Dunkirk and family members lost in WWII
The recent discovery of Lieutenant Piers Edgcumbe’s final resting place is a reminder of how many families were devastated by losses in past wars. The following is an article in The Times on 27th February:
Lost Dunkirk hero’s grave found at last by an amateur historian
The final resting place of a lost hero of Dunkirk has been found more than 80 years later after an amateur detective spent 17 years tracking his identity down. Lieutenant Piers Edgcumbe, the son of the 6th Earl of Mount Edgcumbe, had been missing since he and a colleague were killed during the Allied retreat in May 1940.
As 400,000 Allied soldiers pulled back to the beaches of Dunkirk, the aristocratic officer and Lance Corporal Leonard Webber formed part of a forward reconnaissance unit. Their role was to make contact with the advancing enemy and report their position back to headquarters. Both were killed when their armoured car was hit by a German 88mm shell in the village of Esquelbecq, ten miles from Dunkirk.
They were hastily buried in a roadside grave and 18 months later they were exhumed and reburied side by side in the village’s cemetery. While Webber was identified when he was exhumed and given a marked grave, the same could not be done for Edgcumbe. There was no way of identifying him at the time and his body was placed in the unmarked grave with his headstone listed simply as an “unknown officer”. While his family were made aware of his death they did not know what had happened to his body.
His grave has at last been found thanks to an amateur British military historian. Andrew Newson, 52, set himself the task of finding out whose grave it was after visiting the village’s Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) cemetery in 2003. Over the past 17 years he has pieced together hundreds of documents from French and British archives to provide the CWGC with overwhelming proof that it is Edgcumbe’s grave. The commission has confirmed this and that Edgcumbe will be given a named headstone as soon as the Covid-19 travel restrictions are relaxed, hopefully by this summer.
Newson, a former corporal in the Royal Signals, said: “Bringing someone in from the cold like this is really quite hard to do as the CWGC require an overwhelming burden of proof, especially with Dunkirk where there are 4,500 missing men from that six-week campaign. “I am very pleased and proud to say that I had played a part in this happening. I go to Dunkirk every year and the next time I go I will be able to tip my hat to him and lay a poppy cross on his grave and he will have a name.”
Edgcumbe, whose family seat was Mount Edgcumbe House on the Rame peninsula, near Plymouth, served in the 12th Royal Lancers with the British Expeditionary Force in France in 1940. He was 25 when he died. Webber, from Chelsfield, Kent, served in 2nd Battalion, Queen Victoria Rifles. He was 19.
Newson, who is from Leeds, thought that it was strange to find an officer and a soldier from two different regiments being killed on the same day — May 27, 1940 — and buried side by side so he decided to investigate. He discovered that the lance corporal should have been fighting with his unit in Calais at the time but had been seconded for the reconnaissance missions at Dunkirk and served under Edgcumbe. Documents held in the National Archives at Kew, west London, showed that Edgcumbe and Webber were listed as missing, believed killed, on the same day at a place just down the road from where they were buried. Edgcumbe was the only officer from the reconnaissance unit listed as missing on May 27.
With the help of a French historian, Newson obtained an exhumation report from a local mayor’s office dated November 26, 1942. It contained a description of the dead officer that matched that of Edgcumbe, including him having blond hair.
Newson said: “As the Allies were retreating so quickly bodies weren’t properly buried at the time. “After the British left and some normality returned to the area local people dug up the bodies and moved them to the cemetery because roadside graves were being turned into shrines.”
Had he lived, Edgcumbe would have become the 7th Earl of Mount Edgcumbe. Piers Conolly McCausland, his nephew, said the family were “very pleased that his memory and his valour and his service for his country can be celebrated more fittingly now”.
Pier’s eldest sister, Hilaria, married my father’s Uncle Denis Gibbs (who was captured at El Alamein and spent much of the war as a POW in Italy, before escaping and walking the length of the Apennines), and another sister, Peggy, married Den’s first cousin, Conolly McCausland (who was so moved by what his WWII experience that he converted to Catholicism, provoking an expensive inheritance legal battle – his son Marcus was the first British soldier murdered by the IRA). As a consequence to Pier’s death, following their father Kenelm Edgcumbe’s death in 1965, the earldom and estates passed to a remote New Zealand cousin.
