‘1915 was the year that brought the new armies they called ‘Kitchener’s Mob’’ to the Western Front,’ wrote Lyn Macdonald in 1915 The Death of Innocence. Words like gallantry, endurance and patriotism, and phrases like ‘gullible victims’ and ‘unprotesting sheep’ are associated with the soldiers who fought in these early battles in Flanders and France. Peter Oldham in his book Messines Ridge, wrote that the opening months of 1915 were not kind to the soldiers in the front line trenches. ‘The New Year had ushered in snow and freezing, icy winds, with cold rain resulting in trenches and dugouts being flooded and collapsing. Royal Engineers worked on schemes to dam and drain trenches which were soon to be filled with water again, the heavy clay of the region making natural drainage very slow.’ All combatants had gone to war expecting it to be a short conflict, and they were running short of artillery ammunition and other ‘trench stores.’ Britain’s problem, identified by the historian Richard Holmes, was compounded because its army was expanding at a rapid rate, and it had to equip new soldiers as well as old. The supply of artillery ammunition reached crisis point, and this was dispiriting for the men in the trenches. When observation officers called for fire, they were told that the day’s allocation had already been used. The official War History acknowledges that two of three Corps had little more than enough ammunition for one day’s battle, and the third had even less.
The provision of ammunition may have been an enormous problem, but the Generals pressed ahead with plans of attack, and launched an offensive in March at St. Eloi, just north of Messines. A number of actions were fought in this area, but it is chiefly remembered for the protracted German mine warfare. In the March attack was the 3rd Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry that included Lieutenant DUNCAN McKAY MacDONALD O’CALLAGHAN.
Born on June 4 1891 in the shadow of the medieval castle in Ludlow in Shropshire, Duncan was the son of Surgeon-Major George Henry Kenneth MacDonald O’Callaghan of the Royal Army Medical Corps, who served on the Indian troopship HMS Serapio, that had taken the Prince of Wales to the Durbar celebrating Queen Victoria’s appointment as Empress of India in 1875. Living with his mother on the Sydenham Road in Cheltenham, he successfully applied to be a day boy at Cheltenham Collage and was admitted to Teighmore House in 1900. Placed in the Classics forms he did not flourish academically or in sport until he reached the Lower Sixth when he won the Classical Composition Prize and was a member of both the 1st XV and 1st XI. Becoming a Prefect, he was given the Francis Wyllie Scholarship – awarded to the son of an officer in the Army – and gained a place at Trinity College, Oxford. Graduating in 1912, he spent the summer teaching at Heddon Court Preparatory School in Potters Bar (where John Betjaman was English master in the late 1920s).
Duncan arrived at King Edward VI School on September 9 1912 with his appointment as Games Master and Junior Form Master at a salary of £140, The Stratfordian wrote that ‘besides bringing the school games up to a high standard he made himself universally popular.’ He played Hockey for the School, was a member of the committee, with Henry Jennings, of the Scientific Society, and assisted with the special KES production of Henry V that was part of Frank Benson’s Shakespeare Festival in 1913 at the Memorial Theatre.
He played in the successful 1912-1913 Stratford-upon-Avon 1st XV that beat St. Bart’s Hospital, St. Thomas’s Hospital, but lost to Leicester in the semi-final of the Midland Counties’ Cup. In his history of the Rugby Club, Geoffrey Inns wrote that O’Callaghan was one of ‘the lads who went to France to take part in that sterner game.’
Duncan enlisted almost immediately after the declaration of war and was granted a commission as Lieutenant in 3rd Battalion The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, and assembled at Magdalen Hill Camp, east of Winchester during November. Rushed as reinforcements, they embarked at Southampton on December 19 and landed at Le Havre on December 20 and moved directly to St. Julien, north of Ypres, attached to 2nd Battalion. It was a miserable December, wrote Richard Holmes, as the soldiers on both sides settled down to the war’s first winter in the mud of Flanders.
At the beginning of the year, the Battalion was ordered first to St. Omer, a quiet town between the Canal de Calais and the Canal de la Haute Colme, and in February to St. Eloi in time for the British offensive at Neuve Chapelle and the German counter-offensive. The 3rd Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry relieved the Royal Irish Regiment in the front line on the night of March 13.
During the morning of March 14, the German guns had been shelling a variety of points in the front and support lines at St. Eloi, south-east of Ypres and immediately in the rear of the trenches and St. Eloi itself. The shelling was not intense, neither did it continue for any length of time, but rather it was the preliminary bombardment in preparation for the surprise action that was launched at 5:00pm. When under the cover of mist the Germans opened a heavy bombardment of the trenches in front of St. Eloi occupied by 3rd Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. The bombardment was also directed on St. Eloi and all approaches to it.
Just south of the village was The Mound, a heap of spoil from the nearby Brickworks, thirty feet high and covering approximately half an acre. It gave the British a good vantage point and the Germans wanted control of it. German miners had been busy and when the furious bombardment was at its height, two hostile mines were exploded beneath it. The Mound collapsed burying the machine-gun team which was stationed on it.
At the same moment, the enemy’s guns, of all calibre, opened fire with a terrific bombardment of St. Eloi, the trenches in the neighbourhood of the village, the debris of The Mound and the ground in the rear. In the confusion, the German infantry, climbing out of their trenches, attacked the British trenches and The Mound.
The British artillery opened fire inflicting considerable losses on the swarming German advance, but it was desperately short of ammunition, with shells rationed to four for each gun per day. Chiefly owing to the explosion of the mines and the surprise of the overwhelming artillery attack, the German infantry penetrated the first line of trenches at a number of points late in the evening, and overwhelmed the few members of 3rd Battalion who had survived the blast, including Lieutenant O’Callaghan. As a result, the garrisons of other units which had successfully resisted the assault were enfiladed and forced to retire. By late evening the Germans were in possession of St. Eloi.
A well-directed counter-attack was launched at 2:00am and succeeded in recapturing the section of the ruins of St. Eloi that was in the hands of the Germans, plus a portion of the trenches to the east of it. The counter-attack was well carried out in very difficult conditions, and the fighting was heavy and intense, resulting in the recapture of all lost ground of material importance, although the Germans remained in control of The Mound. Sir John French’s Dispatch noted: ‘It is satisfactory to be able to record that, though the troops occupying the first line of trenches were at first overwhelmed, they afterwards behaved very gallantly in the counter-attack for the recovery of the lost ground. The 2nd Battalion Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry received the special commendation of the Army Commander.’
‘The Germans considered the operation a success,’ wrote Peter Oldham, ‘as they now had the high ground they wanted; the attack had been an isolated action with limited objectives.’ 3rd Battalion had shown great bravery and determination, although it had been very costly. ‘The greedy hand of Death was never satisfied’ wrote the Divisional Commander to Colonel Tuson of the 2nd Battalion. Amongst its losses were seven officers killed in the action including Lieutenant O’Callaghan towards midnight on March 14. He was 23 and was buried in the Dickebusch New Military Cemetery.
Duncan O’Callaghan is commemorated on the Cheltenham Borough War Memorial, on the Roll of Honour in the Chapel of Cheltenham College, on the King Edward VI Old Boys’ plaque in the Garden of Remembrance in Old Town, and on the Newquay Memorial that is high on the downs overlooking the bay.