On Thursday 29th October 1914, 19 year-old, Grenadier Guards Officer, John Henry Gordon Lee-Steere wrote to his mother from St. Nazaire, France. He told her of two Dorking locals wounded during the early of months of the First World War. ‘Wonder if it will be my turn next?’, he added, before signing off with the postscript: ‘Leaving here tomorrow 30th for the front.’ Less than three weeks later John would be killed by a German sniper.
One hundred years later John Lee-Steere’s great-nephew, Gordon Lee-Steere, approached Dorking Museum with nine letters which John wrote between 13th October and his death on 17th November. The letters provide an insight into the first few months of the conflict as experienced by soldiers and by their families at home. John’s last letter, family photographs, and his Princess Mary Christmas tin, (one of which was sent to every serving soldier, and to the parents of those who had been killed, at Christmas 1914), feature in Dorking Museum’s ‘Dorking 1914′ exhibition.
John Henry Lee-Steere was born in 1895, the only child of the Lord of the Manor of Ockley, Henry ‘Harry’ Lee-Steere and his wife, Anna Gordon-Clark of Mickleham. The 1901 census shows five year-old John and his Swiss nurse, Julia Bandet, living at the family home of Jayes Park, a mansion off Lake Road in Ockley. By February 1914, John had finished his education at Eton and his military training at Sandhurst, and taken a commission in the Grenadier Guards.
The odds were stacked against John. The percentage of public schoolboy officers killed whilst serving in the First World War was over 18 per cent, more than twice the average for all those who served. Most were commissioned officers and therefore led their men into battle, plus their distinctive uniform – the better cut, cuff and rank markings, Sam Browne belt and revolver made them conspicuous. They were also, on average, five inches taller than their working-class contemporaries, so they were easier for the Germans to snipe. 1,157 old Etonians were killed in the war, a larger number than that comprising the whole school in 1914. Those who served are recorded in the school’s Bond of Sacrifice; John’s name, as those of the others who did not survive, is recorded in red ink.
When war broke out in August 1914 Harry Lee-Steere spoke at a recruitment meeting in Ockley, while his son prepared to embark with the British Expeditionary force as a Lieutenant with the 2nd Battalion Grenadier Guards. The Battalion gathered at Wellington Barracks before making its way to Southampton to board the SS Normania on October 13th. Whilst on the Normania John took the opportunity to write to his father: ‘Ivor Rose and others have had a tremendous fight to get their servants on board at Southampton’. (His fellow Etonian Lieutenant Ivor St Croix Rose, was a Boar War veteran who went on to be mentioned in despatches; he was awarded an OBE in 1919. Ivor’s six year-old nephew, Ian Fleming, was to become well known as an author.)
Photographs of the ship’s smoking room confirm John’s report that the SS Normania was a ‘very comfortable boat’, and John assured his father that he was enjoying home comforts: ‘Jack Hughes and I sharing a cabin meant for 4’. (Etonian Jack S Hughes later won the Military Cross. Wounded at Cambrai in 1917, he went on to become a Colonel in World War II.)
By the 15th of October John had arrived at St. Nazaire on the Brittany coast, after a 38 hour train journey from Le Harve in Normandy. Going to Belgium from the south of England via Brittany seemed to him, ‘like going from Ockley to Horsham via Guildford’. John and the men under his command were billeted in tents in a large camp at No. 2 Infantry Division Base Depot. There John was able to make contact with family members also serving, and numerous friends from Eton, Sandhurst and from the great houses to the south of Dorking. His cousin Charles Hylton Van Neck, son of his Aunt Grace, was there with the Northumberland Fusiliers. Captain Gordon Hargreaves Brown, son of the Liberal MP Sir Alexander Brown, of Broome Hall in Coldharbour was recuperating from wounds. John jokes, in his letter dated 17th October: ‘I saw Gordon Brown for a minute the other day. He’s nearly right and seems to have been woken up by being wounded – less sleepy than usual anyhow.’ (Brown was killed in action two weeks later at Ypres and is commemorated on the Menin Gate, as his body was never recovered from the battlefield. The daughter born after his death married into the Lee-Steere family and Gordon Lee-Steere is Gordon Hargreaves Brown’s grandson.)
John tells his mother of women such as Lady Rosabella Bingham who was going out to help the wounded and Lady Rachel Dudley who had founded a hospital in St Nazaire; ‘isn’t it splendid of them’ he comments. (Lady Bingham’s loss of her husband, David Cecil Bingham, in September 1914 had inspired her to join the Millicent Sutherland Ambulance (Hospital) as an Assistant Ward Maid. As the niece of the Duchess of Sutherland this was a far cry from her privileged ‘society’ life. Lady Dudley was the wife of the former Governor-General of Australia. She had suggested to King George V and Kitchener the founding of a hospital in St Nazaire to be staffed by Australian doctors and nurses, and the hospital opened on the 2nd September 1914.)
Life in the camp was relatively good. John had his servant with him, he could buy chocolate and have his clothes washed. Food was plentiful and officers were able to supplement rations by buying coffee, eggs, butter, jam, and wine locally or eating out in restaurants. He was also able to visit the Grand Hotel to write letters home. He writes to his mother on 20th October, ‘On our route marches we pass some kennels with what look like pure bred beagles and a few cross bred small otter-hounds’, recalling his hunting experience back home with the Surrey Union Hunt. He surmises that the St Nazaire area would make good partridge country for shooting. His mother was able to send over shirts, socks and mufflers made by her working party back at Jayes Park to be sent up the line to the Front.
