Thursday 4 June 2015

Charles Luff Mason 4th June 1915

Charles Luff Mason
January 1899- 4th June 1915

The Helles Memorial
Charles Luff Mason is a third cousin on the Coombes side of my family who came originally from the Midhurst area of West Sussex. Charles’s great-great grandfather Richard Coombes was my 4x great grandfather.

Charles was born at the beginning of 1899 in Hartley Wintney in Hampshire. His parents, William Mason and Sophia Luff married on 2 June 1884 at Linchmere in Sussex. Their first child, a daughter Maud, was born in 1885 in Linchmere. Two years later the family were living in Beech Hill in Berkshire when Elsie arrived. Charles was the final addition to the family, by which time they were living in Hartley Wintney just over the border in Hampshire. They lived there for many years with William, Charles’s father, being listed as a beer house keeper and sawyer on the 1891 census, a licensed victualler in 1901 and an estate woodworker in 1911.

Charles was at home in 1901 aged 12 but sometime in the next ten years he joined the army and the 1911 census lists him, aged 22, as a private in the 2nd Battalion Hampshire Regiment stationed in South Africa. The battalion had been stationed in Bermuda from 1905-1907 before being posted to South Africa in 1908. At the end of 1911 they went to Mauritius and in 1914 when war broke out, were in India. Charles certainly saw the world.

The Hampshires were in Colaba (now part of Mumbai) until 16th November 1914 when they sailed for England. They arrived in December at Plymouth and mustered with other troops in Warwickshire to form the 29th Division. In March 1915, the soldiers were reviewed by the king before setting sail from Avonmouth on 29th March for Turkey to take part in the now infamous Gallipoli Campaign. The background to the decision to fight here, very briefly, was to gain access to Constantinople because the German Empire and Austria-Hungary had cut off trade routes between Britain and Russia. At the beginning of 1915 the French navy tried to take the area but were defeated so it was decided to mount a land campaign.

On 25th April, the 29th Division landed at Cape Helles on the Gallipoli peninsula in an old collier called The River Clyde. The boat was run aground on the beach and the soldiers used doors cut in the side of the hull to disembark quickly.

SS River Clyde at Gallipoli
The landing was mismanaged and many soldiers died before they had reached land, some by drowning but many were picked off individually by machine fire. Only 21 out of 200 of the first wave of soldiers actually reached land.

Once onto the Gallipoli peninsula several battles were fought near the village of Krithia. Four times British and French troops attempted to take the village but each time they were beaten back by Turkish soldiers. The third battle took place on 4th June by which time the allied troops were entrenched to the south of the village. The objective this time was to firstly take the Turkish trenches then to advance 500 yards and establish a new trench line. One noted event in this battle was the deployment of eight armoured cars operated by the Royal Naval Air Service.

Gun Battery at Cape Helles 1915

The terrain in which they were fighting was an area of sand dunes with channels between high ground scattered with scrubby fir trees and undergrowth. From the air it resembles a hand with fingers as ridges and the gaps between them as gullies. The valleys have been described as intimidating as the troops felt very vulnerable as they could see little apart from the way ahead. It was also described as being eerily quiet as the high banks cut off all sound. The climate was difficult; very hot of course in summer but in winter prone to gales, floods and blizzards. The land was covered with trees, and roots, sharp leaves, grasses and the sand underfoot made progress difficult. Sickness was a huge problem with an estimated 14500 British soldiers contracting typhoid, dysentery and diarrhoea during the campaign.

The 29th Division, including the Hampshire Regiment and Charles Mason, set out to attack along Fir Tree Gully while other divisions were detailed to other parts of the outskirts of the village. Overlooking Fir Tree Gully were Gully Spur and Fir Tree Spur. They faced unexpectedly fierce opposition from the Turkish forces and took heavy casualties. In the centre were the Manchester Brigade who were successful in taking several Turkish trenches and gaining the hill named Achi Baba.

This extract is from the war diary of General Sir Ian Hamilton, commander of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force which consisted of troops from Australia, New Zealand, Britain, France, India, Ireland, Egypt and Malta.

Chapters could be written about this furious battle fought in a whirlwind of dust and smoke; some day I hope somebody may write them.
After the first short spell of shelling our men fixed bayonets and lifted them high above the parapet. The Turks thinking we were going to make the assault, rushed troops into their trenches, until then lightly held. No sooner were our targets fully manned than we shelled them in earnest and went on at it until--on the stroke of mid-day--out dashed our fellows into the open. For the best part of an hour it seemed that we had won a decisive victory.

However on each side of the British troops, other allied forces were attempting to make progress but failing. The 14th Battalion of the Ferozepore Sikh Regiment lost 380 out of 514 men. The 2nd Naval Brigade were forced back. At the end of the day the allies had only advanced 200 yards and the Manchester Brigade were forced to join in the retreat. Somewhere in all this chaos fell Charles Luff Mason, a world away from his home in Hampshire and aged just 26.

Further battles ensued until the final evacuation of the area at the end of 1916 by which time it is estimated that 21300 British troops had died.

Back home what became of Charles’s parents is a mystery. They seem to have vanished from the records and I cannot find them anywhere after 1911 and they were not mentioned on his citation. Charles’s sister Maud married a soldier in 1910 and was miles from home in Northumberland when she died in 1917 leaving a five year old daughter. Only the younger sister Elsie survived the war, married a hairdresser and lived in Hampshire for the rest of her life with her husband and daughter.

As a postscript I read quite a bit of Sir Ian Hamilton’s diary. In the preface he wrote
“Only constant observation of civilian Judges and soldier witnesses could have shown me how fallible is the unaided military memory or have led me by three steps to a War Diary:--
(1) There is nothing certain about war except that one side won't win.
(2) The winner is asked no questions--the loser has to answer for everything.
(3) Soldiers think of nothing so little as failure and yet, to the extent of fixing intentions, orders, facts, dates firmly in their own minds, they ought to be prepared.
Conclusion:--In war, keep your own counsel, preferably in a note-book.”

What a very wise and forward looking man. Current historians can be very grateful that he did.

In Memory of
79800, 2nd Bn., Hampshire Regiment
who died
on 04 June 1915
Remembered with honour

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Gully Ravine; The most informative and fascinating website about the Gallipoli Campaigns and the geography of the area. Put together by Andy Crookes a member of the International Guild of Battlefield Guides, it is well worth a visit.

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