At the most critical moment: The death of Brig. Gen. Charles FitzClarence, VC.

James Durney

By the end of September 1914 fighting between the Allies and the German army had reached a stalemate in France. Prevented from going through to Paris, the Germans sought an opening further north, and each side then began trying to turn its enemy’s western flank, with the object of winning the war rapidly and economically. The ensuing manoeuvres, during late October and early November, as the two sides tried to outflank one another, are known as the ‘race to the sea,’ that is, to the Belgian seaports. For the Germans seizure of the Channel ports would create an overwhelmingly powerful strategic position from which to negotiate a peace. Equally matched, neither side proved capable of a decisive breakthrough. After a series of encounter battles the two forces clashed again at the Belgian city of Ypres. On 29 October six German divisions, examined by the Kaiser Wilhelm himself, launched an all-out attack on the outlying town of Gheluvelt. Suitably inspired, the Germans almost punched a hole through the British lines. In fact, only the determined leadership of Brigadier Charles FitzClarence (VC), prevented collapse and rout. FitzClarence commanded the élite Guards Brigade. Moreover, because an enemy shell obliterated the British battle HQ, he was the senior surviving officer at the point of the German breakthrough. Marshalling a scratch force, FitzClarence routed the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment (the unit of an obscure private named Adolf Hitler) at Château Gheluvelt, in the process sealing the potentially fatal breach in the British lines.

At ‘the most critical moment’ of the battle, on 31 October, Brig. Gen. FitzClarence directed the counter-attack of the 2nd Worcesters which recaptured Gheluvelt.  Remarkably, FitzClarence remains one of the war’s lesser-known Irish actors, even though a grateful Sir John French, BEF commander, later implied that by his actions he had saved Ypres, and with it the Channel ports that kept the British army alive. He was specially mentioned in Sir French’s Despatch of 20 November (London Gazette, 30 November) 1914 where he said: ‘Another officer whose name was particularly mentioned to me was Brigadier-General FitzClarence, VC, commanding 1st Guards Brigade. He was unfortunately killed in the night attack of the 11th November. His loss will be severely felt.’

When Lt.- Colonel G. H. Morris, Commanding Officer of the 1st Irish Guards,  was killed in the fighting of early September 1914 Brig. Gen. Charles FitzClarence, then commanding the 29th Brigade, 10th Division at the Curragh, offered to revert to lieutenant-colonel in order to command his regiment. However, it was expressly forbidden as FitzClarence was required for command of the 1st Guards Brigade. He left for France on 23 September and took command of the Guards Brigade four days later.

Charles FitzClarence was born on 8 May 1865, at Bishopscourt, Kill, the eldest son of Hon. George FitzClarence, Captain (Royal Navy), and his wife, Lady Maria Henriette, née Scott, eldest daughter of John Henry, 3rd Earl of Clonmel, and grandson of George FitzClarence, 1st Earl of Munster (eldest illegitimate son of King William IV by the celebrated actress Mrs. Jordan). He had a twin brother named Edward. Charles was educated at Eton and Wellington and gazetted lieutenant from the 3rd Militia Battalion, South Staffordshires to the Royal Fusiliers on 10 November 1886 and promoted to captain on 6 April 1898. He married Violet Spencer Churchill, the youngest daughter of the late Lord Alfred Spencer Churchill, M.P., and granddaughter of John, 6th Duke of Marlborough, in 1898. They had two children: Edward Charles, born 3 October 1899, and Joan Harriet, born 23 December 1901.

Charles’ twin brother, Edward, served in the Dongola Expedition (1896) and as Captain 1st Dorsetshire Regiment, attached Egyptian Army, was killed in action at Abu-Hamed, on 7 August 1897. Capt. FitzClarence was one of only two British officers of the Egyptian army to be killed in the entire campaign. Their cousin, Captain Augustine A. C. FitzClarence, was killed in action in Gallipoli on 29 June 1915.

