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Reverend Desmond Ottley
Church of England Padre
  4th Brigade Royal Field Artillery


      Desmond Luis Edward Bickersteth Ottley was born in or about 1885 in Horsham, the fourth child of Henry Bickersteth Ottley a Clerk in Holy Orders, and his wife Marion. (See the Ottley Family Tree.) Desmond’s father had been vicar of St. Margaret’s, Ilkley, Yorkshire, and a Hon. Canon of Canterbury Cathedral. Desmond was educated at Christ Church, Oxford and like his father, took Holy Orders, being ordained at Exeter Cathedral on Sunday 22nd December 1907. He arrived in Winkleigh in 1913 as curate to the new Vicar, the Rev. T. Ackland Edmonds, who took over the Parish when the greatly respected Rev. Henry Bremridge died. The Rev. Henry Bremridge was a hard act to follow, but Mrs. Alicia Bremridge remained helpful, active and greatly loved in Winkleigh throughout the war, dying aged 74 in June 1919. Alicia Bremridge was the wife of Philip Bremridge, one of Henry’s uncles. Meanwhile, Desmond worked hard in the parish as was reported in the local press, encouraging the formation of a boy-scouts troop or taking over from the vicar when Rev.Edmonds was unwell. In 1919 Rev. Ackland Edmunds retired, and Rev. Nesbitt arrived in Winkleigh. He had come from Ilfracombe where he had worked for 16 years.

      Both the vicar, Rev.T.A. Edmonds and his curate considered joining the army as Church of England Chaplains. Mistakenly, The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette actually reported on 7th October 1915 the definite news that Rev. Edmonds was going to France. However, prevented by ill health, it was not to be. Desmond, however, did not remain very long in the Parish, joining the army as a Padre in August 1916.

      The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of 11th August 1916 reported his farewell sermon in Winkleigh church on Sunday August 6th.

The Rev. R.B. Ottley’s departure, to take up an Army Chaplaincy, is a great loss to Winkleigh. He has been curate here for two years and nine months, and during that time has endeared himself to the parishioners as a whole. His quiet, sympathetic nature has won a way for him into many hearts, and it is true to say that he is a friend to all and an enemy to none. On Sunday evening, after service, in the presence of a large number of people, a presentation was made to him of a roll-top desk as a parting gift of the parishioners. The Vicar, in making the presentation, spoke of the friendship between him and Mr. Ottley for the last ten years and said his work in Winkleigh would leave a lasting influence. Mr. Ashplant also spoke of the lasting esteem in which Mr. Ottley was held. In his reply, Mr. Ottley thanked the people most warmly for their gift, and said his stay in Winkleigh had proved to be the happiest of all his curacies.

      The event was recorded in the Chumleigh Deanery Magazine, as Winkleigh at that time did not have its own Parish Magazine:

December 1916: ‘Mr.Ottley, the curate, has volunteered. He writes cheerfully of his new life in camp with a brigade of artillery. His new address is Rev.D.B.Ottley, CF, 4th Reserve Brigade, R.F.A., Officers’ Mess, Boyton, Wilts. I feel sure he would be delighted to hear from any of his friends in Winkleigh.’

      Thanks to this address we can trace the outline of Desmond Ottley’s war service. The 4th/B Reserve Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery was certainly in camp at Boyton, and contained numbers 22, 23 and 24 training batteries. Both his medal cards record that Desmond Ottley first went over to France in September 1917, and the Chumleigh Deanery Magazine gives us further clues as to his whereabouts.

October 1917: ‘The Rev. D.B.Ottley has gone to France and is attached to the Royal Garrison Artillery. Without mentioning exactly where he is, we can say that he is right up at the Front, at a place whose name has been made historic by thrilling deeds of the war. He has the best wishes of everyone in Winkleigh for good success and a safe return. The Vicar has asked him to write an account of his experiences for the magazine, so in the near future we may be able to print a letter from him.’

