The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth

Percy Luscombe

Percy Luscombe
Percy Luscombe

In March 1918, the Germans launched a series of devastating attacks, known as the Ludendorff Offensives, using new Stormtroopers and aggressive tactics which saw them unexpectedly break through Allied trenches in multiple places. It looked, for a while at least, that the Germans flush from their victory over the Russians might win the war in the West too. This crisis saw the British Army rush troops speedily out of their training camps and send them to France to help stem the tide of German soldiers heading Westwards. One of those soldiers duly rushed to the front lines was a great great uncle of mine by the name of Percy Luscombe. So many young soldiers were ripped out of their training camps and reserve formations and thrust into the desperate fighting that they earned themselves the sobriquet “The Men of 18 in 1918”. Indeed General Byng believed that 50% of the soldiers in the 13 divisions under his command by August of 1918 were merely ‘boys’ in his words. Percy Luscombe was one of those ‘boys’ at just 18 years of age. He was the youngest child of Thomas and Florence Kate (known as Kate) Luscombe who were Innkeepers at the Laira Inn on the Embankment of the River Plym. He was their youngest son (from 12 children - although three had died in infancy). All three of his older brothers had or were still serving in the war and perhaps he was itching to join them since The Great War broke out when he was only 14 years of age. His brother Reginald (my great grandfather) had been an Old Contemptible no less meaning that he was part of the original British Expeditionary Force sent out to France in August of 1914. He had been a gunner in the Royal Artillery. He had since been seriously injured and was recuperating in Gosport in 1918 where he met his future wife Ethel Mary Doel (my great grandmother). Another brother was serving in the Royal Navy and yet another was fighting in the inhospitable deserts of Mesopotamia.

Percy Luscombe
At the turn of Twentieth Century, Laira was growing rapidly as Plymouth itself began to spill out of its old historic confines with rapid population growth. Indeed the Luscombes were one of those families who migrated from the countryside around Sheepstor to make a new life for themselves in the urban area. The 1870s and 1880s saw a slump in agriculture as the Great Plains of Canada and America were opened up by the railway and commodity prices tumbled across Europe and further afield. Land values collapsed and evictions were common place. It was time for many to look for a new career rather than end up in a rural workhouse or ‘on the parish’. Thomas’ father, confusingly also called Thomas (as was his grandfather!), moved first to Leigham in order to gather reeds around Marsh Mills. At some point he moved to Crabtree as a general labourer. His son diversified away from manual labour (although he was to continue this also indeed becoming the foreman to electrify the Stonehouse tramway and also to oversee the construction of Victoria Wharf in Cattedown) and took up the license of the Old Laira Inn in the 1880s and his timing was to prove beneficial.
Percy Luscombe
Laira Inn
A steady stream of customers must have come from the toll road which ran along Embankment Road or from the horse drawn Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway which ran literally past the front door of the Inn, providing a steady stream of thirsty drivers and labourers. However, the real transformation to the neighbourhood was to come in 1901 with the construction of the substantial Great Western Railway Depot right on the pub’s doorstep. This brought a significant workforce many of whom wished to live locally or certainly to rehydrate after a hard day’s work on the trains. Steam trains had already been a common enough sight along the estuary but after 1901 these trains exploded in frequency; moving in and out of the depot to re-coal or for maintenance or repairs before joining the myriad of lines that passed along this communications artery in and out of Plymouth. Laira’s explosion in population growth placed a strain on the religious provision in the area at a time when many were devout Christians. Perhaps remarkably, Laira was technically in Eggbuckland Parish and so had been served from the Fifteenth Century St. Edwards’s church over Efford hill far over in the next valley. However as Laira had grown so rapidly the Church of England had already identified the need for a new small mission church to serve the then still isolated community.
Percy Luscombe
Crabtree Mission
In 1874 Crabtree Mission Church was constructed. It lay between the Old Laira Inn and the Crabtree Inn which was also run by members of the Luscombe family. Indeed, the extended Luscombe family were Inn keepers for no less than six pubs in the area. It is very likely that the extended family could catch up with one another at this small Crabtree Mission Church each Sunday. A very young Percy Luscombe was to sing in the choir there every Sunday as no doubt his brothers had before him. However, even this church was not big enough to satisfy the religious needs of the local population after the opening of the Laira Railway Depot in 1901. As more houses were being constructed in the area land was set aside by Mrs Lucy Clarke of Efford Manor to build a substantial new church to serve the growing community. Saint Mary the Virgin was built not far from the family Inn on Old Laira Road. It was officially opened on Thursday July 2nd 1914. Just four days earlier on the Sunday, Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated by an obscure Serbian gang. At this joyous opening, the new congregation may well have commented on the event, but few could have appreciated that the wheels that would unleash The Great War were already turning as a consequence of that murder. Exactly one month later on August 2nd 1914 Britain would declare war on Germany. Percy’s older brother in the Royal Artillery battery would receive his mobilisation orders two days later on August 4th. Before the month was out, Reginald would be in action as he become caught up in the swirl of fighting known as the Retreat from Mons. The German surge saw most of Belgium come under their control and Paris itself threatened. This mobile phase of the war would only be stopped at the Marne in September. The British, French and Germans exhausted themselves and sought relief from the dangers of the new battlefield (and especially from the shells of artillery pieces fired by gunners like Reginald Luscombe) by digging trenches that slowly but surely began to fossilise and fix the front lines. The young 14 year old Percy must surely have prayed for the safety of his older siblings on many a Sunday service until he was old enough to join up himself some four years later. He spent at least some of the war years cleaning out carriages but continued to act as a chorister throughout the war. In 1915 the family received news that Percy's older brother Reginald had been injured at Gallipoli and got a ‘Blighty wound’ that brought him back home. Undaunted by his older brother's fate Percy Charles Luscombe joined up as soon as he reached his 18th birthday in 1918.

