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Born in Algiers in 1886, Duncan Martin was the son of Thomas and Anne Martin of Hailsham in East Sussex. Thomas was an ostrich farmer in Cape Colony. After school near Bristol, Duncan settled in 1908 at St Ives in Cornwall, where he joined the art school run by Elizabeth Forbes and a group of artists there.
An early volunteer, Duncan was commissioned on 29 October 1914 into the newly formed 9th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment. More mature than most of the young subalterns, by the time the Battalion arrived in France on 28 July 1915 he was a Captain.
The 9th Devons’ first major engagement was the Battle of Loos in late September. In February 1916 they moved to the Somme front, where they prepared for the July offensive. In June Martin was been mentioned in Despatches. Having been briefed on his Company’s part in the coming attack near Mametz, he went on leave and built a model of the terrain over which the 9th Battalion would attack. It was used by 20 Brigade to help in their preparation, during which Martin became convinced that, unless it was destroyed in the barrage, a particular German machine gun at Shrine Alley would catch his Company as it advanced along the Mansel Copse track. He even pointed out to his brother officers where he and his men would fall.
At 0727 hours on 1 July the first line of the 9th Devons advanced, under cover of fire from sixteen Stokes Mortars, towards Mametz. Martin’s fears were realised. As Duncan’s No 1 Company topped the rise and moved downhill past Mansel Copse, the machine gun 400 yards away in Shrine Alley mowed them down. Thirty-year-old Duncan Martin was one of the first to fall. That day the 9th Devons lost 141 killed, 268 wounded and 55 missing – a total of 464 casualties, amounting to 60% of their strength. Their sister battalion, the 8th Devons, who were supporting them in the attack, lost another 207.
Three days later The Rev Ernest Crosse DSO MC, 8th Devons’ Padre, buried Duncan Martin and 159 other men of both Battalions in a patch of ground at Mansel Copse. Above the grave they placed a wooden board inscribed:
The Devonshires held this trench.
The Devonshires hold it still.
Duncan Martin was posthumously mentioned in Despatches for a second time. His plasticine model of the battlefield was displayed at the Royal United Service Institute for many years. This model, and his Battalion’s part in the first day of the Battle of the Somme, earned Martin a place in history. The whereabouts of the plasticine model are not known and it may no longer survive. It is not held - and has never been held - at The Keep Military Museum.