WEEK 157: A SOLDIER AND A SPORTSMAN
Monday 25 June to Sunday 1 July 1917
If there was one silver lining to Pat Armstrong’s death it was the easing of the marital estrangement between his parents which resulted from it. United by grief, the couple turned to each other for solace. Captain Armstrong being unable to travel to England having suffered an attack of acute appendicitis, Mrs Armstrong packed her bags and shepherded her three daughters to Ireland to spend the summer at Moyaliffe Castle. Letters of condolence followed them across the Irish Sea as scores of soldiers and military officers put pen to paper in an attempt to express their sense of loss. Among them was Pat Armstrong’s Orderly Officer, Private John Hurley of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, who had been asked to provide Mrs Armstrong with an account of her son’s final moments in Arras. Hurley followed orders, staining the pages of the letter with his tears as he did so.
Monday 25 June
Muz wrote letters, & we all walked about. There were a couple of showers. After lunch Muz, Ione, Tom & I drove in to Thurles in the pony trap. We got back at about 5-30. After tea Muz lay down, & Heppie stayed with her, & we all went out to see the turnips, then I creepied [?] her head, when we got in. We had a bath after dinner, & went to bed at about 10-30.
Tuesday 26 June
We started at about ten, to motor down to the Fishing Lodge at Dromineer, we brought lunch with us. It is the dearest wee house, & such a lovely view. We had lunch & then walked about, & then went on the lake for a bit, then had tea at the Hotel, & started back, at about 5. We shopped in Nenagh on the way in. We got back at about 6-30. It was a lovely drive, & not a bit too hot, it was lovely. After dinner Muz & I had a bath, & sat talking in it for ages, & went to bed at about 11-30. Heppie stayed here all day.
Letter from Ian Cameron Grant, Officers Hospital, Lindridge, Bishops Teignton, Devon, to Mrs Armstrong
Dear Mrs Armstrong,
I am afraid you will wonder who I am if I may introduce myself as Pat’s predecessor as brigade-major of the 86th Bde, I was very badly hit last July and am still a cripple on crutches. I did not write to you before as I was waiting to get your address from General de Lisle, I was most awfully grieved at Pat’s death I had been with the Division in Gallipoli since the end of September ’15 and knew him so well & it seems impossible to realize he’s dead he was so very full of energy and life and always in good heart and spirits and devoid of all fear. His death has made a big gap in the division I feel sure, and I feel this is a very feeble inarticulate expression of my sympathy. I would very much appreciate a photo of him if you could let me have one. I wish I had a more ready pen but I am very very sorry.
Ian Cameron Grant.
Wednesday 27 June
Copied letters some of the morning. After lunch Muz, Tom, Dus & I went in to Thurles in the pony trap. Old Johnnie came up to see Muz, & we took him back in the trap. After tea we all went to see the bullocks, & then went up on the hill, to see Young Johnnie cutting the bracken with the thistle crasher, & we came home by the avenue. After dinner Poppy went out to shoot rabbits, & the others went to bed, Muz wrote letters & I coppied [sic] letters, then we had a bath, & went to bed at about eleven.
Thursday 28 June
I copied letters nearly all morning, & the others wrote letters. Heppie went down to the glass house. After lunch Tom & Poppy sat out & read, & Muz & I wrote, & Heppie worked at the mats. Ione was going over to England today, but wasn’t feeling well, so went to bed. After tea Muz, Poppy, Tom & I went down to see the new spraying machine, & then went up to see the cattle.
Letter from Lizzie Gee, 20 St Andrews Terrace, Dover, to Mrs Armstrong
Dear Mrs Armstrong,
Ever so many thanks for our nice letter. Robt would have loved to have seen you again, but there wasn’t time – he hopes to be home somewhere about Dec. if spared, but really one can only live from day to day. I do hope the change in Ireland will do you all good, it was very kind to ask us all over, but we will wait till Robt is home after the war then perhaps you would have us, the youngest girl is at school & the Eldest just started business & so after our lovely 10 days with Robt. we must be content – for a long time – we saw him off yesterday & so feel very lonely today, the time passes so quietly & he was so worn out it was not long enough he had to go to Town & get his eyes seen to & his teeth – but otherwise we were very quiet just a picnic in the fields & a few friends calling who simply insisted on seeing some thing of him.
I hope Capt Armstrong is much better – appendicitis is such a nasty thing. I don’t like operations at all, now you are with him he may feel more comfortable and get better quicker I hope so – you have had trouble enough lately – Robt says he will write you as soon as he arrives over there. I did not take the collars & buttons over but they are quite safe. Many thanks for your kindness to Robt. in offering him anything of Pat’s if you don’t mind him wearing them? When you get back home some time he would be pleased they fit him beautifully & are so good, we had such long talks about your lovely boy – he must have had a charming disposition and Robt being so much older he looked on him as a Father – and they used to have such long talks together there is no question he was ready to die & even in death had a lovely smile so that Robt could not help holding him in his arms & kissing him – Robt says so many that die have such distorted visions & horrible expressions, but Pat looked lovely, if only you could have seen him how much more satisfied you would have been, but it’s nice to think he was not mutilated or missing. I hope to see & talk with you some day when you are back.
