Cranbrook is proud to remember its fallen, as well as the countless OCs who have served their country and been affected by doing so. Whilst we remember the many, we would like to share the story of just one OC who joined Cranbrook School in May 1911, no doubt with hopes and dreams for his future, but who had tragically lost his life just 6 short years later.
Richard Neville Durtnell (known as Neville), suffered scarlet fever as a young child and was a slight youth when he entered Cranbrook School in 1911. He stood only 5’3” when he left as a young man in 1915, but during his Cranbrook years he approached all aspects of life with enthusiasm and a zest for everything that life could offer him. The school magazine of 1917 wrote of Neville ‘ from the outset he became prominent in both work and play; in fact he was an earnest enthusiast and did his best to excel in all branches of school life. He became a shining light in both football and cricket teams and was top of the batting averages in his last year at school. In the gymnasium too he gained his colours for apparatus work and Swedish drill. He was exceptionally well read and his logical reasoning powers and gift of repartee made him a very interesting speaker in the debating and literary societies. Quiet and unassuming, he made his influence felt and commanded respect by reason of his all-round capability. He rose to the rank or Corporal in the OTC and showed in his own powers of leadership a quiet confidence which augured well for his success as an efficient officer.’ Neville was clearly a young man poised to make a success of his life.
After leaving Cranbrook in May 1915 Neville immediately went into officer training in London. Before the end of the year he had been promoted to Sargent and commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant in 12th Battalion Suffolk Regiment. By July 1916 he was on a ship to France and was transferred from the 12th to the 11th Battalion following the catastrophic losses it had suffered on the Somme earlier that month. The battalion diary of July 1916 described how the Suffolks were ‘barely existing’ having lost the vast majority of their officers and other ranks.
Neville will have had just 4 days home leave around Christmas 1916 before arriving at Vimy Ridge on the front line at Easter 1917. He was mentioned in dispatches on 8th April and awarded the Oak Leaf bar for the efficient manner he’d shown in arranging distribution of ammunition, weapons and materials for the attack on Roeux and the strongly fortified chemical works near Roeux station. The attack at 4.25am on Saturday 28th April was a disaster. Troops were inexperienced and their supporting barrage was poorly timed and badly directed. The forward observation officers were criticised in the battalion diary for not positioning themselves far enough forward to see the battle.
Neville was cut down and killed by machine gun fire whilst leading his men in the first wave of troops charged with taking the chemical works. 294 other officers and men lost their lives in the three-day battle that failed to achieve its objective or gain ground. Such was the chaos and carnage, most of the men who lost their lives in those three days are buried as ‘unknowns’, with the headstone inscription ‘Here lies a British Soldier, killed in action 28 April 1917 … Known only unto God’. Neville’s family received the dreaded telegram to ‘Next of kin’ in early May and later the memorial plaque (known as Dead Man’s Penny) that was given to the families of all of the fallen, which is pictured below with the ‘swagger stick’ that Neville will have proudly carried under his arm as a symbol of authority as a commissioned officer. Neville is now commemorated at the British Cemetery in Arras where approximately 34,000 allied troops with no known grave are recorded on the stone walls.
Due to the high standards of training that Cranbrook boys received in the cadet force, the school saw an exceptionally high proportion of its young men become officers in WWI and tragically go on to lose their lives far too young. Neville represents just one of the vast number of young men whose dreams and tomorrows were given up for our today.
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