Cyril and Lawrence Marvell – a fraternal tragedy in two acts

One day in November 1914, teenage brothers, Cyril and Lawrence Marvell, leapt on board an army recruitment tram as it passed through the village of Rodley, between Leeds and Bradford, close to their home. They had been at the roadside to watch the passage of the illuminated tramcar and to soak up the carnival atmosphere with their parents, William and Mary (my great-grandparents) and siblings, including 10-year old Marjorie (who would grow up to be my grandmother).

To the horror of their watching family, the impetuous teenagers had been seduced by the most successful recruitment campaign in British military history. Lord Kitchener’s extravagantly moustachioed face was emblazoned across billboards, newspapers and magazines, reminding Britons every day that “YOUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU!”. In towns and cities throughout the land, groups of men from the same factory, football team or family were urged to enlist together to form so-called pals’ battalions.

It was an emotive and successful ploy but would have devastating consequences as countless communities would go on to lose an entire generation of men in the mechanised slaughter of the Great War. In 1914, however, the public were blinded to the true horror to come and were duped into believing that the conflict would be swift and easily won (“it will be over by Christmas!”).

Despite being under the military age of 18 (and the conflict age of 19), Cyril and Lawrence were welcomed aboard the recruitment tram which was festooned with slogans such as “Boys, come over here!”. The military authorities, who desperately needed “men and more men until the enemy is crushed”, routinely turned a blind eye to underage recruits. It is estimated that as many as 250,000 underage boys were recruited into the British army during the Great War; if they were tall enough and fit enough, they were considered to be old enough.

On 1st July 1915, Private Cyril Marvell and the rest of the 9th Battalion of the West Yorkshire (Prince of Wales’s Own) Regiment left their training base at Witley Camp in Godalming, Surrey bound for Liverpool docks. There they boarded the RMS Aquitania and set sail at 8.30pm on 3rd July for an unknown destination. At dawn the next morning, the vessel came under torpedo fire from a German submarine but zig-zagged away at high speed and escaped unscathed.

The ship entered the Mediterranean via the Straits of Gibraltar on 6th July and had another close encounter with an enemy submarine on the 7th. On the morning of 10th July, the Aquitania dropped anchor in Mudros Bay in the Greek island of Lemnos and the troops began to prepare to play their part in an amphibious assault on Suvla Bay in the Gallipoli Peninsula of the Ottoman Empire (modern-day Turkey). The objective of the Gallipoli campaign was the capture of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) to open a sea route to the Russian Empire, one of Britain’s allies. Earlier in the year, Allied troops (particularly Australians and New Zealanders) had suffered devastating losses in failed attempts to secure the peninsula.

The Suvla landings were commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Stopford, a 61-year old veteran of the Boer War who had been promoted well beyond his experience and capability. The assault had been poorly planned and its objectives were vague and ill-considered but none of Stopford’s subordinates challenged him, despite their private misgivings.

Finally, on 4th August, the 9th Battalion received its battle orders with the objective of securing Suvla Bay for the disembarkation of the 10th Division. Private Marvell and his comrades were transported to the beaches of Suvla Bay the following evening on board oil-propelled lighters (known as Beetles) in charge of torpedo destroyers.

The night was still and dark and the troops disembarked onto the beaches without incident – the enemy had been taken completely unawares. The men of the 9th Battalion formed up on the beach at 10pm and set off for their initial objective, Lala Baba, in support of the 6th Battalion. By now, the enemy were alerted to their presence and began to fight back. The 6th and the 9th came under heavy fire but secured Lala Baba, despite suffering severe casualties in the firefight.

Further advances were made the following morning but losses continued to mount and the lack of planning and clear orders began to take their toll on the operation. The chain of command had broken down and Stopford remained on board HMS Jonquil where he deluded himself that everything was going to plan. The 9th Battalion had already lost nine officers and had become scattered with some platoons moving north whilst others (including Cyril’s) headed for Yilghin Burnu (known as “Chocolate Hill”) in support of the 34th Brigade.

By now, Cyril was engaged in a terrible battle of attrition. The weather was unbearably hot and water supplies were running low and were at times completely unavailable. Cyril was tormented by thirst as well as the tremendous strain of being under almost constant attack. At some point on 10th August, Cyril joined in an assault on Chocolate Hill. Enemy snipers were entrenched in elevated positions and rained fire down on the attackers. Cyril was struck by a sniper’s bullet and fatally wounded. In the heat of battle, there was no option but leave him where he lay. He was reported “missing presumed dead”. He was one of nearly 300 men of the 9th Battalion who perished between 7th and 11th August during the Battle of Suvla Bay.

Lieutenant-General Stopford was dismissed from duty on 15th August 1915. Ultimately, the Gallipoli campaign failed and would go on to have a profound effect on planning for similar amphibious landings in future campaigns such as D-Day and the Falklands War.

The Marvell family were notified that Cyril was missing presumed dead a few weeks later. They were heartbroken and desperate for more concrete news of the fate of their son. The Leeds Mercury issued an appeal for information on their behalf on 13th October 1915. It was not until March 1916 that they were finally told (by the Red Cross) of the circumstances of his death.

Cyril, whose body was never recovered, is remembered with honour at the Helles Memorial near Sedd el Bahr, Turkey.

Younger brother, Lawrence, survived the First World War and, at the outbreak of the Second, enlisted again. His unit, the 10th Army Field Workshop of the Royal Ordnance Army Corps, was despatched to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. Following the German blitzkrieg invasion of France and the Low Countries in May 1940, Lawrence was one of hundreds of thousands of Allied troops who were trapped as France teetered on the brink. History remembers those who were heroically rescued from Dunkirk at the end of May but not those who were left behind. Lawrence was one of the forgotten.

With little to stand in their way, the Germans continued their murderous advance towards Paris. Allied captives who were not force-marched to camps in Germany and Poland were slaughtered in cold-blood. Lawrence, together with thousands of others, rushed across northern France to get to Cherbourg before the Germans and to escape back across the Channel from there.

On 10th June 1940, the 10th Field Workshop had reached Ourville-La-Riviere, near the French coast between Dieppe and Le Havre. They were ordered to continue their advance from there to Fecamp. When they were approximately 10kms outside Fecamp, part of the column was intercepted by German tanks of the feared 7th Panzer Division under the command of Erwin Rommel. One officer and 55 men were lost in the subsequent fighting. Lawrence was one of those who lost their lives.

Lawrence is buried in Ouainville churchyard, alongside Corporal Percival Drew and three unnamed British soldiers. It appears that those five men had become separated from the rest of the column at Ouainville and were killed at the intersection of two main roads near Le Café du Dernier Sou.

Rommel pushed the rest of 51st (Highland) Division north east back to the coast at Saint Valery where they surrendered on 12 June. Their commanding officer, Major-General Victor Fortune, was the highest-ranked British officer to be captured in France. The survivors were marched back to a POW camp in Poland. Incredibly, 134 of them escaped and made it back to England.

Lawrence was 41 years of age and left behind a widow, Hilda. As with Cyril, the family had an unimaginably long wait for news of Lawrence’s fate. He was reported missing in June 1940 but it was not until 13 months later, July 1941, that his death was notified to them.

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Newspaper extract published with permission from the British Newspaper Archive.

Cyril (top) and Lawrence Marvell

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