The 'Chyebassa' re-union dinners

 

 

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P Company, London Rifle Brigade: A 1914 Roll Call

 

Henry Williamson and the First World War

 

 

The 'Chyebassa' re-union dinners

 

 

lrb chyebassa

SS Chyebassa

(Image courtesy of John Frank)

 

 

It became a tradition among the officers and men of the London Rifle Brigade who had sailed to war on the SS Chyebassa on 4 November 1914 to hold an annual celebratory dinner on or near to that date. The first was at Tadworth in 1915 with about 50 attending; the second at Blackdown in 1917 (about 140 attending), and the third at Holborn Restaurant in London in 1918 (about 300 present).

 

The fourth, on Wednesday, 5 November 1919 was a special one, held at the Guildhall to mark not only 'the Anniversary of the Regiment in France in 1914', but also 'to celebrate the Conclusion of Peace and the 60th Anniversary of our Foundation and to inaugurate the Reconstitution of the Regiment'. The front of the particular menu card illustrated below bears the signatures of some of the diners present, and include (ranks as at 1914): at the bottom, Brigadier-General Aylmer Hunter Weston ('Hunter-Bunter' to the troops), in 1914 commander of the 11th Infantry Brigade, to which the London Rifle Brigade was attached; top left, Major-General Julian Byng, in 1914 commander of the 3rd Cavalry Division at First Ypres; Captain A. S. Bates (commander of Q Company, and later No. 4 Company); and Captain C. D. Burnell (commander of G Company, and later No. 3 Company. P Company was represented by A. F. Gardner and H. L. 'Johnner' Johnston.

 

chyebassa1919 front

(Image courtesy of Chris Rippingale)

 

From 1922 the dinners were held annually, first at the Criterion Restaurant, then for several years at the Connaught Rooms, Kingsway, before using the LRB headquarters at Bunhill Row. During the Second World War they were held at three different locations in London, and then from 1947 going the the LRB's new headquarters in Sun Street, Finsbury.

 

K. W. Mitchinson, in his Gentlemen and Officers (Imperial War Museum, 1995) states: 'At the 1922 dinner, 29 of the 129 diners were still serving with the regiment, and the highest post-war attendance was achieved in 1931 when 171 Chyebassa men turned up. So important was the anniversary that Harding organised a Calcutta branch of the Chyebassa Club, and there were other offshoots in South Africa and New Zealand. This club remained exclusively for men who had sailed with the 1st Battalion in 1914 but, as early as 1924, John Stransom had suggested that membership should be opened to all former LRB men. His proposal elicited several hostile replies to the LRB Record, and a consensus finally emerged that the Chyebassa reunion should be retained, but that there should also be a full annual regimental dinner.' HW went to a number of Chyebassa dinners, the earliest probably that held in 1926. As the years passed so, inevitably, numbers dwindled, and eventually – probably in the mid to late 1960s – the Chyebassa Club was amalgamated with the 2nd and 3rd Battalion Clubs to form the LRB Veterans Association, to include also veterans from the Second World War. The Chyebassa link, with its smaller, more intimate gatherings, now lost, HW decided that he could not face the larger re-unions and stopped going.

 

It is not known how many 'Chyebassa' dinners HW attended, but in the Literary Archive are menu cards for five different occasions: those held on Thursday, 4 November 1926; Tuesday, 4 November 1947; Friday, 2 November 1962; Friday, 1 November 1963 and Friday, 6 November 1964 (which was held at The Grocers Company Hall in Princes Street). He went to at least one other, as A. E. Blunden, writing in May 1961, refers to 'the last Chyebassa dinner I was able to attend', where he promised HW to give him 'my impressions of you during the early days of World War 1'. (These impressions are quoted on the Henry Williamson and the London Rifle Brigade 1914–1915 web page.)

 

The menu cards are reproduced below. Two are from the 1926 reunion. The first is annotated in HW's hand and is signed on the inside back card cover by most of the P Company survivors who were present:

 

 

1926

 

chyebassa1926 1a

 

chyebassa1926 1b

 

chyebassa1926 1c

 

chyebassa1926 1d

 

The ink has faded on the above page; HW's note asterisked at the bottom reads: '* means originally private soldiers or N.C.Os. Rank in brackets means eventual rank in the New Army. Capital letters mean the original Company officers of L.R.B.'

 

chyebassa1926 1e

 

chyebassa1926 1f

 

The date noted down by HW at the dinner at the top of the back cover may refer to the intended date for the unveiling of the commemorative tablet in the London Rifle Brigade cemetery at Ploegsteert, although this actually took place on Sunday, 19 June 1927.

 

 

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During the dinner there was evidently discussion among the P Company men of their mutual experiences in the notorious Hampshire T-trench just before Christmas 1914, when snipers were an ever-present danger as the trench was enfiladed at the northern end by the German trench opposite, which curled round the 'T' end of the trench. (In the early part of A Fox Under My Cloak HW fictionalises these experiences, calling the trench the 'Diehard T-trench'.) G. E. S. Fursdon, in 1914 a second lieutenant in P Company and HW's platoon commander, drew a sketch of the positions in pencil on the front of another menu card. HW afterwards went over some of it in ink to emphasise the British lines.

