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Private Richard John Gapper

Richard Gapper was born to Richard and Mary Gapper of the Landslip Cottage, Rousdon, Devon in 1898. He was one of 5 sons and 1 daughter born to Richard and Mary.  The sons all worked on the Rousdon Estate and the daughter was in service in the mansion.


Richard, who was known as ‘Jack’, enlisted in the Territorial Reserve Battalion at Axminster the day after his 18th birthday in 1916. He was responding to the call up for men to join the army to replace many of the regular soldiers who had died in the first two years of war. It appears that his four brothers had also ‘joined up’ but we do not know when.


In 1917 he was sent to a large Army camp at Sutton Veny which was a training camp for troops about to depart to the Front. He spent 6 months at Sutton Veny and was then detailed to join the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. [DCLI] He joined the 6th Battalion of the DCLI.  His army number was 29328 and he joined D Company.


In mid-1917 he was posted with the 6th Battalion to the area of Passchendaele. Sir Douglas Haig had decided to continue with the fight at Passchendaele and this became known as ‘Second Passchendaele’. Both the 1st and 6th Battalions were moved to the area to take part in the fight, but the 6th Battalion were detailed off to carry out the ‘humble’ duties of ‘carrying’. The duties were to bring up supplies to the front line and this was hard and laborious work.  It is impossible to state how many battles were won, or lost, by the successful efforts of the carrying parties; it was essential to keep up the  supply of ammunition to the machine guns, the trench mortars and the rifles of the soldiers in the front line.


From the 12th  to the 15th October 1917, the 6th Battalion remained in the vicinity of Bedford House and continued to supply the 10th Durham Light Infantry in the front line.  On the 15th the Battalion paraded at 1.30 pm and moved off towards Sanctuary Wood to relieve the Durhams in the front line.


D company was detailed off to collect rations and ammunition and bring them forward to the front-line soldiers. The Battalion were in dug outs and shelters that night, but the Germans shelled the wood all night and into the morning with both high explosive and gas shells. This continued until 6am on the 16th October.  At 5.30 am while the shelling was still going on, D Company were gathered together to collect materials to repair Jerk Trench by the 11th Kings Pioneers. This involved returning to the rear and carrying the materials over open ground in the rear and then into the trench system.


It was while doing this that Private Richard Gapper was killed by a single German artillery shell. Three others were killed with him and around 7 were wounded. It is assumed by the number of deaths in this incident, that they were still in ‘open ground’ well to the rear of the front line.

Private Gapper was buried in Hooge Crater Cemetery in row XV grave G 11.

His 4 brothers survived the war, but Charles was wounded in the head and lived the rest of his life with a large metal plate fitted to his skull. William Gapper lost a leg and on return to Devon where he became a cobbler.


So the story ends but I believe I know more about this sad story. My grandfather was born in Durham and on the outbreak of war went to the recruiting office with his friends to ‘join up’.

They all took the Kings Shilling and signed on the dotted line. They all requested to stay together and join the Durham Light Infantry [DLI]. They were told to report the next day to the station where they would be sent to the local training barracks to be fitted out with uniform and trained as soldiers. At the station they showed their paperwork and my grandfather found himself separated from his friends. On enquiring why this was the case the helpful soldier pointed out that they were all joining the DLI and he was down for the DCLI [Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry]. A simple letter ‘C’ made all the difference!


His train journey lasted 24 hours and he found himself in Bodmin in Cornwall to start his training. He was initially posted to the 8th Battalion but was transferred to the 6th Battalion while in France. He quickly got promoted and in 1917 was the Company Sergeant Major of D Company the 6th Battalion. He was in charge of supplying the men at the front. During this time, he won the Military Medal ‘for brave conduct ‘and I know from talking with him many years ago that it was for resupplying the front line soldiers with ammunition in Sanctuary Wood. Apparently the front-line soldiers were running out of ammunition and he returned to the rear and brought up ammunition while under fire. It was also not just for getting the ammunition but for crawling from shell scrape to shell scrape  [the trench system had been completely destroyed at this stage] distributing the essential bullets that were needed to keep the Germans at bay. It is believed that because of his action, Sanctuary wood held out.

In 1966 I heard that I had passed my Common Entrance Exam and was going to Rousdon to attend Allhallows School. My grandfather was delighted and told me he had been to Rousdon.  At the end of WW1 he returned to Durham but had to visit the landslip Cottage to have tea with the family that lived there.  He had taken a train from Durham and reached Axminster where he caught a taxi to Rousdon [Very expensive at that time] and had made his way to the cottage where he was provided with a wonderful cream tea. He then got back to Axminster and caught a train back to Durham.


At the time I thought no more about this story other than when I was at Allhallows I would see if I could find this cottage which he had visited so many years ago.


In about 2010 I visited Rousdon and went to see the old Rousdon church. I have always been interested in the 1st World War and while looking at the Peek’s vault, I noticed a memorial to the ‘Honoured Memory of the Men of the Rousdon Estate who fell in the Great War 1914 -1918’ I took a photograph of the memorial and decided to research the men and what had happened to them.


I was then amazed to find that Private Richard Gapper had been in the DCLI and the same battalion and the same company as my grandfather. It was only then that I put two and two together about the story of his cream tea at the Landslip Cottage.  My further research showed them to be in the same place at the same time in that terrible battle in Sanctuary Wood.

It then became obvious to me that my Grandfather, as Company Sergeant Major, was probably leading that supply group the day that Private Richard Gapper was killed.  Had he witnessed that terrible scene when those 4 men had been killed?


Did he run back to help the wounded and found Gapper fatally wounded?  Was his last request that    my Grandfather should tell his Mother and Father that he loved then very much and then he died?     I think that is exactly what happened. My grandfather then went to a lot of time and trouble in 1919 or 1920 to visit the Gappers at the Landslip Cottage and fulfil their son’s last wishes. After all, 2 days travelling just to have a cream tea on the landslip seems a bit extreme.


This is a story where I have had to make some assumptions from a lot of different stories, but I am sure that it is correct. I feel it is correct. I will leave you to see if you agree with me.


Richard Anderson OH