Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria to include a Fine Collection of Napoleonic Medals (25 March 2015)

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Date of Auction: 25th March 2015

Sold for £7,000

Estimate: £5,000 - £6,000

An important Great War M.C. group of four awarded to Lieutenant T. R. Conning, 2nd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, a ‘happy-go-lucky’ subaltern of ‘natural jollity’ who was one of ‘the most popular officers with the men of the Battalion’ - and who appears in much of the literature that emerged from the ranks of his regiment, not least Dunn’s The War the Infantry Knew and Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer: a close friend of Sassoon’s, news of his death in action in May 1917 is also said to have been among the catalysts that prompted the war poet to make public his famous anti-war statement - ‘Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration’

Military Cross, G.V.R., unnamed as issued; 1914-15 Star (2 Lieut. T. R. Conning, R.W. Fus.); British War and Victory Medals (Lieut. T. R. Conning), together with the recipient’s Memorial Plaque 1914-18 (Thomas Rothesay Conning), extremely fine (5) £5000-6000

Footnote

M.C. London Gazette 1 January 1917:

‘For distinguished service in the Field.’

Thomas Rothesay Conning was born in London in January 1892, the son of a commercial clerk. His father having died towards the end of the same decade, Thomas’s mother Elizabeth married Edwin Aucott, who ran the St. James’s Tavern on the corner of Denman Street and Shaftesbury Avenue and, following his death in 1913, Alphonse “Papa” De Hem, a retired Dutch sea captain who ran “The Macclesfield”, a popular pub and oyster bar just off Shaftesbury Street - which establishment continues to flourish to this day as the “De Hems” bar and restaurant. In his
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, in which Conning appears under the pseudonym ‘Dunning’, Sassoon refers to the former speaking about ‘the eccentric old ladies who lived in mother’s boarding house.’

Thomas, who attended Archbishop Tenison’s Grammar School, was residing with his mother at the St. James’s Tavern in Denman Street when he attested for the 16th Battalion, London Regiment (The Queen’s Westminster Rifles) in September 1914. The Battalion went to France at the year’s end and he was advanced to Acting Corporal in February 1915.

Royal Welch Fusiliers: wounded - second close call

Commissioned 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Welch Fusiliers in May 1915, Conning was posted to the 2nd Battalion that November, the commencement of a distinguished career that included appointments as Bombing Officer, Lewis Gun Officer and Acting Adjutant; a period, too, that witnessed his growing friendship with Siegfried Sassoon and many other stalwarts of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers - thus a spate of references to him in related literature, not least Dunn’s
The War the Infantry Knew, in which he is described as one of ‘the most popular officers with the men in the battalion.’

One of Conning’s first significant actions occurred in the Cambrai sector on 8 April 1916, when he was wounded in a trench raid - only the second occasion on which the battalion had employed the Bangalore torpedo.

On 22 June 1916, the enemy exploded the Red Dragon Mine, causing 2/R.W.F. around 100 casualties, including over 50 killed. As recounted by Captain H. M. Blair in Dunn’s history, Conning was fortu
nate to survive:

‘About half an hour after midnight I began a round with my Sergeant-Major, Pattison. The trenches had been knocked about in places by shelling during the day. A perfect network of saps ran out for a considerable distance between deep mine-craters. In one of the saps I met Conning, the Bombing Officer. He told me he could not spare more than two-thirds of the complement of bombers, but I insisted on having the full number. I had an uncomfortable foreboding of impending trouble. I cannot say why, I was neither worried nor depressed, but the feeling grew as time went on. It was a lovely peaceful night. Perhaps it was the almost uncanny stillness, too quiet to be natural in that unpleasant part of the line. Anyhow, I was filled with a haunting unrest. I sent my Sergeant-Major to have boxes of bombs placed on the fire-steps and the pins pinched ready for use, boxes of reserve S.A.A. too were to be ready to hand. It was nearly 1.30 a.m. when my Sergeant-Major reported again. Conning had made up the complement of bombers; we all went for a last look round. Everything was quite in order, so we strolled towards the company dug-out to have a drink before turning in. A few yards from the dug-out somebody, Conning I think, looked at his watch; it was twenty minutes to two. He said he was dead-beat and, if I did not mind, he would prefer to turn in at once, so we postponed the drink. He and another, whose name I forget, went off in the direction of C Company. Conning's change of mind saved his life, at the time, and mine.

After they left us I went back with Pattison to the far end of one of the saps and spoke to the sentry and Lance-Corporal Morris. There was stillness everywhere. I had just stepped off the fire-step into the sap - Pattison was about 5 yards from me - when I felt my feet lifted up beneath me and the trench walls seemed to move upwards. There was a terrific blast of air which blew my steel helmet Heaven knows where. I think that something must have struck me then on the head - it was said in hospital that my skull was fractured - anyhow, I remember nothing more until I woke to find myself buried up to the neck and quite unable to move hand or foot. I do not know how long I had been unconscious. I was told afterwards that there was a heavy bombardment of our trenches lasting nearly an hour after the explosion of the mine, but I was quite unaware of all that. I awoke to an appalling shindy going on, and gradually realized that heavy rifle and machine-gun fire was taking place and that bullets were whistling all round. Several men passed within a few feet of me. I saw them distinctly by the light of the flares. I remember hoping they would not trip over my head. The men were shouting to each other, but I was too dazed to appreciate that the language was German. When I heard a hunting-horn I was certain I was having the nightmare of my life-pegged down and unable to move, with a hailstorm of bullets all round, and men rushing about perilously near kicking my head. The firing died down, and I realised it was no nightmare but that I was very much awake ... ’

For his own part, Conning quickly rallied, collecting reinforcements from the support line and manning the crater’s edge until order - and the line - could be restored.

