A Father and Son killed on the same day one year apart
Two names on the Great War memorials at St Michael and All Angels Church in Pirbright commemorate the sacrifice of an extraordinary father and son – Frederick Courteney Selous and Frederick Hatherley Bruce Selous. Nineteen year old Frederick died in the skies over Belgium on 4th January 1918, a year to the day after his father had been killed by a sniper while fighting in East Africa, aged 65.
Frederick Courteney Selous was born on December 31st, 1851 into an aristocratic family of Hugenot descent, one of five children living at 42 Gloucester Road, Regents Park. At the age of nine he went to school at Bruce Castle, Tottenham where he gained a reputation for rebelliousness and an independent spirit. His life was destined to be full of adventures, and almost came to an early end when he was involved in a disaster on the ice in Regent’s Park, which took place on January 15th, 1867. Around 200 skaters on the frozen lake were suddenly plunged into the water, of whom 40 died from drowning or hypothermia. Somehow fifteen year old Freddy managed to scramble to the shore.
His education continued at Rugby School. According to his official biography –
“While at boarding school young Freddy was found by a schoolmaster laying on the cold floor beside his bed in the middle of the night. When asked by the schoolmaster what he was doing young Freddy replied “Well, you see, one day I am going to be a hunter in Africa and I am just hardening myself to sleep on the ground.”
Frederick Selous did exactly that and set off for South Africa at the age of 19 where he became famous as a hunter, naturalist, explorer and soldier. His exploits became the stuff of legend and he is thought to be the model for the character of Allan Quatermain created by the novelist Sir H. Rider Haggard. In later years he was to become a friend of US President Theodore Roosevelt and Cecil Rhodes, and donated many specimens to national collections – a statue of him has a prominent place in the Central Hall of the Natural History Museum. He took part in the First Matabele War of 1893 in which he fought alongside Robert Baden Powell.
After many years of African adventures he returned to England and in 1894 married Gladys Maddy, buying a house called Heathland in Worplesden alongside which he created a museum housing a number of his specimens. The couple had two sons, Frederick Hatherley Bruce, and Harold Sherborn Selous. Frederick senior loved outdoor sports, particularly cricket, and played regularly for his local club at Worplesdon, taking part in all their matches until 1915. He remained extremely fit and was an enthusiastic cyclist, as a diary entry from September 5th, 1909 (when he was 57 years old) attests:—
“I got home yesterday evening, having bicycled all the way from Gloucester—about 100 miles—in pouring rain most of the way, and over heavy, muddy roads, in just twelve hours, including stoppages for breakfast and lunch. I am not at all tired to-day, and next year, if I can get a fine day, I shall see if I cannot do 120 miles between daylight and dusk.”
Upon the outbreak of the Great War, despite the fact that he was now in his sixties he sought to enlist and sought the support of M.P.s and a friend, Colonel Driscoll, to plead his case. His application for service was submitted directly to Lord Kitchener, and he received this reply via H. J. Tennant, M.P.: ‘I spoke to Lord Kitchener to-day about you and he thought that your age was prohibitive against your employment here or at the seat of war in Europe.’
In November, 1914, he was acting as a special constable at Pirbright and was rather depressed that he could get nothing better to do, and that his eldest son Freddy would soon have to go into training as a soldier. Eventually his persistence paid off and on February 4th, 1915, he went to see Colonel Driscoll, who said the War Office had stretched the age-limit in his case, and that he would take him to East Africa as Intelligence Officer. His wife also went into service for the country, travelling to Le Havre to work in the Y.M.C.A. hut there.
Selous landed at Mombasa on May 4th, 1915 with his battalion, the 25th Royal Fusiliers. His company were an odd assortment, including “men from the French Foreign Legion, ex-Metropolitan policemen, a general of the Honduras Army, lighthouse keepers, keepers from the Zoo, Park Lane plutocrats, music-hall acrobats, but none the less excellent stuff and devoted to their officers.”
By the end of June the battalion was in action, crossing swamps and scaling cliffs to attack German forces on the Western bank of Lake Victoria at Bukoba. Selous was chosen to lead a patrol reconnoitering the town of Bukoba itself in which they encountered heavy opposition form snipers and machine gun emplacements. Eventually the town was taken, at the cost of 8 dead and 12 wounded.
Promotion from Lieutenant to Captain followed and on 26th September 1916 Frederick Courteney Selous was awarded the DSO for conspicuous gallantry, resource and endurance. General J. Smuts, who was in command of the British Forces in German East Africa, gave an account of the fighting on January 4th, 1917, when Selous met his death:-
“Our force moved out from Kissaki early on the morning of January 4th, 1917, with the object of attacking and surrounding a considerable number of German troops which was encamped along the low hills east of Beho-Beho (Sugar Mountain) N.E. of the road that led from Kissaki S.E. to the Rufigi river, distant some 13 miles from the enemy’s position. The low hills occupied by the Germans were densely covered with thorn-bush and the visibility to the west was not good. Nevertheless, they soon realized the danger of their position when they detected a circling movement on the part of the 25th Royal Fusiliers, which had been detailed to stop them on the road leading S.E., the only road, in fact, by which they could retreat. They must have retired early, for their forces came to this point at the exact moment when the leading company of Fusiliers, under Captain Selous, reached the same point. Heavy firing on both sides then commenced, and Selous at once deployed his company, attacked the Germans, which greatly outnumbered him, and drove them back into the bush. It was at this moment that Selous was struck dead by a shot in the head. The Germans retreated in the dense bush again, and the Fusiliers failed to come to close quarters, for the enemy then made a circuit through the bush and reached the road lower down, eventually crossing the Rufigi.”
