Dartmouth's Great War Fallen
Researching the Dartmouth men who died in the First World War

Arthur Herbert Rosdew Burn

Arthur was not a native or resident of Dartmouth, but became part of the Dartmouth community through his father, who was the Member of Parliament at the outbreak of war for the constituency of Torquay, which at that time included Dartmouth. Arthur's death was widely reported by Devon newspapers, including the Dartmouth Chronicle, and clearly had an impact locally. Arthur is therefore included on our database, though he does not appear on any of the town's memorials.

Arthur's experiences at the First Battle of Ypres may be compared with those of William Bastard, another young officer on our database, who joined the British front line just a little further to the north, and died four days before Arthur.

Family

Arthur Herbert Rosdew Burn was born in London on 30th June 1892. He was the elder son of Charles Rosdew Burn and Ethel Louise Forbes-Leith, and was born into an immensely privileged background.

His father, Charles Rosdew Burn, had been a soldier before becoming an MP. Born in 1859 as the youngest son of General Robert Burn, who became the Colonel Commandant of the Royal Artillery, and Caroline Rosdew, he went to Cheltenham and Sandhurst. He was appointed Second Lieutenant in the 8th Hussars in 1878, went to India, and from 1883 was appointed ADC to successive Viceroys and Governors-General there. In 1885 he transferred, at the rank of captain, to the 1st (Royal) Dragoons ("the Royals").

In 1888 he served with the Hazara Expedition in India as Orderly Officer to Major General McQueen, commanding the Hazara Field Force, and was mentioned in despatches. He then returned to England, where from 1890 to 1895 he was appointed ADC to Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught (a younger son of Queen Victoria) when he was officer commanding the Southern District. This appointment brought Charles a position at Court. It also brought him a wealthy wife.

In 1891 Charles married Ethel Louise Forbes-Leith, only daughter of Alexander Forbes-Leith, and his American wife, Marie Louise January. Alexander Forbes-Leith had been born in Scotland, but after an early career in the Navy had moved to America and made a fortune in the American steel industry. In 1889, he bought Fyvie Castle, in Aberdeenshire, which he had known as a boy, and invested part of his considerable fortune in restoring the castle and investing in the estate. On his daughter's marriage, he and his wife, and younger son Percy, returned to Britain, to live at Fyvie. Charles and Ethel's marriage was described in the Dundee Courier as "the smartest Scottish wedding of the present season" (though it took place in London). The principal guests were the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, and Princess Louise (fourth daughter of the Queen) and her husband the Marquis of Lorne.

In 1896 Charles was promoted Major in the Royal Dragoons. Relations with Germany were close - in 1894 Kaiser Wilhelm II had become Colonel in Chief of the regiment, and there were frequent visits between officers of the regiment to Germany, and from German officers of similar regiments to Britain. Much later in life, Charles was able to reminisce about his personal contact with the ex-Kaiser at pre-war military manoeuvres in Germany. In 1897, for example, Charles was in attendance on a group of German officers of the Queen of Prussia's Dragoon Regiment at a state ball at Windsor Castle, part of the entourage of Prince Albert of Prussia, the younger brother of Emperor William 1. The officers included Erich von Falkenhayn, who succeeded Moltke as Chief of the General Staff in September 1914, and was responsible for the offensive strategy on the Western Front aiming to outflank the British and French, in which, as it turned out, Charles' eldest son was to die.

In July 1899 Charles retired from active service, leaving the Royal Dragoons, and joined the 3rd Gordon Highlanders Militia.  But his retirement did not last long - six months later he was appointed to command VI battalion of the Imperial Yeomanry in South Africa, in the Boer War, with the honorary rank of Lt Colonel. He served in South Africa for fifteen months, being mentioned in despatches. At the same time, he was appointed as a member of the Queen's "Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms" (the Sovereign's nearest bodyguard). On return from South Africa, he was largely responsible for the formation of the Westminster Dragoons, another Militia regiment, being its first commanding officer 1901-1906, and was granted the honorary rank of Colonel.

