As the Accrington Pals prepared to take part in the Battle of the Somme, only one of their officers is known to have had the experience of going "over the top": Lt. Gerald Thomas Gorst, known to his friends and family as Gerry, had been wounded with the 2nd East Lancashires at Aubers-Fromelles on 9th May 1915.
On 19th August 1914, four days before the British Expeditionary Force would meet the advancing German Army at Mons, Gerry put his signature to an application for appointment to a commission in the Special Reserve of Officers. The application was supported by H. Entwistle Bury, a solicitor at 47 Lincoln Inn Fields and trustee to his father's will, and his uncle, Lt.-Col. Charles J. Lloyd Carson, commanding officer of the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment.
Gerry was duly granted his commission, and was posted as 2nd Lieutenant to his uncle's battalion at Laira Battery in Plymouth. In the course of the five years or more that he was to command the 3rd East Lancashires before his retirement on 1st July 1919, Lloyd Carson, a veteran of the Boer War, would oversee more than 500 officers and 21,480 other ranks drafted to the front2; his appearance and mannerisms were nevertheless the source of amusement to subalterns: H. E. L. Mellersh recalled that Lloyd Carson "had a favourite expression, which was "God bless my soul." It seemed to fit him and his reaction to the situation in which he found himself - as also did his eyeglass, which gave him rather a surprised expression but which he could drop out of his eye to the length of its ribbon with considerable effect"3.
Eric William Gorst, Gerry's elder brother, was less fortunate. Gazetted 2nd Lieutenant with the Royal Fusiliers on 14th August 1914, he was one of 9 officers who joined the regiment's 4th Battalion at Sains-lès-Pernes as early as 10th October. The battalion had already suffered 7 casualties among its officers at Mons, and lost a further 5 officers at Vailly on 14th September. On 26th October, Eric lost his life in the attempt by 4th Royal Fusiliers to recapture trenches west of Neuve Chapelle in a night attack4-6. Eric has no known grave, and is commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial7.
Gerry was first sent overseas early in March 1915, and was posted to the 1st Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment which he joined at Le Bizet on the 16th. In a letter to his sister, Betty, he wrote "I'm rather lucky to be here, as the battalion has two subalterns over-strength". Any satisfaction he felt at being posted to the 1st was short-lived; two days after arriving, he was sent to the 2nd Battalion which had lost 12 officers and 275 other ranks over 10th-14th March at Neuve Chapelle8. On the evening of the 19th, he joined A Company of his new battalion "in the last place I expected or wanted to be in", a short distance from where his brother had been killed five months earlier.
Above: Map showing the 2nd East Lancashires' attack at Aubers-Fromelles on 9th May 1915. The dotted black line in the centre of the 2nd East Lancashires' position indicates the present day location of V.C. Corner Australian Cemetery.
The attack of the 2nd East Lancashires on 9th May 1915 formed part of the British IV Corps assault on the Aubers-Fromelles ridge. On the night of the 8th/9th, the battalion took up position led by one platoon from each of B and C Companies in an advanced trench on the Pétillon-Fromelles road. At 5am on the 9th, the British artillery began a heavy but largely ineffectual bombardment of the enemy trenches. At 5.20am, the remaining platoons of the East Lancashires' B and C Companies began to move up towards the advanced trench in readiness for the attack, followed closely by D and A Companies. Immediately the infantry began to move across the open ground, they were exposed to a murderous hail of rifle and machine gun bullets. On the right of the battalion's front, B Company advanced across No Man's Land until almost all were either killed or wounded; on the left, a few men of C Company managed to break into the enemy line alongside 2nd Rifle Brigade. Behind them, D and A Companies both suffered heavy casualties before even reaching the advanced trench. Orders were issued for the battalion to renew the attack after a second bombardment of the enemy lines at 1pm; in the event, the artillery fire fell short, and the further casualties inflicted on the battalion effectively ended it as a fighting force. At the end of the day, the 2nd East Lancashires had lost 449 officers and men killed, wounded or missing9. Gerry Gorst was among the casualties, having received a bullet wound through his left arm. A Medical Board assembled at Cambridge on 13th May noted that he was suffering from partial paralysis of the extensor muscles in his forearm with some loss of sensation of his thumb and outer fingers. Five months later, he was assessed to be once more fit for military duty. In the meantime, Gerry had received his promotion to Lieutenant on 15th August.
