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The Narracotts of Devon

Narracott is an unusual name – even in Devon, where it springs from. It will ring a bell with some of us because it is the name of the central human character in the book, play and film War Horse, originally written by Michael Morpurgo .Others, who read murder mysteries may remember Fred Narracott the boatman who ferried the victims from Sticklehaven to Indian Island in Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None”. Both writers had strong Devon connections. Morpurgo farms at Nethercott while Agatha Christie famously lived at Greenway near Galmpton and it seems certain that both found the name Narracott close to where they lived.

Although their Narracotts are fictional characters, there were real Devon Narracotts with interesting stories to tell. Two – both called Frederick – served in the Devonshire Regiment in the First World War.

The first was Fred George Narracott; he was born in 1881, the third of four sons born to John and Emma of 86, Winner Street Paignton. By 1901 John, a stonemason had died and Fred was living at home and was working as a bricklayer.

At some stage he enlisted in one of the Devon Yeomanry Units, either the Royal North Devon Yeomanry or the North Devon Hussars which were later merged to become the 16th (Devon Yeomanry) Battalion of the Devon Regiment.

On the outbreak of war the Yeomanry was part of the 2nd South Western Mounted Brigade which mobilised on 4th August and moved with its Brigade to the Colchester area for training and patrolling as a dismounted unit. It remained on the East Coast until 24th September 1915, when it sailed (minus horses) from Liverpool for Gallipoli, arriving on 9th October. In no time the men were in action in the line on the Suvla Bay front coping not only with the enemy but also with flies, the searing heat against which they had little protection and a shortage of water. These conditions were a recipe for disease, especially dysentery and other disabling diseases, and sickness levels rose to 30% and the weather and constant attention from the enemy meant morale was low.

By the time the battalion was withdrawn from the Peninsula in December it had lost 11 men killed in action, 13 from sickness and 3 from wounds or sickness at home in Britain. On 30th December 1915 the Battalion landed in Alexandria, where, still dismounted, it was deployed in Western Egypt.

At the beginning of 1917 the Battalion was sent to the Suez Canal to guard the Eastern Bank.  In early April it crossed into Palestine and took up outpost duty some 8 miles from Gaza, where an attack had recently failed.

A second attack failed in early April and the Battalion remained in the vicinity for several months playing an active part in patrolling No Man’s Land and suffered casualties.

By June the Turks had reinforced their defences and were commanding a line down the road running some 27 miles from Gaza at the coast, to Beersheba. This had to be broken if they were to reach Jerusalem.

On 31 October, with a force of some 200,000 troops General Allenby launched the third attack on Gaza and, by deceiving the Turks with a lengthy preliminary bombardment and a diversionary attack on Beersheba,   his cavalry was able to sweep round the back of Gaza. By 6th November the Turks had vacated their stronghold and were scurrying northwards.  The 16th joined in the chase and on 22nd November had moved north to Latron, North West of Jerusalem and on 3rd. December took part in an attack on the village of El Foka.

 In a desperate scramble over steeply terraced ground, they forced their way into the village. After some stubborn resistance, the Turks were temporarily driven away. Before the position could be consolidated however, the enemy counter-attacked and close quarter bayonet fighting ensued. By daylight it became clear that the Devons’ position was precarious and they asked permission to withdraw. When the Battalion eventually reached safety at Beit Likia, 5 officers and 140 had been killed or were missing; the wounded numbered 141.

Amongst those killed was Private Fred George Narracott; he was 35 years of age and lies buried in The Jerusalem War Cemetery. His headstone bears the inscription, “Peace Perfect Peace.”

The other Devon soldier of the same name was Pte. Frederick John Narracott of the 2nd Battalion Devonshire Regiment

Frederick John was born in Stoke Gabriel - near Agatha Christie’s home - in 1883. The son of James, also a stonemason and Mary; he was the fifth of seven Narracott children. After leaving school he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a mason and in 1905, at the age of 25,   he married Elizabeth Squires Parsons. Together they had 2 children, Gertrude Mary, born in 1906 and James William in 1909.

Soon after the outbreak of War in 1914 Frederick enlisted in Paignton and after a period of training was posted to France. On the 1st June 1915 he joined the 2nd Battalion, which had been part of the British Expeditionary Force since November 1914.

After a relatively peaceful year Frederick found himself on the Somme where, on the 27th June, the Battalion moved to take up positions at the front and on 1st July attacked between Ovillers and La Boiselle, losing 232 killed and 199 wounded. The opening day of the Battle of the Somme had been a disastrous day, not only for the Devons, but for the whole British Army, which had lost 57,470 officers and men; 19,240 had been killed and 2,152 declared missing, on what remains its bloodiest day.  Over the next few days the assaults and counter assaults continued each one gaining just a few yards and bleeding the British forces further. Four days later the Devons were relieved.

 

Removed from the Somme to the  south of La Bassee, the Devons were constantly harassed by the Germans, with their exploding mines and artillery and trench mortar bombardments, all of which the Devons took in their stride. Then towards the end of July the enemy began a series of attacks, many preceded by several hours of aerial bombardment, which appeared to be aimed at destroying the British mineshafts but most ended in failure. Assisted by several substantial drafts of reinforcements the Battalion kept the enemy at bay and, by September, the War Diary refers to the Germans being “unaggressive”.

On 14th October the battalion returned to the Somme, a period of incessant rain. The constant downpour proved a terrible handicap for the Allies but, apart from the rain, woods, houses and even roads had been swept away by the constant bombardment and movement of troops. There was little shelter and the majority of the trenches, even at the front line had been obliterated by the shelling. Despite all this, it was essential that the Allies maintained their pressure against the Germans. On 22nd October the battalion moved into trenches south-east of Flers as Divisional reserve for an attack on trenches near Transloy.

The attack began   next day at 2:30 pm and soon two of the target trenches had been taken. Other brigades however had failed to secure their objectives and so it was necessary for the lead units to fall back to the first trench, Zenith, and there to hold on. As support, the Devons were sent forward to Needle Trench, where they spent the next day, gathering up the wounded and carrying stores. On the following morning the battalion was placed at the disposal of the 25th Brigade to capture, as soon as the weather permitted, that portion of Zenith Trench which was still in enemy hands. There was no improvement on the 27th and it was  decided that the attack was not feasible because of ground conditions and the fatigue of the men, who had been marching in waterlogged trenches since 9 pm the previous day Further delays occurred while deliberations continued and the Battalion was relieved on the 31st “In a muddy and exhausted condition” it arrived at Mansell Camp, some groups taking the whole day to march just six miles.

It is unclear how and when Frederick was wounded but he received wounds from which he died on 31st October 1916. He is buried in Grove Town Cemetery in Meaulte.

Were Frederick John and Fred George related in any way??

The Census Records show quite a number of Narracotts in South Devon so there is a good chance that they may have been distant (or not so distant) cousins. They certainly lived fairly close to each other; one family in Paignton and one in Stoke Gabriel. We may never know unless some reader knows something we have been unable to discover.