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13 July 1916 – Ivan Bennett, Ben’s fiancé, is killed in Trônes Wood

13 Jul

Benedicta Berryman, the eldest of the Berryman sisters, was engaged Ivan Bennett who was killed in Trônes Wood, on the 13th day of the Somme.

Ivan Bennett (Wiggs) - © IWM (HU 113701)

Ivan Bennett (Wiggs) – © IWM (HU 113701)

Ivan’s childhood

Ivan Provis Wentworth Bennett was younger than Ben, 25 to her 30, and working for a law firm when war broke out. Ivan’s background was similar to the Berrymans’. He was the son of a retired army officer, and the grandson of a gentleman landowner on one side and a clergyman on the other. Ivan was the fourth of five children. However, there had been a scandal; Ivan’s mother Eleanor (née Senior) initiated divorce proceedings which were finalised in 1907.

Researcher and local historian Mary Alexander says very fairly:

[Ivan’s father Frederick was] guilty of adultery, assault and cruelty to his wife. Divorce was very unusual, difficult to achieve, and shameful. Perhaps Frederick was a particularly unpleasant man, or perhaps Eleanor was unusually determined. Frederick seems to have retired early from the army, and this, with the family’s frequent moves, might suggest an inability to settle down. … [Or perhaps] Eleanor was difficult to live with, sending Frederick into the arms of Mrs McTavish, with whom he was accused of committing adultery, and provoking him to strike his wife.

Divorce did not lead to closure. Epitaphs of the Great War says about Ivan:

[Eleanor] was … widowed in 1908 when her [former] husband committed suicide in Bournemouth. Following which, Ivan, who was 17 and in the Lower Sixth at Wellington College, left school and became articled to a firm of solicitors in Guildford.

So not only did Ivan suffer the emotional and social consequences of his parents’ divorce, but his professional opportunities were also curtailed by his father’s suicide.

As a child, Ivan sometimes stayed with his extended family. Epitaphs of the Great War also says:

In the 1901 census, ten-year-old Ivan is staying with his uncle and aunt and their five-year-old daughter Dorothy Joyce Husey-Hunt in Hove, Sussex. His parents and siblings were living in Bedford.

As we shall see, this family connection remained strong even after Ivan’s death.

Romance, and war

The Berrymans all called Ivan “Wiggie” or “Wiggs”, a naval nickname of unknown origin for someone called Bennett. The obvious question is whether Paul gave him the nickname.

Ben and Ivan probably met in Guildford between 1908 and 1913. Her mother, Gertrude, disapproved of the romance. Gertrude had strong but narrow convictions and there were so many things about Ivan for her to disapprove of: his parents’ divorce and his father’s suicide, his age and relatively junior position in a law firm, and a possible connection with spiritualism which Gertrude, deeply religious as she was, would have disliked. The Church of England was not without its feuds, and Gertrude may have disapproved of the churchmanship of Ivan’s grandfather the Revd Senior. And Ben mentioned that Ivan was “against soldiering” (perhaps he associated soldiers with his father’s domestic violence). Impossible now to know what Gertrude disliked so much about Ivan. Whatever it was, in 1913 Ben went (or was sent) to India to stay with her brother Ted and meet his much more eligible fellow officers. But war broke out, Ben came home and Ivan joined up.

In September 1914, Ben wrote

Wiggs tell  me he was inlisting (sic) into Kitchener’s 2nd Army, well it obvious the right thing to do, however much against soldiering one is. I do consider the civilians are fine all the same, as it’s not their job- after all one expects a soldier or sailor to live for a chance of active service, their whole training leads up to it, but with a civilian he has all the roughest part & none of the nice.

Within six weeks of Ben’s return, they were engaged and she wrote defensively to her mother:

I don’t know whether you’ll be pleased No I don’t suppose for a moment you will be I can’t quite expect it but Wiggs and I have decided that it’s best to be engaged. The unsatisfactory way in which we were going on was NO good, it isn’t all done on the spur of the moment, much thinking has been done & I’m sure it’s best. There are to be no great shoutings about it but anyone who wants to know can, you will I fancy think we are doing right, the other situation was rotten for me but I didn’t want to sort of rush Wiggs into anything so things had to wait.

Ben’s brothers mention Ivan occasionally in their letters. Their fondness for Ben led them to  accept the situation. The one photograph we have of him shows him with her brothers and looking as if he’s about to laugh, so maybe they came to like him for himself.

When she saw this photograph, Ivan’s great-grand niece said:

I … couldn’t believe the family resemblance “Wiggs” has to my Father at the same age!

Ivan Bennett

Back L-R: Ivan Bennett, Ted Berryman, Richard Berryman
Front L-R: Topher Berryman, Jim Berryman
Spring 1915

The Wartime Memories Project provides context for Ivan’s military career:

7th Battalion, The Queen’s Royal Regiment (West Surrey) was raised at Guildford in September 1914 as part of Kitchener’s Second New Army and joined 55th Brigade, 18th (Eastern) Division. The Division initially concentrated in the Colchester area but moved to Salisbury Plain in May 1915. They proceeded to France in July and concentrated near Flesselles. In 1916 they were in action on The Somme …. including the capture of Trones Wood….

Mary Alexander gives us the specifics:

He became a 2nd Lieutenant on 12 September and a Lieutenant on 27 January 1915. Ivan went to France in July 1915 and was made a Captain on 12 November 1915.

