Captain William Oliphant DOWN MC
Killed in Action 22 May 1917
William Oliphant Down was born in Bridgwater, Somerset on 22 July 1885, the fourth and last child of Evan Roberts Down, and Sarah Alice Down nee Boswall, who had married on 4 July 1878 in Surbiton, Surrey. His siblings were Edwin Boswall Down, b.1880, Elizabeth Lockyer Down, b. 1881, and Ethel Margaret Down, b.1883.
The Down family lived in Bridgwater until about the late 1880s, where Evan Down described himself as an Architect/Surveyor. Then they moved to Gillingham, in North Dorset, where they occupied a substantial property, now listed, called Knap House. At the time of the 1891 Census, Evan was described as a Provision Merchant and Bacon Curer. This seems to have been a substantial business. Apart from the children, Evan’s spinster aunt, the 77 year old Elizabeth Lockyer lived with the family, together with a staff of a governess, a cook and two housemaids.
By 1901, the family had moved in Gillingham to another property called “Elmcroft”. Evan, at the age of 51 was a “Wholesale Bacon Curer” – his eldest son now worked as a clerk in the business, at 21, still unmarried. Unfortunately, Ethel had died at the age of 15, in 1897. The elderly aunt had presumably also died, but instead the family was home to Evan’s widowed sister, Emily Boswall, aged 48. This family was also found in the same address in 1911, except that Emily was no longer there.
William Oliphant in 1901, aged 15, was to be found at boarding school – Warminster Grammar School as it is titled in the census return for that year, which still exists as a private co-ed school in Warminster.
Ten years later, William Oliphant Down had moved to London. His attestation papers indicate that he had been articled for 5 years from 1902 to a firm of accountants in Threadneedle Street, Messrs. McAuliffe, Davis and Hope, and was a Chartered Accountant from 1907 onwards. Curiously, he can be found at two separate addresses on the night of the 1911 census. He is listed as a visitor, together with another guest, Eliot Makeham, a 29 year old unmarried Actor, at the home of Mr. Shiel Barry and Mrs. Dorothy Shiel-Barry, both actors, aged 34 and 24 respectively living at 28 Argyll Mansions, Kings Road, Chelsea. Oliphant is described as a “Dramatist and Actor”, aged 24. Elliot Makeham became a character actor in over 60 films in the 30s,40s & 50s.
He is also listed as a visitor of the home of Mr. Harold Whitting Veasey (44), born Surbiton, and Mrs. Euphemia Laura Veasey, (34), born in Ravenscourt Park. As far as we know, Down was never resident within the parish, but Harold Veasey had lived for a time at 1 Roman Road after his marriage in 1900. Laura (nee Foster) was a cousin of William, being the daughter of his mother’s sister They had no children. In this entry, Oliphant is described as a “Dramatist” aged 25. The house was at 47 Creffield Road, Ealing Common, and within about half a mile from Acton. This is the nearest address that can be found to date to Chiswick or Bedford Park – but it is likely he may have moved his lodgings somewhere closer before 1914. Certainly, his Attestation papers for War Service, dated 5 August 1914 contains an address in Darnley Road, Holland Park.
From the various war records, it seems that Oliphant may have volunteered in a County Yeomanry as his Medal Card suggests that he started as a Corporal in a Cavalry Reserve Regiment, in late 1914. These were formed from August 1914 from Yeomanry, 17 in all. Dorsetshire Yeomanry were placed in the 8th Reserve Regiment, and Berkshire into the 7th. His book of poems (see below) suggests he enlisted in the 15th Hussars, a Cavalry Regiment. In any event, the medal card states that he commenced with the Princess Charlotte of Wales’s (Royal Berkshire Regiment) on 5 September 1915, being commissioned 2/Lieutenant on that date, and gazetted as such on 11 September. He joined the 4th Battalion. The card notes that his first service in a Theatre of War started 7 January 1916 in France.
Oliphant Down was awarded the Military Cross, gazetted 25 September 1916. The citation reads:
“For conspicuous gallantry in action. He made an excellent reconnaissance of an enemy strong point, and brought back most useful information. Two nights later he commanded the right platoon in an attack, and after entering the enemy’s trench led a bombing party which killed 11 of the enemy.” (See extract from War Diary). His Service record indicates he sustained gunshot wounds to his hand that required leave back in England from 23 July 1916 until 6 November.
