Title - Cecil Douglas Gay

The Family | The Early Years | The Somme | Third Ypres | To Merville | Post-War

Trinity College, Cambridge, 14k
Above: Trinity College, Cambridge.
Photograph courtesy of the college.

As 1914 drew to a close the Western Front became locked into the stalemate of trench warfare, ending all hopes that the war would be over by Christmas. Then in his second year at Cambridge, Cecil Gay - having previously joined the University Officer Training Corps - applied for a commission in the Army. His elder brothers Ernest and Bert had already enlisted; Ernest as an air mechanic in the Royal Flying Corps and Bert as a motor lorry driver with the Army Service Corps.

Although Cecil's preference was for a commission with the Royal Engineers - and failing that the Essex Regiment - he was persuaded by the recruiting officer to put himself forward for any infantry regiment in order to avoid delay. On 22nd February 1915 he was duly appointed to the 10th Bn. East Lancashire Regiment with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant.

Having spent his £50 allowance on regulation uniform and kit - which to his astonishment still included a sword - Cecil reported to the 10th Battalion at its base in Teignmouth. As a Reserve unit, the battalion's function was to train officers and men in readiness to replace casualties in the front-line battalions of the Regiment. The battalion moved to Swanage towards the end of May and, after much hard work and intense training, was able to send its first draft overseas two months later. In mid-August the battalion moved to new quarters in Wareham, Dorset, where it was to stay throughout the remainder of its existence.

It was probably during the summer of 1915 that the family photograph was taken at Eastbrook End.

It was not until the spring of 1916 that Cecil - by then a full Lieutenant - received his first posting overseas to France. Neither side had yet been able to break the deadlock on the Western Front. Now the Allies were planning to launch a fresh offensive in the summer of 1916 at the point where the British and French Armies met in the Department of the Somme.

Cecil could justifiably have been surprised to find himself posted not to a battalion which had suffered heavy casualties but to one which had yet to face its first major action. On 17th June 1916, together with Lt. Hitchon, 2/Lt. Lett and 2/Lt. Williams1, he reported for duty with the 11th Battalion, the Accrington Pals, at Warnimont Wood between the Somme villages of Bus and Authie.

Cecil's first experience of trench warfare would have come just two days later when the battalion took over a stretch of the front line just north of the German-held village of Serre. By the time the battalion was relieved on the night of 23rd/24th June it had suffered casualties from artillery fire of 12 killed and 24 wounded. Back at Warnimont Wood, the Accrington Pals made their final preparations for their rôle in the opening day of the Somme offensive.

On the evening of 30th June the Accrington Pals left Warnimont Wood as a complete battalion for the last time. At around 2.40am on 1st July the four platoons that would form the first wave of attack led by Capt. Tough reached the front line trenches opposite Serre. Cecil commanded one of two platoons of "X" Company on the left of the battalion front in the area of Mark Copse. At 7.20am - as British artillery and mortar fire intensified over the German trenches - the first wave moved into No Man's Land followed a few minutes later by the second wave led by Capt. Livesey.

Right: Outline of trench near Mark Copse, 1997.

Trench near Mark Copse

As the curtain of fire lifted from the German front line at 7.30am, the Pals advanced across No Man's Land into a hail of machine-gun and artillery fire. Capt. Tough was killed within minutes and, as the shattered remnants of the first wave scrambled through the barbed wire entanglements into the German lines, Cecil may well have been the only officer in the wave still on his feet. In any event, the responsibility would have been short-lived as around this time he was hit just below the right ear lobe by a bullet which flew on through the neck, exiting at the back. As his orderly, Pte. Naylor2, dressed his wounds, he too was hit.

For a while the intensity of machine-gun fire over No Man's Land slackened as fighting in the German trenches reached its height. Despite his wound, Cecil was able to work his way back to the British lines where he reported to his Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Rickman3. Cecil would almost certainly have received treatment from the battalion's Medical Officer, Capt. Roberts, before being sent on to a Casualty Clearing Station behind the lines. The full story of the battle for Serre is told elsewhere.

No Man's Land at Serre The photograph is taken from the approximate position of the German front line at Serre. Queens Cemetery is in the middle distance; beyond, the line of trees marks the British front line of 1916.

Within a few days, Cecil was recovering from his wound at 3rd Southern General Hospital in Somerville College, Oxford4.


  1. 2/Lt. Arthur Lett was wounded on 1st July but survived the war, as did 2/Lt. Arthur Williams. Lt. James Hitchon was killed on 1st July and lies buried in Queens Cemetery, Serre (Row A, Grave 16). [back]
  2. The identity of Cecil's orderly remains uncertain. The obvious candidate, 18018 Albert Naylor, was in the third wave of attack according to his own account published in the Accrington Gazette of 15th July 1916. [back]
  3. At 7.50am, Rickman noted down: "Report from Lt. Gay. Left platoon through 1st line. Lt. Gay wounded." [back]
  4. 2/Lt. Arthur Lett who, like Cecil, was on attachment to the Accrington Pals from the 10th Battalion, was also sent to 3rd Southern General Hospital to recover from wounds received at Serre. [back]

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