With kindest regards
yours very sincerely
Friday 29 June
I copied letters nearly all morning. Muz wrote letters, then we sat out on the croquet ground. After lunch did more copying, then we all went in to the station to see Ione off, & went up the town first. She is going over to see Cecil Willis, till about Monday, as he is back on leave. We talked to Mr Sims & William Knox. We went up the town again, for Poppy to get things. After tea we went & sat out on the hill, & then Poppy showed us the cistern & how it all works. We wrote for a bit after dinner, & then had baths, & went to bed at about eleven, Heppie came & talked to us for a bit, she had been working at the Glass House.
Letter from Captain Robert Gee to Mrs Armstrong
My dear Mrs Armstrong.
I am sorry it is not Pat writing but I know just how you must miss his cheery letters & all the news of the Division & so I am going to take on his work for a time & send you periodically a newsy letter of Pat’s Division. I returned from leave on the 27th feeling thoroughly rested, I had one day in Town & one day in Folkestone beyond this I never moved from home. I would have liked to call on you but Ireland is too far but it was good of you all to meet me & I felt so glad to be with you at Clodagh & talk about Dear Pat. The Division had moved when I rejoined & we are now close to the place where Pat spent July & August of last year. It is nice to be back with the 86th but I do miss Pat so very much, it is more than I thought it was possible for me to miss anyone.
Gen Lucas is in the Line, Gen Cayley & ourselves are out at present. I saw Gen De Lisle this morning but he was busy & so I do [sic] not get a chance to talk to him. This is my first time up this part of the Country, it is very fertile & the crops are all in good condition. I shall quite understand you are too busy to write but I feel I must write to try & cheer you up for Pat’s sake. Pat I know is pleased Ione is not going back to France, tell Tommy to have a good time in Ireland. Jessie I am sure is helping you all to keep green the memory of Pat. You will be pleased to hear that the clothes required no alteration whatsoever. Mind & have a thorough rest, the change will surely do you good & I trust Mr Armstrong is better by now.
Saturday 30 June
The meadow near the Glass House was being cut – the first one – we went down there & sat for a bit, it was awfully hot. Then we went & picked strawberries, & Muz & I took them down to Heppie, she was working at the Glass House. After lunch we went down to the hay again, & then walked about. We sat out after tea. After dinner Poppy went to shoot, & Muz read, & I put away the washing etc: & we went to bed at about 10-30.
Letter from Irene Wills, The Grange, Barrowby, Grantham, to Mrs Armstrong
Many thanks for your letter, I don’t know what to say about the watch, I would adore to have it now but suppose it got lost. I will leave it to you to decide. If you do think it would be safe I would love to have it posted, I almost think it would be alright. Queen is just having your difficulty, the strawberries are rotting at Northmoor but she can’t get the sugar for jam making, she is bottling vast quantities of peas, cherries, gooseberries etc as that takes no sugar. Gil read the letters the other night, there were tears on his cheek and he couldn’t speak for a bit. He thought them utterly wonderful and quite quite unique, he said he didn’t think such letters could have been written except from the very depths of men’s hearts, and probably no one but Pat could call up that feeling. Queen and he both thought it a very high privilege to read them, Tommy has them now to read to-night.
My dear, Lady Southwell, who is a perfect dear, has offered me a job with her in the Hut at Victoria this winter. It is just the kind of work I love, and one can take what shifts one likes pretty well, so if I took Saturday morning and Monday afternoon that would mean being able to get away sometimes for weekends down to you. She wants me in the kitchen so Queen says I may go into the kitchen here whenever I like and get the old cook1 (who I’ve known for years and years) to let me help her so that I shall learn up things a bit before I go. I’m getting on with my Braille too, and think I might start on a book before long. Bunty writes that Vaughan is only just back from the trenches and may have to go in again as they are short of Captains. Please give wee Jess my love and tell her I’ll try and write to her to-morrow. It’s just time for lunch and we have to go into Grantham directly after to get some more peas at the market for bottling, Queen has used all the ones from Northmoor. Heaps of love to you all, darling.
Ever your loving extra daughter
Sunday 1 July
Muz, Tom & I lay out on the hill & read, & Poppy came out for a bit. Heppie worked at the mats. We went to look at the cattle after tea, & Tom paddled. After lunch we lay out on the hill again, & read, it was lovely & warm. Poppy went to shoot after dinner.
Private John Hurley to Mrs Armstrong [undated letter, but written at around this time]
On Tuesday morning I was informed by Private Standen that you wished to hear from me an account of how your son met his death. I may mention that I knew Capt. Armstrong very well & also that it was my privilege to act as orderly to him for a period of twelve months. He would allow no other orderly than myself to accompany him on his visits to the trenches & it is with heartfelt sorrow I write the following. Undoubtedly you have heard from other sources an account of the tragedy & also the work he was employed upon the two previous nights, prior to his death.
