“Too glorious for words”: Archie Forbes and the Armistice

Cartoon of Archie Forbes with a Lewis Gun

Title: Cartoon of Archie Forbes with a Lewis Gun
Description: SHC ref QRWS/30/FORB/2 by-nc

Archibald Herbert d’Esterre Forbes (‘Archie’) was born on 29 January 1899. His family lived at France Hill House in Camberley.  Archie attended Uppingham School where he was a member of the Officer Training Corps.  In the summer of 1917 he joined the 13th Officer Cadet Battalion in Newmarket before being gazetted as a 2nd Lieutenant in the East Surrey Regiment, joining the 3rd Reserve Battalion in Dover.  In March he was posted overseas and sent to the 6th Battalion, the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment.

He served through the remainder of the war, sometimes as captain, and was also in demand as a Lewis Gun instructor. He was wounded on 30 June 1918 on the first day of the attack on Bouzincourt which saw 3 officers killed and 9 wounded and 28 other ranks killed, 8 missing and 190 wounded.  In a letter to his mother of 5 July he described his men as having ‘played up like bricks, and followed me magnificently, and helped me at every turn’ and mourned the loss of som many ‘fine fellows … and such decent comrades’ whom he viewed as his ‘good pals.  He was awarded the Military Cross on 4 August.

1st page of letter from Archie Forbes to his mother, 6 March 1919, listing battles in which he had fought (SHC ref QRWS/30/FORB/2).

In his letter of 6 March 1919, with the end of censorship, he was able to list all the actions the battalion had fought in during August and September 1918 as the momentum of the allied advance became unstoppable. Some, he told his mother, ‘were quite cushy – with light casualties- & merely a case of strolling along under a terrific barrage’ but he underlined the names of the most ‘fearful’ battles, including Epehy, Noyelles, the Queant Drocourt line, Brielle and the breaching of the Hindenburg line.  He recalled, with admiration, the day-long resistance of a single German machine gun post in Epehy despite being surrounded: ‘It was one of the best and bravest pieces of work I’ve ever seen the Bosche do, and if ever any Huns ever deserved the Iron Cross, they did!’  He also described the terrific German bombardment after the battalion captured Molasses Farm: ‘after we had taken it & dug in just in front & behind the Farm – the Bosche simply banged & bumped & crumped & shelled it all day & night for some time afterwards’.  His batman Otter followed Archie faithfully across the shell-blasted ground: ‘I used to laugh as we were the most priceless sight imaginable – what with my long legs striding over the ground, & little Otter toddling along with his tiny legs after me – picking up numerous articles that I dropped in my hurry – tin hat, etc!! At times I tried to look dignified, but Otter used to hurry me along – saying “Come along, sir” – “Run sir!”  – or “Keep Low sir, your head is sticking up a long way, sir!” etc, etc’.

Rumegies village and war memorial

The unit war diary states that news of the signing of the Armistice was received at 0800 hours on 11 November while the battalion was behind the lines at the French village of Rumegies, north of Cambrai and just south of the Belgian border. All work for the day was cancelled and in a wonderful letter to his mother Archie looked back on the events of the day.  His exuberant joy contrasts with the gloom of Franklin Lushington: unlike Lushington, Archie was in a position to share the relief and joy of the local French people and of course, despite all he had endured and the responsibility heaped on him in 1918, he was still just a teenager.  His letter is worth quoting extensively.

Dearest Mother,

At last the end of the war has come, and Germany is done and beaten to the very last card! But, by Jove, she’s fought it out well, and stuck out deceiving us up to the very last minute – for not one of us really knew till this morning what a frightful pitch of starvation and despair the Germans had reached.

            It is useless to try and express my feelings of joy and relief now that it is all over – and I don’t suppose you could express yours – it’s all too glorious for words. No doubt England is upside down with delight, and rejoicing from top to bottom, the same that we are doing out here. The men are absolutely off their heads with glee, and it’s topping to think of the happy meetings and rejoicings that will take place when we all get back to England. But on the other hand it’s terrible to think of the many sad homes and sorrowful hearts where this long looked for return will not be, and to them, I fear, peace will only bring their losses back more vividly. We heard this grand news this morning, and all hostilities ceased at 11 a.m. and I am thankful to say we are not in the line, but in another village which has been the scene of endless shouting and waving of flags, etc, throughout the day. The French people – on whom we are billeted – have simply fallen over us with joy all day since we told them that the guerre had finied!! The women and girls and children are practically falling on our necks and feet with gratitude – and I was all but kissed by the old lady and girls in my billet! and seem to have spent half the day shaking hands with dear old men of about 90 who are tottering about the streets shaking all over with delight. Of course you must remember these people have only recently been released by us from the Bosche – and I can’t say whether all the French people are so full of gratitude as this towards the British soldiers. We’ve spent the day marching about the streets with bands playing and everybody waving flags and shouting, singing, and cheering – and numerous rockets and coloured lights have been sent up all day, to say nothing of squibbs and fireworks!

