Richard Francis Newdigate
From the English Civil War to the Somme, the Newdigate name has had a regular presence in military history. Sadly, that bloody battle of 100 years ago felled one of its younger kin before the chance to show his full potential. Although 22-year old Richard Francis Newdigate had already risen to the rank of Captain before being cut down on the front line on Monday 4th September 1916, surely there would have been much more to come.
After all, the Newdigate family were of English nobility, owning significant lands in Warwickshire, particularly the Arbury Estate, of which Richard was said to be heir-presumptive (it was also the birth place of author George Elliot: her father being agent to the estate). The family has also provided 20 members of parliament since 1360 when William Newdigate represented a Surrey village from which the family took its name, nearly a dozen family members have been knighted and several were made baronets.
One who knelt before his monarch was Richard’s father, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Richard Legge Newdigate who served in Crimea, the Indian Mutiny (being mentioned in despatches for the capture of Lucknow) and commanded the Infantry Brigade in Gibraltar. Sir Henry married Phillis Shirley, also descended from Warwickshire aristocracy, who gave him three daughters as well as Richard who was born on 17th May 1894 in Eastbourne, East Sussex.
Richard became orphaned in 1908 when his father suffered a stroke, his young mother having already lost a battle with illness two years earlier, at which point he became the ward of his uncle, Arthur Horatio Shirley, a retired Royal Navy captain residing at St Andrews in Lustleigh. Richard was educated at Wellington College, where he received his officers’ training, taking his army entrance exam in November 1913.
He received his commission, in August 1914, as 2nd Lieutenant in the Special Reserve of the 3rd Border Regiment, but it was the 2nd Battalion with which he was to carry out his service. Leaving England at the end of that year, he arrived on the Western Front on the 4th of January at Sailly, mid-way between Paris and Rouen. This was a brief foray, though, as he was invalided home less than two weeks later suffering from symptoms that were variously reported as bronchitis, influenza, laryngitis and epilepsy: an unusual example of the fog of war, perhaps!
2nd Lieutenant R.F. Newdigate was back on the front line by mid-February and it wasn’t long before he took part in what was described as “the first large scale organised attack undertaken by the British army during the First World War”, the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, which was to see him return home for far more serious reasons.
The night before the first attack was wet, with light snow, turning to damp mist on the morning of 10th March. Despite poor weather conditions, the early stages of the battle went extremely well helped by the first prominent use of aerial photography to map German lines. The objective was to rupture those lines, break through to Aubers Ridge and maybe even push on to Lille, a major enemy communications centre. The battle opened at 7.30am with the heaviest bombardment that would be fired until 1917, a 35-minute onslaught involving over 180 artillery batteries and over 3,000 shells, more than the British Army used in the whole of the Boer War fifteen years earlier.
Despite the promising start to this offensive, fortunes turned against the allies and on the 12th March, amid some of the fiercest fighting, a breakdown in communication prevented orders for the attack to be postponed getting through. In the ensuing frenzy, Richard Newdigate was seriously wounded with early reports being more than a little concerning, April’s issue of Lustleigh Parish Magazine reporting that “We regret to hear that Mr. R.F. Newdigate has been wounded in action. We understand that the wound, though serious, is yet one from which he may be expected to recover”. A telegram to his sister was more reassuring: “gunshot wound right shoulder fracture doing well”.
Following treatment at the Royal Herbert Hospital at Woolwich in Kent, Richard went to Dorchester in Dorset to recuperate with his sisters, Violet and Millicent, who lived there with another uncle: no doubt the ten or so servants in the 26-roomed house made it a particularly comfortable environment in which to mend his wounds and prepare again for war. It was to be many months before he was declared fit, first for light duties and later ready to face the enemy once more which he did in November 1915.
Almost a year to the day of his injury, on 13th March 1916, he became Captain Newdigate. Following another short return to England suffering from sub-acute laryngitis, he returned to the front line with time edging ever closer to July 1st, the first day of the Somme offensive which saw the British Army sustain 57,000 casualties (19,240 losing their lives), the bloodiest day in its history. On that day, the 2nd Border Regiment were lined up alongside the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, the same band of men they were to fight alongside 2 months later aiming to capture the village of Ginchy.
On 4th September, they arrived at Montauban at 2am and continued under heavy fire to collect guides and tools from Bernafay Wood before taking up position at about 5.30am: Captain R F Newdigate was in a support trench north of Ginchy Avenue in charge of ‘B’ Company. Ginchy was a key target for the allies, it being much prized by the Germans for its commanding view of the area; indeed, such was its importance that it was recorded “the Germans never fought better than they did at Ginchy in 1916”.
The war diaries report that the 2nd Border Regiment was under heavy shell fire all day and this indeed was where Captain Newdigate fell, being instantaneously killed by the explosion of a shell along with two comrades with whom he was standing – 2nd Lieutenants J.A. Malkin and S Martindale.
On 9th September, his sister Violet received a telegram to state “Deeply regret to inform you Capt R F Newdigate Border Regt was killed in action Sept 4th The Army Council express their Sympathy”. Many months later, she was informed that he had been laid to rest “about seven hundred yards South East of Longeuval Church… the grave marked by a durable wooden cross”.
Longer lasting tributes can be found in many places. As well as the Lustleigh war memorial and the Menin Gate, his name is included on a Great Ormside WW1 plaque and Roll of Honour (this is where he was living when he enlisted) and there is a memorial tablet in the church of St Mary the Virgin, Astley (another Newdigate estate adjoining Arbury) where it notes that he fell “while taking his part fighting for his King and Country in the advance on Ginchy”.