Gerry left England again on 25th May 1916, this time to find himself posted to the Accrington Pals whom he joined at Courcelles in the afternoon of the 28th. Shortly after arriving, he went up to the trenches with the battalion's commanding officer, Lt.-Col. Arthur Rickman, who was then temporarily in command of 94th Brigade. In his letter to Betty of the 29th, Gerry wrote: "This is a very good battalion, I think, and I'm not a bit sorry I came now. I am taking over command of a company, only for the time being, as the captain thereof is away sick." Despite the positive impression of his new unit, he keenly sought a transfer back to the 1st Battalion which was in billets only 1½ miles (2.5km) away at Bertrancourt. Rickman, however, was equally keen to keep him, and the transfer was blocked.
The battalion's last spell in the front line before the attack on Serre saw 12 men killed and 24 wounded over the period 19th to 23rd June. At least four of the dead men were from Gerry's company: "We had four men buried by a shell this afternoon and I helped to dig them out, with the result that I've been feeling rather sick ever since; they were all dead poor chaps; and one of my best sergeants wounded too."10-11.
As 2nd-in-command of his company, Army orders dictated that Gerry was held in reserve as the Pals vainly fought to reach Serre on 1st July. Following the death in the attack of Capt. Harry Livesey, Gerry took over command of W Company the following day. A week later, he wrote: "I would not leave this battalion now for anything on earth: they fought like heroes, and I'm proud to belong to them."12.
Over the next few weeks, Gerry's frustration at being passed over for promotion is evident from his regular letters to Betty. Certainly he was delighted when, on Rickman's recommendation, he was promoted to Captain with seniority antedated to 5th May.13-14.
For much of the summer, Gerry found himself once more in the Neuve Chapelle area before the battalion moved to Festubert in mid-September. During a night patrol into No Man's Land, he was lucky to escape with his life: "I nearly tore it last night [20th/21st September]; I wandered out into No man's land after sending my runner to tell everyone I was doing so; unfortunately the ass never told the Lewis gunners, so they naturally thought I was a Hun, and did some pretty shooting on me at 30 yards. Of course, I was out of sight in about one fifth of a second, but they put one through the sleeve of my tunic, which was quite as close as I care about."15.
Early in October 1916, Gerry began to suffer from D.A.H. (disordered action of the heart), an illness which saw him invalided back to England the following month. Once pronounced fit for light duty, he became an instructor with No. 15 Officer Cadet Battalion (formerly 2/28th (County of London) Bn., London Regt. (Artists Rifles)) at Hare Hall, Gidea Park, Romford before being released for service in the Colonial Office with effect from 24th April 1918. Gerry was demobilised on 12th April 1919.
After leaving the Colonial Office in August 1919, Gerry was employed as a clerk with N. M. Rothschild & Sons before deciding to study law. He was admitted as a solicitor on 1st March 1924, and shortly after became a partner in the firm of Reynolds & Sons specialising in commercial law. On 30th June 1928 he married Mary Kathrine Joyce Tolcher at Thurlestone.
While serving as an Air Raid Warden for the Borough of Richmond in the summer of 1940, Gerry successfully applied for registration in the Army Officers' Emergency Reserve. His application was again supported by Charles Lloyd Carson, and by N. L. Macaskie, a King's Counsel. Macaskie described Gerry as "a man of singular charm, good temper and impurturbability. I can vouch for his integrity, competence and reliability. If he has a fault it is that he is inclined to remain in the background and not to assert himself, possibly the defect of a somewhat gentle nature. He is not weak, on the contrary he follows unswervingly the path he sets out on." On 5th August 1940, Gerry was commissioned into the 10th (Home Defence) Bn., Devonshire Regt. at Plymouth with the rank of Lieutenant. A little under two years later, he was posted to 22nd Bn., Devonshire Regt. H.G. for duty as Adjutant and A/Captain, a promotion that was confirmed on 17th October 1942. From 8th December 1942 until his demobilisation on 24th August 1944, he was on attachment to the 17th (Dockyard) Bn., Devonshire Regt. H.G.
Gerry died at his home in St. Buryan, Cornwall on 18th February 196816.
© Andrew C Jackson 2008
Compiled from the army service record of Capt. Gerald Thomas Gorst (M.O.D. P/144015/1), and referenced sources. Unless stated otherwise, all quotations are taken from contemporary letters written by Gerry Gorst to his sister, Betty, and reproduced here by kind permission of Gerry's son, John Gorst.