After they were married in 1954 my parents went in their motorbike and sidecar to visit Uncle Den and Aunt Laire, who recalled that her brother Pier’s car was still in storage at Mount Edgcumbe. So Pier’s car became our first car, and was passed on to my Aunt Mary when we went to live in Zimbabwe!
There were many family members that played a role in World War II; searching the family tree I can identify 17 young men that died in action between 1939 and 1945, with Italy and Dunkirk being the most deadly theatres.
|Captain Evan Llewellyn Gibbs||Dunkirk, France||1940|
|Flying Officer Ronald Gordon Vicary Gibbs||Shot down in Battle of Britain||1942|
|Captain Vicary Paul Gibbs||Nijmegen, Netherlands||1944|
|Second Lieutenant Piers Richard Edgcumbe||Dunkirk, France||1940|
|Captain Michael Valentine Paul Fleming||Dunkirk, France||1940|
|Captain Michael David Charles Hanbury-Tracy||Dunkirk, France||1940|
|Major Richard Algernon Frederick Hanbury-Tracy, 6th Baron Sudeley||Norway lost at sea||1941|
|Lieutenant Antony Jerome Fortescue-Brickdale||Madagascar||1943|
|Major Michael Desmond Hamilton Wills||Tunisia||1943|
|Lieut. John Walter George Tyser||Albania||1943|
|Lieutenant Thomas Probyn Cokayne||Italy||1943|
|Thomas William Douglas||Italy||1943|
|Lieut. Colonel David Scrymgeour-Wedderburn||Italy||1944|
|Captain Peter George William Savile Foljambe||Italy||1944|
|Lieut. Timothy Burrell Hayley||Italy||1944|
|Major Walter Francis David Long, 2nd Viscount Long||Uden Netherlands||1944|
|Captain Cecil Francis Burney Rolt||Germany||1945|
A touching story about Captain Vicary Paul Gibbs, who died from his injuries during WWII in Nijmegen hospital; on the 50th anniversary someone visiting the war cemetery in the Netherlands met an elderly Dutch woman putting flowers on the grave following a promise she made to a troubled young soldier all those years ago. The full story is attached to Vicary’s record.
John Rickett, a grandson of Agnes Hilda Gibbs, a surgeon in Devon, wrote a book, “Island of Terrible Friends”, about his father’s amazing WWII experience as a doctor on the island of Vis, off Croatia, describing the exploits of ‘our gallant communist allies’. This story has recently been made into a film in Croatia, though Vis is probably now better now as the film setting for Mamma Mia.
The family home of Tyntesfield also play a significant part in WW2 as a war hospital for American soldiers. Under the driving force of Lady Ursula Wraxall, who had been a VAD nurse in France during WWI and was president of the Somerset Red Cross, the exquisite library became a central supply service for the hospitals in the west of England in 1940. The estate’s lake was drained so that it wouldn’t reflect the lights of the planes piloted by the German air force who used it to navigate on their way to Bristol to carry out bomb raids. In January 1941 female students from Bristol’s Clifton High School were given a wing of the house to board in. In the autumn of 1942, the War Office claimed 50 acres of Tyntesfield’s 540-acre estate for the development of an American army hospital. After the war the hospital and surrounding buildings were converted into accommodation for civilians who had been made homeless due to the bombing in Bristol and elsewhere. Over 100 families were relocated to “Tyntesfield Village” until it was abandoned in 1960 and the land returned to its former use.
You can read more of Tyntesfield’s wartime tales in a book on the topic, or see a brief silent movie of the US Army Hospital there.
Fascinating post Mike, many thanks. Interesting to read about the island of Vis, also its connection to film Mamma Mia.
Great research, I hadn’t realised how many family members had been killed in the war. Briggens, the home that Vicary had been brought up in was an SOE base during the war where they produced many forged documents for use in occupied Europe including a spoof I’d for Hitler and millions of fake Zlotys.
Through all this my grandparents, Lord and Lady Aldenham (Walter and Beatrix) lived in the house.