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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Wilfrith Elstob VC


Adrian Roberts

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The last stand of the 16th Manchester Regiment at St Quentin on 21st March 1918 was certainly a heroic episode. Lt-Col Wilfrith Elstob made his famous "here we stand, here we die" rallying call, and was awarded a posthumous VC. According to one source, of 168 men with him, only 17 survived.

But can anyone shed any light as to just how necessary it was impose this burden on his men, resulting in their deaths? If it was not necessary to do so, does this detract from his reputation? Was he seeking glory, like Custer (allegedly)? Of course, this was the first day of the Kaiserschlact; the situation was absolutely desperate. To delay the German advance as long as possible was undoubtedly vital. But the Germans gave him the opportunity to surrender: did he achieve anything, did he delay them longer, by not surrendering? His citation states that at one point he personally went back to collect ammunition: does this imply that there was an escape route back to what remained of the British positions, and could/should he have allowed at least some of his men to try to escape?

My train of thought here was sparked by a discussion on a WW2 forum about Kapitan Hans Langsdorff of the Graf Spee. I don't want to be accused of going off-topic here, but its the best analogy I can think of. If the Graf Spee had left Montevideo Harbour, it would have been on a suicide mission. Admittedly the British had deceived Langsdorff into thinking the RN force waiting for him was bigger than it was, but still his chances of making it back to Germany were almost zero. Suicide was the least dishonourable alternative, better than surrender: so he knew his own death was certain one way or another. The point is that if he had taken on the Royal Navy, he would have died in a blaze of glory, and been remembered as a hero by the Germans and probably also the British. But he would have taken four hundred young men with him, for no reason than his own glory. So he sacrificed his reputation to save their lives, which takes moral courage not just physical. (This is speculation of course, but knowing the man, it is the best explanation for his actions). Whereas for instance, when Captain Fogarty Fegan VC took himself and the crew of Jervis Bay to their deaths, he was attempting to, and largely succeeded in, protecting his convoy.

A WW1 example of a different motive might be Captain Walter Stone, who was awarded a posthumous VC at Cambrai the previous year for holding a forward postion to the last: but he had the specific duty of observing the German advance and reporting back for as long as possible.

I am not in favour of debunking heroes; I am very willing to see Wilfrith Elstob in the best possible light. But I do have this niggling doubt: was he seeking glory, or just being obstinate, or was his sacrifice and that of his men vital in the context of that day?

Adrian

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