21st Division 1914-18...a divisional history

Brigadier-General C G Rawling, CIE, CMG, DSO

 

Cecil Godfrey Rawling was not only a competent brigade commander of the Great War , he was also an accomplished explorer and author. Born to Samuel Bartlett Rawling of Stoke, Devonport and Ada Bathe Withers of Purton, Wiltshire, on the 16 February 1870, at Stoke, he was educated at Clifton College, Bristol. Whilst he leaves no papers to trace his life, he should need little, the footprint Rawling leaves deserves more recognition than he gets.

Originally gaining a commission via the militia subalterns competition in March 1891 he was commissioned from the 4th battalion the Royal Irish Fusiliers into the Somerset Light Infantry. He would have spent his first months in the battalion on Gibraltar, and then on to India in 1893. It relieved its sister battalion, the 2nd, who returned home to England. Various stations followed at Lahore, Umballa and Dalhousie. He was promoted to full Lieutenant in early 1896, with the battalion being involved the following year on the North West Frontier, in the Tirah expedition, for which he received a campaign medal with clasp.

By now he was taking long hunting trips in the Himalayas and it would seem his head was obviously being turned from normal regimental duties toward a life of exploration. Missing out on service in the Boer war he was promoted to Captain on the 14th August 1901. The following year he entered Tibet with Lieutenant A J G Hargreaves, totally unofficially. It was an expedition that was to encompass, on and off, four years of his life. For in 1903 he returned, again not officially sanctioned, to carry out a professional survey of an area of North Western Tibet, where he mapped area in the region of 40,000 square miles!. This was followed in 1904 by attachment to the British expedition to Tibet. Rawling's knowledge of the country and the people would no doubt have been invaluable to the military force who advanced on Lhasa, even if the 'enemy' forces against them gave little true opposition. For this service he would be awarded the Tibet 1903-04 medal. In his first publication (1905), 'The Great Plateau', he would write of his time in the region. Recalling these exploits and the following surveying which took in not just the first observation of the North side of Everest, establishing it as the highest mountain in the world, but the sourcing of the Brahmaputra River, which involved traversing the hazardous terrain. For these exploits he was awarded the CIE, Companion of the Indian Empire, by a grateful Indian nation.

Returning from Tibet brought not just the award of the CIE but the acknowledgement of a British nation that still revelled in an old style Victorian adventurer. One friend would describe his nature as having 'true courage, modesty and kindness of heart' adding that his 'eternal boyishness of the Elizabethans' was aided by 'his patient courage, his resourcefulness and constant cheerfulness'. The traits that no doubt would see him through some harder, darker days of the first world war. In further recognition he was, in 1909, awarded the Murchison Bequest of the Royal Geographic Society, of which he was a fellow. As The Times entry states, it was awarded for,

 In 1903 Captain Rawling explored a large area of hitherto unknown country in North-Western Tibet.In 1904 he served in the Tibet mission and subsequently marched withMajor Ryder to Gartok. During the latter expedition the Brahmaputra was surveyed tonear to its source and other important geographical work carried out....

However the adventurous side of Rawling was not finished with and in 1909 he was attached to an expedition to the Dutch New Guinea. Whilst on the voyage the leader was taken ill and Rawling was asked to take over command of the party. His party explored many of the untouched areas of jungle and had encounters with native tribes, including one unknown to western peoples, with the Tapiro Pygmies. The maps and information gained on this expedition were the first from these regions and the Dutch government conveyed their thanks to Rawling. When he returned to England in 1912, he visited on the family of John Buchan, the famous author, whose brother Willie had become a good friend of Cecil's when they had been in India together. He visited often and built up a bond with John Buchan that survived after an illness took Willie from them both. He had apparently come home to die and Rawling was able to spend time with his friend. Cecil 'wept like a child' at the death of Willie apparently unashamed to show emotion, not often associated with an Officer of the British army.

In 1913 he had his second book published, 'The land of the New Guinea pygmies'. Four years later he would be awarded the Royal Geographical Society's Patron's Gold medal for these exploits. On the 27th of November he was promoted to Major. It seemed that his army career had not deserted him as he seemingly had it. Those that may have wondered what an ageing Major had to offer a fast changing British army, would soon see that Cecil Rawling may have been an adventurer but he was still an army officer of some ability, and Britain would need all it could get as war approached.

It appears that Rawling still had a hankering for adventurer and was planning further expeditions, one which appeared to be to scale Everest from the Tibetan side. He planned two expeditions, the first to access the practicality of the climb and the following year to actually climb the mountain. It seems from close sources that he had made many preparations, these were shelved as war loomed and Major Rawling became the soldier again.

