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The public perception of a drummer is of a rascal of a lad, probably an orphan, who had run away from home for the excitement of battle, dodging in and around the combatants or manning the barricades. Until well into the 19th Century, western armies had recruited young boys, some as young as 14, to act as drummers. They were an important part of battlefield communications since various drum rolls were used to signal different commands from officers to their troops. Eventually however, bugles replaced drums, the nature of war changed and Drummers and other Bandsmen were to become stretcher bearers.
This story is about three Devon drummers, who were among the first Devon men to go to war in 1914 and were exceptions to the rule.
In April 1911 the 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment was stationed at Lucknow Barracks, named, like all the military accommodation blocks in North Tidworth, after battles in India and Afghanistan. Amongst the other ranks were Walter Dunster aged 36, John Kilgannon aged 29 and Herbert Joy aged 28 whose lives would be tied together in war. Within three and a half years all three would embark with the Regiment to join the British Expeditionary Force in France and within weeks two would be killed and the third decorated for gallantry.
The eldest of them, Walter Dunster was born in 1875 at Blackborough, near Cullompton, the second son of William and Anna Dunster. Walter, like his father and probably like all his school friends worked on the land. When he was 18 he volunteered as a part-time soldier in the 4th Devonshire Regiment of the Militia. After initial training and a period at Annual camp, a total of 90 days, he decided to join the Army and on the 25th June 1894, he presented himself to the Recruiting Officer in Exeter to become Private Dunster, 3972 of the 2nd Battalion Devon Regiment, based in Plymouth. In October 1895 he embarked on the SS Delwara to join the 1st Battalion in India.
The Battalion had been sent there earlier in the same year to assist in the relief of Chitral and in 1897 was engaged in the Tirah Valley against troublesome tribesmen. He followed the battalion to South Africa in October 1899 and fought in the 2nd Boer War and returned to India in 1902. On the 8th March 1906, having completed 12 years of service, he applied to join the Battalion Band and promptly re-enlisted for another 9 years. When the Battalion returned home and settled into Lucknow Barracks in January 1909, Walter had served abroad continuously for 12 years and 9months.
The second of our trio was John Kilgannon from Devonport. Born in 1882, he was the son of James Kilgannon, an Irishman from Sligo, who had served with the famous 75th & 92nd Regiment of Foot – the Gordon Highlanders. He had enlisted in Liverpool back in 1858 and had served all over the world: on discharge in 1879, he settled firstly in Stoke Damerel, then in Exeter, where he worked as a barrack labourer with the Army Service Corps. His wife was Louisa, born in Plymouth in 1863. Perhaps it was inevitable that young John should follow his father into the Army and on 13th December 1895, at the age of just 14 years and 10 months, he enlisted as a part-time Boy soldier in the 4th Battalion Devonshire Regiment. His Medical Record shows he was just 5 feet tall and weighed only 7 stone! A stereotypical Boy Drummer, if ever there was one. In 1899, when the 2nd Boer War broke out the Battalion provided a section of Volunteers to join the 2nd Battalion in South Africa. John signed on as a Regular and served alongside Walter Dunster and, like him, earned the Queen’s and the King’s South Africa Campaign Medals.
