Cecil Clive Bryan
The naked earth is warm with Spring,
And with green grass and bursting trees
Leans to the sun’s gaze glorying,
And quivers in the sunny breeze.
Julian Grenfell. Into Battle.
In 1919, the Rev. Robert de Courcy Laffan, Headmaster of King Edward VI School between 1885 and 1895 remembered those boys who had been at the School and who had died in the war. ‘They come before me as young boys. Major C. Bryan I see as a light, curly-headed chap beginning to ride his first bicycle. He was a keen student, and having taken up teaching as a profession was not content to go with the knowledge he had picked up here, but went to foreign schools to learn their languages. He put the same keenness and enthusiasm into his war work and gained the D.S.O.’
CECIL CLIVE BRYAN arrived as a boarder in April 1885. His family lived in Arden Street, and Clive became very well known in the town as an athlete and footballer. In his final year at School in 1893 he passed the London Matriculation with distinction. Studying abroad for several years, he became a teacher at Holmwood College, a private school in Bexhill-on-Sea in Sussex where his father was the Headmaster. Founded and owned by the Burbridge family, it was one of the first private schools in the area, and known for providing ‘a lot of good’ for the old people at Christmas.
It was with the rank of Captain and a Certificate of Proficiency in the Territorial Army based at the Ordnance Yard in Eastbourne, along the coast, that with the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, Cecil enlisted, ‘suitable for higher rank,’ in the 132 1/1 Home Counties Field Company Royal Engineers. Although entitled by his Territorial status to decline to serve overseas, he nevertheless volunteered for foreign service on August 4.
As to be expected with a territorial unit, the Company was in a state of preparedness for war. However, final preparations were necessary before it moved to France. Attached to 44(Home Counties) Division at Wingham in Kent for training and reorganisation, it crossed from Southampton to Le Havre in the SS Georgian on December 21.
On February 2 1915, under the command of Major Bryan, the Company was redesignated 490 Field Company – a unit of five officers and interpreters and 207 other ranks – and became part of 8th (Regular Army) Division, with whom it remained on the Western Front for the rest of the war. For the remainder of 1915, the division was in the area between Bethune and Armentieres.
The work of an Engineering Company covered a wide variety of activities, ranging from repairs to equipment, building a new camp with all the facilities required for a battalion, or even a battalion headquarters. Although rarely in the very thick of infantry fighting, it nevertheless remained the subject of intensive and targeted artillery bombardment, which accounted for an estimated 58% of British casualties.
In the early months of 1915, the Division was preparing for its part in the Battles of Neuve Chappelle and Aubers. On March 10 the British succeeded in advancing well into the German lines. But in the advance and the German counter- attack with heavy artillery fire, the trenches were destroyed and this provided the 133 Engineers with a great deal of work to make the new line defensible. This was partly the responsibility of 490 Field Company and its war diary records the wiring of old and new trenches, chevaux de fries (a defensive structure that consisted of a moveable obstacle composed of barbed wire or spikes attached to a wooden frame), parados (the rear of a trench, protected by two or three feet of sandbags), barricades, scaling ladders, and pontoon bridges. In the middle of all this activity, time was spent on the civic baths at Sailly, repairing the boilers, replacing pipes and building new drying rooms.
At Aubers on May 9 the British trenches were completely shattered by German artillery bombardment. It is not difficult to infer from the war diaries that Bryan drove himself, and presumably his men, to the extremes of their capabilities. He was ordered by the Commander Royal Engineers to take some leave, and he returned to England for ten days on May 30 1915.
With the static trench warfare firmly established as the future pattern of warfare of the Western Front, for the next few months Cecil Bryan returned to the task of building up the infrastructures to support the supply of troops, equipment and food for 8 Indian Army Corps to which his unit now belonged. It was to create an effective defence system in depth – the construction of roads, tramways and railways, the planning and installation of drainage and pump systems, and, on a smaller scale, concrete machine gun emplacements. The final preparations for the Battle of Loos in September 1915 included much clearing of ditches, the construction of a light railway, a heating system for Divisional Headquarters, and a Dressing Station.
In October, the strength of 490 Field Company is recorded as seven officers, one interpreter, 215 other ranks and 89 infantrymen in working parties. Quite incredibly in the War Diary, on October 10, between the laying down of concrete floors in a laundry and the construction of hutting, there appears the entry ‘No work.’
