ALGERNON HYDE VILLIERS

Lieutenant, Lothians and Border Horse,
Att'd 121st Company, Machine Gun Corps (Infantry)
Killed in Action in the attack on Bourlon Wood, Battle of Cambrai, France,
23 November 1917, aged 31
Commemorated at Cambrai Memorial, Louverval, Nord Pas-de-Calais, Panel 1
 

Cambrai Memorial

At first glance, there seems to be no good reason why the name Algernon Hyde Villiers should appear on the Forest Row War Memorial. Neither he nor any of his immediate birth family had ever lived in the area. However, I suspect it was to her parents' home at Cherry Orchard in Forest Row that his widow returned after his death, and it was she who put his name forward for the memorial book there.

Algernon Hyde Villiers had a distinguished ancestry. His grandfather, George Villiers, was 4th Earl of Clarendon, and owed his title to the first earl, Edward Hyde, who in turn was grandfather to two Queens of England — Mary II and Anne. After the male Hyde line failed, a granddaughter of the last Earl married a member of the Villiers family — a man whose ancestor was brother to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, favourite of James I — and the earldom was created anew. In addition, Algernon Villiers could claim descent from the Howard Dukes of Norfolk.

To come back up to date, Villiers was the son of the Right Honourable Sir Francis Hyde Villiers and his wife Virgina Katharine Smith (whom he had married in 1876.) The Times announced his birth on 1 February 1886 at 55 Cadogan Place, although his wife placed the birth at 103 Sloane Street, which lies opposite Cadogan Place, just across a private park. Both addresses lie between Sloane Square and Knightsbridge. There were three older siblings, Dorothy, Eric and Gerald, and a sister Marjory was born a few years later. Like two of his elder siblings, he was baptised at Chelsea Holy Trinity Church, on 15 March 1886 in his case. (The other two were christened at Slaugham in Sussex.)

The father boasted a distinguished career in the Foreign Office and was appointed Private Secretary to Lord Rosebery (later Prime Minister) three days after Algernon's birth. He held several posts at different times as a Private Secretary as well as being a Privy Counsellor. Between 1906 and 1911 he was Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Portugal, a role he repeated in Belgium before becoming Ambassador to that country after the War. He was awarded numerous decorations, including the Order of the Bath. It is probably because of his father's role in Portugal that Algernon Hyde Villiers' name appears on the first class passenger list of the SS Thames, arriving at Southampton from Lisbon in 1906. He returned to Lisbon on the SS Aragnaya in 1907.

In 1891 the family was living at 103 Sloane Street, Chelsea, being cared for by a live-in staff of eight. Francis was described as a clerk at the Foreign Office. Ten years later, Algernon was at Wellington College in Berkshire as a pupil. Interestingly, he gave his place of birth as Sloane Street, so maybe the family moved 'across the road' shortly after his birth.

According to the London Stock Exchange Memorial Roll he won a scholarship at Wellington, and:

When only sixteen gained a Demyship at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he graduated with double honours.

A demyship is a form of scholarship; he matriculated in 1903. The same source has him travelling to America with the Head of Ruskin College before entering the office of James Capel and Co., a stockbroker's company in London. In 1911 the electoral roll shows him living at 5 Tedworth Square, Chelsea although the census places him at Oakley Square in north-west London and describes him as a Clerk at the Stock Exchange. The following year he was made partner in another stockbroking firm — Govett, Sons and Co.

In the interim he had married Beatrice Elinor Paul at St Margaret's, Westminster (the church of the Houses of Parliament) on 4 October 1911. She had been born in Chelsea but was living with her mother and siblings in Forest Row in 1911. Her parents were Herbert Woodfield Paul, variously a journalist, barrister and MP, and his wife Elinor (née Budworth). This was very much a society wedding, and as such was extensively reported. On 6 October 1911 the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser published a long piece describing Francis Villiers as British minister at Brussels and Henry Paul as a well-known historian and late MP for Northampton:

The bride...wore a dress of soft white satin, the corsage being covered with pearl- embroidered tulle, while she also wore a veil of gossamer tulle over a wreath of orange flowers and myrtle, and carried a bouquet of white roses.

Small Talk — The Sketch, 23 August 1911

Algernon's brother Eric was best man; the reception was at 5 Buckingham Gate, and Sir Harry Verney lent the couple Claydon House in Buckinghamshire for the honeymoon. The marriage was also reported in the Buckinghamshire Advertiser, The Scotsman, The Tatler, The Globe, The London Daily News, and, of course, The Times.

