A 1916 Story: War, Rebellion & Frederick Hamilton Norway
By Michael Lee
Frederick Hamilton Norway was born in Ealing, Middlesex on 31 October 1895, the eldest son of Arthur Hamilton Norway and Mary Louisa Norway. Fred’s younger brother, Nevil Shute Norway was born on 17 January 1899.
The Norway Family originally came from Cornwall and Arthur H. Norway worked as a civil servant in the General Post Office in London; he also wrote travel books. Frederick’s mother had been born in India, the daughter of a Major-General. In 1907, Arthur was promoted to head of the Staff Branch of the GPO in London and young Frederick was sent off to Rugby School where a fellow pupil was the future Soldier poet Rupert Brooke. Frederick was good at Latin and Greek and his father felt that a classical education was important. Frederick did not get on well at Rugby and suffered from abdominal problems which needed surgery.
In 1912, Arthur Norway applied for and accepted the job of Secretary to the Post Office in Ireland believing that a “change of scene” would be good for both his wife and for his eldest son Frederick, both of whom had been ill. Fred was removed from Rugby School and at the age of 16 entered Trinity College. Arthur was now in the most senior position in the Irish postal Service, not attracting a higher scale of pay, but gaining a much improved social position, which of course required a large house. A suitable residence was found and leased at the top of Merrion Avenue near Blackrock. South Hill was a rambling mansion, on about 13 acres, with stables and a glass house. There were three servants, a gardener and a gardener’s boy employed. According to Nevil, the two years the boys spent at South Hill before the outbreak of war, were very happy. Pony riding, hay making and various adventures were undertaken. Fred had acquired a .22 revolver and the two boys learnt to shoot the weather cock at South Hill being a favourite target. Both Fred and Neville were keen motor cyclists and a new Rudge Multi was purchased from Rudge-Whitworth in Stephen's Green.
Off to war
On the outbreak of War, Frederick applied for a commission in the new armies being created by Lord Kitchener, but he failed the medical and would require a small operation, before he could try again. However, his father decided that Frederick should go for a commission in the regular army because this would give him a career after the war. Frederick was impatient, he was afraid he would miss the war, however on the 31 October 1914, he was admitted into Sandhurst. On the 17 March 1915, he passed out of Sandhurst. The day before, 16 March, he was Gazetted to the 2nd Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, part of 82nd Brigade, 27th Division. The Division concentrated at Winchester after arriving back from Foreign Service, in November 1914, training and re-equipping until 18 December. On the 19th the whole Division, marched for Southampton, embarking for France that night. The D.C.L.I. landed at Le Havre on the 21st and entrained for St Omar and Arques. There they marched to Wardrecques, where they were billeted in two factories. This was a time of preparation for the Battalion and was a relatively safe area.
On 7 January 1915, the Division moved closer to the front line, marching over the next few days through Meteren, Westoutre, Dickebusch and on 12 January the Brigade took over the St Eloi sector. At this time there were various minor skirmishes with the enemy. On 14 February 1915, the D.C.L.I. re-took some trenches east of St Eloi that had been lost by the Leinsters. At 5pm on 14 March, the Germans began a heavy bombardment of the D.C.L.I. trenches in front of St Eloi and, at the southern end of the village, two mines were exploded at a large mound. The battalion held on until relieved at midnight and withdrew to Dickebusch. From there, the Battalion moved to Sanctuary Wood, near Ypres and on 5 April they progressed into front line trenches.
The 2nd D.C.L.I was under heavy artillery fire, during the attack on Hill 60 on April 17 and 18, suffering many casualties. On the 22nd of that month, the Battalion was camped in fields near Reigersburg Farm, where French Zouaves were falling back due to the effects of gas. This was the beginning of the second Battle of Ypres. The Battalion took part in an attack on Turco Farm, where they were successful, but had considerable losses.
