A bit of an unusual blog post today and although it is illustrated with photographs it is not really about photography but about family history, specifically my great grandfather George Ellis Nelson. When I was a child I remember my dad telling me stories about how his grandfather had fought in the Great 1914-1918 War and also that all his medals could be seen in the Cheshire Regiment military museum. Indeed, I have a vague recollection of going to see said medals in a display draw some time in the late 1970s. In my head I imagined him in the trenches of the Somme, but I never really thought much more about it.
My son, whose middle name is George, in honour of my grandfather and great grandfather, is 9 years old and is at an age when all things to do with war fascinate him. I put this down to his love of Terry Deary’s Horrible History books and the simple fact that he is a boy. Whilst he is interested in the historical wars, i.e. World Wars 1 and 2 (especially tanks and aircraft) he gets somewhat anxious about the ‘real’ current war in Afghanistan and the conflict in Iraq. On a recent trip to the cinema they showed the trailer to Iraq war film ‘The Green Zone’, which resulted in my son hiding his eyes and telling me to let him know when it was over. It seems to me that the war in Afghanistan is too real, too current; added to this he attends a primary school that has quite a few children whose parents are currently serving overseas.
Recently my son went to the military museum in Chester with my his granddad to see the aforementioned medals (we have also recently been to the RAF museum at Cosford and the U-Boat Experience at the Woodside Ferry terminal in Birkenhead, so you can see the level of interest one small boy can have about war). They came back with all sorts of information about my great grandfather some of which came as a great surprise.
George Ellis Nelson enlisted in the Cheshire Regiment in 1903 and after completing his training joined the 2nd Battalion, then based in India. In 1913, he returned to the 1st Battalion in Ireland. After the start of the Great War he joined the 7th battalion and went with it to Palestine. This came as a surprise to me as I had previously assumed that he fought in France and Belgium. ‘Palestine’ on this occasion is shorthand for the modern countries of Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. It was a widespread theatre of war against the Turkish army war that was initially centred on the strategically important Suez Canal, linking the Red and the Mediterranean Seas. In 1917 an offensive was launched that took British troops, and my great grandfather, into the Holy Land and Syria. Palestine became the second largest theatre of war after the Western Front.
The 1ST Battle of Gaza took place on the 26th and 27th March 1917 and it was here that my great grandfather distinguished himself. The regimental war diary of the 7th battalion of the Cheshire regiment reads:
‘26th March 1917. 01.30. Battalion paraded for night march with brigade… Arrived at Wadi Ghuzzi at 05.30. There was a heavy mist hanging over the Wadi at this hour and remained for about 2 hours. The brigade was pushed on at about 08.30. Arrived at rendezvous at about 12.00 when the brigade (less the 7th Cheshires [my great grandfather’s battalion]) was sent forward to attack.7th Battalion Cheshire Regiment was detailed to Divisional Reserve. At about 15.30, orders were received to advance to attack an objective being pointed out to the commanding officer. The starting point was 4-500x from the enemy’s position which was on the right of Ali El Muntar. The battalion advanced in 4 lines of platoons, A company leading. When about 1400x from the enemy’s trenches all companies extended… Two companies advanced straight to the objective without a halt and the CO established his headquarters at the citadel in Ali El Muntar at 16.30. Dispatches were sent…’
Now this all sounds very commonplace and matter of fact but this short entry in the war diary marks the point at which my great grandfather won the D.S.O. (distinguished service order), a military honour one below the Victoria Cross. According to the Long, Long Trail website (www.1914-1918.net) the DSO is:
‘A high award for meritorious or distinguished service rather than an act of gallantry, although in many cases during 1914-1918 it is not easy to discriminate between these two reasons for granting an award; in fact in some cases it appears that a D.S.O. was awarded when perhaps a full recommendation for a VC could not be justified or corroborated… it was unusual for a DSO to be awarded to an officer with a rank below Major. The recipient was allowed to use the initials D.S.O. after their name.’
Digging a little deeper you can find the actual citation:
“At a critical moment when our advance was held up, he [Captain G.E. Nelson] collected sufficient men to move forward and straighten the line. By his fine example and disregard for danger under heavy fire he eventually led this line, which was composed of seven different units into the enemy’s position”
So, there you have it. My ancestor was a bona fide war hero, which makes me very proud. Captain Nelson left Palestine in 1918 and left the regiment to return to civilian duties and for a short period was on the recruiting staff at Chester. After the war, he was the landlord of a succession of pubs including The Baltic Fleet in Liverpool and The Cherry Orchard in Boughton, Chester. His obituary in the regimental history states that:
“in later years he had the misfortune to have to undergo operations resulting in the amputation of both legs, the last operation took place in 1957. In spite of this misfortune he remained happy and cheerful to the end.
And, that I am afraid is all I know about him. There are no pictures and hardly any personal effects as he left everything to his second wife who was estranged from the rest of the family and for many years has been painted as the villain of the piece; certainly it was her that sold my great grandfather’s medals to the military museum in Chester.
The one artefact that we do have from him and which is in the possession of my father is the subject of today’s picture. It is a military field compass dated 1915 that almost certainly went with him to Palestine. It is the only tangible object that my family has that belonged to Captain Nelson.
I know so little about him apart from what is written above, most of which is gleaned from some photocopies that the military museum kindly did for my father. I have no idea of what sort of a man he was – another family story suggests that his first wife, my great grandmother died in mysterious circumstances but this is probably more to do with the animosity towards the second wife – but I do know that he fought for his country and acquitted himself admirably. My son is thrilled about this and the compass is an object that he never gets tired of looking at. I do wonder what he would have made of his family as it is now; being a military man he probably would not appreciate my thoughts on the Iraq war. However, I do think that no matter what the reasons are for going to war we should always support the men and women who put their lives on the line for us on a daily basis.
The pictures of the young men being repatriated from Afghanistan and the corteges passing through Wooton Bassett serve as a reminder of the sacrifice that those in the armed forces are making and the danger they put themselves in. Almost 93 years ago to the day my great grandfather led his men to attack an enemy position in Gaza. This blog post is my way of saying thank you and that I, and his great great grandson, will never forget him.