Oliphant gained promotion to Acting Captain, probably relating to “wastage” of other officers in the Company, when he sustained Wounds in Action leading to his death early in the morning of 23 May 1917 at Demicourt. The War Diary at this time shows that the Battalion was engaged in very standard trench work, comprising three day stints in the Front Line, interrupted by four day periods either in forward areas, or behind the front in rest areas. There was no heavy fighting, but close observation of the enemy lines was maintained, with short-lived sporadic bombardments and sniper fire. On the evening of the 22nd. May the Battalion was in the process of relieving a similar battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment. It is therefore likely that Oliphant Down was hit by shrapnel or sniper fire in the course of moving into position, or possibly moving to a forward observation post, as he appears to have been accompanied by an “Other Rank” who was also killed. They were the only two casualties on that night.
His remains are buried at Hermies Hill British Cemetery, Hermies, and must have been concentrated there at a later date from a nearby site nearer Demicourt, as the Hermies cemetery was only started in November 1917. Plot B15 is one of 28 UK Special Memorials to men known or believed to be buried amongst the 300 that have not been identified. It reads:
“Known to be buried in this cemetery, Captain William Oliphant Down, MC, Royal Berkshire Regiment, died 23 May 1917 age 31. The noblest death a man may die fighting for God, Right and Liberty”. The parents erected another memorial in St Mary’s Church, Gillingham, bearing the same quotation from John Oxenham’s Poem “To You who have lost”:
“I know! I know!–
The ceaseless ache, the emptiness, the woe– The pang of loss–
The strength that sinks beneath so sore a cross. ‘Heedless and careless, still the world wags on, And leaves me broken,… Oh, my son I my son!’
Yea–think of this!–
Yea, rather think on this!–
He died as few men get the chance to die– Fighting to save a world’s morality.
He died the noblest death a man may die, Fighting for God, and Right, and Liberty– and such a death is Immortality”.
Evan Robert Down and his wife will have received their son’s medals, MC, British War Medal and Victory Medal at their post-war address, 14 Weston Road, Bournemouth, before his death in the “House of Good Hope” Bournemouth in 1924 at the age 73. He had been a Warminster Grammar School Governor. The Minutes of 31 May 1917 record that “The Chairman feelingly moved a vote of condolence with Mr and Mrs Down on their loss of their son who had been killed in action in fighting for his country and the Governors expressed their sympathy by standing. Mr Down gratefully acknowledged the vote and promised to convey the sentiments of the Governors to Mrs Down”. William Oliphant Down is also commemorated in the memorial window in the school’s chapel.His widow, Sarah Alice subsequently went to live with their son Edwin Boswell Down at “Broadleigh”, Gillingham, whence she had supervised the wording of Oliphant’s memorials. She died in 1944 Edwin had married Constance Margaret Heath in 1923, and died at “Broadleigh” 10 April 1943.
Of Oliphant Down’s dramatic and literary work we know only little. He wrote some poetry including “trench poems”, and One Act Plays, published posthumously by his pre-war friend Harold Veasey in 1921 in collections that are to be found in the Bodleian Library. A memorial matinee performance of his war play, “Tommy-by-the-Way” was performed at the Alhambra Theatre, London on 24th June 1918. The two characters, “Tommy” and “The Spirit of the Women of England” were played by Mr George Tulley, and Miss. Lilian Braithwaite.
Oliphant Down’s “Picardy Parody No.2 (W.B.Y..ts)” is particularly resonant of Bedford Park’s literary heritage:
I will arise and go now, and go to Picardy,
And a new trench-line hold there, of clay and shell-holes made,
No dug-outs shall I have there, nor a hive for the Lewis G.
But live on top in the b. loud glade.
And I may cease to be there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the mouth of the Minnie* to where the sentry sings;
There noon is high explosive, and night a gunfire glow,
And evening full of torpedoes’ wings.
I will arise and go now, though always night and day
I’ll feel dark waters lapping with low sounds by the store,
Where all our bombs grow rusty and countless S.A.A.*;
I’ll feel it in my trench-feet sore.
* “Minnie” – ‘Minenwerfer’, a type of German trench mortar; SAA – small arms ammunition.
Veasey’s foreword to the volume of Poems describes Oliphant:
“His was a nature that abhorred war and its attendant horrors; it is, therefore remarkable that this dreamer and idealist should have developed into such a very gallant and capable soldier”.