Christianity and the First World War are themes which intertwine on a regular basis. This is the theme of my current book, Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War.
Here is yet one more example of those connections.
Today we meandered our way through the wonderful county of Norfolk, stopping off at one of my very favourite churches en route, Tilney All Saints. From the free book exchange as you enter to the rood screen installed in the reign of James I; from the Norman arches and columns dating back to the 1180s to the simple and welcoming prayer station, this church has many worthwhile features.
However the most interesting part for me is the war window dedicated to another young man killed in the First World War.
The inscription reads:
IN LOVING MEMORY OF GERALD WATSON FAILES D.S.O., M.C. CAPT. 9th NORFOLK REGIMENT. BORN FEB 22nd 1894. KILLED IN ACTION IN FRANCE APRIL 15th 1918.
To the left is St George of England with a shield bearing his cross and to the right St Michael of France holding a sword above his head in an unusual fashion. In the bottom middle panel Britannia is depicted frames by a laurel wreath and the inscription `THE NORFOLK REGIMENT’ and `IX’ indicating the 9th Battalion.
Gerald was the son of Watson Failes, a farmer and landowner of Tilney Hall, who served as churchwarden, and Mary Saddleton Marsters. He attended the Paston Grammar School in North Walsham and then in 1909 went as a boarder to Wellingborough Grammar School in Northamptonshire where he played cricket and football and joined the Officers’ Training Corps, excelling in rifle shooting. Following a brief career as a Land Valuer in Leicestershire, he enlisted as a trooper in the Hussars in February 1915. He was then commissioned as a Second Lieutenant int he 9th Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment.
He embarked for France on 4th October 1915, being a brigade and battalion bombing officer. He was promoted to temporary lieutenant on 27th September 1916. Gerald was wounded in action in October 1916 and convalesced in England. Returning to France in 1917, he was promoted to Captain. In November 1917 he took part in the Battle of Cambrai, the first significant tank battle in history.
In action in Flanders, as part of the ongoing Battle of the the Lys, or the 4th Battle of Ypres which took place from 7th to 29th April 1918, on the 15th of the month, the Germans made a strong advance on the town of Ballieul, and Gerald was one of 254 men reported missing. His body was never found, and he is commemorated at the immense Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium. He was 24 years of age.
He was awarded a posthumous DSO for his actions on 15th April, the award being cited in the London Gazette on 18th September 1918:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He showed good initiative in promptly moving all his Lewis guns to meet the direction of an enemy attack, breaking their attack up. He also led a bombing squad successfully, rallied and reorganised stragglers, and by his fine example greatly conduced to the splendid resistance made by his men.
An obituary in The Wellingburian of October 1916 described him as a, `born leader of men, a strict disciplinarian, but of such a kindly nature that he was beloved by his men and by his death the Army has lost one its most promising young officers.’
A press cutting, probably from the Eastern Daily Press reported:
Capt G.W. Failes MC
Mr and Mrs Watson Failes, of Tilney St Lawrence have been officially informed that their son, Capt. Gerald Watson Failes MC of the Norfolk Regiment, has been killed in France during the recent offensive.
He commenced his education at King Edward VII Grammar School, Lynn, and from there proceeded to Wellingborough Grammar School. There he entered keenly into all kinds of sport, and during his last year there he won the school cup of shooting. He also shot at Bisley on several occasions. On leaving school, he took a post in the valuation office in Leicester. He was one of the first to andwer his country’s call, joining the Hussars as a trooper. His training in the O.T.C., of which he was a member whilst at school, stood him in good stead, and he had little difficulty in obtaining a commission in the Norfolks early in 1915. Having been gaetted as a lieutenant, he proceeded to France.
At the battle of Ypres, in the autumn of 1916, he was wounded and sent to England for three months to recuperate, and on returning to the front in due course was promoted to the rank of temporary captain, and subsequently was given command of a company. At the battle of Cambrai he greatly distinguished himself, and for the gallant and dashing way in which he led his men he was awarded the Military Cross. In the rpesent battle, although not officially announced, not mentioned in his letters – which were very brief – it is generally known that his company very greatly distinguished themselves with him as their leader, and he met his death fearlessly carry out his duty with characteristc disregard of his own safety.
Mr and Mrs Failes have another son in the army. He is now serving in Italy with the Shropshire Light Infantry.
Captain Gerald Watson Failes 1894-1918
Yet another young man of talent and promise who never got to live the full span of life, and from whose talents the world did not benefit.
The majority of this information comes from a booklet I purchased in the church, WW1 and a Boy from Tilney: Gerald Watson Failes by June Mitchell MBE, published by Tilney All Saints Local History Group (www.tilneyallsaintsonline.org.uk)