 

chyebassa1926 2a

 

Using the same menu card, against some of the P Company names HW has written in pencil the identities that he used for individuals in A Fox Under My Cloak. These are very faint, but from the top they read (printed names first):

 

Bell, D. H. "L-cpl Douglas", then an arrow ('later') to Captain Bell's name under Programme of Music, against which HW has written 'Old Blue'

Blunden, A. E. – 'L-cpl Blunden'

Fursdon G. E. S. – 'Lieut Thorverton'

Henshaw, S. T. W. – 'Grannie Henshaw'

Hollis, E. C. – 'Hollis'

 

chyebassa1926 2b

 

 

Anne Williamson notes, in her book A Patriot's Progress: Henry Williamson and the First World War (Sutton, 1998) that HW wrote in his diary after the dinner:

 

'4 Nov. 1926 Attended the re-union dinner of the original L.R.B. survivors – "Chyebassa dinner", named after ship that took us from Southampton to Havre on 4/11/14. This is a copy of Lt. (now Capt.) Fursdon's map he sketched for me on one of the cards – map of Plug-street wood & trenches.'

 

[Here he drew a fair copy of Fursdon's map, which is shown on the Henry Williamson and the London Rifle Brigade 1914–1915 web page.] This is followed by notes on his comrades whom he now met for the first time since the war. These are notes which he obviously made with his writing in mind – he had already determined that he would write a second series as a follow-on from his Flax of Dream volumes, which would show the life of Willie's cousin Phillip and his involvement in the war. He could little know at that point how many years it would be before he would be able to begin, nor how the enterprise would grow at that time.

 

D.H. BELL – keen, dark, double-life. This man took G.E.W. [Henry's mother] round Crowboro' Camp in '14, & regretted he could not take her in the 'officers' mess, as he was not himself an officer! At dinner, 12 years after, he showed curious double strain . . . . Afterwards he went to Cameroons, became Capt., M.C., obviously he was a sahib officer; & yet also the old comrade, but they conflicted. . . .

 

HOLLIS – slow of speech, red face, just as in 1914! Same old Hollis! No thought, no change. John Bull. Solid, nice, kind, loves beer. Never hilarious; solid, old red-faced Hollis.

 

BLUNDEN – 'lance-corporal Blunden.' Slight impediment in speech, Small narrow face, dark close-set eyes; deliberate. Root of an oaktree. Arm off now . . . Never got angry with men; talks a sort of dialect; messenger at the Gresham before the war, wears a top hat; is now a messenger; just the same Blunden. . . . He was 25 in 1914; . . . He loved it when times were worst, was very happy in the line. The oak in its leafy glory, the last of English spirit; Blunden, small, narrow, almost insignificant, is of that oak; but a root of it, exposed. In fact a hero.

 

CHAPPELL BROS – Went to Public School – sons of a City tailor – sort of veneered but good boys. I did not like them; they did not like me. Perhaps it was because I was a filthy snob regarding Martin Sharman & Co. – the 'Leytonstone crowd'. Survival, this mood of mine, from the Sun Fire Office of 1914. A la J.V. Brett. Coulson was of their "tent", & I fought him in the moonlight before Xmas Eve, & was properly 'hided' by him.

 

DIPLOCK – cpl in 1914; became C.S.M. [Company Sergeant Major], taken prisoner in March 1918. Changed from a mild, pleasant little man, rather soft, to an iron-thewed man. He served longer with the LRB than anyone else. . . .

 

FURSDON – Platoon commander – Devonian. Confessed to me his worry in 1914 was lest he should do the wrong thing, and so lose his men – not his commission; but his men.

 

HENSHAW – Sergeant. 'Granny' Henshaw. Became R.T.O. [Railway Transport Officer] after May 1915. Rather got 'naggy' under the influence of flooded trenches. . . . Grannie Henniker (as I shall call him) had gone through the war, & never changed his outlook.

 

HINMAN – the handsome, rather self-confident person. . . . Centre of group – he'd been drinking & boasting of his 'rum-running' prowess. Hinman became Lt. Col. in war, gaining DSO & MC [in 1956 Williamson queried this as he could not find it in the LRB record]. His runner got it for him as much as anything. . . . An interesting character study; I must pursue him. . . . Scout in 1914, with bicycle. Big calves and body.

 

JOHNSTON – Company Commander in Oxford. No moustache now; brownish, big man, his eyes are wide open. Now a parson.

 

POTHECARY, Major D.C.M. – short, sturdy, popular, heavy-jawed, charming, happy. Best spirit and nice to all. Sahib. Sherborne School. Great contempt for Alec Waugh.

 

 

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1947

 

chyebassa1947 a

 

chyebassa1947 b

 

chyebassa1947 c

 

 

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1962

 

chyebassa1962 a

 

chyebassa1962 b

 

chyebassa1962 c

 

 

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1963

 

chyebassa1963 a

 

chyebassa1963 b

 

chyebassa1963 c

 

HW's musings during the evening, written on the back of the menu card, show that his mind was elsewhere. They read: 'And I see some of the old faces, and the death of those old places, but life is my vision, and the face of Kerstin. HW. 8.30 pm'. Kerstin was Kerstin Lewes, whom HW had met earlier that year, and whom he noted as 'the ¼ Swedish beauty'. They had met several times since, and HW, always ready to fall for beautiful young girls, believed her to be his next 'Barley-bright'.

 

 

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1964

 

chyebassa1964 a

 

chyebassa1964 b

 

chyebassa1964 c

 

 

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Back to Henry Williamson and the London Rifle Brigade, 1914–1915

 

P Company, London Rifle Brigade: A 1914 Roll Call

 

Henry Williamson and the First World War

 

 

 

 

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