Gordon Henderson Barber MC
At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Guild of the Holy Cross in Stratford-upon-Avon established as its headquarters a fine black and white timber framed hall, and following the Reformation the income that had belonged to the Guild was given to the newly incorporated Borough of Stratford-upon-Avon. By the Royal Charter of 1553, the Council made the Guildhall its headquarters, and one of the upper rooms became the Council Chamber.
In the Chamber there is a long Jacobean table of dark oak. Deeply carved into it are the names of hundreds of boys who were Prefects of the School. Not exactly encouraged, it was nevertheless a tradition that lasted over a hundred years. Amongst the finely carved initials and names there is one who excelled at King Edward VI School between 1911 and 1915. He became Captain of School, Captain and colours of the 1st XV, Vice-Captain of Cricket, secretary of the Games Committee, secretary of the Debating Society. During his whole career at school, in the words of the Headmaster, Rev. Cecil Knight ‘He was a gifted scholar of solid morals.’ As a cricketer he excelled at wicket-keeping, a feature that was recognised in Oxford where he played a number of important matches when training for his commissions. On leaving School he was awarded the DeLaWarr Scholarship (named after a High Steward of Stratford in the 19th century) and the Honour Medal for ‘industry, integrity and honour.’
GORDON HENDERSON BARBER was the son of the Reverend Alexander Barber, a Congregational Minister of Evesham Place. Passing his Senior Oxford Locals Examination, he accepted a place at Birmingham University – with the intention of becoming a church minister – where he matriculated in the first division and in 1916 was awarded the Kenrick Modern History Prize for heading the list of successful candidates in the Intermediate Arts Modern History Examination.
Speaking of his eagerness ‘to join in the fight,’ Gordon attested at the first opportunity. While at University, he served in the Officers’ Training Corps from October 19 1916, and in a technical procedure three months in advance of his eighteenth birthday, he was immediately transferred to the reserve. After his birthday he joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment on February 9 1917 and was posted as Private to the depot at Warwick. Following an interview on August 10 he was sent to 4 Officer Cadet Unit in Oxford. Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on November 27, he was transferred to 8 Battalion, The Worcestershire Regiment. In the words of his commanding officer, ‘He would never fail to set a fine example to his men.’
At the outbreak of war, 8th Battalion The Worcestershire Regiment, Territorial Force, was based in Worcester, forming the Gloucestershire and Worcestershire Infantry Brigade of the South Midland Division. Moving down to Swindon and then Maldon in Essex, it landed at Boulogne on March 31 1915 and soon became absorbed into 144 Brigade of 48th (South Midland) Division. On November 30 1917 it was transferred from the Western Front by train to Italy, and it was at this point that Gordon Barber joined the Division.
Italy had entered the war in May 1915 in search of territorial gains in the north from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and to divert Austrian forces from Russia. A.J.P Taylor wrote ‘Privately the French feared for the future, if Italy husbanded her strength while they wore out theirs. Their motive for bringing Italy into the war was almost as much to weaken her as to gain an ally.’ The Italians attacked in the mountains of the Izonzo Province, and in the ensuing stalemate, there were huge casualties on both sides. As the Italians appeared likely to break through, the Austrians, stiffened with a small but effective German force, drove the Italians back for fifty miles until they ran out of supplies. They halted on a fifty mile front along the River Adige. It therefore became necessary to assist the Italians by sending five British and six French divisions from the Western Front.
The British troops worked industriously to improve their accommodation and months passed with training and marching. Gordon had hoped ‘to fight a good fight’ but was not yet to find it. It was the end of April before he reached the front line, and when at last, in mid-June, the Austrians attacked and broke through part of the British line at Brusado. In the rear, the 8th Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment was called up for a counter-attack, and then to help bury the 160 dead and salvage enemy materials, before marching back to the plains.