A son Charles was born to the couple in 1912 and a daughter Mary followed in 1917, only two months before Algernon died. In the interim, the electoral register places him in Tedworth Street and Ampthill Square, St Pancras (1913) and Draycott Place, Chelsea (1915). It was presumably while he was living at St Pancras that he helped run Boys' Clubs in the run-down area of Somerstown behind St Pancras railway station. It was at this time also that he applied to become a member of the Stock Exchange, for the year commencing 25 March 1912 (presumably he had to renew his membership each year). He stated himself to be 26 years of age and a British citizen, living at 21 Ampthill Square Euston with offices at Basildon House in Moorgate and banking with London County and Westminster Bank, Euston Road branch. He proposed to act as a clerk; two signatures of referees also appear on the form.

Algernon Hyde Villiers was a prolific letter writer. After his death, these and other writings were collated into a volume entitled, Letters and Papers of Algernon Hyde Villiers. This begins with a memoir by Harry Graham, a writer and poet married to Algernon's sister Dorothy. In this, he explains that Villiers had always wanted to be a soldier, but was prevented by short sight, and was not even allowed to join the Officer Training Corps when he was at the Inns of Court. Consequently he was untrained in military matters when war broke out. Determined to serve, even when turned down by the Infantry, he joined the Hertfordshire Yeomanry as a trooper, i.e. a private, and embarked for Egypt in September 1914.

Part of Villiers' early army record

Graham declares that 'eight delightful months' followed; Villiers was promoted to Lance Corporal, and took part in defeating a Turkish attack on the Suez Canal. Beatrice joined him for a while in Port Said in January 1915. By this time he felt he had enough experience to become an officer, and, on 10 April accepted a commission as Second Lieutenant with the Lothians and Border Horse, a move which took him to Scotland in Spring 1915. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your viewpoint, the effects of malaria, presumably contracted in Egypt, kept Villiers in England for the next two years.

Algernon Hyde Villiers in the Yeomanry

In winter 1916-17, Villiers had helped to run a machine gun school in East Lothian, and so, although in early 1917 he was promoted to Captain as part of the cavalry, he gave this up and transferred to the Machine Gun Corps in the hope of seeing active service again. He finally got to France in command of a section in July that year. Graham described his end simply as follows:

Four months later, on November 23rd, while taking part in the glorious capture of Bourlon Wood by the 40th British Infantry Division, he was killed.

Algernon Hyde Villiers, from the 'Stock Exchange War Memorial Book'

His body was laid to rest in the little cemetery of Anneux.

The action at Bourlon Wood was part of the bigger battle of Cambrai, a British attack followed by a massive retaliation by the Germans, who were responding to the threat to their supply lines. Despite what Wikipedia calls 'reckless determination' with one group of eight British machine guns firing over 70,000 rounds in an effort to stop the German attack, the battle ended with over 47,000 British casualties.

Ironically, on the day he died, his mother-in-law's diary records:

A letter was forwarded to Beatrix from Algy. All news excellent. We are strengthening our gain on the Somme — in one day we gained half as much ground as we won in all the autumn fighting on the Somme last year.

Algernon Hyde Villiers, from 'The Letters and Papers of Algernon Hyde Villiers'

A few days later, the diary makes reference to the 'cruel' telegram announcing his death.

As the Stock Exchange War Memorial Book records:

An officer on the Staff of his Division wrote: "The General has paid a particular tribute to the work done by the Machine Gunners, and that such praise is really deserved by Villiers' men is largely due to the infinite pains he took over their training, and to the inspiring example he set them to the very end. His brother officers cannot speak too highly of his capacity as a leader, of his charm as a companion, and of all those qualities of his which made him the leading spirit of his mess and the idol of his men. He loved his men and they loved him, and his invincible optimism carried him safely through those dark days of danger and discomfort, which set weaker men grumbling and despairing. It is no exaggeration to say that officers and men adored him."

His obituary in The Times quotes a correspondent who had written:

No one more willingly gave up a life of noble promise to a call which he felt was sacred...He was happy in the circumstances of his death. For he had a peculiar love of France, and the spirit of comradeship in the Army realised his ideal of the brotherhood of man.

A glance at his collected letters shows a cultured man determined to be optimistic. In his penultimate letter home, on 18 November, he writes:

The weather is wonderful — rather misty in the mornings, but very dry for the season, and with gleams of sunlight now and then.

He also alludes to his strong Christian faith:

I want some way of saying that I believe in Christ without implying that I am like Him...Perhaps I shall find a way before long; one usually does by being patient...It is in God's hands. I feel no fear of heavy trials, no doubt which is the rock on which to build a safe and happy house. I read glorious Joshua i 1-9 yesterday...It is a supreme passage, none finer in the Old Testament...

In 1919, his widow remarried, and became Mrs Walter D Gibbs although her husband later became 4th Baron Aldenham. She died in 1978. Villiers' son Charles was awarded the MC for his services to the Special Operations Executive in World War II and became chairman of British Steel in 1976.

As well as being named on the Forest Row memorial, Villiers is commemorated on the memorial at Wellington College, in the Oxford University Roll of Service and in the Stock Exchange Memorial Book.

Pam Griffiths