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Lieutenant Harold Leslie Rayner , 9th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment

Harold Rayner was born in Hampstead on 19 January 1890.  He was the second son of Edward and Louisa Rayner of 7 South Hill Park.  The couple had married at St Pancras in 1877 and their first son, Edward, had been born in 1886.  The family prospered as Harold’s father became a director of Maples and Co, the massive furniture store in Tottenham Court Road.

After Tonbridge School, where he was a scholar, prefect, captain of boats and captain of school, in 1908 Harold won a scholarship to read Greats (Classics) at Corpus Christi, Oxford.  At Oxford he was President of the Corpus College Boat Club and a sergeant in the University Officer Training Corps.

In September 1911 his father died, leaving an estate totalling £82,000.  While his brother Edward trained to become a doctor, Harold travelled the world.  He returned on the outbreak of war and joined the army.  He was commissioned into the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment on 22 December 1914.

After forming and training in England, the 9th Battalion The Devonshire Regiment  arrived in France on 28 July 1915.  Their first action was the Battle of Loos, which began on 25 September 1915.  Here, on 26 September, Harold Rayner and the poet Lieutenant William Hodgson together commanded a hundred men, who consolidated a  captured position, which was under counter-attack from the Germans.  Hodgson was later awarded a Military Cross.  On 9 October, in a letter to his friend Lieutenant Upcott (also in C Company), he described his experience at Loos:

                I set out with 9 and 12 Plats. Over our wire in front of Curley Crescent…  we were able to get  into an organised line without a hitch.  After that I went on in short rushes following what I  could discern of ‘B’ Coy.  I remember them on a little crest in front – 100 yds ahead or more being shelled terribly and W [Wareham] and M [Muntz] presumably encouraging the men.   Then they got out of sight over a little ridge…  they seemed to have disappeared…  Personally I have no recollection of bullets flying around… except when lying at the German wire, but judging by casualties we got it steadily for 500 yards.  Well, I saw nothing to do but push on by short rushes…  as on parade and the men were just splendid backing me up as tho’ Col Davies was watching them at Bordon… with an ever-lessening following I reached the first       line of German wire which was thick and intact.  I was non-plussed and taking stock of the              situation I found Sgt Norman and 4 men – that was all.  I and Sgt Norman put our heads together – literally till a bullet went between them… we awaited developments… and we saw  first one or two then swarms of Germans surrendering – I realised they must have been the rogues who laid B and C out – so we got up and stretched our legs… I had to push on… tho’ my feelings were as if we had scored a try with difficulty on the German wire and the next      thing was to go back… I wanted to attend to casualties… but orders were imperative to go      on.  I went… - itching to put a bullet into 130 Huns captured by Smiler’s [Hodgson’s] bombers and the Borders’ bombers…  I took 15 men (Sgt Copp, Cpl White, Sullivan and others) and took up a position on the edge of the rank grass… it was rotten; no cover except from view.  For an hour things were quiet, 500 yds in front was Cite St Elie.

A company of Wiltshires rushed over the open ground to the trench, losing 40 men doing so.  Feeling a bit lonely out in the open, Harold led his men creeping on their stomachs 100 yards to the trench.

                Eventually we arrived safely to find the trench blocked by a rabble of the [name scored out]        Regiment whom three officers seemed powerless to sort out.  At last I heard Pridham had 120 Devons, 8th and 9th, with him further up.  We squeezed past the [name deleted] and  joined him…  a very dreary period set in, drizzle, cold, mud and reaction…  We were far from  cheerful.  Towards dusk the 8th and 9th sorted out (not many 8th).  Pridham went off that  night with a ration party and never rejoined us, only a foray by Cpl White… keeping any rations going… Cpl White was splendid throughout…

                …so our Bde did very well; making good.  TT  [Brigadier-General Trefusis] said we more than lived up to the reputation of the regt. and he cd say no more.  Capper [Divisional Commander] on hearing what the Devons had done started for the front to see us and was  hit by shrapnel on the way (d of wounds next day)…  the Jocks confessed themselves ready to  fight any time by our sides.        

In February 1916 the 9th Devons moved to the quiet sector on the River Somme to prepare for the major offensive to follow in the summer. 

In their first attack at Mansel Copse, near Mametz, at 0727 hours on 1 July 1916, the Battalion lost 141 killed, 268 wounded and 55 missing – a total of 464 casualties, amounting to 60% of their strength.  Among those killed was 26-year-old Harold Rayner. Their sister battalion, the 8th Devons, who were supporting the 9th in the attack, lost another 207. 

Three days’ later The Rev Ernest Crosse DSO MC, 8th Devons’ Padre, buried Harold Rayner and 159 other men of the 8th and 9th 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.

Harold’s service in France earned him the 1914-15 Star, the 1914-18 War Medal and the Allied Victory Medal.

A year later, on 9 July 1917, Harold’s brother Edward, a Royal Navy surgeon, was killed at Scapa Flow aboard HMS Vanguard.  After an explosion, the battleship sank with the loss of more than 800 lives.  Their mother, who had lost her husband in 1911 and both her children in 1916 and 1917, died in September 1919 in a nursing home in Tunbridge Wells.

In 1919 a collection of Harold’s letters from the trenches was published privately.[1]

 


[1] Letters from France July 26th 1915 to June 30th 1916 printed by John Bale, Sons & Danielsson