On the 21st of May the Capt. & myself left Brigade Hd Qrs at about P.M. and on our way to the trenches he informed me that he wished to make enquiries regarding one of his best friends viz –Lieut. F. S. Layard. I may mention that three days prior to the 21st of May Lt Layard led his Company to attack the Germans, and the last news that one Capt. had heard was that he, Lt. Layard was wounded and lying in a shell hole in “No Man’s Land”, when we arrived at the trenches the Capt. enquired from the men where Lt Layard went over the top from, & on being told the point we waited there until darkness set in. The Capt & myself then went out to “No Man’s Land” & remained there for a considerable time, but I regret to say, our search proved to be unsuccessful, we then returned to Hd. Qrs the Capt. talking all the way back about how sorry he was that he could not find Lt Layard.
On the 22nd of May the Capt did not visit the trenches, but remained at Hd Qrs working until late the same night. On the morning of the 23rd the Capt sent for me about 8 A.M. & told me he was going to the trenches, we were accompanied for a short time by the Brigadier as far as the firing line & the Capt. expressed a desire to the General, saying that he wished to finish an Observation Report, they then parted company & the time was about 9 a.m. I may add that on previous occasions we had visited this trench a number of times. As we walked along the Capt had a laugh & a joke on his lips for everybody, both Officers & men, making enquiries regarding the activity of the Germans, whether they the men had passed a peaceful night etc. Everything went on as usual, until we arrived at the portion of the trench which was not liked by our men, owing to it being waist deep in mud & water, this was the portion the Capt wanted to get at viz – “Twin Trench”, which is situated about 2000 yds [about three or four words have been cut out by the Censor] from this point we had an excellent view of the German defences & the Capt was busy taking notes of the surroundings, shortly afterwards he asked me for my rifle to have a shot at some Germans who showed their heads & then continued with the work in hand.
Sometime afterwards the Capt observed a Hun sniper in “No Man’s Land” and again asked for my rifle which I handed to him at the same time remarking to be careful, but owing to some foilage [sic] in front, it was impossible for him to get a correct aim, the Captain said, “I will wait for a better opportunity”, & carried on, with his observation. Some time afterwards he closed his books in readiness to return back. At about 12.55 PM on our way back along the trenches he asked the men “if that Sniper was very busy”, being answered in the affirmative he then decided to have a shot. He stood on the fire step & cautiously looked over the parapet, observed the sniper, asked for my rifle, took a steady aim, & then fired. Almost immediately I saw the German’s helmet fly in the air, the Capt. then quickly got down & said to me, “I have got that fellow anyhow, he will not fire again but to make sure I will have another look”. The Capt then got on the fire step & cautiously put his Binoculars to his eyes when suddenly there was a sharp crack of a rifle, the Capt gave a slight groan, & fell into my arms, shot through the left temple.
At first I could hardly realize what had happened until I felt the whole weight of the body: & then I Knew. I immediately called for assistance which came almost at once. We then bandaged the wounds several times until the bleeding eased, it appears to me, & I am quite certain that the Capt was suffering no pain as he became unconscious almost immediately he was shot. When I finished dressing the wound and saw that he was peacefully settled down in the bottom of the trench, I ran for a Medical Officer. The nearest Aid port was close by & I got some men to look after the Capt, while I was away, & went as fast as possible to the nearest Head Qrs, when I got there, I am sorry to say that the Doctor was engaged in another part of the line, so I sent word along to have him sent to “Twin Trench” immediately. I then returned to Captain Armstrong, collected his personal effects & again went in search of a Doctor, but owing to the enormous amount of work which Medical Officers have to perform when in the trenches, I regret to say that Medical Aid was unable to be had & even if I had been successful in obtaining a Doctor, I can honestly say, that under such circumstances I do not think for a moment that it would have been possible to have done any more than was done for him.
It was during my absence the second time that the Capt passed away & I saw him again shortly after Death & he was in the very same position as I left him, with the same peaceful smile still on his features. From the moment he was shot until the time he expired, he never regained consciousness for one second and never spoke a word. I may add that it was impossible to remove him from where he got shot as the trench was 6 ft deep & in most places hardly broad enough to allow our men to pass without difficulty. You were also anxious as regards his health, & to the best of my knowledge and according to what he told me, he was in the best of health and spirits, and his leg which had some time previously caused him annoyance had been quite well for some days. I may mention that it was my privilege to be at the funeral, which took place very quietly on the outskirts of “Arras”. Present at the funeral were also the Majority of Staff Officers of the Division. He was one of the most courageous & considerate of Officers it has been my lot to follow & he was also a General favourite with all who he came in contact. He will always be remembered by me & every other soldier who knew him, as one who died as a “Soldier and a Sportsman”.
Yours with deepest Sympathy
Pte Jo Hurley th Infantry Brigade
- Emma Leech, cook for the Wills family ⇑