By the end of April the Battalion was back in dug-outs at Sanctuary Wood. From then on until the end of second Ypres battle on 25 May the Battalion had to contend with heavy shelling, gun fire and gas. On 8 May 1915, for instance, the terrible fighting on Frezenberg Ridge began five days of murder and carnage astride the Menin and Frezenberg roads. In spite of murderous artillery fire, the D.C.L.I escaped with light casualties. Through all this carnage and death, 2nd Lieutenant Frederick Hamilton Norway, had survived. The average survival time for a junior officer on the western front was just six weeks, so Frederick was lucky, but that was all about to change.
At 9 am on the 26 May 1915, the Battalion marched towards the Armentieres area, where the 27th Division was to take over front line trenches. After the appalling slaughter of Ypres, Armentieres was considered a 'haven of rest' with much less shelling, mining and sniping. The 2nd D.C.L.I. found themselves in trenches at Le Touquet, but even here there was much trench warfare activity by the Germans.
Night time horrors were as bad as the horrors of daylight. Frederick wrote home at this time saying that the Battalion knew that their trench was being mined, but he tried to make light of it so as not to alarm his parents. On the night of 12 June two Officers were wounded, the next night the Germans exploded the mine beneath Fred’s trench in an advanced portion of the village. According to the Battalion History and the War Diary for 13 June, two Officers including Fred and 17 other ranks were wounded, but according to Fred’s Brother Nevil 24 men of Fred’s Platoon were killed or wounded in the explosion. Amazingly, Frederick wasn’t badly injured. Under heavy shell fire, he collected some uninjured men and leading them over the trench parapet, they were able to help pull some of his men to safety. Nevil in his book Slide Rule eloquently describes just how Fred might have felt: ‘No doubt, having survived the explosion, he had the strengthening feeling that I know so well – ‘This can’t happen to me’ – for he led a party of men out of the remains of the trench to dig out his sergeant. Then the shell got him.’ Fred was very badly injured by shrapnel and was evacuated to 7 Stationary Hospital at Boulogne. Two days later a telegram mistakenly describing Frederick's injury, arrived at South Hill. It read: ‘2nd Lieut F H Norway. Suffering from gunshot wound Buttock. Dangerously ill, may be visited.’
That night Fred’s mother Mary Louisa was on her way to France to be with her son. In his autobiography, Nevil Shute states that both his mother and father travelled to France, but a telegram in Fred’s Officers Service Record dated 15/6/15 states that ‘Mrs Norway crosses tonight having passport duly vised for Boulogne.’ The sender was 'Norway Secretary Post Office Dublin'. Perhaps Nevil was mistaken in his recollection after the passing of the years or perhaps Arthur did follow his wife later. For a while Fred seemed to be doing well, but on 21 June 1915 he was transferred to 14 Stationary Hospital Wimereux suffering from scarlet fever and shrapnel wounds.
Assuming that Arthur stayed in Dublin at this time, he received another telegram on 28 June stating that Fred was ‘dangerously ill’. After about three weeks his condition deteriorated and he died on 4 July 1915, with his Mother by his side. He was 19 years old.
The GPO & Easter Week in Dublin, 1916
In Dublin after Frederick’s death, his father, Arthur Hamilton Norway placed his son’s revolver, sword and his blood stained uniform in the safest place he could think of, his private office safe in the GPO. Frederick’s Mother, also for safety, placed some pieces of great sentimental value including in an envelope, a lock of Fred’s fair hair and many letters from him. They were in the safe on Monday, 24 April 1916, as a group of Irish Volunteers and members of James Connolly’s Citizen Army entered the GPO and Patrick Pearse the leader of the Rising stood outside and read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
By April 1916, the Norways were now living in the Royal Hibernian Hotel on Dublin’s Dawson Street, having given up the lease on South Hill in the autumn of 1915. According to Nevil, it was because of the war and the rising cost of everything, but also because the house held too many memories of Frederick, especially for his mother. After the Rising both Arthur Hamilton Norway and Mary Louisa Norway wrote accounts of what they witnessed and for Mary Louisa especially, how she felt about the loss of her eldest son.