Herbert Joy completes the trio. He was born at Bideford in 1883, son of John and Emily Joy, who had 12 children, 5 of whom died in infancy. Herbert’s father was a farm labourer but he chose to become a groom when he left school. Herbert enlisted in 1902 and by April 1911 he was serving with both William Dunster and John Kilgannon in the 1st Battalion at Tidworth. A few months later 7 officers and 250 other ranks went down to Newport after Welsh miners went on strike and another detachment was sent to Derby for another industrial dispute, when lace, cotton and railway workers followed suit. In the same month 3 officers and 50 ranks went to London to parade for the Coronation of King George V.In Sept 1911 the 1st Battalion left for Jersey, where life was described as “being tranquil and even training was low key,” On 4th August 1914 war was declared and immediate mobilization took place but it was not till 21st that 21 officers, 446 other ranks – including the trio of drummers - arrived in Le Havre on the S.S. Reindeer. There they were joined by a further 5 officers, 10 serving soldiers and 569 Reservists from Exeter, boosting the battalion’s strength to over 1,000.Initially the Battalion was dispersed at various locations engaged on Lines of Communication duties, including the quelling of another “industrial dispute” at Nantes, where a group of ex-dockers from Glasgow reputedly ran rampage about the town. By 11th September, the battalion was reunited and found itself at Coulommiers, some 30 miles due east of Paris. From there it made for the Front to join the BEF. By strenuous daily marches the Devons passed over the scene of the recently fought Battle of the Marne, where some 2 million troops.had been engaged and up to 500,000 men had been killed or wounded - the highest casualty figures sustained in any single battle of the war. The front had by then stabilised and the era of trench warfare had begun as the Germans had retired back to the River Aisne and had established themselves on higher ground across the river.
By 14th September the Devons had occupied reserve positions on the Western side of the Vailly-Jouy road, where they dug in, passing a most uncomfortable night in torrential rain. The next day passed fairly quietly, though they came under shell fire and one officer and 16 other ranks were wounded. Later that evening the Battalion went into the front line, which ran just below the crest of the ridge. Early the next morning the Germans began shelling heavily again and this continued intermittently throughout the day. Sadly, Drummer Herbert Joy received wounds from which he never recovered and he died on 16th September. He was one of the first Devon soldiers to die on the field of battle in the Great War; he has no known grave but his name is remembered on La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre Memorial.
The Battalion continued to hold the front trenches for another ten days and suffered over 100 casualties. Sometime during this period John Kilgannon also received wounds, probably gunshot, from which he died on 20th September. He is buried in Braine Communal Cemetery. John was married but his widow did not receive the sad news for almost a fortnight. In the days that followed the local Exeter newspaper published his name and commented that people of the city would remember that he was the bandsman “who carried the big base drum and wore the distinctive tiger skin.”
The Battalion War Diary omits the circumstances of the deaths of either Herbert Joy or John Kilgannon, merely listing them as casualties but we can be sure that as stretcher bearers, they had inevitably been in the thick of the fightingIt was in this same period that the third of our trio was first “noted” by his superiors for his courage in carrying and caring for the wounded. Happily, Drummer Dunster survived this brutal baptism in trench warfare and moved with the Battalion north to Bethune and La Bassee Canal, where it engaged in fierce and brutal fighting with an enemy determined to defend Givenchy and Festubert. Here casualties mounted and Walter would again have been in the thick of it.
Early November brought some respite for the Battalion as it occupied trenches at the foot of the Aubers Ridge, close to Chapigny and then on the 15th it took over trenches from the French west of the Messines Ridge. There was little direct action at this time and the War Diary regularly refers to “a quiet day” and, “nothing to report” but intermittent shelling and sniping continued and casualties mounted. It was here on the 20th that Walter again displayed outstanding bravery in scurrying about under fire tending the wounded. He was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal “for gallant conduct on many occasions in attending on the wounded under fire whilst acting as a stretcher – bearer, and also for gallantry and coolness on 20th November, in removing the wounded from the trenches under fire from enemy snipers.”
Walter later saw action at Hill 60 and witnessed the early gas attacks of 1915 and the preparations for the start of the now infamous Battle of the Somme. However, he was by then 41 years of age and was coming to the end of his term of service. In early June, he was employed at the base hospital in Rouen, prior to being sent back to England on 23rd. June for discharge.
Walter Dunster joined civilian life as a decorated veteran, returning to Bow in Devon. For his 22 years and 3 days service he received a pension 15 1/2d per day, supplemented by an additional 6d per day, on account of his DCM – the modern equivalent of 9 pence.After the war he married Alice Watts and they eventually moved to Weston super Mare, where Alice died on 29th June 1957, followed shortly afterwards by Walter in September of the same year, aged 82.