1st page of Archie Forbes’s letter to his mother on armistice day (SHC ref QRWS/30/FORB/2)

            The general himself is quite mad, and sent up an S.O.S. Rocket this morning from the midst of a huge crowd of Tommies in the market square. The S.O.S Rocket – I must explain – is the signal for an intense artillery barrage to be put down on the Bosche when he comes over the top at us, and is immediately answered by all our Guns. (i.e. if the war is on!) But this morning the only reply it got was a terrific outburst of laughter and applause – and the joke appealed to the men like anything. The remainder of the day – (when I haven’t been marching about or waving flags or cheering) – I seem to have spent in standing to attention and listening to “God Save the King” and the Marseillaise and Belgian National Anthem about 100 times over at different times & places!

            It has really been an historic day in this place, and one which I shall never forget as long as I live. And the beauty of the whole thing to me is that it is genuine whole-hearted rejoicing – and no drunkenness at all or even lively spirits through drink – as there isn’t a drop of drink in the place, and we can’t get whiskey for the officers’ messes at present.

            Tomorrow there is a large voluntary Thanksgiving Service – and I haven’t the smallest doubt that every single man in the battalion will turn up, as every one of us thinks and says the same thing – that we have so much to be thankful for that we can never express it in words. And really – when I come to look back on my 6 or 7 months out here, there is such a lot to be thankful for – and all the awful narrow escapes I’ve had time and again, that it makes me go cold all over to think of it! For although I’ve only been out for 6 or 7 months, yet these 6 months have seen some of the worst battles & fighting of the war – and fellows who have done as many “over the top” stints and been through as many battles as I have during these 6 months and come through without a scratch have got more to thank God for than they can hope to do in a lifetime.

I somehow can’t yet realize that I am safe and sound with a whole skin, as an infantry subaltern’s life out here is nothing but one of huge risk – seeing that he plays about with barrages half the time – or else under Machine Gun fire.

2nd Lieutenant Archie Forbes (on left) (SHC ref QRWS/30/FORB/2)

Now that it’s all over, I don’t mind telling you that time and again I’ve wondered how much longer I should last out, and how much longer my luck would hold. And time and again, I’ve gone over the top with my Platoon or Company – usually well in front of them – and yet when I looked round I’d see them being knocked over all round me especially that memorable occasion when I went over with a Platoon of 35 and afterwards found myself with 7. It makes one think a bit, I can assure you, and I’ve wondered and wondered why some fellows like myself have been so lucky, and I’m sure your prayers have done it, and other poor fellows haven’t been so fortunate because they haven’t got Mothers who pray for them so earnestly as you have done for me all along, I know.  [……….]

I can hear the old lady of my billet coming up the stairs to my room – I believe she wants to kiss me this time!! – No, it was alright, not the old lady after all – but her young daughter who has brought me a cup of coffee. I thanked her frightfully as she’s quite pretty! – and I said numerous merci “beaucoups” and “biens” and “bons” and “tra bongs”, etc! which seemed to please her greatly. I talk quite a lot to them, as they love hearing the war news – especially this morning’s news of peace! But I find it pretty difficult as they can’t speak a word of English in these parts – but very amusing and great fun at times.

On demobilisation, 3 March 1919, Archie was given a fine reference: ‘He is a strict disciplinarian and a very fine leader, especially in action and he knows how to handle men’. After the war, he became a Latin teacher at Lambrook preparatory school Winkfield, Berkshire.  He married Flora Keyes and they had two daughters, Isla & Rona.  In the autumn of 1939, he achieved his long-held hope of becoming headmaster of Lambrook.  He died of cancer on 31 October 1956.

Images and transcripts reproduced by permission of the grandchildren of Archie Forbes.

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