Percy Luscombe
St Mary's Church, Laira
It is not at all clear why Percy Luscombe joined the brand new Machine Gun Corps in 1918 which, unlike most of the traditional regiments in the British Army, was only formed in 1915. Indeed, its creation was a direct consequence of the war itself and recognition of the importance of this relatively new weapon. The Machine Gun had undoubtedly transformed the battlefield with its sustained and rapid delivery of bullets. It was truly a product of improved precision engineering which allowed for these weapons to become so reliable in their output of firepower. The Machine Gunners were known somewhat affectionately as the ‘Emma Gees’ as in the acronym for their weapon of MGs. Perhaps more revealingly was their own nickname for themselves as ‘The Suicide Club’ or ‘The Suicide Squad’ which is perhaps not too surprising given that during the war the corps raised 170,000 soldiers of which over 60,000 became casualties. Yes the Machine Gun was a devastating weapon in World War One, but it was this very threat that saw the Emma Gees become priority targets for their enemies. Percy was in the 5th Company of the 12th Battalion of the Machine Gun Corps and had been assigned to support the 7th Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment.
Percy Luscombe
Royal Sussex Regiment
As has previously been mentioned, the German Spring Offensives had been wildly successful and had smashed through the static trench lines which had barely moved since the end of 1914 and appeared to be hurtling towards Paris and victory. Indeed, Paris came into artillery range of German guns by July of 1918. The Allies desperately rushed troops to the threatened sectors. These included American soldiers crossing the Atlantic at 50,000 a week, second and third line troops were hurriedly handed rifles and pushed into action and new recruits were rushed out of their training establishments back in Britain and sailed across the Channel. One of these was 18 year old Percy who had only just joined the Machine Gun Corps.

August saw the tide of war turn decisively on the approaches to Amiens. The Germans had exhausted their own personnel as they sustained over one million casualties and this certainly translated into a loss of enthusiasm and morale. Besides, whilst the Allies had been forced out of their trenches, the Germans also had little or no protection in the ground that they had captured so spectacularly. And as the German supply lines lengthened so the Allied ones contracted. The German soldiers had also been dismayed to discover that the Allied troops had far more food, clothing and equipment than they themselves had thanks largely to the ongoing Royal Naval blockade that so effectively choked the German war effort. In many ways, the Battle of Amiens was the most important battle of World War One, or at least the most important battle of 1918. It was not only the Germans who had been innovating on the battlefields of 1918. Spearheaded by Canadian Corps, Allied troops advanced behind a creeping barrage of over 2,000 artillery pieces and supported by 456 tanks including the very newest Mark V models and the new generation of the fast Whippet tanks and armoured cars and with 800 aircraft flying above to supporting the attack. Even cavalry found a use for itself once more to gain and hold ground quickly before the Germans could counterattack. Four days of fighting saw the Germans take 27,000 casualties for the Allied loss of 9,000. More importantly, it gave the Allies the initiative and from here on they would dictate where the attacks would come and would reinforce success not failure. Hitherto, the British had rushed more troops into hopeless attacks in the hope of overwhelming hard-pressed defenders. Amiens proved that it was more effective to feed troops into sectors that were advancing and not to those areas which were finding fierce resistance. Think of it as a boxer who rather than trying to land the killer blow realises that lots of small jabs will ultimately be the more effective tactic in unsettling his opponent. The Battle of Amiens presaged what was known as the ‘Battles of the Hundred Days’ which would only end with the final capitulation of Germany on November 11th 1918. Sadly it was in one of the very first of these Battles of the Hundred Days which would be Percy’s very last battle.

