Written by Richard and Rosemary Christophers
Henry Deacon Ritchie, known as Hal, was born in Hong Kong 0n 14 November 1898, the third child of the eight children of Edmée and Henry Ritchie, the Far East Director of the P and O shipping company.
Hal had five sisters and two brothers, including one who died in infancy. Three of the sisters attended St Catherine’s School, Bramley, and hence Hal is on the School’s roll of honour.
After years spent in the Far East, eventually in 1909 the family settled in Catteshall Manor, Godalming. After the death of Hal’s father in 1914 Mrs Ritchie, with the assistance of a ‘fairy godfather’ had the slightly smaller Catteshall Rough built for the family and they moved there in 1916 . Hal went to Sunningdale School as a boarder before being educated at Eton where he was a King’s scholar and a Private in the OTC. He gained a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge, but did not take this up and from school, joined the Coldstream Guards in August 1917, aged 18 years and 5 months.
He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards, part of the 2nd Guards Brigade, and wrote almost daily to his mother. His letters initially describe good days with plenty of food for the officers but this was not to last. The narrative and letters are taken from ‘Hal’, compiled by Celia Sherman and David Lloyd James, on behalf of the Ritchie family, and privately published for the family, 2010.
On 3 May 1918 the battalion went up the line and the war diary noted a German attack was imminent. Hal reported to his mother that it was quite safe, but he was in charge of forward posts which would be uncomfortable, although nights were the time for activity and days for resting. He reassured her that he was only in the real front line 6 days in every 20. By the 8 May he is less upbeat:
“Your birthday which seemed so smiling ended in the most awful night I have ever spent. Couldn’t see a yard & falling into shell holes & trenches all the time & 6 inches of water in all the men’s dugouts. They were wonderful: made me so ashamed of myself for being affected by the downpour: they all offered me their sympathy as I went round – it took 1 ½ hours to go round 10 posts – & yet I was much luckier than they. Our room became fairly unpleasant: 3 tins & 4 cups in different places catching the rain & of course we were wringing – makes your feet so cold after, when you went to sleep & no chance of changing or taking off your boots. Luckily I have a sound constitution! Keith Cameron who came out with me & who is in the Company on our right was hit by one of those damnable (it’s the only world for it) expanding bullets: took a chunk out of his leg poor devil & must have hurt him terribly. I hope you realised that that account of the Guards was the 4th Brigade – the one in another Division which did so wonderfully on April 11th. We still haven’t heard the fate of some of them. I am afraid Roger de Wesselow & Leadbitter were killed. I don’t think they were taking many prisoners – even if they had the chance”.
He misses good reading and on 13th May, a day after a further stint on the front line is writing on the coming of spring since he was last there and on more literary matters:
“A very amusing letter from Edmée [his sister] – please thank her very much for it and give her my love: tell her to read the poems called Experiments in the 1st book of Rupert Brooke. She sent me all her love ‘except what I give to Mummie’: I cannot give her so much, I’m afraid – but then, I am no longer heart whole! Madgie’s [another sister] letter I will try to answer, but thank her too in advance. Have you got Juliet Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’ in any of your books – it should be in ‘Poems of Today’ and was certainly in Violet’s [another sister] book: it is much the nearest approach to a description of spring out here that has even been attempted”.
June was a month of rest and Hal reflects to his mother his loathing of the war, the loss of colleagues and the awful memories, but there are dinners, cakes sent from home and unspoiled countryside to enjoy. All too soon the battalion returned to the line on 6 July. On 6 August Hal went on an infantry training course and is next mentioned in the war diary on 19 September when the battalion is giving support in Louverval Wood. This was part of the Hundred Days Offensive, in which the Coldstream Guards was engaged in the Battle of Canal du Nord, near Graincourt. The leading officer of no 2 Company, was Capt C H Frisby, from Woking, who was to gain the VC for his actions. His battalion was tasked with the capture of a canal crossing, with Frisby himself in command of one of the attacking companies, and despite a leg wound, he then attended to forming a defensive line as per his instructions.
Hal was less fortunate: he had gone in as the second officer of no 3 Company, but was seriously wounded on 19 September and had to be replaced. He died of wounds on 27 September 1918 at no. 3 Ambulance Station, France and is buried at Beaumetz Cross Roads Cemetery, Beaumetz-les-Cambrai, Pas de Calais.
His last letter to his mother, undated, to be opened in the event of his death reads:
“My darling; please, please don’t be sad, because really I have had such a happy life, such good friends, such wonderful brothers and sisters, and such a Mummie, that I think, God just willed it so that a death that we could be proud of should end and complete a life which been enjoyed all through. And if it does seem rather hard to you darlingest, it is only the sacrifice we make for having been such wonderful friends – that must be a consolation.
Because you are the most lovable mother God ever gave anyone I long to be with you all your life, but now there can be no chance, no growing old, and when we meet we shall be just as we always were – understanding perfectly.
Of ‘last wishes’ I have few, because you will know just what I should like: only, if you send any things away, say that I wanted them to have something of mine – even if I cannot here write a list. Probably Oliver Bowlby would most appreciate any military things, and I want Kit and Dixon most especially to have something. The latter might like my set of Sophocles. But tell them also how really I have enjoyed their friendship. Give Dragon something, and Mrs Bouverie. And give the family my love. I shall always be among you. Give Madgie one especial kiss that shall come from me. She has always been so dear to me, and such a splendid companion. What a wonderful time we have had, all of us together. In that way only I like to feel I shall be missed, because we have meant so much to each other in our family circle.
Darling, you must think of this as the greatest good that can happen: it may sound rather frivolous but I always think:
Never a doubt but somehow good
Shall come of water and of mud
seems wonderfully to suit this war.
It’s a long night, Mummie, but there is somewhere our ‘white tremendous daybreak’ – and till then think of me only as one who always was happy and is happier now, and one who loved you always but loves you more now.
I shall not want a written memorial, but I should like my epitaph, in your heart, to be (I don’t deserve it, but I like
‘Or shall we sit despondently and sigh
“He was so brave, he was so young to die!”
Or rather learn by him and follow after
And, when the night is darkest, hear his laughter’.
It was written for a much better man than me – but a little is applicable.
Do you know how I think of you? I never think of you out here without remembering Browning’s line:
By such souls
God, stooping, shows sufficient of his light
For us in the dark to rise by – And I rise!
Good night, loved Mummie, God be with you and help you, now and always –