In 1905 Charles' father-in-law was created 1st Baron Leith of Fyvie. Ethel's only brother, Percy, had died of enteric fever in South Africa on 31st December 1900, whilst serving in the Army during the Boer War - also in the Royal Dragoons. Ethel was thus sole heir to her father's estates and wealth. Charles and Ethel spent a good deal of time at Fyvie, and when, after his final retirement from military service, Charles' ambitions turned to politics, the first seat for which he tried was East Aberdeenshire, for which he was adopted as the prospective candidate for the Liberal Unionist party in 1907.

(The Liberal Unionist party had been formed in 1886 by a faction that broke away from the Liberal Party over the issue of Irish Home Rule, and formed an alliance with the Conservative Party. The two parties formed the ten-year long coalition Conservative and Unionist Government 1895-1905, but kept separate political funds and their own party organisations until a complete merger was agreed in 1912).

Notwithstanding his family connections, Charles failed to secure East Aberdeenshire in the January 1910 general election. However, as one door closed, another opened. At the opposite end of the country, in the parliamentary seat of Torquay, which at that time included Dartmouth, the defeated Unionist candidate, Sir Henry Lopes, retired in April, due to his wife's ill-health. There was thus a vacancy, in what was a highly marginal seat.  Sir Henry had contested the seat against Sir Francis Layland Barratt, the Liberal candidate, in 1906 as well as in January 1910. In 1906 he had lost by 460 votes, but in January 1910, only by 11. Further, the next election was likely to be soon - the January 1910 election had produced a hung parliament in which the Conservatives and Unionists had received the largest number of votes, but the Liberals had gained two more MPs. Asquith had formed a minority government with the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party, led by John Redmond, but it was not expected to last long.

On 16th April, Charles was adopted as the prospective candidate for Torquay and a week later made his first visit to Dartmouth, where he received an extremely enthusiastic welcome at a meeting in the Dartmouth Subscription Rooms. In May he visited again, this time with his father-in-law, Lord Leith, in the latter's "fine new steam yacht "Miranda"", and in August he visited Kingswear. In September the family bought a house in the constituency, called Stoodley Knowle (now a school).

According to the Aberdeen Journal (Scottish newspapers continued to follow the family's fortunes closely), Charles (and Ethel) made an immediately favourable impression on the electors of Torbay and Dartmouth: "the colonel's phenomenal success cannot only be attributed to his charming personality and personal popularity, but account must not be lost sight of the extraordinarily vigorous way in which he has prosecuted his campaign ... he has been making friends here, there, and everywhere ... ably supported by the splendid efforts and labours of his wife".

The hard work paid off. The next general election came in December 1910 and Charles defeated Sir Francis Layland Barratt, the incumbent Liberal MP, by 134 votes. However, at the national level, the overall political situation remained the same: the Conservatives and Unionists were unable to break the deadlock. Once again they polled the largest number of votes, but again Asquith was able to form a minority government with the support of the Irish Parliamentary Party under John Redmond. This was the government which faced the decision in 1914 to take the country to war.

Charles Burn's victory was greeted with extensive celebrations everywhere in the constituency. In his victory speech he gave the fishermen and sailors of Dartmouth and Brixham special thanks for supporting him - "as long as he lived he should never forget the magnificent reception at Dartmouth the previous night, when he was pulled round by forty bluejackets".  He remained the MP for Torquay throughout the war, winning two further elections, in 1918 and 1922, finally retiring in 1923.

In 1912 Charles was appointed ADC to King George V and given the rank of Colonel in the Territorial Force. The family lived in Torquay, but also spent a great deal of time in Fyvie and of course in London. Lord and Lady Leith also acquired a Devon home, leasing Lupton House, near Brixham, from Lord Churston.

Whilst his father was developing his political career, Arthur had attended Ludgrove and Eton. He then spent a year in Heidelberg, in Germany, studying the language. He went up to Christ Church, Oxford in 1911, where he was a member of the Bullingdon and Bachelors' Clubs. He also joined the Officer Training Corps. As Charles and Ethel's eldest son, he was expected in due course to inherit his grandfather's estate, and in 1913 he came of age to great celebrations in Fyvie, including balls, garden parties, lunch for the tenants, and a treat for all pupils at schools in the parish. Newspapers commented on his sportsmanship, his expert riding, his fine physique, and his simplicity and modesty of manner.

