The Ypres grave of articled clerk Cyril Montagu Pope is worth visiting.
Old military habits die hard, so when the British Army began to dig graves in 1914 it seemed natural to inter officers separately from rankers. (The practice was quickly abandoned as casualties mounted; the juxtaposition of generals and privates is one of the most pleasing aspects of Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries today.)
Thus the back two rows of Commonwealth gravestones in the south-west corner of Ypres Town Cemetery, all dating from October 1914, commemorate a lieutenant colonel, a major, a captain and several lieutenants.
Halfway along lies Lieutenant C.M. Pope, Worcestershire Regiment, date of death 24 October 1914. We picked it out of thousands to lay a wreath because we believe Cyril Montagu Pope's grave marks the first Law Society member to be killed in action in the First World War. Another articled clerk, Denys Ainslie, is listed as being killed on the same day, but his body was not recovered.
Even if he was not the first, Pope's story tells that of his generation. He was born in 1888, the son of Brighton solicitor Reginald Barrett Pope, and won scholarships to Winchester and Brasenose College, Oxford, where he gained a second class in ‘Greats’, jurisprudence and in the bachelor of civil law examination. He also seems to have been an outstanding sportsman, rowing and playing ‘association football’ for his college.
On leaving university he was articled to his father's firm, though his father died in 1913, and was in his second year of articles when history overtook him.
Pope had joined the reserve forces on leaving school and in December 1913 was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 5th Battalion, Worcestershire Regiment. He was mobilised on the outbreak of war and embarked for France with the first of the British Expeditionary Force on 13 August 1914. After taking part in the opening battle of Mons and the tide-turning battle of the Marne, his regiment was sent to Flanders to stop the Germans’ thrust towards the channel ports.
On 24 October it fought a desperate action in Polygon Wood, which, like most of the Ypres landscape, was to be pulverised into mud over the next four years. The Worcestershires cleared the wood of Germans - with bayonets and swords - with the loss of six officers and 200 men.
Pope was mortally wounded ‘while leading his men most gallantly against a strong position of the enemy’.
Nowadays, Ypres Town Cemetery is a peaceful place. Although only a kilometre from the Menin Gate, renowned for its nightly Last Post ceremony, it does not attract many foreign visitors: the Flanders battlefields have so many more dramatic memorials to offer. The cemetery's most visited military grave is probably that of Prince Maurice of Battenberg, a grandson of Queen Victoria, killed also in October 1914 while serving as a lieutenant. Prince Maurice has a personal plot among the civil graves, but a standard war graves commission headstone.
Last Tuesday evening, apart from a courting couple in the gatehouse, the Law Society's token delegation had the cemetery to itself. Thanks to the excellent Commonwealth War Graves Commission website we found Pope’s grave within 15 minutes. Society president Andrew Caplen laid the wreath and we stood in silence for a minute, the words of Rupert Brooke's The Soldier running through my head: 'If I should die, think only this of me...'.
Of course there is something a little mawkish in telling the story of the First World War in terms of the dead. Misleading, too: we should remember that the great majority of those who served in the forces came home alive. But I defy anyone visiting the many Ypres cemeteries not to be moved, and I hope Gazette readers making the trip will put Pope’s grave on their itinerary. If Cyril Pope has any surviving relatives, perhaps they will get in touch.
But alas for his relatives, the tragedy didn't end in October 1914. It was only a matter of weeks before they received another Army Form B.104-82, opening with the words ‘It is my painful duty to inform you’. Reginald Buckingham Pope, Cyril's younger brother, was killed, also in Flanders, in February 1915.
Along with the Worcestershire regimental emblem with its motto ‘Firm’, Cyril’s tombstone bears a personal inscription presumably chosen by his mother (for which she would have been charged 16/11d): ‘Wholly dedicated to him he gave and did not count the cost’.
What a cost.
Michael Cross is Gazette news editor