It was not his lot to go to France with the British Expeditionary Force [BEF] at the on set of war and this may have saved his life, for a few more years, as the BEF died in valiant defence of Mons , the retreat and 1stYpres. Rawling was tasked with helping build up the volunteer soldiers of Kitchener's New Army and he took command of the first raised service battalion of the the Somerset Light Infantry, as acting Lieutenant-Colonel of the 6th, on the 19th August. He fostered an esprit de corps to imitate the light infantry mould and recruited from amongst the local men, helping to keep a county spirit. Rawling did his best to train the men under trying times, but the vast expansion of the new volunteers tested the quickly expanding British army logistics and often training amounted to little more than marching. However a poor facilitated camp created, unintentionally, a taste of the conditions to come, where life was lived amongst the rain and mud infested ground. Outwardly he may have been optimistic, yet it seems that between friends he predicted when many did not, that the war would last for four years, Russia would not last out and that it would be Britain, whose army would be by that time the best in the world, aided by America, that would defeat the German army.

Perhaps this inner belief in final victory, though knowing it would be a long hard road, enabled him to push his men and after hard work and finally some good training the battalion crossed over to Belgium in May of 1915, as part of the 43rd brigade, 14th division. The battalion was broken gently into the conditions of trench warfare before it received its baptism of fire around Ypres.

The 14th division was in the line around Hooge when the Germans first used flame throwers on 31st July 1915, though fortunately not in the front line. It was however used to retake the ground lost and Rawling showed his worth again in his leadership during this time as the battalion suffered. In September the 14th division was used in the salient to draw troops away from the attack at Loos toward the end of the month, however some failures were averted by Rawling where his quick thinking and reactions, a precursor for future initiative, saved the day when he reinforced at the crucial moment and with speed.

It is probably this performance that led him to be promoted to temporary Brigadier-General and command of the 62nd brigade of 21st division in June 1916. The new commander David Campbell, was having a clear out and wanted new blood, he may have requested Rawling, though it may just have been a good piece of luck. Which ever, the matching of the two men, both experts not just in military fields, for Campbell was a Grand national winner, was to the benefit of the division. Benefit they would need as the last days of June 1916 counted down.

21stt division attacked Fricourt on the 1st July 1916, with 62nd brigade initially tasked with support of both 64th and 63rd brigades in the attacks. In some ways they were saved the bloody hours of that day. However the war diary show that in fact they were used in support to bring up supplies and ammunitions. The following day Rawling was alerted by divisional command that his brigade was going to be used to secure another section of the line. The first day had been more successful in this area than else where and the men of 62nd brigade moved into better jump off positions in the late hours of the 2nd and the early hours of the 3rd. Major-General Campbell had tasked Rawling and his men with the capture of the section of ground encompassing Birch Tree Wood and Shelter Wood. The Germans were well entrenched and dislodging them was not going to be easy. With the opportunity to re-enforce their position the Germans emerged from well protected dugouts and called in reinforcements.

The assaulting troops managed to get a foot hold in Shelter Wood but the attack was by mid day in danger of faltering, Rawling elected, unusually for 1916, to use his initiative, operating from his forward command post, referred to in the brigade war diary as the ‘advd battle hq’, he decided that the German position had to be taken before their reserves coming from the region of Contalimasion could reach the front line. Committing his reserve he also used his brigade mortar battery to offer local artillery support, even though he was aware that divisional artillery was being planned, he was more conscious that time was of the essence. It worked, the position was taken and the counter attack was stopped by Lewis gun supplemented defences. So devastating was this decisive action that during the days events nearly one thousand prisoners were captured.

Rawling had shown that even though casualties would be high, by using initiative and thrust a localised situation could be altered and the objective taken. The brigade was relieved later and eventually the division was withdrawn. It would return for Bazentin Ridge. Cecil Rawling had more than returned the faith with which Campbell had entrusted him and shown that an explorer at heart did not lack the ability to be a competent, even a innovative, soldier. We must not think though that Rawling was oblivious to the casualties, on one of his leaves in London he was asked if he wished to go and see a murder play that was all the talk of London, Cecil declined saying after time on the western front, he was inclined to be blasé about murderers!

But Rawling had not finished with the Somme. After mainly support action during the innovative attacks by XIII and XV Corps on the 14th July, where the newly joined 110th brigade played the major part of 21st divisions contribution the next major attack was at Flers Corcellette and the use of Tanks for the first time. Once again Rawling was to play a support role in this action that accumulated with the division capturing the village of Gueudecourt.

Following a far quieter winter the German army withdrew from its lines around the Somme and retired on to its new defences on the Hindenburg Line. 62nd brigade followed up on the retreating Germans but was not engaged in any major actions. In the new year he was given a brevet Lt-Colonelcy, to go with the acting Brigadier-General rank he had, which still meant that he was as a regimental officer a Major. However toward the end of March he was involved in what the Official History calls 'operations against outposts'. Given the area in which they were carried out it could as easily be called 'gaining better jump off lines' for the coming battle of Arras.