      Desmond Ottley was posted from the 4B Reserve Brigade to the 4th Brigade, which was indeed a brigade of Royal Garrison Artillery, at that time serving as ‘Army Troops’. This means that the Brigade was one of those coming under the direct orders of the Headquarters Army Commander, rather than attached to any particular Division, thus ensuring that the various Brigades could be used as a reserve to be attached wherever and whenever they were needed. The combined artillery of an Army command provided an immense reserve of fire power: besides having between 1 to 3 brigades of the Royal Garrison Artillery, Army Artillery also consisted of 2-4 Mobile Brigades of Heavy and Medium Artillery, 1-6 Mixed Brigades of Heavy and Medium Artillery, 3-5 Brigades of 8-inch Howitzers, 2-6 Brigades of 9.2-inch Howitzers, 4-10 Batteries of 6-inch guns and 6-11 Batteries of heavier guns. The Siege Batteries RGA were equipped with heavy howitzers, sending large calibre high explosive shells in high trajectory, plunging fire. The usual armaments were 6 inch, 8 inch and 9.2 inch howitzers, although some had huge railway- or road-mounted 12 inch howitzers. As British artillery tactics developed, the Siege Batteries were most often employed in destroying or neutralising the enemy artillery, as well as putting destructive fire down on strongpoints, dumps, store, roads and railways behind enemy lines.

      These heavy howitzers were difficult to move so that Brigades of the Royal Garrison Artillery were based well behind the front line, in relatively safe areas but subject of course to targeted fire from similar enemy guns and aerial attack. On October 5th 1917 Desmond Ottley responded to the vicar’s request to write a letter for the Ashreigney Deanery Magazine, which shows life in a relatively static area of the war.

‘Somewhere in Flanders October 5th 1917 My Dear Friends The Vicar has asked me to write a few lines which it gives me great happiness to do, for home and friends and old associations never seem so dear as when one is far away in the turmoil of war. I am with the Artillery and will try and give you a rough idea of the sort of work one has out here. I have a number of Batteries to look after, which may vary from a dozen upwards, according to circumstances. The actual guns are in forward positions and the ‘rest billets’ some little way behind them, the men working in shifts. Services are usually arranged in rest billets when the men are off duty, and, of course, one visits them in their gun positions as well. The services out here are in strange contrast to those you are accustomed to. They have to be held in the open air usually, for there is no building to have them in, nothing but dug-outs or tiny huts, for you must bear in mind that the actual battle-area does not only consist of the front trenches, but extends several miles behind the lines, in fact as far as the Hun shells can reach. And in this area a perpetual artillery duel is going on day and night, so all buildings are in ruins and everyone lives in a dug-out. So the services have to be of a very ‘rough and ready’ sort. Thirty or forty men as a rule make up a ‘congregation’ of a Battery, and they stand round in a semi-circle, and the old familiar hymns are sung unaccompanied, except by the constant boom of the guns. After the general service one has a Celebration of the Holy Communion if possible. I had one the other day, when the Alter was a tin box lying in a field, and the men knelt in an old shell hole. Yet these services have a wonderful reality and earnestness that is very beautiful, and those who live day and night in the shadow of death feel their need of God in a way they cannot or do not when at home. I know that many of you are remembering me and my comrades in your prayers, and, believe me, we value them enormously and they lift us through as nothing else can. With affectionate remembrance to all my old friends in Winkleigh. Desmond D. Ottley’

      ‘Somewhere in Flanders’ was in fact, for Desmond Ottley, the area east of Arras, facing the first outposts of the Hindenburg line in front of the villages of Ecoust and Bullecourt. He was serving as part of the army troops of Plumer’s Second Army, in the 4th Brigade (Heavy) of the Royal Garrison Artillery. When he wrote the letter on October 5th 1917 the Brigade (the equivalent of a battalion) consisted of both 12” and 6” howitzers as well as 60 pounders heavy guns. In order to hit their targets accurately, the spotting and correcting was usually conducted by aeroplane observation. The targets were primarily counter-battery work, wire cutting and trench shooting, enlivened from time to time by attempting to shoot down the enemy spotting balloons.

