Geoffrey Boles Donaldson

Geoffrey Donaldson

Geoffrey Donaldson

GEOFFREY BOLES DONALDSON was an exceptional scholar. Winning prizes whilst a pupil at King Edward VI School, he was awarded an open scholarship of £80 to Caius College, Cambridge where he flourished, gaining a First Class Honours degree in the Natural Sciences Tripos in 1914. He became one of those ‘golden boys’ immortalised in Katherine Hinkson’s poem who promptly enlisted in August 1914 in the South Midland Division. Having been in the Cambridge University Officers Training Corps, he was promoted Lieutenant in December 1914 and Captain in March 1916.

The 2/7 Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment was a unit of the Territorial Force, formed at the outbreak of the First World War at Coventry in the Infantry Brigade of the South Midland Division. It moved to the Chelmsford area for final training and equipping, and following final preparations in March 1916 on Perham Down they landed in Le Havre on May 21 1916.

The thirty-three officers and 965 men travelled in two trains with Donanldson, the assistant adjutant, second- in-command of one of the trains. The battalion moved into the trenches in June, and spent the month in the typical routine of movement from the front area to support to the rest area to training in reserve. The Regimental diary records no particularly dramatic events, although with the constant German artillery, casualties mounted slowly but steadily. All that was to change.

The 61 Division was not involved in the disastrous attacks of July 1, the opening of the Battle of the Somme. It even had some quiet days in the first two weeks that were spent in the trenches to the north-east of Neuve Chappelle, although bathing at one stage was disrupted by German bombardment. On July 15, the Battalion moved up into the Fauquissart sector to take part in the preparation for the attack later named the Battle of Fromelles. In an area of the line known as the Sugar Loaf, the plan was to make the Germans think that a major offensive was imminent and prevent them moving troops from this quiet sector.

From the outset, it was a plan that was badly flawed. British maps of the German trenches were out of date. Although showing an elaborate network of front line and supporting trenches, most had been abandoned because of flooding, and the actual German front line was a few hundred yards to the rear. Even if the plan had succeeded, all it would have achieved would have been to move the British front line closer to the German guns on Aubers Ridge, making it increasingly vulnerable to German attack.

As a preliminary, a small-scale assault was carried out with gas under smoke cover and a British patrol found and bombed a group of twenty Germans. But the gas taps had been left on by mistake and some of the attackers were gassed. M. Brown in The Imperial War Museum Book of the Western Front described ‘A loud hissing sound as the taps were turned on and the deadly greenish white vapour poured out of the jets and slowly blew in a great rolling cloud towards the opposite side of the trench.’ Donaldson got C Company out of its dugouts and into gas helmets. The attack gave way under very heavy machine gun fire. The major assault planned for July 17 was postponed because of the heavy German shelling on the 16th and by mist that prevented the British artillery from ranging their guns.

2/7th Royal Warwickshire Regiment received ‘sudden’ orders to move up and at approximately 9:00pm to prepare for an attack on the Wick Salient. It was a case of once again insufficient ammunition had been sent forward, and Donaldson’s Company toiled through the night. Afterwards he had ‘no time to reconnoitre the ground of our advance.’

The attack on July 18 began with an artillery bombardment from 11:00am to 6:00pm along the German front line and support trenches, both of which formed the first objective of the attack. At 5:30pm, two attacking companies, C Company led by Captain Donaldson and D Company under Captain Thomas Bethall on the left, filed out through two sally ports and remained unseen as they advanced in a low ditch in front of the British line. They formed into four waves fifty yards apart and moved forward towards the enemy lines, supported from behind by bombers, Lewis gunners, more bombers and a section of a machine gun company. At 5:50pm the support company had moved out behind them at the ready and a reserve platoon occupied the vacated front trenches.

At 6:00pm the artillery fire lifted and the lead companies, including Donaldson’s, rushed the German front line from fifty yards, crossed it and reached the second line. Here they met stiff opposition. In a scene familiar to those on the Somme not three weeks earlier, the Allied bombardment had failed to cut the wire and destroy the German position. Many Germans were in deep dugouts, and although some emerged to surrender, the two lead British companies were held up by the wire at the support lines meeting heavy machine gun fire. The few survivors struggled into support trenches and met further shelling.

The support company reached the German wire without casualties, but almost at once its two officers were wounded. A message, timed 6:15pm, arrived from Captain Donaldson: ‘About twenty men hold enemy Support Line. It is being shelled.’ A forward signalling post reported that the enemy was closing in and cutting off those in the first wave of attack.

Attempts were made to reinforce the isolated troops but it was clear that the battle was over, and men were slowly working their way back to the British trenches. At 9:45pm it was reported, ‘Germans have manned their front line and those who went over first are no more.’ At 2:30am, the survivors of a disastrous day were relieved and started to move north-west to Lavantie. In the words of an official war history, ‘it is difficult to conceive that the operation as planned was ever likely to succeed.’ The attack completely failed as a diversion. Using the attack as an example of how not to do things, Sir Basil Liddell Hart in his History of the First World War described it as ‘the final link of an almost incredibly muddled chain of causation.’ Indeed, Peter Pedersen in Fromelles described the planning process at the start as ‘a dog’s breakfast.’

Captain Geoffrey Donaldson did not return and his commanding officer reported his death. ‘It is entirely due to the excellent organisation and coolness of Captain T.H. Bethell (D Coy)and Captain G.B. Donaldson (C Coy) that the attack was successful, and I regret to say that both these officers were reported killed…the waves went over in per4fect order and …thefinal rush from about forty yards of the German line was carried our with great dash and exactly as it had been arranged. He was always a most reliable and painstaking officer.’

The casualties suffered by the 2/7th Royal Warwickshire Regiment on July 19 were 210 killed with 173 missing believed killed, well over half the casualties of the Division. It was one of the greatest losses of Australian lives in one 24-hour period. The 5th Division was incapacitated for many months. Two battalions were effectively destroyed. 1719 men were killed.

The Ploegsteert Memorial, south of Ypres

The Ploegsteert Memorial, south of Ypres

On December 4 1916 Captain Donaldson’s identity disc and later on June 22 1917 his purse containing 1F 50 were returned from Germany through a neutral embassy. He is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing, on the Lower Quinton Memorial outside Stratford-upon-Avon where his mother lived, and in the Memorial Library at King Edward VI School.

For many years there was speculation that an unmarked and forgotten mass grave existed near Fromelles, containing the remains of British and Australian soldiers killed during the battle and later buried by the Germans. In May 2008, an archaeological team from the University of Glasgow contracted by the Australian government, began an exploratory dig in a field on the edge of Bois Faisan (‘Pheasant Wood’) just north of Fromelles. Human remains and several artefacts were found. The owner of the land had often resisted offers to sell without ever realising what was underneath, and now feels that the ground belongs to the soldiers who lie there. It was decided that all human remains would be exhumed from the mass grave and re-buried with full military honours in individual plots at a new war cemetery, located where the soldiers were found.