First World War – Bill Furse and James Rance
During a trip to Northern France in June 2014, I visited the graves of some men whose stories we are featuring in an exhibition about Birmingham and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment during the first world war. The family photograph and letters reproduced here are part of the collection of Dave Vaux.
Bill and Alan Furse
Bill Furse and his brother Alan lived in Moseley, Birmingham. When war broke out Lord Kitchener put out an appeal for volunteers, and many white-collar workers joined the so–called ‘Pals’ battalions. Bill and Alan both joined the 1st Birmingham battalion (also known as the 14th battalion) in September 1914. In this photograph Bill is seated to the left hand side, and Alan is standing.
The Furse brothers were middle-class and their background and education would have qualified them for advancement. Both were commissioned to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. Alan’s letters home give a vivid picture of life in the British Expeditionary Force. He describes the conditions in the trenches: ‘Whilst on your tour of duty round in the front line you are floundering knee deep in mud and both sides are slimy with mud so that you have nothing clean to steady yourself by and when you get back to your dugout to rest you have the slimy walls and at least a foot of mud on the floor. You soon learn not to drop things as of course they are useless afterwards and the great trouble is to find somewhere to put something down’.
Alan also writes to his teenage brother Claude, who was an Army Cadet. These letters present the war as a great adventure: ‘It is a grand sight to see the anti aircraft guns firing at an aeroplane, little puffs like bunches of cotton wool suddenly appearing all round the plane until he gets out of range…Whilst we were walking back to the wood today a couple of shells fell about 100 yds away and kicked up a devil of a row…They are called Whizzbangs because they are of such high velocity and you get no warning of their arrival, just the whiz thro’ the air and then the explosion…’.
Tragically, Alan’s brother Bill was killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. He was 25. Alan was not far away, but he did not hear the news of Bill’s death until several days later when his parents informed him by telegram. Alan’s response to his parents is a prime example of ‘stiff upper lip’, but his grief can be read between the lines: ‘Thus goes the finest pal I have ever had and one of the best and most straightforward men who ever lived. Of course the shock has been bad for me but what you must feel at home having to sit still I can’t imagine but you must not give way more than you can help. Try and bear up. God grant you all His help at this awful time and give you strength to bear the loss of such a splendid man’.
I visited Bill’s grave in June 2014. By the time he died Bill had been transferred to the Tyneside Scottish Brigade, formed of ‘Pals’ battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers. Bill was temporarily buried where he fell, but was transferred to Bapaume Post Cemetery near Albert after the Armistice.
Alan Furse was discharged on medical grounds later in 1916 and survived the war.
James Edward Weeks Rance
Many men who served in the first world war also went on to fight in the second world war. One example is James Edward Weeks Rance of the 2nd battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery during the first world war.
In May 1940 Major Rance, now aged 42, was part of the British Expeditionary Force once again. During the retreat to Dunkirk, he was among those fighting to defend the town of Wormhoudt. During the retreat to Dunkirk, he was among those fighting to defend the town of Wormhoudt, where he was killed. Following this battle, 80 Royal Warwicks were taken prisoner by the Waffen-SS division, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. They were locked into a barn and murdered.
Rance is now buried at Wormhoudt Communal Cemetery. A small number of Commonwealth war dead from both world wars lie among civilian graves. It was quite moving to see war graves scattered among the tombs of the local townspeople.
Our exhibition ‘Soldiers’ Stories: Birmingham and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment 1914 to 1918’ opens on 19 July 2014.
Read the first part of this blog: First World War – Private Fred Andrews
Photographs 1-3 courtesy of Dave Vaux.