He had also made his mark in Devon. According to the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette (when reporting his death): " He was a splendid specimen of young England, being over six feet in height, and well built in proportion .... [he was] well known in the Torquay Division (ie the constituency) by reason of his appearance on political platforms in support of his father".

Service

In the speech of thanks he made for the gifts presented to him by the Fyvie tenants in 1913, reported in the Aberdeen newspapers, Arthur made clear that his ambition on leaving Oxford was to join his father's old regiment, the Royal Dragoons. In response, the tenants wished him every success. His wish, and theirs, came true all too quickly. He volunteered for service immediately on the outbreak of war and was gazetted 2nd Lieutenant in 1st (Royal) Dragoons on 26th August 1914.

That month the Royal Dragoons had been in South Africa for two years. They returned immediately to the UK to form part of the 6th Cavalry Brigade, in the 3rd Cavalry Division, in the British Expeditionary Force. They landed at Southampton  on 19th September and proceeded to Windmill Hill Camp Ludgershall. They had brought their South African ponies with them. There was debate about whether to exchange the ponies for English horses, but eventually they were retained as they were "well-trained and wiry", acccording to the 6th Cavalry Brigade history, and would acclimatise well. Additional horses came from England to mount the regiment at full strength.

The Royal Dragoons were ordered to move for active service on 6th October, back to Southampton, and "escorted by many men of war" the fleet of 8 ships reached Zeebrugge on 8th October. The 6th Cavalry Brigade was to join the BEF in the defence of Ypres and arrived there on 13th October. They were the first British troops to enter the town, which was at that time untouched by shell fire, although German cavalry patrols had visited three days before and, according to the Brigade history, "looted all the jewellery and wine shops".

The BEF was holding an advanced line running in a circle around the
eastern side of the city, from Zonnebeke to Armentières.

John Keegan describes the battle as follows:

"The battle that ensued raged almost continuously from early October, while the British and French were still attempting to push forward around what they thought was the German flank, until late November, when both sides accepted the onset of winter and their own exhaustion. Geographically it divided into four:

  • a renewed offensive by [the Germans] against the Belgian Army on the coast, nullified by [the Belgians opening long disused lock-gates so as to flood the country]
  • an attempt by [the French] to drive north of Ypres toward Ghent ... checked by the German offensive
  • the battle of Ypres itself, between the BEF and the [German army, newly reinforced by German volunteers]
  • to the south, a defensive battle conducted by the right wing of the BEF against the regular divisions of the German Sixth Army

Fighting on the three latter sectors merged effectively into one battle, so confused was combat and so unrelenting the German effort".

The Royals had their first day of action on 19th October. Though a cavalry regiment, and notwithstanding the merits of the South African ponies, they were fighting as infantry, occupying hastily dug and frequently inadequate trenches, with the horses being used only to move to new positions. The War Diary says, for example, on 21st October: "At dark we were ordered to Zandvoorde to take over the trenches from 2nd Scots Guards. This we did, putting almost every man into the firing line, keeping a few only to look after the horses in the village".

Near Zandvoorde, Hollebeke Chateau had been occupied by the Germans. It had previously been selected by the aides to the German Emperor as the planned residence from which he would ride triumphantly into Ypres after the expected German victory. On 22nd October, Hollebeke Chateau was taken by "C" Squadron of the Royal Dragoons, meeting little opposition. However, German forces were receiving substantial fresh reinforcements.

Over the next few days, under heavy pressure, the British had to fall back. By 27th October, most of the regiment was at Kleinzillibeke, a couple of miles south-east of Ypres, apart from "A" Squadron, which together with the regiment's machine gun, was a little further forward, still holding the Chateau Hollebeke.

The following day, 28th October, was relatively quiet - at Kleinzillibeke they were "only worried by a few shells". The horses of "A" Squadron were brought back from the Chateau, and on the way back "the led horses got four shells close to them but luckily only one horse was hit".

That day "First Reinforcements" arrived from England, the numbers of which had been laid down in regulations and arranged before the regiment left. Arthur Burn joined the regiment at the front line in charge of this draft, which consisted of him, 20 men, and 23 horses. It would seem that Arthur joined "C squadron". According to the regiment's War Diary, his first night on the front line was quiet.