Whilst in the camp the men undertook route marches twice a day and unloaded supplies at the docks. John was put in charge of guarding German prisoners. But he was anxious to get to the action, commenting that ‘it is very annoying to have to mark time here’ and ‘to stay longer than a week would be monotonous’. However the realities of war had begun to concern him, in particular the vulnerability of the officers. John vowed he would wear his sword at all times as ‘men re-joining from hospital also come here, so we’ve heard a certain amount of lurid stories … if one is captured without a sword one is treated by the Germans as a private soldier’.
The letter of October 23rd reports that John and his men have moved to a new location where he lives in a shipping office, sleeping on stretchers: ‘a real house with a roof over my head… absolute luxury after a tent.’ He can even purchase ‘The Times’ only two days late. By contrast his men sleep in a large storage shed infested with rats. ‘I expect we shall get bored in a few days,’ he writes, ‘so I hope we are soon for the front.’ By October 29th John’s relatively light-hearted mood has changed with the news that his cousin, 21 year-old, Charles Hylton Van Neck, serving with the Northumberland Fusiliers, has been killed on the 20th October: ‘I was shocked to see about poor Charlie in last night’s paper. I am sorry for Aunt Gracie ….only hope that Phil will keep all right.’ (Tragically, 27 year-old, Philip Van Neck had already been killed three days before John wrote this letter, six days after the loss of his brother, Charles.) John also reports news that Raymond Leopold Greig Heath, the son of Arthur Raymond Heath of Kitlands near Coldharbour, and Evelyn Broadwood of Lyne House near Capel, were both wounded. Unsurprisingly, John wonders if he too will be wounded but vows ‘to get there from feelings of revenge.’ (Broadwood would survive the war but Heath was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915 and a striking commemorative window at Coldharbour church, depicting men in military attire, celebrates his life.)
After two weeks at St Nazaire John’s company was finally sent to the front on 30th October. The men arrived near Ypres in Belgium after a 50-hour train journey and a long march. John was able to communicate his whereabouts to his well-travelled parents as ‘that town we made the long excursion to about a dozen years ago’. His letter of the 4th November is written from a reserve trench where he had experienced shelling for the first time and admits that it makes him feel ‘rather jumpy.’ Three days later the situation has improved little as the ‘stiff fighting’ of what was to become known as the First Battle of Ypres (19th October – 22nd November 1914), led to a lack of sleep and exhaustion. John asks his parents to send chocolates and socks in a small parcel as large ones cannot be transported to the trenches.
On the 12th November, the 2nd Battalion’s company commander was killed and replaced by Captain Cholmeley Symes-Thompson, aged 33, who John fondly refers to as ‘Simeo’. The regimental diary records that orders were received to move to Herenthage Wood on the Menin Road. The men were cold, wet and tired, with little food as there had not been time to collect supplies. The next day at 9pm they were moved back a mile before once again being sent to a reserve trench at a wood near Hooge. The 14th November found them pulled back in a reserve trench with the London Scottish, described in the regimental diary as a ‘sea of mud’. John writes that the troops in the area are outnumbered; there has been very little rest or relief from front line action for the best part of ten days. Despite their exhaustion, John is ordered to Klein Zillebeke’s front line trenches at 9pm.
On the morning of 17th November John writes his final letter to his father. The conditions were cold and wet with snow. A ‘terrific’ German shell bombardment was taking place. He reports: ‘my feet have not been dry for a week, washed my face once in the last fortnight, and not shaved since I left St Nazaire – quite a nice beard, I assure you.’ They are in an exposed trenches and cannot show a finger above ground until after dark but John puts a stoical face on the situation as the fighting is ‘quite passable provided the weather is good and the shells don’t come too close.’ There is a realisation for John that the war may be a long business and yet he remains cheery; his poignant last words, ‘No more now, as it is lunchtime and I must creep along the trench to Simeo and the food!’
Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Frederick Ponsonby’s book ‘The Grenadier Guards in the Great War of 1914-1918 Volume 1’ (Macmillian, 1920) offers an account of the events of the 17th November: ‘The shelling went on steadily all the morning, and about 1 p.m. the attack started … Captain Symes-Thompson was killed, and Lieutenant Lee-Steere, who took over the command, sent back word that they were running short of ammunition. They were but two platoons in reserve, and they numbered only thirty men, but Lieutenant-Colonel Smith sent them up under Captain Cavendish with some ammunition. By the time they arrived Lieutenant Lee-Steere – 2nd Battalion had been killed.’
John and Simeo were buried alongside one another in Zillebeke Churchyard Cemetery near Ypres. Initially grave markers showed where John was buried. Today this cemetery is known as the Aristocrats’ Cemetery because so many officers of aristocratic background, all killed in the early months of the war, are buried there. John’s gravestone was erected by his family. It is unusual as it does not conform to the standardised headstone of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, imposed to offer all ranks a degree of equality. The village hall in Ockley is also dedicated to John’s memory and there is a memorial stone at St Margaret’s Church.
John was the Lee-Steere’s only child. As a result of his death the Jayes estate was inherited by the descendents of one of his grandfather’s brothers. It was a common scenario after the war, where younger sons or cousins inherited property on the death of those who had served. The best known local case was the Ashcombe family at Denbies, where the fourth son inherited, his three older brothers having been killed in the war. In some cases there was no one left to inherit.