Frederick Courteney Selous was buried in a lone grave near where he died, beneath a tamarind tree in what is now the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania.
The naturalist, artist and travel writer John Guille Millais wrote a biography of F C Selous, and it included a note from Theodore Roosevelt:—
“There was never a more welcome guest at the White House than Selous. He spent several days there. One afternoon we went walking and rock climbing alongside the Potomac; I think we swam the Potomac, but I am not sure.…. Later I spent a night with him at his house in Surrey, going through his museum of hunting-trophies. What interested me almost as much was being shown the various birds’ nests in his garden. He also went to the British Museum with me to look into various matters, including the question of protective coloration. I greatly valued his friendship; I mourn his loss; and yet I feel that in death as in life he was to be envied.
It is well for any country to produce men of such a type; and if there are enough of them the nation need fear no decadence. He led a singularly adventurous and fascinating life, with just the right alternations between the wilderness and civilization. He helped spread the borders of his people’s land. He added much to the sum of human knowledge and interest. He closed his life exactly as such a life ought to be closed, by dying in battle for his country while rendering her valiant and effective service. Who could wish a better life or a better death, or desire to leave a more honourable heritage to his family and his nation?”
Frederick Hatherley Bruce Selous was born on 21st April 1898 in Wargrave, Berkshire, where his grandmother lived at Berrymore House. He was educated at Bilton Grange and from 1912 at Rugby School, where he proved to be an excellent athlete, being in the Running VIII, and in 1915 Captain of the Rugby XV.
He entered Sandhurst in September, 1915, and on leaving in April, 1916, was gazetted to the Royal West Surrey Regiment and attached to the Royal Flying Corps. On 3rd May 1916, at Catterick Bridge Military School he took his flying certificate in a Maurice Farman biplane and proved to be an excellent pilot. In July, 1916, he went to the front and was awarded both the Military Cross and the Italian Silver Medal of Military Valour. Returning to England in April 1917 Selous joined the Central Flying School as an Instructor.
By September 1917 he was back in France with No. 60 Squadron, flying Royal Aircraft Factory S.E. 5a biplanes. On 8th November he was credited with a victory over a Rumpler C-type German reconnaissance plane over Klein-Zillebeke, and on 28th December was credited with a victory over another Rumpler C-type that crashed west of Roulers (Roeselare).
The squadron moved bases a number of times but by the winter of 1917 was based at Ste-Marie-Cappel. Frederick Hatherley Bruce Selous died while piloting S.E.5a No: C5334 and leading his Flight over German lines near Roulers (on the Menin Road) on January 4th, 1918, precisely one year to the day after the death of his father. He was still only 19 years of age.
From two contemporary reports he was either involved in a mid-air collision or his aircraft broke up in a dive during the attack. Lieutenant Edward Thornton, flying close to him at the time, described what he saw:— “I was up at 15,000 ft. over the German lines, when I saw Captain Selous take a dive at a German machine some 2000 feet below. What actually happened I do not know, but all at once I saw both wings of the machine collapse, and he fell to the earth like a stone. We were terribly upset at this, as he was idolised by us all’
The major commanding his squadron, wrote a letter of condolence his mother:—
“It is a severe blow to the squadron to lose him, for he was beloved by officers and men alike. In fact, his popularity extended to a much greater area than his own aerodrome. In the short time that I have known him I have been struck with the courage and keenness of your son—always ready for his jobs, and always going about his work with the cheeriest and happiest of smiles. He was the life and soul of the mess.”
Group Captain Alan John Lance Scott, CB, MC, AFC, in his book “Sixty Squadron RAF 1916—1919” (pub. Greenhill Books 1920) wrote in the most glowing terms about Frederick Selous, comparing him to some of the celebrated air aces of the Great War:-
“As good a flight commander as we ever had, he was a great loss to the squadron. Without, perhaps, the brilliance of Ball or Bishop he like Caldwell, Summers, Armstrong, Hammersley, Chidlaw-Roberts, Belgrave and Scholte, to name a few only of the best, played always for the squadron, and not for his own hand. He took endless pains to enter young pilots to the game, watching them on their first patrols as a good and patient huntsman watches his young hounds.
The character of Selous, like those whom I have mentioned, not to speak of many others whom their comrades will remember, attained very nearly to the ideal of a gentleman’s character as described by Burke, Newman and Cavendish”.
“Life of Frederick Courtenay Selous, D.S.O. Capt. 25th Royal Fusiliers”, J.G. Millais 1919.
“Sixty Squadron RAF 1916—1919” pub. Greenhill Books 1920, A J L Scott, CB, MC, AFC
Memorials of Rugbeians who fell in the Great War Volume VI
Royal Aero Club Aviators Certificates 1910-1950.
Newspaper stories in the Surrey Times and Surrey Herald.