The bravery of a First World War soldier wounded in fierce fighting while trying to secure a wood near Ypres in 1915 has been remembered at Octavia Hill’s Birthplace House.
At the annual commemoration day to mark the life and achievements of Wisbech’s most famous daughter on December 3, a plaque was unveiled in Heroes’ Arcade in the garden of the museum at 7 South Brink to Fred Rowe, who received the Distinguished Conduct Medal – the oldest British award for gallantry – a decoration for valour shown in the field by other ranks of the British Army.
In under 12 hours, around 100 men from the old Wisbech and Whittlesey Companies suffered the Cambridgeshire Regiment’s highest losses of any single day in 1915 – and the scene for the bloody engagement was a small copse called Fosse Wood, which jutted out from the larger Armagh Wood to the south east of Ypres.
During brutal combat on nearby Hill 60 in early May it had seemed that the Germans were threatening to push through Fosse Wood to encircle many of the British units in the front line – and, in order to secure the wood, part of C Company was commanded to take up positions and hold them until the front stabilised.
On May 5 three platoons from C Company were sent to occupy the area to forestall an enemy push down the hill – and a bleak outcome awaited the Cambridgeshire men.
Reaching the wood meant crossing a section of open ground and the men risked being spotted by the enemy on the higher ground – and, despite the best efforts of the officers and non-commissioned officers to move the troops in small groups, spreading out and advancing in short rushes, the Germans quickly pinned down the exposed soldiers with accurate machine gun and artillery fire.
Among the casualties in that storm of shot and shell was Sergeant Rowe of Wisbech, a pre-war territorial NCO. Nevertheless, despite his wounds, he continued to organize his men and keep them moving until they reached the limited cover of the wood.
Afterwards, a C Company soldier, writing to Fred Rowe’s wife to tell her that he had been wounded, assured her that her husband was going on quite nicely at the dressing station and was in the good hands of the doctor.
However, the letter writer added that the troops could not imagine how they would get along without her husband, as he was more than a father to them all and whenever a fellow was sick or wounded the only cry was for Sergeant Rowe.
Many men left shaken by the encounter were cared for by their comrades and, in the more severe cases, the soldiers were invalided out either to rest areas or home, but Sergeant Rowe recovered and continued to serve with the Cambridgeshire Regiment.
After the war he re-enlisted, becoming the company sergeant major of C Company, as well as going on to be a well-known figure in Wisbech, both as secretary of the local branch of the Cambridgeshire Old Comrades Association and as the beadle of Wisbech Town Council.
The plaque was unveiled by Colonel Mark Knight, MBE, Commandant of the Cambridgeshire Army Cadet Force, and Sergeant Tim Scargill of the Surrey Army Cadet Force, who is National Liaison Officer for the Army Cadet Force and also a committee member of the Octavia Hill Society.
Mr Peter Clayton, chairman of the Octavia Hill Birthplace Museum Trust, explained that the ceremony had taken place during the annual commemoration day to recall the life and achievements of Wisbech born Octavia Hill, founder of the National Trust, the army cadet movement and social housing.
He said: “We have added this plaque to honour another likely-to-be-forgotten hero. It is very fitting that the heroism of Fred Rowe is permanently commemorated in his home town. This plaque joins others in Heroes’ Arcade, which is based on a memorial at Postman’s Park, near St Paul’s Cathedral in London.”
NATIONAL OCTAVIA HILL LIAISON OFFICER-ARMY CADET FORCE