      Taking the two villages of Ecoust and Bullecourt was considered to be of the utmost importance if the Hindenburg Line (the last major defensive barrier in France) was to be crossed and the Germans driven back. The First battle of Bullecourt was part of the Arras spring offensive, when the village was attacked by the Australians with tremendous losses but not taken. The Second Battle of Bullecourt began on 3rd May resulting only in the capture of the outlying parts on 7th May. There was little hope of taking the village and Haig’s plan was now solely to pin down German reserves and prevent any exploitation of French weaknesses resulting from the mutiny in the French army. It is interesting to note that the 8th and 9th Devons were heavily involved in this action: Thomas Harris, 9th Devons, whose name is on our Memorial Cross, was seriously wounded in the action on 7th May and died at the Le Treport Base Hospital.

      November 1917 was a difficult and cold month for the gunners: there was constant mist and fog hanging over the battlefield and observation was difficult. Among the targets were the supply road from Queant to Buissy and the village of Hendecourt. December brought more variety of targets: Ecoust and Bullecourt of course, and villages and supply dumps further behind the German lines – Noreiul, Croiselles, Buissay, Queant and Cagnicourt. Shelling included drenching the area with gas on 12th December. January and February followed a similar pattern with the Brigade moving on February 25th to Pommiers (H.Q.) with the batteries concentrating at Ayette. On 26th February the Brigade moved into rest at Saulty. Although life well behind the front lines was relatively safe, German counter-battery work did account for a few casualties. In February for example the Brigade suffered 16 casualties, 5 killed and 11 wounded.

      The Brigade’s period of rest at Saulty was short lived. Following the defeat of Russia and the transfer of large numbers of German troops to the Western Front, the great German offensive, designed to finish the war before the Americans could arrive in large numbers, and codenamed ‘Michael’ opened on March 21st 1918. This was soon followed by ‘Geogette’ on April 9th. This second German offensive began on April 9th to the south of Ypres just to the east of Armentieres, aiming to drive the British back to the Channel ports. With his ‘Backs to the Wall’ order of the day, Haig ordered that every position must be held to the last man. The Battle of the Lys, as this campaign became known resulted in 109,000 German casualties, 76,000 British and 6,000 Portuguese.

      With some prior warning of what was to come the 4th Brigade was recalled to the line on March 5th 1918 at very short notice, and moved to the earlier concentration region at Ayette. It was now atrached to 3rd Army. Within the Brigade, 261 Seige Battery at Ayette, 301 at Beaumetz, 223 and 129 both at Ficheux, were all equipped with 6 guns each, pulled by heavy caterpillar tractors. In addition the 129 Heavy Seige Battery brought further support to the Brigade now totaling 30 heavy howitzers with an immense fire-power to be brought down on the advancing Germans - railways, roads, counter-batteries, ammunition dumps, and enemy tanks, spotted by aircraft. What little remained of Bullecourt and Ecoust again came in for heavy shelling, but by March 21st ammunition was already short and the rate of firing had dropped to a slow 20 rounds per hour. The retreat began: between 21st March and 1st April 1918 the Brigade suffered 1 officer killed, 7 ORs killed and 41 wounded, relatively high numbers for a R.G.A. Heavy Brigade. Headquarters moved from Adinfer to Ransart on March 26th, all ammunition now expended. April saw the continued desperate resistance as the German offensive finally slowed. The Brigade’s targets included Adinfer itself, Ayette, Hendecourt, Boiry, Ficheux with the Germans retaliating with very heavy bombardments of gas. During that month 1 more man was killed and 12 wounded, and in May 11 more were wounded. Shortage of shells and the immense wear and tear on the guns had resulted in only four guns in each battery continuing to fire on a daily basis.

      June brought a respite with a period of respite in the Pommera area, but the first ominous signs of the Spanish ‘flu were beginning to affect the Brigade. On 28th June the Brigade moved to join Plumer’s second army south of Ypres and were soon in action just south of the Vlamertinge-Ypres road. At the end of the month Headquarters moved to Mondicourt and on to Brandhoek (between Poperinghe and Vlanertinge). The area was continually gassed but the Brigade coped well: the June casualty tally showed 1 officer killed and 1 gassed, 1 OR killed, 11 wounded and 1 gassed. In July, Headquarters remained at Brandhoek with the batteries firing mainly at night (to avoid counter-battery spotting) 200 shells per gun - an enormous expenditure of ammunition. There were no casualties.