Ivan’s last Leave

In May 1916, Ivan was home for 10 days’ Leave. It seems likely that he would have visited his cousins in Hove, his mother in St Leonards on Sea, and possibly Ben who had a job using “adding machinery” in a bank (presumably in Guildford). Richard gives contradictory information when he comments on letters from Ben. On 2nd June he says:

Bad luck on Ben not being able to get away, now Wiggs is home.

But perhaps they did see each other; a fortnight later, Richard says:

[Ben] seems to have enjoyed herself when Wiggs was home

However, Ted reports:

Ben tells me his nerves were all wrong, so I’ve no doubt a few days at home did him no end of good.

100 years on, it is tempting to assume Ivan had shell shock but he could have just been exhausted and jumpy. This all hints at difficult and possibly rather fraught final encounters in a star-crossed relationship cut short by war. Poor Ivan. Poor Ben.

The Battle of Trônes Wood

Mary Alexander continues:

[Ivan] was not there for the first day of the Somme in 1916, but took part in the attack on Trônes Wood on 13 July.

Wikipedia describes the terrain thus:

The wood had dense undergrowth which … made it difficult to keep direction and during the battle the trees were brought down by shell-fire, becoming entangled with barbed-wire and strewn with German and British dead.

It describes British movements of the 13th July as follows:

The battalion in the wood attacked north and lost direction again in the undergrowth and tangle of fallen trees, stumbling into the German posts along Central Trench and being engaged at close-range. …. About 150 British troops reached the east edge of the wood near the Guillemont track, in the dark and under the impression that they were at the northern end of the wood; when dawn broke, attempts made to advance north failed. The left-hand battalion advanced across the open ground from Longueval Alley, into massed German machine-gun and artillery-fire, preventing the British from getting closer than 100 yards (91 m) to the wood, except for small parties which were destroyed. Another British bombardment at 8:45 p.m. was ineffective and the survivors withdrew with their wounded.

At some point during this day, Ivan was killed. Mary Alexander says:

During gallant leadership he was shot in the head and killed. His batman, Private Courtman, helped him until he too was wounded.

Wikipedia goes on to say:

By …14–17 July… all the trees in Trônes Wood had been toppled, with only low stumps remaining. Tree trunks, barbed wire and human remains lay everywhere, the ground open and easily observed from German positions.

Writing home in August, Ted says to his mother:

Many thanks [for] the enclosures about Wiggs; pathetic reading but how splendidly he died, and what a general favourite he must have been. Thanks most awfully for sending them; I am so vastly relieved to hear he died quickly; I knew he must have died bravely.

“Crowned with the sunshine of eternal youth”

Ivan was initially buried on the battlefield, either near to where he was killed or possibly in the cemetery shown in this photograph.

Graves in Trones Wood just after the war: Michelin Guide to the Somme Battlefields

Graves in Trones Wood – Michelin Guide to the Somme Battlefields

Despite the amount of information available about his death, his grave wasn’t marked with his name and his body was not identified until it was moved to Thiepval Anglo-French cemetery in 1931.

Epitaphs of the Great War  says:

If Ivan Bennett had not had such distinctive initials his body would probably never have been identified. … his body was not recovered from the battlefield until it was discovered in December 1931. There was no identity disc on the body, which was wearing an officer’s tunic with the buttons of The Queen’s West Surrey Regiment, but among the effects discovered with it was a whistle, a cigarette holder and a pencil case engraved with the initials I.P.W.B.

Mary Alexander says:

When he died his address was in Hove. Administration of his will was granted to his mother. He is listed on the parish memorial in Holy Trinity, Guildford, and on the Merrow war memorial, where he was living before the war.

His mother administered his will, but in January 1917 Ted says

I do hope Wiggy’s things have been settled amicably by now, it seems strange that it can’t be done somehow & poor Ben must feel it frightfully.

This suggests that Gertrude wasn’t the only one who had qualms about the relationship, but that Ivan’s mother may have disliked it too. His short life was clearly full of complexity and it is interesting that he recorded his address as Hove. Did he see home as being with his aunt, uncle and cousins rather than with his mother in St Leonards on Sea?

In 1931, it was his cousin, Mrs Dorothy Joyce Bousted (nee Husey-Hunt) who chose his epitaph “Crowned by the sunshine of eternal youth”.

Epitaphs of the Great War says:

The lines come from ‘Rupert Brooke’, a poem by Alfred Dodd published in 1918 [which] outlines Dodd’s belief in the survival of the spirit after death, not as in the Christian belief in eternal life but as in the world of Spiritualism.

Thanks

Ivan is just one of the hundreds of thousands of young men who died without children or grand-children; the great-uncles whose names are forgotten. My mother did not know who the “Wiggs” in Ben’s letters was, and my thanks are due to the many people who helped me piece together his story. Chris Miller identified that “Wiggs” was Ivan Bennett. Rebecca Aubert confirmed his photograph. Mary Alexander and Charlie Eve sent me most of the biographical details here. Sarah Wearne curates the Epitaphs of the Great War website giving other biographical details and information about his epitaph. The photographs of Ivan’s grave and Thiepval come from the War Graves Photographic Project at twgpp.org. Additional information is from Wikipedia, WW1 Battlefields, and The Wartime Memories Project.

 

 
 

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