In memoriam

Captain Charles Beauclerk Despard

 

 

 

Charles Despard was born at Cultra, County Down, on 31 December 1880, the son of William Francis and Mary Despard of 'Sheelagh' Malone Park, Belfast. (Mary was the daughter of Colonel Arthur Hunt RA.)

After attending the Royal Belfast Academical Institution (The Inst.), in 1899 he enlisted in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. He then joined the Imperial Yeomanry (No.9364) and served in the Boer War with the 46th (Belfast) Company, 13th Battalion. He was one of 400 men captured and subsequently released at Lindley in May 1900. Despard was commissioned on 1 April 1900 and posted to the Imperial Yeomanry, serving with the 74th Battalion. He was mentioned in despatches in 1901:

For gallantry while serving as a Subaltern with the 74th Imperial Yeomanry during the extraction of a convoy from a difficult situation near Griquatown, Cape Colony on 24 August 1901.

Despard went to Canada in 1909 and worked as a rancher at Lloydminster, Saskatchewan. A fellow Irishman, Ivan Crossley, later wrote:

I had always liked the job of handling horses and stock of all kinds so I was soon up to my neck in the business of buying and selling and doing very well. I had five livery teams and used to drive the police and doctors all over the country. I started a cartage business in town, hauling stores and produce from the railroad depot to the different stores. Business grew with the town and I soon found myself almost snowed under looking after everything. One evening during the winter I was doing my books at the office when a team drove up and needed stabling for the night. It was about 40 degrees below and the driver was very cold and hungry, having driven down from Edmonton, some 200 miles to the west. I got him into the warm office after stabling and feeding his horses. We started talking and I soon detected that he was an Irishman like myself. Very soon it developed that he too had come from Belfast and had been out in the woods near Edmonton working at a lumber camp. He had previously been in the Lloydminster district and had taken up a homestead but could not afford to stay at that time. He had come back to "put in his time" as required by the government. I asked his name and was told it was "Despard." "Not Charlie Despard, surely," I said. "Yes," he said and who was I? I soon told him and we found that we had attended the same school and church many years ago and we knew one another’s families. I took Charlie into partnership with me in the business and we worked together many years and made money for us both. He was a born soldier and had fought in the Boer War.

On the outbreak of war Despard returned to England and appled for a commission. He was made Lieutenant on 19 October 1914 and posted to the 9th Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers. However Despard had already bought himself the uniform and kit of a cavalry officer, and applied to join the 6th (Inniskilling) Dragoons Service Squadron. His request was granted.

On 20 February 1915 he married Josephine Madden ("his old sweetheart", according to Crossley), who was the eldest daughter of the Rev Robert Madden of the Acacias, Portarlington, Queen‘s County. The couple moved into Marshfield House, Leixlip, Co Kildare.

In October 1915 he went to France with his squadron, which was attached to the 36th (Ulster) Division as divisional cavalry. The following June the squadron became part of the newly-formed 2nd North Irish Horse Regiment. There are numerous references to him in the regimental diary over the following year.

On 30 October 1916 he was promoted to the rank of Captain.

In September 1917 the 2nd NIH regiment was dismounted and absorbed into the 9th Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers. Despard reported for duty with the battalion on 17 October. He was appointed officer commanding D Company. He took part in the fighting in the Battle of Cambrai in November and December 1917, being awarded a Military Cross for gallantry for the fighting at Moeuvres:

During the attack he commanded his company with the greatest skill and gallantry, clearing a portion of the village on the flank of the battalion. At dusk, seeing that he was in danger of being cut off, he withdrew his own and two other companies, evacuated all the wounded, and held a line south of the village. During all this time he moved about under very heavy machine-gun fire, regardless of personal danger, and displayed the greatest coolness and courage.

In March 1918 he was involved in the battalion's fighting retreat from St Quentin, for which he was awarded a Distinguished Service Order:

For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. During five days of retirement, while as second-in-command of the battalion, he throughout displayed very high qualities as a leader. While in command of the rearguard the gallantry and determination with which he disputed the ground was largely responsible for the safe withdrawal of the rest of the main body.

The battalion moved north to the Ypres sector in April 1918 and took part in the fighting to halt the German offensive there. On 18 April, while leading a relief party of the 1st and 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers to the lines on Mount Kemmel, he was severely wounded in a German artillery barrage. He died soon after and was buried in Kemmel Cemetery, but the location was subsequently lost. He is now commemorated at the Tyne Cot Memorial, Panel 3.

On 6 May 1918, following a letter from the War Office stating they had no information about his death, Despard's widow replied as follows:

Dear Sir

Thanks for your communication just received re my husband ... .  I cannot understand how it is that you have had no report as to his death. I got letters from his Colonel & Chaplain as well as from brother officers telling me that he was killed on the 18th April, he was going to relieve other troops when a shell fell beside him wounding him severely in the thigh, he was taken at once to a dressing post, but died just after being admitted. Would you please have enquiries made at once into the matter, I would suggest your writing to Lieutenant Colonel Kelly commanding 9th Batt Royal Irish Fusiliers for particulars as I am most anxious to know as soon as possible.

Two days later the War Office wrote confirming his death.

 

       

 

 

Captain Despard's medals and memorial plaque on display in the Inniskillings Museum, Enniskillen.

 

Image 1, part of a group photo of officers and NCOs of the Inniskilling squadron, appeared in the Belfast Evening Telegraph of 28 January 1915. The full image can be seen here. Images 2, 5 and 6 copyright © Phillip Tardif with all rights reserved as set out in this Use of Material policy. Images 3 and 4 sourced from the South Dublin Library Service's Our Heroes site http://ourheroes.southdublinlibraries.ie/. The memoir of Ivan Crossley and some other information here sourced from Alan Curragh's website Inst in the Great War: The Fallen of the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. http://www.instgreatwar.com. I am grateful for his agreement that I reproduce it here.