      August brought the start of the final advance to victory, and at the end of the month Headquarters moved forward a short distance to between Poperinghe and Abiele. Another move forward some 4000 yards was made on 18th September to Scottish Farm, near Duderom after the attack on Wytschaete and the Messines Ridge with the Brigade now affiliated to the 27th United States Division. The next great push forward was launched at 5.30 am zero on 4th Septemer and the Brigade was congratulated by Corps on its fine shooting. Advances were now rapid. On 28th September, though hampered by smashed roads and heavy rain the heavy guns were now advancing well into Belgium near Kortwilde. The following day Commines was taken and October 2nd the Brigade was positioned between Kruiseecke and Moelenhoek. Further advances took place on 14th and 15th October following each push ,forward by the infantry and the guns were now on the river Lys. No bridges could be found sufficient to carry the weight of the guns until 21st when the Lys was crossed at Bissenghem, with Headquarters at Kreupel, a mile south of Sweveghem. So near to the front line could the guns be positioned that their main danger was now from machine-gun fire, but with a new attack the Brigade moved forward again to the river Escaut, an advance of two miles with Headquarters at Knockke. The war diary on 30th October records the comment: ‘And so ends a very busy and successful month. All ranks have worked excellently and are very fit and determined.’

      The advances gradually continued in the last days of the war: on 3rd to Wafflestraat, where they were when the war ended on November 11th. From now on the Brigade, now transferred to II Corps, gradually moved forward towards Cologne as part of the British forces occupying the Ruhr, which was reached on 17th December, with a ceremonial march past the Corps Commander prior to crossing the Rhine. Their final destination was Lindenthal, in the region of Opladen, where demobilisation began, coalminers first.

     Hopes of a quick demobilisation faded fast, however, with much grumbling among those who had been among the first volunteers and who had served four years or so. The problem of what to do with the time was partly solved in all branches of the occupying armies by introducing education classes for non-literates right up to technical and language courses. Officers suddenly found themselves schoolmasters and padres were much in demand in their new role. No doubt Desmond Ottley took his part. Further committees were formed to promote sports and other amusements of all kinds, including forming their own concert party, ‘The Prongs’. On 19th January a threatened German railway workers’ strike and Socialist political rally brought a threat of civil strife and the Brigade resorted to the role of military police to control the crowds. The 3rd February brought further strife with the enforcement of a 9 hour working day in the Opladen railway works employing 5500 men in two shifts. A force of 200 men from the 4th and 6th Brigades, 200 men from the Auckland Battalion, New Zealand, and 20 Lewis guns were sufficient to quell the riots. It was a very difficult few months for all concerned; the war diary reported ‘Demobilisation has practically stopped’ and the troops wondered if they were ever going to get home. The welcome news finally arrived in mid-March with Headquarters moving first to England and by 31st December all troops proceeded home to Lydd for demobilisation. The final entry in the war-diary reads: ‘So ends the glorious history of the 4th Brigade, RGA, BEF.’

     Desmond Ottley had began to know Eva Glover at some time between his arrival in Winkleigh and his future wife’s departure to go overseas in October 1915 as a VAD posted to Alexandria. Eva was the daughter of Dr. Glover who had brought his family to live in Winkleigh after his predecessor, Dr. Harvey, had left to enlist in March 1915. Eva’s post-war record card gives her permanent address in July 1919 as Goodleigh House, Winkleigh, the same home that had been lived in by Dr. Harvey. Both the war histories of Dr. Harvey, killed in Mesopotamia, and of Eva Glover are recorded on this web-site. Desmond must have obtained leave during the ‘quiet’ times in late June and early July when the Brigade was stationed at Brandhoek before the final advance began because on 4th July 1918 at the Parish Church of Ilsham, Newton Abbot, Eva Glover and Rev. Desmond Ottley were married. The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette reported, Saturday 13th July:

Marriage Ottley-Glover: On 4th July at St.Matthias, Torquay, by Cannon H. Bickersteth Ottley, father of the Bridegroom, assisted by the Bridegroom’s brother, the Rev. Fielding Ottley, vicar of the Parish, and the Rev. T. A. Edmonds, Desmond Edward Bickersteth Ottley C.F., attached R.G.A. to Eva Leonara, daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Glover, of Winkleigh, North Devon.

