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Remembered Today:

Royal Engineers 1st Battalion Special Brigade


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I am researching a local man Sergeant 143066 Henry Elsley Ledingham who transferred to this unit in July,1915 from the Seaforth Highlanders, I know from the local paper that he died as a result of being gassed. He was a either an electrician or a plumber in civvy street and suspect this was why he was transferred. Can anyone tell me what this unit did please?

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RE Special Brigade were concerned with deployment of Poisonous Gas

rather ironic that he died by the same sword...

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As already mentioned, 1st Battalion, Special Brigade, was one of Britain's chemical warfare units. They dispensed various gases from cylinders and also operated Livens projectors, a crude but very effective mortar.

The war diary for the unit, covering May 1916 - February 1917, is at the National Archive in WO 142 /312.

He was not neccessarily selected for transfer because of his artisan skills. Although men for the original Special Companies were canvassed from universities and colleges in the summer of 1915, particularly those with qualifications in chemistry or a science subject, about one third of the early enlistments were from the infantry. It was realised early on that trench warfare experience, rather than a knowledge of chemistry, was needed to bolster the new recruits. Indeed, the then Lt Colonel CH Foulkes, who was tasked with raising these new units, recognised this in a letter to the War Office in June 1915.

Could I ask if you have any documentary evidence, other than the newspaper report, that Sgt Ledingham joined them in 1915? All my research tells me that his number was issued in 1916. Original Specials had a lower number than this. It may be that the paper got confused with the raising of the original companies in 1915. They were expanded from the four original Special Companies to a Brigade size formation in 1916, and many infantry transfers took place then.

"Chemical Soldiers" by Donald Richter, Leo Cooper, 1994, will give you a good insight into the Brigade.

Terry Reeves

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Terry at this stage I have no other evidence other than the Newspaper Report and CWGC info. I have attached the clippings for everyone to see, it make mention of his OC which may be of some use to you, he is commerated on the War Memorial at Newtongrange and on the Memorial within Newbattle Parish Church (nice church).

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Terry is on the case, and he knows more about the Special Brigade in either little finger than I do in both hemi-spheres of my noggen, but I will add a comment or two.

The clipping said "He was gassed in the face of the enemy". This seems a bit vague, perhaps on purpose; some British at least felt that Foulkes' favorite method of gas delivery, cylinder release, which most users of gas in WW I got away from quickly in favor of other delivery means, was perceived by some to be rather dangerous to the British as well as the Germans, so much so that later in the war supposedly quite a few divisional and corps commanders tried to keep Special Brigade cylinder delivery resources out of their sector. It might be quite possible that your guy was, in one way or another, killed by his own gas. I could understand a reluctance to admit this to either his family or the public via a news report, just like every man killed seemed to die instantly while performing the odd heroic act.

Bob Lembke

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