Julian Gribble VC

Julian Gribble’s story

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Julian Gribble was born on 5th January 1897.  In early 1915 at the age of 18 he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and was posted to train recruits at Albany Barracks, Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight. Writing to his mother, Norah Gribble, later that year he said "Although we sent out over 8000 men to France from this battalion since the war began, we sent out our first draft to the Dardenelles yesterday. I went down to Cowes to see them off". He remained on the Island for a year, sometimes taking drafts of newly trained troops as far as the French ports.

In April 1916 Julian was ordered to France. Over the next six months, without leave, he was in the thick of the fighting during the Battle of the Somme.  In October he was sent home as sick with "trench fever". Although he was recommended three months’ rest, he reported back to Parkhurst after just one month.  From there he was posted to the 10th Battalion with the rank of Captain.  At a time when the average life expectancy of British army officers 'at the front' was 17 weeks Julian was already a veteran.

Julian spent the winter of his twentieth birthday in the mud, frosts and floods of Flanders "wet up to the middle and never warm or dry". He had another short leave, but after the epic horror of the hundred day Battle of Passchendaele, the British army was seriously undermanned. Julian's leave was postponed month after month.

The Kaiser's Battle

On 21st March 1918 the German Spring Offensive, or Kaiserschlacht (Kaiser's Battle), began with a series of German attacks along the Western Front. 

The Germans had realised that their only remaining chance of victory was to defeat the Allies before the overwhelming resources of the United States could be fully deployed.  They also had a temporary advantage in numbers afforded by the nearly 50 divisions freed by the Russian surrender.

British forces faced the most intensive barrage of the war.  In eight hours 6,500 German guns delivered 1.16 million poison gas and high explosive artillery shells into the British defences.  Supported by the close fire of over 5,000 mortars, the barrage moved forward 200m every four minutes, annihilating defences and leaving the surviving defenders deaf and stunned.

The 10th Battalion of The Royal Warwickshires were in reserve when the German barrage began.  Julian dashed off a goodbye letter, "All I pray to God is to give me strength to lead D Company well- as they deserve. I know mother that in any case you will not grudge to England your youngest son. We have always been cheery so let’s go on being so - thanks to you and Father I have had a happy time in this world as possible, almost".

Behind the creeping barrage 76 German divisions, equivalent to the entire British Army in Franc, was advancing. They were led by storm troopers armed with wire cutters, grenades and flame-throwers.  Behind them came large battle groups of infantry with field artillery and heavy machine guns, followed by more masses of marching infantry.  To Sir Conan Doyle it seemed as if fresh divisions were "rolling in like waves from some inexhaustible sea."

The four infantry companies of the 10th Battalion hastily dug in along 1,600 yards of Hermies Ridge behind the rearmost British defences with orders to hold the position to the last man. The Battalion was supported by its own battery of field artillery, flanking infantry, and further batteries of artillery and heavy machine guns.

On the second day of the offensive the Germans began to shell these new positions and the command structure of the British Army 3rd began to break down as it joined the 5th Army in a fighting retreat. The next morning, as Julian reported the Germans massing to attack, the Battalion's artillery were galloping away under conflicting orders. As the German attack intensified more supporting artillery and infantry retreated. The battalion found itself increasingly isolated and surrounded. Even the HQ staff and any retreating stragglers they could rally were thrown into the desperate fighting. They held on for three hours.

By 12.30 just D Company was left holding onto the top of the ridge. When he was the last officer standing Julian finally allowed his men to retreat keeping six with him. Private Madeley was one of them "I got hit and I am glad to say I broke through, but not with the Captain".  Julian was last seen emptying his revolver into the final assault. "I saw him go down under about seven big German brutes and that was the last I saw of one of England's finest officers".

The "Kaiser's Battle" lasted just two weeks. A new French Supreme Commander combined dogged British resistance with a French counter-attack.  425,000 men fell on all sides in fifteen days of fighting.

Prisoner of War

Julian's body was robbed and left for dead, but later it was discovered that he was alive.  He was taken prisoners and began to make good recovery in hospital in Germany.  As the end of the War approached the Allied blockade of Germany tightened to a point where the whole country was in a state of starvation.

When Julian arrived at the new officers’ prison at Mainz Castle he and his fellow inmates suffered six weeks of starvation before the first Red Cross parcels arrived.  In May Julian heard that he had been awarded the Victoria Cross for his stand on Hermies Ridge.  The other officers saw the letters "VC" on the envelope and carried the embarrassed invalid about the barrack square on their shoulders. On June 4th Julian, an Old Etonian, celebrated Eton's special day with four other Etonians "with a soup made of a few scraps of lettuce"

The First World War finally came to an end after the German Revolution of October 1918.  By that time some two million German civilians had starved to death, but worse was to come. A bird "flu" had mutated. We know it as "Spanish Influenza".  After more than four years of wartime food shortages it became the greatest pandemic in history. Recent estimates put the death toll at 50 to 100 million worldwide.

Eight days before the Armistice Julian himself fell ill. On the morning of November 24th his fellow prisoners were released and boarded the train home. Julian was left alone in the castle hospital. He died shortly after midnight. His last words were to dismiss his nurse;"Go away gnadiger Frau" (gracious lady). The following day the French Army arrived with food and medicine.

The Citation

An extract from The London Gazette No. 30770 dated 25th June, 1918, records the following:

His Majesty The King has been graciously pleased to approve the award of the Victoria Cross to Lt. (T./Capt.) Julian Royds Gribble for most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty.

Capt. Gribble was in command of the right company of the battalion when the enemy attacked, and his orders were to 'hold on to the last'. His company was eventually entirely isolated, though he could have easily have withdrawn them at one period when the rest of the battalion were driven back to a secondary position. His right flank was 'in the air' owing to the withdrawal of all the troops of a neighbouring division. By means of a runner to the company on his left rear he intimated his determination to hold on until other orders were received from battalion headquarters - and this he inspired his command to accomplish. His company was eventually surrounded by the enemy at close range, and he was seen fighting to the last. By his splendid example of grit, Capt. Gribble was materially instrumental in preventing for some hours the enemy obtaining a complete mastery of the crest of the ridge, and by his magnificent self-sacrifice he enabled the remainder of his own brigade to withdraw, as well as another garrison and three batteries of field artillery"

Memorial Window

In addition to their home in London, the Gribble family had a house within the Parish of Long Bredy in Burton Bradstock, Dorset.

Following Julian’s death, one of his two sisters, Vivien, designed a stained glass window, that can still be found in St. Martin's Church.

Julian’s mother, Norah Gribble died in 1923.  Her grave and that of Julian’s other sister, Leslie, can be found in the church-yard of St. Martin’s, just a few feet from the memorial window.

Although Norah Gribble did not bring her son's body home for burial in his native land, she clearly felt the need to be near him, even in such an oblique way, after death.  It became her stated intention that she should be buried near the window dedicated to Julian.  Perhaps she felt that this would give her a sense of nearness to her beloved son.

 

Facts taken from "<em>One Soldier's Story</em>" written for 'The Isle of Wight Beacon' by John Medland