     The two fathers acted as witnesses, together with Desmond’s brother Guy. We presume that Desmond then returned to the Brigade because on 1st July 1919 Eva’s discharge record still shows her living at Goodleigh House, which seems to indicate that at least until then her husband had not yet left the army. In fact, on 24th December 1919 the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette reported that Desmond Ottley’s next move was to a curacy at St.Mary’s, Newton Abbot, ‘for a few months’, presumably following his demobilisation. However, a decision to move to India had already been made. On Friday 27th August 1920 the ‘Western Times’ reported: ‘Rev. Desmond Bickersteth Ottley, a brother of the Vicar of St. Matthias, Ilsham, Torquay, having concluded his work at St. Mary’s, Newton Abbot, will shortly sail for India, where he will take up work in the mission field. He has been presented with a wallet of notes, from the congregation, the presentation being made by Mr. J. Brealey.’

     Desmond’s medal card reveals his address to which his medals were sent in 1922: St. John’s House, 2 Council House Street, Calcutta. A daughter was also born in 1920, Mary E. B. (presumably Bickersteth) Ottley. Serving on the staff at St. John’s Church, Desmond was also described as ‘a chaplain on the government staff’, as reported widely in the North Devon Journal, the Western Times and the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette.

     The end of the story comes as a considerable shock, then and now. Sadly, one morning in December 1924, Desmond walked into the bathroom of their vicarage house and shot himself. He was 39 years old. Whether or not this tragedy was linked to his experiences in the war we shall never know. The ‘Western Morning News’, however, reported on the 28th November that he was suffering from neurasthenia and was about to be transferred to Shillong. Today the condition is often referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder, often linked as well to those who continue to try to drive themselves too hard in their occupation. In Calcutta the local English language paper simply reported that everyone was shocked. Strangely, that newspaper apparently reported as well that his mother-in-law was due to arrive that day or the next, but of course no link can be suggested between the two events. It must have been devastating news for the people of Winkleigh who had formed such a high regard for their curate and who had indeed played his part in the Great War.

     The North Devon Journal reported the tragedy on Thursday 11th December 1924:

‘Many people in Devon have been shocked to hear of the tragic death of the tragic death of the Rev. Desmond Bickersteth Ottley, Vicar of St. John’s, Calcutta. He was discovered in the bathroom of his Vicarage with a revolver. His health, in the heat of Calcutta, had been giving cause for grave anxiety and he was about to be transferred to a hill station. Overwork and the tropical climate produced a mental breakdown.

Mr. Ottley’s early death will be mourned by three parishes in Devonshire, where his splendid work is still remembered. His first curacy was on the staff at St. Mary’s Church, Torquay, under the Rev. Thomas Little. When the Rev. T. Ackland Evans (now Vicar of Budleigh Salterton), became Vicar of Winkleigh he invited the deceased to join him in North Devon, and while there he married Eva, the daughter of Dr. Glover. During the war he served with the Heavy Artillery in Northern France, and after the Armistice was placed in charge of the beautiful church of St. Mary at Highweek, Newton Abbot. From thence he went to India as Chaplain on the Government staff and was shortly after made Vicar of the old Parish Church of St.John’s, Calcutta, where he won golden opinions from those in authority. He was the younger son of Canon Henry Bickersteth Ottley, of the Royal Chapel of St. Katherine’s Regents Park, London, and a brother of the Rev. Fielding Bickersteth Ottley, Diocesan Minister for the Diocese of Exeter.’

     

     

     

16 July 2011

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