild bluebells and lots of other wild French flowers, some blue, some white. I found four crosses put up in memory of the brave Royal Welsh Fusiliers. The fourth one – to the memory of the officers and men of the 13th Battalion, July 10 1916 when my boy fell – seemed to rise up as an emblem of peace and rest. It is quite a large dark brown cross. There are many wild flowers growing near it. On the left-hand side was a golden bush of broom; at the extreme right- hand side was a lovely little white May tree, and at the foot of the cross was moss and wild bluebells. I was able to plant my English forget-me-nots and pansies I had brought, and as I was planting the flowers from the garden my boy had known, the sun came out after a heavy shower and brightened all the wood. There was a lark singing just near me. No one could believe that once in this lovely spot there had been so much dreadful battle fire and our dear men had given their lives so bravely. I stood and fixed the picture in my mind, so that I could carry it back with me to England, and after a few moments of prayer I looked for some small wild flowers I could take as a remembrance.’
The Stratford Herald had no difficulty in finding tributes to the dead officer. ‘By his bravery (he) won for himself golden opinions.’ In a letter to Adrian’s mother, an officer of the regiment wrote: ‘It may be of comfort to you to know that we are all sorrowing with you in the loss of our cheery and bright comrade. I can only say that he died as an English man best can. He was at the head of his men, leading them to victory in the attack at Mametz Wood and his death was quick and painless.’ Nicholas Fogg echoed a now widely held belief that ‘News from the front was generalised and sparse. There was a sameness to letters sent by comrades to grieving relatives recounting the circumstances of deaths. All died instantly and without pain.’
Like Cyril Hoskins, Adrian Barrett is commemorated on the vast Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. He is also commemorated on the Stratford-upon-Avon War Memorial in the Garden of Remembrance, the Memorial Screen and Reredos in Holy Trinity Church, on the Stratford-upon-Avon Scouts’ Roll of Honour, and in the Memorial Library at King Edward VI School.