On 29th October the Germans, advancing in considerable force, were able to push back the British line north of Zandvoorde. The Brigade was ordered to saddle to move to support a counter-attack by 7th Division BEF, in the direction of Gheruveldt, and according to the Brigade History, the line was re-established. For the Royals, "this attack did not lead to much" and they returned to Zillibeke. So passed Arthur Burn's second day on the front line.

Death

The regimental War Diary describes Arthur Burn's death and the surrounding circumstances as follows.

On 30th October, the neighbouring 7th Cavalry Brigade were heavily shelled at the Zandvoorde ridge and were forced to withdraw towards Kleinzillibeke. The 6th Cavalry Brigade was ordered to cover their withdrawal and take up a line of supporting trenches to the rear of Chateau Hollebeke. A strong enemy infantry attack developed, accompanied by heavy shelling. "A" squadron in the Chateau was very hard pressed, and "C" squadron was sent to help them out.

The War Diary states: "The Chateau had been heavily attacked during the morning; at first by shell fire and afterwards by Infantry who were in considerable force and worked round our right into Hollebeke.

"A" squadron were ordered to leave the Chateau about 3pm and retired gradually after doing very good work ... Captain Jump was severely wounded in the thigh and shoulder and could not be got away. 2nd Lieutenant Burn was killed when C squadron went up in support, and also could not be got away.

Just after midnight we were relieved by the Grenadier Guards... General Gough further to our right had been very heavily engaged and was obliged to draw back. This withdrew the 4th Hussars from Hollebeke and consequently exposed our flank which was for a time in a very critical condition."

On that day the War Diary also records five other ranks killed, 23 wounded (of whom two missing) and two others reported as missing. Arthur had died on his third day in the front line.

(Captain Henry Jump was captured and held as prisoner of war. He was one of a number of officers of "good" family imprisoned in ordinary prisons, rather than in prisoner of war camps, in reprisal for British treatment of U-boat crew as war criminals, in 1915).

The following day, 31st October, subsequently became known as Ypres Day, and after the war, blue cornflowers were worn in remembrance of those who had fought and died there. A very substantial atttack developed against the British position at the village of Gheluvelt, and broke through the line, but the attack was repelled by, in John Keegan's words, "the hasty assembly of bits of pieces of broken and exhausted battalions" - amongst which were the 1st (Royal) Dragoons. Sir John French, in his fourth despatch, said "I regard it as the most critical moment in the whole of this great battle. The rally of the 1st Division and the recapture of the village of Gheluvelt at such a time was fraught with momentous consequences".

At the time of his son's death, Charles Burn was not far away. He had been recalled for service at the outbreak of war, and (according to his Medal Index Roll Card) had arrived in France on 16th August. He was formally appointed in September as a general staff officer on Sir John French's staff, where, according to newspaper reports at the time of his son's death, as a "King's Messenger" he was engaged in carrying Sir John's despatches to Lord Kitchener in London.

A newspaper account of 12th Nov 1914, based on the report of a letter sent by Lady Leith (Arthur's grandmother) to a Mrs Tweedale, Balquholly (the president of the Turriff Needlework Guild) described how Charles Burn wanted to find out more about how his son died, and what he discovered:

He asked permission from General French to go to the trenches ... General French ... put a car at his disposal, in which he visited the position occupied by his son's regiment, the Royal Dragoons. General French told Colonel Burn that he would be running a grave risk in visiting the firing-line, but nevertheless the Colonel persisted ... There he met an officer who had witnessed the death of his son ...

Lieutenant Burn, along with two other soldiers of the Royal Dragoons, were waiting to go into the trenches to relieve men who had been there for some time. The Germans were advancing in great masses, when suddenly a shell burst just above Lieutenant Burn and his comrades killing Lieutenant Burn and one of his companions. The uninjured man got into his place in the trench but had to leave the bodies of the other two where they fell. The enemy came on in overwhelming numbers and the Royal Dragoons and other troops were beaten back, so that it was impossible to recover the bodies of Lieutenant Burn and his companions.

This account provides detail that the War Diary does not, but the two accounts match well in terms of the overall situation faced by the Royal Dragoons on that day.