Sunday April 30th, 10am:
'Yesterday I made a joyful discovery. When we came back from Italy in March, H. Brought back from the office my large dispatch – case in which I keep all F.’s letters. I did not remember what else was in it...But, best of all, there were the three little handkerchiefs F. Sent me from Armentieres with my initial worked on them; for these I was grieving more than for anything, and when I found them the relief was so great I sat with them in my hand and cried.'
There is an interesting witness statement in the Military Archives of Ireland by a young Irish Volunteer, Patrick Colgan, who was in the GPO during the Rising. He graphically describes the corridor and the offices having glass partitions facing inwards.
‘O’Duffy, Ledwith and I occupied the room nearest to Henry Street, facing Earl Street. It was a large office, as we learned next day. It was the office and apparently part of the living quarters occupied by the Secretary of the Post Office.’
There is an added poignancy to what Patrick Colgan says next:
‘Duffy and I continued to force open presses, desks and boxes in the room. In one press we found the blood-stained 2nd Lieutenants British army uniform of a son of the Secretary. He had been killed in France some short time earlier. In an envelope we found a lock of his fair hair, marked by the boy’s mother. I forget the name of the boy. There were a number of letters from the boy to his mother. With the uniform was a .45 revolver in a holster. Duffy having reported the finding was allowed to retain it.’
In a poignant and sad entry for the 17th May 1916, Mary Louisa Norway wrote:
'To-day the safe was opened, and contained nothing of any value, only a few official papers! With this has gone our last hope of any salvage from the wreck of our property....The only document they stole from among the official documents was F.’s commission. Why, we cannot imagine, unless the fact that it bore the King’s signature made it worthy of special insult and desecration. H. was very sad when he told me, but I think I am past caring about any possessions now. F. and all his precious things are gone. Nothing else seems worth considering. Perhaps someday we may pluck up heart to collect things again around us, but at present one can only feel, "Let the dead bury the dead".'
Nevil Shute Norway
During Easter week Nevil Shute Norway, joined the Red Cross ambulance as a stretcher bearer. Later, after a career in aviation, he emigrated to Australia and would achieve world fame as the writer, Nevil Shute. Amongst his most famous books were A Town like Alice, On the Beach and a story with an Irish element Beyond the Black Stump as well as an autobiography Slide Rule which gives a wonderful account of the Norways' time in Ireland. In 1946 he paid a nostalgic visit to South Hill for one last time. No doubt as he wandered about the house and garden he would see Fred and himself shooting at the weather cock. Fred splendid in his Officer uniform, the two of them on the Rudge, his father heading off to the Post Office and his mother about the duties of the house.
Mr and Mrs Norway returned to England; by 1918 they were living in Holland Park, London. They would never return to Ireland. On the 5 August 1921, Arthur Hamilton Norway applied for Frederick’s medals. Perhaps after the loss of their son and the subsequent loss of his precious possessions in the Rising, the medals would be one of the only tangible things that they would have to remember their beloved boy, Frederick Hamilton Norway.
2nd Lieut Frederick Hamilton Norway is buried in Wimereux Communal Cemetery (Grave Ref 111.0.5) Also buried in this cemetery is Lieut Colonel John McCrae (KIA 28th Jan 1918) who wrote famous poem In Flanders Fields. Nevil Shute died in 1960.
Slide Rule by Neville Shute (William Heinemann 1954)
2nd Bn DCLI War Diary WO95/2266 PRO
The History of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry 1914-1919 by Everard Wyrall (Methuen and Co 1932)
The Sinn Fein Rebellion as I saw it, Mrs Hamilton Norway (Smith, Elder and Co. London 1916)
British Battalions on the Western Front Jan to June 1915 by Ray Westlake (Leo Cooper 2001)
Rebels. Voices from the Easter Rising by Fearghal McGarry (Penguin Ireland 2011)
Military Archives of Ireland. BMH.WS0850 Major Patrick Colgan, Philip Lecane.