With Allenby's strike around Arras 21st division was in action as part of Lt-General Snow's VII Corps attack on the right wing of the offensive. Rawling recalled in his despatches that the operations were conducted in driving winds, cold and snow! As reserve brigade for the opening of the Arras offensive, they were to relieve the 64th brigade on the 10th April and met heavy machine gun fire at the few points in the wire that had been cleared by the artillery. It took sometime before they could advance and when they finally did they found the positions empty. The Germans had withdrawn. On the 13th April with the theoretical help of two tanks they were instructed to attack against the Hindenburg line once again. Unfortunately one tank did not make it to the battle the other initially broke down but was later able to aid the brigade in its attack. However this too retired later and was not seen again. Rawling later issued orders to cease any major advancement activity, other than support of bombing operations. This in the main was the end of 62nd brigades operations in the battle of Arras. He was mentioned in despatches on the 15th May for services.

On the 31st July 1917 the BEF opened its biggest offensive of the year, 3rd Ypres, or as it is more and wrongly know, the battle of Passchendeale. Its name echoes down the years to this day and is synonymous with the mud and rain of the Great War. Into this struggle went Rawling, recently gazetted to Temporary Brigadier-general on the 14th July, and his brigade. Rested somewhat from the actions around Arras they were not committed until toward the end of the struggle for Polygon Wood in late September. Then came its commitment to the flank attack out of its positions around Polygon beek. 62nd brigade had taken over the position on the night of the 3rd/4th of October, from the 110th Leicestershire brigade. Unfortunately the position was in full view of the Germans and as such the enemy had prior warning to the intentions of the attackers. The overall objective was the Broodseinde-Beceleare Ridge.

They moved up in light drizzle in to an area that had been churned by continuous artillery fire and the ground was split by three streams. It was then re-enforced by wire and concrete block houses, some manned by 20-30 men with machine guns and mortars! Rawling's summary report after the attack states of the ground.

'Direction up to now had been fairly well maintained considering that the Polygon Beek,Juniper Trench, the almost impassable bog called Jetty Warren and Judge trench, all layat entirely different angles from one another'

It is understandable then, that at times the artillery plan out ran the following infantry, however Rawling considered the actions of the brigade to have been a success despite all this and the heavy casualties sustained. When the brigade was finally relieved during the night of the 4th October the 110th brigade pushed forward from the 62nd's positions and occupied what had been the final objective of Rawling's men virtually unmolested by the enemy.

Moving back from the front line Rawling found himself on the 28th of October in Hooge Crater, his brigade occupying positions around this area. This ground would likely have been familiar to Rawling from when he had been action in 1915, the crater had been caused by the detonation of a mine that same year and Rawling had fought around here when in charge of his old battalion. This ground was still very much within enemy range and the Germans often shelled the area, it would appear that during one of these random artillery attacks Cecil Godfrey Rawling was killed. According to some he had left the comfort of his dugout to speak to friends, though Captain Kelly of the 110th brigade writes differently in his account.

'He had gone out to supervise personally the unloading of some wagons which had been interrupted by a burst of shell fire. The incident was characteristic of his disregard for danger, which he had shown among other ways by a habit in ordinary trench warfare of walking over the top instead of by communication trenches as was laid down in orders for everyone else.'

This account of Rawlings demise not only gives an idea of the death he met but also shows that Rawling often demonstrated what can be considered as either great courage or flagrant disregard for his own safety. It fits with the kind of character that he had.

Cecil Rawling was mentioned in despatches on the 11th of November for conduct in the Ypres battles and he was also awarded the DSO in the new years lists, again very likely for the part he played during the trying times of October 1917. He was buried the following day at The Huts Cemetery, so called as the road next to it was lined with medical huts. He rests amongst those who fell around him in that war, singled out in no way.

John Buchan believed that Rawling had that air about him, that never caused Buchan to believe that he would not survive the war and the sudden death of Cecil came as a great shock to him. Rawling was the one close friend killed during the war that Buchan's children also felt the loss, as he had often played with them on visits from the front, being Billy's Godfather, Buchan recalled that his 'kind eyes, his rapid speech, his ready laugh' never betrayed the horrors he had witnessed.

Of the soldier what can be said? Whilst he was a great adventurer he was also a very competent commander of good initiative, especially shown on the 2nd July 1916, at a time when brigade commanders often stayed well within their comfort zones. Brave, like many of his generation , he obviously believed in letting those around him know he was not scared and was able to lead. Buchan again shows an incite into his character that official records by definition can not. He believed it was because,


'He was always slightly lost; therefore he could never be completely lost, whether in Tibet or on a Flanders battlefield. That is perhaps the reason why he was so successful an explorer and so good a soldier. The man who insists on having the next stage neatly outlined before he starts will be unnerved if he can not see his way. Cecil drove on cheerfully into the mist, because he had been there so often before and knew that somewhere on the farther side was clear sky.'

By nature an explorer he would have been more used to stepping out in to the unknown. Given the nature of the fighting of the Great War the men under his command may have been glad they were commanded by Cecil Godfrey Rawling.