Researched and written by Phil Badham
Claude Penrose was born in De Soto County, Florida, USA, on 10 August 1893 to Irish parents from Kinsale, Ireland. His father Henry (‘Harry’) was a civil engineer and his mother Mary was a writer. In 1895 the family travelled to Ireland, landing at Queenstown on 5 April that year. Family sources state that in March 1897 the Penrose family moved from Ireland to Vine House, Frimley Green, Surrey, and in September 1900 to a house named Nadrid in Frimley Green (the family named the house themselves, because it was named after one in which Harry Penrose’s maternal grandfather, Henry Davies O’Callaghan, had lived at East Muskerry, County Cork, Ireland). The 1901 census shows the family still living in Frimley. Claude’s education befitted him for military life. He was admitted to the United Services College, Windsor, in 1905 and later boarded there before moving on to the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, London, in 1911. At school he wrote poetry and won a prize for painting. According to the 1911 census, his parents were then living at Deepcut Bungalow, Guildford Road, Frimley Green. Claude was gazetted to the Royal Garrison Artillery in 1913. In November 1914, he was sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force. He quickly rose through the ranks and apart from occasional home leave remained in France until he was killed in 1918. In March 1915 he was involved in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle and was subsequently mentioned in despatches. The following year, he fought in the Battle of the Somme and wrote his impression of the early hours of 1 July 1916, the opening day of the battle, in a poem called ‘On The Somme’ (see below). In September 1916, after the attack on Combles, he was awarded the Military Cross. In 1917, he was promoted to Acting Captain and then to Acting Major and given command of the 245th Siege Battery. Claude kept a pocket diary between 1 and 30 July 1918. In recognition of his actions during the British retreat of 21-24 March 1918, he was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross. Claude was due to have home leave on 3 August 1918, but on 31 July, his command post near St Omer was hit by an 8-inch shell. After freeing himself from the debris, Claude rescued his subaltern, but had been seriously injured himself. Four hours later he collapsed and was taken to the 2nd Canadian Casualty Clearing Station. On 1 August 1918, he died from his injuries.
After the war had ended, Claude’s mother organised the publication of a book of his poems and art work. Entitled Poems, with a biographical preface, it was published by Harrison & Sons in 1919. In the preface of the book, she stated:
‘When he passed out of the world, as a result of wounds from a German shell, he was attended by a Canadian doctor at a Canadian Casualty Clearing Station; when he entered it, he was attended by a Canadian doctor who had gone down to Florida for the sake of its wonderful climate, and cared for during the first days of his life by a German woman, who was the only nurse the Avon Park settlement afforded’.
Claude’s reflection on the beginning of the Somme campaign:
‘On The Somme’ by Claude Quayle Lewis Penrose MC
Who heard the thunder of the great guns firing?
Who watched the line where the great shells roared?
Who drove the foemen back, and followed his retiring
When we threw him out of Pommiers, to the glory of the Lord?
Englishmen and Scotsmen, in the grey fog of morning
Watched the dim, black clouds that reeked, and strove to break the gloom;
And Irishmen that stood with them, impatient for the warning,
When the thundering around them would cease and give them room
Room to move forward as the grey mist lifted,
Quietly and swiftly – the white steel bare;
Happy, swift and quiet, as the fog still drifted,
They moved along the tortured slope and met the foemen there.
Stalwart men and wonderful, brave beyond believing –
Little time to mourn for friends that dropped without a word!
(Wait until the work is done, and then give way to grieving) –
So they hummed the latest rag-time to the glory of the Lord.
All across the No Man’s Land, and through the ruined wiring,
Each officer that led them, with a walking-cane for sword,
Cared not a button though the foeman went on firing
While they dribbled over footballs to the glory of the Lord.
And when they brought their captives back, hungry and downhearted,
They called him “Fritz” and slapped their backs, and, all with one accord
They shared with them what food they’d left from when the long day started
And gave them smokes and bully to the glory of the Lord.
Claude may have inherited his skill with words from his mother, Mary Elizabeth Penrose (nee Lewis), a novelist. She was born in Kinsale, Ireland in 1860 and was educated at Rochelle School, Cork, and Trinity College, Dublin, where she read German and English literature. She contributed fiction to magazines such as ‘Temple Bar’ and ‘The Windsor Magazine’ and also wrote novels (as Mrs H.H. Penrose), including Denis Trench (1911), Charles the Great: A Very Light Comedy (1912), The Brat: A Trifle (1913), Burnt Flax (1914) and Something Impossible (1914).
With thanks to Lee Thomas and Jo Killmister.