Major Egbert Napier
Norfolk County Constabulary
Major Egbert Napier, the Chief Constable of Norfolk County Constabulary, after not being called back to the colours, felt that he had no option but to take a commission in the army. He could have lived out the war in a secure post but he chose to go and serve his King and Country.
He initially joined the Northumberland Fusiliers as a Colonel, but took a reduction in rank to re-join his old regiment the Gordon Highlanders, initially serving in the 3rd Battalion, which remained in the UK as a reserve/training unit. However, on the 14th October 1916, he was sent to France as a replacement officer and was attached to the 1/5th Gordon Highlanders, a territorial unit, who were serving on the Somme.
The 1/5th Gordons were part of the famous 51st (Highland) Division and it had been fighting on the Western Front since May of 1915. There is no mention of him joining the battalion in their war diary. The only record we have is the fact that his arrival to the battalion was recorded by Lieutenant Alexander Cheyne who was also serving them
Letters from JWC and Nora
Sing-song in loft with Padre in evening
Major Napier arrives.
At this time the battalion was at Courcelles and they held a church parade before sending out working parties.
When Major Napier joined his battalion the Battle of the Somme was coming to a climax and Field Marshall Haig was looking at one area on the battlefield that had held out since the 1st July 1916. Beaumont Hamel was a fortified village surrounded by a network of trenches, including the formidable position known as Y-Ravine which ran East to West about 800 metres South of Beaumont Hamel and was a deep ravine with steep sides and was lined with dug-outs.
The attack was set for the 13th November 1916 and the Highland Division were ordered to capture the fortified village. The plan was assisted by the fact that a new front-line had been dug right under the noses of the Germans and a new mine would be fired under the old one at Hawthorn Ridge.
Zero Hour was set for 5.45 a.m. and at bayonet point, in frost, sleet, snow mud and fog the Highland Division attacked. The 1/5th Gordons were in support with the 1/7th Gordon Highlanders and the 1/6th Black Watch leading the advance.
The battalion reached the first German line and met no opposition but as they reached the second German line they found it strongly occupied. Here they became involved in hard fighting with the enemy and were assisted by the 6th Black Watch and the 7th Gordon Highlanders.
They succeeded in clearing this line out by bombing their way through the communication trenches where they managed to reach the third German line and by this time only one officer was left in the two lead companies where by now they were also being supported 4th Gordon Highlanders and this meant that elements of the battalion reached the 4th
Although the 51st Division met with heavy resistance, especially from well-sited machine guns in various bunkers and cellars in the village, the Germans capitulated in the afternoon and they managed to join up their advance with other units and divisions where the 1/5th then formed a defensive flank to the east of Beaumont Hamel to join up with the 63rd (Naval) Division.
Egbert Napier was not amongst the survivors. He had been killed in action during the advance along with 5 other officers and 60 other ranks. Knowing Napier like I do I think he would have led his men from the front and would have died quite early on. Certainly the war diary confirms that most of the officer casualties were incurred in the initial advance. His death is not mentioned in the war diary. The only record of his passing is mentioned in Lieutenant Cheyne’s diary,
Receive 43 francs as C Coy Mess fund from 2/Lt Thomas.
ATTACK ON BEAUMONT-HAMEL
Take 3 lines of trenches.
Officers killed – Major Napier, Capt Stephen, 2/Lts Wilson, Sykes, R.M. Ferguson, John Watt.
Wounded – Gilmore, Johnstone, Brackenridge, Gibb, Red, Manson, Capt Robertson, K W Ferguson
Killed OR -60
Wounded – 130
The war diary considered their casualties light compared to the German losses and noted that they captured 305 men.
Major Napier’s passing was reported in the news and he was commemorated as ‘…a soldierly figure at all times’. The changes he made in Norfolk County Constabulary were ground breaking and, to my mind, was all for the greater good and for the welfare of the men who served under him. He has been recorded as a man with a kindly disposition and he was much loved by his officers. It was a sad loss to the service but he died fighting alongside his men and is almost certainly a hero in my books.
Most of the dead were taken to Mailly Wood Cemetery in Mailly Maillet where Major Napier now lies. He was 49 and he left a wife, Evangeline, and two daughters.
I have visited Egbert Napier’s grave on a number of occasions and have stood by his it and held a small silence for a man I greatly respect.