The pace quickened at the end of August, when Barber led a reconnaissance patrol of twenty men that enabled a successful raid to be carried out by two platoons the following night to bring back prisoners for interrogation. He was then given another patrol to investigate the results of the raid and to search for wounded survivors, and on August 24 a further raid was mounted in combination with the 6th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment. Two patrols of fifteen men led by subalterns were to penetrate the Austrian trenches, capture prisoners and machine guns, and kill as many of the enemy as possible. A section led by Gordon Barber in support was to follow in the rear and to attack and overcome any opposition that the others met before the wire. Cocoa and rum were issued and there was good artillery support. The advance was not good, with the ground soft and cut up, and the operation was interrupted mid-way by a very heavy barrage by the German force.. However, objectives were achieved and the patrols returned with only one man missing. For these actions, Barber was twice recommended for decorations.
In France the fortunes of war had changed. The Germans, exhausted by their major Spring offensive in March 1918, were slowly moving backwards, and extra allied divisions were being recalled for the final push to victory. In mid-September the 8th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment was back in France. After a fortnight’s special training, it played a great part in the attack on October 5 on the village of Beaurevoir, half-way between Cambrai and St. Quentin. Barber was in the same battle as Frank Burt who had believed that ‘Might is Right,’ and played so well for the School.
Following a preliminary barrage, the battalion advanced at 6:30pm and at once ran into intensive artillery barrage and machine gun fire that fell on the leading companies, causing heavy casualties. The situation was precarious but was resolved ‘by careful manoeuvring and daring work by individual men – one subaltern took his men round the right flank and attacked the enemy in the rear, whereupon Barber and his platoon pushed on up the village street, put out of action a machine gun in the square and consolidated a line to the east of the village, establishing contact with 5th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment on the right.’ Beaurevoir was taken and the attack moved on in the following days to fresh objectives towards Le Cateau.
In a recent letter home, Gordon Barber had described, ‘not in any spirit of complaint but in his accustomed cheery way,’ how he had been out in the open for eight days and nights without sleep. This was during the campaign which resulted in the taking of Cambrai, but the rigours of war proved too much even for his robust constitution, and at some point he was taken ill with an alocobric abscess and broncho-pneumonia. He became delirious and died in hospital in Rouen on October 20 1918, only three weeks before the war ended. He was 19.
On January 1 1919 Gordon Barber was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. The citation read: ‘For marked gallantry and initiative. In the attack on Beaurevoir on October 5 1918, he was commanding a support platoon, and seeing that the leading wave of his Company was held up by machine gun fire he put out of action a machine gun in the village square. He took over the role of the leading wave, and consolidated a line to the east of the village, getting into touch with the Battalion on the flank.’ In the words of his Company Commander, ‘I am afraid the story sounds bold and convincing, and in official language what it amounts to is the fact that Barber was detailed to act as a reserve platoon commander, and when everyone else was held up he pushed on ahead and made his platoon do their own and everyone else’s job. It was a splendid case of team spirit. An officer whose sole object was to win for his side. ‘A’ Company were the only people in the northern part of the village for a very long time except for hordes of Bosch and if Barber had not acted with such rapidity and sound common-sense, I rather think that we should have been slaughtered to a man. We certainly could not have stayed in out position.’
The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald reported: ‘His passing is deeply mourned by a wide circle of friends who greatly regret that a life so noble in character and of such bright promise should be brought to such an early close. It should be added that Lieutenant Barber was associated with the Congregational Church in the activities of which he took a deep interest, and shortly before leaving home assisted in the villages where he preached with great acceptance.’ A special Memorial Service was held in the Rother Street Congregational Church on Monday evening November 3.
He was a young man of brilliant promise, like many others who died in the war. His Headmaster observed that ‘he was a credit to himself and an honour to the School,’
He was buried in the St. Sever Cemetery in Rouen, and is commemorated on the Stratford-upon-Avon War Memorial that is close to Holy Trinity Church where he is remembered on the Memorial Screen and Reredos, on a Sicilian white marble tablet in the Rother Street Congregational Church, and in the Memorial library at King Edward VI School.