Charles FitzClarence served in the South African War 1899-1900 (Second Boer War), as a Special Service Officer attached to the Protectorate Regiment. He was promoted to Brigade Major on Staff in August 1900. FitzClarence took part in the defense of Mafeking, was mentioned in Despatches, received the Queen’s Medal with three clasps and was decorated with the Victoria Cross for three specific acts of bravery. An extract from theLondon Gazette records the following:

‘On the 14th October, 1899, Captain FitzClarence went with his squadron of the Protectorate Regiment, consisting of only partially trained men, who had never been in action, to the assistance of an armoured train which had gone out of Mafeking. The enemy were in greatly superior numbers, and the squadron was for a time surrounded, and it looked as if nothing could save them from being shot down. Captain FitzClarence, however, by his personal coolness and courage inspired the greatest confidence in his men, and, by his bold and efficient handling of them, not only succeeded in relieving the armoured train, but inflicted a heavy defeat on the Boers, who lost 50 killed and a large number wounded, his own losses being 2 killed and 15 wounded. The moral effect of this blow had a very important bearing on subsequent encounters with the Boers.

‘On the 27th October, 1899, Captain FitzClarence led his squadron from Mafeking across the open, and made a night attack with the bayonet on one of the enemy’s trenches. A hand-to-hand fight took place in the trench, while a heavy fire was concentrated on it from the rear. The enemy was driven out with heavy loss. Captain FitzClarence was the first man into the position and accounted for four of the enemy with his sword. The British lost 6 killed and 9 wounded. Captain FitzClarence was himself slightly wounded. With reference to these two actions, Major-General Baden-Powell states that had this Officer not shown an extraordinary spirit and fearlessness the attacks would have been failures, and we should have suffered heavy loss both in men and prestige. On the 26th December, during the action at Game Tree, near Mafeking, Captain FitzClarence again distinguished himself by his coolness and courage, and was again wounded (severely through both legs).’

Capt. FitzClarence transferred to Irish Guards on their formation in October 1900. He was promoted to Brigade Major of the 5th Brigade, Aldershot (1904), and then Brigade Commander of the 5th London Infantry Brigade. At the outbreak of the war in Europe, in August 1914, FitzClarence was Lt. Col. Commanding Irish Guards. When the Irish Guards were dispatched to France he was appointed Commanding Officer 29th Brigade, 10th Division. On 27 September 1914 he took command of the 1st Guards Brigade with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

In October, FitzClarence played a significant part in the battle for Ypres when his Coldstream and Scots Guards, numbering 5,000 men, held off a German force of 24,000. In two days the Sots Guards lost ten officers and 370 men killed and wounded, but the result of the day’s fighting was that the British line stood firm and unbroken, while the Germans sustained enormous losses. Lord French, in his despatch of 30 November 1914, described the fighting at this time as: ‘Perhaps the most important and decisive attack (except that of the Prussian Guard on the 10th November) made against the 1st Corps during the whole of its arduous experiences in the neighbourhood of Ypres.’

Blackwood’s Magazine (of August 1917) carries an article describing FitzClarence’s part. Even though technically they were not under his command it was FitzClarence who gave the order for the vital counter-attack by the 2nd Worcesters of 31 October 1914. He ‘rallied the troops and directed the successful onslaught’. The Worcesters commander, Lt. Col. E. B. Hankey, said of FitzClarence: ‘… by shoving us in at the time and place he did the General saved the day’.

The final major German attack of the battle came on 11 November 1914 (battle of Nonne Boschem). Thirteen battalions of the Prussian Guard attacked British troops along the Menin road. By this time the 1st Brigade consisted of three battalions (one each from the Scots Guards, the Camerons and the Black Watch) and was down to 800 men. They were attacked by a regiment of the Prussian Guard, and forced out of their front line. FitzClarence played an important role in stopping the German advance. He was then determined to win back the front line trenches lost earlier in the day. Having lost most of his own brigade in the fighting, he returned to the rear to find new troops. The forty-nine year-old General decided to show his troops the way and paid for the decision with his life. He was at the head of 500 men from the 2nd Battalion of the Grenadier Guards, the Irish Guards and a contingent of the Royal Munster Fusiliers, when he was shot and killed by a German rifleman at Polygon Wood, Zonnebeke. After his death the planned counterattack was abandoned.

Charles FitzClarence has no known grave, but his Memorial Reference is Panel 3, Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial, Belgium. He is the highest-ranking officer inscribed on the Menin Gate Memorial. His Victoria Cross is in the Lord Ashcroft VC Gallery in the Imperial War Museum, London