News of Arthur's death reached Stoodley Knowle on 3rd November. The house had been converted into a hospital for wounded officers on the outbreak of war, and Arthur's mother was its commandant and matron for the duration of the war. Some years later Charles Burn said that he and his wife had expected war to come, and had equipped the house they had bought in Torquay as a possible hospital two years before the war began. Charles himself returned from France to Torquay on 4th November and a memorial service was held in St Matthias' Church Torquay, for his son, the following day, attended by a great many people.

In Dartmouth, according to the Dartmouth Chronicle of 6th November, the news was announced at the weekly meeting of the Dartmouth Literary and Debating Society, of which Charles Burn was a Vice President. The newspaper reported that all present stood in silence as a mark of sympathy, and in addition to reporting the fact, the newspaper also extended the deepest sympathy on its own behalf.

About four weeks after Arthur's death, Colonel Burn was one of the speakers at a football match at Chelsea, as part of a recruiting appeal. He made what seems today, in the circumstances, rather an extraordinary speech, which was widely reported at the time. He said:

I want you to understand that I am a sportsman as well as a soldier. I believe in football. I believe in your games being carried on as usual. I have come here to ask if there is any young man who has no encumbrances to join the forces. I don't say come. I say "Come, for God's sake. You are wanted". I have given my son. He enlisted at the start of the war. He is now dead. I have given my house up as a shelter for the care of wounded officers. I say to you young men that if I had twelve sons I would give them all, as well as my own life, for my country and my King.

His appeal met with no success whatever - no recruits came forward.

Commemoration

Along with many others who had died at the First Battle of Ypres, whose bodies were behind German lines, Arthur's body was never found. He is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres.

Arthur's name is recorded correctly on the original Panel list for the memorial (which can be viewed on the CWGC website), but is shown on the printed CWGC Register, and hence on the CWGC database, as Arthur Herbert "Posden" Burn. Both CWGC records and Soldiers Died in the Great War show his date of death as 29th October 1914, though it seems clear from the Regimental War Diary, newspaper reports and other records (including the family memorial) that the correct date of his death was 30th October 1914. The latter date is therefore used on our database.

Arthur is also commemorated on the First World War memorial at Christ Church Cathedral to "the men of this house who died for the country"; on the War Memorial in Fyvie; on a memorial in the Forbes-Leith burial ground, in Fyvie Kirkyard, erected by his grandparents in 1915; and on the Torquay War Memorial.

Sources

Biographical details for Charles Rosdew Burn is available in Debrett's House of Commons and the Judicial Bench, 1916.

Also researched from newspapers of the time, accessed on the British Newspaper Archive website (requires subscription)

War Diary of  1st (Royal) Dragoons 1914-1919 is downloadable (fee payable) from the National Archives, reference WO 95/1153/1

History of the 6th Cavalry Brigade 1914-1918 by Lt J B Bickersteth MC. The map used above comes from this book.

The newspaper account of the letter describing Arthur Burn's death, together with another newspaper column which has his picture, is available on The Wartime Memories Project.

Sir John French's fourth despatch is available on The Long Long Trail.

John Keegan, The First World War, publ Hutchinson, 1998

Christ Church, Oxford Roll of Honour: Lives Lost in the Great War.

For photographs of the Fyvie Memorial and the memorial to Arthur at the Forbes-Leith burial ground, see the Find a Grave website.

Websites quoted above accessed 13th October 2014.

Information Held on Database

Surname:Burn
Forenames:Arthur Herbert Rosdew
Rank:2nd Lieutenant
Service Number:
Military Unit:!st (Royal) Dragoons
Date of Death:30 Oct 1914
Age at Death:22
Cause of Death:Killed in action
Action Resulting in Death:First Battle of Ypres
Place of Death:Chateau Hollebeke, Belgium
Place of Burial:Commemorated Menin Gate, Ypres
Born or Lived in Dartmouth?No
On Dartmouth War Memorial?No
On St Saviour's Memorials?No
On St Petrox Memorials?No
On Flavel Church Memorials?No
In Longcross Cemetery?No
In St Clement's Churchyard?No
On a Private Memorial?Yes
Name of Private Memorial:Forbes-Leith Burial Ground, Fyvie, Aberdeenshire
On Another Memorial?Yes
Name of Other Memorial:Torquay War Memorial, Fyvie War Memorial, Christ Church Cathedral War Memorial

This information was last updated on Tuesday 01 November 2016 at 15:50:55.