Percy Luscombe
Machine Gun Barrage
General Byng’s Third Army provided the first jab north of the town of Albert on August 21st. This was followed on the 22nd by General Rawlinson’s Fourth Army jab to the south and towards Albert itself. The 7th Royal Sussex Regiment were part of that attack with Percy supporting them as part of the Machine Gun Corps. Their orders for their attack included two references to the 4 Machine Guns provided by Percy’s unit. It says that “A machine gun barrage will be put down prior to the attack.” and that the “Machine Gun Corps will co-operate with the Battalion finally covering 2nd objective.” The first objective in this attack was supposed to be captured by the Royal Fusiliers and the Royal Sussexes were supposed to pass through them with their Machine Gunners and go on to what is marked on their maps as a Green Line to what was known as ‘The Sand Pit’ just outside the village of Meaulte on the approaches to Albert. The Sand Pit had originally been the location of a camp far behind the front lines along the Somme before the Germans had swept through and captured it earlier in 1918. Sadly, the Sand Pit would be where Percy and 92 other soldiers and one Canadian Airmen would fall and be laid to rest. It is worth pointing out that Percy’s first order to provide a machine gun barrage is quite an intriguing order in itself. Most people think that machine guns were entirely direct fire weapons - where you try to hit what you can see - but in the era of trench warfare, they hit on the idea of using Machine Guns in the role of indirect fire. The gun barrels would be aimed at a very sharp angle and they would literally rain bullets down on the enemy much like artillery but with bullets instead of shells. The attack was also supported by regular artillery using the creeping barrage tactic again, three tanks and a contact aeroplane which was to report on enemy movements and also to drop ammunition when requested to advancing units. The Fusiliers reached their objective and the Royal Sussexes duly moved through them with their machine gunners in tow. The attack itself was a resounding success but even battles that were won would see casualties on both sides. Sadly Percy Charles Luscombe died alongside a fellow Machine Gun Corps soldier by the name of Private Edgar Richards from Tintern in Monmouth. They were in the same unit and almost certainly worked together on the same machine gun. As mentioned earlier, machine gunners were a priority target for any enemy due to the danger they posed on the battlefield. If it was too difficult to target them with direct fire then artillery fire would often be called down on their positions. Machine Guns had to be neutralised if you wanted any chance to remain on the battlefield. Sadly, 18 year old Percy would be ‘neutralised’ on August 23rd even if they did carry the day. He was buried not far from where he fell in the Sand Pit Cemetery just outside Meaulte alongside those other 93 brave warriors who all fell during this week of fighting towards the end of August in 1918. They were not to see the day of victory almost exactly 100 days later on November 11th 1918.

Percy Luscombe
Stained Glass Window
Percy Luscombe
Old Laira Road Memorial
The Laira Inn would likely have received a telegram a few days later confirming the death of their youngest son. One can only imagine the heartache and sadness for the parents and siblings. This death almost certainly ensured that my great grandfather returned to Plymouth rather than remain in Gosport with his new wife who had also lost her brother (James Doel) on the Western Front back in 1915 with the Highland Light Infantry. Devastated for his parents, the Old Contemptible Gunner returned to Plymouth to help out his parents in their time of grief and to help run the family pub. Percy Charles Luscombe never married and had no children, he was part of the missing generation of young men in the interwar period. His short life is commemorated in three additional locations beyond his gravestone in France. Firstly, as a Laira man born and bred his name was engraved alongside all the other Laira Men who fell in combat on the war memorial plaque on Old Laira Road. He was also added to the Roll of Honour in St. Edwards Church at Eggbuckland as that was still technically the parish church for Laira. But most movingly of all in my opinion is that in the brand new St. Mary’s Church which he had attended as a chorister, they installed a new stained glass window to the East of the Altar in his honour depicting Mary herself with her Holy Child, Jesus. It was dedicated to him in 1919. It must have been difficult for the family to see all the surviving soldiers and sailors returning after the war ended and realising that your youngest son was never coming home. But perhaps some solace could be had by Thomas and Kate in looking into that window and appreciating that he had done his duty and hoping that he was now in a better place. It is telling that the words that Kate chose for young Percy’s headstone were: “A Bright Young Life; A Noble Death; And For a Noble Cause.”

Machine Gun Corps Cap Badge
Laira 1880s
Laira 1900s
Sand Pit, Meaulte
The Luscombe Siblings
Edith 1881 - 1941
Amy Elizabeth 1882 - 1898
Dorothy 1885 - 1981
Mabel 1886 - 1961
Frederick Thomas 1887 - 1888
Gertrude Alice 1888 - 1971
Albert Thomas 1889 - 1968
Harold Hughes 1892 - 1963
Reginald Harry 1895 - 1974
Rosia Henrietta 1896 - 1898
Percival Charles 1900 - 1918
Muriel Ivy 1902 - 1967
Percival Charles

Meaulte Military Cemetery

Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article | Significant Individuals

Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe