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Colonel Christopher Pepys D.S.O., O.B.E., M.C.
Christopher Pepys was the third of the four sons born to Captain Arthur Pepys (King's Royal Rifle Corps) and his wife Margaret (nee Lomax) following their marriage at St Luke's church, Cheetam, Lancs, on 8th January 1889. Arthur Pepys was born in Marylebone, London in 1846 and served as a Captain in 60th Rifles, based for a time in 1871 at the the Camp in Colchester, Essex.
Following his retirement from the Army about 1887, Captain Pepys and his wife moved to Knowle House, Dalditch Lane, in the vicinity of Budleigh Salterton in Devon. It was and still remains a building of gentrified character set within well maintained landscaped grounds.
It was here that they were to raise their family of four sons - John (b.1890), Francis (b.1891), Christopher (b.1892) and Ivan (b.1895). Whilst little is known about Ivan, it has been established that his three elder brothers were all educated first at Preparatory School in the locality and then at Charterhouse where they all excelled academically as well as on the sports field.
Following Charterhouse John Pepys attended the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, passing out as a Second Lieutenant in the 2nd Battalion of the King's own Yorkshire Light Infantry in 1910. He was sent to France with the British Expeditionary force on 14th August 1914, and died in action (shot by a sniper) nine days later at Mons, Belgium, three hours after going into action as a machine gun officer. He is buried at Hautrage Military Cemetery, St. Ghislain, Hainaut, Belgium. The Supplement to the London Gazette dated 17 September 1914 notes:
"The promotion to the rank of Lieutenant of Second Lieutenant John Pepys is ante-dated to 5th August, 1914."
Like his elder brother, Francis Pepys decided on a military career while still at school in Charterhouse and in May 1913 he was gazetted as Second Lieutenant to the 2nd Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. He went to France with the Expeditionary Force on 13 August 1914 and took part in the Retreat from Mons and then in the Battles of the Marne and Aisne the following month. In action his courage and demeanour in the field earned him being awarded the Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.). The citation for this, dated 1st December 1914, reads as follows:
"On 3rd November 1914, he did conspicuous good work in advancing from his trench and assisting in driving away a party of the enemy who were commencing to dig a new trench within 30 yards of his own; 30 of the enemy were shot down on this occasion."
His bravery was also mentioned in a Despatch of 14 January 1915 by Field Marshal Sir John French, later created 1st Earl of Ypres.
Sadly Francis Pepys was killed in action on 12 November by a shell burst as he stepped out of his trench. He is buried in Tyne Cot Military Cemetery.
After Charterhouse but unlike his brothers before him who had both chosen military careers, Christopher Pepys matriculated to Brasenose College, Oxford in 1911 but, owing to his service in the First World War he was not to receive his BA and MA until 1920. His photograph album, which now lies in the Records Department of the Keep Military Museum in Dorchester, gives a great deal of insight into his character as well as to the social position and lifestyle he enjoyed at University. There is no doubt that the grounding he received from his lifestyle and his education so far was to be further to be developed during the next three years and have a marked effect on his leadership and inter-personal relationships for the rest of his life. As an all-round sportsman who participated in many sports including Cricket, Rugby, Golf and Rowing, as well as being a member of exclusive social and dining clubs, he is seen one who entered into and supported university life with enthusiasm. However as the political situation in Europe was seen to deteriorate rapidly in the summer of 1914 Christopher Pepys joined many of those who sought to enlist.
BN.V Freshers 1911 (Christopher Pepys, middle row, left – right, 4th in.)
Group photo, HORNETS, 1914, (Christopher Pepys, middle row, seated, left – right 3rd in.)
The formation of the 8th (Service) Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment had been ordered on August 7, 1914. After a short stay at Exeter the Battalion left for Aldershot and by the middle of September was established under canvas at Rushmoor Camp. Shortly afterwards the subalterns (including Pepys), having previously been Gazetted, arrived from the O.C.C. camps. Owing to exceptionally inclement weather the Battalion moved into Barossa Barracks at Aldershot where field exercises and a short course of musketry was now fired on Caesar's Camp ranges. Early in December the battalion was ordered to move into billets in villages around Farnham. Pepys in B Company was with Headquarters and D Company now located at Wrecclesham.
8th Battalion at Rushmoor Camp, Aldershot, October 1914, (Christopher Pepys, back row, left – right, 12th in.)
Early in March 1915 the battalion received orders to return to Aldershot where it was to remain until July 25 when it moved by train to Southampton and embarked for France. Following a day at the Le Havre rest camp the 8th entrained, and early on July 28 reached Wizernes. On August 3 the battalion marched off to Carvin where it joined the 20th Brigade of the Seventh Division. Four days later the 9th Battalion marched into Calonne, wither the 8th had moved, to begin the three years' long association of the two battalions.
The history of "The Devonshire Regiment 1914-1918" and compiled by C.T.Atkinson, details the progress of the 8th Battalion and details where it served with particular distinction. Loos, Mametz, Bazentin, High Wood, Ginchy, Ecoust, Bullecourt, Noordemdhoek, Gheluvelt and Vittorion Veneto were the chief milestones in its progress.
In November 1917 Pepys and his battalion moved to Italy to face the Austrian Army, for although the British Armies in France were already fully occupied, the new danger was so threatening that both British and French Divisions had to be hurried to avert it and, on 18th both the 8th and 9th Devons found themselves entraining for Italy. The 8th arrived at Legnago, the detraining point, early on 22nd, half the battalion, under Colonel Worrall travelling via Marseilles, Nice and Genoa; the other half under Major Pepys, via the Mt.Cenis route. The battalions were at once engaged with their foe in a series of battles which reached a climax in October / November 1918 when the Devons routed the Austrian Army in the Battle of Vittorio Veneto. This was to prove to be their last combative action in the war.
Untitled, a group of soldiers looking at the contents of mail bags on roadside.
Major Christopher Pepys had served continuously from the battalion's formation in 1914 to the end of the war when it returned to England and was disbanded in March 1919. As he wrote in his diary on 1st January 1919:
"Left the battalion after having been with it since September 1914 and only away twice while sick with Trench feet in '16 or '17."
Back in England on 3rd January he went straight to the War Office to report and to make contact with old friends. After a weekend socialising in London her returned home to Knowle the following Monday afternoon.
Major Pepys spent the next few weeks indulging in his favourite pass-times, riding, shooting and walking before returning to duty.
On his return to England Major Pepys was assigned to the 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment. In his diary for 1919 he writes:
"Reported for duty once more in Bath."
"Went on Advance Guard Scheme."
"Arrived Sunderland and reported to 3rd Battalion at Hylton Castle."
"Back to London on 19th for medal presentation on the 20th."
20th March 1919
"Went early to W.O. and on to St James's Palace for tickets which I got. Got to Buckingham Palace with Joan at 10.15 ....... The King gave me D.S.O. and M.C. Joan had a good seat with Sue and children. Charlie and Sue lunched with us at Berkeley. Had tea with Sue at Carlton. Dined at Carlton and on to "Chu Chin Chow". Went back to Sports Club."
In April, whilst on leave he went to Exeter where he purchased a Bradbury motorbike with sidecar for £65 and rode it triumphantly home to Knowle. The rest of his leave was spent enjoying his new acquisition as well as helping in the construction of a tennis court behind the house, fishing, riding, shooting and playing golf before he returned to duty. Two months later, he returned with friends to Brasenose College for a reunion and where he viewed his old rooms nostalgically.
In 1921 Major Pepys and his battalion embarked for Waterford in Ireland for one of a many tours of duty he was to undertake over the next few years. Despite these however he still found time to fully enjoy periods of leave, particularly in October 1924 when he married Helen Forbes Black (b. about 1897) at St Thomas Church, Exeter.
One landscape photograph (B&W), untitled, of Major and Mrs Pepys on the occasion of their marriage (Wednesday, 15th October, 1924.)
Newspaper cutting from The Times, 1924
On 14th April 1926 Helen gave birth to their daughter Patricia (who never married and lived until 22nd May 2001 when she died at the age of 75) and then in 1930 to their son John David Forbes. Helen herself died on 9th January 1937 at the age of 40.
In 1929 he retired from the Army and took up fruit farming at Dukes Orchard at Bradninch not far from his home at Knowle, and remained here for five years.
Being on the Regular Army Reserve of Officers he mobilised on 1st September 1939 as Major (D.S.O., M.C.) commanding No.1 Railway Labour Company. The Company consisted of reservists of the Kings (Liverpool) Regiment, Kings Own, Lancashire Fusiliers and Manchesters, The Company, which later became 10 Company Auxilary Military Pioneer Corps went with the British Expeditionary Force to France on 13 September 1939.
Major Pepys was a Group Commander when the Germans attacked in May 1940 and became Battalion Commander in the Bauman Division which tried to hold the Seine after the Dunkirk evacuation. At this point the battalion strength of 550 men was now reduced to 170. Transport was painfully short and the thirty-mile journey to the river was carried out by shuttling the trucks backwards and forwards, the men alternately marching and riding. At times enemy tanks were seen crossing the roads ahead of the party, at other times the men lay hidden in the long hay whilst other German tanks passed to one side or the other.
"Fortunately the tanks were out to make ground," an officer of the battalion wrote later, "and I imagine they were leaving the following infantry to mop up. Had we known that the German Panzer Division was commanded by Erwin Rommel it would have conveyed nothing to us at that date, but I think we all formed an impression of his competence."
The situation now was such that a steady withdrawl westward was effected, one defence position after another being occupied, but never again making contact with the enemy. The morning of the 17thJune found the Battalion near Caen where they were met by transport which carried them to Cherbourg, from which port they sailed for England that evening. For his handling of the battalion under these previous situations Major Pepys was Mentioned in Despatches.
Back in England Major Pepys was given a series of commands of Groups of the Pioneer Corps in the United Kingdom, including a fire-fighting task at Liverpool Docks during the blitz. In 1944 he returned to France as a Colonel on the staff of the Labour Directorate and was awarded the O.B.E. and M.I.D.
Promotions, Awards and Citations
After a distinguished military career spanning over thirty years Colonel Christopher Pepys D.S.O, O.B.E., MC. finally retired from service in 1945.
From being commissioned as a Temporary 2nd Lieutenant on 26th August 1914, he progressed to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant on 26th May 1915 and then to that of Lieutenant on 1st July that year. Promotion to the rank of Captain followed early in 1916, to that of Temporary Major in February 1917 and then to Major in September 1919.
In the First World War he was Mentioned in Despatches three times (4th January 1917, 30th May 1918 and on 5th June 1919) and was awarded the D.S.O. whilst in Italy in 1919, the citation reading:
"For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the left bank of the Piave on 27th October, 1918. In command of the battalion, which was in brigade support, he led his troops across the Piave under very heavy fire, and hearing that there was a gap between the front line battalion and troops on the right, he at once pushed forward to fill the gap, and pushed his advance until held up in front of C.Palacin, a formidable strong point. Hearing that the troops on his left were held up and the commanding officer killed, he went to them under heavy fire, reorganised them, and supervised consolidation until reinforcements arrived. During the further advance next day into villages occupied by the enemy he showed great initiative and courage in directing attacks on strong positions."
His medals included the Distinguished Service Order, Order of the British Empire (Military Division), Military Cross,14/15 Star, British War Medal, Victory Medal+MID, 39/45 Star, France and Germany Star, War Medal 1939–1945+MID and the Italian War Cross
In total he was Mentioned in Despatches seven times. In the First World War:
PEPYS, 2nd-Lieut. (T/Capt.) C. (three times).
London Gazette: 4 January 1917, 30 May 1918, 5 June 1919.
And in the Second World War:
Major C Pepys, Devon, Distinguished Service, LG 26/7/1940;
Major C Pepys Devon, Distinguished Service, LG 20/12/1940;
T/ Colonel C Pepys, Pioneer Corps, NWE, LG 22/3/1945;
T/ Colonel C Pepys, Pioneer Corps, NWE, LG 9/8/1945;
The character and demeanour of Colonel Pepys
Archived material reveals much about the character of Colonel Christopher Pepys and the forces that determined it throughout his life. No doubt the career of his father had some bearing on the decision of his two elder brothers to enter the Army immediately after leaving Charterhouse and, whilst he himself elected to read for a degree at Oxford University, his success in his subsequent military career can be said to have been built on these foundations.
As a youth he grew up in a privileged rural social environment and it was here that his love of fishing, walking and riding were kindled. At Charterhouse he was a good all-round sportsman and developed friendships and standards that were to last him through his days at Oxford and for many years afterwards. His rapid promotion from T/2nd Lieutenant to Major over a four year period was not only due to the shortage of officers as a result of enemy action, but also to his competence and ability to forge excellent working relationship with others. He was liked and respected by he came into contact with, whatever their rank and this can be deduced from some of his letters written home whilst on active service in the First World War.
"Very happy and going strong. All the men are splendid but tired as have had hard time. I have just had six hours sleep and feeling fit for anything again."
3rd February 1917,
"Thanking you for the case of Burgundy. We had a bottle last night, well warmed up, and all like it very much and are going to drink it every night. One really does want a drop of something this weather and I like it much better than hot water or whisky, which I have been drinking lately to keep the cold out."
19 March 1917, Back from the immediate front.
"Horrible to see the demolition Bosch has done. I suppose it is correct strategy to spoil all the billets but it is not necessary to pay the greatest attention to the churches which he has hardly left a stone of. Arsenic in the water too is not a nice trick either. It is going to make the French fight harder than ever."
In his letters home he mentions on more than one occasion his concern that the rationing in England is having on the population, together with the weather he has been experiencing in France. He also finds time to express caring feelings for his fellow officers and men.
He also asks for pipe tobacco and cleaners to be sent out to him.
On 30 April 1917 he is home on leave but returns to the front soon after.
5 May 1917.
"My name has gone in for Major and I lose my job as Adjutant. He (previous C.O.) wanted me to take it last February but I wouldn't as I said I thought I was far too young for the position. Turns out someone in UK got in first - so he gets Temporary promotion."
In same letter he asked for underclothing and his rimless glasses he left behind when on leave.
"I am looking forward very much to seeing the photos. I keep on looking at the ones I brought back with me, reminding me of the priceless time I had. I really think these leaves are the most wonderful things. I feel absolutely different now to what I did before going home."
15 May 1917.
"I went over a good deal of the Somme battlefield yesterday. It is wonderful to see how it has lost its horrible battle appearance, and the shell holes are already quite green, and all will be covered in the summer. It looks pretty desolate but hasn't got the horrible appearance of last summer."
Whilst on leave Major Pepys was able to make a handwritten copy of part of a letter from General Trefusis to Lady Clinton:
"Yes. Young Pepys is in this Brigade and I know him well. He is one of the few officers of the 8th Battalion who came out of the last attack whole. Both the 8th and 9th Battalions did splendidly, especially the 8th, and I hear no words good enough for them, but they suffered cruelly heavy losses. They have made a great name for themselves. You can let them know in Devonshire, privately, how well the two Battalions did and how proud they should be of them."
In retirement Colonel Pepys continued to enjoy the lifestyle into which he had been born. He liked nothing more than to fish on the River Otter or with friends, to swim and enjoy picnics on the beach, but in all cases always accompanied by his cigarettes or pipe and his dog. A memorial to him and his family in the local parish church bears witness to his firm belief in Christian values which, despite the ravages of war that he had witnessed, remained with him until he died.
London Gazette, 6 October 1980.
"Colonel Pepys (Retired) died on 25 June 1980 at 'Headlands', Budleigh Salterton, Devon."