Carnage on the Somme - Robert Graves wounded

At High Wood on the Somme on 20 July 1916, Conning assumed command of ‘D’ Company amidst ‘a hopeless mix-up of bush fighting’. The Company suffered casualties from the onset - ‘small opposing parties, scrapping and bombing, pursuing and pursued all over the north-east of the wood.’ By nightfall, however, Conning had overseen the construction of a new trench, but with a determined enemy counter-attack the following day, 2/R.W.F. was compelled to withdraw to the southern edge of the wood - among the casualties was the poet Robert Graves, who commanded ‘B’ Com
pany:

‘The German batteries were handing out heavy stuff, six-and eight-inch, and so much of it that we decided to move back fifty yards at a rush. As we did so, an eight-inch shell burst three paces behind me. I heard the explosion, and felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder-blades, but without any pain. I took the punch merely for the shock of the explosion; but blood trickled into my eye and, turning faint, I called to Moodie: 'I've been hit.' Then I fell. A minute or two before I had got two very small wounds on my left hand; and in exactly the same position as the two that drew blood from my right hand during the preliminary bombardment at Loos ... One piece of shell went through my left thigh, high up, near the groin; I must have been at the full stretch of my stride to escape emasculation. The wound over the eye was made by a little chip of marble, possibly from one of the Bazentin cemetery head-stones. (Later, I had it cut out, but a smaller piece has since risen to the surface under my right eyebrow, where I keep it for a souvenir.) This, and a finger-wound which split the bone, probably came from another shell bursting in front of me. But a piece of shell had also gone in two inches below the point of my right shoulder-blade and came out through my chest two inches above the right nipple. My memory of what happened then is vague. Apparently Dr Dunn came up through the barrage with a stretcher-party, dressed my wound, and got me down to the old German dressing-station at the north end of Mametz Wood. I remember being put on a stretcher, and winking at the stretcher-bearing sergeant who had just said: ‘Old Gravy's got it, all right!’ They laid my stretcher in a corner of the dressing-station, where I remained unconscious for more than twenty-four hours ... ’
(Goodbye to All That, refers).

Conning was promoted to Lieutenant in October 1916 and awarded the M.C., the latter distinction undoubtedly taking into account his gallant work on the Somme.

A picture paints a thousand words

Gallant deeds on the battlefield aside, Conning established a close friendship with fellow R.W.F. officer, Siegfried Sassoon. In early April 1917, before calamity struck on the Arras front, he, Sassoon, Ralph Greaves and Ernest Coster, all from the 2nd Battalion, enjoyed an evening out at Godbert Restaurant in Amiens. The following day, hungover but nonetheless cheery, the regimental friends had their photograph taken - a poignant image in view of events later in the same month:

Sassoon was seriously wounded on the 16th; Ralph Greaves, a brilliant pianist who had studied music with Vaughan-Williams, suffered a similar fate on the 23rd, losing an arm; and Conning was killed in action on the 27th. Nor did Ernest Coster escape, falling in action in September 1917.

Sassoon wounded - saved from further suicidal acts by Conning

During the battle of Arras, in the attack on Fontaine-les-Croiselles on 16 April 1917, Siegfried Sassoon and a party of 2/R.W.F. found themselves acting in support of the Cameronians. In the war poet’s own words, the calming intervention of Conning probably saved him from undertaking further sui
cidal action:

‘I had caught an occasional glimpse of a retreating German, but the whole thing had been so absurdly easy I felt like going on still farther. There was a narrow sap running out of the place where we halted. ‘You stay where you are,’ I remarked to Smart, and then I started to explore the sap. What I expected to find there I can’t say. Finding nothing, I paused for a minute to listen - there seemed to be a lull in the proceedings of the attack; spasmodic machine guns rattled; high over head there was an aeroplane. I thought what a queer business it all was, and then decided to take a peep at the surrounding country. No sooner had I popped my head out of the sap than I received what seemed like a tremendous blow in the back, between the shoulders. My first notion was that I had been hit by a bomb from behind. What had really happened was that I had been sniped from in front. Anyhow, my attitude towards life and the war had been instantaneously and completely altered for the worse. I leaned against the wall and shut my eyes. When I opened them again, Sergeant Baldwin was beside me, discreet and sympathetic. To my great surprise, I discovered I was not dead. Baldwin assisted me back to the main trench, investigated my wound, and left me sitting there while he went back to bring up some more men.

