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Captain Claude Alexander Lafone DSO, Devonshire Regiment

Born at Hanworth, Middlesex, on 24 February 1877, Claude Lafone was the eldest son of Alfred William Lafone and his wife Harriet.  He was baptised in the parish church at Hanworth on 31 March 1877, the register recording Alfred Lafone as Esq – a gentleman living on his own means; he was, in fact, the son of a Conservative MP.  The 1881 census, however, lists him as a Leather Factor and shows the family living with three servants at The Elms, Green Man Lane, Hanworth.  By 1891 Alfred Lafone is shown as a widower, ‘living on his own means’ at Hanworth Park.  By this time Claude was at Harrow. 

Commissioned on 1 December 1897 into the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment from the 3rd Devon Militia, Claude was promoted Lieutenant on 9 March 1899.  He served with the 2nd Devons in the Second Boer War, seeing action at the Relief of Ladysmith, Battle of Colenso, Spion Kop, Vaal Kranz, Tugela Heights, Pieter’s Hill and Laing’s Nek.  He was mentioned in Despatches in the London Gazette of 10 September 1901 and promoted captain on 20 December 1901. In 1911 he was best man at the wedding of his friend Captain Percy Worrall.

He landed in France on 6 November 1914, as Officer Commanding D Company of the 2nd Battalion The Devonshire Regiment.  The Battalion first went into the line opposite Messines Ridge on 11 November.  A week later they moved to occupy the line north west of Neuve Chapelle.  Here the British and German trenches were between 100 and 200 yards apart and the ground was low-lying and water-logged.  During two tours of these trenches in late November, the 2nd Devons had twenty casualties and seventy men sick, mostly as a result of frostbite.  This was a position in which both sides indulged in active patrolling and exchanged small arms fire.

The 2nd Devons were chosen to attack a German trench about 150 yards in front of their main line, south of a farm known (after Tennyson’s poem) as the Moated Grange.  The purpose of the attack was to dislodge the Germans from this position, from which they might enfilade some of the British trenches.  Colonel Travers ordered C and D Companies to lead the assault and, after a fifteen minute bombardment, the two companies went over the top.  Major Goodwyn’s C Company came under heavy fire from their left and were obstructed by fences which ran diagonally across their line of advance.  Veering left, they ran into barbed wire.  Goodwyn was wounded, three officers were killed and a subaltern was also badly wounded. 

Lafone and D Company were luckier.  They were sheltered from the German fire and, because Second Lieutenant Cox had reconnoitred the ground earlier and located some wire, they were able to avoid it.  They rushed a small trench south of the Moated Grange and reached the German line east of the farm.  In the ensuing battle D Company inflicted many casualties and took thirty prisoners.   B Company and some survivors from C Company now arrived to help consolidate D’s gains.  The trench they had captured had suffered heavily during the British bombardment and was full of dead and wounded Germans.  The position remained under heavy sniping and shelling and the Devons sustained more casualties as they consolidated. 

A party of Royal Engineers under Lieutenant Philip Neame came up to help connect the captured German trenches with the British trench system.  Neame was awarded the VC for his bravery helping to repel German counter-attacks.

The Devons were relieved and withdrew.  They had lost about 130 killed and wounded.  Claude Lafone was awarded the DSO:  For conspicuous gallantry on the night of 18th December 1914, near Neuve Chapelle, in capturing a trench from the enemy.[1]  The Regimental History described this award as as well deserved as it was popular.[2]  

The Division remained in the area throughout the winter.  On 12 March 1915 the Germans launched an attack all along the line, which was repulsed after some desperate fighting.  The 2nd Devons were in reserve but were subjected to heavy shelling.  About midday, Claude Lafone, who had just returned to his Company from a visit to Battalion Headquarters, was killed instantly by a shell splinter in the head.  A fellow officer wrote:  He was as usual full of keenness to advance, full of praise for his men.  No company officer was ever more beloved, more solicitous for his men’s welfare.  He died, as he would have wished, in the midst of his company.  Another described him as the outstanding man in a fine battalion.[3]

Company Sergeant-Major John King (5456) took over command of D Company and that night won a Distinguished Conduct Medal for rescuing a wounded man from within fifty yards of the enemy trenches.[4]  Claude Lafone was mentioned posthumously in Despatches in the London Gazette of 22 June 1915.

Claude Lafone, who was thirty-eight years old, is buried in the Royal Irish Graveyard at Laventie.  Unmarried at the time of his death, his estate totalled £806.  His service earned him the DSO, Queen’s South African War Medal with five clasps, King’s South African War Medal, 1914 Star and clasp, 1914-18 War Medal and Allied Victory Medal with mention in Despatches oak leaves.  In November 1917 his father wrote from his home, Springfield, Walton on Thames, to apply for his son’s 1914 Star.


 

 


[1] London Gazette 18 Feb 15

[2] The Devonshire Regiment 1914-1918.  C T Atkinson Exeter 1926

[3] Ibid

[4] London Gazette 3 Jun 15