At the beginning of the New Year 1916, a period of rest at Fleurbaix, near Armentieres, enabled the company to ‘smarten up’ and carry out repairs to their own equipment. But before long it was back at Sailly with orders to remodel the front line that was heavily threatened by German artillery. All Bryan’s fine work with the Company had been recognised, he was mentioned in dispatches and on January 14 The London Gazette reported the award of the Distinguished Service Order to Major Bryan.
At the end of January, volunteers took part in a bombing raid on the German trenches, and in March the bridge at Estaires was demolished and iron chevaux de frise erected.
For many British units on the Western Front, the first half of 1916 was a comparatively quiet period with no major attacks launched by either side, as the French and Germans fought each other to destruction at Verdun. The French appealed to Haig for a British offensive on the Somme to draw away German forces resulted in the opening of the Battle of the Somme on July 1 1916. This was the first real test of the New Army in battle. The months preceding the opening of the battle were filled with training for infantry regiments. For specialist units like 490 Field Company they were particularly demanding.
In April it was engaged in the defences in front of Albert, and in May it was hard at work checking the River Ancre for indications of flooding and also building emergency roads and accommodation for five hundred extra men. On May 12 the Commander Royal Engineers wrote to Bryan: ‘I think that your Company did excellent work in getting all that accommodation in the A-B line. I hope you will inform your officers and men that I consider that they have done very well indeed.’
When the River Ancre did flood, the company had installed London Fire Brigade engines for pumping away the waters. Amongst the final preparations, in May it installed tanks for 800 gallons of water, it set up bomb depots, dug assembly trenches, provided covered assembly areas for the whole Brigade, lay duckboards, established ration stores and assembly stations.
Following the disasters of the Somme offensive, Cecil and the Company remained in the area for the remainder of 1916. With no further crises, there was nevertheless much unremitting hard work that ended in a lengthy series of training sessions.
The first six months of 1917 continued at a furious pace for Cyril’s Company and were mainly occupied in building Brigade headquarters and dug-outs, battery sites for the Royal Artillery, drainage for trenches, winches for wells, and a new railway line from Bouchavesnes to Moislains, north of Peronne. In March there were casualties when working parties moved forward into the front line trenches to work on dug-outs. In April it was the turn of a new division HQ and stables, and positions for an Engineers dump. There was some smaller-scale work: making Bangalore torpedoes, horse troughs, furniture for a new battalion headquarters, painting wagons, and carrying out a survey of the barbed wire emplacements in the British defences.
In June, the company left France for the first time and moved to Brandhoek, between Poperinge and Ypres. The centre of British operations was in the process of moving to Flanders with the series of battles that culminated in Passchendaele between July and November. Troop movements required the building of extra accommodation, new roads and bridges to speed up the movement of troops and supplies, observation posts for the artillery, water points, repairs to canal locks, ammunition dumps, and new trenches for the hoped-for advance eastwards.
On July 18 a massive artillery barrage was launched at the German lines. Lasting ten days, three thousand guns fired over four million shells. The German army fully expected an imminent offensive, so all hope of surprise was lost. An attack launched across an eleven mile front made only small gains around Pilckem Ridge. Attempts to renew the offensive were restricted as the area was saturated with the heaviest rain experienced in the area for thirty years, and churned lowland Flanders into a thick, muddy swamp. The impact of the heavy artillery bombardment had destroyed the drainage system of the region. Craters filled with water, fields became impassable. Over thirty thousand men disappeared into the mud.
In spite of the atrocious conditions, Bryan’s Company continued working on railway bridges and track and in the preparation of duckboards for the mud in the trenches, often with German shells falling freely around them, some filled with mustard gas. It was in the midst of a German attack on Saturday August 11 that Major Bryan was killed. ‘According to the testimony of his men, and what better evidence could one desire, he played as fine a game in the battle of life as he did in the football arena.’
He left, reported the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald of September 28 1917, ‘a record of honour which will long be remembered by those who served under him.’ He was 42.
Buried in the Reninghelst New Military Cemetery in Poperinge, he is commemorated on the Stratford-upon-Avon War Memorial, the Memorial Screen and Reredos in Holy Trinity Church, and in the Memorial Library at King Edward VI School.
Through joy and blindness he shall know
Not caring much to know, that still
Nor lead nor steel shall reach him, so
That it be not the Destined Will.
Julian Grenfell. Into Battle.