After about a quarter of an hour I began to feel active and heroic again, but in a different way - I was now not only a hero but a wounded hero. I can remember talking excitedly to a laconic Stokes mortar officer, who had arrived from nowhere with his weapon. My seventy-five men were no longer on the scene. My only idea was to collect all our available ammunition and renew the attack while the Stokes mortar officer put up an enthusiastic barrage. It did not occur to me that there was anything else going on on the Western Front excepting my own little show. My overstrained nerves had stirred me up to such a pitch of febrile excitement that I felt capable of the most suicidal exploits. This convulsive energy might have been of some value had there been any rational outlet for it, but there was none. Before I had time to do anything rash and irrelevant to the military situation, Conning arrived on the scene to relieve me. Conning’s unruffled behaviour sobered me a bit: he seemed to have the situation sized up. Nevertheless I was still boiling over with the offensive spirit, and my activity was only quelled by a written order from the Cameronian Colonel, who told me that we must not advance owing to the attack having failed elsewhere. This caused an anticlimax to my ardours, and I returned to the 2nd R.W.F. Headquarters. On the way I met Dr. Dunn, strolling along the trench with the detached air of an amateur botanist. I was back in the tunnel within four hours of leaving it.’

Sassoon was recommended for the V.C, but in the end was awarded the M.C.

Premonition of fate - missing in action - Sassoon’s response: ‘Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration’

2/R.W.F. was still serving alongside the Cameronians at Fontaine-les-Croiselles when Conning was posted missing after leading ‘C’ Company in an attack at Plum Lane on Whit Sunday 27 May 1917. Dunn states that he may have had a premonition of his pending fate:

‘Captain Mann, the Adjutant, had gone to hospital, so Conning was entrusted to adapt the battalion dispositions to the Brigade order. Moody, just returned after a few weeks with the 1st Battalion, shared Conning’s misgivings. During fifteen months with the battalion Conning has been a happy-go-lucky fellow: this time he arranged his affairs as if, for him, the end of everything had come. After a large sick-parade had been disposed of, the battalion moved into positions already marked off.’

Dunn contin
ues:

‘The opening of the bombardment at 1.55 p.m. brought Conning and Picton Davies on to the parapet, followed by C and A Companies. Conning chaffed the stiff-limbed, and gave some a hand to climb out; again he told those about him not to hurry - ‘Just stroll over behind our shells as if you were out for a quiet Sunday afternoon walk’; and at that pace he led on, in line with Picton Davies. To Moody, waiting on the parapet to go over with D Company, he called ‘Cheerio!’ B Company, led by Lawrence Ormrod, formed a third wave, supporting the two waves of C and A; it was to ‘mop up.’ The Cameronians, already lying out fifty yards in front of their trench, got going at once, so there was a gap between the two battalions - slight, but it tended to widen. Four hundred yards to the right the 9th Highland Light Infantry were demonstrating on Nellie Trench with rifle grenades and Lewis guns.

Five minutes after zero the rear of the companies was on the crest. Already the second wave and B Company were closing up. The first wave had reached the wire of the intermediate line when the German shells began to burst behind the companies in No Man's Land and in the trench; then the guns lifted to the back area ... For two hours the enemy shelled his barrage lines. The role of D Company, on the right, was to attack up Plum Lane and astride it. Bombs were flying about there as the last wave receded over the crest.’

Conning was seen to go down at the enemy’s wire but his exact fate was not known. In fact, in a letter dated 5 June 1917, the War Office wrote to his mother in the following terms:

‘Lieutenant T. R. Conning, M.C., is one of five officers missing from the 2nd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers ... He is believed to have been wounded. All appear to have been wounded near the German lines, but there is no conclusive evidence that they were killed, although there is a strong possibility that several of them died of wounds.’

However, by August 1917, new information had been received via the British Red Cross - namely a statement submitted by one of Conning’s comrades in ‘C’ Company, Private A. E. Pacey:

‘I was about five feet from him when he was killed by a sniper out in No Man’s Land at Bullecourt about 2 p.m. I do not think his body was recovered. He was about ten yards off the German trenches. I was wounded myself the same day. He was shot through the head. I am sure he was killed as I put my hand over his heart.’

It is said that when news of Conning’s death reached Sassoon in England - indeed news of four R.W.F. officers having been posted missing in the same period - he was prompted to write his famous letter, ‘Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration’. Sent to his C.O., it was also forwarded to the press and read out in the House of Commons by a sympathetic M.P. The resultant storm in the press looked likely to result in a Court Martial, but the timely intervention of Robert Graves, who persuaded the authorities that Sassoon was suffering from shell-shock, led instead to his admission to Craiglockhart military hospital, near Edinburgh. Here, famously, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen.

The final chapter in Conning’s story may have concluded in May 1920, when the War Office wrote to his mother to say that her son’s remains had been recovered 500 yards south-west of Fontaine les Croiselles - they were exhumed and reburied in Croiselles British Cemetery. Yet, thanks to a plethora of literature that emerged from the ranks of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, his name lived on, albeit under the pseudonym ‘Dunning’ in Sassoon’s
Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. His mother was sent his M.C. in October 1917; sold with extensive copied research.